Parting Words {The Challenge of Easter}

This shared experience has been a good one. Each author has given us something unique, and I have enjoyed the reading and the stretching. Thank you, all.

I keep coming back to the basic question: why the resurrection? When everything went haywire back in Eden, why didn’t God just send in a new species to start over from scratch (maybe in a hovering ship, V-like). Why are we even having this conversation when it would have been so easy for us to simply never have been, for everything to have ended just as swiftly as it began – concluding with only an Adam and an Eve and a sly snake and a great dream gone wildly wrong?

Apparently, there is something about the sheer presence of life (even life that may seem insignificant at the moment) that God is resolutely unwilling to abandon. I imagine God understood the consequences of allowing this story to play out the way it has (and this is where we could offer the long litany of human evils), but still – here we sit. God would not abandon, never. Rather, God would rescue.

In this telling, resurrection is not the last-ditch effort of a God frantically flinging his final hope at his venture careening out of control. Rather, resurrection is the inaugural salvo of God’s decisive endgame for the redemption of his original project. Resurrection is like Normandy. After D-day, it’s only a matter of time. One day, God will again call all of his creation good. Very good.

Given this, Jesus’ resurrection does not (contrary to many versions) primarily look backward, as if it’s main function is to serve as shock-and-awe proof that we better listen to what Jesus has to say (though we should listen to what Jesus has to say). Instead, Jesus’ resurrection mainly looks forward to all the resurrection that God intends to do all over the place. In my heart, and yours. On my street, and yours. In third-world red light districts and among nuclear arsenals and even – can we imagine it – on Wall Street.

Jesus’ resurrection is not so much the exclamation point but rather the new beginning. Jesus’ walking out of the tomb was like the opening line of a novel’s climactic scene or the first note of a symphony’s rousing crescendo. Resurrection is not just what God did in Jesus, but resurrection is the prototype for what God plans to do in us – and in every nook and cranny of his creation.

So, does it matter if resurrection is, well, real? Physical? It depends. We only need resurrection to go as much into life as our world has sunk into death. If Eden and all its beauties and bodies and joys and pleasures were truly, physically good – and if God really intends to call all that good again – then resurrection had best roll up its sleeves and (apologies to Olivia Newton John) get physical.

But maybe we fudge on this whole physical thing and opt for some disembodied hope because the straight forward version just seems too good to be true. Our longings hint that we are, as Wright said, “made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship – or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God.” However, our longings seem too fanciful, too dreamy, too childish, too mythical, just too much, way too much.

Maybe. Or maybe “too much” is exactly what God has in mind.

The Challenge of Easter {5}

Retaining and Forgiving Sins
{justin scott}
On this fifth Monday of Easter, our guide for the fifth chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Justin Scott. 

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N.T. Wright spends the final chapter of The Challenge of Easter on two topics: the implications of the Easter story in our day-to-day lives and the epistemology of love. As a young Christian with a science degree and an overgrown quarter-life identity crisis, both topics are of profound importance to me. But in the interest of time I’ve chosen to focus on the former.

My journey into what it means to live the gospel in one’s vocation began years ago with a nagging feeling that as a Christian, I am just not radical enough. I believe in a God who condemns my non-believing friends. I believe in his son, who said I should pluck out my eye if it causes me to sin. I believe in saints who died on crosses hung upside down for preaching about this God and his son. I have found myself awake at night trying to reconcile these things with my average, urban, American lifestyle. Why is it that most Christians seem called to pretty comfortable lives?

Many Christian teachers in my life have tackled this problem. The concoction of reformed Protestantism I grew up with went to great lengths to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular, to explain that all truth is God’s truth, to convince me that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever—which means doing my job and loving my neighbors as best I can to his glory. With this background I come to Wright’s challenges: to bring to the world the shape of the gospel, to set up sign posts which say there is a new way to be human, to find new ways to tell the story of redemption.

And lo and behold in the third paragraph of chapter five, Wright speaks directly to me about how these things might be done:

“If you work in information technology, [I do!] is your discipline slanted toward the will to power or the will to love? Does it exhibit the signs of technology for technology’s sake, of information as a means for the oppression of those who do not have access to it by those who do? Is it developing in the service of true relationships, true stewardship and even true worship, or it is it feeding and encouraging society in which everybody creates their own private, narcissistic, enclosed world?”

I will ignore what sounds like a swipe at the internet in that last sentence and say that I wish I felt that there are good answers to these questions for me, because it would mean a profession much more inspiring than the one I’m in. It’s hard not to feel that at some level Wright doesn’t get it. I design circuits for a living. These circuits and their purposes are not slanted toward power or love. Their technology does not oppress or free others. They do not encourage a closed or open society. It’s just not that glamorous.

I wish it was. I want desperately to be a part of something bigger—something that really does erect a proverbial billboard for forgiveness and redemption. I’ve written pages upon pages on my personal blog about this, which may be just the work of a guy in his roaring twenties trying to make sense of his idealism. The truth I keep coming back to is that for many of us, our professions do not lend easily to creating symbols of redemption. What then are we to do? How then should we live?

In all my years of asking many, many forms of this question, I’ve come to only one real conclusion (which many days I still find a lacking appeasement for my restless ambition): obedience. It’s summed up well in a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shared with me by this conversation’s first writer, Nathan Elmore:

“We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey—we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.”

If God calls me into some vocation which reflects the undercurrent of his redemption, it is he who must call me. It isn’t my job to determine the course; it’s my job to follow. My job to spend time with him, listening for his guidance. My job to serve those he brings into my life. My job to repent. My job to love and to serve. My job to make each decision he brings with an eye towards forgiveness and generosity. My job to obey.

Such ideas are not lost on Wright. In my favorite line of the chapter, he states: “The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms out-stretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God.”

Amen.

Justin is an engineer who plays the piano. He lives with his lovely wife Erin in Washington, DC, and struggles to make sense of it all at guessworktheory.com.

The Challenge of Easter {4}

The Light of the World

{miska collier}

On this fourth Monday of Easter, our guide for the fourth chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Miska Collier. You can read the series introduction or read more about our writers. And you can catch up on the first chapter discussion here; second here and the third here.

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Theology of Gender is a six week class I’ve led a number of times over the past eight years. I adore this topic, mostly because the redemption of my own femininity is a huge theme in my story. During our six weeks together, we look at Genesis 1-3 and discuss the creation of gender, the true design of the masculine and feminine, the Fall and the way the curses are still playing out in our hearts and lives. We close by talking about the journey of redemption and what it means to reclaim what has been lost.

I love sitting in Genesis 1 and 2 and talking about how God created this world—light and dark, stars, water, living plants and living creatures, the masculine and the feminine—and how all is as it should be. All of creation is living out its true design in a lovely harmony. There is beauty, wholeness, perfect intimacy. Adam and Eve were naked body and soul and were unashamed. No shame! Can you even imagine?

However, moving from Genesis 2 into Genesis 3 (the fall and the curse) is agonizing. A heaviness settles on us as we encounter the deep sorrow of loss, the fracturing of God’s great dream and of our very souls, and the separation (from God, each other, our world and even ourselves) that we wrestle with this very day, this very hour.

Chesterton wrote that “according to Christianity, we were indeed the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world.” Genesis 3 details that shipwreck, and we are silenced with the heart-breaking and poignant picture of God walking through the wreckage, uttering his cry of lament: “Adam, where are you?”

But we are not left with desolation. There is another picture we have now, thanks to the “unique, climactic, decisive” act of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It’s the picture of a different garden on “the first day of the week” (conjuring up images of “in the beginning”), and a woman named Mary who thinks she is talking to the gardener. . .which, in fact, she is. It is the resurrected Jesus, and something new, something cataclysmic, is taking place.

Wright says, “Just as in Genesis, so now in the new Genesis, the new creation, God breathes into human nostrils his own breath, and we become living stewards, looking after the garden, shaping God’s world as his obedient image-bearers.”

So our first garden–and the experience there—has been and is being redeemed.

And our new vocation, as Wright notes, is to bear the image of God in this world, which means participating in the “redemptive reshaping” of His creation.

And just how to we do this, you might wonder. Well, who can really say? It’s messy and mysterious and is, to borrow a phrase from another of my favorite theologians, a long obedience in the same direction. But the essence of bearing God’s image–and the high call of Christianity–is love, and Jesus is our teacher.

In the words of Thomas Merton: “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. . .Love is my name.”

Miska is married to the best man she knows (which just happens to be the owner of this blog) and is the mom of two crazy and winsome boys. She also serves as a spiritual director at All Souls C’ville. She’s a sucker for a good story, loves motherhood even though sometimes it makes her want to gouge her eyes out, and can consume vast quantities of Diet Coke and chocolate in a single bound. Miska blogs on a very irregular basis at forthesweetloveofgod.

