Working on Women’s Day

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I returned to work after seven weeks of maternity leave on Thursday, March 8th, which also happened to be International Women’s Day. The juxtaposition of these two events felt poetic to me: after weeks of living into my womanhood at home in a way I never had before, I returned to work to live out my womanhood in a completely different sector.

A change took place within me seven weeks ago: birthing our daughter was the most miraculous and empowering experience. It gave me new perspective on why God named the first woman Eve, chavah, “life.” I watched as life emerged from within me, and in that moment I took on a new identity as a mother. That little life has since depended on me for nutrition, sustenance, and love, and I have given all of myself, all that I am, to her.

That’s why returning to work in some ways felt like a betrayal. Not so much that I was betraying my daughter; I knew she would have all she needed without me. It felt more like I was betraying my womanhood, which had become so tied into motherhood over the past weeks. How could I hold on to my new identity if I weren’t nurturing and holding and comforting my daughter continuously?

After a few hours at work, a woman came to my office seeking pastoral guidance. Inside, I wondered whether I even remembered how to pastor others. She told me about some of the ghosts that have been haunting her for the past few months, and described this feeling of being stuck in a rut, unable to get out and fearful that she never would. And during that conversation, I felt some familiar responses slowly coming back to me: I listened to her cries, I created space to hold her emotions, and we discussed some ways she could mend her wounds.

Nurturing. Holding. Comforting.

The reflexes that I so finely tuned over the past weeks sprang into action yet again.

These facets of motherhood that I felt I abandoned when I returned to work arose from the depths of me just hours after I reentered my office. They had been there all along. Because at its core, this is what ministry is: it is leading and nurturing, feeding and teaching, watching and tending to the wounds of those entrusted to our care.

Returning to work was not a betrayal of my womanhood. Not even close. In many ways, it was a fulfillment of my identity as a mother and a pastor and a woman, made in the image of God. And reentering ministry didn’t excise a facet of my identity, but rather brought to life the fullness of my calling first and foremost as a child of God.

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Finding The Prodigal In Genesis 33


The story of The Prodigal Son still brings tears to my eyes when I read it. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and I also have so many memories of retreats and camps that retold the story of the Prodigal Son in beautiful ways. It makes sense that we retell the story, because it provides such a clear picture of God’s grace, forgiveness, and enduring love for us.

We find the story in Luke 15:11-32. We first meet a man with two sons, the younger of whom feels dissatisfied so he asks for his portion of his father’s blessing. He leaves his father’s home, spends all of his inheritance, and ultimately hires himself out to a farmer who has him care for his pigs. While the son is estranged and starving, he decides to return to his father, and offer himself as a hired servant. However, when the son is still a long way away, his father sees him, runs to him, embraces and kisses him, and throws a banquet to celebrate his return; “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).

The story is so profound and moving, and for the longest time it seemed to me that we could only find a story with so much grace and forgiveness in the New Testament. But as I continue to learn time and time again, God demonstrated his love for us long before we arrive in Luke.

In Genesis 33 we meet Jacob, whose name recently became Israel after a wrestling match with God (see Gen. 32:24-32; feel free to leave questions about this in the comments section). Jacob knows that Esau is on his way to meet him, and as you can remember from our posts on their early relationship (see The Sacredness of Siblings and Birthrights and Blessings), Jacob fears that Esau will kill him.

Jacob responds two ways: first, he prays to God (Gen. 32:9-12) and he sends gifts ahead of him to meet Esau (Gen. 32:13-21). Jacob’s prayer is especially profound, and I believe it impacts the outcome of his encounter with Esau. He pleads, “I am not worthy of the least of all of the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Gen. 32:10).

Jacob humbles himself. He admits that he does not deserve the blessings that God has lavished upon him, and then he asks for God to deliver him from the hand of Esau. 

So then we arrive in Genesis 33, and Jacob sees Esau coming. I can only imagine that Jacob is shaking in his boots (or sandals), as he watches his brother lead four hundred men into his camp. Jacob approaches and bows to greet his brother, and in a turn of events that Jacob never could have imagined, he watches his brother run toward him and embrace him. Esau falls onto Jacob’s neck, kisses him, and they weep (Gen. 33:1-4). Esau demonstrates the forgiveness and grace that surpasses what Jacob could ever have hoped for.

