Monday, March 28, 2016

An empty 'maranatha'

It's Sunday evening. My family is gathered around the dinner table as we have every Easter for the past fourteen years. There, in the center of the table, a wine glass stands on a saucer next to a bottle of wine.

“How much joy have we had this year?” I ask, and fill the wine a quarter of the way. “This much?”

My girls know the drill. “More than that!” they answer, and I fill it halfway to the top. “This much?” I ask.

“More than that!” I pour again. Three-quarters. “This much?”

“More than that!” Wine flows, and a moment later wine fills the cup past the rim and splashes joyously to the saucer below. We have friends. We have a home. We have one another. Middle Daughter has found a passion for the stage that will carry her well into adulthood. Oldest Daughter is in the home stretch of her junior year and thinking about college. For Youngest Daughter, every day is a new adventure, every moment a treasure to unpack. Life overflows with joy, and with love.

After we have measured our joy but before we eat the meal, comes what I am finding is the hardest part of Easter. My own wine glass in hand, I turn to Youngest.

“Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told us he would return one day,” I tell her. “Open the door and invite him in.” I quickly add: “Don't let the dog out.”

Youngest knows the routine by now. She opens the kitchen door and peers out into the back yard. “Maranatha,” she calls. “Come, Lord Jesus.”

There is a pause. Jesus doesn't come. “Maybe next year,” I say. Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won't come this evening, but surely tomorrow. 

It's been about two thousand years. How long are these Last Days supposed to last, anyway?

I had my religious awakening in 1988, about six weeks after high school graduation. While I was away at college I soon found myself drawn to an Assemblies of God church off campus. Services there were lively and boisterous, a marked departure from the staid Presbyterianism I had grown up in. There was an immediacy about worship there that I had never felt before, a sense that we were in the very presence of God and not just admiring him from a distance.

With that immediacy also came an urgency. Christ could return any day. The modern nation of Israel had formed in 1948, an event that to many evangelicals fulfilled key biblical prophecy in heralding the Second Coming. Adding to that urgency were the dramatic shifts in the popular zeitgeist and in geopolitical power over the course of that one decade.

For much of the 1980s the entire nation had lived under the cloud of nuclear war. Made-for-TV movies like “The Day After” in 1983 and “Countdown to Looking Glass” in 1984 carried the fear right into our living rooms. Conflicts like the military downing of a Korean Air Lines flight in September 1983 set the nation's teeth on edge. Even the pop culture reflected this fear, with songs like "99 Red Balloons" and "It's a Mistake" imagining nuclear war breaking out over a simple misunderstanding. (As it nearly did.)

Then in the late 1980s, reforms like glasnost and perestroika led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. One by one the Baltic republics declared their independence and established democratic governments. The Berlin wall came down, and suddenly there were talks of reunifying the two Germanys for the first time since World War II.

With that much change afoot, it couldn't help but feel that Judgment Day was coming. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, armchair interest in biblical prophecy shot up in a way it hadn't since Hal Lindsey had published “The Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970 and Christian moviemakers started producing B-movies like “A Thief in the Night.” Jesus was coming! No one knows the day or the hour, but still it had to be soon. It had to be.

Except Jesus didn't return. In fact it's been 68 years since the founding of Israel, an event so significant that Edgar Whisenant once wrote a popular book, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988,” prompted by that event. (Spoiler: It didn't happen.) Whisenant later predicted the return of Christ in 1989, 1993 and 1994 as well. Jesus didn't return then either.

'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.'

— Matthew 24:14

This has been going on for a while. The church fathers were so convinced that the Parousia was coming within their lifetimes that the Bible contains apostolic letters reassuring people not to panic that they were dying of old age before Christ's return. He's coming, Peter says. Just be patient. It's been about 1,980 years. How patient do we have to be?

I don't have a good answer for that. I'd love it if I could find a neat and tidy conclusion that makes the interminable wait seem worthwhile. The gospels tell us that Jesus is going to return, and it's in the creeds that we recite; but year after year keeps going by. We keep waiting, and he keeps not returning.

Why do we do this? Is it because the Second Coming is supposed to be such a major event? At the Parousia, that wondrous appearing of Jesus, we're told that all will be made right. Fish once more will team in rivers and streams whose waters will be restored, and herds of buffalo will stampede across the plains again. The wicked will no longer feed off the anger in the land and turn us against one another, and the arrogant will no longer walk in the halls of power.

