BE a neighbor

*Consider the ugly-beautiful story of Sarah and Hagar.

First, the UGLY.

-Sarah, wife of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, has multiple hardships, most of them the result simply of the patriarchal system of her time and place:

  • She’s had to leave her home–twice–and wander for many years as a nomad.
  • One time during her and her husband’s wanderings, Abraham sold her into a king’s harem in order to protect his own skin (he actually did this twice, but the second time happened after the Sarah-Hagar story).
  • Sarah is barren, a mark of deep shame in the Ancient Near East. She is unable to bear her husband the son God has promised to him.

-Sarah, despite her shame and very limited power as a woman, DOES have the authority of being the “owner” of a slave maid named Hagar, and she uses this power to sexually exploit Hagar. She “gives” the slave woman to Abraham with the hope that Hagar will get pregnant and be a surrogate mother.

-Hagar does get pregnant and suddenly realizes she has an advantage over her barren mistress. Hagar, not Sarah, is bearing the master’s child. So Hagar uses her newfound power and lords it over Sarah.

-Sarah, who IS still the mistress, complains to Abraham, and he tells her she can do whatever she wants with Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar to the point that pregnant Hagar runs away.

Now for the BEAUTIFUL!

-God protects both women in this story.

  • He rescued Sarah from the king’s harem (and God will do it again when Abraham “sells” her off a second time), and God eventually names Sarah as a co-partner in the promise of a son–meaning Abraham is no longer free to discard her.
  • God comes to Hagar in the wilderness after she runs away, gives her her own promise of many, many descendants, and tells her she’s carrying a son (a BIG power play card in her relationship with Abraham and Sarah). With this power play card, God sends her back to the safest place possible for a vulnerable, pregnant, unmarried woman. Hagar feels so known by God that she calls God “the God who sees her.”

-God, who is so often named as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reveals himself to be most assuredly the God of Sarah and Hagar as well. He is well aware of the struggles of their lives. He sees them. He knows their point of view.

One of my favorite lines in To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement lawyer Atticus Finch makes to his young daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

In the incarnation, God went beyond knowing people’s skins and souls as their Creator. He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it’s important to consider the exact skin God put on. It wasn’t skin that would be protected by money or privilege. No. The Son of God put on the vulnerable flesh of the baby of two poor people who had to flee violence in their hometown and live as immigrants in a far-off country. And when he was grown and clearly had the power to control the weather and drive out demons and raise the dead back to life, he hung out not with cultured, authoritative people but with fishermen and tax collectors and women–some of them the lowest of the low. 

The skin God chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloth happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the poor.

The skin God chose was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the powerless.

The skin God chose was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the refugee and immigrant.

The skin God chose was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the illegitimate.

The skin God chose grew rough and calloused.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the working poor.

The skin God chose often lay itself down on the ground to sleep at night and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the flesh of the homeless.

The skin God chose was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the flesh of prisoners.

The skin God chose was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the flesh of all those forced to expose themselves to others. 

In the story of the Good Samaritan (which we heard today in our Gospel reading), the teacher of the law had spent plenty of time studying the Scripture. He knew what the Law said was the way to live eternally with God. But Jesus didn’t tell him to go around quoting the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” or to spend more time praying. Jesus re-framed the definition of neighbor. He re-framed the teacher’s question. The teacher asked, “Who is MY neighbor; who am I required to love?” Jesus ignored that–because the answer is simple: it’s everyone. Instead, Jesus gave a charge, “Go and do as the Samaritan did. Go and love as a neighbor to all people.” 

I know that the status of immigrants coming into this country has become a political issue, but it is not primarily a political issue for the church. It is a neighbor issue. And I know that we can disagree on different political stances in the church in the United States, but I think we ignore this issue at our peril as followers of Jesus. I think we do damage to the neighbor heart God is planting and expanding within us. I am pretty sure Joseph and Mary didn’t have their papers in order when they entered Egypt, and Jesus doesn’t mention the strangers in Matthew 25 having to present the proper documents in order to be welcomed. I’m not advocating a particular stance; I don’t know enough to. What I do know is that there is no way I can preach on this passage without bringing up the current status of undocumented immigrants and refugees in this country. 

Friday night I was at a Lights for Liberty prayer vigil in Humboldt Park, praying for migrants in detention, for separated families, and for people in this country who are facing deportation. It was hosted by a church in Humboldt Park, and we gathered in a fenced-in parking lot next to the church. As I listened to local pastors and a state representative pray and speak, I noticed a sign attached to the fence next to me. It had this picture on it, the picture of Yazmin Juárez with her daughter, Mariee. The two left Guatemala and sought asylum in the U.S. and were held at a detention center in Texas. While there, Mariee became sick. After Yazmin and Mariee were released, Yazmin and her mother took Mariee to a pediatrician, and Mariee was immediately admitted to a nearby hospital and diagnosed with a lung infection. She died in the hospital. Yazmin blames improper medical care, “terrible and inadequate” living conditions, and a culture of neglect at the migrant holding facilities for her daughter’s health.

Yazmin testified before House lawmakers and said, “I am here today because the world needs to know what is going on in ICE detention centers.” 

 As I stood next to the picture and read the brief bio of Yazmin and Mariee, I immediately thought of Hagar–Hagar fleeing with her child in her womb. I knew that God saw Yazmin and Mariee, and I, a follower of God, didn’t have the choice, standing next to their picture on the fence, to not see them as well. God sees each and every person held in a detention center; he collects the tears of every parent and child separated from each other; he hears the whispered prayers of those fearing deportation. 

 Last night our family got food from our favorite taco joint. It’s straight up Laramie Avenue from us, in south Belmont Cragin. Right next to the register was a little stack of cards with a sign. The sign, in Spanish, read, “Know your rights. Take a card.”  The cards have instructions for what to do if ICE comes to the door. 

The student population at the school where my husband teaches is about 60% Latino. At times in the last couple years, the school has had to bring in grief counselors because the stress about deportation among students has spiked so high. People in our communities are afraid. No matter what their U.S. citizenship status is, Jesus calls them our neighbors. Jesus calls US their neighbors. 

 I’m not saying that the story of Hagar and Sarah or the parable of the Good Samaritan or Matthew 25 holds all the answers as to the stance each of us should take on immigration in this country. I know it’s very complex. But these passages reveal the heart and actions of our God, and they give us a charge as to what we are to DO. “Go be a neighbor!” Jesus tells us. And we’d better not be neighbors only to the Abrahams of the world or even to the Sarahs of the world. We are neighbors to the Hagars of the world, to the beat-up stranger on the side of the road, to the despised Samaritan, to the fleeing Josephs and Marys with infants in arms.

God’s tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when we remember that societies, by and large, have never valued people like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is merely one of those peripheral, powerless people who never become anyone “worth” knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, and speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.

“Which of the three,” Jesus asked, “was a neighbor to the man unseen by people but seen by God?” 

“The one who showed him mercy,” the teacher answered.

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” 

*The post is part of a sermon I preached in our church’s Genesis: Stories of Redemption series. The poem in the middle of this post is a revision of a blog I wrote and posted a couple years ago. 

 

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Trinity Class, posts 1 and 2

Hello everyone, I’m in a class on the Trinity right now, and one of our assignments is to post our reading reflections on Instagram. Since they’re already being written for public viewing, I’m going to also post them here. I’m super new to Instagram, so bear with me as I adjust to the 2,200 character limit! Blessings, Jen.

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The following quote is from Experiencing the Trinity by Darrell W. Johnson

“The God who is ‘us’ draws near to us so that ‘us’ can draw us into the circle of his ‘us-ness.’ The God who is Trinity draws near to you and me and draws you and me near to himself, so that you and I can participate in the life within the circle of the Trinity. …

What are the dynamics of this Relationship at the center of the universe?

The good news is the answer is not a total mystery. … For the Second Person of the Trinity has come to earth and taken on our earthliness, clothing himself in our flesh and blood. And, as one of us, he lives out, in human form, the dynamics of life within the circle of God’s knowing of himself. When we read the New Testament gospels we are reading the revelation of what goes on within the Trinity!” (from Experiencing the Trinity by Darrell W. Johnson, copyright 2002 by Regent College Publishing, page 77)

It is midway through January, and the Christmas tree, the garland, the lights are back in the storage closet.

But Nativity sets are still scattered throughout my house—a couple of them on my kitchen counter, one on a shelf in my living room, another on the piano. They will stay up all year long as reminders of the God who is Emmanuel, who is God with us, who so longed for us know him that the Son took on flesh and entered our broken, human story to reveal the true, full story of Life with God. He quickened a longing in our hearts for this full story, made a way for us to enter it, and is ever and always holding out an invitation to be drawn into the circle of the Trinity and know what life abundant truly is.

