Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning — Throwback Thursday Books

“The faith that animates the Christian community,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “is less a matter of believing in the existence of God than a practical trust in his loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). As some of us Christians move through the Gospel of Mark this year, there is no better meditation aid than Manning’s book.

I have almost as much of his text highlighted, underlined, boxed, and/or starred as I do not. I will do what I can to lift up the best carry-out lines in this inspired and inspiring work, but I may not get out of the first chapter before I come to my 1500 words (or so).

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

First, a bit about Manning himself. Manning was born in New York City in 1934 (just a few weeks after my father, coincidentally). He grew up a good Roman Catholic boy who enlisted in the Marines after high school and served in the Korean War. When he returned, he went to university and then seminary. He was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1963.

A few years later Manning joined the Little Brothers of Jesus of Charles de Foucald and served among and with the poor in a variety of settings here in the States and in Europe. After about fifteen years of ministry, Manning faced and began to wrestle with his alcoholism. His illness bedeviled him all his adult life and contributed to his death in 2013.

Manning later left the priesthood and married Roslyn. They raised a family but were later divorced. Manning was a noted speaker, retreat leader, and author. His best-known book is The Ragamuffin Gospel, but he wrote numerous books. His story has been adapted in at least two movies.

Ruthless Trust is one of the high points of his writing and speaking, produced a decade after The Ragamuffin Gospel. He sought to journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, from intellectual assent to living trust, from fearing God to loving God. I have connected to his work personally and emotionally because of some similar dynamics in our growing up years. His mother struggled to connect to him and even to want him as a son. That tragic lack of acceptance, affirmation, and love drove him to find life elsewhere – a quest that was periodically successful.

“If we could free ourselves from the temptation to make faith a mindless assent to a dusty pawnshop of doctrinal beliefs,” he writes, “we would discover with alarm that the essence of biblical faith lies in trusting God” (page 6). This seems to be the itch Mark’s Gospel is scratching in chapters 1 through 8. Manning lived by desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope in the midst of a life careening from triumph to train wreck and back again.

“The basic premise of biblical trust,” Manning suggests, “is the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience the fullness of life. However,” he cautions, “this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and most often through a series of crises and trials” (page 9). Ruthless trust is sort of like the way my dad described wisdom. Wisdom comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, experience usually comes from bad judgment. I can testify to the truth of that observation.

Ruthless trust comes from experiencing, over and over, God’s reliability in Christ by the power of the Spirit, in the midst of trials and tribulations. Unfortunately, those trials and tribulations often arise because of bad judgment (or sheer bad luck). If, as the Gospel of Mark asserts, faith is resilient reliance on the faithfulness of God in life and in death, then the way we live creates many opportunities to practice that resilient reliance in the aftermath of our own choices and chances. Mark and Brennan would have gotten on famously, I think.

He had me in chapter one, however, with his personal story. It’s worth quoting at some length.

“The biggest obstacle to my journey of trust has been an oppressive sense of insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority, and low self-esteem. I have no memory of being held, hugged, or kissed by my mother as a little boy. I was called a nuisance and a pest and told to shut up and be still” (page 13). My experience was not quite so cold, but there are enough similarities for me to listen and learn.

“My mother had been orphaned at age three,” Manning continues, “both her parents died in a flu epidemic in Montreal – and sent to an orphanage where she lived for several years, until she was eventually adopted. Then, at age eighteen, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, for training as a registered nurse. Having received little attention or affection through those early years, she was incapable of giving any” (page 13, my emphasis). When I read Manning’s story, I was able to begin to think about having compassion for my poor, dear mother – another who received little attention or affection and therefore had not much to share with me.

Forgiveness for others and acceptance of ourselves just as we are – these are steps along the path of ruthless trust in God, Manning suggests. “In order to grow in trust,” he writes, “we must allow God to see us and love us precisely as we are” (page 16). That’s the prayerful work of a lifetime, at least in my experience. But when I do it, I am transformed.

“With a strong affirmation of our goodness,” Manning writes, “and a gentle understanding of our weakness, God is loving us – you and me – this moment, just as we are and not as we should be. There is nothing any of us can do,” he asserts, “to increase [God’s] love for us and nothing we can do to diminish it” (page 19). This is one of the hardest parts of grace to convey to people – that God wants nothing from me and also wants everything for me. Since God needs nothing from me, all God offers me is free, unmerited, and unconditional.

That’s grace. God loves me for nothing. And God invites me to trust that unconditional love. “Trust is our gift back to God,” Manning writes, and God “finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If only we Jesus followers could live that way and declare our message in those terms.

The Way of Trust leads us to “The Way of Gratefulness,” in chapter two. “Gratitude arises from the lived perception, evaluation, and acceptance of all of life as grace,” he writes, “as an undeserved and unearned gift from the Father’s hand” (page 24). Manning helped me to see a simple relationship. Happiness arises from gratitude. Gratitude arises from trust in God’s grace.

This life of ruthless trust is lived in the face of life’s traumas. “How does one dare to propose the way of trust,” Manning asks in chapter three, “The Enormous Difficulty,” “in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder, and the terror of history?” (page 39). Yes, that is the question, eh?

We make this daring proposition because we trust that God is with us in the suffering – that is the meaning of the cross of Christ. “Anyone God uses significantly,” Manning says, “is always deeply wounded” (page 48). Manning’s life is testimony to that assertion. “On the last day,” he continues, “Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars” (Ibid).

This leads Manning, as it does all honest theologians, to the via negativa, the apophatic experience of God through opposites. “The more we let go of our concepts and images, which always limit God,” he writes, “the bigger God grows and the more we approach the mystery of [God’s] indefinability” (page 56).

We Western Christians don’t like that very much. We want a God we can analyze, systematize, and legalize. “All that is elusive, enigmatic, hard to grasp will eventually yield to our intellectual investigation, then to our categorization – or so we would like to think,” Manning notes. “But to avoid mystery is to avoid the only God worthy of worship, honor, and praise,” he continues. We are really searching for “a God worthy of awe, silent reverence, total commitment, and whole-hearted trust” (page 57). We find ourselves back in Mark’s gospel, I think.

The apophatic move is the province of the “artists, mystics, and clowns,” Manning writes in chapter five. “Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars. Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians. To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust,” Manning argues, “we need the artists and mystics” (page 68). That is hardly the theological trend in the triumphalist Western church of our age.

In the spirit of the disciples in the boat in Mark 3, Manning writes of the “Infinite and Intimate” God in chapter six. “The awareness that the eternal, transcendent God of Jesus Christ is our absolute future gives us the shakes,” he writes. “One day out of the blue comes the thought of our inevitable death, and the thought is so troubling that we want to live the rest of our lives in a shoe” (page 76). The way we Christians deal with these existential shakes is by trusting in Jesus, God who is both infinite and intimate. “For me and many others,” Manning says, “Jesus is the revelation of the only God worthy of trust” (page 89).

That trust is no simple solution to complex problems, nor is it easily achieved. “Often trust begins on the far side of despair,” Manning writes. “When all human resources are exhausted, when the craving for reassurances is stifled, when we forgo control, when we cease trying to manipulate God and demystify Mystery, then – at our wits’ end – trust happens within us,” he declares (page 117). That trust takes the shape of humble confidence as we come to God through Jesus exactly as we are.

How then shall we live out this ruthless trust? “Trust yourself as one entrusted by God,” Manning says, “with everything you need to live life to the full” (page 145). “Ruthless trust ultimately comes down to this,” he writes in the final chapter, “faith in the person of Jesus and hope in his promise. In spite of all disconcerting appearances, we stare down death without nervousness and anticipate resurrection solely because Jesus has said, ‘You have my word on it’” (page 178).

“To be like Christ,” Manning declares, “is to be a Christian.” Yes, that’s right. It is a life of desperate faith, ruthless trust, and courageous hope. I pray to live that way at least a few seconds each day.

Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

“The history of slavery is the history of the United States,” Clint Smith writes in his newest book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. “It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and,” Smith argues, “it must, too, be in our memories” (Kindle Location 4321).

I have just finished a first read of How the Word is Passed, and I want to recommend it without qualification in the highest terms. The book has moved quickly to number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. In my opinion, that status is well-deserved. So, first of all, find a copy of this book and read it. It is beautifully written and masterfully combines history, politics, and personal story. It is the best of how one can combine journalism, scholarship, and memory. I am certain this will be an award-winning work.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

In this book, Smith travels to eight places in the US and to Goree Island off the coast of ancient Senegambia to deepen his understanding of how the people in each of those places come to terms with the history of American slavery and their places in that history. In the process, Smith experiences those places in deeply emotional and visceral ways. And he comes to a deeper understanding, not only of the history of American slavery, but also of his own story and his place in that larger history.

Smith visits and unearths in new ways Jefferson’s Monticello, New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison in Louisiana, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island and the founding of Juneteenth, New York City, and the House of Slaves off the coast of Africa.

The book shares testimony from people who have grappled with the obscenity of enslavement and the institutions that created the American enslavement system. David, a guide at Monticello, gave a clear exposition of the reality.

