No Ground for Boasting

We’re currently in the midst of one of our most enduring cultural liturgies—awards season. With the Golden Globes a few weeks ago, the Grammys this past Sunday, and the Oscars on the horizon, along with a slew of other, less publicized events, this is the time of year when the titans of the entertainment industry gather to honor the achievements of their peers. They will gather for lavish meals. They will hand out trophies. They will make speeches. They will tell inside jokes and laugh loudly at one another’s scripted attempts at humor. They will raise their glasses to their fellow artists and smile insincerely when their colleagues win an honor that they themselves were passed over for.

While we may be somewhat used to this annual ritual, I think that if an spaceship were to land outside of such an awards ceremony, and a group of aliens were able to look in on what was transpiring, it would probably strike them as fairly odd. For all the glitz and glamour and emotion that seems to be bound up in these events, for all the ink spilled by critics and entertainment journalists about who should and shouldn’t win these awards, these shows are ultimately an opportunity for Hollywood to pat itself on the back. Each ceremony is little more than a roomful of beautiful and wealthy people telling one another what a great job they’re doing. And this year, with the spate of revelations about the predatory misuses of power and influence among the upper echelons of Hollywood, these opportunities for self-congratulation seem a bit awkward, if not completely hollow. Read more

Authority and the Madness of Love

It’s tempting to want to know just what exactly Jesus said at this synagogue in Capernaum. What does this “teaching with authority” sound like?

Often I hear people try to fill in that gap with some explanation about Jesus’s style or content. But the evangelist’s silence on this point is important. He did not just forget to mention what Jesus said or overlook our interest in his tone of voice, gestures, rhetorical tools. He didn’t include those details because they are not what we need to know. What we need to know about Jesus is that he is, as the unclean spirit says, the Holy One of God. Jesus teaches with authority because he is the authority, Emmanuel, God with us.

So the question we should ask when Mark writes that people heard Jesus’ teaching to be “with authority” is not “How did he do it?” but “Who is he?” Read more

Yes and No

“I pay attention to what I do so I’ll know what I really believe.”
–Sister Helen Prejean

If you only read chapter 3 of the book of Jonah, you’d learn quite a bit about the heart of Jonah’s God, but very little about the heart of the man God has called as his prophet. Though the story of Jonah is likely well known to many who sit in pews listening to sermons this third week of Epiphany, the Sunday School version of Jonah’s story is generally truncated, omitting a key part of this story–that even after outwardly obeying the command of God to go and prophesy to the Ninevites, Jonah remains bitter and cynical and alone. He is unable to receive the salvation of Ninevah as good news, despite the fact that his very life depends upon a God of second chances. Jonah’s “no” to God and God’s grace in this story makes this little book of Scripture a tragedy, ultimately. Through it all, God is always and everywhere showing Godself as who and what the Hebrew Scriptures have said God is: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). With closed hands and a closed heart, Jonah’s fate is left to readers’ imaginations. Read more

Desert Silence

Second Sunday After Epiphany
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time


1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51 OR John 1: 35-42

I woke up this morning and looked out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight on the high desert of the Navajo Nation. It was much quieter than usual in town. It was, in fact, nearly silent, perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because it was Sunday morning, and many were still sleeping.

As the sun rose and the snow began to melt, sounds emerged: water dripping from the rooftop, the low grumble of a raven perched on a lamppost, the chattering of finches and sparrows. Were I back home in Baltimore, all that would have been lost in the background noise from the busy intersection nearby. The desert is blessed with the quiet necessary to notice these subtle changes. It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Prominent among my desert memories are sounds made audible by ambient silence: the wingbeats of a raven flying just overhead, the cheery cascade of notes from a canyon wren, the roar of a Colorado River rapid around the bend, still hidden from view.

Prayer comes naturally in such moments, or rather, I find myself already in an ongoing prayer I had only to notice. I’m not the first person to associate encounters with silence and encounters with God. A long line of witnesses sought God in desert silence: Abraham, Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist. Jesus went to “remote places” to pray and was “cast out into the desert” to be tested. When Constantine made Christianity safe within the Empire, those seeking a less domesticated encounter with God left the cities and became desert fathers and mothers.

Yet, even to me, much of that seems a bit off, counterintuitive. Read more

Learning to Forage

First Sunday After Epiphany
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 4:1-11
The trail descends from the pavement above, concrete giving way to packed mud, quartz, and shale, roots running here and there across the path. Below the trail, the ground slopes, settling into a creek that eventually flows to the Arkansas river. Throughout the late summer, and well into the fall, this slope would be pocked by the orange trumpets of chanterell mushrooms, fruiting from the unseen mycelium below the surface of the soil. On our weekly walks in the woods, my daughters would compete for the privlege of cutting them from their stems, collecting them in the cloth bags we’d brought for the purpose.

This was one of my family’s first attempts at foraging, going for the ready pickings of easily identified mushrooms that no one else seemed to be harvesting in our local urban woodland. There was something delightful about gathering food each week from the forrest floor, food that we’d done nothing to earn other than noticing its ripeness for the taking. My small exercise in gathering was a reminder both of the abundance of the world and of the reality that the best things available are not what we can buy, but what we can accept as gifts. Read more

The Next Step in the Churches

First Sunday After Christmas
Galatians 4:4-7
In these days following the joyous birth of Christ, we consider the world’s response and, in some cases, its terrible pushback. In many traditions, this week’s daily Bible readings focus on Stephen (Deacon and Martyr), John (Apostle and Exile), and The Holy Innocents (Martyrs).
Jesus’ entrance into the world provokes intense reactions. Read more

Cooperating with the God Who Acts

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:26-38

A few years ago I traveled to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. First impressions led to mixed reviews. The structure is imposing. Construction of the massive church surely kept the concrete company happy for a long while. Travelers pass scores of ornate Marian mosaics, gift from the faithful of many countries. The newer church is constructed over the ruins of an older Crusader church, so things get more interesting as you descend into the remains of the older structure. At the deepest point in the church, ancient cave dwellings are preserved–enlarged depressions and small caverns that once housed people and animals. In one of these dwellings, declared our guide, the angel came to Mary. Could this be the place? Read more

Bearers of Good News

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
John 1:6-8, 19-28

It’s an apology we’ve heard (and possibly uttered) so many times that it has become cliché: “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but….” Yet, while many hackneyed old chestnuts have at their heart some measure of truth, I think that this one, at least in the world where we currently live, rings false, insofar as it stands in stark contrast to the spirit of our time. The fact is, many people take a certain delight in being the bearers of bad news. We occupy a cultural and political climate that is positively rife with bad news, of innumerable varieties. From salacious narratives of men behaving badly to the often extravagant failures of individuals and institutions in power to a constant catalog of taboos and norms that those in power are stomping on with every passing day, there is no shortage of bad news to report. Read more

Time and Mortality

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40.1-11
As I sat down to read through the scriptures for this second Sunday of Advent, I noticed something in the text from Isaiah that I most assuredly missed every other time I had ever read this passage. For right after those tender words of comfort that Handel chose for his Messiah—and those stirring words about mountains and valleys that Martin had in his dream—are these words that startled me this week:

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40.6b-8, NRSV)

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