March 26, 2008

Resurrection Freedom

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
Luke 24:30

Whereas the three years of Jesus' life we know about seem marked by arduous decisions and heavy crosses (Luke 9:51; Matthew 26:39), his post-resurrection life is striking in its utter lack of difficult choices for him to make.

In his final chapter, Luke portrays our risen Jesus in three different settings. In each one, gone are the moments of arduously choosing the way of the Father, of fighting off counter claims and callings, or of grappling with the option of another way besides the cross and Good Friday. In his astonishing new life, there is now only the kingdom's way. There is no more choice to make! His struggle is over. His decisions not to exploit his status but to empty himself for others have now been redeemed and exalted by the Father.

So it is then that at the unspeakable empty tomb, at the famed Emmaus meal, and at Bethany's poignant departure, Luke's emphasis subtly shifts from the now settled matter of Jesus to the new choices facing his followers. The Christ has come to the end of his many crossroads; his followers are just beginning to set out toward theirs.

I imagine that after the resurrection to come, we will find that the daily decision to worship God and not another will no longer be demanding, difficult, or freighted with consequence. Our choices will come easily in the ineffable light of God's glory (Revelation 21:22-27). We will pray as continually as we breathe. And the current plea of the Lord's prayer – that God's will be done on earth as it already is in heaven, God's space – will finally and fully be granted. Difficult choices are a fixture only of this passing age.

That our will and God's will be in sync—this is both the goal and the promise of God's coming time. And yet the New Testament is bold to believe that the fruits of that future can be accessed even now in Christ. St. Paul urges us, in light of the resurrection hope, to be "steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." The resurrection to come takes the death out of our life-decisions even now (1 Corinthians 15:58).

He is risen! We will one day rise to bask in his glory. Even now we walk in newness and life. Thanks be to God for this first week of the Easter season.

March 25, 2008

The Harder Way

But Moses said to the LORD, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."
Exodus 4:10

Occasionally, someone asks me how they can "discern God's will" for his/her life. That's a tall order. Inevitably, the prophet's words in Micah 6:8 pop into my head—a verse that was sealed in my memory during youth group days. "O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (NLT) Over the years, this verse has invited me to imagine that, more often than not, "God's will" for us is less a strict, preset path and more often about the way we walk with Jesus Christ. In whatever work or play you choose to take up, wherever you choose to take it up, do it with justice, mercy, and humility before God.

Still, that's not what people mean when they ask. We want to know what path to choose, which course God would have us take, which route we should follow at this or that juncture in our lives. And it's a reasonable request, I think, as most of us will face more than a few difficult choices in our lifetimes.

I suppose there are the obvious guidelines for faithful discernment: Pray … a lot. Immerse yourself in Scripture, as what you read there will inevitably shape what you finally discern. Talk to people you trust; hammer out your decisions on the anvil of good, honest conversation with fellow pilgrims. After these measures, "wait patiently on the Lord" (Psalm 37:7). All of this is good advice, and I've both given it and received it over the seasons. The Lord will not turn a deaf ear to our earnest prayers for guidance (Matthew 7:7).

But still I think there is one other way for the Christian to discern God's will for his/her life. Faced with a choice of this path or that path, I suspect that the place Christ will usually call us is precisely the place that's harder to go. (I know, I know … this is not what you wanted to hear.)

But consider Moses, the stuttering leader-hero of the Hebrew slaves. Trying to run from his troubled past, God slips up on him in the enigmatic burning bush (Exodus 3-4) and summons him to return to the same Egypt from which he had earlier fled. Why? God has something he wants him to say to Pharoah (the superpower of the land, whose thumb keeps God's people from freedom). Something to say?! A stutterer? This is some kind of joke, right?! So, Moses protests … a lot. But God insists … a lot. God's will: Moses can no longer hide out there in the lonely comfort of the Midian wilderness. God's calling turns out to be the harder way, and Moses' must choose between comfort and trust. As Sara Groves sings, "I am caught between the promise and the things I know."

It is not that Christ somehow takes pleasure in our pain, or revels in the burdens of a harder path (Matthew 11:28-30). It is rather, I think, that Christ will not have us worshipping our securities. It is the will of God to keep us alive to his constant calling—our faith fresh, our responsiveness to the Spirit supple. Too often we find our sanctuary in the predictable routines of a rather settled life, not in God's sheltering grace. This will not do for a God who has audaciously set out to redeem the world (1 Corinthians 15:20-26) and invites us to lend a hand.

