Change Your World

The Bible never depicts this world as being fair but it does show us a way through the trouble.

A very Jewish tale is told in Mark 6: 17 – 29.  In summary, Herod divorces his first wife to marry Herodias.  John the Baptists suggests that this is not a good idea.  His advice angers Herodias who decides he needs to die.

Herod liked John the Baptist.  He liked to listen to him even though he didn’t understand him.  He didn’t understand him because he refused to follow the heart of the message–to repent.  He refused to turn from being his own Lord to the humility and faith which allows what is good and holy to take hold of him.  So, when Herodias became angry, in order to keep the peace in his home, Herod had John the Baptist arrested.

On the day of Herod Antipas’ birthday, Herodias gets her revenge.  It begins when her daughter dances for King Herord and all the guests.  Artists have captured this dance on many canvases.  This one, from Reni who lived in late 1500s, portrays the daughter as aloof, dancing, holding the hair of John’s head as it is presented to her.

It is a picture of a great wrong.

I wonder what she, the daughter of Herodias, understood?  Did she know the game of power being played by her mother?  Maybe not for the word used for the daughter is “girl” not “woman.”  The same Greek word is used earlier in Mark for a 12 year old girl who Jesus lifts out of death.  When the dancing girl of the banquet is offered half of the King’s kingdom, instead of saying, “alright!” and living large, she goes to her mother, and says “what shall I ask for?”

Evil manipulates the one with the crown, of one who refused to learn the language of humility, or faith, or grace.  Take heed.

The story suggests evil is born of a grudge and spread by the innocent.

A simple birthday party, a celebration of life, corrupted.

On the one hand, I want to condemn Herod Antipas.  Herod–the man who is the center of his own dance.  He makes himself an easy target.

On the other hand, how many times have we held in higher regard something other than what is right and holy?  Even Peter denies Jesus when push comes to shove.

It is hard to hold on to what is right and holy.

I have opportunity to speak to couples now and then.  Everyone fights.  There should be a book about that for couples similar to the one for mothers and their little children called “Everyone Poops.”  Everyone fights.  This is true about all our relationships—friends and coworkers alike.  What often happens is we feel slighted in some way.  The other doesn’t understand us.   Lists of wrongs are kept.  Anger grows.  We’ve tried everything, we say, as the one who we once loved and respected becomes the enemy to our peace.

The best general reminder scripture gives about all of our relationships is that our first priority is not the happiness of the other person.  Herod tried to make his wife and niece happy and it led to the death of the holy one.

Our first priority is to do right by God, to hold on to what is right and holy in ourselves and in the other.

As Christians, we do this by looking to see Jesus.

In this scene from the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus has been brought to Herod Antipas having been arrested for treason.

It takes time to find Herod among the dancers, underneath the many bulbs that light up the “H.”  But it is not hard to see Jesus there in white lit robe in the foreground.   In the midst of all that is wrong, there is Jesus, waiting.

When we look to see Jesus at work in us and in the other person, we will often find him there, kneeling before the Herodian dance, the ego’s masquerade, waiting for us to repent.

Look for him.  Call for him to stand up.  Unbind him.

He is there in the one who is hurting herself beyond recognition.  He is there in the boss whose heavy hand you have felt.  He is there in the “other” and he is there in you.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality, not with a violent revolution, but with a Christian witness calling the enemy to take hold of what was holy and good in them.

Look for Jesus.  You may not ever be offered half of the King’s kingdom but you will see your way through to what is good and holy.   That is enough to change your world!

In Christ,

Heather

An Easter Call

Easter morning—He is Risen!—He is Risen, Indeed!

Sin and Salvation

Jonathan Edwards shouts out

We are sinners in the hands of an angry God

Look what we have done

To ourselves

Our neighbors

Our nation

Our world

Our God

Look at what we haven’t done

For ourselves

Our neighbors

Our nation

Our world

Our God

Should God not be angry when we stand apart, build our own towers, testaments to our own strength?  Should God not be angry when those God loves abandon each other?  Should God not be angry when we abandon our world and ourselves when the tower falls?

We are not made to stand alone!

We were made to stand with…

Salvation is connection.

At the cross we stand with

Jesus who believed

God is more than anger

Or vengeance

People are more than sin

Or arrogance

Easter morning dawns

Mary and Peter peek into the

Empty tomb

And are afraid.

Resurrection possibilities

Strewn about in torn cloth.

“Mary,” calls the gardener

Recognizing Jesus’ voice, she cries out, “Rabouni!”

Salvation is connection.

Jesus’ faith  in and Jesus’  love for

God’s faith in and God’s love for

you and me

live on

connect

you and me.

Leave behind Eden

The serpent will never have

The last word.

Leave behind the tower

None of it is yours

Anyway.

Free your hands

Together let us

Take hold of the cup–

The cup of salvation.

