Over Thinking: First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Much has been written on the tree of Good and Evil. I believe I have even blogged on it before. But in this season the text appears afresh. As I look at the full lectionary for this week of Lent these are the lines that stand out to me.

Sometimes, I wonder if our post-modern world has taken all the beautiful gifts that God has given to us and analyzed them to death. That is not a slam against science or inquiry, I believe both are important. Science is helps us understand the things we can not see, things that may be to tiny for us to touch or to big for us to comprehend. Last Thanksgiving my husband and I took a trip to Monterey, California we drove through the Carrizo Plain, a geological wonderland where you can see the fault lines of the earth on the surface of the ground. On the plain is what is called “Soda Lake”, it is essentially a lake of baking soda and I found it fascinating. The place is a natural wonder. When we arrived at Monterey we went to the famous Monterey Aquarium and again I found myself in awe at the complexities of nature, and even more in awe of the One Who Created it all!

If the world we live in is so amazing, I have to wonder about all the people we live around. I know we live in a twenty-four hour news cycle that always seems to be negative. It is a cycle that fuels our fears of “the other”–the immigrant, the person of a different religion, the person who speaks another language or has different speech, the person who looks or moves through the world in a different way, and it seems like there has been an intentional effort to separate ourselves from those who experience reality differently then we do–the ones who live with mental health issues.

God created the world and the people in it and called all of it “good”. Isn’t that our story? As I come to these lines of scripture today, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t also telling us don’t over analyze it just go with it. Over and over again God tells people to “go”, “let go”. Jesus tells people “follow me”. We are never asked to analyze or judge. We are asked to accept, to go out and work with what we find. This scripture is a warning to us that if we over think things we may lose the ability to be and act appropriately in the world. It is a command to not stigmatize, for when we do we lose something of ourselves.

This Lent as I reflect on my ministry, and my journeys into the world, I want to examine if I have always been as open as God has called me to be. I want to work to undo the over-thinking. I want to work against the stigmas that separate us one from the other and to live into the prayer that Jesus offered in saying good-bye to his followers…”that they may all be one”.


“Run Free”?–An Ontological Question

Sunday morning in church the choir sang an amazing anthem. One line of that anthem stuck out to me and has left me pondering since the service went like this “…the lame will run free”. The anthem was speaking about the world as if settled in the Kindom* of God. The image of the lame walking is a standard image found in the Biblical narrative. It is not so much a literal image as it is one of the metaphorical images used to depict the the Kindom of God where right relationships are restored and persons are liberated to be who God made them to be. An image used to show that the Kindom is real and here on earth.

The line from the anthem stands out to me because this making the “lame” to “walk” has theological implications of personhood and ontological implications of our identities in the afterlife. Its a question I hear only quietly asked between friends, even within the disability community. It is not so much an opposition to the metaphorical image of making the blind to see or the lame to walk being symbolic of the Kindom of God, for of course there is an expectation that the Kindom of God will bring many things that we can not now imagine and that there with be a wholeness of identity and personhood that is beyond our mortal understanding . But between friends in the disability community, I have yet to met one persons who thinks or wants to arrive in the Kindom of God “cured” and without their impairments. No, my friends are not in need of psychological assistance, on the contrary most are clergy and have passed psychological background testing and others whom I have had this conversation with are PhDs. This issue here is not what the Kindom of God brings or does not bring, it is not an issue of God’s power needing to be made manifest, the issue is ontological individual identity.

“Of course I will have disability in the Kingdom of God!” I have a clear memory of a friend proclaiming this to me. It was not a denial of all things being made new in God , but an assertion that the identity that God created in her was GOOD (see Genesis)! The identity of people with disabilities  is what often gets misunderstood when we toss around ideas of the mute persons talking, the blind man seeing, and the woman with a limp suddenly having none.

As human beings we are embodied beings. Just as Jesus came to know the world by becoming incarnate, we come to know the world, build relationships with others, and come to know and understand God through our experience of being in our bodies. It is hard to deny that our bodies impact our identities. Look at how the theory, theology, and lived experience of the GLBTQI movement over the last twenty years has demonstrated how our experiences of embodiment impact our identities. It would be impossible for me to know how not growing up being ridiculed and bullied for having a speech impediment, physical slowness, and poor balance would have impacted my identity. Do I, personally, think I  will have a speech impediment and poor balance in the Kindom of God? No, actually I think in the Kindom of God I have a voice, power of communication, and poise that actually compels others to listen to me–because that would the topsy-turvy righting of relationship found in God’s Kindom. As a person who has lived with chronic pain, do I believe I will have pain for eternity? No I do not. ButI do think my experience has taught me that human beings have limits; that is not necessary or even desirable to be able to anything one wants at anytime. I have learned humility, and grace, patience and perseverance. Pain is a teacher and gaining  experience in how to learn from subtle experiences is something that offers profound spiritual lessons. They are not lessons about have speech impediments nor are they lessons about pain. They are lessons about getting to know oneself in relation to self, others, and God.

So I am left wondering who is going to “run free”? And why? Is it something within their personality that leads them to want or need to “run free”? Or are we finally going be able to “run” as we are without the judgement of others suggesting that we need to run, even though that may be uncomfortable for us. (Please don’t make me think about school “Field Days”, as I would consider those days to be one of Dante’s many circles of Hell.) For some of us, people with disabilities, the metaphors of the Kindom of God maybe what they are—we can’t change the scriptures, and its beautiful poetry so why would we want to? But why are the people with disabilities the only ones who have to be “transformed” to fit into the Kindom? For myself, and others with disability, it is more of an ontological question. God made me this way, and it is Good. Given the nature of my ontological being as a person with disability; given the fact that my personal identity is defined by experiences of disability, to what degree to I fit the “normalcy” of others in the Kindom of God? Why do I need to run, when I am already free?

* “Kindom” is not a misspelling of Kingdom, but an intentional feminist interpretation of the Kindom of God where equality exist between people living together as God intends

The Unholy Family of Christmas

As long as it’s Advent/Christmas season and you’re over here to read encouraging and uplifting articles on this special season, let me bring one more thing to the table.

Over at Jubilee Economics Ministries, another site I do extensive work for, Lee Van Ham has now posted two complete series of blog entries that take some interesting looks at Christmas as told in Luke (from 2010) and Matthew (this year). You can find them within a category called Unwrapping Christmas. The series on Luke explores the cosmological breakthrough of Christ into a world that would be Caesar’s. (Lee gives the grown up Linus answer to Charlie Brown’s question.) This year’s series, dubbed The Unholy Family of Christmas, is actually rather much a topic that should be on this very site for the way it looks at the women of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Lee is a retired pastor of 32 years (Presbyterian) and brings not only his clergy background to explaining the texts, but also his post-retirement passion for helping people open the Bible and to discover the economic themes that bind it together. He is working on a book about “One Earth” economics and the stories that get us there, i.e., the Creation-centered stories of the Bible, in contrast to the Civilization story of empires and superpower nations, which have done much to diminish the former. In this Advent series, Lee looks at the notable women that preceded Jesus, and found how their stories harkened back to the Creation story, and their actions were rejections of the systems that would see them hemmed in by patriarchal laws that might even lead to death if not for the bold life-saving rejections that made these women notable.

While much would be familiar to you as clergy, and as women, for many folks, this is a great new way to unhitch Christmas from the commercial extravaganza it has become, or even to put some power back into the story, leaving the tame little pageant imagery behind. Feel free to share it around as an extra resource with your friends and congregations.

While you’re looking into Jubilee Economics, why not subscribe to The Common Good Podcast too?

As We Forgive Others—Rev. Kelli

Rev. Kelli mugging at the marquee at church with her name on with "rev." painted in after the fact

Uh, that's "Rev." if you please...

Kelli just delivered her first sermon since being ordained in May. It was delivered at CCCPB on August 14th. Since it ran past YouTube’s 15 minute rule, it had to be cut into two, and at least at the time of posting, this is how we gotta do it. Back at YouTube, you can view it as a slightly more graceful playlist that will auto play in series.

Rev. Kelli looks at food insecurity in the time Joseph, a Hebrew in Egypt, and the dire situation in Africa (and lots of places) today, and introduces the UCC Mission 1 campaign.

Fault: Lent 1

Lent has taken many forms over the years. In the early Christian Church Lent was time of preparation for baptism. Lent has also traditionally been a time of penitence. To this day many Christian communities view Lent as a season of personal reflection on how to live up to Christian ideals. There seems to be a current shift in the observances of Lent with many Christians now using this time to intentionally take up spiritual practices and draw closer to God. Whether drawing closer to God, engaging in personal reflections, observing the practice of penitence, or preparing for new life, the scriptures in the Bible seem to be one of the foundations to which we, as Christians, turn during this season. For this reason, I will be attempting through out this Lenten season to offer some scriptural reflections on this blog and these reflections will be based on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) or feminist lectionary Women’s Stories from Scripture for Sundays and Festivals: Remembering the Women by J. Frank Henderson, which also follows the RCL while offering passages reflecting the lives of biblical women to be used when the RCL does not.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that the scripture for the first week of Lent, the season of repentance and reflecting on sins, is Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 about Eve and Adam eating of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It is a text often pointed to as proof of “Original Sin,” the “untrustworthy” or “evil” nature of women. If you are unfamiliar with this passage or would like to refresh your reading of the text you may do so here. It is a text that has long affected the relationships of men and women, particularly in the realm of religious understanding and authority. But what does it say to us in Lent, about penitence, about drawing closer to God, about living the Christian life today?

