The End

Devotional:

Isaiah 65.17

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 

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On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”

“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”

Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end. 

Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.

For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath. 

Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”

This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.

“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.

“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.

And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).

May it be so.

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Look At Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to preach against the text, hiding in the lectionary, the truth, Revelation in the Old Testament, endless patience, unthinkable peace, throwing the skunk on the table, and being stuck in time. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Look At Jesus

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Married and Buried

Luke 20.27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

The family gathers around the casket, muttering prayers under their breath imploring the Lord to keep the rain clouds at bay. The new widow is dressed appropriately in all black, her mascara is flowing down her cheeks, and she is clutching at the chest of her dearly departed husband’s brother. 

Like anyone else, the family isn’t sure what to do with their grief. Some of them forcefully push their hands into their pockets, others try desperately to hold back tears, and still yet others stand stoically as if nothing happened.

But, none of them, not the mother nor the father, not the cousins or the nieces or nephews bat an eye as the widow drives off in the limo nestled a little too closely with her brother-in-law.

2 years later the same family, though a little grayer than before, gathers in the same cemetery only a few paces from where they were last time and the scene feels eerily familiar. So much so that a few of the guests note how the pastor inexplicably uses the same homily as he did the last time around. The widow is now widowed twice, with two dead brothers buried by the old oak tree. This time the family wonders which brother will step up to the plate, and sure enough before the occasion ends she is driving off in another limo with another brother.

A decade later the woman runs out of tears for all of her dead husbands. She went from one brother to another, all seven in fact, and not a one of them had given her the baby she so desperately craved. The waning and remaining family members try their best to show signs of grief and sadness, but the scene has become so familiar that they were kind of looking forward to it. These funerals had replaced the Thanksgiving table as the occasion for family catch-ups and story-telling.

The priest is now feeble and old, and he had taken on an apprentice in the last few years hoping he would be the one to replace him. The two with their black robes and white collars politely shake hands with the family and make their way back up to the country church. The older priest struggles up the hill and sighs before noting that the next funeral will probably be for the woman, suspecting her of an imminent death caused by a broken heart. To which the younger priest wonders aloud, “Father, to which husband will the woman belong in heaven?”

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There’s no telling how many times I’ve read this story or heard this story. It’s a powerful moment in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees try to beat Jesus at his own game by sharing their own little parable. They are but another drop in the ocean of those who questioned the audaciousness of Jesus’ claims about the kingdom of God, the totality of grace, and the resurrection of the dead. 

And for as many times as I’ve heard the story and even told the story in moments of worship and even counseling, there is a detail that has bothered me to no end.

I mean, I understand what the Sadducees are trying to do with the question, they want to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. And okay, the woman seems to have some rotten luck. But no one seems to want to point out the obvious! Are we sure she’s not a murderer?!

Seven men marry her and seven men die! Those are pretty bad odds! The Sadducees are consumed by this idea of who she’ll be married to in the resurrection and I’m over here far more concerned with whether or not she was a serial killer!

And yet, its a story meant to point at something else. Like any parable it takes on these larger that life characteristics that intend to point us as something bigger. The story might as well have been that a woman married one man, who then died, and then married the man’s brother who also happened to die, who then would she be married to in the end? But that’s not nearly juicy enough! Particularly not when you’re trying to take down the guy who had the gall to tell stories about a prodigal son and a faithful shepherd and a good samaritan.

Questions are important things. And, sadly, we often limit their importance to the answers they provide. But questions contain their own answers. To ask a question is to reveal, to disclose something about the person asking the question. There is no such thing as a question that is morally and intellectually or even politically neutral. 

Imagine a spouse returns home from work a little later than usual and their partner asks, “Did you get the groceries?” Behind that question are a bunch of assumptions, perhaps the person forgot or has forgotten them before. Maybe the question is really pushing toward why the spouse was late. And so on.

Or imagine a kid returns home from school with a tear in his eye and asks his mother, “Why are Johnny’s parents getting divorced?” Of course, there is an obvious nature to the question, but behind the question there is perhaps the fear of his own parents getting divorced, or it happening to him in the future, or what’s going to happen to his friend. And on and on. 

Questions have agendas whether we like to think they do or not. Questions, before they are even answered, imply something about what is important, what is true, and they are all full of assumptions.

Jesus is asked a question. To whom will the woman be married to in the Resurrection? The implication, the question behind the question, is that these people do not believe in the possibility of any resurrection and they want to trap Jesus in his places. 

Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. His first option would be to pick or specify which of the seven brothers would be the partner in the great beyond. Jesus could pick her first husband, or her last husband, or the one right in the middle of the whole thing. But none of them make particularly good sense because ultimately, 6 of the former husbands would be left hanging in the wind. 

And then there’s option number 2: Jesus could admit that the Sadducees have a good point – they might be on to something with the inherent assumption in their question. The woman can’t be the wife of any of the brothers in the resurrection so therefore there must not be a resurrection!

But Jesus doesn’t go with either of those – instead he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. He simply asserts the resurrection is a whole new ballgame to which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. And he doesn’t stop there, he takes is a step further to claim that even the Torah proves the resurrection. You see, since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were not all alive at the same time, and for God to be their God they must all be alive together in some other-than-earthly state, it means that the resurrection is real, and its real even for them. 

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For Jesus, the whole focus here is to build up anticipation of his passion, his own death and resurrection. He’s not trying to paint a picture about whose still with who on the other side of death. Instead, he’s merely asserting a radically powerful truth, the people we marry and bury in this life don’t belong to us in the resurrection.

And that’s Good News.

However, for some of us this might, in fact, sound like bad news. We shudder to think of a time where we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life – we don’t want to imagine a moment in which the person wearing the ring is no longer bound by that ring. 

But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is trying to overturn. 

Its why we say, “Till death do us part.”

The Sadducees, in their question, held desperately tight to a understanding of relationships such that women literally belong to men as a wife would belong to her husband. They understood women as property, something to be traded and treated as such. I mean, their question about marriage in heaven might as well have been about who a cow would belonged to in heaven having been sold over and over again in this life. 

Jesus said, “In this age people are married and are given in marriage. But I tell you in the age to come this woman with be equal with even the angels, she will be a beloved daughter of God – nothing more, less, or else.” 

What a Word! Just mull on that for a moment! Imagine what it would’ve been like for the woman in the story to have heard those words of the lips of Jesus, hell imagine any woman today in an oppressive or overwhelming relationship. She would have known that in the age to come, in the kingdom Jesus’ inaugurates, she would not be defined by the man she married, she would no longer be defined by anything other than the fact that she was a child of God.

Friends, there are people, great numbers of people who need to hear what Jesus has to say. This little nugget of the gospel could bring them a remarkable sense of peace. 

Jesus changes everything. This is the story I want to tell people when I hear them talk about their better half, or their lesser half. No one becomes less of a person when they get married. Or at least they shouldn’t. We are unique and beautiful and wondrous because that’s exactly who God created us to be. And yet, of course, we were made to be in community, but that doesn’t mean we lose part of who we are by being connected with other people. If anything, the point of connection is to give us the freedom and the strength to flourish as God made us.

The Sadducees carry their own assumption. Whoever this Jesus guy is, he’s just bringing more of the same. He’s coming in here with his promises of a different world and a different future. But they can only see that in the terms already dictated by the world.

And then Jesus walks up, listens to their question that’s really an accusation, and says, “Excuse me! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, a thing beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, the world of the here and the now, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant! In this world, right now, people are owned, people are belittled, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the Living God.”

Jesus sees more than we can. He knows that the cross is waiting for him and he knows that the tomb won’t hold him. He knows that we are far too content with the status quo and that we still treat people as if they are less than whole. And so he says, “Come to my table. Take some bread and wine. See in this meal how the labels we place on ourselves and others start to disappear. This is the beginning of the end. But of course there really is no end. Because God is the God of the living. And whether you are married or buried, to God you are alive.” Amen. 

Annie Dillard Was Wrong

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Haggai 1.15b-2.9, Psalm 145.1-5, 17-21, 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17, Luke 20.27-38). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Thanksgiving without a turkey, Hauerwas teeshirts, the Donald Trump of the Old Testament, burying church programs, meditation, looking at the cross, the enemies of God, explaining Christianity, and marriage in heaven. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Annie Dillard Was Wrong

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Radical

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a lot of churches around here. I’ve mentioned before that, depending on which way I go, I can pass by 15 other churches on my way from my house to this church. All kinds of churches – big churches and little churches, protestant churches and catholic churches (well, only one of those). And they’re all different. On Sundays they are filled with different people listening to different pastors preached about different subjects. 

I wish there was only one church, a united single church within which all Christians across the globe could call home. But it doesn’t exist.

Instead we disagree on an almost limitless number of things such that new kinds of churches are sprouting up every day.

In fact there are so many different versions of church out there that we have something in the modern parlance called “church shopping.” If you simply don’t like what you hear on a Sunday morning you can try out a different church next Sunday and the one after that and the one after that until you find the perfect church.

I’m assuming that most of you are here because this church is as close as you’ve found to perfection.

And even though there is no one real thing that unites the multiplicity of churches, except for maybe Jesus, there is something around here that seems to bind them all together: Harvest Parties.

Have you seen the signs recently? Have you been invited by your neighbors? I haven’t been able to drive anywhere without big and bold letters letting me know that some Christian group is having a harvest party – and they’ve all been scheduled for the same weekend. This weekend!

So why are churches hosting harvest parties? I don’t know.

My best guess is it seems like a whole bunch of churches want to have Halloween parties without calling them Halloween parties. 

Perhaps they don’t like the idea of kids in costumes, or free candy, and putting the word “harvest” on a celebration makes it feel more wholesome.

And the problem with all of that is the fact that Halloween is a Christian holiday!

Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve – a liturgical service in the midst of the Christian year. And All Hallows’ Ever is just an older English way of saying All Saints’ Eve.

It occurs the evening before the first of November, and it is a time marked by Christians across the globe by giving thanks to God for the departed saints who came before us. In other churches this took place on Friday, but we’re celebrating All Saints’ today. And because it is fundamentally a remembrance of the dead and anticipating their resurrection, it’s obvious how it connects with the habits and practice of what we call Halloween.

When Christians get afraid of consumes and the candy, or try to move it or tame it or water it down, it just reinforces our greatest fear the we try to deny with every waking breath – the inevitability of death.

But Halloween, All Saints, they are prime opportunities for us to dance with death, not in a way that worships the darkness that frightens us, but to shout with a resounding voice that death will not win. We Christians are the ones who laugh at death’s power in this world, not because it doesn’t sting, but because we have already died with Christ that he might raise us into new life. 

Halloween is therefore one of the most Christian days of the year because our God is in the business of raising the dead!

Our God is a radical God!

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On All Saints the church witnesses to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives who are no longer alive. We read their names and offer time for reflective and prayerful silence. And we do all of that because in ways both big and small, the saints we remember today joined in the unending chorus of laughter in the face of death’s dark rays.

It is one of the more radical moments in the liturgical year.

Matched only by the radical words from the lips of Jesus read for us already.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

This topsy turvy announcement about the power of God’s grace contains tremendous blessings: If you are weeping now you God will turn it around to bring forth laughter – if you are suffering now for the Son of Man you will jump in joy for your reward is great in heaven.

But for as much as it presents a rose tinted view of a time not yet seen, Jesus continues the reversal. 

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

The poor and hungry will have their fortunes reversed – that sounds like good news. But for those us us who are sitting well in our finances and happy with full bellies – its not so good. The rich, the powerful, the well regarded, their fortunes are going to be reversed as well. 

In this mini sermon from the gospel of Luke, Jesus overturns all of our previous misconceptions about the way the world works: The poor become rich, the rich become poor, the outcasts are brought in, and the powerful are cast out. We might struggle with these words, or perhaps we might consider them unfair, but God isn’t fair. For if God were fair, none of us would be good enough. 

God is inherently unfair – God is in the business of righting wrongs and even wronging rights – God raises the dead.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus lives according to the words of this sermon by going to those on the margins, consistently challenging the status quo, and convicting those who feel too certain they are right. Likewise, saints are those whose lives demonstrated a care for those on the margins, or standing up for those forced to the ground, and speaking for those whose voice were taken away. 

But, lest we leave today under the impression that saints are very, very holy people, a people whose lives cannot be matched, saints really are just like us. Again and again in Paul’s letter, he addresses the people as the saints who are in Christ Jesus. For Paul, being a Christian and being a saint were one in the same. The assumption being that to be a Christian meant you were ready to die for your faith. 

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The earliest saints, in fact, were the earliest Christian martyrs – people literally killed because of what they believed. And here we come to another often forgotten or disregarded piece of discipleship: Christianity is about more than being nice to people. Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another and the early Christians weren’t martyred for suggesting we all just get along with each other.

They were killed for being radical. 

They were killed for saying things like the first will be last and the last will be first. 

They were killed because they believed in worshipping God rather than Caesar, rather than the King, rather than the President. 

