The Gift

Our cat Winston has discovered the joys of Christmas.  He has taken to batting the ornaments off the tree, knocking over candlesticks, and playing hockey with one of the Wise Men from the Nativity.  The other day, he pranced into the family room, proudly presenting me with a furry pompom that he had liberated from the tree skirt.  He did not understand why I was less than grateful for this “gift.” 

Such is the nature of gift giving.  Amid all the beautiful expressions of love and “This is just what I was hoping for!” there are gifts that are unwanted, unappreciated, or that leave you wondering, “Why on earth did someone think I wanted this?”  (By the way, cats are the consummate unwanted-gift-givers. They always look so hurt when you don’t thrill to the half-dead mouse they have brought you.) 

Sometimes, though,  an unwanted gift can become a treasure.  When I was 18 and studying in Paris, I lived with a woman who was elegant, and always beautifully turned out.  For Christmas, she gave me a Hermès scarf.  Now, you have to know that the fashion at the time for college students was bell bottoms and platform shoes.  Not only did I not know the monetary value of this gift, I had no use for it in my life.  

Ten years later, when I was a young professional I discovered the scarf in my drawer and realized the treasure I had.  By this time, my uniform was smart suits and fashionable heels and a Hermès scarf was something chic young women aspired to own.  What I had dismissed as irrelevant I now cherished and proudly wore.  I still do.  

In a few days, we will celebrate the birth of Christ, a gift whose worth was not — is not — always appreciated.  It would have been hard to imagine that the savior of the world came in this way — small, vulnerable, powerless, ordinary.  It is easy to imagine that people would have thought, “This is not the gift I was hoping for.”  Even now, even after we know what this ordinary baby grew up to be and to do, people often don’t want the gift of a savior who suffers, who embodies humility, and who, instead of conquering our enemies, asks us to forgive them.  

And so, we take the gift and put it in the back of the closet.  We can forget about it for a long time until the day when a savior who understands suffering is just what we need.  We come upon it and rather than bristling at forgiving our enemies, we are grateful that God has forgiven us. 

The prophet Isaiah beautifully portrays this paradox of the gift of Christ.   He joyfully proclaims in Chapter 9, “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given..and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Who wouldn’t want that gift?  

And yet, in Ch. 53, he says this:

“.. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.”

In a few days, we will celebrate the giving of this wondrous gift — the unexpected, challenging, comforting, sorrowful, joyful gift of a savior.  May we recognize its worth and rejoice!


Armor of Light

In the dead of night, troops stormed into a small town in Judea and with clinical precision and evil intent, slaughtered children.  When it was all over, there was nothing but the wailing of mothers and fathers and siblings stunned by the speed and sheer brutality of this murderous raid. 

Perhaps you’re thinking I’m talking about recent history, but I’m not.  The scene I described happened more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, just after the birth of a Jewish baby named Jesus.  

The Gospel of Matthew tells us this often glossed-over detail of the Nativity.  It is a part of the Christmas story that doesn’t make it into sweet Christmas pageants.  There are no singing angels, or lowly shepherds, or exotic kings from the East. There was only the sickening stench of death. It’s not hard to understand why this is not the stuff of Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols.   

No, for us, Christmas is all about happy things.  Jolly Santas.  Family gatherings.  Singing Silent Night in a church lit by candlelight.  We thrill to the triumphant strains of Joy to the World. 

And yet from the first, death cast its shadow over Jesus. His very existence threatened the religious and secular leaders of the day. Like his ancestors in Egypt who painted their doorposts as a sign, he was spared death that night.  Of course, death would come to him, but not then.  Not yet. 

This is how Matthew describes it in Chapter 2 of his gospel:

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:


“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

This has become known as the Slaughter of the Innocents, and I have been thinking a lot about it lately. Not far from where it first took place, today hundreds of Rachels weep for their children because they are no more.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who included this story of death intruding on the joy of birth. I’m glad he did. This story of mass murder tugs at our sleeves and says, “Pay attention. Look away for a moment from the beautiful lights and serene creches and see humanity’s darkest impulses. Look at people’s capacity for every kind of depravity.  This is why we need saving.”  This story kicks over the rock and reveals that just beneath the surface of “civilization” is swarming, unimaginable evil. 

