A Trigger Word Redeemed

This is a guest post. A friend of mine spoke words recently which deserve careful attention by others. For various reasons, she is not able to be public online, so I offered to post her words anonymously. Her story and her thoughtfulness show us a view of God who makes all things right out of deep love for us!

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I have a secret. It’s a secret I’ve held all my life, for fear of losing what I hold most dear. I’ve let a few of you in on this secret. But have often feared the ramifications if I were to be forthright about who I am. Why, you wonder? What can she possibly have to hide. I am a member of one of the most maligned and misunderstood ethnic groups in the world today. Many American churchgoers would like to see my people run into the sea. 

What’s my secret? I am the daughter of a Palestinian war refugee. My mother was born in Jerusalem, where my family had lived for generations. A few months after her birth her father, my grandfather, was one of 93 killed by an Israeli terrorist’s bomb. Two years later, my grandmother fled in the middle of the night with her two young children, to escape what Israelis call the War of Independence. Palestinians call it the “Nakba”; the “Catastrophe”. My Mother grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut. And the terrorist who killed my, grandfather? He was later elected Prime Minister of the nation of Israel. 

I love God and God’s story. I desire nothing more than to be a part of it. Yet, I have struggled with the American evangelical gospel narrative. A gospel that says my people must be annihilated in order to bring about Jesus return. Even within my own bi-racial home, dispensational theology dominated.

Just a bit of background for those who didn’t grow up steeped in the American Evangelical tradition. Dispensationalism is a theological system birthed in America in the 1850’s and popularized over the past 160 years. The version I grew up around holds within it an eschatology that requires Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine be granted to the nation of Israel to set up the end times and bring about the return of Christ. That poses a problem for past and current Palestinian residents. This theology is intimately connected to the mis-treatment of the Palestinian people and our government’s support of the Israeli state. 

I’ve spent my life searching understanding of God that is inclusive, not exclusive— that includes people like me. One that truly is good news.

Being half white, I most often have a choice whether to be forthright or not about my mixed racial heritage, though as a child attending conservative Christian schools there were times I was teased and excluded because I stood out as different.

We say sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never hurt us. But even from a very young age we know this is a lie. Words are powerful. They shape our understanding of reality. The same is true of the words we use to tell story of God. I continue to sift through the story of faith I was handed as a child, and I find myself reacting strongly to particular words that paint a picture of a far different God than the God I have come to know.

As I grew in awareness of my heritage and the conversations about Israel in the evangelical churches I attended until college, I faced a very real dilemma. Hide my families story, and fit in or risk being on the outside.

I wonder if I would have walked away from faith completely had I not encountered Quakers, and the existence of a school called Ramallah Friends. Wait, there is a Christian group who sees the treatment of Palestinians over the past 72 years as wrong? Who don’t need to exclude Palestinians in order to make the story of faith work?

Story is a potent medium. How we tell God’s story has a human cost. Religion has always been a means to rationalize oppression and murder. Christianity is no exception. From the moment Christianity became co-opted by empire in the time of Constantine, shortly after the rise of the early church, it was used by some as a tool of oppression. We can look with chagrin at the bloody history that followed justified by a “scriptural mandate”, to name a few: the crusades, colonialism-which led to the oppression and murder of indigenous people around the world, the African slave trade, the holocaust, and the current marginalization, oppression and murder of the Palestinian people; the list could go on.   

Almost two years ago, we were asked to agree with a statement which explicitly excluded another entire group of people, those who identify as LGBTQ. You might be able to imagine my inner turmoil. This tumultuous time set me on a path of deconstructing my faith to its foundation— what do I believe to be true about God. What is God’s character, purpose and action in the world?

I firmly believe the lens through which we view ourselves and relate to others is shaped by our concept of God.

In the stories of Christ’s life and work in the Gospels, the arc of the entire biblical narrative, and my living experience of God, I see a God of unfathomably deep love that is about the work of mending the entire universe – which includes but is not limited to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with creation. 

This bring us to my first trigger word: “Redeem.” Christians throughout the centuries have been very good at drawing lines, at proclaiming God’s favor only for the “redeemed.”  The idea being that Jesus life substituted on the cross for ours brings individual redemption, to individual lives creating a group of redeemed individuals who live in God’s favor. This is a very transactional view of redemption and leads to several problems: 

  • First, this way of understanding redemption implicitly creates categories: redeemed vs. unredeemed. Once we’ve divided humanity this way, it’s easy to apply value statements to the two groups. Valuable vs. worthless. Righteous vs. Infidels. Now we have justification for the atrocities we perpetrate. 
  • Second, it’s built on a picture of an angry God whose sense of justice needs satisfaction through blood sacrifice. 
  • Third, it is often coupled with the idea that the redeemed will be whisked away to heaven and the earth destroyed, so we can exploit creation for our own gain while we’re here. This understanding leaves us with brokenness at every level of relationship—with God, with others and with creation — can the way the church thinks about redemption be redeemed?

If our foundational belief about God is that God is a God of love, not violence, that the kingdom of God is intensely peaceable, and God’s purpose is to make things right, how does this impact our understanding of redemption? 

I know that I’m asking us to stretch our frame of a bit. The English definition of the word redeem is quite transactional:

Redeem

  • To buy or pay off; clear by payment: to redeem a mortgage. 
  • To buy back, as after a tax sale or a mortgage foreclosure. 
  • To recover (something pledged or mortgaged) by payment or other satisfaction: to redeem a pawned watch. 

So consider with me a few of uses of the word redeem found in the Hebrew Bible, stories from Old Testament stories, and see if this transactional definition of redeem rings true.  

In the book of Ruth, Ruth and Naomi are destitute. As widows they are the marginalized of their society. Ruth is picking fallen grain from the edge of Boaz’ field, Boaz sees her and inquires who she is. Something happens in the night between Ruth and Boaz, it’s not quite clear what, but the upshot of the story is Boaz becomes their kinsman-redeemer, buying Naomi’s family land and marrying Ruth. This redemption appears transactional.

The story of Hosea and Gomer is another instance where we find the word redeemed. A prophetic tale played out in Hosea’s life of God’s love for God’s people and willingness to bear shame in order to restore relationship. God tells Hosea to marry Gomer, a known prostitute. Shortly after the marriage. Gomer returns to her life of sleeping around.

Eventually she falls destitute and sells herself into slavery. God directs Hosea to go to the public square (thus bearing her shame) and redeem her. Again, money changes hands, so we can read this as transactional redemption as well. The uses of the word redeem in the Levitical law are also consistent with a transactional understanding.  

But the most central narrative to the Hebrew people’s identity turns this transactional view of redemption on its head. The word redeem is frequently used in the story of the Exodus from Egypt or texts that refer to it. Deuteronomy 15:15, “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”  God made a covenant with Abraham to make of him a great nation through which all nations would be blessed. But this newly formed people had fallen in to slavery in Egypt. God sets out with Moses help to redeem them. 

This redemption isn’t transactional. God doesn’t go pay Pharaoh for the Israelites. This act of redemption is about Shalom, setting things right. God’s people have been enslaved in Egypt. They are oppressed. They are suffering. God moves in might to redeem them. To restore them as a people, to bring freedom. 

God offers them renewed opportunity to live in worship of God, in whole relationship with each other and creation. As the central identity narrative of the Hebrew people, this idea of Redemption as God making things right would have shaped their understanding of the narratives found in Ruth and Hosea as well:

Boaz’s redemption of Naomi and Ruth is far greater than a monetary action. Boaz redeems Naomi’s place in society and offers Ruth, an outsider, standing within the community as his wife. It is a redemption of their family name, honor and position—an action of shalom- making right.

