Thursday, November 21, 2013

Living the Womb Life

John 3:1-21 
3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God."

In John 3 Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Ruling Council. No doubt a very smart leader, one who garnered respect. The Jewish Ruling Council was both a ruling council and a court. It contained Pharisees and Sadducees, experts in the Law. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, probably to avoid being seen with the controversial, Jesus.

Interestingly, Nicodemus calls Jesus, Rabbi. And, he says we know you are a teacher sent from God. Apparently, there were other leaders who recognized the authority of Jesus as well. Nicodemus seems to understand that Jesus has an authority that differs from his own authority as a teacher. Nicodemus has authority that comes from years and years of training and learning. Most of us are familiar with the credentials that men such as Nicodemus carried, but, the miracles that Jesus had already performed, demonstrated that His authority was different – it came from God.

Jesus’ reply is baffling at first. He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

I have heard this passage wrestled with over and over again over the years. What does this mean? I have felt the same sense of bewilderment as Nicodemus. But, I then thought back to three significant days in my life.

July 31, 2000
July 4, 2002
December 19, 2004

The days that each of our three children were born.

I love the analogy that Jesus uses here – pregnancy and birth. I don’t want to lose the adoptive parents here or the non-parents here, in fact it’s even more significant to me that Jesus uses this analogy as a non-parent and a male. I just think we have to dive into pregnancy and birth to get the message that Jesus is sharing about the Kingdom.

When I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time thinking about the babies that were growing inside of me. I wondered what they would look like. I wondered if they were healthy. I wondered what gender they would be. I read books, lots of them. I had several different memberships to sites that would tell me what was happening with each one at that point in the pregnancy. When the book said at this point your baby can hear, we started playing music and talking to the baby bump. It was all part of that, mostly joyous, expectation that comes from waiting for a new life.

The ultrasounds were big events, exciting, they gave us a glimpse of what life was like for that little one developing inside of me. We got to see images of the baby…..and the womb. BUT, it wasn’t till this last week that I really thought about how, well, limited the womb is. Now, don’t get me wrong, the womb is a miraculous thing, but it also has its limitations. 40 weeks, sometimes fewer, sometimes more, but 40ish weeks of being in the womb, a small, cramped, but efficient space. There are exceptions, but I think this narrative asks us to reflect on the relative safety, warmth, protection, and limitations, of the womb. It brings us into the world of the developing baby, into the womb. It’s an interesting thing to consider.

Then, birth, and a whole new world full of light, sound, images. Kind of overwhelming. I think this is the picture that Jesus is painting, we cannot see the Kingdom of God, unless we leave the limited space of the womb and experience birth. We have to leave the small and limited life of the womb. This is not easy, the womb as I believe Jesus is characterizing it, is safe and simple. Birth and the world that follow are not. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the life he has been living is a womb life, his faith, the one he has committed his life to and studied so intently, is a womb faith. It is limited. His understanding of the Kingdom of God is limited. Tough words for Jesus to share and I bet even tougher for a Teacher of the Law to hear.

Following Jesus requires that we hear messages such as this. It also requires that we leave one world, for another. Jesus spoke of seeing the Kingdom of God and entering the Kingdom of God - just as a child at birth sees and enters the world outside the womb. Jesus is not talking about re-entering the womb, but about entering the Kingdom and eternal life.

In verses 10-15, Jesus mentions the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness and likens it to the Son of Man also being lifted up. This is a story that Nicodemus would have known well as a Teacher of the Law, it is found in Numbers 21. As the Israelites were headed out of Egypt they got impatient and started to complain against God and Moses, so God sent snakes among them, many people were bitten, and died. They realized their sin and asked Moses to pray for God to take them away. So Moses prayed for the people. And, God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Interesting reference. Another crazy snake story. The bitten Israelites were saved when they looked up to the bronze snake and Jesus compares this to the time when He will also be lifted up. He says that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. Jesus is not like the poisonous snakes sent to punish, but the bronze snake, given to save. Leaving the womb life and womb faith and its limitations, seeing and entering the Kingdom, means being born of the Spirit and believing in Him who is lifted up.

