Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

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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Truth and action.

There was once a young and gifted woman who set herself the almost impossible task of setting up a printing press so that she could translate and distribute the Word of God to the people.  Yet such a job would require a great deal of money, and so, almost as soon as she had conceived the idea, she sold the few items that she possessed and went to live on the streets, begging for the money that she needed.
Raising the necessary funds took many years, for while there were a few who gave generously, most only gave a little, if anything at all. But gradually the money began to accumulate.  However, shortly before the plans for the printing press could be set in motion, a dreadful flood devastated a nearby town, destroying many people’s homes and livelihoods.
Without hesitation the woman used all the money she had gathered to feed the hungry and rebuild lost homes. Once the town began to recover, the woman silently went back to the streets in order to start all over again, collecting the money needed to translate the Word of God.
Many more years passed, with many cold winters that caused great suffering to the woman. Then, shortly before the target amount was reached, disaster struck again.
This time a deadly plague descended like a cloud over the city, stealing the lives of thousands.
By now the woman was herself tired and ill, yet without thought she spent the money she had collected on medicines and care for the sick and orphaned.
Then, once the shadow of the plague lifted, she again went onto the streets, driven by her desire to translate the Word of God.  Finally, shortly before her death, this woman gathered the money needed for the printing press and completed the project she had set herself many years before.
After she had passed away, it was rumored by some that she had actually spent her time making three translations of the Word, the first two being the most splendid of all…
… What language are you translating the Word into?
Our mandate is double-edged: “We should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” Does not the whole of the gospel hinge on that one word, “and”? Believe… AND love.
I don’t know about you, but this terrifies me. Not only do I have to do more than think the right things (hard enough) or say the right things (sometimes easier), but I have to live rightly, in truth.
And I don’t even get to decide what that truth is – it’s love. And it’s not up to me what that action is – it’s love. Given freely, radically, generously, as long as there’s need for it… love’s circumstances might be flexible, they are likely surprising, but the mandate itself is not a puzzle.
We can stop asking what the “right” thing to do is… Which cause is the best? Where can I be the most effective? What if our resources run out? What happens when it floods, or the plague comes, Or (have mercy) institutions fail usand we have to start over, from the foundations?
God’s pretty clear on this one. We keep loving. In truth, and action.
We silently went back to the streets in order to start all over again.
You’re not here to be effective or successful.
You,… I,… am here to be faithful to the Word made flesh.
Because what we believe is a fabulous mystery, that we’re commanded to bring about the Kingdom when it’s already here… that we’re to reveal it and that’s all we’re to do.

This goal is already fact, God’s fact, the fact of grace and promise. No gap divides what God says from what God does. God’s Word is God’s action. And it, God, is waiting for us to see him in ourselves, here all along…
Truth and action… called to live in such a way that the Way, Jesus’ way, is read in the very fabric of our relationships to one another, to our fellow human beings, to Creation.
The sacraments, too, as Augustine says, are the “visible word” of God. They are the Word, enacted… and when we receive them, when we claim them, when we are saying we’re ready to welcome Jesus in his many disguises, that our hearts and doors and arms are open, that we’re gonna live out being bread and juice, that we too are the Word enacted, lovingly revealed, truthfully shared with all the world, not just talking about it, not even just theologically reflecting on it, translating it into just more speech, more words… but living it.
Then, then, we’ve finally translated the glorious Word in truth and action.
May it be so for you, and for me, and for all the world. Amen.

What we’re really thinking.

I have five blog posts in my queue, little notes about things I’d like to think more about later.  I’ve looked at them over and over again and keep thinking, “Ugh. Boring.”  You see, they’re on important topics like reconciliation, genocide, dialoguing with people who live not only on the other end of the political spectrum but (some days) in an alternative ethical universe.  And who cares?  Honestly, today, I don’t.  I’m worried more about filters.  Conversational ones.  Because, really, I’ve got a bit of a problem lately.  And talking about genocide, while a noble and necessary task, isn’t going to change the fact that on most days lately, I’m harboring a bit of hate in my heart for just the regular ol’ people I’ve got to deal with. And until I deal with that somehow, I don’t think I’ve got much righteous ground to stand on.  In fact, I don’t think I can understand widespread hatred very well at all without figuring out where such overt violence finds its source.

I’ve confessed this to a couple of friends already, but I’m going to step out on a ledge and lob it out into the open air of the world wide web.  I am full of some pretty mean thoughts.  These thoughts come into my head and I don’t even know where they come from.  It’s like they were waiting, lurking, holding out for just the right wrong moment to *bam* snap through my brain cells into that space over my tongue, banging to get out.  They have sounded like this, lately:

“What the hell do you know?  I’m the one with the degree here.”

“Please, don’t sit by me.  I don’t want to talk to you. Please, please, please don’t force me to be courteous.  I don’t wanna pretend like I care.”

“Oh my God, just shut up already! No one cares what you have to say about [fill in topic here].”

“If only you knew what I am thinking right now, you’d realize how stupid you sound.”

Okay.  You probably don’t need to hear more – there’s obviously a theme.  Somehow, during the last few weeks, I’ve somewhere picked up the idea that I know better than other people what is right, good, reasonable, smart, interesting, important, meaningful.  I’ve decided that other people are wasting my time with their wandering around out loud, their figuring out, their trying to fit into a group, their mistakes, their slips, their opinions I don’t understand or agree with.  In other words, I’ve turned into a jerk.  A meanie who thinks, basically, that other people are dumb and I’m not.  That other people aren’t worth quite as much as I am.  I’ve caught the pride virus.

lips

Some back story.  Earlier this year, I made a personal promise to take definite, concrete, and intentional steps away from gossip.  I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but it’s on my daily “remind yourself to be a better human being” list.  I’m trying.  It means stepping back or away from conversations other people start that include bad-mouthing colleagues and friends.  It has meant limiting my exposure to certain classmates. It means admitting when I find myself gossiping.  It means a lot more prayer than I’d like to admit.  However, I’ve got to say, the no-gossip rule (well, the less-gossip rule, anyhow) has caused my commentary to go… underground.  It’s staying in my head.  Where it’s getting loud and proud.  Maybe this is the first step toward phasing out bad thoughts about other people that would otherwise have come out with friends.  Maybe those meannesses are rattling around, used to having their daily feed, getting a bit hungry.  I seem to remember Jesus telling some story about clearing a house of one demon only to have seven more move into the renovated space.  So, consider this post one of my outer-perimeter mental home security systems.  I’m shining some light on those demons in my head.  Maybe they’ll shrivel up a little bit and start to waste away.

Cleaning-woman God.

I interviewed with my district committee this morning in order to pass into the next phase of affirmation toward ordination in the United Methodist Church.  In the process of this interview, which included questions about my theology, my understanding of ordination, my own call to ministry, and the opportunity to list my own weaknesses, one of my committee members asked me a surprising question: Which is my favorite parable?  Anyone who knows me knows a couple of things: 1) I’m pretty into inclusivity.  In other words, I don’t really “do” favorites.  I kind of love everything.  2) I’m into hyperbole (see number one).  If I love something, I love it – it’s fantastic, amazing, incredible.  If I dislike it, it’s “That’s horrendous!” Or, at least until next time, when there’s an exception.  I’m sure it drives people crazy.  In fact, I know it does.  So, when asked, “What’s your favorite…?” I totally freeze up.  All of a sudden, my mind touches on a million options (or at least five), and I get the sense of being unfairly pinned down.  The thing is, in these situations, sometimes something about me really does reveal itself.  So it was this morning.  I sat quietly for a few moments, waiting for inspiration and thinking of the various implications of each of the parables coming to mind… and then just opened my mouth and worked with the first thing that came out.

One story that Jesus tells, right after the lost sheep and right before the famous “prodigal son” in Luke 15, makes my heart warm.  Actually, if this isn’t too weird, the feeling I get from that parable is the same body-sense I get from being in love – deep comfort, total clarity, exceptional hope.  It gets about two verses, and it’s in the form of a question… He says, “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  What woman, indeed?

I’ve lost things.  Lots of things, big and little, important and insignificant.  People, too.  Ideas, hopes, opportunities.  But that coin, it represents something special.  Everytime I think of that parable, I think of that woman, sort of middle-aged, in the center of her simple house, standing with her hands on her hips for a moment or two, thinking.  Then, suddenly, on her hands and knees on that hard, dirt-packed floor, tearing things out of corners, throwing blankets, pots, living space-things behind her with intensity, even abandon, the other nine coins stacked carefully on her rough kitchen table, glinting in the lamp light.  Systematically but frantically searching for that little silver coin in the dark, dirty corner it’s rolled itself into.  It’s equal to all of the others she has, already waiting there collected, but that’s just it… it’s equal in value.  It, too, deserves to be sought out, found, shined on the hem of her apron and gathered together with the others.  To be put where it belongs, in its home.  Because what’s wrong with a lost coin?  One thing: it can’t fulfill its purpose, the thing it was made for.  Separated from its brethren, it’s not able to be as fully-what-it-is as it might be.  It’s valuable in its own right, even more valuable when gathered into its community.

Telling this story to the committee, I lost it.  I mean, big, rolling tears started pouring over my face and I felt the weird feeling of telling a story from the heart of the world.  Wondering what it was about this story, I realized it’s my gospel.  One line, in the form of a question.  Who, what God, would not do this, would not gather together each and every one?   The one in whom I am learning every day to trust would.  The God I know, realizing this little coin has been lost, has gotten down on her knobby, creaking knees in the mud and the garbage and scrabbled through with her bare hands looking desperately and intently for me, like parent looks for her child lost in a crowd, to bring me back home… un-distracted by anything not immediately related to the problem, disregarding any consequence other than that of finding, of seeking and finding.

There’s a poem that matches this sense of God for me, and it was envisioned by the 14th century Hindu poet Janibai.  It’s entitled, “You leave your greatness behind you.”  May you, too, feel with deep assurance that God has left God’s greatness behind, just for you, to show you that you are loved, coveted, and needed for the building up of the Kingdom.

Jani has had enough of samsara,/but how will I repay my debt?/ You leave your greatness behind you to grind and pound with me./ O Lord you become a woman/ washing me and my soiled clothes,/ proudly you carry the water and gather dung with your own two hands./ O Lord, I want/ a place at your feet,/ says Jani, Namdev’s dasi.

Vampire Christians.

This year has been a season of finding ways to understand forgiveness.  The dissolution of my marriage was final last month, the month previous to that my mother died, ending the possibility of a reconciliation after an estrangement stretching back to my sophomore year of high school.  Some friendships have been severely tested, my own understanding of ordination and my career, including ordination, always on the edge of dashing away into a world where I don’t have to be angry with church people or institutions or myself for failing them.  Forgiveness… moving forward into a future with hope, knowing that putting pieces together and healing the world is an act of courage and sometimes bold naivete.  One foot in front of the other, perhaps, with blinders on.

VAMPIREIn the midst of this, a few weeks ago, I attended a gathering of emergent church people, a talk given by Doug Pagitt.  Something he said has stuck with me.  He said that there is a breed of people a friend of his calls “vampire Christians.”  They’re the ones who seem to want Jesus for his blood and not much else.  Now, my first reaction to this statement was, “Oh, yeah… them.” As though I’m not at all related, that I don’t have something I’m primarily interested in Jesus for, too.  I can get pretty far saying this (insert appropriate liberal snideness), since after all I’ve got a pretty solid argument against atonement theories that focus on Jesus’ death without caring too much about either his incredible living or the transformational resurrection.  I can talk my way around that crucifixion till your head spins.  Theological.  Political.  Cultural.  Whatever fancy-pants avoiding-the-issue sorts of arguments you want, I got’em.

