Your Family: Define or Inform You?

In this teaching offered by Sam Altis, we engage the story of Joseph at the end of the Bible's book of Genesis.  Joseph had lots of reasons to perpetuate a nasty family system.  Instead, he chose to break the cycle.  Instead of being defined by the family that deeply influenced him, he chose how his future decisions would be informed.  Are you defined or simply informed by the family system that formed  you?

Striving Toward Heneni

Please enjoy the following weird story from our Bible...

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. – Genesis 32:22-32 (NRSV)

After many years of keeping his distance, Jacob was about to meet his brother Esau again.  As you may recall, Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright by preying on his vulnerability as well as their father’s blindness in order to get that more-than-twice-as-powerful position as the blessed first born.  Jacob was used to running.  He ran away from his equally slick father.  Now Jacob was all alone.  Everything that mattered to him was on the other side of the river.  The next morning would be a new day (which could have very well been his last).  It was a terrible night.  Jacob experienced a wrestling match that took him from dusk until dawn.  It was the most pivotal night in his life to that point.  Who would Jacob choose to be in the morning?  Would he cross the river, or take his exit as he had so often in his past?

This is a story about striving.

The Hebrew word in question here can sometimes be translated as struggle, or even wrestle, but the most accurate seems to be “striving”, which is defined as: “make great efforts to achieve or obtain something” (Oxford English Dictionary).  This is not a casual exercise.  This is where you leave everything on the mat, as if your life depended on it.

In the story, this isn’t a dream.  The story is passed down that an actual incarnation of God in human form showed up, unannounced.  Furthermore, this person took the initiative – Jacob did not invite him to his campsite.  This seems to be a recurring theme about this God the Jewish people are talking about – this God doesn’t stay in the heavens, but comes down among us.  And this God doesn’t come down to ruin our lives or sleep with our brothers and sisters – this God comes to bring something good to us.

There were likely a range of reasons Jacob chose to sleep alone on the other side of the river that night.  One handy reality was that if he chose to slip away into the night, never to be seen again, he could.  I think a big part of this strife in darkness was that this was to become one of his defining moments.  He did not know what the next day would bring.  Death, perhaps.  Surely a part of him had to consider giving up on the dream, of God’s dream, for his life.  I think that, more than anything else, is what the striving was about.  Would he become the man he was meant to become, or cower once more, tricking his way out this mess and begin yet again as the trickster who knew how to make a deal and work the system.

If you cannot relate to this, I wonder if you’ve ever had a deep, reflective thought in your life.  Perhaps you’ve skated throughout life never wondering about who you are or who you are becoming.  Sometimes we don’t want to wonder because it can be a painful experience.  Denial feels easier, and is easier, for a time.  We can binge on Netflix and avoid personal reflection for a long time.

But shallow living catches up to us eventually.  We were made for love and depth.  When we avoid those things, we will struggle – strive – with despair.  We will face the mirror at some point (even if for a brief moment) and realize that we may have missed Life.  In those moments, I believe the presence of God enters the room to strive with us.  Not to beat us down for being idiots, but to strive with us in the sense of helping us overcome that which keeps us from Life itself.

Sometimes what keeps us from life itself is shame. 

ü  Or guilt. 

ü  Or fear. 

ü  Or anger.

ü  Or sorrow.

ü  Or the company we keep.

ü  Or our depression.

ü  Or… 

Lots of things can keep us from life.  Lots of things distract us from seeing and seeking Life itself.  Surely Jacob could check all these boxes.  Especially when we are alone and are quiet (his campground didn’t have Wi-Fi), we can be flooded with these “adversaries”.  Sometimes it may even feel like it is God who is bringing the battle.  But I don’t think that’s the case.

It seems to me that God is much more interested in blessing than cursing.  Accountability comes for all of us, of course, but only when the Life of God is held high to give us something to contrast our lives with.  God has no need to judge – we’ve got that down to a science.

What God does do really well, however, is come alongside and whisper (or sometimes shout) words of hope and blessing to us.  Words of love and encouragement about who we are and who we can become.  I think Jacob faced his demons that night and was tempted to retreat.  But God was there in the flesh to strive with Jacob through the night, calling him forward, calling him into the morning light, a new day, a new chapter in which he would see the promises come to fruition.

When morning came, there was no clear winner.  Jacob got a new name – one which would become the name for an entire nation of people – the Hebrew people – the cross over people – the people who strive with God in order to cross over rivers into myriad Promised Lands. 

And Jacob also got a limp.  An injury that would remind him of the striving.  Don’t mistake this as some form of punishment to turn God into a jerk and Jacob a needless victim.  On the contrary, I am confident Jacob was grateful for the limp, because as far as everybody thought at that time, to see God face to face meant certain death.  Jacob was alive and moving forward toward promise.  His limp would forever cause him to be grateful, not bitter.  He saw God in a new way by the dawn and put a word to it.  That’s how these things usually go: we strive with God by our side, and we discover a new level of beauty that perhaps we didn’t see before, and it adds to our language about this incredible One we seek and serve.  Of course, the paradox is that we are sought and served more than we seek and serve…

Where are you camping in your life right now?  What does it mean for you to cross the river?  What are you striving against?  Do you realize that God strives with you toward your best, most true self?  You have a teammate with you to help you along the way.  God is not your foe as it sometimes may seem.  God is your champion. 

Another interesting tidbit...  The story ends without the Stranger leaving.  Some scholars think this is a hint that God never left Jacob’s side, especially as he faced his brother in the very next scene.  Perhaps God has never left you, either.

But wait, there’s more!  This was the second of three visions experienced by Jacob.  When the third vision comes, Jacob’s response is different than the first two.  In the first vision, Jacob’s reaction was “Wow!”, and in the second was a wrestling match.  The third time around, when Jacob realizes he is experiencing the Divine, his response is, “Heneni!”  Heneni is a Hebrew word that shows up only a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible.  It translates, “Here am I.”  Jacob, toward the end of his life, finally matured into a person who trusted the nature and character of God so much that his response was simply, “I’m in.” 

Don’t wait until the end of your life to get to Heneni.  Strive toward Heneni now, because life is short and Life awaits. 

Jacob's Ladder: Above and Beside

Jacob was on the run when God came to him in a dream (Genesis 28:10-19).  He and his mother Rebekah had just won the chess game with Esau and his father, Isaac.  Esau, known for being a skilled hunter, having just figured out he got swindled out of half of his inheritance and all of the long-term benefits associated with being the first born son, was, to say the least, pissed.  That’s why Jacob was running: there was likely a target on his back!

After a solid day of fleeing for his life, he finally decided to set up camp for the night.  No glamping here, he found a rock for his head and called it good.  As he slept, he experienced an extremely powerful dream where he saw a ladder/stairway leading up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it.  None of the angels addressed him.  Rather, God addressed Jacob directly, assuring him that the same covenant that had been made with his grandfather, Abraham, was carrying over to Jacob.  That’s the story in a nutshell.  Pretty awesome, huh?

Unfortunately, the awesomeness of the story is easily lost on us because we don’t live in the ancient world.  If we did, we would be shocked at this story.  Let’s unpack this puppy…

God was above.  In ancient cosmology (and for many yet today), people believed that the gods dwelled in the heavens far above the earth.  These gods were somewhat regional, looking over certain geographical areas, which meant you had to know where you were so that you knew which god you needed to appease.  Messenger-angels would communicate between heaven and earth at certain holy places – often in groves of trees or high places.  The idea about high places: you’re more likely to be closer to the gods if you are literally closer to the gods – the higher the better.  A ladder-portal reaching to the heavens was a sensible (albeit fantastic) dream.

Above and beside.  Scholars have enjoyed some debate over where to place God in this story.  That’s why some translations depict God speaking from the heavens, and others have God come alongside Jacob in the dream.  I like The Message translation because Eugene Peterson just makes it a both-and reality, because it is.  For the ancient mind stuck in the aforementioned cosmological worldview, however, this was really astonishing: the gods stay in heaven where they belong, they don’t come up close and personal.  The “besideness” of God in this story was part of the radically different way of thinking about God from the Jewish tradition.  We are more comfortable with this idea in our present age.  Maybe too comfortable.  Maybe we take the presence of God for granted to the point where God seems as distant as the ancient view where God stayed in heaven.

How would you live differently if you knew that the full presence of God was completely available to you 24/7?  The Good News is that this is true.  So perhaps we might need to rethink any notion of living apart from God.

Another hidden thing right in front of our faces is the fact that in the story, God initiates everything, and God pronounces that the covenant has been passed to Jacob – blessing – without condition.  Usually, people beg and plead for the gods to pay even a little attention.  In this story, however, God makes the move forward Jacob, speaking Good News to him. 

Don’t miss this other obvious thing: Jacob was a trickster.  Because we know the rest of the story, we know he is very shrewd in his business dealings.  He just committed a great offense against his father and brother.  Yet there is no confession preceding God’s coming, speaking, or blessing.  As much as we love and hate the idea of earning our keep with God, that is a lie.  God is unconditionally loving and graceful toward us, ready to bless us as we pursue the Way that leads to Life (which is the Way witnessed in Jesus).  To choose to get on that path (again) is itself repentance, a turning from one way to a better Way.  All of this emanates from God who is ultimate love.  As John noted in his New Testament letter, we love because God loved us first.  It has to be this way, otherwise there is no grace at all.  Deal with it = you are loved.  Build your life on it, in fact.  The voice of God continues to invite you into your next resurrection.  The choice is yours – the offer stands forever.  But the choice comes with a stretch, which may be why you are reluctant to accept the invitation.

Beside and Above.  I think sometimes we are so comfortable with God’s omnipresence that we forget the majesty of the One we’re talking about.  We think about God’s presence being here with us in Napa, NorCal, the West Coast, the United States, and the all over the world.  But the Presence is also light years away, wherever creation continues to unfold.  The One who invites us to the Way has just a wee bit more perspective on things than you and me.  God’s Way is rooted in the essence and energy of life itself, which is why when we find ourselves living in it, we feel like we’ve been born again (and again and again and again and…).  We are tapping into the Source of Life itself.  The perpetual invitation calls us deeper and deeper, which is in significant contrast to our more shallow, self-centered, nationalistic, power hungry, greed oriented life that is so prevalent.  The Way that leads to life is a very different way, requiring different steps than those promoted by our culture.  A choice with a big stretch.  Discomfort as we learn new moves.  Yet so worth it.  Listen to Paul on this:

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. (Romans 8:12-25)

God is everywhere, even alongside of you.  Loving you as you sit there in your dirty diaper.  Ready to clean you up and get you going again.  Promising to never leave you.  Calling you forward to new ways of life that is actually Life.  Better.  Bigger.  More beautiful. 

Your invitation awaits.  You are responding – is it the response you want?

Something's Growing

The story of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob is absolutely rich (Genesis 25:19-34).  The details given let us know that the story was meant to be fodder for lots of discussion around the campfires and dinner tables of old, and here we are considering it again today.  That’s a good sign that we’ve tripped onto an epic story.  And it is.

              Isaac, now married for some undisclosed period of time (long enough to know he and Rebekah are having fertility issues), prays for help.  God answers his cry and their attempts at getting pregnant take shape, even though they are, like Abraham and Sarah, on the older side (Isaac is 60 when they conceive).  The longer the pregnancy goes, the harder it is for Rebekah.  So hard, in fact, that she cries out to God in agony, wishing she were dead!  God hears her cry and explains why her pregnancy is particularly uncomfortable: she’s carrying twins.  (Aside: note that this is yet another time in this foundational story of Judaism where God responds to a woman’s cry.  That’s significant in a patriarchal age when women were treated as property and had little social voice.)  Making matters worse, Rebekah learns that the two children she iscarrying are competitive, even wrestling in utero, and when the delivery comes, Jacob is holding the heel of his hairy brother.  The stage is set – two brothers who struggle from the get-go.

              More critical details are provided in this introduction to these two boys who will largely define how Israel thinks of themselves and the world around them.  Dad prefers Esau, Mom prefers Jacob.  Esau is a skilled outdoorsman, bringing home lots of game, and Jacob is the student who prefers to stick around the office of the family business.  He likes to cook, too, and does a good job of it with Esau’s spoils.  As soon as readers stop and pay even a little attention to these details, they must be caught up in it.  Because readers were born at some point and understand the dynamics created if favorites are clearly known.  If we don’t have firsthand experience, we have seen it.  These details beg some questions.

