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A Word of Comfort: Natural Disasters and the Spiritual Life

Year A, Proper 22

Matthew 21:33-46

Preached at All Saints Episcopal Church,

North Adams, MA

October 4, 2020


There’s a saying that the task of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and hopefully wIth the same sermon. Another of the tasks of preaching is to interpret ancient scripture in light of our current spiritual needs.

I don’t want to afflict anyone today. We are all afflicted, October marking beginning the eight month of a this pandemic. Scientists have studied how natural disasters, like pandemics and tsunamis and earthquakes, fires and hurricanes, affect social structures. First, they disrupt the normal functioning of a society.

In addition to changing our physical lives–where we can go, what we can do, with whom we can be–disasters affect us psychologically. We lose our routine, our control, our normal social support. We often lose financial security. When the familiar patterns and activities that bring us joy disappear, we begin to lose our identity.

And, concurrent with this pandemic, our society is also wrestling with racial inequality, our forests are burning, we are dangerously politically polarized, and now our president is sick, 

We are all afflicted. We are restless. Some of us are depressed and most of us carry a low-grade fear. Even grocery shopping is frightening.

So today, I feel God is calling me to preach comfort. But friends, the lectionary is uncooperative, the Old Testament reading giving us the 10 Commandments. That seems a bit heavy-handed, although I believe they, like the 12 Steps, give us comfort in that they are a guide to putting our lives right with God and with our neighbors.

Today’s New Testament reading gives us the parable of the tenants, a passage I find inscrutable. a vineyard, a watchtower, tenants and slaves and murder. In my mind, vineyards are for fancy people in California and Italy. A watchtower makes me think of Escape from Alcatraz

If this parable is very familiar to you, please have patience with me as I tease out its meaning. First, let’s explore the context in which Jesus relates this parable. He arrives in Jerusalem, and goes to the temple, where he dramatically turns over tables and throws out the money changers.

Jesus announces with authority, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame are crowding into the temple seeking out Jesus and being healed by him. The children cry out to him, “Hosanna, Son of David!” 

To give our context some context, imagine some stranger, an itinerant preacher showed up here at All Saints, preaching an unfamiliar message, disrupting our fundraisers. 

And what if the sick and the poor and the mentally ill began streaming in the doors for healing. And our children and grandchildren flocked to him like the Pied Piper. I mean, what if he interrupted my sermon?

Maybe some of us would accept this stranger, just like we’d like to think we’d welcome Jesus, but Jesus’ behavior was shocking, and the religious leaders were alarmed.

The chief priests and scribes challenge Jesus. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In essence, who’s your bishop? Who sent you here?

Jesus is disruptive. Disruption is frightening. The religious leaders challenge Jesus’ claims and question his behavior. Jesus answers with the parable of the wicked tenants. 

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it . . . .” Matthew 21:33.

Now, in the interest of comfort, I’d like to spend some time with this idea. We, God’s people, are depicted as a vineyard, lush acres of fruiting vines. God created humanity on the sixth day, the final miracle of the natural world, creating us as part of nature like water in water.

With the right sun and the right irrigation, the right tending by parents, teachers, mentors, religious leaders, spiritual directors, prayer and love of neighbor, we bear good fruit.

We are so congruously a part of nature, that when we spend time in nature we experience healing. The Japanese have named the practice Shinrin Yoku, which means forest bathing. The act of being in nature and allowing it to enter through your eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin is healing. 

The psalm of comfort so many turn to depicts God leading us through the natural world. Psalm 23 begins, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. . .”

Please take your emotional wounds, your loneliness, your isolation outside to a park or to the Appalachian trail or to a tree outside your window.

In today’s parable, the landowner charges the tenants with stewardship of this vineyard. Translation: God charges religious leaders to care for us.    A side note: I had to look up what a watchtower was because I couldn’t get prison movies out of my mind. 

The watchtower was a squat stone building, two stories high, dry stone without mortar, about two stories high. The bottom was naturally cool so the goods of the farm, the harvest, would be stored there. And the farmers and their family could live on the 2nd floor to watch over the crops. It’s a place of care and supervision.

God charges religious leaders to care for us. But they fail. They murder the prophets God sends to collect the harvest. God sends his son, and they murder him. Fact: Religious leaders sometimes fail. 

