Understanding Revelation: Only One is Worthy (Chapters 4-5)

Wilfrid J. Harrington writes, “The great throne dominates Revelation: a constant reminder that God rules even in our chaotic world.” As we move into chapters 4-5 of Revelation, the setting of John’s vision shifts to this “great throne”. In Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, revelationThe Heavenly Throne Room.jpgs are mediated to the human recipient in two ways: in the form of dreams/visions, and in the form of other worldly journeys. Chapters 1-3 of Revelation fall under this first type, while chapters 4-5 shift to something more similar to the second type where John is called up and shown a heavenly throne room. As John’s vision takes him to the heavenly throne room, he, and we, find this central theme in the text – that God alone is worthy to receive the believer’s total allegiance.

Again, as we explore the imagery of these chapters, remember that John is not attempting to present a blueprint for the future or a road map for the end of the world. His approach is not logical or sequential, but creative. His visions are variations on a few related themes. Revelation is a book we are meant to creatively experience, rather than to dissect line by line.

We find a number of symbols present in the throne room imagery, which communicate to us some truths about what it means to worship God and God alone. The following are some of the notes I shared during the Bible study:

Rainbow – reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah; a sign of God’s mercy that tells us there is to be no triumph for God’s sovereignty at the expense of his mercy

24 Elders – The identity of the 24 is not entirely clear – a common interpretation is the 12 tribes of Israel + the 12 disciples; another is a doubling of the 12 tribes of Israel, thus representing both Jewish and Gentile believers, ie. The totality of the Church. They are heavenly exemplars of pure worship of God, in contrast with worship of the emperor that is occurring on earth

Thunder and Lightning – conventional imagery used for theophanies (appearances or manifestations of God) in the Old Testament

Seven Blazing Lamps – similar to the 7-branched menorah in the Jerusalem temple; John says they represent the seven spirits of God – affirming the wholeness of God’s presence and work

Sea of Glass – ancient Hebrew cosmology (understanding of the world/universe) conceived waters as below the earth and above the firmament (the dome covering the earth), and water was seen as a representation of chaos, evil, and the untamed part of creation. Here, the sea is made calm under God’s rule and presence

4 Living Creatures – modified from imagery in Ezekiel 10; representations of the highest order of angels who stand closest to the throne of God; cherubim and seraphim are described as the highest orders of angels in the Old Testament, and they are usually depicted as winged creatures that have characteristics of both animals and humans

Scroll with 7 Seals – legal documents were often written on one side of a scroll, then folded, sewn together, and sealed, with a summary of the content written on the outside – this scroll could represent the kingdom of God that is conveyed by the work of the Lamb; it could also represent the purposes/plans of God for all of creation, which are effected through Jesus; seals were used not only to safeguard a document, but they also identified the source of the document – the only one who can open the scroll is the Lamb

Lion or Lamb? – Jesus is originally described as the Lion of Judah – an image of a fierce and conquering ruler. John looks around for this Lion, but instead of a lion he finds a lamb with the marks of its slaughter. “Lamb” is the most prominent title for Christ in Revelation, appearing 28 times

Lamb’s 7 Horns – symbols of power and strength

Lamb’s 7 Eyes – symbols of God’s presence and knowledge, demonstrating that the Lamb acts with the authority of God

At the center of these two chapters (and really the whole of Revelation) is a question about worship. Who do we worship? To whom do we give our allegiance? The Christians who lived during the time of the writing of Revelation were faced with some difficult decisions to make about how they chose to live, especially in relationship to the Roman empire.

The Roman empire was incredibly powerful – the emperor held ultimate authority over the empire, and he knew it. Roman emperors had even taken to claiming divine status, and demanded that Roman citizens worship him as a divine being. Christians were faced with this difficult choice: refuse to participate in the imperial cult of emperor worship and likely face some form of persecution, or go through the outward actions of participating in the imperial cult, even if they believed differently in their hearts, and avoid persecution. For John, the choice was clear. Faithful Christians can do nothing other than worship the one true God. To do anything other was a complete denial of faith.