Hosea buys Gomer not to be his slave, but to restore her as his wife—a restoration of relationship, a making right—again Shalom.

This brings me to Christmas. What? From Hosea and Gomer to Christmas? That’s quite a leap you say—but hear me out. I love Christmas, it is for me the grand story of making things right. You see, I am all about incarnation. God choosing to enter the fragile and finite stuff of flesh and bone, to become one of us, now that’s magic. 

Come the New Year, I have hard time letting go of Christmas. Our tree stays up through Epiphany and some years the Christmas decorations might not be fully put away until February. We need incarnation, to soak in the reality that God, the divine trinity, loves us so deeply that God chose to become flesh in order to redeem us, to make right the brokenness in our relationship with God, with each other and with the earth.

I’ve sometimes pondered how my faith might differ had I grown up in my mother’s Orthodox tradition instead of my father’s protestantism. The Orthodox Church holds Christ’s incarnation as the pivot of history.

This God of love willing to incarnate to make all things right seems the antithesis of the God presented in a transactional or substitutionary view of redemption, an angry judgmental God demanding blood for sin. God, whom we agree is essentially love, purposed the death of God’s own son, turning away from him on the cross?

What of our tendency to judge the acceptability of others to God flows from a need to be sure of our own standing before this angry God whose need for satisfaction trumps love? 

An incarnational view of redemption, also called the recapitulation theory of atonement, pre-dates the idea of a transactional or substitutionary view of atonement within the life of the church. God in God’s unfathomably deep love chose to become one of us, reconciling humanity and divinity first within Christ, himself. Christ then lived a life of sacrificial love and obedience to God in opposition to the sinful way of the world, in so doing by his faithfulness Christ redeemed Adam’s unfaithfulness, a remedy for sin systemic and individual. God’s purpose in Christ is to unite humanity, all of creation actually, with God. Redemption, Shalom, for the whole world. 

This truth shines in John 3:16:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” 

Putting the world right is redemption. God’s action and purpose in the world is redemption —the making whole of our relationship with God, with each other, with the world.

Jesus life and ministry demonstrates our loving God’s restorative purpose. Jesus spends his time with the hurting and the marginalized. He heals, forgives, raises up, dignifies those he interacts with. Jesus talks repeatedly about the kingdom of God, an upside down kingdom where the first shall be last and the foolish things of the world are used to shame the world’s wisdom.

Jesus is put to death, murdered, by the rulers and powers of a broken world. Each and every one of us is complicit with the world’s system. Any time we make decisions that break relationship with another, putting our own wants or desires above living in right relationship with God, others and creation—our desire for security, for advancement, to be right— we buy into the world’s sinful system. 

Jesus lived a sacrificially obedient life to its logical end – an unjust death at the hands of the world’s system of empire. The principalities of the world could not co-opt him; he refused to be complicit so they killed him. 

What is happening at the cross?

“Jesus sacrificed his life to show us the love of the Father. Jesus sacrificed his life to remain true to everything he taught in the Sermon on the mount about love for our enemies. Jesus sacrificed his life to confirm a new covenant of love and mercy. Jesus sacrificed his life to Death in order to be swallowed by death and destroy Death from the inside.”

[Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God, p. 108]

If God is not abandoning Jesus on the cross, where is God in Jesus suffering? Where is God in the suffering of an ostracized child on the playground? In genocide, in famine, in war? How can we understand God’s posture toward Christ suffering on the cross, and towards us in our suffering? 

In the words of Pope Benedixt XVI:

“The Father supports the cross and the crucified, bends lovingly over him and the two are, as it were, together on the cross. So in a grand and pure way, one perceives there what God’s mercy means, what the participation of God in man’s suffering means. It is not a matter of cruel justice, not a matter of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and the reality of creation: the true intimate overcoming of evil that ultimately can be realized only in the suffering of love.” 

God has not rejected Christ as he carries the weight of our sin, God co-suffers in love with Christ to condemn the world’s systems of violence, oppression and death. An un-redeemed perspective allows us to make redemption into a personal golden ticket out of hell. This leaves untouched the world’s systematic sin. Leaves the principalities and powers of this world in control and invites us to be complicit with them. We can decide who’s in and who’s out. Whose lives are expendable to bring about Christ’s return.   

So how do we live into a redeemed vision of redemption? This idea that God at the cross, through sacrificial love, is offering humanity a way out its continual cycle of greed, oppression and violence. We are invited to join God in co-suffering love with the vulnerable and oppressed, to live into the already-and-not-yet kingdom. For early Christians following the way of Jesus was about changed life here and now. 

Justin Martyr writes less than a hundred years after Christ about the mended way of life Jesus offers:

“We who formerly…valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies…”

[Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 14, as quoted in Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Pennsylvania State University Press: 1986), p. 13.]

This redeemed picture of redemption leads me to a new set of questions: How do I as a Palestinian, a mother of grade school children, a community member, live with an attitude of Christ Jesus, who being very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant?  How do I, how do we enter ever more deeply into this mended way of life?

Queries for reflection:

In what ways does my picture of God need redeeming?

How might immersing myself in the relentless, persistent flood of God’s love transform my view of self, others and creation?

What does it mean for me to lean into the idea of mended relationship with God, humanity and the world?

Consider using loving kindness meditation this week: Visualize God’s love for you like a light surrounding you. Now visualize someone you care about and the light surrounding them. Now move it outward to your family, then further to your neighbors, your community, to specific marginalized groups, to the whole of creation. 

 

Fire Grew In My Soul

Our stories, our experiences. This is all we really have to share, all we really have to build connections and community with each other.

To tell our stories, to share our experiences requires us to reflect, to ponder, to get enough distance from the circling cycles of our own thoughts to see threads and themes, to perhaps find evidence of something Outside, an Other.

Achieving that distance-which-brings-perspective can enable our lives to be woven into the fabric of human community, past and present. Experiencing the distance-which-makes-space-for-the-Other is what the faith journey continues to be for me.

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Tonight things are coming together in my brain. For a long time, injustice and shattering and pain and broken relationships and confusion have been unavoidable around me. Seeing what I have seen, I no longer want to intentionally avoid this part of existence; that voluntary blindness itself would seem unjust. When you cannot fix the unfixable, when turning your eyes away seems criminal, what can you do?

While the brain keeps churning over and around, limping through the same rutted paths, sometimes the soul leads somewhere new.

At the deepest “me” part of me, I have not been able to let go of the Divine Other who has found me, the one I easily name as Jesus, as Savior. And in that deepest part, the Spirit has never stopped prompting things. Tonight I’m seeing how the Spirit has been whispering to me to feed my soul with fuel, fuel for the Spirit to kindle fire. The fuel has come from others who also name Jesus. I am connected to them as God brings warmth to my soul and new light to my gaze as I examine the world again. Perhaps in my sharing, you may find fuel for the Spirit to kindle fire in you.

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For months, I’ve fed my soul almost daily with the words and prayers of Christian women medieval mystics. There are repeating, deepening layers to how they provide fuel in me. In the first reading, I highlight sections that speak to me. Some days there are no highlights at all, others provide holy moments. Then about once a month, I go back through the highlights, and I pray them, sift them, mull them, asking God’s Spirit to help me put them into my words, into words that make them alive for me. This act is itself another holy moment. I then take the paraphrased prayers and make myself a calendar of daily prayers.

