Friday, February 27, 2009
She who blames others for her problems hasn't begun her education. She who blames herself for her problems has begun her education. She who blames no one for her problems has finished her education.
This is startling to me. I think the therapeutic model has so inhabited me I have assumed the way to health was to chart as complete a map as possible of the effects different people have had on me... my mother and father, my brother, my friends, my ex-husband... and to lay my neuroses at their feet. This book has been on my shelf a long time, quietly biding its time, waiting for me to get serious about the work of reconciliation. Now a confluence of events... the unfolding of my own life and that of my congregation... leads me to believe this might be the book for me this lent.
Though I believe the author is coming from a Roman Catholic background (simpatico with the way in which I was raised) I detect already just a hint of Buddhist detachment coming through. I'll try to share my reflections here as Lent progresses.
Ash Wednesday was lovely. Beyond lovely. We sang music of Taize, and when I preached the meditation I've posted here, at the point at which I described the prayer practice, I invited people to try it if they liked. As soon as I said "Close your eyes," there was a startling, palpable change in the room. The atmosphere shifted. Prayer happened. A holy moment.
Have I mentioned how very, very much I love my work?
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
With heartfelt thanks to Sophia for her recommendation of the Upper Room website for a lovely, concise introduction to the Examen.
When my children were younger we had a particular family tradition that marked the beginning of the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday after dinner we would each write something down on a piece of paper. It might be some aspect of our character we hoped to improve during Lent, or perhaps some small pleasure we planned to give up, or even a spiritual discipline we intended to take on. After writing these down, we put our pieces of paper in a metal bowl, struck a match, and watched the flames rise high and the paper burn. After our words had become ash, and after the ashes had cooled, we marked one another’s foreheads with the ashes, while reciting appropriate words. One year, when Petra was about three years old, we said, “Repent and believe the gospel.” First, Larry marked my forehead with ashes, saying “Repent and believe the gospel.” And so we went around the table, each of us saying the same thing as we marked one another with the ashes. Finally it was Petra’s turn. She put the ashes on her thumb, walked over to her father’s chair, solemnly made a cross of ashes on his forehead, and said, “To the hospital.”
Of course, Petra got it pretty much exactly right. During the season of Lent, we do indeed surrender ourselves to a kind of cure for our souls, if not for our bodies. In these forty days preceding Easter (forty days, not including the Sundays), we recognize that, indeed, we are not well. We are sick. We need help. We need care greater than that we can give ourselves. We need the Great Physician. We need, as the prophet begs us, to turn back to God, with all our hearts. We need, at least in a spiritual sense, to get ourselves to the hospital.
This notion doesn’t necessarily sit well with us. After all, we’re all good people, aren’t we? We strive to live decent and honorable lives… I mean, here we are in church, for heaven’s sake. On a Wednesday. At dinner time! That in itself speaks loudly and clearly of our faith and values. Here’s the problem with that perspective, reasonable as it seems. The moment we begin to suspect we’re really pretty good folks is the moment we are in real danger of slipping away from God entirely. One pastor wrote recently that the greatest threat to Christianity is not evil, but good. “The elders, chief priests, and scribes were all very good people,” he writes, “and very good people often have no need for Jesus.” (1) When we are convinced we are good, there begins to grow in some dark, unexplored corner of our hearts the conviction that we don’t really need God so much after all.
And so, we are confronted with the regular, seasonal reminder to turn back to God. Necessary even for us “good folk”… maybe more for us than for anyone. For at least a thousand years, the church has recommended a three-pronged program of attack to aid us in turning back to God: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.
Let’s start with giving. If there’s one thing that should strike us about the reading from the prophet Joel, perhaps it’s this: the project of turning back to God is never a solo flight. One of the great protestant reformers remarked that “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” The call of God in scripture is almost always corporate: we are called as a community. And so one of the ways in which we are invited to observe Lent is by charitable giving. By giving to those in need we remind ourselves of our connection to them, of our common calling with them as the beloved children of God. St. Sociable has a strong and wonderful tradition of participating in the One Great Hour of Sharing. This is an annual offering through which our gifts help people to find safe refuge, to start new lives, and to work together to strengthen their families and communities. This year the Presbyterian Church (USA) is challenging its congregations to double their giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing, an extreme response in a time of extreme need. This is the first Lenten discipline: giving.
The second Lenten discipline is fasting. Fasting, in its simplest form, is the giving up of something… traditionally, some kind of food, but not necessarily. We can fast from TV or tabloids or even the internet. We can choose to give up meat, or alcohol, or soft drinks. The hardest fast I ever did was giving up wearing jewelry for Lent. The purpose of fasting is to allow God to fill the void we have created in giving something up. If we experience the emptiness of an hour without the distraction of the internet, or chocolate, for example, it affords us an opportunity to instead invite God into that hour, to, perhaps, open our bible and read in that hour. If we tear our hearts away from our favorite time-wasters, we have a slightly better chance of turning them back over to God.
And finally, prayer. During the season of Lent we are invited to spend increased time in prayer, deepening our connection with God. Prayer is both the easiest and the hardest thing we are asked to do in this season. Easy because, there’s no expense, there’s no fancy equipment, and there’s no self-denial involved. Hard because in prayer, in the pursuit of drawing nearer to God, we come face to face with someone we might not be so interested in meeting: ourselves. And so… it is prayer that will be the focus of our Lenten series this year. Each week we will focus on a particular kind of prayer, just as each week we will focus on a particular kind of music. Tonight, in view of Ash Wednesday and the call of the prophet to turn back to God, I thought it might be good to spend a bit of time on prayer of confession, what I’ve called “praying our truth.”
