This God and No Other

Josh Applegate

If we want to know what God is like, there are good places to look. In Genesis, we discover God is Creator, God is life. From Exodus, we discover God as deliverer, sustainer, the One Who Never Abandons. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God is absolute holiness, the bewildering gift assuring us that divine love is never capricious and divine justice unquenchable. In the prophets, we discover that God moves toward the oppressed. In the wisdom books, we discover God as intimately concerned about human flourishing. Page after page, there are endless revelations, none of which fatigue the cosmic reality of God.

If you want to know what God is like, we might also be wise to explore Creation. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist tells us. We discover much about God by contemplating, by enjoying with wide-eyed wonder and reverence, God’s handiwork. How better to know an artist than to ponder her art? How better to get into the imagination of a novelist than to read his stories? The heavens, with the skies and the mountains and the creatures and the rivers, proclaim to us the wonder of God.

And we could talk about friendship and love and desire and beauty. There are a million ways to discover God in this God-drenched world.

However, if we truly want to know what God is like, we go first to God’s fullest revelation: Jesus. When God wanted to provide us God’s decisive self-expression, God gave us Jesus. And to know what Jesus is like (what God is like), we must reckon with Jesus’ cataclysmic moment. We must reckon with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

God is none other than the God who gladly, though enduring great agony and grief, surrenders his own life to rescue another. God is the one who takes upon himself all the violence the powers of this world, both religious and political, can dish up. God is the one committed to healing the evil of the one driving the nails as well as the evil of the one enraged to vengeance. God is the one who refuses to answer his accusers, allowing the Cross – and then the Resurrection – to speak the final word. God is the one who refused to call the angel-warriors, surely poised with flaming sabers, to his defense. God is the one who spoke words of tenderness, even while gasping for breath, to the precious few huddled around his naked, heaving body. God is the one who cried out words of crushing sorrow and abandonment precisely because he refused to abandon his friends or his enemies. God is one who loves to the bitter end.

God is the one who died not only for his few beleaguered friends but for the very ones who hung him on this crucible of death. God is the one who in his broken body extinguished every pretense of human righteousness, human justice, every human dream for self-reclamation. When we encounter perfect love, we murder it; and God is the one who knows this acutely. God is the one who came to finally, irrevocably and at great cost, do something about the delusions we don’t even know we have. God is the one who came to do the final task of love, to die. God, in Jesus, is the one who, in some great mystery we cannot fathom (and God help us when we think we’ve got it) showed up, took our abuse and our ridicule, and in that one astounding reversal “died for our sins” – that haunting phrase.

This is the God we worship, and no other. The God who hangs on a cross of brutal death. The God who descends into the fullness of our agony and annihilation. The God who would rather die than let us die. The God who went into the bowels of hell and came out the Victor. The God who went into death, for us, and now proclaims life into every dead and ruined person and place. Whatever vision we have of God, it must begin here.

Donuts and Resurrection

Our church has an Easter tradition. After affirming with zest (multiple times): Allelulia! Christ is Risen! and after our raucous music and after recounting how the angel appeared like lightning and scared the holy bejeezers out of the Roman guard and after hearing that preposterous, heart-swelling story where Jesus tossed the dead man’s clothes and strolled out of the tomb and after gathering around the table of Resurrected Jesus to feast on mercy — after all that, we eat donuts. Piping hot, organic apple cider donuts from the Carpe Donut man. We invite all the neighbors to join us, and we go hog-wild. We’ve done this every year since our church began. Is there any better way to say Jesus is Alive and the party’s just getting started than locking down on a hot apple cider donut?

Only this year, as I was making my way over to the donut truck, I received a text: The donut machine needs a resurrection. Jesus is alive, but apparently the devil is still alive and well too – because through some mishap, the donut fryer was deader than a doornail. Let me tell you how big a downer it is, after the Easter high, to go down the long line of folks, all bright-eyed and brimming with Easter joy, and tell them the promise of donuts has been rescinded. Of course, we all survived. Easter’s bigger than donuts. Way bigger.

Even after encountering again the Ultimate Story, we move back into the world-as-it-is, where donut fryers go caput, where marriages waver, where hopes flicker, where friendships go sour, where doctors deliver dreaded news, where Syrian children and Coptic children die awful deaths. Easter doesn’t tell us that our troubles are no more. Easter tells us that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us out of all the deaths we know. So we keep walking, on Easter Monday just as we did on Easter Sunday. We keep walking into the love and the fury because we now know how this story ends.

