The Good That Comes When We Remember We’re Dust

Today is the last week in our early fall series we called An Embodied Faith. The goal of these eight weeks of teaching and worship was to explore how a Jesus-centered faith can speak to us as whole people. After all, whatever you want to call all the parts of the human experience – body, mind, soul, spirit, whatever – we’re all in the end just one thing. You can’t split us into parts and still have us. And the really cool thing about a Jesus-centered faith is that it tells us God gets that at every level. God, after all, has joined the human experience incarnate, God in a body, which is what our tradition says Jesus was.


Clearly there are toxic forms of Christianity that only care about the afterlife and some part of us you’d call soul or spirit. And there are unhealthy forms of religion and ethics that shame our bodies or ignore our minds, or dismiss our deepest aspirations. But embodied faith connects the God who made us all with the whole of our experience.


And I thought: we can’t talk about embodied faith without talking about how to make meaning out of what are bodies actually are. Glorious as they are, they’re also awful. They get sick and fall apart. Our bodies remind us in big and small ways that we’re dying. We’re all made of dust.


You hear this phrase sometimes at funerals – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s poetry that references a feature of the Jewish and Christian origin story. These faiths assert a special dignity and beauty of the human experience that is fairly unique in the pantheon of world philosophy and religion. But they also assert what is common really to all faith and science – an understanding that we are made of dust.


The Bible has this bit of existential poetry in a book called Ecclesiastes; that’s one of the places this is stated. It goes like this:


Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 (NRSV)

19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


Every year, our church makes a big deal of this six week season before Easter. We call it 40 Days of Faith. Traditionally, it’s been called Lent and begins with this holiday called Ash Wednesday, when pastors or priests smudge ashes on your forehead and remind you of your mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We’re all going to die.


The first year I did that, I thought – this is somehow very intimate and very creepy and very sobering all at once. But I’ve also found that being reminded of this dust to dust nature of our bodies takes us to some good places, grounds us, uplifts.


So today, I’m going to share some meditations on the good that can come when we remember that our dying bodies are made of dust. In particular, I think we can grow connection and compassion, take away some really helpful thoughts about criticism along these lines, and move into profound hope as well.


So that’s the outline of this talk, if it helps you to follow along – connection, compassion, criticism, and hope. You ready?




The other week, I found myself facing down a conference table’s worth of lawyers in our attorney general’s office, trying to represent a national network of faith-based organizers on immigration concerns.


When I realized I’d be playing an important role in these negotiations, I felt my shoulders tense a little. My mouth started to go dry. Like I used to feel when I was younger before track races, I felt my stomach start to turn over as I got ready to speak with powerful people about a topic they understand better than I do.


But then a friend – a fellow person of faith – told me: It’s alright, Steve. All power comes from God. There’s no one higher or lower than each other. We’re all the same.


That helped. After all, it’s true – we’re just human. We’re all going to die one day. We are all of the dust.


Remembering this doesn’t just help me overcome fear, but make connection, both to other living things and to the earth. We face something of an epidemic of fear and loneliness and alienation in our age. And yet to know that my neighbor and cashier and sons are all dust, that the public figures I most adore and those I most resent all share my same material origins and destiny, is to remind me that we are all connected. I can look into the eye of any human being and say – there is my sister, there is my brother.

And sometimes when I’m nervous or just a little unmoored, not feeling my place in things, I literally reach down and touch the ground and remember that no matter where I am, I am at home. I am from the earth, of the earth.

This is kind of a new insight for me, but it’s an old one in the spirituality and thinking of First Americans. That we’re all related – humans to humans, and even humans to all living things and to the earth itself.

This is part of what Ecclesiastes is getting at in its own dour way, when it tells us that humans, animals, all life returns to the same ground from which we came.

We need to practice and teach this deep bondedness of all human beings to one another if we’re going to have an end to the kind of hate crimes and mass violence we saw in yesterday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. And we explore the implications of this deep connection of all living things to one another and to the earth itself if we want our species and our planet to flourish over the next century and beyond.

Sometimes I’m ready for the big stage with this – human rights, ecology, public action. And sometimes I just need to touch the ground and have that help me remember – here I am, at home anywhere I go on the earth, grounded.

In the scriptures, though, to be made out of dust isn’t just to be connected through our shared mortality, though, it’s also to be connected to the fondness God feels for us, and that we can share with one another.

In the Bible’s songbook, we get this:

Psalm 103:13-18 (NRSV)

As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
    on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.


This is beautiful to me – that when God thinks about us, he remembers what we’re made from. And when he sees all this carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and whatever else we are – this elaborately made, living, breathing pile of dirt – God doesn’t pity us or resent us or anything. Our earthy mortality and limits stir God’s compassion.

Unlike ourselves, the God of the Universe is relaxed about our weakness, and understanding of our flaws, because God knows we are dust.

A friend of mine sent me an article on obesity recently, particularly the great shaming that those of us who are overweight so constantly endure – from our culture, from ourselves, and even from our physicians. One of the takeaways was to wonder what it would be like for our sanity and health if we just were to accept that we each have to do the best with the body that we have. To be kinder to ourselves, and to experience greater kindness and acceptance from others, would have a greater impact on our health and well-being than any well-meaning advice or criticism.

Whereas shame kills, compassion and kindness stir life.

When I am most disappointed in myself or someone else, this has become my new mantra. We are only dust. When I remember this, I’m nudged a little toward acceptance and compassion, and better things happen next.  

Reservoir had a retreat Friday afternoon and yesterday. 260 of us spent the front half of this weekend bundled up in a seaside hotel as yesterday’s Nor’easter barreled through the Cape. Our theme was drawn from a beautiful little book by the late priest Henri Nouwen.


Henri Nouwen lived a remarkable life. He was a prominent academic – writing books, giving lectures around the world, holding prized positions at both Yale and Harvard. But then a chance encounter led him to a small community of people with profound physical and mental disabilities and their caregivers. Nouwen moved into this community as their pastor, and lived there – giving and receiving compassion in community – for the last decade of his life.


And this book he wrote there is called Can You Drink the Cup? The cup in this book stands for three things. It’s an image of suffering, as it is sometimes in the scriptures. Life’s long, we all suffer – can we handle the sufferings of life?


It’s also an image of what the prophet Jeremiah and what Jesus call the new covenant. The new promise to all people to know God internally. So Nouwen asks if we can walk with Jesus into a life governed by faith, hope, and love. Can we live an existence, even in our sorrows, that is still filled with love, joy, and peace?


But the last thing Nouwen is talking about is a cup as a metaphor for our whole life. There’s a lot in these cups of ours. At the start of this past week, I stood on a stage in front of 1400 people to help lead our city’s people of faith in pushing for love, justice, and the health of our city. I stood before dozens of you who were there with me. I stood alongside prominent clergy in our city, before important political leaders and public officials. It was kind of a heady evening.

And then at the end of the week, driving my family en route to our retreat, I was rear-ended in traffic by a tone-deaf driver who smashed our car, messed up our week, and barely apologized. Grace, me, the kids, we’re all more or less OK, I think, a little shaken, not badly hurt.


But there’s a week in the life – the high highs, the low lows, the little smiles and pains and joys and indignities in between. Our lives hold so many sorrows and joys and delights and sufferings. There’s so much mundane and rich, empty and full, sometimes right on top of each other.


And it can be hard to hold these cups of our lives. To stay present to it all, without numbing out in distraction and busy-ness and whatever else we’re addicted to.


But our lives aren’t hard for God to look at. We’re not too sad, or too failing, too fat or poor or lonely or anything else. God knows that we are dust, and God has unending, all-knowing, all-encompassing compassion for us all.


On this point of compassion, I want say a word about criticism as well. Because over the past decade, being in a couple of leadership roles in two different institutions, I have learned that we can be a harsh and critical people, we humans.


When you’re leading an organization, you sometimes become the center of its criticism – both the internal frustrations people feel with you and with the organization, and the external complaints as well. It was way worse as a principal – someone rolled up to me every day – in my office, on my email, out and about the school hallways – with a choice word about what I or the school was doing wrong.


As a pastor, I get a lot less exposure to criticism, but when it comes, sometimes it’s more colorful. Semi-anonymous letters, full of Bible verses, from angry-sounding people I’ve never met.


So, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how to give and receive criticism, if we really believe we are people made of dust, called to lives of compassion.


So I want to pause mid-sermon here, and mention just two or three thoughts about better ways to give and receive criticism.


We need to give criticism sometimes. We need to know which restaurants deserve our patronage, we have to hold people accountable to their jobs and their promises. We need people to know how they’ve let us down, so they can stop and so they can grow.


Good criticism, though, is appropriate, it’s true, and it seeks to build someone up, not tear down. Good criticism highlights actions that can change, it encourages rather than shames. It is compassion, it is still fundamentally for the other.


Criticism – when we give it to others or ourselves, and when we receive it, wherever it comes from, can’t tear down our core sacred, beloved selves.


Hear this scripture from the prophet Isaiah.


Isaiah 45:9-10 (NLT)

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator.
    Does a clay pot argue with its maker?
Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying,
    ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’
Does the pot exclaim,
    ‘How clumsy can you be?’
10 How terrible it would be if a newborn baby said to its father,
    ‘Why was I born?’
or if it said to its mother,
    ‘Why did you make me this way?’”


I love these lines.


A clay pot yelling at the potter, a newborn baby crying out to its parents – why did you make me? What have you done?


But when we take criticism too much to heart, or when we criticize ourselves, again and again rejecting our worth, we are practicing this crazy contempt of our maker, who made us good.


And so when we criticize somebody else, I think we’ve got to be careful as well to not do the same to them. If you can’t criticize with gentleness and compassion, don’t bother. If your criticism is laced with contempt, consider that your target is also made beautifully in the image of God, before you say or write a thing.


And when you’re criticized by someone else, sift out the true from the false, the useful from the not, and move on. This is hard to do, of course. As a pastor, I probably get 10 or 20 times as much thanks and appreciation and praise as I doi criticism.


And yet, the critical words still stick out. Even stuff from a stranger that sounds patently false and crazy can still cling to me. I remember it.


This is where the advice I got from a mentor years ago has been so useful to me. This guy was a very prominent and successful educator, and he spent time with me every couple of weeks when I was a first-year principal. And he told me that whenever I receive angry criticism, as I would a lot, I should remember that it wasn’t first about me, but that it was an opportunity to learn about the collective anxiety of the institution.


Criticism may speak truths about me I need to hear. In that case, I can take it like medicine – learn from it and move on. But often it said way more about the person doing the criticism. And I found my mentor was right. When I can see criticism as an opportunity to learn about the world of the critic, it doesn’t sting in the same way. It’s easier to hold even an unfair, angry critic with compassion.

So when teachers criticized me, it was an opportunity to relearn the stresses and frustrations endemic to the life of a teacher. When parents criticized me, it was an opportunity to gain insight into the particular anxieties of that community’s parents. And even when an angry, religious person criticizes me as a pastor, it’s an opportunity to learn about the religious dysfunction and anxieties of our age.


It’s important not to wall yourself off from criticism, especially if you’re a leader. Sometimes critics speak the truth you need to hear about yourself and your institution. So again, take a moment and ask if criticism holds some medicine you need to take. But then, take it and move on. And when the criticism says more about the critic’s anxiety than you, learn what there is to learn, but then break it off.


Literally – delete the email or throw out the letter. Treat the words like a curse, and pray a simple prayer of protection, even if it sounds a little old school or a little more other-worldly than you might normal be comfortable with. Like, I break off that curse in Jesus’ name. I don’t receive it or welcome it into my soul. And God, protect me. Give me strength to live humbly in your truth and in your compassion.


Before I end, I want to say one more thing about being made of dust. There’s connection, there’s compassion, there are better ways to give and receive criticism, but also, maybe counter-intuitively, there is hope.


One last scripture, from a letter by Paul of Tarsus in the mid-first century:


I Corinthians 15:42-49 (NRSV)

42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.


This passage challenges our imaginations of the future. It asserts what we know –  that all people, from the very beginning, have been mortal, from the dust. We live in these dying bodies of ours. But then Paul says there is more to come, that we have not seen. Our bodies are destined for greatness.


Like Jesus, a resurrected body is in our future, beyond the grave.


I find this challenging, and a space of regular doubt given we haven’t seen it yet, and because we know so much loss and death. We know what corpses and ashes look like. We know the biology and the physics of death.


And yet Paul insists that as history has seen with a risen Jesus, so the future will see with us. God knows the biology and the physics of new life and resurrected bodies.


In my work as a pastor with dead and dying, I have seen suffering and frailty and despair. But as much as I have seen these things, I have seen the miraculous and ethereal dignity and beauty of the human spirit. I have heard stories of unexpected amends made as people face death. I have listened to the bone-deep faith and assurance of the dying that this is not the end of them. I have seen transcendent peace on the faces of the suffering and emaciated. We sing a song here now and then where we say to our Maker, “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us.”

The dust from which we’re made has coalesced into bodies that somehow find room for beauty, aspiration, hope, joy, and love, even in the bleakest times and places. As we hear in Jurassic Park: Life finds a way.

From dust we come, to dust we will return. But what dust we are now. And as to what we are becoming – who’s to say it won’t be even more stunning than what we have yet seen and known?

Let me close, as I always do, with two invitations to faith and practice. The first is to:


A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

Consider a vow to be a person of whole-life compassion. In particular, only give criticism that includes compassion. And when you receive uncompassionate criticism, swallow anything good and true like medicine and spit out the rest.


I use this sacred, promising language of a vow, because I think this is a place of holy and important intention. As the sociologist Brene Brown teaches, empathy – to sit with someone else in their pain, to not judge or pity or ignore, but to say I feel with you, I’ve been there – is a skill. We can all learn and choose to do it. But a life of compassion, a regular practice of being with others in kindness, presence, connection, and hope – this is a spiritual practice. It takes faith that there is compassion for ourselves and for all of humanity in the universe. For me, that faith is grounded in the living God, known in the person of Jesus. And so a vow of compassion is a whole-life practice and promise. It doesn’t mean we’ll always have compassion for ourselves and others, but it says we always intend to. So I’ll give you a chance to make that vow if you like, in a minute.


And lastly, our spiritual practice of the week. One that I’ve found useful.


Spiritual Practice of the Week:

Touch the ground once a day. Consider this is where you came from and where you are going. Remember that your father/mother God loves the work of art you are and the one you will become.


Let’s pray.

Disability and Grace: A Primer for the Strong and for the Rest of Us

Before I was a pastor, I was a public school educator. And I’m embarrassed to admit that early in my career, I wasn’t that knowledgeable or sensitive around the education of youth with disabilities. I think I wondered how many people kids really had learning disabilities. I mean maybe they weren’t working very hard, or maybe they hadn’t had great teachers or parents.

Now there were a lot of reasons I thought this way – like most teachers, I hadn’t had enough training on disabilities. There were some biases I had from my own childhood too. But deeper than that, I guess I just thought that people are tough and strong and can do whatever they need to, or at least they should be able to. I thought: I’m scrappy, I’m a hustler, a fighter. And everyone else can be too.

I can’t point you to the exact moment this changed. It was more of a process, but I can point out some milestones in the journey.

I remember when I was training to be a principal, I was learning how to manage programs for students with learning disabilities, and we were talking about technology that helps students access curriculum and learning experiences, and someone pointed out my glasses as an example of this assistive technology. And I thought – really? I don’t have a disability, and this isn’t assistive technology. But then I considered, you know it’s true. I can’t read things more than two feet from my face, I can’t make out faces as people approach, I can’t drive safely. Unless I’m wearing my assistive technology, my glasses, that compensate for my physical disability. There you go.

Later I remember also being diagnosed with hearing loss. For whatever reason, this was embarrassing to me. I first failed a hearing test in my early 30s, but I didn’t like the idea that there was something wrong with me. It made me feel like I was getting old before my time too. So I did nothing. I put off getting hearing aids. I didn’t get tested again for years.


But then I had this group interview, in a room of nearly 20 people, and I mentioned in advance that it was hard for me to hear in a room full of people… and the HR manager running the show told me a “reasonable accommodation” would be to give me a printed copy of all the interview questions, which he did. And it actually helped me interview well enough to get the job. And I realized I’m being treated like I have a physical disability, because in fact, I do. I can’t hear high pitches without help, and most consonants in English are high pitches. Hey, I’m not perfect, I’m not strong in the sense of totally self-sufficient. I need things.  

And then eventually I get these hearing aids I’ve been wearing every day for the past six years. And suddenly, I can pick up on all the conversations going on around me. I’m a little more socially engaged again. I rediscover the beautiful sound of rushing water. Help, grace, strength for me in my weakness.

And then there was my experience I shared about at the start of this series, when

This past year, I was diagnosed with ADHD… and again, there was this mix of really… I have that? That can’t be so. And oh, wow, that explains so much… And in the ADHD world you realize, oh, this is a pain… There are some difficulties to yourself and others when you have ADHD. But this is also like a superpower too. There’s good that comes with this. I wouldn’t want to not have ADHD. I wouldn’t be the same person. Maybe it’s cliché, but I’ve learned I’m not disabled, I’m differently-abled. This so-called disability is part of the good of who I am, even in the ways it makes me need help.

Here’s where I’m going with this.

We’re in the seventh and second to last week in our fall series, An Embodied Faith. We’ve tried to dispel this notion that faith is only concerned with our souls or our spirits. The idea that there are a small set of so-called spiritual topics that are suitable for faith and church we’ve called disembodied faith, because it’s faith as just abstract ideas, faith that ignores the reality we live in these bodies of ours. We’ve talked about how Jesus-centered faith is very much an embodied faith. It sits in an ancient Hebrew legacy of earthy experience of the intersection of our real lives and a hope in God. And it claims the reality that God has entered our experience in a body, proclaiming all of our embodied reality spiritual.

I’m going to wrap things up next week thinking about what it means that we’re made out of dust, but this week we’re going to look into a really specific topic that I think has interesting implications for all of us.

I’ve called it Disability and Grace: A Primer for the Strong and for the Rest of Us. Because I suppose there are some of us in the room who are in no way disabled. Who are strong in all respects, physically and mentally and emotionally. But the truth is that most of us are disabled. We are physically disabled in some way – as I am with issues with both sight and hearing. Or we are learning disabled in some way, or at least differently-abled – as I am with my ADHD. Or to be broad about it, we are emotionally disabled, we have mental health challenges or uniqueness to our emotional make up that requires particular attention and care.

If we grow up and are honest with ourselves, or have to confront our limitations, most of us discover that we are not our culture’s perfect ideal of a human being or a human body. And it’s not just that we’re not trying hard enough, it’s that it is entirely out of reach.

If you’re one of the few, the strong, I hope you’ll get something good today. And if you’re one of the rest of us, I hope you’ll hear or discover or consider again some important things about disability and grace. That perhaps our culture’s perfect ideal of a human being is more idol that gift, more distraction than goal. And that all of us are in fact impossibly strong and resilient, but our strength in not in our self-sufficiency or perfection. Our strength is tied into our abilities and also to our acceptance and experience of grace in our dis-abilities as well.

I want to begin with a look at two scriptures, two experiences of followers of Jesus, around this topic, and then I’ll invite another member of our congregation, a friend Laurie Bittman, who’s lived her whole life with physical disability to share a few thoughts as well.

Our first scripture is:

John 9:1-3 (NRSV)

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Now at first blush the disciples sound “CRA-zy.” Such a weird notion they have upon meeting a physically disabled person to ask, not just what’s wrong with him, but is it because of his sin or his parents sin, that he is blind?

Truth is, though, that Jesus’ students are in a long tradition of interpretation around faith and disability – to see something wrong with people and to ask whose fault is this?

Jesus weighs in here on this old tension in their Hebrew scriptures. Because a lot of this Scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, teaches that people get what they deserve. A little like karma, there’s extensive teaching in the Hebrew scriptures that God rewards the faithful, and punishes the faithless. The good receive good in return, the bad receive bad. You see this in parts of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible known as the Law, that announces blessings for people who do what God says and curses for those who don’t. You see it in much of the historical books as well and the related prophetic teachings. Again and again, the favorable and unfavorable circumstances of Israel are connected with the trust in God and obedience to God, or lack thereof, of Israel’s leaders or of that nation as a whole. You get what you deserve, so if you’re disabled, we might ask – whose fault is it? Yours? Your parents’? Maybe God’s fault? This is what the disciples wonder.  

But there’s a counter-tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, a minority voice you could say, that challenges this. You find it in the Old Testament’s poetry and songs – books like Psalms and Job and Ecclesiastes. These teachings push back and insist that life is more complicated. People often don’t get what we deserve. There’s some mystery and chaos in why things happen the way we do in life. Perhaps we can’t fully understand.

This kind of nuance and humility, the capacity to see shades of grey, and not just black and white, is a mark of maturity within the scriptures’ tradition, just as it is in human development today.

And Jesus here profoundly weighs in on the side of this counter-tradition. He sees the blind man, and hears the disciples question about fault, and Jesus thinks, “Fault just isn’t an interesting word.” Like many things in life, it’s nobody’s fault. There isn’t really an answer to this question. It’s just the wrong question.

I know when we have things go wrong in our bodies or lives, or in our children’s or other people that we love, we don’t usually ask if it was their sin or their parents’ sin that caused the problem. That question comes from another age maybe. But we often do wonder whose fault is this. Did we mess up? Did they mess up Did God mess up?

I wonder if Jesus suggests here that when we do this, we’re asking the wrong questions. Jesus instead greets things the way they are, he radically accepts life as it is today and wonders what is possible. What is things are the way they are so we can see the work of God in this?

Jesus says, this man is how he is so the work of God can be revealed. And what does “God’s works being revealed” mean? What does healing look like?

Well, in this case, it means a miraculous restoration of sight. But we know that both in our experience and even in the scriptures, this isn’t normally what the work of God looks like. It’s awesome when it happens, it’s very much worth praying for, but it is not the norm.

So to keep asking this question, let me take us to the second scripture, from the letters of Paul, a first century follower of Jesus who helped start several communities of faith around the Mediterranean world.

For Paul, healing and grace and deep experience of the power of God sometimes looks less like change, and more like acceptance.


II Corinthians 12:1-10 (NRSV)

12 It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

So two weird things to clear out first. Paul is talking about mystical spiritual experiences here. He’s using language that’s more at home in the first century than today, like this idea of layers of heaven. And he’s kind of awkward about it, like he’s compelled to share about this particular mystical experience, but that it’s sort of private and hard to put into words, as is true of all spiritual experience, so he’s uncomfortable. He shares it, though, both because it’s the story behind this big insight he’s had and because this experiential connection to a living God is at the heart of a point he wants to make about disability, weakness, and strength.

The other weird thing here is all the talk about boasting. In first century Roman culture, boasting about your gifts and strength was kind of part and parcel of being the man, of male dominance, and male leadership, as it has been in many cultures. Sometimes our own included. Most leaders, if you pay attention, spend a lot of time tooting their own horns, or making sure someone else is doing this, or telling you about someone else who is doing this.

Paul seems to think this might not be especially healthy, but he wonders if he needs to play the game. And he gets sucked into this for a bit, until he subverts this game entirely. He says: you know what’s really interesting for me is that I have this profound problem, this profound point of suffering.

We don’t know what this is. There’s been loads of speculation that Paul could have had a chronic illness or that this thorn in Paul’s side could be emotional suffering, what we might call a mental health challenge. Some have wondered if this could be profound, persistent temptation, and what’s great about Paul not saying just what this thorn is, is that it could be any of these things for us. We can see ourselves in this passage. Most likely, though, the thorn in Paul’s side is a physical or learning disability – a stutter or other speech impediment, a condition like epilepsy, or chronic pain. Brother Paul, the writer of so much of the Bible’s New Testament, was disabled too.

And Paul says, here’s what’s special about me, not that God changed me. No, what’s special about me is that when I’ve prayed about this, Jesus has spoken to me, and Jesus has said you won’t ever be what you call perfect.

You will remain incomplete. You will remain weak.

But that’s good enough for me. You will experience grace and power in that place of weakness, and that will be part of how you know God, and how others know God through you. Your strength will be tied to your weakness.

Hold that thought. Before I bring this home, let me introduce you to a friend of mine, a member of this community to share about her experience along these lines. Welcome, Laurie Bittman.

Laurie, could you introduce yourself however you like?

Hi there! I’m Laurie! I have been a part of this church community since 2001. I have my Masters Degree in Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and I’ve worked in healthcare for almost all of my adult life. For 12 of those years, I worked in the Spiritual Care services department at a local hospital, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about the intersection of spirituality and health on a professional level as well as on a personal level. I was also born with a birth defect called Spina Bifida.

Could you tell us a bit more about what spina bifida is, Laurie, and how this has impacted you?

Spina Bifida is a birth defect where the spinal cord does not form correctly. The best way to visualize it is to compare the spinal cord to an electrical cord. Spina Bifida kind of like a frayed electrical cord. As a result, the body cannot transmit and receive nerve impulses correctly.  

Each person who has Spina Bifida is impacted in different ways. My symptoms fall in the moderate range. I have had a total of 4 surgeries related to Spina Bifida and I wear a brace on my left leg that helps me to walk more easily. 

I do not have any feeling in the backs of my legs from my hips down which is quite dangerous. A few years ago I went on a walk in the woods while breaking in a new pair of shoes.  When I got home from the hike, I discovered that I had developed a large blister on my foot that I never even felt.  Unfortunately, the blister ended up tunneling through my foot and caused an ulcer that took over two years and a major surgery to fully heal. 

And then there is the emotional and financial toll of living with a lifelong disability. I worry about my future. I worry about what happens if my health deteriorates and I cannot work. God forbid I lose my health insurance. That could break me. How would I survive? To me, the fear of the unknown future is the hardest part of living with Spina Bifida. 

However, even though I have a lot going on, in all reality, I live a pretty normal life! Spina Bifida is just a part of who I am. It does not define me.

I know that some parents, when the mother is pregnant, hear their child will have spina bifida, they consider, or are counseled to consider terminating the pregnancy. Without getting into the politics of abortion, Laurie, I want to note, here you are, living a wonderful life. How might parents think about the possibility of a child having a physical disability, or how might parents think about the experience of their children with disabilities?

This is such a sensitive topic and I am actually really glad that you are bringing it up, as there may be people in our community who have had this experience. So I want to start by saying that if there is anyone here who has ever been in this space, my heart is with you. I can only imagine how difficult this must be and I trust that whatever decision you made, you made it based on the best information that had been given to you from the medical professionals and that it was a decision that you made with love and with the best of intentions for your child. 

Learning that your child has been diagnosed with a significant health problem can be a very overwhelming experience. Families are faced with reconciling the fact that the life they had envisioned for their child is not going to look quite as they thought.

While medical professionals can speak from a clinical perspective, they may not understand what it is like to actually live with these diagnoses. Thankfully, we live in an age where there are so many different resources available to meet others who have the same condition. Through the years, I have been a part of a wonderful online community, that is made up of adults with Spina Bifida, parents of children with Spina Bifida, and parents who have just learned of the diagnosis. In this group we all share our non-sugar coated reality with one another, but in a way that the new comers to the group can see that even though we face serious challenges, that we actually lead pretty fulfilling and normal lives. Groups like this are where it is possible to start to reshape the medical information and start to better understand and envision what living with a particular condition could look like. For example, many people think that it is a hardship to be quote “stuck in a wheelchair.” However, for the user of that wheelchair, it is a tool of freedom and independence. By engaging with people who are living the experience, one is able to able to find new hope and possibility in what can feel like an overwhelmingly dark time.

How have you experienced what Paul calls “God’s grace for you in your weakness?”

I should have been diagnosed with Spina Bifida on the day I was born. My Mom is a nurse and from the very first time she saw my back, she suspected that I had Spina Bifida, but the medical team dismissed her concerns. Nine years later, I began having difficulty running, walking, and even writing.  My parents took me back to the doctor but once again their concerns were blown off. Thankfully they persisted in looking for a doctor who would listen to them and finally found one. It was at that time that I was finally diagnosed and was scheduled for surgery on my spine. 

Some of you may be thinking, “misdiagnosed for 9 years? Where’s the grace in that?”

During the 9 years from my birth to my diagnosis, medical technology advanced quite a bit, including the development of equipment that would allow a team to monitor intra-operative nerve impulses. At multiple points during surgery, the alarms from this equipment sounded, alerting the surgeon that he was getting too close to key nerves, and he was able to back off, therefore preserving nerve function and quite possibly my ability to walk. 

A 2nd example is from this great church community. Almost two years ago, I underwent a major surgery to reconstruct my foot. I was out of work for 3 months and I could not put any weight on my foot for 10 weeks. Now let me say, in many ways, living with Spina Bifida has made me a proud, fiercely independent woman. I am stubborn too. I have had to overcome a lot in my life, and now I was being faced with a situation where I was going to need a lot of help. It was humbling! Thanks to this amazing church community and beyond, I basically did not have to cook a single meal during my recovery period. I had friends and family who not only visited me, but also drove me around or shoveled my car out after snowstorms so that I could get to medical appointments. God’s Grace through community encouraged me and kept my spirits up on those dark winter days. 


And I know that we’ve talked about how for many people with visible disabilities, they can be the targets of other people’s prayers. Like can I pray for your healing? I heard an interview with two people who took a pilgrimage in Spain. One friend pushed his physically disabled friend in a wheelchair the whole way, and they realized everyone that saw them was feeling pity for the friend in the wheelchair, and people were sometimes stopping them and offering prayers for healing, but what was going on in these guys’ lives was that the non-physically disabled one had every bit the troubles – maybe more troubles – than his friend in the wheelchair. And the guy being pushed didn’t need their pity at all. He was offering his friend as much help, in different ways, than his friend was giving him. So all those offers of prayers for healing weren’t helpful. They just felt really misunderstood. All to say, how have you come to understand what Jesus calls “God’s work being revealed in us”, what some would call healing?

Through my work in the hospitals and also my own journey, I have learned that healing is not just a physical act. Healing can take on many different forms.

