Tribulation and Treasure

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

–2 Corinthians 4:6-11

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Last Saturday, I sculpted with clay for the first time.

[Well, that’s not entirely true. I vaguely remember an elementary school art project involving some muddy red clay and a kiln. I painted my poorly sculpted cross black and gold, and my mom hung it up on the wall. It stayed there in my parents’ bedroom for years, until as a surly teenager I asked her why she kept it. She said she kept it because I made it. No longer surly, I told her she could get rid of it. She did, and I didn’t mind one bit.]

I was at a mandatory school “retreat” held at school, an irony that didn’t escape me. Saturday morning is the one time each week where I have nothing scheduled. I usually spend the majority of that short time with no responsibility unconscious, so the fact that I had to be at school on a Saturday morning earlier than I usually arrive there for class had me acting like a surly teenager again.

The retreat involved art and prayer. I’m not particularly creative; art frustrates me because I can dream up incredible concepts that my inept hands can never bring into existence. I expected this frustration to be present.

It was. We tried a few different media, and ended our time with an hour or so spent working with clay.

I was quickly reminded why I haven’t sculpted since I was a child. If you haven’t ever tried it, working with clay is extraordinarily challenging. See, clay is stubborn and cold and not very pliable. It gets everywhere, and it requires the perfect amount of water to keep it moist but not wet.

As I tried and failed to execute several ideas for this mound of earth, my hands, unused to that much strain, began to ache. Just as I was ready to give up, the leader of the retreat began to read:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. -–Jeremiah 18:1-6

Oh.

Oh. I began to see. This exercise wasn’t about art. It wasn’t even really about prayer.

The leader had given us the clay so that we could be reminded how difficult it is to mold and shape something that resists being molded or shaped. Wet, cold clay was put into our hands to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We were given a piece of the earth to remind us that with patience and a firm hand it can be made into something beautiful. We were told we were potters so that we could step into God’s shoes and walk around in them for a little while.

What a poor God I would make.

And what poor clay I must be. So cold and resistant, refusing to be moved this way or that.

Although my spiritual exploration was by far the most valuable result of my time spent sculpting, I ended up with a “sculpture” of an eye. Rough and flawed, it was the best I could do.

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Part of me is proud. I took a lump of clay and made it into something distinguishable. It really couldn’t be mistaken for anything else, and despite its imperfections, it has grown on me.

The other part of me is tempted just to take it outside and shatter it on the ground. It is so fragile and useless. It took so much work, and it isn’t that great.

This, I think, it how it is to have hope.

Part of having hope is taking something seemingly hopeless and forcing it into the shape of hope. Imperfect though it may be, it becomes a treasure.

The other part of having hope, though, is wishing it was gone. Hope is painful, and dangerous. Hope creates ample opportunity for heartbreak. Hope takes a long time to take root, and it has no tangible value. Hope seems delicate and impractical, like a jar of clay.

The most common spiritual complaint I hear these days actually regards a lack of hope. There is just too much happening in the world that seems contrary to what is good and right. This sort of gloom and doom has all but taken over our culture. Somehow it has also permeated the Church. Even amongst the people of God, hope seems to have no place to call home.

I admit to falling prey to hopelessness, too.

Here’s the thing about hope. Hope doesn’t disregard current circumstances. Hope doesn’t pretend like everything will be okay, even when nothing seems to be. Hope isn’t naïve, or stupid.

On the contrary, hope is powerful. Hope looks around at the world and dreams of something better. Hope rises out of ashes, new life out of dead earth.

Still, hope is this fragile thing, so easily disregarded or even crushed underfoot. Hope is a new plant with small, shallow roots, threatened at every turn by the harsh elements. Hope is the last bit of daylight about to be engulfed by the coming night.

The world is a scary place that is inhospitable to hope. The state of affairs is such that even the most positive of optimists is struggling now to see the silver lining.

But Christ offers us a treasure to keep within ourselves. This treasure is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God found in the very face of Jesus Christ, which is turned toward us even in our darkest struggles. This treasure is hope.

Hope, Paul says, doesn’t exempt us from the world. We are still subject to being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. In fact, if we are anything like Paul, we can expect all of those things.

But within us, we have the very power of God. Hope is not a fruit of the Spirit, but rather it is the very substance of God’s presence inside of us. The Holy Spirit dwells in us like treasure inside of a clay jar, like a small light in an otherwise dark world.

For many, it seems like this light of hope is almost extinguished. It seems like the last light of the sunset is being snuffed out as the darkness of the night sets in.

But friends, have no doubt: this is the sunrise. If you ever watch a sunrise, it is sometimes impossible to tell whether the sun is actually rising or setting. Wait long enough, though, and you’ll see the sun imperceptibly peeking out over the horizon. Light is gaining ground all the time, even as it seems to be diminishing.

The Kingdom of Heaven is near, even as we struggle to see it. The Kingdom of God is coming, even as the earth seems to be in peril. The treasure is ours, even as it is held in rough, chipped jars of clay. Keep watching, and I promise you’ll see the sun rise.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Deer and Danger: An Extended Metaphor

“Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” –Amos 5:23-24

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On New Year’s Eve eight years ago, I was very nearly mauled by a deer.