Chapters 4-5 center around the absolute worship of God. The heavenly throne room is centered wholly around God, who is in the center. The attention of all of the creatures and elders is focused solely on the one whom they worship. There is no room for anything else. Worship, in Revelation, is a political act. Through worship, one declares one’s own allegiance and loyalty. Through worship, one reaffirms again and again that commitment. Those who worship God cannot give allegiance to Rome or its emperor.

Furthermore, chapter 5 gives us a picture of the character of this God that we are called to give our whole allegiance to. We find that the one who is worthy to open the scroll is the one on the throne – and the one John finds on the throne is the Lamb who was slain.

Lamb
Lamb of God, 6th C in dome of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna 

This was a surprise for John, because he was expecting to see a fierce, conquering Lion, the Lion of Judah. But instead he finds the Lamb, bearing the marks of execution. As Mitchell G. Reddish points out, “Through this imagery, John declares that the only ‘conquering’ that is consistent with the values of God is conquering that occurs through self-sacrifice and love, not through violence.” At the center of Christian worship is a ruler who does not claim authority through violence or force, but through the giving of self for the sake of the other. This is fundamentally contrary to the ways that the kingdoms of the world, like Rome, work.

As the scene in the heavenly throne room continues to unfurl, we see who else is participating in the act of worshipping the Lamb – it has moved from just the creatures and the elders to include tens and thousands, and they sing a song of praise and honor, recognizing that people from every tribe, language, people, and nation are included in this new reality. There are no barriers; there are no divisions. The Lamb has broken all of those down.

We have much to ponder from these two chapters. They raise many questions for Christians today, living in America. To whom or what are we ultimately giving our allegiance? Where have the lines between worship of God and worship of empire been blurred?  How do we tell the difference, and how are we called to live faithfully in such a time and place? Read the two chapters again, and reflect on these questions. I’ll leave you with another word from Mitchell G. Reddish for you to ponder, a word which may or may not sit well with you. Whether it rubs you the wrong way, or whether it resonates with what you experience, take some time to pray and ask God to reveal what it is to be faithful to the Lamb today.

“American culture lays claim to the allegiance of the church. Patriotism becomes entwined with religious faith. American flags are placed in churches; churches hold patriotic rallies. Capitalism is seen as a divinely ordained economic system. Caesar demands to be worshiped, and too readily the church obeys. As a result, the message of the gospel is subverted, and the church becomes a willing participant in the deification of nationalism. To this situation, also, the book of Revelation declares, “You must not do that. Worship God!”

You can read the introduction here and the blog on chapters 1-3 here.

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Understanding Revelation: A Call to Faithfulness (Chapters 1-3)

St. Augustine wrote, “Now in this book called the Apocalypse there are, to be sure, many obscure statements, designed to exercise the mind.” And so we begin our exploration into the many obscure statements of Revelation that will do more than exercise our minds. Revelation is a book that at times stretches us, at other times confounds us, but always speaks hope into our lives and leads us on a journey pursuing faithfulness to the Kingdom of God.

As Revelation begins, the text highlights two ideas – that John clearly understands his visions as something revealed by God, and that God intends for John to take on the prophetic duty of delivering that message. These days, prophecy is often understood primarily, or at times, exclusively, as foretellings or predictions of the future, and therefore, a prophet is seen as someone who predicts the future. While speaking of future events can certainly be an aspect of the prophetic task, a prophet is someone who is tasked with delivering God’s message to a particular people in a particular time and place. John understood his message to be directed towards the Christians of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the first century – and John clearly states in chapter 1 that he is not speaking of some distant time in the future, but of a time in the near future when the suffering and persecution of the Christians of Asia minor would come to an end. Keeping in mind John’s prophetic task to convey God’s message to a particular persecuted people can help us in understanding the purpose of Revelation – and accordingly, how we, as 21st century Christians in America, can responsibly read and interpret John’s words for today.

Jesus and Seven Lampstands
Illustration from the Bamberg Apocalypse of the Son of Man among the seven lampstands.

