Category Archives: theology

On “Jesus Wept”

“Jesus Wept” is, to me, the most profound passage in the Bible. After I gave a recent lecture on this verse at Duke University, Richard Hays commented on my reflections: “The Incarnate Word of God stood wordless at Bethany.” Indeed, Jesus’ tears make no logical sense, as he came to Bethany with the specific mission to raise Lazarus from the grave. He told the disciples his mission (and why he intentionally delayed his arrival, knowing that Lazarus lay dying) and revealed to Martha that he was and is the “Resurrection and the Life.” So why did he, upon seeing the tears of Mary, waste his time weeping, when he could have shown his power as the Son of God by wiping away every tear, telling people like her, “Ye of little faith, believe in me!”?

In my reflections, this “irrational,” emotional response from Jesus became a central means to understand the role and even the necessity of art in the midst of suffering—what I have began to call our “Ground Zero” conditions. Art, like the tears of Christ, may seem useless, ephemeral and ultimately wasteful. But even though they evaporate into our atmosphere, the extravagant tears of God dropped on the hardened, dry soils of Bethany, or onto the ashes of our Ground Zero conditions, are still present with us. Because tears are ephemeral, they can be enduring and even permanent, as with “Jesus wept.” In the same way, perhaps our art can be so as well. What seems, at first, to be an irrational response to suffering may turn out, upon deep reflection, to be the most rational response of all. —Makoto Fujimura

Why Cities?

Memphis Skyline HDR [Mantiuk]

photo by flickr user exothermic.

Christianity Today’s This is Our City project released a five-minute documentary this week entitled “Marking the Place of Sin and Grace: The Meaning of Our City Monuments” – I’d highly recommend you watch it as soon as you are able.

The city of Richmond is used as an example of how Christians can work for the transformation of their cities, redeeming places of past sin and remembering them with grace. It is especially relevant to those of us who live in the South, but there is something to learn regardless of which city you live in.

I am a city person. I recognize that not everyone is wired that way. But this short film reminded me of one of the reasons I love cities. Cities have a story, both a history and a hope for a future. In that way, a city is inherently dynamic and organic, even before you consider the liveliness of residents living in close proximity.

America’s cities often have Christians as part of their stories, founders and leaders who made the city great. Many Christians also contributed to the decline of their cities by neglecting them in time of need and leaving cities for the suburbs. And so, it is redemptive and moving to me to see Christians engage the city by choosing to live, work, worship, start schools and raise children in an urban context.

In Birmingham, we lived about six blocks from one of its most famous monuments, the statue of Brother Bryan at Five Points, the cultural center of the city. James Alexander Bryan was a Presbyterian minister known for his tireless advocacy on behalf of the poor and marginalized, his giving spirit and his fervent prayer life. He eschewed titles and preferred for everyone to call him Brother Bryan.

During his fifty-year tenure as the minister of Third Presbyterian in Birmingham’s Southside, Bryan embodied the parish mindset, serving everyone from prisoners to prep school students with dignity and care. Halfway through his ministry, the Birmingham Age Herald wrote of Bryan, “we who have watched his footsteps see the tracks which he has left among the desolate and distressed.” He founded two soup kitchens and lived just long enough to see a dream fulfilled when Birmingham’s first homeless shelter opened. It is named Brother Bryan Mission in his honor.

This generation of urban Christians may feel like pioneers, but we stand on the shoulders of giants. Our cities were known, loved and oftentimes even built by great men and women who lived out the gospel, day in and day out. If you look hard enough, you can find evidence of their love that still remains.

When we moved to Memphis last summer, a new friend urged me to read about the city’s yellow fever epidemics to understand Memphis better. In the summer of 1878, the epidemic was so powerful that over half the population left the city in a matter of days. But many clergy members, Protestant and Catholic, chose to stay behind ministering to the sick and dying, caring for both bodies and souls. They also served hundreds of newly orphaned children.

Over 5,000 people died of yellow fever in Memphis in a few months’ time, and numbered among them were many pastors as well as nuns from both Catholic and Anglican orders. When I pass the great stone churches of downtown Memphis, I am reminded of their stories, told in telegrams and journals and by witnesses to their acts of love and mercy. Like the story of Sisters Constance and Thecla, who refused to lie down when they realized they had the fever, knowing the beds would have to be burned if they died, and preferring to save the mattresses for the comfort of others. I remember the incarnational ministry of each one who stayed, acting as the hands and feet of Jesus to those who were too poor or unhealthy to flee Memphis for safety.

These examples of love and mercy are an encouragement to all of us, and Christians are needed everywhere to live out our faith among their neighbors, with love and vulnerability. But right now, there is a particular need for Christians to work in cities, binding up broken places in the name of Christ. There are fewer professing Christians in most cities than in the suburbs, and more work to be done.

We should all delight in seeing neighborhoods revive and thrive. Urban revitalization is trendy inside and outside the church, but Christians can play a crucial role in ensuring that gentrification is done with justice, so that all residents experience the benefits of a neighborhood’s improvements.

As for our family, we are still learning what it means to be Memphians and a part of this city’s particular story. The more I understand its past, the greater my hopes for its future. I am encouraged by how many Christians here love this city and how much redemptive work is already being done: creative, innovative, community development. It is an exciting place to be, a place where working for the shalom of the city feels right, knowing that the labors of Christians in Memphis today is leaving evidence of Christ’s love and grace that will encourage the next generation and may even shape the story of Memphis.

(I highly recommend a book I finished this month called Triumph of the City if you are interested in why cities are so important from a sociological and economic standpoint. Even if you aren’t called to live in an urban neighborhood, from its completely secular perspective, it might convince you of why urban ministries and church planting efforts are so crucial for the future of the church and worthy of support and prayer.)

Before The Throne of God Above

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Savior and my God!
[ Charitie L. Bancroft, 1863 ]

Lenten Discipline, or Lack Thereof

One of my goals for lent was to be more disciplined – particularly in my reading of scripture, in my housework and in my writing. So far, I have failed on all three counts.

I could blame all the unexpected things that have crept up, or my chronic insomnia being particularly bad lately, but there isn’t much point.

Lent is about failure. Lent is about falling short. But lent is also about getting back up and trying again. As sinful creatures, we are limited and lack the ability to remain faithful. Still, we strive for faithfulness. We don’t strive because we can, we strive because we ought.

We remember our savior, Jesus Christ, who made himself man, and showed us the way to follow God, in perfect obedience. And we are called to walk in his way. When we fail, we confess our sin, and we keep pressing on.

In these forty days, we remind ourselves of our state as reconciled to God, but still struggling with sin. We practice mourning our sin and longing for righteousness, but we know that even as we experience the struggle to fight temptation, our victory has already been won. We see Easter on the horizon.

Lent shows us our sin more clearly, and that’s not always easy. My default response to the guilt sin brings is paralysis: I withdraw. I’m praying this lent to stay engaged in the fight, to try again.

Instead of focusing on yesterday’s failures, I will rejoice in the new opportunities to practice discipline today. I will try knowing that my work is not in vain, and incremental steps towards faithfulness are significant, in their own way. Because I long to be more like Jesus. And even if I won’t stop struggling with sin, God is making me new. And he graciously invites me to be a part of that.

Be Kind

It was beautiful outside yesterday, so I took the girls to the park. While I was sitting watching the girls, I started to hear two moms about fifteen feet away start escalating in volume in their conversation.

One of the moms was a bit older, pushing a stroller and with several other children coming and going. The other mom was younger, with a toddler about two years old on her hip.

“If you believe…” was the phrase that drew my attention to their conversation. The older mom was getting more emphatic. “The Bible clearly teaches that if you discipline your son, you save his soul from hell. SAVE. HIS. SOUL. You must discipline him.”

The younger mom was apologetic, and speaking more softly. “He hasn’t… we haven’t decided…”

The older mom continued her citing of Proverbs, and the younger one tried to graciously withdraw from the conversation. After a minute or two, she walked away, and the older mom called out after her, “You think about that! It was nice to meet you, Stacey!” Then she turned to one of her older children and said, “some people just need a little help.”

I saw no blood. I heard no crying. I have no idea what a two-year-old could have done to provoke a stranger to give his mother such a tongue-lashing.

There’s a quote that’s all over pinterest: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It’s probably misattributed to Plato, but it’s a good sentiment.

The child you see misbehaving in public might have severe special needs. He may be a foster child recently placed. It may be the very worst day of his life. His mother may be suffering. Maybe she is grieving the loss of a parent, struggling with depression, lonely, abused or mistreated.

Perhaps that misbehaving stranger’s child bit your kid, or hit her, or pulled her hair. If there is no permanent damage, no need to visit a doctor, how should you respond?

I believe the older mother thought she was blessing the younger mother with her sage advice. From all indications, she was satisfied, even proud, of the interaction.

How much more could she have blessed her with kindness? A gentle word of forgiveness, an act of compassion, could have thrown this younger mother a lifeline. “It’s okay, I’ve been there, too.”

I presumed that these two women were friends, so I did not intervene. When I realized they were strangers, I started to go after the younger mother, but she was moving quickly towards her car. I wish I had stopped her and given her a hug.

The love of Christ compels us to love others. Using scripture as a weapon isn’t loving, it’s generally ineffective, and at it’s worst, borders on spiritual abuse.

By God’s grace, we can do better. Be kind, y’all. And keep reminding me to be kind, too.

Jesus, thou Joy of Loving Hearts

Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to thee again.

Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on thee call;
To them that seek thee thou art good,
To them that find thee all in all.

We taste thee, O thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon thee still;
We drink of thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from thee to fill.

Our restless spirits yearn for thee,
Where’er our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when thy gracious smile we see,
Blest when our faith can hold thee fast.

O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed o’er the world thy holy light.
[Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th c.]

A Lenten Confession

I’m tired of being busy.

There’s always something to do, and ten more things that I ought to do. This things consume an inordinate amount of my thoughts and my time.

I’m tired of feeling like I’ve spent all day with people and not really stopped and listened to them.

I am starting to think that busyness is one of my biggest obstacles to loving people well.

Without busyness, I already struggle enough with self-centeredness and lack of care for others. But busyness makes me think that my agenda and what I need to accomplish is the most important thing for the day.

Honestly, it’s usually not. Things can wait.

May I make time and space to love as I ought to love, and serve as I ought to serve.

Lord, have mercy. Accept my repentance. Change my heart. Let me show forth your glory in this world.

Keeping Lent at Home 2012

Lent starts in one week. I’ve added several new ideas to last year’s lenten ideas post. And free printables, for the few of you who might like that sort of thing.

Holding Things in Tension

We had a chance to participate in a few conversations this weekend on Christianity and culture, kingdom-building and parenting (and the intersections therein.) Thanks to Leigh for making it happen: it is always fruitful to have space, time and ideas to spur thoughtfulness and I am hoping these conversations continue.

One thing that struck me again is that so much of life, from the practical to philosophy and theology, is about holding two seemingly opposing ideas in tension.

Mercy and justice. Law and grace. Liberty and responsibility.

Sometimes we luck out, and the pendulum finds itself at rest between two extremes without much effort on our parts. Other times we have to fight to correct our inclination to one extreme or the other, and push ourselves towards the balance.

We know, both Biblically and sociologically, that our kids need a sense of mission to make faith real and lasting. Jesus died on the cross for more than just forgiveness of sin and making us feel better. He is making things new. He cares about this world. He wants us to care too.

If we neglect kingdom-building, we truncate our children’s view of the gospel and make Christianity smaller and less meaningful in their eyes, or even end up promoting an anti-gospel where the purpose of life is happiness and security.

However, we can take this sense of mission too far in the other direction. Our children are a particular gift and responsibility from God. We have a limited amount of time to be with them. If we spend all of that making them feel like they are always second to mission, they will grow to resent it.

There is a middle way, of inviting them to be on mission with us, while leaving plenty of space for childhood, for play, for unhurried time to build that relationship. May we love others boldly and lose our lives for Christ’s sake and his kingdom. May we love our children well and guide them so that they always remember who they are, beloved children of their parents and of God.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Your head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad,
I found in him a resting place,
And he has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto me, your morn shall rise,
And all your day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk,
Till trav’ling days are done.
[Horatius Bonar, 1846]

The Gospel is Good News Indeed

The gospel is good news indeed,
To sinners deep in debt;
The man who has no works to plead,
Will thankful be for it.

To know that when he’s nought to pay,
His debts are all discharged,
Will make him blooming look as May,
And set his soul at large.

No news can be compared with this,
To men oppressed with sin;
Who know what legal bondage is,
And labor but in vain.

Freedom from sin and Satan’s chains,
And legal toil as well,
The gospel sweetly now proclaims;
Which tidings suit them well.

How gladly does the prisoner hear,
What gospel has to tell!
‘Tis perfect love that casts out fear,
And brings him from his cell.

The man that feels his guilt abound,
And knows himself unclean,
Will find the gospel’s joyful sound,
Is welcome news to him.
[WILLIAM GADSBY, 1773-1844]

There is a Balm in Gilead

I’ve made a little tradition of posting a lengthy quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day we remember him and the great injustice that he fought. Here’s an excerpt from a sermon he gave in Chicago in August 1967.

And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

And I’m going on in believing in him. You’d better know him, and know his name, and know how to call his name. You may not know philosophy. You may not be able to say with Alfred North Whitehead that he’s the Principle of Concretion. You may not be able to say with Hegel and Spinoza that he is the Absolute Whole. You may not be able to say with Plato that he’s the Architectonic Good. You may not be able to say with Aristotle that he’s the Unmoved Mover.

But sometimes you can get poetic about it if you know him. You begin to know that our brothers and sisters in distant days were right. Because they did know him as a rock in a weary land, as a shelter in the time of starving, as my water when I’m thirsty, and then my bread in a starving land. And then if you can’t even say that, sometimes you may have to say, “he’s my everything. He’s my sister and my brother. He’s my mother and my father.” If you believe it and know it, you never need walk in darkness.

Don’t be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above.

And so I’m not worried about tomorrow. I get weary every now and then. The future looks difficult and dim, but I’m not worried about it ultimately because I have faith in God. Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. Centuries later our slave foreparents came along. And they too saw the injustices of life, and had nothing to look forward to morning after morning but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton in the sizzling heat. But they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” And there is another stanza that I like so well: “Sometimes I feel discouraged.”

And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”