Hardness of heart. Scripture uses this image to describe those who are impenetrably stubborn, those who are unwilling or unable to see God’s glory or to reorient their lives to God’s call and claims. But what causes hardness of heart? Is it always human sin, those things which we have done which ossify our hearts and rigidify our minds? Do tragic accidents sometimes harden us in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to remain open to transformation, to sustain a mental, emotional and moral agility?
Toward the end of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, the title character reflects on his life as a barber in a small Kentucky town: “I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, ‘Good-good-good-good-good!’ like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love.
"What keeps you up at night?” I asked the African cardinal at the end of a leisurely lunch near his home. Our conversation had ranged across a variety of topics: the scourge of AIDS in Africa, ineffective leadership within the churches, the character of theological education in our respective contexts, and our own calls to ministry.
As an heir of the Methodist tee-totaling commitment, I grew up with a clear sense that alcohol is dangerous and to be avoided. I heard stories of John Wesley’s critique of drunkenness in 18th-century England, of how Welch’s grape juice was introduced by a Methodist layman as an alternative to wine for communion, and of the links between drunkenness and other sinful behavior.
"What people find out in time” writes Meg Greenfield, “is that the false self they are inhabiting isn’t much of a friend after all. Nor is it any great shakes as a refuge or consolation. They begin to live lives of pantomime, in which gesture is all.
There was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about my father-in-law’s death at age 84. Even so, it was unsettling, given that until his diagnosis of stage four cancer on March 1, he had been living alone in his home and was seemingly healthy—and that despite his doctor’s prognosis of having several months to live, he died after only three more weeks.
What prompts our fascination with Lincoln? Perhaps it is our frustration with the quality of current politicians. Our political climate seems to favor self-absorbed spin doctors rather than people whose judgments are marked by reasoned reflection and courageous action.
Does life have any direction or purpose, any telos? A significant part of the popularity of Rick Warren’s “purpose-driven” books is his strong conviction that God provides direction and purpose for each of our lives, as well as for the church and local congregations. Many of us are uncomfortable with Warren’s specific formulation of God’s purpose or plan for people.
Visiting the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, was overwhelming. It is the grave of 250,000 people killed in the 1994 genocide. I walked with some students through the memorial, watching the videos, studying the exhibits and reading the stories.
I had just shown a group of pastors and laity a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire. Christian missionary and runner Eric Liddell says about his running and his God, "To win is to honor him." A man in the group responded, “I don’t believe that line comes from Liddell. It’s pure Hollywood. It is out of character for Liddell to be so focused on winning.”
Is winning compatible with the Christian faith? What are the criteria by which we measure "winning"?
"Make no little plans,” wrote 19th-century architect Daniel Burnham. “They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”
Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.”
Two messages arrived on the same day, each one from a talented young adult concerned about how best to use Christian language. One person was concerned about the “large number of people my age who cannot seem to connect with God. I think part of the reason is because the church has a very traditional, peculiar vocabulary.”
The Christians gathered at Duke for the weekend had come from places marked by destructive ethnic and tribal violence and conflict: South Africa, Sudan, the United States, India and Rwanda. They posed challenging questions: How can we find paths forward in the wake of destructive violence and conflict? How do we bear witness to a Christian vision of reconciliation?
As part of a course on preaching that I took in my middler year at divinity school, I preached, and then submitted as a written text, what I thought was a good sermon. My professor thought my delivery was fine, and that the sermon showed potential. But his written comment stung: “Your stories and images are all of sin and its effects. Search for ways to convey signs of grace.”
It was a few weeks after the election, and the question came at the conclusion of a report I had made to the university trustees. “We have been hearing a lot about red states and blue states, the role of religion in the election, and a lot of other things about religion in public life. There seems to be a lot of division.
The exchange seems bizarre to onlookers. Speaking for himself and his assistant coaches, the football coach at Gilman High School in Baltimore asks his players, “What is our job?” The players yell back, “To love us!” The coach shouts, “And what is your job?” “To love each other!” the boys respond.
Mom and Dad, you won’t believe what they put on the official T-shirt we bought. I won’t ever wear it!” Our 17-year-old son was calling from Governor’s School, a six-week summer program for which he had been nominated by his high school. He was appalled because the “official T-shirt,” which he had ordered as a remembrance of his experience, had two phrases that he found appalling.
In a famous 1936 lecture, “The Presentation of New Testament Texts,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed to the Confessing Church an alternative strategy of reading scripture. Instead of questioning the Bible from their standpoint, as the German Christians were doing, Bonhoeffer challenged them to let the Bible question them.
The Delta Airlines Sky magazine asked its readers, “Are we soccer crazy? Are children spending too much time playing and are adults spending too much time ferrying them to and from their games?” The story included anecdotal evidence of families whose lives were shaped by the time and travel demands of soccer.