Sisters and brothers

A little over a year ago, Julie Lee & The Baby-Daddies recorded a song by Carly Simon from her 1974 album, Hotcakes. The song is called My Older Sister, and it’s a quick snapshot of a little girl growing up with an older sister. I won’t play the whole song, just a few lines and the chorus.

She rides in the front seat, she’s my older sister
She knows her power over me
She goes to bed an hour later than I do
When she turns the lights out
What does she think about?
And what does she do in the daylight
That makes her so great?

Oh but to be,
oh but to be, 
oh but to be, 
I’d like to be
My older sister

She flies through the back door, she’s my older sister
She throws French phrases ‘round the room
She has ice skates and legs that fit right in
She’s wicked to all the beaming dreamers
Who’ll later boast of an evening
By her fiery side

Oh but to be, 
oh but to be, 
oh but to be,
I’d like to be
My older sister

And in her black gymnastic tights
She runs into some elastic nights
Sophisticated sister sings for the
Soldiers of the soccer team
Their silver I.D.’s and sororities
They tinker with love in their Model T’s
Oh lord, won’t you let me be her for just one day

wa wa wa waoooooo 
older sister, my older sister
oh but to be ....older sister 

She turns everybody’s heads
While I wear her last year’s threads
With patches and stitches and a turned up hem
Oh, but to be, oh but to be, I’d like to be, Just once to be
My older sister

The song triggers memories, doesn’t it? I know about wearing hand-me-downs, and I always wanted an older sister but had to share a room with my older brother; and then we both had to put up with a little sister who always seemed to sail effortlessly through situations where we remembered having to paddle hard against parental currents. Do I sound jealous, perhaps just a little? I wouldn’t be surprised, and if you grew up with siblings, none of this will sound foreign to you.

One reason I wanted to play this song today is that the Bible reflects throughout a deep awareness of the impact of sibling relationships on individuals and families, but most of the stories are about brothers. If you have a moment when your mind wants to wander a little, see how many stories you can remember with sisters in them whose names aren’t Mary and Martha.

The first story in scripture that mentions any humans is about the first man and the first woman, and the second story is about their boys, Cain and Abel – and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two brothers. If you continue reading through Genesis, all those stories about our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, you encounter Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and finally the sons of Jacob and their little brother Joseph. In each of these generations, the little brother turns out to be the one whose story we remember. Isn’t that curious?

Today’s story from the gospel of Luke is similar in that regard. At some point in the past, somebody decided to add section headings to the text, and ever since this story has been known as the parable of the prodigal son, which is the younger of the two.

But it is of course just as much a story about the prodigal father as well as the son who resents his brother and his father. Jesus introduces the story as one about a man who had two sons, and that’s what it is.

Neither son is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed, and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with each of them, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume. We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and just leave home to go and see the world. Sure, he is reckless, but he is young and we admire his adventurous spirit. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you find yourself humming quietly, Oh but to be, oh but to be, Lord let me be… Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family business? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself, and perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to care, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each one had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good to give somebody a second chance, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? That fatted calf they killed for the BBQ – whose was it after the property had been divided? Yes? How’s that for irony?

The father is perhaps the most confusing character of all. Apparently he doesn’t believe that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When the younger son comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting all that is proper for a grown man in that ancient culture, and what most of us today would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road, throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly. The ring—bring it—put in on his finger. And sandals, bring sandals!—Kill the calf! Invite the whole town! Let us eat. Let us celebrate! This is my son; he was dead and is alive again!”

Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, arms folded, with a stern look on his face.

He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the foolishness of your choices and the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now I want you to go and help your brother in the field.” In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us. It’s the gospel.

Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him.

He did not avoid them. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and everybody knew he even broke bread with them, openly. People with a deep concern for what is right were grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Couldn’t he at least wait until they have changed their ways?” Jesus’ actions were confusing to them, and their hearts were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.

In response, Jesus tells his stories about the joy of heaven, God stories that help us see who he is and what he is doing. He tells us about a shepherd who lost one of his one hundred sheep, and worried out of his mind, went searching for it. And when at last he found it, he was overjoyed and called together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. He tells us about a woman who had 10 silver coins and one of them got lost. She got a lamp and a broom, and she swept the house from top to bottom and searched carefully until she found it. Then she called together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.

Just so, Jesus tells us, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. And then he tells the story about the father and his two sons. When he gets to the end, where the older of the two boys stands outside the house, light, music and laughter pouring through the windows, the father pleading with him to come in and rejoice with him – when he gets to the end of the story, Jesus looks at us. “Come on in,” he says, “come on in where mercy has prepared a feast that fairness cannot host. Come on in, for only love can heal what lovelessness has wounded.” The story, it turns out, is not about who is the golden boy and who is the other one. The story, the gospel is about God’s reckless extravagance in bringing about our reconciliation, overcoming the deep rifts within us and between us, and healing the wound of sin.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we got lost wandering off to a distant country or if we got lost never leaving at all. It doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not strangers or each other’s keeper, but rather each other’s brothers and sisters, all of us members of the family of God. What does matter is that God delights in looking for us and calling us, in finding and reminding us, in pleading with us, waiting with us, rejoicing with us. What does matter is that God does not treat the wound of God’s people carelessly but with great compassion and power to save, until there is peace and all sit at table in the house of laughter and light. Until each and all of us hear these words and never forget again, “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”


Christian Identity

This is the manuscript of a sermon Shelly Tilton gave at Vine Street on March 3. Her text was Acts 17:22-32


I attend Vanderbilt Divinity School. I mention it because, along with all the perks of the place, there are a few drawbacks. One of these drawbacks visits regularly in the form of a man dressed in a billboard gown of epithets, toting a megaphone and a nasty temper. He stands at the corner of the street right in front of the school and throughout the day informs us generally that we are going to hell, sometimes telling each of us individually as we pass him. This typically produces a couple of results. The first is that he is ignored. The second is that plots are devised by some of the more outspoken students, who go down en masse to pick apart his logic. Neither of these are what you would call constructive dialogue.

Not even accounting for content, I believe if Paul were alive today, he would take issue with this man’s approach. Though I don’t think VDS would be his first stop in preaching the gospel, if Paul really wanted to promote his message, he would have come to our weekly coffee hour, which the entire community attends, and where, under the influence of massive amounts of caffeine and pastry, everyone is inclined to listen. If Paul had a motto – besides take a pair of sunglasses on every road trip, just in case – it would be “Meet them where they are.” Here’s where the Athenians were. During Paul’s day, there were two lines of idol worship going on. What we usually think of is the old Greek Pantheon – you know, Zeus, Hera, goats playing harps. But after Aristotle’s time, another, more philosophical paganism had taken hold – that of the unmoved mover, the god that set the world in motion but by definition couldn’t be bothered to take care of it. So, working with the assumption that there are gods out there that might or might not care, the Athenians had done the pragmatic thing: made another idol to worship, another altar to visit. Where’s the harm, right?

Now, we know that Paul wasn’t a big fan of idols, and from his letters, I would guess he wasn’t thrilled about the Unmoved Mover theory, either. And yet, here he is, at the top of the Areopagus, having an informed conversation about both. He knew exactly where the Athenians were, and he went out to meet them. He starts with what the Athenians know about God: that God made everything. He even quotes Greek poets and philosophers – “For in him we live and move and have our being…We are his offspring.” This is the God that animates all life, that acts through every movement, that sings through every voice. And this the Athenians could agree with. And this is when Paul starts to really preach. Coming from the Jewish tradition where iconoclasm is written into the most fundamental text of the law, Paul tells them that the human race cannot create God, cannot mold God into statues of gold, cannot make God into what they want God to be. God is more than that and cannot be controlled through human mechinations. But neither is God untouched, a transcendent being above all knowledge and contact. This is the God they name Unknown, but the unknown is not unmovable.

Here is where Paul makes his masterstroke, where he offers them a revolution, a path between paths: God has a face, but not one made of gold. And God is not portable, but neither is God unmovable, for here is the proof: God came, died, and was resurrected. This God, we hear Paul say – the God that gives you life and is present even in your living bodies – this God is the one who has spoken through Jesus, who was resurrected.

Now, the Athenians are quiet during Paul’s sermon, but this is where one of my friends from school would speak up. “That’s all fine,” she’d say. “Beautiful. But why are we hearing about this? Why are you even talking?”
There is a kind of stigma that exists at VDS that can be summarized with a story. On some days, our reading room at the school is invaded by an undergrad prayer group. An amusing pastime of some of the grad students is to watch other grads walk into the reading room, see the prayer group, and begin to become visibly uncomfortable. And these are grad students that, in the main, believe and confess their faith in God. There’s something going on here that Paul would have to adjust himself to. He may have had an inkling of the issue – that what we worship speaks more to our identity than it does the identity of God – but his Christian identity was under a different kind of duress than Christian identity today. Christians during his time were in danger of being stoned; Christians of our day are in danger of quietly slipping away.

In a society in which identity is the most lauded and sought-after aspect of an individual’s being and – paradoxically – the most readily diffuse and contingent concept that we can talk about, we must face the question of Christian identity. Even within Christianity itself, divisions – denominations – indicate many issues, but the most fundamental is the question of who we are and where we take our stand. The Christian must ask herself what makes her different from her neighbor, in order to have any idea of how to act toward that neighbor. “Boundary” is sometimes considered a bad word in our present lexicon. What are boundaries but walls of separation, chunks of concrete and barbwire over which we shoot our guns and with which we keep the other out? But boundaries, besides being limits to openness and possible barriers to our hospitality, are also our defining lines. They are what make us who we are. They may sometimes act as detriments, but they are also our source of identity, the anchored points we can defend with faith and where we proclaim, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And I’m sure we all believe that – but why are so many people unwilling to identify it publically? Paul’s proclaiming enthusiastically on the Areopagus, and divinity students are obviously shaken by God’s name whispered in prayer.

Perhaps it is because the God of our public discourse is, in fact, an idol. If nothing else, the upcoming generation can peg idols as expertly as Paul did as he walked into Athens. Today God’s name is being shouted from street corners and associated with hatred and violence. God’s name is being paraded on inaugural platforms where millions bow down and worship the American Dream. God’s name is scrawled on bombs that treat God’s children as collateral damage. The gods of our culture are made by human beings to kill other human beings and to destroy creation. And in such a world, many have turned to the theory that the true God, if he exists, does not care about his creation – how could he? All evidence points to the contrary. So when my friend asks Paul why he is speaking, it’s not because she gets her kicks from kicking back. It’s because God, in our culture, is molded by the hands of greed, hatred, and militarism. And people are tired of worshipping such a God and are embarrassed to be seen with him. Who would want to tie their identity to something as heinous as that?

So, Paul, for God’s sake, why are you still talking? What is it about your God that makes you qualified to speak? And Paul offers not another name, but a story – the Christian story. There was once a God who became a man and stayed with us for a while. And while he was here with us, he wiped the blindness from people’s eyes and brought good news to the poor. He fed thousands and told us that the food would never run out, that water would never run dry. He looked out over the land and said, “This is not how it is supposed to be. This is not how I made it.” Then God, instead of resorting to violence and reinforcing our habits of fear and hatred, took up a cross, the death that only political uprising warranted. Then God, who wanted to be with us always, followed us down the long road of suffering. And then God died.

This is no human name, no idol, no unmoved mover. This is a story of a love so strong that shame and death could not stand in its way – that overcame the power of death and all its worshippers with it – a love so revoluationary that an empire shook in its armor. And as a Christian, Paul found his identity there and could not help telling that story. This is why the Christian message is so important. It’s important because the idols never really went away, they just got bigger, and their worshippers can launch nuclear weapons, when before they bandied words. It’s important because without it, the God clothed in billboards and toting a megaphone will be the only God the world can see, when what we need to see is a God carrying a cross and clothed in his love for us. It’s only when we can see that God that we can start the hard work of preaching against our own idols. It’s only then that we can call ourselves Christians and not be ashamed.  



In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of theLord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever (Micah 4:1-5).


Rachel and her children live in the city, in a hotel. They share the room with Mr. Water Bug and Mr. Rat – but this is no tale from a children’s book with adorable animal characters. Rachel and her children live in a rat hole off the big street, and the building they stay in is a hotel in name only.

Rachel weeps for her children because she can’t protect their innocence, she can’t keep them safe; most days, she can’t even feed them. “If there was a place where you could sell part of your body,” she says, “where they buy an arm or somethin’ for a thousand dollars, I would do it. I would do it for my children. I would give my life if I could get a thousand dollars.”

“They laid him in a manger. Right?” she tells the man who wants to write her story, and she continues, “Listen to me. [I’m not sayin] that God forsaken us. I am confused about religion. I’m just sayin’ evil overrules the good. So many bad things goin’ on. (…) It’s not easy to believe. I don’t read the Bible no more ‘cause I don’t find no more hope in it. I don’t believe. But yet and still … I know these words. ‘Lie down in green pastures… leadeth me beside still waters… restores my soul… I shall not want.’ All that I want is somethin’ that’s my own. I got four kids. I need four plates, four glasses, and four spoons. Is that a lot?”[1]

No, Rachel, it’s not. It is a small dream, such a small dream of home. We’ve listened to a song, a song Micah the prophet sang; a beautiful song about days to come when entire nations stream to the mountain of God, flowing like rivers from all corners of the earth toward the house of God. They’re all coming, and it’s different from anything we’ve ever seen: They’re not coming with their armies to kill, rape, plunder, burn and destroy, like they have done so many times before. And they’re not coming because they have lost the final battle and must pay tribute now to the new rulers of the world who reside in Jerusalem. No, they come with joy and expectation; they want to learn God’s ways and study war no more. That is a big dream, Rachel, with room for the whole world in it, a big song with big music – and yet toward the end of the song, in the last verse, the big dream becomes small, small enough for you and me, Rachel, small enough for each and all of us:

They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. They shall all have somethin’ that’s their own, and no one shall make them afraid. 

