Saturday, April 12, 2014

Anne Lamott

Today's my first day/month missing the bible study for which I've written most of these studies. I will miss it terribly! But it was an amazing opportunity for community these last dozen years. Partly as self-therapy and partly to share, I wanted to write about seeing Anne Lamott last night.

Anne Lamott is one of the few non-math people I follow on Twitter. She is laugh out loud funny, and spiritually insightful. Her book, Bird by Bird is amazing, and I have loved everything of hers I've read, with plans to read the rest. So when we heard she was coming to Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing 2014, we put together a group to go. (Why didn't I take a picture of them?) We had good feasting together before, and good discussion of the evening heading home.

When I attend a professional seminar, I try to live tweet it. I'm a natural note taker, and it helps me to remember as well as share. If you think of Twitter as a celebrity thing, that's one side of it; the other side of it is allowing like-minded people from all over the world to find each other and form community.

So here's my tweet-guided reminiscence of the evening. She was pretty stream-of-consciousness, but built on a couple of main themes throughout. She layered reminiscences, writing advice, insights on sobriety and professional comedian level delivery of jokes and one-liners.
 Turns out she had turned 60 the day before. Not a good birthday - she attended the funeral for a young man who was a friend of her son and a former Sunday School student of hers.  She had notes for her talk, but at the end of an hour of riffing, she hadn't used them much. Why talk about her recent book Stitches, for which she couldn't remember the subtitle? Because...
I love this principle. Transfer of understanding, finding connections - these things lead to deep understanding.

Building on the senselessness of the funeral she attended:

We're not going to be able to figure out what's in God's head or what Her plan is (Anne flip flops pronouns for Him, regularly). We can receive Her grace. But we have so much going on in us that prevents that reception.
Later, talking about what can you do for parents at a funeral for their child, she commented:

This was a big part of her writing advice, too. Go to the desk. Write today's pages.  They won't be good, mostly. But you need a first draft. How does she edit?
 What are the overwrought parts? They're where you're being particularly clever or erudite. She quoted Jessica Mitford, "You have to kill your little darlings."

So how do you learn to receive the grace? She connected it to her favorite movie, a documentary called From Mao to Mozart . It records Isaac Stern (She says: I figure God either looks like Isaac Stern or Bette Midler.) on the first visit of a western musician to China in 1979.
This connects for her to the oppression of perfection, and how it keeps us from even showing up.
 Probably true for anyone in a creative field, maybe just plain old true for anyone.

 Cycling back to the funeral, and connecting it to showing up, and then often failing...
 She gets to her own work. Surely she can have a break now. Surely she has nothing to write about. But, because she's still living and showing up there are things to write about. However, there's a warning:
 In other words, be truly present when you show up. Later she picked up on this theme of excuses again. This weekend she doesn't need to go to church. (Her failing, 30 member, Presbyterian but secretly Baptist singing church.) She had the funeral. She was in Grand Rapids. She would be tired. Her pastor was away.  So many reasons not to go. It's like if you don't want to get gas, you don't have to. But wait - then you won't have gas for your car. You have to show up to get hugged within an inch of your life, to have a chance to sing loudly, to get what you need.

How to deal with the young man's death with her Sunday School kids?

 You do not have to do that to be loved. No preconditions. But it's what we do when we show up.

And again, we won't be able to figure it out.
But that doesn't mean that what we know isn't important.

When you're at church, or writing, or serving, you're going to be faced with your own brokenness.
 She talked about sitting down to write, all your little psychological problems are going to come with you, and sit on the desk. "And, frankly, they're worried." Later, when you want to go to bed, there they are in the bed. And they've had too much caffeine.
It was a great night, awesome sharing. She was very present. One of her standard lines is:

And, as she hoped, we got a good spritzing.

P.S. She was definitely reaching out to anyone in need of sobriety, so I want to include this short video, which does a good job of touching on how she talked about stopping drinking and starting being a Christian. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

In Vulnerability

a Bible Study based on a TED talk or
BrenĂ© Brown is a Social Work research professor. She has two talks on, Oprah appearances and a basket of books. Not where bible studies usually start. But this one on vulnerability – without ever mentioning God – had so many connections to the gospel that we’re trying it as a bible study. It’s one of those situations where people do research and find out something new and startling that Jesus told us 2000 years ago.

“So where I started was with connection. Because, by the time you're a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it's all about. It doesn't matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is -- neurobiologically that's how we're wired -- it's why we're here.”

Matthew 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

John 15:12-15 “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

1)    Why does our relationship with God involve other people? Why can’t we just deal with Jesus or the father?

“When you ask people about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection. … so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection? The things I can tell you about it: it's universal; we all have it. The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection.”

2) With what kind of shame do you struggle? Brown talks about the feeling of “I am not _______ enough.”

Matthew 5 & 6
21-22 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
28 “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
34 “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.”
44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

3)  If none of us can do what Jesus is asking here, why is he so intent on bringing us down?

Romans 10:9-13 “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” ”

4)  How do you deal with shame as a Christian?

Brown studied shame, then, for years. “that's what this comes down to, a sense of worthiness -- they have a strong sense of love and belonging -- and folks who struggle for it, and folks who are always wondering if they're good enough. There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they're worthy of love and belonging. That's it. They believe they're worthy.”

Romans 5:1-8 “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

5)  Do we – or more to the point - can we be worthy of love and belonging? How does this relate to your faith?

So Brown wondered who had that worthiness. “What they had in common was a sense of courage … the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can't practice compassion with other people if we can't treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and – this was the hard part – as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.”

Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

6)  What are the connections amongst being courageous, being compassionate and being authentic for you or in our faith life?

“The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating -- as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

Galations 5:22-26
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

7)  Where are you able to be vulnerable? When is it hard?

“I spent the next couple of years really trying to understand what they, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making, and what are we doing with vulnerability. Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability.”

8)  Brown mentions many ways we numb. She mentions specifically one for churches: “Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain.” Is that a fair description? How else might we as believers try to numb vulnerability?

Brown closes with this: “This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror… And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough," then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

Phillipians 4:10-14 “The Lord has filled me with joy because you again showed interest in me. You were interested but did not have an opportunity to show it. I’m not saying this because I’m in any need. I’ve learned to be content in whatever situation I’m in. I know how to live in poverty or prosperity. No matter what the situation, I’ve learned the secret of how to live when I’m full or when I’m hungry, when I have too much or when I have too little. I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless, it was kind of you to share my troubles.”

9)  This is one place where a Christian might really phrase it differently than Brown. It’s not that we are enough alone, but because God is with us we are enough. What difference does that make?

10)  What other scripture or parts of our faith does Brown’s summation remind you of?

11)  How might courage and vulnerability help us to share Christ with our neighbors?

Maybe Superman is hard to relate to.
Resources: Open Bible Info was helpful in chasing down these passages.


Though everyone agrees Paul wrote this letter, there are three views as to when and where he might have written it:  from Ephesus or Macedonia ca 55 AD or from Syrian Antioch ca. 48 AD or from Ephesus or Corinth between ca. 52 AD.  Probably it was to a group of churches in the southern part of Galatia, including Antioch, Derbe, Iconium, and Lystra (cf. Acts 13-14), all of which were founded by Paul on his first or second missionary journeys.   

Part of the letter is a response to a group called Judaizers, who were insisting on traditional Jewish practice.  They claimed Paul removed those requirements just to make the message more popular and this proved he wasn’t a true apostle.  Paul’s response is strong, to say the least (Gal 1:1-2, 11-17).  

In later times, the book of the Galatians played an important part of the reformation.  Though it was Romans that began Luther’s personal awakening, he based much of his theology on Galatians, to the point that one of the nicknames for Galatians is “Luther’s Book.”

From theologygrams, a fun site.
Paul’s authority:  read Gal 1:11-24.  Since he was previously in the position of persecuting Christians, Paul had undoubtedly heard some of there testimony.  
Side note:  Paul in 1:15 is paralleling his ministry with Jeremiah (Jer 1:5)

1) What does Paul mean that he heard the gospel by revelation and not from people?  Why does he make that point?

2) What is important about the information that Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem for 3 years, and then only met James and Peter?

3) Why does Paul remind these people about his past as a persecutor when he wants them to accept his authority?

The dissension:  read Gal 2:11-21.   After noting that his message was approved by the original apostles, Paul tells about this big conflict with them.  The big idea seems to be to add no work to the requirements of salvation.  
4) What works are you tempted to add to the requirements for salvation, or have you seen others require?

5) How was the conflict resolved?

The dressing down:  read Gal 3:1-5.  

6) Is Paul wrong to address people this harshly?  If not, what could make such harsh words okay?  (Imagine being addressed that way by a pastor.)

Unity of Old and New Testaments:  read Gal 3:6-9 and 3:26-4:7.  
7) What does this say about righteousness?  What does this say about us?

How to live:  read Gal 5:1 and 5:13-25.  Paul warns, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  (v21)  

8) Why does this not conflict with Paul’s message of righteousness by faith?

9) How do you view the fruit of the spirit?  Something to strive for, or something to wait for, or something else?

The big finish:  read Gal 6:1-10.  

10) Share what this means to you.

11) This is a favorite book of many people.  Is there something we left out that you would like to share?