“Slavery’s an institution. In Jefferson’s lifetime it becomes a system. So, what is this slave system? It is a system of exploitation, a system of inequality and exclusion, a system where people are owned as property and held down by physical and psychological force, a system being justified even by people who know slavery is morally wrong. By doing what? Denying the very humanity of those who are enslaved solely on the basis of the color of their skin.” (Kindle Location 173).

The contradictions of Jefferson as “author of freedom” and holder of slaves is only one example of many such historical oxymorons Smith explores. Jefferson held hundreds of persons as slaves, used them as collateral for his farm, and decreed them to be sold to settle the debts of his estate. “Jefferson believed himself to be a benevolent slave owner,” Smith notes, “but his moral ideals came second to, and were always entangled with, his own economic interests and the interests of his family. Jefferson understood, as well, the particular economic benefits of keeping husbands and wives together, noting that ‘a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.’” (Kindle Location 272).

Smith’s trips to his native New Orleans and the Whitney Plantation contain refreshing notes of hope in a sometimes bleak book. “In a state where plantations remain the sites of formal celebrations and weddings, where tours of former slave estates nostalgically center on the architectural merits of the old homes, where you are still more likely to hear stories of how the owners of the land ‘treated their slaves well’ than you are to hear of the experiences of actual enslaved people, the Whitney stands apart by making the story of the enslaved the core of the experience.” (Kindle Location 839). I would like to see this place sometime.

Then there is Angola Prison. “The average sentence at Angola,” Smith writes, is eighty-seven years.” I had to stop and read that sentence several times. If there’s any sentence that illustrates the rotten core in the Thirteenth Amendment, this is it. Mass incarceration is not only the New Jim Crow. It’s the old slave system as well.

That’s true in literal terms at Angola, where a modern penal plantation is built on top of the old-fashioned kind. But who notices? “If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people,” Smith argues, “it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States,” he observes, “such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted.” (Kindle Location 1525).

Smith takes us to Blandford Confederate cemetery and a Memorial Day celebration to understand and experience the mythology, theology, and politics of the Lost Cause. “White Southerners’ commitment to the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether or not they owned slaves,” Smith observes as he reflects on that experience. “The commitment was based on a desire to maintain a society in which Black people remained at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” (Kindle Location 2550).

The Lost Cause, the myth of white innocence, confederate monuments, Civil War re-enactments, the KKK, and history revised beyond recognition all blend together in a surreal worldview that makes white racists the victims and those terrible Yankees and uppity Black folk the aggressors. As we know from contemporary headlines, that worldview is alive and well – and not only in the Old South.

The chapter describing the founding and establishment of Juneteenth is timely and worth the price of the book by itself here in mid-June of 2021. The concluding paragraph of that chapter says it well. “Juneteenth, then, is both a day to solemnly remember what this country has done to Black Americans and a day to celebrate all that Black Americans have overcome. It is a reminder,” Smith continues, “that each day this country must consciously make a decision to move toward freedom for all of its citizens, and that this is something that must be done proactively; it will not happen on its own. The project of freedom, Juneteenth reminds us, is precarious,” Smith concludes, “and we should regularly remind ourselves how many people who came before us never got to experience it, and how many people there are still waiting.” (Kindle Location 3079).

Throughout the book, Smith reminds us of the importance of knowing, studying, and embodying the accurate history of the United States, especially when it comes to race. “How different might our country look,” Smith wonders, “if all of us fully understood what has happened here?” (Kindle Location 2692).

History that reinforces white supremacy is nostalgic mythology, not real information. But the impacts are very real. “It is not enough to study history,” Smith argues. “It is not enough to celebrate singular moments of our past or to lift up the legacy of victories that have been won without understanding the effects of those victories—and those losses—on the world around us today.” (Kindle Location 2747). But learning the real history is a beginning in dealing with and changing how things got to be the way they are.

“Don’t believe anything if it makes you comfortable.” Damaras, the tour guide who led Smith and others through the enslavement history of New York City concluded her tour with those words. In a chapter called, “But We Were the Good Guys,” Smith reminds us that we northerners have been anything but “the good guys.” The tour begins with a journey to the second largest slave market in American history, walking distance from the New York Stock exchange. The story of the historic black burial ground in New York city gives horrifying context to the guide’s moral guidance.

“New York was unique in that, like Damaras had shared, it presented itself to me as a place ahead of its time,” Smith observes. “The pretense of cultural pluralism told a story that was only half true. New York economically benefited from slavery, and the physical history of enslavement—the blood, the bodies, and the buildings constructed by them—was deeply entrenched in the soil of this city.” (Kindle Location 3495). The same can and must be said of every inch of territory north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The chapter was a vivid reminder that while some white people were and are in favor of the abolition of slavery (and its cultural successors), it is quite possible at the same time to continue to be in favor of the outcomes and structures of racism. It was not then and is not now enough to be antislavery. Our call as white people is to live the principles of antiracism.

His visit to Goree Island reinforced the essential realities of white supremacy producing antiBlack racism and the Transatlantic and American slave systems. One of Smith’s conversation partners put it well. Europeans and Americans “considered Black Africans not as human beings but as a simple merchandise. If they consider Africans as merchandise, that is because they understand the necessity to dehumanize Africans in order to work for the acceptance by all the Europeans. The necessity to use Africans because Africans are not human beings.” (Kindle Location 3716). The economic and political practice preceded and required the story, not the other way around.

This chapter contains the most powerful single line in the book. We have often heard that history is written by “the victors.” Another of Smith’s African interlocutors put it clearly. “History,” he noted, “is written by the perpetrators.” We need history written by the resistors.

Smith closes with a trip into his own personal history. He remembers that his family is as much of a resource for telling the story as any of the places he visited. This epilogue is by far the most moving and powerful section of the book. “My grandparents’ stories are my inheritance,” Smith writes with love and reverence, “each one is an heirloom I carry. Each one is a monument to an era that still courses through my grandfather’s veins. Each story is a memorial that still sits in my grandmother’s bones. My grandparents’ voices are a museum I am still learning how to visit,” he concludes, “each conversation with them a new exhibit worthy of my time.”

Worthy of our time as well – I encourage you to read this marvelous, moving, and meaningful work.

An Excerpt from “Who Knows” — Throwback Thursday Books

The Prayers of Pious Pagans

The Apostle Paul can explain how such a pious pagan might know the potentials of God.  We read in Romans one, verses eighteen through twenty, about the natural law as written into the fabric of Creation.  Paul puts it into the context of Gentile accountability for sin, but the assumption remains clear.  “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made….”  The book of Jonah assumes that everyone really knows how the system works.

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

The sailors use a time-tested method of allowing God or the gods to decide something.  In all likelihood, they used stones or pieces of pottery with a simple yes/no system.  Is the offender in this half or that half of the crew?  Is the offender in this half or that half of the remainder?  Eventually the lot narrows the field to two men, and then to one—Jonah. 

The LORD had indeed spoken, and the mariners listened.  But they did not act immediately.  Notice the change in tempo in the story.  In the midst of tossing all manner of cargo overboard, hauling sails, pulling at oars, and crying out in prayer, the men conduct a board of inquiry.  They are models of patience, compassion and justice.

Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

The questions pour from their anxious hearts, almost faster than the story-teller can record them.  The reply must have been astonishing.  The remedy for their crisis was sitting right in front of them!

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Limburg points out that verse nine is the structural center of this scene.  Ninety-four Hebrew words lead up to this verse, and ninety four Hebrew words succeed this verse (that is, if you allow Limburg’s contention that verse sixteen is a conclusion outside of this structure).[1]  Thus the hinge of this scene is Jonah’s confession of faith.

His confession reflects exactly the terms of Genesis, chapter one.  “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’  And it was so.  God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together He called Seas” (verses 9 and 10).  Jonah gets the words right, but the music isn’t there.  In terms of Jonah’s actions, this confession rings hollow.  But it certainly describes who exactly is in charge of this scene.  The mariners know this even if Jonah does not.

Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.

Every disaster has a “tipping point” at which all the previous errors, mistakes, and broken systems cascade into one massive failure.  We get the sense from the mariners that they have passed the tipping point in their own disaster experience.  Now they must figure out what to do in the face of the inevitable.  Those who lived through Katrina had similar moments.  I wrote in my journal on July twenty-fifth about the testimony of a St. Bernard Parish firefighter.

“On Thursday nights at Camp Hope, local speakers come in to talk about their Katrina experiences. We were fortunate to hear from one of the veteran firefighters from the St. Bernard parish. I took notes as quickly as I could.


Chalmette High School (the location of Camp Noah!) was a “shelter of last resort.” Frank, the firefighter, stayed there with some of his colleagues. Two children in the parish were on ventilators when the power went off, but the fire fighters had generators to provide backup from both department stock and personal resources.


On Monday morning they thought the storm was over. The eye of Katrina had passed and the “right punch” of the storm was not as bad as they had anticipated. They thought they were safe. Then the surge came and the water started to rise. In twenty minutes the water was chest-deep. So the firefighters and others who had gathered there moved to the second story.


