This is the One

David, the Shepherd BoyScripture Passage: 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 (Lent 4A)

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.  When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

In this Lenten season, what would change about our journey if we knew where we would end up, if we thought that we might end up in a place that we didn’t plan?  And what would change about our life if we knew how it was all going to turn out?  I mean, think about it…the boy David is out in the field just minding his own business and doing what probably generations of family members before him had done.  Perhaps his mind is drifting off in daydreams as he sits there with the sheep.  Perhaps he is thinking about what his life will be, where he plans to go, what he plans to do.  He sees his brothers leave and go inside one by one, probably wandering what in the world is going on.  Finally, he is called in.  “You’re the one!”  “What do you mean I’m the one?” he probably thought.  “What in the world are you talking about?  Don’t I even get a choice?”  “Not so much.”  And so David was anointed.  “You’re the one!”

What would have happened if David has just turned and walked away?  Well, I’m pretty sure that God would have found someone else, but the road would have turned away from where it was.  It would have been a good road, a life-filled road, a road that would have gotten us where we needed to be.  But it wouldn’t have been the road that God envisioned it to be. We know how it all turned out.  David started out by playing the supposed evil out of Saul with his lyre.  He ultimately became a great king (with several bumps–OK, LOTS of bumps–along the way!) and generations later, a child was brought forth into the world, descended from David.  The child grew and became himself anointed—this time not for lyre-playing or kingship but as Messiah, as Savior, as Emmanuel, God-Incarnate.  And in turn, God then anoints the ones who are to fall in line.  “You’re the one”.

Do we even get a choice, you ask?  Sure, you get a choice.  You can close yourself off and try your best to hold on to what is really not yours anyway or you can walk forward into life as the one anointed to build the specific part of God’s Kingdom that is yours.  We are all called to different roads in different ways.  But the calling is specifically yours.  And in the midst of it, there is a choice between death and life.  Is there a choice?  Not so much!  Seeing the way to walk is not necessary about seeing where the road is going but knowing that the road is the Way.  So just keep walking and enjoy the scenery along the way! 

See, we are no different.  We are all chosen, all, on some level, anointed to this holy work.  We can ignore it.  We can cover our ears and cover our eyes and shroud ourselves with excuses and keep walking the way that we would like.  It will get us somewhere, perhaps somewhere that is good and wonderful and makes us feel good.  But what happens when God calls us from the fields and interrupts our daydreams?  What happens when God has something else in store for us?  Each of us given specific and unique gifts.  We are all called.  It’s not a goal to pursue but a calling to hear.  Our lives are the way we live into that call.  This is the one.  We are the ones.  We are the ones for which we’ve been waiting.

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.  Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.  And there are things to be considered:  Where are you living?  What are you doing?  What are your relationships? Aare you in right relation?  Where is your water? Know your garden. It is time to speak your Truth. Create your community. Be good to each other. And do not look outside yourself for the leader.  This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.  Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate.  At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.  The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!  Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.  All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. (The Elders Oraibi, Arizona Hopi Nation)

Lent is a time of holy questioning and holy listening.  Where are you living?  What are you doing?  Where is your water?  For what are you being called?  For what are you the one?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Psalm 95: A Season for Worship

Girl WorshippingPsalter:  Psalm 95 (Lent 3A)

O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!  Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!  For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.  In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.  The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.  O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!  Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.  For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways.” Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”

Sometimes I think that “worship” in our culture is defined based on how gratifying it is to us, on whether or not it is meaningful to us or leave us feeling “spiritual”.   Our worship is sort of graded based on how good the sermon is, or how wonderful the music is, or how it makes us feel.  I know I fall into that trap.  There are just certain styles of worship and worship music that do not feel “worshipful” to me.  But, really, is that what worship is?  What is the point of worship?  Worshippers in Early Judaism believed that God was actually IN the worship space that they carried with them.  And so they would approach the tabernacle with awe and joy.  They didn’t get wrapped up in worship styles or whether or not they liked the sermon.  Worship was about God, about coming into the very Presence of God with thanksgiving.  Worship was about realizing that there was more than us, that God held all of Creation in the Divine Hands and was worthy of worship.

