March Madness Salvation

We’re right in the thick of March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

As an alum, I am a diehard Kansas Jayhawks basketball fan, and Kansas has created a remarkable March Madness tradition in the last ten years.

I don’t have any stats to back this up, but just from anecdotal evidence, KU seems to be the most highly ranked team that chokes the hardest every year in the tournament.

The higher seed we get, the lower seed we lose to with the most humiliating upset.

Sports analysts around the country have wracked their brains trying to explain this phenomenon, how Kansas can lead the nation in multiple categories for an entire season and then have a sustained nervous breakdown on national television for two hours straight during March Madness.

Well, I know the answer.

It’s all my fault.

The most intense phase of March Madness often coincides with Holy Week, and my priorities that week have often gone badly off track.

The reason Kansas keeps choking in the tournament is because I am engaging in gross blasphemous idolatry of basketball during Holy Week.

That’s the awful truth.

Every year the Jayhawk fight song and the Rock Chalk Chant start to blend with “Lift High the Cross” and “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” in my head, and the moral battle is on once again.

If you’d like a halftime report on how it’s going this year, so far the score is Whitney’s Jayhawk Idolatry 1, Whitney’s Priestly Integrity, 0.

Scorekeeping is something we tend to do in all areas of our lives, and our spirituality is no exception. Continue reading

John 3:17: In The Pink

One thing I think you have to grant us: Davies and I are pretty in pink.

You see that this morning, Davies and I are wearing pink vestments. I get the pink set for the 8 a.m. service, and he will wear them for the 10 a.m.

They were a gift to me from a former parishioner after she heard me in a sermon lament that I’d always wanted to wear pink vestments for Rose Sunday, but had never had the chance.

Then they went in a closet and I never remembered to bring them to church for the correct Sundays either in Advent or Lent. But this year was the year!

And Davies has been a hilariously good sport about it as you might have noticed if you saw his fabulous picture on Facebook also wearing my pink heart-shaped sunglasses.

So why are we wearing pink today?

Well, the official name for the 4th Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday, and this Sunday has several traditions around it.

“Laetare” is the first word of the traditional Latin introit to the mass for this Sunday: “Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam,” which means, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her.” That’s Isaiah 66:10.

It’s also called Refreshment Sunday, and it’s a chance to take a break from our Lenten solemnity. It’s like an oasis in the desert, or a chance to leave the wilderness, come back into town, and have a couple of beers at the local watering hole.

Christians have realized for a long time that as noble as our aspirations of self-denial and fasting are in Lent, we’re human, and we need a break. Forty days is a long time.

The gospel says that Jesus had angels ministering to him while he was in the desert. We don’t get that, but we do get a day off before the last push toward Holy Week.

Given that it coincides with losing an hour of sleep changing over to Daylight Savings Time, we could all probably use a break today.

Today is also known as Mothering Sunday in the Church of England, which could mean one of two things. It was a day when servants were let off work to go home and see their mothers, or alternatively, it’s a day to return to your mother church, the parish you attended in your childhood.

It’s also called Rose Sunday, which is where we get the pink. Continue reading

Zeal For Your House Will Consume Me

Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is an act of premeditated rage.

In our haste to divorce ourselves from the old, punitive image of a wrathful and vengeful God, we have at times come too close to domesticating Jesus.

We picture him with perfect hair in a clean robe always speaking softly and reasonably.

If we try to think about Jesus being angry, we might remember this story, when he drives the moneychangers from the Temple.

But our mental image of Jesus in this situation is him flying off the handle, losing his temper and abruptly descending into a violent tirade.

It turns out neither scenario is true. Jesus is not the mealy-mouthed meek and mild Sunday school picture, but nor is he a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.

Jesus sees what is happening in the Temple and decides, ahead of time, to use his holy anger as a sign to the people.

We know this because of John 2:15. It says, “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”

“Making a whip of cords.” Jesus didn’t just show up at the Temple one day and start kicking over tables on the spur of the moment.

He made a decision to express his anger, and then went aside to make a whip of cords.

That took time. That took effort. He had to find supplies, for heaven’s sake.

How do you make a whip of cords? I don’t know, but it’s not something you toss off in ten minutes.

Jesus had a message to communicate, and he chose this dramatic and visceral action, almost like performance art, to convey it.

He loosed the reins on his passion and emotion for his people, and let his heart show.

It is at once intimidating—to think of Jesus committing premeditated violence, however justified—and deeply moving to see his vulnerability. Continue reading

New Names: Learning the Gospel From Trans People

You know that phrase, “That’s a game changer”? It signifies a new element in a situation that changes it completely.

I wonder if we could coin a new phrase, one that would have a lot of resonance in the Bible: “That’s a name changer.”

We see some important instances of God changing people’s names throughout the Bible, and a name change always signifies deep personal transformation for the person affected.

Think of Jacob being renamed Israel, or Saul becoming Paul.

(Note: God did not change Paul’s name specifically, it was a gradual shifting throughout the Biblical texts over time. “Saul to Paul” is a shorthand for Paul’s changed life rather than a divine event like the other name changes.)

Those name changes require the person to leave behind an old identity and everything that went along with it—the good and the bad.

In fact, the change being demanded of Jacob and Saul was so significant that neither they nor others would recognize them after the fact.

That’s part of why they needed a new name.

Their names were changed also because they were being sent out on a new mission. They had important new work to do, and taking on a new name was part of what helped them set out to do that work.

The old self that they had, with all of its baggage and history, was unequal to the task. They needed a fresh start to take on challenging new work.

This was definitely the case for Abram in our story from Genesis today.

He was 99 years old—that’s no time to pull up stakes, set off on a long journey, and found a new nation!

He couldn’t do it as Abram, he had to become Abraham.

And God’s renaming of him was part of how God equipped him to take on the task.

Few of us have been literally renamed, but doubtless the work God has called us into in different seasons of our lives has required us to take on a new identity, one that may look unfamiliar to our friends and family.

How consciously and intentionally have you received the new name God gives you when God leads you to new ministry? Continue reading

With the Wild Beasts

You’re going to croak. And there’s an app for that.

My friend Suzanne told me about this simple smartphone app called “We Croak” that’s a fabulous spiritual tool.

At five random times throughout the day, it sends you a notification on your smartphone reminding you that you will one day die. It gives you a quote on death by an artist or spiritual teacher or public figure.

The point is to help us put the everyday concerns that dominate our minds into perspective.

When you are reminded that your life is short, your time on this earth is limited, and in the end, very little will remain of your daily preoccupations once you’re gone, things lessen in intensity a bit.

You’re reminded of what really matters.

You step back from the everyday grind, the sometimes relentless stress of trying to keep up with your to-do list, and remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

There is a rich tradition of meditating on mortality in both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions.

Human life is fleeting, but we are all too prone to waste our precious time on small, petty concerns. We can’t help it. The urgent takes over the important, and the years fly by.

But we have an entire church season devoted to contemplating our mortality.

It’s a ready-made tool to think about how we’re using the time we’ve been given, and the best part is that we take it on together. Lent is a communal journey.

There’s no better place to wrestle with the great questions of life and death and eternity, of sin and redemption and love, than in our Christian community.

And it turns out that a simple tool on a smartphone could help us keep those deep questions a little closer to the forefront of our minds. Who says technology and spirituality are diametrically opposed?

A line from our gospel today caught my eye.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is so sparse that it’s frustrating. We have to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Jesus gets baptized, he goes into the desert, and then he’s back in Galilee, beginning his public ministry and preaching.

And all we get to describe that pivotal wilderness period is two paltry sentences from Mark: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

The phrase that jumped out at me as I read it this time was “he was with the wild beasts.”

That sounds kind of intimidating.

What was that really like? Continue reading

Why Is God’s Revelation So Unhelpful?

It’s the Last Sunday of Epiphany, which means we read the story of the Transfiguration.

“Transfiguration” is the fancy church word to describe this story of Jesus being transformed before his disciples on the mountaintop, his clothes becoming dazzling white as he talks with Moses and Elijah. The voice of God speaks out of the cloud and proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Why do we always end Epiphany with this story?

We end Epiphany with the Transfiguration, or “The Fig” as it’s affectionately known among preachers, because it is the closest anyone on earth has ever come to seeing the fullness of Christ in his divine nature.

Peter, James, and John get to see the end of the story, Jesus in all his heavenly glory, while they’re still in the middle of the story.

It’s a revelation to them about this man they’ve been following around for the last few years. They’ve seen him do amazing things—heal the sick, feed the thousands, and walk on water—but this surpasses it all.

The season of Epiphany is all about revelation. It’s about the world coming to understand who Jesus is and why he came to earth.

During this season, we read of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple as a baby, of his baptism in the River Jordon, and of his first miracles.

The Transfiguration is the pinnacle, quite literally. It’s a mountaintop experience for the disciples.

But here’s the thing. It’s revelation, but it’s not particularly helpful revelation.

What do we learn about Jesus in this miracle?

What lesson for living an ethical life does it teach us?

How do we come away from seeing Jesus in dazzling white clothes better able to love our neighbors?

I don’t think we particularly do, which is why I hate the Transfiguration.

Well, perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s just say it’s not among my top ten miracle stories from the Gospels. I moan and groan about having to preach on it every single year.

What I want out of my revelations from God, whatever they are, is something practical.

“What am I supposed to do next?” I ask God. “What’s the right path forward? How do you want me to change?”

Reveal that to me, God, if you’d really like to be helpful.

And that, I realized this year, is precisely my problem. Continue reading

Are We Charging People for the Gospel?

We have a fascinating window into the life of early-career Jesus in our gospel lesson today.

This is right at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 1. Jesus has been baptized, called the disciples, healed one other person, and then we arrive in our scene today.

Simon and Andrew take Jesus to their house, presumably to show their other relatives this amazing person they’ve decided to follow.

I can imagine the skepticism of their parents, spouses, and other siblings. “He’s who? And he does what? Heals people? Proclaims the Kingdom of God? And you’re going to follow him? What about your job and your responsibilities?”

Peter and Andrew are totally sold on Jesus, but the rest of their family isn’t. And so it’s not surprising that they want proof of the miraculous works Jesus supposedly can accomplish.

Conveniently, Peter’s mother-in-law is right there, and she is ill.

And Jesus heals her.

The word spreads through the town like wildfire, and by suppertime, as Mark says, “the whole city was gathered around the door.”

Scores of broken and hurting people offer themselves to Jesus in desperate hope of being healed.

And he heals them all.

But it takes a severe toll. Continue reading

Why You Don’t Have a Conscience

We all want to “do the right thing.”

We want to make ethically and morally sound decisions. (Most of the time.)

But how do we know what the right thing to do is? How do we decide?

Most of us rely on vague intuition mixed with general social pressure.

We basically try to do what everyone else does.

Some of us have a highly developed inner moral voice that cracks the whip and dangles us over the fiery flames of hell.

This usually comes from early (sometimes abusive) religious training that focused more on strict and rigid moral codes than God’s loving forgiveness.

Most people “do the right thing” out of shame, wanting to be liked, or fear of punishment.

That doesn’t seem like a very sound foundation for living a good life, especially one that abounds with joy, peace, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.

As Christians we rely on conscience to help us make moral choices.

But most of us have not taken the time as mature adults to reexamine whatever childhood images we had of “the still small voice.”

Conscience is not just the internalized voice of the parent or the authority figure. That’s a child’s vision of conscience.

It’s a good place to start—we all learn how to care for other people by coming up against structure and boundaries as children.

But moral decision-making as adults should have a spiritual character deeper than a memorized set of rules.

(And many times, those most obsessed with “the rules” use them mostly to build up their own power and beat others down with shame.)

So how do we explore conscience as adult actors in a moral universe? Continue reading

Draw the Other Arc

Today’s scriptures are nothing but a bunch of fish stories.

You know what I mean, “I went out today and I caught a disciple this big!”

Or in Jonah’s case, “I got thrown off a ship in the middle of a hurricane and got eaten by a fish this big!”

What is it about fish stories?

Why does the fish always have to be this big?

We do that about a lot of things in our lives, though, don’t we?

We may not talk about it in terms exactly that blunt and unsubtle, but we’re happy to tell our friends about our big car or our big job or our super successful children or our ministry that is growing by the day.

There’s one thing we don’t often brag about, maybe because many of us can’t, myself included.

The size and depth of our commitment to our discipleship.

How far we’re willing to go for Jesus.

What we’re really willing to give up for the sake of the gospel. Continue reading

Come and See: The Unreturned Invitation

“Come and see.”  I discovered something new as I studied these words in Gospel of John, and it totally changed how I think about them and what I think they mean.

In our gospel passage today, we read, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”

Nathanael is doubtful.

He has the prejudice that probably many of his friends had, that Nazareth was a do-nothing backwater town.

It would be like hearing that someone from the local junior high basketball team had just been drafted by the NBA.

Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

So Philip invites Nathanael to come and see for himself what the big deal is with Jesus.

But the I don’t believe Philip says those particular words or makes that invitation just out of his own inspiration.

Jesus has already said these words of invitation himself, just a few verses earlier: “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’”

Philip’s “come and see” invitation to Nathanael is born out of Jesus’ “come and see” invitation to him. It all begins with Jesus.

And Jesus is not displaying a resume and a list of qualifications that make him the Lamb of God.

It is an invitation to experience it yourself, with no prerequisites at all.

Just show up, and see what Jesus is doing.

That is an invitation that Jesus is making to us all the time.

But the disciples, in their usual loveable cluelessness, spend the next weeks and months mostly failing to understand what Jesus is trying to do.

They’ve made a start—Jesus asked them to come and see, and they did. And Philip invites Nathanael to come and see—they have learned that they need to extend the invitation to others.

But the problem is that the invitation to “come and see” is all about Jesus in his role as a miracle-worker and potential king and rescuer of Israel.

It’s all about what Jesus can do that is eye-catching and extraordinary, that bends the laws of nature and gathers a crowd.

It’s not about actual relationship with Jesus.

Jesus invites the disciples to come and see, but they think he’s just inviting them to see miracles like walking on water or feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish.

They will come and see, but they’re coming to see the wrong things. Continue reading