A few years ago, I found myself in conversation with a wise, older woman. She was a midwife and I was asking her about her work and in turn, she asked me if I wanted to have children some day.
“Someday” I said, in the highly-practiced, non-committal way I had been answering the question since my mid-twenties.
“It will teach you to relax your need for control,” she responded, not at all snarkily, but genuinely – the dark blue pools of her smile-creased eyes gazing deep into my being.
I laughed, but made a mental note:
Work harder on burying evidence of type-A personality.
Today, I am not too concerned you know I’m a little bit neurotic and quite a bit of a stress-prone, overachieving perfectionist. Rather, I am concerned about hiding the truth from you. As a pastor, I talk a lot about being primarily interested in walking alongside a community in authenticity, in relationships of presence as we spiral closer to each other and the Holy. But to do more than just pay lip service to that vision, I have to be willing to live in a place of authenticity and presence…which is a scary place for most of us to be. Being authentic means telling the truth about who we are – not moving from a place of shame, but a place of truth-telling, courage, and compassion.
So, I want to tell you a piece of the journey I’ve been on in the temporal space of the last 6 months. I want to tell you because I think that you want to experience life as a present, integrated, embodied and connected being, too. I think you might not always know how to root yourself in this embodied moment when there are things to worry about – the mortgage, credit card debt, your kids, your aging parents, your partner, your job, your … etc., etc. And I want to tell you this because I believe becoming who we are (present, integrated, embodied and connected) is a profoundly spiritual journey.
So here’s how this story begins – six months ago with an invitation to encounter anxiety in a way I have never before experienced.
I use invitation on purpose – because, for me anyway, pregnancy hasn’t forced me to relinquish control. I can still choose to grit my teeth and plow through. It might not serve me very well, but it is an option.
The only other option that seems available to me is an invitation to another way of being, which doesn’t involve denying my experience, but is curious about what it would be like to be fully present to my experience – even if that means sitting with anxiety, loss of control, and fear.
I suspect feeling so close to the invitation is triggered by the bodiliness of my experience. I am a person who lives mostly in my head – who has to practice starting sentences with “I feel…” because my natural inclination is to say “I think.”
But I did not think I was so exhausted I could sleep entire Saturdays away the first 6 weeks, or think I was sick every day from week 7-20, or think the baby moved on the Wednesday of our 21st week together.
My body is holding knowledge in a way I didn’t know was possible, feeling and mediating reality in a way I have never trusted it to do. This is a new (and frightening) way to move about in the world.
My mind cannot control what my body is experiencing.
I’ve had a plentiful amount of late night (and early night, and afternoon, and morning) sessions with myself, mind in overdrive as I maneuver my way through whatever anxiety I’m currently experiencing, using every tool in my bag to take back control from my weepy heart or tired spirit or nervous body. It works – takes great mental effort, considerable time, and lasts for … approximately 30 minutes.
It will teach you to relax your need for control …
Yes, but only if I welcome it as a teacher.
Maybe you don’t have any issues – no anxiety or worry or self-doubt or fear or shame … But on the off-chance you do, I wonder what is making itself available to you as a teacher?
What is inviting you to enter time in a different way?
As I’ve been on this journey, I’ve started to think about time in moments, rather than hours or weeks or trimesters. Rather than focus on the anxiety of the results of a test in the next few hours, or what *might* happen during the next 13 weeks (and beyond), I’ve been trying to breathe space into moments.
What am I feeling in this moment? The one I find myself in currently?
If I find myself feeling anxiety, can I just hold it – rather than trying to reason it away?
Can I remember the presence of God in this moment?
Can I notice what else is happening – am I breathing or holding my breath? What does it feel like to inhale and to pay attention to the exhale?
In these moments, time seems to become more spacious. It is not a moment my brain is convincing me to “get through” – it is just a moment to be fully present in.
My dad’s been sick. Since mid-summer, our family has spiraled in and out of doctors appointments, phone calls relating a strange new symptom, medications that make things better and then worse. The path is just beginning to feel familiar to me, now. The cycle of seeing a new doctor, waiting anxiously by the phone for a report of the diagnosis, a wave of hopefulness that too soon gives way to fear. This is our new normal – it will be our pattern. It’s a little bit like liturgical time – repeating the same seasons over and over again, moving through familiar scriptures, living more deeply into the story of our faith by tracing our footsteps. What would it look like to be fully present in the liturgies of our lives? I imagine it would mean breathing into and with the familiar (even if uneasy) patterns of time. Being present in the moments. Holding space in the weight of the time that we find ourselves in – rather than working hard to occupy space in the past or the future.
As I begin to practice holding embodied spaciousness in time – I need ritual to remind me what I’m doing.
