Celebrating in the Unknown

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As a child I loved reading the poems of Shel Silverstein, and I carried that with me into adulthood. One of my favorite of his poems is called “The Whatif’s”– you can read it here. In the poem, some Whatifs crawl into the author’s ear, and begin incessantly asking the question, “Whatif?”

“Whatif I flunk that test? Whatif green hair grows on my chest?”

“Whatif I tear my pants? Whatif I never learn to dance?”

I can certainly relate to having regular cases of the “Whatifs.”

The poem came to mind today as I read Luke 1. In it, an angel comes to Mary and shares with her the news that she will become pregnant with the son of God. Mind you, she’s young and unmarried, both of which are problematic given the news the angel shared. After the angel leaves, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who the angel also informed her was pregnant, and relays the story to her. And this is the part that strikes me: rather than falling into a case of the “Whatifs,” asking “What if Joseph chooses to leave?” “What if I just imagined that whole ‘angel’ scenario?” “What if my community shames me?” she instead speaks the Magnificat, a song of praise:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55).

‭Upon learning that her life would change forever, Mary chose to magnify the Lord.  Instead of beginning to guess the implications of everything that would take place, she created a song of praise. This beautiful, poetic song came out of a place of deep unknown.

Celebrating in certainty is easy. Celebrating in the midst of complication, ambiguity, and even loss is a far different experience. Mary’s Magnificat, which she sung just after learning she was pregnant, echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel, which Hannah sung just after dedicating her son to the Lord and leaving him with the priest, Eli (see 1 Sam. 1). Just after leaving the child she had begged the Lord to grant her, she begins her prayer. You can read the whole of it here, but she begins by saying,

My heart rejoices in the Lord.
    My strength rises up in the Lord!
    My mouth mocks my enemies
        because I rejoice in your deliverance.
No one is holy like the Lord
    no, no one except you!
    There is no rock like our God!” (1 Sam. 2:1-2)

In the midst of uncertainty, and in Hannah and Mary’s cases deep complication, they chose to turn their minds and hearts toward the Lord. They kept the Whatifs from plaguing them by focusing on the promises and strength of God. So may we learn from our biblical mothers today, that we are created, loved, and held by God, and even in the midst of uncertainty and confusion, we can choose to proclaim a song of praise.

Good, Good Fruit

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Have you ever been to an event in which someone used the phrase, “You will get out of this what you put into it”? I’m sure you’ve heard some iteration of the saying, since I feel like I can’t get away from it. At work, at the gym, at church, over and over again: “What you get out of this is a direct result of what you put into it.” I’m not saying that the sentiment isn’t true, I just think it needs to be broadened: it seems to me that what we put into life is what we get out of it.

In Luke 6 Jesus alludes to at least part of this reality, stating, “A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. Each tree is known by its fruit. People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes. A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken” (v. 43-45). Ultimately, Jesus tells us that the quality of what we do and what we produce is directly related to the quality of our hearts.

This could not resonate with me more. There seems to be a three-part process that goes something like: 1) we encounter information, emotions, and experiences, 2) those shape our hearts and selves, and 3) out of our hearts and selves we then act and speak. And our relationship with God impacts every single one of these steps in a foundational way.

During my masters degree I specialized in Religion and Psychology. One of my favorite psychologists does positive psychology and teaches at Harvard. Please watch his TED Talk here, because I can’t come close to summarizing his work in this blog post. One of the strongest points he makes, though, is that we train our brains what to notice. The more often we focus on the negative, the bothersome, the irritating, the more our brains scan for the negative. If instead, though, we intentionally choose to focus on the positive and the encouraging, our brains will follow suit by scanning for the positive. It’s pretty amazing!

We can take intentional steps to choose what goes into our minds and hearts, and therefore what shapes us. From there, we speak and act in ways that demonstrate what is already rooted inside of us. This isn’t an exact science: for instance, I can’t control whether a driver is going to cut me off on the interstate. I can, though, decide how deeply that will impact my mood, which words I choose to say (eek!), and how long I will hold onto the experience. If we inculcate anxious, distressing, and despairing experiences, we will then produce anxiety, distress, and despair. However, if we embed our hearts with the encouraging, the positive, and the hopeful, we will then produce encouragement, positivity, and hope.

