On the Trinity

I’m re-posting some earlier material for Trinity Sunday. Always fun to explain a complicated theological concept in a 15-minute sermon!

Spacious Faith

There is a story about the great theologian, Augustine of Hippo. One day after he had been writing about the Trinity for awhile, he decided to take a break and go walk along the beach. He came across a boy who had a bucket.  He would fill up the bucket, run up the hill, and dump the water into the sand. He did this over and over until finally Augustine stopped the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”.  The boy said, “I am draining the sea into the sand.”  Augustine pointed out the futility of the task, and the boy replied, “Yes, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”

Folks, I hate to tell you that if Augustine couldn’t figure it out, we’re not going to figure it out either.

The Three are one.  The One is three.  It doesn’t make any sense. It is…

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The Gospel in Translation

5791933614People are drawn to the story of God’s mighty acts, the story of Jesus, not simply for the story itself, but because they hear that story in their own native languages. If the apostles had been speaking Greek, everyone would have understood them—Greek was the lingua franca. But the Greek wouldn’t have been compelling. The Greek wouldn’t have touched their hearts and opened their ears in the same way as the Parthenian and Medite, and Elemish, and Cappadocian, and Pamphylian and Arabic did.

Translation is often what makes the Gospel compelling. New Testament scholar Margaret Aymer points out: that “on the day of Pentecost, Christianity became a movement with a divine sanction to multilingualism and to translation.” (Feasting on the Word) A divine sanction. We have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others.

At the last Western District Conference convention I sat down at a table with some Hispanic pastors and attempted to talk with them in their own native language. “Hola. Me llama Joanna. Estoy de Lawrence.” We awkwardly pieced together a conversation, and they graciously left me with this parting advice: “Necesitas mas practicar.” You need to practice more.

Not all of us are gifted linguists. Still, even those of us with sub-par foreign language skills have a divine sanction to translate the Gospel into the native language of others. And I’ve been thinking about what that means.

I’m slowly learning the language of the lgbtq community—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. I can tell you what all of those terms mean. And also what the “i” and “a” stand for in the extended version: lgbtqia. (Intersex and ally and/or asexual) I know that some people who do not identify with either gender binary of male or female prefer the pronoun “they” to “him” or “her.”

Sometimes I mess up. I was at a party yesterday where I very likely used incorrect pronouns. Sometimes I use a term or a label or a pronoun that does not communicate the love and respect I intend. But I’m trying. I’m trying to learn the language so I can speak the good news of love and grace to those who desperately need to hear it in their own native tongue.

And I am also trying to learn the native language of my conservative brothers and sisters. (See, I know to call them my brothers and sisters.) I’m trying to understand what they mean when they use terms like “sin” and “covenant” and “accountability” and “missional.” I sometimes try to speak in their language in order to help them understand my holy longing for grace and love and joy within the church. If you read some of my email conversations, you would recognize my theology, but you might not recognize my language. Because I’m trying, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to speak in the native tongue of another.

Of course, there is a danger that trying to speak in the native languages of others will slide into simply trying to say what others want to hear—which is not healthy or holy communication at all. No matter what language we speak, the message we are called to share is the same—the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And part of that good news is this: Even as we are called to translate for others, we are also promised the gift of hearing the Good News in our own native tongues—our own heart languages. The Spirit speaks to us in ways that resonate deep within our souls. Through music, through nature, through literature, through science, through chance encounters with strangers and intimate conversations with friends; through food and rest and work; hopefully, once in awhile, even through the words of your pastor.

We may experience the spiritual drama of tongues of fire and mighty winds—or their rough equivalents—a few times in our lives. But the most important miracle of Pentecost–speaking and hearing the Gospel in our own native language—this miracle is available to us each and every day.

May God give us ears to hear and tongues to speak. Amen.

This post is excerpted from a longer sermon, which you can read here.

How Not to Apologize

file2181285550868A recent Facebook apology from my teenage son: “I’m sorry but I have nothing to do with that.”

And Trump’s apology for posting an unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz: “If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn’t have sent it. I didn’t think it was particularly bad, but I probably wouldn’t have sent it.”

And an apology from the moderator and executive director of my denomination: “We apologize to . . . anyone . . . who may have gotten the impression that Executive Board leaders were not fully committed to justice and healing for victims [of sexual abuse].”

