Occasionally I guest blog elsewhere. Here’s my latest post for the Biblical Gender Equality Blog for the ECC — The Women Who Follow Jesus.
I’m working with our worship pastor to shape our Good Friday service. We are using a series of dramatic readings, shaped from the Gospel of John, to tell the story of Christ’s last days. I was looking for a responsive reading that would work well after Peter’s denial of Jesus in John 18:15-27. Despite many online resources, I couldn’t seem to find what I was looking for. So I created something new, borrowing from something old.
This responsive reading is simply built; it’s snippets of conversation between Jesus and Peter, taken from all four gospels. It’s designed so that the congregation walks in Peter’s sandals as he follows Jesus. In one minute, the reading reflects three years of discipleship. I want the congregation to connect with the idea that we are all like Peter. Our lives are full of moments of passionate belief followed by doubt, fear, confusion, and passionate denial. You are welcome to use this as you will.
Leader: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.
People: I will follow you.
Leader: Who do you say that I am?
People: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!
Leader: No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. Will you go away like the others?
People: Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Leader: I must wash your feet.
People: Lord, you shall never wash my feet.
Leader: If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.
People: Lord, not just my feet – wash my hands and head too!
Leader: I must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed and raised on the third day.
People: No, Lord! This will never happen to you!
Leader: If anyone wants to come with me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
People: I will follow you. I will lay down my life for you.
Leader: Tonight all of you will run away because of me.
People: Even if everyone runs away because of you, I will never run away!
Leader: Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.
People: Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!
Leader: Weren’t you with Jesus the Galilean?
People: I don’t know what you mean.
Leader: Yes, you are with Jesus of Nazareth!
People: I don’t know the man.
Leader: I am sure you are one of his disciples.
People: I am not!
I often cringe at the strange things we Christians say and do in the name of Jesus. You’ve probably seen a bumper sticker that says, “Honk if you love Jesus.” That’s the kind of thing that makes me roll my eyes. Last week on my commute I passed a car with this message stuck to the bumper, “Any fool can honk. If you love Jesus, do justice.” This second sticker made me so happy I almost honked!
There’s something new that has been bothering me lately. Everywhere I go these days I hear believers praying the word just. With this word I’d expect insignificant requests. The word just makes me think of a young child whining to his parents, “It’s just an ice cream cone” or, “I just want my toy back.”
But it seems that everywhere I go I hear Christians praying like this —
“God, would you just fill us with your Spirit so we can…”
“God, will you just heal my mother’s cancer…”
“God, I just ask that you would fix this marriage…”
“God, I just need you lead me toward the right job…”
Only worshippers of a powerful, attentive and personal God pray for big things like God’s presence, miraculous healing, and rescue from untenable circumstances. So why do so many of us litter our prayers with a word that, in this context, means only, merely or simply? Why are we praying for mighty acts using limp language?
Now, if we were to say – “Lord, be just and topple the drug lords” or “God, pour out just acts for those who cannot protect themselves,” – I’d not protest. Unfortunately, our just prayers minimize and contradict the content of our requests.
Imagine being granted a private audience with the President to request funds that would alleviate a major problem in our city. Knowing this is a significant opportunity, you prepare your pitch carefully. Would you go before the President and say, “Sir, we don’t need much to fix our city, just one hundred million dollars”? I imagine not.
So why do we go before the God who has promised to provide for us in our need, the Almighty God, and ask him to just do this or that?
Why do we go before God with our hands stretched out to receive but our language tentative?
Ephesians 3:10-12 says, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (NIV, emphasis mine)
What we’ve translated as freedom is a Greek word that is a freedom of speech. It means to speak openly and frankly, without ambiguity. It can also be well translated as “boldness” or “assurance.”
Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, emphasis mine) When he ascended to heaven Jesus left his friends in charge of spreading the good news he had shown them. He gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide, convict and inspire them along the way. These friends had no need for a Moses to speak for them or a high priest to be their intermediary. These friends were the beloved children of God with direct access to their Father.
We are they who are charged to take the gospel to the world.
We are they who have direct access to the God who can heal every disease with a word.
We are the heirs of the God of creation and redemption, the God of miracles.
Our prayer should flow out of our identity. There is no need for us to just ask for anything. Friends of Jesus should pray boldly, not weakly. Beloved children of God should pray intimately, with assurance, not with lazy language.
If you are a friend of Jesus, a child of God, then don’t just pray.
It’s late in the evening of Holy Saturday, 2012. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life, so this day, though holy, is often just a blip between the utter desolation of Jesus’ death and ecstatic joy of his resurrection. I surely miss out on this significant day because I know what’s coming. I’ve already celebrated the end of the Easter story and danced in the redemption of the coming days. But my dear friend and fellow blogger Stacey Gleddiesmith, as she reflects on the wisdom of Joan Chittister, reminds me that Holy Saturday is important because it is the day when all our dreams have died, but a day when we can grow in hope. (Read her fabulous post at http://thinkingworship.com) Challenged by Stacey and Joan, I let my imagination unfurl into a different time and place…
It’s year 33 and I am a young disciple of the newest Messiah figure, this one called Jesus, who is just a few years into what looks like a campaign for king. I have been wandering around the hot desert for months with a carpenter-turned-rabbi who, though he speaks with an authority I had never heard in the synagogue, makes some wildly outrageous (and provocative) claims about the kingdom of God. A kingdom he could almost literally conjure before my eyes through his riveting stories. (It’s like he’s actually been to this wondrous places before. I can almost smell the feast he describes floating on the back of the Galilean wind.) Jesus’ teaching stirs parts of my soul that have laid as fallow as my father’s field during the sabbath year. I left my family, my village, my security, to follow this man on a path toward an elusive hope, the hope that life might actually be more than the drudgery I’ve lived. When I left, my friends called me a fool, my mother wept and my father roughly turned his back.
As I followed Jesus, I discovered a man with a passionate spirit who both perplexes and comforts me with his daily teaching on a kingdom that has no end. A gentle radical who constructs images of a Godly kingdom (and I’ve lived the opposite) where children are praised for their faith and women are welcomed into the master’s circle. A kingdom where I can lay down the burden of my shame (and believe me, my soul’s more spotted than the cheapest bird you could by in the Temple courts) and instead take up a yoke so different from this law that I can never fulfill. Jesus tells me not to worry, because he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, and when he says this, something in me…releases. My new master tells me that I will know the truth and it will free me. God, how I’ve hungered for truth, for freedom!
Throughout the months I was with him, Jesus talked a lot about his father, one so different from my own, a king who rushes to embrace the returning children who abandoned him to chase their own pleasures. Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world, the bread of life, the way, the truth, the resurrection and the life. Even though I didn’t understand everything he said – his stories, his power to heal, his vision for a new kingdom of peace and love and justice, his shalom-filled welcome of the outcasts among us – these things slowly unwound the tight knots of pain and fear in my gut.
Something new was born in me as I followed my dusty rabbi. It’s hard to describe, but deep in me, where I used to feel shame burning holes in my soul, there was a mending. A burgeoning courage to live a new way. And the closest I’ve ever come assurance. By the end I was a believer in this new kingdom, a devotee of its good, loving king, and an avid disciple of Jesus, this prince among men.
But then Jesus was arrested. Convicted. Whipped. Crucified. Stripped. Punctured. Ridiculed. Abandoned.
I did that. Well, not all of it, just the last part. I abandoned Jesus, but to me that single crime is just as bad as all the rest put together. I didn’t stay to see the end, or even much of the middle. (What I know about Jesus’ death, I learned from passersby.) For all my new hope, the courage that was beginning to shine within me, the wisdom I’d learned at Jesus’ feet, I ran away shortly after I saw blood. And now I lay here in the dirt, in the exact spot where I collapsed last night, exhausted after my flight from Golgotha. I’m so endlessly tired from crying. Wrecked from the confusion about what happened. This crater of loss sucks me inside out. What kind of disciple was I to run away when things got hot?
But what kind of rabbi – what kind of prince – what kind of Messiah dies like that?
I lay under a withered fig tree along the side of a road that leads nowhere. This mouth that Jesus once filled with bread and fish and cool water is now gritty and putrified with dirt and shame. Jesus made me feel such hope. Following him made me feel so…vital, like I was living for the first time. Now I lay here an empty shell. This is worse than all those years of drudgery back home. This is nothingness.
I laid in the dirt for hours. Silent. Sullen. Hollow. Despondent. Fearful. It was so dark but I didn’t care if the sun never rose again. But then somewhere, deep in that pit that held me captive, I heard a whisper.
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Between each whisper I feel the thump of my heart, tacky and faint, but there. I’m still alive. I want to live, I realize. I want to live the life that Jesus sketched in the sand of my country. He said he was the resurrection. I never understood that. But, what if? Slowly, I push myself up on my elbows. With my hands gripping clumps of dirt, I look toward the horizon. I wait, wondering.
Where is the light of the world?
Where is the resurrection and the life?
As light slowly hems the eastern hills, a morsel of warmth dawns within me and begins to spread. Curious, I push to my feet. The sun is rising and I have this uncanny feeling that today will bring…I don’t know quite what. But something, something more than this roadside grave I’ve made for myself. Hoping he is who he said he is, I turn back to Jerusalem, and begin to run.