Two Nights

This is a reflection paper that I wrote in the fall of 2009 for my New Testament survey class in seminary. I’m posting it now because it came up in a conversation.

Luke is the only canonical Gospel that includes the birth narrative. What are we to make of that?

Psalm 23 declares, “Thou art with me.” An individual woman or man is speaking directly to God about God’s presence with her or him personally. It is, as far as I know, unique in all of Scripture in stating this truth in this way. What are we to make of that?

My own contemplative prayer practice has evolved while I’ve been at seminary. Adapting Thich Nhat Hanh’s breath prayer, I found that I could center myself for worship by repeating silently, “Breathing in, Your spirit enters and fills me. Breathing out, I love.” I began to use it in other settings. When I was walking the labyrinth this summer, it helped me to focus on the spiritual, as it soothed and quieted the mental. Seeking to detach from the physical as well, I switched to something even simpler, with no reference to breath. As I walked, I repeated, and contemplated, a pair of four-word selections from Scripture: “Thou art with me. Thy will be done.”

“Lovely,” I hear the reader ask, “but what has this to do with Luke’s birth narrative?”

The birth narrative in Chapter 2 is one of only two scenes in Luke that takes place at night. The other is Jesus’ last night in this life, on the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These two night scenes frame Jesus’ life. Their literary function is that they help to unify a long, meandering story: reading about the last night reminds us of, and carries us back to, the first night. But what is their gospel function?

Let’s return for a moment to my contemplative prayer. Its two parts together summarize, for me, the essentials of my faith. The deceptive simplicity of “Thou art with me” actually encompasses complex wisdom about the nature of God and the nature of my relationship with God. Ours is a personal God, addressed directly, and addressed with familiar, rather than formal, pronouns. While this God may be in Heaven, as many gods are said to be, our God is also as immanent as can be – right here with me. Similarly, “Thy will be done” is a nugget whose small size belies the magnitude of its meaning. It is not only an acknowledgement that our God indeed has a will for us, inviting us to learn what it might be; it is also our promise of commitment to serving that will.

Moreover, the two parts of the prayer are interrelated.  To apprehend God’s will can be terrifying – awe-full. Sureness of God’s presence with me is the only thing that can comfort me enough to feel safe in the face of this awe. Going through the prayer in the other direction, it says that, while God’s presence with me may be comforting, it is not enough to give the relationship its full meaning. The second half is the necessary further development – my reciprocation of God’s presence is my acceptance of God’s will and its implications for how I am to live.

The two nighttime scenes in Luke teach lessons similar to those of the prayer. The Nativity, especially with the intimate detail of Luke’s story, is a narrative way of expressing “Thou art with me,” God’s presence is now here, in our human world. On the Mount of Olives, the very last prayer we hear from Jesus’ lips, even as he is fully cognizant of the gravity of the moment, is “Thy will be done.” Ultimately, a relationship with God calls us to whatever is necessary to fulfill God’s intention for humanity.

Just as most of the rest of Luke’s Gospel narrative tells the story that links those two scenes, the rest of his Gospel message explores the implications of the two principles that the scenes represent. It fills in the spaces to help us understand the connections between love and service, between comfort and call, between birth and death, between “with me” and “Thy will.”


Choice and Queerness

A friend of mine wrote a thought-provoking blog post about the issue of whether being gay is a choice, and whether it matters if it’s a choice or not. Part of what makes her essay so good is that it’s intentionally not from a theoretical viewpoint; it’s based on her own personal experience. When I told her it connected with some thoughts I’d been having recently, she encouraged (urged? demanded?) that I write my own post on the topic. I can’t improve on what she said in her essay, but I can bring my own story to it, a story that’s both similar to and different from hers.

I’m queer. I’m not a lesbian, but rather a bisexual transsexual (which is fun to say out loud, if nothing else). Both my gender transition and my sexual orientation have raised questions of choice for me.

This post will look at my gender transition, which took place during the period mid-’05 to mid-’06. It was in the time preceding that transition that questions of choice came to the fore. One obvious question: did I have a choice about my inner feeling of femaleness? To that I would say no. In the course of counseling, I went back all the way to age 4 in my memories, and that feeling of femaleness, along with the desire to act on it, had been there all along. I won’t hold any 4-year-old accountable for making bad life choices, myself included. So it wasn’t a choice then. As I grew up, and on into adulthood, I tried to make the feelings go away by force of will; that is, I tried to choose not to feel female inside. When I had still not succeeded by the age of 53, I had to admit that it looked a lot more like part of who I was, than a feeling I chose to have; and if that’s what it looked like over the course of half a century, it very likely really was what it looked like.

That was lesson one about choice: sometimes you just are who you are, and you don’t have a choice.