This story is an example that faith shows us the world as it really is.   Believers are often mocked as silly Pollyannas who trade the “real world” for pious, pie-in-the-sky fantasies of angels and clouds and “everything happens for a reason.” (And to be fair, some Christians do sound like that).  But what I see when I study Scripture and read great theologians and even talk to “ordinary” believers is the opposite. They see the world for what it is:  beautiful and terrible, full of grace and venom, reflecting the image of God and of The Enemy.  And yet, in recognizing the fallen state of our world, there is never resignation. There is still an impulse to bring more beauty, more justice, more reconciliation to the world, even as we acknowledge we will never succeed completely. 

Advent is the time when Christians wait for a savior because they know they need one.  

Jesus was born into a world where darkness was never far from him. That shadow followed him all his days on earth, and at the last, it seemed to have the final word.  Lately, it still seems that way, when the airways and Internet are full of horror and death, death, death.  In our own lives, shadows of illness, loss, and rancor threaten to overwhelm .  

But that shadow did not — it does not —block out the light of His life.  Jesus escaped death that day as an infant.  And He escaped it again as an adult when the grave could not hold him. 

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” 

                                                                                 John 1:5 

This Advent I need to hang on to that in a way I never have before. I’m resolving to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light .”(Romans 13:12)   How about you?

Witness Tree

Photo: National Park Service

Manassas. Antietam. Gettysburg. These Civil War battlefields are branded into our nation’s collective memory. Museums at each of these places have preserved artifacts and original sources so that we can hear the “voices” of those who fought here, through letters home.  We can hear the politicians’ proclamations, the newspapers’ screaming headline.  We can “hear” the pain in a letter from anguished mothers, sweethearts, and brothers. 

And then there are the silent witnesses.  Standing next to corn fields, peach orchards, and grasslands where the battles were joined are trees.  They’re called Witness Trees because they were there when the battles raged.  They saw it all. The barbarism. The bravery.  The fear, the kindness. And the death, so much death.  They stand there today, 150 years later, bearing silent witness.  

Many of them were themselves victims of the carnage.  Look closely and you can see faint pock marks on the bark where bullets grazed.  Look again and see where the cannon ball lodged.  Not obvious is the shock of looking to the fertile ground for nourishment and instead of finding life-giving water, only blood-soaked soil. 

Although many of these Witness Trees are still standing, not all have flourished. Some are just scarred husks giving no hint of their former life.  Limb-less with trunks reaching toward the sky at unnatural angles, like a bone hastily and improperly set by an overwhelmed field medic.

Yet some live on, their beauty belying the wounds within.  Some have literally absorbed the cannonballs into their trunks, treating them as a mere inconvenience to be circumvented as they went on with their lives.  Some continued undaunted by trauma witnessed and experienced, and on instinct or out of sheer stubbornness, just continued to form new cells, new branches, new leaves.  

It is hard to imagine, when the world around you reeks of death and shocks you with unimaginable depravity, that you will ever see beauty again.  I have felt that way lately.  When your own wound is fresh and you fear for your own survival, flourishing seems impossible.  Yet, standing on the sacred ground of Manassas or Antietam or Gettysberg, looking at their Witness Trees is to believe that life can come after death.  It is to believe that grievous wounds can heal.  It is to believe in miracles.  

The trees did not heal themselves, and neither do we. God took those beautiful rolling hills defiled by suffering and death, and He sanctified them with new life.  He did the same for the world after the flood.  He did it for the exiles returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. And He did it for us, when the horror of Calvary gave way to the triumph of the empty tomb.  

And He did the same for me the other day.  In recent posts I have talked about struggling to feel God’s presence.  And this week in worship, I felt joy.  It appeared suddenly and certainly not as a result of any effort on my part to manufacture it.  It just sidled up next to me, like it had never been gone.  That first small green leaf appearing when you wondered if there was any life left in you. God is in the business of grace and miracles.

“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold they were very dry.  And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord, God, you know.” 

(Ezekiel 37: 1-3)


To Whom Shall We Go?

He listened to his pastor preach a sermon, as he had many times before.  But this time was different.  The sermon contained some strange — you could even say offensive — ideas.  It left him confused and wondering if his faith was misplaced, if what he thought about God and this prophet of His was not true. 

After the sermon was over, he looked around and saw many in the congregation just up and left, disappointed and possibly disgusted at what they just heard.  They liked much of what the pastor had to say, but man, this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood was a deal breaker.  

His pastor turned to him and asked “What about you?  Are you going to go too?” 

This is what the Bible tells us happened to Peter and the disciples in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John.  

Jesus has just performed two stunning miracles — feeding 5,000 people with nothing more than a few loaves and fish, and walking on water.  The crowds follow him and he resumes teaching, and everything is going great until Jesus says this:

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 

John 6:54-56

At this, many in the crowd turn and leave and Jesus turns his attention to his disciples:

“So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’

John 6:67-69


“I don’t understand what you have just said about eating your flesh and drinking your blood.  It sounds weird and pagan, and icky.  But at the same time I believe you are the Christ.  Maybe one day I will understand, maybe not.  But this discomfort, this tension I am feeling does not outweigh everything else I know to be true about you.  So, no, I will not turn away, but continue to follow, bringing my unbelief with me.”  

This has always been one of my favorite passages in the Gospels because it captures “faith” to me.  There’s lots I don’t understand.  There are things that offend me sometimes, disappoint me so deeply that I want to turn away with the crowd and say, “Nope, you lost me there.”  

I have been through such a season lately, where I have been disappointed with God because He has not met my expectations. I prayed for healing, would have been satisfied with comfort, and received neither. I wrote recently about how I am waiting for my sadness to resolve into praise.  

In this most unhappy of spaces I have been tempted to walk away, but have not.  I have heard Jesus turn to me, just as He did to Simon Peter and ask, “What about you?  Do you want to go too?”

And like Simon Peter, my answer has been, “To whom can I go? You have the words of eternal life.”  And so, instead of turning tail and walking away in search of a more pleasing and accommodating prophet, I have continued to put one foot in front of the other, continuing to walk towards Jesus, dragging my sadness with me. This has not been easy.   

I continued to attend weekly Bible study while feeling that the Word had nothing to say to me.  I continued to attend worship when I “wasn’t feeling it.”  These were painful things.  Painful to sit where I always do, with people I have claimed as my own and to feel utterly disconnected.  Painful to hear music that once moved me and words that I believed to be true, and to feel indifferent.  When the worship leader invites me to recite the Apostles Creed, asking: “Christian, what do you believe?” I open my mouth and the words don’t come.  I look around with envy — not so long ago, I was one of them, hands raised in praise, eager to announce my fidelity, my gratitude, my submission.  I feel utterly lost.  

But where else can I go?  Some part of me knows that this place, these people, this message is my only hope, that this is where one day I will hear the words of eternal life and once again feel alive.

When I say, “Where else can I go?” I’m not shrugging my shoulders and saying, well, it’s better than nothing.  It’s not Pascal’s Wager, commonly (if mistakenly) portrayed as “It’s impossible to know that God exists, so you might as well live as if He does, just in case.”  No, I’m not hedging my bets or even faking it until I make it.  I am holding two contradictory ideas in tension:  both true, yet seemingly irreconcilable.  God is good and loving. God does not always answer me as I’d like.  I am not the first to struggle with this paradox.  It’s as old as Job and as current as yesterday.  And because I am not the first, there is great wisdom to be mined from better theologians than myself.  Consider this from Martin Luther:

“For God’s sake, then, turn your ears hither,

brother, and hear me cheerfully singing,

me, your brother, who at this time is not

afflicted with the despondency and

melancholy that is oppressing you and

therefore is strong in faith, so that you, who

are weak and harried and harrassed by the

devil, can lean on him for support until you

have regained your old strength, can bid

defiance to the devil, and cheerfully sing:

“Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall;

but the Lord helped me.’

The last time I was in worship, I was no longer envious of those around me, mourning my loss of certainty and feelings of consolation.  No, somehow, I felt buoyed by their voices, their proclamations of faith.  It was as if they were saying “You are weary. Let us carry you until your strength is restored.” It reminded me of a passage from Luke’s Gospel:

And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus.” 

                                                                              Luke 5:18-19

I always thought it was interesting that we know nothing about the paralyzed man’s spiritual condition.  We don’t know if he had faith in Jesus, we don’t know if he even asked to be healed. All we know is that in their great love and faith, his friends carried him to Jesus, the one they knew could help him. 

And that was enough.  

An Unresolved Chord

We ask in hope, but we receive in submission.

Man, was I proud of that sentence.  That happens sometimes with writing.  A sentence or a phrase appears, as if of its own power, and I say, “Wow, that’s good.”  

That sentence appeared in a post in which I explored the tension between asking God for something in prayer and being satisfied instead with His presence and His peace.  I had been praying for the return of something precious that I lost when I found my prayer had morphed into a prayer for God’s comfort in my grief, which he graciously provided.   

Then there was the time when loss overwhelmed me and God stilled my frantic thoughts with the image of his arms around me, comforting and strong.  