In the first chapter, John names the audience of his letter, but more importantly, he discloses the identity and nature of the one who is revealing the message to him. When God speaks to John, God reveals some key things about the fundamental nature of God – God is Alpha and Omega, first, and last, beginning, and the end. In other words, all of creation finds its ultimate existence, meaning, and purpose in God – what God began, God will complete. God is also named Almighty – the supreme ruler – the only one God’s people should serve. In these few words of Revelation 1:8, the recipient of this message hears these two major themes that are emphasized over and over again throughout Revelation: that God will bring to completion the work that he began, and that God is the only one worthy of allegiance.

John also gives us a vision of the exalted Jesus Christ – and here he doesn’t look like the gentle, pastoral Jesus we are used to seeing. Here, he is depicted as a blazing and brilliant vision – triumphant, and even a bit scary. He’s depicted as having a voice like rushing waters, with a sharp, double-edged sword coming from his mouth. The exalted Jesus proclaims that he lives and that he holds the keys of death. While the depiction of the exalted Christ is somewhat terrifying, John reveals to us that ultimately, Christ has conquered death and stands triumphant over it; therefore, Christians need not fear death because Christ frees them from the constraints of death. This triumphant Christ is an image of hope to faithful Christians who face the prospect of death at the hands of empire, and this Christ has a message he wants John to share with seven churches in Asia Minor.

Seven Churches MapChapters 2-3 consist of these specific messages to seven churches of Asia Minor. Each letter follows a basic pattern:

  1. Identification of the church being addressed
  2. Identification of the one sending the message
  3. Words of praise
  4. Admonitions/criticism
  5. An exhortation to faithfulness
  6. A promise to the one who remains faithful

Each letter addresses issues of cultural accommodation and faithfulness. Ultimately, each of the seven churches are presented with these questions: What does it mean to be in the world, but not of the world? How much compromise with non-Christian beliefs or practices is ok? What does faithfulness look like, and what is the cost? What distinguishes Christianity from the rest of the world?

While John directed these questions to a particular people in a particular time in place, these questions speak to us today as well. Mitchell G. Reddish says it well in his commentary on Revelation:

“Cultural accommodation is as much a danger in modern society as it was the in first century, perhaps even more so. Whereas John’s readers could readily perceive a difference between their beliefs and practices and those of the larger Roman society, modern culture (particularly in the United States) is often seen as being “Christian,” or at least sympathetic to Christianity. As such, the institutions and structures of society are viewed as “Christian” institutions and structures. Democracy and capitalism are viewed as biblical ideals. America itself becomes the new “promised land.” To fight for Western values and ideas is equated with fighting for Christian values. In such a setting, the danger of Christianity losing its “otherness” is very strong. The challenge for the church is to find a way to be a part of the society in which it lives without losing its otherness.”

These may be hard words for us to hear, especially when there are many wonderful things about being a part of the society in which we live. We enjoy many freedoms, and there are impulses within our society that I do believe align with the nature of God’s kingdom, which we see wherever we strive to care for the vulnerable, to lift up the forgotten, and to champion the oppressed. While I believe the best our society has to offer is rooted in the love of Christ, there is also much within today’s empire that seeks to squash out his kingdom. Just as Christians living under the Roman empire were forced to choose between faithfulness to God’s kingdom and bowing down to the values of the Roman empire, there are times, where, as Christians, we are forced to choose between faithfulness to the kingdom of God or bowing down to the values of today’s ruling powers, which in many cases are cloaked in the language of Christianity, but bear very little resemblance to the values of Jesus. In some ways, it was easier for these early Christians addressed in Revelation to see the distinctions between the values of empire and the values of God’s kingdom because the two were clearly separate entities. The waters became much murkier after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire a couple of centuries later, and the waters have been murky for us ever since. Ultimately, as the exalted Christ says in Revelation 1:6, the church is called to be a “kingdom of priests serving his God and Father.” In other words, the church is supposed to be distinct and set apart, with a call to remain faithful above all else. We’ll talk more specifically about these ideas in the next entry – for both the early church and for the church today – where we look at chapters 4-5 and the visions of the heavenly throne room.

Again, in these posts, we can’t dive as deeply as we are able to in the study, but I hope you will read chapters 1-3 and listen for these themes and ideas, and ponder them in your heart! May we each hear and discern God’s call to faithfulness and have the courage to heed that call.

Also, if you haven’t yet read the introductory blog post, you can find it here.

Squashing Spiders, Squashing One Another

Image result for spiderThis morning something TERRIBLE happened on my way to Bible study. There I was, driving along, and then all of a sudden, I saw these legs and this body slowly lowering itself down right in front of my face. A SPIDER. What nerve of this creature to drop down in front of me while driving! Who did he think he was? Thankfully, I was driving slowly on a side street at the time, because I proceeded to freak out, flailing my arms around, fidgeting in my seat, looking for the closest thing I could find to get the spider away from me. I proceeded to flick it onto the dashboard, and then grabbed a napkin from my glove compartment, and I squashed that sucker. I squashed him good. All of this happened within a few seconds. But as soon as I squashed the spider, this thought crept into my mind, unbidden: “Why did I have to go and kill it?”

I was bothered by the fact that my gut instinct was to squash the creature who was doing nothing but going about his spidery business, just as God created him to do. As I thought about the question that had crept into my mind, I thought to myself, “I killed it because I’m scared of it.” In squashing the spider, I exhibited a most basic human response – to eliminate that which we fear. I went on to Bible study and left that thought on the back burner, but now it has come back to the front of my mind.

Fear seems to be the great motivator these days. I feel it all around me. And all around me, I sense a desire to squash that which we don’t understand; to squash that which causes us to fear. The rhetoric in our country increasingly reflects the desire to squash that which we fear. There is an ever-increasing polarization taking place – we see this exemplified between the political left and right, we see this exemplified between conservative and progressive churches, we see this exemplified in the struggle to come to terms with our racial history and identity as a country. We see this exemplified in so many arenas of life.

Where is the dialogue? Where is the deep listening? Where are we recognizing and honoring the image of Christ in one another? Those things seem to have been thrown out the window in favor of our baser human instinct to squash one another through a barrage of disgust and hateful words.

James 1:19-20, 26-27 says this: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight reign on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

It seems to me that the opposite is so often true – we, myself included, become angry or offended quickly, and want to jump in with our opinions or moral outrage, and in doing so, we remove any opportunity to deeply listen to one another. We want to squash our opposition because we don’t want to entertain the thought that we might have something to learn from them. We are afraid of what that might mean for how we live our lives.

For those of us who profess faith in Christ, he calls us to a different path than the path we now find ourselves on as a country. Christ calls us to be deep listeners to one another, and to truly hear the vulnerabilities and the injustices that plague our world, even when we, ourselves, may have little to no personal experience of those injustices. As James writes, true religion is caring for the orphan and the widow – in other words, the least of these. This is not convenient or easy, and it can, in fact, be very uncomfortable for those who are not at the margins of society.

This morning I read an article about the need for white Christians to invest in really learning about racism in our country – past and present. Personally, I believe racism is still one of the biggest issues in our country today, but there is so much contention over whether or not that is true. I absolutely understand the impulse to say that it’s not such a big deal these days – and that is easy for someone like me to say, since I don’t experience the injustices that many in our country do. And for so many of us, we simply want to squash an alternative narrative that suggests otherwise – that racism is still very present. To acknowledge that racism is a real and active evil means that we have to change, even those of us who believe that we do not exhibit characteristics of racism or prejudice – and not just superficially, but deeply. And that is a scary prospect.

I keep thinking about the spider I killed this morning. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had slowed down and taken the time to approach it differently. But I can’t undo it now, it’s dead.

Image result for listeningWe cannot continue on the path of fast anger and loose tongues, unleashed to squash one another, but we still have time to choose to act differently toward one another and to embrace a posture of deep listening to those we do not understand; to those whom we fear. I too, am learning that I need to take James’ words to heart. All too often, I want to share the first thing that comes to my mind – I want to express disgust and moral outrage over so many things. I want to drown out those with whom I disagree. I want to squash their views and promote mine. But that gets us nowhere good. Today, may we all take these words to heart: let us be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, and may we seek to listen to one another and see one another through the eyes of Jesus Christ.

-Cindy+

Footwashing and Faithfulness

Every Monday morning like clockwork, I walk into Tudor’s Biscuit World, go up to the counter and order my usual (decaf) coffee. Then I sit down at a table with several folks. We share food, and conversation, and then we open up our Bibles. We’ve been going through the Gospel of John for the past I don’t know how may weeks. Sometimes it feels like forever. In fact, I can’t even remember what we studied before we decided to dive into John! John’s writing is heady and dense. Jesus is far more philosophical and verbose in this fourth gospel than he is in the other three. We’ve spent ages talking about Jesus’ identity and the failure of those around him to truly grasp the nature of that identity and the kingdom that Jesus is working to bring about.

We sit in the midst of people coming in and out of the restaurant – ordering their food, having conversations, and then going on about their day. We sit in the midst of TV screens flashing the latest news and workers doing their daily tasks. We sit in the midst of a world that is meant to be growing toward the kingdom of God.

Image result for footwashingToday, we started studying John 13 – where Jesus gets down on his hands and knees and washes his disciples’ stinking, dirty feet. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s not a job for the master. It’s not a job for the guest of honor. And yet, it is what Jesus does because it is who he is. And in washing his disciples’ feet, he shows them the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a kingdom of humility and servanthood. It is a kingdom of messiness and vulnerability.

It’s no coincidence that immediate following the footwashing, Jesus and his disciples gather around a table and Jesus speaks of the one who is to betray him, Judas Iscariot. Judas has always been a controversial figure in Christianity. Was it inevitable that he would betray Jesus? Was Judas damned for his actions? What motivated him to betray Jesus? We don’t fully know the answers to any of those questions, but I have some speculations about what led Judas to betray Jesus, and I think it has something to do with this common theme we find throughout John and the Synoptic Gospels – that even those closest to Jesus fail to grasp the nature of the kingdom that he has come to inaugurate.

Related imagePerhaps Judas betrayed Jesus because he just could not grasp a kingdom characterized be servanthood and sacrifice. After all, that hardly translates well into a world of empire and oppression. How in the world is humility supposed to overcome the forces of the world? How is it supposed to overcome a powerful emperor and an even more powerful army? I suspect that Judas was getting impatient with Jesus, wondering when he’d start getting to the business of overthrowing Roman oppression and establishing a new rule for God’s people. Even though Judas had been present for Jesus’ miracles and teachings, he did not understand Jesus’ work in bringing about the kingdom. Now that they had entered Jerusalem, maybe Judas thought it was time for Jesus to stop messing around and to get down to the work of building a revolution – of showing his power and using it to subjugate Rome.

But Judas had it all wrong. He completely ignored the fact that time and time again, Jesus refuses to exert power over others. Jesus has demonstrated consistently that his kingdom is about giving up power, not grasping after it. Judas’ betrayal may have been motivated by what he thought were good intentions. But when it comes down to it, he failed to trust Jesus and the mission to which Jesus called the disciples: to wash one another’s feet, just as Jesus washed theirs.

All of this talk about Judas and his betrayal got me thinking today. It made me think about what it means to be faithful to Jesus and his kingdom. The temptation to grasp for power is great, and Christianity has a muddy history when it comes to seeking and exerting power. Whenever Christianity has become entwined with empire, this happens. And whenever Christianity becomes entwined with empire, it betrays Jesus and his kingdom. We like to demonize Judas for his betrayal of Jesus, and yet our own history as a Church is bursting at the seams with the same betrayal. It has been happening from the forced conversions of the Christian Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, through today. We live in a time and place where Christianity continues to grasp for power – we see this in the constant talk of trying to make America a Christian nation by force – by political manipulations and rhetoric, and through the legislation of morality. And we do it through backroom deals and for exchanges of money and power. Like Judas, we may have good intentions of wanting to see a Christian world, and yet our striving for and exertion of power subvert the very kingdom Jesus set out to establish.

