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What kind of gospel is this?

Let’s be honest with one another. I hate the fact that this is the lectionary text this week. It’s a terrible story. Very un-gospel-y. It makes Jesus look like a jerk. It’s confusing, and full of what seem to be secret metaphors I don’t immediately understand. It feels incomplete. It makes me stop and ask the question, “What kind of gospel IS this?”

I try to preach and pray from the lectionary for one very particular reason: it keeps me honest as a believer. It makes me read stories like this, that are hard. It stretches me not to stick with what is comfortable, because the gospel isn’t comfortable. This Matthew text where Jesus meets the Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter definitely makes the list. What is the story we’re looking at today?

Jesus had just left “that place,” where he’d been ministering to the people – he’s headed toward Jerusalem, on the downswing of the gospel story, toward the cross. We’re more than halfway through Matthew, and he’s starting to really build momentum.

The district of Tyre and Sidon where he’s headed are outside the boundaries of Israel proper. Jesus actually told his disciples in chapter 10 not to go to these areas. However, while Tyre and Sidon aren’t Jewish, there are large pockets of Jewish settlements north of the Galilean border in these territories.

So here comes Jesus, striding through this territory, likely with his mind on how to proclaim the gospel to the Jews he would find there, and BAM here comes this Canaanite woman, shouting after him. The disciples follow – after all, that’s what they do – and everyone in the traveling party hears her yelling.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”

She literal screams for mercy.

And what does Jesus do? The scripture says, “But he did not answer her at all.”

What?!? He ignores her. A screaming, frantic local woman. Probably pretty difficult to pretend she wasn’t there, but that’s what he does.

So the disciples hurry up to him. In my heart, when I read this text, I sort of breathe a sigh of relief, “Yeah, of course, this is a test. They’re going to beg him to help her and everything will be okay.”

Except. It doesn’t go like that at all. Instead, they beg for their OWN mercy…
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

They’re more worried about their own precious eardrums than the woman in pain in front of them…

What in the world is going on here? Usually, when the disciples are uncaring, Jesus finds a way to correct them. But here, HERE, Jesus seems to be on their side! What can this possibly mean? What sort of Gospel IS this?

Let’s talk briefly about this woman. The Israelites and the Canaanites had historically been terribly at odds. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Canaanites had been in the Promised Land LONG before the Israelites wandered in from the wilderness. And once the Israelites got there, all they wanted to do was to have God destroy the people living there already, to make space for them. The Promised Land wasn’t empty when they arrived.

So this woman is outside of Jesus’ frame of reference in some pretty striking ways. Their cultures are at odds, sort of enemies – in ethnicity, in heritage, in religion. Her behavior is entirely unacceptable for the time. She’s a Gentile woman approaching a Jewish man, and she is not reserved, respectful, and quiet. She’s shouting, she’s likely running, she’s demanding. Unacceptable. She’s a gentile and unclean. And where’s her husband? Meanwhile, she’s got this daughter who’s ill with demon possession. In a Jewish world worried about who’s in and who’s out, who’s clean and who’s not – this woman is as much an outsider to Jesus’ group as it can get.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus only ministers to Gentiles 3 times. Once to the centurion in Capernaum, once to the Gaderene demoniac who lives among the tombs, and (ultimately) here. His mission, he says to the disciples as they tell him to shoo off this woman, is to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” What he’s basically saying is, “This is not my problem. I’ve got my eye on other things.”

What sort of Gospel IS this?

When you hear these texts, it might make you wonder who you consider to be inside, and who is out. Where do we draw the lines and who matters? People of Jesus’ time asked these questions, and we do, too.
If we only have so many hours in a day and so many dollars to spend, who gets our resources? We live in a world of scarcity. Who gets our generosity and who gets our silent rejection?

These are tough questions to face.

It might surprise us that Jesus has to face the same questions, and he struggles with them.
He is focused on who he is and what he is about. He has come as prophet, priest, and king to restore his people – the Jewish people – to their right place in the world and their right place with God. The cross is coming.
There’s a lot of work to be done. He can’t do it all, and focusing may be the difference between success and failure.

