Stooping to Glory

And here He shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.

– Malcolm Guite, “Maundy Thursday”

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
― Tagore

Just a few days ago, we celebrated Palm Sunday at our church. The children didn’t wave palm branches, but they stood on the risers at the front of the church to lisp the lyric, “The King of Glory comes, the nation rejoices!” They are too young, of course, to understand the thrill of the crowd that greeted Jesus at the Golden Gate as he came up from Bethany, perched on a young donkey. Too young to grasp the hope of liberation from oppression and the power of the throne of David that ran through the crowd that day. Their fervor (the crowd not the children) was driven by what they had heard – that this man Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.

The disciples, as we might expect at this point, are bewildered, not just by the crowd, but by their teacher’s response. Time and time again, they have watched as he rejected the trappings of earthly authority, and rebuked them for their understanding of power as something to be wielded over others. Now he is parading into Jerusalem, receiving a kingly welcome from which he would have fled before. They do not know that their time with Jesus is drawing to a close. They do not know that the final lessons are at hand.

Just a few nights later, he gathers them for dinner and performs an act that completely shocks them – he kneels before each man and begins to wash his feet.

There is far more happening here than is immediately apparent to the disciples, or even to us. Jesus is acting out the cosmic drama on the stage of this upper room; he steps away from the supper table and lays aside his garments. In twenty-four hours time, rough men will forcefully strip him to his skin in public. They will cuff his head with their fists and mock his nakedness. In twenty-four hours they will force a crown of thorns onto his head, and sarcastically lay a robe on his back and cackle at his misery. These are Roman soldiers, and they have no particular interest in this Nazarene. For them he is merely an object of derision, a bit of diversion on which they can take out the frustration of a lonely posting on the outskirts of the Roman empire.  So they will strip him down and leave him to stand before them, bruised and bleeding, while they laugh and laugh.

But tonight, before his disciples, he carefully removes his garments of his own free will and sets them aside. Tonight he has work to do. He takes up a towel, and wraps it around himself, covering his body with it like an apron, as a menial worker would do before beginning a dirty task. Then he takes up a basin filled with water and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.

How long does it take to wash the feet of twelve men? An hour? Two? And yes, I say all twelve, for there’s no reason to believe that he does not wash the feet of the traitor Judas, as well. He kneels before each man, takes each foot in his hands, lovingly cleanses it, dries it, sets it back down again. The Messiah who stoops down.

What an awkward, uncomfortable hour for Peter and a roomful of men who do not entirely understand the purposes of their teacher. At Bethany, Mary had knelt before him and broken a pint of fragrant oil all over the Rabbi’s feet, and the aroma of the spikenard filled the dining room as she wiped his feet clean with her hair. There, it was the costliness of the perfume that made his followers so uncomfortable that they could hardly stand it. It seemed so inappropriate, so wasteful. A year’s worth of wages could have been used in so many ways. Tonight, it is Peter who resists, for he understands something of the Great Reversal that Jesus is enacting in front of him. The sight of the Teacher lowering himself to the floor, stripped down, to do the work of the household servant is too much for him. “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” But he washes them anyway, and when he’s completed his work, Jesus takes up his garments again and resumes his place at the table.

Can you see the roadmap that the Teacher draws out for his disciples?  It traces out the shape of a humble, transparent act of service, an earthly deed, but it mirrors the shape of his glorious, cosmic deed in coming as the Christ.  For the Son of God steps down from his place, sets aside his glory and stoops to serve humanity in the humblest of ways, by becoming human. He gives up the majesty and the privilege of his rightful position in glory because here too, he has work to do. He walks with the poor, he mourns with the grieving, heals the sick, touches the leper. He dines with sinners and tax-collectors and prostitutes. He gives up his life for the sins of the world, not just for the twelve, but for the soldiers who will beat him and drive the nails and then, at the foot of the cross, look up in wonder. For the thief who hangs next to him. For those who will come to believe only after they cry out “Crucify him!”  Jesus gives up his life for the enemies of God.

And when his work is complete, he takes up his glory again and ascends to heaven, resuming his rightful place with the One who sent him.

