Kirkepiscatoid

Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

 


(Photo of uprooted tree following Hurricane Sandy, Summit, NJ, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A Litany for the Aftermath of Severe Acts of Weather
by Maria L. Evans

Eternal God, you are the ground of all being.
Comfort those who find themselves on shaky ground
in the days following nature's devastating power.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


For those who have suffered loss of life as a result of nature's wrath,
we ask for the repose of their souls.
For those who grieve their loss and those injured,
we ask for your healing touch upon their hearts and in their lives.
For those who have returned to total or severe loss of property,
we ask for them to glimpse a glimmer of hope within disorienting devastation.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Author of creation, your handiwork reveals you continually make all things new.
Reveal the green and growing places that rise from the heart of tragedy;
Strength to rebuild,
Courage to be led into new directions,
and acceptance of what is gone forever.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of transformation, we also seek your presence in the hearts of those spared by this tragedy.
Grant them a generous spirit,
a willing heart,
and an open hand towards the displaced, the traumatized, and the fearful.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who preached that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,
We humbly pray.
Amen.
 

 

(Arial view of Hurricane Sandy, October 23, 2012, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A Litany for Those in the Path of Seasonal Storms
by Maria L. Evans

Sovereign God, you are master of the mighty wind and torrential rain,
In your mercy, hear our prayer.

All-knowing God, you know each boat on the stormy sea and each soul aboard it:  Mighty tanker, tiny tugboat, stately sailboat, and Coast Guard cutter.  Grant your peace to all who weather the tempest and strain to reach land or punch through the storm.  Especially be present with those whose life and work is to search for the lost and rescue the perishing at sea.
 In your mercy, hear our prayer.

All-perceiving God, stretch your hand upon those on land in the path of this storm, and those who have been affected by it: The displaced, the evacuated, and those who bring aid in times of peril--first responders, power and light crews, and disaster relief.
In your mercy, hear our prayer.

Comforter God, shelter all who fear for their own lives or the lives of others during this storm.  Comfort especially those families with a loved one whose whereabouts are unknown.
In your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord God, king of the universe, you are the God of deliverance; the God whose Son walked on water over the stormy seas; the God of the covenant of the rainbow.  Help us to take heart in the face of terror, stand firm in our faith in You in the cloud of unknowing, and carry us forward into rebuilding a future once the path of destruction has subsided.  In the name of your Son who commands the wind and the waves to do his will, we humbly pray.
Amen. 

 


("The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful," by James Tissot, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Mark 10:17 - 31:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”



It's a heavy Gospel this week, and I suspect a lot of people who are expected to be in the pulpit Sunday are wondering, "What am I supposed to do with this one?"

I can't even imagine what it must be like to preach this one to a well-heeled congregation...or a dirt poor one...especially during "stewardship season."  (I can just envision all the folks in the pews thinking, "Yeah, and he/she is gonna tell me, "Pledge it to the church!  Pffft.")

We really struggled with it in our Tuesday Text Study and Eucharist.  Worse yet, we hold our text study in the dining room of one of the local nursing homes.  The irony was not lost on me that we were discussing this whole "sell all that you have and give it to the poor" paradox in a place where many of the folks there ARE selling all that they have, so they'll be down to their last $999.99 to be eligible for Medicaid to pick up the tab on their nursing home.  They are spending all that they have so they will BE one of the poor, so they can get the care they need.

Actually, the text is a double paradox.  In that way Mark likes to string things together in pairs, we first experience the rich young man's sorrow at Jesus' reply to his question.  In his mind, eternal life seems nigh onto impossible.  In the second half of the text, we see Jesus once again having to put the slapdown on Peter:

Peter:  "But Jesus, we DID do that, we dropped everything and followed you.  You did notice that, right?"

Jesus:  "Yep, Peter, I did.  And you will be paid a hundredfold for that--in crap.  Trust me on this one.  

I thought about that in the context of my year-and-a-half long house remodeling.  I am now at the phase where I joke that I'm repatriating my house now.  I'm starting to move things back in, out of what I didn't toss or give away during the "gutting the house" phase that preceded this present phase.  As many of you know, I tossed and gave away quite a bit. But as I'm starting to put things in the proper storage spots in the closet and in the house, I am opening the packed boxes and throwing out the things I couldn't seem to do in the first round.  Every box I've opened, I've looked at at least one thing in each box where I went, "I can't keep all this, I've got to throw even more of this stuff out."  Lots of things that made the first cut are not making the second cut.

This activity has reminded me that we are NEVER finished when it comes to the process of "throwing out our crap."  There's always something more we can give up.  Just when we think we've done it right, we look around and go, "Well, really, that there thing can go, too."  Not only that, when we do get around to throwing those things out, and feeling good about it, someone always comes along and tells you what a dumb idea it was for you to throw it out.  "But you might NEED that!  You'll be sorry when you find that out."

What's intriguing about this story, I think, is that in some ways, what Jesus is saying is not meant to be taken literally (otherwise, we'd all be running around naked a la St. Francis renouncing his fine clothing in the middle of town)--yet, in some ways we are ABSOLUTELY supposed to take this story literally.  It's about choosing our relationship with God over our relationship with "stuff."

What Jesus is telling the rich young man, I believe, is, "If eternal life is all about checking off all the correct actions and good works, well, then, it's impossible for people to do it on their own.  Eternal life is not a scavenger hunt. Eternal life is about being in relationship with God and community in such a loving way that we would even give up the things that matter to us the most in order to sit in that state of love.  Are you ready to be open to the possibility you are asking to love God THAT much?"

Yet at the same time, he tells Peter and the disciples that someone who does choose to follow him are not going to be understood--AT ALL--by those closest to us.  

To truly live the Gospel is a dangerous and scandalous business, and comes with no guarantee other than being aware of the power of the love of God to the point you will always find something new to give away.  It means you'll want that love not just for yourself, but for others.  It means that for that deep a love, you'll agree to live in a world where the scrawny person gets to sit at the head of the table, the last one to the party gets to come home with the best participation gifts, and the kid whose last name starts with the letter Z gets to graduate first.  It means money and possessions will always get in the way when you least expect it, because money and possessions are the gold standard of our delusion of control. The world continually tells us, "If you have enough of that stuff, you will be okay.  You will be safe.  You will be content."

