January 29, 2008

A Stable Floor

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27

In this short little life I have been given, on lease from God, what I think I most long for is to not be afraid any more.

I long to discover all those interior caverns of fear, wherein there exists a kind of negative space—a vacuum, a void, an absence of promise. To root out those undisturbed but disturbing spaces in my interior life; to have them filled, not with the nothingness of fear, but with the somethingness of grace—these are my frequent prayers. In them I confess that I am not even certain I know what it would look or sound or feel like to not at some level be afraid. Yet I'm certain that I want to know.

I recently found myself stuck in the Greensboro airport past midnight, my forty-nine fellow passengers and I standing like zombies near the baggage carousel, waiting for our luggage to appear. Even in my lethargy, I noticed next to me a slim, thirty-something Asian man who was nervously scanning his eyes around the room, panning the floor in search of an explanation.

And then I felt it, too. Shaking. The entire floor of that rather large complex was shaking, pulsating ever so slightly. It was the sort of modulation you would never notice if you simply rushed through the building, trying in haste to catch another flight. But when I did take notice, with him, I suddenly felt a subtle trembling. (Incidentally, I experienced a similar phenomenon on the George Washington Bridge entering NYC. It was bumper to bumper traffic, and during one of many stops mid-bridge I suddenly realized that the entire structure was undulating. Yikes.)

How often our lives are like that room, that bridge. Darting from here to there to everywhere, we're likely not to notice that at some subterranean level, in the deep-down things, in a place not often noticed, at a pitch not often heard, our lives are subtly trembling from a lifetime of being afraid—the embodied modulation of a thousand little anxieties, both conjured up on our own and ingested on behalf of others. The perennial shakes.

Then along comes the psalmist,
humming his ancient tune of trust:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

I imagine, then—and have occasionally experienced—that while fear has a way of rattling your bones, prayer has the opposite effect, a ratcheting result. To the extent that my prayers before God are honest and accurate, to the extent that my subtle case of the shakes is exposed for what it is, to the degree that in confession I name my lack of any real control over my surroundings … In all of this I find more and more pieces of my pulsating life bolted down to something solid, something stable. It is prayer that lashes me fast to the Unmoved Mover.

The twenty-seventh psalm is not the thin bravado of someone who laughs in the face of danger, who struts through life with chest thumped and muscles flexed. Psalm 27 is the gladsome tune of one who has been scared to death, but who has discovered in that place that God is in the business of life. To move into God's house is to unpack your possessions and set up your furniture in a sanctuary, a fortress, a stronghold. And among the many features of that divine dwelling, it has a most stable floor.

You pause inside for a moment,
waiting to feel the old familiar tremors.

But there are none.

And then, miracles of miracles, one begins to discover that stable feet make for a stable life. When I am not frenetically storing up huge stockpiles of unlived life for that terrible day when the other shoe drops upon me, I begin to discover untapped and deliberate energy for the living of life in the grip of God's grace. I learn to imagine that my baptism is a sign that I have been anchored into a ground more settled and steady than my own. It is holy ground, a stable place, a stronghold. It is a place for living, loving, and laughing; a space for making melody to the Lord.

The Truest Truth

Singing this song is what life is about
And if you refuse the stones will cry out
We do not sing that we might be more blessed
He loves us with passion, without regret
He cannot love more, and will not love less

Michael Card, from the album Joy in the Journey

I invite you, beloved, to greet this new day now before you with a fresh awareness that the mark of Jesus Christ on your head (also known as your baptism) is, in point of fact, a marker for the truest truth about you.

After all, by the time your feet hit the morning floor, a half dozen or more other truths will likely have thrust themselves right back into your life. Indeed, it seems sometimes as if during the night they huddle together for warmth at the foot of your bed. Reawakened with sunup, they reappear, quite ready to tag along with you through another day.

It might well be true, for instance, that among your friends or relations there is an absolute porcupine of a person, whose familiar histrionics always seem to monopolize your thoughts and steal your joy.

Or it may be true that lately you go to work each day to face a bureaucratic jungle as unalterable as it is unfruitful. Despite your virtuous intentions, you may well feel that your diligent labors usually wind up in a quagmire that feels like nearly-dried glue.

It may be true that every now and then you feel in your bones some ancient ache, some long-ago-placed bookmark in your story that will not turn you lose. It may well be true that something old is preventing anything new.

It may be true that you find yourself in a tenuous marriage. Many do. Lashed fast to one who with each new season has become even more of a perfect stranger, it may not be clear to you how even another month like this would be tenable.

Or it may be true that, despite all the alternative evidence introduced by the jury of your peers, you still feel that you are basically a contemptible bastard. Besides, you know yourself better than anyone does, thank you very much. It may well be that you have felt this way for so long that this is the only filter through which all other input passes.

It may be true that you are living much of your life in trepidation: Afraid of being exposed; afraid of not being exposed.

It may be true that another morning adds one more tick to a tally of days without someone you dearly love being in this world. You may well feel from time to time that it would have been better never to have loved at all than to carry on in an airless vacuum such as this.

It may be that you are running out of steam. It may well be that you already have.


It is said of old Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, that at the top of the day and in moments of despair, the tetchy old German believer would place his hand on his forehead and say to himself, "I am baptized. I am baptized."

Try that today. It's somewhat of a ridiculous act, I know. Then again, all the holy ones are. But I also know, because I hear tell, just how many tenacious truths go swirling about our lives on any given day—my list above, a mere sampling.

So you might just try pushing back a little on the stubborn facts of your life; push back with some alternative truth. Reconsider today that you—particular, peculiar, implausible you—have been marked as belonging to God's own Beloved, and that therefore you are "beloved" as well (Matthew 3:17; Ephesians 5:1). Remind yourself that nothing about this day can unbind you from that same grace that brought this day to pass in the first place (Romans 8). Touch your forehead and recall that you have been bought with a price; your own story, swept up in the matchless drama of the gospel (1 Corinthians 6:20). His groaning defeat on a Friday, his astounding triumph on a Sunday suggest, among several truths, that in your life there are now no graves too deep nor hopes too high wherein God's inviolable love cannot be found working, however subtly, to make all things new (Romans 6:4; Revelation 21).

"I am baptized. I am baptized."

It turns out that a curious bit of tap water on your forehead marks the truest truth about you. And as long as we are being ridiculous, go ahead and imagine the risen Christ standing at the foot of your aforementioned sunlit bed. "You will know the truth," he is want to say. "And that truth will set you free." (John 8:32)

January 26, 2008


"… I who am but dust and ashes." —Genesis 18:27

Take it from a former Boy Scout, there is only so much one can do to rekindle a smoldered fire. Once the flames have died out, once the coals have begun to cool, it takes more wind than most of us can exhale to convince a bunkered fire to be reborn. (Hence, the secret ploy of many a Scout campout in my youth: Linger as long as you can in your tent, hoping that someone else would brave the cold morning to restart a dormant fire.)

Ashes make for little warmth.

The much-maligned doctrine of total depravity—a view of ourselves likely too distressing for the overly-therapeutic times in which we live—is a significant limb off of our Presbyterian trunk. Whatever good news we teach about the life-altering grace afforded the world in Jesus Christ, that news is always announced against the din of bad news about the state of our selves apart from God. John Calvin described our un-graced souls as dying embers in a long-dormant fire. Sure, there may be a speck of orange glow here or there amidst the ashen gray, but on our own there is not enough life in us to fire the imagination for God or thaw a frigid, inward heart.

I have always taken the "total" in total depravity to mean, not that by ourselves we creatures can do no good whatsoever, but that (perhaps even worse) no good we can ever do remains untouched, untainted, unstained by inflating self-interest or depleting deprecation. We are totally effected by our common depravity, which threatens whatever dormant image of God remains in us and taints even our best efforts. A bleak picture? Perhaps. Depressing? Yep. But it does serve to put the nightly news into perspective, not to mention those less-than-lovely moments in our own stories we'd rather not air to the world. Like quiescent ashes on a wintry morning, there is in us only a memory of a once-hot source of light and heat.

The Old Testament mentions ashes in numerous narratives, and always they are a sign of mourning and mortality. With ashes Abraham remembers his lowly station in Genesis 18:27; with ashes Tamar grieves the sad state of affairs in 2 Samuel 13:19; with ashes Mordecai wails at the news of Jewish persecution in Esther 4:1; with ashes Job wallows in his dilapidated health in 2:8; the psalmist in his lament "mingles tears with his drink" and "eats ashes like bread" in 102:9. You get the picture. Ash—all that remains from a dead and therefore useless fire—proves to be, when smeared over your mortality, a poignant symbol for life in earnest need of grace, our lives in dire need of God.

Celebrating God's great love in our lives without coming clean about our grim need for it is like ingesting a bunch of medicine before you even know what ails you. It's apt to be a meaningless act, and maybe even dangerous—the precious, potent grace of God can become a cheap lozenge of sentimentality. No, our own stark mortality is precisely the cradle that holds the gospel. Lose sight of the former and we've no vision for the latter.

As I introspectively spelunk the depths of my own depravity, in honest prayers of confession both public and private, I am unwittingly scoping out the very real estate where the Holy Spirit sets up shop and erects the gospel. Says Calvin, "Every person, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him." Ashes, therefore, not only mark our transience but also our turn toward hope. There is one who can fan the flames of light and life within us, bringing newness and grace with every breath. The prophet imagines just such an act, a gracious exchange: God giving his people "a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory." (Isaiah 61:3)

This makes sense of why Christians for centuries have marked the 40-day turn toward Easter day with a cross of ash on their foreheads. "I am but dust and ashes," we say to Christ. "I take up the cross of my own mortality and walk toward the day of your resurrection, wanting—needing!—to exchange my death for your life. And as I walk this way, transform me from within. I know oh-so-well the depths of my earnest need; pour into those deep caverns your astonishing new life."

Ash Wednesday—the traditional entrance into the 40 day Lenten season leading up to Easter Day—is a service of worship both solemn and joyous: a solemn reminder of our perpetual need for grace; a joyous celebration that in fact God has given it so freely in Jesus Christ.

By ourselves we are banked fires;
with Christ alive in us, we are simmering with life.

January 25, 2008


Better a few bites of wisdom here and there
than famine for fear of missing the entire meal.

January 23, 2008


When people ask "Was Jesus God?" they usually think they know what the word g-o-d means and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading.

N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus

Coordinate two of your right-hand fingers in such a way as to press control and P on your keyboard at the same time, and watch as something marvelous transpires nearby: Your printer will give birth to a piece of paper, the contents of which will bear a remarkable likeness—in many cases, an exact image—to what you first saw on your monitor. Remarkable! Yet it was not always so.

Some of you remember early word processors, with their cryptic style-codes and boorishly plain text on the screen. One never knew what a memo to the boss or a biology term paper would actually look like until it was printed out for inspection. It was possible to go through half a ream of paper before the desired output was secured. But the smart folks at Xerox changed all of that.

Borrowing a throw-away line from comedian Flip Wilson—His drag persona "Geraldine" always explained her curious behavior with "Well, what you see is what you get!"—programmers at Xerox developed WYSIWYG: software that would display on the screen exactly what one would get from the printer. To see one is to see the other; what you see is what you get.

There is a kind of WYSIWYG woven deeply into the New Testament: the bold affirmation that what we see in Jesus of Nazareth is what we "get" in God.

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God's original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him.
Colossians 1:15, The Message

Just as there is a 1:1 correlation between what you see on your screen and what you get from your printer, we are bold to imagine that there is a 1:1 correlation between Jesus, ensconced in all the particularities of a 1st century Jew, and the living God, eternally universal in the heavens. Colossians teaches us that to see one is to see the other.

Moreover, we are invited to bring our most prized assumptions about God (e.g. God mostly likes my kind of people) as well as those suspicions that are burdensome (e.g. God is probably out to get me) and to lay them at the feet of Jesus for redemption. Like a suited herald at the flap of the circus tent, the New Testament beckons us: "Step right up! Come one, come all! See for yourself! Come and see what Jesus does and says! Come and imagine that this is the living God at work!" Every gospel story, every odd and marvelous encounter between this traveling rabbi and some derelict personality is one more reviewing stand for re-imagining what God is like, for reforming our assumptions about the divine.

Take the laden leper in Mark 1:15-20. "If you choose," he insists, "you can make me clean." As Jesus reaches out to touch him (lepers were considered highly contagious and therefore were isolated from others), we are given a glimpse of a God who daringly reaches across the terrible boundaries of sin and sorrow that isolate us from such quickening grace. As Jesus is "moved with compassion" ("pity" in some translations; even "anger" in a few), we are granted a vision of a God who co-suffers (literally, co-passion) with those who are broken by the afflictions of this world. Finally, as Jesus chooses to exercise his startling power over the brokenness of this man's blistered body, we learn to imagine God's resurrection power setting the world ablaze with Easter newness. Jesus' ministry in the gospels is not merely some meandering excursion of good deeds on the way to his eclipsing death; it is the "image of the invisible God" born out in our midst, the fullness of God "dwelling among us" (Colossians 1:15-20).


I'm coming to believe that the Christian life is basically the daily prayerful vocation of imagining what the world and my life in it might look like if, in fact, what we see in Jesus turned out to be what we get in God. What if the voice of an often silent heaven turned out to sound like Jesus' response? ("I do choose.") What if the underlying fabric of reality was not stitched together from scraps of isolation, hatred, and decay, but instead turned out to be a gracious canopy hemmed together with community, compassion, and (re)creation—these latter three, a vision of God forged from Jesus' simple interaction with a lonely leper. How would we reorganize our congregation if in seeing what Jesus was up to we pictured God as being up to the same? What difference would that make in how (and even if) I roll out of bed each morning to greet another day?

What might be different about my life if I practiced a WYSIWYG Christianity?

January 2, 2008

Raise a Rock

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Frederick Buechner

The second day of another new year is as good a day as any to pause and consider the incomparable gift of your life thus far. (I suppose the first day of the year would be a bit more symbolic, but between bouncing back and forth among bowl games and simmering another pot of black-eyed peas on the range, who's feeling very reflective on New Year's Day?) It's never a bad idea to sabbath for a moment and mark the passing time.

Before she died at the impressive age of 103, I had the distinct pleasure as her pastor of attending three consecutive centenarian celebrations for Myrtle McCutchen and her over-a-hundred colleagues at Westminster-Canterbury. Talk about a birthday party! When you are 100 or more, the event feels more like a pep rally! When they all rolled out—some of them under their own steam, mind you—it was all I could do not to hop up from my seat and shout "You go, girls!" (My bowtie and blue blazer quickly reminded me of my station as a Presbyterian minister, and I thought better of it.) But there they were, seven of them, each one with ten decades of life under her belt.

I suppose a century makes for a mostly automatic marker—one cannot help but take notice. But for the rest of us "kids," it's not so involuntary. Marking the fleeting time, noticing our peculiar stories as they unfold—these take a little effort. What's more, as baptized folk, such marking is always an act of purposeful prayer. Paying attention to your unfolding life is a way of saying to the Lord, "Thus far you have helped me. Thank you."

Likely you have sung two dozen times Robert Robinson's famous words in our hymnal, written in 1758. Perhaps you've wondered what is an ebenezer (i.e. "Here I raise my Ebenezer …") and—the more pressing question!—why in the world am I raising one over my head? Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing borrows an image from a mostly forgotten moment in 1 Samuel 7, wherein Samuel takes an otherwise ordinary boulder and erects a memorial of gratitude to God. Eben-ezer in Hebrew, the newly-named rock means "the stone of help." Israel has just made it through yet another tight squeeze in its collective life of faith, and pastor Samuel speaks for the whole lot of them by noting aloud: "Thus far the Lord has helped us." Indeed, he speaks for us all.

Likewise, Robinson's hymn teaches us to pray:

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by thy help I come
And I hope by thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

And so, on this second day of a new year, I invite each of you to take a moment and consider the "fathomless mystery" of your pilgrimage thus far. For many in the neighborhood, this has been a week of raising glasses in a forward-looking toast to a new year. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, depending on the vintage.

But instead of bubbly, I invite you to raise a rock. Call it "Ebenezer," call it "Ernest" for all I care, but just make certain you call out to the Lord. After all, we people of the book have learned that before we can look forward in anticipation, we must look backward in memory. Looking back, offer your thanks and praise for the inevitable fact that "thus far the Lord has helped you." And before you are finished, pray that by God's good pleasure (Luke 12:32), this Christ-journey of faith will take you, finally, all the way home.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here's my heart, O take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above

A blessed New Year to you and yours.