More than an Idle Tale

No one expected it to happen. Not even he did. Years earlier, he had said to his peers “I’m done.”  His kids didn’t think it could happen. After all, they had seen the pain he was in from doing the thing that had made him famous.

Most of you didn’t expect it to happen. He hadn’t won a major golf tournament in years. (I know I am supposed to be talking about Jesus on Easter Sunday, but yes I am talking about Tiger Woods winning the Masters last Sunday.) In the past, as he piled up major titles—14 in a 11-year-plus span, he EXPECTED to win.  We EXPECTED him to win.

But what with his public flameout Thanksgiving 2009, his addiction to pain meds, his many moral missteps, his attempts at a comeback… the pain and his own self were his worst enemy. He had gotten close before in staging a comeback and winning a Major golf tournament, but people who know him said you could see it in his eyes that he didn’t expect it to happen. And then last Sunday, after several golfers on the leaderboard found the water, and then when Tiger on the 16th hole launched his ball on the perfect arc over the water, softly curving right to left and landing in a precise 2 foot diameter so it would roll 20 feet down a slope and stop 15 inches below the hole, that was when a few of you thought this MIGHT be an historic day, with Tiger winning the Master’s at 43 years of age. Jim Nantz said it was the most historic sports story he had ever witnessed.  But if you asked Jim Nantz first thing Sunday morning before he stepped behind the broadcast microphone, he would have privately said “no way.”[1]

…Like the scene Mary and the women must have experienced. Mary and the women didn’t expect what happened when they went to the tomb preparing to anoint Jesus’ dead body. The Gospel writer Luke tells us the women had seen the whole sequence of violent events surrounding Jesus unfold. They, like everyone else, assumed Jesus’ dead body remained just where it had been placed. They did not expect anything other than death.

What they found completely undid them. “Perplexed” is how our text puts it, but that is an understatement. Other ways to say it are: the women were disturbed, uncertain, at a loss.

Of course they were. Who could blame them? When the women arrived at the tomb and could not find his body, they were lost, between what they had expected, standing in an empty tomb, spices in hand, looking for a body AND then finding two men in dazzling clothes who ask them why are they “seek[ing] the living among the dead? Don’t you remember what he told you?  He is risen!”

The women run back to their family of disciples, those who are in the best position to believe, and they tell them everything they had seen and heard at the empty tomb, all that they had remembered.  They tell what they had seen to those who had walked alongside with Jesus for years, those who had heard him teach, those who had prayed with Jesus. And when they are done, they take a collective deep breath and wait for their friends’ equally joyful reaction.

This is what gospel writer Luke tells us:  “It seemed to the men an ‘idle tale’ and they did not believe the women.” The women’s testimony about Jesus, their Jesus being raised- the women’s words about God’s resurrection power breaking the eternal hold of death- it seemed to the eleven  disciples to be only empty talk, a silly story.

It is translated as an “idle tale.” But let me let you in on a secret that I learned from my friend Anna Carter Florence.  This word “idle” -- the Greek word is leiros. It is the root from which we get the modern word delirium.  It is not used anywhere else in the New Testament.  She says it is a word reserved for the locker room.  Think garbage. Think drivel. “Yeah, well that sounds like a load of [beep] to me” (Luke 24:11).[1]

You get the picture. You have to be crazy to expect it, yet alone believe it.

And the eleven didn’t believe. Not at first anyway. Despite the several hints scattered through the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ explicit statements forecasting his resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), when it happened, it turned out that no one expected it. It was just as hard to believe then that a man could rise from the dead - as it would be to believe it today.

If the dead won’t stay dead, what can you count on? It throws off the balance, upsets the apple cart of our expectations; it turns our neat and orderly lives inside-out.

The Gospel of Luke does us a favor by giving us the eleven disciples reaction to the GOOD news because, it is so, well, natural.  It is so natural to disbelieve something so unnatural. It is the very response you or I might have - or maybe do have - to such news.

I understand. I understand how testimony from the women sounded like an idle tale. Do you? At this moment in your life, do you find yourself in this tension when you have to decide either what you see is all there is to our lives and to our world -- OR that you will trust that there is a different power at work - a resurrection power at work? Are you at a time in your life when, if you are honest, my words of Empty tombs ring empty? If that is how you feel, welcome. You are at home here, and you are in good company with the other disciples. So, if you are, if we are, let us be reminded of the rest of their story, because the men’s reaction of leiros did not have the last word.