Of course, then we discover what any addict knows.  There's never enough.  We will always want more, and getting it is never as good as the first time we had it.  To live the Gospel is to accept we already have more than enough, no matter what, and it's enough to share with others.

What is lurking around the corner in each of our lives that puts us one step closer to living the scandalous Gospel lifestyle?

 

(The April 2012 team of missioners from the Diocese of Missouri to the Diocese of Lui, Republic of South Sudan, with Bishop Stephen Dokolo and his wife Lillian, courtesy of Lui Network)

When I was 25 years old, and was considering the possibility of returning to school to go to medical school, one of my dearest mentors told me, "If you weren't going to be a doctor, I think you'd either be a firefighter or a missionary."  I told him in no uncertain terms just how full of baloney he was about that "missionary" thing.  I had pushed religion to the periphery of my world.  I had walked out the door of the institutional church and had no intention of ever returning.  I thought his statement was absolutely crazy.

Well, it's official.  I am hereby officially eating those words I told my mentor over 25 years ago.  In fact, he's 81 years old and I told him, "Well, I was wrong and you were right."  I think he was glad to have lived long enough to get an apology from me on that one!

You see, I am on the team of missioners traveling to Lui in the Republic of South Sudan from November 25-December 12.  Believe me, it's exciting.  I hope I can bring something of myself to these people that they need to prosper in God's service.  I am sure this trip will change me, but am not speculating on the "how" of that--I think I'll leave that one open to the Holy Spirit.

If you would like to read more about my diocese's relationship with Lui, my blogging pal Lisa Fox has written about it many times on her blog.  Two of my favorite posts she's written on Lui are here and here.  If I were to pick the person who could match my own excitement about this trip, it would be Lisa.  

I invite you to be a ministry of presence for our team.  There are many ways to participate in this ministry:

1.  Follow the action in the next few weeks on the Lui Partners Network.
2.  Hold our team in prayer at this time.  (I suspect I will be thinking, "Toto, we are definitely not in Kirksville," a lot on this mission.)
3.  Offer a donation to the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri here.  Please select the "Diocese of Lui" button.  Also, at the bottom of this page is a box where you can earmark your donation; if you would earmark it in support of missioner Maria Evans, I'd be very grateful.
4.  Publicize this mission on your blog or Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Thank you in advance for your prayers and support.  I hope to be able to blog "boots on the ground" some, as well as upon my return!




Lord, take me where You want me to go,
let me meet who You want me to meet,
tell me what You want me to say,
and keep me out of Your way.

--Prayer of Mychal Judge, OFM


If I were allowed one edit of "Holy Women, Holy Men" it would be to give Fr. Mychal Judge a feast day on Sept. 11.

I won't re-iterate the whole story; it's well described at this site.  Additionally, you can watch the documentary on him here.

But for me, he's why those of those of us who embrace a more catholic form of Christianity (be it of Episcopal/Anglican persuasion, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox) pay attention to the calendar of saints and liturgical feast days.

We forget just how human saints are when we start writing icons and creating paintings and statues.  But I can sit with the humanity of Mychal Judge.

Friar.
Alcoholic.
Gay man.
Follower of Jesus in a way that sometimes ran afoul of those who had authority over him.
A person unashamed to laugh loud, weep deeply, pray always--and in the hour that became the hour of his death, to be unafraid to enter the gates of that Hell called the North Tower to find his sheep, praying almost until the moment of his death.

He's a saint to me because my deepest hope is that I could have that level of fearlessness in following Christ, and my deepest fear is that I would not.

But because of him, I can feel confident that someone whose humanity I can identify with IS capable of it.  God forbid and God willing, I hope I could do the same if it were me.

St. Mychal, pray for us on this September 11.




(Page from the Book of Job in the Syriac Bible of Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, August 26, 2012) 

Daily Office Readings for Sunday, August 26, 2010:

Psalm 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalm 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Job 4:1-6, 12-21
Revelation 4:1-11
Mark 6:1-6a

Job 4:1-6, 12-21 (NRSV):


Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?

“Now a word came stealing to me, my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh bristled. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice: ‘Can mortals be righteous before God? Can human beings be pure before their Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error; how much more those who live in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like a moth. Between morning and evening they are destroyed; they perish forever without any regarding it. Their tent-cord is plucked up within them, and they die devoid of wisdom.’


Job's friend Eliphaz means well.  In our reading today (and in the subsequent paragraphs of this passage) Eliphaz, relating his dream, reminds Job of something that's an important reminder to all of us--that we're a pretty small speck in the universe, and it's not about "us" but about God--but then Eliphaz messes up his own soliloquy at the end.  He finishes off with that "Are you SURE you haven't done something wrong?  You HAD to do something wrong to have God THIS mad at you," bit.

Eliphaz reminds me a lot of those people, who, when I've been in the middle of a major life stressor, say things that they think are "kind"--(or even "Christian")--and by my way of thinking, they're so theologically far off the mark that I want to just take a stick and clobber the person--but they're my friends, so I don't. (Well, and also because it would be assault and the State Board of Healing Arts would have issues with that.)

"God doesn't give us anything we can't handle."  (Baloney.  God is not a personal spiritual fitness trainer, forcing me to do spiritual ab crunches "for my own good," and with a "no pain, no gain," mentality.)

"God needed an angel so that's why so-and-so had to die."  (Oh, give me a break.  God has plenty of angels.  And if I die prematurely, and I find out that was the reason, God and I are gonna have some words, for sure, pulling me out of the middle of all the good stuff I was working on, and away from all the love in my life.  That sounds kinda imperiously needy to me.)

"Everything happens for a reason."  (Well, maybe, but I don't think the reason is, "Because God is a manipulator and a micromanager.")

But you get the drift.

The fact is, we have no right to project God on any other person.  We have enough to do in sifting out God's call in our own lives.  As painful as it is for Job's friends, Job needs to be in his place of misery to get where he is going in his relationship with God.

