A good friend and a favorite teacher in the church I served in Ohio was Walter Bouman, professor of theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. We made him an honorary Presbyterian. About the only thing we ever seriously disagreed about was his passionate preference for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The psalmist has a body, and it figures prominently in his poetry. His kidneys lash him, his heart rejoices, his pulse (or liver) beats with joy. His body is not gross matter imprisoning him; it pulsates, breathes, dwells securely and participates fully in the overflowing joy and delight he feels in God’s right hand forever. Heart-pulse-body-flesh-joy-delight.
Rarely are cemeteries as peaceful as they seem. My boyhood friends visited them by night to consult with spirits—86-proof spirits, as I recall. Sometimes we’d glimpse young couples having soulful, breathy talks among the tombstones.
When I was attending a university in Germany, I lived alone and did research in the university library. Occasionally, I was aware of that peculiar kind of loneliness called homesickness. On those days, I found solace listening to a street performer named Terry. Terry was homeless, and he spent his afternoons on an old stone bridge near the university.
In John 5, festival scenes in the holy city are juxtaposed with the view of five porticoes full of invalids. Imagine dropping by the nursing home on your way to Christmas Eve services. One place is festive, filled with pretty clothes, color, light and music. The other location features crutches, canes and people who cannot hide their desperate need for healing.
A worship professor voices frustration at students who conclude a Gospel reading with “Here ends the Gospel.” “The gospel doesn’t end,” my colleague insists. “The gospel is the good news—then and now!” Reading the endings of the canonical Gospels, one imagines that the four evangelists would agree with him. Each of them has difficulties wrapping things up.
Many Christians can name the hour and the place of their salvation. For me it was answering not one but two altar calls at Billy Graham crusades in the 1960s. For Reinhold Niebuhr, who was asked if he could name the time and place of his salvation, it was “2,000 years ago on a dusty hill named Golgotha outside Jerusalem’s wall.”
I was looking through a high school yearbook recently, a dangerous thing to do when 40 years have passed. I got lost staring at the silly hairstyles, the photos of teachers who are long since gone, the friend in the senior play whose name is now etched on the Vietnam memorial. It was a time of turmoil and strife in the nation. Racial tensions, assassinations and war were tearing the country apart. But you would never know that from my yearbook’s carefree and hopeful class photos.
Some ideas are bigger than our intellectual capacity to deal with them. Some news is richer than the words we have to describe it. When that happens, we turn gratefully to art and music and works of the imagination. That’s why on Easter we put the emphasis on beautiful hymns and great organ and trumpet music. Words alone cannot convey the message.