I need to burn a bit of sage and sit cross-legged in the middle of my bed, eyes closed and palms facing up in a receptive posture as I breathe slowly and deeply in the morning. This is the only way I know to pray right now – breathing into the certain flow of the current that is the Holy.
In the evening, I need to light candles and turn off the lamps, the television, my iPhone – reminding myself that there is a different way to move about in the world. We are not bound to the frantic pace of our anxious minds. We are meant to hold sacred space, to be present in the moments, to create spaciousness in time.
During the day, I need to see the beads of my prayer bracelet – a constant reminder that to enter into prayer is to enter kairos time – the time of the Holy, unbound by minutes and seconds, the fullness of time experienced in the presence of God.
I need these reminders and rituals because I am not practiced at moving through the world in this way. I succumb very easily to the rush of a lifestyle and a culture that moves as quickly as it can, toward some indeterminate goal, eyes closed to shut out whatever might distract and slow us down – as if moving quickly will prevent pain or sorrow or loss.
Where do you need to slow down – to experience time differently – to be fully present? I suspect it is within the space you struggle. Rather than pushing it away, what would happen if you welcomed it as your teacher? If you walked with it into the fullness of time?
You won’t be there alone – I will be here … burning sage, lighting candles, twisting the beads on my wrist … breathing, as together we learn what it means to become present to ourselves, to each other, and to God – to hold space in weighty time.
For my kindred ones who also find themselves traveling by night, from Jan Richardson’s Epiphany meditations:
All the time
you have spent
in the dark:
did you think it wasted?
I tell you
the dark is where
the map begins.
that feels so endless:
this is simply
the season for
Soon enough –
wait for it –
the hour will come
when your eyes
cannot help being drawn
toward the stars
and you will know what to do.
Every twig and scrap
you clutched to yourself
in your bewilderment:
now you know
its precise place
beneath the heavens
for the making of the path
that will lead you
In the morning,
when you find
that trail you had known
The road you now walk
follows the stars,
lighting the way
that opens beneath your feet,
and their blazing
delivered into day.
As we enter the season of Epiphany and the theme of light and brightness has entered the shadowlands, I thought I would write about how I have journeyed toward the light during what has been an unusually shadowy season. It has not been an easy Advent, but it has been a deep Advent and the gift it gave me was the absence of light.
Isaiah chapter 9 verses 2-7 are a familiar text used during Christmas – it references the hopelessness of God’s people in captivity to Babylon, calling them “those who lived in a land of deep darkness.” And it juxtaposes living in the shadow places with something altogether different – the experience of light breaking through. The prophet writes, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
The journey toward Christmas is summarized in that verse. Moving through Advent means a willingness to walk and live and be present in the land of shadows, holding hope that at some point, the night will be illuminated.
I wonder how we can identify with the prophet’s words if we ourselves haven’t spent time in the land of shadows. I wonder how and if we can understand the magnitude of illumination if we haven’t suffered the absence of light.
I’ve noticed that some of us have a habit, which I think is culturally induced, of responding to people who are in the midst of sorrow or grief or sadness with well-meaning suggestions for how to “recover.” And I suspect that we respond in the way we do because we ourselves are so uncomfortable with suffering. The less we are reminded of suffering, the more unlikely we will have to engage our own suffering – so we do our best to insulate ourselves from it.
The trouble with that response is that our capacity to be deeply spiritual, connected beings is never greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted. (1)
Spirituality and hope are borne in the shadowy places – in vulnerability and brokenness. Spirituality isn’t religion or tradition, nor is it that ambiguous Zeitgeist of the “spiritual but not religious.” Spirituality is the willingness to live fully human lives, to know – profoundly – who we are and to recognize the sense we have of Otherness, something beyond ourselves. It is a deep hunger for transcendent relationality.
I have never met a person who has developed a deep spirituality outside of the land of shadows. This is not to say that they permanently reside in that place – on the contrary, having dwelt in the dusk seems to make them more prepared to take up residence in the light, when it comes to them. If we want to be spiritual beings, we will have to be willing to enter into suffering.
This is where the light of Christmas breaks into Advent. In the midst of brokenheartedness, light shatters our suffering. Shockingly, the light that comes to us is just as vulnerable and fragile as we are. As though God understands our hesitance to be vulnerable, God goes before us. Wrapped in vulnerability, God comes to us as Emmanuel – the God who will struggle alongside us.
The illumination of Christmas doesn’t mean the suffering is over – because we’ve journeyed through the shadows of Advent doesn’t mean that we’ve entered the land of light. After tomorrow, the winter will still be long. But Christmas is a reminder that divine persistence has and does disrupt the shadows.
A lesser-used Christmas text from Isaiah is chapter 62 verses 6 through 12. Verse 12 refers to the naming of people and place … “And you shall be called, ‘Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.’”
