Ash Wednesday: Lent, Sin, and Liberation

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel 2 12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.  

The season of Lent is upon us again. It is the season of introspection, reflection, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Of course what tradition calls us to reflect upon in this season is our sin.

Sin, we all know what it is. Theologically, much could be written about what sin is, and who is responsible for it at which times. Its seems I read several books explaining this in seminary. Practically speaking, however, we know that sin is it is the difference between “right” and “wrong”. Despite all the clamor of theologians, “sin” is a basic concept we apply to explain the breaks in our relationships with other people and with God. It should be a simple thing, right, I mean we teach children to get along so they don’t have fractured relationships, right?

Perhaps sin should be a simple concept. Alas sin has never been a simple concept–whether we are talking about the notions of sin and purity in the Hebrew Bible or what sometimes seem to be convoluted discussions of sins of ancestors and forgiveness of sin in the New Testament.

Discussing the nature of sin, however, is important. Particularly when we want to welcome and include people with disabilities and persons with mental health concerns in the lives of our congregations. For centuries, and still in some regions of the world today, disability and mental health concerns were attributed to the result of unreconciled sin. For centuries humanity confused theology for science. There are scriptures that do equate disease with sin, we should not ignore those scripture but wrestle with them. There are also scriptures that assure that disease is not the result of sin (read Job).

In this scripture from Joel, the prophet is calling for repentance. However, the prophet is also teaching and reassuring us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”. As a woman with disabilities there is great liberation in hearing from the prophets that God does not punish, much less inflict disability, and that indeed God waits for all of us “rend” our hearts and turn to God. There is a time to wrestle with the hard scriptures to search out the meaning and nature of suffering, this is not something I shy away from. However, as I start my Lenten journey of searching myself for what I can do to bring forgiveness and healing into the world, the God who is “gracious and merciful, …abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” seems like a far more welcoming travel partner  to me then a God who may break my leg in retribution if I trip along the way.

Advertisements

What’s Coming?

I have come to learn that I am one of those people who loves to travel. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was a cross-country train trip: west to east and then south to north, when I was seventeen and all by myself, even with a broken foot. One of the things that struck me during that trip was the great cross-section I saw of America—the well-to-do; the black, browns, and whites; the poor; the drunk; the unruly. There is a great diversity that we live in, a diversity that becomes pronounced in some ways and blurred in others over the holiday season. This blurring of the diversity of this season is similar to what I saw on that great monthlong train trip, and Advent is about that long as well. But on that trip, I also learned that despite all our diversities we have much in common. We are all travelers. Despite our station in life we all have to show our tickets when asked, and if we get too unruly we may get put off the car at the next stop.

I think there is a part of the Christmas narrative that gets rushed over. It’s the journey to Bethlehem. All the people, no matter their station, had to return to the land of their fathers to be counted. This Christmas account is an odd and troubling requirement really since it deviates from the Levitical code that required a similar return to homeland, albeit for a very different reason. On the one hand, all the people had to return to the home land of their forefathers—the family land—which was a periodic requirement of the Levitical codes. However, unlike the required Levitical return in which the land and debts would be resettled at this return to the family land so as to reestablish national life in accordance with the provision and justice of God, the Christmas narrative relates that the people are merely counted for Caesar. This is not settling of debts and return of land but an ancient form colonization and subjugation of the people of ancient Israel to the largest empire of the time, Rome.

The reason and consequences of the journey to Rome are not the only thing that gets glossed over in the pageantry telling. There is also a poor and young Mary who is very, very, very pregnant making the journey of several days to the temple city. They were traveling many, many, many miles on foot—if they were lucky they had a pack animal Mary might have ridden. One can imagine this journey would have been very uncomfortable for the mother-to-be. It was no baby shower for sure! What an exhausting physical trip before giving birth! (I consider the experience of Mary’s physical journey fresh and anew this year as I await the news of a friend who is expecting a child, a boy, this very week!) But Mary’s experience was not only a physical one. It was a spiritual and emotional one as well. Mary was a young woman at a precipice: a young woman about to give birth for the first time. A young woman about to give birth as her people enter into a new form of subjugation under a new emperor. A young woman about to give birth to a son come to pronounce a new way of relating, a new way of justice and peace at the end of an empire. And I wonder what it was like for Mary to give birth in such times. Mary, having been told this was the Child of God. Mary, wondering if this was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. Was she ready to give birth? Was she ready for what was to come?

Let us dedicate this day in prayer to the women waiting to give birth, to pray for their preparation and safety in this transition of life to life.

And let us wonder, if we are ready.

Hope for Justice to Come

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
—Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Does it ever seem to you that the world is just not right? It does to me. Does it seem that injustices abound and individuals can not always do too much to get  ‘ahead’ in the world? Maybe it’s not just the individual, maybe there is a more systematic force preventing justice.

If this is true, it is not the first time in human history it has been experienced. The Bible is full of examples of when the world was unjust and details some of the lives of the greatest freedom fighters in the cause of justice to ever walk the planet. It’s one reason to open the Bible and the find the juicy stuff.

The devotional passage of this first day of Advent speaks to one of the times in history of great injustice, but it is also one that looks back at a plan for living in justice and a future in which people will live with the hope of justice restored. Jeremiah may have been a strange character walking through the town streets with a yoke and eating items we would consider unsuitable for consumption—read your Bible, the disgusting extremes of injustice are detailed there alongside the juicy audacious doings of the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah has gone to purchase the future crops of a field belonging to his family which had been sold to pay the debts of his family members. Yet Jeremiah is prevented from doing this, and that is the problem. That Jeremiah is prevented or delayed in reclaiming the land of his ancestors, is in some sense the straw that breaks the whole world apart and not only sets the prophet into motion but sets God to speaking through the prophet. To understand the significance of this we need to understand that Jeremiah is attempting to act in accordance with the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (Marvin Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature, 112). These laws require him to redeem his family’s land in an effort to maintain the balance of power within the community that God ordained as a part of creation. The very balance of power that allows for justice. If Jeremiah cannot do this then the whole of creation, particularly human society within creation, is at risk of falling back into chaos. Thus God must intervene to reestablish justice.

And thus this passage looks to the future, a future of justice. Traditional Christianity, and scripture, has held that the coming Christ child is the shoot of David. I tend to think it is near irresponsible to impose elements of the New Testament on the Hebrew Bible to get such a reading. The beauty is, however, that we do not have to do so. The ministry of Jesus is one that challenges the Levitical codes pertaining to individuals so individuals may be embraced by community (experience justice), and a calling the community to the responsibilities of  humane society (to be just) as called for in the Levitical codes. In some sense, both Jeremiah and Jesus call our attention to the role of the Levitical code in ordering human relationships within society and human society as whole as a guest within God’s creation. Jeremiah and Jesus remind that we are guests welcomed to experience God’s justice but also, as members of human society, quite a way from the Justice of God’s Kindom.

It’s the same old struggle that humanity must face only in a new age. As we enter into this season of Advent, particularly this week of Hope, Let us reflect on how we can be instruments of God’s justice allowing others to feel that the are welcomed alongside us in God’s Kindom. Let us pray that God would empower us each to move into a future of liberation, a future in which all peoples and all creation can live together in justice. It is the after all part of our most famous prayer, Your kindom come, Your will be done.

The Ordination Paradox

Amanda Kersey just got ordained and is singing I'll Fly Away

“How does it feel, Rev?” “What’s it like?” “Are you used to it yet?” These are just a few of the questions I have been asked within the last couple of weeks after my ordination. To be honest I feel a mixture of emotions and think I will for some time. After the first week at the surface I felt relief, excitement, happiness, contentment, confidence and to be honest a little sadness. However, after my second week there was new deeper emotion and I couldn’t name it. It was bothering me so badly I actually had to stop blogging to figure it out. To put it simply, I feel that a wrong has been righted. And with that there is new found stillness in my mind, soul and body. A stillness that in some way feels distantly familiar.

