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

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