Sunday, April 20, 2014

Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor

Seven Stanzas at Easter
John Updike, 1960

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sermon Preparation with the Bible in One Hand and the Hymnal in the Other

Karl Barth's pairing of the Bible and the newspaper is well known: "We should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." True enough. But I would like to make a similar suggestion to my fellow preachers. Preachers should prepare with the Bible in one hand and with the hymnal in the other.

Let me explain what I mean. If you are a preacher and you do not use the texts of hymns (ancient or modern) to illustrate the truths you preach, you are failing to take advantage of an incredibly helpful and powerful means of illustration. Here are five reasons why incorporating hymn texts in your preaching can prove beneficial.
  • Hymn texts, and especially familiar hymn texts, often have deep emotional roots in the hearts of believers, which makes them particularly effective (and memorable) for vividly illustrating a biblical truth. 
  • Hymn texts are poetic in nature, and poetry can have a strong oratorical effect.
  • Hymn texts, in and of themselves, teach us something theologically (sometimes good, sometimes bad). So, why not utilize the good ones to help teach our hearers the truth that they are singing, and how the truth in that song is based on the truth of God's Word? This helps connect the biblical and theological dots for them - both in the biblical text and in the hymn that they may have sung hundreds of times before but never really thought about until you pointed it out to them. 
  • Hymn texts that are used well in a sermon illustration will be sung with much more understanding and appreciation the next time around. In other words, using that hymn text as an illustration makes that hymn even more meaningful for your hearers, which means you are helping strengthen and reinforce the importance of congregational singing (as well as the importance of singing good theology). 
  • Hymn texts that are quoted in a sermon, when those hymns either have been sung or will be sung in the same worship service, unifies the worship experience and teaches the congregation something about the holistic nature of public worship.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Signs of Life...New Life

The article below, my reflections on spring and the resurrection, originally appeared as a guest column in the recent issue of the Baptist & Reflector. I appreciate them publishing it.

Although the first day of spring has officially arrived, it seems as if winter wants to keep its grip on us. Temperatures have remained unseasonably cold, and we even set a record low in Jackson last week. However, there are signs that spring really has arrived. The days are getting longer, trees are sprouting leaves, and flowers are beginning to bloom.

But for most of us, it can't come soon enough. We have grown tired of the cold, dreary days. For the last few months, when we looked outside our windows, all we saw were evidences of death. But thankfully, we are now beginning to see signs of life everywhere - even in the changing color palette of the seasons. The morbid grays and browns of winter are giving way to the vivid greens and reds and yellows of spring. And even though it happens every year, it never seems to get old. We can rejoice in the fact that the cold death of winter has been overcome by the new life of spring.

It's as if creation itself is acting out a cosmic parable of resurrection power, teaching us the promise of new life. No wonder Martin Luther once said, "Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring time." The created order gives us a yearly reminder of new life; it provides us with a visual illustration of our Lord's victory over death. Or, to put it in poetic form:
The fallen leaves
from autumn trees
descend to their earthly tomb;
yet limbs which shed
their leaves all dead
trust new life again will bloom.

'Cause little mounds
of lifeless browns
are only half the story;
for, lively green
will soon be seen
with spring all its glory.

'Tis all a sign
of truth divine,
revealed for our reflection;
as one life ends,
a new begins -
yes, death brings resurrection.
So as we make our way toward Good Friday and the agony of Calvary, let us be mindful that Easter Sunday is coming too. As we approach the cross, let us do so with the hope of the empty tomb. Let us do so with the hope of the resurrection. And let us do so with eyes open wide to the world around us, seeing signs of new life, which point ultimately to the One who said, "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25).