Zoom Church

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In the last year much has been written and discussed regarding how the COVID virus and quarantines have impacted how we worship, interact, and live as the community of God. The pandemic has not been the only thing, however, that has altered the way my family worships on Sundays. Church hurt has also contributed. Because of this, our family has been worshipping with a smaller group to maintain spiritual accountability. The pandemic, nevertheless, has certainly made it more problematic in terms of meeting together. Initially, our families met in small groups in homes, then outdoors when the weather warmed up. Later, we moved inside into our living rooms, donning masks and eliminating our Eucharistic meal in favor of the simplified cracker and juice.

The group we are meeting with is a bit of a mixture, but that is the kingdom of God, right? They have been a lifeline to me, providing encouragement, strength, and a reminder that we are bound by elements that transcend this world. They have been a stabilizing force at a time when I could easily have succumbed to debilitating discouragement.

As the weather warms up, some of us may be ready to take some baby steps forward in visiting other churches. Or not. Above all, we pray for our hearts to be protected. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us toward people who will minister to us, and to prepare us to minister to others. While I am deeply grateful for the people who have held my head above water, in a spiritual sense, it is difficult to foresee how long our particular version of faith and liturgy practices will continue. For now, zoom church is a solid place holder until we can return more fully into the life together, worshipping and serving in specifically embodied ways.

In the meantime, I am left with ambiguous feelings regarding our connection-disconnection. On the positive side, we have been persistent in meeting together, keeping tabs on one another, helping one another out in ways both small and large. Although it is not ideal, maintaining a connection with like-minded people of faith, with specific people, has been a rock-solid stabilizing force these last several months. On the less positive side, Zoom is awkward. It is difficult to have meaningful dialog with a group of people virtually and simultaneously, that is, living and engaging in the ordinariness of our daily life.While the technology is a blessing, it is also a barrier. The screen often feels to be a barrier to living incarnationally. At least to me. And yet we press on.

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

Jesus promised, “…where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) Virtual church may not be our primary or permanent way of worshipping. But does the Spirit remain with us even through a Zoom link? I believe the answer, beyond any feelings or social sensibilities, is yes! He does. Zoom seems to exacerbate the spiritual and emotional distance we feel from one another. Yet, with a proper theological understanding of God’s immanence, and an emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and suffering alongside us, we can more readily accept the mutuality of Christian service and leadership. Christ’s presence is the reality we are caught up into each time we participate in the communion. Even if we drink from Dixie cups.

Communion- the bread and the wine- the Eucharist- the body and blood of Christ

Because we have taken a bit of a break from institutionalized church, we have been freer to “try things on for size,” both in our thinking and in our practices. This has allowed some of our group, who may never have been given the opportunity, to find their voice and gain experience in presenting lessons, devotionals, and homilies.

We may soon be facing decisions around whether or not to disband or how to seek out established churches, but for now we are maintaining our current format. It is our basis for spiritual healing. We pray; one family leads us in song, accompanied simply by an acoustic guitar. We read scripture. We keep a rotating volunteer schedule for someone to lead us in our thoughts for the day. Past topics have been our newness in Christ, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the use of psalms as lament, an imaginative retelling of the demon possessed pigs, and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness for the start of Lent. We participate in communion and prayer with crackers and juice. Then, we circle back around to a discussion time around the devotional or homily.

Christians throughout the ages have survived various trials and challenges in meeting together: catacombs, hiding in homes, prisons, etc. Looking broadly at this will help us retain our hope and our faith in the future as the church. Not the revoking of religious or civil liberties, nor world wars, nor plagues or persecutions have irrevocably destroyed the faith of Christians. Those of us who claim the Resurrection as the historical and theological event around which our lives orbit will not be eradicated by lesser events in human history. If we are clear about why we gather, if our theology informs the weekly practice of the Eucharist, if we pray with an acknowledgement of Christ in our midst, then our hope will not be dependent on our current location, nor will it flounder in our current circumstance.

As individuals we may falter, but God’s church as a whole will continue, and we will meet in cathedrals, sanctuaries, store fronts, living rooms, parking lots and parks, on Facebook Live and Zoom calls until he makes his glorious appearance once again. Persistently, “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)

8 + 6 : favorite reads of 2020

Many people have expressed how different their reading habits were in 2020, particularly since the onset of the virus and subsequent quarantines. Some consumed heavy doses of sci-fi or dystopian worlds filled with plagues and conspiracy theories. Some read voraciously, but most friends I have heard from, found it difficult to maintain adequate concentration for sustained reading.

