Cultivate Cohort Reflections #3

We are in a special series of guest blog posts—written by alumni of our Cultivate Cohort program. We’re excited for you to hear what the Cohort has meant to others. Our third post comes from Michelle Bramel, a member of Cohort Gimmel, the third cohort group of 40 Orchards.


I drove home and cried for an hour. I didn’t just cry- I had moments of sobbing. I felt overwhelmed.

This was a few Mondays ago, after a study with my Cohort. That night we’d talked about many things- trusting, being vulnerable, caring for the poor, community. Someone suggested that we each had something of value that our community needed, and we should spend some time figuring out what that is. I was overwhelmed at knowing how much I have, how much privilege I have, and how much I probably don’t use what I have in order to make a difference in the lives of others.

I was also struck by the idea that I actually have something of value that others might need and that I bring value to my community in my own unique way. I was simply convicted.

I’m in my 9th month of Cohort Gimmel with a group of amazing people who are journeying alongside me! I have been overwhelmed on more than one occasion, learned so much, and know I have much more to learn and apply, for the rest of my life.

I started my Cohort journey in what I consider part of my reconstruction of faith. If I had to define it, I would say that reconstruction means intentionally building a faith life that is an integrated part of my entire humanity.

At some point, I hope to not talk about my faith or Christianity, or my walk, or insert phrase here, as though it is separate from the rest of my life. I don’t want to feel like I have to inform another that I have a faith life or spiritual life, I simply want to try and live my life as Jesus did and hope it speaks to others in beautiful, just and caring ways.

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I’m 48 years old, I grew up in the Presbyterian church, participated in Young Life for my high school years, worked in the advertising industry for about 8 years, and then spent about 12 years attending and working for an evangelical church. The time I spent working for and attending the church is what has informed my beliefs and understanding about the bible. I held church leaders in high regard, blindly believed what they said and thought they had all the right answers. At some point, the poor treatment of the staff at my church became too much for me. I didn’t have influence to make any changes and I simply couldn’t endure the negative impact the church had on so many people I loved and cared about, so I left.

It turns out even church leaders are mistake-making and fallible humans who have things to learn, just like the rest of us. And the best ones will tell you that with complete honesty. I no longer say those words with frustration, anger, or as a warning to others, I simply understand it as a human truth. We all have different gifts and how we use them matters.

As I was preparing to leave the church I was also preparing to move on from my divorce. I left my husband, I left the church, and a lot of other things, all at one time.

In Cohort studies, we use the study of the Israelites being led out of Egypt as an important concept and application in our own lives. The word Egypt means the narrow place, a place that is limited, a place that has hemmed us in. In my simplest understanding, it is a place we need to first recognize we are in, and a place we need to leave, if we want to grow.

As painful as leaving can be, a lot of life can be found in the wilderness of not exactly knowing where you’re going or what is next.

After a few more years of going to church because I thought I should, or because it was what I was supposed to do on Sundays, I stopped. There just wasn’t life in that for me.

I reconnected with a friend and she had mentioned an organization called 40 Orchards. She didn’t try to sell it to me but invited me to join a study (called a Scripture Circle) and see what I thought about it. The way that 40 Orchards presents a study isn’t anything like the small groups I used to be a part of and that can be uncomfortable for people. Fortunately, I was comfortable with discomfort at this point in life, and I was in a place where I was open to just about anything. In fact, it was even more appealing if it didn’t look anything like the church experience I had left.

I can happily say that my first Scripture Circle wasn’t anything like my past church experience and it opened my eyes to many things I’d been missing.

Things like cultural context, real definitions of Hebrew words, and the space to question everything. 40 Orchards is a place where questions and uncertainty abound, and those things are welcomed with open arms.

At the end of my first Scripture Circle, I slammed my bible onto the floor and announced that I felt like the church had lied to me my whole life! For those who know the enneagram, I’m a 9. This was quite a moment for me and my anger was right out in front for the world to see (not a typical 9 behavior). In all honesty, the church probably didn’t lie to me about everything, and I’m sure there are good things I learned along the way in my church experience.

What is true is that I had a lot of searching, unlearning, relearning and digging in to do. Scripture Circles played a big part of the next 2-3 years of my life and helped me through that unraveling and deconstruction process.

In the spring of 2018, the same friend who led me to 40 Orchards mentioned that there was room in the Cohort for 2018-2019. She shared more about it and told me to just think about it. I talked about it with my then boyfriend, now husband, and we agreed that this was the next right step for me.

We are 9 months in to a 10 month/40 week Cohort, and the reality that it will formally end in July is becoming sadly real. These are people who have become friends, teachers and sisters at a critical time of my life.

They’ve accepted me exactly as I am and have given me space to ask all of my questions without fear.

Each seed study has been like taking a drink from a sacred well of knowledge. I have been given so many tools and resources, and incredible human beings to help me on my journey, and I will be forever grateful.

I have unlearned and learned so much about who and what the Creator is, who she is in my life, what creation is all about, and all that I am capable of.

A most important truth I’ve learned is that life is generative. My choices and my lived example truly do impact generations to come. With all that I’ve been given, and all I’ve come to learn, what is the legacy I’m going to leave?


Wondering what’s next in your life? What if you had space for intentional discernment? How might a deep dive into study, community, transformation, and scripture impact your journey? Wrestle with all your hardest questions in our next Cohort, which starts in August and is filling up now. Learn more HERE.

Cultivate Cohort Reflections #2

We’re starting a special series of guest blog posts—written by alumni of our Cultivate Cohort program. We’re excited for you to hear what the Cohort has meant to others. Our second post comes from Travis Boesch, a member of Cohort Bet, the second Cohort 40 Orchards offered.

