the adventures of ernie bufflo

things magical and mundane


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on tornadoes and the Jesus who calmed storms

Last year was a bad tornado season for those of us who live in Tornado Alley. Bad enough that we spent several nights in our “safe space” waiting for the sirens and the winds to stop. A friend had a tornado knock a tree onto her house. Other friends survived the tornadoes that blew through Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It freaked me out enough that I finally made a FEMA-recommended tornado kit to keep in my safe space, which is small comfort when I know that if a tornado really does hit my house, no waterproof bag full of food and supplies can save me. Tornadoes are scary. They are unpredictable. They are deadly. And climate change seems to be making them worse.

This year has already seen several tornadoes. People have died. Communities have been destroyed. Others are just now starting to pick up the pieces.

And John Piper, not even a week after this latest bout of deadly tornadoes, would like to let those survivors know that God did this. Because that’s what the hurting and grieving need to hear right now, right?

Now, let me say right now that I believe in a powerful God who could cause tornadoes if God wanted to. But I also believe that sending these storms wouldn’t be in keeping with the nature of the God I have come to know and love.

I believe that the best way to learn about the nature of God is through the Person of Jesus Christ (as Brian McLaren called it at a talk I attended, you could say my hermeneutic is Jesus). And the God revealed through the person of Jesus is not someone who capriciously sends tornadoes that pick up babies and carry them for miles and kill them. The God revealed in Jesus is someone who wakes up in a boat in the middle of the storm and calms it. The God revealed in Jesus is someone who raises the dead and heals the sick and comforts the grieving and gets to know the outcast. God isn’t someone who breaks and destroys, but someone on a mission of healing and wholeness and reconciliation and redemption.

In the wake of deadly tornadoes, God is on the side of the folks wiping away tears and giving hugs and listening to the grieving and picking up the pieces. God’s drawing nearer to us through acts of love and healing. At least that’s what I believe.

Yes, we live in a world that does not work the way God designed it to. There were no deadly tornadoes, no death at all in fact, in God’s original plan. But all of creation was given the ability to turn from that design, and we did, and here we are. But God isn’t smiting us. God is working to fix it, and God invites us to be a part of the healing. At least that’s what I believe.

I’m praying for the people in Indiana and Kentucky who are dealing with devastation right now. I want them to know that God is on their side.


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i have always depended on the kindness of strangers

a photo I took of downtown San Jose.

10 bonus points to the person who knows where the title of this post comes from. This is a long story, but I hope it will bless you as much as it has me.

As I mentioned yesterday, my husband somehow left his iPhone in San Jose, Costa Rica, on the last day of our visit there. This last day, I must say, can barely be considered a day. We arose around 3:30 in the morning. Possibly the only thing that got me out of bed that early was that our awesome AirBnB host had promised coffee and breakfast would still be ready, even before the actual crack of dawn, and so I dragged myself out of bed, did my last bit of packing, and enjoyed fresh bananas with granola, and home baked bread, and some of the most delicious coffee in the world. We were in a bit of a rush to eat breakfast, get a taxi, get to a bus stop, and take that bus to the airport in order to arrive by 4:30 am for a very early flight. With steps 1 and 2 completed, we were in the taxi almost to the bus stop when Jon noticed he didn’t have his phone with him. I remind you at this point that it was insanely early in the morning, and we may not have been thinking clearly. He checked his backpack and his pockets, and didn’t find the phone. We figured he had left it by the computer he was using at the casa right before we left, and pondered if we could go back for it, but realized we couldn’t if we wanted to make our flight. We decided we would have to email our hosts when we got back to the States and see if they could send it back to us.

As we rode the bus to the airport, we saw many pilgrims walking along the sides of the road to a city in Costa Rica called Cartago. An estimated 2 million people all over the country were walking, many for days, to reach this city in order to show thanks to God for their blessings, and, for many, to ask for healing. Our friends in San Jose had told us of a man in the papers who had already received the miracle of being healed of his blindness during this year’s pilgrimage. Seeing them walk along the road, carrying only small backpacks, in the wee hours of the morning was a great blessing. I’m not sure I can really explain why, but their devotion and dedication and sacrifice touched my heart, and as we roared past each little group in our great big bus, I said a little prayer that God would bless them for their faith. God certainly blessed me with their faith.

