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. 

 

Go–and live a new life

 *This audio is a reading/telling of John 8:1-11. 

“Go and sin no more.”

Jesus says this to the woman who has been condemned of adultery, whom he has just rescued from stoning.

It’s always felt like a bit of a strange statement to me.

I can imagine that statement rolling very naturally off the lips of one of the fundamental preachers of my youth.

I can hear it being said with scorn and a stern look.

It feels very… simplistic … glib … easy …

Maybe even judgmental, like if I were to tell a woman at the homeless shelter to “just stop getting high, ok. Just decide not to, and don’t do it anymore. Simple as that.” To say something like that would be to ignore the past and present hurt and trauma, the complicated web of addiction, the very real realities of her life that cause her to seek some times of forgetfulness.

But this is Jesus talking.

Oh, how we need to remember Jesus. How we need to get back to Jesus.

This world stinks. It’s awful. If you are one of the privileged few (I am) who sleeps in a warm bed each night in a peaceful home with your belly well filled, it can be easy to forget that life is truly difficult for so, so many people.

I think this woman was one of those people. I think her life was probably very difficult.

Adultery in her context was not a simple choice to have sex simply because she felt like it. We can only guess at her circumstances or troubles or past traumas.

But this is Jesus talking.

He doesn’t guess. He knows. He knows her life. He knows all the reasons. He knows her.

He’s not being simplistic or glib—or even judgmental, though he’s the only one with the real right to do so!

He has just revealed his heart to her. He’s stood up for her by bending down to the dirt. He’s faced her accusers—every person in that angry, superior crowd—and challenged them to touch her. They were using her to make a point, to set a trap. She was an object to them, not a person—but he put her on their level. He challenged them to throw a stone, a stone that could only be thrown in the belief that the thrower was of greater value than the object, in the belief that the one being stoned was worthy of stoning and that the thrower of the stone was worthy to throw it. Jesus revealed the lie behind that belief. He made them see her. He made them see themselves. He rescued her.

And he tells her there is no condemnation with him.

She’s been seen, known, cared for, stood up for! Rescued!

I would like to think she realized he was God—that this meant that the God of the universe—who seems too far off, too removed from all our muck and mess and trouble—is NOT far removed. He’s a near God, one who longs to walk with us through the mess—who DOES walk with us through the mess. He is a God who sees and is deeply saddened by our sin and ugliness toward each other, our lack of caring, our use of others as objects.

This God would go with her. This God would help her walk back into a life that was hard. He would care for her, so she could grasp at dignity and hold her head high.

Jesus SAID very little verbally in his exchange with this woman, but I imagine his eyes, his face, and his posture conveyed a great deal. I imagine the woman heard something like this: “Go. There is a way ahead of you that doesn’t involve the shame you’ve been living with. There IS. It is only possible because now you know you are seen and cared for, now you know that God is not the God only of the Pharisees and the well-respected. He is the God of all people, of the downtrodden, the unseen, the ‘sinful,’ and the broken. He is YOUR God. He sees you and knows you. What is ahead of you will be hard. It will require grit and determination and struggle, but it will be far, far better than what you have been through. The way ahead may seem dim, but it is possible—it is possible because of who I am—your God. You can go and live a new, different life because you have seen what a different God I am. I am for you in this. I will see you. I will be with you. I am the God who sees you, knows you, loves you, and is always with you.”

I want to meet this woman in the Kingdom. I want to hear her tell her story, not just the awful difficulties and the dramatic, climactic moment of rescue but the AFTER: the walking in newness of life, the finding of community, the discovery of herself as a beloved child of God.

What a story that will be!

Kneeling on Needy Knees

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Neither this picture nor the one below is the one I remember from my childhood, but I found these interesting!

The work set before me

—Before all of us, I imagine—

Is that of kneeling down.

The picture in the old copy of Pilgrim’s Progress I read as a child comes to my mind

(an illustrated, much-shorter-than-the original copy!):

Christian, stumbling all the way, has finally gotten to the cross

And dropped to his knees.

And that big old lumpy pack he’d been carrying on his back

Is rolling off.

Seems to me this is not a one-time occurrence in the Christian life.

imagesI used to think it was.

One bow, real low,

And then I had to be off,

Standing tall,

Pulling on my own bootstraps and

Figuring out how to be a “little Christ” all on my own.

I think all this because I was reading Second Peter,

and I got to this verse:

“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness,

through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing godliness in my own power

And all it’s reaped me is a bitter, narrow spirit focused on myself.

But when I bend myself to the work of humility,

To the acknowledgment of my own inexhaustible bent toward self

And my inability to do a darned thing about it.

When I embrace my constant need for pardon, for help,

Oh, this confession is so wonderfully good for my soul!

Still danger lurks,

In the very act of kneeling I begin to compare my sins with another’s—

Particularly those sins I see as being against ME!—

and in doing this I unconsciously pick up the pack and stand up,

laden with its weight, knees locked against the strain.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I’m learning it’s not a conditional statement so much as a necessity.

If I don’t forgive, I cannot humble myself,

And the burden cannot roll off my back.

My Lord will not wrestle me to the ground;

I must do this part myself,

Bend my stubborn legs,

Bow my head,

Sink low.

And let Him lift the load, lift me.

Life and godliness gifted to me

Through and by the Glory and Goodness,

The One I know best from my needy, dependent knees.

 

God loves. Period.

Most of literature throughout history tells the stories of privileged people, the ones with money and power and titles. Yet God tells his story differently. Oh, yes, in Scripture we read the stories of kings and leaders, and men feature predominately—as is normal in stories from patriarchal societies (is there such a thing as a non-patriarchal society?)—yet again and again we read the stories and perspectives of the poor, of women, of the disenfranchised. For example, though 90% of the named people written about in the Hebrew Scriptures are male, nearly 10% are women, and this is actually a really good figure for Ancient Near East literature. Clues abound that tell us God is not in step with our human culture, which always privileges those with power and prestige and ignores or oppresses those who have neither.

We have much to learn from this aspect of God’s story. Just recently I practiced with the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.

Early in the Old Testament, the plot is developed around Abraham. Though he is not royalty, he is wealthy and grows wealthier as the plot progresses. Abraham has enough servants to amass a small but powerful army, and he is lauded by kings. If this story were told in a way normal to Ancient Near East form, there would be an episode in it told something like this: Abraham and his wife were unable to have children, so he slept with one of his slaves. When she conceived, it proved his wife was barren. He would have cast her aside, but he was told by his God not to. Abraham raised the child borne by the slave to be his heir. This child, named Ishmael, was strong in spirit, but eventually Abraham’s wife, too, bore him a son, and tradition was clear: the child of marriage superseded. So Ishmael was sent away but became the father of a great people, as did his half-brother, Isaac.

But Scripture does not tell us the story like this. We readers learn not only the names of Abraham’s wife and slave but also some of their feelings. Sarah is desperate about her barrenness; Hagar is emboldened by her motherhood.

This is not the only surprise. The second is the depth of insight revealed in the telling of their story. God clearly knows how they feel, and we, the readers, learn enough about them to feel conflicted by the intricacies of their relationship. A straight reading—through modern eyes—reveals a lopsided situation. A slave mistress, Sarah, frustrated with her own inability to bear a child, orders her slave woman, Hagar, to have sex with her husband in the hopes a pregnancy will result. When it does, though, Sarah is jealous of Hagar. Though she cannot send Hagar and the baby away—the boy is, after all, her husband’s heir—she abuses Hagar verbally and makes her life miserable. When, though, Sarah is able to have her own child, she uses her position of power to have Hagar and the boy Ishmael driven away, into the wilderness, where it can be assumed they will die of starvation or attack by wild animals.

This kind of a reading does not make me feel at all sympathetic toward Sarah, and my compassion toward Hagar is really aroused when she is seen, helpless in the wilderness, knowing she and her child will die. And God shows up, with so much concern and care that Hagar calls him “the God who sees her.” The tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when you understand and remember that societies, by and large, have never valued women like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is the street prostitute who dies of an overdose in a rent-by-the-hour hotel room. The troubles of her childhood and adolescence are unknown; she is merely one of the huddled, unnamed masses who never became anyone worth knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.

So with this reading, and with our tendency to dualize all things, Hagar becomes the heroine of the piece. And Sarah becomes the straight-up villain.

But, in another surprise, she isn’t.

God, clearly sympathetic to Hagar, is also sympathetic to Sarah, and he reveals the troubles of her situation. We learn of Abraham’s failings toward her. Twice, to protect his own skin, he basically prostituted her. It was true that she was beautiful and desirable (hence his fear for his own skin), but we can infer that she worried about her inability to provide Abraham with an heir. Surely her beauty would protect her for only so long. Eventually he would set her aside because of her barrenness. What would she do then? And beneath this, she so longed for a child. This fear and desire grew to desperation, and it was in desperation that she pitched the idea to her husband of Abraham sleeping with Hagar in order to have a child.

And though Hagar is obviously a pawn in this situation and is mistreated, we learn she was emboldened when she had Ishmael and she taunted Sarah. Sarah’s emotions are presented as conflicted at this point. Her plan has backfired. She is not happy. She still wants a child. Her status in the household is precarious. She seems lonely.

God seems to know all this. Neither Hagar nor Sarah is presented as stock characters. They are real women. Both have struggles. Both have endured much. Both have been used. And though one is in a position of power in this story, God sympathizes with her struggles, while he also sees the deep wrong she has done to Hagar. He cares for Sarah; he cares for Hagar. His loves—for each women—are somehow not in conflict with each other.

This kind of depth and breadth of love is also seen in God’s relationship with Abraham. He sees Abraham’s love for Ishmael. He sees Abraham’s confusion over the right thing to do in this strange situation.

I am amazed by the complexity acknowledged in the presentation of this story. I am not allowed to simplify it and make one person a villain and another the sympathetic character. I am not allowed to cheer for one person against another.

This is incredible. God loves the princess; God loves the pauper; God loves the goody-two-shoes older son; God loves the wasteful, lascivious younger son; God loves the cheating tax collector; God loves the woman with the issue of blood; God loves Judas; God loves John. God loves the busy Martha and the more reflective Mary.

I could go on and on and on.

God sees into the hearts of every single one of us. He knows our pasts. He knows the ways we’ve been damaged and hurt. And he doesn’t take sides, choosing one of us against another. He loves all of us all at the same time and forever, somehow working through and past the hurt we’ve dealt each other and the snubs we’ve dealt him.

God loves. Period.

I want to extend God’s love. Period. Without determining who is more worthy of it than another, privileging neither the rich nor the poor, neither the more guilty nor the less.

Sometimes when I teach Bible stories to children, I point to each one of them and say, in turn, “God loves you!”

God is pointing, miraculously and mysteriously, at every human on earth and saying the same thing.

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.

 

the unity of the Body of Christ

*This post is written from thoughts I jotted in my journal during a class I’m taking. Some of my readers may think I’m coming down a little hard on the white church in America, and it could probably be argued that I’m perhaps generalizing too much. But I would like to respond with a plea for repentance and humility rather than argument. 

This past week Canon Stephen Gauthier was talking about the unity of the Body of Christ. “There is unity in diversity,” he said. “United does not mean identical, yet it is impossible to separate the body without irreparable harm.”

Scripture does not present disdain for the Church as an optional attitude. The Church is the family of God, the Body and Bride of Christ. These are truths now; they are not ideals, and we are called to understand this as the truest of truths. When we are baptized into Christ, we automatically enter into the deepest of family relations with every other Christian on the planet and throughout time. These are bonds that will never be severed; they are permanent, existing throughout eternity.

Martin Luther King Jr’s well-known words about the most segregated hour in America take on new, deeply sorrowful meaning when we grasp this truth. The white church in American (of which I am a part) went far beyond saying to the African American or Chinese American church what the eye said to the hand in I Corinthians 12. “I don’t need you,” said the eye to the hand, but the white church literally tried to cut off the ethnic church in the States. It tried to kill it, to completely sever it from the body of Christ at large.

Today many in the white church have acknowledged a certain level of sin against minority brothers and sisters, yet, in my view, a form of the same sin continues, for though the white church is no longer trying to kill off minority churches, there is a very pervasive eye-to-hand sentiment. “We don’t need you,” the white church subtly but essentially says.

The attempted murder of the past and the current, pervasive, don’t-need-you attitude has caused and is causing irreparable harm, and it must be acknowledged that this harm is far greater than its political or legal ramifications. We—the unified Church—are the Body of Christ, and the actions and attitudes of the white members toward those they considered “less honorable” have done incredible, spiritual harm. The white church so often sees itself as superior, as holding greater knowledge, as having been the sending church of many, many missionaries, as the founder of seminaries and higher places of theological learning…

Yet the white church is responsible for great harm to the very Body of Christ.

What the white church has not realized is this: in thinking of the minority church as something like an extra, unneeded toe and in attempts to cut off this extra toe, it has misunderstood reality. Together the church in America—of all ethnicities—is a member, connected to the rest of the Body and joined with the Body to the Head—Christ. Though the historic white church did what it did believing it was cutting off a less necessary member (pushing that member away), what the white church has in actuality been doing is cutting itself off. The tourniquet applied strangled the white church. It cut off blood flow to itself, and until this tourniquet is loosened, the white church dangles apart from the rest of the member.

Belonging to the Church entire is not optional in the Body of Christ. The Body, whole and integrally connected is fact, is reality. We must live into this reality—or we will continue to do great harm.

“wear your grace like skin”

The song lyric loops through my mind all morning:

replacing the litany of lists

and the chorus of cares

that too often occupy my thoughts.

“…we wear your grace like skin…”

Just the one line.

No more comes to me, and

I hum the six words again and again.

On our school/work commute,

I ask my daughter to play the full song,

To hear the phrase within it.

Yet this morning, it is the one line that is for me.

“We should do that,” I say out loud, “put on grace like skin,”

and she, in the way daughters do, just nods.

We should wear grace—

Not as the coats we take off and on in the winter weather,

The extra layer.

Not even as the outfits we wear that are part of the selves we present to the world,

more like the union suits the pioneers stitched themselves into for seasons at a time,

the undergarments closest to our skin.

But perhaps it is all of the above: coat, outfit, undergarments,

Grace becoming to us protection, presentation, covering.

The Scripture says to

Be “clothed with Christ,”

To “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,”

and Julian of Norwich, pondering this, wrote,

“He is our clothing that for love wrappeth us,

claspeth us,

and all encloseth us for tender love,

that He may never leave us;

being to us all thing that is good.”

I remember a friend telling me she imagined being clothed with Christ

As the floor-length fur coat she once modeled at a charity function.

“It had weight,” she said. “Like a presence I carried with me.

I couldn’t forget I had it on.”

Christ and grace—person and idea. Christ, the face of grace,

The feet, the hands, the outstretched arms of grace.

In true knowing of Christ, I know grace.

Grace presses down on me,

clings to my body, embraces me, seeps into my inner being, into my heart…

I put on grace till it becomes like skin,

That I may never take it off.

Telling the Story to Myself

BT pic, cropped

A Bible Telling session with children: I’ve already told the story a couple times; the kids have acted it out; now we are creating a Way to Remember with pictures so they can tell it, too.

My work as a Bible Teller (telling the narratives of Scripture and helping others to learn them, too) means I carry Bible stories in my heart. There is obviously an outward focus to this as I tell and teach stories, but I’m finding incredible inward blessing as the Holy Spirit uses these stored stories to speak into my life. For example…

The other morning I was nursing a grudge about a situation in my life. It felt good to feed this little monster. After all, hadn’t I given enough to the person in this situation? Shouldn’t I be justified in feeling offended, feeling a little used?

I pushed the grudge off to the side (like putting a pot to the back of the stove to simmer) and listened to my audio devotional as I chopped vegetables for the crock pot. The Scripture was a story: Luke 13:10-17, in which Jesus heals the bent-over woman on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue is indignant about this healing and tells the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Jesus rebukes him for this and calls him and others there “hypocrites”!

I was feeling a little smug as I listened—Yeah, Jesus! Preach it!—until I heard the end of the passage: “…all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.”

Ah! All the people rejoiced at the glorious things Jesus was doing!

I suddenly remembered the grudge that was still simmering and realized, Jesus is preaching to ME! I’m frustrated by this situation in my life–but I should be rejoicing! God is at work doing some pretty amazing things in this person’s life, and I’m feeling “used” because this work of His is involving me in some uncomfortable, past-my-boundaries ways (just like the synagogue ruler was miffed that Jesus wasn’t staying within the traditional “boundaries” set for the Sabbath). Jesus isn’t following the script I have written for this situation, and this is making me anxious and upset.

And here’s where the Bible Telling—all those stories hidden in my heart—was used. One scene after another played across my mind.

First came the scene from Mark 3 in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Those watching also disapprove of this healing on the Sabbath, and Jesus is angry and “grieved at their hardness of heart.” Yes! My heart was hard toward this person–and toward Jesus and his radical work!

But, right on the heels of this came the phrase from the story of Abraham putting Isaac on the altar: “The Lord will provide.” Ah, some understanding of my frustration: my sense of being “used” was based on my belief that I was the one providing. Not true. The Lord will provide. The Lord is the source, not me. I get stressed and self-focused when I begin to think I am the source. He is the source of all I need—salvation and beyond; therefore, he is the source of anything I offer to others.

Another phrase, this one from the parable of the unforgiving servant: I showed you mercy! Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant as well? This reminds me of my true place. In my current situation, it might seem I am the one continually giving, but in reality, we are both at the foot of the cross, both equal recipients of God’s great mercy.

And finally, the image of my little preschool students acting out Psalm 23, tiptoeing through their classroom, pretending to be afraid as they enter the valley of the shadow of death and then whooping and throwing their hands in the air as I proclaim, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me!” Yes, this situation has me feeling over my head, but I don’t need to fear, for you, my Lord, are with me!

All this from stories! They, too, are part of God’s Word–a very large part of God’s Word, and they are powerful and powerfully used by the Spirit!

If you have any questions about Bible Telling, please feel free to message me below! (It will come to my email account.) I love to talk with people about ways they can learn the narratives of Scripture.

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.