While I did not suffer from a lack of attention, I did notice a few changes. In 2020, I read considerably fewer novels. I was choosier in curating my reading list. This was a rough year in many ways for me. I craved books that would be spiritually healing, emotionally helpful, and communally engaging. Consequently, I enjoyed and valued almost every book I read this past year.

I primarily read theology, books on pastoral care, a handful of literary fiction, and some titles on history and racial justice. I guess I should also mention a few classics and young adult chapter books to keep up with my guys’ home school reads.

For any who are interested, I am including two book lists. The first list includes my, favorite eight books from this past year, which were published in 2019 or 2020. I include them alphabetically by title. Instead of writing descriptions, I have provided links to each of the titles. Technically, the first was just officially released January 2021, but I purchased a pre-order copy and finished reading it by mid December.

Art + Faith: A Theology of Making

Author: Makoto Fujimura

Publisher: Yale University Press, Jan. 2021

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Publisher: Random House, Aug. 2020

The Dutch House: A Novel

Author: Ann Patchett

Publisher: Harper, Sept. 2019

The Generosity: Poems

Author: Luci Shaw

Publisher: Paraclete Press, Aug. 2020

A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in An Age of Us Against Them

Author: Scott Sauls

Publisher: Thomas Nelson, June 2020

Jack: A Novel

Author: Marilynne Robinson

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept. 2020

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

Author: Esau McCauley

Publisher: InterVarsity Press Academic, Sept. 2020

Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians

Author: Lee C. Camp

Publisher: Eerdmans, Mar. 2020

This second list contains the six books from 2020 and 2021 that I am most looking forward to reading this year. One of them (How to Fight Racism) I have already started, and am, so far, enjoying it.

The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other

Author: Charlotte Donlon

Publisher: Broadleaf Books, Nov. 2020

How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice by [Jemar Tisby]

How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice

Author: Jemar Tisby

Publisher: Zondervan, Jan. 2021

Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Author: Laura M. Fabrycky

Publisher: Fortress Press, Mar. 2020

Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep

Author: Tish Harrison Warren

Publisher: InterVarsity Press, Jan. 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

Author: George Saunders

Publisher: Random House, Jan. 2021

Transcendent Kingdom: A Novel

Author: Yaa Gyasi

Publisher: Knopf, Sept. 2020

Would you care to share your favorite reads of 2020?

How did you choose what to read last year? Have you changed how or what or when you read?

What are you most looking forward to reading next?

The Incarnation in Suffering

Epiphany is over. Eastern Orthodox Christmas was yesterday. And now, even peace and goodwill to humanity seem quaint memories, long abandoned. After the violence and political unrest over the last couple of days, I have decided to post an entry from my recently published Advent journal in its entirety. I need to refocus my heart to see Jesus more clearly. From Immanuel:When God Was One of Us, what follows is December 15, “The Incarnation in Suffering.” Be kind and gentle with all you meet. The Lord is near.

For more information on this devotional, please go to https://www.amazon.com/Immanuel-When-God-Was-One/dp/0578728060/ref=nodl_

December 15

The Incarnation in Suffering

There is irony in Luke’s account of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds with their choral message of peace and good news. When the divine touched down on earth to save it, there was no immediate eradication of sin, violence or injustice. Instead, they seemed to be exacerbated. The darkness did not understand this peasant girl’s “bastard,” new-born son was the eternal light, the light of the world, for the world.

There is a grave irony in this child entering the world of the Pax Romana. The great Roman peace would eventually be unwilling to protect him, and would be culpable for his execution. Even shortly before his birth, Rome could not maintain the peace of its citizens in the outlying Jewish districts.