I can’t pretend like my thoughts are totally fleshed out. That’s the nature of studying Scripture and of Christian discipleship. Our theology is never complete. And yet, as I dwell on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and Judas’ betrayal, I can’t help but think that we, I, am not so different from Judas. I struggle to imagine the alternative of Jesus’ kingdom in the midst of a world filled with violence and unjust power dynamics. I struggle to understand the way of the cross when I perceive that exerting power might be the only way to stop oppression and injustice. I’m just like Judas in that way. So I ask God to do this: May God work in my heart so that I may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, living his way, working for his kingdom, rather than the kingdom I think he should bring. May he teach me to learn and live the way of footwashing and faithfulness.

– Cindy+

Flutters of Hope

It’s before 5 am. It’s before the time the cats will start to meow incessantly at me to put food in their bowl. It’s well before the time I have any intention of getting up for the day. Perhaps it’s my pregnant body or perhaps it’s the heaviness on my mind that keeps me awake. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. Waking in darkness seems to be my new norm.

charlottesville clergyI can’t get comfortable. I toss and turn, but no position I find gives me ease. Thoughts toss and turn in my mind, but none give me comfort. I can’t forget images and stories from clergy colleagues of their experiences in Charlottesville this weekend, just 250 miles from where I now sit. I can’t un-see images of people who look like they could be my brothers or classmates bearing images and shouting words that stand for oppression and genocide. I can’t forget the fact that many of those same people are people who are likely sitting in church pews just like mine on Sunday morning. Nor should I forget any of those things.

I’ve reached the point in my pregnancy where I think I’m starting to feel movement from the baby. Often, it’s just as I’m lying down to go to bed, when I’m still enough to notice it. And there it is – a slight flutter, maybe a tiny pulling sensation. But then it goes away, and I slide back into a kind of forgetfulness that there is something living and growing within me.

Watching the events unfold in Charlottesville was like experiencing one of these moments. In that moment, I could see more fully that there is something living and growing in our society. Sure, I’ve cognitively been aware of it before now, in the same way I’ve been cognitively aware that I have been carrying life inside of me these past few months. But in that moment, I really knew – the kind of knowing that isn’t a disconnected sense of being intellectually aware, but the kind of knowing that comes like a gut-punch, where your head and heart connect at last and you wonder if you were ever really awake before.

Our society is pregnant with fear and hatred – and fear and hatred grow into racism. They grow into white supremacy. They grow into violence. They can even grow into genocide. History has shown this to us time and again, and yet it seems that we, as a collective whole, continually slide back into a kind of forgetfulness that fear and hate are living and growing.

My instinct is to want to lash out at those who claim white supremacy. My desire is to condemn and use choice words to say what I really think. And actions of hatred and violence do deserve condemnation. At the same time, my instinct is to try to distance myself, to say, “Hey, I’m one of the good guys. See how against all of this I am?” My instinct is to deny all culpability in contributing to a society where white supremacy has been given voice and validation.

It’s now a number of hours later. I was able to fall back asleep for a little while, and for the past little bit, I’ve been going about my day as a pastor, doing pastoral things – making phone calls, checking on those of my flock in the hospital, contemplating next Sunday’s sermon, and planning for a celebration of life for a church member who passed away. Even through these and other aspects of pastoral responsibility, I find myself pondering some things in my heart: perhaps one of my greatest pastoral duties is to model confession for the people who look to me as a spiritual leader. Perhaps one of my greatest pastoral duties is to lead the way in modeling what it looks like to repent of the fear and hate that exist within my own heart.

Darick and I had a conversation the other night about what we would do if the KKK/neo-Nazis/other white supremacist groups came to Charleston. For both of us, we knew we would make sure we were present, offering a witness to the love of Christ in the midst of it. We would not stay at home and hide. It wasn’t even really a question of where we would be. One might think that my pregnancy would make me more hesitant to put myself out there and potentially make myself a target – but I find the opposite to be true. As I was talking to a friend this afternoon, I told her that I feel like being pregnant is calling me to task. I have realized that in bringing new life into the world, I will be responsible for showing him or her what it means to work for the sake of the kingdom. I have realized, if Darick and I do not speak and act, showing our child the way, how will he or she ever know how to live it? (As an aside, I would not act in a foolish way while pregnant or with a small child in tow, placing my child in a situation where physical harm may be a known potential outcome. I would, however, find appropriate ways to be a public witness where my child could see, learn, and participate.)

mustard treeMy thoughts are incomplete. My theology is incomplete. My work is incomplete. I remain restless in thinking about that which is living and growing inside of me, and that which is living and growing in our society. And I find myself anxious and fearful. But I am also reminded of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed. It is the tiniest of seeds, but when it is planted, it grows – it grows into the largest of shrubs and even the birds find rest within its branches. Yes, fear and hate grow. But so does love, and love is the stuff of God’s kingdom. I find hope when I see the way clergy and other people of faith gave (and continue to give) witness to the seeds of God’s kingdom in Charlottesville. I find hope when I see many people here in my own town planting seeds of love and justice. Fear and hate grow, but so does love. May love live and grow inside of us and among us. May it grow and grow and grow until all people may rest within love’s branches.

– Cindy+

The Lord’s Prayer, According to Kids

By now I shouldn’t be surprised by the wisdom and spiritual insight of the kids of Dunbar UMC, but so often, when they open their mouths, I am amazed (in a good way!) at what comes out. Today in Children’s Church, we talked about prayer, and more specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. We went through the prayer, line by line, and they shared what they thought each part of the prayer meant. Normally, we have a hands-on activity that goes along with the message, but today, we didn’t even get to it because they were so engaged in the conversation about the Lord’s Prayer. While in some cases, I had to provide explanations for words like “hallowed” or “trespasses,” they had a pretty clear picture of what is happening in the Lord’s Prayer. So here, to the best of my memory, are some of the things they had to offer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name… 

God is like our dad from heaven.

God is our father and he has a place for us in heaven.

So hallowed means like God’s love is whole.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

So, like we are God’s kingdom and we try to make things here like it is in heaven.

God created heaven and earth.

God wants earth to be happy like heaven.

God want us to show his love.

Give us this day our daily bread…

It means God gives us life.

It’s like Communion when he said, ‘The bread is my body.’

Jesus gives us his bread every Sunday and it’s so good!

God helps us every day.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…

If someone is mean and bullies us, it means that we should forgive them and that God wants to forgive them.

It means we need to tell God we are sorry when we are mean, and when someone says they are sorry to us, we just forgive them.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…

Help us do the right things.

Protect us from the devil and the way he wants to trick us.

Help us not do things we know we shouldn’t.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

God and heaven are forever.

God loves us forever.

This is God’s kingdom and it is forever.

I know there was more wisdom they had to offer but these are the words I remember. I could now theologize and reflect on their ideas in greater depth, but I think instead it is better to sit with the simplicity and clarity of the words they offer us. May they speak to you as they do to me.

~Cindy+

Stumbling towards the Kingdom

I need to start with a confession: I have really been struggling with my faith in humanity lately. I have been struggling to trust authorities. I have been struggling not to lash out and blindly rage against the machine. I have been struggling against making categorical judgments for or against different groups of people. I have been struggling with an increasing sense of unrest about what exists in my own heart and about what is going on around our communities and nation.

I wholly appreciate those of you who are willing to share in conversation with me, and ESPECIALLY those who do not necessarily agree with my interpretations of what is going on in our country. Those of you in the church who have engaged in conversations with me around race and injustice have kept me grounded and constantly remind me of my absolute need for relationships with people who may hold a rather different world view than me. I’m really glad that we can be friends and worship together and that you trust me to be one of your pastors.

What I write below is a reflection of my own personal struggle to find Christ in the middle of the violence, the anger, and the fear that is gripping our country. The struggle will continue long after the writing of this.

