Opiates and Overcoming

“The sweeping message of the Bible is not a promise that those who believe and do good will not suffer. Instead the Bible is largely a book about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering.”
― Adam Hamilton

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (CEB)

—————————————

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

I had just fished my car keys out of the abyss that is the bottom of my purse, and it is likely that in my frustrated search I had missed her first few attempts to get my attention.

“Yes?”

I turned to look at her.

Before I noticed anything else, the desperation in her eyes cried out to me. Taken aback, I yanked my shopping cart full of rapidly wilting and melting groceries to a stop and waited for her to speak again.

“I…” She paused, seeming unsure how to begin. “My house burned down. My home was destroyed two weeks ago by a fire, and we’ve been homeless ever since.” She paused again, and then continued with one of the most heart wrenching stories I’ve heard. Her sunburned skin and rumpled clothing confirmed her story, which came to a bleak close a few minutes later when she asked me for $30 to pay for a hotel room for the night. She had found a place where she and her two children could shower and sleep after several days and nights spent on the street.

At a loss for words, I told her I didn’t have any cash, but that I would be more than happy to run to the ATM just inside the grocery store I had just come from.

With tears springing to her eyes and quickly overflowing onto her dirty cheeks, she said, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t believe it… You’re an angel. It’s been so hard, and I’ve been yelled at all day. I know that God won’t give me more than I can handle, but this has been a lot. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Choking back tears of my own, I quickly shoved my grocery bags into the back of my car, locked it for good measure, and accompanied her back inside.

Upon handing her the money, she asked me how she could repay me, and I told her, “Don’t worry about it.” She cried again, hugged me, and thanked God for me.

I walked back to my car, hearing her continue to murmur her thanks even as I walked out of earshot.

I drove away, blasting the air conditioner and feeling woefully inadequate.

I should have given her more, I thought. I should have prayed with her. I should have driven her back to the hotel down the street. I should have given her some of the food I had just bought. I should have.

This kind of occurrence is common in Durham, and in most large cities. My face, young and generally fixed with a sweet disposition (since I struggle to look angry even when I am furious), seems to invite women in particular to approach me for help. I have become accustomed to such encounters, and find my heart increasingly softened by each one.

What was uncommon about our interaction was this woman’s tears, her excessive gratitude, and her invoking of God even before I had a chance to offer prayer or a blessing.

Though I am a particularly emotionally empathetic person, it wasn’t this woman’s tears or her gratitude that initially brought tears to my own eyes. Rather, it was her blindly faithful confession that God would not give her more than she could handle.

I wanted to cry (and later did) because this woman, impoverished mother of two, casualty of random tragedy, desperate beggar, was the victim of what I believe to be ecclesiastical irresponsibility, the victim of theological malpractice.

While sharing her story, she spoke to me of her church, which was holding a fundraiser for her sake that upcoming weekend, an event on which she seemed to stake the future of herself and her children.

While I was glad to hear this woman had a faith community on which to rely, I was devastated by the knowledge that they existed and yet here she stood, setting aside her dignity to ask for help in the parking lot of a grocery store. Where was this faith community? Perhaps planning the fundraiser for which she had so much hope? Or did their homes burn down, too, that they had no offering for her and her children?

Now, don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.

As easy as it is to point fingers at a church I have no knowledge of, I admit my own inadequacy in providing shelter to this woman and her family. As her sister in Christ I, like those who had specifically pledged to care for her upon receiving her into their body, had a responsibility to her which I only partially fulfilled. I gave her enough for one night of threadbare comfort and one meager meal for her family. With limited means of my own, this was the very best I could do in the moment.

Like her, I had to hope for the next willing soul to come along and help her then, too.

More concerning to me than the church that did not offer to house their member and her young children, however, was the theology that encouraged her to believe God had done this to her, that God had “given” this to her and her family because they could handle it.

This sort of theology can’t be true, because I look at the Bible and I see story after story of desperate people, sometimes even homeless people, who had been given more than they could handle.

I see the Israelites, toiling under to yoke of slavery, dying for a chance at freedom. I see the exiles with destroying fire reflected in their eyes while they are made to watch their city, their temple, their homes be razed to the ground as they are carried off to a land not their own. I see Job, bereft at the loss of his children, shushed by the well-meaning but ultimately flawed arguments of friends who could never know the depth of his loss. I see Mary, approached by an angel and called a chosen one of God, yet socially outcast, desperate to save her child as a mandate is made to kill all the little boys her son’s age, fleeing with her family as refugees, eventually losing her husband, and watching the son for whom she had sacrificed everything be beaten, tortured and killed, and wondering what it could possibly mean to be God’s chosen one.

And those are just the highlights. A cursory flip through the pages of scripture reveals that human beings are often given more than they can handle. A cursory flip through a history book would reveal the same thing.

What is God’s role in all of this, then, if not to dole out reward and travail as is fitting?

In his work entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx infamously writes,

“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

While many religious people take and have historically taken offense to such a claim, I’d like to think that Marx wasn’t so off base.

He goes on to critique the false happiness created by religion, and to suggest that true happiness is found once human beings can throw off the yoke of religion and become truly, philosophically free. While he agrees with the practical effects of religion in easing the suffering of human beings just as opiates alleviate physical pain, he also believes religion results in the same kind of sluggishness to act and the same kind of slow, eventual death that continued use of opiates does.

It is the second part of his argument with which I have to disagree. If religion is an opiate, then perhaps prolonged use does indeed lead to death. However, if we believe what we say we do, after death comes life abundant.