When I was a child, I spoke like a child and thought like a child. I was the product of a tradition that encouraged face-to-face confession with a religious professional. So, I learned to make lists of sins. “Bless me father,” I would say, “It has been two weeks since my last confession. In that time I have: lied twice, hit my brother once, stolen cookies three times when my mom told me I couldn’t have any, and talked back to my mom once.” I carried this idea of confession into my twenties… lists of sins.
That’s not to say lists of sins might not be useful in some way. It’s always good to know what our weak spots are, so that we can try to avoid what has been called “the near occasion of sin.” But ultimately we are called to a deeper kind of self-examination. I think, too, we are called to a gentler kind of self-examination. I’d like to share one method with you. It’s called the “Examen,” and it comes to us via the tradition in which I was raised. But its use has been adapted by Christians of all varieties and flavors, and I think you’ll see why.
We are encouraged to do the examen on a regular basis. Many people do it at night, the last thing before they go to sleep. The idea is to examine a set period of time… one day works well.
Begin by reminding yourself that you are in the presence of God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. You are in the presence of God, who calls you “Beloved.” If you like candles, light a candle. Take some slow, deep breaths, and close your eyes.
Know that God’s Holy Spirit is all around you. When you breathe in, breathe in the Spirit. When you breathe out, let the love of the Spirit fill the room.
The first part of the examen is this: Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment of the day for which you are most grateful.
~ If you could relive one moment, which one would it be?
~ When were you most able to give and receive love today?
~ Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so good.
Now breathe in the gratitude you felt and receive life again from that moment
The second part of the examen is this: Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are least grateful.
~ When were you least able to give and receive love?
~ Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult.
~ Relive the feelings without trying to change or fix it in any way.
Now take deep breaths and let God's love fill you just as you are.
The third part of the examen is this: Give thanks. Give thanks for God’s presence in your life. Give thanks for those moments for which you are most grateful, and even for those moments for which you are least grateful, because God is able to use those moments to help you to grow in faith, hope and love.
That’s it. It shouldn’t take any longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Most grateful. Least grateful. Thank God. And in that time you will have shared intimately with God the truth of your day, of this tiny slice of your life. And God will have refreshed you and given you a taste of the tender mercies that are available to each of us.
To the hospital. Each Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our need for God, even if we are basically pretty good people. Each Lent we are reminded of God’s boundless mercy and steadfast love as the context for praying our truth, even when that truth is hard. Each moment of our lives we have the opportunity to turn, and to turn again, back to God with all our hearts. Amen.
(1) Brian Stoffregen, “Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen,” at CrossMarks Christian Resources, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark8x31.htm
I started my day early today in honor of the season... up earlier than Petra (which really confused and alarmed her... she wondered if her clock was an hour off) for prayer and scripture (not quite enough time for meditation; Petra was soon downstairs making her breakfast).
I love Lent nearly as much as I love Advent. I love the regular return of these seasons that ask us to pause and try to live into our faith in a slightly different way.
Last night as I was working on my meditation for this evening's Ash Wednesday service, I read through some of my previous offerings for the day. All in all, I like the fact that I managed to work both Jonah and Lynette Scavo into this particular Ash Wednesday sermon....
This evening our church begins a Lenten series with a double focus: worship each week with a different flavor of music, and a series of meditations on prayer. My goal is to actually provide a kind of take-home bulletin insert on various methods of prayer each week. I'm kind of psyched about it. The music is also exciting: tonight we will use music of Jacques Berthier (Taize) almost exclusively. Yeah.
I do have a concern though. Every time I read an older sermon I get the feeling they're so much more fun and interesting than the ones I write now. I mean, Lynette Scavo! For heaven's sake.
Why could that be do you suppose?
Monday, February 23, 2009
Sunday, February 22, 2009
“When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…” Any story that begins with a sentence like that… you know you’re in for quite a tale. The first half of the first sentence, and we know we’re out of the realm of normal people, and into the realm of heroes and mythic warriors, prophets and kings. In fact, the story has a “gather around the campfire” quality, doesn’t it? It should begin “Listen, my children…” Only a few words into it, and we know we’re in for a tale of greatness, one that will include waters parting, mantles being passed, and yes, even fiery chariots. We know that we’re in for a story about God’s extraordinary people.
The lectionary provides us very little time to get to know the prophet Elijah this year—in fact, this is pretty much it: his days as a prophet finished and his spectacular send-off narrated. And there’s much to get to know about Elijah. How, for instance, he faced off with kings and queens, including the notorious Jezebel. How, by acts of derring-do and miraculous demonstrations, he put legions of the prophets of Baal in their place (before he put them in the ground that is, apparently dispatching them with his own hands). Like all the prophets of the books of Samuel and Kings, Elijah’s actions played out on the national and international stages of the ancient near east.
And yet, there are elements of this passage that take us in a different direction, that place the story back on a decidedly human scale. They provide us an intimate glimpse into the relationship between the great and fading prophet and his protégé, Elisha. Details such as this one: “The company of prophets… came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know. Keep silent.’” Elisha’s terse response betrays the emotion of a parting that is too painful, just yet, to speak aloud. Elisha is grief-struck. There is a human core to the flashy, miraculous tale of Elijah’s ascension in a whirlwind.
It is, after all, the story of a journey. Two men, on a journey together, and the journey will end, for all purposes, with one of them dying. Men who have challenged and will challenge kings, yes. Men who have called down the power and wrath of God in stunning and even violent displays of power, yes. All too true. But men who are, in the end, friends, fellow servants of God, mentor and follower, trying to figure out how to get through a parting and a transition of power. Dress it in fiery chariots and horses if you like, but in the end Elijah will be gone and Elisha will need to carry on alone.
The complex relationship depicted here is captured, perhaps, in the struggle between the men, repeated three times throughout the story: Elijah, like a dying elephant planning to escape to a quiet and solitary death in the jungle, keeps trying to leave Elisha behind: “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Bethel [or to Jericho, or to the Jordan].” Of course, really, what he’s trying to say is, “The Lord has sent me where you cannot follow.” And Elisha, who seems stuck in the denial phase of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, keeps making the same response: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Clearly, somebody is going to have to leave somebody. But it is up to the timing of God, because Elijah and Elisha just can’t seem to work it out.
