Magnetic Mercy

Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31

I’m going to start today’s sermon with a statement, which I hope is confusing enough to make sure you want to stay with me for the next ten minutes while I unpack it. Are you ready? The statement is this: None of us has ever actually worshiped God. That’s the statement – none of us has ever actually worshiped or prayed to or talked about God.

Are you sufficiently confused? Good! I was so confused when I started working on this sermon that I spent a good hour trying to figure out what to say first. In the end I decided to invite you into my confusion and see if together we can find our way out. We have the Apostle Paul to blame. In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. He strolls the boulevards looking at the statuary dedicated to various gods of Greece and other nations. And then he comes across one altar with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul decides this unknown god is the God of of his ancestors and the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who he thinks this unknown god is. Continue reading “Magnetic Mercy”

Restoration

Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60

Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”

That was enough. Continue reading “Restoration”

Finishing the Race

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.

I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal. Continue reading “Finishing the Race”

There’s Only Us

Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29

theresonlyusDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

This is a sermon about two pronouns. The two pronouns today are “us” and “them.” Remember that for just a minute, because first I need to tell you why Paul is so mad. We’ve been reading the letter to the Galatians for the last month, and we haven’t really mentioned it in a sermon yet. But just quickly, here’s why Paul is upset during the letter to the Galatians. Continue reading “There’s Only Us”

Perfect in Weakness

Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

The first weekend of June, I was doing some yard work with my father-in-law outside the rectory. While carrying some brush down the stone front steps, I slipped and fell backwards. I caught myself, but my lower back hit the edge of the step with enough force for me to feel it, go inside, and start icing. The ice helped, and I felt much better the next day. The day after that, I played soccer. I didn’t hurt my back during the soccer game, but running around for two hours at my age didn’t do me any favors. (Yes, yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a reason most professional athletes retire in their early thirties.) Put the soccer and slipping on the steps together with sleeping in a soft bed and picking up two babies for ten months, and Wednesday morning I could barely move. I spent the day lying on the floor, in a sizable amount of pain.

The next morning, I arrived at church to prepare for the 7 a.m. service. The pain was less than the day before but still considerable. I did my best to hide it during the first half of the service, but my acting job was unconvincing. After the peace, folks asked what happened, and I told them the story I just told you. When we came together around the altar for communion, I was about to start the prayer when Barbara Barrett asked: “Adam, can we lay our hands on you and say a healing prayer for your back?”

I looked around at the people circling the altar. They seemed eager to assist Barbara in her request. I had never considered asking for such a gift, but when it was presented, there was only one possible answer, a very thankful, “Yes, of course!”

The fifteen or so people present clustered around me and touched my back and arms and shoulders. Barbara prayed aloud. When she was finished, I exhaled and inhaled. As I breathed, I felt my insides expand and the stiffness in my back stretch out just a little bit. The pain remained, but it was lessened because fifteen people were now bearing it with me.

As I reflect back on that morning, two questions spring up for me. First, why had I never considered asking for the laying on of hands? And second, why did I feel it necessary to hide my obvious pain? I could answer each of these questions at length, but in the end, the answer to both questions boils down to a single word: weakness.

Something inside me convinced me not to show my weakness. That something might have been the myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” Or perhaps the myth of perfection: “You’ll only be loved if you always get straight A’s or fit in those jeans or never strike out.” Or perhaps the myth of individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”

Whatever it was that convinced me not to show my weakness, it worked; that is, until Barbara spoke up. Her invitation to healing silenced the myths, and in that silence, the words of Paul we heard today bubbled to the surface: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn], that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. There are many countercultural things embedded in the Christian faith, and this is a prime example. In effect, God says, “Don’t look for power where the world looks for power: in the bank account, on the TV screen, at the point of a gun. No, my grace is enough for you to find fulfillment, if you allow my grace to infuse your weakness.”

