Unconventional

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 | Mark 7:24-37

As much as we know it to be true that we aren’t perfect, that we can’t do everything or know everything, there’s something in our society that has conditioned us to believe that we can be those things. Our working norm is that we just need x, y, z to get to that better, bigger, happier place.

Think about a baby shower. A whole list of items promises the parent(s)-to-be that everything will be bright, new, and perfect. Those of us who have been through the phase a time or two or four know that really there are just a few essentials you need. Everything else you need is intangible, but you won’t typically find those items on the registry: items like babysitting while you shower/nap, meals and snacks for the family, phone-a-friend permission at 3am when you’re pretty sure your baby is going to starve to death because you can’t tell if they’re nursing properly, a list of resources for a counselor, lactation consultant, mommy groups . . . you get the idea. In fact, if these are the kinds of things you brought to the Pinterest-perfect baby shower, you’d be getting all the strange looks because your gifts were unconventional at best.

Speaking of “unconventional,” the realtor and I were swapping homeopathic remedies the other day, and I told her of a time when we lived in Fayetteville and were having a pizza party, thanks to my husband’s wood-fired oven in the back yard. The rock patio in front of it wasn’t finished yet, so we had a lot of rocks sort of positioned and scattered around, and there were some places in the flagstone that were sheeting off, leaving some very sharp rocks exposed. Along with our hedgeapple tree in the back, the ground was a landmine of dangers for the barefoot kids inevitably running around, no matter how much we told them to wear their shoes.

My oldest refers to this time in our lives as our “hippy” phase. At best we were pretty granola, but I was surrounded by folks inclined to a more natural lifestyle, which suited me just fine. Of course one of my kids cut his foot on one of the rocks, across the bottom of his foot like a crescent. I fretted over whether to take him to the hospital, wondering if they’d really be able to do anything, worried we couldn’t afford the co-pay. One of the lovely, earthy ladies at the party assured me not to worry, that it didn’t look that bad. She asked if I had any onions and clay. (Fortunately my husband was too busy making pizza when this was all suggested!) But in my gut I trusted her, and after cleaning it as best we could, we used the onion skin and clay to make a pack over the wound, wrapping it with plastic wrap to hold it in place. I could check it in the morning.

When morning came, and I wondered if I had lost my mind, I checked the cut and decided we’d take him to the walk-in clinic. You can imagine the look on the doctor’s face when I told her what we’d done. After she wrote a prescription for an antibiotic, she looked at me incredulously. “If I give you this prescription, you will give it to him, right?” “Of course I will,” I told her; I meant it and followed through. And he’s still doing okay, as far as I can tell, and he says he remembers that night. Taking a little unconventional advice saved me a lot of worry and money (which would have been worth it had he been in danger). I still keep clay on hand for spider bites.

When we cross over from the conventional to unconventional, the whole environment feels precarious, doesn’t it? Do we risk ridicule? What will others think? Will it even work? Am we even right? There’s a lot of uncertainty in unconventionality, and above all things, we fear what we don’t know.

These examples, though, aren’t too far outside the realm of normal or acceptability. What we read about in the Gospel according to Mark takes us to a whole other level.

Not only is an unaccompanied woman approaching Jesus and the disciples at table, but she is a Gentile unaccompanied woman. The only thing I could think of similar in our time would be if I entered the men’s worship space of the Bentonville Islamic Center during their Friday prayers and went straight to the Imam to ask for help. “Unconventional” would be a mild word to describe such an action. I couldn’t imagine doing it unless it were a dire emergency, and for this mother, it is. There wasn’t an ER to which she could take her possessed child. In their time and place, the Jewish people, God’s chosen, are the “children,” and everyone else, the Gentiles, are the “dogs.” I don’t think I need to give examples of the racial slurs used today, for even by mentioning their existence, you already are thinking of them. Could you imagine our neighbor the Imam dismissing me in a time of crisis with demeaning words? Could you imagine if we were getting ready for worship when someone came up for help or assistance, and I cast them away, referring to them with a slur of our time while in the same breath referring to our blessedness?

