One day a religious scholar asked Jesus which commandment, from His perspective, was the greatest. Jesus answered him, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30, NIV). Then He threw in a second one: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 31).
If you’ve heard any teaching on these commandments, chances are good you heard them taught on together. Or that the second commandment was emphasized, presented as the way to fulfill the first. That’s not entirely inaccurate. Certainly the two commandments are closely connected, particularly if Jesus found it necessary to include the second in a discussion about the first. Much later, Jesus’ disciple John even wrote in a letter that if anyone claimed to love the unseen God but couldn’t manage to love the person next to them, that person so claiming was a liar (1 John 4:20).
But while can’t truthfully claim to love God if we don’t love our neighbor, is it possible we can’t faithfully love our neighbor if we don’t already love God with everything we have and are? Jesus does distinguish between the two commands. He says the two commands together fulfill “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), but not that they are one and the same command. Jesus Himself demonstrably loved people, but all of His words and actions flowed out of His love for and relationship with His Father.
That’s all very well for Jesus. But how do we love a God that we can’t see?
The hypothesis behind the next OSFGroup study (starting on 2 April) is that, if practiced out of a desire to know and love God better, the spiritual disciplines are one way to foster our love for God–heart, soul, mind, and strength. That might be a surprising idea! “Discipline” sounds regimented and dull. It sounds like punishment. It sounds like it could be guilt-inducing. It doesn’t sound at all like the way to foster freely-given and spontaneous love for anybody, least of all a spiritual being Who is in many ways so unlike us.
But, just as practicing a musical instrument ultimately draws a musician into freedom and joy in making music, so spiritual disciplines can also foster freedom and joy in relating to God. Don’t believe it? Join the study and let’s find out together if it’s true or not. Let me know if you want to check it out!
I just went back to my second-ever Pilgrimage blogpost on this platform, to see how I set up my GO Conference post last year and try to replicate the format…and discovered some really great quotes over there. You should check them out.
This year’s conference was, in my opinion, even better. I’m really glad I was invited to do a workshop there because probably I otherwise wouldn’t have taken the time out of my schedule to go, but it was so well worth it. I feel like–maybe because of the internal consistency of each of the talks, as well as of the conference as a whole–the speakers were harder to “sound-byte.” I’m going to try, though!
Disclaimer Note: I wasn’t able to get photos of Pastor Miles because I sat too far away, and I was too distracted by my upcoming workshop to get much of anything written down from Fr James Mallon, which was unfortunate, because he was excellent as well. (Sorry, Fr Mallon!)
Tamrat Layne was astounding, but as made his points entirely via narrative, I was unable to “clip” any quotes out of context.
I have a grave fear of pride…God’s laid me out a few times because of it already…I know how real it is–when luxury becomes a necessity.
Say what God’s been teaching you.
Ask yourself: who’s at the top? Who has to live under this? Spend time in the underworlds.
Samson gave me a lot of hope because he was all the way messed up, but God used him up to his last breath.
Moses resisted the amenities of royal Egypt…To be a truth teller is to be despised. Will I die knowing I spent time with the poor and the disenfranchised and the people God is passionate about?
You maybe had to be there, to catch the real impact of these quotes. I am grateful that I was.
As for what I myself said…there’s a recording somewhere. I may try to make some version of it available here at some point. On the other hand, I do plan to offer this workshop again at least once, and nobody wants spoilers, right? Whether I post it or not, you’re welcome to invite me to present my workshop on listening to your church or small group, too. It’ll probably go even better the second, third, or fourth time around.
Remember how last year I attended that conference in Worcester? This year I’m excited to be giving a workshop at it–a week from Friday, already! The conference is in Springfield, MA, this year. If you’re local, I recommend getting to the conference if you can make it. Personally, I’m excited to hear what LeCrae has to say.
But I can only speak for my workshop, so here are two synopses:
A Walking Humbly Workshop
The world seems to be getting louder. For every increasingly public tragedy and act of oppression and violence, there comes a volley of tweets and an onslaught of Facebook rants. But do the rants in turn simply yield more violence? Are we in a vicious cycle?