Certainly that realization of powerlessness over something so big contributed to the unprecedented wave of depression that then enveloped me at that time. As sort of a Plan B, since I couldn’t make the feeling just go away, I did my best to research what could cause something that was so resistant to will power. Fortunately, I was working at the University of Michigan at the time, where the graduate library has excellent collections on gender, both from the feminist and from the transgender points of view; there’s also a medical library for the university’s med school. Surely, in all that, I should be able to find an answer to this problem of having no choice about feeling like the wrong sex – maybe a hormonal imbalance, or childhood abuse, or a traumatic brain injury in my past.

Six months, dozens of books, and hundreds of articles later, I surrendered. The answer was simply this: some people just feel like the opposite sex inside, in their hearts, minds, and spirits. Nobody knows why. And when the feeling is strong and persistent, the only relief is found in transitioning to the sex that a person feels like inside.

Having now accepted that I had no choice about feeling this way, I saw that I did have a choice about what to do about it. Neither alternative appealed to me, though: continue to struggle for the rest of my life as I had for the preceding 50 years; or turn my life completely upside down and live the rest of my life as a woman. Choosing gender transition carried the risk of losing relationships with family and friends, and possibly losing my job as well. Choosing not to transition carried the risk of never escaping the clutches of deep depression, and the certainty of never escaping the feeling of being a different sex inside myself than I was on the outside.

Lesson two: having a choice doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the options looks really desirable.

I couldn’t decide. I went for long walks. I got drunk a lot. I prayed. I cursed God. I considered suicide. I joined a gender group, then switched to another. I talked endlessly with my counselor, my wife, my gender groups, and anyone else who would listen. None of those things made the choice for me. At the time, I thought I was deferring making the choice, but I see now that to defer was itself to choose – to make a choice for the status quo.

Let’s call that lesson three: having a choice can free you from one of the alternatives. But it does not free you from having to choose; in fact, it obligates you to choose.

As I said at the beginning, I did end up choosing transition. I felt that I could no longer stand feeling as bleak and as sad as I had for the preceding year. If transition could relieve that depression, I just didn’t have the will to fight it any longer. I took my chances on the consequences of that choice. As it turned out, I lost my marriage and with it, the ability to live in the same house with my then-5-year-old daughter as I watched her grow up. There were also some collateral material losses. By and large, though, none of the other feared consequences came to pass.

But it still didn’t feel like a choice really, not a free choice. You may say that I could’ve chosen to wait one more day; since I’d waited so many days already, what difference would one more make? And the same argument would apply the next day, and the next. Why should I ever have to choose transition? The analogy I’ll use here is holding your breath. If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, surely you can choose to hold it for 11 seconds; what’s one more second? And if you do hold it for 11, then we know you can choose to wait one more second, so it’s your choice whether to hold your breath for 12 seconds. And on and on. But of course, eventually you have to breathe again; at some point, you can’t choose even that one more second. And as I continued to choose not to transition — by deferring making the choice — that one more day and one more day finally reached a point where I could not defer it one more day.

So I guess lesson four is something like this: sometimes logic tries to tell you that you have a choice, while nature is saying that you don’t have a choice. When that happens, nature eventually beats logic, every time.

In wrapping up, I want to touch on one more thing: this is my story, about my struggle with choice and queerness. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything about anyone else’s story. And nobody else’s story can prove or disprove mine. And that brings us to

Lesson five: Your mileage may vary.

An Old Prayer in New Words

Divine Spirit who fills the universe,
Sacred are all your names.
Your Way will be consummated on Earth,
As it already is in your heart,
When we all love one another
As you love all of us.
Please provide for our everyday needs;
Call us to no more than we can do,
And help us to do no less than you call us to.
This we ask, knowing that the beauty of your power
Will surely lead us to your Way.

Death and Privilege

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Newtown, Connecticut?

That’s right, 20. That number is seared on our brains. How sad, how frightening.

“If it happened here it could happen anywhere,” said Danielle Collins, who attended a candlelight vigil in Newtown last night.

No, Ms. Collins, it could not happen anywhere. That’s the voice of privilege. You’re right, though, in this sense: We don’t expect kids to get shot in Newtown or places like it. That only happens in places like…

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Detroit, Michigan?

The answer is 21, but you didn’t know that, dear reader. Honestly, the only reason I know is because I spent a couple of hours researching it just now. And about that many kids were shot to death in Detroit in 2011, and 2010, and 2009, etc. How many child homicides were there in Newtown in those years? You know the answer without having to look it up.

Newtown is a bastion of privilege: 95% white and less than 2% black, median household income $111,000/year, 9 out of 10 people live in single family homes that they own. Unemployment is 6.1% and the poverty rate is 1.2%.