In the upper room, the drama has concluded and the lesson has begun. Jesus puts his garment again and returns to his place at the table. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asks. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”

Jesus has been sent into the world to do the work of the One who sent him, and he sets aside any claim to glory so that he can be about that work. In every human encounter, he meets the very real and very human needs of the people he meets, such that everything he does – healing, touching, grieving, questioning – all of it highlights the contrast between his humility and his majesty, between the poverty and the glory of the Sent One who abases himself in obedience to the One who sent him.

His command to his disciples becomes all the more meaningful in light of who he is, for he tells them that they are to imitate him in this mission. What do they make of this?  For that matter, what are we to make of it? For his command is as much for us as if he had knelt before us in that room and washed our feet, as well.

Our imitation of the mission of Jesus will be dimmed and distorted by our own sinfulness, to be sure, but it is no less real. Indeed, it is the very mission that he gave to the disciples that he gives to us. I must believe that it’s possible for us, two thousand years later, to have a real sense of God’s mission for us in this world, and it looks very much like what we see him acting out here in the upper room: laying aside any claim that we think we might have to any kind of glory or honor or respect in this world, and instead in humility going out into the world to serve others, to abase ourselves in the eyes of the world so that we can do the will of the One who sends us.

It will be different for each one, of course, and some of you may be sent out to work among Ebola patients, or the very poor and destitute, or to rescue victims of human trafficking or to help refugees. Most of you will likely be sent to neighborhoods in the  suburbs, or to cities, to drab office buildings and construction sites and insurance companies and storefronts.  I could not tell you exactly where Jesus will send you anymore than I could tell you the headlines in the newspaper a week from now, or the numbers for tomorrow’s lottery. But I can tell you that for every one who calls himself a disciple of Jesus, he sends them out with work to do, and regardless of the location it is always the same work – loving and serving the people in that place. Those people may be delightful and very much similar to you, but it’s more likely that at some point he’ll put you amongst those who are not like you at all, people who you find distasteful, or irritating, or shockingly scandalous. Nevertheless he will send you to them whoever they are, and the task is always the same – in humility to take up the basin and the towel and to love them.

Now, every once and a while these days you’ll find someone who wants to call himself a “servant-leader,” in other words, he wants to hold on to just a shred of his earthly dignity and remind everyone that he has some position of authority in this world, and that authority comes with some privileges, which he promises to wield quite humbly, he assures us. But that’s not at all where we find the Savior. No servant is greater than his Master, he says, and here we find our own Master, stripped of his clothing and kneeling on the floor with a pail of water and a towel. Who are we to remain standing?

Jesus, the king of heaven, kneels in the dust to touch the leper, to speak with the prostitute, to place his hands over the eyes of a blind man and cause him to see again, and yet somehow he is not tainted by the contact. He is not made unclean, but rather they are made whole again. It is another of the great reversals of the kingdom of heaven: what it touches, it changes, and not the other way round. Its invasive power is greater than we could ever have imagined. The majesty of the Savior is not diminished because he kneels. His glory is all the greater because he stoops down to serve.


God’s Love for Justice

The past several years have given us many opportunities to think about the place of justice in our society. This week alone we’ve had a multitude of conversations about how people ought to be treated fairly, who ought to be heard, and what standards we should use for judgement. As I’m finishing up my reading this morning, there is one thing of which I am quite convinced: the God of the Bible is a lover of justice. Not the courtroom drama, sharp and probing question-and-answer that we’ve seen this week, but true justice, the kind that makes societies whole and right and kind. The type of justice that renders courtrooms and lawyers and judges (even good ones) less necessary, and that one day, when it comes into its fulness, will make them obsolete.

He gives expression to his love for justice when he causes Isaiah to write these words:

Is not this the fast that I chose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house,
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

And these instructions to his people:

Seek justice,
Rescue the oppressed,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.

Over and over and over again, he sounds the call for his people to practice justice as part of their everyday life – from Moses, through the prophets, and in the life and teachings of Jesus – the Bible never stops talking about justice.

Nicholas Wolterstorff explains why, and I’m grateful for his clear thinking and writing this morning:

“God loves the presence of justice in society not because it makes for a society whose excellence God admires, but because God loves the members of society – loves them, too, not with the love of admiration but with the love of benevolent desire. God desires that each and every human being shall flourish, that each and every shall experience what the Old Testament writers call shalom. Injustice is perforce the impairment of shalom. That is why God loves justice. God desires the flourishing of each and every one of God’s human creatures; justice is indispensable to that. Love and justice are not pitted against each other but intertwined.”

Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull

Continue reading God’s Love for Justice

Like a Goldfish

There are perhaps a double handful of podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis. This week, I caught wind of John Biewen’s Scene on Radio’s series “Seeing White,” from the  Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. I binge-listened (is that a thing?) to the first several episodes over the weekend.

You can find the podcast here:

Typically, when white people start talking about race in the U.S., we emphasize the racperspective of racial minorities. This strategy is useful, because the experiences of the African-American, Latino, and Asian communities in the U.S. have been vastly downplayed, even outright overlooked, in our teaching of history.

What’s much harder for us to do, as the controversy over Confederate monuments has shown us, is to look directly at the racial history of whiteness. Why do we think of ourselves as “white?” When did we start using that term? (Hint: it wasn’t that long ago). What are the implications of this way of thinking about ourselves? And what does it mean for the people of color who are fellow citizens, neighbors, co-workers, and congregants along with us? The answers to these questions will equip us to love our neighbor.

This isn’t attempt to cause divisions, or to pick at scabs. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that, for the most part, we give no more thought to the culture of whiteness in America than the goldfish swimming in his bowl, unaware of the water he breathes. Culture is like that for those living inside it. Invisible. Transparent.

What I’m suggesting is that we squint a bit together. Really focus and see what we can learn about the culture that surrounds us. If you want to know more about the history and implications of whiteness in America, I’d recommend this podcast. I warn you: it’s hard. Unflinching. Unwhitewashed, if you will. Some of it may make you angry. Some of it may cause you to weep. Listen anyway. It will be worth it.

The Enduring Passion


“The little bit you and me might change the world,” Malloy smiled, “it wouldn’t show up until a hundred years after we were dead. We’d never see it.”
“But it’d be there.”

~James Jones, From Here to Eternity

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.

~ The Book of Judges 2:10

Our ancestors gazed into the heavens and saw the vast array of stars. With no streetlights, no cars, and only the light of their cook fires, they could look deep into the cosmos and see beauty that few humans today will ever behold. By those stars they observed the passage of months, and years, and lifetimes. Later, they would learn to sail ships and travel the seas, guided by the position of the stars that they had traced in the sky over millennia.

They worshiped what they did not know, building what Paul would later call “altars to an unknown god.” Not knowing their Creator, they revered instead what He had created, dragging massive stones more than a hundred miles to this high plain they’d selected. From start to finish, the construction took them over a thousand years.

Think of it – with an average life expectancy of only 30-40 years, how many generations did it take to move these stones? They left no written records, had nothing but spoken words to pass to their children. How could they sustain such an effort to completion? How did they pass along this passion for worship from one generation to the next? And the next? And the next?

On a cold and rainy day last July, I stood on this high plain and contemplated their monument to the stars. How many nights did they sleep in the shadow of these stones?  How many mornings did they awaken to this grey fog, chilled to the bone, with the slippery rain soaking their furs? And on how many days, over a thousand years, did they take up their ropes and their tools, and place their hands against the cold stone once again?

How quickly we abandon what we once desired to create. How soon we grow bored with one form of entertainment and are ready to move on to the next. We have convinced ourselves that anything worth having can be achieved quickly, and that our problems can be resolved within the boundaries of a 30 minute sitcom, such that now we can barely focus our attention on an idea for a single generation, let alone ten. Or twenty. Or thirty. We struggle to pray for but five minutes, and our mind begins to wander to the shopping list and the car repairs and the row we had with our wife last night.

Could we sustain one singular passion for our lives, and pass it on to our children, and they to theirs? Could we devote ourselves to worship for a thousand years? Can we learn again to be pilgrims, spending our lives on the journey to the Father’s house, learning to love the Way, even as we long for Home?

Under a Spell

I ran across the following excerpt from a 1943 essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled After Ten Years, and I realized that it is as timely, just as important, today as it was more than 70 years ago. Bonhoeffer was a young German pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his role in the resistance.The book in which this essay is published, Essays and Letters From Prison, serves as a sort of last will and testament.