Whenever I have the opportunity to pray for someone in person, I will ask them, “what do you want me to pray for?” If the response is “healing” I try to dig a little deeper. “What does healing look like for you?” Some people will indeed want you to pray for a physical healing, and if that is the case, go for it. But oftentimes, you may find that it is more nuanced than that. One of my chaplain colleagues once asked a patient who was dying how she could pray for him. “I want to go home.” She probed gently “do you want to go to your house, or do you want to go home?” His response, “I want to go home to God.” Through this line of questioning and prayer, she was able to help the patient and family to understand that for the patient, healing meant letting go of life in its earthly existence, and walking into God’s embracing arms. The context of that conversation was able to bring this family peace as they were grieving the eventual loss of their loved one and it gave the patient the strength to refocus the time that he had left on his family instead of his illness. 

For me, there was a time when I spent years praying for a physical release of my symptoms, but it did not happen. And for a while, this was detrimental to my faith. Was I doing it wrong? Should I be praying harder? Why was I still carrying this burden? But over time, I learned that for me, healing did not necessarily mean a cure. For me, healing was being okay in my own body, just as it was. Healing was recognizing that each and every day that I am alive here on earth and enjoying all of life’s joys and challenges, that is a gift from God, and that is good. God never promises us that there will not be suffering or pain in life, but what He does promise us is that He will be there in the thick of it with us. And that is where I found healing. 

If someone could snap their fingers, and make it so you’d never have spina bifida, would you want that?

There are definitely some aspects of Spina Bifida that I wish I did not have to deal with, such as some of the physical symptoms or the financial burden that comes from living with a disability. Those things are can be challenging to cope with at times and have brought a fair amount of stress and anxiety to my life at times. So if someone could snap their fingers and take those burdens away…go for it!

But in terms of the experience of having Spina Bifida, no, I would not want to lose that. For all of the challenges that arise from living with a permanent disability, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Living with Spina Bifida has given me passion. It has given me empathy. And it has given me a drive in life to work in the medical field, with others who have disabilities or serious medical conditions. Living with Spina Bifida has shaped the way in which I view the world and allows me to see God’s beauty, in all of His creation – even if it not as one envisions it would be. My life feels richer because of what I have experienced and I do not take a single day for granted. And to me, that’s a gift.

Thank you so much, Laurie, for sharing with us.

If you’d like to read a bit more of Laurie’s thoughts and experience, she has a blog on faith and disability on

Well, where does this take us? Let me some up, and invite us into our two weekly invitations to flourishing in the world and to spiritual practice.

First, we have got to rethink our expectations for the human experience – our own, our children, our friends and employees and bosses. Because if perfection or strength or the good life means low weakness, low problems, not disabled, then we are going to be continually disappointed in ourselves and in others and we are going to be continually angry with God. This life of ours is a weak one. It is often a dis-abled one. To find joy in our lives, and to love pretty much anybody, is to accept this. To make peace with disability.

Secondly we need – as Laurie told us – a broader picture of what healing is, of how God’s work can be revealed in us. Sometimes God’s work of healing is change – through scientifically understood means or through miraculous, hard to explain means. That’s awesome. But often healing means profound acceptance and peace with the way things are. That too is a work of God. And that kind of peace opens us up to possibility, to see redemption – good coming out of what we might call bad. Purpose coming out of our pain and limitations. This too is the work of God.

And lastly, I think in faith and disability, we discover one of the most salient features of Jesus-centered faith. We discover what grace is. None of us is self-sufficient. We all need help. We are all vulnerable and weak, and the goal of a life of faith is not to change that. To try to be self-sufficient, to hope to be invulnerable, is actually called idolatry. That’s counterfeit faith, dishonest faith, to think we will ever be perfect or whole or complete in this life. And it does us no favors.

Grace, though, is to know that even in our not enough, we are good enough. In the acceptance of our limits and vulnerability, we find a part of our true selves, beloved and made special and strong by God. In our need for help, we’re made open to the help of God and friends. Right where we see weakness, we find we’re strong.

This is good news faith, my friends.

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

Where can you practice more grace and more respect for specific people you know with disabilities? Do you have power in your public life to better advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities?

Spiritual Practice of the Week:

Identify an area of significant weakness or disability, in you or in someone you love. Each day, consider one way in which you or that person has found strength in that weakness, or one way in which God has goodness has been revealed in this area of weakness or disability.

Our Problem with Personhood: The Face of God in the Face of Another

Early this year I got an airplane to go visit a friend of mine. I took the trip afraid I’d lose that friend, but I ended up seeing the face of God.

I was nervous because there were a few things my friend and I hadn’t spoken of in years, a couple of important topics, which I knew we had come to see differently. We’re like most friends – after ten, twenty, in this case nearly twenty-five years, both of us have been learning and growing and changing. We’ve been alive, which is great, but what happens when all that life and change ruins the friendship? What if we drift apart? What happens when a friendships collapses under the weight of difference?

I didn’t think this particular friendship was at risk. I was going to see the guy who’d been best man in my wedding. We’re godfathers to some of each other’s children. We’d logged dozens of hours of phone calls in the many years we’d lived in different cities.

But then, not long before my trip, I’d heard a story from another friend of mine, of a life-long best friendship she had lost because of how their views had changed on a single controversial issue. And I thought, uh-oh, what if I’m next? What if one of my best friends will no longer trust or respect me?

So I get on the plane, I land, my friend picks me up from the airport, and we stop at a park to take a walk and catch up a bit on the way back to his house. I think his youngest kid was taking a nap or something and we had a bit of time to kill. So I said, hey, can we clear the air a bit. I’ve got something important to talk about. And I was far more nervous than I expected to be. I’m a grown man with an old friend of mine, but my hands are in my pockets and I’m having a hard time finding the words, and I think, wow, the stakes are high for me.

Eventually, though, I bring up the stuff I knew we didn’t see eye to eye on any more. And I tell him, I need to bring this up, because I’m not sure what I’d do if we lost our friendship over this.

And he says to me, well, there’s a long answer, let’s talk more about this. But the short answer is my God, no. We’re friends, right? We can handle being different.

So obvious, and yet, woah, it was like the air went back into my lungs. I was so relieved. I thought: this is a taste of some of the best in life. Loyalty, acceptance, peace that can handle time and difference. So good. I looked at my friend and thought, To see your face is like to see the face of God.

These words aren’t mine. They come from an old, old story in our scriptures – when one man sees the face of his brother and in a space of trust and reconciliation also comes to see embodied in his face the very presence of God.

This moment is from the third quarter of the Bible’s first book of Genesis. Genesis is four long stories woven into one. Each story centers around a person chosen by God. All four stories deal with loss and death. The family at the center of the story, sometimes all of humanity as well, is threatened. And the stories ask how God can be faithful to advance goodness amidst all of this mess. They ask where God can be faithful too, often with surprising answers. Each of these four sections in Genesis also includes a vivid sibling rivalry. And the rivalry at the center of the third section is between the twin brothers Jacob and Esau.

Jacob and Esau are competitors since birth. Younger brother Jacob has consistently had the upper hand. And with the help of his mother, he’s managed to steal the favored son and favored inheritance status from Esau. And then from that event until the moment when we’ll meet them today, about fifteen years have passed. Fifteen years of no contact between these brothers, fifteen years of Jacob thinking his brother Esau wishes him dead.

And now Jacob, along with his very large family, is preparing for a reunion, when he hears that Esau is coming to greet him not with his own family, but with a large group of armed men.

So Jacob plans on sending his servants and family members ahead of him with gifts, as you do, hoping to appease his brother. Here’s what happens. I’ll read a couple excerpts from the Schocken translation which we’ve printed in your programs. It’s a great modern translation by the Jewish scholar Everett Fox. It keeps the poetic feel and flavor and of the original Hebrew, so it’ll sound a little different.

Jacob here is Yaakov and Esau is Esav. Jacob says to his servants:

Genesis 32:21-22, 26, 31, 33:8-10 (Schocken)

“You shall say: Also – here, your servant Yaakov is behind us.

For he said to himself:

I will wipe (the anger from) his face

with the gift that goes ahead of my face;

afterward, when I see his face,

perhaps he will lift up my face!

The gift crossed over ahead of his face,

but he spent the night on that night in the camp….

This whole section is like a meditation on the word “face.” Yaakov thinks Esav’s face is angry. So he wants the first thing Esav sees to not be his face but his butter-up-his-brother gifts. He sends them ahead in the hopes that when they eventually come together, face to face, something good might happen. Yaakov doesn’t dare hope for peace or reconciliation or anything – he just wants to live.

And Yaakov was left alone –

And a man wrestled with him until the coming up of dawn….

This is unexpected. In the middle of the night, camping by himself along the riverbank, Yaakov is attacked. Perhaps a thief has heard of the whereabouts of this wealthy man? Perhaps his brother has found him and come for revenge? In the end, Yaakov comes to believe that the person he’s wrestling with is no man, but an angel, or some embodied presence of the living God. Yaakov hangs on for dear life, seeking the blessing of God, until it’s given to him.

Yaakov called the name of the place: Peniel/Face of God,

for: I have seen God,

face to face,

and my life has been saved….

The meditation on the word “face” continues. In this strange mystical encounter, Yaakov believes he has seen God face to face and lived. Henceforth both he and his ancestors are now renamed Yisrael – God-fighter, which is a name of power – people who are able to struggle with God, interact face to face with the divine. And it’s a name of vulnerability, because Yisrael walks with a limp. He’s wounded in this encounter, as a reminder that to be face to face with God is to be both blessed and to also be profoundly aware of your own limits and weakness. The legacy of Yaakov’s ancestors, both biological and spiritual, is this blessing of exalted, vulnerable personhood – to be able to see God face to face, to be made profoundly resilient and strong through this encounter, and also to be made profoundly vulnerable and humble.

Wild and dramatic as all this is, though, it is not the climax of this story… The climax comes when the next day, Yaakov limps away from the riverbed and sees his brother again, hoping against hope he might survive. Only to discover his brother wants peace. Esav has enough, he simply wants to be brothers again.

He said:

What to you is all this camp that I have met?

He said:

– to find favor in my lord’s eyes.

Esav said:

I have plenty, my brother, let what is yours remain yours.

Yaakov said:

No, I pray!

Pray, if I have found favor in your eyes,

then take this gift from my hand.

For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God,

and you have been gracious to me.”

I have seen your face, Yaakov says, and it is as one sees the face of God. Jacob would know, right? He has just had this profound spiritual experience – he knows a thing or two about seeing the face of God. And he looks at his brother, face to face, and thinks that is what is happening. To see you accepting me, for us to be at peace – without walls, without fear, person to person, is for me to see in your face the face of God.

For Jacob, this proves to be too much. The intimacy of full personhood, brother to brother, is somehow so unfamiliar, so threatening, that within a day, he’s moved on, perhaps never to see his brother again. We don’t know. But for a moment, he had that connection, that peace to see the face of God in his brother.

This is what I got with my good friend. For us, it wasn’t the result of reconciliation per se. It was more the relief of not losing a precious friendship, made precious by years of vulnerable trust, years of being there for one another, decades of support. But still, it was to not lose that friendship, to reclaim our peace, and in that to have God with me.

What do you think about this, that our best chance of seeing God is to see God’s love and presence reflected in a human face?

In churches, we talk a lot about our personal attempts to experience God, to encounter in some way to face of God in our personal practice. So we encourage shared worship. We encourage patterns and habits of prayer, of reading the scriptures, of spiritual practice and exercise of all kinds, which we promote weekly in our sermons. And this is all valuable. We are a faith community – we promote trust in God, encounter with God, experience of the love and power from which all of us and everything is born.

But the scriptures teach that the word of God, the one perfect revelation of the divine to humans is the person of Jesus. And they also teach that the face of God, the image of God, is seen in human personhood, on one another’s faces.

So again, what do you think about this, that our best chance of seeing God is to see God’s love and presence reflected in a human face?

And that similarly, our deepest human connection comes when we see the full glory of a human – as an image bearer of our God.

My own experience is that we’re not getting this enough these days. We don’t often enough see the face of God on our fellow human’s faces. And we rarely see the full glory of our fellow humans – that we are all image bearers of our God.

We have a problem with personhood.

I heard a talk recently by an old colleague of mine who’s gone on to big things as a speaker and an author. His name’s Andy Crouch, and he gave a talk recently entitled “Overcoming Our Greatest Affliction.” Most of the rest of my material comes from that talk – it took my breath away. So thank you, Andy. And the link to his talk – if you’re curious – will be in the sermon notes on line. I’ll quote it several times, and you can listen to it if you have time:


Andy discusses three revolutions that make the world we live in:

  • The Financial Revolution – wealth from land primarily to money.
  • The Industrial Revolution – when work shifted from labor we do with our bodies to primarily work we have done by machines.
  • And the Computational Revolution – when knowledge shifted from wisdom to information.

I’ll skip the details on these revolutions. Andy has more to say about that. But the idea is that these and other revolutions of the modern world have brought humanity great wealth – ordinary Americans have access to goods that some royalty in other ages could have only dreamed of, and a smaller and smaller percentage of humanity lives in abject poverty. Modernity has also brought us great health – longer lives, less sick lives. And by some measures, all this has brought us greater happiness.

And yet we are also lonely and anxious and depressed like never before. Because in most of these revolutions that have given us life as we know it today, we’ve traded personhood for power.

Most of the people I see each day don’t really see me, aren’t really seen by me. Most of the people I see each day don’t even know my name. And most of the people I see each week that do know my name don’t know where I come from, they don’t know my story.

In the Jacob and Esau story, conflict and pain ruptures personhood. But now the whole world does.

We live, Andy Crouch says, in a “lonely world of engines and machines and information.” “Modernity is a great place to have power. It’s not a great place to be a person.”

I think of a friend of mine, for instance, who was trained as a social worker, eager to launch a career helping vulnerable people experience more goodness and dignity in their personhood. In his first placement, though, he was overwhelmed and discouraged by the bureaucracy – by modern institutions’ habit of prioritizing abstract principles and procedures over people. And he was overwhelmed by some of the technological and administrative demands of the work.

So he quit, people called it burnout. And he sunk into depression. He found work later in wholesale supplies. But the work hasn’t felt meaningful to him. Like many people who work with their bodies, he has aches and pains that have aged him beyond his years. So he feels like a tool more than a person. He’s depressed sometimes still and he’s chronically anxious about his health and his finances.

And yet his story isn’t all that unique – this is modernity for the economic losers of the 21st century.

But all the winners – we’re pretty stressed out too. And we’re pretty lonely. We hardly go from day to day seeing the face of God in ourselves and our fellow humans, do we?

Andy, in his talk on personhood, argues this has happened before. He argues that the Roman empire experienced its own revolutions that increased power and diminished personhood. So that the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus produced incredible prosperity and abundance, for the people whose names we know. But in their society, the distribution of personhood was profoundly unequal. Very few people were fully persons, were recognized with the full standing of a person. Only the patriarchal heads of households had the full benefit of personhood.

Children, women, slaves, all were viewed as less than full people. In fact, for slaves, given you didn’t have the chance of being a person, you didn’t even get a real name.

