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Lest We Forget-Monthly Reminder #4

Alan Kurdi, September 2015

          This is a picture we are likely never to forget.  Alan Kurdi’s family was fleeing from the chaos and fighting in Syria.  They tried to reach one of the Greek islands in a small rubber inflatable boat designed to hold eight people.  But, tragically, there were sixteen people in that small boat, and it capsized shortly after leaving Turkey.  Alan’s three-year old body was later found washed up on the shore.  The bodies of his brother and his mother were also found washed up on the shore.

          There is understandably much debate and disagreement about how best to respond to the vastness of the needs of the refugees fleeing from so many ravaged places in our world today.  But perhaps we can all agree to remember these people as we go about our daily lives. 

          Remember them and offer daily prayers for them.

          Remember them and pray, too, that our government will be wise and compassionate in deciding how best to respond to this global crisis. 

          Remember them and contribute to an organization that is working to help refugees.  Here are a couple of suggestions if you would like to make a donation:

               Church World Service     cwsglobal.org/our-work/refugees-and-immigrants/

               International Rescue Committee     https://www.rescue.org/

***

Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”  Luke 9:48

But Why, God?

The Baptism of Jesus, by He Qi

(contemporary artist who blends Christian images with Chinese folk art)

(used with permission: www.heqiart.com)*

18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Luke 7:18-23

***

          “But why?” was little Andy’s perennial question to any member of our family.  Andy was a long-ago young neighbor whose mind was persistently bursting with questions.  And he wanted answers.  Why was his world the way it was?  Why did people do what they did?  We’d all try to come up with reasonable answers, but often Andy’s response to our answers would simply be another “but why?” 

          John had a similar question for Jesus, the one for whom he had prepared the way.  The one whom he had baptized.  The one on whom he had seen the Spirit descend.  The one whom he had identified to his followers as the Son of God and the Lamb of God.  In those early days, John had been so sure of Jesus’ identity.  So certain that here at last was the One.  Since then, it was true, he had heard some good things, many good things, in fact, about the ministry of Jesus.  He’d heard about the healings, the exorcisms, the powerful teachings.  But he had also heard some disturbing things.  That Jesus ate with sinners.  That Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath.  That often they didn’t observe the prescribed ritual laws of washing their hands before they ate.

          Jesus simply wasn’t acting the way John the Baptist had understood God’s Chosen One would act.  “But why, Jesus?  Why are you doing these things that are so contradictory to our Jewish laws?  Why aren’t you insisting that your disciples be as ritually clean as good Jewish people are supposed to be?  Why are you mingling with sinners and allowing yourself and your reputation to be tainted by them?  I was so sure you were the One we all awaited.  But now I’m not so sure.  Did I prepare the way for the wrong person?  Were my preaching, my baptizing, and my faith in you all miserable mistakes?”  John was in prison when he asked these questions of Jesus, and he was no doubt experiencing a dryness in his soul, a shriveling of his faith, a desert emptiness of his spirit.

          John was well accustomed to desert life.  He had lived and preached in the desert and knew its harsh terrain.  But this “inner” desert was different.  Much more uncomfortable than any actual physical desert could ever be.  John didn’t like the barrenness of not being sure.  Didn’t like this lack of clearly defined answers.  Didn’t like that Jesus wasn’t behaving in just the ways John thought he should be  behaving.  This desert called for a stretching of his faith far beyond his comfort zone.  But why, Jesus, but why?

          So it so often is with us, is it not?  We have a positive faith experience, and God’s love and presence seem so very real in our lives.  And then difficulties strike.  Questions arise.  God’s absence hovers all around, and we lose our footing in the shifting sands of uncertainty.  God is not acting, not “performing,” in the ways we had expected.  Questions haunt us and chase us through the deserts of our doubts.  And so, with Andy and with John, we cry out, “But why?  But why, God, are you not behaving in the way we had hoped, in the way we had expected?  Why does my friend have to live with cancer?  Another with Parkinsons?  Yet another with double depression, while I, meanwhile, can do so little to help, as I’m coping with this CFS/ME day after day after day?”

          Jesus does not give John the answer that John was hoping for.  John would no doubt have been more than satisfied if Jesus had simply said, clearly and emphatically, “Yes, John, I am the One for whom the world has waited.  I am the Messiah for whom you prepared the way.”  But that’s not what Jesus says.  Instead he asks John to simply notice what’s been going on around Jesus.  To look and listen to the stories of all that Jesus has been accomplishing.  To look and listen and then to determine for himself just who Jesus was.

