Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Regarding the Nashville Statement

I'm going to say something that may shock you. Being gay isn't about sex.

I swear to God.

That's not the impression you would get from the signatories of the Nashville Statement, freshly released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Nashville Statement -- so called because it was written and signed in Nashville -- is an attempt by certain prominent evangelical leaders to draw a line in the sand over the cultural shifts in the United States the past 50 years.

It makes the sort of strident condemnations that we've come to expect from such groups: adultery is bad, polygamy is bad, premarital sex is bad, transgenderism is bad, homosexuality is bad. The whole thing is couched in a series of 14 affirmations and rejections that focus on what the signatories presume is the "clear meaning" of the biblical texts, all focused on the configuration of people's genitals and what they do with them in private.

"Clear meaning" becomes more suspect once we consider cultural and literary context in an attempt to understand what the biblical authors actually were talking about, and how to apply those principles in our society. But that doesn't seem to matter here.

What the Nashville Statement and its signatories miss is that gay people are, well, people, with the same desires and life goals as other people.

Being gay isn't about whom you have sex with, it's about whom you love. Like heterosexuals, gays want to be with someone they love, to spend their lives and grow old together. The little things that matter in a straight relationship -- reading a book or playing a game together, sharing a meal, having a conversation when you come home from a day on the job, sharing what matters to you, making plans together, the touch of a hand, and having someone to hold you when you're upset, scared or lonely -- those are things that matter in a same-sex relationship as well.

Article X is the killer, though. According to this statement, it's not possible to be a Christian and support your best friend's decision to transition from male to female, nor to affirm the happiness another friend has found with her fiancee. Do these things, and you've left the fold. You're an apostate.

This is some serious stuff. It requires a response.

I thought about all the great times I've had with my best friend, who was born David but is now Jennifer. There's the time Chicken Soup for the Soul threatened to sue us. One afternoon at college as she was listenig to "The Acapella Project 2," I opened her door just to say "This is really cheesy" and then shut it just as quickly. I stood at her wedding, and she stood at mine. We've been there for each other through divorce, head injury, three kids apiece, and even an unfortunate escapade with white Christian rap.

I thought about another friend and our late-night conversations over the Internet when she was working and I couldn't sleep. There's been snark, there's been laughter both out of control and out of bounds, a cascade of puns and an exchange of books. She's been there when I've stood on the brink and the void threatened to swallow me; and I've seen the high cost that can be exacted by the attitudes celebrated in this Nashville Statement, when her family discovered she was gay.

Or there's Darren, one of the friendliest and most drama-free people I've ever worked with in the theatre world. I've found him to be a rock: supportive, professional, flexible and a joy to work with as an actor, as a stage manager and as a co-producer.

These are the people the authors of the Nashville Statement say I have to reject in order to go to heaven with them.

But I think of all that I've been through with them, and the kind of people they are, and I find that I must borrow a sentiment from Huck Finn.

"All right, I'll go to hell then."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Naked before the throne

It's getting late, but there is a murmur of restless expectation in the air. Across the valley, people are gathering to hear the prophet.

They file out of their homes, they leave their businesses unattended, and they abandon the market. As the crowd builds, it flows uphill like a storm breaker on the shore toward the mountain, where the prophet has gone with his students. The water rises, and then it crests at his feet, and the people grow quiet. The prophet is speaking.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," the prophet says, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"Poor in spirit." A susurrous like falling leaves ripples through the crowd as the phrase tumbles past Jesus' lips. These are a people who know poverty. The fishers among them may catch a hundred fish in the morning, and be left with only ten to sell by the time the tax collectors have taken their ill-gotten share.

The carpenter or stonemason may work all day, six days a week to provide or his family and his wife may labor all day caring for the children and buying and selling at the market, and still every day is a struggle to survive. Poverty is an old, familiar and unwelcome guest in their lives. He eats their best food, wears through their sandals, and leaves holes in the roof so that the rain gets in. They know poverty.

But poverty of the spirit. Do they know that?

There's Miriam, told at the age of 13 that she would marry a man three times her age and not the boy whom she loved, so that she ran away to the house of her father's sister and caused a scandal that her community still hasn't forgotten. Three years later, she is still not welcome in her father's home and continues to live with her aunt. Yesterday morning she heard that the boy she gave all for has married her worst enemy. Poverty has been eating away at her insides ever since.

