The Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling

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A few years ago, I began preaching weekly—an invigorating, and simultaneously daunting and demanding, task. Previously, I had the good fortune of being an occasional preacher, filling in for people who were on vacation or who turned up sick. As a fill-in, very often you get to preach your “greatest hits”—the sermons that are in you, the ones you could stand up and preach without notes, the ones that you are confident will be a Home Run—whatever that might mean, anyway.

As any weekly preacher knows when she/he steps out of the pulpit on Sunday afternoon, the clock is ticking. Next Sunday will be here in no time. Which means a sermon must be prepared.

So, what did I do in my transition from fill-in preacher to weekly preacher? I became an apprentice in the Spiritual Discipline of Scribbling.

I bought a stack of pocket-sized notebooks so that I could have one with me everywhere I go. I bought a case of legal pads and kept one on my desk at all times. My baseline assumption became, I’ll never be able to scribble too much. You just don’t know when a fruitful thought might come to you.

I began to practice for spontaneity, working to “turn a phrase” that I found recurring in the text. I would try to translate the phrase in three or four different ways, not because I was going to use that in my sermon, but because I wanted to develop facility with these words. I would draw a picture of what I thought the text was saying–even though I’m a terrible “artist”. A goal for the preacher is to have internalized these words so much that they naturally begin to find shape on the tongue.

I would attempt to craft transition sentences that would thread two seemingly independent thoughts into a seamless whole. These segue sentences would serve as the hinge on which my sermon would turn.

My point here is that spontaneity is anything but spontaneous, whether you’re a preacher or a jazz saxophonist. It is a skill one deliberately develops. Wynton Marsalis can improvise only because he’s internalized every scale and is intimately acquainted with all the jazz standards.

Words are like a thousand little puzzle pieces—pretty random when strewn about on the table, but beautiful when organized, shaped, placed properly so that a larger picture can be seen.

My contention is that regular doodling with words can serve as a development of linguistic “muscle memory” so that when a situation arises and a word is needed, one will be “in shape”, one will be prepared.

Eleventh-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, famously wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” The assumption he makes is that one will have something to erase. One is writing more than what is necessary. Thus, it stands to reason that the hand that does not have something to erase will never write the true thing.

So we jot, sketch, chicken-scratch, draw, paint and design ourselves ever deeper into the mysteries. And in doing so fewer of our words will “fall to the ground.”

I thank the Creator for every night Teresa of Avila stayed up late praying, grappling with God and endeavoring to write something true. Because she did, the church is more prepared to live faithfully. I praise God for all the hours John and Charles Wesley spent crafting hymns that have served the church for 300 years. Because they did, we can know what to sing whether we’ve “gone up to the heavens” or “made our bed in Sheol.” We won’t forget the effort that people like Flannery O’Connor and Henri Nouwen exerted for our benefit. And these are a just few in a long line of sacred scribblers.

I find it interesting that over and over again God told the prophets and apostles to “write this down” (Exod. 17:14; Ps. 102:18; Hab. 2:2; Rev. 1:19, 19:9-11, 21:5). Writing is a part of our Christian identity. “Chicken-scratching” our way toward faithfulness is a family tradition.

As each new generation is summoned to probe into the vast terrain of the Triune God, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to need to order a few more legal pads.




Dripping Wet: Developing a Christian Imagination for Baptism

Another Lent has come and gone. This last week we made the journey with the faithful–and with many more still feeble in faith–to the tomb where we discovered that it is still empty! Thanks be to God for that. And now priests, pastors, and parishioners around the world are preparing for baptisms this Sunday. But why is baptism the next (theo)logical movement in the Church’s calendar year?

Historically, Lent has been set aside as a time of preparation for the catechumenate–the people who are coming to faith for the first time, or those who are returning to their First Love after a season, however long, of wilderness wandering. Lent, you see, is a death before a resurrection, a time of releasing the weights and sins that so easily entangle us so that we can run with perseverance. We know that once we make the journey to the tomb-that-we-hope-is-still-empty, we’ll have plenty of work to do.

The Church, therefore, has taught that after the period of Lenten training, one is properly prepared to enter the waters of baptism. But what is baptism? What is going on in baptism?

