brittle crazy glass

Bob Jacobs, reflections on life in light of the gospel


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An Old Poem for a New Year

“In Memoriam” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


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Apocalypse Now

His love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, etc., etc., etc…)

Nothing I can write can adequately capture the disruption, disappointment, divisiveness, frustration, heartache, financial and emotional stress, spiritual desperation, vulnerability, confusion, anger, and general weirdness of this past year. 2020 has not only felt like, but indeed has been, an apocalypse. I choose that word carefully; it means, literally, an unveiling – something that reveals and clarifies our vision.

I hear lots of people speak as if 2020 were an exception – an outlier, a cruel joke, and things will soon be back to normal. While 2020 came with many difficulties, and we’re glad to see it in the rear-view mirror, it was not an exception. 2020 revealed what is always true. It revealed the fragility of life, over which we have little to no actual control. It revealed the deep divisions and suspicions between us. It revealed both how fearful and how self-centered all of us can be, and how easily we fall into idolatry. It revealed both how self-reliantly we function and how desperately we need one another.

At the same time, 2020 revealed great good and beauty in the face of difficulty. It revealed grace and joy under pressure. It revealed a tremendous foundation of faith in action – including the faith we must lend to and receive from one another. But most of all, this apocalypse revealed the enduring love of God. Not a love that shelters us from years like 2020, but a love that endures in, through, and in spite of it. It’s a love that is made perfect in weakness. A love that meets us in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 136 is amazing in the way it drills home this point. Throughout history, in victory and failure, in good times and bad, at every turn, God’s love endures forever. We live in sand castles while God dwells in stone.

My wife and I have been watching the Netflix series “The Crown” with great interest. The reign of Queen Elizabeth II is a series of one crisis after another, each of which seems like it’s the end of the world (or at least her world). These have sent us scurrying to the internet to bone up on British history. (Did you know that in 1952 a freakishly dangerous fog descended on London, responsible for the deaths of over 10,000 people?) But eventually you see that each episode is part of a much larger, more durable story. In fact, it’s not ultimately about Elizabeth herself after all, but about the Crown itself.

So if there’s one thing I would highlight as we look back at the apocalypse of 2020, it’s that God’s great love endures through it all, and will continue to endure and to be revealed in the year ahead. Let’s press on, dear friends! Thanks be to God for his enduring love!


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The Work of Christmas

I hope Christmas was a joy to you. For me, seeing the church filled with candle-bearing worshipers, hearing the familiar words and songs, sharing rich foods (the crabcakes were especially excellent this year!), and spending time with my family were deeply satisfying.

Now it’s Boxing Day (what?), St. Stephen’s Day (commemorating Stephen, the first deacon and Christian martyr, who was stoned to death in Jerusalem (see Acts 7)). Christmas Day is behind us (even though the older, richer tradition of observing the 12-day season of Christmas, culminating in Epiphany is still to come), and we emerge into the doorway of a new year, maybe not well-rested but renewed and emboldened by the celebration.

I want to share a poem with you that is worth taking to heart today. Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was a theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. He wrote the poem, “The Work of Christmas”:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.”

Christmas is about what God has done for us. But it doesn’t end there. Now we join in God’s Christmas work!


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Confusing Ourselves

Especially amidst the pandemic, Thanksgiving this year was a timely reminder to live in grateful dependence on God’s providential care.

At least that’s what I decided to focus on…mostly. I can usually feel one of my eyebrows raising when it comes to cultural holidays, even if they have a good purpose. The idea of a national giving of thanks can be an alarm clock for a personal giving of thanks, if you take the opportunity. And it sends an important symbolic message about the moorings of our country.

But it easily becomes obfuscated by the annualizing of the event, and by everything around it. I’m particularly struck this year by the highly ironic juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and the frenzy of consumerism to follow. (Actually, not just to follow – our dinner table conversation included the pre-Black Friday sales already begun.)

This is not an original thought, but how are our souls to make sense of gratefully looking to God for everything we need on Thursday, while we brace for (or eager anticipate) the onslaught of a culture that unceasingly tells us on Friday that we don’t have enough?

How does Sunday – or any other day – fit into that chaos?


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Who Gets to Narrate the World?

Probably like many of you, I have been fascinated, and not a little dismayed, by the conversations about and reactions to the recent election in our country. Actually, there have been precious few real conversations, and a great number of reactions – usually in the form of social media posts.

I have been struck by the power of narrative, and by how wildly divergent the two narratives are in our wildly binary political system. I think it’s safe to say, at least in broad strokes, that enthusiasts on either side see the other as gullible, foolish, and un-American (or at least un-democratic).

Obviously, there are powerful narratives at play, doing what narratives do: interpreting reality in a way that divides fact from fiction, truth from lies, good from evil. And remember, all narratives are carefully crafted and promoted. What’s really interesting to me is the way narratives can be self-authenticating. For example, if your view of reality includes the certainty that the “other side” will call you crazy and accuse you of lying, when the other side does, in fact, do so, you and everything you say are vindicated. The most striking examples of this are certain conspiracy theories. The more far-fetched they may seem to the other, the more likely they are, to the adherents, to be true. It’s a water-tight, bullet-proof system; it just might not have enough oxygen in it.

How are people of faith to find their way in this morass?

Well, clearly, one option is to throw yourself all-in on one side or the other. Drink the Kool-Aid. Be a true believer. Another option is to wait it out in the middle, like a survivor in someone else’s game of dodgeball.

Robert Webber wrote Who Gets to Narrate the World? in 2008. In this book, he warns that American Christianity has become weak and self-centered, and he fears it is not up to the challenges of Radical Islam on one side, or accommodation to culture on the other. American Christianity, he says, has become “disconnected from its roots in Scripture, in the ancient church and in its heritage through the centuries.”

When Christian faith becomes weak, it is easily co-opted by other ideologies.

Genuine Christian faith, Webber reminds us, is not what we might have experienced it to be. Or at least there is a lot more to it than we know. It is not simply applying sentimental love to everything and telling people they are okay. It is not simply about an individual experience of religious satisfaction and the marketing of religious products and experiences for us to consume. It’s not simply about getting our tickets punched for heaven. And it is not simply about having vast political power behind our morality. As the great 20th century missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “When the Church tries to embody the rule of God in the forms of earthly power it may achieve that power, but it is no longer a sign of the kingdom.”

Instead, the distinctively Christian narrative, which is carefully crafted in Scripture and the history of the church, is not somewhere on our binary political spectrum. It is fundamentally of a different order. (This doesn’t preclude political convictions, it just completely reframes them.)

And so another narrative, which must be chosen by faith, is anchored in remembering God’s saving deeds in the past, culminating in Jesus Christ; living fully alive in him in the present as an extension of his humble, powerful self-giving love in the world; and anticipating the overthrow of all evil at Christ’s coming and all things being made new.

This isn’t just one option among many. It’s the real narrative, and God’s people get to tell it.


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The Color of their Death

A long time ago, my nephew Leif wrote a poem for a high school English class. The poem was about the beauty of leaves in the fall. (Where he lived near Lake Superior, the leaves were spectacular!) One phrase from his poem has stayed with me all these years: they are displaying “the color of their death.”

That might sound at first rather macabre, but I think it’s actually very beautiful, and it says something that’s true about us as followers of Jesus. As we die to the power of sin and to the ways of the world, something happens: we find that the beautiful, colorful, distinctive life of Jesus is taking up residence in us. His life is becoming our life.

The thing is, we have to die. As Robert Farrar Capon has said, God is not interested in making us better; he wants to make us new. Death and rebirth is the only way he works.

It reminds me, in this political season, of something I read recently in a piece by Thomas Friedman (“Beirut’s Blast is a Warning for America” – NY Times, August 9, 2020). Friedman writes about our need locate our source of Truth in something outside ourselves and our sectarian passions. He quotes Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal: “For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself – reference points of truth and a conception of the common good. When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

Whether in politics or in any other area of our lives, we gain by losing; we live by dying.


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The Power and the Glory

The novelist Graham Greene’s 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, tells the story of a renegade, de-frocked, Mexican Roman Catholic priest in the state of Tabasco in the 1930s, a time when the Mexican government was attempting to suppress the Catholic Church. The priest tries to avoid identification as a priest, but time and again he finds himself giving priestly care to others.

Whether he means to be or not, he is salt and light to the world. In last Sunday’s sermon, I spoke about Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-16, where Jesus informs the people gathered around him (not commanding them, as is sometimes thought) that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The question is whether our saltiness is being compromised and whether our light is being obscured.

There are times when being salt and light are in hard opposition to the world around us. R.V.G. Tasker once wrote that the church is to be “a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent.”

Similarly, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

The mainline church is often deeply uncomfortable with this role; other parts of the Christian family tree often relish this role too much. We all have to remember that Jesus was uncompromisingly clear about how rotten and dark the world can be, but he was salt and light because, and only because, he was FOR the world and came to give his life in order to redeem it. (See John 3:16-17)

Yesterday, I took the day off to attend to some work that had to be done on my garden. (The rafters had to be removed, and the whole thing needed to be cleaned and stained.) I was working hard out in the sun, listening to the Rolling Stones, when I noticed a man walking across my yard with a can of spray paint, working on some utility work. I walked over and asked how he was doing. To my surprise, he wiped away a few tears, collected himself, and admitted that he was having a bad day.

“Want to talk about it?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said after a moment, “but thanks.”

“Can I get you a glass of water?”

“That would be great,” he said.

So for the next ten minutes, we talked. Not a counseling session, but a human connection that included us both; I learned about his life. We talked as friends, and I saw a person created in God’s image. I said I would pray for him. A little later it continued as he walked by. It was salt and light, and it was why I took that particular day off; I just didn’t know it at the time.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” It wasn’t my role yesterday to convince him of God’s existence or of the moral wisdom of living by Jesus’ words. It was to be priestly as a human being, to be a little salt and light, to help him see the rest of his life a little clearer, to point to the power and the glory.


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A Consistent Ethic of Life

In my sermon two weeks ago, I was talking about God being not only for life (that is our biological life, as in the contemporary anti-abortion sense), but even more in the sense of ZOE, the real life that God intends for his creation. This ZOE encompasses biological life (bios) and our interior psychological and mental life (psyche), but it also goes beyond them both to refer to a quality of life in keeping with God’s goodness and delight in the well-being of his creation.

A commitment to ZOE LIFE includes (and this is a partial list):

  • Visiting prisoners
  • Respecting women and minorities and treating them equally
  • Feeding the hungry
  • Meeting our neighbors in their need
  • Clothing the naked
  • Speaking for those who have no voice
  • Treating people who disagree with us with humility and respect
  • Protecting the unborn
  • Loving the mentally ill
  • Caring for the creation
  • Welcoming refugees and immigrants
  • Standing up for the abused

And those are just things that we DO. This life is more than that, resurrecting and giving life to who we ARE, a new creation!

ZOE is such a deep and multi-faceted idea, there’s no one place in the Bible that describes it fully. It so so broad and inclusive that it transcends discreet concepts like spiritual, social, political, relational, physical. The whole Scriptures point to it, though. This should keep us from reducing our concept of the kind of life that God is FOR to one single issue. (It should also enable us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to specific parts of this beautiful biblical vision.)

For starters, here are a few Scriptures that help us start to see the breadth of God’s vision of LIFE – a vision that cuts across our categories and ideologies:

  • Exodus 23:1-9
  • Leviticus 25
  • Deuteronomy 5:6-21
  • Psalm 139:13-15
  • Isaiah 58:6-9
  • Micah 6:6-8
  • Matthew 5-7, 25:31-46
  • John 17:3
  • Ephesians 3:14-19
  • 1 Peter 1:3-4

Zoe Life is more than we can possibly know in this life. But we are given a wonderful promise: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)


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Get the Grandpa!

Well, that was humbling.

Yesterday, Facebook sent me a photo with a reminder that it had been taken eight years ago. It was a snapshot of me and the other members of Hupomene (Greek for perseverance), my men’s group from Princeton days. We are a picture of sunburnt mirth, grinning like Cheshire Cats.

We exchanged a few jokes and comments during the day, mostly referring to hair turning gray or receding (or disappearing altogether). One friend, who had originally said “We’re aging well” later amended it to “Well, we’re aging.” At one point someone commented that I had changed relatively little (but who knows, the picture was a bit grainy). I took this to the bank.

Then during Chill-30, Westminster’s after school hangout for teenagers, I strolled out at one point to say hello and decided, in my well-preserved state, to jump in on a game of gaga-ball. This is a game, you might realize, that requires a considerable degree of dexterity.

And then it happened. At first I thought I misheard it, but no. A couple of the kids – 7th graders, I think – were chanting it, and then it seemed to rise as a chorus: “Get the grandpa, get the grandpa!”

All in a fraction of a second, I stood up like a meercat to see who was saying it, and I realized that these kids might well have had grandpas my age. Just as this thought formed in my mind, the ball ricocheted off my leg and I was out.

Sobering? Yes. Funny? For sure. But most of all, I was glad to hear it from their mouths, and I hope it hear it for a long time to come.


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“A Third Thing”

Water is H2O – two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.

But there is also a third thing that makes it water,

and no one know what that is.

D.H. Lawrence

The English writer D. H. Lawrence wrote this prose-poem to ponder the mystery of life. There is chemistry, for example, that can account for the scientific reality of creation. But science alone doesn’t amount to life. There is something else – a wondrous “third thing” – that makes it all possible. He admits he doesn’t know what that third thing is; he also supposes no one knows.

In a way, he’s right. How can something so creative and so powerful be reduced to words and fit inside our human minds? On the other hand, we know what the “third thing” is: it’s the life that can only come from an unimaginably creative, powerful, and good God.

The Bible has a Greek word for this kind of life: ZOE. It’s more than exterior physical life (bios), and more than interior mental and psychological life (psyche). ZOE is the deepest kind of life – the kind of life we are created for (see John 1:4 &10:10), the life that includes all the best of our experiences, the life that God intends as we love God and love our neighbor (even our enemies) as ourselves, and the kind of life that is finally and only centered in Jesus himself.

Why am I writing all this? First, we all need to be reminded that no matter what our own lives are like right now, we are part of the grand Story that God is at work restoring ZOE to the whole creation (including us), and that one day that work will be gloriously complete – so live in hope!

Second, in our tense and divisive political climate, let’s agree not to define “life” by anything less than ZOE. Our identity is grounded in the Life that comes from God! That’s the “third thing” we are all made for.