Rachel is sitting on the box spring she uses for a bed, with the Bible in her lap, and she sighs, “I know I’m poor. Don’t have no bank account, no money, or no job. Don’t have no nothin’. No foundation.” She reads from the psalm she almost knows by heart, words that echo the final words of Micah’s song,  ‘I shall not fear…’, and she looks up and says, “I fear! A long, long time ago I didn’t fear. Didn’t fear for nothin’. I said God’s protectin’ me and would protect my children. Did he do it?” And after a moment she adds, “Yeah, I’m walkin’. I’m walkin’ in the wilderness. That’s what it is. I’m walkin’.”[2]

Rachel is confused about religion. But she’s not confused about what kind of  religion all the nations might have who are streaming to Mount Zion in days to come. She’s not sitting on her box spring wondering if the prophet is declaring that the paths of all who seek justice and peace will eventually lead to Zion, or if somehow in the course of history believers of all religions will become worshipers of the Holy One of Israel, or if the nations in this song of great promise only represent those gentiles who have been baptized into the church of Jesus Christ. No, Rachel is confused about religion because everywhere she turns she sees evil overruling the good. She is struggling to survive at the bottom of these days when too many children have their little lights snuffed by violence and hopelessness. She is wandering on the shadow side of these days when nations beat their pick-up trucks into rocket launchers and their school lunch programs into fighter jets and their low-income apartments into luxury condos. Rachel is walkin’ in the wilderness of these days and she can’t find a well for a sip of hope.

We have listened to Micah’s song, with its steady beat of a hammer dancing on an anvil, clang, clang, clang, bright and clear as a bell, calling us to walk toward days to come when all will be well and all will be well. Rachel is walking in the wilderness and she can barely trust that there will be days to come, let alone days when the goodness of God overrules the power of evil. But perhaps she is still open to somebody walking with her in the name of God. Somebody who has heard and embraced the promise of God, the promise that undermines the present circumstance with flashes of hope; the promise that throws open the door for possibilities the managers of the status quo cannot imagine. Perhaps she is still open to somebody walking with her in the name of Jesus whose compassion moved him to enter and embody the hurt our power arrangements produce. All the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but some will choose to walk with Rachel.

Micah makes it quite clear that the extravagant promise of peace is God’s second act. Peace completes the judgment of the city built with violence and wrong, whose rulers give judgment for a bribe, whose priests teach for a price, and whose prophets cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths (see Micah 3:5-12). Like a prosecuter arguing his case in court, Micah lists the wrongdoings of the city leaders, point by point, but the promise that in days to come the city will be one of peace is not an argument but a bold assertion: it will be otherwise because God said so. The rest is left to the testimony of those whose feet have been pointed toward the promised future.

All the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God.

Rachel may not be able to give herself to the bold assertion that in days to come it will be otherwise, because that would be a step of hope, not of despair. But she may yet learn to trust those few who are walking with her in hope and expectation of the city of peace, and in the name of the God whose promise it is. We are walking, and we are giving testimony with our feet of a hope that is big enough for the whole world and for Rachel and her children.

The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather an endless pilgrimage, a being on the way.”[3]

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind – these are all a drive towards serving Him who rings our hearts like a bell.”[4]

Clang, clang, clang – I don’t know what you’re hearing, but in my heart it’s a hammer dancing on an anvil, a burning song of audacious longing. I hear thousands of people from every corner of the earth on their way up to the mountain. I hear the sound of feet on the road, I hear chatter and laughter and music. They carry swords and spears and every weapon of war, and they all hear the clang, clang, clang of the hammer dancing on the anvil, pounding and beating the tools of war into tools of peace, forging a new economy – this is a city where the poor have a home and the children are safe, Rachel.


[1] Jonathan Kozol, Rachel And Her Children. Homeless Families in America (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988), 69-71

[2] Kozol, p. 71

[3] Moral Grandeur And Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Noonday Press, 1997), p. 245

[4] I Asked for Wonder. A Spiritual Anthology. Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed. Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 15


Seeing what's there

In the middle of Luke’s gospel there is this mountain; it simply appears, without name or introduction: Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. Not a mountain, but the mountain.

Luke is not talking about geography, but rather about the inner landscape of prayer. It’s like Alison Krauss singing, As I went down in the river to pray: not only can any river be the river – in the singing the song can become prayer, and the prayer becomes the river. Our prayer with Jesus is the mountain.

Jesus went up and the three went with him, their feet were sore, and their legs, weary. They had been working long hours bringing the good news to villages in Galilee and curing diseases, setting food before thousands and gathering baskets full of leftovers. They were tired. Jesus went up on the mountain, and they stumbled along behind him. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes were shining like the sun was rising inside of them. Everything the three looked at was bathed in that dazzling light. They were tired, very tired, but they saw Jesus, their master and friend, talking with two of God’s great servants of the past, Moses and Elijah – it was as though time had ceased or the fullness of time had been crammed into that moment. Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They were talking about his death on that hill outside of Jerusalem, at the end of the way he was on, but they did not use the word death. And they did not speak of it as something that would happen to him, but something he would accomplish.

The word translated as departure is the Greek exodos, and with Moses right there, no other hint was needed. Jesus would go to Jerusalem to lead God’s people from bondage to freedom. This time the great opponent wouldn’t be Pharaoh, and it wouldn’t be Caesar; the struggle was against sin and against all the powers that keep God’s children in captivity, against all that prevents God’s people from entering the joy of God’s reign and finding the peace of God. It would be another exodus, with Jesus laying down his own body to part the waters and rising on the other side, the firstborn from the dead. Elijah was the prophet whose coming meant that redemption was near, that the Messiah was due, and there was Elijah talking to Jesus – everything was coming together beautifully on top of that mountain. They saw the glory of God illuminating the body of Jesus and confirming his way to be the way of Christ.

The moment was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light, and all they could think of was, abide. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Don’t let this end; abide, and let us behold this beauty for good.

Prayer has the power to bring us into God’s presence; and the glory of God can erupt anytime and anywhere. When it does we can mark the spot with a rock like Jacob who saw a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. “How awesome is this place!” he said. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I, I did not know it,” and he called it Beth-El, house of God.[1] We can mark the spot with a cairn or a rock or a temple or three dwellings or a sanctuary, but God’s glory will not stay on our map.

On the mountain, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified. In that darkness nothing dazzled, nothing shone, all they could see was the absence of all things visible. Whereas before everything had been exceedingly clear and orderly, now they were completely in the dark without any sense of place or direction. It was as if they had fallen from the heights of holy awe to the depths of trembling fear. And that’s when they heard the voice. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him. Just one commandment for the journey across the plains of life: Listen to him.

They didn’t say a word about what they had seen. They followed Jesus down from the mountain, down to where the needy crowd was waiting, down to the lowlands of life. And there, at the foot of the mountain, the silence was broken by a father who cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”

His cry was like the echo of the voice they had heard on the mountain top, only here it was filled with pain and helplessness. This is where we long to see transfiguration, down here in the valleys and plains where demons need to be cast out and children wait for healing. Down here we work and watch and pray for the transfiguration that illumines all the earth with the light of heaven. Down here is where we encounter God’s Chosen One among the people who are hurting, in the places where despair threatens to smother all hope. Down here is where we listen to the One who embodies God’s grace and compassion, calling us to repentance and challenging us to follow him all the way to the cross in our quest for the glory of God and the wholeness of life.

The mountain is there for us, not to settle down on it, but to let its glorious light illumine the way ahead. Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of spiritual splendor, but deeper into the world. The long journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. It begins with seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus, not only on the mountain, but also on the cross, and it continues with recognizing Jesus in the faces of every man, woman, or child. The light of God shines in our hearts, and this light, the complete and unconditional love of God, opens our eyes to see what is there, what is really there, in every human face and in every creature great and small, in every embodiment of divine love.

Seeing what is really there is of course no simple matter. I have looked, but I still haven’t found a lovelier set of lines that capture with proper sincerity and wittiness the difficulty of “seeing what is there” than Elizabeth Barret Browning’s four lines from her impossibly long poem, Aurora Leigh. [2]

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

I love the elegant rhythm of the third line, and how it all quickly collapses in the fourth. No, nothing’s wrong with noticing the sweet, shiny blackberries amid the prickly branches, nothing’s wrong with sitting round and plucking them – but what is it that keeps us from seeing the fire in the bush and in each berry? Browning’s lines speak of heaven not as a far-away reality in terms of space and time, but rather one that crams the everyday and shines through everything. We have microscopes and other instruments that allow us to look deep into things, and we have built powerful telescopes that give us glimpses of cosmic events that happened millions of years ago, but we also sense that even the most advanced technology will not necessarily open our eyes to see what is there: a universe crammed with heaven, the love and light of God in all things.

John Ames, in a letter to his son, wrote,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of creation and it turns to radiance for a moment or a year or the span of a life and then it sinks back into itself again and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light. (…) But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.[3]

On Wednesday, we enter the forty days of Lent with ashes on our foreheads, and we each have our own ways of nurturing that little willingness to see how constant and extravagant the Lord is. Perhaps you know a song that takes you to the river, and you listen to it just once each day, and for those few minutes, you do nothing else. Perhaps you follow Jesus up the mountain by turning off your phone for ten minutes of silence every day.

The journey takes us from the mountain of light to the hill outside the city where Jesus was crucified, and the journey prepares us to see the love and light of God even there, especially there, in all its extravagance.


[1] Genesis 28:10ff.

[2] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: C. S. Francis & Co, 1857)  p. 275-276

[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 245


Another Voice

The Bible tells us that our story begins with God who formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. God planted a lush garden in Eden, took the man and put him in it to till it and keep it. And God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Our story begins with life in abundance, given by a loving God, and with a commandment, given to the humans who are to till and keep this place of lush life. But there’s another voice in the garden, the serpent, more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. The serpent doesn’t say much, only asks a question, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” It’s not what God said, but the serpent continues to sow seeds of suspicion and distrust, saying, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God did not tell the whole truth, the voice suggests, and the relationship between the humans and God begins to unravel. They eat, we all eat from the tree, and at the same time we wonder why: is it out of curiosity? Is it because we find being like God more desirable than being human? Or is it simply because disobedience becomes an option when there’s a rule?

We’re meant to be gardeners in God’s Eden, but we wonder if perhaps the other voice has a point … and we eat. When questioned by the Lord God, the man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and the serpent is silent. Guilt and fear, shame and blame have entered the scene, and jealousy, hatred, and violence soon follow. We look around, and nothing, it seems, is the way it’s supposed to be.

The story invites us to consider that the initial crack in our fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God. And with that, we’re also invited to consider that the wholeness of life we all long for begins with the healing of that rift. We trust, or rather learn to trust, that the God who made us and all things, is one who forgives and redeems. We learn to say, “I have sinned. I have not trusted you. Guilt and fear have built their walls around me, and shame has locked the door. Forgive me. Set me free. Take me home.”

Especially during the season of Lent, we make this confession part of our common worship, as we reflect on the way of Christ as our salvation. Some churches begin every worship service with a prayer of confession to make sure we remember that we are forgiven sinners. Kathleen Norris writes, 

I am a sinner and the Presbyterian Church offers me a weekly chance to come clean. But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word “sin” that in church we end up confessing nothing but our highly developed capacity for denial. One week the confession began, “Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives which you want us to have,” which seems less a prayer than a memo (…). At such times, I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, “Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?” It would be refreshing to answer, simply, “I have sinned.”[1] 

The initial crack in the fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God, and wholeness begins with the healing of that rift. We learn to say, “I have sinned,” and we learn to trust God’s word, “You are forgiven.”

When Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And right there, Luke inserted a long genealogy going back all the way not just to David or Abraham, but beyond, generation after generation, to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” This is Luke’s way of telling us that the gospel of Jesus, the beloved son of God, is for all the children of Adam and Eve, for all God’s beloved sons and daughters. The next thing we hear is that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Nothing is said of the devil’s looks, or where he came from; that’s clearly not the point. What matters – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil spoke. There’s another voice.

Jesus was famished, weak, and vulnerable when the bread whisperer said, “Since you are the son of God, how about one small miracle for yourself? Come on, help yourself to some bread. Nobody’s watching. It’s just you and me.” And Jesus said no.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world; but Jesus continued to be led by the Spirit, not by the power whisperer who said, “Come on, take it. I can give it to anyone I please. Worship me, and it will all be yours. Think of all the good you could do as ruler of the world.” Jesus said no.

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. It had to be the temple, a lonely cliff somewhere in the wilderness wouldn’t do. “Think of the possibilities,” the publicity whisperer said, “throw yourself down,” and he added a proof text from Scripture. But Jesus said no. No to the bread, no to the power, no to the angelic guards. His response to every test was to remain human and to love God with all his heart. Full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, he chose God’s way to Jerusalem, God’s kingdom mission, and God’s glory. The initial crack in the fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God, and in Jesus’ life of faithfulness the rift has been healed.

The final encounter, the ultimate clash of the kingdom of God and the whispering tempter’s reign happened on the cross. Again three times Jesus heard the voice suggesting that he use his power for himself. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one,” some scoffed. Others said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And one kept deriding him, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:35,37,39). He didn’t save himself. He did not call on armies of angels. He did not use God for his own ends. He trusted in the faithfulness of God, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

And this loving, serving, and suffering Jesus God vindicated by raising him from the dead, saying Amen to his teachings, his table etiquette, and his friendship with sinners that helps them remember that they are indeed God’s beloved. Beloved, forgiven sinners.

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” we want to sing, lost in wonder, found by love. Sadly, the word wretch has become unpopular in recent years, resulting in a particularly embarassing example of hymn improvement which Kathleen Norris tells us about,

Some hymnals have taken out the offending word, but the bowdlerization of the text that results is thoroughly wretched English, and also laughably bland, which, taken together, is not an inconsiderable accomplishment: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.’ Someone? (…) Is there a fabled “someone” who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh unforgivable, things that he or she has done? Maybe the unconscious of some people really does tell them that they’re okay, all the time. Maybe there are people who are so thorougly at home in themselves that they can’t imagine being other than comfortable, let alone displaced or wretched in spirit. But I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness—exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance—has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.[2] 

I think she’s right. And haven’t you at times wondered if God fully grasps what it means to be human? Haven’t you asked yourself if God is all eyes and ears, watching and listening from a distance, but not really in touch with the misery, the pain of being human?