The birth of Jesus gripped King Herod the Great with fear. Here, in this helpless baby from Galilean parents, was a threat like no other he had experienced in his political career. The prophecies, though intangible, heightened his paranoia. Having already done away with his wife and numerous other family members, Herod met his problems head on.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted,

because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Why would God introduce his Son into the world in such a way? Why should there be the slaughter of innocents succeeding glad tidings of peace to all humanity? A mother who watched as her toddler is impaled, and flung to the side, would have a difficult time hearing the angelic herald:

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among

those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)

Still, today, the world reels with the pain and confusion of suffering and injustice. It is often the innocent who suffer. As we suffer, or watch others suffer, we question why God doesn’t intervene. We doubt his love, his justice, or his ability to protect us from the evil of the imperfect world in which we are trapped. This isn’t the first time in the text that other innocents have perished for the sake of the deliverer. As the Israelites cried out to Jehovah for salvation from the Egyptian bondage, God answers their cries. However, he answers them much later, four hundred years later than they expected, and not before hundreds of enslaved baby boys were left exposed to die, or be impaled, strangled, or dumped into the Nile River. With the death of Christ, the One died for the many. At the birth of Moses and Jesus, however, many died for the one.

It is like this today. Empires, and powers-that-be, will always engage in acts of self-preserving violence. At some point, the government or empire that God has ordained, will step out to be a god itself. Invariably, if questioned, power will react with oppression or violence. Empire claims God until God is the enemy. When power is threatened, ego lashes out in ugly ways. Public service lasts only until God himself is perceived as the threatening enemy. Empire acts from self-preservation, fear and bondage to absolute power. God always acts out of freedom and with love. It is not God who slaughters for the sake of his messenger, but empire.

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. (Matthew 2:3)

Can we, in the twenty-first century, imagine in the United States of America or in other powerful, democratic Western nations, a tyrant’s paranoia and fear infecting an entire city? Would an entire nation of people succumb to fear and bigotry simply at the prospect of someone or something destroying their way of life, their global prestige? Nations and empires have always been in the business of excluding others, frequently through dishonorable, or even violent, means. Yet God is determined to include us all: Magi and Jewish scholars, small town peasants and turncoat peddlers, sixth generation church members and struggling immigrants barely getting by.

The good news for us today, whether we are in the United States or modern-day Egypt, France or Uzbekistan, is that we do not have to make sense of fragile but powerful egos, nor monolithic political systems and religions. Matthew’s gospel tells us that some misguided but gentle wise men came from the East to meet a new king. Some historians believe them to be of the early monotheistic Zoroastrians. The crazed Herod, part Jewish, part Gentile sell-out to the Roman empire, offered little moral guidance. There is no proof which indicates the “right” religions are based on superior morality alone. If morality was the world’s salvation, we could all pick our favorite moral system, and the world could certainly be a better place. Only God is good, however. No, Jesus did not invade legal systems and political regimes in order to make us moral. He came to obliterate death and to elongate the bridge over sin and to unite us back with God.

So, there is no violence that will end our suffering. There is no oppression which will broker peace. We might be able to bandy about terms like “peace keepers,” “preemptive strikes,” “casualties of war,” or worse, “collateral damage,” in order to desensitize ourselves to the fact that we are bowing down to the idol of stability and empire. We might say the ends don’t always justify the means. Novelist Min Jin Lee, rather, says sins can’t be “laundered by good results.” Dirty is dirty, and our world of empire with some God poured on top has grown filthy.

Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, shows us the uncomfortable side of Christmas. After we wait through Advent, we are shocked when it isn’t all sweet and joyful. Much of Advent deals in oppression and injustice, and even death. For when the divine intersects with a hurting, blinded world, there will always be adverse reactions. Let us live, then, sighted, for a different world.

Christ came as Immanuel to embrace humanity. He came to be like us, so that God could re-create us like him. Christ did not come to topple tyrants and dictators. We are still left to live in the midst of them—for now. Rather, he came to walk about with us, work in our cubicle, be treated unjustly and to demonstrate acceptance in unforgiving, unaccepting regimes that insist on maintaining a firm grip on their power. Jesus came to demonstrate love, and to reveal the truth of his eternally established kingdom.

The story of Jesus’ birth goes from bad to worse, but Immanuel did not intersect the divine with the human for such shadowy reasons. Jesus meets us at the worst of times and ushers in a new way of being and a new way of waiting. Instead, Matthew insists that this is God’s story, and that regardless of how it appears now, he is the One for whom we are waiting. It is his Advent that gathers us about the evening candles, and they are his promises we cling to when the world seems overcome with the brutality and fear of empire.