You might just be named for your birth order – Third, Fourth, fifth… Tertius, Quartus, Quintus. Or for some productive quality you could lend to the economy. You could be named Useful… in Greek, Onesimus.

Which brings us to these remarkable lines at the very end of a letter in the New Testament. In Romans, we’ve heard from that famous faith entrepreneur, the apostle Paul, for 16 chapters, and at the very end get this.

Romans 16:22-27 (NRSV)

22 I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.

23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

Who is this Tertius? He’s a scribe, the one who’s written all of Paul’s other words for him. He may or may not be a slave, but he’s of very low status, there to take down the words of other, more important people. Tertius, third. Paul says – you speak, you’re a brother. Tertius, you take a turn. And then there’s Gaius, this wealthy man, the one whose household hosts our community, the benefactor of their local church – the top giver, you might say. Tertius says, my friend Gaius says hello. As does Erastus, the treasurer of the whole city. And our brother, Fourth, Quartus, maybe Tertius’ brother by birth, perhaps a slave himself, sends greetings too.

Can you hear what’s happening? Two of the most powerful, wealthy men of Rome – known to their culture, known to history by their names, share friendship and connection and meals in their home with Tertius and Quartus – known to their culture and history as nobodies, the very low status “Third” and “Fourth.”

And yet they are family. They are known to one another. Paul looks at their face and sees the face of God. This is a good news miracle. Tertius and Paul finish from here:

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

The psychologist Kurt Thompson says that from birth, we are looking for a face that is looking for us. What it means to be human is that to want to see and know someone who is looking for us.

Part of the good news of Jesus is that God has become embodied in a human face. That God is eager to reconnect us, both with God and one another. And to do the will of God – what Paul calls the obedience of faith – as we trust and follow Jesus with our lives, is in part to see the face of God in the personhood of all of humanity.

All of us, we are looking for a face in whom we can see the face of God, looking to have our face seen in this way.

We sort of have a million chances at this, and sort of have only a few. Here’s what I mean.

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

Think of the 5-10 people you are most connected to in your life. How might you be the face of God to them? Is there a relationship that needs reconciliation? Do you have room for a Tertius – to better validate the personhood of someone outside of that full experience?

5-10 people. Because every day, we encounter people. We do have so many chances to look at a human face and to believe that we can see the face of God there, to be so present, and so marked by faith, hope, and love, that they might see the face of God in our face. But we also, most of us, have precious few people whose lives we are deeply embedded with over many years. So start with those people. How for the very closest people in your life might you be the face of God? Does someone come to mind where things are estranged, where you need reconciliation?

And do you have room in your life for a Tertius – for someone outside your own band of privilege?

Spiritual Practice of the Week:

As a consumer, a worker, and a user of technology, look to see and affirm personhood. Look for the face of God in more human faces.

There’s No Wrong Way to Have a Body

Good morning!  What a gorgeous day, thanks for popping in here today, I’m thankful to be together … And I”m thankful that  get this unique perspective up here – to look out at all of you and see this fully gorgeous array of bodies.  A representation of what I could imagine as the closest thing to the kin-dom of God here on earth. A myriad of races, of  identities, of able bodied and disabled bodies, of gay, straight, trans and queer bodies, old and young, bodies of all sizes, hairy – not-hairy, strong and just toddling…  

And my heart skips a beat at this sight.

And what makes the kin-dom of God a powerful reality – not just a lovely sentiment,  – is the attention to taking in the fullness of what this beautiful tapestries of bodies in the room bring with them….    Your bodies tell a story of WHO YOU ARE, of where you’ve been – your life…..

We’ve all  traversed this life, encountering joys and traumas and pain and shame and fears and love.   And yet – we are slow to speak on the terms of these experiences beginning with our physical bodies… our bodies are the nexus of every experience, of every feeling, struggle and triumph.  We are quick to mention our bodies – when we feel good about our bodies… when we’ve realized our passions are birthed out of our bodies..- where we have the opportunity to love with our whole selves the world and the people around us with fullness of relationship and love…   and yet  it’s harder to speak of the reality of how our bodies are regarded in our everyday spaces – where we work, study, in our families.  That often in these spaces our bodies are a battleground, that tell a story of a quest for acceptance, for value and for wholeness in this world.

To build the kin-dom, IS WORK.  What makes the kin-dom so rich, is not just a push for all of us to do a really good job at this faith “thing”, individually …   it’s to come together and hold space for one another –from all our different vantage points, with our lens of living in unique bodies..   and this takes work – and it’s the work of the holy – because it’s exhausting and uncomfortable.    To talk of our bodies – to share with each other vulnerably, to imagine that someone on the other end is truly hearing us and “believing us”… is WORK. It is the work of our day, and it is the work that I think Jesus  – who came in human form, in flesh and bone – calls us to… andhe teaches just how to do that, how to be fully in our bodies – as human beings.

Mariama White-Hammond spoke last week so powerfully  – of Jesus our Savior. Jesus, – THE ONE who is a powerful , transformative force of love and His prime location for that work, it seems is in OUR very bodies.  And Jesus  saves us from the threat of any messages about our bodies that would come against this powerful force of love in us.


This is why it’s important to keep talking about our bodies today, because it keeps a/live the message of Jesus.


We are in a series that I’ve been particularly helped by and thankful for these last few weeks, called “Embodied Faith”.   Sometimes we plan our sermon series months in advance – I think we batted around this idea of “what would it look like to talk about our bodies?” 2-3 months ago. And I’m thankful for how the Spirit moves – even when those initial ideas aren’t fully framed… how the Spirit fills out our ideas and makes them impactful, nonetheless.


So, I want to talk today a bit more about how we honor and value our own bodies impacts how we value and honor the bodies of others.


In Genesis we see the origins of our bodies – our cells, and our muscles and our  bones – in the 2nd chapter it says that “GOD fashioned an earth creature out of the clay of the earth, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life.  And the earth creature became a living being”.


If we can wrap our heads around the baseline of what these verses offer us  – it’s a message that our bodies come from the earth that we all share, that we all walk upon – AND breathed into our beings, is the goodness, the perfection, the strength and the love of God.  That is our makeup – our DNA…. It is what powers our bodies to be, and move in this world, and it is utterly divine.


If you’ve ever watched a toddler – you likely see the fullness of this message in action.  As toddlers we loved our bodies fully. Toddlers don’t have a negative relationship with their bodies.  Never did I witness any of my kids demonstrating self-consciousness of their squishy bellies – or counting their double chins in the mirror – in fact wonder and awe were usually in full display as they discovered – that they had hands and feet – and what they were capable of ….


And I think we can kind of dismiss this notion that toddlers are a picture of health in relationship to our bodies.. They haven’t taken in messages of critique, they haven’t been restricted from involvement with life or school or jobs  – or felt levels of discrimination because of their bodies yet…


*and yet – I read a book by Sonya Renee Taylor , recently called “Your Body is Not an Apology” “Connecting to a memory like that might feel really distant – and maybe one that you can’t access at all – but just knowing that there was a point in your history when you once loved your body can be a reminder that body shame (as it enters in – through a myriad of messages), is a fantastically crappy inheritance..  We didn’t give it to ourselves and we are not obligated to keep those messages”.


And still- it is startling to realize how quickly messages about our bodies – come in and take up residence….      Messages that combat right away our extra-ordinarieness… and suggest instead a message of “disbelief” – a deep disbelief of who we were made to be.   . Messages that say you are not good enough – or – you are too much… messages that say at their baseline , “I do not believe you”, “I do not believe that you came from Divine love and goodness”.  


One of my earliest memories of my body was when I was little, I remember standing in my bathroom – naked, infront a full-length mirror.  Absolutely unashamed and happy. And my mom walked in and said to me, “Ivy – you shouldn’t look at your body like that”.

And just like that – at age 4 I took in a message that my body was something to hide and be ashamed of.


That window of birth to toddlerhood is likely the free-est we will have ever felt in our  bodies…. Because studies show that nearly ½ of 3-6 year old girls say that they worry about their bodies and becoming fat…   Young boys receive messages this early as well that to be a “real boy”, they should assert power and control, and limit their emotions –  and be muscular and big” in their bodies.


And these messages come in from all over – when we are young – they come from those closest in proximity to us ….and soon we take in influences from larger society, particularly via media…


I’ve taken time with my girls and my boy, in particular as they get older to sit with them and tell them how loved they are – how their bodies are immensely perfect just as they are, how they don’t need to conform to society’s gender scripts.  And let me tell you  – I feel pretty good about myself after these intentional conversations.  I’m hopeful to be correcting messaging that they might be taking in consciously or otherwise… BUT therapist, Hillary McBride says – “ok, you can stop patting yourself on the back about this”…  WHAT really matters is the thousands of moments throughout the day when you make what you think are subtle gestures about your bodies and others.. like walking by a mirror and poking at your double chin – or sucking in your belly…  or mentioning how your shirt is showing your muffin top” .. THESE are the messages that developing minds soak up…. . “We are relational beings and we develop our identity in relationship to people around us”(McBride),  and a big part of that relationship is our relationship to our bodies.


In middle school, I was informed by my history teacher that watching girls basketball games was like watching “paint dry”.  I had just made the varsity basketball team.

And At age 12 I learned that my body wasn’t AS powerful or AS strong or AS good as a boys.

Now, I think it’s helpful to remember here – that mind and body are both equally us.  This is why when we don’t like our bodies, we feel badly about our whole selves.  Or, when we feel really powerful in our bodies, we feel really powerful in ourselves, like we have value.  If our identity is just as much our bodies as it is our minds and thoughts, then when we hear how our bodies are not “good enough” or our bodies aren’t powerful – it’s not surprising that we take 1) match whatever the external expectation is, 2) to function in the world – and 3) for many of us – we take on these masks as a survival technique, because the experiences we’ve had, tell us that the outside world hates what our bodies represent.


So by the age of 12 I’ve already taken on 2 masks:

  1. One to make sure I’m hiding myself, make sure I’m not too exposed.  That I’m not gathering too much attention.
  2. And the other mask to placate those that felt threatened or discomfort by my strength and power.

Both masks, in my case were my body’s SOS. A body that was being morphed out of fear.  Who I was… wasn’t… who I should be… couldn’t be… ect…. Fear that I was learning – as I walked through more of my life –  was not just found in individual voices – but messaging throughout systems and structures where I would go to school, work and live.


Not only has the very air we breathe become laced with messaging about what bodies are acceptable and valued and what bodies are not … but this messaging has become the backing of most of the systems and frameworks of our society:  

“Consider that the right to marry the person you love regardless of gender was only legally sanctioned in the US in 2015.


Consider that people with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment regardless of educational attainment.” (SRT)


Consider that a study done this decade – showed that resumes with traditionally European names like Greg, Ann or Emily – would get far more callbacks  than individuals with traditional African American names – DESPITE the fact that in this study the resumes submitted were identical.  IT took 50% more applications from the latter group to get a call back.


These are big issues folks!  These are issues – economic and social issues that are about our bodies.  They intersect with our race, age, gender and sexual orientation and a multitude of other ways..


Sonya Renee Taylor, this author I mentioned says that:  “Racism, sexism, ableism, age-ism,m class-ism, homo- and transphobia, fatphobia are algorithms created by our struggle to make peace with the body.”


All of these “-isms”, send out a deep, hurtful and hateful message that “we don’t believe each other”, we don’t believe that we have the powerful image of God in our bodies.


After working at my first college internship for a few months, I was called into a meeting with 3 supervisors – who talked in detail about my attire,  – humiliatingly so- and deemed it as inappropriate, suggestive and troubling. I apologized profusely.

At age 18 I learned that my body is an apology.  


For so many of us, “sorry” has become how we translate the word “body”(Sonya Renee Taylor). And it is an exhausting work.  It is hard because we talk about how much we value and honor the diversity of each other. And yet the messages we receive throughout our days and over our lifetimes seem to offer up the contrary. It seems like we infact value lines that dictate “sameness” and  lines that are clear to draw what is “normal” and not normal”- and this is helpful to us because we can all be free of the discomfort of difference…I think we all play into this to some degree we are all drinking the kool-aid, that says “oh, actually…..there is a right way to have a body”.


And if we don’t find ourselves on the right side of these lines – these body lines that we’ve drawn –  we might find ourselves offering up apology after apology….


And we take in the message that our bodies are wrong.


Serena Williams – who may be one of the greatest athlete of all times, has a short 30 second video.  In this video we see simple clips of her playing tennis – and we hear her voice saying:

“ I’ve never been the right kind of woman”….

“Too oversized and too over confident

Too mean, if I don’t smile

Too black for my tennis whites

Too motivated for motherhood…”


I can gather quite a few memories of where I offered apologies throughout my life, “for not speaking up, or for speaking up too much…..  I have apologized again and again for the presumed discomfort my body has caused in others”. It’s too controversial not to apologize.   Maybe that’s why this ad, of Serena’s caught my eye – she is offering no apology for the ways that systems have placed the word “TOO” in front of her body.   This tiny word “too”, insinuates that we, who make up systems – demand her to apologize for not fitting our mode of what is “acceptable” and “comfortable for us”.   (that we haven’t actually taken in the story of her body – and how she’s experienced life, how many apologies she’s had to usher out)… We, expect accommodation and when we don’t get that  – we are (panicky) & confronted by the ways , we ourselves have played into, become complicit in the very systems that have oppressed us.


It was easier for me –  to be invisible – to wear the masks and to accommodate whatever the outside message of who I should be was..  MUCH easier than ripping off those masks and fielding the stones that said “you are too much” – or “your not enough”.


Serena, is living in a female body, a Black body, an aging body, a body that’s too big, and YET a body that is continually, unashamedly –  visible to all of us.  

Serena’s message and other brave messages like hers – disrupt my complacency to accommodate.  It allows me to feel , even with masks on- and get in touch with dissonance I feel in my body.  Of how I present to the world – and yet how I know , deep down in my DNA – how I was formed to be…   Her message shakes and challenges me -it even highlights messages that I’ve been taking in for so long and didn’t realize……   Her message says to me, follow this homing device within your soul – the HOly Spirit – and navigate back to yourself, your origins of love.

And this message is full of power and permission to be my unapologetic, believable self.


To follow this homing device within us – gets us to what is buried ever so-covertly, in our bodies.   It gets us to what has held these messages, “it’s better to be hidden” , “you aren’t really powerful”,  “offer an apology to keep the peace”… in place for so long. .. It’s what took up residence from the first blush of standing in that mirror, when I was 4 – it’s’ this root of shame.


The work here, to uncover this shame is one that I believe is the work of Jesus.  One that he sets before us in this well known passage – that we’ll read together, of the woman caught in adultery:


John 8:1-11, 15 (NRSV)

1while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.[a] 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

15 “You judge by human standards; I judge no one”.


The Pharisees & scribes interrupt this teaching – they represent the powerful and dominant patriarchal and religious system of the day – and they are eager to uphold and carry out “justice”…


Justice it seems in their eyes – is to remove anything that is coming to threaten their authority and position.  Attacking and trapping anyone that disrupts their sense of comfort.


And to attain their goal of upholding justice they seek to bring down Jesus – with the pawn in their midst – this body of a woman who was caught in adultery.


“Rabbi – this woman was caught in an adulterous act.  Will you uphold the law of Moses which says that this woman should be stoned? Or will you uphold the Roman law?”.


“Come on Jesus,  Pick a side. Where’s the line? Help us draw the line!”

Jesus is silent.


And instead of talking, he bends down in the dirt (and there are many interpretations of what Jesus writes), John our author doesn’t give us much insight – however, I offer you another possibility, a simple picture.


Perhaps Jesus is drawing just what they asked.  Perhaps he is drawing a line in the sand.  A line that will give the Pharisees what they want – to separate out those bodies that are worthy and those bodies that are not.  


Jesus I can imagine as he’s dragging his finger through the dirt is communicating to this woman… “you see here, this line – is the way to judge and condemn, this line is the way to maintain power, this line is the way to uphold “a Pharisitical version of justice”, this line is how one ensures that shame will take root in another.  This line creates a system of religion – that will draw lines unto death”.


“But this line, dear woman,  does not make way for me.”


SO as Jesus stood again, to his feet – standing on the side of the line with this woman – I can imagine him saying to the Pharisees “perhaps you missed my teaching in the temple earlier today.  The lines you desire – to uphold the moral code you care so deeply about, these lines you desire to mark hierarchy, power and status at the expense of other bodies, those lines don’t actually exist in the kin-dom I invite you to build.”


Jesus is not choosing a side of the law to come down on – he’s choosing this human being in his midst.  He doesn’t jeer at this woman, he doesn’t use this woman as a pawn, or a trap, or mock her or incite anyone else to do the same – he simply turns to this woman, with his body and bends to be closer to her…   

This woman’s body matters to Jesus – even despite her sin – she is not just a violation of the Law.   


The Pharisees plan to trap Jesus – in fact traps themselves – in their own humanity.  Jesus in this simple question , “Which one of you is sinless – go ahead and cast the first stone” – reminds them – that they themselves are in violation of the law too.  Moses Law said that both people involved in adultery should be brought forward.


THe job of condemning and judging if for anyone -would be reserved for Jesus.  


However, Jesus desists this.


“You judge by human standards – which only creates lines against bodies and me…. I judge no one”.


And as the Pharisees and scribes exit the scene… Jesus bends down again – Here he is, going back to that line of the Pharisees and erasing it. He’s making clear that nobody and no body will be limited in their access to Jesus.  That his body too, is free and available to all.


This is my way:

“The erasure of this line – is the way to liberation,

the erasure of this line is the way to access the power of me – within and beside you always,

the erasure of this line is the way to uphold “justice” – to value a physical, human being in front of you,

The erasure of this line is how one ensures that shame will not take root.
The erasure of this line – makes way for life, with compassion and humbleness bent in a posture that comes close to this women’s face – where she can hear Jesus say, “I believe you”. I believe you are made from love.


A year  ago my teenage daughter came to me and said that the boy she was spending time with, “had put his arm around her without asking, and it made her feel uncomfortable and unsafe”.  

My reply to her was:  “Could you not over react – it’s not really that big of a deal….I’m sure he didn’t mean to make you feel discomfort….”

At age 38 I learned that ingesting enough messages of body shame over my life – allows these declarations to become the narrative through which I speak to the bodies around me – even without noticing or intending to…  bodies that I am here to believe in and nurture.


THis is the work of Shame – is a thief and a liar,  and it’s toxin laces our tongues – and keeps us a prisoner under our masks.


Jesus says to this woman,  “where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you”


Perhaps when we judge others and their bodies- We lay the same traps that the Pharisees do – … we set traps of shame, we force masks on people… AND we trap jesus too.  If we see flickers in our systems that oppress and hate, that are eager to sanction, ignore and criminalize – we can’t deny that there is misuse of the bodies in our midst.


I choked on my words as they came out of my mouth to my daughter.  Realizing I was judging her! Judging her feelings in her body – asking her to feel less – it would be more comfortable for everyone…    Jesus encourages us – as he did with this adulterous woman – to catch the stones… and be more aware of the ones we might throw ourselves  – of shame, of humiliation, control and of hate and arrogance.


When we can do this for ourselves and each other – Jesus I think does the great work of crushing those messages down to the Earth, freeing us all to return to what we’ve always come from – dust and love.


Shame only lives and survives where there is a judge.


And Jesus says to this woman “I’m not going to be your judge” – “go and sin no more” – and not because you are afraid of getting zapped at the line drawn in the sand (drawn by some person or system)…but because you have met me, where there are no lines……..  

And not because you were rescued by the law, but because you were rescued by me, who fills out the Law with love and compassion.


Jesus isn’t worried about how much we get right or wrong when it comes to Him  – or how much or How little we believe of HIM…..   HIS hope, is that we would feel HOW MUCH HE BELIEVES IN US.  And my friends, it’s a struggle to get there – it’s a struggle to sift through the messages and the masks… but it’s our work for each other.


A year and a half ago – I got caught in a riptide in Nicaragua with my 3 kids…  I’ve told a portion of this story before – of how my kids were resilient and spurred me on to wonder and away from fear in the aftermath.  BUT what I didn’t share was that at one point in the riptide, I realized I had to let go of my son’s hand. I was struggling and I thought I would bring him down with me. .as I let go of him, I submerged under the current and waves – and found myself suspended underwater – unable to reach the surface and unable to touch the ground.

This moment has chilled me for many months since then – not only for the obvious reasons – but because in looking back I realized that I felt no presence of God, no calming, encouraging whispers  – no bright light of hope.


I’ve been processing this a lot – and I went through the scene with a friend a few months ago – and she said so matter of factly – “Oh you know, I often think in moments like these we are Jesus”..  And I could then remember that I came to the surface of that roaring ocean – and I grabbed my sons hand back, and I looked at him in the eyes and I said “You are going to be ok, we are going to ride this next wave in” – and we did.

At age 39 I experienced for the first time, what embodiment really means.  ANd this was a deep knowing that Jesus and my body – were one – with power and agency.


Embodied faith isn’t just a concept to talk about – it is a force of the Holy Spirit and nature to experience.  When Jesus says to His friends, (on your program) that “they will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them – and it is then that they will be His witnesses to the ends of the earth,” I realized –  ah, yes they will be able to tell other people about God, once they have experienced and felt her in their bodies.


I learned that the Holy Spirit might be silent in separation, when there are lines and messages all over the place about who I am and who I’m not –  – BUT she IS LOUD and glorious and Strong IN my body. The Holy Spirit – is not just soft wind and breath – but she is FIRE AND STRENGTH… And I fully embody her. Fully human. Fully alive. As one.


May the embodiment of God that resides in your physical body – in your skin, in your bones, in your cells – be the power that thrusts you out of the paralysis you might feel under your masks – and  the sense of suspension you experience – when you are neither fully touching ground nor breaking through the ceilings that society casts on you – And may your bodies and the STORIES they tell –  propel you into the faith we have in a JESUS who hears your bodies SOS’s and rescues you and helps you again and again BE human.


We would be remiss in this series about our bodies  – to only talk from this stage – so today, I’ve invited my friend Miriam who is an exceptional dancer – and I  invite you into an experience of God that goes beyond words. She’ll be moving to a song by Lauren Daigle, called, “Rescue”.



Jesus rescues this adulterous woman from death.  Physical death, but also death-by-shame. Jesus rescued me in the ocean – physically, but also from the belief that my body was to be hidden, an apology, unequal , devalued, defenseless ….  Every storyline – every narrative of Jesus with us – is for your rescue from death.  This was His own story and our story too. I believe that JEsus wants a world where our bodies can be reclaimed as love”..   WHere we can say to each other, “There is no wrong way to have a body”.


Whole life flourishing: In what ways have you believed that your body is “not enough” or “too much”?  Imagine that God, at every turn, celebrates your body and says to you that there is “no wrong way to have a body”. How does this impact the way you show up in the world and the way you witness others show up in the world?


(What messages have you taken in about your body? Such as you are “not enough” or you are “too much?”….. etc..)


Spiritual Practice of the week:

“Tear off the mask. Your face is glorious.” – Rumi

When you look in the mirror this week, imagine Jesus’ reflection looking back at you – with your eyes, your hair, your skin, your blood, your bones, your body. Fully glorious.



Imagine that you could go stand beside your 3,4,5 year old self – as you look at yourself in the mirror… What message, what words would you want yourself to hear.?  What would you want your small child self to know – above all else.

Bodies Matter: Witnessing and Believing Trauma

As I watched the sunrise this morning I was reminded of the song that says,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end

They are new every morning, new every morning,

Great is thy faithfulness, oh Lord, Great is that faithfulness

I don’t know about you, but the last few days have been really challenging. The pain and sadness has been palpable – the tears in my eyes, the churning in my stomach the lethargy that has made me more tired that usual. Maybe if I can just go to sleep, I will wake up from this bad déjà vu dream.

I started Thursday morning in a challenge and ultimately futile exchange with an ICE agent that yielded no relief for the person for whom I was advocating. Then I drove back to Boston for a meeting of the Massachusetts Energy Efficiency Advisory Council. It is a statewide body with 15 members only one of whom is a person of color. I knew that was the case, I knew I would be walking into a room full of predominantly wonky folks who have the ability to come to the meetings because their job allows them or requires them to. Before I got there I was well aware that for the last 10 years this group has overseen the MassSave program and even though everybody pays into the fund, every single person who has an electricity bill has a little italicized line at the bottom of their bill that tells them how much they are paying into energy efficiency – even though everyone pays in – moderate income people, renters, people who don’t speak strong English, small mom & pop business – these folks pay in and then don’t get the service.  They have been under-served for 10 years and when I stand up on their behalf I am well aware on the uniqueness of my presence, but even more I am aware of their physical absence from these spaces of power and decision-making. I was not shocked when a group that includes 6 women who attend the meetings regularly and a few men who tend to be less regular attendees ended up being represented in their presentation by the two men. None of this is abnormal in my life. I am a Black woman in the mostly white world of energy policy, I am a person of faith in a space dominated by scientific calculations, I am the embodiment on values and visions that rarely get honored when people are trying to drive for efficiency.

My heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity was no doubt driven by the fact that on the way to the meeting I had been listening to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. In 1991 I was a twelve year old Black girl attending an predominantly white all girls private school in Boston. Anita Hill’s testimony and the subsequent attacks she endured left a deep impression on me and many of my peers. Most of my classmates had feelings and opinions as women, but few of them were connected to some of the racial subtexts that caused many black women like me to question some of the way that the real injustices of racism could lead us to protect Black men and even support their patriarchal attitudes in ways which caused deep harm to our own psyches. This week, all the feelings of the Anita Hill testimony, all of the memories of my own experiences with sexual harassment and coercion, all of the love I feel for women and men in my life who have suffered sexual assault, sexual abuse and rape – especially my own mother who is not only a survivor, but a committed advocate and healer – all of these things were walking with me – not in some ethereal realm, but I felt them and relived them in my body.

Then I heard the testimony of Brett Kanavaugh. His indignation reminded me of the sentiment I hear from many white men who are angered by how the world is changing. As women, people of color, LGBTQIA folks, disabled people, low-income folks and other marginalized people are demanding to be seen, heard and included – it shifts that balance of power for those who have had more than their fair share of power. In the past, the thirty one percent of our population that was white males was afforded 100% of the power – if you include class into the equation an even smaller percentage of white men had disproportionate access. As we push for 100% of the people to have access to power, their share is shrinking and for some that feels like an unacceptable loss.

I was particularly struck by his repeated insistence about how much time he spent in church. For some that might substantiate that he was less likely to commit this assault, but for me I paused when I thought about all the ways that our disordered and disembodied faith may not have been any deterrent and even potentially a support of the “bro” culture for a young Brett Kavanaugh. I remember the ways that even when I was young the purity culture was demanded of girls and much more loosely suggested to boys. I remember my grandmother’s constant lectures about not getting pregnant which I don’t remember being equally doled out to my male cousin. I remember lots of conversations about how girls should dress and carry themselves that again I don’t think the boys received in equal measure. I think about my own participation in this culture as I have attempted to protect the girls in my life from harm, have I crossed the line into teaching them to accept an unacceptable system of gender oppression?

In my pain I really didn’t know where to turn and so I did two things. First I spent time with my 4 year old goddaughter Sariah. She is my joie de vivre. The amount of love and energy pent up in her tiny body takes me out of the theoretical plane of existence and right into the here and now. Making sure that she is fed, that she is safe and that her tiny body and really big Spirit are cared for and cultivated helps me to be always thinking about the world I want for her while also being fully present in the moment in a way that I needed on Friday. We went to the ICA to see “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985.” We bought our tickets (or rather I got my ticket because at the children under 18 are free at the ICA). As we walked into the first room she saw a sculpture and wanted to walk right up to it and touch it. I had to explain to why there was a rope around the sculpture and how we had to respect the work by only looking with our eyes. Thankfully the museum had given me a sketch pad and a pencil so I encouraged her to use it to draw what she saw. She started walking around the sculpture with the sketchpad looking at it and drawing. People walked in and saw her little 4 yr old body studying and sketching with such focus that it made them smile. I smiled too because I was sure that this scene was the manifestation of the dream of so many of the women who were portrayed in that exhibit. For them it had been only a dream that a little Black girl could be there with her Black woman godmother, seeing their art hanging on the walls in one of the city’s most prestigious museums and that little girl could be imitating their art with no concept that there is any reason she could not make art of her own. In that moment it felt like the work of God over decades of struggle to make a world in which our bodies – her body could occupy the space with the confidence in which she sketched and then came to show her work to me and one of the museum employees who was in that room. Being there with her was a reminder that injustice does not have the final say.

The second thing I did to address my pain was to turn to the scripture. I knew I was going to be here today and I had already been prepared with a sermon from 1 Kings when Elijah was clearly depressed and possibly suicidal. I was going to preach on what the Bible teaches us about the link between depression and our care for our bodies. I hope to be able to share that some other time, but in the lead-up to the hearing I began to sense that was not the word for today.

I knew the theme was embodiment and I wasn’t even sure where to start. As I shared earlier, I know that our religious tradition has a challenging history around the body and I have to admit that for me, lots of the issues really begin with the stories of the Bible and how we have chosen to interpret them. Not knowing where to start I decided to start at my go-to scripture to see if it would shed any light on what Jesus thought about embodiment. My go-to scripture is Luke 10:25 when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer who says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” For me this is the most important scripture in the text because Jesus says that it all boils down to this. So I usually look at the Luke version but I know a version of this it is written in every one of the gospels because it points back to the Jewish tradition of uniting verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to make this one statement that sums it all up.

Having read the Lukan version many times, I decided to turn to the passage in Mark which most scholars believe to be the first gospel on which Matthew and Luke are based (the book of John always does it own thing, so although it has sentiments that connect to this principle, it does not tell the same story.) Anyway – I went to the book of Mark and found the story in Mark 12. As I always do, I read the chapter in its entirety because even though the Bible is full of stories that we tend to break up into sub-chapters with headings, they are arranged in such a way that stories give context to each other and in this case, before making the statement about the most important commandment Jesus has already told three other stories to the crowd of regular people and religio-political figures who are listening to him. So I want to lift up one of the stories from Mark and then one which we are familiar with in Luke.

