April 21, 2007


Already you have ravished my heart. And this, despite the years of my forward-thinking paranoia, wherin I heroically assumed you would surely wreck my world. Indeed you have, and I am more put-together now than ever.

A Place

Generous quietude
Gracious appointments
Uncontested attention
for life
for thought
for the livingness of God
For such a place
I am indebted


It would have been helpful
had someone taken the time
to fasten to your beam some
device for hanging all those

matters from our living that
have erected your dying. We
need some firmer appliance:
a place to sling our sorrows,

some fixture for our failures.
Perhaps a hook, likely many,
all affixed to your towering
tree. Numerous fresh nails,

not so much for holding you
fast, as for hanging near you
all those portions of us now
dying; creation, languishing.

Here we shall hang, not hats,
but hearts—broken, bruised.
A hook for worries, for fierce
regrets, several for those few

sins both despised—desired.
One for our frustration over
this globe gone mad. One for
the pain of missed goodbyes.

We need our space to dangle
what we’ve done; some place
to hang a matter still undone.
Hooks for boredom, jealousy,

foolishness, and the vanity of
wasted time. Let us crowd
your cross with our stubborn
indignity, hanging on to your

hellish descent
until we all
with you

Up Through the Ranks

There is something qualitatively different about a person who has come up through the ranks. So often in life the people we respect, the leaders we are willing to follow, are people who have patiently and deliberately worked their way up from the bottom to the top. Someone else less wise, someone who has not climbed the ladder rung by rung may have the same qualifications and skills, but the one who has come up through the ranks brings something unique to life at the top: memory. We appreciate those leaders who have worked their way up precisely because they have a living memory of life “down below.” They lead, they govern, and they act differently at the top because they know something of life at the bottom.

In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul grabs a common hymn from the worshipping life of the early church and uses it to make a powerful point about the Jesus we believers call “Lord.” He wants the Philippian Christians to come down off of their individual high and hobby horses, so he urges them to “have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” What follows is his use of the “Christ hymn” (as scholars call it)—a musical celebration of the downward and upward journey of Jesus, the condescension and exaltation of the Eternal Son. Close attention to the hymn reveals that even its language, the style of its rhetoric, allows one to feel the downward—upward movement of Christ. My own translation:

Though Christ was in the form of God,

he did not regard that equality with God
as something to be exploited or held on to,

but instead he emptied himself,
poured himself out,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

The one we confess was present in the Trinity from the beginning of beginnings is, astonishingly, the same one who chose not to exploit that very status—not to hold too tightly to it—but instead emptied himself (ekenoson in Greek – literally “to remove the content”) and took on our form. With each downward rhetorical step in the hymn, the Lord (master) willingly becomes more and more a slave.

I heard tell quite recently of a man who stood by his friend even when giving him that support proved most unpopular among his rank and file. It is quite a thing when one gives up one’s status for another—especially when that downward movement proves costly, sacrificial. So you see, the great scandal of the cross of Jesus is not so much that he suffered as much as he did, but rather that he (the Eternal Son! the Christ! the Word! the Lord!) suffered at all. The Master has become the slave. He who was “in the form of God” gave up that very form to take up our lot, to clothe himself in our sullied garments, to walk among our ranks. Amazing.

But our Christian story does not end even there. The second half of the hymn insists that the Father would not rest until the Son was restored. One notes in the second stanza how the emphasis shifts from Christ’s action to God’s action. Whereas the Son moves downward toward us, the Father lifts him upward toward himself.

Again, my own translation, to be read from bottom to top:

to the glory of God the Father.

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,

and gave him the name that is above every name,

Therefore God also highly exalted him

The servant now becomes the Lord; the slave again becomes the master. With each phrase of this stanza, we feel the upward movement of the exaltation. Only it is not a movement from human back to divine, from one form to another—as if now the incarnation is over and Jesus must turn back into God. No, there is no transformation in the second stanza, only exaltation. The one raised up as “Christ the Lord” is none other than the man Jesus, the being-found-in-human-form Jesus, our brother in the flesh. Our humanity now sits at the right hand of the Father!

