We compare everything.
I could break down the various ways we compare things, but it would take forever, because it is a part of our daily lives. It is what people are expected to do, and do well. It’s supposed to give us perspective (“Look at it this way: someone else has it worse than you”), help us make decisions (“This fruit looks less bruised than that one”), or give us understanding (“How is she acting differently today than yesterday?”)
So it makes it easy to think that comparison is a good and helpful thing.
But there’s a problem with comparison: when it comes to who we are and what we’re called to do, we often compare ourselves with the wrong people and things.
After Jesus tells Peter what his future is going to look like (John 21:18-19), it’s not exactly what Peter was hoping for or expecting. And Peter reacts a way a lot of us react to bad news:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them… When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (20-22)
Peter falls into the trap a lot of us do: “Why can’t I have a fate more like his?” And in doing so, he fails to see that Jesus is calling Peter to a life that is in line with his: Peter will ultimately offer his life and future up to God completely the same way Jesus did. So in comparing himself with John, Peter blinds himself to his own path, one that will include establishing the early church, and becoming more like Jesus.
This past week, I was reading a magazine article about a band, and in it, the husband half of this duo describes a tattoo his wife got when she turned 40 that says, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And although the context in the article was more about how comparing oneself and one’s life with others will ultimately stifle creativity and individuality, I think this stolen joy is applicable to the message we heard from Emily this week.
When we compare our lives and our paths to anyone besides Jesus, we’re trading in our joy for anxiety and mediocrity. Sure we’ll get by, but we’ll be unhappy. We’ll never have what that other person has because we aren’t that person, and we’ll never be that person. And as a result, we’ll never live the full life God offers because we’re settling for comparison, jealousy, and resentment.
Peter chose joy instead of comparison, and God used him beyond anything he could have imagined for himself. And we need to make the same decision for ourselves.
Am I going to choose comparison to others and allow that to steal my joy, or will I listen to God’s unique call for me in my life, and choose joy?
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
1 Corinthians 13: 13
So I recently had a kind of religious experience playing a videogame.
I’d been mulling over some thoughts for a while, so it wasn’t like it came completely out of the blue, but I’d like to think God speaks to us in all kinds of cool and unexpected ways. Anyway, I’ve waited to post about it for a while now; for some reason it didn’t feel like it was the right time, and then Vince’s sermon on Sunday happened to complement it very well.
So, back to the videogame.
***SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU PLAN ON PLAYING NI NO KUNI: WRATH OF THE WHITE WITCH, I’D ADVISE YOU STOP READING NOW! ***
Okay, so the protagonist in the game is Oliver, and basically he’s on a quest to save his mother. She dies after an accident, but a fairy shows up to Oliver and tells him there’s a possibility he can find her “soul-mate” in a parallel universe and bring her back.
As Oliver goes on this fantasy adventure, he finds that there is an evil wizard set on destroying the parallel universe. This wizard’s motivation for destruction stems from his own despair: when he was younger, and a not-evil wizard, he was hoping to save many lives and make his world a better place, but when his plan backfires and he is banished, he loses all hope and embraces despair. This evil wizard decides the world is a terrible place, and it would be better if it didn’t exist at all, because that would eradicate all pain and suffering and unhappiness.
As it turns out, this evil wizard is Oliver’s “soul mate,” his parallel in this other world. And unfortunately, this means Oliver’s plan to save his mother is not going to work. Oliver has to make a choice: embrace despair, or embrace hope.
What I found very interesting in this game was that despair was the greatest source of evil. There were others (greed, lack of charity, apathy, etc.), but the ultimate villains of the game (including the titular White Witch) had embraced despair, and thereby wreaked havoc and misery on the world around them.
It’s easy to think despair and hopelessness are not as harmful as other sins. At least, that’s what it’s been like for me. Perhaps it’s because it often affects people on an individual basis, or maybe it’s less outwardly destructive; I didn’t see how my own feelings of despair or hopelessness really damaged anyone. But when it comes down to it, despair says a couple things:
“This world cannot be saved.”
“I don’t trust God.”
“There are some things that cannot be redeemed.”
“Some people will never change.”
“This life is nothing but suffering.”
And these things are all very destructive. This attitude and these statements are hurtful in the way I see others, the way I relate and talk to God, and the way I live my day-to-day existence.
But as Vince said in his sermon, hope is certain. As people of the resurrection, we are people of hope. Basically, I call God a liar when I say His world is headed to hell in a hand basket, or when I say we’re beyond help. God turned the fabric of the universe upside down because we are worth saving. I am worth saving, you are worth saving, this world is worth saving. And we can be saved.
And that should be integral to our identity. It should change the way we live. I may be skipping ahead and giving away more spoilers, but in 1 Peter 3:15, he writes:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
And that hope is our faith in Jesus Christ.
Without Jesus and without God, yes, the world can be hopeless. But we are not like those without hope, and we see a world that is already redeemed and reborn. We look forward to a time when all will be made new. We believe in Christ’s resurrection and his current reign and sovereignty above all else. But like belief, we need to practice this hopefulness by trusting God and choosing hope over despair.
Back a long time ago, when I was a teenager, I saw this piece of Christian Art. I tend to be a little bit picky (read: snobby — yes, even as a teenager) when it comes to things like art, so it’s possible my reaction to the particular picture was a bit unwarranted or harsh. And it didn’t help that I had already been warned by my older sister (who is also “picky”) that she had seen it, and had a certain reaction to it, too.
Anyway, the picture was of Jesus on the cross, and it was a close up of his face. And in this close up, he was laughing. Like, with a huge smile on his face, laughing one of those loud, explosive laughs from the look of it. (Probably the kind of laugh those of us at St. Paul’s are used to hearing on Sundays from a certain pastor we know).
Anyway, during one of our long walks after seeing this picture, my sister and I kind of broke down what it was that was so upsetting about it. We understood the sentiment: Jesus dying on the cross was not tragic and he was not a victim; he did it willingly, he sacrificed himself for us because he loved us. At the same time, though, there was something distinctly uncomfortable about the idea that Jesus was happy to the point of laughing about being tortured and executed, especially since, at the time, he was basically taking on the sins of the world and experiencing separation from his Father so we wouldn’t have to.
The emotion Jesus probably felt was one of Grief, not Happiness. From what we read in Matthew 27 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”), from what we can tell in the Garden of Gethsemane, this was not a joyful and happy experience for Jesus that he was excited about.
On Sunday, Vince and Amy both spoke about how Jesus appeared in the midst of grief. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in her grief; Jesus appeared to Amy in her grief. And a couple weeks ago, Vince’s message on Lazarus being raised from the dead dealt with the idea that God feels and experiences sorrow that is perhaps incomprehensible to us, deeper than we can handle, even.
The trouble is: Grief is a little scary. It’s something we often try to suppress to avoid at all costs. We’re uncomfortable with it. It’s a part of the human experience in our broken world. The presence of grief reminds us that things are not right, that people get hurt, that people suffer.
The picture I saw expressed this discomfort (albeit unintentionally). I think the rationale might go something like: If Jesus’ death was good, then it shouldn’t be sad or sorrowful; if Jesus’ death was good, we should be glad about his suffering and death on the cross; if Jesus’ death was good, he was probably glad about it.
I’ve also found that some people think people who feel grief and sorrow too deeply might actually not be right with God somehow, since God is about joy and contentedness. But I would argue that grief and joy and contentedness are not mutually exclusive; if God feels grief, then grief is good, because God is good. God is not grief (in the way that God is Love, for instance), but God feels grief deeper than we do.
Grief is not weakness. Grief is not sinful. And grief is not solitary. When we grieve, God grieves with us.
But He also brings us comfort. In Thessalonians, Paul reassures the church that they need not grieve like those who have no hope over the deaths of those who have “fallen asleep,” and what he’s writing about is the other part of grief. In the same way Job laments “Though He slay me,” and still manages to follow up with: “yet I will hope in Him,” we grieve while clinging to the hope found in Jesus.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is perhaps one of the most powerful in the gospels, in the Bible, in Western Civilization, even. The image of the stone being pushed away from the tomb and Lazarus hopping out, still wrapped in grave clothes is one of those images that’s been impressed on my mind, something that comes up in artwork, in poetry, in different incarnations and different interpretations. And ultimately, it’s Jesus’ final sign that leads to his crucifixion. In this story, we see Jesus’ power, and we see his humanity: he raises a man from the dead, but he also weeps at the death of his friend and the grief death causes.
But this story also echoes something Jesus said earlier in John, something that upset the Pharisees and religious authorities. Jesus said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and now is here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. John 5:25
I had never noticed it before, but this is what literally happens with Lazarus; Jesus says his name, he calls for his friend to come out of the tomb, and his friend lives after he hears the voice of the Son of God. But this earlier, more cryptic explanation of his purpose and his glory, is not limited to the already dead.
Jesus is telling us we’re all dead. We’re dead where we stand. We think we’re “living” our lives, but really, we’re no better than Lazarus outside of Jesus. The present reality for people who don’t know Jesus is death, essentially. It is at the sound of his voice, calling us, that we’re brought to life. We need to hear his voice.
This is easy to lose sight of for me. I get bogged down in the “death” things more often than not: my problems, my job, my needs, my desires and dreams, my material goods, my preoccupations, my struggles, my passions, my interests. And these things aren’t evil necessarily, but they aren’t life-giving on their own. But I start thinking that these things are what life is. And when that’s what I’m most consumed by, I don’t really “hear” from Jesus, through no fault of his.
One of our next steps for this week was to be like Lazarus: to die in order to really live. True enough. As Paul says in Romans 6:4:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
This newness of life is ongoing. In the same way that death is not a single moment, but a continued state, so is a new life in Christ. It is a present state and a future promise.
I suppose the thing I still haven’t completely wrapped my mind around and that I still don’t really know how to implement is a living life that is actually listening to Christ, that hears his call to “Come out” of the tomb and stay out. It’s been difficult for me to see that this present state is wholly living, and not one that’s trapped between the tomb and life.
I don’t think that when one follows Christ that one could get pulled back into the tomb and closed in against one’s will. But sometimes I think that one can follow Christ and still have a rotting limb. Maybe this is just my personal experience, but even just living in a broken world, it seems impossible to get away from death and sin. What’s worse: I often find myself to be source of it.
My questions are: What do we do to die to ourselves and live in Christ? Is this something that starts with that initial acceptance that without Christ we’re dead, but has to happen over and over? How can we hear his voice and his commands more clearly, even from the inside of the tomb?
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” John 11:8
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” John 11:16
The disciples often look bad in the gospels. They often don’t understand Jesus. They’re sometimes selfish. And they have a moment of epic failure. They abandon Jesus in the garden when he’s arrested.
But that’s just a moment. As we see in the Lazarus story, the disciples were prepared to die with Jesus. They knew the end was coming for Jesus. And they were prepared to die with their teacher.
The disciples were not cowards. The disciples were courageous. They just had a moment their courage failed.
Sound like anyone you know? We have moments like that too. But just as we wouldn’t want to be defined by our worst moment, let’s not define these guys by their worst moment either.