Welcome Table Readings
Week 3 - November 11 & 12
5:18 Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light;
5:19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.
5:20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
5:21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
5:22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
5:23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
5:24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
If you’re after chill spiritual vibes, reading the prophets will be a bummer. The Book of Amos, the oldest prophet, gets especially raw.
The “day of the LORD” was the hoped-for holy in-swooping that would bring Israel victory, safety and peace. Speaking in prophetic mode, in the voice of God, Amos flips the scripture: that “day” is going to be more like getting mauled by a grizzly bear.
God/Amos warns Israel—in particular its wealthy elite—that assuming God’s protection from harm as they chill in luxury’s lap while the vulnerable suffer makes God mad. Rather than bestowing peace, God peaces out while Israel gets invaded.
Hearing that these words were most likely written after the Assyrian Empire’s defeat of Israel, as a way of making sense of that loss (not as a magical fortune-telling prediction) might make a fundamentalist cover their ears. It’s precisely what should make us open ours. The prophets are not first and foremost moralistic blackmailers— “Shape up or else God’s gonna maul your rich do-nothing asses”—they’re people looking for meaning, figuring out how horrible events might, if responded to in the right way, make us and the world less horrible.
In the wake of the heart-numbingly frequent mass shootings we’ve had to witness, and especially after the most recent one at First Baptist Church in Texas, there’s been a backlash against “thoughts and prayers.” What we need is action—posts, protests, legislation.
Amos complicates the debate. Solemn words without good action are insults to victims and God. Silence would be better. But Amos also mocks the thought that humans can ever ensure justice on their own—it’s ultimately God who restores justice.
To our ears, the kind of good God promises—rolling down like an inevitable force of nature but in a strange eternal way (‘everflowing stream’)— sounds like a pie in the sky baked out of B.S.—a perhaps bumpier version of the chill optimism the elites felt while zoning out with the Ancient Near East version of Hulu Plus.
But here’s what the prophets are trying to snap us into: When evil strikes, whether the mass killer, narcissistic predatory employer, or the hard-to-put-your-finger-on everyday variety, there’s a paradox to grab by the horns:
(1) There is an ultimate justice and goodness, toward which all things are heading in a way we can only see through faith-made eyes; our souls can truly “chill” rather than require everflowing distractions to ward off anxiety
(2) We need to get on this Chilling-Toward-The-Impossible-Yet-Inevitable-All-Good-So-We-Can-Bravely-Face-Tragedy soul train and trust for once that our small acts are integral to letting the righteousness river roll down.
The alternative is at best a mildly miserable snakebite of a life, watching tragedy happen at a distance. Until, well, you know…
Week 2 - October 21 & 22
And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
At Root and Branch we place a strong emphasis on crafting a community of deep hospitality. We proclaim our desire to welcome in people with a wide range of beliefs (different places on the Christian theological spectrum, including ‘confused,’ ‘unsure,’ or ‘none’) and also a wide range of identities (gender, sexuality, race, class, religious background or lack thereof). Also, if we were all still in high school, I sometimes think we would represent a coming-together that cuts across other ways of social sorting. Much like the last-day-of-school party at the end of the classic 1998 teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, where divisions between nerds, preps, jocks, arty weirdos, wannabe thugs, geeks, cheerleaders all fall away for one fateful night of communion and revelry. Truly a sublime vision of what Jesus called the “Kingdom of Heaven.” (And in our continued search for a gender neutral and more relatable translation, what I’ve been thinking of lately as the Direction of Heaven, which captures both a sense of a new way of ordering things—think a director of a play or film, or even of a non-profit or corporate board of directors—and also a sense of movement towards that new reality that we can be swept up into.)
But what happens once we’re welcomed into this glorious smorgasbord of unity-amidst-difference? What impels us to find joy and safety in our community but also to continue to take brave risks of welcoming other ‘others’ and challenging unwelcoming structures in ourselves and the broader culture?
What kind of community we turn out to be depends on the spiritual “core” of the relationships we make within it. Those relationships are the fibers that get woven together to make our common fabric. The biblical concept of covenant we’ve been exploring this month provides the model and spiritual fuel for these kinds of relationships. The covenant between God and Israel to “be there” with each other, and then the covenant between God and all of humanity revealed in the living, teaching, dying, and strange “re-being there” of Jesus Christ, is one of extending-toward and trust on both sides. Also, it’s one where each party takes the bold, vulnerable risk of expressing to the other when they feel hurt or abandoned, and in faith and hope calling back out, reaching back out, rather than following the path of retreat into shelled-in self-enclosure.
Questions to ponder:
1. Think for a minute about what kind of relationships you would want, you would need, to feel that people are “there” for you. What does “being there” look and feel like?
2. What gets in the way of you “being there” for others or of expressing when you need others to “be there” for you?
3. Imagine a community where those kinds of relationships abound, where they’re common and even expected.
4. What can we do, explicitly and in quiet ways, as a community to make that more of a reality? What can we do when we feel people aren’t “being there” for us? What can YOU do?
Week 1 - October 7 & 8
Contrary to what the “co-” in the word would have you believe (covenant comes from Latin “coming together”), all of the covenants in the Bible are lopsided in some way. Either they are unconditional, laying out what God will do for people and not demanding anything in return (God’s covenant with Noah, the promised “New Covenant” fulfilled in Jesus Christ), or they include expectations for people but are initiated, and their terms determined, by God.
This might seems to limit the concept’s applicability to our lives and relationships. But: did you decide who your parents would be? What your children would be like? Do your friendships have meetings when you come together to negotiate the terms of your expectations of one another? Unless you’ve had a “DTR” talk, but even then, who’s to say what the exact parameters of a particular romantic relationship should involve? Beyond broad outlines, what should people who have even made an explicit covenant in marriage, really “owe” to each other to make their marriage thrive?
To be human is to find yourself in all kinds of relationships, with varying degrees of say in the matter, and most of them have terms, demands, expectations that are not explicit. What if the first step to better relationships is uncovering the covenants that undergird them? Maybe then we can go about restoring the foundations.
1 Samuel 18
1 When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 2 Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. 4 Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Week 6 - August 26 & 27
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have authority over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Is not this the τέκτων (artisan, maker, craftsman), the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Selections from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeline L'Engle
But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.
The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.
...I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, "Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me." And the artist either says, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.
...As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child's creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss.
Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, "It's my own business."
Week 5 - August 12th & 13th
From Genesis 1&2:
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Recalibrate or reenergize?
Built into the nature of God’s creative power is sabbath, the day in which activity ceases. God rested we are told, and these days the prevalent understanding of this rest is something more akin to reenergizing. Recharge those depleted fuel cells and get back out there. In this way, rest is part of a pattern: 1234567, 1234567, 1234567, etc. 7 exists for the sake of 123456. There is something, dare we say, capitalistic about this interpretation. If we were capable, there would be no day of rest. It exists only so we can fire on all cylinders the other days. Is that why God creates such a day? Do we simply need a break from turning the wheel?
Recalibration is something different. It says that rest doesn’t exist for the sake of 1-6 but so that 1-6 become something different all together. They become possibility, freedom, creation. Recalibration is a creative venture. It makes things different. It makes things novel. It makes them new. A different mentality towards both creation and sabbath looks something more like this. We take a break not so that we can make more of the same. That is not creative. We take a break so that we can make something new. Which means that the function of taking a break is not simply passive, but contains something active as well. If God’s creativity was born of love and not mere efficiency, this is what we are called to ask: how can we rest in such a way that helps us continue creating instead of producing?
Week 4 - July 22nd & 23rd
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
139:1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
139:3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
139:5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
139:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
139:7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
139:9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
139:10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
139:11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
139:12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
139:24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
We conclude our month long close examination of GOD with a description of a God who knows us and is with us at all times. There is something definitely strange about the words of the Psalmist, creepy even, if cynical minds win out. But with courage, we might see in this beautiful prayer as something closer to what St. Augustine meant when he wrote that God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself” or in another translation, “closer to us than we are to ourselves” (Confessions).
We started off this series by thinking about a God of contradictions. Think about the story where God tells Abraham to kill Isaac. Such stories of old depict a God who is compassionate and cruel, violent and peaceful, just and arbitrary, steadfast and flexible. If we know ourselves decently well, we know such contradictions reside as readily within ourselves. The picture of God can rest a little too comfortably on top of a picture of human beings. So should we be thinking about whether or not God is just like us, maybe is us, or to the logical end of that thought, nothing more than a projection of ourselves?
Yet, according to Augustine’s insight, a God who knows us better than we know ourselves means that there is stuff about ourselves we have yet to uncover. That’s where we need to go. Maybe the big secret is that God is found in the uncharted territory that lies at the end of the prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” By searching within ourselves, we invite God to do the same, and there may we meet.
Week 3 - July 8th & 9th
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
1 John 4
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
One way of reading 1 John, with its famous phrase “God is love,” would be to say to ourselves, “Oh - whenever the Bible uses the word ‘God’ I can just substitute ‘love’—let’s evolve already and dispense with the old-timey superstitious ‘God’ stuff and focus on what’s tangible and really matters: loving other people.”
But what if what the text actually says, which is that yes God and love are so intimately related that you can’t talk about or encounter one without the other, is an attempt to acquaint us with a deeper level of love that without the God part, we risk missing entirely?
Loving God means loving what we cannot see. Seeing is also a metaphor for knowing, understanding, possessing. Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, have affirmed that God is the one who creates everything we can see and know. Who gave everything its being, and then beheld it in deep appreciation (“whoa, that is good” is not a pat on the back, but admiration at a creation that is now in some way free, released but still held and loved). It’s not just atheists who doubt God’s existence. Honest people of faith do too. But what if instead of fretting about whether God exists, we try to remember that both the creation story in Genesis and 1 John point us to a far deeper truth about God: God GIVES being and loves it. God, as love, as the one who gives, embraces and renders real things the world says aren’t: love in spite of inevitable disappointment and loss, a motivating hope for a world of peace and safety even when the evidence points the other way.
If you think love is tangible, provable, controllable, you’re in for some surprises.
God’s love is already given. That this is so is, like God, not visible. Only in trusting, in opening ourselves fully into the distance where we can’t see God, which is the same place where fear of the unknown and uncontrollable lurks, can we be facing the direction where God’s love can hit us like a soft semi truck of grace. Only when our eyes grow accustomed to looking into this certainty-defying distance, when we begin to desire with more and more of our hearts the long-distance but life-giving relationship with the one who gives life even when the world deals death, can we have the courage (strength of heart) to love other people, who, though we can perceive some of who they are with our senses, always contain more than meets the eye, and who we cease to love as soon as we try to pin down or control.
week 2 - June 24th & 25th
Matthew 10:24-39 (NRSV)
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Raise the Revelation by Rev. Neil Ellingson
Why are we “open minded” church folk so allergic to broadcasting how important church, faith, spirituality is in our lives? Many of us don’t think twice about posting or tweeting our armchair takes on politics, but wouldn’t dream of even hinting that someone else might benefit from being part of a spiritual community (let alone one of a particular tradition that tells stories about a God of a particular character).
This hesitancy is perhaps healthily related to some of the things we value most: independent thinking, suspicion of convention, curiosity about perspectives other than our own, and critical questioning of everything, even our own beliefs. These are indeed good things.
But before we start patting ourselves on the back for being such respectful, reflective citizens of the world, we need to examine the less bright sides of these values when they run wild or are not joined with other ones. We should explore the possibility that there might be more to our reluctance to talk about spiritual matters with people who may not share our point of view, whether atheists or conservative evangelicals, than a benevolent respect for difference.
How much confidence would it take to admit to ourselves that we lack confidence? Confidence that even something we’ve made a central part of our weeks is really worthy of that kind of devotion? Confidence that glimpses of truth, meaning, connection we’ve experienced are really true, meaningful, potentially helpful to others?
What if courage to proclaim revelation we’ve met, the very thing Jesus is talking about in this passage, is not so different from the courage to claim our own experience? To confidently claim our own stories, our own encounters with all that is outside us (family, friends, trauma, privilege and deprivation, books, culture, language, and God who can speak through all things) that shapes what we end up calling our inmost self?
Revelation has been cast as something coming from outside or beyond the realm of nature and reason, but if we acknowledge that what we call the self, its perceptions, thoughts, and the stories it tells, already contain what’s “beyond” and “outside,” maybe we need not look so far away. Stories about Jesus are printed on tree pulp and passed on by people who eat and pee.
Divine, fully revealed truth has something to do with what is as close and mundane as the number of hairs we have on our heads. Having and sharing what we can know of God in Jesus Christ with others is somehow linked with the ultimate source of every last thing wanting to know who we are. Revelation of God is what challenges conventional values that name welcoming the poor and disabled the work of the devil. Revelation can help us see beyond the ways of being our families taught us.
What’s that? You’ve only got a faint, whispered sense of ultimate, life-directing truth? You think you’ve had a glimpse of God’s backside, but you’re not sure it was really God? You have a desire for spiritual experiences but you’re not sure you can claim to have had them? Shout out your dim uncertainty! Expose your shaky faint memories and slow-burning desires to the light of day! Stop fretting that your grasp on the truth might be incomplete—I promise you it is. Trust for once that in revealing your all-too-human grip on the divine you’ll be joining a courageous parade of revelation that will leave nothing, no one, closed off, kept in, hidden away.
week 1 - July 10th & 11th
8:1 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
8:2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
8:3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
8:4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
8:5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
8:6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
8:7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8:8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
8:9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
From The Meaning of Revelation by H. Richard Niebuhr:
Revelation means the moment in our history through which we know ourselves to be known from beginning to end, in which we are apprehended by the knower; it means the self-disclosing of that eternal knower. Revelation means the moment in which we are surprised by the knowledge of someone there in the darkness and the void of human life; it means the self-disclosure of light in our darkness. Revelation is the moment in which we find our judging selves to be judged not by ourselves or our neighbors but by one who knows the final secrets of the heart. Revelation means that we find ourselves to be valued rather than valuing…
Revelation means that in our common history the fate which lowers over us as persons in our communities reveals itself to be a person in community with us. What this means cannot be expressed in the impersonal ways of creeds or other propositions but only in responsive acts of a personal character. We acknowledge revelation by no third person proposition, such as that there is a God, but only in the direct confession of the heart, “Thou art my God.”
From this point forward we must listen for the remembered voice in all the sounds that assail our ears, and look for the remembered activity in all the actions of the world upon us. The God who reveals [Godself] in Jesus Christ is now trusted and known as the contemporary God, revealing [Godself] in every event...