In the end, it is a very human story. And if we look more closely at the work of both Elijah and Elisha, we will see that they are very human stories, too. In between displays of the wrath of God at the wickedness of certain rulers and prophets, Elijah and Elisha find themselves dependent upon the kindness of strangers. There are the impoverished and despairing widows for whom they provide never-ending supplies of oil and flour. There are the children of these same widows whom they raise from the dead. There is even a story of a few loaves stretched to feed more than a hundred people. These are miracles and healings that sound a lot like stories from the pages of the gospels, because these miracles and healings are not about bringing queens and kings and prophets to heel. Rather, they are about alleviating the suffering of the poor and distraught. These too are the stories of God’s extraordinary people.
The lectionary pairs this passage from 2 Kings with the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, that moment when he and his disciples are on the mountain and suddenly the glory of God shines through him. And so that’s where I think this passage is pointing us this morning: glimpses of the glory of God shining through God’s extraordinary people.
Elijah and Elisha are both figures whose careers are full of the showy stuff of miracles… something we don’t necessarily see (or notice) on a regular basis in our daily lives. And surely, fiery chariots and partings of the water… surely these fall under the category of showy stuff. But is that the only place we see it… the glory of God shining through? Does the presence of God shine through only outside the realm of normal people, and inside the realm of heroes and mythic warriors, queens and prophets? Is it only the big, showy stuff? Or could it be that it is also the human core of this story in which we see the glory of God shining through?
Stay here, for the Lord has sent me where you cannot follow. I wonder whether the glory of God shines through Elijah as he plans to shield Elisha from whatever God has in store this day. There is something that is not much acknowledged in the stories of Elijah. He is, in some ways, a bit of a failure as a prophet. When God takes him up in the whirlwind, the evil Jezebel still sits upon the throne of Israel, despite his prophesies of her death. God has decommissioned Elijah, instructed him to name Elisha his successor, and Elijah may well fear whatever it is God has in store for him. Stay here, Elijah pleads with Elisha not once, but three times, for the Lord has sent me where you cannot follow. Is Elijah trying to protect Elisha? Is that just a hint of the glory of God shining through him?
As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you. This is the response of Elisha to his mentor’s attempts to get him to scram. Wherever you go, I will go. This is the response of one who knows that whatever may come, it will be hard. I will not forsake you. This is the response of the One who, even in our darkest hours, remains with us, abiding as fast falls the eventide. Is it possible that the glory of God shines through these simple, stubborn words of commitment and presence? Is it possible that one of the most godly things we can do is to stay with one another, when every rational argument points us in the direction of leaving, suggests the path of self-preservation?
And no… Let me be clear. I’m not talking about abusive relationships, in which the danger is inherent the relationship itself. I’m not advocating that anyone stay with an abuser. I’m talking about the hard work of accompanying one another through life’s trials. I’m talking about the loving spouse or partner, who maintains vigil in the scary days before and after surgery, or in the hard weeks and months at the end of life. I’m talking about the friend who is willing to listen to the hard story of the breakup of the marriage as it needs to be told and re-told. I’m talking about the child who cares for his parent, and the parent who cares for her child, even when that care demands just a little more of us than we think we are capable of giving. I’m talking about the ways in which we walk with one another when we don’t know what’s coming, but we know it might be scary. Is it possible that it is here we see the very glory of God shining through our human relationships?
Scripture is, after all, the story of our journeys, with God and with one another. Even when we are not a part of the big and flashy stuff, when our lives do not play out on the national or international stage, I am convinced that we can and will find our lives reflected here, even in the stories of spectacular, miracle-performing Old Testament prophets. After Elijah achieves lift-off, after God takes him for one last, fiery, crazy ride, we hear his successor—because the mantle has been passed—we hear Elisha crying out in what sounds like a mixture of awe and despair. “Father, father!” he cries. And when Elijah disappears from his sight, he takes his garments in his hands and tears them… a sign of deep mourning for a beloved family member.
In the end Elijah is gone and Elisha needs to carry on alone. And so he picks up Elijah’s mantle, taps the Jordan with it, and asks a question. “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asks. The water answers him. He watches as the river parts, and walks across. Elisha is able to perform this sign, it seems to me, because, as it turns out, he does not have to carry on alone: the God of Elijah is with him. The glory of God shines through him; he is one of God’s extraordinary people. And the glory of God will shine through him a few chapters later, when he is caring for a starving widow and her family, who are going through some hard days. And the glory of God shines through us, when we bring some extra cans of soup and boxes of oatmeal for the CHOW basket, because we know these are hard days. The glory of God shines through Elisha when he warms the body of a dead boy and brings him back to life. And the glory of God shines through us when we warm the body of a struggling person with a donated coat. The glory of God shines through Elisha when he heals Naaman the leper. And the glory of God shines through us when we offer a healing word to someone who is discouraged. Elijah and Elisha, you and me: we are all God’s extraordinary people. We all have the capacity to let the glory of God shine through us, in every act of kindness, every act of healing, every act of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Where we live, it's February School Vacation Week!
Yes, that's an odd thing, a vacation extending President's Day. But it's part of our lives here. Some people go South or go skiing, but we always stay home and find more humble amusements.
In that spirit, I offer this Taking a Break Friday Five. Tell us how you would spend:
1. a 15 minute break:
I cannot tell a lie (it is, after all, President's Day Week). I take my 15 minute break doing this. Being online. Blogging and reading blogs. Surfing, as it were, the net. Pretty boring and not in the least healthy. But it's the truth.
The other thing I do: call my dear ones. Little Mary, are you there? And Brigid? You're the ones.
