Tag Archives: Literature

Jeff Rudy ~ What Good Is a Dead Shepherd?

The texts for this sermon come from Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18.

In the middle of the Easter season every year is what some call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” which falls on the fourth Sunday of Easter. The revised common lectionary readings for this Sunday are always related to the image of the shepherd – Psalm 23 is the psalm all three years, and the Gospel reading always comes from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, which prominently displays Jesus’ referring to himself as the “good shepherd.”

Good shepherds develop a sort of bond with their sheep. Some say that the bond is such that the sheep consider the shepherd as one of their own. This can shed a little light on the idea that not only is Jesus our “good shepherd” but is also deemed as “the lamb of God.” The bond of trust between sheep and shepherd is confirmed by David’s meditation on how God is the shepherd of God’s people and by Jesus’ use of this analogy: “I know my own and my own know me.” The sheep know the shepherd by the sound of the shepherd’s voice.

My father concurs with this. Until he suffered a heart attack, my Dad had a flock of about 100 sheep. I talked with him a few weeks ago, reminiscing on those days and pondering on this beautiful metaphor. He said that Jesus’ statement that the sheep know his voice is right on target.

Whenever the sheep got out and Dad was at the farm store several miles away, one of the neighbors would call him to let him know the sheep were out of their pen. The question became, how would he respond? If he wanted the task to not consume the whole day, he couldn’t dispatch one of his employees…the hired hands, if you will…but would have to go down to the farm himself. There was a powerful combination of the sound of the feed hitting the trough along with the unique sound of his voice that would be the key to fully inviting and bringing them back home.

The 23rd Psalm, Jesus’ comforting words, and experiences like my dad’s that confirm these truths evoke a sort of pleasant rural image. But other than these pleasantries, the picture of a shepherd is one that, frankly, we have overly romanticized when in reality, the life of a shepherd, especially in the ancient world, was anything but warm and fuzzy. It wasn’t glamorous; it was messy, risky, tedious, and dangerous. It was really a thankless job, but think about this: shepherds were tasked with caring for the very animals that would be slaughtered as the sacrificial offerings of the worshiping community. Because of the value of the commodity of sheep in the ancient middle east, whenever a sheep or a lamb had been attacked or killed by a predator, the shepherd would have to bring proof by retrieving a part of the sheep, which meant fighting the wolves or whatever the predator was.

And this is the part of the analogy. Jesus said, memorably, that he is the good shepherd, and that means that he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. This, of course, speaks to a sort of quality that is hailed as wonderful – sacrificial, self-giving, love. It’s a simple picture that emerges really – the sheep face danger; the shepherd goes out to meet the danger, and, if necessary, takes upon himself the fate that would have befallen the sheep. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

But all of this begs the question about the nature of this good shepherd, which is this: “What good is a dead shepherd?”

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” If that is where Jesus’ analogy had ended, then this question would be even more puzzling. This is more than a theological question; it’s a practical one. If a predator kills the shepherd, what is to stop that predator from destroying the sheep? At the very least, as the prophecy said, when the shepherd is struck down the sheep will scatter. At worst, the wolf eats the flock.

The tragic scene of Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what the evil witch says to him as she slays him speaks to this very problem that makes a sacrificial shepherd seem so pointless. The lion Aslan, in the fashion of the good shepherd, had gone to meet the witch and had agreed to trade his life in exchange for the life of Edmund Pevensie who had betrayed the Narnians by leading the witch to them. Edmund regretted his traitorous action, but his punishment was supposed to be death. However, Aslan stepped in and appealed to an ancient agreement that would establish the balance of justice. An innocent life (Aslan, in this case) could be given so that the guilty party (in this case Edmund) wouldn’t have to be condemned to death.

But for the witch, this was more than just about an exacting of punishment or a balancing of the scales – it was a battle in which she was seeking to rule the whole world and destroy or enslave all her enemies. So, after Aslan is tied up, his mane is completely shaved, and he’s beaten to within an inch of his life, the witch drew near to the lion’s ear with an attempt to crush his spirit in defeat as she dealt the death blow. She said this:

And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.

What good is a dead Aslan? What good is a dead shepherd? What is to stop the wolf from destroying the sheep too? The answer to these questions is, nothing.

Unless…The shepherd’s not actually dead anymore. Did you hear? The shepherd’s not dead anymore!

As he did in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so also here in John, Jesus gives a premonition of his death – “I lay down my life for the sheep.” But once again, he also follows it up with the glimpse of hope on the other side of that valley of the shadow of death. “I lay down my life…in order to take it up again.

This is why this passage finds its way into the season of Easter. Because what’s good about the dead shepherd is that he isn’t dead anymore and, in his return, has brought in a bigger flock of sheep than what had been known before. Jesus speaks of another flock to add to the fold – a way of speaking about salvation being not only for those inside the Jewish community, but also for the rest of the world. It was after the resurrection when this reality would come into being. The shepherd’s not dead anymore…and he’s even more powerful than before.

In Narnia, Aslan was resurrected as the White Witch went to battle against the good Narnians led by the humans who were all loyal to Aslan. When Aslan came back to life, the first witnesses were two girls, who laughed and danced and played with him until it was time to gather more troops for the battle. So while the battle is out on the field, Aslan stormed the witch’s castle, breathed upon the creatures that the witch had frozen and they thawed, coming back to life. They then ran out to defeat the witch and sent her comrades into full retreat. In describing his resurrection, Aslan appealed to the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which said, “that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [on which Aslan was killed] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards…”

What’s good about the dead shepherd who has taken up his life again? The sheep who aren’t in the flock yet but are waiting to come alive are seen as the shepherd to be potential sheep.

Jesus was trying to get them to see that the Gentiles were not really their enemies: they were sheep who weren’t in the fold yet.

And maybe that ought to speak to us about our role in relation to the mission of the good shepherd. The once dead, but now resurrected good shepherd, I would suggest, is telling us – I have other sheep…potential sheep outside of your fences, outside of your walls, that are waiting for the life-giving word, for the life-giving witness, for the life-giving invitation of the good shepherd, whose voice we are called to bear in the world.

Will we introduce them to the good shepherd or will we run and hide like the hired hand?

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Excuses, Excuses: Common Sense, Morality, and the Divine Revelation of God

Humans are expert excuse-makers.  

“Well, GOD, the woman you gave me tempted me, so…that’s why I didn’t listen to you when you told me not to eat anything from that tree.” 

“I know I’m not supposed to cut my hair, but…I mean, have you seen Delilah? I’m only human.” 

“I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but I have family obligations and an urgent to-do list first. Let me take care of those things and then I’m totally on board.” 

“I’ve followed all those commandments since I was a kid, and now you’re asking me to give up my hard-earned wealth in order to follow you? How is that fair? Surely I can have both?” 

“Learning with the men is all well and good, but Jesus, are you going to let her shirk the duties literally all other women manage? I’m in here in the kitchen and I’m happy to be, but I need some extra hands! After all…this dinner is for you…” 

“Who, that guy? No, no, I wasn’t one of his disciples, I’m just hanging out here. You must have me confused with someone else. No, *&#$, I’m telling you, I don’t know Jesus!” 

You and I can find a multitude of ways to make excuses for ourselves, and just as dangerously, for each other.  

“He’s a great leader, so we shouldn’t hold his past indiscretions against him. After all, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so we shouldn’t expect more from our pastors than we do anyone else.” 

“She would face a lot of resistance from peers and family members, so while she did a great job preaching last Sunday, let’s not pressure her to enter pastoral leadership; there are other places she can serve, and we’ll be doing her a favor to protect her from the resistance she might encounter.” 

“I’ve fought long and hard to get to where I am. I’m finally a voice at the table. If I mentor other underrepresented people, are they going to take the opportunities I’ve worked so hard for? Is she my ally – or my competitor? Chances like this are few and far between. Someone else will give her a leg up. I have enough on my plate already.” 

“It’s just really hard to find minority speakers, we’d love to have some on the lineup, but we’re just not aware of many who have the experience for this kind of setting and this size of a crowd.” 

“If I accept that speaking invitation, they’ll just try to use me as a token representative. I’m sure it would be a waste of time. It would just be settling their uneasy consciences. I don’t think that’s how God wants me to use my time right now. I can make more of an impact somewhere else.” 

“Those women have troubled pasts, so obviously we can’t take their accounts seriously. I grew spiritually under his leadership, so it’s hard to imagine he would’ve done those things to kids. This is just Satan attacking him and his ministry. Now more than ever, we need to rally around him and pray for him.” 

Beware the excuse that lets you off the hook, or lets your friends, your ideological companions, or your heroes off the hook. If you have to jump through some hoops in a way you would never accept from your opponents, your ideological adversaries, or those you disdain, let that be a red flag: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. 

Recently I read an observation from someone on Twitter (sorry, anonymous, I can’t remember who you were). He simply said that across conservative and liberal spectrums, religious and secular, red and blue, that in North America, God is busy unmasking our hypocrisies. It occurred to me that unmasking hypocrisies is a grace – a gift. Many in the Wesleyan Methodist family have been praying for a great awakening. But is awakening possible without first coming face to face with the depth of our own sin, faults, blindness, and excuses? 

John Wesley didn’t think so. In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” he noted,  

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel, in order to “beget faith,” to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconvinced; but because otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel. 

In this context, he is counseling on how to preach to believers and unbelievers; and he clarifies that while preachers must preach hope, that hope can only truly be received after a person is clearly convinced of the depth of their own need for it. In other words, preaching to show how far off the mark humans generally are must come before we can effectively preach the scope of the promises of a loving, pursuing God. 

In other words, while awakening is the satisfying part, unmasking excuses and hypocrisies in both believers and unbelievers must come first

Wesley continues by pointing out that preaching that celebrates the love and goodness of God without confronting the twists of the inner heart has done considerable damage in different parts of England:  

This is the plain fact. As to the fruit of this new manner of preaching, (entirely new to the Methodists,) speaking much of the promises, little of the commands; (even to unbelievers, and still less to believers;) you think it has done great good; I think it has done great harm. 

The Spirit of God is an equal-opportunity hound nipping at our heels. The Hound of Heaven doesn’t pursue “them” without also pursuing “us.” And part of this conviction of our souls appears when we attempt to abandon common sense and morality as if they are divorced from the revelation of Scripture; as if somehow they are dispensable, unrelated to the Word of God. But of course the “Hound of Heaven” will not let this cognitive dissonance continue unchallenged indefinitely. 

God never intended Scripture to be used as an excuse to abandon common sense and general ethics. Even Satan twisted the use of Scripture during the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus actually preached against this tendency when he pointed out, “you think loving and forgiving your friends and family is a virtue? Even crooks and pagans do that.” In other words, “basic decency available through prevenient grace and general revelation of God’s goodness in the world isn’t something you should brag about. People of other religions or no religion love their families and forgive their friends.” He continued – “but say to you, love your enemies and pray for people who persecute you and make your life miserable.” (Matthew 5:43-48, Elizabeth Version) 

Jesus cuts through their feeble defense at their own righteousness like a hot knife through butter. “Don’t brag to me about the number of truckloads of supplies you sent out of your abundance to citizens of your own country going through a natural disaster. The mosque down the street did that too. So did a bunch of atheists. Instead, tell me what you’re doing to love the opponents, threats, enemies, and irritants in your life, locally, nationally, and globally.” 

The Holy Spirit, the Hound of Heaven, not only uncovers the areas in which you and I make excuses for why we can ignore basic common sense and morality; the Holy Spirit also stays in pursuit of us, moving beyond general common sense and ethical norms, pushing us further and further towards the model of Christ, so that, far from relying on our laurels of meeting basic morality codes, we are hounded to live closer to the image of Christ, pursuing peace with our enemies, loving people who have wronged us, proactively serving people who despise us, and abandoning our right to be seen in the right. 

God save us all, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, religious and secular, from “healing our own wounds – slightly.” We cannot any of us afford to live in the stench of our own excuses. 

As Francis Thompson wrote in the first portion of his famous poem “The Hound of Heaven” (that deeply influenced G. K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien),  

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
  From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
      But with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

In your relentless, pursuing grace, o God, let us get tired of attempting to outrun the discomfort of coming face to face with you. 

Fiction in the Pulpit: Preachers’ Favorite Books

Note from the Editor: Following our series of posts exploring theology and literature51b22z84kl-_sx331_bo1204203200_from Steinbeck and the prophet Jeremiah to Jane Eyre, Jane Austen and John Wesley to the poetry of Mary Oliver – we asked several pastors and preachers from various Wesleyan/Methodist denominations what works of fiction have had the biggest impact on them personally.

Here are some responses:

Probably something from childhood: A Wrinkle in Time, especially Meg Murray, feeling awkward but finding herself and fighting for love. – Dr. Beth Felker Jones 

516c6guqlal-_sx329_bo1204203200_Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – Rev. Yvette Blair Lavallais

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I am now reading it to my boy. – Rev. Edgar Bazan

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelha, although there were a few books that I read as a kid that influenced me as well! Narnia series count? – Rev. Rob Lim

I think about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a lot. – Rev. Jennifer Moxley 51hvstieoal-_sx289_bo1204203200_

The Little Engine That Could – Rev. Kelcy G.L. Steele

Hinds Feet on High Places. That would be my number one. – Rev. Carolyn Moore

*What works of fiction would you include? Leave answers in the comments below.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ When Preachers Read

Enjoy this piece from our archives following this week’s reflections on Steinbeck, Austen, and Bronte. For more literary reflections, enjoy this post from our archives on reading, preaching, and T.S. Eliot.

“Read everything.”

Rev. Steve DeNeff, a pastor and well-known preacher and speaker in The Wesleyan Church, said this one day in my undergraduate homiletics class. He is an excellent communicator and taught a fascinating preaching class. At the end of the second semester, he presented students with a print portraying a pastor in a pulpit, surrounded by shadowy figures – prophets and leaders from familiar biblical texts. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” it reads. It is an encouragement: you never step into the pulpit alone. Preachers are part of a fellowship of truth-speakers that stretches back across centuries.

“Read everything.” News stories, fiction and nonfiction books, magazines. It was practical advice – we had to assemble folders of cut-outs or printed pieces from the web or photocopied pages of books, a built archive of potential sermon illustrations that might work well as an introduction to a text or an illumination of a difficult principle.

“Read everything.” The advice was also given almost like a pronouncement, a warning, an exhortation: if you preach, you must know the culture in which you live and breathe. A lot of our cultural dynamics go unspoken – but if you read regularly, you will notice trends, changes, you will be aware of the atmosphere others breathe unconsciously.

Reading everything didn’t mean ignoring the scriptural text in a sermon: on the contrary, DeNeff made clear that a sermon that doesn’t reference the Bible after the initial reading isn’t a sermon, it’s a motivational speech. Rather, reading everything means voraciously pursuing every tool at your disposal to help communicate the Word of God.

So what happens when preachers read?

450px-printing3_walk_of_ideas_berlinYou gain perspective. If all you read is Tweets and football scores, your perspective will be limited. When you read the news (even skimming stories outside your usual areas of interest), you become aware of the big picture. If there’s any danger in church life, it’s becoming so wrapped up in your own denomination or geographical area that you forget to pop your head up and see what’s happening around you. Because most preachers also make hospital visits or review committee budgets or calm disputes or counsel troubled couples, it’s even easier to get so wrapped up in other areas that the habit of reading is seen as a luxury. If a preacher does read, it’s a book – often from their own denominational or traditional perspective – about leadership, ministry, or preaching.

Which is about the moment that we begin to get nearsighted. But when you read – whether hardback or Kindle or even audio book – you deliberately expose yourself to other times, to other places, to other voices. Reading Dickens will throw into sharp relief how much things have changed in just a short 150 years – and how much they’ve stayed the same. In a time when all news is “BREAKING!” headline, it’s valuable to get some perspective. How far have we come? Where was God faithful in the Middle Ages? What circumstances from 50 years ago might give us some wisdom as we face today?

You gain storytelling awareness. If you read or listen to fiction, you will inevitably become – at the least – a slightly better communicator. Writers read good writers. Reading a good writer makes you a better writer. Of course not all books are worth your time. Some of them are worth investing in, though. By reading “Moby Dick” or “Roots” or “The Violent Bear It Away” or “Americanah” or even “Harry Potter,” you allow yourself to be a listener – a good discipline for speakers in itself – and to be swept up in the tide of the story itself.

Dr. Sandra Richter tells her Old Testament studies students to “tell the Story, and tell it well.” The more shy you are, the more I encourage you to read really good stories. They will help give you the words to express yourself.

You gain a disciplined mind by engaging new texts. Pastors have a lot of spinning plates, to use a familiar image. You’re busy. You’re subjected to the need for ruthless time management. But consider this benefit of reading fiction, nonfiction, news articles or poetry: you are subjecting yourself to the discipline of engaging new texts.

And that’s what you ask people to do every week.

Biblical literacy is at an astonishing low in North America: people who grew up in the pews are often unfamiliar with Bible stories and biblical themes. When you add people who did not grow up in the pews, even if you hand them a Gospel + Psalms, you are asking them to engage in reading that might, for them, be a challenge. Even listening to the Bible on your morning commute can be a challenge if you’ve never read it before.

Many pastors delegate Bible study to small group ministries. While whether actual Bible study actually happens in the fruit salad and coffee context of living room discussion is up for debate, it is the preacher’s job to proclaim the Word of God on Sunday mornings. And when you’re asking people to engage with the Word of God throughout the week, whether individually or in groups or through whatever book they’ve picked up at their local Christian book peddler’s, you should be willing to discipline yourself to read texts that are, for you, out of your comfort zone.

Reading one chapter of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” will probably remind you of how it can feel to encounter the Harry_Potter_and_the_Half-Blood_PrinceBible as a newcomer to the faith.

You gain sermons that grow beyond the surface. Truth pops up across history in many ways. There’s extraordinary wisdom about
human nature in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” You can dog-ear pages of “Watership Down” or even smile at “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” If I preach to a certain demographic of college students, I can communicate difficult Christological truths in a cultural shorthand with just one or two short quotes from “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Many people need to move from the familiar to the alien, from concrete to abstract. Jesus knew this in his own preaching. To prophetically proclaim is to take people on a journey. When pastors read, pastors deliberately invest in looking for effective ways to communicate the truth of scripture. Engaging in classics not only allows you to use stories and images that will engage your listeners as you bridge them to the biblical text, but also allows you to engage listeners whose intellects will appreciate the connections you draw – say, between Naaman’s vulnerability to his soldiers as he bathed in the river, and the struggle for dominant tribal position illustrated in a jungle animal fight early in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

You gain health. Preachers, you are as hungry after mental work as you are after physical work. Only you haven’t expended near as many calories. Which means you’re ravenous after you write or preach your sermon, even if you haven’t been chopping firewood or playing basketball. In other words – you may be sedentary and very hungry, a potentially problematic combination. That’s on top of having a job that elevates blood pressure and steals hours of sleep.

But reading can boost your memory and reduce your stress; neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel increases your brain connectivity; when you’re ready to clobber a difficult church member, reading can help increase empathy. (Just maybe read a paper version and not a screen that emits light right before bed.)

So when you have to fill out a report on your wellness practices, you can include “reading” on the list.

Last week I encouraged everyone to take a nap.

But if you’re in a preaching rut or having trouble sleeping, I recommend a good book.

Tammie Grimm ~ There I Plant My Foot: Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, & John Wesley

Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, and John Wesley:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong.

If you consider the three names mentioned above and come up with several possible responses, you’d be well within reason. There simply is no one definitive answer because, depending upon context, any one figure could be sorted separately from the others, e.g., Jane Eyre is a fictional figure (the creation of Charlotte Brontë), John Wesley’s life preceded the publications of the two Janes, or even that Jane Austen was a lifelong singleton compared to the two others. You may have indeed come up with different responses as the possibilities are numerous.


A fresh English June morning. Photo: Tammie Grimm
A fresh June morning in the English countryside. Photo: Tammie Grimm

But how are these figures all like each other? You might be wondering, except for the fact that all are British figures, is it even possible to compare the life of an eighteenth-century reformer and evangelist with that of a Regency novelist alongside a heroine from a Gothic novel? After spending the spring re-reading Jane Eyre with a student and then re-reading beloved Jane Austen novels over the summer, I think there is affinity among the three beyond the fact that each has occupied a fair amount of my reading and reflection over the past year. Indeed, I believe it is possible to argue that the three are all on the same page together when it comes to integrity of personal identity and character. Wesley may have been an evangelist and religious reformer, but the Christian worldview and faith of Brontë and Austen is evident in the characters they develop in the pages of their novels.


There is little doubt to many regular readers of this site that John Wesley’s Christian belief and faith pervades his written works, whether it be sermons, letters, tracts, or hymns. Most of us who are contributing authors discuss the many various ways that Wesley’s life and ministry reflected his passion and zeal to help persons live new lives in Christ, to become more of who they were created to be, becoming more like Christ. As much as Wesley desired converts to the faith, his desire was to help persons be sanctified, to grow ever in perfect love through the power of the Holy Spirit—to be and to do like Christ—or as Wesley frequently put it in biblical terms to have the mind that was in Christ (Philippians 2:5) as to walk as Christ also walked’ (I John 2:6).[1]

To be sure, neither Jane Austen or Jane Eyre explicitly discuss the Wesleyan way of salvation, the need for regeneration, prevenient grace, justification or entire sanctification. Yet, their stories depict characters who live out their Christian faith with wit and vivacity as well as varying degrees of pathos and faithfulness.

Re-reading Jane Eyre after several decades, and with the benefit of a seminary education, I was struck by Jane’s abiding faith that guides her throughout the novel. It’s easy enough for a twenty-first century high school English student to recognize many of the religious references and themes present even if their significance is lost on

Haddon Hall, location for Thornfield Hall in the 2011 Jane Eyre.
Haddon Hall, location for Thornfield Hall in the 2011 Jane Eyre. Photo: Tammie Grimm

them and their contemporary English teachers who dismiss Christian belief as quaint and anachronistic. Still, the religious experiences and convictions of Jane are plainly discussed by Brontë and integral to Jane’s development throughout the novel. It is evident to the biblically literate Christian that Jane is the living embodiment of Proverbs 2:6, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” The Christian faith and teaching instilled in her as an orphaned child raised at Lowood School (which, in concept, is not radically different from Wesley’s own Kingwood School that came into being at the start of the Industrial Age) serves her when she is faced with temptation to become Mr. Rochester’s mistress. Wesleyans might even imagine Jane holding fast to the first two General Rules (e.g. to avoid evil and do good) as she struggles with her desires. It is her conscience that guards her from regret and guides her in character during a pitched moment of crisis:

Indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there are not temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane; with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot.”[2]

Haddon Hall bridge, site for Thornfield in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Photo: Tammie Grimm
Haddon Hall bridge, site for Thornfield in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Photo: Tammie Grimm

Yet, Jane’s resolve is not simply her own. In the remaining paragraphs of this pivotal chapter, Brontë writes of the presence of supernatural, likely a divine, power to prompt Jane to flee temptation completely and run away from Thornfield Hall. Towards the conclusion of the novel, in an answer to a fervent prayer, the presence of the supernatural appears again, bringing resolution to Jane and her Byronic hero Edmund Rochester. And, finally, instead of coming to a satisfying romantic denouement, the non-sequitur of the novel’s last line, “Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!” can be as abrupt and confusing to the Christian reader as it is to the most astute Brontë scholars.

Brontë is not out to write a religious narrative in Jane Eyre, but as a daughter of a Curate in the Church of England, she has no issue with integrating her faith and everyday living in her eponymous character. Neither is Jane Austen’s intent to discuss Christian faith in her romantic novels. The daughter and sister to clergymen, Austen was granted a cathedral burial because of her support of and contributions to clerics in her neighborhood.

Mr. Collins, as played by David Bramber in the BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries.
Mr. Collins, as played by David Bramber in the BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries.

Austen’s most visibly representative figures of religious establishment, clerics Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice) and Mr. Elton (Emma), are the target of humorous satire within her works while others like Captain Wentworth’s older brother (Persuasion) is a sympathetic figure looking out for the best interests of his younger sibling. Both authors are not above pointing out the hypocrisy in the life of the clerics they portray. Whereas Austen seeks to create caricatures of her clerics, Brontë creates stern, unyielding taskmasters of Mr. Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood Institute, or of St. John Rivers, Jane’s clergy cousin who dreams of being a foreign missionary. Rather, like Brontë with Jane Eyre, it is in the lives of Austen’s heroines (and even their intended suitors) that the cultivation of virtue is the evidence of the faith that dwells within.

Without a doubt, Austen does not come close to discussing religious experience in the explicit ways Brontë describes. Still, Austen’s heroines are faithful members of the established Church of England who regularly attend worship and prayer services—which proves to be as good a meeting place for plot development between suitors as any local dance or formal ball. Piety may not be the predominant virtue running throughout Austen’s novels, but each of her heroines—whether it be the Dashwood

Pemberley gardens, located at Chatsworth. Photo: Tammie Grimm
Pemberley gardens, located at Chatsworth. Photo: Tammie Grimm

sisters or Emma Woodhouse, Anne Eliot, young Catherine Morland or even Elizabeth Bennet—are all essentially virtuous people seeking to become better persons through self-reflection and examination in light of the events that unfold. Self-examination may not happen explicitly through the lens of faith, but this penchant for self-reflection is not an exercise exclusive to her characters.

Austen wrote three prayers that have survived her death, each designed to accompany the Book of Common Prayer. Self-examination (somewhat akin to the spirit of Ignatius of Loyola and John Wesley) is evidenced in the following prayer Austen wrote, and which hangs in St. Nicholas Church, Steventon, a church where her father and brother pastored:

Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art everywhere present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.

Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere and our resolution steadfast of endeavoring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls.

May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words, and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil. Have we thought irreverently of thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity.

Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference….[3]

The Pemberley drive from the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film adaptation located at Chatsworth. Photo: Tammie Grimm
The Pemberley drive from the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film adaptation located at Chatsworth. Photo: Tammie Grimm

Neither Brontë nor Austen write with the religious zeal and desire to see their creations sanctified in the way Wesley

wanted for the people called Methodist. And as much as I want to see Jane Eyre as an example of discipleship in a Gothic novel, she is a solitary figure with no supportive community to support her in her daily Christian living.

Still, the novels offers insight, for those reading with a lens of Wesleyan discipleship, to the ways in which our favorite heroines (and their suitors) live into their Christian faith and teaching. Brontë and Austen do not offer escapism from the everyday, but provide a portal to consider how Christian faith helps shape the characters we love and cherish through the ages.




[1] John Wesley, ‘The Character of a Methodist,’ The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976- ). 9:41. See also, ‘Sermon the Mount XII,’ Works, 1:680; ‘The Case of Reason Impartially Considered,’ Works, 2:593; ‘The More Excellent Way,’ Works, 3:265; ‘The Principles of a Methodist,’ Works, 9:55; ‘The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained,’ Works, 9:225.

[2] Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 365.

[3] Glassy, Terry and Jane Austen. The Prayers of Jane Austen (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers), 9-19.

Robert Carter ~ Steinbeck and the Prophet Jeremiah

Our two boys, Brennan and Jared, enjoy different types of food. Jared, our younger, has a palate mostly formed by traditional foods that most millennials in Western culture crave. Brennan, on the other hand, has always had a curious, gourmet tongue. We shouldn’t have been surprised at his pre-teen culinary adventures or his fascination with the TV show Master Chef; even as a toddler he would eat Pad Thai and Jambalaya. Sometimes, just for fun, we would offer him lemons or limes cut into wedges so that we could witness the uncontrolled pursing of his entire face that would quickly follow his bite. He’d always go back for more, though! Sometimes we would all take turns with wedges of lemon, the objective being not to allow the acidity of the fruit to pucker our faces. We never succeeded in the challenge—we all scrunched. The reaction was as swift as it was lemon_cutuncontrollable. When we bit down on the lemon, we’d pucker. Watching someone else might bring a slight sympathetic pursing to our own lips, but not much. To get any measurable effect, we had to actively participate.

Jeremiah 31 comes out of chronological order, for it clearly belongs to exilic Judea. Babylon has captured Jerusalem, ransacked its resources, brutally massacred many of its people and carried captive the balance (except a few poor farmers who were left behind as caretakers of the demolition). Even though Jeremiah is not one of those exiled to Babylon, he continues to provide prophetic hope to his forlorn people through letters sent to his people. In this particular letter, Jeremiah becomes the linkage between God’s promises for yet-to-be newness and the embittered exiles who are certain that they are unfairly suffering for the sins of previous generations. A creative proverb was gaining popularity among these disenfranchised refugees—everybody was sharing it on their Facebook wall: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29b).

Taken literally, we can argue that this proverb is incorrect, for we’ve done our own experiment, and we know that the sour grapes (or lemons) must touch our own tongues to cause any measurable biological reaction. But we know better, don’t we, than to get technical with this proverb? We recognize symbolism, poetic license, and language usage well enough to know that this carefully-crafted proverb is intended for greater application. And we also know that it’s frighteningly accurate when understood in its intended literary form! Ever wonder what it feels like to be Hitler’s grandchildren, left with the emotional burden of his bigotry? Try to look a Native American in the eye without remembering that your forefathers confined them to their reservations. Your ancestors are long gone, but you still bear the burden of their wrongdoing.

This proverb was accurate in the immediate context of the exiles referenced in this passage, especially for those born in their Babylonian displacement.  Their forefathers’ persistent, generational disobedience brought God’s judgment and the loss of their fortunes. These exiles found themselves part of a foreign culture—one that threatened to erase their Jewishness. It didn’t seem fair that they were paying the bill for their ancestors’ sins.

This maxim is also accurate in the larger context of our world— Adam and Eve ate “sour grapes” and the world’s teeth have been set on edge ever since. In addition to the broad-spectrum brokenness of the post-Eden world, Adam and Eve’s disobedience also unleashed what theologians call “original sin.” Every child comes with his own inherited capacity for evil. The seed is there. Yes, the proverb is accurate, but that doesn’t make it seem any fairer.

Then we pause to look at ourselves, our families, our churches, and our communities; this adage proves true for us, too. We tend to embody the brokenness of our parents. Their sins seed ours; their failings escalate ours.  And we cry, “Foul!” Why should their evil actions become our burden?

  • As Steve stumbles back to his college dorm at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning he wonders, “Would I be this way if mom hadn’t regularly put whiskey in my baby bottle?”
  • Esther continues to consume three times the daily amount of sugar recommended even though she is borderline diabetic. “Mom and grandma did the same thing. They drew me into this love for sweets. Sure they both lost limbs and died at a young age. That’s normal around here, you know.”
  • Twenty-five-year-old Mike finds himself frequently captivated by sadistic fantasy and wonders if he is destined to join his incarcerated father someday.
  • Bill and Paula, a young couple, struggle to manage their money. They’re always paying their utility bills after the disconnect notice arrives. It’s stressful and aggravating; yet, in a weird kind of way, it seems normal to them. That’s the way their parents did it.
  • Thirty-five-year-old Sally wonders why she always hits her electric locks on the car when a black man crosses the street. She doesn’t feel racist! But why does she do it, then? Her reaction is quite different when a white man crosses in front of her—little fear there. Then she recognizes how the media portrays black men as criminals. She recalls how her mom and grandma taught her to be spooked by men of different color. Chagrined, Sally looks in the rear view mirror long enough to catch her daughter covering her eyes. “The cycle is complete,” Sally thinks, “I’ve taught my daughter the same racism that I learned from my folks.”
  • Anthony swings the punch that he vowed he’d never throw. He never wanted to be like his volatile, out-of-control father. Now at the age of thirty-five he’s looking more and more like him!
  • Rhonda finds herself belittling her husband again—right to his face and in front of her kids. She wonders why she behaves so poorly. Then she recalls, “Mom always did this to dad, and so did grandma. It’s not my fault,” she reasons, “that this behavior comes instinctively!”
  • Patrick, a middle-age father, shudders in horror as he steps away from his 14-year-old daughter’s bedroom. He had done the unthinkable. He swore that he would never do to his children what his father had done to him and his siblings. It’s as if he took his rightful place in a messed-up genealogy.
  • Eli reels in a large catfish from the Ohio River. Then he throws it back fuming, “It kind of stinks that our forefathers polluted this river to the point that we can’t even keep the fish.” Leaving, he throws his trash from lunch in the water’s flow—“Why not? It’s already polluted!” Besides, that’s what his uncles do…
  • Evelyn, a young grandmother, seems to intuitively know how to manipulate, effectively employing passive-aggressive measures to control her husband, adult children, nieces and nephews. She always gets her way, but it creates co-dependency, anger, and hostility. She often loathes her behavior—she knows it’s not right. How did she ever get started down this path? Then she realizes that her mom and grandmother had the same skill set.
  • Judge Conley looks at his docket, quickly recognizing the last name of the defendant in the narcotics distribution charge. “Must be Paul’s son,” the judge thinks! “It’s the family business, I guess! Like father, like son!”

The exiles welcomed the proverb because they felt that it effectively expressed both complaint and defense. Their complaint asserted, “It’s not my fault!” Their defense reasoned, “I can’t be any different! I’m part of a domino effect that began in the Garden of Eden. I didn’t put my domino in position—dad and mom, community and nation did that for me! I can’t break the cycle—why even try? As messed up as my life appears, it actually feels kind of normal and comfortable to me!”

So why would God take issue with the exilic usage of this proven-true proverb? Is God denying this thing we call generationalism? No, here’s why God was getting fed up with this Babylonian meme…

The proverb ignores personal responsibility. It was true that the exiles were suffering for their parents’ sins; but it was also true that they, too, were continuing to participate in the same kinds of broken ways in their new environment. While they obsessed with the grapes their fathers consumed and the resulting puckering that it brought to their lives, they were reluctant to acknowledge that they also ate the same kind of fruit—just from better-groomed vines. The net result was the continued contortion of life. Their denial allowed them to color their newly-formatted quests for power, sensuality, and pleasure in lighter tones that passed undetected. For this reason, God was tired of the proverb—it avoided personal responsibility, placing all the blame on the previous generation!

The proverb ignores “free will.” Verse 30 uncovers a new understanding of personal choice and consequence given to each individual. You are not confined to the composite of your upbringing. You are not doomed to repeat the sins of your father or mother, uncle or sister. You have the ability to make personal choices of which only you will be accountable.

51r57tjwb0l-_sx322_bo1204203200_John Steinbeck composes his monumental book, East of Eden, with amazingly accurate sociological and theological expression. This story, a retelling of Genesis 3-4, is set in Northern California’s Salinas Valley during the early 20th century. Before moving to the Salinas Valley, the good-hearted Adam Trask lived on a farm in Connecticut that had been willed to him by his father, a crook in his own right. Meanwhile, Steinbeck begins to develop another character, Cathy, a young girl who from birth possesses an innate capacity for manipulation and deceit. After killing her parents in a fire she set, stealing their money, and leaving town, Cathy sets a trap whereby she seduces a brothel owner for her financial benefit. When this brothel owner discovers Cathy’s evil intentions, he beats her severely, leaving her for dead.  Soon after Adam finds her, nurses her back to life and marries her. Cathy never returns Adam’s love; she only marries him because she knows he is her ticket out of Connecticut where rumors are starting to gain traction that perhaps she is not the innocent, bereaved daughter after all. Once the Trasks arrive in the Salinas Valley, Cathy discovers to her horror that she is pregnant. She unsuccessfully attempts to abort the fetus, delivering twins instead. Cathy refuses to even gaze at the twins, telling Adam she has never loved him or the boys. Soon afterwards, she abandons her family, never returning. Cathy changes her name to Kate to mask her identity, moves to Salinas proper where she resumes her work as a prostitute, manipulating and ultimately poisoning her Madam so that she can take over the business. Her work culminates in the blackmailing of many of the influential men of the area.

Adam is left (along with his housekeeper, Lee) to name his boys, Aron and Cal, and do his best to raise them amid his deep depression. From an early age, Aron reflects Adam’s good-heartedness while Cal replicates his mother’s manipulation, lack of compassion and cruelty. When Cal discovers that his mother is not dead as he was told but rather a Madam at one of Salinas’ brothels, he determines to meet her. After his encounter, he is convinced that he is doomed to follow in Kate’s pattern of brokenness, deceit, manipulation and anger. Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, who has extensively researched the biblical story of Cain and Abel, advises Cal that God intends each person to choose his own moral destiny rather than be controlled by the legacy of his parents. This idea, captured by the Hebrew word timshel (meaning “you may”) in Genesis 4:7, counters Cal’s fatalistic idea that he has inherited his mother’s evil and is without hope in his own destiny. Readers catch a sliver of that hope for Cal as the story concludes; when dying Adam raises his hand at Lee’s request to bless Cal, he whispers one word, “Timshel.”

Cal seems to be the embodiment of this proverb quoted in Jeremiah. Cathy ate sour grapes, and Cal’s teeth were set on edge. Not only had he inherited sin through both his parents; he had also inherited a DNA strand that disposed him to operate in strikingly similar ways to his mother despite the fact that he was raised by Adam and his good housekeeper, Lee, entirely in Cathy’s absence. Steinbeck refuses to leave Cal in his hopelessness. Instead, with pure literary genius, he infuses the narrative with Lee’s extended Biblical conversations, highlighting Cal’s ability to choose for himself what kind of man he will be.

And so God pushes back against this Jewish truism because it fails to recognize our powerful endowment by our Creator to make personal choices that defy the stack of cards we have been dealt.

Our Wesleyan Arminian doctrine is important here.  On the one hand, it informs us that all are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and that all have sinned—no exceptions (Romans 3:23). This is bad news! On the other hand, it refuses to leave us in the position of hopelessness and helplessness, no matter how malformed we are from birth. This is good news! God’s Word reminds us that we are a people with amazing individuality (free will) to choose our own actions (Jeremiah 31:30).  God has not predetermined who will push back against sin. We alone make that choice.

The proverb ignores God’s planned newness. God determines to provide for the Cals (and you and me) of our world to be something different than heredity would seemingly allow. Jeremiah 31:31-34 sums up the way free will overtakes both inherited sin and negative imprinting.It’s not by laws on the books, by gritting one’s teeth, or by a nagging spouse. God’s plan, rather than utilizing coercion, is about newness gifted to us just as undeservedly as our inherited sin. This newness is accomplished through his healing forgiveness for the puckering of our lives (both through the sour grapes our fathers ate and the ones we willfully chewed on our own). How can this be? Through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, Eden’s toppling dominos are disrupted. The sin that threatened to irrevocably give bad direction to our life became subject to the grace of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.

We accept personal responsibility for the way we have personally leaned into the brokenness that came upon us at birth, both through heredity and imprinting. Then we make a choice out of our free will not to walk in those same kinds of fatalistic patterns. Most importantly, we understand that this cannot and will not happen through our own power alone. It will only come about through God’s newness breathed into our hearts. Jeremiah calls this the “new covenant” written into our minds and hearts. Ezekiel pictures this newness as a “heart of flesh” that replaces the old stony heart (Ezekiel 36:25-27). The Apostle Paul thinks about this newness as the transformation of a “renewed mind” (Romans 12:2).

The next time I brave an un-sugared lemon, lime, sour grape, or persimmon I’ll cringe from top to bottom, and it’s going to remind me of how crinkled my life is by heredity and imprinting. But I hope it also brings an internal “thanks be to God” as I remember the promise of newness God gives for “teeth set on edge.”

Justin Gentry ~ Finding Myself in the Poetry of Mary Oliver

For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

Hebrews 13:8, The Message

For as long as I can remember I have loved words. I read short novels at a young age and have always been comfortable expressing myself in front of people. I am an odd combination of bookish yet outgoing. It is the power of words that fascinates me. This combination of symbols on a page, or a screen in this case, can move you to feel any number of emotions, take you to any place in the past, or to worlds that have yet to exist. Words are lightning in a bottle.

This fascination may be why I was drawn to the pastoral vocation. Whether in a sermon, blog post or conversation, as a pastor I am required to use my words to create new worlds for people to walk into. It is an art and a delight when it works well.

Lately my interest has turned to reading poetry. I think I am drawn so much to poetry these days because over and above anything else poets are themselves. They speak from a raw, sometimes scandalous place that many of us don’t have access to. As a pastor it can be very hard to be yourself, yet it is essential if you want to have anything of value to communicate.41t2mzwj8pl-_sx297_bo1204203200_

Over the years there are dozens of poems that have shaped my inner life, but today I want to share two from self-titled “praise poet” Mary Oliver. I love that it feels like she has lived what she has written about. When she writes about forgiveness or venturing out into the unknown, you get the sense that she writes from experience. As I use my words to bring more of Jesus’ Kingdom into the world I don’t want it to seem like I am faking it for effect. I want to have lived to tell the tale I am telling you too.

I invite you to read both poems and sit with them for a bit before moving to my commentary. Maybe they have something to teach you that I have not yet thought of.

“The Uses of Sorrow”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)


Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.


It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.


This very short poem, almost a quote really, sums up my work as a pastor. I am tasked with peering into the darkness in myself and somehow by the grace of God finding a redemptive perspective to it. For years I thought of my work as helping others do this, but I have learned that I must be the one to go first. If I cannot do this with my greatest tragedies, how can I lead others to do the same?

into-the-darkness-1I love that Mary Oliver doesn’t minimize the darkness or throw up her hands and say it is God’s plan too early. People who haven’t dealt with their pain tend to do this. She lets it stay darkness but transforms her relationship to it from victim to victor. It is in this act that we become more than conquerors.

If someone has given you a “box full of darkness” I am truly sorry. It is a painful, terrible thing to deal with. I cannot offer a quick fix, but if you sit with it and learn what it has to teach you, things will get better in time. This process often comes at night when we aren’t looking for it; when we have stopped hoping for it. You realize that the thing you thought would destroy you forever has made you into a better person.  That is good news indeed.


“The Journey”

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

I read this poem about once a week. Over the last year it has spoken to me in a way the Scriptures haven’t, which can happen when your business is the Bible. The dry, professional nature the Scriptures can take on when you have studied them for years used to bother me. I would wonder what was wrong with me. I realize now that sometimes God delights in speaking through poets and prophets.

Back to the poem, I find that as a pastor it is easy to get caught up in someone else’s drama. Each person’s need is so great that I forget God has a unique part for me to play too. Mary Oliver reminds me that the voice I am called to listen to isn’t speaking to someone else. It is speaking to me and me alone. It is for me and me alone.

That could sound incredibly selfish, but most good advice does. Yes, I am called to save many lives, but at the end of the day I can really only know if one is actually saved. I am responsible for shepherding and cultivating this one wild life that I have been given.

In Christian circles we talk a lot about selling our souls. We can sell them to success, money, or even the devil. We rarely talk about selling our souls to people. When those voices cry out to you, “mend my life!” what deeper voices are they drowning out?

This poem builds on a theme in Mary Oliver’s poetry that I have seen in my life – that of sudden revelation. One day you just know what you have to do. It is never the right time. It always feels too late. There are always other obligations to tie up or make right. Yet there is still this thing you know you have to do. Maybe it is a relationship that needs mended or broken off, a new career path that is unknown or uncertain, a new vision that you know will meet resistance. All you know is that there is something you must do.

All I can say is begin. Start. Go. That deep down voice is there for a reason. It is the place where we meet God. Don’t be afraid of it.

This is what I love about Mary Oliver’s poetry. It encourages me to follow my inner voice. This has always been the Jesus tradition. Where does God speak to Elijah? A still small voice. Where does the Spirit of God reside? In the hearts of people. Where does Jesus encourage us to pray? Not in front of others but in a lonely, quiet closet. In the quiet moments God speaks suddenly and inconveniently, telling us exactly where we need to go.

There is a line in Hebrews that Eugene Peterson translates so well. It says this about Jesus, “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.” That is a kind of confidence that I only have when I am in touch with my deepest self, the one hidden in God. When I can operate from that space I am dynamite, on fire, full of grace and truth. My words change lives.  I lose it when I put on the mask, when I hide from that voice, and mend everyone else’s pain but my own. I become just another codependent minister, of some use but ultimately forgettable.

So where are you? Have you lost your inner voice? Have you managed others’ pain at the expense of your own healing? How can poetry, art, or quiet get you back to the place where you can always be totally yourself?

Tammie Grimm ~ Our Story Is for All Ages

Our weekend sermon comes from Dr. Tammie Grimm. Enjoy the text below or listen to the attached audio file.

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal. ~ William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude

This quote, from seventeenth-century Quaker William Penn, serves as an epigraph on the opening pages of the seventh installment to J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular magical wizarding series, Harry Potter. Like it or not, a major reverberating theme throughout Harry Potter books is death. For those of you unfamiliar with the details of the story, or who may be only vaguely aware that earlier this summer there was a midnight book release party to celebrate this fictional character’s birthday as well as the premier of a Harry Potter play in London, death plays an important role throughout the story.

tammie-grimmFrom the opening pages of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone for the original UK audience) to the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and even the latest installment, Harry’s journey is punctuated by death. He arrives to us on the pages of the first chapter as an infant, who has miraculously survived a killing curse that leaves him an orphan left to be raised in the home of his awful Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon and with their equally horrible son, Harry’s cousin Dudley. Living in a muggle family (non-magical people) who disdain him and his magical kind, Harry never really fits into the Dursley’s family life and believes his parents died in a car crash. It is not until the fateful day when a letter arrives inviting him to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that the truth is gradually revealed. Both his parents were killed at the hands of the evil, self-proclaimed Lord Voldemort, who is his archnemesis. The whole series of seven books—even this latest theatrical installment, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in which Jo Rowling collaborates with playwrights—centers on Harry and his loyal friends, Ron and Hermione, continually thwarting the escalating attempts of Voldemort to completely vanquish Harry in Voldemort’s quest to “conquer death.”

For those of you wondering if the imaginary, magical world of Harry Potter is even appropriate to discuss in a Christian sanctuary, be not afraid! Though I have been known to dress up as Hogwarts’ transfiguration teacher Professor Minerva McGonagall—complete with witch’s hat, robe and wand for the last two book releases—I have not forsaken my Christianity to become a witch in any supernatural sense of the term. You see, the plain truth is that my Christian formation and worldview, my understanding of the Bible and theological education, both in the local congregation and in formal graduate studies helped me fall in love with Harry Potter in the first place. It actually was not until my final year of seminary, when the fourth book came out, that I became aware of who Harry Potter was and what a cultural sensation author Jo Rowling’s story had created. The copies I originally read were owned by a friend, my former Director of Student Life at Asbury Theological Seminary, who graciously allowed me to borrow them to enjoy as a reward for myself at the end of a busy semester. Over the years, it has been with other Christians who know the biblical story with whom I have enjoyed the most analytical and animated discussions about our hero, his friends and the significance of particular lines and descriptions Rowling crafts in the telling of her story.

From a literary point of view, Harry Potter is not allegory like Hinds’ Feet on High Places or Pilgrim’s Progress in which the story has hidden meaning. Nor is it like The Chronicles of Narnia which C.S. Lewis referred to as being a “supposal” as he was not out to write allegory. His intent was to “sneak past watchful dragons” by writing a story in which he “supposed” if there was a world like Narnia that needed redemption much like ours, what might it look like with talking animals and creatures of fairy tales and folklore? Those of you who read that series in a summer book club with me five or so years ago, know religious overtones were abundant and many of you were quickly able to recognize that the lordly lion Aslan was a Christ figure in the ways he overcame death, created Narnia and offered forgiveness.

But Harry Potter, despite being “the boy who lived,” is not really a Christ figure, or at least he is not in my opinion. snowy_owl_imageHe has neither power over death nor does he ever vanquish death himself. It is when he is invited to take his place at Hogwarts that he discovers his parents died trying to save him. And eventually, we readers learn along with Harry that it his mother’s choice to try to prevent Voldemort from killing her baby, by sacrificing herself, that cast a protective charm onto her child because her actions amount to the ultimate sacrifice of love that any person can offer another—to give their life for another. His mother’s action is a Christlike sacrifice to be sure, but its magical power in Harry’s life falls woefully short of the miraculous power that Christ affords to all humanity—for those who choose to accept his life-giving gift. Throughout his years as a Hogwarts’ student, Harry is time and again confronted with the forcefulness of death. He learns of its suddenness and savageness and discovers what it is to be horror-struck by its violence and viciousness. The loss of life is never easy for Harry, just as it is seldom easy for us mere mortals.

Yet, Rowling’s story points to life beyond death. In as early as her first book, Rowling comfortingly hints at and then progressively works (throughout the series and in this summer’s play) to assure Harry and all her readers, young and old alike, that death, in its simplest form, is merely the other side of the coin to life. At significant junctures along the way, she indicates that there is an appropriateness that all earthly life must come to an end. And, furthermore, she demonstrates that there is a tranquility associated with death that awaits those souls as they let go of their hold on this life. In counterpoint, to deny the reality of death we all face, Rowling indicates this is not necessarily so for the witches and wizards who choose to haunt the halls of Hogwarts. In a poignant scene at the end of the fifth book, after losing a cherished link to his parents, Harry questions a ghost named Nearly Headless Nick about death and the afterlife. In response, Nick says,

“I was afraid of death. I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t have…Well, that is neither here nor there…In fact, I am neither here nor there…” He gave a small sad chuckle, “I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead.”

It is Hogwarts’ beloved headmaster Albus Dumbledore who typically helps Harry grapple with our limited understanding about the afterlife. “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more,” or when he tells Harry that, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Yet this lesson of accepting the inevitability of death and the mystery of an afterlife is as hard for Harry to comprehend as it can be for any of us. Harry’s childhood was largely bereft of love. As Harry grapples with a profound sense of loss and bewilderment at all he has missed, Dumbledore tenderly prods him, “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great need?” This idea echoes the sentiments of William Penn’s passage that the living and the dead share a communion that persists even though persons exist on either side of the veil drawn between death and life.

As Harry matures into a young man, he is finally able to visit the grave of his parents. There, carved into their headstone, he reads the inscription, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This verse is not some made up line of the author’s invention, but a direct quote of I Corinthians 15:26. As Harry struggles in the enormity of this moment to comprehend what it could mean, his friend Hermione gently helps him. “It means…you know…living beyond death. Living after death.” For the Christian reading, as Hermione speaks those words aloud, a verse further down in the same chapter of Corinthians comes to our hearts and minds. “Where, O death, is your victory, Where, O death, is your sting?” For those of us who struggle with death and loss it is the Gospel story—our story— that teaches us the truth of love, death and life. Life triumphs over death and death does not have the final say. Death for us is just a mere portal through which we will pass in order to fully celebrate eternal life with God.

Eternal life. It is the requirement to inherit eternal life that prompts the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke to inquire of Jesus. And the response is the repeated refrain of what we refer to as the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

For those of us who are already fans of this series, the presence and power of love is something of which we are readily aware. We run out of fingers and toes to count up the references to love in the Harry Potter series. Lily Potter’s sacrifice for her son is borne of love, and her love magically protects Harry until he is seventeen and leaves his aunt and uncle’s home for the last time. Love is regularly commented upon by Dumbledore. Love, he admits to Harry, is what blinded him and caused him to be predictable and act “exactly as Voldemort expects…fools who love to act.” And love is an ever present thread in the friendship of Harry, Ron and Hermione, and it is the driving motivation in this summer’s play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Our scripture lessons this morning help demonstrate that it is by knowing the biblical story that we can see more into Rowling’s story. The Greatest Commandment is not just about love—it is about loving holistically, loving things whole—integrating the very aspects of our being, heart, mind, soul and strength and becoming whole in who we are and who we love. To love God with our whole heart, whole mind, whole strength and whole soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves is to inherit eternal life.

What can stand in starker contrast of loving wholly than Voldemort’s hatred for humanity and his attempt to attain eternal life by splitting his soul into seven pieces? Voldemort is not just the nemesis—the evil villain of the story. For Christians reading the story, he is the very antithesis of how we are called to live. Our lives are to be made whole and patterned after the example of Christ, one whose life and the manner in which he lives is emblematic of the death he died on the cross of Calvary; whole, complete and filled with the love of God and love for neighbor.

For those of us who know the biblical story and read Harry Potter, countless situations and conversations become more significant and carry deeper meaning. One line of dialogue between Harry and Dumbledore illustrates this when Dumbledore tells Harry that the sad tragedy of Voldemort is that he “never paused to consider the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.” (Another favorite Dumbledore quote is when he says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Indeed, I think a sermon on Wesleyan theology and the decision to accept God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit working through us is hidden in that little nugget.)

Please do not misunderstand me, Rowling’s intent was not to write a Christian story, like that of Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia. Harry’s purpose for existence is not to introduce the reader to Christianity nor is his story written as a moral tale really intended to make people better Christians. Rowling makes it clear Hogwarts exists in the context of many faiths and is not a religious school. Yet, her Christian understanding is present. It is her intent to weave Christian parallels into her writing even as she incorporates ideas from world mythologies and folklore. Therefore, when we read Harry Potter with a Christian worldview and understanding of the biblical narrative we see so much more of the story than what Rowling has very ably written.

The story of Harry Potter from the first installment written 21 years ago to the play that debuted in London last summer is captivating literature. They are wonderful stories of a magical world that is fun to enter and to enjoy, whether you dress up for special events or wear a t-shirt proclaiming the name of the house into which you’d be best sorted or even if all Harry Potter remains for you is just a story that can be pulled off the bookshelf and returned to from time to time in order to escape the real world.

The wizarding world is not real. Storybooks are the stuff of fiction that enlivens our imagination and brings us pleasure. But it is the biblical story, or as a friend of mine so eloquently puts it, “The Story of God, the Story of Us” that enlivens our very lives! Our story is not simply the Gospel texts, but extends back into the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis and read with the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to which faithful Christians testify. It is our story in which we read the truth of this world, indeed of all creation. And it is this truth that enlivens the Christian disciple’s imagination, heart, mind, soul and strength to allow us to see further into other storybooks that we love and cherish and read and re-read.

It is our story, the Gospel story, that is a story for all ages, young and old alike, yesterday, today and tomorrow, in this age and the next. This is the story that we are called to live day in and day out, 24-7, 52 weeks a year, all our life long. The real life of Christian disciples is a choice to live fully and completely, integrating all our love for God, heart, mind, soul and strength, sharing that love with our neighbor. It is the Christian’s choice to live into God’s calling to be wholly and entirely like Christ, made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing in part, segregated, walled off or closed up and returned to a shelf when real life enters in. The Bible lives and breathes through us, loving us and others through life and in death. Strictly speaking, the biblical canon contains 66 books, but our Christian story is one that continues for eternity—long after we turn the final pages of a storybook and read the words, “The End.”

Listen to the audio file here: 

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Time During the Year

It is a season to weed and to water and to pluck from the vine.

We are in the midst of Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar – between Pentecost and Advent, “ordinary” sounds mundane. But if it is mundane, it can also be the beautiful kind of mundane, like a long-married couple sharing their morning coffee or a gardener deadheading a plant, again. Tempus per anum is the phrase from which we glean ordinary time, though it simply means “time during the year.” Where ordinary may sound aimless or lacking in comment-worthy value, “time during the year” calls us to peaceful, bustling fruitfulness.

During the summer, you water, you weed, you gather up harvest, you can vegetables or boil fruit into jam to save up for bleak winter days when hard grey and brown define the horizon. Repetition does not have to imply boredom or meaninglessness – though advertisers attempt to convince us otherwise. The rhythm of seasons is a necessary beauty, like the measured count behind your favorite music.

In the modest little volume, A Year in an Irish Garden, writer Ruth Isabel Ross comments on gardening life in August.

Light rain all day, endless gloom, horrible for many disappointed people on holiday especially since the weather forecasts predicted several days of brilliant sunshine. It is difficult for an enthusiastic gardener, though, not to gloat selfishly at the thought of so many roots finding refreshment. Some of our most handsome perennial plants look wilted because we skimped their mulching. Now they’ll revive. As for the vegetables, this incessant rain should save the crops.

knockmore garden
Historic Knockmore Garden, County Wicklow, Ireland.

Ms. Ross’ thoughts from County Wicklow on 22 August again reel us in:

Why is a beautiful morning so much more marvellous than a fine afternoon? Perhaps because of the freshness and because it makes the garden a paradise for suddenly released creatures. There has been gentle rain all night but soon after dawn the sun shines, bringing out happy bees and butterflies.

These meditations from an Irish gardener illumine a couple of practical truths: first, that gardeners and farmers are invested in rather different things than their neighbors. What is a bad day for a tourist is a guiltily triumphant day for someone who has given hours to reclaiming a hundred-year-old garden. And what is ministry but reclaiming lost garden, inch by inch? Until that Day when Heaven and Earth are made new? Our leafy green remnants of our lost paradise assert the beauty with which God created the world. No, we Christians see rhythms and seasons and tides a bit differently than our neighbors, and that’s alright. They don’t have to understand our joy when a fragile perennial survives: but they’ll see our joy, and wonder at it.

Second, there are no small victories. The morning “makes the garden a paradise for suddenly released creatures.” Happy bees and butterflies are free to buzz and flutter. There’s an extraordinary pressure present in the world today: pressure to perform, pressure to always say only just the right thing, pressure to show yourself worthy of being heard, pressure to change people who fall short, pressure to fix all of our global, national, and local woes, pressure to prove our rightness, pressure to practice best practices in every area all the time, pressure to be open and honest about your messiness, pressure to be caught up to date on information that may come up in any conversation, pressure to represent your demographic well, pressure to conform to whatever prevailing values your virtual or physical peer group celebrates.

In the middle of this pressure cooker, where is room to celebrate a paradise for suddenly released creatures? Where is there room to savor one small victory that, in the scheme of things, may be monumental? Gardeners know that faithfulness counts but success is not guaranteed. The ups and downs of gardening illuminate precisely how much is out of our control. Pastors are excellent at attempting to control outcomes. Jesus was wise enough not to. Scatter the seed, Jesus said. Some will get eaten. Some will spring up fast but shallow, withering when the heat is turned up. Some will land on hard rock. And just a little – just a little, will take root, grow, bear fruit. Who are you to discount a small victory? Jesus didn’t. If you’re too good, too successful, too busy to experience gratitude for the freed, released bees and butterflies, why should God put anything bigger in your care?

Consider the lilies – they don’t work, they don’t weave, but they’re more beautiful than all of Solomon’s ancient wealth. How much more will the Savior, who Mary mistook as a gardener, take care of you – and your cares?

We are being tended by the Good Gardener, watered, weeded, pruned. We are subject to the seasons – the time during the year – the ordinary time.  We are ordinary creatures, and that is enough.

Kimberly Reisman ~ I Am For My Beloved

I’m reading a poetry anthology, The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World compiled by Ivan Granger.* It’s dovetailing nicely with the Lenten season, although I can’t really take credit for that.

One of the poems was particularly meaningful for me – On Those Words “I am for My Beloved.” It was written by Teresa of Avila after a deeply mystical encounter in which she experienced an angel piercing her heart with divine love.

Already I gave my self completely,

and have changed in such a way

That my Beloved is for me

and I am for my Beloved.


When the gentle hunter shot me

and left me in all my weakness,

in the arms of love

my soul fell

and being charged with new life

I have changed in such a way

That My Beloved is for me

And I am for my Beloved.


He pierced me with an arrow

laced with the herbs of love

and my soul became one

with her Creator;

I no longer want another love,

since I have given myself to my God,

That My Beloved is for me

and I am for my Beloved.

(English version by Megan Don)


As I meditated on Teresa’s words, they cradled me, assured me, comforted me.

…in all my weakness, in the arms of love…

…My Beloved is for me…

I might have stopped there, but her words continued, this time with challenge.

…charged with new life

…I have been changed…

…I have given myself to God…

…I am for my Beloved…

I wrestled with the juxtaposition between comfort and challenge. Then my eyes were drawn to Granger’s commentary, which led me deeper still:

When the mind settles and the soul waits in courageously vulnerable readiness, the most amazing thing happens: the heart blooms. The heart opens and expands. Effortlessly, the heart reaches out, with a wider span than we ever imagined possible, embracing all of creation. We become flooded with something beyond feeling or emotion. There is a sense of finally recognizing one’s very nature within the heart, that this is the seat of our being.

When focused inward, we are enraptured, filled with bliss. When focused outward, we are an embodiment of love. We begin to feel so much more, all the world’s suffering and searching and occasional surges of life, and it is all beautiful and somehow a part of us.

As Lent unfolds I realize that my challenge is that of waiting in “courageously vulnerable readiness.” I deeply desire to be an embodiment of love; but do I really understand what it means to have my heart truly “pierced” by God? Can I honestly affirm with Teresa that “I gave myself completely”?

My prayer is that I do and that I can. That would be my prayer for you as well. That we would be able to claim both of Teresa’s truths: I am for my Beloved and My Beloved is for me.


*The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World, a Poetry Chaikhana anthology, edited with commentary by Ivan M. Granger, 2014 (Kindle Edition).