I occasionally serve as the liturgist in our Sunday services, which mostly means leading the congregation in a call to worship or opening prayer and then reading the first Scripture passage. I’ve warned my pastor husband that this assignment can have the unintended result that I miss most of his sermon, because often something in the Scripture comes alive in the public reading and captures my imagination and attention to such a degree that the rest of the service flows on around me for a while as the Spirit opens up the Word just read.
This happened today with the story of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:8–23. There is a wealth of vibrant, challenging truth in this dramatic narrative, most notably Elisha’s capacity to see clearly through the thin veil that separates visible earthly reality from the simultaneous but usually unseen celestial reality. When his servant cowers fearfully before the massive army that has been sent from the king of Aram to do away with the pesky prophet, Elisha tells him, “Don’t be afraid, for those who are with us outnumber those who are with them” (v. 16, HCSB). Then the prophet prays for his servant’s eyes to be opened. “So the Lord open the servant’s eyes, and he saw that the mountain was covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17). There’s plenty of sermon fodder and spiritual challenge just in those two verses! And of course, there are other truths that are also present in this passage—the sovereignty of God, the power of prayer, the care of God for his people, the capacity of a faithful prophet of God to stir up so much trouble that he gets on a royal hit list!
What stood out to me this time, however, as I was reading this passage out loud in the company of the saints, was the question posed to Elisha by the king of Israel. There’s been an almost comical series of sight-blindness episodes, occurring one after the other in rapid succession, each in response to Elisha’s prayers. The servant’s eyes are opened to see the reality of God’s blazing forces of protection around Elisha (v. 17). Then the Aramean forces are struck with blindness—they neither see the celestial forces nor recognize Elisha when he comes to them (v. 18). Elisha leads them to Samaria, Israel’s capital city, and asks God to restore their sight (v. 20). You can imagine their eyes bugging out in fright as they realize where they are—smack in the middle of enemy territory! The king of Israel’s eyes probably got pretty wide at that point, too, and the question pops out of his mouth, directed to Elisha: “Should I kill them, should I kill them, my father?” (v. 21). Or, as the NRSV and the KJV put it, “Shall I smite them?” It’s not always easy to detect the tone of voice in which words are spoken in the biblical text, but I suspect that this question was laced with glee and hand-on-sword anticipation of an affirmative response from the prophet.
The king’s first response to discovering his enemies within his own stronghold is violence—but at least he had the good sense to ask Elisha before acting on his impulse. The prophet’s response is both correction and instruction: “Don’t kill them. Do you kill those you have captured with your sword or your bow? Set food and water in front of them so they can eat and drink and go to their master” (v. 22). Elisha was well aware that the security of Israel did not rest in the annihilation of this trembling troop of Arameans, but in the sovereign activity of God on Israel’s behalf. The gracious act of feeding these enemies and sending them home is followed up with the narrator’s comment: “The Aramean raiders did not come into Israel’s land again” (v. 23). Sub-text: God had taken care of the problem.
As I took my seat after reading those words, I was struck by the contemporary relevance of the Q&A between the king of Israel and the prophet. We live in a time when it is increasingly difficult to see the world as anything other than an “us vs. them” game, with polarized opposites glaring at each other from each end of whatever spectrum we contemplate—political, religious, theological, cultural. Whether we are “Israel” or “Aram,” we are quick to recognize our enemies and, should the opportunity arise for “smiting” them, there’s little hesitation about doing so. If one of those “other guys” sneaks into our stronghold, it seems our first, gleeful response (whether overtly expressed or not) is to ask the Lord, “Shall we smite them?” Whether it is with words, posts, memes, or acts of injustice, we rationalize violence against these enemies precisely because they are enemies. We seem to think that our choice to “smite” the adversary is somehow a necessary and welcome contribution to God’s own agenda for justice. Elisha’s counsel to the king of Israel was radically different: “Offer them hospitality, grace, and compassion. Treat them as what they are—persons created in the image of God. Behave toward them in a way that reflects the character of the One you name as Lord. Send them out from your midst unharmed.” This is indeed the Word of God for the people of God! Thanks be to God!
Sometimes, when you happen to be a bit stubborn (I hear echoes of my father’s voice from my youth using the colorful and perhaps more accurate descriptor, “bull-headed”), the Spirit has to bombard you with the same message from multiple angles. Last week I wrote a post about Sarah’s faith—but it was a fairly “safe” reflection, ensconced in the realm of theory without any real risk. Later the same day, I found myself seated in a Fort Wayne mega-church while the Lord was drawing together various threads from the past several weeks and inviting me into Sarah-like faith as an experiential adventure, not a theory. Those threads that the Spirit had been weaving together into an invitation were a pesky sermon illustration, old journals, and a concert.
I think it was the first week in the sermon series on Hebrews 11 that my pastor-husband told a memorable (and probably apocryphal) story about a tightrope walker, a wheelbarrow, and Niagara Falls. It went something like this. A famous and intrepid tightrope performer had just crossed Niagara Falls—while pushing a wheelbarrow! Then he did it again, finishing up at his starting point, where he was greeted by the exuberant promoter of this amazing exhibition. The wily performer interrupted the promoter’s applause and cheers with a penetrating question. “Sir, do you believe that I can cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope while pushing a wheelbarrow?” The man responded, “Well, of course I believe that! I just watched you do it.” Twice more the acrobat insisted, and both times the promoter repeated his seeing-is-believing faith in the performer’s ability. “Well, then,” declared the tightrope walker, “if you believe that, get in the wheelbarrow and I’ll do it again!” Despite the laughter the story generated in the moment, it became an instrument of the Spirit’s tenacious invitation over the next couple weeks—would I get in the wheelbarrow and let Jesus push it across the chasm of uncertainty and unknown risks?
That sermon illustration dropped right into an ongoing summer exercise, a slow review of a lifetime of journals. I have always thought more clearly and prayed more effectively with pen in hand, so journaling has been a key part of my spiritual life. I have a couple plastic storage bins full of those books and notebooks, which have been lugged from continent to continent and state to state in our many moves. When I turned 60 a few months ago, it seemed like a good time to read back over nearly four decades of life through the lens of those musings and memories. The first thing I noticed is how frail human memory is—there were events and encounters recorded in those writings that had completely disappeared from my conscious memory! Some of them made me laugh out loud, happy to have retrieved the lost joy of those moments. Some were painful—so painful that the loss of memory was probably a defense mechanism. But the number one thing that has impacted me about this still-in-progress exercise (I’ve made it as far as 2003), is the incredible faithfulness of God. Time after time, the God who called us also led us; the One who saved us was also constantly conforming us to his image; the Lord who asked us to abandon all other sources of security also provided and protected, in ways large and small.
