Over the Top and Under the Knife

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

If you are interested at all in wrestling with Scripture, I invite you to spend some time with me in the struggle. It will take some time. Struggles normally do.

I have been reflecting recently on this weekend’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament—the harrowing story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).

While God’s saving intervention at the end of the story comes as an enormous relief, the fact that God calls for such a sacrifice at the beginning of the story remains a deeply troubling reality. Who would ever want to worship a God like this—a deity who demands the ritualistic killing of a beloved child?

We moderns, who are inclined to rebel bitterly against even the simplest of resented inconveniences (such as wearing a mask to preserve the common good) blanch at the story. A God who demands extreme sacrifice to the point of suffering and grief?! Preposterous! Absurd! Unacceptable! A violation of our rights!

But perhaps therein lies the revelation. Perhaps the entire point of the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is to provide a confrontation with a scandalous and outlandish God who dares to demand a trust that accommodates the obliteration of our preferred courses of action and a faith that abides even when what we love most is taken away from us.

Yes, God intervenes. Yes, God ultimately prevents the sacrifice (thereby revealing that our God, unlike many of the deities worshiped in that time, will never require the ritualistic destruction of our families—a truth that contemporary church leaders would do well to remember in regard to their own families). But Isaac’s father, Abraham, does not know the end of the story at the story’s beginning. He only knows that he is being called by God to do the unthinkable and to trust God enough to believe that even the grief of losing a child will not take him beyond what God can heal, redeem, and restore.

If this Abraham/Isaac moment were the only moment of Scripture that we had, we would be in serious theological trouble. Thankfully, the rest of the Bible provides for us the full truth about God’s heart. God is neither a cruel and ruthless fiend who devises our distress nor a sadistic tyrant who orchestrates our misery. Rather, God is the Provider of deliverance and redemption; the Author of good and salvific stories; the One who, in the fullness of time, stepped out of eternity and into our history in Jesus; the Savior who walks and weeps with us, who breaks and bleeds with us, and who crawled onto a Roman tree in order to make the very sacrifice that he would not allow Abraham to make.

This is our God.

And, when we interpret the Abraham/Isaac chapter through the lens of the entire God-Story, we can live with the chapter’s pain and preposterousness. Why? Because we know God’s trustworthy heart. So did Abraham. So did our Jewish siblings who maintained their faith during the barbaric and dehumanizing horrors of the Holocaust. So did our African-American siblings who sang their faith through decades of slavery. So do we, even when it seems like God has forgotten about us or taken away what we love the most.

We know God’s heart.

It is a heart that holds us in our most traumatic anguish.

It is a heart that loves us relentlessly, weeping over our suffering, even as we are called upon to endure it.

It is a heart that demands nothing less than the holistic surrender of everything we have, not because God is a tyrannical megalomaniac, but because God knows that surrender is the only avenue to the saving intimacy that God longs to experience with us.

It is a heart that asks us to remember that, even in our most debilitating and heartbreaking moments of loss or sacrifice, we live in the tender embrace of a devoted Parent who will not allow the knife to be the end of the story.

Truth be told, it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the story, just as it is easy to dismiss or demonize God in the midst of our most unfair hardships and sacrifices. Then again, perhaps God understands what we do not—that, in a world of radically disordered priorities, only a willingness to sacrifice and surrender will reorient our scattered minds and hearts to the things of God.

(Artwork: “The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall)

Redemptive Weeping and Wondrous Resurrection


(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Jordan Douglas)


Some preachers this weekend will focus on John 11:1-45.

Check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.






What does Jesus do when he finds out that his friend Lazarus has died? Well, to put it as simply as Scripture does, he weeps. We weeps over the sadness that death causes. He weeps over death’s unparalleled ability to silence voices and to break hearts. Jesus…weeps.

And please, do not overlook or minimize these tears. The tears matter. They reveal the nature of the Divine Heart.

Jesus, after all, is the incarnation of the God we cannot see. In him, we are told, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. If we have a Jesus who weeps, then we must also have a God who weeps. Not a God who orchestrates misery and then watches our pain and death and cancer and quarantines from a safe emotional distance, but a God who enters with us into the depths of our suffering and who allows divine tears to commingle with ours.

That is why the tears of Jesus are so vital to our understanding of God. They saturate our deepest consciousness with the compassion of a God who takes everything we experience personally and feels it all deeply. Everything. In Jesus’ tears, we find a God who has invested so completely and so passionately in our journey that this God cannot help but internalize the joys and sorrows of our vulnerable pilgrimage. When we grieve, the heart of God grieves. When we suffer, the heart of God suffers. When we weep, the heart of God weeps.

Where is God in the face of COVID-19? God is right here, in the mess of it all. God is in the anguish of the addict who is desperate for community in a time of social distancing. God is in the despair of the grieving widow who cannot experience the physical embrace of loved ones in her loss. God is in the fear and dread of those vulnerable souls who have grown weak and weary with a sense of isolation.

Where is God? God is right here. Closer to us than our own breathing, more intimately connected to us than our own thoughts. That is who God is—a vulnerable, scandalously-intimate, deeply-feeling Parent who does not cause our suffering but who enters it, embraces it, and weeps over it.

But the weeping is not the end of the story. It never is with Jesus.

“Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And the dead man, leaving death behind, comes out.

Yes, God tenderly weeps. But this God also resurrects and restores! It is the story of Lazarus. The story of Jesus. The story of the church. The story of a hurting people who are heartbroken over a nation quarantined.

God is weeping, and God is resurrecting! Weeping over our devastation, but resurrecting us into bold new hope. Weeping over our sorrow, but resurrecting us into unexpected joy. Weeping over the rhythms of death, but resurrecting us into a grand and glorious newness of life.

So, be encouraged, friends. You are not weeping alone. There is One who cares about your pain more than you do who embraces you in the midst of it and weeps with you in a lifechanging intimacy. Best of all, when the weeping is finished, this same One will bring you forth into a new life where viruses lose their governance and where death itself relinquishes its authority.

Seriously, check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.






A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.

The Blessing Beyond the Scandal


I had planned to read more of Matthew’s Gospel than I did this morning.

One  verse, though, unexpectedly captured my contemplation in a manner that prevented me from reading past it. It was this verse:

“[Jesus said] And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6).

The phrase “takes no offense” is one way of translating the Greek word σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthē), from which we derive the English word “scandal.” (This verse, by the way, is part of the reason why I am so often inclined to describe the grace of God as “scandalous.” It is a grace that can offend the sensibilities of those who wish to evaluate it by typical metrics.)

There it is, then. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Jesus and who does not see his countercultural priorities as a stumbling block. The richest blessing of God, in other words, is to be found in a refusal to be scandalized, offended, or put off either by the grace that Jesus incarnated or the discipleship into which he calls us to live.

Matthew 11:6 took me back in my memory to a small newsstand in Grove City, Pennsylvania where I would often stop with my mother after church to pick up a Pittsburgh Press for my dad and a comic book for me. As we walked into the newsstand, I would be carrying both a Bible (which I had just spent time reading at church) and a spirit of eagerness, both of which were weighty in their own ways. On our walk home from the newsstand, as I carried both the Bible and the new comic book at my side with one hand, I remember intentionally putting the comic book on the outside and the Bible on the inside (closer to my leg) so that the Bible would not be easily visible to anyone who saw me.

Why? Why would I make such a choice? And why do I remember it so clearly today?

I am not certain that I can answer those questions definitively. But I suspect that my effort to conceal the Bible had something to do with the fact that, even as a 7-year-old, I had already learned that there was something scandalous about the life of Christian faith and the Way of Jesus. Even at that age, I had learned that risky love is often ridiculed; that the church is often perceived as foolish; that peacemakers are often marginalized; that pursuing a holiness that honors God is often seen as weakness; and that those who walk alongside outcasts are often criticized or dismissed.

Even at that age, I had come to understand that it was far safer to hide my deepest Story beneath a comic book. 

Decades later, I am less inclined to hide my Bible. This morning’s experience with Matthew 11:6, however, compels me to consider the very real possibility that I am concealing my discipleship with a more sophisticated methodology. How often, for example, do I hide the work of speaking truth to power behind a safer contentment with maintaining a superficial peace? How frequently do I  conceal much-needed repentance behind a narcissistic self-righteousness? On how many occasions do I bury the often-subversive priorities of Jesus beneath the more comfortable impulses of my personal preferences?

I may no longer conceal the Bible behind a comic book (at least on most days). And yet, I cannot help but wonder how frequently I am so “offended” or put off by Jesus’ call to a scandalous and comprehensive discipleship that I choose to hide the life to which he calls me behind the life that I am content to live.

Still, God is patient and gracious with me and makes certain that these words of Scripture resonate with power in my consciousness:

“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I long to experience that blessedness more deeply this Advent. It is the blessedness of a grace that brings beautiful new life to those who refuse to be offended or scandalized by the truth that Jesus illuminates—specifically, the truth that a person’s best achievements and self-reliance are not the means by which we will be saved.

For proud and independent souls like us, such an idea is almost offensive.

Even scandalous.








The Outraged Jesus

Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

(Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

It is an unsettling image, isn’t it?  I am speaking of the image of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple, turning over the tables, and chasing out the moneychangers. Here is how Scripture describes it:

In the temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple…and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Throughout my years of ministry, whenever people, particularly men, have approached this moment in Scripture, they have often seen it as the one time in the Bible when Jesus became a real “man’s man.” I call it the (Sylvester) Stallonification of Jesus. I once heard a man put it this way in a Bible study:

If I saw this kind of Jesus more often in the Bible—you know, the kind of Jesus who roughs up his enemies instead of telling us to love them all the time—I’d find it a whole lot easier to follow him.

The danger in this sort of thinking, of course, is that it can lead a person to use a Scripture like this to justify his own oafishness and his own bad manners. “Look, Jesus got angry! So can I! Jesus turned over the tables in God’s house, so why can’t I throw the ottoman through the window in MY house!”

What a dreadful thing it is to reduce a Scripture like this to nothing more than a justification of unhealthy anger or a validation of distorted masculinity. Jesus, after all, did not need this moment of dynamic anger to validate his personhood. His wholehearted identity as a man was already fully on display throughout his life and ministry. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he willingly suffers and dies on a cross for the sake of a fallen world; or when he tenderly weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus; or when he desperately cries over the city of Jerusalem and its sin. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he welcomes the children to come to him; or when he speaks words of life to a spiritually hurting Samaritan woman beside a water well on a hot afternoon; or when he wraps a towel around his waist and washes his disciples feet as a tangible demonstration of the fact that a new kingdom was in place—a kingdom in which servanthood is valued over power and where humility is valued over advancement.

Jesus’ anger in the temple is not a validation of Jesus’ status as a tough guy. It is rather an indication that some of the accepted rhythms of temple life inspired outrage in the very heart of God—a heart that Jesus represented and incarnated.

At what accepted rhythms was Jesus so angry?

The overarching sin to which Jesus seems to be responding in the temple is not the sin of buying and selling per se. Rather, Jesus seems to be angry about a much bigger issue: specifically, the ease with which people of faith conform to the principles and priorities that govern all the other parts of our fallen world. What does Jesus find when he walks into the temple? He finds business as usual. He finds a superficial (and, presumably, corruptly dehumanizing) commerce between merchant and customer, masking itself as service but fueled by the same kind of interplay that one could find just as easily in the marketplace.

Jesus’ anger reveals his demand that our temples and sanctuaries—both the literal temple of one’s place of worship and the metaphorical temple of the human heart—be transformed through sanctification, in order that they might become settings in which people practice a way of life and community that is unlike anything else the world has to offer. In the sanctified temple, sharing and sacrificial generosity take priority over buying and selling; repentance and forgiveness eclipse manipulation and exploitation; and the shared penchant for profit and pecking order begins to give way to an agapic and Christocentric communion.

Perhaps Jesus’ anger is grounded in his heartbreak over his realization of how frequently God’s people resist the call to function by a different economy, a different set of practices, and a different arrangement of priorities. In the “house of prayer” that God desires and that Jesus came to incarnate, people relate to one another, not as potential buyers and sellers (customers and merchants), but as redeemed spiritual siblings who have been liberated from social and economic hierarchies in order to be able to experience a new and often countercultural engagement (in Greek, “koinonia”).

I am inspired to personalize Jesus’ anger. What about the temple of my heart disheartens Jesus when he walks into it? What about the temple of my life inspires righteous anger in Jesus when he sees how frequently I have settled for attitudes, priorities, and patterns of behavior that dehumanize the very people he loves?

It is not a hateful anger that Jesus practices. It is an anger emerging from his heart of indefatigable love for this fallen world and its misguided people. It is an anger over the very things that should make me angry.

The question is, will I allow Jesus’ righteous anger to inspire manipulative denial or authentic repentance and redirection?

A Prayerful Litany About a Good Shepherd


While preparing to preach on the 23rd Psalm in recent days, I was inspired to create this litany.  Even when praying through the litany on my own in solitude, it helps me to become more deeply available to the beautiful nuances of the Psalmist’s proclamation about the goodness of our Shepherding God.

A Prayer of Centering (based upon Psalm 23)

Leader:  The Lord is my Shepherd.

People:  No, wait!  “Shepherd” is no longer an image that works for us!  It is an outdated reference to a bygone vocation.

Leader:  The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.

People:  We don’t want to hear about shepherding.  We are proud and self-sufficient people, not pathetic and needy sheep.

Leader:  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures and leadeth me beside still waters.

PeoplePerhaps we are too arrogantly fixated on our own agendas to be led and fed by One who dares to claim the authority of a Shepherd over us.

Leader:  He restoreth my soul.

People:  Now you’re getting personal! Our souls are broken, weary, stained, and scarred.  We long for a restoration that we, on our own, cannot generate.

Leader:  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

People:  Hold on!  We much prefer the smoothly paved roads of convenience to the often-rugged and dauntingly-demanding paths of righteousness.

Leader:  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.

People:  The shadow of death is all around us.  We cannot seem to escape it.  The shadow makes its presence known in the evening news, in shattered lives, and in our private lamentations.  Bring to us a renewed sense of conviction that, because of your steadfast presence, the evil of this shadow will never hold dominion over us, nor will it ever be given the final word to speak.

Leader:  Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

PeopleAlthough we desperately attempt to perpetuate the illusion of self-sufficiency, in our heart of hearts, we know that we are entirely dependent upon the sturdy rod of your guidance and the protective staff of your holistic grace.

Leader:  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

People:  This is too much for us!  We like to define ourselves by the enemies that we make and keep.  We want you to destroy our enemies, not entertain their presence. Equip us with new eyes, so that even our enemies will begin to look different to us.

Leader:  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

People:  We have grown weary of living under the anointing of the various oils that we have endeavored to place upon our own heads.  The oil of upward mobility.  The oil of personal achievement.  The oil of self-righteousness.  In these moments of stillness and worship, bring us under the anointing of your Holy Spirit, that the cup of our
life might overflow with the joy of being in right relationship with you.

Leader:  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

PeopleOur life depends upon your goodness.  Our hope depends upon your mercy. Overcome us now, and occupy us inwardly by your Spirit, that our entire life might become your home—a home in which we joyfully and abundantly dwell.

Zestfully Clean!

What do we find in Acts 11:1-18? Many things. An Apostle named Peter. A bitter division between portions of humanity. An unsettling vision of animals, deemed “unclean” by long-obeyed laws, gathered together in a sheet coming down from the sky. Then a voice from heaven, articulating the unthinkable: “Go ahead and embrace these animals. For what I have created to be clean you must not call unclean.”

As I spend time with Peter’s vision, it has never been clearer to me that it is less a vision about animals than it is about people. Divided people. Hurting and broken people. People who have come to believe that they are “unclean” or “unseen” or “untouchable” or “unloved.” The vision is God’s way of announcing to Peter, to the church, and to us, that Jesus has transformed the human network of relationships and reconfigured the “clean/unclean” dynamic so that we are now free to look upon every single person we encounter as a precious and beloved image-bearer of the divine heart whom God created to be (zestfully) clean, whether the person is honoring that cleanness or not.

It is a vision that gives me hope for my life, for a fractured world, and for a divided church. When I am most tempted to demonize, disparage, or dismiss the person on the other side of the issue or argument, or when I am closest to consciously or subconsciously categorizing someone as unworthy of my compassion or attention, Jesus invites me to make the redemptive journey back to Peter’s revolutionary vision and its new way of conceptualizing the world and its people: “What I have created to be clean you must not call unclean.”