Dismantling Injustice: A Bible Study of the Song of Solomon meant for Our Times!

As I write this, it is Oct the 12, 2017. I am saddened to report that this morning alone, the leaders of America have managed to tell hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico that they are taking up too many resources; they have announced that they are withdrawing the U.S. from UNESCO; they have kicked of a new set of policies that further damage access to health care; and they have threatened the free press.  This is a slow day.  And it isn’t even lunch time yet.

Wondering what is going on in America   Wondering why injustice is winning?

Believe it or not, the ancient Old Testament Book of Song of Solomon holds answers for us.  Think of this book as an ancient opera written by activists who were trying to rally the Northern Kingdom against King Solomon who had become a corrupt king.  They traveled village to village performing this opera on the village green.  In it they used the story of King Solomon’s concubine, a woman who has to choose between the King and a mysterious Shepherd who wants her to “arise and come away” with him.

Shulamite

This is where America is today.  We have a choice.  Buy into the unjust systems that this administration is putting in place or choose the Good Shepherd.  Dismantling Injustice by April Love-Fordham explores how the Song of Solomon speaks to us today.  Ordering information.

My definition of what being a follower of Jesus means…

Yesterday I posted a definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  I got some comments and questions.  Thank you!  So today I am going to explain…

This definition of being a follower of Jesus is one that I am developing after months of studying Galatians, which I am getting ready to write about. Thank you so much for your comments, because they will help me.  Please comment more or email me!

I have come to believe that Galatians has been mistranslated/interpreted to say that Paul was emphasizing that freedom from the Torah meant that we were now free to follow a set of Christian “rules.” But Paul doesn’t use the word Torah in Galatians, he uses “rules” or “laws.” He also doesn’t talk about Christian rules that Jesus made or even Jesus’ life example. He talks about Jesus’ faithfulness.

To summarize, Galatians is not about “the Torah” vs “Jesus’ way”. It is about “any human action” vs “Jesus’ faithfulness.” Meaning we are not followers of Jesus because of anything we do (keeping any set of rules, doing any number of good works, or figuring out a correct theology). We are followers of Jesus because Jesus’ faithfulness has allowed us to be united to the Holy Spirit which is the only way we can follow Jesus.  Paul calls this “hearing faith.”  Hearing is not something we have control over.  The faithfulness of Jesus happened and the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to “hear it.”

holy-spirit-dove-drawing-The_Holy_Spirit_by_HammerMario

It is the Holy Spirit who joins us to Christ – how we are crucified with Christ. And it is the Holy Spirit (not a set of rules, not performing good works, not knowing right theology) that allows us to do the work of God. I can follow every rule, do all kinds of good works, know perfect theology, and not be a follower of Jesus.

So the question becomes – how am I guided by the Spirit so that I might follow Jesus? Paul says we “sow” to the Spirit. Some might say this is the same as imitating Christ, but in imitating Christ, I don’t look at what he did and try to do the same (like turning over temple tables or loudly judging people like Jesus did to the Pharisees – that was Jesus’ job, not mine). When Paul talks about imitating Jesus, I sow to the Spirit – like Jesus did when he got away to pray. I nurture my relationship with the Spirit. Spiritual practices of prayer (I don’t like the word disciplines) are a way of listening to the Spirit. Studying scripture and other writings or being in fellowship with other followers of Jesus are ways of sowing to the Spirit. But they aren’t rules. Jesus didn’t give us a set of rules or a list of good works, or a theology – he gave us the Spirit to guide us.

Paul says that if we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, then any set of religious rules are a waste of time. He also says that if we are guided by the Spirit, any desires of the flesh will be overcome.

For this reason, I think the number one priority of the church should be to teach congregants to sow to the Spirit for it is the only way to follow Jesus.

Because of the faithfulness of Jesus (to God and to us – in his life, on the cross, in the resurrection — and even now as he prays for us), we have been set free from our old selves and old ways of religion. We are a new creation – people of the Spirit – who can know God intimately. We have something far better than rules, works, and arguments over theology – all of which sum up religion.

Oh and by the way, Paul makes clear that the Spirit does not discriminate.  It matters not if you are a Jew or a Gentile pagan, Christian or any religion, Slave or Free, Male or Female. Because of the faithfulness of Jesus, the Spirit has been sent to transform us all into a new creation. All we can do is say “Yes!”

So from what I have learned from Paul in Galatians came my statement of what a follower of Jesus is…

A Follower of Jesus is one who
through the power of the Holy Spirit
has responded to the faithfulness of Jesus with faithfulness.
She does not follow a list of religious rules,
she does not perform another’s list of good deeds,
she does not stake her faith on knowing the right theology.
Simply put, she has been set free
by the faithfulness of Jesus
to walk faithfully, boldly, intimately, and unafraid with God.
*
feet.png

 

Check out April’s Books – great for group studies.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

Who is a Follower of Jesus?

A Follower of Jesus is one who
through the power of the Holy Spirit
has responded to the faithfulness of Jesus with faithfulness.
She does not follow a list of religious rules,
she does not perform another’s list of good deeds,
she does not stake her faith on knowing the right theology.
Simply put, she has been set free
by the faithfulness of Jesus
to walk faithfully, boldly, intimately, and unafraid with God.
*
feet.png
*
Check out April’s Books – great for group studies.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

A Spiritual Practice of Meditating with Art

This is a Spiritual Practice that I have taught at several retreats.  It is similar to the ancient practice of praying with icons since it uses something an artist has created.  And yet, meditation with art is also a world apart from praying with an icon.  The icon artists (or Icon writers as some like to refer to themselves) intentionally create an image to gaze into as one prays. Whereas the artists of the famous paintings I am going to introduce wanted to inspire and teach us with their art, but didn’t necessarily think we would pray with it.  But we can!  And many people find it a very beneficial and enlightening way to pray this way.

Here is how I have been teaching this practice:

  • Choose a painting from the gallery below on which to mediate. Print it out or save it to your phone.
  • Find a quiet place to be alone with the Trinity.  You know that because of Christ, we live in him and him in us —  that actually makes us part of the trinity!  When not teaching this at a retreat, I go to a Catholic church that I can walk to from my house and meditate there, but any where you can be quiet and focused is fine.
  • Read the scripture (which I have printed on the painting) associated with the art. Read it slowly enough to remember it. But read it only once and put the scripture away.
  • Now meditate using the picture only.
  • Notice the expressions, the colors, the use of light and dark, the focal point, and every detail.
  • Let your thoughts flow freely as you gaze into it.  Share this moment with the trinity! Ask God to show it to you through God’s eyes.
  • Some things to consider:
    • What do you love about the picture? What don’t you like?
    • Where do you and the artist agree and disagree about the story?  It is okay to have a different understanding than the artist.  Try to understand why you disagree and why the artist took liberties – were they trying to say something special or ironic?
    • How does God speak to you through this story and painting?
  • When you are finished, journal your thoughts.
  • Some people will try a new painting every time they mediate.  Others will spend time for weeks with one until they feel God has spoken through it completely. Try returning to a painting months or years later.  I have found that they invoke something new every time.

All of the images below can be useful for everyone.  The first set consists of stories about men in scripture.  The second set is stories about women.  I usually offer the second set when I do a women’s retreat.  You can click on them for a large size and print them or download them to your phone.

 

Stories about women in scripture:

 

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

Don’t Shame People – Educate!

There is a story in the New Testament where John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

The disciples see this guy “casting out demons.”  Isn’t that what we are doing when we are supporting someone – protecting them from “demons” that want to hurt them or have been hurting them? I think it is!

But the disciples don’t like this guy, because the guy wasn’t doing it right!  He wasn’t one of them!

But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mar 9:38-40 NRS).

When people are for you, even if they get supporting you wrong, do what Jesus taught.  Welcome them!  This is your chance to love them, forgive them, and most of all educate them!

One of the things you get to do while preparing for ordination is to study pastoral care in a supervised fashion.  Mine took place in the emergency room during the graveyard shift in a children’s hospital.

My first night in the ER, a child was brought in by helicopter with a shotgun hit to his thigh.  The thigh was literally blown wide open.  The muscle looked like ground beef. I could see his bone as they prepared him for surgery. The surgeon asked me to bring the boy’s mother into the hall where she could see her son and the surgeon could talk to her as they rushed her son into surgery.  The doctor had less than a minute to spend with her.  He told her the facts that ended with, “Your son will likely lose his leg, but I don’t think he will die.” Then the doctor and her son were gone.  I was left with the pieces of a devastated single mom and a desire to support her the best I could. I stood there and prayed I wouldn’t get this wrong.

The problem is, the more you study how to support those who have suffered injustice, whether that injustice is caused by disease, racism, sexism, or any other cause, there is no sure fire way to offer support.  What one person sees as helpful, another will see as hurtful.  We all come with different perspectives (and different baggage).  We all have different needs.  And that is okay.  But it makes it hard for those of us who want to help.

To prove this problem to the chaplain interns, our supervisor passed out five or six different articles that all started with titles like “10 Things not to Say” or “5 Things Not to Do.” Each article was by a different person and none of them agreed.  One person didn’t like that the chaplain asked if they could pray for them.  Another person was mad that the chaplain didn’t gather their family and have a prayer service in the hall.  One wanted the chaplain to cheer them up, while another wanted the chaplain to grieve with them. One wanted to be hugged, another didn’t want to be touched at all.

I sat with the boy’s mother for hours because she told me what she needed. Through the GBI questioning her, through the boy’s father – who she had not seen in years – showing up drunk and pushing her around, through the doctor coming out of surgery and telling her the boy’s leg had been saved, I stayed.  Mostly I just sat next to her, protected her from the boy’s father, and prayed silently doing simple things like making sure she stayed hydrated.

But a day later, there was a newborn infant in the NICU.  She looked perfect in every way.  Yet I stood with the parents and grandparents while the doctor told them that the only thing keeping the baby alive was the life support and that it should be disconnected as soon as they were ready since the infant would be in pain when the anesthesia wore off.  Again, this time the mom asked me to stay with her as her baby took her last breath.  The husband’s mother, on hearing this, demanded that I leave because she was Southern Baptist and didn’t believe in women pastors. She actually called me “evil.” At that moment, in her grief, she thought shaming me would fix things.  She thought shaming me for being a minister would please God and God would heal the baby. In the end, her children requested that she leave and was gently removed by a male nurse.

My point is this.  My desire to support – even the grandmother – was really strong, but that doesn’t mean I know what to do until I am educated.  I can show up.  I can leave when asked.  I can pray.  I can hold your hand.  I can stand between you and your ex. I can even find a Southern Baptist male chaplain for you. But I can’t do it the way that is helpful to you unless you educate me.

In addition, there is another dynamic to all of this that makes things even more complicated. The grandmother needed to realize that the other people – her daughter and son – who were also experiencing this horrific tragedy needed something different than she did. She didn’t have the market cornered on suffering. Everyone in that room was suffering.  What she needed was not what the others needed and she needed to work with that.

Don’t shame the people who want to support you when they get it wrong! That isn’t going to fix anything except push them away.  Instead love, forgive, and educate! As Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mar 9:38-40 NRS).

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

Honey vs Vinegar

Have you ever noticed that after Jesus’ horrific death, that his followers don’t respond in anger?  They don’t react by calling those who are responsible names – not even in private.  They don’t plot revenge.  They don’t even hold rallies with negative sayings about the enemy inscribed on poster boards.

Instead, after a few weeks of hiding (and the arrival of the Holy Spirit who fills them with love, wisdom, and power), they go about their job of telling others the truth of what has happened.  They even invite the enemy to believe with them and to become part of their community.

They act in love, not fear, not retaliation. They do this even until martyred.

Brilliant+Brights+Wasp+Catcher

Anybody’s grandmother have one of these wasp catchers that she filled with honey? And hence the statement “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

What if the early Christians had taken the other route – angry, demanding retribution, forming groups of us versus them? Taking up the sword? Would we still be worshiping Jesus 2,000 years later?

I doubt it.

I think we should learn from their example. Speak the truth to those we disagree with, but always do it with respect for those we speak it to.  Take the high road.

Another person’s bad behavior doesn’t justify our bad behavior.  So we just keep on steadily being who God made us to be – servants and lovers of others – hoping one day they will see God within us and join us thereby completing us and making us rich with all the spiritual gifts they bring.

With all the division in the world right now, I have to bite my tongue (or erase what I have posted) a dozen times a day.  Sometimes I want to mock and say derogatory things that stray from speaking the truth in love.  If I do this, call me on it.  I don’t think it’s who I am.

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

Imitation

“Be imitators of Christ.”  — from I Cor 11:1

When my son Brent was about four years old, he imitated his father by getting a hold of one of his dad’s razors and attempting to shave.  What he got was a nick in his precious little chin captured in the picture below.  I found him confused and bleeding in the bathroom.  We had had a previously scheduled appointment for later that afternoon at the Sears Portrait Studio so I decided to go ahead with the photo session, but even now when I look at the cut on my little boy’s chin, it raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

 

Brent in Star Treck.jpg

Brent

In the picture he is wearing a Star Trek uniform that I had made for him.  He not only imitated his dad, but he often imitated the Star Trek characters he read about.  Yes, he was already reading Star Trek novels by this age!

Anyway, this brings me to my point.

Imitation can be a good thing, but it has its limits.  He could imitate his dad, but he couldn’t actually shave since he didn’t yet have a beard.  He could imitate Klingon Worf, but he wasn’t actually ever going to be a Klingon. Obviously – right?

Yet, so many of us when we imitate Jesus, forget we are not Jesus.  The followers of Jesus do a lot of damage when they forget this.  Jesus had the right to do things we will never have the right to do – like judge others, like turn the temple tables over, like speak with an ultimate authority, like claim to know the motivation of others, like believe we are always right, like exclude and hurt those we don’t agree with.  The list goes on.

We should imitate Christ, but humbly – remembering we worship God best when we give up our desires and needs in order to care for others.

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

Thy Kingdom Come!

I think it is easier for people to give money to causes or to make sandwiches that someone else delivers to the hungry, than it is to enter into a relationship with a vulnerable person – to look in their eyes and to get to know them as a person just like yourself with strengths and weaknesses. This is what Jesus did – he made eternal relationships. We are called to do this too.

Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

I want to tell you my story in order to describe what this relationship might look like.  I want to encourage you to venture outside of your comfort zone, not as a hero, but as a broken human being in relationship with another broken human being. This is not the first time I have done this . . .  but it is easy.  You can do it too! And doing it with a friend is the best way to go!

frig

My Refrigerator has the best art in America

I spend most of my days doing research and writing. I spend a lot of time preparing to teach and speak and preach.  And then there are a lot of engagements usually at night and on weekends.  So I am a busy person.  Maybe even busier than you.  But there is always time to do good if you make it a priority.

The Spirit led me (and a friend) to volunteer at a school where I went through a background check first.  The teachers guided each volunteer in how to help a particular child. The program was well structured and run by selfless teachers and volunteers. My child was a quiet girl who hadn’t been around English speakers very much so she really just needed practice reading and memorizing sight words. It was easy.  I held up the words, we’d sound them out.  And she learned them – like a sponge.  I’d ask her to use them in a sentence.  We would compare them to other words like “there, their, and they’re” or “our and are.”  It was fun.  As she got to know me, she told me about her family and I told her about mine.

The first night we worked together she knew about 1/3 of the words she needed for her grade level.  At the end of the year, she still hadn’t completely caught up so I asked if I might work with her over the summer.  The school said to ask her mother, but it couldn’t be something the school supported.

No problem! I had gotten to know her mother very well by then.  We would talk in broken English and broken Spanish as best we could whenever I tutored. By the way, I am taking a class in Spanish so I can do a better job in the future.  But we used GoogleTranslate when we needed to.  We said more with emojis in text messages than we did with words. I had found out, through her daughter, that she was cleaning houses for a living and hired her to clean mine.  She does an excellent job, by the way.

So her mother and I decided when she came to my house, she would bring her daughter and I would practice reading English with her over the summer.  Then we started on multiplication tables too.  Last night she knew every sight word on her list for her grade level!!!  Other nights, I go to her tiny spotless one bedroom apartment where two families live and most everyone has to sleep on the floor and we read together at her kitchen table.

Going to her house is a real joy.  I usually have her little boy cousin in my lap eating crackers and getting them all over me, her mom is in the kitchen fixing dinner when not learning the words with her daughter, her little sister sits across the table carefully hanging on my every word, and her older cousin, who knows English very well, stands next to the child I tutor giving her hints as necessary. Last night, when my child struggled with a brand new word, her cousin kissed her on the cheek and said, “I love you!” Then looked at me and said, “I love her so much.”

A little while later, this cousin looked at me and said, “You are beautiful!” So now I am worried about her vision! Just kidding! Actually, I know she sees me with her heart and my looks – hair in a pony tail with no makeup on at all – don’t even matter!

Some days the mother sends me home with a bowl of rice for my family.  I wanted to say no at first because I know they have very little money for anything and I didn’t want to take their food.  But I realized this was an important gift and I could not refuse it.  Besides it was delicious!

So last night after I got home, my child’s mother texted me, “God sent you to us.” I responded with “I pray for each of you every day.”  Shortly afterwards, coincidentally, I got a call from a boy I tutored two years ago through my church and no longer needs my help.  He just wanted to say, “Miss April, I am going to camp next week!” I know that to go to camp they have to have a certain number of shorts and shirts.  I asked him if he had them.  He said, “I have everything!”

The truth of the matter is God may have sent me to them, but God also sent them to me just as much.  They are all part of my family now.  And that overwhelms me with joy so much that I actually have a hard time experiencing it without wanting to cry.

You can do this too.  It is easy.  Ask the Spirit to open up opportunities to enter into relationships that will matter for eternity. There are so many ways you can do the work of God.  I do this one (or maybe two) days a week for just a couple of hours.  It is pure joy for me.  Think about getting involved with someone who is vulnerable too. Not to be a hero, but to exchange God’s love together and make a difference in each other’s lives.

One more thing… Often when I speak, groups will give me a gift of money… they know I spend it helping out in these situations with food, clothes, furniture, learning games, etc.  I want to say thank you to those groups! It is a good thing you have done.

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

The Shootings: Ashamed at my Reaction

I am ashamed of my first split-second reaction to the shootings yesterday.  I didn’t want to pray for the injured.  The hurt their party’s legislation and policies have caused people who I love is tremendous.  For me, it isn’t political.  It is good vs evil.  And I have been really angry!

Now Jesus demonstrated that anger is not wrong unless it keeps us from loving those who we are angry at.  Anger is not wrong when it is an expression of unconditional love.  But in that split second I didn’t want to even pray for the injured, because I was letting anger flow into unforgiveness and I realized I had stopped loving them.

When I heard the news, I was standing in front of the TV in my kitchen in the same place, watching the same TV, when just days earlier a little child I was caring for begin to cry.  The leader of the injured party had come on the screen.  She saw him and immediately covered her face and shook. She cried, “He wants to separate families.”

No child should live in this kind of terror. Do these people not understand what they are doing to her and thousands like her? Do they not understand they are complicit in afflicting her pain?  She has already watched on as her father was taken away. Is her mother next? Her sibling?  It broke my heart into a million pieces to watch her  — wanting to comfort her and knowing I am as powerless as she is. I had no promises to make to her that I could keep – except that I would do everything I could to keep her family together.

But also in that split second, I realized my anger had taken me to a very dark place not fitting for a follower of Jesus.  At the heart of my faith — the heart of what Jesus taught is forgiveness – even of my enemies – even of people who rip apart the heart and dreams and family of this tiny American citizen.

In the process of being nailed to the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  If Jesus could forgive in the most horrific situation ever, then I certainly could forgive too. So I prayed.

Even though I didn’t want to, I placed my hand on the television screen on the picture of one of the injured and I begin to pray.  Of course in a split second, the Spirit overwhelmed me and transformed my heart into one that wanted to pray – into one that desired only wholeness for the injured. I no longer had to try to forgive or to love.  The Spirit filled my heart with love until it simply overflowed.

I will work hard until this child’s and her family’s needs are met. Until justice is done, I will not stop.  I will speak truth to power.  But I will do it with love that the Spirit will produce within me.

“Dear God, Please heal those hurt yesterday in the shooting!  May they feel your love and arms wrapped around them.  Amen”

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!

 

 

Intolerant – I’m owning it!

 

Intolerance

Well, here we are.

People I love are being told lies. They are being told that climate change isn’t real and we don’t need laws to protect mother earth. They are being told that immigrants are dangerous and that we don’t need to offer them a homeland where we have plenty of food and jobs. They are being told that healthcare is a luxury for the rich and the poor don’t deserve it. They are being told that capital punishment is God’s way — and that people of color deserve it more often than white people do. They are being told that transgender people are scary and don’t have the right to choose which bathroom to go to. They are being taught that the most important thing is to win – to be great.  When, in truth, the most important thing is to be a servant.

In the end, these lies will kill us all – if we believe them.

The Apostle Paul was one who called out wrong when he saw it. Yet, in so many of our churches we have given ourselves permission to hide behind tolerance rather than expressing our love for others by saying, “Hey, that is just plain wrong!”

Not Paul!

Paul was intolerant. You see, the people he loved were being told lies about God and the way they should live. He knew these lies would reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, and cripple them with anxiety and fear. These lies would make them slaves and Paul wanted them to be free. Free to love. The truth will set us free.

Not much has changed.

I am going to be intolerant of lies told to people I love (and I choose to love all of you). I will own this kind of intolerance proudly!  It’s like Paul told the Galatians:

“I will not continue to try and please people, because I am a servant of Christ”

(Gal 1:10).

Be intolerant of lies, but do it always with love, kindness, gentleness, and respect!

***

Check out April’s Books.  She’d love for you to find the words “Follow” somewhere on this page (depending on your browser) and follow her blog too!