Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for August 24, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 1:8--2:10

Psalm: Psalm 138

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 124

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

In this Gospel reading, we find Jesus asking some of the basic questions. “Who do men say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a curious exchange that has Peter proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and Jesus instructing him not to tell anybody about himself.

Hmmm. Is this a basic existential moment? Surely, of all the humans who have walked the earth, Jesus would have the least reason for asking these questions—depending, of course, on your view of Jesus. Many of us believe that Jesus understood his purpose from babyhood, or at least during his childhood, when he disappeared only to be found in the Temple, teaching the priests (that story appears in Luke, not in the other Gospels). On the other hand, some scholars speculate that Jesus didn’t understand the full scope of his mission, that Jesus, like many of us, spent his days asking God, “Am I doing what you want me to do?”

We see in this text Peter getting the kind of affirmation that many of us crave. Jesus tells Peter that he will be the cornerstone, the rock.

I think of Peter and imagine that in times of frustration, he must have looked back at this moment with Christ. What a comfort that memory must be.

I spent much of my younger years longing to be sure that I was doing what God put me on earth to do, as if I had only one destiny, and I might be missing it.

My parents, in their wisdom, kept reminding me that God can use me no matter where I am. God is the original collage artist, taking bits and pieces that don’t seem to go together, and creating them into a cohesive whole.

It might be worth thinking in poetic terms about this Gospel. If Peter is the Rock, who are you? Some of us are willow trees that bend with storms but don’t break. Or maybe you’re sand, having been worn down by those storms, but still valuable. Maybe you’re soil made rich by the compost of circumstances. Some of us are grass, that steady groundcover that makes the larger plants possible by holding the soil in place.

I could go on with these metaphors, but you get the idea. The Gospel wants us to wrestle with these questions. Who are you? And who is the triune God in relation to you?

What part does Jesus play in your life? A guy you see once a week in church? A fellow traveler? Comforter? Savior? Someone you don’t know very well because you just don’t have the time? Co-creator of a joy-filled life? Reason for living?

More importantly, can people see who Jesus is to you by the way you live your life? How is your life a testament, like Peter’s? How can your life be more of a testament? What changes can you make today?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Love in the Time of Ebola

It's interesting to me what issues consume people's time, especially if the issues aren't affecting them directly.  For example, I haven't been following the uprisings in Ferguson with the same interest as many people--at least to judge by news coverage and Facebook updates and blog posts.  I have not been taking sides and choosing between Israel and Gaza.  I have been keeping an anxious eye on Russia and the Ukraine, but not enough to write much.

No, I have been consumed with the Ebola outbreak.  Yesterday I saw an article or two, a mention here or there, about a clinic in Liberia that was mobbed by protestors.  That led to the patients running away, and then the looters took things from the clinic, like infected mattresses.  Yikes.

My inner apocalypse gal always likes a good disease narrative.  My inner apocalypse gal worries about a variety of scenarios.  I know that we're likely to be whacked by a scenario we'd never considered.  When you study how World War I came about, it seems so unlikely.  I imagine our next big disaster will be similar.

I realize that I have an unhealthy fascination with virulent disease.  I like apocalypse scenarios of all kinds, but I'm partial to the disease vector of apocalypse.  I'm fascinated by how our modern artists of all kinds have linked disease and zombies, but disease itself can be plenty scary even if it doesn't transform us into otherworldly creatures.

When I first taught the first half of the British survey class, I did some of my own research into the outbreaks of the plague through the centuries--fascinating!  In such a short time, you could be a survivor of an area that had lost 50% of its residents.  I was captivated by all the changes that took place in the wake of each plague, especially the first outbreak.

My black death research eventually took me to the work of Laurie Garrett.  Her book The Coming Plague had just been published, and it introduced me to Ebola.

 Ebola is even more deadly, with it's 60-90% death rate.  And unlike AIDS, it spreads very easily.  Thankfully, thus far it's not like TB--it's not an airborne disease.

Of course, it's the very deadliness of the disease that often stops the outbreak.  Diseases that are most successful keep their hosts alive long enough to facilitate the spread of the disease.  Early Ebola outbreaks were halted when whole villages died.

This outbreak has a different character.  I find myself thinking about all the health care workers who do not run away.  In their work, I see the face of Jesus.

Of course, that face is obscured, hopefully, by a haz-mat suit.  I cannot imagine working in those conditions, the sub-par facilities, the lack of basics like gloves and disinfectant, the incredible heat, the lack of running water, the lack of electricity--so much aching need.