***

Just and righteous God,

Although our empires cry out for violence, we long to live in the goodness of your peace. Instead of lashing out in fear, grant us patience that your righteousness will prevail. Grant us tolerance and compassion in this time of suspicion and intolerance. We pray for the Magi around us that you will protect their journey and that you will work through us to be channels of Christmas grace and peace for those who seek you. Give us courage to stand against imperial power, knowing that all truth is your truth, and all power belongs to you, oh good God!

Amen.

The Journey

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the travels of the wise men to meet a new kind of king. The true identity of this long-promised baby was revealed to these Easterners. I have always been curious what these foreigners expected from this infant visit. Did they know intuitively, or from their charts, that they were to be included in the promises as well?

It is difficult to focus on a church calendar when the obligations of the world’s calendars force us to turn the page prematurely. Our Christmas decorations are mostly still up in our house, but we started back slowly into our home school schedule yesterday. Depending on the boy, we are turning our attention back to fractions and decimals, Latin, British history, poetry, and Christian worldview studies. My husband is back to work, albeit from his home office. Our friends are in the process of moving, and we are having to say goodbye. My daily Bible reading has pulled me back into Genesis chapter one and Job. We need to make decisions about how to care for my mother-in-law who lives in an assisted living home. My oldest is about to graduate from high school. I don’t feel I have stepped through this year of COVID-19, social and political tensions with the focus and strength required to face 2021. That is, I may have more in common with these dazed magi than I initially might have imagined.

Detailing their thoughts on the return journey would be purely speculative. And yet, speculate is precisely what T.S. Eliot does in his 1927 poem, “Journey of the Magi.” Eliot speaks from the perspective of one of these travelers as they make the long journey homeward. They have experienced a kind of revelation, a conversion of sorts, in witnessing this tiny deity, but Eliot’s description is unsettling. There is an honesty and sobriety in the final lines. There is no jubilant feeling of triumph at a newborn king. There is both salvation and death, however; there is ache and weariness, but newness.

It is a fitting piece for me to read as we enter 2021, turning our backs on a rough year, but with precarious hope, facing a new calendar. As we near the end of Christmastide, listen here to the poet’s own voice as he portrays the world entering the gospel story.

JOURNEY OF THE MAGI

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

  • T.S. Eliot, 1927

How does this wise man’s perspective make you feel? Was it worth pursuing the bright star to now carry this bright sorrow?

Bread

Can you smell it? The flour, the butter, the yeast? My husband and I were proud of ourselves for successfully baking this bread yesterday. It was buttery, crusty, chewy, and aromatic. It was all things a bread should be. And we ate it lustily with bowls of bean and lentil soup. All the kudos for this wonderful peasant bread goes to Alexandra Cooks where we pulled the recipe offline. Although I love cooking, (usually beginning with making a paste or sautéing garlic, onion, peppers, etc) I don’t have that much baking experience, especially baking bread, but this was easy. And it turned out gorgeous. It is easy to see from these photos why this crispy, flaky crust and cushiony center could be the epitome of homeyness, nourishment, and comfort for much of the world.

Baking bread seems to have been a popular pastime these last several months for many during quarantine. As we reflect back on 2020, what will stand out in our memory of the year? Searching for toilet paper? Binge watching Netflix? Better dinner conversation with family?

“Give us this day, our daily bread.”

It is not difficult to to understand why Jesus would equate himself with such a basic necessity. Nor is it hard to see how we might conjure up warm, happy feelings of nourishment and safety, acceptance and provision and savory pleasure when we hear him proclaim,

“Yes, I am the bread of life.” John 6:48 (NLT)

Bread, fresh from the oven, butter melting in rivulets down a thick slice. Bread, long awaited, as it slowly rises.

Bread, his body we hold in our hand, as we take it into our mouths. We, as His body, accept it as we wait again for him.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” John 6:51 (NLT)

Isn’t it extraordinary that Jesus would choose for us to participate fully at his table? We are not only guests, but also active members preparing the feast. The bread and the wine do not appear magically, mystically, but come from seed and vine, tended by human hands. Threshed, sifted, pressed, fermented, baked, waiting, waiting until the Lord appears with us. He is always present, but we are the ones who bring the bread, and he shows himself to be among us.

Like the boy by the Sеа оf Galilee whom Andrew led to Jesus, we also bring the staple of life. The boy turned his contribution in to God, a plain lunch, but in the hands of the Manna from heaven, a sacramental mystery. Was it with more pride or astonishment that he watched as Jesus fed thousands of people with his familiar food? Did he think it tasted unusual that day?