Why is it okay for Jesus to do it? Is it okay?

We want to jump to the end result: the woman stood her ground, and her daughter is healed. Everything worked out okay.

But we can’t skip over the hard realities, and we know there are many ways we can view what is. There’s a reason why we have several news channels, why we even have four gospels. We all interpret our present moment through our particular lenses. Those lenses, in turn, affect how we judge other people’s actions and reactions.

A woman finds Jesus when he’s trying to go unnoticed. She begs for healing for her daughter, but Jesus points out that the children are fed first, that it’s not fair to throw their food to the dogs. But she points out that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, and Jesus says that her daughter is healed, cleansed of the demon that had possessed her. The woman returned home and found the demon gone from her child.

As unconventional and unacceptable as it was for the woman to approach Jesus, so, too, was his offering healing to the Gentile woman, someone from the outside. She was an “other” in every sense of the word, yet Jesus extended his healing grace to her and her daughter. When I read this, I acknowledge that Jesus is using unfavorable images and language, but I see him making a statement of their reality, calling out the dissension in the community. He’s calling it out, and even as she recognizes the duality, the conflict, the woman also recognizes her need and the presence of that which will nourish her and her family. It reminds me of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing else to lose and just needed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. They have faith. They believe. They respond wholeheartedly and vulnerably in the presence of Christ, and they are healed.

Jesus had to state what was the contemporary norm, what was considered conventional and acceptable. To us it seems very un-Jesus-like because Jesus is all about standing up for the poor, the sick, and the needy. He is! Yet he was also in the midst of his faithful followers, who were probably shaking their head in agreement with him even as they looked upon the woman with disdain, if they regarded her at all.

But Jesus crosses over into the unconventional when he listens to the distressed woman, engages with her in conversation, and then heals her daughter as she requested. Because no matter what the social norms were or are, Jesus is about doing the will of God, and God is for everyone, even if our society can’t see that or live into it, evidenced in our ongoing disdain and massacre of one another.

Our gospel continues with what seems like another general healing story, a little more graphic than we’re used to, with Jesus plugging a man’s ears and spitting and touching tongues and all, but a healing to be celebrated for sure. Jesus heals the deaf and mute, giving them ears to hear and mouths to speak. He healed them with curious actions–one might say they’re unconventional–and a word unfamiliar to us: “Ephphatha” or “effata,” meaning “Be opened.”

Open ears and open mouths. Jesus is also known to open eyes, too. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear know something about the way of Jesus. Those with open mouths apparently couldn’t keep them closed as they zealously proclaimed the marvelous deeds of Jesus.

Is it another healing story? Yes. Is it more? I believe so.

Even today, we need to know–however we can–what is going on around us, and we need the courage to see it for what it is, even if we have to call it out. Abuse, harassment, fraud, racism, discrimination, bullying–we could be and probably are witness to any of these things on any given day. Unfortunately, it’s been the norm, the convention, not to ruffle any feathers, to pretend we didn’t notice, or to let it go. Whatever we see is the demon in the child, and we are the mother. Do we bind ourselves to conventionality, our societal norms and expectations, to keep things functioning however dysfunctionally so that everything looks okay on the surface? Or do we realize the crisis of the situation? That we’re only as healthy as our weakest member? Do we have the courage of a mother who is willing to go before God saying, “I’m not leaving until you grant me what I need to get through this.”

Giving unconventional baby shower gift certificates and using homeopathic poultices are baby steps compared to the steps Jesus asks us to take as Christians. May our ears be open to hear the direction God calls us toward, our courage be strengthened to stand strong in the face of the adversary, and our love of God be reflected in our true love of neighbor and ourselves. I look forward to the day when such radical love is the norm.

 

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How’s Your Heart?

