Call and Response

Do you believe in pure coincidence? Serendipity? The human mind, I think, is always looking for connections, ways to make sense of what happens in our world. It’s like proof-texting scripture, though. Oftentimes, we come to a conclusion and then work our way back to its origin, falsely concluding that correlation equals causation.

At the same time, I’ve lived long enough to have had a moment – and sometimes my entire life – completely altered, taken down a path felt always meant for me, by a domino effect of “sheer coincidences.”  It’s then that I think… this can’t be just coincidence.

When I applied to seminary, I knew it might take me ten years to finish because I could only pay for one class at a time (I did not want to take on more school loans). Then – out of the blue – I was told my application had been referred for a scholarship I didn’t even apply for. A scholarship that eventually covered all my tuition.

A couple of days ago, I pulled an old journal of mine from a stack, looking for quotes or scripture notes I might be able to use for an essay on Ephesians. I didn’t flip through it, though, as I might normally do.  Instead, I opened the notebook to the first page:

layout

It was Ash Wednesday 2018, and I had started reading A Way Other Than Our Own by Walter Brueggeman. It’s now a year and a half later, and I’ve been steeped in Ephesians for weeks. By randomly opening an old notebook, I immediately spotted a connection between the OT book of Isaiah and the NT letter to the Ephesians. I would never have looked in Isaiah otherwise.

What I had read in Ephesians, coupled with what I found in Isaiah, brought me to tears:

In him, we have redemption through his blood… Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… (Ephesians 1:7; Isaiah 55:1).

The OT prophecy and the NT message say the same things:  We – all of us, everyone who thirsts – are invited to come back, return to our original identity in God. We – all of us, even he who has no money – can buy wine and milk without price. Because we – all of us – have been redeemed by the grace of God through Christ’s sacrificial death and rebirth.

Our bill has been paid . We have been called to return. All of us. Everyone.

In Christ… Together

hands.png

Have you ever had to write a letter from a prison cell? I haven’t, but I think – no, I’m certain – if I did, it would include whining, pitifulness, more whining, sad faces, and a big helping of extra-whiny on top just for good measure. That’s not what we find in the Letter to the Ephesians, though.

It’s debated who actually authored the letter, but if it was the apostle Paul (as many believe it was), then he would’ve written it while imprisoned in Rome. However, Paul didn’t spend even one sentence wallowing in self-pity about his situation. Rather, he was laser focused on reminding Christians of everything God had done for them and, in turn, how they should live their lives in light of those gifts. No matter he was in prison… Paul had a mission. And nothing would get in his way.

The letter begins in remembrance, thankfulness, and praise:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  (Ephesians 1:3-6 NRSV)

In these three short verses, Paul praises God for:

  • Spiritually blessing us in Christ
  • Freely and by grace alone choosing us to be made one in Christ
  • Viewing us as holy and blameless when we stand before him in love
  • Adopting us as his own children through Christ, his Beloved

Throughout these verses (and as we’ll see, the entire letter), Paul repeatedly emphasizes that we – corporately, not individually – are one body in Christ. As Klyne Snodgrass states in The NIV Commentary on Ephesians, Paul uses the specific terminology ‘in Christ’ as a way to talk about Jesus as our Lord. A believer’s life merges into the life of Christ (and all other believers) to become one body of which Jesus is the head. It is ‘in Christ’ that we find our salvation and spiritual blessings. It is ‘in Christ’ that we are at home.

We can’t help but give praise and thanks to God as we’re reminded that he chose to reveal his love to us by his grace shown through his Son Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence. Paul’s theology emphasizes our blessing as one body and reminds us that corporate worship is essential to our life in Christ, who lives in constant relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit; therefore, we are to live in loving relationship with others – a relationship we will examine in detail as we move further into the Letter to the Ephesians.

Willing to be Led

sign

Romans was going to be my first post-seminary exegesis project… a project all my own that wouldn’t involve a teacher’s deadlines or assignments or awkward “conversations” in online discussion groups. Just me and my NRSV, ESV, NIV, a couple of other alphabet Vs, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

I. Was. Ready.

Apparently, the Holy Spirit had other plans.

The first time I tried to study Romans, I didn’t even make it to a chair before I was waylaid.  I was at work, headed to my reading nook where I take my morning break, when a coworker hijacked my thoughts with his wedding plans.  Before I knew it, “As One” was written and posted, including a reference to John 17:20-23. In my Bible, right next to that scripture, I had written, See Ephesians 4.

After posting “As One,” I headed over to Eph. 4:1:  I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

It just so happens, I’m in a season of discernment and this scripture reminded me of something very important I’d overlooked in all my moaning, wailing, and gnashing of discernment teeth:  God has called everyone to become one in the body of Christ and to use our gifts in the fulfillment of that call. After meditating on the scripture and consulting two commentaries (as well as Os Guinness’ book, The Call), “The Universal Call” was added to my 5 A.M. Thoughts collection.

Sorry Romans – You’ll have to wait till another day because there’s no way I’m leaving Ephesians right now. I’m fascinated by the intersection of God’s universal call with the individual gifts he’s given to each of us, and nothing short of overwhelmed at the thought of being created for the purpose of serving him – individually and as the Church.

It may not be a class requirement, but it’s no less of an assignment that I’ve been given. The Spirit has led me here, and it’s here I’ll stay until I learn what I need to move forward.

 

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

Review: Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

heartlandIn Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, author Sarah Smarsh honestly and fearlessly tells her story of growing up in poverty during the 1980s and 90s on Kansas farmland.

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother—and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita—she gives us a unique, essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.  (Scribner Publishing)

In telling her story, it felt as if she ploughed up memories from my own farming childhood in Kentucky; not that I have experienced all the same traumas. However, we do share feelings of being “less than,” embedded by societal dualism of poverty vs. wealth, as well as a sense of family dysfunction that no one seemed interested in calling out by name.

“Nothing was more painful to me than true things being denied,” Smarsh writes. “The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.”  A book about class, identity, and the plight of rural farmers also became – for me – much-needed confirmation that my similar memories have value. A very personal, yet unexpected, response to her openhearted memoir.

From conversations with her imaginary daughter to strife-filled stories of her family’s generational struggle with poverty, Sarah Smarsh holds nothing back. She laments being constantly reminded as a child of all she didn’t have, “like running a hot marathon next to a cool reservoir from which you’re not allowed to drink,” while also celebrating her ultimate success as a professor and journalist – tempered by the process of trying to reconcile where she is with where she once was.

Heartland also gives frank insight into the lives of those waging daily battles against dysfunctional family cycles while simultaneously struggling to earn a living wage. As Smarsh’s story explains in heartbreaking detail, “It’s impossible to pay the citation for expired auto insurance” when you can’t even pay the initial insurance bill after “fifty hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.” Then try explaining such a situation to a person who has never missed a payment on anything and never had to work a double shift to pay the insurance bill.

Bottom line:  The people who need to hear such stories are maintaining their distance from the people who are living them out. Heartland helps shorten that distance.

The Universal Call

Jack Wilson

Today I received calls from Oregon, New Jersey, a very small town in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Jamaica. No, I don’t know people all over the US or the Caribbean – these are dreaded telemarketers who keep offering me “better” interest rates on [credit cards, mortgages, car loans] and warning me about the perils of continuing to operate in the world while unprotected from [hackers, scammers, the dark web]. One call was even so kind as to offer a consolidation loan for my husband’s school loans. Only problem is, he doesn’t have any.

So, note to all my friends who may be calling from a number NOT in my caller ID: I’m sorry you’re [in jail, caught under something heavy, running from reality] but I no longer take calls from numbers I don’t know. If you’re actually someone I’ve been in contact with at some point in my life but for some reason I don’t have your current phone number in my current cell phone, you’re just gonna have to leave a message and wait for me to call you back.

Hopefully you won’t have to wait long, because I totally understand your frustration if you do. Waiting for people to call me back is an irritation that runs a close second to telemarketers blowing up my phone and filling my voicemail. I tell myself it’s building my capacity for patience, but in reality I’ve chewed all ten fingernails while waiting “patiently.” (And I’m eyeballing my toenails.)

I have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing God, so I find myself envisioning his response to waiting. Does he flop on a cloud with the remote dangling off the edge in his hand, mindlessly scanning through the cable channels? Maybe he cuddles with a cat, perusing Instagram photos, mildly annoyed when he discovers his ginger ale has lost its punch from all the melting ice (and passing time)? The impressive thing is, no matter how long we keep him waiting… no matter how many infomercials he watches, or how many watery drinks he ends up pouring out… God continues to wait for all of us to answer his call. And don’t ever doubt that you’ve been called!

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul literally begs them to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you have been called (4:1). Paul isn’t talking here about “calling” in terms of what profession or career each person chooses. He’s talking about the one call that everyone has received: God’s call to join the one, unified body of Christ. It’s a call to everyone – and it’s a call everyone can accept.

I think the problem might be that we forget (or don’t realize) that God called us first. Through Jesus, God called us and offered his gift of reconciliation – a gift that we have done nothing, nor can do anything, to earn or deserve. It’s not like first opening a new credit card and then getting six months without interest. God asks nothing of us in advance for us to be given his gift of love, reconciliation, and redemption. He’s already called and left a message. The next move is ours.

God called you up a long time ago and not recognizing the number, fearing what it might be or what it might mean, you let it go to voicemail. Now that you’ve figured out who’s calling – that it’s an old friend who needs/wants nothing other than just to get everyone together again – how long will you wait before you answer? How long before you begin living a life worthy of the call to which we have all been called?

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

As One

IMG-3856

 “Awesome!”

That was a co-worker’s assessment of his day so far – and it was only 8:30 am! For him, every day lately has been Awesome! because it brings him one day closer to his wedding day. His walk, his talk… everything about him says, I cannot wait to marry her!  As I watched him float down the hallway back to his desk, I thought of my own wedding day… fourteen years ago.

My husband and I say it sometimes feels like fourteen days, other times like forty years, but either way, neither of us can remember the last time we told a story starting with “I” instead of “we.”  And, we are okay with that! Fourteen years later and we still say “I love you” countless times a day. We pride ourselves on our ability to sicken those around us with our googly eyes and mutual admiration. We still kiss each other goodnight – every night.

Don’t get the impression, though, that my hubby and I have led a charmed life together. We haven’t. Money worries, kid rebellions, job stress… You name it, and we have most likely fretted and fought with it or wrestled and struggled over it. Major move? Did it. Go back to college? Did that too. (Twice.) Depression? Lived through it. (More than twice.) Hospitals? Know more than we care to. Death? Unfortunately, yes. We’ve both lost someone we deeply loved.

The past fourteen years haven’t been absent of heartache; but, they haven’t been absent of blessings either. Through both, there has never been any question in either of our minds about the depth and commitment of our love. Life has thrown us for a loop sometimes, but we have never – not once – lost an ounce of our love for each other because of ill circumstances. Likewise, we can’t say that we’ve loved each other more simply because life was treating us well.  The measure of our love hasn’t fluctuated with our situation – good or bad.

Marriage made us one through love, and it has blessed us with a small glimpse of God’s larger plan for the world.

[F]or God is love… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:8-12 NRSV). God is present wherever steadfast love abides. I believe the love shared by two people who choose to marry is nothing short of the presence of God on Earth. Such love is not intended to live in isolation. God’s love is meant to be perfected in us as we steadfastly love those near to us and far from us, for we are all one in his love. This was Jesus’ request when he prayed to the Father in the hours leading up to his arrest:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 20-23, 25-26)

I view the marriage of two people who pledge to love each other through thick and thin as a celebration of the marriage that is to come between God and his church. When all the members of the church’s body are joined together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that they may become completely one – there will be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready…” (Rev 19:6-7)

 

“God, grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace, that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; where, O Father, with your Son, and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign in perfect unity, now and forever.  Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer)

Every Tattoo Has A Story

unnamed

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and OCD in my twenties, and while I’ve aged far beyond those years I still have days when I struggle—and even suffer—with feelings of hopelessness and despair. Granted, they aren’t as frequent or extreme as they once were (thanks in no small part to brain chemical research and modern pharmaceuticals), but those feelings are a part of who I am, and they can rise to the surface before I even sense their advance.

In art, the spaces around and in between objects are referred to as “negative space.” Sometimes those spaces themselves can take on the appearance of shapes and real objects. (Google “vases/faces illusion” for a good example of this.)

I envision my depression to be like negative space in my brain, taking shape between my rational thoughts, insidiously growing larger and larger, taking over first one thought and then another… pushing, distorting, and completely transforming them until the mere thought of getting up and out of bed becomes too much. I then become only what I envision in my mind, and my mind holds nothing but disfigured lies.

My tattoo is a reminder that I am more than this.

In Acts 9:36-42, the apostle Luke recounts the story of Tabitha, a woman he describes in the original Greek as μαθήτρια (math-ay’-tree-ah) – a female disciple. This word is used only once in the entire New Testament and Luke chooses it to singularly identify Tabitha.

As Luke tells her story we learn that Tabitha was most likely wealthy, given her acts of charity and what would have been an atypically large home for that time and place. (Tabitha had died and the women placed her body upstairs.) But before any of this—before even giving us her name—Luke writes, ἦν μαθήτρια: There was a female disciple.

Yes, Tabitha was a woman devoted to good works, sharing her money, time, and skills making clothing for the widows of Joppa—women of limited means with few ways to support themselves. But first and foremost, she was a Christian disciple. She had a heart devoted to Jesus Christ that brought focus to her individual days and, ultimately, her entire life—a life that wasn’t quite finished…

Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Depression tells me I’m alone…

but God surrounds me.

I am μαθήτρια.

Depression tells me I’m worthless…

but Jesus claims me.

I am μαθήτρια.

Depression tells me I can’t even move…

but the Spirit fills me.

I am μαθήτρια.

And I am alive.

 

Counterfeit Books: Be on the lookout!

LOTOEarlier this week, Christianity Today reported that both Amazon and several of its third-party sellers sold counterfeit copies of Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren issued a statement on her blog, as well as photos to help identify counterfeit copies of her book. According to Christianity Today, it is estimated that IVP Press has lost around $240,000 in retail sales over the past nine months as a result of these illegal sales—which also means no royalties for Warren.

Check out the links above for all the ugly (albeit informative) details, and head over to IVP Press to purchase the real version of Liturgy of the Ordinary at its current 40% off sale price of $9.60.  It’s an amazing piece of writing—one that Tish Harrison Warren and her publisher deserve to get paid for.

5 AM Theology

beliefs

Since the recent passing of a beloved Christian writer, a lot has been written in articles, blogs, and opinion columns about her theology, both in agreement and dissent. Her passing—and particularly the ensuing battle of beliefs—has led me to take a long look at my own theology, my own religious practices, and try to articulate the framework I operate in when I conceive of and talk about God. I’ve also reached the end of my Master’s coursework in theological studies. All combined, I’ve had a few things to think about lately.

My brain has been busily pulling out aspects of Christianity and sorting them into piles of “yeah, I believe that” and “no, I can’t go there.” It’s a healthy exercise, if tiring, and it’s one that everyone probably needs to do every few years. Like author Sarah Bessey says, “If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention.”

I believe in a Holy Trinitarian God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three entities in perfect union with each other, mysteriously one. There are days, however, when I don’t believe God is triune. Honestly, some days it feels more like an idea cooked up by the Church Fathers than something revealed in Scripture. But as strange as it sounds, and as much Scripture and as many theological rabbit holes I have to dive into for a full explanation, I always return to an acceptance of God as three in one.

I do not believe God is male. I did, however, grow up in a church where God was referred to using only male pronouns and that is how I formed a vision of my relationship with God. I am not opposed to using the female pronouns to refer to God, I simply choose not to use them myself (as you’ve probably noticed). I am also not opposed to the neutral “Godself.” As with most things, I believe everyone should use whatever pronoun they’re most comfortable with when they speak of God. I choose to use male pronouns. Don’t hate me for it.

And don’t think it means I’m a complementarian. I do not believe God forbids women to preach to men in the church, be it from the pulpit or on the front steps. I’ve met too many women called by God to do both things.  In much the same way, I’ve met too many LGBTQ people who were called to preach for me to ever say that God doesn’t want them in the pulpit. People who are truly called to serve God–no matter who or where they are–will live out that call to God’s glory, and not for my (or anyone else’s) worldly approval.

I believe in Scripture. I believe that God inspired the writers of works included in the Bible and because of that, it should be viewed as holy. I believe the writers of Scripture wrote from Godly inspiration, but I also believe their writings reflect their distinctly male experience in an ancient society as part of a patriarchal culture. Holy? Most assuredly.  Completely devoid of gender and cultural biases? Um, no.

I believe Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were an act of salvific grace. I believe if I have genuine faith in God, Jesus, and the Spirit, I will show that faith through my actions. I do not believe that I will never act wrongly or badly, nor do I believe I can complete any activities to earn my forgiveness. My forgiveness was given through the death and resurrection of Christ. If there was anything I could do to earn God’s grace or lose God’s grace, then the death of Jesus on the cross was pointless.

I believe God longs for human beings to choose to live in love and peace with each other, and we’ve chosen the path of hatred and war instead. I believe God longs for a relationship with us, but he wants us to freely choose him. God doesn’t want us to love him because he’s our Father or because we think we’re supposed to; he wants us to love him because we feel love in our hearts for him.

Which is what all of this boils down to for me, really:  God is love. God is grace. God is forgiveness. God is relationship. Jesus said the two most important commandments were to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. He didn’t give any exceptions to those two commandments.  And he most certainly did not say for us to love the sinner, but hate the sin.

He didn’t.  He didn’t have to issue any qualifiers like that because he knew ALL were going to continue to sin in thought or action, in one way or another, big or small. In my church, we acknowledge that fact every time we come to the table for the Eucharist when we pray:  Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We haven’t done your will, we’ve broken your law, rebelled against your love, not loved our neighbors, and ignored the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray.

I believe God tells us to just love people the best we can.  Let him be concerned with their (and our) sinful nature and need for forgiveness.  Just love him and each other well.

My theology is actually pretty simple:  Look around you. If it isn’t of love, it isn’t of God. So try to leave everything with a little more love.

 

Want me to write more about these or other topics? Drop me a note in the comments, and we’ll see what happens!

Recovering

recovering

Is it just me, or did anyone else experience an Easter hangover this year? It could’ve been the consequences of too much country ham or corn pudding.  Maybe it was that second helping of broccoli casserole with a third yeast-roll chaser?  Yep!  I’m fairly certain I can blame carb loading for at least a small part of my post-Easter melancholia.

I also think there’s the tiniest bit of a letdown when a big project comes to a close, and Easter was the finish line for my Blog-Every-Day Challenge for Lent. I worked long hours at times to pull it off, but I’m proud of myself for staying with it (considering my penchant for quitting). To be honest, sitting down every day with my marked-up Bible and MacBook felt like reuniting with a long lost home. To borrow a well-worn phrase from John Wesley… I felt my heart “strangely warmed.”

So while Lent 2019 is now officially in the books, you’ll still find me hanging around here at 5 A.M. Thoughts, carb hangover notwithstanding!  In the meantime, I’m including a couple of interesting links below.

The first is an explanation of the Christian Year, including the current liturgical season of Easter (also referred to as Eastertide and more than just one Sunday). If you’ve never been affiliated with a church that follows the liturgical calendar, it can be a little overwhelming. This resource from College Wesleyan Church is extremely helpful.

Secondly, for all you Biblical Greek fans (or exegetical wannabes), an article from Christianity Today about who the New Testament writers had in mind when they wrote all those “you” verses.

From Relevant Magazine, an article by theologian N.T. Wright on Easter, Atonement, and the Real Message of the Cross.

Lastly, but of utmost importance, a link to the official GoFundMe page for Rachel Held Evans if you feel led to help with medical expenses. RHE is the author of Searching for Sunday and Inspired, as well as serving as co-curator for the Evolving Faith Conference.  Recently, she was hospitalized with flu and has had serious, unexpected complications.  She is currently in ICU in a medically-induced coma.  This talented author, wife, and mom (as well as her family) needs your prayers for strength.

Thanks for reading! I’ll see you back here in a day or two with more 5 A.M. Thoughts. Until then, here’s a little something from N.T. Wright for you to ponder…

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. ― N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope