Monday, April 25, 2011


Art, poetry, song - no matter what angle we take to understand and celebrate Christ's resurrection, the mystery remains beyond our view. Yet some attempts bring new understanding, or call forth deeper appreciation, or awaken us to greater gratitude. As my celebration, I've gathered some contemporary offerings, a reminder that the resurrection is real now, for us, as it is, and has been, for men and women around the globe.

Resurrection, Anna Kocher, US, 2006
“. . . for they shall see God”
Matthew 5.8

Christ risen was rarely
      recognized by sight.
They had to get beyond
     the way he looked.
Evidence stronger than his voice
     and face and footstep
waited to grow in them, to guide
their groping from despair,
their stretching beyond belief.

We are as blind as they
until the opening of our deeper eyes
shows us the hands that bless
and break our bread,
until we finger
wounds that tell our healing,
or witness a miracle of fish
dawn-caught after our long night
of empty nets.  Handling
his Word, we feel his flesh,
his bones, and hear his voice
calling our early-morning name.

Who will remove the stone?
Hanna Cheriyan Varghese, Malaysia

Now is the shining fabric
    of our day
Torn open, flung apart, 
     rent wide by love.
Never again the tight,
     enclosing sky,
The blue bowl
     or star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity
For Easter love has burst
     his tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us 
      from God's desire -
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, 
      not even sin.
Now glory waits           
so He can enter in.                            Now does the dance begin.

He Is Not Here, He Qi, China
Descending Theology: The Resurrection
       ~Mary Karr 2006

From the far star points
     of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—
     black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door,
     and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

thank you for the cross

Titian ca 1555
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

….  The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
                   (T. S. Eliot, East Coker, IV)

There are more words written about the death of Christ than any other event in history: spoken of centuries before it happened, recorded by more eyewitnesses than any other moment in ancient history, documented by historians of the time, religious and secular, discussed, debated, dissected for two thousand years since.

The crucifixion appears as well in art and literature of all kinds: maudlin, moving, mocking, deeply memorable. Strange, isn’t it, that the death of an uneducated carpenter on the other side of the world would still echo around the globe.  

Yet, here we are, still trying to understand what happened there on that desolate hillside, Goglatha, Skull Hill, the rocky wasteland where criminals were left to die. Rob Bell, in his brilliant and controversial new book, Love Wins, takes on this question: 

What happened on the cross?

Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system
Or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled
Or a guilty defendant who’s been set free
Or a battle that’s been won
Or the redeeming of something that was lost?

Which is it?

Which perspective is the right one? Which metaphor is correct? Which explanation is true?
As Bell tries to make clear (offending theological purists of all camps in the process) no one image, metaphor, explanation, will ever fully do justice to something so “massive and universe-changing.” So we keep trying. “It’s like this … It’s like this….”

For me, the illustration that first caught my heart was Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My uncle brought the Chroncles of Narnia home from England when I was just launching into chapter books, and I read the first one through with great excitement. I was sure I was Lucy, the younger daughter, the little sister, the odd man out in family conflicts. Like Lucy, I felt an immediate allegiance to Aslan. I craved his warmth, strength, kindness. I remember grieving with Lucy when Aslan agreed to the white witch’s terms, offering himself in exchange for foolish traitor Edmund, and I remember following with Lucy up the dark hill to the stone table where Aslan would be sacrificed.

What a terrible story! The sisters crying bitterly, the hideous celebration of the witch’s company of hags, wraiths and horrors. I could hardly read on. And yet, I had to read on to the finish.

I don’t remember how I came to see that Aslan was a picture of Christ, offering himself for me. Did my uncle explain it? Did someone say “Aslan is Jesus”? The book was still new in the US at the time – who would have told me?

Yet, I do remember understanding the cross more clearly once I’d read Lewis’ story. Aslan’s love brought Christ’s alive for me. His powerful surrender made the cross more real, more awful, more moving.

Yet no story will ever do justice to the full mystery of the cross. I remember thinking that when I saw another powerful crucifixion image. Gandalf, in Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, stands in the shadows of the deep mines of Moria doing battle with the Balrog, “the demon of the ancient world.” While Gandalf’s companions run across an narrow bridge to safety, Gandalf plants himself in the Balrog’s way and cries, with great authority and power, “You shall not pass!”

He sends the Balrog tumbling back into the depths of darkness but as the monster falls, it catches his foot with its whip and pulls Gandalf into the darkness behind him. It’s a stunning image of protection and power in the face of looming evil, and of a sacrificial offering for the safety of the others. Yet it only captures a tiny part of what happened on the cross. Any explanation, depiction, illustration of the cross is by necessity partial. Finite creatures, we see in part, and understand in part. 

As Rob Bell summarizes: 
What happened on the cross is like . .
 A defendant going free
A relationship being reconciled
Something lost being redeemed,
A battle being won,
A final sacrifice being offered,
So that no one ever has to offer another one again,
An enemy being loved.
And more.

Think of the food imagery surrounding the cross – “this is my body, broken for you.” We draw back, alarmed, at the hint of cannibalism latent in that Eucharistic terminology. Yet in places where food security is in doubt, in ravaged lands where water is scarce and hunger certain, Jesus points to the cross and says “I will be your food and your drink. Your water, and your wine.” What does that mean?

It ties back to the idea of sacrifice. Some human sacrifice was appeasement for guilt. Much more was intercession for continued crops. Traveling in Guatemala, we visited Ixim'ché, a pre-Columbian Mayan city where young men and women were sacrificed to the god of corn (Ixim'ché translated means"tree of corn").

We stood in the ballfield where young men competed in a game preceding soccer; the outcome of the game would determine who was sacrificed next. The day we visited, we were warned to avoid the wooded area beyond the ruins since a sacrificial ritual would be taking place. While in most parts of the world human sacrifice no longer takes place, in Guatemala and other places there are still offerings given, of grains, candles, incense, even animals, in an attempt to ensure harvests and appeal for food in the face of hunger.

The cross offers food, bread, water, wine, in ways we can't understand, in ways we reenact every time we take what we call the eucharist, the Lord' supper.

The cross also offers healing. In pagan cultures there is a continuing belief that blood or body parts from another can bring healing. Muti killings are the most well-known remaining example of this. Despite laws forbidding it, regions of Africa and Asia still struggle with tribal medicine that depends on harvesting human body parts.

The western world shakes its head at the pagan superstition that would take one life to heal another. And yet we do the same thing in new ways, looking for healing in organ transplants, stem cell research.

Isaiah says “by his wounds we are healed.” What does that mean?  Peter expands this: “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” The healing is eternal – but also a present reality, as the disciples demonstrated in the early day of the church

Healed, forgiven, fed, reconciled to God, brought to life, protected.

One more image:

Isaiah prophecied: “he was despised and rejected.” Jesus himself said he would be rejected by the elders, chief priests, teachers of the law, by his generation. On the cross, that rejection went further, as he cried out to God himself: "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

I have never been really hungry. Never had an illness with no doctor to turn to. I’ve never faced actual battle with a visible enemy. But have I felt rejected? More times than I care to count.

At the cross, Jesus faced into total rejection, so we could be adopted into the household of God, brought into a place of belonging beyond any we can imagine: children of God, sisters and brothers of Christ himself, part of an eternal, global body where every part is wanted, every person welcome, every gift celebrated, every burden shared. Relationships restored, but even more: orphans given families. Aliens accepted.

What happened on the cross? We grasp hints of the magnitude of the miracle. We struggle to understand, try to line things up. But in the end, we bow down in awe at the mysterious heart of history, what T. S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world," what Paul called “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 

And we say "thank you."           

I will love you for the cross

And I will love you for the cost
Man of sufferings
Bringer of my peace

You came into a world of shame
And paid the price we could not pay
Death that brought me life
Blood that brought me home

And I love you for the cross
I'm overwhelmed by the mystery
I love you for the cost
That Jesus you would do this for me

When you were broken, you were beaten,
You were punished, I go free
You were wounded and rejected
In your mercy - I am healed

Jesus Christ the sinner’s friend
Does this kindness know no bounds
With your precious blood you have purchased me

Oh the mystery of the cross
You were punished you were crushed
But that punishment has become my peace . . .

For the cross, for the cross, for the cross I thank you
  (Matt Redman)
Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

If Only

My parents split before I turned two and my siblings and I grew up in the care of our grandmother. The refrain of “if only” was a big one in our household: “If only our parents had stayed together. . .” “If only we lived with our parents . . .”  “If only we had a normal family . . .”

I thought, as a kid, that our “if only” refrain was unique, but learned fairly quickly that most people have an “if only” or two, rumbling around inside.
A variation of the unresolved “if only” was used to humorous effect in the 2004 indie hit Napoleon Dynamite.
Middle-aged Uncle Rico is a former high school quarterback living in a camper van, spending his time regretting and reliving the final quarter in a state championship game: “If coach would've put me in fourth quarter…we would've been State Champions.”

For more than two decades, that “if” has defined him. He’s a caricature of the immature has-been, living an unresolved fantasy. He’s funny, but sad. Amusing, but a little too familiar.

In my years of ministry, I’ve heard many “if onlys”: “If only I’d done something sooner . . . .” “If I’d only been strong enough to say no . . .” “If only I hadn’t been drinking . . .”  “If only I’d followed their advice . . .”

Hidden in the refrain of “if only” is anger, guilt, regret, confusion. “If only someone had intervened . . .” “If only I’d listened . . .” “If I had just stayed home that day . . .” “If only I had made a different choice. . .”

Behind the conflicting emotions there’s often an accusation: “If God had really loved me, none of this would have happened.” “If God had heard my prayers, things would have turned out different.”

Just days before Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he heard that his friend Lazarus was sick, maybe dying. Urged to come help, he took his time and showed up days after Lazarus was dead.

Lazarus’ sister Martha met him on his way: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus  answered: “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha seems to have taken Jesus’ comment as a theological statement – a reference to a distant event: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus’ response is puzzling. It offers a promise in the present, rather than the future: “I AM the resurrection and the life. Those who who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

Martha’s sister Mary, summoned with the news that Jesus was coming,  met him with with the exact same “if”: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Had the sisters been repeating this to each other? Was the refrain one they’d rehearsed in the days since their brother’s death?

In this case, Jesus responded with tears. Verse 35, the shortest in the Bible, says simply: “Jesus wept.”

So in this place of pain, confronted by the grief of his friends, Jesus affirmed something they didn’t seem to understand, and entered their grief with them, even though he was about to turn the grief to joy.

Weeping, he asked to be shown the tomb, asked for the stone to be rolled away, and in the face of objections from his friends (“But, Lord, he’s been dead four days!”) commanded Lazarus to come out.

When I think of resurrection, I think of Easter – still weeks away. But Jesus, there in the dusty road in Bethany, weeping with his friends, says “I AM resurrection.” Not will be. Not someday soon. Now. Today. Roll the stone away. Take off the grave clothes.

N. T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, says “When Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ he opens up several layers of redefinition: a new life through which new possibilities are available in the present.  The ‘life of the age to come’ is brought forward into the  present, so that believers can enjoy it already . . .”

Walter Bruggeman in The Prophetic Imagination talks about Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” He says “The energy of this blessing word comes in the reality that God has alternative futures, that he is free to bestow them, and that futures are not derived from or determined by the present.”

Even as he wept with his friends, Jesus took their present reality and shaped an alternative future, full of joy.

I've been weeping and praying with friends and family of Thomas, a young man of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, who was critically burned and injured carrying children to safety from a burning building. His current reality is painful, precarious, and frightening. Yet Jesus is resurrection and life, able to shape alternative futures.

I've been weeping as well with the family of Emily, a young woman struck almost three years ago by lightening. She shows signs of resurrection beyond what any doctors hoped for, yet her current reality is constricted, and the burden on her family is great. “If only” looms large in the story of that lightening strike, yet Jesus, weeping, is able to bring full resurrection, and to offer a future not determined by the present.

I’ve been weeping with friends whose marriages have turned to great sorrow. And grieving for relationships that seem broken beyond repair. Grieving for lives that seem headed in tragic directions, in situations where intervention seems impossible.

I’ve been grieving, as well, over the brokenness of our nation’s economic structure. The divide between wealthy and poor, both nationally and globally, has never been greater. The powerful grow more powerful and use that power to further the divide. Those who seem to speak for reason are too often guided by invisible money and inappropriate influence. 

Yet, as Bruggeman reminds us, the transforming authority of Jesus is still valid, still available: “In his poverty he had the power to make many rich. In his hunger he had the capacity to fill others. In his capacity to grieve he had the power to bring joy and wholeness to others. In his person, which was nonperson in the eyes of the pseudokings, he had the authority to give futures to his constituency.” As resurrection and life, Jesus “made possible a future for the disinherited.”

As winter lingers, I search my brown yard for signs of life. Tiny threads of green, new life from grass seeds planted too late last fall, are peeking up through the dry, dead-looking lawn. Frail trout lilies are blooming, pale yellow in the drifts of dead brown leaves. A flourish of forsythia brightens one back corner. The hyacinths the rabbits missed are small clusters of promise, waiting for the next warm day.

Jesus said “I am resurrection and life.” New life breathes through the brown patches of this present reality; resurrection sings while we weep, surrounded by death. The future is not determined by the present. Weeping with us, Jesus says, “Come out. Take the grave clothes off.” God has alternative futures, and he is free to bestow them.

Hallelujah. In the litany of Easter, Hallelujah is still weeks away. But Jesus is resurrection before, during, after. Daily. Hallelujah.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Certain passages of scripture rattle around my head, popping up at odd times, bringing more questions than they answer.

One that’s currently troubling me: the sheep and the goats passage, from Matthew 25. Jesus has been talking about the end times, the need to be ready, the need to keep watch. He tells the parable of the bridesmaids, who let their lamps burn low and weren’t prepared when the bridegroom came. Then the parable about the stewards: the ones who used the money they were given wisely and were rewarded. The one who buried the money and was cast out.

Then, tucked between that familiar stewardship parable and the plot to kill Jesus, comes this story:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Questions? Quite a few. But the one that interests me in the moment is a practical one:  Those people who ended up in the goat section – what if they really didn’t see any hungry, thirsty, naked, sick people? What if they lived somewhere like me – in a nice suburban house, in a safe, pleasant neighborhood? Who could fault them for forgetting to feed the hungry, or failing to care for the sick? Or somehow missing the fact that millions of people die each year because they don’t have clean water?

A few days ago, I turned the radio on and heard a woman’s voice: African, struggling with English, but passionate and firm. The speaker was Rose Mapendo, a survivor of the genocide in Rawanda, asked about current struggles and conflicts in other parts of the world. She answered without hesitation: “’I believe it's everybody's responsibility to take the action to save these people's life. There is many thousands of people who are seeking for life, who need my help, who need my voice, who need your voice, who need the world's attention to save their life.’”  
What if we don’t see them?

There’s a big conversation going on among our elected officials about budgets and priorities and ways to cut the national debt. The budget proposed by the House of Representatives would cut non-military foreign assistance by almost 50%. In human terms, 18 million people would lose access to food they depend on, including 2.5 million children who would no longer receive their daily school meal, their one real meal of the day. 4 million people would lose access to malaria medicine, and the successful malaria net program President George W. Bush pushed so hard for would be cut substantially.

Why cut foreign aid? Because we aren’t paying attention.

In January, a national poll found that 75 percent of people thought foreign aid should be cut.

But this may explain that opinion: another poll a few months earlier found that when people were asked what percentage of the federal budget currently goes to foreign aid, the average response was that 27 percent of our budget goes to aid. When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the response was 10 to 13 percent. (Fiscal Times)

So – when people say foreign aid should be cut, they’re picturing a cut from about 27% to 10% of the national budget. That’s a big cut. But it would make foreign aid a tenth, a tithe, of our national budget.

In fact, current actual spending on non-military foreign aid is about 1 percent. A tenth of what people say it should be. A tiny fraction of what people believe it to be.

With recommended cuts, that number would shrink to about half of one percent.

Should we know that? Should we care?

I’ve been repenting, in this season of repentance, of my own utter ignorance about the federal budget, the ways bills are passed, my role in our democracy.  I’m not big on numbers, budgets, percentages. But as I’ve been trying to read more about this issue, and trying to understand what’s at stake, I’ve come to wonder if complexity, distance, lack of interest excuse my ignorance, my poor stewardship of the rights I’ve been given.

What does it mean to have a voice in caring for the poor? Whose lives are dependent on my action? Who needs my help, my voice, my attention?

Last week, a group of leaders concerned about justice, hunger and poverty committed themselves to a hunger fast on behalf of the poor. Tony Hall, the head of the Alliance to End Hunger; David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World; Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners; Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service were among the initial voices, agreeing to form a “circle of protection” around those who have no voice. They are concerned that a global food crisis, paired with recommended budget cuts, would result in tens of thousands of deaths, and would set back significant progress in control of diseases like malaria.

As I’ve prayed, I’ve concluded that a first step in being a better steward is to join the circle: I’m going to pray for the Hunger Fast, for our political leaders, for those who will be hurt if aid to the poor is cut. I’m also committing to fast a meal each day through the next two weeks, to use some of the time in reading more about the way our national budget works, and to commit to writing letters to those who make decisions.

There are other ideas described on the site. And lots of information available through organizations mentioned above.    

Not everyone can fast, even one meal. Not everyone has time to delve deeply into the politics of scarcity and hunger.

But we’ve been given voices, and votes, and many without voices or votes are dependent on us using them wisely.

I’ve been spending time with the Ash Wednesday Litany of Repentance. Here’s part:

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us...

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation.
   That we may show forth your glory in the world.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.