All posts in Theology

Now Can We Sing? – Day 33 of Lent

I turn my space for today's meditation over to Bishop Will Willimon, whose article in the latest Christian Century really struck me as being very poignant during these troubled times of disasters, economic, natural, and otherwise. It's all about how we are to see suffering through the lens of Easter joy. Check it out here

To add my own take on it, one of the basic questions that I think drives us as Christians has to do with our worldview and whether we view the world as inherently good or inherently evil (or, as some might posit, a mixture of both). We can become so enamored with our views that either our naivete on the one hand or our self-righteous anger on the other keeps us from seeing the world through the lens of God's Kingdom. Bishop Will does a great job of laying out those differences in this article.

Hope you enjoy it on the Lenten Friday. 

Heaven Can Wait – Day 32 of Lent

Heaven  We had a great discussion again last night in our "Common Ground" series of dialogues between myself and Rabbi Josh Aaronson of Temple Har Shalom. Last night's topic was the "afterlife" and how our traditions view it. I think I stunned some of the crowd when I suggested that the Christian hope, biblically speaking, is precisely the same as the Jewish hope–a hope in the resurrection of the dead and new life in the "world to come." 

Interestingly, though, a recent Scripps-Howard poll said that only 36% of people believe in bodily resurrection, preferring instead to think about the immortality of the soul. The Washington Post has been running a series in its "On Faith" column where people from Billy Graham to Ricky Gervais talk about heaven, but almost never in terms of the transformation of the earth and our bodies. 

My doctoral dissertation is addressing this very dichotomy and, as my congregation knows, it's been my personal mission to help Christians recapture the deep meaning and hope of resurrection that drove the early Christians, over and against the popular Platonism of their day and ours. The implications are huge and, I would argue, the emphasis on immortality of the soul has made Christianity so heavenly focused that it has often become no earthly good. 

To that end, I offer the following, which I wrote for my "Senior Writer's Block" column in the current issue of Homiletics. As we approach Easter, it's important for us to get our minds around what it really means: 

Funeral Fallacies

One of my clergy colleagues recently told me she was preparing her 25th funeral this year. That was amazing to me because, living in a resort town, I haven’t done 25 total funerals in the almost seven years I’ve served here. This town, after all, has no funeral home or nursing home and, only recently, opened an orthopedic hospital that primarily treats the twisted appendages of tourists who crash and burn on the ski slopes. A woman in my church occasionally remarks to me that Park City is “heaven,” and although I flinch when she says that, she’s right in some sense — that the city is unconsciously zoned around the idea that nobody gets sick, nobody gets old or infirm and nobody dies.

It isn’t true, of course. All those things happen here, as they do everywhere else. When I’ve officiated at funerals here (or, more often, memorial services sans casket or urn), I’m always struck by the way that death exposes the theology and worldview of people still living. Whether the service is for a deeply committed Christian, a marginal believer or a self-professed unbeliever, I’ve noticed that the assumptions about death and what happens to the deceased are largely the same. Be they saints or skeptics, people would much rather avoid the reality of death and the presence of a body and instead focus on the spiritual life of the deceased in heaven (which even the unbelievers tend to believe in, even if they don’t get too specific).

For example, at one service in which I was participating, I heard another Christian pastor say about a young woman who loved horses and who died after being hit by a drunk driver, “God needed her in heaven to begin preparing the four horses of the Apocalypse to ride across the sky at the end of the world.” Death as the result of a heavenly labor shortage — yikes! Then there’s the eulogizer who told a raucous story about the deceased and said, “Yup, Johnny’s looking down from heaven right now with a beer in his hand really lovin’ this” (forgetting, of course, the old polka song: “In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here.”). And you’ve no doubt had people who wanted that Mary Elizabeth Frye poem read alongside the Scriptures. You know, the one that starts:

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow. …

Nothing like a little pantheism mixed with some Platonism.

Sure, many times we’ve gone along with this stuff, thinking that a funeral isn’t a time to quibble about theology and that whatever the family wants is okay. We must always remember, however, that our call isn’t to go along with a culture that wants to deny death by spiritualizing it but rather to proclaim resurrection — the defeat of death. We are called to proclaim the real hope made possible by the empty tomb and the real future we have in God’s “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Tom Long, in his excellent and highly recommended new book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, writes: “The Christian funeral is about meaning, not just therapy. It is a dramatic performance of the gospel, enacting the meaning of life and death for the person who has died, for the Christian community and the communion of saints and, indeed, for the whole of humanity. Left to its own devices, death always seems to have the last word, the last laugh. The mourners need to be assured, the church needs to remember, the world needs to be told, that death does not in truth speak the final word” (94).

