A Unifying Feast

IMG_7822“What is the significance of Thanksgiving?”

Inevitably the question gets asked around our nomadic Thanksgiving table each year, primarily because the guests who fill our mismatched chairs are a constantly varying assortment of races and nationalities. Years ago we established a family tradition of inviting friends from whichever local community we happened to belong to at the time to share our feast with us, largely inspired by our desire to express our gratitude to them for welcoming us in and helping us settle. I have always relished answering this question, getting the chance to draw the parallels between their kindness to us and the kindness of the Native Americans to the pilgrims.

But in more recent days I have been struck with the awkward question: what if in return for our new neighbors’ sacrificial kindness, we abused them, took over their land, and forced them into exile? Is that not how the story of the first Thanksgiving turned out? All of a sudden my warm fuzzies over happy natives and holy pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal together shrivel into a nasty knot in my stomach. Sadly, this is my American heritage.

We perpetuate a heritage of sacrificing other’s best interests for the sake of our own.

But what can I do with it? I can dismiss the rest of the story as an unpleasant memory and choose to focus on the positive. But positive for whom? I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid I have been guilty of remembering history only from the perspective that is most convenient to me. And in so doing, I have privately propagated the very practices that I would publically condemn. Racist assumptions. Double standards. Convenient cover-ups. Selective memory.

When I actually face up to the facts, I shudder at the story of what my ancestors did to the people who inhabited the land they wanted. Their behavior makes Ahab and Jezebel look like saints! In a similar way, I cringe at the story of what my people did to the black people they imported to work their stolen land. I start to read the story of Israel’s slavery in Egypt from a different perspective, recognizing that my heritage is that of the oppressors, not the oppressed.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, … if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

And trying to separate myself from my ancestors’ actions won’t work either. On varying levels and on different fronts, these racist practices have continued right through the generations and into my day. We perpetuate a quickness to sacrifice other’s best interests for the sake of our own, conveniently slotting them into the category of “outsiders” so that we can be left alone to enjoy the fruit without the guilt. Free-market competitive pricing becomes an excuse for international extortion. Self-defense becomes an acceptable reason for killing someone who makes us feel threatened, even if he was defenseless.

My heart breaks as I witness in the news the physical manifestations of an ever-present rift, both in the racist assumptions that would lead to multiple police killings of African-American youth and in the violent backlash in response to them. But I have to admit that I am not surprised. Generations of divisive attitudes and oppressive behaviors have built this wall, and a smattering of charitable gestures and affirmative actions won’t tear it down.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

So what is the way forward in reconciling a history of racial division and distrust? What tiny part can I play in tearing down this too-long reinforced wall? I think the first step is to acknowledge the true story, to listen to my African-American and Native-American neighbors’ retelling of the past and to humbly bear the shame of my ancestors’ role in it. But beyond that, I relish the opportunity to participate with them in a new future.

Each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, we replicate Christ’s unifying feast.

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. Out of His fragmented body, He drew together people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to become one holy race. Each time we gather around the communion table, we participate in this reality. And each time we gather around our dinner tables, we replicate that unifying feast.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
Acts 2:5, 44-47

The early Christians understood the significance of eating together, of gathering around the table and entering into face-to-face communion with people whom they had formerly considered “other.” I can’t help but wonder if this is what the pilgrims had in mind when they initiated that first Thanksgiving meal. And though the communion between European-Americans and Native-Americans would turn out to be pathetically short-lived, it is what we commemorate each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables.

Tomorrow I look forward to once again eating that meal with the odd assortment of multi-racial guests whom I have the privilege of calling friends. As we break bread and share turkey together, we are practicing for the ultimate Thanksgiving feast, the unity supper of the Lamb.

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Maid in His Image

Photo on 11-19-14 at 12.00 PMIn the grand scope of eternity, what is the point of my cleaning this toilet?

To answer that painfully relevant question, I need to backtrack. Last summer my Ugandan students went around the classroom introducing themselves to me: pastors, bishops, government officials, development consultants, organizational leaders. But what they left out of their impressive list of jobs were the animals they tended, the ground they tilled, the buildings they cleaned, the meals they cooked, the household items they made and sold: all a daily part of making ends meet. The juxtaposition of such high-power social positions with what seemed to me to be low-level unskilled labor caught me off guard. And it pushed me to re-evaluate my attitude towards menial service.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit… Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

So when I came across a family in our area looking for a weekend house-cleaner, I took the job. Why should I consider myself socially above being someone else’s domestic help? Why would my advanced degrees and higher-level teaching position somehow “over-qualify” me for menial work? My family needed the income, and more than that, I needed the training.

My reactions to the experience would reveal how much I needed it.

This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it is shaping me into the image of my Lord.

The first few weeks on the job I struggled with insecurity and self-pity, feeling a sudden, self-imposed separation from my church friends and social peers. Many of them hire house-help; now I was house-help. Though nothing had really changed, I suddenly felt very poor, begrudging each unnecessary expenditure my family made as if it were a personal statement on the value of my labor.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:5-8

The worst, though, was the irritability that came bubbling to my surface, revealing a deep sense of self-righteous entitlement that I hadn’t known was there. I wholeheartedly threw myself into the work, scrubbing someone else’s toilets and floors as a spiritual act of service. But having spent myself in sacrificial service there, I resented coming home to the mess and chaos of my own home. I grouchily barked out orders to my children, betraying my assumption that I deserved an exemption from going a third mile because I had already gone the second.

Week after week my eyes have been opened to the significance of Jesus’ decision to put on human clothes and become our “help.” Heavenly status laid aside. Immortality discarded. God made in our image, after our own likeness. Sore hands. Aching back. Wounded pride. Devalued labor.

Servanthood was an overflow of Jesus’ self-secure love:
fully compatible with His glorious position,
fully intermingled with His ongoing story.

But having spent Himself in serving the masses, He did not resent going the third mile, or the fourth, or the fifth. He had walked dusty miles, fed ungrateful crowds, washed stinky feet, and waited on disbelieving disciples. You would think that His ultimate act of service would finally be enough, that having His hands pierced and His body broken would earn Him an easy chair or at least some disability. But there He was the next weekend, glorified body and all, building a fire and cooking breakfast while His disciples were out fishing.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:9-11

I still shudder at the thought of sitting around that fire, watching the Lord of glory fix my breakfast, seeing the holes in His hands as He served my plate. It challenges my feelings about service and menial labor to the core. Hard work wasn’t just a means to glory for Him. It was a delight in and of itself. Servanthood was an overflow of God’s self-secure love, fully compatible with His glorious position, fully intermingled with His ongoing story.

And I have the weekly privilege of sharing in that story. I get to lay aside my pretty clothes and plunge my hands into someone else’s mop bucket. This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it allows me to practice being like my Lord. Slowly, it is shaping me more into His image.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:11-12

I still struggle to live up to His example, to feel the rightness of becoming a domestic servant and to maintain a Christ-like attitude having done so. But God graciously gives me glimpses of how His social hierarchy works. A few Saturdays ago, a dear friend from church invited us to dinner. Exhausted from a hard afternoon’s work, I quickly cycled by home to swap my grubby jeans for a more polished skirt. Minutes later I relaxed by her blazing fire, surrounded by elegant paintings and sipping fine wine from crystal. As I watched this high-class woman’s hands serving me the lavish meal she had spent the day preparing, I fought back tears at the irony and the ecstasy of it all.

Exalted servants. Serving Lord.

Now that is an image for which I am gladly maid.

Taking My Theology to the Grocery Store

caged_hens3It’s time for me to eat some humble pie.

For years I have observed food fads from afar, marveling that people have the time and resources to make such a fuss over the labels on the foods that they buy. Organic grocery aisles and upscale health food stores have often struck me as marketing ploys, one more way for the wealthy to spend their excess resources while the poor have to make do with the overly processed, chemically polluted foods that they can actually afford.

Which value will win out: the well-being of the chickens who produce these eggs or the well-being of my children who need to eat them?

I often feel trapped between the responsibility to feed my family well and my meager resources to do so. I’m one of those who show up at closing time to snatch up the clearance foods that are too old to sell. I pick mold off of bread crusts and find creative ways to turn leftover scraps into another meal. And with a family that walks or cycles everywhere we go, I often feel at my wit’s end to keep up with our caloric needs, especially in light of how expensive most protein sources are.

So each time I examine the price labels on the egg aisle, I face a moral dilemma. Which value will win out: the well-being of the chickens who produce these eggs or the well-being of my children who need to eat them? I am ashamed to admit that I have intentionally buried my head in the sand, preferring to walk out of the store with my three affordable cartons of caged-hen eggs rather than to take seriously my responsibility to be a steward of God’s creation.

I tried to keep my theology conveniently contained at home. But God won’t stay in my cage.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field… The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.
The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. There the birds make their nests…
These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:10-12, 16-17, 27-18

God loves all of His creation. For years I have savored His repeated declarations of loving care for His creatures, inevitably filling in the blank with mental images of myself and my family, or perhaps of oppressed women in South Asia and starving children in Africa. But when it comes to those bits that specifically talk about His tender care for the animals, I’m ashamed to admit that I have largely read them in terms of just how loving and compassionate He is, and then lumped them in with how much He cares about people.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:3-8

How anthropocentric of me! The world doesn’t revolve around people. Yes, we are the crowning glory of physical creation, the bits of earth that have been fashioned into the image of God and infused with the Spirit of God. We are the ones whom He has raised up from the dust and entrusted with the responsibility of ruling over the rest of His earth, including its dogs and chickens, crops and ecosystems. He has given these things to us to provide for our needs, but with that privilege comes responsibility.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.
Matthew 6:26; 10:29

Jesus had strong words and an even stronger example about what it looks like to rule. Tender nurture. Sacrificial service. And embedded in His reminders of our Father’s loving care for us are powerful statements of God’s loving care for the rest of His creatures. Feeding the birds. Noticing their living conditions. Of course we are more valuable to Him than they are, but that doesn’t negate their worth. It confirms it.

After receiving all of God’s lavish provisions, can I really turn around and stingily refuse some chickens the dignity of a decent living space?

And so as I am faced with the question of how much I am willing to sacrifice for the living conditions of these out-of-sight, out-of-mind hens, I feel just a bit like that ungrateful servant who received much grace but refused to pass it on. My Father has lavished abundant resources on me. Those discounted items at the grocery store are His manna falling from heaven. And that gift-ordered turkey that I can’t fit into my tiny freezer is His extravagant provision, more bountiful than my storage capacity. After receiving all that, can I really turn around and stingily refuse some chickens the dignity of a decent living space?

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ …your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

And lest I think that in looking out for the needs of the rest of creation my own needs will suffer, God puts my silly worries to rest. Will He who did not spare the turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner not along with it graciously give us all the ethically-sourced eggs we need to dress it?

Fleshy Theology

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
What’s the point of having a body?

As a college student, I remember finding my body an inconvenient obstruction to being in all the places I wanted to be at the same time. I had a hard time accepting that it wouldn’t allow me to work through the hours of the night and then stay awake in class the next day. Somehow physical limitations didn’t register as a valid reason to lower my ambitions. After all, wasn’t my body simply a temporary vehicle for my soul?

Years of motherhood, physical challenges, and the inevitable experience of aging have forced me to listen to my body (at least with one ear). But only recently have I encountered a compelling argument for why I should value it.

Sitting in an N.T. Wright lecture a few weeks ago, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective (no pun intended) on the physical realm. Far from being the messed-up, spiritually devoid location where our souls are temporarily housed as they await their true home in heaven, Tom Wright challenged me to think of the earth and everything in it as an integral, ongoing part of God’s redemptive plan. The imagery of a delighted God walking through His garden in Eden and the promise of new creation have sparked my imagination to see how infused this physical earth is with the presence of God. What’s more, taking seriously the fact that God manifested His glorious image in fleshy, human bodies has caused me to reconsider my former assumptions about the significance of my own body.

Is it merely a temporary shelter to be minimally maintained? Is it a side-point to my spirituality, a distracting, limiting necessity along my journey to Christ-likeness, or is it, in fact, an integral part of my being re-created in and conformed to His image?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ…
Colossians 1:15; 2:9–10

I suppose the starting point in answering these questions is to consider the significance of Christ’s body. It was the dwelling place of God, the physical space where God’s Spirit was located. But more than that, it was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

I admit I have to take a moment to let that sink in. I am accustomed to conceptualizing this in a spiritual sense but missing its physical reality. But if I have no trouble believing that God really was born of a woman and took a fleshly form, why do I get hung up on thinking of Jesus as a physical replica of God? Perhaps this is where I get caught with my dualist, Neoplatonic slip showing. Has my Western worldview really kept me from appreciating the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay…We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6–10

And yet there it is. Not only is Christ’s body a physical manifestation of God’s image—mine is too! My body is a visible representation of God, the eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, touching, seeing image of its Creator. But more than that, it has become a sacred space in which His Spirit lives. The eyes that I would prefer to be bluer and the wrinkles that are setting in despite my best effort are part of a face that is being transformed to look more and more like His.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

True, the image I see in the mirror is a far cry from the Original. Ugly expressions, dark circles, and sagging cells betray the fact that this face has been cursed. But there is hope! My body is going through the same process that Jesus’ body did. I can see its weakness, decay and eventual death setting in, but at the same time I experience a renewing force bringing light to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I treasure the fact that my mortal body is the place where Jesus’ life is being currently revealed. Better than that, I look forward to the day when this very body will be raised up from the dead, a new improved version of the same old me.

Our faces are being transformed to look more and more like His.

It may sound silly, but I think that is the beginnings of a theology of beauty, a little extra motivation to care for my body and make it as true an image of its glorious Lord as is possible this side of the new creation.

Godly makeup. Fleshy theology.