Thursday, May 28th
I, Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Like so many of you I have been fascinated by the creativity and intelligence of so many doctors and scientists who are investigating not only the cause and effect of the coronavirus, but the possibilities for treatments and vaccines. They understand the molecular world of biochemistry in ways that stun us with their insights and knowledge. As I’ve watched interviews with some of them about their work, I’m reminded of something that the theologian Dallas Willard once said to a group of us attending a conference at Regent College.: “Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived.” It was such a simple sentence, but for me, it was a most profound statement. So much of my study had been trying earnestly to understand the human Jesus that I had almost, in the parlance of the time, “dumbed” Jesus down. Perhaps I needed to readjust my theological glasses and get a more comprehensive view of Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Colossians has helped bring that into better focus.
Colossians has long been a controversial letter for Pauline scholars. The letter proclaims that it is written by Paul, but in the salutation he joins to his name that of his traveling companion, Timothy. This would not be considered all that unusual, because he was prone to do that in his writing. However, some scholars point out that the body of the letter itself reveals several instances where it would seem that this is not Paul writing, but someone in the Pauline tradition. The question of whether Paul actually wrote this letter is one of ongoing theological discussion. For our purposes, we will assume that Paul sent this letter, not only to a church in a place called Colossae, but to us.
This mysterious letter is one of Paul’s four Imprisonment Epistles (The others are Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon.), and it gives us much to wonder about. We don’t know the exact location of his captivity at the time of its writing. And the city of Colossae is a bit of a mystery itself, in that it was leveled by an earthquake just a few years after this letter was drafted. The letter reveals a fondness that Paul had for the church. It was not one of the congregations that he had started himself. In fact, he had not visited it when he made his first missionary journey to Asia Minor, but he had received reports of its faithfulness. Thus, he writes this letter to express his affection and appreciation, and to encourage them in their Christian walks, especially in the face of heretical teachings that were causing problems among some of the members. We do not know the exact content of these teachings (Historians suggest that astrology, angel-worship, Greek religious influences, and cultic practices all may have played a part.), but it is obvious from Paul’s tone that he considers the false ideas a deadly danger to the young church.
Yet another mystery is found in verses 15-20 of today’s passage, which are separated above as a distinct paragraph for identification purposes. This portion of the scripture has a distinct style and a unique vocabulary, prompting students of Colossians to believe that it is actually a hymn, possibly a baptismal hymn that was already well-known and in use by first-century congregations. It is thought that Paul may have adapted this part of their liturgy, perhaps tweaked a word or phrase here and there, to effectively make his case even further, reminding his brothers and sisters that Christ gives meaning to the entire universe, and that Christ alone gives meaning and purpose to life. Paul is imploring them to put Christ first in their lives, and he does that in this letter with an intense, purposeful mixture of heart and head. He knew from personal experience the consequences of a city, a church and even a person who did not make Christ a priority in their lives.
Albert Schweitzer, who wore many proverbial hats as a physician, theologian, humanitarian, philosopher, organist, and writer, made many contributions to the study of Paul’s teachings. In Schweitzer’s 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he wrote:
Jesus comes to us as One unknown,
without a name, as of old, by the lakeside.
He came to those men who knew him not.
He speaks to us the same word:
“Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks
which he has to fulfill in our time.
And to those who obey him,
whether they be wise or simple,
he will reveal himself
in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings
which they shall pass through in His fellowship,
and, as an ineffable mystery,
they shall learn in their own experience
who he is.