In the pages following the above quote, Johnson writes about seven words that, for him, “express the essential dynamics of the Life within the circle of the ‘Us.’” He chose these words: Intimacy, Joy, Servanthood, Purity, Power, Creativity, Peace. These are all revealed in the stories of the Nativity, in the life of the Son who in his living, loving, dying, and living again and always communicates to us—in ways we can grasp—the intimacy, joy, servanthood, purity, power, creativity, and peace of the Trinity. And through the grace of the Son, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Spirit, you and I—we—us—are being brought into that Life.

And so, to remind me to enter into and to celebrate this Life, the Nativity sets stay up.

True Worship, True Mission

A couple weeks ago I “told” Isaiah 6:2-8 for the ordination service of a young pastor.

It’s a dramatic passage.

Isaiah tells the story in first person. “I saw the Lord!” he writes, and if he were writing today he might have used several exclamation points and a couple of emoji’s. Even without them, his excitement is clear. He sees the Lord sitting on a throne above the temple. The long train of his robe fills the temple, and six-winged seraphs fly above him, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”

At the sound of their voices, the temple shakes and fills with smoke, and suddenly Isaiah is overcome! “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips—and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Ah! One glimpse of the Lord and he is undone.

I understand this. It makes perfect sense to me. I imagine that if I got a single clear sighting of the Lord in full power and beauty—thereby seing how very, very small and inglorious I am in comparison—I would be flattened to the floor. I, too, would cry out, “Woe is me!” (or the 21st century equivalent).

But what comes next amazes me—and I imagine it surprised Isaiah as well.

Immediately after his cry, one of the seraphs flies to him, bearing a burning coal the seraph plucked from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with the live coal and tells him, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Wait? What? Just like that? Without major groveling, without a lecture, without a big deal being made of it, Isaiah is simply declared clean and worthy to stand in the presence of God?!

It’s over-the-top goodness! It’s God being the restorative, loving God he is—without any fanfare or hype.

In previous readings of this passage this graciousness of God was what jumped out at me most; the speed at which he restored Isaiah and his deep sensitivity to Isaiah’s cry.

But there is more to this story. God doesn’t dwell on Isaiah’s restoration; He moves straight ahead to the business at hand. He has messages He wants spoken to the people of Israel, and so He asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And Isaiah, rather than feeling shy or rendered speechless by answering a question posed by God himself (both fairly “normal” reactions, in my mind), answers right away. “Here am I; send me!” He’s excited. He’s bold and passionate and ready to go.

As I prepared to “tell” this passage at the ordination, I was struck by Isaiah’s willingness for mission, and I examined what led to his willingness.

It was worship and the sheer graciousness of God that inspired Isaiah!

Isaiah saw the glory of God. He heard the seraphs proclaim the holiness and glory of the Lord. He worshiped the Lord, acknowledging him as King and himself as lowly and unclean before Him.

And this worship led him to mission.

Just yesterday I read an article titled “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” It’s written by J. Todd Billings, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (I just added his latest book, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table, to “Jen’s wish list” on my husband’s Amazon page). In this article Billings pushes back a bit on the “kingdom work” focus of many theologians today. He’s not discounting or even de-emphasizing the “kingdom work” focus on the truth that “(r)edemption restores God’s good creation” or even that all Christians are called to embrace “kingdom work” in the here and now. But he is suggesting that in emphasizing the individual kingdom work(s) we are called to in the here and now, we are in danger of losing “a cosmic view of God’s work in restoring the whole creation.” In other words, a “kingdom work” focus, too, can be twisted into individualism, into a focus on what we are doing rather than on God’s great work for us. “The central question,” writes Billings, “is … what drama will we be incorporated into? If this is our question, we find our acting instructions in receiving God’s Word in worship exalting Christ our Lord…”

I see this question at work in Isaiah’s encounter with God. He sees God, high and holy. He sees and hears the seraphs worshiping God, and he gains a clear view of himself and his unworthiness. As soon as he is restored, this grace, coupled with the grandeur of God, propels him into God’s work! He doesn’t even know exactly what he is being sent out to do, he just says, “Here I am! Send me!”

Worship comes first.

Mission follows.

It makes me think, then, that the two MUST go together. Mission that has any other starting point than worship could very well unravel into nothing more than personal activism. Equally troubling is worship that never leads to mission, that never leads to a willingness to say, no matter what is asked, “Here I am! Send me!” If there is one without the other, then that one must be examined, for there is good reason to believe it is not true.

