Monday, October 11, 2010

duty and heart

Yesterday I preached a sermon on Luke 17:11-19, the Ten Lepers, and in that sermon I suggested that the major theme of the text was not about "giving thanks," as that theme is often lifted from the story. Rather, I see the import relating to difference between "the nine" and their willingness to keep their distance from Jesus: knowing his name and calling out for help, but keeping their distance; going their way, but because Jesus told them to--they were obedient, in other words, but being just obedient maintained the distance; enjoying the benefit of his mercy, but not coming close to him as the Samaritan did. The Samaritan desired intimacy with Jesus, and his praise, his kneeling, his thanking--all of that together comprised the faith that made him whole.

I think that many of us are obedient, but are content to keep our distance. We know the names, how to call out to Jesus, but have forgotten if we ever started how to praise God, to praise as loudly and as urgently as we pray. We do not come close, do not enjoy the intimacy Christ offers us.

What is true for us as individuals is true also of churches. I want my church to come close to Jesus: I want us to know how to pray AND praise, to be both obedient AND thankful. I want us to give to Jesus and this church not just a little of our time, a little of our money, a little of our attention and enthusiasm, but our HEART.

A HEART for Jesus. A HEART for our congregation. The question before us, and especially in this day, is whether we are merely cleansed and on our way, or whether we are in fact WHOLE, made WHOLE by our praise of, our approach and thanks to Jesus...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Data, Lal and Lazarus

This is my opening illustration and my closing from yesterday's sermon on Luke 16:19-31:

One of my favorite TV shows ever is Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I liked the original series, too, of course, with Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. But I really love the second series in the franchise, with Capt. Picard, Commander Riker, Mr. Worf, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Mr. Data and the rest of them.

Some of you may know that show, some may not. Production ended years ago, but for those who are willing to stay up till midnight—or who are able and will program their TiVo’s or VCR’s—there are daily opportunities to boldly go where no one has gone before.

The character named Data is an android. He is not so much a robot, but an artificial life form, a kind of living, walking computer. He does not feel, which is to say, he does not have feelings, exactly, but he wants to, is all the time trying to become more human. In one episode he decides that he wants to be a father, and so he goes into his lab and creates another android, a smaller version of himself. She is female and Data gives her the name Lal, which is Hindi for “beloved,” and he begins to teach her about… life. Eventually, sadly, Lal suffers a cascade systems failure…she dies… but before she does she enriches Data’s life, and the lives of all the others.

I tell you that because I want to recount one remarkable scene in that remarkable episode. Data takes Lal to Ten Forward. Ten Forward is like the officers club, the gathering place for the crew, a place of conversation and socializing. Sitting at the bar Data invites Lal to eat something. She does not require food—but Data has learned, and he is trying to teach her, that eating, and not just eating but eating together, is a really big part of what it means to be human.

“Order something,” he says to Lal.

“What should I order, father?” Lal replies.

“Whatever you like,” says Data.

“But how do I know what I like?” asks Lal, and Data the living computer does not know how to answer.

It is a remarkable question, I think. “How do I know what I like?”

We each and all of us might likewise ask, “How do I know what to think? How do I know what to believe? How do I know how to behave?” How do I know what it means to be not only human, but Christian? How do we learn that, for ourselves, how do we teach it to our lals, our beloved, our children? How, indeed.

The key to this text is at the end: they have Moses and the prophets. Let them read them. Oh, no, Father Abraham. They don’t read their Bibles, but if someone goes to them from the dead…

Just as we have the Bible. Let us read it. Together. That is how we know what we are to like, and be like. That is how we know what is just and right. That is how we know what’s wrong with this picture of Lazarus and the rich man. That is how we know there are consequences, blessed and dire consequences to our actions. That is how we know what we know, and how we believe what we believe. That is how we learn ourselves and teach our kids: we have the Bible. We should read our Bibles. Together.

Oh, no, Father Abraham. We don’t read our Bibles. But if you send us a miracle, a financial miracle, a healing miracle, then we will believe and be changed!

If we do not read the Bible that we have, if we do not study together, Father Abraham say to us that we will not be changed even if someone should rise among us from the dead.

Monday, September 06, 2010



I have been thinking about my grandmother—we called her Memie—who lived to be 104. And one week longer.

There are lots of things I remember about her, about the days we shared, just the two of us. She raised me, more or less: my mother was one of the first working mothers in our neighborhood, and my sister had long-since started school. Dad was almost never home, and so there were many days when it was just we two.
Here is something I remember: when I did start to school, Mom and Dad saved my report cards, but Memie saved the pictures I drew—kept them in a drawer in her dresser.

But it is those days before I went to school that I have been remembering of late. Almost every mornings Memie would make me my favorite breakfast—“puppy food” (boiled eggs, bacon, buttered toast, crumbled)—and almost every day, I would write her love letters.

Our house had a den, and in the den was the TV, Dad’s recliner, Mom’s chair, and Memie’s chair and ottoman, on which she rested her legs. There was a fireplace, too, and in front of the fireplace there was a raised hearth. Daddy had this old, black, heavy manual typewriter, with round keys—I think it was a Royal or an Olivetti. Almost every day, after she had cleaned-up the breakfast dishes, Memie would park her crooked frame in her chair to do her needle work, to watch the game shows and soap operas. I would drag the typewriter out of Dad’s study, put it up on the the hearth, sit cross-legged in front of it, roll piece of paper into the thing—and that was no easy task for preschool fingers, getting the paper straight, if I ever did—and then I would clack-clack-clack until I had poured out my heart to her.

Every day that I wrote to her, I wrote her the very same message:

“Dear Memie. I love you. Do you love me?” And then I added this: “ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP…” All the letters of the alphabet, all of them in caps, first, then again in lower case… and my numbers, too, 1,2,3 all the way to zero..
Then, scrch, scrch, scrch, as I ratcheted the paper a few lines, then clack. clack. clack: “Love, Tommy”

How long it took me to hunt-and-peck that daily missive, I have no idea. I feel sure it took a while. But when I was done I would pull it out of the typewriter, sshhrrrp!, and take it to her. I would stand at her shoulder as she read, and she always read it out loud. Then she would hug me around the shoulder and say, “This is why I love you so, because you are so sweet to me.” And I would say, “I love YOU because you are sweet to ME.”

And so it went, day after day: Memie cooking for Tommy; Tommy writing for Memie.

And whether it would occur to you or not, to wonder, it has occurred to me to wonder if my love of writing, whether e-pistles, letters to you, articles, commentary and books, isn’t somehow anchored just there in those days, there at the hearth and Memie’s chair… if all these years later, all I am doing, really, is clack-clack-clacking-out my love for you, my love for God, in hopes that you, or God, or both, will read what I write, hug me around the shoulder, tell me I am loved…


I remember another day with Memie. Just we two.

It was cold and rainy. And dark. There was no fire in the fireplace, of course, just ashes from the night before and wind whistling down the flue. There was no light on in the den at all, except for a small bulb just above Memie’s right shoulder, by which she could see to do her needlework. She had bad arthritis, and when the weather was cold and wet she suffered. Really suffered.

This one day, I remember Memie asked me to get her an extra blanket and put it on her, which I did, wrapped it up and down around her legs, tucked it in on both sides between the ottoman and chair. And then I tucked myself in next to her as close as I could get.

I don’t know whether I wrote her a letter that day or not… but there we were, and there we stayed, two of the weak ones, two of the little ones, one way or the other, held together by love and sweetness and a small cone of light from a 40-watt bulb, just enough light and warmth to keep the cold and dark and rain at bay.


