Through Another’s Eyes: A Reaction to the Sermon on the Mount

Today I had the powerful experience of taking a Midrash Journaling Workshop with a wise and talented woman, Pat Thomas. I was only vaguely familiar with the term “midrash” prior to this workshop and was inspired to learn more about this practice.  One definition of “midrash” is: “Midrash is a way of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal or moral teachings. It fills in many gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at”. The way Pat put it was, “think about who you would have liked to see a journal entry from, and then write it”.  What would it have been like to be Peter when Jesus first called him a rock that the church would be built on and then calls him Satan and commands him to get behind him?  What was Mary thinking before she saw the resurrected Lord in the garden? How did she feel?

There are so many details, thoughts and feelings that are not explicit in Biblical text. The process of midrash journaling is one that invites us into the story. Not to pretend that we in any way can authoritatively fill in the gaps in the story. Rather to use it as an exercise to put ourselves in the story. This process invites us to engage with a Biblical text in a rich and personal way. It gave me space to look at the text for clues that I might not have seen before and to imagine how I might have reacted if I encountered Jesus as those in the gospels did.

We did two midrash journal entries during the workshop. The one I’m going to share here was on Matthew 6:19-34.  I was writing from the perspective of an impoverished woman who was listening to the Sermon on the Mount.  I specifically worked with the line, “No one can serve to masters. Either one will hate one and love the other or, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24

Painting by Daniel Gerhartz

I saw Jesus today!  Not just with my eyes.  I heard him speak! All afternoon. I sat with the crowds at his feet and he taught us. What a banquet of teaching! Proclamation and example, comfort, hope, rebuke and great vision.  He taught with a clarity that cut through to my heart. I found myself simultaneously convicted, brought to my knees, and encouraged, lifted up and pointed towards a new way of life.

It was worth it. It was worth going hungry and missing a meal or two a day for the last few weeks to save up for the trip. It was worth it. It was worth knowing that my boss may be upset with me if things aren’t going well with the harvest when I return. He was so reluctant to give me the days off. It was worth it though. I feel so full and nourished in a way I can hardly put words to. There’s something about this man that fill me, that makes me stand up straighter, that gives me the desire to get up and face a new day—face a new day with hope even.

I saw some of my boss’ colleagues there. I wonder what they thought. At one point Jesus came on pretty strong. “You cannot serve both God and money!” he proclaimed.  I saw these wealthy business people squirming a bit and looking aside, avoiding eye contact.

Honestly though, I was squirming too. There was an alluring sense inside me to believe that Jesus was just addressing the wealthy at that point, that the message of our inability to serve to masters was reserved for the elite. But this train of thought was stopped apparently in its tracks. Jesus leaned towards me and looked me in the eye and I heard the words again, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

As each word landed in my heart I felt a gentle love and a searing truth–this was a message for me. I couldn’t push this one over to my neighbor. Even as Jesus’ eyes lingered on my challenged face I had images of myself flashing before me.

Holding a little extra flour to give my firstborn more than siblings.

Skipping out on evening prayer to put a few more stitches in the garment I hoped to sell at market.

Being so busy trying to make our shack into some semblance of a hospitable home that I miss actually sitting down and being with my guests when I am home.

As Jesus’ eyes moved on, connecting with to others in the crowed, I felt the message settling into my body. The words of my ancestors joined with Jesus’ call….

“Choose this day whom you will serve…. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Rob Bell: Stirring up Conversation about Heaven and Hell

I’ve been interested in reading the strong and varied reactions around the upcoming release of Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  Rob Bell is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids Michigan and has written a number of books and seems to be known for shaking things up theologically and asking great questions. I got his book “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile” a number of years ago and was struck by Bell’s raw, honest and fresh way of approaching faith, Christianity and people.

This weekend Bell released the following video.

I watched this after reading a couple of blog posts where authors pointed out the overwhelming response there has been in the last 48 hours or so to the release of this book. It seems that this subject of heaven and hell, and especially who gets to go where (if there even are such places) is one that catches the attention of many. And it seems it’s a topic that brings out strong feelings and opinions. As Bell points out in the video, the question of heaven and hell and who gets in quickly brings up the question of who God is and who and how God loves.

Coming from a Swedenborgian faith background, I’m particularly intrigued to hear these topics and theological claims being discussed in a broader context. The rich theology around the afterlife and the question of “who goes where and why?” that are found in Swedenborg’s writings are so ingrained in me that I appreciate the reminder of the wrestling around this topic and question.  I’m particulars thinking about the concepts that are taught in Swedenborgian theology around the idea that one spends eternity in a place where the core loves they have developed over their lives can be expressed. Those who love people selflessly, who want to help others, who love a Divine Being outside of themselves will hang out with others who have similar loves. Sounds pretty heavenly?

The more universal view of God and specifically of who’s “saved” or who “gets to go to heaven” is one that is a pillar of the Swedenborgian faith tradition and my personal faith.  It is interesting and enlivening to me to hear this type of conversation gaining traction in the broader Christian stage.  I’m looking forward to reading the book. And it also makes me want to pick up Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell again as well.

African Prayer

This was shared as a call and response prayer to start a beautiful presentation on Thursday about non-profit work in the Congo. As the words were read I found tears and laughter and gentle smiles of recognition and connection.  I share it here for all who love Africa.

An African Canticle adapted from a prayer of Kilakala Girls School in Morogoro, Tanzania

Africa…. Bless the One
And al you people and places,
From Cairo to Cape Town all,
From Dar es Salaam to Lagos all.
Here let all the works of the Lord…… Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and even.

All you BIG things…. Bless the One
Mount Kilimanjaro and the River Nial,
The Rift Valley and the Serengeti Plain,
Fat baobabs and shady mango trees,
All eucalyptus and tamarind trees,
You hippos and giraffes and elephants……. Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you TINY things…… Bless the One
Busy black ants and hopping fleas,
Wriggling tadpoles and mosquito larvae,
Flying locusts and water drops,
Pollen dust and tsete flies,
Millet seeds and dried dagaa….. Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you SHARP things….. Bless the One
Sisal plant tips and tall lake reeds,
Maasai spears and Turkana hunting arrows,
A rhino’s horn and crocodile teeth…. Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and even.

All you SWEET things….. Bless the One
Wild honey and papaws and coconut milk,
Pineapples and sugar cane and sun-dried dates,
Slow roasted yams and banana juice…. Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you BITTER things…. Bless the One
Quinine and blue soap,
Sour milk and maize beer…… Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you SWIFT things…. Bless the One
Wild goats and honking matatus,
Frightened centipedes and lightning flashes…. Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you SLOW things…. Bless the One
Curious giraffes and old bony cows,
Brown humped camels, grass munching sheep….. Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you LOUD things…… Bless the One
Monsoon rains on aluminum roofs,
Midnight hyenas and feast day drums,
Train stations and busy bus stops…… Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you QUIET things…. Bless the One
Candle flames and just sown furrow,
Heaps of clouds and sunny libraries,
The Pyramids and Sahara Desert
Land snails and crawling turtles,
Grazing zebras and stalking lions….Bless the One
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

All you creatures that never talk,
Still bless you the Lord.
Praise and extol God forever and ever.

Good Luck? Bad Luck? Who Knows?

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20 NIV).

If you were to take a number of images of particular scenes from the story of Joseph from the Old Testament and see them in a gallery, you might wonder if this was the same man you were seeing.  One painting might show a joyful young man, engulfed in a beautifully colored coat, with his proud father looking on adoringly. You then see a photo graphically depict a blood stained garment, wrapped around a scared boy, at the bottom of a muddy pit.  You notice a model of a man, mighty in power and managing a large household with competence and authority. You continue to browse the gallery and watch a dramatized video that could be described as nothing less than a graphic near-miss sex scene where the man ends up in prison.  And the up and down and diversity of the images continue. Joseph’s story is hard to characterize in one concise sound bite.

Joseph’s story reminds me of the following Chinese proverb:

There is a Chinese story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck?

Who knows?
Author Unknown

We could quickly construct a similar tale:

A young man was given a special gift from his father, an honoring as his favored son (Gen 37:3).  Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

This young man’s brothers hated him because of their father’s partiality and took him and threw him into a pit and had him sold to traders from a distant land (Gen 37). Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

This man rose into leadership and management in the house of a prominent figure and was put in charge of the household (Gen 39). Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

While in this management position his master’s wife approaches him and wants to sleep with him (Gen 39). Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

This man is then thrown into prison (Gen 39:20). Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

While in prison the man is discovered to have gifts of leadership and Divine understanding and blessing. He rises up in leadership within the prison as well as interpreting dreams for his fellow-inmates. (Gen 39 and 40). Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?

When one of his fellow-prisoners, and a recipient of his dream interpreting, gets released from prison he puts in a good word for the man and he is released from prison and asked to interpret a dream for the head of the land (Gen 41). And from there our young rises in power and leadership and in the end is able to help his brothers and father and family who would have starved in the famine had it not been for his help (Gen 41-50).

This story is a poignant reminder to me that in any snapshot of my life I can categorize my experience into a box and label it as positive or negative. Or I can look up to God; accept it as part of the journey, look for the blessings, learn the lessons and with trust step forward.

 

For You Have Little Strength

“’For you have little strength.’ This symbolically means, because they know they have no power of themselves. People who are governed by truths springing from goodness derived from the Lord know that of themselves they do not have any power against evils and falsities, thus against hell. Moreover, they also know that they cannot from any power of their own do good or introduce themselves into heaven, but that all power is the Lord’s. (Apocalypse Revealed 178, Emmanuel Swendenborg)

I read this reading today for my work in Apocalypse Revealed and it jumped out at me as the text to base my weekly task on. I resonate with the statement “For you have little strength”.  My first reaction to that statement is: “Yes, that feels true in this moment”. I feel the ups and downs of transition. I’m navigating the elation of classes and new adventures, new people, in amongst the vulnerability of being in a brand new place, without anyone I know, stepping out with trust and faith in so many areas. The task I want to hold in awareness this week is to use the line, “For you have little strength” as a mantra. Reminding myself that no wonder I’m tired, grumpy, frustrated, happy, joyful, in transition, etc. I’m human. All power is the Lord’s. To take a deep breath and be wherever I am at the moment.