Consider this: “Lord” is powerful description to ascribe to someone. I don’t know about you, but power tends to make me nervous—whether mine or someone else’s. Power is potential: the potential to strike down or to build up, to bless or to curse. It all depends on the character of the one with the power. Part of my nervousness is an American thing: we Americans are suspicious of power, even cynical about it at times. We worry about its effect on people. It is why we’ve built a government of balances and checks, because we’ve learned it is the rare person who can handle too much power without gross error. (We Presbyterians, too, have a system designed to keep any one person or group from taking over the church.) Yet even with checks in place, still we learn weekly about various misuses and abuses of power in our world. As such, I cannot help but feel it is something of a scandal when we Christians affirm that Jesus’ name is “above every other name,” that he is the “Lord.” Lord of heaven and earth?! That’s just about as much power as can be given a person. I’ve never known any other who could pull that off without abuse. It makes me nervous sometimes even to say “Lord,” given the kind of abuse than can happen when someone is too far removed from us at the top.

Yet my nervousness is quelled, perhaps even redeemed, when I consider the Christ hymn above. What those earliest Christians were celebrating in song was precisely that the one who has been exalted by God to the highest possible status is none other than that same one who freely gave up his status in the first place. In other words, our Lord Jesus has come up through the ranks. He is not ignorant of our plight, not unsympathic to our sins, not unmoved by those sins visited upon us. Why? Because he reigns as Lord at the top with a memory of his life and death at the bottom. He knows what it’s like down here, knows what it’s like to be me and you, knows all those downward, spiraling descents of this life that cry out for God’s upward, life-giving redemption. He knows. He has come up through the ranks.

We worship him, we adore him, we give our lives over to him, not because he rules with unearned, unfettered power, demands blind obedience, or has a needy, capricious ego (all the marks of a corrupted ruler). Rather, we give ourselves over to him completely because he has born our lot, he has trod our soil, and he has worn our flesh. He sits now at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33, 7:55, etc.) with a memory of also sitting with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). It is not so much that he is Lord. The good news of the gospel is that he (the crucified one! the suffering servant! the son of humanity! our brother!) is now Lord.

The wonderful scandal of the gospel: God has come up through our ranks.

April 6, 2007

Pontius Who?

This Sunday’s catechism question—the next in our ongoing work through the 1998 Presbyterian Study Catechism—will ask of us,

What do you affirm when you say that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”?

It seems strange to admit it, but I sometimes feel bad for ole’ Pontius. After all, since about the third century A.D., on every Lord’s Day and all around the world, Christians have intoned his name in conjunction with the terrible sufferings our Lord. What a way to have your surname remembered for all posterity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Yeah!); Pontius Pilate (Boo!). If everyone has fifteen minutes of fame, Pilate is well over his quota.

And then there is the frequent befuddlement surrounding his name, especially as it sounds in worship to the untutored ear. (An old Latin name likes his is ripe for misunderstanding.) I remember as a child wondering:

Who is the Pontius dude we always talk about in church? “Pon-chus” – Wasn’t he one of the cops on CHIPS? What, did he fly airplanes, too? Maybe he flew Jesus to the wrong airport and got into trouble …

The whole thing was a train wreck in my imagination.

How quirky it is, really, as we take to our feet every Sunday, taking to our lips the most succinct, most widely-affirmed Christian creed in the history of New Testament faith, that halfway through the exercise we mention the name of an otherwise long-forgotten Roman governor assigned to Palestine—basically the backside of the once proud Roman Empire. God must have a delightful sense of humor.

But then again, maybe not. What if we were to think of Pilate not merely as a cryptic historical reference to a man now long gone, but more as a potent symbol for those peoples and powers that appear set against God’s life-giving purposes. What if our grandmothers and grandfathers of this faith, when putting the creed together some 1800 years ago, quietly slipped in Pilate’s handle because they did not want it forgotten that Jesus’ story was not one of pristine, feel-good religion or name-it, claim-it success. Quite the contrary, Jesus’ announcement was that God’s kingdom and reign (note the political edge in those words, usually lost on us) was breaking into the here-and-now. It landed him, not a peace prize, but right before Pilate and others in power—his life hanging in their judgment (see Matthew 27, etc.).

Affirming that our Lord “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is, among other things, an affirmation that both then and now, things are often not the way they are supposed to be—especially around power. Though we pray each week, just as Jesus taught us, may it be on earth as it already is in heaven, Pilate stands as an old, old reminder that not everyone or everything welcomes heaven’s reality in our midst. Some things might have to change; some people might be usurped. Perhaps the double-P name in our creed and our lips serves each week to keep our naïveté at bay, and to remind us when are discouraged that Jesus willingly stood “under” Pilate precisely for those who are themselves “under” heavy loads of difficulty, oppression, and pain.

Thank God the creed moves on: “On the third day he rose again from the dead.” Ha! Take that, Pilate! (Sorry, thinking like a kid again.) In the end, God, and not Pilate, gets the final word—resurrection.

Beloved Easter people, let us never tire of doing good in this world in Jesus’ name and in his weakness-strength, and let us not be dissuaded in our efforts when the going gets rough. Indeed, “he will come again, to judge the quick (i.e. the living) and the dead.” All will be made well in time.

Thanks be to God.

An Idle Tale

A Response to Luke 24:10-11

“It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words [about the empty tomb] seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

One truth about me is this: Every now and then, I find myself slightly embarrassed about the innermost content of the New Testament. It is sometimes just too much to swallow. Upon reflection on what is admittedly quite a strange fix for a Presbyterian preacher, I realize that my mild discomfiture with the heart of the gospel stems mostly from my fear that I will be received by others just as Mary Magdalene was received by the apostles. Her first-person-singular-sermon to that huddled mass of frightened (male) disciples is summarily written off as utter nonsense, charismatic foolishness, or in Luke’s phraseology, “an idle tale.”

Had Miss Mary grown up in the South, those men would have said she was “just tellin’ stories.”

And it’s no wonder they don’t believe what she tells them. Half of the time I have trouble with it myself. There is a palatable, reasonable, understandable layer to our faith, to be sure; one that is less assaulting on the logic, and therefore so less demanding on a heart like mine—slow to trust, slow to believe. “Love, peace, caring, grace, forgiveness” – these are the ingredients of faith which dissolve so much more readily into the stirred-mixture of my life. A reasonable faith: that’s what I think I long for.

But to leaf through the pages of the gospel accounts, to travel with our Jesus toward the living God, sentence by sentence, page by page, is to discover along that way that ours is a faith built not upon vague religious principles, or upon rational and therefore palatable ideas, or even upon generic spiritual experiences—the kind anyone can have when he sponsors a hungry child (for just pennies a day), or when she sees another touching Mormon commercial (And they are so touching, aren’t they?).

No, to follow Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—to follow him all the way, as Mary Magdalene chooses to do—is finally to be assaulted by a most messy spectacle: the bloody cross of Friday and the absurd empty tomb of Sunday. The former, too much to stomach; the latter, too much to believe.

Nevertheless, to get to “faith, hope, and love,” to arrive at the more reasonable and comforting elements of this faith we Presbyterians so rightly hold dear, one must travel the bumpy, difficult road of idle tales and unbelief. And, frankly, sometimes I find this fact a bit embarrassing—that my faith is rooted, not in plausible wisdom, but in a particular weekend.

Just consider the images: Jesus, “God’s only son!”—weak, dying, alone. And then comes the audacious claim that somehow this sad moment saves me from my own sad moments, my own demise. Good Friday is more than most of us can understand, much less swallow.

But the assault on the senses continues, for then comes Easter. With its sunrise also comes Mary Mag and her Sisters of Divine Duty. Demoralized and depressed over Friday afternoon’s apparent defeat of their religious cause, their Lord now looming low in the tomb (God in the grave!?), they come to the cemetery, I imagine, driven mostly by sheer duty. It’s just another day of coping, and grieving, and, well … it turns out “there really is nothing new under the sun.”

Only, upon their arrival, they find everything is topsy-turvy. No stone, no body; no death, no darkness. The intervening angels – And thank God for them! – speak a necessary word of peace whilst they fill in the necessary details, lest this moment leave our faithful little ladies in cardiac arrest. (Try all of Luke 24 to get the full flavor of this.) Upon hearing the news, all the women know to do is to run, back to their congregation, and along the way to try to find the language to speak the unspeakable, to name the unnamable: He was dead. He is alive. The world as they knew it since Friday is now upside down. Or is it right side up?! So much to say. Such a story to tell.

So she goes. She tells. And of course they (i.e. the men) don’t believe her. Not one word. Point number one: She’s a women. “Women exaggerate.” “Women are dramatic, bless their little hearts.” “Women are in no place to carry an authoritative word.” (The latter of these, a generally accepted first-century fact, I’m sorry to say.)

But point number two: It’s nuts. I mean, really: Jesus? alive! (Granted, as good first-century Jews, these men had already been taught to imagine that God could and would raise up at the end of all time the faithful folk who had died along the way. That much took plenty of faith already. But none of them had ever considered that God might do something like that in their midst, in the here and now—that Jesus the Rabbi, unjustly condemned, might turn out to be Jesus the Resurrected, astonishingly alive. And it sounds even nuttier to us, with our beloved secular-scientific assumptions that only the visible is really real, only that which we experience firsthand can be “true”, and that objects at rest stay at rest.)

It was all too much for them, and for us, to believe. Hence, verse 11.

Presbyterians: I am convinced that we who have grown up in this faith must every now and then step back from our cradle roots in the church, our long loyalty to this familiar story … we must step back far enough from the old, old gospel tale until it looks as newly-obtuse and crazy-impossible as it did to Peter and that first gaggle of scared, skeptical Christians. It is an idle tale, relative to life in the “real world.” Impossible: That the same old merry-go-round of sickness, sadness, and sin that we all know so well would be abruptly stopped once and for all by one whose power was displayed, not in might but in sacrifice, and who on Easter morning effectively sticks out his foot and brings the whole sad ride to a merciful halt. Nothing generic in that announcement.

“The scandalous particularity of Jesus.” That’s what the theologians call this whole wonderful Friday-Sunday mess: that at the center of our Christianity lies, not some core set of “family values,” not some collection of universal principles or piety or philosophy to which we can all reasonably ascend, and certainly not some inward spiritual light that—thank the heavens!?—we all posses … No, at the center of it all is an idle tale, a crazy story, a mad Mary Magdalene who sounds like she’s out of her head: talking of empty tombs, of angels rejoicing, of a life renewed and reborn—a first and final and fixed victory over death-decay and its predictable persistence in the world.

But back to my embarrassment: In my secret imagination, I see my neighbor on Bedford Avenue—a nice enough guy, though not a “churchgoer”—one day mustering the courage to ask me what it is I believe exactly, for he knows that I am a Christian. (Well, at least he knows I am a minister. I can only hope he knows I am a Christian, too.) As this hypothetical dream plays out in my mind, I find I want to keep the conversation general, keep it light, keep it vague, so as—let’s admit it—to avoid looking/sounding like a freak, like a religious nut, like one of those people on the cable channels who—in Jesus’ name, no less—gives you the willies. Hey, I’m a Presbyterian, not a fanatic.

And yet if he really wants to know, if he is at all serious about seeing the axles on which my faith rides, about the core of what I claim and what claims me, then I will have to find a way to tell him about, of all things, a cursed cross and a vacated tomb. I will have to tell him that, despite all my scientific, pragmatic, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, only trust the face-value, natural law, common sense, American education … I go to church on Sunday mornings to remember that this Jesus whom we killed for his truth-telling walked out of his tomb and changed the world. Wow. I will somehow have to explain that my faith takes flight on these terrifically strange wings, and none other. I’ll have to risk telling what will surely sound to him as an idle tale. (Then again, perhaps the joke will be on me. Perhaps in ways he cannot even name, he’s been waiting to hear tell of some other tale different than the one so painfully apparent to him day by day. One never knows.)

