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Guest Post and GIVEAWAY with Whitney R. Simpson!

Friends, I am so excited to introduce you to Whitney R. Simpson. Whitney is a fellow member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and when we met years ago I knew I had found a kindred spirit. She recently released her new book, Holy Listening with Breath, Body, and the Spirit, a gorgeous book with a 40-day plan for prayer, meditation, yoga, and more. (And below, I’m giving away a copy!) Thanks so much for joining us today, Whitney.


 

 

We Breathe

O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you. Psalm 38:9 NRSV

My work invites people to slow down and breathe deeply. On yoga mats, on retreat, in listening for God with their bodies; I invite others to take deep breaths quite often. I crave this myself. It is not uncommon I’m tempted to abandon work or home-life demands (dinner, again?) to instead sit in my own corner of the world and simply breathe (certainly this is research for my life’s call, not an escape from prepping a family meal or washing a load of clothes?).

My phone’s current background says, “Just Breathe” reminding me in the fullness of this season to listen to my own advice before I ever consider sharing it with others. I sense I am called to this work because I long for it so very much myself. I savor empowering others to discover God’s closeness, as close as their breath.

It’s interesting how people think that because I am passionate about and teach breath work and listening for God with our bodies that I live in a state of having it “all together” at all times. In fact, I think I am drawn to this work because I long for it so clearly in my own life. And clearly, I do not have it “all together” (come take a look at my laundry room for confirmation – better yet allow me to give you a tiny glimpse into the sighs of my heart today).

When was the last time you let out a big sigh? Maybe that sigh was on purpose or maybe it was on accident. Maybe it included an eye-roll or a victorious sigh of relief. Either way, the Psalms remind us that God hears our sighs. Those deep breaths are important not only for ourselves but also to our Creator (did you know there is a physical and mental reset that occurs with an audible sigh?). To me, a deep sigh often reminds me that I can not nor am I expected to hold everything together. A healthy sigh is good for my spirit. So how do we discover the deep sighs of our heart?

We breathe.

Before getting past the first chapter of Catherine’s new release Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline, I took a deep breath and found grace for myself. My weekend included what felt like failed parenting discussions with a 13-year old. Parenting a teen in 2017 brings challenges beyond those I experienced as a teen myself (how does one even begin to comprehend both the benefits and dangers of the Internet today?). How does one take deep breaths and continue mothering* on-line engagement in a modern world when she can’t even figure out how to communicate a longing for safe space in a space which cannot be controlled?

We breathe.

As I sit here writing these words, a friend just landed on my doorstep. She came by to have a good cry and take a few deep breaths per the overwhelming demands on her life in this season, the sandwich generation (squeezed between kids, business, and parents). I listened, sighed, and nodded, a lot.

We breathe.

It is true that we live in a time of new challenges. But has this not always been true? Have we not always had something new on the horizon? Are we not always in a new season of mothering and discovering the small things in that season?

We breathe.

My mothering skills continue to evolve and yours do too. I sense we do not give full credit to this fact. Just as we don’t notice the sighs of our heart or our own breath. As a matter of fact, I am discovering that just about the time I “figure out” one season, I move to a new one and find myself lamenting the one just recently past rather than breathing in the present season. Why is this so challenging? How can we stay present in the current season?

We breathe.

I’m kinder than I used to be to myself. There is more grace when I step back long enough to hear my own words, “take a deep breath, feel it travel throughout your entire body, notice the fullness of the breath, let out a long sigh, notice how this feels.” In mothering, God is inviting us to breathe deeply, to mutter the sighs of our heart. In all seasons and aspects of mothering, the fullness of a deep breath, or a long sigh is heard by our Creator.

God hears us, let’s breathe together.

*I love that Catherine’s book reminds you that mothering is simply a word, we’re not excluding men in this conversation or individuals who may not have given birth to small humans.

Whitney R. Simpson is the author of Holy Listening with Breath, Body, and the Spirit from Upper Room Books. She offers soul care resources for exploring the gift of God’s peace with the whole self. She completed certification in spiritual formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is a certified lay minister who serves as a spiritual director, and is a certified 500-hour yoga instructor. Whitney is a member of The Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders, Spiritual Directors International, and Redbud Writers Guild. Find out more at Whitney’s website or connect with her via social media at @WhitRSimpson.

