Sunday, August 28, 2011
Doug and I were sitting in a restaurant in Ashville last Tuesday, enjoying a late lunch after visiting the Biltmore Estate. Suddenly the phone rang – it was our daughter Allie, calling from New Haven, Ct. She sounded a bit overwrought, but then she usually does.
“Are you at home? Are you okay?”
“No, we’re in Asheville. We’re fine. What’s this about?”
“Haven’t you heard about the earthquake?”
“The one in Virginia. We felt it up here in New Haven!”
“Well, we didn’t feel it here.”
“Is the cat okay? The house?”
“I don’t know. We’ll check into it and get back to you.”
Then we began to check our smartphones, sending texts and emails to friends in Richmond, trying to find out more about this earthquake and hoping that it had caused no harm to the church or the parishioners or other friends. And the phone began ringing with calls from relatives further afield, asking if we were okay.
When something extraordinary happens, we try to make sense of it using the tools at our disposal, don’t we? Smartphones, the internet, television or radio…we use what we can to figure out what’s going on. And those tools may give us some information that is helpful, but our response to them is what really matters.
For Doug and me, it was reassuring those who called us that all was well, once we had talked to or exchanged emails with our key contacts back home. And then our task was to accept that there was nothing we could do, and nothing that really needed attention, and so I said a brief prayer to myself and turned back to enjoying the vacation that we had waited for.
The same feeling of “what’s happening and how should I respond to it?” bubbled up again when it became clear that Hurricane Irene was headed this way. I found myself thinking about the impact of the storm on our services today, and on the folks we would be hosting from Caritas. I wondered what would happen if the church lost power and if our guests would be frightened. I knew, though, that our team of Caritas coordinators, led by Paul Jones, would manage it well. I just hoped the bathrooms would work and the windows would keep out the rain. In the moment, I knew there was little I could do except pray that all would be well.
But it’s hard in the midst of something strange or extraordinary or dangerous to simply say, “okay, this is happening…I’ll do what I can and then just leave it in God’s hands.”
This is the problem that faces both Moses and Peter in today’s scripture readings.
They are going along, doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing and – BAM – something shocks them off course. For Moses, it is an encounter on a hillside while he is herding his father-in-law’s sheep. There’s a burning bush, a talking bush. Now Moses may have thought he’d been out with the sheep too long, or that the sun was getting to him, but the bush kept talking to him…and he realized that this was the voice of God speaking to him. It was pretty weird. Bushes don’t normally burn without being consumed, and they certainly don’t talk. So he used the tools he had at his disposal, asking questions, to try and make sense of what was going on.
“Okay, God, thanks for telling me you care about all us sorrowful Israelites under the thumb of Egypt. Thanks for telling me you’re going to help us. But I know these folks, and the first question they’re going to ask is, ‘who is this God with whom you spoke?’”
And God says, “well, you can’t really understand my name…it’s a bit more complicated than Fred or Marco…just say my name is I AM.”
Oh yes, that really helps.
So God gives him some further information, instructions about what will happen. But Moses is no dummy. He knows how his people will react to this news, so he says “what if they don’t believe me?” And the God named I AM gives him some further tools to help the people believe the message.
Moses is struggling with that question of “what’s happening and how am I supposed to respond to it?” And it takes him a little while to grow into the reality of it, to accept God’s words and wishes.
Just like it sometimes takes us a little while to accept things that happen around us, and to figure out how to respond to it.
As usually happens when some natural or unnatural disaster occurs, a religious leader announced that it was all because we are sinful people…God was exacting a vengeance upon us. When that happens, I usually say a few unkind words under my breath about so-called religious leaders who try and shape a difficult situation to fit their own agenda, and then I say a few words of prayer for all those people who might become shamed or guilty or frightened because of misguided words like these.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter reacts strongly to Jesus’ announcement that he is facing arrest and death at the hands of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. “Don’t say that, Lord!” Peter cries. It’s understandable. Jesus is talking about a horrific thing happening. Peter responds in a very natural way…he doesn’t’ want this bad thing to happen to the man whom he has followed for these three years and whom he has grown to believe is the Messiah. The only tools he has to deal with the fear and the horror are his emotions and his words, and those words spill out of him before he thinks twice: “God forbid it! It must never happen!”
But words don’t stop an earthquake or a hurricane, and words will not stop the things that will happen to Jesus. Jesus knows this, and is aggravated with Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” In other words, “Your words tempt me to try and avoid this thing which I must do. Don’t say that!”