We made it onto our plane and eventually arrived home in Arkansas. Here is where I also pause to mention that it is difficult to secure a ride home from the airport without a phone, especially now that airports, realizing that most everyone has a cell phone, have eliminated pay phones. And, in the event that one does manage to find an actual payphone in actual working order, who still has any phone numbers memorized that he or she could call? Not us! A taxi home was the way we had to go, as we were weary and absolutely could not face the prospect of yet another bus.

We finally arrived home, and Jon emailed our hosts explaining the lost phone situation. We then headed to church, happy to connect with our friends there after a week away. That night, Ryan preached on what is commonly known as the Golden Rule, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We discussed how that verse marks a transition, where Jesus turns from speaking about our relationship with God (“ask, seek, knock”), to our relationship with each other, a relationship that should be characterized by us doing what is good and loving to others, even when, and perhaps most especially when, it is no guarantee that this goodness and love will be returned. We do not participate in goodness and love in order to receive it, but because when we participate in goodness and love, we participate in the very character of God, a character perhaps best illustrated in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which God is radically UNfair, bestowing love and goodness even when it is least deserved.

The next morning, Jon received an email from our hosts Darrylle and Juan Carlos telling their side of the story of the lost iPhone. I asked for their permission to share this story:

As soon as we received your message we searched the house and found no sign of your iphone. We were so sad for you as we knew that if you’d lost it in the street or in the taxi or bus that there would be only a chance in a million that we could find it. We called the number to see if we could hear it ringing somewhere in the house or if someone would answer. After many rings a woman answered and when Juan Carlos spoke with her she asked if the phone was his. He told her that it was and she said that we could pick it up. She lives high up in the mountains near Turrialba about 2 hours southeast of San Jose.

We jumped in the car and headed toward the area. The road to Cartago was packed with pilgrims walking in the rain and it was amazing to experience their dedication and determination. By the time we got to her area it was dark and raining. After seeking information from people along the road and calling her on numerous occasions, we finally found her standing in front of a small shanty along a little road way off the main highway deep into the countryside. She is a single mother working nights in San Jose and takes this long two hour trip daily. She had found the phone in the back of the taxi about 5 a.m., at first thought of giving it to the driver, but then had second thoughts. She said she knew if she gave it to him he would make no effort to find its owner. Throughout the day she told several people she had found the phone and received several offers to buy it. Of course, she could have used the money, but decided that she would keep it for several days and if the owner didn’t appear that she would then sell it.

When we met her along side the road, she just walked up to the car window and handed us the phone and didn’t ask for anything. Unfortunately, we’d left the house in a hurry so I only had ¢10,000 ($20), so I gave it to her but she seemed happier to have found the owner than to have received the money. It was a blessing to be in the presence of this sweet, happy, honest and caring woman. Juan Carlos and I had spent time together yesterday morning, as part of our daily spiritual practice, discussing how if we keep our minds in synch with thoughts of goodness, if we hold the intention to bestow rather than to receive, if we focus on our true Self rather than our illusionary ego, that miracles will appear. As we reached the main road to return to San Jose we simultaneously expressed our realization that we had just experienced a miracle and our minds filled with light and joy. Everybody gained, there was no loss and each and every one of us received a blessing of love. Thank you so much for providing the opportunity to experience God in our lives. It was amazing.

Amazing indeed. Jon and I both choked up as we read the email and realized what a miracle this was. Sure, it’s just a returned iPhone. Why would God care about such a thing when there are literally blind people walking to Cartago in need of sight? Because this story is not about the iPhone, but about the goodness at the heart of people everywhere. I personally believe this goodness is the image of God. It’s the goodness that inspires someone to get up insanely early to send a traveler off with a good breakfast. It’s the goodness that inspires people to walk for days and days in order to say thanks and perhaps beg for a miracle. It’s the goodness that inspires people to drive for 4 hours for someone else’s phone. And it’s the goodness that inspires a woman living in poverty to do someone a great kindness, even when doing the opposite would help her provide for her children. It’s the goodness that lies at the heart of the God of the universe, a goodness that lives inside each one of us, if we choose to honor and nurture the image in which we are created.

I needed a reminder of this goodness. When we arrived in Atlanta, it was a rude welcome home to the States. The customs agent who checked my passport said something very ethoncentric about people who speak other languages. The man in front of me in the security line acted absolutely beastly to everyone he encountered. And my personality is such that I often tend to dwell on those people who don’t nurture their inner goodness, rather than those who do. And yet, here in front of me, here in my life, I have been given a miraculous reminder of the nature of God and the true nature of all God created and declared good. And I am so truly thankful.