Whether you officiate at five or 25 funerals this year, each one is an opportunity to preach an Easter sermon — and to teach people that our ultimate hope isn’t found in the disembodied, disconnected and disappearing vapor, but in the embodied, grounded reality of resurrection. God doesn’t “need” us in heaven — God needs us right here, doing the work of the kingdom. Death interrupts that work, but the promise of Easter is that, ultimately, our lives and our work will not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58) …

and that, someday, all funerals will be canceled forever.

—Bob Kaylor
Senior Writer
bkaylor@HomileticsOnline.com

Portion Control – Day 31 of Lent

Supper-article_1601823c  Saw an article in the paper this morning about researchers who have been looking at paintings of the Last Supper over the last thousand years and have noticed that the portions of the food depicted on the table have become bigger with every generation. Apparently, artists over the last thousand years have been painting food the way it has appeared on their plates, with increasing volume, as prosperity (and obesity) have become more prevalent in the age of medicine and money. 

My first thought? Someone has a lot of time on their hands. But this is interesting in another way. The fact that artists have been remembering this holy meal for more than a thousand years is striking and that the food on the table has become super-sized may have a theological reason beyond the social/culinary ones.

When we share the eucharist, we're sharing in the Body of Christ and re-membering or re-embodying that meal and all for which it stood. While the artists have made the portions bigger, most churches have made the communion elements even smaller and, in some traditions, almost tasteless in the form of cardboard wafers. 

What we miss is the idea that if this meal represents in a very powerful way God's grace offered through the brokenness of Christ, then a crumb doesn't seem to cut it. Sure, we could all afford to eat less and remember those who are hungry, but when it comes to the Lord's Table we should be sharing in a feast not replicating a famine.

When we serve communion I'm fond of doing it by intinction, where the communicant receives a piece of bread and then dips it in the cup. We've had to make some seasonal modifications to that because of the swine flu, using the little cups to be more sanitary, but I still think that it's important to recognize that God's grace is lavish and not scarce. Because of that, I always like to give out larger hunks of bread.

Someone asked me about that once, thinking that was a little sacrilegious. On the contrary, I think it's spot on for what Jesus was trying to convey. We need more of God's grace, not less; a filling meal vs. a crumb. Those larger pieces of bread are just my way of reminding us of that.

I love the way that Great Harvest Bread Company offers samples to its customers–big, warm slices of fresh bread slathered in butter. Their motto: "We don't offer samples, we give amples!" 

I think that should be true for communion as well–not a sampling of the body of Christ, but an ample portion to nourish us to be the Body of Christ in the world. 

May your communion be super-sized as Maundy Thursday approaches!

Being Present – Day 30 of Lent

Reading: Luke 19:1-10

Came across a blog post this morning by a Canadian college student named Brendan Pickering, who was musing on the idea that of all the classes he has taken, the one that was most impactful on him was an introductory theater course. 

Says Pickering: "Every day we spent at least 15 minutes looking into another student’s eyes, no facial expressions or body movements allowed, just feeling the other’s presence and projecting our own.

“How lame,” I  thought, “How artsy.”

Then something strange happened.  I first noticed it during my walk back to my dorm after the fourth or fifth class, as I met the gaze of other students in transit.

I didn’t look away.  Even more strange, I had no intention of doing so.  I just wanted to look, to feel their presence and gauge their strength.  It was exhilarating."

Pickering calls this "being present," or looking beyond the surface of someone's external, often false self and sensing what's really going on inside them. When we're fully present with someone else, transparency and more authentic communication and compassion are possible. 

Jesus certainly had this quality–the ability to be fully present with people and to cut through the acting mask of those he encountered. Zacchaeus was one of those persons: a rich tax collector whom everyone else assumed was a "sinner" (v. 8). 

Jesus' approach to Zacchaeus, however, isn't a call to repentance, a rebuke, or a validation–just an invitation (in fact, Jesus invites himself to the tax collector's house!). 

Interestingly, we often read Zacchaeus' response to Jesus as a change of heart and ways. Because of his encounter with Jesus, we most often think, Zacchaeus turned over a new leaf. The Greek here, however, is a bit more ambiguous. Indeed, verse 8 could read like this: "I am in the habit of giving half my possessions to the poor and I am in the habit of paying back double to those whom I have inadvertently cheated." 

