Setting out again & again

by susan on September 18, 2018

These are the “words for the journey” that were shared during The Well’s Sunday gathering on 9.16.18. They are based on Genesis 12:1-9 and are part of our series, Disarming the Bible & recapturing the ancient, messy, complex, inspired, still-speaking story of Scripture. Throughout this series, we are exploring various ways to engage Scripture. Last Sunday, we engaged with our questions. This week, we were challenged to dig deeper & to move beyond the words on the page.

Sometimes the message is captured best in song, like the one we sang together:

Some heard the promise — God’s hand would bless them!
Some fled from hunger, famine and pain.
Some left a place where others oppressed them;
All [at least the people named earlier in the song] trusted God and started again.

These are the stories that make up the Story. There are countless journeys described in Scripture.

Some journeys were made by choice, others out of necessity. Either way, again and again, people left something or somewhere familiar & stepped into an uncertain future.

Why do you think that is?
Why are these the stories that fill the pages of the Bible?
What is there for us to learn from all this coming & going?

I don’t know about you, but my life has certainly been a journey. In fact, I would venture to say all of us are on one right now. Some are physical; others spiritual or even metaphorical. Perhaps the reason so many journey stories are included in the Bible is that this is what being human looks like. It means to set out again & again.

Some journeys though, are more painful than others. Like the journey of self-discovery or the journey of waking up to & healing an addiction or the journey through financial devastation or the faith shift journey or the journey of leaving home or of leaving one homeland to move to another.

Life is a journey, so of course, there are many, many journeys described in Scripture, but maybe there is another reason for all this movement.

Today’s story describes Abraham’s invitation to a journey, but not just Abraham. Sarah may have been named among his property, but she is an equally significant although too often undervalued part of the story.

Digging deeper, we find this is not the first mention of Abraham & Sarah. In Genesis 11, they are named in the lineage of Noah’s son Shem (who had a son named Terah who moved his family, including his son Abram & his wife Sarai to a new land). See, Abraham & Sarah already know what its like to move from one land to another. They’ve done it before.

Their genealogy also tells us something upsetting about this family: Sarah is unable to have children.

Her introduction into Scripture is the first mention of barrenness in the Bible. Not exactly how you’d wanna be noted, especially in a culture where the ability to have children was critical for a woman. She’s no doubt a source of shame for her family & I imagine she also faced a fair amount of struggle with self-esteem.

It’s in this season of struggling with barrenness that God tells them to move. Now, that feels like really bad timing to me. Personally, I’d prefer waiting until things are coming together & I feel like I’ve got my ducks in a nice, near row. But that’s not this God’s way.

God, we are learning, doesn’t want us to get too settled in our ways & seemingly out of nowhere says “let’s go. I’ve got something new in mind.” That could be the other, even more important reason for all these coming & going stories.

This God is on the move & we get moved, too.

This move God has in mind first involves Abraham & Sarah leaving something behind.

Check out this portrait (to the left): Abraham Leaves Haran by Francesco Bassano the Younger, 1560-1592.

What strikes you about it?

The way I see it, Sarah & Abraham’s departure is depicted as untidy & chaotic & abrupt. It’s not just a move, it’s an uprooting:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

There is no way to quantify what Abraham & Sarah were being asked to leave behind. In ancient Israel, kinship was everything. Moving from broadest to most intimate, you had your country & then your tribe & then your clan & then your father’s house. God covers all the bases. In fact, the writer seems to be chiseling away to get to the point that Abe & Sarah were not just moving to a new home – they were undergoing a radical reconfiguration that would alter everything. Even their names would change.

This can be so super exciting & it also makes me sick to my stomach.

I had an epiphany yesterday about my own spiritual journey.

My journey has been one of moving deeper & deeper into loving all the “wrong” people – people like criminals, like those in prison, like the meanest neighbor, like those considered the worst sinners. Let me tell you something: it’s not great for your reputation. It upsets people, especially religious people. It always has. It has caused me to lose some friends. And I don’t say that to give myself a pat on the back for losing-friends-for-Jesus, but rather to remind us that being moved out of our comfort zones or away from our “tribes” or popular opinion often does that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly where God is moving you.

Leaving is hard. Having our lives or our identities or way of life overturned can make us sick to our stomachs, but it’s in the discomfort & the unsettling that God does something important.

Namely, blessing.

Now, that blessing can be very personal. It can look like barrenness overturned. It can look like a promotion or a windfall of money or a new vocation or a marriage or a child or a lot of other wonderful things. It can look like what previously seemed impossible now becoming possible. It would take forever for Abraham & Sarah to bear a child. They would grow weary & impatient & do some pretty desperate things along the way, but eventually, they would have a son.

The blessing would be the overturning of their barrenness, but always, always this personal blessing would be for the sake of the world. That’s the intent of blessing. We like to count them, but really blessings are intended to be shared.  It’s never just about our comfort & our safety & our needs. The whole reason, in fact, that God wants to make Abraham & Sarah into a great nation, is to be a blessing.