 

Giveaway time! To enter, just leave a comment here, or share this post on social media (tag me). For a second entry, subscribe to this blog or like me on Facebook, Twitter…you get the idea.

I’ll draw the winner on Friday.

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The Treasonous Act of Small Children Waving Branches

 

For twenty minutes yesterday, young children and palm branches surrounded me on all sides.

Like many churches, we have a Palm Sunday procession to mark the beginning of Holy Week. When I dropped my Kindergartner at her class, I offered to stay and help. My church family has literally hundreds (if not thousands) of children — so organizing this march was no small feat. I was responsible for only a handful of children waving palm fronds, but even so, getting everyone up the stairs, through the hallways, and lined up in place took some doing. Especially when one child’s branch lost its leaves (after being used as a sword too many times) and when another needed an emergency trip to the restroom.

All this adorable chaos made me wonder about the actual “Triumphal entry.” On this day, Jesus completed his long trip into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Jesus rode on a donkey, and crowds gathered (as they so often did) and threw their cloaks on the ground; others cut down palm branches and placed them on the ground. Given the symbolism of the time, this was red-carpet treatment. Others in the crowd ran ahead, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Still others ran behind him. A red-carpet and a ticker-tape parade.

After just ten minute of keeping eleven Kindergartners marching with their branches, I wondered: was someone coordinating the original triumphant event, or was it a truly impromptu expression? What sort of massive headache was this, for whomever was in charge?

But more, I wondered about the parents who came, and brought their children. We know they were there, because later on in Jerusalem children were still shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” at the temple–and this caused a scandal.

In fact, all of this was a scandal. Every piece of imagery in this parade was rich in royal and Messianic symbolism – from the donkey, to the branches, to the cloaks on the ground, to the words the crowds and children shouted and sang. All of it meant “Jesus is our new King! He’s the one we want!” This is a pretty neutral and safe thing to do in a democracy that values free speech, but dangerous insurrection in a political climate where the Roman government frequently tortured, killed, and publicly crucified anyone who suggested treason. All of it suggested that Jesus was not only King, but the Divine, Messianic King sent from God to save the people from oppression once and for all.

Treason and blasphemy. Each punishable by death.

Those in power — religious or political — could not help but hear this message; and they could not let this message go unanswered.

What sort of desperate hope and courage would it take to send my child to wave a branch and shout a song with a message like that?

If we think we can understand the feelings of that crowd, I think we deceive ourselves.

Yesterday, after too many minutes of keeping wiggly kids from wrestling each other or running down the hallway, our turn finally came. Waving our branches and straining to see parents in the crowd, my small group of Kindergartners proudly marched up and down the aisles as the worship leaders led our own crowd of thousands in song. We celebrated and waved and marched happily. We were merely following family and community tradition, the safest, most nurturing thing in the world.

But those first families, who brought their children, to lay cloaks and branches and shout and sing about their allegiance to the new Messianic King…they were publicly inciting treason. And with the long, painful history they had with oppressive governments and public crucifixions, they couldn’t have lost sight of that for a moment.

The week did not unfold as they had thought, though in some ways as they knew it must.

I watched my own adorable children joyfully waving palm branches and singing, as I do every year, and wondered: could I ever find the courage to stand against an unjust empire (and it’s corrupt religious leaders) in such a public way? Even if it put my children’s lives in danger?

This crowd did. I remember them, these parents, too, this Holy Week.

In the first Holy Week, God’s Perfect Love entered the hate-filled realm of injustice, power, and politics. He showed us what happens to such powerful, fearless, self-giving Love.

And that, even so, this Love triumphs powerfully in the end. He showed us, gave us, the way of Salvation.

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Airplane Lessons: An Exercise in Loving my Neighbor

A few years ago I boarded an airplane for a 12+ hour flight. After settling into my (middle) seat, the passenger in the aisle seat next to me arrived and started settling in herself. Like most international travelers, she was armed with a few books, a few electronic gadgets, a bag of airport lunch, a water bottle, a purse, a carry-on bag, etc. She never looked at me or spoke to me, but she did deposit the entire pile of carry-on loot into my lap without a word of explanation or request for help.I was flabbergasted, to say the least.

But, I know how hard it can be to settle into these tiny spaces; she’ll take these things from me in a second, I figured. I won’t be holding them forever. I can be a good neighbor.