So, we should not be surprised when we sense a tug down a new, challenging path. After all, we bear on our lives the baptismal mark of a Jesus who is always calling his people farther down the path of discipleship (Matthew 16:24-25). The Christ way (and therefore Christ's will) often turns out to be the harder way, if for no other reason than along those Jesus-paths we learn how to trust more deeply in this saving-sanctifying-sending God. Moses goes to Pharoah; Jesus goes to the cross; we go more faithfully into our lives, looking for those moments when we are called to walk in greater trust.

March 21, 2008


A Good Friday meditation on John 19:42

Pardon us, patron of Arimathea, companion
of Jesus. We did not mean to trail on your
heels, intrude upon your generous committal.

Truth be told, we have all followed you down
this garden route, traced your secret path
down to this newly-hewn vault. Why? We’ve

heard tell of a given space for laying his body
down, and, well, it would mean a great deal
to us if we might take a look. We propose no

disrespect. We are not voyeurs, not gawkers,
not disinterested spectators. Like you, we are
his people, his lowly band, and we’d hoped to

see for ourselves this place of his resting.
What’s more, we’re hoping it is a generous
space, with plenty of corners for storing a few

items. What’s that you say? What are these
things we are carrying? Indeed. We suppose
these are why we’ve slipped here to find you,

slinking down this trail to his unlikely tomb.
You see, we’ve brought a few things with us,
some items we have cleaned out of our lives.

Most of it is junk, really. Tokens of our past,
little reminders of all the failures and fears,
deeds and deaths, sins and sorrows we sadly

cannot seem to throw away. Once we started
to dig into our cupboards, our many secret
places, we discovered buried there more than

we could really manage. These are all parts
of our stories that have no life in them, large
pieces of our lives that have languished in us.

We’d like to know if we can store these things
here, with him. We’d like to ask if we might
bury these matters alongside him, if of course

there is any extra room at all. Why here, why
now? Well, call us crazy, but we have in our
heads this strange notion: If ever there was a

place where this old junk could be put to use,
if there was ever a chance that this hopeless
stuff might be rectified, renewed, reborn—

surely it would be here, with him, today.

March 20, 2008

Another Lenten Prayer

I offer here a prayer written during this Lenten season by one of our confirmands—a seventh grader in our congregation who will, this Easter Sunday, be professing her Christian faith for the first time. It is a prayer applicable to all of our lives, regardless of our age or the length of our journey with Jesus. RWH

Dear God, Thank you for this beautiful earth you created for us. Thank you my family, friends, pets, and the opportunity to learn more about you. Thank you for food, shelter, and clothing that we have. I pray for my family, friends, and myself. I also pray for the people who are suffering from poverty and sickness. Please bless all these people. I ask that you watch over us and keep us safe. I pray that I will follow your teaching and learn from my mistakes. I also ask that you forgive my sins. Thank you for all these people who have help me get where I am today. Again, I pray for my family, that our love will grow stronger for each other every day. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.

by Allison Mabry

March 19, 2008

Turning Sacred Corners

Elizabeth and I recently watched Waitress, an oddly endearing, sometimes bawdy story about Jenna—a poor, pregnant waitress trapped in a terrible marriage and an inexorable life. Mostly because her days already seem so controlled by others' infantile demands, the news of her first pregnancy brings her little of the customary maternal expectation and joy. In the months leading up to the birth, as she writes to the baby in a journal for expectant mothers, she apologizes in advance that she will be unable to bond with the child and, frankly, that already she resents the arrival of one more person who will take but not give. Whereas she had earlier considered leaving her controlling husband (who demands, "I want you to promise me right now that you will love me more than this baby!"), now she has to stick around and become even more dependent on a selfish spouse who is hopelessly stuck in adolescence.

Right up through the delivery, Jenna is the epitome of stoicism. She is determined not to fall for this baby, not to get entangled … that is, until she lays eyes on the child. "Oh my God," she says, as the nurse hands to her the latest unrequested demand on her energy and affection. As she cradles her lovely, helpless child, you can feel the months of resentment and fear melting away. And right there, the entire movie turns a corner: It is as if, in handing Jenna her baby, the nurse has given her a new vision for her life, and the strength to go and get that done. (You cannot help but smile as Jenna, holding her new baby, finally musters the courage to tell her monster of a spouse where he can go.)

Kerri Russell's excellent portrayal of Jenna turning her corner—fearing the pain, yet surprised by the joy—in a way reminds me of Holy Week. After all, who wants to give up a Friday night to come and hear again about the sad sufferings of a first century Jew? Who needs to be told even more bad news, yet another tale of a blessed thing ruined by the fears and insecurities of the powers that be? Who would cozy up to a story that ends, at least on Friday, in a heinous crucifixion? Every year, we Christians are tempted to pass stoically over Good Friday, holding our breath and hoping not to get entangled in the mess. (Let us note, however, that it is not really Jesus' death we fear, but our own.)

But then comes a corner, a sacred turn. You walk into church on Easter morning, and if the stunning flowers and the ardent music don't assault your senses and melt away your restraint, surely the strange and wonderful tale of an empty tomb and a living, liberated Jesus will. "I have seen the Lord," Mary exclaims to the others, and you cannot help but feel that in some real way you have, too. Even more, hearing again about the unfettered new life of Christ seems to have a way of throwing a new light on yours. Things once deemed impossible seem possible in the light of this impossible day. The faithfulness of God in raising up Jesus makes it possible to imagine the faithfulness of God amidst our own tombs—actual or symbolic. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Concerned that Easter hope might lull Christians into a detached triumphalism, our 1998 catechism asks, Does resurrection hope mean that we don't have to take action to relieve the suffering of this world? Answer:

No. When the great hope is truly alive, small hopes arise even now for alleviating the sufferings of the present time. Reconciliation -- with God, with one another, and with oneself -- is the great hope God has given to the world. While we commit to God the needs of the whole world in our prayers, we also know that we are commissioned to be instruments of God's peace. When hostility, injustice and suffering are overcome here and now, we anticipate the end of all things -- the life that God brings out of death, which is the meaning of resurrection hope.

"The life that God brings out of death" … Turning a corner … A fresh vision for living … New life equals new courage. It is the stuff of Easter Sunday. For fictitious Jenna, it was a delivery room; for us, the sanctuary space long dedicated to telling this wild and wonderful Easter story. Maybe we should all show up this Sunday in hospital smocks, ready to practice our heavy breathing, ready for new life to appear. Perhaps the gowns would be a bit much, but know this: One good look into that empty tomb, and everything will be different. Together, we pray, "O my God." Together, we turn a sacred corner.

March 14, 2008

Lowly Entry

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 19:37-38

Say what you will about Jesus, but no one can accuse him of vanity. Throughout his ministry, he regularly chooses to usurp his own status and conduct himself in a lowly, modest estate. Such a pattern causes the Apostle Paul to sing with the early Christians: "He did not regard his status as something to be exploited, but emptied himself …" (Philippians 2:6-7).

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem was a significant crossroads, literally and vocationally. How would he conduct himself? How would he make his obvious entrance? How would he respond to the great attention his word and way had received?

Faced with these choices, Jesus makes surprising selections: A scruffy donkey, not a white stallion; common men's cloaks, not a rug of royalty. And instead of professional choirs or a trumpet procession, a chorus of rough rocks are his hired backup singers.

If God is indeed this Jesus' Father, then we all imagine that at his disposal is absolute power and might. But as it turns out, to the surprise of our impulsive faith, absolute power is not the greatest attribute of our Lord. His strength is in his weakness. He who judges us on high has become our servant down low. This is his decision. (Isaiah 53:4-12)

As his covenant people, we are derivative representatives of God's lowly kingdom as we daily enter the gates of our communities. How will we conduct ourselves as servants of the Servant? Will we exploit our status as "the saved" or will we empty ourselves and thereby demonstrate God's saving-weakness to all?

A blessed Palm Sunday to you all.

March 4, 2008


"Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."
Luke 5:5

If our reputation is cast by the company we keep, Jesus the Messiah gets off to a questionable start (see Luke 5:1-11). Ineffectual fishermen a kingdom do not make. Their abilities are most unimpressive, yet Jesus' determination to claim them, of all people, is remarkable: He looks over the masses to spot them, he climbs into their boat and not another, and he tells them where to cast out their nets. A wrangler or a wonderworker—we are not altogether certain. But Jesus leads them to the big haul.

The great crowd gathered there at the shore suggests that Jesus faced a defining decision on that shore: What kind of people would he call to do his work? Who would he draft to speak his words? How impressive would their résumés have to be before he gave someone a kingdom-job? "Master, we have fished all night and caught nothing. But if you say so …" Unsuccessful fisherman, perhaps. But they were willing, trusting. And maybe that is the feature of their faith Jesus most wanted to see.

Our Lord chooses to build his kingdom with those who choose to trust that God's surpassing power can overcome even their most anemic offerings. It is not what they can do, but what God can do through them that lands them the job, just as they landed those fish (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

Faced with the many decisions of another Lenten week, will we fish all night for nothing or will we trust in the surprising, ample provision of the Lord? Will we also drop all our pale efforts and follow him? What shoreline choices will you make this week?

March 3, 2008

Home At Last

(For CREW; written in 2000)

The impressions left within us are all rather permanent; the sentiments are as genuine as they are palpable.

