Sunday, April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday - The Victory Not Yet Seen

Fear v celebration

Of all Christian holy days, Palm Sunday has a distinctive emotional note: the triumph celebrated before the battle, with the people anticipating a very different battle than what was fought on Good Friday. When the time came, Good Friday looked like an irretrievable defeat. Only the later event of Jesus' resurrection revealed it as the most enduring victory of the ages.

The people expected a different battle, a worldly battle that they saw as a proxy for the spiritual one. The week definitely brought worldly political maneuvering: betrayals, in-fighting, favor-trading, posturing, even a CYA move by Pontius Pilate that still couldn't quite hide the fact that everyone's hands were dirty. Even among the "leaders of the light", the battle lines ran down the middle of the human heart. The fight that mattered saw Judas betraying, Mark (as tradition has it) fleeing, Peter talking a good game when he was safe but then before the night was done weeping in shame. Even the best of us aren't saviors. As far as the political fight, God had other plans. He was accomplishing a far larger victory than they had imagined.

Jesus' death looked like an irreversible defeat. Isn't death the ultimate irreversible defeat? By Friday night, the original Palm Sunday parade might have looked like nothing but a farce. The victory was not yet seen; the defeat seemed the obvious thing. The disciples were behind locked doors, hiding in fear.

We can find ourselves in a similar situation: where by outward appearances faith is foolish, celebration either naive or in bad taste. Palm Sunday leaves me with just one question this year: do we trust in the victory not yet seen? In some ways, Palm Sunday is the day that is most like where we are in the sweep of history: we have seen the savior, and we celebrate his coming even if we treasure our own personal interpretations of his agenda. But God's plans never take the easy way, and accomplish a larger victory than we image.

Are we willing to celebrate the victory not yet seen? Here's to a foretaste of the feast to come.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Athletic Contest Sponsored by Manufacturer of Flu-Deterrent Device

For those trying to balance between flu safety and staying active, the first model of the Ambulatory Protective Room (APR-1) is now available.

To introduce it to the market, the manufacturer is sponsoring a contest in which participants cross a park and local creek in the mobile exercise gym. The main competition is for the fastest completion of the course:
3rd place: $250
2nd place: $500
1st place: 12-pack of toilet paper
There is an additional side contest of gymnastics, scored based on number of cartwheels while completing the course. Only registered, intentional gymnasts are eligible for the gymnastics prize.

Public-Service Announcement for Scam Prevention Service

In the current telemarketing environment, still having a land-line can be a liability. Fraudulent calls may now comprise a larger share of network traffic than even relatively-legitimate marketing campaigns. One enterprising consumer-protection bureau has devised a defense: their new scam prevention service provides answering-machine recordings specially designed to filter out spam-and-scam calls.

"Up until recently, our most popular download has been the out-of-service tone. When an automated call hears that tone on your answering machine's message, it disconnects," said Paul Smisher, a spokesman for the service. "Just incorporate the sound into your recording and robocalls disappear." Since appointment-reminders are also caught up in the robocall purge, the former hot download has now been replaced. "The current favorite is a message which makes most human scammers hang up in search of less-aware targets. Our customer reviews are full of stories of how gratifying it is to hear the aspiring fraudsters hang up while listening to the recording." The new leader for first-line defense is now the following recording:
Please listen closely as the menu options have changed.
If you are pretending to be from the IRS, please press 1.
If you are claiming that I have a student loan, please press 2.
If you are impersonating a deposed Nigerian prince, please press 3.
For all other frauds and scams, please press 4.
If you are family, friend, or have legitimate business, please leave a message. 
These and more messages are available from Anti-Phishing Recordings 1 (APR-1).

This post was scheduled long before the current virus threat. I figured people could still use a break in the tension.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

God's Providence

This continues the Lent reflections on trusting God in tough times. 

There was a time a couple of years ago when there was a family crisis. My brother was having a serious life-threatening problem, and as I rearranged my schedule to see him that day I had to make a choice of what to do in the brief time before I could see him: a choice between a support group meeting and dinner. I chose the support group meeting, which is generally out-of-character for me; I don't skip meals. But with the stress, I wasn't sure of my stomach anyway. When I got to the support group meeting, one of the other members had made and brought a batch of soup. It wasn't just any soup, it was broccoli cheese soup which is probably my favorite soup. So there I was, having worried about missing a meal, having made a tough call about priorities -- and what I needed was provided. I'd never heard of anyone bringing a meal to that meeting before or since. But the one night I needed it, it was there.

That is not the only time I've seen things provided when I needed them, but one anecdote will do for tonight. Remembering those times helps me focus on what is important, and trust that not everything is up to me.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Cast your cares on him

This continues my Lenten meditations on the peace of God in the face of human fear. 

"Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:6-7)

I've often thought of this verse as referring only to prayer: that in prayer, I can cast my cares on God because he cares for us. Again, there is the reassurance of God's care for us, which anchors our prayers. Without belief in God's compassion, in God's mercy and loving kindness, there is no reason to pray.

And while those are good prayers, Peter wasn't necessarily talking about prayer alone. I find myself praying at certain times of the day, the worries and cares do not limit themselves to those times. "Pray without ceasing" as they say, but when worry seeps into my mind, I may want to let that be my prompt: "Take this. It's out of my control."

When I picked "addressing fear" as my Lenten meditation, I didn't have a clear picture of just what this spring would bring. I thought I would be working on my tendency to stress. As it turns out, I find it very stressful to have to wait in long lines to get into a grocery store where a number of the shelves are empty anyway. There was a "food insecurity" time in my life, years ago (a polite phrase for not knowing where my next meal was coming from or even what day it would be). And yet there was an act of God's particular providence where, after all, I didn't go hungry. And still there is a temptation to fear now.

I've often heard sermons about the Israelites in the desert, doubting God even after all he had done, sermons that call us to be sure of one thing: in their place we would have been no different. Even after seeing his deliverance, even while enjoying his providence, the people were still moved to fear. We are dust, therefore we fear: we know exactly how frail we are. And yet God loves us. We cast our cares on him for one reason: he cares for us. The thing is to keep my mind fixed more firmly on that.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

"Fear not" when the Messiah comes

The Gospel of Luke introduces the gospel first through the eyes of the people who would be involved in the earliest stages: Zechariah, Mary, and later some shepherds who were nearby when Jesus was born. In each case, God's angel announces "Fear not;" in each case, the angel gives them a reason to hope instead of fear.
"Fear not, Zechariah: your prayer has been heard" (Luke 1:13)
"Fear not, Mary; you have found favor with God" (Luke 1:30)
"Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people" (Luke 2:10)
"Your prayer has been heard." How many years had Zechariah prayed? (Had he stopped praying?) I know the feeling of sadness, grief, and fear when I think a prayer is not heard. The angel told Zechariah not to fear: God was listening.

"You have found favor with God." Have I offended God? Have I disappointed God? Am I too often in need of forgiveness? Lent brings a new covenant, one of forgiveness, a covenant of God's favor and mercy. Think what you will about the legends of Mary's sinlessless; God's favor is not only for the sinless. And so he establishes a covenant of forgiveness.

"I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people." We've got enough bad news. People go out of their way to find bad news, or cast news in a bad light. And good news for one person is often bad news for another. The good wins. Because God is merciful, because God is loving, good wins.

So when Jesus first came in human form, the announcement "Fear not" is good news. We see three times where people are given reason to celebrate because of what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Perfect love drives out fear

Continuing the Lenten meditations

This week my Lenten meditations have focused on the teaching "Perfect love drives out fear." I have mainly considered it from this angle: if someone loves us then their love for us will overcome our fear of them.

Love overcomes fear by its benefits toward the one who is loved. Love treats the beloved with patience and kindness, with compassion and care. Love creates a sanctuary for the beloved, a solid foundation, a refuge. If someone is loved, under healthy circumstances there is a tangible increase in the well-being of the beloved.

First for my tendency toward fear, I recognize the role that I grew up in a home that was not safe, where the children lived in chronic fear. The fear was precisely because of the lack of genuine love. Real love would have meant safety and welcome. Real love would have meant there was typically no cause to fear. The people whom I have feared, the common thread is a lack of love -- sometimes disguised with a pretense of it but without its necessary attendants of compassion and respect.

So as an adult, what do I make of "Perfect love drives out fear"? In smaller things, it means that I can set aside anxiety and fear when dealing specifically with people who are loving toward me. And yet outside that scope, large parts of the culture are hostile and hateful toward me or toward groups which include me; I often feel unsafe and unwelcome in the culture in which I live. Within that context I have some safe havens, generally associated with either my religion of choice or support groups with an official policy of taking no stand on outside issues.

The challenge for me is to carry the love of God with me, to drive out fear even among people who are hostile toward me. That challenge is still a work in progress. In Lent, we observe the 40 days in which Jesus set out toward Jerusalem -- during which time some of the religious leaders began to announce their intent to have him executed in Jerusalem: "hostile territory" in the extreme. He shows his sense of mission, a determination to love and to treat other people from love, even recognizing that it did not guarantee his safety. One of my own hesitations is that I want to enjoy my fearless moments when I am safe. And yet that leaves me, in some ways, restricted by other peoples' hatred and hostility.

I am glad that Lent is a journey, leaving more time for growth. I am not yet where I want to be.