The comparable numbers for Detroit are: 11% white, 83% black, income $31,000, owner-occupied housing 49%, unemployment 15%, and poverty rate 35%.

Twenty dead kids in Newtown are national banner headline news; the same number of dead kids in Detroit… well, you can find the information if you look hard enough.

This is so unfair. Our white privilege is supposed to protect us from bad things. Our affluent enclaves are supposed to be safe for kids. As Ms. Collins said, if we can’t protect our privilege behind the barricades of Newtown, where can we?

And by the way, this is not about gun control. Oh sure, now we’re all screaming for gun control, but when the twentieth kid was killed in Detroit, the silence was deafening. And really, give me a break – nothing short of a national ban on handguns would have made a difference in Newtown. Remember, the guns belonged to the killer’s mom. Realistically, a retired white kindergarten teacher in an affluent white suburb will never be denied a gun.

No, the gun control reaction is just part of the overall emotional reaction of sadness and fear. We affluent and middle-class white people are afraid, because we never expected that violence would find us. Sure, we expect violence in Detroit; that’s just the way it is, right? We are sad because children are dead, but we are especially sad because the dead children in Newtown look like our own children. The poor, black little faces in Detroit don’t touch our hearts in quite the same way, and so they don’t make the national headlines.

It chills me and it sickens me to say it: our extreme emotional reaction, and the resultant screaming headlines, are about nothing but privilege.

References and credits:

Mythic mystic Christianity: a theology

I was recently asked to write a brief overview of my personal theology. If you’ve read any theology, you probably know that “brief” is among the least frequently used words to describe theological writing. Nevertheless, I took a crack at it. I don’t know if the result – two and a half single-spaced pages – counts as “brief”, but at least I kept it shorter than book length.

Oh, and as you might have guessed from the title, my personal theology is rooted in the Christian tradition. If that’s not your thing, you might find something you like here.

  • I believe in God, the creator of all that is.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, both God and human, who, by grace, is the source of our redemption.
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit, equally God, present and active within us.

But these statements are not my theology.

My theology is my contemplation, analysis, and understanding of these statements, my “unpacking” of them.


God is the creative force that powered – and still powers – bringing the universe into existence. God is a Being, a be-ing, as in the Hebrew name for God, I Am. This being underlies all else; God is the Ground of all being. We creatures – we created ones – are connected with that creative force, making us one with it, and thus with all of creation. And we humans, blessed with consciousness, are able to be aware of that connection. We can know that we are connected not only to all else that is, we can know the connection itself, and through that, we can know that Ground, that Creator, to which we are connected.

We have two crucial sources of knowledge of God: what we experience, and what we learn from others.

I believe the experience is essential. Without experiencing that connection with the creative force that grounds all being – without physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually experiencing a connection with God in some way – we would not have the frame of reference to make sense out of what we would learn from others about God. This direct, personal experience we call mystic. I believe that everyone is capable of experiencing this connection, though some have not (yet) had the experience, and others have chosen to interpret the experience for themselves as something other than connection with God. One person cannot cause another to have the mystic experience, nor can one person prevent another from having the experience, nor can one person prove to another that she or he has had the experience. The mystic, experiential element of knowing a connection with God is completely individual.

The other source of knowledge of God is what we learn from others. Since we cannot directly share one another’s experience of God, we need an indirect way of communicating. Sacred story, song, sermon, and poem serve this purpose. They may tell of something as corporeal as eating and drinking, or as intangible as dreams and visions. They may be emotionally raw or intellectually rigorous. They may recount past events or prophesy the future. Together, they comprise myth, in its original sense – sacred tellings about God. For Christians, much of our sacred myth is embodied in the Bible. Other ancient and even modern writings, as well as traditions that have defined Christians (and Jews before us) over the millennia, are also part of the body of our sacred myth. It must be stressed that “myth” does not mean something that’s not true – quite the opposite. Myth is how we express truths that we cannot express more directly. Thus, what is important about myth, including our sacred Christian myth, is not its historical accuracy, or its direct commands, or even the precise words used to speak or write it. What’s important is what we can learn about God from these stories, songs, sermons, and poems.

