Thursday, March 30, 2017

What to Do with the Rest of Your Life

The Story Turns Deadly
During Sundays on Lent many of us are making our way through John’s narrative on our path to Palm Sunday and the week that follows; the sense of danger has increased each week.  The polite conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3 ends without incident or any clear resolution. 

The conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4 is bit unorthodox and generates some controversy.  The woman in conclusion asks: Can this be the Christ? There is some drama and a somewhat clearer resolution.

In chapter 9, the healed man who was blind declares “I was blind but now I see.”  The religious leaders grow angry and declare Jesus a sinner, and the healed man is thrown out of the synagogue for good.  The man finishes by declaring “Lord, I believe.”  Both the drama and the sense of danger increase with this account.  The sky is growing darker.

In chapter 11, the narrative becomes a story of life and death.  Lazarus is raised from the dead to new life, and consequently the leaders decide to kill Jesus.  Life for Lazarus will mean death for Jesus; this is a costly gift.  The thunder of the coming conflict rumbles overhead.

What Does One Do with New Life?
How do you suppose Lazarus lived out the rest of his life after being given this second chance?  What would it mean to see every day as a gift, living with the realization that each hour comes from a limited inventory of days?  Perhaps he thought of his days as a precious commodity to be well invested in lasting things.

All of us who believe are, in a way, Lazarus.  We believe that we have been given new life in Christ.  We declare we are “buried with him in baptism, raised to walk in newness of life.” What are we doing with this new life that came to us at such a cost?

A woman looking for more than a relationship put an ad in the personals section of a newspaper. She wrote:   I'm a 58-year-old woman with, doctors tell me, one year to live. I would like to spend that year doing something meaningful, interesting, and fun. I have limited stamina and resources. Have you any ideas how I can spend this year making a difference?”  What would you say to this woman?  What is worthy of her last year of life?

Life is precious because it is fleeting; that is what makes it beautiful.  Kenko, in the early 14th century, in his Essays on Idleness wrote: "If man were never to fade away like the dew... never to vanish like the smoke…but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”  Our mortality makes our lives precious and therefore beautiful.

 Lazarus will die again someday, but in the meantime I suspect he found life amazingly precious. 

Lent guides us to reflect upon our lives; and this, if done properly,  can lead us to a sense of amazement.  Dullness is our enemy; astonishment at what God has done with us is our deliverance.

 What are you doing with the amazing gift of your life?  I bet Lazarus had a plan.

 Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, March 17, 2017

Finding What You Are Not Looking For

I do not enjoy telemarketers when they call.  I try to be polite and gracious, but it is an effort.  I do not want someone to make me aware of needs I did not know I had.  I pretty much know what I want and where to get it if need be.

The woman who came to the well in John 4 knew what she wanted and where to get.  She wanted water and knew she could find it at Jacob’s well.  She meets Jesus there, and he will talk with her about something she did not know she needed, something she was not looking for.

Jesus is on his way from Judea to Galilee and takes the shortcut through Samaria.  The Jews and the Samaritans did not get along well, and the woman is surprised to find a Jewish man at the well speaking to her.  The woman responds suspiciously, a bit like me when I answer the phone and the caller announces that he is doing a survey about home alarm systems.

Jesus replies to her suspicion by sharing that he can give to her “living water.”  At this point the story becomes like an Abbot and Costello routine: “Who’s on first?”  Jesus and the woman talk right past one another.  The woman asks how Jesus can give her water when he has no bucket.  Jesus explains what he means by living water, and the woman says she sure would like some of this living water.  Then she would not have to come to the well each day and haul water.  She, at this point, is not really buying what Jesus is selling. She sounds skeptical, a bit like me when the telemarketer says her windows will cut my heat bill by 25%.

Jesus realized this conversation is going in circles and asks the woman to call her husband.  The woman replies that she has no husband.  Jesus answers that she is right on that count.  She has been through six of them, and she is not married to the current guy.

Suddenly the conversation gets personal and perhaps a bit uncomfortable for the woman.  She attempts to change the subject by pulling Jesus into an ongoing theological debate over the proper address for the Temple.  For the woman to realize her need of something she did not know she was lacking, she must first take a clear-eyed look at her life.  The look within is the hardest view.

Six men and she still has not found what she is looking for.  It is like the country song looking for love in all the wrong places.  Jesus’ implied question is:  How long is it going to take you to realize you are looking in all the wrong places for what will finally satisfy you?  Lent is about realizing that we have been looking in the wrong places for what can give us life.

We associate Lent with giving up things, and this journey can entail leaving some things by the side of the road.  Lent, however, is less about giving things up than it is about enlarging our lives. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the woman give up these serial relationships, but more than that he is challenging to her to ask for more from life.  He is awakening in her a thirst she did not formerly have.  She has been settling for too little; God has more for her.

C. S. Lewis wrote that we do not ask too much from life, rather we ask too little.  We are "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because they cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.  We are for too easily pleased."  Jesus wants this woman to demand more from her life.  Lent is about demanding more from our lives in Christ.

The woman got the message.  She leaves her water jug, rushes back to her village, and says she thinks she has found the Christ.  She never saw that coming as she made her way to the well that day. Lent is about enlarging our lives.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, March 10, 2017

Getting Things in Order

Like most expatriates living in Europe, nearly all our furniture came from the Swedish furniture store Ikea.  We all felt at home in one another’s houses because we had similar furniture. 

You hauled the stuff home in a flat box and then assembled it.  I was smarter the second time, after having some problems the first time in Belgium.  I ended up prying some things apart and breaking a few edges.  In Italy, I followed the instructions meticulously, rereading each section, and at times getting clarifying counsel from my wife.  The order of assembly was very important.

So it is with life; the order of things is important.  Lent is about getting things back in the right order.

In the fifth century, the church had a practice where poor farmers with little cash would bring in homemade bread and wine.  It would then be served back to them in communion, symbolically receiving what they had brought.  It was a reminder that everything came from God; it was all gift.  In a time when starvation was common and survival a daily concern, this practice reminded them of the proper order of things.

In Matthew 3, Jesus is declared the beloved Son of God in whom God is well pleased. Then in Matthew 4, Jesus is tested to see if in his hunger he remembers the proper order of things.  The tempter in the wilderness says “If/since you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  What harm is there is bread?  How can this be a temptation?  Jesus is hungry; turning stones to bread would be a great idea.

Henri Nouwen sees this as the temptation to be relevant.  We are encouraged to be relevant, to make a difference, to improve things.  Those are worthy goals, but are they primordial values?  Nouwen writes “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self (In the Name of Jesus—Reflections on Christian Leadership, p. 17).”

Later in the story Jesus will feed the multitudes with bread, heal the sick, and make whole the lame.  He will be relevant, but primarily he will offer himself in all his vulnerability and move with solidarity among those in need and at risk, the excluded and the forgotten.  That is primary in his life.

Irrelevance is not a worthy goal, but vulnerability and solidarity are of the first order in following Jesus.  Lent is about getting the order right.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister--American Baptist Churches of New York State
Lent 2017