As I look around our country and the world today, and I see continued systemic injustice around race, a prevalent victim-blaming rape culture, exploitation of hard-working people at the hands of corporate greed, violence occurring in the name of God, warfare, and all the other pains and violences that exist, my unrest grows and I can’t suppress it. I shouldn’t suppress it. But my unrest turns to anger, and my anger turns to despair, and all too quickly, I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the brokenness of things. And I know that in all of this, I, in no way, can truly comprehend what it is like for the majority of people who suffer at the hands of the powerful.

As I think about all of these things and I struggle not to let despair make itself at home, I am trying to grasp at what Christmas really means.

In preparing for Christmas, I’ve started trying to teach a song by Chris Rice called “Welcome to our World” to the kids in Children’s Church. A couple of the verses keep sticking in my mind: “Tears are falling, hearts are breaking. How we need to hear from God. You’ve been promised, we’ve been waiting…. Bring your peace into our violence…. Breathe our air and walk our sod.”

Oh, how we need to hear from God today. How we need to hear from God in our country. How we need to hear from God in our legislatures, in our law enforcement agencies, in our wealthy suburbs, in our neighborhood streets, in our public housing, in our military, in our schools, in our hearts. How we need to have Christ’s peace invade our violence, our hatred, our blame, and our fear! How we need Christ to breathe our air and walk with us, especially when a another child of God cries out, “I cant’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!”

Right now, we are in the season of Advent; a season of waiting. We wait to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. So often it is filled with waiting to celebrate with food and time off from school or work, and presents, lots of presents! But as I stumble through Advent this year, I am waiting for something different: for the kingdom of God, which is justice and peace.

Sometimes it seems like the kingdom is an impossible dream, a myth, a fantasy world. We are so far away. When I read the prophets of the Old Testament and I see proclamations of Israel’s and Judah’s repeated offenses, I often think, “how can they be so foolish to repeat the same sins over and over again?” But when I look again, I see that we are no different today. When God condemns Israel and Judah, much of the time it is over the oppression of the marginalized. Today, as things go, we are quite accomplished at systemically oppressing the vulnerable, even if we, as individuals believe that we don’t harbor any prejudiced views towards another person or people group. In my personal Scripture reading these last several weeks, I have been spending my time reading Amos, who speaks for God, condemning the abuses of the powerful. Hear these words from chapter 2:

“Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals– they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way….'” Amos 2:6-7a

In our state, in our country, and in our world, we see the abuses of the vulnerable that occur at the hands of the powerful. It happens in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. It happens on campuses like UVA. It happens in the coal fields of West Virginia. It happens in the slums of Mexico City. It happens around the world and in our own backyard.

As we approach Christmas, we need a word of hope, that things will not always be as they are now. We need a word that communicates the power to transform and be transformed. We need the Word, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to reach down into our reeking trash heap of violence and fear and turn it into something fertile and life-giving. And the Lord knows that we need Jesus because I surely have no idea how to do that.

This is what Christmas is about. It is about celebrating that God, in Christ, brings his peace into our violence, and breathes our air and walks our sod. It is about a brown-skinned baby born to unmarried parents on a dirty floor in practically the middle of nowhere, as far as the ancient world was concerned. It’s about a God who decided to walk in the world just as it is, as messed up and as broken as it is with people who, probably more often than not, could really not care any less about God or God’s kingdom. Christmas is about recognizing that we have God with us, and that God will never ever leave us or leave us alone. It is about God taking on the hurts and the oppression of the vulnerable.

The Old Testament lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday is from Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.” Isaiah 61:1-3

Jesus quotes this very passage when he is asked by John the Baptist’s disciples if he is, in fact, the Messiah. Jesus proclaimed his mission. He proclaimed why he came to walk with us. He lived as one of us, and then, at the hands of the law, he was unfairly tried, beaten, and hung on a cross, where he ultimately died because he couldn’t breathe. This is the meaning of Christmas. As we wait to celebrate the birth of Christ, may Christ be born in our hearts, and may his reason for breathing become our reason for breathing. Until we make our whole life about making Jesus’ mission our own, we will continue to hear the voices of the marginalized cry out, “I can’t breathe!”