In verse 19 Jesus wraps it up, He says, “19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

It seems significant that Jesus issues a verdict; that he uses law terminology with a Teacher of the Law, a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, someone very familiar with the law and the court system. Almost as if to say, you don’t understand this birth analogy, perhaps not even the snake story, try this on for size, this is the love the womb. You love darkness instead of light. You are afraid of the light because of your evil deeds. This is just a guess on my part, but I think that you didn’t reach Nicodemus’ status without succumbing to evil of some kind. Climbing the religous and political ladder probably meant that he left some dark rungs along the way. The message, if you want to see the Kingdom, if you want to enter the Kingdom, you must leave that darkness, live by the truth, and come into the light. Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that He knows what is keeping him in the womb. Nicodemus was good at the life he was living, but he seems to be searching for something more. Jesus shares the Good News, that there is more, there is new life in the Kingdom. But first, he must leave the womb, enter the light, be exposed.

As I reflect on Nicodemus and my own attachment to the womb, I am left to wonder what bright and brilliant Kingdom truths and experiences I am missing. Jesus spent the next three years giving the world glimpses of the Kingdom. God’s kingdom is rooted in radical hospitality, I prefer the safety and comfort of the womb. God’s kingdom is rooted in sacrifice, I prefer the ease and self-sufficiency of the womb. God's Kingdom requires transparency and exposure, I prefer the anonymity of the womb. In John, Jesus shows us the harsh and glorious beauty of the Kingdom of God as He walks in the Spirit, with the people that God loves. Jesus tells Nicodemus, Jesus tell us, that He wants us to experience it, to participate in it, but we must leave the womb and be born of the Spirit to do so.

Jesus asks us to consider what things are keeping us in the womb? To consider what things we are afraid of having exposed to the light? Jesus asks us to consider whether or not we have a womb faith? The question is clear - are we living a womb life?

The womb is good. The Kingdom is better. Which will we choose?

*Please note that I realize that not all pregnancy and birth stories have good and happy endings. I know these issues are difficult and mean no disrespect or harm to those who have experienced pain in this realm.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Together Sojourn, Why We Stay

Dusting off the cobwebs to join the "Why I Stay" conversation started by Mark Love. Full disclosure, I did not grow up in the Churches of Christ. I grew up Catholic, and incidentally, even though my Catholic Church was not fully egalitarian, I did grow up blessed with the opportunity to be served by both men and women during Mass, and to serve both men and women during Mass through prayer and Scripture reading. A team of women and men taught my Confirmation class full of high school juniors, both male and female. And, one of those women served me Communion at my first Mass after making my Confirmation as a junior in high school. At the time, I was pretty ignorant to issues of gender in church. I loved participating.

Still, after a faith journey during my freshmen/sophomore years, I started attending a Church of Christ. I loved the fellowship and the Bible study. In fact, those were the lenses that I first saw the CofC through - Love for God. Love for people. Love for Scripture. Later in college, I was active in a campus ministry and I fell into an informal leadership role in our college group. The first summer after placing membership, I went to my first Church of Christ youth camp as a counselor. The family group I was part of was charged with coming up with and presenting a morning devotional. Our family group excitedly worked on it together. Before we went up the mountain the morning we were to lead the devotional, I was stopped by a dear friend. She said, “You know you can’t lead the devotional, right?” (Cue record scratch) It hit me. For REAL?! I quickly, and sadly, changed up the order of the devo. All male. The girls that were excited to share were bummed along with me. I wondered what they were thinking that morning. Were they able to concentrate on the devo? To enjoy the beauty of God’s creation? I confess, I wasn’t. I was sad. Not just because we didn’t get to participate, but because it felt incomplete after our week of growing and learning, together. Everyone wanted to share about what God was up to. What God had done that week. Not everyone did. We never talked about it.

I now know that it is quite possible that my friend’s assessment of the situation was not accurate as the youth minister in charge later went on to ask me to be a youth intern, which I did, joyously, for three years. But the fact was, it was a camp rule that women could not lead, teach, or pray in the more public services. I wondered if I had made the wrong choice in a church. I started to study more. I asked a lot of questions. I had more experiences like the one from camp. I struggled. I thought about leaving. However, I was also blessed with a great friend, my husband Tim, who was supportive and encouraging. My youth ministry job made it possible for me to participate and use my gifts in the world of teens and even among some adult parents. I taught, prayed, lead. Those first few years I was the only female intern at youth events in our area and will always be grateful to David Harrelson for giving me those opportunities. He was a great mentor. These opportunities did help to keep me around. But, more than the opportunities, what kept me around was the drive to put my finger on why this issue bothered me so much. I believe the Spirit of God was urging me to explore this, I knew early on that it wasn’t about power, selfish ambition or rebellion.

I continued to struggle with the role and limited opportunities given to women through college and into our time as new parents in a new church, a church we also loved for the same reasons as above – love for God, love for people, love for Scripture. Here, Tim and I both struggled as we watched our daughters and son grow and be ushered towards more traditional church roles. Tim’s discontent surpassed my own the first time he had to tell our daughter that she could not lead a song on Sunday night. It wasn't until we moved to Portland and started attending the PUMP Church of Christ that we were able to put our fingers on why the women’s issue bothered us so much. It wasn’t because we were a selfish. It wasn’t because I was a feminist, attention grabber. We realized, and we are still realizing, that it is because some of the pictures from camp, and from the churches we attended, were incomplete pictures.

At PUMP, God has shown us that the faith journey is one of community. It is one of male and female partnership. It includes brothers and sisters walking together, sharing together, celebrating together, and grappling with failure together. We are all part of God’s story and it only makes sense that we would share our sojourn together, regardless of the setting of our gathering. At PUMP, the story, the journey, the gathering, and the mission, is shared by all, men and women, adults and children. It is quite beautiful to behold. We learn deep and difficult truths from each other. Our men teach us. Our women teach us. Our girls teach us. Our boys teach us. We lead each other in prayer and spiritual songs. We believe this is the complete picture of the church, of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom belongs to such as these - All of these. As a church, we point to God’s Kingdom, together. We serve God’s Kingdom, together. We are its heralds, together. We discern and participate in the activity of God, together.

So, we stay. We stay because though we have seen incomplete pictures in the Churches of Christ, it is also the place where we have seen glimpses of the Kingdom and evidence of God’s reconciling and boundary breaking work in the world. It is the place where many men and women have encouraged all of our children to find and use their gifts for the building up of the Body and for the world that God loves. The children we know from the PUMP Church of Christ, including our own, will eventually be seeking a church to bless and be blessed by, we hope that each one of them will be able to find a place to do this, no matter what those gifts are. As for Tim and I, we would love for it to be a Church of Christ, not because we think it’s the best place, but because we love the Church of Christ, and because we want the Church of Christ to experience and reflect the beauty of a together sojourn. As we prepare to temporarily relocate and search for a temporary church home in a far off land, we are very aware of the blessing that God has given us through PUMP Church. We are thankful.

Last month our children, male and female, led our church in preaching, worship, dwelling, and prayers. The experience was beyond words, so I will post some pictures. God has used our together sojourn to empower those who will eventually led us into the new missional era. We need them all – male and female.

Our sons and daughters will prophesy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sower, Seed, and Soil Surprise

A post that goes along with my Theology of Surprise writings. I wrote this to share with my church community. Luke 8:4-15

One day Jesus told a story in the form of a parable to a large crowd that had gathered from many towns to hear him: “A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. Other seed fell among rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up with it and choked out the tender plants. Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted!” When he had said this, he called out, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables to teach the others so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
‘When they look, they won’t really see.
    When they hear, they won’t understand.’
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is God’s word. 12 The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved. 13 The seeds on the rocky soil represent those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they believe for a while, then they fall away when they face temptation. 14 The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity. 15 And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.

This month, I have had the privilege of exploring this passage with the kids here at PUMP. I love that they keep it simple, and I believe they are exploring their way to the heart and meaning of this parable. In fact, a couple of the kids said it’s not hard to understand because Jesus explains it! And, I think they do understand it at a very important level, they are…..fertile soil. Last week, I asked the kids to think of a person in the Bible and decide which kind of soil that person was and why. Their answers were amazing and thoughtful. One of the older boys answered, Cain, and he said that Cain started out as good soil, but that he got jealous and wanted what his brother had, so he became thorny soil. Pretty clever.

Someone else mentioned David, which sparked a conversation about David’s story and how it contains examples of each of the types of soil in it. David was at times packed soil, at times rocky soil, and later in his life, we see a lot of thorny soil. We also talked about David’s heart for God, which we likened to good soil. This led us into a conversation about how each one of us can be any one of the types of soil at various times in our life. Not surprisingly, Noah and Peter were also mentioned as well as a few more of the better known Bible characters. Church, I love having these discussions with our children. Honest conversations about our ancestors in the faith. Their successes. Their failures. Their hearts. The kids don’t make excuses for them and they don’t try to rescue them, or God. They listen to the stories, they mull them over, they sit with the ambiguities and questions, and they find meaning and a means of relating to the Gospel story. In their hands, it is Good News.