How can the Church regain its authority and ability to cut through the noise, instead of just contributing to it, especially when we are so often divided in and amongst ourselves? The key is in listening–first to God and then to each other–not to confirm our own ideas, or to earn the right to be heard, but so we can hear God’s heartbeat again, allow God to synchronize our heartbeats with His, and begin to truly hear and heal the broken hearts around us.
I wrote a Christmas newsletter back in November and mailed it out with personally designed Christmas cards. In the letter I stated that I would write a post here about the card art by the middle of this month. You might notice that it is now very much the end of this month (not to mention the year). I can only hope that either nobody was very much interested in the card art (although I guess I don’t really hope that, to be honest), or that everyone was just as busy this month as I was and forgot to head over here and check. Anyway, better late than never, as I frequently say. (I frequently say it because there’s a pun on my surname in there.)
This fall in the OSFGroup we tried out what turned out to be a not-very-well-planned or administered study on the book of Isaiah. (Isaiah is what I call a “chewy” book, and as I had originally planned not to have a fall OSFGroup and then changed my mind at the last minute, we probably should’ve gone with something simpler, but…we didn’t. I’ve done my homework for the Glorystudy coming up on New Year’s Day, however. Just in case you were worried.) The first half of Isaiah is particularly challenging, as God does a whole lot of ranting there. Although there are prophecies of hope in that first half, too, there’s also a whole lot of war and smiting, and it was a pretty rough slog for most of the autumn. But Isaiah turns a corner in chapter 40, which blows in like a cool breeze during a hot summer, or (since it’s currently beyond frigid here in New England) is like coming into a warm kitchen out of the cold.
Shortly before we encountered that chapter as a group, I was going through an old disintegrating Lutheran hymnal of my maternal grandmother’s, looking for Christmas card ideas, and found an Advent hymn based on Isaiah 40. I think I have heard this hymn before, but I wasn’t quite as familiar with it as I am with, say, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I recognized Isaiah 40 as the inspiration right away, but the arrangement of the words, as well as the tune itself did something gently forceful to my heart, and I knew that this was the hymn that needs to color our hope for the return of Jesus and for the coming new year.
I suppose most people on either side of whatever aisle anyone happens to feel somewhat invested in, have felt a little roughed up by this year that is closing out. I’d like to hope the coming year will bring an end to that, but I guess I’m not personally convinced most of us have reached the individual or societal transformation that we need to have, for the current conflicts to be over. (I’m also not very good at pretending to think so, I’m afraid.)
I do, however, believe that God’s joining us in the turmoil of the world, through His Son Jesus Christ, is not only a source of comfort now when the turmoil is still happening, but also a foreshadowing of a final fulfillment of this comfort and a true end to our internal and external warfare. I also believe that those of us who identify ourselves with Him through Jesus’ sacrifice (humanity’s violence against God) are called to do what the song says: speak comfort and bring comfort to those around us who are feeling the brunt of the warfare. (Sometimes that’s ourselves. Sometimes, though, it’s the “other.”)
I have other things to say sometime in the new year about the scribble-painting I did over the hymn itself. I imagine some have questions, like, “You call that art?” or “Why are the people red and blue?” “Is this some kind of political statement?” (Short answer to that last one: no.) For now, though, close your eyes and listen. Take heart. Comfort, y’all.
‘Tis the season to use the word Glory (or Gloria) a lot.
If you’re anything like me, the usage mostly happens unthinkingly–except for this year. This year I’m writing a new study for the OSFGroups. The study is called Glory, so I guess I’m noticing the word, and how we use it, much more than usual.
The seeds of this study were planted a year before the study was written, during another Online Spiritual Formation Group study on the book of John (The Transforming Word). One day we were discussing Jesus’ temper in the Temple in John 2. In response to a question about why Jesus got so upset that day, I said, “Jesus’ number one, all-consuming passion was not His love for humanity or His followers (or us) in particular, but for the will and glory of His Father.”
This sparked quite the dialogue, beginning with a participant’s frank admission, “I have always struggled with the idea you express. I see the scriptural support for the idea that it is all about God’s glory. But I really struggle with the idea that God’s glory would be more important than His love for us. Is this just my selfish humanity talking?” He wasn’t alone in his reaction.