I’ve always thought that apologizing was a pretty simple task, one we learn at a young age: “Joanna, tell the dog you’re sorry for dragging him around the house in a pillow case.” “I’m sorry, Fluffy.”

That’s it. That’s an apology. Pretty straight forward. But apparently beyond the grasp of many people.

So, as a public service, here are ten ways to tell that your apology is not really an apology:

  1. The word “but” comes after the word “sorry.”
  2. The words “that you” come after the word “sorry.”
  3. Really, if anything but a period comes after the word “sorry,” you’re likely not apologizing.
  4. You list excuses for your pitiful actions.
  5. You use the passive voice. (“It is regrettable that mistakes were made.”–Not a real apology.)
  6. You claim that the person you are apologizing to is partly (if not completely) to blame for the horrible thing you did to them.
  7. You use words like “seem” and “probably” and “appeared” and “might” and . . . you get the idea.
  8. You mutter your apology to the ground while your mom stands by, glaring at you with her arms crossed.
  9. You pretend that your position of power and privilege makes you less responsible for your actions because it’s so difficult and complicated for someone in your position to negotiate all of their responsibilities—rather than acknowledging that it is exactly your power and privilege that make you that much more responsible for the damage you have caused and the damage you have failed to prevent.
  10. You have apologized for the same damn thing over and over and over again without actually changing your behavior in the slightest.

If you are having trouble crafting a sincere apology, I offer you this template from my younger self. You will need to replace the bracketed words to fit your own situation:

Dear [Fluffy]. I am truly sorry that [I put you in a pillowcase and pulled you around the house]. I am sure you did not like that and I should not have done it. Next time I will [put my stuffed dog in the pillow case] instead and give you a [dog bone].

You’re welcome.

The Girl Without a Name

Photo by Manu Mohan. “A Street Beggar”

Acts 16:16-34

Back in Jesus’ day, Paul’s day, they didn’t label people “mentally ill.” They said that people “had a spirit.” Generally the people Jesus and his followers encounter have “evil spirits,” but the slave girl in this story just has a “spirit.” Actually, it is a pyhtian spirit, associated with the god Apollo who was know as a snake-slayer. This spirit was said to inspire the oracles at Delphi and give them prophecies. This spirit supposedly allowed this girl to tell people’s fortunes.

So was this girl crazy? Maybe. But this “spirit” that possessed her also, in a way, provided for her. She was a slave, and her owners were able to make money off of her supposed powers. So, as a slave, she would have met with people, gone into a trance, and told them their future.

I imagine many girls who were slaves had it much worse.

This spirit compels the girl to follow Paul and his entourage proclaiming, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

She may be crazy, but she is also right. These men are servants of God; they are telling the people the way to be saved. Paul, however, does not appreciate her proclamations–day after day, this girl following him, yelling to the people that he is trying to talk to.

In fact, Paul yells things quite similar to what this girl yells. Paul sees visions. We could ask, is Paul crazy? Well, despite all of the nutty things Paul does in the book of Acts, despite his drastic mood swings that are obvious in the letters he writes, history has nonetheless placed Paul in the “sane” category.

And because he is considered sane, even saintly, scholar after scholar works to justify Paul’s actions in this story.

The girl, they say, was not referring to Yahweh, but to a pagan god. The girl, they say, was trying to get Paul and his friends into trouble. Paul, they say, turned to her in kindness to free her from this oppressive spirit.

But the text tells a different story. According to the writer of Acts, Paul’s motive is not kindness or love; it is not to redeem the girl; it is not to challenge the oppressive economic system that allows certain people to be owned by other people. No. Paul’s motive is that he is annoyed.

Despite what the Pauline apologists would argue, it seems obvious to me that Paul does not care about the girl.

He doesn’t look at her, she follows him around–she is always behind him. He doesn’t speak to her, he speaks only to the spirit that inhabits her. And once the spirit is gone, this nameless slave girl, now without her means of making money for her owners, simply drops from Paul’s consciousness. She disappears from the story.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never really sees this girl, but I trust that she is seen by God.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never speaks to her, but I trust that, in her new life, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit comforts her and guides her.

I am bothered by the fact that we don’t know this girl’s name; but I trust that God knows her name.

And even though Paul abandons her, that possibly her owners abandon her, that even the narrative of Acts abandons her, I trust that God does not abandon her; that this slave girl continues to be part of the story of the early church, part of the narrative of God’s activity in the world.

For the full text of this sermon, click here.

