Bringing Mystery Back

From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

You can't tell me there is no mystery
It's overflows my cup

This feast of beauty can intoxicate
Just like the finest wine

Come all you stumblers who believe love rules
Stand up and let it shine

These are excerpts from Bruce Cockburn’s 2004 song, “Mystery,” found on his album Life Short Call Now.

I like the song. I like mystery. It feels like almost everyone likes mystery these days. It is a good antidote to the cold objectivity that has owned the last few centuries. Mystery, intuition, folk-ways, Jesus—they’re all making comebacks; sprung free from the straightjacket of hyper-rationality. Mystery is a key part of Christianity’s breakup strategy with modernity.

It is also a healthy astringent for worship with too much chatter and theology with too many answers. Sometimes it feels like mystery has almost become a church-growth strategy. More and more I hear the actual word “mystery” slipped into worship. Candles, silence, icons, and chanting tossed in at no extra cost. Don’t misunderstand. I actually appreciate most of this, whether it really puts millennial butts in the pews or not.

But there are reasons to poke around a bit in our new enchantment with mystery. I’m not looking for reasons to go back to the bad old days. And I realize that trying to scrutinize mystery, having “reasons” to study it, seems somewhat to miss the point, contrary to the very nature of mystery.


"Emerging adulthood," Part 2

From Jessica Bratt

Picking up where I left off last time, I want to take another look at “emerging adulthood.” In two weeks, the third and last installment of these musings will consider what bearing “emerging adulthood” has on the church.

I’m intrigued by what in particular seems to represent “full” adulthood in people’s minds. What would you say if I put you on the spot and asked, “how do you know when someone is an adult?” I suspect many would answer with some combination of what have been traditional milestones of adulthood: moving out of your parents’ house, finishing your education, becoming financially independent, starting a career, getting married, buying a home, etc.

I’m not really sure how useful those measurements are anymore. The milestones are still important, of course, but do they really reflect a straightforward delineation of life stages? I think not. From where I sit, at least, those milestones play an entirely different role, and happen in all sorts of different sequences, for my young adult peers. Some of those changes are because of drastically changing social landscapes and economic realities – for instance, the length of time and expense required for higher education and advanced degrees, and the economic downturn and accompanying constraints on the job market.

The traditional milestones of adulthood seem relativized not only by the timing of their onset, but by how fluid they are.


Too Wonderful to be True?

Director Jack O’Brian adapted the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the Broadway stage several years ago, and it enjoyed a run of 626 performances. For the production, David Yazbek composed a lovely waltz:

Look at the way the moon behaves.
Look at the way she paints
A silver ribbon on the waves.
On thing I’ve learned and I’ll share with you- 
Nothing is too wonderful to be true.”

This is essentially the angelic announcement of Gabriel to Mary: nothing is too wonderful to be true. “Nothing shall be impossible for God!” But, for many 21st-century people, when they hear Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary,” they instinctively believe this is entirely impossible, and absolutely too wonderful to be true.  

Those in the modern world who struggle with Jesus’ Spirit-conception and Virgin-birth are in good company. Joseph and Mary themselves, the very parents of Jesus, both struggled with Gabriel’s good news. Remembering this enables us, then, to avoid the chronological snobbery which hears the Christian confession and responds smugly, “well, now we know that this sort of thing can’t happen.” Joseph and Mary never had a collegiate biology class, but they did know full well how babies were made. Gabriel’s good news would have sounded every bit as outlandish in the 1st century that it does in the 21st.

What then, are Christians getting at when they affirm Jesus’ Spirit-conception and Virgin-birth? They aren’t asserting Mary’s perpetual virginity, and they’re not denigrating women, sex, childbirth, or physical life. They are asserting that Jesus’ life is of a divine (“conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit”) and human (“born of the Virgin Mary”) character. Jesus, Christians say, is God-Among-Us, God moving onto our soil, God in our very flesh and bone.  

This feature of the Christian story sets it apart from all the ways humans have ever approached God. None of the world’s major faiths has been so audacious as to say that God actually became breakable, and entered so fully into the confinements, frailty, pain, and death of this planet.  

This was wonderful to Lauren Winner. Winner, as she was exploring Christian faith while a graduate student, writes in her memoir Girl Meets God, 

“The very first thing that I liked about Christianity, long before it ever occurred to me to go to church, or to say the Creed, or call myself a Christian, was the Incarnation: the idea that God lowered himself and became a man, so that we could relate to him better.  In Christianity, God got to be both a distant and transcendent Father-God, and a present and immanent Son-God who walked among us. Christians spend their time talking to God who knew from experience what it was like to get hungry, to go swimming, to miss a best friend.”

Maybe nothing is too wonderful to be true.

Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).


Now What Do We Do on Fall Saturdays?

From Debra Rienstra

I would like to point out that the University of Michigan ranks among the top 15 finest universities in the world. Academically. We are talking about academics here. As an alum, I feel obliged to establish this fact at the outset.

Now we can talk about football. Perhaps you have heard about the incident last Saturday during the Michigan-Minnesota game (final score: we do not speak of it), in which quarterback Shane Morris took a hard hit to the head, staggered around, was escorted off the field, and then, a few plays later, to the astonishment of the fans, was sent back into the game for one play. Why none of the coaches or sideline trainer-medical types saw him wobble, or evaluated him for concussion before sending him back out (with an injured ankle, too)—no one can explain, and these mysteries have accelerated the slow, painful implosion of the Michigan football program’s reputation, and maybe the program.

The president of the university is attempting to salvage a situation that was exacerbated by delayed and dissembling communications from the athletic division. Meanwhile, Go-Blue pundits are hoping for the imminent departure not only of head coach Brady Hoke but also athletic director David Brandon, who is increasingly depicted as a mustache-twirling villain. In fact, “departure” may be too mild a term for what may happen to these guys and members of their staff. As my husband keeps telling me, this is Michigan football we’re talking about, and the villagers are sprinting out to their toolsheds for pitchforks and torches. At the very least, Michigan students staged an old-fashioned sit-in Tuesday on President Schlissel’s lawn, calling for Brandon’s removal.



From James C. Schaap

What I can't help but notice, almost daily, is that I'm running low on holy water. Truth is, this Protestant has never opened this elegant little bottle, never sprinkled its contents on anything, never tried out its holy potential. It stands atop my file now with a gaggle of other memorables, the blest water within dissipating to wherever sealed holy water goes when it disappears. 

Three years ago I bought this sweet keepsake--two euros--at the shrine to St. Boniface in Dokkum, the Netherlands, a sort of open-faced house of worship that celebrates the life of a priest who may well have been Europe's most famous martyr. He already had a great vitae by the time some pagan Frisians offed him. He'd brought Christianity to the pagans, after all. He's the patron saint of Germany. 

Some historians pooh-pooh his tactics because his methods were extreme, well, primitive. He cared not a whit for what we'd call today the indigenious culture of those to whom he brought the gospel.  

The most famous tale of his saintly life surrounds his felling of Thor's Oak, a huge tree--so saith posterity--whose massive size made it a shrine, as in pagan. Boniface would have nothing to do with heresy, so he cut the monster oak down.  Some say that at the moment he was at it with his axe, a miraculous straight-line wind came along and broke the thing divinely into four chunks. The felling of Thor's Oak was the kind of mighty deed that sped his ascension to sainthood.

But he lost his head in Friesland when a gang of the world tallest heathens martyred him for destroying their shrines.  The date was June 5, the day before Pentecost, 754 A.D.

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