Or the time when I was stranded in a lodge in Yosemite, wracked with pain and waiting for daylight so we could make our way down the steep, dark, winding roads to the hospital.  My husband reading Psalms aloud got me through that night, those ancient words of lament crying out on my behalf, ultimately reassuring me of God’s faithfulness.    

And God’s presence and comfort make all those “unanswered” prayers bearable, don’t they? 

People of faith have a more expansive view of healing and provision which includes emotional, spiritual, and relational restoration.  Why?  Because the Bible tells us so: 

  • “It is the Lord who goes before you.  He will be with you, he will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31: 8)
  • “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34: 18)
  • “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 18)

But …  But what if we get neither the healing nor the comfort? God’s sovereignty tells me that he is not obligated to do one or the other, certainly not in my timing.  

What if we ask in hope, prepare to receive in submission, and get …… Silence? 

An Unresolved Chord 

I have been living with this question for quite a while. I have been through several months of the worst physical pain I have ever experienced.  Worst in terms of its severity, yes.  But worst in its randomness and its fierce resistance to any form of relief.  Pain that had me moaning and howling like a wounded animal, which I guess I was. Pain that had me begging for someone or something to help me endure it.

The pain was not just physical, because no help came.   “Heal me or help me” was my prayer through those long nights.  I waited for God to do what He had done so many times before —Give me strength to bear up.   Make His presence real to me.  Bring to mind His reassuring words of comfort and fidelity. 

I heard words all right, but they were not His.  I heard whispers of the one who saw an opportunity to pick off a wounded member of the herd.  

 “God isn’t helping you.  Why are you even asking?” 

“So much for ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…’” 

“God says he is faithful, that He will never leave you, but where is He?”

I wondered what it would be like if I took the advice of Job’s wife and “cursed God and died.”  Yes, I was that vulnerable, that exhausted, that disillusioned, that sad.  But if I did that, I figured I’d still be in pain, but without any hope of healing or comfort.  No thank you.   I continued speaking into the void.  

In music, there are unresolved chords and I was living in one. An unresolved chord just sounds wrong to our ears that are so used to harmony.  They are used to convey tension and discord.  In most conventional music, the chord ultimately “resolves” — returns to harmony — and we experience relief and satisfaction that order and beauty have been restored. 

In scripture, the Psalms do this, too.  Of the 150 Psalms in scripture, 70 of them are considered laments — people crying out to God in pain, distress, confusion, even disappointment with God.  It amazes me that these holy howls are scripture, that God not only allows us to confront Him, but honors our pain enough to consider them his Holy Word.   Of those 70 laments, all but two end the same way: in praise of God’s faithfulness, in thanksgiving for His provision, in confidence of His goodness. The most famous of these is Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes from the cross: 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are yo so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”

But even this cry in extremis “resolves” : 

“You who fear the Lord praise him!  All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him and stand in awe of him.”

But there are two Psalms that do not end in an exhale of praise and hope.  Psalms 39 and 88 are two “unresolved chords” in Scripture, two that leave us in tension, in the unpleasant and uncomfortable dissonance of waiting for the praise that does not come.  There is no comfort here, at least not yet.  

Perhaps when you hear my story you are as uneasy as I am.  Perhaps you are waiting for the “But then I heard God, but then I felt God, but then I saw God’s hand.”  You are probably listening for it like the satisfying sound of a chord resolving dissonance, moving from the cringeworthy screech of fingernails on a chalkboard to satisfying, soothing harmony.  

I am waiting for that, too.


Losing It



It is the most beautiful thing I own. 

It is a diamond and sapphire ring that belonged to my mother. She designed it herself when she was all of 15 years old, taking the gems from a necklace that belonged to her grandmother.  When I was little, I used to love to try it on, watch it sparkle, and listen to the story of how it came to be.  It was her prized possession, and after she died, it became mine. When I was a young single woman, people told me it looked too much like an engagement ring, and would scare off potential suitors. I didn’t care.  I wore it every day, just as she did, until I got married, when I ran out of ring fingers.  

I still keep it close at hand and wear it occasionally.  I wear it when the deep blue sapphires compliment my outfit.  I wear it when I just want to feel her near.  Like the day when I thought I’d “bring Mom to church with me” by wearing her ring. 

Only it wasn’t in my jewelry box.  It wasn’t in my jewelry drawer.  It wasn’t in my secret hiding place.  It wasn’t anywhere I looked.

I have rarely felt such panic.  Yes, the ring was valuable from a purely monetary point of view.  But my panic was because I lost something irreplaceable, something no amount of insurance coverage could compensate me for.  It was the only tangible thing that connected me to my mother and I couldn’t imagine living without it.    

I emptied the jewelry box over and over again, hoping that it would peek out from a corner and all would be well again.  I looked for clues and rehearsed when and where I had last seen it.  I was inconsolable.  It felt as if I had lost my mom all over again. 

And compounding the grief was fear.  How on earth could I lose something so precious?  How could I just forget where I put it? Did I accidentally throw it away?  Was this evidence of some early cognitive decline?  Did someone steal it? 

Grief and fear drove me to prayer.  I begged God to reveal to me where it was.  I pleaded for Him to restore it to me.  I wondered why God, who knew what this piece of metal and stone meant to me, could withhold it from me.  

Days went by and it remained missing.  I began to consider that it really was gone, and I began to pray differently.  I still prayed that if God wanted me to have this thing in which I placed so much value, so much of myself, to please reveal it’s whereabouts to me.  And I also prayed that if He really wanted me to go on without this touchstone, to please help me in my grief. 

This is the great tension, the great mystery of prayer.  I believe that God wants me to bring my life to him, in all its messiness.  He wants me to come to Him with my requests, sorrows, and questions.  Prayer is not a pointless performance; God does “answer” prayer.   

But at the same time, He expects me to come with humility, with surrender, with a willingness to release the outcome into His hands.  The most famous example of this is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 

(Luke 22:42-43)

This is one of the most challenging things about prayer.  We ask in hope, but we receive in submission. 

And so I prayed my paradoxical prayer.  “Lord, help me find it.  Lord comfort me in my loss.”  

This new prayer allowed me to try on for size the idea that this ring was gone from my life, just as the woman who wore it was.  Don’t get me wrong — I still hated the idea.  But I felt an unexpected peace believing that God would help me through my grief. 

I didn’t believe that when my Mom died. I was not a believer at that point in my life, and if anything, her death just reinforced the idea that if there was a God who could allow this kind of suffering and death, I wanted no part of Him.   And so, I lived through her death and through a cascade of losses that followed utterly alone in my mourning.  

Could it be that God was giving me another chance at it?  Is it possible that in re-creating that loss, He was saying “Let me comfort you this time”?  It certainly felt that way.   One thing I’ve learned about God is that no hurt is too deep or too old for Him to heal it.   And so He did.  

And yes, in due time He did restore my precious ring to me.  Its return did bring me great joy.  But I do not hold it as tightly as I once did.  I do not cling to it so desperately, as if its loss would be catastrophic.  I still wear it occasionally, but it is no longer a reminder of what I’ve lost.  I look at it and think about how God redeems and God restores.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort”

(2 Corinthians 1:3)

I Confess

When I was a kid, every Saturday afternoon I walked to St. Margaret Mary Church, took my place on line and waited to confess.  Once inside the dark tomb of the confessional, I recited the words I had been taught, “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” and listed my 9-year-old transgressions.   “I yelled at my sister. I coveted my friend’s Barbie dream house.”  

I couldn’t see the priest’s face, although I could guess by his voice who was behind the screen.  Still, it had the appearance of anonymity, which I liked. I could pretend I was alone, speaking into the void. The idea that today the Rite of Reconciliation (aka confession) is often conducted face-to-face makes me appreciate the days of dark anonymity. 

It’s not surprising then, that for a long time, I thought of confession as a solitary undertaking. The church where I worship now says a corporate prayer of confession every week before communion and it took me a long time to get used to. What bothered me was “we.” 

 “Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…”

It was grating to my ears.  After all, wasn’t confession just between me and God?  Well, yes and no.  

Certainly, I am called to confess my individual sin to God. Psalm 32 expresses this beautifully:

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered … For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover up my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  

This is a beautiful picture of God’s faithfulness to forgive the actions I have taken that offend God,  But those actions spring from something deeper and more intractable than a simple lapse in judgment:  sin as part of our nature.  A corporate confession recognizes that sin is more than actions; it is a part of human nature, common to everyone in the sanctuary with me.  

Confessing that we’re all in the same boat — that we share in this “sin nature” — actually frees me from the solitary shame that can come from concentrating on my own transgressions.  

And because it is common to all,  it removes the belief that I am uniquely sinful, alone in my sin.   In his classic book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: 

“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.”

Which is exactly where the Enemy of my soul wants me.  Isolated, shamed, cut off from the consolation of community.  

And so, I have come to see the necessity and the beauty of our corporate confession.  Yes, I am still called to bring my individual sin before God.  But in adding my voice to others’ I am breaking through my solitary shame and strengthening the bonds of community.  I am laying down my pride and my perfectionism and acknowledging my frailty and accepting others’. 

In Romans Ch. 12, we hear St. Paul describing the qualities of a believer: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”. He might also have said, “Confess with those who confess.”  In joy, in mourning, even in sin, we are not alone.  This is the great gift of community.  

In his introduction to Life Together, Bonhoeffer proclaims this most profound truth:

“Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”


Crossword Theology


I love crosswords with all their delicious words, foreign words, words that only appear in crosswords, words so delightfully obscure they send you scurrying to the dictionary!  I love the fact that crosswords are a closed universe: a perfect square containing more perfect squares, intersecting and interacting in perfect harmony.

Whatever the day’s frustrations or how much chaos threatened to overwhelm, crosswords offer the consolation of order, the satisfaction of correct answers, and the beauty of symmetry.  I can, by the sheer force of my intellect, will, and a good eraser, achieve perfection and bring order out of chaos. 

In other words, crosswords offer what the world does not.  

There are frustrations, too. Sometimes I scratch my head, saying, “If this answer is right, then the answer it crosses can’t be right.“  You see, the answers don’t exist in a vacuum; they are dependent on one another, like scaffolding.  Each piece supports the other, or else the whole of it falls.  

Which is why crosswords remind me of Scripture.  Like an answer that seems right, but somehow isn’t, you can think something in Scripture doesn’t fit with what you’ve been taught about the nature of a good and loving God.  Perhaps it seems to conflict with another part of Scripture. So some questions arise:   Why are there two creation stories, that differ (even if slightly)?  What kind of God orders genocide so His chosen people can occupy the land?  How could a loving God consign someone to eternal damnation? How can God love mercy and demand justice? 

These are some of the questions that believers puzzle over and non-believers use as “Gotchas!” to prove that this foundation is cracked and thus cannot bear the weight of belief.  These questions can be like a critical crossbeam whose removal threatens the whole structure. 

We can react in one of three ways.  First, we can throw up our hands, and abandon the belief that the Bible is authoritative and worthy of our trust and obedience. This is what those hostile to the faith hope their “Gotchas!“ will do.  

Second, we can willfully ignore the contradiction or troubling passage because it is just too painful to contemplate that we have built our faith on shaky ground.

Or, Like Jacob at Penuel, we can wrestle with God and His word and emerge with a better understanding of God and ourselves.  In 20 years of leading Bible Studies, I have grappled with such questions in a community of believers who are not willing to give up, even when understanding or interpreting scripture is difficult.  So, the question behind the questions that arise is: “How are we are to understand and live with challenges that Scripture presents?”

Some thoughts:   

How Does it Fit Into the Big Picture? 

Creation, fall, rescue, restoration. These four words describe the arc of the Bible story.   Difficult passages can become less so when they are viewed in the context of this Big Picture.  Why is there suffering and pain?  Genesis explains they are the result of our rebellion.  Why does God forgive and show mercy when it doesn’t seem warranted?  Scripture tell us His goal is relationship and restoration.  Why does God’s judgment seem harsh?  Scripture says God is holy, and cannot be in the presence of sin.  

When we struggle with Scripture, we should ask “where does this fit into the big picture?” 

Scripture Interprets Scripture. Like crosswords, Scripture is a closed universe — not in the sense of not allowing interpretation, but complete, and sufficient unto itself. For all its supposed “contradictions” or ideas that make us uncomfortable, the Bible is remarkably consistent for a document written over the span of thousands of years, in three different languages, across different cultures.  So the first question I ask when presented with a challenging passage is — what does it say elsewhere in Scripture?  Is the idea positively affirmed or denounced elsewhere?  What can we learn from other passages that touch on the matter we’re considering?

I have heard it argued that if we are to take the Bible’s view of marriage seriously, we should allow polygamy, since that appears in Scripture, and is not explicitly forbidden. While it is true that polygamy is mentioned, it is never held up as good or desirable. In fact, if you read the instances of polygamy mentioned (for example Abraham, Jacob, or King Solomon,) it always leads to pain, brokenness, and in the case of Solomon, nothing less than the demise of the Kingdom.  In other words, in Scripture (as in crosswords) “answers” do not exist in a vacuum. 

