Tag Archives: Beauty

Wesleyan Accent ~ Not Yet Fully Awake: Dr. Matthew Milliner

Note from the Editor: As Christians continue into Eastertide, Wesleyan Accent is pleased to share this profound Easter sermon by art history professor Dr. Matthew Milliner, which was preached in All Souls Church in Wheaton, Illinois. You can see more from him here.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

It’s exciting news when the most brilliant disciple of the atheist Sigmund Freud sees the need for belief in God. As many of you know, the name of this student was Carl Jung, and there is a lot one can learn from him. But here is one thing he really got wrong: “It is funny,” Jung tells us, “that Christians are still so pagan that they understand spiritual existence only as a body and as a physical event. I am afraid our Christian cannot maintain this shocking anachronism any longer.”

And so having cited this unfortunate remark of the great Swiss psychiatrist, please indulge me again, maybe with an Alleluia at the end this time.

He is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The field of Biblical studies is wonderful. You can learn all kinds of things about the Ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman contexts in which the Biblical books were originally written, you can learn the original languages. But as in any field, some people in Biblical studies make some miscalculations. I speak of the Biblical scholar Gerd Lüdemann: “A consistent modern view must say farewell to the resurrection as a historical event.”

Having heard that, please indulge me once again.

He is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The notion that you can keep Christianity without resurrection has aged about as well as pay phones, in-flight ash trays, spitoons, hoop skirts, zuit suits, and those massive televisions that we used to have to cram in our living room and the gargantuan pieces of furniture we used to hide them before the flat screens came along.  You still sometimes see those huge TVs on the curb, usually with five garbage stickers on them because no one wants them!  And who would want a Christianity without resurrection either?

It’s often said if the resurrection isn’t true, don’t go to church, go to brunch. Well I was at one of those Chicago brunch meccas just this week and I overheard the bartenders planning the cocktail menu for this Sunday – Easter morning. And they said, “We need to mix up our menu to bring people in.” One employee said, we could change up the Bloody Mary with a bloodless Mary, which I guess is some kind of cocktail. And how I wish I had had the courage to say then and there, “Sounds like perfect cocktail for someone without resurrection hope on Easter Morning! Bloodless Mary.” But because he is risen we’re not at brunch, we’re here instead to drink from the veins of the risen Christ, and today at least we’re throwing in brunch too. 

I’m sure you know the great John Updike poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

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.

Or better than Updike’s poem is this bald statement of fact in 1 Cor. 15; “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”  Or Acts 10: “We are witnesses to all that he did… They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” That is not a pious sentiment, a clever aphorism, haiku or a sonnet – it’s journalism. They killed him, God fixed it, says St. Peter.

One reason that resurrection matters is because it addresses our root anxiety. There are a lot of surface anxieties in our lives, and some that cut a good bit below the surface. But if you follow those anxieties to their root, and ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” The answer tends to be: “somebody could die.” That’s about as bad as it could get. And that root anxiety of our impermanence is what drives so many of our worries, agendas and sins – and so the root anxiety is the one Jesus addresses this morning not just by his words but with his body, by conquering death and replacing it with the root peace of the risen Christ.

That root peace is why Roger Persons, a member of our congregation, when his wife Jean died while they were watching TV together, was able to address her then and there and say, “Walk with the king.” That root peace is why Jason Long and I, sitting at the top of Central Dupage Hospital with Brett Foster as the sunset beamed into the hospital room so strongly that I had to put on my sunglasses, felt strangely, in retrospect, like Brett was preparing us for our own deaths as well. When I think of Brett, my memory now skips from that hospital room to his funeral where we heard these words from the Orthodox poet, Scott Cairns, about the resurrection – not Jesus’ resurrection, but mine and yours. 

…one morning you finally wake

to a light you recognize as the light you’ve wanted

every morning that has come before. And the air

itself has some light thing in it that you’ve always

hoped the air might have. And One is there

to welcome you whose face you’ve looked for during all

the best and worst times of your life. He takes you to himself

and holds you close until you fully wake.

And in our gospel passage, Mary of course – like all of us on this side of death – is not yet fully awake. She makes first contact with the resurrected Jesus, and it’s about as awkward as Peter embarrassing himself by trying to pitch a tent on Mount Tabor. Mary’s problem is that she thinks Jesus is dead, and when she sees that he’s gone, she consoles herself by saying, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

I wonder if it’s her root anxiety in the form of a sentence. It signifies confusion, frustration and maybe even a little panic. I almost imagine her wandering off in a daze reciting those words in some kind of stupor. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then the disciples show up, Peter and John. And of course, the best illustration I know of that moment in all the world is a train ride away at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s by the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. It shows Peter kind of concerned, almost twiddling his thumbs because he knew he blew it – and John, the beloved disciple has this beaming look on his face, as if to say, “I knew it!”  Tanner suffered from racial prejudice all his life – he believed in resurrection. Still, in our passage, neither Peter nor John stick around.

But Mary wanders back, still clinging to the best she can do under the circumstances. Call her the Bloodless Mary, wringing her hands as she repeats, “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And then she gets what we all think would work for us if only it would happen: an angelic visitation. “She bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.” I hope you’re catching that this is a reference to the ark of the covenant – two angels surrounding a void of presence – the absence that signifies that God cannot be contained. And the angels, puzzled, say to her, “woman, why are you weeping?”

And her reply? “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” The presence of the angels doesn’t clear up her confusion, so the Lord himself explains it to her. “She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Now that is a reference to the mystical treaties the Song of Solomon if there ever was one – God’s pursuit of the soul. “Whom are you looking for?” God asks this to all of us this morning.

But it doesn’t work! Mary thinks he’s the gardener. And she offers her good intentions and pious objectives one more time. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  She still clings to her pre-resurrection agenda. On Friday one of our speakers said that Jesus was LOUD on the cross and I think he’s loud here too.  He has to be loud enough to snap her out of her pious plans to anoint his corpse. And so he shouts with a smile, “Mary!”

There have been a lot of good stories about Notre Dame de Paris this week, but here’s the best one I know of. Denise once told me that when she was there with her mother and sister, they were touring the Cathedral which was packed with tourists, when a mother lost her son. And my wife Denise knows the name of that boy, as does everyone who was in Notre Dame that day because the mother started to shout it. Dimitri!  After three shouts the packed cathedral fell silent but she kept shouting, no – screaming, “Dimitri! Dimitri!” until he was found. And that, after all, is what Notre Dame’s architecture is – it is the risen Christ shouting to you through beauty. Shouting your name and mine, trying to snap us out of our own agendas, even our own ambitions to serve him. That’s what beauty does, what pain does, what tragedy, suffering and joy do. They’re all the risen Christ shouting our name again and again in the Cathedral of this cosmos while the cathedral lasts.

And like Mary, we wake up, “Teacher!” and we cling to him, as any of us would. That’s what coming to church is about. But then comes Jesus’ famous lines to Mary: “Don’t hold onto me.” He does not mean back off. He tells her to stop clinging to him because he has something for her to do. Not her agenda this time but his. Namely, go tell the boys. In all four gospels the women are first, the only difference is the number of women who are present. And each gospel, the mission of the women is the same – and it is from them that we get the message with which we began.

He is risen: He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Philip Tallon ~ Make Buildings that Won’t Be Burnt Up

A wise art teacher used to say, “Make art that won’t be burnt up.” He meant, make art that will outlast the last judgment. Make art that will count as one of the “glories of the nations” brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26).

Like most people, I watched in horror as one of the glories of the nation of France was nearly burnt up last week. Someone put it well in Twitter, “Had to turn the tv off. Can’t take it anymore. Like watching someone in real time smashing everything in the Louvre with a sledgehammer.”

The world mourned in real time, only to discover in the following days that much of value survived. An early echo of Easter’s surprising good news, the medieval vaulting protected the sanctuary from much of the fire. If it were not for the much later addition of the spire, the damage to the inside would have been even less. My children will get to see Notre Dame’s sanctuary in much the same state as I have.

The news made much of the response of the French people. The French are marginally church-going and the country ranks as one of the least religious in the world. It is easy to imagine that France will be, in the near future, more meaningfully Muslim than Christian. Yet the world, and the French people, love this cathedral. In many ways it is the heart of Paris.

As the burning was happening I, of course, noticed the occasional dunking on church-obsession by Christians and secularists, for opposite reasons. The Christians looked to score piety points by signaling that “the church is people, not buildings.” The secularists signaled superiority by (often mistakenly) noting that such churches were built on the scaffolding of injustice, superstition, and colonialism. There wasn’t much of this, though. It was mostly a unifying moment.

My thoughts turned to my own town. I wondered what sites here in Houston would warrant such an outcry with their bloodless destruction. The answer was easy: none. Few such places exist in the world. Few buildings are as grand or as famous as Notre Dame. The closest Houston comes to a landmark is its sad, abandoned Astrodome, which the city can’t bring itself to get rid of, but also has no use for. Our dome will never compare to “Our Dame.” We could try awfully hard and still fail to create such a work of beauty. There is, of course, the additional problem that we aren’t trying.

This week it so happened that I had the pleasure to lead a discussion on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. As anyone familiar with the work will recall, much of what Burke bemoans is the way that the French revolution cut out the heart of civil life: the nobility and the church. Left with denuded rationality, Burke foresaw the likely result. Reason unaided by sentiment will quickly degrade into cruelty. And Burke was right. The reign of terror followed soon after the book’s publication. Despite its coincidental bearing on France, the part of the book that touched most directly on the burning of Notre Dame was a point that Burke made with reference to manners: “There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” The connection here between beauty and loyalty is apparent. Beauty attracts us, even when our reasons are unconvinced. When our nation’s politicians act in ugly ways, it helps that our nation’s capital is still beautiful.

The connection to Notre Dame is obvious. This troubled world still hungers for beauty, even as it has become confused about truth. On cloudy days it seems like the church only cares about truth and goodness (and sometimes not even those), but has left the beautiful to fend for itself. Our love of “Our Lady” reminds us of a truth that the builders knew: to help us love God the church ought to be lovely.

David Watson ~ Grace

Christians in the Wesleyan tradition love to talk about grace, and with good reason. God’s grace is another way of talking about God’s love, love that can overcome anything, including the many ways in which we humans rebel against our creator. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” And then to underscore the point that this is God’s doing, and not our own, he interjects, “By grace you have been saved!” (2:4-5). In case it wasn’t clear enough the first time, he repeats it again just a few verses later: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9).

When we speak of God’s grace, we mean an undeserved gift. In a world where we so often hear that people “get what they deserve,” our faith tells us that God gives us exactly what we do not deserve.” In fact, God offers us something much better than we deserve. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven is like a place where we receive not on the basis of our efforts, but on the basis of God’s generosity, and our God is indeed generous.

We cannot earn God’s love. Rather, God simply loves us. As we read in Psalm 103:8-10,

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.

The clearest sign of God’s love and grace is the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. Christ humbled himself and became human (Phil 2:5-11), a person with flesh, blood, and emotions, like any of us. He went to the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. He truly suffered and truly died so that broken people like us could have new life. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “costly grace.” Costly indeed: the Holy One of God, the beloved Son of the Father, who was without sin, gave himself up to suffering and death for our salvation. In Romans Paul observes, “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7-8).

The theme of God’s grace shows up regularly in Wesley’s sermons. Grace, for Wesley, was a way of talking about all the work God does in our lives to lead us more deeply into salvation. Wesley sometimes spoke of preventing (or prevenient) grace. The term “preventing” here meant something different in Wesley’s day than it does in ours. In Wesley’s sermons, it means that God’s grace comes to us before we ever have the slightest inkling that we need God. The Holy Spirit creates in us “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight, transient conviction of having sinned against him” (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” II.i).  In other words, preventing grace creates in us the first awareness that something is not right in our lives, and that only God can truly make things right.

We can, of course, entirely reject these inclinations. We can push them aside, chalk them up to sentimentality or heartburn, and go on our way. Wesley was well aware that many people do just that. Alternatively, however, if we allow these feelings to grow in our hearts, if we begin to take seriously the desire for repentance that God creates within us, we will begin to feel a deep conviction of sin. Wesley calls this convincing grace, or, simply, repentance, “which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone” (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” II.i.). Why do we think of repentance as a form of grace? Remember that, without God’s help, we could never repent to start with, and without repentance, we cannot be saved from sin and death.

With repentance, however, comes a deep desire to be freed from both the guilt and the power of sin. This is where justifying and sanctifying grace come in. Every one of us has acted many times in ways that are out of sync with God’s will. That’s simply part of the human condition. Or, to put it another way, our sins create a chasm between God and us. Jesus, on the cross, has bridged that chasm. He has atoned for our sins. Think of atonement as at-one-ment. In his death on the cross, Jesus has made it possible for us to return to a right relationship with God. Jesus didn’t have to do this. He did it out of love for us. It is a gift. It is grace. It is, in fact, justifying grace – the gift of God’s forgiveness of our sins.

God doesn’t just free us from the guilt of sin, however. God frees us from the power of sin as well. From that first moment when we begin to feel God drawing us into a closer relationship with him, the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts. God begins to change us from the inside out. Our desires begin to change. The way we see the world changes. We begin to hope for different things. We begin to react to adversity differently than we would have before. We begin to regard other people in a new way–even the ones who are hard to like. This is God’s gift to us. It is the gift of sanctifying grace. “Sanctification” is just another way of saying that God is making us holier people, and that is just another way of saying that God is making us into the people we were always meant to be.

The grace of God in our lives changes us, and in turn we extend grace to others. When someone is unkind to us, we can extend him or her grace. We can forgive those who have hurt us. We can give without thought of what we might receive in return. We can even love our enemies. Whether or not the recipients of our grace deserve it or not is beside the point. God gave to us simply out of love, and God requires and empowers us to do the same to others. God’s grace is so abundant that it flows out of our lives and into the lives of other people. As Wesley put it, “God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works; therefore you must work” (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” III.3).

There is real beauty in the work of God – glorious, simple, earth-shaking beauty. That beauty is expressed more perfectly in poetry than prose, as Charles Wesley so aptly demonstrates in his hymn, “Father of Everlasting Grace”:

Send us the Spirit of Thy Son,
To make the depths of Godhead known,
To make us share the life divine;
Send Him the sprinkled blood to apply,
Send Him our souls to sanctify,
And show and seal us ever Thine.

Freely we have received, and so freely let us give. May God make it so in our lives.


Reprinted with permission.

Featured image is “Grace Lake,” painted by Canadian artist Franklin Carmichael in 1934.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Truth, Beauty & Tragedy: How to Be Happy

“Jack, take your hands off of your ears.

“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”

This is what shoppers strolling down store aisles could overhear recently. Alas, the four year old had acted up; alas, Mama had to intervene with a reminder of behavior expectations. But the child had realized that with hearing comes accountability. If I can’t hear you, you can’t hold me responsible.

And the hands clamped tightly over the ears.

I get the instinct.

I haven’t been swiping an imaginary monster along grocery store shelves knocking products out of place, but I’ve certainly wanted to power down communications coming at me fast and unrelenting. There are days when I feel I can’t take hearing about another iota of tragedy. Once while I was breathing through the nauseating misery of a panic attack a loved one asked what was wrong.

“The Holocaust,” I said.

I meant it.

An image had planted in my mind from a fragment of an Oprah show seen years before featuring a tour of the World War II horror, Auschwitz – the shoes…the piles and piles of shoes, so human, creased on top where a foot had bent – and one tiny little red pair…

I retched.

I get the instinct to clamp my hands tightly over my ear, to turn my grimacing face away. Even as a news junkie (especially as a news junkie?) sometimes I have to limit how closely I follow unfolding events.

I can probably affect something as intimate as your blood pressure level right now.



Russia and the Ukraine



Scandal, addiction, bankruptcy, cancer

“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”

  I know, dear friend. I know you don’t. And there’s good news in the world, too, after all –

The ice bucket challenge

Donation of a kidney


Rain after a drought

Unlikely reconciliation

Here’s the twist: the second list may lower your blood pressure or make you smile, but it won’t ultimately make you happy without the first list. I’m not advocating the tired “you need evil to appreciate the good” theology – there’s no such thing as a “felix culpa”, a happy crime that’s blessed because you appreciate the good more.

No, you need the first list in order to be truly happy because we humans can only be happy when we face the reality of evil. We can’t be happy without the truth. Despite being surrounded by the truth of ugly facts – genocide or beheadings or crowded refugee camps or grotesquely contagious diseases – we have the inner impulse to reach also for the truth of reality, of existence, the Truth that transcends current events, that tunes the music of the spheres and absorbs everything into the unity that is Triune love.

To avoid the truth – whether of current events or the transcendent reality – is to construct a scaffolding of denial constantly in need of repair and maintenance. If you live attempting to ignore the retch-inducing evil of this world, you will consign yourself to living constantly in fear – more fear, in fact, than what comes from facing current events or theological questions or past experiences or worries for the future.

“But I don’t want to hear…”

Sometimes the well-worn, familiar refrain says it best, as Pastor Martin Niemöller so famously wrote and spoke:

    In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
    And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
    And then they came for the trade unionists,
    And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
    And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
    And then they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

There is a deep, gnawing dread when we deny the truth that stalks us, insisting to us that we untie the blindfold. But if I can’t take hearing about the facts of the world I live in, how will I pray for its transformation? If I seek out mind-numbing busyness, how will the Holy Spirit show me where to serve? And if I hear the facts only so that I can attempt to add them to my pile of pieces as I attempt to solve the puzzle of the Apocalypse and how things will ultimately end, then I am not living beautifully – I am living miserly, attempting to guess tomorrow’s weather so that I can gain from the forecast, regardless of who is suffering today. This day. Right now.

Denial never brings happiness – neither does distance, or distraction. We are a global neighborhood now. And while it’s tempting to mistake cynicism for wisdom, Christians are called to be the least cynical people on earth; not the most naïve, or the most chipper, or the cheeriest – simply the least cynical, because we dare to look into the abyss of the evil in our world or the evil in our own hearts and we still dare to say that that evil is not the last word.

God is the Creator and all Christians are artists – not called to paint over ugliness but rather to be a means of its melting and molding into something beautiful. “See, I am making all things new” is the context into which we must submit the 24-hour news cycle. And we have this example set in front of us: Jesus Christ, whose beautiful actions in the midst of ongoing suffering and evil lived the Truth of beautiful reality into the facts of the day around him.

Bear witness to atrocity. Weep with the suffering. Then choose actions of beauty, grace and redemption. Christ lived a life that turned “but I don’t want to hear…” into “tell me your story…” so that you and I can uncover the story of redemption on the mural of our world.