I have read the book of Job many times in the deepest darkest hours of my own lament, and trust me, I can become very Job-like, figuratively throwing ashes on my head and not eating or sleeping well and generally looking pitiful.  But like Job, there's a place where God finally watches all this dramatic misery and finds a way to say in a roundabout way, "Oh, for crying out loud, Maria, you act as if I'm not in charge around here.  Get over yourself."  But other people telling me to get over myself never works.

The more I read the book of Job, the more strongly I wish his friends would have just sat with him in his misery and just been with him, with few words.  Maybe just pray alongside of him or offer sacrifices for healing of his tragic troubles.

This is a place where, when we fast forward, any of us might begin to see where "just being who we are in our parish community and at worship" is critically important.  It's where services such as healing services, comfort services, recovery services, and "blue Christmas" services can be deep wells of ministry.  It's where things like blessings and anointings become important parts of that healing.  Who can each of us be in those places as steadfast people of love and quiet faith?  I know when I look back at the hardest times of my life, the people who just hung out with me and checked in with me "for no reason" were the people I came to love more deeply in a new way, and it often made room for me to be the same way for someone new, who was going through a rough patch.

Where is each of us called to simply sit and be, in the course of another person's pain?  Where's the empty spot in the life of the church where we can fill a vital ministry of presence for others?



(Photo of caution sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, August 19, 2012) 

Daily Office readings for Sunday, August 19, 2012:

Psalm 118 (Morning)
Psalm 145 (Evening)
Judges 16:15-31
2 Corinthians 13:1-11
Mark 5:25-34

2 Corinthians 13:1-11:

This is the third time I am coming to you. “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient— since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed.

But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

Our Epistle today evokes remembrances of those times in our lives where we have been in the un-enviable position of knowing in our heart of hearts that we made a decision or chose a path of action that ultimately was the right thing, but all external evidence at the time we did it screamed that we had failed.  It's a reading that is flanked by two other readings supportive to it--we are reminded in the story of Samson that all of us are vulnerable to other people in certain ways or to certain people, and our Gospel story today of the woman with hemorrhages calls to mind those feelings of uncleanliness over things to which we were powerless.

Also, on a personal note, as the mysterious powers of the Daily Office Lectionary often do, this particular scripture came up on a day that for me, is the anniversary of a day some years ago that began my own personal dark walk through a situation where, in retrospect, I had done the right thing but it sure didn't seem like it at the time.  In fact, for a long time, the verdict would have been that I was the transgressor.

All of us have situations that show up in our lives where even those close to us think we're making a mistake, or popular opinion is that we are "the bad guy," or just where we happen to be carries preconceived notions.  The communities of the early church, Corinth included, were probably looked upon with a lot of preconceived notions and there's no doubt rumors circulated about them that were less than flattering.  In a way, it's no different than when people hear the word "Christian" and think that community believes things that may or may not be applicable ("doesn't believe in dinosaurs," "ignorant," "hates GLBT people," etc.)  As individuals, words carry preconceived messages, too.  In things like divorces, the firing of employees, child custody suits, arrests, and charges, people are going to believe what they choose to believe.  The only truths that last in those stories are the truths that are borne out over time--and of course, the problem is we all have to live long enough for those to surface.  It's why in all communities with a public face, the church included, that infighting and dissension become magnified in the public eye.  Human nature is that people are quick to tear down anything that has been raised up for any reason.

Paul's exhortation to the people of the church of Corinth is to do things for a greater truth--the truth of the Good News in Christ.  He asks them to do something that is a hallmark of Twelve Step Programs--to look to themselves first, and test themselves first as to their motives and actions--to always be open to self-questioning and the possibility that what, at the moment, feels like "failure" may not ultimately be failure, but instead, growth.

When you look back at the stories in your own life, where are the places that felt like "failure" but turned out instead to be growth spurts?  Where are the places that felt like despair that turned out to be seeds of a bigger hope?



(Snake handling in church, Harlan County, Kentucky, 1946, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, August 23, 2012) 

In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.
--Lauren Pond, from the May 31 Washington Post article, "Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith"

This story still haunts me--not so much from the story, per se (I have no intention to handle vipers, personally) but because this is how the popular media views "faith."

Randy "Mack" Wolford was one of a small group of people whose ministry takes the words in Mark 16:17-18 literally:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Yet, I could not help but think of what Jesus said in Matthew 4:2-12, based on Deuteronomy 6:16:  "Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

It's disturbing that for the writers of secular news, "faith" is too often defined as "doing things that reek of magical thinking, including some pretty crazy things."  Faith is seen as handling snakes, or thinking the world is coming to an end on a particular date, or eschewing evolution for a literal seven day creation.  Now, these are the more severe cases.  But even with the smaller stuff, it's clear that magical thinking is equated with Christianity in the secular press.

However, before we get too high and mighty about Mack Wolford's untimely and tragic death, the truth is, we're all guilty of some degree of magical thinking somewhere now and then.  Fact is, any time we are praying for a particular outcome, we are, albeit in a usually very minor way, putting God to the test.  We pray for our loved ones to change their behavior, or for something to be reconciled with an "and everyone lived happily ever after," ending.  We pray for uncertain medical diagnoses to turn out benign over malignant, or perhaps we pray for malignancies to be Stage I when we fear Stage IV.  We pray for rain and for the cessation of rain.  We pray for safe travel for our particular loved one but don't think ten nanoseconds about every other person on the road in that prayer.

Oh, I think at the time, we're just being earnest.  From another angle, though, it's pretty clear we, at times, assign outcomes to our prayers and pray for the things to happen in a certain way so that our petitions are fulfilled by our specifications.

Show of hands--how many of us have prayed for a specific outcome, and the exact opposite thing happened? 

Yeah, me too. 

Truth is, too often we've played God in our prayer life, and too often, the results reminded us we're not God.  If we're not open to the awareness of the futility of praying for things to meet our specifications, it can breed feelings of skepticism and disbelief, as well as resentments towards God about the outcome.  God's neither the celestial suggestion box, nor a supernatural catalog order form.

That said, it's not cause to chastise ourselves, either, when we come to that realization that we've been blurring the lines between our wills and that nebulous thing called God's will.

