A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Hebrews 11:39 – 12:2a
Today is All Saints’ Day, the Christian holiday in which we give God thanks for that “great cloud of witnesses” who surround us, encouraging us to “throw off everything that hinders” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb. 12:1) This weekend, we celebrate All Saints Sunday, recommitting ourselves to the ministry of the Body of Christ.
Being Christian means standing in a great line of witnesses, reaching all the way back to Jesus. And because we stand in line with them — yes, because — we are called, today, to do what they did in their day. Let me share with you a few stories, one from Ascension, one from St. George’s.
Number one.
Years ago, in the early summer of 1954, a group of Episcopalians walked down Great Mills Road to check on the progress of their new church building. My guess, looking at this picture of folks standing in what is now Ascension’s nave, is that it was right after their Sunday worship in the Trailer Park office — Fr. Chuck Daugherty is wearing cassock, surplice, and stole; the Lay Reader, Mr. Natt Hogdon, is vested, too, and everyone else is in their Sunday best. (That’s Jack and JoAnn Koegel at the center rear — Jack in a dark suit and bow tie; JoAnn sporting a lovely pillbox hat.) The acolyte, also wearing cassock and surplice, in the center right? That’s young Joe Gough — a significant part and, in time, generous patron of Ascension’s life and witness. Joe continues to serve Ascension and Lexington Park faithfully and well.
Ascension under constructionYears after this picture was taken, Joe was the visionary behind the beautiful — and beautifully maintained — gardens at Ascension, a gift of green space and vibrant color to our whole community. Church of the Ascension earned well its nickname “the church with the beautiful gardens,” and it was Joe Gough’s leadership and patronage which made those gardens what they were. Joe still calls and checks in from time to time, and we’re glad to keep in touch.
But about those shrubs and plants and trees … well, they have a way of growing! And in downtown Lexington Park, at least today, obstructed views and overgrowth is not a good thing. It’s not in line with our mission to be a positive and transformative force in and with our neighborhood, so Ascension’s Buildings & Grounds Committee, together with the Vestry, came to believe that the best way to honor our history, enhance our presence, and empower our mission was to remove the overgrowth and replace it with well-tended green space — grass and unobstructed sight lines — plus, make sure to keep some shoots of color up front, along Great Mills Road and at the main entrances.
Ascension clean garden
Just imagine how lovely this will look when that straw you see, currently covering grass seed, will turn into a well-tended yard of green grass.
Back in the early 1950s, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington saw a mission opportunity in Lexington Park. The bishop (Angus Dun was his name) ordained Chuck Daugherty and sent him to St. Mary’s County. Chuck touched the life of young Joe Gough. Joe touched the lives of many in our local community. Fast forward 65 years: Church of the Ascension, recognizing its mission opportunities in 2019, did what that “great cloud of witnesses” did before — stepped into its moment in order to shine Christ’s Light.
We glorify God and we honor our history by shining Christ’s Light in our day, and precisely because they did the same in their day. That’s what it means to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. That’s what is meant by tradition. Professor Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University summed it up this way: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead,” he wrote. “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Story, number two.
A little over one year ago, we laid to rest our sister and St. George’s parishioner, Jo Ricks. A resident of Washington, DC and St. George Island, Jo was many things to many people — and yet, through and through, authentic, real, vibrant, and lovely. Jo straddled seamlessly all kinds of worlds: DC and St. Mary’s County, church stuff and local culture, lounge music and church hymns. She was her very true self in all of those arenas, and to be near her was to be in the presence of vibrant joy.
This weekend, we’re kicking off a new musical and creative venture in St. Mary’s County, named in Jo’s honor and designed to carry on, in some small way, her gift of bringing people together to be their very best, God-made self. Titled “Music from Poplar Hill,” the Jo Ricks Concert Series is in the incredibly capable hands of a dedicated group of leaders from St. George’s, together with Jeff Clark, Jo’s husband. This weekend’s event is a smaller gathering, more a ‘launch’ of the new series and concept.
In short order, not only will this series grow but it will move, per its name, to Poplar Hill, St. George’s Church in Valley Lee. A concerted initiative to re-think our worship space at St. George’s, long a perceived need and desire anyway, will kick into a more formal process, leading, we believe, in the spring to a church space more able to empower the church that St. George’s is becoming as well as host the spring 2020 “Music from Poplar Hill” concert. St. George’s parishioners will recall reading an invitation to participate in this conversation, announcements made in the Sunday bulletin through this past summer.
Not only do we remember Jo — and miss her — but, as Christians, we turn our grief toward a larger vision, carrying forward those gifts God brought through her to this community. That “cloud of witnesses” isn’t hovering, watching our every move, reminding us how things have always been done. That cloud of witnesses delights in our carrying forward their witness, stepping into our moment as they stepped into theirs, shining Christ’s Light, now, as they shined His Light then.
In fact, I believe that is the only way to honor our history. “Tradition,” Pelikan said, “is the living faith of the dead.” Living faith, alive today.
On this All Saints’ Day, and in preparation for All Saints’ Sunday, I encourage you to remember, and remember well. Remember those women and men who have made this world and your life a better place. Remember those saints in light who have helped you become the truest version of God’s child you have become.
And on this All Saints’ weekend, also re-commit to honor those who have gone before by doing in your day what they did in theirs — “throwing off everything that hinders” so we may “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb. 12:1)

