Mercy

It Can’t Come Soon Enough

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

In the undergraduate Christian Ethics course I teach just about every semester, we are talking this week about a notion many of my students seem to regard as quaint, if not downright archaic, namely sin. Among the more important points I have tried to highlight is one well-worn in many strands of Christian tradition; sin is self-destructive, in that it separates us from our true ultimate end and therefore from the possibility of genuine flourishing as women and men made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Insofar as it is self-destructive, moreover, sin is by and large its own punishment, for it entails forever restlessly seeking happiness in places it doesn’t exist, except as the palest simulacra, which are bound always to disappoint. Read more

planet earth

Loving the World

Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 3:14-21

Likely the most well known verse in the entire Bible is John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever should believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life (which is the way I memorized it in the King James version).

In the Texas Baptist life in which I grew up this was the essence of the gospel or as old Luther said a few centuries earlier, it’s the gospel in miniature. Along with the entire story of Nicodemus secretly coming to Jesus during the night and being told earlier in the conversation that he must be born again, this was our canon within the canon and it interpreted everything else. To this day in most Baptist churches in my part of the world I can stand up in the pulpit and say, “For God so loved” and the entire congregation will respond reciting the rest of the verse from memory.

Unfortunately, for most of us so formed by this understanding of the gospel, it has reinforced our Gnosticism. Read more

Words

Words

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
John 2:13-22
1 Corinthians 1:18-25

I have an almost two year-old friend, Azalea, who is stringing sentences together into increasingly complex stories. A most recent tale that Azalea tells involves Muppet, her cat, sitting in Azalea’s yogurt. Said story is followed by a big little-girl grin, not only because she gets tickled recounting it, but also because she has learned that she can evoke a similar response in other people. She looks for her audience to understand and react to what she says, and she delights in it. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of her conversation.

Although she can’t put words to the concept yet, Azalea is quickly learning that language is power. Words shape reality and emotion. Deployed well and with care, words are a means of grace that create and foster connection: making possible conversation, defining the contours of experience and feeling, offering the ability to acknowledge vulnerability, make commitments, name and address injustices, admit wrong and heal wounds.

Such is the power of words that the early church designated the 40 days of Lent as time necessary to prepare catechists to understand and respond to the words/questions that would be asked of them at their Easter baptism. Read more

turning the soil

Turning the Soil

Second Sunday of Lent

Mark 8:31-38

‘Tis a gift to be simple,
‘tis is a gift to be free,
‘tis a gift to come down
where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right,
‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.

–Shaker Hymn

Knees bent, ashes smudged on foreheads, letting go and taking up – the work of Lent is no less messy yet necessary than the work of a farmer in early spring, muck boots stuck in the mire of a melted grey snow, calloused hands reaching low to pull aside the mulch that blanketed the garden beds, spades and shovels and yes, even hands, turning the soil, loosening it after a winter freeze, not unlike the turning of Lent, the turning, turning, re-turning to the God we had covered with pretense and pride; the God we had covered with self-sufficiency only to discover that God would not be covered, but rather, it is we who are covered and it is we who must be uncovered and laid bare. It is we who must be tilled again so that the seed of faith can take root and lift it’s head through the soil toward the Light. It is we who must repent, who must turn.

Perhaps humility is the virtue of Lent. Read more

Kramskoi_Christ_dans_le_désert

Descent Into Life

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Having Descended to the Heart

Once you have grown used to the incessant
prayer the pulse insists upon, and once
that throbbing din grows less diverting

if undiminished, you’ll surely want
to look around—which is when you’ll likely
apprehend that you can’t see a thing.

Terror sometimes sports an up side, this time
serves as tender, hauling you to port.
What’s most apparent in the dark is how

the heart’s embrace, if manifestly
intermittent, is really quite
reliable, and very nearly bides

as if another sought to join you there.

-Scott Cairns, from Philokalia

I’ve often wondered what thoughts ran through Noah’s head as he stood at the door of the ark and prepared to disembark. When he surveyed the scene, did a holy expletive escape from his lips as he took in the devastation? As he took his first steps onto the dry ground, the din of animals and family in the background, was he overcome by the deafening silence of a planet whose slate had been wiped clean? Did the loneliness and isolation terrify him? What did he think of the God whose divine power and jealous anger had caused such chaos?

Alone in the wilderness, with only wild animals for company, it strikes me that Jesus, too, knew something about deafening silence and loneliness. Mark’s sparse storytelling doesn’t give us any of the details that Matthew or Luke’s gospels offer. There is no reported conversation with his adversary. There is no transport to the Temple mount. We are left to fill in the blanks for ourselves about the battle raging in Jesus’ head during those long days and nights. Read more

transfiguration

Transfigured in Him

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

“And he was transfigured before them.” – Mark 9:2

“I can’t explain the goings or the comings. You enter suddenly and I am nowhere again, inside the majesty.” – Rumi

Dazzling white clothes, Moses and Elijah, voices from clouds – I am guilty of having sometimes rushed past the transfiguration accounts for how inaccessible such an experience of Jesus seems to me. Perhaps it’s a story challenging to preach or teach, as it offers no tidy moral imperative, no clear implication for how to live in light of the disciples’ witness. Instead, the transfiguration account is fluent in mystery, begging us to place ourselves in the narrative and walk around inside of it – climb the mountain, see the glory, fumble out our own dumbstruck words laced with terror, and in the end, be brought back to the resurrection. Read more

Schwiegermutter_des_Petrus_Codex_Egberti

Contemplatives in Action

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:29-39

Scholars often speak of Mark’s gospel as a passion narrative with a long introduction. The readings for this week as well as the past couple of weeks are part of that introduction.

Last week’s gospel reading and the first part of this week’s reading cover just one day in the ministry of Jesus. In Mark’s typically laconic style, we learn in short order that Jesus calls two sets of brothers to be his first followers (1:16-20). They enter Capernaum on a Sabbath and “immediately” go to the synagogue.

There, Jesus teaches “with authority.” Though we don’t learn what he says, we do learn that he casts out a demon. This activity certainly serves to buttress Jesus’ authority. Moreover, we learn that “immediately” the news about him spread throughout Galilee (1:21-28). This is all before lunch. Read more

Duke Chapel

Only

Third Sunday After Epiphany
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Psalm 62
Mark 1:14-20

By Grace Hackney

My husband and I do not normally worship at Duke Chapel, but after the events of the previous week, we felt compelled to go last Sunday. We needed a “word” following the cancellation of the Muslim call to worship scheduled for the previous Friday from the top of the Chapel’s tower. It had been a challenging week, with this news following on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and resultant reactions.

With security guards sprinkled throughout the Chapel, Dean Luke Powery began worship by reading a pastoral letter regarding the recent week’s drama to the congregation. He promised that “the Chapel would seek opportunities for constructive dialogue about these complex and important subjects as we all strive for deeper understanding and greater faithfulness to God.”

It was the second week after The Epiphany, the day preceding Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Powery artfully wove together God’s call to young Samuel with King’s call to pour out his heart to God”– both of which would result in prophetic action. As Lowery reminded us, “prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclaiming.” Read more

Black

In the Dark

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139

It seems funny in the weeks following the dazzling brightness of Epiphany to reflect on/in darkness, but that’s where I’m headed. In part because it’s heavy in the text, but also because I’m hypersensitive to it. Something of a spiritual/emotional “darkness” has been hanging out with me as of late.*

Were it possible, I’d rather slam the door in the face of darkness than spend time with/in it when it knocks. I don’t think I’m alone in that. We as individuals and communities typically want to bring light (flash, night, or flood) and all it represents – understanding, goodness, clarity, often God – into both physical and metaphorical darkness.

Depending on circumstances, the absence of light can be uncomfortable or disorienting at best, and at worst isolating, despair-filled, panic-inducing and terrifying. As Barbara Brown-Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, “Darkness packs a different punch for different people” (13). Read more