Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Transit

Faithful readers, many thanks for your patience. My family and I have been on the move constantly for the past two weeks. Having spent several days packing up, we left Columbia for Rochester, NY, only to discover our moving company neglected to pick up our trailer until just a few days ago. Having arrived, we were immediately off to Barker, NY to spend time at Leah's family camp, only to turn right around to come to Princeton for a conference with other "emergent" church leaders regarding the future of the Gospel. I hope to update more on the compelling conversations we've been having here. In the meantime, bear with us - I drive solo to Denver on Monday, to begin work with House for All Sinners and Saints and settle into our lives at Casa Karibu Sze-Ming in Denver's Cole Neighborhood. Some day we will be settled; for now, we remain pilgrims and sojourners - as we must for our entire lives! In the meantime, I HAVE been keeping up on "the facebook." Grace, peace and thanks to all!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Easy Essay: On Inclusivity

Inclusivity - as the world conceives it -
is a form of eschatology.
It assumes that the world is moving
inevitably towards
the fulfillment of the liberal-progressive agenda.
Yet, inclusivity is not
universalism, because its god is not
universalistic, because its god is not
the Lord of Israel.
Rather, inclusivity
is exclusivistic and exclusionary -
those who do not embrace it fully
are cast into the outer darkness,
not just at the End,
but also in medias res.

Jesus Christ is universalistic
because he is catholic
in that he draws
and reconciles
all things to himself.
His death is for all people
His life is for all people
His truth is for all people
His way is for all people
because it is His way,
because it is His truth,
because it is His life.
Every single person who ever lived
is invited to partake
in Christ - this is an
exclusivist eschatology,
and this
is the inclusivity,
in the end,
inclusivists cannot include.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Still In Medias Res: First Year in Retrospective

Nate Lee's generous post reminded me that it's been just about a year since I first launched During the World following my graduation from Duke Divinity School. As the blog's subtitle suggests, during the world, we are always already "in the midst of things," and for me, the art of blogging itself is no exception. I'm still learning (and failing!) to learn word limits and focus, as well as to be ok with long periods in which there is not much to say. I lament the large pile of half- and un-written posts that vocations as husband, father, pastor, student and sinful saint have simply not allowed to be written. I hope as I leave school behind and strike out once more into the real world, there will be more time for writing - though this kind of naivete is probably a product of my long absence from said real world. Even so, I wish to offer my profoundest gratitude to anyone who has patiently endured my mistakes, celebrated successes, and has journeyed with me on this voyage of blogging during the world. I love to write, and I thank you for indulging me, and for teaching me how to (gradually) grow as a writer. You help cultivate the life and resurrection which spring up amidst the tombs of my pretensions, my hastiness, and my short-comings.

Looking back over a year's worth of posts, I am astounded at how much I've forgotten that I've written! Yet, one of the greatest graces of forgetfulness is the joy of recollection. Below is a list of my own favorite posts from the first annum of During the World:

1) Confessions of a Hauerwasian (5.15.10) - One of my first and still favorite posts about one of my first and still favorite theological teachers.

2) Defending Constantine, or, the Scandal of Particularity Remixed (11.17.10) - So far, my most widely read post. Which elicits a confession: I still haven't actually finished the book yet! Thank God for the summer...

3) Martin Luther: Fire-Bender - A Brief Excursus on Discipleship (3.25.11) - A meditation on Luther's teachings on sanctification and holiness in light of what I think is one of the most profound children's shows of all time.

4) "Throw Open the Doors of the Church!" - A Personal Remembrance of Peter J. Gomes (4.7.11) - My tribute to a beloved mentor and dear friend in the wake of his departure for glory earlier this year.

5) Reconciliation on Story Hill (10.25.10) - Humbling realizations in the nexus of an encounter with the South through the eyes of some wonderful folk musicians.

6) Righteousness AND Justice: A Truly "Bohemian" Christianity (11.11.10) - A lengthy yet important working out of what it means to pursue a radical faith that is both socially progressive as well as personally committed to holiness.

7) "His Kingdom is Love" - Introducing NFS Grundtvig (4.14.11) - One of the most fun posts to create, introducing one of the most delightful new voices for me to have discovered.

8) A Mass for the Doubters: A Recommendation of Erik Poppe's Troubled Water (11.6.10) - Really, this one rests on the force of the film, which I still hold needs to be seen by every person who's ever considered grace.

