Two Saints of the Wartburg

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

(Ephesians 2:8-10)

***

          I like to check The Book of Common Prayer each morning to see which saintly person from the past we are to remember on that day.  Some of them I recognize.  Some of them I don’t.  But always interesting to think about these lives lived out over the centuries.   A few days ago, on November 19, I saw that the person to be remembered that day was Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary. 

          I was intrigued by this Elizabeth, so I decided to explore a bit.  I soon learned that Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary, actually never spent much time in Hungary.  Born into the Hungarian aristocracy in 1207, at the tender age of 4 she was betrothed to Ludvig, son of the ruler of Thuringia, part of what is now Germany.  And not only was she betrothed when she was only 4 years old, she was also sent to the Wartburg Castle in Thuringia to be raised by her future in-laws!  When she turned 14, she and Ludwig married, and shortly after that he became the ruler of Thuringia when his father died.   While still in her teens, Elizabeth gave birth to three children at the Wartburg.  At the age of 20, she became a widow when her husband died on a Crusade.  Granted, none of this speaks of saintliness, but I’ll get to that later.  The mere fact that she spent most of her life at the famous Wartburg intrigued me.

          My husband and I had visited the Wartburg with our young children in early 1972.  We marveled at the strength and beauty of the castle which we knew had sheltered Martin Luther in 1521-1522.  He was there because his life was in danger after his stance at the Diet of Worms, where he had refused to recant his “heretical” teaching of “sola fide” and “sola Scriptura.”  “Here I stand,” he had boldly said.  “I can do no other.  So help me God.” 

          Faith alone.  Scripture alone.  From early childhood we had been raised on these strong Reformation principles.  And now here we were, looking at the very walls and breathing the very air of the castle that had been “a mighty fortress” for this giant who had insisted that Scripture taught our being right with God could not be bought (through indulgences) or earned (through good works), but was a gift from God, received through faith and faith alone. 

          We left the castle both excited and humbled.  But what we didn’t realize was that we had missed something at the Wartburg—something very important.  We had missed the castle room known as the “Elizabeth Bower,” whose walls are covered with early 20th century mosaics that depict the life of Saint Elizabeth. Three hundred years before Luther, Princess Elizabeth of Hungary had made her own distinctive mark on the Wartburg.  No, she hadn’t tried to reform her Church.  And no, she hadn’t translated the Scriptures.  She had simply lived out much of her adult life in the castle, practicing the teaching of Jesus to care for others, especially for the poor and needy. 

          Her interest in following Jesus and caring for the poor and needy began at about age 16, when she was introduced to some traveling Franciscan friars.  Impressed by their simple life-style and by their reaching out to those in need, she began to follow their example.   She gave many of her royal robes to help clothe the poor, and she began to dress very simply, a practice that was frowned upon by others at the Wartburg court.  She also began to share the food of the castle with the poor who lived nearby, even at times carrying loaves of bread concealed under her cloak as she passed through the castle gates.  On these forays she often saw many who were ill and had little or no medical care.  To respond to this need, she had a hospital built by the Wartburg, and there she herself would often visit the sick.  One of the mosaics in the Elizabeth Bower pictures her at the bedside of some of the suffering of Thuringia.

          Shortly after the death of her husband, Elizabeth left the Wartburg because of a bitter dispute with her brother-in-law.  She moved to Marburg, and there, too, she had a hospital built to help care for the needy.  In 1231, at the age of 24, Elizabeth died.  A short life, but so much good accomplished!

          I’m sorry we missed the Elizabeth Bower and the Elizabeth story when we visited the Wartburg.  But I’m so grateful to have met her now, as she provides such a strong and positive balance to the strong and powerful message of Martin Luther. 

          Martin lifts up for us the emphasis of Ephesians 2:8-9—“by grace you have been saved through faith.” 

          Elizabeth’s life lifts up for us the emphasis of Ephesians 2:10, reminding us that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

          Luther in one part of the Wartburg.  Elizabeth in another.  A perfect balance.  Ephesians 2:8-10 writ large across the length of the mighty fortress that still stands strong today.

          A Mighty Fortress indeed!  Would that all our lives, and all our churches, might mirror the powerful message inscribed across the massive walls of the Wartburg.

Golden Autumn Leaf

 

In two days, our nation will be holding its midterm elections.  I want to urge everyone to be SURE TO VOTE!  I also want to urge everyone to cast a vote that will help to move our country closer to the hopes and dreams of God for justice and joy for all people.

***

I live in a quiet house;

I live on a quiet street,

but always I hear noise;

the images of wars and storms

that spill from my tv spell

and shout a thousand chilling words,

the deafening silence of

our leaders unconcerned with

justice, lethal water, toxic air;

I don’t much like the noise.

*

But now and then a stillness falls

across the clamor of my days;

I listen to the trilling of the wren

who sings atop the feeder on my deck,

watch the steady shining of a lonely

star on cloudless summer nights,

a sometime poem,

a sometime prayer,

that golden leaf that nonchalantly

drifts across my autumn days,

all whispering a rumor

of obscure but holy hands

at work to bend the din of all our noise

to shape a hope, a dream, born long before

the dawn of time, a shower of golden

leaves, down-drifting from the stars

to wash away the grit, the scars, the dying,

all the stains of earth’s unholy noise.

An “Alternative Fact” and Its Consequences

“The Death of Sapphira”

Ambrosius Francken II (@1581-1632)

from Acts 4:32-5:11

(see end of post)

          What a story!  A simple lie ends in two deaths.  It seems that members of the early church were taking Jesus quite literally.  They were selling their properties and goods and giving all the proceeds to the common purse, to be distributed as necessary for the good of all.  Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted to be a part of this amazing action.  But they thought it might perhaps be wise to tuck at least some of the proceeds of their sale under their mattress.  You know, just in case something unexpected turned up in their lives.  They did want to support the community generously, to be sure, but they also wanted to provide a bit of a safety net for themselves.

          They did not, however, want anyone else to know about this.  They were a proud couple, and they wanted the apostles to think that, like the others, they had given their all.  How to manage this?  Not so difficult.  A simple lie should do the trick.  Tell the leaders that their donation was indeed the total of what they had received from the sale of their property, and they could hold their heads as high as all the other members.  So together they simply created an “alternative fact” about their contribution.  They simply lied.  And both of them died as a result.  

          We all lie.  We lie at times to promote ourselves.  Sometimes to protect ourselves.  Whatever.  We hope and expect that the results of our lying will be beneficial for us.  But the Ananias and Sapphira story tells us differently.  It tells us that when we lie, whether it’s a real whopper or just a mere shading of the truth, something in us dies.  Far from being benefitted by our lies, the actual result of our lying is the loss of a part of our soul.  Thankfully, we don’t actually fall over dead each time we tell a lie.  But we are diminished.  Something in us withers away.

          This story reminds us that truth is important.  Important in our personal lives. Important in our national life as well.  This is especially critical for us to remember as we approach our mid-term elections.  We need to choose leaders (from both parties) who will speak truth.  For when we choose leaders who follow Ananias and Sapphira, something of the greatness of our nation fades away and dies.  When we choose leaders who use alternative facts over truth to promote themselves, or leaders who evade the truth in order to protect themselves, our nation is diminished; its greatness withers away. 

          Truth is important.  Un-truth brings death.  For us as individuals.  For us as a nation.  Just ask Ananias.  Just ask Sapphira. 

***

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.   They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.   There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”).  He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?  While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”  Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it.  The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.  After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.  Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.”  Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”  Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

(Acts 4:32-5:11)

 

 

The Man in the Red Hat

          Yup, that’s me.  The man with the red hat sitting at the side of the Pool of Bethesda.  Right beside the man Jesus healed after he had been ill for 38 years.  I recently heard that my neighbor had told his story on this blog, and, well, I decided that I wanted to tell my story too.  Bloch, after all, did include me in his painting, and I do have a few things to say.  So please hear me out.  Here, by the way, is the full painting that shows Jesus lifting the filthy cloth that had covered my neighbor whose chronic illness kept him virtually “invisible” for 38 years.

Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890

          Believe me, it was quite something to watch my neighbor walk away after all those years of his paralysis.  Quite something.  But I’m not sure just what that something was.  My neighbor mentions in his story that he heard some muttered curses as he walked away.  Let me assure you, there were many such curses, and I was among the loudest!  You can see the anger in my eyes.  I was sitting there, right beside him, for goodness sake.  Jesus could hardly have missed seeing me! 

          But, Jesus did not heal me.  Nor did he heal scores of others who watched this amazing sight.  Why?  I’ve screamed that question for years.  I still scream it from time to time.  It still hurts that I was overlooked.  It still feels so unfair. 

          At the same time, I find myself realizing that I wouldn’t have missed that day, that moment, for anything in the world.  “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  It was as though a voice from long before our world was created was speaking a new creation into being right in front of my eyes.  It was as though I was seeing the world—not just my neighbor, but the whole world—being re-born.  It was as though that voice was saying, “This is what I ultimately intend for all of you.  This is what I am constantly working at, even though my work is sometimes as invisible as was this man whom I just healed.”

          Those words, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” lit a spark within me.  A spark of hope, a spark of acknowledgement, a spark of recognition that there really may be Something, Someone Out There, Someone who really does care about us and who is at work in the midst of all the fallenness and hurt and evil in our lives and in our world.

          But don’t get me wrong.  A spark, I said.  I didn’t say I had a full-blown conversion experience and from then on lived with great peace and joy in my soul.  Far from it.  A spark.  A spark I keep tucked under my little red hat.  It’s there along with my anger.  Along with my questions.  Along with my jealousy of those who are well.  My little hat feels pretty tight on me at times, holding so many contrary feelings, but I will never take it off.  I cannot deny my feelings and my questions.  Nor can I deny that spark of hope.  So I cram them all together into my little red hat and continue on with my life.  I still curse sometimes.  I laugh sometimes.  I sigh a lot.  Sometimes I even breathe a prayer.

***

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.  (John 5:1-9)

Invisible: the Man of Bethesda Speaks for the Chronically Ill

 

Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.  (John 5:1-9)

***

          Can you see me?  Carl Heinrich Bloch has captured so well the reality of my 38 years of illness, as he pictures me actually covered over by a graying, tattered piece of cloth.  I honestly can’t remember how or when that cloth got there.  I may have hung it myself, weary of prying eyes and probing questions that often suggested my illness was all my fault and that I just needed a more positive attitude.  Or it may be that others surrounded me with that cloth because my prolonged illness annoyed them.  It would simply be easier for them if I were invisible.  Sometimes I would overhear people say rude things about me.  “He’s probably just trying to get attention by lying there all the time.”  “It’s all in his head.”   “Maybe he really doesn’t want to be well, because he thinks too much would be expected of him.”  Other times I could feel the fear of some who saw me and then quickly turned away.  “What if something like this should happen to me?  Keep that cloth tucked around him, please.  It’s just too frightening to see him.” 

          At times I wanted to shout out to their rudeness and their fear.  I wanted to tell them how many times I had tried to get into the Pool.  In your modern day language, I wanted to tell them how many doctors I’d seen, some of whom dismisssed me or treated me with impatience because they didn’t have a solution to my problem.  How many psychotherapists and physical therapists I had worked with.  How many different diets I had tried.  How many miles I had traveled in search of a new practitioner who promised miracles.  How many medications I had tried, often feeling worse from miserable side effects.  “Thirty-eight years of this,” I wanted to shout.  “Life hasn’t been easy, but I am living it as best I can.  Please don’t make it more difficult with your unfair judgments and coy suggestions that ‘it’s all in his head’ and that I’d be fine if I really wanted to be.”

          And then that wondrous day of the sudden lifting of that soiled, frayed cloth.  Eyes looking straight into my eyes.  A quiet, but powerful voice, “Do you want to be made well?”  I have to confess that at first I assumed the voice came from yet another stranger who shared all the negative attitudes about me and my illness.  But this stranger did seem rather kind, so I thought maybe I should at least try to explain my problem to him.  “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  Of course, I expected the usual—the cloth dropping back down around me, the familiar words of disdain.  

          But instead, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”   Words filled with a love and a power that literally burst around me and flowed into every cell of my being.  I did stand up.  I did pick up my mat.  And I did walk.  I walked through the rest of my life.  I didn’t always get everything right, to be sure, but I walked with a heart filled with gratitude, and I tried as best I could to help others who were living as I had lived for so long, chronically sick and often invisible.

          I know there are many of you today who live a life so like my life before Christ lifted that tattered cloth.  Suffering with a chronic or prolonged illness.  Living with all the misunderstanding, avoidance, and loneliness that often comes with such illnesses, whether that illness be emotional, mental, or physical.  I so wish the Christ who walked the earth in my day could do for you all that he did for me.  But his ways are mysterious.  There were many others at the Pool the day I was healed, and they were not healed as I was.  Why?  I do not know.  I know that some of them were angry and jealous.  Why him and not me?  I heard some muttered curses as I walked away. 

          But even though the ways of the healing Christ are quite beyond my understanding—I’m not much good when it comes to unraveling the mysteries of God, I do believe that, during my 38 years of illness, even in my times of utter despair, the healing of Christ was somehow at work in me.  And even though I wasn’t able to “take up my bed and walk,” I was often—not always, but often—able to find the peace and strength I needed to live through yet another hour, through yet another day.  To know that I was not alone.  To know that I was affirmed by God, just as I was.  To know that I could live richly, even with my illness and its deficiencies.  Truly, the healing Christ was there, behind the tattered cloth, even in the darkest moments of those 38 long years.  

          So that’s my story.  I hope something of it will be of some help to those of you who suffer with a chronic illness, and to those of you who know others who are chronically ill.  I hope especially that Christ’s healing will be very real in all of your lives.  Whether you are able to “take up your beds and walk” or not.  God’s peace to all of you.

 

 

I Lift Up My Eyes to the Trees

 

I lift up my eyes to the trees—

from where will my help come?

 

I sit on my deck beneath their over-arching

limbs, green leaves carpeting my portion

of the vastness of our sky;

huge trees, these ancient-rooted souls,

giant mercies, their arms embrace

my tiny life.

 

My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth…

 

…and all the trees; my trees

that even as they comfort,

also startle me, evoke deep

fear, in fact, so overpowering

above, around my fragile self;

colossal trunks, massive branches,

how quickly they could crash

across my home, my life,

my everything;

 

He will not let your foot be moved;

He who keeps you will not slumber;

 

Deep mystery, these hallowed trees,

Spirit wakeful in their far-flung limbs,

flowing through their roots and veins,

encircling me and keeping me,

but always hidden, veiled

among the tangled leaves

and branches, cryptic runes inscribed

in every groove across the roughened bark,

ancient promise whispered

to the psalmist as he sang

beneath the trees, the hills of long ago…

 

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in

from this time on and for evermore.

***

(words in italics from Psalm 121, with the substitution of “trees” for “hills” in verse 1)

 

 

Letter from Judas to Tilman Riemenschneider

Altarpiece of the Holy Blood

Church of St. Jacob, Rothenburg, Germany

Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531)

 

Dear Mr. Riemenschneider,

          I am writing to thank you for the place you gave me in your beautiful wood-engraved altarpiece.  There I stand, front and center, holding my money bag and looking directly into the face of Jesus, who is also looking directly at me. 

          “Iscariot.”  A part of my name, but no one is sure just what it means.  I’m not even sure myself, after all these centuries.  It’s possible the gospel writers were referring to Kerioth, the town where I may have been born, but I rather suspect they were using a form of a Greek or Aramaic word to name me, to label me “assassin,” “traitor,” “false one,” “liar.”

          I know, even without the label “Iscariot” tacked on, my very name Judas has come to mean betrayal.  And what can I say?  I did a terrible thing when I betrayed the man I dearly loved, the man on whom I had placed all my hopes and dreams for myself and for my world.

          But your altarpiece reminds me that I was not, am not, just a label.  I had been a trusted member of Jesus’ twelve disciples.  So trusted, in fact, that I was named treasurer of our small group.  And in spite of accusations that I was a thief and didn’t care about the poor (see John 12:6), I really did have a deep concern for those less fortunate.  That was why I had been so happy to follow Jesus, as he, too, had such a concern for those who were poor and in need of help.  I really did have a heart, distorted and muddied though it was with all my questions, doubts, and treachery.

          I think you somehow realized what a complex person I was, and you’ve  expressed it so beautifully in the yearning you have carved into my face as I look at Jesus.  I see all my questions there.  Was he the real Messiah as we had hoped?  If so, why didn’t he show himself openly?  Was he just too politically naïve?  Should I force his hand and cause him to declare that God’s kingdom was about to begin on earth?  Or was he just another false messiah?  If so, shouldn’t he be silenced before all hell broke out with our Roman rulers?  There had been other so-called “messiahs,” and I confess I was beginning to wonder if Jesus wasn’t just another false promise.

          I know.  There are those 30 pieces of silver, and they do suggest a sinister motive for my betrayal, as that money was enough to buy some property.   Luke writes (in Acts) that that’s just what I did, and then he goes on to describe a rather gory death for me.  Matthew, however, writes that once I realized what I had done, I threw the money down on the temple floor and committed suicide by hanging myself. 

          However I might have died, my last memory was the look on Jesus’ face as he told me to “do quickly what you are going to do.”  You’ve captured it so well.  That look.  Such depth of sadness in Jesus’ eyes.  As though he were peering into the very depths of my soul, grieving for the betrayal I was about to commit, grieving for all my sin, grieving for what I might have become.  Yet at the same time piercing me with his love even as I went about my sorry business.

          “Iscariot.”  Over the centuries, Sir, I’ve come to be ever more aware of the problem with labels.  I’ve seen that they always obscure a real person and reduce that person to a one-dimensional “thing.”  I’ve been very saddened of late especially to observe that some in the 21st century seem obsessed with labels.  This seems to be especially true of the leader of one of the most important countries in the world.  A powerful man, but for some reason, he seems to need to “label” anyone who disagrees with him.  He “iscariots” them, as it were, always choosing epithets that demean.  I worry about this and about what he is teaching children around the world.  I fear that he doesn’t realize that labels not only reduce and confine those who are the “labeled,” but that they also reduce and confine those who label.

          Mr. Riemenschneider, you have sculpted a powerful truth in your altarpiece.  The truth that every person, even a person who did something as bad as what I did, is to be understood and treated as so much more than a mere label.  Even if that person may have some very undesirable characteristics that need to be addressed.  Even if that person may say or do some despicable things that need to be condemned.  You have reminded us that Jesus, even as he looks with reproach upon all our ungodly and unkind deeds and attitudes, also looks with compassion on even the ugliest of us.    

          So thank you, Mr. Riemenschneider, thank you for your thoughtful and beautiful altarpiece.  Thank you for truly seeing me, for portraying me as so much more than the mere label “Iscariot.”

Yours sincerely,

                                                                                                   Simply Judas