From Death to Life

You’ve got to give yourself to something in order to truly experience it. You can’t know the deep ocean waters unless you dive in – not even the BBC’s Planet Earth (good as it is) allows you to taste the salty sea or get that short panicky sensation when a high wave envelops you in crashing, rushing, drowning torrents.

For weeks, we’ve remembered death, via lent. And we haven’t watched it from afar; we’ve submerged ourselves in it. We’ve tasted our sadness and sat with our sorrows. We’ve faced up to our failures and our hollow places. We’ve mourned over injustice, and we’ve been quiet enough to sense our longing for redemption. All this is to say we’ve come nose-to-nose with the reality of sin, what the Puritans referred to as “the plague of plagues.”

But death is not the central character in God’s story, the Good story. In God’s story, death is the villain, the ruinous beast that brings havoc but in the end, gets it just desserts.

Life – that’s where God’s story leads. When God finishes a story, the villain is finished, the child is found, the shattered pieces are beautiful again. When God says the end, the hungry aren’t hungry anymore, the lonely aren’t lonely anymore – and the tomb is magnificently empty.

So, in these days ahead, I’m giving myself to resurrection. I’m going to allow life to slip in, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes believing something good is a whole lot harder than believing something bad. I love it that Eastertide stretches out a good bit longer than Lent. In God’s way of reckoning, the beautiful always outlasts the ugly.

The way that our church All Souls Charlottesville entered life and death during this season was truly a story to live in. Read about it, if you like.

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.

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.

Easter Book Conversation

The Challenge of EasterEaster is coming, thank God. In Charlottesville, spring has tempted us the past couple days – downtown and the parks have come alive. I know that Lent has not finished its work with me (does it ever, really?)

I’ve been thinking for a while about some new directions I’d like to take my blog, more on that later. However, here’s something I want to do with you right away. For Easter (remember, it’s a season, not a day – it’s 50 days, in fact), I’d like to have a conversation here on resurrection and what it might mean for us in this crazy world and life we are all finding our way through. To facilitate this, I’d like us to read a book together, The Challenge of Easter by N.T. Wright. It’s only 60-odd pages, 5 chapters we would read over 5 weeks. This book is a more digestible version of his work, The Challenge of Jesus (which is in turn a more digestible version his tome, Jesus and the Victory of God).

Here’s what I propose: each Monday of Easter, let’s gather here and discuss one of the chapters. We can react and dream and rant and laugh and basically revel in resurrection. What do you say? The best part may be this – I’ve already recruited 5 different voices to guide one of the weeks of our conversation. So, this is going to be interactive, diverse and hopefully – full of imagination. I want questions, thoughts, disappointments, fears, joy – let’s see where it takes us.

I’d love to know who is in. The book is $6, and you can read the whole thing in less than two hours. Personally, I’d like to spend as much purpose walking into Easter (life) as I have spent walking into Lent (death). So, are you in?

p.s. If 10 of you let me know (in the comment section) that you are on board, I’ll draw a name for a free copy. If 15 of you jump in by Monday, two people will get a free copy. Look for the winner Monday in the comments section.

p.s.s. If you have a blog, perhaps consider getting some of your tribe in on the conversation too.

Lenten Tweets

Rest assured, the irony of this post’s title is not lost on me. Perhaps no two words in the English language belong together less.

I’ve resisted Twitter. I’ve gone back and forth and then back and then forth. I don’t need more noise. They tell me writers must avail themselves of such things, but I don’t want to use these mediums merely for marketing. And, of course, no one cares one whit to know that:  

12:07  I’m leaving for lunch now 

12:11  I’m driving to lunch

12:19  I’m sitting in line at Burger King because Wendy’s was packed, man, packed!

12:21  Dude, can you believe these lines!?! Still sitting in line. Catching up on facebook, though, so that’s cool

12:23  Burgers are yummy, yo

12:31  Heading back to the office, filled and fulfilled

12:33  Listening to 80’s tunes in the ride, and 80’s rock!

12:38  At the office, 3 hours and 17 minutes to quitting time – but only 91 seconds to my next tweet.

Oh my, we can barely wait.

This week, I’m at a conference in DC; and in this room filled with young culturally-savvy turks, the computers (mostly mac, of course) are constantly humming and the phones (mostly iphone, of course) are constantly zinging. It makes me dizzy. Some of these chaps amaze me with their ability to quatro-task

Still, I’ve had this thought of offering a daily Tweet during Lent. I hesitated, knowing I would instantly lose my aspiring Ludite, anti-tweet cred. But Lent is for giving up and surrendering. Strangely, for me, I think this means I’ll tweet. For Lent.

This Lenten season is going to be important for me, I feel it. I’d love to share it with you. If you’d like to get the tweet each day over the next 40 days, you can follow me here. And if you have no idea what twitter or tweet or follow me mean, well, that’s quite alright.