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 | Mark 3:20-35

When someone asks, “How are you doing?” or more likely, “How ya doin’?” What’s the common response? . . . It’s usually “Fine,” right? Maybe we even return the question to make sure everything’s “fine” for them, too. Do we really believe them? Chances are we don’t believe them because we know full well we’re not telling the full truth; we’re just giving them the short, socially acceptable response so we can save the full answer for our next counseling session. And that’s okay and actually preferred because we’re all carrying around our stuff. (I think that’s why we like our pets so much because their lives remind us to remember the basics of what keep us alive.)

If we think about it, we’re simultaneously functioning at many levels: within Creation, as part of humanity, in a nation, as part of community/work/tribe, within our family, and as ourselves, as an individual. So when someone asks us if we’re fine, it might take a while to do a thorough reality check. Maybe when we say “fine,” what we really mean is that we’re coping alright with everything we’re dealing with. Maybe that’s what I mean. 😉

Our gospel reading for today captures these levels pretty well. At least as a reader of Mark’s gospel, we somewhat have an understanding of who Jesus is. He is born in the flesh as human. As a Jew, we know he’s part of the nation of Israel. He’s surrounded by community of his choosing and those who have chosen him, either as friend or foe. He is associated with a particular family, though as a person it gets complicated, being the Son of God and all.

Do you notice that it’s not recorded that anyone ever asks Jesus how he’s doing?

He does get a lot of accusations thrown his way, though, among those that he’s aligned with Satan, using the power of the devil to cast out demons.

Jesus, as part of his response, says that a kingdom, a house divided against itself cannot stand. I know he says more, but let’s take that right there: “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Jesus gives us a good rule here by which to measure ourselves with a sincere reality check. How’s our house doing? On all levels.

Creation: Our stewardship is showing weakness as ecology groans under our constant demand and pressure.

Humanity: All God’s children. We’re not all doing okay. We’re only as strong as the weakest link, so we have work to do. I’m going to the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival on Monday, and the theme is “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” It’s a reminder that education, a living wage job, housing, and income are things everyone needs to live. This is going to look differently around the world, but it’s how we express it here. I think we can all agree that education is power, and empowering people to live whole lives in their environs is transformational.

Nation: I just got back from traveling between nations, touching ground in England (albeit briefly), and traveling between Israel and Palestine. Coming home, I smell the sweet air and enjoy my place of privilege and power in the world. Yet within our nation, we’re wrestling with other nations, with peoples from other nations. As a US citizen, my leaders are identifiable by others. Are we a house united? How strong are we? Who do we consider allies? What motives govern us?

Community/work/tribe: So readily do we identify with people like ourselves, that our sense of community is often defined by where we live, with whom we work and associate. This is pretty selective, so this can be where we feel strongest. North of Nazareth is a place called Nazareth Ilit (i-l-i-t). Any time I had heard it mentioned, I thought they were saying “Nazareth Elite.” In a way, they were. I asked a cab driver what “ilit” meant. He didn’t define it for me, seeming to wrestle with the translation, but he told me it’s where the religious orthodox live, so where the rabbis and more conservative would live. It feels safe to surround hunker down in the security of “our people,” doesn’t it?

Family: God help us. Our families are complicated before we are born, so let’s just trust that dysfunction is the norm, and we all need Jesus in this department . . . and his family calls him the one who’s out of his mind!

Ourselves: Be gentle here. How’s your house, your self doing? Have you even checked in lately because there’s been so much attention at all the other levels? Ultimately, for each of us, all of the levels come to a fine point within us. How’s your heart? How’s your will? How firm is the foundation of your house? How great is your faith?

God bless you if you’re at 100%: I’ll sit down and listen at your feet. But I’m guessing that right now, we’re listening and praying together.

