Monthly Archives: November 2011


Stefano Maderno, The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia (1599), Church of St. Cecilia, Trastevere, Rome.

Here’s one of the most profound things I’ve read lately. Although we Baptists have a different definition of “saint,” this is too good not to share with you:

“The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else. It gives them a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning other men. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. A man becomes a saint not by conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God!” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)


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Getting Ready

Today is the beginning of Advent and the start of a new church year. “Advent” (from the Latin adventus, “coming”) is the season prior to Christmas when many Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus. It looks backward to the Incarnation and forward to the Second Coming—twin Christological certainties separated by the here and now, the in-between-ness, when things are far less sure. In the Gospel reading for today, Mark 13:24-37, Jesus gives his followers their marching orders for the interim. “Watch!” he said. Before we consider what and how we are to watch, a little background is needed.

One day Jesus and his disciples left the temple and made their way up the Mount of Olives. Looking back they could see the majestic structure, its white limestone gleaming in the midday the sun. It must have been an impressive sight. One of the disciples said, “Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” (Mark 13:1). I’m sure it was a shock when Jesus replied: “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone left upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (v. 2).

Like the disciples we are often impressed by big buildings—those soaring structures dedicated to the worship of God—like the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, or the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, CA, or even the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel  (above), which I can see framed in the window of my bedroom where I am writing this. Churches spend enormous sums of money on their buildings. When I lived in Southern California, the Los Angeles Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was completed at a cost of $250 million. First Baptist Dallas plans to spend $115 to rebuild their downtown sanctuary. These might be symptoms of what Howard Snyder calls tongue-in-cheek an “edifice complex”—the institutional church’s over-emphasis on buildings.  

There’s nothing wrong with having nice architecture, and a sense of sacred space can enhance worship. But Christian worship must be centered on Jesus Christ, not any physical structure. Jesus signaled as much when he told the disciples not to gawk at the temple but to watch for his return. I wrote about his apocalyptic imagery in a previous post, but here I want to focus on what Jesus meant by his admonition to watch. In the biblical text, watching is the opposite of sleeping, but it’s more than merely waiting passively for the Second Coming.

Being watchful doesn’t mean taking an obsessive interest in End Times prophecy or worse, trying to predict Christ’s return. The Bible says explicitly “no one knows the day or hour” (Mark 13:32). In fact, Jesus said even he didn’t know when he was coming again, only his Father in heaven. A parallel passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 tells us what it means to watch for the coming of the Lord. Jesus’ return “comes as a thief in the night” (v. 2), though Christians are not caught off guard (v. 4). Sleep, night, and drunkenness are the experiences of those who will be surprised by Jesus’ Second Advent, just as alertness, light, and sobriety characterize those who are watching for the Lord’s return. Moreover, Christians are protected by faith, hope, and salvation (v. 8). Thus armed, we are to comfort, edify, and be at peace with our fellow Christians (vv. 11, 13). Further, we are to “warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (v. 14) and not “render evil for evil” but do good to all (v. 15). There’s also advice on our inner activity: “Rejoice” (v. 16), “Pray without ceasing” (v. 17), “Don’t quench the Spirit” (v. 18). Thus, watching is more than mere waiting.

There’s plenty for us to do while we anticipate the Lord’s return. The question is, Are we so busy getting ready for Christmas that we’re not taking time to get ready for Christ?

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What I’m Thankful For

On this Thanksgiving Day I am thankful for many things, but one of the things I appreciate most might surprise you. It’s death. Yes, I’m thankful for death. Most people don’t want to die. Even those of us who believe in heaven aren’t wanting to go there anytime soon. The Bible explains death as a consequence of sin.  God told Adam and Eve, “The day you eat of the fruit, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). They ate. But they didn’t die. At least not right away. So I don’t think death was just a punishment for sin as much as it was God’s greatest act of mercy.

Just imagine what this life would be like if it never came to an end. For starters, there would be nothing to look forward to and no sense of urgency; nothing motivating us to get things done “while there’s still time.” Our bodies would grow old and chronic illness would set in. Pain would constantly gnaw at us like a hungry dog gnaws a bone. There would be no release. No end to our misery. No final rest for the weary. The blind would continue to stumble through life, bumping into unseen obstacles. The lame would go on dragging heavy limbs. The deaf would never hear birds sing or a baby coo. There would be no ultimate healing. No crossing the river. No reunion with loved ones. There would be no reckoning. No final judgment.  No settling of accounts. All of the old injustices would remain. Wrongs would never be made right. Hurts would never be healed. Even in those cases where lives are cut tragically short, we can only guess what trials and tribulations the victims were spared by an untimely death.

