benedictions.

As I peruse my old journal reveries and recollections from the stacks of notebooks I have kept, I notice that, clearly, I’m a sucker for benedictions.

Page after page, it’s not unusual to find text I have written of well-wishes, inspiring quotes, and beautiful blessings spoken into my life – whether after a church service, a ceremony, the ending of a major life event, or from the mouth of a friend.

It makes sense, I suppose, to enjoy the intention, meaning, and tradition of benedictions. By its nature, a benediction is defined as, “a short invocation for divine help, blessing and guidance.” The words Latin roots are bene (well) + dicere (to speak)[1].

*

I was spurred, along with other members of my Peace Corps cohort, with well-wishes, bravado, and yes, a benediction unto Rwandan communities across hills, valleys, and lakes as we began our service.

When I wrote about it later, I mused,

 “…I, too, had tears in my eyes, knowing that the journey is young, like I am on the cusp of a life I have eagerly wanted to make. I’m closing my eyes. I’m jumping in. And I know without reservation, God is with me all of that way. He has to be.” – December 16, 2011

Each of us would take our bags, leave Kigali, and go.

I etched the words of the benediction given to us in my journal, too, hoping the reverberation would be a reminder for when I would need it. It was spoken ever-so-eloquently by a Peace Corps Staff member, notable for providing the same benediction each and every year to graduates – it was that powerful.

As we received it, my life changed.

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

There are moments in life that physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually touch you. Your skin becomes prickly, your belly turns upward, like a whale catching its breath. You lose words and gasp at the idea of articulating what you are feeling. These moments are brief, but certainly, they do come.

The rawness of Whitman’s hopes for humanity left tear-stains on my cheek. Could – and would – my life play out like the kind of poem he says?

Instinctively, I knew my life would be different after that day.

Turns out, I was right.

*
Benedictions are powerful because they combine what is so wonderfully mystical about God – one, entering  humbly in a posture of receiving, and two, simultaneously (and boldly) proclaiming what you know to be true. In other words, benedictions encourage listeners to enter the world with eyes open and hands up. We recognize that we are not God. But, we are also not a doorknob, a sheet, or pomegranate lotion. The blessing, then, has potency. Active agent, if you will. Much like yeast in bread.

God may have all the love, grace, and peace for you – but you have to step forward to receive it.

This implies choice. This implies an intentional step-forward. We’re alive. My, how miraculous.

Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass has stuck with me for all these years because it outlines, I believe, what it means to be alive.  Not quite a manifesto (it’s a bit gentler than that), Whitman captures the human spirit at its best.

And, I’m glad I copied it in my journal.  That way, I can return to it – over and over again, recognizing my own need to be reminded of the soulful glaze it places upon my heart. Words soften me, reminding me that the gritty parts of our world don’t have to rule over all.

My hope for myself – and others – is that we seek often the benedictions life presents. Benedictions keep life fresh and relevant. The darker corners of life will tell us that “it’s all for nothing” or “we can’t change the way things are” or “it’s all to hell and hand-basket” or “there isn’t anything we can do.”

Those are lies.

I can say for myself, I did not reach 27 years of age unscathed. I believed some of these lies at times. I have believed worse ones as well.

Far more than a question of embracing an optimist or pessimist identity, I choose to see the world in a certain kind of way. It’s redemptive. Sure, it’s broken.

But I’m sorry, that’s not the end of the story. Benedictions exist to remind us that there is always more to the story.

Whether it’s gossip, fear, bills, stress, or anxiety that keeps you up at night, I sincerely hope your eyes will widen (with your hands placed upward) to receive the blessings present in the midst of all this…crap. Crap is injustice. Crap is hate. Crap is poverty. Crap is hunger. Crap is war.

Both are true: we’re alive, but sometimes, our lives are marred by the crap all around us.

Let’s redeem it together, even on the really, really hard days.

Laced between, I am sure, we can find soft whispers of benedictions all around us.

log2

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=benediction

“Created in the Image of God”

I recently attended my first training as a participant in the Colorado chapter of SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Injustice). I caught myself glancing around the room, pondering, what has brought people here?

Inevitably, we have to ask ourselves the same question; that is, why do we do what we do?

Questions like this become more important when we flip on the news and hatred is spewing from the headlines. Urgency to find significance in our daily lives is pivotal when our neighborhoods and communities grow tense because we aren’t sure which side of the line to stand. Tensions wedge us a part; still, my deepest hope is that in fact, they would drive us together.

In these times, we need voices of hope.

I am honored and blessed enough to have a best friend who is one of those voices.

Michelle Ashley, a current seminarian in pursuit of her Master’s in Divinity at Boston University, as well as a lover of tea, community, and more recently, Zumba, recently shared a sermon that she gave at her current church in Kingwood, Texas. She sent the audio and written text to me, and so I spent one morning last week reading and listening to her words, insights, and scriptural teachings to begin my day.

Thought-provoking, genuine, passionate, and bold, I knew this message was not simply something “good to hear” but in fact, something needed. I am thankful to share this message – not only in applause for Michelle’s insights – but for what God has done, continues to do, and will do to redeem His people. The gospel never, ever grows old. And that will incite more hope than ever imagined.

*

INTRODUCTION

Created in the image of God. The subject almost seems trite in the wake of the violence in our country and world these past couple of weeks. It’s the kind of phrase we might find printed in calligraphy on a coffee cup or pinned between pictures of flowers on Pinterest. In fact, I Instagrammed a picture of the phrase just a few weeks ago as I began to think about this sermon. It was…cute…but that’s about it.

ANCIENT ITCH

For men and women in the world in which Genesis 1 was written, there was no cute “created in the image of God” paraphernalia. There was—for those ancient near east humans—only one person in all of society created in God’s image: the king. The king was representative of the gods and ruled on their behalf.[1] The king had a coffee cup that said, “I and only I am created in the image of God #sorrynotsorry.”

Bible scholars know that Genesis 1, in particular, was written in the context of a community of exiles. They’d been exiled—by the king. So, that made them not only far from God, but also rejected and despised by God. If the King looked like the gods, the first readers of Genesis 1 looked like stray coffee grounds in the bottom of the king’s mug.

CONTEMPORARY ITCH

Here in America, of course, the Divine Right of Kings isn’t a problem. We declared our independence from that a long time ago.

Instead, we have the Divine Right of Straight, White Males.

I want to be clear that, when I say “divine right of straight, white males” what I am talking about more often than not falls under the category of social sin, rather than personal sin. (Not always, but more often than not.) I am talking about the ways in which good people allow our institutions and our social structures do our sinning for us[2]—a lot of the time without even realizing it. Whereas an example of a personal sin is me stealing $20 from the offering plate after church; an example of a social sin is an entire clothing industry built on cheap, outsourced labor to adults and children working in inhumane conditions. The uncomfortable part is that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to confront both.

Our society is ordered, both historically and systematically, in such a way that privileges certain types of people over others.

This doesn’t mean that people who are straight, people who are white, and people who are male never suffer injustice or hardship or pain. The last thing I want you to hear this morning is that the pain and suffering in your life is invalid. It is valid. We are a people who have a God who hears our cries—every last one of them.

One thing I’ve learned since becoming a seminary student in a multi-racial context and making friends with people who are very similar to me in all but skin color is that I don’t often notice my privileges because they don’t come in the form of things I gain, but rather in the form of injustices I am spared[3]—because society says I don’t look like a thief, I don’t look like a terrorist.

Sometimes I call my privileges blessings, but that word has started to leave a bitter taste in my mouth when I realize that sometimes I’m ascribing God’s benevolence to the ways in which I profit from my brothers and sisters being oppressed. It’s not a blessing if someone else has to lose in order for me to win.

When I was in college, I spent a summer interning at the Star of Hope Emergency Homeless Shelter for Women and Children in downtown Houston. The shelter provides daycare for the children during the day so that their parents can look for jobs and receive training and counseling. I worked in the classroom of 8-12 year old children of homeless families. I had done some youth and kids work in the past, but I had never encountered anything remotely close to the emotional and behavioral problems that we experienced on an hourly basis in that classroom.  I loved them; they were amazing kids; but they had unfairly seen a lot in their lives, and most of them—for good reason—did not respond well to my “skinny little white girl from Kingwood” authority. Maybe a month after I finished my internship, I decided to go back to Star of Hope for a visit, to see my old classroom, to see if any of my kids were still there. It wasn’t a super long visit, there were a few old faces in my classroom but mostly new—that’s the nature of an emergency shelter.

And this is what happened: when I left that afternoon, I was remembering all the struggles of working in that environment, wondering how the new kids were behaving, I thought to myself “those two new kids sitting at that table in the corner looked like really good kids—I bet they will be really sweet.”

Here’s the problem: I didn’t know those two children. So then I had to ask myself why I thought they looked like “good kids.”

They were the only two white kids in the room.

That summer I learned that saying “I’m not racist” isn’t good enough. I am racist. Racism is like the air we breathe.

We say that we believe everyone is created in God’s image, but our actions as a society speak otherwise.

We’re all created in God’s image, but you should only have good healthcare if you can afford to pay for it.

We’re all created in God’s image, it just so happens that some of us are enslaved so that others of us can wear nice clothing brands.

We’re all created in God’s image, it’s just that some of us—because of the color of our skin—are statistically more likely to be poor, incarcerated, uneducated, homeless, or, if those things don’t get us, murdered.

The belief system of our society is really not that far from the belief system of the Genesis 1 society.

ANCIENT SCRATCH

Through Genesis 1, the God of Israel (our God!) offers an alternative story where humankind together—not as individuals, but together—1) bears God’s image, 2) shares God’s power[4], and 3) becomes God’s vehicle of blessing to the world[5].

1) Bears God’s Image

Genesis 1:26 says: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

In Genesis 1:1-25, God is singular. It is only when God begins creating humans that God starts speaking about Godself in the plural: “Let us make…”

This text isn’t talking about one, individual person being created in God’s image—

The Hebrew word used here, “adam” (Adam), means “humanity.”

It’s talking about all of us, together—and ONLY together—being formed in the image of our Creator. [6] I can’t bear God’s entire image on my own—I need other people, people who don’t look like me, people who don’t come from the place where I come from, people who speak different languages and eat other types of food and sing other types of songs. Together we bear the image of God.

It was a little unnerving for me when I took my first religious studies class in college and learned that there were lots of creation stories circulating in the world at the time when Genesis was came on the scene. It wasn’t that novel of a concept for a group of people to have a story about where life came from.

There were at least three other creation stories that were widely dispersed in the ancient near east. Among them, Genesis 1 stands out for many reasons, and this is one of them: in the other creation stories, humans are created out of the gods warring against each other. The gods fight, and their fighting leads to creating lesser beings in order to serve them in some way. It’s quite the opposite in Genesis 1, where we find the singular and yet plural Trinitarian God—in community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creating humanity and pronouncing them “good”…and then resting to enjoy it!

Genesis 1 says, “THIS God is different.” THIS God offers an alternative way of being human. Do you want in? Welcome: everyone is welcome.

Humankind together bears God’s image.

2) Humanity Shares God’s Power

The second radically counter-cultural message of this passage is that the God of Genesis 1 is a God who shares God’s power with humanity.

Verse 27 says: “…fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

In the other ancient near east creation stories, not only did the gods create humanity out of their own fighting, but they created humans in order to do their work for them—so that they could spend more time boosting their following on Twitter, or whatever it was gods did back then for fun. Humans existed to serve the gods. There was strictly no power-sharing going on.

The Genesis 1 God gives us dominion. Dominion doesn’t mean “be like the king with the coffee cup that says #sorrynotsorry.” Dominion means God sharing God’s power with us, so that we can have the power to emulate all this good work God’s been doing. It means God trusts us!

Being created in the image of a power sharing God means that our DNA is originally designed to share power—not hoard it.

This is, again, an alternative way of being human.

3) Humanity Becomes God’s Vehicle of Blessing to the World

The third game-changing message of Genesis 1:26-31 is that humanity becomes God’s vehicle of blessing to the world.

Verse 27 says: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply….’”

When God blesses humanity, this is not the sort of blessing that really just means: “Whew! I am so glad that I got dealt a better hand than you did.” Sometimes people say “God bless America.” God says: I bless the whole world: Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Turks, French, Syrians, Cubans, North Koreans, South Koreans—all of them!

The first time God blesses humanity, not only does EVERYONE get blessed, but that blessing is also fundamentally based upon unity in difference. Male and female. Be fruitful and multiply. Unity in difference. Humanity is blessed when we unify through our differences.

One of my favorite authors, Shane Claiborne, tells this story of when he was working with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India[7]. He says that they would throw street parties for kids that were beggars on the streets, and one day it was the birthday of one of the kids Shane had grown really close to. It was about 100 degrees, and he was thinking, “What should I get him for his birthday?” And he thought: “What better than an ice cream cone?”

So Shane gets this kid an ice cream and takes it to him. He says that he really had no idea if the boy had ever had ice cream before, because he just stared at it and shook with excitement. And then the boy’s instinct was that, “This is too good to keep to myself.” So he immediately yells to the other kids, “We’ve got ice cream! Everybody gets a lick.” He lines them up and goes down the line saying, “Your turn. Your turn.” Finally, he gets full circle back to Shane and he says, “Shane, you get a lick too.”

This is a kid who knows what it means to be God’s vehicle of blessing to the world.

CONTEMPORARY SCRATCH

What does it look like to be human beings who, together, bear the image of God, share God’s power, and become God’s vehicle of blessing to the world?

Well, there’s this guy named Jesus…. (This is what historians think he might have looked like.)

Not only did he bear God’s image, he was God.

Not only did he share God’s power, but he gave out double portions to the poor and the oppressed.

Not only was he a vehicle of God’s blessing to the world, but he lived, died, and rose again so that we—all of us—“might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, …one in ministry to all the world.”[8]

[1] “Genesis 1:1-2:3 Commentary,” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 345

[2] This idea comes from a quote from South African pastor and bishop Peter Storey, found in Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, page 361.

[3] This idea comes from “White Boy Privilege” by Royce Mann, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/13/us/teen-slam-poet-white-privilege-hln/

[4] “Genesis 1:1-2:3 Commentary,” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 346

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “A Theology of Blessing,” Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 36-37

[6] “Genesis,” Dr. Roy Heller, Lecture at Southern Methodist University, Houston-Galveston Campus, 30 August 2014

[7] https://convergemagazine.com/radical-discipleship-3006/

[8] Language taken from “United Methodist Service of Word and Table I”: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/a-service-of-word-and-table-i-and-introductions-to-the-other-forms