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people…And they all ate as much as they wanted. John 6:11

This bread was broken yesterday at home within our family and eaten with soup. It could only have been better had you been present. Once we emerge from COVID limitations and social distancing, you are invited to join us. We will break bread, give thanks to God, and hopefully, eat as much as we want.

I have only now noticed that my last several posts have been about bread, and specifically about the food of the Eucharist. I can only explain this unnoticed perseveration by saying that I believe the Holy Spirit has been trying to speak and teach me things regarding food and drink and holiness and communion. Pray with me that we hear, then listen.

An Advent Lament

This week we lit the candle of joy for Advent. However, I am fixed in a season of lament. I am not in despair, nor am I enduring any particular suffering personally, but I know many who are. Among family and friends, there are those who have lost loved ones to COVID. Some are dealing with job loss, divorce, and yet more are spiritually discouraged. The political distractions have weighed us down and we are disheartened by the public discourse so full of vitriol. It is a heavy season.

We are isolated.

Lonely.

Deeply discouraged.

Or maybe it’s just me. But I suspect not.

What does it look like to wait for His glorious appearance as His church while not fully in community? What does it mean to remain faithful while at home, sheltering in place?

Does this resemble your home communion? The Eucharist can take on different forms in different places, but during this season of quarantine, I am interested in how individualized and “homey” the forms of Christ’s body and blood have become.

More of our worship times have gone to Zoom with the colder weather and spikes of COVID cases. While our family’s participation in the Eucharist looks like the photo above, I know the truest story is that we are still being lifted up to the heavens week after week as we take in the body and blood of Christ. The heavens and the earth yet rejoice.

Although it is difficult for me to muster the emotion, my faith knows the hope of joy and peace we will one day experience fully.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

Romans 5:1-5 (NLT)

Does God feel far away as we are in the midst of a pandemic-induced isolation? Does he seem distant from our political and social strife, or personal sadness?

Because our Creator created us for community, it hurts when we are without the physical presence of others. In truth, we are created in his own communal, trinitarian image. We most often experience God through others.

This beautiful commemorative 2020 ornament of the Holy Family is the artwork of Clarey ClayWorks in Carmel, Indiana.

How did Mary, the mother of the Christ, endure? Did she feel God was far away with every sideways glance at her growing belly? She was likely shunned. Her life had changed drastically. And yet, when she may have felt the loneliest, there were Elizabeth and faithful Joseph, and God drawing closer to her, growing inside her, the closest he had ever been.

So he is with us, just as he promised.

He doesn’t necessarily carry us out of our grief and hardships, but sits with us in them. Entangled with our moments of sadness, we also have the joy of hope. We have Christ Himself.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;

he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.

Psalms 34:18 (NLT)

Red Stew: a thanksgiving post

Most of us will be feasting tomorrow on turkey, maybe some mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. More than likely we will have a simpler day than in past years with fewer family members. This may cause some stress and disappointment, some regret or sadness. We can choose to remember, however, that, although 2020 is a difficult year, full of trials that would seek to undo us, it is temporary. We are yet alive to the blessings of God, of family, of friends, of this beautiful, broken world.

Thousands of years ago one very different man came in from hunting in the fields. He was tired and “famished,” and although he wasn’t in any particular danger, he chose to focus on the one thing he did not have – the red vegetarian concoction simmering in front of him.

And Jacob prepared a stew and Esau came from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff, for I am famished.” Therefore is his name Edom. And Jacob said, “Sell now your birthright to me.” And Esau said, “Look, I am at the point of death, so why do I need a birthright?” And Jacob said, “Swear to me now,” and he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and he drank and he rose and he went off, and Esau spurned the birthright.

Genesis 25:29-34

Here, I make use of Robert Alter’s masterful 2019 translation of the Hebrew Bible. Esau’s crude speech and desperate manner reveal something to me of my own tendencies toward ingratitude. Esau gulps down his food, sneering at his birthright. He doesn’t even appreciate the responsibilities and privileges he does have. So distracted by his present hunger, he will not see the temporary nature of his troubles, nor will he see the good of his family and fields and the love of his father and the closeness of his brother.

He lacks gratitude. So there is no thanksgiving. Only hunger.

Esau exaggerates his hunger, and his troubles enlarge exponentially. Because of his myopia and thanklessness, he becomes vulnerable prey for his brother, a trickster and an opportunist, as he sets him a trap. When we are focused primarily on our hardships, we open ourselves up to the temptations and deceit of sin and stealth, even in the guise of a bowl of red stew. As much as I enjoy a hearty serving of spiced lentils, I am determined to hang on to my birthright.

By longing for something that is presently beyond my grasp, that perhaps is not even in God’s plan for me, what am I potentially forfeiting? Am I grasping for something arbitrarily, simply because I am ungrateful for what my arms already hold? Many of us have lost much this year. I don’t dare to neglect that fact. However, God is still good. He continues to give bowls of red stew, but also relationships, beauty, nature, his goodness, his promises of better futures, and as I look around, worlds of wonder that should never drive me to despair.

May I still recognize my troubles rightly, but not forget to be grateful for the abundance of good persistently in my life.

Esau ate and drank and rose and went off. Did he even taste the red stuff which cost him so much? May our gratitude be ever before us so we savor every good blessing. God longs to give us so many good things; let’s not look down on any of them.

Making Room – book quotes

“People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition… Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.”

-Christine D. Pohl in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, p. 62

The year 2020 will be long remembered. It will be known as the year of the pandemic, contentious politics and race relations, as well as the year of deepening isolation for many. Yet as believers in a God who is unconditionally faithful and perpetually active, we are confident He is using even the chaos of the year’s events toward his own good. This isn’t to say he caused the pandemic, or the social unrest, but nothing is hopeless while under his gaze. And be assured, he sees all. And cares.

I have used this year to curate carefully what I have been reading. More than any other time in my life, I am choosing books that will encourage personal growth, while allowing me to appreciate the good, true and beautiful. My most recent read is Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (1999) by Christine D. Pohl.

“Strangers without resources need more than the minimal food, clothing, and shelter that might come through institutional provision. They need friendships and opportunities to contribute their gifts to a community.” p. 92

My deep prayer is that, as followers of Jesus, we will tire of a mindset of fear and exclusion and remember Christ’s constant warm welcome to others. My prayer is that I will begin leaving marginal space for those politically different, linguistically strange, culturally other, and instead, see each person both individually unique and collectively as a Christ-before-me. What a vastly different year 2021 could be if we put others’ needs before our own! What could we create in our communities if we were grateful for the commonality of our humanness?

“Overcoming strangeness is necessary when our responses are personal and when strangers are welcomed into personal, valued places.” p. 93

Here I offer just a couple more quotes pulled from this book. I am not taking the time right now to write a review. Honestly, I don’t quite feel up to it yet. However, I do highly recommend the book for encouragement in thinking more broadly and generously particularly toward the poor, the disabled, the immigrant and refugee.

Making Room swiftly corrects the definition of hospitality taking us back to its original embodiment – a love and care for the stranger and the other. Christine Pohl, a professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, has carefully researched and interviewed Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical contemporary charities involved directly in long-term hospitality efforts. These groups are specifically working with immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and the disabled.

“…the experience of having been a stranger, or of being a vulnerable person on the margins of society, is often connected with offering hospitality. When hospitality involves more than entertaining family and friends…we often find hosts who see themselves in some way as marginal to the larger society.” pp. 104-105

Pohl gives definition to the long-cherished Christian tradition of hospitality, as well as challenges the reader to see oneself as servant, partner, co-laborer, and not merely charitable worker or minister.

“We offer hospitality within the context of knowing Jesus as both our greater host and our potential guest. The grace we experience in receiving Jesus’ welcome energizes our hospitality, while it undermines our pride and self-righteousness. The possibility of welcoming Christ as our guest strengthens our kindness and fortitude in responding to strangers.” pp. 105-106

Below is a short reading list on loving our neighbors , broadening our understanding of hospitality, snd serving others. The following books range from light, inspirational reads, to practical, community challenges, to more academic approaches on the topic.

What books might you add to the list? What is your definition of hospitality? Could intentionally practicing hospitality soften our isolated, twenty-first century hearts?

Joy is and is not…

Introverted. Analytical. Curious. Reflective. Prone to loneliness and sadness. These are a few of my personality traits. And joyful? Optimistic? Can they be reconciled with the first group mentioned?

Growing up, I heard how Christians should be joyful people, and not morose. Lately, I have been hearing public theologians like Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings, or prolific writers like N.T. Wright discuss the theology of joy. According to them, Christians ought to orient themselves toward joy. Jennings describes a theology of joy as a kind of “resistance against despair and death.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I think it is important to explain what we mean by a theology of joy. What does it mean and not mean to be a joyful people?

To be joyful does not necessarily mean we walk around with smiles on our faces, or laughter and jokes on our lips. This may be default behavior for the light-hearted or for extroverts. This describes more of a personality type rather than a person living out their faith based on conscious decisions and full of hope.

Being joyful does not mean we repress feelings of sadness, depression, nor do we ignore pain and suffering in ourselves or others. Mourning is still practiced appropriately by the joyful, and prayers of lament are comfortably in the vocabulary of a theology of joy.

Jennings’ description of a theology of joy is an antidote to the dystopian films and novels of today, as well as to the postmodern aversion to hopefulness. It is a defiance against despair. It is recognizing God. James, in his letter to the early Christians, claims this as counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, even persecution and calamity (James 1:2-4). Paul reminds us that it is possible, even Christ-like, to rejoice always, even in prison, even in dire need (Philippians 4:4). These are not men oblivious to the plight of others or naive in their positivity. Their joy has a hopefulness for the ultimate future; it relies on the truth that once God promises his presence, it is as good as received (Romans 4:17-18). Joy is inextricably linked with hope. Not wishful thinking, but the hope that depends solely on the character and Word of God.

At times, joy may be paired with fear, as when the shepherds witnessed angelic messengers ripping through our skies and proclaiming beauty in such startling terms (Luke 2:8-18). Surely they raced to Bethlehem both rejoicing and struck by fear. Joy may come only after a night of terror and anxiety as when King Darius paced the palace sleepless and Daniel reclined uncertain with lions’ teeth uncomfortably in sight (Daniel 6).

Joy is not void of troubles. It is not necessarily conditional, but rests on truth. The apostles discovered this, when, threatened by the powers-that-be, they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29-30). When their prayers were answered, and they were flogged after meeting with the religious legal body, the Sanhedrin, instead of simply mourning, they rejoiced (Acts 5:40-41).Although they suffered, it was because of their greater hope.

Whereas happiness may manifest itself as a visible emotion, joy is quieter, deeper, more constant, steady and fixed. It enjoys a foundation secure, not easily shaken or destroyed. For this reason, Nehemiah bolsters the spirit of the returning remnant with the words, “The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). And this, as they were weeping in the face of strife and chaos.

How do we, then, become joyful people? It is through practiced faith and love, by leaning in and acting as if we believed these things. We are both formed by what we believe in, what we consider and think about, and we are even formed by the acting out of these ideas. This partly means in order to become joyful people, we act like joyful people, not in disingenuous ways, but stepping toward God in hope. His Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.

“There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.”

– Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 116-117

Immanuel: When God Was One of Us

Although I grew up celebrating Christmas, it was not until recently that my family and I began to observe Advent more in earnest. During the last several years, we began reading through the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament throughout the month of December. Our church annually held candlelight Christmas Eve services. We bought our own wreath with pink, lavender and white candles. We struggled year to year to find a devotional that seemed right for us.

I was eager to write down my own thoughts around the profound gospel message of Advent and Christmas. While my kids worked on math or grammar at the kitchen table during our home school year, I stole fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, delving into Scripture and the unfathomable idea that God would love us so much that he would become human.

This idea of incarnation from a God who loves us and longs deeply for us seems rich with meaning and significance far beyond the scope of one holiday season. It has been a spiritually rewarding experience to attempt to articulate the implications of God being one of us. In living a small, specific life, Jesus shows us he understands, he loves, he walks alongside us. There is so much comfort and challenge in that!

Immanuel: When God Was One Us is available through Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions. I pray it may be a help during these times of chaos and stress and distraction.

from the Preface:

Christmas is a favorite time of year for many people, and for many, it is the most stressful or depressing. My desire is that this book may be an encouragement to both. In acknowledging both the joy and anguish of the season, we honor our dependence on God in a genuine way. It is my hope that this daily devotional will help quiet and focus our minds and hearts to celebrate and worship the Savior who came down to be one of us….In whatever way you participate, I pray you experience the truth of his presence, and eagerly await with me his final Advent.

For more information, please go to

www.amazon.com/April-Bumgardner/e/B08GX3Q9N5?ref_=pe_1724030_132998060