If you come from another tradition, you may be bearing pain from that tradition or hurt from a priest or a person in authority. Let me digress here to say, You are good enough. You are beloved, and by God’s grace you have been redeemed. With God you lack nothing.

Sadly, most of those who are hurt worst by church aren’t in church. If you know someone with that hurt, please love them. Even if they sound bitter or curse God or mock your faith. Love them.

Today’s parable tells us the painful lesson that leaders will fail us, that the body of Christ can expect betrayal. Prophets will be rejected. Tradition will sometimes drown out truth. Still we seek Jesus. Still we gather as we can. Still we pray. Still we love one another.

Friends, I know we are weary. This year, 2020, with over 1 million dead worldwide, with over 200,000 empty seats at tables here at home, anger at injustice in the streets, forests burning, is a testament to our fallen world. We are weathering disruption, we are reeling in disequilibrium. 

Have hope. Be of good courage. God is good. Think of the apostles, who after the arrest, torture and crucifixion of Jesus had lost their identities as followers of Jesus and hid, disoriented by events they did not understand.

In their deepest grief, they were just three days away from a resplendent, blinding hope beyond their wildest dreams, a resurrection hope that would change the course of human history. 

Have hope. Seek rest in the healing balm of nature. Remember that the Spirit helps us in our weakness.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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In Our Sin or in Our Suffering, the God We Cannot Conceive of Remains God.

 

Exodus 12: 1 – 14

Preached at All Saints Episcopal Church

North Adams, MA

September 6, 2020

In today’s reading from the Old Testament, heavenly power and earthly power, God and the Pharoah of Egypt are at war. God has been sending plagues to Egypt to compel Pharoah to set God;s people free. 

So far, the Israelites and Egyptians have endured nine plagues (I list these only to help us feel better about our current pandemic) plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, fever boils, hail, locusts, darkness. That helps put things in perspective, doesn’t it?

In Chapter 12, the Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron. He instructs every household to cook a lamb. This is a household rite, not a temple rite. They are to eat it raw or to boil it, but to roast it, and to scatter its blood, painting the door posts and lintels. I had to look up what a lintel is — it’s the horizontal support across the top of a door.

The blood contains no magical power that protected the Israelites. The blood is a sign of life, setting the Israelites apart as belonging to God. The blood marks the divide between the world and the sacredness of home.

The home of believers is sacred…Introverts already know this, right? Home is set apart. The blood of the lamb distinguishes the Hebrews as God’s own.

Verse 13 reads, The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

And the passage goes on to say how to eat the lamb, “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand; you shall eat it hurriedly.” (v 11) I had to look up “girding loins”, too. To gird one’s loins was to take the hem of your long robe and tuck it into your belt, so your movement isn’t impaired. In other words, prepare for a journey. 

Imagine having survived storms of frogs, fever boils, hail and locusts, and now you’re receiving instructions from God about preparing a lamb, and being told you are leaving the only place you’ve ever known, dressing for a trip whose length you cannot imagine (40 years), and eating quickly. Imagine the anxiety and confusion.

Today’s reading from the Book of Exodus details the creation of the Passover rite, the first passover which occurs while the Hebrews are still in Egypt, but which will be celebrated yearly in remembrance of the liberation of God’s people from bondage

from of their 430 years of slavery in Egypt, reminds them of their 40 years of wandering under the strain of homelessness and displacement in the desert.

What is this story to us now? What lessons can we learn from the trials of a people from thousands of years ago? 

We ourselves are a people in crisis, a people in need of redemption. Some of us are suffering financial instability brought on by the pandemic, with a swelling fear for our jobs or for the jobs of our children. 

Our elderly and vulnerable are suffering in a desert of isolation; our teachers and children and college students are beginning school not knowing who will get sick or how long the semester will last.

And even in the best of times, many of us have been living in a variety of wildernesses; the grueling, slippery path of addiction, the unpredictability of mental illness, the barren landscapes of grief.

In Exodus God rescues his people from slavery and injustice, and prepares them for the journey to freedom, the promised land. God spares the Israelites from the 10th plague, but he does not promise an easy journey; 

they will travel for decades through the desert, with bruised and blistered feet, sometimes despairing, often angry at God, with thirst and hunger and uncertainty about the future.

God the creator is present to the Israelites in the wilderness through his own creation, in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God the author of science weaves his presence and care into scripture through the truths of creation, a burning bush, fire and cloud, providing water in thirst and manna and quail in hunger.

