THE TWIN OF GOD

In addition to being a schoolteacher, my dad was also a carpenter, and is a very gifted one at that. In the afternoon, he’d come home from work – having served all of his nearly 35 years teaching in one school district in a town just outside of Chicago – change clothes and head out, again, to replace a kitchen floor or hang cabinets or do other handy-man jobs.

In the summers, sometimes, I would go out for the day with my dad. Sometimes I’d be called on to do something; mostly, I was just there, taking it in, as children do so well.

The shapes and the names, let alone the functions of the tools were fascinating to me, and sometimes my dad would send me out to get one in particular: the terms, ‘crescent wrench’ or ‘mitre saw,’ sounded to my childhood mind like code words I could decipher. One summer day, I must’ve grown restless and wandered out to the station wagon and began to play with some of the tools, making up a game and passing time with that boundless creativity children muster. He was inside, I was outside. He was in his world, I was in mine. Later that afternoon, my dad asked me to go to the car and get something. I didn’t know which tool he was talking about, and I suppose that showed on my face. “Crowbar,” my dad repeated, “it looks like a heavy little cane. It’s the one you were playing with earlier by the station wagon.”

He had seen me playing. At once, I felt both ashamed and loved; ashamed for having been playing what must’ve seemed a silly game; loved because I was seen, recognized, the distance between our worlds not being a distance at all, not for my dad, at least.

 

 

All four gospel authors in our New Testament tell us that one of Jesus’ disciples was named Thomas. He’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but as one of the supportive cast, no brighter than, say, Thaddeus or Bartholomew. But Thomas comes out of the shadows and into the limelight in the fourth gospel.

When, in John’s gospel, we first meet Thomas, back when Lazarus was about to be raised in chapter 11, the evangelist tells us that Thomas was called the Twin. In fact, he says it again in this morning’s gospel lesson as well as the next chapter. Most often when, in John’s gospel, Thomas is named it’s “Thomas, called the Twin.” It’s strange to continually offer up a nickname, alongside someone’s other name, and as any good reader – let alone a reader of the bible – knows, if something seems odd or a word is chosen regularly, it’s got to mean something.   Twin, in Greek, is didymus, as any study bible will tell you, but what they don’t tell you is that Thomas, the name itself, might not be his actual first name. In fact, toma is Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his friends, meaning “twin.” “Thomas, called the Twin” is really just saying “Twin, called the Twin,” just in two different languages. It’s likely the apostle’s first name wasn’t Thomas, after all, and it’s likely that his real name is, well, not named.

Lest you think I’m offering mere speculation, I’ll say, first, there is a point and, second, I’m not alone.   My friend and former Divinity School classmate (and, now, professor at Harvard Divinity School), Charlie Stang, recently wrote a fascinating piece about this, pointing out that: “A number of texts from the second and third centuries speak of an apostle by the name of Judas Thomas Didymus. Judas, of course, is not only the name of Jesus’s betrayer, but also one of his four brothers (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). The Gospel of John refers to a ‘Judas, who is not the Iscariot’ (14:22), and in one of the Syriac translations of the Gospel of John, this ‘Judas’ becomes ‘Judas Thomas.’ One interpretive possibility then, seized upon by some early Christian traditions, is that the apostle called ‘twin’ in the Gospel of John is none other than Jesus’s own twin brother, Judas. The most famous single text from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 is a collection of sayings ‘which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’”

Set aside, for a moment please, any fears that just jumped into your brain about Jesus’ birth and whether there was another boy born that night – something I’m not suggesting – and wonder, instead, with me about what it means to be a twin.

What would it be like to be a twin? What would it be like spiritually, emotionally, cognitively? So like the other you’re nearly indistinguishable but, yet, you are different, you are unique, you are your own person, too. I am not a twin, but I know this feeling, in part, when I look at my own daughter, Carter, who is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, who is so like me and, yet, so unlike me; so close and intimately known and, yet, so remarkable, fascinating and strange. Or take the context of your marriage, if that’s the case for you, for there is, as theologian Benjamin Myers writes, “no one more mysterious than a spouse – not because they are distant and unfamiliar, but because they are so near and so well known.”[1] Isn’t it true that the longer you stare at something, the longer you think about that thing, a spouse, a child, a twin, a tool – crowbar – the more it becomes both known and strange; at once, recognizable and unfamiliar?

What is it, then, that bridges the division, that harmonizes the discord between that which we think we know and yet that which seems so distant, even strange?

Just as when I was as a boy, playing near my father’s station wagon, thinking he was in his adult world of work and duty and I was in my own, what dissolved that distance was love – my dad’s love for me, such love that, from time to time, at least, he stopped what he was doing and peered out a window, wanting to know where I was, see what I was doing and, maybe, when he saw me playing a silly game, watched just a while longer. (Just the other day, in fact, I was putting away clothes in Carter’s bedroom, upstairs, and she and our dog, Phoebe, were playing in the rectory front yard – Carter would throw a ball, Phoebe would get it and run away; Carter would get another ball, throw it, Phoebe chasing after that one and dropping the first ball which Carter would pick up and throw, again. I watched them do this, back and forth, all the while the child talking to the dog as she does one of her best friends. I watched them do this for a long time and, honestly, I could’ve watched them play like that all afternoon, a girl and her dog simply enraptured in play and happiness.) That which reaches across what seems, to us, a mysterious distance is love, always love.

 

 

In part, we know this. We hear in scripture’s story that we are loved, that we are knit by God’s design and animated by God’s breath.

The hard part is living it. Because we also know that we are not God and, sometimes, we’re pretty far from it. Sometimes, we fear, we’re downright wretched and not at all worthy; other times, we’re not so bad, just muddling around down here. We are in our own world. God is in God’s. From time to time, we’ll throw up a prayer and hope for something but we understand when we don’t get what we want; that’s just the distance between God and us, and so go the explanations, etc. etc.

The love I’m talking about is not the feeling we try to generate nor is it the zeal we attempt to muster for God. What I’m talking about is the only love that can truly be called ‘love,’ that profound, shattering, unconditional, no-strings-attached love that only comes, first, from God. It’s the love of One who knows us as his own twin, the love of One who is, as St. Augustine put it, “more inward to me than my innermost self,”[2] the love of One who is always, already crossing the mysterious divide between creation and Creator. Long before we can ask or imagine and not because we deserve it, God always, already loves and is in love with God’s creation.

I fear we’ve missed that message all these years hearing about old doubting Thomas, so in closing let me suggest a different spin on this story.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (c. 1601-02)

Look, again, at the gospel story (vv.27-28), just after Jesus tells Thomas to touch him but before Thomas makes his declaration of faith. Question: did Thomas actually touch Jesus? You might say “yes,” and you’d be in good company. Most artistic depictions show Thomas touching Jesus, some downright gory paintings show him actually sticking his finger in Jesus’ side, but my friend Charlie Stang suggests, on the basis of the words of the text itself, that that did not happen. That Thomas did not touch Jesus. That Jesus merely invited him to do so.

The story is actually better, richer if Thomas did not.  For then Thomas’ great declaration – “My Lord and my God!” – would be not because he knew Jesus but because, first, Jesus knew him; because Jesus knew what Thomas was hiding; because Jesus said to Thomas what Thomas said in secret the week before. What bridged the distance, for Thomas, was not his ability but Jesus’ love; not our action but God’s, first.

We are all, in a sense, Jesus’ twin. We are all made of the same stuff, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, created of the earth and endowed with God’s spirit. We, too, are capable of living a life that will be a blessing to this world. It’s just that we, like Thomas, like Mary Magdalene last week, we who are alive are surrounded by death. We breathe it in, ingest it even when we do not wish to as our daily bread. It’s we who, somedays, turn life from a gift to a series of obstacles to overcome or a to-do list to check off.

It’s then that our Divine Twin comes to us. God, the lover of souls, comes to us. The One who was dead and came to life stares in the face of we who are alive but shrouded in death, and He loves us, first, loving us as none can and none will ever again, giving us the capacity for yet one more day to try and mimic the same.

 

 

———-

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland, a Sunday in which we swapped pulpits between St. George’s, Valley Lee; Trinity Church, St. Mary’s City and Ascension.

 

[1] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T & T Clark International, 2012), p. 4

[2] Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11

YET MORE WONDERFULLY RESTORED

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; Amen.

Collect of the Incarnation, Book of Common Prayer

……….

It’s hard to be human, very hard indeed to be a grown-up adult with responsibilities and demands and others to look after.  It’s hard and, somedays, we may look back fondly when we were small children and didn’t have to worry about a thing; our food was already provided, our decisions made in advance by elders.  But you can never really go back or, at least, you can never really unlearn what you’ve already learned, for good or bad, like it or not.  As it turns out, then, it’d be even worse if we were forced to go back, forced to become like children once again, to have others make our decisions and usurp our place as adults.

So we press on, striving to do those things which we know to be right and avoid those things which we know to be wrong.  That’s why we continue to learn how best to love God and our neighbor and our self and, in addition, not leave those things undone which need to be done.  There are a lot more gray areas of life.  That’s the case when things aren’t so crystal clear or roadmapped ahead of us.  We fail, from time to time, and we also succeed and grow.  Life is designed this way.  It’s so we might become a better, more wholesome creation.   That’s precisely why we’re in the midst of life with all of its complexity and challenge, for it yet has so much potential and joy and beauty, too.  That’s what it means to be created in God’s image, no longer a mere child but one with knowledge and potential, creativity and agency.  That’s what it means to be fully human, indeed that’s the very way in which we become like God, fully divine.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to read the scriptures that annually inaugurate Lent — the gospel stories about Jesus’ temptation — as if they had little to do with our created nature.  For when God determined to change the course of history, God immersed Godself in the fullness of our humanity, taking our createdness upon himself and dealing firsthand with temptation and desire and struggle.  God did this not to show us what we are incapable of but, rather, to prove to us who we are, being made in God’s image.  God did this not only to save us but to restore in us that created, that original blessing with which we can, and always could, use our human agency.

Salvation is much more the act of restoration than it is of pulling us out of the mire and pit of where we have sunk so low.  Salvation in a very real sense is restoring in us that original blessing, that primal gift of what it means to be human, the only way proven through the pages of scripture by which we also might become fully divine, like God.

That’s why we take on these Lenten spiritual disciplines, some of which may have to do with self-denial and penitence; some of which may also, I hope, have to do with restoration and promise, with rekindling in you what it means to be a living member of the body of God.

For this reason, I find such meaning in this poem – the origins and author of which I couldn’t find.  Do not fast, then, at the expense of feasting.  And make this season an opportunity, once again, to be restored in Christ.

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in them

Fast from emphasis on our differences; feast on our oneness

Fast from the darkness around us; feast on the light of Christ

Fast on thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God

Fast on words that pollute; feast on words that purify

Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude

Fast from withholding anger; feast on sharing our feelings

Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism

Fast from worry; feast on trust

Fast from guilt; feast on freedom

Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation

Fast from stress; feast on self-care

Fast from hostility; feast on letting go

Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness

Fast from selfishness; feast on compassion for others

Fast from discouragement; feast on seeing the good

Fast from apathy; feast on enthusiasm

Fast from suspicion; feast on seeing the good

Fast from idle gossip; feast on spreading good news

Fast from being so busy; feast on quiet silence

Fast from problems that overwhelm us; feast on prayerful trust

Fast from talking; feast on listening

Fast from trying to be in control; feast on letting go.

———-

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland on the first Sunday of Lent (2014); click here for the full text of the sermon.

RELATIONAL EVANGELISM

At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus expanded his mission to the outlying territories, commissioning 70 disciples and sending them out to heal, to prepare for his upcoming arrival, and to preach a simple message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (see Luke 10)  They go out in pairs and they’re to be fixed, solely, on that kingdom and its message.  They carry pretty much only what’s on their back, and they go in haste – “greet no one on the road,” Jesus tells them.  They are solely dependent on God’s intervention, and their only livelihood is to knock on doors and spread the message.