In the 1976 film Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, an eight-hour miniseries that is still shown on television every year around Easter time, Jesus was played by the fine British actor Robert Powell; Olivia Hussey portrayed Mary, his mother; Anne Bancroft was Mary Magdalene; and Ernest Borgnine had a small but crucial role as the centurion whose son Jesus healed and who was later present at the crucifixion. As Borgnine tells it: “When it came time for my scene during the crucifixion, the weather was chill and gray. The camera was to be focused on me at the foot of the cross, and so it was not necessary for Robert Powell, the actor who portrayed Jesus, to be there. Instead, Zeffirelli put a chalk mark on a piece of scenery beside the cameraman. ‘I want you to look up at that mark,’ he told me, ‘as if you were looking at Jesus.’ I hesitated. Somehow I wasn’t ready. I was uneasy. ‘Do you think it would be possible for somebody to read from the Bible the words Jesus said as He hung on the cross?’ I asked. I knew the words well from the days of my childhood in an Italian-American family in Connecticut, and I’d read them in preparation for the film. Even so, I wanted to hear them now. ‘I will do it myself,’ Zeffirelli said. He found a Bible, opened it to the Book of Luke, and signaled for the camera to start rolling. As Zeffirelli began reading Christ’s words aloud, I stared up at that chalk mark, thinking what might have gone through the centurion’s mind. That poor man up there, I thought. I met him when he healed my servant who is like a son to me. Jesus says he is the Son of God, an unfortunate claim during these perilous times. But I know he is innocent of any crime. ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The voice was Zeffirelli’s, but the words burned into me – the words of Jesus. (Luke 23:34-46) Forgive me, Father, for even being here, was the centurion’s prayer that formed in my thoughts. I am so ashamed, so ashamed. ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise,’ said Jesus to the thief hanging next to him. If Jesus can forgive that criminal, then He will forgive me, I thought. I will lay down my sword and retire to my little farm outside of Rome. Then it happened. As I stared upward, instead of the chalk mark, I suddenly saw the face of Jesus Christ, lifelike and clear. It was not the face of Robert Powell I was used to seeing, but the most beautiful, gentle visage I have ever known. Pain-seared, sweat-stained, with blood flowing down from thorns pressed deep, his face was still filled with compassion. He looked down at me through tragic, sorrowful eyes with an expression of love beyond description. Then his cry rose against the desert wind. Not the voice of Zeffirelli, reading from the Bible, but the voice of Jesus himself: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ In awe I watched Jesus’ head slump to one side. I knew he was dead. A terrible grief welled within me, and completely oblivious of the camera, I started sobbing uncontrollably. ‘Cut!’ yelled Zeffirelli. Olivia Hussey and Anne Bancroft were crying, too. I wiped my eyes and looked up again to where I had seen Jesus. He was gone. Whether I saw a vision of Jesus that windswept day or whether it was only something in my mind, I do not know. It doesn’t matter. For I do know that it was a profound spiritual experience, and that I have not been quite the same person since. I believe that I take my faith more seriously. I like to think that I’m more forgiving than I used to be. As that centurion learned two thousand years ago, I too have found that you simply cannot come close to Jesus without being changed.”
Perhaps in kneeling today, we’ll look up and have a better understanding of Jesus the Christ.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a most interesting book, Your God Is Too Small. Take some time today to consider the grandeur of God. Imagine looking at this world as a scientist might, through a microscope or telescope, and see that there is more than meets the human eye or comprehension.
In the “hymn” portion of Paul’s letter, we find descriptions of Christ as: the image of the invisible God; firstborn of all creation; head of the body, the church; the indwelling fullness of God. Does one of these resonate with your belief and understanding more than another? Would there be another term that better portrays your faith’s image?
Paul used a hymn to speak to the hearts of his listeners. Music is such a force in our memories, thoughts and emotions. Can you call to mind a hymn, song, or chorus that is meaningful to you? Sing it as a prayer and as a way for God to speak to you.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Saturday, May 16th
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.
— John 2:1-12
There are so many difficult stories about planned events that have been recently cancelled due to the pandemic. The list (e.g. sports, concerts, camps, graduations, etc.) is too long to begin a litany. However, today I am drawn to thinking about folks who have been planning weddings. There has been a lot of press about Princess Beatrice of York and her topsy-turvy experience in planning a royal wedding. We know a couple having Zoom bachelor/bachelorette parties this weekend, an immediate-family only wedding, and a drive-by reception. That’s creative, to be sure, but you’ve heard of many others, I would guess, whose enthusiasm and excitement now have to be postponed or morphed into a different scenario altogether. It is hard, but this gray cloud might have a silver lining, and that lining is this – maybe this time is a grand opportunity to pay more attention to what a wedding is supposed to be in the first place. This first “sign” described by the author of John may help in this regard.