For true worship leads to true mission.

And we need both.

 

Perichoresis

Our little lives, our little minds

So easily focused on the me, mine,

Sometimes expanded to the we, ours

But so prone to “other” others,

To “they” them—keep at arm’s length,

Outside the inclusive circle.

At times we can step closer with “you,”

But we are most comfortable with its

Imperative and accusative forms,

And, ultimately, “me” trumps all.

And so our mind boggles at the Holy Dance

Of Father, Son, Spirit—

“I, you, we” embraced.

Mutual dance, distinct and one,

A glorious mystery.

Deeper secret still—that the perichoresis,

Without disruption to its perfect sphere,

Extends hands to us, and when,

Compelled by the gift of the Spirit within,

We respond, we are pulled into the dance,

Into abiding, into embrace,

Into partaking the nature of God.

In this we are consumed yet made whole,

In this we enter into choreographed freedom.

And we learn that what we thought merely ethereal

Is True, is Real.

For this the Son put on flesh:

That we might know Father, Son, Spirit,

our beautifully dancing God,

That we, drawn in, may see all as “we,”

And paradoxically discover—

In the giving of “I” to “us”—

That the “me” is best known.

manna and muffins

Last week a friend sat in my kitchen while I cooked dinner. She lives overseas, in her husband’s home country, where they care for children from their community (among many other things). As we chatted, and I chopped, I said something about not knowing exactly how much I was fixing. “It’s okay, though,” I said. “God taught me awhile ago that no matter how many gather around the table or who shows up unexpectedly, the food will stretch. There will always be enough.”

She laughed and then her face grew serious as she told me of a conversation she’d had with a well-meaning friend not long before. “She said my husband and I had taken on too much, that we shouldn’t have taken in all the kids, that it’s too much stress on our marriage.”

I stopped chopping and looked at her. “What did you say?”

She shrugged. “I told her I didn’t think we had any more stress than any other cross-cultural marriage, and, besides, what were we supposed to do? Turn the kids away?”

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, a place God describes in the book of Jeremiah as “a land of drought and deep darkness,” they understood they were completely at the mercy of God. They had no capability of providing for themselves. He had put them in a place of utter dependence.

And God provided. Manna fell from the sky, and there was always just the right amount of it. Some gathered “more, some less. But when they measured it …, those who had gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” Those who purposely gathered extra—in case the Lord didn’t come through the next day—found their leftovers had worms, but on the Sabbath Day, when no manna fell from heaven, the amount gathered the day before was miraculously enough.

The Israelites forgot this as soon as they fell into some natural resources. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things,” God said. But in the apparent ability to nurture one’s own sustenance, to provide for oneself—they forgot God. (See Jeremiah 2:6-8)

Even the slightest bit of abundance makes us, too, forget that every meal, every resource comes from God—just as much as the manna did. There is no sufficiency outside him. ALL we have is gift, is manna, given to nourish us and given to be shared—and to miraculously multiply in the sharing. Do we believe this? Do we believe God will stretch what he’s given us when we stretch out our hand to press it into the palm of another? We have been given the privilege of witnessing, like the disciples, the loaves and fish mysteriously expanding, being enough—and MORE—for everyone, filling and overflowing needs, becoming abundance.

But this miracle of multiplication and abundance cannot be set in motion without our sharing what is perceived as “ours” (money, talents, time, resources) with others. Sometimes, though, the miracle is hidden from our sight, and we continue to worry, to wonder, “Did we give too much? Will we have enough for us?”

Oh, to realize that the answer to this question is ever and always “NO!” In and of myself I cannot provide enough. But God has and IS enough and more. If we are honest enough to ask it, the question beneath is, “Will He have enough?” but we dare not ask that question because to say it out loud seems sacrilegious, a bit blasphemous, because, after all, of course he has enough. He’s GOD!

But what are we saying when we make the question instead about our own resources? Are we suggesting we can be sufficient without him? that we’d like to make it on our own? Are we essentially saying, Thanks but no thanks, God; I’ll call out when I’m really in dire straits, but I’ve gained some independence, you know. Grown up into a responsible adult, capable, hardworking.

Oh, but God didn’t grudgingly give the manna, and he didn’t provide the land with its resources to get the Israelites off his to-do list. He longs to provide for us; he longs for us to depend on and trust him.

There is reason Jesus calls himself—in one of his many, many self-descriptions—the “bread of life,” the sustenance that takes us through our days—and not stingily. A page from Lauren Winner’s book Wearing God* comes to mind. She writes, “I once asked a circle of people from church, if Jesus is the ‘bread of life,’ what kind of bread is He? Not a one of them said, ‘He’s that small round wafer we use at Communion.’ I wrote down their answers. I think they make a good prayer:

a bagel

rye

toast with jam

morning glory muffins

chocolate tea bread

rosemary ciabatta

my grandmother’s sourdough

my grandmother’s challah

French toast

a crusty baguette

“This gorgeous list,” Winner writes, “expands our attention from the usual thought ‘if God is bread, then God meets my needs,’ to the category of delectation.” I might add, if God is “morning glory muffins”—which sound both delicious and beautiful—then he is “company bread,” meant to be shared. He is the challah made by your grandmother, a gift that begs you to gather others around your table and enjoy with you.

All—I’ll say it again, all—we have is gift and we must, as disciples, lose the stingy, grabbing mindset of the world that fears dependence and scarcity far more than it fears separation and estrangement. Mother Teresa told us “…we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Share your bread,

Learn belonging,

And discover the abundance of God.

 

 

 

our upside-down King

The children are doing the Gospel reading tomorrow, and we’ve taken Luke’s telling of the Nativity and broken it into narration and dialogue.

We practiced today, and before we began, I told them they were the perfect ones to tell this upside-down story of an upside-down King ushering in his upside-down kingdom.

Kings generally want power and riches and comfort, I said.

But Jesus, King of the universe, kept saying things like, “I came to serve” and “I offer my life,” and his first bed was a feeding trough for animals and his first sight as a human was a poor girl’s face and maybe, if any of the nativity scenes are correct, the giant nose of a cow. The fancy presents didn’t appear till later and they came just in time to fund a run-for-your-literal-life escape to Egypt.

I finished my pretty speech, and one child raised his hand.

“Yes?” I told him, and he asked, “Can I have a big part?”

And I grinned at this unabashed display of human nature, so straight-up contrary to all the words I’d just spoken—because it was oh, so honest! And oh, so real!

Then we began, and though the rehearsal was chock-full of loud boys and stumbled lines, and missed cues,

And there was no strong sense that tomorrow would go off without a hitch or three,

There were some moments of deep beauty,

And when it was over, I could tell a child, with genuine sincerity,

“You are supposed to be Elizabeth, because when you held that baby doll oh, so gently, it did something to my heart.”

I could shrug and laugh when asked, “Well, how do you think they will do tomorrow?”

Because the upside-down-ness of the Kingdom must be embraced, despite all our tendencies to do otherwise.

If we’d planned the Nativity, it certainly wouldn’t have taken place in a stable, with rough-and-tumble shepherds as its witnesses (and if God had insisted they play a large part, at least they would have bathed). We would have had the wise men come that first night to provide some glitz and sparkle—wait, we do that!—some importance and sophistication to the occasion…

It’s a challenge to stay upside-down, to say, like Mary, “Let it be … just as the Lord has said,” to be emboldened, like the shepherds with their uncultured ways and uneducated language, to share the crazy story even when it doesn’t seem like we’re the best, most polished messengers.

So read tomorrow, children.

Tell.

Proclaim.

As upside-down messengers

Of the King laid in the manger,

the King nailed to the cross.

Our right-side-up God.

 

The Good Shepherd

darkest valleyNext week I will teach preschoolers the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, incorporating Psalm 23. I will use objects and songs and movements to help these little ones remember that Jesus leads them and cares for them and finds them if they get lost.

I am meditating on Psalm 23 and John 10 as I prepare for this teaching, and the pictures that keep rising in my mind are not of green pastures and still waters but of the wolf and the dark valley. I find myself singing phrases from two songs based on Psalm 23: Audrey Assad’s “I Shall Not Want” and Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me O God.”

These two songs are expanding my understanding of the dark valley and the wolf.

Not long ago my youngest child and I were talking about the wolf, the evil one. My child wanted to know how the evil one feels about people, specifically about him. And we talked about a depth of hatred that is beyond what we can understand, a desire for our destruction that is so great it will not be satisfied except by the complete separation of humans from all that is good and right—from God.

We talked about the varying tactics of the evil one, how at times he appears as an angel of light—as comfort and safety and self-interest and belonging—how at others he beckons with the dark seduction of power and fame and revenge. How the effects of the evil one’s deception might be more obvious in the broken families, high drug use, and violence of at-risk neighborhoods but the complacency, independence, and aloofness of well-off neighborhoods is just as much his work.

Both distract us from our greatest, deepest need. Both blind us to the goodness of God.

This past week I told the story of the Fall in church and then taught the children to tell it. “Did God say…?” the evil one asks, casting doubt on God’s truthfulness, on God’s goodness. God has lied to you, he suggests. There is a way for you to be like God, and God, being greedy, does not want that. He wants you stupid and grateful and content in not knowing what you lack. He has tricked you.

We have believed this lie ever since. It has its many variations—for the evil one is forever subtly and craftily undermining the goodness and trustworthiness of God toward us.

In the prayer of St. Francis, these lines appear: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console/to be understood as to understand/to be loved as to love.” I see these same ideas in Assad’s “I Shall Not Want.”

From the love of my own comfort/From the fear of having nothing/From a life of worldly passions/Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood/And from a need to be accepted/From the fear of being lonely/Deliver me O God/Deliver me O God

From the fear of serving others/Oh, and from the fear of death or trial/And from the fear of humility/Deliver me O God/Yes, deliver me O God

The needs identified—for comfort, provision, passion, understanding, acceptance, belonging—are good. They are among our deepest desires. It is these needs the evil one taps into, magnifying and twisting them. We cannot, do not trust God to fulfill these needs. He is either not big enough to or not good enough to want to. He is not the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. So we must take matters into our own hands; we must prize our own needs above those of others; we must lose our good sense of smallness—as one among many created in the likeness and image of God, as one of many, many beloved sheep. We leave the fold and strike out on our own.

We cannot, will not trust the perfect love of God to provide our needs and wants, and, ironically, only that perfect love drives out the fear that keeps us from trusting.

And this brings me to Marty Haugen’s song “Shepherd Me O God,” with its chorus that puzzled me the first time I heard it: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants/beyond my fears, from death into life.

Beyond the shallow wants that distract me from my deepest needs.

Beyond the fears that blind me to true goodness and faithfulness.

It is in the “beyond” that we are fully satisfied.

And it is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who takes us there.

The chorus of Assad’s song looks to this “beyond.”

And I shall not want, no, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want/When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want

Our Good, Good Shepherd did not abandon us to the wolf but laid down his life for us, so we could be his own, could be his known sheep who know him, who live in his goodness and in the fullness of life.

And in this life, there is no want.

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

For his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff—

They comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

In the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.

Blindness to God and neighbor

The story of Bartimaeus, as told in Mark 10, seems very straightforward: Jesus restores the sight of a blind man.

First, Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus to have mercy on him.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, “I want to see.”

Jesus says, “Go; your faith has healed you.”

And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus.

I love Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus (click here to read a post on that), but as I have read, listened to, and told this story several dozen times in the last several months, I have come to appreciate an irony in it.

Bartimaeus is not the only one in the story who is blind, and Jesus is doing two kinds of healing: he is restoring physical sight to Bartimaeus, and he is revealing the spiritual blindness of those who think they already see.

They have good reason to believe this; they see the sun, the sky, the trees, the grass. They see quite well the people around them who are wealthy and powerful. They see those who run in the “same circles” as they do themselves. Most of all, they see themselves.

They even, to a certain extent, see Jesus: see his miracles, see his power, see the possibilities following him might bring them.

But they are spiritually blind, and this is revealed in their response to Bartimaeus. They don’t notice him, don’t acknowledge him, don’t listen to him. They even try to shut him up when he dares to speak.

Bartimaeus, though, is named in Scripture. Though so many others are not, including those with wealth and/or status (the rich young ruler, most of the scribes and Pharisees who interacted with Jesus, the Centurion), both the personal and family names of this blind, begging man are shared. Jesus, the Son of the Creator God, filled with the Spirit of Life, hears and sees Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He loves him.

Jesus does not want the crowds to be wowed with his miracles. He does not want them enamored with his power. He wants them to know God; he is revealing God! He wants them to understand that the God who rescued them and made them his people did not do so in order for them to become proud and separated. God did this so he could teach them to love as God loves, with heart and soul and mind, to love both God and neighbor in this full, complete way—and then to be a light to all people, being themselves a mini-revelation of this incredible God.

Bartimaeus somehow understood this, at least on some level. He was not truly blind, for when he regained his physical sight, he didn’t use it for his own purposes. He followed Jesus, and I can imagine Bartimaeus running up to downtrodden individuals all along the way, inviting them to Jesus. “Come and see,” he would say, “Come and see Jesus!”

It was the people around Bartimaeus who were actually blind. They chose not to see God as the Yahweh who had rescued and covenanted with them for no reason other than love. They chose not to see God’s love for all people, and instead they loved as the world self-servingly loves, showing attention only to those whose response might be beneficial.

All this was evident in their attitude toward Bartimaeus. “Be quiet,” the crowds around told him. “We don’t want to hear about your needs. We don’t want Jesus’ attention to be focused on you. Stay down there, on the ground.”

But Jesus stopped to listen to Bartimaeus’ cry, and he responds in an interesting way. He does not call out directly to Bartimaeus. He tells the crowd, “Call him here.” See him, Jesus is saying. Notice him, talk to him, interact with him. You are both creations of the living God. You cannot love God and refuse to love your neighbor.

In Jesus’ view, Bartimaeus already possessed sight; he had faith vision. Maybe he’d heard stories of Jesus announcing himself with Isaiah’s words and then actually doing them, preaching good news to the poor, restoring sight, pronouncing healing and freedom to the downtrodden and burdened. Bartimaeus was convinced by what he’d heard. He knew he needed Jesus; he believed Jesus would want to help him (and could!); and he cried out for help.

The crowds, however, were like the Pharisees, who saw no reason to throw themselves on God’s mercy and lovingkindness. They believed they possessed special favor, and they didn’t want God’s favor to be extended to anyone else.

In Jesus’ estimation, they were the blind.

Jesus longs to heal our blindness. He longs for us to see God more and more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly…

And to love our neighbors–all our neighbors!–as ourselves.

Anything less is blindness.

 

NOTE: I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I do not write it only as a response to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville this past weekend, but it is very linked in my mind. We (meaning the Church) must not ignore the spiritual blindness of racism, especially when it is held by those who say they are following Christ or doing the work of God. Christ did not keep peace with the blind; he named their blindness; he called them to admit it and turn to God. We must do the same. Here’s a blogpost by Michael Frost that is very pertinent to this. And here’s another by Jen Oshman–also excellent.

Some thoughts on Mark 4:35-41

In Mark chapter 4, Mark recounts a day of Jesus telling stories to a number of people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When evening came, Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side. So, leaving the crowds behind, the disciples and Jesus set out in a boat, and other boats went with them. A great storm blew up, with furious winds and waves so large they began breaking into the boat, threatening to swamp it.

Jesus, meanwhile, was asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat.

If you were reading this passage, which is only a few verses long, you would discover very quickly that all ends well. In fact, most Bibles have a heading for this passage that is something like “Jesus Calms the Storm,” so you know the outcome before you even begin reading.

The disciples, however, did not know the ending. All they knew was that, because of Jesus’ instructions, they were out in the middle of the sea in a terrible storm that was filling their not-so-large boat with water, and they react in the same way as many other biblical characters, whose “hard times” left them uncertain and sorrowful and doubting. Unlike many other biblical characters, though, the disciples’ ordeal did not last very long. (A couple months ago I wrote a post about how waiting and suffering are often compressed in Scriptural accounts; ten seconds of reading, and we’re through months/years/decades of struggle. We have to identify with the characters—we have to take time ourselves—in order to gain a clearer sense of the story.) To identify with the disciples in this story, though, we don’t need to imagine the toll of a long stretch of time; we need to imagine the panic of a perfectly good situation suddenly gone terribly wrong.

As I read this story over and over, what caught my attention was this: the disciples were exactly where they were supposed to be. They’d followed Jesus’ directions; he was there with them; they hadn’t left him behind to follow their own whims. They’d made no bad decision or been foolish or rash. They were right where Jesus wanted and told them to be.

But they still encountered a storm.

A great storm, one with howling winds and waves tall enough to menace above the sides of their boat like monsters and then crash down upon them. A storm strong enough that even the seasoned fishermen among them feared for their lives.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever done exactly what you thought Jesus was telling you to do and then found yourself in the middle of a storm? Did you start to wonder if you’d done something wrong? Misheard his voice? Wandered off on your own path? Failed to do something right?

My brother-in-law recently suggested to me that perhaps Jesus knew the storm was coming and was actually leading the disciples into a test of their faith.

Could be. Could be that he wanted the disciples’ faith in him to stretch to cosmic proportion—beyond physical healings to authority over the sky and sea.

Could also not be. Jesus, self-limited as he was in humanness, might not have known the storm was coming. Perhaps he just went out on the boat with the disciples knowing he needed rest and in full assurance that no matter what happened, God would be right there caring for them.

We don’t know which is the case. All we know is that when the disciples woke Jesus, asking him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus got up and told the wind and the waves to be still. And after the storm stopped–immediately!–he turned to the disciples and asked, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

And then the disciples were really afraid and they said to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The boat, the disciples, and Jesus reached the other side of the Sea of Galilee with no ill effects. Not all our storms end this way, with every person accounted for, with no lasting injuries or loss. Some storms take years, even a lifetime, to recover from. Some storms don’t end. Some storms are of our own making, and regret compounds our pain.

But, no matter the circumstances of your particular storm, we can know that God has good for us–“best” for us–in the middle of the tempest. God is not spiteful; God does not have an awful sense of humor; God is not conducting a faith experiment for research purposes; God is not plopping us in the midst of it like numbered lab rats. Rather God, who calls His people the apple of His eye, wants us to find that He has provided an eye in the center of the squall specifically planned for each of us. He has for us the certainty that—even when all evidence points to the contrary—we are seen and known and loved and cared for.

We are much like the disciples. The best, in their opinion, was a trouble-free trip across the sea. For the landlubbers among them, the best was probably their feet touching solid ground on the other side after a smooth crossing.

But God, as we are told, sees things very differently. And in God’s view, our presence in His eye is His absolute best for us.

a dose of gladness

flowersThis morning, as the dog ran in the park, I sat on a bench, leaned back, and lifted my face—and then had to squint because the sun hung in the air so bright it seemed to make the blue of the sky and the edges of the young leaves almost pulse with intensity.

It felt too sharp.

Friday night my husband came home from his inner-city school and went straight into our bedroom. I followed him in, took one look at his face, and shut the door behind me. Between tears, he shared with me one tragedy after another he’d learned of that very day. The violence and dysfunction in several neighborhoods had spilled over, and several students and one teacher had endured trauma and loss and setback.

No matter where you teach, there is always hardship. No matter where you live, there is always heartache. But we’re learning that when you teach in an inner-city school, when you live in an under-resourced neighborhood, the hardship and heartache seem to be the norm rather than the exception. The students and teachers at Dave’s school are always going through something, but this past week, there was simply too much. Their young, vibrant principal called a special meeting Friday and, in tears herself, relayed to her staff one story after another after another.

“We have to love each other,” she told them at the meeting’s end. “We have to encourage each other and love our kids and get rest. This is really, really hard.”

Yes, it is.

After Dave told me everything, and we cried together, he lay on the bed and fell asleep. And I went out and explained to our kids and our guest that it was going to be a slightly different evening than we’d planned. And our wonderful guest said that was perfectly all right.

The weekend rolled on. Soccer on Saturday morning and an evening spent with friends; church on Sunday and then, unfortunately, lots of homework. But underneath was heaviness.

So this morning, between sending Dave and the kids off to school and getting to work myself, I took the dog to the park and thought and prayed about the hard things I know about and all those I don’t, and then I just needed to sit down.

And the sunlight was too bright.

How, God, when you know all the darkness, all the sorrow, all the hurt and pain and evil inflicted by humans upon each other—and even on themselves—how does the sun still shine? How is the sky so blue, the trees so green?

If I were you, clouds would hover above the sites of such tragedies; trees would stand bare and stark in sorrow at what they have seen; the sun would hide; and the grass and flowers would shrivel in horror at what we humans do to each other, at what some humans must endure.

And yet…

And yet, the sight of a tree breaking into purple flower still caused me to smile—just this morning.

How?

I don’t know, but I do know that in the midst of all this, we need gladness in small doses and large, to whatever degree we can take it.

So today I pray that for a few particular students, one particular teacher, a couple of graduates, a student now in search of a new school. I pray that something—like purple flowers, the brilliant blue sky, the squinting-ly shining sun or the gleaming green of the trees—makes them smile today in spite of everything. Better yet, Abba, may a fellow human, bearing your image and your presence, make them glad.

In spite of everything, may they sense a love that cannot be explained or seen but which is real, is true.

Is you.