The entire discussion left me with the question, “Why do God’s glory and God’s love have to be two different things?” I’ve been wondering that ever since. This study is written in an effort to explore that conundrum. Is God’s glory the glittery but scary and even destructive side of God—the side that is so decidedly not human, the “Old Testament God” side? Is God’s love the more earthy, encouraging, empowering, “New Testament God” side, in the image of which we were created? Could it possibly be the other way around? Or is there something else going on entirely? “I was thinking,” said a future participant the other day, “that glory is really kind of murky, even though it seems so shiny!”
There are three OSFGroups forming for this study so far, each of seven people or fewer. In a post-and-comments internet kind of way, we’re beginning to get to know each other. We are seeking to open our hearts and minds–and our Bibles, too–to see what substance, over the next two months, we begin to discover in the glorious love that is God.
Would you like to join us? The study itself launches on 1 January 2018. Sign ups close on 20 December, and you can join uphere on this website, or through Facebook.
Almost any group of humans to which you could belong has catch phrases, favorite terminology, slogans. I suspect it’s sort of inevitable. We’re meaning-making beings, and words help us sometimes to articulate and sometimes even to make the meanings around which we unite. I don’t really think this is a bad tendency in itself, but I’ve noticed that frequently these catch phrases lose their power as we use them over and over again, and they turn into cliches or otherwise pick up associations or accretions which the original composer of the thought never intended and which make it less “sticky,” like lint in a strip of velcro.
The circle of Christians with which I still most strongly identify has a word we like to use to try to sum up what we believe a Jesus-follower’s relationship with the Bible should be: application. Although it doesn’t use the word, there’s a passage in the first chapter of the biblical book of James that describes what we’re aiming for with application of the Bible, and what we’re trying to avoid:
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
This is wise counsel and really merits its own blogpost someday, but for now let’s just think of it as an informing construct for the idea of biblical application. We don’t want to be people who, spiritually and metaphorically speaking, notice in the mirror that we have something dangling from our nostril and then walk off as if nothing’s amiss. So we attend Bible studies in which we are asked how we might apply what we learned to our lives. We listen to preaching which is intended to make the message relevant enough to us so that we can know not only what was happening in the original context, but also what the application is for today. I love that kind of teaching from the pulpit–in my opinion, expository preaching is the best there is. (This is probably why I don’t preach that often; I’m not sure I know how to preach expositorily, even though I love to listen to it.)
But I’m not sure applying Scripture is how I want to relate to it anymore. Let me explain:
I have a bumper sticker on my car. I applied it to the bumper. It says “forgive.” You might infer from that that forgiveness is an important concept to me (it is), but the bumper sticker itself doesn’t make me (or my car, or a brick wall, should the two ever unfortunately come into contact with each other) forgiving. Also, I have another bumper sticker on my car. It’s a blatant advertisement for my husband’s and my favorite Fair Trade coffee roaster. It is exactly the same size and shape as the “forgive” bumper sticker. I applied it to my car in exactly the same way. The coffee bumper sticker is more colorful (maybe more compelling?), and although it might not make me a coffee drinker any more than the “forgive” bumper sticker makes me a forgiver, it is much more likely that I excel in drinking coffee than that I excel in forgiving, because the first is much easier to achieve. Either way, both of these bumper “applications” are simply affirming something either already true about, or already desired by, me. They didn’t make me forgiving or make me coffee.
Or how about this analogy?
I have a smartphone. I assume you do, too. On my smartphone–as I assume also on yours–are many apps (oh yeah–that stands for “application”! I genuinely forget that sometimes) and one operating system. Most of the applications on there, besides the basic ones like the clock and photos and stuff that pretty much everybody uses, are ones that came separately from the phone. I added them myself, and they say more about me than about the phone. They are dependent on compatibility with the operating system in order to work–they don’t make the operating system work. There are some apps which, after they’ve been added, “latch on so tightly” (I know that’s not an accurate way to talk about computer-y stuff, but I’m out of my wheelhouse here, you guys) to the OS that if you try to remove them later, they might mess the system up, but they are still not the thing that makes the phone a smartphone, that makes the phone do what it’s supposed to do in the world.
Here’s something that I realized today: When I ask, “How does this Scripture apply to my life?” I’m making my life the priority over Scripture. Me. My life. My life is the OS and the Scripture is the app, in other words. I’m putting myself over and above the Word of God. I’m pretty sure this is not the intent of anybody who advocates Scripture application, and I know a number of these advocates who genuinely live out Scripture consistently and winsomely. But I do think this priority-flip is a subtle danger inherent in the idea of applying the Word of God that actually plays out incredibly frequently. I suspect it is at least a part of what’s behind the identity crisis happening in some streams of the Church right now.
I looked up apply in a couple of different Bible translations recently. It shows up in the NIV eight times, and in the KJV only four. (It’s more frequent in more “modern” translations, which is…interesting.) In all of the KJV instances, and most of the NIV ones, what is being applied is not Scripture to the person, but the person to Scripture. “Apply thine heart,” says the King James Version, four times.
And so I guess that’s why I’m not so comfortable with talking about applying the Bible to my life anymore. I have a Bible app on my phone. But I don’t want the Bible to be an app on my life. I want The Word to be my operating system.
If you followed either of my two blogs before the-pilgrimage.org, you may remember I was trying to get a second book published. I didn’t succeed–exactly–which doesn’t really surprise me much, as the book is more my own personal devotional writing than an actual novel or history or biography.
Recently, however, some women at a retreat at which I spoke expressed an interest in this book and I on-demand-printed it. If you or someone you know appreciate lectio divina and/or are interested in Miryam the mother of Yeshua, or if you’re wondering what an “autobiography of myself as someone else” might look like, I’ll print more! Christmas is coming… 😉 $18. If you’d like one, pleases message me.
Note: This book may genuinely be helpful for those who wish to take the Pilgrimage’s Stepping into the Story class in the future.
The OSFGroups have started a new study. It’s on the book of Isaiah. I didn’t write a set study for the book this time, but am leaving it open to group members to input their questions, insights, and impressions for discussion of each passage we read each weekday, with the following pointers:
* Reminder: These words were written to particular people groups at a particular time in a particular context AND they are also somehow relevant to us.
* Advice: When you are trying to discern how the words are relevant to us, it may be tempting to read the diatribes as applying directly to the people with whom we disagree–spiritually, morally, philosophically, practically. Without bludgeoning your own self over the head with them, try to notice FIRST where in your own life or self these words are relevant to YOU.
I jump in at the end of the day. Occasionally, I may post some of my own reflections on the passage of the day here in this blog as well as in the private group. Today is one of those days. One participant hypothesized about how shocking it must have seemed to the ancient Judeans to hear that their sacrifices at the Temple weren’t actually what God wanted from them. Then I said:
I’m sure it really was shocking! I love the way this passage is set up: first God (through Isaiah) gets all rant-y about how His kids have totally forgotten about Him, are oblivious to the ways that He cares for them, and have actually turned their backs on Him and are rebelling against Him. And I’m sure they’re thinking, “Hey wait a second. We’re TOTALLY acknowledging Him. We kill animals in His temple all the time!” And then He’s like, “Do you think those sacrifices mean anything to me?” Then God starts enumerating ways that they can work on the relationship.
Here (just because I like to needle–and I guess also because I really think this) is where we as individuals tend to focus on the things we’re better at, that we perceive others as being worse at. This isn’t even intentional most of the time (if ever)—it is a rare person who can see their own blind spots (that’s why they’re called blind spots!). A person who is more social-justice oriented will immediately gravitate to verse 17, might notice that they are feeling judgmental about other people, and commence some introspection about where they themselves are not acting justly (or advocating for justice) in their world. On the other hand, a person who is more morality-centric will immediately gravitate to verse 16, might notice they are thinking about all the sins other people around them should be “washing themselves” of, and then commence some introspection about where they themselves are failing morally. (This is probably idealizing a little bit. The introspection in either case is not always a foregone conclusion. )
Then we all keep moving in our little sphere and we will often interpret the other of the two verses in light of the one that we gravitate to. So the social justice person assumes that helping the oppressed is what cleansing oneself in God’s sight means (that justice is the sum of morality). And the morality person assumes that helping the oppressed is at best an example of giving up evil ways, and at worst is just kind of a metaphor for it.
