House of Mercy and Grace and Disgrace

NT; (c) Knightshayes Court; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On another website, my blog post “Jesus- An Accessory to Murder?” was reprinted. I received a simple, maybe obvious, and yet profoundly important comment. In support of my message, Tobysgirl wrote:

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“As someone said, it’s like Jesus was born so he could be crucified, and his life means nothing at all.”

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Being that yesterday was the kick off to the Church calendar, these words are all the more significant.

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Often, maybe too often, I have noticed copious differences between the symbolic body of Christ (the Church) and the actual life of the crucified and resurrected God. It’s not anything novel, disgruntled followers have held up Ghandi’s “your Christians are so unlike your Christ” quote for some time now. But that doesn’t make it any less true or relevant. Sometimes I fear faithful skeptics will stop holding the Church’s feet to the fire in the name of changing trends.

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Some leaders of the faith have said this is much ado about nothing. They have said that too much spiritual investment is placed in His historical life, his actions and his strange statements containing curious caveats, after all, the gospels were written by authors with their own sets of biases and baggage. The Bible is all equally important (an idea I have always questioned). And the point is mainly the crucifixion and the resurrection. The bookmarks of the Christian calendar. The rest is more or less commentary…

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And with that, these leaders reduce those profound discrepancies to speculative intellectual gymnastics. Just twists and turns of a liberal agenda trying to move the Messiah to the wrong side of the aisle.

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I give you the story of Bethesda.

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In a corner of the town of Jerusalem, invalids and unworthy suds, washed themselves in what was called the “Pool of Bethesda”. It was a place with supposed healing powers. The name Bethesda itself meant, “House of Mercy” or “House of Grace”, AND it was also been translated to mean “House of disgrace”. A twin title that is fitting for what happened there.

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So a disabled man waits by the Pool of Bethesda, desperately trying to get in. In fact, he had been lying there for 38 years. The account in John goes:

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Soon another Feast came around and Jesus was back in Jerusalem. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves.

Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?”

7 The sick man said, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.”

8-9 Jesus said, “Get up, take your bedroll, start walking.” The man was healed on the spot. He picked up his bedroll and walked off.

9-10 That day happened to be the Sabbath. The Jews stopped the healed man and said, “It’s the Sabbath. You can’t carry your bedroll around. It’s against the rules.”

11 But he told them, “The man who made me well told me to. He said, ‘Take your bedroll and start walking.’” (John 5:1-11).

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Unsurprisingly, this man did not recognize the ultimate healer before him. He had spent his whole life trying to make it into that pool. He was trying to fix the brokenness of body and spirit. He spent his years in a house of religion waiting for a rescue that would never show up.

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Everyone told him to sit tight. Everyone told him that the pool ahead held all the answers. Patience, dear paralytic. This water will wash your problems away. It is of the divine, it is not to be challenged. Grow your faith a bit. Isn’t your healing worth 38 years of your life?

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Then comes along a man who rips apart every curtain in the paralytics reality. The hope he had held for so long was nothing more than a myth. It was real for him, sure, but it wasn’t true. Too often we mistake that which we hold to be real to be true. The two aren’t the same. Some wells we see are nothing more than mirages.

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A message that seems to get lost in the lectures of stories like this is the moral relativism of Jesus. I am not saying Jesus is a flake, nor do I intend the adjective “moral relativism” to be used, as it normally is, negatively. In three gospels Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in substitution for another. That law was important once, but not today. Not now. Not while this man lays in agony at my feet. Again, the divine Son of God shows us what it really means to have humanity.

Brennan Manning writes:

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“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learns where the outcast weeps.”

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Our arrogance is the stone, Christ is the flesh. Spiritual purposes of the law cannot be fulfilled if it goes against the heart residing in Christ. They had obviously misunderstood something, and their misunderstanding had consequences to Kingdom Come. To the message of the Messiah. To the very name of the pool as the “house of grace”.

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David Dark, in one the must-read books for followers of this generation, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, writes:

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“Churches, government, marketing schemes and other unsound structures are always with us. Reforming them, de-constructing them, or renouncing their stratagems altogether will often be an ethical imperative. But to begin to get out from under a bad con isn’t to escape a place where everything is permitted, some religious-free zone void of awe or wonder or a sense of the holy. We break with sacred cows all the time, but when we do, it’s generally because we’ve stumbled on something that strikes us as more sacred than what we once feverishly sought or bowed down to. This, too, is religion- ever inescapable, always worth questioning, and, perhaps, reaffirming. What do we hold sacred? Is it worthy? Have we begun to ask the right questions?