This is another piece of prophecy – a promise that God will reconcile the people of God. It was for the people of Israel, but it is as much for us, too.
There are those among us who are journeying in the land of shadows, those for whom suffering is a constant companion. This journey might just be our greatest gift. This is where we will meet our spirituality, if we are willing to lean in with vulnerability. This is where we will learn to hope – born as a function of our struggle…we will learn it because we have experienced what it means to need it. This is the place we will hear God reminding us of our name – Sought Out, Persons Not Forsaken. And this is where we will recognize the light, when it comes to us, breaking the grip of suffering and death.
What kind of deliverance do you need? What is the good news you are waiting to hear? Even if you have given up, it is waiting for you. Death has lost its grip. The light has broken in. God is as present in the shadows as in the light. But within the shadows, we will learn who we are. Within them, we will learn that we are not forsaken. Within them, we will learn how to identify the light and receive the hope of the Holy One, born in struggle, born in vulnerability. May you recognize the significance of the baby in the manger – may you be overwhelmed (if only for a moment) by the love of Emmanuel, the God who will not forsake you – who journeys with you – who will deliver you into the light. May it be so.
(1) Brené Brown says something similar – that our capacity to be wholehearted humans is never greater than our capacity to be brokenhearted.
For folks in my congregation, the second Sunday of Advent was spent at home (except for the handful of good souls who were at the church fixing the damage of broken pipes). In the Willamette Valley, even a little bit of snow throws us into a tailspin. Anyway … our church (and several others) cancelled worship hoping our congregants would stay safe and warm at home. This is the sermon I would have preached that day. I haven’t done the work I should have done to make it flow as a written piece rather than spoken from the pulpit, which might make the reading of it slightly awkward. Forgive me …
In the order of worship it was titled, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Well, friends, on this second Sunday of Advent we’ve arrived at John the Baptist. You might prefer another years set of Advent texts to this one – maybe Mark’s account of John the Baptist which does not carry quite so harsh a tone nor refer to certain members of those gathered as a “brood of vipers.” But if we were hoping for imagery of a slightly-crazed hippie living sustainably in the wilderness of Judea on a diet of native species, reciting old stories in a good-natured kind of way for anyone who might be around to listen – we’ve come to the wrong account of John.
Most of us think of Advent as a long prelude to Christmas … at home, our opening of the Advent calendar corresponds with tree trimming and holiday parties. But in the Church, Advent is not meant to serve our nostalgic desires. In the Church, in our tradition, we are in the midst of a long and even difficult walk toward Christmas. Advent is meant to be hard work. In the darkness, we’re asked to be honest with ourselves, to locate ourselves in the wilderness, and to walk with faith toward Christmas, anyway.
John interrupts our casual movements with a message that is not easy to hear, that might, in fact, even be painful for us to listen to – and yet, is essential to the Advent journey.
This morning, I want to focus on three points in the text – Location, Repentance, and Nostalgia.
When Peter and I were shopping for a new home, there was a single priority that trumped every other thing that might have been on our wish list – and that was Location. We wanted to find the very best location we possibly could within the budget we had set for ourselves. Turns out physical location is important in this morning’s text as well.
Wilderness functions in a variety of ways in this text – in Israel’s history, for example, wilderness is known as a place of revelation and renewal but simultaneously, as a place of judgment.
Wilderness is also marginal space – and the author of Matthew goes out of the way to remind us of that. The main character in this story is a crazy-looking prophet (and prophets are never accepted members of society) making his home in the wilderness and the people of Jerusalem (a central city) make this great metaphorical movement by leaving the center, and journeying to the margins. The prophet doesn’t show up in their space – the people are drawn to marginal space.
The journey during Advent involves a sojourn in the wilderness. But like John the Baptist, it won’t force itself on us. I wonder how many of us have actually made the Advent journey – leaving our comfortable center and moving to the margins? Making a choice to go where the wild things are. Or conversely, how many of us watch Advent come and go on the calendar from a safe distance? The point is – not many of us choose the wilderness journey. Some of us are forced there by circumstance, but the Advent invitation to be in the wild doesn’t exactly fill one with holiday cheer, does it?
One of the things that is waiting for us in the wilderness is judgment….what are John’s first words of the text? Repent – for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Reptenance is not exactly a popular topic. We have deeply embedded reactions to language of judgment. But some of this, I think, is a case of needing to recover the meaning of words. The Greek word for repent, and the word John uses in the first verse of Matthew chapter 3 is metanoia. It means: to change one’s mind. It is the same word that is sometimes translated as “conversion.” So if you have a hard time with John’s language as it’s been translated into English – read him saying, “Change your minds! Change your hearts! The kingdom of heaven has come near!” That’s closer to the original text, anyway. In this context, he’s calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea to re-align their hearts and minds with God’s ways – with the Kingdom of heaven. I have a hard time believing that any one of us doesn’t need to hear the same proclamation today. The “judgment” John brings us in the wilderness is the accusation that we are not living nor are we ready to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve grown too comfortable with our own impoverished reality to even recognize how unprepared we are to live in God’s reality.
