A church member recently loaned me the book With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani. The author examines different “postures” or approaches to our relationship with God. One is what he labels “Life Under God.” It is an effort to win God’s favor by combining rituals and morality. It is an approach through which we “are seeking to exert control over God through strict adherence to rituals… and moral codes… We put God into our debt and expect him to do our bidding in exchange for our worship and righteous behavior.”[i] On a communal scale, this results in churches and religious leaders functioning as “divine police” “ensuring no one violates the Almighty’s will, because it’s not just the individual on the line, but the whole community.”[ii]
On Monday, Oct. 15, at 6 p.m. during Trinity’s Fusion gathering, I’ll be talking about the story in John, chapter 4, of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Growing up, the woman’s sexual exploits seemed to merit salacious speculation on the part of bible preachers and teachers. I also recall preachers who labeled the woman’s question to Jesus about worship as an effort to change the subject in order to avoid confronting her own moral shortcomings.
But today I feel differently about the story and the woman.
For one thing, Jesus only seems to name her life’s circumstances in order to demonstrate that he is more than some random guy passing through town. Frequently in John’s gospel, Jesus knows the unknowable. In chapter 1, his intimate knowledge of Nathanael prompts surprise followed by a profession of faith. Jesus repeatedly seems to “call us as he sees us” not in an effort to embarrass; but to cut through the pretense and get at the heart of who we really are. It’s a “zero to sixty” path to intimacy.
Once the Samaritan woman recognizes that Jesus (through his inexplicable knowledge of her life) must have a “God vibe” going on, she asks Jesus a question of incredible importance. It is a question about how to be in relationship with God; about how to enter in to God’s presence and it leads to a conversation in which Jesus discloses his true identity for the first time in John’s gospel.
In reading Jethani’s book, it occurs to me that this story of the Samaritan woman is so often examined from a “life under God” approach. It is reduced to a lesson in morality: Jesus confronted her with her sin and led her toward repentance and faith.
But maybe there’s a different way to view the story. Jesus never tells the woman to repent. He never circles back to “confront” her immoral behavior. Instead, the woman’s sincere and deeply important question is where Jesus focuses his attention. In his book, Jethani talks about how our lives change when we take on a posture of life with God. It seems to me that few gospel characters understand this concept of life with God better than the Samaritan woman. And, even though she is a woman, a foreigner, and living in a dubious setting, Jesus is “all in” to dialog with her about what life with God looks like. That’s the kind of dialogue that gets Jesus and the woman excited. And if Jesus had made her gender, ethnicity, or morality the focus of the conversation, they likely would have never gotten any farther.
It seems to me that we have become, increasingly, a culture more concerned with policing one another’s morals than with honest dialogue about how to be in relationship with God and with one another. And it doesn’t seem that such an approach is doing much to help the Church or the world. But what might happen if we could come together around the table to discuss with openness our common seeking of God? Perhaps in our common quest, we might experience community.
Right now in the United Methodist Church we are bitterly divided over the issues of gender and sexuality. As we move toward the February General Conference, there is discussion of winners and losers, allies and opponents, factions and successions… because we have focused on a moral issue over which we do not agree. What if our focus changed? What if we could sit down face to face with one another and agree to discuss the most important question: how can we be in deeper, more loving relationship with God and with others? If that is our primary question, then surely – despite our differences – we can come together.
[i] With by Skye Jethani. 2011; Thomas Nelson Pub; p. 27
[ii] Ibid, p. 31
I grew up in a culture that didn’t really pay much attention to the connection between body and spirit. Spiritual things were things you couldn’t see and my physical body was nothing more than a shell that I would shed someday in the great bye and bye. But over the years I’ve grown to see a powerful connection between body and spirit. Years ago I began to notice that, on days when I exercised I could stay more focused during my prayer time and fall asleep more easily. It was almost as if my body was telling me that it needed its fair share of time and attention. In recent years, I’ve also noticed that, on mornings when I take time to meditate or engage in centering prayer before I leave for work, I manage my work life better. I have more patience with people and I don’t find little inconveniences so irritating. I’m not as apt to “blown them up” in my mind.
Today, many of us deal with a lot of stress and have over-extend ourselves and we’ve sometimes forgotten about the need to balance the needs of our bodies, minds and spirits. The prophet Elijah knew what it felt like for his body, mind and spirit to just kind of collapse under the weight of stress and over-work. His story is found in the bible in 1 Kings, chapter 17 through 2 Kings, chapter 2. The culmination of the story comes in 1 Kings, chapter 19, when (all by himself) Elijah climbs his way to the top of a mountain and recognizes the presence of God in quiet and stillness. Twice, God asks Elijah the question, “What are you doing here?” What a great existential question for someone in the midst of an existential crisis! Sometimes we all need to take a moment to get away to a quiet place and acknowledge just how tired we might be and to remember that are bodies are living organisms, not machines; and that our spirits live and find expression within those bodies.
That’s what spirituality is really about: finding those ways to be attentive to God’s presence in our bodies, minds and spirits – alone and with one another… because when Elijah came down from that mountain, his first assignment from God was to find a partner, named Elisha, who would help him manage the work and the stress.
On Monday, September 17, at 6 p.m. at Trinity, we’ll be talking together about this connection and need for balance between body, mind and spirit at our new gathering, Trinity Fusion. We’ll also hear from a local yoga instructor about how yoga helps us maintain that healthy connection between body, mind and spirit. There’ll be an opportunity to learn more about centering prayer, an ancient form of prayer that helps us “tune in” to the quiet, peaceful presence of God in our lives. I hope you can join us! Learn more at: http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html
TRINITY FUSION – Connect, Discover, Grow
I was a young adult and not much interested in politics during the Reagan years. But I read an interesting story recently about a speech Reagan made during a visit from the Japanese Prime Minister. In the speech, Reagan described his visit to a concentration camp at the conclusion of World War II. It was quite emotionally stirring but later found to be completely untrue… even Reagan’s own White House issued a statement saying so.[i] Was it an outright lie, emotional manipulation? Or, did Reagan delude himself, feeling that – as leader of the free world – surely he should have had a deeper personal experience/ encounter with this great injustice that had such incredible impact on the world?
I fear our culture is undergoing a crisis of response ability. We are so globally connected; social media and traditional media allow us to track the movements and obsess over every step and action undertaken by famous people. As a pastor, in recent years I have encountered people who cannot sleep at night, whose employment has been compromised, by their obsession with our national state of affairs.
We’ve become reactive rather than responsive and sometimes overwhelmed by problems we feel powerless to address. I imagine all of us could benefit from a little more engagement with the Niebuhr prayer used by Twelve Step groups:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer (1943)[ii]
Recently, I was listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Contemplate This[iii], in which the guest said (my paraphrase… I didn’t write down the exact quote) that, sometimes, the best thing we can do is not make things worse. I’m concerned we are increasingly becoming a culture in which we can’t see the trees for the forest (yes, although I’m sometimes cliché-dysfunctional, that was a purposeful flip of the phrase). We’ve become so obsessed with large-scale, national or global problems that we miss the simple opportunities to act in just and merciful ways each day to make ourselves and our communities a little better. We have the ability to respond and make a difference if we just take the step to live in the moment and be present to what – and who! – is around us.
This Sunday (June 3), I am launching a new sermon series at Trinity (www.trinitylafayette.org) called Response Ability. It’s a chance for us to examine scripture, our lives, and our world and consider ways to make things better, not worse because we are all created and gifted by God to connect with and serve those around us.
[i] Story found in The Selfless Self by Laurence Freeman; Canterbury Press; 2009; p. 90.
[Join us December 10 at http://www.trinitylafayette.org as we observe United Methodist Global Migration Sunday and focus on the themes of vulnerability and weakness. At 9:15 we’ll gather for a discussion on how our personal weaknesses can become a gift and a blessing to others. During 10:30 worship, we’ll be joined by Syrian immigrant and local physician Dr. Akram Al-Makki who will share the story of his extended family’s experiences (past and present) with immigration and migration.]
When I started graduate studies at the University of Akron, I did not have an apartment. So a faculty member invited me to stay at her home. On my first day of fall semester, I drove the 1 ½ hours from northwest PA to Akron to attend class. It made for a long day. Before leaving campus, I stopped in the office to discover the professor had left a note for me. She would be delayed getting home. She provided her address and directions to her house. She explained the door had been left unlocked. I could go in and make myself comfortable.
It was pre-GPS days so I had a hard time finding her house. When I arrived (feeling already stressed and anxious), her dog was barking aggressively at the door. I decided I would hang out in my car and wait. One hour turned into two. I was getting so hungry. Money was scarce. I had a bag of peanuts. I munched on those. It began to get dark. I began to cry. Why was I here? Over the next hour I played a self-defeating loop of negative thoughts, convincing myself that grad school was a big mistake; leaving PA was a big mistake; coming to a city where I knew no one… also a big mistake; thinking I could become a professional musician: big mistake; staying in the home of a complete stranger… you guessed it – mistake; risking walking in on a barking dog that I’d never met: sure to be a mistake.
Decades after the fact, I look back on that evening and laugh. The faculty member finally arrived home with take out from a Chinese restaurant. We ate dinner and talked. She was gracious and hospitable and, by the end of the week, I’d found my own apartment. But that evening, waiting alone in my car outside a stranger’s home, I felt terribly – dreadfully – vulnerable… and I didn’t like it one bit.
In life we often become attached to stuff, positions, accomplishments, even relationships that we think will provide us with a sense of security: retirement plans, an influential supervisor or mentor, a title that sounds impressive, prominent positions in civic organizations. We want to feel strong and capable; not weak or breakable. But to be human is to be vulnerable.
In our gospels, Jesus admonishes his followers to become like children. We love children in our culture. They are adorable! But in Jesus’ culture, children weren’t viewed as precious and innocent. They were viewed as chaotic and undisciplined. Their only virtue lay in their potential to grow up and be respectable adults who could contribute to the honor of their family and village. There were no Children’s Protective Services. If people wanted to beat their children, that was their business. Ugh! Children were extremely vulnerable and entirely dependent on their parents.
When Jesus invites us to become like children, he is inviting us to embrace the reality that we can’t control life in this world. No matter how we worry and scurry and plan, things can go wrong. But, God is with us and loves us and will be faithful in looking out for us if only we will embrace the reality of our vulnerability.
This Advent, the United Methodist Church is celebrating Global Migration Sunday. Migrants and refugees – like the children of antiquity – find themselves in an especially vulnerable and precarious position. Jesus, the Savior whose birth we will soon celebrate, knew that experience. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee the country, escape across the border into Egypt, because King Herod was slaughtering infant boys all over Bethlehem and the surrounding area in an effort to find Jesus and kill him. The Son of God (along with the whole pregnant-mom-out-of-wedlock thing) was born into a family of poor peasants forced to become refugees in order to escape genocide (see Matthew, chapter 2). Maybe that’s why God has always been such a fan of welcoming the alien and the foreigner.
I have to confess: there are moments when I think that ministry might not have been the best decision for my soul. After all, fewer and fewer people go to church in America these days and everything has become far more complex than it was when I was a child going to Sunday School… back in the days when just going to church made you a “good American” and a “good neighbor.” And so we are all challenged (by the culture and our own religious establishments) to work harder and do more to “grow the church.”
But the irony is, as I have aged I’ve discovered, the harder I work for God, the less I become like God. When I work more than I should, I become tired and I find myself losing patience with others and myself. I become resentful of others, cranky and easily frustrated and discouraged.
In her book, “Sacred Rhythms,” Ruth Haley Barton writes, “The point of Sabbath… is to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake… I live within physical limits of time and space… There are limits to my capacities relationally, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I am not God… [O]ur unwillingness to practice Sabbath is really an unwillingness to live within the limits of our humanity… Something about begin gracious and accepting and gentle with ourselves… enables us to be more gracious and accepting and gentle with others.”[i]
Sabbath was listed among the Ten Commandments and I find we Christians struggle to know what to do with those commandments (OK, even the word itself – “commandments” – leaves us feeling uncomfortable). Some church-goers today seem to feel that memorizing those commandments would get us all back on track and straighten out the world. Others remind us that, as Christians, we are living under the new covenant established in Jesus. But either approach seems to recognize that those commandments – like the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – were really all about relationship; i.e. what it means for us to live as human creatures in right (or righteous) relationship with God and one another.
So I don’t think a legalistic enslavement to the practice of Sabbath will help us unwind and rest in God’s presence. But I do think it is God’s reminder – God’s invitation – to us to consider what it means to be human and to live relationally. God is God; we are not. We need rest: time for prayer and play, rest and reflection. If nothing else, we need time to settle in to an awareness of God’s presence, to simply breath in the breathe of God, and invite God to “have thine own way” within us so that we can become not just hard workers for God, but joyful collaborators with God.
[i] Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton, IVP Books (Formatio); 2006; pp. 137-138.
I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago. Checking my mail at the church office, I opened an unsigned letter (never a good sign!) from someone who walks by our church. She’d read the quote about peace by Gandhi on our church sign. She was not impressed. She pointed out that – although he may have done some good things for his country – Gandhi was not a Christian and therefore would go to hell. “Weren’t we a Christian Church? How stupid was I?”
Wow! It’s good that it wasn’t signed because I’d hardly know where to start! But it got me to thinking; the author’s perspective revealed what I fear has become the frightening normative assumption in our culture. It is the very unhelpful assumption that those who do not believe or think as I do have nothing to offer me and most certainly are not those with whom I can join hands to work toward a common goal.
I imagine the letter writer would have been even more distressed had she known that, just a few days prior to receiving her letter, I’d participated in an interfaith panel on fasting followed by an Iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims when they break their fast during Ramadan)!
About a month ago our Indiana Conference awarded Trinity (my church) a grant focused on Urban Transitional Communities. The Centennial neighborhood (where my church is located) is undergoing significant change. This summer my congregation is hosting “Garden and Grill” gatherings on our front lawn. It is a meal for our community. It has attracted a diverse crowd reflecting our diverse community. What a blessing. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most has been watching people at the tables connect to one another; to chat and share together as they broke bread.
I really wasn’t angry at the writer of that letter about Gandhi. Honestly, I felt sorry for her. I suspect she lives in a world as divided as our congress is right now; divisions of “us” and “them”; a world where those who believe differently don’t have a place with “us” or can’t teach us anything or offer us anything useful or helpful or meaningful. But thinking like that will never solve our nation’s healthcare crisis or any other challenge we face. Sometimes the most helpful ideas come from people who see the world from a different perspective. They are apt to see or consider something that might not have crossed my mind.
In the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus has an interesting interaction with his disciple, John…
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. Mark 9:38-41 (NRSV)
“Whoever is not against us is for us.” I guess I need to put that up on the church signboard.
If you live in the Lafayette area, join us for our next Garden and Grill on Tuesday, August 15, at 6 p.m. on the church’s south lawn. Get the details at http://www.trinitylafayette.org
Years ago when I was involved with Hispanic ministry in our conference, I went to San Jose, Costa Rica for a Spanish immersion experience. I am far from a world traveler. I grew up in south central PA, referenced as either “God’s Country” (for its beautiful mountains and scenery that a native will never cease to pine for) or Pennsyltucky (since it is geographically located within Appalachia). My family didn’t have much money so an exotic vacation was camping on the Jersey shore! I was in my 20’s before I took my first plane ride and well into my 30’s when I traveled outside the U.S. for the first time on a mission trip to Honduras. (Traveling abroad with a church group provides a very helpful sense of security.) My Costa Rica trip was my first time to travel alone. Before my departure, Verizon assured me my cell phone would function there. They were wrong. I spent my first night lying awake worrying that my husband would be laying awake back in Indiana worrying and wondering why he still hadn’t heard from me. It was the next morning until I was able to phone home and also discovered that I would be taking the bus to my Spanish classes every day. I’ve spent most of my adult life in urban settings but, somehow, have managed to avoid (for the most part) navigating the mass transit system. For whatever odd reason, mass transit intimidates me… and even more so in a city where I can’t speak the language of the bus driver.
On my first day after class I boarded the bus. My stop was near the end of the line. I watched nervously as all my classmates disembarked and darkness fell over the city. My anxiety reached panic levels when I realized that people were pulling a chord at the front of the bus to request the driver make a stop. I was too short to ever reach that chord! I saw my host’s home through the window. As we drew closer to it, I realized (from the bus’ speed) that it was not a regular stop. Jumping to my feet, I ran down the aisle of the bus yelling “alta, alta” (which is NOT what you are supposed to say), perhaps causing my driver to panic that he had missed a stop sign. He slammed on the brakes and opened the bus door. I was wearing a backpack. When he hit the brakes, the weight of my backpack turned my little frame into a projectile; I rolled forward, hurtling down the aisle toward the door. Scrambling unsuccessfully to right myself, I ultimately rolled down the stairs and through the open bus door, sprawling in the street. (In hindsight, it probably looked pretty funny.) I’d torn one of my favorite blouses and my hands and elbows were bloodied. A neighbor had witnessed this production and came out of his home to help me. He spoke some menacing words to the bus driver which I could not – and, I suspect, should not – translate as the driver sped away. In tears, I limped to my host’s home where the woman cleaned and bandaged my wounds while the neighbor explained my mishap with a great deal of passion. I ate a little dinner and went to bed. Lying there in the dark, I began to berate myself for my foolishness and my reflections ended with this “prayer” (a prayer more fitting for a five year old than a seminary graduate): “God, please get me home safely and I promise I’ll never leave the U.S. again.” Looking back on that experience, I realize how silly I was. But, that night lying in the dark, I felt terribly insecure, lonely, lost and afraid.
Today’s blog is a departure from my usual writing because today I want to introduce you to my friend, Neetu. She came to this country with her husband when he was a visiting professor at the university in my town. He was abusive. The police were called and he moved on. Neetu did not move with him. But her brave decision was not supported by family in her native country where women who leave their husbands for any reason bring dishonor to their family. She has been shunned by her family. A local ecumenical ministry includes an immigration clinic. They have been working with Neetu for more than a year. She is an intelligent woman. She would like nothing more than to work and support herself. But the delay time for processing work permits is extremely lengthy. Neetu is caught in a situation with no good options. Her only option (while the wheels of immigration grind along slowly) is to rely on others in order to keep a roof over her head. She finds herself in a very vulnerable position in a strange land. She bears a double burden as a victim of domestic violence and our confusing and excruciatingly slow immigration process.
Some of you followed my Facebook postings over several weeks in February and March that shared scriptures of God’s commands to care for the foreigner or the stranger among us. Within the gospel of Matthew, the final parable Jesus tells (before his passion) is often referred to as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is a parable that explains how we will be judged at the end of time and – in a way that is frankly quite unsettling – it makes no mention of what we believe. It lists no requirements of faith or adherence to any particular creed. According to the parable, our “final judgment” will be determined by how we have chosen to respond to the most vulnerable strangers/aliens/foreigners* among us… because the steadfast love and mercy of God doesn’t stop at the threshold of our homes; nor is it restricted to our family tree, our town, or even our nation. The steadfast love and mercy of God knows no boundaries or borders.
If you would like to help my friend Neetu, here is a link to the YouCaring page that has been set up for her: https://www.youcaring.com/neetu-814666. I hope that you will pray for her and I hope that you’ll share her story with others. Most of all, I hope (and pray) that, as disciples of Jesus here in a land of freedom and opportunities, we will want to share – not fearfully hoard – the abundant mercy and goodness God has shown us with others. (See Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 10:25-37)
*the Greek word in our bible is xenos; the origin of our English word xenophobia, a fear of strangers.