          God so often responds to our “but why’s” in the same way.  Like John, we would prefer decisive answers to all our questions.  Explanations that are clear and definitive, answers that leave no room for questions or doubts.  Instead, “Look and listen,” God says.  “Look and listen to all the stories of my activity in the Scriptures.  Look and listen to all the stories of saints down through the centuries who have sung of my reality in their lives, in spite of their deserts of hardship and persecution.  Look and listen to the many different ways I have been active in your own life and in the lives of those around you.  Look and listen and let these stories nurture and enrich your faith.  Look and listen and let these stories renew your confidence that I am indeed with you and for you.”

          Poet Mary Oliver tells us that “there are so many stories more beautiful than answers.”  Her words so clearly echo the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, the words of God to us.  Much as we might want definitive answers, perhaps we can learn instead to find courage and see the beauty in the stories that are given to us.  A beauty that expands our horizons.  A beauty that deepens our awareness.  A beauty that helps us live with all the questions we carry with us throughout our lives.

***

*HeQI@2014 All rights Reserved

**Snake,” by Mary Oliver, House of Light,1990

 

Lest We Forget-3

          As we approach Holy Week and then Easter, it might be a good time to remember gratefully not only all that Jesus accomplished for us, but also to remember that Jesus came for us, lived for us, died for us, rose again for us—all because “God so loved the world.” 

          Our government is talking of cutting the State Department budget and cutting aid to millions of people living in the midst of poverty and violence, with many, especially in South Sudan, now facing starvation.  At the same time, our government talks of spending more to build up our military in order to keep America Safe and First.

          But I wonder.  Will we really be stronger and safer in our world if we have an ever-stronger military?  Or will we be stronger and safer if we reach out to help other peoples in need, letting them know that America cares about their plight?

          Once again, I am posting a monthly picture to remind us of the needs of people around the world.  I hope as we look at this picture, we will hear God’s reminder that “God so loved the world” and will do what we can to urge our government not to neglect these needy people.

 

child in South Sudan

(picture from the BBC)

Five Long Months

detail from The Visitation

Domenico Ghirlandaio

(1449-1494)

Note:  March 25 was the church’s celebration of the Annunciation to Mary of the coming birth of her son Jesus.  My focus this week, however, is not on Mary, but rather on Elizabeth, Mary’s older relative whom Mary visited right after the angel’s announcement to her.  Elizabeth was 5 months pregnant with John the Baptist at the time of “the visitation.”  The following passage tells us that during those first five months Elizabeth had remained in seclusion.  I found myself wondering why.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:24-25

***

          Five long months.  The longest five months of my life.  I know.  I expect you assume that I was very excited and very happy during those first five months of my late-in-life pregnancy. 

          But there was so much more to it than simple happy excitement.  Part of me was happy, to be sure.  Part of me really did believe that God had looked favourably upon me, and I did feel a deep gratitude to God.  But a part of me was pretty skeptical too.  Was God really at work in my life, in my body?  We had tried for so many years to have a child, and now, at my age, was it possible that I was to birth a very special child who was to prepare the way for the Messiah?  I found it difficult to let myself really, really believe that it was all true. 

          Where was my faith, you ask.  Quite honestly, it was buried under years of disappointment.  There had been a few hopeful times when I had been “late,” and we had let ourselves get excited.  Back in those long-gone days, I had even dared to whisper once to a few of my women friends that maybe, just maybe, I might be pregnant.  Only to be disappointed one more time. 

          This time, I was simply going to keep to myself at home, busy myself with my daily household routines, and avoid, as much as possible, the ever-present grin that haloed my dear husband’s trusting face.  I decided not to go out to the market or the town well (let my husband take over those chores), as I simply couldn’t face the questions I knew would await me there.  Why was my usually rather dour husband so happy, even after he had lost his ability to speak?  And what was he trying to tell them in his silly pantomimes?

          Yes, I did watch my waist-line give way to a bit of a bulge, but wasn’t that what happened to all women who were my age?  And yes, my breasts did become a little fuller, but there, too, maybe I was just putting on a little extra weight, without my usual exercise of daily walks to get our water and food.  I remained skeptical. 

          And, to be quite honest, I was just a little bit angry with God as well.  I mean, why couldn’t God have given us this child when we were young and energetic and so eager to be parents?  Would that have been too much to ask?  Why did I have to bear years of scorn from my neighbors because I had never been able to bear a child?  It all seemed so unfair.