She settled in. Sat down. Seat belts. Flips through the airplane magazines. Minutes pass. Then she takes from my arms a cell phone — and makes a call. A long call. Talks on the phone until we have to “please turn off all electronic equipment for take off” and I’m still holding all her stuff.

At this point, I’ve moved from flabbergasted to flummoxed, and incredibly irritated. What is this nut-case-of-a-fellow-passenger thinking?!?

It occurred to me then that this is the scenario Jesus is always describing. The one where I’m supposed to walk the extra mile; where I’m supposed to love my enemies; where I’m supposed to turn the other cheek, give my second jacket to the person who stole my first one; where I’m supposed to be humble, and giving, and patient instead of seeking something for myself, seeking comfort, seeking my rights, seeking a good position. The one where I am to give shelter to those who need it, food and water to those without it, comfort for those who seek it. No matter how undeserving or undesirable the needy person may be, because when I do these things, I’m really doing it to him. As though that person were Jesus.

He was right — it’s easy to do this for my friends who will probably do the same for me. But it’s really hard to do this for a perfect stranger who really seems to be taking advantage of my patience for no compelling reason.

But hey — how about that? Taking advantage of me? Aren’t I supposed to have good boundaries? Not let people walk all over me? This is the place where I go around in circles. How do you love people as though they were Jesus, without becoming an unhealthy doormat?

The answer struck me then in a place deeper than words: if this lady sitting next to me really were Jesus, I would be more than happy to hold his/her bags for 15 minutes — or 15 hours. I would never have to ask myself if I was being manipulated because the change that matters is not in her behavior or intent, but in my own heart. If she really was Jesus, I would spend those 15 minutes or 15 hours blessed beyond belief that I had this opportunity to give, to serve, to be near him.

Being manipulated or taken advantage of comes not because of who she is, but who I see her to be. If I believe that holding her books and loving her gives me an opportunity to directly and physically love and serve Jesus, then she no longer has the power to hurt me in any way. I have already chosen to give freely, joyfully — and I’m getting much more in return than was “taken” from me.

He was right about that too.

She did eventually take her stuff back. Never did speak to me, or look at me. But this taught me something, without words, that a book or sermon or discussion could never have done. Loving the (to my eyes) unlovable as though they were Jesus.

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Advent, Hope, and the Chicago Cubs: a Devotion on Devotion

14572263_10154092126768214_5738134130707280860_nHope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for
    and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

 

With the dark days of a Chicago winter upon us, hope can feel in short supply. Add in the most divisive political season most of us can remember, and despair can make the heart sick.

In the meantime, you’ve almost certainly heard the news: last month the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908! I’m fairly certain the cry of joy could be heard from outer space. I know the gathering of five-million people celebrating in Chicago was seen from the skies—the seventh largest human gathering in all history.

It was difficult to carry on normally during those weeks, due to the agony of near defeat, the tension of games too close to call, the ecstasy of victory. And the fact that I was unwilling to wear anything without the Cubs logo emblazoned on it (preferably Cubbie blue).

You might have asked yourself: all this for a ball game??

Well, not exactly.

There’s some powerful alchemy that goes into the emotions we feel around something like this; a recipe that gets at what we humans are to the core and what inspires us to move forward. It’s about individual and community identity, about our placement in the world and in time. It’s about the deeply physical, social, and spiritual elements of hope.

The last time the Cubs played in the World Series (and lost), the year was 1945. World War II had just ended and my Cubs-cheering Dad was only four months old. The last time the Cubs won the World Series it was 1908. World War I was still in the distant future. My dad—and his dad—weren’t cheering because they weren’t born yet; my great grandfather probably wasn’t cheering either, having just immigrated from Sweden and busy setting up the family farm.

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The baby in the high chair is my dad, the year the Cubs last played (and lost) the World Series

That’s a lot of generations ago. That’s a long time to hope for something unseen.

And so, entire generations of Cubs fan were born into families long-hoping for victory, only to live their entire lives and never see it. They birthed children who were taught to do the same, for generations. By the time my children were born, they were handed not only the words to the song “Go Cubs Go” but the weight of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who had waited, and hoped, and died without seeing their hope come to fruition.

Yes, but it’s just baseball. They weren’t hoping to see peace come to their homeland, a return from exile, or the coming of God’s final redemption—as so many have throughout human history. That’s true. This is a baseball sized hope.