A painful realization dawned as I looked back over those years—I used to live out of “wheelbarrow faith.” I used to be seated in that wobbly contraption, with my eyes fixed not on the chasm beneath but on the One who was pushing the wheelbarrow across the raging waters and deep ravines. In recent years, however, I think I’ve gotten out of the cart to sit comfortably on the platform with “spectator faith.” And it seems that the Spirit has only so much tolerance for faith from the sidelines! As we find ourselves in a season replete with uncertainties and unknowns, the insistent (dare I say, intrusive?) voice of the Spirit comes to me not principally with comfort, but with challenge. Will I get back in the wheelbarrow??
In the Spirit’s own gracious way, the challenge came with a lovely helping of compassionate provision. As we gathered with friends in Fort Wayne last Friday, a group that I’d never heard before let loose with heaven-sent harmonies, lifting song after song about God’s faithfulness in the midst of impossibilities, losses, and unexpected “detours” on life’s road. Weeks of reflection and sometimes reluctant prayer become worship. On the sidelines no more! No more standing with feet safely glued to the platform! Into the wheelbarrow with the One who is able to keep me from falling and to bring me joyously into his presence without fault (Jude 1:24).
We’ve been doing a sermon series this summer on Hebrews 11, the great “gallery of faith” that rehearses the exemplary stories of Old Testament heroes and heroines. For the past couple weeks I’ve been parked in verse 11, which sums up Sarah’s story: “By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful” (HCSB).
Two things about this verse drew me in for deeper reflection. The first was the very fact of Sarah’s inclusion in this list of faith heroes. It is impressive that this writer was boldly disposed to include women (Rahab, v. 31; a whole collection of unnamed women, v. 35) in a “hero list.” Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a writer so obviously steeped in the Old Testament would include Sarah—after all, she is named more than 40 times in Genesis 12–23, commonly known as “the Abraham narrative.” What an encouraging word that is to women of faith everywhere—and what a challenge to those who would keep those women side-lined and silenced.
The second thing that drew me in was the story that lies behind Sarah’s inclusion in the gallery of faith exemplars. As I spent time reading through those chapters in Genesis, it struck me how real her story is. At every turn, we encounter a woman who is clearly in need of both God’s merciful rescue and God’s redeeming grace—and the God of mercy and grace is persistently present for her and active on her behalf.
Sarah experienced a complex web of challenges. She was childless, a condition that produced deep shame and repeated disappointment in her present and the threat of insecurity in her future, when she might be widowed and left utterly resourceless and without refuge. She was old—post-menopausal old—which put the seemingly irreversible seal on her barrenness. And she was extraordinarily beautiful—even at 90 years old! While enduring physical beauty might seem like a gift rather than a challenge, the reality is that it exposed her both to unwanted attention from outsiders and to being a pawn in her husband’s own reprehensible strategies for self-preservation. Twice, when she and Abraham are sojourning in territories outside Canaan (Gen. 12, 20), he tries to pass her off as his sister, to save his own skin from the stratagems of a lecherous king. On the second occasion, the writer explicitly says that it is only the intervention of Yahweh that saves her from sexual exploitation. I can’t imagine the desperation and suffocating helplessness she experienced as she was shut up in those harems. Did she weep as she wondered if it was her barrenness that made her seem so expendable to her husband? Did she question whether he would have treated “the mother of my sons” in such a way?
At every point on her journey, the God of mercy and compassion meets her. He rescues her from indignity and exploitation. He renames her—yes, it’s only a slight change from Sarai to Sarah, like the difference between Jenny and Ginny—but now, every time she hears those two syllables, “Princess,” they are infused with divine love rather than the weight of unmet expectations that she has carried for so long (Gen. 17:15). God assures her that he has heard her years of weeping and disappointment over her barrenness, letting her know that the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham will also be a blessing to her (stressed twice in Genesis 17:16). He meets her incredulous laughter (Gen. 18:12) not with a lightning bolt of judgment but with a reiteration of the promise, the fulfillment of which is redeemed laughter (Isaac, the name of her long-awaited son, means “laughter”). What extraordinary and powerful mercy are encompassed in these simple words: “The Lord came to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised” (Gen. 21:1). And what delight in that experience of mercy is heard in Sarah’s response: “God has made me laugh, and everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6).
Sarah’s story is so real, so raw—not only in terms of her need for God’s compassionate rescue from her challenging circumstances and from the dreadful decisions of others, but also in terms of her persistent need of God’s redeeming grace. Sarah is no “super saint”—her human failures are on full display in the Genesis narrative. Not only does she laugh at the repetition of the long-delayed divine promise, but, at key points during that quarter century of waiting and beyond, she also schemes and blames and comes off as a pretty unattractive character. And yet—there is God, meeting her failures with grace, drawing her on, challenging her to go higher up and farther in on this path to faith. “Why did Sarah laugh?”, the Lord asks. “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:13–14). And then he answers the question with a slow miracle—a nine-month unfolding of faith-building wonders that Sarah experiences daily in her own body. Grace upon grace, mercy extraordinaire!
Sarah’s journey from her polytheistic Mesopotamian beginnings (Gen. 11:27–32) to full-on, all-in faith in the God whose call has uprooted and unsettled Abraham’s family is long and filled with ups and downs. It’s a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of journey—and yet the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t hesitate to name Sarah’s journey a faith journey. The key was her focus: “she considered that the one who had promised was faithful.” And even after receiving the miraculous child of promise, Sarah—like Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham—learned to keep her eyes fixed forward on an even greater fulfillment of God’s promise: “These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Sarah and company model a faith that fixes its eyes on God’s promises, confident in what is yet to come because of the already-experienced faithfulness of the Promise-keeper.
Sarah’s story—and indeed the whole of Hebrews 11—fills me with hope and encouragement as the writer makes the turn to exhortation in chapter 12. “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us (witnesses like Sarah, whose faith journey was real and raw and persistent despite the ups and downs), let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us (just as Sarah and Abraham had to lay aside their sinful, selfish tendencies). Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us (even if it is a quarter century of waiting!), keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2a). Eyes on the finish line in this marathon of faith!
 The NRSV makes Abraham the subject of the verbs in 11:11, relegating Sarah to a footnote, but I think the grammatical-textual evidence supports the HCSB’s rendering, which is consistent with the majority of English versions.
Have you ever met someone who seems instantly to “get” you and is able rather quickly to give an honest assessment of you that, while completely accurate, might also include a little “Holy Spirit poke in the ribs”? Last year I met someone like that, who, after spending a weekend with us, said this to me: “You don’t let any grass grow under your feet, do you?” True—I am indeed wired for “full speed ahead.” That has its undeniable advantages in terms of productivity and efficiency, and it seems to be part of my genetic makeup. Also true—this was an area where the Spirit had already been whispering some correction and invitation into my life, hinting that I needed to give attention to “the dark side” of this strength.
“Full speed ahead” is great for checking tasks off the to-do list. It’s a great mode to be in when time is short and the tasks are many. However, it’s a deadly rhythm for relationships—including, most importantly, the primary relationship with our heavenly Father. For those of us who preach and teach, the temptation is always there for Bible study to become task-driven—fodder for the next sermon, the next lesson. Add to that the tendency to be “Speedy González,” and devotional times become tasks rather than encounters, Scripture becomes a means to an end, and prayer becomes an item on a checklist. The Holy Spirit had already been poking and prodding at me right at this point, and our new friend’s comment drove it home. The two imperatives that kept surfacing were slow down and be still.
Slow down, be still—neither of those is intuitively easy for me. But DNA and life habits don’t let us off the hook! Slowing down to listen more closely to the voice of the Spirit and settling into stillness so that we can hear—these have always been central disciplines of the spiritual life. So I asked the Spirit for help, and he has led me to two beautiful disciplines that are helping me learn a new rhythm. One of them is new to me, although ancient in the life of the church; the other is a recovered love from my youth. I’m still a novice at both, but God is graciously giving me ample opportunities to practice. (I’m sure the Spirit is chuckling gently, because, as I sit down to write this, I am in Haiti with only brief periods of access to the internet. I have determined not to stress over the inability to do any of my countless online tasks, but to settle in to this tech-free zone as a gracious space for slowing down and being still.)
The two disciplines that are slowly becoming dear friends to me are the practice of lectio divina and the embrace of poetry. Each in their own way and as “helpmates” to each other (helpers fit for one another), lectio and poetry are teaching me how to slow down and listen, to be still and know that God is God. Lectio is what Eugene Peterson calls “spiritual reading”; it’s an ancient contemplative approach to reading Scripture that focuses on listening to the biblical text and to the voice of the Spirit through the text. It meditates on Scripture, like a dog or a young lion gnaws on a bone, turning it over and over, savoring every last drop of flavor and goodness, ingesting it. Although a close observation of the text is the prelude to listening to it, lectio is not Bible study. For someone whose lifetime habit and whose professional and ministerial life are shaped by in-depth Bible study, this is a challenging switch to make, even one day a week. But as I’ve been practicing this for several months, I find myself looking ahead in anticipation to those Wednesday morning listening sessions—because the Spirit never fails to speak through the Word! Slowly I am learning new rhythms—and learning not to fret if they “interrupt” my productivity. (Some helpful resources for learning more about lectio divina are at the end of this essay.)
Poetry is something I loved as a teenager, but “grew out of” or grew away from as the years passed. Poetry is not the language of instruction manuals or Tweets or treatises—it’s not fast nor linear nor straightforward. Poetry is not the “Instant Pot” of the written word; it’s more like the slow cooker. It engages the mind—but usually only after it has captured the imagination. It is oblique, often sneaking up on the reader—are you thinking about Jesus’ parables? Poetry communicates via metaphor, allusion, imagery—are you thinking of the biblical prophets? For the past several months I’ve been deeply engaged with the book of Revelation—and there’s nowhere else in Scripture where metaphor plays a larger role. I began to wonder, as Peterson and others have suggested, if we can be responsible and responsive readers of Scripture if we are not also steeped in poetry and able to move freely in the world of metaphor. So I made a commitment to spend some time weekly in poetry, intentionally looking for voices that were new to me or that I had not heard in a while. This second “slow down and be still” discipline has paired beautifully with lectio divina, and I also find a sense of anticipation for the ways the Spirit engages my imagination through a word or an image from the day’s poem. (Some of the poets that have engaged my “praying imagination” over the past several months are listed below. I’d love to hear your suggestions, as well!)
“You don’t let the grass grow under your feet, do you?” I suspect that will always be an easy-to-discern trait of my life. But I hope that, as I progress from kindergarten level to more sustained and profound engagement with lectio divina and with poetry, people who meet me will also be able to say, “You spend time listening to the voice of the Spirit, don’t you?”
Suggested resources for learning more about lectio divina:
Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.
Vest, Norvene. Gathered in the Word: Praying the Scripture in Small Groups. Pathways in Spiritual Growth. Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 1996.
Wilhoit, James C. and Evan B. Howard. Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture into Ordinary Life. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012.
Poetry that has impacted me:
Jackson, Drew. God Speaks through Wombs: Poems on God’s Unexpected Coming. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 2021.
Lo Alaman, We Sang A Dirge: Poems, Laments, and Other Things that Matter to God. Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2020.
McDonnell, Kilian. Yahweh’s Other Shoe. Collegeville, MN: Order of Saint Benedict, 2006.
After two years of Ash Wednesday snow storms, we had a lovely spring-like day for the beginning of Lent this year. It was a joy to help with “ashes to go” for the community and to share the evening meditation on Isaiah 6:1–8. Ash Wednesday is a solemn beginning to an important season in the life of the church, a time that reminds us of human mortality and our need for reconciliation with God. Certainly the experiences of the past two years have heightened our awareness of both those things—our own mortality and the areas of spiritual darkness or hardness that still lurk within our own souls. Receiving the ashes on our foreheads shows that we recognize our need and marks our commitment to allow Jesus to speak deeply and transformatively into our lives during the next six weeks.
During Lent, our congregation will be focused on pursuing a Jesus-shaped life, using Steve Cordle’s book by that title. The sermons will explore the obedience, relationships, courage, justice, and mission of Jesus. We’ll be journeying with Jesus toward Holy Week, sitting in his presence, watching him interact with people, listening to his words. Perhaps the pressing question as we embark on this journey is, WHY? Why this laser focus on Jesus and why the yearning for our lives to be shaped like his? The answer is at once simple and profound: because we were made for this! We were made in the image and likeness of God, made to look like the Son who is in turn the image of the unseen Father. Sin marred that likeness in deep and penetrating ways, leaving us caught in a “less than” kind of human existence. Jesus came, first, to show us through his own life what real humanity looks like and then, through his death and resurrection, to make it possible for us to experience true, fully-restored, Jesus-shaped humanity in our own lives.
As we hold our own lives up to the light of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, we’re sure to notice some unmistakable gaps and questions are bound to arise. Is a Jesus-shaped life even possible for us? If it is, how? What does God do to make it happen? What do we do in response? Our Isaiah passage is a beautiful Old Testament scene that answers those questions for us and prepares us for our Lenten journey. And since Isaiah was a go-to book for the Gospel writers as they processed the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it makes sense for us to start here also:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, Here am I. Send me!’”
Isaiah 6 opens with the words “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Translating that onto the world stage, this was the time in the 8th century BC when the Neo-Assyrian empire was on the rise and Judah was squarely in its sights, lying as it did in a strategic location between Assyria and Egypt, the other super-power of the day. The phrase also communicates the inevitable political instability that comes with regime change, as a new king took Uzziah’s place in Judah. But perhaps more importantly, it was a time when Judah’s spiritual condition was dark and deeply stained with sin. Isaiah 5 describes the desperate condition of the Lord’s “vineyard”—unfruitful (v. 2), greedy and grasping (v. 8), consumed with the pursuit of pleasure (vs. 11–12), bound to sin (v. 18), twisting justice for personal gain and trampling on the vulnerable (vs. 22–23). Isaiah says that the “roots” of the vines are rotten and their “blossoms” are nothing but dry dust (v. 24). When Isaiah cries out in chapter 6 about the “unclean” condition of his people, he wasn’t exaggerating! As one of my young friends might put it, “God’s people were a hot mess!”
So we begin our Lenten journey right here, with a “hot mess” in need of a solution. Verses 1–5 lay out the problem and verses 6–8 present the solution.
THE PROBLEM (vs. 1–5). Isaiah is in the temple, reminding us that worship is a great choice in the midst of chaos. Whatever he was expecting that day, Isaiah got more than he bargained for—a disruptive, disordering encounter with God himself. The Lord reveals himself to the prophet in spectacular fashion, blowing out the walls of Isaiah’s imagination and even the physical confines of the temple. You can almost hear Isaiah struggling for words that will convey the impact of what he saw—a throne, the Being on it high and lofty, his glory filling not only the temple but the whole earth. Then comes what he heard—the earth-shaking sound of seraphim singing around the throne. In the Ancient Near East, seraphim were often portrayed as ferocious guardians of temple precincts, but here their only role is worship of the One on the throne. Their song, which shakes all of creation: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is filled with his glory.” The portrait of God’s holiness in this vision is beauty, glory, splendor, majesty. Holiness isn’t the problem!
It is Isaiah’s voice, not that of the seraphim, that expresses the problem. In the presence of the Beautiful, Glorious, Majestic Holy One, Isaiah gives a passionate cry of despair: “Woe is me! I am ruined (or undone)!” Why? Isn’t Isaiah one of God’s prophets, one of “the good guys”? Isaiah himself diagnoses the problem: “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (v. 5). In the blazingly beautiful presence of the Holy One, the corrupt condition of God’s people is revealed and even the prophet is exposed. It is important to notice that Isaiah sums up the problem as unclean lips—their speech reveals how their hearts have missed the mark. And that’s a very big problem for a prophet, whose entire ministry is centered on speech!
THE SOLUTION (vs. 6–8). The problem is radical—and the solution is equally radical! I was struck by four particular aspects of how Isaiah’s problem is set right. First, the solution is not found in Isaiah himself, but in the very holiness of God. Isaiah can’t fix himself—or his people. Only God can do that. Second, the solution is radical, fearful, painful—and utterly effective! If you’ve ever had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop and the doctor had to cauterize it, you’ll know the terror of that heated instrument approaching your face, the pain as it does its work, and the utter relief when the bleeding stops. That experience mirrors in a tiny way Isaiah’s terror, pain, and relief as the very fire and glory of God touch his lips. Third, the solution deals both with Isaiah’s guilt and his sinful condition: “your guilt is removed and your sin is covered or atoned for” (v. 7). Not only is forgiveness extended but Isaiah is given the capacity to live and speak differently from that moment forward. Finally, the solution comes with a purpose: Isaiah is immediately commissioned. “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, the Lord asks. Only after Isaiah has been cleansed can he hear and respond to God’s call. “Behold me! Send me!” (v. 8).
Our Lenten Response. As I pondered this passage and its implications for us as we begin our Lenten journey, the Spirit pressed upon me two specific points of response—initially in my own life, and then as invitations to the community of faith in our collective pilgrimage toward the cross. First, Isaiah’s journey toward wholeness and holiness began when he acknowledged his own sinfulness in the presence of the Holy God and embraced the radical divine gift of forgiveness. John Wesley called this “evangelical repentance” or the “repentance of believers”—he deemed it as necessary for our continued growth in Christ as initial repentance was for the beginning of the journey. Wesley understood it as an act of both penitence and faith: “By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts and cleaving to our words and actions. By faith we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts and cleansing our hands.” Receiving the ashes on Wednesday was an initial opportunity to confess our sins, humbly and honestly, in the presence of the Holy One and to receive in faith his cleansing work. The forty days of Lent provide space and time to continue in this practice, so that we come to Resurrection Sunday changed, cleansed, freed, and ready to respond to the commission of the risen Lord.
Second, it struck me as far from coincidental that in the year a king dies, Isaiah sees a throne. In a time of shifting loyalties and uncertain allegiances, Isaiah was given a vision of the OneKing. Lent is a season that invites us to do this intentionally—to set our gaze fully, fixedly, and exclusively on the King of Kings. We become like Jesus by looking at him, by walking with him, by listening to him. And here is our very real challenge—there are a wealth of other faces that claim our gazes, a cacophony of other voices that clamor for our focus. So I was moved to issue a very specific Lenten invitation to myself and to the community of faith: “Will you join me in silencing—at least for the next six weeks—the other voices that shape your daily living? Identify them clearly—who and what are the voices that are shaping your thoughts, attitudes, actions, and decisions? Whether they are religious voices, political voices, or social media voices—will you silence them, ruthlessly and intentionally, during Lent and replace them with the exclusive voice of Jesus? Steep in the Gospels—read them, listen to them in place of the podcasts or YouTube videos or newscasts or even your favorite online preachers. Will you give the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture six weeks to be the only voices in your ear, so they can show you Jesus in all his beauty, power, and grace—as he is, not as any other human voice would present him?” For me, this will mean exchanging my weekly podcast binge (Sunday afternoons while in my sewing room), for listening to readings of the Gospels. What might it mean for you?
I’ve been studying Mark’s Gospel over the past couple months, and the strikingly consistent portrait of the disciples in the Gospels is that, despite hanging out with Jesus for three years, they almost missed him—because he didn’t fit into any of their pre-conceived boxes. Those boxes were shaped by the socio-political realities of the first-century, by tradition, and even by the prevailing way of reading Scripture. It took the Resurrection to blow open those boxes—just like the vision in the temple did for Isaiah—and to give them a right understanding of who Jesus was, to see him clearly for the very first time. I firmly believe that if we will commit tonight to making Lent a season of exclusive, focused listening to and gazing at Jesus, we will come to Easter prepared to “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly day by day.”
 Sermon 14, “The Repentance of Believers,” II.6.
The first day of January signals not just the turn of a calendar page, but the transition to a whole new calendar. For a writer, there’s nothing more intriguing, hopeful, and imagination-stimulating than a series of blank pages, and that is true of calendar pages as well. Yes, there are planned events, classes, trips, and reminders already penciled onto those 2022 pages, but there are no “X” marks indicating days already lived, highs and lows already experienced. The January calendar is a reminder to live expectantly.
For many years, that turn of the calendar on January 1 was a time for resolution-making—and the days that followed were, more often than not, the season of resolution-breaking. Several years ago, however, I exchanged making “new year’s resolutions” for the practice of listening for a “new year’s word.” It is not about what I intend to do during the next twelve months, but about discerning what God wants to do in and around me. Starting right after Thanksgiving, I give time to reflecting on the year past and to intentional listening to the Spirit in preparation for the coming year. The word for the new year almost always chooses me as I listen—through Scripture, through prayer and meditation, through the discipline of silence.
Last year’s word was “Beloved.” As I look back across 2021, I see a double-stranded thread running through the months, sometimes hidden under the surface chaos, but always present and increasing in thickness as the year progressed. The first strand was the growing awareness of “beloved” as my own central identity in Christ, a gift of grace that settled deeply into my soul and that continues to reshape my own self-understanding and self-talk. The second strand was God’s consistent affirmation that “Beloved” is his name for the church. Despite all her flaws and failings, the church of Jesus Christ is God’s precious Bride. This was important to keep me from cynicism and despair in a season when the Beloved’s behavior was often less than gospel-shaped. Sensitivity to God’s love for his Bride changed the ways I pray for the church, both the church universal and local communities of believers.
I must confess that as 2021 drew to a close, the accumulated weariness and wariness caused by the pandemic and by life in our polarized, ideology-driven society plus a fiercely-paced final quarter of the year, all conspired to distract me from the usual year-end period of intensive listening for “the word.” But in December, the 2022 word found me. My online Bible study group finished up a series called “Invitation,” by Dr. Brian Russell, which takes participants on a journey through the big Story of Scripture. The study begins with Jesus’ initial imperative in Mark’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (1:15, HCSB). For the Facebook Live session that would close our study, I decided to explore Jesus’ second imperative in the Synoptic Gospels—what was the next response that he asked people to make? In Matthew and Mark, it is “follow me” (directed to the Galilean fisherman who would become “the Big Four” among his disciples—Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John). Luke tells the same story—but the imperative is different (Luke 5:1–11). After borrowing (or commandeering?) Simon’s boat as a temporary pulpit, Jesus’ command to him is, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (5:4). Simon’s response is, essentially, “That makes no sense at all, from a pragmatic perspective. It simply doesn’t work! But since it’s you, Jesus, who is asking this crazy course of action, we’ll do it!” The “expert in the room” (the lifelong fisherman) defers to the authoritative voice of the Spirit-anointed One—who is right there in the boat with him. That act of obedience—out there in the deep water—leads to an experience of Jesus’ power and holiness that leaves Simon undone and afraid. Jesus meets his fear with a word of comfort—and the promise of a future that Simon could never have dreamed for himself. After that, it’s not necessary for Jesus to say, “Follow me”; the fishermen relinquish their past (“they left everything”) and follow him voluntarily.
“Deep water.” That is the “word” the Spirit highlighted for 2022. And the longer I sit with it, the greater the yearning becomes to put out into the deep water with Jesus, to let down my nets for the catch that he has prepared. And so 2022 begins with a commitment to be attentive to these questions and responsive to whatever answers the Spirit provides: What will it look like to put out into the deep water? What “pragmatic,” safe practices will I have to abandon? How will I release my role as “expert” in my life, to allow Jesus to redirect and redefine? What is the “great catch” that awaits? In continuity with the double-stranded thread of 2021, these questions will also shape the way I pray for the church (local and global), yearning in intercession for the Beloved to put out into the deep water with Jesus, to abandon old pragmatics and embrace the radical and perhaps counter-intuitive new thing that God wants to do through his people this year. May we all be driven to our knees by the experience of the powerful, holy presence of God as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to cast our nets in places and ways that we’ve never done before.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the Apostle Paul is rather glad that the resurrection of the body hasn’t happened yet—it means he doesn’t have to worry about sore muscles from all the head shaking and eye-rolling as he observes us mangling and mishandling his writings. I suspect he mostly cuts us a lot of slack, patiently acknowledging how often we are genuinely unaware of our historical, cultural, and linguistic distance from the world in which he wrote. Joel Green describes well the way we often approach our sacred texts: “Reading the Bible today in English, we imagine without a second thought that people in the ancient Mediterranean world experienced life much as we do. Too readily, we stumble over the reality that every reading of the Bible today is in some important sense an exercise in cross-cultural communication and understanding. The result is that we naturally recruit biblical texts in support of our own interests and practices.”
However, I’m guessing Paul is much less tolerant (enter apostolic head shakes and eye rolls) when those lenses of “our own interests and practices” lead us to read his words with a selective or inconsistent hermeneutic. Passages in Paul, especially the “difficult” texts, are read and applied one way when it suits our interests, ideologies, or agendas, but turned on their heads, ignored, or argued away when they confront those same interests, ideologies, or agendas. A blatant example of this over the past couple years has been “the government passage,” Romans 13:1–7 (and its parallel from another apostle, 1 Peter 2:11–17). Both passages have been used (vociferously!) in the religio-political discourse of our nation, but the thing that strikes me is how inconsistently they have been employed. For example, in recent days, many of the very same voices—both individual and institutional—that raise Romans 13 as an accusatory condemnation of those who engage in the right of peaceful protest against matters of injustice like police brutality, racial profiling, and the restriction of voting rights, are now declaring their own right to protest and even litigate (which raises a whole other set of hermeneutical questions!) against the perceived injustice of mask or vaccine mandates.
Now, I’m going to say right up front that I am still working through the interpretation of these two passages, discerning what they meant for first-century readers living under imperial power and their contemporary implications for believers living in a representative republic. I suspect that these passages will press us in some uncomfortable ways, just as they likely did to our brothers and sisters in the early church. But what really concerns me here is the hermeneutical strategy (conscious or otherwise) that allows such inconsistent application of the two passages. We must do the brutally honest self-evaluation (as individual believers and as faith-based institutions), under the laser light of the Holy Spirit, to discern if and how our reading of Scripture is driven by pragmatism, personal preference, and the supremacy of “personal rights” in contemporary Western culture. This is important, because the Romans 13/1 Peter 2 example is only one case of how this kind of interpretive strategy gets applied to the biblical writings. My plea is that we do the hard and prayerful work of “cross-cultural” reading—perhaps best done in the company of brothers and sisters from other traditions and other perspectives; then, once we have discerned as a community what the “universal principles” are in these specific texts, let us remember that those principles are what should consistently shape our response to the socio-political challenges that surround us, no matter whether these challenges come from the left or the right.
As I said, I’m still working through the interpretation of Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:11–17, so what follows is a kind of “thinking out loud” in the company of Paul and Peter and their first-century readers. These are textual and contextual matters that seem to me to be clearly visible in the two passages, matters that must be taken into consideration as we try to draw out the over-arching principles at work in the text. First, there is the matter of context—where these passages occur in their respective letters and what communicative purpose they serve at that point. The instruction to “be subject to the governing authorities” in Romans 13 is part of the larger unit, Romans 12–16, which Scot McKnight has argued persuasively is the point of the whole letter, “the theological life of Romans.” The interpretive key to this unit is Romans 12:1–2, with its call not to be conformed to this age, but rather to be transformed by the renewing of the mind, for the express purpose of discerning what is God’s will, described as “that which is good, acceptable, and perfect” (NRSV). This overarching imperative is followed in the rest of the unit by a series of specific ethical instructions about how to live out a transformed life shaped by God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will, both within the Christian community and in relationship to the surrounding culture. Romans 13:1–7 is one set of those specific instructions about how believers are to live in the world, and it is framed quite strikingly by two pithy and powerful summary statements: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21) and “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (13:8).
In a strikingly similar fashion, Peter’s instruction to “accept the authority of every human institution” (2:13) is found in a larger section (2:1–3:22) in which the apostle is showing his readers what “holy living” (1:15–16) looks like, both inside the Christian community and in relationship to the surrounding culture. The imperatives are addressed to the people of God (2:9–10), whom Peter repeatedly characterizes as “aliens and strangers” in relationship to the culture around them (1:1, 17; 2:11). In 1 Peter 2:11–3:7, the apostle’s interest is in how Christians live honorably as doers-of-good in the midst of the empire (2:12, 14, 15), the kind of life that will silence the slander of hostile watchers and bring glory to God. Given this purpose, it is likely that Peter’s repeated insistence that Christians be doers-of-good in their cultural context indicates a level of “good deeds” that goes beyond what society itself might expect or demand, something that would stand out as exceptional.
What about the details within the passages themselves? I notice at least four specific ways in which Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians and Peter’s counsel to believers in Asia share significant commonality. First, in both passages, the highest authority is God himself, who is clearly over the human rulers (Rom 13:1, 4; 1 Pet. 2:13, 17). In both cases, submission to the human authorities is rooted in believers’ relationship to God and in a context of witness to the world.
Second, both Peter and Paul assume that human rulers, who have their authority only by the greater authority of God, will act justly, rewarding the good and punishing evil (Rom. 13:3; 1 Pet. 2:14). This cannot be explained away as simple naivete, since both writers had personal experience of the opposite! Craig Keener’s assessment is probably correct here, as he comments on Peter’s clear expectation that even good-doing Christians face the possibility of suffering at the hands of society and its authorities: “Peter offers a strategy rather than a promise; he is aware that believers may suffer, but he urges that it is better to suffer as a good-doer than as a wrongdoer.”
Third, in both passages the apostles seem to have in mind the office or institution of ruling or governing, rather than any specific human who fills that role. In Romans 13:3, Paul mentions “the authority”; Peter speaks of “the institution” (2:13, NRSV), which is literally “the created thing.” This again puts the emphasis squarely back on the Creator, the true Giver of authority.
Finally, both passages conclude with aphorisms that could be summed up as “give to each his or her due,” both using a key pair of words: “fear” (reverence, respect) and “honor.” Paul generalizes: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7). Peter specifies: “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor (king)” (1 Pet. 2:17). In Peter’s version, “honor” forms a frame around the inner imperatives; the frame relates to Christians’ attitudes to the larger culture (with the emperor just a specific example of “everyone,” rather than a special, privileged category!), while the inner elements relate to the Christian community. It is significant that the apostle does not exhort believers to fear (reverence) the king, an action that would have been associated with the worship of the emperor that was prevalent in the region; in consistent step with the biblical tradition, only God is to be feared (worshiped).
Each of the two passages is worthy of an even deeper dive; these happen to be the surface-level observations that have captured my attention. I’m still pondering both the interpretation (what did this mean for the original readers in the Roman and Asian imperial contexts?) and the contemporary application (what does it mean for 21st-century American believers?). I’m leaning towards thinking that Karen Jobes’ summary of 2 Peter 2:11–4:11 is probably a pretty good assessment of the underlying principles in both Peter’s and Paul’s words: “Peter is calling his readers to recognize that they are living in an alien place that has different values and practices than those appropriate for God’s holy nation. To live rightly in such a place, the apostle gives his readers two major principles of engagement: (2) their allegiance to God in Christ does not exempt them from submitting to pagan authority, and (2) they must maintain their identity as God’s holy people and consequently be prepared, if necessary, to suffer unjustly and without retaliation for holding to their convictions and values as followers of Jesus Christ.” You, dear reader, may survey the evidence and come to a differing conclusion. But what neither of us gets to do with our conclusions is put them at the service of ideologies and preferences, letting the latter shape the applicability of the former. Let us be honest and humble in our approach to these texts, letting the Holy Spirit speak formatively to us through the voices of the two great apostles. May we not be the cause of apostolic eye rolls!
 Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 9–10.
 Scot McKnight, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 136.
Recently I had the privilege of preaching twice during a sermon series on the Book of Jonah. Although it is hard to pick a favorite book of the Bible (the #1 slot usually goes to whichever book I’m studying at any given moment), Jonah would probably show up consistently in my “top five” for the Old Testament. It’s a dramatic story, in which the “word of God for the people of God” isn’t really the words at all, but rather the prophet himself. Jonah’s actions, attitudes, and theology serve as an embodied parable—one with as much gut-punch impact as any of Jesus’ kingdom stories. It’s a suspense-filled story–as Jonah waits to see what Yahweh will do with Nineveh, we the readers wait to see what Yahweh will do with his prophet. And it’s a discomforting story, with its open ending that leaves the key plot thread hanging—what will Jonah do with Yahweh? When we realize that we are Jonah, that open ending presses hard upon us.
You’re probably familiar with the outline of Jonah’s story, but here’s a quick review. The book opens with a call from God to Jonah: “Go to Nineveh.” It ends with a question from God to Jonah: “May I not care about Nineveh?” (4:11, CSB). That ultimate question lingers unanswered, far beyond the prophet’s obstinate silence, to echo in the hearts of every reader. Between the call and the question, we have a series of episodes that we can summarize in terms of the title character: a big flight, a big storm, a big fish, a big second chance, a big stomp through enemy territory, a big pout, and a big silence.
This time as I was doing the deep dive into Jonah’s story in preparation for preaching, I was left wondering about Jonah, this recalcitrant, reluctant prophet. Lots of little questions niggled at my mind, but they mostly resolve into one big question: What made Jonah so different from other 8th-century prophets of Israel like Hosea and Amos?
The Book of Jonah itself demonstrates how Jonah is different from his prophetic contemporaries, but we have to go elsewhere to catch of glimpse of possible reasons for why he was so unlike them. The only other place this Jonah son of Amittai shows up in Scripture is 2 Kings 14:25, where we learn that he is a prophet of Israel, the northern kingdom. He has the ear of King Jeroboam II, who is among the worst of a line of very bad kings. While our prophet’s contemporaries, Hosea and Amos, are delivering scathing indictments of Jeroboam’s corruption and idolatry, Jonah gets a very different assignment. He gets to go to the palace to deliver a message that would have tickled the ears of that power-hungry monarch. Jeroboam’s nationalist and expansionist zeal was going to temporarily intersect with the larger purposes of Yahweh, and the territory under his control would be enlarged for a season. In the early 8th century BC, Israel was about to experience a brief period of economic and military flourishing, made possible by a simultaneous temporary decline in the power of the Assyrian Empire. And Jonah gets to deliver this good news! Speaking truth to power never had it this good!
As the book bearing his name unfolds, Jonah is revealed as someone who has seemingly absorbed Jeroboam’s zeal for “Israel first, last, and only”; he appears to be quite comfortable with the king’s worldview. We begin to suspect that Jonah did not just deliver his message and head home to Gath-Hepher; he must have hung around Samaria long enough to allow “word of the king” to drown out “word of the Lord,” even though that king stood clearly indicted by the divine word (Hosea, Amos). Jonah’s behavior and attitudes reveal the dangerous and seemingly inevitable result when the people of God allow themselves cozy proximity to the ideology of empire and its seductive narratives of power and glory—he ends up behaving like a functional pagan.
There is reason for supposing that Jonah has become intimately attached to Jeroboam’s court, enmeshed in the king’s idolatrous worldview. This possibility shouts at us from the very first lines of the book, where Jonah’s actions and rationale in response to his call reveal that our prophet is thinking like a pagan, not like an Israelite. Ancient Near Eastern polytheism conceived of lots of local gods with localized power—Marduk governs Babylon, Ba’al is the god of the Canaanite coasts and highlands, Osiris controls Egypt—and therefore, in the pagan mind, Yahweh must be the ruler of the little strip of land that makes up Israel and Judah. You only have to worry about the power of a particular deity when you find yourself in the geographical territory ruled by that god. Yahweh’s people, however—and most certainly his prophets!—know better. They know that Yahweh is not only the Creator of the heavens and the earth, he is the King over all nations (see Psalm 2, for instance). But the storyteller emphasizes in an unmistakable way that our prophet has opted for a pagan view. When the divine call is spoken, “Get up and go to Nineveh,” the expected next line is “so Jonah got up and went to Nineveh.” Instead, we are told three times in quick succession that Jonah headed for Tarshish (as far in the opposite direction as he could get); twice we are told that he did it purposely to “flee from the presence of the Lord.” In other words, Jonah seems to think, like a pagan, that if he can just get out of Yahweh’s geographical sphere of influence, the divine call will no longer be operative in his life. That is a far cry from Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there (as Jonah would soon be reminded!). If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea (Tarshish!), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (vs. 7–10, NIV).
At the same time, we wonder about this flight. Jonah has likely not forgotten the well-received divine message he had delivered to Jeroboam, and if he’s been hanging around Samaria for any length of time, he’s probably as delighted as any other member of the royal court with the news out of Assyria. Things are not going well for the super-power—they are experiencing military losses abroad, famine, popular uprisings, and unrest at home. A solar eclipse and a massive earthquake near Nineveh—a fearful pairing of natural omens—has left the Ninevites rocked with dread. This will prove to be just a temporary blip in a 450-year reign of terror, but in that moment, think about the relief and giddy celebrations of Assyria’s enemies and vassal states. They surely love envisioning Nineveh looking as devastated as modern-day Mosul! So why isn’t Jonah happy to get up and go to “that great city and cry against it”? Shouldn’t he be rubbing his hands gleefully and putting on his running shoes to head east, maybe borrowing some of Jeroboam’s guards to accompany him? The answer lies in what Jonah knows to be true about the main character in this story.
Despite his apparently unchecked slide into the nationalistic militarism and greed that characterized Jeroboam’s circle, Jonah has not completely lost track of Yahweh, the God of Israel. And it is Yahweh who is the main actor in this drama. What happens to Jonah and to Nineveh, happens because of who Yahweh is, and Jonah’s choices are based upon his knowledge of Yahweh’s character. When Jonah hears the Lord say, “Go to Nineveh and cry out against it (or warn it),” what is the sub-text that sends him fleeing to the west instead of running to the east? Jonah knows that packed inside a message of warning is the possibility of grace and mercy. He doesn’t want to warn Nineveh of coming judgment—because between warning and fulfillment there might be space for repentance. And oh, how Israel’s God delights in meeting repentance with mercy! Hear it in Jonah’s own words, as he confesses the very essence of Israelite faith: “That is why I fled to Tarshish—for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Despite the creeping corruption of his faith from his proximity to Jeroboam’s court, Jonah still knows this fundamental truth about Yahweh—and he is not taking any chance that the geographical reach of divine grace, mercy, and compassion will extend as far as Nineveh!
And so I continue to wonder. . . . What allowed Jonah to slide into easy fellowship with Jeroboam’s circle? After all, he was a prophet of Yahweh, attuned sufficiently to the voice of the Spirit to hear and obey his initial call. What contributed to making his subsequent prophetic response so different? What might have prevented the corruption of his faith by ideological claims that ran counter to the values and character of the God whose call was upon his life? Being a good Wesleyan, I have to wonder, was it because he was a loner, trying to carry out his prophetic gig all by himself? What if, rather than being a “lone ranger” kind of guy, Jonah had been in a “discipleship band” with other prophets? What if he had had the space for regular, intentional, brutally honest self-examination in the company of trusted fellow prophets? What if Jonah had had a group of friends that prayerfully sent him off to Samaria to deliver the divine word, with their strong exhortation ringing in his ears, “Say what God sent you to say—and then get yourself back here as fast as you can”? What if there had been enough trust and vulnerability among that group of brothers for the others to call Jonah out if he returned from Samaria with hints of the palace clinging to his mind and heart? What if they persistently and compassionately pressed him to stay attuned to the voice of the Spirit and invited him to do the same for them? I wonder. . . .
And I wonder about us. Just as Jonah’s story was an embodied parable that confronted his fellow Israelites, so it continues to confront God’s people in every time and every context. It is Jonah’s blatant refusal of God’s call that pushes us to examine the self-determined limits of our own obedience. It is Jonah’s experience of a gracious imprisonment inside the big fish that makes us pause and consider which of our darkest valleys have been God’s most gracious protection in disguise. It is Jonah’s self-focused plea from inside the fish, empty of any evidence of true confession and repentance, that forces us to consider the ways we have failed to confront sin in our own lives and to what extent excuses have replaced repentance. Most of all, it is Jonah’s ungracious, reluctant, second-chance obedience and his anger at God’s mercy that calls us to self-examination in the company of the Holy Spirit. And I wonder. . . . How much more effective is such necessary self-examination and how much more likely are we to respond to the Spirit’s correction, if we are willingly exposing ourselves to the process of divine discipline in the company of trusted brothers and sisters?
I’m teaching a group of non-Wesleyan undergrads right now, and a recent discussion led to an opening for introducing them to Wesley’s concept of discipleship bands. I asked one student what she thought the potential impact of the practice might be on local congregations. Here are some of her insights: “Dr. Coleman, thank you for this new insight! I didn’t know this was a thing. I really like it and I think that it would help people be open and honest about the struggles of this world. If our churches would start to have these ‘bands’ and answer these questions, I think we would have a congregation of people truly seeking God. We are to help each other, and I think these questions help us to want to seek repentance before God and have accountability.” Openness, honesty, genuine seeking after God, accountability, repentance—perhaps it is the lack of those very things that led Jonah from an obedient trek to Samaria to a rebellious run to Joppa and finally to a petulant pout on a hillside overlooking Nineveh. What might the lack of those things be producing in our own lives? Could we be on a path that leads to looking more like Jonah than Hosea or Amos? And if we were to submit ourselves to the gracious discipline of discipleship bands, what unexpected growth in holiness might reshape our lives and our churches? I wonder. . . .
Have you ever noticed how once you begin to reflect on a particular topic, perhaps in response to something you’ve read or experienced, suddenly that theme pops up everywhere you turn? The lovely convergence of many disparate threads becomes an emerging tapestry of thought, meditation, and prayer. Sometimes the finished product fairly jumps off the loom; other times, the process is slow and hesitant, with stops to untangle unruly threads or to see what the still inchoate pattern is becoming.
The multi-thread motif that has been surfacing everywhere for me recently is the body, particularly the role of the body in Christian faith and practice. Various strands of experience and reading have kept “bodies and embodiment” at the forefront of my thinking in recent weeks. The first thread was the long-awaited arrival of summer. Summer! When the temperatures rise and wardrobe changes follow, there’s just no hiding from bodies—more of them are visible! For those of us “of a certain age,” that means having to confront some of the irreversible signs of “maturity” that are much easier to cloak under long sleeves, scarves, chunky sweaters, and jeans. Those physical signals of the march of time provoke reflections not only about the brevity of life but also about what it means to live faithfully and fully in this “second half” season and in this fragile body, especially in a culture that assigns incredibly high value to youth and the illusion of youth. As I was in the midst of untangling these thought threads, a great article from Michelle Van Loon threw some new colors onto the loom. (You can read Michelle’s article here: God Loves Your Perimenopausal Body. Don’t be put off by the title, men—the depth of her reflections are pertinent to both genders!)
A second thread in the emerging tapestry is the vigorous debates happening in many spaces over the nature of Christian worship. Even as churches continue to return to a full range of face-to-face worship opportunities, we are keenly aware that many of the virtual worship and study options that emerged or were beefed up during the pandemic are not going away. This brings a need for deep theological reflection about the embodied nature of Christian faith and worship, and the implications for online services as habitual choice instead of temporary necessity. At the heart of many of the conversations on this topic is the question of the Eucharist. There’s no getting around the fact that the central sacrament of the church involves the presence of bodies—not just the mystical presence of Christ’s own body, but the human bodies that offer and receive and ingest the elements and then go out to be the body of Christ for the world. In the midst of my pondering on these questions, Firebrand Magazine published an edition that offered thoughtful perspectives on “online communion,” one essay from an advocate for the practice, another from a pastor-scholar who opposes it. More food for thought! (You can read the two essays here: “Incarnate Savior, Embodied Sacrament: Or What I Affirm When Rejecting Online Communion” and The Case for Virtual Communion.)
An experience that provided a third thread in this season of reflection on bodies and embodiment was a stunning and unsettling discussion forum in one of the classes I taught during spring semester. I’ve already written in detail about this elsewhere (see The Extirpation of Non-Biblical Thinking in the People Called Methodists), but suffice it to say here that it has attuned my antennae to the disturbing presence of Gnostic-like thinking in the Western church. This thread would probably be a dark red in my thought tapestry, because of the multiplicity of damaging and dangerous implications for theology and discipleship—especially since, as in the case of my students, the assumptions are often embedded so deeply that folks are not even aware of how far their perspectives on the body have slipped from the biblical witness. As I continue to ponder that witness and the church’s urgent need to grapple with it, a great conversation partner has been Dr. Timothy Tennent’s recent book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (the book is available here: Seedbed).
Finally, at least at this point in the tapestry’s production, there is the thread of Sarah, the matriarch of Israel. A recent week spent in sustained engagement with her story in Genesis 12–23 as part of another writing project left me forcibly impressed with the fact that the embodied nature of redemption did not begin with the Incarnation. In fact, the story of Abraham and Sarah is all about how God deliberately chose bodies—human bodies, old, dried up human bodies!—as the vehicle through which he would launch the rescue and redemption of humanity.
H’mm. This particular tapestry is turning out to be a slow weave, with a complex pattern. The beautiful body and its role in Christian faith and worship is a topic that will undoubtedly engage my thinking and reflection for a long time to come—and it is a topic that merits robust teaching in the church. Dr. Tennent explains the urgency of correct biblical thinking about the body: “We must listen carefully to what Scripture tells us about the body if we are to counter the confused, idolatrous narratives of our day. Having a theology of the body rooted in the image of God provides a positive vision to counter the destructive idolatry of contemporary culture’s distorted view of the body.” He goes on to articulate the impact of having a biblical understanding of the body: “To put it simply, a theology of the body means that we understand the body as not merely a biological category but supremely as a theological category, designed for God’s revelatory and saving purposes. In short, the body makes the invisible mysteries of God’s nature and redemption manifest and visible as a tangible marker in the world.”
I am looking forward to the additional threads that Spirit and Scripture will add to the loom as this tapestry of “the beautiful body” continues to emerge and take shape. If you’ve been reading and studying in this area, I would love to hear your thoughts and recommended reading lists!
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.