Brussels: Living in a Good Friday World

More than 30 people are dead and more than 200 are wounded after explosions struck Brussels during the Tuesday morning rush hour. Two blasts hit the international airport; another struck a metro station. The city is in a state of emergency. Residents and visitors are told to ‘shelter in place’. ISIS has taken credit for this atrocity.

We in the United States watch this horrific story unfold and our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We recognize that such senseless terrorism can come to any of us. I think of my daughter, a college student, who in January spent a week living and working in Brussels. She told us how beautiful Brussels is and how friendly the people. She arrived at the same airport and rode the same subway that were bombed this morning. It could have been my daughter, your child, anyone of us caught up in this tragic story.

bombing in brussels

The world has always known violence. The 24 hour news cycle brings tragedies before us in quick secession. We feel overwhelmed, frightened, even numb. What then, if anything, are we to do? In this political season some would have us isolate from the world and build bigger walls. Others would have us respond to the violence of ISIS with violence of our own. An eye for an eye.

Is there any hope? Any way forward that does not lead to more suffering, create greater fear?

We reflect on such questions during this Holy Week in the Christian calendar. This week we remember how Jesus was betrayed, arrested and on Good Friday crucified by the Empire of Rome. On that Friday 2000 years ago a reasonable observer would have thought that the forces of violence and revenge had won. That death was the final word.

In the aftermath of today’s bombings in Brussels we too may be thinking that hatred, terrorism, fear and death have won.

Holy Week for Christian’s begins with these words of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem for the last time: ‘As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19: 41,42)

What is this way of peace that Jesus speaks of? In my tradition it is the way of forgiveness. Later that week, Jesus would look upon those who betrayed and crucified him with these words: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”

My tradition tells me that three days later on Easter morning, the risen Christ was seen and touched. Whether you take this metaphorically or literally, the Easter story affirms this truth: That neither violence, fear or even death will have the last word…On that first Easter love expressed in forgiveness had and has the final word.

It’s been said: ‘We are called to be Easter people, living in a Good Friday world’. Whether you are Christian or not, believer or skeptic, we are invited to claim this truth that evil will never have the final word.

We think of Pope Francis washing the feet of homeless children (Muslim and Christian) in Rome. A reminder that love has no boundaries, no limits. Each of us are invited, challenged to put love into practice. To offer an alternative to retribution and fear. What forgiveness are you prepared to offer? Who are you called to embrace? What stranger (who makes you uncomfortable ) are you called to befriend?

Pope washing feet of youth

Today and in the days to come the prayers and love of millions of many faiths and no particular faith will be with the people of Belgium. In time, ISIS will be a footnote of history. And the story of love’s capacity to persevere and guide our shared path, will continue to be told.

Love wins. It is the only force that can.

Domesticating Jesus

Here’s a provocative quote by the Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr:

photo Rohr quote

Rohr challenges the tendency of the Christian church to domesticate the story and witness of Jesus. Some would say its been all downhill since 300 AD when Emperor Constantine had his battlefield conversion to Christ. With that conversion he merged the trappings of empire with the Christian story. Thus began a cyclical process of each generation coopting the way of Jesus to meet their own needs.

We see this with today’s Prosperity Gospel movement which teaches that God desires to bless us with material wealth and happiness. Joel Osteen the pastor of a mega church in Texas, marries this promise of personal wealth, health and happiness with the veneer of being a Christ follower.

In this presidential primary we see politician’s using their faith to support a political agenda. We have so called Christians calling for the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and ‘carpet bombing’ entire cities in Syria to root out terrorists.

Reading the story and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, we see that his words stand in stark contrast to this tendency to domesticate. And of course, for people like me, who pastor churches it is also clear that I/we too contribute to this process of domestication. More times than I care to think about, I/we too have pulled away from the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings.

‘To walk in the way of Jesus’ says Richard Rohr, ‘is to enter upon a journey of transformation’. Transformation not only of me as a person but a call for the church to be a vehicle for transforming society.

This path of transformation as lived and taught by Jesus is a journey of servant-hood towards those on the margins, forgotten, oppressed. It’s about giving up control and allowing the way of Jesus to guide our path regardless of the costly places it takes us. The way of Jesus is the antithesis of the ‘prosperity gospel’ and politicians who would condemn or cast out. The antithesis of liberals who want to pick and choose when and where to get involved.

Says Rohr: ‘We made Jesus into a mere Religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else.’ It isn’t rocket science to understand the way of Jesus…but it also isn’t easy. Pope Francis understands this temptation to domesticate. On his recent trip to Mexico he challenged bishops and politicians to repent from their worship of power and privilege. He calls each of us to recommit to this paradoxical journey, ‘where the last will be first’ and ‘the humble servant becomes great’.

Imagine.

Scandal

In John’s Gospel we hear:

‘Jesus knew that God had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’

This story presents a great scandal of the Christian faith. That Jesus the Son of God humbled himself and took on the role of a servant. As a servant he stripped off his robe and in his underpants knelt down to bathe and dry the feet of his followers.

Peter didn’t want Jesus to do it. In part I suspect because Peter realized that he would be asked to do the same for others.

There is something particularly intimate and humbling about kneeling at the feet of another, washing their dirty, smelly feet. There is something particularly unsettling about Jesus the Christ serving in such a way.

Last Good Friday Pope Francis created controversy when he visited a shelter for youth living on the streets of Rome. As with Jesus the Pope kneeled down, washed and kissed the feet of the young people. The controversy was heightened when Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a girl and a Muslim boy. He was rebuked by some in the Church because it was so ‘unseemly’.

Pope washing feet of youth

Pope Francis is being embraced within and beyond the Christian tradition because he understands the scandal of Jesus. He understands that God came in humility to show us how to live by showing us how to love. In Jesus we learn that compassion has come not just for some but for everyone, those who are like us and those who are different.

There’s something profoundly unsettling that God’s own child would come to serve in this most humble of ways. The great paradox of the way of Jesus is that the path to spiritual enlightenment comes only through a life of humility and service. Its a great mystery that we find our self as we give our self away.

As always the opportunity to serve and find is extended to you and me. May the scandal of Holy Week continue to unsettle and inspire.

Praying for Francis

Pope FrancisWith white smoke rising over the Vatican 1.2 billion Roman Catholics welcomed  Cardinal Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina as their new Pope.   

A theological conservative, Cardinal Bergoglio is also known for his compassion — a combination reminiscent of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador or Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. In Buenos Aires, the cardinal showed real compassion for HIV victims, and he sternly rebuked priests who refused to baptize children born out-of-wedlock.  There are also reports of the new pope being a “bridge builder” between Jesuits and other orders and, more widely, between conservatives and liberals in the church. How welcome that would be.

As the first Pope from South American, I am impressed by his sensitivity towards the poor and the world’s massive inequality — from the perspective of one of the world’s poorest places.

“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” said Bergoglio at a 2007 Latin American bishops meeting, according to National Catholic Reporter. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

Reflecting this sensitivity the new Pope has chosen the name Francis.  His namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi refused the trappings of power and possessions and chose to enter into deep solidarity with the poor, forgotten, oppressed.  In his famous prayer he asked that he become ‘an instrument of peace’.

When he spoke to the welcoming crowd, the first act of Pope Francis was to ask for their prayers.   As a Christian from the Baptist tradition I add my prayers to those of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.   I pray that this Pope will be a moral leader not only for the Roman Catholic community but for Christians from all traditions.  Indeed, may this Pope use his calling to build bridges of understanding and common cause among all the faiths of the world, particularly for the sake of those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 25: 31 – 46) 

There are many expectations placed upon Pope Francis.  With God’s help and the prayers of the world family we can only be hopeful.  In choosing the name of Francis, the Prince of the Poor, he is off to a good start.  “May God bless Pope Francis.  Amen.”