Grace Remains by Makoto Fujimura- https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-Grace-Remains-Nard/890479/3254010/view

Another Gospel: Lenten Reflection (27)

Scripture for Today: Galatians 1Colossians 21 Timothy 1:3-11

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As I mentioned in my last post, I spent this week in Bermuda with my partner and Purity, a very good friend from Kenya. I’m going to share more photos and stories from the trip in a later post; for now, here’s one of the three of us at Cooper’s Island.

The week provided time for enjoyment, wonder, and conversations that are impossible in the normal hustle of life. After this photo was taken the three of us drove our scooters to Pizza House for traditional Bermudian fish sandwiches and a particularly powerful conversation about the cross-cultural nature of oppression.

Although our experiences of oppression were incredibly varied given our diversity of race, ethnicity, class and gender, there was a common thread that ran through our experiences and cultures:  humans have always created systems to differentiate between who is right and who is wrong, who was “in” and who was ‘out,” who is valued and who is shunned, who has access and who is denied.

Anglican theologian Francis Spufford refers to this tendency to disrupt God’s dream for us to live in right-relationship as “the human propensity to f**k things up.

This eternal struggle shows up in our reading for today: the people of the Way are forming beliefs that limit the gospel’s reach to only only the most deserving. This institution of merit is especially surprising in this situation because the community of the Way is founded on the grace of Jesus. By “grace” Paul is referring to the idea that all people have the capacity to comprehend and intimately know the love of God.

Paul is infuriated that people are placing bounds and limits on that which was never theirs to mediate. He responds: there is no other gospel than grace. 

This plea of Paul’s, to stop creating systems that lay claim to what was never ours, is one we would do well to heed today. Although I would love to be proven wrong, it is unlikely we will ever stop creating systems of oppression. They are part of our very being.

However, the good news is that the love and grace of God abound in equal measure to our propensity to f**k things up. And if we can come to truly know this grace, a gift that we never earned and to which we can only respond to with abundant thanks, maybe then we will stop holding tightly to what we consider ours and work ardently to secure access for all people.

Prayer: Forgive our tendency to divide.

Reflection: Where are systems of merit or value present in my world? How do I benefit from them?

Art:  Grace Remains by Makoto Fujimura

MArk Lawrence - https://www.wayfair.com/decor-pillows/pdp/romans-8-38-max-by-mark-lawrence-3-piece-framed-graphic-art-set-fcac3454.html - Revealed In Jesus: Romans 8:39

The Eternal Sacrifice: Lenten Reflection (25)

Scripture for Today: Romans 5-8

As I’ve previously mentioned, the Epistles are a window into the minds of the earliest followers of Jesus. They seek to understand how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus might fit into their paradigm for life. Paul, the author of the letter to the Romans, was a man steeped in Jewish tradition and history, so he is trying to understand  the mystery of Christ through an ancient Jewish lens.

Therefore, if we want to makes sense of Paul’s musings on sin, the law, grace and reconciliation, we must interpret it through the same contextual lens that Paul was reading it through. Paul most likely grew up with the belief that our relationship with God is based on our ability to follow the law. If he, or any member of the Hebrew community, failed to perfectly follow God’s precepts, it was necessary to offer a sacrifice to God in order to pay retribution and return to God. One was to follow this pattern as many times as needed, as well as offer an annual “catch-all sacrifice” to cover any overlooked sins during the year.

With his understanding of Jesus, Paul challenges this notion of paying retribution to God. For Paul, Jesus is our eternal sacrifice. Rather than impact our individual sins or errors, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus impacts our entire identity (8:14).

We have been granted to access life eternal, or, more fully translated: “age-long. and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.” Through Christ we are no longer constrained to the understandings and choices of this world; despite our human constraints we can choose life over death, love over estrangement, and hope over fear. Through Christ we can live in the way Jesus modeled.

However, as is true for all humans, we will undoubtedly miss the mark. The entirety of Romans 7 is Paul’s grappling with the fact that he continues to choose death, estrangement and fear despite having full access to the power of God. He is frustrated:  Why do I keep doing the exact thing I don’t want to do?!

