Coming Alive in the Wilderness

embrace_lifeScripture Text: Hebrews 5: 5-10

 

5So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” 7In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

 

Second century bishop and saint Iranaeus of Lyons once said that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive.” What does that mean, to be “fully alive”? I don’t think that it means, as we might jump to conclude, reaching some sort of pinnacle of humanity, you know the “be all you can be” phenomenon. It is not in any way hierarchical. It doesn’t mean that one is better or worse or less alive than another. Being fully alive is rather embracing all that we are, all that God envisions us to be. It does not mean being superhuman; it means being fully human; it means being the very image of God such that was perfected in Jesus Christ.

 

So who is this Melchizedek character? He crops up in the Bible a couple of times at best—in Genesis (Gen. 14:18) as Abraham is called by God and then again in Psalm 110 and then here. His name means “King of Righteousness” or “King of Peace” in some places. Remember that Abraham had been called by God and was promised that he would become the father of many nations. But that hadn’t happened and Abraham was feeling the pressure of it all. So at this lowest, darkest point, in the middle of the wilderness, so to speak, enter Melchizedek, a somewhat shadowy character that drifts in and drifts out, almost not even worth a speaking part in this whole drama of the life. But he offers Abraham blessing, and food, and wine. He just comes. He just shows up. (See, this is all sounding vaguely familiar.)

 

So enter Jesus Christ, a high priest according the order of Melchizedek. It’s not hierarchical; it’s an ordering of life. And we are baptized into that same order. It is not a designation that comes with power or with tenure or with honor.  We are not “set apart” away from the world or away from life. We are baptized into the order of life, this great continual ordering of God. Our lives will be filled with love. They will also endure suffering. We will walk through feasts and famines. We will traverse mountains of light and dark valleys. And we will journey through the familiarity and comforts of home and places of deep wilderness. Living the depth and breadth of our lives makes us fully alive, makes us real. But, into our high points and our low points, a somewhat shadowy character drifts in and out, offers us blessing, and food, and wine. God just comes. Over and over and over again, God comes. God just shows up. Perhaps being fully alive is knowing that you are loved, not that you have to earn that love or gain that love or do something specific for that love. Love just comes. Being fully alive is knowing in the deepest part of your being how much you are loved, so loved that it literally spills out of your being into the world.

 

Lent is an invitation to become fully alive, to immerse ourselves into life, to finally allow ourselves to feel pain and emptiness, to feel the Cross, so that we can grasp the untold Joy of Resurrection. Lent is an invitation to become real, to know Love, to know Love in the deepest part of who we are. Maybe Love that is found in the wilderness makes us fully alive. Maybe Love that comes when we need it the most, when our lives are emptied out, when we are surrounded by darkness, when we can do nothing to earn love, is the Love that we finally need to know.

 

Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of Creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 95-96)

 

FOR TODAY: Be fully alive! Know how much you are loved, loved enough that God is with you always, waiting in Love. Imagine that love spilling into the world.

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Can You Feel The Love Tonight?

last supperToday’s Lectionary Passage:  John 31: 1-17, 31b-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Can you feel the love tonight?  Can you feel something beyond where you were?  It’s a hard night.  We know what is coming tomorrow.  We have read the story over and over again–the story of loss and betrayal, of the disciples sleeping, of Jesus’ surrender, of Jesus being dragged off to the house of Caiaphas on this very night.  We have over and over and over experienced regret and bewilderment and grief.  But, do we ever remember the love of this night?  They came together for a passover dinner.  I always thought that they were alone, gathered in some sort of stuffy upstairs room with Leonardo da Vinci standing on the side painting the scene for posterity.  But then I saw, even if it was a “traditional understanding” of the place, the Upper Room.  It was big, bigger than I had ever imagined.  What dawned on me was that this was Passover, the community gathering.  Jesus wasn’t just there crammed into some sort of painting with the disciples; he was there with the community, sharing life and and community and food.  But at some point, he sat down with his closest friends and it became intimate.  It become a dinner of love on that last night.  They shared food; they shared wine; and Jesus washed their feet.  Jesus showed them what intimacy and love for another human really meant–that one would become vulnerable, would do for another what perhaps was not the most comfortable thing to do.  Love became not a caring or a sharing but an entering, an entering into the life of another.