I recently had occasion to re watch an episode of Bill Moyer’s wonderful PBS series Genesis in which Moyers, himself a pastor, gathers a variety of thinkers, artisans, scholars, and theologians to reflect on the major stories in the Book of Genesis. One of the Genesis episodes named “Temptation” addresses the Genesis passage about Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge. (And yes I must admit spending an hour listening to scholars discuss this was heavenly.) I mention this episode because in rewatching it I was particularly struck by two issues in the Adam and Eve text that I don’t think we often talk critically about: fault and relationship.

So often we approach this text with our tendency to idealize and analyze, and I wonder if in doing so we miss something important. We often imagine Adam and Eve in the garden with all their needs meet and without much worry. Perhaps it was ideal, certainly having all my needs met so I can simply be sounds ideal. But Adam and Eve were human. I have not lived as long as some people have but it does seem to me that one of the traits of our humanity is that if things get too easy we become bored; when we have too few challenges we wonder about new things, we strive to do something new, something to change the status quo although we always hope it will change for the better. It seems that some of that is a foot in this text from Genesis. Eve acts. If we ponder that without judgment for just a minute (go on, I dare you!) we see something different emerging from this. Steven Mitchell, in the Genesis episode comments that Eve is “the one who makes everything happen, who acts out of love for God, if God is wisdom.” (Genesis: a Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday 1996, 47.) In the text the serpent tells Eve “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” It is in some ways Eve’s eating of the fruit was a very Lenten act for it was an act to become closer to God, to “be like God”.

Yet, seeking to be closer to God can often change things in unforeseen ways. In the Genesis story, Eve took a human risk to do something different in order to become closer to God. But things did not work out the way Eve expected. There is in the text evidence that God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge before Eve was a part of the story, Eve may not have had this command directed at her. Nevertheless, whether Eve defied God, as is often said of this text, or whether Eve was acting out of innocence (which seems a closer reading of the text) Eve’s eating of the fruit changes the relationships in the Garden. In Genesis, prior to this episode God is portrayed as walking in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Yet that changes after the eating of the fruit. In the Genesis episode Marianne Meye Thompson makes the point that after the fruit is eaten “they clothe themselves, as if to hide from each other. And they also hide from God.” (Genesis, 52). The text then is about human changes. Changes in human ingenuity, changes in human spirituality, changes in relationships between man and woman as well as between humans and God.

Our text seems to indicate that changes in ourselves also lead to changes in our relationships with others. One of the other things I have noticed about humans is that we don’t like change. Adam very much portrays that aspect of human nature in this story. For when God asks why they are hiding, why they know they are naked, Adam explains that Eve gave him the fruit to eat. God does not fall for it. God does not tell the pair that everything is going to be okay. Rather, God acknowledges the change in all their relationships that will take place, perhaps because of their acts, but also because of the change that has taken place in the man and woman themselves. Not only is change never easy, but in this case the change also brings about suffering. In the Genesis episode Elaine Pagles says of this text that “it insists that suffering has to be somebody’s fault.” (Genesis, 50.) As Christians we live with a tradition that (perhaps not originally) for many centuries has taught that this is a text that tells of how a woman brought sin into the world and how man was given power over her. Sin is a form of suffering. And yes this is a text that speaks to how suffering came about in the world. But woman did not bring suffering into the world. The wisdom of acknowledging suffering existed in the Garden, locked in the Tree of Knowledge, before Eve was ever there. Once that knowledge of suffering, once innocence, came out it could not be put back. There was change; change that required Adam and Eve change their relationships to one another. Once change is proclaimed, it is not always a pronouncement about the way things will be forever. We know this. As Christians, it becomes part of our being. For our teacher Jesus was always challenging the ways people related to one another, turning relationships upside down, inviting the outcasts—even the outcasts from the Garden—back in. Change is part of the Good News!

So, welcome to Lent. Whatever you seek to do this season whether penitence for sins or drawing closer to God through spiritual practices, be aware that such changes can have profound effects on all your relationships. And may God be with you on the journey.