God was present to his people then, and is to us, because, as today’s psalm reads,“The Lord takes delight in his people.”

Here I’d like to pause to reflect on a misunderstanding of scripture I had, and that maybe some of you have had. I came to Christ in my early 20s, in a denomination that did not place much emphasis on scriptural literacy.

So I just came to my own conclusions about the relationship between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Clearly, I thought, the Old Testament God is merciless and cruel, and thank goodness we have Jesus, all merciful, all loving and self-sacrificing.

If you have ever had this impression, you are in good company. In the early church, philosophers were trying to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and the sect he started. 

One of them, Marcion, denied the relevance of the Old Testament to Christianity. He went to far as to deny the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus was not the son of the so-called tyrannical God of the Jews but of some other, good and benevolent God.

This heresy was put to rest in the Council of Nicaea in 325. Our Nicean Creed is a response to Marcion’s heresy, “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ. . . God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. . .”

The eternal Trinity is always present to us, and has always been present, always delighting in us, world without end. Jesus was not created when the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, neither was the Holy Spirit created as a consolation prize to the apostles after Jesus departed. 

Our trinitarian God has always desired communion us, ever since he wandered through the garden of Eden seeking us, even after we had sinned, calling out, “Where are you?” (Genesis 2:9)

In Exodus God established Passover so that we remember God’s faithfulness to the oppressed. In the Eucharist we remember God’s continuing, sanctifying faithfulness in the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, praying at every Eucharist, Christ our passover is sacrificed for us. 

Exodus teaches us that God is present to the enslaved and the subjugated. The same God who favored the oppressed, who refreshed the Israelites with the goods of creation, with water from a rock and with manna from heaven, himself became part of creation in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Jesus sat with the worst sinners at his table, those despised by the holiest, most religious people. On the cross, Jesus was a criminal among criminals. From the cross he turned to the criminal beside him, cared for him and invited him to paradise.

Are you weary? Are you anxious in your present trials? Are you fearful of the journey ahead? God is with you. God’s presence does not guarantee the absence of suffering, as Jesus  witnessed to us from the cross. But he promises to be with us always.

God is present to us in those who love us, in those who care for us physically and spiritually. God, the author of science, is present to us in the evolving understanding of COVID and how to treat it, in the first responders and nurses and doctors, those who prepare meals for us, those who call us and check in on us.

God is present when we pray, when we worship. God is present when we despair and when we cannot conceive of God.

No matter our current trial, temptation or sin, we are beloved. We have been saved.     1 Peter 1 reads, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18-19)

We have been created by a God who delights in us. We have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb, Jesus Christ. We are members of his household.

Though we may be weary, God is faithful. God remains. By God’s grace, may we remain in God.

Amen.

 

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Drive us out Like Sparks to Set the World on Fire: Pentecost and Justice

Pentecost 2020, Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Burnt Hills
Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

In my Christian walk, I have come to understand God’s relationship with humankind in fits and starts. Our understanding of God, like our understanding of other human beings, is ever evolving.

Beginning when I was very young, my father picked me up from my mother’s every Friday evening after work and we had a long drive through the desert to his house which made for long talks. I asked him lots of important questions, like “How much do mountains weigh?”

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Even into my adulthood, my father and I talked almost every day, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about my dad. And then, sometime in my 30s, he told me a new story.

He told me that he had bussed tables at a women’s sorority to get through college. Not knowing the context, I joked, “You probably just wanted to meet girls.”

His tone grew serious and he told me that back then, in the 1940s, sorority girls did not date boys with foreign sounding last names. His name was David Kiwak, and he was the child of Russian immigrants. Our understanding of one another, even those we love the most, is always growing and changing.

Early on after my conversion to Christianity, I understood Pentecost to mean that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be with us so that God could be more fully present to us.

However, God has been with us since since He spoke the world into existence, since he gathered a handful of dust and breathed us into being. There is no place—or time— where God is not.

In the Book of Genesis, when Abram’s slave, Hagar, fled Sarai’s harsh treatment and took refuge in the wilderness///God met Hagar there. When the Prophet Ezekiel was exiled in Babylon, wind tore open the heavens and God appeared to Ezekiel in flashing fire.

God is immortal, omnipotent, omnipresent. God CANNOT be absent.

So what, then, is the meaning of this day, Pentecost, when tongues of fire rain down? It is not the invention of the Holy Spirit. The Eternal God—Father, Son and Spirit—has always been, as it was in the beginning, was on the day of Pentecost, is now and forever shall be.

Picture that day: Jesus’ followers are gathered and the wind begins whipping around them, fire falling down everywhere—like sitting near a huge bonfire and the embers start popping and flying. And while they’re trying to make sense of fire dropping from the sky, each disciple begins speaking in a different language,

real  languages that the Jews from many nations who are within earshot understand. In the tumult of wind and fire and a dozen languages, Peter stands and addresses his fellow disciples to give context to what they are experiencing.

Peter quotes the Prophet Joel, who wrote:

And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2: 28-29)

Peter offers a reference for understanding their experience of flame and wind. The Prophet Joel wrote four or five hundred years before Christ in the midst of crisis, in a land threatened by an invading army, which Joel depicts using a metaphor of locusts decimating the land.

Yahweh speaks through the prophet saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” In Hebrew spirit also means wind, and in the book of Joel it signifies the dry desert wind that divides the seasons one from another.

Like the breath of God that animated the first man, and the stormy wind which heralded the revelation of God to Ezekiel, at Pentecost, the wind rushes and whirls around the disciples, signifiying a changing season for those who follow Jesus.

The followers of Christ on earth are transformed into the followers of Christ who reigns in heaven. In wind and fire, wind of change and fire of the presence of God, the Church is birthed into being.

Joel’s prophecy is at that moment fulfilled: God’s spirit is poured on the disciples through the risen Christ.

The followers of Jesus at Pentecost were in transition from the know to the unknown. The disciples have had to transition from 3 years of following Jesus, learning from him and witnessing his miracles, an immersion in God’s work on earth, daily contact with the living, Incarnate God, his wisdom and his parables.

And then they witnessed his arrest and torture and death.

As we heard in today’s Gospel, after the crucifixion, Jesus’ own disciples sequestered themselves behind closed doors in grief at the loss of the rabbi and in fear of what harm may also come to them, in the chaos and confusion in Jerusalem.

God is never absent. Jesus finds them there, stands in the midst of them and ministers to them. Jesus BREATHES the Spirit upon them.

Globally we followers of Jesus are also experiencing tumult and uncertainty. We too are sequestered.

We bear in our bodies the loneliness of isolation from loved ones and routines. We bear the nagging fear of illness, the angst of worrying about the weakest among us, parents and grandparents and the sick.

While performing the most mundane tasks of daily living, like grocery shopping and filling the gas tank, we come face to face with our mortality.

If you are black or Latino, you carry the extra burden of knowing Coronavirus disproportionately affects you.

Most of us have anxiety about timelines for the opening of our church buildings, about the safety of worshipping together.

But we should bear in mind that Jesus did not command us to worship him in charming, steepled buildings with red doors. Jesus did not command us to sit in pews in our better clothes, to embrace one another at the sign of peace and nibble on lemon bars at coffee hour.

These things are holy: charming old churches, and human touch and community and coffee— these are good and holy, and I miss them, but they are not what Jesus commanded us to do.

What did Jesus command?

“From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (John 6:29)

“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (John 6:35)

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

And before he ascended, Jesus instructed his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And he said and “Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20)

Here’s another way my walk with Christ has evolved. Very early on, I understood Christian perfection to be contained in the imitation of Christ. In Anglicanism, we call it the Anglican Virtue Ethic, which teaches “Christ reveals the shape or form of what it is to be human . . . Christ is [our] archetype, our exemplar, our model. . . ”

I interpreted this to mean following Jesus was a very private matter between my soul and God. But I was only grasping half the picture. Jesus DID SAY, “ Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”

And he also implored us to obey all he has commanded: to give; to love; to invite, to make disciples of all. This is Church.

55CE73B8-0D43-4A5F-A4C2-87F366DBF29AGod’s spirit has been poured upon us, enabling us to see visions and dream dreams. God has empowered us to offer hospitality to the poor and the vulnerable. To invite to the table of justice and mercy the disenfranchised: the immigrant, the low-wage worker with no insurance who just spiked a fever, the African American afraid to leave his home because he is 2 ½ times more likely than his white peer to be killed by police.

Give. Love. Invite. Baptize. Speak to ALL. Invite ALL to God’s table, bring justice and mercy to all nations abroad, and to every demographic at home. This is Church. Church is not closed.

Like the disciples at Pentecost, we do not know what is before us as a people. But God is present to us, Christ has commissioned us and the Holy Spirit is our guide.

Let us pray in the words of the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer:

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the KIND fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming with flames of LOVE and PEACE
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

AMEN

 

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Where is God in our Isolation?

 

[A sermon meant to be preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Trumbull, Connecticut on March 22, 2020, but cancelled due to COVID-19 sheltering in place.]

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A few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, one of the last times someone outside our families touched us, a priest pressed ashes onto our foreheads with the admonition, “Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” To paraphrase, Memento mori, remember that you will die.

If you’re like me, my body’s return to dust did not seem imminent. Then, just days later, the gravity of this pandemic began to lower its weight upon us, and, beyond reminding us of our mortality, it began to demand sacrifices of us we had never dreamed of.

Lent has a way of shedding light in the dark places, of illumining our misplaced passions and our impulses to distract ourselves from the reality of our finite journey on earth. 

Most of us, during most Lents, repent. We try to extricate ourselves from those things that distract us from God. The purpose of our self-denial, whatever form it takes, is to unite ourselves with Jesus, to imitate, in some small way, his total offering of himself in perfect obedience to the will of God.

ACF28C33-1095-4F18-8705-E0FEED72258DIt’s hard. It was hard for Jesus, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in the full dread of his impending arrest and crucifixion, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”

The repentance called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. 

Psalm 23 is a meditation on surrender, on the difficulties we are asked to endure in this life and a reassurance that God is present through it all.

The Lord is my shepherd; 

Augustine wrote, “When you say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself. 

I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures 

and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul 

Psalm 23 does not quantify the circumstances in which God is present to us. God leads us, reviving our souls upon the mountaintops, as well as within the storms.

The Psalm continues, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I shall fear no evil; 

Fears are low hanging fruit right now: the anxiety caused by ever widening restrictions, fear of a toppled economy, crashed 401Ks which for some of us signals a retirement marked by scarcity, the very real terror of job loss, our fears for the health of those we love, our fears for ourselves.

I shall fear no evil, the psalmist confesses to God, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

God shepherds us in our solitude, in our separation from routines we considered indispensable, from people and places, and even, incomprehensibly, from the Eucharist.

Scripture frequently affirms that God is present in our seclusion. 

In the Book of Genesis, Hagar fled Sarai’s harsh treatment and took refuge in the wilderness–God met her there. When the infant Moses was abandoned in a basket, hidden in reeds along the Nile, God found him there, sending Pharaoh’s daughter to rescue him.

After the crucifixion, Jesus’ own disciples sequestered themselves behind closed doors in fear. Jesus found them there, stood in the midst of them and ministered to them.

Scripture even speaks to our fear that we presently have about taking this virus to someone we love. The thought that we might inadvertently contribute to someone’s suffering and sicken them by our presence causes us to withdraw from those we love.

In Luke 17, we read, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

In Biblical times, those suffering from leprosy remained at a distance, knowing they carried in their bodies something that could harm others. They stood at a distance because their presence instilled fear. Isolation defined their life. Yet even from a distance, the lepers recognized Jesus, and they prayed, “Jesus, have pity on us.”

In our own isolation, Jesus finds us and answers us.

Psalm 23 gingerly leads us out of the valley of death, out of our fears of mortality, towards abundance, towards “the joys of resurrection life.”

The Psalmist prays, You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

God, hospitable and generous with His gifts, has prepared a table for us. The blessings He pours upon us runneth over. May we be drunk on the blessedness of God’s presence, despite the stripping away of so many things we claim as essential: affection, and community, communal prayer that doesn’t involve a computer screen, family celebrations, despite even the incomprehensible loss of the Eucharist.

May we be drunk on the blessed assurance of our Salvation in Christ, whatever our losses, whatever uncertainty or illness we face. 

The fruit of Lent is not Easter. The fruit of Lent is intimate relationship with the Divine, achieved by the stripping away of whatever is not God. Of course, our Lenten deprivations are usually voluntary, not imposed upon us. During this extraordinary Lent, we sacrifice even our self-determination. 

If we peel away our last attachments to this world as the soldiers peeled the tunic off Christ’s lifeless, broken body, if we are so stripped of all that belongs to this world, then when we meet the risen Christ, our love for God will not be diluted by our love of this worlds good, of distraction or of independence, or even by our love of one another. 

We will recognize the risen Christ before us. We will know God, because we have been so stripped and humbled we can see nothing else. When we recognize him, will say as St. Thomas did, “My Lord and My God.”

Dear friends, we are walking daily in the shadow of death, a valley whose length and width we do not know. We do not yet know the duration or magnitude of its evils. But we know God. And God knows all. Psalm 49 reads, “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.”

 

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Photo credit: Joseph Rose

As Christ answered the lepers who called out to him from their isolation, the Lord, our shepherd, cannot help but answer us, lead us, calm us and feed us. God finds the hidden, like he found Hagar, and Moses, and like Jesus found his disciples shut away.

Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Death is the power of separation. Socially, it is experienced as isolation and loneliness. Eternal life is the power to unite. In this life, it is experienced as gathering into new community in eternal love.”

Though we are dispersed, though we pass our days isolation with every temptation to anxiety, we are not estranged from God. God has found us. God is reaching out to all of us. We are already dwelling together in the house of the Lord. 

 

    

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God’s Maternity: Could You Trust a God Who Loves Like This?

“May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”

Suppose you want to write
of a woman braiding
another woman’s hair—
straight down, or with beads and shells
in three-strand plaits or corn-rows—
you had better know the thickness
the length   the pattern
why she decides to braid her hair
how it is done to her
what country it happens in
what else happens in that country
You have to know these things.
                                   – Adrienne Rich

In this poem, the poet suggests that if you know what’s happening with a woman’s hair, who is touching it, who is caring for her, you know other things about that woman. You know where she comes from. One woman caring for another is the entry point to understanding a woman and her origins.

If we tell stories about our hair, about who cared for us, we can learn a lot about one another’s countries, one another’s origins. I’d like to tell you a story about my hair. My parents divorced when I was little, and my father picked me up after work on Fridays. The first thing he did when we got to his house, was sit me down before him and begin the slow untangling of knots and the surgical removal of the snarled mats that couldn’t be saved. He cared for me.

Once a year my grandmother visited, and she had designs on my hair as well. She would catch me out of the bath, comb my hair and set to work separating and pulling and folding my hair into French braids. With my father every weekend and once a year with my grandmother—I can’t say I enjoyed the process—but I knew something was happening. Love was happening all around my head

When a person cares for us, what do we feel?

Love? Trust? Fidelity?

Today’s Old Testament passage is famous for Ruth’s faithfulness. Ruth gets her name on pigeonsthe title of the book, and even in my bible, this chapter is titled, “Ruth’s Loyalty to Naomi”.  But I think what’s most interesting about the Book of Ruth is Naomi. I’d like to offer Naomi as a model of wisdom and even as a model of Divine Love.

Naomi’s husband has died. Her sons have died. She is in the very depths of grief. But from within that chasm of pain, her instinct isn’t for self-preservation or self-pity. Instead she looks outward to the care her daughters-in-law.

Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth,

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. (Ruth 1:8)

Naomi tells them each to go to their mothers’ houses, where things will be easier for them. Where they have the promise of a better life.

Naomi pronounces a blessing on her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord deal kindly with you” putting them in the hands of the Lord and freeing them from any duty to her. “May the Lord deal kindly with you” Naomi says, “as you have dealt with the dead and with me,.” affirming their goodness and their kindness.

In her blessing on Ruth and Orpah, Naomi acknowledges their worth. She expresses gratitude. She places the young women’s well-being before her own, insisting that they go back to where their prospects are brighter.

Naomi self-emptying is reminiscent of Paul’s instructions in Philippians:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . . [2]

Three times Naomi says, “Turn back.” She says,“My daughters, it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Naomi is worried how her bad fortune affects them.

Turn back, she says again. Finally, Orpah is like, “I see your point. I mean, I love you, but if you insist.” Orpah heads back home.

Now here’s that verse where Ruth looks so good. In verse 16, Ruth says, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

This is Ruth’s legendary declaration of loyalty. She is faithful. Praise God! But Ruth’s faithfulness a response to Naomi’s care. Even in scarcity and want and grief, with every reason to be self-absorbed, Naomi is trustworthy. Love and care between these women reveals the emotional country where Naomi and Ruth reside.

So, you might be thinking, What of it? What of women caring for one another? You may be wondering what braiding hair and maternal care or women’s relationships have to do with you, or with the Christian walk.

Allow me to suggest there may be a Naomi in your life, a woman whose kindness and wisdom could lead you in the ways of God. She’s a woman who might seem irrelevant. She may talk too slowly or tell too many stories. Or she might be invisible. You might look right through her every day.

As a widow with no sons, Naomi had no social currency and no power. She was an older woman, no longer able to bear children, her features fading, her hair grey. The bloom is off the rose, as they say. Would you see Naomi if she crossed your path at school or at work or at the grocery store, or if she were sitting in the pew next to you at church?

Of what use to us is such a woman? Here is her power: Naomi is a model of selflessness, a bearer of wisdom. Where can wisdom be found? The Book of Job reads, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” [3]

In the Letter of James, we are told to pray for wisdom.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.[4]

A woman who has experienced immense loss and survived is a reservoir of wisdom. She knows what matters in this life. She has a keen perception what is meaningless or superficial. Such a woman tells the truth.

Perhaps there are others who would welcome Naomi as a model of God’s maternal love. Perhaps your father was absent or distant or abusive, and you have difficulty conceiving of God as “Father”.

If you have trouble trusting God the Father, can you trust this conception of God? A God who wants only your good, whose attentive, intuitive care anticipates your unspoken need. Who in scar

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city, insecurity and uncertainty plans for your well-being and helps you find your way?

Perhaps Naomi could be a model of motherhood for those of you whose mothers could not care for yo

u, for whatever reason, or who neglected you, abandoned you, or hurt you in any way.

Our God is a God who cares intimately for us. Who hears our every need. We can find God’s care in quiet and stillness. We can find God’s care in the wisdom of people God sends into our lives.

God’s tender care is revealed in the book of Hosea when God says,

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did 

not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”[5]

Naomi led Ruth out of a landscape of grief and hopelessness with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. And so God leads us.

If you are in a state of uncertainty, if doors are closing and you are unsure of the path out, if you are shaken by the loss of a loved one or the loss of a place, trust that our Good God cares for you. Pray for wisdom. Pray to the Lord, who is worthy of your trust, Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.

[1] Poem by Adrienne Rich, Moyers, Bill, ed. The Language of Life. (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 349.

[2] Philippians 2:3-8

[3] Job 12:12

[4] James 1:5

[5] Hosea 11:3-4

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Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead

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In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.

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‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.

Please Eat the Lunch When I’m Dead: Fiery Autumn and Sensible Friends

A post written in Fall, 2015, our first fall in Upstate New York, and which was awarded the Discover Award for the Best Writing on Word Press. Enjoy.

This morning my husband and I went to a service at a church built in 1849, wood framed and white steepled. Grey headstones with white lichen chill as hoarfrost rise in a tidy graveyard in the back. Inside, the old pews are tiny, built when the average man was 5’6”. Sitting is precarious. I feel like a large spoon in a small tea cup about to tip out.

An altar girl whisks past us with a candle; “Slow down,” my husband whispers, “your candle is going to go out.” He speaks from ancient altar boy experience. A couple our age sits in a pew near the front. The wife has bedecked herself for autumn, a wool tartan skirt and orange turtle neck, a wool cap. I have realized too late, after a large investment, that the models wearing turtlenecks in the LL Bean catalogues are weedy ballerinas with long ballerina necks. On a woman like myself, less gracefully drawn, a turtleneck looks like a wooly St. Bernard, barrel full of brandy.

Fall growing up in Arizona meant Halloween, and the faint possibility of needing a jacket whilst trick-or-treating. Plastic pumpkins appeared on the store shelves, and as children we traced our hands on construction paper to make turkey silhouettes. If you weren’t a child or didn’t have one or didn’t shop much, fall could pass by unnoticed.

In late September in our upstate New York town, farmers’ wagons and vegetable stands full of pumpkins crowd the roadsides, as conspicuous and heaving as the Czech hedgehogs on the way out of Moscow. Inexplicably, bundles of scraggly cornstalks stand for sale beside the pumpkins. I puzzled over cornstalks for sale, detritus to me, until they began appearing, flanking mailboxes and light posts and porch pillars, reedy soldiers saluting fall.

There is a back and forth along our road of shared leaf mulching and wood stacking, invitations for soup— chicken noodle—treks through neighbors’ yards to avoid the busy road, trailblazing through the woods. The sight of neighbors’ woodpiles can inspire in me the same sense of self-doubt and anxiety that thin, beautiful women in Scottsdale once inspired.  Wood is really important here. Really, really important. And we don’t have enough.

People seem to assume the best of us, are friendly, invite us over. We invite people over. When I asked the owner of the farmer’s market if he’d plow our drive after heavy snows (unintentionally emasculating my husband), he knew the house—“The barn?”, had been inside, mentioned how much he liked our cellar steps.

2ff9435e35023715671a7b4bc73b5452My husband is felling dead trees out back with his first ever chain saw. There is much talk of splitting mauls: which neighbor lent us one/let’s check in with the guy at the junk sale to see he’s got one to sell. My brother-in-law is sending snow shoes. One neighbor sold my husband his extra chainsaw chaps. “Safety is the most important thing,” our neighbor said. No, life insurance is the most important thing.

In 1993, from within a contemplative convent in the South Bronx, I sometimes heard gunshots ring out in the night. My heart beating hard and trusting more in probable bullet trajectories than in Jesus, I would drag my thin mattress from the cot to the floor to wait out the night. Nowadays, shotguns regularly blast in the woods behind us. We have bright orange jackets to wear in the woods, and have made a certain peace with uncertainty.

The cows at the farm catty-corner were lowing loud and miserable two nights ago because the farmer, Kurt, had taken the calves away. We could buy half a cow for $1200, but we don’t have a deep freeze and have a newly minted vegan in the house (Hell hath no fury like a new vegan). Kurt descends from the Ashdowns, the family after whom our road is named. At our last visit, he shared that the big farmhouse (our charming English neighbors) and our house (the former barn belonging to that farmhouse), was lost by his great uncle in a card game. His uncle literally “bet the farm,” and lost.

Decades ago, those who owned the farmhouse, our mother-house, so to speak, caused a town scandal when the wife ran away with the Methodist minister. She left her husband because there was no heat in the bedroom. Spicy! No, actually, there was literally no heat in the bedroom. (Recall the importance of wood.)

The  woman in the big brick house who originally owned the land where the apple orchards sit on Blue Barns Road (down the road from two blue barns) was preparing for her friends to arrive for a bridge game when she fell down the stairs to her death. Her friends found her, notified the proper authorities, called a fourth, and carried on with their bridge game. After all, the house was clean and the food was made. It would have been a shame to waste it. 

Life here is truly this wonderful. And, just as truly, this is a romanticized blog post.

Moving across the country was, in concept, an adventure. We—the adults not the teenagers— were excited about an old house, cooler weather, snow storms and turtlenecks. We were leaving everyone we knew, the place of my children’s and my birth, the intoxicating, earthbound scent of creosote before rain and the promise of an endless gush of sunlight.

I can say with confidence that in Arizona, I had the requisite number of friends to dispense with my corpse and eat my tea sandwiches. Maria, Gail, Joan, Pamela, Livia, Gina, Maryann. Any of them know me well enough to deduce my dying thoughts as I lay at the bottom of the stairs: “Oh dear, I hope the chicken salad doesn’t go bad.” If you scoff at the sentiment, I reckon you have never made chicken salad from scratch.

But what about here? How long does it take to make friends who would honor you in death by doing the next sensible thing? Ten years? Twenty? Do I have twenty years? The houses in this town have stories older than the living, the land’s stories older than the houses. An octogenarian neighbor with long silver braids sent me literature on the Mohawks, the people as old as the land. Land matters as much as wood, here.

I fall asleep at night looking at beams above my head, hand-hewn 250 years ago by a farmer with a hatchet and animals to shelter before winter. Marks left by the intermittent hatchet blows speak of hard work and mortality.  Like gazing too long at a starry sky, an old beam hand hewn by the long-dead has a way of putting things in perspective.

But back to fall. In Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee wrote of his first morning after moving to a new home as a little boy, the autumn morning outside his bedroom window crimson and on fire.

“. . . what’s happening to them trees?”

“Nothing’s happening,” his sister said.

“Yes it is then,” he told her. “They’re falling to bits.”

“It’s only the leaves droppin’. We’re in autumn now. The leaves always drop in autumn.”

Autumn? In autumn. Was that where we were? Where the leaves always dropped and there was always this smell. I imagined it continuing, with no change, for ever, these wet flames of woods burning on and on like the bush of Moses, as natural a part of this new found land as the eternal snows of the poles.

Wishing you a long life, at least three sensible friends in death, a Happy Autumn.