There was no FEMA or military presence discernable for ten days. The levee broke in the Ninth Ward and the Mississippi over-topped the local levee–thus the water levels. The folks moved to the Bell South building as the water kept rising. It was the highest local building. The water continued to rise. They stayed in the Bell South building for eleven days. Frank was there five days before he could contact his family in Arkansas.


The mariners knew that accounts had to be balanced.  Jonah had already fled.  The point of no return had been passed.  Actions would now be taken that would never have been considered under normal circumstances.

Now What Do We Do?

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

Let us begin with the last words of this paragraph.  “Nevertheless!”  In the face of the facts, they still resist pitching the troublemaker overboard.  The men are absolute paragons of virtue, justice, and compassion.  The story-teller leaves no doubt that they do everything humanly possible to save Jonah.  But, of course, saving Jonah is not their vocation.  As the waves grow higher and higher, they discover that someone else will have to rescue the stupid seer.

They assume that a scapegoat ritual is the necessary way to resolve the situation.  This point is absolutely critical in my analysis of Jonah, Noah, Katrina and Christ.  I am arguing that the Noah account records God’s commitment to renounce Divine violence as the means of resolving sin and evil. 

This does not mean that humans are freed from the use of violence in the face of sin and evil—at least in terms of the Flood account.  Two bits of poetry contain the tension arising from Noah’s experience.  First is the Divine promise.

As long as earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,

Summer and winter, day and night,

Shall not cease.

(Genesis 8:22).

Here is yet another example of the Divine commitment to renounce world-destroying violence as the means of resolving sin and evil.  But human vengeance shall remain as a mechanism for resolving specific incidents in the history of sin and evil.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,

By a human shall that person’s blood be shed;

For in his own image

God made humankind.

(Genesis 9:6).

This text certainly limits the blood-vendetta cycle to the two human beings involved in the murder and its aftermath.  That limitation is still a revolutionary idea—just think about the cycles of retribution that continue to play out in the Middle East and in our own streets between rival gangs.  Nonetheless, the opening remains for what can only be called the process of scapegoating—blaming another for my own brokenness and then requiring that other to pay the price.

I am arguing that the message of Jonah is the Divine commitment to renounce the scapegoat as the method, Divine or human, of resolving sin and evil.

The idea of scapegoating as a basic human practice has been most fully developed by those who follow the ideas of Rene Girard.  Here is a technical description of this idea.  “When groups are under mimetic stress, the group is on the verge of destruction and must find a way to deal with the negative consequences of all the residual anger that has accumulated from the various internecine conflicts. Lacking the animal world’s way of diffusing hostility, humanity has come up with its own braking mechanism to stop the escalation of mimetic conflict and that solution is the scapegoat.”[2]

One of the simplest ways to deal with group anxiety is to deflect that anxiety on to another individual or group.  Then the “offender” is killed or banished, thus taking away the anxiety for a period of time.  The Hebrew scapegoat ritual is described, for example, in Leviticus 16:6ff.  There the people use an actual goat.  But in most human communities the scapegoat is a person or group of people.  Jonah assumes that he is now required to be that scapegoat for the sake of those on the boat.  Reluctantly the mariners share in that assumption.

Jonah has shared in this assumption from the beginning.  Now we can really start to zero in on the nature of the “congregation” to which the Book of Jonah is “preaching.”  For that may be the most helpful and interesting way to view this book. 

Let us see it as a sermon directed to a set of people with the goal of bringing about repentance.  These (Jewish) folks see others—foreigners, Gentiles and pagans—as the source of all their difficulties.  Those difficulties probably include a destroyed Jerusalem temple, a capital city in shambles, a nation that now exists as a conquered province, and foreigners who laugh at any claims of power on the part of the Hebrew god.

The desire to punish those foreigners must have been intense.  What sense did anything make at this point?  The wicked prospered.  The enemies triumphed.  A system of meaning had to be constructed.  That system involved blaming the pagans for the failings of the people of God.  S. Mark Heim would describe this as “cheap meaning.”  You will recognize that description. 

“…cheap meaning is always derived by positioning oneself over against some ‘other’ considered to be wicked.  Cheap meaning makes life apparently exciting in the short term: it seems to give a purpose, but in fact it is a mirage, an illusion.  There is nothing that can ultimately substitute for the long, patient task of being brought into being as a human.”[3]

For Jonah, Nineveh must suffer and die.  Otherwise life ceases to have any meaning.  Thus it is no accident that every time Jonah is disappointed (due to God’s compassion), Jonah asks for his death.  After all, without the scapegoat, what’s the point?  Without that linchpin in the system of meaning, why would anyone want to go on?

In the Flood story, God cooperates with this strategy.  In fact, God institutes the ongoing system of limited retribution as a way to contain evil and to make such Divine intervention unnecessary in the future.  But the Jonah story helps us to see the God who rejects and renounces such tactics.  They will simply produce more sin and evil.  In fact, I would argue that the Jonah story gives us the most profound hint at the cross found in the whole Old Testament—if we have ears tuned to such hints.

Hall reminds us that the theology of the cross is the end of any and all scapegoating.  He writes, “We are not called to laud and embrace this symbol of violence and torture and death as though it were something splendid.  What is good lies hidden underneath or behind this dreadful reality: namely, God’s concealed presence and determination to mend the creation from within.”[4]

Don’t Make Us Do This!

Even the mariners know that an innocent man cannot be used as the scapegoat.  If they pitch a man without guilt overboard they will certainly be held responsible by the LORD for their crime.  Human beings shall not, in the context of Jonah, execute an innocent simply to meet their own needs for survival.  So they pray that they have discerned rightly what God intends to do with this troublemaker.

Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.

The proof is in the pudding.  Jonah sinks like a rock and the seas are calmed.  Of course, this situation cannot be analogous to the cross of Jesus Christ.  Hall directs our attention to the world’s methods for resolving sin and evil and how God has renounced those methods.

Even as we breathe a sigh of relief with the mariners now resting on a tranquil sea, we can worry about the fate of Jonah the Jerk.  In a moment, we will learn that he has not been punished.  He has a near-death experience.  But near-death is not dead.  The fish will be appointed to rescue him from the watery grave, and he will be used—like it or not—to break the cycle of violence.  Jonah is saved in order to save Nineveh.

Here is a question which Jonah’s narrative raises for that first congregation and also for us.  Do I fear, love and trust God above all else (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism) for what I hope to receive?  Or do I fear, love and trust God above all else for what I have already been given?  Am I like Jonah, obedient to the LORD as long as that obedience fits my parameters, assumptions, needs and priorities?  Or do I abandon that obedience at the first sign that God has, perhaps gone astray?

Hall suggests that our Christian doctrines can paint God into such a box that compassion and forgiveness are no longer possible.  Like Jonah, we may choose to have higher standards than God and thus become God’s enemies in the end.

“Doctrine must never become so drunk on redemption, or rather on its own superlatives and exaggerations of the redeemed estate, that it ends by denigrating the creation that God ‘so loved’ and loves.  The cross is at once, for Christians, the ultimate statement of humankind’s movement away from God and of God’s gracious movement towards fallen humankind.  I think of the cross of Golgotha as the divine determination to claim this world, however wretched its history and however costly its redemption.”[5]

It is the LORD who gets to decide on salvation, and we likely aren’t even let in on the barest outlines of that decision.  Thus we are called to be open to the needs of those who simply do not meet our standards.  Like Jonah, we will often be called to go to Nineveh.  Deanna Thompson draws this conclusion about daily living.  “To live faithfully under the reality of the cross is to live as one who has been justified by God and opened to the brokenness and needs of the world in which one lives.”[6]


[1] Limburg, page 48.

[2] http://www.preachingpeace.org/scapegoat.htm

[3] Interview with James Allison, “Violence Undone” in The Christian Century (September 5, 2006), page 33.

[4] Douglas John Hall, “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), page 11.

[6] Deanna A. Thompson, “Becoming a Feminist Theologian of the Cross,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), page 25.

[5] Douglas John Hall, “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), pages 9-10.

Jesus and the Disinherited — Throwback Thursday Books

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall,” Howard Thurman writes. “They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue,” he continues, “is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question,” Thurman argues, “is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life” (Jesus and the Disinherited, page 13).

In this edition of Throwback Thursday books, I want to review and appreciate Thurman’s classic 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited. Numerous reports indicate that this was one of the books that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., carried with him during the Montgomery bus boycott, and as he traveled to other places. It was a well-used and annotated copy that represented and continued Thurman’s impact on Dr. King and many others of the Civil Rights movement.

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It was Thurman who was primarily responsible for connecting the Civil Rights movement to the principles, strategies, and philosophy of nonviolent resistance which Mahatma Gandhi practiced and pursued. Thurman traveled to India in 1935 to meet Gandhi and learn from him. During that meeting, as Paul Harvey reports in his Smithsonian magazine online article, Gandhi suggested to Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman was a theologian and teacher of religion. More important, however, he was a mystical philosopher who was able to join the power of personal spiritual transformation to the challenges of social and political resistance and reform.

“The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world,” he writes at the end of the book. “It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of men. For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, he can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a son of God” (pages 108-109).