In his own trials and tribulations, Paul has uncovered something that I personally (and I bet many of you) need to hear over and over again. The power of Christ dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that the myths tell us to hide. These are the parts of us that need the most help, the parts we don’t want to show other people because we think this or that facet of ourselves is deficient or shameful. The grace of God and the power of Christ enliven our whole selves, but like an antibody targeting a disease, God’s grace heads straight for our weaknesses.

And since God’s grace meets us where we are weakest, we learn to rely on that grace to help us overcome our presumed deficiencies. God uses our weakness to gain a foothold within us. God trains us to rely on God when we think we need to (that is, our weaknesses) in order that we might just start relying on God when we think we don’t need to (that is, our strengths). In that way, we eventually rely on God all the time. If God tried to gain the foothold the other way around, I don’t think we’d ever let God in because our strength, our power, would be telling us we are okay on our own.

When Barbara spoke up about healing prayer, she reminded me that I’m really not okay on my own. I need God. And I need you. Priests can fall into the trap of serving their flock with such single-mindedness that they forget sometimes they need to accept service too. Being unwilling to accept the service of another is a debilitating weakness. I suffer from it. Maybe you do too. Too often I forget what a gift mutuality is. I forget that Christ washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. On that Thursday morning, the power of Christ worked through my weakness, and, God met me in the hands of fifteen parishioners, who gave me the gift of healing and helped me bear a burden. My weakness kept me from asking for healing, but perhaps it was that weakness (and not my back), which found healing that day.

My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness. I’ve experienced this truth. So did the Apostle Paul. So did the disciples when Jesus sent them out two by two with only a staff in their hands, but with the power of Christ dwelling in their hearts. So my questions for you are these: what weakness of yours might God’s grace be trying to shine forth from? What part of yourself are you hiding because of some myth or other? Pray these questions. Ask God to help you face that weakness, to live into it, to find grace in it, to use it to connect with someone else feeling the same weakness. After all, strength and power are not a universal human constant. But we are all weak in some way, somehow. We’ve all been in pain. We’ve all failed at something. So did Jesus. What else but a weak, painful failure was the cross in those few days before the resurrection?

But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace redeemed the cross when Jesus rose from the dead. And the power of God’s grace redeems our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. Thank you Barbara and the rest of the Thursday morning group for your gift to me: the gift of reminding me its okay to be weak because y’all are there to help bear my burdens and because God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

The Waters of Baptism

Sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 4, 2015


2015eastervigilIt’s great to have a baptism scheduled for the Easter Vigil, but we didn’t this year at St. Mark’s. I still wanted to bless the water of baptism before we renewed our baptismal covenant, so my father suggested I build the blessing into my sermon. At the vigil, you can preach before or after the transition from darkness to light, and this year I chose before.

Tonight, we began with fire. We kindled a new flame and processed the Light of Christ into the church. We gave “this marvelous and holy flame” to God during the chanting of the Exsultet, saying: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning––he who gives his light to all creation.”

Then we heard the first words ever spoken in that creation; indeed, the Word spoken to call creation forth: “Let there be light!” Creation erupted from this Word and God flung wide the fiery fusion of the stars and billions of years later, here we sit. (I skipped a little bit of the story there.) Our worship this night returns to such primal origins to make sure we know the infinite and eternal reach of the event we are about to celebrate. As I said, tonight, we began with fire.

And now we move from one primal element to another – from fire to water.

(I pour the water into the baptismal font.)

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” (These are the first words of our baptismal rite’s blessing of the water. The rest are contained throughout this sermon.) The fiery fusion of the stars is there a moment after the beginning, a moment after the blazing creativity of the Holy Spirit dances over the face of the deep. When we give thanks to God for the gift of water, we show our gratitude for one of the fundamental things that makes life possible. We might not normally thank God for water, especially where we live and in this day and age, because water is so plentiful and constant. But tonight we acknowledge the gift of this building block of life, which helps us focus on those things that sustain life.