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha decided there was something more sacred than material wealth and privilege that surrounded him in his formative years. Jesus of Nazareth taught that healing people on the Sabbath was more important than keeping the Sabbath rules. Muhammad asserted that the hypermaterialism of the ostensibly religious merchants of Mecca was displeasing to the one true God. Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded thousands that their worship of racial privilege was unjust, evil, and an abomination in the sight of God. Sacred cows are called into question. Community standards are confronted. Religion happens. You’ve got to lose your life to find it. You have to learn how to die.” (The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, pg. 33, Bold emphasis mine).

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We can never mistake the will of the majority with the will of God. That much I know to be true. If anything, the story Christ reaffirms this, over and over and over again. The majority crucified Christ. He bucked both religious and cultural opinions. He was an outlier. Weird. Cast aside as a crazy man, or worse, a con man.

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When I hear speeches from the Pope or Conservative evangelicals, I cannot fall prey to the fallacy that somehow they know Jesus better than I OR that I know him better than they do.

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As they cannot stop questioning me, I cannot stop questioning them. We loosen and we bind one another from what we think we know in order to find the deeper truths that neither of us can fully claim. Norms change, people change, opinions shift. Strangely, we can be largely separated on so many things, yet intimately tied by our belief in a savior. Maybe that’s the beauty of the body.

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Jesus turned the religious structures upside down. It makes sense that the pharisees didn’t see God in flesh while he was tearing apart their reality stitch by stitch. He told them that they got the Sabbath wrong. He told the paralytic that he was living for a lie.

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He told everyone that Satan is the Accuser, not God.

He told them that love is the answer, not legalism.

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Systematically, he removed every burden that bore down on the religiously devote. He overcame the love of power with the power of love. Freedom in the truest sense of the Word. Our God doesn’t clasp handcuffs on fresh converts. He releases them from every lie of this world. From shame, hunger, sickness and oppression. He bestows love, grace, hope and freedom. Sweet freedom. The Sabbath reformation strikes me so deeply because it’s the transformation of a relationship based on slavery to one of blessing. Like the difference between a Master and a Father. As Jesus once said so beautifully,

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“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NIV)

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There are times when we all must pick up our bedrolls and walk off.

Or rather, run off.

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Run into the arms of the redeemer who holds no guest list in his hands. Someone who is ready for me, before I even think about coming back to him.

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Run away from judgments handed down from high horses. Run away from decrees that seem to discipline only people like you. Run away from easy answers. Run away from religion.

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Fall into questions that don’t require a thirty-second response. Fall into risks that make your faith true. Fall boldly and fall fearlessly.

Fall until you feel the arms of the almighty catching you.

If Jesus says you can walk, walk on.

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RR

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Four Visits from Christ BEFORE he was Born

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So as the season swings into the climax of Christmas, I find myself searching for the weirdest elements in the story cause I’m weird. I look for the stuff that’s not taught in Sunday Schools or sung by carolers. None of it is really critical, what I am writing is mostly speculative, but, alas, to those lovers of scriptural surprises, enjoy!

It wasn’t until a couple years ago, when I was so close to a sweet nap in the middle of my Christian theology class that my professor said something that got my attention. “Jesus came BEFORE he was baby. Well… he may have.” I think he saw I was close to snoozing, when I looked up he was looking directly at me, so I blinked at him a couple times to let him know “okay, I’m listening.”

Some of these stories are eerily similar to a Christmas flick with a surprise visit from Santa. Like the ones where the janitor, who no one has ever seen before, shows up in the nick of time to impart lifesaving wisdom and as the characters walk away scratching their heads, they take a look back only to find He. Has. VANISHED.

Of the many possible moments of Christ’s early appearances, four really intrigued me.

1.  Melchizedek

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After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and his allied kings, the king of Sodom came out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh, the King’s Valley. Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine—he was priest of The High God—and blessed him:

 

Blessed be Abram by The High God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth.
And blessed be The High God,
who handed your enemies over to you.

 

Abram gave him a tenth of all the recovered plunder.

(Genesis 14:17-20, MSG)

 

The appearance of the Melchizedek is so peculiar because there is no other reference of him in the Old Testament stories (except in the Psalms). It was like he suddenly appeared out of thin air to Abram. Yet, even while there is no evidence of a historical relationship between these two, Abram gives him 10% of his loot, suggesting a previous understanding.