So most days, I’m reading raw material from one of these women for the first time, and I am also praying and meditating on a prayer that I have sat with two times before. On this third time through, I ask Jesus how it can take root in my thoughts, my actions, my day, my soul.

Today’s thrice-examined prayer was from Catherine of Siena. It’s been burning hot, creating longing, helping me see connections that had been hidden in the dark. She’s describing what I’m writing about in this post, describing her own soul so aflame with the power of God that it takes God’s very Self to keep her life itself from extinguishing. She’s giving voice to what it is like to not turn away from sorrow and also how sorrow will not overwhelm.

And, not content to stay there, she beckons us to join her in a purification journey, eyes wide open to both the Divine One and to ourselves, a purification journey that does not separate us from flawed humanity and flawed institutions, but produces a hunger for all to be transformed by God, as we bring our personal and social leprosy intentionally into the purifying fire of God’s very being.

As light and knowledge increased in my soul
a sweet sorrow grew in me.
And at the same time,
my sorrow was diminished
by the hope which the Supreme Truth gave me.

As fire grows when it is fed with wood,
the fire grew in my soul;
grew so large and so hot
that it seemed no longer possible
for the body to endure it.
It seemed the soul would have to leave the body.

Had I not been surrounded
by the strength of Him who is the Supreme Strength
it would not have been possible
to live a moment longer.

Then I,
purified by the fire of divine love,
engulfed in the knowledge of myself and of God,
I grew hungry
for the salvation of the whole world,
for the reformation of the Holy Church.

And as my hope grew,
my hope of my salvation and my reformation,
I rose with confidence before the Supreme Father,
showing Him
the leprosy of the Holy Church,
and the misery of the world.

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380, my paraphrase)
My story, my experience, is that I long for this. I desire:
To fuel the Spirit fire in me.
To be painfully and wonderfully shaped, transformed, purified, made holy.
To see the salvation and reformation of the whole world so that the sufferings of my oppressed sisters and brothers are lessened and healed.
To have confidence and hope grow in me.
To rise, to hold before Jesus all in the world that still needs redemption.

Mystery

(Message given December 9, 2018 at Newberg Emerging Friends Church)

choral book

The mystery of Christmas.

It’s something we hear a lot about at this time of year, held out there for us as part of the magic we might be missing in the bustle. Embrace the mystery!

What exactly do “they” mean when “they” say that? Probably not the “Twelve Slays of Christmas…”

twelve_slays_christmas

…or “Murder for Christmas”.

murder for christmas

Nope, I’m guessing the magical “mystery” of Christmas is probably summed up best like this:

Now, far be it from me to argue with “them” or especially with Amy “She-Who-Is-Christmas” Grant, but…

Look, speaking as the self-proclaimed expert on Christmas nostalgia, I gotta say: what’s with the big focus on mystery at Christmas? What I love about Christmas is the traditions, the patterns, the nostalgia, the doing it all the same way! There are no SURPRISES. 

That’s why I can listen to the Ray Conniff Singers at Christmas time, because it reminds me of Christmases I knew growing up. That’s why I inflict Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on my family every year, because they are FAMILIAR! Not because they are a mystery.

And if we think about the story itself: I mean, come on, where is there mystery? We know the plot by this point, am I right? My non-faith friends at work know the plot. Why the word mystery at Christmas? It’s not about surprises, it’s about the tried and true, the known and familiar…right?

What if I told you…and lean close, that’s the cue that I’m putting on my movie trailer announcer voice and am about to say something super obvious

What if I told you…you can have your known and familiar and nostalgic Christmas AND you can embrace the mystery? What if I told you…mystery, in the biblical sense, in the wonderful sense…isn’t really about SURPRISE at all! (At least not at this point in history.)

Mystery IS a wonderful word to noodle around in our minds at Christmas, to help us delve into a meaningful experience which goes even beyond my love for nostalgia. I love that I was assigned this word as something to explore tonight, because Christmas mystery is both something revealed in the past, and something that invites us infinitely into the future.

But first…we need to untangle ourselves a bit from some of the layers of the word “mystery”.

I grew up with one of the great mystery solvers in history very much in the forefront of my mind.

mystery machine

Scooby Doo! The Mystery Machine! Every single episode, “those meddling kids” followed the clues and solved the mystery. I was taught that’s what mysteries are–mysteries are things to be solved. Figured out. Sleuthed.

It’s strong in our British and American literature. Those great mystery writers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to name two, who created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey…they have woven their way into our national consciousness. 

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Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes, a detective who keeps appearing in adaptation after adaptation.

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In all of these, we learn that in the face of a mystery, you look for information. It’s cerebral, an intellectual exercise. It’s deduction. If you find enough of the pieces, you can put it all together in a satisfying answer that brings closure for everyone. 

I think a lot of us have that idea in mind as we hear “mystery” today in our world. 

But biblically, the Greek word “musterion” is quite a bit different. We get our English word mystery directly from the Greek “musterion”, not as a translation, but simply by transliterating the letters. We took the word, but we’ve changed the meaning.

In the bible, “musterion” is a secret…a Divine secret. It is a secret that cannot be figured out or deduced or known by human beings. It’s a Divine secret that must be revealed by God, because it is so far out of realm of conception, so far out of the bounds of how the world functions. It’s beyond deduction.

The great thing is, God LOVES being a revealer of mysteries! Mystery in this sense is like the glee felt when hosting a party, where you’ve given thought and time and attention to every detail, and have some special element that each guest will love. You can’t WAIT to get to the day and reveal the mystery of all that you’ve prepared to honor and celebrate each person at the party!

Biblical mystery, Divine mystery, Christmas mystery is just this: God having a plan to show love and care in a way that no one could possibly have guessed; and the joy of revealing the ever-deepening layers of this well-prepared secret!

You see this through the references to mystery in the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 2:7: “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” God’s had this planned for our good for a long time!

What is the mystery? Well, it’s several things, actually. God has a lot of good things planned for us! But first and foremost, Colossians 2:2 lays it out: “…in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ…”

The most profound mystery, the most powerful and essential Divine secret revealed for our love and care, is Jesus himself…God laying aside power and majesty, identifying with humanity, in the most humble way. Jesus taking on brown, marginalized flesh. God forever joining God’s self to humanity and to this infuriatingly unjust and oppressive world.

As confusing as I pretended it was for me at the start of this message, this is exactly why it is right for Christmas to be associated with mystery. 

So the Incarnation is the central mystery, the essential secret revealed to the world for our redemption.

But as I said, like a deliciously inventive and creative author, God has more secrets and plot twists to delightfully reveal. Just when the Jewish people started to get their head around the incarnation, here came another mystery, in Ephesians 3:6: “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

That’s one they couldn’t deduce! That’s one they fought and wrestled with for awhile, and it needed a lot of Spirit work and revelation for everybody to grasp and accept it. Jesus becoming a Jewish baby didn’t make them exclusive winners. The Incarnation is humanity’s mystery to share-it’s for everyone!

And then another delicious plot twist, as the mystery deepens even more, as a more complete plan was revealed. Ephesians 1:8b-10: “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment.”

What is this mystery? “To bring unity to ALL things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

Not just the people group Jesus was born into.

Not just the Gentiles, not just all humanity. But EVERYTHING. Jesus becoming human is transforming and bringing unity to EVERYTHING. All things in heaven and on earth. All of creation. All of the spiritual realm. All the powers that seem at war with each other, destructive to humanity and creation, EVERYTHING is going to be brought into proper alignment and unity by Jesus. 

This is the far reaching power of this mystery which God has revealed! This is the glory of God’s plan from before creation. 

This is our bright and shining hope in a dim and dark existence; a divine secret and a cosmic hope that keeps finding new layers of depth as time passes on.

From the cosmic stretch which includes everything in the universe, all the way to the intimate personal connection with us…this mystery knows no bounds.

Colossians 1:27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Christ in you! Not only joining in solidarity with marginalized people long ago. Not only spreading beyond Israel to all of humanity. Not only coming against cosmic spiritual darkness and bringing all of creation and heaven and humanity into unity with Jesus.

Christ in you. Christ with you. Christ living, breathing, surrounding, healing, empowering, encouraging, convicting, forgiving, and leading…in you!

Some would say the ultimate mystery of God is the union we can experience with God’s very self, all made possible by Jesus. 

Do you see? 

Do you see how mystery is the past, what God has already done, the amazing truth revealed in Christ’s birth? And do you also see how it is future, infinite, ever-expanding…drawing us deeper, calling us to a union with God in which we cannot help but be surprised and beautifully moved to new and never-before-seen places?

Richard Rohr says it powerfully in The Divine Dance: 

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand–it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!”

It took me several weeks after they asked me to speak on mystery tonight to realize this topic had a big connection to my own spiritual life over the last 6 or 7 months.

I’ve been reading Christian mystics; specifically, medieval women Christian mystics. 

David Benner writes,

“…Mystics differ from non-mystics in their rejection of the notion that the mysteries of life are simply gaps in knowledge. They realize that the really important mysteries of life will not be eliminated by reason or experimentation. They teach us how to love mystery rather than fear it. They teach us humility, tolerance and wonder.”

Mystics show us a pathway outside of our rational, deductive spirituality and help us embrace mystery and union from a different place. And like an onion, layers upon layers unfold before us in our exploration. Always, always, the mystics are describing an inexorable movement toward intimate union with God.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, from the 1200’s, captures this:

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Love leads us into mystery, binding us layer by layer, piece by piece with the Creator of the Universe. It is rooted, so essentially and eternally rooted, in the work of God through Christ, bound with the manger-born one who taught and healed and bled, out of love for us.

Listen to Hildegard of Bingen, 100 years earlier in the 1100’s:

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Reading, praying, meditating, dwelling in the words and the worlds of these women has helped me truly embrace the Mystery.

It’s deepening my connection to the past reality of Jesus who lived and breathed and walked our world. It’s returned a sense of awe, a sense of wonder…a profound awareness of the great ‘otherness’ of God, but this is the kind of awareness that produces longing. This journey has opened up a new future, caused a desire in me to “endlessly understand”, as Rohr describes it.

Side benefits have appeared along the way. Reading back almost a millennium, the cultural barriers and blinders sometimes so obviously appear. Even for Hildegard, an accomplished theologian who wrote popes and kings, who toured Germany twice on preaching tours as a woman in the middle ages…even for Hildegard, who critiques abuses of the power systems in the church and the state…it’s so easy, from a thousand years distance, to see that even some of those critiques themselves are bound by the time and culture in which she lived.

But then there are these moments…these holy moments when words seem to literally have dripped from the heavens through her pen, and almost a thousand years later they can soar off the page and explode with power into my soul. 

In these words and moments I see the God I know today; I glimpse the Divine One, beyond time, beyond culture. And there are even times where the power of the words gives me glimpses of yet-unknown facets of our Creator, creating a yearning in me to experience and live in a yet deeper union with God.

Friends, the proverbial “they” are right!

Mystery beckons us this Christmas and always. The mystery of Incarnation, the mystery of union with God lies open before us. May we receive it. May we pursue it. May we be transformed by it.

May we, with humility, acknowledge our own barriers of culture and time which interfere with our judgments of right and wrong, just and unjust. May we acknowledge we may not have it all nailed down. May we let the Divine lift off the page, into our minds and hearts, and may we walk into the ever-deepening unknown intimacy, with Jesus as our guide. 

I’ll close with the words of Catherine of Siena, from the 1300’s, letting her words lead us into a time of open worship:

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Round 2–Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

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The moral of the story is, despite all your yelling over the years, I’m actually decent at seating. The 9, 10, and 11 seeds got the upsets (and the 12 seed almost did), but other than that it held to form.

Here are your new matchups for round 2. Get your votes in by Friday at 5 pm PST, and then get ready to vote in 24 hour blocks to get to the winner. Also, I need your submissions for the best version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Friday at 5 pm PST as well.

#1 Wolves at the Gate

#9 Reawaken

 

#4 Lexington Road

#5 Robbie Seay Band

 

#3 Page CXVI

#11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin

 

#2 Seacoast Worship

#10 Marcy Priest

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus-Bracket Released

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special introduction to this year’s Advent Caroling Madness! Thank you, Jon Curtis Gemeroy!

Advent is beginning, and the season of Advent was created to help us tap into the longing we have for things to be made right and just in the world. This song is a great example of that.

I figure I might as well start with the yelling about my terrible seeding right off the bat. BUT! Let me explain. The line that captures this song for me is: “From our fears and sins release us”. Out of everything I listened to, I think Wolves at the Gate captures that angst and longing the best! So there you go. Commence your “ALL CAPS” yelling at me.

Voting is now open, with a deadline of Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 5 pm PST.

#1 Wolves at the Gate   Jon Curtis Gemeroy nominated this version-it’s not my usual style of music, and certainly not one I associate with Christmas. But as I said above, it captures the angst and longing of this song.

#16 AdoreVictoria   I added this song and the #10 and #15 seed as well, since I only received 13 nominations.

#8 Fernando Ortega   Jennifer Perez and Erin Knoch both nominated Fernando Ortega’s version of this song.

#9 Reawaken     This version was nominated by Margaret Fraser, I think the first time she has participated in Advent Caroling Madness. Thank you!

#5 Robbie Seay Band   Grateful as always for the new music Bethany Bylsma always brings my way through this. And waiting for her yelling when she listens to what I seeded #1.

#12 King’s Kaleidoscope   Jennifer Perez also nominated this unique version, which I enjoyed.

#4 Lexington Road   I really like this one…and maybe should have seeded it even higher. Thanks to Erin Wilson for the nomination!

#13 Voice Male    David Sherwood gave this excellent a cappella version.

#6 Sandra McCracken & Derek Webb    This is another suggestion from Bethany Bylsma. Derek used to be in Caedmon’s Call, and these two were married at the time.

#11 Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin    Jay Thatch submitted this version, and I know one of the artists personally!

#3 Page CXVI   This one also captures the sense of longing. I made Bethany Bylsma face off against herself in this matchup.

#14 Steve Green   Bethany suggested this version, as Steve Green is her “parents’ version of Amy Grant”.

#7 Chris Tomlin   Leah Tenkate nominated this version-a simple, one voice a cappella version for most of it.

#10 Marcy Priest   I found this one to fill a whole in the bracket. I like how it also is a bit angsty in parts.

#2 Seacoast Worship    Beautiful harmonies, well-expressed longing. Love this one from Bethany Bylsma.

#15 Shane and Shane    My Youtube searching brought this one to fill out the bracket.

There you go! Listen to them all, make your votes by Wednesday at 5 pm PST, and then we will launch round 2.

Time for Advent Caroling Madness, 2018!