“Through [water] you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” We heard this story a few minutes ago, too. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel stand at the edge of the sea with their enemies bearing down on them. The sea could be a barrier, but God causes it to be their protector and rearguard. They arrive on the other side, but the sea swallows up the Egyptians and all their trappings of war. As the water delivered the people from slavery in a foreign land, for us the water symbolizes freedom from all that enslaves us.

“In [water] your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry of healing and bringing people closer to God. You might wonder why Jesus himself was baptized since John’s baptism was a path to repentance. What would Jesus need to repent if he knew no sin? With his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death on the cross. He did not need to be baptized, not for the reasons the others coming out to the Jordan River did. But he chose baptism in order to wash in the same muddy water and to be in solidarity with his people. In the same way, he chose the cross, not because of his own guilt, but because of ours. In the river, Jesus swims in the sin of the people. And on the cross, the same sin hangs there with him.

“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.” We show our gratitude again, this time for specific water, the special water of Baptism. This water is like any other, except that we set it apart with prayer and blessing and ask the Holy Spirit to make it holy.

“In [the water of Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We borrow these words from the Apostle Paul, who wrote the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). A baptism is so much more than a ritual washing away of sin, says Paul. Indeed, in baptism we recognize that we have died and risen with Christ. Paul continues, just to make sure we understand his point: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

“Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could we not invite others into Christ’s fellowship after we have known the supreme gift of the Risen Christ being alive in us? But just in case we think that this new life is too precious to share, but must be hoarded like other precious things, Jesus himself commanded us to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We ask the Holy Spirit to infuse this ordinary water with the presence of God just like we will do later with ordinary bread and wine. We set the rite of baptism at this point in our service because it serves as the perfect hinge between death in the gloom of Friday and new life at dawn on Sunday. When you feel this water touch your skin in a few minutes after we renew our baptismal covenant, remember that you have died and risen with Christ. You belong not to the old things that are passing away. You belong to the new creation.

“To [Christ], to you (Lord), and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”

Art: Detail from “Creation of the World” by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864

First Words

(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )

Any spherical object! (that's me at age 2)

Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.”  And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.

Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.

Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.

If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?

For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.

Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.

To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.

In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.

Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.

“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*

We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.

“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!

“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.

“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.

Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.

Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.

I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.

Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.

Note

*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.

To an Unknown God

(Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2011 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31)

I wonder what Paul was thinking as he walked the streets of Athens. I’m sure that the many-columned Parthenon was looking down on him from atop the Acropolis, as this temple of Athena had for nearly five hundred years. But no matter the goddess Athena’s appeal, down every street, Paul sees another crumbling monument to one deity or another. He studies them carefully. I imagine he finds statues of all the Greek gods and perhaps other ones from far off places, considering Athens’ booming tourism trade.

At one point on his walk, however, Paul comes across something he doesn’t expect. He stumbles upon an altar with an odd inscription: “To an unknown god.” Now, Paul is no stranger to being run out of town, but he is also never one to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So, after seeing the inscription, Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who this unknown God is.

God, he says, is not like the gods of these gold, silver, and stone monuments. God is Lord of heaven and earth. God isn’t bound to set roles like your local gods. God breathes life into all things. God doesn’t live in a special house somewhere. God is not far from each one of us everywhere. And yet, while Paul’s sermon is full of stirring and magnificent images of God, I can’t help but wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, I’m going to warn you that we are about to wade into particularly deep and boggy theological waters. I confused myself thoroughly trying to write all of this down, so if your brain starts to hurt, you’re not alone. However, I have confidence that with some help from our friend C.S. Lewis and a stiff breeze from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel, we will all come out on the other side of the bog with our minds intact. Are you with me? Good.

The Mythbusters try to pull apart two interlocked phonebooks

So two extremes play tug-of-war with this concept of our “knowledge of God.” In the case of the first extreme, I claim to have captured God, strapped the Divine to the operating table, and figured out what makes God tick. When I’m done with the exploratory surgery, I stuff and mount God on the wall just like a prize twelve-point buck. With my experimentation complete, I know just what button to push to make God act in my favor, and oddly enough, God disagrees with all the same people I do. This is the extreme where I have God pegged. Now, you might have spotted the flaw in this point of view. (Remember – we’re talking about extremes, so flaws are more common out here.) The flaw here is, of course, the delusion that God is small or mundane enough for me to figure out what makes God tick.

The other extreme is, naturally, the complete opposite of the first. In the case of the second extreme, I claim to have absolutely no ability to comprehend a God who exists for eternity in infinity. When I try to get a handle on God, I am at a complete loss for words and I must conclude that God is so unsearchably unknowable that I might as well give up. I’m an amoeba trying to read Shakespeare. But I make peace with my teeny-tinyness, and I go about my day trying not to have delusions of grandeur, in which I might rise to a level of intelligence that allows me to comprehend even a shred of what God is about. Of course, there’s a flaw here, too. The flaw in this extreme is the faulty thinking that God is too big and majestic to bother with an amoeba like me, no matter the evidence that God has been surprising humanity for millennia by encounters with the Divine, including one in which God sent his only Son to be an amoeba like me.

Now, each of us exists somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. When I really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – I might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at my beck and call. When something really terrible happens in the world – a huge earthquake or massive flooding or a category five tornado – I might trend toward the second extreme, in which God may exist in the ether of eternity but surely can’t be bothered with things here on lil’ ol’ Earth.

Do you see what’s happening here? My experience of God changes depending on my needs in the moment. I slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixture of my appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubt, and faith paints a picture of the God to whom I address my prayers. And whatever else that painting may be, there is one thing that the picture surely is not. And that is an accurate portrait of God. This is why I wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, as I tried to wade out of my confusion while writing this sermon, two questions struck me after that whole bit about the extremes. They might be on your mind right now, as well. First, if the God I’m worshiping isn’t really God, but rather my conception of God, then what’s the good of praying? And second, if I’m not really worshiping God, doesn’t that make me an idolater? This is when we need to call in one of the heavyweights.

C.S. Lewis wrote an incredible poem called “A footnote to all prayers.” He begins:

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.

These Pheidian fancies are works of the Greek sculptor Phidas, the very statues of gods and goddesses that Paul saw in Athens. Lewis knows that, even when he tries to call upon God, the best he can do is some symbol that could never do God justice. He continues:

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts…

Lewis poetically describes the same predicament we were in a minute ago: in prayer, we address the gods of our own “unquiet” thoughts and thus we blaspheme. But the poem is only half over, for Lewis continues: [we blaspheme]

…unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully…

Even someone of C.S. Lewis’ verbal skill aims his prayer-arrows unskillfully, always at some conception of an “unknown” god than at the one, true God. But, in the end, our story isn’t really about you and me. Our story is always and forever about God working in, around, and through us, no matter how unknown God may be to us. And God’s story is all about God’s “magnetic mercy,” by which God pulls our prayers to God, even though we shoot them far wide of the target. Lewis concludes:

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

As we slide along the spectrum between the two faulty extremes of our conception of God, we can only speak in “limping metaphor.” But the true God, according to Lewis, speaks in “great, unbroken speech.” This is the speech that voiced light in the beginning and continues to sustain creation. This is the speech that speaks each one of us into being everyday, no matter the degree to which the speaker is unknown to us.

To tell you the truth, this unknown quality of God will be with us until God takes us fully into God’s glorious presence. Indeed, the unknown quality will keep us searching and reaching out and finding God in even the unlikeliest of places. And I believe that God redeems our lack of knowledge through God’s magnetic mercy. God translates our limping metaphor into the leaping speech of abundant life (even the words I’m speaking right now). Here’s the good news. In the end, our knowledge of God places a far distant second to God’s knowledge of us. As Paul says to the church in Corinth: someday “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Total loss

On Sunday, I was driving home from a soccer tournament — a bit worse for wear and sore, but in the good way. We were losing light quickly as the game drew to a close, and by the time I was on the road, dusk had suddenly become full darkness. The darkness didn’t bother me, because I’ve driven back and forth on Route 9 dozens of times since I moved to West Virginia. Every time, I lament the fact that the the DOT hasn’t finished the bypass (and probably never will). On Sunday, my lamentation was justified.

A tenth of a second before the deer hit my car, I saw it flash in the headlights. I heard the impact before I felt it — the sound of someone beating the dust out of an oriental rug, except the rug was metal. The deer collided with the front, left edge of the car, and the force of the impact pushed me off the road. Pumping the brake, I drove through several lawns before coming to a halt. The deer skidded off in the other direction — a rag doll carcass — and came to rest on the shoulder on the far side of the road.

A sheriff’s deputy, who happened to be driving by a minute after the collision, stopped to help me. The driver’s door would not open, so I crawled out the passenger’s side. I was limping, but, I assured the deputy, the limp was a preexisting condition from the soccer tournament. He walked around the car, shining his flashlight and making official sounding grunts. Another officer unceremoniously dragged the deer fully off the road and left it there. I called Triple-A. An hour and fifteen minutes after the collision, a tow truck driver loaded up the car and took me home. Country music played on his radio.

The next day, I called the claims representative. He read through the online report I had filed when I got home the night before. “There’s a better than good chance that this will be a total loss,” he said. A total loss, he explained, happens when the cost of repair outstrips the value of the vehicle. If a total loss is filed, I’ll never see the car again. The insurance company will send me a check, less my deductible. “So take all your stuff out of the car and remove the license plate just in case,” he advised. Apparently, most deer strikes end in total losses. I’ll find out in the next few days.

The phrase “total loss” keeps ringing in my mind. I can’t help but think of Paul’s writing to the Philippians: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:7-8). Paul is talking about his position before becoming a follower of Christ. He was a Pharisee, blameless under the law, a prime specimen of the people of Israel. And he gave it all up when the scales fell from his eyes after being struck blind on the road to Damascus.

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Notice the use of the word “regard.” The surpassing nature of Christ reorients Paul’s perception of himself and the world. Jesus changes Paul’s attitude and outlook, in order that Paul might not mistake the insignificant for the consequential. The world around Paul has not changed, but he no longer views it as he once did.

This reorientation is such a wonderful part of being a follower of Christ. If we keep our eyes and hearts open long enough, we might just notice Jesus pointing us towards the right path, the most effective service, the best attitude. On Sunday, as the car came to a rest and my heart kept right on beating down Route 9, I found myself unexpectedly overcome by my own reoriented spirit. I might have adopted a why me, God? attitude. I might have raised my fist and cursed God’s apparent punitive capriciousness. But, by the grace of God I didn’t. I closed my eyes and thanked God that I was not injured. I thanked God that no one else was involved in the collision. I thanked God for the presence of the deputy.

It is so difficult, in a world that stumbles over itself attempting to remind us of the scarcity that supposedly dominates our lives, to notice Jesus reorienting us towards the abundance that marks the truth of our existence. But the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ opens our eyes to the beauty of this abundance. Everything else is loss. Total loss.

Note: I’m still dealing with the fact that I killed a deer. I’ve never been hunting, never shot a gun, and I never want to. I am aware that, as part of humanity, I am responsible for the deaths of countless innocent animals. I’m not sure what to do with this greater context. But the immediate incident keeps replaying in my mind. It’s just different because there’s blood and fur on the mangled hood of my car It’s different because I saw the deer alive one split second and utterly dead the next. I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye. I keep seeing it tumble away, limbs flailing without purpose, glinting in the glow of my smashed headlight.

Viral papyri (Bible study #10)

In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.

Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.

papyrusThe viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*

Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”

At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.

With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.

Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.

The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.

Footnotes

* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.