Reflections on: “The Avowed Irrelevance of Christian Preaching in the Contemporary Word” by Paul Tillich

This morning I read a lecture by Paul Tillich that was offered during the Earl Lectures at Pacific School of Religion in 1963 titled: The Avowed Irrelevance of Christian Preaching in the Contemporary World.  Tillich talks about preachers and theologians and philosophers throughout history who asked the questions of how can we present Christianity, the gospel, good news in a way that is relevant and how that might show up in our world today.

Here are a few of the quotes that especially jumped out at me and some brief reflections:

“These thinkers and movement have become chapters in the history of Christian thought. In terms of my theme; I propose looking at them as bearers of the history of trying to make the Christian message relevant to the always changing human situation.” (Paul Tillich)

I’m struck by the brief history lesson that proceeds this quote. People throughout the ages that are wrestling with the same questions we are today. It is a reminder to me that we will never “arrive” at the perfect way to worship, preach, lead, or be in spiritual community. It is an ongoing process, evolving, unfolding, changing and morphing. The question is less about arrival, and more about movement. Are we stagnant or are we fluid and alive? Am I stuck in a way of thinking or am I asking the questions and exploring what is being reveled?

Later in the talk Tillich speaks to the idea of learning from outside observers and critics of Christianity. He states:

“Of course, often those who are entirely outside do see the situation more clearly than those who still have ties with Christianity. But more often they lack any real understanding of what is going on in the religious realm. Nevertheless, they too must be heard by those who try to make Christianity relevant for those inside and outside the churches. Thus I made it a principle of my whole vocational life to listen to them eagerly—to find out why they not only deem Christianity irrelevant but totally deny it. In any case, it is encouraging that the churches have become officially and earnestly concerned about the possibility of a post-Christian period.” (Paul Tillich)

I really like this call to the broader conversations and individuals and groups reaching outside our comfort zones and our specific communities to engage in conversations with people of all sorts of backgrounds, faith and non-faith traditions, belief systems or not, etc. This is something I’m already appreciating about my time at ESR, a built in opportunity to be in conversation with a broad spread of people.  This quote also reminds me of the work Peter Rollins (http://www.peterrollins.net/) has been doing through his Dis-course seminars (which I mentioned in a previous post), programs that create spaces for dialog and space to explore beyond our comfortable boxes.

“Compounding the problem is the confusion between faith and belief. Faith is the state of being grasped by something that has ultimate meaning, and acting and thinking on the basis of this as a centered person. Beliefs are opinions held to be true, which may or may not really be true. We need beliefs in practical affairs all the time. But they are never a matter of life and death. One of the worst things making the Christian message irrelevant is the identification of faith with belief in doctrines. Especially bad is the demand to believe the unbelievable.  It would greatly help to use in all our preaching the gift of the English language—not available, for example, in German or French—of the two words “faith” and “belief.” We need to say clearly that faith is being grasped by a power that concerns us ultimately, and belief is being not certain, but accepting something preliminary.” (Paul Tillich)

I’m especially struck by Tillich’s statement: “Especially bad is the demand to believe the unbelievable”.  This resonates with my desire to build my deep faith, trust, connection and relationship with God, while simultaneously breaking down the boxes of rigid thinking, stagnant tradition and fear-based thought patters. It strikes me that the power of separating these two concepts gives space to receive the awe and wonder of an omnipotent and omnipresent God, while using and honoring the rational brain we’ve been given. Swedenborgian or New Church theology might refer to this as the gift of “freedom and rationality” and that this is a God-given gift to be used within the context of human existence and inter-connection with our Creator.

Morning Snapshot

The room was set in a circle—tables and chairs–all facing inwards, around a simple table with a candle burning. Students’ trickled in and gentle conversation eased around the room.

At 8:30 Dawn, one of the two co-professors of Preaching and Public Discourse, took a breath and began.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night to the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“I have a dream…”

As she talked about the power of words and the depth of their beauty, and responsibility of those who venture to speak them, I found tears coming to my eyes.

Creator God, filled with endless wisdom and love.
Mould me. Shape me. Form me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart,
Be acceptable in your sight oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

New Beginnings

1.24.11

I am now officially an Earlham School of Religion (ESR) Masters of Divinity Student—and I’ve got the student ID to prove it. It has been a wonderfully exhausting and energizing day. I’ve been oriented to campus, met my new fellow students, got set up with all the ID’s, gym passes, emails, etc. and have finished up my readings that are due for class in the morning.

It feels so good to be here. Already I’m finding connection with the people, the community, the spiritual climate, the conversations and God’s presence in this place. I simultaneously feel that I should be pinching myself to see if this is really real, while feeling like I’ve been here for years and it feels so normal and comfortable. I feel comfortable in my own skin today. Free to show up and be myself and see where the Lord is leading and what He will show me next. I’ll keep you posted…