Or there's Eliezer, who had studied for years under Rabbi Zecheriah to become a rabbi himself. He had studied Torah for years, memorized the Books of Moses, the psalms and even the scroll of Isaiah, only to be found that he could not become the rabbi he had dreamed of, and would have to become a scribe instead. His spirit is as impoverished as they come.

Then there's old Noach, named for the famed prophet on the Ark. He's a dissolute drunkard who wakes up every morning ashamed of what he has made of his life, and drowns his shame once he has begged enough coins to buy a fresh skin of wine. Poverty of the spirit is all he has left.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The words are more than an invitation to follow, to believe, or to have faith. They are a declaration. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, because they know their need for love and restoration, for peace and a new dream to replace the one that failed, and even for forgiveness. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them because they have lost everything that matters to them, and now they are finding that what matters is taking hold of them.

Miriam may never see her father or mother again. But in her aunt's house and afterward, she may discover a contentment and a level of support that she never knew was possible at her father's house. Eliezer may never become the rabbi he had hoped to be, but he may discover a new dream that will allow him to wonder and discover truths he had never imagined.

And Noah? He may always remain a besotted drunk in the alleyway. But he'll never be turned away or shunned by anyone who loves him.

Knowing spiritual poverty is only the first step. It's the beginning of a journey, yet it's a place that they will return to again and again. We first become aware of our poverty when we become aware of need to follow Christ, whether for forgiveness from sin or just because we realize that he has the answers we're looking for.

Our sense of poverty is renewed later when we encounter teachings that are difficult to come to terms with, even true ones. It deepens once more when we realize the inadequacy of our understanding, and how our faith structure fails to comprehend the world, such as when we see and comprehend the suffering of others.

At some final point, everything collapses before our eyes, and our spiritual poverty is complete. St John of the Cross called this the Long, Dark Night of the Soul. I've heard other people call it being ruined for life. It's the point where there is nothing left, except a voice that says "Follow me" and you have to decide if that's enough.

This is only the first, the least of the Beatitudes, and it is more than I can handle. Kyrie leison. Christ have mercy upon us.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Praying with your back to the wall

It must have been May 1993 when I found myself stranded at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

I'd been living in Petionville, Haiti, for the past six months and was on my way to Pittsburgh for a visit with my parents, and to Minneapolis, Minn., to visit the mission's headquarters, before going to visit my church in Easton, Pa.. During the next weeks I was expected to raise my missions support, but first I had to get home. And that was proving to be something of a problem.

I'd left Port-au-Prince on time and arrived in Miami when I'd expected, but that's where my plans had broken down. A downpour had delayed flights leaving Miami, and now here I was at JFK, my connecting flight long gone and the airport terminal closing for the night.

“I'd like American to provide me with a hotel voucher for the night,” I told the service agent behind the desk.

“It's not the airline's policy to provide vouchers for delays or missed flights caused by weather,” she said for the tenth time.

“I understand that,” I said for the tenth time, matching her polite tone and professional demeanor for polite tone and professional demeanor. “But I'd like you to make an exception and give me one anyway.”

“I can't help you,” she said.

“Then is there a supervisor who can?” I asked.

My request may have been impertinent, but it wasn't like I had much choice. Depending on how you looked at it, home lay either 1,000 miles south, six hours to the west, or two hours away, but in the day before cell phones, there was no way to get there and no way to contact anyone. I had less than $50 in my wallet, no credit cards, and a duffel bag full of clothes and personal possessions.

Either American Airlines was going put me up in a hotel room, or I was going to be outside the airport in twenty minutes, trying to stay awake all night in the streets of New York. I'd lived the previous six months in a country under military rule, and even I had no desire to try that. My situation was that desperate.

Desperation can drive us to uncanny levels of audacity. My chief recollection of my interaction with that customer service agent is how utterly calm I was as I acknowledged that I had no right to ask for the break I was asking for, but I was asking for it anyway. Unlike other passengers on the flight with me, I never once lost my cool.

This encounter with the airline came to mind recently at a Bible study where we were looking at Luke 11 and Jesus' teachings on prayer. This being Jesus, he never could just give a straightforward answer to a simple question. No, he had to tell a story.