The Challenge of Easter {3}

The Gospel Accounts

{john blase}

On this third Monday of Easter, our guide for the third chapter of The Challenge of Easter is John Blase. 

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Let’s go—much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard….
—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction—‘every step an arrival’.
~Denise Levertov – Overland to the Islands

Intently haphazard – Levertov’s phrase beautifully describes the dog out on a walk.  I believe it also gives us a winsome way to view those other hounds, those Gospel witnesses of the resurrection.  Wright says “As I read the Gospel accounts, I have a sense that they are saying, in effect, ‘I know this is extraordinary, but this is just how it was.’”  There is no intentional effort by the Gospel writers to turn evidence that demands some verdict; they proclaim “He’s alive!” and that was that.  And, the way I see it, they and the early church go from there intently haphazard… changing pace and approach but not direction… and so may we.

Wright encourages us to grasp the full significance of the bodily resurrection, that its not just life after death or Jesus is alive today, but that “Easter day was the birthday of God’s new world.”  I do not disagree, not one bit; however I just don’t know how to do that, grasp the full significance of something.  I seem leashed to a more day-by-day, scent-by-scent, sniffing out of what Easter fully means.  Does that hint at some doubt?  Possibly, but not necessarily.  It may hint at being overwhelmed by life’s redolence, not wanting to miss jot nor tittle.  My gut tells me Wright would allow room for such, but only as long as after a little while, I keep moving.

The chapter closes by highlighting Jesus’ word to those first witnesses – “peace be with you.”  I will not speak for you, but as for me and my thoughts, I routinely place “peace” in a somewhat military frame, bordered by cease-fires or swords into ploughshares or a chartreuse VW van from the 60s.  But with Wright’s reminder and Levertov’s imagery, I’d like to propose “peace”, at least the kind Jesus breathes on all of us shaggy disciples, as more of an invitation to a tail-wagging edgeways dance into the new creation, God’s new order, never disdaining anything along the way for each new walk is scented with possibility, but always moving, ever hope-filled, every step an arrivalintently haphazard.
Ready?  Let’s go.

John Blase lives with his wife and three kids in Colorado…there’s a Beagle too.  He edits the books of others by day and writes his own by night, sorta like Batman. John blogs regularly at the dirty shame, wears cowboy boots every day, and drinks his coffee close to the bone (black).

The Challenge of Easter {2}

Paul, the Resurrection and the Messianic Movement

{juli kalbaugh}


On this second Monday of Easter, our guide for the second chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Juli Kalbaugh. 
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Tell me baby
What’s your story –
Where you come from,
And where you wanna go…?
~Red Hot Chili Peppers

They seem to be everywhere.  The more I look, the more I find.  One on my chin – a dive into home plate.  One on my wrist – chickenpox in second grade.  Several on my legs – falling off my bike, falling in love, falling down… again.  A nice big one on my left knee – ACL torn and remade.  There are also ones that can’t be seen with the eyes.  Some are small.  Others aren’t easily hidden.  Some have a funny story or fond memory.  Others are bathed in shame.  Each one a mark, revealing a little bit of where I have been and who I am.  Signs that I have lived – here and now.  All of them telling a piece of a story – my story.

My mom used to tell me not to worry about some of the especially nasty scars. “They’ll be gone by the time you’re married,” she would assure me.  While I believe my mom had good intentions, I fear something gets missed by easily dismissing part of the story.  I also fear that we, as Christians, have this same sort of sentiment about heaven and earth.  “Don’t worry about it – everything that is here will be gone when you ‘get to heaven’.  It will all be erased and you will be rid of your body!”  It seems good at first glance.  I mean, of course I want to be healed and freed from the hurt and pain and awful things I experience in this life.  And yes, I believe that God can and will do that.  But if the answer is that everything is simply wiped out and heaven is someplace I escape to, away from all that I have known or been or done – then why the hell does anything matter now?

I fear that when we tell God’s story this way we are not telling all of the story.  Surely there must have been something more to Easter than simply an erasing of what has been, more than an escape from earth.  It must have been something that was big enough, deep enough, real enough for the first Christians to have it be, as Wright said, “the ground not only for [their] future hope but for their present work.”  This same reality must also have something to do with us here and with us now.  Perhaps if we take a closer look at Jesus’ resurrection we might be able to tell a bit about God’s heart for the world as well as something about our part in the story.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection reveals that this was not simply, and only, a “soul-saving” work.  Wright puts it another way in his book Surprised by Hope, “[The early Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.”  The whole cosmos.  All of creation.  Not just part of it.  All of it.  He’s not going to, and didn’t, only redeem the immaterial and spiritual – He has and is renewing the material, the corporeal, the dirty, dusty, messy, earthy stuff too.  He has and is redeeming me and you and all of the marks we have made on our selves and on each other and on this earth – both seen and unseen.

