Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Different Advent

Mark 1:1-8 does not give us Luke’s Advent or Matthew’s Advent. Mark’s Advent isn’t about a child come to save the world, a child attended by a heavenly chorus of angels, wise astrologers pausing in accosting travelers and stealing from them to pay obeisance to a baby, or two displaced bearers of the House of David traveling during a crowded census without room at the inn. Mark’s Advent is for and with a people who’ve been waiting a really long time in grinding oppression, a situation all too familiar to the Hebrew peoples. And, as in times past, one of the signs of deliverance is a widespread call to turn and repent of our failures and wrongdoings, and renew our commitment to the holy covenant.

Mark begins his good news by telling us that the words of Isaiah are being fulfilled in John the Baptist, who, after all, really does get up in everyone’s face, just as we’re told, “See, I’m sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.”  (This passage is often translated, “my messenger goes before you,” but it has more of the zest of the original to realize this isn’t herald with trumpets and a big parade, but someone in your face, grabbing your shoulders, turning you around to the Holy.) There’s John, calling people to repentance right where they were, as they were, and cleansing people with water. There was no pilgrimage to make, no rituals to observe. There was only this obnoxious guy wandering around as a voice in the wilderness telling people to turn around, and then the colonial yoke would be thrown off, and then exile would end, and then the people would be restored, just like in the consolations of Isaiah and Amos and Deuteronomy.

The wonder and awe most often associated with Advent is harder to hold onto with all this grabbing and shouting and baptizing in water and declaring that another one will be coming who baptizes in spirit. It is not a tranquil Advent. There is no silent night, no heavenly harps or silver bells. The wonder and awe is that anyone at all listened to John the Baptist. The guy had insect guts and little antennae smeared across his rough clothes. He was filthy. He stank. He was ragged. He was…the very image of a wilderness prophet in the tradition of Elijah after he’s chased out of town, in the tradition of Jeremiah and Amos, in the tradition that arises from and relates more to Deuteronomy than to Leviticus. This isn’t the tradition of the wealthy elite people sent into exile, but the tradition of the internally displaced and oppressed, the ones left behind working under colonial rule. Right off from start, Mark is telling us Advent is coming to the very poorest and most struggling people, through unsavory and noxious means, with ragged manners and with an earnestness that can scare a lot of folks.

Advent comes right into the middle of trying times. The gospels agree on this. But Mark wants to make sure we really understand and wrestle with how steadfast love interrupts and is at the same time part of the messiness. There’s no heroic child of God narrative here. For you to know John the Baptist as a cousin of Jesus, you need to look into another gospel, which explains the relationship between John and Jesus that way. Mark names John as the wilderness prophet who gets in everyone’s face, a prophet who’s pretty distasteful and ungraceful, who’s wild and uncontrollable, as truth usually is, as God’s chesed (steadfast love) usually is. Mark’s Advent begins as deliverance usually does in the Hebrew Scriptures, not with a heralded birth, but with the people seeking deliverance and turning with repentance, turning their hearts back toward God. We turn ourselves over again to the wildness of this abiding love, and astounding things follow.

Awe and wonder is not just glitter and lights in the darkness. Awe and wonder is tempestuous and uncontrollable, fearsome, often ugly and hard to comprehend, surprising and in our face. Awe and wonder grabs us by the shirt front and sets us down in the river of life, breaking off the locks on our hearts and busting those gates open wide, so that something new can happen, so that freedom can be born, so that steadfast love can manifest right alongside us, through us, and before us, changing everything.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chesed Now & Ever

The Psalms are among my favorite Biblical texts, for they are songs and poetry that cover nearly every emotion and human experience. There are psalms of longing and psalms of celebration, psalms of hungering for vengeance and psalms of asking for forgiveness, psalms of wonder and psalms of exile. Psalm 85, which the editors of the revised common lectionary selected for this week, is one of the psalms of exile or immediately after the exile’s return.

Remember the years in the desert after the people departed slavery? Or the recovenanting at Shechem? When we have been profoundly changed by certain traumatic experiences – slavery and war are two such experiences – we often experience a kind of uncertainty, a sense of exile from truly knowing ourselves and our relationship to the Holy. We might struggle with living into our promises, fervently felt and truly made, but challenging to live. We might struggle to feel the Holy present, might even feel caught up in despair or a pervasive loneliness.

Psalm 85 is prayed from such a place of active exile, even possible when we are supposedly returned or redeemed from the traumatic life-changing events we’ve experienced. Depending on how the Hewbrew verbs are translated, the psalm will be cast in the future tense – redemption has not happened yet – or in the present – we have been redeemed, but are struggling in living in this new way, finding exile shaping us even when we’re supposedly home. I think it is a mercy that the verb tense is open and can be read in either way (even though your Biblical translation will probably have chosen a tense, rendering the psalm and our spirits a disservice). Why do I find a flexible verb tense merciful? There is mercy in being able to  pray it together, those of us still in exile and those of who understand we’re home now but are still finding exile directing our responses a lot of the time. In the uncertainty of the verb tense, we have a merciful moment to realize the Holy knows us well, how easily and persistently we are shaped by trauma, shaped by exilic experience, and how long a way it is to truly trust and be changed in steadfast love.

Verse 8 names the Lover of Life’s abiding presence, loyalty, faithfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, and many other translations of the complex theological term, chesed. Chesed is the foundation of faithful living when we have been changed by trauma and lived in exile. TheBook of Ruth is another post-exilic text encouraging us all to risking our hearts, livelihood, and whole selves in practicing chesed.  Here, in Psalm 85: 8 we are recalled to God’s chesed. Most often translated “faithfulness”, we can breathe into that translation “your steadfast love”. In the middle of reliving trauma, in finding ourselves reacting from a place of exile instead of being able to truly appreciate the now we are in, such steadfastness is comforting, like a sturdy quilt or a steady embrace.

Advent may be a time of waiting, when many of us are waiting upon deliverance from exile. But it is a time that we relive each year, a time that happens for many of us even while many others of us might not be having the same experience. Living with chesed changes how we wait together, gives us a mercifulness, a quiet comfort of what is happening now, and happening tomorrow, and happening always. Love’s persistence draws us closer and changes us from people in exile, people who do terrible things out of that place of exile, into people who can celebrate with joy and live into a merciful justice. Advent may be a time when we’re waiting, but Psalm 85 reminds us, too, that we are not alone in our waiting, that there is One whose chesed knows no bounds, and who is waiting with us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Consolation Road

Pain sometimes sneaks up and ambushes me. Since I live with chronic pain and don’t have an expectation to be pain-free, I am amazed at times like yesterday when pain grabs me and hauls me down in sharp severity. That’s when breathing is hard, tears come unbidden, and I don’t have the energy to be surly or rally or turn my attention elsewhere; all I can do is be with the pain until I get used to the increased severity. I’m infamously impatient, so about the seventh hour of this kind of sharpness, I’ll be adjusted enough to start wondering about relief, about getting that pain down to a crowded nerve commuter platform instead of a mob rushing for the exits. I’ve found the same wondering when it is my heart grieving an untimely death or the loss of a friend. It isn’t ease or absence, but a lessening, a chance to return from the exile severe and sharp pain can cast me into.

The words of Isaiah 40:1-11, the first of the texts for the second Sunday of Advent, are words of consolation to help us endure the experience of exile. Exile bears with it the experiences of waiting mixed with dread, fear, anger, and grief. The messages of endurance and consolation in the prophet Isaiah, between chapters 40-48 also are part of eight haftarah (prophetic readings for the devotional life of the Jewish community). Those eight haftarah portions are read on the Sabbaths following Tish’a’b’av, remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the exile to Babylon, the exiles to which Isaiah was originally writing. These are long-lived messages of comfort, generation after generation, in a variety of circumstances and understandings of the kinds of deliverance from exile offered. Advent begins in the experience of exile. If we’re currently experiencing exile, it is a time when the Christian world journeys alongside us. If we’re experiencing relative ease, it is a time to live in solidarity with exiles and to prepare our communities for those experiences, to grow more resilient and enduring in our faith while we’re waiting.

The message this week is the comforting image of a road for the One, a way in the wilderness. Whenever I encounter the image of way in the wilderness in the Bible, I’m recalled to the Exodus, to the deliverance of the people from slavery. But I’m also recalled to Hagar’s need for water to keep Ishmael alive, and a well being found (in Islam, this is the Zam-Zam, and a story relived during Hajj).  I’m recalled to Abram and Sarai leaving their homeland and going into an unknown country. I’m recalled to Elijah on therun and worn out, fed by ravens and encouraged to keep going. I’m recalled to Ruth and Naomi returning through famine-stricken lands to an unknown and probably bitter future, to be surprised by chesed and redeemed from their exile. A way has been made so many times before, we can trust and seek and work on creating a holy way now, from the middle of exile to returning home. It might not be the way I would prefer, or even the way I know well, for this is the highway of the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, and it will bear surprises and wonders and challenges I cannot imagine and might not include on my road. But then my road alone doesn’t lead from exile, and for that I give thanks. There are many here joining the making of the consolation road, of finding a way where none was before, of ending exile and making home real.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advent - Alert to Wonder

Mark 13:24-37

Friday’s new moon plunges us into the darkest month of the year in the northern hemisphere.  The next new moon – the dark phase – will rise after the winter solstice. This is the month of longest nights and briefest days. It is also the season of beginning the Christian worship year, not in the fullness of harvest, but in a time of bleak foreboding. You know that sense  of dread – maybe from your life, maybe from books or movies. We begin what is commonly thought a joyful season with dread, with fear that something bad is about to happen, that bad things have been happening and now, they’re just around the next door. We are alert to danger, fearful.