This is what we tend to think of as the dominant form of evangelism: door knocking.  I don’t know if this makes me a bad priest, but I’ve never knocked on a door to talk to a complete stranger about God or their faith life or the Christian church.  Nor have I ever started a conversation by saying, “Let me tell you about Jesus…”

But I tend to think that I’ve won some souls to Christ and I’ve been a decent-enough ambassador of God’s good news.  Sure, I’m a work in progress, as you are, too.  And I’ve never gone out with an agenda to convert people and I, too, am comfortably surrounded by plenty of creaturely comforts.  But through my life’s witness, in general, and, from time to time, my own words, I know God has acted through me.  I think it’s time to spread that good news, as well.

The Episcopal chaplain at the University of Maryland – one of the campus ministries in our Diocese of Washington – has been developing over the years what he’s called “relational evangelism.”  It’s not door knocking, and it’s pretty agenda-free.  Maybe some might say it’s not evangelism, per se, but I can see God acting in and through this kind of strategy, too.  It’s all about relationship.  Think about it: as you get to know someone, what do you learn first about them?  What they do, where they grew up, if they have a family, and other basic facts of life.  Then, over time, as a relationship develops, that person might share with you their hopes and dreams and aspirations; what’s on their heart.  After even more time that person might share with you their struggles and sufferings and shortcomings.  God is in that, even when God’s name isn’t necessarily used and even when you’re not trying to get that person to come to church or accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  In fact, the degree to which you, yourself, open expose your own deeper hopes and hurts will determine the degree to which that other person will do the same.  In that truth, then, there is the gentle yet profound hand of God working, developing something new, something truly worthy of being called “good news”, something which is life giving in the boldest sense of that term.  What’s to say that relational evangelism isn’t as effective or gospel-sanctioned as knocking on doors or setting out to win souls to Christ?  Who’s to say that God isn’t acting in and through that deepening relationship, and your own ability to show forth His grace in you.

On a campus of 41,000 students, the Episcopal campus ministry in College Park, Maryland might attract 41 or so … and that’s on a good day!  That handful of students and inquirers and faithful are getting what you get in the Episcopal Church every week, every time we gather for worship: they and you are getting a full dose of Jesus.  Ours are not necessarily “seeker friendly” services, although we try to be welcoming and hospitable at the same time.  What we’re doing in here – and they are doing at the University of Maryland Episcopal campus ministry – is giving people a full taste of God in Christ, in the hopes that you and I will continue to become the Body of Christ on earth.  That’s why I paraphrase a sermon from St. Augustine every time I invite you to come and receive Holy Communion; in just a few moments you’ll hear: “These are the gifts of God for the People of God.  Become what you receive: the Body of Christ.”  We’re all works in progress, of course, and no one among us has got it all figured out.  But in our destination as well as in our journeys – as broken and marked by fits and starts as they surely are – we are reflecting or, I should say, we are capable of reflecting God’s abundant, just, gracious, and life-giving kingdom, right here on earth.

It doesn’t matter, then, how many people are in worship – whether it’s a tiny campus ministry on a huge university campus or a small parish church in a rural setting or a grand cathedral.  It matters, only, how deeply a few might touch and taste the kingdom of God, right here on this side of heaven, and in being touched might, in time, touch others and share His grace – even when they’re not trying, even when they’re not using the right ‘buzz’ words, only as relationships deepen and they find themselves standing right in the very place where God would have them be: which is the now and the present of their lives.

I take this from the scriptures, of course; in particular, the wonderful story about Elisha and Naaman which can be found in 2 Kings chapter 5.  Naaman, we learn, is a decorated and notorious military commander, but he suffers with an awful case of that debilitating ancient disease: leprosy.  From a slave girl, Naaman learns about a certain prophet who lives in Samaria – that being Elisha – and sets out to find him and, hopefully, find some healing and relief.  When, through a series of events, Naaman and Elisha are poised to meet, the prophet doesn’t even come out of his house.  No, Elisha sends word that that great General is to go to the Jordan river and dip in and out seven times.  That’s it.

What’s Naaman’s response?  He’s enraged, insulted, and hurt.  He’s not at all pleased.  “He won’t even come out of his house to greet me?!” Naaman says, insulted, his ego surely bruised.  Add to that, why would Naaman take a dip in that little, dirty, trickling creek – the Jordan River – while back in his home there are much more beautiful, lush rivers?  He left and headed for home, not only let down but enraged, the scriptures tell us.  A servant approached Naaman, however, and gave him a little nudge: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  At that, Naaman went to the Jordan, washed seven times, and he was healed.

What did Naaman go to Samaria to see?  A prophet, a man, someone to heal him?  Or did he, in fact, go to a foreign land only to find what was in front of him the whole time?  Removed from his comforts and distractions, perhaps Naaman was able to see the truth for the first time – that God, his God, was always already working in him and all he needed to do was the simplest (and yet hardest) thing in the world: listen, trust, pay attention.  So often in life we overlook the simple things, the present reality, those gifts which stand right in front of us, day after day after day.  This life, for one, and those who accompany us on our journey – our friends and family and co-workers and associates.  All of these are gifts.  Opportunities to show forth our own innate talents, as well as those challenges which remind us that we aren’t perfect – that this life is all about stumbling forward, and doing so with the courage to remember that we need God’s grace and good friends. All of these are gifts, presents in the fullest sense of that word.  And it’s all been right in front of us, these incredibly simple and straightforward things which we, too often, overlook on our attempts to become better or different or someone we’re not, yet.

“The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus preached and told his disciples to say the same: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  I hope you know this and, truly, I hope you get a small taste of this today, in worshiping, in hearing and receiving and taking and becoming.  And I hope you not only have the courage to let this truth in but also to let it out, to share it in your life and in your own relationships.  Not by way of an agenda or mission but simply and wholly because you can’t help but want to become His Body and live in the freedom of His kingdom, alone.

……….

A sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

“The things of the world are ordered and designed to shadow forth spiritual things.  It is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works.  The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.”

Jonathan Edwards, Images of Divine Things (1728)

……….

In 2006, 32,000 acres of the Boundary Waters, the pristine wilderness in far northern Minnesota, was devastated by a raging forest fire in the Cavity Lake area.  There was obvious concern for the welfare of that ecosystem – the glorious Balsam Firs and animals who made it their home – as well as concern that it would diminish the attraction and draw of that destination place for outfitters and hikers.  We’ve also heard, all along, that forest fires are an essential and necessary part of nature’s course.  That’s true, on one level, and not, on another.

University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich said that if people tried to suppress or control fires over the last century or so, the forest would look pretty sad.  “You would get essentially a sea of Balsam Fir,” Frelich said, “then the budworm would come, and it goes out and kind of kills half the trees. So you’d have this kind of crappy, half-dead forest which is full of brush and branches and which is not very attractive for people or wildlife.”  Fire can enrich topsoil by speeding up the process of recycling nutrients, and it can effectively take care of grasses or shrubs which would grow too quickly and crowd out sunlight for other species and trees.  Fire is a necessary part of a forest ecosystem.

Even more fascinating, to me, is that certain living things have become fire dependent.  The cone of the jack pine, for instance, has within it a waxy substance that only opens when sustained heat comes from below – and even then it doesn’t release its seeds until another 20 minutes have gone by, obviously essential to the species’ survival lest the seed get dropped on a fire raging below.  Frelich further explains: “In the case of the jack pine, the seeds germinate much better if the leaf litter has been burned away. Jack Pine, in fact, has drier foliage than other species of trees which makes it easier for a fire to run through Jack Pine. It is almost as if they purposely promote fire.”

There is a whole system, it seems, that’s not only adapted to fire, it’s dependent on it.  Nitrogen, for instance, is a major portion of the air we breathe and a basic building block of compounds that make up plant and animal tissues, especially proteins.  Jim Peterson, in Evergeen, notes: “Nitrogen is a marvelous fertilizer, but to do its work it must first be fixed – combined with other elements to form compounds green plants can use.  The heat from fire transforms nitrogen into more easily absorbed organic compounds that fuel photosynthesis, the process by which plants, including trees, capture visible light energy and convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen.  Glucose is then converted into other organic compounds.  In trees, these organic compounds are converted to wood fiber.”  Fire is not just necessary, it’s essential.