Jesus Christ

What, then, do we do with that knowledge, whether learned or experiential, mythic or mystic? What does it mean for our lives? It is through Jesus Christ that we can approach the answers to those questions. The phrase “Jesus Christ” itself demands unpacking. The one we call Jesus Christ is rooted in ancient tales of a man who had a special relationship with God, but Jesus Christ is more than this man. We need not even know whether such a man “really” lived in the first century, near the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, nor whether he “really” said and did all that has been attributed to him. To focus on his historicity is to focus on the narrative instead of the story; it is to miss the meaning inside the myth. The purpose of myth is to learn about God.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is perhaps the earliest statement of Christian theology. From it, we learn three things. First, Jesus, the central character in the uniquely Christian part of our myth, was a man in a primarily agrarian society, a society that also included cities, a semi-autonomous society under occupation by a foreign army. From this we learn the context for his teachings. Second, he is the Christ – he has a unique relationship with God – he was created to be the appointed one to speak for God to people, and to speak for people to God. From this we learn the authority of his teachings. Third, he is Lord – he is himself God. He contains God within him, just as God, the Ground of being, contains him. The wall of separation between that which is God, and that which is not God, is shattered by Jesus Christ’s very existence. Our connection with God is not a bond connecting two separate things; our connection is that we are not separate at all. The bond is simply this: that God and we – and by extension, everything that is – are a unity.

In this brief overview, I won’t go into the ethical theology implicit in this understanding of Jesus Christ, except to observe that Jesus’ ethical teachings are grounded in, “Love God. Love others. And those two are a single imperative.” Suffice it to say that all Christian ethics are derived from that.

From our sacred myth, there is a further lesson to learn for our theology of Jesus Christ. We have answered, “Who am I to God? Who am I to others? How am I to relate to God, and to others?” but we haven’t addressed, “Who am I to me? How am I to relate to myself?” This is the question about redemption.

To redeem, at its root, means to take back, to regain possession of something, usually by paying a price. What we regain through Jesus Christ is our lives and ourselves, the essence of who we are; traditionally we call this our soul. The price was graciously paid by God – as Jesus Christ – in living on earth as a human being, with the work, pain, and death that are part of that life. God chose to pay this price, not for God’s benefit, but for ours – hence we call it an act of grace.

In our redemption, in our reclaiming of our souls, we receive the knowledge that we are not weak, isolated, helpless, and alone. Jesus’ lessons of love and unity teach us to know ourselves: as part of a universal whole, even when we feel lonely; as strong in the face of fear, even the fear of death; as loving, even in the face of all the selfish acts we know we’ve committed; and as beloved, connected with all humankind, and with God. We need to hear those lessons from a fellow human sufferer in order for them to touch our deepest selves, and so it was necessary for God to be among us as a human being. For how else could we see with our own eyes that there is no separation between us and God?

Holy Spirit

As God the creator fills the universe, and as Jesus Christ is God with us, it is the Holy Spirit that is God within each of us. We sense God as the creative force. We encounter Jesus Christ. But we feel the Spirit, in some ineffably non-physical way, and this feeling changes us. It makes us more open to God. The Reformed way of expressing it is helpful. Reformed theology asserts that the Spirit is the first to come to us; that the Spirit enters our hearts, and prepares us to receive God. The Spirit readies us for the mystic and the mythic knowledge of God that follow.

Moreover, the Spirit stays with us, a presence within that keeps us aware of our connection with God, even when our minds are too busy and our emotions are too roiled. That awareness can serve many purposes: it can comfort us, it can motivate us, it can inspire us. God the creator is always creating anew; God, through Jesus Christ, is always teaching us about love and unity; but these are so big that we have trouble staying focused on them. It is the Spirit who is with us in day-to-day life, walking every mundane step of our path with us.

Closing observation

The structure of this theological overview parallels the classic Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. However, orthodox Trinitarian doctrine does not, and cannot, truly describe God. It is not literally true that God is three and God is one simultaneously. Our words are inadequate to qualify God, let alone quantify God. Theology is part of our sacred myth, our indirect, linguistic way of telling truth. This overview is nothing more than how I tell you about my own understanding of the truth of God.

Take Up Your Cross! Alleluia!

A sermon by Jenny Howard
Preached at Central Presbyterian Church, Louisville, KY
on May 2, 2010, the 5th Sunday in Easter

This is written as a dialogue sermon, though it was preached by one person.
Boldface is used to distinguish the second speaker from the first.
Italics are used for quotations from published theologians.

Matthew 16:24-25
Matthew 10:38-39
Mark 8:34-35
Luke 9:23-24
Luke 14:27
(texts below, at the end)

Jesus died for your sins! Human sin is a crime against God, and a just God must punish crime! But, as God is infinite and eternal, so any crime against God is equally infinite and eternal. What human punishment could ever suffice to atone for that infinite crime, you poor finite mortals? That is why God sent His Son, divine yet also completely human, to take the punishment for all humanity, to be the perfect human sacrifice! Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross satisfied God’s thirst for venge— …er, I mean satisfied God’s just demand for punishment! This was an act of grace! Yes, having Jesus killed was God’s loving act of supreme grace! By this your sins are forgiven – your sins, and the sins of all humankind in eternity! In this brutal (yet infinitely just) act of human sacrifice, you should find unspeakable joy! Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia! Shout—

Excuse me, I have a question?

