World Out of Balance

“’Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.’ The Misfit continued, ‘and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.’” (Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)

I don’t understand Easter. I think I stand on firm theological ground saying this. Mysteries are necessarily beyond comprehension, a scandal and embarrassment in a scientific age. It’s far more satisfying to make of mystery a problem to be solved. In “mystery” novels, for instance, a criminal death is explained, ending (generally) with the restoration of justice and order, or at least the order we’ve come to expect in this world, from the things we rely on. Mercy and transformation, which might throw everything off balance, must wait for another day.

Attempts to smooth over the mystery of the Three Days have intellectual and emotional appeal. Liberal Protestantism and the Jesus Seminar restore balance by spiritualizing Easter. “Jesus rose in the disciples’ hearts,” we’re reassured, though his corpse, like any other, rots in the tomb. Orderly minds reject a God who breaks the rules. Read more

Spoilin’ for a Fight

Mark 11:1-11 (John 12:12-16); Psalm 118 (Palm Sunday/Liturgy of the Palms)

In her wonderful autobiography An American Childhood, Annie Dillard fondly recalls her Sunday School days in her parents’ mainline Protestant church. She notes of her introduction to the Bible, “The Bible’s was an unlikely, movie-set world alongside our world. Light-shot and translucent in the pallid Sunday-school watercolors on the walls, stormy and opaque in the dense and staggering texts they read us placidly, week after week, this world interleaved our waking world like a dream.” Read more

Flunking Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year.”

Fleming Rutledge writes these words in one of her many fine Holy Week sermons. But they’re my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We’ve flunked Lent. We always do.

But this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be.

When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will “create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us.”

And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations. Read more

For God So Loved the World

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-21
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

With a group of friends, I’m reading a new book entitled Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Written by a Roman Catholic priest–Dominican and Englishman Timothy Radcliffe–and commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2009, this text is interesting reading for us American Methodists in the suburban south.

In a chapter on preaching (the book takes in the whole of Word and Table), Radcliffe warns against taming the Bible’s strangeness in the Sunday sermon. “The beauty of the Bible,” he says, “is that it is not clear, simple and unambiguous. Its words are puzzling, intriguing and slippery.” Read more

Asleep at the Wheel

John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17 (Lent 3B)

There is a joke that occasionally passes through pastors’ circles now and again with a bit of light-hearted commentary on the passion (or lack thereof) of worship in a particular pastor’s church. Says one pastor: “My congregation is so dead in worship that if someone were to have a heart attack, when the EMTs arrived they’d wonder to whom they should attend.” Those of us who worship regularly in congregations that bear any resemblance to that description chuckle uneasily at this joke. Yet truth be told, it hits a little too close to home. What has happened to our practice of worship that it has become yet another instance of a religious institution “going through the motions” rather than true, life-shaping (rather than sleep inducing) encounter with the living God? I don’t know about you, but a few cattle and sheep in the narthex of my church might be just the ticket to breaking our somnolence and accommodation to the “way things are” in congregational worship. Read more