If that's the case, and the context suggests that it may be, then Jesus' invitation is less about "converting" Zacchaeus individually, but more about demonstrating to the crowd in Jericho that this tax collector, who was excluded from the community because of his vocation, is restored to the community as a sign of the Kingdom mission that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to bring to a climax. 

Whichever interpretation you use, the point is that Jesus seemed to instinctively know what was needed in the life of the people he met because he did not look away. He looked people in the eye, made a connection, and was always fully present. 

Perhaps we need to learn the same lesson that Brendan shares with us. How would we view the world today if we look into the eyes of the people we meet and choose to be fully present? Think of the homeless person, the child, the person who waits on you at lunch…how might being fully present with them be a kind of invitation? Perhaps it will be your full presence that makes them feel more a part of the community in some way. 

PRAYER: Lord God, help me to be fully present to those whom I meet today, that I might be an instrument of your Kingdom invitation. Amen. 

The Cycloramic Vision of God – Day 29 of Lent

Gettyspan  Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

One of my favorite "wonders of the world" is the Gettysburg Cyclorama, which recently moved into its new home in the new visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park. Ever since I was a little guy, I have loved going to the battlefield and ending the day by looking at this massive, 360 degree painting of the climactic struggle of Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle, July 3, 1863. This cyclorama painting was an original work of French artist Paul Philippoteaux in 1882, who wanted not only to capture the imagination and fierceness of the battle, but also to provide the public with a unique entertainment experience that, at the time, would have rivaled anything we see at the movies in 3-D.

Panoramas/Cycloramas were all the rage in the late 19th
century, with touring exhibitions drawing crowds in both Europe and the United
States. Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, like many of its day,
used diorama effects around the base of the painting to give it a more
three-dimensional feel, inviting the viewer to experience the swirl of battle. The Atlanta Cyclorama
in Atlanta’s Grant Park is still displayed this way today, depicting the brutal
combat of the Union Army’s invasion of Atlanta in 1864. Then, as now, cyclorama
viewings were accompanied with music and narration to enhance the experience.

 Unlike
a film, where scenes flash by and are gone, a panoramic painting invites the
viewer to study the artist’s detail, seeing the figures and brush-strokes
within the context of the whole surrounding work. When I was guiding at
Gettysburg, I usually led four Cyclorama shows a day, which meant that I got to
look at the painting up close (and listen to the cheesy narration). After the
tourists left I used to jump over the barrier to a close look at
Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, which  reveals details like unfinished figures of soldiers that were
sketched but not painted in, the introduction French poppies into Pennsylvania
grain fields, and even Philippoteaux’s signature — a portrait of himself as a
Union officer observing the battle.

 The
details, however, were only important within the context of the artist’s larger
vision. Artists like Philippoteaux stood on platforms in the middle of the
actual terrain while they conceived their paintings, getting a bird’s eye view
and a sense of the whole picture before ever putting brush to canvas.
Imagination, skill, patience, and perseverance were the common link between
these bold and visionary artists. Their grand visions of these snapshot moments
in time, both perilous and pastoral, need to be preserved.

 Sadly,
the popularity of their art was short-lived. With the advent of the film
projector in the early 20th century, cycloramas fell out of favor as
people rushed to embrace this new artistic medium. Only 30 of the hundreds of
panoramic paintings that toured the world and drew thousands of admirers
survive today.

Films
work on the principle that humans tend to be focused on what’s right in front
of them, which would seem to be a product of the physiological fact that we
don’t have eyes in the back of our heads (unless you’re a mom, of course). As a
result, we are susceptible to becoming focused on one piece, one section, one
image at a time that is quickly replaced by another. Unlike a panorama, which
invites lingering and taking in the whole scope of a work of art, film dictates
our imagination and most wants to wrap up life with a neat conclusion at the 2
hour mark. Sure, film is its own art form, and a good one, but there’s
something missing when we can’t slow down enough to recognize and immerse
ourselves in a panoramic vision of life — the kind of vision with which God
sees the world.

 The
book of the prophet Habakkuk is kind of like a section of a larger painting.
Where the prophet and the people of Judah focus on what’s immediately in front
of them — namely, the invasion of the “Chaldeans” (Babylonians) — God’s reponse
to the prophet’s lament reveals a more panoramic view of history and the
purposes of God.

 Habakkuk’s
cry is a familiar one in the Hebrew Bible: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for
help, and you will not listen?” (v.2) The prophet laments that the only thing
he can see on the canvas before him is “wrongdoing” and “trouble,” and that
“destruction and violence” seem to be the only themes revealed by the Artist
(v. 3). The unspecified “wicked” antagonists have caused “injustice” in the
land, most likely referring to the pre-exile deterioration of Judah that took
place during the reigns of Jehoiakim and his son Jehoiachin — the former having
rebelled against Babylon and the latter being taken into exile (2 Kings
24:1-17; 2 Chronicles 35:20-27).

 God’s
description of the coming Babylonian invasion isn’t a pretty picture. They will
be the ones who will “work” for God as a means of punishing Judah for its
apostasy (v. 6). The images of a “dread and fearsome” army (v. 7) coming for
“violence” and to “gather captives like sand” (v. 9) would seem to rival any of
the terrible combat images of the Gettysburg Cyclorama. This was more than a
battle — the future existence of God’s people was at stake.

 A
narrow view of the canvas reveals that Habakkuk is bringing up issues of
theodicy. How can God visit punishment on God’s own people by using a pagan
empire? The prophet’s incredulous response to God reveals one who has become
confused by the seemingly unfair judgment of God. “Why do you look on the
treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than
they?” (v. 13). Having asked the hard questions about the images he sees from
his limited viewpoint, the prophet then goes and stands on the “rampart” to try
and discern God’s answer; sort of like how a panoramic artist would stand above
the subject to see the sweeping view (2:1).

 God’s
reply to Habakkuk puts the previous scenes of distress into a 360 degree
context. Where prophet and people only see a section, a fleeting image of
destruction God, the master artist, sees this scene as part of the
all-encompassing canvas of God’s plan for the people and, indeed, for all
creation. God reminds the prophet that “there is still a vision for the
appointed time” and that if prophet and people will “wait for it, it will surely
come, it will not delay” (2:3). The rest of chapter two is God revealing
judgment upon both Judah and her enemies, but that the present picture of exile
and violence are part of God’s purposes, bringing forth a time when “the earth
will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover
the sea” (2:14). It is God who fills the canvas with the whole story, so the in
the midst of trouble God calls to viewer to trust and not get too focused on
the sketchy details. “The Lord is in his holy temple,” says God—God is
directing and crafting the canvas from the vantage point of the whole work—so,
“let all earth keep silence before him!” (2:20).

 Habakkuk’s
oracle would seem to be almost a kind of Reader’s Digest version reminder of a
similar exchange that Job has with God. Job spins out his complaint and God
thunders back with a reminder that forward-looking humans don’t see the whole
picture at once and that only God knows how the whole work will be revealed.
Habakkuk’s final response to God is thus one of submission, but also of
appreciation that the Master Artist has assigned every figure, every brush
stroke, and every color to its place. “O Lord, I have heard of your renown,”
writes the prophet, “and I stand in awe, O Lord of your work. In your own time
revive it, in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy”
(3:2).

 These
are powerful words of comfort and assurance that we all need to hear and, like
a panoramic canvas, we need to be able to take in a little at a time. In the
midst of trouble and fear, we rest in the fact that “the Lord is in his holy
temple” and that God’s handiwork is and will be the ultimate masterpiece.

 Looking
at this text this week I realized that I not only need to preach this, but live
it myself. I was in Colorado again last week for a conference meeting, but also
looking at houses. We got a contract on one, which is very nice, but it’s still
a stressful experience—new house, new town, new church, new faces…how is this
going to go? I also have my doctoral work to do and the ministry here, which
will involve saying goodbye. I’m not ashamed to admit that my family and I are
a little overwhelmed right now and could really use your prayers.

 I’ve
also heard from some of you this week who are feeling the same anxiety about
this church. Who will be coming as pastor? What kind of person will he or she
be? What’s going to happen to our church and to us?

 That’s
not to mention, of course, the thousands of other anxieties and worries that
we’re collectively facing individually—illness, worry about work, worry about
kids, fear of failure, fear of…well, just about anything.

 Even
in the midst of impending disaster, the prophet Habakkuk was reminded that God
has the whole canvas of human life in view. Where we see the details, God sees
the big picture.

 We
will never be able to see the whole 360 degree work of God at once. Such are
the limits of our vision. But we can trust that somehow, God will make all
things good for those who trust in his panoramic vision of our live

 The
Lord is in his holy temple. Let all earth keep silence before him. And trust
him.