Many Books, Many Genres

The Bible is not any one thing;  in fact, the word from which it is derived (biblios) means books.  And those books are written in a variety of genres.  There’s history and poetry and metaphysics, prophecy and apocrypha, wisdom literature, prayers, and letters.  When you read a book of poetry, you don’t expect to find history.  When you read  a metaphysics textbook, you won’t find prayers there.  So the first order of business when confronting something difficult or discordant is to ask “How does the genre of this scripture affect my understanding of it?” 

When we read  in Psalm 22, “I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint,” we do not think think this poor wretch has dislocated every joint in his body.  We understand he is using metaphor to describe his anguish.  

People are sometimes puzzled when the Gospels seem to disagree on details or chronology.  We need to remember that the Gospels aren’t biography, at least not in the way we read biography today.  Each one was written in a particular way for a particular audience, through the lens and memory of a particular writer.  Like any writer, they emphasize some things, exclude others.  But the Gospel writers, in spite of any different paths they may use to lead us there, bring us to the same, immutable truth:  that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Leave Room for Mystery

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, answers elude us.  And that is when we need to allow for mystery.  I know it sounds like a cop out.  But if we believe what is written in 2 Timothy 3:16  — “All scripture is breathed out by God”—  then we have to admit to some mystery because we cannot completely know the mind of God.  Perhaps it is a mystery that will be revealed to us at a later reading; perhaps not until we we see God face to face.  

How to understand and interpret the Bible has been discussed and debated for millennia, by people far more learned than me.  These are just some of my musings, by no means exhaustive or even authoritative. I do have some suggestions for resources if you’d like to explore this further:

  • A Good Study Bible.  These are enormously helpful in understanding difficult passages by giving historical context, explaining word meanings and cross references to other related scripture.  Some study Bibles are too “directional” for my taste, especially the ones that say “This is what this passage means.”  But that’s just me. 


  • Commentaries.  A great place to start is a series of commentaries by Tom Wright (for example, “John for Everyone”).  These are solid theology written for the lay reader.


  • Shaped by the Bible by William Willimon


  • Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson.  This is a good treatment of “the art of spiritual reading.” 


  • The Bible Jesus Read by Philip Yancey.  This is an engaging exploration of the Old Testament and its relevance to Christians.

And these are just the ones on my bookshelf!   I leave you with this: 

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete for every good work.” 

The Haze of Sin

The Haze of Sin

I am confined to quarters today.  An air quality alert has been issued and it’s easy to see why.  The air has an orange hue to it and breathing it in irritates the throat and eyes.  There is even an acrid smell to it.  

You might think that I’m close to some industrial accident, but I’m not.  The fire that is causing people all over the Northeast to take cover is 1,000 miles away in Nova Scotia, where wildfires are raging.  

It’s hard to believe that something so remote could make me wear a mask to walk to the end of my driveway to retrieve the newspaper, but there you have it.  The wind currents are carrying these toxic effects far beyond their source.

Sin is like that, too.  When we rationalize our own sin (and we all do), it’s often because we think we’re not harming anyone else, so why not?  And even if we admit we might be harming ourselves, it’s our choice to make, isn’t it?

But sin is never so neat, so contained.  It doesn’t respect the boundaries we’d think we’ve set for it.  It seeps and it oozes through barriers that are more porous than we imagine.  We underestimate its Houdini-like ability to escape and wreak havoc on our relationships, our community, our world.  In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our transgressions are like the haze outside my window:  carried aloft into unexpected places, causing damage far beyond our expectations.  

You might recall that in the wake of the scandal that marked his presidency, Bill Clinton spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and recited Psalm 51. This beautiful prayer of confession and contrition addressed to God included this verse: “Against you, you alone have I sinned.”  

But he was wrong. Whatever his personal sin, it didn’t remain personal. His sin was between him and God, true.  But its effects went far beyond that. He damaged his family and his country.  (By the way, so did King David, who wrote the Psalm.) 

It’s tempting to measure our sins against the “worst” sins and shrug.  Unlike King David, I haven’t committed adultery and then killed someone to cover it up.  Unlike Bill Clinton, my sin hasn’t thrust the entire country into turmoil.  But … every harsh word I utter disrespects someone God loves.  Every time I indulge my pride, I drive a wedge between me and “them.”  Every lie, no matter how trivial it may seem, corrodes trust.  

Pornography is a good example of how “private” sin spreads. It has become a fact of modern life, readily accessible to anyone with a screen and a seemingly victimless activity.  After all, who is it hurting?  Isn’t it just between me and my computer screen?  But research has shown the toll pornography is taking on (real) human relationships.  And it is certainly not victimless.  Many of the people who participate are trafficking victims. And so, the haze spreads far beyond one keyboard.   

