Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter is about living

Easter is about living, in the present and forever. In Charles Wesley's masterful hymn "Christ The Lord is Risen Today," the fourth stanza reads,

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!

Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

We are made like Christ in baptism, and therefore we will rise like Christ in the Resurrection. 

The Wesley brothers understood that the transformation that occurs in the Resurrection begins in this present life. Our nature in the image of God, tarnished by sin, is restored by the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, to put the matter differently, each of us is a work of art, but we have to be restored to our intended condition by a master worker in this craft. Once this process begins, we can start living into the will of the artist who created us. Note in this icon that Christ stands top the cross. Christ conquers all that the cross stands for, which includes not only death, but our rejection of God's work and will. 

Easter is a celebration of the Resurrection, and the Resurrection is about living, not just in the age to come, but in the now.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jonah and three days in the tomb

In the earliest Christian art, the most popular representation is the Good Shepherd, a David-like figure carrying a lamb over his shoulders. After the Good Shepherd, the most popular figure is… wait for it….



Yep, Jonah. Images of Moses, Daniel, the three Hebrew young men protected within the furnace, and many other Old Testament figures are there, but not as commonly as Jonah. Why would that be?

The symbolism is pretty easy to put together.  Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days. Christ was in the tomb for three days. Jonah becomes an archetype of Christ.

Part of what is so striking about this is the emphasis upon waiting, the three days in the tomb. We commonly focus on Easter, and sometimes on Good Friday, but a simple acknowledgement of our waiting on Christ, in the midst of circumstances that seem dark, even hopeless, has been largely abandoned in Protestantism.

Christian beliefs don’t function in isolated pieces. Rather, they work together like the components of an ecosystem. What happens in one area comes to bear in significant ways on other areas of belief. The three days in the tomb, then, presuppose Good Friday and Easter, but they also have their own theological significance that enriches our understanding of Good Friday, Easter, and the rest of the Christian life. Good Friday is a demonstration and acknowledgement of the depth of human sin. In the three days in the tomb we wait within the consequences of sin—pain, loss, sorrow and death. And in Easter, God’s power breaks in amidst all of these, conquering even our great enemy, death.

So back to Jonah…. Perhaps the lived experience of these early Christians reminded them of the three days in the tomb. Yes, their sins had been atoned for, but their lives were still marked by difficulty, pain, and isolation. It wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the earliest days of the faith, just as it isn’t easy to be a Christian for many people today. The three days in the tomb presuppose the forgiveness of our sins, and look forward to God’s great victory, but they also acknowledge that life in the now isn’t easy.

As people of faith, we need to own this. Life isn’t easy. If it is, then you’re not really engaging with the world around you. Forms of Christianity that don’t acknowledge this may attract a great many people, but they will also excel at creating ex-Christians. The paper mache life of blessing without sorrow will fall apart in the first rainstorm. Yes, God loves us, cares for us, and abides with us in the Holy Spirit. Yes, God shows up in unexpected, powerful, miraculous ways. Still… life isn’t easy. The image of Jonah shows us that Christians acknowledged this from the earliest days of the faith. 

Friday, March 29, 2013


Good Friday is a holy day that we associate with atonement. This is the day that marks Christ’s death on the cross that makes atonement for the sins of humankind. As we read in Ephesians, in Christ Jesus, we who once were far off have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ (2:13)

Atonement can be thought of as “at-one-ment.” It is the way in which the breach between God and humankind created by sin is healed. That healing means not just that God forgives us, but that we receive the medicine of the Holy Spirit to help us become renewed people. Inherent to the renewal of our souls are virtues such as humility, forgiveness, and kindness. 

When Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, part of what he is addressing is the quarrelling between the members of the community there. This quarreling  he says, is not consistent with the behavior of people who have been transformed by Christ. Believers are to have “the mind of Christ,” and, if they do, they will regard one another as better than themselves. They may even allow themselves to be wronged by another without seeking reprisal. To show what the mind of Christ looks like, he quotes to them a hymn they sang together: 

We call this the kenosis hymn, after the Greek word for "emptying." In Paul's use of this hymn, Christ's humility and self-giving become the model for interaction between believers. Self-aggrandizement within the church is at cross-purposes with the very nature of Christ. 

Good Friday, then, isn't just about the forgiveness of our sins. It's also about becoming the kind of people who are more like Christ. This means putting away arrogance and self-serving attitudes, forgiving those who have wronged us, and seeking harmony in the church through the realization of God's will. These are not easy characteristics to cultivate or goals to achieve. They cannot be bought on the cheap. Grace is costly--so costly, in fact, that it meant the death of the incarnate God on the cross. 

On Good Friday, let us be thankful not only for the forgiveness of our sins, but for the transformation that takes place in and through the cross. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Beings of Sacred Worth

March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day. Why do we need a World Down Syndrome Day? People with Down Syndrome represent one of the most misunderstood people groups in the world. They are commonly stereotyped, labeled, and marginalized. Until a generation ago, they were routinely institutionalized. Today, pregnancies in which the child is identified as having Down Syndrome are most often terminated. 

Down Syndrome is a condition in which a person has an extra chromosome in every cell of his or her body. This extra chromosome can present some pretty serious challenges, both physical and intellectual. A challenge, however, is just that. It is not a dead end. We know today that people with Down Syndrome have far more potential than they have been given credit for in the past. 

This is where "people first" language can be helpful to us. People with Down Syndrome are, above all else, people, and they need and deserve to be treated as such. They are not, first and foremost, disabled, mentally challenged, or physically challenged. They are people. No single characteristic defines them, just as no single characteristic defines any one of us. 

For those of us in the church, recognizing this simple fact should come as second nature. After all, we have this very interesting branch of theology called "theological anthropology," which tells us what human beings are. We are created beings of sacred worth. Whether we are able-bodied or disabled, highly intelligent or mentally challenged, rich or poor, male or female, straight or gay, Christian or non-Christian, we are beings of sacred worth. That should be the starting point for all Christian conversation around the different groups of people we encounter in our lives. In fact, starting the conversation here will make these various groupings seem quite less significant. 

To learn more about World Down Syndrome Day, click here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Divine Healing Conference

United is hosting our third annual Light the Fire conference on April 18-19 at Ginghamsburg UMC. This year the topic is divine healing--physical, spiritual, emotional. The speakers and workshop leaders include world class scholars, UM bishops, and internationally known church leaders. Proceeds from the conference will go to support the Ginghamsburg Sudan project. This is going to be an amazing event. I hope you can make it. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

A New Wesleyan Catechism

Years ago, when I was an MDiv student, I sat in Billy Abraham's evangelism class and listened to him talk about the need for serious catechesis in the United Methodist Church. A couple of years ago, this issue came up again in a conversation that Billy and I had at a conference, and out of that conversation came a new book. This book, Key United Methodist Beliefs, is a ten chapter account of Christianity from a Wesleyan perspective written for laypeople. 

One of the more unusual features of the book is that it contains a traditional catechism, much of which is based upon the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, but with a distinctively Wesleyan spin. Catechesis has been an integral part of the formation of disciples for much of Christian history, but it has largely been abandoned within mainline Protestantism. This has been a great loss. There is a basic content to Christian faith, and that basic content really does matter. 

If you do end up reading or using this book in your congregation, I would very much like to have your feedback regarding how it did or didn't work for you.