O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
I had recently been browsing on Etsy.com when I saw this pot. It immediately caught my attention because it was made and decorated with broken glass shards. We don't know what the glass originally represented. By themselves, the glass shards are sharp, jagged, and capable of cutting the person holding it with careless handling. Yet when embedded into a new clay pot, with a little planning and consideration thrown in on the side, instead of being something capable of wounding the user, they become something that holds, nurtures, and allows growth.
So it is with our own lives and our own transformations. Sometimes, I think about our temporal lives being glass houses--panes and panes of glass representing people, places, things, and situations in our day to day lives. We forget how fragile these panes can be. Because of our imperfect humanity, some of these panes are bound to be broken, whether by accident or through our own stubbornness and willfulness. We might get shoved into a pane and break it, or in a fit of pique throw a rock into one. But breakage will happen. Not just in our lives but in the lives of people we know--even people we love and care about.
We can get cut even trying to sweep up the mess.
Evidence of the cuts can show up later--embedded tiny bits of glass that, over time, fester and rise to the surface, along with their accompanying pus-pockets.
But for God, this stuff is just raw material for transformation. Our prayers, our spiritual practices, the prayers of others, and the unifying power of the Holy Spirit through the Eucharist can take the pointed wounding power of these broken shards of our lives and transform them into the beautiful pattern of a new vessel, the color in a stained glass window, or a tile in a complex mosaic design. It's amazing, actually.
The problem, of course, is we are notorious for remembering where the broken glass came from, rather than marveling at the beauty of the new work of art. Other people might see the new transformed pot of "us," and have no clue where the broken glass came from or how sharply it can wound. They might just see the beautiful pot. We so often shoot ourselves in the foot on that one. We might be paid a compliment about the pot, and our first response will be, "Oh, no. That's just old broken glass from one of my lamps." Transformation happens, and when it's real, people will see it. Yet we refuse to share their awe. Instead we sit around and think about the broken glass shards.
Conversely, there are going to always be people in our lives that no matter how wonderful a pot we are working on, are always going to point out YOUR broken glass in it. It might have been glass that we had used to wound that person. It might simply be that the other person is feeling the pain from his or her own jagged glass fragments. But that sort of stuff will always be with us.
It's why I like to think about that newborn baby Jesus as the gold standard of transformational ability. It's part of the magic of the twelve days of Christmas for me. The sorting and preparation of Lent isn't upon us yet, nor is the heaviness of Holy Week. Christmas is twelve days of wonderment for how all the broken glass shards of a weary world can be transformed into the vessel of a tiny, innocent baby. It's a baby who will grow, walk, talk, and learn to feed himself. It's a baby where we will see his first smile and swear that it is not gas, that he really smiled upon us. Not only that, as babies are prone to do, that baby will get us to temporarily stop fretting about our own jagged glass edges of our own broken-ness.
Christmas is the season in which we can dream and plan the pattern of our own new vessels--A time to invoke the creative forces of God rather than going to him in embarrassment and humility. A time to rejoice in God's creative powers and our own, in concert.
So take some time this season to simply sit with the pieces of ourselves and rearrange them by color and pattern. What can be made of this? What can we do with this, with God's help? The results of your daydreaming might astound you!
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
I have a confession about newborn babies.
Truthfully, I don't think they look very human. They all look like they were sired by space aliens. They have little flat faces, little cone heads, little "stork bites" on their face, many are rather bald, and their heads are too big for their bodies. Their arms and legs are too long and gangly. They're red and noisy. It's hard to believe they even fit in that uterus they were in.
Even as a kid, when the grownups would ooo and ahhh over newborns, I didn't get it. Really, I was pretty sure a lot of them were faking it. My grandmother as much said so. She told me once, "Really, newborns are not all that cute--but they are beautiful to their mothers, and that's all that matters, so it's not really lying when you tell people their newborn is cute."
But I knew that wasn't exactly accurate either. Everyone in my family loved to tell the story of when I was born, and even the doctor who delivered me, our beloved Dr. Rex, who delivered a lot of babies in my home town, told this story. The story was that the first thing my mom said when Dr. Rex showed me to her was, "My God, she looks like a monkey." Dr. Rex's reply was, "Well, Jesus Christ, all newborns look that way!" I was pretty sure that really, newborns were not all that cute, but they were, as my granny said, beautiful in a different way.
My rotations on Obstetrics and Pediatrics during my training years didn't help much with this. Newborn babies become an "object" in which docs and docs-in-training are supposed to "do something with." Something that needed to be delivered, Apgar-ed, admitted, and charted.
But what always took me back to reality about newborns was their tiny little hands and feet.
Newborn hands and feet always look very, very human. Better than human, in fact. Baby feet don't have firm pads or callouses yet. Baby hands are not scarred or sun-damaged. They're soft and perfect.
I always felt a special pang of remorse for babies who had limb defects that damaged the hands or feet. They seemed to have been robbed of the most recognizable part of their humanity.
But what I used to love on my clinical rotations involving newborns was simply holding them and examining their tiny feet and hands, and holding them in my own scarred hands. They were so warm, soft, and innocent. I could become lost in those moments for long periods of time--long enough to forget to do my chart work.
Christmas Day for me is not exactly like the TV specials and movies. After all, I live alone. My immediate family is small, and my personality is such I never really enter in too far in "ordinary family life." I feel often that it is their time, not mine, and I am a bit of an interloper. I usually spend Christmas these days with a family in town who is famous for having a wonderful collection of "Christmas orphans" at their table. It is the best deal for me, because I don't have to be the only one at the table with no spouse, no children.
But in the last few years, I have come to appreciate the quiet time I have on Christmas morning before I enter in, socially. I get on Facebook and wish all of my friends Merry Christmas who posted Christmas greetings in their status update. I truly love it. I feel like Scrooge coming out from his funk when I do that!
Mostly, though, I sit quietly with Scripture and my thoughts, and play with the tiny hands and feet of the Christ Child. It has become a wonderful bonding moment for me with God. To think about the innocence of those tiny hands and feet, to feel the presence of God in a weary world, to bask in this holy, innocent moment that transcends all the pain and suffering of the world I know, is the greatest Christmas gift for me of all.
My Christmas wish for each of you is to have some time where you can merely sit and hold the newborn Christ and play with his perfect little hands and feet. Merry Christmas!
(Zechariah and Gabriel, Julius Schnorr von Carrolsfeld)
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Another thing I thought about in the mediation on Zechariah during Advent Quiet Morning was all the changes Zechariah had to make when he got struck dumb. Remember, at the time this happened, Zechariah had no clue how long this being struck dumb was going to last. After all, "until the day these things occur," is kinda vague. It wasn't like he could mark the day it would be over on the calendar. What things? Things beyond the birth of this child? It definitely sounded like some time "beyond nine months."
Now, as I mentioned in this post about a year ago, I don't think this action by Gabriel was punitive. I think it was more like "Ok, you want proof? You want a sign? Here's one you definitely won't forget."
I thought about the things he couldn't do, the things where he tried to communicate but he couldn't. It had to be frustrating. We see in the passage that it was difficult for him to communicate with the people outside when he met them.