If you are chastened by all this, you might be tempted to white-knuckle it and vow to fight harder against sin in your life, to keep it contained. That might work for a while. But our only real hope lies outside of ourselves. As anyone who has struggled with deep-rooted destructive behavior knows, our best intentions and strongest willpower are no match for a force we cannot control.  

We are not alone.  St. Paul wrestles with this very thing in Romans chapter 7 (verses 18-25).  Some excerpts:

“For I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out ….

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  

Like every question in every children’s sermon ever given, the answer is …Jesus!  Jesus, who is not only our model, but our means of becoming more like Him.  Jesus, our confessor and the one who offers absolution.  Jesus who has delivered us from “this body of death” by his own death.  

We will never be without sin, at least not in this life.  But we can listen to the Holy Spirit when He reminds us that there is no such thing as a private sin.  And we can contain the spread of sin’s noxious fumes by hastening to ask for forgiveness from God and those we have hurt.  Thanks be to God.

Moments of Grace

My last post was a cri de coeur , a lament over the current state of discourse.  Particularly painful was that, on occasion I found the same brittleness, the same arrogance in the the Christian community as in the rest of the world. 

And yet, that is not the whole story.  Because as many times as I have been disappointed by harsh words and intolerance, (and have disappointed others with the same), I have glimpsed moments of grace among believers.  Moments of grace that have brought me to tears, moments so improbable that they could only be supernatural. 

One such moment happened in the midst of great conflict, as accusations flew and demonization was the price of admission. 

I was at a Christian conference at which the hottest of hot-button issues was being debated.  The usual battalions faced off in a hotel conference room.  I rose to propose an amendment to a resolution being considered, an amendment vehemently opposed by another group.  I was suggesting the removal of a paragraph in an otherwise worthy resolution, a paragraph that was asserting things that were simply not true, and irrelevant to the issue at hand. 

To everyone’s surprise, Candy, part of the group opposing my amendment, spoke in favor of it.  Certain she misunderstood, the chair explained that she was speaking in favor of the amendment, not against it.  She understood, all right. She was willing to withstand the scorn of her group because although she and I disagreed about just about everything else, she did not think her “side” needed to lie in order to win points. 

Later that day in front of the entire assembly of 1,200, Candy approached me and we talked, as unlikely a pair was you’d ever want to see. When we parted, we hugged.  It was a moment of sheer grace for all to see.  In that moment every division, every disagreement of policy and theology, every contemptuous put-down either of us had ever offered or received vanished. 

I have thought about her a lot lately.  More than anything, I want to have her bravery, her humility, her love that doesn’t require agreement or capitulation.  In the time since that moment of grace, I have come to see that if we as Christians can’t talk about hard things with each other, we certainly can’t expect the world to be able to do it. And so, I try to learn from her example:

  • You must never sacrifice the truth in the pursuit of what you consider your just cause.  
  • The minute you think “Us vs. Them” you have abandoned the way of Jesus. To Him, no one was beyond grace, no one was irredeemable. Just read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).  Both sons were “lost”. The father held his arms open to both, welcoming them home. 
  • It takes great strength and integrity to be humble.  Along with the firm conviction that I am right, I try to leave space for four important words:  “I could be wrong.”  

Yes, there are still times when I am disappointed in myself and others when we behave badly.  But there are times — transcendent times, joyful times, — when empowered by the Holy Spirit we can speak the truth in love, when we recognize Christ in the other.  

And it is nothing less than the Holy Spirit, because as we see in the world, this is not something we are able to do ourselves.  Let’s face it, it is downright unnatural to give mercy, to admit our own failure, to continue to love when all we feel is hate.  But when we can, when we do, it is the power of God in us.  

Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples sat in that room, full of fear, grief, and uncertainty.  And the holy wind swept through and replaced their fear with boldness, their grief with joy, their uncertainty with an unshakeable determination: to leave that room and take the Gospel to a sometimes hostile the world.  

On Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the church.  Yes, that church that is only as good as the people in it, a church that is full of flawed saints who nevertheless have the light of Christ in them.  I’m reminded of these words from 1 John 4:4:

“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” 

We celebrate the birth of the church where that holy wind is still blowing, allowing us to show extraordinary love, practice forgiveness, and experience grace.  

I want more of that in my life, don’t you?  

Come, Holy Spirit, come.