We see Jesus, followed by a crowd because he’s got it all together, and we want what he’s got. He’s showing us the way. At the leadership talk given this past week through the Head & Heart luncheon for the women’s shelter, Alex Cottrell from Milestone Leadership said the only way to break our own pattern of thinking, our perpetuation of our prejudices, is to surround ourselves with people different from ourselves. I don’t think Jesus had to worry about his prejudices much, but I think being surrounded by the imperfect, the disenfranchised–and seeking them out–kept our imperfection, our absolute need for grace ever-present. And we want/ need to keep seeing God’s work manifest before us. Jesus makes the whole unconditional-love-follow-God’s-will look easy. Everyone’s a beloved child of God, without boundary; they just have to believe to experience the love, liberation, and life God promises. All the levels are perfectly contained within the heart of Christ, the heart of God.

More often than not, Saul is more familiar to me. For him, I imagine, the notion of a human family is pretty abstract, as it’s easier to focus on God’s chosen people as the only ones who matter. We’re united as a people in one nation; our tribes are our community, identified in our work and where we live; and our birth families are so entwined with who we are in our place in our tribe that who I am as a person is pretty insignificant, unless I bring shame to my family. If something happens to disrupt the order in which I understand the world to work, it might be too much for me. I might hold onto my ego, my agenda, my worldview, even if God’s will and way are being revealed to me, and I might interpret my consequences as God’s punishment and disfavor. It’s easier to blame God and everyone and everything else than it is honestly to face the error of my ways.

Between Saul and Jesus Christ, we have the words of Paul coming to us: “do not lose heart.”

God gives Saul a new heart after he was anointed king, before he was proclaimed king to the people. On Saul’s way back home, we’re told in Ch. 10 that “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1Sam 10:9). Don’t you know God knew Saul would need all the help he could get. Saul needed the power of God within him. Psalm 51 (v. 11) comes to mind for me: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,/and renew a right spirit within me.” If I’m going to do the work God has given me to do, I need a new, clean heart and a right spirit. I need to check myself to make sure my way forward isn’t obstructed by all the things I want or by all the things I don’t want to do.

What we don’t want to do is just as significant as what we don’t want. When Saul is going to be identified by Samuel to the tribes, he actually hides among the baggage or equipment. He’s tall, so for him not to be seen, he has to be crouching down, literally hiding. We do this, right: hide from that which we know we can do?

And I want to say that after his initial hesitation and rough start that Saul turned out to be a great king, thanks be to God, but that’s not how it goes. Saul never really gets out of his own way, never fully heeds the directions given him by God, and ultimately he loses God’s favor and grows in his jealousy of David. Maybe you know, too, that he takes his own life after being wounded in battle so that he doesn’t die at the hand of the enemy; at least, that’s what the text and commentary says.

In a week when suicides stream across headlines and tv banners, we must be cautioned not to over-simplify reasons why someone takes their own life. What we do know is that we have free will, and we don’t always choose the best path for ourselves. Paul’s words ring true to us, reminding us of the life, the house of grace we have through Christ that is unseen by our temporal sight but is eternal in our spiritual nature. That grace extends to all, “so we do not lose heart.”

If each of us have a heart touched by God and a conscience intent to align our will with God’s, that new world ordered by Love will be revealed, justice will roll down like water, and valleys will be made high and mountains low. That worldview from the heart of Christ will give us the mind of Christ, and we’ll be too busy loving our neighbor, blessing one another, sharing in our abundance, empowering one another to reduce ourselves creating barriers to stop the flow of God’s grace and love.

I can imagine this. I have hope. If I can imagine it, remember, then there’s still reason for hope. If I have love of God and neighbor at the front and center, then I can pretty sure that my will is aligned with God’s, and where there’s a will, God help us, there’s a way. Amen? It’s going to seem complicated at all levels, and it’s going to be disruptive. This is how we know we’re praying well, when the plans we make get caught up in the wind of Spirit and land back to us all disrupted and aligned with God’s will. But grounded in the presence of Christ, nothing feels stronger or more right, and we do not lose heart–it’s been given to us with grace and love.

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His Mercy Endures Forever

Numbers 21:4-9 | Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | John 3:14-21

Our Fourth Sunday in Lent finds us drawing nearer to the Passion of our Lord, when he will, inevitably, be lifted up on a cross. In our Gospel, Jesus foretells his end and purpose by recalling the familiar-to-the-Jews story of the Israelites in the wilderness who were struck by the snakes but saved by God through belief in God, demonstrated by their belief in the bronze serpent on the staff.

“Moses and the Brazen Serpent on a Pole” by Hoet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This might be confusing to us because we’re fairly certain God prohibited false images of God. Rest assured that the bronze image wasn’t of God but of a snake Moses cast at God’s command. God once again gave an instruction to the people, and those who heeded the words did something in particular–in this case, looked upon the staff–and were healed of their malady. Once again, it’s God’s word that’s at work here. Neither Moses nor the staff are doing the healing; it’s God who is doing the work. The people are given the opportunity to heed God’s word, given the opportunity to believe in God and thus remain in covenant with God. Now, in this case, their life is literally on the line. If they don’t look upon the staff, they’re going to die from their bites. One might say they’re not really given any option, but their decision carries a lot of weight, making it a powerful story of survival. When the Jews are recounting the journey through the wilderness, when Paul recounts it to his audience, the failure of the people at this point in the story remains one of those vivid moments when they failed in their obeisance to God. “There’s no food or water,” they complain, “along with “We detest this miserable food.” Ah, so there is food; you just don’t like it. (There’s a distinct shortage of short-order chef gods in the desert, apparently.) What did they expect? They’ve been delivered from slavery, released from their bondage under pharoah, and now they’re discovering deeper levels of their bondage, the many ways they can displease God. But all is not lost because they are given a way to be healed, to be saved from death.

Even when people anger God, as our psalmist proclaims, “His mercy endures forever.” Even when the Israelites have gone astray again, “He sent forth his word and healed them/and saved them from the grave.” Do we realize the profundity of the fact that God’s “mercy endures forever”? Mercy, dear folks, isn’t forgiving with a blind eye or foolish love. Mercy is seeing what the trespass is, naming it, seeing the suffering that both led to the trespass and resulted from it, and still recognizing the person as a beloved child of God, worthy of grace and redemption. We humans aren’t always good at it, but God’s mercy endures forever.

I say we humans are bad at it because there’s a small group of us who have been reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy during Lent. I’ve mentioned before that my faith in Christ is way up there, but my faith in humanity struggles to stay on the chart: this book reminds me why my view of humanity gets low. The discriminatory and sometimes outright illegal way certain folks get channeled into the prison system appalls me: pray for those who have various shades of brown skin and those who are poor. That we confine people behind walls and bars because we don’t know how to deal with them and then continue to punish them because they don’t understand or physically can’t follow the “rules” appalls me: pray for those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health illnesses. That we say we value the sanctity of life yet tear families apart, inadequately provide physical and mental healthcare, and execute people . . . that appalls me: pray for the human family.

That God knew the Word made flesh would walk among us and ultimately be crucified by us and for us . . . that amazes me. “His mercy endures forever.”

The Son of Man must “be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

God didn’t have to send serpents when Jesus walked the earth. We were already destroying ourselves. We needed a beacon of light bright enough to shed light upon the error of our ways and save us from our self-destruction, evil’s favorite way to work. Either set us up for self-destruction or set us up to think we’ve got it all under control and don’t need God: either way works to get us off track and turned away from God and on the path of sin. Forget about love of God, of neighbor, and true love of self. Let’s just focus on what we want to do and what works best for me, gives me power, makes me feel good. This kind of thinking led to Jesus getting mad enough to overturn the tables in the temple. This way of life affirmed to Jesus that his life would have to be lifted up on a cross to save us from our way of sin, our disobedience to God. The way of sin leads to death, and Jesus brought to us the way of life.

We know that Jesus triumphs over death and makes sure the way of reconciliation and redemption is open to all who believe in him. (Thank God!) In our tradition we have the cross alone and not the crucifix because we focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: Jesus doesn’t stay on the cross forever. But we can’t ignore that part of the Paschal mystery. That Jesus died by crucifixion is part of our story. Without the Love and all its mercy and grace embodied in the death of Christ, we on our own would be swallowed in darkness. Left on our own, we’re not all that different from the Israelites in the wilderness, being attacked by all manner of toxicity, certain to die.

Last week, the collect said we have no power within ourselves to save ourselves. This week, it’s the belief in Jesus Christ that saves us, that feed us to give us life–his life in us and ours in him. I don’t know if you sense the urgency of the imperative we have to get out of our “me-first” thinking. Fifteen years ago it seemed almost new-agey, speaking of the ego and the True Self, and then even in terms of Christian spirituality it seems kind of mystical or elitist to think of being one with God or to embody the Christ-mind. But here’s where I’m at with this . . . and it’s not even monetary greed that I’m thinking of today, though it’s still at the back of my mind. I read an article in The New York Times (“Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football”). Please note that this contains material that is both violent and heart-wrenching.

In the article, it describes an idyllic town of about 12,000 on the National Historic Register with a lovely Main Street. Tourists come and go. But this journalist was approached by a waitress who heard him giving an interview.

She checked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. There was an urgency in her whisper as she said: “I lost my son last month. He hung himself from a tree in our yard and shot himself in the head. I cut him down myself, with my own hands. So many suicides.” She wiped away tears. “We need your help,” she said.

The shadow that’s coming to light is that this pretty little town is drowning in suicide, depression, drug abuse and addiction (remember, the opioid crisis has been declared a national emergency), and child neglect. Of course, all these are inter-related. Of course, no one really wants these things to come into full light. It might hurt tourism and businesses. And really, everything seems like it should be fine on the surface because people are working and employed (if they’re not in rehab or prison). They live in a nice place and have work. Kids are in school . . . but they’re killing themselves.

The article highlights that the football team, that hasn’t garnered a trophy in over 20 years, is an oasis for the players. The football team gives them a family when most of the time the parents are working one or two jobs (if they’re not in rehab or prison). It gives them something to focus on when they’re struggling with the grief of losing a sibling or friend to drugs or death. The coach of the team says it’s not the wins he’s focused on as much as it is staying a role model and a contact for the kids. The coach’s brother had been a heroin addict.

This is a sad, sad article. It’s a sad article because it portrays what is in Madison, Indiana. It’s sad because it reveals the suffering of our neighbors. It’s sad to me, mostly, because it ends without resolution. A light is shone on a crime scene, and all the death, evil, despair is in full view.

This is a sad article because I feel like it could have been written here. If we’re honest. With serpents of stress and anxiety nipping at everyone’s heels to perform their best, look their best, do their best “or else” be cast aside . . . or maybe there’s not even a chance of living up to expectations or getting out of the cycle of pain, so why not use whatever it is that numbs the pain this time and a little more next time . . . and if I’ve given up on myself, I can’t stand to think about the kids, so I’ll neglect them, too, and there’s not even a shred of evidence of God in my life, so why should I bother?

If you wake up with an inkling of purpose or joy or hope in your life, blessed one, give thanks and stay strong. And if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you better give God a wink of thanks and get to work not only shining the light in the darkness but sharing that which sustains you. Share the bread that feeds you. You come to this altar and are fed with the Bread of Life. You believe you have received grace upon grace, that God’s mercy endures forever, that the Holy Spirit has given you the power to share the love of God in this time and place. Some part of you believes that, or you wouldn’t be here. And a friend of mine said recently that we should be exhausted and panting as we race back to church on Sunday because we are so depleted from sharing Jesus with others that we can’t wait to be refilled and renewed, receiving more of the Word of God and the Bread of Life so that we can go back out and share some more. “If we’re not, then what are we doing?” she asked, almost sadly.

The critical point is this: the whole “me-first” thinking isn’t working for us; it didn’t for the Israelites, and it isn’t working for us now. As Christian monotheists, we put God first, and we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. As people who walk a way of Life, Light, and Love, we have the power to share that with others, not to abuse them with it but to shine the Light their way and see if and how Christ might work in the midst of those gathered in that moment. Look in your pew. Anyone missing? Maybe reach out to them, or let me know to reach out to them. Have you talked to your neighbor lately? Have you voted? Have you called your relative out of state? Are you praying for the nation and the world? You have Jesus in your life. We know the pain and suffering he endured for us, and it was no match for his mercy . . .

 . . . for his mercy endures forever.

 

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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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A Sensory God

A poem for a sense of God while in discernment.

Inspiration thanks to a prompt given at Arkansas’ Episcopal Church Women’s Summer Quest with special gratitude for St. Luke’s, Hot Springs.

God tastes like a vitamin

Bitter and nasty

if left too long on the tongue

or in the mouth.

Heaven forbid it get

stuck

in the throat.

Best to swallow quickly and whole.

God smells like a spring rain

refreshing and sweet

with the scent of death

not far away or

under feet.

God feels like a 2×4

directly slammed to the head

or heart

but also like

grandma’s arms and chest

wrapped around in full

embrace

          and

                 comfort. . .

assurance that all is well.

God looks like the twinkle

of the eyes

above a smile,

through the tears,

from the heart,

bubbling up from the soul,

unbidden yet persistent.

God sounds like “YES”

when “no” is easier,

like “Here I am”

when nothing’s left to give,

like “I’ll go”

when no clear path appears.

God is Love

when Fear is all around.

To whom would you

         rather go?

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A Pause

A typo almost dictated the title to be “A Oa..”, which made me think of “an oasis.” What is a true pause but an oasis in our day? At least, this pause is for me. This pause is at the end of a comfortably full day, when I got home before dinner was already late, while the sun is still out, and the house still quiet since the fam isn’t yet back from after-school activities. Moms and dads of all sorts know this kind of pause, a sort of calm before the storm.

And in this pause I choose to write because it’s been a while since I’ve journaled or blogged or written anything other than sermons. While sermons are a treasured part of my ministry, there’s so much unsaid in a sermon, even as I hope to have said enough, trusting Spirit to fill in the gaps.

Pausing for a moment to write grants me the opportunity to see, to open my eyes and gaze with wonder what’s going on around me, let alone what’s going on within me. Pausing for a moment to write helps me realize where my prayers manifest, especially the prayers left unsaid.

This Lent has been a time of prayer: long and intentional, short and rushed, whispered, sung, listened to, promised, and hoped for. My breath prayer this Lent has been

Let me abide in you, O God.

One night driving home it took on the tune to the Taize hymn “Bless the Lord my soul,” and it has stayed with me since then–not that I’m ready to let it go.

If Lent is about realizing our dependency upon God and increasing our awareness of God’s presence, I believe this Lent I learned more about the opposite. I find myself returning to my breath prayer as an escape from all the constraints I put on myself, mostly, and all the anxieties I hold onto when I know full well it’s out of my control. I have seen how much more I depend upon my timing and my management (even though I know how horribly that works out most times!) and see just how messed up things are in the world through our microcosm of a community, rather than trusting in God’s perfect timing and dream for us all.

Preparing for Holy Week, this insight is rather perfect, for once we know something, it’s hard to ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist. (I’ll try to be sincere in my gratitude for this knowledge as I keep thinking, “Those to whom much is given, much is required.”) What has God revealed to me in the desert that I can take into the Easter season? What have I learn that, gilded with Resurrection, illuminates not only my ministry but even more importantly, God’s presence in the world?

I think I need more pauses to decipher the answers to those questions, but I know that Easter has much to say about God’s timing and God’s dream for us. In this pause, I can almost feel it in the anticipatory silence surrounding me.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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Said and Unsaid

A seminary education covers a broad spectrum of everything pertaining to the religious life, much of which is unquantifiable.  How does one measure love? wisdom? mercy? grace? good? evil?

We can talk about God, but how does one experience God?  How do we experience God when evil happens in our life or the lives of others?

There is much written and taught about prayer.  There are steps to follow and different styles to try, but the actual doing is up to the individual.  Each experience is unique, and no one knows how God will be revealed in any given moment.

But God was there.  God is here.  God will be forevermore.

That’s hard to teach.  It’s hard to learn.  That’s faith, right?

Sometimes there are no words, and the silence speaks volumes.  

These are the thoughts I had when I saw these photos, a tribute to Boston by Amanda Soule on the day of the bombings.

 

 

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Day 21 . . .

Right.  I know.  There are not enough posts between my last and current to count to 21, but I do have several prayers penned in my moleskine.  When I get more than 10 minutes, I’ll enter them on my blog.  For now, tonight was too momentous not to mention right away.  So let this count for Day 21.

Dear God,

Keep teaching me.  Keep infusing me with your Spirit.  Keep surrounding me with those who share wisdom, just enough so that they don’t even know they’re doing it.  This life is amazing, and I give my humblest thanks.

I am trying to walk the path to best serve your will.  I am trying, discerning, and I know I could not do it alone.  My path has converged with so many wonderful people; I have been blessed with a tremendous family and unimaginably compassionate friends.  Of course, each of us has a flaw or two, and from them we learn the most about ourselves.  I can’t imagine it any other way.

As I’m continuing along, help me to be mindful.  Help me not waste a dozen or more waffles because I forgot about them keeping warm in the oven.  I have enough, but there are so many without.  Help me be present to recognize the needs of others and to pay attention to what is at the heart of the matter.  Help me to hear the truth in my own heart.

And always, dear God, help me be grateful – for your love, for the gifts you’ve given me, for my friends, and for the gifts of others.  Help me remember how sweet these tender moments are with the children and how wonderfully supportive my husband is.  May they know my love for them is unconditional and greater than I will ever show.  Help me at least try to embody unconditional love.  I think I’d like to try.

Grant me the strength to do the work set before me, and may all the glory be yours.

Amen.

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Day 12

God bless Brenda Ueland; may her soul rest in peace.  Her words from decades ago resonate loudly to me, reminding me why I do what I do, putting in print the cries of my soul.  Sit a while, Sara.  Dream.  Write.  Gaze into the distance and feel.  That’s what my soul says, and I think Brenda would nod approvingly, maybe even give a sly little wink.

Every blessed moment when plans change or tragedy strikes or life seems all off-kilter, we still have a choice.  Thank you for providing us with this choice.  Sometimes I do just want to be a hedonistic sloth or wallow in self-pity.  Thankfully, I don’t prefer this for long.  What it does provide me with is a broader perspective and a greater appreciation for when those other holy, enlightened moments of peace and contentment come.  These aren’t the same as the moment of ecstatic joy (though those are lovely, too).  Moments of peace are like when you realize you’re floating on the water and relax into the flow.  Life is good.  All is well, and I feel it in the core of my being.

I’m convinced this peace does dwell within and through us all.  Our awareness of it is what changes, blinding us with ignorance of its presence.  Help us to know and to feel.  Help us to show this peace to others . . . and to see it in them, too.  Awaken us to the Peace that surpasses all understanding.

Thank you for the rain.  Thanks for protecting my children and animals (yes, even the chickens).

Continually guide us all onto the path that lives into the greatest compassion for everyone, however great or small that may be.  Hear us, O God, in our time of need.

Thanks and glory to You, now and forever.  Amen.

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