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an earthy good friday

Today is Good Friday. Today is Earth Day.

I saw a tweet about how today you can choose to celebrate the Earth OR you can choose to celebrate the One who made it. As if that were an either/or proposition. I’d like to suggest that in taking care of the Earth, we serve and indeed worship our Creator.

In the past few years, my faith has sort of shifted directions. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Jesus better and been drawn closer to him. As this has been happening, my understanding of what is important about Jesus has shifted slightly. Rather than being focused solely on Jesus’ death and resurrection, I’ve broadened my focus to what Jesus said his mission was– to proclaim the gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand (that is, available to us right here and right now), a kingdom characterized by resurrection, renewal, and the return of all of creation to the way things were meant to be. This means the saving work of Jesus, which was his life, death, AND resurrection, is not just for my soul, but for all of the earth. And that’s where Earth Day comes in.

Part of the beauty of the Creation story* is that we were placed in a beautiful garden in order to enjoy and care for it. As I mentioned in a post about faith and food that was inspired while listening to a Rob Bell sermon, God told Adam that he was put in the garden to work and to take care of the Garden.  Bell noted that the Hebrew words for “to work” and “to take care of” used to describe Adam’s (if I was going to get literary here I’d say that at this point Adam is a symbol for why all of us were created) role in the garden are usually used elsewhere to describe the act of serving and worshipping God.  Basically, to worship God was to TAKE CARE OF what God created in the garden (aka the world).

I believe a great window into just how far we have fallen from the ideal to which we were created is to see just how warped our relationship with creation has become. A relationship that was supposed to be characterized by reverence and care has become a relationship characterized by exploitation, destruction, and abuse. This is also reflected in our relationships toward our fellow creatures, human and nonhuman, and even in our relationship toward God. We cannot properly love the Creator while destroying the creation.

When Jesus put on human skin and lived with us, he preached the coming of the Kingdom. He modeled Kingdom life, a way of living characterized by right relationship: to God, to each other, and to creation. He taught us to live as children of God, that we might be a blessing to all of creation, as described in Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

The saving work of Jesus, the liberating work of Jesus, is for us, and for creation itself.

So how does this tie in to Good Friday? On Good Friday, we remember a savior who came to teach us how to live as we were created to live, but who allowed us the freedom to refuse to live it out. He allowed us, rather than responding to him in the relationship that we should have, to reject him and subject him to violence. He modeled a love that, rather than lashing out against enemies, tells us to put away the sword and then reaches out to heal even the one who comes to kill us. He modeled a love that, even as it hung suffering and dying on the cross, was moved to forgiveness. He modeled a love that somehow is not destroyed by evil, violence, and death, but which submits to it, only to come back again. Through this love, we are enabled to transcend evil, violence, and death. Through this love, we become partners in first dying to the old ways, and then in rising to participate as partners in the resurrection and renewal of all things, which will culminate in the New Jerusalem, a place here on earth, in which everything works the way God planned it, and everything is made right.

So on Good Friday, we sit with the wrongness. We sit with the brokenness. We sit with the realization that we are fallen. Fallen so far that we would kill the one who came to save. And we marvel in the love that would let us. And this Sunday, we rejoice in the love that was not destroyed, but resurrected to bring renewal to us and to all things. The experience of Holy Week is very spiritual, but it should move us to very earthy action.

*I believe the creation stories in Genesis are less statements of fact than they are statements of purpose. They tell the “why” of creation rather than the “how.” Thus, I believe in evolution, even as I affirm a Creator God who made everything with divine purpose. As a literature student, I find the language-centered aspect of the story, that God literally spoke things into being, particularly fascinating, but that’s not particularly important for the scope of this post.


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i am a christian because…

Rachel Held Evans, whose blog is really fantastic and which you should be reading, shared yesterday why she is a Christian, and asked her readers to do the same. I really relate to Rachel because she is often a doubter and a skeptic and writes a lot about her experiences living an examined, questioned faith. Her post was about how the major reason why she’s a Christian is because she was born where she was born, when she was born, into the family she has. And I think it’s a really great answer, because honestly, who knows where I’d be if I wasn’t born in the Bible belt to people who raised me in church, and who knows where I’d be if that church hadn’t been an awesome Presbyterian church which nurtured my curiosity, wasn’t afraid of my questions, and didn’t belittle me for who I am. But that’s not why I’m a Jesus-follower today (I don’t usually prefer the word Christian, but I’ll go with it for the sake of this post and because that’s how Rachel phrased the question).