Just a couple of little snapshots, little pictures of days long, long ago—and I had almost forgotten they were there, stuffed down in a drawer of my brain somewhere. But I am so glad I found them: they are so sweet to my memory, and poignant.

I served her in the ways I could, and she served me… we were sweet to one another, and in that sweet service we showed our love for one another.

That is what service, is, I think. A way of showing love.

And not only a way of showing love, but a way of growing in love, of doing love. Do you remember how the book of James says, “Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” Surely that is true of love, as well as faith; that love without works is dead; that love, real and lasting love, is shown and grown and deepened by works, by service.


For the last couple of weeks I have been preaching on Intentional Discipleship… I started with Connect—connecting with God, connecting with each other, and how we cannot be the kind of disciples Jesus called us to be or wants us, for our sakes, to be, apart from each other. Independent is not a Christian adjective.

And then Grow: growth through Study and the Means of Grace. Putting ourselves into position through worship, reading the scriptures, prayer and communion, to receive the spiritual food, the Miracle Gro, we need to become lush and fruitful disciples.

And today: Serve. Serve.

Perhaps it is appropriate that tomorrow, according to the secular calendar, is Labor Day… a day set aside by Grover Alexander and the US Congress in 1894, begun to appease, really, all the angry labor unions whose members had suffered so much during the Economic Panic of 1893, when unemployment was over 18%.

Be any or all that as it may… I have been wondering when work, or labor, becomes service. I suspect it has something to do with the question of why we do it, and for whom. It our labor is done only for ourselves, then it remains labor. But when it is offered more widely, it is service. When indeed it is offered as a sign of love… not just a means of survival, or of growing wealth, but of growing

Intentional Discipleship: Connect, Grow, Serving those whom Christ loves.

Let me tell you one more Memie story. She lived to be 104, but long before that she wanted to die. Prayed to die. She suffered so much… and she asked me, “Why won’t God take me home? I am doing nobody any good; I am just a burden. Why am I still here?”

“You’re here for us,” I said. “Jesus told us to take care of the weak ones, the little ones, the ones who cannot take care of themselves. You are letting us do what Jesus told us—teaching us to serve, and serve others, like you have always done.

Sometimes when I am frustrated at the church, what it is and what it isn’t, I remember that Jesus loves the church: established it, keeps making and remaking it, and that the best gift I can give him, is to love it too, because he does. Looks upon us in mercy, all of us held together by love and sweetness and a little cone of light, as if from a window in heaven, just enough to protect us from the dark and the cold and the rain.

Connecting. Growing. Serving. Those are the ways we are clack-clack-clacking our love for him, and for each other: loving those he loves.

Meanwhile, this morning, as he does so many mornings, Jesus has once again made for us our favorite meal. And that is why we love him so, say our prayers and sing our songs, clack, clack, clack, because he is so sweet to us.

And that is why he loves us so...

Christ our Lord invites to his Table all who love him…

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Parable

I was in Highlands this last week and partly to counsel a couple I will marry in October. I asked them, as a part of that conversation, what they did when they got mad. She said, "I shut down. I just get quiet."

He says, "And I cook. I figure that if I make us a good meal, whatever it is that is bothering us, we can talk about it over dinner."

She said, "And most everytime, he has made this really good meal for me, and after the first bite I cannot for the life of me remember what I was mad about."

Let all the people say, "Ding! Ding! Ding!"

May it always be for us, too, that coming to the table causes us both holy amnesia and wonderful reunion.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Paul, Paul Simon, Nixon, Augustine, Uncle Kracker

I preached this sermon on Sunday, the first in four on "Intentional Discipleship," and this one was "Connection." The text is Luke 13:10-17. At the end, I read the Roman text (not in the lectionary) and invited people to move about with a prayer and a kiss of peace. It was amazing. Really, really amazing.


Maybe you feel like the woman in our gospel lesson for the morning—or have felt like her—this “daughter of Abraham,” Jesus calls her, who has been crippled for 18 years, unable to stand-up straight or look the world in the face. And if you don’t feel like that orthopedically, maybe you feel like that spiritually—have felt like that: bent, warped, withered in your mind and heart, deeply crippled, and maybe you would love to come to Jesus, would love for Jesus to see you and say to you that you are “freed from your ailment,” whatever your ailment may be…

But there are so many things that stand between you and Jesus, regrets, hurts, even people stopping you from connecting with Jesus and his power, and maybe even people in the synagogue itself, “church” people looking down at you for looking down, leaders in the church fussing about how you come or when you come, or where you come from.

Is that the way you have felt in the church or feel: you want is to be well, connected to God, but you have come to the sad conclusion that the church is not only not a help but even a hindrance to your faith. Lots of people feel that way, sad truth to tell—that the church does not help them connect with God, but in many ways, keeps them from connecting with God.

Easier to keep your distance, remain disconnected, even if it means you stay stooped, hobbled, alone. Have you ever felt that way? Wounded? And not least by the church itself?

Preachers feel that way, too, sometimes, have to work to keep their faith in spite of what they have experienced in the church. What their kids have experienced. What has been said to them or done. I think if we all had the right kind of glasses we might all look at each other, pastors and people, and see lots of crippled folk, lots of hurting folk, lots of folk who wish the church was always and only a place of blessing and peace…

No surprise when pastors leave the ministry, when people leave the church. Too many arguments. Too many hard feelings. Too many rules. Too many grievances, petty grievances.


Does anyone remember the Nixon Administration? Some of you do. I remember once hearing a kind of epitaph pronounced on Mr. Nixon’s presidency, that it was characterized by “grand vision and petty grievance.” Grand vision, and petty grievance. He went to China, virulent anti-communist though he was, and turned enemies into friends. And he went crazy, too, kind of, paranoid and self-absorbed, and turned even his friends into enemies.

Ever since I first heard that description, “grand vision and petty grievance”—and the point was that the grand vision was ultimately destroyed by the petty grievance—I have thought it sounds a lot like the church, sometimes, a lot like some Christians, who in spite of the grand vision of our faith are brought down by petty grievance. The weight of glory replaced by a chip on the shoulder.
No surprise when people stay away.


Sometimes, when I read this story and the part about the leader of the synagogue, who does doubt the healing Jesus did, but fusses about the way it all went down, I find myself thinking of my junior high school math teacher, who did not seem to notice that I got the problem solved, which was unusual thing, miraculous, really, and she should have been happy for me, and for her a little (the miracle occurred in her classroom, after all!); but no, she only noticed that I did not do the problem the way she had outlined it on the board, step by step, and she pointed that out in front of the whole class, humiliated me in what should have been a moment of triumph.

Shaking her head… and listen, y’all: nothing unfocuses your eyes like shaking your head. Shake your head and you may not be able to see at all…
That is the leader of the synagogue, too. Shaking his head. Unable to see what is happening before him. He is not unhappy the woman has come back to church after all these years, and yes, it is good that she got healed—but there are ways we do these things, tested and proven over time, prescribed by God, really, and proven over and over again by our ancestors. These are the ways we gather and worship, this is when and how.

I can imagine that for the synagogue leader there was power, even healing, in the structure, the stability, the consistency of Sabbath and the synagogue service, in undisturbed liturgy…

I can hear myself in the voice of the synagogue leader, have said that kind of thing, too. Lots. This is the way we read the Word. This is the way we sing our songs. This is the way say our prayers, so early in the morning. I have outlined it on the board, just like that! Follow the steps!

I have felt my own head shaking and my eyes unfocusing at experiences outside the norm.

Just like some folks shake their head at the norm, at the form. Folks who have had powerful experiences, don’t want church or religion; they want the Spirit!
Well, I want the Spirit, too, but I trust the historic forms of worship, the same forms that framed the experience of Jesus and Paul and Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley and my grandmother.

So what shall it be? Form or power? Power or form? Shall the twain shall meet?


I find myself wondering what might have happened if the crippled woman and the leader of the synagogue had talked… shared, told their stories and asked their questions. She might have said that she needed Jesus’ touch, an immediate experience of grace to heal her body…but that she was grateful Jesus had come to the synagogue, that it was his custom to attend synagogue for prayers and the liturgy…since Jesus always went to church, she knew where to find him, and she was going to start back herself. If that is what Jesus did, that is what she wanted to do, too.

He might have said that he loved the scriptures, the prayers, the certainty of synagogue service, and especially in a world as crazy and fragmenting as the world can be; that the synagogue was his oasis, his city of refuge, his sanity in a crazy world. But he was glad too when there was energy as well as form, lest it all become dry rote, and even kind of glad that Jesus, good Jew that he was, could shake things up and straighten things up, and her not least.

If they had connected, in other words, both of them frightened, wounded, crippled souls, they might have seen that both of them needed healing, that both of them found healing, one in form, one in power, that they weren’t so different after all, both of them hungering for real worship, real connection with God, and maybe for connection with each other, too.

She had been alone for 18 years! He had be barricaded inside the rules.

If they had quit shaking their heads at each other, they might have found connection with each other in their common desire for connection with God.

See how it goes? Connecting with God, connecting with each other; connecting with each other not just in the ways a new directory or phone tree, can help us connect, a newsletter or webpage—but in deeper ways, hard as it can be.

It is hard to find connection with one another. Not least because We are so used to hiding, so practiced at keeping ourselves safe, or so we suppose, and solitary.

This week I found myself thinking about an old Paul Simon song:

They got a wall in China/It’s a thousand miles long./ To keep out the
foreigners they made it strong./ And I got a wall around me/ that you
can’t even see.

Yep. Lots of walls up in these walls. And lots of times people in here just crack-off each other like billiard balls… think of the green felt as the church, and sometimes folks drop off the table and sometimes they bounce… but rarely do they really connect.

No surprise. It’s hard. We’re hard. So why even try?

I could answer theologically: that the church is the Body of Christ, and that when we are together, together we each of us become and all of us become what God has meant us to be.

I could answer musically: maybe you remember that great line is Uncle Kracker’s song, “Smile”:

“Don’t know how I lived without you, / Cause every time that I get around
you, / I see the best of me inside your eyes…”

That is the gift of the Spirit, y’all, or can be.

God knows not always: sometimes when we get around each other we see the worst in each other, but it need not be that way.

We really can’t live without each other, because Jesus has called us together, and the Holy Spirit has given each of us gifts that are intended to be shared with the rest of us—and so it is when we are together that we any of us can find ourselves, see the best of who we are in each other's eyes, can know who we are.

If we isolate ourselves, though, keep our distance, disconnect –even though all of us have good reason at times—as long as we do that we will have this nagging sense that we are incomplete, that something is missing, that something is wrong… and it is.

God saw that it was not good Adam, or any of the rest of us, to be alone, and so God made us for connection—connection with him (remember how Augustine prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest till they rest in you.”). And God has made us for connection with each other…

And connection with our neighbors, too, but I am going to hold that for three weeks. Just remember, connection with God; connection with each other; connection with our neighbors. That is the way God made us…for connection.


Connection… is the first step of intentional discipleship. Connecting with God, in worship; connecting with each other, in spiritual friendship, hard as that can be, and it is hard… and if you ask me how to do it, how to connect, that I will point to you a bicycle wheel. Consider Jesus the hub, and each of our lives one of the spokes. As we move closer to Jesus, we also move closer to one another. The farther away we move from Jesus, the more disconnected we are from each other.

Romans 16: 3-16. I invite you to look around and see who is here that is a partner with you in the gospel--that you see the best in them because of what they have been to you and your faith. And I invite you to move to that one and give them a holy kiss...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Watch Your Feet

I have been thinking about feet. I am not sure why.

It may have started when I was at the doctor’s office. A woman came in wearing sandals designed to catch the eye—there was a HUGE daisy on the strap—and when I looked, I noticed that each of her toenails was painted a different color. Okay.

A bride-to-be came to discuss her wedding. She had stars tattooed on the side of her foot. “Tell me about that,” I said open-endedly, hoping to unearth a nugget of psychic ore we might smelt me in our counseling sessions with her fiancĂ©.
“It’s pretty,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. EOD.

Last week, when my wife went to the dermatologist to have a mole examined (it was nothing, thank God), he said that the moles she (and others) really needed to keep a watch on were the moles on her feet! Who knew?

Anyway, I have been thinking about feet, remembering how, when God called Abram to leave his father and homeland and work in Ur, to start with his wife Sarai toward a land and a future and a heritage they could not possibly imagine, God said, “Go, and I will show you…”

Abram could not wait for clarity before he mustered his courage. He could find the way ahead only by taking it. Abram did as he was commanded, of course, and Sarai too, and ever since their first obedient steps tired and calloused feet have been a sign and symbol of our faith—outward and visible expressions of hope and trust and grace.

When Jesus called his disciples, whether by one’s or two’s, their feet took them away from home and family and work to traipse after him first in Galilee, then into Samaria (where few Jewish feet willfully ventured), and finally south into Judah and Jerusalem. Later, Jesus declared that with the Spirit’s help their feet would take them back to all the places they had been and to more besides—into all the world—and not just as his followers this time but as his representatives. Their thick-soled feet, as much as his ruined ones, would prove to be beautiful on account of the lengths to which they went to spread the Good News of the Gospel.

Used to, preachers would say if you want to know who you really are, as opposed to who you think you are, take a close look at your calendar and your checkbooks. In other words, look closely at how you spend your time and money. These days preachers should tell folk to check their BlackBerrys (lest they prove what many of their people already guess, that preachers and their counsel are behind the times, hopelessly obsolete).

Frederick Buechner suggests, on the other hand, that people to check their feet, not dermatologically but theologically. Want to know who you really are? What you really value? Just see where your feet take you in a day, or a week, or a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Decent Image

I was pleased with this image, used yesterday in a funeral for Jack Covington, a long-time member of our church. I was reflecting on Matthew 11:25...this piece came well into the meditation:

I am thinking again about the text in Matthew—and maybe what first drew me to Jesus words was the part about “heavy-laden.” I have come late to this party, of course, your life in Shelby and Cleveland County and Lafayette Street. There are still so many things I have to learn. And by the time I arrived Jack was already gearing-down, as it were, idling a little on account of his eyesight.

I saw him and Frances at church, mostly, and how faithful they were. Frances told me just this past Saturday, “Now I won’t be there tomorrow, because I would cry all the way through it, but I will be there next Sunday.”

Anyway, Sunday by Sunday I would take Jack’s hand as he offered it—he was not able to find my hand, blind as he had gotten, but he extended his toward the sound of my voice. I could see his hand, of course, and so I would take it, and shake it, kind of cradle it, and chat for a moment or two.