And what does it mean to be a “great nation” anyway? In ancient Israel, it meant having control of the land. It meant having the most possessions. It meant having the most male children. It meant a lot of things, but once again here comes God redefining things.

A blessing is not something you have or hoard, it’s something you give away. It’s not about being the biggest or the best. Blessing is about being a source of love & light & hope & peace & blessing toward the rest of the world.

Look what we find when we dig a little deeper. God is on the move to bless the world through us & it will involve a lot of unsettling & shifting & even some sick stomachs at times, but God will be with us in the midst of our comings & goings. Even when like Abraham & Sarah & Jesus, we become the sojourner, the stranger, the outcast & the enemy, God will be with us.

Where is God moving you? And why haven’t you left yet?

Noah, the flood & a God who remembers

by susan on September 11, 2018

These are the “words for the journey” that were shared during The Well’s Sunday gathering on 9.9.18. They were based on Genesis 6:11-14, 17-22, 7:19-21, 8:1, 9:8-11 and are part of our series, Disarming the Bible & recapturing the ancient, messy, complex, inspired, still-speaking story of Scripture.

We are told that in the beginning when God created the heavens & the earth, the earth was a formless void, and that darkness covered the face of the deep (Gen. 1:1).

Things were dark & desolate & chaotic until
a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is our first introduction to God. God, according to Scripture, is One who creates & God is One who calls what he creates good.

It’s a good start, but things unravel pretty quickly. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, there seems to be an endless cycle of goodness followed by unraveling followed by goodness then more unraveling. And on and on it goes.

My relationship with scripture has involved a similar cycle.

Raised in the church, I was immersed in a culture that convinced me the Bible is the most important book I will ever read. As an avid elementary Sunday school attendee, I not only knew the books of the Bible by heart & in order (probably better than I do now!), I was selected (get ready for this…) as one of the children featured in a Bible drill promotional video created by our denomination. Autographs are available.

A Bible drill, for those who are not familiar, is a competition in which children are judged on their speed & accuracy in locating particular scriptures.

Crazy enough – yet not all that surprising considering my competitive side – I learned to love the Bible. It was an important tool, a weapon if you will, that could help me win at faith and life.

Then in early adulthood, I started learning some things about Scripture that unsettled me. There were inconsistencies, like in the flood narrative we read a portion of – in one place it says the flood lasted 40 days & in another 150 days. Which is it? There were stories I assumed were historical that were more likely myth (which actually made a lot more sense) and that concerned me. Not to mention that the Bible did not fall from the sky (nor was it written by God or Moses or even King James).  In fact, it had over 40 different authors, many of whom are never named in the story. So, what made it trustworthy? And, could I trust myself to read it without misusing it or using it in ways that were not intended? My relationship with the Bible was changing & I treated it with a lot of skepticism.

I’m not sure what shifted, but at some point, my cynicism has been transforming into a new appreciation and love for the Bible, not for what I wanted or needed it to be, but for what it actually is. A lot of friends, spiritual companions & colleagues have been helpful in the process, but I still struggle & hunger for authentic & meaningful ways to engage with scripture. I guess you could say I’m working on our relationship.

What about you? What’s a word you would use to describe your relationship with the Bible?

The flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 has been the source of much Bible angst. On the one hand, all kinds of sweet songs, stuffed animals & artwork have sprung from it. On the other hand, for a favorite children’s storybook story, it sure does contain some troubling imagery.

I heard about a pastor who decided to use this story as the focus of her children’s sermon. She called the children to the front of the sanctuary and asked them to use their imaginations in thinking through the story of Noah & the flood & the ark:

“What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear?”

One child eagerly raised her hand & offered this response:
“I hear the people in the water outside the ark screaming for help.”

Needless to say, this was not the response the pastor was anticipating.

Children come to the Bible with curiosity & questioning. Sadly, our tendency is to silence those questions because they make us uncomfortable. They expose the harsh truth that the Bible does not settle everything for us.

But why would we stifle questions when questions are what formed the stories to begin with?

Ancient stories like this one are responses to the fundamental questions human being have been asking since the beginning of time. Questions like:

How are we going to survive?
Why is this happening?
What do we do now?
Who is in control?

These are the questions that prompted ancient storytelling, particularly the stories found in Genesis, a book whose title means beginnings.

One of the questions I asked as I approached this story is why?
Why would a story like this have been preserved & passed down?
What made it worth remembering?

Like the child hearing this story for the first time, it’s easy to get swept up in the horror of it. The punishment & death & violence are an undeniable part of the story & we have to deal with that, but to the primitive people first hearing it, I doubt that idea would have been surprising at all. The idea that the gods controlled everything, the idea that if there was devastation or difficulty, it was because the people had done something wrong & they needed to make amends was nothing new. This image of an angry god who needed to be appeased already existed. So, this story did not get passed down because people needed to avoid making God angry. They knew that.

No. Like all good stories worth remembering, it survived because of its surprise.

There is a point in the story that we could easily brush right past if we are not paying attention.

God was angry – not surprising.
The floods came & killed people – not surprising.
Noah has been floating around with a boat full of animals for a really long time – strange, but not surprising.

Then in chapter 8, verse 1:

“But God remembered Noah and also all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided”.

I can just imagine the reactions of the primitive people first hearing this story for the first time. Huddled together, gathered around a campfire…

Wait. Am I hearing that right? God remembered? That is not what gods do. They are distant & detached. A god who remembers?! That’s crazy!

Imagine the shock at this turning point in the story. Unlike the ancient gods who had no regard for the violence they inflicted, this God is doing things differently.

This God remembers not only Noah, but every living thing. This is a story worth telling, especially to people who feel forgotten or to people who feel they are still stuck in cycles of trying to please angry gods or people who think the only way to be in relationship with God or anyone for that matter is to prove their goodness.

Or people who think violence is the only way to win.

People like us.

God remembers & what is important is not whether the flood historically happened or not, but in the words of Dr. Miguel De La Torre, “in the midst of our own floods, when we are hanging on for dear life, lest we drown, God still remembers. We are never alone. Because God remembers…”.

God remembers & not only that, God makes a covenant, which means God makes a promise, one that is unbreakable.

The promise is this: God will never destroy the earth with a flood again. It’s important to note that God does not make this promise because humanity has changed. We are still going to cause corruption – we will still bring violence upon ourselves. God doesn’t make this promise because we have changed our hearts or our actions, but because this is who God is. God prefers a relationship with us over being right. This God will not have a relationship that is built on punishment, revenge or

And get this. The sign this God makes of this new promise, this new way forward is a bow in the sky. We didn’t get that far in the story. But God uses a weapon, a bow, as a reminder that violence will never again be his means for relating to humanity. God is making a tool of violence into the promise of new creation. We may choose violence & crucifixion & killing, but this God will not.

It’s a radical shift. It’s a new understanding & a new way forward & it will weave itself into the rest of the story that culminates in the life & ministry & death & resurrection of Jesus.

Gods in the ancient world may have been distant & detached. They may have required appeasement. They may have punished people through violence & killing & death.

Why did this story get passed down? Because it’s a new story about a God who does things differently & inviting us into an alternative way of being in the world. This God is the Creator of new life.

When we engage with Scripture, questions are always a good place to begin.

How is God still stirring us through this ancient story?

What questions, challenges, new ideas & new ways of being in the world does it stir up in you?

Disarming the Bible & recapturing the ancient, complex, inspired, still-speaking story of scripture

September 7, 2018

War stories. Forgiveness. Genocide. Resurrection. Polygamy. Covenant. Anger, joy, fear, love, grief & gratitude. Even a pregnant virgin & a talking donkey. It’s all in there. The Bible contains a collection of experiences, poems, songs, letters and stories that tell us about God, about one another, about what it means to be alive. In some mysterious & […]

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Beach & Baptism Gathering

September 4, 2018

It has become a tradition of our community to choose a Sunday at the end of summer when we head to the beach to remember our baptisms, to celebrate baptism & to just enjoy spending time together. This year, it’s happening on Sunday, September 30th at Little Talbot Island & everyone is invited. Baptism is […]

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Becoming Children

August 9, 2018

The writer of 1 John repeatedly refers to the friends he is writing to as “children of God.” It’s easy to brush right past these words, but maybe we should let them sink in a little. After all, he’s writing to adults. He’s writing to people who have wisdom & experience. He’s writing to friends […]

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Tattoo storytelling & owning our un-orthodoxy

May 30, 2018

In a recent social media conversation, I was described as “unorthodox” (some of you are already starting to laugh). While the rebellious part of me loved that designation, the pleaser part was left a little unsettled. Me? Unorthodox? Is that a joke? Did I read that right? While unorthodox technically means “contrary to what is […]

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A word about healing, worthiness & women’s bodies

May 15, 2018

This is the message shared on mother’s day, Sunday, May 13th during our community gathering. It is part of our “Embody: practicing resurrection through our bodies” series & is based on Luke 13:10-17. — Last Thursday,19-year-old Noura Huseein was sentenced to death. Noura grew up in Sudan, where it’s legal for a girl to be married […]

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Healing Our Broken & Beloved Bodies

May 8, 2018

This is the message that was shared on Sunday, May 6th during our community gathering. It is part of our “Embody: practicing resurrection through our bodies” series & is based on the following scriptures: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. – Genesis 1:27a A leper came to […]

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Re-imagining church & practicing sabbath

April 27, 2018

One of The Well’s core practices is that of “re-imagining” & we describe it like this: “While we respect and seek to follow a rich Christian heritage, we also value our freedom to creatively re-imagine the church in our current context. We are committed to questioning and critiquing our current practices, and are open to […]

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An invitation to come home

April 16, 2018

This is the message that was shared on Sunday, April 8th during our gathering. It is part of our “Embody: practicing resurrection through our bodies” series & is based on John 21:1-14. — I came across a painting this week that captured my attention. It’s a painting by David Hayward entitled “I Embrace My Roots” (to […]

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