Friday, September 27, 2013

God is like...

I received this prompt for prayer writing in my email today from Rachel Hackenberg at

A frequent scriptural image used to identify God's faithfulness is rock. "For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?" (Psalm 18:31) I thought that I might write a prayer today using new images for God's faithfulness . . . but to my surprise, I'm stumped! What is more constant than a rock?! My cell phone, which is constantly by my side? It will glitch and die just before its two-year contract expires. The sun, rising every morning? Its lifespan is only as long as the day. The river, with its endless run toward the ocean? Its paths are ever-shifting and eroding, and its ecosystem varies depending upon pollution, salinity, droughts & floods.
So I pose the challenge to you for your creativity in prayer: what image of faithfulness might you use to describe God?

 I wrote this prayer, which doesn't exactly capture the idea of faithfulness, but does consider some different similes for God (cross-posted at

“For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?” (Psalm 18:31)

God, you are like water- present in all living things, surrounding us at birth, above us, below us, besides, within.

Holy Parent, you are like the scent of cinnamon and vanilla- comforting, pervasive, overwhelming, mouth-watering, magnetic.

Spirit of Hope, you are like calculus- mysterious, enigmatic, amazing when understood, an explanation for how things work, essential, but just beyond my grasp.

Jesus, you are my brother- teaching, teasing, wrestling, hide-and-seek, companion of long nights, fellow traveler, of the same stuff as me and yet even more. Even when I don’t speak to you, I cannot undo that I am your family.


What are your images for God and for God's faithfulness? 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Brother's Not Heavy. Jesus Said So.

I’ve been thinking about the cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) last week. Remember the House voted 217 to 210 to separate SNAP from the farm bill. The legislation that passed will significantly reduce SNAP funding in the next four years.

Good! Too many people abuse that program. Too many people sit around- expecting handouts.

Do you really think that? Do you truly believe the majority of food stamp (SNAP) recipients are just sitting around, doing nothing, and waiting for the mail?

Yes, I do. I’ve been to the grocery store on the day the benefits come out. It’s crazy.

Did you think it might be because people didn’t have the funds to go shopping prior to that day? Maybe their spare cash went to rent or a car payment.

Or to cable or to pay for an iPhone.

What would satisfy you in this scenario? There are genuinely people who cannot make ends meet. Do you care at all about that?

Let them get a second job.

Who will watch their kids during that time?

Maybe they should have thought about that before they had kids.

You know, the gospel reading for this Sunday is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. You know the one where the rich man feasts every day in expensive clothes and there’s a starving, sick man outside his doorstep whom the rich man ignores. Maybe he doesn’t even ignore Lazarus. Maybe he truly doesn’t see him.
Anyway, Lazarus dies and the angels carry him to be with Abraham. The rich man dies and goes to a place of torment. When he asks Abraham to send Lazarus with water, Abraham informs the rich man that the chasm between them could not be breeched.
Furthermore, Lazarus can’t go to warn the man’s brothers what happens if they are not good stewards of the gifts with which they have been endowed. They already have Moses and the prophets to do that.

What does this have to with SNAP? Or are you trying to change the subject because you were losing?

No, we always think about how Lazarus would have loved the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We make a big deal about how little the rich man could have done and how much it would have helped them both. But, in truth, SNAP is just table scraps, it’s nothing but crumbs. Congress could have passed that legislation and it would have been the merest noblesse oblige, but they couldn’t be bothered to do even that.

You always want to give other people’s money away.

No. I want to distribute God’s gifts. We can’t just throw out scraps or cast-off clothing or donate an old car and consider our duty done. There’s no justice in that.

Where’s the justice in feeding someone who doesn’t work?

Fine. There are people who cheat. There are all cheaters at all levels of society, but our almost single-minded focus on those in the lower economic bracket is gross and misguided. If you want people to NOT use SNAP and other assistance programs, we have to start sooner. We have to work on schools and neighborhoods and our justice system. We have to actually care enough about our neighbors to want to see them flourish and to help them do it.


