25 April 2010

A Holy Mess

Genesis 1: 1-2 & John 1: 1-5, 14-18; John 21: 1-14

Fourth Sunday of Easter/ April 25, 2010

Eugene Peterson is Presbyterian minister and well-loved writer. He served for a time here in Baltimore Presbytery. Eugene Peterson once led a retreat for seminarians and was asked what he liked best about being a pastor. Immediately, without thinking, he answered, “The mess.” It just rolled off his tongue. It caught him by surprise, as well as the students. He later reflected upon this exchange and acknowledged that it was both true and not true. It was not true because Peterson really doesn’t like the mess of ministry at all. He said he, “Hates the uncertainty, I hate not knowing how long this is going to last, hate the unanswered questions, the limbo of confused and indecisive lives, the tangle of motives and emotions [in the parish].” (1) One has to be good (or at least adequate) at multi-tasking in ministry because there’s so much going on every minute of every day. There are always lots of lose ends. Ministry is messy.

Now, by messy ministry I’m not talking about the condition of a pastor’s study. This is not a commentary on the state of my desk or Dorothy Boulton’s desk – or the floor in her study (which was very messy last week). We both go through cycles of order and chaos. But this isn’t the kind of mess that concerns Peterson.

Despite our Presbyterian fascination – dare I say obsession (!) – with order, ministry is anything but orderly. There are days in ministry when everything and everyone seems to be so out of order, with no clear indication that what we’re up to here has anything to do with what God is trying to accomplish in the world.

However, what Peterson was pointing to in his response, the kind of mess that he loves about being a pastor, the part that is true – true for pastors, for all Christians, for congregations, is the mess which, as he puts it, “is the precondition for creativity.” (2) I love Peterson’s approach to ministry. His ideas and writings have kept me as a pastor for almost twenty years now, during periods in my life when I’ve said to God, “You can have all of this back, I don’t want this. This is not what I signed up for.” Several years ago, I was in Chicago and had the chance to thank him personally for keeping me in the pastorate. Peterson’s vision of the gospel and the Christian life, his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit cuts through all the cultural trappings that come with being a minister in today’s culture. Listen to this statement: “The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol – a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal,” Peterson declares, “Holiness is blazing.” (3)

It’s precisely because we’re dealing with Holiness, dealing with a Holy God; because we’re up to our ears in Holiness that ministry is messy. The apostle Paul might have called us to do everything “decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40),” but the Holy One of Israel, whom Walter Brueggeman calls the Wild One of Israel, is not afraid of disorder, is not afraid of things being out of order, is not afraid of the mess. I’m not trying to make a case for clutter or justifying disorganization or excusing what at times might be bad habits. Those blessed with organizational skills are invaluable in the world and in the church. Instead, I’m trying to make a case for the kind of messiness required for something new to emerge. Mess can be the precondition for creativity. The Holiness of God loves messy situations because out of the mess something new comes into being and takes shape. Isn’t this what we find at the beginning of Genesis? God playing with the primordial soup, a primordial chaos over which the breath, the spirit, the ruach of God moves and creates.

It has been assumed that when God moved over the formlessness and void and called life into being that order was valued over disorder; that the formlessness and void were lesser or lower than the forms that followed after the breath of Yahweh. But we forget the value of what was there before there was light – chaos. Without chaos there would be no creation. Formlessness and void – tohu v’bohu in Hebrew – this primordial chaos is the “stuff” from which Yahweh creates the universe. “The primordial chaos serves as the reservoir or the storehouse upon which God draws for variety,” an infinite variety which yields creation. (4)

Genesis 1:2 tells us that chaos is not to be feared; it is needed in every creative act. Cosmologists and physicists are showing us this in chaos theory; even within chaos there is a creative orderly component. Chaos is a necessary component of the creation. Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World that chaos is not to be feared. (6) She encourages leaders to embrace the chaos. Only when we embrace the chaos, enter into it will we be able to be creative and innovative enough to meet the demands of our day. Psychologists seeking to understand the source of human creativity have discovered that messiness is good and needed for creation. Just think of the artist in the chaos and mess of his studio. Think of the scholar in her study surrounded by a chaos of books and articles and paper. Or think of a child playing in the dirt or mud or a child with finger paints. If all of this is invaluable for creativity, then we Presbyterians need to learn that chaos is not the opposite of order. In fact, there are moments when our “blessed rage for order” puts us at odds with the creative intention of the Spirit. (6) For is not the void and chaos a part of God's creation, the stuff of existence, over which the ruach of God moves and calls life into being?(7) This leads me to wonder: does the Spirit “need” the mess in order to create something new? If we’re never messy, never out of order, does that mean we at some levels are hindering the Spirit’s act of creation within us, closing ourselves off from being creative?

The same creative God who was there in the beginning was infinitely creative when the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. Taking on flesh and blood, becoming human, getting caught up in human affairs is messy. The beginning of John’s Gospel intentionally, “In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1),” intentionally links the work of God in Christ with the primal creative act of God, “In the beginning….” The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is always doing a new thing. This is the God whom we serve.

Consider the scene in John 21, of the resurrected Jesus cooking fish and making some toast for the disciples who have just come in from a night of fishing. All that fish, the charcoal of the fire, the sweat, it must have been a dirty, messy sight, and smelly with all that fish (153, to be exact, according to John). It’s so real, honest. They aren’t in their Sunday best before the Lord. It’s in the “mess” of that scene that Jesus can offer forgiveness to Peter, a man who made a mess of his life in denying three times the one he claimed to love. Jesus loves to work with the mess of their lives.