In the wake of the various clashes in Ferguson, some of us have talked a lot about the privileges our skin color achieves for us.  I don't often see people making the link to Africa and the current Ebola crisis, not in the same breath.  It's as if people are talking about racism in the heartland of America or racism in how we treat disease in the various countries of Africa.  

I, too, am not going to make those links.  But I do find myself looking west to Ferguson and then looking fearfully to the Ebola outbreaks to my east.  I find myself wondering if the time will come when we'll look back to Ferguson and marvel at the population who had the luxury to clash while the efforts to contain Ebola were so paltry and so ineffective.

There are questions of wealth and national sovereignty at stake.  I understand, sort of, why first world nations can't just sweep in and take over.  Even the delivery of basic medical supplies (aspirin, clean water, gloves) is compromised by the history of first world interactions with the continent of Africa.

If I had time and inclination, perhaps I'd write an essay connecting Ferguson and Ebola from this direction:  how does our history hamper our good efforts and intentions?

As always, I sit with my white privilege, my access to good health care, the clean water and flowing electricity that I so often take for granted--and I feel that sickening guilt.

I think of what Jesus said to the rich, young man, the young man who was so close to perfection.  All he had to left to do was to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor.   This post is getting long, so I'll leave us all with a question, a question to which I shall return at some point:

What would Jesus do in the time of Ebola?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Prayers for the First Day of Public School

In Broward county, our public school students begin school today.  I offer the following prayers:

--May the school year be a good one for every student.  May learning be encouraged.  May everyone discover new talents and skills.  At the end of the year, let every student have acquired the needed knowledge to proceed.

--Let every teacher meet each day with a good spirit and a happy heart.  May all of our teachers find fulfillment.

--May the school board find lots of extra money--and may they give the money to teachers and students in ways that enhance education.

--Let us all slow down in school zones.  May the students be kept safe from every danger.

--May we all find our inner and outer student.  We all still have so much to learn.  Let the learning continue for us all.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Backpacks and Cupcakes

Today we will have a Blessing of the Backpacks.  Of course, we're really blessing the students who will be taking their backpacks to school.  Some of them will bring their backpacks.  Some of them will be too shy to come forward.  Some of them have already headed back to college.  We will pray for them all.

At the end of the service we will have cupcakes--we have all been encouraged to bring cupcakes.  I know from his Facebook posts that our pastor is bringing red velvet cupcakes.  Our council president has grown daughters who make cupcakes semi-professionally.  I will bring nothing, since we usually have cupcakes left over.  But I may indulge in a cupcake.

Our public school teachers have already been back in school for a week--I hope it was fruitful for them.  Last week, we prayed for them and blessed them.

I've heard of churches that collect school supplies for the less fortunate and the blessing of the backpacks includes a blessing over those supplies and for those children.  I like that idea too.

When I was a child, we did none of this.  I'm glad we do it now.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Environmental Stewardship on a Smaller Scale

--When people ask me why I don't have pets, I say, "I can't even keep houseplants alive."

--But that's not exactly true.  On Memorial Day, I bought plants that found their way into 4 pots that have spent the summer on my front porch:

--Some of the flower plants in the 2 big pots have died, but overall, those 2 pots have thrived.  I lost a batch of mint, part of the basil, and a batch of dill, but the other herbs (mint, basil, and rosemary) are hanging on.

--However, I must confess that the big pots are not nearly as bushy as they were the first week-end that I brought them home from the Home Depot.

--When I was scrolling through my Feb. entries, looking for posts about my latest revision of my book-length poetry manuscript, I came across this post and the line "be the asteroid":  "I heard a scientist say that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs; this time, we're the asteroid.  What does it mean to be the asteroid?" 

--The planet doesn't need us.  The human species may die off, but other species will survive.  Still, I continue to water the plants on the porch, plants who rely on me for water.

--I've also been thinking about the environment on a bodily scale.  Earlier this year, I had two colleagues and my best friend from high school diagnosed with cancer, 3 different kinds.  I thought about God, who loves all of creation, even the cancer cell.

--I've felt moments of shaken faith many times in my life, but that realization, that God loves all parts of creation equally, from me to the cancer cells that may kill those whom I love, that realization shook me for a few minutes.

--I've been intrigued by disease for many decades.  I'm lucky enough to be able to be fascinated by Ebola from a distance.  For a look at what it means close up, don't miss this postcard in The New Yorker.  It's a description that hearkens back to medieval days and the black death:  "The hospitals of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, are full of Ebola patients and are turning away new patients, including women in childbirth. American Ebola experts in Monrovia are hearing reports that infected bodies are being left in the streets: the outbreak is beginning to assume a medieval character. People sick with Ebola are leaving Monrovia and going into the countryside to search for village faith healers, or to stay with relatives."

--We can try to comfort ourselves by saying that the seas won't swallow our front porches until we're dead and gone, that our U.S. health care system could handle Ebola when it comes to our shores.  But it doesn't take much to tip the balance away from civilization and back towards a life less attractive.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Modern Ark of the Covenant

Our interactive, intergenerational worship service spends 2 weeks with each module, and the second week is an arts/crafts/creative response of some sort.  I often don't volunteer to lead a module unless I'm sure of the lesson, sure that I can come up with a project for week 2.  But I volunteered for our latest module without knowing anything about it.

We've been working our way through Exodus, and we're up to the Ark of the Covenant.  We've talked about the incident with the golden calf.  We talked about how the Ark is different than the calf.  We talked about the decorations on the outside of the Ark and what went inside.

For our craft project, I brought in shoe boxes and magazines.  We cut out pictures that reminded us of God, pictures that reminded us of God's goodness and love. 

We also used words:

We started gluing them to boxes, but ran out of time.  My vision was to have a beautifully decorated box filled with words and images of what reminds us of God's love.

But the process was fun and interesting, and that's what's important.  It was also interesting to look at magazine to see how much space was devoted to which subjects.  I expected no mention of spirituality, so I was happily surprised to see 10-20% of each commercial magazine that pointed our attention that way.

For more on the possibilities of collage, see this post.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 17, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 45:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 67

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 133

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Gospel: Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

I don't like this picture of Jesus that today's Gospel represents. He treats the Canaanite woman rudely, with a complete lack of compassion. What do we make of this vision of Christ?

Part of the answer may depend on your view of Jesus/God. Do you see God as completely formed? Do you see God as never making mistakes?

If so, perhaps you should re-read your Bible, especially the Old Testament. Throughout the Scriptures, we see God changing course, often influenced by humans. God does not command us to be passive and just accept whatever comes our way--whether it be from God, powers and principalities, other humans, or Satan. That theological idea that we have to just accept our lot in life in the hopes that we'll get our reward in Heaven--it's a major misreading of the Scriptures and of theology.

I like the idea of God who allows us to disagree--and a God that sometimes agrees that we are right in our disagreement. I like the idea of a God that is being shaped and changed by creation, just as we are being shaped and changed by creation--and by God.

I know it's not as comforting as what many of us were taught in Sunday School. I know we'd rather believe in an absolute God, a God who has all the answers. We don't want to believe in a God who gets tired. We don't want to believe in a God who doesn't have absolute control. We want a God who can point and make magical changes, even though everything we've experienced about the world doesn't suggest that God does that act very often, if at all.

In today's Gospel, we see a tired, irritable Jesus. It's a terrifying idea (I'd prefer a divinity of infinite patience), but it's the best support to show that God did indeed become human.

The Canaanite woman is much more Godlike than Jesus in this Gospel. Here's a woman who is desperate to help her child. When Jesus rebukes her, she stands up to him and argues her case. And she persuades him. She demands justice, and because she stands her ground, she wins. Her behavior is much more Christlike than Christ's.

She has much to teach us. We are called to emulate her. When we see injustice, we must cry out to God and demand that creation be put right. Many theologians would tell you that if you want God to be active in this free will world that God has created, that you better start making some demands. God can't be involved unless we demand it (for a further discussion of this concept, see the excellent books of Walter Wink). If God just intervened in the world, that would violate the principle of free will which God instilled in creation. But if we invite God to action, then God has grounds to act.

I would argue that some of the most sweeping social changes of the twentieth century were grounded in this principle of crying out to the wider world and to God to demand that justice be done. Think of Gandhi's India, the repressiveness of the Jim Crow era in the USA, the South African situation decried by Archbishop Tutu, the civil wars in Central America, the Soviet occupied Eastern Europe: these situations horrified the larger world and the movements to rectify them were rooted in the Christian tradition. True, there were often external pressures applied (economic embargoes and the like), but each situation prompted prayer movements throughout the world.

I remember lighting candles on Christmas Eve in support of Polish Solidarity workers and praying for their safety and success. I remember going to an interfaith prayer vigil in downtown D.C. on the 15th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. I learned the songs of the Civil Rights movement as a child. Listening as an adult, I see those songs as cries to God demanding that justice be restored.

Let the Canaanite woman be your guide towards right behavior. Let the actions of Jesus remind you that even if you're snappy and irritable, you can change course and direct yourself towards grace and compassion. Let your faith give you hope for a creation restored to God's original vision of a just and peaceful Kingdom.