The Mount of Simplicity

I’ve always struggled with the Mount of Transfiguration, partially because I’ve grown up in a tradition that never spent much time with it, and that liturgical traditions intentionally come to this moment in their yearly cycle is a curious thing to me. Because of that, I’ve also struggled when I come across the Transfiguration as a topic of preaching in the lectionary. This has been a welcome struggle, to be sure, but there has always been a tinge of trepidation when it comes up again in the liturgical rhythm of the church.

This year, however, I had the happy coincidence of pondering the text in Luke 9 while also listing the a string of podcasts from Renovare about the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Those two trains of thought began at separate points, removed from one another, but at some point they converged. The Mount of Transfiguration was, in part, about simplicity.

It’s easy to think about simplicity in terms of what we have and, perhaps, what we’ve given up. We equate simplicity with the notion of limiting ourselves in some form or another. But, more than a set of rules or prescribed practices, simplicity is foremost about adopting a disposition. Simplicity is when we learn to focus so intently on God that the static along the periphery begins to fade away. It’s not so much about what you give up, or how you limit yourself, as it is who you place your focus on.

To be sure, this can have the effect of clearing out a lot of the mundane, day to day clutter from our lives. I’ve recently taken a semi-permanent break from the major social media platforms, not because I didn’t like a lot about browsing Facebook or Instagram, but because they proved a distraction from some of the more important things God drew me to as I continued to focus on him more intently. It was not an intentional move toward simplicity, but it has the effect of bringing simplicity to my life: fewer minutes and hours spent browsing, fewer ultimately silly things to be frustrated about, more time with my wife and kids, more time to read and do the things that enrich my life … more sleep.  As we commit to an intent focus on God, we will find simplicity working its way into our lives in a variety of ways.

But, simplicity does not only affect us in relatively small ways, but in big ways as well. This, for me, is where the disciplines and the Mount of Transfiguration converge. When his disciples find Jesus talking to Elijah and Moses, there’s a lot of loaded things going on. First, just before they came to the mountain, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. As much as anything, this was a political declaration, a confession that Jesus came with a vision for how the world should work, how it should move forward. In that text, Jesus was the Messiah in contrast with Elijah or “one of the ancient prophets” (that would include Moses).

Second, Elijah and Moses were more than mere historical figures in the minds of Second Temple Judaism. Rather, they were symbols often take up by various groups with their own agendas about how things should go and what God was like. The Pharisees, for example, were all about doubling down on Moses. They believed if they could keep the Law well enough, God would reward their righteousness and purity by kicking off his campaign to defeat the Romans. On the other hand, the Zealots longed to have the zeal Elijah demonstrated in beheading hundreds of Ba’al’s prophets. They promoted a bloody, violent way forward in which God would join them in the blood shed.

But, the voice from the cloud looked at Moses and Elijah and said of Jesus, “Listen to him.” Focus on him. Let the rest fall away. Simplicity.

The Mount of Simplicity

The Faves: My Top 5 Developers

A while back, I discovered Retronauts, the long-running classic gaming podcast, and having grown up with everything from an Atari 2600 (which is in my closet, awaiting some TLC) to a PS4 and Nintendo Switch, this show is right up my alley. Last month, they hosted a round-table discussion about each contributor’s five favorite game developers, the first game they played from each, and the game that caused them to fall in love with the development house. That’s a great question and the ensuing discussion both evoked lots of great memories for me and highlighted a lot of what I love about gaming.

Here are my faves:

One: Nintendo

I was born in 1979, so it has to be Nintendo. Some of my earliest memories with video games are from my third grade year, in the den, playing Donkey Kong, Jr. on our Atari 2600. We also had Donkey Kong but, man, I loved climbing those vines!

Donkey_Kong_Jr._(arcade_game)
Credit: Wikipedia

Though I liked the Donkey Kong franchise, Mario and Luigi sold me on Nintendo. My youngest son recently stumbled across a vine leading into the clouds while playing Super Mario Bros. and yelled with a huge grin on his face, “Dad! I found a secret world!!!” That sums it up for me. More than any other franchise, Mario has driven my desire to own nearly every Nintendo console. I played Super Mario Bros. obsessively. Super Mario Bros. 3 remains my favorite game of all time. I beat Super Mario World inside of two days (without using Star Road, thank you very much). I actually cried a little the first time I sat down with Super Mario 64. A year and a half after getting a Switch, I’m still wandering around Mario Odyssey.

Two: Bethesda

I quit playing games for just under a decade, but talked my wife into a PS3 when our Blu-Ray player died, and I bought used copies of Fallout 3 and Elderscrolls V soon after that. I knew nothing about either franchise, much less that they were both made by Bethesda, but I’d heard good things and the price was right. I played both games, but was deep into a few other games at the time, so I didn’t really get into them before my wife sold my PS3 to pay for a PS4. I did, however, play enough to be excited when Fallout 4 was announced, which I got for Christmas along with my new, sparkly PS4.

The frustrations of playing any Bethesda game notwithstanding, I have an enduring love affair with the Commonwealth, which I am currently playing through for the third time. I love the characters. I love how I can come back to familiar missions, time and again, and they still excite me. I love how I am still finding utterly new places, items, people, and dialogue on my third time through. I love the attention to detail, as I walk down a deserted overpass and hear the faint, ghostly echoes of pre-war, rush hour traffic.

Fallout 4 led me back to Elderscrolls V and beyond to other titles, like the Evil Within franchise. I’ve also got a backlog of Fallout games – 3 and New Vegas – on my plate ready to play. And when Todd teased Elderscrolls VI at Bethesda’s 2018 E3 conference? I admit it: I screamed and jumped and cheered like Sid Bream was sliding across home plate all over again.

Three: Square

Mario caused me to fall in love with games, but Square caused me to fall in love with RPGs. The first Square game I remember playing is Final Fantasy III, though I am sure there were other Final Fantasy titles before that. I spent hours playing that game, engrossed in the story and amazed at the sheer size and capability to explore the title offered. To this day, I love to sit down in the evening, after the kids have gone to sleep, and fire up my SNES Classic for some time with FFIII (and Secret of Mana).

As engrossed as I was in FFIII, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII were the titles that ultimately sold me on Square. I loved the characters, plot, diversity, and sheer fun offered by FFVII and have enjoyed going back and playing it on PS4. And, the opening sequence of FFVIII remains one of my favorite gaming moments of all time. I remember watching it over and over, reveling in what “modern” graphics had come to. More than any other title, these two were responsible for drawing me from Nintendo and toward Sony as my hardware developer of choice.

Now days, I’m excited that much of the Final Fantasy catalog is coming to Switch and I continue to enjoy Square Enix titles like Octopath Traveler.

Four: Naughty Dog

As I’ve mentioned, I quit playing for about a decade while I was getting married, starting a career, having kids, and being “too old” to play video games. The Last of Us was the impetus behind my getting back into games. (This is also what I was playing, along with Bioshock Infinite, while those Bethesda titles collected dust on my shelf.) It was the first and sole reason I never considered buying an Xbox, and whenever anyone tries to convince me Microsoft is better than Sony, I just point to the PS4 remaster of this game and say, “Whatever …”

This is a game that drew me in so deeply that when the credits rolled, my first response was a sort of jarring shock as I realized the game was over and I was being thrown back into the real world. My second response was to realize how badly my hands were hurting from having put a tense death grip on my controller.

I’ve since gone back and played (and enjoyed) some of Naughty Dog’s other titles, though I’ve somehow never played a Crash game, but if the studio had started and stopped with this one title, I would’ve loved them all the same.

Five: Team Cherry

Team Cherry is new to my list and there was stiff competition for this spot with Matt Makes Games (Celsete), but as of today this is where I am. Team Cherry, of course, developed the beautiful and frustrating and captivating Hollow Knight. Along with Celeste, Hollow Knight kicked off my love affair with indie developers and represents something of a change from PS4 to Switch as my console of choice. (I mean, a growing and portable indie library …)

Hollow Knight is still new enough to my library that I haven’t finished it, but for the last few weeks, when everything has settled down, it has been the way I’ve ended my evenings. And, in case you’ve missed it, there’s also the sequel to get excited about.

So, there you have it. My Top 5. Who is on your list?

The Faves: My Top 5 Developers

Just Like Family!

I’ve been around churches for a while now and one of the things they’ve all said is that they are “like family.” This has always been given as a positive, and it has been that, at best, as the church family worked hard to invite neighbors into the family. But, at worst, “like family” has often been a nicer way of saying, “a clique in which you don’t belong,” which leads me to an observation:

To say church is “like family” is to say nothing meaningful.

Look, there are all sorts of families and all sorts of things meant by the word, “family.” Don Corleone was the head of a family. The Simpsons and the Bundys and the Griffins and the Lannisters are all families.  When we say the church is “like family” do we mean we are like these families? In Biblical times, Herod had a family. Of course, he stole his brother’s wife and assassinated several of his children to protect his reign. Is this what we mean we say the church is “like family”? I suspect these are not what we aspire to, though we may look more like them than we want to on occasion. (Lord, have mercy on us miserable sinners!)

More, being family is not a particularly Christian thing to be, as if we make some deep biblical or theological claim when we say our churches are “like family.” As the above examples attest, one doesn’t need Jesus to be “like family.” (Even healthier, more appealing examples of “like family” don’t require Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection to happen. Think about those Olive Garden commercials … ) Rather, Jesus often has harsh words for families: talk of hating mother and father more than Jesus; talk of letting the dead bury the dead; talk of the kingdom ripping families apart; talk of a rift between Jesus and his own family.

To be clear, the point isn’t that family is bad (though it can be), but that until we talk about what kind of family our church is like, we haven’t said anything meaningful by saying we are “like a family.”

When we sit back and look at how families operate in our broken world, one of the things we discover is that “family” has most often been used as a tool for deciding who is in and who is out. Along with similar distinctions between us and them, “family” is a way of differentiating between those who do get mercy, love, or compassion and those who don’t. Again, this is very much a family dynamic, but it is self-evidently not Christian.

This is what Jesus is getting at through the middle part of his Sermon in the Plain. If you’re only going to love those who love you, you’re not really doing anything special. If you’re only going to give to those from whom you can expect something in return, how are you different from anyone else? If you are only going to show compassion on those who are a part of us, well how is that different from anyone else?

More, those practices that Jesus discusses just before are the sorts of things we are more likely to do for those we know, like, and love than we are for a stranger or an enemy. I can have a little patience when a loved one strikes me on the cheek. I have gone the extra mile for family members in a time of need. It’s no big deal to give something to a sister or brother in my group who needs it. We hardly think of these things under many circumstances.

But, any family will behave this way within itself. The question isn’t, “Is your church a family?” but, “Who’s family is your church?” Jesus tells us to love our enemies – to treat them as we would our family or loved ones – by blessing them, showing compassion, doing good to them, turning the cheek, and all the rest because that is indicative of who God is. God love our enemies just as much as he loves us, and, as his children, he has placed us in our communities to be a manifestation of that love – even for those who belong to them rather than us. 

Just Like Family!

Blessings and Woes

When John and Jesus began their ministries, the evangelists summarized their work by saying, “Repent for the kingdom of God is already beginning.” Both men referred to this announcement as the gospel, as the good news of God’s immanent victory over the powers that preside over the Way Things Are, as the announcement that the rightful king was returning to take his throne from these powers and restore the Way Things Should Be. This is the story the evangelists are telling. This is what it means to talk about the gospel – that in his life, work, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus is taking God’s good creation back from those responsible for the Way Things Are and restoring it to the Way Things Should Be.

But, there are always two sides with this kind of story. On the one side, there are those who are too aware of the inequity, pain, and brokenness of the Way Things Are and welcome the rightful king because they have longed and prayed and worked for the Way Things Ought to Be. On the other side, there are those who have had the means to benefit from the Way Things Are and they tend to be deeply invested in their allegiances to the powers that be. The coming of the rightful king is a threat to these.

This tension between those who pledge allegiance to the rightful king and the Way Things Ought to Be and those who pledge allegiance to the Way Things Are is a persistent theme in Luke. In her Magnificat, Mary sings of God lifting the lowly, feeding the hungry, sending the empty away full. But, God will also tear the proud down from their thrones and send those accustomed to being full away empty-handed. Later, in Nazareth, Jesus declares his divine commission to bring good news to the poor, bring recovery of sight to the blind, and set those who are imprisoned and captive free. In the passage he quotes from, Isaiah goes on to talk about ruined cities being rebuilt as well. This is all good, but it does make one wonder about the lot of those who pressed the poor down, imprisoned and enslaved those God is setting free, or tore the cities down in the first place.

So, it is nothing new when Jesus gathers a crowd on a plane and begins to announce blessings and woes: How fortunate for those who are poor now, who grieve, who are hungry, and are persecuted. These are the same people Mary sang about and Isaiah dreamed about. They aren’t fortunate because there is any intrinsic virtue in being poor or grief-stricken or persecuted. Those are bad places to be in. They are fortunate, as we have seen, because God is acting on their behalf. These are those who welcome the rightful king and the Way Things Should Be. But, also “how terrible” for those who are rich now, who laugh and are full of good things, who has the favor of the crowds. These are, in the economy of Jesus’ world, those who are comfortable with the Way Things Are.

This tension, though, raises an interesting question. If the gospel is the good news of the coming reign of God, how do these woes fit with that good news? These days, polarized as they are, we might be tempted to say, “It’s just not good news for those who pledge allegiance to the Way Things Are! They deserve whatever they get!” But, surely this creates both problems. One of the insidious things about accusation is it allows us to ignore the ways we are complicit in the brokenness of the world. It is easy to point out the racist, patriarchal, and paternalistic sins of many white Christians in the Jim Crow South but we often find it much harder to see the similarities between their sins and ours.

Simply put, a gospel that is not good news for those worthy of Jesus’ woe isn’t really good news.

I think, however, that careful attention to what Jesus is saying will reveal hope in those woes. The woes are an invitation into the first line of John and Jesus’ gospel summary – “Repent.” There is no place in God’s kingdom for the sort of self-serving fear and power exercised by those who seek to establish their own comfortable way of life in the Way Things Are at the expense of others. God will bring those thrones down, but this doesn’t mean one can’t step away from that way of life willingly. And when one does step away, they would discover that the life they thought they had been living was no life at all compared to what they find as God ushers in the Way Things Should Be. This is precisely the tension between the accounts of the “rich young ruler” and Zacchaeus that Luke offers later in his gospel. Both have built comfortable lives in the Way Things Are and both encounter Jesus. One walks away sad and unchanged and there is a tangible sense of terribleness in the tone of that story. He was this close to something real if only he could let go of what he had. The other gladly receives Jesus and turns his little corner of the Way Things Are upside down to welcome God’s kingdom into his life. This is the invitation inherent in the tension, inherent in the woes of Luke 6.

This invitation is urgent and relevant in our day as well. As always, the trick here is not to reflect on how bad those he warned were, nor to quickly jump to all the ways we aren’t like that crowd, but to meditate seriously on how we might be the same sort of crowd. Our society makes a regular and systemic practice of dehumanizing others for our own purposes, reducing them to economic units, voting blocs, human resources, o content creators. Our contemporary obsessions with comfort and security are real things and the effects they have on our neighbors are real as well. We are a consumer driven culture, positioned atop the proverbial pile, who’s purchasing power has a dramatic impact on those closer to the bottom. And, even at my family’s most vulnerable, when we lived well below the poverty line, we still ranked in the top 1.25% of richest people on earth by income.

This is to say, we live in a place that has fared well in the Way Things Are, that is invested in the Way Things Are, and that brings an inherent temptation with it. There will be times when I have to choose between the life I’ve found in the Way Things Are and what Jesus calls me to from the Way Things Should Be. There will be times when Luke’s tension exists in me. How terrible if I ignore that tension, retreating into the comfort of the life I have built. How wonderful it is, however, to forsake the world that is passing away for the world that God is building even now, and discover the life I’ve always looked for, the life I’ve always assumed I had but didn’t.

Blessings and Woes

Sleep

In James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God, the first “soul training exercise” (or spiritual discipline) he asks participants to commit to is sleep. Over the last few months, my life has become much busier than it has been lately and I’ve come back to Smith’s wisdom in that regard.

Sleep is a great discipline. For starters, Smith reminds us the disciplines are not about impressing God with our devotion or piety but about intentionally clearing out room in our rhythms for him to work in, on, and through us. Sleep is a good teacher in this regard: It is hard to think you are impressing God by taking a nap.

More, sleep awakens you to the way the body gave you works. (Pun intended.) We have not been designed to go without sleep and we will find all our efforts at being more cruciform or Christ-like stunted when we exclude the natural rhythms God has established from our routines and habits. Simply put, I find it harder to be the presence of Christ for the people in my life (and see the presence of Christ in them) when I am perpetually tired.

Also, and I think this one hits closer to home for me and a lot of people I’ve talked to over the years, sleep requires us to stop in a culture that doesn’t value stopping. I must put the work down, or turn Netflix off, or put the phone in airplane mode. For many of us, sleep can become a hard discipline here, but it is the act of putting our trust in God by not trying to do whatever under our own steam.

Sleep

Love and Gentlemanliness

Here’s a quote from Thomas Merton, speaking of a chaplain from his school days. I suspect there is a cautionary tale here:

His greatest sermon was on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians – and a wonderful chapter indeed. But his exegesis was a bit strange … “Buggy’s” interpretation of the word “charity” in the passage (and in the whole Bible) was that it simply stood for “all that we mean when we call a chap a ‘gentleman.'” In other words, charity means good-sportsmanship, cricket, the decent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad or a bounder.

There he stood, in the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above the heads of all the rows of boys in black coats, and said: “One might go through the chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word ‘gentleman’ for ‘charity’ wherever it occurs. ‘If I talk with the tongues of men and of angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as sounding brass, pr a tinkling cymbal … A gentleman is patient, is kind; a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up … A gentleman never falleth away.’ …”

And so it went. I will not accuse him of finishing the chapter with, “Now remain faith, hope and gentlemanliness …” although it was the logical term of his reasoning.

The boys listened tolerantly to these thoughts. But I think St. Paul and the twelve Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt ad finally nailed to the Cross an left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentleman.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Love and Gentlemanliness

The Temptations of Jesus

For the last little while, I’ve been working with a a small, wonderful group of Christians about two and a half hours west of where I live. They needed someone to preach. I was available to preach. We like each other. It works! That is, it works until it rains for three days straight and then the temps drops thirty degrees. So, I’m missing worship with my normal family today due to reports of iffy road conditions between here and there, and that bums me out for a lot of reasons.

One big reason is this is one of my favorite Sundays in the liturgical year. It is the middle part of a sweep of my favorite Sundays that focus on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and I’ve come to love these texts as they set the stage for who Jesus is and what he is doing. Read with care, they help us frame Jesus’ story.

Last Sunday’s text focused on Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21-22), which functions in the narrative as his royal anointing. The keys to understanding Jesus’ baptism are the dove and the voice. First, the Spirit descends on him like a dove. In the next chapter, Jesus reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me …” (4:18). While various sorts of people were anointed in the ancient world, you will remember one of the biggies was that kings were anointed. Second, the voice from heaven declares Jesus God’s son. In Second Temple Judaism, in which Jesus lived, worked, and died, this “son of God” language was royal language. You called kings “son of God.” Of course, by the end of the New Testament we will attach more meaning to it than that (though not less), but here we need to attend to those royal connotations. The Spirit descends on Jesus, anointing him, and the voice booms: “This is the king I choose. Not Herod. Not Caesar. Jesus.”

At the beginning of Luke 4, Jesus is led away into the wilderness, fasts, and is tempted for forty days and nights. We pick up on the temptations at the end of this scene and we want to pay particular attention to the way the devil frames what he offers Jesus: “Since you are the son of God …” Since you are the king. Simply, the temptations offered Jesus are not offered as personal or private struggles, but as different ways of being king. In the broader narrative Luke is telling the temptations stand to tell us what sort of king Jesus could but will not be.

So, the devil says: “Since you are the son of God, command this stone to be turned into a loaf of bread” (4:3). Having fasted for forty days, Jesus is hungry, but the temptation is not to turn the stones into bread for himself. There’s no temptation there: it is not a sin to eat when you’ve gone forty days without food and one does not break a forty day fast with bread. There is a temptation, however, to win the allegiance of a people by satiating their desires. In fact, when Jesus feeds the multitudes in John 6 they want to make him the king by force. This, of course, is the very same temptation the devil offers in Luke 4 and Jesus rejects that path in both instances.

I’m going out of order for Luke here, but the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, daring him to jump: “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone” (4:9-11). The devil reasons, Jesus will jump from the temple and angels will swoop in and save him with much spectacle. Of course, the story behind the story here is that the Jews were waiting for God’s King to declare himself and one prophecy foretold the Messiah would appear suddenly above the Temple. The devil offers Jesus allegiance by spectacle, much the same as those who told Jesus they would follow him if he gave them a sign. (After all, we do love our celebrities.) Again, Jesus rejects this path. 

Third, or second if you stick with Luke, the devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world by sheer force. Don’t even bother winning their allegiance. Don’t woo them. I will simply give them to you whether they want it or not: “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours” (4:6-7). As you might expect, Jesus rejects this as well. (It is also worth pointing out, Jesus wouldn’t have needed Satan to offer him the kingdoms of the world to take them by force. That he had the power to violently and forcefully take the world nagged at him in other places as well. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter wants to go the force route and Jesus demands he put his sword away, saying, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away?” (Matthew 26:52-53).

Now, you get bonus points if you’re reading through this and thinking, “These temptations sound familiar.” Bread. Circuses. Swords. The devil offers Jesus the way of Caesar! Why not build a bigger, better version of Rome? Give the people what they want and they will follow you. Keep the people entertained and they will be easy to control. If that doesn’t work, bomb them into submission and remind them how benevolent you are by not utterly destroying them. This, of course, is not just the way of Caesar. It is the way power works in the world, and the window dressings have changed since Jesus’ day, but the important stuff remains unchanged.

And here’s the important point: Jesus clearly and emphatically rejects the way of bread and circuses and swords as satanic.

He came to introduce a new way, a new kind of kingdom, not a bigger, badder version of what we already have. What is that way? Well, that’s next week’s topic and I’m hoping the weather cooperates and I can preach it.

The Temptations of Jesus