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Look at the birds

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?

Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you.

Jesus in the “sermon on the mount”, Matthew 6

In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, there’s a beautiful passage about anxiety and worry, where he encourages us: do not worry about tomorrow, each day has enough worry of its own. Even though in Australia we’re probably safer and more likely to have food and shelter than most other times or places in history… anxiety is high. Many suffer from it. It is crippling.

Jesus calls us to “look at the birds” and “look at the lilies of the field”. In the past I’ve often read this as a rhetorical device: help our brains see the logic, nature doesn’t worry and God takes care of it, God will take care of us, so lighten up.

But I’ve been learning a lot about worry. In my own counselling, and in sessions with psychologists where I learn how to support my kids. So much of anxiety is bodily, yes it is running through your mind, but it’s not just in the mind. And when your body is in a fight or flight or freeze state, the idea of “helping our brains see the logic” really falls flat.

The advice I’m reading my kids is about breath work and visualisation. (from Diane Alber’s “A little spot of emotion” series):


I’ve been holding a lot of my own worry and anxiety over the future lately, and have been drawn back into reading and reflecting on these few thoughts Jesus shared. To comfort me, to guide me.

And instead of seeing “look at the birds… look at the lilies” as a piece of rhetoric, something to think about… I’m seeing it as guidance, something to do.

Go outside, and find the birds. Find the native flowers that just grow all on their own. And look at them. Long enough for my breath to slow down. Look at them long enough to meditate on them. That they are there, and cared for. Long enough that my heart rate slows down. Long enough to remember that maybe I too am cared for.


“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
“And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
“So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus in the “sermon on the mount”, Matthew 6
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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on finding a spiritual community even you feel like they’re not your people

First, a reminder that even if the rabbi of a synagogue is preaching stuff that does not align with your political beliefs–that does not necessarily mean that every single person in that community is similarly aligned. There may be other folks who are much more kindred spirits than you might think at first blush — and it might take a second or two to find them, but that does not mean that they are not there or impossible to find. Synagogues are often comprised of communities within communities, and it may be possible for you to find yours. How? Well, first you have to start showing up to things where you might be able to meet people. Is there a social justice or social action committee doing stuff? Are there other subgroups within the synagogue that feel like they might be more likely to have folks on your wavelength? Is there a younger folks group — even if they call it “Young Professionals“ or some such thing, you may find some true kindred spirits there — you never know. I say this from experience, as someone who showed up to a Conservative synagogue in my early 20s, as the youngest (by about 15 years) and queerest (by far) person I could see for miles. With some patience and digging, eventually I connected with an amazing intergenerational group of people (some of whom knew each other before, some not), some of whom I am still in touch with today, many many many years later. 

Second of all, even though it is lovely and comfortable to go to community that has been built, don’t discount your own power to build community. You can (eg) host Shabbat dinner for a motley group of people–some of whom may be Jews, some of whom may not be, some of whom may be familiar with Jewish practice, some of whom may not at all. ‏ Make it potluck, or do a simple pot of soup and salad and frittata. Or make a vat of chili get some chips and guac you’ve got dinner. Get some wine or juice and challah– bam! Get this going as a monthly thing and see if you can get enough of a community together to get some text study or prayer action before or after dinner (davening first, study after). Etc. Do a lunch! Make it a picnic when the weather improves! Host holiday things! Get creative! Start slow, build.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg – You asked I answered

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Jürgen Moltmann on revenge, peace, justice and the disarming child

It certainly sounds more realistic for people in darkness to dream of God’s day of vengeance, finding satisfaction in the hope that at the Last Judgement all the godless enemies who oppress us here will be cast into hellfire. But what kind of blessedness is it that luxuriates in revenge and needs the groans of the damned as background to its own joy? For to us a child is born, not an embittered old man. God in a child, not as a hangman.

He will establish “peace on earth,” we are told, and he will “uphold peace with justice and with righteousness.” But how can peace go together with justice? What we are familiar with is generally peace base on injustice, and justice based on conflict. The life of justice is struggle. Among us, peace and justice are divided by the struggle for power. The so-called “law of the strongest” destroys justice and right. The weakness of the peacemakers makes peace fragile. It is only in the zeal of love that what power has separated can be put together again: in a just peace and in the right to peace.

This love does not mean accepting breaches of justice “for the sake of peace,” as we say. But it does not mean, either, breaking someone else’s peace for the sake of our own rights. Peace and righteousness will only kiss and be one when the new person is born, and God the Lord, who has created all things, arrives at his just rights in his creation. When God is God in the world, then no one will want to be anyone else’s Lord and God anymore…

But is this really possible here and now, or is it just a dream?

Jürgen Moltmann in The Power of Powerlessness. I read it in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas”. Emphasis mine.
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The wise men and Christmas gifts

I’ve got an uneasy relationship with Christmas and gifts. I’m not great at gift giving in general. And I don’t feel much on the receiving end – it’s clearly not my love language! The forced-ness of gift giving at Christmas, combined with the overwhelming commercial advertising and expectation, combined with remembering something else that’s supposed to be remembered in that season, combined with thinking about our level of consumption and it’s impact on the environment… I’d personally prefer to opt out of the whole thing but that feels too grinch-like so we continue quietly.

So this reading from “The Gospel in Solentiname” hit home. Ernesto Cardenal the priest apparently “does not believe in sermons” and so facilitated small group discussions to help his people understand the stories. The perspectives they share are from such a different world to my own – they were among the poor in Nicaragua at the height of the cold war.

And the comment from Olivia astounded me with its clarity:

When they saw the star again
They were filled with joy.
They went into the house;
they saw the child with Mary his mother,
and they knelt down and worshipped him.
Then they opened their boxes
And gave him presents of gold, incense and myrrh.

Tomás: “They come and open their presents – some perfumes and a few things of gold. It doesn’t seem as if he got big presents. Because those foreigners that could have brought him a big sack of gold, a whole bunch of coins, or maybe bills, they didn’t bring these things. What they brought to him were little things… That’s the way we ought to go, poor, humble, the way we are. At least that’s what I think”.

Olivia: “It’s on account of these gifts from the wise men that the rich have the custom of giving presents at Christmas. But they give them to each other”.

The Gospel in Solentiname. I read it in “Watch for the light, readings for Advent and Christmas”.

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The community Ruth found

At our church this month we’ve been going through the book of Ruth. The series has been good, with the first three messages bringing the story to life, with all of its hard to understand customs, offensive levels of patriarchy, and yet endearing characters. (The recordings are on YouTube: message 1 and message 2 by Steve, and message 3 by my sister Clare.) I’ve also been reading it – it’s only four short chapters and takes me about 20 minutes – it’s worth reading yourself!

One thing that’s standing out to me is the lack of “supernatural” in the story. There’s a famine but no miracles of food falling from the sky or loaves of bread being multiplied, or prophets making it rain or anything like that. There’s death but no coming back to life. There’s infertility but no miracle babies.

What there is, is a story of two women (Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi) choosing to return to Naomi’s home country, her people, her God and way of life.

They were destitute in Moab and running away from famine – for Naomi it is running to her home country, and for Ruth, it is following Naomi to a place she’d never been, where she’d settle in as a foreigner and immigrant.

When they get to Bethlehem, the story narrows in to focus on what they find in that community when they get back. And what they find is a community that’s going about the rhythms of agricultural life – it was harvest when they arrived – but with a few twists that showed they were God’s chosen people who were trying to live according to the laws Moses had given them.

In particular, the harvesters were comfortable making space for Ruth to harvest in their fields (“gleaning”), not attempting to maximise their commercial returns but leaving some leftovers for the poor. This was based off this verse in the law:

When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 19:9-10

And Boaz, the wealthy land-owner and love interest in Ruth’s story, goes a step further. Not just following the law as stated – which as Steve pointed out in one of the linked messages – is open to a stingy interpretation. But Boaz leant into the spirit of it, to care for the poor and the stranger:

Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!

Boaz in Ruth 2

He was also well aware of his both his rights and his responsibilities for caring for his female relatives in a patriarchal society, and again seemed intent to not just do what was required, but to meet the spirit of the law and do what is right.

And that is one of the miracles in this story, I think. Nothing supernatural, but a community of people actually living with the intent to love each other, and love the strangers living amongst them, as God had asked them to do. And taking a big hearted generous approach to that.

And it makes me wonder, what miracles might be possible if our communities choose to live this way: genuinely trying to embrace God’s heart of love and wholeheartedly embracing that as our guide for how to live. What would we do differently? And what would it mean to the people who wander into our midst, perhaps as destitute as the heroines in this story?

If Ruth and Naomi returned as a poor widow and her foreign daughter-in-law, and found a self-seeking community that didn’t leave any leftovers in their field, and didn’t feel any responsibility of care for their extended family… then this story would have been very different. It would have been depressing, unsurprising, probably not worth writing down.

But instead they found a community committed to living the way God had taught them, and that community made generous space for Ruth and Naomi. And nothing supernatural happened – and nothing supernatural was needed! – because there was a miracle of love, abundance, redemption and hope… entirely because the people choose to live God’s love and make it their way of life.

I want to see that story play out in my church, over and over.

(One of the other miracles in the story of Ruth is the beautiful connection between Ruth and Naomi, and their boldness in taking initiative as powerless women in a patriarchal society… but that’s another post. And covered in the messages I linked above!)

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Our great desire

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent.

Hebrews 6:11

I love this verse.

There’s a whole section in the chapter before where the writer is admonishing the readers for being spiritually dull and struggling to understand the concepts they’re being taught:

There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding.

Hebrews 5:11 – 6:1

Often I would hear or read that admonishment and feel this challenge – am I spiritually dull too? Am I incapable of listening and understanding? What can I do to make sure I’m growing in maturity?

And here the answer is simple: keep on loving others, as long as life lasts.

Not study or exploring mysteries or following rituals or solitude or pilgrimage.

Loving other people is the great pilgrimage, the path to deep and lasting maturity.

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An anchor for the soul

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls.

Hebrews 6

These words and metaphors have been ones I’ve found myself clinging to and meditating on through what has been a pretty rough ride in my life this year.

Fleeing to God for refuge. A hope that gives us confidence. An anchor to hold us steady.

These images have helped give my soul a sense of stability when life has felt incredibly unstable.

But I’d usually imagine the anchor holding us in place in the storm. Then I listened to Krista Tippett (host of On Being) interview Kate Bowler (host of Everything Happens). Kate was diagnosed with terminal cancer as a young mother at 35. Somehow, she’s still here, and so her take on “Hope” carries extra weight.

Tippett: What at this point is your working definition of hope?

Bowler: I think before I would’ve said it was something like certainty. I might have looked from a doctrinal perspective and been like, “Well, Krista, thank you for asking, I actually have six things about God I’d love to tell you.” Because depending on your story of faith, it’s a long timescale — that it’s the consummation of the earth and the great triumph of good over evil, et cetera, et cetera. But I think hope now feels like God and love is like an anchor that’s dropped way in the future. And I’m just, along with everyone else, being slowly pulled toward it. And that feeling won’t always feel like the details of my life have somehow clicked into place and that I get to feel the fullness of my life. But that, ultimately, that this is a good story. It’s just not only mine.

From an interview with Krista Tippett and Kate Bowler on the On Being podcast

Not an anchor holding us in place, but “an anchor that’s dropped way in the future. And I’m just, along with everyone else, being slowly pulled toward it.”

That’s hope.

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The difference between right and wrong

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Hebrews 5 (emphasis mine, of course. Does biblical greek even have italics?)

There’s a black-and-whiteness that many or most people bring to morality. Some things are clearly good, some things are clearly bad. Often something that’s clearly good for one person is clearly bad for another. Sometimes there’s an internal compass, “it just felt right, and I trust that“. Often there’s some external source of truth that defines what’s good or what’s not for a person. I’ve seen cheesy christian souvenirs that say “the bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”.

Like it’s that easy. 🤷‍♂️

I appreciate the writer of Hebrews reminding us that knowing the difference between right and wrong is a skill, and a sign of maturity. It’s not all easy and straight forward, it requires training.

It’s interesting thinking about the ethical dilemmas the early church stressed about – divorce and remarriage, eating food sacrificed to idols, sharing meals with different ethnic / religious groups.

In the book of Mark there’s a story where Jesus is teaching on divorce and remarriage:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.

Mark 10

Then in a similar story in Matthew’s book, either Jesus said something different or Matthew included or added an extra detail:

And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful

Matthew 19

We started with a clear-cut, black and white moral statement. And now there’s an exception. Then Paul, addressing a specific circumstance in a specific church, adds another, for when the other person doesn’t follow the same Christian way of life, and doesn’t see marriage the same way and they walk away:

(But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.)

1 Corinthians 7

I feel like more nuance might have come out if you asked either Jesus or Paul about situations like domestic abuse…

They’re trying to make a point: marriage is important! It’s sacred! We should value it way more than the surrounding culture! But there also needs to be maturity to be able to recognise the difference between right and wrong, simple rules interpreted simply don’t always cut it.

Endless equivocating and avoiding moral absolutes, and taking an “anything goes” approach also feels like a trap. The wisdom here is not “recognise there is no difference between right and wrong”. That’s not what was said.

Instead, it’s recognising there is a difference, and that with training and skill and maturity, that for a given situation you can know the difference, find what is right, and you can choose to do what is right, to live righteously.

That’s hard work. But it’s a sign of maturity. Let’s train in it.

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“Stay soft”: Sabbath rest

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

Hebrews 3

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4

When I was a teenager I got a birthday card. There were messages in the card from a few different staff and leaders at my church, but one of the messages was only two words, and they’re the only two words I still remember from it.

Stay soft. -Ads

Adam – a friend and a church leader I looked up to – would often talk about the importance of keeping your heart soft, responsive to God, not being hard-hearted. When he picked those two words to write to me, I took them to heart, and it’s been a formative posture for me, a big part of shaping who I am now.

And that’s the message coming out from this passage in Hebrews too: stay soft.

The couple of verses I’ve quoted are part of the passage I remembered that originally drew me back into reading the bible earlier this year. Our family life has been a real struggle, and we have been exhausted and depleted, and the promise of a sabbath rest, some kind of deep, fulfilling rest, and a call to enter that rest, sprung out of my memory and, like a siren song – so appealing and so urgent – its words drew me back into this passage, and back into the bible.

Do not harden your hearts.

Stay soft.

Not like in the rebellion, the time of testing in the wilderness.

The psalm being quoted actually includes the names “Meribah” and “Massah”, which suggests its probably referring to the two stories where the Israelites have run out of water in the dessert and are wishing they were back in the Egypt, the land of their slavery, because at least there was water there. In both stories Moses strikes a rock with his staff, and miraculously, water comes out – enough for the whole community.1 While much of the commentary on this story is about if Moses did something wrong, Numbers 20:13 puts the focus on the people not trusting God:

This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the LORD.

Numbers 20:13 (emphasis mine)

And that’s what both the psalm and the book of Hebrews seem to focus on too: the community of Israel didn’t trust God to look after them and give them water.

Despite all the miracles they’d seen so far – “for forty years they saw what I did” – they didn’t trust they’d be provided for. They’d rather go back to slavery because they knew there was an agreement there – they’d do work and they’d get water and food.

All the miracles and provision that came during their time in the desert had not helped them internalise that God would provide for them, and so they kept trying to make other plans. “They have not known my ways, their hearts are always going astray”.

They shall never enter my rest.

Brutal.2

But in Hebrews, the author tries to remind us that they think we’ve still got a better offer open: “Dear friends, even though we are talking this way, we really don’t believe it applies to you.” (Hebrews 6:10).

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God… Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…

The point being made in Hebrews is about an eternal Sabbath, a permanent rest, full of joy and liveliness and deep delight, that lasts forever – not just the weekly rhythm and the seventh day. But as I’ve been dwelling on this passage in Hebrews, and this rallying cry to “stay soft”, I realised that a weekly Sabbath practice can be a part of keeping a soft heart.

Here’s how I see it:

  • God was doing work among their people, and they saw it.
  • But they did not know God’s ways – they never took it in, never seeing it or beginning to understand who God is and how God works, never internalising it, never learning to live in a way that trusted God’s working.
  • So they argued with God, and made other plans.
  • And so they never entered the promised land, or the promised rest.

So, we don’t want to harden our hearts. We want to stay soft. What can we actually do?

When I was in my early twenties I ran a fortnightly small group meeting for young adults in my church, and there was about 30 of us, and to facilitate some kind of conversation that attuned us to what God was doing, I would ask everyone to break up into groups of two or three, and ask a question to each other: where did you notice God this week?

There’s a similar question I ask myself in an end-of-day “Examen” reflective exercise I do, at least when I’m not so tired I fall asleep instantly:

Where have I felt true joy today?
What has troubled me today?
What has challenged me today?
Where and when did I pause today?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?

The Examen: A Daily Prayer

This kind of reflection requires you to pause.

To rest from your works.

To stop.

To cease.

And when you do, your heart rate shifts. Your thoughts shift. You stop problem solving and stop rushing and stop striving and … notice things. Notice the things that brought you joy. The smile from a kid, or the sunshine through the window. You notice the things that were really hard. The words spoken that pierce your heart and cause your stomach to churn. You notice where God’s presence was in it all.

You see, when you’re so focused on what you have to do, it’s easy to miss what others are also doing, easy to miss what’s going on around you, or what’s already happened. This is why gratitude is such an important practice. But more than just the gratitude, there’s the stopping. The ceasing.

When we cease our work, we have the opportunity to see what God is doing, and to know God’s ways, and to stay soft.

In Marva Dawn’s classic book on Sabbath3, she talks about what the Sabbath is for:

  • Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. 
  • Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of his grace. 
  • Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. 
  • Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope — the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come. 
Marva J Dawn, an excerpt from “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly”

Ceasing from “the many ways we fail to trust God and try to create our own future”.

We’re so damn busy trying to create our own future, that we don’t even notice the future God is creating right around us. We have not known his ways.

Ceasing on the Sabbath is an antidote to that, a weekly chance to stay soft, to notice God, and to know God’s ways, and to live in trust. And from there we can move to experience the resting and embracing and feasting too.

And as we practice Sabbath each week, it is indeed practice for that greater rest that is talked about in Hebrews 4.

So I’d encourage you, make every effort to enter that rest. Practice for it by practicing the Sabbath.

One day a week, cease your work.

Notice instead where God is working.

Learn to trust God’s ways.

Stay soft.

Footnotes
  1. The “water from the rock” stories are super interesting. In the Numbers 20 version, Moses is supposed to speak to the rock but instead hits it twice, the miracle happens and water comes out, but for some reason, God is pissed. God says Moses will die in the desert and not see the promised land. But no one is quite sure why God is so angry. This article has a whole gamut of theories from Rabbis who are trying to make sense of it. One particular theory from the 15th century made me laugh:

    “Moses and Aaron’s sin was not particularly terrible; they merely made a mistake. However, G‑d did not want them entering the Land for other reasons. Moses, because he sent the spies, and Aaron because of his involvement, albeit unwilling, with the sin of the Golden Calf. G‑d wanted to protect Moses and Aarons’ honour, so He pretended that the rock was the reason for their punishment, to cover up the true reason.”

    Once you start going down this rabbit hole you notice the death of Miriam at the start of the story, and that leads you to Miriam’s Well and then you start learning about how Miriam was probably a much more important leader than is recognised, and the texts we have tried to diminish her role. Patriarchy 🙄

    Also the Numbers 20 story sounds like it happened at Kadesh, right on the border of the promised land, the same place where the Israelites were when 40 years earlier they had spies come back and tell them about the promised land, and they didn’t trust God would make it theirs. In both this story and the water-from-the-rock story, God was trying to give them something good but they didn’t trust it, and wanted to go back to Egypt where they worked for the things they need.
  2. I’ve written before about how my beliefs around hell and eternal punishment are not what most Christians might expect, and I’ve probably had a few years of having a fairly “universalist” worldview, seeing God in all different places, and so trying not to think about the reality that some people live lives in a way that is not just “a different experience of God” but is actually separate from God and that there’s a pain and despair in that. I still don’t think the dividing line of those who experience God and live in line with God is the same as what religion you put on your census form. But this experience of reading Hebrews in depth for the past few months has actually forced me to open up to that: God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. (Hebrews 4:1)
  3. One day I was looking at my parents bookshelf and I picked up “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” by Marva J Dawn. I’m glad I did. Sabbath wasn’t a concept that was well taught in my childhood churches, and so this book was my starting point. Even read the dedication:

This book is dedicated to all the people who need the Sabbath

the busiest, who need to work from a cohesive, unfragmented self;

social activists, who need a cycle of worship and action;

those who chase after fulfillment and need to understand their deepest yearnings and to hear the silence;

those who have lost their ability to play because of the materialism and technologization of our society, who need beauty and gaiety and delight;

those who have lost their passion and need to get in touch with feelings;

those who are alone and need emotional nourishment;

those who live in community and need solitude;

those who cannot find their life’s priorities and need a new perspective;

those who think the future is dictated by the present, who need hope and visions of the future to change the present order;

those who long for deeper family life and want to nurture certain values;

the poor and the oppressed, who need to mourn and dance in the prison camp;

the rich and the oppressors, who need to learn nonviolence, stewardship, and God’s purposes in the world;

those who suffer, who need to learn how suffering can be redemptive;

professional theologians, who need to bring the heart back into theology;

those who don’t know how religion fits into the modern world, who need a relationship with God;

those who are disgusted with dry, empty, formalistic worship and want to love and adore God;

those who want to be God’s instruments, enabled and empowered by the Spirit to be world changers and Sabbath healers.

From “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly – Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Fasting” by Marva J. Dawn.
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Where you’ll find God

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.

Hebrews 3

When I hear a phrase like “God’s house” the image that comes to my mind is usually a giant building. Perhaps one of the cathedrals of Europe, perhaps a more modern auditorium setting, or perhaps an imagined palatial setting that’s giant and magnificent and heavenly. But in my mind, it’s usually a building.

But here the writer reminds us very clearly that we are God’s house. It’s not a building, it’s people.

It’s also not a single person – it’s plural. They don’t say “and I am God’s house” or “and we are God’s houses”. All of us, together, are where God chooses to live.

And so if you want to find God, your best bet is to look where other humans are gathered.

And that’s what the word church actually means – the gathering, the assembly of people. The building isn’t where God is found. We, the people, are where God is found.

For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

Jesus in Matthew 18

You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests.

Peter in 1 Peter 2

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 3

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

Jesus in Matthew 25
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It was only right

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.

Hebrews 2:10

Everything we see and hear and touch, all of the universe, all of creation, was made. This is one of the starting beliefs of Christianity: that there is a creator. A person behind it all, a person who had a reason to create. It’s not just matter. It’s not just energy. It’s not just existence.

The universe is personal.

“Through whom” is about the craftsmanship. That God is involved in the making of every water-drop, every flower, every person, every galaxy. To quote a church song from my teenage years: “is everything I know marked with my maker’s fingerprints?

“For whom” is about the intent and the reason. God wanted this universe, and God wanted us in it. That’s our chosen starting point for the big life question: “why are we here?” We’re here because God wanted us, so God created us.

And the intent here is to bring many children – that’s us – into glory. It’s hard to even imagine what this is supposed to mean. The word “glory” here is the same Greek word “doxa” that is used again and again when Jesus talks about “returning in glory“, when Paul is “blinded by the intense light“, when Jesus talks about not needing the approval of the religious leaders, or when he gives examples about the seat of honour at special occasions. Whatever it means, God intends to make us stand out, make something bright and radiant, something honoured, something glorious, out of our lives.

It’s an incredible starting point, that imbues all of life with meaning and purpose and worth and hope.

But we all know life doesn’t actually look like that.

It’s far more messed up.

You know that. I know that.

These grand theological statements just don’t match the experience of our lives. Yes of course there’s joy and radiance… at times. But there’s just as much drudgery, or cruelty, or outright suffering. We feel heartbreak over separation, heartbreak over death, and we live in fear of both of these. We feel shame. We feel loneliness. We know life has suffering, and we know the suffering.

And with that, the writer of this letter to the Hebrews brings us back to Jesus. They promise Jesus is the leader who brings us into salvation, leading from this life to the promised life – from the suffering to the glory.

And while you know and I know that life doesn’t look like the promise being laid out, the writer knows it too, acknowledging that “we have not yet seen” the promise.

They know there is suffering, and they drive home this point: Jesus knew suffering too.

He didn’t just know about suffering. It’s not even that he knows about our suffering and sees us. It’s that he suffered.

Like we do. More, even.

So, when I originally thought I’d write a post on these verses, I imagined narrowing in on the idea that it’s through suffering you become a perfect leader. And there’s truth in that… but the more I meditate on this part of the letter to the Hebrews, the more I realise that’s not the truth the writer is trying to get across.

You see, I think Christianity is more about following than about leading. So the thing I’m finding myself focusing on is not me and my leadership… it’s Jesus and his leadership. Because I’m planning to follow him.

And while his path started in a place of honour and privilege – the son of God! – he then became human, deliberately made his home and found his community among those who lived in suffering. Not as a visitor, not as a rescuer, but as one of us. He embraced that, even to death, and through that was lifted back up to the kind of glorious life we talked about. And that is pretty much the story told in our earliest hymn and creed.

If that’s his path, and we’re following him through it, then it’s something worth meditating on.

What we do see is Jesus… because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God.

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

Hebrews 2 (excerpts)
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We may drift away

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it… what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?

Hebrews 2:1

Last week I wrote about how it had been years since I’d read the bible in any meaningful way. And here in the book of Hebrews it said something that aligned with that experience – if you don’t pay careful attention, you tend to drift.

It’s kind of a relief to read this, honestly. Most of the Christian New Testament parts of the bible were written by people with powerful first hand experiences of Jesus: Peter and John and Matthew were all walking with Jesus everyday for three years before his death. Even Paul who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament talked about his life altering experience as a physical encounter with a resurrected Jesus. I imagine that kind of exposure to a person is indelible, it leaves a permanent mark, its hard to drift away from.

But that’s not what most of us get. We might experience the invisible God, and have spiritual encounters of various kinds, but we don’t see or hear or touch or smell Jesus like they did. Not in a physical, tangible way. If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, we don’t get to see him. We just hear about his life from others. And the experiences we do have first-hand tend to be more intangible.

So it’s refreshing to here someone who wrote an important part of the bible, this letter to the Hebrews, say they’re in the same boat as us. They didn’t give us their name, so we don’t know who exactly it is. (Scholars like to guess. An audio-bible I used to listen to had the voice for Hebrews played by a cast of men and women to demonstrate the ambiguity. I liked the idea that it might have been a woman, because we know several women had important leadership roles in the early church but we’ve mostly been kept from hearing their voices.)

Whoever it was, they say they’re in the same boat as us. They didn’t know Jesus directly, they heard about him from someone else. They’re a second-generation follower. And they say it’s easy to drift and forget.

For me personally, some stuff didn’t drift: a sense of worth, value and dignity, of being made in the image of God. That was deeply internalised. My values as well have been deeply shaped by my faith earlier in life, and those mostly held steady even without continued focus. So what has drifted?

I think its the focus on the “great salvation” they talk about. There’s a big picture, a meta-narrative, an arc of history that ties together the story of Jesus and the stories of us.

When a person keeps this big picture in their field of view, it can yield a big change in the way they lead their lives. Being part of something bigger is incredibly motivating for most of us – and can call us into living courageously, selflessly, resiliently.

And I think that’s the bit that has drifted: without a focus on the big story, the routines and the challenges of my life have become all encompassing. I’m not suggesting I should have been going and serving the poor or preaching in churches instead… keeping my focus on my young family and loving them, providing for them, that should have been the focus anyway. But I wonder if I’d kept a connection to the larger story, if it would help strengthen the moments of joy, help bring meaning to the moments of suffering, and help me see beyond my own troubles to offer compassion to others around me who have their own challenges going on too.