In recent days we’ve seen a resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. We are appalled, and rightly so. But in a way, I’m grateful that they’ve revealed themselves, because once the hood comes off, once the mask is lowered, the true face of evil is exposed and we can push back against it. But foolishness is an altogether different matter, and requires a different kind of caution as Bonhoeffer notes below:

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. You can protest against evil, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always makes men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defense against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence folly requires much more cautious handling than evil. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.

To deal adequately with folly it is essential to recognize it for what it is. This much is certain, it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are men of great intellect who are fools, and men of low intellect who are anything but fools, a discovery we make to our surprise as a result of particular circumstances. The impression we derive is that folly is acquired rather than congenital; it is acquired in certain circumstances where men make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We observe further that folly is less common in the unsociable or the solitary than in individuals or groups who are inclined or condemned to sociability. From this it would appear that folly is a sociological problem rather than one of psychology. It is a special form of the  operation of historical circumstances upon men, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. On closer inspection it would seem that any violent revolution, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind. Indeed, it would seem to be almost a law of psychology and sociology. The power of one needs the folly of the other. It is not that certain aptitudes of men, intellectual aptitudes for instance, become stunted or destroyed. Rather, the upsurge of power is so terrific that it deprives men of an independent judgement, and they give up trying–more or less
unconsciously–to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fool can often be stubborn, but this must not mislead us into thinking he is independent. One feels somehow, especially in conversation with him, that it is impossible to talk to the man himself, to talk to him personally. Instead, one is confronted with a series of slogans watchwords, and the like, which have acquired power over him. He is under a curse, he is blinded, his very humanity is being prostituted and exploited. Once he has surrendered his will and become a mere tool, there are no lengths of evil to which the fool will not go, yet all the time he is unable to see that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation of humanity, which can do irreparable damage to the human character.

But it is just at this point that we realize that the fool cannot be saved by education. What he needs is redemption. There is nothing else for it. Until then it is no earthly good trying to convince him by rational argument. In this state of affairs we can well understand why it is no use trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why this question is also so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly. As the Bible says, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. In other words, the only cure for folly is spiritual redemption, for that alone can enable a man to live as a responsible person in the sight of God. But there is a grain of consolation in these reflections on human folly. There is no reason for us to think that the majority of men are fools under all circumstances. What matters in the long run is whether our rulers hope to gain more from the folly of men, or from their independence of judgement and their shrewdness of mind.

The Devoted Life

I was honored this evening to spend some time in the presence of Jim Downing, Navy Veteran, fellow Missourian, and Pearl Harbor survivor. Jim joined the Navy at the Hannibal recruiting station in 1932. He would spend the next 10 years on the USS West Virginia.

At 103 years old, Jim is still speaking and traveling around the country.  His experience of December 7th, 1941 has img_1534been captured by LIFE VR in the room-scale virtual reality experience Remembering Pearl Harbor. This week he was in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast, which led to our meeting tonight at a local church where he was speaking. Jim is also an early member of the Navigators, a Christian discipling ministry that helps people grow in Christ as they navigate life. In the 1930’s, Dawson Trotman began teaching high school students and local Sunday Schools in California. Soon, he expanded that ministry to Navy sailors in the area. Before long he was working with Les Spencer, a sailor aboard the USS West Virginia, where Jim also served. Dawson Trotman is often referred to as Navigator #1. Jim is Navigator #6.

After his talk tonight, Jim took questions from the group, which consisted mostly of high school and college students, and Naval Academy midshipmen. One young lady asked a particularly good question, and Jim gave an answer that worth sharing. She asked, “Many people who are much younger than you are retired or talking about retiring. At 103 years old, what keeps you going?”

Jim’s answer struck me because, at its core, it had nothing to do with stamina or health or the typical things you might think a centenarian would talk about. Instead, he talked about a sense of calling, and how it drives him, even now, to continue. And he described four responsibilities that we all have regarding our gifts, responsibilities that he still takes seriously.

  1. Discover your gifts. Take the time to consider what God has made you passionate about, and how he’s equipped you uniquely.
  2. Dedicate your gifts. Since God has given you unique talents, resolve now to dedicate them to his service. Make a plan to use them for his glory.
  3. Develop your gifts. Work hard at becoming the best you can be. This is where determining what you’re passionate about really pays off; a person who has found their calling will find it easy to put in the effort that it takes to develop their talents.
  4. Deploy your gifts. Get out there and use what you have. Hold nothing back.