Much biblical scholarship points to the fact that John was the last gospel written, perhaps as much as twenty years after the other three. Debate has gone on for some time about whether or not the author of John read the others before writing his. One would think, because the early Christian network kept in contact with each other via epistles, visits, etc., that surely this writer had some idea of the prior gospels. If that is true (and even if it’s not, and he had no prior knowledge), this gospel is all the more remarkable because of the way it is written. John (I’m going to use the proper name through our devotionals, fully acknowledging that the authorship of this gospel is up for debate.), instead of developing his gospel in a chronological fashion similar to the synoptics, is more intent on developing his gospel in a “kairos,” a theological sort of way. John does that by employing an outline of seven events – seven miracles that he designates as signs of the kingdom, seven lessons about the kingdom, seven insights into the heart of Jesus.
Today we deal with the first of these signs – the wedding at Cana in Galilee. I love this story for so many reasons, the main one being that it has a number of intriguing angles to it, and like a prism, moving just a bit sheds new light, asks new questions. Just the terminology alone could occupy our attention for a month of Sundays. There is the beginning phrase, “On the third day”. . . the third day of/after what? Does this reference a specific prior event, or is the number used as a symbolic literary technique, as it often was in the Bible? Or what is the significance of noting that there are six jars, each holding as much as thirty gallons of water (which, when turned into wine is a lot of wine!). Speaking of which… wine was more than just liquid refreshment in Jewish life. In the first-century Jewish world, wine was a symbol for the joy of being in God’s Presence. There is an old rabbinic saying that says: “Without wine, there is no joy!” Then again, there is Jesus’ strange tone in addressing his mother: “Woman.” And what does Jesus mean when he says, “My hour has not yet come.”? (Raymond Brown, the gifted Catholic scholar, notes that this statement could be seen as an affirmative interrogative, which could instead be understood as “Has my hour not now come?”) Finally, there is that great line of “saving the best for last”, uttered by the steward who meant it one way, but perhaps intended by John to be seen at even a deeper level.
Another fascinating aspect of this story is Mary’s exchange with her son. I like to imagine Mary making her way over to Jesus who is standing with his disciples, telling jokes and stories, enjoying the merriment of the moment, and being the life of the party. She says to Jesus, “We’ve got a problem. We’re about to run out of wine.” Jesus looks at her and says, “Why do you say ‘we’? Besides, my hour has not yet come.” Now, Mary could have said a lot of things. She could have said, “This is our cousin. This is our family.” Or she could have said, “Jesus, your disciples are the problem. We planned for 200 people, about 60 adults, and you brought in these 12 men with big appetites and few manners. They don’t mind eating the last sandwich on the plate, nor do they mind taking more than a glass or two of wine.” Mary could have said a lot of things, but she didn’t. Mary didn’t say anything else to Jesus. Rather, like the confident mother she was, she turned to the servants and said, “He will take care of things. Do whatever he tells you.” With that, she turned and walked away. Later, when the maître d’wedding announced the pouring of the best wine, I like to think she looked over her shoulder at her son with a sly, proud wink.
There is still so much more that we could examine, but my question today is that, with all the lessons, sermons, deeds and miracles of Jesus, why does John begin with this one? And why does he use this story that is not even found in the Synoptic Gospels? My take on this is that this act was an inauguration event, of sorts. Jesus, in this deed, is proclaiming his purpose, his calling, and that is to take a dying world and infuse it with life, life that has an eternal quality to it.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a brilliant man, no doubt about it. Educators recognized it. When King went to high school, they allowed him to skip the 9th grade. Then Morehouse College, whose student body had been depleted because of World War II, allowed high school juniors admittance if they could pass the entrance exam. Martin took the exam, passed, and was matriculated at the age of fifteen. It was there that he felt the call to ministry, and following college he went to Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he earned his B.D. His father felt that would be enough education, but King went on to Boston University where he received a Ph.D. in theological studies. It was there that he met Coretta, a gifted musician. They married and moved to Montgomery, where he anticipated becoming a pastor, following in his father’s footsteps. However, the Civil Rights movement pulled him from the pastoral duties of the local parish into national prominence. He became a spokesman for the movement because of his keen intellect and his poetic brilliance. Martin King had learned the nuance of poetic preaching, enhancing theological and social insights with elegant rhetoric.
By 1963 King was known nation-wide and was asked to address the gathering of people from all over this country at the March on Washington. It was that speech that made history. Interestingly enough, the speech King wrote and the speech he gave were different. The night before, he gathered with his advisors and writers. They kept giving him advice on what to say and what not to say. One of his advisors, Wyatt Walker, even went to the extent of saying “Don’t use any of your ‘dream’ language tomorrow. It’s trite. It’s cliché.” Martin listened and then said, “I’m going upstairs to my room to counsel with the Lord. I will see you all tomorrow.” He went up and wrote a draft in longhand. One of his confidants, Andrew Young, said that he saw the speech and that Martin had crossed out some words three or four times, working on sound and cadence.
The next day, the crowd gathered. They were expecting 100,000 people, but 250,000 showed up. The weather was warm and there were many speeches. By the time King rose to speak – he was the 16th speaker – the crowd was listless. Norman Mailer, the gifted author, wrote, “There was an air of subtle depression, a wistful apathy . . . One felt a little of the muted disappointment which attacks a crowd in the 7th inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone 11-3. The home team is ahead, but the tension is broken: one’s concern is no longer noble.” The crowd was faltering but then uplifted by the music of the marvelous gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, a friend and confidant of Martin’s. King then took the podium. People leaned forward in anticipation as he started reading his speech. The speech was probably okay by other people’s standards, but by King’s standards it was mediocre. John Lewis, the leader of the student wing of the movement said later, “I thought it was a good speech, but not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense the falling short. He hadn’t locked into that power he so often found.” Then as folks in African-American congregations are prone to do, feeling that they’re an integral part of sermons, Mahalia Jackson cried out in encouragement, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” And it was as if a match had struck kindling. Martin moved his prepared remarks aside and leaned forward. He moved from lectern to the pulpit, so much so that one of his advisors said out loud. “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.” And go to church they did. Martin’s words took on the rhythm of the poet-preacher, and they became immortalized for all time . . . “I have a dream today . . .” I don’t think that dream was just Martin’s; it was God’s. And Mahalia Jackson, like Jesus’ mother Mary, coaxed it out of him.
The call of today’s sign is one that asks us to imagine a dream, one that sometimes sneaks into wedding ceremonies where people are called to imagine more than mere ritual. When I lead a wedding ceremony, I am often drawn to a quote of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On the occasion of his niece’s wedding, one that he could not attend because he was imprisoned by the Nazis, he wrote to her, “Dear one, how I wish I could be with you on this day of days, to sing and dance and celebrate, but I can’t. I simply give you these words.: ‘All you have needed up to this point is love, but now you need one thing more – the promise to love.’” I usually pause and let that sink in and then say, “Bride and groom, we all know that you love one another. That is very obvious. But the question today is deeper than that, it asks even more . . . “Do you promise to love?”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What is the most memorable wedding ceremony you’ve ever witnessed? …the most celebratory wedding reception you’ve ever attended? What made those times so special — the couple, the families, friends, the setting, the music, the vows?
Today, try to recall your first realization of God’s love for you. Thank God for that moment and for God’s love.
The question, “Do you promise to love?”, is not only a question for weddings. It’s also a question of faith. What promises have we made to God? How might we renew our vows?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds”
(Interestingly enough, Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during a 1609 quarantine against the plague. Let us pray for great things to come out of our sequestered time.)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Wednesday, April 15th
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
The Witness of Scripture:
One of the bewildering questions of this strange time, whether spoken or unspoken, is “What is life going to be like after all of this is over?” To think that things will be as they were before seems to me to be more than just a bit naïve. For instance, we are going to greet each other differently. Dr. Fauci has recently remarked that handshaking may very well be a thing of the past. And who will ever take going to the store for granted? And there are so many other ramifications as to how this time has changed us. More than ever before, we are aware that life has many risks to it.
I think that was one of the underlying themes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His words seem to call us to recognize the fact that life is full of risks, and the question is “for what will we risk our lives?” In a very candid way, Jesus calls attention to the difficulties and risks inherent in being his disciple. He talks about how disciplined and attentive we must be, and says, in effect, that narrow-mindedness need not be considered a criticism, but a compliment. Narrow-mindedness? My heavens, I’ve never liked being thought of as narrow-minded, have you? But today Jesus tells us that such a perspective is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven.
This unsettling command reminds me of an equally unsettling scene in C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Silver Chair. In that chronicle of the place called Narnia, a girl by the name of Jill finds that she has been transported to a strange land. She is lonely, hungry and thirsty, but then sees a stream with a lion resting next to it. For anyone who has read any of the Chronicles of Narnia, we know that the lion is Aslan, the great lion of God. “May I . . . could I . . . would you mind going away while I drink,” said Jill. The Lion answered with a look and a very low growl and as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. “Do you promise not to do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor if it were sorry, nor if it were angry. It just said it . . . “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh, dear!” cried Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion. It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion – no one who had seen his stern face could do that – and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand . . .”
Lewis captures the courage and the discipline required to enter the Kingdom. No one exemplified that with more fortitude than Eric Liddell. He was the subject of an Academy Award-winning movie of several years ago, Chariots of Fire. The movie is an interesting, and true, story of Liddell, a Scotsman, a world-class sprinter, who also happened to be a world-class Christian. In the 1924 Olympics, Liddell was the favorite to win the 100-meter dash. However, as luck would have it, the race was to be run on Sunday. Liddell, a devout Christian, had refused his entire career to run on Sundays, and in 1924 he refused to run on Sunday, even with the arm-twisting efforts of the Prince of Wales, who was chairman of the British Olympic Committee. However, at the last minute, he was given the opportunity to run a different race, the 400 meters, on a different day. He won the race and was the toast of the British Isles.
Interestingly enough, at the height of his athletic career, Liddell gave it up to return to China to be a missionary. His twenty years in China were eventful, to say the least, ending with confinement in a World War II civilian internment camp. David Michell, a child who survived the camp, was imprisoned with him after they were both captured by the Japanese. Michell later wrote about Liddell, remembering his standing out among the 1800 people packed into a camp that measured only 150 yards by 200 yards. Liddell was in charge of the building that housed the younger children, children who had been away from their parents for nearly four years. Liddell had a 3’ by 6’ space to himself, and was responsible for the daily roll call when the guards came to count them. Michell remembers Liddell fondly as “Uncle Eric,” a man with a gentle face and a warm smile. He taught sports, and he taught the Bible, but most of all, he lived as a disciple of Jesus. Liddell died just months before the liberation of that camp. He was buried in a little cemetery with others who had died during the internment. Michell says almost as an eulogy, “None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with a radiant godliness that became contagious.”
In the days ahead God has called us to do important things for the Kingdom. But it won’t be easy. As Jesus states so clearly, “When the winds and the rain come . . .” There will be difficult times, but that is part of the glorious challenge. Therefore, in the words of the great preacher, Phillips Brooks, “Do not pray for easy lives. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers that are equal to your tasks.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Can you bring to mind someone who has been a model of courageous faithfulness in your own life? Thank God for them. What was it about their commitment that could be instructive for you today?
- Pray for those who are taking great risks in order to care for and provide for others during these perilous days.
- Consider the road ahead for you personally, and ask God to empower and encourage you for the journey.
A Guide for Prayer: Sr. Ruth Fox, OSB, “The Blessing of Discomfort”
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
Easter Sunday, April 12th
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I’m writing these words today in the dark. I say that partially because I tend to get up early to tackle my writing projects. However, this seems most appropriate for this devotion, because Easter begins in the dark, or so the Gospel writers tell us. Additionally, as I write today there are still so many questions about how our current crisis is going to end. There are promising hopes for a cure; there are also optimistic projections of the flattening of the curve model that health authorities have used to chart the process of the pandemic. This flattening might be signaling a recession in the number of cases of infected people. Yet, we remain uncertain. We’re in the dark.
That statement does seem to resonate with Easter. If we are honest with ourselves, there are so many confusing things about it. For starters, the resurrection accounts of the four gospels vary in detail. In one account there are several women who go to the tomb; in another there are two women; and in yet another, just Mary Magdalene. Some of the gospels report two angels at the tomb; others report one angel. And then there are other differences as to conversations, etc. How do we arrive at Easter when we are still in the dark about so much? Well, we begin, as all the gospel writers began, with the resurrection. They wrote because Jesus was risen from the dead. That’s what created this genre of literature called Gospel.
Today’s passage of Scripture is the shortest of the stories of the resurrection and ends rather abruptly… so much so, in fact, that it is surmised that some early writer took the Gospel and added a dozen more verses (9-20) so that Mark’s account would conclude in a manner more similar to the other Gospel accounts. I point this out, because I personally believe that the abrupt ending was intentional in the mind of Mark’s original author, and that the extra verses were from someone else. My reasoning is that: (a) the added verses are not found in any of the most ancient manuscripts; and (b) the language of the 9-20 section seems more cliché, unlike the lucid prose of the rest of the Gospel. So the question for this Easter story is “Why did Mark’s account end so suddenly?”
Let me share three vignettes in hopes of answering that question.
(1) Attending the USC School of Cinematic Arts one can’t help but discover that one of its celebrated graduates is Will Ferrell, that off-the-wall comedian. USC is proud of Mr. Ferrell, even to the extent of bestowing on him an honorary doctorate. Now, Ferrell is best known for his many comedic roles including Elf and Talladega Nights, among others. However, the screenplay that we studied when I was there was Stranger than Fiction, a serious piece in which Ferrell gives a thoughtful performance. The story is about an IRS accountant who discovers that his life is being directed by an author who is writing a novel. This accountant, who hears the author’s voice, learns that this author always kills off her main subject. Thus, the movie proceeds with the ominous portent of an approaching death. Ferrell’s character gets a copy of the manuscript and reads of his impending demise. The death scene is eloquently written, but the author has stopped, infected by the writer’s dreaded nemesis, writer’s block, unable to finish. Meanwhile, after reading her story, his story, and after much contemplation, Ferrell’s character connects with the author and encourages her to go ahead and finish, because it is wonderful. Ironically enough, the author is then inspired to finish by creating a unique ending, actually reminiscent of an Easter-type experience. Could it be that Easter is waiting to be completed by our own stories?
(2) Several years ago, one of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion shows centered around a teenager by the name of Jimmy Beeler. It seems that Jimmy went to St. Paul one cold and wintry night to stand in line to buy tickets for a rock concert by a group named “Mammoth.” As he was standing in line his mother, Mavis, was fretting back home at Lake Woebegone. She had gone to bed but couldn’t sleep, because she was so worried about Jimmy, her youngest, standing out in the cold in St. Paul. Mavis picked up her favorite magazine, The Home and Hearth, which contained several interesting articles; but one article in particular, about the evils of rock music, sent chills up and down her spine. As she brooded over the article and her son’s life, Mavis’ emotional state took a nose-dive when she noted that one of the article’s examples was the rock group, Mammoth. The next morning Jimmy came home, looking tired and worn out, but also triumphantly clutching two tickets in his upraised hand. He grabbed a bite to eat and then went to collapse in his bed. Keillor ended the story with Mrs. Beeler hovering over her sleeping son and the tickets, those tickets that were so precious to him, wondering whether she ought to tear them up to protect him from the evils of rock music. Keillor left the story there, without disclosing what she decided. As he signed off with his customary, “And that’s the news in Lake Woebegone where all the women are strong, all the men good-looking, and all the children are above average,” you could hear the groans of the audience. A couple of weeks later Keillor reported that many people had written angry letters saying he had no right to leave a story unresolved like that and in so doing, leave them hanging.
To be honest, there is a part of me that can appreciate people writing those kinds of letters . . . I’m a person who likes to have my stories wrapped up; I don’t like it when I am left dangling, with “to be continued.” But maybe that is the intent of Mark’s Gospel, that we are called to finish the story ourselves. Karl Barth, the renowned theologian, said “People come to church on Easter and wonder, ‘Is it true?'” It is our job to answer that question, not in words so much, but in deeds. Mark intends for us to complete the resurrection.
(3) A final example comes to mind in N.T. Wright’s beautiful book Simply Christian, where he creates an imaginary story of an accidental discovery of an unknown work by Mozart. A collector rummaging around in a dusty attic in a small Austrian town comes across a faded manuscript written for the piano. He can tell by just looking at it that it favors Mozart, so he takes it to a dealer. After numerous puzzled consultations, phone calls and examinations, the conclusion is that this truly is a previously unknown work by the great composer. However, the piece seems incomplete. There are long pauses where the piano seems to be simply marking time. Gradually it dawns on the musical experts – this was meant to be a duet. The blank spaces were to be played by an oboe, cello, violin, or another instrument. A further search of the attic reveals no additional sheets of music, and the discoverers must accept that the brilliance of it all cannot be experienced until someone fills in the blanks of accompaniment.
Easter is the same way. Mark has written a masterpiece, but it can’t be experienced unless we play our parts.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Read the scriptural text aloud in the manner of the lectio divina (divine reading) discipline, letting the words’ sounds guide you to meditative reflection. What image particularly stands out to you? Where would you find yourself if you been present in the story of the resurrection? Why?
- How do you share the significance of the resurrection in the way you live day by day? Listen for God’s illuminating voice to guide you.
- Where do we need to “practice resurrection”, continuing the story in our community? Let the Spirit direct you to ways to make this happen.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
By Jason Hanchey
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
On the surface, this passage makes it so simple. I believe, therefore I am granted all these protections? Where do I sign?
This euphoria is short lived. As I read this again and again, I feel the guilt run deeper and deeper. I don’t deserve all these protections! I haven’t lived up to my end of the deal. I am a stronger Christian now than I have ever been, but my past is full of mischief and less than Christian behavior. How will this conversation go with my Savior when standing at the gates of Heaven?
Take a deep breath. I truly don’t think the bible, in any shape or form, is trying to guilt me into being a believer. My God knows I will face situations that challenge my relationship with him. Free will gets us in trouble from time to time. When needed, I often pray to God for his guidance. Lately, I’ve not felt that was good enough. I felt like He was missing from the conversation. Now, when I need God, I feel comfortable just saying “Lord God, you probably know already, but I need to share something with you.” Maybe not out loud in some circumstances, but when appropriate.
So, maybe it is that simple. For me anyways. I believe not only because of great scripture, but also because God is an actual participant in my life. I owe it to God to include Him in my life. Reading this scripture again, its abundantly clear that He is willing to be my protector and give me life beyond this one. What He is promising is much greater than what he asks of us. All He asks is that we believe.
By Benjamin Tyler
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. For I am your Lord and God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:1-3)
My family and I had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland a few years ago. Northern Ireland is a beautiful country full of long-standing culture, unique people, and stunning landscapes. But one of the things that stood out to me the most was the sheer amount of sheep (no pun intended) that grazed the northern hills. They could be found on almost any hillside in Northern Ireland and always looked so peaceful. I wondered why they were so peaceful; there are many dangers present, such as wild animals, harsh weather, and the towering rugged cliffs. But I realized that wherever there were sheep, there was always someone there to watch them and to keep them safe. This reminded me of the promise God makes to all of us. If we trust Him and put our faith in Him, He will always be there to protect us from whatever obstacle or difficulty we face. After all, isn’t He our Good Shepherd?
By Diana Bridges
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
In Isaiah 7:14, God gives embattled King Ahaz a sign of hope, whether he wants one or not. As followers of Jesus, we see in these words the foreshadowing of the Incarnation. These aren’t really words of hope to us because we live on this side of the good news that is the life of Jesus. That particular hope has been fulfilled. Our Advent hope is focused instead on the coming of God to us, our families, or our church in new, transforming ways, and also on the Second Advent.
When we’re experiencing a time of uncertainty or crisis, as the Israelites were in Isaiah’s day, we might have an acute need for words of hope. We might be constantly scanning Scripture or other resources, listening to sermons, or grasping for meaning in the events and conversations of our days for assurance that all will be well.
Our hope doesn’t rest in words, however, but in the one who utters them. Thomas Merton said, “We can either love God because we hope for something from Him, or we can hope in Him knowing that He loves us.” Our hope isn’t finally dependent on prayers being answered in a particular way or in circumstances that make life easier. Our Advent hope is deeply rooted in the God who loves us — always, completely, unconditionally — and has vowed never to leave us, even after the final promise has been fulfilled.
This Advent, may our hope be renewed in the One who loves us.