Listening to all of the human interest stories from the Olympics helped me articulate what was going on for me. Hearing some of the inspiring stories and sacrifices the athletes made over the years—something I can halfway understand as a former USS and collegiate swimmer. However, for me the swimming analogy is a little deeper. I’m still not really sure what happened to me as a swimmer and to be honest I’m not sure it was just one thing. It’s more like it was a perfect storm. It’s not something I totally regret, because I truly and deeply feel like I am exactly where I need to be in my life and the bad and the good attributed to me being where I am. I do, however, feel that what happened to me as a swimmer had a good chance of repeating itself in my professional career and calling. I felt that old urge to settle, buckle under, back off because my drive upset others (having moms of my teammates yell at me in the locker rooms) and do “just enough.” I gave in for a while allowing myself to be walked over, overworked and underappreciated in my marriage and in the church. As a kid I was at the mercy of others, but as an adult it was all me and this time enough was enough. I thought about the words of Christ that we are to forgive seventy times seven. I also recalled the biblical examples of where people parted ways without cross feelings, but with an understanding that it just wasn’t working. For me I worked hard to forgive not only others, but myself for allowing myself to be used in those ways. I had to make the decision to walk away from my spiritual tradition in 2008 in order to do what I know I am supposed to do now and set myself up for the future. It was an excruciating and yet beautiful process, one I have both hated and loved.

I ignored the pulling in my life towards ordination for years for many different reasons. I knew my life would have to drastically change—I knew it would expedite the end of a significant relationship, bring some dissension within my family and force me to break ties with a religious community that once loved and nurtured me and I it. However, the scariest part of ordination was the internal dialogue I had to engage with myself and God as I had to consider what it meant to follow a God that I felt was calling me out of and against everything I had been taught and believed for so long. When God lives in a box and Gods actions and motivations can be surmised in a nice tightly wrapped systematic theology it’s easy to get comfortable and dare I say arrogant. This process broke me in new ways as I had to come to the realization my two degrees in religion speak more to the fact that I enjoy academia than my understanding of God. God has once again shown me that the truth of the words of Isaiah, “God’s ways are not my ways and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). I was once again reminded that when God calls us out into new places there are critics on all our sides, encouraging us to doubt and question and even at times suggesting our faith is immature and misguided. However, I have once again been reminded to claim the truth that the voices of the many do not outweigh the whisper of the One. I’m not saying I didn’t listen to others. In fact I believe others are a way in which God speaks to and through us. However, it felt too reminiscent and I had given in before, but not this time.

July 22, 2012 I was ordained in the UCC after having hands laid upon me both literally and figuratively affirming the call of God on my life and having a church promise to support me. This public affirmation for me once again brought a deep sense of healing making visible something I had only been able to imagine. I have known the call on my life since I was 17, but to have it confirmed in front of witnesses transforms the internal into the external causing something mystical and supernatural to happen. The wrong had been righted. After years of being denied job applications, having to have checks from the church written to my ex-husband instead of me for the work I had done and even having churches offer to pay for his seminary and not mine all that injustice has been righted. Now, I am not one of those who believe that the past is somehow magically erased, but I do believe it can be shelved. I don’t want to forget, because it is what drives me to look for others who have had similar experiences and creates in me a new found sensitivity.

There is no anger or resentment (anymore). I am truly grateful for a religious upbringing that introduced me to God, taught me so much about spiritual discipline and gave me a love for scripture. I’m forever thankful for the roots, but sometimes plants are uprooted and replanted in order to fully grow. The sadness of ordination has been that there has been very little acknowledgement from people in my past—the tradition which I left. I’m sure it’s because some think I have lost my mind or at least temporarily gone insane. Perhaps some think maybe if it’s not acknowledged it does not exist. However, the support I have received has been amazing and for right now that is enough. It’s already opened up some interesting opportunities to meet others. All in all I’m pretty excited about the future, but also feeling grounded in the present.

Ordination on YouTube

Here is the final playlist of videos from my ordination. There are five videos that will play straight through if you let it, or you can use the advance button to get to the next video.

  1. Thoughts before the ordination
  2. Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas’ sermon
  3. Special music: Lois Myers sings “Be Strong, Take Courage”
  4. Ordination liturgy including laying on of hands
  5. Unedited complete service

Ordination for Another WWSIC

We’ve just gotten word that Karen Clark Ristine, one of our Advent Contributors, and a woman highly gifted by the Holy Spirit will be Ordained to Christian Ministry in the United Methodist Church this Saturday in a service at Redlands University in Redlands, California! Karen is currently the pastor of Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California.

Congrats Karen! Come Holy Spirit Come!

Hosana! The Time is Now!

The “Friendly Beasts” has always been one of my favorite Christmas hymns. If you have, or have had pets you know how important animals are to out lives. As a hospice chaplain I meet people for whom their animals are their last friend, another being they feel connected to and shows love and connection to them. Animals are amazing and sometimes I think our modern-world makes it to easy to separate ourselves from the animals around us.

In Jesus’s time animals were a necessary and important part of daily life. In today’s story–and we hear it every year–Jesus sends the disciples to find a donkey that Jesus later rides into Jerusalem to be met with people who wave palms and shout “Hosanna”! The donkey is not only part of the proof of Jesus’s divinity in that he told the disciples exactly where to find the donkey but the young donkey also becomes a key part of the social drama and guerrilla theater in which Jesus is  celebrated as King of Jews. Riding on a horse was symbolic of royalty in those days, so for Jesus to ride a donkey was not only conveying the message that there was divine royalty about Jesus, but it also one of the ways in which Jesus subverted the social symbology of the day. For Jesus to ride an animal into the city was a way to assert his authority, but using a donkey rather than a horse also poked fun at power structures of the time, particularly the Roman structure. In a not so subtle way this poking fun at the symbols of the power structure was a direct assault on the authority of the system itself. A way of saying ‘you think you are are so powerful on that horse, come down just a bit closer to the people and lets see how powerful you really are!’ It was a dare, and by the end of the week the powers that were, would respond to Jesus’ challenge. But is wasn’t only Jesus being subversive it was the crowd as well. By welcoming Jesus with palm fronds, a welcome reserved for entry of the victorious, the crowd proclaimed that Jesus had arrived as the victorious power in the city.

There remains so much social injustice in the world that I wonder what Jesus would focus on if he were teaching in the flesh among us today. No doubt Jesus would focus on teaching on the reality of God and kindom of all people, but I wonder what other issues of justice he would speak out on. Likely, as in Jesus’s day, one foci would be the systematic injustice and oppression of the poor and outcasts of society. That’s a nice neat concise sentence, but truly addressing systematic injustice is messy and unpredictable and certainly requires calling into question the authority of those with the power to oppress–those collecting the taxes and those with the political connections to keep the Roman legions at bay. Where, I wonder, is our donkey today? What has Jesus sent us into the cities to find that will assist us in subverting the authorities who allow and perpetuate injustice? When we can answer that and start to see it in our streets then we too will shout Hosanna in the streets!

The Wisdom of Women

I must confess, Epiphany is my favorite day of the Christian year. It is ripe with possibilities that often go overlooked. It also has deep personal meaning to me because of the tradition my family of origin created to celebrate the arrival of the “kings.”

The three kings, found in only one gospel, add a mysticism to the Christmas story that I venture to say we find no place else in the entire Advent-Christmas-Epiphany story. It is the kind of mysticism that may only exist in one other place in Christianity, namely the Resurrection.

Epiphany—realization. It’s the story of the arrival of the “kings” into the presence of the babe called Jesus, and his parents. It’s a story not only of realization but one of being equipped for the holy journey. Here we have the three “kings,” scholars from afar, arriving to welcome the child of a young and unknown Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph we know had been told in visitations and dreams that there was something of celestial destiny associated with their child. But the then there was the arrival of these strange kings who had held audience with the local ruler in their search for Jesus. It does not seem strange to me that scholars, kings, paying attention to the signs of their time and heeding the leading of the divine in their own lives would seek Jesus out. Indeed, I think the grown Jesus once spoke of the need to heed the signs of our own time.

We too, I believe, are each in some way to be equipped for the journey ahead of us, be it a journey we anticipate or not. There are signs of our coming reality that we may not always see for what they are. Perhaps one of the reasons I love Epiphany so much is that each January 6th of my school age years, I would awake to find three wrapped gifts at the foot of my bed. They were not Christmas gifts, and although they were wrapped, they were never shiny toys designed to delight. No, they were shoes, socks, a shirt…usually things that needed to be replaced at that time of the school year. I looked forward to these gifts sometimes more than gifts from Santa, and often I was allowed to discover what lay inside the wrapping in the privacy of my own room—no family snapping photos, no requests to model what might lay inside. Simple gifts designed to equip me for the journey ahead. It would be some where in my twenties that I would realize one of the reasons behind my visits from the wise men was the fact that—living paycheck to paycheck—my mother could not always buy what she wanted to get me for Christmas at one time and this was her way of “making up” for what seemed to her—not me—as meager Christmas mornings. Mother’s wisdom.

As I think about the story of the three kings, it really is strange that they would give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What strange gifts. Yes, we get that they were valuable, but what is a baby from a poor family to do with those? Ah, yes, the family was soon to flee into Egypt to escape from Herod. Gifts of wealthy to empower refugees fleeing for their lives. The gifts the wise men gave equipped Jesus’ family for the journey but the gifts were also over-the-top extravagant. They were gifts in the ancient tradition; gifts of tribute given to a king—a person of great power in the world. And in this sense the gifts were ones of recognition of the arrival of the person come in the form of a babe to live among the marginalized in an occupied land.

—A babe whose ultimate omnipresence in the world we just celebrated at Christmas. Wait, what? Usually we think of God as omnipresent in the world, not Jesus. Yes, I hear the theologians among you complaining. And I protest. My thought for Epiphany 2012 is this: the gift we received in Jesus’s birth was Jesus bringing God to us and showing us how to bring out the recognition of the Holy Spirit into the world in return. It was the gospel and work of the grown Jesus to invite in the poor, the disabled, the women, the children, those who had no voice in society into the conversation, to demand that they be heard and that they be fed both literally and with justice. Christmas is the beginning of that, Epiphany the recognition of it, and the rest of the church year is a discussion on how to live into and out of the babe recognized by kings.

This is hard work. It is being shaken to the core, ceased by the spirit, and acting upon completion. As I write this, I am returning from a denominational meeting in which the discussion of diversity and inclusion not only left out but further marginalized people with disabilities. In the meeting, I was sitting and processing how to respond. But then a lone woman stood up, interrupted the meeting, spoke out for justice, and sat down. Then I stood up and spoke on the same topic. Then a third. And the church was silenced into the realization that Jesus is still present and calling for the inclusion of the marginalized, and the Spirit is still moving within the church with an overpowering wind when necessary. Woman-Spirit in partnership with wisdom.

As we close this devotional season at Women Who Speak in Church, I invite you to take this realization of the omnipresence of Jesus calling for liberation of the marginalized, and the knowledge that the Spirit is still blowing the winds of God’s justice with you into this new year. May we all live fully, knowing that we have been somehow equipped for journey ahead.

Amen for Epiphany!