9) Foundations Pt.II (1.11.11) - A dispatch from my travels in Malaysia, exploring what it means to honor the traditions of other religions without compromising the Truth of the Gospel.

10) Jealous of Rob Bell, or, On Pastoral Poetry (11.9.10) - I continue to be jealous of Rob Bell; I also continue to strive to make pastoring a poetic act.


14: Remember Your Baptism

(Taken at the Riverside Zoo in Columbia, SC - not the last Republican Convention)

It Gets Worse: An Easy Essay

There is a Youtube campaign
exhorting bullied gay youth
to believe and hope that
“it gets better.”
There should be a Youtube campagin
warning baptized Christians
to be prepared:
“it gets worse.”

When Jesus was baptized
he was immediately sent
into the wilderness,
to confront Satan and the wild beasts.
He was reviled, opposed,
betrayed, condemned
and crucified.
In the midst of it all
he warned us that abundant life
meant the same things for us.
When we were baptized
we were killed into a death like His
and also raised into a life like His.
Our newborn eyes
see more sin than before,
our freshborn hearts
suffer for the broken world more,
our strengthened bodies
ache at our failures more,
our enflamed spirits
cannot be quenched by complacency.
We are sent into the wilderness
to confront Satan and the wild beasts.
The one consolation
is that we do not go alone
into this abundant life.

If a gay youth desired to become
a disciple of Jesus Christ
hoping to find peace, love and acceptance,
I would welcome her
with the grace and joy
and acceptance of the Lord,
and then say,
“it gets worse.”
(I have a feeling
she would reply,
“I already know this.”)
Stanley Hauerwas tells young people
at the Duke Youth Academy
that Jesus ruins lives.
The church and the world
already excel at this
in making the empty promise that
“it gets better.”
The True Church speaks, honestly,
“it gets worse,”
while its faithful living,
tireless hoping,
and fruitful loving
testifies to the One
whose presence and promise
has already
made it better.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Divinity Nostalgia III: 9.5 Evangelical Catholic Reads towards a Post-Liberal Lutheranism

As I begin to reflect on my time at LTSS after having been declared by her a Master of Sacred Theology, a major theme to which I continually returned throughout the year was the interface between the evangelical catholicism with which I was inundated here, and the so-called "post-liberal" "Duke theology" of my previous institution. As I've posted previously, while the post-liberals have in part built their identity on the declamation of Lutheranism, the movement as a whole is highly indebted to a number of Lutheran writers. My belief is that the sum of post-liberalism and Lutheranism is more than its parts. The former provides a robust view of communally-based sanctification; the latter, a strong, existential, "for me" view of the centrality of Christ's justifying work. Lutherans also bring a robust doctrine of creation and a Chalcedonian Christological realism that anchors narrative theology to that creation. Finally, the doctrine of the two-kingdoms, properly conceived and run through a program of incarnational worship as an extension of that creation, enables a bold and prophetic witness "in the midst of things," rather than retreat into sectarian enclaves or idolatrous co-optation. In all this, the love and lordship of the Crucified Christ remains foundational. There is much work to do here, but also, I think, much promise.

I offer the following both as a catalogue of my favorite (Lutheran) reads of the past academic year, and as an initial recommendation of some thinkers and works I think provide the most robust expression of an evangelical catholic Lutheranism capable of both contributing to and decisively shaping the post-liberal theological movement. Admittedly, they are all by white males of a European persuasion - but then, in the current climate of the ELCA, they are some of the least likely to be recommended or read. To see them both engage in and be engaged by a more diverse conversation would prove exciting and fruitful - and is one of my goals as I move on from LTSS. (Alphabetical by author)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Creation and fall - An important work by a radical disciple and martyr of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer here tacitly confronts his mentor Karl Barth with the imperative of a more robust doctrine of creation and of sin, thus furnishing the necessary protology that is antecedent to any truly world-affirming vision of Christian faith and practice. In the midst of things, whoever controls the beginning controls the end. A call to return to the roots of things, and so become truly "radical."

Peter Brunner - Worship in the Name of Jesus - Sadly, the powerful works of Brunner have mostly escaped translation into English. Like Bonhoeffer, Brunner spent time in a concentration camp for his resistance to National Socialism, but his later ecumenical catholicity, his construal of Law and Gospel in narrative terms, his unwillingness to surrender the historical reality of the resurrection, and his strong emphasis on the formative power of the church, have led to his being largely ignored. His vision lives on, however, in the work of his most famous doctoral student, Robert Jenson. This selection is a good introduction to Brunner, as well as a powerful exposition of the centrality of worship as "the service of God," both for and by Christians.

Engaging Luther: A (New) Theological Assessment - ed. Olli-Pekka Vainio - The so-called Finnish School of Luther Interpretation has been turning heads for the past two decades by asserting the centrality of the reality of "union with Christ -" aka divinization - lies at the heart of Luther's understanding of justification. In this volume by the second and third generations of the movement, various Finns explore diverse facets of Luther's thought, from Trinity and anthropology to sex and music, to further unfold the surprising and astoundingly dynamic possibilities of the Reformer's thought in both a post-liberal and catholic-ecumenical context. What emerges is a Luther not of the existentialists or the sloganizers, but one thoroughly rooted in the Christian tradition while proposing a radical, transformative, and unconditionally accepting Gospel of the grace of God that does not leave us where it finds us, but rather, fulfills our humanity by transfiguring it. In my opinion, the best and most important book on Luther to come out in recent memory.

N.F.S. Grundtvig - Selected Writings - My most pleasant discovery of the year (see this post), the Great Happy Dane was not only a prolific composer of hymns and fecund source of progeny (he fathered his final child well into his seventies) but also the genius behind the folk school movement, a scholar of myth and folklore who furnished the prime inspiration for Tolkien's epic trilogy, and an advocate for a robust, catholic Lutheranism that nevertheless championed the centrality of joy, wonder, and vivaciousness. Sadly, most of Grundtvig's vast corpus remains untranslated. To dip into his vast ocean of life, the old Danish hymnal is a great place to begin, as is the less fulfilling Grundtvig Anthology. If you can find a used copy of his Selected Writings, these provide the best introduction to this thought, as does the recent collection of essays, Grundtvig in International Perspective: Studies in the Creativity of Interaction. However, the absolute best volume on the Danish legend is Allchin's pricy yet thoroughly worthwhile theological biography NFS Grundtvig: An Introduction to His Thought, which contains plentiful translations of his poetry and prose, and is highly readable. Like the Finns, Grundtvig's maxim "first human, than Christian" calls for a grace that transfigures - not destroys - nature, and with it, a doctrine of creation capable of sustaining an affirmation of all creativity and life.

Johann Georg Hamann - After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (by John Betz) - If you can not only read, but also decipher, the writings of the man who David Bentley Hart proclaimed the most humorous of philosophers, as well as the only Lutheran included as a model of theological-aesthetic style by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his The Glory of the Lord, then there may be something wrong with you. For the rest of us mortals, the place to go is to Betz's illuminating and timely study of this friend and opponent of Immanuel Kant and chief inspiration of Kierkegaard. Hamann is cryptic - most would say, borderline insane - yet, his deep Pietistic faith and prophetic critique of the reductionistic idolatry of much of Enlightenment thought anticipated by two centuries the current moves and dynamics of post-liberal theology. As with Allchin's Grundtvig's book, your best bet to access this costly volume may be to visit the local seminary library. But getting to know this surprising mad genius, who Berlin dubbed "The Magus of the North" and who even Goethe venerated, is well worth the investment.

Robert Jenson - Systematic Theology (2 vols) - Jenson needs little introduction, particularly given the proliferation and popularity of his ideas in post-liberal circles. While not without major flaws, Jenson's masterwork seeks to revive awareness in the on-ongoing creative work of the entire Trinity - particularly, the Holy Spirit - by engaging in dialogue with Aquinas, Barth, and with Eastern Orthodoxy. Along the way, he calls for an embodied, witnessing church visible in history, demands ethical enactment, reconfigures Law and Gospel, revels in the erotic love of God for humanity and humanity's co-creative passionate response, argues for the suffering of God without falling into patripassionism, all in the service of the elegant assertion that "God is a fugue." Important not only for Lutherans, but for all subsequent Protestant-evangelical catholic theology.

George Lindbeck - The Church in a Post-liberal Age - Like Jenson, Lindbeck's name is well known throughout contemporary theology, particularly as the propagator of the "cultural-lingustic" model of understanding doctrine, as well as in developing the stem cells of narrative theology as part of the Yale School which would eventually grow into the broader post-liberal movement. In this collection of essays, we receive a broad sample of Lindbeck's ecumenical and theological works. Of particular interest is the piece in which he compares the method of the Luther of the catechisms to that of the medieval rabbis, showing that the Reformer, far from merely prescribing an antinomian "sin boldly," in fact went to vigorous and creative ends to foster a sense of playful engagement and transformative holiness in those to whom he was both pastor and teacher. This volume shows Lindbeck doing the same, as a Lutheran, for the whole church.

Kaj Munk - Five Plays/By the Rivers of Babylon - Like Brunner and Bonhoeffer, Munk was no friend of the Nazis - a fact that cost him his life at the hands of the SS during the German occupation of Denmark. A disciple of Grundtvig and one of the greatest Danish dramatists, Munk sought throughout his whole career to assert the centrality of a belief in miracles in the midst of a rationalistic age. His most powerful play, "The Word," explores this theme in striking though never cloying portrayals of peasant life. Once the Germans arrived, Munk became widely known and admired for his defiant sermons in which he proclaimed "the Christian answers to no one." Vehemently denouncing the complacency of the cultural Christianity which led to accommodation of the invading ideology, Munk urged his hearers to follow Christ even by the rivers of Babylon, calling for a "Christian rage" matched only by the passion of love shaped, empowered, and sustained by the Gospel. Like Grundtvig, translations are hard to come by, though can be found at affordable prices on most used book sites.

Bernd Wannenwetsch - Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens - Admittedly, I have not quite finished this book yet. Which means I am still in the midst of enjoying, and being blown away by, the sheer force of Wannenwetsch's argument. Steeped in Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, and various debates in German Lutheranism foreign to most of us this side of the pond, Wannenwetsch argues that worship is always a public, political act, of the kind that enables not only prophetic witness to the world, but also shapes, enables, and demands concrete and embodied action. For him, the church is not an option among many, an institution of the private sphere of values, but rather is that public, foundational polity upon which all other values are built, and by whose faithful and ongoing worship any truth, justice, or politics is possible in the first place. For those still deceived by false presentations of Lutheran Two-Kingdoms-Theology, Wannenwetsch provides a striking alternative which returns us to the roots not only of the Reformer's, but also the Gospel's, vision of the church during the world.

David S. Yeago - "The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures" in Knowing the Triune God - In my opinion, David Yeago is one of the most important yet most underrated theologians of any tradition writing today - and not just because he is my teacher! While Yeago's massive, catechetical systematic theology textbook is still being prepared by publishers after over two decades of anticipation, his various essays on the Catholic Luther, theological exegesis of scripture, the church as embodied, historical polity, on union with Christ, sanctification, and holiness, as well as his various and profound engagements with fathers from Maximus the Confessor to Johann Gerhard to Hans Urs von Balthasar can be found in various journals and Braaten/Jenson collections. I've recommended this particular essay as a gateway into Yeago's thought since it is both the most accessible, as well as the most comprehensive for his vision for a truly evangelical catholicism. Having studied under Jenson and Lindbeck, Yeago is the heir to the writers of this list, as well as the future of post-liberal Lutheranism.

Additional LTSS Resources:
Despite the recent arrival of Michael Root on the opposite banks of the Tiber, LTSS remains the primary seat of evangelical catholic theology within American Lutheranism. I've included below three resources - one document and two blogs - that contain additional, highly accessible, and easily engaged instances of the diversity within this movement. The LTSS formation statement provides a glimpse of the movement's vision as a whole; Lutherans Persisting shows the more conservative side of the ECs, while the Columbia Statement outlines a robust, multi-faceted defense of a more "progressive" evangelical catholicism. Finally, Richard Cimino's Trusting the Spirit: Renewal and Reform in American Religion, provides an historic overview of the development of EC over the past fifty years in the context of broader post-Vatican II liturgical and charismatic movements:
Spiritual Formation Statement
Lutherans Persisting
Columbia Declaration

Friday, May 13, 2011

An Easy Essay*: On Sojourners

*The "Easy Essay" was a form of communicating academic conversation in an idiom accessible and clarifying for the laity - a means of democratizing intellectual discourse - pioneered by Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. The following is an experimental attempt at emulation, as well as an act of admiration and tribute.

Sojourners, the nation’s premier progressive evangelical journal,
recently refused to print an article
affirming homosexuality.
Suddenly, Sojourners is no longer
the nation’s premier progressive evangelical journal.
I do not personally recall
the place in scripture
where affirmation of everything
(except those who do not affirm everything)
was declared a mark of the true church.
I do seem to recall, however,
the final judgement of all
being indelibly linked
to the church’s treatment of the poor.
Therein, I think, lies the dilemma:
can we subvert a clear command of Christ
to one less clear?**
Can we denounce a group, despite commitment
to the plain sense of Scripture -
and care for the poor could not be plainer -
while casting them down
for treading cautiously - or even
taking a difficult stand -
where there is less clarity of imperative?
I think Sojourners could remain
the nation’s premier progressive journal
if it were to do so.
I do not think, however, that Sojourners
could any longer remain
the nation’s premier progressive evangelical journal.

**I should note that I am someone fully committed to the fullest possible inclusivity of homosexual disciples of Christ that the Gospel allows; that being said, I believe the Gospel, and not societal standards of relevance or inclusivity, ought to light the way. It is a tension in which I continue to live, trusting that the Spirit will reveal a way forward that honors both the experience of homosexual Christians, as well as the foundational reality of the grace-filled sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

12: Intimations of (Im)mortality

(Taken at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Columbia, SC on the occasion of graduating with an STM from LTSS, 5.13.11)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

10: Praying the First Psalm

Collecting Manna: St Symeon the New Theologian

What is your immeasurable compassion, Savior?
How have you deigned that I be made your member,
I the impure one, the profligate, the prostitute?
How have you vested me with a brilliant robe (Lk.15.22),
flashing forth with the radiance of immortality,
and turning all my members to light?

For your body is immaculate and divine,
flashing forth entirely with the fire of your divinity,
unspeakably mixed and comingled.
And so You have given this to me, my God.

For this dirty and perishable tent
was united to your all-immaculate body,
and my blood mixed with your blood.
I was united, know, to your divinity also,
and I have become your most pure body,
a resplendent member, a truly holy member,
far-shining, and transparent, and gleaming.

I see the beauty; I look at the lustre;
I reflect the light of your grace,
and I am astonished at the mystery of the radiance,
and I am beside myself when I consider myself,
from what lowly condition I have come, what a marvel!

And I wait quietly and stand in awe of myself,
and I fear and reverence as though before You yourself...
For what works and actions
may I use these awesome and divine members?
Grant that I may both speak and practice what I preach.
O my craftsman, my sculptor, and my God!

(Divine Eros: Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian. Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2010, p44)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Collecting Manna: Kaj Munk

Kaj Munk was a Danish Lutheran pastor and playwright who was assassinated by the Gestapo for preaching against his country's occupation - the result of her complicit neutrality - by Germany during World War II (a nice bio can be found here). One of the bullets was surely aimed at silencing such incendiary homiletics as the following passage. The Lutheran church commemorates his martyrdom on January 5.

"What is, therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: "Faith, hope, and love"?

That sounds beautiful. But I would say--courage.

No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness.

For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature....
we lack a holy rage--
the recklessness which comes form the knowledge of God and humanity.

The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth...a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world.

To rage against the ravaging of God's earth , and the destruction of God's world.

To rage when little children must die of hunger, when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries.

To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace.

To rage against complacency.

To restlessly seek that recklessness that will challenge and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.

And remember the signs of the Christian Church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove, and the Fish...
but never the chameleon."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Collecting Manna: Nadia Bolz-Weber

The killer conclusion to a killer sermon preached by my future internship supervisor (full text here):

...sometime doubting isn’t the opposite of having faith…it’s a component of having faith. Doubting can mean that we haven’t forgotten the story. Doubting means that we don’t have it figured out all on our own and the best thing about doubt is that at least it’s honest. So if that’s where you are…if you are a doubter like me, then it’s ok but you should be prepared for something. It’s a thing I never hear people in the church talk about but I know it exists because I experience it all the time: it’s called tests of doubt…not a tests of faith…but tests of doubt. And you should probably watch out for them.

See, when I was sure that this whole Jesus thing had nothing to offer me – when I had been so alienated by conservative Christianity and so clear about my dislike for organized religion… when I thought I had unwavering rock solid doubt, I wandered into a church that challenged all my certainties I had about the Christian faith. It was my great crisis of doubt. When I was welcomed into a little Lutheran parish in Oakland California and was so freely given absolution and Gospel and a literal chunk of bread which I was told was Jesus and that it was for me I slowly began to lose my doubt. So watch out for this brothers and sisters. watch out. Because I don’t think that faith is the biggest threat to doubt, the biggest threat to doubt a barging in God revealed in Christ.

