The Word: Hakarat Hatov

 

 

With a nod to Thanksgiving tomorrow, this week’s Word (which is a phrase, because I cheat like that) comes from our Jewish brothers and sisters. Hakarat Hatov literally means “recognizing the good.” It’s a practice of giving thanks for the good things all around us. Hakarat hatov is about acknowledging all that is already yours, and being content with it. It’s an attitude of humility that says, even in trial, even in difficulty, even in strenuous circumstances, I can recognize the good in my situation.

I love that in Jewish tradition the reason Moses does not strike the Nile with a plague (Aaron does it) is because Moses is indebted to the river for saving his life when he was a baby. Out of hakarat hatov, he cannot bring harm to the river. This act of seeing the good, of recognizing it and acknowledging it, extends to everything, including rivers and animals and inanimate objects. It is a practice of seeing how we are reliant upon God and upon others and upon creation itself for all that we have. We are not self-reliant. When we recognize the good, we recognize our connection and need. We recognize our inter-dependence. And we return to our Source, who is God.

Another example of hakarat hatov in Jewish tradition is that on Shabbat, when the kiddush (blessing) is said over the wine, the bread is covered with a cloth. Since the bread is considered more important than the wine, the bread is covered as an act of hakarat hatov to the wine. Those gathered around the table can see the full goodness of the wine when it is not being compared to the bread, which might overshadow it. I love that hakarat hatov honors the idea of upholding things/people rather than embarrassing them. We could stand to practice more of that in our culture, and especially on social media. When we belittle or embarrass anyone or anything, we are not practicing hakarat hatov. We are ungrateful, and that is a slap in the face of God.

Tomorrow offers us an opportunity to practice hakarat hatov. No matter our circumstances, no matter our lot, no matter whether the gravy turns out lumpy or not, we can have eyes to find the good, to see the good, and to honor the good in what is all around us. And we can seek to lift up rather than belittle or humiliate those around us, including our most prickly family members, remembering that God’s image shines even in them, even in us.

Happy Thanksgiving! May God give us eyes to see the good, today and always.

 

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Moltmann Monday: Feasting in God

Anna Garforth

Happy Moltmann Monday, all! On this Thanksgiving week I thought I’d share this excerpt from Ethics of Hope, where Moltmann summarizes much of what he lays out in God in Creation about the Sabbath as the feast of creation, which I’ve talked about before (Bold words mine):

On the seventh day of creation, God encounters us in a very different way: he is at leisure, so to speak. God comes to rest. God detaches himself from his works. God puts aside his being as creator…God comes to rest in the face of all those he has created, and with his being, resting within itself, is wholly present among them…God is not just active, he is passive too; not only creative but also at rest; not just speaking but also listening; not merely giving but also receiving. In the beginning God created, and at the end God rests: that is the marvelous divine dialectic.

Perhaps artists can understand best how one can ‘complete’ a creation by coming to rest. A painter puts his whole soul into his painting. When it is finished, he stands back in order to come to himself again and to let his work of art make its own way. Without this withdrawal, no work of art is ever ‘completed.’..

Consequently, this celebration is full of gratitude for the works of creation and for safe-keeping in the history of the world and is an echo of the creator’s judgment: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ And yet, or just because of that, hidden in the Sabbath lies a hope that embraces the world. All the days of creation have an evening, when night falls, but the seventh day knows no night. It is like a day without end, and because of that it points beyond itself to the day of God’s coming, the day when he will come to dwell eternally in his creation.

Of course, Moltmann is talking about the practice of Sabbath-keeping, and for those of us who are Christians, Sunday worshipping. In both cases, we rest from work so that we may remember this one, beautiful thing: we are God’s, and God delights in all God has created. God is like an artist who steps back from her work and says, “Ah, yes, that is good.” God takes time to enjoy creation, for its own sake, and with joy at his handiwork. This space is timeless: we enter into a promise, a foretaste of God being one with all of creation. We practice oneness in the here and now.

This is an act of joy, of delight, and of gratitude. And so, even though Thanksgiving, which is an American holiday that happens on a Thursday, is not technically part of this holy space, it remains an opportunity for us to pause and to practice feasting in the very same way God does: by resting, by delighting, by joyfully looking at all the good things surrounding us and enjoying them for their own sake. In so doing, we have an opportunity to draw near to God, to become one with God, so that for a few brief moments we may glimpse the promise of God dwelling with us fully.

Resting is such a holy thing. And we do so little of it nowadays. Even when we rest, we find ways to stare into our phones, gobbling up news and information and gossip, peeking in our inboxes and shooting off quick work emails before we forget, and this time of year, surfing sites to grab a few holiday deals to mark a few to-do’s off our list. I don’t want to guilt us about that. But I wonder if we could find a few holy moments this Thanksgiving week to set it all aside, to look up from our phones and TVs and laptops and books to see the beauty of the creation around us- the faces, the food, the roof over our heads, the sky above, the bursting autumn leaves- and delight in them. Truly drink them in like a joyful cocktail of thanks. Like the feast of goodness it is, straight from the hands of God.

This life is so precious. These moments are so fleeting. Take time to look up and be grateful. Delight in the Creator this week, even if just for a moment. The presence of God is the best feast that awaits us.

 

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Moltmann Monday: God is on Jesus’ Side at the Cross

Happy Moltmann Monday! I’m writing today from a very rainy New York City and I’m in a The Way of Jesus Christ mood so here’s your quote for today:

If the surrender of Jesus on the cross is understood as a sacrifice made to appease the Father’s wrath…then the Father and the Son are not one. They are divided. They are not present together. They are opposed to one another…But in the New Testament the Father of Jesus Christ is always on Jesus’ side, never on the side of the people who crucified him; for he is Israel’s God, not Jupiter, the god of the Romans. So the giving up of the Son reveals the giving up of the Father. In the suffering of the Son, the pain of the Father finds a voice.

I really hope someday we will stop hearing Christians say terrible things about God by putting Jesus’ death on God’s shoulders. It’s terrible theology, and it makes God into an abusive, violent, wrath-filled, violence-seeking God. If that’s true, how do we know who the “good guys” are anymore?! If GOD doesn’t mind sending his son to the gallows, what’s stopping all of us from being violent, wrathful demigods? In what way can we say we’re people of LIFE if we claim our God doesn’t have a problem with the death of God’s own son? It’s preposterous.

Moltmann takes this a step further by explaining another, major problem that comes with this line of thinking: it makes God stand against Jesus. Jesus, who says he is one with the Father, is now in a standoff against God? Which one was lying before, then? And what do we make of the fact that the entire rest of the gospel witness gives us an entirely different picture, one of God dwelling in Jesus, staying with Jesus, being one with Jesus? Does God really switch teams at the eleventh hour when things go south? None of this makes any sense.

This whole section is fantastic and I’m sorry I’m just bringing you a small tidbit of it. Moltmann goes on to spell out all the answers theologians have given to answer where God is when Jesus dies on the cross. Some say God was silent, or that God allowed it, but that puts God at a distance. Others say God willed it to happen, which Moltmann says makes God a monster (and I agree). Moltmann says two things instead: God was IN Christ as he suffered, and therefore suffered alongside Christ and not away from him; and God protested against the crucifixion of Jesus by raising him from the dead.  God shows once and for all that even the worst we can do, God can turn into good by God’s works of re-creation.

God is on Jesus’ side. Even when Jesus feels forsaken by God, God is still on Jesus’ side. We know, because Easter happens. God was on the side of Jesus, even unto death, and then protested that death by Jesus’ resurrection.

God is not against Jesus. Not ever. And because of that, God is not against us, either, as we have been made brothers and sisters of the Son. And if God is for us, then who can be against us?

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Moltmann Monday: On Wonder

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s selection is from God for a Secular Society where he’s talking about the importance of wonder:

Knowing is remembrance and expectation, remembrance of what is familiar and expectation of what is new. It is therefore both re-cognition and a fresh cognition… The Greek philosophers therefore called the deepest ground of knowing wonder. In winder the senses are opened for the immediate impression of the world. In wonder the things perceived penetrate the senses fresh and unfiltered. They impose themselves on us…

‘Concepts create idols, only wonder understands,’ said the wise Gregory of Nyssa….But the most astonishing thing of all seems to me to be the ground of the ‘being-there’ of all things, the ground whom we have to thank for the there being anything there at all. The One we call God eludes our ideas, which nail him down, and our concepts, which try to bring him within our grasp; and yet he is closer to us than we ourselves…For ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’  Wonder is the inexhaustible foundation of our community with each other, with nature, with God. Wonder is the beginning of every new experience and the ground of our creative expectation of the new day.

Wonder is so often left to children. We find it adorable when children have eyes full of wonder. When adults have eyes full of wonder, we think they’re flighty. I love that Moltmann spends three or four pages talking about how what we know is rooted most deeply in wonder. That’s where wonder belongs- in the deep, with all the mysterious realities that words will never fully express. Wonder is not childish; it is the anchor of our souls.

A couple of years ago I was having the most difficult time writing sermons and discussions. And I was asked to speak at a few conferences and I declined because I was in this wordless zone where, really, the only thing that made sense was to listen. I still haven’t made sense of that season of life, and honestly, I’m still not entirely outside of it yet, either. It’s perhaps the epitome of irony that I wake up every morning with these two competing affirmations: God is so far beyond what we can express in words, and I am called to write about God anyway. What I do know is that nothing seems more real to me than to contemplate the ‘being-there’ of all things, which I call God. If I catch a moment where I find myself present to that Reality, it’s like the whole world goes on slow-mo and everything comes together into crisp focus. For just a moment, the beauty of the world is right here, and also everywhere.

I do not want theology to explain everything away for me. I don’t want science to try, either, or psychology, or history, or sociology. I don’t want “away”–I want presence.

You do too, right?

I think it’s important for us to remind ourselves of that pretty often, especially when our ideas about God or the world or our life purpose is in flux. The end goal isn’t answers in those moments. It’s wonder. It’s presence. It’s realizing that we are loved by the same One in whom we live and move and have our being, that we are all tied up in it together.

If, in our theologizing about God, we forget to adore the beauty of God, the sheer ‘being-there’ of God, the absolute wonder of God, well, haven’t we lost exactly what it is we’re looking for?

Here’s to wonder. May it find us all this week, and may we be open and brave enough to notice it.

 

*The image above is a snapshot of a beautiful book called I Wonder by Marian Bantjes, who is a graphic designer who gives readers what looks like a beautiful door into wonder through her designs.

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Poet Marie Howe on All Saints

I know All Saints was Saturday, but I just listened to the On Being podcast with Marie Howe this week, which….WOW…may be the best podcast I’ve ever heard. I so appreciate Krista Tippett holding space for these conversations about the holy, and boy did that become thin, holy space during that interview. I could probably blog about fifteen kazillion things that sparked in my mind as I listened, but I want to share with you the one that just resonated with me down to my toes today as I was running and listening. Marie Howe, if you didn’t know (which I did not–and now all 3 of her books are on my Christmas list with huge asterisks), is the New York State poet laureate and has taught at Sarah Lawrence. She is talking about her brother, John, who died of AIDS:

The unendurable happens. You know, people we love and can’t live without are going to die. We’re going to die…

I did know that when John died I thought, OK, I can either just let my heart crack open or closed…The good news about open is, you know, I turned around and there were, of course, a billion other people who lived on this earth who have lost the person they’ve loved so much. And there they all were! And it was so great to be in their company, you know?

That’s such a beautiful accidental description of All Saints Day, isn’t it? Isn’t that the very reality we try to bear witness to when we name the ones we’ve lost and ring bells and hold open moments of silence and gather together to grieve? This past week at Journey, we gathered around some of our dear friends who have lost parents and a grandparent, and we just put our hands on them and were mostly silent and we tried to offer up a few meager words toward this huge LOVE we feel toward them even when we cannot for the life of us figure out how to help them in their grief. We are just such poor souls, hovering around this awe-filled anxiety of life and death, and we are so often rendered speechless. In those moments of silence, we just pray grace and peace; we just hope that even in our complete inability to make anything better or easier, we can simply be present to those hard edges of life long enough for our dear, dear friends to know we are with them, even if we are fools.

All Saints Day is a time to remember the people of faith who have gone before us, and, as I wrote on Monday, to remember the great mystery that Christ holds us together in community with even those who have gone before us.

But All Saints is also a time to acknowledge with open eyes the empty places of loss in our hearts and around our dinner tables. And that is so, so important for our souls. All Saints is the heart-wrenching realization that we are, or will soon find ourselves, in the middle of a grief that feels unendurable, and if your heart cracks open rather than closed in that moment, by some grace upon grace, what you find is that you are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses to your own grief, to the grief that accompanies all love in this life. If we can, in those moments of such deep pain, turn around long enough to see that we are surrounded by others who have felt this, who have endured the unendurable, well…as Marie said, “It was so great to be in their company, you know?”

May all who experience grief today feel the comfort of presence- of God’s, and of the great cloud of witnesses who, in some mysterious way, make room for us to find a way forward again.

 

 

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The Word: Mandorla

When I was in seminary, my required church history class had an optional Friday session where we could learn about Christian art and symbolism. It was at 8am, which, if you don’t know me, is basically my idea of the worst thing ever. Nevertheless, nerd that I am, I went to most every one because I am a total sucker for symbolism and imagery. My husband learned this the hard way when he took me to London early in our marriage and I dragged him into every last church and catacomb, pointing out the etchings on the ends of pews and explaining the story in the stained glass windows and going ape crazy about the symbols on the creepy sarcophagi (tombs). As we say in Texas, bless his heart.

Anyway, this is probably why I love Orthodox icons, because they are basically works of theology done through art and symbolism. Forget reading 200 pages; just have an Orthodox priest describe one icon to you and you’re good to go. One of my favorite symbols in iconography is called a mandorla. (Note: not mandala, which is another cool word but not what we’re talking about today.) Mandorla actually means “almond” in Italian, but it also happens to be the shape you get when two circles begin to overlap one another, like this:

A mandorla is a visual way to describe that Jesus unites the heavenly and earthly realms. Jesus is the mandorla, and because he occupies this bridge space, it is a symbol of glory and majesty. When we say Jesus is Lord, we do so because he brings together heaven and earth. The mandorla shows up most often in icons depicting the Transfiguration, Easter, and the Ascension. You could say it shows up in moments of the gospel when something “beyond” normal happens. To understand Jesus standing on a mountain talking to Moses and Elijah, who, you know, happen to be dead, you have to look at it a certain way. How can Jesus do this? Well, because he is the mandorla, and he holds together lots of different realms, including, as it were, the living and the dead. The mandorla is a way of telling people that we are going to have to see this thing differently, because we’re dealing with something beyond our everyday knowing. I love how the Orthodox liturgy for Transfiguration puts it:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;

As far as they could see it. Another part of the liturgy says the disciples beheld his glory as far as they could bear it. In both cases, the sense is that we are seeing something beyond “normal” but also reminds us that because it’s beyond normal, we aren’t seeing all of it. Frankly, that in itself gives us a lot to ponder. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Jesus is the firstborn of new creation, in which heaven will come to earth and be united to it. But wait- cue announcer voice- that’s not all!

Notice in the icon above that the outer ring of blue is light and the middle ring is navy and the innermost ring is almost black. That is meant to signify that the further we travel into the glory and majesty of Christ, the more mysterious it becomes. We see some of it, on the periphery; we may even see the depths of its meaning centrally, but at its core, the beauty of this is beyond human comprehension.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a good symbol if it didn’t have multiple layers of meaning, so the mandorla also beckons to mind the imagery of almonds, which was a symbol for new life in the ancient world. That’s in part because the almond tree was often the first to blossom–in January, no less. But the almond also has biblical imagery, from this passage in Numbers 17:

17  The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house, from all the leaders of their ancestral houses. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each ancestral house. Place them in the tent of meeting before the covenant, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you. Moses spoke to the Israelites; and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral houses, twelve staffs; and the staff of Aaron was among theirs. So Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant.

When Moses went into the tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.

So the mandorla also depicts chosen-ness.

Lastly, the mandorla looks also a bit like the top of a flame, and in this way it calls to mind the truth that Christ is the Light of the world.

Notice how the symbols build on and illuminate one another: Jesus is the Chosen One, and he therefore unites heaven and earth, and in doing so he is the Light of the world who brings forth new life.

So, there you have it for this week’s Word: mandorla. Keep an eye out for it when you’re pondering icons or visiting churches.

 

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Moltmann Monday: All Saints Edition

Happy Moltmann Monday, all! In honor of All Saints Day, I wanted to share with you a snippet of a really fantastic passage from The Way of Jesus Christ where Moltmann talks about the community of the living and the dead. It goes on for a few pages, and I’ve skipped a bunch of paragraphs in between to bring you a few of the best nuggets (bold mine):

Justifying faith in Christ leads believers into the lordship of Christ over the dead and the living. They find themselves in a community in which the frontier of death has been breached. Through Christ’s resurrection, God has thrown open the future to everyone, the living and the dead. The living maintain their community with the dead, for in the community of Christ the dead are not forgotten; they are present…

There is more to the death of Christ than merely the vicarious suffering of sin and absolute death which justifying faith discerns. Through his death, he also became the brother and deliverer of those who have died. It was this which the mythical images about Christ’s descent into hell and ‘the realm of death’ wanted to express. If God himself was ‘in Christ’, then God himself is also present in the dead Christ among the dead…

It was therefore not wrong when in the 17th century Lutheran theologians saw Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ not as the nadir of his sufferings, but as the beginning of his exaltation and his sovereign rule over the universe… Dying, Christ suffered on the cross the hell of forsakenness and absolute death; as someone dead, he became the brother of the dead and the redeeming ancestor, thus opening the world of the dead for the future of the resurrection and eternal life…

The dead are still the dead, and not yet raised, but by virtue of the fellowship of Christ they are already ‘in Christ’ and together with him are on the way into the future of the resurrection.

Ok- I know I probably say this a lot, but what Moltmann is saying in this passage is a HUGE deal. When Jesus died, he willingly chose to be in communion with all of those who have died, and all of those who will die. Jesus died not just to “save us from sin” but to be with us in all circumstances, even death. The cross is our salvation because in it, Jesus goes to the depths of hell for us: he experiences God-forsakenness, and he experiences death. Only when he goes down that far can he rise up and become our savior. Because he is God’s Son, God’s Beloved, God goes with him into those places. And because God goes with him, there is now no place that we can say is “off limits” to God. (As if we could say that before.) As Moltmann says, “the frontier of death has been breached.” And through God’s resurrecting work of his Son, the future of LIFE is flung open to everyone- both the living AND the dead.

So in a very real way, we can profess that God is present to those who have died. And because of our communion with God through Christ, we can say that we, too, are in community with those who have died. Romans 14:9 puts it this way: “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

This is the mystery we try to proclaim at All Saints. We give thanks for those who have handed down the faith to us, we give thanks for the lives of the saints who show us by their example what it might look like to follow God, AND we proclaim that we have this great cloud of witnesses who are, in some way beyond our understanding, still present to us through the communion of God’s enduring love which has overcome even death itself.

When we lose someone we love, we nevertheless remain connected to them. Because they are held by God, and because we, too, are held by God, we are together. That isn’t to say that we don’t feel the pain of separation. As I mentioned last night at Journey, we miss the loved ones we have lost in the same way that we “miss” Jesus, whose presence we long for. We know what it is like to miss someone. And yes, the Spirit brings those no longer with us closer, but we still feel that sting of separation and loss. Nevertheless, we confess to this bigger truth even in the midst of our grief, that we are held in communion together by something far more powerful than death. We proclaim that even death will not separate us- not from God, and not from each other.

To put this another way: Jesus died not only to “save us from sin” but to deliver us from death. And not just personal death, but death in a cosmic sense. Death that extends to all of creation, and even to those who have died before us. I worry that in our American Christian context, we have limited the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to an event that has to do with personal salvation from sin. This is not the early church context at all, and it’s never for one second been the Eastern Orthodox understanding. And this is why Moltmann mentions the Lutheran notion that when Jesus began his descent, it wasn’t the beginning of his suffering but the beginning of his exaltation. He was exalted the moment he descended to the depths of the worst of human experiences. Jesus suffered and died because only in so doing could he really be present to us in all our sufferings. If he did not experience death, how could he save us from the shadow of death that hangs over each of us?

Jesus died so that we may have eternal life. Try to ponder that sentence without attaching it only to sin. Try to think of it just in the way Jesus reorients death itself. And then, imagine this: when people ask, “where are those who have died?” we can say that they are not only held by God and in communion through Jesus with us, but they are also on their way toward God’s future, which is resurrection. Where are they? They are heading toward new creation, along with all the rest of us.

 

 

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The Word: A Handy List of Theological -ologies

When I started studying religion, I realized there were A LOT OF TERMS. In particular, it took me a while to get all of the  “-ologies” straight. How many sub-sets of theology can there be?! Turns out, there are quite a few. So, I thought I’d do you a solid this week and give you this handy little cheat sheet of all of them, defined. You’re welcome.

Theology: the study of God

Christology: the study of Christ

Soteriology: the study of salvation (as in, discussing how salvation happens, what it is, what happened on the cross, etc.)

Pneumatology: the study of the Holy Spirit

Ecclesiology: the study of the Church

Missiology: the study of the mission of the Church

Eschatology: the study of last things (or, what will happen in the end)

Bibliology: the study of the Bible

Hamartiology: the study of sin

Mariology: the study of all things pertaining to Mary, the mother of God

Patrology: the study of the early church fathers (also and more commonly known as patristics)

…we also continually bump into Anthropology: the study of the nature of humanity

 

Within theology, of course, there are numerous subsets. I’ve listed the main ones below.

Sytematic theology: the study of theology that seeks to give a coherent, comprehensive account of the whole. (Systematics usually follow the pattern of beginning with the doctrine of God, to the doctrine of Christ, to the doctrine of the Spirit, and then the doctrine of the Church.)

Biblical theology: studying theology in the context of the entire biblical story (specific to texts, but also broadly including themes, patterns, etc.)

Exegetical theology: the study of theology as it pertains to a biblical text (not all of them, in contrast to biblical theology)

Historical theology: the study of how theology developed over time throughout history

Practical theology: the study of theology as it relates to Christian practice

Moral theology: the study of theology and ethics

Pastoral theology: the study of theology in the context of pastoral ministry to individuals and communities

 

Then, there is theology done within a specific paradigm/community: African American theology, liberation theology, process theology, Latino/a theology, feminist theology, narrative theology, LGBTQ theology, dispensationalist theology, fundamentalist theology, postmodern theology, postliberal theology, etc. etc.  This list just keeps growing, but you see how it works.

 

Whew. I’m certain I’ve left out plenty. What did I miss?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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