Fear constricts the throat and heart, but also runs riot with our guts, making it difficult both to speak kindly or with thanksgiving and to bear up in steadfast love.  Fear is part of what can keep us alive, but it can also strangle our spirits slowly, stripping away our capacities for hope, for love, for joy, for generosity. We move from being alert with our spidey senses tingling to being habitually suspicious and untrusting, one of the biggest weapons of power used to divide and keep people apart from peaceful and loving change.

Yet the Advent season invites us to a different kind of alertness. We can certainly go to the place of dread, suspicion and fear; we have millennia of interpretative history and even more millennia of evolution to help us down that path. The countering agent for the poison of habitual suspicion and mistrust is shifting our attention to wonder.  We only grow the habits of fear, suspicion, and mistrust when we try to control more and more the world in which we live, when we leave nothing to chance, when everything is planned and predictable. (The best contemporary parable about this habit of the heart is Melanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel – don’t delay, but hustle to the local library to meet this squirrel, and so meet yourself in a new way.) Advent invites us to grow more open-hearted, to find one another instead of being divided from and suspicious of one another, to expect each and every night and each and every day to meet Abiding Love. Advent invites us to live alert to awe and wonder.

When you next light a candle or a string of lights or the lamps of refuge, attend the moment when you wonder if the wick will burn, the lights go on, the lamps shine. And just after that fearfulness that the light will not spark,  meet even for a fraction of a second, your wonder  - oh! Wow! oh! Joy! - when in fact the candle burns, the lights sparkle, the lamp welcomes the weary home.

We never know the hour when we will be called to account for how we have lived our days. But in the meantime, we can attend the arrival of light, cultivate hope, stay alert to wonder. This Advent season, let no day pass without a few minutes where you part company from fear and whirl into astonishment, glittering joy, splendid generosity, moments of a world transformed by the arrival everywhere in every place and every heart, in every word and every deed, the welcome and long waited for arrival everywhere of Abiding Love.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Advent - Fields of Awe & Compassion

Have you ever endured a long suffering? Maybe you’re in the middle right now, no idea when it might end, even if you have some good ideas how the suffering you’re experience will end. Some of the folks I know have been unemployed for more than two years, gathering up the courage to seek work and be told no over and over, day after day, for more than two years. Have you met people telling you they have no use for your skills, for your gifts – for you – every day for more than two years? If so, you know how withering that experience is, how parching, and how fervent prayers for deliverance become. “Please, give me a chance.” “Please, I really need a job.” “Please, my family.” “Please…” I also know lots of folks who are underemployed, who need more work, and who week after week are denied that while being told to be grateful to have just enough work to no longer have assistance but not enough to actually live, who are told they just need patience. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a siege disease, one of the diseases that suck everything out of you, your friends, your family, and every day is a trial to keep keeping on. Or maybe there’s the persistent cuts and denials, the refusal to acknowledge your presence, your humanity, your worthiness, the regular slurs and slights, aggression, and violence for who you are, for how you are.

Advent is for those of us who’ve been waiting for deliverance, working away steadily night and day to try to keep heart and soul together, to bear up and bear on, doing what we can to give our gifts, doing what we can through courageous love and bold compassion. Advent is a season of being in the middle of trouble. It is weird that a lot of the trouble Advent has attached to it is the trouble created from ideals of perfect family holidays that never were and  are unlikely to be, since they’re fantasy holidays that don’t admit our difficult and endearing imperfections, the stuff that makes us us, the character and personality that is part of our loveable and loving whole – including the prickliness, the uneasy laughter, the quick temper, the grudges, the grief, the traits that gall others and perhaps even ourselves. Advent begins with people yearning for deliverance – not from a Christmas Carol sung by jays and herons, not from overly high expectations -  but deliverance from exploitation, colonial rule and impoverishment, repression and oppression. Advent begins with wondering how to trust that deliverance will come.

We reshape and we remake ourselves in that wondering, turning our hearts filled with yearning back to the promises we know from God, back to what we might need to do differently. We also remember just how wondrous the Holy is, how people have been delivered before from iniquity and trouble, from long suffering. And we turn in attention to wonder, to the awe that is already here, which is where deliverance begins, where we remember we aren’t alone, where we remember blessing.

