“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Every year on Ash Wednesday, I seek out some member of the clergy to say those words to me. They come from the curse of mankind in Genesis 3, but I find blessing in hearing them in the tale of the loving purposes of God.
Displayed over a blurred image of Osama bin Laden, the headline on the cover of The New York Times Magazine for October 18 reads, “Do we really know the truth about his death? The mysteries of Attobad.”
Weirdly, the article is not an investigation of the truth about bin Laden’s death — it’s an investigation of other investigations. Jonathan Mahler decided to report on two competing narratives about the raid in Abbottabad. His article is a soul-searching reflection on how we can know which version of events is true, or if the truth about our government’s actions can ever be known at all.
After reading his article, it’s fair to wonder if we ever will. If our concern is to learn the facts of the raid, we may easily get lost in a tangle of facts and lies. But that is a truth in itself — a truth of how violence works to destroy the truth.
We need to state the obvious here: the subject of all this reporting is a death by violence. The subject of this story is not the truth. The subject is violence itself.
I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??
That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.
I spent last Saturday walking around Anthem, Ariz. It’s a strip of outlet malls and a Wal-Mart 30 miles north of Phoenix in the desert, and it’s as bad as it sounds. It’s hot and boring, and I was walking around all day because my new truck was broken and the mechanic wasn’t going to get to it until Monday. And it was going to cost $1,600 … which I don’t have. So I walked around and felt miserable and it sucked in a Big Way.
Saturday night my friend drove 30 miles to come and pick me up. He let me eat dinner at his house, and his mom made steak and it was delicious. I got a ride back home with some other friends that night, and for the rest of the weekend, I was driven around by my girlfriend. In addition to this, my family lent me money. Some family gave me money. I was stranded in Anthem, Ariz., where I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any money in my bank account and I was worried and bored and scared, and maybe I cried a little bit. But I talked to my family and my friends on the phone and they helped me. They cared for me. And they are still caring for me.
I don’t have a hard life and I’m grateful for that, but in this time of mini-crisis, the people who love me have gone out of their way to care of me. They’ve asked me exactly what I needed and given it to me without thinking twice. In some cases, they’ve seen that I’m too proud (or stupid) to ask for what I need and given it to me anyway. And it has punched me in the stomach. It is humbling and it is touching, and it makes me want to be a better person.
You see, Christian brothers and sisters, that’s what caring looks like.
Recently, a large wealthy church decided to break up with my denomination. I’m not 100 percent sure I know why. But the no-regrets explanation they wrote implied that religious differences between us were too severe for them to stay committed to our relationship.
Religion has a way of making people do extraordinary things to create peace and unity. It also, as we know well, has a destructive capacity to turn people against one another. It can make us grip our convictions so tightly that we choke out their life. We chase others away, then say “Good riddance” to soothe the pain of the separation. Even more alarming, too many religious people insist on isolating themselves and limiting their imagination about where and how God can be known.
All these realities take on a sad irony when we read about God promising to be outside the walls, present with different people in different places. What does it look like when God defies the restrictions we presume are in place?
One Sunday morning, I was facilitating a discussion with the teenagers in my small group. The students were engaged. Most of them voiced their opinions. Some of them even backed their views up with Scripture. Others defended their stance based on personal experience. The discussion was going well, but we had veered so far off course that I wasn't sure how to make our way back to the original topic. Usually this didn't bother me, because those seemed to be the times their perspectives were broadened the most. But I could see things were beginning to get heated. The students were divided and beginning to make things personal.
I interrupted the students in hopes of bringing them back to the point at hand. It didn't help. The open dialogue on truth had taken a turn for the worse. It was now a full on assault in which denominational pride resorted to church bashing and religion hating. I knew that if I didn't intervene soon, all hell would break loose — the Crusades would be re-birthed and someone might get burned at the stake. After a while, my frustration got the best of me and I opened my mouth long enough to let a few unfiltered words fly. No, I didn't yell, swear at them, or lose my temper in any manner. Had that been the case, I'm sure the backlash would have been much quicker and less severe.
There, in the middle of what used to be the sanctuary, I told that small group of teenagers they could find truth in the Qur'an.