I mean, if I had my way, I might not be a Christian today. Often I am frustrated with what feels like my own lack of belief, though in those moments, I always seem to end up praying to God to give me my faith back…

Anyway, this is how I answered Rachel’s question:

I am a Christian because, despite my doubts, despite the fact that my cerebral nature often keeps me from ever making a true leap of faith, despite my stunning capacity for existential crises in the middle of the night, despite my inability to believe every word of the bible or check every box in any creed…Jesus will just not let me go. He calls me back to his simple Way again and again, and I am unable to stop loving him or to stop believing that the way he lived is the most authentic, human, kind way to live. I am a Christian because I love Jesus. Not because I believe everything the church says about him.

Every time I walk away, something draws me back.

Image via Flickr user Megyarsh.

When I wanted to abandon my faith because I lost someone I really cared about; when I woke up with a frozen and panicked feeling in the middle of the night, night after night, terrified that nothing I believed in was real; when I felt my furthest from God…at that moment, this totally non-Charismatic Presbyterian girl was given a strange spiritual gift. I say strange, because this “gift” was the weird habit of sobbing, uncontrollably, whenever I thought about God, whenever I tried to pray, whenever others talked about God, whenever others around me sang songs to God. For a period of several months. (This was super awkward at a missionary conference where everyone talked about God for an entire weekend, and I was the strange girl sobbing the entire time.) And while at first I thought this sobbing was just grief, the way it kept coming up, only in connection to God, eventually clued me in. And the best I can explain it is, God gave me tears when I had no words to show me that I didn’t need words. Which is a big deal for someone as wordy as I am. God gave me tears so that God could wipe them away. So that God could surround me with arms to hold me that reminded me that God’s arms are always holding me. God gave me tears so that I might know God’s nearness.

And though I can say that I’m not charismatic, I had then, and have had since, strange, mystical, deeply emotional encounters with God. Moments when someone told me words I needed to hear. People who crossed my path at just the right time. Encounters that point the way to Jesus and remind me that God refuses to let me go. (A commenter told me this sounds a lot like Calvinists’ view of irresistible grace, to which I have two responses: 1. The Calvinists won’t take me because I can’t check all their boxes, and 2. I believe I am very much free to walk away from Jesus at any time. His love is a healthy kind of love. It gives me a say in the matter.) And so I keep coming back to my faith. Because somehow, that strange experience with the sobbing, the kindness I am moved to do for others, and the kindness others are moved to do for me are all bound up in this person of Jesus who makes broken things whole and then tells them to go and do the same.

People often try to pin me down, ask me if I really believe the Bible. Ask me if I really believe this or that doctrine. And I’ve just never been great at really wrapping my mind around any of it. Which is, on the one hand, entirely against my entirely analytical nature, and on the other, entirely of a piece with it. All I can say is, I love Jesus. I love the way he lived and loved and lives and loves. I want to be like him. And I want to be among people for whom that is enough.

I’m not particularly interested in proselytizing. But I do love to explore and question and wonder and discuss (and, I must admit, even argue!). So I ask: why are you [whatever word you would use to describe your faith]?


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Beatitudes Part III: Hunger, Thirst, Righteousness, and Mercy

This is part III of a series of posts on the Beatitudes. Check out parts I and II if you missed them.

We’ve now reached “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I have traditionally heard this preached as “God loves the goody two shoes,” as if it says “Blessed are those who want to be good little Christians all of the time.” The problem with this reading is that this is not a light yoke or an easy burden. Those who want to be good little Jews all the time would be the Pharisees. This is not our Jesus. He didn’t go around recruiting the goody-two-shoes. He picked the folks who don’t have it all together. It would not be good news. So there must be another way to read this.

To me, righteousness is when things go the way God planned and designed them to. When we exist in right relationship to God, to each other, and to all of creation. Some folks call this right relationship God’s “shalom” which means peace.

To hunger and thirst are downright visceral feelings. To me, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is like that sick at your stomach feeling you get when you encounter something that is just so not right with the world. Something that is so clearly not God’s plan for the world. To experience the tension between what God created the world to be, and what it is like right now. But in that tension, in that lack, in that fallenness, in our frustration, and heartbreak, and longing for things to be made right, God is with us. God’s sick at God’s stomach too. God’s heart is broken too. God longs for things to be made right too.