To begin, we remember that baptism requires water. If we open the first page of the Bible, before we read the creation story we find the Spirit hovering over the primordial waters. This detail is not throwaway. Water is an essential part of the Christian story:

  • YHWH sends The Deluge in Noah’s time. Water cleans out and water creates new possibilities.
  • Baby Moses floating the Nile in a basket. The future rescuer is rescued from the treacherous waters.
  • Crossing the Red Sea. Israel is saved and separated from her oppressors through water.
  • Water from the Rock in the wilderness. Even the arid wilderness, we’re told, gushes for YHWH.
  • Crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Obstinance is washed away before land is possessed.
  • Naaman the Leper dips seven times. God heals this scoundrel ruler of a foreign army through a washing.
  • Jesus walks on water. Jesus turns water into wine.
  • Jesus says, “Peace be still.” A storm ceases.
  • Jesus says to the woman at the well, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
  • Jesus says that from believer’s bellies will flow “rivers of living water”, and by this he meant the Spirit.
  • Revelation 22 imagines the “River of Life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” The tree of life stands on both sides of the river, bearing twelve crops of fruit (to feed the Twelve Tribes!), “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

On and on it goes–water, water, more holy water.

Jesus himself insisted on being baptized, getting in on the work his Father was doing in the deep end of the pool. Through water Jesus is anointed with the Spirit and declared a son. His ministry is inaugurated and power released as he comes up from the depths.

John the Baptizer himself, a man known for doing his best work down in the Jordan River, said: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

The Greek verb bapto means “to dip” or “to dye”. In baptism we are “dipped” into newness, the old sin-story being washed away, carried downstream by the currents of the Spirit. We begin to see our baptism as a divine coloration, a “dye-ing”, our lives increasingly tinted by shades of Christ’s love, holiness, and glory.

What is especially important about the Christian rite of baptism is The Story going on within and beyond the story that we see playing out in the water in front of us—the reality that this person splashing around in water is being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, right here, right now. In baptism, we believe we are watching the simultaneous decimation and reconstruction of a life by the Spirit who is called Holy. Baptism is a drowning and a rescue all at the same time. Baptism is the release from slavery into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Marilynne Robinson, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, has provided us one of the most sanctified accounts of water. In a vivid scene, she writes:

“The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.”

Every morning I try to get up early to have a shower before my three kids stir. It is one of the few quiet moments of my day and it has become a time of holy reflection for me, my daily “mini-baptism” where I think to myself, “What if it’s true? What if water was made for blessing?”

We come up out of the baptismal waters and someone hands us a towel. We quickly dry off and celebrate this momentous occasion with family and friends. But the truth is we never really dry off. The Spirit within us guarantees a life drenched in the grace of God. Baptized Christians walk around dripping wet.

N.T. Wright’s Palm Sunday Sermon

Which Story? Which King?

Readings: Isaiah 59.15b-21; Psalm 72; Luke 19.28-44

A sermon on Palm Sunday in St Salvator’s Chapel, University of St Andrews

13 April 2014

By Professor N. T. Wright, St Mary’s College


One way in which mediaeval Britain learned the Christian story was through the Mystery Plays. We used to live in Lichfield, where every three years they put on an all-day display in several locations round the town. There are twenty-seven plays in the Lichfield cycle, each about ten or fifteen minutes, each performed in three different locations. The first one starts in the Market Place in mid-morning and then moves on to the other two locations, and the last one finishes outside the Cathedral shortly before sunset. I remember joining the crowds in the narrow city streets and finding excited groups of players making their way between locations, so that at any moment one might come across Noah going one way, Joseph and Mary getting ready somewhere else, or even the stage-hands preparing for the crucifixion scene. The whole city is swept along in a whirl of biblical narrative, with hundreds of people taking part in one way or another and many thousands coming to watch. The whole thing gives you the sense that we only ever see a little bit of God’s story but it’s going on anyway and we are caught up in it, like the city itself, whether we understand it or pick up the nuances or just catch odd bits here and there. And as the story sweeps on you feel that it is indeed bigger than any of us, a story about God and Jesus and the world and life and death and horror and joy and creation and redemption and tears and laughter . . . a story where everyone can find themselves somewhere, and perhaps catch a glimpse of what it might be like to be part of God’s own story. And part of the fun was to guess, or to ask, as you saw this or that group hurrying by to a new location, Which story is that woman in? Which bit of the great narrative are those children putting on? Was that Moses I saw going by? Isn’t that Pontius Pilate over there? Was that Jesus himself? Perhaps I should say, for anyone interested, that the Lichfield Mysteries will be on again next year, 2015. And there are others in other cities, too.

Theatre tells the old stories in new ways, and it helps us find ourselves, or recognise things about the world we mightn’t otherwise have noticed. I recently saw a performance of Macbeth in which the hideous witches who start things off turned up in the crowd scenes too, giving a sense of evil brooding around the edges of the action. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Theseus and Hippolyta, the main King and Queen, are often played by the same actors who then play Oberon and Titania, the Faery King and Queen. Shakespeare is inviting us to see in the dream-world the normally hidden darker sides of their character; and, as always with Shakespeare, to see too the darker sides of our own characters, and the disasters that lurk in the half-imagined world just under the surface of apparent normality. And again the question comes, Which story are you in? The serene outer story, or the darker under-story where jealousy and suspicion and danger whisper and beckon from every corner? Which King is the real one, the pompous Theseus, or the troubling Oberon?

Street theatre is the best way to describe Jesus’ actions on the first Palm Sunday. It wasn’t entertainment, though people had a great day out. Jesus was saying something you couldn’t say any other way. Part of the question of Palm Sunday, the question I put to you this morning, is what it all meant, what it all means today. Which story was he enacting? What sort of king was he becoming?

Jesus didn’t do a lot of this kind of thing. He clearly intended that these actions would resonate, sending echoes bouncing off the walls not only of Jerusalem but of the scripture-soaked imaginations of the bystanders, particularly his disciples, who may have thought they were following a Theseus only to find that their king had turned into a stranger, darker monarch who they became afraid to know. Which story were they living in? Which king did they think they were following?

Jesus expected people to know the other plays that were on at the same time. Passover was approaching, and pilgrims were crowding the city. They would be telling the story of Moses and the Exodus, the plagues in Egypt, the Passover Lamb, the crossing of the Red Sea, the promise of freedom at last. Most of that retelling would happen in homes and inns, not on the street, but the large story would create a special atmosphere in the entire city. This was God’s story and everyone was part of it. Nobody saw it as mere ancient history. This was their story, the freedom-story which they wanted to come true again in their own day. And Jesus had invented a new mini-play to disrupt, re-interpret and transform that story.

Some have speculated that there was another bit of street theatre going on at the same time on the other side of town. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, normally lived in Caesarea-by-the-Sea, with its temple to the divinized Emperor Augustus. But, for the great festivals, Pilate would come up to Jerusalem to prevent trouble. He would arrive, from the west, on a military horse with an armed escort. We don’t know if Jesus timed his own mini-play, coming in from the east, to coincide with Pilate’s triumphant arrival, but people may have linked the two and would be asking themselves, Which story do we belong to? Which king do we belong to? Which is the reality, and which is the parody?

Some things would be clear. In a world of few books but many scripture-readings, the crowds would pick up Jesus’ reference to Zechariah’s prophecy about a king riding a donkey. But if that got them thinking about royal prophecies they might get confused. The Psalms speak of God’s son, the coming king, bruising the nations with a rod of iron, and dashing them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Was that the story they were living in? Was Jesus that sort of a king – making an apparently peaceful demonstration now, but getting ready for a sudden signal, a legion of angels, a surprise attack, and a fierce freedom like that won by Judas Maccabeus two centuries earlier? Everybody knew that story, too, and since Judas Maccabeus’s followers had waved palm branches when he entered the city perhaps they were hoping for a re-run, a sequel. Street theatre quickly becomes complicated. Which story are we living in? What sort of a king are we following?

We know, as they did not, how it would end. We wonder at the fickleness of the crowds – though anyone looking hard into the mirror would not wonder very long. The western Christian tradition has easily imagined that the crowds got it wrong, because they were wanting a this-worldly freedom, but – so we have supposed – Jesus was offering spiritual freedom, a kingdom after death, way beyond the blue. Passover then becomes a metaphor; Pontius Pilate becomes irrelevant; and instead we have Plato. But the Palm Sunday street theatre tugs at our elbow to make a different point, indicated by today’s other two readings.

Psalm 72 speaks of the king who brings justice and peace, from sea to sea and away to the ends of the earth. He makes the poor his priority; he puts into practice the justice of God himself, and so he brings the peace of God himself. But as we hold that picture in our minds and look back at Luke’s telling of Palm Sunday, we realise why it is that while the crowds are shouting Hosanna Jesus is sobbing his heart out. The sun is shining, the crowds are cheering, Jerusalem the golden is before him in all its majesty, but with his prophet’s eye he can see the disaster coming. He can hardly get the words out: If only you’d known – yes, you, even now – the things that make for peace – but you’ve shut your eyes. And it’s too late. They are coming – Pilate is coming, the monsters are coming, the brutes and the beasts are taking over the garden, and they will trample everything in their path, because you didn’t know the moment of your visitation. You didn’t recognise the time. You didn’t understand the play. You were living in the wrong story. You were looking for the wrong sort of king. You wanted a Judas, and you got a Jesus. You wanted war and I was leading you to peace. In our case, you were wanting a kingdom in heaven, and I was offering you one on earth; and by opting for the heaven-only one you have abandoned earth to the monarchs and the monsters who still take the sword and will perish by the sword.

