An Ambiguous Journey

AmbiguityScripture Text:  Genesis 2: 15-17

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Well, you know the rest of the story.  The first couple ate from the forbidden tree (which, most artistic renditions notwithstanding, was not depicted as an apple tree) and the ambiguous journey began.  Life is full of ambiguities; faith is full of ambiguities; and this season of Lent is fraught with ambiguity.  We begin the season in the desert wilderness where Jesus, the fully human one, the one who we so try to emulate in every way is tempted.  Jesus, tempted?  Are you kidding me?  Then the ministry begins as he gathers this sort of wild and motley crew of followers who seem to be somewhat confused and completely inexperienced.  They then spend a couple of years hanging around this lake in the region of Galilee essentially trying to get people to wake up and look at themselves and their lives and in the process, they continually antagonize the religious establishment.  This would be the religious establishment of Jesus’ own religion, the one into which he was born.  And then after years of ministry, the scene moves to Jerusalem, to the holy city, the place of the Temple.  And there, there Jesus is tried, convicted, and put to death.  Ambiguity doesn’t begin to describe it.  The journey we take is not a straight and pre-paved pathway.  It is fraught with questions and the perils of ambiguity that challenge us and call us to go deeper into the journey and, at the same time, to go deeper into ourselves.

But Ray Anderson says that “spirituality is the ability to live with ambiguity.”  In other words, perhaps it’s MEANT to be this way.  It is part of our faith journey.  It is the way that we wind our way to God.  Because, think about it, what if the story was different?  What if the first couple had not eaten of the forbidden tree and had instead spent their lives living in some sort of utopian paradise we affectionately call “The Garden”?  Sure, they would have been good children and all but they never would have grown.  They never would have grown to understand God not as a rule-maker but as one who calls us forth into life, ambiguous though it may be.  And if Jesus had not been tempted?  Well, what good would that do us?  We would never even understand the perils that humanity faces.  And what if the disciples had been a group of impeccably well-trained rabbinical seminary professors who had no need to massage their own needs and egos? (No comment.)  And what if the religious establishment had just accepted Jesus and his new way of seeing and the Passion would never have transpired and Jesus had died of old age sometime in his late 40’s.  What if the journey were straight and predictable?  Well, we wouldn’t need faith.  We wouldn’t need to grow.  We would be wonderful little rule-followers with no need for spirituality. Hey, we probably never really would have gotten out of the garden.  And think what we would have missed!  Maybe this is a good lesson to remember in this strange time in which our society and our politics seems to have landed.  Maybe the ambiguities should prompt us to journey, to question, to change.

Lent (and life) is indeed ambiguous.  There is wilderness and city, darkness and light, temptation and grace, repentance and forgiveness, anointing and betrayal, dust and wine, death and life.  Maybe Lent is an ambiguous journey to teach us how to live, to teach us how to traverse the ambiguities that are part of our faith journey.  Ambiguity is not bad.  So many of us try to rid ourselves of it, try to “nail down” what life and what God means.  Is that really what you want, a God that you can explain, can “nail down”?  Do you really want a God that holds no mystery, no wonder, no awe?  And what would you do if everything about this God was explained and understood?  What if you DID have God all figured out?  Where would you be then?  You would miss this ambiguous journey, a journey of searching and questing, of broadening and growth, of corners and turns around which you will always find life anew.  You would have no need for faith, no need for spirituality.  You would have no need for God to lead you through this ambiguous journey.

Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it.(Ann Bedford Ulanov)

On this ambiguous journey, think of those things that you have found anew.  Think of the life that they give.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Psalm 23: A Season of Shadows

ShadowsPsalter for Today:  Psalm 23 (Lent 4A) (KJV) 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

(Yes, I used KJV because, according to my Grandmother, you cannot read Psalm 23 in any other version…)

Lent is a season of shadows.  During this time we walk through the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of death, and, even, the shadow of our former selves.  Maybe that’s the point of Lent–to wrestle us away from our comfortable, perfectly-manicured lives, from all those things that we plan and perceive, from all those things that we hide and, finally, teach us to traverse the nuances that the journey holds.  And yet, think about it.  What exactly creates shadows?  The answer is light.  Light must be behind the shadowed object.  So, the shadow of the Cross, the shadow of death, even the shadow of our former selves cannot be without the Light.

