March 19

March Greetings, Gayton Road,

In less than a week, we will enter into the church season of Lent. It is a happy coincidence that Lent corresponds with the end of winter and the beginning of spring, because Lent itself is about renewal. But Lent also offers a helpful corrective to the popular conception of renewal. It reminds us that resurrection begins with death. In other words, renewal means change. It means that some things must come to an end in order for other things to begin.

This year, I would like to invite you to join me in a Lenten practice: reading through the gospel of Mark from front to finish. For followers of Christ, reading scripture has long been a practice of dying to one’s self. In the words of scripture, we encounter a Word that confronts us and invites us to change. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about this Word as an “alien righteousness,” which is his way of saying that we don’t have all it figured out. We are always in need of something from outside, something alien to ourselves. Reading scripture, then, decenters us. It displaces us from the center of our universe. It shifts the center of gravity from our ego to something outside us—something that we faithful call God.

Several years ago, I inherited a family treasure: my grandfather’s personal Bible. My grandfather was a preacher. I know that he was a very different pastor than I am. But I hold him in the highest regard, in wonder and awe, because I know he faithfully lived out his calling. Occasionally I flip through the pages of his Bible and I wonder about the passages he’s underlined and the incomplete thoughts he’s scribbled in the margins. I wonder what those notes meant for him. I wonder what his situation was and what he was responding to. I wonder what his experience might mean for me today.

Maybe you have wondered similar questions flipping through the journal of an ancestor or rereading an old letter from a dear friend.

What I would like to suggest, is that these questions are the same questions that might be helpful to ask when we approach scripture. Christ-followers sometimes have differences in the way they understand scripture and its authority, but nearly all are agreed that these God-inspired words are also human and historically contingent. They were written by people like you and me, in a variety of complicated situations like the ones you and I face. So this year as we read through Mark together—which is not unlike an ancient journal of the early Christ-following community—I will invite us to ask these same questions. In particular, I invite you to take a copy of the short, simple Lenten journals that are in the narthex. These Lenten journals designate the weekly readings and offer space to reflect on these questions.

Because reading the Bible this way may be a new practice of reading, I would like to model it in summary fashion here, using the primary scripture for this upcoming Sunday, Luke 9:28-43a.

The first question—what was the situation?—is one of historical context. What history might it be helpful to know, in order to understand better how the original audience would have interpreted these words? In the case of Luke 9:28-43a, it would likely be helpful to know more about the significance of the Jewish characters of Moses and Elijah, both of whom make an appearance. If we did a little of bit research, we would discover that both are prominent figures in Jewish tradition. Moses may represent the Torah (the first five books of Jewish scripture), and Elijah may represent the Prophets (another large collection of writings in the Jewish scripture). We would also discover that the references to a mountain and dazzling light and a cloud all echo the experience of Moses at Mount Sinai, as he begins to lead the Israelites in their exodus. We might also learn that the word “departure” in 9:31 is literally the word “exodus.” Interesting!

The second question—what might this story be responding to?—is a literary one. How might this story be a part of a larger biblical conversation? In our scripture, we would perhaps observe that the story begins with reference to some “sayings” that Jesus has recently pronounced. This seems to be a hint that those sayings have a bearing on the meaning of this story. What were those sayings? Jesus has just anticipated his death and proclaimed: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (9:23).

From the discoveries we have made so far, then, we might conclude (1) that this mountaintop experience of Jesus is being compared to the exodus, and (2) that the glory of God is inextricably related with the selfless love that is symbolized in the cross.

The third question—what does all this mean for me today?—is a spiritual one. What is the call that I hear in these words? What is the Word that God is speaking to me today? What I hear in this text is a challenge. Normally I treat mountaintop moments as times to be treasured. I tenderly separate them from other, more common experiences and place them on the figurative dresser of my life to be fondly remembered. But what I discover in today’s passage decenters me. The Word knocks my habits out of orbit. Here, glory is not held high, apart from life, but is inextricably linked with its darkest moments. Here, glory has something to do with exodus, deliverance, freedom.