              How would favoritism potentially be recognized by each kid?  Imagine it for a while.  How do they know they are favorites?  How might that feel?  How would it be recognized by onlookers outside the family?  How might that impact how they treat these two boys?  How does being a favorite (or not) mess with a kid’s identity, self-worth, and vision?  What kind of foundation is created when favoritism is present?

              One result is competition.  Esau is technically the firstborn (by five minutes), and is Dad’s favorite.  That puts him on the top of the food chain.  Whether or not he knows it is somewhat irrelevant because Jacob definitely knows it – he’s felt it all his life.  And he doesn’t like it.  And with the help of Mom, he is going to change it.

              “The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  This is statistically accurate (and not just for men).  My wife lured me into her web with Beef Stroganoff.  I was a goner.  Esau came in from a hunting expedition tired and hungry.  Jacob was ready with his famous Lentil Stew.  Esau let his hunger override his mind and control his mouth.  Before he knew it, he took an oath relinquishing his pole position to Jacob.  My guess is he didn’t really take it seriously.  Didn’t matter – the deed was done.  Another piece of the drama to chew on that begs more questions.

              What does this scene tell us about the character of Esau and Jacob, that one would treat something so precious as to give it up so flippantly, and that the other would orchestrate such a deceptive transaction (which was a set up for the much more deviant move to come later with Isaac)?  How is this story an allusion to all the stories that are coming later that include rival tribes?  What does it say about core character issues not just with Jacob, but with Israel herself, which is what he represents?  Better refill your drink and get some more chips – there is a lot to process here!

              Good literature does exactly what we see here.  One reason classic books are classic is because the author has done a good job setting things up in the beginning, and works them out throughout the story.  That’s what we are invited to work with here – much more than a simple check box to help us know that Jacob somehow became the patriarch of what would become the Jewish nation.  Of course, if we are slowing down enough to sit with a text like this, our gaze will eventually turn to ourselves and our world.

              Have you spent much time processing how your beginning story has informed the whole of your story?  Are you aware that you never really outgrow your story, that it is woven into the fabric of who you are and will continue to be?  Or have you stuffed it away, hidden it in a closet or swept it under a rug, thinking that if you ignore it, your origin story will have little effect on you?  You may not be paying any attention to it at all, thinking you’re off the hook.  Nope.  You have been shaped by your story of origin.  You may not realize it, but it has been informing your thoughts, feelings and behavior your entire life.  And it will continue to do so for the remainder of your life.  That’s a fact.  How your origin story informs the rest of your story depends on what you’re willing to do with it.  Everyone is born to human parents, which means everyone has experienced some form of mess.  Your mess may be different than my mess, but it’s all relative, all still a mess, and each of us is invited to be aware of our mess and determine if we want that mess to create more messes in our life.

              When we are aware of the mess inherent in our origin story (and the good, beautiful stuff, too), we then have the opportunity to integrate it into our lives to help us grow into who we want to become.  Everything belongs in our story (thanks, Richard Rohr).  This simple truth doesn’t make the bad stuff we’ve experienced okay, it just simply reminds us that we are complex, composite creatures that have been shaped by innumerable forces from our first breath forward.  Our faith provides some hopeful help, here, because what we see as this origin story unfolds is a God who comes alongside to help work things out, to help us in our struggle, to do something redemptive even with the pain we’ve all been through.  Not to destroy us, but to help us become more alive and free than we thought our story could allow.

              This is why the writer of Psalm 119 had to write the longest Psalm about the Way of God: actually worked!  It’s why Paul talked about the futility of rule-keeping legalism in favor of walking in the Way of the Spirit – relationship with God – in his letter to the church in Rome.  Over the centuries, ghis Ground of Being we refer to as God has been drawing us in, inviting us to root ourselves in the Spirit-infused Way of life that heals and restores not only ourselves, but serves to bring healing wherever we go.  This, of course, begs some questions.

              Are you aware of this Way of God that leads to life?  Are you aware of how it may be similar or different than the way a lot of the world operates?  Are you learning more and more about the Way so that you can be on it and in it?

              Jesus knew that simply hearing about the Way wasn’t enough to make a significant difference in life.  The seeds of the Way need to be cultivated if we ever want to see fruit.  Paying attention to how we cultivate that seed matters.  In his parable of the soils, Jesus speaks plainly about why some people hear the Good News of the Way of God but see little impact – their soil is not conducive to growth.  Knowing that soil matters might help us be less judging toward others, especially if we know that we are not always in control of the fertility of the soil we find ourselves in.  On the other hand, once we know that soil matters, we can do our part to ensure that the soil of our lives is as fertile as possible so that we might experience life in its fullness.  Fruit enough for ourselves and plenty of others.  This, of course, begs more questions.

What is your soil like?  How are cultivating it?  What sort of growth are you looking for – what kind of “plant” or you wanting to cultivate?

              A friend of mine once said that he and his wife try to parent their children so as to limit the amount of therapy they’ll need in the future.  Another friend of mine, when we talk of everyday goofs as well as deeper, uglier stuff we do that naturally affect our children and those around us says, “Well, write that down for the therapist!”  More reflection on who we are and who we are becoming is something that benefits everyone – ourselves, who we immediately impact, and far, far beyond what we can imagine.  One practice from the distant past that is rooted in our biblical story is the Prayer of Examen.  In this time of prayerful, daily reflection (lasting 15-20 minutes), we invite God to help us see ourselves more clearly so that we can pay attention to who we are and who we are becoming.  I invite you to try this on for size this week.  Pick at time toward the end of your day (I like the end of my work day), and move through this process from Ignatius (or use this video to guide you).  It just might help cultivate the soil in such a way that who you really can be might grow and flourish.

Decisions, Decisions

Genesis 24 is all about decisions. And it’s long, really long. It sort of feels long and drawn out like a lot of decisions in life. Here’s a frequent conversation Kaylan and I have. Maybe you can relate.
“Where do want to eat?”
“How about pizza?”
“Eh…what about tacos?”
“Nope. Thai?”
Fast forward 45 minutes, and we’ve driven around Napa three times, and somehow always end up at In N Out. 
I can’t promise that Genesis 24 will solve all of your date night decisions, but I think it does point us in some helpful directions. So take a look at it. I’m not going to include it all here, because it’s roughly the length of the dictionary. Here’s the cliff notes.
Abraham realizes Isaac needs a wife, so he calls in his most trusted servant. He makes him place his hand on Abraham’s…man parts…I’ll explain later. The he has him promise he’ll go back to where Abraham is from and find a wife for Isaac. 
His servant promises and heads out. When he arrives, he sits by a well, where the young women would be going to get water. He thinks to himself, “Whoever offers me and my camels water might be the right type of person.” Lo and behold, a woman named Rebekah comes up and does just that. 
After some quick conversation, the servant is welcomed to Rebekah’s family’s home. It doesn’t take long before he admits to the family why he’s there, and everyone (including Rebekah) agrees that marrying Isaac is good idea. After working out the details, Rebekah returns with the servant, sees Isaac, they marry, grow to love each other, and the rest is history. No Tinder or Christian Mingle needed.
So, then how does this help us think about decisions today, thousands of years later? We shouldn’t take it (or a lot of things in the Bible) as a template. Instead, we should look at what the story is moving towards, and have our decision move in the same way. When we look at the context of the story, we find that certain parts of it are pretty radical for their time, and point in a certain direction. So, let’s check out three ways this happens.
Moving Away from a Fatalistic View of God   
The decision in this story is really important. You can tell that by the weird “put your hand on my man parts” piece. It sounds really odd to us, but at that time, it was sort of like saying “Swear on your kids.” I wouldn’t recommend trying to bring that tradition back.
Even though this is a really big decision, this is one of the only stories in the surrounding context of Genesis that doesn’t include God’s direct intervention. If you look at the stories around it, God is always talking to someone or telling them to do something. In this story, Abraham just acts, and hopes that God will show up in that action. He doesn’t claim any divine authority, or wait for a divine word. 
There’s a good reason for this. Scholars generally agree that this is one of the last stories added to the narrative of Genesis, and because of this it reflects a different understanding of God. It was probably included after Israel had seen some stuff – slavery, exile, war and a host of other tragedies. This had to have shaped their view of God. It’s always harder to say anything is God’s will once you’ve seen enough hardship. They still trusted that God would show up. They just weren’t claiming to know what that would look like.
Here’s where this comes into play for us today. Thousands of years later, we still tend to have a pretty fatalistic view of God. When it comes to big decisions, we often get anxious wondering if we’ve strayed from God’s path for us. I think this story is trying to lead us into greater freedom when it comes to decisions. 
We often think of God’s work in our lives like a set of train tracks that we have to stay on if we want to get to the good things God has. It’s fatalistic. If we stray, life may spin out of control. But that metaphor doesn’t really work for this story. It’s more like wandering down a really wide path, and trusting that God can use our exploration to lead is somewhere worthwhile. 
Before Kaylan and I got engaged, we went through this incredibly angst-filled period where we tried to figure out if it was God’s will for us to get married. You know what? We never figured it out. We knew we loved and admired each other, wanted the same things out of life, and ended up taking the leap. Seven years later, it has been the best decision I’ve ever made, and the one that has taught me the most about God. I don’t think there’s some sort of perfect path. Life is filled with lots of great paths, and God is on all of them. Choose one with freedom and confidence. 
Moving Towards Divine Values
This story offers freedom. It also offers us guidance, mainly by pointing us in the direction that God seems to be moving. When trying to find a wife for Isaac, the servant seems to do something superstitious. He lays out a sort of divine test: “Who will offer me water?” In reality, this wasn’t superstitious at all. He’s trying to identify values – hospitality, openness to strangers, generosity. These are the same values that the narrative of Genesis identifies with God. He’s looking for someone who seems to get what God is about, and is shaping their life in a similar way. 
For us, then, we don’t get a narrow path of God’s will, but we do get a direction. The Bible contains movement. It’s movement towards love, wholeness, hospitality, grace, humility and much more. It’s what we sometimes call shalom. The Hebrew word that means completeness – the entire embodiment of divine love. 
So if you’re looking for guidance in a decision, the biggest question to ask is. “Is this moving in the same direction as God?” If an action moves us towards shalom, then run towards it with freedom. If not, maybe think twice about it.
When Kaylan and I were moving from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, I began looking for a job that would support us while she was in grad school. We were looking, and even prayed for, a couple specific things. We had an amount we needed me to make for us to get by, and we needed it to be close to our apartment because we only had one car. Within a few weeks, I had a job offer that met both of those requirements. We felt like our prayers were answered.
Then I started asking some questions about what type of values the job embodied. First, it was at a for-profit college. Not all for-profit colleges are bad, but many have garnered a reputation for taking advantage of students to make money (think Trump University). Next, I looked at the nature of the job. It was labeled as a student services job, but as they described it, the objective was to keep the students enrolled and paying tuition. Finally, they noted that most of their students fell into a lower socio-economic bracket. The job seemed to be doing whatever it took to keep people in poverty paying for an education that was semi-accredited. 
All of a sudden, I realized this job wasn’t moving the same direction as God. What initially seemed like an answer to prayer now seemed like a potential injustice. So I turned it down. I’d like to say another great paying job popped up right away, but it didn’t. We were really poor for a year while I pieced together work. And I’ve never regretted it. 
Moving Toward Empowerment
There’s one particular value that this story is begging us to consider when we make decisions. It’s the value of empowerment, specifically of those our society pushes to the margins. Abraham, for all of his flaws, does something pretty revolutionary in this story. He gives Rebekah the final say on marriage. From the start, Abraham tells his servant that if the woman doesn’t want to marry Isaac, she shouldn’t. At this point in history, women were basically considered property. Abraham could have essentially purchased a wife for Isaac, but he didn’t. He let the person with the least amount of power in the story have the final say. And she turns out to be the hero.
She’s the one who embodies God’s hospitality. She’s the one who has the faith to leave home, just like Abraham did, and travel far away in pursuit of God. She becomes the matriarch of the family. 
So when we’re making decisions, this story asks us to consider how our actions empower those that society gives the least amount of power to. Because they likely are the ones who understand God best. I haven’t lived in Napa long, but it doesn’t take long to see who are often offered the least amount of access to power. A few come to mind – migrant workers, homeless individuals, people of color, people with mental illness. This story, and really all of Scripture, asks us to shape our decisions around empowering those who haven’t been. Not because we’re doing them a favor or because we have some savior complex, but because when we don’t, we’re completely missing God.
I hope this story offers you freedom when you make decisions. I hope it points you in the direction of divine love. I hope it causes you to empower others with your choices. Maybe most importantly, I hope it assures you that whichever path you take, God is on it with you, nudging you, and all of us, toward wholeness. 

Abraham and Isaac and Supreyes

CrossWalking Guide

July 2, 2017

Thanks for joining in today!  Please keep this guide near your cereal bowl or bathroom mirror – wherever you’ll see it easily – so that what happens today goes deeper in the tomorrows ahead.  If you’relooking for the teaching summary, keep scrolling…

Welcoming Song: Learnin’ to Fly

Welcome and Announcements

You are invited.  We choose to enter into this space knowing that God is present and desiring to move in, through and with us toward restoration and renewal.  For the whole world.  For strained relationships.  For communities.  For families.  For individuals.  Joining God in this resurrection venture is a choice that comes with a stretch.  A choice to make the most of this space right here, right now. 

What is your choice?  Will you join in today?  Are you willing to stretch?

Song: He Brings Me Love

Centering Meditation.  Read the following Psalm.  Have you ever felt like this?  Which parts?  How are you feeling today?

Psalm 13 (NLT)

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.

Meditation Prayer. Sometimes, O God, it seems as though we’re all alone, like nobody cares. Sometimes we hear others laughing at us hurting our feelings making us feel unimportant or worthless. Yet you have promised always to be with us. Help us to remember that promise and to be strengthened by it. Amen.

Meditation Song: Reunion

The Focal Text | Genesis 22:1-14 (NLT)

After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, "Abraham!"
     "Yes?" answered Abraham. "I'm listening."
     He said, "Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I'll point out to you."
     Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him. On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham told his two young servants, "Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we'll come back to you."
     Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.
     Isaac said to Abraham his father, "Father?"
     "Yes, my son."
     "We have flint and wood, but where's the sheep for the burnt offering?"
     Abraham said, "Son, God will see to it that there's a sheep for the burnt offering." And they kept on walking together.
     They arrived at the place to which God had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.
     Just then an angel of God called to him out of Heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
     "Yes, I'm listening."
     "Don't lay a hand on that boy! Don't touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn't hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me."
Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
     Abraham named that place God-Yireh (God-Sees-to-It). That's where we get the saying, "On the mountain of God, he sees to it."

Table Talk.  What surprises you about this passage?  What bothers you?  What inspires you?  Some people want to walk away from the faith because of this passage – why do you think that is?

The Teaching | Abraham and Isaac: Surprise Supreyes

We tend to focus our gaze on the fact that God was requiring Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  When we do, the whole point of the story shifts to seeing God as a tyrant who puts his people through the paces, asking them to do horrible things as tests of faith.  When we keep our eyes fixed on this part of the story, every fear in us of God acting as a great judge is affirmed, and we walk around in terror, hoping not to make eye contact with God lest God call us to the same.

But this is not what the original hearers of the story would have zoned in on, because, while such a request would be grounds for putting God in prison today, it was normal and expected then.  Human sacrifice was the ultimate display of paying homage to God.  It had been done countless times through history as a means to keep the weather good and the crops coming.

What was so compelling in this story, then?  The fact that God stopped the execution and provided a ram instead of Isaac would have caused every person in antiquity to stop what they were doing and drop their jaw.  Gods don’t do such things.  Gods need to be appeased because we are so annoying.  Gods require more and more from us to keep them happy and us alive.  Gods do not do anything for humanity from a place of generosity or grace.  Gods demand human sacrifice – they do not call them off.  God not only calling it off, but providing a way out and God’s “expense”, and then ending the practice of human sacrifice?  That was front page news.  It was so astounding that most people would even call it fake news.  Yet it is the foundation of the new faith tradition begun in and through imperfect, completely contextualized Abraham and Sarah.

We are hardwired, it seems, to look for lightning bolts from God.  What if our assumptions about God at our core are wrong?  What if we’ve missed the real point of the story?  What if we assume God will surprise us with something good?  How might that shape our perception of reality?  How might that shape our capacity to see what God is actually up to?  Perhaps that is the great new thing that Abraham’s new faith tradition was really about.  How might things be different if we are constantly on the lookout for God to be good, providing an abundance of beauty and possibility?  What if we train our eyes to expect to be surprised by God’s goodness?  That would change everything.

Table Talk.  What seems to be sticking with you from our time together today?  What’s a take home message for you?  What might God be calling us to do in response to what’s happening here?

Offering Song: The Prayer I Used to Pray.  During this song, take a moment to place any offering, prayer request, comments and Clue In into the tins on the tables.  Thank you for your support!  CrossWalk can’t without your generosity.  Thanks for your prayer requests!  We consider it an honor to serve you in lifting your request to God.  Thanks for your comments!  CrossWalk is an ongoing experiment seeking to serve God toward resurrection/restoration/renewal – feedback helps us serve smarter!  Thanks for your Clue In!  If we don’t know who you are, it’s really tough to support you.  Thanks for being here today!

Notes, thoughts, doodles…

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Try this to get more out of the blog this week by reviewing these elements we practiced together on Sunday.

Choosing to Be Present to the Presence of God.  The very nature of God is life and love.  Restoring, renewing, resurrecting – all these words reflect what God is up to in the world today.  Shalom – a holistic wellness, wholeness of peace in ourselves and in the world – has always been the True North that is God and guides God’s followers.  Joining God in this venture is a choice.  A choice to be present to the Presence of God which constantly encourages us forward to greater expressions of grace, love, and life.  This means you have a choice every day to be open or not to God.  What is your choice today?

This Weeks Focal Text | Genesis 21:8-21 (NLT):

When Isaac grew up and was about to be weaned, Abraham prepared a huge feast to celebrate the occasion. But Sarah saw Ishmael—the son of Abraham and her Egyptian servant Hagar—making fun of her son, Isaac. So she turned to Abraham and demanded, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!”
     This upset Abraham very much because Ishmael was his son. But God told Abraham, “Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.”
So Abraham got up early the next morning, prepared food and a container of water, and strapped them on Hagar’s shoulders. Then he sent her away with their son, and she wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba.
     When the water was gone, she put the boy in the shade of a bush. Then she went and sat down by herself about a hundred yards away. “I don’t want to watch the boy die,” she said, as she burst into tears.
     But God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants.”
     Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well full of water. She quickly filled her water container and gave the boy a drink.
     And God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. He became a skillful archer, and he settled in the wilderness of Paran. His mother arranged for him to marry a woman from the land of Egypt.

Being Honest with Ourselves and God.  What is your heart crying out about today?  Take some time and meditate on this question.  Don’t hold back – you are not going to offend God with sloppy communication in the pursuit of honesty.  Sometimes expletives are highly appropriate in prayer.  Let ‘er rip.  God is mature and graceful enough to hear you out.

Getting your thoughts out.  What are your initial reactions to the text we’re going to look at more deeply today?  What questions do you have?  What is surprising?  What is upsetting?  On another note, who is our world holds power?  Who in our world dwell on the lower rungs of the ladder of power?

The Teaching and Response.  As you read the summarized teaching below, keep the following questions running in the back of your mind.  What’s your take home from this teaching?  What seems to be sticking with you as you reflect on this week’s teaching?  Why do you think that is?  Could God be using this to invite you in some way toward greater shalom personally and/or in community?  What choices are you making to stretch toward the resurrection God is calling you toward?

The story of Hagar and Ishmael leaving Abraham’s camp is better understood in the bigger story in which it sits.  Before Hagar was Abraham’s wife and mother of his first son, she was Sara’s servant/slave.  Her marriage was not born out of love, but was thrust upon her as a mean to bear a child for Abraham.   Perhaps this was not uncommon in the ancient world – that does not make it right or good.  She got pregnant.  Now she was empowered, and apparently she knew it given the report of Sara about her gloating.  Is it reasonable to think that Hagar had attitude toward Sara?  Of course.  She was human, and victimized at that.  But Sara was still Queen of Abraham’s castle, and sent her packing. 

Hagar had the baby, and the baby was named Ishmael, which translates “God hears.”  After some period of time, Sara finally got pregnant in her old age as predicted.  When Isaac (“laughter”) was born, Sara became concerned about his fate: how would he be treated by Hagar, by Ishmael, by Abraham?  Her concern may have led to paranoia: were Abraham and Ishmael making fun of little Isaac?  Was that merely a taste of what was to come?  So she pulled rank, pushing Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.  When Abraham sent them away, he didn’t send them with much, which was awful on his part.  Gaining her freedom may seem like a gift at first glance, but in that culture at that time it very likely meant that as a free woman no longer married to Abraham, her son Ishmael was no longer considered his heir.  In one awful moment, she went from being enslaved yet safe, to free and extremely vulnerable.  Was Sara’s reaction harsh?  Was Abraham’s stinginess appalling?  Yes.  Inexcusably so.  They were human beings, it seems, which means they were messy, imperfect, screw ups.  Yet still key characters in an unfolding story God was trying to craft with willing participants.  As one commentator noted, “God works with individuals on the scene; God does not perfect people before deciding to work through them.”  And so the story continued.

Pushed into the wilderness with little in the way of provisions, Hagar and Ishmael suffer.  In her grief, Hagar is confident that she will die.  At her lowest, she distances herself from Ishmael so she doesn’t have to see him die, at which point she experiences God speaking to her from heaven:

“Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants.”
Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well full of water. She quickly filled her water container and gave the boy a drink.
And God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. He became a skillful archer, and he settled in the wilderness of Paran. His mother arranged for him to marry a woman from the land of Egypt. – Genesis 21:17-21 (NLT)

This is a beautiful and instructive and surprisingly broad picture of God being shared in this Jewish-oriented text that in general doesn’t have much respect for Ishmael’s line.  God doesn’t hasten Hagar and Ishmael’s death – God instead opens Hagar’s eyes to what she needs to survive, and encourages her with a promise for their future.  Do you realize what a big deal this is?  Sit with it until you do.  This brief passage says much about the breadth of God’s grace for all people regardless of the awful treatment they receive from those who feel especially empowered or chosen by God (Sara and Abraham).  God is bigger and more beautiful.  The nature of God, the Spirit of God is life, restoration, renewal, hope, resurrection.  This story is a story of hope for all the Hagars and Ishmaels of the world. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible speaks eloquently about Hagar’s becoming many things to many people (see chap. 16):

“Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.”

Hagar was blind to the water very near her.  God showed up to help her see.  If you are a Hagar or Ishmael and feel wronged by life, the systems you were born into, etc., the Spirit of God is with you to help you see that you are valued and loved, and that there is hope.  You are not as alone or hopeless as you think.  Cry out to God with all you’ve got, and then be still and listen for God to speak in various ways words of hope and provision.

Biblical scholar Leander Keck notes that

“the text does affirm that God chooses the line of Isaac, not that of Ishmael. This is a strong claim, and it occasions a sharper question for Isaac’s descendants than if the treatment had been more “even-handed.” What one does with the Ishmaels of this world in the face of the claims for Isaac comes front and center. Abraham was chosen so that all families might be blessed through him. This means that the children of Abraham who are also the children of Isaac are so to comport themselves that blessing rather than curse comes upon the nations.” – New Interpreter’s Bible

We who are more like the Sarahs and Abrahams of the world (and we likely don’t know that we are) need to pay attention to this story, because they absolutely blew it.  They were harsh to say the least, and probably felt justified because they were the chosen ones.  Thank God that their harshness was not reflective of God.  Whether we justify our malicious behavior with nationalism or religion or both, we must choose to be conscious of how God treats the worlds Hagars and Ishmaels decide if we are going to be the people of God or not.  One way is harsh.  The other is graceful.  Which way are you going to choose?  Who are you going to be?

Getting your reactions out. What’s your take home from this experience today?

A Prayer of Hope: Loving God, you are father and mother of us all. You love us as only a caring parent can, with a love that challenges all the difficulties around us and embraces us in arms that never let us go. As you have cared for outcasts like Hagar and Ishmael, so can we know that you will always love us. When we want to use family and friends as an excuse not to serve you, help us remember that loving others is a key way to love you; yet we must not see people as an excuse to avoid the difficulties of life that you sometimes set before us. Help us to love family and friends unconditionally, and thus to love you unconditionally, never placing one above another. And as we love others, help us to appreciate how much we are loved by you, our Creator God. Amen.

Hope and Hospitality

On Father’s Day, it seems appropriate to look a story about a father. Actually, it’s a story about one of the most famous fathers: father Abraham…you know the jingle if you ever endured Sunday School as a child. But, as we’ll see, the point of the story isn’t really about being a dad. It’s about faith, and what it looks like when life hasn’t gone the way we want it to. 
The story is in Genesis 18:1-15. It’s long, so hang in there. 
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. 2 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. 3 He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
6 So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!” 7 Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.
13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’ 14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”

If you fast forward to chapter 21, you find Sarah does indeed, in her old age, have a baby. Crazy stuff. 
To get the weight and point of the story though, we need to back up. Reading it outside of its context makes it feel like a nice, quick miracle. But that’s not really what it was. If you go back, you find that Abraham was promised this kid a lonnnnnnnnng time ago. And the kid was supposed to bless the entire world. Abraham believes God and then waits. And waits. And waits. To the point that he and Sarah are way too old to have a baby. By the time we get to our story, life hasn’t gone the way it was supposed to. It seems like God didn’t show up as scheduled. 
We get the same message when we see who would’ve been hearing this story. This story was probably told around campfires and at dinner tables for generations. Eventually, it was written down, probably while Israel, the people reading it, were under the control of an oppressive foreign government. God had promised them some things too. Land. Freedom. Prosperity. All for the good of others. But God wasn’t showing up for them either. They would’ve read this story, and felt the weight of Abraham and Sarah’s pain. They knew what it was like to have life slowly grind the hope out of you. 
That’s what this story is about: what faith looks like when God isn’t showing up, and hasn’t for a long time. 
Paul looks at Abraham’s faith in this story and sees something interesting: resurrection. Check out Romans 4:17, So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence. 
Just before this, Paul spends a whole chapter raving about Abraham’s faith. He holds him up as the model for faith, particularly for the type of faith that leads to resurrection, to experiencing “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence.” If Paul sees this type of faith in Abraham, then we should take a closer look at his faith, because I’m guessing, at one time or another, you’ve felt like God didn’t show up. 
Normally we talk about faith in terms of unwavering trust- believing that God will show up, even when God hasn’t for a long time. But if Abraham is our prime example of faith, then that can’t be what faith is. Just take a look at his track record when it comes to trusting God. 
Somewhere along the line, he and Sarah get impatient with God, have him sleep with one of their young servants (an abuse of power), and have a child with her. It’s also pretty clear that they become cynical along the way. Sarah just straight up laughs at these messengers when they say she’s going to have a baby. And then, even after our story, Abraham accidentally almost lets Sarah marry another man. If this is the example of unwavering faith, then I think you and I are doing alright. More importantly, I think the story is trying to lead us to a different understanding of faith. 
What did Abraham and Sarah do that was so great? Well, you have to keep reading Genesis 18 to get a better picture. Right after the three messengers in our story leave Abraham and Sarah, they go to a place you might have heard of: Sodom and Gomorrah. When they get there, the men of the town gang up and try to rape them. Often, when people read this story, they see Sodom and Gomorrah’s problem as same-sex relationships. But that’s not at all what the story is about. In fact, Ezekiel just tells us directly what their problem was. 
Ezekiel 16:49-50 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.  They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.
Sodom’s problem wasn’t that they engaged in same-sex relationships. It’s that they were selfish, hoarded their resources, and refused to give to those who needed it. And you see this in Genesis 18. Instead of welcoming these three messengers, they try to rape them – the ultimate sign of control and hostility. The same-sex relationship isn’t the point. Their selfishness and lack of hospitality is. 
Now contrast this with Abraham’s reaction to these three men. As soon as he sees them walk by, he bows to them (a common sign of respect), welcomes them in, washes their feet, and sets a feast out for them (killing a calf for them was an extravagant gesture). 
Now, he didn’t know them from Adam, and life hadn’t panned out the way it was supposed to. Abraham and Sarah had every excuse to become bitter and hostile in their old age, to let these men pass by without a word. But they didn’t. Even when God wasn’t showing up, they opened their lives and home to strangers, and they met God in it. That, according to this story, is what faith is.
We’re meant to look at this story side by side with Sodom and Gomorrah and see how drastically different these three men are treated, and then follow Abraham’s example of radical faith and hospitality. 
Faith isn’t some sort of perfect trust or unwavering hope in God. Abraham and Sarah wavered all over the place. Instead, faith is continuing to be open to and welcome those we encounter in our journeys, even when life hasn’t turned out the way we think it should. Faith is choosing to offer the same inclusive love that God offers, even if we haven’t seen God for a while. 
And, on the other side of it, we just might experience resurrection. Not because God is rewarding us for good behavior, but because we’re aligning ourselves with the divine flow of love and hospitality that’s always at work in the world. We’re wading into a river that’s deeper and stronger than us. And it flows toward resurrection. 
So if life hasn’t turned out the way you hoped, it’s ok to doubt and question God, but as you do, stay open, welcoming and loving to those you encounter, and just like Abraham, you may eventually run into “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence.”

Blown Minds, Warmed Hearts, Refined Lives

Blown Minds, Warmed Hearts, Refined Lives

When the spectacular arrival of the Holy Spirit dawned on the disciples and other believers in Jerusalem, minds were blown.  First, because it was a spectacle of epic proportions: the sound of wind without the breeze, the image of fire atop heads while unlearned languages came forth from the tongues within.  Tongues of fire begat newly-abled fluent tongues to speak to those visiting from afar.  How could your mind not be blown?

But the second reason minds were blown is what the dramatic scene itself communicated.  The Holy Spirit’s greeting wasn’t simply in Aramaic – the language the Jewish people knew well.  Essentially, every language was heard that day, a multilingual miracle using many disciples to communicate to many people gathered round.  God was speaking to everybody in their native tongue.  This implied that God wasn’t beyond speaking to people where they were in ways that they could understand.  It also meant that all those people hearing the testimony about God’s creation were people God deemed worthy of hearing.

I met a foster parent recently who recognized their special role in caring for foster children.  Children needing a foster home are coming from a difficult environment.  Sometimes those kids haven’t been told that they are loved and that they have inherent value.  This particular parent wanted to do everything in his power to correct that – because when our inherent value is communicated to us, it really does blow our minds.  It blew my mind when I woke up to it, too.  Have you awakened to this yet?  Or are you still asleep?

While minds were being blown, we can be sure hearts were being warmed.  Except for limited moments while engaged in ministry when Jesus’ disciples were endowed with the Spirit to minister miraculously in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit was for special characters in God’s narrative.  Not fisherman from Hillbillyville.  Definitely not tax former collectors.  Yet on this day, many of Jesus’ followers received the Spirit in a powerful way.  Message received?  God was no longer limiting the Spirit to a select few.  Now all access was granted to those who believed. That’s a heart warmer for sure.  Jesus was gone, and they still mattered.  Because we can look ahead in the story, we also know that the Spirit was given to future believers, too, regardless of previously held limitations.

When we awaken to what God is doing in the world, our hearts warm because we realize God’s love isn’t just for us, but it big enough for everybody.  When we look in the mirror and marvel at the fact that God loves us in spite of our shortcomings – and perhaps more importantly because of our shortcomings – our awakening is humbling.  What’s more humbling is the fact that this love extends even to your idiot cousin.  And your coworker who is in perpetual Monday morning mode.  And your classmate who is pretty sure his stuff doesn’t smell.  And the parent who physically abandoned you, or was emotionally unavailable, or even molested you.  And the drunk driver who killed your loved one.  And the Barack Obama.  And Donald Trump.  And Vladimir Putin.  And Kim Jun Un.  And Bashar al-Assad.  And members or Isis who become suicide bombers, crowd-plowing truck drivers, and pilots who steer planes into World Trade Centers.  And undocumented immigrants.  And black people.  And homeless people.  Every person ever created is loved by God as much as you and as much as anyone else.  When we wake up to this fact, our hearts are so warmed we are changed in our perspective.  It doesn’t make their horrors go away, but it does make us more humane in how we view them and address them.

A lot of people experienced an incredible display of the inbreaking of God.  Pretty cool.  All those people would have felt the breath of God that day – minds blown and hearts warmed – and would have likely lived in hope for the rest of their lives.  But something else equally beautiful happened as well.

In the last few verses of Acts 2, we discover that the wind-infused pyrotechnics show resulted in more than people feeling inner peace and hope:

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

The experience of Pentecost didn’t remain a personal faith thing alone.  Nope, this was a life changer.  Minds were blown.  Hearts were warmed.  And lives were refined.  Fire and wind have the capacity to burn off impurities and clear out debris.  The experience of God breaking into life changed the lives of many people.  They changed their lives to make room for ongoing learning, serving each other, hanging out together, and prayer.    This led to more good stuff – the Spirit worked powerfully through the Apostles, and everybody shared their stuff with each other.  They sold things so that they could help somebody else out. 

Humanity, at its core, hasn’t changed all that much.  We all still struggle between self-centeredness and other centeredness, between greed and generosity.  Somehow, when people experienced God up close and personal on that day, a shift took place.  “There is always enough for everyone’s need; there is never enough for everyone’s greed.”  Pentecost acted as a refiner’s fire for people like us who struggle with selfishness.  They became generous.

Oskar Schindler woke up and saved 1200+ Jewish people from extermination.  Mother Theresa woke up and served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  A friend of mine woke up (one of a series of awakenings in his life) and invested in at-risk children in Kenya instead of a fancy new car for himself.  Another friend of mine woke up a couple of weeks ago realizing that our kids in Africa would trade anything to have our problems, and cut a check for $2000 to help their cause.  Many friends have awakened to what CrossWalk is doing in the world and have giving generously to update our facility so that we can continue to be a space of Good News more effectively – a stage in the Courtyard, a remodeled kitchen, a rehung bell, money to remodel the façade, buy new chairs – the list is huge!  Money spent not for themselves, but for the hope of what we can offer the community.  Of course, time is perhaps the other great commodity we have to offer, and in many of the projects I mentioned, there are people donating untold, unseen, and unsung hours to make it happen.

In a consumer-driven culture that can’t help but determine decisions based on “what’s in it for me”, time and money given for selfless purposes is incredible.  Not just time to work on stuff, but to be together, to learn, to support.  All signs of being awakened or waking up.

And a final piece of good news.  Some of you may long for some tangible experience of the spirit.  You are waiting for the sound of wind and tongues of fire.  But it could just be that the way you begin to experience that is through the behavior that aligns ourselves with God – stuff in the final scene of Acts 2.  Join God in what God is doing, and you are much more likely to catch the breeze that will blow your mind, you’ll more likely sense the flame that can warm your heart, and in the process you will find your life refined into the footsteps of Jesus who totally nailed it.

In today’s dramatic reading, the Apostle Peter asked some penetrating questions:

Are you open to the Spirit speaking to you and living in you? (Pause between each question.) Do you let the Spirit act and speak courageously through you in compassionate and daring ways? Do you forgive yourself and others when mistakes are made? Do you bring hope and new dreams into the lives of others? Do you share in the passions of Jesus for a world of justice and love?   All these things are possible for you. What it means for you, for your church, and for the world is your joyous challenge to discover!

Have you experienced God in some way?  How have you allowed that to impact your life in tangible ways?  Do you realize that the experiences of God are there to call us home?  To align us more with the footsteps of Jesus?  If you’ve settled simply for inner peace, the good news is that there is much, much more for you to experience, and it comes when your life gets refined, when you allow God to remove the impurities and debris that accumulates when we are focused on ourselves.