The hurricane is inevitable. The earthquake is inevitable. The death of Jesus is inevitable. And yet we try to make sense of the irrational using our meager tools.
For Moses, it is the words that articulate his fear that his people will not believe that God has spoken to him. For Peter, it is words that try to block the fear that Jesus will die a failed Messiah. And for Jesus himself, it may be the cold grip of fear that he could be tempted by Peter’s words to abandon the thing he must do that will save humanity from its sins…and for him, the words he must use are harsh and hurtful ones, because he is strengthening himself to face something more painful and horrible than an earthquake or a hurricane.
We look for rational scientific answers to natural disasters. We try to quantify the force of the winds or the seismic shift. We try to suss out why things happen.
Sometimes we try to blame it on God’s vengeance, because it’s easy to pin it on a being who is so far beyond our comprehension. Sometimes we try to say God is teaching us a lesson, even though he told us going all the way back to the days after the flood that he wouldn’t exact such a price again. We try to understand what’s going on.
We forget that trying to understand what is happening is foolishness. Praying is the only response.
God knows the fears in our hearts. God hears our feeble attempts to try and make sense of the vast complexity of the natural world, including natural disasters. God responds as he did to Moses: “I have heard the cry of my people, and I will be with you.”
So pray for those who were hurt in natural disasters. Pray for those who are helping. Pray for those who mistakenly believe that God is punishing us.
Then, like Moses, gather yourself up and go and do the work. Like Peter, take the
Lord’s words to heart and start walking on the road to Jerusalem. Like Jesus, face the hard work ahead, not without fear, but with the certain knowledge that God is with us, in these days and always. Take up the cross and follow.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
In today’s Gospel Jesus has a disturbing encounter with a Canaanite woman. She asks for his help, but he rebuffs her. It is only when she argues her case that he blesses her and gives her what she wants.
As we hear his harsh words “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” we wonder what has gotten into him. It certainly doesn’t sound like that warm and comforting shepherd, nor that gentle teacher with his Sermon on the Mount. What has caused him to react this way and say these cruel words to a woman in need? A clue may be in the brief sentence that places Jesus geographically: “Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.”
He has left his home turf, Jewish territory, because he has just gotten into an argument – once again – with the religious leadership, and has been hustled out of town by the disciples, who know that Jesus has – once again – said that the leaders were wrong in their teachings. And where does he go? To a border town in the region between the nation of Israel and the nation of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, who were the bitter enemies of the Israelites for generations upon generations. It says something about how risky Jesus’ situation was back in Gennesaret that a border area, a sort of demilitarized zone, is now safer for him than a Jewish village near where he grew up.
So Jesus is now on the border, and who approaches him but someone from the so-called enemy camp. A woman, alone.
Step back a minute and imagine a soldier on the Afghan-Pakistani border, a soldier who’s been under fire for many days, a soldier who lost friends to suicide bombers who looked like women and like children, and you can imagine what is going through the minds of Jesus and his disciples when this strange woman approaches. All their warning signals in their heads are beeping “Alert, alert! Possible high risk approaching!”
And remember that in Jesus’ time, women don’t travel alone, and Canaanites don’t talk to Israelites, and they certainly don’t ask for help from them.
No, it is no wonder that Jesus is careful.
And she’s asking for help from Jesus. That’s a surprise. This woman on the border, straddling two enemy lands, alone, not a Jew but a Canaanite, asking for help from this Israelite rabbi. It makes no sense, but then, there are many things in the strange world of the border that make no sense.
Living on the border, you take risks, because it is the land where life itself is a risk. You never know when another battle will start up, you never know when someone is going to try to take your land or your sheep or your goats or your child.
So you take risks when it is necessary, and for this woman, it is necessary. Her daughter is ill, tormented by a demon. Somehow, the word has leaked through the border that there is a Jewish rabbi who works wonders. He can heal. And now she has heard he is nearby. She has no husband to go for her – perhaps her husband has been killed in the border skirmishes – so she goes herself.
She goes even though she knows this rabbi will not want to come near her, that in his eyes she will be unclean, that he might even say no, because she is a Canaanite. She goes despite all this, because on the border, you take risks that people who live in safe places would not. On the border, life itself is a risk.
