Theology/Religion

A Life of Aching Beauty: Vincent van Gogh as Preacher, Failure, and Painter

A Life of Aching Beauty: Vincent van Gogh as Preacher, Failure, and Painter

Originally posted on Tides of God.

PART I: FALL

Undergrowth with Two Figures is the only Van Gogh painting I have seen in real life. Several times my wife and I have sought it out on visits to the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is not one of Van Gogh’s well-known paintings. The work was completed during his almost manic period of productivity from May to July 1890 when Vincent turned out nearly one hundred paintings and drawings in the last seventy days of his life. Undergrowth with Two Figures is an island of peace in sea of turmoil. Van Gogh biographer Philip…

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Francis Spufford on the Cruel Optimism of an Atheist Bus

Francis Spufford on the Cruel Optimism of an Atheist Bus

Another wonderful passage from the introduction of our 2014 NYC Conference speaker’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.

Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn’t…

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The Gift (Certificate) Which Never Expires: A Sermon by John Zahl

The Gift (Certificate) Which Never Expires: A Sermon by John Zahl

This selection of a sermon comes from John Zahl’s collection, Sermons of Grace, available here. For those who made it to Liberate this year, the moving illustration towards the end should sound familiar:

My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.

-John 14:27

Unlike the peace of the world, the peace of God lasts. The forgiveness of God is not a bait-and-switch trap. It does not expire. When Jesus uttered those fateful words on the cross, “It is finished,” he meant what he said. The heavenly parking meter is not ticking.

Imagine, if you will, a cup of…

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Darn You ESPN!….and Get Thee Behind Me Disney!

Darn You ESPN!….and Get Thee Behind Me Disney!

I’m struggling a lot with these two true, inspiring, triumph of the human spirit distance runner stories that Disney and her sports arm (ESPN) have perpetrated upon us this week as paradoxical bookends to the low anthropology/high Christology that I have come to love about Ash Wednesday. This past weekend, ESPN master human interest storyteller, Tom Rinaldi, narrated one of his best sports mini-docs with the story of Kayla Montgomery, who won three North Carolina high school distance running state championships in 2014, despite running without being able to feel her legs! (Yeah, the story is as good as it…

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Parsing America’s Professional Prophets: Thoughts on Recent Commercials

Parsing America’s Professional Prophets: Thoughts on Recent Commercials

A teacher of mine in college used to say that the Old Testament prophets didn’t quite get supernatural revelation, but they read the future just like everyone else. But while other prophets would read the signs of the times in the stars, or in a peculiar palm-line, or in hallucinogenic-induced visions, the Hebrew prophets read the future from a close examination of Israel’s heart. Because the heart of a culture – often something few are aware of until decades later, if ever – determines its future, directs its role in the complex drama between humanity and God, traces the plight…

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Incurvatus In Se according to The New Yorker

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“Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin being so deeply curved in on itself (incurvatus in se) that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them, as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites, or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.” —Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans

Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

If you’re not from the Ash Wednesday world, you might not know this little piece of trivia surrounding the holiday: the Ashes that get used to make the little cruciform smudge on one’s forehead don’t just come from a fireplace. Tradition is that our ashes come from the incinerated leftovers of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds. Many (most?) churches order their ashes from a supplier, which is understandable because keeping enough dead plant leaves on hand for hundreds of people can take up a lot of closet space. But with our smaller gathering celebrating our first Palm Sunday in…

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Mockingbird: Bringing You the Gospel (Pt 42) (#Ashtag)

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“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Mt 6:3-4).

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“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).

Not Ideas About Love But the Thing Itself: A Review of Birdman

Not Ideas About Love But the Thing Itself: A Review of Birdman

This is the epigraph that shows in the opening credits of Birdman, and it’s also the real-life epitaph on Raymond Carver’s tombstone. It serves as a good starting point for a movie that basically seconds as an adaptation for Carver’s famous short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But it’s also a good starting point for Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), aka “Birdman,” ex-superhero-of-the-nineties, awash in irrelevance amidst a bigger, newer wave of Marvel stars.

Why Ash Wednesday Is Nadia’s Favorite Day of the Church Year

A couple years ago our Spring Conference speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber posted a couple reflections on why she loves Ash Wednesday and Lent. Every year since I’ve found myself ripping her off. To wit:

AmRzkRlCMAAFt0UAsh Wednesday is my favorite day of the church year and Lent is my favorite season. Our culture has quite ruined Christmas and Easter with Santa and the Easter bunny and all the grotesque consumerism and made for TV specials behind all of it. But oddly nobody waits every year to watch the Ash Wednesday Peanuts Special. There are no Doorbuster sales at 4am on the first day of Lent. There are no big garish displays in the middle of Cherry Creek Mall with mechanical Children in sack cloth and ashes. Nope. We get this one all to ourselves. Our culture has no idea what to do with a day that celebrates the fact that we all sin and are going to die…

I love to talk about sin, which makes little sense to people who want to label me as a liberal. I think perhaps that actual liberals equate admitting we are sinful with having low self esteem. And then the conservatives equate sin with immorality… So one end of the church tells us that sin is an antiquated notion that only makes us feel bad about ourselves so we should avoid mentioning it at all. While the other end of the church tells us that sin is the same as immorality and totally avoidable if you are just a good squeaky clean Christian.

But when sin is boiled down to low self esteem and immorality then it becomes something we can control or limit in some way rather than something we are bondage to. The reality is that I cannot free myself from the bondage of self. I cannot keep from being turned in on self. I cannot by my own understanding or effort disentangle myself from my self interest and when I think that I can… I am trying to do what is only God’s to do…

There’s no shame in the truth that our lives on earth will all end and that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. It’s not depressing. What’s depressing is the desperation of trying to pretend otherwise. What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet. What is so wonderful about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that through being marked with the cross and reminded of our own mortality we are free. We are free to hear the song of our own salvation which tells of Christ who offers life and forgiveness.

The 21 Beheaded Egyptians Make Me Proud to Be a Christian

The 21 Beheaded Egyptians Make Me Proud to Be a Christian

From Cairo to Rome and beyond, the reaction to the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS has been swift and profound: anger and condemnation, sadness and solidarity. Yet, as I have thought over this horrific event, another emotion has swelled within in me: pride. For while the Islamic State considers itself to be following in the footsteps of its religious founder and leader (see here,  here and here), the 21 Egyptians were undoubtedly following in the footsteps of theirs.

“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent…

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There Is A Valley: Old Age, Creativity, and the Return of Bill Fay

There Is A Valley: Old Age, Creativity, and the Return of Bill Fay

Here’s an Ash Wednesday appropriate portion of A Mess of Help, taken from the final chapter, “Sing Mockingbird Sing: The Alpha and Omega of Annotated Playlists”. This is track 18 of 20. You can listen to the entire playlist here.

I am sure I’m not the only one whose ears perked up during the scene in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the now-classic documentary about the band Wilco, where lead singer Jeff Tweedy plays an unknown song imploring the listener to “Be Not So Fearful”. Plaintive and disarming and, most of all, comforting, the tune employs biblical language without…

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