Mark 12 New International Version (NIV)
Marriage at the Resurrection

18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.20Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.22In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too.23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  27He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”



  • resurrection or not, tension within Jewish communities.
  • Trick question that tries to make him put the here and now in conflict with the hereafter.
  • Jesus recognizes the trick and makes it about God’s larger plan for justice.
  • The afterlife is no excuse to not follow God in the right now – God calls you to be who we are called to be, to live justice now. So they idea that Jesus may come back soon should not be an excuse to ignore injustice of any kind or to ignore the warming planet that is telling us to change.

Good Samaritan Context:

  • The lawyer is trying to get an out for who he doesn’t need to love
  • Three figures
    • Priest – Has got other things going on
    • Levite – Don’t know how that happened
    • Samaritan – Surprise for the Jewish folks who were listening

Three points:

  1. Physical condition matters – it doesn’t work to claim to care about people’s soul without caring in about their bodies. Forgetting about the body protects the privileged, those of us who already have privilege and protection.
  2. Sometimes God tolerates and even regulates our imperfect systems like the marraige system of the past (and many unjust systems we continue in the present) but God’s ultimate goal is freedom and justice for all of us. The woman is no longer property of any of her husbands but equal to them in God’s kingdom. This Samaritan is not just rescued by restored.
  3. Finally – the story tells us that if we are Christians – if we consider ourselves to be followers of Christ then our work is to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth and to do everything to resist systems that don’t align with God’s plan and to reflect God’s ultimate plan in our lives in our churches and in the world. And we definitely should not be the institution that is actively beating people down as we unfortunately the church has done at many times in our history and in the present.


When I got ordained I became clear about how much bodies matter

The next week will continue to be challenging

How we treat each other’s bodies is part of that commandment and it does not matter if you are a teenage boy or grown woman

When you are sitting with a friend who has been raped you are crystal clear that bodies matter. When you feel the suffering of someone in excruciating physical pain you know that bodies matter. When your head begins to throb and your stomach churns as you relive the pain of a past trauma, you know that bodies matter – not in some ethereal plane of existence, but right here and right now, and I am thankful to serve and worship a God who cares about me and my body – a God who is attentive to both the pleasure and the pain that I feel – a God who is not afraid to get up in with me, a God who was willing to come from a place of perfect existence and be subjugated to the all of the beauty and brokenness of life in a body.

The above is a prepared outline of the audio recorded sermon, not an exact transcript.

Faith and the Freedom of our Bodies

(TW: sexual assault, sexual abuse)

Just a few minutes ago, we asked you, “What’s one of the first times when you were young you remember being aware of injustice?” Let me tell you mine. When I was a kid, I lived in a house with a small patch of woods behind it, and this was one of the places the kids of the neighborhood would congregate. Like every neighborhood, ours had its cast of characters, and the scariest of them all were these three siblings from the Dodge family. The two oldest were big and tough, and the youngest was little and scrappy, but they all seemed mean and hard. And one day, the oldest Dodge kid got into an argument with another guy in the neighborhood a year or two younger than him. I remember that kid had a new black jacket on, it might have been a leather jacket, and it was really cool looking. And what the Dodge boy did was he took that black jacket from the other guy, and he pushed him hard down this grassy hill, where the guy – without his jacket – tumbled over a few times, rolled to a stop, and ran all the way home. We all scattered – this was the closest thing to a brawl we’d seen in our neighborhood. And I wondered what would happen.

And here’s what I heard. That kid went home, and his parents took care of him, he said they were really nice about it and everything. And his dad even tried to talk to the Dodge boy’s father about what his son had done. But I know that kid never got his jacket back. I don’t know why, or what happened to that really cool, new black jacket, but I know that this kids’ property was never restored to him. And that made me so angry.

I watched what it did to this kid I knew too. How that experience kind of put him in his place, taught him something about himself – that no one was going to stand up for him, that he wasn’t protectable, or worthy of protection. And it taught the rest of us something about the world too: that violent people are often not restrained and they are not subject to justice.

The scriptures affirm this, that we live in a world full of violence and injustice.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 (NRSV)

4 Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

People who have power often use their advantage to oppress people who don’t. People who have take from those who had less in the first place. Neighbors bully their neighbors. People with opportunity hoard yet more opportunity to themselves. Systems protect privilege.

And we see or experience this, and sometimes, we shut down a little. We feel weak, helpless, powerless, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, who wonders if life is so unjust that we’d be better off if we’d never been born into this evil world.

And there will be evil and injustice that we name today, and that can make us feel small and sad.

But sometimes, we hear of injustice, and our minds or our bodies tense up a bit, ready to fight, to take action. We get angry. I’m not always comfortable with anger, but a wise therapist once told me that when it comes to things as they shouldn’t be, don’t be afraid of anger. Angry in this case is much better than sad.

Because with anger, we can feel power and agency. We can take action. And that’s good. Along with connection, humility, freedom, and everyone, action is one of our core values at Reservoir. And I don’t know if you’ll get angry or not today, but I will encourage us to action.

Today, we’re participating in Freedom Sunday, where hundreds of churches are talking about injustice, and particularly the injustice of modern day slavery, and are stirring to action in response. Freedom Sunday is an initiative of one our partners, International Justice Mission. IJM is the world’s largest anti-slavery organization. They employ lawyers, criminal investigators, trauma social workers, and all the various admin folks that support them all around the world to protect the world’s vulnerable poor from the world’s violent. They’ve already rescued 45,000 people from oppression – stuff like child slavery, sex trafficking, unjust land seizures and imprisonment. And they’ve strengthened systems and communities to protect 150 million people from violence around the world. IJM’s vision is to rescue millions, to protect half a billion, and to make justice for the poor unstoppable. Through our partnerships team at Reservoir that gives away a tenth of all tithes, donations, and offerings entrusted to us, we support the work of IJM financially. We hosted their Boston-area prayer gathering earlier this year. And we are excited to be participating in today’s Freedom Sunday.

My hope is that today leaves us more angry than sad, informed and curious and inspired and empowered. Let me pray that this will be so, and then we’ll dive into a moment when Jesus announces his mission for justice before we hear more about the work of IJM.

The Bible’s good news memoirs of Luke record one of the moments when Jesus is launching his life’s work and announcing his plans. Jesus has just returned from a few weeks alone, on retreat, in prayer, and he’s back in his hometown on a Saturday, doing what he’d done most Saturdays of his life, attending worship in his local synagogue.

It’s apparently Jesus’ turn to open up one of the scrolls of Hebrew scripture, to read it, and say a few words. And here he goes.

Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

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

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I imagine Jesus with a gleam in his eye, ready to shock his family and friends with something they’ve never heard. Bibles then weren’t bound in books, but each section hand copied onto scrolls you’d unroll, and Jesus is given the scroll for the book of Isaiah. And I don’t know if Jesus turns to what was the scheduled reading for the day, or if he chose this section of Isaiah himself, but he turns and reads these words, where the identity of the first person was unclear. Who is it that has this Spirit of God, empowered to reverse injustice, and bring cheer and liberation and healing and freedom? Is it Isaiah? Is it this unnamed servant of God that speaks four other times a little earlier in Isaiah’s writing?  Here this person says they’re going to inaugurate a great season of liberation, what gets called the year of the Lord’s favor?

It sounds like this great year of Jubilee, which is described in Israel’s founding constitutional lawbook. This was to be a year, every fifty years, when debts were cancelled, prisoners and slaves freed, land seized and purchased returned – a great economic reset, a year of good news and justice to everyone who’s been pressed down or who had slipped behind or been left out of prosperity and good news. This Year of Jubilee commanded in Israel’s law, best as we know, never historically occurred. All that good news and justice was too much, too costly, so it was never practiced.

But Jesus stands up, in his little backwater hometown synagogue, and says – in effect – I’m the one, and the time is now. Jubilee has arrived. Freedom, justice, good news has begun. This is the year of the Lord’s favor.

We go on to find out that this was a real shocker for Jesus’ hometown. Some of them are silent, some of them turn and whisper, others – after Jesus provokes them a bit more – get aggressive and angry.

Any time you hear that justice might really be possible, that there just might be good news for the world’s most disempowered, it’s provocative.

I remember when I first learned there were people doing this work around the world. It was the late 90s, and my wife Grace and I attended an event where IJM’s founder Gary Haugen spoke. Haugen had attended Harvard University just down the street from here, after law school he worked in civil rights enforcement for the US government and eventually directed the UN’s investigation into the genocide in Rwanda. An impressive career. But Haugen was aware that Rwanda was not a one-off. It was unique in many ways, but Haugen knew that all around the world, whenever systems of law enforcement and public protection are broken, the disempowered suffer. And as a follower of Jesus, he knew that we still live in the year of God’s favor Jesus announced, that this is a time for all of humanity to know the goodness of God, to enjoy God’s love and healing and inclusion and forgiveness and presence, and to make good news happen in the lives of the poor, to liberate from slavery and oppression and violence.

So he described the work that IJM was beginning – founding national field offices, led by local leadership, where professionals would investigate and document injustices, force change in law and infrastructure, rescue victims and get them access to healing and recovery services, and bring perpetrators to justice.

Over the last 25 years, IJM has helped us see the scope of the problems of injustice in the world. 4 billion people live outside the protection of the law. More than 40 million people are held in slavery today. One in four of them is a child. Human trafficking generates revenues of about $150 billion dollars per year. Two thirds of that is from commercial sexual exploitation.

IJM is moved by Jesus, though, to push back and to liberate. IJM has rescued more than 17,000 people from forced labor slavery. They’ve rescued more than 3,600 people from commercial sex trafficking. The facts are great. But the stories are better. My family are something called Freedom Partners with IJM, which means that we send a little money their way every month, and we get to read stories again and again of liberation.

I want you to hear and see one of these stories today. So let’s cue up that five minute video we have prepared. Our church supports IJM’s field office in Ghana. When we restarted our church partnership with IJM, we had the choice to connect to the work of a particular field office, and we chose their office in Ghana to honor the number of West Africans and Americans from West Africa in our congregation at Reservoir.

The center of IJM’s work in Ghana right now is rescuing children from slavery in the country’s fishing industry. Almost 10% of Ghana’s population of 25 million people live on less than $2/day, creating some of the conditions that make children vulnerable to child slavery. I want you to see and hear the story of one child:

The Deep Place from International Justice Mission on Vimeo.

There’s something especially horrible about a child’s experience of injustice, whether it be a small thing like the neighborhood bullying I described, or a really large thing like a child pulled into slavery. And something so good about justice, dignity, and freedom brought to bear here.

And to understand why this story is such good news here, let’s pause for just a second and think about our series on an embodied faith. Imagine for a moment that you were on that rescue boat cutting across the waters of Lake Volta, the one that had the IJM and law enforcement personnel on it that rescued Foli.

What would you want to do for him? Would you want to tell him God loves him and then leave him with his uncle? Would you hope to tell him about the love of Jesus – uplift his soul in some way – but leave his body a slave? Of course not. You’d want to bring him into your boat, put your arm around him, comfort him, restore him to the safety and love of his grandfather and his hometown, to make sure he is protected and provided for. All of this you’d see as the love of God for him, right?

Well, Jesus is no different. Jesus, as the perfect image of the invisible God, the accurate, embodied, human reflection of the love and character of our eternal God, announces his mission as the year of God’s favor – a time for good news, for freedom, for healing and sight to the blind, and for liberation. Not just freedom for our souls or spirits, but for our whole persons. Remember what I taught two weeks ago – we’re all one thing. You can’t split up a person into different parts without losing something. And Jesus loves the whole of who we are and is determined to liberate and heal the whole of who we are, that all of us, in our whole personhood can know and embody all of God’s goodness and love.

If Jesus were in that boat, he would have done the same as we would. In fact, I suggest that in a way, Jesus was in that rescue boat, through the hands and feet and bodies and of Foli’s liberator. Just as Jesus was in the boat with Foli, when he suffered the pain and confusion of captivity. Because Jesus is always in the boat with us. God is with us. And Jesus is particularly in fellowship with the marginalized and oppressed and suffering, and Jesus is with the people who continue his embodied mission to bring good news, to heal, and to liberate.

You’re going to have a chance in just a little bit to join my family and to join Reservoir Church and to get behind the work of International Justice Mission today, if you like, to become what IJM calls a Freedom Partner, a participant in this work of liberation. But before I share that invitation, and a few others, I want to be clear that joining Jesus in God’s work of good news liberation is not just an *out there* issue that happens among the globally most desperately poor.

To join Jesus in this year of God’s favor, this season of Freedom Jubilee, is a daily work for us everywhere, in our minds, our bodies, and our communities.

I was with a group of clergy not long ago, and we were sharing scriptures and stories for why we do what we do, and a colleague of mine, a rabbi, told the story of his own bar mitzvah when he was coming of age as a boy. Have you ever been to a bar mitzvah? They’ve long, you know. My first one was a bat mitzvah technically, for one of our neighbor’s daughters. And Grace and I sat through like a three-hour Saturday morning service, almost entirely in Hebrew. And later on as we kind of delicately asked our neighbor if that’s how it usually went, she was like, Oh, sorry, I didn’t tell you, almost nobody stays for the whole thing. People kind of come and go, as they like, and make sure they’re there for the end, in time for when we break for the big meal.

So last time I went back to that same synagogue for another bar mitzvah, we took donut breaks and just made sure we were there for the big moment, which – at every bar mitzvah, is when the teen or preteen reads from the scriptures in Hebrew, and gives a short teaching about that scripture, how to understand it and live it in the world. Kind of like we heard Jesus do earlier. Except the kids don’t usually say, “Now’s the time. I’m the one.” Well, maybe the funny ones do. I don’t know. I haven‘t seen that.

Anyway, my colleague told us that his bar mitzvah scripture was from the prophet Micah, the sixth chapter, the eighth verse, where after the prophet tells the people that God doesn’t need all their religious practice, he says what God does want is this:

Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

And this rabbi said that his mother made him promise to add “and your fellow man” to the end of the verse. So what he actually proclaimed, in Hebrew, was “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God and your fellow man.” He told us, ever since my bar mitzvah, this has been my life story, and my life’s work.

Which was fun for me to hear today, because not being Jewish, I never got a bar mitzvah, but this line from Micah is at the heart of my life calling as well. I’ve shared many times that in my late 20s, when I was unemployed, unaccomplished, and at the peak of my vocational and financial anxieties, afraid my life would be a failure, I had this game-changing experience at sunrise along the ocean, when I had a clear sense of the inner voice of God assuring me that I already knew my life calling, that it wasn’t tied to any particular job, but that I would could a life committed to healing and justice and wellness – my own and others. And this verse was part of how I knew that to be true.

That my own life story and work was to be connected to God, not in any grandiose or overly certain way as if I had no doubt, but to stay with faith, to humbly walk with God. And that my life story was to love mercy, to get excited about love and generosity and gentleness and goodness wherever it was to be found in me, or in anyone else. And that my life story was to be part of doing justice, to be an opportunity maker, a way maker, a restorer of things lost and taken.

In this violent world, Jesus gives us the good news both that we are to be healed and liberated, and that we are to be healers and liberators.