And He celebrates the Passover with bread and wine before there even was a Passover. (Reference to Jesus’ last supper?”

AND THEN this weird blip on the Old Testament screen makes a huge mark in the book of Hebrews.

“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” (Hebrews 7:3)

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2. The Wrestler

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As an angry mob raced to his doorstep, Jacob sent his family across the river to safety and chose to wait the gang out. We are told in Genesis that he starts wrestling with a “man” until the break of day.

The upper hand falls to Jacob, as he is able to overtake the mysterious figure by morning.

The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”

Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”

27 The man said, “What’s your name?”

He answered, “Jacob.”

28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”

(Genesis 32:26-28, MSG)

I could write a million more posts on the meaning of this story alone (I love this story). It is so familiar to how I feel 99% of the time about my own relationship with God.

 

Always wrestling.

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3. Abraham’s visitors

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Remember when God laid a verbal smack down on Sarah with his, “yes you did; you laughed” in response to her lie? Well, that may have been Jesus.

Jesus:

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

58 “Very truly I tell you,”Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

(John 8:56-58, NIV, emphasis mine)

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4. Furnace Angel

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When the Angel came to rescue Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, he was called an interesting name.

“But look!” he said. “I see four men, walking around freely in the fire, completely unharmed! And the fourth man looks like a son of the gods!” (Daniel 3:25, MSG, emphasis mine)

Pastor Mark Driscoll believes without a doubt that this is Jesus… Not sure if I am beyond a doubt and I am equally unsure of how I feel about agreeing with Pastor Mark on anything, but it’s interesting to think about. Like a son of the Gods.

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Important to note is that none of these appearances (if they were in fact Jesus) are the same thing as what happened when Christ was actually born. If these were examples of Him, they are what are called Christophanies, essentially nonhuman appearances. Or, as I like to think of them, teasers to the main event.

When Jesus was born, he was fully human.

Which makes his birth even more spectacular. He came to “dwell” amongst us. No longer was he intervening on our behalf by simply stopping by for quick fixes, only to dust off and head home. He put on skin and walked alongside the worst of us. He healed the sick, defended the vulnerable and died a criminal’s death.

The God who chose to stay with us.

RR

Unsung Heroes: Mary and Her Sorrow

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The water from her eyes met the blood in his palms, as she waited with her first born for the end. The cross was a cruel end to an ugly beginning. These two had traveled many miles together- their bond so much stronger than blood.

Before he was born- when she was just a kid herself, God chose her to be the one to watch over him. To keep him fed in an age of poverty and teach him the Word in an age of the Pharisee. To direct him on the path he was destined to tread and, with every step, remind him he was loved.

Weaving their way to Bethlehem, she had a close call with death. Her baby was coming. The water had broken (I’m assuming) and if she held him in any longer, complications were sure to arise.

Going door to door in a town bankrupt of benevolence, they finally found a space set aside by a farmer. I have no idea if they wound up in a cave or a barn (doesn’t matter), all I know is that it was the absolute worst. I once heard a pastor compare it to the bathroom at the back of a filthy gas station. The kind with a flickering light bulb hanging down from a chain and a ground covered in feces and urine. The nativity was nauseating.

And even still.

Mary had many more miles to go.

Her days consisted of ducking arrows at every turn. When Herod wanted them dead, they had to run. Tucked at her chest was her son as they rode off into the night. Escaping everything but the moaning of mothers echoing off in the distance. Grief and guilt became familiar ghosts for Mary.

Yet she knew this was coming. In her memory stayed the prophecy from Simeon who said, “a sword will pierce your very soul.”

As Jesus grew into a young man, Mary had to manage the demands of his mission with her vocation as a parent. There was one time when Jesus, unexpectedly, strolled away to the temple, and wasn’t found until two days later. When she walked in and found him with the Rabbis, she scolded him through tears. He worried her sick, and she asked him how he could put his parents through such hell. Puzzled and looking her over, he asked why he wouldn’t be in “his father’s house”? A wistful reminder that he was never really hers.

Years later, in a classic moment of a hovering parent, she approached her adult son at a wedding reception. Smiling and with a tone of suggestion, she said, “they’re running out of wine…” To which he responded (my translation, total speculation), “Would you leave me be ma!?! I’m not ready yet.” That didn’t stop her. She knew her son too well. So she turned and marched on over to his friends and said, “do whatever he asks”. In effect, She set the scene for Christ’s first miracle.

