Small but steady witness: Big lessons from little churches (From May 9, 2022 Presbyterian Outlook Magazine)


No one besides me had entered our sanctuary for months, and it showed. I unlocked the wooden double doors bearing my handwritten sign that read: “Sanctuary Closed Due to Pandemic. Worship With Us Online.”Hot, stagnant air draped over me once I stepped inside the modest, single-room country church. As I walked up the center aisle, the wooden floors creaked in surprise at my unexpected feet. Pale morning sunlight illumined the chalky dust coating each unoccupied pew.

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” ‘Ode to Joy’ and the harrowing of hell” Holy Saturday post for Presbyterian Outlook

In 1786, Friedrich Schiller published his best-known work, a poem entitled “An die Freude,” known in English as “Ode to Joy.” Schiller’s poem was an instant hit. In fact, it was such a success that it soon sparked the imagination of another famous German artist. Shortly after its composition, Ludwig van Beethoven aspired to set the text of “Ode to Joy” to music.

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Smell, memory, and Christmas

Every Christmas, my late grandmother made peppernut cookies, (or pfeffernüsse, as she called them). Crunchy little morsels filled with warming spices, these cookies represented her family’s German roots. In a labor of love, Grandma created and then divided a lump of peppernut dough into several pieces and rolled out each by hand. She cut “nut” sized bites by wrapping a strand of dental floss around the ends of each long, thin tube of dough and by pulling tight. She baked cookie sheet after cookie sheet filled with the small, peppernut cookies, flooding their Iowa farmhouse full of cozy and comforting spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves…

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Enduring Grace, Imperfect Community

Source: Unsplash/Hannah Busing

Each Wednesday morning, I make a piping mug of tea, click a Zoom link, and am soon heartened by the panel of sleepy, smiling female faces checkered across my computer screen. Our Women’s Bible study has gathered early and faithfully throughout the pandemic. They graciously invited me to lead them on a journey through the Old Testament, specifically, to examine stories of biblical women. We started in Genesis, continued sequentially, and recently concluded with the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Together, we encountered the tragic pain, tender love, and resilient faith of the brave women of the bible.

We laughed with Sarah. We encountered God in the desert with Hagar. The collective courage of the daughters of Zelophehad empowered us. The appalling fate of the Levite’s concubine horrified us. The swift courage of Jael and her silent tent peg shocked us. We mourned and kept watch in the darkness with Rizpah. We discovered a model of resistance in Vashti and an advocate for justice in Esther.

The female saints of the Bible give voice to the failings of its many patriarchs, not to mention the pervasive brokenness of the whole community of faith. In scripture, God’s people repeatedly exploit the powerless and distort God’s teachings. Women and children are too often oppressed and violated. As our Bible study wrestled with these texts together, we never lost sight of the truth that these stories—however ugly or tragic—are all a part of our story.

Over and against harmful supercessionist interpretations of scripture, the Reformed tradition emphasizes our common kinship with the community of faith in the Old Testament. Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “The church hears the judgments and promises of the Old Testament as God’s Word to them. The idolatries of the Old Testament are snapshots from the church’s family album. Both Israel and the Church struggle to be obedient and faithful; both often fail.” Our journey through the Old Testament this year reminded us how broken the church has been from its beginnings—and how much we utterly depend upon God’s grace to sustain us.

A global pandemic has taught us all a thing or two about the imperfections of our earthly community of God. Our collective experience has dealt us each a sobering reminder of human mortality—and made the institutional church acutely aware of its own fragility. Dispersed and scattered from our buildings last year, we worried how our congregations would survive. Now as we reopen our physical spaces for Sunday worship, church leaders wonder who will return—and what the future holds.

My suspicion is that we, the Church, will probably fail in many ways to meet this watershed moment: that once back in our buildings, many congregations will hastily revert to old patterns of “business as usual.” I think we need to accept now that the Church will not be radically different than it was before the pandemic, at least not overnight. Yet whatever happens next, God’s promise to the Israelites and to us remains the same: I am with you. When the Israelites were in exile, God promised them: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you know perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God promised new possibilities for God’s people. These new possibilities were not contingent upon a perfect record of faithful obedience going forward. God’s people had already established a long track record of screwing things up. God hadn’t forgotten that—and yet God promised them a future with hope anyway!

God made a way for the Israelites through the wilderness and will make a way for us, too. What “way” will God show us forward? That has yet to be seen. The Church has overcome many trials and taken on so many forms over the course of history. Our Reformed tradition relativizes all singular forms of church worship or procedure. The Scots Confession states that no “policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places…” The architects of our early Reformed theology recognized that all earthly church forms are fragile and finite. As we discovered, our pandemic season ushered forth rapid innovation.  The church had to quickly adapt to fit the current context and to become an exclusively virtual community during a time of physical quarantine. What a pivotal moment in our church’s story! Together, we have demonstrated that God’s community on earth is truly capable of faithfully stepping out in hope to meet our future.    

Friends, we must not lose sight of our church’s story: that in all times and places the community of faith has been utterly dependent upon the grace of God. So why shouldn’t we boldly step out in hope for new possibilities now? We can learn much from the brave biblical women who relied on God’s grace to sustain them in troubled times. Now more than ever: let’s welcome the stranger, become fierce advocates for justice, and bear witness to this amazing story of God’s enduring grace for us.

Reading the “Curse of Ham” with America’s first ordained black preacher

Portrait of Lemuel Haynes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

During my senior year in college, I presented my first academic paper at a conference. (In Sioux Falls, South Dakota of all places!) In the middle of the windy prairie flatlands, I nervously presented my research to a modest audience of undergraduate students and their advisors. My topic? The devastating reception history behind Genesis 9:18-27, in which Noah curses the offspring of his son Ham.

This peculiar little biblical passage was a popular one in the Antebellum South, repeatedly manipulated and distorted into justifying American slavery. In Genesis 9:18-27, Noah had three sons who were the ancestors of all the peoples of the world: Shem, Japheth, and Ham. One day, their father Noah drank too much wine and passed out naked in his tent. Ham walked in, saw his father’s nakedness, then went and told his brothers.

The text is somewhat vague about the details of Ham’s alleged crime. Was Ham’s only crime accidentally walking in on his father naked? Or was it that he told his brothers? As you can imagine, biased interpreters took to excessively speculating about Ham’s sexual impropriety. Regardless, Shem and Japheth “covered the nakedness of their faither” with a piece of clothing, supposedly without seeing their father with their own eyes. And when Noah regained consciousness, he somehow knew exactly “what his youngest son had done to him.” Noah admonished, “Cursed be Canaan! Lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

According to racist myth, because Ham was believed to be the father of all the nations of Africa, Noah’s curse gives biblical sanction for their enslavement. Never mind that Canaan is the recipient of the curse. Canaan was cursed as a result of his father’s sin—and in the twisted rationale of white slaveholders, black slavery must be the all-time consequence.

Why am I recalling this tragic biblical interpretation? Because this week I am reading some of the writings of Lemuel Haynes, our country’s first ordained black minister. Though in his day, Genesis 9:18-27 was a favorite text of white slaveholders, Rev. Haynes was courageously offering a very different interpretation of this exact same passage!

In 1776, America’s first ordained black preacher wrote in rebuke of this biblical text being used to justify slavery. Lemuel Haynes writes, “Whethear [sic] the Negros are of Canaans posterity or not, perhaps it is not known By any mortal under Heaven. But allowing they were actually of Canaans posterity, yet we have no reason to think that this Curs Lasted any Longer than the comeing of Christ: when that Sun of riteousness arose this wall of partition was Broken Down.”

Haynes clearly casts doubt upon the belief that Ham’s son Canaan is the progenitor of the African people. Here, one of my former biblical studies professors, Lisa Bowens, helps us parse out the roots of Hayne’s criticism. Dr. Bowens writes, “…part of Haynes critique of this story’s interpretation lies in recognizing the improbability of knowing the identity of Canaan’s descendants.” Bowens goes on to note the importance of the New Testament for understanding Hayne’s reading of this Old Testament story. Bowens notes that in Haynes’ above critique, he draws upon the Letters of the Apostle Paul. [1]

Bowens states, “In Ephesians 2:14, where Paul discusses Christ’s destruction of the wall between Jew and gentile, Haynes understands the partition as the one prevalent in his day, the wall erected between black and white, slave and free, and insists that Christ destroyed these humanly instituted barriers also. Moreover, in Galatians 3:13 the apostle states, ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law…’ Using the apostle’s language, Haynes grants that even if black were descendants of Canaan, Christ’s death removes this curse and therefore delegitimizes the use of the Ham narrative.” [2]

In the 18th century, we must remind ourselves that Haynes was writing in and for a much different time. Nevertheless, the burden of having to debunk any supposed “biblical curse” over one’s people is ludicrous and tragic. But what I find fascinating about Haynes’ reading of this story is that, despite the pain and trauma associated with it, Haynes still finds Christ as our source of liberation and grace. Whatever walls, he says, human beings construct to divide each other and whatever curse we may have once lived under as a result of sin, Christ has saved us from all sin and bondage! He declares, “But now our glorious hygh [sic] priest hath visably appear’d in the flesh and hath Establish’d a more glorious Oeconemy. He hath not only visably Broken Down that wall of partision that interposed…” Haynes goes to say that these walls have been rendered “obsolete!”

Lemuel Haynes lifted up his Christ-centered rebuke of Genesis 9:18-27 as a part of an essay entitled, “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping.” His refutation of the “Curse of Ham” is one piece of a much broader argument against slavery. The distinct courage of Haynes is clearly demonstrated by his rejection of lazy interpretations of white preachers. He challenges slavery in light of the grace and freedom promised to all through the victory of Christ’s Resurrection. Finally, Haynes reclaims a biblical text for those abused and traumatized by its centuries of misreading and misuse, lifting up a liberating reading of this passage that is, above all else, the Good News. Thanks be to God!

[1] Bowens, Lisa M. African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. E-Book. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020.

[2] Bowens, Lisa M. African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. E-Book.

The wounds of God for the wounded people of God

In the face of suffering, Julian of Norwich found comfort in the vision she received from God: “All will be well…”
Source: Unsplash/Josh Applegate

After losing someone close to her, my mother-in-law shared a comment has stuck with me.  “Isn’t it strange? Now she’s just another coronavirus statistic.”

400,000 deaths.

Our country has surpassed 400,000 deaths to the pandemic. In just under a year, more Americans have died of Covid 19 than in World War II. Since the beginning of December, nine Americans are dying every five minutes. The coronavirus pandemic is currently the third-deadliest event in U.S. history, ranking after the Civil War and the Spanish Flu.  

The constant toll of Covid death has become a ritual that rises and sets with us. I wake up to a daily news briefing in my email inbox tracking the Coronavirus death toll. I wind down at the night with the news of the day—tracking the Coronavirus death toll. We can set our clocks to the steady, daily rhythm of gratuitous human loss and national despair.

In a couple of my church’s virtual classes and even an upcoming virtual retreat, I am guiding my Zoom attendees through the role of trauma in the life and faith of some major figures in the Bible as well as in church history.

In 14th century England, Julian of Norwich was no stranger to widespread death and societal trauma. Throughout Julian’s lifetime, England was ravaged by famine, religious persecution, violent political turmoil and revolt, and several iterations of the infamous Black Plague.[1] At the young age of thirty, Julian of Norwich found herself deathly ill. Like so many of her sick and impoverished peers of the lower classes, she waited–helpless and in pain–for her life to end. It was at this point of personal trauma, she received visions she believed were from God.

Fortunately, Julian would survive and go on to be the first woman to write a book in English based on her visions called, Revelations of Divine Love. As it turns out, Julian’s ecstatic, mystical revelations had everything to do with suffering, namely the suffering of Christ in the Passion event. Fascinatingly, Julian’s visions of Christ’s—often very graphic—suffering on the Cross revealed not grief, not fear, but joy.In beholding Christ’s wounds, Julian finds spiritual refuge.

She writes, “The beauty and vividness of [Christ’s] blood are like nothing but itself. It is as plentiful as the drops of water which fall from the eaves after a heavy shower of rain, drops which fall so thickly that no human mind can number them… And this is what gave me the most happiness and the strongest sense of spiritual safety.”

I was initially shocked by Julian’s association of such bloody imagery with feelings of joy. Today, on the heels of the violent Capitol riots, we are a wounded nation, torn asunder by deep partisan divisions and the ugly, entrenched myth of white supremacy. We are weary from a heated summer of police violence against Black lives and peaceful protestors. In Julian’s day, “in addition to the plague, many of the same people had heard about or watched men and women fighting for reform of the brutal feudal system slain like lambs to a slaughter.” [2] How can Julian behold the wounds inflicted upon Jesus’ body, culminating in his state-sanctioned execution, as a sign of spiritual safety?

Julian believes that in the eyes of Jesus, no one is insignificant. Jesus sees each of us and our circumstances equally. This was extraordinary at a time when the lower classes were barely recognized, by either their government or their Church. Julian was a woman so poor at her birth that her name wasn’t even recorded for posterity. (We call her “Julian of Norwich” after the church to which she later dedicated her life.) During Mass, only the priest would have been guaranteed to receive the cup of blessing. The cup (Christ’s blood) certainly would never have been given to the lower classes.

In such a context, Julian beheld the crucifix in one of her visions and wrote, “And suddenly I saw the red blood running down from under the crown, hot and flowing copiously, a living stream… I perceived truly and powerfully that it was he who was just so, both God and man, himself suffered for me, who showed it to me without intermediary… And suddenly, the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come there…”

Imagine that! As Julian lies helpless on what she thought would be her deathbed, in the midst of the relentless trauma, violence, and death all around her—living in the daily reality of an unjust and cruel class system — Julian finds happiness, comfort, safety, love, and social equality on the Cross. Consider that this is a time when a young, poor woman would have been prohibited from writing theology at all, let alone theology as radical as this!

Seeking answers for the countless suffering around her, Julian looks to the ultimate suffering of the One. For suffering on its own isn’t an end in and of itself. Our suffering in this world is not a punishment for our sins, nor is it redemptive. Christ sees our pain and suffers so that there will be an end to our suffering!

Julian writes, “And with the beholding of Jesus’ passion… I did not see sin, for I believe that is has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pain caused by it… And it seems to me that this pain is something for a time… For the passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this… And because of the tender love which our good Lord has for all who will be saved, he comforts readily and sweetly, meaning this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be will, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

In her visions, Julian sees a wounded Lord for a wounded world. She receives God’s tender words of comfort as a healing salve and promise of future hope. Above all, no matter who we are, Julian believes that Jesus is all love and needs no intermediary to reach us. In God’s eyes, we are never a mere statistic. For a time such as this, Julian implores that we turn to God because she knows that God has already turned to us. In fact, she hears God lovingly calling to us.

“… Tenderly our Lord God touches us and blessedly calls us, saying in our soul: ‘Let me by all thy love, my dearworthy child. Occupy thyself with me, for I am enough for thee. Rejoice in Thy Savior and in thy salvation.’ ”

[1] For my research on Julian’s social and historical context I drew from the following work on Kindle: Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. E-Book. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

[2] Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. E-Book. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. (Emphasis added.)