The story of Jesus tells us that God’s grasp of what it means to be human is not superficial at all. The story of Jesus is the story of humanity and God, a retelling and healing of the story that began in Eden. Jesus was tested in every respect as we are, but without sin. He heard the whispers of the other voice, but he didn’t allow it to sow its seeds of suspicion and distrust. In the power of the Spirit, he followed the path of obedience and love, and he bore the full weight of sin: betrayal, hatred, lies, torture, exile, the arrogance of power – all of it. He bore it and trusted God to forgive, redeem, and heal – all of it. He didn’t turn stones into bread, but in the end his entire life was bread – blessed, broken, and shared for the life of the world.

[1] Amazing Grace, p. 165

[2] Amazing Grace, p. 166



Nones - perhaps you think about the women across the street at Aquinas when you hear the word. Perhaps you think about Dominican or Benedictine sisters or The Sound of Music. Some of you who went to Catholic school may remember fondly (or not so fondly) Sister Mary Margaret who introduced you to the wonders of Math.

But I’m not talking about nuns, but rather the Nones, N-O-N-E-S. I’m talking about the 46 million people in the United States who checked the box “none” last year when answering the religion question in a national survey. In October, the Pew Research Center released its study, “Nones on the Rise” where you can read in great demographic detail that one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, and that the ranks of the “nones” are growing faster than any religious group. Some of them are atheists and agnostics, but the largest number self-identify consider themselves to be “nothing in particular.” Many describe themselves as spiritual or religious, and a signifant number observe spiritual disciplines like daily prayer, but they’re not looking for a congregation that would be a good fit for them.

One detail of the report received a lot of extra attention: overall, one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, but among Americans under 30, that group makes up one-third. Greg Smith, one of the researchers at Pew said on NPR, “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell. This really is something new.”

Robert Putnam, a sociologist who has studied trends in American religious life for years, points out that this young generation has been distancing itself not only from religious institutions, but that it “is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were. (…) They’re the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club.” And then he adds, “It begins to jump at around 1990. These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise (…) is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”[1]

The kids who were coming of age in the 90’s are tired of the ugliness, and they’re looking for a better way.They’ve grown up in an age of fundamentalism, with religiously motivated violence on the evening news and careless God-talk in heated political campaigns. They’ve heard too many reports of the Catholic hierarchy trying to keep stories of child abuse by priests away from the public, and they can’t trust religious leaders who are more concerned about appearance than about justice for the victims or true repentance that might lead to renewal. They’ve witnessed increasingly silly public arguments about evolution or climate change, and they’ve had enough of the condemnation of gays and lesbians in the name of God. They’re tired of the ugliness, and they’re looking for a better way.

For some, it’s easier to trust community made from scratch, than any organized religion. Amy Sullivan last year wrote in Time Magazine about a gathering of American expats in a coastal town on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Every Sunday, they meet for what they call Not Church.

Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a congregation often does — engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor. On a recent Sunday the group (…) featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering a sermon about tomatoes and God’s call to Samuel. (Organized religion, she told them, can be like supermarket tomatoes — flavorless and tough. That isn’t a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.) “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who don’t want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were leading everyone else in the service.”

I love the parallel Erin draws between cultivating tomatoes and cultivating a life of faith, because she emphasizes flavor over looks and shelf life. And I would love to dig a little deeper into the similarities between industrial agriculture and religious institutions, but not today. I noticed something else.

Jesus was about 30 years of age when the good people of his home congregation drove him out of town. At first they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, but within the course of a short sermon, they flew into a rage and were ready to hurl him off the cliff.

You don’t belong where respectable people worship!

You are no longer one of us, get out!

And the rage escalated to a point where at least some of them were ready to kill him. As far as the good people of Nazareth were concerned, Jesus was the consummate ‘none.’ In their heart and mind, he was no longer part of organized religion – but as far as the good news of God is concerned, he is of course no less the prophet of the kingdom now than he was before. Only now, he is moving on. He is out there with all the other ‘nones’ and unaffiliated ones, on his way, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God in Capernaum and the villages of Galilee, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He’s moving on.

The good people of Nazareth loved Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor because they were poor, and they had waited so long for redemption and release – and there he stood, Joseph’s boy, a son of Nazareth, speaking of fulfilment – an end to their captivity and oppression. You know that at least a few of them were hoping that he’d set up shop in his hometown for the great work of redemption, that he’d put sleepy little Nazareth on the map – until they realized that ‘hometown’ meant something else altogether to him. They flew into a rage when he hinted at a couple of stories they knew and loved, stories about two of their favorite prophets.

There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

Jesus reminded the congregation that God’s promise to restore life didn’t stop at the border; even in the days of the prophets of old, God’s mission brought new life to a Gentile widow in Phoenicia and her child, and healing to the General of the enemy’s army. The good people of Nazareth thought, today was finally their day, and he disappointed them by telling them that it was the day of fulfilment for all. At the end of his hometown sermon, Jesus didn’t go elsewhere because the people of Nazareth rejected him – it was rather the other way round: the people of Nazareth rejected him because he was going elsewhere; they realized that he wouldn’t respect the boundaries of here and there, us and them. They rejected him because they weren’t able to transcend the boundaries of their particular community for the sake of God’s mission.

I read this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a parable. We’re no less tempted than the good people of Nazareth to think of ourselves as God’s own hometown. We’re tempted to look at the statistics of shrinking congregations and the growing ranks of ‘nones’ and worry about what will become of us, and before long all we care about are butts and bucks – bodies in the pews and dollars in the budget. We’re tempted to forget that God loves the world and continues to call us to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in the company of Jesus. God’s mission in the world and for the world continues, and the only question the church must answer, in any generation, regardless of whether there are only a handful or millions of us, the only question is whether we are participating in what God is doing today.

Many churches in the United States in the years after WWII got accustomed to viewing the world from a perspective of privilege, but that privileged position has also held us captive. Now we’re learning to look at things from a different angle, and I believe this will be a liberating experience. I believe it will lead us into more honest conversations about how we see God, how we see God at work in the world, and how Christian believers, believers of other religious traditions, and even so-called ‘nones’ participate in that work. I believe looking at things from the margins will liberate churches from the very human desire to convert others to become more like us, and open us to being converted by God into one humanity re-created in the image of  Christ. I believe we’ll be better prepared to grow fresh, local varietals of church life worth cultivating. And just like good tomatoes, some will be heirloom plants and others will be wonderful hybrids no one could have imagined even a few years ago. God’s mission continues – how will we participate in it?



No need of you?

Did you watch the inauguration on Monday? Some of you may not have been able to watch the festivities live, but perhaps you caught some of the key moments on the news or from pictures and clips your friends posted. What was your favorite moment? Was it the oath of office or the inaugural address? Or was it the Obama girls taking pictures of their parents kissing before the parade started? Perhaps it was Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem, or Senator Chuck Schumer saying “Wow” after Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Or how about Al Roker jumping around like a little boy who just hit the ball out of the park?

I loved it all. More than any one thing in particular, I love the fact that the inauguration is a big, public liturgy with pomp and circumstance, music, prayers and poetry, parade and dance – an event that brings us together when there’s so much that pulls us apart.

It was President Obama’s second inaugural address, and like 43 presidents before him, he spoke about his vision for the country and the priorities of his administration. Against the backdrop of this week, Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee reads like an inaugural moment, doesn’t it? Jesus has begun to teach, and word about him has spread through all the surrounding country. And now the famous son returns to Nazareth where everybody knows him and word of mouth has stirred up all kinds of expectations, and on the Sabbath day, at the synagogue he gets up to read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This is not just a random reading on a random Sabbath, this is the inaugural address of God’s anointed. This is his vision and mission, the words that capture who he is and what he is about: good news, and specifically, good news for the poor. Then Jesus sits down and all eyes are fixed on him; all are excited to hear his comments, hungry for a teaching to remind them that these ancient promises are still theirs, despite the daily reality of poverty, foreign occupation, and oppression. And he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.”

As far as sermons or Sabbath talks are concerned, that one is about as short and to the point as it gets. ‘That’s who I am,’ Jesus says, ‘that’s my life’s purpose, that’s what I’ve been anointed and sent to do.’ The sermon is short and to the point, because his entire life is the teaching. He is good news for the poor in person.

Now this is the part where you need to listen very carefully, because the preacher is going to make a little leap, and if you miss it you will find yourself wondering how we ended up where we’ll be in just a moment. Jesus’ entire life is his teaching, and because we are baptized in the same Spirit whose power filled him when he came to Galilee, we are part of his continuing proclamation. Jesus’ life is ours, and our lives are his. His mission is our mission. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth was short and to the point, because the church, in the power of the Spirit, continues to bring good news to the poor today. The church, of course, is and has been all kinds of things, but in the power of the Spirit, we are good news for the poor, messengers of liberation, and ambassadors of reconciliation.

Good news for the poor – that is as simple as Room in the Inn, as simple as making a bed in the fellowship hall and cooking a meal, so a homeless veteran can enjoy the warmth and fellowship of home for a night. But it can’t end there; we can’t stop asking why there are 4000 homeless men, women, and children in Nashville alone. We can’t stop asking ourselves and one another why so many of us are being pushed to the margins of our communities and beyond.

I want to tell you about Emma Faye Stewart; actually, I invite you to imagine for a moment that you are Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two. You were just arrested as part of a drug sweep. You are innocent. You don’t use drugs, let alone sell them. You just happened to be there. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. You didn’t do anything wrong. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty just so you can return home to your children. You are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs.

You are now a drug felon. This means you are no longer eligible for food stamps. This also means that on any job application, you have to check the box that you have been convicted of a felony. And it means that you cannot vote for at least twelve years, but that’s the least of your worries: You are about to be evicted from public housing, and once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.

You think it couldn’t get any worse? It can and it does. A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, Emma Faye, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.[1]

What do you hear when you hear Jesus proclaiming freedom for the oppressed? What comes to mind when you hear him talk about release for the captives? I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because I want to know how the good news of the kingdom that Jesus is and proclaims can become good news for you today. I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because Christ tells me that we are one in him. Yes, I can live my life quite comfortably without you, but not in the kingdom where he rules with grace and truth. He has made us his own, and that makes us each other’s business. I am beginning to see how you are being oppressed by grave injustice, but I don’t see clearly yet, and I believe that it is Christ through you who will restore my sight. I am beginning to see how your captivity is also mine, and we can only be free together.

I’m not making this up. Emma Faye’s story is based on an actual case, and sadly, it’s not uncommon at all, especially among the poor.

Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” The reality of being members in the one body of Christ lies at the opposite end of “I have no need of you” and finds expression in the words, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to look Emma Faye in the eye while hearing or remembering these words.

A few days before Christmas, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister went to prison. I know it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but a group of prisoners at Riverbend had invited us to come over on a Saturday night to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. We sat in the chapel together, Christians, Muslims, non-believers, Buddhists and Jews, and we had one of the most rewarding conversations I can remember. But what I want to share with you today about that night is a question one of the insiders asked at the beginning, when we went around the circle introducing ourselves. He looked at me across the room and said, “Where is the church? Do you even know we’re here?”

No, man, we don’t, not really. Most of us haven’t been paying attention for decades. We like to think that there are chaplains for that, and we gladly leave the prison ministry to our brethren on the right. We live our lives quite comfortably without you. We didn’t notice that the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980 and that more than two million of our people are now locked up, and for increasingly longer terms, even for non-violent crimes. We’re surprised to hear that the United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens, and that we imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth or in human history, including China which has four times our population.[2]

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” Jesus said in his inaugural address. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It was a reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus didn’t quote the entire verse at the end; “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” is what Isaiah wrote. Now I don’t think Jesus dropped that half-verse by accident, do you? I believe he dropped it because the good news he embodies and proclaims isn’t about vengeance or retaliation, but rather about reconciliation and the restoration of life.

That’s something we need to work out together, and we can’t do it without the men and women on the other side of the prison walls. Let’s pray about that. Let’s talk about that; and the next time I go over to Riverbend, I want one or two of you to come with me.


[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (p. 95). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Lisa Bloom


Breaking the Cycle

Family of Abraham is a group of leaders from Nashville's Abrahamic faith communities and other religious traditions. They are committed to promoting interfaith understanding through excellent educational events, and they invite the public to their fifth evening of learning together.

On February 21, at Christ Church Cathedral, Daniel Tutt will give a public address on Breaking the Cycle: Faith Communities and the Transformation of Bigotry. He will be specifically speaking about how a community like Nashville can best attack and break the cycle of bigotry in order to transform our culture into one that truly accepts and celebrates the differences among us. People who know Daniel, describe him as bright, engaging, and humorous!

Following his keynote, Volney Gay (Professor of Psychiatry and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt) and Jackie Halstead (Managing Director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality and Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University) will respond.

Please make plans to attend this event at Christ Church Cathedral on February 21 at 7pm.

View and download flyer


For Zion's Sake

I didn’t know there was a word for a 150th anniversary, and when I first heard it, I had to look it up. This year marks the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important anniversaries in the history of the United States. 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation set this country on the path of ending slavery; and a hard path it was.[1]

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg made his movie Lincoln to honor that great president and celebrate that milestone of freedom. When Nancy and I watched it after Christmas, I appreciated the close-up look it gave us of Congress and various other settings that allowed us to feel and know the deep political and cultural divide in the country at that time. I knew that there had been many defenders of the idea that humans can hold other humans in bondage; I knew that, but seeing the faces of human beings who were making those arguments in a debate was an altogether different experience.

