Preaching John 20:19-31 . . . It’s Quite a Scene

Easter is over, which means Jesus is wandering about in a state of immateriality. Or something like that.

In John 20, Jesus drifts through closed doors and astounds the disciples. Then — as if to hammer home the point that he’s really alive and breathing — he exhales on them. It’s a dramatic text we often skip in our hurry to get to the much-maligned Thomas. But what a scene it makes!

If you’re preaching the John 20:19-31 passage this Sunday, I invite you to click over to Question the Text to read my blogpost on this text. The title is “ACTION: Paraclete Arrives, Unbelieving Departs.”

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Taking the Pilgrim’s Road: a Radio Interview with Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Judith Valente

I love how pilgrims find each other. We have similar interests and sometimes end up in clusters along the side of the road, metaphorically speaking. That’s how I met Judith Valente.

Judith is a long-time journalist who has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. You may know her work with PBS, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal. Judith is also a published poet, and a lay associate of a monastery. We were able to connect at the Festival of Faith & Writing.

Last week Judith interviewed me for her radio station, WGLT, out of Normal, IL, an NPR affiliate. In the 11 minutes, we covered questions like:

~ What’s the great appeal of pilgrimage?

~ What are the roots of pilgrimage? What does the word pilgrim mean?

~ What are people seeking when they go on a pilgrimage?

~ How significant is pilgrimage in the Islamic tradition? How does Abraham fit in?

~ Did this concept of pilgrimage begin in a particular era?

~ Why is pilgrimage more alluring for Catholics than Protestants?

~ Why do people go on pilgrimage during Holy Week in particular?

You can hear the 11 minute interview here.  (I’ll also link it over on my “Podcast” page.)

UnknownI encourage you to check out Judith’s latest book, which is a spiritual memoir about her visits to a monastery in Atchison, Kansas. It’s called Atchison Blue. It is highly readable, which makes it a perfect gift book.

Also, she recently released The Art of Pausing, which I mention for the first time here and which is responsible for the proliferation of haiku on my blog recently! (although you cannot blame her for the cat haiku, she is in no way responsible for that abomination!)

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Holy Thursday — Jesus at the Table

On this Maundy Thursday I wanted to share an image of Jesus at table with his disciples. The carving below shows all twelve disciples — it’s a bit hard to see John, whose head is lying in Jesus’ lap. What makes this depiction of the Last Supper unique is the identity of the disciple at the center of the piece — the one receiving the bread from Jesus’ hand. Who do you think that is?

Here’s a hint: He’s holding a moneybag in his hand.

Holy Blood Altarpiece

Holy Blood Altarpiece

This artwork is called the “Holy Blood Altarpiece.” It’s a reliquary, meaning that it was built to hold a relic, which is a drop of Jesus’ blood. The drop of blood is in a vessel above this panel. The altarpiece was carved by Tilman Riemenschneider at the beginning of the Reformation, and is a very large piece, still in its original installation in southern Germany. I really don’t know much else about it.

But I find it quite moving that an artist would put Judas at the center of this work, below Jesus’ shed blood, inviting the viewer to identify with the disciple who betrayed Jesus. So often we shy away from comparing ourselves to this betrayer. Judas is certainly a complicated figure and most Christians push away from him. Yet Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and included him in the sacrament of the supper. Like all of us, Judas is literally beneath the mercy seat in this depiction.

I learned about this artwork last Sunday, when I attended church with my parents, at Church of the Servant, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the Adult Ed hour, there was a presentation of Lenten-related artwork by Professor Craig Hanson, from Calvin College. What a gift to learn and listen!

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Scholarship for Seminarians — $1,000

Here’s a scholarship opportunity for seminarians — the application deadline is April 30. Note that male candidates will be considered, and also college seniors. Help EEWC spread the word! Here’s the announcement:

Logo1-1024x260The Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus-Christian Feminism Today is offering a $1,000 scholarship to a college senior or graduate student who is pursuing studies in religion or theology.

The scholarship will be awarded to a student who aspires to exemplify the values and achievements of Nancy A. Hardesty, a founding member of EEWC-Christian Feminism Today.

EEWC is a Christian feminist organization with a long history of working for gender equality. EEWC welcomes members of any gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, color, creed, marital status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, age, political party, parental status, economic class, or disability.

The 2-page application form can be found here.

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Pilgrim on the Road . . . the Palm Sunday Chapel

I’ve been leading a virtual pilgrimage at a virtual monastery for some very real people this Lent. What an interesting experience! You can read more about the experiment here.

For the sake of my fellow pilgrims, I wanted to post a picture from the Palm Sunday Chapel. This is a Franciscan church in Bethphage, just outside the old city of Jerusalem. It’s situated on the road that passes by the Mount of Olives — a person might take this road to travel from Jerusalem to Jericho.

ImageAccording to the gospels, Bethphage is the spot where the disciples procured a donkey for Jesus, which he then rode into Jerusalem as the people waved palm branches. If you and I were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem this Holy Week, we might walk this same road. (Incidentally, this is along the path pictured on the cover of my book.)

Me, in the chapel at Bethphage, which is known as the "Palm Sunday Chapel."

Me, in the chapel at Bethphage, which is known as the “Palm Sunday Chapel.”

Entering this chapel made me feel like I had walked right into the Palm Sunday story. There were life-sized frescoes all around, in sepia tones. I asked a sister pilgrim to snap a photo to help me remember the experience. My expression is rather solemn, but I was overcome with emotion. While we were in the chapel, we sang a hymn, and then our guide asked us some provocative questions. A good question is valuable, so let me share them with you during this Holy Week:

Each Gospel writer used a particular lens for Jesus, a way of answering Jesus’ foundational question: Who do you say that I am?  As we travel this Holy Week path, we must keep this question in the front of our minds. It is the essential question to the Palm Sunday story — and to every story this week. Who did the crowds think Jesus was? When we say ‘Messiah,’ what does that mean? A teacher to set them loose from religious law? A healer to cure their diseases? A liberator to free them from Roman rule?

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Landpp. 127-128

We are all on a faith journey of some kind — Who do you say that Jesus is?

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The National: Rocking Out at Calvin

The National at Van Noord Arena, April 12, 2014

The National at Van Noord Arena, April 12, 2014

Last night, the ending of the Festival of Faith & Writing coincided with a concert by The National at the Van Noord Arena.

I was surprised. When I attended Calvin there was no dancing allowed on campus. During the late 1970s students gathered in darkened dorm basements at covert “parties with music” to bounce rhythmically and hope no dean showed up to bust us.

Last night I plunked down a ticket (the gift of a generous friend) to see an honest-to-goodness rock band, complete with bouncers, in a building next door to my old dorm (Yes, Noordewier). The experience was fun, if a little disorienting. (Is rock music no longer considered a sin?)

I was not acquainted with The National except for having watched clips of their appearance on SNL recently. The band lists U2 as a formative influence — a fact I didn’t need to read in print, as I could hear it in their music. They were “indie with a melancholic bent.” What they did better than U2 (and isn’t that a statement?) was to add brass — trumpet and trombone. One thing that stood out for me was the last half of “About Today,” which was like being in a thunderstorm.

The National

The National

The band members really fed off the energy of the crowd. At one point the frontman, Matt Berninger, came to the edge of the stage and bowed his head while he sang. People in the audience patted his hair, like the laying on of hands. But he kept singing, full volume. During the encore he bodysurfed the crowd (or tried to, this was Calvin, after all) and then zigzagged through the masses, to the delight of all.

The last number was soulful and acoustic — the crowd sang along. I wished I knew the words! I will enjoy looking up all the lyrics.

The warmup band was My Brightest Diamond which was also great. The singer’s voice and manner reminded me of “Florence and the Machine” (which incidentally was U2′s warmup band the last time I heard them).

Here’s the setlist (April 12, 2014, Van Noord Arena):

Sea of Love
I Should Live in Salt
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Hard to Find
Afraid of Everyone
Conversation 16
Squalor Victoria
*I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Slow Show
Pink Rabbits
About Today
Fake Empire


Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (acoustic)

*the songs they performed on SNL, so click the link to hear them.

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Spring Changes

Because we’re all ready for spring, and the nation’s capital is blooming with cherry blossoms, I popped some pink beauties at the top of this page.

I’m also experimenting with a new blog name. For years “Work in Progress” was a helpful reminder and an affirmation. Now I feel ready for a slight change, a reminder that I love the work that’s constantly in progress. So do the work.

What is the work you love?

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Quotes on the Writing Life: Philip Yancey, Elie Wiesel

This weekend I’m getting ready to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing at my alma mater, Calvin College, April 10-12. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, hearing profound and beautiful words, and meeting lots of like-minded folk. I know I will come home with a long reading list.

To get myself in the “write” frame of mind, I’m posting some notes from FFWs past. Here are some tidbits from Festival of Faith & Writing 2000:


What’s a writer?  “I turn sentences around.”  — Philip Roth

What words do well:

  • penetrate
  • create a space
  • allow for transcendence

What words do not well:

  • distort
  • reduce
  • wound

Creativity has 3 functions:

  • expression
  • recognition
  • transcendence


The first question in the Bible is “Where are you?” But God knew, Adam did not.

Do we know now? Where am I in my life? We define this against others, within relationship.

The Noah story tells us that we are responsible. The writer has an ethical responsibility.

The essential component in writing is memory.

The prevalence of suicide among writers because when words run out, what else is there?

The writer is a witness who bears testimony.

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Cat Haiku, “Fine Lines from Felines”

Pardon me. I had intended to write something profound about church leadership and spiritual formation, but last night Wrangler pestered me with her meows. I am sympathetic to having a poem that needs to find expression. So here it is, her latest haiku. Personally, I thought it was quite good, a poignant lament, so I agreed to post it.

Wrangler, the Poet.

Wrangler, the Poet.

Dogs across the way

Are brought inside when it’s cold

I cannot tease them.

Editor’s note: the “dogs across the way” are a St. Bernard and yellow lab, well-behaved pets confined to their breezeway by an invisible fence. Since Wrangler is able to stride past, unperturbed, she may believe it is her ferocious figure that restrains the dogs. 

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Parables Happen

This parable actually occurred in our home this morning.

“The Kingdom of God is like a man who opens his dresser drawer and discovers a hole-y sock and throws it in the trashcan, immediately.”

Or if you like to construct parables in a series of three (as Jesus so often did), let me suggest the recognition and disposal of: dry ink pens and empty cereal boxes. (What would you add?)

A parable about Uncluttering seems right for Lent, because Uncluttering can be a spiritual practice.

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