But when you have the privilege of witnessing something your father’s generation longed to see, and your grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s—and they didn’t, but never stopped hoping, and passed the dream on to you—well, that becomes something bigger than just a ballgame.

This is about loving each other through the ages, and not just today; about faithfulness when it’s difficult and not just when its easy. It is the deep love and loyalty that families feel for each other, the longing one generation has to be united to the ones that come before and behind. It is where we find the strength to move forward, to train up our children, keep the faith, work for redemption and a world made new. There’s power when you believe an ancient dream may finally be realized. It’s about a heart sick from hope deferred, now rejoicing in a tree of life.

The very biggest and best stories are passed down this way; the most transcendent hopes are woven through the generations.

Outside of professional sports we have real lives, with real hopes long deferred. We look at the legacies entrusted to our generation, and wonder if we’re worthy to pass them forward. We trudge through suffering and wonder if we’ll see these longings fulfilled. So we stay faithful in the little things: getting up each morning, caring for family, friends, and neighbors, serving in our jobs, seeking after God, keeping the faith. We long to believe that this everyday-faithfulness is worthy of the legacy of hope, that we are keeping the course for those that came before and those that came behind.

That’s why these small tastes of victory mean so much to us. Spoilers that hint at the end of the story: the ancient hope of our mothers and fathers is alive, even if we won’t taste the fruit in our lifetimes.

There’s a wall at Wrigley Field where fans have chalked the names of their loved ones who hoped to see this day but passed on months ago, years ago, decades ago. Those who have gone before us. Sons and daughters have travelled to far-off cemeteries to listen to Game Seven with the mothers and fathers who longed to listen to such a game their entire lives. Friends are getting tattoos in honor of dearly departed loved ones they wish had lived to see this day.

It is this sweet fulfillment of generations longing together that was tasted, in a small but meaningful way, by millions of Cubs fan now, finally, in 2016.

 

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Making Things New

Today I spent some quality time with the Creator. I know! Audacious thought. Ridiculous, pompous notion. True none the less. We sat silently on my front porch, drinking tea, listening to the unmistakable sound of gentle wind rustling through dried leaves, and breathing in their sweet, tangy smells.

I shared with Him my thoughts on Fall. My dislike of endings, of decline, of death. My resistance towards sickness and weakness, my struggle against the inevitable coming of cold, dark days. I confessed my tendency to grasp hold of all that is green and growing, hopeful and alive – and not want to let go when it is pulled from my hands.

He listened patiently. But then I heard His side of the story. It turns out that the Creator of Autumn is wildly in love with Autumn. The blue-grey skies, raindrops that seem to spontaneously appear rather than fall. The piles of gourds, pumpkins, and burnt-orange flowers from my garden. The warmth of sweaters, the comfort of sipping hot tea. The sounds and smells of decaying leaves. The brilliant colors of life in decline. The absolute certainly that seasoned life has of who it is and for whom it lives and breathes and has its being. The absolute trust this certainly requires.

I sat quietly, taking it all in – the sights, smells, tastes, feelings, and sounds. I know that He is making something new, even in this season of ending, this close of Autumn. Because he is always, always making things new.

The rain turned to drops, splattering my face and tea. The wind changed, bringing a chill my sweater and tea could not overcome. Turning back towards the house I saw our new sidewalk, freshly dried and already littered with leaves. A new path, never before walked upon. I set my feet on it for the very first time. I am committed to finding His new pathways of grace through this darkening seasons.

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Towers, Geneologies, and a Plan: Genesis 9-11

There is a tremendous amount to unpack in Genesis 1-11. Each individual story is rich in ancient theological meaning and nuance, obscured by our modern day perspective but there none the less. The stories taken together form a stunning cycle – God’s good plan, our rebellion, and God’s faithful redemptive response.

Since forming function out of chaos in Genesis 1, Yahweh has seen his “very good” creation turn away again and again. After the destruction of the great flood, it is clear that even this was not sufficient to turn mankind’s bent from wickedness, and Yahweh forms, in essence, a new world with a new strategy. What this is has yet to be unveiled but this we know – he will never destroy his creatures.

There is one final story – the tower of Babel. Through two lists of descendants we watch as Noah’s children repopulate the earth. Speaking all one language, they build a massive city and tower. Why this is unacceptable is not entirely clear, but it is alarming to God, who confuses their language and the people scatter across the earth.

One of the basic functions of these passages is to lead us from the stories of “pre-history” to the world as we know it within history, and where we meet Abram in Genesis 12. A bridge is needed from one man and his children to a world full of people in every corner, each with their own language and customs. The focus of these lists are the actual social/political situations of the known world in (at that time) the present day.

As the nations are laid out in these pages, the stage is being set for the biggest event yet. Though the world the Hebrews knew was diverse and wicked, in these pre-history genealogies and stories we learn that they are also united by ancient family ties, part of God’s blessed, rebellious, and beloved Creation. What happens next is not against this Creation, but for this Creation. If we miss this point, so carefully and repetitively laid out in these early chapters, we will miss the good news itself.

CAM01282We have seen God’s commitment to bless the earth, and mankind’s commitment to disobedience. Through Noah, God has come to terms with man’s utter unwillingness or inability for lasting change and is formulating a brand new thing – the calling of Abram and the creation of Israel.

 

The ending of Genesis 11 wraps up the first calling, the first creation. Its final verses end with a mention of Terah, his son Abram and wife Sarai. What they begin is woefully incomplete – Terah heads out with his family to Canaan but doesn’t finish the journey; Abram and Sarai are married, but have no children. Sarai is pronounced barron.

 

And with this pronouncement, God’s great redemptive act is about to begin. Instead of a few chapters, the telling of it will require the rest of the Hebrew Bible…and time itself.

Are you coming with me? We have traveled a long way, but we are just getting started.

This series has been influenced by dozens of books and authors/scholars, but I tip my hat as always to Walter Brueggemann and Rabbi Telushkin for their many insights.

If you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.

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Noah’s Flood: God Changes His Mind

(Continuing my series on the Hebrew Scriptures)

The story of the Great Flood has had an incredibly long run. It was a wildly popular story in several ancient cultures well before the dawn of recorded history, and it clearly remains a blockbuster to this day.

 The story line as we find it in Genesis is well known. Once again, mankind is failing to live up to God’s good plan for creation and finally God has had it. He decides to bring an end to the unrelenting corruption and violence by making an end of mankind itself. But Noah and his family are to be spared.

 There is some powerful foreshadowing right before the story gets going which we tend to miss. At the end of the genealogy that bridges Adam and Noah, we find Lamach naming his son Noah and saying “Out of the ground the LORD (YWHW) has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29)

 The name “Noah” means “to comfort” or “rest” and in this overlooked baby naming we have foreshadowing for the story and a key to the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality – out of the sin-cursed ground there will come relief, and out of the death and destruction of the flood and the consequences of our broken choices there will come life.

 With this juicy piece of foreshadowing on the table, the narrative turns to the story as we know it. Other ancient versions of the flood share many common components, but the meaning of the Genesis story is very unique. Once again, the Biblical writers focus on communicating something very important about the Creator, humanity, and the relationship between them.

 In preparation for the coming deluge, Noah is instructed to build his ark, then gather the animals and his family. The rains come, then go, and eventually they are set free, beginning life anew on the earth. To the ancient understanding and imagination, the “blotting out” with water is a return to chaos. In the original creation story, God shaped beautiful, useful function from watery chaos; here the process is reversed. Life on earth is not so much drowned (though that is clearly indicated), but taken over by the forces of chaos in order to be recreated into beautiful, useful function once again.

 It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the new creation and first family is just as broken, rebellious, and flawed as the original set. So what has this all been about? What was the point of ending life on the earth if things are to continue on as badly as they began? And how is Lamech’s prediction to be fulfilled? How does Noah’s life and story bring relief, comfort or rest, much less redemption?

The answer to this comes from the real main character of the story – Yahweh. While we tend to focus on Noah, the ark, the water, or the animals, the really interesting action is happening within God himself.

At the outset of the story, the Bible tells us that God is sending this flood to blot out life from the earth because of the incurable wickedness of mankind. Then at the end of the story God places his bow in the sky, vowing never again to strike down all living things. The reason he gives for this promise? Because “the intentions of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.”  

In other words, in a shocking twist God’s strategy towards mankind takes an entire 180 degree turn. Humanity remains the same but God’s response changes forever from “therefore, I will destroy them” to “therefore, I will never destroy them.”

There is no human repentance, promise, or evidence of change in this story – quite the opposite. What changes is God and his approach to humanity and his rebellious creation. We looked earlier at Genesis 1-11 as a series of stories that outline the tension between a loving, faithful Creator, and an uncooperative creation. The Biblical version of the flood story is setting up the final resolution: Creation will not fall into line as intended so God changes his strategy. He will not give up his plan for a good creation even in light of this grievous reality. Mankind has proven hopeless, hence hope must come only from God.  Placing his bow in the sky, God commits to be faithful because mankind will always and only prove utterly unfaithful.

In this decision, and throughout the story, we see the heart of God not as an angry tyrant, but as a grieved parent. There are phrases such as “the LORD regretted…” and “it grieved him to his heart.” His choices and actions toward creation stem, the authors show us, not from disinterest but deep, pained, broken relationship. The consequences of this pain he here and finally resolves to put upon himself.

This is how we find comfort, rest, relief, and redemption in Noah’s life and story. This is where we find the key to understanding the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality – God has made an irrevocable covenant with all living things and all generations, knowing full well who we are and how we will fail. He will be faithful, even when – and because – we are unfaithful. He will love and nurture even when – and because – we have hated and killed. He will rebuild even when – and because – we have destroyed.

And with this in mind we turn the page. Where will this incredible, surprising story lead next?

 
If you’d like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned!
 
This series has been influenced by dozens of books and authors/scholars, but I tip my hat as always to Walter Brueggemann and Rabbi Telushkin for their many insights.

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Cain & Abel, and the Crouching Predator

After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, their story continues into the next generation. Two sons are born to the couple, first Cain and then Abel. Abel becomes a shepherd, while Cain farms the ground. Each brings an offering of their labors to YHWH, but the Lord is pleased only with Abel’s and not with Cain’s.

Once again, the story is sparse, hinging on information not given. What was unsatisfactory about Cain’s offering? We cannot know. Once again, there are boundaries around the characters’ lives and actions regarding which they have no say, and for reasons which we do not understand.

Cain is faced with an (apparently) un-requested difficulty and the question is again is on the table – how will he handle living under someone else’s terms?

Cain becomes angry at the situation and YHWH warns him: “If you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Sin here is described as a wild animal, a predator hunting with an eye on Cain.  His instructions are not to blindly follow a list of rules, but to gain mastery over a stalker. The assumption given by God is that it is fully possible to summon the strength to succeed.

Cain does not heed the warning, however. He rises in strength not against the crouching predator of temptation but against his brother, killing him. As the rest of the story unfolds, two things are clear – Abel’s life is destroyed literally, but Cain’s life is destroyed as well.

As he did for Adam and Eve, God offers protection and provision along with discipline. Cain’s headstrong behavior, as his parents’ before him, carries a consequence of death. Yet the consequence given is, as was his parents’, less than a death sentence. The ground that took in the blood of Abel will no longer partner with this brother-betraying farmer, and Cain is exiled – again, as his parents were before him. But his life will also be protected. Once more, God is true to the boundaries he has laid, but merciful.

The image of sin as a crouching predator is a powerful one. Cain is warned that he is being stalked by a hungry creature desiring him, yet he is given hope – even an imperative – that he can and must defeat this powerful foe. When he does not, both victim and perpetrator are destroyed. And so here in the story, even more than in Adam and Eve’s story, we are introduced to one of the main characters we meet with in life – sin.

In our current language and conversations, we’re suspicious of the word ‘sin.’ It has been so misused it can hardly be used at all. We tend instead to speak more in terms of brokenness, and there is good reason for this. Yet here in Genesis 4 we find a valuable description of our situation. Sin in this narrative is not the breaking of an arbitrary list of rules as we often speak of it, but a hunter poised to consume us who can and must be defeated. When we give way to this crouching animal it destroys both ourselves and our own victims.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov seems to understand this as he gives his first confession: “Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.” He has given in to what hunted him, and not only his victim but he too is destroyed.

I can see the truth of this, in my own life, and in the world around me. There is no need to commit murder to see that when we are stalked by temptation, giving in (to anger, self-centeredness, greed, desire, or whatever) destroys both ourselves and those around us.I appreciate both the warning and the empowerment – sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for me, but I must rule over it. This hunter is lethal to both perpetrator and victim, but victory is possible.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” was Cain’s insolent retort when cornered by YHWH in his guilt. Rabbi Telushkin* suggests that the rest of the Bible is spent answering a resounding “Yes” to that question.

If you’d like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned. I’m taking a break for Lent, but I’ll be back! Consider subscribing by email or feed so you don’t miss it.*Biblical Literacy, pg 12
As always, h/t to Brueggemann’s Genesis for so many good insights

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Adam & Eve and the Unexplained Boundaries

Right on the heels of the Beautiful Song we turn in Genesis 2-3 to the story of Adam and Eve. As with any good story, it is rich and many layered, best understood not by dissection, but by telling and listening.
The setting is quite different from the previous chapter. Instead of a watery void we are in a desert. YHWH is again busy creating the world, but this time the man (Adam) is formed before the plants and animals, rather than after. And instead of being made together, Eve is created later when no other land creature proves a suitable helper for Adam.  The text itself indicates that this is a different (though related) story, with a different (though related) message.

The main character is the Gardener, who lovingly, personally, and relationally forms a man by hand from the dust of the ground, breathing his own life into his lungs. The Gardener then sows his garden and gives it to the man to care for, both plant and animal. YHWH the Gardener is obviously a hands-on sort of God, and he remains intimately and passionately involved in the nurture of the garden and its inhabitants. He walks among them and talks intimately to them throughout.

The human pair have a job to do, sharing in God’s gardening work. They are permitted to meet their needs within the garden, but they also have a rule to follow – no eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann sees here an archetype for the reality of human nature: we live in a world where God has given us vocation, permission, and prohibition.* The foil of Adam and Eve’s story is “how will these first humans live in the balance of these three?” Likewise, this is the test in all of our lives. How will we respond and balance the vocation, permission, and prohibition given us by God? Can we find the discipline and trust to manage the boundaries and realities, both good and bad, which we encounter?

The plot thickens. As the story reads “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field…and he said to the woman “Did God actually say ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” This, of course, is not at all what God has said, but it is a good trap to get Eve talking and thinking. One thing leads to another and soon both Eve and Adam are hiding in shame.

Christian interpreters traditionally see this narrative as the foundation for the rest of scripture and reality – the cause of sin, the cause of death, and the introduction of Satan in the role of the serpent.

Jewish interpreters have traditionally read it differently. There is no Jewish doctrine of “original sin” and they do not see here the story of a “fall” or the introduction of evil, death, or Satan. Instead, most Jewish scholars and theologians believe that men and women sin and die as Adam and Eve did, not because Adam and Eve did. +

Not surprisingly, the Hebrew books – the Genesis text and the Old Testament as a whole – supports the Jewish view. The story itself does not name the snake, nor offer any explanation or analysis. The story is not referenced elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, much less as the all-pervading source of the ups and downs of humanity and Israel’s attempts at faithful, righteous living. Though the New Testament does make further theological use of Adam and Eve, Christian scholar Brueggeman warns us that the Old Testament itself is never interested in abstract issues such as explaining the origins of evil or death. Instead, the Old Testament has a pastoral focus, addressing our “faithful responses” to the evil and trials we encounter.**

What then is the pastoral message of this deeply descriptive account? As mentioned above, Bruggemann suggests that Adam and Eve’s story asks: What does it mean for humans to live in God’s world on God’s terms? How does mankind live out the balance between vocation, permission, and prohibition?

To begin with, this most certainly is God’s garden, and they are his terms – not only are the human pair not allowed input, they are not given explanation. Why the forbidden tree? The story does not tell us why the tree is there at all. As Brueggemann writes “one might wish for a garden without such dangerous trees. But that is not given to us.” ** Adam and Eve must live and work in the garden, following the terms without understanding them. Their foundation for thriving here must be trust, and mutual investment in the relationship God has initiated with them. The unexplained nature of the boundaries is exactly what the snake exploits.

It is fascinating to this theology lover that the conversation with the serpent is the first instance of theology in the Bible. Eve and the snake are not talking to God or with God, but about God. This might not be a problem in and of itself, but for Eve it subtly begins to take the place of obedience. Her thirst for knowledge begins to corrode the life giving power of relational trust.

Whether we take the Jewish or Christian interpretation of this narrative, there is a powerful message here regarding trust, limitations, and anxiety. Adam and Eve grow discontent with the limits upon them, which leads to doubt in the character of the sovereign God. They trade their peaceful, intimate relationships with each other and the Gardener for a life filled with shame and its inevitable partner, strife. The trust that made uncertainty bearable, and framed their boundary lines as life-giving rather than stifling has dissolved, and been replaced by anxiety and questions.

Whether because they did or as they did, there is no question that we too chafe against the boundaries and limits placed on our lives and understanding, raging against mortal limits and unsolvable riddles rather than accepting them inside a relationship of trust. We too fill our relationships with conflict rather than sweet, intimate work and rest.

The first chapter of Genesis declares that the world belongs to a good, intimate, relational God who presides over all with a plan of hope. The second and third chapters show us what our posture and role before this Creator must be – and what difficulty we inevitably have in remaining there.

I started out saying that a story is best listened to – so head to Genesis 2-3 and give it a read. What do you find there of interest?

If you’d like to read the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned for next week!
+ Telushkin, Biblical Literacy, pg 10
**Bruggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pg pg 41-45

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Order From Chaos: New Year’s Cleaning and Genesis One

Each New Year I crave organization. Something powerful overtakes me and I find myself overhauling rooms and cupboards, cleaning out and clearing away.

Corners and pockets of my house – previously rendered useless due to clutter or wear and tear – are cleaned up and tuned up and made right again. Entire rooms fall under the sway of my intent; dust bunnies, outgrown clothes, and plastic toys are recycled or re-purposed and I find myself with a functional, tidy home once more. Whether the impetus is a fresh new start for the New Year, an extension of packing up Christmas, or simply being home bound in the cold, I can’t say. But each January finds me searching for order in the midst of chaos.

My reasons for this whirlwind of activity are certainly not theologically driven in the least, but when I take a moment to rest my feet and back I’m cheered by the reminder that this is God-work. Making order out of chaos is his signature move.

The opening chapter of Genesis is a beautiful song in which we find the Creator hovering over the waters. The author observes that “the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.” In the ancient near-eastern minds that first heard this story, these Hebrew words indicate that what was had no purpose, function, or order. It was useless and needing to be arranged into something useful. In God’s hands all this changes. The word we translate as “create” is rich in Hebrew with meaning that connotes filling up and giving purpose – as one would create a home. Suddenly the Creator is forming day and night, rearranging water and land to produce sky, sea, and dry ground. From chaos has come wonderful, wonderful function, beauty and life.

When I’m in the middle of ordering the chaos of my home, it can take days, long days that spill into the night. Frequently, it appears that the situation is getting worse instead of better – when I’m re-purposing a bedroom or cleaning out a closet the contents are spread everywhere, making the house more filthy and cluttered than it ever did before I began this gargantuan task. My children gingerly step over boxes of light bulbs, shoe polishing kits, and stacks of paper looking for their toys and books. It is tempting to throw my hands up in the air and let the clutter take over, but I never do. I’ve set myself to this project, and I won’t give it up until I’m done.

The ancient Biblical hope, held still today by Christians around the world, is not that God will give this Creation up as a bad job and get a few of us out of here. The Biblical, Jewish, and now Christian hope – announced since that first song in Genesis – is that the Creator will not give up on the project he started. That even if the chaos on this earth seems to be gaining ground against beauty and goodness, it is simply because He is not yet finished with the job of creating and redeeming. He has promised to see his Creation through. He has placed his name, his character and reputation, and his Son on the table as collateral against this promise as guarantee. No matter how it may look to us right now in the middle, the Good News we hold to is that under no circumstances will God abandon or give up his Creative project. He will see it through to full function, full beauty, full order – full redemption.

And we have the opportunity to join him, to do our part to bring comfort where there is pain, provision where there is need, love where there is hate, joy where there is fear, peace where there is conflict. Function, order, and beauty where there is chaos.

As I look through my dusty windows at the cold piles of snow, I pick up another stack of papers to sort with gratitude. He is making all things new. And in our own ways, we are invited to do the same.

Next week we’re going to meet Adam and Eve! Stay tuned, and if you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.

 

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My aim is to awaken myself and others to the creative, redemptive work of God in this present moment. I am striving to see beauty, learning to expand my perspective, praying to keep my eyes and heart open.

Connect with Catherine at www.catherinemcniel.com.

 


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