Let us Welcome the New Year

And now let us welcome the new year – full of new things that have never been ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Another fresh start. The Christian year began with Advent, and now the calendar tells us of still another beginning.  We’ve purchased a new calendar for the wall – our old one finished, filled with scribbles and reminders and names, each mark reminding us of birthdays and evenings out and family deaths and dinners with friends. Reasons to celebrate and reasons for sorrow, but mostly celebrate.

And we begin again. This is one of the things I am most thankful about in the Christian way of seeing the world – we are always beginning again. The night never stays; the morning is always new – in fact I think one of the psalmists pretty much said just that. Whatever has been, good or ill – newness comes. Recently, in a distressful moment, I told Miska of my fear of an upcoming experience, fearful because of how miserably I had traversed just such an experience a few years ago. Miska looked at me with that light smile she offers to counter my overblown heaviness. “Oh,” Miska said, “isn’t it great – you get a do-over.”

Another year to see what grace holds for us. Another year of new things that have yet to be.

Advent, the Fourth Week

This weekend, we had 36 hours of snow and snow and snow. The boys have some nice sled runs carved down the hill behind our house, and Seth even took to riding his snowboard style (pretty well, I must say).

But now we are here, this morning where the pinkish-orange sky rises above Carter’s Mountain and the fiery sun comes to take back more of the whiteness that covers everything. We are here, in the final week of Advent. And I want to touch on one idea that has been hovering with me for some time.

As we all know and as most of us have grown accustomed to saying often, indeed, greed is a problem. Indeed, rampant, thoughtless consumerism plagues us. Yes, we ought resist the lust for more! more! more!


The very heart of the Good News is reckless generosity. The gospel is immensely powerful, reality-shattering, because it declares a truth so extravagant that it borders on the absurd: God, Creator and Ruler of all, came to us…to us. And came as a squalling, helpless baby…a baby. This moment Bruno Forte describes as the impossible occasion “when the Whole, the All, offers itself to us in the fragment, when the Infinite makes itself little.” Extravagance unbounded.

When the angel came to Mary, he offered a gift, to her and to the world. A gift beyond our wildest dreams. A gift we could never have arranged for on our own. And God gives this gift still…now. This Christmas, in honor of and in the spirit of the Great Gift, I’ll be giving gifts too. I want to give more of my time, myself, my attention and words and prayers and hugs. But also, I’ll be giving two boys a few gifts that are unnecessary, things that make them laugh and jump up and down and run around the room like someone lit a fire to their tail. And I’ll be giving a gift or two to Miska (though less than I’d like this year), gifts that tell her that she is loved and desired and that if I had a kingdom to give away, it would all be hers.

Because I know a King who does have a Kingdom, and we see what he did…


And I want to give another gift away here, too. This will be our final drawing, so jump in. Scot McKnight has written a wonderful little introduction to the Church’s practices on prayer, Praying with the Church. Here, McKnight offers an overview of the various traditions on prayer and guides us into our own rhythms for following Jesus via prayer. As last week’s book, I think this will be a helpful resource for the new year.

So, leave a comment and a way to contact you – and you will be in the drawing. Per the usual, the deadline is Tuesday night at midnight. Check back here to see if you’ve won.

Advent, the Third Week

We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming, he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him who they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one, in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty. {St. Bernard of Clairvaux}

Life and mystery, pain and joy, something opening and something closing – do you sense the action all around us? This Advent, we are waiting, but this is an active waiting. The anticipation builds. Like violin strings stretched taut, we crane our neck to see what might be coming. We’ve had enough of the muck, enough of the fear or self-pity or selfishness, enough death. We want life. We want death to go, and we want so much for life to come.

And though Jesus is a thousand things, he is this first of all: Life.

Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us that Jesus has come, and indeed, one day Jesus will come again. But Jesus is appearing (adventing) now. God, in Jesus and by the Spirit, is appearing now, all over the place. God appears in a friendship you thought was dead and done. God appears in the child who says, “Daddy, let’s pray for the poor people.” God appears in the form of new courage and fresh hope. God appears when we say we are sorry. God appears when we laugh. Peer deep in the faces you pass. Open your eyes and drink in the sounds and lights and words and smells swirling around you – Life is breaking in. Jesus is appearing.


This week’s Advent gift will be one of my favorite Eugene Peterson titles, his classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. This will be a wonderful read for a new beginning in January, a fresh opportunity to see God appearing.

So, if you want to be in the drawing, post a comment and make sure I have a way to contact you – or check back on Wednesday.

Advent, the Second Week

This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child. {Madeleine L’Engle}

I believe that if something (anything) is going to happen, I’d best push and pry to make it so. I take comfort in my rightness, in my well-formed opinions, in knowing when to speak or even when to shut my mouth – but always me knowing (correctly, precisely) the when for either. I think what all this truly means is that I love illusions. I love the bewitching notion that I have a firm grip on the steering wheel of my life, my identity, whatever will come of me – if only I manage better, twist harder, figure another puzzle out.

And then there is Advent.

Was there anything:
~Mary could do to have the Son of God formed in her womb?
~the Roman Empire could do to stop this rival King from arriving?
~Israel could to do to hasten the coming of the Redeemer?
Is there anything, really, that I can do to manage all my chaos?

Doesn’t it seem insanity: to take inventory of all that must be done – all that needs to be tended to, fought for, worked out – and just simply wait? Madeleine was certainly right. In every way, this is a most “irrational season.”

No matter how many ways we turn it, we won’t be able to make sense of God appearing as a fragile, helpless baby. The logic of divinity taking shape in humility will not emerge from any formula or theorem I’m familiar with. With John the Baptist, God speaks from the wilderness, the fringes. With a Cross and Resurrection, God speaks the preposterous and the unimaginable. With his arrival in a filthy manger in the womb of a teenage girl, God holds out the improbably, the ludicrous – and asks us to wait. And believe.


Last week’s Advent gift (a copy of Touching Wonder) went to Dayna Schoonmaker. Hope you are enjoying it, Dayna.

This week, our gift is super yummy. One of our new Charlottesville friends, Lisa Procter, makes the most delectable scones – and she sells her hand crafted mixes at Queen of Puddings. So, leave a comment here by midnight Tuesday night – and we will have another drawing (managed by the security firm of Wyatt and Seth). The winner will receive a scone mix of your choice. ***Please make sure I have a way to contact you – or check back on Wednesday where I will leave a comment naming the winner.

And I must add, these scones would make wonderful Christmas gifts. They taste fabulous – and the boxes they are packaged in are beautiful. You don’t even need to wrap them. We bought a couple for the boy’s teachers as Christmas gifts (I really hope I didn’t just ruin a surprise).

Advent, the First Week

I stood at the front of the church in Little Rock, Arkansas that Saturday morning, September 20th, 1997. I was breathing heavily, sweating a bit. For three and a half years (long years, Miska would say), we dated. Finally, I got my act together, strapped on my courage and asked Miska if she would take a big leap with me. And now it was happening. I had been waiting so long. She had been waiting so long. The pipe organ swelled with Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the two grand wooden entry doors at the back opened, and…

I have a friend who’s had a truly treacherous past few years. His world came unglued, and the life he has now is nothing he would have imagined. Pain of every sort has stretched his body and mind in unthinkable directions. He has cried. He has almost given up. He has cried some more. But in it all, he has prayed. And waited. He has waited so long. In recent months, glimmers of a new day have trickled in through all the broken pieces. He sits poised, wondering – might there be a hint of life again – waiting, and…

As Advent began yesterday, we stepped into God’s dramatic pause, God’s long and… Advent means “appearing,” and in these weeks, we wait for the celebration of God’s appearing – and we remember that the whole of our lives are in fact a waiting for God’s movement, God’s healing, God’s appearing. In this time, we learn that little of true value comes quickly. Ruin may bear down swiftly, like the wind; but redemption is a long, long work. This is not to say that God lumbers along, turtle-like – just ask Pharaoh who was chasing down Israel in the Red Sea or blind Bartimaeus who longed to be healed whether or not God ever moves immediately, with haste.

However, even when God demonstrates his agility, it is not because God has a sudden whim. God’s prompt, decisive movement rides freely out of the long, long story he has been writing. Pharaoh caught the brunt force, like a hammer dropping, of a God who had been redeeming his people ever since a disaster in a Garden. Bartimaeus first saw the color of the sky and the color of his skin on the day Jesus touched him by the roadside – but God had loved Bartimaeus from his mother’s womb. And Israel, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, cried out, “Hosanna! Son of David!” For hundreds of years, God’s people had waited for the Rescuer to come, the “Son of David.” Now, the crowd gathered, the prophet Jesus made his way into the city – could it be?


Each Monday, we will gather here for a short reflection on Advent, as our way of entering God’s dramatic pause, God’s and… Do join us. And join in.


Also, each Monday, I would like to offer an Advent gift – my way of celebrating this time with you and my way of saying “thank you” for reading. This week, I am eager to give away (and tell you about) my friend John Blase’s book Touching Wonder: Recapturing the Awe of Christmas. Christmas books can represent the very worst of the religious publishing industry. Not this book. John is a true storyteller, and his fresh narrative, lively imagination and literary artistry provide a wonderful Advent companion.

If you leave a comment, your name will be thrown in for the drawing for a free copy. You have until midnight on Tuesday, drawing Wednesday morning. If you don’t win, I have two suggestions: (1) buy John’s book – a good gift idea, by the way, and (2) come back next week to for the next gift.

Little Bo…

We’ve been talking at our house about how Easter is a season, not a day. Fifty days to revel in fresh hope, fresh life, new beginnings.

Yesterday, at the Cville Market, we happened upon a large bin of 1/2 price Easter candy, the crate overflowing with boxes of pink and yellow Peeps (one of Miska’s and the boy’s favorites).

Overcome by the joy and the possibility, Wyatt exclaimed: “Look! Peeps for 50 days!” That’s the spirit.