Listening to One Woman’s Voice

The subject of abortion is once again topping headlines, with the recent passage of restrictive legislation in several states. Much is now being written and said about this, by voices in all sides.

One of my current spiritual heroines, The Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson (Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA), wrote on Facebook: “FWIW, I’m super okay with men not talking right now, just for a little while.”

To honor Pastor Denise, I would like to shut up and welcome this guest post on the subject by another one of my spiritual heroines: The Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee (Co-Moderator of the Schmidt-Lee household from 2004-present… my partner).

The following words are Sarah’s, slightly edited for continuity and shared with her permission, from a private online conversation we had with an evangelical seminary classmate.

SARAH: I grew up pro-life and I’m still inclined toward treating conception as the beginning of life, mostly because I want to affirm to women who have experienced miscarriages and still births that their loss is real and their motherhood counts. So all the debate over when life begins and how we read passages of the Bible about breath=life or being known in the womb, etc, are not particularly interesting to me.

Where I come down is that no human life trumps the bodily autonomy of another person.

Now, I know that some people turn this around and say a pregnant woman’s life shouldn’t trump the bodily autonomy of a fetus growing in her body, and that because of their vulnerability/voicelessness, the woman should not have the right to cause them harm.

But that fetus does not yet have the ability to exist independently of the woman.

And there is no other situation in which we would force a person to make huge donations of their time, energy, health, future, and risk their own lives to save the life of someone who was unconscious, unable to communicate, and medically dependent upon their organ donation, blood or plasma donation or other donation.

As a Christian pastor, I would counsel a person asked to donate blood marrow or a kidney to a dying family member in the hopes they would make the choice to donate and save another human life, but I would still consider it a choice.

And I would never support legislation that would make such a donation required, or the refusal to donate a crime punishable by incarceration.

In a similar way, I would (and do) work with pregnant women to find ways for them to continue their pregnancy and bring a human being into the world who can live independently from their bodies. But I consider it the woman’s choice whether to offer her body in that way.

Now, my father, for instance, makes the case that a pregnant woman is responsible for the existence of this completely dependent life in a way that the organ donation illustration does not parallel.

Because, presumably, she chose to have sex, knowing that conceiving life was a possible outcome.

But, 1) that’s presuming a lot. It doesn’t take into account rape, lack of sufficient sex education, inadequate education in how to effectively use contraception, or those cases when the contraception fails.

2) There is also a man who is, presumably, equally responsible for the creation of this new life, but who cannot share in the donation of his own body and risk of his own health in the nine months necessary to nurture that life to independent existence. It is absolutely unjust for the woman to be legally required to bear sole responsibility for that shared decision.

I think the only piece I have to add is that criminalizing abortion is not (and has never been) effective at curtailing abortion rates. It does, however have a profound impact on mortality rates among women seeking abortion. And poverty of women and children. I found out a couple years ago that in the decades before Roe v Wade, there was a national network of safe, vetted abortion providers, and the network was led by mainline clergy. It was called the Clergy Consultation Service, and was formed by clergy in urban settings who were tired of finding out that poor women in their outreach ministries and congregations were dying from sepsis and other complications from backalley abortions. They were hearing horror stories of doctors who would charge women huge sums of money and perform illegal abortions, but then rape the women at the same time and the women could not report the assaults because they would get in trouble for seeking an abortion. These clergy ended up working with women in their churches to visit known abortion providers, going undercover to test their safety, sanitation, and ethics. And they would help women travel across the whole country to get to providers they could ensure were safe. You can learn more about this network through this book, among other resources: https://offercompassion.com/author/offercompassion/

I posted a couple days ago about shifts in state laws and federal law about fetal personhood that mean that the overturning of Roe v Wade (or “chipping away” at it, as some politicians suggest) would leave already vulnerable women in our society far worse off than they were prior to Roe v Wade.

And concerned clergy across the country are already beginning to organize in case something like the Clergy Consultation Service becomes necessary again.

Do I believe life begins at conception? Yes. Do I value unborn life as fully human? Yes. But legislation that prioritizes the rights of unborn lives over the bodily autonomy of women only causes harm to women and children, and I believe, our society as a whole.

Post-exilic Prophets and the Church Today – Covenant

In the Church today, the instruction I keep hearing is simply to keep moving forward. Do not despise the day of small things. The day of small things is to visit someone in a hospital, to teach a Bible study, or to celebrate the Holy Eucharist — about which a dear friend used to say, it’s never a bad time tohave Communion with Christ. I’m not suggesting the church be like Candide, pretending that misfortune is beneficial or enjoyable. As Christians we have to walk by faith because there is no other alternative. In doing this, we have to draw on the old patterns of fidelity that will fill out the life of the Church in this new social and cultural context. To paraphrase Meyers and Meyers, if this seems revolutionary, it is because there is no turning back. While we don’t get to see what is around the next bend of the Church’s history, perhaps this is because it is not necessary information for us to do the work that is before us.
— Read on livingchurch.org/covenant/2019/03/14/post-exilic-prophets-and-the-church-today/

This article offers a very helpful biblical analysis of the current situation for mainline Christianity in North America.

Coloring Outside the Lines

As the pages of our calendars turn over to 2019, we come once again to that season of enthusiasm and idealism, when people in this culture customarily make resolutions for the coming year. We resolve to improve our lives in some major or minor way: to quit smoking or lose weight, to seek out a new job or new place to live, to develop our spiritual lives by prayer and study, or to attend church more regularly. All of these are helpful ideas and positive ambitions for making the most of the life God has given us.

There inevitably comes a moment, however, usually by the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday (March 6 this year), when we discover that our resolve has failed us: that gym membership, though paid for in advance, goes unused; the prayer book and Bible continue to gather dust on the bookshelf; we discover, much to our surprise, that the treadmill makes for a wonderful sweater dryer and that we are now on a first-name basis with the drive-thru workers at Dunkin Donuts. We can hear Jesus saying to us what he said to his apostles in Matthew 26:41: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Additionally, we encounter circumstances beyond our control that interfere with our best-laid plans: an old knee injury flares up, preventing us from running that marathon; the expected promotion or transfer is not forthcoming; a child or spouse floors us with a stunning announcement: “I have cancer,” “I’m pregnant,” or “I’m gay.” In these moments, we feel more keenly the message of Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”

We can take some comfort in knowing that we are not the first drivers on life’s road to encounter detours, speed bumps, and U-turns. No epic novel has ever centered on characters who always make right decisions or events that always go according to plan. Conflicts and mishaps are not distractions from the plot, but the very elements that make these stories worth reading. So it is in the story of life. It was the late, great John Lennon who sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The good news for us, when we find ourselves in circumstances that are less than ideal, is that the God we believe in is not far away, sitting up on some cloud in heaven, waiting for you to figure it out or get your act together. The God of the Christian faith gets the divine hands dirty by taking on human flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is born in a stable, meaning that God is intimately present and actively involved with your life in this world, with all its messes, smells, unexpected plot-twists, and failures.

The gospel for today’s Feast of the Epiphany gives us a tangible image of the infant Jesus “scribbling outside the lines” in the coloring book of our lives. There are many misconceptions of the famous “wise men from the East” we heard about in today’s reading. With all due respect to the Epiphany hymn, “We three kings of orient are,” the only true words in that sentence are “we,” “of,” and “are.” The biblical text does not say that there were three of them, but only that they brought three different kinds of gifts: “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The term “orient” refers accurately to the direction of East, but not necessarily to the regions of China or India. The label of “kings” comes not from St. Matthew’s gospel, but from the prophecy in Isaiah 60, our first reading, which says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Isaiah tells us further that “the wealth of the nations shall come to you… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” The identifying phrase from Matthew’s gospel, “wise men from the East,” most likely refers to Zoroastrian astrologers from the region of present-day Iran or Iraq.

The presence of Zoroastrian sages in today’s gospel signifies the reality that God’s work in the world is not limited to one particular time, place, or people. “Truth,” according to St. Augustine of Hippo, “belongs to [the] Lord, wherever it is found.” For Christians, the realization that all truth is God’s truth does not invalidate or relativize our faith, but frees us to approach other religions with openness and curiosity, rather than criticism and judgment.

The astrologers’ following of the star is not a tacit endorsement of horoscopes, but yet another example of God leading people to Christ via paths that are unconventional and surprising. The path of the astrologer draws meaning from careful observation of the universe. Speaking in contemporary terms, one could suggest that this passage opens to Christians the study of science and philosophy as avenues through which the divine glory can be more fully understood by the world.

The wise men from the East represent for us all the ways that God colors outside the lines. Their presence in this story shakes us out of our narrow conceit to consider the possibility that unexpected or inconvenient events might be the very ways in which God is presently at work in our lives. Such twists and turns might not be distractions from the plot, but the main arc of the story itself.

There is a wise man within each of us. If our hearts and minds are open, we can join their caravan and follow the star to the horizon where heaven and earth meet. There is also something of King Herod within each of us. If we so choose, we can remain behind with him: barricaded inside a palace of our own making, plotting and scheming to neutralize all challenges to our ego as if they were threats to existence itself.

The way of Herod leads nowhere, as it never requires us to set foot outside our comfort zones. The way of the wise men, on the other hand, leads us to that deepest place within us, where Christ is being born today. The way of the wise men is not easily discerned or followed, for it requires of us that we embrace those parts of ourselves or our lives that feel most strange or foreign. When our internal resolve and external circumstances fail us, the wise men show us how to go “home by another way.” They lead us, by all sorts of twists and turns, to that inner house where we plop down on the floor next to the Christ child, who teaches us how to scribble outside the lines in the coloring book of our life.

The divine Word who “became flesh and lived among us” is not interested in defending our possessions, positions, or plans, but works tirelessly for the recovery of our true essence as God’s beloved children.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us this morning is not that we would have the strength or know-how to overcome life’s obstacles by force of will, but that God would bless us with enough weakness and foolishness to walk the winding way of wisdom until it leads us to that place within us where Jesus lives.

Book Review of ‘Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit’ by Bob Ekblad

Bob Ekblad. Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit (Burlington, WA: People’s Seminary Press, 2018).

It is a great honor to be asked to read and review an advance copy of Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit by my friend and teacher, Bob Ekblad.

Bob and I first met fourteen years ago, when I was a seminarian at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. It was through his classes that I began to discern my sense of call to ordained ministry. I walked into his class with one career plan and walked out with another. Over the intervening decade and a half, Bob’s ideas have continually influenced the shape, location, and direction of my ministry as a substance abuse counselor, street chaplain, and pastor to a congregation of mentally disabled people.

Click here to read a blog post on how I have made use of Bob’s methods in my own ministry setting.

Bob taught me how to read the Bible with a new set of eyes. I had previously approached the Scriptures as a compendium of morals and doctrines. Bob showed me how to encounter and inhabit the Bible as a treasury of liberating news for people who live outside the bounds of institutional religion.

Guerrilla Gospel is a follow-up to Bob’s earlier book, Reading the Bible with the Damned (WJK: 2005). Both books present the sound theological basis for Bob’s method of biblical interpretation and illustrate the process with copious personal stories. Readers will derive the most benefit by perusing both books, though either one can stand on its own merit.

While Reading the Bible with the Damned focused on the theological framework, Guerrilla Gospel gets down to the nitty-gritty details of preparing and leading Bible studies with marginalized people. With its more practical emphasis, Guerrilla Gospel answers my one remaining question after finishing Reading the Bible with the Damned: “How do I actually do this?”

Clergy will find much in this book that is familiar from seminary courses in biblical exegesis, and will benefit from seeing how Bob applies these study methods in ministry contexts outside the institutional church. Lay leaders will also find in Guerrilla Gospel a thorough, yet accessible, crash-course in biblical interpretation. I would recommend this book for anyone seeking to start a Bible study in a traditional church setting, but especially for those who practice their ministry in marginal places like jails, prisons, drug rehabs, and homeless shelters. Hopefully, those who read Guerrilla Gospel from within the institutional church will be inspired to reach out and find the Spirit present and active in unexpected places. Believe me, you will be glad you did.

One of Bob’s greatest gifts is the way he so skillfully navigates the convergence of disparate streams of Christian thought. There is something in this book for almost everyone. Evangelicals will connect with Bob’s deep love of Scripture, charismatics with his openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, contemplatives with his explications of centering prayer and monastic spirituality, academics with his erudite scholarship, and social justice activists with his background in liberation theology.

At the same time, Bob’s unique theological location guarantees that Guerrilla Gospel also has something to make everyone uncomfortable. Readers of all theological stripes should come prepared for a challenge to their unconscious biases and assumptions. Wise and discerning readers will remain open to having their horizons expanded.

As a high-church Episcopalian, the one thing I would have liked to read more about in Guerrilla Gospel is the role of the Sacraments in ministry contexts like Bob’s. To be sure, the subject is not entirely absent. Another of his previous books, A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God (WJK: 2008), has an amazing chapter on Baptism. Personal stories from his several books, including Guerrilla Gospel, frequently touch on the topics of healing (Unction), confession of sin (Reconciliation), family relationships (Matrimony), personal commitment (Confirmation), and ‘deputizing’ for ministry (Ordination) from a less formal perspective. In a future book, I would be very interested to read more about the ways Bob has witnessed the Holy Spirit liberating ministry through the celebration of the Eucharist, and what its theological implications are for margins and mainstream alike.

Whether the reader is clergy or laity, evangelical or progressive, contemplative or charismatic, leading ministries of education within the church or outreach beyond the church, Bob Ekblad’s Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit has something to inspire, inform, comfort, and challenge anyone who wants to be part of Jesus’ liberating movement on earth.

Also by Bob Ekblad:

Further reading:

Anaesthesia

You were looking the other way
while I was distracted
by stacks, and stacks, and stacks
of things.

Disconnected,
just a highly organized
pile of rubble,
really.

Grasping
for some sense
of control,
I ask for information.

Scheduling
my death
as a dentist appointment.

Endings, you say,
are not so important
as sustained beginnings
in a single direction.

Pain
is how life
comes into the world.

Looking away
to not see
blood is the path
that leads to bloodshed.

Bear
with life
and all
it offers.

Then,
and only then,
will you begin
to make an end.

A Growing Thing

You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.

Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.

We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”

We like things that are big and fast.

I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.

In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.

Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:

The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.

The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”

This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”

Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.

This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”

Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.

The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.

In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”

Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”

What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.

In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”