There Is So Much Beauty Left

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Seeing the “Dumpster Fire” of These Days in a Different Light

We love a good renovation story. 

Take Fixer Upper. Given its influence and unprecedented resonance with so many people, you almost recognize a spiritual quality when the Gaines take an unsuspecting home owner through a total trash heap, and Joanna, through the magic of television, shows us that the shanty is a homestead in the making.  Our hearts leap a little bit at the thought that what once was broken can be made new again, as long as you can afford a hundred thousand dollars worth of remodeling and custom furniture.

It’s a little personal, really. We all (the older we get) feel a little bit like tired out old shells who’ve not been kept up as well as we could or should have.  We want for someone to come through with a “coat of paint” and a vision and show us that all our “character” is actually beauty in the making.  We are all a little bent around the edges and have too many dings in our finishes to sand away entirely.  We desperately hope that someone will see our saggy porch and call it glorious, stick a stint under our foundations during the commercial break, and suddenly make all the crooked places square.

We desperately hope that someone will see our saggy porch and call it glorious, stick a stint under our foundations during the commercial break, and suddenly make all the crooked places square.

We want Chip’s goofy optimism or Joanna’s artful vision to make something of us, if not our hearts than our living rooms at least.  We want someone to come into our mess of a world and say, “It’s ugly as hell, but with a little work there’s still some beauty left!”

All of this preaches rather well, and certainly could earn itself an altar call at the end of this essay.  But we’ve been around the block.  We’ve seen the shoddy curb appeal. (Apparently this metaphor won’t let go.) We’ve seen that when the staged furniture goes back to the factory and our kids’ toys take over the front yard and we stop trimming the hedge, that the brokenness settles back in all too quickly.

We start to see that we are not so easily saved, not just personally, but communally and culturally as well.

We’ve all seen this in living color in the halls of our institutions and in the whispers around the water cooler these past weeks.  We’ve seen people of faith tear into each other on Twitter.  We’ve seen so-called leaders of the faith weaponize people’s pain.  We’ve seen the known suffering of hundreds of thousands treated as an afterthought in the critical process of doling out power to people who are accustomed to power.

We’ve seen America, a place for many held up as a bastion of the irrepressible spirit of self-renovation, show its age.  Slavery may be the original sin of the United States, but misogyny is in there, too.  We’ve seen the religiously vocal of left and right, lay claim to the glory of “Rome” and the power that it bestows, abandoning the true power of sacrificial love.  The front porch of American exceptionalism sags on the northeast side, and the wear and tear of too many elephants and donkeys have ruined the front yard. 

For some, the western world as we know it is ablaze.  “A dumpster fire,” they say. 

THE RELIGION PROJECT

When hope is only allowed with an accompanying action plan, we are permanently lost.

But let’s be honest.  Most of you reading this are not leveraging your fame.  And you may not be particularly enflamed by the endless rhetoric crossing the Interwebs.  But we’re all in the fire in some way.  Maybe we couldn’t peel our eyes away from the Kavanaugh hearings.  Maybe we follow some fired up folks on Twitter.  Maybe we struggle to converse with our teenage kids about these topics, for fear of drawing them into the drama.  And nearly everyone I know, of every political persuasion, of every religious or non-religious position have wondered for a moment, “How did we come to this?”

We feel, rightly or wrongly, that we are wandering through one of those old fixer uppers.  Someone is whispering about how the place has good bones, but we can’t see it.  In the absence of television after-effects, high priced 3D visualizations, and a full line of housewares from Pottery Barn, it all looks like a rundown mess most of the time and we are wondering when the bulldozers arrive.

We long desperately to tap into some kind of do-something energy as a way of powering over these dark days.  The metaphor of renovation rings true because it means that with a little elbow grease, some money and a chipper attitude maybe we can make all this better.  It is difficult to recognize that we are in our own kind of Tower of Babel—a constructed world of power and influence and self-defensiveness designed to take heaven by force.

The draw to power-up and roll-up our sleeves and renovate this mess is a real one, but renovation is tiring. Making the world be better is so damn high maintenance.  We have to keep signing up for campaigns and giving money and volunteering and getting riled up and eating less meat and being afraid about climate change and trimming the fruit trees and planting the annuals and hashtagging the appropriate days and virtue-signalling and going to the right church and giving the right money and raising the right kids and …. DAMN… I’m exhausted and so are you.

When our ability to live in a better world is 100% dependent on our ability to make one, we are permanently lost.

When effort is the currency by which we buy all our future happiness, we are permanently lost. 

When hope is only allowed with an accompanying action plan, we are permanently lost.

