The Thin Place of Liminality

Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Louis Leloir, 1865.

I have heard from people in some form of recovery, usually from alcohol, and often they share a similar kind of experience. The first time that they are on their way to a meeting, or to a substance abuse counselor, is usually the most terrifying moment. It is a time in which one is in transition from dependence to sobriety, from an old life to a new life. It is a time in which something is going to be different, but the individual has no idea what that different way of being will look like. It is the space between spaces, it is a threshold experience. It is a liminal space. 

This is one of the clearest examples of such a space, though it is certainly not the only one. You have experienced many liminal spaces. Perhaps it is the morning after college graduation and you realize that you don’t have class to go to, or papers to write, or the first time you bring a new baby home from the hospital and you sit down and look at this tiny and helpless human, and you look around you and think, “okay, now what”, or the first day of retirement when you wake up early as you often do, but as you lay in bed you realize that there is no work to go to today, and there isn’t tomorrow either, and now you have to find a new way to exist in the world. These are but a few. The relative comfort of the known behind you, the uneasiness of the unknown ahead of you. 

Today we not only find a thin place, that is, a place where the Divine and human meet, and here in a very physical, tangible, and visceral way, but also a liminal space in many ways. It is the liminal space of the space between days, and it is the liminal space of a transition in Jacob’s life. Remember, Jacob had fled after he stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau was out for him. He has this dream at a place he names Bethel. He continues on to the land of the East, and the term “the east” is a recurring one. When the human progenitors were driven from the garden, the story goes, they were driven to the East. Abraham was taken from the east to the land of Canaan. And now Jacob travels to the East. He goes to Haran, to his mother’s brother–his uncle. There he falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel (for those doing a mental genogram, that is his cousin), and ends up marrying her sister Leah instead and then stays and works longer, and then marries Rachel. Between his two wives and two concubines he had a boatload of kids while there, and those kids will be particularly important a little later in the narrative. I know, this is a really dysfunctional family. Jacob cuts a deal with Laban for a subset of his livestock, and through a really strange breeding program that Laban, apparently, found to be unfair, though to be fair, Laban wasn’t quite so honest and forthright with Jacob either. 

So there’s a bit of a family rift there, and he packed everyone up to head back home, though the departure was something of a surprise to Laban. Laban finds out that Jacob high-tailed it out of here, and he chased him for seven days until he, and his entourage, overtook Jacob and his entourage. They met, had a heart to heart, and made an agreement with one another, and both went their separate ways. Jacob is coming home, and he sends messengers to tell Esau and gifts to Esau ahead of his arrival. 

And this is where we are right now. 

***

This is a hingepoint in Jacob’s life. He has spent his life fleeing from others, and now he has started to make amends. He had spent a good portion of his life away from home, and now he’s going back home. 

He sends across all of his family, all of his servants, all of his things, and for some reason, he stays on the other side of the river. The reason why is not really known, and not really our concern right now. But we are told he was left alone and that a man wrestled with him. This is particularly strange because we don’t know anything else. We don’t know where this man came from, or why he is wrestling, but simply that he is wrestling. 

Jacob is turning a page in his life, and leaving behind his life with Laban, and at the same time, he is leaving behind his life of cheating. Jacob has set his intent on going ahead, but has not yet crossed over that line, over the Jabbok river. He is alone, and it is night, that is, he is in the small space between days. In more ways than one, Jacob finds himself on a threshold, in a liminal space. And we are told that a man wrestled with him through the night. 

Day is breaking, and we are in that moment of twilight, the liminal space between light and dark. Daybreak, that is an important time on biblical stories as well as folktales.  Jacob wrestled with all his might and the man did not prevail over Jacob, and we are told that he struck Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint. The man asked to be let go because day is breaking, and Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. He’s not going to go through this wrestling for nothing, he is going to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

And the man asks his name, and the mysterious man, who we learn later is none other than God Godself, gives him a new name, Israel — to struggle or strive with God — for he has striven against God and humans and has prevailed. And this might just seem like a story to explain why the people of Israel are called such, but I think it’s much more than that. We see a few places where God changes someone’s name. Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Simon to Peter, and Jacob to Israel. And just as Jacob strove with God and humans, so also the people of God are the people who strive with God and with humans. Thinking of it this way makes us think a little differently, I think, of what it means to be the people of God. 

He named the place Peniel, which means “face of God” because he has seen God face to face. We are told that the sun rose upon him as he passed—having made it past and through that liminal space, the dawn of a new day breaking—limping because of his hip. 

***

This is one of my absolute favorite stories in the Bible, and has been meaningful to me for years, since I was in high school, actually. I found myself in a faith struggle of my own, and my church had a seminary student as an intern, and I talked to him about my struggle, and he encouraged me not to shy away from it, but like Jacob, to lean into it and to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

There is something significant about these liminal spaces, and, at least in my experience, we don’t pay much attention to them, we just seek to get past them. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes liminal spaces as those moments when one has left the tried and true but has not replaced it yet with anything else. It is a time when anxiety tends to be high, when if you pay attention, your gut is churning, and you find you don’t know how to be. Some of these can be a good kind of anxiety, the kind that brings hopeful expectation. Others are the terrifying kind of anxiety, where you feel lost and alone. Alone. Like Jacob was on the bank of the Jabbok River. 

And those in-between experiences, those moments of standing on a threshold, those liminal experiences can feel like a wrestling match. Perhaps we are wrestling with ourselves, the part of yourself that wants to turn back, and the part of yourself that wants to step through that door wrestling together to see which path you will take. Maybe even you are wrestling with the Divine, as you seek to wrestle a blessing out of the moment, out of the situation, out of the struggle. 

And when the sun rises, as it does, if you look closely, in the twilight of the morning, you might notice that the place where you are standing is Peniel, and that you, too, have striven with God and humans. And like Jacob, you may find that you have not made it through unscathed. Though it will heal, and with time it may become more of a souvenir than an injury, a reminder of what you came through. 

And so, sisters and brothers, lean into the liminal places when you find them. Lean into the fearful and anxious. Lean into the times of transition, the times of in-between. Because if you look closely, it may be when the Divine is so close so as to touch.

Ordinary Scene in an Extraordinary Story

A sermon delivered to the Altamont Reformed Church on 5 July 2020

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

A story is told about a man who lived in a town by a river. The rains came and it rained and rained, and the river crested and before anyone realized it, the town began to flood, even worse, the dam was on the verge of breaking. Most of the townspeople read the signs of the times, and heeded the warnings to evacuate. And so most left for higher ground. But the man didn’t go anywhere, because he knew that God was going to save him. The water continued to rise, and he moved to the second floor of his house, and a boat was going through making sure everyone was out, and they saw him, and they said, “come with us!” and the man waved them off, “God will save me!” he shouted back. But the water kept rising. And eventually, he moved to the attic. Since they knew he was there, another rescue team was sent. They saw him in the window in the attic, and they said, “Come with us! You’re going to drown!” and the man waved them off again, and said, “God will save me!”. The water kept rising. The man moved to the roof, and finally a helicopter was sent, but the man waved off the helicopter, “God will save me!” the man shouted. Well, the man drowned. When he saw God, he asked, “why didn’t you save me?” And God replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Perhaps you’ve heard that story before, it’s certainly not my own invention. But it speaks to how we often think about God’s action, right? God is so often only for those things that we don’t understand. God only works through supernatural means with special effects. Maybe the man would have thought that the water would have stopped, or maybe he would have imagined that he would have a protective bubble around him, that would keep from the water? I mean, these are the types of things we expect when God is involved, that it has to be something like this, something which is not otherwise explainable. 

Right? And this is part of the problem. Because we know much of how the natural world works. We know why the sun comes up, and it has nothing to do with a divine battle, and everything to do with the rotation of celestial bodies held together by gravity. Things like procreation are pretty amazing, but we also understand how that works. We understand what causes diseases, even if we cannot always cure them. We can even gain more insight about evolutionary processes. For those who insist that God is the answer to those things we don’t understand, then the more that is understood, the more that God is squeezed out. If God is only there to explain those things that we don’t understand, then we do one of two things: we either reject knowledge and understanding because we are afraid that it eliminates the need for God; or, we reject God because we no longer need a deity to explain the things we don’t understand, because we understand more. 

I don’t think you have to think too long before you can imagine examples of both of these. I have seen incredible numbers of documentaries seeing to explain the things that seem miraculous in the Bible, so as to help us reason our way out of a belief in a deity. I’ve seen someone try to explain the plagues and explain the passage through the sea, I’ve even seen one that tried to explain that the whole sojourn through the wilderness was led not by God but, obviously, by aliens. 

Of course, as if often the case, I think that both of these are wrong, and they are wrong because they are both predicated on the same misunderstanding about God: that God only does things that we don’t understand. And when we spend our time trying to figure out: is this explainable and therefore just a natural process, or is this not explainable and therefore attributable to Divine intervention, we are completely missing the entire point. 

***

In our path through Genesis, we have seen God speaking clearly enough that Abraham is going to move to the other side of his world because he was told to. We see God telling them that God will make a nation from his descendants, we see God reiterate this promise. Abraham argued with God, and we see God very clearly in the forefront of much of this story. It can almost make us think that this is how things go. 

But here, if you look closely, you see something different. 

Our reading takes pieces because this story is long, it’s the longest chapter in Genesis. We pick up after Sarah had died. Abraham was old and near death. But we have a problem. Isaac does not yet have a wife. But there’s a problem. On the one hand, God took Abraham from his home and sent him to this land. On the other hand, he now finds that he is living amongst other people, other people who follow different gods and different ways. And so here, we must understand that we are also seeing a great deal of cultural impact as well, and it is important that we do not read into this some kind of prescription or normativity. In the time, one usually married within one’s clan, there were a host of reasons for that, but it needs to be clear that this is not a prescription for how things ought to be. 

So Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to intermarry with the Canaanites, again, complex reasons here, not racial in the way that we understand it, and he doesn’t want Isaac to go back to where he is from, because God brought Abraham from there to a new place, and doesn’t want his descendants to go back, so Abraham enlists a servant to go find Isaac a wife. Again, cultural context, not prescriptive. 

So his head servant heads off to Aram-naharim, to Abraham’s kindred, to find a wife for Isaac. Yes kindred. Remember, cultural context. So the servant heads off, it’s quite a journey when you don’t have a plane, a train, or an automobile. 

So he gets there and he brings the camels to the well. And the village well was the common place for fetching water. And it was around the time when the women would come out to gather the evening supply of water. And I imagine that he was tired, travel weary, and a bit unsure of what to do. But he’s at the watering hole (literally, it is a watering hole), and so he says something, perhaps not unlike what we might do. “O God, let this all go okay. I’m here by the well, when I ask for a drink, and she shares a drink and gets water for the camels, let her be the one.” 

You can read the story. She gives him a drink and then offers to water his camels, and there we go. He explains the situation to her. Then he gives her gold bracelets and a gold nose ring (surely you didn’t think nose rings were a modern invention?), which were classic betrothal gifts, and she goes back to her mother to explain what is going on. The servant explained the whole thing again to her mother and older brother, and invited the servant to spend the night. 

They asked for ten days for Rebekah to figure it out, the servant wanted to get back, and so they called Rebekah and asked, “do you want to do this?” And she said yes. Marriages may have been arranged, but that didn’t mean that the ones being arranged were not consulted. So she agreed, and went back, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

***

So why on earth would we read this rather unremarkable betrothal story? And why on earth, would the writer spend so much ink on it? Why did they take the longest chapter in Genesis for this? 

I said that this story is different, and I’m not sure if you noticed, but God never says a single thing. The story never reports God doing anything, there are no angels. The whole thing seems, well, rather ordinary. And so on the one hand, this is an important part of the story, because this will be the way for the next generation in this promise, one step closer to the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham. 

But I also wonder if it is the ordinariness of it that is also crucially important. Because I don’t think that anyone would deny that God was there and working, even if not in front and center. We can’t see it, and I certainly don’t think that the servant’s prayer was some kind of magical incantation that brought this all about. But God was there, in the background, working in ways that we can’t always see, especially in the moment. God was there, working through humans, and human situations, through actual people in history, working with and through them, not as mindless automatons, but in and through who people are. And it is through this ordinary story, that would otherwise be rather unremarkable, but is remarkable because of the story into which it fits, this grand story that includes them but goes vastly beyond them, the story that includes us, as well, in the ordinary moments of our lives which may also be remarkable in ways we may not expect or see. 

We can get a glimpse of the God who is not just in the special effects, but who is also in all the ordinary things, as well. We can see that God can also be in the ordinariness of the two boats and a helicopter, even if we wanted the special effects. And here we can get a glimpse that God is not just for supernatural things or things that we do not understand and cannot explain, but God is upholding this all, working in and through everything, even something ordinary where God never makes an appearance. 

And so, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God works through ordinary people, and through ordinary things. The promise of God is rooted in the reality in which we live, not some mythical reality beyond where we are, even in things so very simple, routine and ordinary. 

Sarah Laughs and Hagar Weeps

Genesis 21:8-21

Before there was a child, there was a promise. A promise which required a child to be fulfilled, but to two people advanced in years, unable to bear children, this promise nonetheless came. At some point, after he was done travelling, Abraham, then Abram, looked around, and considered the fact that the promise that was made to him required children and he did not have any. In a vision, God came to him, and Abram mentioned the problem. He doesn’t have any children, and Eliezer of Damascus was his heir…is this what the plan is? 

God responded that, no, Eliezer is not to be the carrier of the promise, but Abram’s own child will be so. God asked him to step out of the tent, directed Abram to the stars in the sky which reached all the way down the the horizon, and said to Abram, “Count the stars, if you are able…So shall your descendants be.” We are told that Abram believed. ‘

And yet, there was no child. And especially at the time it was assumed that anytime there was a problem with bearing children, the woman was always at fault. And so Sarah, then Sarai, did not want to stand in the way of God’s plans and purposes. And she knew that she could not bear children. And if not her, than someone must in order for him to have a child. So she and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands to try to bring about God’s promise, and she offers her servant Hagar to be used. 

And so Abram listened to her and Abram and Hagar conceived a child. But soon problems came between Hagar and Sarai. Whether it was real or perceived contempt, we are told that Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar ran away. But God spoke to Hagar and told her to return, for the child that she carries will be the patriarch of a great people, and here God told her to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And she returned and she gave birth to a son. And Abram named him Ishmael. 

God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, and Abraham laughs, because it’s a crazy thought, but there will be a second child brought into the world in a home in which no children were supposed to come. But regarding Ishmael, God said, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” Yet, even with this blessing that God will grant to Ishmael, the promise will come from Isaac, who will be born to Sarah.

And into the world came this child, this impossible miracle child born to parents both over ninety years old. 

The narrative moves forward sometime, because we enter the story here when Isaac was weaned, and Abraham prepared a feast. And we can feel the narrative change a bit. No longer is Ishmael named, but he is “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” And yet while he is not named in this narrative, it is all about him.

***

At the time of the feast we are told that Sarah saw “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son — literally, she say the son of Hagar laughing. The irony, of course, is that Isaac’s name means laughter. Abraham laughed, Sarah laughed. But at this point, laughter is not acceptable for this, not young man. Perhaps we want to attribute some sinister motive to Ishmael, something that would make him deserving of this fate. But that cannot be inferred here. 

What is unknown is what pushes Sarah over the edge. Perhaps she sees Ishmael and it dawns on her that he is the oldest son of Abraham, that this boy will be his heir, that this boy will be the bearer of the promise, that this boy, this boy who was brought into the world by her handmaid, this child will be the child. And for some reason, Sarah can no longer stand his existence. She cannot have this boy in her house, she cannot have this boy in her life, she certainly cannot have this boy along with her son. Because this boy is Abraham’s son, but now that she had Isaac, he’s not her son. 

And so she goes to Abraham and asks him, instructs him, really, to cast out “this slave woman with her son,” and she won’t use Hagar’s name here either, it’s almost like for Sarah, neither of them are humans, just objects. And Sarah had to know that this would be a death sentence. In the time, a woman had to be under the protection of a man. So where would she go? There is no way that Hagar and Ishmael could survive in the desert alone. But she didn’t seem to care, her hatred of Ishmael burned ever hotter. But Abraham cared for this boy. He was his son, after all, and this was distressing to him, indeed, it was evil in his sight to do such a thing to a mother and child who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. 

But God tells Abraham not to be distressed. Which, I don’t know about you is troubling to me, and here even God doesn’t speak their names, but God says to do as Sarah tells him, and that because Ishmael is his son, that God will make a great nation of him. Indeed, the promise follows Abraham’s descendents — all of them. 

And so early in the morning, before dark. Before the light of the sun shone upon them, and I wonder if Abraham was still ashamed of what he was about to do, he packed a few provisions for them, knowing that this would never be enough to sustain them, but he couldn’t send them off with nothing. In fact, he gives them the very basics. He took bread, a waterskin filled with water, and gave it to them, and he cast them out. To wander in the wilderness, in the desert.

In the dry wind of the desert, it does not take long before dehydration sets in. And a waterskin does not last all that long. And we are told that Hagar cast Ishmael under one of the bushes and sat a ways off. And while this may seem like abandonment, it resembles funeral practices, and so we may infer that he was very near dying of dehydration. And what is a mother to do? She is supposed to provide for him, to protect him, to ensure that he has a life, yet she is not able to do any of this. And so she goes off a bit, out of desperation for her son, whom she is sure is about to die, and she weeps. Sarah laughs, and Hagar weeps. 

But this is not the end of the story. Because God heard the voice of the boy. Laughter could not exist beside the boy whose name means laughter, and now the boy whose name means God hears is heard by God. And Hagar returned to him, held him fast, and God provided a well to sustain them. 

***

And so we have this story about Abraham and Sarah, although it is really about Hagar and her son, her son who is never named in this story, her son Ishmael. Ultimately, this story is about the grace of God that extends far beyond anything we could imagine. 

Because there is this boy who was cast out because he was not the child who was supposed to be the bearer of the covenant. This child which was brought into the world because Abraham and Sarah were unsure of God’s plans and decided to get a jump start. This child who would not carry on the covenant. This child who was born of a foreigner. This child was heard by God. God heard this boy. 

This boy would be cut out of the family, but not out of the promise. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a great nation, and that promise is also fulfilled for all of Abraham’s descendants. That even in these two people, these two people who were otherwise inconsequential, these two people who were powerless and had no rights of which to speak. And yet, God turns God’s ear two these two people. Because God has not forgotten God’s promises to this son of Abraham, favored son or not. The story for Ishmael could have ended here. But it didn’t. It did not play out the way that anyone intended, but God showed favor on this servant woman and this young child. 

And while we are used to holding Abraham and Sarah in favorable light, they are not so here. Here they are not the heroes. Here Hagar and Ishmael are the heroes. 

God was with the boy. And this is the thing about the Scriptures, the heroes are not always heroes, and the righteous ones do not always act righteous. Indeed, as in this case, those who are supposed to be the heroes turn out to be the villains, and those who are supposed to be disposable, weak, and nonessential are still so very important to God. Because even though the boy and his mother were cast out from Abraham’s house, kept from passing on the covenant, God was with the boy. 

***

Indeed, it is this other son of Abraham that the Arab people trace their heritage back through. Indeed, they are the great nation which was promised to Ishmael. And yet, God was with the boy. And not only in this particular instance, perhaps God’s grace and mercy is bigger than we would imagine, and perhaps ours ought to be as well. 

And just as Ishmael, near death, and Hagar, distressed and unable to watch her son die, just as Ishmael, who was removed from the house of Abraham so that he would not inherit along with Isaac, just as Ishmael who was weak and otherwise forgotten, cast out to die or never be heard from or seen again, this boy, Ishmael was heard by God. And so, we, in the wilderness, forgotten, alone, scared, near death, we too are not kept from God, we too are heard by God in our state. And so even in these moments, we are not abandoned, left to our on devices, or forgotten. Things may not work out the way that we intended, but that does not mean that we are abandoned. 

***

Before there was a child, there was a promise. And then there were two children, both sons of Abraham. And these two sons of Abraham were both part of the promise, both were heirs of the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants. God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will be numerous held for both of his sons. Scripture tells us that “God was with the boy.”

So how can we, the descendants of Isaac, think and speak ill of the descendants of our half-brother, Abraham’s other son? After all, God was with the boy. Who are we not to be?

Laughable Hope

Genesis 18:1-15; Romans 5:1-8

Finished. This is what Abraham’s line was to be. Ended. Cut off. Sarah couldn’t have children, and their best hope was Ishmael, the child of Abraham and Sarah’s servant. But God says, “No, Sarah will bear a child,” and Abraham says, “Yeah, sure, bless Ishmael.” And so here we have three visitors showing up to visit Abraham and Sarah in the heat of the day and Abraham and Sarah prepare provisions for them to refresh and nourish the body, while they provided conversation to refresh and nourish the spirit. 

But the men come with news that they’ve heard, but they probably haven’t really heard before. News that Sarah would give birth to a child. Now, Abraham was a hundred and Sarah was ninety and while many things may seem to be different from the world of Abraham and Sarah and our world, one thing that is pretty consistent is that there comes a time when one is no longer able to bear children. There is a point of no return. And there is no indication that Abraham and Sarah were particularly distressed about their lot in life. Children were far more important, practically, than today. But I would imagine that they would have dealt with the future and the shape of it. Sure life probably wasn’t what they intended or expected, but this was what they had, and they have had many years prior to grieve the reality. 

But now God has told them that they’re going to have descendants, and Abraham also had a little difficulty with this, because, it’s obvious they are far too old for children. And then these visitors come and they say something similar, that Sarah was going to have a child. Sarah laughs and we think, how could she laugh? Well, it is a laughable proposition. It’s ridiculous, really. 

And yet we know that even in her old age, Sarah had a son and they named him Isaac. 

And even with this, no doubt life wouldn’t have turned out the way they would have intended. Parents, both about centenarians chasing around a child. 

And yet, as Paul writes in Romans just before our passage, Abraham was “as good as dead,” yet out of this comes a new creation, comes new life, comes an unexpected turn. 


Life comes from a valley of dry bones, the dead comes back to life, and new life comes from this couple from whom no new life was supposed to come. This new life didn’t quite come as intended, it didn’t work the way they expected. But even for people who had given up hope, hope was still not something which eluded them. Of course, the hope that was given to them probably wasn’t the hope that they, at least initially, held out. 

 ***

And we read in the Letter to the Romans. This was toward the end of Paul’s life writing to this church that he did not start, and wishing to visit with them. And I could imagine that Paul, pen and parchment spent a bit of time reflecting on where he had been, and the life that did not turn out the way he would have expected. He had been through great suffering. Beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, threats, and the like. And yet, somehow out of this seeming wreckage of a life, new life came forth. 

And the apostle doesn’t sugar coat it, either. He doesn’t skim over suffering. He doesn’t gloss over it, ignore it, try to make it seem easier or less like suffering. No heretical prosperity gospel here. But while he doesn’t try to gloss over it, he does strive to give a meaning, a purpose within it.

suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Now, let’s be clear about this. Suffering is not something which is good, it is never something which should be sought out, it is never something which should go unhealed. There is so much suffering in the world, we should seek to alleviate it whenever possible, for there is so much suffering that we cannot fix. When I served in the inner city, I would speak to people from the country who would say some variant of, “Oh they must be so much more connected to God, being so clearly dependent on God for everything.” Which is a nice middle-class way of rationalizing and spiritualizing the horrors of poverty. And I would always respond with, “No, poverty is terrible, and we need to eliminate it.” Suffering is not good. However, suffering is something which can be redeemable. It is something which can be used by God to bring out something good, something life-giving. Indeed, new life can come from that which is supposed to be dead, barren, fruitless. 

And so he doesn’t just speak of suffering, and not even primarily, but he mentions it in order to get to hope. 

Hope is one of those words which is so often used that it has largely lost much of its spiritual and religious depth. We use “hope” in a similar way as wish. I hope the sun is shining tomorrow. I hope this summer will be less humid. I, ordinarily, hope the Brewers win the World Series. But these aren’t really hopes, these are wishes. Hope is something that runs deeper. The writer of Hebrews speaks of hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” 

And hope is not just a wish for the future but it is an anticipation, and expectation. We can hope for the future because we know of what God has done in the past. We know that the road for Abraham and Sarah was supposed to end. Except it didn’t, God brought new life from a place from where it was not supposed to come. We know that Paul suffered greatly and found himself executed, and that should have been the end of it. Except it wasn’t and the message of Jesus continued to spread all over the world not only because of Paul, but he had no small contribution to that. 

And so it is this hope, this anticipation, this confident expectation, that allows us to face the world, to face whatever the world may bring. 

***

And this same hope holds true for us today. And this hope is not just wishful thinking, it is not just a desire for things in the future, but it is a hope that God’s desires will come to fruition, the hope that things will be made right. And this is what the world needs most, and this is what the people of God can most provide for the world. In a time when things are increasingly hopeless, when hope seems to be an extremely rare commodity, the people of God are given an abundance of hope. 

More than anything, the people of God are a people of hope. We are people of hope not because things always work out the way that we want or the way that we expect or the way that we plan. We are a people of hope not because we do not experience hardship or suffering. We are a people of hope not because we are optimistic or always have the ability to look on the bright side of things or to search out and find the silver lining in a cloud. No, none of these things. 

We are a people of hope because God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are a people of hope because Christ lived, died, and rose again for you and for me and for all of us, and not only us, but for the whole world. We are a people of hope because the same God who was faithful so many times in the past will remain faithful.

But to what does our hope point? Our hope points to the sharing of the glory of God. Our hope points to the fulfillment of the promises of God. This is the ultimate object and foundation of our hope. 

And this is not just for the things of the end times, but it is hope that God’s desires and God’s purposes will, in some way, be worked out though life, as well. So often this doesn’t happen the way we expect, or the way we want, certainly not the way that we plan. But we can have the confidence that God can redeem it, God can use it, and that God’s purposes will be accomplished. 

Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, none of these are ends in themselves, they are useful insofar as they lead us to hope, and this hope, this expectation, even confidence, which is far more than simply wishful thinking, this hope does not disappoint us not because of our own abilities to be hopeful, not because our ability to be optimistic, or anything of the like. Hope does not disappoint us because our hope is rooted in what God has done, and because we know of what God has done, we can be confident of what God will ultimately do. 

And so if God can bring forth new life from people who were “as good as dead,” think about what God can do with the likes of us. 

The Creative Space of Chaos

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Hendrik did not pay attention in the childbirth class. I know, I know, he wasn’t born yet, but still. We paid attention, we had books, I learned about timing contractions and when to call the doctor, and what to report to the doctor. We had a mental note of things to put in the bag to bring to the hospital. But he came three weeks early, and all the steps were out of order. It was rather chaotic. I think I remember telling Marie just as things were starting to snowball that this is not very orderly. And then things proceeded rather chaotically. Things were moving fast until they weren’t, and then they started to, and then there was a lot of beeping from different machines, and nurses and doctors looking rather serious, and people moving rather quickly. But it was out of that chaos that a new life came. It was that chaos that provided the space for a new life to enter the world. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who likes order. I like order, I like structure. Order and structure does not necessarily mean legalistic or rigid, though it can, but that’s not why I like order or structure. The human body is quite flexible, but it is the structure that makes it flexible. Without a skeleton, a body is just a lump of flesh.  

We are living in a time where disorder is more prevalent. Protests and marches, and some riots. It almost seems to be an uprising of sorts. We also see tear gas and pepper spray and rubber bullets, and riot gear. The nation is a powder keg right now, and even the smallest of sparks is able to ignite it, it seems. If you watch a place where the protests turned into riots, it looks like chaos. And when you look around the nation, it can seem as though we have descended into chaos. And we assume that chaos is bad. Order is good, chaos is bad. At least, this is the assumption. 

***

The first chapters of Genesis are not a science or history book, at least as we understand history or science. What we have in the first chapters of Genesis is poetry and mythology. It is far more concerned with meaning, with Truth, with a capital T, than with simply facts. What we have here before us, is poetry. 

Origins have always been a matter of intrigue for peoples, and this stretches throughout history. Every single culture has a story of origins. Where we came from, and how we got here. And this story here, for those who grew up hearing it, is so well known that we kind of move through it, “yes, yes, I know this.” Or, because this serves as a lightning rod, either we read it as scientific fact and insist all sorts of things about it, or we understand that they didn’t have a scientific understanding, and they certainly didn’t in the way that we understand science, and then we kind of gloss over it.  

But precisely because I don’t think that this is neither science nor history, it is precisely this reason that I think we need to look closely, here. 

And so it starts with God. It is also an expansive vision, here. This is not a national origin story, or the origin story of a particular region, race, ethnicity, or anything else. What we have is the origin of all things, “heavens and the earth” is shorthand for everything that exists. The earth was what we stand on, the heavens were everything above that. Everything that we see, those are “the heavens.” Of course, they had no idea of solar systems and planets, much less galaxies or a universe, but no doubt had the ancients known about these, they would have included them as well. 

And so the first action that is reported in the sacred scriptures is God’s action. In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 

We continue, the “earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Here we have five words that are piled up: formless, void, darkness, the deep, the waters. These words are all used individually or in combinations throughout the scriptures to indicate chaos. Here it is an empty, arid, unfruitful, unproductive chaos. We tend to understand chaos to be mad, as if it is a result of sinfulness. But there’s absolutely no moral judgement given here to this. Whereas in other creation stories, there is a struggle between gods of order and chaos, but here, there is no struggle. Chaos is not personified. It exists neutrally. Rather, what we have here is a painter’s palette. 

I’m no painter, but I know painters, and the palette holds paints, and it is the place where the artist mixes colors that will eventually go on the canvas. But before the painting begins on the canvas, the artist has what appears to be a mess on the palette. It doesn’t look like anything, it doesn’t look like anything that could ever become something. It is chaos. It is, however, chaos with a direction, with a purpose. The chaos is necessary for the creation of something new. You need stuff, stuff that is all mixed together, and out of that, order and structure can come. 

And this is what happens. In a really fascinating way. 

The first day, light is created and there is a separation between day and night. Light and darkness, seeming opposites, put together in a harmonious whole. 

The second day, the waters are separated, for the ancients, the sky was a dome, and rain was water above coming through the dome. And so this is how they understood it, there is water, which is often understood to be the symbol of chaos for the ancient people, and a dome is placed there, and the sky is separated from the waters. Two things which are understood to be opposites, put together in a harmonious whole. 

The third day, dry land appears, and there is a separation between the sea and the dry land and plans are put on the land. Sea and land, seeming opposites are put together into a harmonious whole. 

And then beginning on the fourth day, we see the each are given their cognate. Whereas day and night were distinguished on the first day, on the fourth day we have the sun and moon. To lights, a greater and lesser, one for the day and one for the night, placed in harmony. 

Whereas the second day, sky was created to separate the waters, on the fifth day, birds and sea creatures are created, and placed in harmony. 

On the third day, dry land and plants were created, and a distinction between seas and dry land was created, on the sixth day, land animals and humans were created.

And finally, on the seventh day, God created the sabbath, almost like a lintel to hold a structure together. 

—-7—-
3 —->6
2 —->5
1 —> 4

An all of this, came from that which was described just a few verses earlier as formless, void, darkness, the deep, the waters. The epitome of chaos. 

And all of this makes me wonder if chaos, or what we understand as chaos, is not inherently bad. I wonder if chaos would also be the space out of which something new is created. Here, we see order being brought out of chaos. We tend to assume that chaos is, by nature, bad. That chaos must be avoided at all costs. And similarly, that order is always good That order must always be sought and maintained at all times. 

But even when a birth goes more according to plan, it is always somewhat chaotic. But it is that chaotic moment that brings forth something new into the world. 

Rather than being a scientifically historical account of origins, this speaks a lot about us, and about God, and about life. It is about God bringing order out of chaos. Taking something which is unfruitful, unproductive, and transforms it into something fruitful, something productive. 

I wonder if God can bring something new out of the chaos that we are experiencing now, too. Perhaps chaos is not necessarily bad, perhaps it can also be the space out of which something new can be born. 

I’m just regular dust: A reflection on Ash Wednesday

I’m not stardust.

I don’t sparkle. I’m not made of the magical stuff from far off and distant places.

I’m made of ordinary dust. The dust that is below my feet.

I’m made of the stuff that this earth is made of. I’m a part of that cycle.

My essence is not connected with something far from here, but right here.

I’m not stardust. I’m regular dust.

I am dust, and it is to this dust that I shall return.

Why are you still a follower of Jesus?

Recently, a friend and colleague posed this question on social media.

It’s a great question and one that isn’t asked enough. Particularly with all the misuses and abuses of Jesus and Christianity for causes which are harmful, hateful, and opposed to the very message of the Gospel. These are not new misuses and abuses, they have happened over the centuries, but it is particularly troublesome now as we see a new brand zealous nationalism, white nationalism, and growing economic injustice dressed in religious clothing.

And it is a good question because it caused me to think. I’m not often asked this question. I wish I was, to be honest. Not because I can convince people to believe like me, but because it opens a rare but very meaningful conversation. One that I don’t often have because I am, most certainly, the world’s worst apologist. (Well, at least in the modern evangelical/fundamentalist militant apologetic style).

My faith includes reason and critical thinking. For me, faith includes seeking understanding with the mind as well as the heart. I also agree that we must “Always be ready to make your defense [reply/answer] to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” (1 Pet 3:15). At times, many of have overcorrected from this aggressive evangelistic style and have declined to talk about Jesus at all. Neither of these poles are helpful, we must find a middle space. A space which can hold difference, and a space where the Christ can still make an appearance.

But the first cause, the root, the answer of why I am still a follower of Jesus has little to do with logic or reasoning. I wasn’t argued into the faith, backed into a corner so I had to accept it because I couldn’t come up with a better counter-argument. It is true that I was born into and raised in the Christian faith, but I’m also not a follower of Jesus simply because it is how I was raised. Indeed, many of my understandings of Christian faith are different (or at least nuanced differently) from the church of my formation.

Everyone who asks me this question and is expecting an argument, or logic, or an irrefutable set of propositions will likely be disappointed.

I am a follower of Jesus because I don’t know where else to go.

That’s pretty much it. I don’t know where else to go. I don’t know what else gives life, I do not know what else can help make sense of things, I do not know what else can comfort and challenge in the same way.

I am reminded of the story in the Gospel According to John.

…many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

(Jn 6:66-68)

I am a follower of Jesus, because I don’t know where to find life. I don’t mean simply life after death, I mean life here. I don’t know what else can bring life to the world.

Has the message of Jesus been twisted for money and power and oppression? Yes. I will be the first to admit that all too often, people who claim the Christ fail to reflect his teachings. But when you look through that–life, liberation, peace, and wholeness is the resounding song. And this is a song that I need, that the world needs. And I don’t know where else to find the music to sing it.

A Wonky Advent Wreath

We recently took our Advent/Christmas decorations down from the attic. The tree went up, we fought with the lights (as we always do), our two-year-old almost destroyed the ornaments, and we began the annual adventure of rediscovering what we actually have in the Advent/Christmas bins. One thing I knew that we had, however, was our home Advent wreath and candles.

Upon unwrapping the candles that we used last year, I noticed something was askew with them. And then it dawned on me that they had been in the attic. In the hot attic. All summer. Perhaps this was not the best place to store candles, but when the attic is nearly freezing when you put things away, the thought doesn’t cross one’s mind.

I had a good laugh, and I shared the photo and a lot of us had a good laugh at it, particularly when the candles are put into the holders in the wreath. It looks like Tim Burton, Edvard Munch,  Salvador Dali, and Dr. Seuss designed an Advent wreath. It still makes me laugh. But as I look at it, I’m not sure that I want to replace the candles. The wreath is all messed up and I wonder if there is something in there.

***

I’m a perfectionist. I like things to be straight, clean, even, symmetrical. When I annotate books, I use a ruler to get straight lines, I spend almost as much time cutting things off of my tatting projects as I do tatting, so as to eliminate as many mistakes as possible. I spend far too much time editing my social media posts, trying to get them to perfect, eliminating errors, changing word order, clarifying my intent. I’m convinced that the ability to edit posts and comments was the worst thing for me because it is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for perfectionism.

Perfectionism isn’t really about the thing itself, but something deeper. The thing itself is simply a mirror in which I see myself — and i suspect I’m not alone here — whether it is realized or not. The crooked lines or asymmetry is simply a mirror that reflects my crooked and asymmetrical places. The parts that are not quite right, the parts that are askew, the parts that are wonky–and not in a charming kind of way but a way that deeply disturbs to the core.

But even beyond oneself, it reflects the imperfection and chaos of a world which is broken, a world which is not quite right, a world which is crooked and asymmetrical, it reflects a world that is so often wrong. A world in which more often than not things don’t really make sense, where tragedies strike at random, where one cannot depend on good outcomes if there are good efforts, good intentions, even good choices and actions. And so we design buildings that are well balanced, symmetrical, that have crisp lines and right angles. Designs that meet some sort of platonic ideal of how things ought to be.

And while the perfection of a building or a chair, or a line may be striving after some sort of platonic ideal, the deep sense that something is wrong is not. There is something within us that knows that something is deeply wrong with the world, we know that things are not right, that things are not as they ought to be. And this can lead to two very opposite things: despair, and hope.

And this all brings us to the season that we enter on Sunday. Advent is largely a misunderstood season, as we tend to think of it as simply getting ready for Christmas. And too often, Advent is taken up with shopping and wrapping and parties and Christmas carols, which deprive us of the depth of Advent, and everything that Advent has to offer.

More than anything, Advent is a protest of hope against a broken world. 

Advent is what helps us to move to hope, rather than despair. Advent gives hope that things will be set right, that God is doing something that we cannot yet see, that somehow there will be good that comes out of this mess, even if we cannot understand it. And Advent is a time when I can be reminded that God can, somehow some way, make something good out of the mess that is me.

***

And this is what leads me back to these wonky candles. They are bent, though not bent the exact same ways. They don’t sit the same in the wreath, and they have lost the smooth and largely unblemished texture and are now a bit rough and a bit lumpy. They are crooked and askew, though not completely devoid of their function.

Kind of like me. And perhaps you. And likely all of us.

I think I’m going to keep these wonky candles. (Though I’m not sure if I’ll burn them, they look like they might be a fire hazard.) But there is something very Advent about them. Something very already but not yet, something that invites one to look deeper, to be aware of what is, but also to imagine what might be.

The candles are messed up and so am I. But there’s something better on the horizon.

And maybe, just maybe, there’s something beautiful, even inside those wonky candles.

The Light that Follows the Darkness: A Funeral Meditation

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” writes C.S. Lewis. The Cambridge Professor and writer lost his wife to cancer after only four years of marriage. His reflections written during that time were later published in a book titled, A Grief Observed. Lewis continues, “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness…”

Grief is an experience that is hard to name, and even harder to describe. This is the nature of the human condition. This uncomfortable and confusing mixture of emotions is not something to run from, but to allow it space to dwell.

Grief involves both mourning our loss, but also remembering all that was good. And so today, we grieve his absence from us. We mourn his loss and we celebrate all of the light that he brought into the world.

And grief is so hard, it is so confusing, it is so messy, because we know in our heart of hearts, we know in our spirits, in the deepest parts of our being, we know with a deep knowledge that this is not how it is supposed to be. We know that this isn’t right. And it is okay to name that. It’s good to name that.

This is why we gather together. We do so not to avoid looking at death, but to stare it down. We look into the grave not because the grave has the final word, but so that we can stand over it, defiantly shaking our fists, and proclaiming with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

We look death straight in the eyes, because it is only by doing so that we, eventually, we might see through death. That we might see that the grave is not simply a pit of darkness, but that we might, eventually, see the light breaking forth in the darkness of the depths, that one can see the light of a new day. That even in the deep depths of death, the light of Christ can break through, even there.

***

And it is only when we look at the source of our grief, when we look at death, when we look at the grave, when we stare down the darkness as we wait for the light to shine forth can we say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It shall be well not because we ignore the pain, not because we turn away from it, not because we ignore it, but it shall be well because we trust that even in the midst of this, that God joins us where we are. That God experiences what we experience, that God feels what we feel, that God suffers alongside of us, and that, eventually, God will help us past this grief, past this suffering, past this pain. That God will lead us from darkness into the light.

All manner of thing shall be well because we do not grieve alone and we do not pick ourselves up alone. All manner of thing shall be well because death does not have the final word and the grave is not the most powerful force. All manner of thing shall be well because we have hope that life follows death just as the dawn follows the darkness of night.

We have hope because we trust that God is doing something beyond our vision. We have hope that God can bring good out of bad. We have hope that, as we read in the Psalms, “those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy.”

“Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they will be comforted.”

The night brings darkness. But when you look into the darkness, you will, eventually, see the morning light breaking through as a sign that a new day has dawned.

Echoes of 1857

In 1857, the Reformed Church found itself fracturing when a faction saw themselves as purer than everyone else. Their separation had nothing to do with their ability to follow their consciences. They were not pushed out, they were not forced to function against their beliefs, and no one was forcing their beliefs or practices into a different direction. The secessionists simply saw themselves as too pure to be associated with those with whom they disagree.

Upon receiving several letters of secession, Albertus C. van Raalte, the Clerk of Classis at the time, spoke, and the following was recorded in the minutes. These words ring just as true today as they must have when they were spoken on April 8th, 1857.

…although there is noting else for the Classis to do than to receive these letters of secession as notification, as it is the fruit of a lust for schism already for a long time manifested by a few leaders, against which there is no weapon, which will do us less damage outside of the church than inside of it; and although the speaker has no desire to abridge the liberty of those who are separating themselves, also is even earnestly desirous that we may not be involved in quarrels, and [thus] arouse [mutual] bitterness among the Holland people, but may avoid everything that may give occasion thereto, and may, as far as possible, promote [mutual] love…nevertheless he is constrained with his whole soul to testify against this conduct that tears asunder the church of God, and warns each and every one against such a reckless course of conduct, which will bring ruin upon our posterity; [and to point out] that the whole affair (excepting a few leaders who fan the fire of distrust and suspicion), is a mixture of ignorance, sectarianism, and a trampling under foot of the brethren, of which the ministers of the [Classis] have been constantly for years the prey, which trampling under foot now extends itself to the entire old Dutch Reformed Church and the orthodox denominations — [a spirit] which has never been characteristic of the Reformed Church [and] which shall bear the judgement of God.

(Classis Holland: Minutes 1848-1858, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950, p. 244-245)

The issue then, as now, was not necessarily the separation, it was what brought it about. Pride, hubris, the necessity to bend everyone to your perspective or divide. And it was the pretending that separation was the holy option. At times, separation may be necessary (though these instances are very few). But it is sin. And to pretend that it is not does nothing to further the cause of Christ.

Of course, the most significant difference is that then the schismatics were in the clear minority, though today, there is possible that there is a numerical majority. But despite the American principle that numerical majority is right, the wide road does not necessarily lead to life.