by Daniel Harrell
I’m freshly back from North Carolina and a visit to family where I got to spend time with my 90-year-old Aunt Betty Anne. For more than 30 years she toiled gladly as a research librarian at little Mars Hill College nestled in the Appalachian hills near Asheville where my uncle was a professor of Hebrew. I hadn’t seen her in years, and worried that she’d be gone on to glory before I saw her again. But I shouldn’t have worried: my Aunt’s a strong woman with strong opinions this side of glory. She hikes the ridge near her house every day and comes home after to play her piano and sing. She keeps up with friends and the college and is a great-grandmother to three rambunctious boys, takes in church and the theater and happily dishes out her opinions whether you want to hear them or not.
On the trail where she hikes sits a rock called the Praying Rock, just a stone’s throw from this massive, overwrought house I’d asked her about, overlooking the valley. It belonged to a former Mars Hill College President, a leader Aunt Betty Anne described as one of the worst ever, bless his heart. She told us about one day out hiking, how she paused at the Prayer Rock to look with scorn at that uppity house and lift up her lament about the bad leadership, how her frustrations echoed the Psalms themselves in their demand for God to act. She said she heard a word from the Lord. God told her not to fret about that college president, but just “leave him to heaven.” And then he died the next week. With steeled Southern gothic charm, and a glint in her eye, Aunt Betty Anne confessed to not being so terribly upset. They say to be careful what you pray for—or maybe not.
As a congregation we’ve not been so careful as we’ve prayed Sunday after Sunday for the Holy Spirit to change our minds so we can discern and do whatever God calls us to next. Do we mean it? We’ve drawn power from the rock of Romans 12, where the apostle Paul appeals to Christian sisters and brothers to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, which is its own kind of dying. A Hebrew professor himself, Paul was intentional about his word choice here: sacrifice was how people tapped power from God. Jesus sacrificed his own body and blood for our sake—this is the mercy of God—but our sacrifice is still on the table. The sign of our faith is a cross we’re also told to take up. Left to ourselves we too readily regress to the mean and conform to the world. We guard what we love and resist transformation. We say we want change, but only so long as it doesn’t mean me. Change is hard because change is loss. But loss is life, which is why Paul appeals for sacrifice. We can’t change ourselves, we can’t renew our our own minds. We need the Spirit to do it.
Changed minds are key to discerning God’s will—the good and acceptable and perfect. Paul ties our minds to what he calls our spiritual worship, going so far as to use for spiritual the Greek word logikos, which means logical and reasonable. We live in an age when being Christian too often means being stupid, as if you have to suspend thinking if you want to believe. My Aunt Betty Anne hated how her Baptist faith too often seemed to suggest she leave her brain at the door before coming to church. Christian faith rightly defies human reason in so many ways, but God’s wisdom surpasses whatever we could think or imagine in order to inspire and expand. Historically, so much of what we celebrate at the best and most brilliant breakthroughs in literature and science and art and philosophy—Shakespeare, Galileo, Newton, Michelangelo, Bach, Aquinas, Pascal—all relied on Christian theology and worship for inspiration and power.
My Aunt Betty Anne always said you got to love God with your mind as well as your heart. My uncle was a church minister before he was a Hebrew professor, and my aunt told me she always preferred being married to the religion professor instead of the pastor, bless my heart. She liked college students as her congregation instead of adults who already had their lives and their God figured out.
At the same time, this is not to say we think our way into heaven—head and heart must be in balance—we still walk by faith rather than sight. Logical worship is still worship—living sacrifice and surrender to God—an invitation, as the troubadour David Wilcox sings it—“out of the question and into the mystery.” For years a sign sat by the roadside in my part of the South proclaiming, “Jesus Is The Answer.” Last week I noticed they changed the sign. It now reads, “Jesus May Be The Answer.” It all depends on the question.
Paul uses passive verbs when talking about change and renewal. Sacrifice as worship is surrender to the Spirit. Thinking Christians still say their prayers. As we’ve stressed in our own reforming, God is the potter and we are the clay. The Holy Spirit is the one who changes and renews, sometimes using disruption and trouble to do it. Over and over we come to the cross to crash against the body and blood of Jesus, broken by us and for us, sin and forgiveness, resistance and grace, formed and reformed, the bread and the cup again and again. We’re transformed by the cross and its mercy, but never to the point of not needing it.
The language of sacrifice hearkens to this meal set before us. Old Testament animal and grain sacrifices were all mostly cooked to be eaten. Worship that atones is meant to nourish as well as delight. Early Christians always had church around food. My Aunt Betty Anne holds her Bible study group every Wednesday over grits and biscuits—it’s called soul food for a reason. The high point of Christian worship is a meal we eat because of all the senses, taste is the most intimate. “Seeing allows us to experience something from a great distance. Hearing pulls reality closer. Our range of smell is even closer and touch completely closes the gap. But taste takes us even deeper.”* In Scripture, the verb to discern is kin to the word meaning taste. The Psalmist tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Likewise, Jesus calls himself bread of life, and says unless we eat and drink of him we cannot know him. The best way to know whether something is good is to eat it. Moreover, to taste dissolves the barriers between subject and object. I become part of what I eat and it becomes a part of me. We are what we eat. Although we take the bread and the cup of communion into our bodies, it is our bodies who are being consumed by it. Christ our passover was sacrificed for us. We present our bodies as living sacrifices to Christ.
By bodies Paul means not just our minds or our hearts, but everything we are and all that we do because all of it matters—every cell of your skin, every morsel on your plate, every hour of your work and your study, every moment of your rest; all your responsibilities and your relationships, your dreams and your worries, your successes and failures, your past and your future, on earth as it is in heaven; and not only our individual bodies, but our bodies together as church—the body of Christ, a living sacrifice of love and of grace, goodness and acceptance and perfection—a word that means complete and full of purpose and bigger than ourselves—the best hope for the world God so loves. Christ our passover was sacrificed for us. Let us present our bodies as living sacrifices to God for the sake of love. This is our logical worship. It makes total sense.
*Smith, C. Christopher; Pattison, John. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (p. 55). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.