I am visiting this book today because it is new to me even though old to the Movement. I have been aware of this book for years but only now have taken the time to read and digest it.

My bad.

Thurman reads the Good News of Jesus Christ through the lens of the disinherited and the dispossessed, those whom he describes as the people “with their backs against the wall.” In particular, he reflects on the suffering, oppression, abuse, and violence inflicted on Black people in the United States and how the Church has been integral in that horror.

“To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail,” he writes in the first chapter, entitled “Jesus – An Interpretation.” He continues, “The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak” (pages 11-12).

Thurman could easily have written those words yesterday, rather than over seventy years ago. Very little has changed in large parts of white Christendom in the West. Thurman sees clearly that the oppression of Black people in America is part of the larger imperial, colonial, extractive process that has driven history in the west for 500 years. At a time when America was basking in the glow of victory after World War II, his vision is clear and precise.

He notes that the process of setting Christianity against the disinherited began when Jesus was separated theologically from his impoverished and Jewish origins in Palestine. Jesus was a Jew, was a poor Jew, and was a poor Jew under the domination of a controlling imperial power. Thus Jesus addressed a significant question, Thurman asserts. “There is one overmastering problem that the socially and politically disinherited always face: Under what terms is survival possible?” (page 20).

That question hasn’t changed for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people in the United States. Lynching may have gone underground, and assimilation is perhaps more polite, but none of it has gone away. We have only to read the headlines about children’s bodies found on the grounds of a former Christian boarding school in Canada to be reminded of the ongoing realities in our lives.

There is a certain spiritual kinship with Victor Frankl in Thurman’s writing. He begins with a focus on the inner attitude of those with their backs against the wall. Frankl noted that the one source of freedom which the oppressor cannot steal is the inner freedom to choose one’s attitude of response. Thurman puts it this way.

“This is the position of the disinherited in every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life? This is the question of the Negro in American life. Until he has faced and settled that question, he cannot inform his environment with reference to his own life, whatever may be his preparation or his pretensions” (page 23).

Thurman knows that this inner resolve will be wedded to external action if it has any integrity. Transformation and resistance go together for him. He defines resistance “as the physical, overt expression of an inner attitude” (page 25). The fact that our white churches are so resistant to resistance may be the clearest evidence that we have not experienced the transformation on offer through the power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In Thurman’s view, Christianity began as a “technique of survival for the oppressed” (page 29). In the hands of the powerful, however, it has become a tool for the distraction of the oppressed. “The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis,” he writes, “to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love, and the like” (page 29).

Thurman echoes the enslaved who left white churches to form their own denominations. He channels Black preachers who could not remain Christian if the Bible actually endorsed enslavement. He vibrated with the passion of Frederick Douglas who saw the hypocrisy of white Christians – the more Christian they became, the more violence they did to the enslaved. He helps me understand Nebraska’s own Ernie Chambers, who seems to love Jesus and knows deeply our white Christian hypocrisy and cynicism.

While Thurman doesn’t call Jesus “Black” in this text, the connection is obvious. “The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts” (page 34).

Thurman devotes a chapter each to the fear, deception, and hate to which the disinherited are subject. Quotable lines and paragraphs come out on every page. One that is salient in the present moment has to do with the price of deception. “The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated. A man who lies habitually becomes a lie,” Thurman writes, “and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not” (page 65).

The number of public figures who have “become a lie” grows by the hour.

He observes that mere proximity between Black and White people is clearly not enough to overcome hatred of the Other. “Understanding that is not the outgrowth of an essential fellow-feeling is likely to be unsympathetic,” he suggests. “Of course, there may be pity in it—even compassion, sometimes—but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place. Unsympathetic understanding,” Thurman concludes, “is the characteristic attitude governing the relation between the weak and the strong” (page 77).

In fact, Thurman notes, these strategies of oppression become all that gives a sort of integrity to the perpetrators. He suggests that oppressors are terrified to surrender their tools of oppression because without these tools to hold them together psychologically and spiritually, the perpetrators may simply disintegrate. This is especially true of hatred. “The logic of the development of hatred,” he argues, “is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values” (pages 87-88).

The proper response on the part of Jesus followers to fear, deception, and hate is love – and particularly love of enemy. He describes this response first in terms of how Jesus dealt with the oppression of imperial Rome and Romans. He moves by analogy to the oppression of Blacks by Whites in the United States –especially in terms of Jim Crow segregation. He writes,

“This is one very important reason for the insistence that segregation is a complete ethical and moral evil. Whatever it may do for those who dwell on either side of the wall, one thing is certain: it poisons all normal contacts of those persons involved. The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free” (page 98).

Thurman then reminds us that such segregation is nowhere more evident than in Christian worshipping communities. Ho observes, “The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established—in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like—this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers” (page 98).

Little has changed.

Thurman worked to forge a genuinely multi-colored Christian worshipping community and achieved some success in that regard. But it was the exception that proves the rule – White Christianity in America remains a tool of oppression much more than a tool of liberation.

That being said, reading this book is more equipment for the ongoing struggle to be different. I’m going to read it again now.

The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses – Throwback Thursday Books

One of the gifts C. S. Lewis brings to the Christian conversation is the capacity to turn an issue about forty-five degrees and see it from a more helpful and challenging angle. That is the case in many of the essays in the little book whose title comes from the opening address. The book was originally published in the UK in 1949 under the title Transposition and Other Addresses, and the same set of talks was published in the U.S. that year under the title we have. The volume I have read repeatedly is the revised edition that brings together and updates these two somewhat divergent projects.

“Our Lord finds our desires not too strong,” Lewis writes in the opening address, “but too weak.” Lewis was convinced that we humans are always tempted to settle for too little rather than to desire too much. He suggests that we humans are “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mudpies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea,” Lewis continues. “We are far too easily pleased” (pages 3-4).

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Lewis is describing some of the aspects of his “Argument from Desire.” In that imagery (for it is not really an argument, as such), Lewis proposes that we humans are created to desire God and all the goodness of God’s creation. Our desires for elements of creation reflect that larger desire and point to it. Desire is not the problem, Lewis suggests (echoing St. Augustine). The problem is desiring something less than God and then settling for that something as the end of the desiring process. As Augustine would note, desire is not sin. Disordered desire is.

“Now, if we are made for heaven,” Lewis writes, “then desire for our proper place will be already in it, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object” (page 6). We are “made for heaven,” Lewis suggests, and therefore bear what St. Paul in 2 Corinthians refers to as the “weight of glory.” Or we might think about the imagery in Ephesians 2:10, where we are describes as God’s “poetry” (“workmanship” is too tame and too gendered by half for the word used). In fact, we are made to desire the glory of God for which we have been created.

That glory, Lewis notes, fills every human being, since all are made in God’s image. Thus, in this life, we are called to one bear another’s burdens as we are transformed from one glory into another. “There are no ordinary people,” Lewis writes. “You have never talked to a mere moral…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…” (page 19). This is a perspective that could inform a great many issues – beginning, for example, with systemic racism.

Most of these addresses were given during the Second World War, some on the BBC. They were answers to questions of faith raised by the catastrophe of the conflict. In “Learning in War-Time,” he reminds us that even such a catastrophe is penultimate and temporary. The question of life is not whether we will die but only when and how. Mortality becomes more salient but not more likely, since death finds us all. Therefore, we should hold our life plans lightly and desire our daily bread (page 30). That’s some helpful counsel in Covid-tide.

In the face of the question of pacifism, Lewis asserts that he is not one. He anticipates the insights of contemporary psychology, that most of our moral positions are justifications of decisions we’ve already made on other bases. “You cannot produce rational intuition by argument,” he suggests, “because argument depends on rational intuition. Proof rests upon the unprovable which has to be just ‘seen.’ Hence,” he concludes, “faulty intuition is incorrigible” (page 35). Lewis seems to have been listening in on contemporary political discourse.

Lewis is more practical than principled when it comes to pacifism. He is somewhat in the school of Christian Realism, which was ascendant in the middle third of the twentieth century in the West. “I think the art of life consists in taking each immediate evil as we can,” he wrote (page 45). I’m not at all sure his arguments bear much weight in the matter. Lewis could be quite conventional in many areas of life and theology.

In “Transposition,” one of his best-known addresses, Lewis returns to the more secure ground of Christian theology. He gave this address in May of 1944, on the Day of Pentecost. If the essence of sin is that our desires are inverted, as he argues in “The Weight of Glory,” in this essay he suggests that we try to understand “higher” meanings in the framework of “lower” meanings, rather than vice versa. The result can only be confusion.

He uses the analogy of a piano transcription of a musical piece originally scored for an orchestra. While the piano piece can convey the basics of the composition, a great deal of music will be lost in the transcription. “It is clear,” he writes, “that in each case what is happening in the lower medium can only be understood if we know the higher medium” (page 61). Lewis suggests that the spiritual nature of reality is more like the orchestra score and the naturalistic description of reality is more like the piano transcription.

He examines and critiques the reductionism of naturalistic explanations and descriptions which claim to be exhaustive and conclusive. He points to the classic Christian experience of the “coincidence of opposites” as one of the places where spiritual description finds knowledge while naturalistic descriptions find only contradiction. The via negative (which is the result of the “coincidence of opposites”) tells us that there is something to be known by examining what God is not.

But we cannot rest there, Lewis suggests. “We must believe—and therefore in some degree imagine—that every negation will be only the reverse side of a fulfilling,” he writes. “And we must mean by that the fulfilling, precisely, of our humanity, not our transformation into angels nor our absorption into Deity” (page 67). Lewis has given a basic description of the Eastern notion of theosis, divinization, whether he intended to or not. It is this notion which has the greatest potential (largely unexplored) to bring together Christian theology East and West, North and South, mainline and Pentecostal.

One of his most beautiful addresses is “Is Theology Poetry?” I have always thought the answer to his question must be “Yes.” As in good physical science, Beauty is a pointer to the presence of Truth. In the end, the essay asks a question of meaning, about the intelligibility of existence. If existence is not intelligible, if — under all the scientific veneer – it is an opaque chaos, then why bother with real Science at all? Stick to pure instrumentality.

If, on the other hand, existence is intelligible, then metaphor and metaphysics become inevitable. “Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions [apologies for that slur, but it’s in the text]. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things,” Lewis argues, “not even science itself.” Whether Lewis knew Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem or not, he bears out its meaning here. The essay concludes with one of his more quoted lines – “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (page 92).

Me too.

Lewis wrestles in two essays with his lifelong anxiety about belonging. In “The Inner Ring,” he connects the desire to be part of an inner circle with our desire to belong to God. Again, it is not the desire itself that is diseased. Rather, the object of the desire is disordered. “My main purpose in this address,” he notes, “is simply to convince you that this desire [the substitution of human belonging for belonging to God] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action” (page 100).

In “Membership” he reflects on the tensions between individualism and the command in Christian scriptures to attend to the assembling together regularly as believers. He addresses, eighty years ago, the “spiritual but not religious” bent of our own time. And he worries about the tendency we see in the present moment that Christians have of equating their visible fellowships with the One, True Church. “The Christian is called not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body,” he writes (page 110). We are called to be members of another –neither individuals nor a collective.

In this address, Lewis makes some interesting observations about equality and the Christian faith. “Equality is for me,” he writes, “in the same position as clothes. It is a result of the Fall,” he asserts, “and the remedy for it” (page 114). So, for Lewis, equality is a political rather than a spiritual reality. Our value comes from God and is not inherent in us. “He loved us not because we were loveable, but because He is Love. It may be that He loves all equally,” Lewis allows, “He certainly loves all to the death – and I am not certain what the expression means. If there is equality,” he concludes, “it is in His love, not in us” (page 115).

The final essay is “On Forgiveness.” Lewis notes that typically when he asks God to forgive something, what he is really asking is that God would excuse that something. I resemble that remark. He captures the French proverb which notes that to forgive is first of all to accuse, not to excuse. “If you have a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness,” he writes, “if the whole of your action needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it” (page 122).

This transfers to our own forgiving and being forgiven. “To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity,” he argues, “it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (page 125). He acknowledges that this is hard, especially when we are called on to forgive the same offense over and over. But, he notes, “We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse is,” he concludes, “is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves” (page 125).

There is much to dislike in these essays, and much with which one can disagree. But I have found the dialogue challenging and refreshing year in and year out. I’d invite you into some similar arguments with our friend, Jack.

Text Study for Acts 8:26-40; 5 Easter B 2021

Non-Conforming (Acts 8:26-40)

It would be a shame to miss out on the first example in Acts of the gospel moving from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), and now the “ends of the earth,” aka Ethiopia. We need to exercise some care not to identify “Ethiopia” too closely with the modern nation state, although there are certainly historical relationships. Instead, in ancient usage, the label “Ethiopia” has been “used to refer to Africa [south] of Egypt, to Arabia, and even to India” (Gealy, IDB II:177f.).

The reference here is to the world beyond Palestine. “At times it simply appears to have been a useful word to give vague designation to all peoples far distant from the Mediterranean basin living in the far [south] and [east]” (ibid). I would not suggest that Luke is employing such a vague reference here, since there are details in the story specific to an Ethiopian royal realm. But it is useful, I think, to allow Luke to have multiple meanings in the background of this term. The gospel is moving out!

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By the time of our text, it was clear that “Ethiopian” generally referred to the territory south of Egypt. And Ethiopians would certainly have been darker-skinned and curlier-haired than natives of the Mediterranean basin. Ethiopia was a center for trade and wealth, with traffic in grains, cereals, and fruits, precious metals and minerals, ivory, ebony, and herbs of various kinds.

The main character in our reading is not named. His position, status, and competence, however, are clearly identified. “That a high official in the queen’s court – indeed the treasurer of her kingdom,” Gealy writes, “should be able to read the Greek roll of Isaiah is not a problem,” since the realm had been at least somewhat Hellenized since no later than the time of Alexander the Great. Our Ethiopian friend was a person of power and influence, of education and training, of intellect and curiosity.

But was he a Jew? Whether he was a Jew by birth or by proselyte baptism is not the question. The question is his ethno-religious status in light of the fact that he was a eunuch. The Levitical regulations in Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 state clearly that a man with crushed testicles or removed penis could not be part of the congregation of Israel. Such a one could not be treated as ritually clean, and there was no procedure for reversing either the physical surgery or the purity status.

If the Ethiopian eunuch was a Jew, he was in multiple senses a “non-conforming” Jew. Some scholars argue that the text of Isaiah 56:3-5 renders the earlier regulations out of date, but that is not a strongly held view. It’s worth noting here those verses.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off. (NRSV)

On the basis of the Torah regulations, Gealy concludes that the eunuch was not a born Jew and was unlikely to have been a Gentile proselyte (IDB II:178). Rather, he suggests that the eunuch was “Jew-adjacent,” (my terminology) what was known as a Gentile “God-fearer.”

Jeremias, however, offers a more nuanced view of the situation. Based on the regulations in Deuteronomy 23, rabbis issued legislation regarding “Israelites with grave racial blemishes” (terminology from Jeremias). While such Jews could be included in the community of Judaism, they could not be part of the ritual and political system of leadership. Members of these classes “were forbidden marriage with Levites…, with legitimate Israelites, and with illegitimate descendants of priests.”

Eunuchs couldn’t be part of the worshipping community. I suspect that when the eunuch was in Jerusalem for Passover, he was not permitted to enter any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. They could not marry (at least not other Jews). They couldn’t be part of the Sanhedrin or participate as officers in a criminal court. So, Jew or not, eunuchs were rejected as participants in the full life of Judaism.

Our Ethiopian friend is, therefore, “Mr. Intersectionality” – especially for readers from the dominant, white, European cultures. He represents an ethnic or “racial” group which can easily be regarded as “Other.” He is gender non-conforming, even if that status was forced on him without consent (the likely scenario, since consent was probably given by the parents before he reached puberty). He is a “foreigner” in the life of Judaism as it is centered in Jerusalem, and an outsider to the Roman imperial system.

Esau McCaulley discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in Reading While Black. In the history and tradition of Black interpretation of Christian scriptures, the eunuch is one of at least two representatives of African believers in those scriptures (the other being Simon of Cyrene). “Within the narrative world of Acts,” McCaulley writes, “the conversion of this Ethiopian manifests God’s concern for the nations of the world” (pages 108-109).

The text shows the eunuch as literate, curious, thoughtful, and familiar with the Hebrew scriptures (in their Greek translation). He is reading from one of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah and needs to have the text interpreted. Philip assists with the reading and interpretation at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “The early Christians interpreted Isaiah 53 as a reference to Jesus whose death for sins reconciles Israel and the world to God,” McCaulley notes. “This might have been what Philip explained to the Ethiopian” (page 110).

McCaulley suggests that the eunuch was especially attracted to the description of the Suffering Servant as one who had justice denied to him. Even though the eunuch was likely wealthy, influential, and politically powerful, he was still damaged goods. “In a culture with strictly defined gender roles, he would be seen as aberrant,” McCaulley continues. “Is it possible that he felt that what had been done to him was a grave injustice – for which he was forced, for his own safety, to keep silent like the suffering Christ?” (page 110).

The outsider status of the Suffering Servant (Christ), perhaps spoke to the eunuch in his life situation. He is then a touchstone for outsiders of all sorts who come to a relationship with Jesus. “If the eunuch did connect with Jesus as the one who suffered injustice,” McCaulley argues, “then he would be the starting point for an unending stream of Black believers who found their own dignity and self-worth through the dignity and power that Christ received at his resurrection” (pages 110-111).

McCaulley wants us to be clear about several things. First, it is sin that makes outsiders of us all – not something wrong with the eunuch (or Black people) ontologically. Second, the gospel calls forth and raises up our genuine humanity as children of God.

It’s worth quoting his whole conclusion. “The eunuch remained an image bearer. Christ showed the eunuch who he truly was. Christ, similarly, does not convey worth on ontologically inferior blackness. Those of African descent are image bearers in the same way as anyone else. What Christ does,” he declares, “is liberate us to become what we are truly meant to be, redeemed and transformed citizens of his kingdom” (page 111).

Pastor Lenny Duncan also discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in his book Dear Church. “The story of the queer folks in the church is the story of the Holy Spirit leading one of the early church’s most prominent disciples to baptize a queer person of color,” he writes, “a person who was studying Scripture already, which meant he was already part of the Jewish tradition or at least exploring it” (page 76). He reminds us that “the church is already queer.” The faith story of a “gender non-conforming” person is in our earliest manual on missiology, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles.

Duncan notes that some ELCA folks speak in hushed tones about our decisions as a denomination regarding human sexuality and Christian discipleship – tones that declare these decisions to be the beginning of our decline and downfall as a denomination. That’s bullshit, of course. Christianity has declined as a percentage of the US population by one percentage point per year for most of my life. So, let us not push the blame off on people we have victimized and demonized for centuries.

“People are deciding not to come to our churches,” Duncan reminds us, “because we have allowed [our churches] to become country clubs where we pantomime discipleship or to be German/Swedish cultural centers, not because we finally got the courage to love God’s own children” (page 78). The ELCA is going to continue to decline because of cultural shifts and demographic changes. Will we “go down” loving or fearing?

The Ethiopian eunuch offers a chance to reflect on the gifts and challenges of “otherness.” That must begin, of course, by talking about who is “other.” If the discussion centers me as a white, male, straight, cisgender, middle class American – if I remain the default position for Christians (and perhaps for “real Americans”), then let’s talk about something else – like arrangements for closing the church for good. But if we’re open to the surprising places where the Spirit lands, then we have some reason to go on our way rejoicing.

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-5.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.

Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018)  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.  Kindle Edition.

The Four Loves — Throwback Thursday Books

C. S. Lewis stands as an unofficial saint among English-speaking Christians. That’s especially true in the “Evangelical” tribes in the United States. I think he would find that odd, given his Anglican commitments, but he’s not the only unofficial saint to get the shaft through misappropriation and misinterpretation. The mythological hatchet job Eric Metaxas did on Bonhoeffer comes to mind as an example (but that’s a conversation for another time).

I have read Lewis since my sophomore year in college. I was never taken by the dogmatic, philosophical, and hardcore apologetic elements of his work. That’s the place that seems to grab many, but I went elsewhere. I was most attracted simply by his conversion story as he recorded it in Surprised by Joy.

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen,” he wrote, “night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (p. 266).

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I read those words not too long after I found myself the most dejected and reluctant (re)convert in all of Pella, Iowa. That’s not such a big pond for such a small fish, but it was the pond in which I found myself at the time. I identified strongly (and still do) with his description of “a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape…” That captured my position precisely.

No, it wasn’t the argument and apologetics. It was the philosophy or theology. It was his fiction. I loved The Screwtape Letters. I read annually The Great Divorce. I devoured the Narnia chronicles. I savored the Perelandra trilogy. I even enjoyed his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. In later years, I read and meditated on Till We Have Faces. I was captured not by argument but rather by art. I was somewhat repelled by what seemed to be a brand of smug certainty that had no place in my paradoxical Lutheran heart (by the way – even when I was an atheist, I was a “Lutheran” sort of atheist).

One piece of Lewis prose cuts against the grain here. The Four Loves has been a touchstone for me for most of the last four decades. I will proceed to the paragraphs which riveted me in the beginning and continue to pin me down to this moment. Lewis discusses the fourth of the four loves – agape, charity, self-giving rather than self-seeking love. He meditates on the cost of that love for the lover and why such love must be costly.

“If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that His [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preferences for safe investments and limited liabilities.” That was precisely my approach to love and to life. I treated love as a scarce commodity which could hardly ever be secured, and which was sure to flit away at the least breeze of adversity or disagreement. If self-giving love was such a rare and unstable thing, why should I put any stock in it?

“I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less,” Lewis continues. I must always still pause at this statement and take it in. Precisely that which makes the most sense to me about Love makes the least sense to the author of that Love. “And who,” Lewis asks, “could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground – because the security (so to speak) is better?” (page 120). Yet, that is precisely my default position in loving. No wonder it works so poorly for me on my own.

Our Lord’s love, Lewis notes, must be of a quite different quality. “Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom,” he writes, “does God Himself [sic] offer them?’ Does God guard against the cost of loving in the face of possible abandonment? “Apparently not,” Lewis responds to his own question. “Christ comes at last to say, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’” (page 121).

Shit. I know, not the most eloquent response. But it is precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.

Then comes the big finish. If I thought this was terrifying before, just wait. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” he writes. “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,” he suggests, “you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken,” he concludes, “it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy,” Lewis declares, “or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell” (page 121).

Double shit. Still precisely what comes to mind every time I read these words.

Lewis knew all about wrapping and protecting his heart from hurt. He had spent a lifetime doing just that. Then he met and ultimately married Joy Gresham. Three years later he buried her, dead from cancer. They were certainly the three best years of his life. Then he plunged into the depths of despair as he recorded in A Grief Observed. Grief is the price we pay for loving. And Lewis paid the bill in full.

Once written, books do not change. But we are readers certainly do. I collided with the words of The Four Loves at a more superficial level many times over the years. Lewis examines and describes our love for pets as a genuine love and real loss when they die. I was grateful for his perspective. The loss of parents, grandparents, relationships of all kinds, jobs, communities, hopes and dreams – Lewis knew and described it well.

Then Anne died ten years ago, and I started the conversation all over again. That was the moment I came to an infinitely deeper appreciation of both the wounds and the wisdom Lewis shared. I know many live and die by Mere Christianity, for example. But I prefer my Lewis wounded and uncertain, human and humble. That’s when I feel like I can talk to him as a friend.

Friendship was a love of great value to Lewis. This love is worth mentioning here as well. Most are familiar with his deep and generative friendships with the “Inklings” – that astonishing little literary guild which included Owen Barfield, Jack A. W. Bennett, Lord David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, J. H. Grant III, Roger Lancelyn Green, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The spiritual wisdom and literary power of that group is quite astonishing. Lewis describes friendship as sharing a desire and care for “the same truth.”

“Hence,” he writes, “we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” (page 66). It is not surprising that in a week and a half we shall hear Jesus describing his disciples as his “friends” in John 15. Lewis puts it this way. “The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out,” he writes. “It is the instrument by which God reveals to each,” he says, “the beauties of all the others” (page 89).

I won’t rehearse his arguments on erotic love, the third of the four. He has some legitimate cautions about the contemporary tendency to divinize and then idolize human erotic love. He is also a bit more jaundiced in his views than I think the evidence warrants. But it’s worth reading and drawing your own conclusions in that regard.

One of the great side benefits of reading The Four Loves is that it makes Till We Have Faces much more accessible and understandable. Lewis rewrites and reinterprets the Eros and Psyche myth in a complex, subtle and mature fashion. Faces is his most mature and ambiguous work. Thus, I find it his most compelling. But without his reflections on the promise, power, and peril of love (especially erotic love), it can be hard to follow.

I’m grateful for Lewis’ leading in my own return to the Christian faith. I am even more grateful for his challenge to the simplicities of that faith as he went deeper into live and love and loss. He’s not a saint in my personal pantheon. But I’d like to think that we might have been friends.

Preaching Resurrection at Funerals — Throwback Thursday Books

Nothing has revolutionized and revitalized my preaching at funerals more than reading N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. I have lifted that text up on a previous post. I still return to it and the larger work, The Resurrection of the Son of God often in my reflection and writing. Today, I’d like to describe how I have constructed and written funeral sermons over the last twenty years as a result of Wright’s work and my experiences.

The focus of a Christian funeral sermon is the good news of Resurrection to the New Life in and through Jesus Christ. That’s what makes it a sermon rather than a “eulogy.” There’s nothing wrong with eulogies. They are quite appropriate in many settings and are often beautifully composed and spoken with heartfelt eloquence. The focus of a eulogy is on the life of the person who has died. A Christian funeral sermon proclaims the Gospel of life and hope through Jesus.

This isn’t to say that one should pay no attention to the life story of the person who has died. That is hardly the case. The first element of a good Christian funeral sermon is, in fact, some eulogizing. Every human being is created in the image of God. Therefore, every human life illustrates in a number of ways the grace and life-giving power of that image. I always look for one or more “hooks” that will allow me to reflect on the joy and beauty, the depth and humanity of the person’s life.

Because the person’s life is an example of the grace, mercy, and love of God, it is possible in a Christian funeral sermon to speak with honesty about that life. I have attended funerals where I listened to the eulogy and wondered if I had come to the right service. The speaker was so intent on valorizing and sanctifying the dead person that the remarks took on the character of historical fiction. The more “colorful” the life of the deceased was, the more likely we are to hear such fictional reconstructions.

In our culture we are trained to refrain from “speaking ill” of the dead. I’m not criticizing that practice, but I am reflecting on it. Some might find it painful to relive the faults, foibles, and failings of a loved one who has died. Others, believing that there is no life beyond this one, might feel some pressure to “redeem” the story of a person’s life by a creative re-telling, since there was no other possibility for such redemption. I appreciate the sentiments in these approaches. But I think most of us find them unsatisfying, even if expected.