Presence in Absence

todd steele yosemite
Yosemite National Park. Photo Credit: Todd Steele

Some thoughts on this week’s Gospel Lectionary reading: John 14:23-29.

After the Last Supper, only in John, we have Jesus’ farewell discourse where Jesus talks to his disciples. And talks. And talks. And talks. For four chapters. John 14:23-29 is from the beginning of this speech. Jesus tells his friends that he will have to leave them, but promises that the Father will send the Advocate–the Spirit. While Jesus must leave, the Spirit will be with them forever. The Spirit will live with them and in them. The Advocate will remind them of everything they have experienced with Jesus. And so, in a way, Jesus promises that he will continue to be present with his friends even after he is gone.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it? For those we love to continue on with us. To still have Grandma in the kitchen, showing you how to roll out the dough. To still have Grandpa there beside you in the boat. To still be able to call Mom up and ask for advice when you don’t know what to do. We want that aching absence we feel when someone we love dies to be replaced by a living presence. Somehow. Any way we can manage. We want the emptiness to be filled.

A wedding I officiated a couple of years ago took place on a beautiful piece of land owned by the bride’s family—the same piece of land where the bride’s father is buried.

dads benchI thought of my own dad—who had been dead for about a year—when the groom’s uncle told me: “It’s really nice to have a professional here. You know, someone who knows what they’re doing.” My dad, also a pastor, came with me to the rehearsal of the first wedding I ever officiated. I had no idea what I was doing, and Dad told me, “You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just have to act like you know what you’re doing.” Turns out he was right.

At this more recent wedding, I stood confidently in front of the gathered congregation and watched the groom walk down the aisle with both of his parents. Then the bride came with just her mom.

Somehow my dad and her dad were both painfully absent and comfortingly close all at the same time.

When someone loves us, mentors us, walks with us through life, the thought of their leaving us–the thought of them not being with us any more–is heartbreaking. So we can understand that during the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples are distraught. Jesus is saying that he must leave them, and they do not want to lose their dear friend and mentor; they do not want to be without the one who called them; the one who loves them; the one they love.

They long for his presence; they fear his absence. Jesus’ promise of the Advocate, the Spirit, is a source of comfort for the disciples even as their hearts are breaking.

For the full text of this sermon, click here.

You might also be interested in this call to worship based on Psalm 67 and Acts 14.

Inclusive Communities

Crucifix at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

Acts 11:1-18

One thing this story tells us is that the church rumor mill is as old as the church itself. Even without the benefit of telephones, newspapers, Facebook, or Twitter, the apostles and believers in Judea have heard about what Peter did in Caesarea–namely, he baptized a bunch of Gentiles.

Now you might think that the church folks would be happy about a bunch of baptisms–but these were Gentiles. That is to say, not Jews. Actually, the quoted criticism here is not even about the baptism, but the fact that Peter ate with them. Perhaps the assumption–probably accurate–is that the meal was not Kosher. In any case, they were upset that the Gentiles were being brought into this faith community.

There were religious differences between Jews and Gentiles, yes. And also ethnic/racial differences. Jews and Gentiles had different cultural heritages. They did not understand each other well. Maybe they were even a little bit afraid of each other.

Now, two thousand years after Peter got in trouble for bringing Gentiles into the church community, we still have a problem with racism in the church. It’s not that white Christians think that people of color shouldn’t be in the church or be baptized. Most white folks are all for racial diversity as long as it doesn’t lead to any, you know, actual diversity–different kinds of praying or preaching or music or theology.

I was once involved with a mid-sized, mainline congregation; a predominantly white church in what had become a predominantly Hispanic part of town. And that church wanted to “reach out” to the people in the neighborhood. They hosted after-school tutoring for neighborhood kids. They ran a Vacation Bible School program each summer that attracted about 100 children—mostly from the neighborhood. And they got really frustrated that none of the neighborhood families became part of the church. They would talk about their frustrations at the same meetings where they voted to spend how-ever-many-thousand dollars to update the organ. Which was played loudly. And slowly. And accompanied hymns written by long-dead Europeans. Plus, the pastor spoke no Spanish. Nada.

The apostles were upset with Peter baptizing Gentiles because this new, emerging church was supposed to be their church. A Jewish church. Their understanding of Jesus was grounded in Jesus’ identity as a Jew—like them.

