The Divine Hours of Lent

Today is a major anniversary in my life. Or more correctly, it is what our children in their growing up would have called a major weekiversary, for it marks the end of the first week and the commencement of a second week of something that matters to me more than I would ever have thought possible.
Going on three years ago now, Sheryl Fullerton, who is head of Jossey-Bass Publishing, the religion division of John Wiley Publishing, invited me to have a cup of tea with her during a meeting we were both attending. It seemed like a good idea to me, because I genuinely enjoy her company. It even seemed like an innocuous idea. A cup of tea, a bit of respite in the midst of a trade show, a half-hour of professional gossip. What could be the harm in such as that?
As we were sitting there chatting, Sheryl paid me the compliment she had paid me once or twice before of asking if I would write a book for Jossey-Bass. I responded with the truth: I simply had no time in which to consider, much less to accomplish, such a thing just then. Perhaps in a year or so. Then she said, half to herself, I suspect, “Did you ever wonder what would happen if you merged all the sayings of Jesus back into a Sayings gospel, something like what ‘Q’ is supposed to have been and into a form something like thatof the non-canonicals like The Gospel of Thomas?”
No, I had never wondered about that; but the instant the words were out of her mouth, they were into me, body and mind and soul, like a charge of electricity galvanizing me to the chair where I set and to an idea that was so impossible and so timely and so obvious that I couldn’t breathe for a minute. Sheryl told me later that she saw me visibly jump, and I have no doubt that I did. She also told me that she was as startled as I, having never thought of such a thing before in her life….at least not consciously.
But the question hung there inside the spiritual guts of both of us: What would happen if all the words of Jesus were extricated from the narrative pacing, from the accompanying commentary, and from the context now surrounding them in the four Gospels and the first chapter of the Books of the Acts of the Apostles? What would emerge if one took away the duplicates and triplicates and let the words stand, lean and clean, as what they are–the speech of incarnate God?
What would happen if you, in merging His Sayings, presented just the Sayings and not the names and known prejudices or preconceptions of the gospellers who recorded them? What would happen if you removed the by-now-expected versification and chapter divisions that may become a more ordinary book, but perhaps do not serve a holy one as well, save for purposes of exegetical study? What would indeed happen, if one went looking backward for ‘Q,’ the long-postulated and totally theoretical proto-gospel of Jesus’ words on which the four canonical ones are presumed to have been based? What would happen?
The answer…or at least one answer and the one that resulted from Sheryl Fullerton’s strange and potent question…went on sale a week ago today as The Words of Jesus – A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord. There is an introductory essay in which I try to express what happened to me as I did the work itself, as I wrestled with this Jesus Whom I had only thought I knew. But The Words has–quite literally–nothing to do with me in any way other than as a conduit for material I never really “heard” so fully or so grippingly before.
All of this is not a pitch to sell books. Actually…and believe it or not…I earnestly hope that no one will buy this one unless he or she intends really to wrestle with it, to dip and taste and chew and savor and then start all over again, because there would be for me a kind of impiety in that. But on this weekiversary of something so central to my being that I can’t even be subtle about it, I hope every single person within range of these pixels will go to, look up The Words of Jesus-A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord with Reflections and scroll through to the “Look Inside” feature. When you get there, hit the “Surprise Me” tile, and amazon will take you to a few pages of the Words and Sayings themselves. Read and see. Then, if you’re interested in going a step further, go to and see the reflections of some other folks who are also now wrestling with this spoken Jesus.

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