He had another real problem--he was not going to be able to carry out anything in the temple that involved preaching or reading the Torah aloud. He wasn't going to be able to totally pull his weight insofar as the other priests were concerned. He was going to have to depend on them (and their good graces) to carry on "business as usual" in the temple--at least insofar as the things that did not require speaking. It meant he would have to take on more of a "silent servant" role at the altar. For someone used to doing the "proclaiming" in the temple, this had to be a real take-down-a-notch experience for him.
This also doesn't get any better when he gets home. We see in the passage Elizabeth secluded herself for five months. So it's not like he is going to have her around and available to translate for him or be interacting much with him. The person who knows his unspoken ways best, is taking a sabbatical.
As we sit in our own silence with this passage, ponder for a moment the ways we may have been "temporarily struck dumb" in our lives. Perhaps certain feelings or emotions have been struck dumb by painful episodes in our lives. At times, shock and grief over losses in our lives can leave us speechless. The black dog of depression can visit us and blunt our personalities. When we succumb to despair or adversity, our hopes are struck dumb. Most of us have been "unable to speak" at some point in our lives, or unable to "find our voices." In those times, we might even feel we have forgotten what our voices sounded like.
Odds on, Zechariah's silence must have felt very lonesome, and sometimes not silent all all, but very loud. But I'm betting that in that silence, he must have heard God begin to speak to him in a different way. He probably learned a lot about his own feelings in the silence.
But if we merely sit in our own silences long enough without fear, we hear our own voices differently, in addition to God's voice in a different way. I think of what a woman once told me when I came to help run a Bible study at the Adair County Jail. She said, "You know, my relatives tell me, 'Oh, you always find God when you're in the slammer.' Well, I think I do, too, but it's not the way they all tell me it is. I find him there because I don't have anything else distracting me. It's hard for me to see God when I get back on the outside, because there are too many things going on for me and they sort of cover up what I learned about God the last time I was in jail."
When we find ourselves incarcerated by our own spiritual "muteness," it could well be it is when we hear God the loudest, and paradoxically, not so much when we are surrounded by the ordinary noise of the world. In our seclusion, we may well find our center.
(The Annunciation to Zechariah, Russian Icon)
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Let's move on to the second meditation of my Advent Quiet Morning; the Annunciation to Zechariah and the hoopla surrounding it.
Once again, we shown a story of "barren-ness," but this one seems a little different. We are told an interesting juxtaposition. Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless and getting on in years, but we are also told they are "righteous people." That's sort of an oxymoron in the beliefs of that time. Bearing children was the gold standard of proof of God's blessing to people of that day. Heirs allowed you to continue on in the family business, and insured you would be cared for should you make it to old age. But notice Luke doesn't imply that the birth of John "made" him righteous later. He pretty much says at the outset that Zechariah and Elizabeth are ALREADY righteous at the onset of this story.
But what really jumped out at me was a line that really was one of the more humdrum lines in the passage: "Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside." It was the business of Zechariah being in there by himself just before this angel appeared. He would have no witnesses for this visitation.
It got me to thinking about the things in my own life that we all sort of take for granted will happen, but didn't. We all have those things in one way or another. It made me realize that in order to be our most righteous selves, sometimes we are "set apart." Sometimes we feel very alone in this "set apart-ness" and tend to think of it as a character flaw instead of a blessing. Something is "wrong" with us because we don't seem to be what everyone around us is, or have what others have, whether that "what others have" are material possessions, apparently stable family lives, successful rewarding careers, spouses, children, time, health...etc., etc., etc.
We discover these "set apart" feelings at various ages, and they evolve. We tend to feel shame over them rather than see them as opportunities to draw closer to God and the unique relationship we can have with him. We tend to use the things in which we feel set apart to strain our relationships instead of build better ones.
I wonder how many times Zechariah thought to himself, "What did I do wrong, that Elizabeth and I have never had children? What do people think? Does it make me less trustworthy as a priest? Do they think I have some skeleton in the closet?" Did he sometimes engage in a distorted view of the world, trying harder to "do a good job," as if that somehow would compensate for the loss he felt having no heirs? Did he feel tired and resigned to some things, and have a sense of hopelessness about what his future held--that he simply endured "his lot in life?"
But here's the other half of this humdrum passage: While he was in there, alone with this angel, the people were all outside praying. The people didn't feel like they had to be inside to pray. We don't know what they were praying about. We don't know what was happening in their lives. But they did not feel a need to enter into this "set apart" space to pray and worship God. It was okay to leave Zechariah alone. If anything, the knowledge that he was in there, allegedly alone, purifying the temple with incense, might have made the people actually feel connected to Zechariah in his "set apart-ness." His being set apart made them feel that he was helping provide for their prayer and worship life.
I thought back to 2007, when I refinished the pews in Trinity-Kirksville. I spent a lot of time in there alone. I found myself with a foot in two places. I mostly wanted to be left alone and sort of found it annoying when they bothered me, at the time I was working. Sometimes I would have welcomed a conversation as a break, but mostly if anyone did stop by, it always felt a little "inopportune." I felt like I had to push being polite.
But what I began to enjoy is what started to happen without saying. I noticed when the regulars came to "their" pew for the first time after it was refinished. They looked happier. They sang with more gusto. They worshiped differently. I liked that feeling of having silently influenced their worship life. That made me incredibly happy.
Yet, when people told me admiring things about the work, I became very embarrassed and almost curt and cut them off. I let my own fear of them thinking I was sucking up to them, that they needed to "pay me back somehow," that I was doing it for the attention, cloud the joy of simply saying "Thank you," and being happy they were happy. I am now ashamed that I responded to their desire to connect to my set apart-ness by discounting their feelings. I realize that in an odd way, I was the one setting myself apart--that I did not allow myself to share their joy.
I felt a little barren about that.
But time has a funny way of fixing things.
We now have some new people at our church. They, for the most part, don't know or care I refinished the pews. Oh, they might hear about it later, but that's been three and a half years now, and it's all gone into "ancient history." It sort of got brought back up in our parish history project during our interim, but there were so many things that were in that, it was just "one more." But these new people seem fairly joyful about being in our parish, for many reasons. What I had originally set out for the pews, finally happened. They are just part of the ambiance of the physical space of Trinity-Kirksville, as I originally intended. I realize now it was sort of unreasonable at the time I was actually doing the work, to NOT expect "people to be outside, praying, as I prepared the sanctuary"--just as Zechariah was inside, spreading the smell of incense.
But what this passage made me realize is we are ALL "set apart"--each in our own way, as one of the "priesthood of believers." Set apart but not alone--others are outside praying, and their prayers are always, at least, indirectly on our behalf, even if they are not "about us." Set apart but visited by angels, and not always when we want to be visited by angels. Feeling "set apart" is not proof of neither sin nor righteousness--it is an invitation to be an agent of God's love in a unique way. Do we accept the invitation, or do we set ourselves further apart?