You could find worse images, I think, for our posture before God—all of us extending our hands, perhaps feebly, unable to see who, or where, exactly, we are reaching, just offering our hands toward his Voice; but God can see us, better than we can see him, and he takes our hands and draws us unto himself, near to his heart and at the Last, into his home.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Long time no...write

I have been way. Not that I have gotten a lot of "Where ARE you?"'s from people.

All I can say is that between final revisions of my new book (Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, Upper Room, November), and a couple of other writing assignments and the post-Easter blues, and vacation, and being a pastor... it's about all I can do to update my Facebook page (Thomas Ray Steagald) everyday or two.

Join me there, and I will try to do better with blogging.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42

Friday has dawned but it is still night, the darkness and the shadows growing all the deeper as the sun makes its way toward noon. After their final supper together, Jesus and eleven of his disciples had gone to dark Gethsemane where the moon and the last of the stars was extinguished by the betrayal of the other disciple. Judas had left the table, took himself freshly washed feet to meet a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards. Their torches brought garish light to the garden; wild, misshapen shadows marched to where Judas said Jesus would be. There was Sacrament on Judas’ breath when he kissed Jesus —a kiss of identification, and death.

A fevered skirmish between the sleepy disciples and the High Priest’s posse, was quickly quelled by Jesus, the peacemaker, who also mended the wounded ear of Malchus. Then, Jesus had surrendered himself while the disciples fled.

Alone, except for his arrestors, Jesus was taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas. Peter had followed at a distance, found himself also being interrogated. As Jesus was questioned by Annas he was scrutinized by the maid. “Are you not one of them?” Others questioned him, too, three times asked Peter if he were not one of the disciples, but each time Peter said, “I am not.” The cock crowed after the third denial, but not to greet the day.

Inside, Jesus’ interrogation turned nasty when, upon answering one Annas’ questions, he was struck in the face by one of the policemen. “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong,” Jesus said. “But if I have spoken the truth, why do you strike me?” Perhaps, then as now, he was struck precisely because he does speak the truth. Jesus was bound and carted-off to Caiaphas.

After a brief visit to the High Priest himself Jesus was taken to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate seems pitiable, almost: an inquisitor defending himself to the Judge. It is Pilate who is on trial, not Jesus. But when Pilate found no reason to charge, must lest hold Jesus, the will of the crowd rendered Pilate powerless yet again: he could not protect Jesus. The crowd demanded Barabas’ release, and it was granted. They demanded Jesus’ death, and Pilate recused himself, acceded to their wishes. Jesus was flogged, mocked, condemned to death.

About noon, while lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple for the Passover meal, Jesus was stripped, nailed to a cross and put on hideous display for anyone passing by to see. Defying the crowds at last Pilate commissioned a sign to be hung on the cross: “The King of the Jews.” It was written in three languages, so that no one missed it. But what did Pilate mean? “This is what we do to trouble makers?” Or did he maybe believe it himself?

Soon it was over, finished. Jesus died in only three hours, but continued his earthly work even to the end. With almost his last breath he did what he always did: reordered lives and relationships: “She is now your mother,” he said of Mary to the disciple he loved. And to Mary he said in turn, “He is now your son.” That was Jesus ministry from the very start—giving his followers to each other in new ways.
It is to this precise moment that everything prior has led. And we would turn away from it, partly because we know the story so well And partly because we really haven’t the first clue as to what it all means. How does this death, this death bring life?

Many have tried to put words around it, bring sense to it or purpose out of it. Better, perhaps, to fall silent. Or turn to the Psalms. Jesus used a few of his last breaths to quote the beginning of Psalm 22, as a way to interpret his own experience of that moment—though only Matthew and Mark have the stomach to remember that he did.

Maybe we turn to another Psalm, not to interpret Jesus’ death so much as a to understand the nature of our own lives.

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
Let me know how fleeting my life is!
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
And my lifetime is as nothing in thy sight.

Surely everyone stands as a mere breath .
Surely everybody goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
They heap up, and do not know who will gather.
And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you…

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
And give ear to my cry.
Do not hold your peace at my tears. Psalm 39:4-6, 12a)


How do you react to this statement: “A faith unequal to death is a faith also unequal to life”? Do you see our culture as “death-denying”? How might “knowing our end” and “dying well” be a kind of prophetic testimony to our culture?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

The Footwashing

Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
I Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-7, 31b-35

Love is a light, but reveals shadows.

God gave all things into Jesus hands, even the feet of the disciples. The story before is breathtaking: Jesus, Word of God and Voice of Creation, silently kneeling, all but naked, before his feckless disciples. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end,” and who can even begin to imagine the logic of either clause? But in love he touches them—not just their minds or hearts but also their dusty and increasingly antsy feet, bestows this touch as one last act of love and compassion, of utter devotion and loyalty to them. And he does so in full awareness that their loyalty will fade like mist.

The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark—to stay with Jesus, even fight and die with him if it came to that—will disappear into the shadows of Gethsemane, evaporate at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshlywashed feet they will abandon him. With his Body and Blood still on their tongue they will betray him. His most vocal supporter will deny him, if with a terrible, truthful word: "I do not know the man." Never did, really.

Will he? Ever? Any of them? Any of us? Ever? Someday?

Jesus the Lord, loves and serves his friends in this almost-too-much-to-take-in way. And then Jesus gives them this almost-too-much-to-give-out commandment, a new commandment and mandate (and thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)—that they love one another just as he has loved them. Not only the way he has just loved them, but in all the ways Jesus had loved and them and did, from the beginning to the end. One could spend life, a ministry, an academic career trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of Jesus’ last command.
God gave all things into Jesus hands, even the feet of the disciples. And he left this word: “I have given you an example: If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice footwashing as a Sacrament. We might wish the rest of us would. The practice meets the requirements, after all: it was instituted by Jesus, and it does convey grace.

Still, the grace footwashing conveys can be overwhelming—too much grace, if there is such a thing. Light can blind eyes accustomed to the shadows.

And so it comes as no surprise when footwashing services are poorly attended, when even the most faithful say, with their words or absence, “You shall never touch my feet.”

It is no surprise when even the faithful keep their distance, keep their feet, their hands, their hearts and minds mostly to themselves, hide in the shadows of resistance. Putting ourselves in Jesus’ hands changes things, changes us. Easier to be who we are, even if it is in the dark.

“If I do not wash your feet, you have not part in me,” Jesus says, and we know at once that distance is not an option in discipleship. We have to come close, have to let him have his way with us, have to let him bathe us, and not only our feet.


How is the love of Jesus, and of the church, uncomfortable for you? Do you wish for such intimacy, with Jesus and others, as Jesus desires? How would that look day-to-day?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday in Holy Week

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

Scandalous Devotion

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12:1-3
John 13:21-32 (12:1-11)

Lazarus had been dead, but was alive and eating dinner once again in Bethany where his sisters were giving a party in honor of Jesus. Martha served, as she always seems to do. And Mary was at Jesus’ feet—again—where she always seemed to be. This time, though, she was not his student but his embalmer.

Jesus was alive, still, of course, but not for much longer, if only he and maybe Mary seemed to know or sense it. Or perhaps it was with her gift that night the way it sometimes is with ours: we give what we give and we think it means one thing, but when the gift is received it signifies something else again. It is hard to know, sometimes, about things.

It is hard to know about people, too, and Judas, not least. He was the treasurer, John says, and also a thief. Maybe it was all just as simple as that: that Judas cared only about money, was as cold and heartless as we have been catechized. But here and there are hints, whispers, that maybe there was another side to him.