I totally deserved it, too. I was a brazen fifteen-year-old who did not respect the natural boundaries of these animals that had been trapped for years in a too-small wooded area between housing developments and apartment complexes.

Some friends and I were taking a walk as the sun was setting. Dusk, as I happened to know, is and always has been the favorite time of those poor trapped deer. Nearly domesticated, these white-tails are found in the same place every evening where a neighbor often leaves dried corn for them to snack on.

As we walked, we came upon a fawn standing innocently in the middle of a clearing. We ‘aw’-ed, of course, immediately in love with this baby whose big black eyes and a fluffy white tail endeared it to us. No more than a few months old, this deer had grown up with many people walking by, offering it the same admiration we had given. It was as afraid of us as we were of it – which is to say not at all.

Naturally, I was the first to approach it. I walked slowly and carefully with my hands raised, as if the universal gesture for ‘I am unarmed’ would somehow encourage this fawn to let me come near. It needed no encouraging; that was the closest I have ever come to a deer. A foot, or maybe two separated us. I was close enough to see my reflection in the depths of its trusting eyes, close enough to reach out my hand and touch it.

We had a really nice moment. I considered petting the coarse fur between the eyes that stared back at me. Despite the reputation often garnered by deer, these dark eyes were full of kind intelligence. We stared at one another for a few seconds. A sound somewhere in the distance startled us both, and soon the fawn was turning away and loping back into the woods.

I, too, turned to walk away. As I started to make my way out of the clearing, I again heard the sound of hooves, this time much louder and slower. I spun back around, expecting a few brave does hoping for corn.

Instead, several yards away stood a buck. His black eyes were blazing with displeasure. He snorted at me as angry animals often do. His hastily exhaled breath was visible in the cold, and in that moment I knew I had done something very wrong.

My friends, still a short distance away, remained still and silent. I stopped moving, stopped breathing, and waited for him to retreat. Much to my surprise and dismay, he began to run in my general direction, and I was certain I would soon be on the receiving end of his impressive horns.

As he got closer, he turned off and ran back in the direction of the woods, where the fawn and its mother were probably waiting for him. My friends and I stayed frozen in disbelief, unsure of what had just happened. Grateful for the anticlimactic ending to what could have been a dire situation, I turned away again.

My friends and I laughed it off, and continued walking. We returned home, told my family of our encounter, and celebrated the new year.

Every New Year’s Eve, I remember that moment.

I remember the shine of that fawn’s eyes. I remember the steam of hot, angry breath against the black velvet of the buck’s nose. I remember the relief of walking away unharmed, despite my blatant disregard for the deer whose home had been destroyed by the construction of my own.

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Racial discrimination in America is a lot like nearly being mauled by a deer.

Sometime in the recent past, the term ‘post-racial’ was coined by smug sociologists or certain historians. Comforted by the relative racial peace of the 80s and 90s, they proudly stuck this label on a country that had not even settled from the chaos of the desegregation movement.

Sadly, this premature distinction did more damage than any social scientist could have predicted. Many white people in America were mollified, believing that The Dream had become a reality.

But what was The Dream?

Surely not gerrymandering, mass incarceration, educational apartheid. Surely not social segregation, economic discrimination, sanctioned murder in the streets.

Like the stupid child who reached out to touch the fawn, we have been drawn in to a false reality. We reached out to touch the domesticated product of our own privilege only to be taken aback in fear and surprise when horned anger ran out to meet us from the very place where our greed and negligence trapped it.

I was depressingly old when I first read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. As someone studying to be a minister, this has become one of the most important documents for my formation as a preacher, a teacher, and a leader in the church. If I am ever charged with the formation of young pastors, this letter will be the first thing in their eager hands.

King penned his famous letter in response to a request from group of pastors in Birmingham who politely asked him to leave their city altogether. From behind the bars of a cell, he wrote to men who shared his profession and implored them to see the irrevocable error of their ways.

He wrote, “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Oh, how we the white moderate have let him down.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more important now than ever. It is absolutely vital that we as country continue to remember the work of this man of God that even now has not been brought to fruition. And it is even more vital that we continue to take him at his word, and not at the words of the sanitized King quotes that rotate through our news feed for a few days in mid-January each year.

In the words of King from his prison cell, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Now. Now. Now.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Advent: Peace and Promises

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. –Luke 1:30

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My car died.

You have to understand that it was a highly unreliable model, to the extent that the car manufacturer stopped making it after only a few years because they realized what a mistake it was.

It was the week before finals – appropriately termed “reading week” – which I had intended to spend writing papers until my left brain could produce no more words and reading until my eyes could no longer make out even the serifs on the small typefaces. [Incidentally, I did end up spending the week doing both of those things.]

Instead, I began the week in the waiting room of a garage that could only be described as dismal. The tiny Christmas tree in the corner did nothing for my Christmas spirit, as it was adorned with clever little ornaments fashioned from pistons, air filters and wrenches, none of which would be able to fix my hopelessly broken engine.

I cried. I had just begun a new job thirty minutes from where I lived. It was the week before I had to take three of the most impossibly challenging exams. It was the same week that a friendship which had slowly dissolved over several months finally came to a bleak conclusion. It was the week leading up to several important responsibilities waiting for me on the other side of those finals. It was the very week when news broke out about all that was happening in Aleppo, and the very week I could barely stomach the images of a city of innocent civilians levelled by a war that few remember the reason for. And my car died. So I cried. A lot.

After sharing my tesitmony with my spiritual formation group just a few short days before, a fellow student had described me as “full of peace.” In the moment, I very much felt the truth of that statement. My story, like most stories, is full of chaos, brokenness, struggle. And yet there I was in a circle full of seminary students calmly explaining how that chaos and brokenness and struggle had led me to seminary, where God was continuing to call me into a ministry that I still don’t entirely understand. Despite the pain and uncertainty of my story, I really do feel a sense of peace about it.

And there I was, not four days later, glaring at the ugly, car-part Christmas tree, crying into my sleeve and trying not to draw any attention in the cramped room.

I’ve had worse days. I’ve had worse weeks, too. Somehow, though, factors beyond my control converged for a kind of perfect storm of stress. In a moment of frustration, I cried out to God in prayer: “What else!?”

There comes a moment in every seminary student’s life when she realizes this decision to give up everything familiar and comfortable for a challenging life of transience and heartache does not mean that all the pieces will all fall into place.

Obviously, I knew in my brain that this would not be so. Deciding to attend seminary is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. That decision is not a guarantee that the rest of life will be perfect. In fact, its almost certainly a guarantee that the rest of life will be imperfect. Ministry is messy and demanding and hard. It only follows that preparing for such a task is similar.

Still, in my heart I hoped for better, and that moment in the garage served to confirm my worst suspicions.

This had to be the way Mary was feeling even in the very moment that Jesus was born, only worse than I could even imagine.

At a young age, younger than I am now, she submitted to the will of God and the promise of God’s favor. As a direct result, she became pregnant. She would have been shunned by her entire family and the surrounding community. She would have been dismissed as sinful and crazy anytime she tried to explain what had happened. Her entire life would have been in shambles. She would not have felt like one who had found favor with God.

Then, she and her fiancé (who at this point would also have been socially cast out) had to journey 100 miles during the peak of her pregnancy at the whim of the Roman government, a government that feared an uprising from the rapidly multiplying Jews in Judea. The resulting census called for everyone to return to the town of their ancestors, and so Mary and Joseph rode to Bethlehem where she would give birth to the Son of God in a barn.

Meanwhile, an order was given by Herod for the murder of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. Mary would live the rest of her life with the death of those little boys on her shoulders while she escaped with her little boy safely tucked in her arms.

That little boy would grow into an incredible man who many believed would wage war to free them from the oppression of rulers who killed their children without a second thought. She would be subjected to witness his violent execution in between desperate cries that would have no doubt brought her to her knees.

At the moment of his death, she had to have gone back to that first moment. She must have wondered if it would have been better if she had just said no. She had to question if this were truly the life of one of God’s favored ones, and consider why in thirty years since that moment she had never felt favored.

Friends, this is the life of the promised Prince of Peace. Even in utero, his presence on earth wrought turmoil and violence. Even before his birth, he did not come to bring peace but a sword. Even as he took his first breath, many other little boys took their last.

And yet, he truly is the Prince of Peace. In another moment, mere hours before his own death where he would be led silently as a lamb to slaughter, he reminded his best friends that those who live by the sword also die by the sword.

Instead of military insurrection, this redeemer brought deliverance from sin and its eternal consequences. This savior brought healing and restoration and new life. This Prince of Peace brought a peace of the soul, in the midst of the very real and seemingly endless suffering and tribulation that assaults us from every direction.

As we move into the days just before Christmas, as cars are dying, as financial stresses mount, as time does not heal all wounds, as responsibilities loom, as entire cities are wiped off the map, rest in the peace of Christ and extend it to everyone you can.

Remind yourself that Emmanuel was not what we all expected, that he was infinitely better, that he did not come to promise freedom from tyranny or war, but that he came with salvation from all the worst that we as human beings can do to one another and to God.

Finally, remember Mary, the one who found favor with God and woke up every morning after with no proof of such a promise. Perhaps even until her death, I imagine that Mary questioned what it meant to be God’s favored one. And yet, through Mary’s own sacrifices and her son’s ultimate sacrifice, the world will be brought to salvation.

This Christmas, I pray the peace of Mary for you: the peace of one favored by God, of one who cannot even imagine how such a promise is possible or true, yet to whom is given Emmanuel – God with us.

All glory to God in the sky,
   And peace upon earth be restor’d!
O Jesus, exalted on high,
   Appear our omnipotent Lord:
Who meanly in Bethlehem born,
   Didst stoop to redeem a lost race,
Once more to thy creature return,
   And reign in thy kingdom of grace.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Advent: Joy and Jerusalem

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” – Nehemiah 8:9-12

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Yesterday I left my house before the sun rose and returned home long after it had set again.

If you’ve ever done this, you know what such a long day can do to a person. Somehow, there’s something reassuring in leaving home every morning after the sun has steadily climbed in the sky for a little while. It is a huge relief, I think, to start the day with proof that the world doesn’t depend on my work to continue as it always does. The sun rises even when I sleep in late.

