Welcome Table Readings
Week 7 - May 12 & 13, 2018
Since we've been for the most part trying to connect Welcome Table readings and discussion questions to the previous week's sermon topics, I tried to find something that might relate to what I said last week about ambivalence and my announcement that I will be moving with my family to Minnesota in July. All I could come up with were beautifully ambivalent poems that are difficult to quickly digest by John Donne. (Here's one of my favorites if you're interested some time). Instead, I stumbled on a Youtube video of my favorite living writer, Marilynne Robinson, talking with theologian/former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last month at the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference. A few words she said were a sermon I needed to hear, and I wanted to share them in case anyone else might also. - Neil
If you read the science that pertains to these things you find out that you are infinitely complex. The complexity of any human being is so great as to guarantee that it is a unique human being.
God made one of you. And it’s up to you to find out what that creation is. What did he make? Who are you? What are you capable of?
One of the things that I like considering is that God knows our dreams. We’re asleep, we probably don’t remember them. But God knows them, right?
There’s a beauty in the stream of human thought that you collaborate in. And your culture collaborates in, and many other things. But it’s a singular beauty that you, if you wrote the best poetry in the world, could not sufficiently communicate to anyone else. It’s just between you and God. That’s a splendid privilege. If you think about it in the context of the universe it is a literally mind-boggling privilege.
So I think that a great deal of what people need to do is enjoy themselves. Enjoy being themselves. Enjoy finding out what capacities they have. What they love to look at. What they love to taste. The whole thing of being uniquely yourself and brilliantly equipped to be yourself, not in a narrow individualist sense but in the sense: God knows…I know. I know…God knows. That’s the ultimate mystical experience. It requires nothing but that you be respectfully attentive to yourself.
1. How good are you at enjoying yourself / enjoying being yourself?
2. Can you think of a time, even if you have to dig deep into the vault, when you really did?
3. Robinson is suggesting that to fail to enjoy being yourself is in a sense to insult your creator. Do you agree? What would sin in this account of things be?
Week 6 - April 21 & 22, 2018
Brené Brown on Blame and Accountability:
Blame gives us a semblance of control. Research shows that blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability by definition is a vulnerable process. It means me calling you and saying, “My feelings were really hurt about this,” and talking, not blaming. Blaming is simply a way that we discharge anger. People who blame a lot seldom have the tenacity and grit to actually hold people accountable. And blaming’s very corrosive in relationships, and it’s one of the reasons we miss our opportunities for empathy.
Jesus talking in Matthew 7:
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
1. Think of a time you wanted to hold someone accountable but didn’t do it. What were the reasons? How did you justify not doing so? What did you do instead? Share the situation and your answers if you are comfortable.
2. Consider both individual accountability (holding yourself accountable) and communal accountability (a reciprocal accountability between two or more parties). Are they very different or similar? What do we learn about accountability from this comparison?
3. Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy can be taken to mean that we can’t hold others accountable unless we have our own shit together. But judgement and accountability are not the same. What are the differences? How might we be a community of accountability while also being a community of people who don’t have all their shit together?
Week 5 - April 7 & 8, 2018
From Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by feminist theologian [and ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)], Rita Nakashima Brock:
In ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,’ Audre Lorde describes the erotic as the ability to feel our deepest passions in all aspects of our lives as the root of our lives’ deepest meanings. The life force behind the creative, empowering energy of our lives is the erotic. The erotic bridges the passions of our lives by a sensual span of physical, emotional, psychic, mental, and spiritual elements.
The erotic cannot be felt secondhand; it can only be felt through our own unique presence and the presence of others to us. The erotic underlies all levels of experience, openly and fearlessly, with intense joy. As we feel deeply the complex, many dimensions of ourselves, we begin to want the joy that we know emerges through the erotic. We begin to examine our lives for the excellence and fulfillment we glimpse in erotic power. We are empowered to refuse the convenient, shoddy, conventional, and safe. The erotic compels us to be hungry for justice at our very depths because we are response-able. We are able to reject what makes us numb to the suffering and self-hate of others. Acts against oppression become essential to ourselves, empowered from our energized centers. Through the erotic as power we become less willing to accept powerlessness, despair, depression, and self-denial. The erotic is what binds and gives life and hope. It is the energy of all relationship and it connects us to our embodied selves. The empathetic sharing of any pursuit with another person helps us understand what is not shared. Hence differences become less threatening as we are empowered to affirm all persons in our lives, and to see through the faint, fearful, broken heart of patriarchy.
The remembrance of Jesus’ death is a call to decision and action….The church claimed the defeat of death by placing salvation in spiritualized form and went on to reproduce unilateral forms of power in its own systems and theology, blaspheming erotic power. The death of Jesus…provides us with evidence that our reliance on unilateral powers will cause us to betray our own original grace and perpetuate suffering and destruction. No one heroic or divine deed will defeat oppressive powers and death-delivering systems. We cannot rely on one past event to save our future. No almighty power will deliver us from evil. With each minute we wait for such rescue, more die.
The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own brokenheartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it. In thinking that a single person, a savior, or even one group can save us, we mistake the crest of a wave for the vast sea churning beneath it.
Jesus is like the whitecap on a wave. The whitecap is momentarily set off from the swell that is pushing it up, making us notice it. But the visibility of the whitecap, which draws our attention, rests on the enormous pushing power of the sea—of its power to push with life-giving labor, to buoy up all lives, and to unite diverse shores with its restless energy. That sea becomes monstrous and chaotically destructive when we try to control it, and its life-giving power is denied. Jesus’ power lies with the great swells of the ocean without which the white foam is not brought to visibility. To understand the fullness of erotic power we must look to the ocean which is the whole and compassionate being, including ourselves.
1. When we hear the word “erotic” we think “sex.” Its use in this text is much broader. How is it defined and to what extent does this resonate with you?
2. Why, according to Nakashima Brock, does a certain Christian interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus that she claims focuses too narrowly on an individual person and event become linked with oppressive forms of power?
3. Can you think of an experience, or area of your life, where drawing on erotic power has been life-giving? Or where it could be so? How might we draw more from the power of the sacred wave whose white cap is Jesus in our daily lives and relationships?
Week 4 - March 24 & 25, 2018
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
Reading of The Last Supper by Rilke:
They are assembled, astonished and disturbed
round him, who like a sage resolved his fate,
and now leaves those to whom he most belonged,
leaving and passing by them like a stranger.
The loneliness of old comes over him
which helped mature him for his deepest acts;
now will he once again walk through the olive grove,
and those who love him still will flee before his sight.
To this last supper he has summoned them,
and (like a shot that scatters birds from trees)
their hands draw back from reaching for the loaves
upon his word: they fly across to him;
They flutter, frightened, round the supper table
searching for an escape. But he is present
everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour.
1. Why do you think that Peter, after resisting Jesus’ initial attempt to wash his feet, then also demands that Jesus wash his hands and head as well?
2. Rilke’s poem doesn’t describe a chill dinner party but one where the guests and the host are similarly in various states of distress. Take some time to unpack why. What words, phrases, images jump out at you from the poem?
3. As Jesus spends his last meal with his friends, he loves them though he knows of their shortcomings and Judas’ iminant betrayal. Many of us have a table we sit at, surrounded by imperfect people (or institutions, causes, hopes) we nevertheless feel called to serve and/or love deeply. Who comes to mind? Who sits at the table with you?
Week 3 - March 10 & 11, 2018
Early Church Fathers, in large part responsible for what became orthodox Christian teaching, were practically unanimous in their belief in theosis, (or deification, or diviniziation). The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to propose this as the chief purpose of human life, and the Catholic Church also affirms it. Most Protestants have tended not to emphasize divinization or to deny that it is a valid interpretation of scripture, though some recent scholarship on Luther has challenged this.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 130–202):
“[God has] become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." (1)
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (c. 296–373):
"The Word was made flesh in order that we might be made gods. ... Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” (2)
Augustine of Hippo (354-430):
“But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. 'For he has given them power to become the sons of God' [referring to John 1:12]. If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” (3)
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963):
The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were "gods" and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. (4)
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. (5)
Catherine Mowry Lacugna (1952-1997):
The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life . . .Because of God’s outreach to the creature, God is said to be essentially relational, ecstatic, fecund, alive as passionate love. Divine life is therefore also our life. The heart of the Christian life is to be united with the God of Jesus Christ by means of communion with one another.
Kanye West (1977—):
I am a God
Even though I'm a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God
So y'all better quit playing with God
1. Imagine being told that the purpose of your life is to become a god. What is your reaction - does it rub you the wrong way or is there something attractive about this way of putting things?
2. What would the god version of you be like?
3. What would you do if you were a god?
(1) Adversus haereses, book 5, preface
(2) Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1.39, 3.34
(3) Augustine, On the Psalms, 50.2
(4) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 174—75
(5) C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 18
Week 2 - February 24 & 25, 2018
Courageous Nonviolence by Richard Rohr
Love is the strongest force the world possesses and yet it is the humblest imaginable. —Mahatma Gandhi
Living a nonviolent life is no easy task; it is not simply pacifism. It requires courageous love, drawn from the very source of our being. As Mark Kurlansky explains, “Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous. When Jesus said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence.”
Thomas Merton writes, “Non-violence implies a kind of bravery far different from violence.”  Our dualistic minds see evil as black and white and that the only solution is to eliminate evil. Nonviolence, on the other hand, comes from an awareness that I am also the enemy and my response is part of the whole moral equation. I cannot destroy the other without destroying myself. I must embrace my enemy just as much as I must welcome my own shadow. Both acts take real and lasting courage.
To create peaceful change, we must begin by remembering who we are in God. Gandhi believed the core of our being is union with God. From this awareness, nonviolence must flow naturally and consistently:
Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being. . . . If love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces. . . . Belief in non-violence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love. . . . If one does not practice non-violence in one’s personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken.
Regardless of what name we call the divine, Gandhi believed that experiencing God’s loving presence within is central to nonviolence. This was his motivation and sustenance as he fasted for peace, as he embraced the untouchables (whom he called “Children of God”), as he advocated against nuclear weapons. Gandhi writes: “We have one thousand names to denote God, and if I did not feel the presence of God within me, I see so much of misery and disappointment every day that I would be a raving maniac.” Practicing loving presence must become our entire way of life, or it seldom works as an occasional tactic.
1.A. Close your eyes.
1.B. Take a minute to imagine a non-violent world. If images of violence in the news spring to mind, try to put those aside for a moment. Focus instead on what a non-violent world might look like in your own life, what you experience every day, in your relationships. What is different in that world? Who is different in that world?
1.C. Open your eyes, come back together. Share your experience.
2. Gandhi said: Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart. Rohr ends with: Practicing loving presence must become our entire way of life, or it seldom works as an occasional tactic. In other words, changing the world through love is a constant discipline. What are some disciplines and practices we might use to change our actions and perhaps more importantly, our reactions?
3. If love demands courage and bravery, it means that when we do not love, we are afraid. What are ways that we can be courageous for one another? What are ways that we can help each other be brave?
Week 1 - February 10 & 11, 2018
WILD GEESE by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
1. Why does the poet associate being good with walking through the desert on one’s knees?
2. Can you think of time in your life, or an aspect of your life now, in which you thought you had to be good ( or its cousins perfect / successful / smart / right / “together” ?
3. What does letting the “soft animal of your body love what it loves” mean? How could that be related to the world “announcing your place in the family of things” ? What is it hard for you to let yourself love?
Week 5 - December 9 & 10, 2017
Four Things Advent Asks Of Us
“And then they’ll see the Son of Man enter in grand style, his Arrival filling the sky—no one will miss it! He’ll dispatch the angels…
“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father… Stay awake… Keep watch.” (Mark 13)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1)
When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
She was shaken by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus…The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”…
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child danced in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb danced for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit dances for joy in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
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 powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Keep Awake: In the Bible, and in life, God seems to appear not on our terms, but in ways we cannot fully expect or know in advance. Sometimes the best we can do is wait attentively. What are you watching / waiting expectantly for?
Prepare: Taking up the mantle of the prophets before him, John the Baptist’s message to the people of his day, and to us, is to “Prepare!” And that is what we do during Advent – we are preparing ourselves, our families, our communities, for the birth of love into this world. What are you preparing for?
Do Not Be Afraid / My Soul Magnifies the Lord:
If we accept the angel’s invitation to “not be afraid” – this can put us in a posture to be more receptive to the gifts of joy, love, and connection. Mary’s response is “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit dances for joy in God my Savior.” This is not the response of someone trapped in fear. What do you need to stop fearing? What could you be dancing about?
Week 4 - November 26, 2017
By W. S. Merwin
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
Thank You Jesus
Teri Ellen Cross Davis
When the blue and red sirens pass you,
when the school calls because your child
beat the exam and not a classmate,
when the smart phone drops but does not crack,
the rush escaping your mouth betrays your upbringing:
thank you Jesus—a balm over the wound.
When the mammogram finds only density,
when the playground tumble results
in a bruise, not a broken bone,
like steam from a hot tea kettle
thank you Jesus—and the pent-up fear
vents upward, out. Maybe it’s a hand
over breast, supplication learned deeper
than flesh as if one could shush the soul,
the fluttering heartbeat with three words.
Maybe it’s not so dire—an almost trip on the sidewalk,
the accumulated sales total showing savings upon savings,
maybe it’s as small as an empty seat on the Metro
or maybe thank you Jesus—becomes the refrain
every time your husband pulls into the driveway,
alive and whole, and no one has mistaken him
for all the black, scary things. You mutter it,
helpless to stop yourself from the invocation
of a grandmother who gave you your first bible,
you say it because your mother, even knowing
your doubt as a vested commodity, still urges prayer.
You learned early to cast the net—thank you Jesus
and it’s a sweet needle that gathers the fraying thread,
hemming security in steady stitches. From birth
you’ve heard this language; as an adult
you’ve seen religion used nakedly as ambition yet
this sacrifice of praise, still slips past your lips,
this lyrical martyr of your dying faith.
Psalm 138 (NRSV)
Thanksgiving and Praise
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.[b]
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Week 3 - November 11 & 12, 2017
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.
Reflection by Neil Ellingson:
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, 2017
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?
Reflection by Neil Ellingson:
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, 2017
Reflection by Neil Ellingson:
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, 2017
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, 2017
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.
Reflection by Tim Kim:
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, 2017
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.
Reflection by Tim Kim:
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, 2017
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.
Reflection by Neil Ellingson:
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, 2017
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, 2017
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...