And in the midst of it all we should hear Isaiah 59. You didn’t know the time of your visitation – in other words, as some translations explain, your visitation by God himself. Jesus has just told a story about a nobleman who came back to see how his servants had got on. His audience must have heard this as a God-and-Israel story: Israel’s God, having long promised to return in glory, was doing so at last. This was the climax of the play they wanted to be part of. But nobody had imagined that when God came back he would look like a young prophet, in floods of tears, riding on a donkey.

Now all this leads, of course, into sermons that might be preached later this week. The extraordinary twist in this story is that, having announced judgment upon Jerusalem for refusing God’s way of peace, Jesus went ahead, embodying simultaneously the love and the judgment of God himself, to suffer the Roman horror he had predicted for his people. That dark royal story lies at the heart of all subsequent Christian understanding of the cross, though it is a truth so strange that few hymns or liturgies plumb its depths. Theseus and Oberon are one and the same. Good Friday, itself a form of Roman street theatre, was taken up paradoxically within God’s street theatre, the play within the play within the play that explains everything else.

But, even without that sequel, the questions of Palm Sunday itself force themselves upon us.

First, the questions of which story we are living in, and which king we are following, remain urgent within our culture. As our public institutions are less trusted than ever, and our behaviour at home and abroad is more confused than ever, the stories which used to make sense of our lives have let us down. We thought we knew how the play worked: get rid of tyrants, and people will embrace democracy, peace, love and flower power. How quickly things have moved from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The so-called Arab Spring has turned back to winter, as we have no idea what to do about Syria, about Israel/Palestine of course, and now about the Ukraine. We have run out of stories, we have run out of kings of whatever kind; all we think we can do is trust the great god Mammon, as though our fragile economic half-recoveries would trickle out into the mountains of Syria or the deserts of South Sudan. Give me Psalm 72 any day.

But that’s where the second question comes in, a personal question. If the Palm Sunday street theatre means what Jesus meant, it challenges all his followers, then and now. The crowds may have been fickle, but they were not mistaken. The two on the road to Emmaus had hoped he would redeem Israel, and they were hoping for the right thing – God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, a this-worldly reign of justice and peace – but they had not glimpsed the means by which Jesus would bring it about. Right story, wrong king. Sooner or later this happens to all of us. We start out following Jesus because we think we know the Story, we know what sort of king we want him to be – and then things go badly wrong, he doesn’t give us what we wanted, and we are tempted to wonder if we’ve been standing on the wrong side of town, watching the wrong procession. Jesus warned us this would happen: we all have to live through a Holy Week, a Gethsemane, a Good Friday of one sort or another. That happens in personal life, in vocational life, as well as in public life. But we were not mistaken; and the world today, never mind the church today, urgently needs people, young and old, who will follow Jesus through Holy Week and on into the new Mystery Play which our mediaeval ancestors never imagined, the story of his kingdom of love and peace and justice coming on earth as in heaven. That is the Story; he is the King; and he’s looking for recruits, young and old, for a new bit of theatre, coming to a street near you.



Reaping Where Another Has Sown

For who do you know that really knows you, knows your heart? And even if they did, is there anything they would discover in you that you could take credit for? Isn’t everything you have and everything you are sheer gifts from God?  

1 Corinthians 4:7-8

Two weeks ago I took a trip to spend time with some of my favorite people in the world. I flew from Denver into Spokane, Washington and rented a car to drive down to Lapwai, Idaho to be with my grandparents, Dan and Louise Wilson. They live on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation and have spent their entire lives on that soil. I’m named after my grandpa–I’m Daniel Wilson Grothe–and I think so much of him that I even gave my firstborn son his name–he’s Wilson Grothe. Grandpa Dan’s 83 and Grandma Weezie is 81. Their generosity of spirit and resource has been imprinted on their 4 children, 10 grandchildren and 17 (and counting) great-grandchildren.

Weezie and Dan
Grandpa Dan and Grandma Weezie

From there, I got in the car and drove back to Spokane to pick up Andrew Arndt and a couple other friends so we could drive over to Montana to be with Eugene and Jan Peterson. Seven years ago as a bewildered young pastor, I stumbled onto Eugene’s book, “The Contemplative Pastor”, and found myself spellbound by his vision of pastoral ministry. Not knowing where he lived, I wrote Eugene a letter and sent it to his publisher asking them to get it to him. I was nearly certain I’d never hear back. To my great surprise I went to the mailbox two weeks later to find a personal letter from Eugene inviting me to his house after I completed a few writing “assignments” to prepare me for our visit. Since then I have made six trips to be with the Petersons and have been deeply shaped by their friendship and wisdom.