When we look closely at the language here, we see that it’s the same language of forgiveness and grace  in that Jesus uses in the parable of The Prodigal Son. Genesis 33:4 states, “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Describing the prodigal son, Luke 15:20 states, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

The Greek in the New Testament, and the Greek in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) are very similar here: we watch Esau and the father of the prodigal son, “run” (from the Greek root trecho), “kiss” (from phileo), and “fall on” (pipto) the “neck”  (trachselos) of Jacob and the son, respectively. The moment of redemption in The Prodigal Son echoes the same reconciling moment between Jacob and Esau. More specifically, Jesus draws directly from Genesis in order to relate his own parable. 

God wanted us to know his grace and forgiveness all along. He wanted us to accept that if we pray to him (as Jacob did), he can release and redeem us from even the most frightening of circumstances. God’s love surpasses our weaknesses and frailties, and God celebrates when we return home to one another, and home to Him. Jesus knew this as he told his story of the Prodigal Son; he recalled what he knew of God’s work through Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau and repackaged it for his own audience.

May we feel refreshed and empowered today by the redemptive love that God offered us first in Genesis and every day since. May we come home to one another, and home to the God who has always wanted us with Him, just as we are. And may we, at the end of the day, know that our identity is found, not in our wandering or fleeing, but safely beside the One who created us and loves us always.

The Sacredness of Siblings

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My brothers and sisters are some of the most encouraging and wonderful people in my life. I grew up with a brother, and when I was eight I got a sister; when my brother married, I got another sister, and in marrying my husband I gained two more brothers. That’s quite a network of siblings to turn to for wisdom, laughter, and strength. During childhood and adolescence, though, it can seem common for brothers and sisters to focus more on competition than the gifts they are to each other.

For example, this past weekend as we celebrated Mother’s Day, my mom shared a story about when I took the ACT test. Apparently, I studied really hard, and after I got the score I wanted, my brother celebrated, saying, “Great for her!” while I responded, “I beat his score!” Ouch. I’m not sure why I cared about beating his score, but regardless, it was not my best moment.

In the biblical text we see sibling rivalry all over the place. It makes a bit more sense in the biblical context, given that the eldest child typically inherited all of the father’s lands and goods, while the younger children received a single gift and may not even stay in the father’s land (see Genesis 25:1-6). Siblings had a lot on the line regarding their own wellbeing and security after the father died.

On numerous occasions, Genesis subverts the tradition of granting the birthright to the eldest son. Abraham gives his to Isaac, despite Ishmael being the eldest (Gen. 25:5), Jacob grants his to Joseph, rather than to Reuben or to any of his other sons (Gen. 49:22-26), and in the text we read today, Jacob takes the birthright from Esau. 

In Genesis 25:19-26, Isaac pleads to God on behalf of his barren wife, Rebekah, and she conceives twin boys. They struggle within her, and God explains that the two boys represent two nations, and that the eldest will eventually serve the youngest. When she births them, Esau emerges first, but Jacob grabs on to his heel (side note: Jacob’s name, yacov, actually means “heel holder”).

We learn that as they grow up, Esau is a hunter, and Jacob stays in the home. One day, as Jacob is cooking a lentil stew, Esau enters the home and asks for some of the stew. He states that he is so hungry he is at the point of death (v. 32). So Jacob uses Esau’s hunger and weakness to convince him to sell Jacob his birthright for the bowl of stew.

Reading sarcasm into the biblical text gets tricky, so I’ll just lay out the two options: either Esau really was at the point of famine in which he would die, and Jacob chose to withhold the stew from his dying brother until he attained the birthright. Or, Esau was acting like a child who says, “I’m starving!” to simply express that he was hungry. Either way, Jacob turns the tables by offering Esau stew in exchange for the promise of his birthright. And in doing that, he chooses to damage his relationship with his brother.

I know that not all families are like mine. I have been blessed with great relationships with all of my siblings. Yet in other families, sibling relations are often one of the biggest points of tension. Differing beliefs, lifestyles, locations, and a whole host of other factors can create dissonance and difficulty between siblings and within families. But as we see in the text today, we make choices to either assuage those differences or to escalate and perpetuate them to their greatest extent.

God has given us siblings as a blessing, and we are meant to feel gratitude for them. If you have a great relationship with your siblings, give thanks for them today, and let them know how much you care. If you have a more complicated or difficult relationship with your siblings, consider one thing you can do today to make your relationship just a bit happier and healthier than it was yesterday. In either scenario, we can be a voice of love and encouragement in the sacred relationships of siblinghood.

When God Answers Prayer

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When I worked as a chaplain people often asked me about prayer. They wondered whether God really listens, whether our prayers can change outcomes, and why God listens to prayer if He already has a plan. These are big and important questions, and while it’s easy to begin postulating about the answers, we can more helpfully respond by looking at the Bible.

In Genesis 18, while Abraham is resting in his tent, God and two other men appear. Abraham offers them food, water, and hospitality. While they’re visiting, the Lord states again that Sarah will birth Isaac, and she laughs (Gen. 18:1-15). Then, after they rest for some time, Abraham, the Lord, and the two men get up and walk over to look at Sodom.

This is where the interaction between God and Abraham gets especially interesting. You can read the full text here, but in Genesis 18:15-32, God decides to inform Abraham about his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, “I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know” (v. 21).

So God has heard the weeping and the cries of those who have been treated unjustly, and He feels so upset about their cries that he intends to wipe out the land. 

Abraham intervenes by bartering with God. Over the course of the following ten verses, he slowly persuades God to not destroy the land. He begins asking if God will destroy the land if he can find fifty innocent people in it, and when God says he won’t destroy the land under those conditions, Abraham asks if God will destroy it with forty-five innocent people. God slowly begins agreeing that He won’t destroy the city, given Abraham’s conditions.

The funniest part of the text, in my opinion, are these little lines that Abraham throws in during their negotiations to ensure that he doesn’t upset God. He says things like, “even though I am soil and ash,” “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord,” and “let me speak just once more.” He wants to ensure that he doesn’t push God too far with his requests, and ultimately, it pays off. By the end of the chapter, God has agreed that if He can find ten innocent people, He won’t destroy the cities.

Isn’t this such a fascinating interaction? As Abraham made requests of God, God listened, evaluated, saw the merit in Abraham’s points, and agreed with him. It’s conversational. 

More and more often I hear people say that talking to God just doesn’t “feel right,” or they find that silence is more effective than discussion. While I respect quietness and peacefulness, and at times think they’re helpful forms of prayer, I’m also Italian and have far more of a preference for conversation. And based on the Bible, I think God likes conversation as well, because God values our feelings and opinions.

Prayer isn’t too complicated: it’s the decision to commune with God. While prayer can take place in powerful ways through the church, worship, and meditation, it can also take place while you’re washing dishes and telling God about your day. We may not have the benefit of God walking around with us in a human body, as Abraham did, but we certainly have the Holy Spirit living in us and with us, as the ever-present marker of God. 

May we take time to pray today, intentionally remembering that God listens and cares. In those moments when we feel like God is especially quiet and distant, may we pray what we can, knowing that we’re never truly alone. And finally, may we find strength and encouragement today, knowing that the Lord uses both prayers of hope and despair to bless our lives, as well as the world around us.

Covenant and Calling

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Do you remember the first time you felt belonging with God? That feeling that God is with you, listening to you, and knowing you very deeply? When I was ten years old I remember laying under the stars and feeling for the first time that I could talk with God, that He would eagerly listen, and that I belonged with him.

Starting in Genesis 12, we see Abram belonging with God. God makes grand promises, leads Abram and Sarai to a variety of lands, and communes with Hagar in the desert. Then, when we arrive at chapter 17, Abram and God establish an even closer and deeper relationship through covenant.

After we leave chapter 16, we know that thirteen years pass before we pick up with chapter 17. We learn that Abram is 99 years old when God calls to him, explains that He will make a covenant with Abram, and that Abram will have innumerable descendants. God changes Abram’s name from Abram (avram), meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham (avraham), meaning “father of a multitude.” God also changes the name of Sarai (saray), meaning “princess,” to Sarah (sarah), meaning “noblewoman.”

In creating the covenant, we see an identity transformation occur. The Exalted Father becomes the Father of a Multitude; the Princess becomes a Noblewoman. Belonging to and with God changes who Abram and Sarai are, and what they represent to the world.

After that transformation occurs, God then promises Abraham that Sarah will birth a child for him, despite her being 99 years old. Abraham experienced such disbelief as to laugh at God, which then inspired his son’s name, Isaac (yitsaq), meaning “he laughs.” God promises that Isaac will carry on the covenant and become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

So once God transforms Abraham and Sarah, establishing a covenantal relationship with them, God then begins expanding it. He establishes that they belong to Him, and then He paints a picture of how their covenant will grow to impact the whole world. He instructs Abraham to circumcise all of the males in the household, and gives him other key directives about what needs to happen in order for them to maintain their covenant relationship. And with those instructions, God then shows Abraham all of the powerful ways He will use their relationship.

Finding a sense of belonging with God is such a special and sacred moment. We must savor our feelings of being found, known, and loved, and we must remind ourselves of that deep and endless relationship constantly. And after we have found our belonging in God, we must then open our ears to listen to what He has in store for us.

God can use us to transform the world, or at least the worlds of those around us. If we listen to His directions, and take the steps to continue following Him, we can watch the transformation of lives take place. This was never meant to be an insular relationship, one in which God changes us and we merely sit with Him for the rest of our days. Rather, God wants to use us as His hands and feet in the world. And if we allow Him to do that, we will create greater change than we ever could have dreamed before.

Let’s be found in Him today. And then open our hearts and hands, stand up, and follow Him.

Stewardship, Politics, and Genesis 9

 

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This morning I chose to use a coffee mug that a church gifted me a few months back. The side of the mug displays the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s a powerful verse, and because of that, it’s everywhere: on billboards, commercials, tracks, promotions, even my coffee mug. Christians have used that particular verse for a variety of means.

I similarly realized that the verses for today have gotten a weighty amount of traction among a variety of Christian communities. They’ve become highly politicized, and their messages have led to vastly dissimilar ends.

We read in Genesis 9:1-3, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth. All of the animals on the earth will fear you and dread you—all the birds in the skies, everything crawling on the ground, and all of the sea’s fish. They are in your power. Everything that lives and moves will be your food. Just as I gave you the green grasses, I now give you everything.'”

Do you remember when we discussed the idea that Noah was supposed to function as a New Adam? We see this happening here as well. Just after God creates the man and the woman in His image in Genesis 1, this is what the text says:

“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.’ And that’s what happened. God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” — Gen. 1:28-31

The text confirms for us that God reset the earth with Noah, and needed Noah to do the work that Adam had originally done by being fertile, multiplying, and filling the earth (peru urevu umelu). 

Rather than accepting Genesis 9:1-3 as a continued plot point in the story of God’s continued efforts toward reconciliation with humanity, a number of Christians use these verses instead as imperatives for us to follow. And when they take a descriptive story and make it a prescription for us to follow, some stark polarizations arise. Here are just a few:

In 2007, Ann Coulter published her take on the Genesis texts in her book If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans, arguing, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours. — Hannity & Colmes, 6-20-01.‘” For Coulter, these verses demonstrate God encouraging us to violently debase and abuse the creation.

In contrast, Huffington Post published a blog by Rabbi Shoshanna Meira Friedman in 2014 entitled, “‘We Are All Noah Now’ (Noah, Genesis 6:9-11:32).” Friedman claims, “To live in Noah times means practicing radical hope amidst the burden of consequences. It means building the largest possible ark of disaster readiness. It means remembering that the rainbow, dove, and olive branch – these now-universal symbols of hope – come to us from the story of the near-destruction of all life on earth… To live in Noah times, then, means to be awake to the great calling of our own generation, to respond with radical hope and collective action to the crisis of climate change.

Coulter and Friedman use the same text to make vastly contrasting arguments: that we should rape and exploit the earth on the one hand, and that we must reverse the damage of climate change on the other. My point here is not to argue for one position or another: it’s to show how a prescriptive reading of the text can lead to such extreme and opposed consequences. 

We have to be careful with this sacred text. The moment we begin using it to make claims about current affairs and hot-button issues, we should step back and really examine whether the text bears out our claims. And if we decide that it does, we then need to look at the practical consequences of what we’re saying.

If we read the Bible for what it actually tells us, we see in these verses God giving Noah the freedom that God once gave the first man and woman. God tells Noah and his sons to make themselves at home. To have children, to eat, and to live in the creation that God has given them. For some, that interpretation falls flat: it’s not exciting or controversial.

I disagree, though: the Bible tells us in these verses that we have a God who, after enduring heartbreak by humanity, goes to great lengths to find a way to reconcile us to Himself. He changes the state of the entire world, with the hope that the one family who had showed him faithfulness before the flood would remain faithful to Him afterward as well. This is a God who trusts, who perseveres, who forgives, and who loves us beyond what we could ever imagine. And that means far more for us today and for always than any politicized stance ever will.