And on Good Friday, not mentioned in scriptures, but worthy of note as it is appears in works of art, is the two meeting at Via Dolorosa. This place was a point on the road Jesus walked as he carried the cross to Skull Hill. The body she had cared for, nourished, protected, watched over, was of no resemblance to the carnage coming down the path. Their eyes must have met in the most heartbreaking of goodbyes. The sword started to chip through her chest.

A small group of women trailed Jesus as he walked up to Calvary. He heard their weeping in anguish, and in an emotional moment, he responded to them.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’”

This is a reference to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman Empire. But what’s important to soak in here is that he is referencing the heartbreak of being a mom. Having children was a mark of honor among women, being barren was a curse. Yet Jesus turns the meaning of motherhood on its head. Mary knew this all too well.

Beneath the shower of blood, sweat and tears, the stench of unending suffering, and the hours of agony that went unanswered from on high, all she could do was lay below her boy. Her heart shredding as she heard Him whisper to John, “this is your mother now.” He was always thinking of her first like that.

Wanting nothing more than for it to be done, for mercy to melt their hatred, she stayed silent and wept below the dripping tree. Startled, again she lifted her head to hear her boy try to speak. In a great feat of strength he raised his voice and cried, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” His grace knew no limits. He didn’t get that from her. She knew who that was from.

Frog in her throat, hands shaking, breath shortening, tears streaming, she endured hours of her son’s slaughter amongst a crowd of scoffers. Insult after insult, signs saying “King of the Jews”, rocks thrown at his open wounds. To them, his death was vindication for their judgment. They knew he could not be who he said he was. “Save yourself King!” they taunted. He’s saving you, she must’ve thought.

The hours continued and his breathing became more and more labored. Clearing his dry throat as wet tears ran down his face, again he whispered, “I’m thirsty.” At this moment flashbacks must have come rushing back of her teenage years, how helpless she felt. But no longer could she save him. She couldn’t protect him from this. She would take the nails if she could, but she couldn’t.

Then at last, “Father, I commit my hands into your spirit.”  Exhaling, he sighed, “it is finished.” Her soul was pierced.

It is said that Mary played one of the pivotal positions of the early church. After the collapse of her world, as the public put together a kill list with her name at the top, she worked relentlessly for the dream of her son. For the kingdom building he had started. After the ascension of Christ she is the only women mentioned in the upper room with the eleven other disciples, and many have speculated that she was the “woman elect” amongst the disciples.

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Now of course Mary isn’t among the forgotten people of the Bible. Every person that knows who Jesus is, knows who Mary is. Having said that, sometimes I wonder to what extent people understand the brutal sacrifice of this woman. What she endured, what her life means today, what she represents and the injustice of how she is presented.

The Church (at least protestants) has always had a wary relationship with Mary. Loving her, of course, but keeping her a bit at bay. In Church teaching, there has always been a fear of Mary becoming some sort of Goddess. A higher being that required us to kneel before in worship. This is actually a legitimate concern to be had, as Christ is the only one deserving of our praise. But in our disassociation with Marian worship, I think we started to strip away the importance of her own story.

The Mary I grew up learning about was the beautiful glowing pregnant woman wrapped in a shawl. Cartoon images come to mind of her flight to Egypt as a ride off into the sunset with her boo. It was romantic and enchanting. She was always a virgin (not true) and she became more or less commentary after Jesus’ childhood. A blurb in the background. A mission accomplished.

My adult eyes don’t see it the same way now. I see the preteen girl asked to carry out a death sentence. I see a saint that suffered for the sake of the Kingdom. I see a woman who’s very survival meant the world’s salvation. I see there is so much more beyond her giving birth. She gave her son. She gave her heart. She gave it all up for the sake of kingdom.

And now, I start to see a pervasive sexism in interpretations of the scriptures.  Paul is ordained a suffering servant who ensured the survival of the faith (which he did). Abraham is seen as the father of Israel who had a faith that was fiercer than blood (which he did). Moses is the orphan who liberated the Jewish nation (which he did.) David was the guy after God’s own heart (which he was).

When it comes to Mary, why don’t we revere her life with the same platitudes as we do with so many of the men of the faith? We never consider the fact that while carrying God’s son was big honor, it was also a horrifying request. The gravity of her response should not get lost on us. We assume this cheerful giver mentality when she may have been scared to death.