Yes, yes, what is your question?

Well, I’ve been reading the Bible—

Good! Good! Scripture is surely the place to seek answers to all our questions.

Um, well, I can’t find the part where Jesus teaches what you just preached?

It’s in there! After all, this doctrine of substitute punishment has been the bedrock of our faith for 2000 years!

Um, actually, it was only about 1260 that Aquinas developed that particular theology of atonement. St. Anselm of Canterbury, some 150 years earlier, wrote something similar, around the year 1100. But before that, that’s not what the church taught.

What are you trying to say?

Well, as I said, I’d like to explore what Jesus himself said about the crucifixion, in the Gospels, you know? May I?

I suppose. I’m sure you’ll find this clearly explained in the Gospels.

I’d like to start with this morning’s Scripture readings. They’re from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three earliest Gospels. I hear Jesus saying over and over, if we want to be his disciples, we have to take up our cross and follow him. And then I have to ask the question—

Wait a second! You can’t question the Bible!

Oh no, I would never do that! I’m just questioning one interpretation of the Bible that I heard. Isn’t it part of the whole idea of being Presbyterian, being Reformed Protestants, that Scripture is the ultimate authority, not the church’s interpretation, or anyone else’s interpretation?


So my question is, if Jesus paid the price of sin for us, once for all, why do we have to take up our cross, just like he did? Where’s the good news in that? I’ve always thought believing in Jesus set us free – free from our sin – that Jesus set us free when he died on the cross. If I have to carry a cross, does that mean I have to be crucified too? Getting crucified doesn’t sound very free to me. And yet, this is something that Jesus said in these three Gospels, so it can’t be wrong. What did he mean?

I did a little digging, and I found out that Matthew and Luke were both written about a generation after Mark. So Mark’s Gospel is the oldest. Plus, the evidence is pretty strong that Mark was a major source for the people who wrote Matthew and Luke. So I took a closer look at Mark. It turns out that, when this earliest Gospel talks about the meaning of Jesus’ death, it never says that Jesus died as a substitute to satisfy God’s demand that humankind must be punished for their sin – our sin.

Now hold on just a minute there! What about Mark chapter 10 verse 45? “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Doesn’t that say that Jesus was killed as punishment for our sins?

Thank you, I was just going to say something about that. There is that verse, or really half a verse, that says Jesus “came…to give his life a ransom for many.” It might seem to support this vicarious punishment idea. But is that really what the word ‘ransom’ means? Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their book The Last Week, point out that the word is also used elsewhere in the Bible, and they explain its usage quite well: “The Greek word translated as ‘ransom’ is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives or slaves. [It] is a means of liberation from bondage. Thus to say that Jesus gave ‘his life a ransom for many’ means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage.”

And when I looked at this verse in context – I’m sure you agree that we have to read Scripture in context? – I saw it differently. Even within that verse, the first half says Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve.”

This sounds more like a voluntary act than it does like a passive sacrificial lamb. He made a conscious choice to give his life for us – like a soldier who gives his life for his country. Jesus chose to serve his disciples, to serve us, by showing us his new way, the way of salvation, even knowing it meant death. Borg and Crossan put it this way: “How does Mark think Jesus’ death is a ‘ransom’ for many? …. It is not by Jesus substituting for [us], but by [our] participating in Jesus. [We] must pass through death to a new life here below upon this earth, and [we] can already see what that transformed life is like in Jesus himself.” Jesus was saying this is so important that he put everybody else’s good first, and put himself last, and he called us to follow his example.

Look at it this way: Jesus faced death knowing, in complete faith, that new life waited on the other side, and knowing that the only way to attain that new life was by passing through the death of his old life. That’s what he was trying to teach his disciples. Does that make him some kind of creepy precursor to Jim Jones, only with crosses instead of poisoned grape Kool-Aid?

By no means! (I’ve always wanted to say that in a sermon.) Jesus used death on a cross as an illustration of what it meant to serve, rather than be served. As Frederick C. Grant wrote in his analysis of Mark when he was Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Seminary, “Mark…hardly assumed that all Christians must be crucified; the language is certainly figurative.”

In almost every one of today’s readings, right after Jesus says take up your cross, the next thing he says is that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Again this is figurative: as disciples, we must make the choice to lose our old life, our old self that wants to be served, so that we can find the new life, in which we serve others. That is how we take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

We are set free by participating with Jesus in this supreme act – set free from our slavery to our wanting, set free from our own desire to be served, and set free to love and serve the world, as we have always known God wants us to do.

Make no mistake, Jesus tells us – it’s difficult and it’s dangerous, this business of putting everyone else first. It will cost us our life, if not literally, then at least in the sense of losing our old self, losing our old idea of who we are. But, oh, the reward! To participate in the life and work and death and resurrection of Jesus – not as something that happened long ago and far away, but right here, right now, we can choose to participate in Jesus’ cross, and in his service. We can choose to follow Jesus – we are not captive to our own sinful ways. By taking the way of the cross, Jesus freed us from that captivity.

And that is good news indeed. That is a source of joy! That gives our lives meaning! That gives our lives holiness! That is something to celebrate! Shout Alleluia! Shou—

I’ll take it from here. Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia! Shout Alleluia!
Shout Amen!


Matthew 16.24-25: Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Matthew 10.38-39: ‘and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Mark 8.34-35: He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
Luke 9.23-24: Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’
Luke 14.27: ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’


I had a close encounter with a black bear after lunch one day when I was camping in the Smokies. I was reaching into the bed of the pickup, to move the food box and the cooler into the cab (to avoid bear problems!), when suddenly, from the other side of the truck, a bear leaped into the pickup bed, its nose a foot away from mine. Needless to say, my nose — and the rest of me — did not remain in proximity to the bear for very long at all. Moving to keep the truck between me and the bear, I called out, “Bear!” to alert my partner, Nancy, who was just down the hill a ways, near the tent. Actually, she reported later that it was more like shrieking than calling out. And that I repeated it numerous times. And with a great deal of emotion. The bear, meanwhile, was unimpressed. Astutely assessing the situation, it observed that I hadn’t yet completed my task of hiding the food box. It casually helped itself to a loaf of bread, and was on its way to the woods to eat it when Nancy arrived to see what the commotion was all about. As I was stuttering my explanation, the camp ranger from down the road arrived on the scene — apparently my volume level had been sufficient to get his attention as well. The ranger asked for a description of the bear. After I finished what I considered a perfectly adequate description — “Big! Black! With teeth! And claws!” — he gently coaxed more details out of me, then concluded that our bread had been stolen by “Round Ears”, whom he described as a small bear who frequented the camp, though usually at dusk. Small. Yeah, right. I had inspected that bear, albeit briefly, from much closer up than the ranger ever had, I was sure. But what I really found striking was that this monster had a name: Round Ears. Almost made him sound cute. Almost.

The Maturing of Truth

Although it’s now over 5 years old, I’m posting this sermon – my very first – for a couple of reasons. The immediate reason is so I can share some of the ideas in it with a friend in an online conversation we’re having. I had thought I would just link to it on the website of Northside Presbyterian Church, where I preached it, but it seems they have taken down most of the sermon archive, at least anything older than a year. Which leads to my second, perhaps vain, reason: I had expected it would always be there for people to read, or to find in search engines. Since it’s not, I suppose I’ll have to take care of my own immortality.

As is usually the case for junior assistant amateur preachers, I had my first preaching opportunity the Sunday after Easter (it was April 15, 2007), when most church pastors take some down time after the extended build-up through Lent and Holy Week to Good Friday and Easter. The standard Bible passage (“lectionary reading” in churchspeak) for that Sunday is the story of “Doubting” Thomas, the Disciple who insisted on seeing and touching the risen Jesus before he would believe that Jesus really had returned from the dead. (If you want to read it, it’s John 20:19-29.)

While I was somewhat contrarian in this sermon, I didn’t say anything particularly profound about Thomas and his doubt. But I still think the mytho-historical part – which starts about one-third of the way down – is, if not profound, at least thought-provoking.

Without further ado, here ’tis.

The Maturing of Truth

Poor Thomas! To be called Doubting Thomas down through the ages – when the last of his words reported by John are, “My Lord and my God!” What a heartfelt affirmation of belief! Y’know, the other disciples weren’t necessarily any more willing to take the Resurrection on faith. Our gospel reading today tells us, Jesus appeared out of nowhere in a closed room, greeted them, showed them His hands and His side… “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Having seen all that, they believed – they knew – that their understanding of what is True – their understanding of what is capital-T True – had just undergone a radical change.

Thomas wasn’t there at the time. Maybe he was still lost in grief. I mean, he was arguably the most devoted disciple.  In the Lazarus story, in the 11th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus said, “Let’s go back to Judea. Lazarus is dead. Let’s go to him.” Most of the disciples said, “What!? Just recently they tried to stone you there! And you want to go back? Master, are you nuts!?” Or words to that effect. At that time, it was Thomas who said, “Let us go with him. And let us die with him.”

So, this loyal follower, Thomas: his teacher and friend has just been arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. We don’t know for sure where Thomas was that first Easter evening. But it seems pretty reasonable to think that he was grieving.

Then his friends come and tell him Jesus isn’t dead. It probably seems like a heartless joke: “No, really, we saw him.” Thomas says, “Fine. When I also see him, I will also believe it.” And sure enough, when he has the same experience as the other disciples, in the same place a week later, he does believe.

Now, if I were Chuck*, I would probably tie this into a book that he recommended to me – and some of you have read too – Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. It’s based on some major 20th-century archaeological finds, and it tells us that there was quite a dispute between John – the writer of the fourth Gospel – and Thomas, who is portrayed there in a less than flattering light. I’m not saying John’s report isn’t the gospel truth. It’s just… well, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the relationship between the author and the subject when you read something. But – I’m not Chuck, so this sermon isn’t about Elaine Pagels or The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

No. The point I want to make is that Truth – capital-T Truth – evolves, or matures. … That’s not exactly it, of course. I think… without getting too deep into Plato, I think I can say that most of us agree that it’s in the nature of Truth that it doesn’t change. It’s our understanding of Truth that evolves and … matures. And I don’t mean that just for each individual. For humanity as a whole, the understanding of Truth matures and develops … though not every individual person experiences the exact same development at the exact same time.

Now, I want to set John’s gospel aside for a moment, and kind of tell our story in a more abstracted form. Leaving personalities out of it, the essence of the story of the divine and humanity goes like this. The title of the story is:

The Death of the Deity

The Deity – the Divine One – is seized, humbled, humiliated even – is taken by death – and descends into the underworld (hell, Hades, Sheol, whatever) – the land of the dead. The Divine One?? Dead?? How can this be? What will happen to us now?? Darkness covers the land. Time seems to stand still, as three times, the earth goes around. Nothing changes, nothing grows or develops. But then, just when it seems all is truly lost – a miracle! God returns from the dead! New life for the world! Rejoicing fills the air!

Now, let’s fill in the details of the story. The fertility goddess Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth… Oh, did I mention that this story takes place in ancient Sumer, about 5000 years ago? At least, the oldest known written form of the story – cuneiform on clay tablets – dates back that far. The story is probably much older. OK. The fertility goddess Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth, but not of the Underworld. The Queen of the Underworld, the realm of the dead, is Ereshkigal, Inanna’s sister, and Inanna decides to go visit her. The guardians at the 7 gates of the Underworld, acting on Queen Ereshkigal’s orders, make Inanna strip as she descends – one garment or piece of jewelry at each gate – because anyone, even the Queen of Heaven and Earth, must be naked, humbled, even crouched down to be admitted to Queen Ereshkigal’s presence. And then, as soon as the two meet? Ereshkigal kills Inanna, kills her with one look from her eyes of death; then hangs her body on a nail, where it proceeds to decay. Inanna is truly dead. In her absence – in the absence of the fertility goddess – the earth is barren. Nothing grows. As Queen, Inanna has sort of an executive assistant goddess, Ninshubur. When Inanna has been in the Underworld for three days, Ninshubur, fearing the worst, organizes a rescue mission. Keeping this long story short, suffice it to say that Inanna’s rotting corpse is recovered, she is restored to wholeness and life, and returns to her realm of Heaven and Earth, more powerful than ever. And, the Earth’s fertility is restored. New life for the world.

Or, how about the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, which dates back 3000 years or more, putting it between Inanna and Thomas. (Yes, I haven’t forgotten Thomas.) Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Persephone, also a goddess – a young-woman goddess –  is Demeter’s daughter. Sweet, innocent, virginal Persephone is out picking flowers with her friends. She gets just a little ways away from them, and BOOM! Hades, the god-king of the Underworld swoops in, his golden chariot drawn by black horses, and he snatches Persephone. Her screams are in vain as the earth opens up before them, and the chariot disappears into the Underworld, the land of the dead. Now – Hades is in love with Persephone, and he shows it in those peculiar ways that some men still show their love. He kidnaps her, rapes her, and marries her; he makes her his queen, and his prisoner. Meanwhile, Demeter, being a good Mom, wanders around for days, frantically trying to find her daughter. When she finally finds out what happened, she demands that Zeus order Persephone’s release. Zeus demurs. Demeter – goddess of fertility – withdraws her favor from the land, and the world becomes barren. After three years, Zeus relents. The best deal he can make with Hades, though, is that Persephone may only be with her mother for 9 months of each year. The other three months she must spend in the Underworld, as Hades’ Queen. During those three months, Demeter, grieving, brings cold and barrenness to the land again. When Persephone is restored to her mother each spring, Demeter makes the earth fertile once again. New life for the world.

