I Hope I Never Forget:

“Anything that one imagines of God apart from Christ is only useless thinking and vain idolatry.”- Martin Luther

Monday, April 30, 2007


Editorial Note: I'm in a grumpy mood...pissy, even. Thought you ought to know up front.

It was the Wednesday evening of Holy Week. You’d think the season would have tempered my response, but it didn’t. The church sign should have made me sad, but it pissed me off, instead.

“He is Risen!” it read.

“How could that be,” I wondered “when he’s not even died, yet.”

Before the horror of Good Friday, before even the sadness of Maundy Thursday this group of believers had started Sunday’s celebration. That’s (not helpful), or I don't think so.

Now, the Wayward Saint's going to tell me that this is a bit grumpy. Fair enough. But I'm grumpy because people are being ripped off. Hear me out.

“And they lived happily ever after” could be the summation- the point- of every fairy tale. It’s everyone’s favorite part. But what would happen to the stories themselves, if all we told was the happy ending. What would become of their charm, integrity and power, if we reduced the telling to the resolution?

Imagine a child climbing onto her Grandpa’s knee.

“Tell me about Little Red Riding Hood,” she asks.
“They lived happily ever after.”

“Tell me the story of the three little Pigs”
“They lived happily ever after.”

“Hansel and Gretel”
“They lived happily ever after.”

Those stories just ain’t what they used to be. Not really worth the climb. Does Grandpa not have the time to tell them properly? Of course he does. Maybe he just knows better. That's got to be it. Apparently there’s the need to condense, to make efficient… to skip to the good parts.

Western Christians have long struggled with their attitude towards time. This isn't a "bible thing;" it’s a Western Thing. I’ve been told we learned this from Plato who contrasted the inferior changing realm of things with the unchanging and superior world of Ideas. St. Augustine wondered if anything other than the present even existed, and now we're taught to long for the day when “time shall be no more.”

But that’s wrong headed.

Time was God’s idea. He thought it up; he created it. He pronounced it good. In fact he took his jolly good time in the creating of each and every one of Chronos’ fellow creatures. Six days he labored, we’re told. Six days.

Then there’s that whole round about “Seth to Christ” thing- with innumerable digressions and plot twists. God took his own sweet time in shaping this world. He’s in no hurry to work out its redemption, either. Still working on that, in fact.

But this isn't because God is lackadaisical, rather he values the process. He loves a good story. He knows how to tell it well.

God's simply not sentimental.

Jeremy Begbie defines Sentimentality, in part, as skipping over the tension of a story in order to go directly to the happiness of the final resolution. Surely skipping Good Friday and beginning with Easter is bad story telling, but it’s cruel taunting, too.

It comforting to know that things will work out, that Sunday’s coming. But we need to learn the value of waiting- of living through Holy Saturday. That Sunday is, in fact, still to come. We need to learn the value and importance of Hope, because each of us wakes every morning in that in between time of Christ’s Easter vindication and our own personal glorification.

For you and me…we’re still waiting. Things aren’t how they ought to be- how they one day will be. Not yet. Not yet.

No where is this more clearly seen than in the themes that underpin the story of Holy Week: life and death. Today I read that an upcoming believer's funeral was to be celebratory and without sorrow. Sentimentalism, that...Hurtful, cruel taunting.

Certainly we are not to mourn like those without hope...but we are allowed to mourn. We are commanded to hope, which is to say that we are instructed to acknowledge with Bono that we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

But more than simply allowing us to concede the reality of where we find ourselves (and aren’t you glad our God knows that it is what it is), a proper understanding of Sister Time frees us to see the goodness of our waiting. Like a good tune- you can’t rush through it, you can’t skip to the end…not without ruining the song.

That in between stuff matters- to music and to our lives.

Fr. Begbie asks that if they marketed The Beatle’s Greatest Hits in an album that played the songs in half the time, would you buy it?

Apparently, many would. That makes me sad. The fact that the church is “selling” it- well, that still pisses me off.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Editorial Note: Time may make the context of this post unclear. It was written during the week of the horrific Va Tech shootings.

Her picture reminded me of my daughter.

There’s a clear resemblance and I was instantly drawn to the short description of this precious young lady. The account only made the connection stronger- she was openly Christian, home schooled, unusually innocent and sweet. Those who knew her thought she was likely praying for her attacker as he took her life.

Oh God. I could feel the tears forming. I’ve got that little girl living in my house.

Like every one else, I was saddened by the news of the Virginia Tech shootings. But this connection was powerful- both in its depth and speed. It was as if I were looking at my child’s picture- as if it was she who had been hurt.

She wasn’t, and I’m so thankful, but this precious, precious individual belongs to someone.

It’s different now. I can’t hear a news report without seeing her MySpace smile…and that of my daughter.

Someone’s child has died. Today has reminded me that someday mine will, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death, lately. It feels like we’ve had more than our share of medical stresses: Pancreatitis, CT Scans, Asthma, Neurological studies, Gallstones, MRI’s, EKG’s and multiple Ultrasounds all within the last six months. Those who have been praying know that this is just a partial list.

The latest and scariest were a couple of skin biopsies for my wife. The physician braced us for bad news. She believed it was melanoma. We’ve lost loved ones to that particular monster. When the doctor told us that we’d be back, it really scared us, because we knew that odd discoloration had been there for many, many years.

Turns out that everything is alright, but during those twelve days of waiting on the test results I did a lot of thinking. I pled for mercy and healing. I prayed and then prayed some more. The threat of death is ruthlessly clarifying.

I simply couldn’t imagine the world without Sandi living in it. Invariably, I began to review the reasons why…and this lead to thankfulness. What else is there to feel for a life filled with Sandi but thankfulness.

I’ve had years upon years of her blessing presence. The memories are thick and deep. I’ve been given so much already- so much, but it’s not enough. That’s not a self condemning sort of statement. I mean it. It’s the truth. There can simply never be enough time with the ones we love. But…and here’s the awful reality, one day it will be done. One day the sun will rise without them being there to feel its warmth. I may not loose my darling wife to cancer this year, but one day something will take her from me- or me from her. It’s certain. It’s certain….

Religion can put a hobby like coating on the truth it handles. It’s part of a day, but somehow disconnected to actual living. But here in the face of horrific truth as we find it, our faith comes to toil in the dirt of reality beside us.

Death is the great enemy. We can see it and feel it and hate it and fight it so concretely that it makes our belly hurt in the effort. There’s no stopping it. Not really. Not finally. There’s no where to hide from it. No sanctuary - not even in a place surrounded by youth and beautifully manicured grounds.

Damn death.

God damn it.

And that’s the answer. He did, and it had it coming.

For all my middle class sheltered American soft heartedness, I understand the hatred that comes with Monday’s violence. What happened was wrong. It was wrong.

I feel it so strongly that I can almost taste its metallic tang in my mouth. I see the face of the killer and I want to curse. I want to strike out…and I think this is right and good, as long as keep in mind who the real enemy is. Evil deserves to be denounced.

When I’m tempted to shrink back from the condemnation language of Good Friday, I’ll need to remember death coming for this little sister and the others it grabbed in Virginia before moving on to stalk down each and every one I love. I’ll hate it, as my God hates it, and I’ll be thankful for his wrath and I’ll ask him to show no mercy.

Surely, mercy to the little Christian sister I’ve never met- and will never get to meet in this age.

Mercy to me and my loved ones.

Mercy even to the tormented life that became death’s instrument this past Monday. But to the enemy that reached through the young killer’s hands, nothing but cursing. Nothing but destruction.

Thank God for the cross.

“Me, too, Lord,” I want to say.

I hate it, too. Make me hate it…all the time.

We can loose the earthy, bloody truth amidst all the pretty dresses, ducklings and eggs of Easter …even among all the “going to heaven when you die” talk. Death’s been kicked in the teeth. He’s been judged and found wanting and God’s kicked him in the teeth.

Glory to you, Lord Christ!

One day the toes that slid into those shoes for the last time early last Monday morning will wiggle in the grass again. I’ll be able to hold Dad’s hand- the very same hand that once baited my hook and wiped my nose. No matter how the enemy comes, my eyes will one day look into my beloved eyes... again.

Christ has risen. Against death’s befuddled objection, he’s risen.

It’s hard to get more real…more relevant than the fingers, smiles and hugs of those we love. We get those back. All of them.

That’s the ultimate relevancy of the gospel. We get them back.

Life would be unbearable, if it were not true.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I’ve been a failure lately. More so than usual, I mean.

I’ve been thinking about what it all means. The exceptional run of spiritual compromise over the last few days reminds me that deep down…I’m a really sorry bastard.

Emotionally it’s meant discouragement and disgust. That’s fair. Those are the appropriate and default responses to sin, but Fr Joseph Huneycutt reminds me that I should also find hope in the ugliness.

The realization that I struggle with X- whatever it is- is good news. It’s the best possible sign given my situation.

We don’t like struggles or conflict. We tend to view them as negative aspects of life- or at least I do. The tempting response, as Fr Joseph explains it, is either to try to dull out the experience with food, shopping, sex etc or to get out of the situation that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. We leave churches, marriages, and other relationships in order to find peace- at least peace for ourselves. We leave behind a lot of hurting and confused people. Sometimes the leaving is necessary, but often these options are simply selfish.

Commitment to the good demands that we are, well…committed to it. Often situations, especially those beyond our control, make that commitment something that must be worked for- something we must struggle to attain.

Struggle is precisely what faithfulness looks like in the lives of compromised and finite people who are committed to the good.

I say “compromised and finite” because every struggle involves the possibility- the inevitability, really- of failing somewhere along the way.

Our Father understands that.

One familiar response, which knowing God as Father should certainly rule out, is the fear of being cast away. We begin with his love. We begin with his forgiveness. He knows us and loves us anyway. Not because we deserve it, not because we no longer struggle and can guarantee our failure will never happen again. But simply because he’s our Father.

Neither Love nor Forgiveness is a goal we journey to attain; they’re the ground the journey takes place on.

My failures speak of me. Maybe, the fear of rejection that sometimes comes after sinning is because I don’t really believe that I’m all that sinful- not really. You know what I mean: the moment before the deed I was loveable, but now I’m not worthy of God’s attention.

Hmmm. The truth is I was never worthy.

Michael Yaconelli has called authentic Christian experience Messy Spirituality. That seems right to me. We’ve fallen to certain temptations in the past because we have a particular weakness for them. Satan’s not going to take them out of the rotation. He’s much too good a manager for that. They get the job done. So, it’s likely that we’ll be facing that same fast ball in the near future. There’s nothing to do but try to smack the thing.

Like every father cheering on his little league player, our God certainly hopes for a base hit, but the only thing he finds totally unacceptable is for us to refuse to leave the dugout.

I may hear the sickening smack of the ball in the catcher’s glove behind me. It certainly got by. Probably took my eye off the ball...again. Coach has warned me about that.

Fair enough.

But the smack isn’t all there is to hear. I need to be listening for the encouraging and enthusiastic “Good swing!” coming from the stands. I’ll be a better player for it.

Monday, April 16, 2007


I finally got around to seeing Ghost Rider Saturday. It had already made its way to the “cheap theatre.”

While this was great for my wallet, it had worked something of a toll on my expectations. The relatively quick pricing downgrade wasn’t the only negative precursor. Many of my friends- most of them huge Marvel fans- weren’t impressed. I heard its “feel” compared to that of Ang Lee’s Hulk. To my way of thinking this wasn’t a plus. “Lifeless,” they said, and no less than my second born’s impeccable taste (well, there was the Darkness Falls incident) found it lackluster. She didn’t like it.

I knew what they meant. There are certain movies that send you out cheering and energized. Others, Van Helsing comes to mind, just feel flat- regardless of the cool material. So I knew what to expect and it wasn’t much.

But…I had a good time.

It was no Blade Runner, but I thought Nicholas Cage made a fine Johnny Blaze. The special effects were well done and the story line involved marvelesque demonic characters. Mephistopheles, flaming skulls and explicit spiritual themes, what more could you want? Well, maybe a little more drama. It wasn’t exactly a nail biter, but ….Sam Elliot was in it. So there you go- a good time.

I’m pleased to report that I give it belated thumbs up. You ought to see it. It was fun and a natural spring board to all sorts of thoughts about true truth.

One of the most obvious of these was Johnny Blaze’s search for redemption. The story revolves around an ill advised transaction he made with the Devil. He traded his soul in exchange for the health of his dying father. These things never turn out well. Literary tradition is unanimous on that point, and it’s from the weariness of living with the fear of the “Monkey Paw” ramifications of this deal that the young man asks a friend if he believes in second chances- if one bad decision must haunt us for all eternity.

I was longing for someone to step up and speak Christ’s perspective, but no one did. No one could.

Sam Elliot’s character is also searching for redemption. He has the same problem as Johnny. What are the odds- same town and all? Anyway, his Faustian deal was motivated by simple greed. Compromised though he was, he was able to see the accelerating evil in what Satan had asked him to do. He chose to frustrate hell’s evolving plan- literally riding off in a God-ward direction.

Unaware of the forgiveness offered in Christ (this in spite of living on hallowed ground for the last century or so), Elliot’s character explained that he had spent his life trying to put things right and that he only hoped God gave second chances.

Scripture calls this turning from evil to the good, repentance, and Ghost Rider brought out the nobility of this holy rebellion. It occurred to me that the church’s telling of its story is not nearly as powerful as the one I was watching. Of course, the Christian story is more than its equal in everyway. So much so that it seems we’d have to go out of our way to mediocre it down.

Perhaps I tell it so poorly because I lack a real sense of conflict; maybe that’s because I forget the real nature of sin. Sin hurts. It dehumanizes. Sin destroys. In the most classical sense, sin is evil. It’s precisely not the way things are supposed to be.

We are those who have joined in the battle to set things aright. We oppose sin because it deserves to be opposed. Because, like the Care Taker in our film, we realize that what we are involved in ought to be stopped. We spend our lives trying to make things as they should be.

In contrast, when I think sin, I tend to think of broken rules, being excluded from a privileged inner circle and…well, the type of “in crowd” all of that implies. It's just not the same.

One narrative brings to mind epic sacrifice, camaraderie in battle, and an opponent worth having. The other reminds of snooty country club memberships, petty administrators and selfish misplaced motives. They don’t make a lot of “get into and then stay a member of the preppy country club” movies. There’s probably a reason for that.

The true story of Ghost Rider- the one you and I inhabit- begins differently from Marvel’s version. Unlike the two heroes in our film who fought evil because of or in spite of fear, we begin our battle in peace. We don’t have to hope for God’s forgiveness of our own participation in Hell’s corruptions. We’ve been granted it by God himself in our baptisms.

That’s what I thought the movie was missing. It spoke truthfully of repentance, the stakes of the battle, the ugliness of sin and the fear that such a vision brings with it. By the end of the movie Johnny Blaze had put Satan on notice that it was he who needed to be afraid, but this was more of a Testosterone surge than the verity of being on God’s side. It would have been much more convincing if God had shown up, placed his armored hand on Johnny’s shoulder and laughed down the old dragon.

The movie just needed an old fashioned Baptism.

Friday, April 13, 2007


My oldest daughter is graduating from high school this year. It’s unbelievable.

I don’t mean that in an “Oh, my gosh!” sort of way. I mean literally- it’s Unbelievable!

If I were being asked in a court of law-under oath- if its possible that enough time has past to change my darling little toddler into a beautiful and independent young woman, I’d say “No, way.”

But I’d be wrong. There she is.

….And my second born is graduating next year. Unbelievable!

One of the memories of Rachael that seem as recent as yesterday is of her strapped into her car seat and attentively watching the scenery go by- “Pacie,” of course, in hand. She’s always been fascinated with God’s world.

Invariably, especially in the summer, we’d hear an excited “Rat House!” We’d look over our shoulder to find her pointing out the window at a building in the early stages of construction. I don’t know where she got that- why she associated a framed house with rats. Maybe all the crisscrossing timbers reminded her of a huge nest. I’m not sure. I do know that I miss hearing her little voice pointing out the wonder of something uniquely new.

After a few weeks the paint would go on, the roof would be finished and we’d drive by without comment- just another beautiful and warm American dwelling.

The memory makes me think...about buildings and foundations, Daddy’s and their children and about what each of these journeys have to say to the liturgical path we travel each year.

Bright Week is coming to an end. The Feasts that lie ahead of me- Ascension Thursday and Whitsunday- each assume the foundation of Easter morning, but my attention will be directed to their wonderful lessons…and then I’ll move on to live in the house that Christ built.

It will be easy to forget the foundations. Thought I’d take one more look before the walls go up.

It seems odd, somehow, that we can cancel out forty days of heavy preparation with one week of bright revelry. It must be a very heavy concentration of brightness indeed to counterbalance all the darkness that Lent brings forward. And of course it is. All the days that cling indivisibly to Pascha are God’s judgment enacted…really enacted.

God’s Judgment. The phrase itself sounds heavy.

Even now as I’m writing this, it sounds a bit, well.... wrong.

Easter about judgment?

Judgment bright?

I see the judgment in Good Friday, but Easter… ?

It seems I want to play judgment against mercy- as if God’s verdict was by nature grim. What does that say about my concept of God? Judgment is really about choosing. When I say I don’t trust someone’s judgment, I mean that I’m unsure about the choices they make. Why would I think that all of God’s choices are naturally forbidding?

Some of my problem is in wanting to equate mercy with only a positive response and judgment with all the negative ones. But surely saying “No” to some things is the more merciful route. Think of cancer, loneliness or pain.

When God’s verdict comes down it means brightness to some options and darkness to others- all at the same time. When choosing between competing options, a “Yes” to one always implies a “No” to the other, and vise versa. You can’t choose, I mean really choose, one thing without rejecting another. Every spoken “Yes” is one half of a larger compound word: Yes-No. Every spoken “No” says “Yes” at the same time- if only silently.

I think I’ve contrasted the wrong things. Mercy isn’t opposed to Judgment. Rather Mercy is opposed to my death. God's judgment is mercy. His mercy is judgmental. There can be no Easter morning without Good Friday. One drags the other with it…unless our God equivocates. Unless he’s not quite sure what he wants…unless he refuses to really choose.

But thankfully our God does know what he’s about. He knows what and who he's for, and that someone is you and me, fully alive. This means, is another way of saying really, that he is against all that is opposed to us…all that drains the glory from the life we were meant to have and all that leaves us pale, limp and hurting.

The cross made audible His rejection of choices in opposition to His covenant love. Mercifully he didn’t scream His rejection- his judgment- at each individual who mocked the glory he had intended for them, but rather He spoke clearly to the King who represented those people. Ever loving, He played that part himself and muffled the necessary rejection through his own body.

On Easter morning our God laughed out a great “Yes!” to the life of our beloved King. The boringly familiar counterfeits of true power and glory- money, raw strength and selfish pleasure- each made a play for supremacy.

Both religious and political manifestations made the claim, “This is the way to godlikeness. This is the way of true humanity.” But in response God left each of those advocates in the sweltering misery of their lives… and eventual deaths, but to Him who took upon himself the form of a servant and was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, he gave eternal life. “That’s it. That’s what I’m for,” God vigorously declared in Christ's public vindication on Easter morning.

The Cross and Resurrection form one declaration- one judgment. Neither was possible without the other for each formed- each was, really- the other viewed from beneath. On Good Friday, our God spoke the "Yes”, which Easter so obviously declares. On Easter he whispered “No!” to the scandalous sin of Good Friday.

Judgment and choice, all of it. Mercy, all of it, too….because all of it for us.How different from the capricious vision of god that I often struggle with- a god who arbitrarily makes rules so that he can torture me eternally if and when I break one of them…and all for his own personal pleasure.

Good Friday and Easter tell of another God altogether- one who is by nature a Father. And His judgment- his choice- is for me. He wants only what any Father wants for his child. And who can stand in his way?

He hates all that would harm me, and has a heart so soft that he can’t bear for me to witness his dispatching of my enemies. He covers my eyes and does the deed, takes my face in his hands and says “No one will ever harm you.”

That’s the gospel. That’s our God. That’s where we must start to build his house.

Now, what sort of walls would best go up on such a foundation...

Saturday, April 7, 2007


It’s early. Everyone else (with the exception of Sandi, of course) is still asleep. It’s that odd day sandwiched between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter morning. Holy Saturday has arrived. And this year, it’s come with a hard freeze.

It seems appropriate, somehow. The bed feels so warm. It’s hard to get up; ought to just snuggle back in and…sleep… for a little while… longer. It’s as if our Lord has reached down through the weather and added his own personal ornament to this tree of celebration we call Holy Saturday. Our lord is dead- sleeping in a bed of stone. It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest, the last day of the week- the last day of existence for the old cursed creation. In the morning death will die, but she doesn’t know it yet. Already, the righteous poison is working its way through her system, but she is unaware.

There's a scene at the end of the movie HellBoy, which reminds me of what our God was up to on these three precious days over two thousand years ago. Hellboy is facing Behemoth, a huge demonic being. To look at them, the battle is hopeless. Behemoth is huge, and mean and powerful. Hellboy is all of these things, but not when scaled against his opponent. When they battle, our hero appears small and weak. Finally, the inevitable happens. Behemoth swallows the small opponent- not even needing to chew. That was yesterday- Good Friday. Death devoured our Savior and champion.

The beast belches in satisfaction- sitting back on its wormlike haunches, but for those who have ears to hear a high pitched whine can be heard. Hellboy has activated the grenades he strapped to his body before purposefully provoking the beast. For those who understand, things have just taken a drastic turn. That’s today- Holy Saturday. Death has taken He-who-has-life-within-Himself...He who is life itself, into its belly.

With sudden realization, a troubled expression passes for the shortest of moments across the “face” of the behemoth before the demon explodes from the very heart of its own belly. That will be tomorrow- Easter morning. Death's carcass will lie gaping and defeated for all creation to see.

The icon of the resurrection makes all of this perfectly clear. Christ is standing on the burst gates of death and hell- helping those who have been held in its grasp to their feet. He has descended into hell. He died as fully as any man or woman has ever died. His solidarity with us is complete. This, the incarnation made possible. God cannot die, but creatures can. Those who receive life as a gift can be forced to give it up. And so death made claim on this man- just as he does on every man and woman that Christ came to save. But this particular morsel was indivisibly and inseparably united to Life itself. Death had taken its own destruction into its own heart. Death was destroyed by death. That is the message of Holy Saturday. Our sorrow is not replaced. Our sorrow is transformed.

I need to get up and moving. Last night’s Good Friday Service is still heavy on my heart. We left him in the tomb. We left the darkened sanctuary sorrowful and silent.

It is what it is: Our Savior is among the dead.

But sometime, later in the morning my heart will begin to sing. An epiphany will begin to work its solace through my consciousness. Death has swallowed unending and unconquerable life. Damned death is surely damned.

It is what it is: Our savior is among the dead. Hallelujah!

Now, we just have to wait for the bang....

Friday, April 6, 2007


Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’
— John 19:1-5

Have you ever wondered why the soldiers chose a crown of thorns? After all, they could have constructed the crown from a number of other materials. Yet, the crown of thorns seems purposed, that is, it draws us back to the Genesis and the series of curses that resulted when our first parents fell. “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen 3:17-18). As Jesus begins to walk the path that leads to his death by crucifixion, we have a glimpse here of how he, the true guiltless Man, will take the curse, our curse upon Himself. The scene is shot through with irony—Pilate, the image of a false and corrupt “king,” presenting the true King as a helpless prisoner and eventually condemning Him to die. Likewise, we see Jesus, the Lord of creation, the perfect image of God, who unlike Adam and Eve, listened the voice of the Father in humble obedience even to the point of death on a Cross—this Jesus, Pilate proclaims is the true man (talk about meanings going beyond the intention of the author/speaker), and indeed He is—the icon of God who makes the invisible God visible, who opens blind eyes, softens hard hearts and who gives life to the dead. Yet, the One through whom all things were made and who, came to His own, finds His own in rebellion against Him. In fact, they even weave together a crown of thorns and dress Him in a purple robe to mock Him. What is our Lord’s response to this? Does He lash out and call down legions of angels to wipe out the rebels? No. The innocent, yet true King, crowned with signs of creation’s curse, stands silent and walks the path that was both His destiny and our blessing. Behold the Man!

Cynthia Nielsen is graduate student at the University of Dallas and an adjunct philosophy instructor at Eastfield College. Her interests include jazz guitar and Russian language and literature. She blogs at Per Caritatem. [HT: Alastair]


‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ Paul’s classic challenge to the wisdom of the world echoes down the centuries and confronts us once more as we come face to face once more with the great events which not only stand at the heart of our faith but are etched into our geography and architecture, as this great building makes clear. One of the paradoxical signs of the continuing and urgent relevance of the message and meaning of the cross is that it is once more under attack from several directions; and we who today declare that we will be true to our ordination vows, and who will this evening and tomorrow commemorate those high and holy, disturbing and decisive events in the story of Jesus himself, must take a deep breath, summon up our courage, and learn again what it means to discover the wisdom of God in what the world counts foolishness, the power of God in what the world counts weakness.

The first challenge comes from within, in the temptation to water down the message of the cross so that it becomes less offensive, more palatable to the ordinary sensible mind. We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have offered caricatures of the biblical theology of the cross. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit. This is what happens when people present over-simple stories, as the mediaeval church often did, followed by many since, with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire.

But once we’ve got rid of the caricature, we are ready to face the reality, the reality of the foolishness and weakness, but in fact the wisdom and the power, of the cross of Jesus Christ. When Paul declares, equally famously, that there is ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’, he doesn’t say ‘because after all God wasn’t into condemning things, there was never any question of his being wrathful or angry, that’s a barbaric old-fashioned myth’. No. At the heart of the complex explanation Paul gives in the next two verses for why there is no condemnation, we find this central statement in which we find the life and peace of the gospel itself: ‘For God has done what the law . . . could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin-offering, he condemned sin in the flesh.’ Precisely out of his fathomless love the creator God sent his own Son not simply to share in the mess and muddle of our human existence, but to take upon himself the task of being the place where God would pass judicial sentence upon sin itself, sin as a fact, sin as a deadly power, sin as the poisonous snake whose bite means death itself. Please note, Paul doesn’t say that God condemned Jesus Christ. He says that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. As the Archbishop of Canterbury says in his new book, ‘[Christ] becomes a sort of embodied image for what we are; and he takes on himself the curse that is laid on us.’ Now if you put that truth into other narratives – the story of an angry old man, the story of an offended mediaeval nobleman, the story of a judge imposing a heavy fine – and you will distort it. But to deny the truth because of the distortions is to cut out the heart because the patient is bleeding. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Face it: to deny God’s wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love. When God sees humans being enslaved – and do please go and see the film Amazing Grace as soon as you get the change – if God doesn’t hate it, he is not a loving God. (It was the sneering, sophisticated set who tried to make out that God didn’t get angry about that kind of thing, and whom Wilberforce opposed with the message that God really does hate slavery.) When God sees innocent people being bombed because of someone’s political agenda, if God doesn’t hate it, he isn’t a loving God. When God sees people lying and cheating and abusing one another, exploiting and grafting and preying on one another, if God were to say, ‘never mind, I love you all anyway’, he is neither good nor loving. The Bible doesn’t speak of a God of generalized benevolence. It speaks of the God who made the world and loves it so passionately that he must and does hate everything that distorts and defaces the world and particularly his human creatures. And the Bible doesn’t tell an abstract story about people running up a big debit balance in God’s bank and God suddenly, out of the blue, charging the whole lot to Jesus. The Bible tells a story about the creator God calling a people through whom he would put the world right, living with that covenant people even when they themselves went wrong, allowing them to become the place where the power of evil would do its worst, and preparing them all through for the moment when, like the composer finally stepping on stage to play the solo part, he would come and take upon himself, in the person of his Son, the pain and shame, yes, the horror and darkness, yes, but also, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in Paul and Acts and Hebrews and 1 Peter and Revelation, in Ignatius and Irenaeus and Augustine and Aquinas, in Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and Hooker, in Herbert and Donne and and Wesley and Watts – he would take upon himself the condemnation which, precisely because he loves us to the uttermost, he must pronounce over that deadly disease we call sin. To deny this, as some would do today as they have for hundreds of years, is to deny the depth and weight of sin and the deeper depth and heavier weight of God’s redeeming love. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

From the Maundy Thursday Sermon of the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

Thursday, April 5, 2007


Thankfully, many congregations are rediscovering the ancient practice of corporately remembering Christ’s gift of the Eucharist and his powerful enactment of love in the washing of his disciple’s feet. In the Western church this day has come to be known as Maundy Thursday. It is always the Thursday before Good Friday- “the night on which he was betrayed.”

Like the day which follows it, tonight is a time of “bright sadness.” The solemnity of tomorrow’s cruciform horrors begins tonight. For after his arrest and before his crucifixion, our Lord will spend the fullness of this evening and early morning hours being ridiculed, beaten, spat upon and mocked. He will not sleep or rest until Saturday, when death holds him in its chilly hands… and all for you and me.

For those whose congregations have either chosen not to take the time to mark these events or- hopefully, not considered the need - there’s no reason remembrance can’t be offered among your family. Even among those who will attend Maundy Thursday services this evening, it is a wonderful opportunity to shape your family- especially the children- in a “gospelward” direction. Children love play, and what is ritual but play directed toward a serious end.

I thought I’d share with you what our family plans to do this evening. If you find it helpful, perhaps you can incorporate some of it into your own family’s traditions.

Unlike the Western church, our Orthodox brothers and sisters begin Lent on a Sunday. They call it Forgiveness Sunday, and I envy them for it. We will incorporate some of their tradition into tonight’s family celebration. Each of us will bow before the other and ask to be forgiven for any and all wrongs and offences, which they have suffered from us. Husband against wife. Mother against daughter. Brother against sister; along with any friends who may be with us. We’ll look into each others eyes and beg forgiveness, and in many cases the request will be for very specific- if unspoken- sins.

For those who are interested, here is how we will actually “play.”

1. To get ready we’ll set up chairs across from our sofa- with enough room between chairs and sofa to allow a person to comfortably move around. There are eight of us, so we’ll need four chairs. We could use more, but the younger one's can sit on the floor. You’ll see what I mean if you give it a try. The first time I actually made paper markers to represent each member of the family and went through the rotation in minature, so that I would know how many stations were needed. We'll also use four bowls and at least four towels. If we wanted everyone to use their own towel, then of course we’d need eight.

2. We’ll gather together barefooted and I’ll remind them of the significance of the day.

3. One of us will read John 13:1-9, 12-15 and I’ll remind them of the need to follow our Lord’s example of humility, love and forgiveness- especially towards those with whom we live.

4. I’ll take my place at one edge of the sofa with the family forming a line out from me.

5. Sandi (my wife) will take a seat in the first chair (directly across from me). I’ll get on my knees before her, pour water over her bare feet and dry them with a towel. All the kids will be looking on.

6. Putting the towel aside, I’ll place both hands before me and touch my head to the ground between them.

7. Looking up I’ll say “Sister, please forgive me for all the offences and wrongs I have done to you”

8. She’ll reach down take me by the hands and help me to my feet. Looking me in the eyes, she’ll say “I forgive you.” and we’ll hug.

9. I’ll then sit down and she will do the same to me.

10. After we have asked and received forgiveness from each other she will take her seat beside me, and our eldest daughter will sit in the seat across from me.

11. We will repeat the process and she will then move to the seat across from where her mother is sitting.

12. Our next eldest will take the seat across from me. She and I will forgive each other while my eldest and her mother are doing the same.

13. When we are through, our eldest will sit beside my wife and her sister will move into the chair across from my wife.

14. The rotation will continue until everyone has asked and received the forgiveness of everyone else.

15. We will kneel and ask God to help us live according to our Savior’s example through the rest of the year.

The church’s calendar is a wonderful way to enter into the life of Christ. I hope you find a way to concretely make his life visible among and to your family. I'd love to hear the details of what that looks like.

The peace of the Lord be with you on this Holy Thursday.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


I’ve grown fond of describing myself as a “Mere Christian.” Makes me feel all “Lewisian,” I guess. That’s always a good thing…Lewis-ian. Not sure how to spell it, but you know what I mean.

N. T Wright has tempted me with Simple Christian, but this sounds to much like Simpleton, and it’s a tactical blunder to draw undue attention to one’s weaknesses. I’ll stick with Lewis’ designation.

By Mere Christian our dear brother meant to indicate the ground common to all Christians.

Nothing fancy.

Nothing extra.

Just “the stuff.”

It’s a sort of modern Vincentian Canon (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est- What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all); it has all the weaknesses and attractions of the same. On the plus side we have an acknowledgement and affirmation of the essentials- along with the history that formed them. On the negative side we have the ambiguity created by the sheer simplicity of “everywhere, always and all.”

Everywhere and always…really? And what about “all”- all of what?

Doesn’t seem very helpful; does it? But I think that St. Vincent was assuming presuppositions that we would tend to question. He knew what belief in a truly catholic church meant. He could point to one.

If we were asked to point at the catholic church, we’d end up indicating a body that is oxymoronically called Roman, yet universal. A part of the catholic church, for sure, but not the whole shebang. That’s a problem for the modern application of St. Vincent’s formula- and for Lewis’, as well.

So I thought it might be helpful to make explicit what I mean by the term “Mere Christian." In a nutshell, it seems important to me that we restore St. Vincent’s presuppositions. We need to know “where and by whom” the “always” has been believed.

The fullest measure of the radically least is fourfold. (Yeah, I know. I had to reread that a couple of times, too.) The recipe requires four ingredients. Here's how I figure it-

(1) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

(2) The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

(3) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself--Baptism and the Supper of the Lord--ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.

(4) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is that community which is entered into by baptism, fed and sustained by Christ in the Eucharist and committed to living the story attested to…by the bishops who trace their authority to Christ and his twelve apostles.

(Editorial note because my daughter says I'm confusing- Begin my part of imaginary conversation with irate reader here)

So there it is- Mere Christianity. No more and no less. I think you…

What was that?

I’m out of my freakin’ mind…now I wouldn’t say…

Sola what? Sola Scriptura?

Yeah, I believe in… What?

Scripture is the rule and ultimate standard of faith. I affirm that. I said th…

Wait, wait, wait.

This is the problem I was trying to get at in the beginning. Scripture isn’t enough. In fact, if we stick with scripture alone, then we end up without a bible. Let me come at it from another angle; hear me out.

Why does scripture matter?

Owe! Come on! I’m asking a serious question.

Why does it matter? Scripture is the final authority- the ultimate rule for faith and practice- because it is the authoritative depository of what God was up to in Christ.


It’s not important apart from its message. It’s not uniquely significant as an object. It’s foundational importance is found in what says. It does us no good, if it’s not read…and understood. Scripture doesn’t form the bedrock of our identity by…well, lying there and being bedrock; rather it tells us authoritatively what God was up to in Christ. Everything flows from this.

In the final analysis it matters because of what it says about the identity, life and mission of Jesus. It matters for the story it tells.

Now, what does it say about the identity, life and mission of Jesus? What story does it tell?

It’s been told different way, you know. That’s okay- within reason. The problem comes when the Christian gospel morphs into another story altogether.

Imagine you have me over to your house, the kids are playing in the floor at our feet and I offer, “Want to hear a story?”

“Yeah,” they respond as they gather around expectantly.

“This is the story of Little Red Riding Hood,” I begin. “It’s my favorite story. My daddy used to tell it to me and his daddy told it to him. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was little girl named Little Red Riding Hood. She loved grandmothers- with all of her heart…”

You smile and relax back into the sofa. This is nice. It reminds you of being small and listening to the same tale from your Father.

I continue, “She loved them boiled and fried. She loved them raw and pickled, but her favorite way of eating grandmothers was roasted with carrots and potatoes…”

You come forward in your seat. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“What are you telling them?”

“Little Red Riding Hood,” I answer.

“No, you’re not.”

“Sure I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Sure I am. I’ll prove it. This is the Story of Little Red Riding Hood. Once upon a time there was little girl named Little Red Riding Hood. She loved grandmothers- with all of her heart…”

“But simply calling it Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t make it Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a different story.”

I’m surprised at your arrogance. “Says who?” I ask. “There’s Little Red Riding Hood, there’s her Grandmother; if you’d let me finish you’d see that there is also that infuriating do-gooder “the big bad wolf. It’s all there.”

Maybe you can see my point. There’s all sorts of room for variations without compromising the fairy tale. Maybe you have the child carrying muffins in her basket, but I think that Grandmother prefers chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps you have Grandmother living to the West while I locate her in the South. I think Red Riding Hood has golden hair, but you know that it’s auburn. Plenty of room for variation while remaining the same story.

But there are certain lines you can’t cross without turning it into a different tale altogether. How many lines? Well there’s probably an infinite number of ways to switch it over. We humans have great imaginations. The only ones we know about for sure are the ones various yahoos have already tried. Little Red Riding Hood as cannibal, for example. That’s one way of telling a different story.

With the resurrection and ascension of Christ and the subsequent outpouring of His Spirit upon his people, the kingdom began to spread. The gospel, the spell (or story) of God began to go forth. It was told in Italy and Greece, Turkey and Spain. Eventually the “angels” in Britain heard its telling and the people of Egypt and India. The story. The one story.

But from the very beginning people began to tell it in such a way as to subvert it into another thing altogether. They used the same words- son of God, Jesus. They told the same plotlines, mostly, but they meant different things by them…they changed them at crucial points. And so St John had to warn against those who denied that Christ had come in the flesh. Different story, that.

How many ways are there of screwing up the narrative? We’ll probably never know. But we can know the ways it has been tried, and they usually consist of an almost infinite number of variations on four main themes. They deny that Jesus was truly God, perfectly man, distinctly both or indivisibly one person. Alerting us to these variations is the role of The Ecumenical Creeds of the church. They tell a story, but in need of fleshing out. They parade out the main plotlines without which the story would be deficient…perhaps, even other than that which was originally given. They mark the major digressions which the bent hearts of men and women have preferred to the gospel. They summarize, they preserve The Story itself by creating a fence around the truth. Inside, somewhere is truth. Out there, everywhere is error.

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” So says our source.

“He wasn’t exactly God, you know” offers a competing storyteller. He makes a pretty good case, too- from the source itself. After all, there’s only one God. Jesus prayed to him, and grew hungry, tired, afraid….dead. God doesn’t do any of those things. What St. John means is…"

Like I said, he makes a good case. The only problem is that it’s not the way those who walked and talked and died for Jesus told the story. That’s not the story they- and through them- we were given.

Notice the different elements in play:

(1) Two contradicting versions of Christ (two stories) both appealing to (2) the same source (the Bible)

Do you see that Mere Christianity involves both (a) an authoritative source (b) properly understood?

Which is the correct understanding? What is the standard? For those who take seriously Jesus’ claims, it is the story as he told it. Ah! And where are we to find that?

We find it among the people to whom it was first given. We need to learn and be formed by them- to become one of them. How is this done- what does faithfulness to the story of a God who eternally exists in community require here? Baptism and Communion answer this.

Adherence to Mere Christianity has so far required of us three elements: (a) the source (b) the truthful understanding of the source and (c) membership and communion with the people being formed by the source. Which brings us to the last (and most contentious point)

Where are they to be found?

This is particularly crucial. Do you see why? The other three points depend on this one. If we don’t know where they are, we (c) can’t learn and be formed by them. If we can’t learn and be formed by them, (b) we can’t be sure we understand the source properly; if we can’t be sure we understand the source properly, (a) we (and this is surprisingly not understood)…can’t be sure that we have the source at all.

Just as there’s always been many competing ways of telling the story, there has always been competing works claiming to be part of the source. The recent silliness in the media over the Gospel of Judas is a case in point. In the beginning- as still today- there were literally dozens of works considered by various individuals to be “source material.” Often these works made more obvious or explicit the “alternative storylines” the competing storytellers espoused.

Here's the point: There simply is no list within any of the books of the New Testament clarifying which books belong in the New Testament.

How do we know what is “source material” and so, what is not? We rely on those to whom they were originally given. Doug Wilson has rightly said that before we can come to Scripture, we must pass through a creed. We call this creed The Table of Contents. Or in other words: the problem with New-Testament-Only-Christians is that they are left without a New Testament.

So, how do we know where to find them? Where is the church found…for sure?

Perhaps it’s a more difficult question than you might think. There are many competing groups and “peoples.” Each baptizing. Each with its own version of the story.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for example, asks why the more popular version of the gospel is the right one. Why indeed? They believe the bible’s declaration that Christ is God’s only begotten son. They just don’t believe that he is “God of God, light of light, very God of very God.” They’ll dunk you and they also have a peculiar position on “source material.” Maybe they’re the real deal. How do you know? Are those of us living two thousand years from Christ’s earthly visit left to our own discretion and judgment about the truthfulness or falsehood of ancient things?

Thankfully, it’s not such a difficult question. We simply need to know where “they” are. How do we do it? The same way we locate any other group. Can you imagine asking “I wonder where congress is…the real congress, that is?”

“Well, Congress is over there.”

“But how do you know it is the real congress?”

“Because it received its authority- its authentication- from the congress that assembled before it, and they received theirs from the one before that….all the way back to the original institution. No reasonable person asks where it can find Congress, or the Presidency, or the county School Board. Likewise, no one need wonder where to find the church. While there are various individuals, parishes and institutions the church can be traced consistently back to the Apostles and their Lord through its shepherds.

This is why we find the martyr St Ignatius of Antioch writing in 110 AD “Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishops, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

It may be that we can “happen” upon the true source. We might get really lucky regarding its proper understanding. Then, if our luck and scholarship holds, we can identify the independent manifestation of the one true body. Maybe. But it would be disingenuous. You would be depending on the authority of the church’s continuity to arrive at a, b and c. before throwing them overboard in the sixteenth century. Seems a bit selective. We started in the air, built the ladder under us and then climbed down to survey the job. No one believes that. Something fishy is going on.

If we happened to get a, b and c right on our own and against all odds (though how would we know), we would leave those who came after us vulnerable and uncertain at each stage, because we went about it precisely backwards.

If we want to know with certainty where the church is, we simply need to follow her back to her Lord. Certainty, in regards to Mere Christianity requires- indeed, begins with- (d) the Historic Episcopate.

Being able to tell where the church is is an essential part of Mere Christianity; knowing for sure where it's not is dubious extra.