The problem is, at heart, I’ve got to deal with the fact that really, I’m in the same boat as a vampire Christian.  Hell, I’m holding the same paddle.  Because what I really want from Jesus, what I have needed, in fact, is forgiveness.  What I’m saying is, they may want Jesus for his blood, those vampire Christians, but this year I pretty much have been wanting him for his empty tomb and not much else.  The great Jesus-do-over.  Which is wrong, too.

Now, I haven’t been asking for the kind of forgive-and-forget toxic silliness that we so carefully teach children.  No.  The kind of forgiveness I’ve been looking for is filled with consequence, and learning, and a sense of deep peace and hope that despite what’s been broken or damaged or hurt, I can’t fix it because after all that’s above my pay grade, there’s only one power in the world strong enough to mend what’s not right here.  The kind of forgiveness that has God stroking my face and telling me it’s not really okay, but that’s not the point because lessons are learned and the world is different because of them and in fact it’s going to be better, fuller, more significantly joyous because it’s about dimension, not simplicity and God’s working despite my impression that it’s up to me.  Which is great, I’m sure.  I’ve done some serious thinking about this, lots of praying, too much crying, and I think this is an okay kind of forgiveness to desperately want.  ButI’m not saying forgiveness isn’t a wonderful thing to want.

I’m not even saying that seeking it and growing it in the world isn’t a noble venture.  I’m saying, it’s not the whole picture.  I recently heard someone say that if you boiled down the three Abrahamic religions into one word, Judaism = family, Islam = prayer, and Christianity = forgiveness.  I don’t think any Jew, Muslim, or Christian would be totally happy with that assessment, no matter how wonderful those three things are.  ‘Cause we can’t just want Jesus (or God, for that matter) for one thing, especially when that one thing is just for ourselves.  It’s either the whole picture or we’re just vampire Christians, there for the part that makes us feel good and fed and ironically limiting ourselves from growing because of it.  We’ve got to be willing to say, yes… Jesus’ life, the fact of him, says something about us and the world, about me and how I live.  Yes, Jesus’ death does, too, on a cross, at the hands of religious authorities and the government, because of the brokenheartedness inherent in this humanity.  Yes, the resurrection is central to how I am because I believe that somehow, through some mystery, God’s managed to overcome death with love and transformed the most horrible horrors into the possibility of hope.  All three, together, are the story.  Maybe I can get out of this by saying that, for me, they’re all about forgiveness.  They’re certainly all about redemption.  And that might be enough.

How are you a vampire Christian?

Not what I thought I said.

During the last few weeks, I’ve had the strange experience of feeling as though someone else is talking through me.  No, don’t run for your DSM-IV.  I’m not hallucinating.  It’s just a plain ol’ problem with communication.  Human to human.  We all remember the childhood game of telephone, where you pass a message through a chain of people until it gets back to its original speaker, usually garbled and entirely different in both form and content than when it started.  Let’s call this a game of telephone with only one intermediary – me.  Have you ever had this experience?  You know, the one where you could absolutely swear you’d been clear, that you’d thought out what you had to say, had smartly assessed the information, the conversation, the person with whom you’re speaking, and then… bam… what you said isn’t at all what that person heard?  They repeat back to you what they understood you to say and it’s not only not what you said (or some version of it, translated), but it’s not the message you wanted to send?  Or, worse, it’s exactly what you said, but when repeated sounds entirely unlike the point you were trying to make?

Sometimes, this is a good thing, and I can see relationships being built out of it.  Preaching is like that, I think.  Pastors simply can’t predict exactly which parts of the good news people are going to be prepared to hear that day.  Everyone comes from a different place, a unique context, and fundamentally special background, and this difference creates difference of interpretation.   I preached my senior chapel last Tuesday on 1 John 3 and focused on loving not through word or speech but through truth and action.  I had my message all thought out, I’d planned the service down to the last second, I was prepared.  I knew what I was going to say, how I was going to say it, what I wanted people to hear.  And then… every last person who came up to me afterward to talk about worship heard something different.  I had no control, after all.  And, most strangely, each person’s connection point, each interpretation, was entirely correct.  The words spoken to them were the same, but they all heard different things, each helpful or illuminating or healing (thank you, Holy Spirit) in their own way.  So, what I thought I’d said, indeed had said, meant something different simply by virtue of leaving my mouth and entering the hearts of someone unlike me.

And then, this week, I had two conversations with a friend with whom I’m still negotiating the nature of our friendship.  We’ve both got some stuff to work through with each other, and we’re desperately trying to talk about what it’s like to be in relationship, how we can move into a future friendship that will look the way we want and need it to.  And over and over again, I heard myself explore a thought or feeling, had it repeated back to me, and it came back all mangled.  And this relationship is important to me, so I don’t want to just drop the issue altogether – it’s worth it to keep working on the hard parts.  The two of us have to keep talking, even if (when) we have no idea whether the words we’re saying are being heard as they were intended.  This is, I think, one of the hardest things about being in relationships… this not knowing, never knowing, how we’re being perceived, but having to keep at it, nonetheless.

As I’ve sat thinking about this during the last week, it’s made me wonder about the times I write off the message I’m getting from people.  What are the times when my ability to listen and hear what someone is actually trying to say has been compromised by what I’ve already got going on in my head?  Even actively, intently listening, leaving all the stuff aside that I can about what I already know of a person, what I think about the words they’ve chosen, of their tone, sometimes it’s hard to really hear. And maybe that’s the problem.  Rather than really trying to take all of those things and integrate them, we assume we know better than another person what they are trying to say.  Does that make sense?  On some level, in order to really hear, we have to both take things at face value, without laying on top of them everything we already know, and simultaneously use every bit of contextual information we have in order to understand it.  Meanwhile, if we’re trying to be heard, we have to understand that the other person is trying to do this very thing, on the other end, and be patient with that.  I’m thinking of Jesus’ parables.  “Let those with ears to hear…” Each of us hears something unique, even if there’s a core if elusive message to capture, a central and valuable core to the story.  It’s important, but we bring a lot of ourselves to the table, and it’s hard to hear through that baggage clogging up our air space. This is true in human relationships of all kinds, it’s true when trying to listen for God’s voice, it’s true when sharing a thought or the gospel.  And I think it’s probably good for me to try to remember that, when I get frustrated that I’m neither hearing nor being heard the way I’ve intended.  Perhaps I’m making listening into something more complicated, more difficult, than it actually is.  But I doubt it.

Sunday’s comin’.

I’ve been waiting for today for a long time.  Lent was not forty days long this year.  It was what felt like an eternity.  When we’re in periods of doubt, struggle, and painful waiting I think it always seems as though they go on much longer than the calendar measures.  But I believe in Easter.  A friend asked me two days ago why I think the resurrection is the central, essential, critical moment of my faith, a conversation I was not ready to have yet, on Good Friday, waiting in the dark knowing that Easter was coming but that the gulf between them is not forty-eight hours but an eternity, the weight of all the cosmos hanging in the balance.  I just couldn’t talk about resurrection on Good Friday, the day of darkness.  I think of it as the day God got sucked out of the world, though theologically, the image is probably more appropriately described as the day God got pushed out of the world. I’m not a particularly obedient person.  I suck at spiritual disciplines (and maintain that the word “suck” is a theological term).  I don’t listen well, I don’t have very strong will power over my personal habits and choices.  I choose not to obey.  I don’t use the word “promise” lightly.  Those who know me well know that I don’t make promises.  Part of the reason is that I often doubt that I will keep them.  But I trust that God does.  And I have known for months, through a very hard time in my personal life, that God promised me some Easter.

I needed the date, the calendar, to tell me when that would happen, because for months I’ve been working through some things I feel desperately bad and guilty for… and I needed a date on which I could say that I could stop punishing myself for them, could say that I had been taking on my own guiltiness long enough and could put it down in front of God with integrity and honesty and trust that God not only would carry those things for me, but already had been, for a long time.  For always, even.  Perhaps it’s a bit selfish, to need the symbol of the day itself rather than to recognize from minute to minute that grace is, has been, and will be, that God is so much love that there is not only no blame but no need for forgiveness.  But I’m human, and so are you.  God doesn’t begrudge us that.  After all, it’s sort of God’s fault (I say, smiling).  And we human beings tend to need symbols, the enactment of larger truths through the things of the world we can touch, see, smell, and taste around us.  So, today, receiving the bread and cup of communion, passing the peace and an olive branch to some people with whom I’ve been struggling, and singing “hallelujah!” for the first time in a long time.

Resurrection, the total, wonderful, mysterious thing we celebrate on Easter Sunday, is for me the culmination of the whole story.  It is the story.  Without Jesus rising from death, conquering the brokenness of the world made in love by God and shattered into jagged shards by the ones for whom it was created, the coming of God in Jesus means little to me.  The cross, where we revealed ourselves as needing oh, so much more love than we knew, just another religious teacher and convicted criminal executed by the state.  But in the light of this transformation from death to life, Jesus lying dead in a dark tomb and then suddenly present again in the world, there is something there was not before.

Hope.

The resurrection is hope.  It means that we can all become more than we think we are, more than we’ve been told we are, more than we’ve learned to be.  It means that God can bring us up out of the muck we’ve sunk ourselves into.  The muck we’ve dunked others into.  It means new life.  It doesn’t mean a do-over.  It doesn’t mean that all is erased or that the past doesn’t matter or that there isn’t justice for wrongs done.  After all, Jesus still had the holes in his wrists and side when he returned to visit with the disciples.  Those  marks just don’t disappear, though they may fade with time.  It’s a crucified Christ we look to, but one who’s ridden death into its own grave.  There is a strength in survival that just doesn’t exist when that survival doesn’t include struggle and suffering.

So it’s Easter today… the Lamb wins, Sunday always comes, Easter is.  We say, “Christ is risen” for a reason.  It happens over and over.  It happens yearly, weekly, daily… moment by moment and breath by breath and scar by scar.

Christ is risen, indeed.

#13: What in your life is not for sale?

***This is the thirteenth of a series of posts based on a book I’m reading for a class called Connections in Religious and Ecological Education entitled Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation. The chapter is “What In Your Life is Not for Sale?” by Allen Johnson, coordinator of Christians For the Mountains.

What in your life is not for sale? Perhaps for money, certainly… but perhaps you aren’t motivated by money.  What in your life is not for sale, what are you not able and or willing to sell for the sake of your pride?  Your convenience?  Your hope for the future of your children?  Maybe its a sense of need to believe in goodness that you’re willing to sacrifice anything to maintain.  I confess, when I’m deeply honest, I’m not sure what’s not for sale in my own life. At times, I’ve transacted deals against my own values, against my integrity, against my reputation, against my emotional, physical, or spiritual well-being.  Not to excuse, but that’s being human.  Unfortunately, it’s not the way Jesus asks me to live.  The problem is, and I know I’m not alone in this, I’m pretty good at justification… if it’s for a “greater good,” do the ends justify the means?  Jesus reminded his followers that their lives were of no value if their souls were lost in the saving.  This seems pretty straightforward, until we have to make decisions about how to live, what saving our own lives looks like in the real world where we have to live everyday.  What in our lives is not for sale, and why?

Most courteously and most tenderly.

I’ve been submersed during the last month or so  in the writings of the 14th century English mystic and anchoress Julian of Norwich as part of a class I’m taking about her life and spirituality.  Every week as part of class, our professor opens a half hour for us to meditate through art on a passage related to our learning.  A few weeks ago, armed with my sketchbook and some borrowed crayons, I showed up to this late evening class feeling raw and open-nerved after a fourteen hour day, an emotionally difficult weekend, and heaviness in my heart.  I rolled my eyes and felt a sinking pit in my stomach when I read the two prompts for meditation: one was about Julian’s vision of the bleeding Christ on the cross and the other was about mothers.  I was unprepared on all levels to think about either my suffering Lord or his relationship to mothering, parenting, provision.  In a word, I was feeling oppositional.

But, I had to choose one, or sit in my uncomfortable chair with my arms crossed for the duration.  So I picked the second one, hoping that some sort of lovely feminist vision would come to me, edging into my consciousness and having nothing at all to do with my recent struggles to understand myself within a larger matrix of the story of my own parents.

So, I read and reread Julian’s gentle words, “The mother can give of her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly…”  I thought about communion, and Jesus feeding us out of his own body.  I thought about the powerful experiences, at some times of total emptiness and at others of absolute peace and assurance, I’ve found eating at that table.  Finding sustenance there, despite my anger or doubt or conviction.  Then I read the rest of the meditation… “With what do you need Christ to feed you right now?”  Oh, no.  I very desperately didn’t want to reflect on that question.   But, actually, I didn’t have to.  I just began to color.  I need to engage some full disclosure here.  I have no artistic ability whatsoever.  None.  I appreciate beautiful things but don’t create them.  Especially with Crayola crayons.  But, keeping those words in my mind, “our precious Mother Jesus… feed you…,” here’s what came out:

Julian, Christ as Mother

I sat and watched myself draw this stunning, living woman, these gorgeous heavy breasts and tummy, this open posture and radiance.  And had no idea what the hell it meant.  But in order to honor Julian, you’ve got to sit with something for a while.  I mean, the woman had a vision of the Christ on the cross and meditated on it for twenty years before she wrote about it again.

My mother is not this image.  I don’t know this mother.  I know I want her to be mine.  What do I need Christ to feed me now?  This image tells me my heart is crying for comfort.  I want warm, luscious fullness.  Plenitude.  Her arms aren’t showing in the picture, but in my mind they’re plump and warm and full, and they’d probably fit right around me while I cry.  She’s peaceful, and that peace simply oozes out into the rest of the picture.  Christ is this woman.  He’s my mother.  I need one, right about now in my life, and this is the one I want.  Open, vulnerable, strong, and comforting.  Available, compassionate, and unafraid.  Thing is, I think I’ve got what I’ve been looking for.  It’s been there, in my heart, all along, just waiting for me to drop my defenses and pick up my yellow crayons.  I hope you find what Christ wants to feed you, too.  Amen.

The prayer I wish I could pray.

Holy God,  I’m tired of winter.  Not winter snow and ice, that hateful draft under my back door, but the winter in my head and in my heart.  Where are you?  Aren’t you supposed to be pillars of fire and light?  Those would be warm, and comforting, if frightening. Scary and present is better than scary and absent.  I keep hearing that you’re around, and that you’ve always been around, but right now I’m not remembering those times and I’m not seeing your face.  Couldn’t you show up, just for a little while, like that barn cat we had when I was a little girl?  You remember, the one who’d show up when the weather got too bad and the food too unpredictable.  People keep saying that I’m just not looking, or that you like to stay quiet.  I’m tired of hearing that I’m supposed to be learning from this.  And I’m tired of pretending like it’s a growing experience.  If I utter or hear the word “transition” one more time, there will be screaming.  I’ll be frank, right now quiet in my head would be nice, what with my monkey mind jumping from idea-branch to branch.  But it’s a loud God I want.  Snap your fingers in my face or something.  Sky-writing would be fine, too.  Here’s what you could say, “It’s going to be fine.  You haven’t screwed this up beyond fixing. It ain’t over til it’s over.  I still love you.  Turn around.”  It could be shorter, if you like.  Maybe just, “I still love you” would be enough.  Or, “Here’s a blanket, go take a nap, I’ve got this covered.”  But you should say it out loud, because if I’m supposed to be hearing it, I’ve got to tell you it’s not working.  I hate those people who say Jesus walks with them, but it’s really because I wish I understood what that’s like.  God, take my envy.  Take it, make it into something else.  Hold my shoulders tight and squeeze out all of the sad-gunk, like you would a dish rag.  But let me feel it.  And now it’s prayed, and I hope it’s good enough.  Because it’s what I’ve got today.  I’ll be watching the sky, waiting for the finger-snap, bull-horn, personal note.  I’ll be watching and waiting.  And I’m hoping you are, too.

Amen.

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