Another word for the phase 3 acting and speaking is teleology. It comes from the Greek telos, meaning the ultimate end. I use this as a helpful frame for evaluating most things in life, simply by asking, “What does it produce? What does it create? What grows out of it?” One of my former pastors used to say that we are always creating either more good or more counter-good in every action we take. So today, may we look at what we produce and create, and evaluate whether we are germinating more love and goodness in the world. And if not, may we re-center ourselves and make the changes we need to make in order to begin scanning for the good, making our inner selves more whole, and ultimately producing good, good fruit for the world.

Walking on Water

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As a child I spent so much of my summertime swimming. There were days when I would arrive for swim practice early in the morning and not leave until late afternoon. I remember having a high-end theological discussion one day with my best friend while we sat on the edge of the pool. She asked me, “Do you think Jesus really walked on water?” I responded affirmatively, and she then asked, “Do you think we should try, too?” At the time, Jesus walking on water seemed like one of the coolest superhero moves any character we’d heard about perform — it was right up there with the ability to fly or to become invisible. So, being our six year old selves, we gave it a shot. I’d like to say that we ran across the surface of the pool, but of course, we splashed right into the water, and continued on with our playing.

The story of Jesus walking on water in John 6 sounds a lot like a superhero trick on the surface — the disciples get into a boat at night, and it starts storming. Jesus didn’t catch up to them until their boat had floated three or four miles out from the shore, and then they see a figure in the distance. As happens so often in the gospels, Jesus states, “I am. Don’t be afraid” (v. 16-20). And before they could pull him into the boat, they reached the shore (v. 21).

Jesus doesn’t just skip around on the water or take a few steps — he walks miles to catch up to the disciples’ boat, which is an exceptionally cool miracle in its own right. It has so much more underlying it if you dig a little bit deeper, though, and jump back into the creation narrative of Genesis and into Job.

In the first verse of the Bible we read the words, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth — the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). God dwells over the waters, and even commands them in the very first verse of the biblical text. In Job 38, God cajoles Job, saying, “Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop’? …Have you gone to the sea’s sources, walked in the chamber of the deep?” (Job 38:8-11; 16). God shows full and complete control over creation, and specifically water in this text. In the words of my husband, “God is wrestling creation into submission.”

Then we have Jesus walk on water. And it may seem like some neat magic trick or superhero move, but what he’s actually doing is drawing our attention to Genesis and to Job. Jesus shows us that he has just as much control over the creation and over the water as God does. And in so doing, he shows us his relationship with God: he is not every other person, he is the exceptional manifestation of God that we get to love and worship. And beyond our attempts to walk on water, may we know that we have a God who hovered over the original waters and will walk on water to meet us in the storm.

We Met at a Well

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I love Rom-Coms. Today I did Netflix searches for You’ve Got Mail, Must Love Dogs, When Harry Met SallyLove Actually, and Something’s Gotta Give. Some of my absolute favorites. They’re sweet, easy to watch, make me smile, put me in the best mood, and remind me of my amazing mom, who introduced these wonderful films to me.

All of these movies set up a scenario in which two individuals are bound to fall in love. You’ve Got Mail opens with 1998-style Internet cues, Must Love Dogs depicts two recent divorcees who both begin exploring online dating, and When Harry Met Sally opens with a long and fateful car ride. We’re told who to vie for from the very beginning, which is what makes the forever-love declaration at the end of the movie so satisfying.

This may also be why I love the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 so much. In it, Jesus travels through Samaria and stops at a well at noon, and shortly thereafter a Samaritan woman arrives at the well also. For early readers of John, this set up would be like us hearing Signed, Sealed, Delivered in a romantic comedy, because, over and over again in the Old Testament, couples meet at wells. In Genesis 24:1-7 Abraham’s servant finds Rebekah at a well so that she could marry Isaac; in Genesis 29:1-12 Jacob meets Rachel at a well before marrying her; in Exodus 2:15-21 Moses protects Zipporah from shepherds at a well, and ends up marrying her. This trope in the Old Testament happens over and over again, to the point that a man and a woman meeting at a well in the Torah is like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meeting in any movie ever. Instant magic.