We are getting close to the Christmas season, and as I already warned my family, I am ALL IN this year. So we are doing things a little differently this year, opening song nomination for all the songs NOW.

The original brainstorm was 5 years ago. It works like this: I choose a Christmas song, and you send me your favorite versions of that song (please try to find it on YouTube, so I can link it so all can listen). Then I set up a bracket like March Madness, and we all vote. Winners advance, and we vote again. Rinse and repeat until we get down to one best version of each song. You can post versions (with links) as comments here, or on my Facebook page, or send by email.

This year, we will be doing three songs. First, a true Advent song, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”. Someone suggested it last year, I’m sorry I don’t remember who.

Second, we will find the best version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, suggested by Sienna Lundeen.

And finally, we will wrap it up with “O Holy Night.”

Here’s what we’ve done in past years:

2013:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel                         The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

Angels We Have Heard on High                    Pentatonix

Joy to the World                                                Aretha Franklin

Original Christmas Song                                 Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant

2014:

Silent Night                                                        Simon & Garfunkel

2015:

Coventry Carol                                                  Assyrian Singers

O Come All Ye Faithful                                     Tasha Cobbs

2016:

Good King Wenceslas                                       Colbert, Patinkin, Stipe

What Child Is This?                                           Andrea Bocelli & Mary J. Blige

Amy Grant Christmas Cheerfest!                   Breath of Heaven

2017:

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear Ella Fitzgerald

The First Noel Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22

So use this Thanksgiving weekend as your entry into Christmas! Send me your best versions of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “I Heard the Bells in Christmas Day,” and “O Holy Night”!

Brackets and voting will begin on December 4. Submissions are due on the following schedule (but the earlier you get them to me, the easier it is as I create the brackets):

Nov. 30: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Dec. 7: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Dec. 14: O Holy Night

Share with your friends! Get the word out! Rock the Vote!

Hadrian’s Wall

It isn’t remarkable to look at, this path I walk atop the stacked stones of Hadrian’s Wall–but it is an ancient border, an historic boundary, a demarcation of Empire. For 1900 years these stones have weathered the ebb and flow of human history.

Telling the story of the wall depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.

On the south side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called barbarians. Just steps behind you, a bathhouse and a granary, barracks and a temple are all the evidence you need to prove your superior civilization. Goods from what are now Spain, Italy, Germany–even spices from as far away as Turkey lie in your fort. It’s remarkable evidence of the travel and trade made possible by the Pax Romana, a peace which you have helped create by your might of arms.

On the south side, Hadrian’s Wall is the boundary of civilization, the last marker of all that is ordered and cultured and superior and good.

But on the north side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called oppressors, aggressors. For three hundred years those Romans have taken your land and ruthlessly killed and punished any of your people who showed any hint of independence. Your Picti and Gaelic culture is also rich, hundreds of years old.

On the north side, Hadrian’s Wall is the sign of theft and aggression, of those who want to eliminate your uniqueness and subjugate you, bending you to their way of life. You know they would kill or enslave you, ripping you from your home and sending you to another wall on another boundary of the empire to be their mercenary soldier.

The sweep of time brings more complexity. Those south of the wall eventually pull back and leave Britannia entirely as the Empire crumbles everywhere. And those to the north discover that even as Hadrian’s Wall wanes as a boundary, the coastline waxes as a new threshold, a new demarcation.

Telling the coastline story also depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.

On the shore, the Picti and Gaelic people see boats of barbarians arriving, pillaging, raping, stealing. But in the boats those Danish Vikings, with their equally rich tradition and culture, see new land in which to live, explore, colonize.

The former “barbarians” now decry new “barbarians” in the never ending us/them chessboard.

Nor does it stop as time marches on: Saxons, Vikings, Normans…wave after wave creating boundary lines and borders that ebb and flow, each side of the boundary telling a different story of the “other”.

I smile grimly and shake my head, realizing that all I’m really doing as I walk this ancient wall is musing on my own version of “history is written by the victors.”

I would imagine if you took a DNA sample from random people in Northern England and Southern Scotland, and sent it in to 23 and Me for genome testing, you’d find that the blood flowing in the veins of many of today’s people comes from those who once stood on opposite sides of the boundary lines. Some people today are the lineage of former enemies many times over through the centuries.

So which side of the boundary…upon which side of the wall do I stand?

Or perhaps a question that interests me more: given all the divides between people and communities, given the divisions and complexities within myself…can I become a person who tries to understand and value the people and the community who live and dream on the other side?

Our world seems to be abandoning that desire to find understanding, as the threat on the other side appears ever greater to us. Some of that threat is real. There are oppressors who come and pillage, who make impossible the best parts of life, the intellect and the arts and family and home. And there are oppressors who suffocate and subjugate with a smile, who enforce conformity to their “civilization” in ways that oppress.

A haunting truth lies rotting behind the veneer of civilized modernity: force and military might make civilization possible. We humans have an ancient history of not living into our best selves. Time has shown again and again that weapons and borders have almost always been required for humans to have the safety and freedom to compose verse, paint frescoes, stage dramas, create art. Whether it is Hadrian’s Wall backed by Roman broadsword, cannons fueled by gunfire, or Trident missiles on submarines, this is the world as we experience it.

I confess I have been naive enough in the past to not open my eyes to that truth. But even looking it in the face, I do not have to make the way of the world my way of living. As a Christian who follows Jesus, the one born as an outsider to Empire and who died crucified under Empire power, I believe I must not.

Christianity crumbles when wedded with empire, as the church wields power to civilize, colonize, evangelize. Fear of the barbarian or infidel is stoked to flame, leading the church to compromise the values demonstrated by the one who took up the cross. The examples could fill a gruesome book: Constantine, the Crusades, Reformation purging, Jim Crow, American Evangelicalism in the world of Trump.

Listen to the rhetoric, the language used for any outside the wall. Listen to the embrace of the word “Nationalist”. Listen to all the words focused on fear, on doing anything to stop those who would bring any change to civilization as we know it. Listen to the dehumanization done in order to justify the bloody-handed exchange, the exchange which gives the government permission to do the dirty work of exclusion and eradication of those who are feared–all for the perceived greater good of protecting the civilization behind the wall. It is compromise with the Empire.

Are we surprised a literal wall was the talking point of the 2016 election, surprised that sending more than 15,000 troops to the border is what we see in the 2018 election cycle? He stokes the fires of fear well, and draws the church into the chains of empire with illusions and promises of power.

I embody many markers of privilege (male, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, educated, owner of my home…not to mention someone with the ability to easily travel and walk Hadrian’s Wall and spend time reflecting and writing). Those who live under systemic injustice and oppression have never had the luxury of being naive about the way the world works. With an intrinsic and daily understanding of oppressive power, the desire to wield worldly power for good must be strong.

For myself, I do see the injustice within every empire, within every power structure, within every grouping of “us”. I also see the history of humanity’s greed and destruction in the chaos that comes when there is no structure to try and bring a check to power. I see both systems and persons in need of transformation, which keeps me from both utopian liberalism and simplistic personal piety as the answers to our human dilemma. I see no ultimate hope in trying to enforce our incomplete picture of justice on the world; to do so, without succumbing to the dangers of power and Empire, does not seem to be within humanity’s grasp. Using power to enforce justice warps and mars the end goal. Can we change the power structures without force? With sadness, I confess I see no hope that those in power will simply hand over the reins to the marginalized, just because we convince them it is the right and just thing to do.

Evidently the winds of Northumbria can dampen the spirits of even this eternal optimist.

I yearn for the needed transformation–transformation of both persons and structures.

I ache for the moral arc of the universe to hurry up already with its bend toward justice.

Though I sometimes push back against the demands of the cross, push back against surrender and sacrifice and the difficulty of laying down my power for the sake of the marginalized…deep down I believe it to be the way of transformation. I believe it can be a bulwark against my temptation to misuse privileged power, to be corrupted by it.

Though I sometimes anguish and rage and question why Jesus told Peter to put away the sword in the garden, why he didn’t call down legions of angels, why he submitted to unjust power instead of use it for good…deep down I recognize and respect the thread of consistency that runs from Christ’s temptations in the desert all the way through to the way he laid down his life.

And ultimately, my embrace of a faith with prophetic imagination to resist both Empire and the tools of Empire is a humble kneeling before the mystery of the Gospel. It is a bedrock of trust that Christian faith at its core is trust in Creator God’s redemptive, resurrection power. It is a recognition that only something beyond the ability of even the best of corporate humanity, only something outside of ourselves, will ultimately bring justice.

I still believe through my aches and questions that it is not within our power or grasp to bring justice and peace. We are powerless to make the waves of justice roll completely. There is a paradox woven into the heart of creation by which evil is overcome by yielding, not by grasping power.

Is there a place for action, for human agency? I can see clear paths to what might be called prophetic witness, acts which bring oppression and injustice and compromise with Empire out of the darkness and into the light. The paths to prophetic action, for me, are more challenging. I see the errors clearly, and the healthy part seems difficult to discern. The error on one side is for inaction to be complicit with injustice. The error on the other is to become a similar oppressor to the one I am trying to resist. I’m not advocating inaction in this embrace of yielding or submission. Rather, I long for the true transformation that I believe can come through following Christ’s example–resisting the temptation to use power for good and discovering a greater resurrection power on the other side.

It is not my place to expect that the oppressed will yield or submit. It is my place to yield myself, and to wait for a Power outside myself to transform me, redeem me, resurrect me. That life-giving, transforming, indwelling power of the resurrected Jesus is what makes my needed transformation possible, and grafts me into connection with others, a redeemed community who are the hands and feet of Jesus in this aching world today. The yielded ones who then are brought close to each other, who are joined with Christ, who experience God’s resurrection power in them to bring transformation to structures and society, incomplete though it may be.

This upside-down, illogical craziness is why it’s called a faith journey. And it is why the church is so easily and insidiously corrupted by the hard logic of Empire.

As I walk the wall, thinking of the ebb and flow of boundaries, recognizing the upside-down, illogical craziness of laying down sword and knocking down stones to understand those on other side…the thought occurs to me that Incarnation and Resurrection have their mysterious link. Out of desire to understand and know us, God laid aside power, went to the other side of the wall, and was vulnerably born into the margins. The Incarnation itself crosses boundaries rather than building walls. The act of drawing near in order to connect with humanity required the risk of laying aside power.

The God who set aside and risked all in order to draw near to humanity, the God who laid aside power, is the same God in whom a greater resurrection power rose up. That resurrection power now ushers in a new way of being for all creation. It is an outside-of-creation power to beat swords into plowshares. To make justice roll down like mighty waters. To bend the moral arc of the universe.

As I try and mold my life after Jesus, I will keep trying to remember the humanity of those on the other side, without discounting the reality of the need for some boundaries and walls for safety. I’ll ask for wisdom, insight, and courage to find humanity in all people as I resist the temptation to make the other “barbarian.” I’ll work to not misuse power as I take actions of prophetic witness. And I will hope for resurrection power to bring about my transformation and the transformation of unjust structures in this world.

Self-reinforcing Cycles

(Content warning: description of disclosure of sexual abuse.)

Her words hung there, between us, naked and vulnerable, the long years of secrecy and darkness seeming to still cling to them, weighing them down. I use hung there as a flawed metaphor; something that is so laden with weight can’t really float between us. No, they made their inevitable journey, sinking deep into the pits of my inside, churning, the bile beginning to rise to my throat as I tried to take in the horrific details of her sexual abuse.

“I had no idea,” were (I think) the words which escaped my mouth. This is nearly twenty years ago, and I was recoiling from something so beyond my experience, so out of my frame of reference at the time. I knew the reputation of the man who did this to her, his “upstanding character” and his “service to the Lord.” I believed her, I believed the weight now turning my intestines topsy-turvy. But the cognitive dissonance as my brain tried to find some handle to hold things together was overwhelming.

She saw my surprise, saw I hadn’t ever had to wrestle with this kind of assault. “My story is common, even if you haven’t heard it,” she said. “We are cautious, you know, about sharing. We test. We take small risks, and when responses tell us it isn’t safe, we clam up.”

And then: “I’ve been testing you for months, to see if I could trust you with this.”

I don’t think I understood all that at the time, but that last line stayed with me. I thought back to other past conversations. Like a dawning revelation, I could see how I had shut down other wounded people, how I had sent the desperate, frightened, wary turtle back into the safety of the shell.

“Oh, he’s a good guy, you must have misunderstood,” I had said when someone told me how someone gave her a scary vibe. “Why did she stay with him,” I had said, as a friend and I spoke about another friend who we knew had been physically abused. Before we were anywhere close to a moment where these friends might have revealed their own darkest pain, I had already failed the test. I had already demonstrated I would question their assessment of the character of another person. I signaled how I would question their choices and imply blame.

Now that I had begun to understand how abuse survivors are so attuned to the words, body language, and tone of others, I started watching what I said all the time, and began changing my responses. I started looking for any “trial balloons” that people were intentionally floating past me, and doing my best to respond in a way that would show I would listen, that they were safe to share with me, that I wanted abuse to stop.

The floodgates opened.

Survivors are everywhere. I hate how common the gut-churning stories are.

Our church faced a lawsuit over a decades-old sexual abuse case. I had to fight my strong desire to defend us, and instead publicly spoke my concern for the plaintiff. In the following months, I ended up hearing the stories of others who also claimed they were abused by the same person. The experience showed me how abuse can be silenced for decades.

If I had defended our reputation, I’m convinced none of those people would have come to me. And abuse survivors need to be heard. Their stories need to be told and brought into the light for healing, for justice, and for the pain to lose some of its power.

I’m trying to share how my understanding of the world I live in has changed, how I saw ways that my actions and words were keeping others from sharing their pain. My perception of reality is now different because abuse survivors have been brave enough to disclose to me, and have helped me learn how to behave and speak in ways that then invite more disclosure. It’s become a self-reinforcing cycle.

And this is my fear on this day where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke her naked, vulnerable words, the years of darkness and secrecy clinging to them and weighing them down, as they (somehow) float there in front of us all. My fear is that we are all in opposite self-reinforcing cycles.

For us who’ve walked this road (ourselves or with others), it all fits with the world we now live in, the one where our eyes have been opened and our hearts are filled at times with despair. This is the world where abuse happens, where perpetrators so often get away with it, where it’s so hard to risk revealing it, where we see with crystal clarity that if you do disclose, the questions and doubts and the character assassination will overwhelm.

For others, it just doesn’t fit the world we live in, because no one we know talks with us about these experiences, because we haven’t heard the fear and careful weighing that goes into disclosing, because all we see are the public personas of abusers that are so often carefully and meticulously managed.

I’m not an abuse survivor, and I’ve been walking in a funk for days. I can’t imagine what it is like for those who are.

Why do I write this?

I think I write to try and help people see that the things said about this particular high profile case are being carefully observed and weighed by abuse survivors around us, the ones who are still silently holding their pain. The questions, the doubts, the excuses are causing more and more survivors to decide never to trust others with their experience. And if your words are such that they see you as unsafe to share with, you will then live in a world where you don’t see up close the abuse in this world. A self-reinforcing cycle.

I think I write to ask you to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that abusers, very often, have public lives that look amazing (which they have carefully and skillfully created and maintained).

I think I write to share my own grief, rage, and despair at how common it is for abuse survivors to keep having to relive their own trauma as others are questioned, doubted, and discredited over their experience.

I think I write so that we all (myself included) will open our eyes to the self-reinforcing cycles we live in, that we all will listen to the experiences of others; listen, more than prepare our defense or our explanation for how that doesn’t make sense.

May we work together to create a world where it is safer for abuse survivors to share their stories, and more importantly, may we work together to create a world where people stop abusing others.

Pursuing the Pursuing God

(Message given at Newberg Emerging Friends Church on July 15, 2018)

Tonight I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love! 

This has been at my core for so long. 

I believe it with all my heart, and it’s how I have oriented my life for decades. God’s real and healing presence is what got me through the last several years, and I am so grateful. I can’t imagine a life for myself where I didn’t orient my life around Christ.

And yet I also know this is not everyone’s experience. It’s not just those of you sitting in this room that are on my mind as I speak tonight. I’m also thinking about many people for whom God’s presence has been distant or absent, for whom the experiences of life and community have broken any ability to speak similar words of faith and trust in God.

I grieve this. I grieve the way church pain has tainted how some see and experience God. And I have been frustrated for a very long time that, while I have had many long years of what are to me clear experiences of the living God, there is the inexplicable truth that some who have tried have not had that same experience.

And of course I, too, have had times where God seemed distant, absent, and frustratingly impotent to fix what I was experiencing. My guess is that’s that’s the case for most of us. It’s not just that some people experience God and some don’t, but rather that our own experience of God…or lack thereof…changes and varies over time.

There are times where the power and overwhelming beauty of the presence of God is tangibly, touchably real; and there are times where we are overwhelmed with disappointment and disillusionment, with apathy and anger, because our experience seems so out of touch from the God we’ve been taught to know. 

I want to experiment with something tonight, and if it totally bombs, oh well.

Take a second to think about the times in your life where it feels like praying is yelling into emptiness, when trying to find comfort from God feels futile. What’s that feel like? What words describe it?

I want to ask you to pull out your phone and use that to participate and give input tonight. My hope is trying a new mechanism will let more people participate than just the ones who are comfortable yelling things out.

We’ll see if this works. Use your browser to go to that website, menti.com, and enter that code. You should then see my question and three boxes to type in words and then submit. You don’t have to fill them all, you can do one or two or three and hit submit, and then you can do it again as many times as you want. What words describe what it feels like when God feels absent? 

As we all submit our words, this will update in real time in a sort of word cloud. I think of this like a community spiritual practice, a group creation of art, that we are working on together. You may even want to look on the screen, and if you see a word that resonates with you, go ahead and enter it yourself and those multiple responses will make the word grow larger. 

Go ahead and keep thinking and participating while I keep talking. It will be an organic part of the teaching tonight that will keep building.

[Here is what we created:]

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In May I was sitting over there during open worship thinking about this dilemma: if God wants to be known, why do some of us experience God’s presence and some don’t? 

And the Spirit pushed me to wrestle with Cain and Abel, and how their story connects to this idea. Strange, I know! But I hope this strange place can be fertile ground… even if it is the story of the first murder on human record. Turn with me to Genesis 4.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering–fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

(Genesis 4:1-5, TNIV)

It’s the end of verse 4 and beginning of verse 5 that really cause problems for me.

God choosing Abel over Cain is the part that’s difficult for me. 5 or 6 years ago, it got worse when I read Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite scholars, saying that there is no good reason given in the text that shows Abel did anything more deserving than Cain. Wow…does that mean God just arbitrarily chooses one human over another? Maybe Brueggemann, as much as I like him, got this one wrong.

But I found most scholars think the same. In other places in the Old Testament, people offer grain offerings just like Cain and they are accepted by God. He didn’t do anything wrong.

Both brothers are trying to worship and experience God. 

And what they find is that it works for one, and not for the other, and we don’t know why. It’s the same dilemma I have as I look around our world. Why is it that some of us experience the pursuing, healing, justice-seeking love of God, while others…others who are trying just the same…simply don’t?

Let’s try another question, just for fun: Lately, is your experience of God more like Cain, more like Abel…or neither? Pull out your phones and let’s see what we get while I keep talking.

I’ve started trying out a new approach to interpreting the bible, particularly Old Testament passages like this one that really seem to rub against how the wider arc of the bible describes the character of God.

We believe the bible to be inspired by God, and written in the words of human authors, human authors bound by time and cultural blinders. I’ve begun wondering whether statements like this which describe God’s interior thoughts and will, might be more from the human cultural worldview than from the divine inspiration part. What if the Israelites assigned motives to God in the text that really aren’t accurate to who God is?

This, for instance, is how I am able to stomach the genocide that takes place with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. That horrible action did happen, but perhaps the Israelites chose that path for themselves out of fear, and then assigned the command to God as a way to justify it. The bible still is reliable and helpful for how humans and God interact in the world, but maybe the authors didn’t always fully understand God’s inner thoughts. Maybe they even projected their own stuff on God.

If we try this out here in Genesis 4, how does it all play out?

What if the human author was a bit presumptuous in saying God looked in favor on Abel and not in favor on Cain? What if we just wrestle with the experience here? Two people do their best to experience God, and it works out well for one, while the other is left empty and feeling God’s absence.

That opens up some intriguing possibilities for us. Before Cain was the murderer, Cain was someone who tried to experience God and came up empty. Like some of us. Like the tension I’m wrestling with as I look at our community and the world.

How does the rest of the story play out if we try this way of looking at it? Let’s keep going.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’

(Genesis 4:6-7, TNIV)

Now God shows up directly!

Whatever happened with the sacrifice, whatever didn’t get through to Cain…now we have God interacting with Cain in a very direct way. The one who felt God’s absence experienced a more direct encounter. God pursues Cain and offers a clear choice to him. 

I think there were times earlier in my life where I read these verses in a way that sounded like this: “Why are you angry Cain? If you had done what was right, wouldn’t I have accepted your offering?” I think I read it that way because, if God really did choose Abel over Cain, if the author was right about God’s internal thinking, then my sense of justice requires that Cain must have done something wrong.

But look at what it actually says. It’s not past tense. In fact, it’s more future. It’s an intervention, an option, a truth about what can be ahead for Cain even after the encounter with the sacrifice didn’t go as Cain wished.

God shows up with a promise, and a warning. The promise is that even now, even though your attempt to engage me has felt empty to you, I still want to walk with you. The warning is, these times of spiritual struggle are ripe times for us to be pulled to unhealthy and even evil things.

Even in this story, I see the same God I described earlier…

…which lets me stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice-seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love! 

I don’t know why Cain’s worship experience didn’t go well.

Nor do I know why some seem to experience God’s grace and presence in all kinds of ways while others feel like their prayers bounce back off the ceiling. But I do believe in this God, who shows up to an angry, downcast, frustrated Cain and says: Do what’s right and I’m there. Evil things pull at you, want to pull you away from me, but you can fight it and find me. I’m not giving up on you.

But of course Cain doesn’t take God’s advice.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’

Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’
But the LORD said to him, ‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

(Genesis 4:8-15, TNIV)

Here is a perfect example of the injustice in the world that makes our hearts ache. Cain has made the horrible choice and committed the injustice. And still God pursues him. God identifies first with the one who suffered injustice (“Where is your brother Abel?”). But God is still pursuing Cain, God even protects Cain when the consequences feel too great. God’s mark of protection rests on Cain, despite his choices, despite what Cain has done. 

Here is the pursuing God, despite injustice, despite what we’ve done!

Even in the story of the first murder, even in horror, even in pain and broken family and community, we find God pursuing, guiding, and even protecting people who give in to the sin and evil “crouching at their door.”

Sometimes it has felt to me that the experiences we have gone through as a community in the last few years have given only the Abel and Cain options. Either people are unjustly destroyed despite their faithfulness, like Abel; or people feel God’s absence and stop pursuing God, and find themselves like Cain, struggling in a far and distant country.

But I think there are other paths to walk and to live besides these two extremes. Because God is always there, because God pursues us, because God wants to live in relationship with us no matter what happens…I still choose to respond as faithfully as I can to this pursuing God.

As clearly as I can say it, I don’t want to shame those who are disillusioned and tired and unable to engage with God or community.

I don’t want to put “shoulds” upon you.

And, I also don’t want to fail to share my own commitment to take actions to pursue God through the struggle of the past few years. I don’t want to fail to share the reward it has brought to my life.

I have found, through God’s grace dropped in my lap; through discipline, through trial and error…I have found a different, more raw, more earthy faith. In my failure and my brokenness I have found the real presence of this living, pursuing, healing, justice-seeking God. And it has sustained me and remade me.

When I hear God’s words to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” I no longer hear them as condemnation, as expectation, as something I must live up to or find God’s rejection. I hear them as God’s promise of God’s pursuing nature that will not let me go. I hear them as encouragement to turn to God in and through my struggle and pain, in and through the times of feeling God is absent, and find a resource of strength.

I made choices in the most challenging moments of the last few years to stop and to pray and to pour out my anguish and fear to God.

I made choices to ask the Spirit to empower me to act in ways I knew Jesus taught–to repay evil with kindness, to forgive as I have been forgiven. I made choices to try and do what is right…not out of fear of being rejected, but because I so desperately needed the experience of God’s promised presence.

I keep reading the bible, even when my experiences aren’t matching what I am reading. I keep naming my desires and my grief to God. Recently I have searched for, prayed, and mediated on prayers from the ancient church as a practice of spiritual help for myself. I keep doing what I can to pursue this God who I believe pursues me.

And for me…as I step back and I remember, I realize that God’s Spirit has been an ever-present help in time of need. I realize that for me, the Jesus I read about in the bible matches what I experience of God today. I realize that in an inseparable way, God’s pursuit of me and MY actions to seek and follow Christ have woven together into a bedrock of strength and peace that is beyond my efforts, beyond my experiences.

As I see the pain that is in our community and our world–some from the church stuff, and of course all kinds of things outside of it–my heart still breaks and my eyes still well with tears. But more than ever before, I still long with all my heart for everyone to find Christ as a bedrock of strength and peace, too. I pray for it and work for it.

This is why, tonight…

I stand with millions of Jesus-followers throughout the centuries, joining with them to remind us that the Creator of the Universe wants to be known, and is a living, pursuing, healing, and justice seeking presence in our world. I believe this to be true, despite the injustice that makes our hearts ache; despite what I’ve done and what I’ve failed to do; despite what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do. God pursues you and me with a transforming love!

May this God be your bedrock and strength too. May it begin right now in our time of open worship.

Risking Community

I still grieve over the pain so many feel after years of church turmoil. Uprooted, displaced, hopes raised and then dashed, confused, unsure, frustrated, angry, lost, lonely, questioning, doubting, sad, disillusioned, powerless, let down…and grieving. 

I’ve wrestled with whether or not to write this. I was in leadership and part of what has created this landscape. But that’s also a big part of why I care. There are so many I love who haven’t found community because they still see a lack of safety for the marginalized. There are ones I love at NEFC. There are ones I love at NFC. There are ones I love who don’t have any sense of a community and may think no one even misses them or notices them. I hold so many of your faces up to Jesus on a regular basis because so many of you are in my mind and heart. 

Part of being in community, part of creating a faith community, is to share our journeys. I’m trying to continue to share some of mine, and I hope others will share some of theirs.

Even while I was pastor of one of the most institutional of institutional churches for 15 years, I was very conflicted about institutions. I spent the first 4 years genuinely confused why I ended up there, when my mind, heart, and spirit were asking so many questions. And then, I spent almost a decade watching the benefits of it all for my kids, as so many others spoke into their lives and shaped their own faith. I came to an uneasy acceptance of institutions and their benefits alongside all their pitfalls and dangers. 

Community sounds so much better than an institution. But practically, they are so intertwined. Communities become institutions and institutions create communities, and there is intentionality and unintentionality going both directions. I don’t know how to separate them except in the theoretical sense. Individuals create systems, and systems shape individuals, and again some of it is intentional and some is unintentional, some is for the better, some is for the worse. Human history tells us we cannot be guaranteed to only do things for the better. God help us all, and I mean that as a very literal prayer.

I’ve experienced and wrestled and learned a lot over the last year. I am so grateful that Jesus has been so tangibly real to me that I have never once thought of chucking my faith. I’d be glad to talk about those experiences with anyone. 

For months last summer, I had no regular faith community. I visited communities, but it was always clear I was not a part. I ached to be with people. Even with all my anger and hurt over institutional junk and people who had hurt, it was worse to be alone. I had to do (and I am still doing) so much work to name my grief, my hurts, my guilt, my fear, my desire to hurt, my defensiveness, my disappointment that God wasn’t guiding me as clearly as others. I did (and am still doing) this work in therapy, journalling, praying, crying, reading, and over lunches or coffee with safe people. Bringing this stuff to God has led me to keep trying to be in community with others, and to let it be what it is, instead of what it used to be, or what I wish it would be.

When I look around, there is still so much hurt that needs to be processed. There are still real differences in philosophy about how to build community. Some see how much needs to radically change so that those who have been marginalized can truly be safe and have agency, and so want to go slowly to build it correctly. Some see the damage having no community can bring, and want to do what they can to build something as safely as possible. I hate that these differences are still causing damage to our relationships and our communities. I don’t have a solution.

For myself, I’m choosing to still risk trying community, imperfect and dangerous and full of potential hurt as it is. 

I’m trying to regularly practice spiritual disciplines to give the Spirit every possible chance to call me to repentance, to give me love for others that I don’t have in myself, to have God’s love move through me outward. 

I’m trying to take actions that are consistent with what Jesus did, recognizing that my actions and my use of my power and privilege not only affect others, they shape who I am becoming. 

Because I’ve watched others disappoint me, because I’ve seen my own mistakes, I continue to remind myself I might be wrong and that even my desire for justice can lead me to harmful actions. I believe the way forward is to cultivate submission to Jesus through active testing of my leadings (in other words, not sitting passively, and not acting impulsively). 

I’m trying to risk reaching out to others, even as I fear that others won’t give what I need. I’m good at self-centered fears.

And I keep naming and releasing my hurt, my guilt, my frustration, etc. etc., asking God to take our ashes and make them beautiful.