It’s been sixteen years since that experience I refer to, and my own track record isn’t particularly accomplished or anything in living this life call. I’m no Gary Haugen history maker or anything, but what I have discovered is that injustice and the oppression of our bodies isn’t just found in far-off, dark corners of the world, but all around us. And so the opportunity to be freedom makers and liberators abounds as well.

This is true in our city, in our workplaces, on our computer and phone screens, and even in our mirrors.

We learned about Foli’s story today, but do you know where the greatest amount of human slavery, and child slavery occurs in our world today? Certainly the industry in which human slavery is generating the most profits?

It’s in the human sex trafficking industry. Where every day, poor families in debt are tricked to turning over their children to traffickers, where kids are lured into child brothels, or increasingly more common, into rooms where they disrobe or perform sexual acts on camera for pornography consumers all around the world.

IJM works on freeing people from the sex trafficking industry too. Our Boston prayer event earlier this year zeroed in on this issue. But even without supporting IJM, each of us can contribute to the reduction of child slavery and sex trafficking by simply not being a consumer of pornography. That actually helps.

I’m not a big fan of pornography’s impact on users. From research and sadly, from a little experience as well, I’m convinced that porn has a corrupting influence on our sexuality. It makes it more misogynistic, more selfish, more compulsive, less relational, and generous. But apart from that, the research and writing seems clear that porn consumption drives world sex trafficking. Your clicks and streaming on your phone or laptop are part of an economic chain that drives rape, abuse, oppression, and slavery.

So listen, I don’t want to shame anyone here, but what we do or don’t do with our technology and our sexuality has an impact on other people’s freedom or slavery. I think we need to know that if we want to be good news, freedom partners.

Once we embrace an embodied faith, and once we own justice and mercy as central to God’s life for us, once we understand that Jesus is still on mission with the year of God’s favor and freedom, we can see the opportunity to be freedom partners, and justice makers everywhere we go.

In our companies’ HR and benefit offices. In our town’s zoning policies and local schools. In this fall’s elections. Maybe even in your mirror. I’ve been kind of obsessed for the past twelve months with the accounts of those of us who have had harm done to our bodies. I have my own experience with sexual abuse, and there’s been #metoo, and #churchtoo, and our own Speak Out Sunday about sexual assault and violence at Reservoir, and now this past week another wave of stories about violence done to our bodies and what happens when apologies are made or not, when amends are made or not, when the truth comes out and justice is done, or not.

For those of us who had done violence to someone else’s body, and that’s some of you – you’re terrified to admit it because of the fear and the shame, but for those who have done harm to someone else’s body, there’s no freedom for you without some kind of confession and attempt at justice or amends. This may be super-complicated, but I’ve said this before, if that’s you than as your pastor, I want to talk to you. You need to see me.

And for those of us who have had harm done to our bodies, and that’s many of us, freedom might even come when we look in the mirror, and with the help of God and friends and therapy try to see our body as beautiful and sacred again. It might come when we recover our voice and tell our story, when we learn that our truth is worth hearing, when we find an area to fight and gain our strength again.

If that’s your story, this is a sermon, not trauma therapy, so I want to leave it at that for now, but know that you have the fellowship of a tender mother God who will hold and comfort you. You have the fellowship of Jesus, God in our body, who knows the experience of violation, and is close with us as our friend and advocate.

Know too that you are loved and valued in this community. Know that you have the support and the prayers of your pastors. And know that we’ll believe you when you speak out.

Let me close before we pray. Take out your programs again. Two invitations for you. The first:

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

Humbly walk with Jesus by pursuing freedom and justice in your home, in your workplace, in your city, and in your world. See today’s half sheet for specific next steps.

Take a look at that half sheet. We’ve given you ways to give. This is how you become a freedom partner, it’s like $24/month or more of steady giving to IJM. This is a joy for my family, I hope it will be for you. There are ways to show up. Our church will be organizing for criminal justice reform, for protection for immigrants, for equitable health care costs, and more in Greater Boston this fall, and we’d love for you to be part of those efforts. And there are ways to learn more. You can get an overview of what Reservoir is up to on the “Neighboring and Justice” part of our website, or join your community group in some Bible studies and materials our pastors have prepared to engage our community in learning, talking, and praying about being part of Jesus’ call to freedom, justice, and mercy.

Please don’t drop this half sheet in the recycling on the way out. Hold onto it, pray about it, do something with it.

And lastly, our

Spiritual Practice of the Week:

Dare to see each human body you see this week as sacred, worthy of love, mercy, and protection.

Incarnation: God Embodied

So I’m 33 weeks pregnant now, and this pregnancy thing is very weird. I’ve got a human body living inside of my body. And by now, I can feel and see her move and it’s sweet and all, but it’s also kind of creepy. Like the movie Alien, from way back in the day. They had this one monster that has a mouth come out of a mouth, and I remember as a kid I used to stick my hand under my shirt and imitate the movie and creep people out. And pregnancy is kind of like that! Just kidding — it’s much sweeter obviously. But she’s in there and she lets me know.

Like the other day: I made myself a bowl of oatmeal, sat down on my couch, and was eating like this, and all of sudden, she gave this huge kick to the bowl! I picked up the bowl with my hand and realized it was really hot. She was like, “OW Umma! That’s hot!” I felt so bad.

Her existence, her presence within me, I’ll be honest, sometimes I forget, I try to squeeze through between a table and chair like a used to, and hit my tummy, but she lets me know. Punching me, kicking me, nudging, I’m here Umma! Even hiccuping, and I can feel her rhythmic hiccuping in my belly. She is there.

We’re talking about Embodied Faith as our sermon series this fall. And rooted in this concept of Embodied Faith is the central theological notion of the Incarnation.

The Christian faith believes that God became incarnate: God came to earth, in flesh and blood in the form of a human being — namely, as Jesus.

John 1:14 says:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

God decided to show up in a body! To say, hey! I’m here! This is me! See? The visible reality of an invisible God.

Incarnation of Jesus: God Embodied

Starting out much like my soon-to-be-born daughter — kicking in Mary’s womb, then out into this world as a boy, as a man, as a human being. The fact that God decided to reveal Godself in and through the human form of Jesus, what does that mean for us? What implications does that have? What does that say about who God is? And how does that impact what we think about God? How does it matter to us?

It matters and it matters greatly, because, it means, matter matters. God doesn’t just exist as a far and distant being, watching little earthlings play house. God decided to enter into it, become a part of it. Because earth matters to God. Human beings matter to God.

I think the fact that God became human is such a big deal. And we don’t talk about it enough in churches sometimes because we’re busy elevating Jesus as a divine, and he is, the creeds say, fully divine, but it also says fully human and fully divine. But I feel like we’re afraid of talking about Jesus’ humanity. Christians are so busy solidifying what theologians and scholars call a “high Christology”, that sometimes we’ve made Jesus unrelatable, God untouchable, and therefore us removed and untouched by the holy divine. Actually, the stories of Jesus straight from the gospels describe a Jesus that’s much more human, a special human for sure, but a human. So let me start us off by talking about the humanity of Jesus, focusing on his biblical title: Son of Man. And then we’ll touch on what implications that has for matter and spirit, and what that means for each of us.

The Humanity of Jesus: Son of Man

One of the main ways we know who Jesus is and all that he represented is through the Gospels — the stories and eyewitness events of interactions with Jesus on earth. And in the Gospels, there are many cues to who Jesus really is. Jesus would ask, “who do you say I am?” There are confessions of disciples, proclaiming who he is. And Pilate asked Jesus on a trial, “Are you the king of Jews?” So who is Jesus, according to the gospels?

I want to bring to our attention to this title that Jesus used over and over again to describe himself: “Son of Man”. Son of Man is the primary title Jesus used for himself. It appears some 80 times in the Gospels. It is used from the mouth of Jesus more than any other titles like “Son of God” or “Messiah” or “The Lord”, which others used to describe him. But to Jesus, Son of Man was important to him. So what does it mean?


It’s interesting how tradition changes meanings of words over time, and carry one meaning for one generation and a whole new meaning for another. Like our own slangs or new trending terms. Like POC: person of color is an acceptable and even preferable term nowadays, whereas back in the day a “colored person” was considered a 2nd class citizen — now a reclaimed word. And when we read the Bible, we have to be aware that this actually happens a LOT because language changes over time. I know I talk about this, probably every time I preach, but words are important! And oftentimes, it does not mean what we think it means.

It’s uncertain what “Son of Man” meant in Jesus’ time. It’s been used here and there in the Old Testament but not with clarity. The important thing is how it was used by Jesus.

In Mark 14, a high priest asks him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”

Jesus replies, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” which was a throwback to an Old Testament text,

Daniel 7:13 that says, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.”

The Aramaic phrase used here, bar enash, simply means “human being”. But one important change Jesus does with it was that he added a definite article, The Son of Man. He was saying, the most human one, the ultimate human being! It’s almost as though he coined the term right then and there, like a superhero, coming to terms with their own power, decides, yes, I shall call myself, spidy? No. The human Spider? No no, I’ve got it. The Spider Man!

The Son of Man. The Human One. Jesus was showing us what it meant to be the most human!

A New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk grounds his emphasis on the humanity of Jesus with this, in his book titled, A Man Attested by God: the Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. He says that the self-identified title, “Son of Man” is a cue to us the readers, that Jesus should be first and foremost seen and recognized as an idealized human figure, as exhibited by the gospel accounts. He claims that this is the better way of reading the gospels, not with the modern day assumptions of Jesus as the 2nd person in the trinity, shaped by later interpretations, but to simply take as it presents, Jesus as a human being, one who has obviously been anointed with special powers of miracles and healings, but nevertheless a human. He’s not arguing the divinity of Christ, as many jump to when discussing humanity of Jesus, rather he only suggests to take it as it is first, and the following implications of who is Jesus really, actually, has even a wider deeper meaning when we highlight the full humanity of Jesus.

The genius of Jesus wasn’t that he was so holy, but actually that he was too down to earth, too nitty gritty, all together too human. That was the confusion and the frustration of those who criticized him. They didn’t recognize such a human divine .”Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (John 6:42)  They couldn’t accept such messy savior, that looked too much like us. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)

But the fact that God became human, God incarnated, God was embodied, meant that now it changed everything about what it is to be human. It meant that now, human and divine were one. United.

Unity of the Matter and Spirit: The Ascending AND Descending

Spirituality, religion, and philosophy all have usually two strands of thinking: “ascending” or “descending”. This is taken from one of my favorite thinkers, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest. He talks about how most of our occupation in religion is caught up either in ascending — grasping at the holy lofty things, or descending — focusing on the earthly things, the moment is all that matters. Rarely does it do both. The Buddhist tradition detaches oneself to all earthly attachments and joys, in order to be completely emptied, thereby reaching Nirvana. Even in the Christian tradition, people often get preoccupied with the afterlife only, salvation meaning “a ticket to heaven after death”. But Jesus, Jesus did both, in being completely locked in with his Father God, and anchored and diving in into the world. Richard Rohr says that, “Incarnation refers to the synthesis of matter and spirit.”

The distinction we like to make, the sacred and the secular, Jesus smashed it into one in himself. We keep trying to go up, ascend, and then realize, that God is down here, right here! That’s the meaning of incarnation. Another quote by Rohr, he says:

“The Gospel communicated a most surprising and totally counterintuitive, message: We should and we can trust the pattern of the divine self-emptying into matter. Further, if we would but “imitate God” (Ephesians 5:1) in this regard and say a loving and allowing yes to our embodied selves and this material world, in all its beautiful diversity, we would not need to flee it to find God elsewhere.”

Because when we realize this, we see that God is right here.

In John 1:49-51, “Nathanael confessed, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’… And Jesus said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.'” (John 1:49-51)

Again, Jesus materfully is doing a throwback to the Hebrew Scripture in Genesis 28:12, Jacob’s ladder:

“He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

Essentially Jesus is calling himself the stairway to heaven, the connector, the uniter.

These are moments when heaven and earth met. The unity of matter and spirit. God incarnate means ascending and descending between the heavens and the earth, and they are one. That’s what it means for God to be embodied.

So what does it mean now that matter and spirit are united? It means you matter.

Result: The Sacredness of YOU

That means God is reclaiming all earthly things as holy things! God is in the business of divinizing, sacramentalizing ordinary things into extraordinary things! Jesus’ resurrection meant that bodies are reclaimed from ordinary death to extraordinary eternal life! And he held simple, man made things like bread and wine, and notice it wasn’t something like dirt or water, existing natural things, but human processed food that was made from the work of hands, dough kneaded by hand and baked with accuracy, and grapes stomped by feet and aged with science precision to make wine, he held bread and wine and made them sacred things. “This is my body,” he says.

That means God is saying, this is mine, human things are mine. That mean our withering bodies that will fade away, are God’s. That means, your social studies, scientific discoveries, technology and artistic creativity are mine.  Don’t you know that I have made you holy? That means black and brown bodies are mine and holy, bearing the image of God. That mean sexually exploited bodies are mine. That mean exploited workers and their hands are mine. It means our culture, our ethnicities, our pride, our heritage, our traditions, our mundaneness, our jobs, are all made sacred by the living God who walked the earth, died and resurrected, reclaiming all things.

But it is hard to believe it sometimes, in this broken world. We’re told that we’re not good enough and we doubt and fear our God-given holiness as we are. We think we always need to be something else. Self hatred and rejection of our own bodies is a real struggle. I’ve experienced this as I’ve struggled being Asian. Recently there was a movie called Crazy Rich Asians and it brought things up for people about self rejection. Here’s a Twitter confession that resonated with so many emotionally. Let me read the series of tweets for you. @Kimmythepooh says:

I’ve had my own, you don’t wanna be […] anymore. I don’t wanna be Korean anymore. I don’t want to be Lydia anymore.  I wish I was a white man(white aspiration is real). I hate that I was born into this world, to a poor family, in this stupid body that I’m stuck in. I don’t wanna be alive anymore.

I think seeing God as Jesus, as a human being, is like seeing Crazy Rich Asian as an Asian American. Representation matters! Jesus showed up as a vulnerable baby, to a unwed single mom, without a crib.

At the end of the day, the reason why we’re so afraid to really recognize the humanity of Jesus is because that means holiness is too close and I no longer have an excuse or an out. Follow Jesus, What would Jesus do? Well, yeah that’s Jesus. He’s God! And me, I’m just me. Mere human being. “Spirit is willing but my flesh is so weak,” we say. That’s a false dichotomy that’s not from Christian understanding, but as Steve mentioned last week, is a remnant and influence of Greek philosophy; Plato’s division of the soul and body heavily heavily influenced modern ways of thinking, and have even shaped our theology. But that is not what God was doing. God was making our hearts, mind, strength, and all to be in union with him, as seen by exhibit A — Jesus. Here is an example: fully human, fully divine. It’s possible! When we admit this, we have no excuse to be not extraordinary.

Let me end with one of my favorite quotes by Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. . . . You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. God is here. God is within us. Do you believe that?

You don’t really ever feel something else truly within you like pregnancy. “Christ in me” is such a metaphor. And then this pregnancy things really brings it to a lived reality of what it means to always be united with something else. That umbilical cord is like the stairway to heaven, connecting me to the baby inside. She didn’t exist before. She came into being in my body. She, the concept of her, an imagination, embodied herself within me. We’re constantly united and in communication. And even then, I forget sometimes. And so even though we know God is with us, I know we forget sometimes. That the incarnate God is in union with us. We don’t believe it, until God nudges or kicks, and we feel a bump, and we’re like, oh yeah, hi God.

Let’s believe it, that God is here. Right here within us. They say it’s good for me to talk to the baby, to get ready for her, to welcome her to this world. Let’s try the same to God within us. I think that’s kind of like prayer.

Head, Heart, Hands

All That You Are Matters

Today we start a two-month series we’re calling An Embodied Faith. It’s about an exploration of life where all that we are matters. Where everything about the human body and mind and consciousness is spiritual. Where religion and spirituality speak to the whole earth and everything in it, and where our experience of everything and everyone in the earth can speak back to our religion as well. Embodied faith says that who and what we call God loves all the earth, and all of ourselves, and all of our neighbor.

Embodied faith is maybe easiest to grasp when we contrast it with disembodied faith. Disembodied faith thinks that the proper subject of religion or spirituality is something separate from our bodies that we might call the human soul or spirit. Disembodied faith thinks this is what God cares about: getting this part of us into heaven when we die, rescuing human souls from the inevitable destruction of everything else on earth. The God of a disembodied faith does not necessarily take interest in or love the whole of the earth, the whole of our neighbors, or even the whole of ourselves. So disembodied faith says we don’t need to either. Disembodied faith is dominant in the most common and powerful strains of American religious life, past and present. But it is toxic and limiting and not true to the liberating, good news of Jesus.

These two months we’ll make the case for the good news of an embodied, Jesus-centered faith and see where that takes us as we consider the implications for how we view and experience our own whole selves, our longings for justice and freedom, our experience of disability and trauma and more.

Let me start, though, with a story. A story of my body.

I’ve had the strange experience this year of being diagnosed with ADHD as a 44-year old. It’s weird to pick up a new diagnostic label so late in life, to learn this thing about myself now that explains so much looking back, but that I never knew.

Here’s how it happened.

I was telling a mentor of mine about the stress I sometimes still experience around writing and around preparing to speak in public. It’s not the actual speaking. I’m not stressed right now, I enjoy this. It’s the preparation, and the writing, the pulling things together I was talking about. And it was awkward for me to say this out loud to someone. Because I speak a lot – it’s part of my job now and of most jobs I’ve had for more than twenty years. And I write a lot too, and I used to be a teacher of writing, professionally. So that was awkward — to admit stress in this thing I was supposed to be an expert in.

I also don’t like admitting weakness in myself, that something is hard for me. I took a lot of pride when I was young at things that came easily, and I tend to experience my problems and failings and challenges with a lot of shame. If I can’t easily do something that’s important to me, I instinctively – right away – start asking what’s wrong with me. And how I need to fix it.

So I’m telling all this to this friend, and I’m kind of spiritualizing it a bit too. Like maybe I need to pray better or trust God better in my stress patterns, and my friend was like: Hey, it’s not my place to diagnose you, but have you ever wondered if there might be a simpler explanation for this, like maybe you just have ADHD. And he explained to me that it’s not that unusual that people who are hitting new challenges in mid-life can learn they have ADHD, which was not as much of a problem, or at least not diagnosed, when they were younger. This was intriguing to me, that there might be a body-brain explanation for something I’d seen as some kind of spiritual or even maybe moral deficit in me.

Now, for reasons we’ll look at next month in my talk on faith and disability, it took me two or three years from this conversation to actually get diagnosed, and then almost by accident.

But wouldn’t you know it, I passed the ADHD test with flying colors. I looked back and remembered that when I was a kid, I’d stand there sometimes with so much energy that I would shake my hands. I would get so hyper my parents would tell me to go run laps around our house. I used to lose stuff constantly too, well into my adult years, sometimes still now. Younger me was super-skilled and hyperfocused at things I liked and that came naturally and had next to zero skill and motivation for all the other things. Still true, on the whole. On and on it goes.

So with this ADHD label, my first thought, I think, Ah, this starts to explain some things. And then my second thought is, You know, I’m kind of curious about this part of myself. And so I’ve been learning about my ADHD brain and body. I’ve been learning I’m not just this bright, motivated guy who’s got all these screw-up parts of my life I’m ashamed of. That’s how I used to see myself.

Instead, I realize, hey, I’ve got the brain and body and personality that I have, and this ADHD piece is one part of that story. Part of what makes me, me. Annoying sometimes, for sure, but part of the man that I am, part of this person that God loves, just as I am. God doesn’t love my spirit or my soul but hate the brain and body I have. I am one thing. Just like every other human alive, you can’t split me up into matter and spirit, loved by God and not, or any other pieces.

And I’m learning that to manage my ADHD, to sort of get the best out of it but not let it hijack me, isn’t just a bodily or spiritual thing either, as if you could separate those. The same exercise that helps my brain focus gives me more joy and focus in prayer, and sometimes I experience it as a form of worship. And the same spiritual exercises that help me follow Jesus also unburden my mind and help me live with more peace and health in my body.

Like you, I’m one thing, a whole and embodied person.

Disembodied faith would tell us to not pay so much attention to our bodies or brains or contexts. They’re not so spiritual or important. Just believe in Jesus, pray.

But embodied faith gives us permission to bring our whole selves to the table, and approach God in a way that validates and nourishes the whole of our bodies and the whole of our unique life experience, and equips us to flourish and be agents of the flourishing of our neighbor and of our world.

These two choices aren’t just two ways of seeing ourselves, though. They’re actually rooted in two different ways of seeing God.

The Moved God

Disembodied faith tells us that God is all powerful and all knowing and never changing, that the good news of Jesus can be reduced to a simple formula that saves our soul, and therefore tells us that God doesn’t care about all of us, all of our body, all of our life context and experience. A disembodied faith’s God has more of a one-size-fits-all approach to people.

This has been a dominant way that Western culture at least has understood the divine, going way back to Plato, who thought of the divine in terms of a some kind of distant, unchanging spiritual ideal. And Aristotle, who imagined the divine to be an unmoved mover, that which shapes all events in the universe without ever being affected by them. The Christian faith, as it accommodated and acculturated to these Greek ideals, gives us a disembodied God.

But I’d argue that the God that Jesus worships and embodies, and the God that the Bible bears witness to isn’t like this at all. I think in Lydia’s talk next week, there will more about Jesus, but we’ll start today with a poem about God.

It’s a poem that was so beloved or so important that it’s one of the only things the Bible editors thought to include twice, pretty much word for word.

They thought it said so much about God too that even though these words were written down in the 8th or 7th century, they are put in the mouth, or the pen, of one of the Bible’s most epic figures from a couple hundred or more years earlier, King David. Now I kind of trashed David all summer, but — love or hate him — he’s a big deal in the Bible’s story and symbolism. And in this poem, we learn about the kind of God David was said to worship, and the kind of God the Bible again and again portrays. 

Let’s read it.

II Samuel 22:1-20 (NRSV)

David sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. 2He said:

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
3my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation.
He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior—
    from violent people you save me.

4“I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and have been saved from my enemies.
5The waves of death swirled about me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
6The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

7“In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I called out to my God.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came to his ears.
8The earth trembled and quaked,
    the foundations of the heavens shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
9Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
10He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
11He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
12He made darkness his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
13Out of the brightness of his presence
    bolts of lightning blazed forth.
14The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
15He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
16The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at the rebuke of the Lord,
    at the blast of breath from his nostrils.

17“He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
18He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
19They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
20He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Do you hear it? The God David sings to is not an unmoved mover, unchanging, unemotional, stoically floating out somewhere in the universe, disinterested in the particulars of David’s culture and context and experience.

No this God is a God who changes course and acts in history. David says: in my distress, I called out to God, and then he listened to me, and then he started doing stuff he wasn’t doing before that. God hears a cry of distress, and God wakes up, or changes his mind, or gets started doing this intervention that God either hadn’t previously planned on doing or at least wasn’t doing beforehand. This is like a template for the Bible’s language about God – responsive, really particular, present in the moment.

This is also not an unmoved God. A God of just steady intellect or theory. This is a God who feels, and feels and acts with a kind of passion. David looks back on his life and borrows the central event of the Hebrew scriptures, the Exodus of his ancestors through the sea out of slavery, to symbolize God’s help for him in his own difficulties. And as he works this metaphor, he imagines that the hot breath of passion out of God’s nostrils parts the sea for the formerly enslaved children of God to march across into freedom. When I was starting to read the Bible a lot, this was one of my favorite images, the one of this song – which you find here and in Psalm 18 as well. It’s God like a dragon – hot breath out of angry nostrils, fire out of his mouth. God feels that much.

Now beyond the metaphor, God feels here about injustice and suffering. This is a God who cares about the whole human condition. The exodus, after all, was not in response to a crisis in religious freedom, or a need to get people praying more. It was a response to injustice and a need for liberation – not about souls, prayer, heaven, or all the other important stuff that disembodied faith limits its interest to. God cares about that stuff, but God cares about all the things, all of us, and – the arc of scripture says – especially about those that cry out in distress under injustice.

Speaking of God’s fond response to a distress cry, this is also a God who likes someone. David says, God was my support. When trouble penned him in, when he was confined and shrunken by stress and fear, God brought him to a spacious place. I love that image. That all of us, in our circumstance-imposed stress, and our self-imposed business and busyness and diminishment could hope for God to lead us into spaciousness, outer freedom sure, but also inner freedom and peace. Beautiful.

But whatever all this meant to David, whatever form his sense of God’s rescue took, he says God did it because he liked me. That liking he knows from God, that love isn’t cool or abstract but it’s formed and colored by affection and pleasure. What we translate from Hebrew as “delight” tries to capture the mind and the heart of God toward God’s kids. A smile of affection, a kind of I can’t help but be kind and generous to my kids. Look at ‘em, aren’t they great?

At risk of repeating myself, here’s what this means. God is not some kind of abstract, unmoved force or spirit who sent his son as with a formula to get his kids out of this hellhole and into heaven. God contains all the passion and wisdom and affection that comes with the best and deepest and highest love that God is. God is interested in and responsive to, God engages with, all that we are – our eternal destiny, our present challenges, our joys and our distress, our minds, our spirits, and our bodies – our whole indivisible selves.

Mind, Emotions, Body

One of the brightest and kind of geekiest people I know is one of my very best friends, who happens to be a graduate of MIT, just on the other side of Cambridge. And he wears his MIT class ring with pride. It’s got that beaver on it they call the brass rat. And my friend John at least tells me that stands for engineering focus of the school and its motto – Mens et Manus. Mind and Hand, or Head and Hand. And that motto has had an important place in my friend’s ongoing career in academia – where he’s argued that great scholarship, great work of the head, should find its connection to innovative application – to the work of the hands, the work of our bodies in the world. Just mind, just head, just intellect isn’t good enough for a university. It needs the hand, the body, expressive action in the world as well.

And that’s part way there, isn’t it, but not enough, because it doesn’t name the heart. I’ve followed closely through the campus ministry of our own Adam and Mary Reynolds the developments at MIT in recent years, where student problems of stress, and sleeplessness, and mental health challenges, and suicidality have been named as crises that call for a response of not just the head, or the hand, but the heart.

So I gather that this year’s class rings, the MIT Class of 2018 brass rat, had another motto on them as well – TMAYD. Tell Me About Your Day. A slogan members of this class tried to popularize on campus. Tell Me About Your Day – it’s a call to community, to empathy, to heart, really. Because we’re people of head, hand, and heart, people of mind, emotions, and body. All of that is made in the image of God. All of that is who we are. All of that is who God loves.

Disembodied faith in an abstract God can be reduced to assent to a creed, saying a certain prayer, or believing certain words and that’s it. You have faith. It’s simple, I guess, but not very interesting, not very helpful, I’d argue.

Embodied faith, though, is engagement. It’s what Jesus famously called loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Loving God with what we say we believe, sure. But also loving God with how we trust or feel, and even loving God – engaging in faith – with stuff we do, regardless of whether it’s even backed by any belief or feeling in the moment. Some people say faith is what they believe. For one guy I know, when people ask him what it means to have Jesus-centered faith, he’s like I don’t know what I believe, actually. That’s complicated. But I know I build a sukkot every fall. He – though he’s not Jewish – takes part in this Jewish seasonal ritual of community and connection to the land and gratitude to God. He’s like that’s how I engage in faith right now.

This speaks to me as I figure out and come to peace with my ADHD. Faith to me these days includes letting go of shame that parts of my brain are defective. It involves embracing that parts of what I love about myself are actually tied to some things I haven’t loved about myself, but coming to understand that God likes me in all of that. Embodied faith for me is learning more deeply that my practice of exercise and friendship and prayer and Bible reading and social justice advocacy are all tied together, all part of how I engage in faith and love the God who likes me with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I want to tell you one last story as I wrap up of a holistic faith helping us engage with our whole self. How embodied faith can affirm and free our interests and help spark a joyful life.

It’s the story of a fellow seminary drop out, but one that I heard on the NPR podcast for entrepreneurs called How I Built This. The story of Bob Moore, the kindly old man whose face you see on all his products in the store, the beans and whole grains and baking mixes sold by his company, Bob’s Red Mill.

Bob early in his life was not a seller of foods or miller of grains, but he was a businessman. He owned and operated a gas station and sold tires for a while and kind of accidentally picked up an interest in healthy eating, whole grain breads, and the old technology of stone ground grains.

Bob Moore also had a Jesus-centered faith and as he approached 50, he didn’t need to work quite as much and wanted to learn how to read the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, so he enrolled in seminary. And what he discovered, or was reminded of as he studied Greek was that God is a God of truth and that all truth is God’s truth.

And Bob was like, you know this stuff about whole grains matters to me, and you can actually read about whole grains here and there on in the Bible, and for me, faith is going to mean making and selling healthier grains in my time. And so Bob Moore engaged in his embodied faith, which included passions about nutrition and technology and healthy eating. Stuff of the world. Stuff of the body. And stuff of God’s interests as well. And as he ran a business, Bob Moore was like this business practice can be part of my faith engagement too, and he celebrated his 81st birthday by transferring a bunch of his profits to every one of his employees.

Because he thought if I’m going to love my neighbor with a good for the world product, I’m going to love my employee neighbors by having us share the profits too.

All of this — an embodied faith.

We’ll keep on this for a few weeks as we look at what it means for God to take on a body, and what all this embodied faith means for freedom and social justice and body image and disability and mortality and more.

But for today, as we just get started, I’d love to close with two invitations for you.

One, I’m calling this week’s tip for whole life flourishing, which is to task:

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing: What part of yourself or your life have you considered beneath or outside of God’s attention? Imagine God takes interest in this. What does that say to you?

What would engaging this part of you with some kind of faith look like?

And secondly, what I’m calling our spiritual practice of the week, is this:

Spiritual Practice of the Week: Each day, take ten minutes to consider that God delights in you. God likes your whole self – head, heart, and hand; mind, emotions, and body – with affection. How do you react?