Eleven days ago my mother-in-law Amy Phillips died after losing a long and sometimes painful battle with breast cancer. I’m glad she was finally able to die, even though she will be deeply missed by her family and friends who now mourn her loss. At the end of her life Amy longed “to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It wasn’t a death wish, but an expression of hope in Christ and his promises. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Like my mother-in-law, I believe that promise with all my heart. But even if I didn’t believe in an afterlife or didn’t know what lies beyond death’s door, I’d still be thankful for death. Compared with the alternative, it’s a blessing.


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Glass Houses

In my last post I compared modernism and postmodernism. This past week an important example of modernist architecture has been in the news: the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA. Televangelist Robert Schuller’s once thriving megachurch is now in bankruptcy, and the Archdiocese of Orange County has agreed to buy the property for $57.5M in order to make the Crystal Cathedral into a Catholic cathedral. In addition to the sleek glass structure, the property includes the original drive-in church building designed by the Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra, who along with others defined California Modernism in the mid 20th century. (One of the few East Coast examples of Neutra’s work is Mellon Hall on the St. John’s College campus here in Annapolis, right across the street from the Naval Academy where I teach.)

A strange footnote to the story of the Crystal Cathedral’s demise was the announcement earlier this year that choir members would have to sign a covenant which included an anti-gay statement. (You can read a news story about the policy here.) Although it did not specifically forbid gays from singing in the choir, the statement certainly would make them feel unwelcome. The policy is ironic because the towering glass sanctuary where the choir sings was designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson who was an openly homosexual man. The now retired founding pastor Robert Schuller denounced the anti-gay covenant approved by his daughter and current senior pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman. To the younger Schuller I say, those who preach in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

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Quick, name a famous architect. If you’re like most people, Frank Lloyd Wright is the first name that comes to mind, and for good reason. The American architect designed his structures to be both livable and in tune with their native habitats. Many of his buildings are iconic, like Fallingwater (above) and the Guggenheim Museum. Much of modern architecture is not as organic and spiritual as Wright’s work. In its heyday modernism expressed the spirit of the space age with its optimism, precision, symmetry, and clean lines. “Form follows function” was the mantra of the movement. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s many modern buildings hardly seemed modern at all. They looked dated, cliché, and sterile. Take, for example, the county courthouse in Salem, Oregon (below). The best word I can think of to describe the building is “soulless.”

Postmodernism, on the other hand, has a soul—indeed, sometimes too much soul. It’s asymmetrical, dissonant, and witty. Some of it—the kind I like least—looks quirky, deformed, and kitsch.


Dancing House, Prague Czech Republic, Architect Vlado Milunić

St. Coletta School, Washington, DC, Architect Michael Graves

Perhaps the most famous American architect associated with postmodernism is Frank Gehry. He designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA., one of the most striking and in my opinion aesthetically pleasing buildings.


Speaking of Disney, one of the best contrasts between modern and postmodern styles are two hotels at Disney World in Orlando: the Contemporary and the Swan and Dolphin respectively (below). When it comes to these two styles it’s not hard for me to decide between the function of the former and the fun of the latter. I prefer fun, especially if I’m on vacation (though there is something really cool about a monorail speeding through your hotel).

Of course, modernism and postmodernism are not only styles of architecture; they are expressions of two very different philosophical outlooks, which have affected everything in society, even religion. Modernism conceived a scientific approach to faith and even gave birth to new rational religions, most of them now thankfully extinct. It taught us to examine the Bible objectively and scientifically and see God not as fickle and humanlike but transcendent and unchanging. Based on Aristotelian logic, it forced us to choose between scripture and science, making us either fundamentalists or modernists.

Postmodernism is creating new ways of looking at faith. It’s still too early to tell where it will lead, but there are definitely emerging trends. Postmodernist religion is less dogmatic and more pluralistic. It’s less concerned with propositional truth and more interested in lived experience. Openness and dialogue are replacing apologetics and confrontational evangelism. Postmodernism allows believers to embrace plural truths; science and scripture can both be true in different ways. God’s emotions and changes of heart in the Bible do not have to be explained away as figures of speech. Like its architectural counterpart, postmodern theology can be colorful, witty, and fun. It can also appear confused, twisted, and irreverent.

For some people, postmodernism is dangerous heresy. For others, it’s liberation from the straightjacket of modernism. If forced to choose between the two, I choose . . . both . . . and neither.

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