So if you would like to protect your doubt I suggest keeping your distance from the following: avoid People who have heard the Gospel and actually live as though it’s true, avoid receiving the Eucharist or receiving forgiveness or receiving strangers and by all means don’t sing hymns for they are most dangerous. Politely say “no thank you”

But know this: whether doubt is something that you fear or something that you foster be prepared for it to be tested again and again by this God who rudely barges into your locked doors and offers you peace and breath and spirit and then sends you out to do the same for the world God loves enough to keep saying yes to all of it’s no thank yous.

O Blessed Doubt of Thomas

The following is yet another lengthy excerpt of an even lengthier sermon - the first I ever wrote, in fact - preached in class at Duke. The sermon was written in response to the suicide of a troubled former student from my campus ministry days; I have included the full text here. May God continue to rest his soul in this season of resurrection.


O Blessed Doubt
John 20:24-29
Duke Divinity School 2007

You know how the story goes. While all the rest of the Apostles are hiding together, Jesus appears to them and breathes into them the Holy Spirit. But Thomas is absent. When they come running in the door to tell him what they have seen, Thomas insists that unless he gets to touch the actual wounds of Jesus, something no one else has yet been allowed to do, he will not believe. A week later, he gathers with the disciples, Jesus appears and tells a disbelieving Thomas to no longer doubt but to believe, reminding us all that “happy are they who have not seen and yet believe.”

I wonder: if Thomas had known how much bad press he would get as “Doubting Thomas,” if he would have just lied and said, “ok, I believe you.” It probably wouldn’t have changed how he felt inside. But it would have saved him a lot of trouble.

But Thomas is authentic in his doubt, and honest about where he is at. And if you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense why Thomas would doubt just for the sake of doubting. This is the same man who, in John 11, insists that the Apostles follow Jesus to mourn Lazarus, though it will mean going to their deaths! This is the same guy who, hungry for the meaning of Jesus’ words, calls him out for being unclear at the Last Supper, yearning for a deeper understanding of his Master’s plans. And while the other Apostles are all together the night they see Jesus, John tells us that they gathered behind locked doors because they were afraid! But the same Thomas who was not afraid to follow Jesus to his death in Jerusalem is not hiding in fear with the others.

Which begs the question: where the heck was Thomas that night?

Rabbi Sager often encourages us to grab the lapels of the Biblical text and shake it until it answers our questions. Why wasn’t Thomas with the others? What was he doing? In Judaism, there is a tradition called Midrash, meaning “interpretation,” which in essence sees the gaping holes in Scriptural narratives as clues for the imagination to follow in order to explore further into a story. In asking tough questions and imaging possible answers, they believed that the struggle would lead them to a deeper intimacy with the God speaking in between the lines of the story. Scripture is full of such holes that God has left in order that we might wrestle with him, and involve ourselves in His story.

There are, of course, many different ways to do midrash on any given story. Here’s my particular take.

I wonder if there is something that the Jews reading this particular story would have noticed that I do not notice. Something we can’t know because unlike John and Peter and Thomas and Jesus, we are not Jews.

Perhaps you have heard of the Jewish practice of sitting shiva as part of the mourning process? On the day after the deceased is buried, the immediate family (ie. his parents, spouse, siblings and children) take on the status of “avelim,” mourners, and gather together at their house. There they sit as low to the ground as they can, sometimes on stools, but very often, on the ground itself, in order to represent how low they have been brought down by the disorientation and the shock of their loss. While they are sitting shiva, the family members abstain from bathing and eating, unless food is brought to them, and also from social gatherings. The word “shiva” means “seven” in Hebrew, and they family will sit for seven days before moving on to the next stage of grief. We see evidence of such a practice in the story of Job, in which he sits on his dung heap and is visited by his friends.

Our story tells us that Thomas did not gather with the other disciples until eight days had passed. This includes the remainder of that same day that he expressed his doubt, and so would have been exactly one week later, on the following Sunday. I do not think that Thomas was just sitting around for a week doubting his Jewish head off. No, I think it is very likely that one possible reason for Thomas’ absence was that he was sitting shiva.

Jesus was buried on a Friday because, as you will recall, the feast of Passover was just beginning. According to Jewish custom, one cannot start sitting shiva until the end of a great festival. That means Thomas would have just been starting his shiva period that very first Easter Sunday!

As I mentioned before, it was usually only customary for the immediate relatives of the deceased to sit shiva. For (if?)Thomas to have undertaken to sit shiva in honor of Jesus shows not only the intense pain and grief he must have been feeling over the loss, but also demonstrates the intimacy he felt with Jesus, a love so strong that he is undertaking a practice only done by a brother, a son, or a father.

Imagine what must have been going through Thomas’ head as he sat there while the other apostles gathered. The dust from the ground rises gently in the twilight, irritating his already teary eyes. Reviewing in his head over and over again: what could I have done to save Him? Could I have done anything? Did I follow Him rightly? I put all my faith in Him, and now He is dead. How will I ever believe in anything again? How CAN I ever believe in anything again? It’s over. It’s done. He said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Now I cannot care about any of these things. And where are the others? Why are they not grieving? Why are they all gathered together when Shiva forbids it? Don’t they care about Jesus at all?

What kinds of things do you think when you are regretting, longing, mourning? What “should haves, if onlys, what ifs, and could haves” run rampant through your brain? What does silence feel like to you? Like a mystery? Like pain? Like nothingness.

And in the midst of this intense pain, tearing through these heavy thoughts, ripping apart the curtain of grief, come the Apostles. One final aspect of Shiva that I have not yet shared is that while it is considered a great kindness to visit a mourner, you are not permitted to speak to him until he speaks to you first. Yet here they come, with no regard for his expression of loss or the mystery of his grief. Here they come to tell him something incredibly absurd.

If someone came to me right now and told me that A-- was alive, if someone came to you after your father’s funeral and told you they had just seen your dad walking around, would you believe them? I would be mad as hell. I would not have been as civil as Thomas was to them.

Those Disciples had good news to share. Very good news! Probably the best news anyone had ever heard. But as enthusiastic as they were, as filled with the Spirit and as well-intentioned as they were, I wonder: how could they have expected Thomas to hear it in the state he was in? They were not speaking to him where he was at. How could anybody be expected to believe if they were in Thomas’ place?

Nobody doubts in a vacuum. The reason I speculate about shiva at all is to try to understand just a little bit more the context of Thomas’ doubt. In this light, I do not see Thomas as defiant and sly. As someone who has sat shiva for many long sleepless nights, who sat Shiva with A-- in that coffee shop week after week, as someone who has mourned the loss of a picture of God that is full of hope and comfort and with that a sense of security and meaning, I see him as someone who, like A--, like you, and like me, is undergoing intense spiritual and emotional pain. He is mourning, grieving, dying. Perhaps we should not call him Doubting Thomas, but Hurting Thomas. Mourning Thomas.

Grief is an unspeakable mystery. An absence. A disappearance. Soundless. Sucking in all words of light, adding them to the darkness of the shadow.

Facing friends who have not only ignored the sacredness of the death of their master, but have also barged into his space uninvited with their new-fangled born-again charismatic words of certainty (we have seen THE LORD), Thomas feels the final nail driven into his soul. Perhaps that is why he fixates on the wounds of Christ when he says, “unless I can touch the wounds on his hand and place my hand inside his side, I WILL NOT BELIEVE.”

These are perhaps the most profound words of protest against the void I have ever encountered. I hear Thomas proclaiming, “you come to me with words about a ghost, a risen Savior, a God making peace signs and blowing wind on you? I am hurting. I doubt your conception of God. I need a God who hurts. Who bleeds. Who is real. Who is human. Show me the God who on the cross proclaimed that he had been forsaken by His Father. Show me the God who was wounded. I need that God. Without Him, there is nothing worth believing.”

Show me the holes. Thomas, too, seeks a midrash, seeks the holes in the story. He wants to wrestle, wants to touch God, demands a blessing of Him; He wants intimacy, and not something fake.

This is not an “unless” with an option attached. This is, “unless I pass this next Church History exam, I WILL NOT graduate. Unless something in this marriage changes, its over. Unless people start paying attention in church, I am out of here.” It is an ultimatum, painfully and brutally clear.

When I worked at the St. Francis Center, a day shelter for the homeless in Denver, I saw this prayer lived out time and time again. I saw men who lost a wife, lost a job, lost control, and have been sitting Shiva ever since. Almost all of them struggle with mental illness far worse than anything I have ever known. Most of them spend all day wallowing in their guilt, mourning their losses, hurting, dying. Most of them get several opportunities a year to move into housing, or to get off the streets. Very few will take the chance. Like Thomas, they put all their money on the dice once, and it failed them. Why bother being let down again? But what they are really saying is this: “you are offering me a house? Will you be my community there? Will you be my friend? Will you make sure I am not alone? If not, then I WONT BELIEVE.” Even when they get housing, they remain without a real home. What they want and need is someone who will enter the struggle with them, who has been there before. Thomas wants the same thing here.

There is no response to Thomas recorded in the text. Just an echoing, eight-day silence. No one tries to convince him otherwise. The matter is settled.

What must be going through the disciples’minds? What did they talk about after they leave? “That idiot Thomas, why is he always going the extra mile?” “Thomas, if only he would just accept the truth and believe! It’s so simple! After all, I’ve been born again!” Or, as my newfound Southern friends might say, “that Thomas, BLESS HIS HEART, sure needs a lot of prayer right now.” “He shouldn’t need to have proof! He has OUR TESTIMONY. He should be able to believe.”

But perhaps there were one or two apostles who remained with Thomas, who sat there with him, in the silence. On the dirty ground with him, risking discovery by the powers that be, chancing derision from the others, for the sake of accompanying Thomas on his journey of grief. Risking the pain they might themselves feel, the tears they might themselves cry, the doubts and questions they might have to ask themselves. Who did not say, “he SHOULD be better,” but said, “this is where he IS, let’s meet him there.” Who simply sat, and waited, and hurt, and prayed, and listened.

Perhaps it was simply their presence, their support, their “being with,” that gave Thomas the hope to come to dinner the next Sunday night, even in spite of his rage. Perhaps we are simply called, as disciples, to “be with,” and not just “preach to.”

How would you get Thomas back to that room again?

There he sits next Sunday, back with the apostles. They are singing and praying and laughing and rejoicing. He is moping, tired, weak, hungry. He hears their words and to him they are empty. He wants to be happy and to sing with them; he wants to be rejoined to his community, to have things be the old way. But he sits still, while life happens all around him.

And then, beyond belief, beyond doubt, beyond hope. Thomas cannot believe it. Jesus appears. He walks right through the locked door and the solid walls and all of the questions and the tears and the pain and the rest of it and stands before them, and looking Thomas right in the eye, he offers the most beautiful of all words, “peace be with you.”

Thomas’ heart stops. Peace. Could there really be peace after all this? Is it real? Is it really you my love? Dare I believe?

But before he can start to sink down into the depths again, Jesus walks towards him. Thomas can hear the sound his feet make on the floor, the way the boards creek under his weight. He can see the softness in the smile and the faint outlines left by the thorns that once pierced his forehead.

And then, without ever having said a word, Jesus reads his heart, and speaks to it. He says the words we all know, but Thomas hears in them, “My beloved child, put your finger here. Reach out your hand. Touch me. Be inside me. Know me. I am really here. I really suffered for you. I really understand. I doubted too. I hurt too. I died too.” Thomas reaches out, and places his hand inside of Jesus. He feels a lover’s love, a burning desire, an intense shame...why had I not believed all along…how could I have…is it really Him…I am inside of Him…

And just as Jesus told the blind man to “be opened,” so to Thomas he says, “be not faithless, but believe.” Some have seen it as a rebuke. But I am sure no one needed to rebuke Thomas. Combined with that lover’s ecstasy was an intense shame. Thomas knows he has been human, all too human. But Jesus’ words “believe” are words not of rebuke alone, but of healing, words that restore wholeness, that say, “be free of the emptiness and the doubt and the abyss. Be free of grief. Be full of grace and faith. Remember by words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.””

Jesus Christ does not first criticize or lecture Thomas. He reaches out to him, meets him where he is at. To the wounded, he appears wounded. To the broken, he appears broken. He reaches out to Thomas not because of what he has done, not to prove Thomas wrong, but in spite of his inability to believe in Jesus, Jesus believes in Thomas so much that he accommodates himself to him. Not because Thomas is deserving. But because Thomas is mourning, and those who mourn are blessed.

And then Thomas speaks words never spoken before by any man in the history of humankind. He recognizes before him His Wounded King. He realizes that Jesus reigns in Heaven as well as on earth, and that He is more than just a man. He sees something he can believe in, because it is something that has believed in him, that has loved him first, that has gone through what he has gone through; he sees a Lord who reigns over the universe, who sits at the right hand of the Father not in perfect majesty, but as a lamb who was slain. He sees that God has holes in his hands; that God hurts too.

And so he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

“Oh blessed doubt of Thomas,” proclaimed St. Gregory of Nyssa, “for by his doubt we have gained more for our faith than the faith of all the other apostles combined.”