And we all do that, really. Hold onto the similarities between ourselves and Jesus. Whether they are real—like, for instance, as best we can tell, Jesus really was a Jew; or whether they are culturally reinforced historical impossibilities. For centuries in the Western church Jesus has been white. Those of us who think about it geographically, historically, know Jesus would not have been white or looked white at all—but so many paintings and sculptures from throughout the ages reveal how people made Jesus in their own white image. Because it was comfortable. And it served the power structure.

But God’s visions for Peter and Cornelius in this story show that within the church, we are not called to be comfortable or powerful. We are not called to stay in our safe spaces with people who look and act like us; with only people who agree with us. Jesus has bigger things in mind.

Being an inclusive community means that we truly open up, that we are willing to let people who are different from us help us more fully understand the depth and breadth of God. Being an inclusive community means that we look to and listen to others as we try to figure out what it means to follow Christ.

The apostles are hesitant, at first, to include the Gentiles. But after they hear Peter’s story, his critics quit criticizing him and begin praising God for the new members of their family.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a “happily ever after” tale. Not for the first century church, and not for us. This is not a story that provides simplistic answers for complicated questions. It is a story that reminds us that we should listen closely to the stories others have to share.

This is a story that reminds us that God operates beyond our areas of comfort. That God’s church includes people we wouldn’t expect in ways we can’t imagine.

This post is excerpted from a longer sermon I preached in 2013, which you can find here.

Wrestling with the Shoulds

house deck
The balcony off the dining room.

Some of you know that less than three years ago I was very excited to move out to the country. I wrote about it a lot and posted pictures. But some of you might not know that less than a year ago we moved back into town. Honestly, it’s a little embarrassing and I didn’t make a big deal about it. Moving back to town was a good decision on many levels–the right decision for many reasons. Yet this time of year I do miss my three acres. I’ve been thinking lately about what I could call our “failed experiment” but instead choose to name our “country living adventure.”

Part of the impetus for that adventure was a desire to live more faithfully and simply. And in seeking a more simple, faithful lifestyle, it is easy to be seduced by someone else’s version of the “simple life.” The chickens and organic gardens and goat-powered electric generators look so good in the glossy pages of Mother Earth News. And Pinterest will show you how to hand-make anything you could possibly need for a lovely home.

For some people, this homesteading lifestyle is the life God has called them to. I think they would tell you that there are many aspects of their lives not fit for Mother Earth News—let alone Pintrest—but still, they have found a way of living that uses their gifts and aligns with their values.

During our brief stint of country living, I had to be honest with myself about what my gifts are and are not; what life God is actually calling me to verses the life I somehow think God should be calling me to.

I had to admit that homesteading is not my calling.

I am called to write and pastor and parent and it turns out that homesteading doesn’t leave a lot of time and energy for other callings. (I am honestly somewhat baffled by all the people who write about homesteading. I imagine they are either lying or not sleeping or have some voice to text contraption hooked up that they talk into while they dig potatoes or—and this is probably the most likely scenario—they are simply much more focused and disciplined than I am.)

One of my friends who grew up in the Mennonite church talks about the Mennonite tendency to “should ourselves.” (No wonder I fit in so well in my adopted church home!) Granted, there are some pretty big “shoulds” that apply to all of us: We should love God. We should love our neighbors. We should not kick puppies.

Our chickens and their coop

But we have a tendency to pile all kinds of specific shoulds onto these basics; this particularly happens in the realm of simple living. We should get rid of our car. We should compost. We should put solar panels on our house. We should turn down our thermostat. We should downsize our house. We should eat organic food. We should shop at thrift stores. We should reuse our baggies. . . . The list is endless and overwhelming.

The reality is that most of our simple living shoulds are contextual. We have to do the best we can within the life that God has called us to. If that life is a rural pastor, we probably need our car. If that life is to care for an aging parent, we may want to set our thermostat at a comfortably warm temperature. If that life is as a foster parent, we may not be able to afford organic produce—or have time to grow it. If we run a restaurant, I imagine the health board would not appreciate us reusing our baggies—even if we do rinse them out between uses.

It can be dangerous to live someone else’s version of a faithful, simple life. It might make us turn our backs on the real work God is calling us to do; to ignore our unique spiritual gifts as we try to conform our lives to someone else’s blog posts or Pinterest board.

It might make us buy a house in the country and a riding lawn mower and chickens and lots of seed potatoes only to discover that we are not cut our for country living and need to move back into town and are on a first-name basis with the home loan guy at the credit union which, nice as he is, is not a good sign.