A few short years ago, I found myself in a spiritually barren place.  I was yearning to recapture the taste of the last gratifying encounter with the Spirit.  Yet it had been so long, I could scarcely remember what it was like. 

If my spirit was a visible landscape, you would see dry cracks left in the dust where floods had once been.  I was thirsty and needed to find a way back to water.  

My quest started with a pursuit of knowledge, hoping that with enough of it, I could understand and discern the way on my own.  Fortunately (though fortune had nothing to do with it), I had trusted friends that opened the door to their most sacred experiences. They shared their personal paths to spiritual nourishment. One highly suggested trail would lead me to a 40 Orchards Scripture Circle.  I was skeptical whether such studies would help me on my journey, mostly because I did not think I had the qualifications to be part of one.  Not to mention, these sparkling mineral water loving spirits may be fully repulsed by my well refined desire for more of a Diet Dew type of experience.  I decided to take a shot at expanding my palate.  When you are parched, you will drink anything!  

At my first Scripture Circle, I had the covers blown off my Bible!  By the second study, it was becoming apparent that the Cultivate Cohort program was the right direction for me.

A couple of weeks later, with thoughts on the numerous other ways I could have used the money spent, and lingering uncertainty of what I had just signed myself up for, I was enrolled in Cohort Bet.  

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Cohort Bet explored our lives through the lens of the Bible.  Together we observed the patterns and stories in our lives that could be found in the ancient patterns and stories contained within.  Together we saw the beauty in our brokenness and submerged ourselves into the trust of the Father, using our collective experience to create a path worth walking, worth remembering.  Together we re-examined what is important to build up and what to pull down.  Together we explored endings being beginnings and the downward spiral being an invitation to strength and trust within our newly found community.  We journeyed together.  

Not only would the Cultivate Cohort process lead me to a well, I would be led to many different wells: bitterness, sorrow, grace, joy. and all perfectly balanced with an unexpected portion of love.

I did not acquire the knowledge to make the journey by myself.  Instead, I acquired a community that I journey alongside.  Having them is far better than anything head knowledge alone had offered me. My Cohort experience evolved from craving to understand the Text, to developing a (though admittingly reluctant) love for the people in the Cohort.

Where does that leave me after ending the Cohort?  There is no ending!!!  Haha!  Seriously, I find it is what I make it.  The lessons started here do not have to end.  I do not want them to.  There is wisdom in the curriculum that took me as deep as I wished to venture.  The care of the 40 Orchards leadership goes far beyond the moments spent together.  Because of this, I have a new understanding of what it means to shepherd well and want to duplicate that in the areas of my life that I see it lacking.

My hope is that all of what I have learned and continue to learn will overflow out of my life and into the world around me.  May others who are feeling dry and parched find their way to a well with a community like I found in Cohort Bet. 


Wondering what’s next in your life? What if you had space for intentional discernment? How might a deep dive into study, community, transformation, and scripture impact your journey? Wrestle with all your hardest questions in our next Cohort, which starts in August and is filling up now. Learn more HERE.

Cultivate Cohort Reflections

We’re starting a special series of guest blog posts—written by alumni of our Cultivate Cohort program. We’re excited for you to hear what the Cohort has meant to others. Our first post comes from Ashley Leusink, a member of Cohort Aleph, the first Cohort 40 Orchards offered.

It was spring of 2016. I had quit my job with no plan, ended my lease, and was planning to do the only next logical thing you do when you’ve cleared life’s slate… move to California. I had no idea what the future held for me. I was wide open to what was next. With that as the backdrop, the only thing before me that I knew was the right next step was to join this experimental venture, the very first Cultivate Cohort being offered through 40 Orchards. 

For much of my adult life, I had been deconstructing a view of religion that was hard, cold, stale, and did not align with the realities of living an actual life - filled with pain, betrayal, loss, grief, uncertainty, hope, joy, peace. It wasn’t until I discovered Scripture Circles that I felt like my faith could live and move and breath with what my life actually looked like. For this reason, I was hungry for a much deeper dive, a consistent rhythm, and a community the Cultivate Cohort could offer.  

What I did not expect was to experience such a deep transformation of my mind, body and soul. I grew up with the well-known verse in Romans …  do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind… so deeply engrained that its actual meaning had become lost on me. 

But as we began to dig into the depths of what the original words of the Bible held, I was blown away by how the text was actually reading my life. I began to realize, these things I’ve been experiencing, that felt right in front of my face, almost blinding, have been part of the rhythm of the humanity for thousands of years. And what the Bible is actually trying to show us is that we are in fact, not alone, but very much held, loved, and pursued. There is an ancient wisdom available to us, pulsing just beneath the surface if we stop long enough to look and listen. It’s part of a greater invitation to connect to the Living Presence that is all around us and permeates everything. 

Rather than holding a narrow view of the world, this experience gave me language that began to broaden and expand wide enough to hold not only my own experience, but to begin to see the larger view of what is at play (and at stake) for humanity as a whole. Why the way we view ourselves, each other, and this planet we call home actually matter. That the way we live our lives here and now has the potential to make an impact on the generations to come. To see we actually started from good, delight, abundance, hope - and that is the gift we have to live and breath and bring to the world. 

All of this transformation and growth did not come without wrestle, resistance, fear, and many, many questions. As someone who had experienced tremendous loss over the past few years when it came to intimate relationships and deep friendships, my walls coming into the cohort experience were up quite high. I was quick with the intellectual answers, but kept the responses of my heart cautiously tucked away. 

But it was in this safe space, I began to gradually open up, to look around the room and see eyes that felt safe, loving, and for me in a way that I had never experienced. It was through this deep sense of being seen, that I felt a new kind of healing. One that came without expectations or conditions, but rather allowed me to unfold and blossom into someone that felt more me than ever before. It was in this place, space and community that I began to feel put back together after so much deconstruction.

There have been countless words, stories, concepts that have been deeply influential throughout this experience, but one of the most profound was the deeper understanding of the word, shalom or peace. In a world where we are constantly looking for peace, I believe some of the answers lie in the root word for shalom, which is shalem, which means wholeness. I remember the first time I heard this deeper meaning - it felt like everything in my life collapsed in on itself in that moment. 

To me, wholeness is coming to peace with all the broken parts of our lives and allowing them to come back together to make a new, more beautiful whole. Perhaps one we didn’t plan or ever expect, but much deeper, richer, fuller because we have tasted and know what how it feels to be hurt, betrayed, to experience loss, grief and can therefore celebrate the moments of joy, abundance, and new life that come after the darkness. 

Image credit: Author, A visual reminder of wholeness.

Image credit: Author, A visual reminder of wholeness.

My favorite visual of this concept of wholeness is the Japanese art form of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is mended back together using gold lacquer and is considered an important part of the object’s history and is highly regarded. In the same way, all the various parts of our lives make us who we are, even and especially the broken pieces, which take time to come to peace with, but in the end, make us more loving and compassionate people. This is now how I see the actual intent of what it means to live a spiritual life.

In case you were wondering, it was in the summer of 2016 I decided the idea of moving to California wasn’t actually for me and instead was gifted a community beyond what I ever could have hoped for in Cohort Aleph. Out of that same season of life came a new relationship, a new love that grew into a new marriage just celebrated this very spring. Like many of us, there is much gold that lines the broken pieces of my life, for which I am now exceedingly grateful. May you see, taste, and experience the peace and wholeness that is available to each and every one of us.


Wondering what’s next in your life? What if you had space for intentional discernment? How might a deep dive into study, community, transformation, and scripture impact your journey? Wrestle with all your hardest questions in our next Cohort, which starts in August and is filling up now. Learn more HERE—and reserve your spot. 

The Bread

The Bread

Flour. Oil. Water. Salt.

Four ingredients. That’s all it takes to make matzah.

Matzah can be made quickly. It is the food of the Passover, the final meal before leaving Egypt (Mitzrayim: the narrow place), in haste. Matzah reminds us of God’s provision to go forth from the place of enslavement we thought we would be stuck in forever.

Matzah is a bread without extras. It is a word rooted in matsas, meaning to drain out. It doesn’t have yeast or nuts or sugar- it contains only the simplest of nourishment. Matzah separates our wants from our needs- and gives us what we need.

Matzah is a reminder of what is essential. It invites us to think about the bread what kind of bread we are hungry for.

In Hebrew, the word for bread is lechem, rooted in lacham- to battle or go to war.

How often does our hunger lead us to the bread of war? To the scarcity mindset that says we have to fight for our provision? That there are only so many pieces of the pie? That there isn’t enough to go around? That our wants are our needs? That we need more, and have to take up arms or push for control in order to have it?

Matzah is a different kind of bread.

“You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat matzah, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.” - Deuteronomy 16:3

Matzah is not the bread of war- it is the bread of anah- affliction, humility, or poverty. Matzah is a bread that tells us we don’t have to join the powers that fight for more- we can join those that leave in faith that the bread we have is enough.

Matzah asks us to examine the cost of living in the narrow places of oppression- and to remember that there is another way. That God is inviting us to freedom. That we can trust that we will be given what we need. That humans do not need to be treated as commodities or barriers. That there is enough provision to go around.

When the Messiah comes, Luke tells us he is born in Bethlehem- the house of bread. But he is born into poverty. His life, even from the very beginning, challenges us with a question: what kind of bread will I build my house upon?

The day before his death, that same Messiah eats a Passover meal...

“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” - Mark 14:22

Jesus holds up matzah, the bread of humility, and says, “This is me. Eat this bread.” Join me in remembering what is essential. Be fed from my example. Ingest a way of being that refuses to treat humans as anything other than beloved. Don’t fight for bread with the oppressors. Take this bread and walk out with me as we liberate the oppressed.

As we continue to celebrate Easter, may we honor Jesus by chewing on the bread he offers. Let’s continue to celebrate with the delicious food around our table. But instead of being numbed by the excess, let’s let the flavors of freedom fill our mouths. Let’s offer generosity. Let’s risk walking away from power. Let’s wonder how we can all take another step towards freedom and flourishing for all.


We are beginning to have conversations and accept applications for the 2019-2020 Cohort! Details can be found HERE or by emailing Lisa.

Passover

I wonder what I would have felt if I were at the first Passover.

What would I have thought when I heard the voice of God say,

“And keep the (Festival of) matzot! For on this same day I have brought out your forces from the land of Egypt. Keep this day throughout your generations as a law for the ages.” - Exodus 12:17 (Everett Fox)

Would I have believed that there would be future generations to keep a festival to God? Would I have laughed at the thought that “on this same day” I would be free? Would I have acted in the faith that what had been true for 400 years would no longer be true tomorrow?

I wonder what I would have felt if I were at the second Passover.

What would I have thought when I heard the voice of God say,

“The Children of Israel are to sacrifice the Passover-offering at its appointed time: On the fourteenth day after this New-Moon between the setting-times, you are to sacrifice it at its appointed-time; According to all its laws, according to all its regulations, you are to sacrifice it.” - Numbers 9:2-3 (Everett Fox)

Would I have believed that it had been a year? Would I be experiencing myself as free? Would I be looking back at Mitzrayim (the Hebrew word for Egypt, meaning “narrow place”) with longing for the food I used to eat there? Would I feel grateful for the change or bitter that I was still not in the land of promise? Would I be willing to look at the ways I had left the narrow place, but, perhaps, the narrow place had not yet left me?

I wonder what I would have felt if I were at the first Passover in the Promised Land.

What would I have thought when I heard the Lord name the place Gilgal, saying

“Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” - Joshua 5:9 (ESV)

Would I have wondered why God was bringing up the past on a day that was about the future?

What would I have thought when my experience suddenly changed from the predictability of everything I had ever known to a taste of what was to come?

While the people of Israel were encamped at Gilgal, they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening on the plains of Jericho. And the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. - Joshua 5:10-11 (ESV)

Would I act on the faith that everything that had been true for 40 years would no longer be true tomorrow? Would I be able to tell the story the narrow place my parents had been trapped, a land which I had never experienced? Would I be able to see that the Passover was not just for them, but for me?

The Passover was not a one and done event. It was a day that became an invitation. It is a remembrance and a call- a day to lift our eyes and see the God that frees people from narrow places- then, now, and always.

Every year, we are offered the opportunity to examine our lives; to wonder if the same thing that has always been true need not be true anymore, to walk away from the places that give us abundance but trap us in the narrowness of lost humanity, to take stock of the choices we have made since the last Passover and wonder how we are re-building Mitzrayim in our new neighborhoods.

What invitation might Passover hold this year?

I have some ideas about my own life. There’s a way God seems to squeeze narrow places even tighter before Passover… It gets a little harder to avoid or numb when the patterns and trappings are grabbing my shoulders and spitting me in the face. The question is, when it’s time, will I see clearly enough to know what that squeeze is from, and what then, I need to leave? And will I trust that my life could change the very next day?

I hope so. For me. For you. For all of us.

Love,

Steph

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You are invited to join us on April 6, 2019.

Passover has changed over time. For Jewish people, the remembrance was pushed to take a new form when the Temple was lost. For Christians, the remembrance was expanded with the words of Jesus.

For both groups, and for any spiritual seeker, the Seder meal can be an opportunity to engage in a conversation about the past, present, and future. It is a place of symbolism, engaging all our senses in memory, loss, and hope. It is an invitation to wonder at how we are seeing our lives, and whether God might be calling us to leave something once again.

When we sit around a table, eat a matzot cracker and ask why a food that is rooted in the word “to drain out” is the symbol of what God does through Passover, we enter into the flow of history. We trust that God is real and at work in the world, just as God has been with every generation.

We would love to see you at our Seder Experience. Registration is found by clicking HERE.



Fasting and Humbling

When I was in catechism class in middle school, the pastor once made an offhand comment about fasting. He said something like, “If someone decides to give something up for Lent, it should feel like a sacrifice. Otherwise, we’re not really identifying with suffering.”

In that moment, as an eighth grader, I decided to give up sweets for Lent. And I did so every spring through high school.

When I look back, it’s difficult to discern my motives. They were mixed, I’m sure. Part of me thought it could be a way to lose weight. Another part of me was looking for a way to please (or appease?) God. Another part of me wanted to prove that I could do something difficult.

I’m not sure the practice achieved any of those things in the end. Mainly, I remember being frustrated that the season of the shamrock shake always seemed to fall within the season of Lent. Especially since I worked at McDonalds.

Ever since then, I have struggled with the Lenten practice of fasting. There are years I have given something up, and years I haven’t, but either way, it has never really felt comfortable. Parts of me has balked at going into the box of doing something during the same season as everyone else. Other parts of me have wondered what it’s really for. What should I give up? Why fast?

During the Morning of Midrash event on February 9, we talked about a different kind of fasting. That which is talked about in Isaiah 58...

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.
- Isaiah 58:5-8

The Hebrew word for afflict used in verse 5 is anah, the same word used in Deuteronomy 8 to talk about how the manna of the wilderness was meant to anah, humble, the people. On February 9, the room talked about what manna would do. How it would create dependence and trust. How it would prevent hoarding and wealth building. How it would connect us to the humanity in ourselves and others. How it would demonstrate the difference between want and need.

And I wonder what it would mean to fast for Lent in a way that humbles ourselves. What if we did something to connect us with our dependence and trust in God? Or gave up something that would normally help us build wealth or feel secure? Or acted in a way that consciously saw the humanity in our neighbors?

How might the justice and healing talked about in Isaiah 58 be birthed from a different kind of fasting? What if we thought outside the box of giving up sweets or even social media? What if we spent time before Lent pondering what keeps us disconnected from God and each other, and attempted, when Lent came, to fast from that?

How might it change how we see Easter if we spent the weeks leading up to it with a practice that humbles souls in a deep and communal way?

As Lent draws near, I am grateful for the timing of this Isaiah 58 passage, and the communal conversation around it. Every time I am in a Scripture Circle, whether a big room like the morning of midrash, or a smaller room like our open circles, I learn. I see things from the eyes of others that I didn’t see on my own. I feel the Spirit guiding us to what we need.

I will be thinking about fasting differently because of February 9. Thank you to all who brought your voice into the conversation.

Love,

Steph

PS.

We would love to hear your voice in one of our upcoming studies. You can find the details by clicking on the “GET INVOLVED” button above.

Midrash: How the questions we ask change how we see

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” - Exodus 3:1-4

Whether we picture Charlton Heston, or hear Val Kilmer, or have flashbacks to Sunday School flannel graphs, this is likely a scene from the Scriptures we have encountered at some point in our past. With the number of movies, sermons, and essays that have already been birthed from this passage, is there really anything more that could be found there?

It depends, perhaps, on what questions we feel permission to ask. Have you ever wondered how the questions you ask of a passage such as this one affects how we see it?

Enter midrash, a way of reading Scripture that dates back thousands of years. It roots deeply into the Text, and uses that foundation to expand into an expansive array of questions.

The first layer of practicing midrash is to examine the layer of the passage that is simple or plain (This layer is called peshat in Hebrew). This is the layer where many of us feel the most comfortable. We can look at names and places, study a little bit about what time in history this takes place, and wonder about the geography of the region it takes place in.

The peshat layer is good and necessary. And yet, if we stay there, does the Bible connect with us? Does it open our eyes to see more about God? Does it help us contend with the questions of the human experience?

Generally no. And sadly, this simple layer is all many people have been exposed to in the realm of religion. The Bible seems interesting perhaps, but not alive.

The remez layer takes things further. Remez means hint. We look for connections between passages, and ask questions about words that are being repeated. We wonder about what arcs of the Scripture are being drawn out for us.

So, in Exodus 3, we might notice…

  • Moses is in the midbar, which means “wilderness.” But the noun midbar is rooted in the word dabar, which means “to speak.” Moses is entering a long line of people to whom God speaks in the wilderness, including Hagar, Elijah, and Jesus. What is it about the wilderness that makes it the place for God to speak? Or for humans to hear?

  • Moses responds to the Lord’s voice by saying, hineni, often translated as, “Here I am.” Hineni seems to be used at key points of transition between the past and the future. Abraham says it before God calls him to travel up the mountain with his son Isaac. Isaiah says it when God is looking for a prophet for the people. What does it mean to say hineni? And why does it seem to be said before the assignment is given, not after?

Can we feel how the passage is opening up? How there may be more here than a quick reading or animated movie can show to us? And we haven’t even gotten to the last two layers of midrash yet!

What questions would you ask of Exodus 3? Are you seeing anything new?

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40 Orchards gathers people into Scripture Circles inspired by these ideas of midrash. We believe we can approach the Bible in a way that roots in what is and expands into possibilities of wonder and wrestling. And that these kinds of questions go even deeper in the context of community. We gather together to hear one another’s voices, learn from one another’s experiences, and struggle through questions of life and faith that we hold.

We are excited to host a larger community conversation about how we read Scripture on Saturday morning, February 9.

A Morning of Midrash
with Alan Ullman and Stephanie Spencer and Lisa Adams 
 

Join us for a few hours of interactive study, music, and conversation that could open Scripture to you in ways you never expected. Alan and Stephanie will lead us in the ancient Hebrew practice of midrash (all 4 layers this time!). Lisa will moderate the conversation.

If you’ve ever wondered what 40 Orchards does, or how to have a more expansive conversation about the Bible, or whether there is anyone out there with the same questions you are holding, this morning is for you.

For more details and registration, click HERE.

The Heartbreak of Matthew 2

Matthew chapter 2 includes, I think, some of the most disheartening verses in the Scriptures.

We don’t often think of the Magi visit to the baby Jesus as a sad event. The narrative gets wrapped up in our Christmas joy. It becomes surrounded in light and presence and hope.

Certainly, those things are true. The beginning of the Gospels includes God painting the heavens with a sign for those who would have the eyes to see. It is the story of a salvation that cannot be contained by one place or people group. Emmanuel, God with us, is reaching out to heal any who seek.

But therein lies the tragedy. Embedded in the passage about seeking is the story of those who know, but do not take the journey of discovery and transformation.

“When Herod the king had heard these things [the report of the Magi], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet.” - Matthew 2:3-6

When the time came to present gifts to the Messiah, where were the rest of the people?

If the religious leaders could predict that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, and there was a sign from the heavens and from outsiders that the time had come, why did they not take the journey to investigate?

If the Magi were willing to take the long journey from the east, why does it seem that none of those in Jerusalem who were “stirred up” at their report were willing to travel 6 miles south to Bethlehem?

Were they afraid of how Herod would respond if he heard about their journey and considered it a threat? Or, if they were close enough to the king to be called in to answer his questions, were they concerned about the power they might lose if the status quo were disrupted? Or had they lived in a broken system for so long that they had fallen asleep to the possibility of redemption?  

The heartbreaking questions continue with verse 16,

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.”

When Herod grabs for power with violence, where was God?

If God was willing to place a guiding star in the sky, why did he not place a protective angel in between Herod and the people?

Matthew 2 is fraught with tension. Hope and despair. Presence and absence. Salvation and suffering. But doesn’t that mirror our own lives? Things are so rarely one or the other.

Perhaps it can help us wrestle through these tensions in our own lives when we look to the Bible with questions instead of answers. When we allow the narratives to be complex and non-binary. When we give voice to our frustrations. When we listen to one another’s life experiences. When we look for the story God has been telling through the whole of Scriptures. When we somehow, through all of that, find new ways to hold onto hope and faith.

—————

That is what we hope to do in Scripture Circles- to give space for wrestling, rootedness, questions, community, and hope. Join us on January 28 for our gathering on the Magi and the Star.

The names that usher in the Gospels

One of my favorite practices of reading Scripture is to translate names instead of transliterating them. It adds such dimension to a passage when we examine what names mean as we look at what is transpiring in the narrative.

The book of Luke begins with a priest named, Zacharias, or in Hebrew, Zechariah, a name that means “Yahweh remembers.” It is a name that brings us to the tension of this moment in time. His wife is Elizabeth, a name that means “God is my oath.” Yet, these two- whose names represent the faithfulness of the Lord- are old, and without the children they seem to have longed for. Not only that, they are living in a time of Roman oppression. Does God actually remember? Will the Lord really be faithful to his promises?

Gabriel, an angel whose name means “strong warrior of God” says yes. God has remembered both them and their people. But this strong warrior angel announces not war but birth. God’s faithfulness will be shown through the birth of a baby to an old and infertile couple. His name is to be John, Jochanan, Yahweh is gracious.

Soon after the conversation with Zacharias, Gabriel makes another visit. This time, to Mary, a young girl from Nazareth whose Hebrew name Miriam means “rebellion.” The trajectory of history is about to be changed through her womb. She will bear Jesus, Yeshua, Yahweh is salvation, the long awaited king.

Here at the beginning of the Gospels…

The strong warrior of God brings messages of birth and hope.
Yahweh remembers and God is my oath become pregnant with grace.
Rebellion’s womb becomes filled with Yahweh’s salvation.

The Bible is always taking place on so many levels…
It is about them, the individuals of the past who were poised on the brink of a new era.
It is about God, an Eternal being who was, is, and always will be pointed towards love and redemption.
It is about us, the readers sitting in the frustrations of our world, wondering with the characters of the Text, whether God is actually faithful after all.

_________________________

As we sit in this season of Advent, I wonder…

What might the strong warrior of God announce to us today?
How might grace be born to God’s faithfulness?
How might salvation be brought forth from the oppressed who carry the name of rebellion?
Like Luke, whose name means light, how can we look for stories of hope shining into the darkness?
_________________________

Join 40 Orchards for our next Roots program, Roots: Gospels. Through 10 Gospel passages, we will dive deeper into the narratives of Jesus. What kind of connections is he making to the Old Testament that we might not notice at first glance? How might a way of studying Scripture that is more about questions than answers help us see his ministry in new ways? How do the names of the people connect us with the past and the future? We will explore, discover, and wrestle together. Click HERE to register and for more information!

Perhaps you’re carrying some stuff, too? 


I’ve been trying to figure out what I wanted to write about this month, and it’s been difficult. I knew that I would be blogging for November since Stephanie and most of Cohort Bet would be in Israel when our monthly email came out. When I write, I try to pick a topic or something that I’m learning, or something that’s been revealed to me, that feels like it would be helpful to share. And lately, those things are difficult to put into words. Or, at least my own words. There’s this pressure to put things into nice neat boxes when it’s going “public” and my current thoughts, learnings and revelations are anything but nice and neat. They are a mix of pain, frustration, unknowns, and joy, expectation, and healing. They come from people and things. From prisons and homes. From churches and neighborhoods. 

Coming into the holiday season and carrying so many different emotions and thoughts has me wondering: How do I carry all of this stuff well, and what might God have for me in the midst of all of it? Perhaps you’re carrying some stuff, too? 

I’ve been listening to voices that help me put words to the mix of things rumbling around in my heart..trying to glean wisdom from those around me. I looked for people that were bringing light to places where darkness could flourish. Seeing the cracks of broken relationships, disappointments, and God doing things that I don’t understand means that I need to look for light to flood those spaces in order to keep carrying. I need people that carry pain and joy at the same time - people that are teaching with their lives. 

One of the voices that has been the most light giving to me is Kaitlin Curtice, who is an enrolled citizen of the Potawatomi Citizen Band Nation. She writes in a way that honors and holds the pain of the past while allowing light to come in and shine. With Thanksgiving less than a week away, I want to hold on to the joy found in family traditions of food, celebration, and love while also paying attention to the historical atrocities that Thanksgiving holds and the mourning that accompanies it. One of her prayers that have given me words to pray and hope to meditate on this past month is “At The End of a Long Week: a Friday Prayer”. She also wrote a “Litany for Mourning”, which contains these beautiful words:

We hope to be brave,

but we are tired.

We hope for freedom,

but there are so many in shackles.

So we breathe and remember:

Jesus wept.

We fight with weapons of

peace and humility.

We fight with the power

of listening.

We breathe and remember:

Jesus wept.

And when tomorrow comes,

and the day is new,

we cannot deny reality.

We live our own belovedness,

and the belovedness of others.


The other voices that are bringing me light are yours. Listening to your voices teaches me so much about God. The questions, the wrestling and the aha’s during a scripture circle remind me that I am not alone, and to remember that God always has something for me if I will just stop and listen. For Advent this year, I want to cling to and focus on hope. I want to practice waiting with expectation and hope in the posture of receiving whatever gifts God has for me. One of the first things that I will be doing to prepare for this practice is going to the thematic study on November 28. I know it might sound like I’m trying to promote something, but I can honestly say that these thematic studies are such a gift to me and to anyone who is able to join the circle. November’s theme is John 1 and the transition into the Advent season. I would love to have you join us and bring your voice to the circle.

Seasons of our lives that contain pain or hard things, unexpected or confusing changes, require us to find sources of light. Maybe you have something that does that, too? Maybe you have a poet that you love? Maybe you do something in December that brings you joy?  If you do, I’d love to hear about them.  You can drop me an email at lisa@40orchards.org. Maybe we can be light to each other and help carry each other’s stuff.

With love and hope and hard stuff,

Lisa

Jesus and Justice

fall grape.jpg

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they challenge be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:9-10

“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24


“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:38-39

These three quotes all come from the “Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ most famous discourses. That section of Scripture begins in Matthew 5:1-2 with the introduction, “And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:”

We sometimes forget who these words are for- they are not for the crowds, but for the disciples. These words about righteousness are for those who are standing on the outside looking in, but for those who are on the inside looking out.

Jesus calls followers of God into postures of peacemaking, righteousness, reconciliation, and forgiveness. How might those postures affect how we live out our roles in bringing justice in this world?

We don’t have to turn far to see examples of injustice flooding our news outlets and social media pages. Jesus’ words challenge us to respond with postures that might not be our first instincts...

When I feel offended, do I move toward peacemaking?

When I see oppression, do I think about whether a brother or sister may have something against me before I think of the goodness of my own actions?

When I feel I have been wronged, do I turn my other cheek?

How might holding the humble postures Jesus calls us to be the first step towards bringing the justice so many of us long for?

On October 29, the 40 Orchards monthly Thematic Scripture Circle will be focused on Jesus and Justice. This Scripture Circle is taught in the method you are used to, beginning with a check in question with each person in the room that guides where we go, and continuing through conversation and questions where we learn from one another as we dig in. The difference is we know ahead of time a bit more about what where we will go, and everyone coming into the room has an interest in that topic.

Can you join us? Will you bring your voice to this conversation? With the current state of our nation and world, it felt like a good theme for us to wrestle through together.

Love,

Steph

Sacred Time - Feasts and Festivals!

September is one of my favorite months. Not just because it contains my birthday and anniversary, but because it signals the beginning of many of my favorite things. I love school supply shopping and picking out the first day of school outfit. I love the cooler weather and having bonfires in the evening to keep warm. I love the beauty of the leaves changing and the crunch of them when you go for a walk or rake up your yard. Sweaters, jeans and football become a part of the weekends.  Apple orchards and cooking chili are in regular rotation. It’s the beginning of the best time of the year!

September has also begun to hold some hard things. It is the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. It reminds me that my kids are getting older and each grade is a year closer to empty nesting. There’s a general anxiety about getting my planner, schedule and life back on track which includes meal planning, exercising, cleaning, and organizing everything I didn’t over the summer. September is like a great big reset button.

In the Jewish calendar, the 10 Days of Awe or High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) also occur during September and October. This is the celebration of the Feast of Trumpets found in Leviticus 23:23–25 and Numbers 29:1 and the Day of Atonement found in Leviticus 16:29-34, 23:26-32, and Numbers 29:7-11. These are times of celebration and reflection and repentance. 

Another way of thinking about these days is that it’s about turning to God, turning to others we’ve hurt, and turning to those in need. What has happened over the last year or years that deserve celebrating? What needs attention from the past year that would be better to not bring into the new year? What do I need to remember about who I am and who God is? Are there things in my life that need repentance or repair? How am I turning towards those in need?  

As you enter the fall season and perhaps like me are pushing the big reset button, I hope that you take some time to celebrate, reflect and turn. 

May you know that God is near to you and that you can receive the good that He has for you.

With love,

Lisa

If you want to learn more about feasts and festivals, join us on Monday, September 24th at our thematic study!

Your ideas, suggestions, and feedback are what guide us. Want to study a particular passage or topic? Have an idea for an event? Suggestions for times or locations of study? We want to know! You can aways send us an email or we would love to see you face to face over coffee.


Next Step

red apple tree.jpg

Last winter I began volunteering in the Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility. It started as a way for me to do something that had nothing to do with money. I had begun to feel the pressures of career, income, lack of retirement, and fundraising. And the only way that I know how to combat those kind of life pressures is by getting myself outside of my normal and more into the communities that are named in Matthew 25:35-46:  

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

I emailed a friend who had recently launched a 10 week program serving women in prison (they have a men’s program that’s been around longer) who had been asking for people to volunteer and lead sessions. My degree is in Criminal Justice – Corrections and while this has never been my job, themes of redemption, justice, and restoration are what you would call an arch in the story of my life.  And since visiting the prisoner somehow makes it onto this list, this felt like my next step.

When I first thought about meeting with women who were incarcerated, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to see them with eyes that see good. That if I knew what they did, I wouldn’t be able to love them or see hope in and for them. 

And then they began to share their stories. Where they came from and what their lives were like before they got to prison. They shared stories of their upbringing and being abandoned by their parents. Of selling drugs and their bodies to support their children and their addictions. Of terminated pregnancies and affairs. They couldn’t picture what their lives would look like at 50 because they never considered that they would live that long.

They shared that they have never belonged to a family and didn’t know their name. How they didn’t feel like they could ever be forgiven and weren't worthy of another chance. That they are known by a number and called the property of the department of corrections.

I can’t tell them that they will ever be able to repair the damage that has been done. Or that they would ever get to know their children or reunite with their parents.
That the crime that got them put in prison or that they got away with would be forgiven by their communities where they had done harm and caused trauma. That the ache of bad decisions would resolve.

But, I could tell them that they were beloved. That they had worth simply because God made them. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are seen and known. And no matter what they have done or will do, he won’t leave them.  And it felt very much like seeing them the way that God sees each us. 

Sometimes I forget that the words that I spend a lot of time studying, interpreting and asking questions about, are an invitation to try.  That trying something is like asking a question.  Take all of who you are, your experiences, fears, successes and failures, and offer them into your next step.   You might even find a prisoner who sees you the way God sees you.

With love,

Lisa

 

Seeing Beyond the Moment

It's interesting to see how themes come up over the course of a study burst. It gives a view into what the Spirit of God is doing amidst individuals, communities, and cities in ways we don't always have the opportunity to witness.

Many times over the last week, we heard people struggling with transition, processing through grief, and wondering about the future.  And then, in space after space, even when it wasn't chosen as the passage to study, Deuteronomy 34 came up as a possibility.

Have you ever thought about how the heading the translators put above a portion of Scripture reveals what they see as the most important? And how that effects how we read it? Most Bibles seem to title Deuteronomy 34, "The Death of Moses." We often add to that heading the subtitle, "When Moses doesn't get into the Promised Land because of one stupid mistake."

How often have we worried about a punitive God who holds mistakes over our heads? I mean, if Moses couldn't succeed, what hope do any of the rest of us have?

One thing that can help with these questions is a careful reading of Numbers 20, and what the "mistake" really was. But, that is another study for another time...

Because here, in this passage, we have other questions we can wonder about, like...

  • Why is the Lord calling Moses up on Mount Nebo? What does it say about their relationship that this was a private and intimate moment between them?
  • Nebo means "prophecy." What might it mean that God is calling Moses to climb up the mountain of prophecy at this moment in time?
  • The 12 tribes have not yet crossed the Jordan River into the Land. They are still in the wilderness. And yet, the Lord is inviting Moses to see Naphtali, Dan, and Judah. How is it possible to see them in Canaan when they are still physically in the wilderness?
  • Eventually, Naphtali will settle on north side of the Sea of Galilee, which is not visible from the top of Mount Nebo. What, then, is Moses looking at?

Deuteronomy 34:1, says the "Lord showed Moses," or, in other words, "the Lord causes Moses to see." 

There are moments in time when God shows us more than can be seen with our physical eyes. Moses might not have crossed into the Promised Land, but he was given a vision of its future. He saw it, even though he wouldn't see it. In fact, he saw it without having to be the one to lead the people through all the difficulties they would have to go through to get there.

Perhaps the vision was a bigger gift than the land itself would have been.

Plus, the vision wasn't the only gift given on that mountain. After the gift of vision came the intimacy of Presence and the provision for the people.

Moses died "on the mouth of the Lord." The same God who exhaled the breath of life into Adam lovingly inhaled the breath out from Moses. And then, it is the Lord himself who is said to have buried Moses. What does that say about Moses? What does that say about the Lord?

After this, lest we think the people will be left in the lurch, we hear about Joshua. There is time for grief in the loss of Moses, but there is also already a leader who has been prepared, who is ready to help the people do the work that is ahead.

In times of transition and grief and change, how might we see God weaving together vision, intimacy, and provision in our own lives? 

That's an easy question to write, but a difficult question to live. It takes wrestling and community to hold the tensions of grief and intimacy, loss and provision, transition and vision. How can we be honest about what is hard while still looking for hope? How can we experience Presence when we feel alone? How can we do the work it takes to transition well while still holding God as the one who holding us?

Scripture Circles have provided a space for me to wrestle with questions like these time and time again. I hope they can be a place for you to do that, too.  

Love,
Steph

Sunrise Over the Sea of Galilee. Taken from modern day Tiberias, in what would have been part of ancient settlement of the tribe of Naphtali.

Sunrise Over the Sea of Galilee.
Taken from modern day Tiberias, in what would have been part of ancient settlement of the tribe of Naphtali.

June 13, 2018 Newsletter

Leave the edges of your field open. Leviticus 19:9-10

Leave the edges of your field open. Leviticus 19:9-10

In Hebrew, a שׂדה sadeh is a field where we plant and cultivate nourishment for our community. Imagine how the people must have dreamed about these sadehim (plural) during their own 40 years of desert wandering and manna eating! In just over 2 years, 40 Orchards has established some rich sadehim of our own. Do you know about them all? Monthly discovering and thematic circles, 10 session Roots courses, and the 40 week cohort program are waiting for you to step in. Click on the "GET INVOLVED" link in the upper right hand corner of this page to get started.

Through these Scripture Circles and programs, there have been stories of transformation and change, the privilege of witnessing and being witnessed. Which in turn helps us go into our homes, neighborhoods, churches and workplaces sharing our tov (goodness) for the sake of others.

40 Orchards employs more than just the teacher you see at a Scripture Circle.  Our two part time staff:

  • Lead ongoing programs
  • Respond to what we hear by developing new curriculum and programs
  • Do the background administrative work needed to keep a nonprofit running
  • Offer shepherding relationships to people who attend our circles
  • Come alongside people as they begin to live out their tov in the world
  • Develop teachers and leaders rooted in  this wrestling and spacious view of Scripture
  • Offer scholarships and payment plans so no one is turned away or unable to join

We would love to continue to offer the programs we already have. We are also praying for more communities where we can offer Scripture Circles (like prisons and shelters) and hoping to create new programs (like a New Testament Roots)!

But we can’t do this without you.  

40 Orchards does not have the funds to pay our staff salaries for the summer. Can you offer your financial support? A one-time gift helps us get through this summer cash flow challenge. Setting up a recurring monthly donation invests in our vision and helps keep us moving into the future. Any amount, from $10 to $1000 will help.

You can give through EFT or credit card by clicking HERE, or by sending a check to 40 Orchards, 7620 Aldrich Ave S, Richfield, MN 55423.

Thank you for supporting us as we walk into the future.

Grace and peace,

Stephanie & Lisa, and the 40 Orchards Board

Wired for Rest

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I was thinking about the human desire to retreat. We run and strive and work and organize and something deep within us yearns for a break. 

We are wired for Sabbath. Shabbat. 

Literally, a verb that means stop. Shabbat is a set apart time first chosen by the Creator in Genesis 2, then given as loving instruction to us, the image-bearing co-creators. Don’t use time only to do and make; take time also to be and enjoy. Savor what is here. Remember the primacy of relationship.

Circles of Time

created this watercolor as a representation of Shabbat. 6 days we get caught in the swirls of time. 1 day we step out into the circle that holds the swirls of time within. 

The Scriptures invite us to experience the freedom this offers, individually and communally. 

Walter Brueggemann says Sabbath “provides time, space, energy, and imagination for coming to the ultimate recognition that more commodities, which may be acquired in the rough and ready of daily economics, finally do not satisfy... Sabbath is the regular, disciplined, visible, concrete yes to the neighborly reality of the community beloved by God.” *

Sabbath is a great illustration of how changing how we view Scripture can transform the way we view the world. What if Sabbath isn’t a restriction but a gift? How could the ideas of it be put it into practice in modern life? 

I hope those are questions you can reflect upon in your life. 

This, I think, is why Shabbat Shalom is such a beautiful traditional greeting for Sabbath. The practice of stopping is a way to walk our souls towards peace and wholeness.  

Blessings,
Stephanie

P.S. Shabbat is one of our thematic Scripture Circles this summer. Click HERE to learn more.

* Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Westminster John Knox Press; January 31, 2014.