This season of Lent is one that by its very nature is a journey through wilderness, through loss and despair and doubt and not really knowing what comes next. It is a journey through a place where all of a sudden God is not as God should be. No longer is God a freshly cleaned-up deity handing out three cotton candy wishes to faithful followers. In the wilderness, we find God in the trenches and in the silence of our lives. Or maybe it is that that is the place that we finally notice God at all. When our lives are emptied out, when our needs and our deepest emotions are exposed, is the time that a lot of us realize that God was there all along. Maybe Lent is way of getting to the depths of ourselves, the place where in our search for God, we find our faith in God, and there in the silence we find our hope.

In her book, When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor tells “a story from the Sufi tradition about a man who cried, “Allah! Allah!” until his lips became sweet with the sound. A skeptic who heard him said, “Well! I have heard you calling out but where is the answer to your prayer? Have you ever gotten a response?” The man had no answer to that. Sadly, he abandoned his prayers and went to sleep. In his dreams, he saw his soul guide, walking toward him through a garden. “Why did you stop praising?” the saint asked him. “Because I never heard anything back,” the man said. “This longing you voice IS the return message,” the guide told him. The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those people that think that God sends us suffering or heartache or grief to make us stronger or to test our faith or just to prove something. I don’t think I’d have a lot of respect for a God that has so little compassion for those who love God so much. God is always there, listening and guiding, and wanting us to get a sense of the holy and the sacred to which we’ve been called. But the point is that those times when life is not that great, when we struggle in the very depths of our being, are the times when God reaches through our waiting and our struggles and we can finally hear the silence that is God. We experience the biggest part of God when our need is the greatest.

Now I know that this Psalm brings about different thoughts and memories for each of us—some wonderful, some painful, some bittersweet. It’s probably one of those few passages that you can actually recite all the way through. It goes beyond the words, beyond the rhythm, beyond the hearing. It is truly beloved. It is a glimpse of the holy and the sacred.

My own standout experience with it happened several years ago. I was in seminary with little or no worship experience. I went to the funeral of one of my great aunts. And then, after the perfunctory family lunch (with our rather large family) and the funeral, we began to make our way to the cemetery for the burial. It was just a short drive. As we arrived, one of the ministers came up to me and asked me if I would like to read the Scripture at the graveside. Well, I have to tell you, when you’re in seminary, have little or no worship experience, and must now do this in front of your entire rather large family, many of whom are thinking it’s odd or wrong or at the very least just sort of cute that this woman is going to seminary to become a pastor, it’s a little overwhelming. I opened the funeral handbook (yes, there’s a funeral handbook! Perhaps we’re not as smart as you think!). And there, there it was…this wonderful Psalm. I would read that. But I did not choose it because I had opened to it; I did not choose it because it was familiar to me and I knew that there weren’t any hard words. I chose it because I knew that my grandmother, though nearly deaf, could hear it.  As I began to read, there was a stillness that settled over the crowd. The Spring wind that had been blowing all day stopped and all I heard was the faint sound of some wind chimes near the cemetery entrance. And I heard my voice but it didn’t sound like it was coming from me. As we got into the car to go, my grandmother whispered to me, “I heard you.” Don’t think it was a miracle; she didn’t hear a word I said. But it was part of her.   She had repeated it for 92 or 93 years at that point. She no longer needed to listen to the words. She could hear them anyway.

Several years later, I stood in another cemetery beside my grandmother’s casket, reading these words again.  This time I had graduated from seminary and had a little experience in worship. But don’t get me wrong…there was also my entire rather large family, many of whom are thinking it’s odd or wrong or at the very least just sort of cute that this woman has become a pastor. At the cemetery, I read the Scripture. I chose the same Psalm, not because my grandmother could hear it, but because I could.  (I will say that my grandmother always insisted that this Psalm could ONLY be read in the King James Version, so let that be a lesson too!)

Life is filled with shadows, places that you did not plan to go, places that scare you and challenge you, places that are filled with pain.  But God did not call us to walk through blinding Light.  God called us to learn to see.  Maybe the shadows help us do that.  Maybe the shadows are the reason we see the Light.

Blessed are the ears which hear God’s whisper and listen not to the murmurs of the world. (Thomas A’Kempis)

On this fourth Sunday of the Lenten season, look into the shadows.  Live with them.  Let them lead you to the Light.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

 

 

 

 


So I Wait

Waiting on the journeyScripture Passage:  James 5: 7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Patience…probably not my strong suit!  And isn’t waiting something that we talk about in Advent?  I thought Lent was supposed to be a journey, a time forward.  But journeys also include standing still, contemplating, thinking, perhaps waiting on change (or at least the traffic to clear).  You see, most of us probably not only want to know where we’re going but we also want to get there fast.  Waiting is not part of our make-up.  We’re programmed to keep moving, to keep increasing, even though some of the steps may be painful.  We’d rather traverse the jaggedness of the path than stand and wait for something that we do not control.   It’s as if when we keep moving, we think we have some control, a sense that we are somehow responsible for changing things.

So I wait.

The Scripture talks about the farmer waiting for the crop. We probably understand that better than in most years.  These past months have been utter chaos.  All of my plants froze and then were hit by a [literal] tornado.  I’m still wondering if some of my plants will come back from the pain.  I’ve done what I can.  Now I just wait.  It’s hard.  I like to know what direction things are moving.  But I wait.

So I wait.

Standing still–our lives don’t really encourage that–exposed, out of control, just waiting.  Maybe this vulnerability reminds us of our place or, more importantly, makes us appreciate the journey.  Part of this season and part of life is indeed about standing still (and sometimes even taking a step back).  A journey is seldom completed with constant motion.  We are just not made for that. (You can look up that seventh day concept when you have time!  You know…on the seventh day…) Sometimes we are meant to move; sometimes we are meant to stand still and savor what God has shown us.  And sometimes we are just supposed to walk through the waiting, as painful as it might be.  Behold!  There is the cross.  There you are.  And if you stand still long enough, you will be able to see where you are headed.  We are not called to walk blindly into the unknown, never looking, never questioning, never contemplating where we are or where we’re going or where we’ve been; we are called to journey toward that which God has illumined in our lives.

So I wait.

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.  (Joseph Campbell)

By my count, this is the 21st day of the season (remember, not counting Sundays!).  We are halfway through.  Stop.  Wait.  From where have you come?  What have you learned about the journey that you can take forward?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

YOU Are 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 (since remember he had no smart phone or other gaming device!).  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, self-built mountains, really–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?  What happens when God gives us a pathway that we did not expect to follow? 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

At the Edge of the Rainbow

The Clifs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

Scripture Passage:  Luke 3:21-22a

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

What does it mean for the heavens to open, to somehow, whether literally or figuratively, come pouring into the earth?  When you read that, it’s a little hard to go back to the notion of the separation of the secular and the sacred.  No longer is God or whatever you think of heaven “out there”.  In some incredible, wonderful way, the Holy and the Sacred has poured into where we are.  All is sacred.

On this day when all who are Irish and all who become Irish for this day celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, I thought we’d go back and visit his roots a little bit.  As his story goes, he was born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain in the late 4th century.  Captured by Irish raiders when he was sixteen, he lived as a slave in Ireland for six years before escaping.  He would later return to Ireland as a missionary until his death in 460 or 461 and by the 8th century would become the land’s patron saint.  St. Patrick is, of course, associated with what we describe as Celtic Christianity.  This is a branch of Christianity that was unique to these Irish people during the Early Middle Ages.  The Celtic Christians unapologetically embraced their Celtic and Druid roots and articulated them through their new Christian lenses, even making some of their Druid gods and goddesses Christian saints.  We’re not completely sure how these Christians even got to Ireland but they were firmly established there by the 2nd century.  One view is that the Galatian Christians to whom Paul wrote (the Galts) were part of those who then migrated to what is now Wales, Ireland, and Scotland after the Roman invasion and occupation. (How cool and connected would THAT be?)

Celtic Christianity always has had a sense of pilgrimage, of journeying.  They were always, as Deborah Cronin describes it, “a bit on the edge”.  I think that would describe their physical location as well as their religious belief system.  But I also think it is where they are spiritually.  You see, the Celtic understanding is that all things are sacred.  Just as the Scripture implies, they had this strong sense that the spiritual world does indeed spill into the material world.  They embrace the image as a “thin place”, a place and time where time matters not and the spirit world is very close, a place where one can almost feel it, almost reach out and touch what is holy and sacred.  Rock bridgeThese thin places, thresholds between what is and what will be, are crossing places between the world and the Divine.  They are embraced as places of growth, as places through which we journey from one place to another, one way of seeing to another, one way of being to another.  So what we think of as ordinary places become sacred and holy as the sacred spills through them onto us.  Bridges, gateways, and causeways reconnect what is divided and make them accessible to each other.   Burial grounds mark the crossing place from life to death, from “this world” to an “other world”, from time and space to eternity and infinity.  And the rainbow?  If you remember, the ninth chapter of Genesis says that God set a bow in the clouds, a sign of the connection, the covenant, between God and the earth.

Burial site of Owen Shannon (1762-1839), Old Methodist Cemetery, Montgomery, TX (my great-great-great-great grandfather)

It is a symbol of the promise that the Sacred and the Holy is not inaccessible or removed from us but has spilled into the earth.  Never again can we become separated or isolated; never again can we close ourselves off and not move forward.

And for us?  We are always standing at the edge of the rainbow, the edge of the Sacred and the Holy.  God is in our midst and everything is Sacred.  The mundane and the ordinary is marked by God’s fingerprints and have become extraordinary.  This Lenten season is a journey of transformation.  We are moving from one way of being to another, from that mountaintop to Jerusalem, from life to death and life beyond.  And along the way are thresholds that we traverse.  We are always at the edge of the rainbow.  We just have to open ourselves to the sacredness that everything holds.  God is in our midst. Heaven has opened and has spilled into the earth.  Everywhere we walk is holy ground.

God rejoiced to see [God’s] Dream reborn.  [God] desired to mark this moment eternally, as a sign to all creation that hope is more real and permanent than despair.  [God] shone [this] perfect , invisible light–the light of joy–through all the tears that would ever flow out of human grief and suffering.  That invisible light was broken down, through our tears, into all the colours of the rainbow.  And God stretched the rainbow across the heavens, so that we might never forget the promise that holds all creation in being.  This is the promise that life and joy are the permanent reality, like the blue of the sky, and that all the roadblocks we encounter are like the clouds–black and threatening perhaps, but never the final word.  Because the final word is always “Yes”!  (Margaret Silf, in Sacred Spaces:  Stations on a Celtic Way)

On this Lenten journey, look around. What holiness do you see?  Where do you see God in your midst?  What thresholds are you crossing in your life?  

Rath De ‘ort (Gaelic, pronounced Rah Day urt, “The Grace of God on you.”)

Shelli

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

                                                                                                                  

Widening Circles

"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.  Several years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion with the a UMW group 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 (that’s United Methodist Women for you non-Methodists!).  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). ”  (Wow! That sounds pretty serious!) 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 had no way out of it.  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 and not even in whatever faith community you call “yours”, 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 almost one-third of the way 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.  We seem to be more worried that the church service might run a little long.  So 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