The Most Explosive Thing There Could Be

Seven Stanzas for Easter

by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

It's Friday, But...

S.M. Lockridge's powerful sermon combined with footage from The Passion Of The Christ:

The Challenge of Jesus

N. T. Wright is an influential historian, scholar, churchman, and one of the most prolific writers (writing as both "N. T. Wright" and "Tom Wright") in the church today.

I love the way the man thinks and writes. I love the way he writes. I love the way he challenges my own thinking and introduces me to new ideas. His book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, is a good example of all the above. As the the book's title and jacket notes say, it is an exploration of who Jesus was and is, drawing on the author's "commitment to both historical scholarship and Christian ministry." He deftly fills in the necessary background information in the early chapters ("The Challenge of Studying Jesus," "The Challenge of the Kingdom," and "The Challenge of the Symbols") before launching into a portrait of Jesus that both confirms the central tenets of the historical faith and challenges the sloppy thinking, talking, praying, and practice of which many of us are guilty. His insights (and, to be fair, perhaps inferences) about the first-century Jewish mind, culture, and expectation in the book's central chapters ("The Crucified Messiah," "Jesus & God," and "The Challenge of Easter") alternately broaden, deepen, shatter, and shift the reader's understanding of who Jesus is, what he said and did, and what he calls us to be and say and do. His final chapters ("Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern World" and "The Light of the World") are beautiful, moving, and inspirational in presenting the Christian's multi-faceted commission to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.

As I usually do in an N. T. Wright book, I highlighted numerous passages, too many to mention here, but I will share just a few of my favorites:
“We believe the Bible, so we had better discover all the things in it to which our traditions, including our ‘protestant’ or ‘evangelical’ traditions, which have supposed themselves to be ‘biblical’ but are sometimes demonstrably not, have made us blind” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 17).  
“Bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it is a vocation. It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God. It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship--or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening, and God” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 183). 
“Do not despise the small but significant symbolic act” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 188).  
“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 196). 
The Challenge of Jesus did more than drive me to highlight and take notes. It drove me to the Bible, and ultimately closer to Jesus himself, "in wonder, love, and praise."

My 10 Favorite Moments as a Pastor

Pastoral ministry is filled with ups and downs. Sometimes the ups are mixed in with the downs, like when a funeral is both an emotional (if temporary) farewell and a celebration of a life lived for God and others. I have been blessed in pastoring four churches over the course of thirty-plus years of active ministry, to count far more ups than downs, far more blessings than disappointments. So I thought I’d take a few moments to try, hard as it will be, to recall my ten favorite moments as a pastor. The list will necessarily be far too short and exclude far too many great moments. And, relying as it does on a memory that grows more and more selective with every passing day, it will certainly be flawed from the beginning. But  following (as well as I can recall) are ten of my favorite moments as a pastor:  

  1. Dedicating my children AND grandchildren. What a joy it has been, over the last thirty-some years, to gratefully (and tearfully, every time) participate in dedicating first my own children, and then my children’s children, to the loving service of God. 
  2. Marrying my son to his wife. I barely got through the ceremony without becoming a blubbering mass of emotion...but I did. So blessed to join Aaron and Nina in marriage. 
  3. Taking my children to the Holy Land in 2001. It is impossible to describe the joy of hosting and teaching my teenage children in the land of Jesus, the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. 
  4. First Sunday in The Loft. In late 2008, I was overjoyed to lead the people of Cobblestone Community Church in occupying “The Loft,” our first Sunday in a permanent facility after eight years as a portable church.
  5. Barefoot Sunday. In 2010, I concluded a Thanksgiving Sunday sermon by challenging the
    church to donate their shoes--the shoes they wore to worship that day--to people around the world who don't have even one pair of shoes to wear. It was a day to remember, as shoes and boots piled up at the front of the auditorium, and many worshipers walked out of church barefoot. 
  6. Aaron singing Daughters. On Father’s Day a few years ago, I asked the worship team to punctuate my message with a rendition of the John Mayer song, Daughters. The worship pastor assigned the task to my son, and it couldn’t have been better.
  7. Pizza after church. For the four years of pastoring in Cincinnati and during our short sojourn in Youngstown, we often gathered after Sunday night service with a sterling group of friends for pizza and fellowship at our house. Those friendships endure to this day.
  8. Sons of Korah concert in The Loft. I had long been blessed by the Biblical-psalms-set-to-music ministry of the Australian group, Sons of Korah, when I learned that they would be coming to the U.S. It was a marvelous blessing to have this internationally-acclaimed group present a concert in The Loft. 
  9. The day a car was given away. In October 2010, I told the story in a message of a pastor and his wife who gave away nine cars in eighteen months, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of that story, I pointed to a young woman on the front row who had mentioned to me between first and second celebration how she really needed a car. So I pointed her out in the second celebration and told the church, “there's a young woman here who could really use a car if you have one to give away." Right after the celebration ended, my wife and I prayed with her and her mom for God to meet her needs, and less than three minutes after we said amen, a young couple who'd been sitting just a couple rows behind her in worship had given her a car!
  10. Hilary Watson at The Corner. A few years ago, while our church was still portable on Sundays, we hosted a Saturday night coffeehouse worship service, and the singer/songwriter Hilary Watson sang that night and the next morning in our middle school digs. But those moments at The Corner were extra special. 
That list could easily be expanded by a hundred or so, if I were to list the blessed weddings, dedications, and--yes--even funerals at which I've been honored to minister. But, as someone has said, "ain't nobody got time for that." 

Church of the Week: St. Ann's Church, Hamilton, OH

I had the opportunity last week to attend a family funeral at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church on Pleasant Avenue in Hamilton. It is a church I have passed many times, but have never been inside. 
St. Ann's parish was established in 1909. It began in the home of Mrs. Palidia Ruhl, which initially housed the church, a school, and the rectory. In 1936, the current structure was begun, and was used for the first time on Christmas Day, 1937. The church structure, of Indiana Limestone, was designed by Edward J. Schulte (1890-1975), a noted Cincinnati architect who also planned the remodeling of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in downtown Cincinnati.
One of the distinct personal touches was the floor lamp (above), which stood not far from where I sat. I'd like to know the story, but I assume it is lovingly provided for a parishioner who needs better light in his or her accustomed seat. If so, I like it; it seems to be a mark of a caring and attentive community of faith. 

Next Year in Jerusalem

The lovely Robin and I are so excited to announce the dates, itinerary, and cost of our March 2014 pilgrimage to the Holy Land (see the full brochure here)! Sure, it's a year away, but it's not at all too early to begin planning for such a life-changing experience.

There is no way to adequately describe the difference in perspective, appreciation, and understanding a person gets from discovering the land of Jesus, the apostles, prophets, and patriarchs. It is like the difference between reading about being born again...and BEING born again.

Words cannot describe what happens to your Bible reading, studying, and preaching once you have sailed the Sea of Galilee, and been baptized in the Jordan. Or prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and celebrated communion outside the Garden Tomb. Or taken an early morning journey starting at the Gihon Spring, in the City of David, and traversing the actual tunnel of Hezekiah (dug underneath the Ophel in Jerusalem about 701 B.C.) and ending up at the Pool of Siloam. Or the side trip Robin and I and a half dozen good friends took one morning in Jerusalem, when we took a cab to the village of Bethany, and walked the Palm Sunday route Jesus took from the traditional site of Lazarus’s tomb to the Temple Mount (see photo above). The topography and scenery of that three-mile walk will stay with me forever, and springs to my mind, of course, every time I read of Bethany or Palm Sunday or Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in my Bible.

You can't imagine the way Scripture and the past come alive after you have stood on the teaching steps of the Jerusalem Temple (on which Jesus’ feet undoubtedly trod, and where he would have sat to teach on many occasions) (see photo above).

And there's just no way to convey the depth and emotion of such statements as "Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:2) and "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion" (Psalm 125:1) and "the city of our God, the mountain of his holiness" (Psalm 48:1) until you've encountered such things in the very places the Biblical writers experienced them. It is, for me, an indescribably rich experience that is renewed every time I read such passages.

This trip will be even fuller than the previous four we've enjoyed. We will be spending more time than ever before (eleven days) and visiting places we have never yet been: Jacob’s Well, Samaria, Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, Emmaus, and the Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath (in addition to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, the Sea of Galilee, Jericho, Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered), Jerusalem, Caesarea, Capernaum, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo, and more)!

The brochure (click here) describes the high points of our tour, but it can’t even begin to capture all the memorable moments in this journey of a lifetime. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me here. If you want to reserve your spot right away (and get the best possible price with an $80 discount per traveler for registering by April 18), simply fill out the registration form on the brochure and send it (with your deposit) to me.

And, for those in the area, you can attend an informational coffee in our home at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, to answer questions, meet other travelers, and share the excitement. If you need directions, shoot me an email.

Messy Church

Ross Parsley, author of Messy Church: A Multigenerational Mission for God's Family, is currently lead Pastor of ONEChapel, a church he planted in Austin, Texas. Before that, however, he was a worship pastor and then interim pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the large church that survived the traumatic fall of senior pastor Ted Haggard and a tragic shooting thirteen months later that claimed two worshipers' lives and wounded two others.

Parsley's vision for the church is that of a messy extended family--a broken family and blended family (two of his chapter titles), but one that worships intergenerationally, loves, forgives, and perseveres. He clearly knows whereof he speaks, not only from the aftermath of cataclysmic change and terrible tragedy, but also from his experience in starting a new church that reflects his vision of a church as a messy family.

The most riveting passages in the book for me were his descriptions--always gracious, I'm glad to say--of his ministry at New Life in those turbulent months encompassing Pastor Ted's fall, the shooting, and the aftermath of both events. It was a true blessing to read of how the church and its leaders navigated through that treacherous period, even in the glare of media attention. But the most practical parts of the book, for those convinced of his premise, are the appendices, in which he offers "A Multigenerational Church Service Model" (comprising creeds, confession, communion, canon, and connection) and "Transitioning to a Family Worship Table Format." Those two appendices are probably worth the price of the book.

Parsley's book won't convince everyone, but it is a valuable addition to the conversation about what church out to be in our culture and age, and I recommend it.

Pastors as Counselors

David Powlison, writing on the CCEF (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation) blog, suggests that prayer is a great place to start biblical counseling.

Often I am asked, “Where should we start in bringing biblical counseling into our church?” I like to come at this question from an unusual angle—but one that builds directly on something that already happens in churches. I say, “Change the way you make prayer requests, and the way you pray for each other.” When prayer requests deal with matters of consequence, when we learn to pray for each other about the actual struggles of our souls, when prayer aligns with God’s deepest purposes, then we simultaneously are making a huge start at becoming alert, effective counselors. For example, the Bible’s prayers are rarely about health, travel mercies, finances, doing well on a test, finding a job, or the salvation of unsaved relatives. Of course, these are legitimate things to pray for, but they are a minor emphasis in Scripture. Even so, these topics typically dominate most church and small group prayer requests. They easily miss the real action of God’s dealings with his beloved people....

Read the rest here. It is excellent.

Church of the Week: Horizon Community Church, Cincinnati, OH

The lovely Robin and I traveled to Milford, Ohio (east of Cincinnati) this morning to join our friends Butch and Judi Reed for worship at Horizon Community Church, where my longtime friend and coauthor Josh McDowell was preaching.

From the the very first moments we were impressed. The church's new facility on Newtown Road (they had been a portable church previously, I was told), is awe-inspiring and welcoming.

The coffee service (an important doctrinal issue with me) included not only Seattle's Best coffee but also bagel pieces--including (on this St. Patrick's Day) green bagels!

We arrived while the 10 a.m. service was still in progress, and the overflow area around the fireplace (with headphones for listening and screens to watch) was in use.

We made it into the sanctuary as soon as possible. A talented and versatile band kicked off music five minutes before the service started. After someone gave a welcome and a few announcements, the band supported the "Change the World" series theme (starting this week) with a fine rendition of Clapton's Change the World. After that, the service was turned over to the speaker of the morning, Josh McDowell.

Josh (as always) held the crowd in thrall for something like fifty minutes, telling some of his personal story to great effect and effectively detailing some of the evidences for the deity of Jesus. The band returned to the stage for a final song and the service concluded with a brief reminder of the previous announcements.

Horizon Community Church is obviously a thriving, missional, exciting church in a fine location. I wouldn't hesitate to return or to recommend it to anyone.

Practical Prayer Tips from an Unexpected Source

What a blessing it was to read my friend Rick Hamlin's blog post, "6 Practical Prayer Tips from My Online Mentor," mentioning me and imagining that I have influenced his prayer life! What a kind deceit.

Read the whole thing here. It's wonderful. And not only because it mentions me. Mostly, but not only.

Living Jesus

Anyone wishing to follow Jesus must confront and apply the Sermon on the Mount, comprising chapters 5-7 of Matthew's Gospel. This is what Randy Harris (and coauthor Greg Taylor) seek to do in their recent book, Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount.

After a brief introduction that lays out the premise of the book and the importance of taking Jesus' words seriously, as imperatives for the authentic Christian life, the authors treat the Sermon on the Mount in twelve chapters. I loved the decision to begin the treatment of the text with the last six verses of the Sermon on the Mount, stressing Jesus' emphasis on actually building one's life on his words. Chapters two through twelve then expound on the themes of Jesus' sermon, such as his call to "deep integrity" (chapter 7) and to charitable judgment (chapter 11). Each chapter concludes with two helpful sections providing discussion questions appropriate for group study and practical actions to help the reader actually do what Jesus says.

My favorite parts of the book were the second chapter, titled "You Are Blessed," in which the authors emphasize the beauty of Jesus opening his discourse with blessings rather than commands, and (especially) the final chapter, describing the covenant community Harris has begun among college students who commit to "a rule of life" consisting of the Sermon on the Mount.

Living Jesus is a helpful, insightful study of the Sermon on the Mount, and a unique call to Christian discipleship.

10 Mistakes Teaching Pastors Need to Avoid

I must say a loud and vehement "Amen" to this article, 10 Mistakes Teaching Pastors Need to Avoid, by Tony Morgan, one of my favorite speakers and bloggers.

I must, however, add one small proviso regarding his last item. I think most of the time Powerpoint (or whatever presentation software you're using) gets in the way, and a single title slide (or no slide at all) would be the better option. BUT I think that is only true IF and UNTIL we preachers (including myself) learn to harness the power of the visual, the power of image, to increase the impact of what we say. That DOESN'T mean putting main points or Scripture readings on the screen. I'm talking about a more cinematic approach to speaking and preaching. Not mere illustration but sensory cooperation. It might mean, oh, I don't know, maybe if I'm giving a message on inviting a fresh move of the Spirit into my life a moving image on the screen(s) of a breeze gently blowing through trees or across fields of grain. Or (as I did a few years ago), when I read/recite a portion of Scripture from the Gospel of John, the screen(s) play the corresponding live-action scene from the motion picture, The Gospel of John.

Other than that small qualification, I couldn't more heartily agree or endorse Tony's points in the article, "10 Mistakes Teaching Pastors Need to Avoid." Read the whole thing.

Church of the Week: Bright Christian Church, Bright, IN

I had occasion to visit Bright Christian Church (great name, eh?) last week. It is named for the community of Bright, Indiana (and you thought it was a reference to the people's sunny disposition!).

I was there to speak to a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group that meets there monthly, and I arrived early enough to wander around a bit and see some of the well-kept faciity.

The children's ministry wing was lively, available (I assumed) for children of MOPS.

As a fan of bulletin boards, I was interested in the well-organized display of various ministries. Unfortunately, some spots were sparse or--worse--blank, an unforgivable sin in my book (okay, so I'm a little bit of Bulletin-Board-Nazi, but COME ON, if you've got a bulletin board, put SOMETHING on it! At least make the effort to make it LOOK like someone's getting something done!). End-of-rant.

The MOPS meeting was super-well-organized, included an excellent carry-in breakfast, and took place in a small auditorium of a perfect size for the purpose.

Over the years I've heard many good things about this church, which claims about 1,000 worshipers a week drawn from all over its mostly rural surroundings. My visit last week did nothing but confirm those impressions.

Hi, My Name is Bob. I'm an Overfunctioner.

Kevin Martineau recently confessed to being an "overfunctioner" on his excellent blog (one of a few dozen I check daily). He says, "An overfunctioner is someone who takes increasing amounts of responsibility for the functioning of one or more other people."

I know I am. But what are you?

Read the whole thing here.

Live Free

A whole lot of people live in the "If Onlys" and "What Ifs" of life. If only they didn't. What if they could live free of the guilt, regret, and bitterness of the past and enjoy joy, peace, and contentment in their present...and future?

That's what Kendra Smiley's book, Live Free: Eliminate the If Onlys and What Ifs of Life, is all about. She tells one gripping story after another of people who could have chosen to be frozen but instead were set free to be forgiving, prayerful, joyful, content, generous, hopeful dreamers. And Smiley details in biblical and practical terms how the reader can live in the same freedom.

The author's winsome, engaging, lighthearted personality comes through on every page, making Live Free a delight to read...and the kind of book you'll want to share with others.

Church of the Week: St. Cecilia Church, Oakley (Cincinnati), OH

 The lovely Robin and I visited a new church this past week, the beautiful and venerable St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church on Madison Road in Oakley (a Cincinnati suburb). We were there for a concert, which was featured briefly on my Hither & Yon blog. The Gothic structure was erected in 1928 and gives every indication of being home to a happily thriving congregation.

 The dual doors (and their elaborate brasswork) at the front entrance of the church are beautiful, as is the interior of the cruciform sanctuary (below).

The structure has been receiving quite a bit of restoration work in recent months, as stonework, stained glass windows, and roof have all received attention. Huge scaffolding is still in place at the rear of the sanctuary, but the work is apparently winding down, and is expected to be completed by Easter.

The pews couldn't have been less comfortable, but in every other way our visit to St. Cecilia's was warm and enjoyable.