This is where Nostalgia gets dangerous. John says “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” It kindof sounds like mean-spirited, nonsensical raging, but it’s not. John is denouncing our comfort, our complacency, with the way things are.
If John was speaking to us today, instead of saying “Do not presume to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’” he would say “It’s not good enough to be satisfied with the past! It’s not good enough to call yourself a Christian and be comfortable in this world and its ways!” And instead of the tree being cut down stuff – John would say: “Take responsibility!”
See, the Jesus that John is announcing will inaugurate a Kingdom based on radical acceptance, but this Jesus also requires us to participate in making the Kingdom of Heaven a reality on earth – to bear good fruit.
So the danger then and now is that our nostalgia has led us to complacency. We believe we are ready to receive the Messiah, we’re ready to rush through Advent to Christmas but John shatters our false beliefs and tells us that we are completely unprepared for the Kingdom. We are not truly ready to participate in the commonwealth of God because we are not ready to face reality in the wilderness.
Going where the wild things are – to the wilderness – requires that we accept this judgment – the call to repentance. It requires that we get honest with ourselves about how we cannot even imagine God’s reality because we’ve become so comfortable with our own. And it requires us admitting that we aren’t quite at Christmas yet – we’re not ready to receive the Messiah, who will and does change everything.
John’s interruption of our peaceful, calculated Advent journey is not unlike the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our own realities. It is rattling – it is jarring – it is uncomfortable and it always requires Repentance – Metanoia – Change on our part.
I cannot presume to know how you need to realign your reality with the Kingdom of Heaven. Part of my re-alignment involves trading my insecurity and instability for the thoughts of God – placing myself in truth instead of next to the truth. You may need something similar – or something completely different, whatever it is … we will have to go through the wilderness to come out on the other side.
And I resist the wilderness with everything that is within me. Because it’s terrifying, really. The wilderness journey requires change and even though this change will mean learning how to participate in the Kingdom, my nostalgia is overpowering. It tells me my old way of being and doing might not be working so well for me but at least it is familiar, it is comfortable and that is so much better than the unknown, right? Wrong, friends.
The unknown is where the Messiah is, where the Kingdom of Heaven waits for our participation.
There’s a post circulating around Facebook right now about a tribe in Africa where the birthdate of a child is not calculated from a date of birth or conception but from the day that child was a thought in its mother’s mind. The account says that when a woman decides she is ready for a child, she sits under a tree and listens until she hears the song of the child that wants to be born to her. Once she’s heard the song of the child, she teaches it to the man who will be the father of the child and they sing the song together, inviting the child to life. When the woman is pregnant, she teaches the child’s song to the midwives and old women of the village so that as the child is born, the song is the first thing it hears. And then, other villagers are taught the song and as the child grows up – if he falls down or stubs his toe – someone will pick him up and sing it to him. And then as the child goes through puberty rites, the people of the village sing her song in her honor. As the child becomes an adult – there is another occasion when the village sings to the child. If the person ever commits a crime or dishonored, the individual is called to stand in the center of the village and the whole community circles around that person, singing their song to them. The song is sung in marriage ceremonies, and at death rituals – one last time. (1)
That tradition is about identity. It reminds me that there is someone who knows us – who knows absolutely the core of us – who we were as a possibility, who we were as a child, our most shameful moments and our greatest accomplishments and who has only ever called us, “Beloved” and sung our song to us.
You and I are called to the wilderness journey of Advent. We are called to re-locate ourselves outside of what is comfortable and examine our lives, earnestly. Are we aligned with the Kingdom of Heaven? Most of us will find that we have some work to do. And if we are willing to do it – if we are willing to ready ourselves for the Messiah and experience the shattering change of moving from the comfortable to the possible – we will not be alone. God, Emmanuel, is with us – calling our name, singing us home into the Kingdom. It will not be easy – but this is the true movement to Christmas, through the darkness of Advent. Amen.
For too many reasons that are either uninteresting or involved to write about, this Advent has been unusually dark for me.
The good thing about dwelling in darkness during Advent is that it works out well with the Advent trajectory – the long journey through mystery, uncertainty, and anxiety toward the hope of light.
I’ve been sort-of trudging along … uncertainty, anxiety, and worry as my fellows. They have been much more present and real to me than the promise of a flickering light I can’t really see, anyway.
My colleague said to me this morning, “You know who Nelson Mandela is most like in the Bible?” I shook my head. “Joseph” she said.”Both of them had to believe in something all evidence denied.”
That’s exactly what the light feels like to me right now – something the evidence might not support.
The movement through the darkness of Advent is necessary. It’s the journey we are supposed to travel as we wait for the birth of the Christ child. And yet, I have a tendency to get stuck in the darkness – to forget how to recognize the light.
Most of the time, I have to intentionally practice recognizing light if I want to see light. Most of the time …
Yesterday, I was burrowed into darkness and listlessly shuffling papers around on my desk, sorting things into shredding/recycling piles when I picked up an Advent calendar I handed out to my congregation two Sundays ago. I hadn’t taken one home for myself, so hadn’t been following along with the movement of the calendar through Scripture and short directives like, “show kindness” and “recognize newness.” My fingers traced the rows of circled dates searching for December 10th … my index finger drew a line underneath the short phrase that accompanied a Psalm for the 10th, “Fear not.” I shivered the slightest bit. That was appropriate direction for my current mental state. I stared at the Scripture reference for a few seconds … Psalm 46 … what was that? Shuffling more papers to find the Bible buried underneath a stack of something, I flipped to the middle. “Psalm 46” I muttered, as I began reading it under my breath.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, through the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
I had begun blinking back tears from the moment I read “refuge.” Psalm 46 is tattooed on my right forearm. At least, part of it is – the next two verses:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
Except, on my forearm it uses the Hebrew personal pronoun for city: her.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when the morning dawns.
I got that tattoo to remind myself that even in the most insurmountable darkness, God is present … within me, beside me, over me, encompassing my being. I got that tattoo because it is so easy for me to forget – God is my refuge, a very present help in trouble. Therefore I will not fear.
I had forgotten it again, yesterday. But, I did recognize that I had encountered the Light reminding me of truth.
During Advent, we light candles to remind us of light, to remember the way Christ entered human history to show us how to live in hope, peace, joy, and love. But we also light candles in faith that hope and peace and joy and love exist – that they will come, as surely as God was born in a baby, even if all evidence testifies to the contrary.
Last week I wrote a note to my congregation in our weekly newsletter about vision in the context of Isaiah 65:17-25.
I’ve been thinking a lot about apocalyptic texts, lately. Mostly about how the Christian community needs to recover the meaning of “apocalypse” from a cultural tradition that has so misaligned the term with destruction, chaos, and the end of the world. Christian culture is notorious for this – using the book of Revelation to create fear-based propaganda (for example, the Left Behind series), but so does popular/secular culture – think: The Walking Dead (Zombie Apocalypse = end of the world).
But, as least as far as faith is concerned, using apocalyptic language as fear-mongering is manipulation of the text.
Apocalypse refers to vision, or revelation, or disclosure. And very often, Scripture uses apocalyptic literature to disclose hope.
That’s what happens in Isaiah 65. The vision the prophet discloses is that of a hopeful future, a project the people of God are invited to co-create alongside the Creator.
The same is true in John’s Revelation: In Rev. 21 the dwelling place of God descends to earth – this is no escapist theology, this is the ultimate earth-affirming vision … in the hoped-for future, the very dwelling place of God is not in some far-off heaven, but on earth.
These apocalyptic visions are meant to carry us into the future – giving us eyes to see what is possible.
And yet, humanity often fails to live into a hoped-for future.
Typhoon Haiyan reminds me that once again, we’ve failed into our vocation as keepers and tenders of the earth.
The consequences of humanity’s greed and disregard for the planet is an old story. Consider Jeremiah 4:
For my people are foolish and do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good. I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all the cities were laid in ruins …
The prophet makes a connection between the evil of humanity and the un-doing of Creation, the destruction of the earth. I resist reading this text metaphorically, because I don’t believe it is a metaphorical text. The biblical writers understood the interconnectedness of humanity and other-than-human Creation. They understood that human sin had the capacity to undo the world.
On the heels of Typhoon Haiyan, the theologian Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite wrote an article for The Washington Post linking Haiyan with moral evil.
She distinguishes between moral and natural evil (natural evil being the suffering and destruction inherent in nature) and moral evil being something that correlates to human sin.
Like the prophets before her, Dr. Thistlethwaite calls humanity to assess our responsibility for storms like Sandy and Haiyan. She writes,
“There is moral evil to be seen in these ‘superstorms,’ I believe, on two levels. First, there is the moral evil of continuing to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, producing global warming. Second, however, is the moral evil of climate change denial, that is, those who would continue to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that violent climate change is upon us and it is accelerating.”
Maybe the language feels strong to you – but it seems right in line with Jeremiah warning the people of God that continuing to practice evil would result in consequence to the earth…not because ecological devastation is an act of God, but because ecological devastation is a natural reaction to humanity’s disregard for Creation.
