Hollow Artistry

I know a lot of you were having discussions about theodicy this past week so I wanted to talk about that. What?! Theo-di-what? You know. The question of the justice of God! Whenever we say or think, “That’s not fair” and we point our finger at God, we are dealing with theodicy. In what ways is God in control and making things happen on earth? When is God allowing us to exercise our freedom, even if that leads us to sin?
So the lectionary leads us to a passage today that was only vaguely familiar to me. That’s both the strength and the challenge of preaching from the lectionary. It puts before me Biblical texts that I would not otherwise choose or maybe even remember. So then I have to do some studying and praying to better understand what message emerges from that text for us. So here goes!
In Luke’s gospel Jesus has been teaching mobs of people. Some people come to Him and bring up a recent news item that had the Jews talking. Pilate, the Governor of Judaea, had murdered some folks from Jesus’ home region, the same area where He was teaching. Pilate had taken some of the blood of the slaughtered victims and mixed it with the sacrifices the Jews had made in their synagogue. This was an abomination to their faith. A horrific act of cruelty, Jesus brought God into the conversation. In Jesus’ day—and still in our culture, to some extent—the Jews believed that when something bad happened to someone, it was because they deserved it. They had sinned so God punished them. Jesus scratches beneath the surface of this atrocity and challenged them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” The assumed answer would have been, “Yes!” But Jesus answers His own question: “No, I tell you…”
Jesus then brings up another story that must have had their villages all abuzz. A tower had collapsed unexpectedly and 18 hapless bystanders were killed by the falling stone. Again, did they do something to deserve this, Jesus asked? Same answer: “No, I tell you…” Jesus was challenging the theology of His day that affirmed that anything wrong in your life is because of our sin. They believed that this was God meting out justice whether we understand it or not.
But, if you paid attention to the lesson, you know that Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. Jesus doesn’t simply exonerate God from orchestrating state-sanctioned terror or random accidents. He takes advantage of their momentary interest to remind them about their own responsibility as people of faith. Both times, in response to His rhetorical questions, His full answer is: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Uh oh. So their detached interest in the terrible demise of fellow citizens boomerangs right back to them. Jesus reminds them that the life of a disciple is comprised of daily repentance and renewal. In other words, “You are subject to judgment right now by your own choices so don’t just focus on them as if you’re in the clear!”
Just to hit home His radical point, Jesus does what He does best when teaching throngs of people: He tells a parable. A farmer sees a fig tree in his orchard that has not produced any fruit in spite of the fact that it is three years old. He tells the gardener to cut it down. It’s taking up precious space where a more productive tree could be growing. But the gardener begs the land owner to let him work with the tree for just one more year with fertilizer and fresh soil. Then, if it doesn’t produce by the next growing season, they would give up on it. Time’s wasting. We are expected to produce fruit as Christ-followers. God is patient—to a point. But ultimately time is up and we will have missed the opportunity to grow in faith and service that God placed before us. If we focus on us and not on God, we will spiritually perish. Just like those killed in a freakish collapsing of a building, the unrepentant will suddenly find that they have delayed too long and lost their mooring.

photo of woman painting in brown wooden easel
Photo by Burst on

On our Lenten bus ride today, through C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, we meet an artist who has arrived on the outskirts of heaven. He is talking with one of the Solid Spirits who have been in heaven. The artist is stunned by the beauty of his surroundings, so dramatically different from the gray town where he has been living. We learn that he was a painter of great repute in his earthly life so, naturally, when he sees the majesty of heaven, he wants to get out his paintbrushes. The Solid Spirit who has been sent to meet him from heaven was also an artist in his earthly life. He understands the impulse to capture beauty in art. But he tells the newly arrived artist that there is no need to paint in heaven. When in the presence of God’s glory, all things point to their Creator. Our privilege is simply to look. The artist isn’t sure he wants to stay if he can’t use his talent.

The Solid Spirit challenges him: the artist’s first love when he began his career was light, the glimpses of heaven he wanted to capture on a canvas. But he had strayed from that initial love that pointed him toward God. The Solid Spirit states, “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower—become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.” The Solid Spirit goes on to tell him that he might not even meet some of the greats like Monet and Cezanne in heaven because everyone held equal status as a beloved child of God. In the end the young artist doesn’t choose to stay in heaven since there’s no chance for him to advance his career by painting or networking with other famous painters. He would rather be in the gray town where he might be able to stand out and enhance his own fame.
That’s another passenger on the bus who takes a round trip rather than letting go of their ego needs to stay in God’s eternal glory. The passion for painting that began with an adoration of God’s creation had become, over time, hollow artistry that devolved into personal fame and fortune.
Too bad. But for God’s grace, we all are tripped up by our own sin. We stay in a hell of our own making unless we repent. God’s grace abounds and reminds us that we have never deserved God’s love, even when we thought we were living an admirable life. The sooner we acknowledge that we—like everyone else—have sinned, the sooner we can fall into God’s good grace. It is that simple!