Moved to Wonder

whirl-of-a-night

In those chaotic hours on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, two friends (Peter and John) raced, schoolyard-stye, to the tomb. After arriving breathless and after taking in all there was (and wasn’t) to see, they stood dumbfounded, mouth agape, like two boys who’d just seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat or a glamorous assistant disappear inside a small box. And though we’re told that John “believed,” we don’t know exactly what he believed because the Scriptures indicate that the whole brood of disciples were still very much out of sorts, baffled as they’d ever been (which is saying something). Luke tells us that Peter walked home in a stupor, thunderstruck by every remarkable thing he could not understand.

It’s striking, then, how Easter often becomes the day when we haul out our heftiest apologetic guns, overwhelming folks with our rapid-fire arsenal of logical rationale for the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection. Look, I believe it, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. I think Jesus, once a corpse, walked out of that tomb better than new. And I believe Jesus’ resurrection cuts to the heart of everything God intends to do in this world, the very heart of the Good News. I think resurrection matters not only because one man rose from the dead but because of the promise that, through Jesus’ triumph, the whole of creation will one day shake of its grave clothes to shine brilliant and new.

Yet resurrection, with all the hope and possibility it summons, ignites awe and wonder – not a mad dash for sharp pencils and calculators or a whiteboard where we can sketch vast theorems. If we have the fact of the resurrection, but we have none of the bewilderment or the astonishment, none of the unbridled joy at the sheer fantastic lunacy of the whole thing – I wonder if we’ve really got the resurrection at all.

This is not only about the event of resurrection, of course, but about our entire faith. “It is not the task of Christianity,” says Kallistos Ware, “to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” If there is nothing in our faith that drops the jaw, that moves us to inexplicable laughter, that unravels our sense of things…If our vision of God never hurls us to our knees or gooses us in sheer pleasure — we should return to the old stories and hear them again.

Dear John ~ 28 March 2016

Dear John,

Well, we made it. Easter’s here. I’ve always appreciated the fact that while Lent’s 40 days, Easter’s 50. I like how we’re supposed to party even longer than it took to prepare for the party. In the Kingdom of God, the feasting alway trumps the fasting. I don’t know why some sourpusses want to live in Lentville all year round. Good grief. I cut back a few things during Lent, and it felt right, good even. But I’ll do as I’m told and happily snag a few extra joys this Easter. I’ve been saving Mary Karr’s 2nd and 3rd memoirs (Cherry and Lit) – looking forward to them. If my ankle holds out, I’m gonna give a go at my first half-marathon on Saturday, been prepping for a long while now. Maybe that one’s not exactly a joy, but the sense of accomplishment if I can pull it off will be a thrill, for sure.

My heart was heavy for you this weekend, as soon as I heard that your friend Jim Harrison died. A punch in the gut. I was just writing to you about Jim this time last week. Lots of writers fancy themselves unique, but then there’s a few rare bodies like Jim who just go out and flat live, rub life raw, down to the bone. I know you’ll give us some sort of eulogy at some point, and I look forward to it. I thank you for introducing me to Jim. It’s not lost on me that he died right before Easter Sunday, especially since I read him say in a couple places how Resurrection was the spiritual belief he found most credible. I’m sure you’ve seen how he amused himself with this bit, lines evidencing how much he loved this world and all its creatures:

In the forty days in the wilderness Jesus
took along a stray dog from town. When
they got back home Jesus told the dog he
had to go off to Jerusalem to get crucified.
Jesus stored the dog in his tomb and after
he himself was brought there they
ascended into heaven together.

In honor of Harrison, it seems a good time to mention something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and it’s bugging me. I’ve noticed this idea circulating yet again (seems to go viral every couple years), insisting how essential it is for a communicator (writer, preacher, teacher, etc.) to summarize all you’re trying to say in your sermon or your book in a single concise sentence. Can you believe such a thing? I can’t even summarize this letter in a sentence – nor would I want to. I couldn’t capture our friendship with a sentence, most certainly couldn’t capture my life with Miska within a short quip. It would take more than a string of syllables to touch the wonder I felt watching the full moon cast its glow over Carter’s Mountain last week or the depth of what I want to tell my sons regarding all the hopes I hold for them. Can you imagine asking Updike or Mother Theresa to boil it down to a sentence? I’d LOVE to hear the blue streak Harrison would have unleashed if a publisher had the gall to suggest such a thing. If all we need’s a sentence, what’s the point with the rest of it? 

I’m all for being clear as we’re able, all for slashing the fluff. But sometimes I think we may just edit every ounce of wonder right out of this lovely world of ours. All that to say, our life’s bigger than every attempt to button it up with a single anything. The work you’re offering (me too) is far bigger than this. Let’s keep at it.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

 

P.S. I loved hearing about the friends you used to pastor who gave their son the middle name “Blase.” That’s a gift indeed, makes up for a lot of crappy days, doesn’t it? I would tell you about some friends I used to pastor who a few years ago gave their son the first name “Collier,” but then that might come across as one-upping and that wouldn’t be very Christian of me. These moments make a man’s heart, glad, though, yes they do. 

Dear John ~ 24 March 2016

Dear John,

So Easter’s coming Sunday. You probably remember enough from your pastor-years to recall how this is a pretty big day. I love seeing all the joy and laughter, some folks stepping it up a little with their Sunday clothes and all the kids wired for the candy they’ve had or the candy they know’s coming their way. The sun’s typically bright, the dogwoods and the daffodils showing off. The music has extra oomph. It’s a grand day.

But I also know it’s an important day because this story we’ll be telling, this moment where we remember that Jesus rose from the dead and kicked evil to the curb – this day is pretty much the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? St. Paul seemed to know a thing or two, and he said that if Jesus didn’t raise up from the dead, then we’re all in a major heap of doo-doo. I tend to think everything in Jesus’ life pointed to this climactic moment when he sloughed off those grave clothes and walked back into this world he loves, this world he’d literally gone to hell to salvage. Some folks think that Jesus got a resurrection because he had to have a cross, but I think Jesus got a cross because he had to have a resurrection. What do you think about that? I don’t know, maybe that’s parsing truths that don’t need parsing. I know this though – what I most need, what most everyone I know needs, is a resurrection. I think most of us live fully aware of the death rattle; we’re just wondering if the story’s really true. We’re wondering if Life and Love really do win in the end.

But here’s my problem, John – I’ve been pondering my sermon for a mess of days now, and I’ve got nothing. Nada. At the moment, my heart feels flat as a pancake. Dry. Dull. Dead. Maybe that’s right, for now. My pastoral workweek calendar says I’m supposed to have a sermon prepared by 5 p.m., but my soul knows that first comes an evening where Jesus shares what must have been a very lonely meal with his disciples, clueless as they were to how he was pointing toward death. First comes a Friday we’ve named Good, though it’s the strangest good I know. Today, I’m leaning toward resurrection, but my soul knows there’s the valley of the shadow of death to walk through between here and there. Why can’t the story of God’s salvation of the cosmos fit into my nicely arranged to-do list?

I’ll tell you this: I do hope some worthwhile words present themselves to me before Sunday. The folks with whom I’ll gather to announce Resurrection are kind and generous, and most will put up with me and my bumbling ways. But still, I would like to have something helpful to share. Every hope I have is bound up in this Jesus who put death in a chokehold and refused to let go. I’d like to do it justice, if I’m able. 

So all that to say – light another candle for me. And if you get some flash of inspiration and want to write a sermon to pass my way, I’m all ears. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Shalom. Now and Always.

Countryside Milky Way

In John’s gospel, each time Jesus encounters his friends and disciples during the wild days immediately after his resurrection, he pronounces a new reality, a blessing: Peace to you. Jesus does not speak these words in tepid piety, clinging desperately to a hope that peace might one day arrive. Rather, Jesus stands bold and strong, a Man drenched in victory. When you have descended into the depths of Hades and delivered a piercing, fatal blow to death itself, I suppose you are done with the niceties, disinterested in vague spiritual platitudes. You must speak the unadorned truth. Peace.

For us, the word peace can carry too docile a tone. As you know, peace emerges from the Hebrew word shalom which evokes well-being, an end of hostilities, the world made right. Shalom does not suggest (for it would be insanity if it did) that there is no such thing as violence, isolation, relational rubble, economic devastation or systemic injustice. Rather, shalom (whenever declared by Jesus and enacted by Jesus’ community through the Spirit) announces that the order of the world, because of Jesus’ Triumph, has met its match.

In those first post-resurrection days, Jesus did not suggest to the disciples that their life, hard-scrabble as it was, would soon all turn up tulips and lilies. Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, surely inflicting confusion and anxiety. Soon enough, Jesus’ teaching about the persecution and hardships his followers would endure became the disciples’ reality. Yet Jesus declared shalom. Shalom in the midst of (not escape from) the world as it actually was, in desperate need of God’s transformation.

Shalom does not mean we deny all that lies shattered around us. Neither does it mean we escape into some internal privatized spirituality, not knowing how else to make sense of the harsh discontinuity between God’s shalom and our ruins. Rather, shalom means that God stands bold and strong in the dead center of our weary lives and speaks the reality – that God is with us, that God will not leave us, that one day the story will come to God’s good end.

Shalom means we can join with St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

God Comes as Bread

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread

Last Wednesday was one of my days to be at the University of Virginia, and I parked on the opposite side of Grounds from where I typically park (it’s Grounds here, not campus. We’re persnickety about these things). My return route to my unusual parking spot meant that I walked past the 24 hour Dunkin’ Donuts. In general, Dunkin’ is not an establishment I frequent. On any normal day, I’d stride by without a thought. However, inspiration hit, and I thought I could score dad-of-the-year points by surprising the family with after dinner treats. I popped into the shop and walked out with a bag carrying 2 chocolate covered donuts with sprinkles, 2 blueberry donuts and one reduced fat blueberry muffin.

To review: I parked in a spot I never park on Wednesdays which meant I walked a route I never walk on Wednesdays which meant I strolled past the donut shop that I never enter on a day that I shouldn’t have even been near. Yet there I was holding a bag of donuts that never should have been. Got it?

When I arrived home, I unloaded my gear. As I hung my keys on the hook by the door, I heard Wyatt upstairs talking while Miska prepared dinner. Apparently Wyatt had harangued Miska into letting him tinker with her iphone, and Wyatt was in the middle of a conversation. “Siri,” he said earnestly, “please bring me donuts.”

Can you imagine the shock on his face (and mine) when, seconds later, I walked into the kitchen carrying the bag I was not supposed to have?

I do not care to turn this story hokey by making some appeal to providence. Sometimes, donuts just happen. I will say that I may or may not have grabbed the phone after everyone was in bed and secretively asked Siri for a best-selling novel and for Clemson to win a National Championship.

Dumbfounded by this moment, however, I’ve found myself struck by the gospel reading and the prayer the lectionary offers us this week. John’s gospel reminds us that after his resurrection, Jesus cooked fish over the charcoal fire for his friends. Then, in a reprise of their Last Supper, Jesus broke bread for them and fed them. There are many powerful ways Jesus could have chosen to share himself, and yet, as the prayer says, he chose to reveal himself in the breaking of bread. Jesus gave us bread that nourishes the body and heals the hunger — and this was not bread whole but bread broken.

Then with this broken bread that would sate our ravenous longings, Jesus said, “This is love. Eat and be full.”

I know many people in my sphere who are desperate for love today, desperate to be full, desperate for wholeness and healing. Gandhi said that some people are so hungry that God can only come to them as bread. The good news is that if bread (or love or joy or belonging or hope or friendship – or even donuts, I guess) is what you need, then God in Christ comes to you as exactly that. I pray you will find your bread today, and I pray you will eat to your heart’s and to your belly’s content.

Rust Gets a Shine

When we moved to Charlottesville, we hoped for an old house in an old neighborhood. We didn&#39t want a fixer-upper (anyone who knows me knows what a disaster that would launch), but we wanted something with scuffs in the wood floors and a couple good creaking spots in the staircase and a grand front door with a large stained-glass window gathering the sunlight and streaming the rainbow shafts into the foyer where, in warm months, we&#39d welcome all our friends with glasses of wine and Miska&#39s yummy hors d&#39oeuvres. We hoped for a yard with green grass, grass that had reached into that plot of soil so long and deep that it owned the place. We were simply guests. We wanted trees with kid&#39s names from numerous decades scratched into the bark, trees with sturdy barrel-sized branches to undergird the fort we&#39d build for the boys.

Unfortunately, our dream outstretched our pocket book, and for some odd reason the bank wanted to hand us a loan they thought we could actually repay. We do love the house that&#39s become home. Still, we have flashing fancies of living in something old, something old that is – with love and care and joy – made new again and again.

When I was a kid, I mocked the so-called rust belt cities. I believed them to be used up and burnt out. I was ignorant. Now those very places, like Detroit, Pittsburg and Cincinnati, fascinate me. I gobble up their stories. I&#39m eager for all the signs of renewal. They say that in some Detroit neighborhoods, you could buy up a block for the price of a single dwelling in a major East Coast town. My, wouldn&#39t that be fun – the chance to grab a few friends and resuscitate an entire city block.

This instinct, to breathe new life into old and discarded things, is an expression of Easter hope. Resurrection does not announce a creation ex nihilo. Something out of nothing happened once, at the origins of our cosmos. Ever since, creation always comes from something, out of something. Jesus’ body came back to life – he wasn&#39t granted a new one. Still evidencing the scars from his wounds, Jesus’ body, his old tissue and his old bones, were made perfectly new. This is how God breaks resurrection loose everywhere. God&#39s New Creation, inaugurated in Jesus, takes ramshackle villages and ramshackle stories, tired words and tired souls, limp hopes and limp hearts – it takes all those things that are used up and rusted out and announces: Rise up. Live.

Easter Light

We have stepped into the bright land of Resurrection. Whether we feel it or not, Resurrection has come. Easter is not our annual occasion for turning a naive eye away from the truth, all the while humming and smiling and refusing to stare reality in the face. Easter is the season where we yield to the Story that begins to make sense of all this madness, all this glory, all these dreams and disappointments that are forever colliding, forever giving us existential whiplash.

Easter doesn’t deny death or ruin. Easter says that death is so powerful, such an enemy, that God entered the fray. God still enters the fray. Easter tells us there is reason for joy. Easter reminds us that while we certainly have reasons for tears, we also have much reason for laughter. Easter insists that we refuse despair, we kick cynicism to the curb, we pick up our saggy bones and dance.

With Easter, we have an invitation to come out into the bright light, to believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can (and will) raise every kind of thing from the dead.

Undone

Yesterday, I was undone. It was Sunday. Resurrection Day. But Resurrection was a long way away. My heart was dark and shifty and felt like it was drowning, being held under swirling, grimy water by an unrelenting, evil hand.

But we sat among friends. I heard the Gospel reading from the lectionary for the day. Miska led us in a contemplative prayer, helping us to “image” our prayer rather than “word” our prayer. We sang this refrain: “Oh, how he loves us.” Tears came as I realized I don’t really believe that line. I believe it factually. I believe it theologically. I would pick that answer on a test. But I don’t believe it, not in my gut, not in the places that matter most. But the words kept coming, from the screen, from the voices all around me. And I cried.

And then we passed the peace. In our church, we hug or shake hands (usually hug) and say something like “Peace to you” or “Peace of Jesus to you.” One and then two and three and four and five people came to me – Miska first. Only Miska knew where my heart was, but each physically offered Jesus to me…in a touch…with their voice. And the tears came again.

Next, I was supposed to teach. From John 11. The story of Lazarus’ death and Mary and Martha’s deep agony and disillusionment because Jesus refused to come when they had pleaded with him to do so. This is a strange story of bewilderment and disappointment and a God who doesn’t do what we expect. A God who lets Lazarus die. Who allows Mary to weep. A God who grows angry and then weeps himself. And a God who, when all is said and done, truly was (as he said) “the resurrection and the life.”

I was a mess. My story is no story of spiritual victory. Just spiritual brokenness. The Gospel (through friends and text and music and touch and sacrament) broke through, spoke to me, breathed hope into me. But I was still undone, still wounded, still wondering. My choice was whether or not I would give from that place. Whether I would weep and tell the truth. Or whether I would lie.

Thankfully, God didn’t really give me a choice. I stood, and the tears came. It was pretty humbling, but if church truly is community…If God truly is center stage…Then what we bring to the moment should really just be ourselves, hoping for the Gospel, desperate for Jesus. God wasn’t going to let me wiggle free yesterday. When you’re standing in front of your church blubbering, it’s pretty hard to hide or pretend or tell a cutesy story and move on. Left to myself, I might have chosen a safer, more dishonest path. But God wasn’t going to have it.

Resurrection only comes in ways God chooses. For Lazarus. For us.

I don’t entirely like these words that follow. But I’m beginning to believe them. I’m beginning to hope God will give me the courage to let loose of myself (my reputation, my leadership, my image) and embrace them:

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. Henri Nouwen

Jesus’ peace to you,
Winn