In the current Christian Century I review Zora Neale Hurston’s “new” book, Barracoon. It’s the record of her interviews with the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, a man whose English name was Cudjo Lewis and whose African name was Kossola. He tells Hurston about his ancestors, his abduction by the King of Dahomey […]

While Mary’s circumstances are unique, her restoration to respectability is part of a larger trend. The gold-hearted prostitute of legend fit in rather well with a long scholarly tradition that located the followers of Jesus and the first Christian communities in the underclass of the Roman world. Christianity thrived, historians once argued, among the oppressed: slaves, landless laborers, women and people with disabilities. Lately this image of a lumpenproletariat church has been dramatically gentrified.

There is an irony in the process of becoming a pastor. You start out with a heart full of simple faith, and you learn that most of what you think you know about the Bible or Christianity is different, or even just plain wrong. You start out wishing only to glorify God, and yet you learn gradually to take pride in your own gifts. Maybe you hardly thought about that sermon, but someone told you it was exactly what she needed to hear. Maybe it was a merely dutiful hospital visit to you, but you said something that made the old man weep tears of relief. You set out to be the least and the servant of all, and yet you end up comparing yourself with your colleagues, or demeaning the simple faith that brought you there.

I say all of this as someone who has been on every side of this very human struggle: offending, offended against, passive bystander, participant in a mob mentality. That’s human life. We are always being asked to hear, to judge, to act. And the way we do these things implicates us very deeply. It cuts to the heart of who we think we are. It is painful to cut off that part of us that cannot bear to be wrong. 

I’m excited to be visiting two Chicago churches in October to talk about Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance. First up will be Augustana Lutheran Church and Lutheran Campus Ministry in Hyde Park, a place that’s very important to me. The Wednesday night services in Lent brought me to worship for good, […]

When the great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote about the sacraments, he wrote about them as the way God gives us grace. “Now the gift of grace,” he wrote, “surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking in the divine nature.” This is a professional way of saying that grace is the gift we can’t get for ourselves because it is beyond our capability. It is the way we embrace the very nature of God. It is the way that the invisible, eternal Father comes to live inside of us, like a radioactive tracer that outlives our own flesh.

And it’s funny—it seems that no one can think about these words for more than a few minutes without turning them into a problem that has to be solved. What did Jesus mean? Was he referring to the meal his disciples shared, the sacrament of bread and wine? Or was he talking about eating and drinking as a metaphor for believing in him?

So Jesus lets you say no—to him and to each other. He invites his disciples to leave. He does this without blame or resentment. He doesn’t call out after the people who are leaving, “You’ll be sorry!” And if the twelve had walked away discouraged, he would have found new disciples. He would have raised up a body for himself in the world somehow. He will find a way to share his eternal life with this hungry, bleeding, sinful world. Someone, somehow, will answer.

It’s an amazing thought to me, after so many Sundays and festivals of watching or making it happen:

God and humanity are joined in Jesus Christ;

Jesus Christ is joined to the bread and wine;

and then when we eat the bread and drink the wine, Jesus Christ is joined to us.

God comes down to earth, and we are lifted up to heaven.

God stoops to enter under our roof, and we are raised up to our full stature in the vast temple of God’s kingdom.

All so that we would not be left without comfort. So that we would not be left to worship an absent Christ.

Now when a crowd shows up in ancient literature, it usually stands for human nature at its most basic and unimproved. The crowd is not very smart. The crowd is not very patient. The crowd is not very reasonable. The crowd is prone to fear. The crowd is fickle and impulsive. The crowd is like a child: when it hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and something to eat, it can become difficult.