Paul echoes this lesson in his letter to the believers in Corinth. He reminds them of their ancestors whom God liberated from slavery in Egypt. God provided for their needs at every stop in the desert but they grumbled and doubted. We might look in on them and say, “How could they forget God when they had witnessed the Red Sea being stopped up and water coming out of a rock and manna being provided as food each day? Who would forget that?!”
Paul says that their selfishness serves as a lesson to us so that we might not fall into the same trap of missing God’s glory while pursuing our own passions. Like Jesus’ difficult lesson to his students, Paul tells these early Christians to beware as soon as they think they are standing firm. Just like everyone else, they are subject to temptation and can easily stray. But, Paul continues, God will always provide a way out of each tempting moment. They must be willing to leave behind their own skill set and rely on Christ. Only then can we endure hardship with faith.
Sometimes I feel like I am an advocate for God. People who have seldom thanked God for the many blessings in their lives are quick to blame God for their hardships. Each week we experience trials. Some are of our own making. Some seemingly come out of nowhere, like the tumbling tower in Jesus’ day. We look in on natural disasters, deadly car crashes, political maneuvering, financial stress, relationship infidelity and question God’s compassion. As Christians we are theologians and one area of our reflection must be on theodicy: the question of the justice of God. There will always be things that seem to be unfair. If you don’t believe that, ask parents of children ages 3-18. They’ll have a whole list of things are not fair from their young offspring! We will always have questions that cannot be answered on this side of heaven. But God always gives us a chance to embrace grace by acknowledging our own sin. Rather than cling to hollow forms of our own artistry, whatever form that takes, we set aside concern for our own reputation and watch for the glimmers of heaven that inspire us here.

It really is that simple!


Warning: Surveillance Cameras

Walking into an Ohio turnpike oasis this summer I saw a sign posted at the entryway:


I still went in! This did not dissuade me. I was not afraid of someone watching me. It struck me that very few of us need that kind of a deterrent. But, for some, the warning may have been needed. Who’s watching and what are they seeing?

Jussie Smollett has a clearer idea now about the importance of surveillance cameras after his alleged attack. Police scrutinized hours of footage from several cameras positioned in the area where he stated that the attack happened. Finding no convicting evidence of criminal activity, Jussie has found himself facing felony charges rather than getting the hoped-for attention as a Hollywood actor.

Who’s watching and what are they seeing? How does that impact how we live each day?

tall trees sunder blue and white sky
Photo by Kevin Menajang on

In Exodus 34 we read a story about God’s glory. When we encounter God, we are visibly changed. Moses radiates such a brilliant light as he descends the mountain that the people are afraid of him. He seems unaware of how he has been  transformed while spending time with God. In the previous passage, God promised to lead Moses with “His countenance”. This is when Moses had come down the mountain the first time to find his people dancing wildly around a golden calf. It had been fashioned as an idol in his absence. Both he and God were exasperated with the faithlessness of the Israelites. Yet Moses interceded on their behalf, begging God not to smite them! God promised to lead Moses up the mountain again with His countenance, another word for “face.” Moses continued with a bold request, asking for proof that he would be OK if he ventures up the mountain again: “Show me your glory, I pray.” The Hebrew people believed that anyone who looked upon God’s face would die. But this is the very thing that Moses demands. God does lead and a divine splendor radiates from Moses when he descends such that the whole camp is sent into a frightened frenzy. Those who work on behalf of God Almighty are changed. Moses brings down the mountain with him a sign of God’s love and dignity for the encampment of Jews that they never would have thought they deserved. We are reminded in this story that our communion with God is the defining factor in our own transfiguration.

Israel mountain

We remember Jesus’ trip up a mountain with the inner circle of His disciples. In Bible times, mountains were understood to be a traditional site for encounters with God. Jesus went there to pray with Peter, James and John. But His communion with God transfigured Him. The glory of Jesus, the Messiah, was revealed to these startled men. Peter has an awkward reaction to the light show. He wants to pin it down, ride that wave, build an amphitheater than can keep the show as a featured production into eternity! But glorious moments are fleeting gifts. The very next day, down in the valley with the rest of the crew, Jesus learns that His disciples were unable to bring healing to a boy whose father sought them out. Jesus’ response is unusually curt: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” The mountaintop experience is over. Glory is pushed aside for our ragged humanity. Jesus draws upon God’s strength that had so changed His appearance the day before and heals the boy. The glory of God’s nearness and the pain of our world are not easily separated.

