Thursday, November 29, 2007

Everything is fine...

The following excerpt is from the pages of "Gooseberries," a short story by Anton Chekhov. In this narrative, a man reflects in disgust on the newly acquired affluence of his brother, now called "Your Honor" by his peasant servants, who adores gooseberries and rises in the middle of the night to gorge his fat body on their sour, tough flesh. His sorrowful words remind me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and they make the warning of Jesus resound even more ominously: "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward" (Luke 6:24).

"There are, in fact, so many contented, happy people! What an overwhelming force! Just look at this life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, impossible poverty all around us, overcrowding, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lies... Yet in all the houses and streets it's quiet, peaceful; of the fifty thousand people who live in town there is not one who would cry out or become loudly indignant. We see those who go to the market to buy food, eat during the day, sleep during the night, who talk their nonsense, get married, grow old, complacently drag their dead to the cemetary; but we don't see or hear those who suffer, and the horrors of life go on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and only mute statistics protest: so many gone mad, so many buckets drunk, so many children dead of malnutrition... And this order is obviously necessary; obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It's a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him--illness, poverty, loss--and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn't hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen--and everything is fine."

P.S. For all the interested preachers out there: the short stories of Anton Chekhov are a "must read" for honing your skills in the composition and communication of detailed, interesting, and meaningful lived experiences (a.k.a., illustrations) for use in preaching.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Provide your own caption...

My caption is: "Emily is still working on her paper at 11:41 PM and unsuccessfully fighting the feeling of hopelessness and despair, so she turns to an amusing photograph to distract her attention."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kyrie Eleison

No, my friends, that's not an ostrich with its head in the sand. That's a symbolic depiction of my present state of mind. I am desperately trying to finish up my last semester in seminary. I have two major papers due this week, one for tomorrow and one for Thursday. I am swamped. And, all I want to do is hide. Repeat after me: Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie Eleison.

P.S. Kyrie Eleison is Greek for "Lord, have mercy." It is a very old expression, organic to the scripture and used constantly in most Christian liturgies, especially those of our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox tradition.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Claiming the F-Word


Its a scary word, isn't it?

For quite some time, I have been reluctant to accept the "feminist" label. The main reason is the problem of miscommunication and misunderstanding. For most, "feminist" conjures up images of angry, screaming women, bra-burning, abortion rights, Mary Daly, and goddess worship. Right or wrong, these images offend most people, especially the evangelical Christian community with whom I identify, serve, and fellowship.

But, according to the dictionary, the definition of feminist is: "Someone who supports the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, economic, and social equality to men." Although I am not an objective observer of my writing, I'm fairly certain that anyone who reads my blog knows that I fit this description. (At least, I hope I do.) For me, the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus Christ, means the liberation of women from oppression and their equal place in God's worldwide reign. If that makes me a be it.

I know my more conservative friends are frightened by this label. Right now, you're thinking, "Emily, what are you saying?! You can't call yourself a feminist!" I know and appreciate this concern. But, here's the problem: Any label you choose for yourself is open to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Let's try a few.

Conservative. In religious circles, most who claim this label see it as a badge of honor, meaning, someone who seeks to "conserve" the vital beliefs of Christianity: the scripture, the nature of Christ, the Trinity, etc. For those outside conservative circles, however, conservative means hard-nosed, rigidly fundamentalist, and intolerant. Most who claim this "badge" know that this is an issue, but they choose to wear it anyway.

Calvinist. Most who call themselves Calvinists understand themselves, at the very least, to be in line with the so-called "five points" of Calvinism. They emphasize the sovereignty of God and the glory of God in providence. For those who are not Calvinists, however, Calvinist means someone who believes God is an egotistical control-freak who delights in receiving glory from human suffering. Most who claim to be Calvinists do so with pride, despite the possibility of such gross misunderstanding.

Southern Baptist. Most who claim this designation are proud of their heritage and their denomination's historic commitment to biblical sufficiency and the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. They are eager to speak of Southern Baptist mission endeavors and generous relief efforts in times of disaster. And yet, for those who are not Southern Baptist, for those who watch Southern Baptist "representatives" on TV, Southern Baptist means narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, Republican, and caucasian. Still, those who claim to be Southern Baptist, do so despite such stereotypes.

Southern Baptist. Calvinist. Conservative. How many are willing to claim these badges because of their deeply felt convictions, misunderstanding be damned? Do you see my point? Like it or not, misunderstanding or not, miscommunication or not, I am a feminist. I am a feminist in the classic, historic, and, I think, biblical sense of the word.

Several years ago I never would have "owned" this designation. Never. So, what has changed my mind? Many will relish the thought that it was my "liberal" education at Truett Seminary. "Aha!" they will say, "She went off to that moderate seminary and became a feminist! We told her this would happen!" I hate to disappoint you, but its just not true. Being educated at Truett did not make me a feminist.

As I reflect on my journey, I recognize that two factors have pushed me in this direction: (1) Serving with marginalized women in a very conservative Southern Baptist church; (2) Living in a largely misogynistic and patriarchal world. As I grapple with these experiences in light of the trajectory of the Bible, the decision is clear: I am a feminist.

I will close this little post by referring you to a recent story from world news. For those of you skeptical as to whether there remains a place for women's liberation, for those of you who think that I am exaggerating the plight of women worldwide, for those of you who think I'm nuts for claiming the label "feminist," read this story and think again.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Triumph in the Midst of Trials: Remix

Several have asked me to post the following sermon, which I preached this week in Paul Powell Chapel at Truett Seminary. I was greatly honored by the opportunity to proclaim God's Word there, especially since it was the "prize" given to me as a Preaching Award recipient. This was my first experience to preach in a chapel or church setting and I found great joy and fulfillment in doing so. Some of you will recognize that have posted this sermon in the past, but you will notice, as well, many changes I made for my prospective "congregation." I hope this is an encouragement to some as they wade through the difficulties and troubles of life.
Triumph in the Midst of Trials: Romans 8:28-39

On the afternoon of January 26, 2006, I received a sobering phone call from a woman very dear to me, 46 year-old Susan Cunningham. I don’t remember much of the conversation now, but four of Susan’s words are seared into my brain forever: “stage four pancreatic cancer.”