In a Christian funeral sermon, we can say forthrightly that the dead person was a sinner and a saint just like the rest of us. The Commendation order, which brings the funeral service to and end in our ELCA tradition, says it well. We commend the dead person into the loving hands of our Savior. We pray, “Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 283).

We don’t have to redeem anyone’s story because we trust that the Lord Jesus will take care of that. We can, therefore, speak with tender honesty (when appropriate) about our loved one’s faults, foibles, and failings. We can begin a healing process of acknowledgment if that is helpful. We can celebrate the gifts and giggle at the gaffes. We can remember the whole person who has died and “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life” commend that whole person to the care of our Lord.

That leads me to the second element of a Christian funeral sermon. We commend that whole person to the care of our Lord because we trust in the faithfulness of God as demonstrated by the risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We trust, along with St. Paul in Romans 8, that nothing in all of Creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the first part of the Gospel proclamation in a Christian funeral sermon.

Many bereaved Christians, in my experience, come to a funeral or memorial service wondering where their loved one is “now.” I find that it’s often important to give pastoral and scriptural encouragement and guidance in response to that wondering. From our perspective within time, we confess that our loved now rests in the arms of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We confess that this is a mystery of the faith, but we hold to it with both hands. That’s what we mean when we say that someone has died and “gone to heaven.” Heaven is where Jesus is. Heaven is resting in the presence of the Risen Lord and Savior.

That is where we expect our loved ones to rest until the end of this cosmos. That’s where we expect to rest as well if we should die prior to the end of this cosmos. Based on hints in the New Testament witness, I believe this is an active, aware, prayerful, loving, and engaged resting. Hebrews talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” who are now in the stands cheering us on as we continue the game of life. Revelation describes the martyrs for the faith who continue to press for justice even as they wait for the New Creation.

That’s heaven. But that’s not all.

It’s in the third part of the Christian funeral sermon, that I have been profoundly impacted by N. T. Wright’s work. That third part is the “But wait! There’s more!” section. Our heavenly rest is a profound gift, but it is a way station rather than the destination. The New Testament proclaims that in the end all things will be made new. We will be raised up to a New Heaven and a New Earth. We will live with God as we were always intended to live, in a New Creation of life and love, health and hope, purpose and peace.

Our destiny is not harps and halos, not wings and waiting. I’ve always thought that sounded God-awful boring — much more like hell than heaven, if it went on for eternity. Instead, we will be freed to explore our God-given image and likeness, our new and beloved community in Christ, without limit or end. I like to tell people that I will have the chance to read and reflect on every book ever written (well, every useful one anyway). And I’ll never run out because writing is a heavenly experience for those gifted to write. I don’t expect they’ll ever stop.

The goal of life with God is not escape from trials. It is growth into all we have been created to be. As Wright has often written, we are currently “shadows of our future selves.” He reminds us of C. S. Lewis’ marvelous address, “The Weight of Glory,” in this regard. That’s for another Throwback Thursday, but read it if you haven’t yet done so.

One of the most powerful insights from Wright for me is that Jesus’ resurrection means something specific for our life here and now. It means that “nothing good will be lost.” Jesus’ resurrection brings the power and purpose, the healing and hope of the New Creation into the middle of this lost and broken old world. Our vocation as humans is to build for that New Creation — to begin to make it a reality in our lives in the here and now.

That allows me, in a funeral sermon, to loop back to the life of the person who has died. I learned from my internship supervisor, Jim Hanson, forty years ago to end funeral sermons with thanksgivings. In a Christian funeral, we give thanks for the life and love, the work and witness of the person who has died. We point to the ways in which the Holy Spirit used that person and that life to build for the coming kingdom of God.

We remember that none of that good will be lost in the Resurrection. So we can give thanks to God for all those gifts. This is often the most healing part of my funeral sermons for the bereaved.

And it is a place where I can offer some encouragement to continue living in faithfulness. Just as the person who died was building for the Kingdom of God, we are doing the same. In gratitude for knowing and loving the one who has died, we might choose to redouble our efforts to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. I think that using funeral sermons as an “evangelism opportunity” is a detestable practice. I also think that taking inspiration from the life and love of one who has died is a healing and holy practice.

One place where Wright and I would part company is over who has access to this good news. I am an unapologetic and convinced universalist. I am in good theological company, both historically and currently. I am happy to share this good news whether the person who died was part of the Church or not. I don’t claim to know how that all works, but I do know that God desires that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. The thing is that God tends to get what God desires.

If you want to read examples of my funeral sermons, I have put them into a little book on the Books for Sale page. The names have been changed in the interests of privacy. You’ll notice the pattern I have described. Some of the words will be the same because the good news of Resurrection is for all people. I hope you might find these sermons comforting and encouraging.

The Tantalizing Tale of Thomas the T — Throwback Thursdays

In many congregations (and certainly the ones I have served) the second Sunday of Easter is observed as “Holy Humor Sunday” or the Festival of Risus Paschalis, the Great Easter “Joke.” For Holy Humor Sunday of 2014, I wrote this bit of verse after the style of the good Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. I haven’t come back to it for a while, so it’s fun to share it with you here. Please feel free to use in part or in whole (just attribute it properly).

“Tis the tantalizing tale of Thomas the T,

The disciple of Jesus, who demanded to see

The proof in his palms and the scars on his side —

To quiet his qualms and to pre-empt his pride.

They called him the “T” for he was a twin,

Though we do not know which child was his kin.

Loud and proud was Thomas the T,

And hard to convince as we shall soon see.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

This poem was part-written at home on my couch.

I hope you won’t think me too much of a slouch.

This poem was part-written in church at my desk.

I hope you won’t think me too much of a pest.

I could not have done it without Bishop Wright

Whose study and writing are such a delight!

For our Festival of Fun I hope it’s of use.

And I offer this effort — with honor to the Good Dr. Seuss.

‘Tis the tantalizing tale of Thomas the T,

The disciple of Jesus who demanded to see

The proof in his palms and the scar on his side —

To quiet his qualms and pre-empt his pride.

Thomas was stubborn and strong and severe.

He wanted his facts and he wanted them clear.

But when he was certain of what he had found

He marched with his Master on dangerous ground.

When Laz’rus of Beth’ny lay cold in the tomb

The enemies of Jesus were plotting his doom.

With stones in their hands and blood in their eye.

But Thomas declared, “Let’s go with him to die!”

Now on that first evening the doors were locked tight

Ten desperate disciples, all quaking with fright.

But Thomas the T was not there to be found.

Out checking the wind, perhaps poking around.

Who knows why he missed that initial surprise?

Avoiding the cops and eluding the spies?

And when he got back and heard all of the news,

Certain he was that the ten were, well, confused.

“I was not there!” cried out Thomas the T.

“I did not touch! It cannot be!

Unless I can prove it, you all must agree.

I will not trust what I cannot see!

Unless I can feel the holes in his hands,

I will not believe that he walks and he stands.

Unless I can wiggle my hand in his side,

I will not accept that our friend has not died.”

“All well and good,” the others then said.

“We know that he croaked. We know he was dead.

We know he expired with the last words he said.

We know he was shrouded and laid in a tomb.

And so we escaped to this small upper room.

We locked all the doors just to keep out the cops.

We thought we were safe, when among us HE pops!”

“Calm down. Please don’t panic!”

He says with a smile.

“It’s me,” he then says. “I’ll just stay for a while.

Don’t be so fearful. Don’t run off and hide.

Here, take a look at my hands and my side.”

“It’s boorish to gawk, impolitest to stare.

But we just had to look…there…and there…

And there!

And then we rejoiced, did a handspring or two!

We remembered the words of sweet Mary, so true.

As she stood weeping outside of the tomb,

A gardener appeared to cast off her gloom.

He spoke and she knew by the sound of his Word

That standing before her was Jesus, our Lord!

We thought her quite mad and overly teary,

Her past and her sex made us all a bit leery.

But as we were trembling behind the locked doors,

We knew then and there that we saw our Lord!

We knew right away that dear Mary was sane.

We knew right away there was much to explain.

Thomas the T was much less than impressed.

He knew he was smarter than all of the rest.

“There is another explanation. A ghost! A phantom!

Or just wishful thinking!

Or maybe an eyelash while you were all blinking!

Maybe the figs in that bowl have gone bad.

Or, to tell you the truth, I think you’re all just quite mad.

“I was not there!” cried Thomas the T.

“I did not touch! It cannot be!

Unless I can prove it, you all must agree.

I will not trust what I cannot see!

Unless I can feel the holes in his hands,

I will not believe that he walks and he stands.

Unless I can wiggle my hand in his side,

I will not accept that our friend has not died.”

Just a week later they gathered again.

But this time good Thomas was there with his friends.

The doors were all shut and the windows were bolted.

Then Jesus appeared and their dozing was jolted.

“Calm down. Please don’t panic!” he said once again.

