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

(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.

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, 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?



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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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