A clergy friend was recently approved for ordination after presenting and defending a beautifully-written paper. In it she acknowledged that the members of her congregation are the ones who have taught her theology. While the seminary courses were rich and challenging, it is the grace of God she experiences regularly with her flock that shows her the face of Jesus. We pastors are eternally grateful to the first congregation that lovingly tolerates our awkward efforts to shepherd our people. It made me think of a time that Garrett and I went together to visit with a couple who cared at home for their severely challenged son. As a boy he had contracted a disease that had rendered him bedbound and mentally challenged. When we knew them they were probably in their sixties and their precious son was about 40—still in diapers and spoon-fed. We took communion to them in a little portable kit that we set up at their dining room table. As we went through the service I tipped over one of the little cups of juice and it spilled on their table. My not-so-holy response was to say, “Darn!” I have yet to find that incorporated into any other communion liturgy! It was a very human moment while intentionally communing with God. The wife was very gracious and quietly mopped up the tiny puddle of juice so that we could continue. The holy and the profane co-mingle.

As a girl there were times we would get up early on Easter morning to attend an outdoor sunrise service. More than anything I remember being cold. Whatever lovely, lacy dress I had on was covered with a burly coat that hardly kept the cold at bay. At one such service, while it was still dark and the wind was blowing, one of the clergy came up to the microphone to do their part: to offer a prayer. I must not have closed my eyes because I know he was using index cards for his conversation with God. At some point there was a wind gust and the cards scattered. The unscripted part of his prayer he uttered into the microphone: “Darn it!” I always remembered that prayer! Down from the mountaintop, the winds blow in the valley, disrupting our holiest intentions!

green and brown grass field
Photo by Jim Richter on

There was a retreat at our family cottage several years ago. Three dear friends spent three days worshiping God on walks, in a boat, over meals and on their knees. They radiated the joy of serving the God in whose presence they had clearly dwelt. A couple of weeks later I had a group of Christian writer friends at the lake. They had been there before and it’s become a favorite spot for us to share how God has moved in our lives and what we have felt inspired to write. One of the group members held the job of prayer leader for her denomination. She is a prayer warrior who leads others to have mountain top experiences. As she arrived that morning for our retreat she looked around the modest cottage, almost as if she were feeling it, not looking at it. She asked a surprising question: “ What’s been going on here? It feels different?” I asked her what she meant. “It feels holy. It seems as if someone has really been in prayer here.” I was astonished. I realized it must be the time those three women spent in ongoing worship of God several weeks before. This lowly cottage with sand in every crevice had been transfigured into a sanctuary where God’s presence was more palpable than ever!

We learn in these stories that ministry is face work. In an era when we are distracted by devices and screens, face work is hard to come by. Even at restaurants or sitting next to a friend, we can have our heads buried in our phone rather than engaging in meaningful conversation. Every now and then, in spite of our humanity, we connect deeply with another person and it becomes a memory that nourishes us. Peter wanted to pin that glory down so as to hang on to it. But, much as even the best photograph can never capture the beauty of a treasured moment, revelations of God’s glory are rare and transient gifts. The good news is that God has not given up on us! God continues to interrupt our imperfect prayers with just a glimmer of Divine Glory. And that’s enough to change the conversation and maybe even reroute our journey!

The transfiguration of Jesus marks the transition from Epiphany into Lent. Jesus’ movement shifts from the seashore of Galilee into Jerusalem where His glory will be showcased in a most unlikely way—through His suffering and death. In Luke’s gospel, the transfiguration story is immediately followed with a shift in the wind of the Spirit that maps out a new direction for Jesus and the disciples. In Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Ministry is face work. The direction we face will dictate, to a good extent, the kind of journey we experience. We may think that the world is beyond saving but Jesus clearly did not. Just as the young boy was healed by Jesus the day after His transfiguration, we immerse ourselves in holy habits so that we are ready for the challenges that inevitably come our way. We welcome as good news God’s continual gaze upon us, not as a menacing surveillance camera that threatens to catch us in our misdeeds. We rejoice to know that God’s transfiguring love even now is at work in and through us to showcase just enough Divine Glory to draw us closer!

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!



The Unimpressed Cynic

For some reason, in my heart, I still think I’m 44. Maybe you have a particular age at which you’ve stayed frozen in your mind? But then birthdays roll around—and we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror—and we realize that time has gone by and we’re not as young as we think we are!