The other truth in this complex thing called prayer is that it's only human to express our desires to God.  Sometimes, prayer is the only means by which we ever get around to revealing the deepest core of those desires to ourselves.  It's why one of my particular favorites among the collects available following the prayers of the people is this one:

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and
earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and
strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.


That collect doesn't say, "Do all the things we just asked."  It simply asks for God to receive our prayers, and to strengthen us to do God's will.  It asks for God to hear us, and for us to hear God.  It changes the focus to the relationship rather than the outcome.

What changes in us when we stop handling the deadly snake of praying for a particular outcome and instead invest in the act of prayer being the purpose of prayer?  Will we discover that we get "bitten" by the outcomes of our life situations less frequently?




(Damage to memorial in St. Margaret's Church in London, from being hit by an oil bomb during WWII.) 

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, August 12, 2012) 

Readings for Sunday, August 12, 2012:

Psalm 66, 67 (Morning)
Psalm 19, 46 (Evening)
Judges 11:1-11, 29-40
2 Corinthians 11:21b-31
Mark 4:35-41

Judges 11:1-11, 11:29-40:

Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him.

After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.” But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?” The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter is, frankly, one of the most awful and misongynistic stories in the Hebrew Bible, and it's very difficult for me to read it and hope for finding much of anything redeeming in it.  Even Phyllis Trible's attempt at deepening this story in Texts of Terror doesn't do much for me.  The part that particularly irritates me is that the girl was just dancing and singing like folks of that time normally did after a great victory (think of a cross between what happened after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and escaped the Egyptians mixed with people chanting, "USA! USA!" after Olympic events) and she just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with regards to Jephthah's vow.  If that's not enough, Jephthah speaks to his daughter like this is somehow HER fault.  (What's with this "YOU have brought me very low; YOU have become the cause of great trouble," garbage, anyway?  Let's all sing another verse of Blame the Victim.)

There are so many things in the Bible that my first thought is "What bright light bulb allowed THIS to be left in as Holy Scripture?" that I do not like at all.  This story.  The rape of Tamar. Paul's statements in the Epistles about women and the ones people now use to claim the "sin" in stable, loving homosexual relationships.  Several things in Revelation...no, I take that back.  Pretty much all of Revelation.  I think I'd even let the three or four good verses in there go by the wayside to get rid of all the apocalyptic stuff.

But then I step back and think, "Well...maybe that's the point.  Maybe it's there to remind me I don't have to like everything that happened in the Bible in order for it to be a transformational experience in my life or in my community of faith.  Everything doesn't have to go my way to feel closer to God."  In fact, maybe I'm not supposed to like it, in the same way I no longer have to like the seamier side of American history in order to appreciate being American.  I probably should not like what happened at Wounded Knee, nor what happened under the Jim Crow laws of the South, nor what happened to Carrie Buck under the eugenics laws of the early 20th century in Buck vs. Bell.

It rings hollow, truthfully, when we try to justify everything that happened in Holy Scripture as actually being holy acts, or try to skirt around them by means of Christian apologetics.  It's also just as hollow when we attempt work-arounds with the failings of Christianity.  We don't have to like what the Jesuits did to the natives of the southwestern U.S., we don't have to like Martin Luther's anti-Semitism, and we don't have to like how the Episcopal Church "converted" Native Americans by making them feel sinful about their own cultures and traditions, only to, sometimes, abandon them after they did it, much as our church did to the Alaskan natives to some degree.  Pretending that the institutional church's icky past is not icky, is...well...even more icky than if we would just fess up to it.

Perhaps our call is merely to sit silently with these things and feel them, and only then postulate what actions would help us to do better and then act accordingly.  I think about a time I worshiped in St. Margaret's in London.  There's a place where a German oil bomb damaged one of the walls in 1940.  The folks at St. Margaret's didn't try to cover it up or rebuild it; instead they opted to make the repairs necessary to preserve the integrity of the building, and they worship there now, scars and all.  Perhaps the challenge for us on many levels is to worship anyway, despite the scars, and to focus on the integrity of our "building," the body of Christ, in the present moment, allowing our corporate past sins to be what they are.  Perhaps our task is not to attempt to justify their existence, but instead to embrace a new one.


 




(Etching of Gideon and the angel, by Ferdinand Bol, circa 1640, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, August 5, 2012) 

Judges 6:1-24 (NRSV:)

The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian the Israelites provided for themselves hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds. For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in. Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.

When the Israelites cried to the Lord on account of the Midianites, the Lord sent a prophet to the Israelites; and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of slavery; and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land; and I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.”

Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return.” So Gideon went into his house and prepared a kid, and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour; the meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the oak and presented them. The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.



The story of Gideon's call reminds us today of the standard, stock answer we humans tend to give when we first hear and recognize it..."You've got the wrong person.  I'm too (fill in the blank.)  I'm just a (fill in the blank.)"  I'm the lowest member of the least, no-account clan in town.  The Bible is full of these "I'm too" and "I'm just a" moments.  I'm too young, I'm too old, I'm too slow of tongue.  I'm just a boy, I'm just a shepherd, I'm just an outsider.

We're also reminded of those time when our efforts are destroyed by others, seemingly just for the sake of doing it, and how it teaches us hoarding instincts.  The Israelites are planting seed, and as soon as anyone notices it sprouting, here come the Midianites and the Amalekites to lay it waste.  Anyone who was ever a younger sibling can recall those times sitting happily, stacking blocks or Legos, only to have an older brother or sister lurking around the corner, watching intently, and then, just at the right moment, roar through the room smashing those carefully-planned construction projects.  We are taught from an early age to do those things we really care about in secret.

When the angel accepts Gideon's offering, a fire springs up, and we all know the converse of the old saw "Where there's smoke, there's fire"--where there's fire, there's also smoke--smoke that everyone can see.  The Midianites and the Amalekites can surely see smoke off in the distance, and it's clear someone has something to offer.

The terms of the offering are interesting, too.  Gideon is told to pour out the broth in the pot--to throw out the stock.  Any of us who've ever cooked a roast or a chicken would never think of such a thing.  Pour out the stock, how crazy is that?  We can make noodles out of that.  We can make stew.  Why, there are all kinds of goodies we can make of that, and one never knows when we might need it.  But no--Gideon is told to pour off what we'd normally hold back and save.

As we grow in faith, one of the discoveries we often make is that God constantly calls to us to offer up more of what we have, even in times when we feel there are vandals at the gate, lurking in the shadows to tear our works apart.  We're told to sow time and time again, even if we are afraid.  God's antidote to fear is "keep doing ministry."  I remember a very fearful time in the life of my parish when a wise friend's best advice was "just keep doing your ministries, keep doing what you sense that you are called to do."  Turns out she was right about that.

Another thing we discover is God just sort of chuckles at "I'm too..." and "I'm just a..." and says, "You know, I've heard that one before."  I suspect God has heard them all.  Like the angel in our reading today, God simply sits patiently under the oak tree waiting for us to come around to God's way of thinking, and says, "You silly thing, I've been sitting here all along."

What, do you suppose, is in the works for your life, where God has been quietly, patiently sitting under the oak tree at your house, waiting for you to come around to God's way of thinking about your part in it? 

 

(Roman bowl with the raising of Lazarus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, July 29, 2012)

Readings for the feast day of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany:

Psalm 36:5–10
Ruth 2:5–12
Romans 12:9–13
John 11:1–7, 17–44



John 11:1–7, 17–44 (NRSV:)


Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”


When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”


When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go."


Sometimes I wonder if we don't look at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus too doggone piously.  What seems clear is that Jesus had a relationship with them that was more like...well...buddies.  BFF's.  His peeps.  Mates, had he been Australian.  One gets the distinct feeling that when Jesus hung out with them, he could just "take his collar off," so to speak, and just be Jesus.  He didn't have to bother with his professional role as Son of God.  He could burp loudly at the dinner table, scratch his butt, and fart, and they'd laugh and harass him good-naturedly.  I'm sure it was a little tricky at times.  It was probably one of those things that psychologists and sociologists call "dual relationships"--something many professional folk have to work through in small towns or close-knit communities.  The boundaries are there, but they're a little hard to see at times.  When we know a professional in a non-professional setting, we sometimes forget who that person really is in the eyes of others.  When we're the professional, we long for people in our lives that treat us like regular folk, but we still have to be careful to preserve certain boundaries and limits.  We mess it up more than we'd like to admit.


It's irritating that some of the people who write commentaries dump on Martha in this story, sometimes inferring that Martha was behaving sinfully or self-servedly.  I think she was just deeply in shock and grief, and recognized she didn't need Jesus their buddy, she needed Jesus the Son of God.  But she was used to talking to Jesus her buddy.  I suspect when Jesus was having dinner at Martha's house, she told him things like "Get up, so I can clean under that chair.  Stop bothering me while I'm fixing dinner.  Go sit down and read the Torah and get out of my hair.  I know you're hungry--but this stuff doesn't cook itself.  If you wanted to be a real help, why don't you take this stuff and turn it into dinner like you turned water into wine at Cana!  What good are ya, anyway?"  She probably bossed him around a bit in her house.  After all, it was HER house.


More than likely, she was just hurting and it came out sideways, much the same way we accidentally come off mean or hurtful to those closest to us.  We tend to launch on the ones we love the most--after all, they're supposed to be able to read our minds and understand intuitively, right?


Add to the mix that Jesus has also seemingly lost one of his best friends to the reality of death.  He wept over Lazarus' passing.  I suspect this was not a brave sniffle or two but real heavy-duty wailing and waterworks, because it got the attention of the looky-loos that tagged along.  One can just imagine them going, "Hey, he's really crying about this!"


It's a story that most of us can find ourselves endeared to everyone in the story, if we choose to hear it from the point of every character in it.  Martha?  Wounded and grieving to the core and angry?  Been there, done that.  Jesus?  Losing one of the few people in this world who probably really understands us, not a spouse yet an intimate friend, but surrounded by people who expect him to behave like "the professional Jesus?"  Yep, we can go there too...and Lazarus?  Dead to what's going on around us and bound and waking up without a clue?  Oh yeah!


It's a great story to remind us of the power of love in the middle of the messiness of love--and whatever boundaries separate us in our common life toghether, God has a way to work with them.


Our culture rewards love--but only to a point.  We tend to think of love only in terms of romance, marriage, partnership--"that special someone"--and the extensions of it via our progeny.  I've always thought it a shame that we use one word for where the Greeks used three--filios, eros, and agape--love like we have for siblings, romantic/sexual love, and the kind of love that is just plain awe for things bigger than us.  We act like eros has the trump card--but in reality all three are equally powerful and help us understand the kind of love God has for us.  What we see in the Lazarus story is the power of filios and agape.  We sell our ability to love short when we ignore these two at the expense of eros.


What happens in our lives when we admit the depth of the love we have for our friends?  What changes for us when we love despite the boundaries that confuse it?  How does admitting the power of filios and agape change us in our life journey as followers of Jesus?




(Nikolai Bodarevsky's "Trial of the Apostle Paul," 1875, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 22, 2012) 

Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 22, 2012:

Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11), 98 (Morning)
Psalm 44 (Evening)
Joshua 6:15-27
Acts 22:30-23:11
Mark 2:1-12

Acts 22:30-23:11 (NRSV:)

Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.’”

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”


One of my favorite brands of jokes from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour is the "...and that's when the fight started..." jokes.  (They almost always involve a tactless husband who puts his foot in it by saying things that "...and that's when the fight started..." would be my next move, too, if my theoretical husband told me that!)

Well, our reading in Acts today is definitely an "...and that's when the fight started..." moment.  Paul has been arrested, not just for his controversial preaching, but because he also allegedly brought Greeks into the temple in Jerusalem.  (He had been seen in the company of Trophimus the Ephesian in the city, and some folks were stretching tales a bit.)  He had been bound by the Roman soldiers and subsequently unbound when it was discovered that he was a Roman citizen.  All the same, the tribune wanted to see what he fuss was all about, and brought him to stand before the Sanhedrin.  Paul quickly notices that there are both Pharisees and Sadducees on the council, so when asked of the charges he says he's on trial "concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead."

Paul's no fool; he knows that the Pharisees, by and large, are in acceptance of the relatively new notion at the time that there was a resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees are not.

...and that IS when the fight started...a really ugly one, and apparently more about the possibility of the resurrection of the dead, between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, than it was about Paul...one so ugly that the tribune feared for Paul's life and brought him back to the Roman barracks with him.  Protective custody, as it were.

It's a reminder that speaking the blunt or unpopular truth, even a truth told in love, is risky business, and the truth-teller can be torn to bits in the process.  Once the truth is out, things may never well be the same.  It reminds me of those truths that get told in an intervention.  A family member might finally screw up the courage to tell the raw truth of how the addict in the family has caused them harm.  It hurts.  It's painful.  A fight might break out in the family.  But when talking to folks in recovery, the story they often tell is of how those truths touched something deep inside of them, and became the nucleus for a desire to change.

So many times we enter a tense situation hoping that everyone will play nice, and only rarely does that happen.  However, even in the tension, we can hear the stories of resurrection, hope and healing.    Proclaiming the Good News in Christ with a message of inclusion rather than judgment or exclusion can sound unsettling, disorienting, or radical to people who have been steeped in the negative press clippings of Christianity.  It can put us in the middle of a tense situation indeed.  But it's the stuff recovery is made of, and the stuff our Baptismal Covenant is made of.  It challenges us to seek and serve Christ through new permutations of a two thousand year old message.

Are we ready to invite others to the inclusive, revealed truth of the resurrected Christ, even if a fight breaks out?





(Righteous Gentile certificate, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Monday, July 16, 2012) 


Reading for the feast day of The Righteous Gentiles:

Psalm 11
Joshua 2:1-21
Colossians 3:1-4
John 19:10-15

John 19:11 (NRSV:)

Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

Although this feast day actually honors the 23,000 known individuals who helped relocate Jews in Nazi-occupied countries during the Holocaust, five particular people are set apart on this day by example:  Raoul Wallenberg, Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV, Carl Lutz, Chiune Sugihara, and André Trocmé, who in many ways emulated Rahab the prostitute in our Hebrew Bible reading today.  Like Rahab, each was an unlikely ally in a subterfuge where the end result was the sparing of many lives.

Out of these five people, I find Chiune Sugihara's calls to me most.  Sugihara (and his wife Yukiko) somehow found within themselves to generate, by hand, a month's worth of paperwork a day, for 29 days, in the form of transport visas, that would save the lives of roughly 40,000 Jewish refugees.  It's an amazing story that illustrates the paradox between a call to obedience vs. a call to righteous living--and how a single life can possibly hold the trump card in the balance.

"Obedience" had most likely been ingrained in Chiune Sugihara's maternal DNA for generations.  He was from a samurai family who adhered to the code of Bushido, which stressed loyalty to country and family above all else, and ritual suicide for acts that shamed either authority.  Yet, even before he became the Japanese consul general in Kaunas, Lithuania, he had experienced several tests of that loyalty.  A brilliant student, his father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine.  Sugihara went against his father's wishes and studied literature, English, and later, Russian.  While studying Russian, he once again displayed an individualistic streak and converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  He rose high and fast in the ranks of the Diplomatic Corps as a result of his disciplined, obedient character.  Yet, when faced with a crowd of Jewish refugees, desperate to flee the Nazis, at the consul gates in July 1940, he chose to disobey his superiors and help them.

Three times he wired Tokyo for permission to issue transit visas.  Three times he was denied.

Sugihara, after discussion with his family, decided to issue them anyway, and issue them he did.  He and Yukiko filled out visas by hand and registered them, over 300 a day, for 29 days, barely eating or sleeping, hands aching from cramps and spasms, until the consulate closed.  He was still filling out visas from the train window as it was pulling out of the station, and in a final gesture, gave his visa stamp to a refugee who used it to save even more refugees.

What tipped the balance for Chiune Sugihara, between obedience to worldly authority and obedience to a higher authority?  Historians believe it may well have been an eleven year old boy, Zalke Jenkins (also known by the anglicized name, Solly Ganor.)  He met the boy in a chance encounter at his aunt's store, and had given him two Lithuanian lit (two Lithuanian dollars) as a result of overhearing his desire to go see a Laurel and Hardy movie.  The boy was so touched he invited Sugihara's family to celebrate Hanukkah with his family.  The Sugiharas were so delighted and touched by the celebration they became good friends with the family.  Ironically, when Sugihara started issuing visas, Zalke/Solly and his father could not use them--they were Russian, not Lithuanian, citizens.  They were sent to Dachau, and, in another twist of fate, survived--moving to Israel after the war.

As a result of his actions, Sugihara and his family did suffer disgrace.  He was unceremoniously dumped by the Japanese Diplomatic Corps in 1947, and worked many tedious and menial jobs for the remainder of his working days, even selling light bulbs door-to-door for a spell.  He never regretted his decision, and said so publicly many times.  Although he was granted the honor of "Righteous Among the Nations" in Israel, at his death, his neighbors had no idea what he had done until a large Israeli contingent showed up at his funeral.

Sugihara's story is a reminder that any of us may be called at any moment to obey a higher authority.  Are we open to that possibility?  Are we also open to the possibility that what we often dismiss as "chance" is not chance at all, but Divine intervention?  Finally, are we open to the possibility that we might be the agent of change, the one who tips the balance, in someone else's moral dilemma, when we act in a spirit of truth?

 


(Deer crossing the road in Michigan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 15, 2012)


Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 15, 2012:

Psalm 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalm 114-115 (Evening)
Joshua 1:1-18
Acts 21:3-15
Mark 1:21-27

Mark 1:21-27 (NRSV:)

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

You know, I've hardly ever seen just one deer when one runs across the highway.

Northeast Missouri is simply crazy thick with deer these days, and preventing car-deer accidents can be a major part of an early morning or early evening drive.  One of the things we train ourselves to do around here is, if a deer runs across the road, to start looking in the direction of where the deer came from, and get a visual bead on just how many more deer are liable to run across the road.