So, when did we lose that?  When did we lose the notion that worship is not about us.  Soren Kierkegaard, when talking about worship, asked that we think about what it means to us.  Using his depiction of worship as a theater, think about your own notion of worship.  Where is the stage?  (Most would say the chancel or the altar.)  Who are the actors?  (Most would say the clergy, the choir, and perhaps the ushers and acolytes, those that “make it happen”)  Who is the audience?  (Well, of course the congregation.)  But Kierkegaard would say that the stage is the whole sanctuary, perhaps the whole world, all  of those places where worship happens.  And the actors?  Well that would be us–all of us, all of us bowing in worship.  And the audience?  The audience is God.  I love that.  I think it reminds us that we are not the center of worship.  It is not about us.

The Psalm reminds us that God is the God of all, that everything is within God’s realm, resting in God.  So we are called to make a joyful noise.  It doesn’t call for happiness.  Happiness, that self-gratifying feeling, is always a little bit elusive.  But joy–joy resides in the deepest part of our being.  It is that sense of awe and presence when we know that God is there, always there, and can do nothing else but come into God’s Presence, nothing else but worship the God of us all.  God desires our worship, not because God is selfish, not because God wants to be honored, not because we in some way owe God that; God desires our worship because God desires us, wants desperately to be with us, for us to feel and know and live in God’s Presence.  And, there, there in God’s Presence, we worship.  Our whole lives, we worship.  Every moment, every place, every piece of our being, worships. O Come, Let us Sing to the Lord!

To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.  (William Temple)

On this third Sunday of the Lenten Season, think about your own worship.  Who is the audience?  What would it mean for your worship to be solely about God and not about you? 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Unmasking

UnmaskingScripture Passage:  2 Corinthians 5: 16-21

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

So what does that mean to no longer look at others or even Christ from a human point of view?  I mean, how can we do anything different?  We ARE human.  And we are meant to be human, human as Christ was human, fully human. It means that, once again, we are called not to jump away from this world but to look at things differently, to bring this perspective of this “new creation” into not only our lives but the lives of others as well.  We have been reconciled with God through Christ, according to Paul.  The Divine presence of God has come to dwell with humanity for all.  We have been given that which will sustain us beyond what we perceive as our wants, our desires, and even our needs.

I think that most of us sort of pretend to be human.  We know what is right and good and we try but fear and our need for security seeps in when we least expect it.  So we once again don our masks so that we will look faithful and righteous.  But we read here that we are called to look at everything with a different point of view, something other than a “human” point of view.  It’s about a change in perception.  That’s what this journey does.  It changes our perspective.  Where we once believed in Jesus as the one to emulate, the one who came to bring us eternal life, we now view Christ as the Savior of the world, the one that has ushered the Kingdom of God into everything, even our humanness.  It changes not only the way we view Christ, but also the way we view the world.  We live as if the Kingdom of God is in our very midst–because it is. Our change in perception means that we unmask, that we find our real self, that self that sees Christ’s presence even now and sees all of God’s children as part of that Presence.

Andre Berthiame once said that “we all wear masks and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of own skin.”  In other words, sometimes it is hard and perhaps a little painful, but it is the way to reveal who we are called to be.  No longer do we live our lives with some faint vision of a “someday” or a “somewhere” that is out there and to which we’re trying to journey.  God’s Presence, God’s Kingdom, is here, now.  And as God’s new creation, we see that the air is thick with its presence.  And as God’s children, our very lives are so full with God’s Presence that we can do nothing else but journey with it.

In his book, “Simply Christian“, N.T. Wright contends that “Christians are those who are already living “after death,” since Christ has raised us from the grave.  We ought more properly to speak of the world to come as “life after life after death.”  This is the change in perception.  It is looking beyond, living “as if” the Kingdom of God is here in its fullness, because that is how it will be.  It means that we live open to what God is showing us rather than walking through life with our eyes masked because we already know the way.  There is a story from the tradition of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers that tells of a judge who goes into the desert looking for Abba Moses, who could provide him spiritual direction.  But he returned disappointed, complaining that the only person he met was an old man, tall and dark, wearing old clothes.  And he was told, “that was Abba Moses.”  He had been so affected by his perceptions, his view of what he should find through his human view, that he wasn’t open to all that the Kingdom held for him to learn.  That is what we are called to do on this Lenten journey–change our perceptions, unmask, begin to view our life “as if”, as if the Kingdom of God were already in our midst (because it is.)

There is no creature, regardless creature, regardless of its apparent insignificance that fails to show us something of God’s goodness. (Thomas A’Kempis)

As you journey through this Lenten season, begin to look at things differently.  Rather than limiting yourself to a human view with your pre-conceived perceptions, open yourself to what God is showing you and begin to live “as if”.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Widening Circles

"Circles in the Sand", by Pamela Silver, 2002
“Circles in the Sand”, by Pamela Silver, 2002

Scripture Passage:  John 4: 5-26 (Lent 3A)

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

In this season of Lent, we have already read several stories of journeying and movement from one place to another.  We have read of people that have all been called to something new.  Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion with the Tuesday UMW Circle on “Immigration and the Bible”.  It’s based on a book with that same name by Joan Maruskin that was published to be a 2013 UMW study.  Now, that “immigration” word is, for us, probably nothing less than a lightning bold word.  It is so politically charged nowadays that most of us shy away from it.  But the truth is, it is what the Bible is about.  The Bible is about movement.  It begins with God’s Spirit moving across the face of the earth and ends with a depiction of a city, a New Jerusalem, moving from heaven to earth.  And in between, we read stories of people continuing to be uprooted.  They move from one place to another seeking safety and sanctuary and we are continually given reminders of how we are called to welcome the stranger into our midst.  The Bible is a story of movement and a story of welcome.  And along the way, the call is not to build and prosper but to encounter each other and enter each other’s lives.

But each of us in this world works hard to preserve our perceived image of what that world should be—a world where our political views, our boundaries we have drawn, our wealth and possessions we hold, our standard of living and our understanding of who God is remain intact.  The problem is that our need to preserve ourselves usually gets in the way of our ability to connect with others, our ability to encounter the rest of God’s children.  Because if each of us is waiting for the other to respond in love first, then love will never be the response and the walls of hatred become stronger and more difficult to tear down.        

Take the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews.  Both believed in God.  Both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared tradition of belief.  But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead believed the Scriptures supported the worshipping of God on Mount Gerizim near the ancient city of Shechem.  And with that, a new line of religious understanding was formed.  The Samaritans believed that their line of priests was the legitimate one, rather than the line in Jerusalem and they accepted only the Law of Moses, The Torah, as divinely inspired, without recognizing the writings of the prophets or the books of wisdom.  These differences between the two peoples probably began as early as one thousand years before the birth of Christ and what started as a simple religious division, a different understanding of how God relates to us and we relate to God, eventually grew into a cultural and political conflict that would not go away.  The tension escalated and the hatred for the other was handed down for centuries from parent to child over and over again.

So here is this woman depicted as a stranger, an outcast, a Samaritan.  And here is Jesus breaking all of the boundaries of traditional and accepted Judaism.  First, he, unescorted, speaks to a woman.  In the Talmud, the rabbis warned that conversing with women would ultimately lead to unchastity.  In fact, Jose ben Johanan, of Jerusalem, who lived around 160 B.C., wrote, “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna (or the destination of the wicked). ”  Secondly, Jesus speaks to a woman of questionable repute.  Now, in all probability, this woman was probably just a victim of some form of Levirite marriage gone bad, where she had been handed in marriage from relative to relative as her husbands died, leaving her penniless and out of options.  And, finally, Jesus speaks to the so-called “enemy”.  The truth is, there is nothing about this woman that is wrong or sinful or anything else that we try to tack on her reputation.  The woman was just different.  Her life had been difficult.  She lived in darkness.  And the most astonishing thing is that this seemingly low-class Samaritan woman who is not even given a name in our Scriptures becomes the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Because, you’ll notice, Jesus did not just ask her for a drink.  He engaged her in conversation about spiritual matters.  Once again, the Gospel is found not in Jerusalem and not on Mt. Gerizim but in our shared existence as part of this “new humanity”.  The Gospel is found in our encounter with each other.  Here, too, Jesus enters a new phase of his ministry.  Up until this point, Jesus’ encounters have been pretty ethno-centric.  But, here, the Gospel begins to spread to other ethnicities and other peoples.  It begins to include an encounter with the world.

For most of us, our problem is that we are always waiting for someone else to make the first move toward acceptance and reconciliation.  But Jesus did not wait.  Jesus stepped into encounter.  That is what we are called to do.  We are called to go forward on an unpaved road to meet the other. We are called to somehow reach through our prejudice and even our fears and take each other’s hand.  We are called to cross boundaries, rather than constructing them.  We are called to reach through our differences and find our common, shared humanity, all children of God, all made in the image of God.  That is the way that peace is found—one hand at a time.  And that is the way that we encounter Jesus Christ.

Putting this study of “Immigration and the Bible” together, I began to see a new pattern emerge in the Scriptures—well, new for me as I read the Scriptures through a different lens.  The Biblical story is a story of God calling us to go forth and our drawing borders, walling ourselves off, protecting who we are and what we have.  God calls us to go and we draw borders.  God calls us to go and we construct gates.  God calls us to go and we build walls.  But we are called to encounter the stranger.  It is more than being welcoming.  It is more than letting them into our carefully-constructed lives.  It means entering their life and completely opening ours to them.  It means that they become us and we become them.  It means that we encounter each other.

We are in the middle of this season of Lent.  It IS the season of wandering, the season of the wilderness journey.  We always begin Lent with Jesus going into the wilderness, leaving what he knows, leaving the comforts of home.  And I think that part of the reason for that, is that we are called to be wanderers, aliens, and sojourners.  We do not stand in one place waiting for others to come to us.  The Christian journey is always moving us toward something, so we go the way that God calls us to go and along the way, we gather the children of God.  We encounter each other. As Jesus once said, “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.”  In other words, go and encounter each other because that is how you encounter Christ.

I live my life in ever-widening circles that reach out across the world.  I may not complete this last one but I give myself it it. I circle around God, around the primordial tower.  I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know:  am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song? (Rainer Maria Rilke)

We are more than one-third through our Lenten journey.  At this point, where are you circles drawn?  Which ones need to be widened?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Deep Waters

Diving into watersScripture Passage:  Ephesians 3: 18-19

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

What does it mean to “go deep”?  (No, I’m not talking about a football pass.)  Depth is a hard thing for many of us to master.  Depth takes time.  Depth takes patience.  Depth is allowing oneself to essentially go beyond where one is comfortable standing.  So many in our culture tend to be content to sort of skirt along the shallow surface, always in a hurry, always trying to move forward, never standing long enough to be able to sink into the depths that call us forth.  Standing in shallow waters feels safe, controlled.  But going deeper gives one insights into newness.  It is a return to the place from which we came.

Think about the earth.  Its surface is beautiful, more beautiful than any of us can even articulate.  But beneath that beauty is oh, so much more.  Just dig into the earth a bit.  That hard sun-bleached dirt on top gives way to that first level of top soil.  It is darker, more full of nutrients.  But dig a little deeper.  Dig into the rich dark earth that rests below that, capable of holding what is good longer, capable of holding water long past any drought.  It’s the reason that deep watering systems are so optimal.  The slow watering drives the water down deep into that rich soil underneath that is capable of holding the water.  And the slow watering encourages the roots of the plants to go deeper, to rich down beyond themselves, beyond what they were initially capable of doing, to be watered continuously by the deep, dark earth.  But there is more beneath that.  Beneath all that dirt are layers upon layers from which we have learned to extract nutrients and fossil fuels that give us energy and much, much more than what we could ever obtain from the surface that we see.

Our life is no different.  What we see is beautiful but it’s just the surface.  We need to go deeper, to delve into the rich, dark earth that brings us life.  I have to admit that our religious traditions often do not encourage us to do that.  There seems to be some level of contentment at just skirting along the surface of the meaning of faith.  Maybe it’s because it’s easier.  Maybe it’s because it’s safer. Maybe it’s because deep down (pun intended), we’re all a little afraid of the unknown or the questionable or the difficulties that deep discussion brings about.  Maybe we’re afraid we’ll be left with more questions than answers.  (ACTUALLY, I can tell you that will probably be the case.)  And I don’t really think that we should shy away from going deeper for fear that those new to the tradition will not “understand”.  I think we all want to be challenged.  We want to learn.  We want to traverse the never-ending nuances that make up our faith, the pathways that lead us to God.  But it takes time.  It is not a really good sermon or an overnight retreat project or a short-term study series or even 36 weeks of Disciple I.  It is rather a lifetime of swimming downward into the deep waters of one’s soul.  There is no bottom but rather an infinite depth that we are called to traverse, growing as we go.

The Lenten season is by its very nature one of descent.  It is one of going deep, journeying deep within oneself to a place that is often successfully hidden from view.  It is the way of transformation, a search beyond what we know.  When I was little, I think I had this image of God high above me, looking down.  I assumed that I was supposed to rise above where I was.  I have now realized that I must go deep.  God has in all of us a deep well of living water.  We are called not to just perch on its edge and look down into it, but to plunge deep, immersing ourselves in the questions of faith.  Our finite minds cannot truly wrap themselves around the unfathomable depths of God’s love.  So we have to live it, breathe it, become it.