It seems to me that the conflict in this passage (in the whole book, really) is that God wants an actual relationship with His kids, and part of that is that He wants them to have a family resemblance. God is a loving Parent, who provides for His family, and who is angry and hurt when the people bearing the family name are not reflecting His character and His actions. Even though Hebrew parallelism (poetic stating of an idea twice in a row in slightly different ways) is a real and significant literary style all through the Bible (especially the Old Testament), AND although I confess I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t believe that verses 16 and 17 are an example of parallelism, but of progression: God is urging character transformation leading to transformation of action. Purification from sin, and justice, are not precisely two different things, but they’re not exactly the same thing, either. One flows out of the other. We can’t know what true justice is if we aren’t developing the character and priorities of God.
The thing that’s true about both of those things, though, is that we can’t achieve either one via rote, prescribed, religious rites, and apart from an actual relationship with our Maker. I love that God invites the people to hash it out with Him, in verse 18. He doesn’t plan to cave on His standards/boundaries/priorities, but He does want a restored relationship with them, and wants them to receive His forgiveness.
What, if anything, do you think God would want you to hash out with Him?
I’m writing this while a torrential rainstorm is raging outside my window, except I don’t feel like I can legitimately describe it that way, because Texas has just been demolished by hurricane Harvey, the Caribbean and quite possibly soon Florida are being more-than-pummeled by Irma, and the Columbia River Gorge is going up in smoke.
I visited the Columbia River Gorge for the first time in June, and one of my fellow Northeasterners said, “It’s like back home, except on steroids.” He was right. Everything looked familiar–only about 50 times bigger, and prehistoric. Northeastern woods aren’t that old, actually, because early European settlers deforested the place, optimistically trying to farm this pile of even more prehistoric rocks. It’s weird to think that the first time I saw that particular West Coast view is now the only time, for me, and that no one else will ever see quite that same view again outside of pictures.
Also, the United States (where I happen to live, which is why I’m not also citing the monsoons in Bangladesh, etc: much as I might want to be entirely un-nationalistic, sometimes I have to admit that I am at least as self-focused as anyone else) is in what might be called a state of everything-turmoil (including but not limited to politics, religion, morals, ethics, the environment, personal and national identity…fill in the blanks). Also, nukes. There are a couple of passages in the Bible where God promises to do more than we could ask or imagine, but see here, God–I don’t personally know anyone who actually asked for any of this, and it is, I’m pretty sure, beyond what anybody could have imagined. And so maybe that promise isn’t what we wanted either?
On Sunday I preached a sermon which was supposed to be about joy, and maybe it actually was by the time the Holy Spirit tweaked what came out of my mouth as it reached the hearers’ ears. (It wasn’t, I felt, that great a sermon on its own merits, but I got a lot of positive feedback.) I was preaching from the story where Simon Peter has an epiphany that Jesus is the Messiah, except he doesn’t quite know what that means himself, because right after Jesus says, “Yeah, so the Messiah has to go to Jerusalem and be tortured and killed and come back to life,” Peter says, “God, no. [That’s not me throwing in the Lord’s name in vain–that’s basically what Peter said.] That can’t happen to You,” and Jesus ends up calling him Satan.
I was thinking about this tendency we have as humans to imagine that a miracle always means the prevention of disaster. Or the halting of it, if the disaster is already underway, like Irma, or cancer. Or the fixing of it like it never happened, if the prevention and the halting don’t work. And if we don’t get the miracle (or can’t quite believe in miracles), we just try to reframe the tragedy, like Not As Bad As Someone Else’s Problem or like It Will Get Better or like At Least You Still Have… (or …Don’t Have… or whatever).
I was thinking how Peter was just trying to give Jesus a little bit of positivity when He was being so dang negative. I was thinking how Jesus called Peter “Satan” after that little bit of positivity and then told him he was thinking from a human and not a divine perspective. I was thinking how human we just all are. I was thinking about how even Jesus asked His Father, some time later, to prevent the suffering–His own suffering–if it were possible to accomplish what would have been accomplished through the suffering. But it wasn’t.
Because apparently God accomplishes things through the suffering.
Now I’m wondering, more than thinking. What I’m wondering is about the nature of “what we ask or imagine.” I’m wondering about the reaches of God’s imagination beyond ours. And I’m starting to wonder if maybe, in God’s imagination, preventing catastrophe altogether is less of a Big Deal Miracle than utterly transforming it. I don’t mean reframing it, rebranding it, “at-least-ing” it, suppressing it, ignoring it, pretending it didn’t happen. I mean remaking and “re-meaning” the whole thing.
Traditional Christian teaching says that when we throw our lot in with Jesus and let Him take over, we ourselves become something new. I think this is a process as well as an event, but what I’m wondering now is if, when it says that we ourselves become new, it also opens up the possibility of God transforming not just our character, and not so much our circumstances, but our experience of things, and of God Himself. I wonder if that sounds like a consolation prize to us simply because the only experience we have that seems remotely like that is reframing, and we all secretly know that’s a hollow exercise even if we engage in it regularly. I wonder if it sounds thin simply because it’s fathoms beyond what we could ask or imagine.
I pray, “Lord, have mercy,” an awful lot these days. Usually when I pray it, I mean things like, “Please bring an end to the violence and fear,” or “Please don’t let hurricane Irma come any further.” I don’t think it’s always so bad to make those requests to God. Even those miracles take me pretty much to the edge of my imagination, and certainly to the edge of my faith. Also, right this second, all I’m experiencing is a rainstorm and a cloudy day. I have absolutely no desire for disaster to hit any closer to home. I’m a wimp, really. I’m certainly not asking God to bring it on. But my mind is being nudged open a little these days, to consider that God–in His very mercy that I am invoking–might on occasion only be able to do a Real Miracle when catastrophe unleashes itself so that God can transform it.
My friend Eileen wrote a well-stated response tomy last post, about why it can be so hard to look back on our lives and create a Life Map: Revisiting the sometimes damaging choices others have inflicted on us, and even the poor choices we have made ourselves, can be genuinely painful. I suspect this is true no matter who we are or what subculture we find ourselves a part of, but I sort of wonder if there is another dynamic in certain pockets of the Christian church.
I’ve wondered this before, but I’m doing so even more now because, while I sensed deep panic from some of my Christian friends when they heard about life-mapping, my friends who do not yet describe themselves as Christians seemed almost eager to try it–and these are not people who have rose-colored pasts to look back on, either. “After reading the description,” said one. “I figured it would ask some tough questions, which intrigued me more about it.”
“I’ve accepted that trauma and that damage is part of me now and isn’t going away…” she went on. “That shit is going to affect me for the rest of my life. I know that and have accepted it. Triggers come out of nowhere.”
What I hear from many Christians sounds something like, “The past is past. It’s finished and done with. I’m a new creation and none of that is a part of me anymore.”
Isn’t there something better than either approach? Isn’t there some way that the hope we Christians have–that Jesus really can and does “forgive all our sins and heal all our diseases” (where “diseases” is more than simply medical)–can actually come true? Where we can face our darkness without fear, accept these parts of our past as part of our formation, and no longer be defined by them because Jesus gives us a new identity?
I’m quite sure that the first step into the Way, which is Jesus, instantly reconciles us to God. But the Way is still a Way–we still have to walk. Everything about creation and our ongoing existence is about process. God made us that way. Why would He overthrow His own idea and not include process in our spiritual formation? If God is so great, and can take something horrific like the Crucifixion and use it to save the world, why would He transform us and not do so through the events that formed us?
Even birth (even being born again) is a process. Gestation/formation was happening even before the birth. Not every womb is safe–sometimes because of conditions outside of the mother’s control, and sometimes because of conditions fully within it. Some of our spiritual wombs may have been, metaphorically speaking, the equivalent of a crack addict’s.
Rebirth by God’s Spirit is mysterious and seems to happen in an instant. It sets in motion a miraculous process which, if we allow it the time, will grow us up into increasingly restored reflections of God in the world. But the Spirit was also at work before that decisive moment, and I believe part of the miracle that God sets in motion after it is only able to occur when we face where we’ve been and discover the places that God was already there, too.
(Fellow blogger, The Wannabe Saint, recently blogged quite powerfully about something similar. Or maybe it’s the same thing. I invite you to check out his post, too.)