Those Big Little Ironies

Whether in literature or life, sometimes the greatest ironies are linked to very small details in the narrative. It’s a good reminder that “small” doesn’t necessarily mean “insignificant”!

In the interest of “keeping it real,” as a young friend often exhorts, I’ll let you in on “the big little irony” in my life. It all revolves around a tiny three-letter abbreviation: IBS. I spend a major portion of my professional and ministerial life deeply immersed in teaching and practicing IBS—inductive Bible study. The practices and processes of that IBS have shaped and deepened my engagement with Scripture, and passing on those skills and concepts to students in a variety of contexts is a responsibility and a privilege that brings me great joy.

But there’s another IBS that also circumscribes my life, a much less welcome one: irritable bowel syndrome. (I told you we’d be keeping it real!) During our years in the tropics, I tangoed with typhoid, did the do-si-do (twice) with dengue fever, and took too many turns around the dance floor with a whole host of parasitic partners. The resulting souvenir is a digestive system that persistently and permanently malfunctions. For those who do not have this issue, rejoice and be glad! And please understand that it is not simply an annoying “bathroom problem,” something to make jokes about, but a chronic battle with episodes of debilitating pain and fatigue. These erratic and unpredictable episodes can derail a work day, change plans, restrict mobility and social interaction, provoke “food fear,” and just generally interfere with one’s well-being.

Even as I have spent a semester deeply and joyfully immersed in the first kind of IBS with an amazing and passionate group of students, I’ve also been walking through a particularly fierce season with the other IBS. It has provoked a lot of prayer (yes, lament and complaint included) and some new reflections on the life of faith.

As often seems to happen in a season of learning and growth, the Spirit  has brought together a number of apparently unrelated threads to weave into a pattern that I am just beginning to discern. There are three threads in particular, so maybe this will be a braid (a life line??) rather than a tapestry. The first thread dangles in front of me as we are making our way through Season 3 of “The Chosen.” There is quite a set-up in one episode for the bold and desperate action of the woman with the unstoppable issue of blood;[1] her pursuit of healing will presumably be presented in the next installment. I see her worn-out demeanor and her weariness over all the failed remedies—how that resonates! Every dietary change that fails to make a difference, every supplement or medication whose promises of relief have proven empty, every doctor who looks at her as “the mystery patient,” every bit of well-meant advice—it all adds up to a crushing weight of disappointment and disillusion. I know where that woman’s story goes—right to the feet of Jesus, with a hand stretched out to touch the hem of his garment. Her story ends with an astonishing moment of healing and restoration, and my first reaction is, “What might it look like for me to touch the edge of Jesus’ garment? Am I as desperate as she was? Is my faith as bold?” (And yes, there is complaint—haven’t I already been reaching out for the healing?) But then I’m stopped in my tracks by something I’ve never really thought about before—that moment of healing isn’t the end of her story, it’s just the beginning of a life narrative about which we know absolutely nothing. On the other side of that miracle was a trajectory of daily choices. Bleeding or not bleeding, unclean or clean, ostracized or welcomed, fatigued or rejuvenated—in each condition, she faced the choice of grateful faithfulness, of living into her identity as beloved daughter of the king, no matter what. H’mm. . .

The second thread also comes from Scripture, as one of this week’s texts on the Lectio 365 app was from Psalm 139. You know the lines about being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s one thing to celebrate the astonishing complexity and beautiful intricacy of the human body when all its parts are working in their intended rhythm. But how do we celebrate the divine design when some of the parts are chronically dysfunctional or crazily out of whack? Is my seriously messed up digestive system an aberration, just a sad part of living in a mortal body in a broken world, or could there actually be something fearful and wonderful and purposeful about it? H’mm. . .

The third thread comes from a book I just happened to pick up at an academic conference: My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice and the Church.[2] I sent the title to a friend and we’ve both been reading it, with an eye to talking it over someday soon. It’s been a challenging read, and I had to take it in small doses, but I am glad I persevered.[3] Near the end of the book, the author, Dr. Amy Kenny, returns to a concept she introduced earlier: “crip time.” With mordant humor, many in the disability community use the phrase “crip time” to express what it means to have a life whose rhythm is not determined by calendars, clocks, and schedules but by the demands and debilities of the body. It means that some days, the only possible option is rest and recovery, no matter what was on the agenda or what best-laid plans have to be scrapped. It means that “productivity” cannot be the driving force in one’s decisions. I don’t think I need to spell out how frustrating that can be for a list-maker! However, Dr. Kenny’s reflections on what she has learned about the life of faith through living on crip time have given me a new perspective:

Living with crip time has allowed me to experience the fullness of God in a different way. I don’t develop on the same schedule as nondisabled people. I can’t plan how my body will be tomorrow. Crip time makes me dependent on something other than myself. It forces me to be present. All plans are in pencil. Time slows down to meet me where I am. . . It declares that each day matters. Not because of how much you get checked off the to-do list, but because you are present to the presence of the living God. It develops muscle memory for endurance beyond the markers of success. It allows us to be present with one another without expectations or future goals. . . There is no ‘on time’ or ‘on track’ when it comes to the life of faith. There is no road map for wandering in the wilderness. Following the cloud cannot be charted.[4]

H’mm. Three strands being woven together. First, a desperately bold reach for Jesus’ healing power coupled with a commitment to faithfulness no matter on which side of healing I am standing. Second, a bold and faith-filled declaration that I am indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. As Dr. Kenny reminds, “All bodies are interdependent and fragile; ours just make it more evident. All humans bear the image of God; that doesn’t diminish after the fall—or even after a fall that results in a disability.”[5] Third, the possibility that the dreaded episodes of the “bad IBS” might actually contain a gracious gift—the invitation to slow down and simply be “present to the presence of the living God,” whether anything else “gets done” that day or not. May the Spirit continue to braid these strands into something beautiful and strong.

[1] Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:40–56.

[2] Amy Kenny, My Body Is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022).

[3] I’m detailing here my reaction to one single point in the book, but there is a lot more in Dr. Kenny’s arguments that is worthy of serious conversation in the church.

[4] Kenny, 164–65.

[5] Kenny, 59.

Resurrection Day Reflection 2023

Resurrection Day Reflections 2023

I spent Lent 2023 immersed in Mark’s Gospel. Two different groups of students have been in close engagement with Mark’s telling of the Story, and the daily Scripture focus in the Lectio 365 app has also been this earliest of the Gospels. So it was fitting to come to Resurrection Day in the company of Mark 16.

The first lines of Mark’s resurrection narrative are what gripped my imagination this time around. “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’” (Mark 16:1–3). These women, as courageous and committed as they were, nonetheless approached the place of Jesus’ burial with wrong expectations and asking the wrong question. Despite all Jesus’ clear words to the contrary, they did not expect to find life in a place of death—and when they did, it astonished and terrified them (v. 8). They didn’t think of the resurrection promises and ask, as that other Mary had, “How will these things be?” (Luke 1:34). They knew “how things were”—deathliness was sealed with a very large boulder (Mark 16:4). So they asked, “How do we move it?” They envisioned a temporary setting aside of a deathly obstacle so that they might perform one last act of devotion to a dead Savior. But the resurrection shattered their expectations and obviated their question! According to Mark, the women did not immediately process this stunning new reality (16:8); the other Evangelists, however, record their faithful obedience to the angel’s command to “go and tell.”

The resurrection of Jesus continues to have the power to shatter expectations and reformulate questions. For all those who have their faces turned toward circumstances that seem death-filled, those who are ready to perform last rites over the demise of a relationship, the decline of a local church, or the swirling headlines of human mortality and human despair—perhaps Jesus wants to speak a powerful word of life into those very spaces today. Perhaps it is in those seemingly moribund places and people that life is waiting to burst forth with surprising vigor—with stone-rolling force! Perhaps the death-shaped questions—how to “get out” of the relationship, how to grieve the decline, how to function in the face of despair—can be reformulated. What if we ask instead, “Where in the midst of this mess is life springing forth? Where are the green shoots of hope? How will Jesus’ resurrection power change things?”

“Chagrined but Noble”

During Lent this year, I am reading the daily selections in Eugene Peterson’s A Month of Sundays: Thirty-One Days of Wrestling with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Today’s reading was from Matthew 1:18–21, where my attention was arrested by Peterson’s description of Joseph’s character and his reaction to discovering that his betrothed was pregnant: “chagrined but noble.”

That succinct little phrase packs a punch! “Chagrined” hits with frank honesty, not just as a description of Joseph’s feelings, but of our own. How often have we been chagrined, disappointed, even disillusioned by the way God has chosen to work? How deeply can we relate to Joseph’s dismay at seeing an orderly, tradition-honoring plan suddenly give way to scandalous disorder? There’s really no way out of this for Joseph without loss. If he keeps the betrothal commitment and marries Mary, he faces tremendous loss of honor in the eyes of the community, because, after all, who is going to believe this “the-Holy-Spirit-did-it” story? (Does Joseph even believe it at this point, since he’s “trying to figure a way out”?) If he divorces her, he may retain his honor (at least among the other men in the community), but he will lose his hopes and dreams of a life built with his beloved. God’s intervention has truly messed up his tidy plans. Can we related to his chagrin?

And yet. . . he is “noble.” The Greek text says “righteous” or “just,” but I think Peterson’s rendering here is apt. Joseph’s character is such that, even in the midst of his personal dismay and disappointment, his focus is on Mary’s good. He is “determined to take care of things quietly,” so that Mary will not be disgraced. And when God graciously sends Joseph his own angelic messenger to reiterate and confirm the “Holy-Spirit-did-it” story and to invite Joseph to step into Mary’s scandal and embrace it as his own, this righteous man does it! Chagrined but noble, dismayed but committed to the good of another, disappointed but attentive to the voice of the Spirit, Joseph makes a courageous choice. When God upsets our carefully laid plans with a scandalously messy divine alternative, will we be able to move beyond our personal chagrin to get in step with the Spirit? Will nobility, righteousness, and justice characterize how we respond to others in the midst of our disappointment or dismay?

Of “Joy Leaks” and Glory Sightings

Of “Joy Leaks” and Glory Sightings

On this Transfiguration Sunday, worship was “leaky.” Tears streamed down my face like liquid longing mixed with overflowing joy in the presence of Jesus. And I was nearly undone by the public reading of Scripture, as one phrase jumped off the page, nearly causing me to stop right then and there. (It was sort of like “Lectio divina by laser,” unexpected and piercing.) In Exodus 24:18, it says that Moses “entered the cloud.” The cloud that covered the mountain, the cloud that was the perceptible presence of the glory of God—Moses entered that cloud. He’d been invited—“Come up to me on the mountain” (v. 12)—and he went. It seems that he waited there on the mountain for six days (vv. 12, 16); then, on the seventh day, the Lord called to Moses again—and he entered the cloud. He stayed there for forty days and forty nights.

It seems that this sequence may be significant. First, Moses waited. This was an active and purposeful waiting, requiring a reordering of his responsibilities, a change of physical location, and an obedient trust in the One who had called him to the mountain. It was only after the waiting that Moses entered the cloud, stepping boldly into the glorious presence of God. Then Moses persevered in the Presence. He didn’t rush in and rush back out; he lingered for a significant period. And then, when the time came for this “divine appointment” to end, Moses went back down the mountain, where he became the “glory sighting,” reflecting in his own countenance the glorious intimacy of time spent in the presence the Lord.

Active, purposeful, prayerful yearning and waiting, bold entrance into the cloud when he calls, patient persevering in his Presence, and recognition of when it is time to return to “the camp,” as faithful reflections of God’s glory—may we embrace each part of the encounter. Come, Holy Spirit, and may you find a willing people!

Is He or Isn’t He?

Is He or Isn’t He?

NOTE: This is one small piece of a large and complex topic, and it’s not meant to be exhaustive or definitive in any way. These are simply some mid-stream musings as part of a Bible study series.

There is a persistent misconception—both outside and inside the church—that the Apostle Paul was, at worst, a misogynist, or, at best, ridiculously restrictive of women’s participation in the life and ministry of the church. Just this week I had lunch with a friend who said, not for the first time, “I love Jesus, but I have a problem with Paul.” No one is going to argue that there aren’t some really “hard” passages in Paul’s letters, and while even careful exegesis doesn’t remove all the difficulties related to this topic, I am convinced for many reasons that Paul-as-chauvinist is not necessarily the conclusion that must be drawn from the evidence. One of those reasons (and it’s the only one among many that I will consider in this particular post) is the presence and description of women in Romans 16. I want to highlight just a few things from this key chapter of Paul’s most influential letter.

Paul opens his most-detailed set of personal greetings (16:1–16) by commending Phoebe to the Roman churches. It appears that she is the bearer of the letter and, as such, she would also have had the responsibility for reading it publicly, whether in the various house churches or in a larger collective assembly. Phoebe not only would have performed the letter; she would also have interpreted it for the listeners, responding to their questions and helping them understand what Paul meant in particular passages. As Scot McKnight says, “Letters in Paul’s world were the embodied, inscripted presence of the letter writer, in this case Paul. He chooses a woman to embody his letter, which means the face of Paul is experienced as the face of Phoebe.”[1] This deacon of the church in Cenchreae is to be welcomed and assisted by the believers in Rome—welcomed “in a manner worthy of the saints” and supported “in whatever matter she may require your help.” Paul champions her ministry among the Roman believers by first entrusting his message for them into her hands and mouth, then by providing her this “letter of introduction” (which, interestingly enough, comes after she’s already read 15 chapters of the letter!).

Then Paul begins to greet those among the Roman churches with whom he already has connects. First in line are “Prisca” (Priscilla) and Aquila (16:3–5a). The second person named in this chapter is also a woman! Everywhere they show up in the New Testament, this couple is obviously a team, serving together in ministry. Here Paul describes this Jewish couple as courageous, well-known and respected by the Gentile churches (which means they were effective cross-cultural workers), and hospitable hosts of one of the Roman churches. They are clearly partners, in the full sense of the word; Priscilla, who is almost always named first, is not merely an appendage of her husband’s ministry.

The next people mentioned are another woman, Mary (v. 6), and another married couple, Andronicus and Junia (v. 7). The former is a woman who has “worked very hard” for the churches in Rome. The latter couple is closely associated with Paul—“fellow Jews, fellow prisoners”—and, in an extraordinary description, “outstanding among the apostles.” (Lots of ink has been spilled trying to make “Junia,” a feminine name, into “Junias,” a masculine form, but historical, textual, and linguistic evidence points clearly to the name of a woman.) The rest of the greeting section is liberally sprinkled with the names of other women—Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, sisters in the house church or family of Asyncritus, Julia, Nereus’ sister. Clearly, the church in Rome would not have been surprised by hearing Paul’s letter read and interpreted in an alto or soprano voice!

The central implication of this chapter in the debate about Paul’s attitude and practices toward women is this: Both Paul and the churches in Rome took for granted the full and significant participation of women in the life and ministry of the church. So, whatever else we do with the “difficult” passages in Paul, we must not sever them from what is revealed here about Paul’s actual practice.


  1. Who are the “Phoebes” in your faith community? How can you welcome and support them as they carry out their God-given ministries? How can you help others to welcome and support them? Who in your community needs a “champion,” a door-opener, or a “letter of introduction”?
  2. Who are the ministry couples—the Priscillas and Aquilas, the Andronicus and Junias—that you know best? What are the most outstanding aspects of their teamwork? How is God using them together to advance his kingdom and make disciples?
  3. Re-read Romans 16:1–6 a couple times, perhaps in different versions. What stands out to you most about this collection of greetings? Why is the presence of women in this section so significant?

[1] Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire (Baylor University Press, 2019), 3.

“Of Love and Loyalty”

I’m sure you’ve had the annoying experience of a random song fragment getting lodged in your head, playing on a continuous loop, while you are trying to dredge up from your memory the song in which it belongs. This week it was the little phrase “of love and loyalty,” which I finally pinned down as the closing notes of an old hymn (“Are Ye Able?”). Our Women in the New Testament study took us into Mark 12 this week, for a look at the widow’s offering (12:41–44), and as I backed up for a closer look at the whole chapter, “love and loyalty” were the common threads I saw woven through Jesus’ really forthright teaching.

Mark 12 narrates a series of increasingly hostile encounters with religious leaders, in which Jesus, after an opening parable, abandons metaphor for language that is plain, frank, and confrontational. Even that initial parable (“the wicked tenants”) has an unmistakably sharp thrust against “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” (11:27), a message clear enough to send them away to look for different avenues of attack (12:12–13). The chapter culminates with Jesus’ commentary on the widow’s offering. This was his last action in the temple (13:1), and Mark says it was a deliberate choice on Jesus’ part to observe closely the parade of those bringing offerings. Jesus’ observations on those offerings are the third in a series of teachings in Mark 12 that seem to me to focus on “love and loyalty”—love for God and loyalty to God that are both exclusive (admitting no other object) and exhaustive (involving every part of a disciple’s being).

The first interchange where “love and loyalty” surface is in verses 13–17, where some Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Jesus brings them up short in a brilliant riposte (“Whose head and title are on this coin?”), following up with a thrust that effectively stalls their attack: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Of course, the loyalty question here is not really about what belongs to Caesar, but the scope and definition of what belongs to God. The emperor’s ownership is limited (coins, taxes), derivative, and penultimate; what belongs to God is the totality of one’s existence and his ownership is ultimate. Loyalty to this God must be both exclusive and exhaustive.

The second scene in Mark 12 that highlights “love and loyalty” is the dialogue between Jesus and a scribe who seems to have been on the periphery of the tense exchanges with the religious envoys (vv. 28–34). Perhaps this man was not part of the official entrapment squad. Impressed with how Jesus has handled the “test questions,” this man asks him, “Which commandment is the first (or greatest) of all?” Jesus’ answer is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” God gets 100% of our love with 100% of who we are (think about how that settles the loyalty question). But then he goes on to give a second command that he considers inseparable from the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The kind of exclusive and exhaustive “love and loyalty” that Jesus is describing is not just love for God, but also love like God.

We come, then, to that final scene in the temple, where Jesus sits down across from the treasury to watch people putting in their gifts and offerings (12:41). It is important to notice that this little vignette happens immediately after Jesus’ scathing condemnation of the showy piety of the scribes, which masks a greedy injustice that breaks both of the Great Commandments (12:38–40). The particular victims of these divided-loyalty leaders and their failure to love the neighbor are widows, whose houses they devour. (See Isaiah 10:1–4 as a possible background for this fierce language.) So it’s probably no coincidence that the exemplar of “love and loyalty” in our passage is a widow. This woman’s allegiance is defined by radical trust: “out of her poverty she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (v. 44). This, indeed, is loving God with the entirety of her heart, soul, mind, and strength. This, indeed, is a love and loyalty that are both exclusive and exhaustive.

Reflection on Mark 12:

  1. In what ways do we give to Caesar what belongs to God (i.e., our full loyalty)? What happens to us (and to others) when we offer what is God’s to the representatives of empire?
  2. Where are the gaps in our love for God (heart, soul, mind, strength) or in our loving like God (“neighbor as self”)?
  3. In what ways is our devotion to God more like the showy but stingy piety of the scries than the radical, open-handed trust of the widow?
  4. How is the Spirit speaking to you through Mark 12, and how will you respond?

Seen, Welcomed, Cherished

Last week in our study of Women in the New Testament,[1] we read of Jesus’ encounters with a fascinating series of individual women—the woman with twelve years of uncontrollable bleeding,[2] the widow of Nain,[3] the woman whose body was bent with crippling infirmity,[4] the bold and desperate Canaanite mother,[5] and the sister-disciples, Mary and Martha.[6] Attentive to Jesus’ words, actions, and attitudes towards these women, I was moved by the fact that, in his presence, each of them was seen, welcomed, and cherished.

Jesus sees each of these women—really sees them, notices them, pays attention to them. Even those who are often invisible or overlooked by society, because of their poverty or their seeming insignificance or their apparent incapacity to “contribute”—none of them escape his compassionate glance. Like Hagar (Genesis 16), they discover that he is El Roi, the God who sees them and whose sight leads to compassionate action. In fact, Jesus sees them so clearly that, on at least two occasions, he acts to restore and transform the existence of women who haven’t even asked him for favor and help (the widow of Nain, the crippled woman in the synagogue).

Second, Jesus welcomes these women in all their beautiful variety. From extreme illness to extreme grief, from ethnic differences to personality differences—each one is welcomed into his circle. Having been in Christian communities of one sort or another all my life, I’ve witnessed—and experienced firsthand at times—various attempts to codify and standardize “ideal Christian womanhood” into a one-size-fits-all uniform. Jesus, however, shows zero interest in such an approach, seeing and welcoming these women as individuals, with no attempt to force them into a cookie-cutter pattern. Particularly in the stories of Mary and Martha, we find him honoring the personalities and talents of each woman and embracing both of them as genuine disciples (probably to more than a few raised eyebrows among the Twelve).

Finally, Jesus cherishes these women with an incredible generosity of spirit, absolutely unfazed by the breadth and depth of their experience and expression. Almost every woman and girl, sometimes at a very young age, receives the message that she is “too ____” (you fill in the blank) and must tone down some aspect of herself in order to fit into society’s mold (or even the church’s set of expectations). Sadly, that set of expectations is often applied unevenly or exclusively to women. I remember, for instance, a work team of peers in which spirited theological and missional debate ensued between a male colleague and myself and another female team member. Another man on the team characterized the interaction this way: our brother was “passionate,” while we sisters were “too emotional.” H’mm.[7] However, ¡gloria a Dios!, none of these women were “too much” for Jesus! The bleeding woman was not too unclean or distasteful; the widow was not too poor or insignificant or old; the Canaanite mother was not too foreign, too pushy, or too bold; Mary was not too intelligent, too contemplative, too emotional; and Martha was not too capable, too bossy, or too forthright. Good news, indeed!

Reflection questions:

  1. Who are the “invisible” people in your circle? Widows and widowers, single moms and dads, lonely teens? Perhaps you can borrow this prayer from the Lectio 365 app: “Father, open my eyes to the people in my community who go unseen and unheard by all but you. Show me who you notice. I want to give them all my attention today.”
  • Think about your own life. What are the unique, God-designed qualities that make you “different” or “special”? Can you picture Jesus welcoming you with delight, celebrating your uniqueness? And can you picture him doing the same for the brother or sister whose uniqueness is so very different from your own?
  • Very few women or girls have not had the experience of being labeled “too ____.” Ladies, think about when it happened to you—who said it? What impact did it have on your self-understanding, your self-talk, your behavior, and your choices? Can you take that memory and any lingering effects to the One who made you, embraces, you, and delights in having you in his family and one his team? To all readers, women and men, will you be intentional with how you communicate with the young women and girls in your life? May they grow up secure in the knowledge that they are not “too” for Jesus!

[1] Suzannne Nicholson,

[2] Luke 8:41–55

[3] Luke 7:11–17

[4] Luke 13:10–17

[5] Matthew 15:21–28

[6] Luke 10:38–42; John 11:20–27

[7] I wish this were a one-off example; unfortunately, it is simply representative of what many women experience on a regular basis, especially those who find themselves in any kind of leadership role.

Luke’s Lovely Legacy: A Tale of Powerfully Prayerful Prophets

My online Bible study group is currently working through Suzanne Nicholson’s excellent eight-week series, Women in the New Testament (available at Week #1 considers the “first ladies” in the New Testament, those three who are so intimately linked to the beginning of Jesus’ story (Luke 1–2). Luke has provided a lovely legacy for his readers by including Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna, not just as “extras” or bit players in this cosmic drama of salvation, but as leading actors with powerful voices. This hints at some important theological and hermeneutical matters—it tells us a lot about the God who is directing this drama and it also provides some significant interpretive insights for reading about women in the rest of the New Testament.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Luke 1 and 2 over the past several years, but last week as the ladies and I read those chapters again, two elements in particular stood out to me. First, I was impressed by the generational range of the women who were called to be part of Jesus’ story. There is teen-aged Mary, unmarried, still living at home; there is post-menopausal but probably still “middle-aged” Elizabeth, married to a priest and part of a community of neighbors; and there is elderly Anna, widowed for longer than either of the other two have been alive and living what may be a kind of monastic existence. There is a lovely mutuality among these women—young Mary runs to her older relative for guidance and understanding, and her presence provided an empathetic source of support for Elizabeth as together they navigated their unusual pregnancies. Elizabeth and Anna recognized and celebrated the astonishing work of the Holy Spirit in Mary and her child. By her faithfulness to the requirements of the Jewish law, Mary’s presence in the temple with Joseph and Jesus provides Anna with a concrete and joyous answer to her years of prayer and fasting. The mix of generations with active roles in the story is striking.

The second aspect of these three women that stood out to me is their prophetic voice. Although only Anna is explicitly called a “prophetess” (2:36), the Spirit-impelled words of all three women are prophetic proclamations of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Even a cursory reading of Elizabeth’s words, Mary’s song, and Anna’s proclamation show that all three—the teenager, the middle-aged wife, the elderly widow—are steeped in “the Story” of Israel and thus are able to see clearly “what time it is” when the Holy Spirit speaks to them. In the cases of Anna and Elizabeth, this has been honed by long-haul faithfulness and prayerfulness, even through some of the greatest challenges that women can face (widowhood, barrenness). It is delightful to see how God was pleased to use each of them the speak truth to each other, to those around them, and to every generation of readers of the New Testament.

As I was reflecting on these two aspects of the stories of the Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna in preparation for my weekly video with the online group, this is the series of reflection questions that formed:

  1. How does this choosing and centering of women in key roles at the beginning of Jesus’ story affect how we read the stories of women and words about women in the rest of the New Testament?
  2. What possibilities for deep, enriching engagement are we missing by holing up in groups and relationships that are generationally homogeneous? What might change in our churches and communities if we were intentional about valuing and pursuing intergenerational relationships?
  3. To what degree are we committed to long-haul faithfulness to Scripture and prayer? And when the Spirit answers our prayers with Scripture-shaped prophetic truth, how will our response compare to the bold obedience of Anna, Elizabeth, and Mary?

“Draw Near”

“Draw Near”

It’s January 1, the beginning of a new twelve-month cycle that will have both continuity and discontinuity with the previous year. Perhaps because of spending a large portion of 2022 in the books of Revelation and Daniel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the biblical concept of time, which admits the cyclical nature of human history while affirming that history and time are also on a trajectory, moving towards a destination. As Christopher Watkin puts it in Biblical Critical Theory, biblical eschatology (the definite end that is also a definite beginning) not only shapes the arc and destination of the biblical narrative, but also “our horizon of existence in this world, infusing this life with particularly acute meaning,” as the end “gives retrospective meaning to the whole” (2022, pp. 547–48).

The January-December calendar keeps us focused on the cyclical nature of time, but, for Christians, the church calendar helps us not to forget its trajectory. It is fitting that Advent comes before the calendrical new year; in fact, Advent offers us the appropriate foundation on which to stand as we contemplate the next twelve months. It is the Incarnation—God coming to dwell with us—that provides the matrix for a Christian’s “New Year’s resolutions.” As J.D. Walt writes, “We were not made to reach for God, but to bow before him. That’s the one place where we discover that God was reaching for us all along. That’s who Jesus is—the one who reaches to us , right where we are. Not only does he reach us, he restores his glorious image in us and remakes us into the people he created us to be in the first place. In short, he reminds us to think like God thinks and to act like God and to love like God loves” (1/1/23 Wake-Up Call).

In other words, our trajectory is a journey of sanctification. It does indeed have seasons and cycles, although these may not always line up neatly with the beginning of a new calendar year. However, the traditional pause for reflection, evaluation, and contemplation on January 1 is a wonderful time to look back and look ahead. For me, that means a retrospective examination of 2022 through the word the Lord gave me last January, and accepting the new word he has given for 2023.

My word for 2022 was the phrase “deep water.” There was plenty of deep water, complete with the rip tides of persistent unhealth and the swirling maelstrom of denominational storms, with far-reaching implications for both local churches and pastors. Those “deep waters” haven’t miraculously become calm, shallow pools with the turn of a calendar page. Even as I write this, yet another round of illness is keeping me from joining the gathered saints for worship and Eucharist to begin the new year. And although our local church has made the official transition out of one denomination and into another, there are many unknowns still ahead. Looking backward over 2022, the one consistent element has been the invitation to “stay in the water” and to experience the presence of Jesus in the midst of the currents, not as a spectator on the shore. There have been gifts of peace, provision, and presence in the hard and uncertain times, and the Spirit has wooed me away from every false source of security and confidence into a deeper trust in the goodness, holiness, mercy, and grace of the Lord. Honesty compels me to say: I haven’t always heeded the invitation, accepted the gifts, or made the turn from false idols. But the larger trajectory of the year has been into the deep water.

As I’ve been listening for my 2023 word, I keep coming back to a phrase that the Rev. Carolyn Moore uses: “We don’t grow in holiness through proficiency but through proximity.” As I was awake in the wee hours of January 1, pondering that word proximity and its implications, the Spirit led me to James 4:8a, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (HCSB). That double “draw near” is right in the middle of a series of get-your-act-together imperatives: submit to God; resist the devil; cleanse your hands; purify your hearts; repent (be miserable, mourn, and weep over your sin); humble yourself before the Lord. All those other actions are part of becoming holy, but right in the center is getting close to God—because it is his holiness that will change us, not our own efforts. God has already drawn near to us in the Incarnation and in Pentecost; our drawing near to him meets his freely-given presence. It’s interesting that the Septuagint (Greek translation of Old Testament) uses “draw near” (engizo) in Hosea 12:6 to translate the Hebrew verb that means “put your hope in” or “wait for” (qãvã). Drawing near is an act of faith and patient hope. “Draw near to God”—a human act of humility, repentance, and alignment of life with the divine life. “And he will draw near to you”—a divine posture of grace, forgiveness, intimacy, and holiness.

So, as a fresh new set of calendar pages lies open on my desk, the words I will scribble on the top of each month are: “Draw Near.” I’d love to hear your 2023 word!

Breath of Life

“Breath of Life”

The strange, many-layered, poorly understood phenomenon that has come to be known as “long COVID” has been in the headlines this week. “Long” has now been “long enough” for the medical and scientific communities to begin digging into the mysteries of why some COVID survivors have lingering effects from the virus and what exactly has happened to provoke their persistent malaise and quirky collections of symptoms. So far, there are far more questions than answers.

I remember clearly the moment when I realized that “long COVID” had left the realm of sad news reports to become an unwelcome guest in my own life. Back in the early fall, I was looking back through my journaling for 2022. Suddenly it hit me—the fatigue that blanketed me on that autumn morning had been an almost daily companion since my close encounter with COVID in May. Here we stand at the close of the year, nearly seven months beyond that initial illness, and it’s been a bumpy ride. It’s been over 200 days of fatigue—sometimes blinding, numbing tiredness, always a sense that even the simplest tasks now require special effort. Two hundred days of realizing that the asthma that was merely an annoyance on the front side of this awful virus is now a life-complicating element that I have to take very seriously. (Rescue inhaler—don’t leave home without it!) And then there have been the weird and random episodes of dizziness, the brain fog, and the seemingly endless string of minor illnesses that have wandered in through the door of a weakened immune system. A lot of losses have been attached to this “new normal”—loss of time with family, loss of a much-anticipated face-to-face ministry time which became yet another virtual version, loss of productivity and creativity, loss of the prayer walks that are so vital to my daily well-being, loss of the blithe days when breathing was just something my body did, without any awareness on my part.

I’m not going to lie—there’s been a lot of lament and even complaint and yes, to be completely honest, outright pouting in my prayer life over the past seven months. I am not okay with this! But during this Advent season, even in the midst of the ongoing fatigue and yet another illness, the Lord has gifted me with a couple precious glimpses of what it means to be accompanied by Immanuel on this long COVID road.

The first little insight came during a Lectio divina exercise a couple weeks ago. I’d been studying Daniel 5:22–24 that morning—Daniel’s rebuke of arrogant and blasphemous King Belshazzar—so I chose that little passage for reading, meditating, contemplating, and praying. At the end of verse 23, Daniel indicts Belshazzar: “But you have not glorified the God who holds your life-breath in his hand and who controls the whole course of your life” (HCSB). As I sat in receptive silence before the Word and the Lord of the Word, the Spirit highlighted the phrase “life-breath.” With gentleness and compassion, the Spirit invited me to realign my response to the now-daily moments when my chest is tight and breathing is an activity of which I am very much aware. What if, instead of fussing and fuming, those were moments of stopping to express gratitude to the One who gives me life-breath? Labored or not, breath is still breath; slowed and hemmed in or not, life is still life. And both are gift! How might I glorify the One who holds my life-breath in his hand and who controls the course of my life?

Just a few days after that Lectio session, Randy and I attended the Holy Spirit Seminar (a yearly event sponsored by United Theological Seminary). The teaching was marvelous (thank you, Carolyn Moore!), the worship was truly Spirit-filled, and the fellowship was sweet. But the best part of the day came during the prayer time at the altar, when God gave me another Immanuel gift. When it was my turn with one of the intercessory teams, they asked me how they could pray for me. “Well, I’d really like physical healing, but what I want more than anything else is just more of Jesus.” A young woman, pierced and tattooed in a fascinating array, so tiny she could barely reach my forehead with anointing oil, began to pray over me. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the cement floor of the Dayton Vineyard Church, bathed in the sweet presence of Jesus. It was an awareness of shalom, of all-encompassing well-being, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It was sheer gift.

Do I still want restored health, freedom from whatever weirdness COVID has wrought in my organism? You betcha! But on this long road, however long it is, I am deeply grateful to be accompanied, to walk with Immanuel, to receive his gift of life-breath, one respiration at a time.