By Another Name

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:14, NRSV)

A couple years go, a minister friend of mine told me of a conversation he had with one of his five-year-old daughters. He was trying to teach her different ways we could name God. josh-applegate-146228.jpgThere was the usual cast of characters: Father, Creator, Redeemer, Spirit, Divine One, Shepherd. Those were met with some questions, but mostly assent as acceptable.

Then he tried to steer the conversation towards names which are not necessarily “traditional”: Mother, Womb, Woman Wisdom, Ruach (Hebrew word for Spirit which is in the feminine form).  A quizzical look came over the girl’s face. So my friend asked her,

“You don’t like these?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“They’re all girl names”
“You don’t think God could be a girl?”
She said, “Why would God want to be a girl?”

It saddens my heart that even a five-year-old girl would be able to catch on to something as deep as this. We, the Church, have allowed our main images for God to be dominated completely by male/masculine imagery. I hear it all the time when the main way to start a prayer is something, “Heavenly Father…”

Here’s a short thought exercise. Take a second and think about the pronouns you hear used for God. Do you ever hear “she” when referring to God, or is it only “he?”

Our language surrounding God is deficient at best when it comes to including women and girls and it shapes our imagination. Language has the power to form worlds, both for the good and the bad.

Maybe that’s why Christ included women inside his inner circle. In a time when women were considered second-class citizens, Christ repeatedly lifted up women as paragons of faith. There was the woman in Mark who anointed Jesus and in whose remembrance the gospel is proclaimed (Mark 14:9). There was the widow who is lifted up as the example of all givers in Luke (Luke 21:3-4). And of course, there were the two Marys who became the first preachers of the good news of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10). Even in today’s passage, women are included in the close community of disciples.

Women played a prominent role in Jesus’ ministry, both while he was incarnate on earth and when he worked through the early church. The words we choose to refer to God though, have often lagged behind.  london-scout-27288.jpg

It might not seem like a big deal, but when we limit how we talk about God, we limit our imaginations to see how God interacts with us. We limit our ability to interact with the one who is the giver of life. We limit the way we, and our children, can dream (see above).

Maybe it’s time to rethink how we talk about God.

(If you like to talk more about this with me, shoot me an email at wryan@burlingtondisciples.org and I’ll try and get back to you as soon as I can.)

Praying with Hands

God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. (Acts 17:27, CEB)

The other day I sat mesmerized, entranced even, by a new mother and her darling baby. There were the requisite “coos” and tickles from mom, but the thing which caught my Inquisitive Baby.jpgattention was what the baby was doing. It was reaching its arms out desperately trying to grab onto something. Shirt, hand, or hair, it did not matter. The baby needed an anchor, something to hold on to, to give it bearing, or even meaning in a turbulent world.

Reaching out, it could have gripped the first thing to offer itself, anything to give definition and meaning. Work certainly would have fit the bill. I’m a lineman. I’m a lawyer. I’m a nurse. I’m a teacher. I’m a banker. I’m a minister. One can cling to that for awhile.

There’s the myriad of relationships which give us a reason to wake up. I’m a daughter. I’m a husband. I’m a friend. I’m a grandma. These can last for a time. New ones can even emerge within the context of a new day.

What about interests and convictions? I’m a Cubs/Cardinals fan. I’m a golfer. I’m a reader. I’m a biker. I’m a snow skier. I’m a Big Sister. I’m a gamer. I’m a Lion/Eagle/Moose/Rotarian… These fill in the cracks, hold our attention, help us grasp something for a bit.

Of course, there are always those things which seek to swallow us within themselves: the search for wealth, the pursuit of the perfect body, the next Netflix show, best Instagram post, the bottle or needle.

Baby had a lifetime ahead of her to grab onto any and all. Meaning was at her very fingertips.