Serenity. Safety. Predictability. Warmth. Security. Lodging. Rest. Comfort. In a word, home.

The houses in which we grew up, if they were filled with even a small measure of goodness and virtue, usually become for us a kind of sun around which the rest of our lives will orbit. Even say the word – "home" – and suddenly most of us are transported back to a precise place where our lives first took shape. Life will ebb and flow and take us many places, but home remains, well … home.

For me, the scenes are unfailing. Six-pane windows overlooking a murky river. Deep brown carpet which provided rocky ground or stormy seas for many a toy expedition. More stairs than our dog could count, though she knew exactly which one caught the afternoon sun. Doors that would not shut securely. Floors that creaked under all ages of feet: each of them victims and victors in the relentless aging of a place enjoyed by several generations.

This place is a part of who I am. Remove it, and you have removed something of me.

To be sure, not everyone in this life is so blessed to have experienced the rootedness of a family home place, but many of us have. The structures come in all shapes and sizes; they represent all levels of means, from frugality to opulence. The lands on which they stand are as diverse as we are when we start swapping stories of our youth. But the consistent trait among all our growing-up-homes is that the places themselves somehow root us in life, they form and shape us in inexplicable ways. It is almost mystical, how four walls and an interior space in some way take on a kind of life of their own. "Home is where the heart is," one often hears. Indeed, for such places soon become the center of who we are, or at least of who we once were. And when life throws us experiences and challenges that are sometimes too great to bear, it is to those homes and what they represent that we are often tempted to retreat.

Some of us can still make this retreat. Others cannot. For some, legal deeds have changed or buildings have been razed; fences are not mended enough to visit or our familial ties have sold shop and long since moved away. Whatever the blockage, for too many of us the retreat to "home" is possible now only in the memories that linger. Homelessness—if not in actuality, at least in the heart.

But how silly are these hearts of ours! Such places, are they not simply the sophisticated rendering of wood and materials – no more alive than a pile of lumber and a box of nails. Why do these places captivate us so?

And from the vantage point of Biblical hope, what do we make of these feelings, these deep memories, these peculiar but consistent places in our hearts that treasure so deeply the places of our early living? Is there any value in these sentiments? Is the call of a home place simply the tug of some worldly treasure, the kind of obstacle to grace that lures one backwards into memories even while Jesus-faith calls us forward into new life? Pining away for home – is this anyway for the baptized to behave?

Perhaps. And maybe even more than we know. One wonders if our pining away for home is our hearts' easiest method of pining away for God. Our frequent sinning notwithstanding, most of us still hunger for grace and redemption because we daily see a world about us that is, theologically speaking, quite homeless. We hunger for a safe place for our hearts, our lives—a home.

There is no homelessness with Jesus. In him "all things hold together." We are rooted in his mercy, secured in his grace, housed by his regard, bound up in his promises, hemmed in by his presence, and held tightly by his resurrection. We long for the security of homes because we long for the security of everlasting life in him. And for those in Christ, that treasured heart-space now occupied by the places of our earthly living will one day soon be fully occupied with resurrected "homes" that are similar, yet wonderfully better. You start moving from one house to the other they day you are baptized.

The Apostle Paul tries to explain our life now with the resurrection life to come. He says to the Corinthians (chapter 15) that it is sort of like a seed and its resulting beautiful flower: the two are different, yet they are similar. No one confuses a sunflower seed for the sunflower it yields, yet neither does anyone imagine that the one has nothing to do with the other. If you know something about the beauty of a seed, you necessarily now something about how beautiful the flower will be.

And so it is with us. The moments of deep gladness in our lives, however fleeting they may be in such a broken world, they are nevertheless like signposts pointing to an a deeper gladness promised beyond the grave, in the resurrection to come. The safety of our homes points us onward to the safety of our Home. We are remembering God's future. In a word, resurrection. The raising up of our bodies – these bodies – in a new and transformed ways, all in God's good time.

We miss our homes, many of us. We miss the way we were when we were in them. But do not imagine, saints of God, that what you once knew so well and what you now miss so deeply have nothing to do with that which is to come. It is now on its way, this resurrection life. That sacred space in your heart, it is already being filled with the joy and glory of a new home that is not yet finished. One that is similar, yet wonderfully different.

Our old homes, Christ's new home.
Our bodies now, our bodies then.
Seeds, flowers.
Seeing dimly, seeing face to face.
Remembering the past, remembering the future.
Home for awhile, home for good.
Fleshly bodies, resurrection bodies.

Similar, yet wholly (and holy) different. Jesus saw it coming in his own resurrection:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many homes … And you know the way to the place where I am going."

Indeed. And it is nice to be home, at last.