Me with Eugene and Jan
Eugene and Jan Peterson

From my earliest years I can remember my parents helping me understand that my life is a compilation of gifts from other people. One does not initiate a meaningful life for herself; rather, the raw materials of a meaningful life are bestowed upon her by a community. Because of such instruction I’ve had the distinct sense that my whole life has been an exercise in reaping where other people have generously sown.

Like the time when I was 10 years old and some family friends, Drs. Mark and Betsy Neuenschwander, identified a medical issue with me while we were at a church service. They checked me out, rushed me to the hospital for emergency surgery, and in doing so preserved my ability to have children one day. I have three of them now. Reaping where another has sown.

Or the time when Susan Sealy told me she would like to help me apply for a full-ride scholarship. She was convinced I could get it, though I was very unsure. She grilled me in my areas of academic weakness, trained me in the skill of test-taking, and helped me practice crafting essays. Much to my surprise, it worked. There hasn’t been a week that has gone by where I haven’t thought about those study sessions at her dining room table, those sessions that kept me from an abyss of school debt. Reaping where another has sown.

Or like that Sunday in 1964 where Vep and LeVonn Ellis spotted a little 9-year-old boy at church all by himself and asked him to sit with them. They had no idea that the little boy walked to church by himself that day, or that he was an only child of parents who were struggling to stay married, or that he regularly acted to separate his parents from their fist-fights. But that little boy sat with them in church for the next ten years and ultimately put his faith in Jesus while in their care. They had no idea that that little boy would be my dad one day. Reaping where another has sown.

And I could keep going: Melvin. Velma. David. Becky. Larry. Linda. Billy Joe. Sharon. Gyle. Ed. Joe. Ted. Rob. Aaron. Glenn. Patton. Brady. Mary. Lisa. A life of bountiful reaping.

At the most elemental level the bald fact of human existence is a rebuke to the “self-made person” syndrome that is so prevalent in the West. No person, after all, has ever decided to be born. Which means all of us are at all times reaping where other people have sown.

As we enter Holy Week, I’m finding myself tugged toward remembering. I’m choosing to pick up the phone, to get out pen and paper, to draft a bunch of emails to communicate my sincere gratitude. Every year in the Lenten season the Church calls us to contemplate the received quality of our creaturely existence. “For God did not spare his own Son, but lovingly gave him up for us all.” Because the Father “gave up” the Son, our existence is forever defined by receiving, by reaping where Another has sown.

So let us practice humility and show deep gratitude to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But also to all the people through whom the ever-giving God comes toward us to embrace us.

Edging Into The Mysteries

Blogs are for the megalomaniac who loves the sound of his own voice.

At least that’s what I thought 10 years ago as a young college student. And yet for the last 10 years I’ve benefited from reading scores of blogs posted by people who are working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, while helping people like me along the way.

Fear. The truth is I hid behind the aforementioned maxim (that blogs are the seedbed of self-importance!) out of my own fear. If I have a blog people will critique me, pick me apart, or worse, maybe find out that there is nothing to me.

Ben Myers, Australian theologian and blogger par excellance, has helped disabuse me of my old (mis)understanding of the blog space. In his paper, Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse, Myers makes a strong case that writing, particularly writing of the reflective, self-probing genre, has been understood as a necessary practice for the formation of one’s self. He writes: “In his 1982 work, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong argued for the unique power of linguistic technologies in shaping the human self. ‘More than any other single invention,’ he argued, ‘writing has transformed the human self.’ Writing must be understood here as a technology, as a practice that structures the way we relate to the world and to each other.”

Rather than not writing because people might find there is nothing to me, I am submitting myself to the discipline of writing in hopes that this Something that I’m longing for–this fullness of Life, this yearning to apprehend the Great Mysteries–will become more deeply embedded within me. Writing in some strange way becomes the hammer that drives the nail of longing ever deeper.

Eugene Peterson, in his own quest toward a long faithfulness, writes: “I began to sense that my writing was at some deeper level a conversation with scripture. At the same time a conversation with my congregation. But conversation, not explaining, not directing. I was exploring the country, this land of the living. And I was taking my time…not writing what I knew, but writing into what I didn’t know, edging into a mystery.”

And that is why I begin my blog today. Because there are mysteries to be edged into, a land of the living that must be explored, and something about sketching it out moves the whole project farther along, nudges the interiority of one’s spiritual life out into the wide open spaces of the public sphere where one can be sharpened, challenged, spiritually and intellectually tightened up by the Great Congregation of sinners and saints.

So off I go looking for mysteries to be edged and written into, longing for any companionship I can get along the way.