Only two years prior to this conversation, I had held Susan’s hand as she made the decision to turn off life support for her 15 year-old, son. London had been born with Lissencephaly Syndrome, a rare brain condition that caused his brain to remain smooth, preventing normal development and ensuring a lifetime of seizures and surgeries. Susan persevered in all this with uncommon strength and grace. But, at fifteen, London contracted double pneumonia, followed by a blood infection, and his body could no longer go on. Susan sobbed uncontrollably when they turned off the machines, unable to watch while her beloved son slipped away.

Now, Susan herself was facing a fatal disease, one that would likely claim her life in 6-8 months, even with the proper chemotherapy. As I drove to Denton to be with her that afternoon, I remember thinking, “How is this happening? What is she going to do now? Hasn't Susan been through enough?”

As you know, Susan’s story is one of millions. Suffering is a universal experience even for those of us who call ourselves Christians. There are really only three kinds of people: some of you just emerged from hardship; some of you are in the midst of hardship right now; and some of you are going to get the phone call after chapel. Even as followers of Jesus, even as ministers of the Gospel, sometimes we are tempted to think that the Good News is impotent to speak to this, the most painful aspect of our lives. In the face of the bewildering experience of suffering, does the Word of God have something to say?

In the center part of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains in exalted language that, yes indeed, the Good News speaks to, in, and through tribulation in the Christian life. Paul says no matter how things look, God stands firmly on the side of his people. More than that, God is shaping our lives along the same lines as the life of his Son. With God on our side like this, we cannot lose, for nothing can get between us, and the love of Christ.

From this testimony, I declare with confidence: You can triumph in the midst of trials because God stands with you in Jesus Christ.

Move One
The first reason our triumph is assured is found in verses 28-29: God uses every trial to conform you to the image of Christ.

Verses 28-29 are among the more familiar verses of scripture in the church today. Because of the affirmation that “all things cooperate for the good,” verse 28, is pasted on church bulletin boards, embroidered on decorative couch pillows, and even printed on “Christian” candy wrappers. From these uses, one would think that verse 28 is some kind of Christian “power of positive thinking” slogan, just a nebulous, pedestrian assertion that everything will work out for the best.

Verse 29, on the other hand, has become a hotbed of rigorous, deep-thinking theological debate. What does it mean that “those God foreknew, he also predestined”? Was God’s foreknowledge causative and was God’s predestination unconditional? And, can the process of being foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified, ever be interrupted or cancelled? Such questions have the makings of a heated Calvinist-Arminian debate, or a great elective with Dr. Olson, but they do not lead to a meaningful answer to hurting people.

If we put aside all of the clich├ęs and controversy surrounding verses 28-29 and simply read them together, Paul’s focal point is revealed. “We know that all things cooperate for the good.” But, what is the “good”? What is the “good” to which all things work together? The answer is, conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. This is the end to which God is constantly working in your life and mine.

The word translated “image,” in verse 29 is literally “icon.” After Hagia Sophia, the Chora Church, or Church of the Holy Savior, located in Istanbul, is the most important Byzantine monument in Turkey. Although it is not as grand in stature as other Byzantine churches, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the exquisite beauty of its mosaic iconography, which dates to around AD 1320. Undoubtedly, the most spectacular site is the church’s massive dome. If you stand directly beneath the dome and gaze upward, once your eyes adjust to the bright light bouncing off of the brilliant gold leafing, you see the image of Christus Pantocrator at the center, surrounded by 24 icons of the saints, each emerging perpendicular from Christ’s image like the luminous rays of the sun.

Now, the icons of the Chora Church are an enigma for Protestants. But for the devout artist who painstakingly constructed the mosaics, they served a vital purpose for Byzantine worship. In his depiction of Christ, the iconographer’s goal was not a portrait, but a visual, symbolic, and expressive representation of Christ’s eternal glory. The artist utilized every last detail to create what the Orthodox Fathers called “a window into heaven.”

In the same way, God is fashioning you into an “icon” of Jesus Christ—but one even more glorious than the mosaic domes of Istanbul. And, the tools of God’s artistic endeavor are not simply the good parts of your life, but the trials and tribulations as well—he uses all things. Of course, this is not to say that God causes all things. It is repugnant to suggest that the tragedy of AIDS, or the rape of a teenager, or death of a child, is caused by God. No, Paul says that somehow, some way, God uses all things as the means of our formation into icons of Jesus Christ. As the perfectly skilled and infinitely patient Artist of souls, God’s work on you continues through every moment of every trial and tribulation today.

Move Two
Our assurance of God’s care does not end there, for in verses 31-32, Paul gives another reason that our triumph is certain: God delivered up Jesus Christ to death for you.

Those among us, who have walked through suffering and difficulty, know what it is to question, to doubt God. In the swirling tempest of struggle, when God’s face is hidden and his presence distant, we need to know that God is really for our “good.” We need to know that God is there. How do you know that God is for you and not against you? How do you know where God is in your struggle? Paul says that the answer to your question is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor, Eli Wiesel, tells of a heart-wrenching episode during his time in a Nazi concentration camp. One winter morning, some among the prisoners stole chickens. The Nazi soldiers corralled the entire camp into the freezing cold in order to root out the culprits. Hard as they tried to intimidate a confession from someone, no one budged. And so, in a desire to make a point, they selected some representative prisoners at random.

Upon wooden gallows, in the center of the campsite, they hung their examples and forced the prisoners to stand and watch. All of the men died quickly, the rope snapping their necks instantly, but there was one, a little boy, who did not. He was so lightweight that he struggled in the noose, slowly choking to death for about half an hour. Wiesel says that as they stood in the freezing cold, beneath a gray, overcast sky, watching this child die, a desperate voice cried out from somewhere in front of him: “Where is God?! Where is God?!” Deep inside Wiesel’s soul, came the answer: “He’s there, hanging on the gallows.”

Now, you can understand Wiesel’s story in one of two ways. You can conclude that Wiesel is suggesting that in the presence of atrocity and suffering, in the face of the lowest forms of human evil, God must be dead. There must not be a God if such things can happen. I prefer to conclude that Wiesel is saying that in the depths of human suffering, at the place where evil seems to triumph in grotesque and soul-deforming ways, God is intimately present with those who suffer. Isn’t that part of the Good News? When our own voices scream out in terror, Where is God?! The answer from the Word of God is the same: He’s there, hanging on the gallows.

This truth is so commonplace for us, we often simply glance over what Paul says in verse 31: God “gave up” or “delivered up” the Son to his fate. Overcoming his cherishing, admiring, affectionate bond with the Son, the Father delivered him over to be betrayed, abandoned, mocked, flogged and beaten, spit upon, nailed to a cross, and pierced with a sword, like a butchered animal. All this—why? Because, as Paul says elsewhere, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

In that moment of pain, agony, and defeat, the Father watched his Son take upon himself all of the violence, suffering, and sin of this world, absorb it into his broken body, and disarm it forever through his obedient death. If you are looking for proof that God is on your side, you need look no further than the crucifixion of the Son of God. Where is God when you suffer? He’s there, hanging on the gallows.

This means I can say with confidence that nothing you go through is a judgment of God. Nothing you go through is because God has abandoned you. Your loved one’s sickness is not an angry judge’s retribution. Your marital strife is not a visitation of God’s wrath. God delivered up Jesus to death for you. In Christ, the crucified one, God is for you, not against you, in and through all things. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The crucible of suffering is not the place where God is absent, but the place where God is most miraculously present in divine love.

Move Three
In the last portion of the text, we find Paul’s final assurance of triumph: God’s love for you in Christ makes you a conqueror in every trial.

I’m sure that if I gave you time you could locate your present troubles, whatever they may be, in the two lists of verses 35-39. The first list appears to represent the spectrum of earthly tribulations, brought about by our life on this earth and our mission as disciples of Jesus: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. The second list appears to represent cosmic tribulations, brought about by the evil forces of this world, which seek to destroy God’s work in us: death, angels, principalities, and powers. Whatever you are going through, you can find it here.

Jim Wallis tells a story from the life of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. During the fight against apartheid, the notorious Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George during one of Bishop Tutu’s sermons at an ecumenical service. The diminutive bishop stopped preaching and stared intently at the intruders as they filled the cathedral like scurrying ants, lining the walls from back to front. Some carried guns, some carried knives, and some carried writing pads and tape recorders to document whatever he said and threaten him with imprisonment, or worse, for any audacious utterances.

Although the people gathered in the cathedral squirmed in tension and fear of more violence, Bishop Tutu met the eyes of the soldiers with his own steely gaze. In a defiant tone, with narrow eyes and wrinkled forehead, he said, “Yes, you are powerful, very powerful…but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” Then, Bishop Tutu’s countenance changed and he smiled with genuine warmth. Extending his arms to the gun-toting representatives of South African apartheid, the slight preacher offered this challenge to tyranny: “Since you have already lost, I invite you: come and join the winning side!”

Paul has chosen his words carefully in v. 37. Notice he does not say, “You can become a conqueror in every trial.” Nor does he say, “You must try to become a conqueror in every trial.” Nor does he say, “You must look yourself in the mirror and give yourself a pep talk until you become a conqueror in every trial.” No. God’s truth is clear: “In all these things we conquer completely through Christ, who loved us.” The question is not whether you will triumph in the midst of trials, because the work of God in Christ has made you a conqueror. The question is this: Will you choose to look upon your trials and say, in faith, “God’s love for me means that I triumph in every trial”?

No matter who or what you face today or tomorrow, you can stand in confidence and boldly challenge the universe, with all its malevolent inhabitants: “Who will bring a charge against me? Who will condemn me? Who will separate me from the love of Christ?” The answer you receive will be the same as the one from the South African soldiers: silence. Nothing—nothing and no one—can separate you from the love of Christ.

Ronnie and I spent the last three weeks of Susan’s life with her in Denton, traveling back and forth between hotel and hospital room. Even with aggressive chemotherapy, the cancer had advanced rapidly throughout her body in a matter of months, filling her pancreas, liver, and lungs with large, painful tumors. In our time with her, Susan was on so much morphine that she was rarely awake for visits and couldn’t carry on an extended conversation. Most of the time we just sat and watched her sleep, alternately reading, praying, and talking quietly.

Although this time was exhausting and heartbreaking, there are moments that I now recall as glimpses of triumph. In the rare times that Susan roused from her morphine slumber, she would look sleepily into her nurse’s face and, pointing to me, ask, “Have you met my daughter-in-love?” (That’s what she called me, her “daughter-in-love.” She said that “daughter-in-law” was too cold and formal.) Other times, she would gaze dreamily at her son, my husband, and whisper, “I love you so much.”

It is a miracle to me that in the midst of the excruciating pain and mind-numbing medication, what remained in Susan when her mind and body failed was the depth and power of her love for us. Although she could do nothing to slow the cancer that consumed her body, here is the truth: in every one of Susan’s mumbled words, in every lucid profession of love, she voiced proclamations of defiant, Christian triumph. The cancer killed Susan, but she conquered through it all.

Paul says in v. 39 that he is “persuaded.” Are you persuaded? If not, I want to give you permission to acknowledge the truth. Sometimes the pain of our tribulation is so great and our mental state so clouded with doubt that we cannot muster up the faith about which I speak. Will you admit it? Will you admit it to God? God has not left you to languish alone. What should you do when you are not persuaded of your victory in Christ? A few verses prior to our text, I think we are given the answer: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

You see, it is the Father who delivered up the Son to death for you, it is the love of Christ that has made you a conqueror, and it is the work of the Spirit that will persuade you of the truth. You do not need to summon up the willpower to make yourself triumphant. You need only to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit, who desires to apply the truth to your heart. Let’s ask him to do that today.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Of panhandlers and personal transformation

"I used to think...that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one's eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people's hands, eyes, lips, and hearts." - Dom Helder Camara

I give to panhandlers. I give to anyone who asks. I have chosen to make it my personal practice.

Sometimes I give food, when and if I have brought my lunch with me, or I have just happened to purchase something, or I am near a restaurant or grocery store. Sometimes I give gift certificates, if I have them and if the restaurant from which the certificate comes is nearby. And, sometimes I give cash. Yes, cash: $3, $5, $10--whatever I happen to have on me at the time.

I know what you're thinking. Silly girl. Doesn't she know that its better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish? Yes, my friends, I do. But, I have recognized that this attitude is typically used as an excuse not to teach a man to fish, but to do nothing at all. We say, "It is better to teach a man to fish, but since I do not teach fishing, I will not give a fish either." But, I am getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain.

For some time, I struggled with giving to those who asked for money or food or something of the sort. On the one hand, I wanted to help those in need and be a generous person. On the other hand, the specter of scam artists and professional panhandlers loomed large in my mind. The truth is, over time, the reality of a few liars and cheats crowded out my impetus to give to the many in genuine need. It dulled over time and went away.

Then, I began reading through the Gospels and I discovered that Jesus has quite a bit to say about giving and money in general. These are the ones that step all over your toes:

"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." - Matt 5:42

"Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' he said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" - Mark 10:21

"Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back...And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back." - Luke 6:30, 33-35

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Luke 12:32-33

"In the same way, any of you who does not give up all of his possessions cannot be my disciple." - Luke 14:33

I do not offer these verses as proof-texts for giving to panhandlers--by no means. I offer these verses so that we can look at some of the words of Jesus about giving. I find it very unsettling that in almost eight years of being a follower of Jesus, I have yet to hear these passages of scripture preached or taught as a way of life. As one country preacher has said, "We will worship the hind legs off of Jesus, we just won't do a thing he says."

But, my point is not to prove that giving to strangers who ask for money is good and right for everyone. Here's what I want to address: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask of us? What is the purpose? Surely Jesus, the all-wise teacher and preacher, knows that job training, drug treatment, counseling, and other forms of social help are more appropriate means of help for the beggar. Surely, he doesn't really mean that we are supposed to give to anyone who asks. Surely not!

The way that we normally get out doing what Jesus says is by making the excuses that I alluded to earlier. "I don't know what she will do with my money." "I don't know if he is an alcoholic or drug addict." "I don't want to waste my money on someone who doesn't need it." These are all reasonable concerns. These are all reasonable excuses for not giving. Yet, don't you think Jesus knows about these concerns? And yet, he still says to give.

Again, the question: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask, without holding back?

Here's what I think: We think that we are supposed to give in order to help the poor person. This is why we can justify not giving in most situations, because we can reason to ourselves that our money will not really help the person in need. It might just make the matter worse. But, I do not think that we are told to give primarily to help the poor person. We give to help ourselves. The poor person is not the one in need of help--you are.

"Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." - Luke 6:24

"I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." - Matt 19:23-24

"Jesus looked at his disciples and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!'" - Mark 10:23

Don't look around to find someone else richer than you. We are the rich man. We are the wealthy. Jesus instructs us to give to those who ask, without holding back, because we need to cultivate a life of giving in order to escape the trappings of wealth that will choke and kill our discipleship in the kingdom of God. If it is true that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, then we must be giving away our treasure in order not to be a slave to "Mammon" instead of God.

Do you believe Jesus when he says that it is "hard" for the rich to enter the kingdom of God? Do you believe Jesus when he implies that wealth is dangerous? If so, then we should quake in fear and trembling.

I have determined that, for me, I must give to anyone who asks, even panhandlers, in order to become the kind of person who is not attached to my things, my possessions. I must give in order to be spiritually formed as a disciple of Jesus.

And, as I do so, I am made and more aware of just how much I hoard what I have, carressing my "precious" things, like Golum with the "ring of power." This is a bondage that saps the energy out of me, makes me into a person obsessed with me, myself, and all that belongs to me. I need to be delivered from this trap. I need to be saved from materialism. And, for my liberation, I need the poor. I think Jesus understood this and taught his disciples accordingly.

Now, I know what your questions are. What if they are scamming you? What if they are using your money for drugs or alcohol or something else? What if they keep coming back because you've given them money once?

I haven't figured all this out yet, but here's what I'm thinking right now: If they are scamming me, it is not my concern. So what if I lose $5 to someone who doesn't need it? How much do I have that I don't need? My money is not really my money. If God wants to shuffle my $5 to someone else who doesn't need it, what concern is that to me? If God owns everything, then that includes my $5, whether it's in my pocket or the pocket of a scam artist.

I can't tell for sure if someone will use what I give for drugs or alcohol. They could do so. Or, they could not. The same is true of the mission agencies, or the high school graduates, or other worthy causes to which I give. Again, what the recipient of my gift does with what I give is not something over which I have control and it is not something that Jesus gives as a condition of giving. He does not say, "Give to those whom you are certain will use your money for wise and industrious ends." And, if my act of giving is less about the person and more about my spiritual formation, then this question isn't as important.

Yes, it is possible that a person I give money to will continue to come to me for money in the future. And, why is this bad again? If the poor are "blessed," because to them belongs the kingdom of God, then I should be ecstatic that they will return to me. But, that's now how we are trained, is it? The poor, the needy, the outcast, are to be avoided. We give our money to shelters and mission agencies so that we don't have to spend time with them or see them on a personal level. I am the chief of sinners in this regard.

The truth is, I am blessed if the one in need continues to come back to me. In fact, in so doing, we can cultivate a relationship and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to address the root causes of the person's poverty, not just the symptoms. That's where job training and social services and other things enter the picture. But, I can't do this without a relationship and I can't cultivate a relationship unless I have shown mercy and love to him or her.

So, there you have it. Panhandlers and the poor are a part of my personal transformation. I give to those who ask of me because I am a greedy, covetous, materialistic, rich pig of a sinner who needs to be transformed.

I share this with you not because I think all people should act as I have chosen to act, but because I believe the words of Frederick Huntington are true: "It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity."

God help us all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Meditating on the Loving Father

The parable of the Loving Father, a.k.a. the Prodigal Son, has captured my attention this weekend. My favorite depiction of the parable is by Rembrandt. I post his work from the Web Gallery of Art for your reflection and meditation this Lord's Day.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
c. 1669
Oil on canvas, 262 x 206 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Artistic Commentary from the Web Gallery of Art
Rembrandt's final word is given in his monumental painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Here he interprets the Christian idea of mercy with an extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world. It goes beyond the works of all other Baroque artists in the evocation of religious mood and human sympathy. The aged artist's power of realism is not diminished, but increased by psychological insight and spiritual awareness. Expressive lighting and colouring and the magic suggestiveness of his technique, together with a selective simplicity of setting, help us to feel the full impact of the event.

The main group of the father and the Prodigal Son stands out in light against an enormous dark surface. Particularly vivid are the ragged garment of the son, and the old man's sleeves, which are ochre tinged with golden olive; the ochre colour combined with an intense scarlet red in the father's cloak forms an unforgettable colouristic harmony. The observer is roused to a feeling of some extraordinary event. The son, ruined and repellent, with his bald head and the appearance of an outcast, returns to his father's house after long wanderings and many vicissitudes. He has wasted his heritage in foreign lands and has sunk to the condition of a swineherd. His old father, dressed in rich garments, as are the assistant figures, has hurried to meet him before the door and receives the long-lost son with the utmost fatherly love.

The occurrence is devoid of any momentary violent emotion, but is raised to a solemn calm that lends to the figures some of the qualities of statues and gives the emotions of a lasting character, no longer subject to the changes of time. Unforgettable is the image of the repentant sinner leaning against his father's breast and the old father bending over his son. The father's features tell of a goodness sublime and august; so do his outstretched hands, not free from the stiffness of old age. The whole represents a symbol of all homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God's mercy.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Aspiring to a Deeper Life

For my Christian Ministry class at Truett, I am reading Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2002). For this week, I read, "Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology” by Sarah Coakley of Harvard University. I found her insights intriguing. I present a summary of her conclusions below and welcome your comments.

Christian Practices for a Deeper Knowledge of God

Four foundational truths undergird Coakley's discussion of Christian practices:
(1) Christian practices are the things Christian people do individually and together over time to address basic human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world. Such practices include everything from prayer to hospitality to sabbath keeping to healing.

(2) God uses Christian practices, infused with God’s grace, to form us into Christ’s likeness after our baptism. They are the fundamental means of our growth in Christian life.

(3) The more we implement Christian practices and grow in Christ’s likeness, the more we rely upon God’s grace. We tend to think the opposite is true: that the more we become like Jesus, the less grace from God we will need. That is a lie. As we grow in Christian virtue, we will be leaning even more into the grace of God.

(4) Christian practices allow us to know God in ways that mere intellectual knowledge does not. That is to say, there are some truths of God that cannot be gained in books or confessions, but must be known through experience.

Coakley suggests that along with the three classical categories of Christian practices (with which Protestants will be relatively unfamiliar), there are corresponding levels of spiritual engagement, or spiritual knowledge. Neither the three categories of practices, nor the three levels of spiritual engagement, should be rigidly divided from one another. Instead, they will blend together in one's experience and the discoveries from each level are never thrown away, but incorporated and built upon in the next. Perhaps they can be visualized as a scroll unfurling. Each page is connected to the other, but they gradually reveal more of what is written inside.

Purgative practices are those practices in external virtue that arise following your initial commitment to belief at baptism. The emphasis is upon separation from the world and the development of a distinctively Christian way of life. The appearance of such practices may be oppositional or reactionary and somewhat legalistic (i.e., “I won’t listen to anything but ‘Christian’ music” or “I must not miss any activity of the church”).

An historical example is Clement of Alexandria’s (c. 150-215) Paedagogos (“The Teacher”), a manual of sorts for elite young men following their baptism. It offers opinion and regulation on all manner of things: bed coverings, plucking hairs, piercing, behavior in public baths, and even whether or not one should kiss his wife in front of the servants. Once again, the emphasis is upon rigid distinction between the Christian and pagan way of life through the regulation of most of one's daily life.

Illuminative practices are those practices that both facilitate and accompany the beginning of your internal identification with Christ. The emphasis is upon becoming acquainted with Christ and developing a Christian internal life. These practices will have an affect on beliefs, as experience with Christ shapes theology (i.e., “My meditation on God’s love has caused me to reject a theology of determinism” or “My time at the homeless shelter has convinced me that God loves the outcast”).

An historical example is the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, an unsystematic and non-theoretical approach to regulating life in a cenobitic house. Though called the Rule, there is not a focus on rules, but repeatable community practices meant for character formation over time. Some of Benedict's practices include psalm-singing, harvesting, and welcoming strangers. Here, there is no longer an emphasis on keeping the world at bay, but there is also not an implication that such practices will immediately elevate one's virtue. Instead, the Rule is to be followed so that, over a lifetime, there may be "a habituating of love, an imitation in a more than extrinsic way of the life of Christ."

Finally, unitive practices are those practices that lead to a deep union with the Godhead through prolonged and repeated observance. The emphasis is upon knowing God in ways that mere intellectual knowledge cannot provide. These practices are time-consuming, difficult, and painful, focused upon a cultivation of continuous active surrender to God (i.e., “I am making the ‘Jesus Prayer’ a constant refrain in my heart”).

Evagrius of Pontus is one historical example, who sought to be “incorporated into the life of the Trinity” through “pure prayer.” Still, his quest to have direct contemplation of the Logos through prolonged conemplative prayer has a mixed approach to the body and the material work, making his thoughts dicey from the perspective of orthodoxy.

Teresa of Avila experienced a very earthy union with God that transcended the ecstasy for which she is famous, drawing her back to the “pots and pans” of daily life. In the "Seventh Dwelling" of the Mansion she explains that this union with God brings a knowledge of the Trinity is deep within the body. She considers it a "higher state" to be able to withstand lasting union without physical ecstasy or collapse and that an incarnational engagement in the "ordinary," is required of all those who have the trinitarian reality revealed to them in this way.

St. John of the Cross has a similar account of union in The Spiritual Canticle, but he makes the seemingly more daring claim that the soul can actually breathe with the "very breath" of the Spirit that moves between the Father and the Son. The soul becomes knit into the life of God through the long practice of contemplation.

Coakley clarifies regarding unitive practices: "it is the sui generis responsiveness of the soul before God that is the hallmark of these states, in which contemplation is cleary now no human practice at all, but the direct infusion of divine grace." One might call this an "active surrender" to God's grace. Also, "the practices of prayer that have all along sustained this process may be purified and simplified...into silent responsiveness, into an empty waiting on God that precedes union in its fullest sense." In this state, the Trinity is no longer an authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God's nature, but a life into which we enter through union with Christ.

This spectrum of interactive forms of beliefs and practices--purgative, illuminative, and unitive--is such that over a lifetime of faithful observation of both public acts of worship and charity on the one hand, and private devotions on the other, one might hope ultimately to come to "know" God in God's intimate life.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

My Ordination

I was ordained today.

Fear not, my conservative friends. There are few Southern Baptist churches in Texas that will convene an ordination ceremony for a woman and mine is not one of them. No, I did not stand before an elder body, nor did I receive questions from an assembly of deacons, nor did I have the hands of ministers laid upon my shoulders. I would be honored to be a part of any such service but, for now, that is not to be. My ordination was something far more subtle, far more fragile, far more precious. Allow me to explain.

Every week I serve as a student chaplain in a hospital in Waco under the supervision of the pastoral care department. This service is a part of my clinical pastoral orientation class for Truett Seminary. Although my anxiety about this class exceeded my anxiety about any other class at Truett, I have found that the hour I spend listening, sharing, and praying with patients is among my most fulfilling every week. In this way, my experience appears to differ sharply from that of a number of my classmates, who, frankly, view their visits as burdensome interludes to be endured.

Deborah Gonzalez (not her real name) welcomed me into her room this afternoon with tentative eyes. When I introduced myself as the chaplain, her countenance changed and I could see a wave of relief pass across her face. As we spoke, I discovered that Deborah has been ill for many years. She lives with chronic pain from a number of internal problems, all of which are degenerating quickly.

When I knocked on her door, Deborah had just learned from her doctor that the end is very near. That is to say, a transplant appears to be out of the question and there is little more the doctors can do. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, Deborah opened up her heart and shared with me fears and pains that she has not had the courage to share with anyone else.

After a profoundly honest and meaningful visit, I read Romans 8:26-39 aloud. "The Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness...We know that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him...We are more than conquerors through him who loved us...Nothing can seperate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I offered to pray with her and Deborah placed her hand in mine.

When we said "Amen," and looked back up into each other's eyes, Deborah had a strength in her face that had not been there before. Her eyes were steady and her countenance calm. She was still very ill, still in great pain. But, something had happened in her soul during our visit. The Spirit had met us there and applied healing to her and I could see it.

Then, without hesitation or contrivance, Deborah placed her hand on top of mine and offered me a benediction of sorts: "The Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you. The Lord use you to bring comfort and peace to others in the way you have brought comfort and peace to me." It was a beautiful, dreamlike moment: Deborah in her blue hospital gown, hair disheveled and make-up smeared from tears, laying her hands upon me and pronouncing a word of blessing, a prophecy of consecration, to a young, confused seminarian.

I went to Criswell College believing myself to be called to pastoral ministry. I know, its quite humorous to imagine me ignorantly choosing such a conservative Bible college with this aim. Indeed, I have to laugh at the confusion of the faculty advisor on my very first day as he tried vainly to conceal his shock at my stated goal. However, in my time at Criswell, it didn't take long to become convinced of the conservative reading of scripture that God prohibits women from serving as pastors or preachers. So, the issue was settled in my mind. I was not called to pastor. My attention turned to other things.

Under the mentorship of one kind and brilliant professor, and with the vocal support of many others, I was encouraged to pursue writing and teaching, both of which came quite naturally to me. I quickly realized that the world of academia was far less closed to women than that of church. So, although I was not aware of my motivation at the time, I see now that choosing the role of teacher was my "out," my way to minister to God's church without having the "baggage" associated with pastoral ministry.

Then I came to Truett. I will not detail the many years of toil and struggle I experienced as I finally arrived at the conclusion that my professors at Criswell, who I love and trust and respect to this very day, are wrong. Indeed, I flinch even now simply writing the words. But, it is what I have concluded from seeking truth and studying the Word: "Here I stand, I can do no other."

Even with my change of mind, though, I remained certain that God did not intend pastoral ministry of any kind for my future. I'm better with books, I thought. I will teach and write, but shepherding is dirty and difficult and not "my thing." Ronnie can pastor, I will teach.

Then, I began to shepherd a women's Sunday School class. Then, I began to know and love a few profoundly broken and fantastically gifted women who actually look to me--me!--for wisdom and guidance. Oh, I'm just teaching a class, I said. I'm just being a good friend. I'm just doing this for now.

Then, I enrolled in a semester of ministry courses: preaching, preaching the parables, Christian ministry, clinical pastoral orientation, and spiritual formation. I thought I would be bored to tears in these "practical" classes. I was certain I would ache for theology and theory. I was wrong.

For all my certainty that the scholarly realm is my "cup of tea," I have found that I find great joy and fulfillment in ministry--dirty, complicated, rough and tumble, pastoral ministry. I find joy in preaching. I find joy in visiting the sick. I find joy in praying for the troubled, confused, and hurting. I find joy in laboring over the formation of souls. And, not only is there joy and peace as I encounter and embrace these tasks, but I am overwhelmed with the incredible privilege it is to do so. I weep even now imagining that God would permit me, little ole me, to be used to care for the soul of another. What an astonishing thing.

As reflected with my supervisor at the hospital about my time with Deborah and my new discoveries about pastoral ministry, he was silent for a while and then made this statement: "Well, Emily, it seems as though you have received your ordination." Observing my confusion, he clarified: "I know in your context you cannot be ordained, but it seems as though God used this woman to affirm your calling to you. She laid hands on you and spoke the truth. Are you ready to receive it?"

Now, hear me, my friends. I am not saying that I think I am called to be a pastor. I am not saying that I am not called to be a teacher. What I am saying is that I don't know what I'm called to do anymore. And, for now, that's ok. I can rest in the unknowing. I can stand firm in my ignorance.

For today, what matters is that Deborah Gonzalez received a touch from God through me. What matters is that through her bruised, sickly hands, God quietly and inconspicuously consecrated me for ministry, something I didn't think would ever happen. May he now grant wisdom as I figure out what to do next.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Sermon on Matthew 22:11-14

This is a sermon I prepared for an advanced preaching course on the parable of the man without a wedding garment (Matt 22:11-14), which is the last scene in the parable of the wedding banquet (22:1-14). I will be preaching it tomorrow afternoon. I would appreciate both your prayers and your constructive criticism.

What Are You Wearing?

"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.

"Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are invited, but few are chosen."
(Matt 22:11-14)

The scene at the White House was astonishing. The President of the United States was pacing his office in subdued anger. Flared nostrils and wide eyes contrasted sharply with his distinguished Armani tuxedo and platinum cuff links. It was December 15, day one of a three-day celebration for the marriage of the President’s only son. The overlap of the Christmas season and a White House wedding made for an extraordinarily lavish occasion. The President should have already taken his place in the grand foyer to welcome his many distinguished guests. But he was on the phone with his assistant and something wasn’t right.

“What do you mean they’re not coming? Who’s not coming? When did they call you? They ‘texted’ you? They sent you text messages?” Text messages. Some of the most important leaders and political representatives in the world—European ambassadors, African diplomats, and South Asian dignitaries—sent the President of the United States text messages begging off their attendance on the day of his son’s wedding.

The pacing President was a mixture of emotions: hurt, embarrassed, and enraged. This was a personal insult. This was an intentional humiliation. So many important guests, so many ill-timed rebuffs—this was more than just a “scheduling conflict.”

The President’s rage lasted only a few minutes, though. He would deal with them later. He had a wedding to celebrate. He couldn’t fume over these betrayals when three days of feasting, dancing, and entertainment awaited him and his family. But, how could he celebrate with an almost empty party? And, where could he get more guests at such a late hour?

Within minutes the President made up his mind. He would invite all the people of the community in Washington, DC. Yes, it’s a little crazy and the Secret Service will hate it, but his son is getting married. He must have a full house, an overflowing party, to commemorate the occasion. And, who would enjoy such a party more than his less-than-privileged neighbors?
That very hour, hundreds of invitations were hand-delivered by White House staff persons throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. Even the roughest parts of town were paid a visit. Everyone was invited: sanitation workers on their rounds, bank tellers behind glass windows, teenagers playing hacky sack, and even an old woman planting silk daffodils in her front yard. Everyone was invited.

At first, most thought the invitations were a scam. But, the serious faces of the deliverers told them that this was the real deal. Though shocked and even a little scared, most busied themselves getting ready, changing from work clothes to their “Sunday best.” For some that meant twenty year-old polyester suits with ill-fitting brown trousers and coats that won’t button. For others, polka-dotted navy sundresses, worn cream-colored loafers and pitifully lop-sided braids. Yes, the grotesque parade of mismatched hats, dress shoes, and evening bags winding hastily down Pennsylvania Avenue was enough to give Joan Rivers a stroke.

But, to the President, who desperately desired to celebrate his son’s marriage, the procession was a gratifying sight. Sure, many among the crowd came merely to pick at platters of fruit and cheese, enjoy a mouth-watering filet mignon, and top off their full bellies with chocolate custard and cheesecake. But, most felt honored to be summoned to such an event. They could bring nothing for the bride and groom. Yet, their gratitude, their innocent, wide-eyed delight, was enough. Looking over the crowded, candle-lit ballroom, teeming with excited and talkative revelers, the President was infinitely satisfied.

But, one among the bunch had not spent any time in front of the mirror. His heather grey sweat suit boasted a number of brownish blotches, all of which corresponded quite well with his ruddy leather house shoes. One prominent stain near the neck smelled of barbeque sauce, a remnant of his lunchtime McRib. The man’s hair was greasy and matted under his Redskins ball cap, having seen neither comb nor soap in many days.

Spotting the unkempt man at a table of caviar and cheese, the President was confused. “Poor man. Does he not know where he is? Perhaps there’s been some mistake.” He spoke to him in a concerned tone: “Hello, friend. How did you happen to come to our party this way? You do know this is a wedding, right?” The man said nothing, but stared at the President blankly. He finished shoving a cracker piled with caviar into his gaping mouth and washed it down with a gulp of champagne. The awkward silence and apathetic gaze of the man betrayed the truth: The man knew exactly where he was. And, he didn’t care that he was out of place.

Dismayed at the man’s rudeness, the President motioned to a pair of muscled men in black suits. Despite their professional demeanor, they had no problem forcibly escorting the bewildered man from the party. When he put up a fight, yelling pitifully and clutching his invitation, they dragged him by the armpits and toss him into the dank alley. When he finally recovered, struggling to stand amidst piles of full garbage bags, the man thoughtlessly picked cracker crumbs off his sweatshirt. He pulled up his sagging sweatpants and shrugged. “So, this is what the alley of the White House looks like.”

A little less than two thousand years ago, Jesus told a similarly strange story, recorded for us in Matt 22:1-14. Many have speculated as to the identity of those who were first invited to the banquet but later deemed “unworthy.” And, many have focused upon the generous nature of the king’s second invitation, summoning “good and bad” to join the celebration. But today, we will focus upon the last scene of the story, the one that makes you uncomfortable, the one that you might have left out if you had a hand in editing the Gospels.

Darkness, weeping, and gnashing teeth is not the way you want Jesus to end a parable about God’s kingdom The man without a wedding garment came to a party but ended up in hell. Poor guy. We can’t help but pity the underdressed man and question the king’s punishment. The king’s servants had urged him to come to the banquet. Even though he was at the edge of town, even though he was on the fringes of society, they wanted him to come. Should a man like this be expected to dress appropriately? And, should the king care so much about what his guests wear as long as they come to the party? Isn’t God’s banquet—God’s kingdom—about grace? Are we not meant to come “just as we are”?

As we hurl these questions at the pages of Matthew’s gospel, an uncomfortable truth stares back at us: There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s invitation. There is more than one way to miss God’s kingdom. God’s chief desire is to gather worthy guests for his Son’s banquet. The one who arrives at the banquet without the right clothes, without the evidence of righteousness, is just as unworthy as the one who rejects the invitation outright. And, both will be excluded.

The royal banquet Jesus describes in Matt 22 would have been a tremendously expensive, and complicated affair. The king’s household would have been occupied for months with the planning, storing, arranging, and managing of such festivities. As his servants made preparations, the contents of the storehouses would boggle the mind and assault the senses: giant vats of olive oil, huge stone jars of wine and beer, crate after crate of dried fruits and nuts, and sealed ceramic jars of sharp-smelling spices and salted meats.

The list of musicians, jokers, dancers, and other performers employed to entertain the revelers would have been a foot long, costing almost as much as the food. When the first day of the feast arrived, the halls of the king’s palace would be filled with all manner of exotic birds and lizards, enclosed in gilded cages for the sole purpose of titillating the king’s guests. The seven-day gala would have been a momentous occasion in the life of the kingdom as they honored the heir to the throne.

But, the lengths to which the first-century monarch would go to host a royal wedding does not even begin to compare to the lengths taken by God to prepare for the Great Banquet at the end of the age. Indeed, you have been invited not to a seven-day gala event, but to an eternal celebration of the coronation of the King of Kings.

With the death and resurrection of Jesus, we acknowledge and proclaim his victory over evil, sin, and death even now. But we await the final realization of this reality in all its fullness at the end of history. Now, with groaning and great travail, those of us who have responded to his invitation anticipate the time when God will set all things right and bring to completion the reconciliation of all things. We are invited to the final banquet of God. We are to be honored, worthy guests at the wedding supper of God’s Son.

You can see why the king in Jesus story would come and “look over” or “inspect,” his many guests. Surely you can agree that it is good and right for the king to desire worthy guests at such a party. He deserves guests who appreciate the finery set before them and who honor their host with a joyful heart and festive attire. Now then, if an earthly monarch deserves to be honored with festive clothes and merry hearts, how much more so does the eternal King of Kings! Knowing the magnificent banquet that awaits us at the end of the age, how can we possibly defend the slovenly man in the parable? Does not our defense, our sympathy with his plight, put us at odds with the king—at odds with God?

On the surface, the man’s appearance may have been little worse than some of the poor attempts at finery present in the banquet hall. But, there’s a major difference. The others, despite their tattered clothes, understood the nature of the king’s invitation. Honored by the summons to celebrate with him, they took time to find something to wear, maybe even begging or borrowing to do so. Doubtless, some still looked like people off the streets, but they rejoiced with royalty because they came to the banquet prepared to celebrate.

Yet, the lone man’s clothes betray his indifference to the king. No, its more than indifference—its contempt. It’s a passive-aggressive rejection of the king’s party. He is present. He is eating the food. He is drinking the wine. He is watching the merriment. But, he is just as bad as those who rebuffed the king’s rule with a last-minute refusal—maybe even worse. He is declining to celebrate with the king and he does so while standing in his presence. By attending a wedding festival in his grubby house clothes, the man has silently revealed his allegiance. And the king should be offended. He must be offended.

But, here is the difficulty, my friends. If we would be honest with ourselves, we would see that we sympathize with the underdressed man because we identify with his easy-going frivolity. We know God’s grace is wide and welcoming. We know God’s generosity is endless. We know God’s mercy endures forever. Why not relax and enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom? Why not come to God’s party just as we are? The answer is in the parable: Your wedding garment is your tribute to the king. Without it, you are an unworthy wedding crasher, fit for nothing but the trash-filled alley.

We know that it is the grace of God, which invites us to take a place in God’s kingdom. But, we are less likely to acknowledge is that it is our righteousness, which proves that we belong there. We don’t want to admit it, but the cliched judgment scenarios will never happen. God will not ask you, "What did you do with my Son?" Jesus will not stand as your defense attorney in a celestial courtroom in the sky. And, being a Christian will not get you a "pass" on standing before God.

No. The testimony of the New Testament is clear: you will be judged based upon your righteousness—based upon your wedding garments. In the Apocalypse, the faithful witnesses, who serve Christ unto death, prepare for the “wedding supper of the Lamb” by clothing themselves in “righteous works.” They receive the right to walk with Jesus in “white” and return with him robed in fine linen, “white and clean.” It is time to ask yourself, what are you wearing?

Even in our age of increasing casualness, we know instinctively that clothing and appearance is vital, especially for significant occasions. On January 27, 2005, world leaders gathered in southern Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The day was blustery and snowy, but the ceremony at the Nazi death camp was held outdoors. Most of those in attendance, including French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, made the best of the weather, wearing dark formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots, balancing the need for warmth with the dignity of the event.

But, there was one in the crowd who didn’t fit in. Perhaps you recall the sadly humorous photos. In a sea of black-coated, distinguished world leaders, Vice President Cheney wore a bulging olive-grey parka with his name emblazoned across the front and a fluffy, fur-trimmed hood. Beneath the hood, he wore a navy knit ski cap, embroidered with the words “Staff 2001,” and on his feet were bulky, lace-up hiking boots. In any other context, the Vice President’s clothing would have been ideal. But, in a solemn, memorial ceremony, honoring the tens of thousands killed at Auschwitz, Cheney’s apparel was embarrassingly out of place. One journalist had this to say:

There is little doubt that intellectually Cheney approached the Auschwitz ceremony with thoughtfulness and respect. But symbolism is powerful. That’s why the piercing cry of a train whistle marked the beginning of the ceremony and the glare of searchlights signaled its end. The vice president might have been warm in his parka, ski cap and hiking boots. But they had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he was more concerned with his own comfort than the reason for braving the cold at all.

Indeed, in the banquet of God, your clothing indicates your understanding of the celebration. Your clothes reveal that you have accepted the invitation and you are willing to join the King in his joy. If you arrive at the wedding supper of God’s Son underdressed, you reveal that you are under-whelmed with the occasion, not considering it of enough importance to make proper preparations. The one who will not array him or herself in the finest clothing for the king’s party must be shown the door. He or she is unworthy. And, missing God’s celebration is much worse than being tossed into the alley of the White House. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth,” indicate that exclusion from the light and joy of God’s presence is the consequence for a slovenly appearance.

So, what about you? What are you wearing? The wedding banquet of the Son is coming. We will gather at his festive table and join in the celebration of the rule of God. Grace has invited us to enter in. The doors are flung wide and the servants of the king await our arrival. But, there is more than one way to miss God’s Kingdom. There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s invitation. You can refuse outright. Or, you can arrive in the sloppy clothes of an unworthy dissident. The King is coming to inspect his guests. What are you wearing?

As one in attendance at the banquet of God, you must take on the garb of righteousness, the robes of good works, which are the evidence that you belong in the kingdom. It’s so easy for us, for ministers of the Gospel, to forget about our own appearance as we instruct others in the Way. I urge you: Put on linen robes of holiness. Adorn your head with garlands of worship. Dress your sleeves in flowing folds of peace. Embroider your fabrics with stitching of proclamation and truth. Affix to your hem tassels of healing and brilliant beading of liberation. Wrap yourself in scarves of justice and ornament your arms and neck with golden bangles of wisdom.

Do not miss God’s celebration by rushing into the kingdom with garments disheveled and unkempt. Do not spurn God’s invitation and rebuff God’s grace by ignoring the formation of your character and the performance of righteousness. The King is coming to look over his guests. He is seeking worthy attendants at his Son's marriage supper. What are you wearing?
*The inset picture is of a third century fresco, “Fractio Panis" (the breaking of bread) in the Greek Chapel in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla.