Friday Winter to Sunday Spring

it is finished

Older daughter Em’s work hanging in the foyer of the church, ready for our Good Friday service

This day I’m thankful for

springtime rain,

birdsong from feathered friends

(persisting in choir practice

despite the drizzle),

trees budding in grey light,

greening grass,

and scents of something fresh and raw

rising from dark, soft soil.

I’m thankful for promise!

Yes, promise:

That the dark, the cold, the separation—

Each of us holed up, weathering out the weather—

These will not last forever.

Warmth will come.

Life will burst forth from the earth

Spring will shake a fist, defiant against

The dark and the cold,

And winter will be swept aside.

I am thankful—

Yet I am reminded, in this Holy Week,

That the promise is only for a time,

The jubilee of spring is temporary,

And indeed is not complete.

Temporary, for the dirge of winter will return;

the seasons will cycle: summer scorch, autumn shrivel, winter burial,

Newness fading to death again and again.

It is, as well, an incomplete jubilee, for even in the best of springs, there is

Blight and sickness, death of young and old,

Fresh emergence of old grudges, old divisions.

On the most beautiful of days, all is still not well.

But this holiest of weeks holds forth greater promise

Than a passing, unfulfilled season.

I am reminded that beyond Friday’s death,

Beyond the now,

There is an eternal Then.

Oh, blessed Sunday,

Day of Celebration

Day of Declaration

Day that assures us

That the eternal Then already has

Crucified death,

Vanquished darkness

Swallowed despair, and

Erased all divisions.

And someday, the eternal Then Himself will transform our hoped-for Then into Now!

When all will be right; all will be fully well.

Sunday life—all the time!

So at present we hold onto hope, we hold onto promise

That though we endure the wintry mix of Friday now,

Clinging to promise in the decay of the tomb,

Yet an eternal Sunday will spring,

Fully finished.

The stone will be rolled away

And we will emerge into a new, abundant Now

That has no end.

 

 

 

 

 

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Palm Sunday: a sermon by Andrew of Crete (c. 660-740)

Andrew of Crete (c. 660-740) was one of the Early Church Fathers. He was born in Damascus and served at churches in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and, finally, Crete. He is known for his concern for orphans, widows, and the elderly. The following is an excerpt from his Palm Sunday sermon. 

Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation. He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us with himself, we are told in Scripture, above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named, now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He comes without pomp or ostentation. As the psalmist says: He will not dispute or raise his voice to make it heard in the streets. He will be meek and humble, and he will make his entry in simplicity.

Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.

In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself. And even though we are told that he has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of his power and godhead – his love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.

So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.

Ash Wednesday 2018, noon service

At the end of the service,

When the ashes are crossed on my forehead

With the words, “Remember that you are dust,

And to dust you shall return,”

The liturgy plunges bone-deep

And a strange weariness overcomes me.

I sit in this for a moment,

But then remember:

There is much still to do in this day.

Decisions to be made,

Lessons to be taught,

School pickups,

Dinner to fix,

And another service, for goodness sake!

Action, energy are needed.

Caffeine is probably needed!

Yet in this moment, a memory arises,

From another Ash Wednesday several years before.

Following the imposition, the mother in the row ahead of me

Picked up her small ones from childcare

And returned for the end of the service.

All was well, till her son noticed the cross on her forehead,

The cross on my forehead,

The cross on the foreheads of every adult surrounding him.

He turned to his mother, and I heard,

“Where’s my cross? Why don’t I have a cross?”

and nothing could comfort him till my husband,

one of those who’d imposed the ashes that night,

marked the child’s forehead, too, with his still-darkened thumb.

To want the mark of humanity,

To long for the symbol that announces to the world,

we are but “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,”*

Incapable,

Inadequate,

In dire need of mercy—

This desire seems nearly the complete opposite of

That which caused the first human hands to pluck forbidden fruit,

To doubt Goodness himself,

To seek equality with the Creator,

Independence from the Breath that gave Life,

Supposed self-sufficiency.

Oh, yes, give me ashes,

Give me symbol,

Grant me humility,

The posture, before God and man,

Of complete and utter need.

For then your mercy, too, can plumb bone-deep,

Heart-deep,

Soul-deep.

Breath can bring dust to life again,

So that all I am, all I do,

May be known and seen

As Your greatest grace.

 

*a line from the hymn “O Worship the King,” which we sang in early morning prayer at Austin Corinthian Baptist Church this very morning!

 

the unity of the Body of Christ

*This post is written from thoughts I jotted in my journal during a class I’m taking. Some of my readers may think I’m coming down a little hard on the white church in America, and it could probably be argued that I’m perhaps generalizing too much. But I would like to respond with a plea for repentance and humility rather than argument. 

This past week Canon Stephen Gauthier was talking about the unity of the Body of Christ. “There is unity in diversity,” he said. “United does not mean identical, yet it is impossible to separate the body without irreparable harm.”

Scripture does not present disdain for the Church as an optional attitude. The Church is the family of God, the Body and Bride of Christ. These are truths now; they are not ideals, and we are called to understand this as the truest of truths. When we are baptized into Christ, we automatically enter into the deepest of family relations with every other Christian on the planet and throughout time. These are bonds that will never be severed; they are permanent, existing throughout eternity.

Martin Luther King Jr’s well-known words about the most segregated hour in America take on new, deeply sorrowful meaning when we grasp this truth. The white church in American (of which I am a part) went far beyond saying to the African American or Chinese American church what the eye said to the hand in I Corinthians 12. “I don’t need you,” said the eye to the hand, but the white church literally tried to cut off the ethnic church in the States. It tried to kill it, to completely sever it from the body of Christ at large.

Today many in the white church have acknowledged a certain level of sin against minority brothers and sisters, yet, in my view, a form of the same sin continues, for though the white church is no longer trying to kill off minority churches, there is a very pervasive eye-to-hand sentiment. “We don’t need you,” the white church subtly but essentially says.

The attempted murder of the past and the current, pervasive, don’t-need-you attitude has caused and is causing irreparable harm, and it must be acknowledged that this harm is far greater than its political or legal ramifications. We—the unified Church—are the Body of Christ, and the actions and attitudes of the white members toward those they considered “less honorable” have done incredible, spiritual harm. The white church so often sees itself as superior, as holding greater knowledge, as having been the sending church of many, many missionaries, as the founder of seminaries and higher places of theological learning…

Yet the white church is responsible for great harm to the very Body of Christ.

What the white church has not realized is this: in thinking of the minority church as something like an extra, unneeded toe and in attempts to cut off this extra toe, it has misunderstood reality. Together the church in America—of all ethnicities—is a member, connected to the rest of the Body and joined with the Body to the Head—Christ. Though the historic white church did what it did believing it was cutting off a less necessary member (pushing that member away), what the white church has in actuality been doing is cutting itself off. The tourniquet applied strangled the white church. It cut off blood flow to itself, and until this tourniquet is loosened, the white church dangles apart from the rest of the member.

Belonging to the Church entire is not optional in the Body of Christ. The Body, whole and integrally connected is fact, is reality. We must live into this reality—or we will continue to do great harm.

the power of the resurrection

396467780000-Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.59.09 AMGrant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever.

We stood on the shore of Lake Geneva, gathered for the baptism service of two young members of our church family—a brother and sister. Our pastor spoke of their entering the water as Christ entered death. He reminded them that in submitting to baptism, they were announcing their identity; they were renouncing darkness and entering a new life of trusting in and following Christ. They would not do this through their own strength but through the power of Christ, through the power of his resurrection.

Power implies authority. Power implies the ability to make another person do whatever the person in power wants. Even when power is used benignly, it generally carries an unspoken threat. Power separates those with it from those without it. It diminishes those who are being controlled.

Power is too often seen as Might. Force. Control. Dominance.

I thought all this as I watched our pastor bless the water of the lake—the rather large lake! I thought of the story of Jesus calming the wind and the waves. He had authority and power over the storm, power that was so evident the disciples were terrified by it. “Who is this,” they asked each other, “that even the wind and waves obey him?”

The brother and sister, pastor, and youth pastor walked out into the lake. We followed into the shallows. They went further, till the water reached their waists. Together the pastors dipped first one of them and then the other backwards into the water. I saw their bodies resist the descent. I saw their mental effort to overcome this natural resistance, to release themselves into their pastors’ arms.

Years ago I watched the movie Schindler’s List. The overarching story of the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust has certainly stuck with me, but I can only picture a couple scenes from the film. In one of them Oskar Schindler is on a balcony with the German leader of a prison camp, a man who exults in his complete power to arbitrarily torture and kill the Jews in his camp. Schindler has a different view of power. “Power,” he says, “is when we have every justification to kill—and we don’t.”

Power, he continues, is when we instead extend mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus had power. He calmed raging waves and howling winds with the sound of his voice. He certainly could have controlled the mere men who stripped and beat his body and drove nails through his feet and wrists. Yet he submitted to them, to their assumptions of power.

Did Jesus’ body, like the bodies of our young church members, naturally resist their force? Did his knowledge that he had power—that he could have called down legions of angels, that he could have controlled the very iron of the nails—battle against his intention to submit?

I don’t know what went on inside Jesus’ soul, but I know what he did. I know the nails stayed in his wrists. I know his body remained on the cross. I know he allowed people to taunt him.

I know Jesus willingly died.

In retrospect we see the power of the resurrection fully and beautifully displayed in the crucifixion.

I can’t remember every detail of the scene with Schindler and the prison camp leader. I do remember the camp leader sitting in a chair looking out over hundreds of emaciated, broken Jews. I remember his pleasure in harming them.

In my memory his fists are clenched.

Jesus’ hands, though, were open.

Open in pain, fingers stretched wide with the suffering and brokenness of the world.

Open in pardon for those harming him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Open in compassion for his mother: “Woman, here is your son … Here is your mother.”

Open in acceptance of those rightfully accused: “Today you will join me in paradise.”

The hair and clothes of the two siblings dripped with water. We waded back to shore and gathered in a circle.

Our pastor prayed, “…you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” He held his hands out toward us. “The peace of the Lord be always with you.”

“And also with you,” we answered. I noticed many of us mirrored the pastor’s gesture, stretching our open hands, palms up, toward the center of the circle.

This, I thought, is the power of the resurrection: the power to live against our natural tendency to resist, to close our hands in fists. Only with resurrection power can we live open-handed toward God, palms bare, willing to reveal the emptiness of our hands. willing to hold our hands out to God, open to receive everything from Him, open to receive grace.

We joined hands then, and in the gentle pressure of my neighbors’ hands in mine, I realized this, too, is done in resurrection power. The power of the resurrection enables us to live with hands outstretched to others, ready to link fingers with the reaching hands of the suffering, the broken, the oppressed, and the widow, and willing, even, to grab hold of the clenched fists of the oppressors, the accusers, the guilty and the condemned.

Grant, O Lord, that all (we) who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection…

Amen

Blindness to God and neighbor

The story of Bartimaeus, as told in Mark 10, seems very straightforward: Jesus restores the sight of a blind man.

First, Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus to have mercy on him.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, “I want to see.”

Jesus says, “Go; your faith has healed you.”

And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus.

I love Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus (click here to read a post on that), but as I have read, listened to, and told this story several dozen times in the last several months, I have come to appreciate an irony in it.

Bartimaeus is not the only one in the story who is blind, and Jesus is doing two kinds of healing: he is restoring physical sight to Bartimaeus, and he is revealing the spiritual blindness of those who think they already see.

They have good reason to believe this; they see the sun, the sky, the trees, the grass. They see quite well the people around them who are wealthy and powerful. They see those who run in the “same circles” as they do themselves. Most of all, they see themselves.

They even, to a certain extent, see Jesus: see his miracles, see his power, see the possibilities following him might bring them.

But they are spiritually blind, and this is revealed in their response to Bartimaeus. They don’t notice him, don’t acknowledge him, don’t listen to him. They even try to shut him up when he dares to speak.

Bartimaeus, though, is named in Scripture. Though so many others are not, including those with wealth and/or status (the rich young ruler, most of the scribes and Pharisees who interacted with Jesus, the Centurion), both the personal and family names of this blind, begging man are shared. Jesus, the Son of the Creator God, filled with the Spirit of Life, hears and sees Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He loves him.

Jesus does not want the crowds to be wowed with his miracles. He does not want them enamored with his power. He wants them to know God; he is revealing God! He wants them to understand that the God who rescued them and made them his people did not do so in order for them to become proud and separated. God did this so he could teach them to love as God loves, with heart and soul and mind, to love both God and neighbor in this full, complete way—and then to be a light to all people, being themselves a mini-revelation of this incredible God.

Bartimaeus somehow understood this, at least on some level. He was not truly blind, for when he regained his physical sight, he didn’t use it for his own purposes. He followed Jesus, and I can imagine Bartimaeus running up to downtrodden individuals all along the way, inviting them to Jesus. “Come and see,” he would say, “Come and see Jesus!”

It was the people around Bartimaeus who were actually blind. They chose not to see God as the Yahweh who had rescued and covenanted with them for no reason other than love. They chose not to see God’s love for all people, and instead they loved as the world self-servingly loves, showing attention only to those whose response might be beneficial.

All this was evident in their attitude toward Bartimaeus. “Be quiet,” the crowds around told him. “We don’t want to hear about your needs. We don’t want Jesus’ attention to be focused on you. Stay down there, on the ground.”

But Jesus stopped to listen to Bartimaeus’ cry, and he responds in an interesting way. He does not call out directly to Bartimaeus. He tells the crowd, “Call him here.” See him, Jesus is saying. Notice him, talk to him, interact with him. You are both creations of the living God. You cannot love God and refuse to love your neighbor.

In Jesus’ view, Bartimaeus already possessed sight; he had faith vision. Maybe he’d heard stories of Jesus announcing himself with Isaiah’s words and then actually doing them, preaching good news to the poor, restoring sight, pronouncing healing and freedom to the downtrodden and burdened. Bartimaeus was convinced by what he’d heard. He knew he needed Jesus; he believed Jesus would want to help him (and could!); and he cried out for help.

The crowds, however, were like the Pharisees, who saw no reason to throw themselves on God’s mercy and lovingkindness. They believed they possessed special favor, and they didn’t want God’s favor to be extended to anyone else.

In Jesus’ estimation, they were the blind.

Jesus longs to heal our blindness. He longs for us to see God more and more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly…

And to love our neighbors–all our neighbors!–as ourselves.

Anything less is blindness.

 

NOTE: I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I do not write it only as a response to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville this past weekend, but it is very linked in my mind. We (meaning the Church) must not ignore the spiritual blindness of racism, especially when it is held by those who say they are following Christ or doing the work of God. Christ did not keep peace with the blind; he named their blindness; he called them to admit it and turn to God. We must do the same. Here’s a blogpost by Michael Frost that is very pertinent to this. And here’s another by Jen Oshman–also excellent.

An Article Share

An article suggested by one of my friends caught my eye, and I’m posting a link to it here. This past winter, for a class taught by Scot McKnight, I read the book of Acts multiple times in conjunction with Paul’s epistles, and what jumped out at me most was Paul’s insistence on the point of unity of the church. Christ’s Body was brought into reality through God the Son putting on flesh and crossing the greatest barrier, and this Body must strive for unity; it must actively work against division. This article, posted in Christianity Today Women, speaks to this and makes some excellent points. It’s written by Helen Lee, whom I heard speak a number of years ago (the link is to her personal website, where she writes much about diversity and unity), and the article is titled “Why White-Centered Discipleship Hurts Us All: A Vision for Bringing Racial Equity to the Spiritual Training of Women.

A blog share

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and when I arrived at church, I received a tulip.

So did both my daughters.

So did every woman who arrived at our church yesterday–whether single or married, biological mother or not.

I am glad of this–because every one of us is called to a mothering of one kind or another. My children have several spiritual mothers, and I’m grateful for every woman who pours into their lives. My children need them. I need them. They receive mothering from all kinds of women–from me, from their grandmother, from their female teachers, from the young women who work in their after-school program, from the coaches who lead their soccer teams…

They are challenged and encouraged and pushed and comforted and guided and stretched and corrected–by all these women in ways that are specific to each one.

They need more than one “mother,” and, most of all, they need the motherly love of God, who, though generally referred to as “Father,” also speaks of himself as “motherly.”

I was very blessed this morning to read Mike Frost’s post “The Ferocious Motherly Love of God,” on this topic, and I am so glad to share it with you. May it encourage you as it encouraged me.

Grace and peace this day.

~Jen

 

Taize, March 2017

I tucked the candle and its paper drip guard

in the hymnal rack of the pew in front of me

til we sang “Christ Jesus, light of our hearts, we praise you”

and a young girl made her way down the aisle,

lighting the tapers of those at each row’s end.

My friend Beth’s candle burst into flame

and I leaned mine to meet its glowing tip.

My wick, too, sparked to brightness,

burning fast, flame high, wax flowing.

My weary mind fixated on the flame and flow,

And the shrinking of my candle.

The candle—me.

Around me people sang in Spanish:

Nada te turbe/nada te espante/

quien a Dios tiene nada le falta/

nada te turbe/nada te espante/

solo Dios basta.

I translated bits in my mind,

but mostly watched the wax drip, drip, drip.

Melting, lessened, reduced.

Reduced.

Lower, lower it burned.

Then, same song, English words:

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.

Those who seek God will never go wanting.

Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten.

God alone fills us.

I remembered the Spanish: solo Dios basta

Basta—enough.

We filed to the front,

placed our candles in sand-filled bowls at the foot of the cross,

returned to our seats.

From there I could not see the candles,

But their collective glow lit up the Christ painted on the cross.

Another song began

and the cross was lifted from among the candles

Placed in front of them, flat on the ground.

Come forward, we were invited.

Come to the cross.

The line was long.

I watched the candles.

Many had burned down to nubs,

their flames low in the sand.

Others still stood tall.

My turn.

In the flames’ flicker, the painted face and hands

of the Christ on the cross seemed to move.

When I knelt, put my hand on his,

I almost expected them to clasp together.

Around me voices rose.

The final line washed over me.

Love and do not fear.

a request

(Warning: This is not a normal blog post!) Dear readers, as many of you know, I’m living now on the west side of Chicago, where Dave and I feel God has specifically led our family. Dave is teaching at a high school here that serves under-resourced students, and in early January I went on staff with Greenhouse Movement, a church-planting and partnering organization. I was specifically brought on staff to work with Bible Telling here on the west side of Chicago (I’m SO excited about this! I get to write and teach and connect with people–and all of it’s related to the story of God!).

Greenhouse is a missionary organization, so I am in the very faith-stretching process of finding my team of supporters. I know God already knows who they are, and He’s the one who will prompt them to join the team; my job is simply to share the vision of Greenhouse and the specifics of my ministry with as many people as possible! I decided to put this on my blog because I thought there might be some readers who would want to know more and who might, after talking with me, want to join my team. So if you’re reading this, and you would like to hear more about Greenhouse and what I will be doing, PLEASE email me at jenunderwood0629@gmail.com

I would love to talk with you!

Thanks!

~Jen~