Just do it

“I always thought we needed to change people’s attitudes, or people’s thinking,” one member of Ascension said this past Sunday at our Invite Welcome Connect Forum, continuing: “and then people’s behaviors would change.  I guess it can work the other way around, too.”

“Fake it ’till you make it,” chimed in another, citing the old adage.

Invite_Welcome_Connect-logoTwenty or so of us were enjoying sandwiches, those of us sticking around for a two-hour Forum after church, and we had just finished watching Mary Foster Parmer’s excellent video, an opportunity to hear from the founder of Invite Welcome Connect.  I had prepared a worksheet to help participants through the video, and we walked through the points she raised, step by step.  I noted that she puts a lot of emphasis on practices and behaviors.

It is true, I suppose, that trying on new behaviors, new practices can lead to new attitudes.  It’s in keeping with a saying The Episcopal Church used throughout the liturgical expansion and experimentation of the mid-20th century, citing something Prosper of Aquitaine wrote in one of his books, the Latin phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi,” or: “the way we pray shapes the way we believe.” Praying shapes believing, practices shape minds.

The gift of Invite Welcome Connect is that it helps us look at behaviors and assumptions we hold close.  Sometimes, we’re not always so aware that we’re holding things as closely as we do.  More often than not, we’re unaware that some practices can be off-putting to first-time guests or church visitors.  Invite Welcome Connect is a great assessment tool to help us look more critically at ourselves.  It’s about setting the church up for success.  Invite Welcome Connect helps us look at assumptions, behaviors, and attitudes, and it helps us re-think some of them.

Invite Welcome Connect is not, however, the total strategy or the solution, unto itself.  It’s something on the way toward a strategic goal, but it is not, itself, a strategic plan or goal.  I hope I’m explaining it well enough, because one of the criticisms of Invite Welcome Connect is that it doesn’t begin with a particular church’s particularly identified mission and vision.  Therefore, the criticism goes, isn’t it just directionless?

I don’t think so.

I think The Episcopal Church has been in such decline for so many years for a lot of reasons, too many to list or talk about here.  But one of the causes of our decline is that we can’t seem to agree to do something, anything … to get going and get outside of ourselves.  We’ve been in “analysis paralysis” for decades.  Invite Welcome Connect is a great tool to at least get us to try new things, see things a (slightly) different way, try to lead with changed behaviors and customs and practices … and maybe, along the way, lay all this before God to also change hearts and minds.

I’ll close with a story.

I’m sitting at Ascension in the early afternoon hours, writing this.  I had a string of morning meetings, all of which fell under the theme of strengthening our community partnerships and building coalitions.  That’s what Ascension is really good at, one of the many things Ascension is gifted at and known for in our community — partnerships, coalitions.

Just as I was done with one meeting, getting ready to leave for another, a local pastor popped in.  I had wanted to meet this young, outgoing pastor for a while now, as he and his new congregation have been offering food and intercessory prayer in Ascension’s lower parking lot for a few months.  He talks like a church planter, indeed, he is  a church planter — he’s walking the streets, meeting the people, going into tent camps, feeding the hungry, talking about Jesus, on the ground.  It was really inspiring to be with him, and now that we’ve spent some time in fellowship I pray that a renewed (and shared?) commitment to our common Kingdom mission will emerge from our relationship.

But he’s hungry, he’s fired up, he’s eager — I could just feel it.  His energy was infectious.  At the same time, he’s tired, so tired, he said, of people staking their claims and defending their turf and not doing something, not doing anything, he said.

I’m ready to do something.  Following up from our Invite Welcome Connect Forum this past Sunday, I can honestly say that Ascension is also ready to do something.  St. George’s Forum is coming up the weekend after this, and I know the vast majority of the folks who worship regularly in Valley Lee are also ready to do something.