Also, why does her story seem to come to a climax at the birth and then not given much consideration thereafter? What about her role in Jesus learning the scriptures, developing mentally and socially, what about the fact that she nudged him into his first miracle, effectively kicking off his ministry? What about the guilt she endured over Herod’s massacre? What about the sword piercing prophecy? The nauseating nativity scene? Watching her son suffer a slow and painful death?

She is much more than that quiet girl who gave birth to God beside some sheep. She is a saint, a servant and one that deserves to have the whole of her story told.

There are a couple reasons the story of Mary has been on my mind. One, obviously, Christmas is just around the corner and I’ve been seeing her face in every nativity scene and hearing it whenever “Mary did you know?” is played. Second, the mothers of Newtown. Just the terrifying notion of being a parent, and the hard truth that whether they are newborns or ninety, you can’t protect them from everything.

Maybe looking to the strength of Mary, her resolve, her conviction, her love and perseverance, can give heart to the parents who lost their babies last week.

RR

Unsung Heroes: Hagar’s Story

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For the life of me I can’t remember learning this story in Sunday School. I remember being bored by tales of the Old Testament, but never inspired, excited or moved. Maybe it was because after you hear the story of Christ everything else feels like commentary. A way to fill up the pages.

But even my college Bible class seemed to gloss over it. They focused so much on the leading man and woman that they never paid tribute to the girl that went through hell.

Everyone knows the chronicle of Abraham and Sarah. The mother and father of Israel. We know how God showed Abraham the stars and said his descendants will be greater in number. We know about Sarah laughing when she finally became pregnant in her old age, a reminder of a God that surprises. And we know about, Hagar, but that’s more or less commentary.

When I first heard about Hagar, I was told she was more or less a mistake in Abraham and Sarah’s past. That she was an example that although Abe and Sarah were chosen to lead this generation, they too were imperfect folks.

Abraham was a hero of faith to be sure, let’s not forget God’s heartbreaking command to slaughter Isaac. Sarah is less easy to eulogize, so I’m not going to.

God gave Sarah and Abraham everything under the sun, except for a son. Despite the promise of a long lineage, Sarah still couldn’t conceive. And when God reassured them he would, they didn’t trust him. No, Sarah didn’t trust Him. Instead she recruits her slave Hagar for the job.

But calling this a “job” would imply that a choice was involved. There wasn’t. It was written in the law that Hagar was Sarah’s property and tasks like this weren’t too out of the ordinary.

True to the meaning of her name, Sarah is a princess. The haughty kind, like Victoria Grayson (Revenge reference). One case-in-point. God pays a visit to Abraham and tells him again that Sarah’s going to get pregnant! Eavesdropping on the conversation, Sarah snickers at the suggestion. Obviously, God hears it (He’s God) and calls her out. Sarah lies. In a simple, yet perfect response, God says, “yes you did; you laughed.”(Genesis 18: 15) I envision a lot of head tilting and brow furrowing.

Hagar was an Egyptian. A slave to Sarah while Abraham and her stayed in Pharoah’s palace. When the two got the boot out of Egypt, Hagar was packed up like luggage and carted along with them. Away from everyone and everything she ever knew.

She was a minority in every sense of the word. Her gender, race, nationality and social status put her in the bottom of the barrel. Nothing more than a means to an end. Something to be traded, used and discarded. Born to be little so her master could be great, her existence nothing more than a sad roll of the dice.

Approaching Abraham with her proposition, Sarah actually says, “Maybe I can get a family from her.” (Genesis 16:1-2)

In the aftermath of conception, Hagar understandably feels a sea change in her role. Carrying another’s child has to have a psychological impact. For the first time since Egypt, she felt a part of a family. Her family. Little by little she was rising out of the refuse.

But her changing heart wasn’t lost on Sarah. She noticed. Seeing the foggy morality with any violent action against her husband’s concubine, she tells Abraham she’s gonna teach her a thing or two and God will judge her if she’s wrong. To which Abraham responded with, “your maid is your business.” (Genesis 16:6) A verbal declaration of cleansed hands.

And thus begins a cycle of domestic abuse. Sarah terrorized Hagar for her uppity attitude. With an iron fist, she intended to make her fall in line. Under this oppression, with no soul to count on, Hagar does the only thing anyone could.

She runs.

The pregnant slave girl found herself beside a spring in the desert, collapsing in tears. The geographical route she took has led many to speculate she was headed back home to Egypt, the only place she ever belonged. This life was a train wreck and about to get even worse. The baby within her womb was soon to be separated from her forever. She was to be stripped of any acknowledgement as the child’s mother- wiped completely from his memory. And if that wasn’t devastating enough, she had to hand him over to her predatory abuser.

Hagar’s heart was not driven by self-preservation; it was sacrificial love. Love for her boy.

And then someone finds her.

In an incredible twist of this epic tale, an “Angel of the Lord” (commonly understood to mean God in the scriptures) shows up. Joining her beside the spring, He gives dignity to her story and becomes a confidant for her to speak of her turmoil. Her story. A life as someone else’s thing.

But whatever hope she had of escaping this life vanished when God told her to return to Sarah. Maybe Hagar wasn’t really surprised. Always the means to the end. How could He see a survivor in the skin of a slave?

Yet, God wasn’t finished. He continued to tell her of a wonderful road ahead. That this was only the beginning of it. That the hand she had been dealt would one day win. A dream Hagar probably never allowed herself to hold on to was suddenly promised. “I’m going to give you a big family. Children past counting.” (Genesis 16:9-12). He tells her to name her son Ishmael, which means God has seen your humiliation. God had seen her distress. Her life as a doormat.

And in a response that could only be said through sobbing eyes and trembling lips, Hagar cries,

“You’re the God that sees me!” (Genesis 16:13).

Imagine the significance of this moment. Think about the whole of Hagar’s life. The context she arose from gave her a gross depiction of God. In her eyes- God belonged to Sarah and Abraham. He was confined to their altars and private exchanges. They were the chosen ones. Sarah was the chosen one. All of them except her. Hagar was just the tablecloth they talked over.

Imagine for a moment how Sarah symbolized God to her. He was someone who would never accept her. Never find favor in her. Never love her. Never see her. Never notice her.

And all it took was a trip to the desert. An evacuation of the oppressive system she was a slave to. A liberation from her life as a doormat to find that God did notice. That God loved her. That people like Sarah make for poor missionaries and doormats like Hagar can be card-carrying disciples.

Heading home, her heart beating with humility, Hagar became a doormat once again, but with a “soon enough” story to hold on to. After a decade of thankless service, Sarah kicks her to the curb. Rationale? Ishmael teased Isaac. Heartbroken, at his wife’s heartless response, Abraham grieves to God. God responds with promises of protection for the two. Abraham had to let them go.

Both were banished and left to wander into the wilderness. It had been several years since Hagar and Ishmael’s first venture into the shadow lands but this time, no spring was there to save them. In another devastating chapter of the story, Hagar places her dehydrated son beneath the shade of a tree and walks away, unable to watch him die. And in a parallel moment of desperation, God shows up again.

“When the water was gone, she left the child under a shrub and went off, fifty yards or so. She said, “I can’t watch my son die.” As she sat, she broke into sobs.

 

17-18 Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.”

 

19 Just then God opened her eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink.

20-21 God was on the boy’s side as he grew up. He lived out in the desert and became a skilled archer. He lived in the Paran wilderness. And his mother got him a wife from Egypt.” (Genesis 21: 14-21)

With a word of encouragement and a well built by a miracle, Hagar and Ishmael are saved.

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What stood out in this story is not that the Bible edits out the inconvenient. Clearly, the source here is the scripture. What stands out is how this story is told. Or rather not told. It taught me that taking to task the tellers of the Word is an imperative placed upon us all. When we do, we find it is not simply for instruction, but for empathy and inspiration. I was never told this story. I was never told the Eunuch’s story. Or the story of Cornelius in Acts.

And yet at the same time, should we really be surprised? Church history has traditionally trashed Hagar as an example of the sinful. Of the fallen. And within the same breath, they say Sarah is an example of the heavenly. Augustine compares Hagar to the city of the Earth and Sarah the city of Heaven. Aquinas separates the children of Sarah and Hagar into the “redeemed” and the “unredeemed”. Even Paul, in the very same Holy text, suggests the same assertions. So what do we make of it? Racism? Sexism in a male-dominated history? I’m still sorting it out, but it baffles me.

What I do know is that there is a whole reservoir of runaways like Hagar in both the Old and the New Testament. And yet, we still remain dumfounded by the rap sheet of Christ’s Chosen twelve. When people looked past the fisherman and tax collector, Christ saw them. Outer perfection is of no interest to our God, he seeks the humble hearts. The meek and weak. Those that are cast out, he brings back in. Lepers, Samaritans, slave girls, and gentiles. Our God does not carry a guest list!

