In a Moment of Crisis

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Canticle 15 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38


When deadlines approach, when curtain calls are about to be made, when due dates approach, we know it’s a now-or-never moment and pray that all we’ve prepared for is enough to make it through to the other side–that our bosses will be satisfied, that the crowd cheers, that the mother and babe are safe. The stress we feel in our bodies in these moments tell us what we know: we’re in a moment of crisis. Some way or another, we’re fighting for our survival, which may or may not truly be life threatening

This past week the “Living Well Through Advent 2020” reflection for Friday was titled “When Hope is Hard.” Robbin Brent articulates what we all know: we’re in crisis mode. The magnitude of all these crises can leave us all overwhelmed and devoid of hope. Brent shares that “the Chinese characters that form the word ‘crisis’ mean both danger and opportunity.” Since I’ve become quite familiar with Google Translate in my efforts to communicate in Spanish, I checked the translation and found that that might not necessarily be the case. The characters translate, if Google is correct, to “in danger” and “machine.”

Crisis: 危 = in danger, 机 = machine // Opportunity: 机 = machine 会 = meeting

Trying to figure out where “opportunity” comes into play, I found that the characters that make up “opportunity” are those for “machine” and “meeting.” 

This whole play on words invites us to think about what we are manifesting, what we are dealing with. Are we in crisis, where danger is being created, or are we in a moment of opportunity, where we are creating something together?

Our lesson from Samuel gives us a glimpse into a moment when crisis is at bay. David’s enemies aren’t a worry, and his house is secure. Like most of us, when things are settled, we look with new eyes upon our surroundings, and David realized that his home was better than the one they had protecting the Holy of Holies. The LORD deserves better! King David’s prophet Nathan agrees, and I’m sure they were already visualizing the grandeur to come of the LORD’s house. However, the voice of the LORD interrupts, tapping his servant Nathan to share God’s will, to remind of God’s plans, and they do not include focusing on a physical structure. God’s will does include obedience of his faithful who will be in and of themselves the bearer of God’s will. Nathan and David are truly in a moment of opportunity, having been met with the clarity of God’s intention for God’s people.

The circumstances are completely different for Mary. For Mary, the crisis–the danger machine–is being put into motion. Take someone who is marginalized (a young female in a patriarchal society) and now impregnate her by someone not her betrothed. She has no livelihood, no home of her own, and no social standing. It would be hard to find hope in this situation. 

And yet, there is opportunity in this moment. Gabriel brings his announcement as a messenger of God and proclaims Mary’s favor. Does Mary perceive the danger building, the crisis at this time of her life? How could she not? If we were witnesses to this moment, would we not be shouting, “Run away, Mary! Save yourself!” As a people accustomed to looking out for our own well-being, we probably would. We’d also be looking for a weapon to get rid of the home invader Gabriel.

But who has God’s favor? Those who keep the covenant. The faithful. The obedient to the will of God.

The disclaimer here is that obedience to God’s will is life-giving, loving, and liberating. We aren’t told anything of Mary’s faith except her reply to be the mother of God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.” I appreciate the commentary that speaks to Mary not being violated by the Holy Spirit, being forced into obedience or submission, nor viewing the invitation as optional. Being the Mother of God is who she was created to be. It is her vocation, her calling, her identity. The opportunity for Mary here is meeting with God and becoming fully who she is, along with bringing into this world who God is, whether she can comprehend that or not.

Mary’s faith is her hope. Surely she knew that she had no idea how this would play out. Surely she knew the risks. Surely there were moments where her heart raced, anxiety increased, and tears fell. But we have her song, her proclamation of praise and her sharing of God’s will that is good news for all who have the heart to know what she knows, being in harmony with the Divine, her womb the mansion for the Christ Child.

We’ve been praying in song these weeks of Advent, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” We’re inviting for the God with us to come now. We’re asking for God to be revealed in our lives. If you’ve been praying with intention, with sincerity, maybe your heart is starting to race. Maybe you’ve had tingling of intuition or nagging thoughts or a sense of restlessness, all good indications that you need to pay attention to what is being asked of you. We discern our thoughts carefully when they are persistent and seem to make no sense. Discernment is for all of us seeking to live into who God is calling us to be, for all of us looking for our vocation, what it is God has created us to do.