Jim continues to live out this philosophy, even the age of 103. He’s an inspiration, and it was a delight to spend even a little time listening to and learning from a man who has been living out his faith for so long.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Jim’s story, he’s recently written a book about his experiences, The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War. He is also the author of Living Legacy: Reflections on Dawson Trotman and Lorne Sanny, and Meditation, a practical guide to the Christian life. 

The Great Challenge of the Hour

I have something to ask of you today. It’s important. Today, we mustn’t stop at quotes. Please don’t let today be about memes. Don’t let it be about clipping only the tamest, acceptable sections from some of the 20th century’s most powerful, challenging, and dangerous (to some) speeches and sermons. This is not the day to allow social media to serve up only what is comfortable, only what is agreeable, only those quotes at which we can nod and smilingly approve.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And we have serious work to do.

Let’s make it a day of change.

The federal holiday is designed to be a day of service. That’s great. We should go out into our communities, feed people, help people, clean things up. But we cannot stop there. Service cannot, must not, be limited to one day a year. By all means, let’s serve today, and then let’s make a commitment to find a place in service throughout the year.

Today, in 2017, that persistent and urgent question – What are you doing for others? – continues to tug at the hem of our garment. Our communities cry out for care. Love for, and service to, our neighbor is still required of us. There are children who need extra tutoring, immigrants who are struggling to learn English, student athletes to coach, elderly neighbors who would delight in a visit or a phone call or a loaf of bread. We are capable of these things. Dr. King longed to see us, all of us together, seeking after the Kingdom of God through acts of service and kindness.

If you’re not sure where to begin, start here. The need is great; there are more opportunities to serve in your community than you could imagine.

Then, let’s make it a day of learning.

Dedicate some time today to read some of Dr. King’s more challenging works, and let’s not placate ourselves with the comfortable excerpts from speeches that are served up for us on social media. Take the harder path, and challenge yourself with his sterner legacy. Dr. King faced down the racist, violent culture that was woven into the fabric of our nation from the beginning. He challenged the rest of us to face it, too. And he, along with Civil Rights leaders like Rep. John Lewis, put their bodies and lives in harm’s way to make their message heard. Not unafraid, but certainly undaunted. So today, read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, read his Letter to American Christians, or get yourself a copy of Why We Can’t Wait. These are not easy to read – for those of us in the majority, they are humbling texts that challenge our self-assessment, both as individuals and as a nation. They should cause us to grapple with the hard questions. Who are we called to be as a nation? What do we want the legacy of our time to be? What must we do to make this a nation of justice for all? Today of all days, let’s ask the questions.

Finally, let’s make it a day of self-examination.

We live in a world that we know is not as it ought to be. Our nation has made so much progress in racial justice over the last 50 years, but we know that we have not yet arrived. Some days it seems like we move backwards. Some days it seems like Justice is sound asleep. It takes courage to admit that the world we’ve shaped with our actions is not the way it should be, and a hard-eyed resolve  and tearful repentance to view it as it truly is – a world still afflicted by cruelty, by hatred, and by injustice.

So it’s fitting that we spend some time in personal self-reflection today. Who do I wish to be in the world? How can I embody the kind of mercy, kindness, justice, and love that Jesus calls me to, in a world that outright rejects these attributes, even believes them to be naive and foolish? Let’s gather together as families, as churches, and communities to consider what God is calling us to, and who he’s calling us to be for his Kingdom.

I’ll close with this thought: we live in a world that cries out for just and thoughtful, reasoned leadership. It’s especially fitting that we consider each his or her own place in leadership and service as, this week, our nation engages in a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. I’ll leave you with this excerpt from A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations, delivered in St. Louis in April, 1957. It seems appropriate for the day.

This is a period for leaders. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.

Oh, God give us leaders.
A time like this demands great leaders.
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill;
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy;
Leaders who possess opinions and will;
Leaders who will not lie;
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking.
Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.

And this is the need, my friends, of the hour. This is the need all over the nation. In every community there is a dire need for leaders who will lead the people, who stand today amid the wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice.

God grant that ministers,
and lay leaders,
and civic leaders,
and businessmen,
and professional people all over the nation
will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them, and lead the people on toward the promised land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means. This is the great challenge of the hour.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.