(from the Bowyer Bible, illustrated by Jacques Stella, 1756)
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Fourth Week of Advent, Book of Common Prayer, page 212
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
I always think of the story of "Joseph's side of the Nativity" as being a story about "everything turned upside down in terms of failed expectations." So what in the world does a story where it seems Joseph's expectations were utterly shattered have to do with the request in our collect to "purify our conscience?"
The news of Mary's pregnancy must have been a giant wad of "failed expectations" for Joseph. It had to be a pretty ugly day for Joseph when Mary showed up and told him she was pregnant, and it had to get uglier when she relayed an even more impossible story of the conception of this pregnancy.
This gets told in a way more deadpan manner in Matthew than what my imagination tells me about this situation.
I would not be surprised if Joseph called Mary every kind of sleazy epithet in the book, at first. It was enough to be stunned with "I'm pregnant," but the rest of her story must have sounded like the biggest "cock and bull" story ever invented. It had to literally be an insult to his intelligence. I sort of imagine this angry eruption, Mary bursting into tears because Joseph obviously doesn't believe her, and then perhaps Joseph softened a little bit. After all, she was very young. Maybe she didn't even know what she was doing when she got pregnant. She could have fallen to some smooth operator's charms and was, in reality, a victim. Perhaps she was raped. After all, the Romans took what they wanted in those parts of the world in those days.
It's also important to remember that, in those days, marriage was a contractual arrangement between the groom and the bride's parents--and let's be real, at this point, Joseph didn't get what he had negotiated for with Mary's parents (history and legend tells us their names were Anna and Joachim.) I am almost certain part of the guarantee on this trade was "a virgin." After all, that is how people truly knew the firstborn was "theirs." So I imagine there were also some pretty tense conversations between Joseph, Anna, and Joachim. The result of those tense conversations was that Joseph would simply keep this all as quiet as possible. There was probably some trading back of money and possessions. After all, the punishment for adulterous women was death by stoning. Anna and Joachim (and Mary) would always have to live with an uneasy trust that Joseph would not ever go to the authorities. Ever. What if he got drunk one night and got an angry streak to it? What if he really WAS the father and was putting on a show because she didn't please him? Mary told them the father was the Holy Spirit, but I imagine that tale was hard for EVERYONE to believe, except Mary.
Then there was simply the raw psychological pain Joseph must have experienced. He must have glared at every guy he'd ever seen around Mary and thought, "Was it YOU?" That had to really eat at him and burn him up with anger and jealousy and righteous indignation that someone else took what he had not only paid for, but longed for.
He must have dreaded the potential embarrassment. Mary's pregnancy would be showing soon, if it wasn't showing already. Everyone in town would know Joseph had been ripped off, or played for a fool. Maybe friends of Mary's family would no longer want him to do carpentry work for them--his business could suffer. He probably felt the shame of potential embarrassment of behaviors in other people that he could not control.
I'd even bet money he didn't totally buy into his dream at first--Matthew only said he did as the angel told him. Just because we do as you're told doesn't mean we are totally on board. I bet at first Joseph's dream must have seemed crazy to him. But something told him to "keep on keeping on" with the plan that was outlined in the dream, so he did. But it all turned out ok, eventually. Oh, not at first--there was the untimely birth in a manger, and the flight to Egypt--but probably, eventually, Joseph settled back into a relatively normal day-to-day life with his family. (Well, at least as normal as it must have been rearing the Son of God. I'm sure there were lots of things he didn't expect there.)
Joseph's side of the Annunciation is a story about doing that whole business of "doing the right thing" because it's right--and the comfort in doing the right thing isn't always there at first. It's about doing what's right for your own peace of mind, even in the face of failed expectations. My guess is what made Joseph "come around" to signing on to this mess wasn't the fear of an angel in a dream. My guess is when you cut to the middle of the story, he loved Mary, and he simply couldn't bring himself to leave her cut adrift in this pregnancy. He probably wasn't sure what this love meant at that point, but despite all this mess, it did not go away.
We all have things in our lives we did "beyond ourselves" because we loved someone else. The story of each of those things in our lives are often very raw stories. They don't always have happy endings. But if we are open to the possibility they have peaceful endings--that we are eventually at peace with those decisions--our heart changes. Our capacity to love, to endure, and to be patient with an eventual ability to look back and say "You know, it was all for the best how it worked out," becomes bigger and bigger. It transforms us.
In that peace, our conscience is purified--just like in the collect. The nipsis is that we become awake to the concept that even within the deepest bowels of our pain and suffering and embarrassment and humiliation, there is clarity, grace, and peace.
Only over time does it all come together, and only if you are open to the possibility it can.
(Eli and Samuel, John Singleton Copley)
1 Samuel 2:11-21:
Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, while the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli. Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people. When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the one who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take whatever you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now; if not, I will take it by force.” Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt. Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home. And the Lord took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.
For our last reflection on this meditation, before I move on to the other meditation in the Advent Quiet Morning I attended, let's turn our attention to those yearly trips Hannah and Elkanah made to the temple every year.
In my mind's eye, I see Hannah making Samuel that little robe every year before their trip. Maybe she worked on it all year long, putting intricate little stitches in it, or some beadwork. There had to be a certain amount of faith in making this garment--she would have no idea how much Samuel would grow from year to year--she had to make her best guess. Of course, with a robe she had a little leeway. Maybe she took the time to put large hems in the bottom and the sleeves and a couple of darts in the shoulders so it could be "let out" if he had a growth spurt.
But I have no doubt Hannah's mind was frequently imagining Samuel carrying out his duties in the temple, wearing the robe. Perhaps, as the year rolled on, Elkanah thought about which animals from his flocks and herds would be the choicest sacrifices. But much of their thoughts surely were on their son.
What kind of priest was he growing into? Surely Hannah and Elkanah had seen the behavior of Eli's less-than-scrupulous sons. I imagine sometimes they simply prayed that Samuel would be spared picking up bad habits from them. Did Hannah worry that one of them would lay claim to the robe Hannah was making? Did Elkanah sometimes have second thoughts about bringing the choicest offerings, knowing Eli's sons were likely to take more than their fair share for themselves?
I imagine there were times Hannah and Elkanah became concerned about Samuel's upbringing in that environment, and I imagine more than once, they mulled the possibility of bringing him home with them. Especially Hannah.
How many times on that long trip to the temple, did Hannah think to herself, "This is the year I am bringing him home with us. I'm worried he's not being treated well. I'm worried he is learning wicked practices from those sons. Maybe I made a mistake, leaving him there. I mean, you know, I'm his mother, for cryin' out loud. I have a right to rear my son. I'm not asking anything that any parent doesn't have a right to do. How do I know those sons haven't been a bad influence on him?"
Perhaps she and Elkanah even rehearsed what they'd say to get him back, what would work--or even how to kidnap him back.
Meanwhile, I wouldn't be surprised if, as that time of year approached, Eli had similar worries. "What if they want him back for themselves this year? That boy is such a comfort to me. He's so precocious. He learns so quickly. He doesn't even know himself what a gift he has been for me. What if they ask? Do I assert my authority, or am I better served just caving in to them?"
But my guess is, when Hannah and Elkanah saw Samuel up on the altar--particularly when Hannah saw him in his little ephod, in the robe she had lovingly made for him, serving the priests and caring for Eli with love--their hearts melted, and they realized that he belonged up there on the altar. It would be wrong to expect to bring him back home. Hannah's heart was both stabbed and healed. She would not be bringing him home...but to see him on the altar, and growing into his future was a joy in itself. She had done the right thing in giving him to God and God's service.
Eli probably felt grateful every year he was allowed to keep Samuel without much fuss or difficulty. He tried to communicate that in the strength of the blessing he gave Hannah and Elkanah.
We've all had those second thoughts about the things we've earnestly left on the altar. It's human nature.
At the time we gave those things to God, we were ready and willing. But over time, sometimes we have second thoughts about that. We might even have, in a drama-laden moment, taken those things back, literally yanking them off the altar and saying, "I've got a right to control this, and I'm going to control it!"
Part of our growth as children of God is to develop the eyesight to see what Hannah and Elkanah might have seen--to see what belongs on the altar for what it is. Just as I imagine they saw Samuel as really no longer belonging to them, but to God--to see that he "fit" in that place he was--so we are invited to see the things we have left upon the altar with the same holy reality--that these things "fit" the altar, and they no longer fit within the realm of our control.
Samuel grew in stature and wisdom because he was allowed to stay at the altar, where he belonged. The things we leave at the altar will also change, although we may not see it that way at first. They no longer belong to us, and seeing that, is a gift.
("Hannah gives her son to the priest," Jan Victors, 1645)
1 Samuel 1:28--2:10:
Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.”
She left him there for the Lord. Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Another place I went in the meditation about the story of Hannah and Samuel was that fateful day Hannah really DID leave little Samuel at the temple. I thought a lot about that long donkey ride back home and Samuel's first night away from home.
Hannah's grief must have been palpable. I thought about how usually, coming home is a pleasant experience, but coming home to that empty place at the table, that empty bed, must have cast a pall on it. Yes, they were going home, but "home" had been changed. Yet she found it within her to thank God for his powerful, glorious might. Being able to praise God in the midst of our own heartbroken-ness is a gift many of us find lacking.
We don't hear anything about Elkanah in this story. When I sit with this story, I imagine his own more or less quiet grief, overshadowed by Hannah's emotion--that feeling of one's own heart breaking but that sense that your own grief is somehow "not as important" as those around you who are more freely emoting. There's just a heaviness that sets in when a person who does not feel as "emotionally free" is surrounded by people who can "wail and cry at the sight of a good steak," as my grandparents used to say. Elkanah knows he can't touch Hannah's grief. He knows by her line of reasoning, he's being "distant"--but how can he even begin to touch what has wounded her when he can't even touch his own wounds?
In my mind's eye, I think about how, though, maybe this unlikely combo of emotions on the ride home "works." Perhaps Hannah still feels the sense of quiet presence that Elkanah brings--that eventually, stability will come--just not right now. Perhaps Elkanah is comforted by Hannah's ability to praise God when he can't. I mean, we are all imbued with some kind of emotional default. The emotional are always going to be emotional. Those who stuff their grief deep down inside themselves are always going to stuff their grief. It's just a matter of finding balance within that default.
Then, of course, there's little Samuel.
It must have been very scary spending the night in the temple that first night. Back in those days, people didn't think twice about letting their children sleep with them. Simply sleeping alone must have been a shock for Samuel. Trying to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings, on an unfamiliar mat, around an unfamiliar place, had to make every strange sound, every strange smell, every strange sensation seem five times as loud, smelly, and weird-feeling. No special toy left behind would be comforting enough. My guess is he very likely cried himself to sleep. It might have been the first time he felt utterly rejected and abandoned. He probably couldn't even imagine waking up. Afraid to sleep, afraid to wake. Even little children can sense that level of "stuck." I found it ironic he felt this rejection and abandonment in a place where every pillar and post screamed "God is here." I am pretty sure that first night Samuel wouldn't have seen God anywhere...only emptiness and coldness and unfamiliarity.
Finally, my mind wandered to Eli. Although it was probably not unusual in those days to leave children at the temple, as an offering to the priesthood, Eli was getting older. He probably didn't take to these little children quite so easily as he used to. Perhaps he remembered the episode some time back of Hannah sobbing in the temple, unable to speak her prayers, and thought something along the lines of, "Well, this one sure came back and bit me in the butt."
But maybe another thought ran through Eli's brain as he was sorting this all out. We discover later that Eli's own sons, also priests, well...let's just say they appear to be dirtbags. Perhaps he looked at little Samuel and thought, "Yeah, I'm getting a little old for this...but you know, maybe this is a do-over. My own sons are on their own path, and it's sure not the path I would have preferred. I suppose I wasn't a great parent OR a great teacher. Maybe I get one more chance with this little guy. God, is that what you want from me out of this?"
Oh, my, so many take home lessons if we simply follow the people in this story around! We have all been in situations where "doing the right thing" still results in grief. We leave many things at the altar that don't always seem terribly joyful at the time. Some of us bear our grief with high emotion, some of us are more inward about it. Yet the two can co-exist and each can help to heal the other. We can feel alone and abandoned even smack dab in the middle of God's temple. Finally, in these strange places we find that we get "do-overs" in our lives...opportunities that don't always look like opportunities at first.
Who are we in this story? Are we more connected to one of the characters? How do we bear our grief? Where are the opportunities for do-overs? When has the presence of God seemed cold and lonely and frightening to us? These stories are not ancient--they are our stories today.
Small rural congregations don’t really depend on seminary educated clergy. It’s nice to have them, but not a necessity. They don’t even depend on a flow of new families with young children. They do depend on the economic viability of the towns they are in. Dying towns beget dying congregations. But if a town can sustain itself, an otherwise healthy, small rural congregation will just keep on going. It has more to do with the spirit of the place and the Spirit that fills it than with experts on church growth and transformation.
--Steve Wooley, "The Country Parson" blog
The photo above is one I took earlier this summer (Right now, in the subzero chill of NE Missouri December, I'm only having a vague recollection of that thing called summer) of what used to be St. James Episcopal Church in Macon, MO.
This parish in my home town used to be more viable than Trinity-Kirksville. It was a parish that produced a Presiding Bishop, Ethelbert Talbot. Talbot was a local product--he was born in Fayette, MO, and married a woman from Roanoke, MO.
Some years back, when I helped research some of the history of Trinity-Kirksville, one of the things I learned that there were numerous times Kirksville had no vicar and the rector of St. James covered both parishes. Macon was the established parish. Kirksville was the mission church.
But over the years, Kirksville hung on and even grew a little bit, and Macon began to die off. I know very little about the history of the demise of St. James church. What little I know is that for many years, the rector there did double duty for the Presbyterians, and eventually, even with two churches providing salary support, the key pledgers in St. James died. The bottom line was that by the time I came to Trinity, the Episcopal churches in the towns that I call "the three M's"--Macon (St. James), Monroe City (St. Jude) and Moberly (St. Barnabas) were all defunct.
I have looked at a map many, many times, and stared at the "donut hole" these three missing parishes make on the map of our diocese. Steve's post got me to thinking about it again, because as small Missouri towns go, Macon and Moberly are actually growing a little, economically, and Monroe City appears to be holding its own, too.
I keep thinking there is something that the Episcopal Church can bring to this empty spot. But if I were to believe everything I read about "congregational development by the book" it would yell, "Are you crazy? Don't bother." But our interim priest, whose emphasis in his doctorate was in congregational development, never poo-pooed my thoughts about this. Instead, he encouraged me to go on field trips, and he and our priest associate encouraged me to use my lay preaching license to snag some supply preaching opportunities with our neighborly area Presbyterians, who, bless their hearts, sometimes scare me with what all they allow me to do along with them on a Sunday morning. But when I preach in these places, and interact with their worshipers, I feel so incredibly comfortable, because I'm still very distinctly a "small town person."
It creates a yearning within be to be out there in the service of God in the "sparse places."
I keep thinking, "What if a person could come in like Johnny Appleseed and convince a small group of people to fully accept their own ministry of the baptized and raise themselves up--possibly even raise their own clergy up in a Mutual Ministry type setting--what could they bring to the Kingdom of God that simply is not done any other way but in a small setting?" I know I immensely find comfort in "helping make things from scratch and once it's finished, wish it well and move on to the next project." That is what I sort of do as a surgical pathologist. I take a specimen and give a name to what's going on with it. Then I turn it over to the person's primary physician to maintain, and I move on to the next specimen and don't look back.
I can't tell you the congregational development hoo-ha about it--what little I know about congregational development, I feel like I've studied it off the back of a Cracker Jack box--but I do know one thing.
I know rural and small town people.
Now, Kirksville is a small town. But it's not a small town. It's a small town with two colleges (Truman State and Moberly Area Community College) and an osteopathic medical school (A.T. Still University.) By and large, this is a more academic town than the typical small Missouri town. It's a wonderful place and I love living here. But it's a different place. It has a different tone to it. It's not Macon, or Moberly, or Monroe City.
My friends often tease me that no one would ever accuse me of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. In fact, they often claim my glasses are a little fecal-stained. But that is a part of rural and small town people outsiders don't "get." Yes, we sound pretty darn pessimistic at times. We were raised to have good reason. Farms get battered by hail and drought and too much rain. Ranchers have subzero weather and lose calves during calving season. Small businesses get squeezed out by the big box stores. Family-run enterprises have the key player in the family drop dead of a heart attack or stroke. Tornadoes blast through entire towns. Yes, these things happen everywhere...but in small towns the impact seems greater somehow. The big ripples in the center are tsunamis even though peripherally, the ripples dissipate into nothing pretty quick.
Yet, what you see when you watch rural and small town people is they keep quietly rebuilding and re-trying things over and over again, without much fuss, drama, or attention.
Families in these places don't have "a rock"--they have MANY rocks. Yet it's not always easy to get these cussedly independent people to dare to work together. "We take care of our own."
But what I have found over the years is if you can get these cussedly independent people to reach out just a little bit and help each other, they will do it one person, one family at a time--and when they do that, they start to get this wonderful sense of belonging to "something bigger than they are." Something bigger than their little family, their little town, their little groups, both secular and religious.
What you also see in small towns is that the dissenters pretty much keep their dissent to themselves. So an outsider might walk into a small town and on face value, see a conservative, evangelical, immovable object in terms of bringing a church with a liberal theology and a structured hierarchy back to the area. But as a near-lifelong area resident, I also know that small towns are full of wonderfully quirky people with lots of interesting notions they don't always share publicly. I know that GLBT people hide under the radar as "cranky old bachelors" and "two divorced women who share expenses." There are also the "habitually single" who are straight, but were sort of the designated person who "took care of all the old folks in the family." There are people who "used to live in the city" and came back home and quietly took up residence with no frills and far less income because the rat race got too hectic. There are people who raised their kids elsewhere and came home to slow down.
They are people who have a habit of caring for one another in some way.
I think they are precisely the people who would take to our brand of theology like a duck to water. But there's no central core, no "safe zone."
The other kicker is, as much as they all love their little historic church buildings, I believe to embrace a plan to somehow get them back would be the kiss of death for growing these congregations. Those drafty, poorly maintained buildings would suck the life right out of them.
I keep looking at that donut hole and thinking, "How does a person get these people gathered up and going about the business of caring for each other, and having a church home that is unlike any "church" they've ever seen? They probably don't see themselves as "church people."
But they are people who already, in some ways, hear and obey God and follow Jesus, without exactly calling it that. They are people who worry about the stewardship of things, and people and the world, although they'd never claim it and never proclaim it for fear of the wrath of the "Fox News people" and the Tea Partiers to come down on their heads. Polite suburban Episcopalians would not see them as "their people" because they deer hunt, and they get a little grouchy about zoning laws and they own a fair number of guns and are proud of it.
I know they would fit in our church, frankly, because I fit in our church--and I'm painfully aware of all the ways I don't quite fit in the world. But through the Episcopal Church, I've learned I fit in God's kingdom in ways beyond my wildest imagination.
I sit...and I pray...and I feel so called to these sparse places...these donut holes like the one right next to me. I don't know what to do with it. But I know there's something that calls me to the donut holes, and Steve's post keeps telling me to keep listening to that voice.
(From the University of Dayton website)
1 Samuel 1:21-28:
The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” She left him there for the Lord.
Another passage I reflected on in the Advent Quiet Morning was the passage above out of the first meditative session.
One of the things I thought about was the process of Hannah weaning little Samuel.
I can't believe she didn't have second thoughts about her decision to take him to the temple and leave him. I bet she subconsciously didn't want to wean him.
I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she sort of held off weaning him--maybe till he got teeth, because once he got teeth, she'd be more ready to give it up. I imagine holding him, watching his little face as he suckled, feeling the pleasure of it, her heart begging to feed him from herself--of herself--as long as she could, because she knew she was planning on giving him up.
Maybe he didn't take to being weaned all that well, either, and was kinda fussy about it. I mean, after all, he knew he could get a meal there, and he liked being with her, hearing her breathe, feeling her heart beat next to him.
Even though he might have been starting to have teeth and was beating the crap out of her nipples, I would not be surprised that Hannah might have tried to put him away from her bosom, and give him solid food, and as he fussed and spat, she would desperately pull him to her and let him feed from her "just one more time." Even though she was getting weary of feeding him and he wasn't getting enough to eat and needed more solid food, she might have been getting more and more anxious about this. As he sat there with his little spoon, feeding himself with a smile on his face, she cried--all the while saying, "Oh, what a BIG boy, what a GOOD boy you are!" I could feel how her heart must have been so torn.
I thought about all those things we literally place on the altar in the form of our gifts and prayers, as well as those things and people we place on the altar as we give them up--the five year old with the shiny new backpack getting on the school bus, the tail lights of the last child heading off for college, the person we thought would be our "forever soulmate" but love turned sour, the elderly relative whose dementia accelerates and the trip to the nursing home is imminent.
We place these people on the altar, same as a check. We give them up to God. We give up our control in their lives, and trust them to their own fates, with God's help.
But there is always that time between when we've made a decision and when we actually do it. That can be the most agonizing stuff to process. When "go through with the decision" time actually comes, we can buck up to it in ways we can't fathom--no doubt--but in that little lag time between "decision" and "action" we can make ourselves bonkers.
We will take on pain at times, NOT to make that decision, just as Hannah might well endured the pain of nursing a child who had a few teeth erupting.
Sometimes it is the weaning itself that is painful, whether we are the one doing the weaning or the one being weaned.
All of us, at one time or another, knew something was coming to an end. The other person in our lives was ready to move to the next place--a growing place--in their lives, and we knew the thing to do was let them go. All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the foreboding of change in the air, and sensed that loss of some sort would be part of that change even if the overall experience would result in growth--a job change, a change in our finances, or new possibilities of some sort. It was time--these people or things or situations were feeding on us to the point our health would be damaged.
Conversely, when we are the one being weaned, we might long for the familiarity of "the way things used to be," but we know we are growing--we can feel it--and the familiar old places are not nutritious enough to let us grow into what we are meant to be.
In the that waiting period between "decision" and "action," we feel love and longing, grief and growth, all at the same time. We feel impatience that time doesn't move fast enough to bring us to the new place, and agony that some good things have run their course, their time is over.
This waiting place is a very holy space--if we can accept the gamut of feelings that make it holy.
1 Samuel 1:1-20:
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
On Saturday, December 11, I enjoyed a wonderful Advent Quiet Morning at Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City. That's the home parish of my Episco-blogging pal Lisa. The morning consisted of two guided meditations led by Lisa's priest, Shariya+, followed by a half hour of silence wherever we chose to be in the sanctuary. I had many interesting images in my quiet time, and figured for the next several days to re-process them and blog about them.
The first guided meditation was through the first three chapters of 1 Samuel. In this section, we are given a vignette of Samuel's mother, Hannah, as she "pours her soul out to the Lord" and is discovered by Eli, the priest.
Many times in the Bible we are introduced to the female characters because they are "barren." Sometimes I get a little irked that at times all we ever learn about the women of the Bible is that they seem to always be having fertility issues of one sort or another, but then I remind myself that in an ancient patriarchal society, where women didn't always have a lot of standing, that we should consider ourselves lucky that no one could find a male alternative as powerful to illustrate the notion of "barren-ness." Otherwise we would not even get these glimpses.
But what sticks out for me in this story is where she is mistaken for "drunk" because she is mouthing the words but not saying anything.
No one knows how barren Hannah feels--and I don't just mean "infertile" here--than Hannah herself. She's pretty much sick and tired of being poked by whoever "her rival" is. My guess is her rival is barren in a different way, and Hannah's basically being bullied. Everything at this point has the ability to feel like it's "poking" her. I am willing to bet that even her husband Elkanah's kindness to her--his giving her a "double portion"--feels like "poking." I bet she's even hurt poor Elkanah's feelings over it. I can imagine the conversation:
Hannah: "Why the hell did you do that?"
Elkanah: "Do WHAT?"
Hannah: "Look, everyone knows damn good and well I can't conceive. And there you are, giving me a double portion out in front of God and everybody. Like I'm some kind of broken thing that needs pity. Don't do that to me. It embarrasses me. You call too much attention to me. Don't ever embarrass me like that again. Now SHE's gonna run over to the well and do that "Poor Hannah" crap to the women at the well. I'm tired of being the object of everyone's gossip."
Elkanah: "Well, screw you. See if I ever do anything nice for you again. I was just being nice to you because I love you and I care about you. I'm tired of having my motives questioned. What the hell is wrong with you? I can't deal with this. I'm going out to the shed and feed the animals."
But you get the drift.
How many times when we feel how acutely "barren" we are in stressful places in our lives, does even the kindness of those who love us feel like "poking?"
She feels so overwhelmed--knowing where she is spiritually with all this, that even her attempt to converse with God betrays her loss of self-esteem. She can't even birth the words to verbalize it.
Yet, in her verbal paralysis, something happens. She is able to pour her thoughts out to God. God didn't need the words anyway. In our vignette, though, we see something important. When we are in that state, others are very likely not to "get it." Others are likely to default to the lowest common denominator over what they see.
I imagine the temple at the time of the annual pilgrimages and sacrifices at Shiloh were a messy affair, and I imagine the priests all had to work overtime. It's probably a lot like how Holy Week and Christmas is for modern clergy. Eli was probably worn slick. He was probably sick of chasing loose animals that got away before the sacrifice, he was probably sick of hearing everyone else's problems, he was probably sick of all the people who showed up once a year while the rest of the year he never saw them. I sort of imagining him hearing people confessing to God and Eli thinking, "Oy. You think you got tsuris. Let me tell you tsuris!"
So it's understandable he sees Hannah and thinks, "Oh, great. Another drunk chick all wound up about nothin'." Or maybe he actually knew Hannah and Elkanah somewhat because year after year, they were always there. Regulars. Maybe he knew some of her "stuff" and thought, "Oh, man, I'm not dealing with her piddly stuff again. Except now she's gone out and gotten drunk and she's makin' a damn fool of herself in my temple. I just don't want to go there."
But he discovers she's truly, truly heartsick. I think it's interesting what he does, and maybe it illustrates Eli's wisdom and experience in this instance. He simply reminds her that God hears her. He doesn't give her any advice, he doesn't suggest the "right sacrifice" for this. He doesn't prophesy for her. He just says, "God hears you, Hannah. I know he does. He hears what we say to him in earnest. Take comfort in that. Go home to your husband."
How many times do people come to us in earnest--or vice versa--and all the troubled person wants to be satisfied is to be reminded that God hears us?
We work so hard at doing right by other people that we become either too "others-focused" or we become too self-absorbed in our ability to please or "fix" those we care about. We don't let God be God. We try to be the focus of their recovery instead of God.
But look what happens. That knowledge that Hannah gets from both pouring her soul out to God and simply being told by another person "God hears you, I know he does," helps her "fix herself, with God's help." She becomes more open to the possibility she is not as barren as she thought she was. She's now willing to consider that there truly is room within her where God can do God's work. She evidently makes up with Elkanah and conceives. Not just an ordinary conception, either--a king and prophet.
We all have barren spots in this life. We simply need to be open to being told "God hears us" even when we are pretty sure other people don't. When we are witness to the barren-ness of others, maybe we need to be less fixated on our ability to help them and instead be more willing to point out our own belief that God hears them--and in those tiny seeds of change, great things can take root in our lives.
(Photo of normal colon and ileocecal valve from Wikimedia Commons)
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect, Third Week of Advent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 212
Now, you might wonder what a colonoscopy photo has to do with Advent and nipsis. Well, keep reading.
I have to go back to when I was 8 years old. I had my tonsils out on my 8th birthday. What I remember most was the bits of the conversation I picked up from the hushed tones of the doctor and adults.
"We almost lost her."
"We're not sure what happened but she stopped breathing."
Now, what I remember about that tonsillectomy was this sense of suddenly falling asleep while people were talking to me and not remembering a blessed thing until I woke up and my throat hurt.
Somehow, in my childhood brain, I associated that sense of "no consciousness at all" with death. So for the next 42 years I resisted ANY medical or dental procedure that "would put me clear out." I suffered some interesting consequences from that. I had a bigger than normal dental procedure in an under-anesthetized state, enduring the pain of it, because of that fear. I had two surgical "same day surgery" procedures with a local because I refused to let them "put me clear under."
In short, I suffered some physical pain for the trade off of "control."
Then came my 50th birthday, and my requisite "You're 50, you need a screening colonoscopy" moment.
I knew the surgeon in town I wanted to do it. He's a guy I trust as a colleague when he comes by and trusts my ability to do pathology on his biopsy cases.
The anesthesiologist who would be there is one of the best anywhere, IMO.
And I knew this surgeon always put people "clear out" for their colonoscopy.
For me to tell him how to do his business was unthinkable, because he would never tell me mine.
I was stuck.
So I gulped hard and decided to go through with it. I told no one about my secret fear--not even my priest or my priest associate. It was just too elemental, too secret, too embarrassing, too exposing of my need to control things. They just knew I was getting scoped.
What I remember most is waking up from the colonoscopy. As I went under, I thought to myself, "Ok, God, I'm telling you right now, if I die, I'm good with the world. I can deal with it. These are people I trust and who trust me in my job. So you, me, the world, is all square."
When I awoke, I said, "So when are we doing this?" and the anesthesiology resident said, "We're done, Doc!"
My next thought was, "Hey...wow...I'M ALIVE!"
I spent that whole day just being excited I was alive. I was so happy about it, as soon as I was able to drive again, I went over to church and mowed the yard. I felt absolutely invincible.
"I'm alive! Not only am I alive, I'm mowing the yard at church like nothing ever happened! Woo hoo! Forty-two years of fear were for nothing!"
So what does that have to do with nipsis?
The third week of Advent--the rose week--is all about joy in the middle of all this silent expectation. Stir up your power O Lord, and with great might come among us. When you've sat quietly for a while, a little interlude of joy is heavenly. It's the feeling of being borne up by what you cannot see.
I think back to when I was nine, and we went to visit my great uncle who lived on the Florida coast. They had a "little bitty hurricane" come up--like a level 1 or 2. The kids in the neighborhood invited me to come "play in the wind." They had this wonderfully strange game. When the wind picked up, you merely put your hands outstretched and leaned forward until you felt the wind "holding you up," and then you just let go your body and let the wind hold you up at a 45 degree angle. I remember how fun--how free--it felt just to be borne up in a storm. I remember the exhilaration with that.
Remember, nipsis implies a "waking from sleep." A new awareness. After all, if nipsis means "sober; not intoxicated," it means we are at our most awake and alert--our most sensory-ready to accept things wakefully.
Awareness is its own reward, but what about taking time to simply feel the joy from waking up and knowing we're not dead?
No matter what pain we've seen, no matter what misfortune befalls us, we can see what happens if we merely acknowledge the lack of our demise. When we do that, the nipsis of it allows us to lean forward and be borne up in the wind. We can awake from death, or at the very least, our projections of death.
The best part is we can let go--and let that God with great might not only hold us up, but stir up our souls, and let us go, "Wheeeeeee!"
"Although all Scripture breatheth the grace of God, yet sweet beyond all others is the Book of Psalms. History instructs, the Law teaches, Prophecy announces, rebukes, chastens, Morality persuades; but in the Book of Psalms we have the fruit of all these, and a kind of medicine for the salvation of men."
--St. Ambrose of Milan
No doubt, the part of the Bible that has become the most familiar to me ever since starting the spiritual practice of praying the Daily Office has become the Psalms. They get cycled through multiple times in a year. Conversely, if one prays the Psalms according to the method in the BCP as would be done in a monastic community, one would cycle through all the Psalms in a month!
We hear Psalms every Sunday in worship, we hear them at weddings and funerals, and of course, the ubiquitous Psalm 23 is everywhere from truck stop gift shops to tattoos.
Why do the Psalms hook us so?
Perhaps it's because they are full of raw emotion--joy, singing, dancing, and praise--as well as grief, lament, fear, and rage. Yet, somehow, in the Psalms it comes out all poetic.
If you examine the psalms, you will also notice a pattern, a "formula" for writing them. Additionally, ancient Hebrew scribes often used them for "copying practice"--hence the higher numbered ones often look very similar to the lower numbered ones.
But the "formula" of the Psalms is very simple and most all the Psalms consist of six parts:
1. God is addressed or invoked;
2. A situation, problem, or question is presented to God;
3. A statement of trust in God or an aspect of God is emphasized or stated;
4. A petition is made for God's intervention;
5. A response or acknowledgment to God is exclaimed; and finally,
6. The Psalm closes with praise to God.
The next time you feel yourself gripped by a very raw emotion, try writing a Psalm to express your feelings, using this formula. Above all, don't hold back the emotion. Don't try to clean it up and make it pretty. Use the language that you feel springing forth from yourself--cuss words and all, if it is a Psalm of anger or hurt or fear.
Finally, pray the Psalm you wrote, as an offering to God--more than once if necessary.
Here's an example. I had a difficult day at work recently where I felt like I was being attacked by people who were ignorant of the situation, but they were dead set on blaming it on me, and simply wanted to make me the object of their anger rather than the real culprit. If I were to write a Psalm about it, it might go like this:
Lord God, you see all and know the reasoning behind all things.
I cry out to you because my frustration renders me powerless.
I can handle people who approach me in ignorance, and I can handle those who are haughty;
But I can't handle the combination of both of them in a person.
They fling their poison at me,
When they don't even understand the root of the problem.
Their indignation wounds my soul
In ways they don't realize.
I cannot change them, Lord,
Nor force them to take back their haughty words.
But you have the power to change me,
You alone have the ability to transform all things anew.
Grant me the courage to be serene,
Soften my ego so I no longer care about their wrath.
Show me the river of your loving kindness,
Let it take me adrift to the place where you dwell.
I know that you are present in all things,
A guiding hand in all aspects of my life.
You alone are all power and glory,
You alone are the source of all serenity and peace.
See, it's not that tough!
Now let's try one of praise:
Almighty God, you made the stars and the planets,
you set them in their places and move them in their courses.
The night sky unfolds in front of me,
Innumerable points of light in the vastness of dark.
It blankets me in a sense of awe,
It covers me in your holy comfort like a favorite quilt.
You made these things for me, and me for them,
So I may never feel true loneliness.
Surround me with a sense of your presence,
Help me to always feel connected to it at all times, in all places.
I hear your voice in the stillness of night,
I see your handiwork in the heavens.
I praise you for the glory of the nighttime sky,
I honor you by sitting in its stillness.
You get the drift.
What I've discovered is "writing a Psalm about it" frees me from fretting about the details of the things that bother me and can make me obsess about them, as well as being able, in a sense, to "sing my praises." I can have both pain AND gratitude in the same prayer space, and let them simply coexist, by turning them over to God. As I re-read my "homemade Psalms," I can feel the painful part be replaced by light. In that light is our salvation, and our hope.
G'wan. Write a Psalm. Dare ya!
(Sign at the churchyard exit of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Edenton, NC)
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
That word "mission" is a really scary word for we "liturgical church types."
Well...you know...it sounds so...well...evangelical.
It sounds so...uh...fundamentalist.
It conjures up mental images of women in skirts with big hair and men in leisure suits sporting Conway Twitty-like hair, cornering unsuspecting victims and waving Chick Tracts in their faces. Visions of white-skinned do-gooders evangelizing the "heathens" in darkest Africa, or on native reservations, or worse yet, "winning souls for Christ" like there's some celestial BCS ranking for obtaining bowl bids in Heaven.
At its most benign, we might hear the word "mission" and think about things like relief in times of disaster--tornadoes, floods, earthquakes. Mission trips to build houses in places Mother Nature devastated or to drill wells in the Sudan so people will have fresh drinking water. Highly technical, logistically complicated "big projects." We are too often unable to wrap our heads around it and think, "I can't do that. I can't hardly take off work, let alone have any technical skills for organizing such a thing."
So because these sorts of words have been more or less co-opted by evangelicals, we tend not to use them or think about them. Because they historically imply a major undertaking in ways where we often know our skill set is very limited, we start feeling like the word "mission" means some big grand sweeping operation--something we know we would botch if put in charge of it. Or even be doing it.
Yet "mission" is right in your own back yard. It's at your workplace. It's right in your circle of friends.
Jesus didn't organize a relief society. He traveled from place to place, teaching and preaching and healing and simply being in the presence of the most marginalized members of society--the poor, the widowed, the blind, the lame, the leprous. He addressed the "others" of the society of that day as humans--the most common definition of "others" in the Gospels being the Samaritans, and women. For that matter, he provided almost nothing physical in the way of relief aid. He provided healing and hope.
Now, that's not to say anything against all the charitable works that churches do. They're necessary. They're needed. They're a wonderful opportunity for all of us to learn that "the other" is really "us." But it's not the only definition of "mission."
We simply have to look at the life and ministry of Jesus to find "mission."
Who are the "marginalized" in each of our individual worlds? I bet any of us can name them.
Then the next question is, "How can I give of myself to provide healing and hope for the marginalized in my world?" That's Mission 101 in a nutshell.
It certainly expands the vocabulary of "mission" to think of it in these terms.
Maybe it IS volunteering in a shelter or food kitchen or food pantry or jail ministry, or disaster relief. But maybe it's also the single mother down the street, or the marginalized cousin, or the bullied kid down the block. Maybe it's the widow who lives alone, your former, now-retired co-worker. Maybe it's your skills with social networking or your ability to put your fingers to the keyboard and blog.
Mission, mission, mission...all over the place...and when we actually can connect real faces and real hands to it, that word "mission" becomes less threatening, doesn't it?
It makes us a lot more willing to say, "Here am I; send ME!"
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
If you notice in the photo, a little tree is beginning to grow out of an old dead stump. In this particular photo, it's a birch tree growing out of a beech stump.
One of my odd childhood recollections is when the Dutch Elm Disease got so bad, in the mid-to-late 60's. So many little midwestern towns had these lovely canopies of stately, 80-100 year old elms that shaded the main streets of towns, and in just a few years, those streets were bare--devastated by the Dutch Elm Disease.
My grandparents' yard took a terrible hit from the Dutch Elm Disease. They lost several large to medium sized elms. Suddenly the shady backyard my dog Peetee and I played in was stark and bare and hot in the 100 degree/100% humid Augusts that are pretty typical in Missouri. All these bare stumps sat in the yard like grave markers.
Then, the next summer, I was out playing, and I saw it.
It was a little shoot coming out of one of the old dead elm stumps.
But it wasn't an elm. It was a little oak seedling.
I went and showed it to my granny. She told me it was a "stump sucker," and probably a squirrel had hidden an acorn under the bark last winter and had forgotten about it. "Oh, it'll probably die. Sometimes they find a way to take root, but mostly they don't." She told me there wasn't anything I could do to "help" it. It had to either make it on its own, or die. I remember feeling a little sorry for it--like I was looking at something on Death Row.
It was one of the first things I prayed about in earnest that I remember, other than the rote prayers I had learned for bedtime and in Sunday School, and the prayers that were more like wish lists to Santa. What's odd is, I think I remember it because I did something that now seems sort of counter-intuitive to a little kid. I didn't pray for it to live. I prayed for it to not struggle.
I don't remember all my thoughts about it--after all, this was a long time ago--but I remember what bothered me the most about that stump sucker was that I didn't want it to get big enough to "start thinking it could really be a tree, and then starve." I thought about the time one of our dogs had a litter of puppies and one was deformed, and my dad killed it on the spot. Upset, I ran to find my grandpa. "It can't ever live like that," my grandpa told me, "So he had to put it out of its misery. It wouldn't be right for it to just get to start to live, and sicken and die. Dogs don't understand those things the way people do."
So I had this worry--and I never told any of the grownups my worry--that the little shoot would just get to figuring out it was a tree, and die. I had thought about just ripping it out and killing it, but I didn't, because I realized my grandparents sort of enjoyed looking at it, and I would probably be spanked if I did. So I left it alone and worried, and in a roundabout way, prayed it would die.
But it didn't die. It grew--and grew--and grew some more, with each passing year.
If you drive by what used to be my grandparents' house, in that spot is about a 50 foot tall oak tree. It's now wider than the stump from which it came.
I think it was one of my first lessons that "God's plan is not always my plan, and on the whole, God's is better. What I think ought to happen 'for the best,' isn't always what happens, and I'm often wrong about that."
So where's the nipsis in our reading from Isaiah for the second week of Advent?
Some of nipsis, I think, is being aware of opportunity, even opportunity in which we don't quite believe is possible. Sometimes, I think we take the fatalistic approach to shield ourselves from our own pain. When I think back to my childhood story, I have to ask myself: Did I really want the tree not to "die in the knowledge that it could have been a tree," or was I really saying, "I don't want the pain of watching this tree die?" Did I want to kill the stump sucker "to put it out of its misery," or did I want to put myself out of my misery?
Well, probably some of both. I think compassion is a double edged razor blade. We feel for others because we feel things within ourselves.
Within each of us, I believe, is the same stump of Jesse that was in Jesus.
I think each of us finds, as we begin to grow spiritually, the emergence of little stump suckers. They are alike in that they are "trees" but they are different as divinity is to humanity, as oaks are to elms and birches to beeches. Some of them won't make it; they'll die. But some will grow...and grow...and grow some more if we simply don't get impatient with our own pain and rip them out. Stately, rich trees, springing from places where trees are not supposed to grow.
Advent is a time to simply wonder what seeds are hidden within us. Not the seeds we know we planted ourselves, but the acorns that squirrels might have left behind and have forgotten. It's a time to accept things will grow despite lack of care, despite our lack of awareness, and whether we want them to or not. They might even grow when we are secretly praying for them to die.
Really, this isn't any different than the virgin birth, now, is it? Things growing within us when we have never "known" how they got there.
Perhaps that's the greatest miracle of all.