For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘God

Tonight, just across town, on the campus where my husband teaches, Indiana Senatorial Candidate Richard Mourdock said the following:

Life is a gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

My friends, Republican or Democrat, this post is not about politics, even though everything is political and I think this should impact how you think about your vote. This post is not about abortion, even though I strongly support access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental aspect of securing women’s health and safety. This is a post about theology, and it is written from my pastoral heart, with care and concern for people hurt by misguided, dangerous theology. (Although, as always, posts here reflect my own views and do not stand for the views of my wonderfully diverse congregation.)

Hear this loud and clear:

GOD DOES NOT INTEND RAPE.
RAPE AND VIOLENCE ARE NEVER GOD’S WILL.
GOD DOES NOT DESIRE SUFFERING FOR SOME GREATER GOOD.

If you are a survivor, God did not send your rapist to hurt you or test you or teach you or punish you or improve you. God did not sacrifice your body and your safety and your security, even to bring the most wonderful child into the world. A human being acted out of violence, power, rage or some other sinful place to hurt you. God did not intend for you to be raped.

There can be no equivocation there. God does not afflict us. So where is God in suffering?

The heart of the Christian story deals with just this concern. The cross plays a central role in our faith, and it is a symbol of suffering caused by violence and power.  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross showed us that God does not desire our pain to obtain salvation, that God does not require our blood sacrifice, that violence is not God’s way, and that God will pursue justice and peace even unto death.

Three days later, our faith proclaims that something miraculous happened—God took the tools of violence and destruction and transformed them into Easter resurrection and new life. To say that God made new life out of something horrible, whether a rape or a cross, is to proclaim that God can overcome anything. God can take the worst this world has to offer, and God can make hope and new life. God can take a murder on a cross and create resurrection. God can take a violent rape and create a beautiful child.

That does not mean that God intends murder and rape. God does not cause horrific things to happen to us in order to make miracles. That’s not sanctified, it’s sadistic.

That also does not mean that every pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. Not even every non-violent conception is a gift from God. To declare that every pregnancy is intended by God conjures a cruel Master who shows only disdain for the suffering it inflicts.

  • Imagine a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Forced to carry an unwanted child to term, she is unable to begin her healing until the pregnancy is over. Even if she gives the baby up for adoption, she must live with the physical reminder of her violent trauma every day. Every kick, every contraction, every moment of labor causes her to relive the rape again in her mind. Instead of lasting for a night, her trauma lasts for nine months.
  • Imagine a woman who already has three children. Her fourth pregnancy puts her own life in danger. While her unborn child may or may not survive, she will not. Her older children will be left motherless. The children’s father will be unable to provide for them without her income, and they will likely be separated into foster care.
  • Imagine a woman trapped in a violent relationship. She has a plan to get out, but she discovers that the partner who abuses her has also conceived a child in her womb. She knows she cannot escape if she is pregnant, and that this violent man will have parental rights to the child even if she leaves him.

Some women would claim God’s new life in these pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. They will love and raise the child with joy and faithfulness. Others would claim God’s new life and possibility in the freedom to terminate a difficult pregnancy and claim the value of their own lives as God’s beloved. They will live their lives with purpose serving God in other ways. In neither case does God intend the suffering to get to the new life. In both circumstances, God can heal and redeem the suffering by bringing new life.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says:

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live! “

I believe that sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy is a way of choosing life—life for the mother, life for other children, life free from abuse. God can make new life out of terrible things, but we cannot always equate God’s new life with an unborn child. We cannot know how God will work in a woman’s heart, nor can we know the path of life in every situation. I stand firmly against the use of speculation about God’s intentions to legislate forced pregnancy.

Above all, this is clear: God does not intend violence. Rape is not part of God’s grand plan. Neither is forced pregnancy part of God’s will. God comes to us in Christ so that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) The prayerful discernment about what it means to choose to “have life, and have it more abundantly” belongs to each woman, her own womb and her own conversation with God—not our legislators.

A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.

On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.

Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.

However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.

As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.

I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.

Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008, 384 pp.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2009, 391 pp.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pp.

I needed escape reading during the last month’s intensity of Holy Week, tornado recovery and moving into our newly renovated church building. I wanted a distraction from the daily stresses, a world I could escape into at the end of a long day or long week. These books were perfect for that. As young adult literature, they were easy and fast to read. The twists and turns of the intense, unfolding story hooked me in fairly quickly.

The books are all narrated in the voice of their protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. I must confess that I never learned to love Katniss. I loved many things about the character that Suzanne Collins created—a young woman who is not defined by her love interests, who acts with courage and bravery and grit, who must contend with gender stereotypes and manipulate them in order to preserve her life, who has a strong voice of her own. I love that young women have such a great character to relate to. I just didn’t like her, and couldn’t imagine joining her company. That made for an interesting experience of reading the books, because I wanted to know the outcome of the story, even as I didn’t care much what Katniss (the narrator) thought or felt about it.

The world that Collins created was so compelling because it was so believable as a post-apocalyptic version of North America. Panem is like American society through a fun house mirror. Certain aspects (usually the good ones, like equality, opportunity and freedom) shrunken into nothing, and other aspects (usually the bad ones like inequality, greed, consumerism and spectacle) enlarged and engorged beyond their normal proportions. When you see Panem, you see American society. Even though it looks so different, you still know it’s the same thing.

That makes the books an interesting critique of political and economic systems. I read the first book, The Hunger Games, about a week before Palm Sunday, and I was captivated by the parallels between it and the story of Jesus contesting the Roman empire. It became the start of my Palm Sunday sermon, which you can listen to here. Catching Fire and Mockingjay turn more explicitly revolutionary, and provide interesting insights about how we might subvert the seemlingly indomitable powers-that-be in our own society. Love triumphs over death, collaboration over competition. There are ways that the game can be played that destroy the game itself.

The trilogy is a great read. It has lots of theological themes, even if there is no mention of God or religious life in Panem. I recommend it for some fun summer reading, or an interesting conversation starter with so many others who are reading it—especially young people.

Photo of tornado that hit Henryville, from crabbyhousewife.com.

Exactly ten days ago, deadly tornadoes rolled through our region. Since noon that Friday, when my son’s school announced an early closing, every plan, task and to-do list has been tossed aside. Our town is just a few miles from Henryville, Indiana, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado. Our congregation has families that live in Henryville, Pekin, Borden and New Washington. One family has lost their entire home, another family has sustained major damage. Two of our church’s youth attend Henryville High School, and they have lost their school building and the accompanying social events that give shape to their lives. Almost everyone has suffered emotional and spiritual trauma, as they feared for their own lives and worried over friends and loved ones in the hours after the storm.

Henryville High School, devastated by the tornado.

Last Sunday, less than 36 hours after the storm, our community gathered for the first time. For most of us, it was the first chance we had to talk about our experiences. I groped for something to say to my congregation in the wake of such devastation. In prayer, I realized we needed to do three things in that hour of worship: to acknowledge our feelings, to find our hope in God, and to organize our service.

We began the sermon by simply inviting people to share words that described what they had been feeling. Scared. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Helplessness. Anxiety. Grief. Questioning. Gratitude. Relief. Questioning “why?”. While one occasion of worship was not enough to process all these feelings, there was a palpable sense of connection in the room as we realized that we were all feeling the same way. We could acknowledge that we were not alone in our struggles, and giving voice to our shared experiences gave us encouragement.

The scripture that I had originally planned for that day was from the Lenten lectionary, Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” I had planned to talk about Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of empire, and in my weekly video I had even asked people to ponder the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” After the storms, we all knew in a deeper way that we were not willing to die for our stuff. But many of our community also knew in a way that they never understood before how much they were willing to risk their own lives to protect family, friends and neighbors.

It is in that spirit of generosity, courage and self-sacrifice that God is made known in these storms. It is not in the suffering, injury and death. We find our hope in God in the love and compassion we see from those around us, and we offer to one another. From my sermon:

People may try to tell you that suffering is good for you, or that God sent these terrible tornadoes as a cross for us to bear, that this is some kind of a test or blessing or way of making our faith stronger, but I’ll tell you right now—that’s just bad theology. I don’t believe it for a second, and neither should you. God doesn’t work like that—choosing to preserve a woodpile or a mailbox while destroying a home, saving one family when their neighbors across the street lose everything. God doesn’t use the winds to rip apart homes and lives and frighten us into submission. God doesn’t pick husbands over wives, grandparents over grandchildren, cats over dogs, non-Christians over Christians. God doesn’t send little children flying through the air to teach us a lesson. Any God who could be so cruel and fickle is not worthy of our worship.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of the cross, the one who is willing to suffer and even die right alongside us, so that we know that we are never alone in our most painful moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who refuses to flee in the face of the storm, who huddles under mattresses and climbs into bathtubs, holding us tight in our most terrifying moments.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who hears our most fervent and frightened prayers and whispers calm and peace into our ears.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who searches every house and every ruin until the lost are found.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God is the one who shows up in food trucks and water bottles and chainsaws and offers of “whatever you need, we’re here for you.”

The God of Jesus Christ and our God picks up a hammer, a bucket, and work gloves and starts cleaning up and rebuilding—and sticks around until every last family, every last person is restored to wholeness again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God uses Facebook and phone calls, e-mail and text messages to rally the family of Christians across the country to pray for this church and our two afflicted families by name this Sunday morning.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God sends the resources of the One Great Hour of Sharing and UCC Disaster Response Ministries to our aid, and extends offers of support and supplies from every corner as we help our community start again.

The God of Jesus Christ and our God does not delight in how much we suffer, but in our willingness, like God’s own Son, to go to the places of suffering in this world to shine the light, and hope, and love for all people.

So that’s what we are to do: we who follow God, we take up our cross by following God into these places of suffering and grief, so that our friends and neighbors are not alone and they know God’s love is with them even in these terrible circumstances.

For us as Christians, we don’t merely take care of our own—we will reach out to all those in need. This storm will be an even more devastating loss on those who were already living on the edge, and they will need our compassion and aid.

We aren’t just acting from heart-felt compassion. We are people of faith, and service is a discipline for us, not just something we do because it makes us feel good.  That means we’re making a long-term commitment, until every last person is restored to wholeness. That process will take many months, after the fear and the emotion and the passion have died down. The work will get tedious and much patience will be required—but you and I, this church, we have an opportunity in this moment to be for our community the light and the hope of God, and I know we will.

I know we will. That felt like such a statement of faith that morning, but I knew it to be true—that our congregation would rally and work and give and serve in ways far beyond our imagined capacity. And we have, already.

Volunteers in Henryville (AP photo by Michael Conroy)

Since the winds died down, everyone in our community has been working non-stop to clean up and care for one another. Crews from our church organized to remove debris for two families in our congregation, but then reached out to help other neighbors. A Volunteer Reception Center opened just a few blocks from our church to handle the hundreds of volunteers arriving in the region (nearly 3,000 already registered). Over 20 members of our congregation have already signed up to work at the Volunteer Center itself. This is not the “glamorous” work in storm-ravaged areas—this is filing papers, answering phones, handing out work gloves. Our folks have signed up for multiple shifts over the next four weeks already.  A dozen more have also been deployed to the affected areas with chainsaws and pick-up trucks and debris removal equipment. Our youth group has organized a spaghetti supper this Thursday night as a fundraiser for long-term recovery. When the Volunteer Center needed chaplains, I simply stated the need at a local clergy meeting, and every afternoon was covered for the next month. As one of the volunteers said to me, “We are God’s people. This is what we do—we help people.”

So much has changed in ten short days. Sabbatical seems like such a long time ago. My calendar has been filled with shifts at the Volunteer Center, clean-up days with church work groups, and pastoral care for our church families who are most affected. My e-mail inbox and Facebook news feed are full of storm-related communications coordinating needs and responses, including inquiries from church groups about summer mission trips. I find myself a part of a coalition for long-term recovery, and I anticipate dedicating many hours in the months ahead to organizing spiritual care for those who have suffered so much trauma.

And yet, so much remains the same. For our congregation, this response to disaster is no different than what we do every day. When someone dies, when accidents happen, when lives fall apart, we are there for each other and provide for one another. When people in our community are hungry or homeless or lost, we provide food and shelter and care. When trauma and spiritual crisis arise, we offer space for seekers, room for questions, and reassurances of God’s grace and love. The intensity and the need have multiplied around us, but we have been committed to these faith practices for a long time already. We will sustain and increase that effort in the days, months and even years to come, as our community recovers, because we know God is with us, beckoning us into the suffering places to be light, and hope, and love.

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, by Eric Weiner, Twelve: Hatchette Book Group, 2011, 349 pp.

I can’t remember where I heard, saw or read the review of this book that made me want to read it. When the library e-mailed me to tell me that it was my turn to pick it up from the reserved list, I had forgotten it was there. I do remember that I thought it would help me better understand the world of the “nones,” the growing segment of people in the United States with no religious affiliation. I think it did.

Eric Weiner is a writer and reporter (for The New York Times and NPR, among others) who has never had an active life of faith or participated actively in a religious community. Although his heritage is Jewish, he has little connection to it as lived religion. When Weiner has a health scare, the nurse in the hospital asks him: “Have you found your God yet?” He has not, and that realization leads him into a deep depression and a quest around the world, trying on religious practices of all shapes and sizes.

At the beginning, he labels himself a “Confusionist:”

We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected and believe—no, hope—there is more to life than meets the eye. Beyond that we are simply and utterly confused. (4)

I suspect that his brief summary and new category of Confusionism matches the description of many people raised in a secular environment. However, in my experience, few are willing to admit their ignorance and confusion, content instead to believe the stereotypes and caricatures about various religious traditions. I thought at first Weiner’s book might be a bit of religious tourism or even a bit of sarcasm, drawing out the extremes for (appropriate) mockery. But his story and his quest were genuine, and in the end, it’s his openness and honesty, his willingness to try anything, that gives the book its heart.

Weiner gives himself over completely to each faith he explores—physically, if not always mentally (which is a much bigger challenge for all of us). He tries the major players—Buddhism (Tibetan), Taoism,  Christianity (Franciscan), Islam (Sufism) and Judaism (Kabbalah)—but he also goes for some newer, non-traditional alternatives, like Wicca, shamanism, and Raelism. He criticizes and even lightly mocks when it is appropriate, but he also gives each practice credit for what it offers. In the end, he discovers what religious practice is capable of. Far more than a set of rules and regulations, it is a path to an encounter with the numinous, the Spirit, the Divine. Along the various roads, Weiner finds those sacred moments, and through his skepticism he honors them with awe.

This book is well-written, entertaining, creative and insightful. Through Weiner, I do feel like I got a new kind of insight into the “nones,” but also an interesting window into the various faiths he visits, including my own.

Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.

A full house for our Sausage Supper! I love these folks. (Photo by Ann Swilley)

The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.

The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.

Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.

One of my readings at morning prayer said, "May you experience Jerusalem's goodness your whole life long." (Psalm 128:5, CEB) That is what spiritual disciplines help me do---experience to the presence of God in everyday life, just as I did during my pilgrimage. (Photo of a Jerusalem street, by me.)

Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.

As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.

Banias Waterfall, one of three sources of the Jordan River

Today has left me feeling overwhelmed—not just with the Spirit, which has been spilling over in me every day, but with new information and insights about this place and its people, both ancient and modern. In the spirit of this blog as my place for pondering rather than reporting, I will not try to recount everything I saw and learned today. Instead, I’ll focus on a few questions and ideas that I want to process more deeply. I will throw in a few extra pictures to share more of our day.

The long and winding path down to the waterfall. You can only see about half of the steps in the photo.

Our focus scripture for the day came from Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples had ventured into the territory of Caesarea Philippi, which is the same territory we ventured into for the day. In that region, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with the first confession of Jesus as Messiah: “You are the Christ.” We were invited to ponder: Who is Jesus? Who do you say that Jesus is, to you and for you and in your ministry?

Waters headed into the Jordan River at Banias, the town known as Caesarea Philippi in Jesus' day.

That question took on new meaning when we laid eyes on the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, which housed more than 20 temples to Roman gods. Many of the ruins we saw were built in the decades after Jesus, but the spirit of the first century city came clear. Palestine in the Roman era was not a monotheistic culture, and Caesarea Philippi was an amalgam of Roman, Hellenistic and Jewish worship. When Jesus posed the question to his disciples, it was not a question about where he stood in relationship to the One True God, or about how his ministry related to Temple Judaism. That question from Jesus invited the disciples to contemplate how his teaching and his path might be unique among all the multitude of competing cults in their world. With all this diverse religious worship, where did Jesus fit in?

The grottoes are all that remain of the Greco-Roman temples at Caesarea Philippi. Was Jesus asking for a grotto like these? Clearly not.

Rather than contemplate the answer to the question, I have been more interested in the source of the question. Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was he setting them up for a test of faith? I doubt it. Was he in need of an ego boost, someone to tell him he was great and his ministry was important? I doubt that even more. Was he taking the temperature of his followers, to assess their level of understanding and commitment? Maybe a little bit, but probably that wasn’t all.

The grottoes of Caesarea Philippi. The large cave once stood behind the Roman Temple of Pan.

All of us, from time to time, ask our friends and family and even strangers to tell us who they think we are. We all do it, but why? We have an image about ourselves, who we are and what matters most to us and how we present ourselves. Yet we wonder if the world sees us the same way that we see ourselves. We need those around us to reflect back to us what they see, to correct our misperceptions, our blind spots, our sins. Honest feedback is the source of truth about our identity, not just as we perceive ourselves but as the world perceives us.

Collecting water from the source of the Jordan River, to bring back home for baptisms.

I did it myself this afternoon. I didn’t connect it to Jesus’ question until I started this writing, but the two belong together. My roommate is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a pastor, and this afternoon during a break we started talking about the Enneagram. She uses it frequently in her work, and we began together to figure out my type. She made a guess, and I probed her with questions about what that type said about who I am. Because I was resisting her characterization, she produced an application on her Ipad to let me take the official test. In the end, the test proved her right, and I spent the rest of the afternoon peppering her with questions about what that type said about who I am.

Our group atop Tel Hazor, the site of an ancient Canaanite city and a city of Solomon's kingdom.

Who do you say that I am? I asked over and over again, in different ways and with various nuances, to her and to the test. What did I want to know? I wanted to know if their perceptions matched up to my self-perceptions. I wanted (especially from the Enneagram) to gain insights into my strengths and challenges. I wanted to hear affirmation of the deep longings of my heart. I wanted appreciation for how I think and how my heart moves. I wanted confirmation that the faults I wrestle with are indeed the faults I need to wrestle with. I wanted to be seen and known rightly.

Perhaps that is all that Jesus longed for as well—to be seen and known aright.

The remains of the city gate at Hazor, "Solomon's Gate," where all who entered the city were required to state who they were and why they were there.

According to scripture, Peter is the only one who answers the question, and I always imagine his answer arriving in an outburst that surprises everyone, including himself: “You are the Christ!” It is a confessional moment, when he calls out the truth as he sees it. As with all true confession, it startles everyone with its boldness, even as everyone who hears it knows its power.

At Tel Hazor, the discovery of an ancient tunnel to get water from the source at a spring outside the city gates. In times of siege, they went through the underground tunnel to collect water from the source. Constructed in the time of Ahab, approx. 900 years before Christ.

We continued to process the question as a group tonight: who do you say that Jesus is? One member of the group responded like Peter, with a confessional outpouring: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” He spoke with confidence and assurance. Others spoke with hesitation and doubt. Theirs too was a confession, an admission of their struggles to know who Jesus is in their lives. It was more like the confession of a father whose son received healing: “I believe, O Lord! Help my unbelief!” Many in our group spoke about how their understandings of Jesus had changed throughout their lives, with some ideas and identities taking on prominence as others receded or were even rejected. Things got a little tense, as Christologies tangled with one another, with doubters doubting and proclaimers proclaiming.

We had to wind down and down to get to the source of the water underground.

For me, right now, the confession comes easily. Not quite as easily as Peter’s, and I might meddle with the exact word choices, but I can confess my faith with joy. At other times in my life, doubt held greater sway, and I might not have been able to confess faith, only questions. Even though I can confess easily now, questions remain.

Entering the tunnel, with the modern steps paralleling the ancient ones.

Why did it matter so much? Why such passion and tension in our amiable group? Because who we confess Christ to be is who we confess ourselves striving to be. At the cornerstone of all orthodox theology is the belief that our identity as human beings is dependent upon God. Several members of the group referred to their catechism: “I profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” The Heidelberg Catechism (from our UCC tradition, although held loosely) begins with the absolute connection between our identity and Jesus’:

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Who Jesus is determines who we are. Confession—You are the Christ! My Lord and Savior!—is only the beginning. From that moment on, our answer to the question of who Jesus is becomes the answer to who we are. When we confess ourselves as followers of him, we vow to be “sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.” If Jesus is a teacher, we are learners and teachers ourselves. If Jesus is a friend, we are friends to others. If Jesus is an advocate for social justice, we too are builders of peace and justice for all. If Jesus is a healer, we are healed and healers too. The source of our identity is found in Jesus.

At last, at the bottom of the dark tunnel, the water source.

For me, faith is far more about living with the question than knowing the answer. Who do you say that I am? I want to leave that question open, both about me and about Jesus. I follow a God of mystery and surprise, who is always revealing to me new understandings of Jesus and of myself. As I practice my faith and grow into the person God has created me to be, I will need to revisit the question over and over again. What does it mean for Jesus to be my Lord today? What is Jesus saving me from right now? What is Jesus saving me for in this moment, or the next? Who is Jesus to me today? What is Jesus asking of me today? How can I “live unto him?”

Praise be to God, for questions and confessions, for doubts and decisions, for tensions and resolutions, for growth and change, for the source of our life and who we are.

A flower on the mountain over Banias Waterfall, in the Golan Heights.

Tomorrow is the big day—I am leaving for two weeks (16 days, counting travel days) on a Macedonian Ministries Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One suitcase, one carry-on bag. Ready to go.

The preparations for this day have been going on for months. I applied to the program last spring, and planned this sabbatical around it last June. Our group (all mid-career pastors) first met for a retreat in October, where we read and talked and prayed deeply about God’s call in our lives. We have met twice since then, and we have studied the history of the region, the violence and conflict, and the three faiths that share the land. We have meditated on the spiritual practice of pilgrimage.

Personally, I have shopped for new shoes and new clothes. The laundry is done, and the packing is almost complete. Bills are paid, childcare arranged, house ordered. During sabbatical, I have read a few extra books, prayed, contemplated, bought a few more books , and even reread the Gospels. Most of all, I have worked to open my heart to whatever this journey might offer. I have tried to let go of excessive expectations, to set aside diligent plans, to leave behind extra baggage (literally and spiritually), and open my spirit to attend to God more carefully on this journey.

And I think that’s what makes me the most nervous this night before departure. Yes, I have normal travel jitters. This is the first time I will leave my child for such a long time, and so far away. I am asking my spouse to shoulder a lot of weight while I am away, and there is always a risk of violence or catastrophe or emergency. I am accustomed to all these small anxieties. There is no reason to worry, because there is nothing I can do about any of them.

The buildup and the expectations to this trip have been very big. My family, my church, my friends—everyone has their ideas about what I will see and what I will experience while I am away, and they are all expecting it to be profound. I share that quest. Will I really meet God there? Will it be the “Holy Land” really feel holy? What if it doesn’t?  What will it be like to see with my own eyes the places that have been a part of my imagination since I was a child? Will the commercialism, the militarism, the tourism disappoint? I feel a bit of stress to make sure that I make the most of this, and wondering if I will be let down. Or if my experiences will let others down, who have so much interest in hearing all about it.

There is another, deeper edge to my travel anxieties. I am haunted by an excerpt from Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey that one of our leaders read to us at our last gathering. The chapter was entitled, “The Dangers of Pilgrimage.”  The passage talked about how the journey of pilgrimage is a metaphor for our whole life’s thrust toward God. The pilgrimage condenses so much energy into one large block of time that it threatens the familiar and the past. It is almost a certainty, Foster wrote, that nothing will be the same again. (paraphrased from meeting notes)

I am anxious about how this experience will change me. I already feel, over the last several months, that the solid ground beneath my feet is giving way to shifting sands, and God is doing a new thing with me. I don’t know what it is, but it is both exciting and daunting to feel God on the move. As I contemplate the pilgrimage, I realize I’m not really stressed that I won’t feel God’s presence—I’m worried that I will. God’s voice can speak sometimes with comfort, hope and consolation, but I have a feeling this time around that God’s message for me will be of a more unsettling variety. What if God issues a call to repentance, to honesty, to transformation, to trust, to new life, to courage? What if I come home and I am changed? What if God wants me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do?

I feel the risk, the anxiety—but also the excitement. God is (always) about to do a new thing. I pray that I would have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to respond.

I awoke this morning sensing that God was very near. More accurately, realizing that my heart, mind and spirit had been broken open to feel God’s presence. I just knew that, if I could stay open, God would come very near. I felt as if my spirit was waking up after a long sleep. St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer came to me:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation

After taking B to school, I went to a nearby park to take a walk. Instead of my normal alt-folk-rock Pandora mix, a classical station appeared. I realized that wordlessness suited my prayerful mood, and set out walking. What happened next felt like magic, a mystical revelation of God’s presence.

The music was in 3/4 time, and my feet slipped into a waltzing pattern. I couldn’t help it—it felt like I was dancing along the path instead of just walking. I first noticed it as I came upon the duck pond. Over the music in my earbuds, I could hear the quacking and squawking—and they seemed perfectly attuned to the pulsing staccato of the symphony. As the wind blew through the trees, I began to imagine that nature’s own movements had been choreographed to the music in my ears. Through a short line of trees, the thickness of the symphony dwindled at the same moment I stepped into a wide, open meadow. The chatter of the symphony calmed, as did the ducks. The violins played a simple melody, clear and smooth, as a solitary bird flew overhead, from one end of the meadow to the other. I waltzed across the meadow entranced, open to the simple melody, to the space and to the spirit.

The symphony grew thicker and more invitational, and I approached a grove of trees. I imagined them welcoming me into their fellowship, out of the solitude and emptiness of the open meadow and into a space of warmth and companionship. Together we frolicked with the lilting of the music, and I felt like I was a guest at a lovely party. I found myself triple-timing the waltz steps, and my arms followed the arc of the music.

Slowly, the music turned heavier, as the grove of trees also became more dense. I felt the weightiness of journey, of struggle, of pilgrimage. I contemplated the way our life’s journeys twist and turn, grow thick and thin. Sometimes we are surrounded by friends, sometimes we are alone. I kept walking in time with the music. The tension and discord grew heavier, then suddenly exploded into fullness and light, beaming with deep radiance.

I felt my Spirit coming alive. God did not choreograph the movements of the trees and the birds to the movement of my feet, like Disney’s Fantasia, but God opened me again to the music of the world, to the ability to pay attention to all that was happening around me.

I finally looked to see what the piece was. It was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is called “Resurrection.”

These are the things for which sabbatical was made. Long walks, a spirit of prayer, attentive listening. For resurrection. Thanks be to God.

(Below is the entire symphony. I was listening, I suspect, to the second movement, which begins around minute 24. I discovered, in researching the piece when I returned home, that the second movement is based on a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that preceded the waltz. When I was in a folk dance group in college, the Ländler was one of my favorite dances. No wonder my feet stepped in time. Zillertaler Ländler was always my favorite.)


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,660 other followers

%d bloggers like this: