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Weekly Reflections

The Gospel of John – The Scandalous Incarnation

Reflections by Joanna – January 10th, 2016

Today we began our study of John’s gospel, looking first at how it is distinct from the other gospels. Whereas the other gospels offer very grounded accounts of Jesus’s life, teachings and healings, the gospel of John has a loftier, theological/philosophical quality to it. Right off the bat, John describes this Jesus/messiah in the philosophical terms of his day, calling Jesus “the Word” or, in Greek, “logos.” Like the martyr Saint Justin did later, in the second century A.C.E., the apostle John sees that the prevailing philosophies of his day already had insight into who Jesus was. When they talked about “logos,” they talked about perfection, a sort of mind and intention behind all of creation, and John recognized that they could just as easily have been talking about Jesus, who was with the Creator God when he fashioned the “good” creation and who was himself the Creator God.

But from there John’s line of thought diverges sharply from the dominant philosophy of his day. John says that this “Word became flesh” – limited, imperfect, vulnerable flesh. Instead of remaining in the pristine, heavenly realms where the Greek philosophers fancied perfection to make its home, this perfect being takes on humble, human flesh and dwells among the unwashed masses. This notion would have been utterly scandalous to the philosophers of the day!

…And perhaps it is still scandalous today! American culture is greatly influenced by the work of enlightenment philosophers such as DeCartes who so desperately wanted to be free of the limitations and imperfections of the body that his “first principle” bypassed the base, human body and centered instead on the human mind by asserting “I think, therefore I am.” Many corners of American Christianity reflect this influence by emphasizing mental assent to belief in Jesus as the Son of God (through things such as “the sinner’s prayer”) rather than viewing Christ as the “Great Physician” who brings healing and transformation to every aspect of our being: mind, heart and body. 

Things to ponder: 

– “Incarnation” means “to be embodied in flesh.” What do you think is significant about God choosing to be “embodied in flesh”?

– Are there ways in which we live in contradiction to God’s Incarnation? In other words, are there ways we live which are in conflict with God’s clear love for and delight in human bodies?  How about the ways our choices impact the land, near and far, from which our life and sustenance come?

– Along those same lines, Pastor Eric shared the quote “matter matters.” The Apostle Paul emphasized the role of our body as a “Temple,” the most-holy image he could use to communicate the role of our bodies as places-God-dwells-and-ministers.  How can we honor and care for bodies – ours and our neighbors – and earth?

 

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Reflections From Joanna following the second sermon on the book of Job

 

     Today we continued our study of Job. At first, we read that Job’s friends do the most compassionate thing they could have done: they recognize Job’s great misfortune and for seven days they silently sit with him in it. From there, however, their response becomes much less helpful. As though Job doesn’t know it already, they quote the pervasive Jewish teachings of the day which say that good things happen to good people, and that bad things happen to those who sin. They accuse Job of wrongdoing because without his having misstepped, they cannot explain what has happened to him.

 
 
     And ain’t that just the way it is? Life can be such a big, scary mystery and we find comfort in being able to explain it with neat and tidy (often religious) truisms. We like to be able to contain the mystery within our brains, because then we feel we have mastered and controlled it.
 
     But so much of life defies explanation; so much of it is unknowable. Job implores his friends, “Would you shut up and sit in this with me? Wonder with me? Talk with God with me?” God describes Job as one who was blameless, and yet this awful tragedy befalls him. Supposedly God is just, and yet Job does not get the just reward of his righteousness. It just doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up.
 
     The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s reinforced this same notion: God is just–> God is predictable –> certainty is possible. With the invention of the printing press and the resulting accessibility of Bibles, Protestant reformers began to look at the Bible as a sort of textbook, a book full of answers and explanations for life’s great questions. And there is much in the Bible that does illuminate our experience on earth, and there are many truths that are trustworthy…However, somewhere along the line “faith” in the form of trusting that which is beyond our comprehension became something more like “certainty” and intellectual assent to a set of theological points…
 
     As pastor Eric shared with us today, danger lies in weighing our Bible-based ideology above our dynamic relationship with God. If we get too caught up in foreseeing what God will do, we may not see what God is presently doing. Talking about God cannot substitute talking with God.
 