I assume that like me, many of you can connect with this feeling. And, just imagine if you had to kill a calf every time you snapped at the customer service representative on the phone, judged your body as unlovable, failed to speak out against racism, or ignored the hungry person on the street corner.

Paul says that the good news is that because of Jesus’ eternal sacrifice we no longer have to “make it right.” It is ALWAYS right with God. There is never a moment in which you are not fully loved by God.

Similar to early followers of Jesus, we hear this good news through our cultural lens. Perhaps you, like me, find it hard to fully grasp this abundant grace and love in the context of our Western work ethic. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still think I can will myself out of sinful behaviors. And I find it more comfortable to try and earn God’s favor through prayer or good works rather than relying on abundant love.

Our work, then, is to develop an ever-deepening sense of compassion for ourselves and the world around us. To accept the grace that was extended to us and to return it to others. To practice resting in the truth that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God. This is the eternal work.

Prayer: May I rest in your love.

Reflection: How do you respond to the truth that you are completely loved? How fully do you let that sink into your bones? What might support you in more fully believing that truth?

Art:  Revealed In Jesus: Romans 8:39 by Mark Lawrence

 

Ephesians 3:17 by Missy Cummings - https://www.pinterest.com/missycummings/art/

Together In Christ: Lenten Reflection (24)

Scripture for Today: Ephesians 1-3

Paul* begins his letter to the Ephesians by reminding the followers of the Way of Jesus about their identity in Christ. Through Christ, he says,we are children of God. In fact, we have always been children of God, we just didn’t fully realize this until the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Through Christ we can understand that we are and have always been undeniably loved by God (1:4).

Through his replete use of the first person plural, Paul makes abundantly clear that the identity as God’s beloved applies to all of us.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. 2:4 & 5

What struck me most when reading this passage is that my identity in Christ isn’t mine at all. More so, I as an individual am not alive through God’s love; it is the collective we that comes alive in Christ.

Yes, it is true that you and I are children of God, but it is an incomplete truth. What is more true is that we are children of God. If we only focus on the grace that’s afforded to me, you, or certain people, we fail to fully grasp God’s claim for all God’s children. More so, the moment we deny even one person’s belovedness, we deny the entirety of God’s claim on humanity.

Paul emphasizes this collective understanding of redemption in chapter 2. God’s abundant love for me reconciles me to God. That is, it draws me into right relationship with God. In addition, God is drawing you into right relationship with God. And this relationship is only partially realized when I only look at God. To fully receive the peace that Jesus brings, I must also look to my left and right and foster right relationship with all the others surrounding God (2:16).

This piece from Episcopal City Mission’s literature (written by Mariama White-Hammond) gives us an idea of what it looks like to move into right relationship:

Right relationship requires acknowledging that we need one another to heal ourselves and our world. Right relationship requires that we speak out about how we have personally and systematically maintained separation. Right relationship requires that we ask for forgiveness and make retribution for how we have hurt one another.

Right relationship requires a dynamic process of awareness, acceptance, and action that has inner and outer dimensions. We must do the inner work — meditation, prayer, reflection — individually and communally to push beyond fear and transform ourselves into more peace-filled and grounded people. We must do the outer work — relationship building, action, resisting unjust systems that keep us separate and unequal — to advocate for our neighbors and build power to eradicate inequity. Our deepest resource is love. When love is cultivated, it can bring down unjust systems. We must tap into our desire for wholeness and liberation as individuals and communities, placing love at the center of our lives.

This is the love Paul says we should let dwell inside of us. A love that dwells so deeply that we are convinced that we belong to one another and that we cannot bear to stand by idly while systems and structures exist that deny the belovedness of others. A love that settles itself so deeply into us that we become transformed from a self-centered “I consciousness” to Paul’s collective “we consciousness.” A love that redefines the Christ mystery; it is no longer just about me or you. It becomes about right relationship. It becomes about us.

Pray: May I recognize the Christ in each person around me.

Reflection: What element of right relationship stood out most to me? How would my relationships be different if I embodied that aspect?

ArtEphesians 3:17 by Missy Cummings

*Although the authorship of Ephesians is debated, I chose to use Paul instead of “the Author” for a less cumbersome read.

The Conversion of Saul (after Caravaggio) 3 by James V. (Villani) Lee: - http://jvillanilee.com/?attachment_id=122

Everything Changes – Lenten Reflection (23)

Scripture for Today: Acts 8-9

First, a note about chronology: in designing our Bible Study for St. John’s Hingham, the Rev. Noah Van Niel and I decided to begin the New Testament portion with Acts and the Epistles to reflect how the books were written chronologically. We’ll read the Gospels next week.

By beginning with the first recorded writings about Jesus we receive insight into what the earliest followers of Jesus considered his most important qualities and his most valuable implications for our lives. Today, we read the story of Saul’s conversion as a window into what it meant to be on the Way. We can draw out the following four lessons:

One, the name of the earliest followers, the Way, characterizes the identity of their movement. Rather than a religious practice that centered around a temple and a set of stagnant rules, they understood following Jesus to be an ongoing and fluid journey. It was a way of living that enabled people to comprehend and experience the love of God.

Two, Saul was an unlikely character to be called to lead the Way. He was a well known persecutor of people on the Way and held a high position of power in the Jewish community (9:2). But God, ever surprising us, calls Saul to minister to the exact people he was persecuting. This theme of Jesus using unlikely people as instruments appears throughout the New Testament (9:15).

Three, following Jesus requires that we are willing to share in his suffering. It is important that we know that Jesus’ life was so contrary to the governing authorities that the Roman state sought after him. This subversive and challenging aspect of following God was central to the lives of earliest believers. We see this reflected in the text from Isaiah quoted by the Eunuch, and the fact that Saul’s life was threatened soon after his conversion (8:33 and 9:23).

Finally, Jesus changes the entire way we exist in the world. Saul’s conversion is marked by scales falling from his eyes, signifying that he saw the entire world differently. This change in perception is marked by his immediate desire to praise the God he once persecuted. Yes, to Jesus’s earliest followers, he represented a complete shift in the way of being, a message similar to the Hebrew prophets.

In the current context of Christianity in the United States, these aspects of following Jesus feel distant. Following Jesus has often become synonymous with participation in  institutions that legitimize the power of unjust structures rather than movements that challenge the very fiber of this world. We assume that those who earned their religious authority through academic degrees are the ones through whom God will speak. And, rather than stand on the side of the oppressed, all too often the church (especially the white church) avoids suffering and stays comfortable in our seat of power.

I do not intend to completely demean the Church as an institution of faith. As someone who is pursuing ordination in The Episcopal Church I deeply understand the need for structures to hold our community and gather our collective power for change. That said, we would do well to examine our current way of being in light of the Way of living modeled by the earliest followers of Jesus — even if this means everything must change.

Prayer: Keep me open to your Way of transformation.

Reflection: What quality of the early church connected most with me today? How might that connect to what’s happening in my life today?

Art: The Conversion of Saul (after Caravaggio) 3 by James V. (Villani) Lee

2014+Isaiah+61-+Garment+of+Praise - https://www.bryngillette.com/store/crown-of-beauty-isaiah-61-nnkt3

Always Longing – Lenten Reflection (22)

Scripture for Today: Isaiah 60-62

Our final reflection from the Hebrew Bible was written by the prophet Isaiah. In this reading we find the people of God in very similar mindset to where they started in Genesis, longing to return to God’s favor. This theme of longing threads through the Hebrew Bible: in Genesis it was the garden of Eden, in Exodus the Promised Land, in Judges the longing for a way of life aligned with God, in Job the longing for vindication from God and in the prophets, longing for freedom from oppression and exile.

Always longing.

Although the context is different, this sense of longing continues today: longing for a new job, longing for an end to politics of hate and fear, longing for healthcare to be affordable and available to all, longing for women to walk the streets without the fear of assault, longing to know God is near during heartbreak, longing for an end to racism and xenophobia.

Always longing.

In this time of longing Isaiah carries a clear message for his hearers: prepare the way, your salvation is coming, God will shine upon you and your people shall be redeemed. God is coming and there will be redemption. So they prepared.

Always longing.

This promise of radical hope is bolstered by the idea that redemption will be unlike anything ever previously experienced: the poor will receive good news, the captives will be granted liberty, those who mourn will be comforted, and the prisoners will be released. The powerful will be knocked down and God’s people will be restored to dignity.

Always longing.

When will redemption come for us?

When Jesus comes, he promises a way of redemption centered on humbling ourselves to be in right-relationship with one another. He asks that we drop our judgmental glare and get down with the sinners and the saints. He turns away from purity codes that elevated certain classes and he lifts up a standard of abundant love. But it’s not what we expected.

Always longing.

We don’t want healthcare for all — we want to guarantee we have the best healthcare available. We don’t want fair wages for all if it means our own wages will be reduced. We don’t want gender equity if it means equity for non-binary and trans people as well. We don’t want a generous maternity leave if it means the same generosity is also extended to those who choose not to carry children. We don’t want redemption if it means that we have to let go of our power.

Always longing.

We are asked to learn to be last. This is especially true for those who are in places of privilege or power. We must accept that God’s reign requires us to follow rather than lead. We must give up decision-making roles and trust that others have an insight into God’s dream. We must stop striving to be the best and instead do what we can, trusting that others will fill in the rest. We must stop chasing freedom through oppressive ways of being.

Always longing.

God’s version of redemption is something we have never seen. It is a life full of freedom, joy, and liberation and it will challenge our impulse to hold tightly to what we believe about redemption. God’s vision requires that we, like the Israelites and the people of God throughout the ages, become willing to let go of our own ways of maintaining power and instead trust that God might be up to something far more wonderful that we could ever imagine.

Otherwise we will remain.

Always longing.

Prayer: Open me to your dream of redemption

Reflection: Where do I sense longing in my life? How might I open myself to what God is doing? How do my power and privilege contrast with God’s dreams of justice?

Art: Garment of Praise” by Bryn Gillette

Resources: How to Be Last: Towards a Practical Theology for Privileged People by Christena Cleveland – who is the keynote speaker at ECM’s annual meeting! Come!

Feeling Guilty or Doing Justice? – Lenten Reflection (21)

Scripture for Today: Micah 2, 4, 6

I met Rose on my second day in Kenya. Rose was about my age; she had two beautiful children and was full of light. Rose worked as my housekeeper for all four of my years in Kenya and became one of my closest confidants.

One day after a huge storm Rose came to work late. The storm had literally torn her world apart: the roof on her home had been blown off by the winds, her entire home had flooded, and everything was ruined. As I listened to her my heart sunk, my stomach tightened, and my skin started to crawl,

This experience of guilt was a regular occurrence in Kenya: why did I maintain a life of comfort when so many were living in poverty? I imagine this is a question many of us have asked in some form. And despite the eternal nature of this philosophical question, I’m not sure it’s the question God wants us to be asking.

I know that’s not how Micah calls the people in his prophecy. Micah is writing to people who occupied similar positions of authority, wealth and power in Judah. He is angered by their greed, corruption and abuse of power. Instead of using their power and privilege for the good of all, the people Micah addresses are stealing homes from those who are poor, and cheating others in court (2:2 and 6:10).

Micah dramatizes this conflict, writing the book to read like a courtroom scene in which God has taken the people to court for their behavior. In the opening arguments, God reminds the people of the provision they experienced in the desert, and asks them to extend God’s care as it was extended to them. We are not being judged on purity, chastity, competency, worldly success, or the amount of guilt we experience but on these three qualities: doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.

Justice and kindness are stark contrasts to guilt.

Guilt keeps the focus on our own discomfort rather than the pain of the situation. At best, guilt can lead to one-off actions that attempt to remedy our feelings of shame. At worst, it motivates us to recede deeper into our position of power to avoid this discomfort.

Justice and kindness begin by looking outward and acknowledging the discomfort we feel about inequity. Justice is, directly translated, the idea of seeking wholeness and finality for people. Doing justice means bringing about the unity and equality Ezekiel dreamed of in his prophecy. A community marked by loving kindness, the relentless love of God, lets that love transform the way we show mercy and kindness to those around us.

No, I do not think God wants guilt.

Instead, God requires that we “walk humbly.” That we open our entire being to justice and kindness so that all that we do might move us one step closer to God’s dream.

Prayer: Open my heart to justice and kindness.

Reflection: How does my emotional response to injustice get in the way of me taking action? How might I increase the kindness I offer others?

Art: Micah

Hosea_(Menologion_of_Basil_II) http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com

Mixed Metaphors – Lenten Reflection (19)

Scripture for Today: Hosea 1-4, 11

Hosea is a passionate love story. And, while it may not be factual, it is a story most know to be true. A steadfast lover, ardent in their pursuit of their beloved, is pained by acts of deceit and infidelity. The lover, ever determined to win back the beloved, fights for their return but is cast aside by their unfaithful partner.

As a seventeen-year-old girl reading this book I adored the story of Hosea and his wife. I saw myself in the promiscuous wife and found myself longing for a man, or a God, who would fight for my sinful and unworthy soul.

However, as I read this text today, as a thirty-three-year old woman who is fully embodied and aware of my worth, I am disgusted by the language Hosea used to talk about his wife. I can’t shake the fact that Hosea’s metaphor spawned the figure of a seductive woman who causes misery for men. I can’t ignore that the metaphor enforces a flawed idea of sexuality in which women fall into one of two categories, whores or Madonnas. And, I can’t deny that the church has perpetuated these teachings for years. 

I really didn’t want to write this reflection.

Rather than offer clarity,  the Bible commentary I read fueled my frustrations: “There is little doubt that the very negative use of female imagery in the Prophets has contributed to negative stereotypes of women, and even to physical abuse on occasion” (Introduction to the Hebrew Bible by John J. Collins).

There were some authors who sought to redeem the text by stripping it of its gender roles and interpreting it simply as lovers who struggled to be faithful to one another. However, as a woman who has experienced the impact of this metaphor, these attempts at redemption feel paltry at best.

I wondered, as I imagine some of you do, “Why do we continue to read texts that promote harmful ideas towards women?”

The best I can come up with is that we want to maintain our connection to the people of God who came before us. Despite their flaws, we want to connect with the eternal story of people seeking to understand God.

I imagine that we, just like the prophet Hosea, use words or terms for God that are also harmful. We, just like Hosea, create stories about how and why God acts that limit an understanding of God’s love. And we, like Hosea, are trying desperately to find a way to describe God.

So, while I won’t yet endorse this use of a metaphor, I can find some compassion for the author who was trying their best to articulate the ineffable love of God. I can see, through the frailty of human language, a God who is tender and generous with me. And, I can commit to speaking more cautiously, humbly, and slowly about God, lest I repeat the pattern of Hosea.

Pray: Keep me humble as I seek to know you fully.

Reflect:  How do the metaphors or images of God you learned as a younger person impact your understanding of God today? What image might you use to describe the love of God?

Art: Hosea found on the blog of John Sandidopoulos

Books: In the hopes of understanding Hosea I’m going to read the following:

 

 

Lamentations 3:22 by Mark Lawrence https://www.marklawrencegallery.com/password

Do Not Decrease – Lenten Reflection (18)

Scripture for Today: Jeremiah 29:1-23, Lamentations 3

“Do not decrease.” This direction is given to the people of Israel during a time of chaos and disruption. They are in exile, ripped from their homes, and fighting for their lives. God, with the audacity that only God can have, asked them not to shirk back, not to batten up the hatches or build a wall of protection. Instead, God tells them to choose life.

Now, I cannot presume to speak for everyone, nor have I ever been thrown into exile and forced to marry my captors. But I have encountered my personal exiles when I felt far-flung from God’s reach, and those moments hardly felt like opportunities to increase. In fact, in those times decrease felt like my only option. You could find me at home hiding under the covers, watching Netflix, eating Americone Dream, and hoping that everything would go away.

God’s response to this sunken behavior might sound something like, “There you go again, committing adultery with your neighbor’s wife” (Jer 29:23).

Now, I’m not literally committing adultery — but neither were the Israelites. Rather, this phrase signifies that in a time of deep pain they turned to other comforts and solutions rather than turning to God. Jeremiah, the prophet who co-authored both Lamentations and Jeremiah, has been sent to call the people back to right-relationship with God.

Jeremiah begins by acknowledging the pain the people of Israel are facing. In Lamentations 3 he speaks profusely about the tears that are soaking their faces and the chains that are wearing them down.  They are in the darkness of death. This darkness does not mean dark-colored. Rather, it signifies obscurity: the people thought God had forsaken them. As a result, they had given up on God and pursued other sources of strength.

Through this lens, Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations 3 are especially powerful:

My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in God.”

For Jeremiah, for the people of Israel, and for us today, the only way out of exile and chaos is securing our hope in the promise that God is always with us. We must be assured that, no matter how horrible the situation appears, God has not forgotten us. In my experience, any attempts at healing that have not been grounded on God’s everlasting love have been temporary at best.

If this Lent feels like a time of exile, I wonder how Jeremiah’s call might speak to you. How might naming pain begin a process of liberation? How might we reconnect to God’s promise to be with us? How might that promise develop in us hope? And how might that hope motivate us to turn outward and seek the welfare of those around us, knowing that our liberation is bound to their liberation?

Prayer: Ground me in your unfailing love.

ReflectionWhere, in your life, do you feel a sense of exile? How might you return to  God in this time?

Art: Lamentations 3:22 by Mark Lawrence

 

 

Tikkun Olam - Heal the World - Laurie Morgan - https://fineartamerica.com/featured/tikkun-olam-heal-the-world-laurie-morgan.html

Tikkun Olam – Lenten Reflection (17)

Scripture for Today: Proverbs 8:1 – 9:6, Ecclesiastes 3

One Jewish account of creation is as follows: God contracted the divine self to make room for creation. Divine light became contained in special vessels, or kelim, some of which shattered and scattered. As a result, good and evil remained thoroughly mixed in the created world, and human souls became imprisoned within the shards. Humans have been charged with the work of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that can be roughly translated as “repair of the world.” We repair the world by claiming the Divine light and choosing to embody goodness by engaging in the healing of the world.

The Hebrew word for world, olam, appears in Ecclesiastes 3:

God has placed eternity (olam) in our hearts, yet we cannot fathom what he will do from beginning to end.

Wow. God, the creator of all, placed a piece of the eternal world in our hearts.

I find it difficult to expand on this profound truth, and I don’t want to. Rather, I can share the moments in my life where I might have begun to grasp God’s eternal presence in me.

These are moments that seem too big for our bodies: a dear friend finally conceiving and bearing child after years of trying, finding someone who loves even the most human parts of you, connecting with a stranger as if you had known them for years. In these moments of profound connection and intimacy my heart feels like it’s going to burst into shards of light. Eternity is in me.

These moment are breathtaking.

These moments are frustrating.

As much as I try, I cannot create, manufacture or grasp these moments. They are fleeting, brief encounters with the eternal wisdom that was beside and with God from the beginning of the world (Prov 8:9).

This, I think, is the reality of the human experience. We were created by God to be God’s very image. The Holy Spirit, described beautifully in Proverbs 8, is ever crying within us to embody her way. And sometimes, we get it. However, we are often frustrated (understandably so) because we cannot see the whole picture from beginning to end.

So what do we do?

We pay attention to the voice of God that is within us. We follow the way of righteousness and justice. We enjoy the bits of the divine we are graced to encounter. We eat. We drink. We take pleasure in our work. We do what is placed before us and trust God with the rest. We try our best to engage in the repair of the world, one eternal moment at a time.

Prayer: May I embody the light of God.

Reflection: How can you create space to listen to wisdom speaking within you? How do you feel called to engage in the repair of the world?

Art: Tikkun Olam: Heal the World by Laurie Morgan

Attribution: The description of Tikkun Olam comes from My Jewish Learning.