I have to share the paraphrasing of the close of this book in the Message:  Gal 6:17-18

Quite frankly, I don't want to be bothered anymore by these disputes. I have far more important things to do—the serious living of this faith. I bear in my body scars from my service to Jesus.  May what our Master Jesus Christ gives freely be deeply and personally yours, my friends. Oh, yes!


Sunday, January 12, 2014

May We Come In?

(The study is a bit of a mess, but it really engendered a good discussion. People were interested in the wise men and all the extra layers we have put on top of the story of the first Epiphany.)

Epiphany is Greek for Revelation, and is usually taken to refer to the arrival of the wise men to worship Jesus. As a Church feast day, it is the celebration of Jesus coming to the gentiles as well as the Jews.

Long before Christ, Jewish prophecy held that the Messiah was not going to be for the Chosen people alone.  Read Psalm 68:28-35, a psalm of David.
1)    Suddenly David shifts in this psalm from describing what God will do to addressing ‘you’. Who is you? Why do you think so?

2)    Is there anything here to make this be the Lord is for those other nations instead of just dominating or conquering them?

3)    This psalm is probably partly responsible for people describing the Magi as three kings.  Do you think of the Magi as kings? Does it make a difference in understanding the story if they aren’t?

Psalm 72 is commonly included in Epiphany liturgies. Tradition holds that king and king’s son refer to the Messiah. Let’s read it now.
4)    The psalm clearly says by Solomon, but also by David.  What do you think might be the case?

5)    What characteristics do you see that we usually associate with Jesus?

6)    Are there any characteristics that are different from how we usually see Jesus?

7)    With this as one of the main messianic texts, what would you have been expecting in the Messiah?

A lot of messianic prophecy is found in Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy begins during the reign of King Uzziah, around 750 BC. Uzziah (along with Jehosophat) was one of the two most successful kings after Solomon. The first mention of other countries worshipping the Lord is in Isaiah 19. Read vv 18-25.
8)    What makes this sound like Egypt joining in instead of being ruled over? What else do you notice?

Isaiah 60 is another passage strongly associated with Epiphany liturgies. Let’s read the whole chapter.
9)    What connections do you see between this and Epiphany?

10)    What makes this sound like a prophecy about the messiah to you? What do we learn about the messiah from it?

Image: Jones_04 @ Flickr

The story of the magi only appears in the gospel of Matthew. There are only 6 other unique passages of Matthew, including three parables (vineyard workers, ten virgins and the sheep and goats) and the Roman guards reporting the empty tomb. Let’s read Matthew 2:1-18.
11)    One thing to notice is what’s not in this story. What has been added to it in the way we usually imagine it?

The word used for Jesus in v. 8 and 9 here is not used for an infant, but for a weaned child.
12)    If it was a significant time after the shepherds, what might that have meant to Mary? (Is it significant that Joseph is not mentioned here?)

The word used for the Magi is, well, magi. At that time, it seems like it was used in Greek to describe priests of Zorastrianism. That’s a Persian religion that worships a good god who is in opposition to an evil god; they were very involved in astrology. 
13)    Whether Zoroastrians or not, what does it mean for acolytes of another religion to come worship the Jewish messiah?

Balaam (of donkey fame) prophesies in Numbers 24:17
“I see someone who is not here now. I look at someone who is not nearby. A star will come from Jacob. A scepter will rise from Israel. He will crush the heads of the Moabites and destroy all the people of Sheth.” 
Early church fathers believed that was a reference to the Star of Bethlehem. Interestingly Balaam was a rarity – a gentile prophet.  Was the star mystical? It rises (v.2) – normal star behavior – but then points them to a specific location (v.9) – that’s unusual.
14)    Is there anything for us to learn from this stellar detail?

The three gifts are probably responsible for thinking of three magi.  Gold you know about. Frankincense is a tree resin that is used in perfumes, incense (including use in both the 1st and 2nd temples), and a medicine. Myrrh is the odd duck here – though it is also a tree resin, used in perfume, incense and medicine and quite valuable. (At times worth more than gold!) But it has strong connotation with embalming rituals. One reflection on this passage reminds us of the fourth gift: worship.
15)    What meaning do the gifts have for you? Can we use this as a model for what we can give to Jesus?

For me personally, some of these details take me away from what I love about the story of the Magi. God coming for those we wouldn’t expect, and surprising people coming to Christ.
16)    Who has surprised you in your faith walk?

Overtime: if we have more time, it would be worth looking at the “apostle to the gentiles.” Paul wrote powerfully about Jesus coming for the whole world.
17)    Read Ephesians 3:1-12. What do you notice? What connections can you make with the magi?


Rose window on south end of transpet arm,
St. Denis Cathedral, St. Denis, France.
The stained glass depicts the Tree of Jesse.
(Behind on posting again! Sorry! This was a good Christmastime study based on the genealogy of Jesus given in Matthew. Inspired more than a little by a Richard Beck post at his Experimental Theology blog.)

Matthew’s (MT 1:1-17) and Luke’s (LK 3:23-38) gospels both offer a genealogy for Jesus.  They differ – a lot. Luke’s is backwards from Joseph (Jesus’ dad) to Adam, Matthew’s is forwards from Abraham. There’s a small difference from Judah to Amminadab. But then the lines from David to Jesus are completely different, including different fathers for Joseph!

One explanation for this is that Jewish law at the time encouraged brothers to marry their widowed sister-in-law if they had no children (or sons), called Levirate marriage. Any children from the new marriage were referred to as children of the deceased brother. Another possibility is that Joseph and Mary moved into Mary’s house, making her father a father to Joseph, meaning one of the genealogies could be Mary’s.

1)    What do these kind of seeming conflicts mean to you? Are they worth much attention or emphasis?

Another real oddity for the time period is that Matthew explicitly mentions women in his genealogy. And these are interesting people to include.

“Judah and Tamar were the father and mother of Perez and Zerah.” (MT 1:3) Tamar’s story is not one of the most retold of the bible. Just after chapter 37’s attack on Joseph, son of Jacob, by his brothers, (where Judah says “What will we gain by killing our brother and covering up his death? 27 Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let’s not hurt him, because he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”) is the story of Tamar. Read Genesis 38.

2)    In some bibles this is titled Judah’s sin. What was Judah’s sin?

3)    What do you think of Tamar and her actions?

4)    Other ideas or questions? (What is the red yarn about?)

“Salmon and Rahab were the father and mother of Boaz.” (MT 1:5) Rahab might be more familiar. Read Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25. Salmon is five or six generations descended from Perez, son of Judah.

5)    Why did Rahab do as she did?

6)    Anything else you noticed or wondered about in the story?

“Boaz and Ruth were the father and mother of Obed.” (MT 1:5) Ruth, of course, has her own book of the bible. Ruth is the answer to trivia questions, since hers is one of only two books named for women, and the only name-book whose protagonist is not a Jew. In chapter 1 we hear how Naomi went to Moab, married a Moabite, had two sons who married – and then all three men died. The daughters-in-law wanted to stay with Naomi as she returned to Israel, but Naomi told them not to. Ruth did anyway. In chapter 2, they have returned but things are hard. It’s harvest time, so Naomi sends Ruth out to the fields to pick up the scraps missed by the harvesters. Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s, without knowing who Ruth was, instructs his people to be kind to her.  Read Ruth 3 and 4. (The genealogy in Ruth 4, by the way, agrees with Matthew’s, not Luke’s.)

7)    Uncovering the feet is thought by most analysts to be a way of referring to sex. Is there anything in the text to support that idea?

8)    What do you think of Ruth and Naomi’s plan?

9)    Anything else you noticed or wondered about in this story?

“David and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba were the father and mother of Solomon.” (MT 1:6) Here’s where the gospel genealogy makes a difference. Luke’s history goes through David’s son Nathan (mentioned in 2 Sam 5:14 as one older than Solomon).  Bathsheba’s more familiar story is in 2 Samuel 11:1-17, and 2 Samuel 12:13-25. (Read if time.) But she finally has a speaking part in 1 Kings 1:1-40.
10)    what do you think of Bathsheba’s actions?

11)    Anything else you noticed or wondered about in this story?

So those are Jesus’ named female ancestors.
12)    What do they have in common?

13)    Why might Matthew have included them specifically in the genealogy?

In the Richard Beck article that inspired this study, he writes:
“But I think a more interesting way to read the genealogy is that Matthew is trying to highlight the scandal. Presumably, God could have entered the world in a variety of fashions. We know Jesus enters the world under humble circumstances (peasant parents, occupied outpost of the Roman world, born in a stable, refugees in Egypt, raised in a backwater town, etc.). But what does it mean that God enters the world under the cloud of moral scandal? God chooses to enter the world in the middle of small town gossip. (And if you've ever lived in a small town you know exactly what that is like.) What does it say about God in this choosing to enter the world under these particular circumstances? I think it is a hint about where and how God begins God's work in the world. Then, as now, God doesn't start in churches. Nor does God start in world capitals or with superpowers. God doesn't start with the talented, powerful, rich, or famous. Rather, God starts with the poor, the alien, the immigrant, the person on the street out in the cold. And God starts in the midst of moral scandal and gossip. God starts in the place of social shame and moral blame. God starts with an unmarried pregnant teenager. A human being--along with her embarrassing "situation"--still shunned, shamed and shut away in our churches.
Where does God begin? Here, in the place the religious and the powerful least expect it.”

14)    Whether that was Matthew’s intent or not, what does that mean for us today, this Christmas?

Of course, I had to try to make a visual comparison of the geneaologies.  So...