So I thought it was funny when I recently read that our cynicism begins to grow at age 44! That certainly is not what I remember and romanticize about being 44! But, I suppose we’ve lived enough life by that age to have experienced personal failure. We’ve seen enough of our world to know that nations act out of corrupt principles and bad things happen to good people. We’ve been in enough relationships to know that things are not always as they seem and perceived sincerity sometimes masks manipulation. So maybe we become a bit jaded as we get into our 40’s and see each day through a different lens?

Juilian Baggini writes an interesting, even amusing article, about cynicism in an online publication called simply “Psychology.” He states, “If there’s one thing that makes me cynical, it’s optimists. They’re far too cynical about cynicism.” He assures us that cynics make for good investigative journalists, good satirists and they ask important questions. Baggini thinks they get a bad rap as pessimists: “Cynics refuse to be typecast as Jeremiahs. They are realists who know that the world is not the sun-kissed fantasy peddled by positive-thinking gurus and shysters.”

There are varied definitions to the term that give some latitude to what it means to be a cynic. Here are a few of them. 1)Believing that people are motivated by self-interest, distrustful of human sincerity or integrity. Doubtful as to whether something will happen or whether it is worthwhile. 2)Contemptuous, mocking. 3)Concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them. 4)Contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.

Wow! These are not the folks you want working in the next cubicle over in the office!

On our Lenten bus ride from hell to heaven we meet a character who is referred to as the hard-bitten man. The narrator in this work of fiction by C.S. Lewis has taken a bus to leave the gray town behind for the possibility of something better at the end of the bus line. He encounters a number of “ghosts” (people who have died and are given the opportunity to leave the gray town for good) but it requires them to let go of favorite vices. The narrator encounters the hard-bitten man and describes him as “not uneducated, the kind of man I have always instinctively found to be reliable.” In their ensuing conversation we discover that his hard-scrabble life has left him a cynic. He boasts that he’s the sort of man who likes to see things for himself. This led him to explore exciting places all across the globe during his earthly life. His evaluation? “Nothing to it. “It’s all propaganda. There’s a World Combine comprised of all the same people They pick a spot for something spectacular that will draw a crowd, set it up, do some good PR and then use it to their own advantage. When the narrator questions him about the promises that things might be better in this place where the bus has landed rather than their mundane existence in hell, he rejects it: “Same old lie…..There is never new management.”

His take on life verges on paranoia. Nursery school teachers, parents, spouses, military superiors were all part of the same establishment, in cahoots with each other. The narrator is taken aback by his convincing argument that no one can be trusted. So he asks a question of the cynic: “What would you like to do if you had your choice?” This was not well-received! He barked a response to the innocent question: “There you go! Asking me to make a plan. It’s up to the Management to find something that doesn’t bore us, isn’t it? Why should we do it for them?”

The man’s suspicions seemed convincing. As he ambled away, carrying his dark cloud with him, the narrator says: “A great depression had come over me…I was as miserable as I had ever felt in my life.” No wonder! This kind of character can kill off any party! Fear and hopelessness are easily peddled when we’ve lived enough life to have seen a thing or two. The narrator’s interest in this new place that stood on the edge of heaven was gone. He confesses the effect of the conversation: “Terror whispered, “This is no place for you.”

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 3:17-4:1), he argues the opposite. He reminds these believers who faced persecution, “Our citizenship is in heaven…” Then, as now, there were enemies to the way of life Christ modeled. Their focus was on themselves and their desire was for earthly things. Paul’s point is that no matter what life is like for us here, we will never fully feel like we belong. In heaven Jesus transforms our humble, earthly bodies into a reflection of His glory. In the meantime, we feel out of place here because heaven is truly the place for us!

I was surprised to discover that the ancient school of cynicism began in the late fifth century before Christ and harkens back to the era of Socrates. According to Baggini, the goal of the early cynics was to “Blow away the fog and confusion and see reality with lucidity and clarity.” Early cynics like Diogenes and Crates were committed to a simple, austere way of life. In fact, Diogenes was known to live in a barrel situated on the main drag in his hometown! Their interest in living naturally, without a reliance on material goods, carried the movement for 900 years. In the Roman Empire, during the lifespans of Jesus and Paul, the school of cynics held their place, demonstrating a radical form of simplicity. After dying out in the sixth century AD, it was reclaimed in the 1800’s with a pessimistic edge to it. The guy we meet on the bus ride has mastered the art of steeling himself against any admiration for the world around him. In spite of his remarkable voyages he remained impressively unimpressed! Yet he was unwilling to take any responsibility for the shape of his life. The effect on those around him was increased paranoia and depression!