Basically, Jesus has been called by the Father to bring people to repentance and to hear the good news about the Kingdom of God, and in Matthew – but not in Luke or Mark’s gospels, where he ministers to Gentiles in numerous contexts – his calling is limited to the Jewish people. Limited.

But here’s this non-Jewish woman begging for mercy from him. She’s planted herself in his path – literally – and won’t be ignored.

She kneels before him and says, “Lord, help me.” The mercy she is begging of him is something she believes he owes her. The word she uses is the same one that the merciful receive in the beatitudes “the merciful shall receive mercy.” It’s the same quality the unforgiving servant in chapter 18:33 lacks when he refuses to forgive the debts of his debtor. Mercy, here, is a challenge. She is challenging Jesus to admit that he has an obligation to God and to people to pay back debts that HE has. This is revolutionary. Does she really think Jesus owes her something?

Jesus doesn’t. In fact, he answers her harshly by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Basically, “I don’t owe you anything.” She begs for help, and his answer is to call her a dog.

Now, there are a few interpretations of what is going on here. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s read this story and is uncomfortable with it. Theologians and biblical scholars have tried to give Jesus a “bye” on this passage a lot over the years. Suffice it to say, though, that no one has been able to honestly get around the fact that calling someone a dog (and using this word in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke), is a familiar insult, a favorite of the Israelites. Calling a woman a female dog would have had the same tone and effect as if it were shouted down a high school hallway today.

It was not a kind thing to say. More frankly, Jesus was being very rude. Dismissive. Discriminatory.

But the woman doesn’t scrub over, or try to wiggle out of, what Jesus labels her as. Instead, she brings their differences into the light and calls them into question. She uses the opportunity to teach Jesus a lesson.

Can you imagine?

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “I may be a dog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t matter – you owe me mercy.”

In Romans, Paul struggles with this question of “who matters.” What separates people from the love of God in Jesus Christ? Who deserves grace?

He ultimately comes to the conclusion that all people are the focus of God’s saving grace. Jew or Gentile, Christ came to save us regardless of our background – remember, Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman?

And here’s Jesus, on that journey, in that moment, excluding this woman and all people like her. To him, here, SOMETHING DOES separate some people from the good news.

But she challenges his laser-focus and says, “There is enough grace for everyone, even people like me.”

And here’s the kicker. He changes his mind. Literally, in the middle of chapter 15 in Matthew, we watch a nobody Canaanite woman preach a bigger gospel to Jesus than he’s been preaching, and he changes his mind. From ignoring her to insulting her to answering her prayers, he changes his mind, decides he DOES owe her something, and forever after the gospel is different, bigger.

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Here’s how we know his mind is changed forever: at the end of Matthew, the gospel is for all nations (28:19). All people. All nations. Jew or Canaanite, African or Greek. Free, slave. Male or female.

The final word in Matthew is basically Jesus saying, “The news is good, and there’s enough for everyone.” THIS is the kind of gospel this is. Amen and amen!

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What to do with 5 loaves and 2 fish?

In my family, I’m always known as the one who can be counted on to pack enough food. I’ve been on trips where I’ve packed entire meals into my purse – my friends call it the feed bag – so that I wouldn’t have to worry about whether (or where) we’d be eating. I remember an important moment in one of my greatest friendships, April, a dear friend I roomed with on a trip to India in 2008. We’d been traveling all day in the heat, and someone asked if there was any food on the bus. April and I simultaneously started listing all of the things we had in our bags – Beef jerky! Snickers! Almonds! Trail mix! Peanut butter! – and the bus went silent. We realized we were soul sisters – the ones who would bring the food. Sometimes, though, I forget.
Have you ever gone on a trip and not packed enough food?
I remember another time when my dad took my baby brothers and I on a car trip to Montana. We always hiked together, and my dad was pretty good about bringing things so that we would be safe. This day, we got out of the car because we saw a trail we wanted to hike, got the back pack with the poncho, the safety gear, and the sunscreen, and started to hike the back trails outside of Big Sky. It was a really good hike – lots to see, hard trails, wildlife. But at one point, about an hour in, my youngest brother Lex asked Dad – as he usually would – “Can I have some water?” And Dad cracked open the pack, pulled out the canteen, and I remember the look on his face when he realized… it was light. It wasn’t full. He dug frantically into the pack again – one chocolate bar and a bag of granola. Not enough for all four of us, and no fresh water in sight. So we each got a sip to keep us going, a bite to refresh us… and we headed back the way we came.
So what is it about this scripture we read, Matthew’s loaves and fishes miracle? This is the only miracle story recounted in all four gospels.
When this sort of thing happens in Scripture, it means it’s of unusual importance – it’s like the biblical authors are saying, “That was so important, I’m going to repeat myself.”
First of all, you should know, this story happened once already in the Hebrew Bible – what we sometimes call our Old Testament. It parallels Elisha’s in II Kings 4:42-44. So this is an old pattern – God feeds his people in strange circumstances, through a prophetic leader.
So Jesus has just been rejected in Nazareth. He’s just watched his cousin and friend John the Baptist – a bit more of a fire-brand than Jesus – get his head chopped off for speaking truth to power. He’s had a very, very bad month. A sad month. He needs to recharge, to find his direction again. So he heads out to the wilderness. Away from the people crowding for his attention. But they follow him. I’ll don’t know about you, there’s a particular feeling you get when you think, FINALLY, I’m going to get some peace and quiet! Time to think! But he looks up, and there they are again. Matthew says this is the story of the 5,000, but the actual words are “5,000 men, besides women and children.” What we should know is that this means, in that time, about 20,000 people. Families.
And he sees these people, not famous, not rich, many ill, poor, uncertain, but hungry for words of power and sustaining bread… and his heart feels for them. The scripture says he has compassion – and this means he feels with them. He teaches them, gives them what they’re looking for, which is the power they feel coming from him, the possibility and the hope they need. He sits with them. But then night falls, and the disciples sidle up and let him know the crowds are starting to murmer about being hungry after a long day. I imagine the disciples themselves were pretty exhausted, pretty hungry. They suggest Jesus send the crowds home. Now, something you should know about the wilds outside of the towns there – there wouldn’t have beeen anywhere to go. They were, like my hiking trip, stuck. Either those people were going back hungry to fend for themselves without much of a plan, or they were going to be fed right there in the middle of the desert. Not a lot of choices.
He’s in a pretty vulnerable spot – Jesus’ ego, if he were one of us, might have been sorely tempted to feel better – This could take Jesus to a new opportunity to “turn stones into bread” as the Devil challenged him to do in the Temptation (4:2). Just get it over with! A hungry crowd, a wilderness place, fed with food from nowhere. The public seeks him out, follows like Ancient Near East paparazzi. He has the power. It would have been hard to resist.
The problem is, the disciples make a bit of a mistake. They should know this Jesus better by now. What do they say? “We have nothing here, but 5 loaves and 2 fish.” So they don’t tell a whole truth. They say they have nothing, but they do. The disciples clearly thought they had not nearly enough (v. 17). It was small, but it wasn’t nothing. They just don’t want to share. Which makes sense, right? What do you do when you have 5 loaves and 2 fish?
Jesus has the answer ready – he tells them to bring them. They dig into their travel packs and hand the fish and bread over to him. I can only imagine their faces. Were they curious? Or sheepish? Upset?
He looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the bread and returns the now holy food to his followers. Who then give them to the crowds. They probably watched and thought – oh, don’t take too much! Oh…. No! that one over there!
And they do it, and – this is the important part – ALL WERE FILLED. Unlike my story of hiking, where we had a bit of water and candy and got just enough to make it back to camp, these little bits of fish and crumbs truly FED the people. All of them. All ate and were filled, and they took in EXTRA.
So this story shouldn’t be called “Jesus Feeds the 5,000” after all. Jesus only feeds the 12. The 12 feed the 5,000, or the 20,000, if we count the invisible women and children.
The scripture says there were 12 baskets left over. Now, that may seem like a lot – 12 baskets out of those tiny servings??? But think about this – have you ever had a family reunion? What happens? There’s always a ton of food left over. People have to take home plates. No matter what. 20,000 people, and there end up with just12 baskets left over – this is a miracle of stewardship, as much as feeding. It’s like Jesus had a family reunion, and all that was left over was one pack of hotdogs.
Everyone got exactly what they needed, and there was enough. A small margin of error, and enough. Any more would have been a waste.
Now, in order to take this story seriously… we need to chat a bit about what it means that this is part of our Scriptures.
Interpretations vary. The most common ones are that Jesus and the generosity of the disciples moved the people to share so that all were fed. Basically – people had secret food they weren’t telling about.
That it was only a symbolic and spiritual feeding. (though verse 20 implies physical satiety, not spiritual.
That this was a truly powerful and miraculous experience for those involved, so shocking that all of the gospels felt the need to share it.
Hard to tell – obviously a supernatural event being reported, so must look theologically.
I wonder if it really matters how this happened. What is crucial is the message that Jesus shares in this story through his actions and his words: God will provide God’s people when they are hurting, and wandering in the desert, and trying to be faithful. With a little to spare – and perhaps with the simple things – , but there must be no greed or waste, or some will go hungry. Psalm 78:19 asks “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” This story, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, 11 Kings, and everywhere else it’s told answers with a resounding “Yes!”
“What do you do when what you’ve got is 5 loaves and 2 fish?” You simply remember:
God is love (compassion shown through Jesus)
Disciples have been given an awesome responsibility to be the body of Christ through concrete acts of love and justice. – Christ. As Elisha performed this through his servant, Jesus enlists the disciples – called to be God’s instruments in meeting the needs of others
When we need it most, God will give us the power to work for good in the world. Holy Spirit. God uses what we bring.
God’s will is that hungry people be fed. What are the loaves and fish you will share?

Going Back to Our Basics: The Runaway Bunny

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.  So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”  “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”

But the little bunny said, “If you run after me… I will become a fish… and I will swim away from you.”

The mother bunny said, “If you swim away from me… I will become a fisherman… and I will fish for you.”

If you fish for me, said the little bunny… I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

If you become a rock on the mountain high above me… I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”

If you climb to where I am… I will become a crocus in a hidden garden.”

If you become a crocus in a hidden garden… I will be a gardener, and I will find you.” she replied.

If you become a gardener and try to find me… I will be a bird and I will fly away from you.”

If you become a bird and fly away from me… I will be a tree that you come home to.”

The little bunny replied, If you become a tree… I will become a sailboat and I will sail away from you.”

If you sail away from me… I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”

If you become the wind and blow me away… I will join a circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.”

If you fly away on a flying trapeze… I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.”

If become a tightrope walker and try to walk across the air to me… I will become a little boy and run into a house.”

If you become a little boy and run into a house… I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

Last time we were together, our story was of the Prodigal son and the little boy named Max who ran away to the land of the Wild Things.  We talked about being stuck, and about leaving home to find something better.  We talked about forgiveness, and that God waits for us to get unstuck.  It seems we’re surrounded by stories of runaways, doesn’t it?   Because the history of being human is a tale of running away from an inescapable God.

But we didn’t talk about who this God is who waits.  Or what else happens while God waits for us.  For you see, God’s waiting isn’t like our waiting.  It isn’t passive.  When we wait, we sit idly and twiddle our thumbs.  We think about our boredom, we dull our senses with meaningless chatter. But God, God doesn’t wait idly, passively.  God doesn’t sit in a corner and hope we’ll figure it all out.  God matches our running away with a running – toward.

In the Psalm we read, we hear that God forms us, searches for us across large, dark, and perilous spaces.  God’s presence is a wonderful work – a process.  God is a knitter, an artist, a weaver – God knows our every stitch  From beginning to end, the psalm paints a picture of God and the psalmist, one on one, so intimate and close that there is nothing hidden between the two.  God’s presence is about making something new happen, creating, overcoming even the most desperate of problems with hope and healing. Showing up in the most unexpected places and redeeming them, even while we run as fast as we can away.

7 Where can I go from your spirit? (says the Psalmist)

Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

Even in “Sheol” – a realm according to Jewish theology that is beyond even God’s reach, even there David feels assurance that God is Emmanuel (God-with-Us) – v. 17-18 “I am still with you”.

Even in the darkest dark.

The psalmist entrusts his life to God, inviting God’s searching gaze, open to instruction.  But first, he runs.

What seems to be the problem?  We don’t really believe in grace. I mean, we talk about it all the time – who doesn’t know, “amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?”  But what is it?

I mean, what is it, this thing we call “grace?”  Intellectually, I know that it is the free gift in which God gives all – eternal life, forgiveness, purpose, meaning, healing – It is the way that God accepts us, the way that God says, “I love you.”  Grace means that I love you not because of anything you do, but just because… I do.  Grace means that you’re my child and there’s nothing you can do that will ruin that and nothing you can do to earn it.” Grace means that there will be something beautiful waiting even when I think I’ve gotten as deep into the muck as I can go.

The problem is, God knows that we can’t just intellectually understand grace.  We can only experience a love in order to really know it.  Until you feel love, it’s like a brick wall you can’t see over.

And so God meets us at the wall, and offers us wings to fly over.

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.  For you are my little bunny.”

The mother bunny said, “If you swim away from me… I will become a fisherman… and I will fish for you.”

God’s said this to me.

I said, “I’m running away.” And God said, “If you run away, I will run after you, Jules.  For you are my daughter, who I love.”

So I said, “If you run after me, I’ll become the smartest kid in my class and go to a fancy school where no one believes in you.”  “If you go to a fancy school, I’ll be the books that you read that will make you think about me.”

“If you become the books that I read, I’ll leave school and work in the inner city with people who’ve been hurt by your so-called “children.”

“If you leave school to work with people who’ve been hurt, I’ll become the women and children you work with so that you see my face every day.”

“If you become the women and children I work with, I’ll  go to seminary and prove that you don’t exist like in the stories I’ve heard.”

“If you go to seminary to prove I’m a fraud, I’ll become a friend and I’ll forgive you and love you anyway, and you’ll find me there, too.”

Only love will go to such lengths.  Only this is grace.  In our United Methodist tradition, we have a special name for this kind of grace: it is “prevenient,” the grace that comes before -“pre”.

You remember that familiar phrase in psalm 23: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life…”

The word “follow” is the word “radaf” which means “to pursue, or hunt.” God pursues us, follows us all the days of our life.

It is this season of Advent, these four weeks before Christmas day, which begin on this very morning, that teaches us how truly God does pursue us, the risky grace God has given.

Advent is not the oldest season of the church.  Easter, the Passover, is far older, by at least two hundred years.  Advent did not begin in Rome.  In fact, the earliest mention of a period of preparation for Christmas didn’t exist until 490 CE, in Gaul, or what is modern France.

We are not here this morning because Christmas is the high point of the church year, and Advent its most profound season.  The church year does not start here because Christmas is coming.  The church year starts here to remind us why Jesus was born in the first place. Because we needed him so badly.

Advent means “coming” from the Latin.  Remember the word we just heard, “Prevenient”?  It is from the combined Latin words meaning “before” and “coming”.  The word Advent is related: it means “to come.”  Vent, venient.  They are the same.

Advent, a four weak period of concentrated waiting for something to come, of looking around for the signs of hope in time and place that seem entirely barren of joy or possibility.  How incredible our lives are that God is so present to us, so here, that God’s very self was living among us on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Advent, a season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious.  To see God in Sheol.  To look for God in the dark.  It trains us to see what is behind the apparent.  Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored or even thought it was impossible for God to be, in the places to which we have run away.

But, life is not meant to be escaped.  It is meant to be penetrated, entered into, tasted and savored to bring us to the realization that the God who created us is with us yet.

When we only find God in the godly-places, we go through life blind to the wealth of life’s parts, of God’s creativity and persistent presence.

Recently, I saw a documentary film called, “Exit through the Gift Shop.”  The director, and subject, are a man who calls himself “Banksy.”  Banksy is a guerrilla graffiti artist.  In fact, he’s the most well-known unknown graffiti artist in the world.  Many people buy his art, thousands have seen it on streets across the world, but no one knows who he really is.  People speculate about his identity, but they can only guess He goes out under cover of night and creates his street art masterpieces in strategic spots.  He takes, boring, drab scenery and adds creativity, beauty, and meaning with his ideas.

On a wall in the war torn city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, he painted a dove wearing a bulletproof vest with crosshairs on the chest.  After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, Banksy came in and left amazing paintings around the city, sharply commenting on the systemic racism revealed by the storm’s devastation and humorously exposing the hypocrisy of the relief efforts.  While police must, by necessity, consider Banksy’s work vandalism, his art inspires people to think and adds value to their neighborhoods.  It does something to their souls.

What is it that drives Banksy?  He answers this question by telling the following story:

Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Gonin was among the first British soldiers to liberate the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in 1945.  Gonin and others who went in to liberate the camp describe the barren human wilderness they found with horrific words.  Corpses lay everywhere.  Mothers carried their dead babies as if they were still alive.  most of both the dead and the living were naked.  Women washed themselves in a a tank of water that also contained the floating bodies of dead children.

Shortly after the British Red Cross arrived to liberate the camp and try to help save lives and lead people back to health, a very strange shipment arrived.  What you would expect is… medicine, food, vitamins, bandages.  but no, what was delivered to the camp was a large quantity of lipstick.  Gonin, who was there to help, says that at first the shipment made him furious.  But soon he saw it as an act of “genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance.  I believe nothing did more for these internees that the lipstick.  Women lay in bed with no sheets but with scarlet red lips… At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm… That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

At that death camp, it was lipstick.  For Banksy, it’s some fresh paint on a wall in a hurricane-devastated or war-torn city.

With God, it’s a miraculous child born to a teenaged mom in a backwater town in the Roman Empire.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

It’s the God who pursues us with patient, deliberate, creative persistence where ever we are so that we remember who we are, and whose we are.   To remind us that someone cares, that someone remembers, that someone is working to change this world with us, that someone is chasing every one of us down until we all turn and say yes, until we see that the terrible places are places where God is working, too.

Because we haven’t finished the story quite yet.  When we left the little bunny, he was still running.  His mother told him…

If you become a little boy and run into a house… I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”

Shucks, said the bunny.  I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.

And so he did.

The truth is that “we cannot move toward God unless God has first moved toward us.”

God does wait us out, but it’s not a passive waiting… it’s an activity, a creative, organic, persistence.

God’s prevenient grace begins the bridging, and despite the resistance we put up, God continually seeks us, enveloping us in the grace, which beckons us back.  And we CAN come back.  We have only to say yes.  We have only to look around and stay still.

This Advent season, in this season of your life, I challenge you to stop running.  Stop and wait.  Look around. See the sparks of humanity, the evidence everywhere hidden showing that God is with you, that God is here, that God is waiting with you.   Know that where ever you are, God is there with you.  That this is a season, a time, a place, to remember that God will pursue you all the days of your life.  And if you keep running, God will be there ahead of you, already present, always waiting, throwing up signs and points of light to remind you, becoming the net into which you fall, when you fall from grace.  This is Advent.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world, who is coming, if we can but stay still.

Amen.

Faith and doubt.

In a very cool turn of events, I’ve been invited to participate as a fellow blogger of the Thomas Society. To read about the Society, which is an open space for ongoing dialogue between people who identify as atheist or as religious/spiritual, visit http://thomas2026.wordpress.com/about/.  Keep up with the conversation as it unfolds.

This mouth is writing checks this heart can’t cash.

You may know this story, but it’s worth hearing again.  So listen.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago in a not-so distant land, when there were still witches and fairies and trolls and Prince Charmings foolhardy enough to show their faces in public, there was a husband whose wife was dying.  The Husband was terrified of what would happen to him if he were left alone in the world, and one day he heard, over the wall he shared with his neighbor’s garden, a woman talking about the herb she was growing there, that it was rumored to heal any illness, no matter how dire.  This man was honest, and good, and he wanted to find out how to get some of that herb for his wife.  But they were very poor, and he was ashamed that he couldn’t care for his family.  So one night, very late, when the clouds were dark over the forest nearby and even the animals were silent, he vaulted the stone barrier into his neighbor’s garden and stole one of the plants there.  He took it home, made a tea with it, and gave it to his wife.  Miracle… the next day, she felt much better.  But after a few weeks, she began to feel terribly sick again, and the man knew he needed more tea for her.  So he stole again.  Once more, a third time, with more ease and perhaps a bit less caution, he snuck into the neighbor’s garden for the herb.  This time, however, as he stood over the little plant in the moonlight, snipping what he needed for his wife, the woman who’s garden it was rounded the corner of her house.  “Are you stealing my herbs?” she asked.  The Husband, caught in the act, tried to explain his situation, his wife’s health, his own poverty.  The woman, who was actually a witch, wondered whether they had any children.  “No, my wife is so ill, we’ve never dreamed of it.”  “Well,” replied the witch, “I can’t let you keep stealing my plants.  So you may have them, as many as you wish.  But, make me a promise.  If you ever have a child, she will be mine, and I will raise her as my own.”  The Husband was certain,  in his heart, that this promise would only ever be one-sided, and so he crossed his heart, and his fingers, and took the little herb home.  Over and over during the next year, he visited the garden, and every time, before he took his herbs, the witch asked whether he had any news for her.  “Never,” he said.  “No child.  Thanks for the herbs.  My wife is quite well.”

Then, his wife bore a daughter, beautiful with copper hair and big blue eyes.  He and his wife kept her, secretly, afraid that the witch would find out and take her from them, along with the supply of herbs from her garden.  Except, you can’t keep secrets from witches.  On a sunny day, in the girl’s third year, the witch heard the child laughing on the family’s front walk, snatched her from the porch, and locked her in a tower.  The Husband, terrified that his daughter had disappeared, went over to the garden to see whether the girl had wandered there.  Encountering the witch, he was torn – what to do?  Admit he had a child and have to give her up, or pretend there was no daughter and lose her in any case?  The witch, aware of his dilemma, said to him, “You knew, when you made that promise those years ago, what would happen.  How could you believe I wouldn’t call upon your debt?  Now, you have no daughter.  But your wife will live.  Take your herbs, make your tea, live with your decision and with your promise.  Our bargain is complete.”  And the Husband turned and made his way back home.  You know the rest of the story.  In the pretty version, there’s a dragon, and long hair, an ivory tower, a prince, and a rescue.

It was between night and morning in the darkened parking lot of a catering company downtown.  I had worked an 18 hour shift that day, partly for the money, but mainly for the sense of numbness having tired muscles and aching feet bring to my mind when it’s jumping from problem to problem.  It had not been a good spring, and I was in a bit of trouble, feeling lost and desperate and entirely sure that whatever was around the corner during the next few weeks was going to be awful, no matter the path that was chosen by and for me.  So, at around 3:30 in the morning, I sat in my battered navy Mazda with the windows up, heat on, my head on the steering wheel.  One of those moments when it feels as though if you just sit still enough, time won’t move and no decisions will have to be made.  But they do, regardless, and as I hunched in my seat, I argued with God.  Now, at this point in my life, I didn’t really know what I thought about God.  Entirely unsure whether God listened or really cared, I was a bit fed up with myself and with where I had arrived in my life, feeling lonely, and God was about the only one I had around to take it out on.  Earlier that week, I’d decided that there was really only one thing to do for things to work out the way I wanted them to, but in this particular case, I was pretty sure God (whoever That was), the God I’d sort of figured out for myself, anyhow, would not be very pleased with me if I did it.

So I made a promise.  I said, out loud, in my car, “God, if you let me do this, then I’ll do whatever you want.  I’ll go to graduate school and I’ll make the world a better place.  I promise, if you let me not listen to you on this one thing, I’ll listen to you forever.”  I didn’t say amen, I didn’t cry, I didn’t cross my heart.  I started my car and drove home.

A few years later, the decision of that week still influencing me, still altering the course of my life but under the surface like a riptide, I found myself called to go to seminary.  I fought it, a bit.  I told God that there would have to be a full-scholarship.  God said, “Check.”  I said, “I’ll have to quit my job.”  God said, “Okay.”  I said, “I’m going to be angry and bitter with church people and those silly self-righteous colleagues who judge and act like those ‘other’ Christians I know.” God said, “Huh.  We’ll see.”  And I ran out of excuses and went.  Only last year, in the midst of a conversation with a friend, did I remember the promise I’d made in that parking lot.  It flashed in my mind and I realized I’d done with my promise what the Husband had done.  I’d made a one-sided promise.  I’d tried to trick Someone with more expertise in the game of planning, and creating, life than I had.  I’d attempted to out-God God.

What I’ve found, over time, is that God doesn’t much appreciate that.  Now, I think it’s more complex than simple disappointment, on God’s part.  I wonder if God doesn’t use those moments, when we’re the least beautiful and the most cunning and the absolute worst we can be, spiritually and ethically.  If God doesn’t take advantage of them and turn them into the possibility for good.  Yeah, I didn’t get abducted and stuck in a tower.  Hell, I’m no princess anyway.  But I put myself in one.  I locked myself up.  Who are we in the story with the Husband and daughter?  Maybe both those characters.  Maybe the witch.  It’s a complicated story.  But I know, in my own life, that I feel like the Husband, making promises and hoping I won’t be called to the table to pay out.  And God’s tended to let me do that and then come around the back way and use it for good.  Sometimes, that’s been years later.  But it always happens.  What I suppose I’m saying is, you can only run from promises for so long.  Just know that when you get tired of running, it’ll be okay.  You’ll keep your promise.  It just might not look like you wrote it.  It will be better.

Everybody has a secret world inside of them.

The God I worship

I know we’re always trying to figure out who we are, but it’s only been while I’ve been in school that I’ve let this consume my time in an intentional way.  Writing for class, for ordination candidacy, for personal reflection, it’s become more and more obvious to me that pinning down the “I” of a person is nearly impossible.  It’s only in what we value that our shimmery definitions come clear.  The patterns are important, the places we find beautiful despite horror or incredible despite simplicity.  I know that from one day to the next, someone might see me as interesting, as boring, as angry, as cheerful, as faithful, as broken, as good or bad, lovely or hateful, just or cruel.  And it’s all true.  The center of who any of us is doesn’t change because that Center is eternal.  And so I suppose it is the God we worship, our sense of the divine, that exposes our true selves, provides a frame for who we are, rather than lists of genealogies or chronologies, virtues or vices, beliefs or actions.  Let me introduce you to that God in my life, so that perhaps you can know me:  I worship the God of stairwells where children hide while parents fight.  The deity of fantasy novels, of Ecclesiastes, of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, of Rainer Maria Rilke.  I worship the Creator of neon purple and Mark Rothko and the scent of Meier lemons and cumin and gardenia.  I stand in awe of the God of sweet baby ankles… punk rock and cello …the Latin mass and relentless protesters of injustice.  It is the God who wove the many strands of my life, of the miscellaneous, wonderful, and painful people from whom I am the total concentrate, who I revere.  Who is God to you?