The Incarnation in Suffering

Epiphany is over. Eastern Orthodox Christmas was yesterday. And now, even peace and goodwill to humanity seem quaint memories, long abandoned. After the violence and political unrest over the last couple of days, I have decided to post an entry from my recently published Advent journal in its entirety. I need to refocus my heart to see Jesus more clearly. From Immanuel:When God Was One of Us, what follows is December 15, “The Incarnation in Suffering.” Be kind and gentle with all you meet. The Lord is near.

For more information on this devotional, please go to https://www.amazon.com/Immanuel-When-God-Was-One/dp/0578728060/ref=nodl_

December 15

The Incarnation in Suffering

There is irony in Luke’s account of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds with their choral message of peace and good news. When the divine touched down on earth to save it, there was no immediate eradication of sin, violence or injustice. Instead, they seemed to be exacerbated. The darkness did not understand this peasant girl’s “bastard,” new-born son was the eternal light, the light of the world, for the world.

There is a grave irony in this child entering the world of the Pax Romana. The great Roman peace would eventually be unwilling to protect him, and would be culpable for his execution. Even shortly before his birth, Rome could not maintain the peace of its citizens in the outlying Jewish districts.

The birth of Jesus gripped King Herod the Great with fear. Here, in this helpless baby from Galilean parents, was a threat like no other he had experienced in his political career. The prophecies, though intangible, heightened his paranoia. Having already done away with his wife and numerous other family members, Herod met his problems head on.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted,

because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Why would God introduce his Son into the world in such a way? Why should there be the slaughter of innocents succeeding glad tidings of peace to all humanity? A mother who watched as her toddler is impaled, and flung to the side, would have a difficult time hearing the angelic herald:

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among

those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)

Still, today, the world reels with the pain and confusion of suffering and injustice. It is often the innocent who suffer. As we suffer, or watch others suffer, we question why God doesn’t intervene. We doubt his love, his justice, or his ability to protect us from the evil of the imperfect world in which we are trapped. This isn’t the first time in the text that other innocents have perished for the sake of the deliverer. As the Israelites cried out to Jehovah for salvation from the Egyptian bondage, God answers their cries. However, he answers them much later, four hundred years later than they expected, and not before hundreds of enslaved baby boys were left exposed to die, or be impaled, strangled, or dumped into the Nile River. With the death of Christ, the One died for the many. At the birth of Moses and Jesus, however, many died for the one.

It is like this today. Empires, and powers-that-be, will always engage in acts of self-preserving violence. At some point, the government or empire that God has ordained, will step out to be a god itself. Invariably, if questioned, power will react with oppression or violence. Empire claims God until God is the enemy. When power is threatened, ego lashes out in ugly ways. Public service lasts only until God himself is perceived as the threatening enemy. Empire acts from self-preservation, fear and bondage to absolute power. God always acts out of freedom and with love. It is not God who slaughters for the sake of his messenger, but empire.

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. (Matthew 2:3)

Can we, in the twenty-first century, imagine in the United States of America or in other powerful, democratic Western nations, a tyrant’s paranoia and fear infecting an entire city? Would an entire nation of people succumb to fear and bigotry simply at the prospect of someone or something destroying their way of life, their global prestige? Nations and empires have always been in the business of excluding others, frequently through dishonorable, or even violent, means. Yet God is determined to include us all: Magi and Jewish scholars, small town peasants and turncoat peddlers, sixth generation church members and struggling immigrants barely getting by.

The good news for us today, whether we are in the United States or modern-day Egypt, France or Uzbekistan, is that we do not have to make sense of fragile but powerful egos, nor monolithic political systems and religions. Matthew’s gospel tells us that some misguided but gentle wise men came from the East to meet a new king. Some historians believe them to be of the early monotheistic Zoroastrians. The crazed Herod, part Jewish, part Gentile sell-out to the Roman empire, offered little moral guidance. There is no proof which indicates the “right” religions are based on superior morality alone. If morality was the world’s salvation, we could all pick our favorite moral system, and the world could certainly be a better place. Only God is good, however. No, Jesus did not invade legal systems and political regimes in order to make us moral. He came to obliterate death and to elongate the bridge over sin and to unite us back with God.

So, there is no violence that will end our suffering. There is no oppression which will broker peace. We might be able to bandy about terms like “peace keepers,” “preemptive strikes,” “casualties of war,” or worse, “collateral damage,” in order to desensitize ourselves to the fact that we are bowing down to the idol of stability and empire. We might say the ends don’t always justify the means. Novelist Min Jin Lee, rather, says sins can’t be “laundered by good results.” Dirty is dirty, and our world of empire with some God poured on top has grown filthy.

Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, shows us the uncomfortable side of Christmas. After we wait through Advent, we are shocked when it isn’t all sweet and joyful. Much of Advent deals in oppression and injustice, and even death. For when the divine intersects with a hurting, blinded world, there will always be adverse reactions. Let us live, then, sighted, for a different world.

Christ came as Immanuel to embrace humanity. He came to be like us, so that God could re-create us like him. Christ did not come to topple tyrants and dictators. We are still left to live in the midst of them—for now. Rather, he came to walk about with us, work in our cubicle, be treated unjustly and to demonstrate acceptance in unforgiving, unaccepting regimes that insist on maintaining a firm grip on their power. Jesus came to demonstrate love, and to reveal the truth of his eternally established kingdom.

The story of Jesus’ birth goes from bad to worse, but Immanuel did not intersect the divine with the human for such shadowy reasons. Jesus meets us at the worst of times and ushers in a new way of being and a new way of waiting. Instead, Matthew insists that this is God’s story, and that regardless of how it appears now, he is the One for whom we are waiting. It is his Advent that gathers us about the evening candles, and they are his promises we cling to when the world seems overcome with the brutality and fear of empire.

***

Just and righteous God,

Although our empires cry out for violence, we long to live in the goodness of your peace. Instead of lashing out in fear, grant us patience that your righteousness will prevail. Grant us tolerance and compassion in this time of suspicion and intolerance. We pray for the Magi around us that you will protect their journey and that you will work through us to be channels of Christmas grace and peace for those who seek you. Give us courage to stand against imperial power, knowing that all truth is your truth, and all power belongs to you, oh good God!

Amen.

Bread

Can you smell it? The flour, the butter, the yeast? My husband and I were proud of ourselves for successfully baking this bread yesterday. It was buttery, crusty, chewy, and aromatic. It was all things a bread should be. And we ate it lustily with bowls of bean and lentil soup. All the kudos for this wonderful peasant bread goes to Alexandra Cooks where we pulled the recipe offline. Although I love cooking, (usually beginning with making a paste or sautéing garlic, onion, peppers, etc) I don’t have that much baking experience, especially baking bread, but this was easy. And it turned out gorgeous. It is easy to see from these photos why this crispy, flaky crust and cushiony center could be the epitome of homeyness, nourishment, and comfort for much of the world.

Baking bread seems to have been a popular pastime these last several months for many during quarantine. As we reflect back on 2020, what will stand out in our memory of the year? Searching for toilet paper? Binge watching Netflix? Better dinner conversation with family?

“Give us this day, our daily bread.”

It is not difficult to to understand why Jesus would equate himself with such a basic necessity. Nor is it hard to see how we might conjure up warm, happy feelings of nourishment and safety, acceptance and provision and savory pleasure when we hear him proclaim,

“Yes, I am the bread of life.” John 6:48 (NLT)

Bread, fresh from the oven, butter melting in rivulets down a thick slice. Bread, long awaited, as it slowly rises.

Bread, his body we hold in our hand, as we take it into our mouths. We, as His body, accept it as we wait again for him.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” John 6:51 (NLT)

Isn’t it extraordinary that Jesus would choose for us to participate fully at his table? We are not only guests, but also active members preparing the feast. The bread and the wine do not appear magically, mystically, but come from seed and vine, tended by human hands. Threshed, sifted, pressed, fermented, baked, waiting, waiting until the Lord appears with us. He is always present, but we are the ones who bring the bread, and he shows himself to be among us.

Like the boy by the Sеа оf Galilee whom Andrew led to Jesus, we also bring the staple of life. The boy turned his contribution in to God, a plain lunch, but in the hands of the Manna from heaven, a sacramental mystery. Was it with more pride or astonishment that he watched as Jesus fed thousands of people with his familiar food? Did he think it tasted unusual that day?

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people…And they all ate as much as they wanted. John 6:11

This bread was broken yesterday at home within our family and eaten with soup. It could only have been better had you been present. Once we emerge from COVID limitations and social distancing, you are invited to join us. We will break bread, give thanks to God, and hopefully, eat as much as we want.

I have only now noticed that my last several posts have been about bread, and specifically about the food of the Eucharist. I can only explain this unnoticed perseveration by saying that I believe the Holy Spirit has been trying to speak and teach me things regarding food and drink and holiness and communion. Pray with me that we hear, then listen.

Making Room – book quotes

“People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition… Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.”

-Christine D. Pohl in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, p. 62

The year 2020 will be long remembered. It will be known as the year of the pandemic, contentious politics and race relations, as well as the year of deepening isolation for many. Yet as believers in a God who is unconditionally faithful and perpetually active, we are confident He is using even the chaos of the year’s events toward his own good. This isn’t to say he caused the pandemic, or the social unrest, but nothing is hopeless while under his gaze. And be assured, he sees all. And cares.

I have used this year to curate carefully what I have been reading. More than any other time in my life, I am choosing books that will encourage personal growth, while allowing me to appreciate the good, true and beautiful. My most recent read is Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (1999) by Christine D. Pohl.

“Strangers without resources need more than the minimal food, clothing, and shelter that might come through institutional provision. They need friendships and opportunities to contribute their gifts to a community.” p. 92

My deep prayer is that, as followers of Jesus, we will tire of a mindset of fear and exclusion and remember Christ’s constant warm welcome to others. My prayer is that I will begin leaving marginal space for those politically different, linguistically strange, culturally other, and instead, see each person both individually unique and collectively as a Christ-before-me. What a vastly different year 2021 could be if we put others’ needs before our own! What could we create in our communities if we were grateful for the commonality of our humanness?

“Overcoming strangeness is necessary when our responses are personal and when strangers are welcomed into personal, valued places.” p. 93

Here I offer just a couple more quotes pulled from this book. I am not taking the time right now to write a review. Honestly, I don’t quite feel up to it yet. However, I do highly recommend the book for encouragement in thinking more broadly and generously particularly toward the poor, the disabled, the immigrant and refugee.

Making Room swiftly corrects the definition of hospitality taking us back to its original embodiment – a love and care for the stranger and the other. Christine Pohl, a professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, has carefully researched and interviewed Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical contemporary charities involved directly in long-term hospitality efforts. These groups are specifically working with immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and the disabled.

“…the experience of having been a stranger, or of being a vulnerable person on the margins of society, is often connected with offering hospitality. When hospitality involves more than entertaining family and friends…we often find hosts who see themselves in some way as marginal to the larger society.” pp. 104-105

Pohl gives definition to the long-cherished Christian tradition of hospitality, as well as challenges the reader to see oneself as servant, partner, co-laborer, and not merely charitable worker or minister.

“We offer hospitality within the context of knowing Jesus as both our greater host and our potential guest. The grace we experience in receiving Jesus’ welcome energizes our hospitality, while it undermines our pride and self-righteousness. The possibility of welcoming Christ as our guest strengthens our kindness and fortitude in responding to strangers.” pp. 105-106

Below is a short reading list on loving our neighbors , broadening our understanding of hospitality, snd serving others. The following books range from light, inspirational reads, to practical, community challenges, to more academic approaches on the topic.

What books might you add to the list? What is your definition of hospitality? Could intentionally practicing hospitality soften our isolated, twenty-first century hearts?

Immanuel: When God Was One of Us

Although I grew up celebrating Christmas, it was not until recently that my family and I began to observe Advent more in earnest. During the last several years, we began reading through the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament throughout the month of December. Our church annually held candlelight Christmas Eve services. We bought our own wreath with pink, lavender and white candles. We struggled year to year to find a devotional that seemed right for us.

I was eager to write down my own thoughts around the profound gospel message of Advent and Christmas. While my kids worked on math or grammar at the kitchen table during our home school year, I stole fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, delving into Scripture and the unfathomable idea that God would love us so much that he would become human.

This idea of incarnation from a God who loves us and longs deeply for us seems rich with meaning and significance far beyond the scope of one holiday season. It has been a spiritually rewarding experience to attempt to articulate the implications of God being one of us. In living a small, specific life, Jesus shows us he understands, he loves, he walks alongside us. There is so much comfort and challenge in that!

Immanuel: When God Was One Us is available through Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions. I pray it may be a help during these times of chaos and stress and distraction.

from the Preface:

Christmas is a favorite time of year for many people, and for many, it is the most stressful or depressing. My desire is that this book may be an encouragement to both. In acknowledging both the joy and anguish of the season, we honor our dependence on God in a genuine way. It is my hope that this daily devotional will help quiet and focus our minds and hearts to celebrate and worship the Savior who came down to be one of us….In whatever way you participate, I pray you experience the truth of his presence, and eagerly await with me his final Advent.

For more information, please go to

www.amazon.com/April-Bumgardner/e/B08GX3Q9N5?ref_=pe_1724030_132998060

Arianna’s birthday

This was Labor Day weekend. More than grilled hamburgers or hotdogs, more than backyard games or time off work, I hope you shared moments with people you love. I hope this past weekend you were able to enjoy beautiful weather, but even more I hope you were able to breathe slowly and exhale in gratefulness.

This weekend was also Arianna’s twenty-fourth birthday. She is the eldest daughter of some wonderful people we know. Arianna is sweet-spirited, compassionate, strong in her faith, organized and dependable. We had lunch at the family’s home and I had decided to make a cake for her. Her brother has been on a gluten free diet for several years now, but I found a good recipe using almond flour. It would have been an excellent cake, but I was hesitant about using cooking spray on the cake pans, not knowing if it was a good gluten free option. Here is the birthday cake.

Happy Birthday?

I attempted to frost the first broken layer thinking I could sort of spackle it back together. It obviously didn’t work. In the end, we brought ice cream and ate it scrambled.

No one really seemed concerned. The cake still tasted good. More importantly, however, these are people full of grace. They care about being together more than whether everyone has it all together or not. We all need those people in our lives, don’t we? Some days (or maybe most days) I feel like this cake. A big mess. Scrambled. Certainly not anything I would want unfamiliar people to see.

Jesus is like that too. Full of grace. More likely to be concerned about us spending our time together with him than about us having it all together. He knows we don’t anyway. Some things we bring to him and we can see their beauty. A kind word in an interrupted day. Something sacrificed out of love. Others look like this cake. Impatient words. Petty attitudes from pride. Jesus sees them all through his heart of grace.

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32

I hope the next time I bake a gluten free cake I will do a better job. Maybe I will just use the baking spray. It is reassuring to know, however, that I was able to bring what I had and it was good. It was made good by the company. What is it that Jesus does with our contributions? How much better is he able to use a scrambled life! Our efforts are made good by his graciousness.

And, by the way, I also brought a small, round bakery cake beautifully decorated with white chocolate curls. But that had nothing to do with me.

Happy Birthday, Arianna!

A connecting bridge or a dividing wall

Last week my husband took some vacation time from work, and although we didn’t travel, we spent more time outdoors with our guys. One day we hiked at Turkey Run State Park in central Indiana. Now, if your image of Indiana is of cornfields, you are imagining something accurately. However, if it is exclusively of cornfields, you might be surprised by the lushness and other-worldliness of this picture.


It is our favorite place in Indiana. I have a sense that a hobbit hole is around the corner or a pointed elfin ear will emerge above a rock.

Here stands one of the largest species of trees in Indiana. The solidness of this growing thing is always so humbling and impressive to me. This giant American Sycamore reaches her massive arms heavenward recognizing her dependence on the Creator. It is a sure reminder of how much I rely on God’s graciousness. It is a specific embodiment of so many of the psalms that describe trees growing strong “planted by streams of water,” (Psalm 1:3) or even the gentle reminder that “all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96:12)

As our path narrowed and followed closely alongside Sugar Creek, the red slats of this bridge built in 1883 caught our eye. We backtracked a bit in order to get a better view of it downstream. We usually cross the suspension bridge at the beginning of our hikes here. It was interesting walking across this one as well. I thought about different times in my life when I have been a connecting bridge. I have a history of connecting different types of people together. This is a good thing and sometimes a lonely thing. Many of you may understand this. If you are often bridging the gap between groups, it may mean you never fully belong to any one place. The bridge is not on any one side of the creek but straddles it.

I thought about how the apostle Paul describes Christ. Not as our bridge exactly, but as our reconciler, our peace, the one through whom we have access to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18) And we are not only reconciled to God, but also to one another. Bridging any distance, foreignness, and animosity, Jesus brings us closer to one another.

Lately, however, I feel I have pushed people away, not brought them near. I have fought hard against it. I feel I have unintentionally added bricks on to that “dividing wall of hostility.” It is a sobering thought. If Christ destroyed the wall, why do we continue to put up barriers? Walls and bridges can both be lonely things, but I would rather sit back and admire the role I play in connecting rather than dividing.

“In the breaking of the bread”

This is my final post on my thoughts from Luke 24:1-35. With a simple meal, surprisingly hosted by Jesus, we read how the gospel story ties those of us in the modern world to antiquity, as well as to eternity. Christ is with the disciples who were traveling on to Emmaus after his crucifixion and resurrection. Hurt and scared, discouraged and uncertain, the disciples are struggling for meaning in these new events.

They came near the village where they were going, and he gave the impression that he was going farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

It was as he reclined at the table with them that he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?” That very hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and those with them gathered together, who said, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then they began to describe what had happened on the road and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:28-35, CSB)

Bread and wine, photo taken by my son A.

For whatever reason the disciples did not recognize Jesus. Was his post-resurrection body so much sturdier? Was it altered like an old friend appearing after ten years clean shaven when he had previously worn a beard? Did they see him from some new perspective? Did the Holy Spirit simply prevent them from recognizing him immediately?

As they walked along with him, he trained them in preaching the gospel. They spoke of the facts and events that led to their grief. They shared their past joys and aspirations. They did not get the ending right. They just didn’t understand. Not yet. But Jesus, patient, loving, author of their stories, gently corrects them.

Can you imagine having the experience of retelling the gospel story to God? How did it help them improve it the next time they told it? And the next?

Jesus deepened their understanding using Scripture, that is the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. He spoke authoritatively but also endearingly, for they did not want him to leave. His message “burned in their hearts.” Did it ignite in them because of its beauty, or its truth, or both?

The Christ appeared to them as a hitchhiker along a country road, but soon they accepted him as their host. It was not until they sat down to a meal together that they knew who he was. When he broke the bread they saw him. Finally, as he picked up the loaf of bread – and broke it -(had they previously witnessed the miracle with the five thousand?) they saw Jesus, their Lord and Friend. Was it sight given by the Holy Spirit? Was it the ordinariness of the daily bread that helped them to connect the dots? How many times must they have relived that moment in their minds and through their stories to others! Would we ever stop retelling such a story? Do we ever tire of encountering his presence in the breaking of the bread? Do we recognize him there? Whether we partake daily, weekly, monthly, do we ever have enough of his presence?

Tucked away in a quiet room at a small meal, Jesus’ once-broken body broke the emblem of his body and shared it with those who would soon also be referred to as “the body of Christ.” Is it any wonder this is the moment his identity and the gospel became clear to them?

If we look around our ordinary homes, churches, lives, we see ordinary people. It might be easy to see the Eucharist or communion as just a ritual. We eat bread or a cracker and drink juice or wine bought at a grocery store. It seems too ordinary to have real meaning. Do we recognize Jesus with us? He is here. In the bread, in the brother and sister next to us, in, and through, and among us. If we do this every Sunday will we recognize that Jesus is real and present and powerfully with us, among us in the breaking of the bread?

He is here.

***

After jotting down these thoughts, a song I have not recently sung has floated back into my mind with its beauty and mystery. And now I realize it retells this part of the gospel story in a much more beautiful way. I invite you to read or sing the words with me. Simply follow the link.

Come Share the Lord.

But we were hoping

Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

– opening stanza of poem by Emily Dickinson

“Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23, CSB)

In my last post we imagined what it might have been like for the women visiting Jesus’ grave early in the morning. Before the world was turned upside down, when death still held irreversible sway, the angels proclaimed a disquieting message. “He is not here.”

Sometime later that day, two different friends, traveling a country road, quietly conversed and struggled through all the “what-could-have-beens.”

Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus himself came near and began to walk along with them. But they were prevented from recognizing him. Then he asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged.

The one named Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked them.

So they said to him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they cruciifed him. But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24:13-21)

These followers shared loyalty to the Nazarene. Had one of them been healed by Jesus? What did that matter now since he had been executed? Were they awaiting the retaking of Jerusalem, the Roman dispersion? Could a prophet be defeated? Did they belong anywhere anymore? How to make sense of a world in which your hopes had been utterly destroyed?

“But we were hoping…”

We all have disappointments, either personal or collective, either recent or suppressed deep in our past, that have shaken us and our beliefs. On that road to Emmaus, Jesus’ friends were devastated and lacking in confidence. At this point in the narrative they grappled with what to do. Not only had the Passover ended, but their plans for a new future. I wonder how you feel this morning? this evening? Have we lost hope? With so much brokenness and disillusionment around us it is difficult to see where that country road might lead. Obviously things are not happening as we might have expected. The way seems discouraging and we quietly talk with one another (or is it resentfully) about how things were supposed to be different.

Have we forgotten the promises of Jesus, that he will always be with us? Are we tempted to throw away the narrative in exchange for a harsher, grittier, more jaded one? Or can we stick with him to allow the Christ to redefine for us what it means to “redeem Israel?”

Unemployment, COVID, sickness, spiritual and social isolation, political strife, racially-based and economically-based injustices. Our world is hurting and desperate for hope. How could Jesus redeem our situation?

Can we hope in something we don’t understand? We may not be able to retell the story’s climax or predict the resolution, but the reason for our hope has been told to us once before. Two friends on the road to Emmaus held on to a ragged hope. We don’t understand where we are in our story, but we hold firmly onto the one in whom we have placed our hope, our confession, our beautiful inheritance.

Lord, you are my portion

and my cup of blessing;

you hold my future.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6)

He is not here.

Sundays look and feel different right now for our family. If you have maintained the habit of attending church, I bet they do for you or your family as well. Even if you are physically back meeting together, there are surely fewer people present. The attendees are spaced further apart. People may be wearing masks; you may forego congregational singing or even the partaking of the Eucharist or communion. While some of us balk at tradition and habit, most of us, admittedly or not, lean on it as a stabilizing force in our lives. Particularly when it relies so heavily on relationships.

Our family has been meeting in homes on Sundays. We alternate with a few families hosting. It is not the same. We miss so many people, but it provides us with the fellowship and encouragement we would otherwise be lacking.

This past Sunday we read Luke 24. We read about Jesus’ followers grieving his brutal death on the cusp of the marvelous discovery of his resurrection. As a reader, I know what happens on that early Sunday morning, but as a character in a narrative, I am like one of the disciples confused, grieving, misinformed and misunderstood. I find some strange comfort in these stories of wounding and pain. We called out three phrases in the text from Luke 24:1-35.

“He is not here.” (Luke 24:8, CSB)

“But we were hoping…” (Luke 24:21)

“…he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)

I would like to write some notes on each of these phrases from the text. I might spread them out across three blog posts. I hope you’ll stay with me. If you are hurting and lonely, too, you will find comfort in these stories along with his presence.

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” asked the men. “He is not here, but he has risen! Remember how he spoke to you when he was still in Galilee, saying, ‘It is necessary that the Son of Man be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and rise on the third day’?” And they remembered his words. (Luke 24:5-8)

These women, to whom the angels appeared at the tomb of Jesus, were only trying to show respect and express their honest grief. They had cared for him, financially supported him, and had been spiritually and physically healed by him. They were not being illogical in showing up to the tomb. The man had died, had been buried. They were returning to the place they had left the body. Only it wasn’t there.

When Jesus was twelve years old visiting Jerusalem at Passover, Mary and Joseph looked in the wrong place, too. (Luke 2:41-50) He was not in the caravan returning to Galilee with family or friends, but in the synagogue “in his Father’s house.”

“He is not here. He is not here.” After each uncle or cousin denied knowing where the adolescent Jesus was, Mary must have panicked. How could you lose God?

Where am I searching for him? Am I making the wrong assumptions about where he needs to be? Of course God is everywhere, but is he moving me in ways I cannot see? Am I at the tomb when he has already resurrected?

What are we grieving right now? Sickness and death? Loss of friendships or relationships? Have we buried dreams we thought could never be realized? Jesus’ death was gut-wrenching, but it opened up possibilities to so much more.

“He is not here.”

The grieving women were being reasonable and logical in making heir way to the tomb, arms laden with spices. Jesus had died; he had been buried, so that’s where they expected him. But God is not reasonable or logical; he is extravagant. He is gracious.

In his extravagance he sends out messengers to tell us, “He is not here.” And with our arms laden with our unnecessary burdens we earnestly search for him.

Public Discourse

For those of you who have experienced Christians as hateful, tight-fisted, paranoid, selfish, self-serving, power hungry or callous, I express regret. Here I am referring to politics and to comments on the internet. I am talking about the conversation you overheard in line to buy your coffee, and the relative at the last family event. I hope this impression has never come from me, or the people with whom I am closely connected. If it has, however, I am sorry. Please allow me time to reflect on that and to make the difficult but appropriate changes.

This is not the Christ we follow. Sometimes people professing his name miss the mark or get it wrong. Always, Jesus is better than the people who serve him. This is what we want to be able to do – look to him and model his example of love and service. I know we fail. Our full intention, however is genuinely to emulate him.

We recognize that many of you who are not Christians, or are not religious, are also striving to attain to the ideals you believe in. We know you fail at times, like we do, but we also see diverse people working together to create goodness for thriving communities. I am so grateful when this happens. Please know the hateful speech and the bitter accusations do not reflect the Christ we love.