God is George

Fifth Sunday of Easter  |  John 15:1-8

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Some things really do get lost in translation.

John gave us this remarkable image-filled passage—Jesus talking to his followers, a long last discourse before he is silenced in arrest and crucifixion—and we miss some of the good bits simply because we cannot hear the words.

GrapevineVertTake that first verse. More or less literally, we get this: I myself am the vine, the true one, and the father of me is the george. Oh, sorry, that is to say γεωργός, transliterated georgios. The word means ‘farmer’, and from it we get the modern name of George.

Maybe it does not change our understanding much, but knowing that God is called a farmer, that the word and the work are not limited to tending grapevines, helps somehow. It broadens our imagination. There is something cheerful about imagining God in baggy pants and knee high rubber boots, galumphing around tending to sheep and goats and olive trees.

Let’s try another one. In most English translations, verse two speaks of God the farmer, good old George, ‘pruning’ a grapevine. Then verse three, in the English, starts talking about being ‘clean’. Ok, we make the logical connection, a pruned vine and a clean heart, but the words John uses are not the ones we hear.

In verse two God prunes, from καθαίρει, kathairo. In verse three, we are clean, καθαροί, katharoi. Hear the echo? Not ‘prune’ and ‘clean’, which may be synonyms at a stretch. John uses kathairo and katharoi, words from the same root, that sound alike, and that have a little different meaning.

Ask anyone who has had a catheter. It leaves a different impression, and not just on the outside.

One more word: μένω, meno. It is the verb that means ‘to remain’ (we might be seeing the remnant of it in the ‘main’ part of our own English word.) It could also be translated as ‘to abide’ or ‘to stay’.LookingInSurf

That is what the whole passage is about. Abiding. Remaining. Being. What comes out of our lives depends on where we choose to abide, on the inside.

We can choose to remain where we are, dwelling on past injury and failures, maintaining our self doubts and fears, focused on ourselves, pitching our tents in the midst of a wasteland of negative thinking. We can dwell on the broken notions that we are too fat, too skinny, worthless, deserving of abuse. We can remain self centered, self serving, self worshipping, abide in our own pettiness, become huge fish in the tiny ponds of our minds.

Or we can get clean. Prune our thinking. Open our minds. Catharsis. That is an act of genuine faith: opening our minds to the possibility of something greater.

Real power is not something we hold. Power is what flows through us, passing on to something else, to someone else. The power flows from the somewhere that faith calls God. Our task is simple—be.

Origami goldThis is where Christianity lost its Zen.

The Church, sometimes more focused on the doctrine of forgiveness than on real living, often forgets that religion created most of the guilt in the first place. The circle of failure-forgiveness-more failure-and-guilt can be baffling to people looking into Christianity from the outside and seeing only an endless loop, a package of guilt and absolution, sprinkled with an aversion to science and wrapped in a roster of rules.

What we have made of Christianity sometimes does not resemble what we read in John’s Gospel. The first role of the Church is simple. To abide. To live. To be. To open our minds to the possibilities of God.

We’re not the end. We’re the path. Let the Spirit flow.

Running into surf wide

The Care of Sheep

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:11-18

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, one who lays down his own life in the care of his sheep.

Why? Why does this shepherd care so much for these sheep? In answer, Jesus claims, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Knowing someone: it changes everything.

Think of a terrible news story, some natural disaster—a tornado or flood or earthquake. So long as we hear only the background, the big picture, we are safe from those people. Our hearts are free to leave them. It is terrible, we think. Perhaps we make a small donation, a few dollars in a jar.

Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell
Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell

Linger with the photographs, and we slip. See an image of a father trying to hold to his children, and we are lost. See tears in the wide eyes of an orphaned child, and we cannot turn away, not entirely, not without taking something of that pain with us, not without losing something of ourselves in the turning.

Likewise, imagine those people who appear to have brought their troubles on themselves. So long as they are at a distance, we blame them for their plight rather than see their needs.


How about those North African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, getting themselves into danger? So long as they are a concept, an idea, a problem, many of us can turn away from them. Perhaps we think that rescue operations only encourage these people to persist, which is a little like thinking that feeding people only encourages them to be hungry. Stop to gaze at a photo of a woman nearly drowning in the surf, or listen to a man’s story of why his family would take such risks, and we cannot turn away without losing something of our own humanity.

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

I am the good shepherd, Jesus says, because I know them.

How about boy soldiers in Africa? Far away, and none of our concern, perhaps. Refugees in Syria? They destroyed their own country with civil war, didn’t they, and isn’t the UN doing something? More than that, they are far away. Even gazing into their eyes in the photos or reading their stories in interviews, we remain removed from them.

We cannot know them, not truly. Not knowing them, we can walk away. How are we to care when the wolves come?

If we haven’t already turned away from this bit of writing, let’s try something closer to where we live.

How about a homeless person? Not the persistent panhandler with a sign, the one we are fairly certain is less than honest about his goals. Try the one quietly asking for help, or people not asking us for anything, the family living in a car, the man waiting behind a bush for the shelter to reopen. We avoid knowing them so that we can walk away. If we know them, we no longer have that option.

So here is our Gospel question: do we get to know people because we are good shepherds, or do we become good shepherds because we get to know people?

That is applied spirituality, practical theology.

Backing away from the practical for a moment, there is also a theological bombshell buried in this passage: I lay down my life in order to take it up again.

What? In this season of resurrection, it is worth a second thought.

Why did Jesus die? Oh, come on, we know this one. If we’ve ever been near a Sunday school class, an evangelical sermon, or a hand painted roadside placard, we know why—to save us from our sins, right?

One problem—that is not what Jesus himself is recorded as saying, not here, perhaps not quite anywhere in the Gospels. I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I die for the purpose of living. And what do we make of that?

If nothing else, let’s agree that God may be up to something greater than our memorized explanations. We’ve built an entire system of thought to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but our ideas about God are not God. Our explanations of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are not Jesus.

Like the Christmas Grinch who thought of something he hadn’t before, what if the Gospel, perhaps, means a little bit more?

If we merely have ideas about God, we are still free. God remains a concept, dangerous enough but a step removed from us. We are protected from God by our own system of thought. Theology becomes a barrier, our seawall, an end in itself, our human-made substitute for a God we do not see and perhaps do not wish to see.

If we know God, if we open ourselves to the possibility of knowing something greater than ourselves, we walk dangerous ground, swim in deep waters. Knowing God, we can no longer turn away.

We may even find ourselves counting sheep.

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell
Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell

Flesh and Bones

Third Sunday in Easter | Luke 24:36b-48

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Resurrection is such an odd business. Each of us imagines it differently, from shining ghosts to the walking dead.

Many of us imagine Jesus resurrected in some spirit form–how else did he later rise, disappearing from everyone’s sight, right? The four Gospels, particularly this passage from Luke, go out of the way to insist on a bodily resurrection. There is surely a spiritual significance, but the Gospels insist that Jesus was encountered in a very human form, eating and touching and walking and speaking, days after his public crucifixion. He was flesh and bones.

So much for explaining Christianity as a purely spiritual path.

White Azalea

That’s the good news. It means that Christianity is not just a someday thing, not just a future to be hoped for, though that hope is not nothing. It means resurrection is also a here and now thing. Resurrection is part of everyday life, practical theology.

Ok, so maybe it’s not the raise you from the dead kind of practical. We don’t get a do-over after walking out in front of a bus. We don’t get a free pass to fix everything. We do get something we can use, something that we don’t have to wait until the afterlife to apply. We get that mistakes can be redeemed. Failures can be transformed. We can awaken to a life that is better, closer to the way we thought it ought to be when we were children.

Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant Bee on Azaleanever taste of death but once.” [Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2] There aren’t many valiant folk, at least not much past the age of twelve. Most of us die many times, of mistakes and of fear, of the tiny cuts of thousands of slights and failings, some real and many more imagined. The Gospel idea of resurrection gives us more than a future hope; it gives us a present hope of redemption, of new chances, of mourning becoming memory, of failures feathering away our hardness and harsh judgments. Resurrection means we are still alive, even if we seem sometimes to have forgotten.

We cherish the stories that help us understand our world. We remember the tale of the genie in the bottle because on some level we understand that it describes our lives. We are all genies, with amazing if untapped power, trapped in the bottles of the lives we have accepted. Some of the walls that surround us were built by other people or by circumstance. Many of us are hemmed in by walls that we have built for ourselves, walls we made out of ideas that we were given or with limitations that we believed were real.

We do not see that the resurrection story also describes our lives. Just as the genie was placed in the bottle and Jesus was placed in the tomb, we also find ourselves enclosed in our lives, mystified as to how it came to be so.

Resurrection is the power of God pulling out the stopper, breaking down our walls, or giving us the tools to do it for ourselves. We can roll away some of the stones in our path. We can fold away some of the thoughts that bind us. The genie is out of the bottle. The Lord has left the tomb.

That is the message of Easter.

Bee climb


Second Sunday of Easter  |  John 20:19-31

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

There are stories of fire that fell from the sky onto the heads of the faithful. It was not a fire that burned them, not as one would think of it, not as some of the onlookers might have hoped. (Religious differences bring out the worst in people.) This fire was the Spirit of God, or so it is claimed in the book of Acts—but that will be the lectionary passage for the observance of Pentecost, May 24 of this year.

Fire that only burned within and did not scorch the skin—it sounds like a metaphor.

John tells a different story. In this Gospel a small group of believers gathered in a house, behind closed doors. Jesus, the same one who was crucified, comes to them somehow and breathes on them, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit of God. He points out the marks of his torture to remove any doubts of his identity, such as the doubts of Thomas who had the good sense to want to see this living Jesus for himself.

Jesus breathed on them, as only the living can. Air from his lungs, the Spirit of God—it sounds like another metaphor.

There is a greeting in parts of the world where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath. It may have nothing to do with this Jesus story. It does tell us something about the centrality of breathing. The beating of our hearts, the air we breathe, nothing about us continues without these things.

Like the bumper sticker says, just keep breathing.

Whichever version we read, John’s tale of Jesus breathing on his followers or the story in Acts with tongues of fire falling from the sky, the result is the same. Afterward something was different. These earliest Christians went out and began talking about what they knew of God, of this Jesus, of everything they had seen and heard and touched, to everyone they met, everywhere they went, so long as they drew breath.

Something had changed in them. Something drove them out of their rooms, their homes, their comforts, their habits.

Something.A galaxy on the edge

The scripture writers claim that it was the Spirit of God. Radically differing in appearance and path, by breath or by fire or by touch of hand or sight, the New Testament people spoke of experiencing and witnessing what they described as the Spirit of God entering into themselves and into the people around them. What they described was not possession by a greater power. It was not acquisition of some greater power. It was transcendence.

Their existence changed.

They became different. The power that they believed resurrected Jesus had also resurrected their lives, lifting them from the mundane into the extraordinary. The resurrection stories of Jesus often mention that it was difficult to recognize him, though there is little explanation as to why. Perhaps that is because little or no explanation was needed for people living such transformed lives that they no longer even recognized themselves.

The breath of God. Many would dismiss such a concept as delusional. Perhaps Jesus was a good man, they say, but leave God out of it. There is no proof of God, they say, nothing to demonstrate that we did not create the idea of God out of our own need. There is no argument that can totally refute such thinking, no logic that can overwhelm such rational doubt.

Scientists tell us that when we breathe we take in elements that have come, as everything within us has, from the stars. The oxygen that sustains us may contain atoms that sustained Marilyn Monroe or George Washington or Jesus or the Buddha. In every breath we touch on something eternal.

We are miraculous. We are ordinary. We are living stardust. We are imbued with the breath of God.

At the end of the lectionary passage for this week’s reading, there is a confession, a reason given as to why this Gospel of John was written down at all: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

That we might believe, that we may have life, is the whole purpose of the Gospel. You might say we were already alive without hearing it.

Tennyson wrote, As though to breathe were life! There is more to living than existence. That, too, is the message of John’s Gospel. Feel the wind and know it for more than weather—for you it is the breath of God. See the stars and know them for more than engines of the expanding universe—for you they are the sparks of life.

Do more than remember to breathe. Remember to live.



Easter Sunday – Resurrection of the Lord | John 20:1-18

Lectionary Project

They did not go to his tomb out of faith. They went for other reasons.

They went to Jesus’ tomb out of obligation. Duty. Resignation. Perhaps love. Or perhaps to confirm for themselves the reality of his death, to wrap their minds around what they had seen, what they did not want to believe.

We do that, deny reality, over and over. We deny the reality of the world around us when it refuses to match our inward expectations. A sacrament is sometimes called the outward sign of inward grace. If so, denial is the outward sign of unmet expectations. Inner dissonance.

For many reasons, they went to the tomb early in the morning on the day after the sabbath. They did not go to be witnesses to a resurrection. Who would? It’s a ludicrous idea, a childish denial of the workings of the universe.

Things break down. Things fall apart. People die. We die. We have to accept that, or go through life with an unrealistic and unreconciled perception of our world.

Resurrection, there’s a concept. Christianity clings to it, insisting that people who were dead somehow lived again. The faith-minded call it miraculous. Others, the ones who do not reject the idea out of hand, might say that it could have been something we do not understand, some imposition of energy, returning a person to a prior state of greater order. Such ideas are more science fiction than science, rejected by logical minds as perfect examples of denial dressed up as something more.

IM000102.JPGStill, resurrection is one amazing idea. Maybe we just need a different way to think about it.

Take the stories told by the ancient Greeks, like the minotaur in the labyrinth. Few people today believe that there was a labyrinth, even fewer that there was a real monster roaming in it, eating whoever stumbled into its path. Still, it’s a great story, and we continue to tell it, because on some level we all get it—life is a labyrinth, and we don’t know what waits around the next corner. We need courage and cleverness to deal with our monsters.

Like those first disciples, the women at the tomb, we don’t all come to these Jesus stories out of faith. Some of us listen to them out of obligation or duty. Resignation. Perhaps love for the familiarity of religion or for the family and friends who participate. Maybe we listen to the stories about the resurrection of Jesus because we are trying to decide whether we might believe them, or not, trying to wrap our minds around something we have never seen.

Like the story of the labyrinth, we might come to understand resurrection in new ways. Who hasn’t needed a reset button from time to time, some energy returning us to a prior state of order?

The resurrection offers a word of grace, that here is a way back, or forward, a way to make sense of the crooked path we’ve taken through our labyrinth, a way to redeem our wasted moments, our ill-made choices.IM000874.JPG

We might take another look at the resurrection stories, not with the blind acceptance of mere religion (it’s not the same thing as faith, is it?), and not with the blindness of those who have rejected religion, regardless the reasons, and who then refuse to listen. A closed mind is a weak mind.

Stories matter. These resurrection stories matter. They help us make sense of who we are.

Below is a re-telling of another resurrection, the raising of Lazarus seen from the point of view of the disciple John. Maybe hearing it can help us to hear the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe it will at least help us find a way through our labyrinth. If we still do not find faith that we ourselves will one day be resurrected, we may at least carry away faith that our present lives can be resurrected, that something more is possible, here and now. That is a start on the gospel way.

Resurrection. Redemption. Restoration. Those are good words for an Easter Sunday.


“I am the resurrection,” Jesus said. “I am the life.” Later the words would be famous, and we would think we understood them. This day the words seemed odd, out of place. He asked her, “Do you believe me?”

Martha glanced at me then looked back into Jesus’ eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I believe you. You are the Messiah.”

Messiah. That is who he is, I thought. I had thought many things before that day, but for some reason I had never thought of that word. I wasn’t sure that I understood it. I wasn’t sure that she did.

She turned and walked away, going quickly back toward their house. Jesus stood still for a few minutes and watched her walking away. The mourners followed her, but they looked back over their shoulders at Jesus. I could tell they were wondering about what they had heard, wondering if they had heard correctly, wondering if we were all crazy. If they hated us before this, I thought, they are going to try to kill us now.

Jesus began walking again down the path into the village, toward the house of Lazarus. Their parents were dead, and Lazarus had been left with two unwed sisters and the property. They were comfortable enough, had some standing in the community. All in all, they were a few rungs up the ladder from fisherman like most of us. When we reached the center of the village we found everyone gathered at the house to mourn.

Then Mary, Martha’s sister, came outside, with a crowd of people who had been gathered in the house. They were all crying, some honestly. Mary came walking straight to Jesus who stood still once more waiting. She walked up to him with the same indictment as her sister and said, “If you had been here, he would not have died.”

Once more, I didn’t know whether she would slap him or not. Everyone knew how much time had passed since the return of the servant who brought that slip of papyrus. All of them knew we had made no great haste to get there. Nevertheless Mary just fell at Jesus’ feet, tears pouring down her face. Martha came back out of the house sobbing. I looked around, and even Peter had tears in his eyes.

Then Jesus started crying himself. There were tears on his cheeks, rolling silently into his beard. It was such a strange sight, Jesus crying. Most of the people were crying, making a general wail throughout the open space. I heard someone say that Jesus could have healed Lazarus if he had come in time.

Jesus took Martha by the arm and raised her up, then he started walking toward the edge of the village where there were tombs cut into the hillside. Martha walked with him, and Mary, and all of us followed along with the mourners from the house. Eventually, Martha pointed at one of the tombs, Lazarus’ tomb, and she put her face in her hands and wept.

Jesus was staring at the tomb. I was suddenly afraid, slightly nauseated, as I contemplated what he might be about to try. Surely not, I thought. Surely he will not try this thing.

“Take away the stone,” he said. I put my hand to my mouth, horrified. Martha sniffed, her tears slowing with the shock of hearing the words.

“Take away the stone,” he said again.

Martha looked around at the stone, back at Jesus. “My Lord, we cannot, not now, it has been four days. The smell…”

People near enough to hear what they were saying began to murmur. I looked around to see if anyone was picking up a rock.

“If you believe, you will see the power of God,” Jesus said. “Take away the stone.”

It was like one of those dreams where everything gets slowly worse, but you cannot wake up. I wanted to walk away, go anywhere, but my legs would not move. They would stone us, I thought. The Romans would not have to do anything. Our fellow Jews were going to kill us right here in this village. I looked around at Peter, who was holding his stomach with both hands. Peter, I knew, did not care for bodies. The dead unnerved him. It made no difference, I thought, soon we would all be dead.

Martha turned and looked at some men in the crowd and nodded to them. They did not move, but just looked at her as though they did not understand. She pointed at the stone rolled in front of the small cave that formed the tomb. I thought I could already smell the body.

The men looked at one another, but Martha pointed again and they rolled away the stone. Then they backed away, watching Jesus. Martha swayed a little and caught herself. Mary joined her and they stood with their arms around one another.

It was so quiet that all I could hear was an occasional foot shifting on the stones, a bird chirping in the distance.

Jesus began praying, out loud, thanking God for hearing him. Everyone could hear him right then, I thought. Everyone except Lazarus.

Then Jesus stopped praying, and there was silence. I could not even hear the birds anymore. Then he yelled, “Lazarus! Come out!”

I started praying, silently, hoping this was, in fact a dream. I prayed to be somewhere else, that all of this was not happening. There was no way out, the tombs being at the end of a path, and we were surrounded by a crowd who were certainly going to kill us very soon.

Then I heard something moving in the tomb. We all heard it. There was a shuffling sound, like someone’s feet sliding against the stone floor of the cave. I glanced around to make sure other people were hearing what I was hearing. Peter was staring into the tomb, his mouth hanging open like a dead man with no head cloth.

There was a sudden gasp, everyone in the crowd breathing in at once, then the murmurs, and finally a woman screaming until she fainted, falling onto the ground. No one had the presence of mind to catch her. We were all watching Lazarus walk out of the tomb.

He was wrapped in the burial shroud, shuffling his way into the light.

“Let him go,” Jesus was saying. “Take those things off of him.”

Mary ran to her brother and began loosening the same cloths that she had helped to tie around him four days earlier. Martha was crying, hysterical. Two men turned and ran down the pathway, back toward the village and Jerusalem, yelling that Lazarus was alive.

Somehow I knew that none of this was going to turn out well. Lazarus had never been one of my favorite people. Now that he was shuffling his way out of the tomb, he gave me the creeps. He still did.

Nevertheless, I had seen the power of God. Jesus had raised a man from the dead. He couldn’t be the Messiah, could he?

This was an excerpt from the novel I,John. You can find out more about it here: crtaylorbooks.com/i-john