Fear is often at the root of cynicism. Rather than get stood up on our hopes, we keep the bar for our expectations very low. Before someone can do us in, we speak poorly of them. Over time joy dries up and we find ourselves, like the hard-bitten man, in a hell of our own making. When we read the 27th Psalm we find a very different reaction to the inevitable challenges we encounter. It is attributed to King David whose life was threatened on countless occasions. He was known as a valiant warrior whose enemies wanted nothing more than to parade his dead body before their people. If anyone had reason to be fearful and paranoid of plots, King David did!

But in this psalm we learn what keeps David centered. His opening lines are a triumphant song of confidence: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” In spite of the threat of assailants, armies and false witnesses, he finds refuge from God. In his worship, David is refreshed. His imagery is rich and fitting for that time period: God hides him in his tent which is set on a rocky precipice. It affords him an aerial view of his enemies. Out of gratitude David offers a sacrifice—of joy! He doesn’t fall prey to cynicism. He is overcome with gladness when God rescues him. We are given a glimpse into his soul when he writes, “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” YOUR FACE, LORD, DO I SEEK! Far from living a perfect life of obedience, David is known for his major transgressions. But, we see in his prayer that his love for and trust in God is deep. It sustains him and he is continually learning from God. It leads him to make a bold statement of faith at the end of the psalm: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take courage; wait for the LORD!”

Paul, another believer who risked his life out of a love for God, exhorts beleaguered followers of Jesus with similar words of encouragement: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the LORD in this way, my beloved.”

Fear often is at the root of cynicism. Reasons to be afraid in our contemporary world abound! We are provoked into anxiety every time we look at the news. Daily we hear voices that represent the politics of blame and mistrust. The wall on our southern border is constructed with steel to keep fear at bay. There’s mistrust of medical opinions promoting vaccines. We’re linking a new outbreak of measles to the choices parents have made. There’s dispute over global warming while natural disasters claim headline attention seemingly every week. A deadly plane crash in Ethiopia heightens our anxiety about trusting manufacturers of the planes we strap ourselves into for exciting vacations and business ventures. The most recent terrorist attack in New Zealand, slaughtering Muslims in worship,  reminds us that we’re never as safe as we think and that sudden and surprising death is always a possibility. Fear is ever-present in our peripheral vision no matter what direction we face.

The cover of TIME magazine in May of 2017 was a stark black and red canvas with a question: Is Truth Dead. It mimicked the cover from the April 8 issue of TIME in 1966. In the same colors a different question was asked: Is God Dead. That was the first time that there was no image on the cover. After considering many options for how to illustrate this question, the decision was this: “…the only artist who could paint a portrait of God is God.” So the question was spelled out in a starkly bold manner. Fifty-one years later a related question was thrust before us: Is truth dead? Who can we trust? What news is not fake news? Did every student earn their way into college or did money open doors for undeserving but privileged teens? When tornadoes annihilate entire cities and politicians break promises; when city planners propose ideas and terrorist plots are revealed, we wonder who can we trust? Where can we turn for refuge?

The hard-bitten Ghost in Lewis’ story, The Great Divorce, is unwilling to trust anyone but himself. The result is a singularly unimpressed cynic who wanders alone from one place to another, braced against joy and fearing the worst. By his choice he remains in a hell of his own making even though heaven beckons to him with a promise of joy. He cannot and will not see it.

But two pillars of our faith set a different course. Both David and Paul had lived long enough to see that each day entails risk. Every relationship threatens heartbreak. Using our talents in a bold way may result in failure. Enemies lurk and watch for our point of weakness. So what do we do? Whom do we trust? What truth do we embrace when truth is announced as being dead?

We hang our hope on the God of Jesus Christ. When we feel out of sync in our earthly life we take solace in remembering that our true home is not here. So we encourage each other with the words Paul wrote for his beloved Philippian congregation: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the LORD in this way, my beloved.” We emulate the devotional life of King David whose heart whispered to him, “Come, seek God’s face.” When threatened with destruction David did not succumb to the selfish path of the cynic. He affirmed his faith in a voice that has offered encouragement to generations of believers: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”




Relishing our Discontent

In this season of Lent we are beginning a journey together. It will be shaped by the writing of C.S.Lewis in his portrayal of a fantastic bus ride that travels between hell and heaven. For some it’s a one-way trip but others can’t accept the conditions of heaven. We will meet some characters who seem stuck in the habits and preferences formed during their earthly lives. After their death they find themselves in the gray town where people can’t seem to get along. They argue, fight, insist on their own right-ness and move further and further away from each other in a state of disagreement. Life is perpetually dismal with a fear that night will arrive at some future moment with finality. Fear is never far beneath the surface of these saints who have lost their way. But every day there is a gloriously gleaming bus that swoops into the gray town with the promise of a new life in a far-away place. Although it’s not named heaven, it offers the assurance of relief from monotony and a welcome into the brilliant presence of God. It seems like a no-brainer that these characters would flee hell for the joy of heaven. But they have to give up their favorite vices, the personas they have carefully cultivated in their earthly lives, their self-importance and their reliance on idols that separate them from God. Are we surprised that very few are unwilling to do this?

man sitting on door of school bus
Photo by Wesner Rodrigues on

Today I will introduce you to a couple of characters: Sir Archibald and a silly, garrulous woman! (I love this description of the woman! I reminds us that Lewis wrote this in the 1940’s in the stuffy academic setting of Oxford, England!) In his earthly life, Sir Archibald was a curious explorer who doggedly pursued the subject matter of survival by traveling all over the globe. In his continual search for knowledge, he lost his interest in the end destination. More and more research was needed to dig deeper into his theories. Over time he forgot why he had begun his scholarly endeavor and lost the joy of discovery. When he had the opportunity to leave the hell of endless inquiry for the settled eternity of peace in God’s presence, he said “no”! He objected to the fact that there was no more research to be done in heaven as all matters were settled. He didn’t know how to live as anything but an ardent academician. So, rather than give up his carefully-crafted self-identity, he gave up heaven with a hope for prominence in the gray town. The intense struggle for knowledge had become him, his persona, his identity.
Lewis presents himself in the book as one who arrived first in the gray town and now is on this bus trip to heaven. He can’t make sense of his new home. His guide explains to him that Sir Archibald’s choice is similar to that of theologians who have been so intent on proving the existence of God that they have forgotten to love God. Others have been so focused on spreading Christian doctrine that they have long since lost a connection and love for Christ. The journey eclipses the end goal that had been in sight when they started and they are unwilling to choose a new home where all questions are answered!
United Church of Christ scholar and pastor, Walter Brueggeman, delved into the Psalms in his book, Praying the Psalms. He describes three categories that the psalms fall into: Psalms of (naïve) orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. Depending on where we are in our own lives, we are often attracted to psalms that echo our experience. In the stage of orientation our lives are going forward without much struggle. We have a relationship with or understanding of God that suits our needs. This is fine until there is some great disruption that challenges our carefully constructed spiritual foundation: our marriage falls apart, we lose our job, we commit a crime, we are given a dire diagnosis, we become a caregiver to someone with demanding needs and our days become a blur of new responsibilities. We slide into a pit and aren’t altogether sure how we got there and have no idea how to get out.
This lands us in a place of disorientation. Everything seems unfamiliar. We are in our own version of a gray town where nothing lights our path to go home. We feel stuck. We doubt everything we’ve ever believed. This is a critical stage because we have to fight to get to a desired place rather than staying in the pit. For those who turn to God and are open to new vision for the journey, they will be given the strength to get out of the pit. This brings them to a place of re-orientation. There’s no going back to the person they were before the crisis. But, if they have been open to change—even when painfully earned—they will not wish to go back to the stage of naïve orientation. If you read the psalms with an eye toward these three stages, you will recognize them and will perhaps be able to understand where you are now and the place from which you have come.
Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and author describes this movement with different imagery. In his book, Searching for Home: Spirituality for Restless Souls, his premise is that we are all, continually, searching for home. Our true home is always found in our relationship with God. Given our humanity, we often get lost along the way and confuse our own selfish goals for the intention God has for us. We are very good at deceiving not just others but, even worse, ourselves. (We sometimes even think we are pulling one over on God!) When this happens we can convince ourselves that the wrong road we are on is, in fact, leading us to where we need to be. He writes, “This holy business of learning to love correctly so we can find our way home is very difficult.” In sleepless nights, in conversations with our therapists, in the embrace of a loved one who assures us that it’s all going to be OK, we are desperately trying to find the way into the presence of the One who knows and loves us as we are.
The second character we meet today is someone from the gray town who has traveled by bus to this new land. It stands on the edge of some mountains that must be traversed to arrive at heaven. Everything in this new world is so brilliant that the “ghosts” (as they are called) who arrive from hell, do not have the senses that can take in their surroundings. Familiar individuals from their earthly life have been sent to meet them in an effort to convince them to leave the gray town for something much more beautiful and promising. They are called “Solid People” or “Solid Spirits” because they have been living in the presence of God in heaven. They are able to help the newcomers adapt to the challenges of the terrain.
This woman is complaining non-stop to one of the Solid Spirits about how nothing has worked out as she hoped. Everyone has failed her both in her earthly life and now in the gray town. She doesn’t give the Solid person a chance to talk her into considering moving away from all that dissatisfies her and into the glory of heaven. Her sin is that she no longer simply grumbles. The guide, who is interpreting these experiences for the newcomer on the journey, says that she has become a grumble. Her very person, shaped by God for love and community, has been fully replaced by a love for suffering. She has embraced the victim mentality. The guide asks whether there is still a woman inside the grumbling? Lewis confirms in the book that the state of being in hell always begins with complaining. Uh oh! Is any of us exempt from that? Some people repent and stop complaining but others keep it going non-stop, in their heads and hearts, so that they forget what it means to be happy. This woman so relished her discontent that she was unwilling to give it up for heaven.
In Deuteronomy 26, one of the lectionary passages for today, Moses is coaching his people in how to set up their new lives when they get into the promised land. He won’t be able to cross over into it with them so he offers them the framework for their life as a settled people with their own territory. The very first act for them is to make a sacrifice to God in worship. They bring the very best of what the land yields, trusting that God will continue to bless them with a fruitful crop. As they stand before the priest with their basket of produce, they are to recite the words Moses dictates. This speech is really an act of praise in which they recall how God has rescued them in the past from hardship and how they trust God will continue to bless them going forward. They then joyfully present their offering to the priest and celebrate the bounty with which God has blessed them. They are not to stay stuck in the hardships of the past by naming favorite grievances in an endless loop. They are given a perspective of gratitude with which those struggles are colored. They praise God for the blessing of a new homeland. From disorientation they move into a re-orientation that is powerfully shaped by thanksgiving!
None of us seeks out tough times! Craig Barnes assures the reader that there’s really more hope for folks in the stage of disorientation than for those living in rosy times. When the protective layers are pulled back and we discover that our own resources cannot save us, we have the opportunity to discover the God who has been with us all along. He writes, “A new love for God is discovered by pulling out of the ashes an old love that was always there but never followed.”
In his letter to the Romans, Paul expresses this discovery of God’s nearness in a memorable way: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Some have used this almost as a formula for guaranteed entrance into heaven! Let’s get grumpy old Uncle Clive to say these words on his deathbed and we’ll relax , knowing he’s in paradise with Jesus after he breathes his last! And, for all we know, maybe that’s how it works?! But I think Paul was speaking of a deeper connection to God. Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks. We articulate meaningfully what we believe, not just using manipulative words that we dare to imagine will dupe God! Jesus knew the heart of the thief on the cross who confessed that Jesus was the Savior. One thief clung to his way of grumbling discontent, thereby foregoing the chance at eternal joy. The other entered into a relationship with Jesus as they both hung there, their lives slipping away. He made a heart commitment to the One who could save him. Paul is clear that everyone who believes has the opportunity to choose hell over heaven. We claim heaven and hell in the present moment! It doesn’t matter how many shiny stars you have next to your name in the Sunday School attendance log. What matters is your love for God that leads you to embrace joy rather than woundedness!
As the newcomer to the journey tried to make sense of this silly, garrulous woman’s choice to be a grumble rather than a redeemed daughter of the Living God, his guide let him know that there was always a choice to be made: “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
This Lenten season is a journey, one that we have begun with ashes smeared on our foreheads. The ashes remind us of our mortality, of the fickle nature of a crowd that sang “Hosanna” one weekend and then cried out “Crucify Him” the next. But the oil mixed in with the ashes is used to anoint royalty. We are children of the Living God who sent Jesus as King of the Jews, Prince of Peace, Messiah and Savior. The choice to love and serve Him is always ours to make. Sadly some will opt to relish their discontent. We will meet others on this fantastic bus ride who cling to different idols from which they cannot detach themselves. I pray that, when we recognize ourselves in some of these characters, we will have the humility to confess. I pray that, in this season of disorientation as we make our way to the cross and Easter morning, we will strain toward the light of a glorious re-orientation as redeemed children of a living, loving God!



