Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent: Tenderly

Got a call this evening from someone feeling upset, overwhelmed and anxious. We talked for close to 40 minutes, and I hope at the end of the conversation that things were better than they were at the start.

Truth is, we're all broken; and the pain goes down far below the surface, sometimes into caverns where dark things lurk. Maybe it's an injury a friend once dealt us, maybe it's the fear stirred by the toxic air our president is brewing, or maybe it's the trauma of having to hide our true selves. It doesn't matter; the darkness is real, and so is the pain. "The darkness and the light are alike to you,: the psalmist writes. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made.'

Jesus, it should be remembered, never came for respectable people. He came for hookers and thieves, for traitors and sycophants, for the filthy, for the ignorant and for the unemployed, not to give them better manners or to make them acceptable, but to remind them that God was on their side. He knows where the pain is rawest, and he touches us there tenderly.

God willing, let us remember who his people are, and let us follow his example.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Advent: Presence

My atheist friends may disagree, but I think it's fair to say that we spend most of our life searching for the Presence of God.

In some ways it's like the hour before lunch. Nothing drives us to food like hunger; to water, like thirst; to friends, like loneliness; to justice, like oppression. It's the very absence of God that makes us want to experience his presence. It's that very moment of need meeting satisfaction that glows with the light of heaven.

The gospels tell us that Christmas is when God saw our need and pitched his tent among us, making our life his and his life with us. We enter the Presence of God not when we cloister ourselves away with other like-minded people, but when we follow his example and shelter the immigrant from deportation, speak up for the woman being sexually harassed, reach out to the lonely with a call and offer of friendship, oppose favoritism for the wealthy, and resist evil in places both high and low.

At that moment, a miracle occurs. In meeting the need of another, we experience the Presence, and so do they.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 2017: Open

I've met people (and I'm sure you have too) who claim that by following God, they've been kept from illness, from calamity, from poverty and everything else. Blessed, blessed, blessed, that's the only way they know how to describe themselves. It's like they started sneezing and can't stop,and so they keep getting blessed over and over.

I'm always wary of snake oil faith. I can't speak for other religions, but truth is, Christianity presents a danger in being open to the things of God. Up until the point the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, her life was safe and ordinary. She knew whom she was getting married to, knew where she would live, had a solid reputation, and could comfortably predict what life would bring her.

She could have smacked the angel upside the head with a skillet and told him where to take his announcements, or calmly informed him that he had the wrong address and wanted her next-door neighbor, Bertha.

But she was open, and even if she had the sense not to run down the street excitedly screaming that she was going to have a baby and he would be the messiah; her life still got overturned.

Pregnant before she got married? There goes the reputation.

Joseph insists he's not the father? She'll be lucky to get out of this alive.

In a couple years she'll even be a refugee, running for her life from the king in the middle of the night, hoping they can find someone who will shelter a growing family and not send them away empty-handed.

Being open to the works and wonders of God is a dangerous thing.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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.