Dear flock, maybe we are all Mary Magdalenes. Maybe the Holy Spirit waits at our bedsides every morning, inviting us to be so foolish, so unreasonable, so upside-down as to spend the day making decisions about our lives based on the news that the tomb is astonishingly empty. Maybe we are all called to run with our strange sister, to follow her foolish example as she so bravely and tenaciously speaks the unspeakable, believes the unbelievable, and tells her idle tale to those who may or may not believe. Maybe the best any of us can do, maybe the very thing we have all been called to do, is simply to tell our own peculiar, particular, personal story of faith—All I know is that I believe!—and to make certain that our first-person-singular story of faith somehow and always winds its way back to that most particular of Jesus-stories: his Friday and Sunday, his dying and rising, his service and his salvation.

After all, I am who I am (a “believer”), and I trust in God the way I trust (a “Christian”), because the news has come to me that he died on a Friday and was raised up on a Sunday, and because of all the shocking and life-giving implications that flow from those two strange and sacred days, one of them is this: Even I have become a child of God through these gracious events. And then it occurs to me: Perhaps this, finally, is the real locus of my embarrassment, that even I—skeptic, sinner, slow-to-believe I—have been swept up in this awesome idle tale, swept up and saved by the One who died my death and lives my life.

Whether my nice neighbor actually believes this whole holy mess is probably not up to me, and thank God for that. No, really. A story so strange and so saving can only be hatched and hallowed by a Holy Spirit who broods over both is telling and its hearing. That much I know.

The only thing I can do, and maybe the only thing that the Lord finally asks of each of us, dear sisters and brothers, is that in our worship and work, in our prayers and ponderings, we would regularly go to Jesus’ Friday tomb, bringing with us all our fears and faithlessness, our grief and confusions, our disbelief and doubt … that we would go there to that tomb (Our tomb!) and, like our sister of old, that we would again and again be assaulted and awakened by its starkly missing contents … that we would awake each morning ready to imagine what impossible new thing God can and will do today, even as we wait and work for a time soon coming when God will work that final impossible possibility—a new heaven, and a new earth. This is, as best I understand it, the idle tale we tell.

I am at once embarrassed and emboldened.

Come Mary Magdalene.
Come with me this day.
Teach me to see what you saw.
Teach me to hear what you heard.

Teach me how to tell our idle-Easter tale.

Beat a Path to Your Door

… then they brought the colt to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" - Luke 19:35-38

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and once again we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for what would be the last week of his three year ministry. Luke paints a colorful, lively scene for his arrival: a bedecked donkey, a carpet of coats, and plenty of glad shouts from the crowd—all signs of the people’s joy.

Many a preacher has made much of the supposed hypocrisy of this crowd, suggesting that the same fickle folk who cheer him here will also jeer him on his Friday-cross, less than a week later. But I’m not so sure.

I’m more inclined to take this moment of gladness at its face value. After all, most of these cheering folk were not dialed-in to the rather behind-the-scenes plot to betray Jesus (Luke 22:2) and many of them would surely mourn as he made his way to Golgotha (Luke 23:27, 48 – “beating their breasts,” an ancient sign of grief).

No, it is what it is: the people’s glad reception of one who had raised their hopes and shown them the humble power of God. In fact, I am moved by their deliberate efforts to make a way for Jesus into their city. They secure him a ride, they shed clothing, they lend their voices, all on relatively short notice. With what they have, they make a way fitting for the one who comes calling. O that we would be so responsive to the movements of Grace in our gates.

Someone once said that the most important thing in learning to pray is simply to keep at it. (See Luke 11:5-13 for Jesus’ silly story on the matter.) “Be importunate,” writes Frederick Beuchner, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door.” Prayer may finally be less about getting God’s attention as it is about getting ours.

It is our bold belief as Christians that the Jesus of history is now the Christ of faith, that he who entered those historic Jerusalem gates so long ago now lives and loves with the Father through power of the Spirit. Therefore, we should not be surprised when, through some passage of scripture, in some moment of prayer, at some ‘coincidental’ crossing of paths or during some providential moment only later recognized, we sense our Christ making an entrance into our gates. He entered then; he enters still.

The question this Palm Sunday is not so much whether God still comes calling, only whether we are ready to welcome him in—donkeys, cloaks, and all.