Then he locked eyes with Thomas and flashed him a grin.

“So proof is the price of your trust in my way?

I seem to recall what you labored to say.

Reach out your fingers and poke in my palms,

Stick your hand in my side if you still have some qualms.

Your mind is not open, your heart filled with doubt.

But now I will tell you what this new world is about.”

“You wanted to hear and to touch and to see,

Do that and much more, and please do it for free!

But if you reach out, understand what’s at stake —

This isn’t a quiz or a game or debate.

If I am past the far side of the grave,

Then you must be something much more than just brave.

You must be willing to open your heart

And trust the new world that’s beginning to start.”

“If you must insist that the world is just so,

That you see what you see

And you know what you know,

That nothing new happens here under the sun,

Then you cannot see New Creation’s begun,

You cannot know that Lord Death is undone.

If all that you know is all that can now be,

Then you cannot grow. You can never be free

To explore past the limits of what you can see.

If all that you know is just what you can touch,

Then, honest to God, you’ll never know much.

You’ll never know loving or dreaming or hope.

You’ll live on an island, unable to cope.”

Thomas stood still as a stone for a tick.

At first he felt dizzy, and then he felt sick.

And then he felt more than a bit of a clod.

He shouted with joy, “My Lord and my God!”

Quite a confession for a good, faithful Jew,

A fellow who knows there’s just one God, not two.

But he was confronted with something Quite New.

If Christ is now risen (Christ is risen indeed!)

Then one thing is certain, a thing guaranteed:

The world has now changed and can never go back.

Death is defeated despite the attack.

Sin and the devil have run out of rope.

For the first time in ages, there truly is hope.

And now, for the big finish…

This is a story for you and for me.

We were not there.

We did not see.

We did not feel the holes in his hands.

We did not wiggle our hands in his side.

We may be convinced that poor Jesus just died.

If that is your view, you should go eat some pastry.

Before you take off, though, let’s not be so hasty.

Will we be like Thomas, closed up in our boxes,

Unwilling to think, entertain paradoxes?

Or will we be open to something Quite New,

Something we cannot re-test or review?

If you open up, understand what’s at stake —

This isn’t a quiz or a game or debate.

If Jesus is past the far side of the grave,

Then you also must be so much, much more than brave.

You must be willing to open your heart

And trust the new world that’s beginning to start.

‘Tis the tantalizing tale of Thomas the T,

The disciple of Jesus who demanded to see

The proof in his palms and the scar on his side —

He got what he wanted, his eyes opened wide.

With Thomas we share the great gift of new birth

To a hope that is living for all life on earth.

And out to the stars far beyond all the planets

Creation rejoices despite every trial. And it’s

Time to get on with the work of new living,

To love and to care and to sing with thanksgiving.

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Surprised by Hope — Throwback Thursday Books

One book that has had a life-changing impact on me is N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. This book changed my understanding of historic Christian belief in the resurrection from the dead and the impact of that belief on all of Christian theology. Wright’s work changed and deepened my own theology. He gave me a framework for funeral sermon preaching that completely changed my approach to that task. And most of all, his work prepared me to understand the death of a loved one in ways that made the experience survivable and even an experience of joy in the midst of the tragedy.

Wright wants to deal with two questions that he says often have been addressed separately and that he wants to put together. “First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” (page 5). He suggests that most Christians understand salvation primarily as an escape from this world and “going to heaven” as the final destination after we die. He will show that this understanding, while not wrong, is so limited as to contain very little of the Good News which is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Photo by William Lucord on Pexels.com

Surprised by Hope is the condensed and popularized version of the extensive scholarly research and writing contained in Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Even though the popular book describes in some detail Wright’s arguments and supporting data, I would encourage readers to tackle and grapple with the larger book to get the fullest picture. If you do that, of course, you run the risk of diving into Wright’s extensive corpus on the New Testament. But, for me, that’s the good news. I hope it will be for you as well.

Wright points out that in the ancient pagan world, dead is dead. The notion of resurrection from the dead was regarded as a foolish superstition. In ancient Judaism, resurrection is a real thing. However, it is reserved for the “end of the age” and is a general resurrection from the dead rather than the resurrection of one specific person. There is, in the first century, disagreement about whether this is the resurrection just of the “just,” or of the just to reward and the unjust to punishment, or of all people to some sort of judgment. In addition, some first century Jews also discounted altogether the possibility of resurrection from the dead.

When the Christian assertions about the resurrection of Jesus — one person in the middle of history — are combined with the Christian assertion that he is the crucified Messiah, we can understand how Paul could describe the gospel as foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. We can also sympathize with the disciples in the gospel accounts who simply had no conceptual framework to accommodate Jesus’ talk of crucifixion and resurrection until after the fact.

For Jews of the time, resurrection from the dead was an interesting topic for speculation. “But in early Christianity,” Wright notes, “resurrection moved from the circumference to the center” (page 42). This Christian emphasis on and understanding of resurrection from the dead has seven novel hallmarks that frame the conversation.

First, there is a remarkable uniformity of early Christian belief about the nature of this resurrection. Second, there is the move of resurrection from the fringe to the center of the conversation. Third is the clear description of the resurrection body as a physical body which has been transformed into something beyond decay and death. Fourth, early Christians split the resurrection into that of Jesus in the middle of history and that of the rest of humanity at the end of time. Fifth, Jesus’ resurrection is not an alteration of the present. Instead, it is God’s future arriving in the present. Sixth, resurrection becomes, very early on, a metaphor for the kind of transformation that faith in Jesus produces in the Christian. Seventh, it is the Jewish Messiah who is raised from the dead. No one saw that coming.

In addition, resurrection changes not only the end of life but life in the middle of history as well. “Death is the last weapon of the tyrant,” Wright observes, “and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it” (page 50).

Wright goes on to describe the twofold phenomena which convince the early Christians that Jesus has been raised to a new and different kind of life. First, there is the empty tomb. But by itself that would only be evidence of grave-tampering. Second, there are the resurrection appearances of Jesus to witnesses. But by themselves, they could be written off as hallucinations or the appearances of ghosts. Together, however, these phenomena told the early Christians that something else was going on here. “Both the meetings and the empty tomb are therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief and the writing of the stories as we have them. Neither by itself was sufficient; put them together, though, and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the rise of the early Christian belief” (page 59).

Wright argues that the best explanation of the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is that they experienced him as raised from the dead. This is not “proof” of the resurrection, but it is often precisely the kind of evidence that historians use to draw firm conclusions about past events. Nonetheless, the real testimony of the New Testament is that the resurrection demands more than proof. It calls for a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.

If I have a worldview in which resurrection is impossible, then I simply cannot accommodate the New Testament reports as anything other than foolishness. But I have then made an a priori commitment regarding what is possible and knowable. In fact, that’s a sort of “faith statement.” If, on the other hand, I am grasped by a new way of seeing and understanding reality, then I might expect to see and understand not only new things but in a new way. Seeing and understanding (and living) in a new way is one possible description for what we Christians would call “faith.”

“What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science,” Wright proposes (page 71). This sort of faith makes possible what Wright describes as Christian hope. “Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism,” he writes. “It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen” (page 72).

What does this mean for life in the here and now? It means that Jesus’ resurrection brings God’s abundant life into the middle of history. Jesus is not merely about “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Salvation is not about an escape from the world but rather an engagement with the world. The works of love we call social justice, for example, are ways in which resurrection life is brought to bear in our relationships in the here and now.

This world is not a husk which is to be “left behind” in some cosmic conflagration. Rather, the Creation will be made new, and we are called to begin that “new-making” work in the here and now. Christians, of all people, should be most deeply involved in the care and sustaining of Creation, not in spite of our belief in the resurrection from the dead but because of it.

Our works of love in this life matter both now and forever. Wright notes that we are not called to build the rule of God. But we are called to build for the rule of God. “All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing” (page 143).

The Resurrection of Jesus means that nothing good will be lost. “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself,” Wright declares, “will last into God’s future.” This was one of the insights in the book that made the most sense to me and gave me a new insight into why a life of discipleship matters.

The first Easter was not the end of anything. Rather, it is the Beginning of Everything. Wright proclaims “the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us” (page 200). Abundant life is what God gives now and forever. Love is not merely our duty — it is our destiny. Hope is not wishful thinking but is rather fulfilled as we live the Resurrection in the here and now.

Once I read Wright’s work, I could no longer be satisfied with the “go to heaven and play your harp” model of individualistic salvation. Nor could I be satisfied with funeral sermons that stopped short of the glories of the New Creation. I was spurred to offer more gospel both in life and in death, and the results have been nothing short of transformative. My only disappointment is how many pastors and pew-sitters settle for the halfway version of the good news of eternal life.

This is the prod in Wright’s work. Most Easter proclamations take us as far as the way-station called “heaven.” And they leave us sitting there for eternity (which to many clear-eyed observers sounds a lot like hell). Wright reminds us that the gospel of resurrection to new life takes us beyond the waiting room and into the joyous eternity of the New Heaven and the New Earth — the reality God always intended, where life is abundant and growth never ends.

That’s an Easter message I can preach (and have over and over).