Would you show up at a barn raising and throw a sack of nails across the floor and call it good?

No. I wouldn’t go to a barn raising at all. I don’t care about someone else’s barn.

And why would you? Their barn is their problem. They need to get it up by themselves. Fill it by themselves. And then feed themselves from it. Just like you do.


Where do you get your seeds?

From the farm supply.

That’s cheating. Make them yourself.


NO! You can’t have help. You have to make the seeds yourself. And it’s going to be a bitch building your own tractor. Let me know how you’re going to figure out smelting your own iron and making the rubber for the engine gaskets.

It’s not a subtle point you’re making.

It must be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the same fight all the time. No one is self-made. There is a fundamental human community that must be recognized so that life for EVERYONE can improve. Lazarus and the rich man must learn to see one another, accept help from one another, and truly desire the wellbeing of one another.

But doesn’t Jesus say, “There will always be poor among you.” If I help the poor, aren’t I proving Jesus wrong? You wouldn’t want that.

Jesus isn’t proscribing a permanent situation. He’s speaking about a specific instance wherein his body could be honored- when people could actually honor the body of God. (Mark 14:7) He goes on to mention you can help the poor ANYTIME, but you shouldn’t fail to do so- under the guise of “giving to God”.

You just have all the answers, don’t you.

No, I don’t. But I do believe God expects us to help our neighbors. And I believe that God grieves when we miss clear opportunities to lift other people up into freedom and hope. Cutting SNAP is exactly the kind of thing that causes pain and is the evidence of a society with misplaced priorities.

Do you want people to be on assistance forever?

No. I dare to dream of something bigger- where people have enough to eat and aren’t afraid of getting sick and are able to save and have dreams for themselves. I dream of the possibility of joy. Not happiness, but joy. True gospel joy that flourishes in security and trust. Not flat happiness that is fleeting and based on momentary stability that can be snatched away. We must all want that enough for our neighbors and want it more than we want money or goods or services.

What if I don’t?

Then maybe you need to revisit Luke 16. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Horrible Inclusion of Grace (Sermon, 9/22/13)

The audio for Sunday's sermon. No transcript currently available.

Notes on Jacob

(These notes were my "back-up" reflection for Sunday 9/22/13. God delivered a much more intense word in reality. The audio is in this post.)

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

            For me, the stories of Genesis begin to feel “real” when Jacob appears on the scene. I understand Abraham as the “Father-of-many” and father of our faith. I sympathize with Isaac- in the binding, in the grief of the death of his parents, etc. However, Jacob- wrestling within the womb, grasping all he can, wanting more than he can define clearly, and prepared to do anything to get it- Jacob is a truly fleshed-out character, a human being, a person who makes the Scriptures pop and sing. After all, why would this ancestor be included, with his cheating and tricky ways, except that through him, we understand (like many generations before us) that God is no respecter of persons.

            Jacob comes out of the womb clinging to Esau’s heel and spends the rest of his childhood trying to overtake him. An oracle is revealed to his mother, Rebekah, there were two nations in her womb and the younger would overtake the older. Whether this provokes her later actions or gives her an excuse for what she does, Rebekah doesn’t hold back from helping Jacob grab onto what’s not his.

            Of course, Esau doesn’t help. He is very willing to give into his human desires, too. A birthright, his right to inherit all his father’s material property, for a lentil stew- is this the decision of a model older sibling? Of course, we grieve for Esau when he loses out on Isaac’s blessing. This is not a mere “bless you, my child”- but a powerful blessing that conveys with it the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham that will now be passed to Jacob. God’s words brought this into being and Isaac’s words pass it to Jacob. He cannot withdraw these words once spoken.

            Jacob has to flee so that Esau will not kill him. He has both the birthright (his father’s property) and the blessing of an elder son, but he is afraid and alone. He sleeps on a rock- probably terrified for his life for the first time ever. In his exhaustion, he has a vision of heaven and God speaks to him.

            Jacob is granted the one thing he cannot grab for himself- God’s blessing. God shows him a glimpse of heaven and speaks to Jacob of what is to come. Jacob will own the land on which he currently sleeps. He will have many children. God’s own legacy will spread out through Jacob.