Like the legions of deer around here, it's striking that is what we also see in the man in our Gospel.  Mark's Gospel states that the man is possessed by an unclean spirit, but when the spirit reveals itself and has voice, it's clear it is not just a solo entity but a collective.  The other thing strikingly clear in this story is that this embodied form of evil knows God on sight, and is quite understanding that God's power trumps any power it might have.  It knows from moment one God has the power to toss it from this poor tormented man.

Yet we see it puff up and hiss at Jesus all the same, and it's kind of scary.

The nature of change is that it IS scary--not necessarily that the changes are bad (in the case of the man in our story, being emptied of uncleanliness and filled with the Holy Spirit is definitely, in the long view, a good thing,) but I'm sure for this unfortunate man there was a resignation and a familiarity coexisting with his legion of unclean spirits.  To change without being able to envision the end result would be near-impossible.  Yet when Jesus shows up, change happens--ready or not.

Finding room for new possibilities before change occurs doesn't just challenge us at an individual level--it's something we've just recently seen being wrestled with at General Convention.  Human nature being what it is, our tendency is to reveal them and name them in everyone else (which can feel rather satisfying at times,) but also allows us to put on blinders to our own unclean spirits.  As the Twelve Step community likes to say, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."  The ones we can bring ourselves to name, we often oddly tend to prefer resignedly living with them in an uncomfortable coexistence, or we don't look at them too long for fear that, like those deer running out on the highway, we might see more where that came from.  We have places to go and things to do.  Looking at them too long could slow us down, and rather than let them cross our path, we speed up and hope we can get past them and not have to worry about them.  If they do manage to hit our car, we blame them.  After all, they shouldn't have been out in the road, right?  Never mind we didn't bother to look hard enough to see them.

Also, human nature is to bristle at change, to flare up, and to bluff a certain level of invincibility--but when we do this, we are already subconsciously recognizing it has more power than we do, whether we admit it or not--and much like change in real life, our Gospel story does not tell us what happened to this man after he had been healed.  Other than the occasional immediate reaction to the change, the ultimate outcomes of the people healed by Jesus are lost to us.  If we knew, would we approve?  Would we like the story less or better?  Would we pass judgment on its efficacy?

What we are told, however, is that those in attendance were amazed--and perhaps that is the crux of the message of all healing stories.  Healing doesn't just change the recipient, it changes those in attendance.

How have you been changed by the healing of someone else?

 



(Hand-operated cream separator courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Tuesday, July 10, 2012)

Readings for Tuesday, July 10, 2012:

Psalm 5, 6 (Morning)
Psalm 10, 11 (Evening)
Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34
Romans 8:31-39
Matthew 23:13-26

Romans 8:31-39 (NRSV:)

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Many of us learned at a very young age that separation is simply a fact of life--the norm, actually.  Even the common task of preparing a meal affirms it.  (Can you tell I was working on supper when I was thinking about writing this reflection?)  Cooking a meal might well involve separating pits from fruit, potato peels from potatoes, or lean meat from fat, gristle, and bone.  So at one level, Paul's claim in today's Epistle that we are inseparable from the love of God almost seems to run afoul of the laws of physics (or at the very least, the laws of the kitchen.) 

It definitely runs counter-intuitive to our histories when it comes to relationships.  In fact, it's these separations that define us from the time we are born.  The emergence of teeth begins the process of being separated from our mother's breast.  The first day of school plunges us into the world outside our home.  Graduations separate us from the comfortable relationship of being a senior student.  Relationships fizzle and romances burn out.  Each of us will, someday, be permanently separated from all that we know and all that we think we are, by that vast chasm called death, and others we love will beat us to that one.

In fact, the whole chapter of Romans 8 is flanked by two seeming impossibilities--the chapter holds us smack in the middle between "no condemnation" and "no separation"in the Jesus-centered relationship with God.  Our rational mind just spins and spits if we try to work this one out in our head.

Ah, but that's where another concept of the kitchen comes in.  It only becomes believable when we account for the possibility of transformation.  What starts as flour, water, milk, yeast, salt, sugar, and shortening, with mixing and kneading and heat and time, becomes bread.  Those individual things are no longer separable.  I've never seen anyone successfully pull the salt out of bread, have you?  Good luck with THAT.

In this reading, it's a pretty safe bet that all the items on that laundry list of potential separators in the final verse of this reading were all things that had been part of Paul's experiences in his travels to the various churches and in preaching the Gospel.  But as Paul himself became transformed by a life in Christ, these things began to lose their power to separate--in fact, quite the opposite.  They all became important ingredients in being the transformed Paul.  Paul would not have been Paul if any of them had been missing.

We see that in recipes too.  I don't know how many times I've looked at a recipe for something sweet and said to myself, "Really?  That much salt?  I want this to be sweet--how's that not gonna make it more salty and less sweet?"  I've thought I knew better and left out the salt--and discovered in the end it didn't taste quite right.

All of the flavors and textures in our world--the sweet, the salty, the bitter, the sour, the fleshy, the gritty, and the smooth--contribute to the bread of the Body of Christ.  Leave one out and it would not be the same.  That person that grates on us constantly is a vital ingredient.  Those things we don't like about ourselves are not unworthy of being added to the mix--in fact, it's essential they be added so that they be transformed.  Rather than analyze the ingredients and try to figure out what's in the recipe, can we simply trust that God knows how to cook?









(Midwifery manual, adapted from Aristotle's "The Midwife's Vade Mecum," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Monday, July 9, 2012) 


Readings for Monday, July 9:
Psalm 1, 2, 3 (Morning)
Psalm 4, 7 (Evening)
Numbers 32:1-6, 16-27
Romans 8:26-30
Matthew 23:1-12

Psalm 7 (NRSV:)

O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,

or like a lion they will tear me apart;
 they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,

if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,

then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground, and lay my soul in the dust. Selah

Rise up, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment.

Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you,
and over it take your seat on high.

The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.

God is my shield,
who saves the upright in heart.

God is a righteous judge,
and a God who has indignation every day.

If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow;

he has prepared his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.

See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies.

They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.

Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.


Decades ago, when all my friends were in that period of life when they were starting their families, one of my friends in particular had what could have most optimistically been called "a miserable pregnancy."  She was rather slight of build, and she wasn't too many months along before she was walking around looking like she had been smuggling items from the sporting goods store--first it looked like she was smuggling volleyballs, then basketballs, and towards the end, beach balls.  Worse yet, she was scheduled for an early fall delivery--which meant she had to endure the final few weeks in the 105 degree, 100 percent humidity that we knew as "summer in Missouri."  She had to work up to the last couple of weeks, and things as simple as finding clothes to wear on the job became a chore.  Her baby was also an incredibly active one, doing somersaults and flip-flops at a moment's notice.  We'd watch her unborn baby suddenly distend her huge belly out even further, and it didn't help that the movie "Alien" was one in our recent memory.  For the latter half of her pregnancy, she struggled through chronic lower back problems, dealing with a bladder that seemed to be always full, and night after night of unrefreshing sleep because no position in bed was comfortable.

Of course, as luck would have it, she and her husband didn't exactly have a picnic after their daughter was born, either.  Young, inexperienced parents, first baby, fussy, colicky, and rather impressive at spitting up her meals--you get the picture.  I can only hope that years later, she's enjoying her grandchildren more than she enjoyed being a first-time parent.

It's interesting that even though we are in general agreement that males authored the various books of the Bible, that pregnancies figure strongly in the narratives, and it is rich with pregnancy imagery.  Psalm 7 has a real attention-getter in that vein--"pregnant with mischief."  Additionally, it's interesting that our psalm describes people filled with evil in such intimate terms--as intimate as sex, and with the power to conceive and bear offspring.  It implies that the circumstances that we can become impregnated with sin are myriad.  It could be via forcible victimization, or it could be what is best described by the classic line we've heard many times by unfortunate unwed mothers--"Well, it seemed like a lot of fun at the time."  Perhaps we were young and naive--or perhaps we thought we took precautions and ended up being pregnant with mischief anyway.  Maybe we knew exactly what we were doing at the time and didn't care.  Maybe we were a little too tipsy and did something we wouldn't normally do had we been sober.

But when it's all said and done, none of us ever escape the experience of being pregnant with mischief, at least now and again--and what a miserable pregnancy it can be!  We can be up nights racked with guilt, and our sleep is not satisfying.  We can be slowed by the pain of regret.  Even when we are no longer spiritually pregnant, we may be burdened with the care and feeding of a less than optimal situation.

However, the other appointed psalm for this evening, Psalm 4, reminds us that God is present in our misery, and actually resides in the middle of those difficult, miserable places.  Can we trust the possibility of experiencing God's presence as a calm midwife who's seen it all and done it all, and can help us to breathe in the rhythm of the labor of bearing and birthing our burdens?




(Acrobat on ancient Greek pottery, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, July 8, 2012) 


Daily Office readings for Sunday, July 8:
Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)
Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)
Numbers 27:12-23
Acts 19:11-20
Mark 1:14-20

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.


Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
--Acts 19:11-20 (NRSV)


One of my favorite circus acts when I was a kid (next to the wild animal acts) were the acrobats and jugglers--particularly the ones who spun plate after plate on sticks, while doing things like riding unicycles or tumbling, passing the whirling sets of dinner plates back and forth to each other.  The ringmaster always cautioned, "Children, don't try this at home!"--and of course, I always DID try it at home when I thought no one was looking, but at least I was smart enough to use the Melmac polymer resin plates.  Deep down inside, I knew there probably wasn't a very strong career track in northeast Missouri for professional plate spinning acrobats, but I still knew I could have some fun "playing at it," and could get a little bit of dexterity acquiring at least the basic skills.  Probably about the most I got out of that activity was in my medical clinical training years, when we were standing around looking bored, waiting for rounds to start, I would entertain the team with my skill at spinning my reflex hammer on my finger and tossing it into the air, or balancing my tuning fork on my nose.

Our itinerant exorcists in Acts today, however, didn't really understand the difference between playing at Christianity vs. actually doing it, and the result was being beaten to a naked, bloody pulp by someone possessed by an evil spirit.  Those seven sons of Sceva the High Priest had probably seen some of the real miracles that were occurring through Paul and the apostles and they thought, "Hey, we could have some fun with that, and who knows?  Maybe we'll make a little money at it, besides.  It's a lot more fun than sweeping up in the temple."  They were probably thinking otherwise while they were licking their wounds and enduring the local gossip about their failed endeavor.

But something interesting happened as a result of this story making the rounds.  Many other people who were just playing at miracles became true believers, and part of their evangelism as Christians was to confess that they were fakes and charlatans. They began to put away the tools of their old self and start their new life in Christ.

It reminds me of the old saw of how "Mission changes the missioner."  I imagine that many of us somewhere along the spiritual growth curve, have had experiences in the process of doing mission work where we realized up to a particular moment we had only been playing at it.  For some odd reason, when we imagine ourselves doing things like volunteering in disaster areas or feeding the hungry, or finding and distributing items to the needy, our "do-gooder" gene seems to block that part out about actually being affected by what we see in the process.  We don't really process all the realities of the people we are helping.  Then all of a sudden we begin to get a glimpse what the people we are helping are going through, or we begin to see just how oppressingly overwhelming a natural disaster or poverty-ridden situation really is, and we feel pretty small and hopeless about our ability to change a single thing.  We begin to feel a little naked and bruised about no longer being a tourist, but being emotionally involved in a deeper way than we intended.  We begin to experience a certain degree of futility about things.  In fact, a recent study showed that 80% of volunteers in natural disasters will be emotionally affected by their care-GIVING experience, and experience some (usually) temporary symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their volunteer work.

Well, the reality is that much of it, we can't change.  Hurricanes will still blow, and slums will still exist, and people will be tragically affected by our broken world.  But what we can do is what the repentant magicians did--tell our stories.  Rather than try to fit that mythical mold of shiny, happy, cookie-cutter Christians, we can tell the truth about how the brokenness we see in our mission efforts affect us.  We can emotionally and prayerfully support those who do mission as well as financially support it.  We can simply be with the rawness of those suffering from the pain in the world when our heart of hearts knows we can't fix a thing.

What can others learn from your stories of learning to live the Gospel rather than just playing at it?

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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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