Just do it.  That’d work for a pretty good church slogan right about now, too!








Launching Invite Welcome Connect

Last year, in 2018, Ascension & St. George’s Vestries took on two significant initiatives, both designed to celebrate the story of our churches as well as build on that story — God’s story, we believe.  God has, in our past, created churches that were marked by growth, vibrancy, joy and experimentation — a ‘can do’ attitude, grounded in the Holy Spirit.  God will, I trust, re-create his Body in the same form and fasion, inspiring ongoing growth, vibrancy, joy, freedom.
The first initiative was the formal process of merging our two parishes into one — all the while keeping two worshiping communities: Ascension in Lexington Park and St. George’s in Valley Lee. Even a casual attender of worship at Ascension or St. George’s heard plenty about that, and that work is now on a natural glide path toward completion. Just this week, in fact, I was joined by Karol Wolgemuth, Phil Horne, and Eric Delk as we made our Petition for Merger to the Council of the Diocese of Washington. They received our Petition gratefully, and they voted unanimously to recommend it for action at January’s Diocesan Convention. I am really proud of the dedicated work of so many lay leaders among us. With them, and with our congregations, we are truly becoming a resurrected — indeed, Resurrection — Parish.
Invite_Welcome_Connect-logoThe second initiative the Vestry took on was Invite Welcome Connect. It’s not a program, but a methodology, an assessment, a tool. Invite Welcome Connect helps us look deeply at our common life, our congregational culture and find ways to be more intentional about inviting, welcoming, and connecting all persons with God and one another in Christ. It’s about evangelism (invitation); hospitality (welcome); and the sacred act of listening (connection).
Admittedly, over the course of the past year, this initiative did not get as much airtime as the first. That was intentional. Each had a linear relationship to the other — changing the business model (=merger) came necessarily first, if only because the healthier, more balanced operational scale it brought about has given us the room to now ask: Where are we going?
But the Vestry, at least among themselves last year, did explore Invite Welcome Connect — something like a practice lap. Each Vestrymember was asked to do two things: first, visit a local church, ideally a thriving church, as a ‘Secret Shopper’; and, second, invite a friend who does not attend your church to come to Ascension or St. George’s as a Secret Shopper. They did, on both counts. We prepared a common assessment tool, and we received some very enlightening responses. Did you know where to park? Did you know where the front entrance was? Did anyone speak to you, say good morning to you? What was the appearance of the church? Did anyone welcome you? Invite you to fellowship? Get to know your name? Would you come back to this church? Why or why not? We learned a great deal from this raw data about our strengths and the areas we need to grow in.
The gift of Invite Welcome Connect is that it also gives us tools to grow, indeed, tools to change the church culture, as they say, “from maintenance to mission.” Careful attention to everyday practices and appearances, scrutiny of behavior many of us take for granted, removing any obstacle that stands in the way of someone entering a relationship with God through our church as well as looking, equally, to put in key positions those who really have the gifts of welcoming and connecting and inviting — that’s what Invite Welcome Connect brings. But, as we know, changing behaviors and attitudes and practices is a whole lot harder than changing a business model, even a parish name.
This is the “so what…?” of this whole exploratory venture Ascension and St. George’s have been on these past several years. So what? …So Jesus will be glorified and people will be restored to unity with one another in His name. …So our churches will grow in faith, in vibrancy, in joy. So we will reverse numerical decline — a sobering reality of The Episcopal Church for far too long, and only getting worse — and grow our congregations by serving boldly, taking risks, and loving God and our neighbors (and neighborhoods) passionately, deeply, and well. …So anyone connected to this place knows without doubt the value added to their lives and this community by following Jesus through membership in Ascension and St. George’s.
Ascension and St. George’s are each having an Invite Welcome Connect kickoff launch party.  Ascension’s will be Sunday afternoon, September 15, right after worship, at coffee hour (12:15pm start time).  St. George’s gets together Sunday afternoon, Sept. 29 at 4:30pm — potluck dinner and conversation. I would be honored if all members would plan to spend an hour and one-half, or so, in prayer and conversation on those days, at their respective places. These will be opportunities to better understand the why, the “so what...?” of Invite Welcome Connect. This will also be an opportunity for you to hear from me some tangible next steps, and how you can get involved. If you are otherwise unable to join us this Sunday, click here to watch this video from the creator of Invite Welcome Connect, Mary Foster Parmer. (Or if you want a Sunday preview, watch it.)
I’m looking forward to kicking off this new season in our churches — no less than two churches which have the great audacity to call ourselves ‘Resurrection Parish’!

To see God die. Good Friday

On Friday, April 2, 1613, John Donne was, we believe, leaving Polesworth, Warwickshire, after having visited with Sir Henry Goodere, and travelling to Montgomery Castle in Wales, on his way to an Easter visit with Sir Edward Herbert.  Donne has become known, to us, as a brilliant preacher, gifted poet, and master of the English language — even a daringly erotic poet in his day.

John Donne

But at this particular point in his life, in 1613, John Donne was not yet ordained in the Church of England — that wouldn’t happen until two years later.  This particular Friday — April 2 — was Good Friday that year.  We know or, that is, we suspect we know Donne’s plans for Good Friday that year because of his poem, “Good Friday, 1613.  Riding Westward.”  It’s tempting, though not always proper, to project a poem’s words onto the poet, himself.  Nevertheless, as Daniel Starza Smith writes in a fine essay, “it is certainly suggestive that this 42-line poem, conceived as Donne entered his 42nd year, was written at exactly the time Donne made his decision to take orders, in spring 1613. (After overcoming many ‘distractions or diversions’ cast in his path, he was eventually ordained in 1615.) The poem was probably composed on a journey.  Following his return he announced his ‘resolution of a new course of life and new profession’ – divinity.”

It’s a lovely poem, and haunting all the same.  I share it, here, on this Good Friday — April 19, 2019.  I’m taking advantage of this time after our noonday Stations of the Cross and before the 7 o’clock Solemn Collects & Holy Communion.  The afternoon rain they’d promised has begun to fall — not only beating down some of the raging pollen but also setting a perfect poetic mood.  I’ll paste the full text of the poem, all 42 lines, below, and invite you to reflection, I hope, aided by some summary observations on my part.

  1. Our patterns and lives are set.  We are not, ourselves, the master of our own destiny.  The poem begins with lines that sound like they were lifted from a 17th century discussion of Aristotelian physics — we read of “spheares,” “foreign [sic] motions,” and a “first mover.”  Like the planets in their courses, my soul is a sphere — a determined shape, with rules that govern it (me).  And yet it is round, too, and capable of (as we would say) coming ’round full circle.
  2. The poet is aware that he’s doing things the wrong way; literally, he’s headed in the wrong direction.  He’s travelling westward on a day when Christ was crucified in the east — Jerusalem.  Not only that, but his body is moving in one direction whereas his soul, literally the life-force within him, is bending, stretching in the other.  “Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West / This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.” (Lines 9-10)  This is a perfect description of internal conflict.img_0731
  3. And yet God is in control of the forces of nature, even the elementary forces that play out in in our own life.  Just as Easter Day surely follows Good Friday, so too does God bring new life out of everything, including death.  Donne may be travelling in the direction of the setting sun, but he is aware that God, in setting (dying being the very point of Good Friday), becomes an eternal rising: “an endlesse day.” “There I should see a Sunne, by rising set, / And by that setting endless day beget;” (Lines 11-12)
  4. Were it up to us, the poet suggests, were it left to the powers in our own “spheares,”  we’d be stuck in eternal darkness.  “But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, / Sinne had eternally benighted us all.” (Lines 13-14)
  5. Which is why the poet is suddenly “glad.” (line 15) He is glad he’s  travelling the wrong direction because he is all too aware of his destructive tendencies.  He is all too aware that if it were up to us, we would have crucified Christ and made certain that he stayed dead.  Indeed, the whole point of Holy Week and Good Friday, in particular, is that we come to a piercing, internal realization that the Cross is not merely a coincidental prelude to Easter.  Good Friday is a startling recognition of the darkness in the world, the deep darkness in us, the very darkness that wanted nothing more than to destroy the Lord of all life.  “What a death were it then to see God dye?” (Line 17)
  6. “Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, / They’are present yet unto memory,” (lines 33-34) The poet knows how his life, his “spheare” has turned away from God, and yet God has not turned away from him: “For that looks towards them; and thou look’st toward mee / O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;” (Lines 35-36)
  7. And if all things are spherical, and if God is the Lord of all creation — indeed trampling down death by death, bringing life to those in the tombs — then God has the power, God will bring us ’round full circle, back to our proper selves, back to God.  This will burn a bit; after all, we’re being disciplined — “corrected” is the poem’s term.  “I turne my backe to thee, but to receive / Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave. / O think mee worth thine anger, punish mee, / Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,” (Lines 37-39)
  8. Resurrection is not so much a new gift as it is a restoration of the original.  We, however, are not able to behold the original until we have been known, again, by God, turned by God back to God.  I can’t think of a more profound set of Easter images than the poem’s closing lines: “Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, / That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.”  (Lines 41-42)

Isn’t that the end, I mean the hoped-for goal of life?  Who among us doesn’t want to be restored — restored to your very best self?  restored to one another?  restored to love?  Who among us doesn’t wish to be known, once again, by God, as you may have felt you were when you were a little child?  Who among us doesn’t want to turn toward life, and turn away from death?

In his essay, Daniel Starza Smith quotes author and professor, Kirsten Starling, who asserts that Donne’s poem is a “collision of the liturgy with the ego.”  After a heartfelt journey through Holy Week’s disciplines, I find that I have “collided,” to use that term, into a lot of things I didn’t expect to visit, let alone deal with.  The whole Christian season of Lent, beginning with the comprehensive litany of my sins and sinfulness on Ash Wednesday, and culminating in Holy Week and these Three Great Days always, always makes me confront all kinds of things in my heart and life, my mind and relationships.  I am left beholding the dignity of my life and God’s blessings.  I am also invited to deal with the brokenness and the scars I have carried.  A “collision of the liturgy with the ego” is a great way to describe John Donne’s masterful poem but, more importantly, the careful work of the church in setting forth these days, these liturgies, these prayers, these disciplines.

I hope you can find a lot in this poem, but my (not-so-secret) hope is that you will realize, like I have once again, how much you will find in Christ, being turned by Him toward Him once more.

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.


He loved them to the end. Thursday in Holy Week

There’s a moment in the midst of Eucharistic Prayer D (BCP p.372-376), a prayer, Marion Hatchett writes, adapted from the fourth-century Liturgy of St. Basil, that always catches me.  Without question, it’s the Prayer Book’s longest eucharistic prayer in Rite II and, unlike contemporary trends, Prayer D sees no good reason to worry about the economy of language.  It goes on and on, developing layers upon layers of stunning, moving praise and thanksgiving.

I get easily lost in this prayer, perhaps one of the reasons I love it so much.

But then, right at that moment when a liturgical action is specifically required — one of only two manual acts stipulated in the rubrics — the prayer goes back to layers upon layers, on and on.  It’s at the Words of Institution for the bread, and it catches me every time: “When the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, his heavenly Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end; at supper with them he took bread, and when he had given you thanks …”

If this were edited today I’m sure someone would take out all that ‘superfluous’ language.  Take out the bit about “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…”  Get to the point: “He took bread, gave you thanks, and said…”

Perhaps that’s why I love this prayer so much.  It’s not pared down, not edited for economy and focus.  It’s not slim, not worried about time and timeliness.  On the contrary: this prayer takes its time; it dwells with the Word and, indeed, it lets the Word (Logos) dwell with us.  It’s a prayer in the same spirit of that “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one we find at the Last Supper “reclining next to [Jesus]” (Jn. 13:23), the same one who was a faster runner than Simon Peter and arrived at the empty tomb first — but waited, “bent down to look in and saw…” (Jn.20:5)

This phrase, this unnecessary, un-economical phrase — “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13:1) — is part of the appointed gospel for Thursday in Holy Week, Maundy Thursday.  That’s how Thursday’s gospel passage begins, already giving an indication that this is not just a story about a meal and a supper and washing of feet.  This is an invitation into a moment.  Slow down, therefore; enter carefully, don’t rush in like Simon Peter will soon do, stumbling unawares into an empty tomb.50042593_2298387013560127_5347207189035004943_n

“He loved them to the end…”  In Greek, “to the end,” eis telos is literally the limit, the extent, but also “that by which a thing is finished, its close,” and “the end to which all things relate, the aim, purpose.”  Christ loved them, and us “to the end,” or: Christ loved us to finished perfection.  And: Christ loved us to our ultimate purpose and aim.

This is not a run-on sentence.  This is the depth and power, the inherent nature of Christ’s love.

Remember, if you will, that the context is the last meal Christ will have with his followers and friends.  Danger lurks outside, and he knows that someone is going to betray him.  The drumbeat which began with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and mounting suspicion by the religious authorities is getting more and more intense.  You can hear the noise, and feel the anxiety outside that upper room.

And, yet, Jesus does Jesus.  He loves slowly, methodically, fully, and well.

Jesus-washing-feet-FBLook at the ways Christ shows his love.  I’m so fixated on Jesus’ words throughout these chapters in John’s gospel, perhaps because they are such memorable words, but take away the words and look at his actions.  Look at how slowly, carefully, methodically he moves:

  • And during supper Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (Jn.13:3-5)
  • After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them… (13:12)
  • After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit… (13:21)
  • So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. (13:26)

“No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13)  Not only did he say this; he embodied it.  Look how often in his last few moments he showed deep love.

  • He went out with his disciples to a garden to pray. John 18:1
  • He made sure the imperial guards arrested only him, not his friends.  18:8
  • He stepped into the brawl between Simon Peter and the guards.  18:10-11
  • From the cross, he made certain that his mother would be cared for. 19:26-27
  • He spoke the words to fulfill scripture, knowing that “all was now finished.” 19:28-30
  • He bowed his head.  19:30
  • He gave up his spirit.  19:30

“He loved them to the end…”  Christ loved them, and us eis telos — literally to the absolute fullest extent of the most perfect version of the completeness of love.  That’s how much Christ loved them.  That’s how much Christ loves us.  Christ takes his time to move in our direction, to “pour himself out” or “empty himself,” as we read in that famous hymn Paul preserves in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:5-11).

Would that we also love in this way.  Would that we also love in some measurable fraction of this way!

Why do bad things happen? Wednesday in Holy Week

Elaine Pagels is a scholar of early Christianity, perhaps best known for her book, The Gnostic Gospels — an exploration of theological diversity in the New Testament world and, indeed, among early strains of Christianity.Gnostic Gospels

Along the way, she’s also explored the development of ideas around sin and evil and, specifically, Satan.  When, for instance, we meet the character called Satan in Job he’s a court prosecutor — the satan, Hebrew ha-satan, or “the accuser.” (Job 1:6)  Pagel’s book, The Origin of Satan, looks at how the figure of Satan changed from a member of the heavenly tribunal (Job), and a rather insignificant character throughout most of the Hebrew Bible, to a predominant force in early Christianity.  This development, she asserts, began in the time between the Old and New Testaments, the time that gave rise to much of the worldview that informed Christianity.  As she said in an interview,

“[W]hen you look at groups that became followers of Jesus of Nazareth, or the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, these are Jewish sects who saw themselves as separate from the majority of the Jewish community.  And so instead of saying, ‘we’re all following God,’ they began to say, ‘the supernatural world is split between Satan and God, and right down here on Earth, we’re God’s people and they’re Satan’s people.’  That became a way of talking about divided communities.”

Origin of Satan PagelsThe Origins of Satan moves from early Christianity’s Hellenistic context to connect the dots as to why we have deep-seated animosity toward those who differ from us.  We have been trained, Pagels asserts, to want to eliminate those who differ from us because we have been taught that differences of opinions are actually manifestations of a fundamental split in the supernatural world.

I’ll leave her assertions there.  Mostly, I want to look at one element she puts forward as a unique development in Judeo-Christian thought.  In the gospel appointed for Wednesday in Holy Week (John 13:21-32), we encounter the character, Satan (v.27).  The setting is the Last Supper which, in John’s gospel, features foot washing.  Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him.  He dips a piece of bread in a dish (v.26), hands it to Judas and then: “After [Judas] had received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.” (v.27)

I recognize in John’s gospel, specifically this thirteenth chapter, Pagel’s suggestion that by the time of John’s writing a nascent but nonetheless distinct Christian understanding of sin, evil, temptation and – yes – Satan has emerged.  There is much we can learn here.

Have you ever asked: Why do bad things happen in this world?  Has someone ever asked you: Why do people die unexpectedly?  Why do bad things happen to good people? (Rabbi Harold Kushner popularized that question.)  Heck, why do bad things happen to bad people?  People ask these questions all the time.  What they’re circling around are larger questions of theodicy — the working term for theories about the existence of evil and what God has to do with it, if God has anything to do with evil at all.theologys-toughest-question

Our New Testament writers and, indeed, theologians (the gospel writer, John, is certainly a sophisticated theologian) lay some solid foundations for what has become a distinct Christian theodicy.  If, as Pagels asserts, Christianity is built on a worldview that sees brokenness as a manifestation of the fractured nature of God’s kingdom, then the presence of Satan in (John’s) Passion narrative is no casual addition.  It’s a clear indication that this betrayal and trial, Jesus’ crucifixion and death was not supposed to happen.  This is a truly bad thing, and it doesn’t matter that it happens to a good person (Jesus).  Bad things happen all the time.  That’s what it means to live in a fractured, broken, anxious world.

Temptation and sin are always around us.  We know that firsthand as human creatures, and part of our Christian response is that this is necessarily (yet sadly) the case, especially given the fundamental break in the supernatural order beyond our control.  We are never removed from brokenness.  This frightens us, and it moves us to do stupid things.

“Before man fell the devil fell,” wrote my go-to thinker on questions such as these, one of the 20th century’s most impactful Christian theologians — Reinhold Neibuhr: “To believe that there is a devil is to believe that there is a principle of force of evil antecedent to any evil human action.” (Nature and Destiny of Man, vol.1, p.180)  Everything we do, Neibuhr wrote, is “infected with the sin of pride.  Man’s pride and will-to-power disturb the harmony of creation.” (Ibid., p.179)  Neibuhr knew that there is an individual element to sin, but what primarily concerned him were sin’s social dimensions — how a moral man lives in an immoral society, to use the title of his best-known contribution.

The Bible defines sin in both religious and moral terms.  The religious dimension of sin is man’s rebellion against God, his effort to usurp the place of God.  The moral and social dimension of sin is injustice.  The ego which falsely makes itself the centre of existence in its pride and will-to-power inevitably subordinates other life to its will and thus does injustice to other life.

Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1, p.179

“Man is insecure,” Neibuhr asserted.  Even though this insecurity makes us deeply anxious and frightened, and even though our fears can make us do stupid things, it is not at all stupid to search for meaning.  It is in fact wise, Neibuhr would assert, if that search leads us to a right mind and proper relationship with God; if that search leads us to act for justice, even if such actions might appear to bend black-and-white moral distinctions.

This is where I’ve often found Neibuhr most helpful in dealing with questions around evil, sin, and God.  Some critics have argued that Neibuhr is nothing more than a political philosopher who uses theology as a backstop.  I can see how someone would come to that conclusion, but only if they don’t know how Neibuhr works theologically.  It’s true: he does not believe that you and I are bright enough, inspired enough, creative enough, godly enough to come up with great solutions on our own.  In fact, our own attempts to believe are, at times, what deceive.  Neibuhr recognizes that evil very much exists in this world.  Even more boldly (surprisingly?), he contends that God is not victorious over evil in history.  Evil has not been defeated.  So Neibuhr:

The perfect love which [Christ’s] life and death exemplify is defeated, rather than triumphant, in the actual course of history.  Thus, according to the Christian belief, history remains morally ambiguous to the end. … Suffering innocence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the problem at the point when it is seen as the revelation of a divine suffering.

Neibuhr, Faith and History (1949), p.135

But, Neibuhr says, we do know the a decisive difference between good and bad, right and wrong.  Nothing is merely relative.  We will often lose when we stand up to evil, but that is not sufficient reason to give up or grow discouraged.  Nor should our losing (or winning) be measured on our scale, and for our sake.  The value of the things we seek after is already revealed by God in Christ, even if that revelation looks upside-down and wrong-headed, such as Satan entering Judas at the Last Supper, or the Lord of all Creation hanging to die on a tree.

And this, I suppose, helps me explain why I don’t hear faithful, church-going Christian women and men ask the question all that often: Why do bad things happen?  Sure, everyone asks it, but I don’t hear it asked as much from faithful followers of Jesus so much as I hear it from others.  Frankly, most of the time it’s tossed out as a philosophical objection to believing anything, generally uttered from someone who once believed something, or wants good cause not to believe anything.  What I’m trying to say is that the question of evil need not bother Christian people.  I say this not because it’s a categorically bad question (I actually believe it’s important), but because the answer only inevitably turns back to me and my relationship with God in Christ.

And thus it’s really a question about we live in this world — a broken and, yet, sometimes downright beautiful world.  How do we live questions around temptation, sin, brokenness and evil?  How do we live these questions in such a way that the questions don’t fundamentally bother us?  This, to me, is the far more interesting pursuit.  This, to me, looks like what Frederick Buechner wrote in his beautiful little book, Beyond Words:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. …Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.  There’s only one catch.  Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.  Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.




Glory? Tuesday in Holy Week

Near the end of his gospel, John ‘breaks the fourth wall,’ so to speak, and addresses his readers:

Now Jesus did many other sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

dbb3f3db451d9dd2b1c716ce09d8900ab8ec6072Jesus did a total of seven signs in this gospel, ‘signs’ being John’s word for what the other gospel writers call ‘miracles.’  (But that’s a distinction for another blog post.)   Very likely, you remember Jesus’ first sign.  He turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. (Jn.2:1-11)  Do you remember what the gospel author wrote at the conclusion of that story?

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:11

Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory.  They show he has real power.  He has power over disease.  He can heal sick people — healing the royal official’s son (sign 2) Jn. 4:46-54; healing the paralytic at Bethesda (sign 3) Jn. 5:1-15; and healing the man blind from birth (sign 6) Jn. 6:16-24.  He has power over nature.  He can walk on water, as he did in Jn. 6:16-24 (sign 5).  He can multiply some fish and a few barley loaves and feed a multitude; John 6:5-14 (sign 6).  Speaking of the feeding of the 5,000, it’s fascinating that John’s gospel doesn’t give us a Last Supper with bread and wine, but what this gospel does is expand our understanding of God’s sacramental presence in the world.  After all, Jesus’ first sign is wine (Jn. 2) and his fourth sign is bread (Jn. 6).  The whole of Jesus’ life, and our whole life in Jesus, is a great big, never-ending eucharistic fellowship.  Lastly, Jesus even has power over death.  His seventh, and final sign is when he brings back to life his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-45).

Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory.  At first glimpse, Jesus’ glory sounds like our dictionary definition.  glo-ry: High renown or honor won by notable achievements.

But that’s all going to change.

We hear about glory in the gospel appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week, John 12:20-36.  This time it’s on Jesus’ lips: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said. (Jn.12:23)  Given that you’ve already read about glory in this gospel, you may be thinking that Jesus must be preparing to do something amazing — show his power, reveal his strength, overcome an obstacle, knock down barriers.  But then he says a weird, counter-intuitive thing about seeds and death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn.12:24)  Wait? What?!  Wasn’t your glory just shown to conquer death?  Why are you talking about death?

As it turns out, glory and glorification, in the gospel, are not about things we define as ‘might’ and ‘strength.’  Glory, for God, is not about great achievements and notable praise.  Glory, for God, is about love — sacrificial, abundant love at that.

john 11New Testament scholars have traditionally broken John’s gospel into two books — the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31).  With our Holy Week gospel, we’re at a transition point between those books, the threshold in which we’re leaving one and entering another.  We don’t know what we’re preparing to enter.  We do know that something has changed.  We caught a glimpse — the meaning of ‘glory’ alone just changed — but we don’t fully know what is different, what is new, and why everything feels like it’s turned over, upside down.  That’s part of the anxiety of reading this gospel.  Indeed, that’s part of the anxiety of living this life.

Stick with it, however, and we soon learn why everything changed.

A few chapters later, we have the opportunity to pray alongside Jesus.  John 17 is one long prayer: “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…” (Jn. 17:1).  In this prayer, we finally learn what glory, God’s glory is all about.

First, glory is the power of the Ultimate Source of life.  Jesus prays that He may glorify the Father (17:1).  Jesus rejoices that He has brought God’s people more closely to God’s heart.  In 7:4, Jesus says: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”  Glory is God’s power, and when all things are restored to God all is well, all is right, all if glorified.

Second, glory is living as though we are already redeemed, already God’s own.  Glory is God’s power, and it is a further point of God’s nature that God imparts what is God’s own. Thus Jesus said: I am asking “on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.” (17:9)  And 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  Did you hear that? We are given God’s glory.

What a gift, that God would give us God’s glory!  But in order to receive it, we must first understand it.  And, thus, one of the greatest gifts of John’s gospel, taken from beginning to end, is that we understand that, and understand why the word ‘glory‘ changes.  This is a lesson we also learn (or need to learn) from life.

We start off thinking in elementary terms.  At first, we think that glory is about amazing deeds of power, high renown, notable achievements.  But at some point we face difficulties and challenges, not only in John’s gospel but in life.  That’s the moment we start to disbelieve everything we were once told: “Phooey!” we say, “That’s just bible talk. Jesus might’ve walked on water back then, but he can’t save me now.”  Perhaps we forget that God’s glory is manifested most clearly on the Cross.  Perhaps we just don’t want to look for God in the suffering and pain, the anxiety.

Cross-shaped moments are precisely those in our lives in which Jesus is most present.

We just don’t want to look for him there.  We hardly want to recognize it ourselves.

Turns out, that the problem was our own heart, our own stubbornness and refusal.  All along, we wanted life to be carefree, and we didn’t know there was anything on the other side of pain or challenge.

Stick with Jesus through John’s story and, like a sign itself, glory changes for you!  Like a sacramental transformation, glory changes.  Not only does the meaning of the word change right before your very eyes, but you change.  You grow into God’s glory — which is more than we could ever ask or imagine.