Every question in life is an invitation to live with a touch more depth, a breath more meaning. (Joan Chittister)

On this Lenten journey, think of those places where you are just skirting the surface of life.  Do not hold back.  Go deep, dive into the deep waters of God. 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

The Downside of Having Skin

Suffering and TearsScripture Passage:  Romans 5: 1-11 (Lent 3A)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

This is one of the hardest Scriptures for us (or at least the part of “us” that is “me”).  What do you mean suffering results in hope?  That can’t be right.  I mean, suffering=bad, hope=good.  Isn’t that how it works?  But suffering is a part of life.  It doesn’t mean that you did something wrong.  It certainly doesn’t mean that God is sitting off somewhere doling out suffering like it’s some sort of giant card game.  And, please, DO NOT tell me that God would never give me more than I can handle. (aaaggghhh!)  What are we all supposed to get some sort of ration of suffering?  No, that’s not the way it happens at all.  Suffering just happens.  It happens because it is part of life.  We do not live as mechanical robots.  Suffering is part of the richness and profundity of life.  Maybe it’s the downside of having skin, of being created, of being real.  We all have needs.  Sometimes life is just too much.  (And sometimes it’s not enough.)  But will all suffer.  And where is God?  There…there in the midst of the suffering.  Suffering reveals the heart of God.

More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, Poland.  I expected to be appalled; I expected to be moved; I expected to be saddened at what I would fine.  I did not expect to become so personally or spiritually involved.  As you walk through the concentration camp, you encounter those things that belonged to the prisoners and victims that were unearthed when the camp was captured–suitcases, eye glasses, books, clothes, artifical limbs, and shoes–lots and lots and lots and lots of shoes–mountains of humanity, all piled up in randomness and namelessness and despair.  This is the epitome of suffering.  This is humanity at its worst.  This is humanity making unthinkable decisions about one another based on the need to be in control, based on the need to be proved right or worthy or acceptable at the expense of others’ lives, based on the assumption that one human is better or more deserving than another.

And yet, God CHOSE to be human.  God CHOSE to put on skin, temporarily separating the Godself from the Holy Ground that is always a part of us, and enter our vulnerability.  God willingly CHOSE to become vulnerable and subject to humanity at its worst.  God CHOSE the downside of having skin.  But God did this because beneath us all is Holy Ground.  God came to this earth and put on skin and walked this earth that we might learn to let go, take off our shoes, and feel the Holy Ground beneath our feet.  God CHOSE to be human not so we would learn to be Divine (after all, that is God’s department) but so that we would learn what it means to take off our shoes and feel the earth, feel the sand, feel the rock, feel the Divine Creation that is always with us and know that part of being human is knowing the Divine.  Part of being human is being able to feel the earth move precariously beneath your feet, to be vulnerable, to be tangible, to be real, to take on flesh, to put on skin, to be incarnate.  Part of being human is making God come alive.

Suffering exists.  It always exists.  Right now, there is a plane somewhere in the Indian Ocean that appears to have just dropped out of the sky, leaving myriads of friends and relatives who do not dare to grieve or celebrate.  There are Ukranian families and children that are living in fear for their safety and for what their world will become.  There are people in Africa who do not know from where their next meal come.  Maybe we could stand a little reframing from Paul too.  For us, suffering is a failure; within the vision of God, suffering holds hope for newness.  Because in the midst of suffering, just like in the midst of everything else, we find God.  God walks with us through it, loving us and holding us, perhaps even revealing a way out of it, if we would only listen, and gives us a glimpse of what is to come.  The suffering of the world reveals the heart of God, reveals the holiness that is, if we will only look.  It doesn’t explain it; it doesn’t make it easier; it just reminds us that it is not the final chapter.  Maybe it’s the downside of having skin, which means that you are human, a child of God, made in the image of God, with so much more ahead.

In this season of Lent, we once again walk toward the Cross, with the drums of discord, still this moment far in the distance, growing louder with each step.  This season lasts for forty days.  But those forty days do not include the Sundays of Lent.  Known as “little Easters”, they are opportunities to glimpse and celebrate the Resurrection even in the midst of darkness.  They are reminders that even in this season of Christ’s Passion and Death, their is always a light on the horizon.  Resurrection always comes.  But it’s not a fix; it’s not a reward for the most powerful; it’s what happens when God’s love is poured into our hearts.

Look back from where we have come.  The path was at times an open road of joy.  At others a steep and bitter track of stones and pain.  How could we know the joy without the suffering?  And how could we endure the suffering but that we are warmed and carried on the breast of God? (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

On this Lenten journey, do not avoid the hard times, but live them, embrace them, make them yours.  And find in them hope for the journey.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

To Thirst

ThirstyScripture Passage:  Exodus 17: 1-7 (Lent 3A)

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Life in the wilderness is, obviously, precarious.  They have put their trust in God and in Moses and here they are in the middle of the desert, the hot sun beating down upon them.  There is no water anywhere.  It seems to many that God has all but deserted them.  They had done exactly what they were told and now they thought they would surely die in the desert.  And poor Moses.  All he can do is listen to the complaining that is directed right at him.  But what could he do?  He can’t make water.  He probably wishes that he could just run away.  After all, whose idea was it to make him the leader anyway?

This is not some sort of metaphorical thirst.  They were thirsty; there was no water.  Thirst is perhaps the deepest of human physical needs.  What does it mean to thirst for the things you need the most?  It’s hard for us in the Western part of the globe to even imagine.  (As I write this, I actually got thirsty and went and filled a glass with ice and filtered water out of the refrigerator door.)  And yet, 780 million people lack access to clean and healthy water.  That’s about 1 in 9 people in the world or about 2 1/2 times the population of the United States.  Lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every four hours.  And, amazingly, an American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses for an entire day.  Thirst is real.

But for those of us who are filling up our recycle bins with plastic water bottles, what does this mean for us?  For what do we thirst?  Again, don’t think of it as metaphorical.  It is real.  Maybe it’s not physical, but it’s real. For what do you thirst?  For security?  For a life of ease and plenty?  For things to just make a little more sense?  Do you thirst for life as you’ve planned it?  Do you thirst for righteousness?  For justice? For peace?  For meaning?  How many of us simply thirst to be alive, truly alive, in the deepest depth of our being?  Being alive is thirsting for God, thirsting for the one who can walk us through grief and shadows and even death and give us life.  It means that we thirst for the one who thirsts for us.  Thirsting is the thing that makes us real.

Dag Hammarskjold wrote in his journal the words, “I am the vessel, the draught is God’s.  And God is the thirsty one.”  God is thirsty.  God’s love for each of us is so deep, so intense, so desiring our response that it can only be characterized as a thirst. God, parched and dry, thirsts for our thirst.  So, is the Lord among us or not?  God knows everything about you.  The very hairs of your head are numbered.  Nothing in your life is unimportant to God.  God has always been with you, always loved you, and always yearned for you to come into the awareness of God’s Presence in your life for which we strive, that sense of needing something more in the deepest part of you, so much that it leaves you parched without it.  And, ironically, it means letting go of the need to quench your thirst.  Because it is thirst for God that this journey is about.  Ironically, we are not questing to quench it but to live it, to open ourselves to the waters that hold God’s creative Spirit.  To thirst is to be.  To thirst is to know in the deepest part of our being that we need God.  To thirst is to be alive.

I thirst for you.  Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe my love for you:  I thirst for you.  I thirst to love and be loved by you—that is how precious you are to me.  I thirst for you.  Come to me, and fill your heart and heal your wounds…Open to me, come to me, thirst for me, give me your life—and I will prove to you how important you are to my heart.  Do you find this hard to believe?  Then look at the cross, look at my heart that was pierced for you…Then listen again to the words I spoke there—for they tell you clearly why I endured all this for you:  I thirst.  Come to me with your misery and your sins, with your trouble and needs, and with all your longing to be loved.  I stand at the door of your heart and knock.  Open to me, for I thirst for you. (Mother Teresa of Calcutta)

Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  I thirst.

On this Lenten journey, I pray that you thirst.  I pray that you experience the deepest and most profound human need that you’ve ever experienced.  I pray that you will know what it means to thirst for God.  Because that is where you will most fully encounter God.  But while we fill our recycling bins with plastic water bottles and quench our thirst with filtered waters from refrigerator doors, I implore you to be a part of projects to bring clean and sustainable water to areas of the world that do not have what we have, to those that truly experience physical thirst.  There are many.  If you feel so inclined, I would encourage you to visit the website for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (Advance # 3021026 is improving accessibility to clean water in Ghana.)  Do what you can where you can. 

To donate through UMCOR for this project, click here (For United Methodists, fill your church in so that they get credit!)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli