“Relevance or raison d’être?”

During the month of April 2021, a blog to which I sometimes contribute (theperennialgen.com) hosted a series of essays on the topic of “relevance.” The underlying context was “relevance” from the point of view of and in the experience of “women of a certain age.” I found myself walking right up to the topic multiple times, and backing away on every occasion. It wasn’t just the busy-ness of a semester’s “crunch time” that kept me from writing; there was a thick inertia every time the topic came onto my radar. As I’m writing this, it is May 1, and the PerennGen folks are ready to move on to the next topic, but I decided it was time to examine my reluctance to engage with this month’s theme. In the process of that analysis, I discovered two distinct motives underlying my hesitation over the topic of relevance.

The first and most easily identifiable is grief. I have been filled with the nagging dread that, at this stage of life’s journey, relevance is a lost possibility, a thing, like so many other aspects of youth and mid-life, to be grieved but never retrieved. A couple experiences in the past week were painfully revelatory. A few days ago, during a visit to the zoo on a chilly day, I was bundled inside my bright purple hoodie, which has these words printed on the back: “Read the Syllabus!!” (That’s a whole other topic to pursue!) Twice within the space of an hour, two random strangers, both zoo volunteers and both older than I by at least a decade, asked me the same question after reading the words on the hoodie: “Did you use to be a teacher?” The obvious assumption: this white-haired woman (never mind the purple streak in her coif!) was too old to be teaching now. On this same vacation, we’ve been in various coffee shops in a couple different college towns and it is depressingly obvious that the ever-younger baristas look pityingly and with limited tolerance upon the “oldsters” who don’t order at warp speed or pay with their mobile devices! 

I am enjoying many things about this stage of life and I have no desire to be one of those old poseurs, attempting with excruciating awkwardness to dress, speak, and act as if I were still thirty-something (or even forty-something). But in all honesty, these little moments of “age-ism” make relevance seem like an elusive and perhaps illusory target, and that seems like a loss to be grieved.

However, alongside this grief lies a different, deeper source of discomfort with the topic of relevance. Call it a theological or philosophical concern, but I wonder: when I ask if relevance is still possible at this stage of the game, am I asking the wrong question? (I intentionally express this in the first person singular, because it is my own personal musing, not a generalized reflection on any of my fellow travelers who wrote so beautifully on the topic last month.) I was hearing the question, “can I still be relevant at 59?”, as a very self-focused question. “Relevance” seemed to be code for feeling good about my supposed capacity to continue “connecting” with young people and within the confines of the current culture. Don’t get me wrong—as a missionary, I understand contextualization as an essential element of effective communication, but that is not synonymous with the conversation about relevance, at least in my perception. What if I were to refocus the question as something more kingdom-centered? What if ponderings on “relevance” gave way to serious engagement with my raison d’être at this stage of life? The capacity to live a “purpose-driven life” does not disappear when we leave mid-life behind, so staying prayerfully and intentionally in touch with that purpose should continue to shape my choices. My sense of personal purpose has always been best synthesized by Paul’s words to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2, NIV). Will I learn new ways to do this effectively? I hope so! I don’t want to drop the ball on effective, obedient disciple-making and teaching, because I am fully convinced that God did not drop his call on my life when I hit the big 5-0, nor will he do so when the looming 6-0 rolls around next year! 

Relevant? I have no idea if that is possible, nor whether it is even a worthy goal to pursue. A gospel-shaped, kingdom-building raison d’être? That is a purpose fully worthy of pursuit, and fruitfulness will far outweigh any incidental (or accidental) relevance that occurs along the way.

“A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small”

“A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small”

Dr. Rachel Coleman

March 4, 2021

The subtitle of my blog is “the intermittent musings of Dr. Nana.” As Nana, one of the biggest personal griefs during the pandemic has been the interminable stretches of time without being able to cuddle the grandkids and read bedtime stories to them. Determined not to lose that connection completely, I started recording stories for them, making sure they had a hard copy of the book so they could follow along. We’ve worked our way through Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and children’s poems, then started in on the shelf of books that were the favorites of their mommy and uncle so many years ago. That has brought me to our Dr. Seuss collection, specifically to the delightful Horton Hears a Who![1]

Because our grandson is a full-speed-ahead, high-energy four-year-old (you do the math for his attention span!), I decided to read the book in short installments. And here is where pandemic-induced communicative creativity paid an unexpected dividend. Reading Horton’s story in stages, with a “recap” at the beginning of each new segment, made me pay attention in a way I’d never done when reading to my kids. (Perhaps because underneath each line back then was the desperately whispered prayer, “Please, please, please, let them go to sleep after this one!”) I watched Horton’s character develop as the plot advanced—and I discovered, in his journey with and for “the Whos of Who-ville,” some food for thought, prayer, and action in my own pilgrimage.

First, it struck me how very clueless and unsuspecting Horton was at the beginning of the story. There he was, lounging “in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,” at ease and totally unprepared for any world-changing, paradigm-splintering occurrence. And yet, in the midst of his carefree relaxing, there was something about this apparently indolent elephant that made him open to the unexpected. That first faint cry for help did not go ignored; Horton stopped his splashing and turned his attention to the sound. And even though Horton had no intellectual category into which this new voice could fit (“I’ve never heard tell of a small speck of dust that is able to yell”), he was open to the reality of what was happening on that dust speck, despite it falling so far outside his own experience of life. That reality intersected with a fundamental conviction in Horton’s worldview, that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We’re not told how Horton arrived at such a gospel-shaped conviction, but it was enough—enough to engender compassion, enough to get him out of the pool, enough to launch Horton on a new path. Now there’s a Holy Spirit head-slap of the first order! Do my gospel-shaped and Scripture-informed convictions about the imago Dei in every human being produce a Horton-like response for the “Whos” of our day?

In installment #2, we see Horton galvanized by his encounter with the tiny, invisible inhabitants of the dust speck. He has been entrusted with a mission of partnership and protection, and he’s resolute in his commitment to that mission: “I can’t put it down. And I won’t!” As Horton learns to listen to the tiny voices arising from that dust speck, he also gives them a voice in his world, in his sphere of influence. He calls them to speak up, gives them a forum for doing so, and advocates for them in the midst of hostile nay-sayers. The tiny font of the Who-words on the pages of the story reflects a long history of frustration; no matter how loudly or how unitedly they shout, “we are here, we are here, we are here, we are here,” their story is not being heard by the “big” folks—the ones with power to change the perilous nature of their daily existence. Horton also proves to be a humble partner, continuously willing to learn more about the Who-experience, open to having his assumptions challenged: “You mean,” Horton gasped, “you have buildings there, too?” And the Holy Spirit sneaks in another jab! Am I offering my voice to the voiceless, whether those voices call from the womb or from prisons or from the barrios and forgotten neighborhoods of our cities? Am I willing to listen humbly, when my ignorance needs challenged and corrected?

By the time we get to that clover field—so daunting in its scope—Horton is invested for the long haul. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort and well-being on behalf of his tiny friends, spending every last drop of energy and hope in what seems like a hopeless endeavor. But Horton perseveres, until he finally locates the Who-ville clover on the three millionth try. His jubilant cry is, “My friends!” A relational change has happened—the Whos are no longer a “project” for Horton, but his friends. The development of that relationship has added a new layer of commitment to Horton’s mission, so when the Mayor of Who-ville asks if Horton will stick by them, his answer is ready and sure: “Of course! Of course I will stick. I’ll stick by you small folks through thin and through thick!” Little did he know how thin their security would grow and how thick the hostility against them—and against him, as their friend and advocate.

Through it all, Horton is gracious with those who scoff at his passion and scorn his mission, who deny the very existence of his friends, who seek to bind his activism and silence both his voice and theirs. He doesn’t vilify the kangaroo for not being “woke” or compassionate; he kindly suggests that “the kangaroos’ ears aren’t as strong, quite, as mine.” He doesn’t give up on his opponents’ capacity to change, nor does he allow himself to absorb their hatred and disdain. By not becoming like them, by refusing to play by their rules, Horton retains the capacity to be able to speak truth to them in ways that have the potential to transform both the opponents and the friends, both the oppressed and the oppressor. Such grace!