What is the call I hear? Not to treasure the light idly, but to carry it courageously into the dark. To carry love into hate, hope into despair, blessing into a battleground of cursing. How else will deliverance happen?

Or to put it in the words of a famous Civil Rights anthem, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.”

As you read through Mark, you may appreciate the help of reading companions. For starters, there are a host of resources in our church library. I will also be placing a couple of short, accessible commentaries on the reading table. But I would also like to encourage anyone who can to join us for coffee or breakfast at Metro Diner (11525 W. Broad St.) on Friday mornings at 10 am. There we will share our own reflections on the weekly passage. There too, perhaps, we will encounter in the words of one another the “alien righteousness” which is our salvation.

Grace and peace to you all this Lenten season. As we walk the way of the cross together, may we welcome the death of that which was never really life, and may we welcome too the Life that comes from outside.

Yours, Jonathan

February 2019

Greetings Gayton Road,

Personally, I love winter. Snow, frigid temperatures, bundling up, piling on the covers, keeping the kettle on, getting lost in a good book…the list goes on. But I know others (perhaps some of you!) feel differently. That’s fair! There’s another side to winter: icy roads, runny noses, cancelled appointments, frozen toes, rising bills, shorter days.

By now, some of us may feel “done” with winter. What good can come from it now? Similarly, as the glow of Christmas fades and the new year begins to feel old, we may no longer feel the inspiration of Epiphany; we may no longer feel the fresh and bright sense that God is with us and new life is just around the corner. Even so, despite any feelings to the contrary, this month remains part of the season of Epiphany. It’s the church calendar’s way of saying, God hasn’t left. Emmanuel, “God with us,” is as true as now as it was a month ago. And so we might ask: Well where, then, is God when I’m feeling like this?

Several of you have asked me recently how my class has been going. Wonderfully, is the short answer. I was sharing with someone just yesterday how invigorating it is to read the Bible alongside readers from all different backgrounds. Every reader’s observation is an enlightenment: revealing what others had missed or exposing our unquestioned theological presuppositions or simply enriching our awareness of the various interpretive possibilities.

Although I have little else to share from my teaching experience thus far, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you another step on my scholastic journey. Recently I had the opportunity to write an article for the Review & Expositor, a Baptist theological journal dedicated to free and open inquiry of issues related to the Church’s mission in the contemporary world. I was asked to address the strange biblical story of Tamar, which is found in Genesis 38. (I won’t recount the story here. I’ll only give this teaser: it’s like a Netflix drama condensed into one chapter of sparse, suggestive biblical prose—riveting stuff!)

I wouldn’t expect that you would want to read the entire article. (Although I’ve attached it, in case you’re looking for an excuse to fall asleep.) But I would like to share, in short, what I wrote about, because I think the article was my own way of wrestling with the question I posed above: Where is God when it feels like God’s gone missing?

In the story of Genesis 38, God goes missing for the better part of the story. Unlike earlier in Genesis, where God regularly appears to help the matriarchs through their procreative struggles, God is nowhere to be found for the mistreated mother-to-be, Tamar. In fact, Tamar’s situation resembles much of the final portion of Genesis. Although there are brief mentions of God’s presence alongside Joseph, there is no concrete divine intervention to resolve the ancestral family’s many problems.

Pastor, theologian, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), lived and wrote in a similar situation himself. In the crucible of terror and uncertainty that filled Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer wrote honestly about a “godless” world. Rather than lament this godlessness, however, Bonhoeffer embraced it. Bonhoeffer observed that the name “God” all too often served as shorthand for our own way of doings things. Thus the name “God” actually became an obstacle for God and a way for humans to avoid responsibility. Just as a Nazi officer might displace responsibility by saying, “It’s the law; I was only following orders from above,” so too a Christian might explain his own behavior, “I’m obeying God; I’m only doing my duty.” Bonhoeffer suggested that it is in fact in “godless” situations that God can become real in the world. When someone responds in these situations to the “question and call” of God, not out of duty to an established doctrine or obligation to a fixed law, but out of faith in a goodness that is beyond them, that’s when God takes on flesh. This, he said, is “the God of the Bible, who gains ground and power in the world by being powerless.”

And this is what we see, I think, in Genesis 38. God is not an easy answer for Tamar. There is no easy solution to her dilemma. In fact, the name “God” never shows up in the resolution to her story. Perhaps that’s because her radical responsibility outstrips any recognizable representation of “God.”

If this sounds messy and convoluted, I think it’s because Genesis 38 and Bonhoeffer both are dealing honestly with the stuff of life, which is never as neat and defined as we would like it to be. For me, their stories are an inspiration, a reminder that whenever God seems absent is precisely the moment when God might break into the world in a new and unrecognizable way—through frail and faithful flesh, such as our own. Whenever I feel “done” with a situation, whenever it seems like there is no possibility left in it—this is precisely the moment when God is most alive, knocking, calling, looking for a way into the world.

Grace and peace to you all this February. In moments bright and warm, may we know God’s presence and joy. In moments cold and dull, may we find hope in God’s insistence—and may we give it our assistance—so that it may take on flesh in our frail and faithful world of existence.

Yours, Jonathan

January 2019

Greetings Gayton Road,

And a “happy new year” to you all! May the grace that has brought us here “thus far,” be the grace that leads us on.

Recently I was visiting with an elderly man who was far away from his friends and family. His room was bare with the exception of a stack of Christmas cards on his bedside table. During our time together, he picked up the cards and thumbed through them tenderly, one at a time, sharing not only the words written on the cards but also the memories and hopes that lay hidden beneath the words. At the end of our visit, he asked me to hang the cards up on his window. Of course he wouldn’t be able to read them there. But simply reading the words wasn’t the point. Those cards meant much more than the sum of their words.

I couldn’t help but think how similar this is to the Bible. For the Bible also is more than the sum of its words. We Christ-followers recognize this when we refer to it as the “Word.” We are distinguishing between the lowercase “words” that make up the Bible and the uppercase “Word” which inspires and connects and complicates all those words. And others too recognize a glimmer of this, I think, when they refer to the Bible “as literature.” To call something literature suggests that its words mean more than they say. Literature celebrates allusion and metaphor and irony, rhyming and flashbacks and anticipation, all of which fill words with meaning far beyond their literal content. So call it the Spirit or call it inspired writing—call it whatever you want. In any case, there is more to these words than meets the eye.

As I shared with you this Sunday, I am excited to have the opportunity this spring to teach a course at VCU, “The Bible as Literature.” Although I will not be speaking in the classroom with the same voice that I use to speak in the pulpit, I am hopeful nonetheless that I will have the opportunity to minister through my enthusiasm for the words of the Bible and the Spirit that underlies and animates them. I am hopeful too that my study in the classroom might inspire and instruct me in ways that I might share with you. In particular, I’m enlivened by the prospect of studying New Testament texts in a closer way than I have in the past, and I would like to share that experience with you—perhaps in a Lenten practice of reading one of the gospels from cover to cover, perhaps in a breakfast study. More on this to come!

As we near the celebration of Epiphany, which will be this Sunday (January 6), I am reminded that there is more than meets the eye not only in the words of the Bible, but also in the world around us. For Epiphany insists that this world is more than the sum of its parts. Things are not just things. A table is not just a table, bread is not just bread. In all these things, there is More going on.

In our epistle text for this coming Sunday, Paul calls this grace that saturates our world “the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4). Paul ends his discussion of this mystery with a beautiful prayer (Eph 3:18-19)—a paraphrase of which I would like to leave with you now as we enter together into a new year:

Grace and peace to you all this new year! In the joys and sorrows that come our way, may we have eyes to see the mystery of Christ. May we see in all the world around us not just things, but their hidden dimensions. Their grace-filled breadth and depth and length and height. May we know in all things the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. Amen.

Yours, Jonathan