Advent Week 1: Always Arriving

Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Most High God.
(Matthew 24:32-33; translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)

It’s not often that preachers will tell you that Jesus was wrong, but here’s one of his biggest mistakes: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Sorry, Jesus— you were way off with this one.

The early church expected Jesus to return and establish his new kingdom at any moment, “before this generation passes away.” But over the years, one by one, his disciples died. The last eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry may have been the storyteller responsible for the Gospel of John. This apostle lived to a ripe old age, and his community began to theorize that he wouldn’t die before Jesus returned.

When he finally kicked off, it must have been devastating. You can hear the author of the postscript to John trying to account for their disappointment: “So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 21:23)

Jesus himself created that expectation. “This generation will not pass away.” Even today, 2000 years later, we’re still trying to account for his delay.

But perhaps they did see the kin-dom at hand. Time seems to get suspended in Jesus’s words here: heaven and earth will pass away, but not this generation, nor his words. Yet he still doesn’t know exactly when this will happen.

This is one reason we celebrate Advent—”The Arrival”—because God’s act of creating, bringing about the Kin-dom, and birthing something new is always at hand. It is always arriving. Like tender fig leaves, the signs of a new season are already here for those who pay attention.


Prayer: Creating, birthing, and re-ordering God—we wait for you even as you announce your presence with us. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Fig Trees

First and second figs, 1946. From wikimedia commons

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.. (Matthew 24:32-33)

I didn’t really understand a lot of New Testament fig tree references until we owned a fig tree. It was young, and stood about twelve feet tall, with five main trunks about as thick as my arm. We ate the fruit straight from the tree when it was dark brown on the bottom, yellowish-brown on the top with just a tinge of green. At this stage, they are just firm enough to give a little pop when bitten.

The squirrels were less discriminating. They would take figs when they were mostly still hard and green, and leave the discarded skins on the porch railing as if they were taunting me. Mockingbirds got in on the action as well. They would take a triangular plug out of a fig while it was still on the tree with one peck of their beak, so I’d get a rude surprise when I reached up to pluck a beautiful fig only to find the other side filled with ants crowding a hole, slurping up the syrup. Each summer was a race between the humans and the backyard critters to get the best figs.

One year, I thought I’d killed our fig tree. We had a hard frost, and I pruned it too late in the winter. While the trees and garden were greening, there were no leaves on the fig by late spring. The disappointment stung; I didn’t realize how much I would miss it. Some of the thinner branches were dead and brittle. I consulted with my wife about what we might plant in its place.

But one day I saw tiny leaf buds just a few inches above the ground on one of its five trunks. Over the next two weeks as milky white sap rose through the interior of the tree, more buds popped out along the trunks, then the branches. Fig leaves are large and distinctive, so they grow and uncurl dramatically. It’s almost as if they were saying, “Ta-da!” To me, it was a resurrection.

This is the image I recall when I hear Jesus talk about the coming kin-dom. Even when it appears dead, the life-essence of the kin-dom is rising from the ground. There will be plenty of fruit for all of God’s critters.


Prayer: Source of Life, may we all enjoy the fruit of your new world. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Kin-dom and Kingdom

Ernst Nowak, Piggyback, 1919. From wikimedia commons

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32, NIV).

The thing Jesus preached most about was The Kingdom of God. It’s an elusive idea: it’s here, but not here yet. Jesus teaches about it most often with parables: it’s like a mustard seed, or a woman searching for a coin, or like a pearl merchant who loves his product more than profit, so much that he sells all he has and buys a beautiful one—not to resell it, apparently, but just to admire it.

In most of these parables, Jesus seems to be trying to shift his audience away from thinking of kingdoms the way they normally do. This will not be a kingdom of domination, not one maintained by a strong military. Instead, it’s a place where “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

I think it’s worth asking: is it even right to call it a kingdom? Since most of Jesus’s lessons point people away from conventional “kingly” images, might there be a better image or metaphor?

Ada María Isasi-Díaz borrowed and popularized a word coined by Georgene Wilson: kin-dom. In referring to his God as Abba and his disciples as brothers and sisters (Mark 3:33-35), Jesus describes a different set of power dynamics and a different way of relating to each other.

At the same time, Jesus wasn’t idolizing the family the way some religious folks do. Caesar Augustus claimed to be “The Protector of Morals,” and was very vocal about men being the head of the household. The kin-dom Jesus describes is one where prodigal fathers welcome wayward children. God is not “king daddy in the sky,” but a companion who longs for greater intimacy with God’s creatures.


Prayer: Baba God, make for us a new family, one in which all your creatures recognize their kinship. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Womb of Life


Georgia O’Keefe, Series 1, No. 8; Public Domain. From Wikimedia Commons

…Womb of Life, our Sovereign, how exalted is your Name in all the earth! 

(Psalm 8:1, translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A)


How to you spell the sound of breathing? When God reveals God’s name to Moses, it is spelled “YHWH,” and theologians have speculated that in addition to meaning “I am who I am,” it represents the sound of breath. For ancient Hebrews and modern Jews, the name was considered too sacred to speak out loud. Instead it was whispered, or replaced with the word “Adonai,” Lord.

Of course, if it is the sound of breathing, we are saying God’s name all the time. 

Psalm 8 is usually translated as “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth,” because for centuries, English translators followed the convention of not printing the sacred name YHWH and substituting the word “Lord.” 

But one of the negative consequences of that choice is that over and over, the title “Lord” — patriarchal, authoritarian, dominating — replaces the sound of the breath of God. Lifetimes of repetition shape the way we understand the nature and character of God. It is no wonder American Christians are so reluctant to let go of the image of an authoritarian male God. 

In Dr. Gafney’s translation above, she has reconnected the name of God with the biological process of life. “Womb of Life” is a fitting substitution. Rather than saying “Lord, our Lord,” we affirm that God is not like other lords. Instead of a tough guy who deals in punishment and death, we address the Source of all life. In Psalm 8, the Sovereign we worship is one whose greatest defense comes “out of the mouths of babes,” not from the weapons of warriors. 

It’s an image much more consistent with the babe in the manger. The name of God is already on his lips with his very first breath. 

Prayer:
Womb of Life, gestate for us a new way of being in the world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 1: Chaos and Creation

The Pillars of Creation, NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one. 

(Genesis 1:1-5, Translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)

In the first Genesis creation story, God doesn’t create from nothing. God begins creating from chaos, a “watery deep.” Some scholars speculate that this creation language was influenced by the religious myths of Babylon, which began with a divine battle against Tiamat, a sea goddess/monster. In the ancient worldview, only divine power could tame the sea — that’s one reason why Moses parting the sea and Jesus walking on the water were both such powerful symbols.

In the Genesis story, chaos is not the absence of God. In fact, God’s Spirit, in Dr. Gafney’s translation, is “fluttering over the face of the waters.” Chaos seems to be necessary for the divine act of creation to begin. 

All of the action in Genesis 1 is about separating and naming, setting boundaries and ordering things. Much later, in the book of Job, God describes the act of creation again, and tells a story of how God said to the sea: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). Drawing boundaries is an act of creation.   

Dr. Gafney’s helpful translation also substitutes “bleakness” for “darkness” in the story, recognizing the way that the word “darkness” has played into white supremacy in our theological language. Even here in the bleakness, I think it’s important to point out that God isn’t absent. God’s spirit is already present and at work, taking the energy of chaos and turning it towards order. 

After a year of environmental, political, economic, and social chaos, I’m grateful for the reminder that chaos is not the absence of God, and that creation arises out of chaotic energy. I’m also grateful for the reminder that the act of creation is, in part, about drawing sacred boundaries. We are in a fertile time in which new boundaries are being drawn against patriarchy and white supremacy. God is doing something new.  

Prayer:

Creator God, we recognize the divine possibility present in our current chaos. Draw sacred boundaries in our personal and corporate lives and unleash your creative power.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Consider the Birds and the Lilies

I posted the following on Facebook last year as we approached the election:

I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:

Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.

The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.

The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia. But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies.

Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”

Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.

Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.

In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.

Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?

We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.

Pink Rain Lily by PK743 from Wikimedia Commons

An Open Letter to Christians

“Dear Christian friends:

I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.

We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.

But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”

Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).

Catharsis and its Alternatives

“Catharsis” is the word we use for the expression and release of a strong emotion. The catharsis of confession, for example, leads Christians to experience their repressed guilt and the relief that comes with forgiveness. For many “big E” Evangelicals, the catharsis of conversion is the most important spiritual experience of their lives. They want to tell others about it so they can have the same experience.

The unfortunate thing is that this confessional catharsis becomes the benchmark experience for white evangelicalism, and if you are trying to tell someone Good News about Jesus and they aren’t carrying a load of repressed guilt, the rhetorical strategy becomes to make them feel like crap so they can accept Jesus and then feel better.

I think lots of us progressive Christians see the problem with this. Many Christian folks have written about it. This approach leads to threats of hell and harping on favorite individual sins while ignoring systemic and corporate sins. What I think progressive Christians tend to lose sight of, though, is that this catharsis is still a legitimate spiritual experience. It may be that not everyone needs to experience salvation in the same way, but confessional catharsis is still an important part of human spiritual experience of a loving God.

Evangelicals don’t see this as abusive or cruel — they see it as loving. There are other forms of catharsis — recognizing and repenting from white privilege, for example. Leaving behind shame that others have heaped on you and accepting a God who loves you as you are. Recognizing that your implicit core belief that you have to earn your worth through work or performance is a lie (that would be me).

And catharsis is not the only kind of salvific spiritual experience. Awe, wonder, irony, mystery, humor, grief, silence — all can be responses to or part of a saving encounter with God. My hope is that a “small e” evangelical Christianity that sees the good news as GOOD and recognizes all these forms of saving encounters would emerge from this 500-year theological rummage sale*.

In saying this, I want to emphasize that Evangelical Methodists do not neglect the “experience” part of the quadrilateral at all. In fact, I think they implicitly make it MUCH more important than tradition.

(*The 500-year rummage sale is a concept Phyllis Tickle borrowed and wrote in The Great Emergence.)

Yes, the Bible is Full of Contradictions

This remains my favorite contradiction, from Proverbs 26:4—”Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.”

It’s great advice for arguing with people on the internet. The more you engage with their foolishness, the dumber you feel.

But the verse immediately after gives the opposite advice: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.”

“play nice” by nosha, CC, found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Play_nice_-_Flickr_-_nosha.jpg

When I ask Christians to explain this apparent contradiction, most come to summarize it this way: “How or if you answer or argue with foolishness depends on the context.” But the authors didn’t write it that way, did they? They slapped two contradictory proverbs down side by side because they expected the reader to do the work of interpretation.

The authors, editors, and compilers of the Bible *deliberately* included contradictory and paradoxical truths like this one because they expected readers to understand that life is messy and the application of wisdom requires discernment. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the Israelite monarchy, and two creation stories.

This is one reason why “inerrancy” is such a silly word to describe the Bible. Wisdom isn’t about avoiding mistakes: it’s about understanding the simplicity and complexity of human life and history, about how awe is the beginning of wisdom and gratitude the beginning of spirituality.

The word “inerrant” isn’t found anywhere in the Bible, and people who wield it as a club against others harm themselves. It reminds me of this one: “Like a thornbush brandished by the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” (Proverbs 26:9).

A Thanks-giving

Hi, friends — Thanks for the affirmations for the popularity of my post from 2018 (“The Unborn”). I’m glad it has gotten traction again in light of the dire news from Texas. I enjoy my 15 minutes / seconds of fame 🙂. The form of ministry I’ve chosen means I don’t often get to see the concrete results of my work, so hearing from folks who have found this piece meaningful certainly scratches an itch!

Some folks have asked if I’ve gotten hate mail; I have, but not nearly as many as affirmations.

I’m not really great at self-promotion or building a “brand,” partially because I am so suspicious of the cult of celebrity that drives so much of our capitalist versions of church. But it weighs on me that I’m probably not using the attention well, so if you’ve found my Facebook page because of this piece and you want to support my work, you can make a donation to my church here: https://onrealm.org/saintjunia/-/give/now

And if you find the idea of house churches intriguing and would like to explore the idea, or if you’d like to see more of my writing, you can do so here:

Church Comes Home: https://bookshop.org/…/church-comes-home…/9781791007331

God Shows No Partiality: https://www.amazon.com/…/B007…/ref=dp-kindle-redirect…

Sometimes the work the world needs is overwhelming, but our words of mutual encouragement make it bearable. Thanks for reaching out with your support and affirmation!