She came to me when the shadows of the past had started to eclipse her vision of the present. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the trauma that was done to her had a way of surfacing every so often. She had spent years doing the hard work of therapy–and praying. After talking about the dark place in which she found herself, I suggested that we might meet in the sanctuary some evening to share communion. I’ve only done this a couple of times in more than thirty years of ministry. Communion, by its very nature, is communal so we typically celebrate the sacrament in the context of congregational worship. But something seemed right this time to offer an opportunity to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, seeking God’s nearness together. She thanked me but said that she wasn’t worthy. Self-doubt and guilt are some of the ashes that lie on the floor of our souls when we’ve survived abuse. I assured her that she was worthy and invited her to prayerfully consider accepting my offer.
The idea took root in her. She processed it later with her therapist who had lovingly walked with her through the horrors of the past so that she could be liberated to enjoy the present moment. She, too, urged her to move forward with the sacrament to claim her value as child of God. A close friend and spouse echoed the same message. In surround sound, God was pushing her out of the darkness and into the light in spite of her protestations. It took some time for her to relinquish the feelings of inadequacy. But in God’s good timing she came to me to say that she was willing and we set a date.
The evening came and we arranged for her to be there with her therapist. It would be the three of us seated at the foot of the cross in the chancel area of our lovely sanctuary. These walls held testimonies of faith from about 80 generations of believers. How beautiful that the Spirit would mark our space with another holy visitation. She brought the elements that her husband and a close friend had provided. They would be present to her through these symbols of Christ’s body and blood. We set things up on the altar under the tall cross. She had chosen a scripture passage that we read from the massive Bible that sits so far removed from the congregants that it is seldom used. We prayed for the Spirit to transform these simple elements of the earth into a glimpse of Christ’s glory. We broke bread and shared them together. She brought in a heavy brick that represented the weight of her past and the destruction that the abuser still exercised over her. We set that at the foot of the cross. She told me that she had written a letter to Jesus. In it she surrendered to Him all the shame, anger, hurt and pain that threatened to derail her from the many gifts of her present circumstances. It was a hard letter to hear but one she had needed to write. We concluded our service with the Lord’s Prayer and a tidying up of the space. I was struck that folks in worship on Sunday would never know how God had moved in this place during the week. She gave me the letter as we put away the bread and chalice. With high hopes for healing, we walked down the center aisle to head home.
The next time I saw her she told me that she left that sacred space feeling like a huge weight had lifted. The darkness that had been her unwelcome companion for months had fled. The brick that we now use to elevate floral bouquets on the altar held the secret of her past which no longer had power over her. I became keenly aware through this experience that the mystery of the Eucharist is indeed powerful and I have underestimated its transformational capacity. Where three of us had gathered in faith, the Spirit had shown up with healing!
I didn’t know what to do with the letter she had written. Like the brick, it was an inanimate witness to the surrender she offered to her Savior. I didn’t want it to be found by anyone so I tucked it unceremoniously in a back compartment of my Chevy Suburban. Every now and then, when unloading groceries, I would see it and remember that I needed to do something with it. What do we do with a gut-wrenching, life-changing confession that is hand-written to Jesus? The important thing is that her life had moved forward with remarkable levity that she viewed as miraculous. The letter opened the way for her to leave the past.
As the Lenten season approached several months later I was making Ash Wednesday plans. Our congregation was hosting a service for several other church families. I ordered the ashes that would mark our foreheads and herald a change in spiritual direction. The ashes are derived from burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. They remind us that earthly praise can degenerate into murderous mob scenes. Walking beside Jesus toward the cross in Lent, we smudge a mixture of ashes and oil on our foreheads to let the world know that we serve a crucified Messiah.
Then I knew what to do with the letter to Jesus. I put it in an empty coffee can on my driveway and burned it. I let it cool then rubbed the black remnant into a powder. I liked that there were still some pieces of the letter that defied pulverization. I emptied the contents of the sooty can into a baggie and carried it in the front seat of my Suburban to the church. On Ash Wednesday I added those ashes to the smooth mixture I had purchased from a Catholic supply house. I added the oil of anointing to make a paste. That evening the faithful streamed forward to be reminded of their mortality through the ashes and their beloved stature as sons and daughters of the Prince of Peace through the oil. Another pastor and I pushed back bangs, looked folks in the eyes and smeared a dark cross on their foreheads with ancient words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the LORD.
I had told the woman what I had done with her letter. She was there with her husband and we shared in the beauty of a secret that marked her healing. Her surrender had become a means of redemption from a weight she could no longer carry. What she left at the cross had become a gift to other believers who submitted to Christ as they began their Lenten journeys. She came forward and I dipped into the messy blackness of the bowl in my hands. I could see bits of her letter rebelliously sticking out from the otherwise smooth paste. Even in our healing we have reminders of the pain of our past. And so the movement of our spiritual walk is to continually surrender and know that Christ meets us where we are and redeems even the murkiest parts of our lives.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the LORD!