So in John 4 Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, which is meant to draw to mind the love stories in the Old Testament. Jewish-Samaritan relations were pretty rough at the time, so when Jesus asks the woman for water, she asks why he would ask her to draw water for him. Jesus responds, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water” (v. 10). The woman questions Jesus’ ability to provide living water, and Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life” (v. 13-14). She then begs him for the living water, she and Jesus discuss her rather sordid relational life, and they engage in a theological discussion. Finally, she runs into the city proclaiming, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” And she brought the people of the city to Jesus.

In the incredible beauty of this narrative, the Samaritan woman and Jesus meet at the well, and she finds the One for whom she’d been searching. She had previously had five husbands, and her current partner was not her husband, and Jesus knew this before she ever mentioned it. Yet when she comes to the well, she finds not another husband, like other women find at their wells, but rather, Jesus meets her and offers her the possibility to never thirst again. The love story then is completed, not by marital love, which had failed her over and over again, but by the deep and endless love of God.

Up Above and Down Below

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One of my husband and my favorite scenes to quote is from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. In it, Michael Palin is a priest and leads a religious school in praying:

“Oh, Lord. Ooooh, you are so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you. Forgive us, our Lord, for this our dreadful toadying, but you’re so strong, and well, just so SUPER.” I highly encourage you to watch the video here.

The priest’s prayer in this scene hilariously depicts how easy it is for us to focus on God’s transcendence — God’s sovereignty, distance, and bigness, as opposed to God’s immanence — God’s intimacy, closeness, and warmth. We see both sides of God’s character throughout the biblical text, and from what I can tell, we run into the biggest theological problems when we forget either God’s transcendence or God’s immanence. When we only focus on God’s transcendence, we lose sight of God’s ability to be with us and among us; when we only focus on God’s immanence, we lose sight of God’s ability to be our protector and advocate.

In the moments in which we get a bit too close to the Monty Python-style prayers, we can see a perfect picture of God’s willingness to be literally and figuratively down-to-earth with us in John 2. In the story, Jesus is at a wedding that runs out of wine. Jesus’ mother asks him to rectify the situation, so he tells the servants to fill six nearby water jugs with water. The jugs were likely for purification before the wedding meal (see The Jewish Annotated New Testament by A.J. Levine, page 161), and would have held between 120 to 180 gallons (check out the CEB Study Bible). Once the servants filled them with water, Jesus had them take a glass to the headwaiter, who tasted the wine and proclaimed, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now” (v. 10). That’s 120-180 GALLONS of top-notch wine.

Jesus turns water into the best wine at the wedding for his first miracle in the gospel of John. We all know what “drinking freely” means — they were having a good time, and Jesus kept that going. Jesus loves community and celebration, and encourages those in this story. He is talking to and relating with those he loves, just as God does in Genesis 2, and reveals His ability to be with us and among us.

So while we should honor God for his sovereignty and bigness, and even sometimes pray the “Oh God, you are so big” prayers, we also get to worship the God who loves to celebrate, to connect, and to serve. Let us keep those in balance today. Let us worship, honor, and praise the God who is so transcendent and bigger than us, and who is also so close and intimate in every moment of our lives.

Fighting Rest

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Rest has been a tumultuous topic for me over the past two weeks. I went through three nights in which I couldn’t sleep, and after those I had to force myself to stay awake throughout the day. I then slept like a hibernating bear for the following two nights, couldn’t sleep the night after that, and proceeded to sleep almost the entire following afternoon. As I write/complain about my resting issues, I simultaneously recognize that I am a healthy, childless female in my mid-twenties. If you have kids or have gone through menopause you’re probably shaking your head while you read this, thinking, “Oh, you just wait!” I know, I get it. We all go through phases in which rest becomes a bit more elusive.
While I was reading Matthew 12 today I got a different sense of how Jesus understood rest. In the text, Jesus and his friends walk through a wheat field on the Sabbath, and they pick heads of wheat to eat because they’re hungry. The Pharisees see the Disciples picking the wheat and accuse Jesus, saying, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law” (v. 1-2). They said this because, during the first Century, Jewish scholars debated the meaning of the Commandment to not work on the Sabbath. Jesus then uses the Tanakh (the Old Testament) to call the Pharisees into question. He references 1 Samuel 21:1-6, Numbers 28:9-10, and Hosea 6:6 to reveal the reasons he has authority to allow his Disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, and why his interpretation of the Torah Commandment has authority over theirs.
This scenario occurs numerous times throughout the gospels: Jesus and his Disciples do something that constitutes “work” on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees and Scribes then question him. What distinguishes this particular story is actually what happens just before the first verses of chapter 12. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus states, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Before we ever get to the story of the the Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath, we have Jesus offering us rest. It’s so simple. Come to me when you’re heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Then in the following scene, they are meant to be resting for the Sabbath, and they pick grain because they’re hungry. And this is when it gets complicated. In the moments in which we are meant to rest, don’t we find so many distractions, objections, and excuses? I know I even sometimes feel guilty resting, as though I need to justify it or defend my reasons for it.

Lent is a perfect time to claim your space for resting. To clear out the excuses, the clutter, and to let down the feeling that the world sits on your shoulders. So I encourage you to do so without excuses and without justification. Just rest. Create time to clear your mind, to be still, and to come to Him with your burdens. And finally, receive rest. Because His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

Being a Neighbor

My nephew went through a phase of temper tantrums when he was two. As he calmed himself after one of these fitful tantrums, he sighed, and apologized saying, “I’m sorry, mommy. I just get so angry sometimes. And I don’t like people!” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? We encounter a lawyer who expresses a similar sentiment in Luke 10.

In the story, a lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question around on him, and the lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus validates the lawyer’s answer, but the lawyer follows up by asking “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by sharing the story of the Good Samaritan.

If you haven’t heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan, here’s an overview: Some robbers attacked a Jewish man, stripped him and robbed him, and left him for dead. A priest and a Levite both wander to the other side of the street as they pass by the man. A Samaritan then sees the man and chooses to tend to his wounds, to put him on his own animal, to take him to an inn, and to pay the innkeeper to care for the man (Luke 10:25-37).

Growing up, I learned that this story was a parable about how I should treat others. Namely, in contrast to the Priest and the Levite, I should behave like the Good Samaritan when I encounter those in need; in that way, I could become everyone’s neighbor. With a bit more study I realized that’s actually the opposite of how we’re meant to read the text.

In the context of the story, Jesus is telling a Jewish man a story of another Jewish man who fell into the hands of robbers. This tells us that within the narrative, we are not the priest or the Levite or the Samaritan–we’re the man laying on the side of the road. The priest and the Levite, in their avoiding the suffering man, choose to not behave as neighbors; the Samaritan instead becomes the neighbor.

To understand the story more deeply, we need to emphasize two things. First, Israel was broken into 3 groups: priests, Levites, and Israelites. The priests and Levites typically had high standards for their behavior. The second thing we need to comprehend is how tumultuous the relationship between Israelites and Samaritans really was. A.J. Levine’s most recent book, Short Stories by Jesus, has greatly influenced my readings of the parables in general, and especially my reading of the Good Samaritan. (You can and should add it to your library here). She points out in her book that we could compare the Jews’ understanding of Samaritans to Americans’ feelings toward   Osama bin Laden (it’s true–check it out here). And yet Jesus frames the Samaritan as the true neighbor in his parable.

Later in my education, I heard some people using the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a way of stating that everyone is our neighbor. Essentially, they argued that if Jews and Samaritans hated each other so much, the parable tells us to get over our prejudices of all people and to accept everyone as our neighbor. The issue with this reading is that it assumes that everyone wants to be our neighbor.

Jesus doesn’t say that the Samaritan becomes the neighbor just because he’s a Samaritan. In reality, the Samaritan could have crossed the road just as the priest and the Levite did, or he even could have harmed the man further, and all of that would be par for the course; however, if that ocurred, the man would not have become the neighbor. It was in his helping, sacrificing, and caring for the man that the Samaritan became the neighbor. His actions changed his relationship with the man on the side of the road.

So when Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?,” I hear him respond, “The one who acts lovingly toward you, and the one to whom you extend love.” This can be anyone–literally, it could even be your worst enemy. At the end of the day, your neighbor is the one who, when you have nothing left, is willing to pick you up, clean your wounds, give you safety, and bring you back to life.
So who are your neighbors? To whom are you a neighbor?  And how does this change the way we interact with God, with others, and with ourselves?