This foot washing thing is hard.  It is way too intimate for us westerners.  After all, we are pretty private, seemingly reserved; we honor each other’s imaginary space.  But once a year, St. Paul’s does this at the mid-day Maundy Thursday service.  It’s a small service, intimate really.  I remember the first year we did it.  We were retiscent, hesitant to trust that people would come through.  So, admittedly,  we had a couple of “ringers”.  Well, the ringers came and then the rest did.  I sat there on the floor moved by something that I had never experienced.  I was touching people’s feet.  They had removed their shoes at the pew and had walked barefoot to the seat where we had the plastic tub in which water would be poured over their feet.  It was incredible.

And then Caroline came.  Caroline–in her full Nigerian dress and her permanent posture of prayer.  She came and she sat and she placed her foot in the water.  I picked up her foot.  Caroline and her family were part of the Nigerian freedom movement.  She had come from the tribes and had wanted more.  She had worked hard, always putting aside her own desires for what she thought was important–others and God.   I looked at this older woman’s foot in my hands, deep with lines of life and passion, and I had tears my eyes.  I was holding life.  I was not holding someone’s foot.  I was holding their life.  I was affirming them, praying for them, washing away for them all the things that got in the way of what they so treasured.  As I was gingerly washing Caroline’s foot, she looked up into the ceiling and she began to pray.  They were words that I did not understand and composed a prayer that I understood completely.  It was incredible.  It was love at its deepest level–love for Christ, love for humanity, love for each other, love for God and all that we have together.  Caroline died a few years ago.  She left the most incredible love.  At her memorial service, I remembered that day.  I remembered that day that  was filled with love, that was filled with the Presence of Christ on that night.

You see, love is a funny thing.  It is not perfect.  Jesus knew that on that night.  He and the disciples did not sing “Kum-ba-yah” and then leave.  In Jesus’ life, love meant rejection and exile, frustration and misunderstanding, Presence and turning, welcome and redemption.  This very night, Love would be apathy and betrayal, surrender and pardon.  But, in this moment, love was a bunch of friends who had a dinner together and had their feet washed–feet filled with lines of life and passion.  Jesus washed their feet and held their life.  That’s all love is about.  Love is Life.  Love brings us together in a way that does not subdue us into one but embraces who we are.  Love takes all that we are and creates Love.  Nothing else can create itself.

Ruins of Caiaphas' House, Jerusalem, Israel, 2010
Ruins of Caiaphas’ House, Jerusalem, Israel, 2010

On this night, we take all that we are, sinners and saints, kings and vagabonds, the betrayer and the beloved, the anointed and the one who anoints, the nay-sayers and the ones who miss the signs of the sacred,  the pharisee and the rule-breaker, the faith-filled and the doubter, Caroline and me–we are all here, gathered together showered in the most incredible love imagineable.  Can you feel the love tonight?

Tomorrow we will kneel at the cross.  But, tonight, in this moment, can you feel the love?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Station IV: In the Silence of Grief

Scripture Passage: Luke 2: 7
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The hurt in Mary’s eyes is evident.  This is her son.  This was the child that she carried in the womb, birthed into the world in the rough hues of that cold desert night shielded only by a stable, or a cave, or a grotto, or something of the like.  This was the child that she nurtured and saw grow into a young man.  This was the child that she never understood, the one who seemed to choose his own path, the one who even at a young age always seemed to have some sort of incredible innate wisdom.  This was the child that would rather sit at the feet of the rabbis, would rather soak in all of the eons of lessons, than play like the other children.  This was the young man that had made her so proud, full of compassion and empathy, always thinking of others, always standing up for the poor and the outcast.  This was the young man who had more courage than she had ever seen.  Where did he get that?  She remembers that night long ago in Bethlehem.  They almost didn’t get there in time.  They almost didn’t have a place.  But there he was.  Even the first time that she looked into his eyes, she knew.  This child was different.  Born of her and, yet, not really ever hers.  He always seemed to belong to something bigger.  But she could pretend.  She could think that he was hers.  And she could love him more than life itself.  And now, today, the pain is almost to great to bear.  It looked like this was it.  Was it all for naught?  After all, she herself had given up so much.  What meaning did it have?  Why was it ending so soon?  It couldn’t be time to give him back–not yet.

This station is another one that is considered “non-canonical”.  But we know that Mary was there.  Love would put her there.  Love would make her want to pick him up and hold him, cradle him like she did that cold Bethlehem night.  The station is marked with a relief carved in stone.  The church next to it still has the mosaic floor from an earlier Byzantine church that stood on the premises.  In the floor is an image of a pair of sandals facing north, supposedly marking the place where Mary stood in suffering silence when she saw her son carried on the cross.  

The Mary we know is usually silent.  With the exception of that story of the wedding at Cana when she told Jesus to fix the problem with the wine, she is usually depicted as almost stoic.  I don’t think stoicism has anything to do with it though.  Mary’s grief and pain were real.  When Jesus encountered her this one last time, they both knew it.  And they both felt Mary’s deep, unending, nurturing love.  Perhaps that is what we are to glean from this–that in the midst of one’s grief and pain and unbearable loss is the deepest love imagineable.  We see it in Mary and we know that at this moment, this is what God is feeling too.  After all, both have given themselves for the world and both are shattered  that the world is throwing their love back.  

At this point, nothing need be said.  The love is evident–the love of Mary, the love of God.  It is a love that we must experience–self-giving, suffering, silent–if we are to understand who God is and who God calls us to be.   It is the love that we are called to have for one another, a love that in the deepest of grief pulls us up and pulls us through, a love that would compel us to stand up for another, a love that, finally, creates room, a love that is of God.

So, in this Lenten season, let us, finally, learn to love one another. 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli  

Station III: Vulnerable

“Station III”, painting by Chris Gollon
Commissioned in 2000 by
St. John on Bethnal Green, London

Scripture Passage:  Matthew 7:25
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.

The third station of this Way of the Cross is the image of Jesus falling under the weight of the cross.  It is one of the non-Canonical stations and yet we know that the sheer exhaustion alone would be enough to make this a reality for any human.  That’s right.  Lest we forget, Jesus was human.  God did not come to earth to live as a figure resembling one of our super heroes, above the fray, untouchable, undaunted by the difficulties of human life.  No, God came as one of us, struggling and vulnerable.  And as Jesus falls, we feel that vulnerability.  It is uncomfortable for us.  After all, if this one on whom we rely, in whom we place all of our hopes and our dreams, is vulnerable, what does that say about out own lives?

Maybe the crux of this Walk is that we ARE supposed to be vulnerable.  Living a life of faith does not place some sort of impermeable bubble around us.  Regardless of what many will tell you, walking this walk does not guarantee that you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise.  If anything, it points to our vulnerability in the most profound way.  As humans, we will at times experience sadness, despair, and the deepest grief imagineable.  We experience those not because we are weak but because we are real.  And Jesus experienced the same thing because he, too, was real.  And, when you think about it, what kind of God is it who will plunge the Divine Self into the deepest of despair and the vulnerability?  It is the kind of God that does more than pull us out of it but rather lays at the bottom of it all and cradles us until it subsides.  But we will only experience that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we allow ourselves to be real, when we finally allow ourselves to need others, to let them in to our darkness.

This depiction of Jesus falling under the weight of the Cross affirms that vulnerability is part of us.  It also compels us toward the vulnerable, the hurting, the outcast, for it is there that we will find in ourselves empathy and compassion, and, finally, a Love greater than we thought we could have.  If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we will be able to see the same in others.  We are not called to become a Super Hero; we are called to cross boundaries and be Christ for others when they need it the most and, perhaps with even greater faith than that, we are called to let others into our grief and pain.  We are the ones who both lift the fallen and allow ourselves to be lifted.  Sometimes we will fall.  Sometimes life will hurt.  But we are never there alone.  But it takes great faith to know that.