And, then, one of our youngest members mentioned The Bleeding Woman from Luke Chapter 8 as someone who was good soil. Then, another of our youngest members followed up with the Sinful Woman from Luke 7, as yet another example of good soil. I was a bit surprised, but the children all agreed and these women were likened to good soil because of their faith in Jesus. Those two comments stopped me in my tracks and completely changed the trajectory of my thinking about this parable.

We have spent time in class talking about soil, and the kind of soil that we want to be. We have spent a lot of time talking about how difficult it is to cultivate good soil, to be fertile soil. We also talked about how tough it can be to admit when we are packed soil, rocky soil, or thorny soil. We talked about the Sower, a lot, and we dwelt in pictures that depicted a farmer hastily and generously throwing out seeds. We dwelt in pictures of evil looking weeds choking out plants. Some significant and beautiful conversations have taken place as we cultivated soil during our time together. I have no doubt that God was generously sowing, watering, and growing seed as we dwelt in this passage and reflected on many of the teachings that we have engaged over the last few months. This has been one of those times when I learned more from the kids they can could ever have learned from me.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about Luke 8:4-15. I think sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge our part in the process of cultivation. It makes sense to me, why not leave it all to the Sower, HE is good at it, and it is HE who really makes the soil good anyway. It is God who makes things grow. Other times, I think we overemphasize our part in the cultivation process - we become the weed that chokes out the work that Christ is trying to produce in us. As is the case with most parables, in our reading, we tend to emphasize a particular aspect of the story. It is natural to emphasize the Sower, or to emphasize the Seeds, or to emphasize the Soil. I have heard good sermons on each! But, this month, dwelling in this passage with children, has helped me to see the relationship between the three.

This parable shows us the divine relationship between Sower, seed, and soil. The truth is….there will be no harvest without a Sower. There will be no harvest without Seeds. And, there will be no harvest without Soil. The relationship between them is special and it is essential to a harvest. The Sower, indiscriminately and scandalously throws out the Seeds, the Word, the teachings, “love your enemy,” “if you want to save your life, you must lose it,” “don’t worry about the things of this world.” That crazy Sower takes a risk, as He sows Kingdom seeds in the Soil, in us, in the world that He loves. It may be good soil, it may not be, but the seeds are sown anyway. And, the good soil, we are told, produces a harvest. A huge harvest. How interesting it is to think about the seeds that have been sown already, in each one of us. Seeds waiting to grow. Seeds in the process of growing. Makes me wonder what God is calling us to do in the process? It makes me wonder, what is the Sower up to, right now, in this room, in this church, in this neighborhood?

Of course, we must be cautious about using this parable to label ourselves, or anyone else, or even our churches. We must also be very careful not to think that we alone can cultivate good soil or produce a harvest. Any farmer or gardener will tell you that planting is a humbling endeavor. It IS God who makes things grow. But, we must also be willing to hear Jesus’ words in verses 8 through 10. Jesus says that we need to use our eyes, and ears, to see, and to hear. This isn’t the first time that we see this phrase or phrases like it in Scripture. Truly, the relationship between the Sower, the Seed, and the Soil requires seeing and hearing. I think that can be said of all relationships. As it relates to this parable, I think we can make a strong case that good soil is that which is ready to receive, ready to see and to hear Christ, ready to listen and to act. Perhaps all that is needed for growth is a willingness to listen? The children in this room have caused me to wonder how willing I am to do just that. I hope I am not alone in thinking that I have a market on the production of good soil?! Honestly, it is all too easy to leave this story with a trite understanding of what good soil is.

However, Luke’s narratives almost always contain a surprise ending for those who would listen. It is a great thing for us to decide that we want to be “good soil.” This is the turn that this parable seems to lead us to, right? The question….What kind of soil are you? What kind of soil do you want to be? The “good” Christian wants to be – “good” soil. Right? Absolutely! YET, who is it that hear and see, and cling, and bear fruit? In Luke’s Gospel, the children had it right….it is women who bleed, it is men who collect taxes, and women with sinful lifestyles. It is Roman soldiers, prisoners, and children. It is friends of paralyzed men. The Gospel truth is that the good soil in Luke, the folks bearing fruit in these stories, are not the religious folks, but the poor, the lame, and the blind. Those who have heard the Word, who have seen the Word, who have believed the Word, and who have responded in faith. I am now convinced that the people in Luke who bear fruit are the people who believe they NEED the Sower, and that they NEED the Word. They desperately need God. They desperately need Jesus. They need Jesus to come their home, or speak a word of healing. They need the Sower. Do I? Do you? Do we? God used our children this week to make me consider these questions. They were able to consider Christ’s message and see The Bleeding Woman as good soil.

The kids at our church have me thinking that, perhaps, what Jesus is saying in this parable, is that good soil is a heart that is ready to see and to hear. Good soil begins with the recognition that we too, we too, are in some way, poor, lame, and blind. We are the disciples who fall away when troubles come on account of the Word, we are the rich young ruler, unable to part with our riches. We, are the religious leaders who hear, but do not understand. We, are the believers who struggle to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Knowing that, being willing to listen, and recognizing our need for God, makes it possible for us to be good soil.

Church, let us endeavor to be good soil, but let us also remember that good soil is the product of divine relationship between Sower, and Seed, and Soil. Let us remember that it is absolutely dependent on our willingness to see, and to hear, and to recognize our need. Let us stop thinking that Good Soil comes in a perfect packet, let us remember that it is made perfect by the one who makes it grow. Let us be like little children, who are able to read this passage, and see that a hurting and ostracized woman, is, good soil.

Thank God for the good soil that is our children, His children. On numerous occasions, God has used them to humble and inspire me. This week, the most hopeful word in this passage was found in verse 15. It says, “they patiently, produce a huge harvest.” The word patiently has been a word of mercy for me this week. I struggle to see, to hear, and to act in faith. I struggle to be and to recognize good soil. Yet, I find hope in knowing that the divine relationship is one of patience. The fruit that the Lord wishes to produce in me, is fruit that Lord also bears. The Sower is patient. May we be good listeners. May we recognize our need for Sower and Seed. May we be able to look into a hurting world, into the eyes of those who suffer, and see good soil 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Theology of Surprise

The last few years, I have been a diligent note-taker, or ethnographer. I write things down on paper. Things I hear. Things I see. Things I read. Emotions. You name it. As I look back at these writings, the one word that can describe the last 4(ish) years of living in Portland is surprise. I have been surprised by people, all kinds of people, and in many ways, good and bad, and for different reasons. I have surprised myself by going through a process of spiritual recovery, learning to accept myself, both the good and the bad, and working towards wholeness. I have surprised myself by leaning into my imperfections, not being at peace with them, yet not being ashamed of them, hiding them, or running from them, but facing them. Mostly, I have been surprised by God. God has blown me away the last four years. I don’t quite know how to put this into words yet. What I can articulate is my belief that God is busy in the world, very busy in fact, and surprise-surprise, working in places, and through people, that I never expected. God is in the boundary-breaking business, the blow-your-mind business, the mending business, the healing business, and is always about the business of justice, mercy, and faith. God always has been. The ways that God chooses to demonstrate this, and the people that God uses to demonstrate this, have continued to surprise me. Most of the time, those surprises are pleasant, other times I have to remember that God doesn't really care about my addiction to the predictable and familiar.

I have been journaling about this and am calling it the Theology of Surprise. More posts to come, for now, here is a Communion Reflection that I wrote for the recent Women in Ministry Conference in Kansas City.

Read: John 4:27-42
27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers. 42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

The text says that Jesus’ disciples were surprised to find him talking with a woman. Why were they surprised? Well, there are many intriguing takes on that question. “They were surprised because she was a woman.”  “They were surprised because she was a Samaritan.” “They were surprised because she had a history.” There are many reasons that the disciples may have been surprised to find their teacher speaking with a woman, but, what it all adds up to, is that it was simply not traditional in any sense of the New Testament world. So, it surprised them to see Him speaking with a woman (incidentally, the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone)…….I don’t think we like surprise in the church. No, I don’t think we like surprise at all. We like predictability. We like familiarity. We don’t like surprise.

And yet…surprise is present throughout Scripture. It is laced throughout the Old Testament, and it emanates from the New Testament, particularly the ministry of Christ. “Moses, you are going to lead my people out of slavery.” Surprise! “Esther, you must talk to the king to avoid the genocide of your people.” Surprise! “Mary, you are with child.” Surprise! “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to your house today.” Surprise! “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Surprise!

Brothers and sisters, we need to expect to be surprised by God. If Jesus is involved, we will be surprised. Let’s stop fighting it. Let’s stop working so hard for predictability and familiarity. Let’s anticipate surprise. Let’s expect the unexpected. Let’s count on it. Some of the best surprises in Scripture can be found around a table. Surprising guests lists at surprising venues....the home of a prominent tax collector....a woman with an alabaster upper room and the washing of feet....the Body of Christ....the Blood of Christ....leading to a cross....

And empty tomb. Surprise!

May the Bread, and the Cup remind us that Jesus has done and will do surprising things. May the Bread and the Cup remind us that God commissions His body, you, and me, to do unexpected, yes, surprising things. May a hurting world, a hurting city, neighborhood, or family, be surprised by our level of engagement, our dedication, and our love, as we image a great and surprising God.

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” -John 4:34

Father, as we reflect on the Bread and the Cup, and the woman at the well; Your goodness, Your compassion, and Your mercy astound us. Father, may we also be a people who expect to be surprised by You. May we be a people who evoke surprise in others. Thank you, Father, for doing the hard work……thank you, for doing the hard work. We are the beneficiaries of your labor of love. Help us to labor with you as long as we have breath. And Father, please continue to surprise us. Amen.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Does Your Teacher Eat with Tax Collectors and Sinners?

It's been so long, I almost forgot my password! In any event, I have come out of hiding, very Bobby Fischeresque (if only I played chess), to post a book review because this particular book has captured my attention and I have been unable to stop thinking about it.

Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? This is the poignant question that Richard Beck addresses in his book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Beck is an experimental psychologist and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas. Unclean explores the relationship between notions of purity, mission, theology, and psychology in light of Matthew 9:9-13, in which Jesus is questioned by some Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners. This book is Beck’s attempt to get to the root of Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Unclean is written to and for the church as an admonition to become aware of the psychology of disgust and how it is manifest within our churches. Disgust psychology is that innate part of us that feels revulsion toward anything deemed unclean, such as bodily waste, dirty food, people, actions, etc. Disgust psychology creates within us the desire to separate ourselves from things or people who are deemed unclean or impure. It causes us to build walls in order to maintain our own purity, and serves to protect us from foreign and unclean substances and diseases. This innate reflex has some positive protective aspects. However, it also strongly, and detrimentally, influences us at a moral level causing us to exclude those that we view as the “other”. What does this have to do with theology? Beck purports that there is, “An affective, experiential, and psychological aspect to theological reflection. We are pulled toward certain theological systems and repelled, even repulsed, by others.” (5)

Disgust properties create sociological barriers and motivate acts of exclusion, which is what we see happening in Matthew 9. The Pharisees’ “disgust properties” are shown as Jesus rejects long-held psychological, sociological and theological barriers by eating with those deemed by the Pharisees to be unclean. I found this to be quite compelling because I have always considered the Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus as stemming more from His oppositional theological stances. Beck made me dig a bit deeper into the psychological aspect of that tension. There is more at work here than just religious and social norms, Jesus is also messing with psychological constructs. Beck asserts that disgust psychology is still at work in our churches as it protects the “sacred and holy” from descending into the “vulgar and profane.” Ultimately, Beck argues that this psychology inhibits hospitality and leads to missional failure because it comes in direct conflict with the character and actions of Christ. Jesus rejects this form of “holiness,” pushes for mercy, and at the same time, Jesus purifies the contagion.

The strongest and most thought-provoking part of Beck’s book is his compelling assertions about the universalizing power of the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper is the central act of worship. It is the place where all are invited, guests with no merit, by our gracious and merciful Host, Christ, to a fellowship of solidarity, unity, and mission. Yet in many places, past and present, the Table is a place of exclusion and hierarchy. This was not the way Jesus treated the Table. Beck states, “The Lord’s Supper universalizes language of family and kinship. People dislocated by race, blood ties, and socioeconomic class are embraced and included through their participation in the Lord’s Supper.” (113) Indeed, Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship challenged notions of superiority by proclaiming radical egalitarianism within the Kingdom of God. Beck purports that the Lord’s Supper speaks into our notions of purity and separation. Communion is deep and powerful psychological intervention. (114)

I found Beck’s thoughts on Communion to be convicting and empowering. I had not considered the profound notion that the Eucharist alters, remakes, and re-configures my psyche, the psyche of my church! Beck states, “The Lord’s Supper, through its metaphors and the missional practices it promotes, is a ritual that is fundamentally altering and remaking the psyche. The Lord’s Supper reconfigures the way we experience otherness. More specifically, the Lord’s Supper is a practice that dismantles the psychic fissures within the heart that create otherness.” (113)

