Living the word

A Season of Repentance

Christians tell the same story over and over even though we know how it ends. We dread the execution even as we anticipate the resurrection. The wisdom of our tradition asserts that our path is not a line but a circle—or a spiral. As we turn from Epi­ph­any to Lent we leave the joy and wonder of the incarnation, moving from revelation and recognition to the hard work of repentance.

Forgetting that we were created for joy, many of us wrongly equate repentance with renouncing pleasure. We act as if our greatest sins were watching too much TV or eating too many chocolates. By “giving them up for Lent,” we continue to participate in the culture of consumption and individualism with a program of self-improvement.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hes­chel wrote, “Repentance is an ab­solute, spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future.” Could this be so for us?

On the surface, it might not look so different. We might still put down the chocolate bar and turn off the television, but we might also talk about our cultural addiction to spectacle, or forced child labor in the chocolate industry. Lent might look different if together we supported and created alternative media. And, rather than trading our sodas for bottled water, we stood with indigenous women defending their sacred waters.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

February 3

See and Listen

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Voices of Truth

In the Northern Hemisphere, the short days and long nights of winter come with lectionary readings full of references to dark and light. Each Isaiah reading speaks of darkness and light: “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1); “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6); “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). Psalm 27 begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” and Matthew 4:15-16 quotes Isaiah 9:1-2. In each passage, darkness indicates danger, fear, and occupation; light is associated with God, Israel, joy, and salvation.

Christians living in a racist world need to acknowledge this scriptural pattern and be aware of the harm it has caused, the ways it has been exaggerated and distorted in Christian theology and hymnody to say that white is good and black is bad. We need to reclaim and proclaim the many positive biblical references to Africa and Africans and the positive references to darkness. In the same passage where Israel is a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), we find the beautiful dark images of a mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1) and the shadow of God’s hand (Isaiah 49:2).

If, as the title of this magazine section implies, we are not simply to read but to live the ambiguous and contradictory word that is our sacred story, we must be challenged and struggle, and we must act and speak against racism when we encounter it.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.

January 6

A Disturbing Gift

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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A Prophetic Call

December 1 is World AIDS Day. Worldwide, 15 million children have lost one or both parents to the AIDS pandemic; in Zimbabwe, one in five children are orphans. Yet in North America, December marks the start of our annual frenzy of conspicuous consumption, and churches often counter the market’s hijacking of our feast day with poor substitutes: charity and triumphalism.

The scripture passages for these weeks do not support our holiday evasions. While sometimes hopeful, the verses are neither cozy nor celebratory. Certainly we find stories of Jesus’ birth, but they come amid news of prisons, lions, vipers, swords, armor, and genocide. The lections’ strongest themes are of justice, violence, and the role of prophets.

Over five Sundays the lectionary takes us through seven books spanning eight centuries, and we engage with some of the best-loved passages in scripture: “A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1); “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6); “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Matthew 3:3); and “my soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:47). The dominant texts are Isaiah, the book from the Hebrew Bible most quoted in the Greek Testament, and the gospel of Matthew, the book in the Greek Testament that draws most often from the Hebrew Bible. In a complex interplay, the texts read each other, we read the texts, and the texts read us and our times.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.

December 2

Hunger and War

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Cycles of Death and Rebirth

In Ceremonies of the Seasons, Jennifer Cole writes, “All calendars are founded upon a wish to organize our experience of time into manageable units—especially the year, with its recognizable seasonal landmarks.” She goes on to point to a “curious contradiction” about the movement of time: We are surrounded by “reliable repetition” and “constant change.” Just think of the tidal and lunar cycles, animal migrations, and vegetation cycles that mark the passage of time with regularity.

As I read Cole’s observations, I pondered the fact that our calendars tell us stories, and those stories can in turn help us think about why we have developed elaborate rituals to mark some celebrations and not others.

I notice three things about November. First, in the United States, November contains three civic “high holy days”: Election Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving. Second, if we think globally, we’ll notice that during late autumn there are many celebrations that honor the ending of the harvest, the turning of life toward death, and the choice of good over evil—Day of the Dead, Halloween, Diwali, All Saints’ Day, and Chung Yeung are all examples.

In our society we idolize militarism and greed, routinely forgetting that our nation’s prosperity comes at the expense of others’ lives and welfare. Is there a way for us to recover a deep sense of the life-death-life cycle so central to our faith—and an inescapable part of all life—that can also birth social change?

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

November 4

Truthful Seeing

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4;

Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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God's Refining Love

Last month's Hebrew Testament readings introduced us to Jeremiah, beginning a nine-week focus on the book that bears his name, along with Lamentations. Readings from both books give us a sampling of the rich images Jeremiah uses—wilderness, fountains of living water, a potter forming clay vessels, the earth laid bare, healing balm, and land to which God holds the deed.

Jeremiah was at work from 628 to 586 B.C.E., during which time the southern kingdom of Judah twice came under threat by the Babylonians. Having been aided by the Egyptians during the first threat in 588, the Jewish monarchs were not able to protect Jerusalem the second time around. In 586, the city was sacked, beginning the second wave of the Babylonian captivity.

Commentators generally agree that Jeremiah's career as a prophet serves as a microcosm of the entire Hebrew Testament. As Elmer Martens writes, "The book of Jeremiah … depicts the alienation of people from God, God's unceasing attempts to bring them back to [Godself], God's judgment on their evil through exile, the delights of restoration, and [God's] actions not only on behalf of the people of Israel but for the benefit of the world of nations."

The very definition of the word prophet means "to speak for." In order to voice authentically God's message, a prophet must not fear intimacy with God, because the prophetic word comes from the mysterious depths of God's own heart. This is why Jeremiah's commissioning includes God's foreknowledge of Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5).

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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Living in the Presence of God

Themes of time and patience unite the Hebrew Testament readings for this month. Time works in our lives in concrete and abstract ways. It's something we try to keep track of—some of us are good at managing it, but most of us aren't. Time is what we want to spend with people we care about and something we feel robbed of when someone dies prematurely—"before their time," we say.

Patience is a virtue, the proverb explains. But is patience a character trait or an emotion? Is it a state of being some people are predisposed to while others seem to have the words "anxious" stamped on their souls? Is there such a thing as too much patience?

Relationships mean listening, trusting, waiting, and praying. In other words, they require time and patience. In On Earth As in Heaven: Justice Rooted in Spirituality, Arthur Paul Boers observes that as Christians we are called to a relationship with God by "deriving from God our purpose, identity, direction, and self-esteem. Rather than asking the self-centered question, 'What is God's will for my life?' we are empowered to ask bigger questions, such as, 'How can I fit into the work of God's kingdom here on earth?'"

The problem, Boers says, is that we often try to justify ourselves by works. Learning to trust God is the most important step we can take in moving toward a better and whole relationship with the Author of our lives.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

August 5
What's Essential?
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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Called to be Prophets

This month's readings bring to life Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea, prophets who turn up the heat on the status quo. They show us how God speaks through flame, smoke, water, and wind. Through poems, songs, stories, and powerful monologues, prophets are God's representatives in human history.

In their introduction to The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures: The Prophets, Craig Smith and Mark Buckley explain both the definition and role of a prophet. "Prophet" means "to speak for," which means the prophet also shares what Abraham Heschel calls "the pathos of God's heart." The prophet listens to, understands, and finally proclaims a message that comes from the very heart of God.

The four prophets, using the language of repentance, call the children of Abraham to return to faithful living. God's uniqueness, faithfulness to covenant, justice, and kindness all mingle to create a portrait of God that confuses and distresses as much as it reveals. But this is not a bad place to be. As Smith and Buckley write, "Prophets revive our capacity to feel and draw our attention to what we would rather not see."

Paired with stories of Jesus' ministry from Luke's gospel, episodes from the prophets' lives can take on new meaning in a world that desperately needs to hear righteous words of judgment and healing. These words can save us from ourselves, but only if we are willing to be led to God's heart.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

July 1
Refining Fire
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

As a child, an illustration in my sister's Bible especially caught my eye. It was of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. I hadn't remembered this story from Sunday school, or at least it failed to make an impression on me. But I was fascinated by this illustration.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Sacred Ordinariness

"Ordinary time" in this season after Pentecost isn't only about "everydayness." Ordinary is the adjectival form of ordinal, which refers to a numerical sequence. It's a fitting description for a season that doesn't lead to Christmas or Easter; rather this is a season of noticing the days and weeks as they go by. Liturgically speaking, ordinary time gives us the space to kick back and consider the lilies of the field—literally. As writer Annie Dillard observed, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." It makes sense to get on with the ordinary—believing that if God is in the details, surely God also is in the broad strokes.

Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz describes an understanding of the sacred that is imbued with ordinariness as "lo cotidiano." In From the Heart of Our People, Latina feminist theologian María Pilar Aquino builds on this concept by describing lo cotidiano as those "daily struggles for humanization, for a better quality of life, and for greater social justice" that give Christian faith meaning for so many of us.

Living in the ordinary through ordinary time makes social justice a spiritual discipline that can bring us to a new awareness of how God is above us, beneath us, and beside us.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.


June 3
Organic Theology
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

I teach an undergraduate theology course in which we talk about God and the Christian life in "organic" vs. "conventional" terms. Organic theology grows from the good earth God created, the good earth Wisdom sings about in Proverbs 8.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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God's New Creation

Eastertide concludes in May with the celebration of Pentecost, making Easter a season focused on the emergence of the church. This is why the lectionary texts include readings from Acts instead of the traditional Hebrew Testament.

In Sacred Journeys, Jan Richardson describes the Easter season as a time for reflecting on community. "Each community has a different rhythm," she writes. "We know that the rhythms of community can be both life-giving and stifling, liberating and oppressive." What images and metaphors does the Bible offer us that can convey this truism about life in church communities?

The earthen vessel is one. Some theologians describe the church as a treasure given to us by God and placed in earthen vessels—human beings with foibles, prone to bad judgment. Even so, earthen vessels hold the water Jesus turns to wine and, in his parable, the oil the young women conserve for their lamps. These vessels represent our fragility and our capacity; we can fall apart, but we can also hold miracles.

Christian community is like a lamp fashioned from Earth's clay and lit by the Spirit's tongue of flame. Kept trimmed and burning, it is a light that gives illumination to all who draw near its flame. Sometimes the flame burns us. Other times it dies. But, as the hymnist reminds us in "God Whose Purpose is to Kindle," the Spirit is always ready to ignite us with her fire.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

May 6
Rethinking Identity
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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Cinema Paradiso

Passion Week is a popular time for Jesus movies. Unlike their cousin the "Christ-figure film," which portrays characters whose choices remind us of the gospel, Jesus movies tell Jesus' story. They offer us a particular representation and interpretation of what we know about first-century Palestine's history, Christian devotional traditions, cultural values about Jesus, and directorial imagination.

One of the interesting things about Jesus movies (quite a few have been made over the years) is that in the early days of film, Jesus' life was a favorite subject because it was full of miracles—including rising from the dead—which offered budding filmmakers the opportunity to innovate and develop special effects. How can a human actor appear to walk on water? How can that same actor appear to ascend into heaven?

Another feature of Jesus movies is the way directors use them as storytelling vehicles. Jesus at the Movies, by W. Barnes Tatum, and Savior on the Silver Screen, by Richard N. Stern, Clayton Jefford, and Guerric Debona, are two books that compare which movies use which gospel accounts.

This Eastertide, I find myself wondering why no one has made a film focusing on the story of Jesus post-crucifixion. After all, there is an entire liturgical season of 50 days dedicated to this part of his ministry on Earth. That's 10 more days than either Advent or Lent, and 50 is the number of the Jubilee, making it a number of "liberation and restitution."

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana.

April 1
The Story Made New
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14 - 23:56

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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