            And it does. It is neither Abraham nor Isaac who receive the name “Israel”. It is not Sarah or Rebekah who give birth to the man who will save the Hebrew people from starvation- it is one of the wives of Jacob. The people of Israel are named through Jacob. The 12 tribes of the nation come through Jacob. Much of the identity of what it meant to be an Israelite comes through Jacob- a man who wrestled that blessing from God.

            The story of Jacob tells us that God is in places we do not expect, as Jacob found out when he slept in the desert. More importantly, God is present in people we do not expect and God is using them in ways we do not expect. Additionally, God’s blessing is not something we can grasp for ourselves. No one is keeping it from us and we are not earning it through good behavior. It is God’s to give freely and God does so, through the power of the Living Word.


Sacrifice (Sermon 9/15/13)

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14


            The life of faith is one of sacrifice. That’s the truth of it. Sacrifice on the part of God and sacrifice on the part of those who trust God, who want to trust God, who work to trust God.


            Frankly, in a religious system that requires those who believe to tell others- sacrifice is among the LEAST appealing words. No one sings, “I love to tell the story. It is fierce and gory/ To tell the old, old story/ of Abr’m and his son.” We are squeamish at the songs that are about blood, about sacrifice, about giving up all our things, about the less- than- stellar human rights record of the church and its equally dull historical response to evil.


            It is also difficult to realize that even reading Scripture requires sacrifice. There are things that cannot all be true when we read Scripture as a whole. We all generally have a habit of considering certain stories more relevant than others. In so doing, we sacrifice what we don’t want to think about or what seems unimportant to what we prefer or seems more significant to us.

            Which brings us to the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. This is a terrible story, a horrific story, and, in general, the number one story cited by atheists as a proof for the rejection of God. What kind of God would do this?

            And I’m confronted with a dilemma- do I defend God (is God’s reputation mine to defend)? Do I laud Abraham? Do I give Isaac or Sarah a voice that’s otherwise not recorded in the scripture? And I have a very small amount of time, so I will be sacrificing many things I’d like to say.
            This story requires sacrifice from us. We can choose to sacrifice from among many things, but there are three main choices that we will lay upon the altar and prepare to offer up and away from us. We must either sacrifice the idea that this story is a historical fact or we must sacrifice the idea of a God who does not test through trauma or we sacrifice the idea of God’s perfect foreknowledge, that God knows what we will do before we do it.            

            The first sacrifice that we may make is the idea that all Scripture is a historical fact. The stories of Genesis and early Exodus, in particular, were first written down when the people of Israel were in exile. Some had been told for generations and generations, but others were organized during exile to give strength to the people. A particular story may not have actually occurred, but still contained an important truth that supported the life of the people who are doing the telling.

            Israel was likely alone among its neighboring nations in not practicing child sacrifice. Other groups of people may also specifically have had a practice of sacrificing the first fruits of all things- plants, animals, and children. Israel needed story, an explanation, for the way they did things- sparing the firstborn children, refusing to kill their infants. The story of the binding of Isaac reveals a way that could have happened- God set up a situation to make it clear to Abraham that child sacrifice was NOT the things were to be done.


If this story is told during the exile- in Babylon or elsewhere- the people of Israel need to make sense of what’s happening to them and where God is in it. They perceive themselves to be the beloved of God, the firstborn of God’s plan, the vessels of God’s promises. They may be on the sacrificial altar of exile, but God will not let them be destroyed. Provisions will be made. Israel will not perish and the consolation story, the reminder tale, the encouraging word is a story going as far back as Abraham. God tested, but did not allow the beloved and longed- for son of Father-of-Many (which is what Abraham means) to die in the test.

If either of these constructions makes more sense to us than the idea that God would test Abraham in this way. Or that the man who argued on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah wouldn’t speak up for his son. If either of these reasons for the story is more acceptable, we have sacrificed the idea of historical fact (for this specific scripture reading) for a transmission of cultural truth.

Several years ago, I was meeting with some of the parents of children who attend our preschool (the kids do, not the parents). We met because a preschool family- two parents and two little girls- had died in a small plane crash. I met with people to talk about their own grief and to help them know how to discuss this with their children. We had a long talk about where God might be in such a tragedy and what we could know and what we didn’t know. At the end of a good conversation, just before we prayed, one woman said, “I don’t know. I believe God does these things sometimes to test our faith.”

I just looked at her, thinking, “If God feels the need to kill a whole family just to test our faith, then I’m out. I’m done. No more.” What I said was, “Hmm… well, let’s pray.” Maybe we look at this story and we think, “This is not the word of the Lord for me. I can’t believe in a God who tests through trauma. I have come to trust that God may stretch me and push me and even hit me upside the head sometimes. However, a God that kills children, a God that would even suggest it, a God that creates and uses horrible and traumatic situations to bolster faith, which is supposed to be a gift- I can’t believe in that God. I won’t.”

Perhaps we read this story and we have to either sacrifice the idea of a God who wouldn’t test through trauma (meaning God did and God does). Or we trust that God tempers our faith, but the wretched things that happen in life are not a result of God’s desire to see us be more faithful. They are the result of our choice (sometimes), the choices of others (sometimes), and the forces that oppose God. If God tests through trauma, then God wants Syrian civilians to die. God expects great faith to come from 8 and 9 year-old girls who are given in marriage to 40-year-old men in Yemen. God is building enormous trust through the inequality and inhumanity that is our criminal justice system.

If we want to accept that this story is factual and significant to Scripture as a real event, we must accept that God made Abraham righteous, but also tested the limits of that righteousness. That if God will test through trauma one time, God would, could, and does do it again. Is that a sacrifice you’re willing to make, a belief you’re willing to accept? Because holding that to be true will prove to sacrifice a certain peace of mind about God’s will in which we’ve usually found peace.

The last, and hardest, sacrifice we might make with this story is the notion that divine foreknowledge is perfect. Maybe God knows the arc of how things will work out, but does not always know how we will respond. God made a series of very serious covenants with Abraham- promises that involved generations, land, and blessings. God didn’t make these promises to just anyone and maybe it was time be sure the choice was a good one. Before Isaac gets to the age of reproducing, before the generations really get rolling, before Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister again (as he did twice before), God needs to be sure that Abraham is truly faithful, is trusting, and is worthy of the work God intends to do through him. And God tests because God does not know for sure.

How does that sit with you- the idea that God does not know what we will do before we do it? This is the ultimate definition of free will- that we are faced with a myriad of choices and responses to God’s actions (God always moves first). When human actions occur, God responds- using the Spirit to bring about good. If God already knows what we will do, then why would God be involved in the world at all now? God can retreat, sit on God’s lounge chair, and relax until whatever time it is that Jesus will return. If we sacrifice the idea that God has perfect foreknowledge, we are received, instead, into a relationship with an active and responsive God.

I haven’t explained the story of the binding of Isaac. I haven’t said a firm statement about why it’s there or what it means. I can’t. We come to this story and it does require sacrifice of us. We must either embrace it as a story with truth, but not facts. Or we must believe in a God who tests through trauma, among other things. Or we have to let go of the idea that God has predestined and knows every action. 

This story requires a sacrifice, but so does all faithful living. We must sacrifice the idea that we can save ourselves, that we are in control, that our goodness brings redemption, that sanctification (becoming more holy) happens through our willpower. We must sacrifice the idea that we can fully know and, in the ashes of that surrender, the peace that passes our understand can and does bloom.

We have welcomed Jax into a life that is mysterious, frustrating, and powerfully hopeful. And it’s full of sacrifices, starting with God’s own willingness to create, to be involved, to walk among us, and to pour out the Spirit in blessing and guidance.


            The life of faithfulness is one of sacrifice. That’s the truth of it. Sacrifice on the part of God and sacrifice on the part of those who trust God, who want to trust God, who work to trust God.