     Perhaps life is beyond our capacity to explain because God, who is the source of life, is beyond our capacity to understand. We can no more contain life within our tidy explanations than we can contain the living God.
 
Things to ponder:
How am I guilty of the unhelpful self-surety of Job’s friends?
Where do I project my own experiences onto others?
In what ways do my systems of thought put boundaries around God?

 

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Reflections From Joanna following the One-Church-Liturgy Sunday, Charleston.

My favorite theologian, a Lakota man named Richard Twiss (whose long black hair I once had the privilege of braiding!!!) summed up all of Christian theology for me with this, “God loved stories so much, he created human beings.” And isn’t that what we are living out? Messy, heart-burstingly beautiful, often tragic, and incredibly poetic stories?? I’m convinced that if I really let these words sink in, I would be freed to live fully, utterly engaged with the NOW (knowing that each moment adds meaning to the story) and yet also to live with the cosmic awareness that the whole thing, from beginning to end, is being held in God’s hand. The shooting in Charleston, South Carolina is a particularly painful part of the story playing out here on earth. It’s a story with a long back story; a story people tell very differently depending on their perspective. It’s a story that – as a young white person with high ideals for how the world should be, and yet with more than a little arrogance – I would very much like to enter into as a valiant hero. And maybe God will let me participate in the important work of dismantling racism in the U.S. Or maybe my role in the story will be to listen, to cheer as other heroes rise, to humbly accept the ways I benefit from racism, and to walk out the un-glorious, uncomfortable, and ordinary work of bridging differences.

      So we live out our life’s story – hearts open to the “Ah, now I know!” moments, leaning into God’s protection and covering as we encounter resistance to the ways God changes us, and regarding with compassion rather than disdain all those around us who are living out different stories, with different sets of conflicts and climaxes that move at different paces.  And all the while God’s watching, maybe munching on popcorn, thinking, “Oh, this is good!” Other times God may sing in joy, or weep in sorrow, but through it all God nods and affirms, “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”Amen

-Joanna G

June, 2015

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Baltimore, and Ferguson, and…: Understanding the Present Moment

There was strain in his voice.  His thoughts and frustrations came out in overlaps, like a collage.  His grammar and tone revealed a low-level education.  And amidst the words of his response to the interviewers most basic questions, one could detect beneath them a deeper, more weighty truth bubbling to the surface.  It was the truth of his pain.

That truth is particular to the interviewed man, but it also holds the truth of a deeper and wider corporate pain.

I am talking about a random person in the city of Baltimore responding to questions about the days following the death of Freddie Gray.  What I appreciated about this raw, atypical interview was the humility of it.  No important people, not even some eloquent speaker or community organizer; just a lowly Baltimore local reflecting on his life and experience over the last few days.  And the interviewer, rather than talking intelligently about “what’s going on” and “why”, explaining to you his own understanding of events, just asked a simple question and got out of the way.

With so many big feelings, loud voices, and competing stories following events like the recent death of Freddie Gray, how are Christians to understand and respond?  Let me tell you my hope.

Above every every voice responding to “what’s going on” in Baltimore in particular, and in the United States as a whole, my hope is that Christians will be seeing, understanding, and responding through the lens of Scripture.  My hope is that the Biblical narrative provides the categories, metaphors, and language through which Christians make sense of the present moment.  

Take a trip with me to Egypt…

Several thousand years ago in Egypt the Israelites – once favored and prominent – were under the burden of slavery.  Pharaoh’s insatiable appetite for more and more, combined with his power over the whole empire, were responsible for their burden.  After 400 years, the oppression was fully institutionalized, permeating all levels of the social, economic, and political life of the Israelites in Egypt.  What we know from the narrative of Israel is that, eventually, the raw pain of their lives was so great that they cried out.  Initially, the cry was not directed to anyone, God or man – it was just the anguished cry.  There were about 600,000 Israelites, which is no small cry.  Ok, so, they cried out…then what?

God heard, and God responded.

How does this story help us understand what is going on at present?

I want you to imagine an interview with one of these Israelites before their liberation.  An Egyptian reporter has caught wind of a small uprising in an Israelite-Dense town.  A manager of the local brick-plant dealt harshly with one of the workers, or so he’s been accused.  The reporter decides to go and find out more.  He finds a man finishing his shift at the factory, and asks about the past few days.