Jesus’ resurrected body holds both continuity and discontinuity with this world – it is similar but radically different.  His resurrected body still has evidence of the wounds and scars He received on earth.  It holds signs of the past –  signs of where He had been and what He had been through.  The resurrection didn’t just erase everything or pretend that it didn’t happen.  After the resurrection Jesus also continues to hold His identity.  The disciples knew who He was, but they also knew that something was drastically changed.  And, in His resurrected state, He continues His relationship with us.

Jesus’ resurrection tells His story – where He came from, who He was, who He is, and also reveals what is to come.  The resurrection is His life made new – not erased, not dismissed – but healed, and glorified, and most true.

Why does it matter that Jesus actually and physically rose from the dead?  Because the resurrection also tells our story – where we have been, what we have done, what has been done to us, and what is to come.  It acknowledges all of who we are.  It says: you – matter.  What you do – matters.  Your body – matters.  What you do to another person – matters.  The earth and how you treat it – matters.

“The present life of the church, in other words, is not about ‘soul-making,’ the attempt to produce or train disembodied beings for a future disembodied life.  It is about working with fully human beings who will be re-embodied at the last, after the model of the Messiah,” says Wright.  So, when Jesus tells us to care for the sick, feed the poor, plant trees, sing songs, paint a picture, restore a house, say you’re sorry – He’s not just telling us to do them so we’ve got something to keep us busy we wait “to go to heaven.”  No, in fact, the Bible says heaven is coming to earth and it started with the resurrection of Jesus. He tells us to do those things because we are invited to be a part of His redemptive work on earth.  It’s because it matters – here.  It matters – now.  It’s because we are a part of the story.  We are a part of building God’s kingdom and what we do matters both now and later.  This is why Paul is able to say, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  Because what we do and who we are – matters.

So, tell me, baby… what’s your story?  Where have you been?  And where are you going?

Juli and her husband Corey currently live in Charlottesville, VA where she is a resident visual artist at Skylight Studios. Juli will attend Duke Divinity School this fall and hopes to invite people to wrestle through questions about God and issues of theology as viewed through the lens of the arts, the senses, and the imagination.Juli loves nooks and crannies, cheeseburgers, and 80s music. You can keep up with her at EveningSoultide or see more of her art at JuliKalbaugh.com.

The Challenge of Easter {1}

The Question of Jesus’ Resurrection

{nathan f. elmore}


On this first Monday of Easter, our guide for the first chapter of The Challenge of Easter is Nathan Elmore.
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N.T. Wright most likely prefers soccer to baseball, his national pastime to ours. Nonetheless, on the traditional Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, it seems destined that we should begin our conversation surrounding his book, The Challenge of Easter, with a baseball story.

On a crisp, sunny Saturday in March, Camden, my eight-year-old son, joined over 500 Richmond Little League (RLL) players in reciting the Little League pledge. RLL’s annual Opening Day ceremony in Byrd Park – which includes each team from each skill level sprinting onto the immaculately manicured dirt and grass, a performance of the national anthem, and candy bars, ring-pops and grilled hot dogs for sale – was pitch-perfect Americana.

The only patriotism left, in fact, was for Glenn Beck to toss out the ceremonial first pitch with a copy of his latest book tucked under his arm and for Justin Bieber to sing “God Bless America” without a shirt.

The Little League pledge begins with four words that, given this Easter season, should actually make every Little Leaguer (not to mention their parents) pee their pants: “I trust in God.” Hearing this simple recitation made for a religiously surreal moment, to be honest, and it reminded me of Donald Miller’s slyly provocative statement in Blue Like Jazz: “It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything.”

As a father, I could imagine the gap between Camden’s mouthing of those four words to start his baseball season and what the seasons of his life will have to say about whether he will practically believe and utter those words – in the world. Likewise, the three triumphant words of Easter’s season – “He is risen” – open a similar gap for the Christ-follower between affirming a meaningful truth and authentically and wholly surrendering to the truth’s meaning – in the world.

Wright asks, so why did Christianity arise? And he begins the answer by saying: “The early Christians themselves reply: we exist because of Jesus’ resurrection.” As I read this, however, I could feel the painful disjointedness of my own existence despite the renewed joints of Jesus.