When God comes again to Jesus’ followers, days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the images are provocative, violent, and stirring: the sound the disciples hear is “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” (Acts 2)  Fire is, here, a lively and animating force, giving them new capacity and spirited courage.  But it’s also, as we’ve seen in the book of nature, a destructive, crippling force.  This image of God’s revelation is profound when understood in both of those senses.  This is how God comes to us, a fire which burns off the dust and dross of our old life but also, we fear, consuming it entirely – even destroying that which we hold on to and treasure, that which we feel might save us in time.  There is new life in this living God; we know that in our minds, at least.  But it’s hard to think about salvation when the old-growth forest of your private world is being ripped through with the licking flames of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask us to become, spiritually, fire dependent.  There are those Christians today and throughout the ages who do a much better job of relying and depending on that devastating fire – the Pentecostals of today are very much related to the mystics in the Christian tradition.

Even if we’re not fire dependent, though, we could stand to be a little less fire averse.  While it’s true that fires have long been a part of a given forest’s internal ecosystem, and that all of this happened long before we came on the scene, it’s not necessarily the same as the devastating tragedies we witness summer after summer, destroying homes, in some cases taking lives, and altogether wreaking havoc in the American southwest.  Historically, at least, these were small and somewhat more contained fires, helping the ecosystem get rid of waste and nourish the soil; Peterson notes, in Evergreen, “they traveled close to the ground [and] most of these fires were not very intense.”  “By contrast,” he continues, “the crown fires that now frequent the Southwest don’t have any redeeming value. In fact, their ferocity is difficult to comprehend: flames moving fast enough to overrun birds in flight, burning hot enough to crack boulders, melting topsoil’s organic layer into a waxy glaze that is impervious to water. The flooding that follows often strips stream channels to bedrock, washing away every vestige of fish habitat.  So the irony: our early attempts to contain wildfire—a societal decision made some 80 years ago— simply postponed the unexpected but inevitable return of even larger fires and more destructive fires.”

The irony indeed is that, like in the natural order of things, we have so tried to make ourselves immune to the kind of low-level flames which are, in fact, good and healthy that we’ve actually brought about even more devastating and consuming fires.  The attempt to make oneself more fire averse will, in the end, be one’s own downfall.  Even if we can’t make ourselves, like those mystics of old, reliant on the Spirit’s flame, we’d be wise to find ways to make our spirits and hearts a whole lot less averse to Her power.

It’s much more godly and, I’d say, a whole lot easier to live this way, anyway.  It’s healthy to have a form of spirituality that is open, not closed; inquisitive, not dismissive; willing to be changed or taken in new directions, not averse or resistant.  If you are rooted in God and you trust God, wholeheartedly, what seems new or different is actually part of God’s drawing out the story of redemption. In fact, this is what it means to follow and worship a living God.  I’ve always valued what the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

On this point, I find the response of the crowd in Acts 2 interesting: most of those who heard the apostles speaking different languages were, scripture records, “amazed and perplexed.” They were also honest, saying to themselves and one another: “What does this mean?”  That’s a perfectly normal question for an odd, unexpected, even chaotic series of events.  But we often leap-frog over that question on our way to judgmental interpretation or our own spin (or uncritically adopting another’s spin).  Even on that first Pentecost, not all were so open-minded.  Some, maybe more than some sneared and in their negative judgment automatically dismissed the event, labelling the apostles a bunch of drunks: “They are filled with new wine.”

At that, Peter preaches a pretty thorough sermon.  Over the years, I’ve read Peter’s sermon as a definitive, erudite, and bold exposition of the faith, only it’s now a faith revealed in an astonishingly different way.  To be honest, that kind of spirituality can be off-putting, as well.  Those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ aren’t necessarily looking for the answers, given in black-and-white, and if we read Peter’s sermon as a kind of take it or leave it proposition, we might as well leave behind an increasingly vocal majority of American people who genuinely want what we call the Holy Spirit but, in equal measures, are tired of Christian dogma and assertiveness.  Outside these doors and, I know, sitting in these pews are people who are genuinely looking for a community of seekers, a gathering of ordinary folks who want to live with the questions and wonder, together: “What does this mean?”

Looking at it from another angle, though, perhaps Peter was wondering aloud, a seeker himself, drawing into the present the seeds of the past.  Perhaps Peter was simply bringing forth Joel’s words – words which had lay dormant for centuries but were nevertheless imbued with a holy force.  It reminds me of another interesting aspect of the Boundary Waters fire: after the 2006 fire, wild geraniums suddenly shot up everywhere.  A type of perennial known as Bicknell’s Geranium, a geranium which only germinates in direct sunlight, was long buried under all that clutter and leaf litter, just waiting for it to be burned away.  “That site had last burned in 1801,” forester ecologist, Frelich, said: “Those were 200-year-old seeds germinating.”

Describing what visitors would see in the growing seasons immediately following the 2006 devastation, Frelich described a picturesque scene, albeit one that’s radically different from a forest previously dominated by imposing Balsam Firs: “Raspberry plants can have seeds that have been in the soil for decades, and those will sprout,” Frelich added. “Blueberries will sprout from their roots underground. By the end of the first summer, you’ll see Fireweed, which has a bright pink flower.  By the fourth and fifth years, that’s when the berries are the most prolific. Raspberries, blueberries and berries of all sorts. By then, the saplings of trees will be four or five feet high. That’s when it’s really ideal for moose — birch and aspen that are their favorite thing to eat, and there will be billions of them, and they will all be within reach. In an 80-year-old birch forest, the moose is not going to be able to reach the crowns of the trees. But in a young forest like that, they have all the food they want. The population of Black-backed Woodpeckers will go up. You don’t see many of them in mature, closed-canopy forests, but after these big disturbances, by a few years later, you can be sitting there and eating lunch and a dozen of them might fly by.”

An amazing and beautiful landscape, all right there, all along – just waiting for the old-growth to be burned away, waiting to behold the truth that nature conveys: our God is not dead, our faith is not placed in a cabinet of cherished, fading memories, our convictions are not of a bygone era, nor has God forgotten us.  The One we worship is a living God, and ours is a living faith.  Because of which we wonder, aloud, and are unafraid of doing so: “What does this mean?”

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Pentecost Sunday, 19 May 2013

THE HOME OF GOD

On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest.  For obvious reasons this made something of a splash; perhaps some of you heard about it.  (Click here for a story.)

Rosemarie Smead ordained a priest, Saturday 27 April 2013. Source: Reuters

This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons.  This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.

These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz.  Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this.  I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women.  The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.

Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions.  The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men.  That’s true, at least on the surface.  But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there.  One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers.  Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.

Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players.  Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end.  Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany.  In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well.  And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith?  Women, all of them.  Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus.  Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.

Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit.  In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.  Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys.  Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized.  Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home.  It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye.  There’s no Mr. Lydia:  just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly.  Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18).  To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)  The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.

An all-male priesthood was made by us.  Not Jesus.  Not his earliest followers.  A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus.  And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.

If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize.  That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent.  I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper.  There is a spiritual message here.

Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church.  I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.”  This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles.  (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time.  Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.)  I think what many are searching for is balance.

I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman.  I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth.  I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.

Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms.  In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23)  What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them.  There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure.  The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.

There is an untold level of transformative power in the home.  Home is where the heart is, we say.  Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.

While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy.  The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said.  (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!)  I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.

CATHERINE McAULEY
1778 – 1841

Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet.  They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out.  Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”  This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes.  Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark.  If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood.  If the neighborhood changes, so might the city.  If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.

I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us.  Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here.  For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago.  Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath.  If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere.  Jesus is very much alive.  Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.

……….

From a sermon at St. George’s Church, Valley Lee, Maryland, preached on Sunday, 5 May 2013.  For the full text, click here.

NEED NOT WAIT TO SEE WHAT OTHERS DO

RAMI ELHANAN

Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem.  While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3.  He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence.  He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred.  In time, he got married, started a career and a family.  On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar.  But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.

Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron.  At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier.  For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force.  He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists.  They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave.  With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps.  Two went off; no one was injured.  Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.

BASSAM ARAMIN

After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family.  Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier.  She was standing outside her school.  She died two days later.

Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things.  Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness.  Both chose peace.

For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger.  But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge.  A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session.  ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace.  From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down.  Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him.  Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.

In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides.  ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies.  As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies.  Even our best attempts fall flat.  Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.”  Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice:  “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”  Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked.  Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.

That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique.  It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge.  Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding.  Immediately: peace.

That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well.  In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius.  God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village.  In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals.  In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew.  Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord!  I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.”  “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.”  Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door.  It’s the men whom Cornelius sent.  Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room.  Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.

What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate.  No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before.  God swept in and peace happened.  And it happened immediately.

But that’s not exactly our situation.  Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash.  The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised.  They’re angry.  They call Peter to headquarters.  There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit.  What else could I do? Peter says.  It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.

Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity.  In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm.  It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace.  They became friends.  But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace.  Imagine it.  An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was.  An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist.  Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world.  Peace is not won swiftly.  None of this is ever immediate.

REINHOLD NEIBUHR
“Men must strive to realize their individual ideals in their common life but they will learn in the end that society remains man’s great fulfillment and his great frustration.”

The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness.  American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.”  Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world.  That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.

Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within.  It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you.  It may not be of God.  Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate.  That’s their base reaction.  A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius.  That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years.  Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance.  What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason?  What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion?  In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.

It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw.  But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.

And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Problem is, he didn’t say that.  Not exactly.  It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker.  What Gandhi actually wrote was this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

We need not see what others do.  Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it.  In time, they chose to live differently.  When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did.  Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either.  And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way.  Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness.  Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world.  Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage.  They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Church on Sunday, 28 April 2013.

JUST BECAUSE IT BURNS DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE GONNA DIE

“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b)  ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo).  It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”

It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him.  Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)

Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken.  When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.

And it feels so good.

Let me explain by way of a story.  (It’s a story told in Adam Makos’ book, A Higher Call; click here.  And in John Blake’s CNN report, “Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle; click here.)

CHARLES BROWN

Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England.  Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters.  Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.

In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze.  Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing.  A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life.  Never again would he see his family and friends.  Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown.  High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.

But what they saw next was an odd thing.  The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot.  Instead, he nodded at the pilots.  And then did an even more amazing thing.

Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot.  One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor.  By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride.  Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed.  The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult.  Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler.  By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.

FRANZ STIGLER

Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect.  Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.

Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind.  His hand was on the trigger.  Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him.  Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood.  The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out.  Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.

He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror.  Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot.  It would be murder.

In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock.  Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle.  Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness.  They saw the other’s humanity.  They met on equal terms.  The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.

And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.

……….

Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love.  Agape is perfect and selfless love.  It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self.  It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us.  There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love.  In Greek, philios.

When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words.  You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue.  Let’s give it a shot:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’

… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.

…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’

Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.

Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved.  God met Peter, face to face.  God comes to our level and loves us.  The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing.  Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity.  God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.

God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now.  And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should.  There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission.  There are no power ploys or manipulative games.  Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.

The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love.  Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well.  In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”

Peter was broken by love.  How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.

……….

Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask?  Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida.  Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions.  He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.

On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail.  It read:

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17.  Did she make it or not?”

It was Franz Stigler.  In 1953, he moved to Vancouver.  In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship.  One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor.  There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot.  Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.

Charles and Jackie Brown, from left, with Hiya and Franz Stigler

The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war.  They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining.  For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war.  Nothing except that B-17 he let go.  Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific.  At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score.  When they did, they let love win.

A love, it should be noted, which broke them both.  At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown.  In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.”  Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes.  In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:

“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz”

In 2008, they died within months of one another.  Stigler was 92.  Brown was 87.

Franz Stigler, on left, with fishing buddy Charlie Brown

Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully.  Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.

And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.

Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz.  Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you.  Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once.  And it’ll feel so very good.  Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.