Worship ~ 24 September

Creation begins each Narrative Lectionary year. Two weeks ago we began with Genesis, chapter 2 and life in the garden. Chapter 3 tells of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in eating the fruit from the forbidden tree in the center of the garden. It ends with this:

3:22Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 4

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ 2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ 13Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ 15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. 18To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael the father of Methushael, and Methushael the father of Lamech. 19Lamech took two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. 21His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.

25 Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, ‘God has appointed* for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.’ 26To Seth also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.

The genealogy at the end of chapter 4 shows that this is also a creation story. In it we see the creation of civilization, of extended family, agriculture, arts, tools. It’s interesting that one of Cain’s descendants takes Abel’s place as the herder and shepherd. It’s also a creation story in that it plays out the genesis of sin. Just as there are two creation accounts back to back, so we are presented with two depictions of the nature and origin of sin. The first was Adam and Eve’s debacle with the fruit tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The irresistible lure of temptation seems to be mixed into the mud from which we came: Adam knew better, but sin was lurking at the door, and they ate the fruit. God both judged them for it, and provided for this couple before sending them into the world outside the garden’s hedges and guarded gate.

Cain, the first child of earth, embodies this dangerous, conflicted knowledge of good and evil. It is a conflict we are well acquainted with. Paul wrote about it in the book of Romans: 7:15″I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”  

God asks Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? [of course you will] And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 

You must master it. We must learn to master exuberant puppies, classrooms of first graders and unruly middle schoolers. We must master addictions, our emotions, our desires. If we fail to master them, they will rule over us. “Sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you.” I appreciate that sin is given this ‘poised to pounce’ quality, this sense of animation. The authors of this story were good observers of human nature.

Like his father before him, Cain had a clear choice. He, too, had a conversation with God. He, too, had time to think this over. He could have mastered his anger, his hurt, his acute disappointment. He could have asked God for an explanation for favoring sheep over grain (which we would all appreciate hearing it). He could have learned to live with his brother despite his jealousy, in spite of feeling victimized by God who – for some unknown reason – chose his brother’s offering over his own.

He could have mastered it. But he didn’t. Instead, we can picture him fuming, spiraling down into rage and justification and vengeance, violence rising. He invites Abel out into the field.

This is such an evocative story. It can take us in any number of directions. Mostly, we read it as the story of Cain and Abel.

It was deeply troubling to the ancient Israelites that those closest to us, those who should be the closest, are often the very ones who cause us the most difficulty and bring us the most pain. For the Israelites the idea of “brothers” became a shorthand way of talking about the problems we face in getting along with each other in God’s world. We are brothers, we are sisters, because we are born of the earth, born of God, born of a common humanity.

It is bad enough to live through the Eighth Day of creation (like Adam and Eve) – to wake up one day outside the garden walls, remembering and reliving the choice that alienated them from God, but it might be harder to be born East of Eden, isolated and scrounging, tilling and tending inhospitable ground, competing and envious and capable of the evil of which we now possess knowledge.

And the “troubles” arising from that knowledge are all too evident. If we are “brothers”, why can’t there be more brotherhood among us? Why can’t siblings get along with each other?  Why can’t neighbors live peaceably? Friends? Strangers? Spouses? Nations? Why can’t people who are different from each other live with toleration and amicable curiosity about the other? Why do we so easily fall into hatred and violence and death? These two brothers speak for the whole of us in our disastrous interpersonal and social relationships – and tell a familiar and painful story. 

One brother was a tiller of the land, the other a tender of sheep. But honestly, that doesn’t make any difference – because the story isn’t about them or their vocations… their offerings are simply the backdrop, the set up: And, actually, so is the murder.

The story is about Cain, about what lies within and must be mastered – and it’s about our fumbling efforts to understand God’s will and ways that lie beyond us, which cannot be understood, but only experienced, lived with, feared, and longed for… This creation mythic story leads us into all of that struggle. But, really, at the end of the day, I think this is the second chapter of a love story between God and her little ones.

A wild, inquisitive freedom came to life – intensely interested in others – but, in truth, only as the other relates to the self. Envy, jealousy, empathy, love, ecstasy – all the big emotions are triggered by, dependent upon, a relationship with another being. God created us as part of one another and that strife against the other and longing to be whole with the other seems to be mixed in the dust of creation.

God clothed and cared for Adam and Eve before sending them out. And in this second story, God protects and provides for Cain, the murderer of his brother. God ensures his safety, the one who took his brother’s life. God sends him away, but allows him to walk away, the one who is banished and protected. It’a a remarkable view of parental love coming from the God of all creation. I think we, naturally, look at the human side of the story. We can relate to it in so many ways – sibling rivalry, the unfair distribution of advantage, intense emotions, questioning God. We get all of that. But turning our attention to God’s action in the story is maybe more helpful. What does it teach us about mercy? About second chances? About the prerequisites necessary for God’s love? Are there any, for example?

This is the first family. They are the prototypes of humanity – and they model disobedience, pain, jealousy, rage, violence, murder, fear. We aren’t told a single word of their love or compassion or joy.

And yet God’s action is to protect and provide and open futures. That’s not the view of God we too often hear about in terms of our behavior and morality. We are told about judgment and wrath and God choosing only some for salvation. Well, here we have a primal example of God choosing, and we don’t know the why, but we hear in God’s own words that the favoring of one offering over the other had nothing to do with the favoring of one brother over the other. God loved them both, even on the backside of incredible disobedience and death, God loved Cain. 

God’s initial action of choosing produces the action of the story. Because it’s not in accepting Abel’s offering, but in accepting Cain, that God’s unfathomable and loving nature is taught.

It is in providing Cain with a protective mark to shield him, in allowing him to wander away from God’s righteous presence, in providing him with life and a wife and son and future – it is in this choosing – without a word of explanation – that we see why the story was told. It’s here that the truth comes out. The good news of God’s over-riding, unexpected love and provision – for even the Cains of this world – is taught through death. This should be no surprise to us. God chooses life over judgment even for those who cannot (do not) master sin pouncing at the door, those who get yanked around on the wrong end of a leash. The next chapter is a genealogy, and when chapter six picks up the narrative, people have begun to populate the world. And this: 5 “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” 

The consequences of eating forbidden fruit rippled out generation after generation spreading the hubris of thinking we are like God, when there is nothing further from the truth. And still, in spite of this continued grief, God does not change his nature or intentions for human life. There is a strange justice in this kind of love – justice even for Abel, I believe – for everyone.  Actually, it is God alone who does not receive justice. She who desires intimacy with her creatures sees them wander away, turn away in disregard, generation after generation, asking for help, but too soon forgetting to love and honor and live into the sacred will.

The parable of the prodigal son, I think, completes/retells the story of Cain. He who has wandered away, finally hits bottom and realizes that he has squandered the greatest gift, and hesitantly, but resolutely, makes a return, practicing his apology, his plea for forgiveness, along the way. The father, however, sees him coming a long way off. And in a manner most undignified, runs all out, arms flung akimbo to embrace this wayward child, kisses his cheeks, puts the family ring on his son’s finger and proclaims a feast.

I realize that that is not the ending of the story we’re given, but I believe it could be. We are given the possibility to master ourselves if nothing else. And when/if we fail, to realize that we can turn, always, and return to the love of God who is ready to open a new path forward. And that might be enough. 

Pastor Linda

Worship ~ 10 September

Today we begin again, in the cycle of scripture of the Narrative Lectionary. It is a four year collection of weekly readings from Genesis through the book of Acts highlighting a different gospel each year – (but not until Christmas). In these weeks of the Fall we will be in the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Old Testament.

Today’s reading is the second of the two creation stories found in Genesis. Our challenge with familiar stories or passages is to hear what is actually said and not what we expect to hear. The two origin stories are very different and serve different functions, so, perk up your ears to hear this as if it is the only version of creation the Bible tells…

Genesis 2:4b-25

4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” 24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed.

The word of the Lord … thanks be to God.

You will have noticed that there are no days of creation in this version of the story. There is no orderly progression punctuated with God’s approval. The human is formed of dust (adamah, in Hebrew) and animated by God’s breath puffed into his nostrils on the same day that the earth and heavens were brought forth. The little guy was suspended in some way (I like to imagine he was put gently into God’s breast pocket) while God planted a garden in the East. East of what reference point, we might wonder, but, we are not told. From the same earth/adamah, God then fashioned trees – every tree that is pleasant to look at and good for food – and into the treeful garden the dustling, the adam, was placed. Adam and the trees, made of the same substance, preceded the plants and herbs—because the Lord God had not yet caused it to rain upon the earth, because, until Adam was made, there was no one to till the ground. So, immediately, we see that creation is meant to be intensely interactive, symbiotically mutual. God created both the human and the trees from the same adamah, breathed life into the man and, from that point on, trees and humans have been breathing together – what one exhales the other inhales (oxygen and carbon dioxide) – as though we have one lung, one breath, one life. And so we do.

The next thing to notice is that God gave the adam the task God had just completed. God created a garden and watered it, and then placed the little fellow in the garden to continue the work. God was not going to be the helper or workmate in gardening, nor was the human to be God’s little helper, but rather, God gave over the vocation of tending and tilling, entrusting the care of new creation – of plants and herbs and trees – to the brand new human being. The relationship between God and the human creature is not equal, but is, nevertheless, essential. The plants were not grown in the earth until the man was formed to tend them.

So, God watches this activity for a bit and then speaks the first word; “It is not good.” 

In the first story of creative activity told in Genesis chapter 1, each of the seven days brings a new level of complexity, as it were, created through God speaking the Word, and as the sun sets on each new day, God declares, “It is good.”

That doesn’t happen in this version. That isn’t the backdrop to this story, and we must not mush the two together as though the two chapters move from cosmic scale to a close-up telling one tale. These are two unique traditions of creation told for two different reasons. I’ll get back to that in a little bit.

God watches the dustling work and says to herself, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helpmate, a helper as his partner.” And so from the same ground, God fashions every animal of the field and bird of the air, one by one to see if it is a fit pairing. But, none is found among them. It is still “not good”.

If the ground fails to provide a suitable partner, then ‘like must come from like’. The word traditionally translated as “rib” is used in other places in scripture to mean “side” – so God takes the side of the first creation to make a pair, a match, which is why the two creatures cleave together, clinging to one another, to become, again, one flesh. The earthling, adam, made from the adamah, is now is called man, ‘ish, and his partner, made from him, is called woman, ‘ishah.

Everything about this account of creation is relational, reciprocal. That is its sense of order. Not only was the creation of the second human dependent on the body of the first, but the first human in their isolation was dependent on the creation of the second human to fill that relational void.

The next line puzzles me: 24″Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” It is so clearly out of the storyline. Adam has no parents – other than God and mother earth – neither of whom he can, nor should, leave – and there is no mention of marriage, of the woman becoming a wife. This is a good example of biblical editing and is accepted as an awkward late arrival to the narrative imposing a later morality.  It fits to some degree in that it, too, describes the move towards interdependence, a symbiotic relationship that forms in the new creation of a couple. 

But, even given this awkward conclusion, the creation stories are about God, not humans. Human nature begins to heat up in the next chapter with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here, it is God in the spotlight. Chapter one was written – or at least put into final form –  after the Babylonian exile by what is called the Priestly tradition of redactors. It is about a sovereign God who is far above the earth’s political, human turmoil. Order and method are the world view. God, who creates space and stars and worlds with the power of a word, has chosen Israel to be the flag bearer. This view of God’s work was intended to unify and encourage the straggling, struggling people to stay in relationship with their God who is above all others, and not be seduced by the gods of Babylon. It was written, or edited, portraying the God of Israel as all powerful, all wise, the history of the world and the fates of her people all in hand. That image of God was vital for them, as it has been in various periods of time ever since for struggling, oppressed people. 

Chapter two’s version that we heard today is older, told of Yahweh, the cultic, personal God of the Israelites who formed them as a people beginning with the call of Abraham, who rescued them and lead them out of slavery in Egypt personally in a cloud of fire and a cloud of smoke, who spoke to their leader, Moses, in person. This is a hands-on God who is near enough to hear, and move and comfort; to be with the chosen people. In this tradition, God works through adaptation, improvising to keep the future open.

If the whole cosmos is the scope of the first description of creation, it is the realities of the local arid earth that concern the narrator of the second story, land that needed a gardener before it could be watered, a gardener in need of a partner. And so we can see here the dual concepts of transcendent and immanent – of God over all and God within all, illustrated back to back in the first two chapters of the bible.  Which should make it clear that there is not one correct way of believing or imagining God at work in our lives. There are likely infinite ways. The important part of it, to me, is to see the stories as independent and not a mash-up, in order to hear the particular truths they have to speak. 

In our time and world, it is perhaps more vital to hear the second story, to hear the interrelatedness of human and earth, the breath of God in our nostrils and the breath of trees filling our lungs, of helpmates in the animal world not being soul mates, but still equal to us in creation, not hierarchically beneath us – maybe the first instance of separate but equal. It is important in our time to watch God evaluate and problem solve, to change course and keep trying to work with an increasingly strong-willed creature. It is important to hear again that creation was not made for us, for our benefit or pleasure or entertainment, but, rather, that we were created to serve. Psalm 8 claims mortals were made just a little less than divine, with all the works of God’s hands under our feet to rule and subdue them. The Yahweh writers could not agree less. If we cling to our human partners in mutual need, we must at the very least honor the life and rights of our fellow creatures, take our knee off their backs, and let them breathe. 

These are the stories that lie ahead of us as we begin again in the beginning.

Pastor Linda

Worship ~ 20 August

Audio Recording

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 

Matthew 1:18-24

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.

Colossians 1:15-20

15 Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The word of the Lord….thanks be to God

In looking at the big categories of the nature of God, this week we get up close and personal. 

Immanence means existing or operating within. 

Sovereignty, as I talked about it two weeks ago, sees God outside of us – beyond the Milky Way – and so ‘other’ than us, “God is God and you are not,” that there is almost no connection. We are mere mortals in a vast cosmos, playing our appointed, predestined roles, and the rolling on of ages and eons makes us, individually, very nearly nothing, and, collectively, a self-centered, invasive species. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s about right. The sticking point for Lutherans (and many others), is the Calvinist accompanying belief that God has chosen only some for salvation and predestined, and preordained exactly what will happen in minute detail for all of time. Everything happens according to God’s will and nothing happens that isn’t by God’s will. Ours is to live and die in hope – and in awe at the power and incredible works of God.

Last week I brought in a less Calvinistic view of Sovereignty in Relational Transcendence. Yes, God is God, but the Almighty longs to be in relationship with us, not apart and deterministic, but in genuine covenant of mutual promises and attentiveness. 

God is all-powerful in God’s own being, but has chosen to limit that power to enable natural laws, human nature, and free will to have actual agency. In effect, God has shared power with his creation. What we do matters, and it matters to God. This is a God of continual creation, adaptation; accepting or tolerating or grieving human will and ways, and responding to it so as to keep a future opening in front of us toward redemption. God, in majesty and glory, beyond time and spatial conception, does not “lord it over us” or ignore us, but honors the creature, and hopes for what God does not demand – creaturely recognition and honor of the divine being. All people are destined for salvation, although the details are not known or knowable.

This week we hang onto transcendence but move inward. Immanence is the word of the week. It means existing or operating within. 

When it is used to describe the nature of God, immanence means God is “permanently pervading and sustaining the universe”. That definition comes from my computer’s New Oxford dictionary. I especially like the ‘permanently pervading’ part of that. Pervading is such a cool word to use of God. Kind of a stealthy invasion. Seeping in – into thoughts and visions and dreams and conversations and cracks in the armor of our rational awake, aware selves… spreading through, potentially, able to be perceived in every part of creation, including human beings – every one of us.

Permanently pervading. God has always been this way according to the biblical witness. We tend to think of the incarnation and Jesus when we hear “God with us” – and I’m going to just about ignore that today, because it is the nature of God we’re looking at, not simply the second person of the trinity. God has been coming near since the moment of creation.

Think of all the biblical accounts of barren women being promised a child. That is an incredibly intimate, relational concern for the Creator of the cosmos to zero in on – a certain couple in the ancient world who would pay attention to the promise because it lies outside of their own ability to replicate. They couldn’t conceive in the usual way of things, but a promise is made and a child is conceived.  And that child will go on to play a role in the salvation narrative of an entire people. Sara bore Issac, Rebekah bore Esau and Jacob, Rachel bore Joseph, Hannah bore Samuel, the barren (and anonymous) wife of Manoah bore Samson, Elizabeth bore John the Baptist. And in each case, history changed course. That’s sneaky. And then there’s Mary…

The opening of closed wombs is the quintessential example of a transcendent and immanent God. The unique creative attributes of the Lord of All Existence intervening in a particular couple’s intimate life. 

The transcendent God is awesome as a mountaintop experience, but in our need, it is the personal God, a relational, noticing, immanent God that we crave.

We love the Christmas story, because it brings God close. It brings the God of Isaiah’s throne room vision with soaring cherubim and seraphs into a manger with the smell of hay and straw and animals. God comes into Mary and Joseph’s arms for snuggles. But Mary was warned that a sword would pierce her heart, too. We should be warned away from the full blast of God’s presence. Let’s go back to the list of God midwifed sons:

Isaac is bound on the altar to be sacrificed, Jacob flees for his life from his murderous brother and wrestles with a divine being on his return, before facing Esau again. Joseph is nearly killed by his brothers and then sold into slavery; Samson is dedicated as a Nazirite to God, which gives him the strength (through his uncut hair) to wage a one-man battle against the Philistines, but ultimately dies a martyr’s death in the Temple of Dagon; Samuel is given, as a very young boy, to serve God in the sanctuary at Shiloh; John the Baptist loses his head, and Jesus dies on a cross. These narratives suggest that God, who opens the womb, sets a claim on the life that emerges from it. The purpose wasn’t for a happy ending. It was for salvation’s work to move forward.

Very few of the stories we have from the bible have satisfying endings. Being close to God isn’t a success story in terms of the life we want to live. Think of Job and Jonah, or the disciples for that matter. We don’t hear of any of them going home and having grandchildren and a nice retirement.

Experiencing the direct presence of God is dangerous business. So, there must be varying degrees of proximity. Or maybe that is what “many are called but few are chosen” means. We are claimed and noticed, but most are not necessarily needed for the more dangerous forms of divine work in the world. We are on call. We  are called to be the voice and face and hands and feet of God’s saving love in the small ways of everyday life and encounter.

Immanence, with it’s perpetual persistent pervading is an interesting concept in the nature of God. 

On the one hand, if God is in everything, then everything is imbued with some sparkle of God’s glory. Everything and everyone bears something of God.

On the other hand, if God is in everything, it means we are disregarding the holiness, the sacred potential of almost everything.

The land is not God, but God is in the soil, and grass and plant life. There is something sacred in hummingbirds and earthworms. Water is not God, but God is water. We are not God, but God is permanently pervading us, everyone, everywhere.

It’s a startling proposition. Indigenous religion is much better at honoring the Creator than we, whose religion has perhaps become too institutionalized and removed from its roots in the earth.

We’ve gotten spiritually lazy in our relatively comfortable life. God is either ‘out there somewhere being God’ or nearby in a cozy, comforting kind of way. But the Bible doesn’t agree with either of those notions. Immanence is a companion to transcendence, not a substitution. It’s not one or the other. God is sovereign over everything, and if God is truly with us, in and through us and all things, the very least we should be doing is paying better attention.

Worship ~ 13 August

Audio Recording

Deuteronomy 10:14 

“Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

1 Corinthians 13:8 

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

As a reminder, last Sunday we took a look at the nature of God and the way God is in the world through the lens of sovereignty – and, mostly, through the Calvinist view of sovereignty because that is what is out and about in modern American religious talk – it’s what makes the news, it’s what we see in social media postings, it was the dominant religion that formed our nation and that influences it greatly still today. 

White Nationalist Christianity thrives in the Calvinist setting. Why? Because a deterministic God is all-powerful, has known everything that was, is, and ever will be – in fact, God has preordained and predestined the path of all things according to divine purposes from before the beginning of the world. God’s wisdom is unsearchable. Everything we experience, think and do is God’s will – according to that tradition. 

Therefore, the way things are, the status quo, was put in place through God’s will. And, therefore, any dissatisfaction with the status quo, any attempt to change it is against God’s will and is inherently evil: the status quo – where power is in the hands of white male Christians. American Christianity has become a fear-based, judgmental, exclusionary religious culture. Christ and Christ alone. Believe or be damned. Believe in what we believe, or be damned. The faithful of every other religion are damned. Heaven will just be Christians… who believe in like-minded ways.

I don’t believe what they believe. And neither do a whole passel of religious folks who do believe in God, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. So, what are our options regarding the sovereignty of God?

Well, they are life affirming and bold and biblically true!

Before I get into it, I do want to remind you that whatever you, I, or “they” believe about God is, as the apostle Paul pointed out, “seen through a glass darkly“. It’s all human grasping after understanding of something that we can understand only dimly, on the slant, out of the corner of your mind’s eye. We DO NOT KNOW anything about God. No one does. We aspire to know God through faith, through scripture, through sacraments, through prayer. We experience God through the Spirit’s urging or quickening, or insight in our inner, private lives. We teach and learn and inherit a religious and faith tradition in church. We wiggle it all around until it fits our particular personalities and needs. We change our beliefs over a lifetime of struggle and joy. This is natural and necessary.  Again to quote Paul, “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways… Now I know only in part; [but in the fullness of time,] I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”    We aren’t there yet.

Again, my point in this sermon series is to look at the big picture of how we think about God, ourselves and the world. Looking at God is called theology (the study of God); looking at ourselves is called anthropology (the study of human beings and cultures); looking at the world is ecology (the study of the eco systems that sustain all life). So, it is important! I think. And it is a faithful, faith-filled thing for each of us to spend time with in our own ways. This is my way and I have the microphone, but it is NOT the only faithful or true way. I hope it is both of those things, but in truth, I don’t know. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

So, on we go to an alternative view of sovereignty.

Terry Fretheim was the top of my three favorite professors at seminary. He taught Old Testament classes, wrote a bunch of textbooks on my shelves, and came here to West Denmark to preach for my ordination. He died a couple of years ago. He taught Old Testament through a relational view of God’s sovereignty because he believed God genuinely is in relationship to the earth and her creatures, and a genuine relationship requires give and take, mutuality, adaptability, the potential and expectation of transformation and change and growth. He taught God as the personal, loving, self-involving, passionate, relational Yahweh of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ, who became vulnerable in relation to the world through the covenantal relationships with the Israelites and, by extension, with all people. 

Walter Brueggemann is another, perhaps better known, Old Testament professor and author. (Terry said Walter didn’t have a stray thought he didn’t publish! So there was a bit of professional competitive conversation between them.) As a memorial work after Terry’s death, Brueggemann wrote an essay on the theological differences between them which mostly had to do with sovereignty. I’m going to read a bit of what he wrote.

“Overtime, enough difference between us emerged to evoke an ongoing conversation about the ways in which the Old Testament is witness to the action of God in the world. Through his focus on creation themes, Terry drew the conclusion that God’s work in the world was a part of an ongoing process. He judged that in the governance of history, God’s action was characteristically in and through historical agents, and not directly. My attention was especially drawn to the narratives of Old Testament wherein God is portrayed as being the help of the helpless when “other helpers fail and comforts flee.” There, as in the Exodus narrative, God is seeming to act through direct agency. Terry’s judgment was that I have been excessively influenced by the “strong God” of John Calvin.” 

This relational, transcendent theology is what makes sense to me. God is in a genuine relationship with us and the world and therefore is always adapting to the actions of humans. You can certainly see it in the story of Israel in the Biblical accounts where God’s chosen people had real choices to make. God led them and fed them coming out of Egypt, counseled and guided them through Moses, spoke to and warned them through the prophets, and, according to their own telling of it, acted on them, against them, through their enemies when they didn’t listen or act faithfully to his word. And when God came to humanity as one of us to show us what that Word was saying, what faithfulness to the Word looked like, God’s full relational vulnerability is on display. After Jesus was killed by his own people, God showed what sovereign love looks like by overcoming even death and promising that same act of powerful love for all who hear and trust his word. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be the continuance, the whisperer of God in our spirit’s ear. All of these avenues of God’s action are relational, dependent to varying degrees on our response. We can wear earplugs and turn away. We can follow to the best of our ability. We have real choices in how we behave and believe. Because God is faithful, God will work in relation to whatever response is given in order to keep opening up the future. 

In relational sovereignty, the future is known to God, but unwritten. The end is known, but the way toward it is not predestined. What humans do makes a difference to God.

It’s like the GPS in google maps. If I type in my bother’s address in Detroit Lakes, two or three possible routes will appear between my present location and Dave’s house. I choose one and begin. But, if I miss an exit, or the road is detoured, the map kind of spins around for a bit while it recalculates, and a new blue path appears. It has adapted to my altered circumstances. I’m still going to get to Dave’s house, but the roads have changed. New options open in light of present circumstances. I believe God works that way in human history, working with and through whatever agents are available to create the best outcome given the choices that are available.

In relational theology, God honors the rules of nature established with creation. In that way God is self-limiting in power. Evil exists because people act in ways contrary to God’s will. Illness, hurricanes, wildfires, wars exist not to fulfill God’s purposes, but because that is the nature of life on our planet. Miracles do happen, help comes from unexpected quarters, there is a mysterious way of God woven through our lives like radio waves looking for transmitters. But the choices we make are real, and meaningful, and have consequences not only for us and on our neighbors and future generations, but for God in relationship with us and in action in the world.

Another article I read this week was by Roger E. Olson who says God is sovereign over God’s own sovereignty. I like that.  He writes: “To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereign power. That is what’s missing from a Calvinistic determined view of sovereignty. If we believe that God has locked in the future, knows exactly what’s going to happen, then not only is God responsible for things like the Holocaust and Hurricane Katrina and every horror we inflict, but God is limited by the future. And an all-powerful God, by definition, can’t be limited or stymied.”

“It also undermines participation in the mission of God'” he says, “because it makes our participation with God superfluous. We are seen as pawns rather than knights.”*

A transcendent understanding of God claims that God is immortal, invisible, all-powerful, holy, and wholly other, but is, by God’s desire and design connected, vulnerable, affected by, and responsive to the creatures and creation of God’s making, the works of God’s fingers, in genuine ways. And in that relationship, by the power of God’s faithfulness, trustworthiness, and steadfast love – the future is open, and the ending is sure.

  • *A Relational View of God’s Sovereignty | Roger E. Olson, posted on Patheos, Nov 21, 2019

Worship ~ 6 August

Today we begin a new series of sermon topics. In the past, I’ve preached on biblical images of God – shepherd, eagle, water, mother hen… I want to do something similar now, but in bigger categories. I want to look instead at the nature of God as presented in scripture and reflected in our hymnody.  I’m introducing this in the announcements, because I want you to pay attention to the words you sing in all the hymns. I know from choir rehearsal that when we’re singing something new or not very familiar, all our attention is on the notes and we might not have any idea what words our mouths are forming, let alone make meaning from them.  I think today’s hymns are familiar, so I’m asking you to think about what you’re saying and pay attention to the images that might come to mind as you sing.

#490 Let all mortal flesh keep silence

Thinking about the nature of God is an interesting topic to me, but I am a theology nerd – I know that. However, I think it might be important and interesting to normal people, too. 

The way we think of God, the language we use, the motivations you might assign to God for things that happen in your life, the distance or closeness, the way in which we feel God acts in the world are all part of our personal spirituality – and determines or reflects (I’m not sure of the right word) how faith functions in any one of our lives.

I have organized these weeks spatially. Today, we begin somewhere beyond the universe. Imagine being outside on a clear winter night when starlight casts shadows on the snow. Looking up into the glimmering sky at all those stars and whirling galaxies in endless and expanding depth, filled with awe, you think, “God did that.” And you might echo psalm 8, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers – the moon and stars you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”

That’s the God we are looking at today. The topic is Sovereignty.

The next topic will move in a bit closer – maybe to the level of rainbows spanning the earth and heavens, or the sun’s rays beaming down through a cloud as we consider the Transcendent, the hidden, but earthly experience of God. After that, we’ll consider Immanence – the indwelling nature of God, the closeness of God with us.

All of these aspects of divinity are found abundantly in the Bible – regarding both God and Jesus. There isn’t one that’s right, or better than the others, but they do have different implications for faith, and, as I said, for how it functions in your life – which is why it might get interesting.

The psalms are loaded with the language of the sovereignty of God.  We will sing psalm 93 as a good example.

Scripture reading: Isaiah 40:18-26

18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol? —A workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.

20 As a gift one chooses mulberry wood— wood that will not rot—then seeks out a skilled artisan to set up an image that will not topple.

21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?
   Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. 

The sovereignty of God is the main difference that came out of the reformation between Martin Luther and the Lutheran tradition on one side, and the cluster of churches following John Calvin’s reform movement on the other side – Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist. For Calvin, God’s sovereign nature is the foremost attribute of the divine: the otherness, the power, wisdom, and might of God; the ordering of the universe, and predestination of all things from before the beginning of time.  As sovereign, God is all-knowing, all-powerful, invisible, inaccessible – hid from our eyes. Let’s just sing it. 

Hymn #834 is a classic definition of Sovereignty.

I picked out at least 10 hymns that demonstrate this facet of God’s being – we won’t sing them all – and I noticed that they are all hymns of praise and gratitude. Many are reworking of psalms. They are also mostly from the Reformed (or Calvinist) church tradition. Which makes sense. Calvin believed the psalms were the only faithful song form. They didn’t begin singing hymns until the mid to late 1700’s and even later in some denominations. So the hymns coming out of that movement would be about sovereignty. They are expansive, cool, clear, and distant. They are about eternity, Christ the King who is crowned with many crowns, victorious Lord of all. They speak of our soul’s upward longing, of God’s gracious provision. “Have you not seen all that is needful has been sent by God’s gracious ordaining? Ponder anew what the Almighty can do — if — with his love he befriend you.” 

“If”.  If??   Predestination was a big deal for Calvin. The Westminster Confession states: 
“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.

“…before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and by the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will,” …God chose some. 

It continues in article VII: “The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extends or withholds mercy as he pleases, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.”

This is the Puritan, Anglican theology that formed our nation. People are predestined to salvation or damnation before the earth was formed. We can’t know what purpose that serves for God, nor can we tell one from the other by outer appearances. This preordained status can’t be changed or undone.  It is part of the unsearchable, inscrutable will of God. You’re in or you’re out without any say in the matter.

One problem with this emphasis on God’s sovereignty is that it leads us to speculate about God’s hidden will, something that has not been revealed to us, rather than directing us to the ways in which God has revealed God’s self to us – through Word, Faith, compassionate human agency, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther believed in God’s sovereignty, but that it showed itself in endless mercy. Lutherans confess that the Bible teaches God’s will is for all people to be saved, that salvation is solely through God’s action, and, that humans have the power to reject God’s offer. It’s a different form and feel of sovereignty.

I seem to have lost the reference for this quote. The article was comparing Lutheran and Calvinistic theology on just this point.  I’m sorry I can’t credit it. “However it may have happened,” the author writes,”Calvinists became enamored with an appreciation of God’s sovereignty that is fundamentally flawed. They view God’s sovereignty as permeating all choices and all events persuasively and determinatively. In this way God’s sovereignty is a force in the universe that cannot be circumvented or refused. God “always gets his way the first time” because not only do all events occur under the domain of sovereignty but sovereignty determines that all events occur as exactly as they do.  While it is true that all things occur under the domain of God’s sovereignty, it is false to assume that all things are therefore determined by God’s sovereignty. The reason is because the domain of God’s sovereignty includes genuine freedom.” ( * found it, see below)

Calvin did not believe in the freedom of human will. All things happen according to God’s will.  As a biblical example, when in Isaiah 45, God is choosing the Persian king Cyrus to conquer Babylon and eventually free the Israelites from exile, he claims this. 

“To Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, though you do not know me.   I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”

I grew up in Presbyterian and Methodist churches.  I remember having conversations about predestination while washing dishes with my mom. It scared me as a young girl – it probably still does, because, even though I no longer believe that way, the fear that God didn’t love me was set as the default in my young understanding of God. Maybe I’ve become a pastor to learn myself out of my fear.

Let’s sing #416 At the name of Jesus. Notice the preordained, planned from the beginning of time, everything happens for a reason sense of calm. There was a plan, and it is all going to work out according to that plan. That is another tenant of Sovereignty.

There is one other feature of sovereignty that draws distinction between Reform and Lutheran traditions. In an article on What Lutherans Believe, the Rev. Aaron Simms reminds us “that it is God Himself who brings people to faith through the working of the Holy Spirit. So, even our faith is a work of God. To the question then, of why some people are not saved, even though Christ died for their sins and even though God wants them to be saved, Lutherans would answer, “We don’t know.” It’s a paradox that we don’t believe we can resolve. We often make a distinction between the “revealed God” – the aspects of God that we can know through scripture and by other means; and the “hidden God” – his hidden will that God does not show us. Lutherans believe that questions like why some people are saved and others are not, and why good people sometimes suffer and bad people sometimes prosper fall into this category of the “hidden God.” We can’t know or discover the answers through our own efforts, because God hasn’t told us the answers. In the end, then, we lean back on what God has clearly revealed to us and go from there.”

So instead of saying God willed disaster, illness, hardship, abuse or evil to happen in our lives as part of a predestined plan, Lutherans say, we can’t know the why, but we do know that God grieves in the scriptures, and that God in Christ promises to be with us in and through our suffering. And God’s Spirit works in and through our helpers to comfort and bring aid.

The questions I want to examine in each of these realms of God are what do we gain – and what do we loose if we see this topic as the primary definition of God?

In complete Sovereignty, we lose our sense of agency. If  God does everything and wills everything that happens then why should we bother? This has led to much misery and allowed much evil to flourish. Lutherans, Reformed, Roman Catholics, non-religious are equally guilty of this, but you can see it in this theology. 

If God will take care of it, then I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to speak up, or step in, or offer my meager help, or change my behavior. God will see to it. 

If it is by God’s will, then slavery (for example), or any exploitation of people and nature, must be fine, because it exists, therefore, it is part of God’s plan. The status quo is ordained and meant to be, or else God would change it. There is a pacifism that is dangerous — trusting too much in the absolute power and will of God negates inspired human agency. God’s will allows/is responsible for evil in this belief system.

What do we gain by accepting the sovereignty of God?

There is an overwhelming sense of awe and shifted perspective – it is not, actually, ‘all about us’ – which at times can feel very restful. “God’s got this,” in modern lingo. Looking into that night sky we gain a sense of majesty that lifts us above earth’s troubles. There is comfort in the fullness of all things, mystery in the things of God and the world that are only slowly revealed if at all. “Let go and let God” – God is in charge – not micromanaging the details, not countering the laws of nature to keep us safe, but God is all in all, and there is no other.

And obviously, we have gained beautiful hymns through the Calvinist, Anglican, Welsh, Scottish traditions. Grundtvig’s sovereign streak gave us Built on a Rock and The Word. 

Let’s sing another sovereign classic, #413 Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty.

*Posted in  Calvinism and Sovereignty | a theology in tension March 17, 2012 by StriderMTB

Worship ~ 30 July

Audio Recording

Ruth 1:1-22

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4They each took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, 5both Naomi’s sons also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people in Bethlehem and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ 11But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 Naomi said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16But Ruth said,  ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

19 So the two of them went on. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ 20She said to them,  ‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’

22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. 

The word of the Lord………….thanks be to God

Today’s sermon topic question is the final one of this series: “Where do we go from here?” 

It’s a question we probably ask fairly often in our own lives in various ways. It’s the question of new graduates, and of their empty-nest parents.  It’s the question of couples who have survived the wedding and now begin the marriage. It’s the question of those who retire. It’s the question of damaged relationships, and of new grief.  It’s the question of disappointment.  It’s the question of relief after a summer of big church events.  It’s the question of getting to the mountaintop and looking around and wondering what could possibly be this good again.   It’s the question of those who meander and end up off the map and not where you expected to be.  What now? What’s next? Where do we go from here?

It is a perfect question for us to be asking after our 150th anniversary celebration, while still marking the accomplishment, and honoring the heritage, and recognizing the challenge of being a church in rural Polk County in this age of church disaffiliation and Christian White Nationalism that makes us want to become Druids who follow Jesus the Christ.

It’s been framed a bit differently, but has been the question of the synod leadership in our conferences for over a year:  “What are the next best faithful steps?” Where do we go from here?

The Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien, is quoted in some form whenever Jan and Marnie are together  in our house. My favorite of the quotes includes this insight:  “Not all those who wander are lost”.  Asking what’s next doesn’t mean you are floundering or clueless. It’s not that we need to reinvent ourselves, but we do need to always reimagine the path, refocus the goal, re-rouse ourselves for the purpose of our being as individuals and as the church. It is, at its base, a hopeful, curious question and a challenge. It implies change and change is both a sign of hope and new life and often is difficult because we like the stasis of what is known and familiar.

Naomi had a choice. She could have stayed in Moab in her grief. Her daughter-in-laws could have remarried and brought her into their circle of provision is some way. But she heard that the Lord had taken pity on the chosen people in Judah in the form of a bounteous barley crop. Even though she believed she was cut off personally from God’s love, she trusted in the community of faith among her people. A kernel of hope led her to undertake a long trudge into the unknown. Not all who wander are lost. 

Ruth and Naomi create a new covenant with each other, choosing to be in a relationship across their religious, cultural, and generational divides. As women, they built power together in a system where they had very little power or agency. In many ways, the first chapter of Ruth encompasses all of the themes in this series: 1) Where are you from? (Bethlehem/Moab);          2) Where does it hurt? (Naomi want to be renamed Mara: “it hurts everywhere;”   3) What do you need? (Naomi needs Ruth – and to be known, acknowledged among her kin);   4) Where do we go from here? (Ruth promises to go wherever Naomi leads her and together they leave the famine to arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, a nurturing new beginning)

Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson, writes the commentary for this week’s question in A Sanctified Art, and noted that we have experienced death, grief, dislocation and loss in the midst of a global pandemic; racial brokenness, economic disparity, and political division. She asks if we can imagine a world in which we took spiritual oaths like the one found in the book of Ruth. What if, like Ruth, we resisted the temptation to fight or flee in the face of grief, pain, and oppression? What if we took these vows with members of our human family?  By the mercy of God and because of God’s grace, we are bound to one another. Your pain is not your own, but is now my pain. The plight of your people is held in my hands and my heart as if they were my own. Where you journey and work, I too, will journey and work alongside you, with God’s help. Where your bones are buried, may I too, find a resting place and declare every earthly resting place sacred in the eyes of God. 

In the changes, dislocations, disappointments, of your personal life — in the long trudge into the unknown — What is your kernel of hope? What is still missing? What motivates you? What do you need? Who do you long to be? Where do we go from here?

The spiritual life is, by nature, nebulous, ephemeral — but it’s not flimsy. It is real, and I bet you have experienced its power from time to time. This is the harder side of the question to respond to.  It’s easier to get on with the business of things, to come up with bullet point plans and to-do lists rather than to imagine the next steps of faith, to conceive a greening of growth and grace in our congregational or personal spirituality. But we are gathered to worship and pray and praise God for the love and connections, for the ephemeral joys of the spiritual life we share. 

The business and busyness of the church is vital and interesting and engaging. I want to take nothing away from that. At the same time, I want to ask how we might put similar energy and engagement into the more mystical dimension of our purpose? What are you needing or looking for? What do you need to ask or hear?  Where do we go from here to get there?

These are real questions – this month of questions – that I want to not forget about as we move on to the next thing. There’s always a next thing. Where does it hurt? What do you need? Where do we go from here to engage and respond to the answers you might give?

What does it mean to come to church at West Denmark? And what does it mean to you to be the church at West Denmark, in Luck, or Frederic or Siren or Edina, in your neighborhood, among your other sets of people?

What comes next for this worship- service- fellowship of care?

Rev. Sarah Are  from A Sanctified Art  wrote this prayer to close the series:

Holy God, 

We are naturals when it comes to stalling out. We reach a certain point in the relationship, in the conversation, in our faith, and then we stall. We buy property on the top of the plateau and build a house there, destined to never dig deeper or climb higher.
Forgive us for giving up on the things that matter.
Forgive us for confusing the plateau with the mountain top. Forgive us for taking the easy way out instead of doing the hard work of curiosity, relationship-building, vulnerability, and connection.
Inspire us to see new paths for where we can go from here.  With hope and honesty we pray,

Worship~ 16 July

Audio Recording

The first reading comes from the book of Job, after he has lost everything and sits alone in his affliction.       Job, chapter 2                                              

“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” 

The second reading is from the second letter to Timothy. Purportedly, Paul is writing from prison in Rome. 2 Timothy 4:9-18, 21-22

9 Do your best to come to me soon, 10for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. 12I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 21Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers and sisters.22The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.

The word of the Lord…… thanks be to God 

This week’s topic question recognizes that we all have needs and that we need each other. And, while our basic needs are universal – the need for acceptance, affection, food, shelter, meaning – each need is weighted, experienced and interpreted by each one of us uniquely.  So, we can’t assume to know what is best for others. We can’t assume that we understand what someone is feeling based on our own similar situation. We can’t know the backstory that is triggering their response or attitudes.  We can’t – unless we ask.

And, chances are, if pushed to reflect on your own needs, priorities, and desires, you might find that it is not as straightforward as you thought. We are not consistent or logical creatures. Things process in our thoughts, our intentions, one way and quite often come out of our bodies and behavior as something altogether different.  This is because we may not really know what it is we ourselves need – unless we ask. 

When our son, Jan, was little – just out of toddlerhood – he would be playing outside or we’d be on a walk and he’d say he couldn’t go on because his feet were tired. “Your feet are tired?” “Yes.” “Do they hurt? Do you have a pebble in your shoe?” “No. They are tired.”

I’d carry him home, or take off his shoes and socks and rub his little feet, checking for red spots to see if his shoes were fitting okay. At his wellness checkups I asked about his arches and stance. Everything seemed okay, but he would still complain that his feet were tired.  I finally figured out that he was hungry, but he couldn’t distinguish hunger. To him, the need for food settled into his feet, and he couldn’t go on. 

I think we are all like little Jan in our own ways. It might be that we are ashamed of our needs, or that we were ridiculed for something as a child, or that we’re too busy or distracted to give our bodies and spirit’s the time they need to flourish, and so the original need gets buried and covered up until some other part of us is enlisted to get our attention. The more basic the need that was once thwarted, the more expansive its later efforts for fulfillment. 

So, if you find yourself trying to track down what it is you need, your list might start with something that seems a bit trivial. “I need to go through and clean every room and corner of my house,” you might say. “If I just had a clean, neat, orderly space, where everything is where it belongs and I can find what I’m looking for, my life would be 100% better. Then I could be happy, then I could get things done, I could invite friends over, I could feel proud of myself, I could……. I could prove to myself that I am a capable and worthwhile person. Because, how hard can it be to clean your house?”

Do you see what happened? It started out as a simple, clearly stated need. “I need to clean my house.” But as the self-talk progressed, deeper needs came to the surface. A need for companionship and fun, a need to be justified or prove yourself (to whom, I wonder). Most likely to someone like a critical or distracted parent who is not in your house to judge it or you. The need to feel worthwhile and valuable and capable is a deep, old, primal need. Right there next to the need to be cherished, treasured in your being, not for your doing.

Needs can be difficult to parse out. So, if you ask someone, “What do you need?”, be prepared to sit down, it might take a while. Be prepared to ask for the second edition, to stay connected and ask again.   In the meantime, you might volunteer to help them clean.

In the midst of Job’s afflictions, three of his friends promptly leave their homes and come to him. They tear their garments, weep loudly, and sit with him for seven days, saying nothing.  Can you imagine that? Their response is the ministry of presence, of true solidarity, of seeing his excruciating pain and joining him there in the midst of it. This is good.   

Later on in the story, they try to speed up the process and help him come to his senses. They tell him to give up his stalemate with God and admit that his sufferings were his own fault in some inscrutable way – and to repent. But Job refuses, maintaining his innocence and demanding God’s accountability. His friends want him to cave in to conventional wisdom that bad things do not happen to good people without just cause. Job won’t have it. But even in their arguing, the friends stay with him in his suffering, unable to draw it to a settled rest, yet not willing to leave. 

This is a ministry beyond most of us. We can’t tolerate being helpless in the indeterminable time it takes God to respond. We want to offer help that has an effect, and that has a terminus – like bringing a casserole, or helping sort through the garage. And there’s nothing wrong with that – because caregivers have needs, too.

Beaten and imprisoned, Paul writes to Timothy with a straightforward request: “Come quickly.” He lists those who have abandoned him, but says, “I hope that God doesn’t hold it against them!” In the clarity of confinement and being stripped of every distraction, Paul gets to his basic needs. He doesn’t need revenge. Instead, he asks for companionship, and his cloak, his books and his papers. You’ve got to love how human the scriptures are some times! Paul asks for what we all need—for someone to come quickly, to gather the items we want, and to show up. 

What do you need? It’s a simple question, but a daunting one. When we ask it of ourselves, it means some change is being called for. “I need to earn more money.” “I need to change my lifestyle and diet.” “I need a friend.” “I need more time.”  In each of these needs, something’s got to change, something’s got to be reconfigured, reprioritized. Life changes are hard, and come with risks, and might involve or upset other people we care about. Simple questions don’t always have simple solutions. But the need remains until it is satisfied.

When we ask the question of someone else, we need to know our boundaries, what we can offer, what we have to give. I think that’s why we hesitate to ask, because we fear we will be overwhelmed with the reply, sucked in over our heads. Chances are that won’t happen. Chances are your listening, open heart is all that is required of you.  

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” I love this line. It makes a good mantra. It recognizes that the need isn’t ours to sort out on our own, or to bear with someone else alone. We have a companion who is unseen, but not unknown. Help comes in all forms – from nature’s healing balm, to a random act of kindness, to a persistent friend, to an insight that pops suddenly to mind. God’s Spirit is subtle. 

What do you need? Ask the question, and give God space. Bring your presence into the presence of prayer, and be kind to yourself as you feel your way forward through the tangle of distractions to what it is you really need in your life to thrive. That is what God wants for each of us, for all of creation: life abundant, the fulfillment of our communal and unique needs so that we each can be the child of God.

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”

What do you need?

Worship ~ 9 July

Today’s first reading comes from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, chapter 1:     (1:1-18)

There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because she had no child. 

7So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was praying silently; only moving her lips, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ 15But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ 17Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ 18And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.”

The second reading is from the gospel of Mark, the 5th chapter:

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So Jesus went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cüm’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

This is the gospel of our Lord……thanks be to God.

The bible is full of pain – individual, communal, national. I think every story tells of brokenness and distress. At the moment, I can’t think of a single happy or neutral story in the whole two volume book! The endings are often happy, but they go through the valley of the shadow of death to get there. The authors of these varied books and poems did not shy away from expressing their outrage, their grief, their laments, their tears. They blamed God and wondered what they had done to deserve it. They repented of their errors and sought God’s guidance for a better future. Sometimes their woes are healed. Sometimes they were not. At times we hear God’s side of things spoken through the prophets – the rationale, the promises – we even hear of God’s pain in shepherding these stiff necked creatures. And we hear Jesus’ forsaken cries from the cross. If God’s beloved son endured pain and death, we know our lot is not privileged, but blessed, just the same. “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger,” blessed are you even in your pain.

Pain is a universal leveler – everyone will experience it. No amount of wealth can prevent it. No amount of education or finesse or daring can evade it. If you are alive, you will feel pain. If you love – you will suffer doubly, because you will feel the pain of those you love as if it were your own.

And yet, pain is not something we are very good at admitting to, or talking about, or listening to. We think we’re supposed to be strong and above average. We are uncomfortable with being vulnerable, embarrassed about being or appearing flawed – as though we had a choice! We are all flawed, all imperfect, all human. But, we want to fix that. Most of us want to hide our own pain until we can’t any longer. We expect our bodies to be perfect, to function properly, to remain whole and healthy. We know that won’t happen, but we expect it just the same, and are embarrassed and feel betrayed by nature when something goes wrong. When we listen or sit with someone in their pain, we want to have the right words that will convey our acceptance and sympathy and shared human experience, we want to be able to erase what’s hurting, find the right combination of words, kiss the owie and make it better. And truthfully, there’s nothing you can say or do to make it better. But your presence might. Pain is a process. And so you suffer together.

I have a high school classmate who has a now adult child with Down’s Syndrome. Full disclosure, I learned most of this through Facebook. Missy was the third of their four children. Cassy, her mom, now says that Missy is the biggest gift their family could have received. She taught them how to slow down, how to more fully appreciate each other and the marvelous ways our bodies work, how to really see each child as an individual with unique qualities and strengths, ‘dips and peaks’, as she puts it, and not gloss over the reality in favor of what you might want or expect to see there. Her other children grew up with empathy and wisdom. “But,” Cassy said, “you couldn’t have told me that when she was diagnosed. I couldn’t have heard it. I was in such pain, wallowing in the swamp of ‘what will happen to her’, ‘what did I do’, ‘what will become of our plans, my career, our retirement?’ It was all going through my head for a very long time.” 

That is the shape of the lament psalms, the shape of the gospel, the course of recovery – it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We fall into grief and only after a long time, find our way to praise. By rights, we should all be walking around with Kleenex, crying on each other’s shoulders, and popping antidepressants. Right?

But we don’t. The pain of the world surrounds us, and somehow, we still find reasons to laugh, to play, to create beauty, to come back to life again. Mostly, that’s true. It’s remarkable, really. I wonder if the bit of God we have within us, is whatever it is that creates resilience, that turns gradually from grief to hope like the seasons turn, from despair to peace. And if, by accompanying that process with others, we become more fully human, more attune with the truth of life instead of caught in the myth of perfect normalcy.

I was reading some accounts of things in Ukraine as they pass the 500th day after Russia’s invasion. One was an article about the wounded soldiers, particularly those who experienced amputations. There is a rehab hospital they are sent to, where they are called ‘superhuman’ as they heal and learn to use prosthetics. Most of them – including a man who lost both legs and an arm, intend to reenter the war as soon as they can. He wants to train medics, or counsel soldiers. Another is 21 year old Bohdan Petrenko, who was interviewed when he was practicing walking with his artificial leg. He, too is planning to rejoin his military unit as soon as he fully recovers from the mortar injuries that took his leg and mangled his arms. Petrenko said he would return to the front as a radio man or drone operator. The war amputees are stoical about their challenges, because they’ve lost friends and, by that standard, feel fortunate. “After the amputation, I didn’t feel so bad,” mused Yevhen Tiurin, 30, with a grin. “The problems in my leg were now over.” His amputation was imperfect, so he had to undergo another surgery to reshape the stump, and now he’s waiting for the wound to heal so that he can get a prosthetic limb — and then he’ll be back to war.  “Amputation is a temporary difficulty,” he explained. “These are just new conditions in our lives that we must adjust to.”

Temporary difficulties. That is resiliency. 

The point of this topic isn’t to wallow in pain, or to encourage us to pry into each others’ tender spots – or even to push Kleenex and antidepressants. It is, rather, to recognize that pain in normal, and that a beloved community is capable and willing to bear one another’s suffering and become stronger and more resilient in the effort, in the sharing. Scandinavians are noted for their personal reserve and stoic approach, for the protective force field of saying “Everything is fine, I’m fine. Really, fine.” And turning the focus quickly, “How are you?” And if you ask a follow up question, “Is it really, are you really?” It comes out, “Well no, but it will be.” It is perhaps a combination of resiliency and embarrassment. My favorite line in the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” – aside from the recognition that Westerners want to outsource getting old, is Sonny’s assertion, “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.” The quote is not original to the movie – it sounds biblical. 

The point of this topic is to encourage safe space for sharing who we are with one another – our dreams, our fears, our worries, our hurts. That the whole of us is required and requested to be present if we are to be an authentic community of care and not simply a surface rendition of something that looks shiny and lovely, but in which there is little room for not being okay, for admitting that things are not good, that the lab results were not good, that your mental health is not healthy, but is in fact in tatters, that you worry about a child and can’t really do anything to help, that your loved one’s memory is becoming noticeably disjointed, that chronic pain is changing relationships. If you feel have to stay home from church when you’re falling apart because you won’t fit in, or are embarrassed to have your raw edges sticking out, then something is wrong — with the church.

Later this summer or fall, Shawn and I will be working on a spiritual care givers class/group/training to teach the fine art of non-anxious listening and caring response. There aren’t magic words to learn. There is only yourself, your body to bring to another body, and simple ways of letting them know you are listening, that you are present. We leave the heavy lifting to God’s holy and compassionate and ever-creating spirit.