Wednesday, May 17, 2006


A brief update on Dave and Becca’s adventures in the last several days:

1. Iowa City, Iowa, with Dave’s friends Grant and Aly. Deliiiicious dinner courtesy of Aly (chicken with mushrooms, prosciutto, and marsala sauce plus polenta and red wine), and then some QT spent laughing and talking and discussing fantasy baseball. (Er, that was just Grant and Dave.) Saturday we slept in and grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local diner and then split for parts west, sad we couldn’t stay longer. Grant is apparently hosting an enormous party in June with a friend named “Anton,” which appropriately will be dubbed “Granton.” Sigh.

2. Kansas City, MO, with Zach Walker and Zach’s friend Kevin. It’s a solid 8 hours from Iowa City to KC, but let’s be honest—once you’ve spent 15 hours in the cold cold belly of I-80, 8 hours in the car seems pretty easy. The cold grey raininess had followed us from Chicago to Iowa, and followed us again as we drove southwest to KC, finally giving way to some sunlight in Missouri.

We hung out with old friend Zach and new friend Kevin, went for a run, were the recipients of awesome hour-long massages from Zach (well, only Becca), and most importantly, took in some INCREDIBLE barbecue with Zach. (Zach was really excited by the glass wall between the barbecue restaurant and the liquor store next door, which provided an exciting view of, you guessed it, dudes buying liquor.) Then he gave us a first-class tour of downtown KC, c0mplete with a tour of the city’s 1,000,000 fountains, 88% of which Zach has illegally bathed in. Dave and Zach also spent some QT with Ben Franklin.

3. KC to Denver, CO. Another solid 8 hour drive: 650 miles. Dave had breakfast at McDonalds, an annual indulgence that initially made him feel very happy but also listless and cranky for the rest of the morning as Egg McMuffin wended its way through his body. Kansas City’s location straddling the border between Kansas and Missouri provided lots of entertaining opportunities to play the punch-your-partner-when-you-see-an-out-of-state-license-plate game. Geographic ignorance also reared its ugly head again, with Becca seemingly uncertain if we’d already driven through Indiana, or if we had yet to do so. Sigh.

We’ll be honest: we’ve driven through more interesting states than Kansas. While we were in Chicago, we had the following conversation with Dave’s friend Dale, a Kansas native:

Us: so, is there anything interesting to do when you’re driving through Kansas on I-70?
Dale: Umm….
Us: …?
Dale: …um, no.
Us: Really?
Dale: Yeah. Once you get west of Salina, it’s just flat.
Us: (disappointed) Oh.
Dale: possibly the world’s largest ball of twine.

Even “Prairie Dog Town,” home of the world’s largest prairie dog, which Becca had been excited about since KC, disappointed her by being closed.

But we made it to Denver pretty quickly, delighted by the sudden arrival of serious mountains on the horizon. The great plains don’t end naturally when they hit the Rockies, they just kind of abruptly end, like your little cousin Lester interrupted in mid-sentence by an enormous belch. To our delight, we had time to run over to the amaaaaazing Red Rocks and run around and gawk at the natural beauty. Dave, raised in the Midwest, was brought up believing that mountains were mythical creatures like dragons and the abominable snowman. Actually seeing them made him very happy.

4. Denver to Salt Lake City. “Out here the only windbreak is the north star,” wrote poet Carl Sandburg about the Midwest. He might as well have been writing about Wyoming, an extremely unattractive state we’ve been stuck in since—well, since about 11 this morning. Here’s what you see if you look out the window in Wyoming; rock formations, covered with ugly green-brown grass and little tufts of vegetation, wooden fences, power lines, and dudes driving pick-ups. We stopped in at a UPS store in Laramie and a dude there was really mad because he couldn’t ship a RIFLE. “You’ll have to go to the main UPS office downtown,” they told him, and he stalked off, muttering angrily—which was a little frightening, considering he was shipping a rifle.

In short, an exciting and fun couple of days. Many more gaaawjus photos available HERE, and more stories to come.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Ohio Farmland

So, hopefully, by the time you read this, Becca and I will be safely ensconced in the Bruner family residence in Oak Park, IL, just west of Chicago. We got there (we really hope we got there) after leaving Princeton at 9.15 AM and enduring a grueling at-least-14-hour-day spent almost entirely on I-80.

Our schedule went something like this:
9.15: leave Princeton
10.15: get on I-80
11.15: still on I-80
12.15: still on I-80.
1.30: I-80 merges with I-90. Continue to follow I-80.
3.30: begin secretly to resent I-80
5.30: begin to plan to secretly leave I-80 for a more fulfilling relationship with another expressway.
…9.14 PM: Still on I-80.

At this point, we’re somewhere in western Ohio (on what is euphemistically known as the “James B. Shockney Turnpike,” perhaps the most bombastic name for an expressway EVER) treading down the miles between us and Indiana.

Behind us there are numerous fearsome obstacles: New Jersey; New Jersey’s drivers; the state of Pennsylvania (sorry, Gary and Abby, it’s a BEAST to drive through); geographical ignorance (Becca: we’re driving through Ohio?); the Rutherford B. Hays presidential museum (I didn’t get to stop….AGAIN); and not least, Ohio state troopers.

Do you know why I pulled you over today?

Yes, folks, we got our inaugural ticket tonight in Ohio: Becca got nabbed doing 79 in a 65. I’m not going to disclose how much this unfortunate occurance will cost young Ms. Sanders, but let’s just say it rhymes with ‘ninety-one dollars.’ But “Manhattan” Sanders took it with her usual unflappable personality (she did pop a few Sour Patch Kids, but that’s it). She didn’t even break down and cry for her Grammy, like the last time I did when I got a ticket.

Right now the betting pool has us arriving at Mom and Dad’s place between midnight and one and then collapsing into a gelatinous heap on the floor. No, wait. We’ll collapse into our beds, where we (meaning “I”) will presumably sleep until 10 or 11 tomorrow. Tomorrow, thank heaven, hold nothing more formidable than farting around all day and then going out to dinner with the assembled Bruners. God willing, we’ll wind down tomorrow watching a goofy movie in the basement and drinking beers (she says “Son in Law,” I say “Dodgeball”).

Highlights: playing Tetris with our possessions and successfully squeezing it into my Civic; our first (and overly-delayed) 20-oz. cup of coffee at 9 AM; crossing the Delaware Water Gap; rocking out to both “Great Adventure” by Stephen Curtis Chapman and “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper (both part of a sublime mix Becca made); gorgeous farm country in Pennsylvania and Ohio, illuminated by a setting sun and clouds; a pick-up pulling a trailer holding an enormous sign that said “PALM READING, $5”; being done with school.

Prayers: No more allergies/migraines for Becca; plenty of sleep & relaxation in Chicago. Thanksgiving for getting us home safe.

Question for Readers: If an Ohio State Trooper pulls you over and says (as he did to Becca), “Do you know why I pulled you over?”, what would be the WORST answer you could give?

Want to see more pictures? Go here.

Monday, May 01, 2006


I commend to you the excellent words of my teacher, Prof. George Hunsinger.

Friday, March 31, 2006


Texts: Num. 21.4-9; Eph. 2.1-10; John 3.14-21.
4th Sunday in Lent

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus. Amen.

A long time ago. Before cell phones; before the internet; before PlayStation. Before cars, before electricity. Before Martin Luther. Before Pastor Jim was the pastor here at St. Paul’s—which really was a long time ago. Way before all that, there were the people of Israel.

The people of Israel, led by Moses, wandering in the wilderness, halfway between the prison land of Egypt and the promised land of Canaan. The people of Israel, wandering for, oh, quite a while now in the wilderness, still not quite making it to the promised land. The people of Israel, beginning to murmur and complain. “The people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses: why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” It’s not a new complaint, of course; Moses first heard it way back at the Red Sea, when it looked like the waters would not part and the Egyptian army would catch up with them. ‘Why did you bring us out in the wilderness?’ The people spoke against God.

And then the Israelites start to get bitten by poisonous snakes. Lots of them. So they go to Moses, appropriately chastened, and ask him for his help. And Moses prays about it, and does a strange thing: he builds a serpent out of bronze and puts it on top of a pole. And when anyone is bitten by a snake, Moses raises up the bronze serpent over his head, and the person is cured.

God’s response to the Israelites may strike us as a bit harsh. Most of us try our best to be kind and forgiving to other people, and to not lash out at them when they criticize us or complain about us. But here God seems to be behaving differently. What could Scripture be trying to teach us by telling us this story?

Part of the answer, I think, is the radicality of God’s response to sin. Israel’s hearts have begun to turn against God; they’re starting to doubt God’s care and guidance for them. They’re starting to pine for Egypt, for the very slavery that God worked so hard to liberate them from. And God’s response to this sin is not proportional. God’s not interested in playing tit-for-tat with the children of Israel, getting back at them when they do something wrong. God’s response is radical: God wants to get to the root of the matter. God is saying, in effect, look, this is how bad sin really is. You guys are sick. You need medicine.

It must have been a painful diagnosis. Sin, like snakebite, is poisonous—to our hearts, to our lives together as Christians, and to our love of God and neighbor. And the ones who need the medicine are not only those Israelites then, who clustered around the bronze serpent, but all of us. All of us are snakebit, ever since that first serpent bit our parents in the garden so long ago.

A long time ago—not, I should add, in a galaxy far, far, away, but it might feel like it. This scene takes place not in the wilderness but in the promised land of Israel, and its protagonist is not Moses but Jesus. Jesus is having a friendly midnight chat with Nicodemus. And in his discussion with him, Jesus weaves in some imagery from the Old Testament: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is. And Jesus tells him: If you want to know who I am, look at the bronze serpent. What am I about? I’m about healing. I’m about saving. I am the antidote for everyone who has been poisoned by this sick and sinful world. To some, the Old Testament story seems to portray an angry or wrathful God. But it’s worth noting that the image the New Testament appropriates from that story is not one about God’s wrath, but one about God’s healing. I did not come into the world to condemn the world, Jesus says, but in order that the world might be saved.

We’re past the halfway point in Lent right now, and we’re closing in on the finish line of Holy Week. Lent isn’t exactly the most popular season of the church year. Ash Wednesday is popular: people line up around the block to get ashes on their forehead. But then a lot of them disappear until Easter. It’s hard to know what do with Lent. Lent is supposed to be a solemn season of repentance—but I seem to spend a lot of my time asking myself if I’m measuring up to Lent. Am I giving up something for Lent? Is what I’m giving up big enough? Should I give up something bigger? Am I feeling solemn and repentful? Should I be feeling differently? Am I doing it right?

If I’m thinking like that, though, I’ve already lost my way. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we are or aren’t doing for Lent, but what Lent is really about is focusing on what God has already done. Lent is a time for us to sit with the reality of how costly God’s love is. When Jesus says that he will be lifted up like the bronze serpent, he not only looks backward in time to healing, but forward to suffering. Jesus shows us not only his desire to heal, but his commitment to that desire—a commitment even unto death. The God we see revealed in Jesus is nothing but love—but it is a resolute, determined love, a costly love, a love as hard as flint.

III. A long time ago, only about 50 or 60 years after Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus. The author of Ephesians is tossing off a letter to the church there, trying to keep those rambunctious Ephesian Christians in line. And his words are a brilliant summary of the Gospel message: “By grace, you have been saved through faith,” he writes. “This is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Sin is the sickness; Jesus is the medicine. And the medicine is free. This is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.

As some of you know, I went to college at Yale. And as my parents never tire of reminding me, Yale is not a cheap place to attend college. And while I was at college I met someone who had an amazing story about how it became possible for him to attend Yale. This guy was brilliant, a straight-A student, bright and personable, just the kind of person Yale wanted. Yale was his first-choice school, and so he was delighted when Yale let him in. But he was less than delighted when he received his letter from the financial aid office. The financial aid they offered him simply wasn’t enough to get him over the hump; even putting it together with his family’s pretty limited resources, he still fell short by about $10,000 a year, or $40,000 total. He reluctantly started making alternate plans.

And then an amazing thing happened: he received an anonymous $40,000 donation. To this day he doesn’t know who it was from. How do you live when you’ve received a gift like that? How do you act? What do you think?

My friend only thought two things: first, he could go to Yale, and second, he could go to Yale because someone else had sacrificed $40,000 for him. The door that was shut had flown open again. And for the next four years, he lived like a man whose life is made possible by someone else’s costly generosity. He threw himself into his education: he could never say school wasn’t that important, or that what he did with his life didn’t matter, or that he’d made it there by himself. I find that people like him, who are where they are because of someone else’s great and costly gift, live strangely purposeful and humble lives.

A long time ago, God gave us all such a gift. God gave us healing for our sin and reconciliation with himself; it cost God everything, but it costs us nothing. Let us live like people who know the value of this gift, and how much it cost the one who gave it. Amen.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

SERMON, MK. 9.2-9

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus. Amen.

Recently, the father of a good friend of mine met Prince Charles. Y’know, Charles. The prince of Wales; the future king of England? That guy. I was pretty impressed.

My friend is English—or at least half-English. His mom was born in the UK. So he’s got all kinds of relatives on his mom’s side over across the pond, some of whom are very British: high-tea, stiff-upper-lip, hail-Britannia type people. And you know how these things work: one of them, apparently, knew someone who knew someone…yadda yadda yadda, long story short: my friend’s dad and mom both got invited to a reception with Prince Charles. The prince would be there; they would have a chance to meet him and make conversation with him for a while. They were pretty excited.

Once the excitement died down, however, my friend’s dad realized that he was actually facing a bit of a dilemma. He was going to get to meet Prince Charles—but then he would have to figure out what to say to him. He was meeting the one person with whom it would be just about impossible to make ordinary small talk. He’d never met royalty; what do you say? “Hey, hiya doing, Chuck. So, I understand you’re a prince….I’m in marketing…” The more he thought about it, the more worried he got.

When I heard about this guy’s dilemma, I sympathized immediately. All of us dream about meeting a really big wheel: someone famous, someone important. But sometimes when you come face-to-face with them, you just don’t know what to do or say.

Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading, the Transfiguration. The disciples in this passage, Peter, James, and John, were in the same situation as my friend’s dad. What do you do when you meet God? What do you do when you see Jesus light up like a Roman candle? What do you do when you see Moses and Elijah, the two greatest Israelite leaders and prophets, walking alongside him? I’ll tell you what you do: you freak out! (You say something along the lines of what Peter said: heeeey….Jesus. It is good for us to be here! Let’s build you guys three tents.) The Gospel puts it very appropriately: “He did not know what to say…they were [all] terrified.”

Of course, who wouldn’t be terrified after something like the Transfiguration? This is more than just a simple laser-light show: Jesus undergoes a profound and dramatic physical change. The Gospel says his clothes were shining like nothing the disciples had ever seen, like no bleach or washing machine could ever match. If you look up ‘transfiguration’ in the dictionary, this is what it says: “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” That’s what happened to Jesus. Jesus was changed, altered, and the disciples are brought face-to-face with the reality that Jesus is the son of God. And, of course, one thing you see over and over again in Scripture is that people who have a close encounter with the reality of God wind up pretty freaked out.

Now, I don’t know about you, but nothing like the Transfiguration has ever happened to me. And to be honest, I don’t expect it to. My life has been pretty short on supernatural experiences, unless you count the Cubs making the playoffs a few years ago, and even that didn’t end too well. And if you’re anything like me, you struggle sometimes with scriptural stories like this one. The Jesus depicted by the Transfiguration is blatantly supernatural, and he’s also pretty intimidating. When I open up my Bible, I want ‘Jesus loves me, this I know’; I’m not sure I want a Jesus that shines more brightly than the sun; I’m not sure I want a Jesus that is terrifying.

But there he is, in front of the disciples and on the pages of Scripture. And if we press past whatever initial discomfort or skepticism we may feel with this passage, it has a ton to teach us about exactly who this Jesus is. During the Transfiguration, the disciples hear God’s voice saying: “This is my son, the beloved.” This isn’t the first time those words are used in the Gospel of Mark—God also speaks them to Jesus on the occasion of his baptism: “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At the transfiguration, God uses the same words, but alters the script a bit: “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” Listen to him. The same man who is God’s beloved son is also the Lord we must hear and obey. The Transfiguration makes clear that Jesus is one with God, and that he speaks and acts and teaches with the same authority as God himself.

OK, fine. Jesus has the same authority as God himself. But is that it? Is that all we can take away from the Transfiguration? Well, maybe, but I don’t think so. After the Transfiguration is over, after Jesus has been unplugged from the electrical socket, and Moses and Elijah have disappeared, a funny thing happens. The disciples are left alone again with Jesus. Mark puts it simply: “Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” Superman is gone and Clark Kent is back in his place.

The Transfiguration reminds us of one of those curious and sometimes frustrating facts of the Christian life: some of us encounter God in more dramatic ways than others. Some of us are like Peter, James, and John: every once in a while, God invites us up on the mountain and does something amazing, something that really knocks our socks off. And some of you are more like me, and some of the other disciples: down at the bottom of the mountain, taking care of things, setting up the tents, making dinner, being faithful to the daily tasks of following Jesus. And every once in a while maybe we look up at the twinkling lights at the top of the mountain and feel a twinge of curiosity or even jealousy—or maybe we just look up there and breathe a big sigh of relief. Maybe you’re somewhere in between.

Different Christians have different gifts and different experiences. But at the end of the day, even Peter, James, and John are left only with Jesus. We may be mystics, we may mundanes, or we may be a mixture, but in any case all we are left with is Jesus. For many of us, there will be Transfiguration moments: moments when Jesus looks divine, filled with God’s beauty and power, ready to take on the world. But the Transfiguration is the exception, not the rule, and for all of us, there will be post-Transfiguration moments, moments when Jesus will look the way he looked after the Transfiguration: human, normal, not particularly powerful, maybe a bit shabby or unimpressive. And those are the moments that really give birth to our Christian faith.

This very same point comes up on the way down the mountain. Jesus tells his disciples: don’t tell anybody about this until after I’ve risen from the dead. And we might wonder why Jesus insists on all this secrecy, until we view it in light of the cross.

Jesus asks his disciples to keep a lid on what happened on the mountain, not because he doesn’t want people to know who he is, but because he does. Jesus is waiting for the definitive, clearest revelation of his identity. That revelation will happen not on the mountain of transfiguration but on the hill of Calvary. No one can really understand the transfiguration unless you view it through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

When I was researching this sermon, I consulted a couple commentaries, and I stumbled across some words by St. Jerome, an early church father. He helped translate the Bible into Latin from its original languages. This is what he has to say about the Transfiguration: “O Peter, even though you have ascended the mountain, even though you see Jesus transfigured, even though his garments are white; nevertheless, because Christ has not yet suffered for you, you are still unable to know the truth.” Unless you view the Transfiguration through the lens of the crucifixion, you won’t get the picture.

Most of us approach the Bible by asking it questions. What does this mean? What does this biblical text say? What is a ‘cubit’? Are we supposed to take this text literally, or is this just a metaphor? And asking questions of the Bible is extremely important; that’s what got me into my current line of work. But I think Scripture speaks just as powerfully when we let it ask questions of us. And the Transfiguration is a part of the Bible that’s really good at asking questions:

What would I have said or done if I was with Jesus up on the mountain that day? How would I have reacted? Would I be afraid, like Peter? Shocked, unable to speak? Overjoyed? Would I be skeptical, looking for the mickey in my drink or the hidden power cable? How would I respond to the reality that Jesus is the son of God? Do I believe that Jesus has the kind of power that the Transfiguration tells us he has?

What have the mountaintop experiences been in my life? What have been the times when I have encountered God in a surprising or powerful way? What about in my daily life?—how do I encounter Jesus there, in the midst of mortgages and marriages and laundry? Am I open to encountering God in a surprising and unexpected way, either on the mountaintop or in the still, small voice?

And lastly, do I view the Transfiguration through the lens of the crucifixion? Do I believe that the God whose glory was disclosed in the transfiguration is the same God who went all the way to the cross—for me, for you, for all of us? Am I willing, as best as I can, to imitate that costly love?

Use your imagination. Let the Transfiguration ask you some questions. One day all of us are going to meet a member of the royal family. This is your chance to think of something to say. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


By the flattering invitation of Mr. Kellen Plaxco of Fear and Trembling, you will find the fifth installment of "True Stories" at his blog here. It's all part of his 'blogiversary,' for which he has put together quite a blogschrift for himself. Anyway, read and enjoy.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


This article is one of the many reasons why I admire Bono as a person (and as a Christian) and love his band's music. As Stanley is fond of saying, "No ethics without example." Bono is a marvelous, invigorating, challenging, inspiring example of what it means to take the Gospel seriously. Bono says of his quest to get western nations to make a determined effort to fight aids, forgive debt, and eradicate poverty: "They [political leaders in the West] keep saying, 'We're spending this much, and it's this much of a share of world spending,' " he told me the next morning. "I want them to say: 'Malaria just can't be allowed. We're going to get rid of malaria.'" Preach it, brother.


Sorry for the longish absence. Chicago, Princeton, Oswego, Princeton, LA, Princeton, school: it's been a busy coupla weeks. But now I'm back, school is in session, and I'm sitting at the feet of the Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology. Life is good. More posts to come.