To be Christ’s disciple means being open to the new and amazing things the Spirit of God is creating and achieving in the world. We don’t have to be afraid of the chaos. We don’t have to be afraid of disorder. We don’t have to be afraid of the mess.

The Holy One whom we serve is inherently creative and with creativity comes a Holy mess. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mess that we in the church, especially the Presbyterian Church, need to become more familiar and comfortable. The church of Jesus Christ is calling for creative Christians, creative congregations, creative leaders who are not afraid of getting messy with and not afraid to enter into the messiness of life in order to see what Christ is trying to accomplish in the world through us.

Peterson reminds us that “creativity is not neat. It is not orderly. When we are being creative we don’t know what is going to happen next. When we are being creative a great deal of what we do is wrong. When we are being creative we are not efficient.” (8) These words pose a considerable challenge to every congregation today. God’s good news is creative and the gospel calls us to be creative, and in order to be creative we need to learn to deal with the messiness of life. Life is not orderly. This means we don’t have to worry whether or not everything in our church life is neat and well-planned. In order for churches to be creative we need to take risks. We have to stop trying to play it safe. We need to take risks and fail. Did you know that at Disney, perhaps one of the most creative organizations in the world, six out of the ten great ideas they come up with in a given year actually fail? Two out of the four ideas do okay. Only two out of ten actually rock, actually succeed. The question for, then, is: Why is Disney more creative than the church? Why does Disney get to have all the fun in being creative?

Ministry today requires and demands taking risks, to do things never tried before, to do things that are unpopular, counter-cultural, and maybe even radical. But it also might mean trying new things, even if they fail. Being faithful to the gospel requires this. This approach might even mean making some folks unhappy and uncomfortable. The church doesn’t exist to make people happy; we’re called to follow and be faithful to Jesus Christ (who certainly ruffled a lot of feathers and had no respect for the status quo); we’re called to be faithful wherever that might lead us. Sometimes it’s difficult for those of us in the church to realize that the challenges facing the church today are immense. We’ll be exploring some of these challenges over the next couple of Sundays leading to Pentecost. The challenges facing our beloved Presbyterian church are enormous. The challenges facing our world are immense. Our age requires new ways of doing ministry. We spent some time talk about this at the presbytery meeting on Thursday. Our executive presbyter, Peter Nord, challenged the presbytery to have the “guts” to make the changes needed for the church to be faithful in this age. We cannot “do” church the way we’ve done it in the past. This change will require risk. For as our Constitution states, the church is called to do its work even at the risk of losing its own life.(9)

If we’re going to be more comfortable with the mess and if we’re going to be creative, then we need to be more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit who is wild and free and not afraid to take us to challenging places, but also life-giving places. The Spirit can be trusted. The Spirit doesn’t care if you fail – because very often “failure” is defined by what the world deems “failure.” The Spirit’s only concern for you and me is that we come alive! The Spirit is not afraid of the mess but seeks the potential within it for something radically new to emerge, something new that has the capacity to glorify God. We need to trust the process and be open to where the Spirit is leading us.

“In any creative enterprise there are risks,” Peterson notes, “mistakes, false starts, failures, frustrations, embarrassments, but out of this mess – when we stay with it long enough, enter it deeply enough – there slowly emerges love or beauty or peace.” (10 We can trust the process, stay with the mess, the chaos, and the unknown; don’t run from them, but enter into them and find there the face of God.

As we move toward Pentecost, perhaps we can think of May as Holy Spirit Month. Or, maybe, “This month is brought to you by the Holy Spirit.” (Although, every month should have this label.). Maybe this can be our tag line: Holy Spirit Month: Watch it Change You.

One of the oldest prayers of the church is Veni, Creator Spiritus. “Come, Creator Spirit.” I’m often praying this prayer. Theologian T. F. Torrance (1913-2007) once said it’s a prayer of “open surrender to the absolute creativity of God.” (11) I love this. The Spirit of Christ is at work in the world. There is much for us to learn, much for us to do. The Spirit has much to accomplish and create in the world through us. Yes, it’s messy. But oh what a mess is it is! It’s a holy mess. For in the mess we encounter nothing less than the Word made flesh, the holiness of God becoming enfleshed in our lives!

Image: The Lorenz Attractor, named for Edward N. Lorenz(1917-2008), father of chaos theory.

1. Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 163.
2. Peterson, 163.
3. Peterson, 5. Emphasis added.
4. James E. Huchingson, Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 119.
5. Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1999), 115ff.
6. This is a reference to the title of David Tracy’s, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
7. Huchingson, 96-115.
8. Peterson, 163.
9. The Book of Order, G-3.0400. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.).
10. Peterson, 164.
11. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 245

12 April 2010

Unlocking the Prison of Fear

John 20: 19-31

Second Sunday of Easter/ 11th April 2010

Last Sunday, we focused on Mark’s gospel account of Easter morning. Last week, we saw that the text is actually missing a resurrection account. There’s no sighting of the resurrected Jesus. By contrast, in John’s gospel the resurrection shows up all over the place. We find Jesus at the tomb disguised as the gardener, who reaches out to Mary Magdalene in her grief saying, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for (John 20:15)?” Jesus tells her not to hold on to him because he is about to ascend to the Father.

Then later that same evening, “the evening on that day,” John tells us, “the first day of the week,” which we call Sunday, the disciples are behind locked doors. They are back in the house where they met before Jesus’ death; perhaps the site of their last supper together. John tells us, “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” The narrative continues with the famous exchange between Jesus and Thomas the so-called Doubter. The Doubting Thomas passage is probably the most preached text on the Sunday after Easter. In churches with more than one pastor, it’s usually the lectionary text for countless associate pastors. I know that Dorothy Boulton has preached many a Doubting Thomas sermon over the years. This year I get to the give the sermon, giving Dorothy a break.

I’m not interested in Thomas today. Instead, to Jesus’ remarkable exchange with the disciples locked away in fear. “The doors of the house…were locked for fear.” That’s such an evocative phrase and image. In phrasing it this way, I’m intentionally omitting the object of their fear – the Jews. I’m doing this for two reasons.

First, the reference to “the Jews” in John’s gospel has inflicted considerable damage and violence by Christians toward the Jewish people. Scholars have identified John’s gospel as one of the major sources of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Christians need to remember its role in the prevalence of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries. We need to remember that the Nazis, for example, did not invent the concept of a Jewish ghetto, in Warsaw, for example. They got the idea from Christians. I was surprised to discover years ago in Venice, Italy, that there was a Jewish quarter, the only place Jews were allowed to live in the city; or to discover in Rome that there was a Jewish ghetto (the Ghetto di Roma) that had walls around it and Vatican guards who make sure no left the area after dark. (1) John’s attitude toward “the Jews” has been used to justify Christian pogroms against all the Jews. Such abuse is warranted, it was claimed, because of that “they” did to Christ. However, the Jews didn’t crucify Jesus; the Romans did, with the aid of Jewish collaborators, the Jewish religious establishment. Biblical scholars have come to see in the way John refers to “the Jews” a kind of code word for the religious establishment. He’s not referring to everyone who is Jewish (which would include John and Jesus). If you want to blame someone, however, just blame humanity.

The second reason for omitting “the Jews” here allows we who are not fearful of “the Jews” to access the depth of meaning of a text like this. While we might not be afraid of “the Jews,” we are people who know what it’s like to live with fear. “The doors of the house…were locked for fear.

The disciples are hiding; scared for their lives. Why? The text doesn’t say, but it’s not difficult to imagine multiple scenarios. They’re afraid of being persecuted for following the “criminal” Jesus. They are marked men. Perhaps they’re fearful of retaliation. If Jesus isn’t alive, then they will be attacked for being associated with the blasphemer who claimed to be God’s Son and stirred up the city and annoyed the Romans. It’s easy to imagine them trying to find a way to get out of Jerusalem in order to disperse in safety in Galilee.

No doubt news is spreading about what happened at the garden tomb. Why would this invoke fear? If it’s true, if resurrection is true then it’s kind of difficult to return to life as “normal” after that. It changes everything. If Jesus is alive, then their commitment to him will now be even stronger than it was when he was alive (which wasn’t all the strong). Their whole encounter with Jesus doesn’t end with a cross and sealed tomb. They can’t just set aside the whole experience with Jesus as a kind of bad dream and then go back to life as normal; they can’t go home again. There’s no going back. There’s no going back to “normal.” If Jesus is alive, then this really does change everything. And in the face of such radical change, it is easy to imagine the disciples huddled together in fear behind locked doors – that’s probably where I would have been.

We can’t blame them for being fearful. On the one hand, fear is probably the appropriate natural reaction to all that they experienced. If they weren’t fearful, then they probably weren’t paying attention to what what going on around them that weekend in Jerusalem. It’s the normal, rational response when one feels threatened, attacked, unsure, confused.

Fear is such a powerful emotion, with both positive and negative dimensions to it. There’s a lot about fear that is good. There are rational fears that serve an evolutionary function, that have allowed us to survive for millennia. Fear can be a good defense mechanism against all kinds of predators. There’s almost something primal about the way fear can be used as a way to keep us safe. When we’re fearful, we then respond with whatever it takes to keep us safe; it motivates us toward security. Feeling safe and secure are good things, obviously. It’s impossible to live and thrive without security, without a feeling of being safe. Sometimes fear is a perfectly rational response – but if we get stuck there, stuck in the fear, then that becomes a source of concern. That’s when fear can become “the prison of the heart.”

Fear – throughout scripture – is never allowed to have the final word in any scenario. It’s never lifted up as being the permanent state of being for God’s children. We are not called to live in fear, but in freedom, including freedom from fear. Whenever the disciples are afraid, the voice of the angels or the voice of Jesus himself – the voice of God – is always consistent: “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” Over and over again, the good news of the kingdom is “Fear not.” Don’t live your lives in fear. Instead live your lives with love. And the New Testament is the only place I have read where the opposite of love is defined not as hate, for the opposite of love is fear. As we read in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” And it’s when we fear that we then — hate, and attack, and persecute, and destroy, and murder, and kill.

Years ago, a wise elder said to me, “Ken, we act either in love or fear.” We have two choices. We can choose to act either in love or fear. She’s right. It might sound overly simplistic, but I think it’s true. Just look over your life – the countless decisions you make on any given day or week or over a lifetime – were they done in fear or in love? Think of the major decisions you have made in your life or decisions that need to be made. Love or fear? Which will dictate our lives? Which governs our lives?

The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world that are not governed by love, but by fear. The truth is there are so many places in our lives, in the church, in the world today being destroyed by fear. The more you become aware of it, the more you see it everywhere. In addition to fear, there’s the related emotion of anxiety. We all know the price we pay when children are raised to be fearful and anxious, they tend to be apprehensive. If children are raised in environments that are fearful, they become defensive. Back in 1959, Dorothy Law Nolte wrote a poem that became well-known, entitled, “Children Learn What They Live.” It begins with these lines, “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn…/ If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight…/ If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive…” The poem continues with a description of what is learned when a child lives with acceptance, tolerance, justice, approval. My mother put a copy of this poem, the 1969 version, in the bedroom I shared with my brother, Craig. I remember reading those lines over and over again. Children are growing up and maturing in a world overwhelmed by the presence of fear. The world can be a fearful place for child. It’s probably always been the case. But earlier generations were raised within a context of a shared religious perspective that provided considerable resources. This is completely missing for most today.

The source of so much hatred in our society is rooted in fear. The specter of racism is raising its ugly head again in the United States is rooted in fear. The rising intolerance for anyone or anything that doesn’t fit the “norm” is rooted in fear. Society is changing, the church is changing (and not all of it is bad, a lot of it is very, very good), but sometimes our resistance to it is rooted in fear. The rise of fundamentalisms over the last century – Christian, Jewish, and Islamic – all have one thing in common: fear. Christian fundamentalism emerged as a movement in the early 1900’s, here in the United States, in fear of advances made in science. We then gave it to the world. (2)

God doesn’t want our lives to be governed by fear. Again, fear might have an evolutionary function in that it allows us to survive; however, theologically-speaking it can suck the life out of us and actually hinder our ability to thrive. When fear generates an obsession with safety and security – when we’re always trying to live behind locked doors – then we run the risk of being cut off from life. The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), observed “the spirit of evil is negation of the life force by fear. Only boldness can deliver us from fear, and if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is violated. (3) James Hollis, a contemporary Jungian analyst, whom I spent some time with on my sabbatical two years ago, wrote in a recent book, “The meaning of our life will be found precisely in our capacity to achieve as much of it as possible beyond those bounds fear would set for us. There is not blame in being fearful; it is our common lot, our common susceptibility. But it may be a crime, an impiety…, when our individual summons, our destiny, is diverted or destroyed by fear.” (4) That’s an interesting turn insight, to think of a life governed by fear, as an impiety, as an expression of being faithless.

It’s precisely in such a context that I hear Jesus’ words to his disciples. God will not allow fear to have the last word. In fear the disciples try to hide themselves from a world that resists all the implications of the life-changing, liberating power of resurrection. But fear can’t hinder the new life Jesus extends to us. Resurrection life acknowledges the fear, but does not allow the fear to divert or destroy what God is doing through Jesus and through us. We’re given a truly remarkable image here. I love the way the resurrected Jesus appears and stands among them, he stands within the confines of their fear, he appears and stands in their place of greatest fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Even locked doors can’t keep him out. Christ’s boldness overcomes every barrier we erect in fear. We’re not meant to live behind locked doors. Within the confines of all our fears, Jesus continues to stand among us, unlocking our prisons of fear, and saying “Peace be with you.”

The place of fear can become the place of presence, the place of peace, the place of resurrection. The text tells us that their fear was replaced with rejoicing at the sight of his presence. That’s what resurrection can do. That’s what the resurrected Lord continues to do.

And, did you notice how these verses contain John’s version of Pentecost? There are no “tongues of fire,” like we find in Acts. What we have here is Jesus saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” – to be agents of peace, agents of his presence, offering assurance in the face of all the fear we might find in the world. Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

In the confines of all that instills fear in you, Jesus still says, “Peace be with you.”

In the prison of the heart bound by fear, Jesus still says, “Peace be with you.”

In the lives of people we know who are overwhelmed by fear, the Lord sends us to say in his name, “Peace be with you.”

In a world ensnared by fear, the Lord sends the church out to offer a different voice to the world, saying, “Peace with with you.”

Every place where we are tempted to act in fear over love, may we remember the words of the Risen Lord who said and who continues to say to us: “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.”

1. Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum, promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1555 segregated the Jews, who had lived freely in Rome since Antiquity, in a walled quarter with three gates that were locked at night, and subjected them to various restrictions on their personal freedoms such as limits to allowed professions and compulsory Catholic sermons on the Jewish shabbat. (www.wikipedia.org)
2.See George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
3. C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, Para. 551, cited in James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), 11.
4.Hollis, 15.

05 April 2010

Always Ahead of Us

Mark 16: 1-8

Resurrection of the Lord/ 4th April 2010/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

The stories don’t line up. The witnesses don’t agree on what happened that morning. Some said they saw him; others said they didn’t. Some say he was at the tomb; others say he wasn’t. According John’s Gospel and Matthew’s, Jesus appeared in all his resurrection glory on the day after the Jewish Sabbath. The women saw him; they had a conversation with him. But read Mark’s Gospel and Luke’s, Jesus is no where to be found that morning. There’s actually no resurrection account in Mark. The entire narrative just seems to dissolve away, it fizzles out, ending with a preposition in the Greek, literally “they were afraid for;” it’s open-ended. Luke gives witness to Jesus appearing on what we would call Easter evening, walking on the road to Emmaus. Not Mark.

If you’re looking for a triumphal pronouncement where Jesus’ resurrection is conveyed as a concrete, verifiable historical event, then Mark’s gospel this morning might leave you disappointed. If you suffer from literalism (a malady we all struggle with from time to time), then Mark’s story might make you uneasy. After all, what do we really have here? An empty tomb, a man dressed in a white robe telling three women that the one they’re looking for is now gone; you’ll see him, not in Jerusalem, but back north in Galilee. And the women leave running in amazement and fear. No Jesus.

Maybe. Mark might be the earliest gospel, written around 70 A.D. We know that Matthew and Luke both relied heavily on Mark in writing their gospels. Mark as the shortest gospel is succinct, yet there’s a profound complexity in the way he crafts his story. Every word, every sentence, every allusion is intentional, requiring us to pay close attention to the theological thrust of his argument. And we need to remember that a gospel is a unique literary form that emerged after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John include history, of course, but they are not chronologies, they are not historical accounts designed to tell us “what actually happened.” (1) They are not technically histories and if we view them as such, we will completely miss the message. Why aren’t they histories? Hegel might be of some help here.

In the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831,) said the task of the historian is “to hold fast what is dead.” (2) The historian’s task to make present that which the past, “the dead.” To “hold” it in the present. So why aren’t the gospels histories? Because these authors are not trying to hold fast what is dead, but to give witness to one who lived and died and rose from the grave and is still alive. (3) To be able to tell this story requires a whole new genre, a whole new literary style, like a gospel. For how do you tell the story of resurrection? And not resurrection as just a one time event, but, as the first Christians knew and as we know, resurrection as an ongoing reality.

How do you convey such an experience? Indirectly, as Mark does, and through absence. There’s no resurrected appearance here and yet it’s extraordinary how not describing Jesus’ presence at the empty tomb actually evokes his presence. Presence and absence go together. To experience the absence of someone we love evokes a memory or feeling of his or her presence. To experience the presence of someone we love is to evoke the possibility of what it might feel like to experience his or her absence, loss. One conveys the other. One evokes the other.

There’s something of this going on in Mark’s gospel. And I’m grateful for it. Why? Because it reminds us that Jesus is always beyond our grasp; he can’t be managed or controlled or defined or limited to a text, confined to words on a page. I’m grateful we don’t have a detailed, historical account of “what actually happened.” We have four witnesses and they all don’t agree. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection. I believe the creed (and just because it’s in a creed) when it says “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This phrase coordinates Jesus in space-time, it anchors, grounds Jesus in history. (4) And it’s precisely because resurrection is so important and real and life-changing and earth-shaking that we have to be wary of the tendency to reduce it to history, where we’re always looking for proof, always playing the historian, always looking for the “facts.” “Give me the facts, Ma’am, just the facts!” (5)

We celebrate and praise God this morning for resurrection. We are not simply commemorating a significant event in the past. Yes, it happened. But our orientation this morning is not backward, but forward. We’re not here to recollect, but to anticipate something, an experience promised to us that is about to happen. Our task is not to hold fast to the dead, but to be held fast by One who is living. (6) History can’t connect us with Jesus Christ. For he is not in the past, which is the place of those who have died. The voice of the angel to the women at the tomb in Luke’s gospel speaks to the church in every age, “Why do you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)?” A living faith is rooted in a living Lord who is not confined to the dead past but who is encountered living in the present and beyond it. And this is the point for Mark, Jesus is found in the present yes, but he goes before us. The place where he was is empty. If we want to find him, we’ll have to go forward. That’s what resurrection does: it reorients our relation to time. For we will not find him in the past, but in the future. Jesus is evasive; present yet always just beyond our reach; present, but also absent, always just ahead of us. Where is Jesus post-resurrection? Where will they find Jesus? “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

A few years after my ordination, I came across Eugene Peterson’s pastoral reading of this verse and it has stayed with me ever since. As a Presbyterian minister-writer, Peterson helped me to see that Christ always precedes us. Christ is already there. He goes before us. Before every pastoral visit to the hospital or to someone’s home, or before what I suspect will be a very stressful meeting, I remember this text and pray that I can find Christ in that situation. We don’t bear the burden of having to carry God to every situation or circumstance. God is already there. Our job is to search after God, to attentive to, to look for the God who is already there, to give witness to Christ’s presence who promises to go before us.

Christ’s absence evokes his presence and entices us to go seeking after him. Christ’s absence draws us out and compels us into action. Christ calls us ever forward into a future where he promises to meet us. The promise causes a forward momentum, a dynamism that moves us, lured by the anticipation that we will see him. Knowing that we will be meeting the Risen Lord, maybe today, maybe later or tomorrow or next month stirs within us the desire to move, to act in hope. But it’s more than just anticipating what might be in the future.

There was a lot of frenzy this weekend over the unveiling of the new Apple iPad. Everyone is talking about it. Steve Jobs called it “magical and revolutionary”! On Friday evening a friend of mine was wished, “Happy iPad Eve!” Another fiend went to the Apple store early yesterday morning just to see it for themselves and they ended up buying one. I recently got an iPhone and I confess I’ve been seduced by its charms. Although I feel like I’ve just joined a cult! That’s not the kind of anticipation I’m talking about.

It’s more like this: the experience of a toddler learning to walk. That very first step is an extraordinary act of hope! You can stand behind a child, holding him under the arms and help him take a few steps. You can stand above her, holding her arms, helping her take a few steps. But there comes a time when a toddler precariously stands on his own, and his mother or father crouches down in front, just a few inches or a foot or so beyond his reach, and the parent says, “Come!”

That’s one of my favorite images for how God relates to us. (7) For me, it’s the image conjured up by the command to go to Galilee. The truth is, Christ is always ahead of us, two steps or more ahead of us; out there in our future and in grace, he says to us, “Come.” Our ability to go, to move, to walk into the unknown with hope is what resurrection means. It’s the Resurrected Christ who goes before us and summons us along the way to meet him, to serve him, to love him, to live in and with him. He is always ahead of us, which means that we will always people on the way, forever living into resurrection, into becoming the people Christ is calling us to be. You can see why the Christian life is viewed as a journey, never a destination. Not one of us here has arrived. We’re all on the way to Galilee. And on the way we discover what it means to live from the power of resurrection, forever pulling us forward into its reality. The resurrection is not an end, but a beginning because it points to the fact that there’s still work to be done. It also means there are things to discover along the way. There are things we can only discover of Christ when we step out and go forward to meet him there.

We have to move forward. It’s in this context that we will affirm our new vision statement (see below). I’ve come to see this as a resurrection document. A surface reading of the statement might lead one to say there’s nothing new about it. If you’re looking for a strategy statement, then stop because you won’t find it here. It’s not about strategy. You might say, we’re already doing these things (and some very well) so what is new? You’re right, what you see here is a summary of the ministries we value as a congregation, what we consider to be important. But we’re also humble enough to know that while this is a great church, there is always more work to be done and we will build on our strengths. This is a living, breathing document that will orient us toward the future that Christ is giving us. With this statement we are claiming a conscious way of being – this is what matters to us. Under every bullet there’s enormous area for growth and expansion and depth. This is what we’re striving after. The use of the word “strive” is very intentional. We are living into this vision. The call is ongoing, it’s always ahead of us and so we have to go there, continually open to discerning God’s calling for this community. What is God trying to do through this church, with this church? The same questions must always be asked of ourselves, What is God trying to do this me, with me? We’re not yet where we need to be and because God isn’t finished with us, we strive. This is a Resurrection community that confesses that it wants to live in conformity, in relationship with Christ, participating in the presence of the Living Lord and discovering on the way to Galilee the cost, the risk, and the joy of the journey.

A church that lives in the power of the Resurrected Christ does not simply remember and imitate a story; rather it experiences the present reality of God now and goes wherever the Spirit will lead it. Jesus is always ahead of us. This means, who knows where he will show up? In Galilee? In Catonsville? In this sanctuary? In you, in your dreams, in your heart? In the person sitting beside you? In my words? In your words? In the music and in the prayers this morning? Or, here in the breaking of the bread?

Adopted by the Session on March 3, 2010

We seek to find and share God’s calling for this community of faith through worship, fellowship, and service.

We are called to live in conformity with Christ because the Church does not belong to us, but belongs to God. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, God’s people at Catonsville Presbyterian Church will strive to:

• Offer inspiring worship through compelling and relevant preaching, enriching music and thoughtful prayer.
• Worship and gather as a welcoming and accepting community of faith in a space open and accessible to all.
• Provide opportunities that nurture the spirit and promote learning for the members and visitors of this Church.
• Foster fellowship that strengthens relationships and bonds of friendship, and promotes opportunities to share God’s love.
• Share the gifts of this congregation in service with our brothers and sisters through mission programs, locally and globally.
• Nurture the growth and development of children and youth, and encourage and support their active participation in the life of the Church.
• Maintain our strong commitment to the inclusion of music as an integral part of our life together.
• Support intergenerational activities of fellowship and mission.


Image: Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, Israel.

1. The German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), considered one of the founders of modern source-based history, set the tone for later historical writing. He said, “…the historian must present the past as it actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewessen).” Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514 [1824]).
2.Cited in Edith Wyschogrod, An Ethics of Remember: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), ix. Wyschogrod suggests that what drives the historian is an “eros for the dead.” (xii-xiii).
3. Kenneth E. Kovacs, “The Relational Phenomenological Pneumatology of James E. Loder: Providing New Frameworks for the Christian Life,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland (2002), 197-198.
4. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 108-113.
5. Joe Friday in the NBC-television series Dragnet (aired in 1950s-1960s).
6. Kovacs, 198.
7. I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Hiroshi Obayashi, professor of religion at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, who shared this image with me when I was his student.

02 April 2010

A Cry in the Dark

Psalm 22 & Matthew 27: 45-56

Good Friday/ 2nd April 2010

“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness’ – I will continually be absent from Heaven, to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” (1) When these words and others like them were published two years ago they caused a worldwide scandal. They caused media frenzy. Pundits who know little or nothing about religious experience were pontificating wildly about the hidden apostasy of one of the world’s most respected and honored religious leaders: Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997).

When her diary was published in 2008 we were given a window into the heart of an extraordinary person. But what provoked scandal was not her faith, but her doubt, her prolonged seasons of disbelief. That was a surprise. But it’s only a surprise to people who know little about what it’s like to experience God. It’s only a surprise to people who pit belief against disbelief or doubt. It’s only a scandal for those who think Christian faith is about, well, faith, having 100% faith and trust, 24-7, instead of knowing the Christian experience is really more a participation into the very depths of God, a participation that includes both faith and doubt, both light and darkness. Mother Teresa’s loss of belief should not have provoked worldwide astonishment, “but be seen as a salutary maturation toward deeper belief.” (2)

Faith and doubt go hand-in-hand, one suggests the others. It’s like the way we experience light in its relation to darkness. It’s the same way our experience of presence and absence complement each other. To experience the absence of someone we love is at the same time to evoke a memory or feeling of his or her presence. To experience the presence of someone we love is to evoke the possibility of what it might feel like to experience his or her absence, their loss. Absence and presence are fluid. One induces the other. One is found in the other. One evokes the other.

We really shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, including Mother Teresa’s disbelieving darkness, because we have it modeled for us, demonstrated for us right here in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion. It’s all found in Jesus’ experience on the cross.

If we view Jesus as both fully human and fully God at the same time, then Jesus’ experience of the cross, his reality tells something about what it’s like for humans to undergo an experience of God. It also tells us something about what it’s like for God to undergo human suffering. We learn something of how a human being can and does experience God. We discover something of who God is when we look upon Jesus’ life – especially on the cross.

And for a time, at least, we find Jesus, we find God in darkness. “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.” Yes, I know there are places in scripture that says “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).” And, “In him was light and the light was the life of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1: 5).” These verses are from John’s epistle and gospel. He loves to play light off of dark. There’s no account of darkness at the hour of Jesus’ death in John’s gospel. John tells us the darkness could not overcome the light, instead, God’s light shines in darkness. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree: Jesus reigns as King of the Jews from a throne enveloped by enduring darkness.

God is not afraid to enter into the dark. Indeed, Jesus’ experience moves God right into the darkness. God moves Jesus right into the darkness. Why? We can’t be sure, of course. But maybe because there will be no place where God will not be God. There will be no part of creation, even darkness itself, which is the very opposite of God’s glory, that will not be redeemed, darkness itself will be forced to yield new life, new possibility. Remember what the psalmist cried, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Then the psalmist insists, “…If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139: 7-8, 11-12, emphasis added).”

There’s a sense that the darkness contains, encloses the event of the cross and yet the cross actually makes a space for darkness in the heart of God, at the center of God’s being. It was the poet, T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), who marvelously captured this insight into the nature of God when he wrote in his mystical Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God….(3)

And then in the heart of God’s darkness comes Jesus’ cry of dereliction, his anguished cry of abandonment, abandoned by God. He’s lost in the dark with God nowhere in sight.

This is not the cry of an atheist, of course, denying the existence of God. But neither is it outright theism. It’s something in between. He’s crying out to an absent God whose absence invokes a presence, the very object of his cry. Instead of seeing it as an expression of doubt, it’s really an extraordinary act of conviction, a demonstration of what a mature faith looks like. Crying, “My God, My God” – indeed, holding God accountable for this experience of abandonment, asking, “Why have you forsaken me?” That’s what it’s like to be human in relation with God

Just as darkness is absorbed into the heart of God, so is this cry of dereliction. Jesus struggles with this very human response to the absence of God. God makes space for such a cry. Such a cry can become an extraordinary cry of confidence in God. Light shining in the darkness.

What this means for us is that our cries in the dark, our cries of protest, our cries confessing the absence of God have a special place in our experience, in our relationship with God, because we hear them in Jesus’ words on the cross. His cries are our cries. Our cries are his cries. His cries are known by God; our cries are known by God. They don’t go unheard.

At the beginning of James Joyce’s (1892-1941) novel, Ulysses (1922), a question is asked, “What is God?” To which the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, answers, “A cry in the street.” (4) Whenever we look to the cross, we have to pose this question, “What is God?” From the cross we can say, God is “A cry in the dark.”

This is the hope that the cross offers us (at least one part of its hope). All this talk about darkness can be, well, dark – I know. It can be depressing. We don’t want to hear this, we don’t want to go to those dark places, and we resist it. We can’t live for long in the dark without light, without hope. This reflection might make us uncomfortable or maybe it’s foreign from your experience of God. However a theological reflection upon the darkness of the cross is essential to a mature faith. Why? Because then we might be better prepared when darkness inevitably overcomes us or when someone we know and love enters into a dark and lonely place and we wonder how God could be in such a godforsaken place. There are people this night, members of our church family who are asking precisely these questions. This reflection is necessary because then we might have something to say.

These are the things I think about, personally and pastorally, as I try to reflect theologically upon my own encounters with darkness and when I see people I love and care about experience the isolation that comes with pain and suffering, where God is nowhere to be found. If God can’t be found in those dark places, then the God we worship when all is light is not worthy of being worshipped, is not profound enough to be known in the depths of human pain and suffering. The God I see in Jesus Christ is the God of the depths, who in love risks going into the depths of human anguish and pain and shines in the darkness. The Welsh, Anglican poet, R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) speaks of such an experience of God in this confession that resonates with so many and speaks to me:

For some
it is all darkness; for me, too,
It is dark. But there are hands
there I can take, voices to hear
solider than the echoes
without. And sometimes a strange light
shines, purer than the moon,
casting no shadow…. (5)

Jesus’ cry in the dark makes place for our cries. It’s the cry of human anguish inflicted by a world that refuses to love, of humanity that refuses to love, of humanity that refuses to receive love. All of our tears are contained in his cry in the dark. As King David once said, “In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I called. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to came to his ears (2 Samuel 22:7).”

The cry of anguish is never left unheard by God. As we have seen and will see, the cry of anguish is never the last word.
Image: K E Kovacs, St. John's Cross, Isle of Iona (June, 2008).


1. Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa: Come to My Light (New York: Rider, 2008), cited in Richard Kearny, Anatheism:Returning to God After God. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 56.
2. Kearney’s comments, 56.
3. T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets(New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943).
4. Cited in Kearny, 110.
5. R. S. Thomas, “Groping,” Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix, 1993), 328.

Table Fellowship

Luke 22: 7-23

Maundy Thursday / 1st April 2010

Table fellowship stands at the center of Luke’s gospel, at the core of his theology. Significant moments occur around a table, over a meal. The breaking of the bread, the sharing of a cup, something so ordinary, something, as they say in Britain, “dead common,” becomes an occasion for revelation and insight, for truth, for life. Early on, Christians knew there are things of God that can only be known around a table, because it was around the table with Jesus that they discovered something of God. It was on Easter evening Luke tells us in chapter 24, that Jesus was known among his disciples. They didn’t find him at the empty tomb, but on their way, on their journey to some other place, running away from the hurt and pain of Jerusalem. It wasn’t in Jerusalem but in Emmaus that the disciples encountered Jesus while they were sharing a simple meal. When Jesus as their guest breaks some bread, that simple gesture triggers a memory of a meal when he was the host. They had seen those hands before.

Why didn’t they recognize him from the start? We don’t know. That’s not Luke’s point; that’s not Luke’s question. It’s the breaking that matters. How many times before had the disciples had occasion to share a meal with Jesus, to watch him eat? The gesture in Emmaus prompts a memory. When was the last time we witnessed the Lord break bread and share a cup of blessing in this way? On the very night that we commemorate tonight, of course. For Luke, there’s something about the breaking that has profound theological significance.

Jesus, the one who was broken for us, is found in the broken places of our lives. Certainly not only there, but maybe especially there. The Passover meal, indeed, any ordinary meal is transformed into an occasion for encounter with the Risen Lord. He is known in the breaking. We are known by him in the breaking. We remember that he knows our brokenness, bears our grief and sorrow, and promises to be there too. This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God. It’s why table fellowship, Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper is more than a just a “memorial meal.” Tonight, we are not just remembering as in recollecting what took place long ago tonight, we are literally re-membering (member to member), reconnecting with him, even now participating in the presence of the same Lord who broke bread with his disciples then, his disciples now. And he is reaching out, connecting with us, participating in our lives. So we offer thanks.

Yet, there’s one dimension to table fellowship that’s easy for us to miss. Yes, Jesus is known in the breaking, broken for us. But we can’t forget that Jesus had a meal with and went searching for the very ones who broke him; his own disciples who betrayed him, denied him, abandoned him, who really let him down, the ones who could not stay awake to pray with him throughout the night. He eats with the one who will break and has broken him.

I can’t help but think of Psalm 23 here, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” In Jesus’ time, in David’s time, one never shared a table, shared a meal with one’s enemies – only with ones friends. When former enemies share a table, that’s the sign of peace, the sign of reconciliation. For example, remember when Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) and Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) famously shook hands on the White House lawn (13 September 1993), after signing the Declaration of Principle for Peace between Arabs and Israelis? The world thought for sure this remarkable hand-shake marked the beginning of a new day of concord. After the handshake, they went their separate ways. If it was really a sign of reconciliation, they would have shared a meal together – which they didn’t.

That Jesus seeks out the very ones who betrayed and broke him, pursues them not to condemn or to seek revenge against them, but only for the reason that he desired to dwell and live and share a meal with people he loved, this is an enormously profound expression of grace, of forgiveness. In this simple yet profound gesture we get a glimpse of what God is like. That Jesus could say at the Passover meal in an upper room, “Thanks to God,” even knowing his disciples will all scatter, even knowing that Judas will betray him, yet he can give thanks to God for the bread, for the cup, for the opportunity to share a meal with the very people (although sinful) he nevertheless loves, loves so much that he is willing to suffer and endure the humiliation of a cross – is amazing. His thanksgiving is the only response he gives to all the sin that broke him that night. (1) When he returns to meet his betrayers, it’s with forgiveness, with grace, with reconciliation.

The One who invites us to do this in remembrance of him sits at table with us as true friend. We come in our sin and our brokenness, all the ways we betray him, betray ourselves, betray one another both, which are also betrayals of him (to betray our neighbor, to betray ourselves, is to betray him). Jesus invites knowing all of this and yet he says, “Pull up a chair, my friend, allow me to serve you. Not as enemy, but friend. Here is bread. Here is wine. Receive grace. Receive forgiveness.” This is what it’s like to experience the kingdom of God. Early on, Christians knew there are things of God that can only be known around a table, because it was around a table with Jesus that they discovered something of God. Some things never change.


Image: Caravaggio (1571-1610), "Supper at Emmaus," (1601).

1. Anthony W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2001), “How could Jesus say thanks in that night and by means of proleptic [future] death? What does this mean about the human gesture of thanks, giving thanks from the bottom of a desperately unfolding experience of abandonment and suffering, to render the heart back even and precisely in this moment? What is overflowing here, what is wrung from the heart in helpless gratitude for a gift? Only the night stares in his eyes. And yet he gives thanks." (255).