What level of education do you suppose this Israelite would have?  How intelligent – or uneducated – do you think he would sound to the reporter and his audience (about 10 generations of poverty, slavery)?

What might the Israelite say if he were to be honest about what life is like for him, not just the recent events for his co-worker, but the day-to-day reality of his existence?  And what would it be like for an Egyptian to 1) listen to, and 2) take seriously the undeniable truth of pain in the life of this Israelite in particular, and of Israel as a whole?

This may be a good place for a caveat regarding our social location…

In the conversation about racial justice and reconciliation one important factor is our awareness of our own “location” (social, economic, other) in the conversation.  This may be as simple as “I’m a white male.”  Or other givens may apply, like “young adult”, “educated” or “middle class”.  These are simply givens, but are nonetheless important because they all impact how we experience and understand what’s going on.  A young, white, educated, middle-class male will have a different experience of the same event as an older, African-American woman with little formal education.  Back in Egypt, the Israelite factory worker would have a different experience of the death of one of his co-workers than an Egyptian journalist.  In-and-of-itself this does not make one good or bad, right or wrong, responsible or not, because they are givens.  What matters here is an awareness of, and honesty about, that social location, because such honesty allows us to navigate things such as when to speak and when to listen, what I may struggle to see and what I consider “normal,” and so on.

The analogy of Israel and Egypt as a way of understanding race and racism in the United States at present falls short, has holes, and so forth.  That’s a given.  The point of Scripture’s narrative and it’s role in our lives is not to find repeats, for there is no such thing.  But the biblical story(s) are also NOT purely historical information about what happened “back then”, to be learned in Sunday School and stored away as “data” about the past.  These stories hold truths regarding all manner of things.  That story we proclaim and live by includes at the core of the Old Testament one of an oppressed people group – Israel – within a powerful empire – Egypt.  That story illumines some of the dynamics of injustice, oppression, pain, and liberation.  It reveals an understanding of God in relation to those things.  As I listen to the lowly voice of the man in Baltimore, and the voices of personal companions who are African American, I see a parallel of pain in the lives of the Israelites and the lives of African-Americans in the United States.  Again, such a “parallel” is not a mirror or replica.  Nevertheless, to anyone listening and taking seriously the voices of simple folk like the one interviewed in Baltimore and to people of color throughout our country as a whole, there is an undercurrent of pain, the fruit of which we can see in various protests and riots.

Martin Luther King said this: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”  When we look at Baltimore, and Ferguson, and any number of cities where such protests and riots have occurred, we are not witnessing an overreaction, as if the rioters or protesters were responding to the particular incident (Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and so on).  These are just the surface-level triggers.  Here, hopefully, the analogy above helps.  In an Egyptian brick-making factory during Israel’s bondage, a riot in the factory after a worker gets beaten has far less to do that one incident, and far more to do with a whole life of oppression.

Let me elaborate on my hope stated above:

My hope is that Christians, following the Way revealed by Jesus, would courageously listen to and take seriously the pain of oppressed peoples, though it may be costly.  

When it comes to recent events, that may look like inviting trusted African-American brothers or sisters in Christ to share what they see and are experiencing, and of course, listening.  They may or may not identify with an experience of oppression or injustice; the point is that we are willing to ask and listen.  I’m grateful that God has placed in my life a racially diverse group of mentors and friends with whom I can have open, honest conversations about these and other issues.

In the days of Israel’s enslavement, it would be far easier for every Egyptian to live in perpetual denial.  After all, pharaoh’s Egypt was likely reasonably comfortable and convenient for them – why change that?  Israel’s pain, as real and present as it was in Egypt, would be unseen and unheard to the degree that Egypt lived in denial.  (It’s true that Pharaoh had no need to deny Israel’s pain – he simply didn’t care, and he was Pharaoh so that settled it.  Denial today takes the form of an alternative narrative about “America” or “justice” or “equality” that simply have no room for the pain of oppressed peoples.  But in contrast to denial, the answer is NOT guilt.  There is a symptom called “white-guilt”, in which white folks simply “feel bad” about the historical or present realities of racial injustice.  Neither denial nor white-guilt are the Way revealed by God to Israel, or revealed in Christ.

In closing, I want to reiterate that I arrive to these thoughts and share them with you from a place of hope.  I have hope because despite all of Pharaoh’s power and treachery, God was present and active.  I have hope because our Messiah revealed that abundant life is hidden with the last, least, lost and oppressed.

Father in heaven,

Let your Kingdom come,

Let your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Amen

 

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February, 2015

Have you given or received a hug today?

This week?<\b>

Perhaps you are wondering, “Pastor Eric, why are you asking this question?”  Let me tell you:

In a recent cover-story in the Sacramento Bee newspaper was an article titled “Novel cuddling business in Roseville offers hugs for hire”.  The article details the BOOMING business of cuddle-centers, which all started three years ago when a poor college student needed money to fund her education.  In case you are still unsure what a cuddle center is: like a massage or counseling session, you pay for an hour, but unlike those what you receive are “cuddles” from caring cuddlers.

Is this a surprising phenomena?  Should we be alarmed, befuddled, or…?  Perhaps some of us may even be thinking, “Wow, that sounds nice,” with good reason to do so.

I will lay my cards on the table up front, and then share some thoughts.  Here’s my hand:

The church can be a place where Christians could not imagine going to a cuddle-center for physical affection because of the overwhelming love and honoring-affection they receive from God’s family, the body of Christ.

Here are some reflections:

Our bodies have needs – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical.  One of the most basic needs is touch.  (Studies now show that babies will actually die if they have every need met but no physical touch).

And the need doesn’t stop as we develop into adolescents, and later adults.

Now consider the season we live in: a time when relationships are continually relegated to the virtual world, to social media, to text messages.  I don’t think it’s too far off to say: we are forgetting (or not learning at all, depending our age) how to interact with other embodied persons.  Add to this our past experiences and the violations – subtle or substantial – that have marred our ability to give and receive healthy, honoring physical touch (example: a hug).  Other realities could be added, but in sum: our cultural default is absolutely not equipping us for wholeness and holiness, but is leaving plenty of room for evil to wreak havoc.

So, in response to this booming cuddle-center business, I say: “Of course it’s booming, of course people are longing for tender physical affection.  It is a basic human need, and we’re not only in lack of it, we have unhealed past wounds that impede us from being able to comfortably hug someone.”
“Well,” you may ask, “what does this have to do with church?”

Perhaps one of the most neglected (and therefore most vulnerable to evil), areas of life in the church is physical touch.  Fear and confusion, rather than love and compassion, dominate the culture of our churches.  We typically assume that it’s better to have little or no physical touch of any kind in church, or with our church community because it’s just too complicated otherwise.  We also avoid talking about it because we fear upsetting or offending someone, or we ourselves do not know how to communicate about what honoring physical engagement, vs. inappropriate affection, looks like (and feels like).  Our own bodies and spirits do let us know – but do we know how to listen?

All that to say, I believe that, among other things, the church can be:

  • A place where we talk about honoring physical engagement / touch, vs. dishonoring or inappropriate interactions,
  • A place where, if some form is inappropriate physical behavior occurred, no one would feel ashamed and therefore silenced, but knows they can talk to their leaders about it,
  • A place where we are safe to bring stories of harm, whether it was harm done to us or harm we perpetrated, and walk the healing path together,
  • A place that prepares our young ones to know and trust what their body and spirit is telling them as they interact with others in the world (and have the boldness to say when something is not ok),
  • A place that people genuinely feel the love of mothers, fathers, sisters and brother in Christ, the loving and healing family God intends for us to be,
  • A place where “sex” is not a conversation relegated to the  few days leading up to an engaged couple’s wedding, but rather is a conversation we visit and revisit as we seek wholeness and holiness in our sexuality.

Returning to the article on Cuddle-Centers which provoked this response, I said earlier:

The church can be a place where Christians could not imagine going to a cuddle-center for physical affection because of the overwhelming love and honoring-affection they receive from God’s family, the body of Christ.

You are likely aware that I said “The church CAN be,” instead of “The church IS.”  That was intentional.  The reality is that the same kinds of brokenness outside the church are flourishing inside our communities.  Nevertheless, I believe God has far greater hopes for our life-together when it comes to our bodies, physical touch and affection, and sexuality.  We will, together, move towards what hope calls us to.

In Jesus name…

(Note: If you are interested in good resources / books addressing some of these issues, go to our “Books” tab above, on this website!)