Climate scientists continue to warn that superstorms are the consequence of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels, and we continue to participate in a system that relies upon business as usual.
Our sacred stories call us to resist Babylon … to refuse to cooperate with a life-denying system. They even tell us HOW to make that movement. Thistlethwaite refers to the trinity of confession, repentance, and change. She calls humanity to confess in the reality of anthropogenic climate change; repent of our action (and inaction) in perpetuating the degradation of the planet; and to take responsibility for creating personal and public change.
The prophets call us to the same movements – confession, repentance, action. But, they offer us something that Thistlethwaite does not. They disclose hope. They provide us with visions and revelations: the New Jerusalem and the River of Life, the Holy living and moving among us, renewal and abundance. The biblical text does not fail to provide us with a vision of a future we can live into. But such a vision is missing from these discussions. We cannot confess, repent, and move to action without a hopeful vision of what we’re moving toward.
Our modern day prophets (scientists, theologians, and faith leaders alike) are calling us to act on behalf of the planet. But who is disclosing hope? We cannot move into a hoped-for future if no vision of that future exists. Maybe faith communities have forgotten that part of their vocation – to recover the meaning of apocalypse, to announce vision, and to narrate the kind of future we have the capacity to co-create alongside each other and our Creator.
May we be roused from our amnesia, and create hopeful visions. There is no time to waste.
** you can join me and the Corvallis 350 group at the Benton County Courthouse at 6 pm tomorrow night (Friday, Nov 22) as we hold a candlelight vigil for the Philipines. Because vision must be accompanied by action.
One of my worst character traits is that I need to know more stuff than everyone else does.
In the classroom this meant that I needed to catch every reference to every obscure scholar dropped by a professor in a lecture. Nodding my head, I assumed my peers understood this cue to mean I was tracking. Even if they weren’t.
At home it means that I need to already-know-everything-there-is-to-know-about-that when my husband starts to tell me something he heard on NPR.
I could give you worse, more annoying proofs of my habit but I suspect you are already considering un-friending me so I won’t dispense further evidence.
Given my obsessive need to KNOW – imagine my HORROR when I stumbled across a Facebook conversation a few weeks ago involving a theological debate I had never heard of.
It was taking place in a clergy group I’m a part of and it revolved around the work of scholar Jane Schaberg, a feminist biblical scholar who wrote The Illegitimacy of Jesus. Schaberg’s work (published in 1987) contends that Jesus was not conceived of a virgin, but was the result of Mary’s rape by a Roman centurion.
I did not hear about this in seminary. Well … maybe I did. But, I did not know there were scholars who took such a theory seriously.
So, I ordered Schaberg’s book and I feverishly read every article she’d written on the illegitimacy of Jesus that I could find. In the end, I was left with some cognitive dissonance. Schaberg was a good scholar. Her work is persuasive, compelling, and well supported. But the message of the Reconciler as a product of violence against women … that makes me squirm.
Some initial confessions:
I do not hold to the necessity of the virgin birth. Is it possible that Jesus was born of a virgin? Sure. I believe that humanity has not ever been able to understand God, nor conceive of the possibilities of God. I choose to believe that the Holy is capable of so much more than I can understand or conceptualize or rationalize. Also … I think Lewis Carroll was calling us all to convert from pessimism when he wrote, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” I am working on optimism. Still – I believe it’s more likely that Mary was not a virgin, and that Jesus entered the world in the normal way (which is still miraculous) and that the virgin birth narrative was a product of culture. Regardless, I affirm that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – that he was the Christ, the son of God, the healer and reconciler of all things.
I am vehemently pro-choice. Terminating a pregnancy is never an ideal option. Sometimes, it is the best option. In a world that continues to marginalize women, devaluing their health, safety, and well-being, it is sometimes the only option.
So back to Jesus as the product of rape …
My initial squirming around Schaberg’s thesis has mostly to do with how I think certain people would manipulate that story to further perpetuate control of women’s bodies and amplify the culture of shame and guilt that some of the faith community create around abortion. I can just hear the manipulation … it’s the ultimate trump card – God makes ALL things good … even the most horrific acts of violence are redeemed by God the Father. Having sat through my share of seminary classes listening to my peers (future pastors and scholars) tell stories of God redeeming this woman or that woman’s history of sexual abuse and violence, it’s not a long shot to imagine how the illegitimate birth of Jesus could become a tool of the sexism that already runs rampant in much of Christianity.
But as I continued to read Schaberg’s works I wondered about the potential of a positive narrative for women in this story.