And that’s not every getting into all the stuff about how we are supposed to relate to one another: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

And that comes into direct conflict with the powers and the principalities. To say those things aren’t the end all be all is to start carrying our own crosses up to Golgotha. 

Whether its Rome, or America, or our bosses, or our spouses, or whoever – we are forever being told who we are. We define ourselves by the definitions given to us by others, and more often than not from the others with power. When we look in the mirror we see not what we see but we see what we’ve been told.

But for Christians, none of us know who we really are until God tells us.

And that kind of behavior drives the powers and principalities crazy! As those who follow Jesus we refused to be defined by others. We are more than the people we vote for, or the team we cheer on, or the embarrassing story that stayed with us for years. We are not those things. We are who we are because of God. 

Being a saint, then, is really nothing more than confessing we have been saved by the One who made us part of an extraordinary community that refuses to let others tell us who we are.

All Saints’ Sunday is a time for us to celebrate the lives and the deaths of those who were here before us. It is not an accident the the text assigned for today ultimately has to do with death. Living according to the words of Jesus is a radical thing. It is also a total thing.

The “All” in “All Saints’” is powerful. It is the church’s proclamation that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we do as a church. You don’t have to have lived the perfect life at the perfect church to be a saint. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, its the admission that we are far from perfect. But Christ isn’t done with us yet. 

Chances are, none of us here will ever be killed for our faith. Part of that stems from the fact that our nation and our faith are tied up with each other, contrary to the obsession with the separation of church and state. And another part of it stems from the fact that when we read these challenging words from Jesus we imagine them as some hopeful future instead of them being a command. 

Because if we really lived according to these words, people would try to kill us.

Thanks be to God then, that all of us here have already died. The waters of baptism brought us into the very heart of Jesus’ crucifixion that we might come out on the other side of the tomb with him. 

As the culture around us starts to turn toward Thanksgiving and an overly commodified version of Christmas, today we are reminded that those who are looking for happiness in a bigger house or a larger paycheck or a better spouse will discover that those things will never make us happy. There will always be a bigger house, more lucrative jobs, and people with power. 

On All Saints’ we cannot ignore the great cloud of witnesses who have pointed us to a different way, The Way we call Jesus. We know not what tomorrow will bring but we do know that God in Christ is in the business of making all things new, of raising the dead, and only God can tell us us who we are. Amen. 

Get Lost

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Get Lost

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Grace Is Confounding

Devotional: 

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that why were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

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A professor of mine in seminary liked to tell a story about what happened to him one Saturday night while he was still in the ministry. He was dutifully working at his desk putting his final touches on the sermon for the following morning when he received a phone call from the local police department. A married couple from his church were having a rather large shouting match and a few neighbors called the police and they in turn called the preacher. He reluctantly drove over to their house and was bewildered to discover three armed officers huddled behind their vehicles as if a shoot-out was about to occur. When the preacher questioned the ranking officer about the situation, the officer calmly replied, “These two get a little too drunk once a year and have it out for each other, they should be done soon enough.” And he was right.

Within the half hour the preacher was walking through the front door to see two of his most dedicated lay people drunkenly asleep on different pieces of furniture with cuts and bruises all over the place. And then he left when the police said there was nothing more they could do.

My professor said that he tried to block it out of his mind until the following morning, when he walked down to collect the plates from the ushers during the offertory, and he almost dropped the collection when he noticed that the husband was serving as one of the ushers with his cuts and bruises out for everyone to see. 

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For my professor, this moment perfectly embodied Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee goes into the temple bragging about all of his holiness and faithfulness and gives thanks to God that he is not like the publican, the tax collector, the sinner in his midst. Likewise the publican enters the temple, humbly bows, and says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus ends the parable by saying the publican is the one who went home justified.

For my professor, in the moment, he couldn’t believe the nerve of the man to show up in church knowing what had happened the night before. It just wasn’t right – it wasn’t proper. But then he was struck by the message of the parable: The gift of grace is only God’s to give – no matter how prim or proper we are, no matter how many acts of holiness we can trot out on a Sunday morning, God’s grace is poured on those who need it most (all of us).

And, to make matters worse, my professor realized that he, himself, had become the Pharisee proudly displaying his faith on his sleeve and even partially thanking God he wasn’t like his church member! He would end his story by saying that as he lifted up the plates that morning he could almost hear God whispering in his ear: “Two men went up to the temple to pray one Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher, the second a drunken, disappointing, and overly aggressive husband… the latter went home justified, not the former.”