I want to live my life with that big picture in view.

“We must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away”.

Now, there’s a thousand different ways to understand what “great salvation” means, and I think each person’s experience of it, and the way they describe it, would be different. There’s a deep shared truth in there somewhere, and then the just-as-real truth of each person’s experience of it. And of course for me its complicated, because I don’t feel comfortable with some of the simpler narratives of sin and salvation and heaven and hell.

But there is something speaking there, something true, and if I want my life to follow that path in my life, and not drift away, and I should listen carefully, actively, asking questions and seeking to understand.

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In many times and in many ways, God speaks

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.

Hebrews 1:1

I was catching up with friends from my church recently and one of them talked about how they’d been struggling to read the bible in any valuable way lately, and I struggled to relate – not because I have a vibrant relationship with reading the scriptures myself, but because it’s been so long since I have that, unlike my friend, I didn’t feel its absence in my life.

Years of daily reading as a teenager and young adult, and years of deep study in preparing to lead a small group or write a blog post or preach a sermon, have meant that the christian scriptures have been deeply embedded in how I think. But as the habit of daily reading dwindled, and the need to prepare for small groups or sermons dissipated, I haven’t found myself opening the book often, and when I did, I was often coming to it with a transactional mindset: looking to find something specific, as if the bible’s main purpose was to be a “proof text” to help me feel better about a position I hold or a life decision I’m making.

My friend mentioned they had been finding something else valuable – a book of readings and prayers for everyday life called “Every Moment Holy“. The bible isn’t the only way to hear God speaking. I know that to be true for me: in the years where bible reading hasn’t been a habit, I’ve still felt God speaking through time in nature, through times of reflection and introspection, through podcasts, through music and art, through friends and family and small children.

In all those I felt a sense that “God spoke”. Not an out-loud voice that moves through the air waves and into my ears. Not even an inner voice with a running dialogue in my head. But a sense that God, the hidden animating force of the universe, the person woven into every moment and every molecule, was somehow imparting and transmitting to me a sense of love, of peace, of strength to live a certain way, of clarity. God does speak in many times and in many ways, and we should attune our ears to hear it in all these ways, not just when we have a bible open.

But, having said all that…

I’ve recently been drawn back into the bible.

It started because our family life has been exhausting, and I’ve been feeling depleted. And a phrase I knew from the bible was ringing around in my head: “enter my rest”. I remembered there’s this whole bit in the book of Hebrews where it talks about entering God’s rest, a “Sabbath” rest, and some people enter it, and some don’t, and we should try to be those who do. I couldn’t shake it from my head, so I wanted to read it. (I had to ask Anna where our bible even was.)

And so I picked up the bible, and have been reading Hebrews, and have been drawn into it. All the ways I described “God speaking” and sending me love and peace and strength and clarity – I found again as every day or two I picked up the bible and kept reading.

And it didn’t feel transactional, like I was coming to check some facts or prove a point. It was different, like I was coming to it open to what it might say to me, what it might do to me.

My Dad also has a blog, and earlier this year he posted something which resonates with what I’m experiencing:

In the age of the printed book and of the internet, modern writings whether blogs or learned tomes are ephemeral, read, perhaps noted, and then discarded. They have no particular authority and different readers ascribe different value to them.

Religious reading, on the other hand, is different for the texts are treated with reverence as an ‘infinite resource,’ as a treasure house of wisdom, etc. As such, the words are read and re-read over and over and in time, tend to be committed to memory. “And as a reader memorizes a text, he becomes textualized; that is, he embodies the work that he has committed to memory”:

“‘A memorized work (like a lover, a friend, a spouse, a child) has entered into the fabric of its possessor’s intellectual and emotional life in a way that makes deep claims upon that life, claims that can only be ignored with effort and deliberation.’ … A memorized text has a peculiarly character-forming effect on the memorizer. The text becomes part of his character; he lives in it and lives it out.” (Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 53, citing Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading, 46-47).

On Reading and Memorising Scripture by Michael O’Neil (my Dad!)

And that’s been my experience. Reading and letting it change me, and form me. Chewing on the sentences and the phrases in my mind like you chew on gum, slowly letting its flavour out. Treating it as an infinite resource, and approaching it with reverence, and openness to its character-forming effects.

Some of it engaged me on my usual intellectual-theological level. Some of it felt like a lifeline of support and promises to hold me fast with the life challenges I’ve had going on. Some of it inspired me to carry a different attitude in my approach to life. Some of it was personal, and some of it I want to share. I’ve written down about 14 or so things that stood out that I think would be interesting reflections to share on this blog. So: I’m going to do that, starting with this: God speaks at many times, and in many ways.

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Faith Personal

Imagine believing in the resurrection

It’s a bit of a “clickbait” title, and if you heard someone say it you’d probably imagine them being incredulous, dripping with cynicism: “imagine believing in that! I can’t even imagine how your brain gets to a point where you think a corpse coming back to life and walking out of a tomb isn’t ridiculous…” At some points of my life I’ve been convinced it’s true, and some points not, and well, eh 🤷‍♂️ That’s not what I’m thinking about today.

Instead, imagine, actually think about what it would be like, when someone believes and internalizes the idea that Jesus came back to life, never to die again. That there’s a life beyond this one, overlapping with this one, that means death is not the end. That those who mean the world to us who passed away we will see again, laugh with, eat with, embrace again. That this life isn’t the final life and so the end of this story isn’t the end of the story. Imagine that resurrection means there’s a chance for justice and restoration and hope even when this life has only been injustice, neglect and despair.

What would be different if someone really believed that? If you really believed that?

Imagining in this way isn’t an exercise in futility. One of the books that most impacted me is “The Prophetic Imagination” by Walter Brueggemann, which drove home the point that if you can’t picture a different future, if you can’t imagine it, then you can’t find the energy to start moving toward it. “Without vision the people perish”; but when you can imagine something new, an alternative future with new possibilities opens up.

So what alternate future is unlocked if people really believe in the resurrection?

As a start, the despair of losing someone to death is gone. The death of a loved one is always going to be painful, and life after will hold a sense of loneliness and loss, but “death has lost its sting”. When you believe they’ll live again, and you’ll see them again, and when you do it will be different, a life without the same suffering… then even though it’s hard, there’s an anchor of hope, both hope for you and hope for them.

Then there’s your own fear of death. You might still fear the fate of those left behind – even Jesus on the day of his death was asking his friend to care for his mum. But your own fear of death wouldn’t be the same. Instead of fearing the unknown, or fearing nothingness, if you believe wholeheartedly that after death comes life, and life without the same suffering… then there’s no fear in that. Instead hope, maybe even longing. That side of death looks “better by far”.

And if you don’t fear death, then you’re harder to control. Think of how much evil in the world is sustained because those in power can threaten to kill anyone who tries to stop them. If you don’t fear death, and even more, if you don’t fear missing out on your dreams for this life – because you trust your life will continue and be made new and right after death – then you’re free from that fear and intimidation, and you can act according to your conscience and your sense of justice. If a whole community believes that, it would be impossible to subdue them without eliminating them. They would have so much courage in the face of injustice and persecution… and courage can be very contagious.

And imagine you believe not just that there’s life after death, but you also believe the full good news message: that all will be set right. That those who weep now will laugh, those who are hungry now will be filled, those who have lived in poverty now will inherit the kingdom… all of a sudden you would see so much more dignity in the lowly parts of life. Any suffering, any wrongdoing, any injustice… you could filter it through your understanding of an eternity set right, and all those unbearably hard things would seem “light and momentary”. You could find hope to endure all of life’s hardships, and probably do so with joy.

And because your perspective has shifted and you know those who are suffering are destined for better things… you would feel compelled to bring that future forward, and work hard to help them today, not waiting for the final act to set things right.

(This is not unlike the stories I’ve heard of the first few centuries of the Christian church…)

So, ignoring the question of if it’s true… can you see the impact on the world if you were to believe the resurrection, living like it is true, and embodying resurrection as a driving force in your life?

So, this morning on Easter Sunday, when I stand with hundreds of other people and sing “Hallelujah, death has lost its grip on me” – I am encouraged. There is a way of life that stands in defiance of fear of death. The resurrection story frees us to imagine an alternative future, and pulls us forward into a new life, a resurrection life. And that life offers not just a bright hope for tomorrow, but strength and courage and clarity for today. And this morning as the voices of my church sang out and claimed this resurrection to be real, not just as history but present life and power, it helps me believe too.

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Pendulums and Paradox

I’ve been back at church and this week a line from one of the songs got my brain thinking:

You will always be holy, holy forever

From the song “Holy Forever

Holy. It’s a word used all the time, especially in church, especially in church songs. The meaning is something like “apartness, holiness, sacredness, separateness” or “revered, set apart for God”1.

Singing about and meditating on God as “holy” is a reminder of how separate God is from us. There is something about God entirely different, foreign and “other” than what we experience as humans, and sometimes its good to remind ourselves that God is set apart, and take on a posture of reverence.

God is holy.
God is set apart.
God is separate from us.

But if there’s a scale from “separate” to “united”, or perhaps from “sacred” to “everyday”… then God is at the other end of the scale too. God is close, the name “Emmanual” that we have on Christmas cards means “God with us”. Yes, God is separate and different to us, but we’re also united with God. Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” over a hundred times, more than any other phrase in his writings2. We can hardly be separate if we are in God.

The same phrase is often translated “united with Christ”. There’s a deep sense that our goal is not separation but unity. 2 Peter 1:4 even talks about us being given promises through which we can “participate in the divine nature”3.

God is holy.
God is separate from us.
God is also united with us.
God is close.

So when I hear a song celebrating the separate, the sacred, the holy nature of God – have we got it wrong? Are we revering separateness when in fact God is close? Is it time for the pendulum to swing the other way – for us to celebrate the nearness and the unity of God?

A pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another like our interest rate cycles or political climates… perhaps eventually finding a stable middle ground… is that the way we should be thinking about God?

Instead of a swinging pendulum, let’s think about it as a paradox.

Something where both ends of the scale are true. Instead of insisting only one side is correct, or instead of feeling we’ve gone too far one way and pulling hard toward the center again… what does it look like to embrace things, and explore how far we can stretch both ends?

But even the metaphor of stretching out something elastic in two directions still implies it will come back to a single middle point. This is a classic example of dualistic thinking – that there’s a clear true and false, and so if we are stretched in two competing directions, it will one day resolve to a single point.

But paradoxes aren’t like that – we could explore both ends of this scale and discover new and transforming ways of thinking about God and knowing God – on both ends of the spectrum.

Instead of a pendulum that swings between two points, or an elastic material that stretches but snaps back to center, we could think of paradox as a national park to explore. We start at our camp site. We don’t know if its in the exact centre of the park… it doesn’t really matter. We can set off walking in any direction, and explore what we find. Be amazed at what we find. Maybe we’ll come back to our original camp site, or maybe we’ll find a new place to camp – or many new places.

The paradox is not here to be answered or resolved. Its here to be explored. To be lived in. To be wandered and to bring wonder.

God is separate and holy. God is near, and united with us. Yes, to both. Let’s explore that.

You’ll do yourself no favours if you pick a side and try hold it, or if you reflexively always swing back to a middle point that doesn’t challenge your thinking too much.

There’s a bunch of paradoxes that are part of Christian faith and life. Jesus as fully human and Jesus as fully God. Fear God and have no fear. Free will and an all knowing God. Doing good to “let you light shine” and doing good in secret.

When faced with these, instead of trying to resolve the contradiction, or trying to find the middle ground, maybe try exploring. Paradox is an invitation to curiosity, to wonder, to humility, and to God changing how we think and how we live.

These are the irreducible mysteries that no systematic theology can logically explain, and it’s best that we imitate Moses when confronted with paradox. When he stood before the bush that burned and was not consumed, he did two things: drew closer for a better look, then removed his shoes.

Jen Pollock Michel
Footnotes
  1. I got these definitions of “Holy” from the website Blue Letter Bible, which has some free tools to look up the original language for a verse and see where else those words are used and get some of the feeling of their meaning. Here’s the link for Holy in the Hebrew bible (“קֹדֶשׁ” / qodesh) and in the greek parts of the bible (“ἅγιος” / hagios). I think I’d enjoy learning to read these languages properly one day.
  2. I first came across the importance of this phrase “en Christo” / “in Christ” in Richard Rohr’s book “The Universal Christ”. The same idea is adapted and shared as a meditation here: https://cac.org/daily-meditations/in-christ-2019-02-27/
  3. In The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware talks about the eastern orthodox idea of there being the “essence” and the “energy” of God, and we’re destined to join in the energy but will remain separate from the essence… which is an interesting way to think about it. But in line with this post, I wonder if there’s value to be found in not trying to resolve this contradiction but embrace both ends as true.
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Faith Personal

Christmas 2022

For the third year now, I’ve been following Advent readings from the book “Watch for the Light“. One of the readings was this poem by Jane Kenyon, it’s titled “Mosiac of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993”:

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.
Jane Kenyon, “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.

This poem hit me hard this year. Particularly with the invasion of Ukraine this year, the second verse of the poem reminded me of the bombing of the Mauripol theater that women and children were sheltering in, one of many atrocities that we’ve seen.

The scale of human suffering, so much of it that we inflict on each other, is unbearable. And what does God do with all that?

“God thinks Mary into being… and inside her the mind of Christ, cloaked in blood, lodges and begins to grow.”

Is a baby really going to be enough? Enough to get humanity off an evil course and back on track? What possible difference could a baby make? It reminds me of this line from the song “Seasons”:

You’re the God of greatness
Even in a manger
For all I know of seasons
Is that you take your time
You could have saved us in a second
Instead you sent a child

Lyrics from “Seasons”. Words and Music by Chris Davenport, Benjamin Hastings & Ben Tan. Published by Hillsong.

This contrast perhaps says something about God, and about the gift humanity wanted vs the gift humanity needed: power vs vulnerability, force vs weakness, hard logic vs trust, quick results vs patience.

Considering our need, the gift most of us would ask for would be the forceful intervention. And yet at Christmas we Christians reflect on the fact that’s not the gift God choose to give us. Instead, God sent a child.

In what areas are you praying for God’s forceful intervention, and instead God is doing something small and fragile, slow and vulnerable?

Where are you using your own power and influence to force a quick solution, when perhaps there’s a less expected approach God is initiating?

Advent is about making space for God to come.

And its quite likely that the way God comes among us now will be in a gentler, slower, easier to ignore, less obvious, more vulnerable form than we want.

The work of advent isn’t for us to take the initiative and plan how God will come, but to make space, to wait, and to commit to that way.

To respond as Mary did, “May it be to me as you have said”.

Merry Christmas.

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“What about those who never got a chance to hear?”

One of the awful recurring conversations of my teenage and early adults years as a young Christian usually began with a question like “what about all the people who never heard of Jesus because of where and when they lived?”

The reason that I find this an awful conversation, in retrospect, is because a bunch of the assumptions behind it. For example: God is the only meaning in life, so if you don’t have God, your life is meaningless. Worse still, hell is a thing, and that’s the awful default choice for where you go if you’re not connected to God. And you get connected with God when someone tells you about Jesus and you respond in a certain way. So what if you live in one of the many, many times or places where no such opportunity arises? That hardly seems fair!

Here we were, as young Christians, responding to our own spiritual experiences of love that meant the whole world to us, and that pushed us to want to love all people, and yet the belief system surrounding those beautiful experiences was one that assumed a whole bunch of people would suffer intensely and unendingly for something they had no control over.

Now, the conversations weren’t that awful, because for the most part, we were trying to find ways to morph the beliefs back into something more loving, that more closely matched our experiences of love.

I remember clinging to the story of a guy’s near death (or actual death?) experience which apparently involved a supernatural deathbed opportunity to connect with God despite being an atheist until that point. Maybe everyone gets a chance and no-one goes to hell unfairly after all!? Eventually we’d start hearing rumours that maybe the “hell” story isn’t as clear cut as we thought, and when Rob Bell wrote “Love Wins” a bunch of people felt relieved to hear someone articulately argue that we don’t have to believe in the punishment thing. (Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read the book, and many people said he’s a heretic for it, but I love Rob Bell. Any “heresy” he’s pushing I’m likely to agree with him on!)

But even aside from the question of hell, do we really think God is completely absent from humans, except through some of the organised religions?

Back then I studied the bible a lot, and over time some verses that aren’t commonly talked about in evangelical circles started standing out to me, like this little aside from Paul in Romans 2:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

So there’s the most prolific writer of the early church, Paul, acknowledging that sometimes God is interacting with people who’ve never had any conscious interaction with the visible religions that are officially representing God. God just gets in and connects with them anyway, and doesn’t wait for the religion to make its way across the world first.

Eventually, I found myself paying attention to Paul’s sermon to the people of Athens, recorded in Acts 17. After a few years away from church, and when I was not even sure if I’d call myself Christian, this sermon felt really compelling to me:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Acts 17:24-28

For any century you could be born in, for any country you inhabit, “Got is not very far from any of us”. And God’s whole motivation in placing us here on this world… that we would seek God, perhaps reach out for, and find God. God desired relationship, and thats been available – “not far from” – all people in all nations at any point in history.

And this rings true for me: the same God I’ve known, I’ve seen showing up in other parts of the world which hadn’t had exposure to the same Christianity I had.

I remember learning about the Boon Wurrung people in the Kulin Nations, what is now called Melbourne. Their creator taught them to always welcome guests and care for them as for their own, and that duty of hospitality is a key part of Derrimut’s story in protecting early European arrivals. That teaching might sound familiar to people who’ve read Leviticus: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself“. There’s so many examples like this. The golden rule wasn’t unique to Jesus.

A few years ago I discovered Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case For God”, which does a beautiful job depicting how cultures across the world have tried to reach out to “the unknown God”, and showing common threads of mystic encounter and a deep ethic of compassion emerging from all different parts of the world.

She’s gone on to start the Charter For Compassion, and perhaps that’s a fitting place to end this post. The love that me and my friends felt so strongly, that made us want to question any belief system that sent innocent people to suffer, that love was the real deal. And that same love is emerging all over the world, in all sorts of communities, religious or not. Making sure your religion – both the spiritual experiences and the belief system – drive you towards love and compassion is absolutely crucial.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

Charter for Compassion

Edit: 15 Dec 2022: I’ve since discovered the name for this topic: The Fate Of The Unlearned. There’s even a wikipedia page, which explores the same passage in Romans 2. The page lists a range of viewpoints from Christianity and Islam, and my upbringing probably sat on the “harsher” side – many traditions do have theologies that are more inclusive for those who outside the formal religion. Even with that though, I think there’s a lot of the behaviour I described us also doing: trying to find justifications to drag their beliefs back to the reality of the love they’ve experienced… but the starting point for the beliefs is often still out of line with the experience of infinite love. I think our theology can be better than that, we can have belief systems that are more reflective of our experience of infinite love. We should strive for that.

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Faith Personal

Following over believing

I’ve started participating in a local church again lately, after a few years away.

In that time away my beliefs have continued to evolve (there’s never really been a period in my life where they haven’t), and now I find myself standing in a gathering of people signing songs whose lyrics often make me cringe, and bring on a sense of cognitive dissonance for me – there’s parts of this I do believe are true, parts of this I want to believe are true (but probably don’t, if I’m honest) and parts that I think are downright unhealthy, regardless of their truth.

So what am I doing here?

Well, I want community. And being part of a regular weekly gathering is a way of building friendships that I know works, and that I’m comfortable with. Even if there’s a little dissonance.

I also want a spiritual practice – I’ve never stopped believing in God (if you’ll let me define “believing” and “God” on my own terms at least!) and have wanted to maintain a connection with the spiritual reality that permeates everything. And while I’ve experienced this same connection in music festivals and yoga classes, something I’ve appreciated about the church I grew up in is the absolute insistence that this divine spiritual reality isn’t an impersonal energy, but is a person, and is a person who can be known, and a person who wants to be known. I want that.

But probably the biggest thing is that for all my questions about the meaning of Jesus’ life, I still find his example and his teaching incredibly compelling, and to this day haven’t found anything else that I’d want to have as a foundation for building my own life on, a story to orient myself towards, a starting point for choosing the way I want to live.

I guess that’s what I think of as discipleship. Following the way of the teacher. Regardless of what I intellectually reason to be truth, I can still listen to teachings, learning from the example, and choose to live that way.

This morning at the church gathering, there was a song I felt no awkwardness singing, so I sang it loud:

I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back
No turning back

A hymn by Sadhu Sundar Singh
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Faith Personal

Great love and great suffering

There are only two major paths by which the human soul comes to God: the path of great love, and the one of great suffering. Both finally come down to great suffering—because if we love anything greatly, we will eventually suffer for it.

When we’re young, God hides this from us. We think it won’t have to be true for us. But to love anything in depth and over the long term, we eventually must suffer.

Richard Rohr – Life Coming to a Focus Daily Meditation

I’ve often remembered this thought from Richard Rohr – said in different times and different ways, but basically: the path to transformation is either great love, or great suffering.

I used to hear it and struggle to imagine the great suffering. My life has usually been pretty comfortable.

But he’s right, if you open up enough to experience love, then you’re opening yourself up to suffering too.

Parenting has been that journey for me.

A greater love than I knew was there. More pressure than I knew I’d face. More resilience than I could have imagined I’d had, and more than I thought I’d need. More awareness of my own fragility. More delight too.

Our family is definitely still in the pressure cooker. Its hard to say what the lessons learned will be, what the transformation might look like from the other side. For now, it’s hard to get through, and not much sense of hope for change.

Remembering this thought from Richard Rohr gives a glimpse of purpose to the love and suffering of parenting. Maybe this is one of the paths to God.

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Faith Personal Reading & Inspiration

Reading Notes: “Christianity After Religion” by Diana Butler Bass

(Still some TODOs in here, but I’m posting anyway and hope to get back to them) I first came across Diana Butler Bass on her Twitter account. I can’t remember how I came across her, but I’ve appreciated her voice, her tweet-thread-sermons, her perspective on current affairs and more. So when a family member gave me a book voucher to a local Christian bookstore that didn’t seem likely to stock much I was interested in, I was stoked to see they could order in one of her books. And that’s how I ended up reading “Christianity After Religion”. When it arrived and I read the praise on the cover from Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, I hoped I was in for something good.

The main point

Since the 1960s the USA (and other western nations) have seen a massive change in how they’d describe their religious/faith life. A common line has been “I’m spiritual, not religious” and rather than being a thoughtless throwaway line, this actually captures a big part of what this shift is about. Rather than viewing it purely as a move toward secularism, DBB argues this is an awakening – in the spirit of America’s past great awakenings. This is faith evolving, not faith disappearing. By changing the way kinds of questions we ask when we approach a life of faith, and by changing the order in which we ask them, we can participate in this new awakening – an exciting evolution in what it means to be Christian, or even what it means to be human – and some would argue, an exciting movement of God.

Overview

The “spiritual vs religious” dichotomy isn’t describing two opposites, rather it’s a lense to understand how our people’s experience of their faith is changing. We can broadly break experience of religion of spiritual life into three categories:
  • Belief – how we understand the world and it’s meaning
  • Behaviour – how we choose to live, and the habits which make up our life
  • Belonging – the sense of community and shared purpose
For each of these categories, DBB looks at how Christianity (and American Protestantism in particular) has approached this category, and the questions it has deemed most important to ask. These are the “religious” questions. She then offers alternative “spiritual” questions: ways of revisiting the same category with a different approach, focused on lived experience.

Belief

Often when we think of “belief” in the context of religion we think of doctrine. Belief in a god. Belief in the Christian bible as an authoritative text about God. Belief in the resurrection, or the virgin birth, or the 7-day creation. Some things are easy to believe in – we’re pretty sure a person called Jesus of Nazareth existed – but many are increasingly hard to take literally. TODO: copy the questions asked This chapter concluded with some amazing examples of Christian communities writing their own creeds. Creeds were written by communities at points in time – a point DBB made in this twitter thread that I found memorable. After reading this section of the book, I journal led and wrote out, for the first time in a long time, not a description of what I no longer believed, but a description of what I still believe.

Behaviour

When we think of “behaviour” in the context of religion, we often think of moral guidelines. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t drink, don’t look at porn, don’t charge interest on loans… Do look after the needy, do love your neighbour, do attend a religious service etc. Beyond this though, a lively faith usually consists of habits, or spiritual practices, that make up the day-to-day of our life. When the purpose of such habits isn’t understood, they lose meaning, they become meaningless rituals. But when learned carefully, many habits and practices have a transformative impact on your life. DBB uses floristry as an analogy. Her family were florists for generations, and she learned the craft by sitting in the workshop with her dad, gradually gaining the skills herself. This kind of gradual exposure, where an experienced practitioner shows you, guides you, and gives you increasingly challenging work until you are fully competent – is similar to many spiritual practices. Another thing we can learn from this analogy, is that people are less like to simply do what their parents did. Where successive generations in her family had all been florists, she has chosen a different career, because these days, you have options. When it comes to our spiritual habits and practices and rituals… this is even more true. TODO: copy the questions asked

Belonging

For a long time, belonging meant having an identity tightly linked to the religious community you are part of (and probably grew up in). “I am baptist” or “I am catholic” or “I’m part of Riverview Church”. There was an assumed stasis in this model: you’ve always been one of us, you are one of us, you will always be one of us. You’ve always been here, you are here, you will always be here. But most stories of faith are journey stories: Abraham leaving the land he grew up in, Moses leaving Egypt, the fishermen leaving their nets to follow Jesus. We need to craft a different identity that respects this journeying nature of faith. And a way of belonging that allows growth, change, pilgrimage and exile, and still offers community, acceptance and love. A traditional approach to identity asks “who am I?”, and Christianity has encourage you to ask “who am I in God?” One of my favourite moments in this section was reframing the question: “who is God in me?” Where and how does God act in the world through my life? How can people I interact with experience God through my actions? TODO: copy the questions asked

Reversal

After examining these three categories and asking how we can revisit them through a “spiritual” lense, DBB did my favourite thing in the book: she suggested we reverse the order we tackle these questions in the faith journey. Rather than beginning with “belief” (you must believe in the trinity, and creation, and the resurrection, and the virgin birth, and whatever other doctrine is hard to literally believe), then progressing to behaviour (follow these moral guidelines and adopt these habits) and then being able to experience belonging, DBB suggests we approach it the other way. Begin with belonging: unconditional acceptance, loving community. From there learn the way of life: the habits and the choices that shape your faith (behaviour). And from here, you will begin to find your beliefs changing. You might find you believe in the resurrection after all: but it is coming from having experienced yourself countless ways where life overturns death. By reversing the order we no longer have as our starting point adherence to a religious doctrine. Rather, we have as our starting point an experience of love and community, and the entire faith journey now takes that approach. And when people say “I’m spiritual, not religious” – this is part of the distinction. The starting place is experience, and the whole journey is lived experience.

Awakening

The book ended on a real message of hope. DBB looks back at the three great awakenings of the past, and in the debate about if there was/is a fourth great awakening, she joins the group who sees the social and religious change beginning in the 1960s constitutes a new great awakening. People began exploring new ways of experiencing faith, experiencing God, and this came out of, and fed back into, massive cultural changes. She describes her college campus in the late 1970s having multiple thriving communities and chapters of people taking their faith and discipleship seriously, resulting in a bold vision for what could be in the world. It certainly felt like a religious awakening. Something new and bold and exciting was happening, and it felt like God was very active in it. But then she returned to the campus in the 1980s, this time as faculty, and the life was gone, the diversity was gone, the experimentation and bold visions for change were gone. Replacing it where some standard Christian groups pushing a standard political/conservative agenda. DBB paints the growing political power of the “religious right”, the “moral majority”, Ronald Reagan and co, as a pushback against the awakening – and describes how similar pushbacks have happened in past awakenings. This time however, something that began in the 1960s is continuing over half a century later… the pushback was significant, and so the change is drawn out. In describing past push-backs, she seems to describe the rise of Donald Trump. (The book was written while Obama was still president, but the rise of tea party conservatism was evident). It’s interesting to frame the success of conservative evangelicalism – in political power, in megachurch attendance, in mindshare – not as the awakening, but as the pushback on the real awakening. Though it uses the language of revival, and the metaphors and service structures of past awakenings, this is actually by now the old thing, and the comfortable thing, and the thing some are trying to protect from change. But as she describes this tension between the “old lights” and the “new lights”, she describes the new light in ways that I completely identify with: for all of the struggle I’ve had with the church and structure and faith I’ve grown up in, she describes exactly the bits that I’m still holding onto, the values I hold most dear, and the hope and vision I have for what a renewed world might look like. In reading this, I suddenly felt less like I (and those like me) are stepping away from our faith, and more like the steps we’re taking are part of a journey of renewal. It does feel like upheaval and uncertainty, but it’s not an abandoning of faith, it’s faith finding a new form to match the world we now live in. And the world we now live in is globally connected, and past modes of tribalism over religious dogma no longer make sense when we can see the other tribes, and see that they too are human, and we can see that despite our differences the fruit is good, and so we’re learning that our religion isn’t the only way to meet God, our tree isn’t the only tree that produces good fruit – we can learn from each other, and perhaps we can discover that God has been showing up to all people in all cultures and religions. And perhaps this acknowledgement that God can show up to anyone in any culture or religion should have been more obvious to us from the beginning:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Acts 17
And so every religion worldwide seems to have up-shoots of renewal at the moment. We’re seeing up close people who we’d used to consider “other”, and discovering they’re not so different. And there’s a tribalistic pushback, but in many ways, this renewal is underway and somewhat unstoppable. Any way of faith which defines at the outset that only some experiences are “valid” and “true” is brushing up against our lived reality that we’re finding God in all aspects of life, on many different and intersecting paths. And this is where we can join in. By joining (or forming) communities. By embracing spiritual practices that lead us to experience God, to love others, and to grow in maturity, and by allowing our beliefs to be formed by the experience of God among us – we can be part of this renewal. It won’t be the last time humanity’s relationship with the divine God needs to adapt and evolve. It’s not the last awakening. It’s not necessarily the greatest awakening. But it’s our generation’s awakening, and our chance to be part of it.
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Faith Personal

“You are welcome here”

“God, you are welcome here”

It’s a line often sung in churches, and often prayed. But for people who believe in an omnipresent God – present everywhere at once – what does it mean? What’s the point in welcoming someone who is already here?

Well, there’s a difference between being present, and being welcomed. It’s an attitude thing. Are you acknowledging the person who has come, or ignoring them? Are you engaging with a defensive attitude, a judging attitude, a cautious attitude, an open attitude? Open to them being who they are, which might be different to what you hoped. Open to their thoughts, which might be different to your thoughts. Open hearted to ways their story might change you… that’s vulnerability. And the hospitality of welcome does require vulnerability. You might just come out of the encounter different.

So when you pause in a worship service to “welcome” God, it’s not about letting Holy Spirit in… that’s already happened. It’s about preparing the state of your inner world so that you’re actually open to genuine connection, even if it pushes you and changes you.

“You are welcome here”
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me”
“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me”

And perhaps, we can’t welcome God unless we also welcome all God’s children. You soften your heart towards the Spirit when you soften your heart towards the people near you.

Welcome them, even if they’re not who you hoped, even if they think completely differently to you, even if it means making yourself vulnerable to connection and to change.

And don’t claim to welcome God if you’re not willing to welcome fellow humans.

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Faith Personal

Confusion over the cross

Lately I’ve been confused by the cross, and confused about why I’m confused.  As I went through Easter this year I still was moved by the idea that God somehow loved us enough to die – but I couldn’t explain what it all means, and I couldn’t verbalise what it was about the traditional explanation that made me so uneasy.

So I watched a few lectures online, including this one by Tom Wright, and have picked up a copy of his book “The Day The Revolution Began” and started reading it, hoping to learn more.

I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet, but by setting apart time to think about this, I think I finally (subconsciously?) was able to piece together what I want to believe, in a way that draws contrast to my understanding growing up.

My understanding growing up:

God is love, and he loves you, but he’s also “just”, “righteous” or “perfect”, and can’t stomach your disobedience (sin), it’s because he’s perfect, and that perfection just doesn’t mix with sinfulness, and a blood sacrifice was needed to make things right for some reason.  Animals weren’t enough.  Jesus died so it didn’t have to be you.  That was enough for God the Father.  Now when he looks at you he doesn’t see sin, he’s just full of love again.

What I don’t like:

If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then we should get a good idea of what God is like by looking at what Jesus is like.  A person with uncontrollable anger problems that needs satiating when people don’t do what they want… is not at all the type of person we see in Jesus.

Most (admittedly not all) of the anger I see the bible describe God as having, is the same kind of thing you see Jesus get angry over: injustice, caused by some humans, that crushes other humans.  This pattern seems to be well in place by the time you get to the prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  The “lash out” kind of anger is admittedly seems to be more present in earlier books like Joshua, and occasionally in later places like Ananias and Sapphira… but it seems the overall thrust is that God’s anger / anguish is about humans hurting each other, rather than about us offending his righteousness.

What I finally realised I want to believe:

Jesus was killed by humans.  It wasn’t God’s anger that put him there, it was ours.  We have the human condition, a tendency to lash out, to scapegoat, to viciously attack anything that exposes our frailty, futility or hollowness.  Jesus exposed how hollow the power structures of the day were, and showed very clearly how the actions of the religious powers and the actions of the political powers were not the actions of God – these people did not represent God.  He exposed the leaders, and like most humans, they lashed out.

But rather than fighting back and perpetuating the sinful violence of humanity, he took it and did not return it, in fact, while they were still killing him, expressed forgiveness and love.  To apply MLK’s famous truth: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

On a physical level, the power-structures of Rome and of 1st century religious leaders killed him, because he threatened them.  On a sociological level, his non-violent response changed the game in a way where his followers continued to subvert the brutal power of Rome despite intense persecution.

What about theologically or spiritually?  Is there any meaning to it?

If Jesus really is God-incarnate, God-as-a-regular-human-being, (which I should clarify I want to believe), then him suffering the same wrath of humans as the rest of us shows that that wrath is from humans, not from God.  The angry and violent human condition that causes us to crush each other (which I feel sums up most of the concept of sin) is actually from us, not from an angry God.

In other words, what I want to believe: God was never angry that we’re not perfect.  That anger was always ours, that violence was always ours.  It took God himself suffering under that violence, as Jesus on the cross, for us to understand that the violence wasn’t coming from God.  The anger was never his.

So in a bizarre way, the cross is a sign that God is not angry: it shows me that he always loved and was not the one who was angrily lashing out.  And it is a sign that God is not leaving us to suffer alone: that God himself would suffer under our angry violence, it shows he knows our suffering and is not keeping his distance.  And it is a sign that God is working at a rescue plan: that he overcame hatred with love, darkness with light.  This is the butterfly effect – where one small act of love overcoming hatred is cascading and rippling outwards until hatred, violence and even death is overcome by love, and that the God of the universe is putting his full weight and power behind this plan.

And so, when I look at the cross, I do realise that God loves me and is not angry.  And I do realise that he loves me enough to enter into that suffering.  And I do realise that he has a plan for salvation, the rescue of the world – to transform this suffering through redemptive love.

Just because I want it doesn’t mean it’s true.

So that’s what I want to believe, I can finally articulate it.

But I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Tom Wright’s book, because admittedly: this is just the worldview that sits well with me, given what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned and the cultural leanings that go with that.

Tom’s book looks like it will go through it in a more rigorous, systematic way: examining early evidence and early texts, examining the changing understanding of the crucifixion event by two millennia of theologians, and generally being a little more grounded than my “this is what I want to believe” write-up.

But, it’s good to be able to write down, as a product of my life and culture and upbringing and current understanding, what it is that I most want to believe about a loving God who had to die.

I’m looking forward to seeing where I land.  If you’re wondering any of the same things, asking the same questions, or exploring the same topics – I would love to hear about it in the comments!

 

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Faith Personal

Painstaking Love

When I type the word “painstaking” in my phone, it automatically suggests “work” as the next word. Do you ever hear it paired with any other word?

Painstaking work is often necessary, even good. We know this and brace ourselves for it, muster our endurance and strength and willpower.

But painstaking love is something we don’t give much thought to. But maybe we should. Let me try this definition of love: improving the life of another person, regardless of the effect on your own life. When you define it like that, love is sometimes going to get painstaking: really challenging, pushing us to the edge of our capacity, more than most people are willing to undergo. Much like painstaking work, painstaking love achieves the strongest effect.

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Faith Personal

Is God so angry that he has to kill his child? Probably not.

It’s Good Friday, and my faith is changing.

One key thing that’s changing: my view around why Jesus died. There’s a cognitive dissonance when you speak of a “God of love” who loves you so much that he will punish another to satisfy his own rage, or to satiate his sense of honour. We condemn honour killings, but it’s okay for God?

I still believe in God (though, what I mean by that statement, is also something that is changing). But if it’s Jesus that I’m attracted to, and it’s Jesus that showed us what the god behind the universe is really like as a person, then I don’t think God is the sort that wants to kill people to defend his sense of honour and justice. In fact, one of the stories I like most is of Jesus non-violently de-escalating a situation, saving a woman from being the victim of an honour killing.

So what did Jesus death on the cross mean?  It’s something I want to learn more about.  I want to read NT Wright and I want to hear about the “new perspective on Paul” that is actually decades old.  But I read an article today that had good food for thought.

He became the lightning rod where the pent up oppositional energy of the powers that be (the world) became focused. In bearing the hate, evil and animosity of the world, he exposed it and exhausted it, thus overcoming it..

We, too, are called, on behalf of the kingdom of God, on behalf of mercy and justice, on behalf of what is good, right, true and just, to be lightning rods, to bear the hate of the world without returning it, so that it might be exposed and so that forgiveness is given a chance.

Here it is:

It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitionary atonement

 

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Faith Personal

The old men used to say

“The old men used to say that we should each look upon our neighbour’s experiences as if they were our own. We should suffer with our neighbour in everything and weep with him, and should behave as if we were inside his body; and if any trouble befalls him, we should feel as much distress as we would for ourselves.”

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

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Faith Personal

The best defence is a good offence

You’ve probably heard people say

The best defence is a good offence!

But actually, Jesus said that if you live violently you’ll die violently. The best defence is probably nothing to do with fighting your adversary, but rather loving them. As a best case scenario, they’ll return the favour – and you both win. Worst case scenario, you love them, and they take advantage of you. Which sucks, true, but at least you’re behaving like God, and that is probably more important than winning anyway.

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Faith Personal

“Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”

My favourite blog post ever (big call, I know) is titled “An Unexpected Ass Kicking“. You should read it.

A freelancer sits down in a coffee shop in Portland to get some work done, and finds himself distracted by a senior citizen wanting to talk about computers.  At this point I groaned, but, (spoiler alert), the old man turns out to be the most remarkable person this freelancer has ever met.  This old man was Russell Kirsch, whose team built the first internally programmable computer.  Him and his wife used to program the computer while standing inside it.  This man invented computers as we know them today. (He also invented digital photographs and the idea of a pixel. What a boss!)

When Joel the freelancer realized just how impressive Russell is, this conversation took place:

“You know Russell, that’s really impressive.”

“I guess, I’ve always believed that nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do. Most people think the opposite – that all things are withheld from them which they have conceived to do and they end up doing nothing.”

“Wait”, I said, pausing at his last sentence “What was that quote again?”

“Nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do.”That’s good, who said that?

“God did.”

“What?”

“God said it and there were only two people who believed it, you know who?”

“Nope, who?”

“God and me, so I went out and did it.”

What a life changing exchange!  Unbelievable.  When I read the blog I wanted to know if he was imagining God talking in the spiritual, pentecostal, voice-in-the-head sense, or something else.  It turns out he was quoting the story in Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel.

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

In the creation story, whether literal or metaphorical, there had been a flood, Noah’s family survived, and God had commanded them to spread out and fill the earth.  On the way they began developing culture and technology, songs and tools, and when they found a nice place, they stopped spreading.  Instead they settled and built a city.  In their pride they wanted to build a tower so tall that the world would always remember them.

The tower they were building was probably a Ziggurat, and the story of a giant tower in the area of Babylon (modern day Iraq) seems to be shared with other ancient cultures.  To me the confusing of languages could easily happen in the modern day world – a giant corporation or city gradually has multiple cultures rise up in it, they drift apart, can no longer work together, and so abandon the project to go their own ways.  It doesn’t necessarily seem to me like a divine punishment where they spoke one language one minute and all spoke different languages the next.

Let’s look back at God’s words: “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”.  The 400 year old King James translation swaps “plan to do” for “can imagine”: nothing they can imagine will be out of their reach.  Nothing they aspire to and plan for and set their mind on is out of reach.  God acknowledges the amazing potential of human creativity and ingenuity. They like to create new things, do things that have never been done before, and they’re good at it. In that way, they take after their creator.

I always used to read the story of Babel in a fairly negative light – God didn’t like the ingenuity, or saw it as a threat, and so shut it down. John Stott points out two things God may have been offended by: the disobedience of settling rather than spreading out to “fill the earth”, and the presumption that they could reach into Heaven, and be like God – the same as the original sin from the Adam and Eve story. So there’s the failure to explore the earth and develop it’s potential.  And there’s the pride and hubris, being concerned about our fame and wishing ourselves to be like God.

It wasn’t until reading Russell’s conversation that I began to read this statement differently.  Maybe it wasn’t the ingenuity God objected to, maybe he isn’t threatened by us building amazing things. It is, after all, part of our nature as creative beings. But our resourcefulness can be twisted and our inventions result in a world worse-off, not better. (Read the story of the Gatling Gun or Dynamite for examples). And this is all the more likely if we’re acting in our own self interest, for our own fame and power and comfort.  But if we were to instead align our efforts with the command of God – to fill the earth and subdue it, meaning to manage it responsibly and for the benefit of all – then perhaps our efforts would align with God and we could see truly astounding things accomplished.

It can go either way: jets for transport and jets for bombing, nuclear power or nuclear weapons, curing diseases or inventing new ones, programmable computers and systems of government. Humans have the creativity and the resolve to build incredible things. And that can work out really well or really horribly.

There are two questions to consider then: do you, like Russell Kirsch, believe God that what you can imagine and resolve, you can do? Because if you do, maybe you’ll go out there and do something that’s never been done.

The second question is, are you working towards your own fame, power and comfort, or towards the mission laid out by God: to responsibly manage and care for the earth we’ve inherited, and to care for the people we share it with?

Categories
Faith Personal

Preaching about the undead

Preaching about a man who died and then began showing up again, evidently no longer dead, with a new evolution of the human body, and claiming this resurrection as validation of his claims to be king of his nation, saviour of humanity, and founder of a new world order where humans live empowered by a supernatural spirit to live an entirely different style of life which occasionally ignores the realities of physics or biology or politics…. I feel it should carry a whole different level of energy, challenge, hope, discomfort and urgency than it normally does.

And yet if I was preaching, I have no idea what that would look like.

Maybe I need to explore the reality (or unreality) of this story in my own existence first.

Categories
Faith Personal

Get Analoguer This Advent

(Disclaimer: My startup journey and my faith overlap in this post. For those of you who want to avoid the theology stop reading now!)

I’m almost at the end of PhDo, a 6 week startup night class that I have been LOVING. One of the key lessons has been about getting your idea started in the quickest, cheapest, fastest way possible.

The idea is that if you wait too long, you work on your idea in secret, you never put it in front of customers, it’s just an idea. You don’t know if it’s something they’ll want or need or appreciate. Until you reach out and touch a human being, you might as well not have done anything.

Sam, the guy running the course, coined a word. Rather than planning a digital masterpiece of an app that might take years to build, is there a simple, manual, analogue way you can solve the same problem for the same person, now.  Not once you have all the resources and the app and the staff team and investment and… No. Can you help meet a need today? Start meeting a need now, help someone out, see if it’s well received, then worry about scaling the solution up for more people.

Get analoguer. Get dirty. Get doing – solve a problem today. Scale later.

I did this wrong with my School Management System app. I never met with the staff, and completely underestimated how complex the problem of tracking student attendance is.  My solution was way too simplistic, and would never be adequate. The project blew out by 10 months and caused a lot of frustration as a result.

I tried to be a messiah and solve this problem, thinking it would be easy.  But I never entered in and felt / understood the pain first. How can you offer help if you have not stood with people and felt their pain and understood the complexity of the problem first?

This is the difference with how Jesus chose to work. He could try solve the world’s problems from in Heaven. Or send some prophet to do the dirty work. Instead he chose to get dirty, get personal, and get in touch with those he was trying to help. Understand their pain and show his solidarity, feel the full weight and complexity of the problem, and show those facing it that you are eager to help, in any way you can, even if you get dirty doing so. Even if it means suffering with them. Even if it means dying with them.

Jesus left the ivory tower of Heaven. He was God, but put his rights as God and abilities as God behind him, he became an ordinary human, wrapped in ordinary human flesh. He got analogue.

Today is the first day of Advent – the season where we anticipate the coming of Jesus to earth, culminating in Christmas.

We join Mary in expecting the birth of the baby Messiah, the God who gave it all up to come and understand our problems and join us in this often-painful world, and resolved to help us in any way he could, no matter the cost.

And we join with the people of faith around the world expecting the second time Jesus will come, having grasped the full complexity and pain of the human condition, and having felt it for himself, he’ll be back with a solution that scales.

Until then, let’s get analoguer and show love to people, not waiting for the perfect plan, strategy or opportunity, but starting right now in a way where you get as close to the problem as you can, and give what you can today, even if it’s not a full and perfect solution.

Categories
Faith Justice and Politics Personal

Human Faces

When I see the human face behind a political issue, the emotions of apathy, indignation or anger become less.  Then empathy (understanding their suffering), sorrow (grieving with them), remorse (that collectively, the humans in my country did this to other humans) – these emotions become stronger.  Finally, there is hope – these people have courage, and see a better future.  They want to fight injustice, and fight for the rights of those who follow.  I hope, at the end of my life, I can say that I partnered with these guys, not the powers that locked them up and stole their childhood.

Refugee looks back on ordeal of seeking asylum and being detained in Nauru

(God, have mercy, do not treat us as our sins deserve.)