May 19, 2019

May Greetings, Gayton Road—

A couple of months ago, my parents’ cat Sherlock had his world turned upside down. Before then, Sherlock had the rule of the house, as far as he was concerned. Everyone knew which cushion on the couch was his. Everyone knew which blanket he preferred for his afternoon naps. But when my brother and sister-in-law welcomed their twins into the world, they were no longer able to take care of their two kittens, Sydney and Geordie. Guess where the two kittens ended up? Sherlock no longer had the rule of the house.

Sydney and Geordie shook things up quite a bit, and for a couple of weeks Sherlock was less than pleased. But I’m happy to share that they are now closer companions that anyone ever would have imagined. Their rhythms of romp and repose are in close sync, and rarely are the three cats found in separate rooms. What originally threatened to ruin Sherlock’s life, eventually enriched it beyond his (or our) wildest dreams.

In the season of Lent, we read more than once about how Jesus shook up the synagogue. He regularly interrupted Sabbath proceedings to heal the hurting. He forgave people whom the religious leaders had condemned. The religious leaders saw this as a challenge. But we might wonder if Jesus meant it instead as a renewal. His disruptions were not for the sake of rebellion but rather for the sake of putting things in their proper order: prioritizing people over protocol, the cries of the needful over convention and custom. What the religious leaders saw as a threat to their way of life, was in fact meant to enrich life—both theirs and the needful’s.

Having shared enthusiastic conversation with many of you about Jesus’ “Sabbath example,” I am now inspired to follow it. Would you join me? In the coming summer, we plan to break with our religious routine once or twice: instead of meeting at church on Sunday for worship, we will gather with the needful in our community to share our worship with them. Already we are planning a Sunday gathering with the memory care unit at Symphony Manor (across the street) and another Sunday gathering with some of the homeless folks to whom Rhonda Sneed and her Blessing Warriors minister.

I’m hopeful that these Sunday sojourns will be a blessing for both those whom we visit and us ourselves. I take heart not only from the fact that we will be following Jesus’ Sabbath example, but also from the fact that sojourning is at the center of our faith experience. Abraham trusting God and leaving home; the Israelites wandering in the wilderness; the Son of Man traveling without a place to lay his head: each story reminds us that our home is not in a building or a familiar setting, but in God—who so often takes the face of a stranger.

Grace and peace to you amid the unending changes of our lives. May God sanctify these shake-ups; bless us with eyes to see in them the opportunity for renewal; and draw us ever out ourselves and into the kingdom.

Yours,
Jonathan

April Greetings, Gayton Road—

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the gospel of Mark alongside you this Lenten season. Each week I glean new meaning from the gospel as we share our reading experience together—as we ponder questions, confess doubts, express wonder, and discover our own stories tangled up in this story of good news.

One question that we’ve wrestled with repeatedly at our Friday Lenten coffees is, “Why does Jesus keep telling other characters to keep quiet instead of to spread the good news?” (Mark, after all, trumpets the good news at the very beginning of his gospel story. He wants the word to get out. Why doesn’t Jesus?) In our last few discussions, we’ve come to a possible answer by way of another question: what is the good news? In other words, is the good news simply the figure of Jesus? Is Jesus pointing a finger at himself? Or is it the kingdom of God? Is Jesus pointing to a better world, a better life?

Perhaps Jesus tells others to keep quiet because he knows all too well the human tendency to make an idol out of power. Perhaps he worries that people will miss the kingdom for the king.

Another observation we’ve shared at our coffees is how Mark more than once juxtaposes fear and faith as opposites. After Jesus calms the storm, he asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). Later when a father hears that his daughter has died, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, only believe” (5:36).

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Lakewood Retirement Community for their Sunday Vespers service. I was running of a couple of minutes behind, so I walked briskly toward the front door.

As I approached its canopied entrance, I noticed a woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was eating a banana. What caught my attention was how slowly, how gently she was chewing. Unhurriedly. Contentedly. A soft smile rested on the corners of her lips. Strangely the rest of the world began to move in slow motion too. It was as though the woman was slowing the world down by her simple act of eating that banana. For that moment (I couldn’t say how long it was, although I imagine it was only a second), I forgot that I was running late.

The more I considered this seemingly trivial moment of my day, the more sacred it became. For Lakewood is in the midst of major renovation. Change is all around, as men and women in construction hats walk imperiously from one corner to the other. How oblivious this woman seemed. And I thought of the other changes that she has endured over the span of her life: from newspapers to television to the internet, from telephones and switchboards to cell phones and Skype, from a Short Pump filled with trees to a Short Pump filled with shopping centers.

After years of change and in the midst of even more change, there she sat, eating her banana as though it were a real gift, as though it were the only thing in the world that mattered. She ate not fearful of the change around her but full of faith in the source of that banana and all goodness.

I’m not proud to share that oftentimes I look the complete opposite, eating my food in a rushed manner as my mind plans impatiently, jumpy with uncertainty and hungry for control. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I hear Jesus ask. “Do not fear, only trust.”1

As we near Holy Week and Easter, I hang onto this trivial-turned-sacred moment, which I encountered at its intersection with the gospel of Mark. I offer it to you too. Amid the changes of our lives, may we not fear but trust in the source of all goodness. Even in loss, may we not fear but trust. Even at the sight of a cross, may we not fear but trust. May we eat our bread, may we drink from our cups, full of faith in the God who gives us life.

Yours, Jonathan

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