2. an afternoon off
I would try not to do exactly what I do above. How about some movement? A walk? I was heading back to church from a nursing home visit yesterday afternoon and I noticed for the first time (in a year and a half!) that the street of the nursing home leads to a trail right by the river. I saw the water at the end of the street (which in the summer is probably obscured by foliage), and my heart bounced just a little bit. I wanted to be there. Duly noted.
Today, of course, I'm spending the afternoon with my girl. See my previous post.
3. an unexpected free day
Oh... movies? Find a friend and have lunch? That's a big favorite. Resist the temptation to work on my sermon? Must get better at that. Must start trusting that all will be well. (I heard that somewhere)
4. a week's vacation
Two different options: one, take Larry and Petra to visit my dad. It's always a bit challenging to try to see him, living 250 miles away as we do, and working weekends as I do. So... usually a week of our summer vacation time is spent with him. This has the distinct advantage of incorporating time at the ocean, which is necessary to my soul.
Two, a week at the ocean with friend(s). Or, a week divided between ocean and fabulous city.
OK, three, for very special occasions when I'm feeling flush (hasn't happened in the last 5 years). A trip to Europe. There. I've said it.
5. a sabbatical
Some seminary friends and I are batting around the idea of a trip to Israel and Palestine in 2011. I've never been, neither have they... maybe we could get a seminary prof to go with us. You know? Probably not a true sabbatical... just our two weeks of study leave. But we are thinking.
I am NOT working on my sermon. The other 3/4 of that puppy will have to wait until tomorrow.
I am NOT planning a funeral or writing a funeral meditation. All is quiet on the western (read: nursing home) front.
I am NOT running to the hospital. The lovely-woman-just-my-age is doing just fine, thanks. And thank Godde.
I am NOT doing last-minute bulletin stuff-- done.
I am NOT working on March newsletter items. Done, done and done.
Reading the New York Times, especially interesting cultural phenomena such as this. (Can't wait to hear Petra's commentary on that one... she was sort of weaned on "Rent." Explains a lot.)
Chatting up our Presbytery Vice-Chief-Cook-And-Bottle-Washer, who's here for a meeting (I'm Chief-Cook-And-Bottle-Washer this year. Yet another example of my susceptibility to flattery in all its forms.).
Eating a Berryola: Yogurt, raspberries and granola.... mmmm.
Contemplating my next move: swinging by home to pick up Petra in order to go guitar shopping. Yay, and yay! She's on school vacay this week, and we've hardly seen each other! Except for our late-night Lost and House and DespHou marathons.
Aside: Anyone else out there watch Lost? We are late to it, as is our custom with all things TV. Except for Ugly Betty and the Gilmore Girls, which we managed to glom onto from the first episodes, we are typically 3 to 10 years late for TV phenomena. Larry-O recently started posting SpaceHook status updates, saying things like, "Larry-O is LOST," and "Larry-O is OMFG!" (Don't know what that last one means. Could someone explain please? I'm batting my eyes.) We are nearing the end of season one, and OMG!!!!
Saying hello to you lovely people! Hello! I'm alive!
Ah. At last.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Sunday, February 15, 2009
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, "Unclean, unclean." he shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. Leviticus 13:45-46
We can’t exaggerate how bad it was. Exaggeration is not an option. It was that bad.
And there are some things we need to get clear about what ritual uncleanness means. It means, you cannot participate in the rituals of the community. It means, you cannot go into the Temple to worship or to ask the priests to offer sacrifices on your behalf. It means, you can neither participate in joyful festivals nor hope to have yourself cleansed of sinful behavior. If you are a leper, then you have no way to participate in the covenant community of God’s people. If you are a leper, your outcast state extends beyond people. You are cast out even from the presence of God.
And there are some things we should get clear about what’s going on in the gospel story at this point. It is still early in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is newly baptized and tested in the desert, his disciples are newly called, his message of Good News is newly preached, and the healings have just begun. A few people here and there have been healed, leading to crowds of people following Jesus, seeking him out and clamoring for their own cures.
And there are some things we should get clear about just what it is that Jesus is doing. There is a tension in the story so far between words and deeds. Over and over we hear of Jesus’ teaching, his authority. We hear from his own mouth, “Repent and believe the Good News.” And, “I’m going out to preach. That’s what I came to do.” When Jesus speaks, he emphasizes the importance of his words. But then there are the miracles. Casting out demons. Curing fevers and diseases, by the hundreds. For Jesus, word and deed are inextricably woven together… the words convince people of his authority, the deeds seal the deal. It’s both-and.
Now… what about this story? What about this leper? A leper comes to Jesus and again, both words and deeds are significant. The leper comes begging. The leper comes on his knees. His body language, his deeds, speak volumes. He is coming before the one he knows bears some kind of amazing power or gift for healing. When he speaks, his words confirm what he knows. He says, simply: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Now, hold on just a minute… I wish I could do one of those sound effects like a needle screeching off a record. Didn’t we just read in Leviticus that the proper words for a leper to say were, “Unclean, unclean”? This leper has broken the law. This leper has ignored the commandments of Holy Scripture. This leper has sensed somewhere in him that Jesus might be someone with whom he can get away with this behavior.
“If you choose, you can make me clean.” Well, of course, we know what Jesus will choose. Of course, Jesus will choose to make the man clean. Doesn’t God always answer our prayers for healing in the affirmative?
Here’s where this story, a vignette from Jesus’ life almost 2000 years old, comes screeching into the reality of our lives, our suffering, our need for healing. Here’s the hard truth: sometimes we experience healing, and we give God the glory. And sometimes we don’t experience healing, and we wonder why that is. And we don’t exactly blame God… well, maybe we do. Job did. It is a fairly natural jump to make, that if I am suffering, it may be because God wants me to suffer. I know I’ve made that leap myself. If Jesus has the amazing power and gift for healing, why don’t we all benefit from it? Is God selective about who will be healed? Is healing a kind of litmus test of our goodness? Or is it we who are selective about how we understand the work of God in the world? How should we pray? What should we pray for?