Unclean is a compelling book. It caused me to think about the hospitality of God and my church. It caused me to consider my nature - am I a hospitable being? (I do have a very high gag reflex when it comes to smells. This was quite entertaining when our kids were still in diapers). Unclean also made me think about the places in my life where I have seen the radical and boundary-breaking work of Christ. On Thursday nights in Portland there is a large group of Christ-followers, from all denominations, that meet under the Burnside Bridge to eat with and care for the increasing population of homeless persons in the city. This is a place where I see and experience the dismantling of psychic fissures that create otherness. It is not uncommon to break bread with a drug addict, paint the fingernails of a prostitute, or wash some seriously dirty feet. I hate feet. They gross me out. (Insert gag reflex here). Yet, I have sat under that bridge and washed the dirty, smelly feet of a 19-year-old homeless kid with HIV. I am certain that this is the dismantling work of Christ. I love looking around that bridge and seeing the diverse group of people, “clean” and “unclean” breaking bread together, washing feet, cutting hair, and praying together. Truly, Jesus is cleansing all of us. Beck helped clarify that for me.

I am thankful to Beck for challenging me to think deeply about hospitality and mercy, about psychology, theology, and mission. Beck asserts that, “Hospitality is about selfhood. It is that space where the dignity of every human person is vouchsafed, embraced, and protected deep within the heart of the church.”(140) This, is the kind of space that I long for my church to be, that I long to be. Beck has further opened my eyes to the realization that hospitality and welcome requires self-assessment and intentionality on our part. He has caused me to see the power in Jesus’ words, “mercy, not sacrifice.” I believe that we all need to look at ourselves and our churches critically, particularly in light of the life and teachings of Christ. We must ask, “Why does our teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And, we must ask, “Why don’t we?”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anger Induced Walkabout

I’ve been going for a bit of a walkabout in Hebrews. You know, Crocodile Dundee style, where you take off and spend months wondering around getting to know the lay of the land, and ultimately yourself. It is a gooood book. So much to chew on, that is, if you are looking for some good solid food (Hebrews 5:11-14). I guess you could just read it through, but it’s best to bring a shovel and dig in, confront the adolescent within you, emerge a woman! (Or man, as the case may be).

I should start by saying that it was anger that prompted this journey. Cancer. Another beloved relative. Again. Those words seem so big, and so devastating. It didn’t take long for me to find Hebrews 3:6, “But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” I needed this message badly, and stayed here for a good long while. Christ is faithful, we are His, have courage, hold on to hope. When I find myself asking why, or getting angry, this is my prayer. Each time I say it, I feel a little more honest, a little more comforted, and a little less alone. The author of Hebrews is right, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (4:12-13).

On this walkabout, I am learning about a great priest who is able to sympathize with my weaknesses, and in whom I can find grace and mercy in a time of need. During Holy Week, I lingered in Hebrews 9 and 10, and was encouraged by the Mediator of a new and better covenant. I read about the limitations of sacrifices, and about the limitless love and power that encompass one final sacrifice. And, I am learning about faith, and my need for more of it. I am less angry, most days. But, the most significant thing I have come to know, is that I am not alone on this journey, Christ is with me. Likewise, my loved ones do not suffer alone, Christ suffers with them. It’s been raw, and tough, and a more than a little comforting, so far.

Today, I’m hanging out in Hebrews 12, wrestling with the things in my life that can be shaken, and the things in my life that cannot. I’ll be here a while.

26At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." 27The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29for our "God is a consuming fire."

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday, I'm in Love

The Cross is on my mind today, enough to prompt a new post to this long neglected blog. My head is a mixed bag of emotions……which one should I write about? Maybe it’s the sun trying to peek through the clouds on this otherwise rainy day, or maybe it’s the optimistic beat of the song Pandora is playing for me, but I’m going with Thankful. I’m thankful that a couple thousand years ago, God chose to do something that still changes my life today.

Admittedly, I have a lot to learn about discipleship, I’m not a great student. But, I love my Teacher, and I’m thankful. I’m thankful for every nail, for mercy, for freedom, for purpose, and for hope. I’m thankful that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord. Truly, the implications of The Cross are as pervasive today as they ever were. It’s Good Friday, thank Goodness!

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. 20 By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. 21 And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, 22 let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.” Hebrews 10:19-22