Renovating our power-over world is essentially the religion project, as religion has presented itself in every culture and every time as long as we’ve been humans together.  It is the Christian religion, the Jewish religion, the Hindu religion, the atheist religion and the self-help religion all in concert.  Do better, act better, think better, live better or the world reaps the consequences.  But there is a cynicism and a commerce to this do-better game. As infamous contrarian pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber posted on Twitter last week, “There is a cadre of self-help, power of positive thinking, purpose driven drivel brokers to cash in on our reluctance to admit we as humans have an inescapable propensity to fuck things up.”

We are in a race away from our fragile, fearful, failing wounded hearts, and the calisthenics of that race are dependent on our do-something instincts.  When we start to realize that our fear of weakness and our demand for progress are two interdependent forces in a death spiral, we become open to a different way of being, and maybe a different world altogether.

JUST DO SOMETHING

One of the great do-something passages of the Bible is the end of Luke 23.  You remember parts of it, I’m sure.  Jesus, not yet bleeding out, is pinned between two thieves on Roman crosses.  And you’ve probably heard it preached that one of them “got saved” in his final hours to go to heaven, while the other, died in his sinful state.  It’s a good sermon, it just entirely misses the point.

The story, like our fine story today, begins with a dumpster fire.  Reaching back a few hours to the Garden of Gethsemane, we find Jesus, the man of God, the Messiah, in his political prime to fix the power-over world of His day: run out the Romans, upset the religious establishment, bring hope by way of force.  The Garden leads to an arrest which leads to a couple of kangaroo courts which lead to the Via Dolorosa: the long walk through Jerusalem to crucifixion.  There are days when we feel like we are on a long walk to our undoing, and maybe we are right.

Then, in our passage of focus, Luke 23:26-31, Jesus is walks past a bunch of women weeping about the the loss of their Messiah.  Of all the men who a had assumed the mantle of Israel’s liberator (and there had been many before Jesus), He was unique in his willingness to heal, to engage, eat with and validate women—who had no economic or political standing. It comes as no surprise, then, that Luke specifically mentions the women lamenting his forthcoming demise.

Jesus has a few of options for response here.

  1. Thanks, at least someone cares about me.

  2. Ooomph. I’ve just been beaten within an inch of my life.  Can’t talk right now.

  3. Go talk to your husbands, get the gang together, and let’s start a revolution before they kill me off.

  4. Don’t cry for me, cry for yourselves and wish your children had never been born, cause it’s about to get WAY worse.

You guessed correct!  Number 4!  Bet you didn’t hear that in the sermon the last time it was preached. You see, in light of the political, social and spiritual climate of his day, Jesus was supposed to DO SOMETHING.  And, arguably, He did for a while.  He healed people, released folks from the curse of principalities and powers, dined with the marginalized, taught about the counter-cultural reality called the Kingdom of Heaven.  And all of this doing (by the view of his followers) was supposed to move up and to the right: more doing, more healing, more liberating, more resistance, until a complete overthrow of their enemies ensued.  They believed that at some point, Jesus’ bottom-up living—coming along side people, loving the broken, playing with street rats (also known as children), teaching the powerless about their inheritance in God—would flip and he’d be the good guy who would eventually run the power-over world, except run it better than anyone else.

But that’s not how the story goes, and Jesus knows it.  That’s why He tells the women, “Hey I’m sorry, I know you wanted me to rule the power-over world in a way that would make you powerful and safe and secure, but that’s not how power-over worlds get better.  Power-over worlds get better by crashing in a dumpster fire.  So hold on, love richly, and believe in hope, because it’s about to get worse before it gets better.”

A stunning response, not just for the women, but for apostles who’d clung so close to him. So strong was the belief that Jesus would one day rule the power-over world, that endless arguments had ensued among his male followers about who would get the good seats to the right and left when He was made king.  Well, Luke 23 gives us the answer: Jesus hangs under the sign marked “King of the Jews” and to His right and left hang two dying revolutionaries who failed to change the world—if not the whole world then at least their own.

The tradition calls them “thieves” but they are not likely to be hanging on a cross for petty crimes.  The Romans had lots of ways to kill you, and crucifixion was saved for situations that demanded a public point to be made.  Those crucified were always the do-something types who were either slaves trying to escape their masters or insurrectionists trying to overthrow the empire.  It is with no irony that Jesus goes to the cross with two men who tried to DO SOMETHING about the wrongs they felt while He is crucified for doing nothing at all.  With all of this brewing subtext, it’s no surprise that Jesus asks the Father to forgive the Roman crucifiers (the villains of their time) for they didn’t have a blind clue what was going on.

Recognizing the two co-crucified as insurrectionists and the assumption that crucifixion was synonymous with DOING SOMETHING to cause trouble makes better sense of what happens next: a chorus of accusations at Jesus to use His power to do something to take down the power-over world that had hung Him and their hopes for revolution on a cross.  The religious folks who felt that Jesus lacked the fotitude to be a Messiah, wondered aloud why He couldn’t save Himself when He had saved others. The political thugs, the same. The first of the co-crucified men, joins in:

“Hey we’re all up here suffering in this crappy world.  And you’re the only one of us whose shown any ability to do something about it!  Save yourself and help us out, too!” The man, who was likely crucified for fighting for his right to exist, felt a camaraderie with Jesus who had stood for the rights of so many, completely confused by someone when someone who could do something doesn’t.

The infamous second man responds unexpectedly:

“We’re the ones who did something! We’re the ones who deserve this!  They don’t crucify you for nothing!  Well… except Him.  He didn’t do anything, even though He could have.  He didn’t break any of the laws that get a man crucified, yet here He is, just the same.”

Then he turns to Jesus:

“Hey man, you’ve been saying all along that there’s a bottom-up world called the Kingdom where you’ll be in charge.  If that works out, don’t forget me.”    

Then that fateful sentence from Jesus:

“Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Paradise (paradeisos in Greek) is a word used only 3 times in the New Testament. But is used multiple times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which would have been familiar to all at the time) and it is used to describe the Garden of Eden.  Jesus makes an incredibly political, social, personal and transformational claim: when this Tower of Babel falls, we will not build another one in its place, it will finally reveal the Garden rising from the dust, which has been here all along.

Each impulse to renovate this fixer upper of a world begins with ‘Not my way, but yours,’ and ends with ‘Into your hands I entrust my spirit.’  Usually, in between, something in us has to die.

How the World Gets Better, from Garden to Garden

Jesus’ way of addressing the fixer upper nightmare that his world had become began in a garden.  Like all the great renovation stories of the Bible, it begins with anguish, with tears, with lament and with human resistance.  It begins with, the instinct to do-something: keep teaching, keep healing, bring truth to power, make a government, build a team.  It begins with the “any other plan but this plan” loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And eventually, it begins with, “Not my way, but yours.”

And it ends with a Garden as well.  A return to Eden’s Garden of dependency on God for life and meaning and the equanimity of every human life reflecting the face of God.  Jesus enters into that Garden too with words of surrender: “It your hands I entrust my spirit.”

So may it be with us that each impulse to renovate this fixer upper of a world begins with “Not my way, but yours,” and ends with “Into your hands I entrust my spirit.”  Usually, in between, something in us has to die.

What is the Father’s way for world-bettering?  Is it the up-and-to-the-left fixer-uppering that we’ve come to expect of ourselves, of each other, of the world?  Is it the promise of proletariat revolution where the under becomes the over and power finally changes hands from the bad guys to the good guys?

No, in fact.

God enters into the suffering of the world all the way to death and births a new world by way of resurrection.  The future is made in cycles of death, burial and resurrection.

Jesus enters into the destruction of the power-over world of His day.  He holds close the victims, challenges the powerful, inspires the willing, and exposes the self-reliant. He stands at the epic-center of violence as the power-over world collapses into itself like a dying star.  He disappears into the gravity of the black hole of suffering, what the creeds call descending into hell.  He resists the darkness by succumbing to it and in doing so showing both its intent and its frailty.  The only way He could do it is by surrender.

The world changes not by renovation, but by resurrection.  As the old, tired systems of power-over begin to fail, they will collapse into themselves. As our old armor and self-righteousness fails, it, too, must fall of like scales. And in the collapse, there will be innocent victims.  As we see the systems which governed our grandparents’ and parents’ worlds collapse, as historic inequalities and systems of violence are exposed, as our ability to live by self-reliance, power and vanity are revealed for the Babelic towers they are, the Rome we’ve known is certainly burning.  There is suffering for those who sometimes wished they had never been born.

But if we look through the darkness of this black hole we’re in, as the cystic tunnel of our country, our politic, our churches and our communities at times constrict in upon themselves with the pains of self-destruction and suffering, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

And that light is a Garden.  It is breaking through from below everywhere.  It is breaking through as we embrace the suffering (both within ourselves and each other), as we reach across difference, as we enter the Jesus way of enemy-loving, cheek-turning, table-sharing, heart-forward living.  The beautiful world of bottom-up living and garden joy has always been here.  Here in the shadow of the power-over world.  Stop staring at the falling Babels around us and look at the fertile soil of faith, hope and love rising from below and you’ll see it:  There is so much beauty left. 

Nick RichtsmeierComment