Last Palm Sunday, no one expected Tiger Woods to win. If you were watching, I don’t know what you were feeling as he walked up the 18th hole amid the cheers and the yells  of “Tiger, booh yeah”; what you felt when he hugged his son. In his victory press conference Woods used words like, “blessed,” “fortunate,” “lucky,” and “amazing.” Those words were almost never a part of his vocabulary in the past. He began by saying, “This is unreal to be honest with you."  (If you were watching Tiger walk up the 18th to cheers, I know some of you were excited about a great sports moment. I know some of you were unsettled because you wondered if he had done enough penance.  But it’s not about whether or not he deserves grace of who gets to decide whether he’s earned it.

It was a great moment but imagine yourself walking up the 18th hole  and you are walking beside the risen Jesus.

In the stories after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus Christ is  always somehow different. The same, but changed. His closest pals don’t recognize him immediately! When people break, or families break apart, and then heal and come back together, they never rebuild what was. They construct a new tomorrow. One that’s related, sure, but different. But that’s the price of redemption. And what’s amazing about Easter grace is that it doesn’t play by the rules and by what we expect. Our choices are never either/or. It’s never merely “Do everything right or we’ll never accept you again.”

The testimony of Easter is a significant truth we each must reconcile for ourselves, eventually: that reconciliation is available to all of us, even in our most broken places.

Thankfully, grace needs cracks to shine through. Yet redemption doesn’t come easily,   and it is certainly not how we EXPECT things to go.

Just ask Father Jean Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Department who rushed into Notre Dame to save its treasures.

No, redemption doesn’t come easily and is certainly not how we expect things to go when centuries ago …God suffered for  us through His crucifixion to show that God suffers with us and not only that transforms our suffering.

The power of resurrection is loose in our world, in our time, in our history. Resurrection is hard at work in our world. Easter rises. And there is nothing lieros; ….there is nothing idle about it.

The Lord is risen!

He is risen indeed!

“Longing for the Good Life” Series


“GATHER- The Isolation of Life and the Promise of Community”


In this sermon remind the congregation that the losses of life can cause isolation as one distances in emotional pain and confusion. Joel calls us into community.


It’s one of the hardest things I face in ministry. People are involved in the ministries of the church. We see them on many a Sunday.  But then they experience hard times - often as a result of a loss- and they disappear from the very place that aspires to be a place of succor and support to people in time of need. 

Words like “community” and “love” are used around here to describe who we are and how we are. One of our core values is “We support one another. We seek to be a scaffolding of laughter and joy in good times and care and support when people go through the hard times.”

But people just vanish. They stop showing up; they don’t return texts, emails, calls. It’s kind of like the religious version of ghosting -- the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.

I get it. I have done it, too. Following my divorce back in 2008, I did it and just kind of dropped away from the church my family had so actively attended and which we were very involved in. I was embarrassed that my former spouse and I, both ministers, had failed in our marriage. I was embarrassed that I could not honor a pledge I had made to a church capital campaign made during better economic times and pre divorce.

I ghosted.

Until a wonderful church member called me and said, “we miss you.”  She acknowledged my value. She extended an invitation. More than anything, she offered a listening ear. It is, in part due to that phone call from her, that I stand before you today. I realized how my self- isolation as a result of loss kept from the thing I needed: community and a sense of belonging.

The many faces of the losses of life can cause isolation as one distances in emotional pain and confusion. In the midst of losses people experienced, the ancient prophet Joel called people into community.  He says “Gather!”

We turn to the Joel text and hear these words: 

“Dress for a funeral and grieve, you priests; lament, ministers of the altar. Come, spend the night in funeral clothing, servants of my God, because the grain offering, and the drink offering have gone from the temple of your God.”

It doesn’t sound like he is taking us exactly to a happy place. But hidden in this lament is a call to action that is empowering. GATHER: Demand a fast, request a special assembly. Gather the elders and all the land’s people to the temple of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. (Fasting here is understood not as a form of penitence but as an act of solidarity.) Gather. Build community. Be a special assembly.

It is so easy to isolate. But there is something powerful in gathering with a “tribe.” Gathering instills identity when identity becomes eroded during crisis.

In 2017 the British government created a “Ministry for Loneliness” as loneliness was identified as a major societal crisis in Britain. The USA may be in a similar situation as people age with children far away and as many flock to cities or live in suburbs behind fences or behind social media.  We remember from our western civilization classes the philosopher Descartes and his dictum: I think therefore I am. I wonder if that wisdom has fueled radical individualism and inevitably loneliness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded us of another train of thought born out of the African concept of the self-built around the village’s role in raising a child. Tutu highlights the philosophy of ubuntu: I am because we are. I am because we are beckons us to be involved in each other’s lives; it breaks the isolation and loneliness after experiencing the locusts of life.

Our Reformed tradition speaks of each of you as “the priesthood of all believers.”

If you are looking for a Lenten discipline, I invite you to follow in the way of the One who we follow:

  •  Be mindful of the power that lies within community. Defy the natural tendency to isolate in moments of loss. Gathering instills identity when identity is eroded in moments of crisis.

  • Practice gathering by inviting friends or even a stranger for a meal; maybe volunteering as doing things with others.

  • Practice warmth and see the image of God in others …

Joel calls us to experience and live the good life. That life demands we walk towards our losses and build community.  Keep opening your wings to the image of God in friend and stranger.



At the Academy Awards this past week, the movie “Free Solo” won for Best Picture documentary.  It is the story of Alex Honnold, who last year became the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan alone and without the aid of a rope -- the historic ascent of nearly 3,000 feet of vertical granite. I saw this movie just days before the Academy Awards, and was simply floored by the movie and by Alex Honnold. I believe his story - his ascent up this mountain alone - holds great truths and a deeper meaning for all us.


In 1923, the mountaineer George Mallory gave an interview to in which he famously explained why he was determined to summit Mount Everest. “Because it’s there.” He died in the attempt the following year. Alex Honnold, according to columnist Bret Stephens, seems to have a different explanation for why he climbs. “Because I’m here.”

Honnold, who is 33, doesn’t quite put it in those words, at least not in “Free Solo”. Honnold is not a thrill seeker. He’s a perfectionist who understands that the achievement of one supreme thing depends on the mastery of a thousand small things. That’s what  transforms this movie from one that’s just about one remarkable feat of daring and athleticism into something much deeper. Not just for those people who are suckers for mountains (like me), but for anyone who seeks to do anything well OR for anyone who seeks to deepen their relationship to God.


There are many texts in the Bible that speak of mountains as holy spaces where one might encounter the living God, but almost all of them speak of experiences on those mountains, at those summits, and of what happens upon descent from the mountain. 

But, none of the sacred texts speak more than a whisper about the ascent. Yes, there is the Song of Ascents, a title given to fifteen of the Psalms, but none actually talk about climbing a mountain. So, what about the trek up the mountain?  Exodus says the "Lord summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and Moses simply "went up." (Ex. 19:20) Luke says that Jesus took Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray. (Lk. 9:28)

But, if you have climbed mountains of varying heights and degrees of difficulty before, you will agree with me when I say that there's more to it than these texts suggest. There is a lot of effort that lies behind these two words: “went up.”

Step, step, step. Stop. Catch your breath. Adjust your pack. Step, step, step. Breathe.

I am drawn to the ascent--not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery at the summit, or to the descent at the other end of the experience, but to the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God.

Sounds like what I may be describing is metaphorically the journey of human life and of human faith.

About the ascent of human faith …at least the kinds of life and faith journeys many of us have experienced, let me explain in light of our church’s two core values:

  •  We study.  We actively look to increase our knowledge of God’s word and God’s direction for us as captured in the Bible.

  • We pray.  Prayer is central in our discernment. 

These are two essential tools in our ascent of the mountain. In your own faith journey, what are you doing when it comes to your study? Are you expecting to ascend that mountain without ever putting on a backpack or breaking your boots in?

And with prayer, how is this prayer thing working for you as you are climbing? We’ve heard Jesus tell these same disciples to pray…and not to lose heart. I suspect you, like them, have problems with prayer. Sometimes there are no more troubling words than the words, “let us pray.”

So, in the rigors of the ascent, do you lose sight of praying? As you climb, do you list all the problems you have with prayer?  The problem you face may be practical: I just can’t find the time in my busy schedule for prayer; I want to pray but the pressure of life squeezes it out.

Or, as you climb, is the problem metaphysical? -- what does it mean to entreat God to cause something to happen? I suspect, the real problem - the deepest problem in prayer - is that we lose heart, we simply lose heart. If we really knew that praying for healing, praying for the joy for our family, for justice worked, then no one would keep us away from using prayer like a sure, steadying walking stick.

I am not saying we need pray more because what is required in a life of faith is dogged persistence. When the going gets tough, the tough get going in prayer.  No, I think when Jesus took his disciples up to the mountain to pray, and later said to them, pray and do not lose heart, he wanted them to see not only the eternal splendor of God but the trustworthiness of God.


Prayer and study are necessary and important in the conditioning and development of our life of faith.

But, I know first-hand that it's a difficult climb. How long it will take, or what kind of effort, I don't know and can't say.  I don't know because, like most of you, I am still climbing.  And some days the ascent is demanding, and I find myself more than a bit shaky and short of breath.

But, we must keep climbing. We climb in faith because you are here and your heart is restless until it finds rest in thee, O God.

Click here to listen to Pastor John’s entire sermon on making the ascent up the mountain.

On Remembering Mary Oliver and on the wisdom of stashing pencils nearby

Mary Oliver.jpg

Yesterday we received news that the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83.  My social media feed this morning is full of posts of her poetry.

Some time ago, I think it was around 2005, my work took me to Bennington College in Vermont where Mary Oliver taught and wrote from the early 1990s to 2001. On one of my trips I stayed in a university house that Mary Oliver lived in during her Bennington years.  Having known of her poetry, I thought this was pretty cool. Oh, if “the walls could talk” I thought, wondering what poems were crafted here that had rippled out and into other houses -- homes and houses of worship.

Out the backdoor there was a trail that meandered through woods and alongside a marsh. I took the trail on two snowy February mornings and walked along the marsh wondering if this was the same walk she took daily that became the inspiration for Why I Wake Early (2004) with its poems about crickets, toads, black snakes, watching the deer, and finally, the importance of dwelling in happiness.  Friends at Bennington would regale me with stories of how she would walk the woods and come back with a completed poem. Rumor had it that she stashed pencils along the trail in the fork of a tree’s branches or in a crevice of a rock outcropping so she could compose a poem while she walked the hills and trails.

Mary Oliver’s poems were widely embraced which may be why her poems and life is trending this morning. They speak to the hunters who take to the woods for peace and connection as much as for trophy. They speak to the conservationists and environmentalists striving to preserve the woods. They speak to the suburbanites trying to navigate the terrain of their lives. They speak to all who are on the lookout for meaning and wonder. Her poems paid close attention to the natural world and in plain language conveyed larger thoughts that carried with an almost teaching, therapeutic, and homiletical quality.  Thus, her wide appeal to individuals facing loss and trauma or wisdom for a new direction or for words that would transcend.  I recall her poem about wild geese (“Wild Geese”).  She had such an appeal for me with my love of nature, and a preacher in search of the right words to share that will move and connect us to a transcendence much bigger than ourselves, especially when my own words seemed empty. Today I am thankful for the life of Mary Oliver and I encourage you to, like her, to be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. You might want to consider stashing pencils so you will be sure to write it down and not miss it when you observe it. 

I leave you with one of her poems:

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who made the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the miserable and the crotchety -


best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light –

good morning, good morning, good morning.


Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

     By Mary Oliver (Why I Wake Early, 2004) Beacon Press

Five Reasons to embrace the season of Advent

This week my friend Paul Burns, who once pastored a church in Nashville and now in Garland, TX posted on why we need to observe Advent.

“Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” During the season of Advent, we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and watch with expectant hope for his coming again. It is a four week period leading up to Christmas Day. As such, Advent is the time when we begin serious waiting for Christmas, for the birth of the child, but it is also when we think about the future the child promised and embodied and taught and lived, the kingdom of God he promised was coming but is already present in the world, if you can wait and watch patiently enough to see it.

I pass on to you Paul’s five reasons why we should observe Advent and why it has benefits for you:

1)     The culture we live in has virtually no interest in Advent. You won’t find Advent Wreaths lining the shelves at Wal-Mart. Or music playing about the second coming of Christ on the radio. There’s no war on advent talk on the news shows. And this is good news because it means that it is a much more spiritually pure season. 

2)     Advent offers an antidote for the instant gratification bug that our culture has caught. In the midst of what has become an incredibly self-indulgent season of more, more, more, and now, now, now, advent is about patiently waiting. It is a practice of the embrace of longing. We learn to wait with growing anticipation. We make ourselves so hungry for Christ that we began to want his presence and his ways above the things of this world. 

3)     Advent teaches us to be at peace when the world is not. Peace comes from knowing that everything is going to be alright in the end. Christ will come. It does not mean that we are passive in the face of evil. It means that we work toward peace with the sure knowledge of success. It’s less like treading water and more like swimming knowing that the shore is near. 

4)     In a “need to know” world, Advent points us toward mystery. There is a reality beyond our grasp and comprehension that we brush with if we are paying attention. God is mixing and mingling with us in strange and mysterious ways. But we must be open to the possibility of things happening that we can’t and won’t understand. 

5)     In a world that values speed, Advent invites us to slow down. Yes, there is a time for fast action, but there is also a time to take it slow. Slowing down allows us to take stock of our lives and to consider things more carefully. It allows us to experience wonder. When we rush we miss the good stuff. Sometimes I think we are in such a hurry that we don’t even really know where we are really going. Going slow allows us to consider where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going.

Take a road less travelled this December and enjoy the ride!

"This Is My Story..."

This week I have found myself humming the old hymn “Blessed Assurance” and singing its refrain:  “This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.”  If you are like me, you like a good story. If you are like me, you love telling stories. Turn your ear to a good story and you find it includes honesty, some confession about life’s embarrassing moments. It is revelatory as you come to know something more about the other person. A good story connects us through a shared memory or a shared laugh.

We are a collection of stories. But we are selective in the stories we share. We love to tell the stories of our travels or running into a Nashville celebrity on the street or seeing Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman while out walking in Percy Warner Park.  But we don’t tell all the stories in the table of contents of our lives. There are stories that are too painful to tell. To tell those types of stories requires trust. It requires the assurance that the other person will hold gently in her hands whatever you care to share. No one likes to admit that their shadows, but we all have them.

This month we asking “what’s your story?” during this season of generosity. We have been learning about stories of connection and stories of generosity. We’re telling these stories in our hope that EBPC is a place known for strong relationships and where we can support one another by becoming a scaffolding of laughter and joy in good times and care and support when people are going through hard times. Yes, we are a collection of stories and while we may not trust others with all the stories in the table of contents of our life, we gather in the name of the One who we can trust. The writer of Hebrews calls him a “great high priest” who pierces deeply and yet can sympathize with our weakness and calls us to his “throne of grace” in time of need. There we learn of a love stronger than hate. A life more powerful than death. A resurrection that sheds light into every shadowy tomb.

So, I ask you, what’s your story? Is it one of compassion? One of hardship? One of sadness? Whatever your story is…we hope you feel welcomed and accepted at EBPC because together we strive to form a family that loves and supports each other whatever you story may be.

What's your story? A post based on the reflections of the "Story of the Rich Young Man" mark 10:11-17

There are critical moments in life - in my life, in all of our lives - when huge questions are asked and huge decisions are made. Sometimes we are aware of the importance of the moment, but more often we are not.  These critical moments come, I believe, when we are struggling with life’s biggest and greatest questions:  where to go to college, whom to marry, what job to take, where to live, how to deal with a major personal problem we face, what to do with the rest of my life. These moments can happen at any age. And to any of us.

These moments can be difficult and they can be exciting. We wish more than anything else for clarity, not ambiguity. Those moments take us out of what we like to call our comfort zone because they are not often clear, they present us with new alternatives, new possibilities, and new challenges. They move us out of our comfort zone, those critical moments do, because they invite us to become, in some way, a new person. Change can be hard because nothing changes without conflict.

The young man in the passage is right in the middle of one of those important, challenging, uncomfortable, and promising moments. We have some big decisions at every turn. Certainly in our nation. But in our church. And in our lives. Big decisions are always difficult, rarely clear. In fact, maybe the bigger the decision, the less clarity. Some of you reading this post may be in the middle of  a BIG decision. Some may still be weighing the decision. Others of you this week committed to a decision, maybe led by the heart or by your mind, hoping the other would follow along.


I remember Peter Block, a mentor of mine, once saying: “we walk around waiting for someone to ask us the big question.” What qualifies as the BIG Question is one that makes the asker nervous in the asking.The young man in the familiar text this morning was asking the most important question in the world: “How do I inherit eternal life?”


I like how John Buchanan, in one of his sermons, translates the meaning of “eternal life” as the young man is asking: “what do I have to do to live fully, deeply, passionately, meaningfully, now, in this lifetime, and in a way that has the significance of eternity about it?” “Obey the law,” Jesus says. “I do,” the young man says. “Have obeyed all my life.” Then something very interesting happens. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Jesus loves this young man. Loves his integrity, his moral commitment, loves his question, I think, loves the fact that this man is asking a BIG question. The disciples are amazed. Amazed because Jesus has challenged one of their society’s fundamental assumptions: namely that money is a sign of God’s blessing. They are astonished because of the way he cuts through one of the most basic conceptual assumptions and invites people, all people—rich people, poor people—to think in new ways about their lives and what they are here for and what to do with their lives.

 And so Jesus might challenge us, might he not?

Like the young man, we have a lot of stuff. We love our stuff. We think about, spend our resources to buy more stuff, maintain our stuff, and our stuff. Our stuff can be a distraction. I am reminded of the story about the trusting abbot who was taken aback by the spiritual progress of a young disciple.  The abbot let the disciple live in his own lean-to down by the river.  Each night he would wash his one robe and put it out to dry.  One morning he was dismayed to find that the rats had torn his robe to shreds.  He begged for another from a nearby village, only to have the rats destroy that one as well.  The disciple got a cat, but he found he had to beg for milk for the cat.  To get around that, he got a cow; but of course that meant he had to have hay.  He got the hay from the fields around his hut.  He had to get workers to help.  Soon he was the wealthiest man in the region.  Several years later, the abbot comes back to find a mansion in place of a hut.  He asked the monk what was the meaning of all this?  "Oh Holy Abbot, there was no other way to keep my robes." 

Like him we walk away grieving because there is no way we can live without our stuff.  Our stuff is often at the center of the narrative of the story of our life.

There are the perils of materialism but I don’t think it is the main concern for Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ focus seems to be upon an invitation to a sincere and honest young man asking the BIG question, an invitation to let go of the strong hold, driven by anxiety and fear, that he had on his resources and to trust God for his salvation. What Jesus offered this young man was the opportunity to discover abundant and eternal life in the freedom of God’s love and the privilege of living for something more and better and bigger than personal security.

So “what’s your story?” And how does it connect to God’s story? That’s a hard question the story of your life is not told in a vacuum. Work can take precedence over worship and our social lives can be prioritized over spiritual disciplines. It is a hard question because words are the basis of our telling our story and we don’t have a confidence in the vocabulary of faith to discern and speak about where and how we see God showing up in our lives. So today I leave with you the question: What is the story of your life and how does it connect to the story of God?

“The Big Question” & Resources If You or Someone Is Undergoing an Experience of Darkness

We’ve been asking questions here at East Brentwood in a summer series “Questions + Courage = Faith” based on questions submitted and voted on. This Sunday we tackle what I call the Big Question”: “Why?” As in: “Does God will evil and suffering in the world and in our lives?” This question got a lot of votes, even though I think of religion these days refuses to acknowledge the reality of suffering. As William Willimon wrote in his book Thank God It’s Friday, church these days doesn’t “do too well in the dark.”

I have been perusing the texts of scripture and coming across the obvious texts related to the theme of tragedy and suffering, among them: the Book of Job; the story of the tragedy of the collapse of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13).  I also came across Psalm 29 and its line: “The voice of the Lord is over the water.” Last week I was at the happy occasion of a family wedding. While that happy family occasion was happening I heard news of the duckboat tragedy in Branson, MO where 17 people drowned in the lake after high winds capsized the boat. Nine of the perished were from one family. The words of the psalmist intersect with the pain of this story and present us with the big question: Why did God do this or allow it to happen.  Tia Coleman lost 7 family members -- all of her children.  Coleman said she’s never been through something this difficult. "I don't know if there's a recovery from it," she said. She said she’s been getting through the tragedy with a lot of prayers, and thanked the support of family members and friends. "Going home, I already know, is going to be completely difficult. I don’t know how I’m going to do it," Coleman said. "Since I’ve had a home, it’s always been filled with little feet and laughter, and my husband."

In the course of getting ready for this sermon, I have come across the stories and resources shared by remarkable people and communities of people who have faced great suffering and tragedy and have much to share.  I pass these on to you in the hope that they are helpful if you are facing suffering and tragedy or that you may be helpful to a friend undergoing an experience of darkness.

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross’ Interview with Duke Divinity School Professor Kate Bowler about her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s a memoir about Kate Bowler - a religion professor and young mother - having colon cancer that metastasized, and being told she had a little time to live but then finding an experimental immunotherapy treatment that seems to be helping. The interview, as is the book, is about how her illness has affected her religious practice, and how her religious practice has affected how she deals with her illness. This is a fantastic interview. (Click here for the manuscript.)

Here is a blog curated by a bereaved parent called Still Standing. I commend to you a list of Six Things One Should Never Say to a Bereaved Parent. If you have a friend who is facing the inconsolable loss of a child, this could be a great resource to help you be there in a supportive way. (Click here for the blog.)

·Among a resource I have come back to time and time again is Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Eerdmans, 1987). A Yale philosopher writes poetically, honestly and authentically about the death of his 25-year-old son who died in a climbing accident. His diary entries speak “To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall.” (Click here for more information on the book.)

Faith dares to ask the big question. Faith is not afraid to ask, “Why is this happening? Where is God in this?” Faith sees in those questions themselves a deep trust. Faith understands and experiences God, God’s mercy and love and kindness, even in the experiences of God’s silence and absence.

I have book learning on this subject and I have had the privilege of carrying a flashlight beside families as they have walked through the darkness of pain and loss and suffering. Not having the unimaginable experience of having lost a child or faced incurable disease, I am grateful for all those who have struggled so honestly and faithfully with the biggest and most profound questions of all, especially this Big Question.

"Good" Friday

Click here to read the Good Friday Texts and the Crucifixion Story

I've shifted my focus from dealing with the joyful celebration of Easter (preparation details, sermon writing) to write this blog on this day we call “Good” Friday. I had gotten ahead of the story already hearing the brass and singing the great hymns, seeing the children running and laughing, families in front of the flowering cross. To go back into the darkness of this story on “Good” Friday is a little like spiritual whiplash.

I hope you will click on the link above and read the scripture passages for Good Friday and to read the crucifixion story. Here's a recap: the story of Jesus, it seemed, was over. Convicted of sedition, condemned to death by crucifixion, nailed to a cross on a hill called Golgotha, Jesus of Nazareth had endured all that he could—approaching the end he repeated a verse of the 22nd Psalm, a phrase familiar to first-century Jewish ears: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There was a final wordless cry. And then silence. It appears that Jesus’ followers had no answer to his anguished question of why God would forsake him and that they clearly expected an altogether different outcome. If he was the promised Messiah, his followers expected him to seize real power, military and political power, and achieve some kind of victory. There is reason to believe that Judas, particularly, wanted him to lead a military revolt against Rome.  Jesus’ arrest and trial for sedition and his subsequent execution as a common criminal came as a crushing blow to his disciples, along with the fact that his own decisions and behavior seemed somehow to be part of the whole sad, tragic, disappointing fiasco. Jesus could have avoided it all but for some reason chose not to, seemed intentionally to put his safety at risk, his life on the line. And so they fled, left him to die alone, and went into hiding. The women alone among his followers stayed with him until the end and watched as he died and as he was buried and the tomb carefully sealed. And after the Sabbath, it was the women who came back to the place of burial, for practical, pragmatic reasons: to ensure that the body was properly anointed. Their major concern was whether they could manage to remove the stone with which the tomb was sealed.

The scriptural accounts are inconsistent (wonderfully so) about what happened next, about who was there, who arrived first, who said what to whom.  Click on the link above and it will take you the Gospel of John’s account. For Easter Sunday, I am focusing on Matthew’s account (Matthew 28) so I went back and looked at how Matthew describes the hours before the women go to the tomb on Easter Sunday.

What jumps out at me in Matthew is the delegation of old men, distinguished religious leaders, chief priests and Pharisees, who come to the governor’s office the day after the crucifixion. I know these people. They are good men basically, leaders in the community. They only want to preserve public order, the status quo. I have seen them at large church meetings. I have seen them at Chamber of Commerce meetings and in the halls of Congress. I have seen them on TV, pundits and lawmakers who criticize the teenage survivors of the high school mass shooting, for being too young and naïve with their marches and call for action on sensible gun laws. “We’re here, Excellency [Pontius Pilate],” they say, “because Jesus did say something about rising from the dead, and while you and we know how utterly preposterous that is, his friends could steal the body under the cover of darkness and claim he rose again and then we would have another problem on our hands. So please, Excellency, station some soldiers at the tomb just to make sure there is no funny business.” To them, Pilate says: “Use your own men” and “go, make the tomb as secure as you can.”

Years ago, when in my mid 20s I dog eared a copy of Frederick Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat where he describes this scene as “old men trying to keep the sun from rising.” Now, years later, my fear is that I am not like one of those “old men” as I sit here finishing up an Easter sermon (what sometimes is referred to my “big shot” for the year to speak to a full house) what will be my Easter message that comes out of the oven that is placed before everyone at the Easter table. How easy is the tendency for me -- and you -- to act like the old men Matthew describes in trying to explain the resurrection story; the ones who try to make it safe and secure.  Safe and secure, saying things like the significance of the resurrection is that it really just points to the power of Jesus’ teachings that live on, or to the power of life we see every springtime (cue up the flowers and the butterflies).  None of that is very compelling.

Especially when we live in a Good Friday world. “Good” Friday is a sad day of loss and cruelty when all you have to go on is faith that light shines in the darkness and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. Nor old men.

Anne Lamott in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith writes: “I don’t have the right personality for the human condition. But I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’ resurrection and in ours.” She writes for all of us, “I hate it that you can’t prove the beliefs of my faith. If I were God, I’d have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check as you went along, to see if you’re on the right track. But noooo—Darkness is our context, Easter’s context; without it you couldn’t see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (p. 274).

I need to get back to putting a wrap on the sermon for Easter. I will leave you with a quote by Jürgen Moltmann  on this Good Friday and conclude by saying, I hope to see you as we celebrate the resurrection on Sunday!

“Good Friday is the center of the world, but Easter morning is the Sunrise of the Coming of God and the morning of new life and it is the beginning of the future of the world.’” Jürgen Moltmann  (Passion for God)

Thursday of Holy Week - On Seeing Something (Love) Through

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. - John 13:1

In church parlance we call tonight Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” meaning mandate or command. As Jesus gathers with his friends around the table for his Last Supper, he instructs them how to live, giving them the New Commandment:  Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

That we should love one another…yes. But Jesus, in his words to his friends around the table seminar on their last night together has the long view in mind: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  That we should make loving another to the end our aim, now that is hard work.  Once I start reading a book I have trouble reading a book to its end, from cover to cover. And reading a book can be far easier than loving a human being!

I found it a bit coincidental this Thursday morning when I opened a journal I have been trying to read daily and the advice is on finishing what you start when it comes to reading a book.

I have been reading Joan Chittester’s book The Rule of Saint Benedict, a daily journal of reflections on the writings of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order. Benedict of Nursa was born in 480 A.D. and lived when the foundations of the Roman Empire were shaking. (I suspect many of you are saying: “Must be a gripping read.”) The Rule of St. Benedict is simple and yet complex and while written long ago is fresh for our 21st century lives who are searching, often in vain, for some spiritual framework around which to organize our lives in a period when public devotion is a thing of the past and the overarching questions of life are more pressing than ever. After a lofty sentence like that it would seem odd that when I opened the journal for today, March 29th that St. Benedict is focused on what appears at first blush to be focusing on minutia. With what seems like mundane instructions, Benedict offers advice that during Lent, the monks are to be assigned a book to read “straight through” and were given more time during the day to read. That is to put themselves on a regimen and study in a serious and ordered way.  Benedictines were known for the labor of their hands; they did not shy away from work. At the same time, work is not what defined their life. The search for God and love for their fellow human being is what defined Benedictine spirituality. (That is something to take stock of when we are identified more by what we do than that we are.) Study is hard work. Just as with them, we find it is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of learning. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. Of Benedictine spirituality Chittester writes: “life is to be struggled through and worked at and concentrated on and cultivated. It is not a matter of simply going through it and hoping enough of the rust of time is removed by accident to make us burnished spiritual adults” (p. 216)

Same advice when it comes to reading a book could be said when it comes to loving another human being. Loving another is not a feeling. It is a choice; it is a behavior. It involves hard work. It takes the long view. It was for Jesus. And it is for us in our attempts to love others. Today, on this Maundy Thursday, I am thankful that Jesus did the hard work of love. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. - John 13:1