This verse in some ways reminded me of the Japanese earthquake. Though some like John Piper might claim that God caused the earthquakes in order to teach us a lesson or send us a message, ours is a God who hungers and thirsts for a world in which these things don’t happen. Not a God who causes these things to happen. God is with us when horrible things about the world break our hearts. Not when we get them all fixed, but when we struggle, when we wonder, when we question, when we feel the disconnect between the way things are and the way they should be. This is great news, because it’s easy for bleeding hearts like me to get overwhelmed and feel hopeless and powerless because we can’t fix it all or even do something about it all. But God is with us in that place.

God can handle it when we feel like Habakkuk (Ch. 1): “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” God can handle our anger, can handle our sorrow, can handle our concern. In fact, God is with us in that feeling. To me, that is good news.

God is also with us when we move from tension, anger, and sorrow into action. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” To me, this is where the Beatitudes begin to move from conditions (mourning, poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst) to action. To be merciful is to have compassion for another and to be moved to action to change that situation or express love and care. I don’t have much to say about this particular Beatitude, because it seems fairly straightforward, but I will point out that it seems rather interesting that Jesus seems to be advocating a salvation based on works if we look at this line alone. Do mercy, get mercy.


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ashes to ashes

"Penance" via Flickr user Sarah Korf under a Creative Commons License.

Today is Ash Wednesday. And while this may sound morbid, it’s the beginning of one of my favorite parts of the liturgical year. Yes, I grew up Presbyterian. We like words like liturgical.

While many see the church’s liturgical calendar as stale, dry, ritual, I see it as life-affirming rhythm. The church’s acknowledgment that life has its ebbs and flows.  That to everything there is a season.

Lent is a time to “memento mori,” which is Latin for “remember you will die.” We talk about ashes to ashes and wear ashen crosses on our foreheads. For folks like me, prone to existential crises in the middle of the night, it’s a time to acknowledge one of our deepest, darkest fears: death. To name it, to acknowledge it, and to use it as a springboard for celebrating the God who conquers death and wipes away tears. But before we get to that point of celebration, we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death. We have to meditate on our mortality, our brokennes, and even broader, the earth’s mortality and brokenness. We have to find and name the cracks and fissures, so that we can allow those cracks and fissures to be filled with the love of the God of Resurrection and Renewal and Things Made Whole.

This is why we’re supposed to fast and take on new practices in Lent. Not just because we need to get rid of habits and practices that are bad for us, though all the healthy eating people try to do this time of year can never be a bad thing, but because we need to make space for meditation, time with God, time to examine ourselves and our environments. We need to get rid of the things that we use to distract us from our brokenness and mortality. We need to focus on things that do not fade. For this reason, giving something up is not the point of Lent if we’re just giving up something to give it up. The intention is to give up something in order to make space for something else, something that will bring us closer to God, or make us healthier, spiritually or physically.

This year, I am making space to read through the gospels, so that I might come to better know Jesus. I am also making space to take walks with my dogs. I hope to use this time to enjoy God’s creation and spend time with God. I hope this time will be a time of prayer and communion that will bring a bit of peace into my life.

I’d like to close by sharing a piece of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” which is a beautiful meditation for this day (read the whole poem here):

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Do you observe Lent? How are you observing it this year?

Update:

I just got my daily Verse/Voice email from Sojourners and was inspired to share this verse:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break free like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. –Isaiah 58:5-9 (TNIV)”


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thanksgiving is better than christmas

Image by Gary Villet via the Google LIFE photo archive, under a Creative Commons license.

Every year Bill O’Reilly goes to war against those he believes are “at war against Christmas.” You know what I’m talking about– he, and a lot of others, get really irritated that greeters at WalMart and cashiers at the mall say things like “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” preferably with the emphasis on CHRISTmas.  As if there aren’t other people in this country celebrating other holidays at that time.  But what really galls me is, O’Reilly is entirely missing the point. The problem isn’t WalMart greeters and mall cashiers, it’s WalMart and the mall.  Christmas has become a disgusting celebration of consumerism.

According to Advent Conspiracy, Americans spend around $450 BILLION on Christmas each year. According to Bread for the World, the basic health and nutrition needs of the world’s poorest people could be solved for $13 billion per year. There’s just something stomach churning about using a holiday to celebrate the birth of a king who was born in poverty and preached about concern for the poor more than any other issue being used to fuel a $450 billion industry when a tiny fraction of that could feed and care for the world’s poorest people.

And of course, I sit here typing this as a total hypocrite.  I’ve tried to convince our families to do without gifts, in order to focus on time together and giving to charity, and yet so far, all I’ve been able to do is encourage caps on gift spending, hopefully leaving us with more money to give to charity.  So, in large part, most of the hoopla surrounding Christmas seems to me to be at war with the values of the man it celebrates, and yet I feel powerless to stop it.

So instead, I focus on Thanksgiving.  I think sharing meals was a pretty common theme in the life of Jesus, and I believe something special happens when we gather around a table with people, even our dysfunctional families.  I also think gratitude is a key component of a truly examined life.  In some ways, I think Thanksgiving is a more truly spiritual holiday than Christmas, in terms of how we celebrate it in this country– it’s about spending time with family, sharing a meal, and being thankful.  Sure, it can be taken to gluttonous extremes, but it can also be a beautiful celebration.  And maybe if we do it right, if we really take time to be thankful and realize we have all we need, that we are truly blessed, we will be able to keep our priorities in order when it comes to celebrating Christmas.  I can only hope.

 

 

Note: I am, of course, aware that Thanksgiving, like almost everything in the history of Western Civilization, has a backstory full of violence, bigotry, theft, and oppression.  I hope that by reclaiming that holiday as one of gratitude and love, and perhaps even sorrow for what happened in the past, we can try to make sure such things don’t happen in the future.


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Jesus and Gender Part 5: But what about Paul?

Me teaching at Eikon. Image via my friend Kat, who noticed that none of the guys made it into the pic, so it looks like I was only speaking to women.

Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series.  If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.

As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters.  I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life.  But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!

Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death.  From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”  Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.

But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest.  My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again.  Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?

After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”  According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)

Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria.  This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.

Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”  At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.

And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia.  Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99).  Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia.  He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)

Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks.  A church meets in “their” house.  Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry.  In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)

This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was a common name for Roman women at the time of Paul.  Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia.  My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia.  Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)

Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”  These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.

I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!

Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today.  I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church.  I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna.  I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche.  And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach.  I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.

*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen.  He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads.  As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.

**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.


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Jesus and Gender Part 4: Women Disciples

Mary Magdalene, painted by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys.

Today is day 4 of my series on Jesus and Gender. Make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 if you missed those posts!  We’ve discussed how Jesus treated women with radical dignity and kindness, we’ve talked about his close female friends, and today we’re going to look at the women who were his disciples.

Although we are most familiar with The Twelve Disciples, all of whom are men, Jesus had more than just 12 disciples, and these disciples included women. (Also, from Woman in the World of Jesus: “The logic from which the male composition of the Twelve would exclude women from high office or role in the church would likewise exclude the writers and most of the readers of this book, for there were no non-Jews among the Twelve. Unless one would argue that “apostolic succession” is for Jews only, it cannot be for men only.” (125))

Jesus had a large group of followers who went with him all over Israel, learning from him and following in his ways.  According to Luke 8:1-3: “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others.  These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

While women at this time were permitted to travel in the company of men, they were required to spend the night only with their relatives—here it is obvious that as they travel from city to city, the women are traveling along with the men, breaking social custom in a very progressive and scandalous way.  Secondly, these women had resources under their own control at a time in which women were generally not permitted to inherit property or control money.  So not only did Jesus have women among his disciples, but they were transgressing social norms and acting as the bankers of the whole operation!

And these women weren’t just hangers on; they were actually ministering with Jesus! According to Frank and Evelyn Stagg in Woman in the World of Jesus: “It is significant that women did have an open and prominent part in the ministry of Jesus. Luke’s word for their ‘ministering’ is widely used in the New Testament, including by Paul in reference to his own ministry. Its noun cognate, diakonos may be rendered ‘minister,’ ‘servant,’ or ‘deacon.’” (123)

One of these women was Mary Magdalene. Nowhere in scripture is she identified as a prostitute or even a great sinner.  Mark says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her—today we might say that he healed her mental illness.  From Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s The Women Around Jesus: “We may imagine that this cure took a similar course to other healings: Jesus touched her, perhaps embraced her, made her get up, like Peter’s feverish mother-in-law or the person possessed by demons.  He spoke to her and she had a tangible feeling of nearness and contact. As he spoke, the spell left her. She again became herself, free to feel and decide, free once again to experience the world around her, free to enjoy herself and to learn to live again. But she did not return to her old ways. She left her rich hometown of Magdala, even though she would always bear its name. For her, being healed of her illness became salvation.” (68)

