Dyers of Purple Cloth

One day, as they had many times before, a group of women gathered by the river to pray. Among them was Lydia. Scripture tells us she was a dealer in purple cloth, meaning she was a businesswoman. Her name is the same as the name of the state from which came the dyers of cloth, allowing her to act illustratively as a connection between people of business and people of faith. Lydia is not poor. She has no disease from which she needs healing. She hasn’t had 7 husbands. She does have a business and a household to run. Even with these responsibilities, she takes time out of her day to meet with other women to pray.

Paul arrives in Philippi looking for someone to talk to about Jesus. He is told that there is a group of God Fearers who pray by the river. A God Fearer was someone who wasn’t Jewish–or a worshiper of the gods in the Roman Pantheon–but one who sought to know the one God more. Paul walked over to the women with Timothy and Silas. The women looked up from their prayers. Allowing the interruption, they welcomed them, and asked them to speak.

Scripture does not record the men’s words. Instead, it turns us towards Lydia. At first, we are told, she heard their words. The Greek word used is the usual one for hearing. But there came a time when Timothy reports, “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said.” The word behind “listen eagerly” is prosecho, meaning to turn one’s attention and mind towards. There has been a change: Lydia’s heart opened, and she awoke to a new way.

We do not hear details of her baptism. Here the sparse writing matches a down-to-earth, get it done attitude which may be the way of Lydia. Scripture gets on to business: ”When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful, come stay with me.’ And she prevailed upon us (Luke 16:15).”

(The only other time someone prevails upon another in Luke/Acts is when the two men who unknowingly walked with the resurrected Jesus to Emmaus urged him to stay and eat with them. And, in the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened.)

At first glance, it seems as if Lydia is merely being hospitable, allowing the small group of evangelists to stay with her. But just as there is silence between Paul’s visit to the river prayer meeting and Lydia’s whole household being baptized along with her, so there is silence between the time she welcomes Paul into her home and the last word we have about her. It is as if the writer of scripture throws up his arms and admits not knowing how Lydia could do what she has done.

While Lydia operates beyond our vision, we watch as Paul gets into trouble when he, in frustration, sends away a spirit of divination that had made a woman following him around in the marketplace quite the pest. His exorcism angered the unnamed woman’s owners who enjoyed profits from her spiritual gift. A crowd gathers, Paul is accused of disrupting city life, and Paul and Silas are thrown into jail. Many know the oft-told tale of Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight, the chains falling off them, the jailor’s baptism, and the Romans’ official release of Paul and Silas. It is a story worthy of the many sermons that have been written on it. But, when Paul is released, how many of us remember where he goes?

Here’s a clue–there is a ministry in St. Louis called Lydia’s House; it provides transitional housing to women coming out of prison.

Acts 16: 40 “After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home….”

To do what? To collect their belongings? To get a good meal before they left?

Perhaps both, but here is what we are told: “When they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” Brothers, in Greek, is a way of naming those who have become part of the family of God through Christ, by whose spirit Paul says, we are adopted. In short, Lydia had founded a church. She brought people into a life with Christ, those who were looking for a spiritual home and a way forward with God.

How did she do it? How do we do it? It isn’t all spelled out in this scripture, but there are general clues. First, Lydia had a group of women she met with regularly to pray. Prayer and community were already a part of her life. Second, she allowed the Holy Spirit to take hold of her, to open her heart, and help her listen attentively. She was present, leaving behind her worries, allowing what God wanted to give to her to enter in. Finally, she sought to be a person of faith. She didn’t invite Paul into her house based on what she had there, but rather on what she had shown herself to be. With all these traits in place, she got to work without fanfare or arguments about a woman’s role, doing what God would have her do in the name of Jesus.

Whether you are a woman or a man, as we enter into Advent preparing for the coming of Christ, it seems like a good plan.

In Christ,

Heather

Speak, I am Listening

Last week, a friend of mine unplugged herself from her cell phone, in spite of the fact that she is a “connector” who enjoys being called. Somehow it had become clear to her that it was the week to stop answering the phone; to stop hearing the stories she had heard again and again. Instead, she tuned into the people who were around her–like her preteen daughter who, thankful for her mother’s presence, curled up next to her to read her science book for school.

We unplug that we might be more fully present to those who are near. Yet I don’t believe technology to be the root of our distraction. Those who’ve been with me for awhile know that people who lived in the mid 600s BC—the contemporaries of Jeremiah–surely were distracted, even though they couldn’t conceive of the world wide web.

In looking for the root of our distraction, I found The Practice of Encountering Others, a chapter in Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book An Altar in the World, helpful. She tells how the monks of the 4th century who ran to the desert when Christianity became the religion of Rome spent a lot of time alone. Still they would come together to celebrate communion, to share a meal, and to share stories. Taylor points out that they understood that as much as they needed God, they needed one another. Even when they lived in the silent distant wilderness away from all the distractions of the city, the biggest temptation remained.

Explaining why they would come together, Reverend Taylor writes, “At the very least, most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.”

Whether we are plugged in or unplugged, answering calls or lounging in silence, alone or with another, the challenge remains to get over ourselves that we might hear the voice of another: a child, a friend, or even God.

Many years ago, I was sharing tea with a wise elderly woman I had met at church. She was strong and independent, having, as a child, traveled to California on a covered wagon (I hasten to remind my own daughter that I was born in California, but I digress). We were talking about the most recent Thanksgiving. She shared that one of her sons reacted with strong emotion to some of the family story-telling. He was frustrated about being remembered for some dumb thing he did when he was a child. It was a story that was often shared. She grinned puckishly and remarked, “I turned to him and said don’t you think it is time you got over that?”

Her bluntness, shaped by her generation, gets at a truth. He was still reacting to the criticism and embarrassment he felt when he was a small boy. While that boy remains part of him, he is so much more than that.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Sunday School stories from 1 Samuel, chapter 3. Scripture tells how the young Samuel heard his name called in the middle of the night when all was quiet. Samuel assumed it was the voice of his teacher, Eli, with whom he had been all his life. He ran to Eli, woke him, and said, “here I am.” Eli told him to go back to bed; he hadn’t called. This happened again, and the third time Samuel awakened Eli, it finally occurred to Eli that if he was to get any sleep, he had to give the boy appropriate directions. He told him, when the voice called again, he was to say, “Here I am, your servant is listening.” Samuel did as he was instructed, and instead of running to the one who always told him what to do, who he was, and what he was to become, he listened to the voice of God.

It is always tempting to go back into the familiar patterns of our past, to seek guidance where we once found it, whether in the role we’ve been in for 20 years like my friend, in the power of our own mind as did the monks, or from a parent/mentor whose approval we still seek. The selves of our past seduce us into our own arms.

Verity A. Jones, writing about the power of social networks, reminds us: “We are created by God to be in relationships, in networks of people and ideas of all kinds.” She goes on to suggest “we should consider the prospect that exposure to networks of people and ideas that educate, encourage, correct, influence, shape, and depend upon us is an essential element of what it means to be fully human…” (Reflections, Living Theologically in a Networked World).

As we enter into the season of shared meals and celebrations, it seems appropriate to remember that it can be a sacred act to enter into conversations with people. If we learn to listen well, we can move beyond our self made sanctuaries to experience more of God. Our arms, those that would wrap us up in a pose of self protection, can learn to instead reach upward in a posture of thanksgiving and trust. We can awake from the slumber of our own limited dreams and learn from Eli to say, “Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Heather

Prophecy for Today

The messages of the Old Testament prophets frequently fail to inspire us to love God more. Instead, they can lead us to question the God we came to know as “Love” in Sunday School. God does not seem very loving when God compares the people of Jerusalem to whores who deserve to lose everything. In fact, for a 21st century reader the God of the prophets can seem difficult–intolerant–even downright embarrassing.

Most often when I write about the prophets, people respond by defending God. For many, the feeling is that “God doesn’t punish people for doing wrong”. Others quietly turn away. Still others remain silent, hoping this God will go away when we get to Jesus. If these ideas resonate with you, you are in good company! Still, I’m going to ask you to further consider these challenging scriptures.

When I read Jeremiah, I hear a people who understand that they have done wrong. In the religious imagination of the time, they heard God’s mournful cry, recorded it, and took the words with them into exile. And, I believe they heard God right at the time. I believe God wants us to know, in this time, that our actions can hurt God–and God’s people; that when we lose sight of the Holy One, we are scattered, broken, and lost. It is God’s cry for us to return which allows us to find our way again.

Often when I listen to people wanting prayer, they will speak about how they feel God is disciplining them, teaching them. It is uncomfortable watching someone take on blame.  And sometimes they must be challenged.  But, at other times, it is unholy to get in the way.

This week, a pastor friend in New England was wondering why her church wasn’t attracting as many to worship in recent weeks: “we might have to go to 3 services rather than 4,” she said, so ”we are spending more time in prayer, wondering where we haven’t given enough to God.” I tried to dissuade her, to tell her it wasn’t God’s work that attendance was down, it wasn’t something she did. From her descriptions the causes seemed more worldly than that. But as soon as I started down that road, the Holy Spirit left the conversation. It was a feeling of tiredness that overcame me and a flatness of speech that followed. Today, I ask myself, who am I to say that God isn’t trying to get her and the church staff’s attention?

If you come to me for prayer in a time of trial, I’m not going to talk to you about how God is disciplining you. But it is likely you will. It is likely that you, like the voice that is Jeremiah, are wondering what it is that has left you feeling so distant from God, as well as so far from the life you thought was yours. As it was for Jeremiah, as it is for my pastor friend, as it is for me now, we have a choice. We can believe God isn’t in it at all–or we can believe that exile and similar experiences are what God intends to help us cling to the one that matters most, sending us to our knees, and allowing God to send us out to do what we would not have before imagined.

Heather

Make No Mistakes

Breaking through the din of judgment, prophecies of doom, and cries of lament that mark chapter 9 of the book of Jeremiah are these words:

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD.” (RSV, emphasis added)

Jeremiah is a prophet who lived in a time of great geopolitical turmoil. Assyria controlled much of the fertile crescent in which Jerusalem is a part. Egypt had aspirations to move northward with the help of Assyria, while the Babylonians enjoyed great military success in conquering kingdoms as they moved southward. Jerusalem is caught between these military powers.

Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy puts these geopolitical movements into the hands of God. The impending doom which will destroy the temple and send many of the leaders of Jerusalem away is seen as God’s way of punishing the unfaithfulness of God’s own people who turned to idols and mistreated the poor. In the first chapters it is suggested that if the inhabitants of Jerusalem would just repent, then all the trouble would go away.

They do, at the end of chapter 3: “let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God… (3:25).”

Despite their confession, the trouble remains–the foreign armies continue their plans for battle.

A few weeks ago, I complained about the judgmental stories that mark the first season of Star Trek, the Next Generation. As the series continues on there is more to like. I share a quote spoken by Captain Picard: “You can make no mistakes and still lose. That is life.”

You can repent, you can turn back to God, and still the powers of this world continue to rise. You can turn to God, you can trust God, and still not have the life you seek. You will not find a prosperity gospel in Jeremiah, the idea if you do good things, good things will happen to you. But you may find a soul who understands Picard’s words all too well.

For what did God do wrong that the people stopped listening? What did God do wrong that made people travel their own paths? What did God do that allowed people to treat the aliens and widows among them without concern?

What did God do wrong that made you stop listening? How long do you expect to punish God?

The genius of Jeremiah is that even as Jeremiah allows the voice of God’s judgment to speak, so too does the voice of God’s sorrow. As Patrick D. Miller, commentator for the New Interpreter’s Bible, writes, “The anguish of the prophet over the heedlessness of the people overlaps with the anguish of God (563).”

“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the
daughter of my people
not been restored?

O that my head were waters,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of
my people! (Jeremiah 8: 22 – 9: 1)

While Jeremiah refuses to let go of the idea that God is punishing the people–moving nations against them, because of their idolatry–so too Jeremiah refuses to let go of the idea that God loves enough; no–feels powerless enough, to cry out: Why?

Why? It is a question we share with God. Why do you turn away from me?

The question has many answers and no answers at all. What is most clear from the heartfelt plea we share with our God is we long for one another.

Is there no balm in Gilead? How can we “understand and know” this God? Is there no physician there who would fix the broken relationship of God’s people to God? Is there a way to move forward again together?

For us, Jesus leads the way.

We, like Jesus did long ago, can choose to travel with the Holy One despite the powers that operate against that alliance. There will always be those things that distract and cause us to fear. But, if we choose to hear our scripture, there will always be another choice…to walk with God believing that our journey to enter into the unknown together will create new possibilities, even new life.

“the LORD is the true God;
he is the living God and the
everlasting King (Jeremiah 10: 10).”

Heather