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.

 

 

  

 

 

Lest We Forget-2

          We don’t all share the same views when it comes to the slogan “America First.”  Some who read this post hear something very positive in this slogan.  Others of us, however, myself included, hear something that makes us uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable, as it seems to encourage us to forget the enormous difficulties so many people are experiencing around the world—wars, violent political repression, extreme poverty, and hunger.  Uncomfortable also because it tends to drown out the words of Jesus, who said that when we turn away from the hungry, the naked, and the stranger, we are really turning away from him.

          To help us remember these people, I am posting each month a picture to remind us of their suffering.  My hope is that, however we view “America First,” we will come to see these people not merely as “immigrants” or “refugees,” but rather as individuals in desperate need.   I hope we will all keep them in our thoughts and prayers, and that we will encourage our national leaders to be open to helping them and welcoming them

 

Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers (and sisters), you did it to me.”

Jesus, Matthew 25:40

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  Mother and child fleeing Mosul, Iraq

Lenten Emptiness

006-2

 

Emptiness fills my world

this harsh late-winter day;

cold seeps into my walls,

sits heavy in my rocking chair,

spreads icily around my yard, a shroud

wrapped tight around the color

that I ache for in my life.

*

The trees in my backyard, stark branches

spider-webbed across the sky, embrace

this leadenness so gracefully;

mystery of stillness,

patience of a waiting rest.

Could it be that angels curl

in those wintered trees, breathe

with them the bitter nights, caress

their icy bark, whisper poems that seep

a solace deep into their veins?

Beneath the brooding skies, I listen

for the rustle of their wings.

Winter Still Life with Red Shovel

001-5

Not the Grand Canyon, 

not Niagara Falls;

merely the snowy deck and roof

of a neighbor’s house, a still life framed

by my dining room window,

sun-painted tree shadows lacing

the whole in intricate, abstract patterns;

steps inviting me to walk

into the picture, to sit a spell

at the empty table, to consider

that idle shovel in the corner,

bright red reminder that, though there is so much

work to be done, work to salvage justice,

work to honor truth, work to love the neighbor,

sometimes it is good to set aside our shovels

for a time, simply rest, renew, re-ground

our lives in simple still-life splendors

that abound in unexpected

corners of our lives.    

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.