Before I tell you what my point is, let me tell you what my point is not. I am not saying that the story of Jesus of Nazareth is just another Death of the Deity story. I don’t see it as derivative. And I certainly don’t hold with that cynical school of thought that trivializes Christianity by saying that Christianity expropriated the pagan stories and rituals as a way of getting the simple folk to go along.

What I am saying is that our understanding of Truth develops and matures, just as each of us individually, and all of us as humanity, develop and mature. It’s like kids. My younger daughter, Emily, is 7 years old. She’s inquisitive and bright and all, but her ability to comprehend capital-T Truth is of course more limited than her 25-year-old sister’s. And Christine, at 25, though she has a much more mature understanding of Truth, it’s still more limited than, say, that of my Mom’s daughter.

So with humanity as a whole. The Sumerian understanding of the relationship between God and humanity 50 centuries ago seems primitive, child-like, to us today. Greece 30 centuries ago may have had a more developed understanding of that relationship, but from here, we can see that it, too, is not fully mature. It’s not that they or the Sumerians had it wrong – or should I say, it’s not that we had it wrong 3000 or 5000 years ago. It’s the same God, the one and only God, revealing the same Truth to us. It’s we who have changed – we’ve matured into a species who can understand that one Truth in more sophisticated, more subtle, more complex ways.

You can see this progression, this maturing, in today’s scripture readings, too. Writing in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, today’s Psalmist’s understanding of God, and God’s relationship with him, and with his life and death, is more sophisticated than what we find in the Sumerian and Greek myths. It’s also a much more literal – less mature – understanding of these relationships than the disciples had post-Easter. The exact origins of Psalm 118 are not known for sure, but apparently, the Psalmist has just emerged victorious from a military battle that had looked hopeless. That – rather than the disciples’ or our understanding of Christ’s resurrection – surviving that battle is what he’s talking about when he says, “I shall not die, but I shall live…. The Lord…has not given me over to death.”  He’s telling us his understanding at that time of Truth, as God has showed it to him.

Now, I told you I’d get back to Thomas. The Doubting Thomas story is a snapshot of a moment in time – that week between when most of the disciples grew into their new belief, their new understanding of Truth, and when Thomas did. John may have had his reasons to portray Thomas’ slightly slower development as a character flaw. But the Lord didn’t put Thomas down for it – the Lord knew that Thomas’ faith just wasn’t mature enough yet to believe without seeing, and so, He gave Thomas the visible signs that Thomas needed. And, yes, He also gently admonished him to try to continue growing – maturing – in his faith, in his understanding of Truth.

And in Revelation, John of Patmos, within the limits of his own first-century understanding of Truth, John is trying to convey, trying to describe something that even we, in the oh-so-mature 21st century, can only comprehend the dim outline of. It’s like saying, “There’s no easy way to explain this. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

The obvious lesson for a bunch of liberals to try to draw from this is that we are more mature than those other folks, who just haven’t caught up yet in their personal growth. But that attitude is itself immature, like the kindergartner who calls the toddler a crybaby. If we want to follow Christ – and I do – “Follow me” was both the first and the last thing he said to his disciples according to John – if we want to follow Christ, we are called to follow his example in the Thomas story – reach out to people where they are; lovingly show them – in their terms, not ours – show them our understanding of Truth; and so help humanity to keep growing in faith. Amen.

*Chuck Booker-Hirsch was the pastor of Northside, the preacher for whom I was substituting.

Inside Out

I’m inside out
That explains everything

I’ve known for years
All my nerve endings
Are on the outside
Not in the inside
Where they belong
I feel so much
Too much sometimes
I know so much
Too much sometimes

All my strong, protective layers
I sent them down inside
A long time ago
To guard my heart
But suddenly now
I know
They’re not doing it any more
They’ve gone even deeper
I have no idea where they are
Damn. I’ve lost track of my strong, protective layers
Now what?

Andofcourse Everybody knows
My parts are inside out
Born that way
I could get them fixed
I could get fixed
But they’d still be inside out

My brain is inside-out too
I don’t think like other People
Sometimes I don’t see it
Whatever ‘it’ may be
Til someone gently
Takes me by the hand
And explains
Sometimes, though, I get there
Muchmuchmuchmuch faster
Than the Others
I know the shortcuts
Well, I take the shortcuts
To follow the shortcut
The back way, the secret passage
You can’t know, can’t do
Can’t even really go
You just
Be there
At the other end
Like the tortoise
Watching the hares arrive

Inside-out heart, though
That’s really complicated
Turn your brain
Inside out
To understand it
Pumping my body
My inside-out body
Through my blood
I am in my blood
I am of my blood
Oh yes, I have a heart
But I can’t depend on it
My heart depends on me