Fourth Sunday of Lent

Contributed by Rev. Yana J. Pagan. This is the fourth in a series of blog posts for Lent. Scripture readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent are 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9-41.

Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol3v-medium

“Anointing of David” from the Paris Psalter

Appearance is everything! No matter what people tell you, people make judgments on first impressions. I experience it every day as a handicapped, young, latina clergy woman. People start judging me before a word can even come from my mouth. This seems so unfair and yet, at some level, we buy into it ourselves.

Take a look at social media: We often try to pretend we are something we are not. I decided at one point to try using a cartoon avatar as my profile picture just to entertain myself. But as I created my avatar, I realized it was more than just the entertainment. It was also the fact that I had the opportunity to make myself into something that I was not. I’ve always admired my father’s darker skin tone, so I gave my cartoon avatar darker skin than I actually have. I’m only 4’11 and I’ve always wanted to be taller, so I made my cartoon character taller. I am more full-figured as a woman but I want to be slim, so I found a way to make my cartoon self a sexy full-figured woman.

The interesting thing about this is that I don’t think of myself right now as someone who is unhappy with herself; but some of my self-perception is shaped by how others perceive me. Because I’m reacting to how society perceives me, I shaped my cartoon avatar to fit that perception better. Also, it’s easier to make changes in a cartoon character than what I can do in real-life. But, in reality I like who I am. It has taken me 38 years to figure that out, but I really like the woman I have become. I think too many of us become dissatisfied, or even disgusted, with ourselves because of society’s standards that we see evidenced on most magazine covers.

And yet, we are all made in the image of God! We are made in the image of God no matter our skin color, our type of hair, our body type…. We are all made in the image of God. It’s hard for me to hear my young nieces at 10 years old talk about being fat because that’s what their friends are saying. It makes me wonder at the cruelty of the standard images we hold up as “beautiful” in our society.

I cannot stand that society forces young people, especially women, to think that they have so much to prove or simply that they’re just not good enough. But we can hold fast to the fact that no matter how people may judge,  the God who we serve does not look at the outward appearance. Rather, God looks deep within ourselves where no one else can see. God cares more about our hearts: God knows the intentions of our hearts and that is what makes all the difference. In one of our Scripture stories today, that is what makes David the king. Nothing in his appearance would have set him apart from his brothers. For God, however, only David’s heart mattered. God looked within and knew that David was good enough for the job.

On this Sunday of Lent, reflect on who God created you to be. Ask for God’s help in focusing only on your inward heart, attitudes, and faith in God. For you are beautifully and wonderfully created by God.

0475-0092Rev. Yana J.C. Pagan is a chaplain and a  professor of justice at Esperanza College, Eastern University, Philadelphia, PA.

Those that Have Ears, Let Them Hear

Contributed by Virginia Holmstrom.

There are times when I conclude that I am surely the one Jesus referenced in Matthew 13:14:  “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.” I recently had an experience of walking in another’s shoes, and was too blind to perceive it.

I was on a five-day trip to Haiti with Bonnie Sestito [AB Women’s Ministries’  Coordinator of Mission with Women and Girls] to learn how education and micro-lending can empower the lives of women and girls and their families. American Baptist missionary Kihomi Mgwemi was our teacher, guide, and interpreter in this Haitian Creole-speaking country that also shares French, a language of Kihomi’s home country in Africa.

The Baptist women’s group at Eglise Baptiste Gabaon de Darbonne, Haiti, gathered at the church to tell their stories.

The Baptist women’s group at Eglise Baptiste Gabaon de Darbonne, Haiti, gathered at the church to tell their stories.

On our last afternoon, I was sitting in a destroyed and re-constructed church sanctuary in Darbonne, Haiti, near the epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake. A sheet of four-year-old tattered white tarp sporting an upside-town tagline “USAID from the American people” formed one wall of the sanctuary; a sheet of roofing sheltered us from the hot sun, and there was plenty of “open-air” access. The Baptist congregation’s women’s group had gathered to meet us and to tell us their stories of small business ventures and educational pursuits.  A few women tentatively spoke in English, but Haitian Creole was the primary language. Kihomi interpreted for us the testimonies that flowed one after the other.

And then Kihomi concluded the sharing time with her remarks.  She looked me in the eye, and spoke in Creole for a good two or three minutes.  As I took on the posture of intent listening, my mind was musing, “Oh, dear! Kihomi has forgotten to switch languages! How long will she speak to Bonnie and me in Creole before realizing we don’t understand?” I tried to stifle a knowing smile, not wanting to interrupt her, but hardly able to contain my mirth at her unconscious error.  When she finished, I was ready:  My eyebrows shot up with a questioning look, I grinned at Kihomi and responded, “. . .and now in English, please?”

Kihomi Ngwemi (middle) pauses to chat and grind herbs alongside a business owner (left) that is marinating chicken to cook and sell at her street-side food stand.

Kihomi Ngwemi (middle) pauses to chat and grind herbs alongside a business owner (left) who is marinating chicken to cook and sell at her street-side food stand.

Her expression did not change in the slightest degree and without missing a beat, she said in English:  “I told these women that I was going to speak to you in Creole, so that you could experience what I feel when I go to your events in the United States and nothing is translated into my language.”

My mind swirled with momentary confusion before I grasped what Kihomi was attempting to illustrate. Since then, I have contemplated this moment many times, and I’ve still more layers of comprehension to wade through. It was an “earthquake moment” and there is a lot of debris I still need to sort through.

I know this:  Sometimes, I am walking in the shoes of others and don’t even have the eyes to see nor the ears to hear.  Perhaps you, too, have found yourself in a similar situation once upon a time.

May God open our ears, our eyes, our hearts, our minds . . . so that we might better understand what it means to walk alongside women worldwide.

Virginia Holmstrom serves as executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Third Sunday of Lent

Contributed by Rev. Valerie Andrews. This is the third in a series of blog posts for Lent. Scripture readings for the third Sunday of Lent are Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42.

HeQi_045-large

“Moses Striking the Rock” by Qi He

All too often, God demonstrates the divine love toward us through answered prayers, unexpected blessings, miracles, and so much more! But many of us are quick to forget that God is always with us, regardless of where we are on the journey that God has commanded we take.

In Exodus 17:1-7, we find the children of Israel, actively moving on their journey as commanded by God. Soon, they stop and are in a place of rest, yet there is no water. In their disbelief, the Israelites lash out at Moses and accuse him of leading them out of Egypt to a place where they, their children, and cattle would die of thirst. Moses, unbearably frustrated with the constant murmuring and complaining, cries out to God for help as he discerns “death by stoning” swiftly approaching the horizon.

The LORD then instructs Moses to go ahead of the people, and take with him the elders of Israel and a rod. God assures Moses that God would be on the scene as Moses and the Israelites come up to the rock of Horeb. Once Moses hits the rock with the rod, water flows from it and the people are able to quench their thirst. How could it have been that the children of Israel had so quickly forgotten what the LORD had done for them in times past? After all, in Exodus 15, had God not provided them with sweet water in Marah? Shortly thereafter, in chapter 16, hadn’t God made available enough manna and quails to eat in the desert of Sin, as the Israelites are told to gather as much food as they can eat? So, how could they forget?

Similar to the children of Israel, we too often forget what the LORD has done (or is doing) for us when we are on our own journey commanded by God. As soon as the way seems dark and dreary, we lose hope. The voyage becomes hard to bear and there is no water in our barren lands. Like the Israelites, we lose all prior knowledge and memory of a faithful God; we begin to thirst for, complain against, murmur to, and raise our fists in a one-on-one brawl with God.

Lest we forget!

During this season of Lent, let us call to mind those many times we have failed to remember the goodness of the LORD. Let us examine our hearts and repent of our lack of faith and in our inability to trust in the One who is always with us, willing and able to supply our every need! If God has commanded our journeys in a waterless place, let us not forget to “[be] confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 1:6, KJV).

 Rev Valerie AndrewsRev. Valerie Andrews serves as associate minister at Church of the Redeemer, Philadelphia, PA, and is national events coordinator for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Second Sunday of Lent

shutterstock_145681610Contributed by Mary Burnett. This is the second in a series of blog posts for Lent. This post is based on Romans 5:12-19.

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans moves me to take action. The actions Christ took to save us inspire me to follow him and take action myself to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated against the body of Christ. It is easy to see the offenses against us, but it can be difficult to be the person to right these offenses.

Perhaps one of the biggest crises in modern times is the misrepresentation of women in the media. Although this topic may seem juvenile held up against more graphic tragedies, in my belief it is the root of most problems for women.

Although popular singer Katy Perry’s cotton candy dress and Bella Swan’s inability to protect herself in the Twilight series may seem innocent enough, these ideas and images forever play on our young girls’ minds.

These images are Adam’s forbidden fruit only, sadly, they are much easier to access then biting into an apple.  Over-sexualized women are before the eyes of our children with increasing frequency. It is getting easier and easier for people to see these images and, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, partaking of this fruit is not healthy for us.

The most prevalent images of women that our girls see in the media do not promote independence and strength. A study done by Stacy L. Smith found that only 28.3% of female characters in family films had speaking roles. According to the Women’s Media Center, at the rate we are going it will take until 2080 for women to be equal with men in leadership roles in government/politics, business, entrepreneurship, and nonprofits.

But as Paul says to the Romans, in the same way that Adam’s sin brought us death, Christ’s action gives us life. There are many Scriptures in which Jesus lifts women up, shows them respect, treats them as equal in God’s eyes to men. We need to follow Jesus’ example and teach our girls what real women are made of. We can do this by setting an example. Next time you’re at the grocery store put down that trashy tabloid and pick up the Times. Turn off “America’s Next Top Model” or “Real Housewives” and pick up Jane Eyre. Talk about strong female role models with your daughters, nieces, girls in your Sunday school class room, students, girls in your congregation. Be sure they know who these women are and what traits they have to emulate that could help girls grow into healthy women, confident of themselves through Christ.

But, most of all, always remember to let Christ’s actions inspire you. For we can rest in the promise that Paul reminds us of, “much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many,”(5:15b).

For an excellent documentary on the representation of women in media, check out Miss Representation.  It is also available through Netflix. A few images depicted are graphic but they’re very infrequent, and the information is excellent. This would be a great tool for discussion in a women’s or older girls’ ministry. Preview to determine appropriateness for your group.

MaryBurnett2013smMary Burnett is a senior in high school and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, Utah. Mary serves as convenor of the national leadership team of AB GIRLS, AB Women’s Ministries.

First Sunday of Lent

Contributed by Rev. Sandra Hasenauer. This is the first in a series of blog posts for Lent. Scripture readings for the first Sunday of Lent are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11.

Photo by Guillaume Rodier, adapted, used by permission Creative Commons License

Photo by Guillaume Rodier, adapted, used by permission Creative Commons License

So many women in the world don’t know who they are. For many, their identities have actually been stripped away: their passports taken away, their names changed, moved from place to place quickly so they can’t form friendships or any sort of connection with others, turned into an object for others’ pleasure. For other women, their identities have been shaped by others in their lives—through emotional, financial, and physical control, these women learn to view themselves as less-than, as dependent, as worthless. And there are still other women whose identities are defined by culture or government: not a citizen, no rights, no voice, no protections. Even those women fortunate enough to live with certain freedoms and rights guaranteed, fortunate enough to be able to use their voice on their own behalf and the behalf of others, and fortunate enough to be in loving, respectful relationships, even they struggle with identities being defined by our society—are we too old to pay attention to? Do we fit societal standards of beauty? Do we believe and say and do the things the masses of society feel we should believe and say and do? Are we able to hang onto who we think we are in the face of who everyone else says we should be?

Our identities are assaulted by our own human weakness, by the human weakness of others, and by the collective human weakness that in many ways becomes institutionalized in society, in culture, and in governments.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a season of reflection. The Scriptures assigned to today in the Revised Common Lectionary—while on the surface seemingly about the need to resist temptation—actually drill down to questions about identity: Who do we think we are? Who are we created to be? Who are we in the eyes of God? Who are we in light of the crucifixion and resurrection?

Adam and Eve and the psalmist come into full realization of the frailty and weakness of our human nature. We sin. We err. We hide from God in shame and fear. And yet God wants us to be forgiven! God offers us the abundance of life through Jesus Christ that Paul writes about in Romans. God wants us to stand before God in all our human nakedness and vulnerability and say, “Here I am, God. I’m sorry. Forgive me and heal me.” And God—without even a moment’s hesitation—showers us with grace and mercy and we’re brought from our hiding into full relationship. Through God’s grace and mercy, we are restored to our full identity as God’s people.

How many women in the world need to hear that message of hope? How many need to be assured that they are beautifully created by God? How many need to hear that no one can tell them who they are except for God? How many need the joy, liberation, and abundant life God has shown us through the resurrection?

It is said that often Augustine would say to people to whom he was offering the communion bread and cup, “Receive who you are.” After they had eaten and drank, he would go on to say, “Now go and be who you have been called.” These words remind us that in the communion meal, we are once again affirmed in our identities as blessed children of God, and we are called to go out and live into that identity that God has given us as a gift through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May we spend this season of Lent offering up our human frailty to God for healing and restoration, joyously embracing our identity as women of God, and seeking God’s vision for how to live out that identity in the world.

Receive who you are.

Go and be who you have been called.

headshot higherresRev. Sandra Hasenauer serves as associate executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries. For more information about AB Women’s Ministries, visit www.abwministries.org.