Instead, Mom offered her hand and the child snatched up in its vice-like grip. It was like the baby tried to pull it close, to hold on and never let go. The small fingers with bones no larger than rice clung with all their might, all their power. huy-phan-100866There was safety in finally finding the hand of the one who cares in every way, who listens to your cries, who loves unconditionally.

There’s something to be said for resting in the one in whom we live and move and have our being. When we can stop and say, “it is well with my soul” and actually mean it.

If These Stones could Speak

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight…” (1 Peter 2:4, NRSV)

Many years ago, someone decided it would be a good idea to build a new church. Meetings were had, opinions gathered, compromises discussed, decisions made, and plans eventually drawn up.

It was going to be a marvelous building with its imagined beauty unrivaled. The implied tumblr_n2x2x80VfA1sfie3io1_1280.jpggoal of felt awe and reverence upon first eyesight was a sure thing. The spirit of the community was sure to be raised as the new steeple soared across the landscape. Everyone was excited about the future possibilities.

So building commenced. There was much consternation about the appropriate materials during the conversations leading up to the actual construction. Would brick do? How about reusable bamboo? The builder eventually came to the decision, stone. Beautiful limestone all of the same size, shape, orientation, and color. The builder placed each stone with utmost care, satisfaction, and conviction.

The night before the dedication of this glorious new church, there was a storm. First, high-speed straight-line winds howled, so the top stones tumbled over. Next hail battered the building, so the middle stones broke down piece by piece. Finally, the torrential rains came, and the bottom stones crumbled beneath themselves.

Crowds formed the next morning and shook their collective heads at the calamity wondering “what went wrong?”

Someone else also decided to build a church at the same time. Meetings had, opinions gathered, compromises discussed, decisions made, and plans eventually drawn up.

Instead of selecting those same limestone pieces, this builder decided upon a more eclectic group of stones. Slate, granite, sandstone, flint, marble. Rocks of different sizes, jeremy-cai-1174.jpgshapes, orientations, and colors were selected, gathered, and placed. Onlookers scoffed at the apparent naivete of the builder. “How could this thing stand? How could this church survive?” they asked.

The night before the dedication of this disparate new church, there was a storm. First, high-speed straight-line winds howled, but the top stones never gave way. Next, hail battered the building, but the middle stones held their ground. Finally, the torrential rains came, but the water flowed freely down the side and into the soil.

The crowds from the blown down church made their way to the other side of town to find another still standing. With slack-jaws, they wondered, “what went right?”

They couldn’t see the bright and warm cornerstone which held all the other stones in place and the mortar which bound them together, differences and all.

*based on Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 38-9.

Hearing your Name

The gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd], and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3, NRSV)

Christ calls us by name, trying to lead us the the green pastures of abundant life to flourish; to have a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known, accept and be accepted. Christ calls out our name, hoping for us to listen. 

matthew-smith-7137.jpgWhen I was in High School, I had the audacity to take time and read the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. My mother was a counselor and the DSM was lying around the house. I was bored one day, so I picked it up. It wasn’t the most thrilling read I’ve ever partaken in, but I was able to piece enough information together to get myself into trouble.

See, I noticed one particular thing: a lot of mental disorders begin to manifest themselves during adolescence, around the ages of 16+. This just happened to be about the same time I read the information. Not good in the wandering mind of a teenage boy.

I thought I was beginning to show signs of a mental disorder because whenever I would go out into public places, I would hear my name being called. It happened again and again, “Will…” “Will…” “Will…” Over and over and over. 

I thought I was going crazy! I didn’t realize that you know, “will” is kind of a common word to be spoken and it also sounded a lot like “well” like, “well, he was really…” I didn’t end up being crazy after all.

However, I did get a bit confused because there were times when people were actually talking to me. I was conditioned to hear all these different voices say my name and I wasn’t able to actually hear when someone was speaking directly to me, often for a veryjose-martin-651.jpg good reason! I would just float on and on and on…until someone would shout in my ear and wake me up out of my self-imposed stupor.

Christ calls us by name, shaking us out of the daze we allow ourselves to be put in.

Thanks be to God.

 

Come and See

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. (Matt. 28:1, NRSV)

We live in an old normal world where we expect the worst to happen. Maybe we hope for the best, but if we’re really honest, we expect the worst. Like those two Marys, we go to the tomb expecting the normal world where large boulders stay put. We’ve seen it just lightstock_199577_jpg_sara.jpgin the past weeks: chemical weapons attacks on children, retaliatory missile strikes, people ripped from their airplane seats, CEO’s of large banks getting rich by preying on the poor, children shot in their school, this is our normal world. This is the world of Herod, Pilate, and Caesar.

As fast as a crack of lightning, we, alongside those two Marys, are drawn out of our morose normalcy by a sight better than any Hollywood CGI studio could concoct. A life rocking earthquake, “lightning before dawn, snow in the Middle East (v. 3), a huge stone rolled away, and Caesar’s finest shaking in their boots— we are not simply on the edge of dawn, we stand upon the precipice of a strange and wonderful, although confusing and badly shaken, new world.” (Will Willimon, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew vol. 2) We stand wholly in a world with a new normal.

But what about that whole rock being removed. Why was that stone rolled away? If the resurrection already happened and Jesus wasn’t in that empty tomb, what possible reason could there have been for that angel to get in a workout and relax on top of the boulder? The stone wasn’t rolled away to let Jesus out, but to let us in. We are called into the cave because we often put God in a box. We tend to hold up a mirror to our desires and claim that this is exactly what God wants. God wants to be comfortable. God wants daniel-burka-98224.jpgpredictability. God wants to feel safe.  We roll a stone over the cave of our life, sealing God safely away.

So the angel calls not only to each of those women to “come and see,” but to each one of us. Come and see inside this darkness. Come and see what God did. Come and see that hope lives. Come and see that peace has a chance. Come and see that death was defeated. Come and see that hate is overpowered. Come and see that love wins. Come and see that God has the last word. We go into that cave to see God has let Jesus out on the loose.

He is still risen. He is risen indeed.

Going for a Parade

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” (Matt. 21:10)

You can make any manner of comparisons to the way Jesus entered into the great city Jerusalem. It was like the first Hollywood red carpet complete with fancy coats and decked out crowds. It was similar to Aladdin’s, my favorite Disney movie, entry into Agrabah on top of his monkey/elephant led and followed by any number of fanciful acts. It was like the Chicago Cubs parade after winning the World Series last year, what with its communal expression of joy and elation after a long suffering drought of hopelessness.

All of these are good comparisons and the Cubs one might even garner consideration for 2016-02-23-elena-hruleva-barnimages-005.jpgthe coveted status of “great” (at least in my opinion), but they all tend to inflate ideas of grandeur and victory. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (foal) had very different connotations.

Harkening back to the prophet Zechariah, the author of Matthew makes it clear Jesus is entering the city as the new king. The crowd even goes along and equates Jesus as one of King David’s offspring, one who would have a title to the throne. But the type of monarch Zechariah (and by then extension Matthew) describes is opposite of the warrior, conqueror, and subjugator currently occupying the political power in most of the known world (including Jerusalem): Augustus, Caesar of Rome.

Instead of being a king with power over people (he did reject this in his temptations), Jesus fulfills God’s vision of the kingdom at hand: humility, peacefulness, meekness. Instead of riding in on a warhorse, Jesus rides in on a working animal: the donkey. Jesus’ lordship is made clear in the fact that even in his “triumphal entry,” he is still acting as the servant to all.

But by the time he gets into the city proper, Jerusalem has been shaken to its core. Questions abound about just who this servant king is, rival to the current powers that be (Rome, Pontius Pilate, and Herod).

Turmoil and confusion ran rampant as expectations were sky high for Jesus. The crowds called for Jesus to save them (Hosanna translated means “save us”), but the question was from what or who? Surely those in charge heard those cries. How would they react? Would they crush opposition or let themselves be transformed? I guess we find out later in the week…

Can These Bones Live?

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. (Ezek. 37:12)

Whenever I hear this story of dry bones, images from the great old Westerns flash across my eyes. I see a desert with a dusty brown floor with fissures created by the ground separating itself in searching for water. I look up and there are no clouds, only the beating rays of a harsh sun which burns the just and the unjust. Scanning for anywhere brad-helmink-54389_Fotor.jpgto hide, I see no vegetation, no plants at all. It is as dead and lifeless as you can imagine.

As Ezekiel wanders on with God leading him, the images change to include the scorched skeletons of Israelites long ago butchered by seemingly more powerful foes. Ezekiel had to have done a double take. Most assuredly we would have, for it’s one thing to see the dry and cracked skull of a bull in those westerns, it’s quite another to meander among a maze of calcified remains.

But God has a reason to bring this ritually pure priest into a compromising situation. These bones are all of Israel, for they are a people crying out “‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” They are a people who would long to be in the spiritual doldrums for there one still has the hope of wind. They are sapped of all the faith marrow which gives them life.

Even after God causes sinews, muscle, and skin on those bones, they are not alive. They have the appearance of life, but they more wander around like zombies without direction. That’s because they don’t have breath/wind/spirit. Ezekiel plays with the Hebrew word ruah here because it can mean any of the three. It’s the same word used to describe God’s Spirit hovering over the waters of chaos before time began and again when God breathed life into the first of us. God’s Spirit gives us life beyond simple physicality.

God is the one who gives us life. That is what the Divine One is saying to Ezekiel. zugr-108.jpgGod offers him and his people hope that even when they are in a hopeless place, God’s Spirit breathes life again. Even when they feel like giving up and throwing in the towel God’s Spirit breathes life again. Even when they feel cut-off from everything they know and death seems like a foregone conclusion, God’s Spirit breathes life again.

Can these bones live? Yes! Because God’s Spirit breathes life again, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Looking Up to Samuel

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided (or seen) for myself a king among his sons.” (1 Sam. 16:1)

When I read this passage, I would be remiss if I didn’t think about the different spiritual mentors who help shepherd me to the place where I am. I don’t think of them because they’ve tumblr_o15oyciIur1sfie3io1_1280.jpgbeen rejected by the LORD in any way, but because they often held the role of the prophet in my life. They spoke to me on behalf of God. The gave me the good news and the bad news God had for me that day (or Sunday.) They often played the Samuel character in my life.

I wonder if you have those persons in your life too. Maybe they were a particularly good pastor growing up. Maybe it’s an author who always is speaking to your soul whenever your eyes gaze upon ink. Or maybe there’s a relative who showed you how to pair prayer and action so faith might come alive. Over time, these people might turn into something MORE than a person, but one who is “holy” (at least to you.) They become venerated for their faith and we think, “I can’t possibly be as faithful, prayerful, holy, justice oriented, active, [insert positive description for Christian here] as they are.”

Basically, we think these people know what God is doing more than we do.

But this is hogwash when it comes to Samuel. Samuel was a miracle child to Hannah. He heard the voice of God speaking to him in the Temple when he was a child. He grew up to be the leader of Israel and anointed the first ever King on behalf of YHWH. Even with all this he still could not perceive the direction in where God was going.

God said, “I’ve seen to it there is going to be a king in Bethlehem, go and give him the holy seal.” But Samuel couldn’t get what God was doing. Even with the close relationship, Samuel still picked the wrong son.

When I think about Samuel this way I’m both distraught and hopeful. If YHWH’s prophet karl-fredrickson-27507.jpgcannot recognize when God is doing a new thing, what chance is there for me? But on the flipside, Samuel was only a man trying his best to be in relationship with God. I know I can do that. I can pray, sing, read scripture, and serve others. I know I can try my best. I know I can be like those people we all look up to.

You can too.