In this particular story, a man whose guest had arrived at an unexpectedly late hour, had nothing to feed him. This put the host in a bad situation. In ancient cultures having a guest carried with it a serious obligation to provide for their safety and well-being. It didn't matter if the guest had arrived after sunset, failing to provide a meal would be more than merely awkward or unfriendly. It would be unspeakably offensive, a devastating failure to meet an obligation.

So, unwilling to dishonor himself and offend his guest, the host ran to a friend who he knew could lend him enough bread to cover his failing. Of course, things never run smoothly. The hour was late, and the friend already had shut the door and gone to bed, and did not want to get up.

But need compeled the host, and so he barraged his friend with requests for help until the friend, mindful that the entire village could overhear the pleas for bread and his own steadfast refusal to help, finally gave in. He got out of bed, grabbed the loaves of bread and gave them and anything else the host needed, just to get him to quiet down and not shame the friend in front of the entire community.

With this story, Jesus taught a pretty simple lesson about prayer. Be persistent. Don't give up. Don't be afraid to be pushy. There's even a suggestion that God will feel put on the spot by your need and actually may change his mind about how he responds to your request. (I always did wonder if the relationship was strained afterward, due to the scene the two men made.)

In my experience, that's often where the lesson ends. A former pastor of mine often cited this passage in his sermons in which he encouraged us to ask God for what we wanted. His point: God loves us, and wants to give us good things. We just need to ask.

In this vein Pastor Weber loved to cite an exchange between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Scott Raleigh. “Why do you ask for so much?” Elizabeth asked Raleigh in this conversation. “Because your majesty keeps giving me what I ask for,” Raleigh replied.

With no disrespect meant to my former pastor, nor to Sir Walter Scott Raleigh, there is something missing from such a lesson: a sense of desperation born of need.

It is desperation that drove the host in Jesus' story to plead for bread late at night. In the culture Jesus lived and taught in, failing to give his guest something to eat wasn't just a faux pas. It was a massive insult. When Nabal refused to give provisions to David and his men, it was an act of war. It wasn't just a kind favor that the host was asking his neighbor to help with, it was a stark necessity.

The same extremity of need is evident in other examples of prayer earlier in the gospel of Luke. Parents brought children afflicted with unclean spirits to ask for healing because the seizures threatened the lives and health of the children. A woman had spent a fortune trying to find relief from nonstop menstrual bleeding that had made her miserable, left her ceremonially unclean and kept her husband from her for years, and so she hoped just to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. Lepers wanted to return to the communities they had been driven from, the leader of a synagogue ruler was watching his daughter die before his eyes. These weren't people asking for gravy on their potatoes. They were people driven by extreme need.

Of course, this story being one of the parables of Jesus, it's not enough that it illustrate his lesson in a memorable way that we can still talk about thousands of years later. The story also has to end in a jarring way that makes us wonder if we're even talking about the same thing Jesus is.

After he finished his story, Jesus asked his listeners two interesting questions, and then made an astounding statement.

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” (No one.)  “Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Don't be ridiculous.)

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Where did that come from? During the Bible discussion and study meeting last Tuesday one attendee suggested that Jesus was saying that he would send the Holy Spirit to people who believed in him. That may very well be true, but it feels like it's beside the point. This entire passage has been rooted in concerns such as meeting earthly needs such as bread for the body, and avoiding the snares of money by avoiding debt and forgiving debtors.

This isn't a pivot to a more spiritual theme or an appeal for an individual decision to have faith. It's Jesus cutting to the chase in the way that he does and drawing the line of connection between our faith and the earthly need of others. It's a reminder to us, who like to separate spiritual things from practical matters, that the two are inextricably linked. The Lord's Prayer, which includes a request for the day's bread, begins with the pledge “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

So what is Jesus saying? The first time the gospel of Luke mentions the Holy Spirit, is when the angel Gabriel promises the birth of Jesus, after telling Mary that her son will re-establish the throne of David forever. There are more prophecies, linked to the Holy Spirit, that promise that Jesus will overthrow the established order of things as he ushers in the Kingdom of God. The writer even claims that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism.

When he returns from wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, Jesus declares the purpose of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The connection between the Holy Spirit and the acts of mercy and compassion that Jesus performs in the gospel could not be clearer.

And that is what we see happen over the ensuing chapters. Jesus comes promising to usher in the Kingdom of God and restore things to their intended state. He heals all those who are sick without asking for payment, and without considering whether they are deserving of such charity. He casts out unclean spirits, he welcomes sex workers and immigrants into his company, and he feeds the hungry. There is no one so low that he will not lift that person up.

Receiving the Holy Spirit then isn't just a mark of personal salvation; to receive him is to step into the shoes of Jesus and commit to alleviating the suffering of the world around us. Just as Jesus proclaimed release to captives, healing to the sick and liberty to the oppressed, asking to receive the Holy Spirit is to put ourselves into the spot of the man whose friend came asking for bread when it was inexcusably late to come around asking for favors he had no right to ask for, and who gave it to him anyway.

God's goal, after all, is not for us to be happy. What is happiness, after all? It's a will o'the wisp that vanishes before we even can lay hold of it. God's great dream is not to see us happy and carefree, it is to enjoy a relationship with us.

And however awkward things might have been the next morning between the host and the friend he pulled out of bed, one thing is certain: The host will never forget what his friend did for him, and he'll be sure to repay the kindness whenever and however often the opportunity arises.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus": Not Always as Simple as It Sounds

Louisa Stead was a young woman with a husband and a daughter when her family decided to take a picnic lunch on Staten Island Sound one sunny day.

Their lunch was interrupted by the screams of a young boy caught in the current. Her husband sprang into action, and rushed into the water to save the boy. It was a heroic effort, but a doomed one. As Louisa and their daughter looked on, both her husband and the boy he had intended to save, drowned.

This was in the 1800s, and employment options for a woman were limited, even without a dependent.
Without the income her husband provided, Louisa and her daughter, Lily, soon became destitute.

God, however, remained faithful, and with what he provided for them, the Steads moved to South Africa and served as missionaries. In 1882, Louisa published a hymn titled “'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” a simple but inspiring song about a simple faith that is honored and rewarded to the very end.

As Christian folklore goes, this story has all the elements needed for a hearty amen chorus at the revival service. It has a deep, personal tragedy that breaks the heart of anyone who hears and considers it. (How could you not cry at the thought of a young widow having to raise a child on her own after watching her husband drown?) It has a simple, unassuming faith in God that is proved justified time and again.

In the end, that faith even carries the young widow and her daughter into frontier missions work, where one assumes that they lived long, faithful and fruitful lives of service to those around them. Who would like to be the first tonight to dedicate her life to serving God?

Perhaps I mock a little, but only a little. A simple faith that says “I will trust God to provide for my needs” is the faith of children, and it's a not a bad place to start. It gets us through tough spots like “Janine was my friend yesterday but today she says she's not my friend anymore” and “I failed the test” and even “I can't go to the movies today, mom is so mean.”

It's a Golden Book sort of faith, one that tells us that God rescued Daniel from the lions because Daniel kept the faith, or that David was able to kill Goliath because David trusted him. It's a well-intended faith that says that we'll always be safe with God, because God-plus-one is a majority. You never lose, you never suffer, and you always come out on top because God is faithful.

It's a great faith for 4-year-olds, but it doesn't hold up well over the long haul. Sooner or later, the rest of life happens. Your dog dies. A friend betrays you. You get cancer. You lose a child. Your partner leaves you.

I've known people who try to sail through life on that same simple faith that got them through the travails of kindergarten, and it never works out well. Some bury pain deep and insist that things are all right, even when they're plainly not, because they don't want to be found lacking in faith.

So they smile and say they're happy that their child is with Jesus now; or they nurture a quiet revenge fantasy where the errant spouse will return, admit to being wrong, and then beg for forgiveness (which will be granted most magnanimously, once the humiliation has been paid back in equal measure).

That's never a good idea, because pain is real and it happens for a reason. You can plaster a smile over it for only so long until that son-of-a-bitch comes back and demands payment, with interest.

Others flounder on the rocks. Maybe they abandon the ruins of the ship; or maybe they stay there, with the ship still intact, too afraid to try pulling loose and sailing free on the ocean again. You'll see them years later, hollow ghosts of who they once were, identified entirely by the crisis they couldn't handle.

It's good to enter through the wicket gate as a child. It's a bad idea to stay a child your whole life.

“You need meat,” Paul lectures his readers. “Stop drinking milk.”

“Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity,” writes the author of Hebrews.

God never said bad stuff wouldn't happen. People still lose their parents, and it's always too soon. Spouses still stray, and even when they don't, sometimes the relationship withers on the vine anyway. Sometimes friends act with unspeakable cruelty. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes it's positively unjust.

Sometimes, it's true, faith shuts the mouths of lions. But for all the heroes of faith who miraculously were rescued, there are many others who were not:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35-38)

Faith, real faith, the kind of faith we all boast that we have, even if only to ourselves, affirms that sometimes life is awful. She acknowledges the pain of loss, the grief of separation and the searing burn of injustice. Faith sheds real tears, and she even rages against God in the face of undeserved suffering.

Faith also knows not to offer answers at these moments. She keeps her peace, and simply holds on while the storm rocks the ship and threatens to wash everyone off.

It's also faith who finds the courage to ask the important questions. Is God still worth following – not just believing in, but actually following to the end – when he turns his back on us, or when he leads us into the Shadow of Death and leaves us there? Would Christ still be worth the effort if the lions had eaten Daniel, or if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had perished in the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar?

Is faith still worth having if your husband dies, and you're left destitute with a child to raise on your own? That's not a question anyone can answer until it has been asked in the most personal way, but I think we know how Louisa Stead answered it.

God grant us the faith to do likewise.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus"

’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word;
Just to rest upon his promise,
And to know, "Thus says the Lord!"

    Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him.
    How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er.
    Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
    O for grace to trust him more.

O how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust his cleansing blood;
And in simple faith to plunge me
’Neath the healing, cleansing flood.


Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.


I’m so glad I learned to trust him,
Precious Jesus, savior, friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lent: Hope

It's much more fun when my cup overflows, but there are times when it is as dry as a valley of bones.

Hope, as Emily Dickinson once observed, is a bundle of contradictions. It's frail, yet it survives in the harshest lands; it's small and flighty, yet it perches in our very souls where it cannot be dislodged. Its trilling keeps us warm, and yet it never asks even a crumb in return.

Especially today when we remember that all hopes have a day to flounder and even to fail, that little bird looks more like a farmhouse canary whose neck has been wrung than it does like a phoenix whose lament eases the burden of loss.

During times like these, it's easy to believe that selfish and powerful men have won the long game. Through treachery and corrupt tricks, by taking advantage of others' decency and by leveraging their own power, they'll roll back the hardwon progress of people who don't sit at the board with them. They'll get their damnable wars and send the rest of us to fight them; they'll get rid of everyone who's not like them, and they'll teach us to be grateful for the chance to eat their scraps and pick through their garbage. It's easy to believe that we're headed into darkness where there is no sun, no trees, no grass, no moon and no stars.

Screw that. I'm going to keep my hope and keep listening to that little bird singing its heart out, even if the singing is an empty reflex. I'm going to learn wisdom from a marshwiggle.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lent: Spirit

I read a story 25 years ago about a woman who was made from flowers.

Blodeuwedd's story isn't really the one that was told. She was a character in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a mythic Welsh hero who, due to a curse placed on him by his mother, was unable to marry a woman of any race upon the earth. His uncle Gwydion, a slippery sort of person, found a way around that curse fairly easily, by fashioning a body for Lleu's wife-to-be from flowers, and enticing a spirit to enter it.

The story, told in the Mabinogion, soon reveals the shortcoming in Gwydion's plans, namely that a spirit so easily enticed to enter a body of flowers may just as easily be enticed to other courses of action that neither Gwydion nor his nephew intended, nor wanted.

I'd be curious to hear Blodewedd's story, and discover how she felt about all these developments. If that story has been told, I have yet to find it.

I did hear another story, though, about a human who was shaped not from flowers but from clay, and how a spirit was breathed into him, and he became a living thing, animated by the breath of God. There's a story related to that one too, about a bride found suitable for a king. She was fashioned not of flowers, nor of clay, but of all the races of humanity to walk upon the earth. She also was brought to life by the spirit of God.

Unlike Blodewedd's, this woman's wedding day hasn't come yet. She's still waiting for her groom to come for her. Her spirit is capricious too, and she sometimes has had dalliances with people she shouldn't have.

Hers is a story I'm still learning. I'll let you know how it goes once I understand it better.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Maundy Thursday: Celebrating the ordinary before the storm

Thursday may be my favorite day in Holy Week.

Formally known as Maundy Thursday, today marks the day Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper. On Sunday they threw Jesus a parade. On Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday, he mixed it up all over town, sparring in the Temple and winning accolades for his quick wit and sharp words. Good Friday will be set aside for horror and grief, Saturday is for despair, and Sunday is for celebrating the impossible, but tonight it's time to celebrate the Passover in quiet.

Dinner with friends. What could be more mundane, more ordinary and more profoundly human than that? We always wonder what we would do if we knew we only had 24 hours left. The gospels show us what Jesus did. He had dinner and spent a quiet evening with the people who mattered most to him.

We often think of the Last Supper as a fairly staid affair. The disciples had their little dustup, of course, they always did; but Jesus reclined at the table, serene and above the fray, absolutely stoic and unaffected as he drew the errant children back into good behavior.

I can't see it that way, try as I might. Jesus knew what was coming tomorrow, after all. How could he not? For the past three years he'd been defying social conventions and crossing lines to heal, honor and befriend outcasts in ways that scandalized decent society: welfare cheats, sex workers, immigrants, gays and lesbians, the transgender, adulterers, trained killers and religious people. Even before he looked at Jerusalem from the vantage of the Mount of Olives Jesus already was predicting his death.

When, I wonder, did he know that hammerfall was imminent? Maybe it was the heightened scrutiny. Verbal traps that masqueraded as friendly questions or as mere arguments had been ratcheting up the tension all week, the nets and spears of his opponents drawing closer all the time.Something was going to give, and soon.

Jesus had been on the road with his disciples for three years, and he knew them intimately. When did he first sense that Judas had started to pull back, moving first from all-in support to mixed feelings, and then onward to skepticism and finally to outright rejection? It must have happened quickly, but none of the other disciples noticed it. When Judas left partway through the Seder to betray their teacher, everyone else assumed that he was running out to get something they had forgotten for the meal.

When did Jesus realize that Peter was about to fail? For three years, Peter had been part of the inner circle of Jesus' intimates. Along with the brothers John and James, Peter had been there with Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus up from the dead. He'd also been one of the three to witness the Transfiguration.

Peter was someone Jesus clearly had been impressed with. Originally he'd been named Simon, meaning hear; but Jesus renamed him Peter, rock. Over the past week, Jesus had watched as a crack formed in that rock, and threatened to split it down the middle. He'd started praying that the rock would be strong enough to hold together.

Moments of terrible clarity come to all of us at one time or another. We realize that things are about to take a turn for the south and there's nothing we can do about it. The marriage has died, and divorce is now inevitable. Child Protective Services wants simply to close the case, and the girl you love like your own is headed back to the people who abused her. The boss has made his decision, and you're about to be fired. The mob has you at its mercy, and you're going to die.

People who survive such moments often report after it's all over that during the moment of crisis, there was a supernatural calm that fell over them and held them upright and aloft long after they would have given out on their own steam. The future didn't change; they still could hear the march of doom as clear as ever. It just didn't matter right then. These moments of serenity stretch across the surface of simmering trouble. From time to time that calm shakes from the tension of what is happening beneath, but it holds.

Did Jesus' voice tremble when he told Judas to go take care of what he had to do? Did the words catch in his throat when he predicted Peter would deny knowing him, and he described the prayers he had made for his friend's sake? Were there tears in his eyes as he held the Passover cup aloft after dinner and promised to drink it with them again in the Kingdom of Heaven?

All possible. Jesus was human, after all, and he stands squarely with us in our weakness, in our fears and in those secret places where we tremble for what we see coming for ourselves, our loved ones, for our nation and for our world.

The next moment may bring ruin, or it may bring death. Right now that doesn't matter. At this moment, there is only this moment. Right now, friends are gathered around, and it's time for dinner.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lent: Deny

With a word prompt like deny during Lent, it's hard not to think of Peter and his denial of Christ.

That string of denials started late Thursday night and continued into early Friday morning. The thought of denying that he knew Jesus almost certainly was as far from Peter's mind on Wednesday as it was on Thursday.

And yet Jesus clearly saw something going on during Holy Week. By the time Thursday night rolled around, he knew what Peter would do with such certainty that he even gave a time that it would happen by.

None of thinks we'll ever be the one to deny our faith, our principles or those we love. Let's walk in humility and with care. None of us knows what we're capable of until we discover our true price.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.