And the best part about this is that he meets them where they are. Where we are. He is a seeker, a searcher, the God that sees. That is the God we are dealing with. One who dwells amongst us. One who doesn’t define us the way people do. He values us because we are his. The imperfect rubric of the world is of no relation to him. He does the opposite of conventional wisdom, touching lepers and washing feet. He honors the unusual and the unattractive. He cracks open a corridor for the exiled to sneak in and shows us that only the humble are truly heroic.

RR

Runaway George

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Among many things that have captivated my attention in this book is it’s handling of Christian theology in relation to slavery.

Here we find George, a runaway slave. In this scene, his former employer, Mr. Wilson, recognized George inside a hotel lobby and promptly approached him, asking if he would accompany him to his room to have a little chat. Mr. Wilson is a good man, but he fears that George is going against God and country, and thus requires his guidance.

First he tries logic.

Then he tries scripture.

“But you know how the angel commanded Hagar to return to her mistress, and submit herself under her hand; and the apostle sent back Onesimus to his master.”

“Don’t quote Bible at me that way Mr. Wilson,” said George, with a flashing eye, “don’t! for my wife is A Christian and I mean to be, if ever I get to where I can; but to quote Bible to a fellow in my circumstances, is enough to make him give it up altogether. I appeal to God Almighty- I’m willing to go with the case to Him, and ask Him if I do wrong to seek my freedom.”

“These feelings are quite natural George,” said the good-natured man, blowing his nose. “Yes, they’re natural, but it is my duty not to encourage ‘em in you. Yes, my boy, I’m sorry for you, now; it’s a bad case-very bad; but the apostle says, ‘Let every one abide in the condition in which he is called.’ We must all submit to the indications of Providence, George,- don’t you see?”

 

George stood with his head drawn back, his arms folded tightly over his broad breast, and a bitter smile curling his lips.

 

“I wonder, Mr. Wilson, if the Indians should come and take you a prisoner away from your wife and children, and want to keep you all your life hoeing corn for, if you’d think it your duty to abide in the condition in which you were called. I rather think that you’d think the first stray horse you could find an indication of Providence- shouldn’t you?”

 

I resonate with George’s story.

That’s not to say that I think slavery and homosexuality are parallel tales of misunderstood scripture.

But I’ve got my fair share of Bible burns.

They tell me, “but both the New Testament and the Old Testament speak against homosexuality”

I say, “I understand, but there are others who view-“

“1st Corinthians 6:9-10, 1st Timothy 1:9-10, have you not read this?”

I’ve been reading and rereading these since I was in the sixth grade.

“It sucks, but you know what? It’s God’s word, and Christ calls us all to sacrifice in one form another.”

Usually my thoughts echo George’s response to Mr. Wilson.

The detachment from empathy is so palpable in today’s Christian culture when it comes to homosexuality.

In these rock and hard place moments, I just want to pull out every Bible verse that should convict them of the same charge.

Perhaps what Jesus said about the wealthy, or the proud or the judgmental.

But by now, I’m burnt out.

So I bite my tongue.

Beyond George, there are countless runaways out there, carrying the card of some form of Christian contradiction. Divorce is one. Just the other day, I heard one coworker open up about his sisters painful divorce. The listening, coworker, my sister in Christ, said something akin to, “A vow is a vow. It seems they didn’t try hard enough.” Unwed mothers are another. I’ve heard people say about a friend of mine, “I wonder how many baby daddy’s she has? So sad.” Or the poor, “Why should my dollars go to their drug habits?”

Our Christian culture has become a bag of wonder bread, and if you’re made of a different morsel, you’ve been misplaced. I know better than to generalize about a whole group of people, and I fully believe that there are those quietly keeping their cupboards locked tight.

But the trouble with tribes like ours is that we thwart any attempt at transparency. Tears belong behind closed doors. Support calls for a certified shrink. The Bible is a bludgeon, not a buoy. Dialogue destroys doctrine, leading us down that oh so slippery slope towards hell. Raise your hands high and give us that sweet smile.

A couple months ago I had the opportunity to attend one of the Marin Foundation’s “Living in the Tension” gatherings. There I was, surrounded by fellow travelers on a similar journey of my own. All of us came for the same thing, reconciliation between the scriptures and our sexuality. All of us, looking around, greeted each other’s eyes with an “I get it.” When the meeting came to a close, I was embraced, told I was loved and encouraged to keep searching and questioning. It was a transformative night for all of us. My mom, who went with me, said later on, “that’s what the Kingdom looks like.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Runaway George had a similar experience. Having reached refuge outside the grasp of slave catchers, and finding his son and wife there as well, he reclaimed his faith in the father. Looking around the dinner table at the Christians that saved his life, he reflected:

“This, indeed, was a home,-home, –a word that George had never yet known a meaning for; and a belief in God, and trust in his providence, began to encircle his heart, as, with a golden cloud of protection and confidence, dark, misanthropic, pining, atheistic doubts, and fierce despair, melted away before the living Gospel, breathed in living faces, preached by a thousand unconscious acts of love and good will, which, like the cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, shall never lose their reward.”

When we roll up our sleeves and trade tales of our bruises, we deny the lie that we’re alone.

May our community become that “golden cloud of protection”.

RR

TreePeople

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“22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into[a] the village.”

         – Mark 8:22-26 (NIV, emphasis mine)

One of the greatest treasures within the story of Christ is his sneaky way of inserting subtext into all of his actions. It keeps us guessing, and more importantly, expresses the eternally relevant messages that freshen our eyes with every turn of the page.

Taking the blind man by the hand, Jesus led him to a remote location where they could be alone. No crowds, no ovations. Just an intimate one-on-one conversation.

Between the lines of this story remains that mysterious walk and the conversation that must’ve occurred. It seems, and I have no real historical evidence for this, that Jesus intended this walk to be an intake of sorts. I think he wanted to hear this man’s story. More importantly, I think he wanted to establish a friendship.

After they settled into their makeshift hangout, Jesus spit on this man’s eyes and then laid his hands upon them. When he asked him what he saw, the man gave one of the most easily understandable descriptions, people look like trees, I know they’re not trees, but that’s what they look like. Jesus received the man’s perceptions, laid his hands upon his eyes again, and perfected his vision.

In 1st Corinthians, Paul writes:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  -1 Corinthians 13:12 (NIV, emphasis mine)

 

Jesus did not have to make a second go at healing this man. He was all-powerful. If he wanted to, he could’ve snapped his fingers and given this man the eyes of a hawk. But there was a deeper subtext he sought to convey.

We all have moments when all we need is perspective. Two weeks after I came out, I remember lying on the couch in the living room, burying my face in a pillow, shouting at my parents about the loss of my sanity. Seriously.

In the tangled mess of my thoughts I started to question whether I truly existed or if I was living in some sort of Matrix. I threw my middle finger in the air at a God that I had reduced to a mere flight of the imagination. And I just laid there, shivering in a nightmarish world that I had no hope of waking up from.

My mom looked at me, smiling.

“Honey. You’ve known that you were gay for roughly ten years and have been afraid to open up about it until now. Furthermore, you came out to the whole family and you did so less than 24 hours after a failed suicide attempt. That is a lot to happen all at once, for anyone. Now, here’s what we can do. If you believe that you are truly losing your grip on reality, you can come upstairs and lay in our bed for as long as you want. We could just sit on this for a few days. I think after this night is over, you will see that much of this is simply the anxiety of the moment. If it turns out its not, we’ll go to the hospital.”

She couldn’t possibly put herself in my head that night or roll the tape of my past decade. This was completely unfamiliar territory for her. But yet, she could still relate somehow. She knew what it was like to be swept away in the anxiety avalanche and she knew where to look for the clearing in the clouds. She took what her tears taught her and showed me that trees are not people.

That what I see is not necessarily what is.

The dialogue that takes place in Mark is an undertone of a greater truth. It is an intentional example of how we are all blind when left to our own devices. Without the hands of healers and the words of the wise we will always fail to see where we are situated in the greater story. I don’t think that this account is simply about repairing the fellow’s retinas. It was about restoring reality.

In our prayer life, the old adage: “pray until something changes or you change”, fits this story well. When we meet with Christ, he desires us to vent about our life. He wants us, if just for a minute, to forget the fact that he already knows and instead let him in like we would a confidant. I think he wants to take that walk with us first. As we return and return to that oasis of confidence, he continues to rub our eyes clean of lies.

It’s clear that Christ is the only force capable of clearing out our inner cobwebs, but that doesn’t mean that this happens only through prayer.

It’s a call to walk with one another no matter the distance. It’s a promise that when we reach that place of intimacy, we will see that our walls are stumbling blocks not shields. In that place, we stop theorizing about the future. We cry out: Carpe Diem! The scales slowly pile up at our feet and our distortions no longer deny us that sweet breath of life. And then, we dust one another off and take a different road home.

We see trees and we see people.

RR