          So for those five long months I sat in my house and simply waited.  Alone.  Dubious.  Anxious.  Angry. 

          And then that moment of spiritual transport in the early days of my sixth month.  It happened on the day my relative Mary came to visit me with her news of the angel’s promise that she was to give birth to the “Son of the Most High,” a child who was to sit on the throne of David in a kingdom with no end.  Clearly our Messiah!  I had always been devout, but never before had I experienced a time when I simply felt overwhelmed by God’s Spirit and felt God’s Spirit actually speaking through me.  But I did feel a certain ecstasy as I cried out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

          I was genuinely happy that day.  Happy for Mary with all of her good news.  And happy for myself also, for when I felt my baby give me a swift kick that day, I finally knew it all was so very real. 

          At the same time, if I’m really honest, I have to confess that along with all that happiness, I did feel just a bit of jealousy.  I mean, why was this young teen-age girl called to be the mother of our Messiah, when I, with all my maturity and wisdom of age, had been called only to be the mother of our Messiah’s forerunner?  Ghirlandaio captured some of my ambivalence, I think.  Mary is gently looking right at me, but my eyes are just a bit averted.  Trying to take it all in–the enormity of what was happening, as well as the weight of all my emotions.  Oh well, my jealousy was pretty fleeting, and overall I really did feel blessed.

          But with all my lack of faith, my anger at God, my short-lived jealousy, I certainly want to confess that I was no saint.  I know.   I was declared a saint by the early church, and my feast day is still celebrated 2100 years later on either November 5 (Roman Catholic Church) or September 8 (Greek Orthodox Church). 

          But the reality is that I was simply an ordinary woman with lots of doubts, questions, jealousies, angers, and fears.  A saint?  I hardly think so!

          Or was I?  I’ve been talking to the apostle Paul through these centuries since my life on earth, and I think he has me almost convinced that all Christ-followers really are saints.  He spoke of this so often in his letters to the churches back in the first century, and he’s still hammering away at that idea all these centuries later.  Trying to convince me that, even though I certainly didn’t wear a halo, even though I was far from perfect, I was, in God’s eyes, a saint because God was at work in my life.

          He does agree with me that I was a pretty muddy saint, to be sure.  All of us are, he tells me, as he ticks off his own failings.  Lots of clay feet and dirty toes.  Lots of mistakes in all our lives.  But I think he has convinced me that we are all saints simply because God truly is at work in each of our lives.  He likes to quote for me what he said in his letter to the Ephesians.  “We are [God ’s] workmanship (the Greek word here is “poiēma,” which can also be translated as “poem” or “masterpiece”),  created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”   I quite like that image.  God sculpting the soiled clay of our lives into a lovely vase or chalice.  God taking the alphabets of our lives to write the rhythms of a lyrical poem.  “Masterpieces” that carry the ancient, ongoing silhouette and song of God’s love for all of God’s creation.

          So call me a saint, if you will.  And celebrate my special day, if you will. But please be sure to call yourself a saint too.  And please celebrate each day of your muddy life, believing, in every moment, that God is carefully and lovingly at work in you, molding and writing beauty in all the messy contours, all the soiled nouns and verbs and adverbs of your not-so-saintly, saintly life.

 

 

  

 

 

The Silence of God

gustave-dore

Engraving by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.  After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.  When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.  When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.  But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.

Mark 7:45-51

          Jesus intended to pass them by?!  The words leap out of Mark’s gospel story.  Words as frightening as the ferocious wind that was threatening the lives of his disciples.  And we can’t help but ask “why.”  Why did Jesus intend to pass by his disciples and leave them to the mercy of the Galilean storm?

          It’s clear from the previous sentence that Jesus had seen the trouble his disciples were facing and that he was coming to them.  We assume he was coming to help them in their “straining at the oars against an adverse wind.”  Why, then, would he intend to simply continue on his way and ignore them in their peril? Was he so eager to tend to the needs of people on the other side of the sea?  Had he become caught up, perhaps, in deep contemplation of the dark beauty of the terrifying wind and waves?  Was he annoyed with them for their reluctance to help feed that crowd of 5,000, and had decided that they needed to “pay” for that reluctance?  

          Or was Jesus, perhaps, intending to pass them by in order to teach them something more of the deep mystery of God?  Of the incomprehensibility of God’s ways?  Of the often silence of God?  Intending to help them learn, perhaps, something of God’s presence even when God might seem most absent?

          I recently read Shūsakū Endō’s Silence (the book upon which Scorcese’s movie is based).  In the book, Sebastian Rodrigues is a Portuguese Jesuit priest who traveled to Japan in the early 17th century to help Christians there during a time of intense persecution that had driven the church underground.  He is welcomed by numerous Japanese Christians who have struggled to keep their faith alive.  But he is not welcomed by the authorities who capture him, imprison him, and force him to watch the brutal deaths of peasants who refuse to denounce their faith in the Christian God.  He is also forced to watch the deaths of peasants who are killed because Rodrigues himself will not renounce his own faith.

          Over and over and over again, Rodrigues cries out to God for help and for an understanding of why God doesn’t act to stop the brutality.  Why Jesus seems to pass him by.  Why he hears only silence.  “Why are you silent?” he asks God.  “Why does this stillness continue?  This noonday stillness.  The sound of the flies—this crazy thing, this cruel business.  And you avert your face as though indifferent.   This—this I cannot bear.”

          His cry into the emptiness echoes what the disciples must have felt on that storm-tossed sea.  Echoes the fear of our own hearts when we experience turbulence in our lives or watch victims of violence around the world and hear only the silence of God in response to our cries for help.   Where are you, God?  Why the silence?  Have your forgotten us?  Why do you pass us by?

          Jesus himself experienced this silence of God as he hung on the cross surrounded by taunts and jeers.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why have you passed me by?  Where are you?  Why am I so alone in my agony?  Silence, the only response. 

          Silence.  Stillness.  God passing him by. 

          Or so it seemed.  But somehow, somewhere, in the stark loneliness of those endless hours of his suffering, Jesus must have experienced something of God’s “thereness” with him.   For as he breathed his very last breath, he spoke these words, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”  Words of profound trust that he was not alone in his dying.  Words of confidence that the Father was somehow, somewhere, with him in the silence of his suffering.

          A clear and decisive answer to the “why” of Jesus intentionally passing his disciples by we’ll never have.  To the why of Christian persecution in Japan in the 17th century.  To the why of our own suffering and difficulties.  To the why of brutal horrors through the centuries and around our troubled world today.  But, I do believe that if we listen to the silence long enough, if we listen hard enough, if we listen deeply enough, like Jesus himself, we will become aware that we are not alone.   We may not find an Answer.  But in the silence of the darkest of nights without stars, we will come to know that the stars really are still singing, and that the One who called them into being, the One who called us into being, continues to be ever with us and ever for us.  A holy Presence.

          A holy Presence working out God’s purpose in the vastness of time and space.  A holy Presence working out God’s purpose in each tiny moment of our everydays.  A holy Presence assuring us that we are enfolded in a Love that is ever “coming towards” us. 

 

 

Lest We Forget

omran-daqneesh

“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

(Mark 10:31)

“America First.”  A slogan much bandied about these days.  A slogan that makes me very uncomfortable.  Not because I don’t love my country.  I do, and I am grateful for all the good this country offers.  But I’m uncomfortable because this slogan

                     –flies in the face of Jesus’ warning that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first;”

                     –permits us to feel entitled to neglect the  needs of others, especially the needs of millions of refugees who are fleeing from war, tyranny, and violence in their countries, in the hope of finding a safe place to live out their lives.

In response to this slogan, each month I want to post a picture of one of these refugees.  My hope is that as we look carefully at these pictures, we will remember those other words of Jesus who said that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the stranger, we are really feeding, clothing, and caring for him.  And when we turn away from the hungry, the naked, and the stranger, we are really turning away from him.

This month’s picture

omran-daqneesh

Omran Daqneesh, a 5-year old wounded in the fighting in Aleppo, Syria

His family lost their home.

August 17, 2016

Yes, we want our country to be safe, but aren’t we safer when we help others find safety as well?  Please join me in insisting that our leaders reject “America First” policies and lead our country instead with policies that are good for all people, no matter their race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

An Old Christmas Shepherd Remembers

003-copy

(Mathias Huesma)

          I’m an old man now.  Probably don’t have many more days to live on this good earth.  But a good earth it’s been, and a good life.  Simple.  Hard.  But good.  I wish I could tell you that I’ve resolved all the questions I’ve carried with me through my life, but that I cannot do.  I still have questions.  Many.  About life, about God, about the baby I was so privileged to be among the first to see. 