When Christ comes, we'll recognize the dignity of one another without pause or exception. We'll recognize the wrongs we've done one another over the centuries, and we'll ask forgiveness for not setting it right sooner. We'll apologize for separate drinking fountains and for glass ceilings, for stolen land and for stolen labor. We'll dismantle empire and repair the damage it has caused, and as we get to know our neighbors, we'll wonder why we ever avoided them before.

Is that why we wait, to remind ourselves what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like? Do we have the promise of a Second Coming so that we can take seriously what he said the first time he came, and start working on that in the meantime?

Maranatha,” my daughter dutifully says. There is a pause. Jesus doesn't appear, just like he didn't appear last year, or the year before that.

“Maybe next year,” I say, and I think: “I doubt it.”

That doubt is all I have, Lord. I give it to you, and pray that it's enough.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Saturday and the dead Christ

Holy Saturday must have felt like the worst day in all of history. There had been bad days before, but this, the disciples agreed, this was as bad as it could get.

They had marched into Jerusalem the previous Sunday with Jesus on a donkey as the crowds waved palm fronds and threw their coats on the ground amid cries of “Hosanna!” Their moment had arrived. Change was afoot, and there they were, riding the wave that was going to sweep through Jerusalem, to all Judea and across the rest of the world. The day of redemption was at hand, and not only were they to witness it, they were part of it.

When did that hope begin to fray? Was it outside Jerusalem, when Jesus looked down on the city and foresaw his own death, and began to cry? Maybe it was inside the city, where the religious leaders were on edge more than ever. They used to debate, argue and judge. Now their questions carried daggers, and they used their words to conceal dangerous traps.

The menace that hung in the air that week took its toll on the disciples every time they breathed. The land was parched for want of justice, and people in the crowd itched for Jesus to light the fire of revolution. The leaders of the people knew this, and they looked at him with fear and worry and undisguised hatred.

Even Jesus himself seemed to be losing control. In the Temple he hurled one stream of invective after another at his opponents, and he talked about his death more and more as each day passed. The disciples closed ranks and talked, and when Thursday night came they told him they had two swords. Hope, still strong, had begun to stumble a little.

That night the soldiers came without warning and arrested Jesus. For a moment panic set in, but hope remained. And why shouldn't it? Peter and the other disciples had seen Jesus in tough spots before, and he always managed to get out of them.

Just in the past week, they had seen the Pharisees and the Sadducees and even the Herodians lob one tough question after another after Jesus. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? If a woman gets married to seven husbands and each one dies without her ever having a child, whose wife will she be at the Resurrection? Who gave you the authority to make such a scene in the Temple?

Every question masked a sword pointed at Jesus' throat. All week long the questioners had swung them at him in an effort to show that this messiah bled, and all week long Jesus avoided taking a single hit. The Sanhedrin had it in for him, everyone knew that. They had tried to take Jesus down before and it never worked. Pilate was a brutal dictator, but if the best minds of the Sanhedrin couldn't trap Jesus, how could a Roman? And if it did go wrong, there was still the Passover Amnesty.

And yet, somehow it did go wrong. Pilate and the Sanhedrin didn't let Jesus go. He didn't pull off a last-minute miracle, and somebody else was released for the amnesty, who didn't deserve it. Jesus was convicted and sentenced, and he died gurgling blood like a common thief. Not knowing what else to do, the disciples went and hid, hoping it was all some horrible nightmare.

Except it wasn't a nightmare. The sun came up Saturday morning, and Jesus was dead. They had thought Jesus was the messiah, sent by God, and now he was dead, and people don't get better from being dead. Everyone knew that, and if they doubted, all they had to do was to look inside some of the tombs outside the city. Jesus was dead, and hope with him.

How long do you think it took until Peter felt like an idiot? Three years ago he'd had a wife, a home and a job. Now he had no way to support a wife or family, and the authorities were watching him to see if he would follow the example of Jesus and try to start a movement of his own.

What about John and James? They were the sons of a prominent rabbi, a member of the Sanhedrin. Their father, Zebedee, owned a fishing business, one that they had stood to inherit. They had given that up and now faced a lifetime of poverty.

Matthew probably had lost the most, financially. Before he became a disciple of Jesus, Matthew had been a tax collector working with the Romans. With the authority and power of Rome behind him, he not only could compel people to pay taxes, he could extort as much money as he wanted them for his own livelihood. People had pretended to be his friends because of his wealth and influence, but that had all changed three years ago. Anyone who remembered him now would remember him as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers, guaranteeing his life would be unpleasant and short.

And on it went for each of the other disciples. They had wasted three years of their lives on a dream, for nothing, for a man who had been good with words. He seemed to have come right out of the old days, when prophets knew how to perform miracles. but in the end he was just a man like every other man. Just as human. Just as mortal.

Jesus had promised them all something worth believing in. “The Kingdom of God has arrived,” he had told them. “Mountains will be laid low, and the valley will be raised up. The rich and powerful will use their wealth and influence to serve the poor instead of themselves. The outcast will be an honored guest at the feast. Women will enjoy the same respect afforded men. Everyone will have the chance to come in and sit at the table together. There will be justice.”

Now Jesus was dead, and all those promises had died with him. That whole Kingdom of God thing? Not going to happen.

I know someone out there is reading this who wants to interrupt and say that Sunday is coming. But here's the thing about Sunday: When it's Saturday, you can't see Sunday. It's too far off. On Friday you can hope for a miracle, but if you put your head inside the tomb on Saturday, there's a body there.

The body is wrapped in linen that's been stained with thickening blood and ooze, and it smells awful. The stench of death is so strong that you want to gag. They took Jesus on Friday and they flayed the skin from his back, and after they had tortured him to death, they shoved a spear in his side. All those smells that the body keeps inside have been brought out into the open. You can touch the body, but it's not going to move for you, no matter what you do. The muscles are stiff with rigor mortis. No one will answer when you call, and there's no one to give you hope. He's dead.

Saturday is an agonizing place to be. You believed with all your heart all that you had been told about this man, but suddenly that belief just isn't enough. You staked your hopes, your faith, your future and your very identity on Jesus, and suddenly it turns out that he's not who you thought he was.

How on earth could I ever have believed Jesus was the Son of God? That's a question you'll ask yourself a lot on Saturday, if you're willing to be honest with yourself. Did you honestly think that people rise from the dead? You know better than that, and so did the disciples. The tombstones of Judea were as full as the graveyards of the 21st century. Check out your family tree sometime. You won't have to go back very many generations before you find withered branches. Dead is permanent. You know that in your very bones.

It's surprisingly easy to kill Jesus. I've seen parents do it by rejecting their children over their sexual orientation or gender identity. I've seen churches do it by telling women that they have no place in ministry, or no right to teach; and turning liberation into a prison. When Christ is dead, his promises of love and value have no meaning.

I've seen educators kill Jesus by suppressing science and concealing history. One day, their students get older and discover what they weren't taught in school. They realize that evolutionary biology actually makes a lot of sense, and so does the rest of science. Or they discover the side of history Christians are ashamed of: jim crow injustice, chauvanism, terrorism and war; and they wonder what else we're not owning up to. When Christ is dead, his claim to be the truth rings hollow.

Sometimes life itself is enough to kill Jesus with deep pains and bottomless griefs that have neither reason nor explanation. When Christ is dead, there is no end to suffering or to tears. All that there is, is an endless Saturday, a body in the grave, with no way out.

Holy Saturday is a place of reckoning. Some of us may come here only once, for a little while, and then we leave. Others of us return again and again. Sometimes Saturday lasts only a day; sometimes it lasts for years.

Come in to the tomb, Christian. Make your peace with the end of Holy Week, and listen to the worms moving. It's Holy Saturday, and Christ's body isn't going anywhere.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Dying of thirst

I want you to think about the thirstiest you've ever been.

In March 2010 I returned to Haiti to assist at the Quisqueya Crisis Relief Center with its efforts following the earthquake. I'd been up all night the night before, on an airplane with its dry, air-conditioned cabins. After that I stood in a crowded tropical airport so hot that the shirt on my back was plastered to my skin within minutes. All I'd had to drink since leaving home was about a quarter-cup of water given to me on the plane. I should have known better. But I didn't.

I'd been standing in the sun for 30 minutes, looking for the ride I was told might be able to come get me, when I noticed my head was hammering at me. My skin was red and starting to ache. And my stomach wanted to revolt, but there was nothing in it.

 I was dehydrated, and I needed a drink of water — badly.

This was just poor planning on my part. The adult body sheds about a quart of water every day just through run-of-the-mill perspiration and breathing. We lose another one to three quarts each day through urination. Think about that. Your body is roughly 60 percent water, and in the course of a day you can lose a gallon of it just by living.

As dehydration sets in, the body begins to move water from its cells into the bloodstream. As the water leaves, cells begin to shrink. The throat parches. The tongue becomes a clumsy, inarticulate piece of meat. Fine and even gross motor skills decline, sharply. Your head starts to hurt and it gets harder to think clearly.

Let it go too long, and the kidneys can start to fail, which lets the body's toxins build up in the bloodstream. Soon the organs begin to fail, and then death follows. People can survive weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Water is life.

It's no wonder then that in ancient times it was considered an act of war to fill someone's well with stones. And it's no wonder that the psalmist compares worship to thirst:
As a hart longs
    for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
    for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
— Psalm 42:1-2
It's Sunday morning and I've come to church to worship, but I'm dying of thirst. Think about the sort of song you're likely to hear on Sunday morning at church. If you go to a church like the one I attend, chances are good you'll hear songs about how wonderful it is to be saved, or how we much we love Jesus. There's nothing wrong with appreciating salvation or loving Jesus, but there's something essential missing in both songs: a sense of adoration.

Think about those songs, and then listen to this. It is one of the most beautiful recordings of "Holy, Holy, Holy," one of the most beautiful songs ever written for corporate worship. The entire focus of this song is not on we feel, it is not on what Christ did for us on the Cross, and it is not about how we desire to know God better. It is a song about the holiness and majesty of God. Who wouldn't love to hear music like this in church?

Older worship songs like "Holy Holy Holy" have fallen out of favor in recent years among worship bands, which is a shame. These were songs that had a lot of thought put into them. They contain solid doctrine, and often possessed some good melodies too. We still sing them hundreds of years later, because they were that good.

There are any number of reasons why older songs, particularly hymns, have fallen out of favor. For many of us the word hymn is enough to send us cowering under the seats in whatever space our church rents. It conjures unpleasant childhood memories of attending a church we didn't enjoy, and enduring the uninspired singing of the entire congregation as they were accompanied by an organ played at the same tempo by the same woman every week, year after year. For many of us, hymn denotes boredom and irrelevance, the exact opposite of what we require church and particularly worship to be.

This is, of course, due a complete lack of imagination on our part. Back when I was in college, Word Records published an album called "Our Hymns," a collection of classic hymns rearranged along then-contemporary sensibilities by Christian bands like Petra and singers like Amy Grant. Far from organ music, these songs sounded like they could have been written in the 1980s.

One of the songs included on the album was "O God Our Help in Ages Past," published in 1719 by Isaac Watts. Phil Keaggy gave it a hauntingly beautiful intro. Keaggy trimmed it to the first and final verses, threw in a Bach composition and made it possible to appreciate the soft, meditative sound of the song and its lyrics.


The same album included "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus," as recorded by Amy Grant. The song was written in 1882 by Louisa Stead after she and her daughter witnessed her husband die in an attempt to rescue a boy from drowning, and soon fell into financial destitution without his income.  I've heard worship leaders dismiss older songs as irrelevant because of their age, but I confess that is an argument I've never understood. The joys and the sorrows that birthed these songs in the first place are just as meaningful today, and with some effort any song can be arranged to any other genre.


Forty years ago, it was difficult to find a church where songs such as these were not in currency. It didn't matter if you were Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist or Catholic. You could walk into any church of any other denomination, and the chances were good that you would find the familiar hymns of your own church contained with that denominational hymn book.

That's a power to music that we often don't appreciate. Studies have shown that when a choir, a congregation or even a stadium full of people begins to sing the same song together, the experience produces a measurable physiological effect on them. Singers' heartbeats and respiration begin to synchronize, and the group forms a cohesive collective identity through the shared experience.

Now stop and think how this approach to worship can mend some of the splits fracturing the church.

Consider "Just A Closer Walk with Thee," as recorded by folk musician Joan Baez. It starts off a little slow, but just wait until she hits her stride, around the 1:20 mark. (There's no one else like Joan.)

Because these worship songs were so common, they often became woven into the identity not just of the church but of the larger community itself. A lot of churches lament the declining spiritual influence of Christianity in America. Small wonder when we've abandoned the music that once helped to knit us together, regardless of age, denomination and region, in favor of music written only within the past few years — especially when the selection changes every few weeks.

Worship is meant to be a congregational experience. Too often that is not what happens. Rather than one person or even a group leading the congregation in worship, what is happening in our churches is a shift of our focus to the band and its performance, We crank the volume up like we would for the radio or at a concert, and the band plays the songs it has rehearsed for that week. This isn't a bad thing, but with the volume pounding, worship ceases to be an active, participatory experience because we're listening to the music instead. New songs are never bad, but in order for the congregation as a whole to join in on the worship, they need a chance to learn the song. That doesn't happen if the songs change to a new set before the congregation can learn them.

There is power in singing familiar worship music, just as there is in telling familiar Bible stories. While we should never close ourselves to innovation and new music, we're wrong to ignore the much greater participation that comes when we invite the congregation to sing familiar songs.

We're dying of thirst out here, and these are familiar channels where the water flows.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Still reading? I based this on something I wrote earlier. You can read it here.