Mary has long been regarded as an ambiguous figure for women. Christian history has tended to narrowly place women in either the “virgin” or “whore” category. Mary clearly falls into the better of those two categories, yet defies biology and fulfills the only honorable vocation available to her (reducing her identity to the ability to give birth)…a path no real woman can aspire to. She’s mythic – completely unattainable for real woman looking to see themselves reflected in the Scripture.
If Mary was read as a real woman, living so tangibly with the reality of violence against women (as all women have and do), how would she become more dimensional? If rape was a part of her story, how would her identity begin to push against what it has been collapsed into?
And isn’t the story of the social outcast partnering with God in healing the fabric of the broken world a familiar narrative? It’s the story used time and time again in both the First and Second Testaments to tell of God’s commitment to love and reconciliation. What if Mary occupies a larger role in that story than we have previously imagined?
You should read Schaberg’s work – she addresses the genealogy in Matthew brilliantly – asking thoughtful questions about the four women recorded there, all with a history of precarious sexual situations, all outside the structure of patriarchy. She incorporates the work of liberation theologians used to reading against the grain in order to retrieve hope from the biblical text. She works with the “begotten of the Holy Spirit” phrase where it appears in other biblical and Hellenistic texts, resulting in her assertion that the phrase does not always refer to the absence of a biological father. She suggests (as many do) that the virgin birth narrative was the product of the early Christian community – perhaps in response to the rumors of illegitimacy. And she reminds the reader that “oral transmission is controlled by the laws of social identification, with traditions being passed down by those whose existence the tradition verifies and whose social needs it meets.” (1)
If you’re uncomfortable sitting with the possibility of not just the denial of Mary’s virginity, but with the possibility that Jesus was the result of an act of violence, I would urge you to ask yourself why. Explore the resistance you feel around such an assertion – is it just about orthodoxy, or, is there something else there, too?
I asked myself the same question. I sat with the same discomfort. What does it mean if Schaberg’s thesis holds weight? What does it change?
As we enter the season of Christmas, I’m curious about how I’ll engage the narrative. It’s such a familiar story and I hear it the same way, year after year. If nothing else, the narrative will hold a new set of questions for me this year – new discomforts and even, perhaps, comforts.
Where the story of faith is concerned – I think the real story is always the more beautiful and compelling.
Even if it’s also the more challenging, disruptive, and disconcerting one.
(1) Jane Schaberg, “Feminist Interpretations of the Infancy Narrative of Matthew” in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 13 no 1 (Spring 1997), 56.
My church engages in the Eucharist once a month … the first Sunday of every month. I think it’s a bit too infrequent, honestly.
Sharing the table is the most equalizing, welcoming, unifying, and hopeful ritual the church has, and yet, many of our churches practice it infrequently because of the time or energy it takes.
What the church does is inextricably connected to who the church believes it is. Our liturgical words and actions are preparation for life – we practice who and what we want to be when we’re in church, so that over time, the church literally becomes its weekly practices.
The church becomes its weekly practices.
What does your church practice when you gather? Is it a reflection of who you hope to be?
Since this Sunday is communion Sunday for my congregation, I’ve been reflecting on how I approach the table … and how often it’s automatic, even a little bit thoughtless. If we become our practice … I need to re-evaluate my table manners.
In Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Norman Wirzba connects our everyday actions of eating to the ritual action of the Eucharist.
At the table, as well as in life, we can fail to practice eucharistic table manners. 1 Corinthians 11:18-21 sets the context for what it looks like to fail to eat eucharistically: “I hear there are divisions among you … When you come together to eat it is not really the Lords Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”
Eating eucharistically or being truly present at the Table is tangled up with learning to be present to and responsible for each other.
The Eucharist is a manifestation of heaven on earth – a space where we practice abiding with each other without division, being mindful of our responsibilities of life together, and understanding food as healing and transformation rather than as mere continuation of life.
I wonder what would happen if we practiced Eucharistic table manners? If the church truly does become what we practice, then the way we feast in church should spill over into the way we eat outside of church. Is it possible that by transforming the way we approach the table in ritual we could transform the way we engage food in the world?
Perhaps transforming our practice around the table in liturgical action could transform the way we encounter food outside of the church: eating in ways that are just and sustainable, eating with a commitment to the social and ecological relationships that make food happen, eating as witness to life rather than death in our economies of food production and consumption.
In the story of feeding the five thousand in John 6 – Jesus fed the crowd “as much as they wanted,” until they were satisfied. He met both spiritual and physical hunger in that moment. Modern day Christ followers need the same kind of feeding – food that heals and transforms us rather than merely sustaining us for life as usual.
A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture Barbara Rossing gave at Oregon State University entitled, “St. Francis Goes Swimming with the Salmon: Ancient Wisdom for a Planet in Peril.” I’ve followed Rossing’s theological work on the environment closely and my writing team leaned heavily on her interpretation of apocalyptic Scripture as we wrote on the theme of eschatology for our textbook. All that just to say: I’m familiar with her work, so I wasn’t expecting to hear anything “new” during the lecture or the talk back session on the following day.
I actually did hear something new though – one thought that emerged from the Q&A session with the audience that may inspire the theme for the next book I work on, and another thought that began as just a phrase buried in a point Rossing made about organizing the church to confront climate change.
She used the term confessional communities.
And I haven’t stopped thinking about those two words – combined.
Technically, any place or space of worship harbors confessional community – folks gathered around similar religious beliefs.
But (at least in my tradition) we don’t use those words to describe who we are. My parishioners would use words like church or faith community or congregation or they would point to the denomination – “I’m UCC.” Some of my other friends use words like tribe or hive or missional group.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say they belong to a confessional community …
In fact, I get the feeling that when I use any derivative of the word, “confession,” people start to squirm with discomfort.
I don’t know about your tradition – but in the mainline tradition I’m rooted in – we don’t like to talk about confession. We also don’t like to talk about sin or the necessity of personal forgiveness which correlates directly to our hesitance to “confess.” I should be clear: we’re okay with confessing to general and systemic sins. We confess on behalf of the ways we’ve contributed to ecological degradation or sexism or racism or classism – but we’re not all that interested in confessing other, individual sins.
Personally, I think it’s more than just good practice to confess that the hate and violence that’s out there in the world is in us, too … I think it’s an essential element of our faith.
Isn’t it exhausting to keep up the appearance of having your shit together all the time?
I think church is a place we’re supposed to be able to gather and let it all crumble. To be able to say: This was not a good week. My kids drove me crazy and I wished they belonged to other people. I bought an expensive pie from Market of Choice and told the Book Club I made it because I was too damn tired to make dessert. I felt actual hate toward the idiot student drivers while I tried to navigate campus and get to my office. I told my spouse I had a late work meeting, which was a cover for the massage I scheduled. I drank an entire bottle of wine by myself more than once this week. I cancelled an appointment with my therapist because I don’t want to verbalize how much I wish I was living a different life.
Is your church/faith community/tribe a place you can say those words? I imagine most of us would answer – hell, no.
I suspect the answer for most of us is a myriad of reasons: because we don’t actually feel safe enough to say those things in church, because we don’t want to be judged, because we don’t want advice, etc.
Those are valid reasons.
And still, my heart longs to be a part of a group of people where I can tell the truth about myself and not worry about my safety or confidentiality or the risk of judgment or that someone will suggest I just “give it to Jesus.”
I want the truth about me to be welcomed and held to the light and I want someone to say to me, “You are loved and embraced.” That’s all.
I want a confessional community.
And once I have that, I want my confessional community to make a difference in the world.
You know what community organizers do?
They create confessional communities. They create people who gather around a similar cause, know each other well, and are committed enough to one another and their mission that they will create an actual, tangible shift in the world.
So if you ask me when the church will start making a difference both in our individual lives and in the world (in systems of violence and hate that destroy human and other than human creation), I’m likely to tell you it will be when churches become confessional communities.
Today I had the opportunity to work with a gifted poet and about 30 women in my congregation, using words to engage worship in a new way.
We used the framework of a French Pantoum to prompt aspiring and shy poets, alike.
I assured them I wasn’t a poet, but there’s something about being true to the Pantoum form that makes everyone sound like Mary Oliver.
This is what tumbled out for me …
I am not in the habit of experiencing the Holy these days
One forgets how to make the movements
Remember how Moonlight Sonata sounds played with ease?
Counting notes (every good boy does fine) to try and remember what key my finger should be resting on.
One forgets how to make the movements
I sigh and mutter that it’s just too hard to practice again
Counting notes (every good boy does fine) to try and remember what key my finger should be resting on
Putting one foot in front of the other – no matter if it’s raining and if I’ve forgotten my hooded jacket.
I sigh and mutter that it’s just too hard to practice again
Remember how Moonlight Sonata sounds played with ease?
Putting one foot in front of the other – no matter if it’s raining and if I’ve forgotten my hooded jacket
I am not in the habit of experiencing the Holy these days.
Want to write your own? Just free write for a paragraph or so and then underline 6 phrases that especially resonate with you. Then, use those 6 phrases to create three stanzas …
Line 1 (new line):
Line 2 (new line):
Line 3 (new line):
Line 4 (new line):
Line 5 (repeat of line 2 in stanza 1):
Line 6 (new line):
Line 7 (repeat of line 4 in stanza 1):
Line 8 (new line):
Line 9 (repeat line 2 of the previous stanza):
Line 10 (repeat line 3 of the first stanza):
Line 11 (repeat line 4 of the previous stanza):
Line 12 (repeat line 1 of the first stanza):