Some justified slavery by arguing that the advance of human culture and freedom had always depended on it. According to John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, “It was an inevitable law of society that one portion of the community depended upon the labor of another portion over which it must unavoidably exercise control.” And “freedom,” the editor of the Richmond Inquirer once declared, “is not possible without slavery.” The same minds also held another truth “to be self-evident,” namely “that all men are created equal,” and yet the apparent contradiction between the two led only very few to change their minds.[2]

Others argued that slaves were really better off living in servitude on the plantation than they would have been in Africa, and that they should be grateful to their masters. Again in the words of John C. Calhoun, “[Slaves] had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which [they] enjoyed in the Southern States.”[3]

And then there were the enlightened men of economic reason who knew the inevitable and unavoidable and self-evident laws of the market. The South, they argued, could not afford to free the slaves without causing widespread economic and financial ruin. The “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they said in effect, only applied so long as they didn’t threaten the economic survival of the masters. Much the same arguments had of course been made at Pharao’s court when Israel was in Egypt’s land.

Fifty years ago, on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States once again stood at a crossroads. Nine years earlier, the Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation in the public schools, but equality of citizenship was still a dream for non-white men and women. The politics were complicated, but the demands of justice were becoming obvious to a growing number of Americans. On August 27, 1963, hundreds of thousands of men and women from across the nation, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, gathered at the Lincoln memorial, embodying together a better vision for the nation. It was on this occasion that Dr. King gave his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”

“I started out reading the speech,” he later recalled, then “all of a sudden this thing came out of me that I have used — I’d used it many times before, that thing about ‘I have a dream’ — and I just felt that I wanted to use it here. I don’t know why, I hadn’t thought about it before the speech.” Folk history of the March on Washington would record that Mahalia Jackson called out in the midst of King’s oration, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” And so he did. He put aside the text of his carefully prepared speech and told the world about the dream.

“I still have a dream,” he said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ” Joan Baez heard the breath of God thunder through him. His wife Coretta remembered how “for that brief moment the Kingdom of God seemed to have come on earth.” And after that kingdom moment, the head of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division concluded that King’s “demagogic speech” made him the nation’s “most dangerous Negro.”[4] He was dangerous because he quoted from the Declaration of Independence and from the prophets. He was dangerous because he dreamed of a day “when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ ” He was dangerous because, for America’s sake, he did not keep silent. “In a real sense America is essentially a dream,” he said, “a dream yet unfulfilled. It is the dream of a land where men [and women] of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers [and sisters].”[5] He was dangerous because he opened our eyes for possibilities far beyond the status quo, and yet within reach for men and women of courage.

Dr. King was a patriot, perhaps one of the greatest American patriots of the 20th century, but ultimately his vision was bigger than any one country. We heard a passage from the book of Isaiah this morning where a voice declares, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.” I will not sit still. I will talk and not stop talking. I will proclaim and not stop proclaiming. I will preach and not stop preaching. I will dream and declare and remind and I will not stop. I will not rest. I will not keep silent for the sake of the city until she has been lifted up like a crown of beauty in the hand of God and her vindication shines out like the dawn.

Whose passion is this? Who is speaking in this passage? Some say that this is the prophet who speaks in the voice of God. In a situation of disappointment and despair, when God’s people can think of themselves only as forsaken and of their city only as desolate, God’s resolve to speak and act wells up. And God declares, “I will not keep silent,” vowing to overcome all estrangement and forsakenness that has characterized the relationship of God and the beloved city, and not to rest until she shines like the dawn.

Others say that this is the prophet not speaking in God’s voice but rather promising to stand on the city walls like a sentinel and to break the silence day and night to make God remember God’s promises. The prophet will protest, preach, and proclaim without ceasing until God does what God has promised to do: restore Jerusalem so the nations can see her glory. The prophet will make sure that God gets no rest until Jerusalem is rebuilt, filled with her children, surrounded by smiling land, and shining with the glory of God.

Who is speaking in this passage? Whose passion is this? Either reading is possible and fruitful, and yes, you should try this at home. In either reading, the passion is for the promises of God that have guided God’s people since the days of Abraham and Sarah. The passion is for the promises of God to shape and restore the fractured relationships we have with each other, with our communities, and with the land. The passion is for Zion to be more than a hill or a city, but an icon of wholeness that inspires hope in all the places where people are tempted to believe that only masters can be free.

That is why I believe that Dr. King was an American patriot whose vision was greater than just this country. He was a prophet and preacher who would not keep silent for America’s sake because he would not keep silent for Zion’s sake. To those who suggested to fight the violence of segregation with violence, he replied,

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight fire with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies.

Like Zion, the beloved community is not one place, community, or country, but rather the good news of wholeness in every particular circumstance:

The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men [and women].

We are facing difficult debates and decisions about gun violence, about immigration, and about how to invest in the future when we’re already sitting on a pile of debt – and the politics are complicated, and the cultural divide is wide. Knowing that God’s passion and the passion of God’s prophets is for Zion, for the beloved community, perhaps we too will have the courage to act with creative and redemptive goodwill, even for our opposers.



[2] Declaration of Independence

[3] William L. Miller, Arguing about Slavery. The Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 132

[4] See the first chapter of Eric J. Sundquist, King’s Dream (Yale University Press, 2009) at

[5] Anthony Lewis


True Name

People were filled with expectation about John, questioning in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. People were filled with expectation about Jesus, wondering whether he was the one or if they should wait for another. And people were filled with expectation about you when you were born, when you went to school, when you walked down the aisle in your long white dress, when you joined the church, when you started your new job. Expectations – they can lift you up and take you places you didn’t think were within your reach, and they can weigh you down and keep you from blossoming.

When little Billy was born, they proudly named him William Jefferson Cooper III, expecting without a question that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by becoming an engineer, of course at Perdue, and taking over the family business. Imagine how much fun he had in his Senior year of highschool trying to convince his parents that he needed to go to Peabody because he wanted to be a teacher.

Expectations shape us in significant ways, whether they are our own or those of our parents and peers. They can give us wings or be the chains around our feet. Now perhaps you expect me to tell you which expectations are good or bad, or how to find the thin line that separates expecting too much from expecting too little and how to get it all just right. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

What I do want to talk about is Jesus. It astounds me how he can step into this scene that is charged with messianic expectation and with visions of judgment and redemption, and he’s not being pulled this way or that way but follows his own path.

When he was about thirty years old, he came to the Jordan river, and he heard John the Baptist preaching repentance and forgiveness. When John warned the crowds of the wrath to come, Jesus was there and listened. When the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” Jesus was there and took it all in. And when all the people were baptized, Jesus was washed in the river along with all of them, or perhaps I should say, along with all of us. The river of repentance is where we need to be, and Jesus gets in the water with us.

This is the Jordan, the river that Israel crossed after long years of wilderness wandering to enter the land of God’s promise. This river marks the border between what was and what shall be. Its waters wash away the dust, the dirt, the regrets and the shadow of all that we can’t undo. This is the river that prepares us to live as God’s people on God’s earth according to God’s will. And now Jesus gets in the water with us to make our lives his own, with all the distortions and the ugliness sin and lovelessness have caused, and to make his life ours. This moment in the river is the gospel in a nutshell: God bears all that breaks and destroys the fullness of life, and we are given a new beginning.

The curious thing about Luke’s account, though, is that he mentions Jesus’ baptism almost in passing.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

Luke makes sure we notice that Jesus is right there in the water with all the people, but the real news is the opening of heaven and the Spirit’s descent when Jesus was praying. Remember, this is a moment charged with messianic expectation, with proclamations of judgment in the air and visions of redemption – and Jesus prays. He stands amid the flurry of expectations of John and the crowd and, not to forget, his parents and siblings and friends, and he prays. Luke tells us, a voice came from heaven.

Now this is God speaking in the first person, which doesn’t happen very often in the scriptures, and if you think that it’s important to have all the words of Jesus printed in red, what color do you suggest for the voice from heaven? Gold letters? Or should our Bibles perhaps have a page break right after the comma so these precious words have a page of their own and our eyes don’t just keep reading as though getting to the end of the story were a matter of speed? An extra page might slow us down enough to notice that the voice from heaven doesn’t add to the already dense flurry of expectations with a solemn commission to Jesus to go and save the world. Instead we read this beautiful statement of love and delight, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s it.

Perhaps we should insert another blank page at the end of this sentence to help us notice that this is all the voice from heaven says. No second sentence opening a whole new paragraph, “Now listen, Son, this is what I need you to do.” No parental reminder, “Now don’t you forget that, Son, or I won’t be pleased.” Only these words: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

In Luke’s gospel, this scene by the river is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation after generation, layer upon layer of family history that define who Jesus is – except that Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by the water by a voice from heaven.

There might be another reason, though, why Luke inserted this long genealogy right here, with names going back all the way to Adam: to help us recognize that Jesus is in the water with all the children of Adam and Eve. The river of repentance and forgiveness is where we need to be washed and refreshed, and he joins us so we each might know who and whose we are: God’s children, God’s loved ones, God’s delight.

This relationship defines us more profoundly than layers and layers of ancestry and history; and it does so because we’re not the ones who establish it. God’s love for us is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up. We can deny it, sure, we can ignore it, neglect it, forget it, and run away from it, but we cannot destroy it. Nothing we do or refuse to do will change who we are, God’s own and God’s beloved. Sometimes we forget. We forget because we’re busy. We forget because there are so many competing expectations from which we try to make a name for ourselves. We forget because life has convinced us that we are not worthy of love or too insignificant to even be noticed. We forget because pain and fear and shame bury our sense of self as God’s own and each other’s brothers and sisters.

What are we to do about that forgetfulness? Luke draws our attention to Jesus’ praying after he had been baptized. I don’t think he does this to suggest that heaven opened because Jesus prayed, but rather to remind us that the openness of heaven is a reality perceived with the openness of heart and mind that praying offers. He encourages us to pray in order to know in our bones and not forget that we are God’s own and each other’s brothers and sisters.

Martin Luther often struggled with a deep sense of unworthiness, and when he became discouraged and depressed he would say, “But I have been baptized.” The prayer of a desperate man hanging on to hope. He even wrote it on a slip of paper he pinned to the wall above his desk, “I have been baptized.” When the waves of conflict around him and within surged high, the tempter would say to him, “Martin, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner.” And Luther would reply, “True enough, devil, but I have been baptized.” Luther wrestled with a host of demons, the expectations of many, and his own passion for the gospel truth, and I imagine that many a morning, perhaps every morning when he washed his face he paused and whispered, “I am baptized. Christ has made me his own. I belong to God.”

Not a bad habit. In the morning, when you step into the shower, and the water runs over your head and shoulders, pause for a moment to remember your true name and say it, “I am God’s beloved child and God delights in me.” What a way to start your day!

I want to close by reading again some of the lines from the book of Isaiah where God also speaks in the first person. These words were first spoken to a tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who felt utterly abandoned by God: Do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.

These beautiful words were first spoken to Israel in exile, but in the end they open to include all of God’s sons and daughters in the great homecoming from all our exiles: Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give them up, and to the south, Do not withhold. Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

That is the end of the story: God’s sons and daughters knowing themselves and one another by their true names. Thanks be to God.


The Fourth Wise Man

On a Sunday, two weeks before Christmas, some 200 people gathered under the Jefferson Street Bridge for a memorial service. They gathered to read the names of 36 homeless men and women who had died that year, some of them right there under the bridge. Charlie Strobel was there, founder of Room in the Inn and tireless ambassador of love and justice for the poor. He said he hoped a public memorial would raise awareness about our city’s growing homeless population.

The Metro Homeless Commission keeps track of the numbers for us, and they tell us there are currently about 4,000 men, women, and children living in shelters and on Nashville streets.

“Public awareness is important to create public policy,” Charlie told the newspaper. “We need public policy that creates affordable housing and eliminates this awful condition of people living on the streets like the animals.”[1]

James Fulmer was found dead early Thursday morning under the covered entrance of a church in East Nashville. He was 50 years old. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20’s, and police say he most likely died from hypothermia. The man who notified police of his death was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went (…) to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”[2]

Some of us will be quick to jump into Let’s-Fix-This-Mode: “We must do something about this; a death like this is a scandal.” Yes it is, and yes we must, but before we let this sad death challenge us to reconsider our attitudes and actions, the beauty and love in this story is waiting to be recognized: Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. One homeless neighbor responded to another homeless neighbor’s need with compassion. It’s what the good Lord says to do. It’s how the kingdom of the good Lord is extended.

“I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum,” we like to sing with the little drummer boy. “I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the king,” we sing with him; until we ask, “Shall I play for you?” We can all play the tune of love and compassion that extends the good Lord’s kingdom; and we want to play it with all our heart, and mind, and strength. Here at Vine Street, we will be hosting Room in the Inn again for a week in February, and I am grateful for each of you who participates in this ministry. I am grateful for every gesture and every public policy initiative that extends the good Lord’s kingdom.

Why do we talk about a kingdom and not just about better public policy? In the days of King Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. Traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought their gifts to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about Solomon, the wise king. And Grandpa and Grandma loved telling them the old stories and making up new ones, painting a golden past of peace and prosperity. They told stories with extra color because for hundreds of years the kings of the nations had come to Jerusalem not to bring treasure, but to take it away.

And then came the day, when the king of Babylon and his armies destroyed the city, and took its people into exile. Nothing left to take away. After two generations, the first groups of Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, and things didn’t look good at all. The once proud nation was now but a tiny colony on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And, more importantly, who would pay for it?

The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, and the old folks were tired of telling stories. Then Isaiah’s words pierced the gloom:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord (Isaiah 60:1-6).

No stories of a golden past from this prophet! Isaiah sang of God’s glory transforming the world.

Now there are two quite distinct ways of hearing Isaiah’s lines. In one, the tables are finally starting to turn: Israel has been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich – they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be the hub of the global economy; sky-high bank towers and business headquarters would line the streets of downtown, and the world would play by Jerusalem’s rules.

The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life reflect this glory; shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light; the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

It matters greatly how we envision a reign of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these wise ones from the East, but they have always fascinated us, these travelers from far away lands, bearing exotic gifts. And because we know almost nothing about them, we let our imagination go to work.

Matthew gives us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly fill it with rich, colorful detail. First we look at the map, and we list all the lands in the East – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, and China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we look at the gifts they bring – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not exactly what you and I would bring to a baby shower, but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? In our imagination the wise men now certainly were kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because they came with three gifts, we determine that there must have been three of them. Now we’re singing We Three Kings From Orient are, but our hunger for detail isn’t satisfied yet. Did they walk all the way? Certainly not, and already we see caravans of camels, not just three or four, but the multitude of camels from Midian and Ephah of Isaiah’s proclamation (Isaiah 60:6).

With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them – Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to be part of God’s future. Matthew gives us but a hint, and we let our imagination run with it because we know in our hearts that this child of Bethlehem is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in a kingdom where no man, woman, or child is left outside.

We notice again that the glory of God has risen not upon Herod’s palace nor any of Jerusalem’s other grand buildings, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town. This contrast, this conflict runs through the whole story, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. We must decide where we will go and pay homage. Do we want the peace and prosperity of Herod’s realm, of yet another empire that rises and falls, but has no place for James and Wilford and so many others? Or do we bring our hope and our gifts to Bethlehem, where another kingdom has been born?

The wise ones from the east didn’t hesitate; they went to Bethlehem, to the house where the glory of God had appeared in a vulnerable human being. Miroslav Wolf observed that, in contrast to our Christmas traditions, “the wise men did not huddle around a fire and give gifts to each other and delight in each other’s generosity.”[3] Instead, they opened the circle and gave their gifts to the child before whose glory they bent their knees.

That’s what Wilford did with his blanket on the tenth day of Christmas.



[2] and

[3] Christian Century, December 27, 2003, p.31


The Baby was God

We have heard the story, and what a wondrous story it is of God and the baby. We have sung the carols, beautiful songs that warm the heart; and we have lit the candles. The sanctuary on Christmas Eve was illumined by a wide circle of little flames, lots of candles held high as a witness to the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not and will not overcome it.

On Christmas Day and on all the days we celebrate the birth of Jesus with family and friends, life is a big dining room table surrounded by people of all ages in a sea of torn wrapping paper—gifts everywhere, smiles and thank-you’s, and an abundance of good food and cheer. All because of that wondrous story of God and the baby. Now what?

“Well,” says the narrator in W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio;

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—

Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school. There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.” [1]

Do you recognize yourself in some of these words? I do. They are very grown-up words, with little room for wide-eyed wonder and hearts warmed by nostalgia. “Once again,” Auden’s narrator declares with a regretful tone, “once again, as in previous years, we have seen the actual Vision – and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility; once again we have sent Him away.” We know it’s not just a matter of taking down the tree and all the decorations too soon. We know that we sing about the twelve days of Christmas, and that we can’t imagine how to keep singing for more than one or two of the twelve days.

I think it’s a little early for Auden’s reflective solemnity, though, and you and I wouldn’t be here on the first Sunday after, if the light of that night had not started a little fire in our hearts. So here are, just for contrast, the words of a little girl, her name is Sharon, as told by John Shea:

She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?” Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. “The baby was God.” And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.[2]

The good news of the incarnation is the kind of news that takes a lot to process. For five-year-old Sharon it takes some jumping and whirling around, and then some sofa-diving and catching her breath again under the cushion. The little girl knows with every fiber of her being what an awesome thing it is to say, “The baby was God.” Saying, “The baby was God” means that heaven and earth not only touch but come together. Saying, “The baby was God” changes everything we can say about God and ourselves and each other and the world. The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, and he changes everything. Jesus does not just speak God’s words and do God’s works; rather, he does those things because he is God’s word and work in the world.[3] The baby was God, and all the possibilities we see in the eyes of the infant and the little child’s eagerness to love and learn unfolded into the particular life of Jesus. We know he grew up, and that he looks us in the eye awaiting our response. Will we add our voices to the symphony of praise that erupts from all of creation as Psalm 148 invites us to do – or will we be silent? Will we live our lives within the wide bounds of God’s love and mercy as we see them revealed in the life of Jesus – or will we send him away, again?

There’s a picture of Nancy’s sister Lisa, taken the very moment she opened the impossible gift from her sister Janet, the firstborn of the three Pratt girls. The snapshot was taken at just the right moment, for Lisa looks like a Victorian lady who just laid eyes on something utterly unmentionable like a gentleman’s undergarments displayed on a washing line for all the world to see. I know you really want to know that Lisa got from Janet for Christmas, but I only brought up the picture because I’m in it, too. I’m sitting in the background, and you can see that I’m wearing my Christmas socks. For many years, I have successfully resisted the cultural pressure to wear a Christmas sweater or a red-nosed reindeer tie, but a few years ago I gave in and got a pair of Christmas socks. I wear them once, and then they go in the laundry basket and eventually back in the drawer until next year.

Why am I talking about Christmas socks? Because the wonderful passage from Colossians for the first Sunday after Christmas talks about new clothes for us. The baby was God. The Word became flesh. We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Now what? As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The baby was God, and with Sharon’s Three Rich Men we come and offer our gifts only to realize, suddenly or gradually, that Christmas is a reverse baby shower: new clothes for us. But this is not like so many trips where you come back and say you’ve been to Bethlehem and you got the t-shirt.  God invites us to wrap ourselves in all that Christ embodies and to let ourselves be changed for good, outside in and inside out. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, and humility. Wrap yourselves in patience, forgiveness, and peace.

We can put away the socks and ties and sweaters until next year, together with the left-over wrapping paper and all the decorations. But you know how much this land and every land needs communities of compassion and people who make room in their hearts for the peace of Christ to rule. It begins with you and me and our willingness to wear these new clothes year-round. It begins with our willingness to let the word of Christ dwell within and among us.

The baby was God, and little Sharon gives voice to the exuberance that calls on heaven and earth, sun and moon and all living things to praise the One who without ceasing loves all things into being. The baby was God, and Auden’s narrator gives voice to our experience. Once again we have attempted—quite unsuccessfully—to love all of our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers. Grossly overestimating our powers – that seems to be the story of our life. But even this very grown-up and somber voice of after-Christmas pensiveness talks about our child-like dependence on the One who comes to us in the baby.

Once again, as in previous years, (…) we have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, the promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

We know he didn’t come solely for us to have a merry Christmas Day or two, but rather to reclaim and redeem our every day. We send him away, because the love that found us demands so much of us, and we are slow to change. But begging to remain his disobedient servant we wrap ourselves in Christ’s compassion, and we are one day closer to wearing it year-round.

The fire God has kindled in our hearts burns bright enough for us to trust that even though we cannot keep His word for long, the baby of Bethlehem and the man of Galilee is the Word of God who keeps us for good.


[1] For the Time Being, in: W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage International, 1991) p. 399

[2] John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (Allan, TX: Argus Communications, 1977) p. 68

[3] See Gail O’Day, NISB, p. 1905-6


One Candle

We light a candle.

During the final days of fall, as the nights get longer, we light candles. Our Jewish friends and neighbors light the menorah to celebrate Hanukkah, and we count the Sundays of Advent with candles on the wreath. We put lights on our trees, candles in our windows, and strings of lights around our doors.

Friday was the day of the winter solstice, the longest night, and bells were ringing in Newtown, Connecticut and across the nation. Not Christmas bells, but bells of mourning for little children and the women who died trying to protect them from harm.

A deep darkness has descended on us, and we light a candle. We may do it with tears rolling down our faces, but we light a candle. Lighting a candle has always been a gesture of welcome and celebration, and these days it is no small act of defiance: We won’t accept the unacceptable. Our hearts are broken, and we’re afraid to feel the pain that lingers there, but we light a candle to illumine the darkness.

It’s been a week and a day, and we have tried to keep our heads above water as waves of anger and rage, exasperation and despair washed over us. We’ve participated in conversations about guns and mental health, about a culture in the grip of violence. We’ve tried to somehow penetrate the unfathomable with what we know and believe.

Michael Gerson wrote,

We attempt to regain control of lurching events by explaining them. And we explain according to our pre-existing beliefs. The religious see a God-shaped hole in American society. Those concerned about mental health see a nation inattentive to the broken. Those committed to gun control see a Bushmaster .223. Those who despair of a violent culture see a “first-person shooter” emerged from a video game.[1]

We each see what we are able to see, and we quickly despair when we point out these things to others and they don’t see what we see. I listened to Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, and I thought that he might say something that would surprise me. I thought that this shooting might have touched him and the members of his organization as deeply as it had touched me, and that he would perhaps signal their willingness to talk about restrictions on high capacity magazines or more consistent background checks. He didn’t.

The president said,

Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, [the] fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

It is not just the laws that must be changed. We must change. We will have to have fierce conversations about access to lethal weapons, and mental health services, and our infatuation with violent imagery, and the break-down of community in this country, and the dysfunction of our political institutions – and for these conversations to be fruitful and transformative, we must change.

I listened to Kevin on the radio. Kevin grew up near Newtown. He is the father of a young daughter, and another baby is on the way. Kevin is also a Kindergarten teacher.

He called in to a radio show to say, “I am empty. I respect people’s opinions on gun ownership, but I don’t know what to think. It’s happened again.”

And what’s troubling Kevin the most is that his own children and the children at this school are growing up thinking this is how the world is.

We must change. In order to change the world so our children can thrive in it, we must change. We must attend to our emptiness so that grace can transform it into patient waiting and persistent action. We must attend to our rage so that grace can transform it into holy anger and courageous action. We must attend to our exasperation so that grace can change it into compassion.

I read Micah during these days after the Newtown shooting. I read the passage assigned for this Sunday, about little Bethlehem and the ruler who was to come forth from it.

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

There it was; the promise of security and peace, and it resonated in ways it hadn’t before. I read through the whole book several times, it’s only seven pages long. I read again the beautiful words,

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

No one shall make them afraid. The words resonated in ways they hadn’t before. And one verse seemed to jump off the page, like it was written for this very moment,

When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me (7:8).

Micah points to Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah, and we notice the recurring theme: when God is about to do something great, the human scales of status and power are irrelevant. God is very fond of accomplishing great wonders through people on the margins. For a light to the nations, God could have chosen Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon – there were plenty of super-powers around; but instead, God chose the Hebrews that nobody had ever heard about. And to lead them out of Egypt, God chose a stuttering murderer who was hiding out in Midian. When a king was called for, God chose a shepherd boy who wrote poetry.

As Christians, and particularly today, we see this divine inclination most clearly in Mary. God enters her experience with a promise that has little if anything to do with her own hopes, and she responds with the courageous yes of faith. The redemptive acts of God that bring the topsy-turvy reign of heaven to earth don’t call in the big guns, but rather empower ordinary people to participate in God’s saving purposes. But we seem stuck in imagining the world as a battlefield where the only thing that can stop the bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. We need to change. We must attend to our distorted imagination so that divine grace can re-shape it.

Wendy Farley writes,

When we expect the power of redemption to mimic the power we see around us every day in fathers, judges, rulers, warriors, or captains of industry, it is because we have not been able to digest the shocking images of power we celebrate every Christmas and Easter.

Christ has always been a terribly offensive icon of the Holy, not least because he is perhaps the poorest display of power one sees in any of the world’s religions. In him, we see immortal, invisible God birthed into this world through an impoverished and nearly outcast young woman. We watch Jesus wander around a little rag-tag occupied country for a while and then leave it by one of Rome’s most hideous methods of execution. Although we love these stories and tell them over and over again, they capture something about divine power that [many of us] often find indigestible. Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus. [2]

Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus, and so we are tempted to address our deep discomfort by fashioning the God of power and might in the image of the familiar imperial rulers; we call in the big guns.

We must change, and we must change in ways much more profound than what legislature can achieve. We are all bound, in ways we barely understand, to suffering and to destructive ways of life. But this bondage is relieved and ended by the long and slow work of redemption, the work of grace by which all of the layers of our hearts and minds and community are opened to the flow of divine love. We must attend to the many ways in which we each can illumine the darkness around us by lighting one candle, by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (which, of course, is another verse from Micah).

I saw a beautiful example of this on Tuesday or Wednesday. The New York Times posted a video showing Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who became famous for announcing a Qur’an burning.

Pastor Jones is in Times Square, giving a street-corner speech about Islam that is both uninformed and unloving. Many people just keep walking, some stay and listen. One young woman makes an attempt to challenge one of his statements by saying, with a smile on her face, “That is not true,” but he doesn’t hear her or isn’t interested in a conversation. Then the camera catches a young man staring at his cell phone, typing away, and suddenly he starts reciting the opening lines of a Beatles song. It’s almost like he’s reassuring himself that the world is better than this. And then he starts singing. He really can’t sing, but he sings. All you need is love. And then he shouts, “It’s a free country, folks, let me hear you sing!” and one after another, people on Times Square join in. All you need is love, they sing, and the smiles return into their faces.

How about that for lighting a candle? A love song drowning out a hate speech.

When deep darkness descends upon us, we light a candle.



[2] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire. Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005) pp. 29 and 96


You gotta prepare

When you look in your Bible for the chapter break dividing the Old and New Testament, you’ll probably find just one page between Matthew and Malachi. In the Christian Bible, the Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the prophets. And the book of Malachi ends with the promise, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” We know it matters who gets the last word (and not just between children and their parents). The Old Testament ends with the promise of the great prophet Elijah’s return to bring about reconciliation between generations, so that the great and terrible day of the Lord will be a day of blessing.

The Hebrew Bible our Jewish brothers and sisters read, the Tanakh, has the various books in a different order. First the torah, the five scrolls of Moses, then the prophets, followed by the writings. The Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, where King Cyrus of Persia gets the last word, saying to God’s people in exile in Babylon, “The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all his people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up.”

One who reads the Hebrew Bible ends with a look back to the end of Israel’s exile and the return of God’s people to the land of God’s promise. One who reads the Old Testament turns the final page waiting for a messenger. I’m not pointing this out as a curious bit of Bible trivia. Jews and Christian have organized our sacred scriptures around our deepest hope, and ever since the order of the texts was finalized it has in turn shaped our deepest hope. We turn the final page waiting for a messenger, expecting a messenger.

Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”) announces the coming of ‘my messenger who will prepare the way before me’ and our ears are ringing because we have run into John the Baptizer in each of our four gospels where he is in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. We look at John and we recognize one whose coming had been announced.

In Malachi we read of the coming of a messenger who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap, a messenger who burns and scrubs to purify and refine – and who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? I don’t know a thing about refining silver, but I read in a commentary that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete when she can see her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. We are made in the image of God, meant to reflect the face and the glory of God, and the refiner’s fire speaks to me of God’s commitment to remove anything that would keep us from shining.

Many generations after Malachi, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – something happened. We hear this roll call of all the big names of men of importance and considerable power, and we are prepared to hear something equally important and powerful. We are ready for the kind of report that interrupts the regular programming with breaking news. Something had happened, something big, we assume, something like “Kate and William are expecting,” which USA Today thought significant enough to send me a pop-up on my phone.

What had happened?

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Now you know very well that this kind of news won’t even make it to the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Something had happened, but the big news wouldn’t register on the scales of our news organizations. The word of God came – not to the emperor or one of the governors or rulers, not even to the high priests, not to any of the connected people who are used to journalists taking notes whenever they open their mouths, but to John son of Zechariah. The word of God came to a man on the periphery of the world as defined by rulers, power brokers, and news editors. The word of God came into the world in the wilderness, far away from the palaces and temples. World changing, life changing news, barely noticed.

It wasn’t a particularly promising time – it never is – but it became a time of promise because the word of God came to John as it once came to Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah.  The word of God came to John and he began to speak of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The word of God came and the wilderness became once again a place of hope and transformation.

When Israel was in captivity in Egypt, the word of God came to Moses, and the people, weighed down by the yoke of oppression and exhausted by years of toil, stood and raised their heads, because their redemption was drawing near. In the wilderness, the prophet declared, the Lord would make a way and lead them to freedom. And against Pharao’s stubborn resistance, the Hebrew slaves followed God’s call through the desert and the sea to the land of promise; in the great exodus they became God’s covenant people.

Generations later, Israel was again in captivity in Babylon, and the word of God came to Isaiah. The prophet declared that the Lord would end their exile, gather the displaced, and bring them home in a procession of great joy on a highway through the wilderness. “Make a road for the Lord, and make it straight. Fill in every gulley, every pot hole, and grade the land until it is level. Where it’s crooked, make it straight. Where it’s rough, make it smooth. This is the road to freedom, this is the way home.” And the people followed God’s call to the land where they would be free to serve God without fear.

Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the land of promise occupied by Rome’s legions, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. It wasn’t a call to get ready to leave or to take up arms against the foreign occupier – it was a call to repentance, and John sounded just like Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. Another exodus was in the making, and those who heard the call, crossed through the water as their ancestors did when they first entered the land. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who passed through the water didn’t change where they lived, but the transition was no less dramatic, because they were committed to changing how they lived.  The world was still governed by powerful men, but the reign of God was drawing near and they began to live in that nearness.

John the messenger calls us to repent, and that is more than a call to look back and feel sorry for what we have done and left undone. It is a call to turn and look in the direction of God’s coming reign and to lean into its advent and begin to live there. Prepare the way of the Lord. It’s what John did and what he calls us to do with his message of repentance and forgiveness. Prepare the way of the Lord. God doesn’t need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us. Nor does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others. We are the ones in need of preparing the way of the Lord. What I hear John saying to me is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re on the wrong road. If you’re not leaning into the coming reign of God, you’re leaning in the wrong direction.”

When God’s people are enslaved, they no longer reflect the fullness of God’s glory as men and women made in the image of God. The messenger calls them to prepare the way of the Lord and lean into their redemption.

When God’s children are being belittled and abused, they begin to embrace as truth the lies they’ve been told; they believe that they are not worthy of love, that they don’t deserve to be happy. The messenger calls them and us to prepare the way of the Lord and lean into God’s healing shalom.

When in our exile we forget that we are God’s own and that we are indeed all made in the image of God and all meant to reflect the glorious beauty of God, the messenger of the covenant comes with words like fire. “You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, or chances are you’re either working in old pharao’s brick yard or you’re thinking that exile is as close to home as you’ll ever get. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re leaning in the wrong direction.”

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose name means the Lord saves. It doesn’t mean the Lord comes to visit us in our exile and make it a bit more bearable. He comes to take us with him on the way into God’s future. He comes to be for us the way into that future and to be with us on the way. He comes to end humanity’s exile and bring us home. He comes to walk with us from the long shadow of sin and fear to the fullness where nothing and no one falls outside life’s communion with God. Thanks be to God.


Advent tune

Advent is a word that triggers images of candles, carefully lit when the darkness outside sinks early.

Advent comes with the fragrance of cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg, orange, and pine.

Advent makes me want to stay home and bake.

Advent makes we want to put thick socks on my feet and honey and cream in my tea.

Advent comes in a minor key before the major notes of Christmas gladness proclaim the birth of Christ with unbridled joy. A few longing notes open the gates – O come, o come, Emmanuel – and again we enter this season that locates us, unlike any other, between sentimental nostalgia and clear-eyed hope.

Advent triggers childhood memories of counting the days until Christmas, days that seemed to take Oh, so many more hours to pass than usual. We didn’t know it then, but we know now that we were practicing the difficult discipline of living watchfully and expectantly, with hearts wide open to the future God has promised.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune – without the words, and never stops at all.”[1] Jeremiah and Isaiah sing, Moses and Hannah, Mary and Paul sing, and the words change, but the tune remains the same. During Advent, we live more deeply in the fabric of memory and hope, of promise and fulfillment, listening for the tune that never stops at all. During Advent, we go back in time – to cherished family traditions, to customs lovingly preserved year after year, to worn tree ornaments that each hold a story – we go back to the days when we first heard how God became little like us in order to save us.  We go back in time, way back to the days when the prophets first spoke of God’s judgment and mercy, and God’s people first affirmed that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 25:10). Advent doesn’t begin with an angel’s visit, or with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle – it begins with the promises of God and the courage of those who dare to live in the light of God’s promises. During Advent we go back in time to remember the tune of God’s future for us and for all.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:14-15).

Tom Wright wrote about waking up one early morning from a powerful dream. He had a flash of it as he woke up, enough to make him think how extraordinary and meaningful it was, but then it was gone. He couldn’t remember what it was about. He invites us to wonder with him if our dreams of justice and righteousness are like that. We have a flash of a world at one,  a world where things work out, not just for some, but for all, a world where all of us not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up in the world as it is, and we can’t get back into the dream.

Wright wonders where that kind of dream might come from. “What are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream?” he invites us to wonder with him. “It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.”[2] For some, this echo of a voice is only a fantasy, a wishful projection that has nothing to do with the way things really are. They say that we need to learn to grab what we can, because the meek will inherit nothing. “Stop dreaming and toughen up,” they say, “the world’s not going to change.” Others say that the voice of justice and well-being comes from another world, a world into which we can escape in our dreams, and hope to escape one day for good. For them, this world is run by bullies and that’s that;  they urge us to seek consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better, but not to hope that this world will change.

There is a third possibility, and it is the one people of faith have embraced for generations. “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have.” The reason we have these dreams of justice and righteousness, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us; one who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; one who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness.[3]

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the songs of past fulfillments that nourish our faith.

I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 33:14-15).

During Advent we go back in time, remembering the promises to Abraham, to Moses and the prophets, and how they have been fulfilled in ever new ways, generation after generation. We remember the birth of Jesus, the king born in a manger. Jesus the ruler who overrules our concepts of power with his grace and obedience. Jesus the teacher who continues to stretch our imagination. Jesus the judge who was executed like a criminal, but who sits in glory at the right hand of God. Jesus who will return to execute justice and righteousness on the earth.

“There will be signs,” he says. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25-26).”

What is he telling us? Sun and moon and stars are symbols of cosmic order. They represent the reliable succession of day and night, of seed time and harvest, of tides and seasons. The orderliness of the lunar cycle and the earth year represent the orderliness of the universe, of ecosystems and human society. In the days of Jesus and Luke, signs in the heavens weren’t just interesting astronomical phenomena, but indicators that things on earth were out of order. Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars reflected a disintegration of social and natural order into chaos – something like creation backwards.

We may find the “sun and moon and stars” language foreign, but we are familiar with “fear and foreboding.” We don’t look to the sky for signs, but it doesn’t take much of a search on the web to read alarming reports about ecosystems stressed to the point of collapse or disintegrating social structures. The Mississippi is running out of water due to the massive drought, news of Frankenstorm Sandy is still fresh on our minds, and talk about the fiscal cliff makes us wonder if we’re all sitting in the back of the bus listening to the passengers in front of the bus discussing if the driver should use the steering wheel or the brakes to avoid going over the edge.

Why do we hear words about fear and foreboding in Advent, when all we want to do is cling to a sense of normalcy by going shopping and humming about city side walks, busy side walks, dressed in holiday style? We hear them because sentimentality and denial love each other’s company, but the good news of Jesus Christ won’t allow us to romanticize Christmas completely. We know that the babe in the manger grew up to inaugurate God’s reign of justice and righteousness on earth. Jesus isn’t talking about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars to scare us, but to assure us that even when the powers of the heavens are shaken, we are to stand up and raise our heads – because what is drawing near is redemption. He urges us to stay alert and faithful in prayer, to be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with worries but lifted up with courage. When all around us people are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, we are to stand with hope. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:27-28). How can we stand? Not because present economic, cultural, or political trends may or may not give us reason for optimism, but because God is faithful. We stand up and raise our heads, because God is true to God’s promises.

Generation after generation, men and women have added their voices to the choir of witnesses singing of God’s faithfulness. We stand up and raise our heads and light one candle, do one small thing, because we await life’s fulfillment after the pattern of the life of Jesus, because we trust that the way of Christ is the way that all things shall go. In Christ, all things are held together; in him, all things shall be made new.

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. During these days of Advent, we live more deeply in the fabric of promise and fulfillment, listening for the tune that never stops at all, because it is God’s own song.


[1] And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 3

[3] Wright, p. 9-10


Empire and kingdom

Pontius Pilate likely considered himself the most powerful, most in-control person in Jerusalem. He was the local representative of Rome, the greatest power in the mediterranean world. In 26 AD, emperor Tiberius had appointed him governor over Judea, a remote but strategically important  corner of the empire, and he ruled the province with an iron fist. He was known to be a ruthless overlord; a contemporary of his described him as “rigid and stubbornly harsh, wrathful and of spiteful disposition,” and that his rule was marked by corruption and “the ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”[1] Whoever raised their head too high or their voice too much, risked being disposed of as a threat to Rome’s dominance.

Pilate had heard things, rumors mostly about a Galilean the crowd had greeted at the city gate as king of Israel.[2] “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked Jesus when the temple authorities brought him to his headquarters. Pilate looked at the handcuffed man in front of him the way he looked at the whole world: through the eyes of those who had the power to advance his career or terminate it. He played the empire’s game, and he knew that if he didn’t handle matters in Jerusalem to Rome’s liking, his next appointment would not be a move up.

I wonder if he lay awake sometimes at night when troubling thoughts arose in the quiet and the dark. Did he wonder sometimes if he really was in control of his life and career, or if he was just another chess piece in a game that wasn’t his? Was taking care of Rome’s dirty business what he was meant to do? Was he who he was meant to be or was he living somebody else’s life?

Parker Palmer is one of the great teachers of our time. He paid close attention during moments when it was clear to him that the life he was living was not the same as the life that wanted to live in him. And he wrote about it.

I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling. Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”[3]

He was encouraged by those words and thought he knew what they meant: he lined up the loftiest ideals he could find and set out to achieve them. He wanted his life to speak only of the highest truths and values. It took him a while to realize that the words meant something quite different,

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[4]

Let your life speak and listen.

When Pontius Pilate met Jesus, their lives embodied two very different realities: the empire and the kingdom. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked Jesus rather routinely, to see if the Galilean had any revolutionary ambitions. And Jesus responded with a question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Whose question are you asking? Is it your own or is it just another one from the manual of power politics or counter insurgency? What is it you want to know?  Are you open to hear the truth that doesn’t fit your political calculations? Can you imagine a king who has no ambition to sit on the Emperor’s throne?

The issue of Jesus’ kingship had been raised before. He had fed thousands by the lake, and when he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he went away.[5] The empire, of course, knows how to manipulate the masses with bread and circuses, but the kingdom is a very different story.

This king doesn’t command an army of followers who fight to keep him in power. This king doesn’t live in a palace behind high walls and guarded gates. This king bows to wash the feet of his friends. This king tells his companion who still carries a sword to put it back into its sheath. This king insists that should any blood be shed, it would be his own.

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus told Pilate – but it is for this world and in this world and for the life of the world, and it is for you. “So you are a king?” Pilate asked. This is where I imagine a mass choir of all the followers of Jesus shouting, “Yes he is! Hallelujah! King of kings and Lord of lords!” Only Pilate doesn’t hear a thing.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir responded in voices loud and strong, “King of kings and Lord Almighty!” And then little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would sing her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” “King of kings” cannot be the answer without seeing “poor little Mary’s boy.”[6]

Jesus turned that word “king” on its head, and Pilate didn’t see or hear a thing because his imagination had been entirely shaped by the empire. He simply couldn’t imagine a king who had no imperial aspirations and who refused to rule with coercion. Many of Jesus’ own followers over the centuries have had trouble with this, and they did choose conquest and control to spread what they perceived to be his kingdom, and it never occurred to them that they lived as disciples of Pilate rather than Jesus.  But by the grace of God there were also those who knew and trusted the power of the kingdom, and who honored the king by serving with honesty, compassion and humility. They were free citizens of a kingdom not from this world, but for this world and very much in this world, like yeast in a batch of dough.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

In the encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, one embodies the logic of the empire which is control and the other embodies the kingdom of God. Jesus knows what his life intends to do with him, because he is fully in tune with the giver of life.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And the truth is God’s love for the world, this world, mired in power struggles and deadly competition as it is – the truth is God’s love for us and for all. The truth about God is God’s love for the world, and the truth about the world is God’s love for it. The testimony of Jesus reveals love as the power at the heart of the universe, love that calls and waits, love that serves and does not overwhelm.

In Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, Melchior, one of the three kings says, “The child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us. He will bring us new life and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.”

It is a powerful thing to be able to say, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” As followers of Jesus we never stop to listen for our life to tell us what it intends to do with us. We never stop to listen for the voice of God amid the many voices that vie for our attention.  And we give thanks to God for Jesus and his kingdom; he frees us from the love of power and calls us to live in the power of love.


[1] Philo of Alexandria

[2] John 12:13

[3] Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 53-59). Kindle Edition.

[4] Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 66-67). Kindle Edition.

[5] John 6:1-15

[6] See Barbara Lundblad


God's own labor

Eli was an old priest back in the days when there were no kings in Israel. Eli was old and very heavy, so he spent most days sitting on a chair beside the doorpost of the sanctuary at Shiloh. His sons performed most of the priestly duties, they were the new generation in charge. But they were scoundrels. Not only did they steal the offering from the altar, they also slept with the female staff. Everybody assumed that they represented the future of Israel’s leadership. People talked; they complained; they were worried about institutional decline. But as far as people could see, things didn’t change at the sanctuary in Shiloh.

Hardly anyone noticed that Hannah who had been childless for years, was pregnant. Every day there was more news about the appalling actions of the sons of Eli, but change was in the cradle. Hannah had given birth to a boy, and she called him Samuel. And while the sons of Eli were rushing down the road of corruption to their fall, the son of Hannah grew in faithfulness. Hannah was singing for joy about the Lord God who brings low and exalts, who breaks the bow of the mighty and raises up the poor from the dust – Hannah was singing, and the house of Eli was promised a future of weeping. Big change was gonna come, and in the drama of the great reversal, old man Eli embodied a dying past, and Hannah the birth of new possibility.

Hannah was not the paradigm of youthful,  generative potential. She was childless, had been childless for years, which in the biblical imagination points to the larger context of human creativity having reached a dead end. The new beginning that was needed for God’s people to thrive and life once again to flourish, the new beginning would be God’s doing, a gift of divine creativity and faithfulness. Big change was gonna come, and it began with Hannah and Samuel who were God’s willing collaborators.

Our gospel reading today also is about big change, and it begins with the big eyes of one of the disciples. “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The temple Herod had built covered an area of over 900 by 1,500 feet, and the front of the temple itself stood 150 feet tall and 150 feet wide. It was made of white stone, much of it covered with silver and gold, glistening in the sun – it had to be by far the most impressive building any of them had seen.

Jesus was not impressed. “You’re talking about all this? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Huge blocks of rock, walls that appear immovable, magnificent buildings – all of it will be thrown down.

Later when they sat on the hill opposite the temple mount, some of the disciples had a follow up question.  They didn’t ask, “Why?” or “How?” as though they knew the answer to those questions already. They were only wondering, “When?”

The disciples weren’t strangers to apocalyptic thought and language. Talk about destruction on a massive scale was not surprising to Jesus’ audience or to Mark’s first readers. It was a style of thinking that had given up on the possibility of meaningful reforms in public life in all its political and religious aspects. It was a style of thinking that developed among people with little power who wanted to hold on to the promises of God during generations of life under foreign occupation and with disappointed hope. According to that perspective on life, history, and God, things weren’t going well because a cosmic crisis was underway, and this crisis was meant to build up in a series of catastrophic events culminating in the end of the present age and the beginning of God’s reign. In the apocalyptic imagination, the announcement that “not one stone will be left here upon another” was a given – the burning question was, when would the present age crumble under the weight of evil and the righteous anger of God to give way to the kingdom of heaven?

“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Jesus responded, but he didn’t give them a date, a timeline or a list of signs, but a warning: “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he said to them, knowing that many would come in his name and speak without knowledge. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them, reciting the familiar list of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, nations rising and falling that many interpreted as signs of the impending end and continue to interpret that way to this day.

Hamas shooting rockets into Israel and Israel responding with airstrikes, while the fighting in Syria continues and political solutions appear to grow more difficult and less likely – you know that there are plenty of people now with their noses in the Good Book drawing lines from the evening news to verses in Revelation and Daniel, soon to announce what will happen next according to God’s master plan.

Lamar Williamson calls them “date fixers” who “besides pretending to know more than the Son does, (…) often have little sense of responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment. In contrast to these, (…) Jesus speaks of responsibilities imposed by the master who left us in charge here” (Williamson, Mark, p.241)

When the disciples ask, “When?” Jesus responds, “Beware” and “Do not be alarmed.” He tells them to be cautious and courageous. He tells them that about that day or hour no one knows, only God. He tells them and us to continue to follow him on the path of faithfulness to God.

Yes, we will hear of wars and rumors of wars – and we will learn to respond to them in the Spirit of Jesus with the message and work of reconciliation. We will hear of great suffering, and we will learn to respond in the Spirit of Jesus with acts of compassion and justice. We will hear of the crumbling of institutions and ideas whose splendor and grandeur we admired only yesterday, and by the grace of God we will learn to respond in the Spirit of Jesus.

God’s future is not tied to the success or failure of religious institutions. The One whose name is above every name, and whose absence we now experience in all the broken places, will make his presence known in those very places with great power and glory. “When?” is the wrong question because it distances us from the presence of God in the world. “When?” is the wrong question because it keeps us from asking, “What is God doing now?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples suggests that God is in labor. He speaks of birth pangs. He suggests that much of the pain we experience because we love this broken world and long to see it made whole, is labor. Birth pangs, he says.  The fullness of life is not a distant reality but very near and already here, so now the question is not, “When?” but “Where am I?” Am I present to what God is doing now? Am I worried sick about the sons of Eli going about their corrupt business at Shiloh or am I playing with young Samuel, Hannah’s son? Am I losing sleep over the crumbling of institutions and ideas whose splendor I have come to admire and love over the years, or am I looking for the new life that is emerging in all this pain?

It is much easier to build new temples after the old ones have fallen, than to trust the labor of God and to entrust ourselves to it. But Jesus calls us to leave the fallen walls behind and to be on the road with him. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” he says, and we keep following, one step at a time. We may feel homeless for a while because what we thought was the very dwelling place of God turned out to be a heap of stones and rubble. We may have a hard time remembering his words about the foxes having holes and the birds having nests but the Son of Man having nowhere to lay his head, but we will let them call us back. In his company we will discover that our pain is God’s own labor and that new life awaits us. In his company we worship the God who breaks the bow of the mighty and lifts up the lowly, who loves the world and raises the dead. In his company we find the courage to keep going, to keep hoping, pushing.

Having said all that, I’d like to close on a lighter note, a much lighter note as a matter of fact. You couldn’t fail to notice that people have been buying Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Ho’s like it’s the end of the world.

Well, it’s not. Do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is still to come.


Grace flows

If all earth’s water fit in a gallon jug, available fresh water would equal just over a tablespoon—less than half of one percent of the total. About 97 percent of our planet’s water is seawater; another 2 percent is locked in icecaps and glaciers. Yet there’s as much water on earth today as there was thousands and thousands of years ago. Like blood pulsing through our bodies, water has cycled from the clouds to the land, from the land to the rivers and oceans, and back from the land and the oceans to the sky, nurturing all of life on its journey. Not a moment goes by when it doesn’t rain or snow somewhere on earth. Think about that for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.

In the contiguous United States, an average of 4,200 billion gallons of water falls each day. Each day. 4,200 billion gallons of rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Two-thirds is absorbed by plants or evaporates back into the atmosphere; most of the rest runs to the sea, through streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. And everywhere it flows, along every inch of its endless journey, living things drink and grow and swim, and not a single drop is ever wasted. Think about that for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.

Scott Potter astonished us on Wednesday when he told us that just about every home and business in Nashville is connected with the Cumberland river by about 3,000 miles of water main. The largest pipe is five feet in diameter – wide enough for a child to walk through; the smallest pipes branch off to every neighbor on every street like twigs on a tree. Water makes us one, because none of us can live outside its flow. No wonder we speak of thirst when we try to put into words our longing for God.

Like a deer craves streams of water,
so my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God,
for the living God (Psalm 42:1-2).

There is just as much water on earth today as there was thousands and thousands of years ago, but there are many more people – and not all of them live close to potable water. In many parts of the world, in both rural and urban areas, collecting water is a woman’s task. And it is a chore that often occupies several hours of the day. Women and girls may have to leave their homes at dawn to travel miles to the nearest well, and some will not return before nightfall laden with containers of water. A woman might have to spend an entire night waiting in line at a distant water pump for her turn to fill her bucket. Many school-age girls spend more time each day carrying water for their families than they do in school – if they get to go to school at all.

And much of the water fetched with such enormous effort is not always safe for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Water-related diseases kill more than five million people each year—that’s ten times the number of people killed in armed conflicts.[1] Think about that for just a second or two; you won’t feel like singing.

The widow in Zarephath didn’t feel like singing either. There had been a long drought in the land, and life had literally dried up slowly. Now she was gathering sticks to build one last fire to bake one last little cake for herself and her son, from a mere handful of meal and a little oil. Week by week, she had watched her meager supplies of flour and oil from last year’s harvest dwindle. Day by day, she had watched her child slowly grow thinner and more listless. Life had dried up and now death was waiting at her door.

The widow, the orphan, and the stranger appear together many times in Scripture, representing the most vulnerable of the community. In this story, the stranger meets the widow and the orphan, and amid drought and looming death, life erupts. Life erupts because they trust the word of God the life-giver that the stranger brought with him. Life erupts because they hold on to generous hospitality and idol-defying faith in the parched landscape of scarcity. Life erupts, and it all begins with the stranger’s request, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” Life erupts when a little water flows again. Think about that poor widow handing the stranger a cup of water, think about the simplicity and the beauty of that gesture for just a second or two, and try not to sing in wonder.

There’s a lovely story that’s just waiting to be recalled. Abraham and Sarah had a baby boy when they were both old and well advanced in years. Isaac grew up, and his father sent a servant back to the old country to find a wife for him. At the end of his journey east to the city of Nahor, the servant arrived at a well, and he prayed, “Lord, please grant me success today and be loyal to my master Abraham. I will stand here by the spring while the daughters of the city come out to draw water. When I say to a young woman, ‘Hand me your water jar so I can drink,’ and she says to me, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels water too,’ may she be the one you have selected for your servant Isaac.” And then Rebekah came, beautiful Rebekah, carrying a water jar on her shoulder. She went down to the water, filled her jar, and when she came back up, the servant ran to meet her and said, “Give me a little sip of water from your jar.”

What do you think she did? Not only did she give him a drink, she emptied her jar into the trough for his camels, then ran to the well again to draw water, and drew water for all ten of his camels. The rest, the say, is history. Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. But that’s not all.

There’s another story that wants to be heard. Years later, Rebekah’s son Jacob was in the land of the people of the east, and he saw a well in the field and three flocks of sheep nearby. It was the middle of the day. He asked the shepherds if they knew his uncle Laban, and how he was. And they said, “We know him. He’s fine. In fact, this is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock.”

Now what do you think Jacob did? He rolled the stone from the well opening and watered the entire flock Rachel had brought. And the rest, they say, is history. It was love at first sight; there was a bit of a delay, but eventually Jacob and Rachel were married, and they became the parents of many tribes. Love and life erupted, with blessing rolling down like a never-ending stream, generation to generation.

Now John tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria, and you know that Jews and Samarians didn’t get along and tried to avoid each other. So Jesus had to go through Samaria, and he came to a Samaritan city named Sychar, and almost in passing John mentions that Jacob’s well was there. And John writes, “And Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. I was about noon.” John shows us Jesus sitting by Jacob’s well in the middle of the day – talk about building expectation!

A Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink.” It sounds like a simple request for water, but she knows it’s not that simple because he’s a Jew and she’s a Samaritan, and we know it’s not that simple because we know who it is that is asking her for a drink. We know that life is about to erupt, that blessing will flow like water, and divine love heal the wounds of our fragmented world. Jesus knows that she’s thirsty, that her whole being thirsts for the living God.

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Not a moment goes by when it doesn’t rain or snow somewhere on earth. Water flows, and everywhere it goes, living things flourish, and not a single drop is ever wasted. Water makes us one, because no one can live outside its flow. Jesus invites us to come to him and drink, never again to live outside the flow of all he pours out for us:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-39).

Rivers he promises! We drink and receive all that he gives, and we become conduits branching off to every neighbor on every street like twigs on a tree, conduits for the rivers of living water that bring life to dry places. Life erupts, and again and again it begins with a neighbor’s simple request, “Bring me a little water, will you?”

A girl cannot go to school because she spends hours every day fetching water for her family; you know she is thirsty. A woman gets up before dawn for the long daily trip to the river; you know she is thirsty. A man doesn’t know how to keep his children from drinking the foul water in the irrigation ditch because it’s the only water there is, and he knows it will make them sick; you know he is thirsty.

In each of them, we encounter Jesus; and when we reach for the cup to share it, it is not at all clear who is the one giving and who the one receiving, because the river runs through us.


[1] Estimates vary from year to year, and depending on which diseases are included. I used an estimate from a CWS flyer. For a recent estimate that adds up to four million see


Wet and thirsty

Weeks ago, when Sandy was just a boy’s or a girl’s name, we made plans. A few of us got together and we put dozens of ideas on large sheets of newsprint. Everything about water. We talked about art projects, how to put a fountain in the sanctuary, about field trips and river clean-ups, about music and movies, about the countless ways we encounter water daily and about water in scripture, about thirst and floods and baptism, and how good it tastes - a cup of cold, fresh water. And then we went to work and made plans for water:360, plans that would allow us to tap into the topic and the reality of water in as many ways as we could imagine – geographical, biological, political, physical, spiritual, musical and wet. And we made worship plans – one Sunday around baptism, and another around the simple hospitality of offering a thirsty stranger a cup of water, and two more Sundays around the deadly threats of too much and too little water, around flood and desert, around drowning and thirsting. With the joy of explorers who stumble upon one beautiful find after another, we discovered psalms and scriptures for each of the Sundays.

Weeks ago, we thought that today we would reflect on thirst, on parched throats and dry deserts.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

That was weeks ago, long before Sandy became a byword for destruction; long before the wind and the tide pushed a wall of water against the coast in New Jersey and New York; long before the largest storm on record covered nearly a third of the United States; long before more than 80 people drowned in this country alone and countless others lost their homes and businesses to flood, wind, and fire, and the power went out for millions.

We made plans, and then life happened. You know how it goes. And all that, of course, a week before an election that will only confirm how divided we are in this country and how we have lost our center in every sense of the word. I feel like I just need to sit for a moment and breathe, do you know what I mean? To hit the pause button and just sit for a few minutes and hum, “Be still my soul, for God is on your side…” and remember who I am and where I belong.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty,
their spirits languished within them.

The desert wastes are not just dry landscapes out there where the dust longs for days of gentle rain and the return of flowers, grass, and trees. The desert wastes are inner landscapes; parched souls and languished spirits also long for refreshing and renewing showers of mercy.

It is a rather bitter irony that flooding – very much a problem of too much water in one place all at once – results in a shortage of water. We know this; it’s only been two years since we lived through a flood and one of our two water treatment plants went underwater. The lovely, old Omohundro plant had to produce at full capacity for weeks without interruption, leading the City Paper to call it “savior to a city at the same time wet and thirsty.”[1] Wet and thirsty. Water, water everywhere, but not enough for thoughtless consumption; in the aftermath of the flood we learned to focus on essentials.

Chris Bonanos lives in Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood, and on Tuesday morning he wrote about the odd reality of a flooded city running out of water,

It’s not the elevators or the climate control that makes a tall building unlivable in a blackout. Any building taller than six stories requires one thing to support ordinary life, and that’s a big pump. Water has to get up to the rooftop tank to be gravity-fed to the apartments below. Once the pump dies, the tank begins to empty, and you and your neighbors can share only its finite supply. (In my building, we had one overnight’s worth — about twelve hours. Newer buildings have backup generators for the pump, but ours did not.) After the tank has drained, the taps go dry, and toilets will flush only if one pours a bucket of water into them. When the buckets run out, an apartment gets pretty ripe pretty fast. The situation activates a set of moral questions: Should you be selfish, and bathe as soon as the power fails? Or selfless, and rigorously conserve? Fill buckets, a bathtub, a Brita pitcher? How obligated are you to live amid your own filth? If we all use too much, we invoke the tragedy of the commons, or at least the irritant of the commons. I tried to be a good citizen when I awoke on Tuesday morning, limiting myself to a 90-second shower, surrounded by pails and pots to catch the wastewater. That gave us three toilet flushes’ worth, enough to carry us through a day. Did we consume less than our share? More? We may have been bad neighbors, or good. We’ll never know.[2]

Chris and his family may never know if they consumed more or less than their share, but I believe they were good neighbors, because they didn’t just take as much as they could without a thought about their neighbors’ needs. The blackout only brought to the fore questions we all must answer in a world that’s getting smaller, hotter, and more crowded every day: how do we share life with each other and with future generations on this planet? Will we make sure all people have access to clean, potable water or will we watch water flow up the hill to go to the highest bidder?

Disasters like Sandy or like the 2010 flood here in Nashville are terrible tragedies, but they also have the potential to make us wiser. For a moment, the mayor, the governor, and the president ignored the fact that the campaign never ends and they have worked together to help our cities up after they’d been knocked down. For a moment, we are realizing how strong we are together and what we could accomplish if we just stopped soundbiting and started listening to each other. For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way.

When hurricane Isabel hit the East coast in 2003, our family lived maybe ten feet above sea level in a small community next to the Chesapeake Bay. The wind had done a lot of damage, the power was out, and the storm surge was about nine feet. For a few long hours, our house sat on a tiny island. Ten days later, when we gathered in the sanctuary for worship again for the first time after the storm, I talked about the glimpse of possibility we had been given.

“Nothing builds community like a disaster, it seems,” I said. Many of us decry the fact that people don’t sit on their front porches anymore, but that hasn’t kept us from staying in the house ourselves most of the time. Many of us complain that we don’t know our neighbors anymore, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we make an effort to introduce ourselves to people who have moved into our neighborhood. All it took was a good-size storm, and things changed. For several days, the neighborhood kitchen and dining room was Billy and Penny’s driveway, and every morning we could hear Billy calling, “coffee’s ready!” It’s amazing what you can do with a gas grill! All across the Peninsula, strangers with chain saws knocked on doors to offer their help, and it turned out they lived only three houses down the street. People emptied their thawing freezers and there were block parties everywhere. It was a feast of rich food, a feast of neighbors sharing casseroles, lasagnes, chicken and burgers, generators, washing machines and cell phones. Neighbors opened their homes to neighbors to let them live with them, or to let them enjoy a hot meal and take a long hot shower.

“The power is still out in some areas,” I said, “but we have discovered the power of sharing, the power that builds and strengthens community.” Of course there were also those who burglarized the 7/11 on the corner as soon as the lights went out. “What we learned, though,” I said, “and what I hope we will remember in the days ahead when we will withdraw again to our TV’s and our computers, when we will take it for granted again that the water in the shower is hot and the beer in the refrigerator cold—what I hope we will remember is that living together is a beautiful thing, that solidarity between people is stronger than a hurricane.

For a moment, in the midst of disaster, we are given a flickering glimpse of possibility, a flash of a vision of a better way. It’s like gentle rain falling on parched land.

When disaster strikes, or when we’re drained by the relentless shallowness of so much that passes for public discourse these days, it is easy for despair to creep in, and to be weighed down by the “shroud that is cast over” us. But Isaiah sings of a banquet for all peoples, prepared by God. Isaiah sings of a banquet where God destroys the shroud – the fear, the worries, the little deaths that get in the way of the abundant life God wills. Isaiah sings of a banquet and John of a city where death is no more. This is where we come from as followers of the risen Christ, and this is where we’re headed.

In the midst of the desert wastes where we find no way to a city where we might dwell, God puts our feet on a path of hope, the way of Christ. Our prophets declare that all of creation is headed toward unending communion with God, and we take it to heart. We point our feet toward the city where Christ rules and God is at home among us.

And the vision of God’s city shapes our hope and our work. Trusting the promise of God, we each add our little strength to each other’s little strength. Even the smallest gesture of kindness matters in the big picture, and every small act of love becomes part of the city of redemption. Gently wiping a tear from a crying neighbor’s face is not only kind and tender, it is holy. It proclaims the faithfulness of God who will wipe away the tears from all faces.




Worship shapes us

Julia's final Sunday as Organist and Director of Music Ministries gave me an opportunity to share one of Michael Lindvall's great stories. Thank you, Julia! And thank you, Michael.

Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, and when he hears that Jesus is coming through town, hope wells up. Hope wells up like water from the deep, and he shouts; he shouts, and nothing and no one can silence him.

And then we listen to the psalm, and we hear about mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy. God has done great things for God’s people, redeeming them from the oppressor. Joy wells up, and anticipation, and they shout; they shout, they laugh and sing out their gratitude.

Worship is everything we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God: we shout, we sing, we tell stories, we laugh and love and serve, we eat and drink together – in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God we worship and are shaped as God’s people.

Several years ago, Michael Lindvall told stories about life and ministry in Minnesota; when I heard the one you’re about to hear, I knew that some day I would tell it. It’s a marvelous little gem, a lovely and surprising reflection on how worship shapes us as God’s people. I have waited for just the right day to tell it, and I believe today’s the day.

Carthage Lake is a vanishing town on the Minnesota prairie: seven weathered frame houses, only five of them inhabited, plus the church. The last minister left Carthage Lake in 1939. He blew away with the dust bowl and the depression, and with him went most of the town – but not all. A faithful remnant – fewer and fewer every year, but the more tenacious for their smaller numbers – have saved it from the dread fate of so many country churches – becoming an antique shop, a warehouse of memories for sale.

Carthage Lake still has a church where people worship the living God on Sunday, though not every Sunday anymore. It’s only one Sunday a month, and soon one would guess, it will be every other month, and then after a few funerals, the pews and the two stained-glass windows will be auctioned off, and maybe an antique dealer will buy the building for his shop. But for a while yet, a visiting minister comes once a month, usually a visiting minister who has already preached his sermon that morning to his own congregation and has been cajoled by Lloyd Larson to preach it again at noon in Carthage Lake to the eleven souls who will always be there barring bad colds or worse than usual rheumatism. Lloyd has been the Chair of the Board for the last 31 years and when he calls, he always says, “Yep, dere ain’t so many of us no more, but you’ll have 100% attendance, preacher.”

It was Tuesday morning when Lloyd called Michael looking for a preacher for the Sunday coming. He offered his routine confession and promise: a small group, but a faithful one. And he promised Michael an organist, the same organist Carthage Lake had been promising guest preachers for the last 60 years: Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Agnes Rigstad.

Michael said he’d be pleased to preach in Carthage Lake, and the next morning he called back to give Lloyd the title of the sermon and the hymns for Agnes. No answer and no answering machine. So he asked the church secretary to send the information in the mail.

Come Sunday, he arrived late. Only two cars and a pick-up were parked in front of the freshly painted church. He noticed the sentimental stained-glass windows on either side of the steeple: one of Jesus the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other. The second showed Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, his eyes lifted toward heaven.

Inside there were twelve people, all but Lloyd seated in the front two pews of the little sanctuary. Lloyd was standing beneath the pulpit in the far corner. At eighty years, he was perhaps the youngest of the congregation save one, a young man sitting at the end of the second pew.

Lloyd was slowly reading the adult education program leader’s guide to the others when Michael entered. “Well, that’s that, then,” he said, closing the pamphlet, “Next week we do the Trinity. Hello, Reverend, perfect timing.” The class stood up slowly, all except the young man, and moved to their accustomed places for worship. One very old lady in what was obviously a wig slightly askew on her head, mounted the chancel steps and went to the organ bench to the right of the pulpit.

Lloyd pulled Michael over and offered the same whispered instructions he had given a hundred visiting ministers before him: talk loud, there’s no mike and some folks don’t hear as well as they used to. Then Lloyd added: “And we don’t do a Sunday bulletin anymore; can’t get parts for the printer, so you just gotta tell us when it’s time for a hymn.”

Worship started. “This is the day the Lord has made,” Michael said; “let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us join together in singing hymn number 204.”He glanced over to Agnes to make sure she had heard this last. She smiled back and launched into the hymn. She had not played but a measure before he realized that she was not playing “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” It clearly was “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Maybe Agnes hadn’t heard him?

Michael read the New Testament lesson in a voice that was just an inch this side of a shout. The text he had chosen was from John’s Gospel, words that Jesus spoke to his little band of followers on the eve of his death. Words that include his promise to send the Holy Spirit, “I will not leave you orphaned.” He also read some of the words from the next chapter, Jesus’ injunction, spoken several times more as a fond wish, that his followers might love one another after he was gone: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Michael was going to preach a sermon about love and the power of the Spirit abiding among those who love each other, but before he started, he announced the second hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” a hymn that he had carefully chosen for this sermon. He announced it very loudly and rather too pointedly, looking Agnes in the eyes. She smiled back before diving at the organ keys and launching into “I Love to Tell the Story.”

After the sermon Michael prayed, and when it came time to announce the last hymn, he looked at Agnes and thought better of it. He took two steps over to the organ bench, bent down and whispered loudly in her ear, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled, said not a word, and began to play, “Just As I Am.”

After the service was over, Michael greeted at the door. Agnes smiled broadly as she pumped his hand, but said nothing beyond “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Lloyd and the young man were at the front of the church when he went back to gather up his notes. Lloyd gave him a sheepish look, “Forgot to tell you about Agnes,” he said. “You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.”

“How long has she been your organist?” Michael asked.

“Well,” Lloyd looked down at the worn carpet at the foot of the pulpit, “since ‘37 when old Rev. Simmons left. Rev. Simmon’s wife, she played the organ for us back then, and when she was gone, there was nobody, so Agnes learned to play.”

“Good God, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you’ve been singing the same three hymns every month for 60 years?”

He was concentrating on the carpet more intently. “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart - and she is our organist. You want some coffee, Reverend? I got a Thermos out in the truck.”He disappeared out the door and across the road to a rusty brown Ford pick-up.

The young man offered a hand and introduced himself to Michael. “My name is Neil Larson. I’m Lloyd’s grandson, I’ve been living with him for the last few months. Moved up here from Texas in March. You have to understand about Agnes. She’s my late grandmother’s little sister, Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister. Agnes has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words, and usually the same words. But she learned to play those three hymns in one week 60 years ago. It was a moment of musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn another one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”

Neil looked down, he played with the frayed carpet with the toe of his loafer.

“They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But Grandpa knew I’d say no when he asked. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no, then he slapped me on the back.”

“You’re an organist?” Michael asked.

“Eastman, class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big church in the Houston ’burbs. Brand new Casavant—102 ranks. Four services a Sunday. Then I got sick. I’ve been HIV-positive for six years, but it wasn’t till last fall that I got sick. The personnel committee of the church figured it out, the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I were to move on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father and I haven’t spoken since I was 19. I’m not sick enough for the hospital, but I’m just too tired most of the time to work. I really had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth I kinda feel right at home in a town of 80-year-olds.”

He looked up from the carpet and said, “You know, pastor, that was a fine sermon, but I think that they got it a while ago. I mean the ‘love one another’ part. And they have not been left orphaned.”

He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night either Lloyd or old man Engstrom from down the road opens up the church for me. If it’s cold they lay a fire in the wood stove. And then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument, believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up. These last weeks, it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and the windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porches and they listen to me play—Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, Reger, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches, even Agnes claps.”[1]

Worship is what we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God, and for thirty-six years Julia has led us in worship, both inside and outside of this sanctuary. She has led us with exceptional skill, great faithfulness, and much love. Thank you, Julia.

[1] Michael Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small-Town Pastor, chapter 12

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