Wright then traverses a bit through what he calls “false trails” leading away from the tomb. Here, my favorite Wright-ism, in response to the recycled charge of Jesus’ non-death, was his almost blithe quip: “As has been shown often enough, the Romans knew how to kill people.” Indeed.

Rather seriously, Wright goes on to marshal “two scholars who do not appear to believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection” to remind us that “Christianity began very soon after [Jesus’] death and began as precisely a resurrection-movement.” I appreciated Ed Sanders’ vague but poetic description of the disciples carrying on the “logic” of Jesus’ work in “a transformed situation” even as I mused on Jesus’ words in John 14:12: “…greater works than these will [the one who believes in me] do, because I am going to the Father.”

Suddenly (and this is the anecdotal, coincidental truth), as I typed the above words, a blind instructor from the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired, walked into Stir Crazy Café, a neighborhood coffee shop where I’ve been known to perch. The instructor was teaching another blind man how to navigate the café. (Before you jump to any fantastical conclusions, no, I was not able to pull a “greater work” and heal the man. Besides, if I had, I certainly would’ve tweeted about it. God only knows if the tweet would’ve trended higher than Beck or Bieber.)

Seeing this obviously humble navigation – with my own eyes! – was, in the moment, a remarkable kind of grace. It pushed my nose further out of Wright’s book – into the world. It sent my spirit deeper into Wright’s not-new-but-profoundly-new-considering-the-stripe-of-evangelicalism-I-grew-up-with assertion: that the kingdom of God did not mean for the early Christians “a new personal or spiritual experience, rather a Jewish-style movement designed to establish the rule of God in the world.”

Download Luke 4. You know, where Jesus is handed the Isaiah scroll in the Nazareth synagogue and spellbindingly announces: “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind.” “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Back in the Richmond coffee shop, of course, this established rule of God comes into direct conflict – literally –with my eyes. Watching the blind student’s walking stick go tap-tap on the floor in search of the coffee shop door, well, how could that not become intellectually and spiritually disturbing? In the moment I wanted to beg the heavens for more kingdom come, for God to resurrect this man’s blindness – like he raised to life Jesus’ body – “in the middle of the present age,” as Wright says. If only that 21st century man could open the damn door, walk out and see.

Right about now, it shouldn’t be very hard to reflect on our own desperately penetrating questions: our exile, our not-yet fulfillment, our agonizing un-renewal. No doubt these questions are our human way of tap-tapping at the door of heaven, with a walking stick. However, at least one thing seems strikingly clear after absorbing Wright’s opening chapter: a “spiritual resurrection” could not inspire the kind of hope needed to face our most earnest questions – in the world.

In the world, then, Mahmood and I sat quietly in a smoke-filled Lebanese restaurant and discussed the parables of Jesus. On this night, Mahmood, a Muslim pre-med student at Virginia Commonwealth University, was distracted by an upcoming presentation on the subject of ancient healing. He told me he was also distracted – intellectually and spiritually – by the healing miracles of Jesus.

Somehow we ventured into the story – detailed in John 9 – where Jesus’ disciples, upon beholding “a man blind from birth,” inquired into the origins of the man’s blindness, supposing it to be a matter of personal or generational sin. Jesus’ response, as you might recall, was morally and theologically incisive: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus then concocted a mud ointment, which he applied to the blind man’s eyes, telling him to wash in a pool. And the rest of the story is all sight.

While the actual miracle is very compelling (for any number of reasons), at the end of the day Mahmood was mesmerized by Jesus’ transcendent answer: “…that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I responded: “It’s quite an answer, isn’t it?”

Having entered the explicit Christian joy that is Eastertide, I can’t help but pray: for my friend, Mahmood, in the middle of Islam; for my son, Camden, in the middle of American-styled civic religion; for that blind man in the coffee shop, in the middle of his physical disability; and for that other “blind man” who’s watching him with good eyes, in the middle of his everyday cup of coffee. Do they really know that Jesus’ God-forsaken death has culminated in his bodily resurrection that the work of God might be displayed – in the world?

Hope was and is a body, a person. Surely the great rising up of everything dead had/has begun.

No wonder Wright remarks, toward the end of the chapter: “[The early church] busily set about redesigning their whole worldview around this new fixed point.” It was as if they believed the new age had dawned in the middle of the present age. And, after all, it is so cumbersome to believe anything.

Nathan F. Elmore lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he pastors, writes and mantains an affinity for the word artisanal.