          Does that surprise you?  You know my story well.  How blessed I was, you no doubt think, to be the first, the very first(!) to visit the holy couple and the holy child lying in the manger.  And yes, blessed I was, to be sure.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my questions down through the years.

          I was so young on that magical, mystical night.  Just a young man learning shepherd life from my father and uncle and a few others from our small village.  I didn’t expect much from my life.  We had always been poor, and life had always been harsh.  I just assumed it would be that way for me as well.  Scraping by.  Always looked down on by those better positioned in life.  Some even said that if one of us shepherds should fall into a pit, no one should feel obligated to rescue us because we were simply worthless. 

          But I didn’t let all that bother me—at least not most of the time.  I wasn’t unhappy.  I wasn’t particularly happy either.  I would live and die a shepherd, and that was that.  I did wonder about God sometimes out there under the stars.  Did God care about me?  Did God look at us shepherds as those around us looked at us?  Who knew?  I listened to my mother and my father tell the old, old stories about God and God’s people who had lived long before us.  About Abraham and Moses.  About King David who had started life as a shepherd and ended up the greatest of all kings.  About prophets who told of a wondrous day yet to come when a Son of David would be born, a Messiah who would bring peace and joy for all people on earth, even for shepherds.  “Oh yeah!  Tell me another one,” I used to mutter to myself, but of course I never said that aloud, as my parents would have been mortified and shocked.

          Anyway, I remember that on that special night on the hillside my uncle began to play a gentle melody on his reed pipe, and I was finding it hard to stay awake.  But suddenly our dark sky erupted.  Our night world became as bright as a sunny noonday.  No, considerably brighter.  And a strange and brilliant heavenly creature was singing to us about a baby born in nearby Bethlehem, a baby who was our Messiah, a Savior for us and for all people.  “Go and see for yourself,” the angelic being told us.  “You’ll find this Savior-baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem.”  Messiah in a manger?  Where we shepherds put our babies?  Was he serious?  

          But no chance to ask any questions, for just then a whole host of angels burst on the scene in a glorious hymn of praise:  “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people.”*  We felt so honored!  A heavenly choir just for us.  And the heavenly being had addressed us shepherds as though we had some dignity.  Had invited us shepherds to be witnesses to this amazing event!   Needless to say, we quickly appointed one of us to stay with the sheep, and the rest of us went as fast as we could to Bethlehem to find this precious child. 

          A truly strange and wondrous night it was.  I re-lived it over and over again as that baby grew into manhood.  I began to hear exciting things.  Tales of blind people receiving their sight.  Of the deaf suddenly hearing again.  Yes! I thought.  This really is our Messiah, our King.  The One who will level the mountains of injustice and lift up those of us who are lowly and poor.  I made sure I was part of that jubilant crowd that welcomed him as he rode on that donkey into Jerusalem.  This was it!  Our time!  Our King!  Memories of that Bethlehem night resonated in every “Alleluia!” that I shouted with the others along the way. 

          But almost the next thing I knew, I found myself staring at our King hanging on a cross like a common criminal.  How could this be?!  What had gone so wrong?  Had that wondrous night, that angel visitation been just some cruel joke?  There on that cross hung all our dreams and all our hopes.  Dashed.  Gone.  I bowed in utter bewilderment and sorrow. 

          In the weeks and months after that God-forsaken day, it’s true, I did hear strange tales of an empty tomb and hints that the one crucified had been seen alive by a number of people.  But I never myself saw him again, so I didn’t really know just what to think.

          But in these later years, I have been pondering over and over again the passage from our sacred writings which has always perplexed and bothered me.  The passage about Messiah being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”   About Messiah being “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.”   And I have begun to wonder.  Is it just possible that something profound was happening on that cross?  Had our God, in all the horror of that day, somehow been at work to bring about the promise the angels had sung to us shepherds?  

          It’s all a bit too deep for me, and I don’t know how to put it all together.  My shepherd’s hut is crammed with all my thoughts and all my questions, and sometimes there seems little room for faith and trust.  But I do continue to ponder and try to trust in my own simple way.  Trust that somehow God was at work on that cross.  Trust that God will someday, somehow, complete what I saw begun so long ago in that Bethlehem stable.  How, I do not know.  But every now and then, sometimes even in the darkest of nights, when trust can be so elusive, I do believe I hear a faint echo of that haunting angel song, and I find myself singing along with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest Heaven!  Peace, goodwill among people!”  

***

*alternative reading (NRSV)