When Is The Exodus Complete?

This week’s common lectionary gospel text is Luke 9:28-36, known as The Transfiguration. In this passage, Jesus climbs a mountain with some of his disciples. Jesus goes alone up to the top of the mountain, and this is what Luke tells us happens next:

“While [Jesus] was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem.”

Now, the common Bible translations don’t use the concept of “complete the exodus” in Jerusalem. Instead, their language is “accomplish his departure”. Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message interpretation, is known for trying to communicate the meaning of the text rather than aiming for word-for-word accuracy, so I decided to check for myself. The Greek words are, indeed, exodon (exodus) and pleroun (full or complete).

So Jesus really did go to Jerusalem to fulfill the exodus. It’s obvious why the more common translations don’t want to use the word “fulfill”. The history of Christians claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish covenants is pretty ugly (see supersession), so we do well to exercise caution. Thankfully, I think there is a way to engage the spiritual dimension of this without suggesting that Jewish convenants are “unfulfilled”, and while being clear that God did not transfer the promises or status as “chosen people” to Christians. All we need to do is set aside any intent to see The Truth about covenants, the relationship between Jews and Christians, and the true nature of Jesus. Instead, we can ask God to speak to us through the text and invite God to teach us about God’s relationship with Jesus and Jesus’ path to freedom. We can ask God to reveal truth about our own personal covenant with God, and show us our own spiritual bondage and path to freedom.  

Queries for prayerful consideration:

If Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are “the completion of his exodus”, when did his exodus begin?
In what other ways is the ministry of Jesus similar to Moses leading the the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity?
In what ways has Jesus led you out of bondage?
What still holds you in bondage?
How will Jesus free you from captivity?

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The Source of Honor

My girls have just been through a few weeks of karate training at their elementary school. As a Quaker and a pacifist, I wasn’t too thrilled about it, and I was especially un-thrilled when my girls came home requesting that we watch Karate Kid for our next family movie night.

But I didn’t interfere with my children learning the basics of karate, nor did I refuse to watch Karate Kid as the family movie. My belief is that forbidding things will only make them more tantalizing to my girls, and as my regular readers will know, I believe there is a gift to be found – if I am open to it – even in things with which I disagree. I know enough about martial arts to know that the goal is to avoid using violence rather than seeing force as the solution to a problem, so I was hopeful about finding a spiritual gift and having rich family conversations. I found the richest gift in Karate Kid II:

The old karate master, Miyagi, flies back home to Okinawa with his young protege Daniel when they learn that Miyagi’s father’s health is failing. Daniel learns the reason Miyagi left Okinawa: Miyagi and his friend Sato were in love with the same woman and Sato challenged Miyagi to a karate fight to the death. Although Miyagi tried to talk his friend out of fighting, Sato insisted that fighting was the only way to restore his own honor. Miyagi left Okinawa rather than engage in an activity that would leave one of the men dead. When Miyagi returns with Daniel to Okinawa, it turns out that Sato is still intent on having the fight. Sato throws insults at Miyagi, destroys his belongings, family home, and does everything imaginable to provoke Miyagi into a fight. Still, Miyagi refuses to fight.

Thankfully I don’t need to reveal the ending in order to move into my theological reflections:

This movie made me think about what honor is and where it comes from. In my reading of current events, it seems to me that a lot of violence is ignited when someone feels insulted, whether it’s a real or perceived insult. On the home front, when one of my daughters whacks the other, the one who hit almost always justifies it as the correct response to mean words or actions on the other girl’s part. In sports, there was the French soccer star who headbutted his opponent during a crucial World Soccer Cup match when the rival said something insulting about the star’s sister. Much street violence seems to arise when someone feels “dissed” and wants to restore their dignity by harming the “disser”. Even some recent wars and threats of war seem to have much to do with real or perceived insults – both the invasion of Irak and the continued escalation of international tension between the USA and Iran seem to have large elements of wounded national pride.  

These situations seems to presume that a person or nation has honor if they are treated well and their  dignity is respected by their surroundings. At one level, that is how it is with me, too. I know from my own life how hard it is to hold on to my own feelings of worth when someone finds fault with me.

But Miyagi, this quiet, unassuming karate master’s sense of honor is different. It is unrelated to what others say about him or do to him and his belongings. Instead, he seems to measure his honor in terms of his own ability to stay true to his principles: He will not fight except to save a life. He will not threaten under any circumstances. He will make any personal sacrifice – such as walking away from his home, family, and the woman he loves – in order to avoid being understood (or misunderstood) to be a threat to a person whose sense of his worth is more fragile than his own. 

We have had wonderful conversations at home with the 7 year old and the 9 year old this week. Although we all understand and like Miyagi’s ideas, my daughters still whack each other occasionally and I still raise my voice when I feel overwhelmed by a situation. But we have developed a shared understanding of the goal we are working towards – to know that we are beloved-of-God and to act out of a deep knowledge that we and all people are God’s beloved. Honor does not come from the outside, but from the inside. As God says through Isaiah in chapter 43: we are honored and precious in God’s eyes. Being precious and honored by God is the source of our own sense of worth.

If in my lifetime I manage to be half as honest and faithful as Miyagi, I will be pleased with myself. And yet, my husband and I have turned down the girls’ pleas to do karate camps this summer. Our ideal goes one step further than Miyagi – Miyagi knows that he COULD neutralize Sato if he had to. For our part, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. His Way was to allow himself to be killed rather than fight. We do not want to think of using karate even as a last resort, nor do we want to gain the skills to use force effectively – for any purpose. Our hope lies in using no defenses, except the power of the Holy Spirit.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is the source of my sense of honor and self-respect? Am I grounded in what I want to be grounded in? If not, how do I shift to a better source of honor?

Thirst for God

I have just facilitated a retreat on transitions for a wonderful women’s group.

One of the things I love about doing retreats is the atmosphere of longing for God that retreatants create. In this heavily scheduled day and age, a person who is willing to set aside a whole day for God is a person who is thirsty for God. God created us with a deep thirst that can only be satisfied by God, and I believe that mine and the retreatants’ holy longing and God’s answer to our longing are the transformative power of a retreat. When I facilitate a retreat, I fan the flames of holy longing. In my mind, holy longing is one of the deepest forms of prayer.

When a person is thirsty for God, anything can happen. When a person focuses on a transition in her life, hungry for God to continue the life-long process of transforming her into a gift to the world….. Miracles do happen.

I started the retreat with a stirring poem by Mary Oliver, made all the more poignant by being written soon after her beloved partner through decades of life had died. It is from her recent collection, Thirst.

Thirst

Another morning and I wake up with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How can I nurture that holy longing, my thirst for God?

Resurrection Stories

I have been presented with an opportunity where I can choose to act on something that is unfair. It would have been an easier decision if the unfairness had affected me, but the stakes are raised by this being an injustice against M, my nine year old daughter. It is much harder not to intervene when she is the one paying the price.

M has been playing basketball this season. It was fun to watch the practices. Half the girls couldn’t get the ball in the hoop even when they had no opponent, but I loved watching them try. But then the matches began and the fun ended. The league is for 3rd and 4th graders, and M’s team happened to be almost all 3rd graders. The teams they played had almost all 4th graders, and tall 4th graders at that. M’s team only played one match all season on which the opposing team’s girls didn’t tower over M and her teammates.

This is probably where I should confess that most of the information on actual matches is based on my husband and daughters’ accounts, as well as conversations with coaches and other adults, because as a non-American, I had begged of getting very involved in this particular sport. I have learned to like baseball, but basketball and football remain incomprehensible to me. After a while, it also became too painful for me to try to watch matches, although I’d come for the end of a game once in a while because I wanted to be there for M.

Back to the towering opponenets: It could still have been OK if their coaches had held them back just a tad when they got way ahead, or if the referees had given the inexperienced “midget” team a break once in a while. But no. In the first match of the season, our girls were beaten 26 – 0. They felt not just beaten but humiliated, and most of them left in tears. But the thing that made me an avid hater of basketball was the roughness of the sport and the fact that all but one of the young men who refereed the matches rarely or never blew the whistle for a foul. The bigger and older girls were often quick to realize that they had a free pass, and our midgets frequently left the court with huge bruises and abrasions, but fortunately no major injuries.

The season was the stuff that movies are made of – our girls actually managed to win one match, and that was the final match of the season with a cliffhanger ending with a shot at the buzzer. As you can imagine, that victory was as sweet as sweet can be.

After reading this, dear reader, I hope you can understand why my blood is boiling. So why am I still unsure about writing a courteous letter to the League to suggest a few changes to the rules? Because this basketball season was also an illustration of what the resurrection is all about: new life grew out of the places of brokenness.

The girls’ spiritual growth this season was phenomenal, and I believe they will be better persons for it. The injustice they suffered was not really a big one in the grand scheme of things, and these girls have plenty of other successes in their lives. The girls all had involved adults in their lives to support them through the experience, so it never had the power to do real damage to their souls. Coach J and his assistant K were an important part of the girls’ growth.

Based on the conversations we had in our home, here’s the spiritual growth I think M and her team mates may have had: They understand that life isn’t always fair, and sometimes the best option available is to develop your own standards. The girls learned to define success as working hard,   improving their team’s skills, making the opposing team work hard for every single point. They learned to redefine goals: Winning one quarter of play became a victory, even if they lost in the final score. Reducing the other team’s margin became the measure of progress. Their progress was steady: from losing 26-0 they progressively whittled down on the opposing team’s margin until they actually won. 

They learned something about compassion. I saw M start to think differently about herself. She became a little more aware of the areas in her own life where she might have an advantage over others. She started to think about how her advantages might come at the expense of others. She asked some questions about who she is and how she affects others in the school playground. She articulated a desire not to ever use her advantages in the way she had seen others do it in basketball. All of these concepts have of course been around for a while in our conversations, but M seemed to begin to apply them more in her own life.

I heard a brand new insight into ethics – a beginning understanding that just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD: there were numerous conversations about the fact that the teams that clobbered M’s never broke a single league rule.

I heard M and her teammates begin to understand the value of good rules, laws, and enforcement, and more acceptance even of the rules that may limit her own freedom.

Last, but not least, the members of M’s team bonded like no other team she has been on, and the parents bonded correspondingly. The end-of-season party went on and on and on, and some of the girls were crying when the party broke up. Everyone wanted to be on the same team with the same coach next year, but the girls wondered if that was the right thing to do. They didn’t want to be next season’s 4th grade bully team. They finally decided that they would bring in the two eligible younger sisters onto next year’s team (!) and that – if they ever got way ahead of another team, they would volunteer to hold back and let the better players spend more time on the bench.

Wow. So maybe this is not the time to show the girls how to stand up against unjust structures. But there may be a number of tall 4th grade girls who think that getting the ball in the hoop the most times is what it’s all about, and for their sake I should perhaps get some ideas from M and her team mates to pass on to the League. For M and her friends, their experience of powerlessness has done its work. Maybe it’s time to talk more with M about how God uses even bad things for good purposes, and that God is trustworthy and always at work. We may not see God and goodness while we’re struggling to breathe again after an elbow to the belly, but darkness and injustice cannot ultimately win. Love for each other and willingness to make sacrifices for one another will always win the ultimate victory.

Query for prayerful consideration:

When have I experienced resurrection – the ultimate victory of love and sacrifice – at work in my own life?

Love and Sacrifice. Or Self-Donation?

“Five years or fifty, when people have sweated, suffered, and shed blood together, there can be no hesitation: If one calls, the other responds.”

This is how Laurie R. King’s heroine in the mystery novel “Justice Hall” explains why she is going off to help a friend in distress when she is really to tired to stir. And I have to agree: sacrifice is fertile mulch for love and commitment to grow. Yes, sacrifice even makes us better people – that’s what I took from musing on a quote from Gandhi (see my previous post).

I heard the phrase “self-donation” as another way of talking about sacrifice, and that seems like a better name for the phenomenon I’m addressing. “Self-donation” makes it clear that I’m not talking about a coercive or manipulative situation where there is an inequality of power.

I know that part of my love for my children arises out of the ways in which I gave of myself. The times my night sleep was interrupted and I dragged myself bleary-eyed and exhausted through the day. I love my daughter more because of the time I wiped her vomit off my face, clothes, the floor, the walls, my daughter and her sister, and both their beds – learning that the top bunk is a bad place for a child with the stomach flu.

It is only partly true that I gave freely. When the entire bedroom and its crying occupants were covered with vomit, I didn’t really have the option of walking away. (My husband was in a bus stuck in a snow drift somewhere on the other side of town.) 

This love is a mystery to me. It’s not because sacrifice gives me ownership. It’s not that my children owe me something now. It’s just that my heart is more deeply anchored in them. It helps to reveal another dimension of God’s love for me and what it means for me to love God and God’s creation. It deepens my worship.

This love is not a warm fuzzy feeling, but a sacred duty that draws me deeper into the heart of God. And I dissolve into God’s heart of love in the precise moment when I do something I would have preferred not to do, go to a place I’d have preferred not to go, love my enemy, and forgive someone who has done me wrong. 

Query for prayerful consideration:

When have I given of myself in a way that drew me into the heart of God?

Class and Faith

An important discussion is taking place in Quaker blogs these days regarding whether (liberal) Quakerism has become elitist, making it hard for people from a working class or poor background to feel included. Unfortunately I think this conversation has applications in many other denominations, too. www.quakerquaker.org has links to these posts, many of which are truly thought-provoking and prophetic. They are speaking Truth to me, my Quaker faith community, and to many other faith communities, too. I recommend that you check them out.

So, if my faith community appeals primarily to people with certain social characteristics and huge sections of the population feel unwelcome among us, where did we go wrong? We must have gone wrong, because Jesus meant his good news to be available to everyone, not just to a certain social set. And I’m sure George Fox, the man credited with founding Quakerism, also intended his preaching to be the good news for everyone, regardless of social class. In fact, I would argue that most reform movements in the history of the church were intended to make the good news accessible to more people than before.

If we need to have commonalities in social background and life-style in order to function together, has the worshiping body become more like a social club than a faith community?

Some of the directions this discussion has taken in the Quaker blogosphere is to consider how we talk about ourselves, whether Quaker language has become a barrier, and whether different faith approaches simply appeal to different kinds of people. These are all valid discussions. However, I think the solution to the “social club” phenomenon is at a deeper level. It has to do with what is at the core of our faith. When Jesus first introduced himself and his purpose, here’s what he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)

Would differences in social background matter as much if, after worshiping together, members of the faith community rolled up their sleeves and went out together to release the unjustly imprisoned, care for disabled people and free people from oppression, and spread the good news to all? My belief is that, when we as a community are more focused on ourselves than on the reason for our existence, differences can break us apart or become used to exclude. If, on the other hand, our worshiping community focuses on joining forces with God to care for the marginalized, I believe social differences would feel like natural variations on creation. People would still have their natural temperamental preferences for form of worship and Quakerism would still probably be a small sect. But provided everyone feels they would be welcome, the problem would have gone away.      

Queries for prayerful consideration: 

Is my faith community more accessible to people with certain social characteristics than to others? What does this say about our faith?

Resurrection Faith Is Incomplete

This summer I spent some time with a group of evangelizers as they considered the hardships and persecution of former Muslims who had recently become Christian due to their mission efforts. These new Christians had been blocked from access to their village well, had been physically attacked, and were ostracized by their own families. The converts’ lives were in perpetual danger, and several of them were considering committing suicide rather than being at the mercy of their attackers and living outside the community and family of which they ahd always been part. Some of the evangelizers were exultant about this persecution, because it signified to them a glorious victory for the cause of Christianity and they hoped that the converts – if they were able to stick to their new faith – would be a powerful testimony to others. I confess I was horrified that the evangelizers didn’t seem to think that the converts’ human suffering mattered much in comparison to the glory of the salvation of their souls. This is what I think of when I think of the dangers of resurrection faith that is not held in balance by the crucifixion side of Christian faith.

As readers of my blog will know, my own faith arose out of an experience of suffering (1/10/08 blog entry), and it was only later that the joyful side of faith, what I call “resurrection faith”, became part of my relationship with God. So when I venture into this topic, I’m not coming at it with a basis in my own experience, but from a reasoning perspective.

What I can say is that I am incapable of comprehending a faith that isn’t affected by physical or emotional suffering, or doesn’t address God in relationship to suffering (theodicy is the fancy word for it). To me, the Bible seems to be full of stories of God’s presence when people suffer, and God’s desire and actions to lead people out of slavery and other forms of misery. Incarnation, whether we’re talking about God in human flesh in Jesus or the Spirit infusing each human on earth as in “that of God in every [person]”, seems to me to require us to embrace the physical aspect of our being, not just the spiritual and other-wordly. Is it possible to be human without encountering suffering?

To care only about the immortal soul at the expense of the physical body seems to me to be wrong. But it is equally wrong to focus only on avoiding physical or emotional suffering at the expense of the immortal soul. I don’t think a soul does well when it is only pampered and stroked and removed from potential pain.

Query for prayerful consideration:

Are hope (resurrection) and suffering (crucifixion) in balance within my soul?