There are some things we should get clear. I believe it is the consistent witness of scripture that God wills good things for all of us. Life, and life abundant. Health. Wholeness. But, of course, since not all of us have that experience, since our pews and our homes and our neighborhoods are filled with folks who are suffering… whether from a physical ailment, or from an emotional one, whether from the devastating effects of the current economic crisis, or from the equally devastating effects of our own poor choices. God wills what is good for us. But what is good for us can be elusive.
This week I came across this list of paradoxes about suffering. Listen, and see if they make sense to you.
Suffering is NOT God's desire for us, nor a gift from God. The paradox is that suffering occurs in the process of this thing we call life.
Suffering is NOT given in order to teach us something. The paradox is that we can learn from suffering, and grow.
Suffering is NOT given to punish us. The paradox is that suffering sometimes comes as the result of poor choices we make.
Suffering is NOT given to teach others something. The paradox is that through suffering we can learn about faith, character, endurance, hope as well as weakness, struggle, humility.
Suffering does NOT occur because one's faith is weak. The paradox is that our faith may be strengthened by the journey through suffering.
God does NOT DEPEND on human suffering to achieve divine purposes. The paradox is that, sometimes, God's purposes are fulfilled through suffering.
Suffering is NOT always to be avoided at all costs. The paradox is that people sometimes choose suffering.
Suffering can sometimes destroy us. The paradox is that it can add meaning to our lives. 
Suffering. Not God’s will. But still a part of God’s world. That’s where we have to start, and that’s where we have to end. But what about our story? What about our leper?
“If you choose, you can make me clean.” The words the leper speaks to Jesus are a kind of model prayer. They come from a position of humility… the leper shows as well as tells this, this kneeling, begging leper. And so should all our prayers. We need to come to prayer with the knowledge that, in effect, we have no bargaining chips. There is nothing we can give to God that does not already belong to God. We have nothing with which to persuade God to give us what we want. We come to prayer empty, less than empty, with nothing but our deep longing.
And, even in this position of humility, the leper asks clearly for what he wants. He says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Notice what he’s asking for: it’s easy to miss it. Folded into what he wants is healing from his skin condition, from his leprosy. But the way he expresses it—“If you choose, you can make me clean”—he is asking for restoration to the community, to family, to friends, to the worshipping congregation. By implication, he is asking for healing. But in actuality, he is asking not to be an outcast any longer.
We need to get some things clear about Jesus’ reaction, about what Jesus says and does, and even what Jesus feels. Our translation says, “Moved with pity.” But there is an equally valid reading that says, “Moved with anger.” Jesus is angry. Jesus, when confronted with someone whom the law has made an outcast, who is ostracized from home and family, from work and friendships, from the very presence of God… Jesus is angry. And Jesus’ spoken response is “I do choose.” God chooses, not only healing, but restoration to community. God chooses that there should be no outcasts.
And another thing we need to get clear: another issue of translation of this ancient text. Our version reads, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” Dayenu, our Jewish friends sing each year at Passover, recounting one after another the astounding and mighty acts of God. Dayenu. “It would have been enough,” they sing. That’s how I feel about this moment in the story. It would have been enough if Jesus had touched the man… now Jesus is the law-breaker, ignoring the commands of Leviticus to impart healing to an outcast. It would have been enough. But the Greek word behind “touched,” really means so much more than that. It means “He fastened himself to him.” “He adhered to him.” “He clung to him.” Jesus doesn’t just give this man a little brush with his hand. He embraces him. And, as a wonderful colleague pointed out to me this week, it turns out Jesus’ cleanness, Jesus’ healing is far more contagious than the leper’s disease.
There are some things we need to get clear in our own minds, thing about outcasts and lepers. Who are our outcasts? Who do we not fully welcome into our community? Who do we look at and say, “The laws of Leviticus” (or Romans or the State of New York or the Presbyterian Church) “deny you full humanity, deny you full equality under the law.” Where do we exclude where Jesus includes? Where do we push away those to whom Jesus might well fasten himself, cling to? Who do we need to fully restore to community?
One more thing to get clear: the work of Jesus does not end with his healing. Jesus heals the leper, makes him clean again. But then he commissions the leper to do his part—to go to the priests, to give testimony to the inclusive healing of Jesus. The leper is commissioned to do his part, to give witness not just to his healing but to the astounding reversal that brings the outcasts home again, welcomes them in, restores them to community.
The healing of God does not end with our quietly rejoicing in it. It continues with our testimony, with our witness to the community that, whatever our state, whatever our condition, Jesus is in it with us. Jesus clings to us, embraces us. Jesus wills our healing, even when it is not apparent in the eyes of the world. God wills our welcome, even when, in the laws and statutes, we are outcasts. God calls us home, into community, into relationship, and that call persists through our unwillingness and the community’s unwillingness. God’s call persists, God’s healing embraces, God calls each and every one of us home. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Tony Campolo tells about a church that one day every year celebrates student recognition day. One year, after several students had spoken quite eloquently, the pastor started his sermon in a striking way: "Young people, you may not think you're going to die, but you are. One of these days, they'll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face and go back to the church and eat potato salad." We may not like to acknowledge it, but someday, every one of us will have to face the "potato salad promise", that we will all die. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust....."
I heard this story about a dozen years ago in an Ash Wednesday sermon. Without veering into the unbloggable, In would just like to say that yesterday I had an experience that hammered home this very truth.
Sometimes perspective is a blessing.
Monday, February 09, 2009
From the Office of the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I give you Bruce Reyes-Chow's Lenten epistle.