Maybe what we discern will be revealed to be our own agenda, like David. Thankfully, working in and with community, often what is a personal agenda and what is God’s will can be revealed. We all need our Nathan’s to help us along the way. Maybe what we discern will be life-changing, demanding nothing less than our whole being as we share with the world the presence of Christ.

Maybe we can do one small thing to keep crisis at bay and create opportunity instead. Working with others for the glory of God, we can keep hope alive. That’s one of the reasons I share my pledge with All Saints’. The work we do here is important to me, not only for my employment but especially for sharing the unconditional love of God for everyone. 

This past summer, my friend The Rev. Cameron Nations was interviewed for what they were doing at the parish he served then, St. Luke’s in the Birmingham, AL, area. I thought it was great, too, as they were forgiving medical debt across central Alabama, just over $8 million. Good for them. This fall in one of the Facebook groups I follow, folks were asked what they would do with $10,000 in cash. A recurring response included paying off medical debt. These are people in Northwest Arkansas, people who would put money toward paying off medical debt so they could get a better car, pay for school, or buy a house. This kept nagging at me until I reached out to Cameron to ask what they did in Alabama. He told me it was easy, would totally work in Arkansas, and sent me a link to www.ripmedicaldebt.org. I searched the website and quickly found that Arkansas is one of the hotspots for medical debt in the country, not surprising given our rates of poverty (17.2%, seventh highest in the nation). Why has this not been done, I thought? Surely someone has already done this. Surely someone else will do it, right? These are the thoughts going through the minds of people watching someone choke at a restaurant. Surely someone else will step up and do the heimlich, won’t they? In the meantime, people choke to death. In the meantime, people are at risk of eviction, calling us for utility assistance, visiting food pantries because they can’t afford food, toilet paper, or coats.

I exchanged a few emails and have been saying quite a few prayers. We now have a statewide campaign launched to eliminate the $24 million in medical debt that Arkansans carry. This isn’t all of it, to be sure. Those whose debt could be eliminated are those who are two times below the poverty level (for a family of four that’s an income less than $52,400/year). The program is also for those who have debts greater than their assets and whose debts are greater than 5% of their annual income. There is no discrimination based on residency (I asked specifically thinking of our undocumented neighbors).

We know, especially during the pandemic, that our healthcare situation is in crisis. Maybe this is one way we can provide opportunity. Medical centers get at least a portion of what they are trying to collect, boosting their revenue. People at the margins get a piece of good news in the mail rather than a collection notice.

God is with us, and we are a people of hope, even and especially when it is hard. Our practices of walking the Way of Love have prepared us for this moment so that we, too, can bear the Light of Christ to the World.


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Where Is God?

Exodus 12:1-14 | Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 18:15-20

Take a moment to breathe. How are you doing? Because there is a lot going on right now.

Even if everything is wonderful for you, there are people in Houston digging through mold and mud. An earthquake struck South America, and now Florida is being battered by Hurricane Irma. There are people directly affected by the DACA decision, and there are also those being persecuted in Myanmar and refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Thanks be to widespread communications, we are aware of what a mess things are right now, and it is a lot. In the wake of so much that seems like death and destruction, we might ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a faithful question to ask, and how we respond to it says a lot about our theology, our understanding of God.

I have heard some respond that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, that hurricanes or disasters are either given to help us be the strong people we are, or that are some kind of consequence for being sinners. Given this line of thinking, God is at the hand of destruction. So much like in Exodus, God is the agent behind the angel of death that destroys the firstborn in Egypt, unless they have been signified as households of God. We might gratefully wipe our brow and dismiss this as “not our position,” relegating it as a position of Jewish theology, this view of a wrathful God who hardens hearts and sacrifices the living. We separate our good selves from people who attribute natural disasters to some trite meaning.

It’s okay for us to say and believe that we don’t understand–we don’t know–why these horrible things are happening, especially to the vulnerable, to people who don’t have options or the ability to change their circumstances. As people who can rationalize anything, we can assign meaning to anything, too, but I caution myself when it comes to ascribing attributes to God based on my finite understanding of how things work. I don’t know. I can’t know. (Along this line, there was also this response to God and the disasters at hand.)

But I do know this: when I look for God in situations, I find God in relationship with people who are looking for God.

  • God was there in the midst of Pharaoh and Moses, giving Pharaoh the chance to heed the warnings being given.
  • God was guiding the people in their preparations for their meal.
  • God is with the people crying out for protection, help, guidance, and deliverance . . . ALL the people.
  • And God is with us who have the ability to respond to the needs of our neighbors.

As part of my job, I consider it a perk to visit with people who have questions about the church, and I love when people ask what’s truly on their minds because it means we’re developing a level of trust between us, we’re entering a loving relationship. After general questions about what my collar’s made of and about some “Episcopalianisms” being clarified, somehow the topic came up about how part of my role as a member of the clergy, is to bring the presence of Christ. As much as my clericals say “the priest is in,” so also do they signify that a person is present who believes that when two or three are gathered, Christ is here. She asked me sincerely, “So do you think Christ is present now?” Yes, of course. Not just because we were talking about religious things, but because we were giving attention to one another. We were listening to one another share stories of who we are, where we were in our lives and work. Surely the presence of the Lord was with us.

I attended the public discussion about the Confederate soldier statue on the square, along with about 140 others. In that mediated discussion, a room full of people agreed to hear what others had to say, even if it meant hearing an opinion that differed from their own. I heard things that made me smile and things that gave me pause. At times, it felt like my heart seized a moment as I wondered if a person truly meant what they said or understood its implications, and at other times, my heart swelled at truth–even painful truth–being spoken. It was a room of people that was trying to be in relationship, and it wasn’t without times of tension. Even though it wasn’t a religious gathering, I felt that there, too, God was in our midst.

Driving home from the event, I was kind of rushed because I hadn’t yet had lunch, and the Saturday night service wasn’t far off. I take a sort of short cut to my neighborhood through another one. Right in front of the stop sign, there’s a house that almost always has its garage door open and at least five or six kids playing with an adult or two sitting in the garage. It’s an African American family, and I almost always smile and wave at them because I admire that the kids are actually playing outside (something I struggle to get my kids to do), and I am grateful to see people of color living in Bentonville. The diversity in Bentonville today is much richer than it was 30 years ago. (Out of the 140 people at the forum, only 3 black people were present.) Rather than just be the crazy lady who waves at them, I’ve always wanted to stop and introduce myself, but it never seems like the right time. I’m always just driving by. This time wasn’t any different, but so filled was I in hope of dialogue and relationship, that I turned left instead of right and parked my car on the street in front of their house and went up to introduce myself in the midst of the little dog and playing children. I met the youngest of the adult children who helps with watching the other kids. They shared some of their family story, and I listened. I mentioned the dialogue about the statue and the lack of presence of black folks, and he wasn’t surprised. I mentioned racism and prejudice and discrimination, not all at the same time, but throughout the conversation, and he mentioned that he had “been black all his life.” Before I left, I told him I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself as a neighbor who was glad to meet them, and he told me I was welcome to stop by anytime. At the end of the day, it’s all about being a good neighbor, right? Living into the commandment to love one another?

It’s easy to get caught up in talking about what to do and leaving ideals in the ideological realm, but I’m more of a mind that we don’t have time for just that. It’s not enough to talk about something. It’s not enough to point out how nice something is for others to do or for theories to exist.

What are we doing now?

As a church we’re signing up to serve, so all of you check out the ministry fair today! We actively serve in our church, a church where everyone is a part of our work and worship. It’s not just about what we do as clergy but what we do as a body. But it’s also not just about what we do in here, within church walls, but about what we do outside. So talk to your neighbors if you don’t already. Bring awareness of the presence of Christ to your midst. If I can do it, anyone can; it just takes getting over that initial barrier outside your comfort zone to find what you didn’t know you were missing.

And there’s something to sharing a meal together. We do it every week here. There’s something about setting a table with intention for nourishment. So, starting next month, I’ll host a “Dinner with the Vicar.” It will be a sign up to come join my family and me for a simple meal, nothing fancy. (I have pets, too, so be forewarned!) Over a meal, we can share our lives together more intimately than just a quick greeting at the back. I’ll continue to meet with folks as much as I can over coffee or wine or at your homes, but I consider this opening a path to deeper relationship. I also consider it an invitation for the church to start a “Dinners for 8” model, where we take turns hosting a meal for folks in our congregation, always open for visitors, so we can share our lives together in a meaningful way, share our stories that we don’t otherwise get a chance to share. Not only for our church family, but I’m opening this up even more broadly by signing up for a People’s Supper. There’s a group that set up a model for “healing suppers” and “bridging suppers,” doing what they suggest in bringing together like-minded folks and then broadening to invite others with a different viewpoint–over a meal.

Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever kind of predicament either good or bad, it’s okay to ask “Where is God in this?” It’s a faithful question to ask because we only ever find what we seek. If we want to find God, look at our relationships. Look at how we care for one another. If we want to find God, look for how we love. If there’s not evidence of love there, maybe it’s up to us to bring the presence of Christ.

 

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Crisis and Good News

 

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

If you were in Christian Ed last week, you heard Jill Johnson from CCMC (Cooperative Christian Ministries & Clinic) talk about the Bridges Out of Poverty program. She pointed out that if we have our sight set on a goal, be it getting out of poverty or simply finding our way on a map, it’s tremendously helpful to have that “You are Here” star pinpointing our location so we have an accurate picture of reality and can establish a sense of direction.

If we know where we are, we have a better chance of getting where we want to go.

So, where are we?

Are we, like Jeremiah’s audience and like the Hebrews, at a time of crisis? Like the house of Jacob, have we defiled our land, transgressed against God, and chased after that which does not profit? Like the Hebrews in the epistle, have we become frustrated with or suffered shame for our faith? If we evaluate where we are right now, maybe it’s not too far of a stretch to say that we are in crisis, too. These past weeks in Christian Ed we’ve intentionally highlighted the poverty crisis, which is closely linked with the homeless crisis, the unemployment crisis, the mental health crisis, and so on. There’s also the refugee crisis, water crisis, and other humanitarian crises worldwide.

You probably realize by now how much I like to know what we really mean by the words that we use and say. So when we say things are a crisis or in crisis, do we mean that they are situations in dire straits, with no simple solution or easy way out? Or when we use or consider the word “crisis,” do we borrow from the medical connotation and see “crisis” as meaning a turning point–as in a disease–that indicates an outcome pointing either toward recovery or toward death? We seem to have blended the two: I understand a crisis to be a situation at a tipping point that could either lead toward that which is life-giving or death-dealing in some way, shape, or form, depending on the next move. If every issue we face is at a point of making or breaking it–“it” being life itself–then we have very important decisions to make.

Jeremiah calls his people out on their crisis. Even though he thought he was just a boy, God empowered Jeremiah to speak out, to be the voice of God among the people. We hear today that two evils are proclaimed: the people of the house of Jacob have forsaken the Almighty, “the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Their crisis? Do they even recognize it? Without God, they will perish. Without God, their life abundant will devolve into conflict, death, and destruction. Forsaking that which gives them life, the people have sought to provide for themselves, taking it upon themselves to choose and to control their lives, their laws, their loyalties. Their point of crisis hinged on whether or not to live in relationship with God. Jeremiah tells them, speaking for the LORD, that they stand at the precipice and choose death by turning away from God.

I’ve probably told you before that I often tell my children to “make good choices.” I’m thinking that I want them to do what is right and good, but if I’m completely honest with myself, there’s part of me that knows they can reach a crisis moment when they least expect it, and the choice they make will hinge on the cusp of what is life-giving or death-dealing. I could probably rationalize every moment as life-giving or death-dealing: are we relating in the moment in a way that promotes life, especially life in Christ? Or are we turning away from God in the moment, even in how we look at a person? If sin is turning away from God, and sin leads to death, is every moment I turn away from God and toward death a moment of crisis? It would seem so. Maybe I should start telling my kids to “make life-giving choices” in case they lose sight of what is good…because we are so easily lost when left to our own devices.

Our self-made cisterns aren’t enough. We cannot create a holding tank for God’s love or grace or mercy. Our self-interest isn’t enough. We will never have enough, be enough, understand “enough” unless we know in the depth of our being that there is always enough in God. There’s enough water, enough food, enough shelter, enough employment, enough opportunity, enough resources, enough love . . . for all of us.

The crisis of our moment in history hinges on whether or not we are willing to sacrifice our self-sufficiency that we might tip the scale toward that which is truly life-giving and in full relationship with God. Are we willing to evaluate whether our personal agendas, however great or small, are for a greater good or for our personal glory? And, yes, we do so much good in this place and in this world. Yet for all the good we do, why is our society, our world overrun with systemic crises?

There is brokenness in the systems, just as there is brokenness in each of us.

There’s a beautiful sculpture that I’d love to see in person. It was in one of those videos on Facebook highlighting the most fantastic sculptures in the world. I searched out the artist’s page, where she has more images of it. A naked woman, sitting upright with her head uplifted, is cracked, as if fissures throughout her body just split open. Having been thinking of crises all week, I couldn’t help but think of cracked cisterns and of brokenness. I thought of all the women I hear stories about in the realm of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Women who are trapped in a situation where they may have shelter and something to eat but who are depleted in value, respect, and love. Women who reached that point because at some point in their life, they were violated. Maybe they were molested or raped at a young age or were neglected as children and adolescents and found solace in whatever addiction numbed the pain. Maybe they were trapped in a moment of vulnerability, kidnapped completely, or blackmailed into a situation they couldn’t escape. This broken woman represents to me all victims of crisis–male and female–wounded . . . but not yet dead. In the sculpture, light shines brightly through the cracks. And is it a smile on her face? This woman knows the source of life and the reward at the resurrection of the righteous. Maybe she’s not a victim. Maybe she’s just bursting forth with light, exposed and vulnerable, but so filled with light, she cannot contain it herself; I think this is more what the artist has in mind for the sculpture titled “Expansion.” To me, it is a powerful image of brokenness overcome.

All of our crises point toward what is broken and cracked, and all of our crises present to us a choice on how to proceed. We choose where we are going, either toward death or toward life. Thanks be to God, there is that ever-flowing fount of life that shines forth and pours through our cracks if we allow it.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to a people in crises, a people beginning to lose faith. After addressing the concerns of the community, the writer advises them to “Let mutual love continue,” as if to say, “Remember, church, where you are as a community of faith…whose you are as a community of faith.” Remember hospitality, compassion, fidelity, generosity, contentment, and faith. For the Hebrews as for us, these are fundamentals in our relationship with God, essentials in living in covenant with God, the light that shines through our brokenness. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Our greatest sacrifice is our willing surrender to live in relationship with God, to show up at a moment of crisis and pray and say, “Here I am, Lord,” even in our uncertainty and imperfection. With the fount of Light pouring through our humanity, we do our best to do what is good, what is life-giving, knowing that the source of our strength and power is not ourself. We do good and share what we have, and this is pleasing to God

We are, each of us, in a crisis. The good news for us is that we know it, and we know where we want to go. We follow that living water to life eternal. We choose life in Christ when we pray, “thy will be done,” and this is part of our daily prayer. Please pray the Lord’s prayer every day, three times a day if you can. This helps keep our personal GPS on track so we can “make life-giving choices,” pleasing not only our mothers but our God.

We know not only where we are but whose we are, so we head in the direction of life, not death.

That’s what we do as a community of faith, as people of faith. We choose to share what we know gives life. We help one another stay connected to our Source. And in our times of crisis, we stay oriented to God and move forward, taking our own steps in the direction God leads but also moving forward together as one body, into the flow of life abundant.

 

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