Sermon on the Mount by Laura James -

Heart of Relationship: Lenten Reflection (31)

Scripture for Today: Matthew 5-7

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Dr. Martin Luther King

We tend to define relationship as an interpersonal object that begins and ends at our will. In reality, relationship is more of a principle than a noun: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We are constantly in relationship with one another. Our choices, ideas, and attitudes impact those around us, and in some cases, those thousands of miles away. The question is not whether we want to be in relationship with one another, but how will we be in relationship with one another?

Jesus’ entire ministry was to foster right-relationship with people: Relationships that honored God’s dream for equity and justice. Relationships that tore down structures of oppression. Relationships that lifted up the disenfranchised and challenged the powerful. Relationships that fostered our ability to know, claim, and own that we are the Beloved of God. Relationships that invited us into liberating love.

Knowing this, it makes sense that Jesus would begin his ministry by speaking to how, in all types of relationships (marriages, disagreements, keeping oaths, public prayer, and judgement of others), we are to be mindful of the mutuality that exists between us all. If our sibling is hurting, we hurt too, so we need to try and heal the situation. If we respond to hatred with hatred, we only perpetuate hatred. Therefore, we are instructed to address the situation non-violently in a way that exposes the pain others inflict upon the world.

By addressing injustice and exposing pain, we end cycles of violence and indifference and develop a heart of compassion that causes us to mourn with those who mourn, hunger for justice, and suffer with those who are persecuted. We become those Jesus honored in the Beatitudes — we enter the heart of relationship.

Prayer: Increase my hunger for righteousness.

Reflect: Consider one or two particular relationships. How are you honoring the belovedness of people in how you treat them? What might you change to further acknowledge their belovedness through your relationship?

Art: Sermon on the Mount by Laura James

MArk Lawrence - - Revealed In Jesus: Romans 8:39

The Eternal Sacrifice: Lenten Reflection (25)

Scripture for Today: Romans 5-8

As I’ve previously mentioned, the Epistles are a window into the minds of the earliest followers of Jesus. They seek to understand how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus might fit into their paradigm for life. Paul, the author of the letter to the Romans, was a man steeped in Jewish tradition and history, so he is trying to understand  the mystery of Christ through an ancient Jewish lens.

Therefore, if we want to makes sense of Paul’s musings on sin, the law, grace and reconciliation, we must interpret it through the same contextual lens that Paul was reading it through. Paul most likely grew up with the belief that our relationship with God is based on our ability to follow the law. If he, or any member of the Hebrew community, failed to perfectly follow God’s precepts, it was necessary to offer a sacrifice to God in order to pay retribution and return to God. One was to follow this pattern as many times as needed, as well as offer an annual “catch-all sacrifice” to cover any overlooked sins during the year.

With his understanding of Jesus, Paul challenges this notion of paying retribution to God. For Paul, Jesus is our eternal sacrifice. Rather than impact our individual sins or errors, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus impacts our entire identity (8:14).

We have been granted to access life eternal, or, more fully translated: “age-long. and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting.” Through Christ we are no longer constrained to the understandings and choices of this world; despite our human constraints we can choose life over death, love over estrangement, and hope over fear. Through Christ we can live in the way Jesus modeled.

However, as is true for all humans, we will undoubtedly miss the mark. The entirety of Romans 7 is Paul’s grappling with the fact that he continues to choose death, estrangement and fear despite having full access to the power of God. He is frustrated:  Why do I keep doing the exact thing I don’t want to do?!

I assume that like me, many of you can connect with this feeling. And, just imagine if you had to kill a calf every time you snapped at the customer service representative on the phone, judged your body as unlovable, failed to speak out against racism, or ignored the hungry person on the street corner.

Paul says that the good news is that because of Jesus’ eternal sacrifice we no longer have to “make it right.” It is ALWAYS right with God. There is never a moment in which you are not fully loved by God.

Similar to early followers of Jesus, we hear this good news through our cultural lens. Perhaps you, like me, find it hard to fully grasp this abundant grace and love in the context of our Western work ethic. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still think I can will myself out of sinful behaviors. And I find it more comfortable to try and earn God’s favor through prayer or good works rather than relying on abundant love.

Our work, then, is to develop an ever-deepening sense of compassion for ourselves and the world around us. To accept the grace that was extended to us and to return it to others. To practice resting in the truth that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God. This is the eternal work.

Prayer: May I rest in your love.

Reflection: How do you respond to the truth that you are completely loved? How fully do you let that sink into your bones? What might support you in more fully believing that truth?

Art:  Revealed In Jesus: Romans 8:39 by Mark Lawrence


The Conversion of Saul (after Caravaggio) 3 by James V. (Villani) Lee: -

Everything Changes – Lenten Reflection (23)

Scripture for Today: Acts 8-9

First, a note about chronology: in designing our Bible Study for St. John’s Hingham, the Rev. Noah Van Niel and I decided to begin the New Testament portion with Acts and the Epistles to reflect how the books were written chronologically. We’ll read the Gospels next week.

By beginning with the first recorded writings about Jesus we receive insight into what the earliest followers of Jesus considered his most important qualities and his most valuable implications for our lives. Today, we read the story of Saul’s conversion as a window into what it meant to be on the Way. We can draw out the following four lessons:

One, the name of the earliest followers, the Way, characterizes the identity of their movement. Rather than a religious practice that centered around a temple and a set of stagnant rules, they understood following Jesus to be an ongoing and fluid journey. It was a way of living that enabled people to comprehend and experience the love of God.

Two, Saul was an unlikely character to be called to lead the Way. He was a well known persecutor of people on the Way and held a high position of power in the Jewish community (9:2). But God, ever surprising us, calls Saul to minister to the exact people he was persecuting. This theme of Jesus using unlikely people as instruments appears throughout the New Testament (9:15).

Three, following Jesus requires that we are willing to share in his suffering. It is important that we know that Jesus’ life was so contrary to the governing authorities that the Roman state sought after him. This subversive and challenging aspect of following God was central to the lives of earliest believers. We see this reflected in the text from Isaiah quoted by the Eunuch, and the fact that Saul’s life was threatened soon after his conversion (8:33 and 9:23).

Finally, Jesus changes the entire way we exist in the world. Saul’s conversion is marked by scales falling from his eyes, signifying that he saw the entire world differently. This change in perception is marked by his immediate desire to praise the God he once persecuted. Yes, to Jesus’s earliest followers, he represented a complete shift in the way of being, a message similar to the Hebrew prophets.

In the current context of Christianity in the United States, these aspects of following Jesus feel distant. Following Jesus has often become synonymous with participation in  institutions that legitimize the power of unjust structures rather than movements that challenge the very fiber of this world. We assume that those who earned their religious authority through academic degrees are the ones through whom God will speak. And, rather than stand on the side of the oppressed, all too often the church (especially the white church) avoids suffering and stays comfortable in our seat of power.

I do not intend to completely demean the Church as an institution of faith. As someone who is pursuing ordination in The Episcopal Church I deeply understand the need for structures to hold our community and gather our collective power for change. That said, we would do well to examine our current way of being in light of the Way of living modeled by the earliest followers of Jesus — even if this means everything must change.

Prayer: Keep me open to your Way of transformation.

Reflection: What quality of the early church connected most with me today? How might that connect to what’s happening in my life today?

Art: The Conversion of Saul (after Caravaggio) 3 by James V. (Villani) Lee

Feeling Guilty or Doing Justice? – Lenten Reflection (21)

Scripture for Today: Micah 2, 4, 6

I met Rose on my second day in Kenya. Rose was about my age; she had two beautiful children and was full of light. Rose worked as my housekeeper for all four of my years in Kenya and became one of my closest confidants.

One day after a huge storm Rose came to work late. The storm had literally torn her world apart: the roof on her home had been blown off by the winds, her entire home had flooded, and everything was ruined. As I listened to her my heart sunk, my stomach tightened, and my skin started to crawl,

This experience of guilt was a regular occurrence in Kenya: why did I maintain a life of comfort when so many were living in poverty? I imagine this is a question many of us have asked in some form. And despite the eternal nature of this philosophical question, I’m not sure it’s the question God wants us to be asking.

I know that’s not how Micah calls the people in his prophecy. Micah is writing to people who occupied similar positions of authority, wealth and power in Judah. He is angered by their greed, corruption and abuse of power. Instead of using their power and privilege for the good of all, the people Micah addresses are stealing homes from those who are poor, and cheating others in court (2:2 and 6:10).

Micah dramatizes this conflict, writing the book to read like a courtroom scene in which God has taken the people to court for their behavior. In the opening arguments, God reminds the people of the provision they experienced in the desert, and asks them to extend God’s care as it was extended to them. We are not being judged on purity, chastity, competency, worldly success, or the amount of guilt we experience but on these three qualities: doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.

Justice and kindness are stark contrasts to guilt.

Guilt keeps the focus on our own discomfort rather than the pain of the situation. At best, guilt can lead to one-off actions that attempt to remedy our feelings of shame. At worst, it motivates us to recede deeper into our position of power to avoid this discomfort.

Justice and kindness begin by looking outward and acknowledging the discomfort we feel about inequity. Justice is, directly translated, the idea of seeking wholeness and finality for people. Doing justice means bringing about the unity and equality Ezekiel dreamed of in his prophecy. A community marked by loving kindness, the relentless love of God, lets that love transform the way we show mercy and kindness to those around us.

No, I do not think God wants guilt.

Instead, God requires that we “walk humbly.” That we open our entire being to justice and kindness so that all that we do might move us one step closer to God’s dream.

Prayer: Open my heart to justice and kindness.

Reflection: How does my emotional response to injustice get in the way of me taking action? How might I increase the kindness I offer others?

Art: Micah

Psalm 25 by Yoram Raanan

The Secret Heart – Lenten Reflection (15)

Psalms 25 & 51

I imagine many of us know the frustration that follows the questions “What is God?” and “How would you explain God?”  It is nearly impossible to define or describe God with even the most well thought-out arguments.

The Psalms address this challenge by approaching the nature of God through individual and communal relationship with God rather than philosophical proofs. Our psalms for today, 25 and 51, are prayers that David articulated to God in moments of pain and need. This glimpse of David’s relationship with God enable us to see some of the ways David understood God:

  • He understood God to be steadfast in nature. In his prayers, David expresses a bold confidence in God’s everlasting love for David. In both psalms, his entire petition and prayer are based on the fact that God’s love will motivate God to help David.
  • He believed his sin created a sense of separation between him and God. David’s actions of sin, though they aren’t described in detail, are causing him to feel distant from God’s presence. David believes that he deserves punishment and judgement.
  • He has a physical and tangible understanding of God. The language David uses in his prayers connote a relationship that can be felt, not only in the heart, but in a sense of location. This way of knowing God is aligned with the value Israel placed on the temple.

These reflections by David are spurred out of his own connection and engagement with God. They are not the result of deep study, and it would be irresponsible to form our complete theological frame from David’s individual reflection. For example, David’s sentiment that he was born from sin in his mother’s womb is not justification for the idea that children are born sinners.

Rather, David’s prayers offer us a sounding board: we can respond by exploring how our understanding of God does or does not align with David’s. These prayers also model a way to develop a profound intimacy with God. We can articulate back to God our understanding of steadfast love, confess feelings of separation, and request a return to intimacy.

Prayer and Reflection: Practice deepening your prayer by telling God the moments you’ve experienced steadfast love, and ask God to relieve any sense of separation from God.

Art: “Psalm 25” by Yoram Raanan



1000 Years in 60 Minutes – A Lecture on Joshua to Malachi

On Sunday I attempted to do half the Bible justice during a one-hour lecture on Joshua to Malachi. I’d love to know what your think — please listen and leave comments below. If you’re more of a visual learner, the lecture notes can be found here: Joshua to Malachi – Printed Handout.



The lecture attempts to teach a brief “history” of this portion of the Bible. In addition, we talk about how to read the various types of books thematically rather than factually. Finally, I talk about how the following themes of the Hebrew bible heavily influenced the Christian understanding of God. That is not to say that the Christian tradition carried over all of these themes directly but it is to say that Christianity shaped its theological understanding as a response to these roots.

Key Themes in this Portion of the Hebrew Bible

  • God’s Faithfulness: The Promised Land is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel and governing and caring for the land justly is of utmost importance.
  • Our Expected Response to God: We demonstrate gratitude to God by honoring God, one another, and the land though obeying God’s laws.
  • How We Worship:  The value of the establishment of The Temple as the most holy place in which God’s essence resides.
  • Relationship with God: Our ability to obey God directly impacts the level of protection and favor we receive from God.
  • Justice:  God fights for those who are oppressed by society and likewise asks us to be righteous, merciful and just.
  • God’s Commitment to Us: God desires to be in relationship with us and continually invites us back through judges, prophets and eventually Jesus.
Mordechai and Esther -

Unprecedented Times – Lenten Reflection (13)

Scripture for Today: Esther 2-4, 8

“We are living in unprecedented times.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“Nobody knows how to respond to the current situation.”
“I cannot keep up with the tragedies.”

I hear these refrains often as people grapple to make sense of the constant onslaught of violence in the United States today.  It seems like every day there is news of a physical or legal attack on people’s safety. Yes, it is overwhelming.

That said, immense suffering is not a new phenomenon. We have witnessed genocide in Rwanda, the ongoing occupation in Palestine, the Holocaust, the existence of slavery and apartheid, gang warfare in Central America — and these are just my quickest of thoughts. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of immense suffering or “unprecedented times.”

Our heroine for today, Esther, lived an unprecedented story. As an orphan and a Jew she was an unlikely candidate to become queen. However, due to her beauty and the generosity of her uncle Mordecai, Esther is chosen to be part of an ancient version of The Bachelor where women audition for the role of queen. She performs very well during her time with the king; she “won his favor and devotion so he set the royal crown on her head (2:17).”

As queen, Esther deals with an unimaginable situation. Out of loyalty to the Jewish God, her beloved uncle Mordecai refuses to bow to the king, sparking the decree for the entire Jewish people to be murdered.

Esther’s first instinct is to use the protection of her crown to hide from the murder of the Jews. And, rightfully so: if she reveals her Jewish identity it is likely she will die. However, Esther’s uncle reminds her that she is still yoked to her people. She will not escape violence just because she lives in the palace. Mordecai goes on to say that perhaps Esther was called for just such a time as this.

It seems to me that three truths inspired by Esther’s story apply to us today:

  • we are yoked to one another
  • despite privilege, we cannot escape violence
  • perhaps we were called to a time such as this

Yes, the times are unprecedented. But why were born if not to shape our times? Why were we created if not to follow in Esther’s example by offering ourselves as a voice of intercession and pleading for justice and mercy? Why were we created if not to give our voices and resources to stop the violence of this very time?

Prayer: Grant me the courage of Esther.

Reflection: In what ways am I offering my voice towards ending violence? Are there places where I’m reticent to act? How might I begin acting?

Art: Mordechai and Esther” – by Yoram Raanan

If you are looking for ways to work towards the end of senseless gun violence, here are a few suggestions I adapted from this post by Danican Allen. 

  • Join the March for Our Lives Movement by supporting students in the March 14th National Walkout or attending the March for Our Lives, locally or in D.C. on March 24th. For more about these two actions email:
  • Act on information teenagers are providing about their own, or a friend’s, mental illness.
  • Mentoring, tutoring, fostering, adopting, volunteering on a suicide prevention line.
  • Serving in any arena where under-reached youth are crying out for help.
  • Lobby for stricter laws, or broader healthcare, or greater awareness.
  • Donate towards school resources and equipment that may prevent another tragedy.
  • Donate time to raise awareness about depression, anxiety, or violent tendencies, or the resources available to report potential threats.
  • Respond when there are warning signs on social media, or concerns posted by classmates.
  • Reach out to the family members and offer financial or emotional support.
  • Connect with groups, like the Sandyhook Promise, that work tirelessly for safer schools.
Deborah Under The Palm Tree by Adriene Cruz - Found:

Is Hindsight 20/20? – Lenten Reflection (09)

Scripture Reading: Judges 2, 4-5

After Joshua’s death the Israelites struggled to maintain loyalty to God. Eager to be in right-relationship with God’s people, God sends judges to guide the Israelites back to God. However, every time the judge in power dies, the Israelites forsake the way of God and are turned over to the hands of their enemies.

Deborah, the third major judge in this cycle, is a powerful figure. She is the first woman introduced in the Bible to hold a position of authority. Unlike Eve who came from Adam, Sarah and Hagar the child-bearers of Abraham, Miriam the wife of Moses, or the prostitute Rahab, Deborah is introduced with very little mention to her mate. Instead, she is known for her commitment to God’s holy ways and for her gift of prophecy. When Deborah victoriously liberates the Israelites from the Canaanites she and Barak rejoice: they praise God for their redemption by singing the Song of Deborah

As mentioned in my reflection on the exodus story, the Old Testament authors wrote  retrospectively and were constantly making sense the past in their writing. It is clear that the author of Judges interpreted the story through this lens: when we follow God we have peace but if we disobey God we will be punished. In this way, the success and/or defeat of the Israelites is wrapped up in God’s opinion of their behavior. But alternatively, what if the Israelites suffered because greed and corruption leads to disarray? Or what if they prospered because caring for one another is conducive to peace? Perhaps there were larger political dynamics at play between the countries?

There are endless questions that could be raised to challenge the paradigm of interpretation but they all reveal the same point: we cannot write history without removing our own bias. On the one hand, if we win we interpret through the lens of power, God’s blessing, merit, and rightful victory. On the other, if we experience defeat we tell stories through the lens of shame, God’s punishment, or internalized oppression.

Instead of falling into this pattern of thinking we could instead turn to curiosity. What might have influenced this outcome? How might God be inviting me to something new through this experience? What could this mean for all involved in this situation? What was my role?

I wonder if the Israelites could have stopped repeatedly breaking the covenant if they were honest about participating in their own plight rather than claiming divine punishment.

To be clear, I am not belittling Deborah’s contribution to the community of Israel or negating the Biblical interpretation of the story. I only intend to caution us from claiming a single narrative, and I encourage us to listen deeply for the unexpected ways that God speaks to us through our experiences.

Prayer: Open us to the many ways you move in our lives.

Reflection: How can I let go of my rigid interpretation of current or past events? How might God be active in unexpected ways?

Art: “Deborah Under The Palm Tree” by Adriene Cruz   





2018 Lenten Bible Study

This Lent, St John’s Hingham (Natalie’s internship placement) is holding an Adult Education series titled Back to Basics: The Bible to introduce people more fully to the Bible. The series will be led by Fr. Noah Van Niel and  Natalie Finstad. We will cover both the Old and New Testaments, aiming to give you some basic understanding of what to expect when you open the Bible, how to read it, and why you should. We’ll also be providing participants with a 40-day calendar of Bible passages they can read as a Lenten a discipline to supplement what is covered in the classes and give you the chance to experiment with what it’s like to read the Bible on your own. You can find the passages here. Natalie will be writing short reflections on each passage throughout lent – read the reflections here on her blog daily.