As someone who likes to run outside in the evenings before the sun has set, I also cherish those days when I make it home in time to spend an hour in the glow of the sunset. Life in late fall in North America makes it nearly impossible to leave after the sunrise and return before dark since the days only grow shorter until winter truly sets in.

On days like yesterday, something happens to me. My calm center is shaken. I tend to be a person who thrives on schedules, but if I’m up before the sun, I feel rushed all day long. If I come home to darkness, I immediately want to sleep, despite the fact that the sun begins to set around 6 PM here these days!

Days like yesterday are not healthy for me. I found myself dejected as I left and returned home, as well as at various points throughout the day.

There is something to that connection between our physical environments and our minds. A psychologist might call it the psychosomatic nature of human beings. In this sense, the word ‘psychosomatic’ does not refer to an affliction produced by a compromised mental state as it so often does in the medical field. On a similar plane, however, it refers to the idea that physiology and psychology are connected, that they influence one another.

As I’ve studied (and studied and studied) church history this semester and read many works of the church’s early theologians, I’ve been surprised by the amount of psychological truth that lies, sometimes hidden, within those pages. Most of the works I’ve read recently were written over a millennium ago and so naturally they do not delve into the complex scientific processes of the human body and mind. Still, I’ve learned much from these authors who have been dead for many centuries.

For example, a theologian in the 4th century named Apollinaris believed that Jesus Christ did not have a human soul. Instead, he had the logos, the word or the wisdom of God, which resided within his human body and became the governing force of his body in lieu of a soul. Apollinaris’ theological opponents were many.

Another theologian, Cyril of Alexandria, emphasized the union of the whole person (body and soul) of Jesus with the divine logos in the incarnation. He believed the two natures of Jesus to be united to the extent that they were inseparable. He used a human being as an example. “You can’t separate a person’s body from their soul,” he might have said. I (and many psychologists and physicians and scientists since) couldn’t agree more.

Even though there is much scientific evidence backing up the psychosomatic nature of human beings, we really don’t even need it to confirm what we already know. Few people are happy when they are ill. On the flip side, it is so challenging to feel energized and healthy while fighting a tumultuous mental state. Anyone who has lived a less than perfect life, either mentally or physically, could acknowledge the fact that our bodies and our minds are connected.

In a biblical move, I would like to suggest that the word ‘soul’ or even ‘spirit’ could be inserted where previously I have said ‘mind.’ In the Greek of the New Testament, there is certainly distinction between the two (think Mark 12:30- you will love the Lord your God with your mind and your soul, etc.), but they are often used in concert.

Our very souls are connected to our bodies. You can’t have one without the other. We get a sense of this when a person who experiences damage to their brain enters a coma from which they do not wake up. Physicians would obviously use much more technical and secular terminology; however, once someone’s consciousness leaves, there is nothing to be done for their body. Similarly, there are not disembodied souls wandering around the earth. We as human beings are the union of body and soul.

This is why the concept of joy has always been baffling to me. In Christian circles, joy is often described as distinct from happiness. Many Christians would tell you that joy abides even in the worst of circumstances. Joy for the Christian, then, is not just happiness but rather a levity of the soul derived from the hope of Jesus Christ.

Of course, that sounds lovely. I certainly want to be a person who is joyful even when I’m despondent after a 15-hour day. I definitely want to abide hope in my soul that lightens my load even when it feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders.

But is this really true? Everything I’ve discussed about the relationship between the human body and soul would suggest that it isn’t! When our souls are troubled, our bodies are as well. When our bodies are weak, our souls deflate.

Until yesterday, joy was always a foreign idea to me. Yesterday, I heard a verse read that I had likely heard read hundreds of times in the past. I’m also willing to bet you’ve heard it a lot too. But I also bet you’ve never read it in context!

Nehemiah was the appointed governor of Israel after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile. In the beginning of chapter 8, he asks a priest named Ezra to read the Law of Moses for the people  as they are beginning to rebuild the previously destroyed Jerusalem. As the Law is read to them, the people begin to weep.

You have to understand all that these people had been through. 70 years prior, their entire city had been destroyed. Many that lived in Jerusalem were captured and sent to live in Babylon, a foreign place where they did not speak the language or know the land. Although the Babylonian captivity gives rise to some of the most inspired stories of the Old Testament (think Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!), it was not a good time to be a Jew.

Finally, when the Babylonians were defeated, the Hebrew people were allowed to return home. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of mixed emotions involved with that process. 70 years is enough time for a generation to have passed away. This means that most if not all of those who were returning had never before lived in Jerusalem. They only knew of it from stories and from traditions passed down by parents and grandparents. To return to see the great City of God in absolute shambles must have been overwhelming.

And so they weep. These people, who had finally been allowed to return home, cried biter tears of sorrow and bewilderment.

And then Nehemiah drops some of the best wisdom that has ever been uttered. Tasked with leading this thoroughly confused people to rebuild the temple and the surrounding city, Nehemiah uses his platform to calm and guide them. “Have a party!” Nehemiah says. “Celebrate this day with God. Don’t cry, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The joy of the Lord is your strength.

Oh. Oh.

I see.

My strength is not dependent on the state of my body. My strength is not even dependent on the state of my own soul. My strength is dependent upon the joy of the Lord, the God who both celebrates and mourns alongside his people.

See, this God whose joy is our strength is the very same God who loved us enough to become one of us in order to save us from ourselves. This God whose joy is our strength knows totally and exactly how it feels to be victorious and free, but this God whose joy is our strength also knows fully and intimately what it means to be bitter, confused, and bereft.

This God whose joy is our strength is the very one who will inhabit a manger in a few weeks. His mom and dad will watch him lovingly under the stars as the spring air fills his tiny lungs for the first time, giving him the breath to coo and giggle and cry. His many visitors will look into his big, brown eyes and smile, hoping he will return the gesture.

He will grow and learn and experience what it means to be truly human. And then he will come to do what none of us could. Somehow, I don’t think the joy of the Lord was anyone’s strength in the darkness of Good Friday. However, Sunday was the beginning of a new era of joy that will never end.

This Advent, may you rediscover joy as I have. May you remember that tiny, giggling, cooing, crying baby Jesus is also the God whose joy is our strength, and may you abide in that joy even on the darkest of days.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart
Prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and heaven and nature sing!

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Advent: Love and Linguistics

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,

that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?

Even these may forget,

yet I will not forget you.

Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;

your walls are continually before me.” – Isaiah 49:15-16

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” – Exodus 34:5-6

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As a young woman, the Advent season has always prompted me to wonder about Mary. There is a lot of church tradition and doctrine that surrounds her, which makes sense given her status as mother of the Son of God. However, I find myself pondering about her life more and more as I anticipate the birth of Jesus alongside her.

So much of that focus in the church on Mary revolves around her pregnancy. Since the Gospels are severely lacking in detail beyond the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, Mary is center stage only as she is giving birth. While I realize the Gospel writers were concerned with preserving the most vitally important parts of the life of Jesus, I so often wish there were more stories about his childhood. I would love to read about what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to raise him.

The only instance (in Luke 3) details a particularly comical situation in which Jesus stays behind at the temple in Jerusalem after the Passover celebration to ask questions of the priests. His parents, who assume he is amongst their rather large family returning home, make it a full day before they realize Jesus is not with them. I can only imagine what must have been their abject terror when they realized, “We lost Jesus!” They returned to Jerusalem, and found him in the temple after three days.

I’m not a parent, but I am a daughter. When I read this, I try to think about what would have happened if I had been left behind on a family vacation at the age of twelve. If I had been missing for three days, my parents would have recruited the whole country to look for me. No stone would have been left unturned, and I’m not even the Son of God.

This line of thinking prompts another interesting question that has obviously been asked many times before: Mary, did you know? Luke seems to think she did. The angel tells Mary that her child will be the Son of God. Although I’m sure she didn’t know exactly what such a baby entailed, she had to know that Jesus was special.

What I want to know is if Mary knew what was ultimately in store for Jesus. Countless films have beautifully depicted their mother/son relationship. Many of them presume that Mary had something of a prophetic insight into the death and maybe even the resurrection of her son long before the events took place.

As a first century Jew, Mary would have had a very particular image of the Messiah who had been prophesied for so long. Given the context of the Roman occupation, first century Jews in particular were awaiting a king in the most literal of senses. They were expecting a large, strong man, one with years of military training and experience, one who would lead an army of Jews to overthrow the Roman government in Palestine and subsequently rule in its place. The salvation her people were expecting had less to do with their sins and much more to do with a desire to rule in the land that God had promised to them. [Incidentally, this view of the Messiah explains much of the disciples’ confusion about the identity of Jesus. They believed, even until the end, that he would be their military hero. Despite his insistent explanation, they did not understand until after his resurrection.]

If this was what Mary expected of the Messiah, it is entirely possible that she did not associate her son with that figure. With such a specific image in mind, and given her up close and personal VIP invite to witness the incarnation, I’m not sure she would have drawn that connection. While the angel did provide a specific description, this coming savior was not foreseen as divine.

Still, even if she did not have any particularly special foreknowledge of her son’s purpose, I imagine she would have slowly understood who he really was and what he was there to do. At the end of his ministry, when all the people around Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside whispered and conjectured about this Jesus of Nazareth, when the Pharisees were plotting against him at every turn, publicly harassing and condemning him, even when he went into the city at Passover despite the throngs of people who would have been there, I like to think Mary knew something big was going to happen. I like to think she at least read the signs and understood that her son was going to die. While the disciples seemed to think he was gearing up for a military insurrection, Mary would have known that Jesus would submit to death “as a lamb to slaughter” rather than incite a violent rebellion.

Imagine yourself for a moment as Mary. Although you never planned on it, you hold and support his tiny body within your own. As he grows, you can feel his movements. Sometimes, just before his birth as you travel the dusty countryside to Bethlehem and camp off the road, he wakes you in the middle of the night, rubbing against your ribs and stealing your breath. His heart beats right alongside yours, and eventually you can’t tell them apart. Even before he is born, you think you couldn’t possibly love him any more.

And then you see him. After hours of painful labor in a dirty stable, he is in your arms, ruddy and screaming. And in those first moments, when you feel his tiny hands resting gently on your chest as you comfort him, when you nourish him from the milk of your own body, when you brush your hand through his soft, dark hair, you know that you would do anything for this child. You know that your new reason for living has taken his first breath and cried his first tears.

This love, a mother’s love, is God’s love for us.

The word ‘merciful’ is the first adjective in God’s very first biblical self-description in Exodus as God passes before Moses on Sinai. That word is translated from the Hebrew rachuwm (רַחוּם), a word that is almost exclusively used to describe God’s compassion.

Rachumw is derived from the Hebrew root racham (רָחַם), which translates as womb, or more specifically, as birth canal. This is the word used in Isaiah to talk about a mother’s love. The author makes a beautiful sort of play on words: can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no rachumw on the son of her racham? While the human author expects a resounding “No!” in reply, God’s answer is this: “Maybe so. But, my children, I could NEVER forget you. See, I have your names written on the very palms of my hands. I think about nothing except for you.”

Friends, the love is God is the love of a mother. The love of God is like the journey of a baby through the birth canal of his mother. It is tough, and messy, and dangerous. But when all is said and done, there is new life.

Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, as the Hebrew language was formed and the Old Testament was written, God’s love was linguistically derived from a woman’s womb. How fitting then that the Son of God, the very love of God incarnate in human flesh, would one day come to be through a woman’s womb.

As we continue in our celebration of Advent, remember this love. Remember the love of Mary for the son whom she loved without condition. Remember the unbearable heartbreak she experienced upon his violent torture and death. Remember the despair of the Sabbath, when she could not even attend to his body. Remember the incomparable joy of new life when she learned of his resurrection, no doubt reminding her of that warm spring night so long ago when she first held him in her arms.

Finally, remember God, who says to us, “My children, who I bore and nursed and taught and loved, I have your names written on the very palms of my hands.” All we have to do is look and see the scars to know that this is the truth.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations? Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Advent: Hope and Hannah

“My heart exults in the Lord;

my horn is exalted in the Lord.

My mouth derides my enemies,

because I rejoice in your salvation.”

– 1 Samuel 2:1

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Like most people, I begin every new year with the high hopes of all I will accomplish in the next 365 days. I love the prospect of a fresh start, a clean slate, a book waiting to be written. I can’t resist committing to something new, or healthier, or better.

As a direct result of the way I celebrate each new year, the end of the year is always a particularly strange time for me. It becomes a time of evaluation. I ask myself, “What I have done that was noteworthy?” Or even, “What did I do that I said I was going to?” With a birthday just a short 15 days from the end of the year, I’m also looking back on what I have accomplished in this particular year of my life. I’m a couple of weeks out now from my next birthday, and 22 is looking incredible in some ways and confusing in others.

As 2016 draws to a close, I find myself wishing we could just collectively be done with it ASAP. I had great expectations for a lot of different aspects of life this year, many of which were dashed in some pretty dramatic ways.

That’s not to say that nothing wonderful happened for me in 2016. On the contrary, I’m living in a new city studying for a crazy degree at a school I applied to in 2015 just to see if I could even be accepted. My calling has been confirmed and challenged into growth in the last 12 months in ways I never could have predicted.

Still, we can all agree that 2016 has been particularly violent and discordant. There have been 353 reported mass shootings in the United States just this year. That’s at least one for every day of the year so far.

While the percentage of people experiencing homelessness shows a general trend of slow decrease, there are more than 560,000 people around the country who are currently experiencing homelessness. That’s more than the population of the whole city of Tuscon, Arizona.

There are more men and women incarcerated in the United States per capita than any other nation in the world, despite the fact that America is third in population size by a considerable margin.

“Alright,” you say, “That’s enough! I get it!”

I’ll stop there, although the list of disturbing statistics from 2016 both in the States and in other countries around the world is endless. No matter which way you look at the state of things, 2016 was a pretty bleak year… even without a mention of the dangerously divisive election we just barely survived.

In times like this, the Christian witness stands against the grain of all that is happening. When we can’t wait for the ball to drop at 12 AM on January 1st, when we have to turn off the news because we just can’t listen anymore, when it seems like the world is darker and more dangerous than ever before, the message of hope is bold and controversial.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This season in the church calendar extends back four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. The word ‘advent’ comes from the Latin adventus, which means ‘visit’ or ‘coming’. Even in less liturgical churches where Advent is not officially celebrated, Christians around the world prepare for the Christmas season a few weeks before Christmas Day.

Advent is a season of symbolism. In many ways, it hearkens back to the anticipation of the post-exile Jews for their coming Messiah, who they believed would be their military hero. Jesus Christ certainly did not fit like a puzzle piece in the midst of all their preconceived notions, but he brought salvation in a way they could never have anticipated. In the same way that they waited eagerly for fulfilled promises and deliverance and, ultimately, salvation, so we too look forward to the coming of Christ.

Advent also mirrors the mentality of an expectant mother. Just as Mary awaited the birth of her son in the days leading up to Christ’s coming, so we too become pregnant with hope.

Mary’s story is not a new one. In fact, even in the relatively small canon of scripture, there is a story of a similarly expectant mother waiting for the birth of her son.

Hannah was one of several wives of a faithful Jewish man in the time just before King David, somewhere around 1000 BCE. Although she was barren, she was the favorite wife of her husband, who did not understand her grief as she prayed continually for a child who was never conceived. She endured the constant ridicule of his other wives, who provided him with child after child.

The story in 1 Samuel finds her accompanying her husband and his other wives to the temple in Shiloh, where they would together make sacrifices and worship. Late one night, Hannah went to the temple to pray again for a child. Having vowed to dedicate her child to the Lord, the text says she continued to pray.

Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli, [a priest], took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” – 1 Samuel 1:13-17 ESV

If you’re a Christian, Hannah’s story should pull at your heartstrings a little. In this year of so many tragedies and so much hatred and death, I found myself coming to God in prayer again and again, pouring out my soul for new life despite the barrenness of the world, sometimes without any words to say just like Hannah.

After years of painful and fruitless prayer, Hannah’s request for a child was granted. She named him Samuel, a name that sounds like the Hebrew word שמואל or shmuel, which means ‘heard of God’. As soon as he was weaned, she returned to the same temple where she had prayed. She handed over his care to the priest, Eli, who would in turn raise Samuel to become both priest and prophet. Hannah kept her promise. She gave completely to the Lord the very thing, the very person for whom she had so desperately and continuously prayed.

While the new year is typically celebrated on January 1st, the Church follows a different calendar. Interestingly, for the Church, Advent is the beginning of the new year. Advent is a fresh start, a clean slate, a book waiting to be written. Advent is an answered prayer. Advent is a long-awaited infant, bathed and swaddled, eyes still shut tight against the harsh light, cries soothed at his mother’s breast.

2016 was certainly not our best year. I’m sure we didn’t need any statistics to confirm what we knew to be true. There was more suffering, more anguish, more hatred, more racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism and ableism, more violence, more war, more illness, more death than ever before.

But friends, our God is an Advent God. Our God is the God who answers prayers, even though it may not be in our time or in the way we expected. Our God is the God who takes the form of that long awaited infant, who grows up to surpass and even defy all of our well-intentioned expectations. Our God is the God who follows us into the grave. Most importantly, our God is the God who brings life out of death.

This Advent season, I’m starting my new year anticipating. I’m diving head first into the deep end of hope, immersing myself in it, swallowing it in large gulps. I’m looking forward to the birth of Christ like I never have before, because I need him, and I’m willing to bet you do too.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

Treason and Trust

And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

– Luke 4:5-8

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“In God We Trust.”

This is the official motto of the United States of America. Take out your wallet. Grab a dollar bill, or even a penny. You’ll see it, bold and capitalized on every piece of American currency.

Any discussion about currency always brings one of my favorite moments in the gospels to mind. Nearing the end of his ministry, it seems as though Jesus is questioned at every turn. The authorities, both Jewish and Roman, were increasingly fearful of the social unrest that seemed to surround Jesus. As those in authority tend to do when they perceive a threat to their power, they began to plot a demise for Jesus.

So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.

– Luke 20:20-26

You’ll hear this text most often preached moralistically. What Jesus meant as a snarky comeback to the compromised church leaders of his day is now used as a justification for paying taxes and avoiding the ire of the IRS (see what I did there?).

But there is something a little deeper than a witty remark here. Jesus tells the gathered crowd, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In the same way, give to God what is God’s.” This simple statement, if taken out of context from the rest of the Christian narrative as it often is, sounds logical enough. If nothing else, at least this Jesus guy speaks rationally, right? [… said no one, ever, by the way. The Kingdom of God turns everything we know on its head.]

Given this text’s larger context in scripture, there is a deeper meaning that is rarely explored in modern homiletics. Way back at the beginning, in Genesis 1, the narrator tells us that women and men were created in the image of God. Gallons of ink have been spilled and millions of pages spent in order to attempt to explain this phrase. There is no way to be sure exactly what it means.

Here’s the thing: if you operate within a biblical worldview, SURPRISE! We are all made in the image of God. We are all little coins with God’s face stamped on us. We are to be given to God because we are God’s.

And so this trite little retort becomes a deeply beautiful anthropological and theological statement. Such is Jesus’ way with words.

Still, this short interlude in the action-packed gospel leaves many Americans scratching their heads. Sure, okay, we shouldn’t invest too much time or energy in earning money. But what else could Jesus mean?

I often wish Jesus had left behind a manual about how to interact with human government in a uniquely Christian way. While Jesus was a little busy accomplishing slightly more important things with his short time on earth, there is quite a bit we can glean from scripture and from the historical context of Jesus.

The Roman Empire into which little baby Jesus was born, contrary to what you may have been told before, had an extraordinarily lenient stance on religion. Given the vast territory subjected to the rule of Caesar, there were naturally many different religions within the conquered land of the empire. Rather than force all the people under Roman rule to adhere to any one religion, the emperor instead had only one requirement. Put simply in modern language, it might have read something like this: “You can practice whatever religion you want as passionately as you desire, as long as you also make sacrifices to the Roman gods.”