The stretching rainbows, the fruits of harvest, the true generous laughter that invites you in, the stars glittering in the heavens, the lamps of welcome and of faith that light windows and open doors, the wonder of the chance to serve, the wonder of being needed at a needful time, the wonder of love melting away frosty hurt and opening the dance of joy are blessings. Both Isaiah 64:1-9 and Psalm 80 recall us to wonderment, to the promises of good things and to the ways we have been blessed. From these, we can seek wonderment in each day, blessings that are very common, yet still blessings, and we can seek to be blessings in each day, to be bearers of assurance, of hope, of courageous love. The Holy doesn’t need you to wait, for there is work right now, work that is open and fulsome for every heart. The work of wonderment is the work of Advent, knowing that our groans of “how long?” are also being answered, in part, by the consolation of those alongside us, of the hope and awe that is scattered across and grown thick and vibrant in every night and day, if we’re ready to tend those fields of awe and compassion. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Discipline

Deuteronomy 8:7-18 connects thanksgiving directly to living in covenant with the Holy. We have a duty to be thankful. Giving thanks is a spiritual discipline. Sometimes giving thanks is a discipline, because we might have to seek in turning our attention away from suffering to find reasons to give thanks.  Yet also commonly, we fail to give thanks when life is generally good, when we have enough to eat and a place to live and friends and family. In times of great distress – like when we’re exiled from our homelands, or lose all our friends and family, or are undergoing a tremendous trial, we might think it is easy and we’ll always remember to give thanks when things get better. Lots of us even bargain in the same kind of legal covenantal language of this Biblical passage. We’ll whisper or cry out loud, “please, just let me get through this, and I’ll always be grateful.” There doesn’t even have to be an addressee in our bargaining, just the silent or spoken, “please.”  When we’re suffering, we seek deliverance. After we’ve been delivered, if things are good enough, we can find other reasons not to give thanks.

I live day and night with chronic pain. It is often excruciating, and I’ve tried all kinds of modalities to make it cease. But that isn’t likely to happen. The discipline of giving thanks doesn’t eliminate my hurting, and yet it does make the pain recede. The pain is still there, and there is also a wide swath of joy arising out of the practice of gratitude. I really do have plenty of reasons to be grateful, even alongside daily troubles. Pain, gratitude, and joy are not mutually exclusive states of being. We can be struggling and also know a blessing and be a blessing, even in the middle of our struggling.

Thanksgiving bears us up. We’re in a season filled with expectations of families we’ve never had or fantasy holiday celebrations. We’re facing a deluge of messages that promise us, in the same legally binding language of Deuteronomy, that if we just spend this huge amount of money we might not have, then we’ll be delivered to perfect happiness. Real thanksgiving is attainable here and now, right in the middle of imperfection. It has nothing to do with Pilgrims, with deliverance, with America as a promised people or nation. Real thanksgiving begins in recognizing the blessings we have alongside our struggles, and in the midst of our challenges, to bear and share those blessings generously with others. Giving thanks is a discipline – a regular and routine practice that shapes us and gives us strength. Why? Because it turns us back to the Source of All and shifts us into humble joy, wonder and delight at getting to be part of this life, of having gifts we can give, of being reliant upon the gifts of the whole of humanity, the whole earth, the Mystery, the Wonderment, the ground of being. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

May Courageous Peace Prevail

Sunday is Transgender Remembrance Day, when many of us gather to remember those who were murdered because of anti-transgendered hatred.

No one need be murdered. Too often gendered hate crimes are dismissed with statements such as “s/he asked for it.” That’s excusing and condoning violence.

If you don’t think you know anyone who’s transgender, intersexual, or genderqueer, or you suspect there’s more to know than the latest stereotype on big and little screens, check out Transgender 101 from the Unitarian Universalist Association. There’s a whole lot of loving and courageous people you can support, pray with, and be in community with.

If you identify as transgender, intersexual, or genderqueer, we affirm that you are loved and loveable – as you are, as you are becoming, who you are in your heart of hearts. There are religious people and spiritual houses that care, individuals and communities who want to and are ready to accompany you in your spiritual life.

Let’s stop and remember those who’ve lost their lives to hate filled violence. Let’s work to make the world a place where courageous peace prevails.

A Prayer:

Recounting the names, the places, the people known and strangers, who died from hatred, who died in fear and in brutality, let sorrow wash over us. Mercy and Compassion, we ask where you were during all of these deaths? We ask where were we and others who might have intervened? Mercy let us not forget these children of courage who fought to claim their true selves and live fiercely and zestfully into wholeness. Compassion, give us courage to keep on in their memory and in their witness, growing a world of open-hearted love, a world where every child of life is a welcome child as they are, as they truly know themselves to be, as they blossom in spirit and grow strong in heart. Most Compassionate transform the stony-hearted, the sellers of hate and the traders of betrayal, bring the violence-bearers to a place of realization of what they’ve done and into the committed journey of restorative justice and reconciliation. Most Merciful hold us now, in our grief, and grant that we may live and love on, bearing mercy, wisdom, and courage to all those in need. Amen.

Day of Healing

Saturday, November 19 is the International Survivors of Suicide Day, a day recognizing that there are a great many people trying to make sense of losing friends, family, and colleagues to suicide.

If you are considering suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 (English) 1-800-799-4889 (TTY) or 1-877-784-2432 (Spanish). We want you safe and here.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers resources for those who are coping with loss. Handling the Holidays is one of their themes 
You can download a resource and healing guide from the AFSP for free. 
The AFSP offers many other resources for suicide awareness and prevention.

My Prayer:

Mercy and Compassion, we gather facing the empty place at the table, the hollowed out space in our hearts, the fullness of hurt and grief, of dreams that cannot be lived out, of hopes that will not be met. Some of us are fresh and raw in our grief; bring to us of people of peace who can be with us in this time, who know the way ahead, who accept us and encourage us in continuing to love. Some of us have many seasons behind us; bring to us steady resolve to keep loving boldly and courageously, to reach out to others newly in this journey, and to live. Help us turn this world in a different way, live in peace, and find our way ahead with love, with hope, and with persistent compassion. Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bearing Steadfast Love

When I come to verse jumps in the lection, I’m always interested in why. How would those verses change what we read? In this case, the verses the lection skips in Ezekiel 34:17-19 could significantly affect how we read the gospel selection for this week, and makes us ask why we need to pair that gospel selection with the contested letter of the Ephesians (meaning it was written by someone other than Paul and circulated at a later date from the reliably Pauline letters).

The consolation Ezekiel brings (34:11-16, 20-24) is that God finds us all worthy enough to seek us out, no matter how miserable we are, even if we are exiles, enslaved, or denied by society. The lection skips a little warning that is in the midst of Ezekiel’s consolation – verses 17-19. In these few verses, Ezekiel further comforts the afflicted and denied – who are his faith community in exile – and notes that those who destroy what others require to live, those who bully and push and put down others in order to be first to enjoy the good things in life – will be judged as to how well we’ve conducted ourselves. Those who’ve been on the receiving end, who’ve worked to sustain the whole, and who’ve pursued the practices of love, will be judged together as to how well we’ve conducted ourselves. Ezekiel’s bearing the word: you can’t all we take with us when we die is how well we loved, lived humbly, and created a merciful justice. The verses recall us to our responsibilities to each other and to this earth. The verses call us to be bearers of steadfast love.

This Sunday – the weekend before Thanksgiving in the United States – is Transgender Remembrance Day, when many faith communities separately and in multifaith services, will mourn those who have died from a form of gender violence and bullying, violence that seeks to perpetuate exile from every one being fully who they are called to be in love and life. It seems to me that on this weekend, we especially need those two verses from Ezekiel 34. Trampling and destroying one another to make ourselves feel safe and satisfied is not how we are called. We are called to be bearers of steadfast love.

Accepting and appreciating fully one’s transgendered, genderqueer, intersexual, and/or ambiguously gendered self, loved one, friend, neighbor and family is living faithfully in the way of love and merciful justice. Demanding people to live in internal exile from the spirits they have received is a way of grinding people down. Instead, we are called to be bearers of steadfast love.

Consider for a moment all the gendered violence you meet and perhaps perpetuate every year. How many dismissive things do you say or agree with about women? About men? About intersexuals? Transgender?  How many cruelties are heaped high day after day, festering and stinking for just a few moments of not having to meet or consider someone with reverence? This is not the way we are called. We are called to choose bearing steadfast love.

We need loving courage, steadfast spirits to live open-heartedly, to create a world without exiles, to not persist in damning others in order to temporarily save ourselves. We need loving courage to celebrate another’s courage in being who they truly are, in living and loving bravely and sharing their gifts for making the world a better place. All of us need loving courage to bear mercy, to share our gifts for goodness, to be steadfastly open-hearted – those of us separated into exile communities, those of us behind comfortable walls, those of us trying to reweave the fabric of life with love. 

Let's pray:

Mercy grow within each and all of us a vibrant open-hearted love, a love that creates refuge for everyone, a love that ends exile. We have been given to one another to encourage and to care; let us do more of both each and every day. When we are weary and in need, may others help us along. When we meet those in need, may we be the cupbearers of courage and mercy. Particularly encourage those who tremble in terror of being rejected for flowering into the fullness of their spirits; support us into becoming fully who we are called to be in Abiding Love. Comfort us, we who mourn the brutal and needless deaths of our beloved family, friends, and neighbors, mourning the loss of their particular ways of love and their particular gifts. Aid us in carrying on in the paths they have laid – in loving past fearfulness, in compassion so fierce it transforms, in their particular gifts and stories and ways of dancing. Transform us in fierce compassion, creative and generous, to live fully into the way of love and build each day a more merciful justice. May we end the days of exile. May we be bearers of steadfast love. Amen


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ending Exile

Because I regularly wear the clerical collar, I often meet people in crisis who feel, just because I show up wearing these symbols that make clear my calling, that God has not forgotten them and sought them out. I’ve had similar experiences myself in troubled times times, when a kindly tweet or an unexpected meeting are boons to my spirit. This week, the sacred librarians of the revised common lectionary pass us to one of the prophet Ezekiel’s images of consolation (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24). Ezekiel tells us that God is a shepherd who will seek out every lost sheep in need of rescue.

Alleluia! we’re worthy enough to be sought for and found! So many of us don’t feel we are worthy enough for anyone to seek for us, let alone God, or even a faith community. We might struggle with addiction; we might struggle with anorexia or bulimia. We might struggle with worthiness because of long-term unemployment. We might struggle with worthiness because of truly bad deeds we did once, even though we might have repented and turned our lives around. We might struggle with worthiness because we have lost our homelands and our homes, our livelihoods, our communities – the experiences of exile and enslavement, as the people Ezekiel is speaking to, and the experiences of being refugees and migrants fleeing violence, ecological and economic hardship, and oppression. We might struggle with worthiness for all kinds of reasons. The experience of exile are many and are terribly common. And in that experience of exile we can struggle with our sense of worthiness.

That’s why Ezekiel’s imagery of the shepherd seeking for us is part of the prophecies of consolation, the prophecies that are like comforting quilts to wrap around one another when we are laid low, hollowed out, crumbling into ashes. Ezekiel’s image echoes the 23rd Psalm. Ezekiel 12 is part of the unetanah tokef prayer during the Jewish High Holy Days. We are worthy enough to be sought out in our exile, to be returned to a reason for thanksgiving.

When faith communities are engaged in finding those who have been ground down and crushed or hollowed out in our sense of worth, we’re following through on those promises, not waiting for a final judgment or an end accounting. Instead, we act on that promise of each one’s worthiness for the shepherd to seek each one out, and seek to bring people back out of the exile we’re in. Estranged from one another, with a thin sense of relationship in so many of the places we might live,  we’re in another kind of exile, one that we can grow to answer in turning to cultivating being neighbors and growing diverse and vibrant and thick communities anew. It is the sort of work that the Interfaith Youth Core does. It is the sort of work that missional faith communities are doing. It is the sort of work that congregationally based organizing communities are doing, and the sort of work that the New Sanctuary movement is doing. There are a whole lot of folks engaging in this work -- more every day – as we take heart and discover one another again, not in ways to be feared, but in ways for us, in our diversity, to give thanks and join the joyful labor. Serving the hearts of cities and rural areas and suburbs, so many are following stories and dreams and prophecies and texts from many faiths and from none, following them out of exile, rebuilding and restoring and reweaving based on the fundamental worthiness of each of us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Blessings & Gifts

I was sitting in conversation one day, when one of the people present struck the table forcibly and cursed the end of year giving season. I asked why. “If I wanted to give, I’ll give, but on my own time, at my choosing, without the pressure of being asked. All of these requests are just people who want from me and don’t want to do anything. I worked hard to have what I have. They need to work harder.”

I was surprised. When we believe we are rewarded in this lifetime proportionately for our own merit and effort, it is easy to condemn those who have less. A great many people who work very hard, who have far fewer opportunities and connections, will not have the ease of the person across the table from me. Consider how many business people whose business ventures fail and who yet receive continued confidence to keep leading businesses. When I was part of a small group of women business owners, we would talk about how often and apparently easily many of the men were extended new loans after failed ventures  when the women did not enjoy that same level of trust. The history of privilege was very much at work.

If you can turn a tap and enjoy clean water, is that entirely of your own making, so that you are freed from hours and hours of labor to find and carry water and then try to purify it enough to use? Are you entirely self-educated, without recourse to teachers, books or other wisdom repositories, parental wisdom, friends?

There’s a lot that can easily be taken for granted, a lot that gives advantage to some and disadvantages other, a lot that is not either in our control, nor of our choice, nor of our making. If you have good health, is that entirely of your own measure? Before you say “yes” are you willing to say my genetic disease is therefore something I deserve?

What does life owe you? What do you owe life? The parable of the talents brings us directly to these questions.  Three servants are given three differing amounts of money. Later, they are asked to account for it. Two of them do everything they can with their differing amounts to increase what they were given, so they may return greater rewards to the one who trusted them with these gifts. One servant digs a hole and buries the money, doing nothing with it. That servant, who had received the largest amount returns the largest amount, but had done nothing with it. Meanwhile, having had much less, and worked very hard, the other two servants are told they have done well.

All of us are called to do all we can to be a blessing, to increase goodness in our lives, through what gifts we have. We can work very hard, have very little, and still make a real difference in growing love, kindness, merciful justice, and peace. We can work very hard, enjoying many advantages, and fail to make a real difference, because we’re too busy protecting what we consider ours. We are called to use the gift of this life for greater goodness, not for greater ease. We are called to ease suffering in the world, to be bearers of mercy, to be blessers and stewards of the whole.

JESUS MAFA. Parable of the Three Servants, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Responsibility Together

Working together is a skill. We learn how to lead by learning how to follow. We learn how to work together well by doing it, staying committed to working together, and improving how we work together over time.

After the recovenanting with the Holy at Shechem (Joshua 24), the people have to learn how to become a nation. The families that were reestablished in the wilderness became military units as they crossed the Jordan. After the recovenanting, there is a long period of former military units learning how to become regional communities, called the time of Judges, which is a term that includes a number of kinds of leadership. That same time includes a long sojourn of oppression when the regional leaders have to learn how to work together. That’s where we meet up with Deborah, who is known for her gifts as a prophet, and Barak, who is known for his gifts in military efforts to throw off the yoke of oppression. Deliverance from oppression isn’t going to happen without both of them working together. Part of how the Holy moves in history requires our learning new ways of being together, returning to important practices we – or our ancestors – may have discarded, and living humbly with one another and with God. I can’t read Judges 4:1-7 without Barak’s response to Deborah in Judges 4:8, because otherwise we might miss the humility present, and we might reflexively read a hierarchy where there is, in fact, commitment to working together.

Have you ever been complaining about “those people in power”? It is easy when we feel like what we do matters little and when we are hurting to lay blame, responsibility, and all our own power onto someone else. I’ve done it. In many situations – democracies and republics, voluntary associations (clubs, civic improvement societies, volunteer fire departments, some kinds of faith communities) and often, families – we bear responsibility for how we all are living. We bear a measure of what governmental decisions create, no matter how secret or how much we might protest or support those decisions or governments. We bear a measure of how well community life is going. We bear a measure of responsibility for familial health and wellbeing.

Responsibility isn’t an easy thing. But it is part of who and how we are. Freedom is not freedom from responsibility, but how we are responsible together.  There are situations where we are forced and lose responsibility: I was not responsible for the sexual assaults I’ve endured. But I am responsible for how I choose to deal with those experiences, for my own work around forgiveness, and for violence prevention and education efforts. I am responsible for not hurting others because I’ve been hurt. So, too, I bear responsibility in answering specific instances of licensed iniquity, such as state-sponsored torture, or an economy that lets people starve, or a migration control system that separates families and terrifies people who’ve been making a positive contribution to society.

Deborah and Barak face a time of oppression, a time when the people are crying out for liberation. They realize that the Holy is encouraging them to work together to lead the people in making liberation real, just as the people had been part of the turning that permitted oppression to reign in the first place. While there is much that I alone might be able to do, we together can accomplish much more. Barak appreciates Deborah’s spiritual gifts, and knows they will be stronger working together. Deborah appreciates Barak’s military gifts, and knows they will be stronger working together. We begin to work together in leading change by knowing and appreciating one another’s gifts, trusting that these are the gifts we need to accomplish these acts of faith.

We are responsible to one another in our responsibilities of faith. We also are responsible for learning how to work together, to grow hearts of courage that need not blame and demand, withdraw and have tantrums, or rely on violence and threat. We’re invited into a creative life, one where we’re creating with others a world of love, peace, and merciful justice.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Heaven Is...Waiting

How do you imagine heaven? Is it a time when everyone has enough to eat and folks are cared for? Is it a paradise filled with all kinds of plants and animals, clean water and sweetly scented air? Is heaven relief from suffering? Heaven is often imagined and spoken of both figuratively and literally as a place of perfect goodness. Let me ask you this: in your imagining of the good, are there long lines and waiting?

Because that’s what Matthew tells us heaven is. Heaven is waiting. Heaven is anticipating, for a really, really, really, really long time for something wonderful to happen. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that heaven is like waiting so long, everyone, even the most excited and prepared and zealous, will fall asleep. And then heaven will show up. Who gives the shout of alert when everyone is asleep is a whole other question, but heaven is the ultimate wait. Heaven is waiting longer than it takes to vote when democratic elections are first held. Heaven is waiting longer than the longest sporting or musical event ticket campout. Heaven is waiting, anticipating the opening of the first flower in spring or the dropping of the first leaf in autumn or counting the first drop of rain in monsoon season. Heaven is waiting and we’ll still be roused, surprised by its arriving.

Waiting is like that. When we accustom ourselves to a long wait, with no timeframe in mind, when our turn comes, it comes as a surprise. We may have prepared for that long wait and so be able to act immediately, or we might find ourselves unprepared, caught by the surprise of no longer waiting. The next time you have a really long wait, you’ll probably forget that heaven is like the really long wait, but when you’re surprised at it finally being your turn, I hope you’ll smile and remember Jesus telling us heaven is like the long wait for a happy occasion.

We’re in a month of focusing on gratitude. When was the last time you were thankful for a long wait? What did you do when you found yourself waiting a really, really long time? There are several waits I meet regularly and one of the things I do while waiting is watch how others are handling the wait while paying attention to my own feelings. If I’ve been rushed, I can at first be irritated by the wait, but then relieved, grateful for a spaciousness that’s opened up, a spaciousness created by my not being in control of the situation. All I can control is how I respond in those hours or minutes or days that constitute the wait.  Waiting for medical test results, waiting for draw bridges to open, waiting for the economy to turn around, waiting for the papaya to ripen, waiting is part of our lives, not an interruption of them. How can we grow more thankful during our waiting? How might we use the spaciousness of waiting to discover something wonderful, something about which we can give thanks?

It is really hard when the wait for work has gone on so long, we’ve run through every bit of help, faced interviews and rejections, and still there is nothing for us. Yet lots of us around the globe are in this place. Yes, even me. I haven’t had regular, non-seasonal paying work in a very long time. I probably have longer to wait, alongside a great many other people, including the 2 million people in the U.S. alone, who who will run out of unemployment benefits in the next few months, and the estimated 6 million folks who will run out of those benefits in the first few months of next year. That’s a lot of neighbors in a really long wait, a lot longer of a wait than most of us were expecting or asked to be prepared for – certainly longer than the “emergency” hedge of three month’s wages in the bank, something that was only possible for people with great resources, and even they would have run through in the multiple year waits lots of folks are having for work. I am hopeful for economic change, but that, so far, hasn’t changed the fact that I am waiting, too.

What changes is the quality of how we wait. The harder things are, the more important it becomes for us to find reason to celebrate and be thankful. The harder things are, the more the strength of community is tested and really rests heavily on everyone’s shoulders. Neighbors who have work or benefits have to stretch more to stay connected with and encouraging of neighbors who don’t have work or benefits. Families and whole communities find and create new reasons to give thanks, new ways to value and appreciate and encourage one another. It is a long wait. But it could be more like heaven, if we find ways to ease the burdens upon one another and bear up together, if we share the light we have, giving thanks and making way where none seemed possible before. The wait is long, so long we will struggle, we will fall asleep to each others' needs, we will falter. The interfaith effort Faith Advocates for Jobs  is just one of many ways people are responding to the long wait, discovering and sharing ways to practice the love we’re always talking about, to practice thanksgiving in the midst of struggle and waiting, to live faithfully in a time of trial. It seems weird to call that like heaven, but that’s the word this week: Jesus says heaven is like a really, really long wait. It’s what we do during that wait that determines whether it is heaven or hell, whether we’re ready to usher in perfect love and peace past understanding.

In a few weeks, we’ll tumble into the season of Advent. It is a short season, but it is a season of waiting, a season of anticipating. We can trust and hope and believe we’re waiting for something wonderful and good, but we’re going to be subjected to a barrage of messages that says we have to hurry and beat out our neighbor, to be suspicious that we’ll miss the good, given how little time we have to wait or prepare. Advent sounds good and so does Heaven. Both are, however, waits, filled with all kinds of other feelings that have time to come up during a long wait. In Advent, we can at least count days off and light candles and use other means of focusing our attention for twenty eight days. Surely, for twenty-eight days we can stay attentive. But it is harder to stay attentive for twenty-four hours a day for twenty-eight days. I challenge you to try it, accept that when you attention wanders, it is okay, and let your attention turn back to the Small Wait of Advent, which is part of the Big Wait That Is Heaven.

How much more difficult when we do not know the day or the time, and we’re waiting. But this is heaven. Heaven is like waiting for a really long time for something wonderful to happen. How shall we be prepared? How shall we embrace the waiting that is like heaven?