Together, let us come into love.

Samosas and Pi

I listened to a film critic’s debate about whether current cinema has become too easy for us to watch.  Films like The Help or the Shawshank Redemption were criticized as being too sentimental, too satisfying to watch–providing no deep insight into humanity, moving us nowhere.  A few of the critics lamented how movie viewers need to demand to see more challenging movies rather than seeking movies that make us smile.  While they probably aren’t going to win that argument in the marketplace of stories, I felt properly chastised.  When Netflix surfaced a film called Pi, I thought, “okay, I’ll give something that is ‘edgy’ a try.”

More than once I wanted to turn it off.  It seems that when film pushes the boundaries, it invades the psyche.  I was reminded of the time when all freshmen, including me, who took Humanities Core at UC Irvine had to watch A Clockwork Orange.  It was a similarly unpleasant experience.

The premise of the movie, Pi, is that a mathematician (Max Cohen) finds the pattern that describes the ups and down of the stock market.  Because the number of digits matches a number a group of esoteric Jews seek, they believe that this same number is the one that underlies creation itself–or is the pattern that is God.  Max is already subject to migraines, and knowing this pattern increases their frequency and intensity.  Further, within these episodes are harrowing visions.   In the earthly world, the knowledge Max holds sends bad people after him from every direction.  His solution to all of this craziness? <spoiler alert>  Drill a hole in his head.  <end spoiler>  Who wouldn’t want to watch this for 2 hours?

The movie’s intensity made it into my dreams and woke me up in the middle of the night.  I realized what was missing in this man’s search for truth, what was missing in his search to understand the ultimate code of the universe, was relationship.  There is one friendship, but that too is lost in the search for the numerical pattern of the universe.  When a girl knocks on his door bearing Samosas, he slams it shut.

His compulsive need to find a pattern, to know what the pattern means, made me think about that tree in the Garden of Eden, the one God said not to eat from.  It was the tree of knowledge.   The serpent said eating from it would not kill us but would make those who ate of it like God.  Might this movie be a meditation on what it means to disobey God’s garden command?  For it was the human desire to know what it is God knows that took Max out of all relationship and led him into hell.

After the drilling, there is one more scene:  heaven.  Where, on earth, a young girl can give Max complicated arithmetic problems which he solves quickly in his head, in heaven she sits with him on a bench, gives him a math problem, and he smiles and says, “I don’t know.”

The Bible suggests, from the very beginning, that we are not made to know everything but we are made for relationship.  We are made for relationship–with these words I join a chorus of preachers.  But I will differ from many by saying that the Bible isn’t interested in giving you the 10 ways to make your relationships last or in helping you find your life long partner based on 30 bits of scripture.  The fact that such a message means snipping scripture from its context suggests humans are at play.  Remember that the apostle Paul makes clear that, if we can help it, we should not enter into marriage because it will distract us from following Jesus.  The Bible isn’t interested in helping you find your lifelong love.  But the Bible is intent on inviting you into love.

The Garden of Eden warns when we allow our search for anything to get in the way of relationship with God we lose ourselves.  It isn’t that the pursuit of knowledge is bad.  There was much to learn about in the garden, and God was there to be Adam and Eve’s guide.  But when their search for truth overrides their relationships what is left is scary.  The Garden of Eden story seems less frightening than was the movie in that it describes not one who has literally lost his mind, but how the world really is…pain in childbirth, backbreaking work to till the land, and a distance between us and God.  If we’re looking for something more akin to a nightmare we might recall those scenes from the prophets where God is fed up with loving a people who refuse to love. There the enemy is allowed to enter into the people’s homes, to destroy their place of worship, and to send them away.  The language of God’s ire is vivid and abundant.

There are many who draw out that Biblical language and state that they will not believe in any religion with such a God.  They miss the point.  It is exactly because the “chosen people” turned away from relationship with God that God became the one who condemns.  When we turn away from love, from loving, from relationship, we are left, as was Max Cohen, with people, with a God, who just want to use us.  However, when we turn towards love, we experience God’s love.

Relationship is at the heart of faith.  Faith deepens when we choose to love God and love our neighbors.  And faith compels us, when we are struggling, to do the things that allow love to take hold of us.

Practically speaking, from my own experience, this means that when we are feeling low, apart, even attacked, it helps to enter more fully into relationships, to become more vulnerable, and to allow love to act.  It is the opposite of what I want to do when I’m tired, uncertain, or hurting.  My first impulse is to run away, whether it be in imagining a solo road trip or playing on my computer.  I confess, I allow myself a little of both.  But what’s even better…?  Being held tight by my family and holding them tight; sharing some of my life with people I meet at the gym as they share of their lives; allowing the people I meet in church to walk with me and I with them in the ways of faith; writing these messages where I seek to know God’s word for this time and place and reading the writings of others who are engaged in a similar task; reading and watching creative endeavors–some that are satisfying to watch and others which wake me up at night; and prayer.  Some prayers I focus on Jesus, in others I rest in God’s word, sometimes I talk a lot, other times I’m quiet.    None of these are “the way,” but each is an example of how I enter more fully into love at this time of my life.

Thankfully, I suspect none of us are as extreme as Max.  When someone knocks on the door with Samosas we are going to, at the very least, open the door.  But still, the question remains…how will you move closer, be more intimate, love more deeply God and neighbor?  What are the habits you already have or one you might add into your life which allow you to remain open to love?  Within your list, there is your garden where you walk with God.

In Christ,  Heather

Able to Forgive

Jesus said to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.  I’ve come to understand this to mean that if you are seeking to live with God, you will have many opportunities to forgive.

My friend Susan suggested that forgiveness is an English word that really should be two different words.  Perhaps she is right.

There’s the type of forgiveness that we can offer when there is a chance for reconciliation, when there is an “I’m sorry,” and an attempt to make amends.  We forgive by allowing another chance.  Then there is the more difficult type of forgiveness.  The type where we forgive without any sign that our being hurt has changed or will change anything.  It is the forgiveness unattached to the action of another.  We forgive to be free.

Over the years I have heard people say, “I need to be able to forgive,” or “I struggle with anger.” Each one I speak to understands that if they could forgive they would be free of that ungodly feeling which keeps them in its grip.  But how do you get from wanting to forgive to being able to forgive?

A pair of Biblical images come to mind, both from the gospel of John.  In John 4, Jesus sits with a woman at a well, speaking to her of “all she had ever done.”  Despite the narrative not describing her deeds in detail (all we are told is she has had many husbands and the one she is currently with is not her husband), it is clear that she felt Jesus heard her, knew her, and understood her.  Then, at the close of the gospel, the resurrected Jesus meets Peter.  Remember, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard as Jesus was being questioned by the authorities who would have Jesus crucified.  Peter was scared.  However, after all is done, the resurrected Jesus comes to Peter and gives him the chance to speak three times of his love for him.

“Peter,” Jesus says, “do you love me?”

Peter responds, “Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus commands, “Then feed my sheep,” referring to the people Jesus led.

Both the woman at the well and Peter have plenty to be angry about.  I suspect anyone who has had many husbands is not without culpability, but still has been, in one way or another, betrayed.  And the woman would feel the guilt of having not lived rightly.  Further, the Jerusalem temple priest’s insistence that only in Jerusalem could worship of God be properly performed would have set up a divide between one such as her and others who could afford to go to Jerusalem to worship the right way.

Similarly, Peter has experienced a great betrayal, as he watched his teacher, friend, and Lord die.  The powers of this world won.  Jesus didn’t save him.  In fact, Jesus set him up.  He, like the woman, feels guilty.  He didn’t respond rightly when the time came for him to take a stand.

John’s gospel has a great injustice in the background of both stories.  Yet, scripture moves away from righteous anger, choosing instead to emphasize the need for both to be forgiven by Jesus.  In this way, John makes an important link. When anger has a hold on us, what we really need to be able to forgive, is to be forgiven.

While there may be a few in the history of Christianity who have been able to go directly to God to be forgiven, most of us require a friend, someone who will sit with us at the well, or find us when we are lost and give us a chance to speak.  Note Jesus didn’t say to Peter or the woman, “what you need to do is to forgive.”  He didn’t make the ability to forgive a prerequisite to experiencing what it is to be forgiven.  He didn’t ask them to make lists of all their wrongs.  Just as important, but slightly different, he didn’t allow what they were angry about to define the conversation.  Instead, Jesus showed the way to forgiveness by listening and responding with compassion.

So, if you are seeking to forgive, seek out a compassionate friend, one who, like Jesus, will listen long enough and deeply enough that you are once again conscious of God’s love of you. If you are seeking to help someone who is stuck in anger, who knows she wants to forgive but cannot, follow Jesus.  Be a compassionate friend—listen and love.

Then go one step further.  One more guidepost is given by Jesus in these two encounters.  He gets both the woman and Peter back to work.   The woman didn’t need a clear directive.  After her conversation with Jesus she went home and told everyone about the one she had met at the well.  She preached. Peter, however, needed a last little push.   So when Jesus visited him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” which meant “get to work caring for the people who follow me.”  The goal is not simply for us to forgive, the goal is to get back to God’s work.

We help each other forgive when, whatever the difficulty, we remind one another that we have not been fired from God’s work in this world.  In fact, whatever has happened has likely made us more able to follow Jesus.

And so, people of God, listen, love and help one other see our respective places in God’s work. With Jesus as our guide, despite the best efforts of our anger and shame, we will forgive–and we will carry the light that makes us free.

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