While their own religion was important to them, there was one thing the Roman authorities valued over everything else: power. Instead of forcing conversion upon all the people subjugated under the empire and thereby risking peaceful control, the Romans adopted one of the most indulgent religious policies in the history of conquering empires.

As a result, the Jews in Palestine were allowed to continue in their practices. They were allowed to go to the synagogues and perform their own sacrifices. They were allowed to dress, act, and speak as they wanted. The Jewish leaders of the day even collaborated with the Roman governors to maintain this peaceful rule.

There are letters dating as early as 96 AD recording Roman confusion regarding Christians from emperors who were facing the slow but steady rise of the church. Some would even say to captured Christians, “Look, you don’t even have to mean it. We don’t care what you actually believe. Just perform one sacrifice, and we’ll let you live.” Some would comply and live. Others would refuse and face certain death.

I’m certainly not the first to do so, nor will I be the last, but I would like to point out the striking similarities between the Roman Empire and the United States of America.

Contrary to popular belief, America is not a Christian nation. Many of the founding fathers and mothers were deists at best, who believed in a hands-off god, a creator who immediately stepped into the other room. Upon facing religious persecution, these people sailed to a new land, seized it from the people they found there, and fought for a new kind of nation with its roots deep in religious tolerance.

Today, religious tolerance in America remains much the same on paper. Anyone can live here and practice their religion, right? There seems to me to be an unspoken part of this tolerance, though. “You can practice whatever religion you want as passionately as you desire,” your average American might say, “as long as you also bow down to the American gods.”

I know, I know. You’re already skeptical. What are these American gods? Well, a person who is not enamored with the “greatest country in the world” can name them faster than a New York minute.

The first and most dangerous of the American gods is patriotism. It’s no problem what you believe as long as you bleed red, white and blue, right? As long as you’re proud to be an American? Christians have been entrenched in American culture for so long that this god is so often confused with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Gospel is so often confused with the American dream, and the result is an ineffectual, dying church.

In case you were wondering, there are actually several American gods. Many American Christians (myself included!) are utterly enslaved to capitalism. We go to school as soon as we can walk and talk, in order to get a good education, so that we can get a good job to pay the bills and buy stuff, which will make us happy and fulfilled. This is the lie all of us buy into because we are indoctrinated from the time we are born.

After one of the most toxic and divisive elections in the history of this nation, I’ll also suggest that politics is another. How many of us celebrated or despaired on November 9th? How many of us spent the evening with our eyes glued to the television, waiting with baited breath for the arrival of our next president, of the one who would next lead us in our American worship?

This disturbing list goes on and on.

“In God We Trust.”

Here and now, in modern America, this motto seems almost comically out of place. Emblazoned upon the very objects of our idolatry, we boldly declare our trust in God. Sure, Americans have trust in God. We trust in the god of our nation, in the god of our economy, in the god of our polity. We trust in our own ability to select a leader who we hope will fix everything, and when they fail, we turn our attention to the next up-and-coming savior.

The worst of it is that there are so many American Christian men and women who have no idea of their own idolatry. They firmly believe in the American Gospel, while the Gospel of Jesus Christ sits untouched, growing dusty on the shelf beneath newspapers, self-help books and phone chargers.

If you believe America is a Christian nation, you will always be sorely disappointed. You will always weep after a particularly venomous election, or celebrate in relief once your candidate has beat out the other. You will always feel hopeless in the face of all that threatens the future of our country. Friends, America is just a red-white-and-blue-streaked Rome. If you have any doubt, look at the Christian church in South Korea, or South America, or even the whole continent of Africa. The church grows and thrives more in these places of religious intolerance that it ever has in our “Christian” nation.

If you believe America offers you the greatest kind of freedom there is, I want to offer you the kind of freedom that enables you to be certain of the future no matter who is elected as president. I want to offer you the kind of freedom that releases you from slavery to money and things. I want to offer you the kind of freedom that says, “There is a new kind of kingdom breaking into the world, a kingdom with a polity of mercy and an economics of grace.” I want to offer you the freedom of the one, true God.

If we as a church want to learn to thrive in this nation that many social scientists have termed “post-Christian America,” we must to be honest about where we find ourselves. We are a pitifully idolatrous people. We give ourselves whiplash turning away from the God of the Universe toward these impotent gods that can offer us nothing but heartache and hopelessness.

Sisters and brothers, we need a revival in the truest sense, one that will overthrow the American gods that are seated upon the most treasured spot in the throne room of our hearts. I hope you’ll join me, because I expect it will be a pretty wild ride.

See, even Jesus was tempted with these same gods we Americans so blindly worship. Satan said, “Listen, bro, all of the kingdoms of this world are in my possession. Just say the word, and they will be yours!” Jesus, already endowed with all the power and authority of God, already king of a kingdom that was even then breaking into this broken world, was totally uninterested. “Keep your kingdoms,” Jesus replied. “I’ve got my own, and it is infinitely better.”

In this time of fearful uncertainty and hopelessness, when everything inside of us pushes us on our faces before these false gods, may we lift our eyes to the one, true God and find ourselves in that one, true kingdom, which is indeed infinitely better than any of our own devising.

Grace and peace,

Amanda