Another woman mentioned among these disciples is worth considering: Joanna, wife of Chuza, who was an officer in King Herod’s court.  She is described here having been healed by Jesus, after which she began traveling with and supporting Jesus financially, and she is later present at his crucifixion, and, in at least one gospel, at his resurrection. Jesus was seen as a political enemy of the political establishment, a revolutionary threatening to overthrow the government, and here, the wife of a government official is hanging around with and supporting this revolutionary and traitor of the state, helping to support him financially.  It’s possible that Joanna’s husband had died and left her widowed and in control of his estate, but it’s also possible that she had left him, with or without his blessing, to follow Jesus.

These women disciples were with Jesus to the end, present at the crucifixion, in some cases acting with more bravery and loyalty than The Twelve, who fled and feared for their own lives.  From Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.  In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs.  Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.”  –In Mark’s account, the oldest of the four gospels, the disciples are not present at the crucifixion—they run away after Jesus’ arrest and are not said to have returned. Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the disciples have run away and only the women are present at Jesus’ death. From Luke 23:49: “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”  John 19:25-27: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time, this disciple took her into his home.” Even as he suffers pain and death, Jesus is surrounded by the women who followed him, and he is exhibiting concern for their welfare.

And these women weren’t just there at Jesus’ death, but played a very special role in the events of the Resurrection. In Matthew, after his resurrection, Jesus chooses to appear first to two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary (possibly Mary of Bethany)”  Jesus trusts them to go and tell the men that he is risen, even though at this time, women were considered so unreliable that they couldn’t even testify in court.  Still Jesus trusts them with this important news. In Mark’s account and in Luke’s account (which also names Joanna), the disciples do not even believe Mary Magdalene/the women.  In John, Jesus only appears to Mary Magdalene, and she calls him “Rabboni” which suggests her status as one of his students. According to The Women Around Jesus: “Mary Magdalene may be regarded as the first apostle. She was the first to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.” She was considered an apostle, someone commissioned by Jesus with a special mission or message, up to the Middle Ages.

So, not only was Jesus radically inclusive of women in even his most passing encounters, not only did he have close personal friendships with women, but he had women among his disciples and even accorded them the honor of being the first people in the Bible to preach what we know as the gospel, the good news of his resurrection.   Tomorrow we’ll look at the women who were apostles, deacons, and prophets–leaders in the early church.

 

Sources:

The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel

Woman in the World of Jesus by Frank and Evelyn Stagg.


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Jesus and Gender Part 3: Jesus’ friends

Probably my favorite thing that I learned about Martha is that, according to her saint's legend, she killed a dragon. Yep. She's not just a Martha Stewart type, she's also a badass dragon killer.

Welcome to Part 3 of my series on Jesus and Gender! If you missed the introduction, check out Part I, and if you’d like to read about how radical even Jesus’ most passing interactions with women were for his day, check out Part 2. Part 3 will be devoted to the deep friendships Jesus had with women.

Two of Jesus’ best friends were two women, Mary and Martha. I will mostly refer to this Mary as Mary of Bethany so we don’t get her confused with his mother or Mary Magdalene. We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Jesus is in the home of Mary of Bethany and Martha. Martha is mad because her sister isn’t being a good woman and working to entertain the guests, but instead is at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and she asks Jesus to make her sister help her. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

A great rabbi’s students were always at his feet, learning to become rabbis themselves (In Acts 22:3, Paul describes himself as having been ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,’ his way of saying who his rabbinical teacher was). According to Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; and they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah…but Jesus related to [Mary] in a teacher-disciple relationship He admitted her into “the study” and commended her for the choice.” (118) Jesus sees Mary as his student, although she is a woman, and when her sister tries to get her to go back to the “woman’s work” in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s place as his student, at his feet.  I love the way Evelyn and Frank Stagg sum this up in Woman in the World of Jesus:

The story vindicates Mary’s rights to be her own person. It vindicates her right to be Mary and not Martha. It vindicated a woman’s right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. It would go beyond the story’s intention to deny Martha the right to opt for the hostess or homemaker role, even though Jesus accorded a higher value to Mary’s choice of ‘the word’ than Martha’s choice of the meal. Jesus did not make the two exclusive. (118)

I think this is important– so often when you hear this story (and if you are a woman and you’ve ever been in a women’s Bible study, you have surely heard this story presented this way), it’s all about how you don’t need to be a Martha, you need to be a Mary. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying to Martha.  I think he was affirming Mary’s choice and telling her sister, you know, your sister isn’t like you, and that’s OK.  Soon we will see that even though she was often in the kitchen, Martha was still listening to Jesus teachings (ha, maybe like me she liked to listen to podcasts while she cooked?) and had great faith in him, just a different way of showing it.

The next episode featuring Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha is John 11:1-43: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The text says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Also, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus had close, deep relationships with women, and when they hurt, he hurt.

One of the most significant aspects of this text is Jesus’ interaction with Martha.  Despite her being rebuked by Jesus for her criticism of her sister in the Luke story about these sisters, Martha demonstrates in this story that even though she was busy in the kitchen in that instance, she has not been ignoring Jesus’ teaching: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him but Mary stayed at home.” This time it’s Mary who sticks to the world of the domestic and Martha who goes out to meet Jesus.

From The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:

In the packed house of mourning, Martha hears of his coming, takes the initiative, and leaves the house to meet Jesus by herself.  She rushes up to Jesus with a remark containing all the grief, all the anger, and all the disappointment of the last few days…For Martha, this remark is a springboard, the introduction to a passionate conversation about faith.  Martha is not ‘a woman’ who ‘keeps silence’ in the community.  She does not leave theology to the theologians.  She carries on a vigorous debate.  She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus’ feet, she does not give in.  She struggles with God as Job did.  She charges Jesus with failure.  She does not give up, just as Jacob did not give up at the Jabbok when he was wrestling with God. (24)

Then, Martha makes an impressive confession of her faith in Jesus. Again from The Women Around Jesus:

Martha responds with a confession of Christ which stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ At most this can be compared with Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16:16.  Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman, a woman who was known for her openness, her strength, and her practical nature.  This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter.  For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle.  The church was built up on Peter’s confession, and to this day, the Popes understand themselves as Peter’s successors. (24)

I think this shows that Martha has learned from her encounter with Jesus, in which he said Mary was the one who chose rightly.  Martha has learned and has now become the sister with the greater faith.

However, in the next chapter, Martha’s sister Mary will demonstrate her faith not with a great confession, but with an act of great love. In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany, anoints Jesus’ feet while he dines at Lazarus’ house. Judas objects, but Jesus defends Mary. It should be noted that nowhere in this account does it say that Mary was a prostitute. Also: this is Mary of Bethany, NOT Mary of Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene.  I’m on a mission to disabuse the world of the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is not stated anywhere in the Bible, but that’s a story for tomorrow’s post!

I’m just going to post a ginormously long quote here because it just sums the whole scene up so well: From The Women Around Jesus: “There is a supper. Martha is serving, and now, Mary is the protagonist.  Again, she is not helping, but what she does comes from the very depths of her personality.  She takes a flask of very expensive perfume and pours it over the feet of Jesus, who is reclining beside her on the cushions round the table.  She may not be good at words, but what she does without speaking and yet with great self-confidence has a spontaneous effect: the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance.  The sweetness of her action is evident everywhere.  This time she did not have Martha to urge her on. This time she is completely herself, and in doing so transcends herself.  All the elemental ways in which she was accustomed to express her spontaneous love for Jesus, her respect, her affection, her tenderness – the tears, the concern to be near him and to have his support, the spontaneous silence – are now released with the fragrant oil she has poured on the tired and dusty feet of her friend.  And even that is not enough: with her hair she wipes away the dust and oil from his feet and dries them.  That was the task of the lowliest slave: the master at the table used to wipe his dirty hands on the slave’s hair.  Mary performs this servile task in a way incomprehensible to many women today.  She does what no man would have done – it would have been inconceivable even to Martha…But what she does, she does of her own accord and in the light of her personality.  It is her idea, her way of showing love. It is her ‘revolution’. Perhaps Martha stood there transfixed and dumbfounded at such independence…Mary came out of the shadows to become totally herself: the clumsy, loving, independent, tender, restrained, and yet spontaneous woman.” (55-56)

Mary’s actions are as much a statement of faith as her sister Martha’s earlier words—she is anointing Jesus to prepare him for his burial, and in this is affirming her belief that he is the Messiah, and that he has been sent to die.  To me, these two sisters, with their different ways of loving Jesus and showing their faith demonstrate that Jesus wants us to be who we are and serve and love him in ways that are natural to us, in ways that we are gifted.

Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the topic of Jesus’ women disciples!

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