The Last Supper, for instance: the disciples wondered if, in honor of the feast, Jesus has told him to go and give something to poor. Which is to say, maybe even the disciples knew of his sympathy for the less-fortunate, knew that Jesus would trust him with such a task, that this was not the first time Judas had done such a thing or made such provision.

There is also this moment in Bethany, when with Lazarus eating and Martha serving, Mary embarrassed herself for love of the man who had raised her brother from the dead. Judas was scandalized, of course. But is that a sign of his hypocrisy, or of devotion?

No one spoke when Mary took her place at his feet, in company. But no self- or tradition-respecting woman would do such a thing. In front of her sister, maybe. Maybe. But in full view of the neighbors? Never.

Taking her hair down in public? No one speaks again, though the air is getting thick. A woman took her hair down only in private, and then only as a sign of deep intimacy—a sign that she “found her man.” Which is to say, for Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet in this way was as scandalous an act as Jesus’ washing his disciples feet a couple of nights later—and perhaps she gave him the idea.

The perfume? Pure nard. Expensive. Used for embalming. In a costly jar which Mary broke as regretlessly as she offered the rest of her scandalous devotion, her heart full to breaking with love and thanks and, also, I suspect, fear—the sense, if not the knowledge exactly, of what was coming.

And Judas could no longer hold his tongue. “This perfume should have been sold,” he said, “and the proceeds given to the poor.” The Evangelist cries foul, of course, and maybe Judas’ statement is simply disingenuous. But what if he had overheard, and taken to heart, the word of Jesus to the rich young man? What if Judas considered those words to be the Rabbi’s plain command: that if you have a treasure, you sell it and give it to the poor (Luke 18:22). That is the way to be perfect, Jesus had said.

And so Judas may indeed have seen Mary’s act not only as waste, but also as disobedient disrespect of their honored guest’s teaching.

More patiently than he might have, he told Judas to hold his peace, to be still. “There is a time for devotion,” he said, just as there is a time for sacrifice. There is a time for scandalous devotion, even, which is a different kind of selfless gift.

If anything, Jesus’ heart was fuller than Mary’s. His heart, too, would soon be broken for love of his friends, as Mary had broken the alabaster jar for love of him, his grace pouring out onto those he loved. The sweet aroma of his sacrifice still fills the world.

A broken jar; a broken heart; a broken body—each in their own ways scandalous acts of unaccountable love and devotion.

But what of Judas? There is the disquieting comfort in the story from a couple of nights later, at another supper, just Jesus and his closest followers. When he says, “One of you will betray me,” none of them seem to know who he means, at least not at first. They do not immediately think of Judas but rather ask in turn, “Lord, am I the one?”

It is easy to blame Judas, of course. And maybe he was just as cold and heartless as we have been taught to believe. What is harder is to ask whether we, each of us, might be the one. Hard to make that confession.


Have you ever demonstrated “scandalous devotion”? Have you ever prayed, “Lord, am I the one?” How have such experiences changed your spiritual journey?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday in Holy Week

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.


Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 71:1-14
I Corinthians 1:18-31
John 12:20-36

There were essentially “three crowds” casting their shadows around Jesus during Holy Week. The first crowd were the users, those who just wanted something from Jesus, whether a personal miracle or political transformation—consider theirs the shadow of selfishness. These hailed him outside the city on Palm Sunday, wanted him to seize power and, when he achieved it, spread the wealth. Even some of Jesus’ own disciples were in this crowd at one time or the other: James and John had said, "Lord, grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at the left, when you come into your kingdom."

It could be that the Greeks in today’s gospel reading, Gentile God-fearers, perhaps, were themselves seeking audience for that very same reason: to ask something of Jesus, some sign or service. Whatever it was they were asking, Philip’s reporting of it told Jesus that the time had come.

Just as the arrival of the Gentile Magi signals that the one born King of the Jews was also Savior of the world, these Greeks’ request reveals that the one to be crucified as a threat to peace is actually its Prince.

A second crowd around Jesus comprised the abusers. Theirs is the shadow of malevolence. They hated Jesus and his message, wanted him gone and good riddance. Some of them—and perhaps Judas is to be accounted here—may have been believers at the first, following Jesus and welcoming his teaching. By Holy Week, though, they have rejected him, whether for his peaceful, turn-the-other cheek kind of gospel they considered too docile in the face of Roman occupation, or for his uncompromising God-first platform that seemed too radical a message for the current climate and a danger to the political dĂ©tente. In either case, as the cheers of the Palm Sunday crowd faded, these malevolent voices amped-up and won the day.

The third and by far largest of the crowds were those who were…unaware. Dwelling in the shadow of oblivion they did not attend the parade on Sunday. They were not at the Temple for the “cleansing” or the debates. They were just too busy with life, with children, with work, with stuff, with whatever it was they were busy with to take much notice at all of anything going on.

A friend concluded his Holy Week sermon by citing the last line of O Sacred Head Now Wounded: “O let me never, never outlive my love for Thee." He confessed that the phrase had haunted him his "conscious spiritual life," wondering what the hymn-writer might have meant, exactly, by that phrase. Was he thinking about death, praying that God would not let him live so long as to grow cold in his religious affections? Or was he acknowledging his place in that third shadow, in that third crowd where most of us find ourselves—so busy with life and its stuff that we are in danger of "outliving" our love to Jesus?


In which crowd do you find yourself? In what way does that shadow darken your spiritual path?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday in Holy Week

Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.

Spring Cleaning

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 36:5-11
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 2:13-22 (John 12:1-11)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the navel of the universe, said some, while others said it was just as turned-in on itself, a little hole full of filth and intrigue, graft and grime.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who murders the prophets—and the one hailed as the prophet from Nazareth will be only the latest.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who knows not the things that make for peace. Who does not realize the time of her visitation when Jesus comes to her, humbly and riding on a donkey or two.

When Jesus arrived in the Holy City, full as it was of unholy alliances, to Matthew’s memory it was the first time, and also the last, that Jesus had or would visit the Jerusalem. Luke recounts two visits: when Jesus was circumcised, and when he amazed the teachers at age twelve. John’s recollection, however, is that, like most observant Jews, Jesus had been a more or less regular visitor to the city and also to the Temple. Jesus had taught there, healed there, too, and more than once. He was familiar with the place and its particulars.

In Jesus’ time, the Temple represented both God’s bountiful provision and the also the Romans’ stifling occupation. The archetypal symbol of Jewish freedom, the Temple had gradually become emblematic of the parasitic complicity between the Romans and the Temple authorities. The Romans demanded tribute—protection money. Taxes collected at the Temple were a chief source of the revenue.

The complicity was compounded with idolatry: the money intended for YHWH, King of the Universe, blessed be He, wound-up in the coffers of Tiberius, self-proclaimed god of all the world. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, concerned above all else to protect the Temple itself, acceded as the increasingly oppressive purpose of the Temple was monetized.

Money changing was perfectly legal, of course—and a real service, it could always be argued, for those who traveled long distances to worship. But profit had had overtaken prayer as the Temple’s primary enterprise. Business had subsumed the sacred. And on that Monday, Jesus tore up the place. He cleaned, as it were, God’s House.