I was privileged last month to participate in the Congressional Black Caucus inaugural interfaith prayer service as a representative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And while the historic nature of the presidential inauguration was certainly important, I was most struck by the constant remembrance of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence in response to the shackles of oppression.
As I sat there, I could not help but wonder what it is that shackles us today. Where are our acts of civil disobedience called for in the world, our communities, and the church? Yes, things have changed much since the days of the greatest tensions of the civil rights movement, but we as human beings must always be vigilant to those places where we hold each other down, respond to evil with evil, and stay silent when we should speak.
Dr. King talked about the power of non-violence resting in the fact that it does not offer a response in-kind to those who choose violence and intimidation. A non-violent response to violence changes the terms of the relationship. It disarms – maybe not at first, but in the end, the love, power, and spirit of non-violence conquers all.
When it comes to the future of the PC(USA), I think we need to claim and live out words of non-violence. Too many times, I have seen words lofted between people with the sole purpose to cause pain, marginalize, bully, and shackle the other into some rigid characterization not of their making. We use words to hurt or conquer. We use words to flex our muscle, hold onto our power, and, too often, destroy the other.
What if we were to use words of non-violence that do not respond to evil with evil or exacerbate conflict? What if we were to use words – challenging, prophetic, and loving – that are meant to change the ways in which we move through difficult times? What if we were to use words that confuse the status quo of intentional, destructive interactions and, instead, allowed ourselves to be all that God intends – a community of people working to be a model of peace and reconciliation in a world that yearns so desperately to see one?
What have we got to lose?
This will be my prayer and my commitment this Lenten season.
I hope you will join me,
Sunday, February 08, 2009
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons...
~ Mark 1:29-32
A Monologue Sermon of Simon's Son
I’ve always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps, from the time I was a tiny boy. I remember peeking out of my mother’s arms in the early morning, while it was still dark, to see my father and my uncle Andrew, faces shining in the firelight, ropes draped over their shoulders, saying goodbye before heading down to the sea to climb into their boats.
My father was a genius with the nets. In fact it was always a point of contention—even competition—between him and my uncle Andrew. Who could find the perfect spot, the place where, when the nets were cast, almost immediately the men in the boat would begin to feel the rustle and sway that told them, ah. Here it is! The place where the fish are today! Ah. Tonight my wife will smile warmly at me, because the proceeds from this catch will feed our family for a week, maybe even two.
I saw the joy my father took in the catch, the way he would throw back his head and murmur a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord: “How good it is to sing praises to our God; for God is gracious!” I saw the satisfaction he had in a hard day’s labor, that made his muscles ache, yes, but also made them strong. I saw the contentment he found in providing for his family. I saw all these things, and I thought: that is what I will do. I will follow my father down to the sea and into the boats.
It was grandmother who first let us know that something was wrong. We lived with her, my mother’s mother, in her home. And every day, the routine was the same. The men left for the boats, and the women left for the well, and the market. We children busied ourselves with our tasks; the girls might weave, or bake bread, while we boys would set to memorizing our psalms. I was the oldest, so I was in charge. Thanks to me all my brothers know every psalm of our ancestor David by heart. Psalm 147: “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” After the psalms, our other chores—bringing fuel for the fire, repairing the mud roof, even going down to the lakeside to repair and clean the nets. The women, my mother and grandmother, came home first, and began preparations for the main meal of the day, with the girls helping them. And we boys would go to the seaside to await the return of our father and uncle, and their boats.
But on that day… as soon as we saw our grandmother, we knew something was different. The routine did not hold. The four adults left for their various labors, but soon, too soon, my grandmother walked back in the door, and my mother was not with her. My brothers and sisters and I stopped in our tasks, confused and quiet. We knew families whose days had been disrupted and whose lives had been forever turned upside down by an accident… mostly by drowning. Everyone knows about the wild and unpredictable storms that spring up on the Sea of Galilee. I looked at my grandmother’s ashen face and became convinced: my father had drowned. Or my uncle. Or both. There was a heavy silence in the air, and my grandmother collapsed beside the hearth.
“Is my father…?” I began to ask the terrible question. I was the oldest; it was my responsibility to know, to ready to be the man of the house now, if my father was indeed dead. She shook her head and looked at me with tears pooled in her eyes. “No, boy. No. Don’t….” she hesitated, searching for a word…her voice was so strained, I almost didn’t recognize it. “Don’t … alarm yourselves,” she said. “Go on, go on,” and her voice resumed something of its normal tenor. “Do your work.”
So we did, my brothers and sisters and I. But the girls had lost the rhythm of their weaving. The boys were fitful and distracted. Where was our mother? What was wrong?
The hours crept by. It was time for the main meal, and neither our mother nor the men had returned, and our grandmother was alternately standing in the doorway or pacing back and forth, a look of dread on her face. There was no dinner. The girls began to whisper together, wondering if they should start the fire, fetch the water. But no one moved. We were all suspended, waiting.
It was dark when my mother returned. She wore her veil clutched close about her face, and when she took it off, she fell into my grandmother’s arms, and both women shook together, weeping, strangely silent. Minutes passed, and they pulled apart. My grandmother left the room without a word, stumbled to her bed, and turned her face to the wall.
My mother prepared a cold and hasty dinner, the tears still streaming down her face. My sisters helped her silently, as best they could. At last we all sat around the table, where we knew we would, finally, learn what act of fate or of God had turned our family’s life upside down.
My mother had washed her face. She was pale but her voice was calm though her eyes were still red. “Your father will not be coming home tonight,” she said. We waited. No one ate. Finally, I said, “Where is he, mother? Shall I go and find him?”
My mother looked at me and smiled. “No, Samuel. There is no need. I know where he is. He has left his boats and he and your uncle are following a wise man, a preacher.” We all tried to take this in. My father wasn’t coming home… why? Not because a sudden wind had come up on the Sea of Galilee, or because he had been swallowed by a great fish, but because… he had decided to follow some self-proclaimed prophet?
I jumped to my feet. One of the girls giggled, but when she saw the look in my eye, she stopped. “I’m going to get him.” I looked at my next oldest brother. “Benjamin, come with me.”
Then my mother spoke to me with a sharpness I had never before heard in her voice. No… not sharpness. Authority. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I did not need to be the man of the house. “Your father has made a choice. He is a good man, and we will see him again. But you will not go in search of him.”
We ate our meal in silence. Afterwards everyone helped to clear away the meal, and I too found my way to bed.
I dreamed strange dreams of fishing boats and nets, and then I discovered that I was in a net, not wriggling like the fish, but resting, enjoying the rocking, a baby in a net cradle. I swam to the surface as dawn neared and an odd and wrong day dawned… no father, no uncle saying goodbye, and my grandmother not moving from her bed. Only my mother rose, and took her water jar, and left the house.
As the day dragged on we realized that my grandmother had become ill. When my mother returned she went in to her and sat with her a long time, holding her hands and smoothing her brow. Now the girls did step forward to make the meal, and the boys too. Our family disruption had shifted the roles all around. Boys helped with cooking. Girls brought in the fuel for the fire. My mother was the head of the household.
That night my grandmother grew worse, and my mother huddled close to her and tried to ease what was now a raging fever, cooling her face with a rag dipped in water fresh from the well. I could hear my grandmother’s moaning from her fever dreams and visions, but nothing distinct. Every so often I would hear my mother say, “Hush, hush, it’s alright. We’re alright.”
The third day dawned grey and strange again, and now my mother did not leave but sent my sisters to the well. As the sun rose well in the sky the girls returned, and a moment later, just behind them, a group of men came and stood in the doorway. At the front were my father and my uncle! I didn’t know whether to laugh and embrace them, or to try to wrestle them to the ground and pound out my frustrations on them. Before I could decide my father approached me, and took me in his arms where I cried a long time. “There, there,” he said. “It’s alright. It’s alright.”
There was a man standing behind him; I almost hadn’t noticed. He was not a large man, but he had a strange kind of stillness about him that filled the room. My mother came away from my grandmother’s bedside, and, to my amazement, gave a deep bow to the man, welcoming him as a highly honored guest. Then she gestured to my grandmother’s bed. The man walked forward and bent over my grandmother. He murmured some words I couldn’t hear; then he reached out his hand. My grandmother—who had been either sleeping or delirious for nearly two days—reached back. When he pulled her to her feet, she looked at him a long time, her eyes clear, her fever gone, and she said, simply, “Welcome, rabbi.” She gestured to him to recline at the table, and began to prepare a feast that more than made up for our three days of makeshift meals.
Later than evening I sat outside with my grandmother beneath a fig tree. The man—his name was Jesus—was still inside our house, but so were dozens of neighbors, and more dozens stood outside, straining to see in the windows and doors. There were probably a hundred all told, all of them, come to see the rabbi, the preacher, all coming for his healing touch.
“Grandmother, what happened?” I asked. She shook her head and smiled, and was quiet a long time. Finally she said, “I had a fever, and he healed me. I had anger, and he healed that too.” And then she said, “You know your psalms boy. Say it with me. Psalm 147: ‘The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.’
I knew my father would be leaving again. I knew that he would follow Jesus. Now I had the beginning of an idea, the hint of an explanation, why. I’ve always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps, from the time I was a tiny boy. I’ve always wanted to be that man, face shining in the firelight, ropes draped over my shoulder, heading down to the seaside to climb into the boat. My father tells me that now, he fishes for people, to make them followers of Jesus, followers of his way. I see the joy my father takes in the catch. I see all these things, and I think: this is what I will do. I will follow my father down to the sea and into the boats and wherever it is that Jesus takes him. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Monday, February 02, 2009
I decided (rather last-minute) to write a Great Thanksgiving for yesterday's communion service.
The One to whom we turn our lives over has invited us to this table:
Whoever you are, however you feel, for whatever reasons you are here, come to the feast.
Whatever your condition, whatever demons have possessed you in the past: know that our host is the one who teaches, the one who heals, and the one who welcomes: Come to the feast!
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
The Great Thanksgiving
How can we not praise God? The One who made us, the One who made all that is.
How can we not praise the One who calls people to follow, who is faithful to us throughout the ages, who sees us in our weakness and our infirmities, and who stretches out a healing hand to renew and strengthen us?
Let us praise. Let us lift our voices with all God’s people, past, present and future, and say:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest!
How can we not praise our God, who comes to live among us in Jesus Christ?
Telling us the good news of divine love…
Casting out and casting off the demons that have plagued us…
Healing the sick, comforting those who mourn…
Eating with outcasts and welcoming sinners…
Preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives...
Calling all the little children to come to him…
Showing faithfulness to the grave and beyond…
Rising to new life, and raising us to new life with him! How can we not praise Jesus Christ?
How can we not give thanks that, on the night before he died, he took bread, and gave God thanks and praise, broke the bread and shared it with his friends saying: take, eat. This is my body broken for you. Do this in memory of me.
And how can we not give praise that, in the same way, he took the cup, blessed it and shared it among friends, saying, Take, drink. This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.
How can we not proclaim together this mystery of our faith?
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Settle upon us now. Fill every heart. Heal every soul. Let this meal be our true communion with one another, and with Jesus Christ our Lord. Let this communion extend beyond what we can see with our own eyes, past the boundaries of these walls, to your community throughout the world, and to the great company of the faithful throughout the ages. Let it nourish us and delight us and make us glad to be gathered here:
For Christ invites us to the table for healing, not illness; wholeness, not fragmentation. He invites us to the table for joy, and not sorrow, for life, and not death.
And it is through Christ, with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, that all glory and honor are yours, mighty God, now and forever. Amen.