I don’t know what my grandson has gotten out of our story time episodes with Horton, but Nana has been blown away by this little story! What shall we read next??


[1] I’m aware of the current controversy swirling around the decision made by Theodore Geisel’s estate to pull some of his books from the market. This post is not going to weigh in on that, one way or the other; it is simply a personal reflection on how one of Dr. Seuss’s books continues to speak some hard truths into my life, no matter the flaws that may be present in Geisel’s larger body of work.

Just His Wounds

Dr. Rachel Coleman

One of the greatest gifts of teaching Bible courses to adult students from a wide range of backgrounds is the rich diversity of perspectives they bring to the text and the brilliantly keen insights that can jump off the page or screen as they engage with me, each other, and the course material. Most of my students are either undergraduate Bible majors or seminary students, so, despite their diverse contexts, they usually have a shared starting point in terms of their relationship with Scripture. However, occasionally I have the privilege of spending a few weeks with students in the helping professions as they take—often reluctantly—a Bible elective. Recently I made one of those pedagogical journeys with a group of twenty (mostly nurses and social workers), and it quickly became an intensely pastoral trek alongside people to whom life has handed staggering amounts of raw pain and loss. Several in the group were childhood church-goers who had drifted away from faith but were exploring a return, albeit with a fragile hesitancy. Others had intentionally turned away from both faith and the church, angry at a God they weren’t even sure existed—and if he did, they didn’t think they liked him very much.

One of this latter group was a young woman who had been wounded, deeply and needlessly, by an insensitive shepherd with some really bad theology, during a time when she was navigating a dark valley of grief. We’ll call her Jo. She impressed me from day one on two fronts, demonstrating both a fearless honesty about her journey away from faith and also a willingness to engage fully and thoroughly with the sacred texts of the Christianity that she had rejected. As we launched into the course, scriptural perspectives on suffering and disability, I knew that this was probably going to be the most challenging teaching assignment I’d had in a while. I also suspected that there were going to be some significant “aha!” moments along the way, not just for students but for me as well, as I had the chance to read the familiar texts through Jo’s eyes. I was not disappointed on either count!

Near the end of the course, the students spent a week in the Gospels. Any sustained and serious contemplation of Jesus—his life, deeds, words, death, and resurrection—has the potential to be powerfully transformative for the reader, and this was no exception. The discussion posts and papers revealed that these nurses—so overwhelmed right now by the suffering of others in combination with their own brokenness and pain—had been profoundly impacted by the portrait of Jesus’ own suffering in the Gospels. Jo, in particular, was captivated by the fact that Jesus continued to bear the scars of his suffering even after his resurrection—her latent hostility was, at least temporarily, disarmed by that truth. In my follow-up question to her initial discussion post that week, I sent her to John 20:24–39, the post-resurrection encounter between Thomas and Jesus. “What stands out to you in that story?”

Jo’s answer to that simple question was so profound it took my breath away. She wrote, “I noticed that Thomas wasn’t interested in seeing Jesus do another miracle. He just wanted to see his wounds.” Oh, my! She might not have approached the biblical text with eyes of faith, but she certainly had “eyes to see” in that moment.

“He just wanted to see his wounds.” What if that is exactly the heart-cry of the brokenness around us? The pain-wracked human beings who share our commutes and our workplaces and our communities and our homes—they just want to see his wounds! What might change in their lives if they caught a glimpse of those marks of amazing love? What if, at the key juncture of her life when Jo was suffocating in her grief and loss, that pastor had offered her a glimpse of the wounds of Jesus? How might the trajectory of her journey away from faith been halted and reversed? 

The scars that Jesus has chosen to bear throughout eternity on his resurrected body—they are signs that point to the depth and breadth of his love for us, demonstrations of the fullness of his identification with our human condition, marks of the price he paid to rescue us from our broken sinfulness and our crushing wounds (Isa. 53). As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is a High Priest who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (4:15, NLT). Because of that, we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God”—no matter our starting point, no matter our accumulation of pain and anger, no matter how pitifully small our faith—and there “we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (4:16).

For now, Jesus stands just on the other side of the veil between the seen and the unseen, between our present pain and our future hope, the victorious Lion who is also who is also the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:5–14). How will we offer glimpses of this glorious paradox to those who are longing just to see his wounds?

Two Years, Two “Words”

Two Years, Two “Words”

12/29/20

Well, it’s been a year! We are poised to turn the calendar to 2021, and I suspect that many of us will rip that December 2020 page off the books with unusual ferocity. The maelstrom of the past twelve months will be wadded up and perhaps stomped on, before being tossed—probably into the trash, rather than the recycle bin, because we are not interested in reusing and repurposing this one! However, if we stand at the turning of the year with our hands willingly offered into the loving grip of the One who wastes nothing, we can look ahead with trembling confidence to something greater than a merely recycled 2020—we can anticipate a restoration of “the years that the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25). And what a breathtaking possibility, when we remember that this great promise of restoration anticipated the extravagant outpouring of God’s Spirit on his people (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2).

In the past couple weeks, I have participated in intentional spiritual examen, a reflective inventory of the past year and attentive listening to the Spirit in preparation for the coming twelve months. A starting point for the “backward look” was consideration of my 2020 “word.” As 2019 was ending and 2020 about to begin, before any of us knew what was on the world’s horizon, the phrase the Spirit was pressing upon me was “dangerous surrender” (borrowed from the title of Kay Warren’s book). Just a few months into 2020, that sounded like a rather grandiose and perhaps unrealistic word for a season of restriction that seemed to be narrowing my horizons on every side, keeping me firmly hedged into a small, safe, no-boat-rocking space. But in this season of enforced immobility (when even my daily prayer walks have been curtailed by persistent ankle pain), surrender was indeed the persistent invitation from the Spirit. What made it “dangerous”? It was dangerous to autonomy—it’s costly to hand over control instead of tightly clinging to it. It was dangerous to expectations—it’s risky to let go of my designs for life and ministry, to allow them to be shaped by the will of Another. It was dangerous to stubborn, even arrogant certainties—it’s scary to exchange those secure little boxes for a humility that is willing to listen more than talk, to be corrected and confronted when necessary, to imagine possibilities of grace far more expansive than I had previously considered. So most of the danger loomed on the landscape of my inner being—but that didn’t make it any less daunting to face. And it was that inner work of surrender that laid the groundwork for the times when “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God” meant making public choices that were unpopular and perhaps risky.

Strangely enough, it is this journey of surrender that has been the necessary motor to propel me towards my 2021 “word.” The more my clenched fists, once clinging so tightly to certainties and securities, have opened and released, the more I have been able to extend empty, upturned hands toward the Lover of my soul. His returning grasp has been like a warm embrace that steadies and welcomes and infuses with courage. My “all to Jesus I surrender” has been met, over and over again, with a whispered affirmation, “Beloved.” That is my 2021 word, and I anticipate with joyful expectancy the exploration of that identity—not just as a cognitive truth to be recognized but as experiential reality to be received, delighted in, savored, and shared.

If you had a 2020 “word,” I’d love to hear your reflections upon how that shaped your experience of the year. And if the Lord has laid on your heart a “word” for 2021, it would be fun to hear that as well!

Inside the (Parentheses)

I seldom find myself too far out of reach of a book. There are books in my car, sometimes in my purse, on my nightstand, beside my “reading chair,” near the dining room table, and lining the walls of my office and the spare room and anywhere else we can fit a bookshelf. These books cover a range of genres and styles—fiction for the evenings when my “thinker” is exhausted (mostly classic detective stories and contemporary mysteries with make-me-laugh characters); theology, ethics, biblical interpretation (ancient, modern, and global, with a current interest in the book of Revelation), biography, and history, for when “the little grey cells” are all working relatively harmoniously and well.

One thing I’ve recently become attentive to in this varied literature is the way in which writers use parentheses. Parentheses are enclosing punctuation marks, visible separators, that set off a thought from the main sentence or paragraph. I notice that what is inside those orthographic marks can serve a variety of purposes for the writer. Sometimes the parenthetical expression offers an authorial commentary or qualifying perspective; other times it provides more detail to particularize a general statement (like my parentheses in the previous paragraph). In the biblical narratives, especially the Gospels, parenthetical remarks, whether punctuated as such or not in a particular translation, often provide the narrator’s comment to the reader or a bit of hermeneutical guidance (think of the Evangelist’s “let the reader understand,” Mark 13:14). In the case of my students’ papers, most of which are in the sadly inelegant APA style, a parenthesis is usually at the end of the sentence and contains (if it’s done correctly) proper bibliographic information for a source that has been cited. And sometimes, as my doctoral supervisor like to point out, parentheses contain extraneous information that ought to have been relegated to a footnote!

Here’s the thing about parentheses. If we lift them off the page and read the printed text without them, most of the time we’ll still have a pretty good idea of what the author is trying to say. Try it with the previous two paragraphs! But a well-crafted parenthetical word can be the very thing that flips the switch and illuminates the surrounding words, allowing us to make better sense of what comes before and after.

I think what has sparked this interest in parentheses is that on more than one occasion in recent days I have heard 2020 described as a parenthesis in the middle of “real life.” The sub-text of this analogy is usually disparaging—as in, 2020 is an excruciatingly long and painfully unnecessary accumulation of information, which we desperately wish to edit down to an easily ignored footnote. We want to grab the first clause of our experiential sentence (i.e., our pre-COVID “normal”) and join it seamlessly to the next clause (a return to that same “normal”), without the distraction, discomfort, and dis-ease contained in the 2020 parentheses. But what if our 2020 experiences—individual and collective—are not extraneous but incredibly valuable for making sense out of both our past and our future? What if how we live “inside the parentheses”—right here, right now—will determine the relationship between the first clause and the next? If we treat this time in the parenthesis as a giant pause button that stokes greater and greater impatience, then the likelihood is that our first clause (old “normal”) and our second clause (new “normal”) will simply be separated by a comma, in a relationship of apposition—each clause basically saying the same thing. But what if we choose to dwell purposefully inside this parentheses, attentive to its interpretive power in relationship to our past and its transformational potential in regards to our future? I wonder, in that case, if we might discover down the road that our first clause and our second clause can stand in glorious contrast to one another? Think of the grand Pauline oppositions: “You were once. . ., but now you are. . . .” (e.g., Eph. 2:1–4, 11–13; Col. 1:21–22).

For those of us in the church, we have just entered Advent. Our season of intentional waiting and examen overlaps in 2020 with the imposed “parentheses” of 2020. My prayer is that we will not live in either of these seasons (Advent, pandemic) like a child opening the daily Advent calendar with a singular goal in mind—let’s get to Christmas!—but with purposeful attentiveness to the voice of the Spirit as we wait. Advent does end at Christmas, and our COVID-created parentheses will also come to an end at some future point that we cannot yet see, and we will celebrate both of those glorious endings with joy and thanksgiving. But may the kind of living and reflecting we do “inside the parentheses” prepare us for participation in God’s “new thing” on the other side of the parenthesis. 

Beyond Labels

Three Christians and a Jew went to breakfast. . . No, it’s not the opening line of a bad joke. It is the description of a rich friendship that began in the swimming pool at the local Senior Citizens Center, with conversations about spiritual things, and that has endured over decades, among four people who cover the gamut of political, ideological, and religious perspectives. These twice-a-month breakfasts are times of spirited dialogue—and maybe the occasional desire to throw the scrambled eggs at another member of the quartet who’s just being stubbornly set in his or her ways! When breakfast is over, the four go home, probably with the same set of convictions they brought to the table—but they go home still friends. What has kept these four together, linked in amicable give-and-take, mutual respect, and deep concern for each other’s well-being, despite their differences? In large part, it is because they relate to each other as persons, not as categories. They are simply George, Jane, John, and Dave (names changed to protect their privacy). They don’t see each other as labels (red/blue, right/left, liberal/conservative, Christian/Jew), but as human beings made in the image of God. They are genuinely interested in each other, willing to listen to each other and to laugh together and at themselves.

Contrast this with an interview I heard this morning. The interviewee consistently labeled the interviewer (“well, you’re this color, I’m that color”), interrupted and talked over the questions, and made sweeping assumptions about the other person’s character and views. On one side of this non-dialogue was an assessment of the other as a category, rather than a person, and, because he represented a category non grata, that assessment resulted in a seething hostility, which in turn gave permission for the rude dismissal of the the interviewer as persona non grata. And although the interviewer was doing an admirable job of maintaining at least a semblance of neutrality as he attempted to give listeners the chance to understand the interviewee’s ideas and ideals, the persistent vitriol took a toll, and by the end of the “interview,” his own biases and depersonalizing categorizations were also peeking through. If time had not run out, I suspect this would have become a full-on label-throwing match. (And no, you probably have never heard of this particular interviewee, no matter what assumptions you may have made as you read this paragraph!)

Let’s be honest now—if we take a hard look at the conversations and interactions we have with friends who don’t think or believe or vote like us (if we still have friends like that!), which example do they resemble? The rich interchange of ideas among passionately diverse friends, who see each other first and foremost as human beings bearing the imago Dei? Or the vituperative launching of words like weapons against a non-person who is simply the face of a despised category? Has our vision become so narrow that we can only spot the categorization affixed like a damning label on our the other person’s forehead, effectively hedging out a big-picture glimpse of his humanity, of her identity as beloved child of God?

Labels are helpful things—in the laundry room or the supermarket. It’s important to know what kind of fibers are in that new sweater before I wash it, and it’s important to know the sodium content of a new cereal before I offer it to my blood-pressure-challenged husband. But those labels tell me nothing about how that sweater will fit, or about how that cereal will taste. I have to explore and experience that for myself. And in the context of human relationships, labeling prevents the exploration and experience of rich dialogue and friendship with people who aren’t mirror images of ourselves. Labeling becomes an easy way out of the challenging conversations, the ones that will force me to think more clearly and accurately about my own convictions and consider with humility and compassion the convictions of others.

Labeling was a significant factor in the controversies recorded in the Gospels. What was the number one complaint against Jesus? He ate with “those people”—tax collectors and sinners. For the religious leaders of the day, these folks were nameless, faceless representatives of a despised category and therefore unworthy of a second glance; for Jesus, they were persons bearing the image of his Father, men and women with whom he was delighted to eat, talk and laugh, with whom he shared extravagant gifts of forgiveness and compassion and, yes, challenge.

I don’t know about you, but I am longing to sit around a table like that! I think the four friends’ breakfast gatherings come pretty close. The question, then, is: what am I going to do about it? What steps can I take in that direction, to leave the labels behind and to look intentionally and gratefully at the beautifully diverse and compelling image of God in the faces of those who are so different from me? Let me know what your next steps are, and I’ll keep you posted on mine!

Embracing Mystery, Cultivating Silence

There are seasons in life when multiple threads from seemingly unconnected sources weave together to form a multi-hued, richly textured tapestry that wraps around a single recurring theme. Over the course of the past six months, that much-pondered theme in my life has been the nature of worship.[1] The interwoven threads have come from sources as diverse as the pandemic and its disruption of traditional worship practices, the Lenten season with its call to lament and repentance, teaching a course on the Psalms, returning to the discipline of fasting, joining with a global community in sustained prayer for renewal and awakening, dipping into the writings of the 17th-century mystics, getting acquainted with the music of artists who are not represented in the small repertoire of songs that cycle on Christian radio, and, of course, watching and listening as Christian communities respond to delays in “getting back to normal” in corporate worship practices.

All those diverse threads have woven together to create a tapestry of worship whose hues are deeper and richer than what has characterized my four decades of “doing church.” Three verbs are the thickest strands in the new fabric of worship that is emerging from the loom of this season—abide, yearn, and listen. More than actions, they are postures taken in the presence of the Holy One. More than the songs and prayers and liturgies of weekly worship services, they are the daily orientation that prepares me to enter properly into those acts with my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially participation in the Lord’s Table. And the necessary incubator of abiding, yearning, and listening is SILENCE. The frenzied flow of my words and thoughts—even my words directed to God—must give way to an expectant, holy silence that allows the great Communicator to speak through his Word and his Spirit.

It’s probably because of this journey into an abiding, yearning, listening silence that I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a phrase heard repeatedly these days, as folks clamor for a return to “normal” in corporate worship. It’s a bit of “Christian-ese” that has always been like fingernails on a chalkboard to me: “I need to get my worship on.” There’s a lot that could be said about that expression (another post for another day!), but in this season it grates and rubs forcefully with its revelation of a fundamentally self-focused understanding of worship. “My worship” suggests that worship is my possession, existing for my benefit; “get it on” implies that I can take it on and off like a piece of clothing. And it is a phrase almost always said in conjunction with a single activity, singing—and, of course, singing whatever style of music is my favorite.

But oh, dear friends, worship is most decidedly not about me—or even about us! It is about God. And what if our clamor for the old sights and sounds and forms of worship might hinder us from discovering, in the silence and the mystery, what God really desires when we gather together? Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 offers a sharp caution: “Watch your step when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn. That’s far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, doing more harm than good. Don’t shoot off your mouth, or speak before you think. Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear. God’s in charge, not you—the less you speak, the better” (MSG).  Walter Brueggemann, with his usual incisive and insightful reflections, notes that the writer of Ecclesiastes understands “the awesome transcendence of God, before whom reverence and awe constitute proper conduct. He chides ‘fools’ who run off at the mouth and who imagine, even in worship, that they are the center of attention. ‘Many cases’ and ‘many words,’ that is, much self-expression, leads to the trivialization of worship. Better to listen, to pay attention, to be instructed, because no one is beyond more instruction. Those who in worship have made up their minds too completely may miss out on the gifts yet to be given in the mystery of God.”[2]

What might happen in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, if we came together eager to embrace the mystery of the One who cannot be explained? What if we cultivated, on our own and in our togetherness, a silence of holy expectation, in which any human words spoken or sung were simply responses to the whispers of the Spirit? What if?? I wonder. . .


[1] See these musings from way back in April: https://writepraylove660813036.wordpress.com/2020/04/14/worship-cancelled/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Gift and Task: A Year of Daily Readings and Reflections (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 202.

“I Love to Tell THE Story”

 As I write these words, I can look to my left and see a snarky little wall hanging that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar” (my kids say the silent part isn’t quite true). What can I say? Grammar matters! So, let’s have a little trip down Grammar Lane, stopping to visit Nouns and Adjectives, along the way to something that matters much more deeply and urgently than grammar.

grammar 2

Let me illustrate. If I turn my gaze from that wall hanging to contemplate the other walls in my office, I see a large collection of books. There is a lot of variety in that library, both visible and invisible, and that’s where the adjectives come in. Adjectives are words that describe or specify or limit, so I could tell you about the different visible characteristics of the books: big or small, thick or thin, blue or green or red, paperback or hardback. Adjectives also provide descriptions of the internal characteristics and content of individual books: English or Spanish or German, theological or linguistic, academic or popular. But there is a single noun operative in this collection: BOOK. The essential identity of each volume in my library is its “book-ness.”

library

The noun matters. And it matters that followers of Jesus determine clearly and definitively what their noun is, the category of their essential identity—is it Christian, or is it something else? Are we going to be Christians first and foremost, with all other descriptors falling into the adjectival role? Those secondary categories can be national (American, Ecuadorian, Korean Christians), racial (black, white, brown Christians), or political and ideological (progressive, liberal, evangelical, or conservative Christians, Republican or Democratic Christians). No matter which of these adjectives attempts to usurp the place of the noun, will we make the conscious choice to keep them in their place? Will our identity “in Christ” (to use the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrase) remain the noun, the primary and fundamental essence of who we are? Or will we allow one of those secondary loyalties to become the nominative expression of our essential identity, so that we are merely “Christian _________”? That is a tragically impoverished and distorted understanding of who Christ died for us to be, no matter how you fill in the blank.

The noun matters. And each noun comes with an accompanying narrative, a story about how the world works, about what the human dilemma is and the nature of the solution, about how that solution comes about and who is able to benefit from it. The story of whichever noun defines us inevitably shapes our values and the way we think and act and choose and categorize and make sense of the challenges, opportunities, and possibilities of life. For those of us in the United States, two of those competing narratives have been on blatant display in the past couple weeks—and make no mistake, neither of them looks like the biblical story or embodies the values of the kingdom of God.[1] The narrative of the God who relentlessly and sacrificially pursues the restoration of broken relationship with humanity, who grieves over his people’s sin, who sends his own Son to conquer the deathly effects of that sin, whose faithful promise is “behold, I am making all things new”—this story stands apart from all other meaning-making stories, with a power that critiques and corrects them and offers to reshapes them in redemptive ways.

My heart yearns in daily anguish over the widespread incursion of other narratives into the life of the church, the tragic elevation of secondary loyalties into the nominative role in believers’ identities. I confess that faith has struggled mightily to overcome despair in the face of these realities. During a recent prayer walk, which felt like a journey of lament and brokenness, the Holy Spirit whispered to me very clearly: “Just keep telling the story. Keep telling THE story.” Honoring that call will mean, for me, limiting the input of the other stories into my life, so that I can hear more clearly and love more deeply and live more consistently aligned with THE story. Christian is my noun; all the other identity-defining possibilities are merely adjectives, some of which may need to be shed along the way so that I can hear and tell, over and over again, “the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”

[1] For a closer look at this point, I encourage you to check out: https://andcampaign.org/where-we-stand

 

Choice

(This is dedicated to the gifted musicians who have jump-started the beautiful #TakeTwoKnees movement. God used your courage and integrity to make the first cracks in my own paralysis. Thank you.)

taketwoknees

“The Gentle Healer came into our town today,” repeating on a loop. No! Spirit recoils, mind reels. Sentimentality and soft melodies rasp, fingernails on slate. A different Healer strides into our town today. Nail-scarred hands—brown hands—outstretched, to heal and hammer and break and mend.

nail-scarred-hand-edward-ruth

Authoritative footsteps, firm tread. He stops before our paralysis, reaches down, pulls us to our feet. Paralysis just won’t do! Sharp command—pick up your mats of fear and confusion and helplessness and ignorance. Choice. Roll them up, toss them aside—in the dumpster, no retrieval—and walk! March!

Holy spit in the dirt of our unholy mess. Holy mud, smeared across blind eyes. “Go and wash!” Choice. Only those who know they are blind get sent, get healed, get commissioned to speak truth to blind power.

Divine fingers probe our deaf ears. Unhearing, numbed by cacophonous lies, deadened by insidious complacency. He pulls out twisted wads of ugliness that plugged our ears, holds them out to us. They lie dully alongside the cicatrices on his palms. He asks if we want them back. Choice.

He commands our mute lips to speak—to wail, lament, roar. Choice. Refuse to speak at his command, with his voice? Our endless words will continue to be unintelligible noise, meaningless hum.

In his presence we finally acknowledge that our “little bleeding problem” is a gushing sin hemorrhage.  Denied for too long in silence, it consumes with voracious, insatiable force. We reach out tentative, trembling hands to touch the hem of his garment. His stern gaze whips around, challenging our timidity. “What took you so long?” Challenge, then commission. “Go in peace.” Choice. Be shalom, be the blessed peacemakers, rightly called children of God.

He strides into the places where Legion has run rampant. Corroded minds, shrill deceit, shackled spirits. Cemetery dwellers. He restores us to our right mind and sends us out to proclaim mercy. Choice. Right-minded, to love mercy—mercy received and mercy given. Right-minded, to do justice—in the places where justice has been absent or scarce or twisted beyond recognition. Right-minded, to walk humbly with our God. Humility, justice, mercy—the Healer has been here.

Blazing eyes, sternly compassionate mien. He turns full circle in the city square, no corner left unpenetrated by piercing gaze. Every pretense of righteousness stripped bare. Choice. Scramble to re-clothe in dirty rags of silken privilege? Acknowledge shameful nakedness and welcome pristine linen from his hand?

The Healer has come to us. No coddling. No gentle sentimentality. Pentecost blaze, refiner’s fire. Extirpating scalpel, radical intervention. Choice.