His actions that day recall other reformers in Jewish history, Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, especially. During each of their reigns the Temple had become cluttered with stuff—booths, people, furniture and behaviors that did not belong in God’s sanctuary. These “things” were signs of syncretism and idolatry. And though God had commanded that the faithful “have no other gods” before God nor make room for any “graven image” to stand in God’s place, gradually the people had cluttered the Temple with unholy things.

We are likewise guilty, of course. The churches we attend, the temple of our hearts, the architecture of our souls–spaces are carved, built or emptied, to provide a proper venue, a meeting place, for us to experience God: a space for God alone to fill. Gradually, though, we begin to fill in the emptiness with stuff. The stuff may or may not have religious or historic value, sacramental or sacred worth. In any case such “things” come between us and God, are “before God,” shielding us from the terrible and wonderful intimacy that engenders true epiphanies.

Church “work” is one of those buffers. Behind the wall of her kitchen in Bethany Martha is busy doing making dinner for Jesus. Her work for him keeps her safely away from him. Similarly, there is a danger that for those who are busiest for God, many times their busyness is "before" God—not just in terms of priority but also proximity. Our works can be an effective shield against religious experiences, places to hide, self-styled protection against the terror and wonder of real prayer and worship.

On that long-ago Monday, Jesus’ actions in the Temple were directed against the priests and the “work” of the Temple, the religious professionals and their helpers, who like contemporary preachers and their people may do their religious work as a kind of self-care. Imagining, perhaps vainly, that we are serving God, we may find that, in truth, we are in seeking only protection, whether to from our creditors or our Creator.


What stands “before” God in your spiritual life, not so much as idol, though it could be, but perhaps as a wall, a buffer, a shield against genuine religious experience?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lent--The Awkward Season

A new book published by Upper Room has a most intriguing title: The Awkward Season.

The book concerns Lent, the period of fasting and prayer that many Christians and congregations observe this time of year. Think of it as a form of spiritual spring cleaning—getting rid of some of the old stuff to make more room for God.

That said, Lent is an awkward season, even for those who observe it. Trying to explain it to those who don’t observe Lent proves just how awkward.

Lent begins on a Wednesday and ends on a Thursday. Its 40 days are spread over parts of seven weeks, but you don’t count Sundays.

Sundays are always reminders of the resurrection (since it was early on “the first day of the week” that the women discovered the tomb was empty). That is the reason we say, the Fourth Sunday in Lent as opposed to the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Awkward.

That is also the reason that, for example, if you have given-up chocolate for Lent, you can eat a Hershey bar on Sunday. Since our Lord is not dead but alive and with us, and since Jesus himself said that his disciples cannot fast when the Bridegroom is with them, we don’t, you know, fast on Sundays. (From personal experience, though, I must tell you that going against the vow on Sunday makes things harder on Monday.)

So Sunday’s are not a part of Lent. Still, we preachers drape our sanctuaries in purple and offer somber sermons. Every Sunday in Lent we pray long prayers full of deep confession and contrition, invite our people to lament and bewail their manifold sins and wickedness. Except on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, when, as we do on the Third Sunday of Advent, we take a little break from our gloom and fasting (assuming we have started to fast), to rejoice in our (costly) redemption. Oh, and this time it was Girl Scout Sunday, too! Really awkward.

But then we are back at the lamentation stuff for a couple of more weeks until, on the last little Easter before Big Easter, we wave palm branches at the first of the service only to shift gears and read the entire crucifixion narrative before leaving the service in silence. Awkward.

The weather doesn’t help, either. Outside there are buds and blossoms, green on the trees, but inside, in our sacred places, we try to keep our attentions onto a barren cross, dead wood, lashed, a reminder not of new life but an old death. Awkward.

There is yet one more awkwardness—most of the rest of the year, preachers expend considerable energy telling their people not to think so much about themselves. In Lent, though, we encourage people to think about themselves—their own sins and shortcomings and no one else’s. That we are mostly unable to do the former means we are mostly ineffective at the latter. That makes Lent very awkward indeed.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Old Hymns...

When I was a child, growing up in the Radnor Baptist Church in Nashville, TN, I learned to sing my faith before saying it. One of the hymns of discipleship featured this lyric:

"Let others see Jesus in you; let others see Jesus in you./
"Keep telling the Story, be faithful and true:
"let others see Jesus in you."

We do not practice our piety in order to be seen by them, but there is no way faithful disciples escape notice.

Still, I am thinking that if I were to rewrite that old hymn--and I cannot do such a thing, as I am not much of a lyricist or poet--I would want it to say something like this: Let me see Jesus in others.

Let me see Jesus in others--the kid who cuts me off in traffic, the condescending preacher or priest, the woman who works against my ministry, the family member who dismisses my life and calling. Let me see Jesus in them just the same.

Perhaps I will give up "expectation" for Lent, meaning I will not expect any of these or anyone else any reaction that I deem appropriate. I will not expect any particular courtesy, or respect, or standing. I will not expect anyone to defer to my age, my education, my "wisdom" (would that I HAD some to which people might defer). I will not expect anything of others--only of myself: that others may see Jesus in me: his compassion, his mercy, his long-suffering and patience, his self-sacrifice.

May God grant me to fulfill this Lenten vow, and even beyond Lent.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Icons, St. Bernard, and Wounded Healers

At one corner of my desk, downstairs in my study, I keep a most-prized possession—this three-paneled icon written in burgundy and gold: an “authentic copy,” the certificate reads: in other words, a “genuine imitation” of a Byzantine altar piece. In the middle panel is the Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord, cheek to holy cheek with the Christ-child and both of them looking peaceful, serene, and perhaps because in either side panel the archangels Michael and Gabriel stand guard, Michael with a sword and Gabriel with… something I cannot quite make it out. It does not look like a weapon, but I would not care to test him and find out otherwise.

I look at that icon on my desk every day, and when I do I remember that somewhere, in one of the many Greek Orthodox churches around the world, hanging above that church’s Altar is the real thing, from which my genuine imitation is authentically copied. I know, too, that at that church, whenever it is time for worship, the icon is reverently unfolded, unshuttered, if you please, as if to open a window between earth and heaven—to let the prayers of those worshipers out, to let heaven itself look in and keep vigil over those faithful prayers.

An icon is just a picture, really, but with a purpose. You have seen Sunday School classes where, on the wall, there is a picture of Jesus, or a cross. Maybe you have been to churches, or hospitals, where in each room is hung a crucifix. The picture or cross hangs there to mark the room as holy space, and to call you back to the moment should your mind wander. The picture itself, somehow, reminds you of why you are there.

Indeed, believers have long believed that by pondering pictures of Jesus we are drawn closer to him somehow, and he to us. By filling our mind more and more with images of Christ, we find ourselves more and more filled up with Christ’s presence and purpose and, I think, his peace.

Thank God for all the various pictures of our Lord—on the wall, on the desk; thank God for the Bible, too, which gives us so many pictures, so many stories, to help us focus our thinking, to aid our understanding, to quicken our prayers.

Today’s gospel lesson is such a story, such a picture. Considering what we see here, praying what we find, may give voice to many of our most urgent confessions and hopes, may help us pray our best prayers.

You remember, don’t you? One day Jesus is standing by the lake of Genessaret—the Sea of Galilee—and a crowd gathers around him, the folks at the back pushing to get closer so they can hear and the folk at the front crowding Jesus so that he is about to fall in the lake. He sees two boats, there in the shallows, empty, because the fishermen had left the boats, were already washing their nets…ding, ding, ding—washing their nets: they have already given-up, have quit fishing, have called it a day.

Jesus gets into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and he asks Simon to put out a little way from shore. Jesus sat down in the boat, partly because that is what you do, usually, when you are on a boat. But sitting is also a rabbi’s customary posture for teaching. Jesus teaches, from the boat—what, we don’t know, but soon, he is finished. He turns to Simon and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

“Master,” Peter says, and note that well: “Master.” Not rabbi, nor teacher. Not Lord, not yet. Just Master. A master is someone you obey, and so Simon obeys, but not without objection: “Master, we fished all night and we caught nothing… “
Of course they caught nothing! They never catch anything! In spite of the fact that at least four of Jesus’ disciples are professional fishermen, there is not a single instance in all the gospels, nary a one, when they ever catch even a single fish—unless Jesus is there, in the boat, on the shore, directing them, helping them.

“Master, we fished all night and we caught nothing, yet if you say so I will let down the nets.“ He obeys and now there are so many fish in the nets he cannot haul them in, so many fish in the nets that he has to call his friends, has to call the other boat—so many fish that the nets are breaking and both boats are sinking…

Simon falls at Jesus’ knees and pleads with him, “Go away from me, Lord”—not Master this time, but Lord—“for I am a sinful man.” Jesus does go away—but not without Simon and the others, too: “Do not be afraid: from now on you will be catching people,” Jesus said, and when the boats had gotten back to shore, Simon and James and John left everything—their boats, their nets, all those fish, too, I guess, and how long had they been hoping for such a catch as that…but they left it there, lying there on the sand, with the rest of their stuff, and off they go. For if a Master is one you must obey, the Lord is one you have follow. He is the Big One you can’t let get away.

Maybe you know what it feels like to be give-out and still empty. Just washing your nets with what little strength you have left. You have worked so hard and have so little to show for it. And who would not hope and pray that after the long night of our futility and failure, if we are just obedient, obedient enough in little things, Jesus will reward us in abundance, so much abundance that we will need help getting it all in the bank.

Yes, we know we are sinners, but we do not want to be afraid anymore. We know we are weak, but we want him to be strong. Strong, for us, when we have no strength left. If he is the Lord of all things, will he not steer us past the superficialities of this word to deeper things, tell us where to drop our nets, and give us far more abundantly than we know how to ask or receive? Who would not pray that God is able and ready to lavish on us all we might want or need: victory, prosperity, health, answers, glory?

A Theology of Glory—that is what frames this picture from Luke and that is what many of us pray for most, for ourselves and our friends: glory, prosperity, healing, victory in Jesus. That is why churches like ours put an empty cross on the wall: to show that Jesus has overcome death and the grave. And that is what we pray for ourselves, that we will also overcome…

But what about when we are overcome? When there is no prosperity, or glory, or victory?

Have any of you ever heard of St. Bernard? Not the dog… St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who died 850 years ago, now, thereabouts. I have been thinking of him this week. Bernard was a monk, a person of deep prayer and faith, and when others came to him, asking him to teach them how to pray, he would sometimes tell them to get in their mind a picture of Jesus’ wounds—the nail prints in his hands and his side. He believed that meditating on the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet could give believers a deep picture of Jesus’ love and mercy, that if one pondered the wound in Jesus side, the very heart of Jesus would become visible, his Sacred Heart, the very love of God.

Take any of that how you will, but the phrase is fetching, at least, to me: “meditating on the wounds of Jesus.” This week I have been doing that—but I have been thinking not so much of Jesus’ physical body, but of his Body, the Church. I have been meditating on the wounds I have seen just this week in Christ’s church.

I am thinking of the woman who has been married to her husband for three decades, and both of them Christians, active in church, anyway. She confided to me this week that she does not talk to her husband anymore because she is afraid he will get mad, and when he is mad she fears for her life. She is deathly afraid of her Christian husband.

I am thinking about a congregation I know where on Thursday of this week 28 people met secretly, and they tried to recruit others, in an effort to oust the pastor. They are losing power—the church is no longer looks or sounds like it used to, and they are terrified. So they are lying, gossiping, doing all sorts of evil—for “the good of the church,” they say, but how can evil ever serve the good?

I am thinking of good friends, here and other places, whose loved ones are sick, or sick again, dying—and there may be no victory, no healing, at least not the kind they have hoped and prayed for anyway—at the Last, yes, we believe, but for now it is grief and anger and questions and helplessness.

I am considering the wounds to Christ’s Body, the Church, and many more than this, of course—hypocrisy, judgmentalism, partisanship, apathy—and maybe you too have been wounded by some wound in the Body of Christ, and how are we to pray in such situations?

Maybe Bernard would tell us to look again at Jesus’ heart…broken and ever-breaking for love of his stained and struggling Bride. Maybe he would tell us to come to this Table in the confession that we too are broken, all of us, but in the knowledge that here, He, too, is broken, for us. In the cup is his blood, his heart, the depth of his love.

He is wounded with our transgressions; and we too are wounded, by our own sins and the sins of others; but perhaps as we give our wounds to him, here we find that by stripes we are healed: he gives his wounds also to us, and here, we find healing.

In his novel, The Blood of the Lamb, Peter deVries tells of a man, a single father, who loses his 12-year old daughter to leukemia. After her death he says this:

“How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a trefful of rotten fruit. (I am) inconsolable, thanks to that eternal "Why?" when there is not Why, that question mark twisted like a fishhook into (my) heart."

But then the man’s bitterness gives way to something else, and the book ends this way…

“Time heals nothing, which should make us the better able to minister (to each other)> Blessed are they that comfort, for they too have mourned...the throb of compassion rather than the breath of consolation: the recognition of how long, how long is the mourners' bench on which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity."

Strength. Abundance. Victory. Those are pictures to ponder and pray, but not the only ones worth our attentions and hopes.

The Church, and we ourselves, broken but joined in compassion. Mercy. Comfort. Friendship—all of us both wounded, and healers; just like Christ our Lord, who invites to his Table all who love him…

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jeremiah Writ Small

It is Sunday afternoon, a few minutes past 12. I have just returned from the church where I went to confirm to my own mind, yet once again, that we did the right thing in canceling worship on account of the snow and ice that have turned our parking lot into a "slip-n-slide."

We did, but it is a strange thing, is it not, that phrase: "canceling worship." And of course we did not do that, could not, at least not in any ultimate sense. The worship of God that commenced at the dawn of creation, when "the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy," has continued, unbroken, ever since. And even today, in places here and there and everywhere, the Song continues, the praise and prayer.

It is a comforting thought--that when we are unable to do our little part, others fill in the gap. And truly there are times when, for a Sunday or a season or even a lifetime, we "pray for others," those who for one reason or the other cannot or do not.

I am reminded of that moment, each Sunday, when we do the Creed, Apostles' or Nicene. People sometimes ask me why we do that every Sunday, and why always at the end. I always say something like this: whether you liked the hymns or not, whether the sermon spoke to you or not, whether the choir moved you or you were able to pray with heart as well as voice, this is what we believe. This is who we are. We go out together with these affirmations on our lips, these same faith-statements by which people have ordered their lives and faced their deaths for lo, these many centuries.

People sometimes ask me, too, why I use the hymnal every time. "Surely, you know these words!" they say. Well, yes, I do...most of the time. But familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then distraction in the moment and there have been a few occasions when I have flubbed the words and led the congregation astray. A parable, that: preachers must be good stewards of the words they have been given so that their folk are not confused along the way. Accordingly, when I lead the Creeds, I always use a hymnal, to be sure I keep us together. When I am in the pew as a worshiper I never use the hymnal, sure that if I flub-up, there is someone behind me or beside me who can, by their good memory and faithfulness, rein me back in. Together, our profession of faith continues unimpeded.

Praise, too. Today, we have had to rely on others to continue the song. And they have. Next week we will pick-it-up again, God willing. We canceled our little piece of God's worship today, but Worship never ceases.

And still it was odd. Being at LSUMC on a day and at a time when we normally are there. I was reminded of Lamentations 1:1-- where Jeremiah looks over Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonians and the deportment of the Jews, many of them to Babylon. He writes, "How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!"

For him, of course, the lament was greater, unsure as he was as to when the people would return, when there would be songs and celebration, whether he would be there to see and hear it. For us, and for me, the odd sadness of a quiet sanctuary is tempered by the hope and knowledge that we will gather again in just a matter of days.

My prayer is that next Sunday we ring our beautiful rafters with song. That we make glad the place of our worship, rejoice to be together once again and give the Morning Stars a run for their money.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I have been thinking…which is always a problematic affair…but I may be on to something here. When I went to the Y last week to do my walking, I saw a sign-up for men’s Church League basketball. I felt my heart do a between-the-legs dribble.

See, I used to play basketball. I am the first to admit I was not very good. I was slow, but I couldn’t jump either. Or shoot very well. I had no real knowledge of the game and almost no court awareness—my peripheral vision has always been suspect. I could not run the floor, had poor ball-handling skills and had trouble remembering which way to cut on set plays. I could not run backwards at all and I had no stamina. Maybe I could have made up for most or all of those deficiencies with hard work and enthusiasm, but laziness is my constant companion, has always dulled the edge of my little gung-ho. And still, I was on the school team for a short while—second- string B-team at MBA, a small, all-boys prep school in Nashville.

MBA was the “model” for Dead Poet’s Society (if any of you remember that movie). I attended there for one terrible, horrible, no good very bad year, and like Alexander (if any of you remember that book), there were many days I wanted to mail myself to Australia. Part of my misery was that some sort of athletic endeavor was required for all freshmen, and for me it came down to basketball or cross country. I chose the former, thinking the latter would be even more embarrassing.

I lasted a month, until the afternoon when the first-string varsity was running their offense against the second-string B-team defense (we were supposed to represent, however vaguely, the next opponent, and why in the world they put me on point in the one-three-one zone, I have no idea). A whistle started the play and next thing I know I had been sandwiched by a upperclassman’s screen and my knee cap had come to rest at the back of leg somewhere. A few weeks later I had the first of my seven knee surgeries.

After rehab and a change of schools I began attending a church that had a pretty good church league team. I had kind of gotten the bug, in spite of my failure and injury, and so I played church league ball for several years –even played on the graduate school team while I was in seminary. But after a surgery here and a surgery there I finally had to give it up in hopes of preserving what little orthopedic integrity I had left.

Injuries were not the only reason I put the ball in the rack and threw my sneaks to the back of the closet. With age I grew increasingly tired of fellows playing as if there were scouts for the Knicks in the stands (or the Yankees—you see this kind of behavior in softball, too, guys who seem to imagine they still have a shot at the bigs). They are WAY too wired considering the reality of the situation. A professor friend used to say that academic battles are so intense because there is so little at stake. Little league parents, too, some of them. I personally know of one such parent who had a heart attack and died after arguing, and all the way to the parking lot, a third strike call at his youngest son’s game.

Anyway, the other day at the Y, staring at the announcement for church-league sign-ups, I was thinking, remembering, wishing I could play a little more church league basketball, knowing, though, that there is really no place much, even on the bench, for a fifty-five year old who has had two separate replacements of the same knee. Then it hit me…

What we need is a league just FOR old guys and their prosthetics! We could call it Shelby JAMs (Men with Artificial Joints, JAMs being a backward acronym). Fifty and older, with no illusions that we are going to impress anyone, and least of all ourselves. I can see it now: old guys who don’t look so great in shorts, hobbling up and down the court only fast enough to get our heart rates up and break a sweat. We would take it easy each other, and laugh a lot. We would cheer each other on, even the guys on the other team, and pick each other up when we fall down on the “fast break,” and maybe keep score, you know, but no one really would much care about that part of it. We would just be thankful to be alive and breathing, to be able to still move at all.

It would not have to be a church league, but it could be, because big parts of it—we all are injured; we have no illusions about ourselves or each other; we are not trying to impress each other, just help each other; picking each other up when we fall down; cheering each other on—all of that sounds a lot like what the faith, and church, ought to be, and not just when we are playing ball.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pray for Haiti

And DO NOT give in to the temptation that seduced Pat Robertson. He is JUST LIKE the disciples in John 9, who stand there looking at the man born blind and begin discussing the causes of his circumstance. I see them nodding, pursing their lips, rubbing their beards as they ponder the existential dimensions of original or actual sin...

Jesus says only that the man's blindness is a chance for him to do the works of light. He kneels, begins making the balm of healing, the good earth and his holy spit, and spreads it on the man's eyes.

If we can blame the victims for what has happened to them we need not be so bothered. A pact with the devil? Hundreds of years ago? Neither these poor unfortunates nor their parents sinned in such a way, or even if they did God is wise enough to see past such foolishness. The question is not why...the imperative is now: let us do the works of light while there is light.

God does not send earthquakes; but God's people send aid, as God sent aid to us in Jesus. In that way God is glorified in even horrible moments such as this.

Pray. Do not blame.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Romans 8:28

I think most people reading and hearing this text are drawn to the first part... that God is working in all things for good, or God works good of all things--however one translates it there is comfort: the notion that nothing is coincidence for those who love God, that there is a plan, that nothing bad is ultimate, etc.

But tonight, in an otherwise unremarkable reading of that text, I heard the last part again: "...and are called according to HIS PURPOSES." Perhaps what struck me had to do with the recent and terribly unfortunate situation on the Hill, which is to say, at the University of Tennessee, Rocky Top, Go Big Orange!

I am a sidewalk alumnus, a devout and faithful follower, a cut-me-and-I-bleed-Orange sort of fan, and FOUR NUMBSKULL BASKETBALL PLAYERS were, on New Year's Day (which is the church calendar is the Holy Name of Jesus) pulled over for speeding. During the traffic stop two handguns were discovered, one with the serial number filed off, and also a baggie of weed in a backpack bearing the name of one of the players.

What WERE they thinking?

Anyway, one of them, a couple of days later, tweeted about the strength he was drawing from his strong faith, that "God will not put you in a situation without providing a way to deal with it." Something like that.

On one of the message boards I follow a guy posted, "God had NOTHING to do with putting you in this situation, dude. This is your doing." Indeed.

It is one thing to believe that those who are engaged in God's purposes find a deeper good even in difficult times. It is quite another to say that difficulties of our own making either interest God or obligate God to work good in and through it.

Should God do so, we can be thankful for such grace. But grace is a gift, not a given.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

January 6

January 6: Epiphany of the Lord. He who is born King of the Jews is also Savior of the World. Oh, that he would rend the heavens and come down! Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

But until Then, the revisions on my new piece for Upper Room Books continue. Today I am trying to help Jesus get Lazarus out of the tomb today... reminding me of the first line of my first real book when I posed this, and to my mind, GREAT question..."Did anyone ask Lazarus that day in Bethany whether he WANTED to be raised from the dead?"