It is this sort of (opiate-like) comfort that I believe God is working for in the world. There are certain elements – namely, human will – that God has abdicated sovereignty over in order to maintain our freedom to choose. Without that freedom, God becomes a cruel puppet master, a senseless child holding a magnifying glass over ants on the sidewalk, a petulant deity burning down the homes of struggling families at random. That isn’t a God I want to serve. That isn’t a God I want a homeless woman asking to bless me.

Though it may seem unfortunate for us, Jesus doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will rebuild your burned-down home and fix everything for you.” Jesus doesn’t even say, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will make you feel happy no matter what.” No, Jesus promises us rest. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you a kind of rest that will ease your many burdens.”

We find a God who is close to the brokenhearted, who mourns as we mourn and rejoices as we rejoice, who shakes with grief next to us as we watch our home and all of our worldly possessions turn into a heap of ash. We find a God who does not intervene with faulty wiring on a hot North Carolina day, who does not interfere with a brutal execution on a cross in Jerusalem, not for the sake of punishment or vengeance but for the sake of our very freedom, and for the sake of our eternal lives.

And perhaps the Kingdom of God, which the Gospel tells us is both here already and still to come, is found in those moments of comfort. Perhaps it is the brief joining together of two stranger souls over tears, weariness and hope and the exchange of a few well-worn dollars.

Or, perhaps, the Kingdom of God is in the struggle that looks forward to a day when the new heaven and the new earth will mean that homes will no longer be destroyed, poverty will no longer have a hold over us, and the worst the world has to give will no longer threaten us, because God will have made a home among us.

We will be God’s people, and every tear – even the ones borne of brief moments of gratitude and hope – will be wiped from our eyes.

You see, hope is just an opiate, and there will be a day when we will need it no longer.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Pedestals and Perfect Strangers

“On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.

He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

-Luke 24:13-32 (CEB)

—————–

I had coffee with a total stranger yesterday.

Okay, okay, so it was tea, and this person wasn’t a total stranger.

A mutual friend knew we were going to be in the same city at the same time, and suggested we get together to talk about my future career in ministry. Apart from both of us knowing the same person and being in ministry of some kind, neither of us knew anything about one another.

To be honest, meeting with a (relative) stranger was kind of refreshing. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with no baggage weighing me down, no preconceived notions about what should or shouldn’t be said. This is perhaps the kind of freedom the two disciples on the road to Emmaus must have been feeling when a perfect stranger joined them on their journey. Incidentally, they spilled their guts to him, too.

We chatted about my seminary experience, about ideal ministry, about the future. I admitted my uncertainties, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were not only affirmed and echoed but also calmed and gently combatted. I didn’t know I needed someone in a position of relative authority in the church to allay some of my concerns until it was happening. For this unexpected comfort, I thank the Holy Spirit, and certainly our mutual friend.

Throughout the conversation, I ended up telling a few stories of my church experiences. When our giant tea mugs were nearly empty, the stranger told me, “It seems like you’ve had a lot of heroes fall from grace.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed, much to both of our surprise.

“Yes, I have.”

This stranger didn’t know it, but that touched on one of my biggest struggles in ministry. I didn’t even realize how much of what I said contained hints about this struggle until it was pointed out to me by someone who had never met me before that moment.

It would have been easy to leave it there and move on. I could have laughed it off and jumped to another topic. I could have steered the conversation away since I didn’t really want to talk about it anyway.

I could have even said, “It’s okay… that kind of thing always happens to me,” and it wouldn’t have been entirely untrue, except that there are things that definitively do always happen to me…

For example, the most important moments in my life are usually scheduled all at the same time; I feel like I’m constantly choosing between two things that both seem essential. I also have terrible timing when it comes to relationships; I’m always moving, changing jobs, going to a new school, living across the country. I also can’t travel via airplane without some kind of delay, whether it is 5 minutes or, most recently, more than 24 hours. I can safely say these are larger trends in my life, and the childish part of me wants to say I must just have a streak of bad luck a mile wide.

But then I remembered the person sitting in front of me didn’t know me from Adam (or Eve), hadn’t heard me fumble through puzzle-piece explanations of my calling to ministry when I first began to answer it, wasn’t subjected to my first (awkward) sermon, had never heard me express heart break when these “heroes” of mine “fell from grace.”

It felt wrong to close off the topic with my laughter. It felt insincere and dishonest and cynical and all the things I try not to be. It felt like I was filing away this issue with the double-booking, the bad timing, and the flight delays, when really there was and is a much deeper problem at hand.

And so I filled the few moments of silence after my laughter with an explanation. “Yes, but only because I tend to put my ‘heroes’ on pedestals.”

I went on to admit that, as a result of that tendency, I brought some of this immense disappointment on myself. I really do tend to idolize people who mentor me, or even just people who I want to be like, to the extent that they take on a sort of other-worldly glow. Any of my mentors (professors, pastors, bosses, etc.) could probably tell you this is true. They become above reproach in my eyes, in a way that is unfair both to them and to me. This is my biggest struggle, my most repeated sin.

You see, I give my “heroes” a place in my heart that should only ever belong to the God of the Universe, and it never turns out well for me.

Even when these people do nothing in particular wrong, they are still human beings. They still have bad days and bad moments. They still have sin and pain and sickness just like I do.

Taking people off of these lofty thrones is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way. If I’m being totally honest with myself, it is a lesson I am still learning, a road I am still walking down.

Thankfully, it is a road that Jesus walks down with me.

While I’m simultaneously building and tearing down pedestals, Jesus is kicking up dust on the road beside me, reminding me which way is up. While I’m gluing my heart back together after self-inflicted heart break, Jesus is bending down beside me, handing me the scattered pieces one by one. While I’m tearing through scripture looking for answers, Jesus is waiting for me to turn his direction, to recognize him so he can show me the Way, the Truth and the Life. While I’m searching for what will make me whole, Jesus is sitting next to me at the table, offering me the very Bread of Life.

My prayer for you and for me is that our eyes will be opened to the infinitely powerful God who does the most impossible things for the sake of incredibly finite human beings, who walks patiently alongside us on the road, who stays for dinner when we ask, and who makes our hearts burn within us as we gaze upon his very face and learn the Truth.

Happy traveling.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Schism, Sides, and the Sacred

The year was 1054 CE, the date to which the “Great Schism” is traditionally ascribed.

It must have felt like the kind of separation that could one day be bridged again (and really, would be bridged again, because it was THE Church, wasn’t it?). It must have felt like the most important thing, to preserve doctrine above all else. It must have felt worth it.

To make a very long story short, a bull of excommunication was issued from Pope Leo IX to Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople via a representative, who was sent to the Hagia Sophia to settle the disagreement. In turn, the Patriarch excommunicated the Pope, resulting in a stand-off that lasted for more than 900 years, until Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI lifted the mutual excommunications in 1965.

The issues prompting such a schism were many and varied, not the least of which was the geographic distance that separated East from West. The distance resulted in poor communication and one-sided decisions made by the Pope in the West. The popes’ insistence on papal preeminence left no room for the authority of patriarchs. As a result, Pope and Patriarch rarely interacted well.

The distance also produced divergent theology and doctrine. The Church in the East disagreed with Western inclusion of the Son in the creedal procession of the Holy Spirit. They also protested Western clerical celibacy, the issuing of confirmation only by the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.

What few accounts of the East-West Schism mention is the fact that many in the Church believed the mutual excommunication was only temporary. Although the separation only seemed to grow over time, there was no reason to imagine this break would become permanent. Hope for a reunited Church was there, taking root underneath bulls of excommunication and doctrinal debate.

And then the unthinkable happened.

In 1204, during the 4th of the Crusades (which in themselves marked a kind of unbelievable inhumanity infiltrating the Church), an army of Crusaders sacked the city of Constantinople, looting, raping, pillaging, murdering. Although the exact number is unknown, historians estimate thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people lost their lives. Countless others were made refugees, searching for a new place to call home after surviving the destruction of their city.

Although this was not the Pope’s intention, it solidified the split. And how could it not? Despite the mutual excommunications, there had been hope. Even if the two churches never found their way back into being the Church, at least there was fellowship in Christ! At least there was common human decency.

But this was too much. Christian men killing men, women and children in the name of Christ, killing not only those of other religions but even their sisters and brothers in Christ… it was the heaviest last straw to ever break the camel’s back.

Further attempts from the West to reconcile were always refused by the East. Until 1965, East and West remained completely separate, unable and unwilling to reunite. Even still today, despite recent moves toward reconciliation, the atmosphere remains tense. Forgiveness was a long time coming. There are some wounds that, although healed, leave scars that cannot be ignored.

Francis, Bartholomew I
AP (Vatican City, 2014)- Patriarch Bartholomew kisses Pope Francis in blessing, a show of peace and fellowship nearly 1,000 years after the initial East-West mutual excommunication.
As I spent the past nine months studying the full two-thousand-year timeline of Church history, different professors explained the importance of such historical study to me in different ways. Although I appreciated these attempts at rationalizing such a rigorous course, I didn’t really need to hear it. I already knew why it was important.

As with all history, the study of Church history is vital because it reveals to us the mistakes of the Church’s past, the mistakes of our past. Some of these mistakes were rectified in a matter of months. Others required the label of ‘heretic’ to be sorted out. Others took hundreds of years to fix. And still others extend to this very day, with hurt and anguish and heartbreak too deep and too wide to cover over and forget.

A careful assessment of the modern Western Protestant church would reveal an atmosphere much like that of the Church just before the Great Schism.

The recent drama at Duke Divinity, made public by an outside party and picked up by the Times, revealed to me (as a student) and to many others that even – or perhaps especially – places of preparation for ministry are not exempt from such polarization.

The recent council held by the United Methodist Church brought out the worst in both sides. The word ‘schism’ has been thrown around for several years now, and even still it is sharp like a broken shard of glass as it pierces my ears and sinks into my heart.

United Methodist. Schism.

Unity. Division.

Broken.

Like many others, I find myself on one side of these debates. Many people whom I love and respect stand with me, and many people whom I love and respect face me from the other side.

I’ve read what each side has to say, and about how those in the middle feel stretched and exhausted, holding together two jagged edges that are fighting to separate.

I’ve read a call for the other to return to “holiness” and “sound theology”, a call that deeply wounded me and no doubt many others. The implications, while perhaps well-meaning, are clear: my side is correct, yours is not. Your theology is incorrect; your choice is unholy.

To both sides, I would pose this question: would a person on the other side, a person who is another disciple with whom you share Christ’s body, intentionally choose to pursue what was unholy, what was theologically irresponsible?

No. Of course not. That is the problem, isn’t it? Both sides believe theirs is the side of holiness, the side of God.

However, both sides (including the one I find myself on) err in this way: to believe we have the essence of God boiled down to our theology, to our political ideology, to our identity, even, is the most fatal of Christian errors. To believe we fully and completely stand with God, that we understand the entirety of God’s identity and intention and can therefore speak on God’s behalf, is naïve and foolish. And – although we would deny the truth of this statement, and perhaps scoff at the ridiculousness of it – to believe God is enslaved to our desires and expectations is a dire error, one that has been made since the beginning of time, and certainly since the birth of the Church.

The question remains: how do we fix this? Where do we go from here? Do we, like the Church of the 11th century, cut our losses, close up shop, go our separate ways, and dare to hope for a time when old wounds might someday be healed?

While my brain sees this as one of the few viable solutions left to pursue, my heart itself begins to split in two at the very mention of it. History repeats itself. We are not to the point of excommunication yet, but I fear we are well on our way.

It follows that not long after that breaking point comes the siege, the sack, the looting, raping, pillaging and plundering which will seal the deal. The only difference is that our church cannot survive 900 years of horrified gasps, cold shoulders and broken hearts.

In order to keep from erring in the same way I have described, I will simply speak from my own perspective.

The God I know is unified from eternity, and is somehow three in one and one in three and God and Jesus and Spirit all at once.

The God I know can’t wait for liberation, and hardens hearts and softens them as necessary to ensure freedom.

The God I know doesn’t stand at a distance but breaks into the world in the form of an infant, and grows into a man who dies for the salvation of the whole world.

The God I know makes friends among the least, the last and the lost, and brings about a new covenant for all people.

The God I know makes promises of the very best kind, and looks ahead to the day when God’s home will be made on the new earth, and where there will be no death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.

It is to this promise of the God I know that I look. It is for this peaceful unity that my soul longs.

But until then, friends, there is much work to do.

—————–

I wonder if Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Cerularious would have done anything differently if they could have somehow looked out over the next 900 years of division that their actions sparked. Even though it must have felt like the kind of separation that could one day be bridged again, even though it must have felt like the most important thing, even though it must have felt like it was worth it, I like to think they might have tried a little harder to preserve the unity their actions trampled upon. I like to think those 900 years would instead have been spent constructing bridges instead of walls, building up instead of tearing down.

Here’s the thing: even if their actions had been unifying rather than divisive, now, nearly 1000 years later, 900 of which were spent in radio silence, I imagine there would still be a struggle to preserve that unity. Just like the human race is ever growing and evolving, so scripture and the Church are living… that is, growing and evolving. Growth means change, and change means difference, and difference means disagreement. It is the story of the Garden. It is part of the human condition. It is who we are.

I believe that until the very end, there will always be ways we can find to separate ourselves. There will always be polarizing issues. There will always be sides, and accusations, and heartbreak.

But I also believe that the Holy Spirit will always be working. I believe that, although the future of the United Methodist Church (and perhaps the Western Church as a whole [despite the fact that in many places outside of the West around the world, the Church is thriving and growing!]) is bleak, not only is it possible, but it is our calling – our very namesake – to stick together, to continue to be one body with one Spirit, called to the one hope of the one Lord, to one faith, to one baptism, to the one God of all, who is over all and in all and through all.

No one said it would be easy. In fact, the Apostle Paul seemed to think it was going to be very hard, so much so that he spent much of his time writing letters full of practical advice to the earliest churches who even then struggled to stay together. As much as we love to quote the glamorous Paul of Romans 8 or Philippians 2, we also have to read the leave-no-stone-unturned Paul, who reveals the greatest flaws of Christian communal life and nags until someone fixes them. Perhaps these are the verses we need to be reading now more than ever.

I’m not going to pretend like I have the answers. I’m a twenty-three year old pastor wanna-be. Of course I don’t know how to fix this.

What I do know is that it won’t be easy. It may take 900 years, and another 900 after that, and another 900 after that. But it will be worth it.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine anything more worthy of hundreds of years of struggle and strife and contention than unity in the Body of Christ.

You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

– Ephesians 4:4-6

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Pain, Paradise and Promises

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

-Luke 23:39-43

———————-

One of the gifts God gave me, or perhaps one of the curses, is empathy.

If you are also an empathetic person or at least know someone who is, you know what I mean when I say it is both a blessing and a curse.

It is wonderful to feel what others feel because it makes me at least try to be kinder or more considerate. I still fail many times, but it doesn’t take much for me to imagine what someone else must be going through. Empathy also ensures that my emotions are always in the right sphere.

If you spend any time with me at all, you’ll know that I spend most of my time laughing. I love to laugh, but I also have very poor laughter control, which is a surprisingly bad quality in someone who wants to be a pastor. Imagine with me, for a moment, all the ways that could go very wrong. Still, the fact that I tend to absorb the emotions around me keeps me from bursting into uncontrollable laughter at very inappropriate times. In those ways and others, being empathetic is a blessing.

But in many ways, it is also a curse. For example, I cry when I see those ASPCA commercials, ready to drive down there and tell them to throw as many sad kittens and puppies in my car that will fit. Sometimes, even happy things make me cry. Empathy means that I cry a lot.

On a more serious note, though, empathy can also be exhausting. I hurt not only for my friends and family, but for people I do not know. My heart breaks when I read the headlines and see the gruesome reality of the world we live in. I haven’t watched a newscast in months because I can hardly stand to anymore. There is so much that happens in the world that is heart breaking, and sometimes I have to turn away from it.

I realize that being able to turn away, to escape, is a privilege. So many people around the world are the ones who are suffering the effects of starvation, poverty, homelessness, racism, sexism, homophobia, war, disease, genocide, and countless other unbelievable tragedies. They have no choice but to stay focused on these things because they are living them.

As guilty as I feel when I’m driven to the point of withdrawing, I also realize that this is a very human thing to do. Most people have a threshold for the amount of suffering they can witness. Most people turn away from the world’s worst pain and suffering at some point in their lives.

This is very human.

But, friends, we serve a God who is not human. We serve a God who is not like us, and we know that because of the cross.

The cross tells us that we serve a God who does not look down from paradise in pity and turn away from the worst the world can do. Instead, the cross tells us we serve a God who dives in headfirst, who gets down and dirty with us, who grabs a hold of us with human hands and steadies us, and who goes to the cross in order to bring us back into paradise. This is a God who chooses to become human, who does not turn away but instead stares suffering and death in the face, and wins.

From the cross, Jesus says to us, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What the cross accomplishes is the very same as what Jesus says: when all is said and done, when we have laughed and cried, been healthy and sick, embraced and turned away, rejoiced and suffered, and finally when we come to die, we are promised paradise by the God who does not turn away from our sin and our brokenness.

We find this promise in the very beginning, when God walks with human beings in the garden. And we find this promise at the very end. The book of Revelation records a vision of this paradise:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making everything new.”

-Revelation 21:1-5a

My hope and my prayer for all of us is that the work of the cross makes everything new, and that we can take hold of the promise of paradise spoken to us by the God who is nailed to the cross.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Irrational and Impossible

“The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the poorer we become – the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving. Awareness of our poverty and ineptitude causes us to rejoice in the gift of being called out of darkness into wondrous light and translated into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” ― Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

—————————–

Have you ever been asked who you would invite to a dinner party if you could have anyone there, alive or long dead?

It’s a tough question to think about. I would invite people like Moses, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and, of course, Genghis Khan [who left the legacy of a gene found in one out of every 200 men, as well as countless other contributions, like paper, gunpowder, paper currency, the compass, and trousers].

Anyway, because I’m a Christian and because I am planning on working in the church, I would be remiss if I did not also invite Jesus to my dinner party.

Even though Jesus is made present to us constantly by the Holy Spirit, he is obviously not here physically. How incredible would it be, then, to have a face-to-face conversation with Jesus. I would be able to know what he looks like, how tall he is, what he likes to eat, and to ask what his favorite color is.

And then of course I would have to ask him the more intense questions. What is the meaning of life? What happens after we die?

What are some questions you would ask Jesus?

This tendency that we have to ask questions when we encounter Jesus is an apparently natural kind of instinct. In addition to always finding Jesus at the dinner table with friends in the gospels, we see him constantly questioned. Sometimes the religious leaders would ask him leading questions, trying to trap him and make him look stupid. He always answered them well and often turned the questions around to make a point. Other times, people would ask him questions about faith. Often, he would respond with a parable, a story told like a riddle.

We see an instance of the questioning of Jesus happen when a young man approaches Jesus as he is traveling around preaching and teaching.

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –Mark 10:17-31

So this young man comes to Jesus and meets him and does exactly what I think all of us would do were we in his shoes: he asks him an important question, genuinely seeking the answer.

But as so often happens with Jesus, the answer this man receives is not at all what he expected.

Apparently this man had it all. The text says “he had great possessions,” which is a polite way of saying he was filthy rich. He also tells Jesus that he has kept God’s commandments since he was a child. But even with all of his possessions and all of his faith, he still wanted more. There was something he was still searching for, despite having it all. So he asks Jesus what he has to do to live forever.

And, perhaps anticipating this man’s lifelong faithfulness to God’s commands, Jesus outlines some of the Ten Commandments. The man is proud then to tell Jesus about his faithfulness.

Although there are few details given beyond the dialogue of their conversation, I picture Jesus adding this last part on a little casually: “Great! You’ve done everything. Oh, except there’s just one more little thing you need to do: go and sell all your stuff and then give all the money you get to the poor, and when you die you’ll have heavenly treasure. Since you’ll have not even a penny to your name, you’ll have plenty of time to come and follow me and my other friends as we wander the countryside, homeless.”

Then, when the man leaves sad because he had a lot of really great stuff, Jesus says something even more surprising: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” He tells his friends that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.

I’ve heard a lot of really wealthy people try to rationalize this part of Jesus’ teaching. “Well, he just means it would be really hard.” Or, better yet, “It’s just a metaphor. Jesus is speaking metaphorically.”

But that’s where I have to disagree.

Have you ever seen a camel in real life? They are pretty huge, at least as big as a pretty large horse with the addition of a large hump on their backs.

Have you seen a needle, or tried to thread one before? I might be better at sewing if I could actually thread one, but after two or three tries I get so frustrated and stop trying because it is really hard to thread a needle. Suggesting that a camel go through the eye is so impossible that it seems like bizarre example. There are a ton of other much less ridiculous images Jesus could have used: “it would be easier for a camel to go through the front door” [okay, that’s still pretty ridiculous], or, “it would be easier for a camel to slide under the fence”… both of which would also be impossible, if slightly more tenable images.

What Jesus is really saying is that it is ridiculously impossible for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God, just like it is ridiculously impossible for a camel to fit through a needle.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. PHEW. Thank goodness I’m not wealthy!

Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you. If you are reading this blog, chances are you are rich. On a global scale, only 2% of Americans live in true poverty. Even if you exclude the rest of the world and just consider the American economy, a majority of us would fall among the 71% of Americans who qualify as middle or upper class.

Most of us are wealthy. And Jesus says it is impossible for us to enter the Kingdom of God.

That’s hard for us to hear, especially since we are very used to being able to do what we want, or worse, to buy what we want. However, it is impossible to force or buy our way into God’s Kingdom.

But that’s also not the end of the story. Even Jesus’s best friends, who are literally homeless wanderers who follow him around, hoping they can catch a meal with some generous strangers, even they protest at what he says. “Jesus, who in the world can be saved?! Who can enter God’s kingdom?” Peter even reminds him: “Jesus, don’t you remember how you called us away from our jobs, our homes, our families and our money? And how we left all of that and followed you? Remember that?”

Then Jesus drops some of the best wisdom in the whole Bible. “Listen, guys,” he tells them. “With human beings it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

This story hits people in a lot of different ways. Some people think they have to sell everything they have, give it to the poor, and become a missionary. That’s totally valid. That’s what embracing the situation of the young man and taking Jesus at his literal word looks like.

But I don’t think Jesus means that we all have to do that.

See, Jesus tells us that entering the kingdom of God is impossible, but then reminds us that we serve a God who works best in the impossible.

This story is always read by itself, but actually just after it in Mark 10, Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Directly after his conversation with the man, it says:

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” –Mark 10:32-34

See, Jesus says, “With God, all things are possible.” And then he says, “I’m going to be arrested, convicted of a crime I did not commit, tortured and killed. But then I’m going to rise from the dead.”

This is the kind of God we serve. This is what God’s Kingdom looks like. Jesus turns everything on its head. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” The rich will be left out, and the poor will be welcomed in. The powerful will be stripped of their power, and the powerless will be given power. The most sinful, the least attractive, the weakest will be the most valued. And, most importantly, the dead will be raised to new life. It is a kingdom that does not make sense in our world, and it is impossible for us to enter this kingdom.

But then again, as Jesus himself reminds us from the cross to the grave and back, God does some of God’s best work with the impossible.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Bones and Believing

“Christ accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those other His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognised as finally annulled. A marvellous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonour and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.”

-Athanasius of Alexandria

——————————–

One of my favorite parts about being a youth pastor is getting to eat together as a little community. Joining together around a meal is one of the best ways people can get to know each other better, and it is definitely modeled for us by Jesus who, the Gospels tell us, spent a lot of his time simply eating with those around him.

The more comical part of eating together [particularly with a group of teenagers] is getting to see different people’s eating particularities. Some people can’t eat if their food is touching. Some people can only eat if their food is piping hot. Some people use a napkin after every bite. Some people [like me… my parents used to call me Mandy Mess] get food everywhere.

Most people are particular about the way they eat in one way or another. But, one of my eating habits is admittedly strange.

I will not eat meat off a bone. I can’t eat ribs, or chicken, or steak that has any sort of bone still in it. Now, I can cut that meat off and eat it. But if the bone is still attached to the meat, I will not eat it. As strange as that is, there is some part of my brain that cannot reconcile eating off of a bone.

You may not have ever given it much thought before, but it’s true: bones are weird. In our bodies, they come together to form our skeleton, where they give us shape and strength and support. The soft tissue called marrow on the inside of our bones helps to synthesize our red blood cells. In that context, bones are totally normal. Healthy human beings (and some other animals) have strong bones.

But outside of the human body, bones become something else. Instead of a sign of life and health, bones outside of bodies become an indication of death and decay. In the Texas hill country, there are many beautiful hiking trails on which it is not uncommon to come upon the skeleton of a dead animal, whether that’s a bird, or a rabbit, or sometimes even something bigger, like a deer. A pile of bones that is not attached to a living thing mean something has died; they point to death.

This is likely why I can’t bring myself to eat meat off of bones. It is also why in almost every culture, bones symbolize death. In medicine, a skull and crossbones means a substance is toxic. And I’m sure you can think of plenty of scary movie scenes where one of the characters has discovered a dark place covered in cobwebs where no one has been in a long time, and they stumble across a skeleton and freak out. The ancient Jews even had a law that prohibited contact with bones (or bodies) of animals that were not used for sacrifice.

So when this ancient Jew named Ezekiel stumbled onto a valley full of bones, he was unsure of what to do. Ezekiel was a prophet in the time of Israelite exile, after they had been captured by the Babylonians and forced to move away from their homes. This is what Ezekiel had to say about this valley of bones:

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

-Ezekiel 37:1-14

With God’s help and direction, Ezekiel does something amazing. He comes upon this valley which must have once been the site of a great battle. Given the bones lying everywhere, the nation that won the battle did not even do their slain enemies the justice of giving them a proper burial. Instead, their bodies were left, exposed to the elements to slowly decay over time.

When God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to a bunch of bones, Ezekiel is probably very confused. Prophecy is meant for living people, not the dusty remnants of people’s dead bodies.

But he listens to God. And as he prophesies, these bones begin to take shape, to grow flesh and blood and to have life breathed into them. Out of a field of dry bones, through Ezekiel, God brings a whole army of people back to life again.

And God tells Ezekiel, “As you have seen me do for these bones, so I will do for the whole nation of Israel.” God promises to bring God’s people up from the grave.

That’s a pretty big promise, if you ask me.

But that’s why the story of Lazarus is so important. We come upon Jesus in the Gospel of John, and he has been told that one of his closest friends named Lazarus is gravely ill. Instead of rushing to his side like his disciples expected him to do, he continues going about his business. Then they receive word that Lazarus had died. Only then does Jesus decide to go to where Lazarus and his sisters lived, where they were no doubt grieving his death. It says:

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

-John 11:17-44

Like Ezekiel, Jesus does an amazing thing, too. Jesus does an amazing thing AGAIN, actually. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus has done this before; Jesus actually raised a little girl from the dead.

But this time is different. The little girl had only just died, and although Jesus really did raise her from the dead, it was so soon after her death that the people still doubted his ability. There was enough room for the people there to doubt he could bring people back from death, and even if he did, the ancient Jews believed that someone might be brought back to life within the first three days after their death. This is often why they would take their time preparing a body for the tomb, because they hoped some magician or prophet might come along and heal the person who had died if less than three days had passed.

But this time is different because Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. It seems strange, doesn’t it, that the story is so specific. But that was to emphasize the fact that Lazarus was not just dead. He was really dead. He was beyond hope of new life again.

That’s why Mary and Martha are both so upset. They wanted Jesus to heal Lazarus when he was still alive, but even after he died they likely held out hope for three days, believing that Jesus could come back and wake him up.

However, Jesus waited. Intentionally. And that’s a hard thing to hear. Jesus waited to act even when someone he loved very much needed him immediately. We, who are Christian, the supposed beloved ones of Jesus, believe that he should always be working miracles when we tell him to, when we need him to. But Jesus is subject to no one. Jesus has the authority of God, and works and heals as he pleases.

But Jesus never turns his back. He comes to Lazarus’s grave after four days, after everyone was certain he was really dead. There he weeps, because his friend suffered and died without him there. And then he says “Take away the stone” and calls out to the really dead body “Lazarus, come out!” And he does.

See, when Martha says she believed everyone would be resurrected at the last day, she was thinking back to Ezekiel. She was thinking about God’s promise to raise the Israelite people from their graves.

But did you hear what Jesus says to her? He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus doesn’t say, “I am a really great metaphor for the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t say, “I perform the resurrection and give life.” He doesn’t even say, “I am like the resurrection and the life.”

No, Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” Jesus fulfills that promise that God made to Ezekiel nearly 600 years before. Jesus brings people out of the grave. He takes people who were dead and broken and makes them new and whole again. He pays for our sins so that we can be forgiven by God instead of killed for what we have done. In his own resurrection on Easter, he gave us the gift of eternal life by defeating the power of death.

Then comes my favorite part of the story. Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” That IS the question, isn’t it, friends? Do you believe this? Do you believe that Jesus does not just perform, resemble or represent the resurrection and the life but that he is the resurrection and the life?

My hope is that we can be like Martha, and so many others since, who have said “Yes, Lord, I believe.”

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Chaos and Calm

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” – Genesis 1:1-2


Have you ever seen a really old map before?

They are mostly inaccurate documents because they were made long before even the simplest of mapping technology existed. For a very long time, maps of bodies of water were even drawn with sea monsters in them.

This seems like a funny thing to put on a map. But there’s actually a reason for it.

Throughout human history, people were terrified of the ocean. Without the technology to go for a dive with an oxygen tank or send a robot with a camera down into the depths, there was absolutely no way for them to know what was below the surface of the murky waters of the sea. For most human beings who lived up until the world of the ocean was revealed by technology, the ocean represented chaos and death.

The Ancient Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, actually believed that people went to a place called She’ol (שְׁאוֹל) when they died. She’ol was the depths of the ocean, the unknown, a watery grave, darkness, separation from the world.

I remember the first time I ever really spent extended time sailing on a boat in the ocean. I was probably twelve or so, and my whole family was going on a summer cruise to Alaska.

We ooh-ed and ah-ed over the size of the boat as we were boarding it. It was massive! If you’ve ever seen a cruise ship, you know that feeling of insignificance when you come up next to it and realize how small you are. They are huge, powerful pieces of machinery.

I couldn’t help but think about the way this big boat resembled Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that ended up killing more than 1,500 people when it sank. This was probably not the best thought to have before boarding a large cruise ship, but that’s what immediately came into my mind standing in the shadow of this huge boat. Almost 100 years after the Titanic sank, though, there I was, and I imagined that it would pretty much take an act of God to bring this ship down. It was unthinkably large. An iceberg like the one that brought down the Titanic would probably barely make a dent. I wasn’t concerned at all.

The first few days of the cruise were smooth sailing, and we were having an amazing time. We sailed from Vancouver, Canada, and we finally made it away from the land and into the Bering Strait. As it happens and as most people who enjoy boating and sailing know, the land actually keeps the water relatively calm. However, when moving away from land and sailing into the deep and isolated areas of the ocean, the ungrounded waters can get pretty crazy, even when the weather is perfect.

I remember feeling the boat rock for the first time while my brother and I were playing ping pong. We initially loved it, thinking it was a fluke. We imagined what kind of wave it must have been to rock that massive boat.

Then, it kept going.

We stopped playing ping pong once the ball kept dropping off the table as the boat shifted. As we walked along the edge of the boat back to our room, we could see the waves starting to pick up speed and intensity, despite the clear sky above.

During dinner, my eyes were glued to the window. At this point, it was impossible to walk in a straight line on the ship, which was constantly being shaken by the waves. Drinks were spilled, food was dropped, and waiters came only when absolutely necessary to avoid falling over completely.

After dinner, we all went out on the deck of the ship.

It was then that I lost my cool. Looking out over the rough waters, my searching eyes could no longer find any sort of horizon. The waves were pounding the side of the ship so hard we couldn’t hear each other speak at all. With all of my two days of boating experience, I was certain we were going to sink, and the thought of drowning in the freezing water like terrified me.

We went back inside, and went to a watch a movie. Well, as it turns out, I also get sea sick pretty easily. Not only was I terrified, but I also felt terrible and basically ruined everyone’s night. I took some Dramamine and tried to sleep, sure that we were going to sink as I did so.

The next morning, though, we had made it through the strait and were sailing smoothly along the coast of northern Alaska. When we went back out on the deck, the waters were glassy and smooth. It was like the chaos of the previous night was just a bad dream, or a figment of my imagination. I, of course, was super embarrassed that I had panicked so much.

The worst part is that the whole time we were sailing in totally perfect weather. There was no storm, and even if there had been, my initial assessment of the cruise ship was correct: it would take some pretty impressive, even unnatural, forces to bring that boat down. A patch of rough seas had nothing on it, and I felt really stupid.

Since then, I’ve been on smaller boats, and my terror always comes flooding back. I am hesitant to step foot on any boat since then. I hated feeling so helpless, so unable to fix the problem. I hated feeling like I was going to be thrown into the sea by the force of the waves. I hated the thought of drowning. I hated the chaos that surrounded the boat and seemed to threaten our lives.

This is a pretty common fear. Drowning is a terrifying way to die. Even though it is said that the few moments before dying from drowning are very peaceful, I imagine that the many moments before the last ones are absolutely miserable.

It is this same fear of drowning that the disciples experienced just after they had begun following Jesus.

The story about how Jesus first recruited his disciples is honestly pretty ridiculous. Mostly, he just walked up to them, asked them to follow him, and told them they would fish for people together.

If some stranger came up to me and told me to leave everything I own and everyone I know to come and follow him around so that I could “fish for people” with him, I would absolutely not listen, and I might call the authorites, concerned that someone actually used the words “fish for people.”

But, for whatever reason, this rag tag group of fisherman decided to follow Jesus. Along the way they picked up a tax collector, and a religious fanatic, too. Altogether, they were a pretty strange bunch: a carpenter, some fisherman, a tax collector, and a Zealot.

Most of the disciples, then, were used to sailing. They would have weathered storms before; they would know what it would take to sink a boat.

We come upon the disciples, unsurprisingly, in a boat. You’ve probably heard this one before, or at least some version of it. It happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after he had retreated into the wilderness. After his forty days alone in the desert, he had just begun preaching and teaching and healing in the countryside around the Sea of Galilee. People had started to follow Jesus and his disciples around, and as often happened, he decided to cross the Sea in a boat to travel to the other side, in part to escape the crowd and also in part teach and preach on the other side too.

It says:

When evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” – Mark 4:35-41

“Who is this?” That’s a very good question, disciples.

So these fishermen follow this stranger, listen to him preach and teach, watch him perform miracles, and then travel with him across the sea. At this point, they probably felt like they had a good handle on Jesus. They knew him now. They knew what he liked to eat, and how fast he walked, and what his laugh sounded like. They knew he got sleepy when they sailed for awhile, and they knew he was something special.

They found themselves stuck on a very small boat in the middle of a very large storm.

Listen, I was on a cruise ship. They were on a boat that was maybe the size of my living room. I can’t imagine how crazy it must have been, crammed into a tiny fishing boat like that, certain that a violent storm was going to kill them all.

And, to make matters worse, as these experienced fishermen freaked out, Jesus was sleeping.

The disciples woke him up and yelled at him. “Don’t you care that we are all going die?” They asked. “How can you be sleeping right now?” A valid question, to be sure.

So when the sea threatened to overtake their ship, the disciples rightfully panicked. Not only were they fishermen who knew what it would take to sink their small boat, they were also people who were terrified of the chaos of the water. They didn’t know what was beneath the surface of the threatening waves, and it terrified them to think they might be thrown into the water and drowned.

They were terrified and Jesus was asleep. You can understand now why this was so ridiculous. Here, the chaos of death was about to overtake them, and Jesus was napping.

So, when he stood up, rebuked the wind and the waves, said “Peace! Be still,” and the storm stopped as if it had never happened, the disciples were rightly amazed (and maybe even afraid).

See, while the Ancient Jews believed water was full of chaos and death, they also believed that God had control over water. In the very beginning, in Genesis 1, it says that God created the earth out of a formless void, out of a deep, chaotic body of water. So, they believed, when God created the earth, God put the chaotic waters in their places and dominated them. The world was created out of the chaos of water, and God gave order to the world. It was God who calmed the waves.

When Jesus stood up, spoke a word, calmed the storm, and sat down, the disciples asked, “Who is this man?” And perhaps they started to wonder if he was even a man at all.

They had already seen his miracles; they had already heard his message. But now they saw his authority and his power. Who is this man who naps in the face of certain death, who says three words and ends a storm, who heals the sick and gives sight to the blind and raises the dead? Who is the man who calls out the religious authorities in public and turns over tables in the temple? Who is this man?

That is the question, isn’t it.

From our perspective, their question seems a little obvious. Duh. He’s the Son of God. He’s Jesus, God Incarnate.

But remember that the disciples don’t have the benefit of the rest of the story. They don’t know about the cross, the resurrection, the church, the Holy Spirit, and everything else that has happened in our world since then. They don’t know about the way God has worked for the salvation of humanity like we do. They don’t know Jesus like we do.

See, this man who calms the storm is Jesus. This is who Jesus is. This is what Jesus does. In the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus speaks calm and peace. When it feels like we are about to sink in the waves of the messes we have made, Jesus extends his hand, and everything is still. When we have done our worst, when we have disobeyed God in all the ways we could think of, and when what we deserve is the chaos of death, Jesus brings power and new life.

Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?

He is Yahweh, the one who spoke the world into existence from out of the the waters of chaos. He is the Lord, the one who delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt between the parted waters of the Red Sea. He is the Deliverer, the one who lead the people to the land of promise through the waters of the Jordan River. He is Immanuel, the one born in the waters of Mary’s womb. He is the Son, the one newly christened with the waters of baptism, with whom God is well pleased. He is the Creator, the one who says “Peace, be still,” and makes the waters calm. And He is God, who will one day wipe the waters of tears from our eyes when all things will be made new.


“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'” – Revelation 21:3-5

Grace and peace,

Amanda