She steps into that demilitarized zone that straddles the two lands and cries out to him for help. She makes her petition. He hears her, but as she expected, he ignores her. Another woman, in another place, might be discouraged by this and turn back, but the woman who has lost all – a husband, her daughter’s sanity – takes the risk because she has no other option. She keeps crying out. And the disciples, nervous and worried, say to Jesus, “Can’t you send her away? We don’t want any attention called to us in this place, this risky border.”
Jesus sighs – must he always do these things himself? – and calls to her from a safe distance. “I haven’t been sent here to help Canaanites. My mission is to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “Sorry, you’re not my problem.”
But she refuses to take no for an answer. She kneels smack dab in front of him and says, “Help me.”
When you’re on the border of warring nations or on the border of your child’s sanity, you take risks.
And now he’s beyond uncomfortable, he’s angry. How dare this Canaanite stranger, this woman, kneel in front of him in her insistence. So he snaps at her, saying she is trying to steal what belongs to his own people, his own people, as a dog would steal human food if it were left on the table.
Suddenly she is angry, too. What does she have to lose? He has already said no. So she throws his comment back in his face. “I may be a dog to you, but even dogs get to lick up a few crumbs that fall from the table.”
Has she gone too far? Will he strike her dead for her impertinence? Has she risked too much?
He takes a quick step back, as if he had been slapped. He stands there, stock still, breathing hard. A slow smile comes upon his face, as if he has suddenly realized something in this border spot, this place of conflict and argument.
All the times that Jesus has bested the Pharisees and the Sadducees in argument, never once being tricked by them, never once having to admit that they were right and he was wrong, and now here, in this dusty deserted place, there is someone who has made a point he cannot refute.
She is right. Her risk was worth taking. She has taught him something about his mission that he had somehow missed.
It’s not just about the house of Israel. There is a larger world at stake. His mission is not only Israel, it is anyone who can understand and feel the power and love of the one true God.
Who knows how this woman has come to understand who he is, who God is? But all that matters is her faith in him, in his ability to help her daughter. And in the split second that it takes him to look down at her, kneeling in the dust, and to smile, her daughter is healed.
And as her daughter is transformed, he too is transformed. He blesses the woman and praises her faith, and he is blessed with the knowledge that his mission – to heal the tenuous relationship between God and humanity – is meant to be more expansive than simply fixing the wayward Israelites. It can be, it should be, the world.
He looks over the border, over into Canaan. He remembers how his ancient ancestors were first given the land of Canaan, as a reward for the 40 years of risk crossing from Egypt to a home of their own. He muses on how many borders those forebears risked crossing over to get to that final place. They crossed borders, each time a risk, because God was doing great work in them. He now is at the border. He now is doing great work. And the work grows, and he smiles even though he knows that this new and expanded mission will increase the risk for him by alienating both the religious leadership of Israel and the Roman empire.
But it is a risk well worth it, though. All because of one intense, argumentative, risk-taking woman who dared to cross over the border to talk to a man who was more than a man, because the need was great and, for her, the risk was worth it.
What border will you cross today, or tomorrow? What will you risk, as the woman risked, as Jesus himself risked, to reach out to the God who created us and loved us so much that he exposed his own son to unimaginable risk? You know the risk is worth.
Step away from your comfortable safe place. Step into the borderlands, and ask God what risk you should take today.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Strong Opinions is now moving toward a healthier frame of mind in the aftermath of the breakup with the BF. She will be leaving in a few days to do a road trip, to visit friends and start to envision what her next steps will be. I'm glad she is taking these steps, although I will be a worried mama while she is on the road with the 1975 Datsun 280Z. The car is almost as old as her eldest brother. Sigh. Nevertheless, it is an improvement on where she was when she got here. And PH and I will get our life and home back again...while she was struggling through the worst of this, we felt we needed to stay close, and neither of us was able to fully attend to our professional responsibilities. Color me guilty. but only slightly.
We've had some very sick parishioners recently, one of which was a surprise of a particularly unpleasant sort, so the Saab has been trekking back and forth to various hospitals and rehab facilities in the area. Thank goodness for mileage reimbursement.
Vacation Bible School has been wonderful, although because of the situation with SO I haven't been there very much. Lots of new kids from the neighborhood as well as our own dear kiddos, and the adults and teens who are leading and participating are fabulous. We are blessed.
I've also been busy in my role as president of the neighborhood clergy association. We have been advocating in support of rezoning approval for a mosque to be built in our neighborhood. It has been a sometimes contentious thing, with a few folks saying some rather hateful things about Islam, but we went to the final county board meeting this past week. I spoke, one of many speakers who urged approval, and a few folks spoke against, but in the end the board did the right thing, and a piece of property that has been undeveloped for 27 years will finally be put to good use as a house of worship for some wonderful folks in our area. I've gotten a few brickbats thrown my way in the aftermath, but generally everyone has applauded our work in support of the mosque. BTW, kudos to my Bishop, who wrote a letter in support of the mosque. Nice to know he's got my back when I need him.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I'm older than my father was when he died, I'm older than my mother was when she had her first series of heart attacks. I've got a bunch of odd and annoying medical problems, but I get up every morning and do some sort of exercise and have a great husband and kids that I adore, so I'm grateful that I've lived this long, and even more grateful for the gift of my vocation. It energizes me when I don't think I have an ounce of oomph left in me.
And after Sunday, I will be on vacation for two weeks. Aaaaahhhhhhh!
Sunday, August 07, 2011
Every now and again, I happen upon the Dr. Phil show. Unlike another daytime program, Jerry Springer, a show that seems to focus on the worst misdeeds of humanity and asks us to mock them, Dr. Phil positions himself as a Mr. Fixit of troubled families.
I usually cringe a bit at Dr. Phil’s approach, but I wonder if the complicated blended family of Jacob’s various sons might be helped if they went on Dr. Phil and had a little bit of his down-home therapeutic intervention.
Can you picture it? The show opens, as it always does, with a close-up of Dr. Phil, who looks into the camera and says “Blended families are always a challenge. Brothers who are angry at their half-brothers, fathers who favor one child over another, mothers who are jealous of each other, the Dr. Phil family we will meet today has all that and more. We’ll see what we can do to help this family love each other, or at least live together in peace.”
The commercial break ends, and now there are several young men sitting in chairs on the podium with Dr. Phil. The good doctor says, “These are several brothers. They’ve been charged with a terrible crime, selling their half-brother into slavery and lying to their father about his whereabouts. They say their actions were justified, that their half-brother is a show-off and daddy’s pet, and that he became so insufferable that they had to do something.”
Phil turns to the men. “Guys, why did you do what you did, selling Joseph to the Midianites?”
Reuben speaks up, “Dr. Phil, we were just sick of him. He told us he had a dream that we all bowed down to him. He got the best coat from Dad, who just gives him everything and agrees with everything he says. Joseph has disrespected our half brothers – the ones who were born of our mothers’ maids – and he has been a general pain in the…”
Dr. Phil interrupts. “So you thought you’d get rid of him.”
“Yes. We threw him in a pit. We thought about killing him, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. So we sold him off to some traveling salesmen – we figured if we got him out of the picture, maybe Dad would share a little of the love with us, instead of giving it all to Joseph. And we even got a good price for him, so we had a little walking around money. Seemed pretty sweet!”
“So how’s that been working for you?”
“Well, we told Dad a fierce wild beast ate Joseph, and gave Dad that danged fancy coat, smeared with blood. And he was furious with us for not saving him, and just couldn’t stop crying and wailing and tearing his garments. So I guess it didn’t work out too well, since Dad is still not paying attention to us. He wants nothing to do with us right now.”
And the producer, that master of great timing, now cuts to a commercial.
Back again, and the boys are gone. There’s an older woman sitting in a chair now. She’s still beautiful, even at her age. Dr. Phil looks at her and gently says, ”this must be hard for you, losing Joseph.”
“Oh, Dr. Phil, you can’t imagine it. It was so hard for me to even have children, and now to lose this boy, so handsome and clever. It’s no surprise that his father dotes on him! He’s so much better than the other children my husband fathered.”
“Can you understand how that kind of attitude caused tensions between the boys?”
“It’s all their jealousy! It’s just like when their father wanted to marry me and got stuck with stupid Leah first. She was jealous that Jacob loved me more, and now these boys are jealous that Jacob loves Joseph more!”
“Sort of like how you were jealous when Leah got pregnant first?”
She looks crestfallen. “But my poor Joseph…eaten by a wild beast…it’s just too horrible…”
Dr. Phil angles his face so his words are directed partly at the now-weeping woman and partly at the camera. “Jealousy is contagious. Why not share love, rather than think that it is limited? Why not try to heal from this awful thing…”
Rachel nods, still sobbing.
And we cut to commercial break again.
We come back, and an old man is sitting in the chair. He looks as if his heart is broken beyond repair.
Dr. Phil softly says, “You miss your son, don’t you?”
“I made so many mistakes. I shouldn’t have shown that I loved Joseph more. I shouldn’t have given him that coat. I love all my boys, but Joseph was so special, so gifted. God is punishing me for my sins.”
“Jacob, perhaps God gave you a special son for a reason. Perhaps this boy was meant to do something that God didn’t tell you about, but you sensed his gifts.”
“But he’s dead!”
Dr. Phil pauses for dramatic effect. “I think your sons have something to tell you…come on in, boys. Come on in, Rachel.”
The sons of Jacob shuffle onto the stage. Reuben steps forward and say, “Joseph isn’t dead, at least we don’t think he is. There was no wild beast. We sold him to a trader passing through. He was a royal pain, and we had had enough of your favoritism. Dad, we couldn’t take that pompous little jerk any more. We had to do something.”
The old man ricochets between fury and joy. “He’s alive? He isn’t dead? You sold him? Oh dear heaven, I cannot believe this! What has Yahweh done for me, that I should have a second chance at holding my Joseph again? Oh my sons, I am so sorry that I drove you to this. Can you ever forgive me?”
The boys and their father embrace. Rachel simply looks stunned by what has transpired.
Dr. Phil turns to the camera and says, “This Dr. Phil family is on the road to healing. True, we don’t know where Joseph is. The boys still have to face the consequences of their actions. But these parents now realize how favoring one over another is not a healthy way to blend a family. Stay tuned for future episodes to see how this family continues to learn how to care for each other.”
This story, this Dr. Phil family, is a troubling one. Jacob made many parenting mistakes. Joseph’s brothers did a terrible thing. But something is happening here that is beyond psychotherapy and talk of rancor in blended families. Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Reuben, they are all part of a long and complicated story of God using people to carry forward God’s work. We would simply talk about a dysfunctional family and leave it at that, but it’s more than that. Something strange and beautiful is happening, something that the players in the story cannot see in the moment. That’s the beauty of Scripture. We have the luxury of sitting here and seeing the longer view, the details of the picture as well as the whole mural. We can shake our heads at the brothers’ bad deed, we can say that Jacob needs some parenting classes, but we can also see that God is moving through the picture and guiding these people into great and marvelous things.
If we take nothing else from this story than the fact that God uses all sorts of messed-up and very human people to carry out God’s work, then we have learned something. But there is something more. God does work in us, and God does act in marvelous ways. We do not always see the whole picture, just as Jacob and the boys didn’t, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole picture there. God sees. God paints that picture. Some day we will see it all. But in the meantime, just knowing that there are stories like the one we’ve studied today will remind us of God’s constant presence and action in this world.
Thursday, August 04, 2011
I'm balancing a bunch of different needs right now (see below) so the schedule is odd. Still, Friday is my day off, so I'll relish it, since it's the first one in a couple of weeks.
So today is getting the sermon more or less down on paper, some pastoral visits, working on some necessary writing of other sorts. PH is away as of tonight at a conference in the Mile-High City, so I'll be dealing with stuff on the home front alone. Praying that there are no major crises this weekend, because attention must be paid to the home front right now.
Still, I'm grateful to have a vocation that allows a little flexibility when it is necessary, and understanding parishioners, and the resources to do what needs to be done.
I am, however, looking forward to tomorrow, and to the vacation in a week.
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
I love my work. I love my parish. I love my family.
But I'm feeling stretched pretty thin right now.
I know we will get through this.
I will catch up on sleep in the wake of the trip, and will get back into the rhythm of daily exercise. I will sit with my sick parishioner and my struggling child, and God will do what God wills with each of them. I will find some space for prayer and contemplation.
Vacation is theoretically starting on August 15th. I am hoping SO will be well enough for us to leave her for a few days. I am hoping our VBS from the 8th to the 12th will go smoothly, thanks to some gifted laypeople who make it happen. I am hoping that our week of hosting homeless families in our parish hall from the 27th through Sept 3 will be a blessing to our guests as well as to us.
This vessel is pretty dry right now. Only dregs at the bottom. Fill me, Lord, fill me.
Our oldest parishioner, Mr Mac, celebrates his 105th BD.
Our youngest parishioner, Kiden Joy, celebrates 11 days of life.