Sunday, February 01, 2009
First, a thriller. As the movie begins, a convicted killer is about to be executed. After his death more murders are discovered, and it soon becomes evident that this is no copycat. This is, somehow, the very same murderer who has already been executed. The evil that was in him has survived. The murderer was possessed by a demon, and the demon is still out there somewhere. (1)
Second, a grim story of addiction and its aftermath. A woman arrives home from a three-year stint in prison for felony theft, because “from the age of 16 to 22 heroin was the love of [her] life.” Though she has been clean for two years, she finds re-entry into the world challenging, bordering on the impossible. Particularly difficult are her efforts to re-establish her relationship with her young daughter. As she encounters frustrations and setbacks, the temptation to escape back into her addiction is overwhelming. At last, she finds a dealer and succumbs. We see her shooting up in a hotel room, and we know that, despite her best intentions and her honest and deep desire to create a better life for herself and her daughter, addiction still has her in its grip. (2)
What do we mean when we talk about demons and possession? On the one hand, we could be talking about supernatural beings whose intentions towards us humans are malicious. This seems to be how Jesus experienced them. In his day, in a pre-scientific world, no one doubted either the existence of demons or their power. Demons, what are called in the gospel “unclean spirits,” were believed to be stronger than people; they could enter them, and dominate them, and completely take over their personalities and behavior.
On the other hand… Have you ever had a front-row seat for an addiction, your own or someone else’s? How we behave when we’re in the grip of addiction looks and sounds very much like the descriptions of people who are possessed. Addicts know that the addiction, the substance, is powerful, more powerful than we are. Addictions are stronger than people; they can enter us, and dominate us, and completely take over our personalities and behavior.
Or how about this: Do you know what it feels like to not be able to stop doing something you know is not good, something that might actually be destructive, or hurtful? Do you know what it feels like, for example, to not be able to extricate yourself from an argument, even though you have a tiny sense somewhere that you might even be… wrong? There you are, and you’re talking to (or yelling at) someone you love, and all the words that come out of your mouth seem to have been put there by an evil spirit of some kind, and you wish that someone would shake you so that you can just stop! Anyone ever felt that way, done that thing? Maybe it’s just me. Or… How about this: how about… eating something you know you shouldn’t? And you just… can’t… stop! Been there, done that! Or, I don’t know, surfing the web when you’re supposed to be working, or spending time on TV that is neither educational nor even enlightening… just one more news item… just one more tidbit about Caroline Kennedy, and then I promise… but the hours go by. In each of these examples from my very own life, I have a terrible and disappointing sense that… this is not who I want to be. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15). Why can’t I be the person I want to be? What have you to do with me, demons?
What do we mean when we talk about demons and possession? Do we mean all of these? Some of these? One of these? None of these?
Into a scene where demons are present, walks Jesus.
Or, maybe I have that backwards.
Maybe, into a scene where Jesus is teaching, walk the demons.
It is so tempting in this passage to focus on the demons, the supernatural occurrence. I have obviously succumbed to this temptation. But look at where Mark is directing us: Mark wants to focus on Jesus, on his authority. “[Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught,” Mark tells us. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…” I guess it’s unusual for people to show up on the sabbath, and have the startling experience that the preacher actually knows what he or she is talking about! The centerpiece of this scene, for the gospel storyteller, isn’t demons at all, either literal or figurative: it’s Jesus. The demons are… incidental.
But, you know, they don’t feel incidental, especially when you are in their grip. We all have our demons. I think that’s probably true. But what do we do about it? What happens in the story?
In the story, the demons see Jesus and name him, because he scares them. They say to him something like, “This town isn’t big enough for both of us, Jesus of Nazareth.” and they are absolutely, 100% right about that. This town… this person…this life is not big enough for both Jesus and the demons that haunt us.
What to do? How do we go about the challenging, sometimes seemingly impossible task of learning a better way of life, of stopping being controlled by the demons that possess us? The first step that we can take is to recognize that, as Jesus knew, the demon is powerful. More powerful than we are. In a sense, we have to give it its due, acknowledge that it’s been beating us down again and again. The second step, the one that occurs right in our passage, is the recognition that, though the demon is more powerful than we are, there is one who is more powerful than the demon, and that One is God. Remember the demons cry of distress: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are… the Holy One of God!” Jesus is the authority. God is all-powerful. The next step becomes obvious: we entrust our lives, get on the team, of the One who is powerful. At that point, it’s just logic.
We all have our demons, whether they are the kind Jesus cast out, or the kind responsive to programs of recovery, or the kind that just annoy the daylights out of us. In a way this last kind is the most insidious, the most frustrating, because—there’s no diagnosis, there are only long-standing destructive patterns of relating to other people and ourselves. I will step right to the front and acknowledge that I struggle with these kinds of demons pretty much every day. Every day they do something to trip me up, to make me less loving, more judgmental, less connected to the people who matter to me, more paranoid about my own petty little concerns. Time and again I find the answer to the problem, and it’s so simple: To recognize the demons for what they are, and how powerful they are. To try to remember to pray, to meditate on a psalm or a passage of scripture, and to open up my heart to the fact that, whether I remember it or not, God is. God is… out there, in here, in me, in you, all around us. God is… ready to hear us, ready to help us, ready to instill us with the peace that passes understanding, or at least enough of it to get through a tense meeting with the guidance counselor or an encounter with a state trooper who wants to write me a speeding ticket.
This town, this life, this body isn’t big enough for both Jesus and the demons that possess us. Only one can be in charge. Only one can offer freedom. Only one can offer healing, relief. Only one can truly be with us, every minute, ready to light and guard, to rule and guide us through all the minefields that life has to offer us. Only one can do all this. May we all find that one now. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) “Fallen” (1998) starring Denzel Washington. Rated R for violence and language.
(2) “SherryBaby” (2006) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug content.