Jesus will fall two more times on this Walk.  Life goes on.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli  

Falling in Love With God

Lectionary Passage: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

To read this passage online, go to http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Song+of+Songs+2:8-13&vnum=yes&version=nrsv

Do you love God?  Sure you do!  That’s the whole point, right?  But here’s perhaps a harder (or at least a weirder) question:  Are you in IN love with God?  After all, being “in love” seems to be something so profoundly human, so earthy, so “fleshy”, so intimate, so private.  It’s more than just loving.  It’s more than just being together.  It’s almost a completion of who you are called to be, an entirely different way of being.  It really is more about being one than being two that love.  We proper Western Protestants understand loving God (and, certainly, pleasing God).  But do we let ourselves fall, with utter abandon, into love with God?    The Old Testament passage from this week’s Lectionary selections is from the wisdom writing known in Hebrew as the Song of Songs.  It’s not the usual fare for our lectionary.  I mean, it borders on what is sometimes characterized as almost erotic imagery and it doesn’t even mention God.  So, as you can imagine, there were lots of debates about whether or not it belonged in the canon at all.  The matter was settled by Rabbi Akiba, the great teacher and mystic, who said this: “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.   The Holy of Holies?  Wow!  We’ll have to think about that one.  I mean, really?  We struggle with that, as if our relationship with God should be proper and acceptable, as if it should be reverent of the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being.  So what is reverence?  Is it standing away, removed from the One whom we revere?  Or it is realizing that every molecule of our being desires to connect with God, longs to return to the One who created us.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s falling in love with God.   Implicit in this poem is a sort of pining absence, a longing so deep that the poet cannot be complete without the One that is loved. I think that’s the way we’re called to be. I mean, think about it, we were created in the image of God, made with a shape and a sense into which only God fits. And we struggle. We struggle to find what fits into that shape. And in the absence, in the longing, we finally find that Presence of God, we finally find that One in whom we are destined to fall in love. Seventeenth century mathematician, Blaise Pascal spoke of it as a “God-shaped vacuum” in every human, a hole that only God could fill. It’s like being in love.

Like I said, this poem is not your usual reading from the Bible. There are no parables, no words of judgment, no promises of future and unrequited redemption. Rather, there is presence; there is reverence; there is a depiction of the most joyous and incredible love imaginable. It is flirtatious, and playful, and filled with utter joy. It is the very love of God. And the poet depicts it as transforming, a veritable spring at the end of winter, when life bursts forth from lifelessness and literally consumes death.  (Sounds like resurrection to me!)

Perhaps it is the language that makes us bristle, that makes us squirm a bit in our pews.  Perhaps we are even a bit uncomfortable with a God who is so intimate, so a part of us, that falling in love is all we can do.  Perhaps we really haven’t thought through what it means to be created in the image of someone else.  It means that we have to let ourselves go, that we have to become who God called us to be, that we have to realize that there is something more, that WE are something more, that we are created in the image of our Beloved, that we are created to fall in love with God.  It is about completion; it is about wholeness; it is about being who we were created to be.  It is about falling in love with God and falling into God.

Our lectionary probably doesn’t do us any favors because it doesn’t even allow us to finish the poem.  The next four verses go like this:

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.”   My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.  Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

My beloved is mine and I am my beloved’s.  That’s a whole lot different than an image of a seemingly-removed deity sitting up somewhere waiting for us to get our act together and catch up.  And it flies in the face of us spending our earthly lives wallowing in chaos and muck, hoping against hope that we will finally rack up enough points to make it to heaven someday.  Once again, it’s present tense.  We are God’s and God, in a show of grace more amazing than we could ever sing, becomes ours.  We are not just called to love and support and please God and try to figure out who or what God is; we are called to let ourselves go, to fall into love with God and fall into God with utter abandon and profound joy.

Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved…My beloved is mine and I am [my beloved’s].  Thanks be to God!
There is only one love.  (Teresa of Avila)
Grace and Peace,
Shelli