For The Someday Book

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Rise Up

Image from Mother Jones

Craven and cruel. That’s the only way I can describe the GOP leadership in the U.S. right now, and the unchecked decisions they are making that impact us all. As Christians, how do we respond?

First, the evidence of cravenness and cruelty: deliberately pursuing policies that break up immigrant families; offering aid and comfort to white supremacists while refusing to pursue justice for people of color; passing tax laws that increase income inequality; legislating in the interest of billionaires and corporations against the needs of everyone else; dismantling public lands, institutions and resources; attacking law enforcement and intelligence agencies who uncover crimes by those on their side, while manipulating evidence against the other party; denying health care to children for political gain; ignoring the women who accuse leaders of sexual assault and harassment; claiming faith as a reason for discrimination against LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive health; abiding untruth and advocating lies; rejecting asylum seekers and refugees fleeing violence; stripping protection for our shared air, earth and water; and so much more.

An ocean away, I struggle to know how to resist this movement toward selfishness and callousness. I’m not there to organize or intercede in the resistance movements.

But I realize one of the most important things we must be doing to fight cravenness and cruelty is to form people in the way of Christ, which demands sacrifice, compassion, love of neighbors and enemies. In order to stop this movement of brutality and selfishness, we will need people of moral courage, generosity of heart, truth-telling, sacrificial commitment, and deep kindness. We need to BE those people, steeped in those habits of love, joined together with others of many faiths and no faith, to maintain our common humanity in this time.

While I still look to engage publicly in movements of justice and peace, I am feeling a renewed passion for my original calling–to engage people in the work of discipleship. The forces of cravenness and cruelty abide everywhere around us, not just in elected officials. We must each be a counter-force of courageous compassion, in the places where we live and work as much as in the streets and legislative halls. How can we, in the church, help form people in the habits of love, equipped to speak the truth, moved to care for the earth and for one another even as those around us mock and deride those values?

With this question deep in my mind and heart, I’m planning a Lenten study and sermon series on faith practices and holy habits. It might look innocuous and apolitical to talk about prayer, service, friendship, breaking bread, bearing witness. To me, though, it seems like a return to this most basic work of formation is the strongest bulwark we can build against the urgent drumbeat of callousness, cruelty and cowardice. These practices give each one of us the tools to immediately and locally resist the forces of hate and indifference, in ourselves and in the systems (large and small) we inhabit.

Discussion welcome. Political screeds and personal attacks are not, and will be deleted.

 

First Comes Love? The Ever-Changing Face of Marriage by John C. Morris, Pilgrim Press, 2007, 128 pp.

FirstComesLove.chosenMy denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been in the forefront of marriage equality for many decades, and I have been honored to officiate at many same-sex weddings myself. However, our congregational polity allows for each congregation to make its own decision, and my church is currently having conversations about whether to host weddings for same-sex couples. (As a pastor, I have authority to officiate weddings in outside venues for same sex couples.)

I picked up this book as a resource for that ongoing conversation. Since Pilgrim Press is part of the UCC, I expected it to address the topic directly. Imagine my surprise when Morris did not include anything about the subject of same-sex marriage until the epilogue, and then only a short explanation of the viewpoint of marriage equality he developed in response to the research for this book. While I remain disappointed that same-sex marriage did not get at least an equal treatment and recognition with the 21 other forms of marriage that he explores, the book otherwise accomplished exactly what I hoped it would: deconstructing the idea of “traditional marriage” altogether as a convenient fiction rather than a fixed notion in history.

Morris begins with biblical notions of marriage in the Hebrew Bible, starting in Genesis. After a short comparison of creation stories between Genesis and Olympus, he moves on to the first biblical couples actually described as married. He cites Isaac and Rebekah for the importance of marrying within one’s tribe; Jacob, his wives and concubines as a witness to polygamy; Levirate marriage, where widows marry their brother-in-law; and arranged marriages. He does compare these ancient texts to modern conversations about arranged marriage and miscegenation, although his choice to use the fictional Fiddler on the Roof as an example of Jewish life is questionable. Morris then adds marriage for political purposes and marriage for procreation to the list of Old Testament forms of marriage.

Early Christianity, Morris points out, actually offered revolutionary developments in understanding marriage. Christians opened the way for slaves and citizens to marry by proclaiming all equal in the eyes of God. They also declared that men and women were equal partners in marriage, and that the marital covenant should be a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself spoke against divorce. Finally, early Christians argued for celibacy, even within marriage, as the ideal way to focus on God over the things of this world. (I’m doubtful that most people would still support that one as part of “traditional marriage!”)

Having looked over these various forms of marriage, Morris ventures into questions of what makes a marriage valid and how it is recognized in society, again overturning any notion that marriage has been an unchanging institution. He points to mutual consent, consummation and validation by an outside authority as the typical ingredients to validate a marriage. The fact that we can all quickly think of examples that contradict that construction (like a forced marriage, an unconsummated marriage or a common law marriage) only add to Morris’ argument that marriage has never been a fixed idea. Exploring marriage as sacred covenant and secular contract opens the conversation about the role of clergy in the United States today, in the uncomfortable position of acting as spiritual guardian and agent of the state.

After an exploration of the meaning and evolution of betrothal, Morris adds modern developments in the form of marriage: marrying for love, marrying for happiness, marrying for companionship, marrying as equal partners, marriage detached from property or procreation, and easy divorce. In the end, Morris makes a claim that all couples should be allowed to marry, both in civil and religious ceremonies–but that the two should be separate from one another in form, content and occasion.

This book was a very helpful, readable summary of the evolution of marriage throughout the bible and history, and it would make an excellent resource for congregational study. It does not have the depth of primary source research, historical analysis or scholarly precision that some might desire, but such a book would take nearly 1,000 pages, not a mere 128. I recommend this resource to any group struggling with conversations about the meaning of marriage, as this will ground your conversation in shared history, simply told.

A meditation delivered at the Downtown Jeffersonville Lenten Services, hosted by Wall Street United Methodist Church, based on Joel 2:12-17.

broken-heartI fell in love for the first time when I was 22 years old. I’d had plenty of dates, little crushes and infatuations, romances that lasted awhile here and there, but I’d never fallen in love.

I was out of college, working two jobs just to rent a crummy little apartment at the beach with a roommate, and hanging out with a bunch of her old friends from high school. He was her friend and became mine, and then we fell for each other, pretty fast and pretty hard. I would go to work at 7:30 every morning and return home at 10:30 every night, and still find time to spend hours talking on the phone or hanging out in the late-night diner, just to be together. I couldn’t stand the idea of being apart, and even hanging up the phone felt like torture. I wanted to share every moment together, every little detail of our days. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know just what I mean.

They don’t call it heartache for nothing.

I remember one particular day. We were hanging out at the crummy apartment, doing nothing special, and I saw him sitting across the room when the thought ran through my mind: “you’re gonna break my heart someday.” I wasn’t accusing him or anticipating anything in particular—but I realized in that moment that someday, some way, by death or by life, something would tear us apart, and I would never be the same. When it came to breaking my heart, he already had. Not because he had mistreated me or stopped loving me or ended the relationship—but because the love I felt for him had broken open my heart, and it would never be the same.

We’ve been married almost 18 years now, and the guy still breaks my heart, more so than ever, because that’s what it means to love—to have someone break into your heart and break it open, to plant themselves in your heart such that losing them, or being apart from them risks shattering your heart altogether, leaving a big, bleeding, broken-hearted hole right in the middle of your chest. It’s not romantic, it’s not a statement about the status of our marriage (which is not especially blissful), it’s just the truth—love breaks your heart, whether that love lasts forever or only for awhile, whether by life or by death, love breaks your heart.

We have a child now. I still remember the first time I left him at home alone with his father, my first love. He was maybe 3-4 weeks old. I just ran up to the grocery store for a few minutes. I trusted my husband completely to care for him, and I knew in my mind that everything would be fine. Still, I cried the whole way there and back. My heart just ached for his little self. He hadn’t done a thing except make my body hurt and kept me up at night and created lots of laundry, but the kid had broken my heart, and I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. That’s what it means to love, to let someone break into your heart and break it wide open.

Hear again these words from Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your hearts. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

“Rend” is an old fashioned word. We don’t use it much anymore. “Tear” doesn’t quite capture its meaning—when you rend something you tear it violently, you rip it apart and shred it into bits. Rend your hearts, God says. God is asking us for broken hearts.

broken heart 2We sometimes think that broken hearts are a side-effect of sin, that they are a sign of life’s brutality and our estrangement from God and from one another. But that’s not quite right. In the Bible, it’s clear that sin doesn’t make our hearts broken, it makes them bitter. From Pharoah to Philistines to Pharisees, God’s enemies are described as hard of heart. These hard-hearted ones are those who freeze out kindness and calcify against compassion. The real danger to our hearts is not that they will break, but that they will be unbreakable, that they will be hard as stone, so that they cannot be rendered unto God.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

Some people would argue that God is the one that does the breaking—that God afflicts us with loss or separation, death or destruction in order to break us open, teach us a lesson, or somehow improve us. That’s not true either. God doesn’t kill the ones we love or send plagues upon our houses or blow fierce winds of devastation upon us in order to make us more faithful. God cannot compel our love any more than a spurned lover can. God’s love remains unrequited until we return it. The words in Joel are not proclamation of what God will do, they are plea for what we should do.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in.

In her book about her brother dying from AIDS, Susan Wiltshire compares a broken heart like a broken biscuit. “When it’s torn in half, there is twice as much surface on which to spread the butter and honey.” (Dan Moseley, Lose, Love, Live, 18) Picturing the broken biscuits dripping with warm butter and sweet honey at the breakfast table takes me to another table–the Lord’s Table, set for holy communion. We take that whole, perfect loaf and break it, rip it apart, shred it into tiny pieces, so that everyone who comes forward can receive the taste of Christ in broken bread.

Broken breadThe broken bread stands in for the broken body of Christ on the cross. That word “rend” appears again at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s what happens to the temple curtain at the moment of Christ’s death—the curtain is rent in two, from top to bottom, as the earth quakes and the rocks split open, because the very heart of God has been broken open with love for you and me.

“Rend your hearts,” God says. Break your heart open for me, so that love can come in. “Return to the Lord your God, for God is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.” Break your heart open for God, because God’s heart is already broken open for you.

Amen.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Dutton Books, New York, 2012, 318 pp.

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsI admit I just wanted to see what all the buzz was about with John Green. I started with Looking for Alaska, not willing to even begin a book about kids with cancer if it was just going to be some sappy tear-fest. When I met the voice of John Green in Looking for Alaska, I couldn’t wait to read the next thing–even if it risked making me cry for days. The good news is: it didn’t. Yes, I cried, but mostly I smiled, and I think I even smiled while I was crying.

The narrator of the story is Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer. The story opens with her attending a support group for teens with cancer, where she meets the gorgeous and charming survivor Augustus Waters. What follows is a simple, youthful love story between the two star-crossed lovers, with their love binding them together through (and in spite of) the reality of their cancers. They bond over Hazel’s favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, with an unanswered cliffhanger, and they journey all the way to Amsterdam to meet the author. Hazel and Augustus are charming as individuals and as a couple, and their story is beautiful and engrossing.

What is most impressive is the way John Green creates a world for these two–a world dominated by their cancer, but not limited to it, and he finds space for them to exist as human beings beyond their diagnoses. His humor (and therefore the characters’) is irreverent and occasionally biting, with no tolerance for saccharine sentimentality or easy answers. Green and his characters demand depth and authenticity, and they provide it in return.

The novel is packed with beautiful observations about life and death, pain and suffering. Here are some examples I want to remember. First, in response to a plaque in the Waters’ house that says, “Without pain, how could we know joy?”

This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate. (35)

When their friend Isaac loses his girlfriend and his sight, he goes into a destructive rampage of tears. Augustus observes: “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” (63)

Hazel describes herself as a grenade to those who love her. Because she knows that she will die and cause them so much pain, she wants to protect others (and herself) from loving her. (99) If only Hazel’s experience was unique! How many people in this world refuse to let themselves be loved (or to love others) because they fear that the danger inside them will explode and harm someone?

Then there is this exchange:

“You’re a hard person to comfort,” Augustus said.

“Easy comfort isn’t comforting,” I said. “You were a rare and fragile flower once. You remember.” (145)

As teens who know death is near, they spend a lot of time contemplating its reality and meaning. Augustus has even researched the numbers. There are seven billion living people, and 98 billion dead people, which means that there are fourteen dead people for every living one. Augustus contemplates a plan for each living person to remember 14 dead ones, so that everyone can be remembered.(151) It made me think about the cloud of witnesses, hovering around us and cheering for us.

The Fault in Our Stars is packed with wisdom and insight, with honesty and wit. I loved every page, even the sad ones, and there were many more pages overwhelming with joy than with sorrow, which is pretty much the book’s message–we love even though we may suffer for it, because the goodness of love far outweighs the sorrow of loss.

All the Living by C.E. Morgan, Picador, 2009, 199 pp.

All the LivingAll the Living is a novel about two young adults alone in the world. Aloma was orphaned as a young child, and grew up in a mission school in the mountains of Kentucky. Her love is Orren, who grew up on a family farm, working the land passed down through generations. One day, Orren’s family is killed in an auto accident, and he is alone. Aloma moves to the farm with him, and the two endeavor to make a life together. Aloma misses her role as a pianist, longing for the music that completes her. Orren throws himself into the work of the farm, trying to make up for the absence of his family and hold on to their land. They battle their own loneliness by turning on one another instead of toward one another. The central story arc follows Aloma’s decision to stay or go, to make her life with Orren or leave the mountains behind.

This is a novel of tense feelings and clenched fists, of quiet suffering and unspoken grief. It embodies solipsism and our constant human questioning of our own choices. If we go one way in life, we wonder about the other. The story also grapples with the deep power of grief, the meaning of home, and the challenge of intimacy.

Aloma’s search takes her to church, where she finds access to a piano and human connection. She develops a relationship with the farmer-preacher, Bell, and they talk about her search for “the right feeling.” Bell responds:

I don’t think looking inside for a feeling is nearly ever the answer. It’s looking out. … Well, it seems to me the more attention you spend on the folks around you, the more right feelings you have even for your own self. Seems like the opposite might should be true—turn your mind on your own heart to straighten it out—but that ain’t how I see it. (138)

For all my introversion, I have found Bell’s words to be true over and over again. Looking inside and “focusing on myself” is exactly the wrong way to overcome grief, loneliness or just a case of the blues. Re-orienting away from myself and seeing the needs of others returns me to a “right feeling.”

At one point, Aloma and Orren finally begin to talk, and she declares her desire in the most beautiful of ways:

When I have you, … it’s not enough and I still want some more of you. When you say something, I want to hear you say more and when you go someplace, any place, I want you to come back more than anything. That’s pretty much been true for forever. (194)

What a beautiful description of love.

All the Living is a beautifully crafted exploration of an interior journey for Aloma, exploring the tensions between longing and contentment, loneliness and intimacy in the human heart. Even though it’s short, the novel demands to be savored, lingering over phrases and sentences that invite the reader into contemplation.

 

A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.

Since I started seminary 14 years ago, I have offered words of remembrance at the memorial service of every family member who has died, along with countless church folks I have known and loved. In that time, I have learned to grieve and to heal by writing those remembrances. While it may be unusual to eulogize a cat, Ringo was an unusual cat. Writing him a letter felt like just the right way to honor his memory and work through my grief at his passing today. I share it with you with a light heart and much love.

Ringo

To Ringo, My Little Lion

July 26, 1997 to June 27, 2011

You came into our lives in October 1997, when you were just 10 weeks old. At the Berkeley Humane Society, all the other kittens were sleeping quietly in their cages, but you and your jet-black sister were racing in gravity-defying circles around your cage. I immediately thought you were beautiful, and we brought both of you home.

That first night, before you even had a name, you were both so tiny we were afraid we would lose you in our giant one-bedroom apartment. We made elaborate plans to let you spend the first night in the bathroom, then move to the bedroom, then the whole house. But you and your sister were so cute and irresistible, and you slept in our bed that night. We should have known right away that this was a bad idea, because you kept us up all night. We discovered you had been weaned too early, and had taken to suckling (loudly) on your baby sister’s soft stomach. Hours and hours you carried on, and we couldn’t tear you away. This was just a preview of your lifetime of obstreperous behavior.

J named you “Ringo,” and the name fit you perfectly. Your sister became “Lilith,” and she has grown aloof and reserved in accord with her name. In that first apartment, you grew and discovered the world. You and she found a way to crawl inside the back cushion of the sofa, and made us worry you were lost or trapped. You would mewl and tap us on the back through the thick fabric. One day, you got curious about something outside the unscreened, second-story window, and took a flying leap to the alley below. It was the first of many times your wild side gave us a scare, but you landed just fine and took it all in stride.

When we moved to our second apartment just a block away, you were already two years old. You immediately took an interest in the small yard out our back door. Within just a few days, looking out the window was no longer good enough. You started keeping us up all night again, yowling and begging to go outside—even though your only previous experience outdoors was your flying leap out the window. We tried a leash, and supervised outdoor playtime, but you were relentless and demanded to go out all the time. Who could blame you? It was Berkeley, and the backside of the PSR campus. We finally gave up, and let you go free. You only became more affectionate and attached to us, and always returned home from your wanderings.

When the time came to journey from California to Boston, it was you, me and Lilith driving all the way across the country in a tiny, 12-year-old Ford Escort with no air conditioning. I couldn’t stop for more than 15 minutes at a time, because the car would get too hot for the two of you in your carriers. That first night in Elko, NV, we stopped at a Motel 6. I put you and Lilith in the room with food and water, and left to go eat and cool off. When I returned, you acted like a watchdog at the front door—guarding it with your body and your fiercest meow. All night long, you laid like a sphinx by my side on the bed, and at the smallest noise you would send up a loud warning growl. I don’t think you managed to scare anybody away, but you showed me that night how much you loved me. I realized that you would fight to the death to protect me and Lilith, and ever since that night, I have felt honored by your devotion. I started calling you “my little lion,” because you acted as big as the king of the jungle.

Ringo sporting a battle scar on his ear from one of his fights, and demonstrating his aggressive desire for affection.

When we moved to Boston, we tried to keep you inside again. That didn’t last long, and you were again an urban outdoorsman—prowling the backyards and driveways of Brighton in all hours and all seasons, even insisting on going out into two-foot snowdrifts that swallowed you whole. It was there that you honed your skills as a hunter. You jumped into the front window bearing mice, birds, rats and even a snake one time. Sometimes, they were still alive in your jaws, and I had to finish them off just to be humane. Once, you dropped a crushed, crippled, but very much alive and FAST mouse in the middle of the kitchen floor, and it scurried under the couch on three legs. You sat and watched as I chased it all over the house. I’m not sure if you thought you had provided me with great entertainment, or you just did it for your own amusement. I was pretty amused, though, when we left you in the care of our two PETA-loving vegan friends, and you left them the head of a mouse on the kitchen floor as a gift. They were horrified! I still chuckle when I remember it.

You always maintained your wildness, your fierceness. Of course, that meant you were also a bully. I was so embarrassed when I realized that you were the one starting all the fights with the other neighborhood cats. I had to go apologize to more than one neighbor. When we moved here to Indiana, you were older and the neighborhood cats were tougher. You tried to keep on being a bully, but you kept getting injured. After two $150 trips to the vet to drain infected cat bites, we had to keep you inside again. J told you that we didn’t have $150 to let you go outside, and if you wanted to go back out, you’d have to give us $150. You didn’t ever come up with the money, but you did manage to wheedle your way outside again. You could be just that annoying, demanding and obnoxious. We realized we couldn’t live together in peace if you were an indoor cat, so you got your way.

Ringo and B together

When B was born, I was afraid of your fierceness. I worried that you would be jealous, or play too rough, or love too hard. But you directed all your fierceness to protecting my tiny child, showing distress when he cried and joining your yowls to his if I did not respond quickly enough. To B, you gave only gentleness and patience. I cringed when I saw baby B grabbing fistfuls of your fur, pulling your tail, or leaning open-mouthed into your flank and emerging with a giggle and a face full of gray hair. You just laid there, even seeming to enjoy his crazy attention. As he got older, B became your playmate, and I never had cause to worry about his safety with you around. He always called you, “my best kitty,” and you were. You two roughhoused and snuggled and got on each other’s nerves just like brothers.

Ringo and Lilith

But your true sister was always Lilith. You two were siblings in every sense of the word. Sometimes, you loved on each other, groomed each other, healed one another’s wounds and showed enormous affection. Other times, you were jealous of one another, snappy and bickering and screaming at one another. But you always protected each other, just like all good siblings. I don’t think she realizes yet that you have gone for good. I don’t know how she will grieve for you, but I know she will miss your companionship.

We all will. You were a big presence in our household. I keep expecting to hear you yowling at me about something, or jumping in the front window to come inside, or head-butting my chin to get my attention, or pawing my face to get me to pet you more vigorously. You drove me crazy most of the time, and I was annoyed by you as much as I enjoyed you. Yet you were the most friendly, tolerant animal I have ever known, never showing a hint of meanness (except to other cats) and letting us lift, carry, pull, tug and pinch you without concern. You were fierce in your loyalty, fierce in your affection, fierce in your independence and aggressive in your demands for love and attention. I loved you even when you made me want to throw you across the room. You loved me even when I did toss you across the room—and you immediately came back for more.

Tonight your fierce and restless spirit has at last been silenced. I held you in my arms to the very last, and your persistent spirit kept purring and begging to be petted some more. Your sweetness and love prevailed as you purred through your last breath.

I wasn’t always the most attentive caregiver, Ringo, and for that I’m sorry. Please forgive me. If you could talk, or feel regret, or ask forgiveness, I hope you would finally admit you weren’t always the most patient or pleasant of pets, either. You were stubborn, obstreperous and frequently rude. I don’t think I’ll miss that behavior anytime soon. But you were also the most loyal, devoted, loving animal I have ever known, and I will miss your presence on my feet, in my lap and in our lives. You will always be my little lion. I love you.

Thank you for sharing your life with us, Ringo. I hope it was a good one.

Ringo & Me

Our family enjoyed a vacation to visit family in Florida a few weeks back, including one morning at the beach. J was building a master sandcastle, I was sticking my feet in the cold water, and B was playing in the sand and chasing seagulls. The beach was mostly empty. His fear of the water kept him far away from danger, so we let him wander freely as we all enjoyed the sun and sand and ocean spray. He generally stayed within a 10-15 yard radius. We kept an eye out, but trusted him to stay close. For over an hour, he ran and returned, up and down the beach. The tie-dyed blue and yellow bulls-eye on his shirt made him easy to spot, no matter what.

Then I looked up one time and decided he had strayed a little too far. I called out to him, but he couldn’t hear over the sound of the waves. I figured he was running over to investigate some fishermen just down the beach, and he would turn around after he checked them out. When he kept running past their poles and buckets, I started out after him, calling his name again and again. He just kept running down the beach. I started to get angry, quickened my pace to try to close the distance, and waited for him to turn around. He just kept running. He was getting faster, and farther away. I started to run—and I don’t run—and called out to him louder and louder. I started to contemplate what kind of consequences to apply to a child who runs away. He just kept running and running, and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting tired, stopping, looking back. I ran and ran, but I couldn’t catch up to him.

Finally, an older gentleman noticed a young child running alone and looked back for a parent. I gestured that I was trying to catch him, and the man jogged to catch up to B and stop him. He touched him on the shoulder, bent down and turned him around to face me, pointing me out running along behind him. B took off running again, but this time toward me.

It was only then that I realized what had happened. He had gotten confused and thought he was lost. He panicked, and just started running faster and faster. By the time I caught up to him he was red-faced, crying and shaking with fear. All the harsh words I’d been planning vanished, and I simply embraced him in the sand.

B learned an important lesson that day: if you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction. You might just be making it harder for your mother to find you. We had talked about this a few times, but he said he just forgot when he got frightened.

What has been on my mind ever since, though, was the difference in our experiences that day. B was panicked, probably afraid he’d lost his parents forever, that he’d never get home from this faraway place. I remember that fear as a child, the fear of being lost and separated and unable to find your way home. His heart must have been racing as fast as his little legs. I can’t recall another experience in his short lifetime that would have been so frightening or traumatic. Had he even paused to look back over his shoulder, he would have seen me and ceased to fear. But the more fear he felt, the harder he ran—and the farther away he got from me.

Same shirt, different day

While I was annoyed with him at first, I was never afraid. I was never lost, nor was he ever lost to me. I could see where he was the whole time, that electric t-shirt standing out against the pale sand. I knew he was safe. I knew he would not be harmed. I knew I would not stop running until I caught up with him. I knew the way back home. I had nothing to fear.

The whole experience makes me pause and reflect on our relationship with God. How often do we think we are lost, and so we panic and just start running? The more frightened we get, the harder we run. The less we recognize our surroundings, the faster we blow through them trying to recover familiar territory. Like B, we forget the rules when we get frightened. If you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction.

God knows where we are. We may feel lost, but we are never lost to God. Like any watchful mother, She knows exactly where we are and will not let us out of Her sight. When we stray too far, She is in active pursuit. Our reunion with the Beloved does not depend on our ability to find our way home again all by ourselves. All we have to do is stop the running, and She will find us. Sometimes, it takes intercession, direction from another soul who can see our fear, turn us around, and show us God is coming after us. No matter what, God will not stop chasing us until we are safe in Her arms again.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
“Be still and know that I am God.”     —From Psalm 46

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 49:8-16

Speaking in God’s voice, Isaiah writes: “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are continually before me.” It’s such a familiar, ordinary kind of image. “I won’t forget—see? I wrote it down right here on my hand.” What do you write on your hands? Telephone numbers? Directions? Grocery Lists? Things to bring to a meeting, an event? Students write crib notes for their tests. At least one politician has gotten in trouble for writing debate notes on the palm of a hand. We can deduce that this practice is as old as the Bible itself, at least the era of Isaiah.

Every time you look down at your hands, the reminder is there. What is the reminder written on the palms of God’s hands? You are, Isaiah says. You are written on the palm of God’s hand. Your name, concerns about your well-being, all the needs of the community of God are inscribed in the palm of his hands.

When I first heard this image, I found it incredibly moving. I mean, to think, we, you and me, matter so much to God that we are written in the palm of God’s hand. Surely we will not be forgotten, if we are written in such a handy place?

But the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled by having my name written on God’s hand. I don’t know about you, but the only time I bother writing something on my hand is when I am actually quite inclined to forget it. I write it there because I just know, if I don’t, I’m going to forget. And I actually gave up writing things on the palm of my hand a long time ago, because I discovered that I would almost always sweat, smear or wash them off by the time I needed to remember them. I’d just end up with some illegible smudges in the wrinkles of my skin—not a helpful reminder at all.

This troubled me. I mean, on first glance, I loved the idea of our being so close to God’s mind, so important to God’s memory that God would write our names, yours and mine, right there in the palm of the hand. But then I thought—that means God might forget us if not for the reminder—and what if it gets all sweaty and smudgy? (We’re not talking literally here, of course—either about the palms or the smudge, but I just did not like where the metaphor led me.)

And then, I realized I’d just over-thought myself out of a sermon, and I wondered what I was going to stand up here at say to you. Because really, what I want to say to you today is what Isaiah was trying to say with this image about the palms of the hands—God loves you so much that you, little old you, little old me, that we are always on God’s mind, inscribed right in the palm of his hands. That you and I are on God’s mind, in God’s thoughts, in God’s heart, and in God’s hands.

I went back to the scripture reading to try again.  I realized I had been so focused on sitting in the palm of God’s hand that I had completely overlooked a much better metaphor.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”

I was once a woman with a nursing child, and I still miss it. I loved the way my body responded to his needs. The way the milk welled up inside me at the sound of his cry—or the cry of any lonesome baby. The sensation of being full to overflowing, then emptying into a hungry baby belly. The joy of holding him close, playing with his feet and hands while he ate. The pride I felt in watching his legs and arms grow fatter on the nutrition my body produced. The power of knowing that I could provide everything my baby needed, no matter where we went. The amazement at what my body knew to do, its ability to provide. The mystical connection to the God that created me, and to all the women who had nursed children before me.

What I loved more than anything, what I miss most, is the intimacy we shared. This tiny child depended on me for his nutrition. I responded by offering him my body. Especially in those early months, we could not bear to be apart from one another—he for hunger, me for the need to empty myself for him. I could not go for more than a couple of hours without experiencing his absence from my body. I ached for him. My body yearned to give itself over to him. Forgetting him, forgetting my role as his mother, was impossible. I carried my love and care for him not just in my mind, but in my body. My body would not let me forget, even for a moment.

Our God is a nursing mother. She feels a connection to us in her very body, filled to overflowing with love, ready to pour into our hungry selves. We are impossible for God to forget, for that love for us is carried in God’s very body. God delights in our growth and strength, marvels at our creation, provides for us everything we need. God will not, cannot neglect us. Our connection to God is so intimate that it is physical.

When we talk about being held in the arms of God, it’s not just hands outstretched, like a baby bird you are observing with gentleness. It’s also cradled like a baby, cradled and rocked, soothed and snuggled. When we say, “God knows, and God cares,” we aren’t just talking about the mind of God—we are talking about the very body of God, which aches with our absence and yearns to be reunited with us. When we cry out like a newborn child, knowing that we are hungry or lonely or dirty or afraid, even if we cannot get up and make our way to God, if all we can do is open our mouths and wail in despair, God comes to us, picks us up, rocks us gently and places us next to her heart.

God holds us in the palm of his hand, at her nursing breast. We dwell inside God’s beating heart.

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.

The Visitation, Juan Correa De Vivar

I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.

Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.

This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.

So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.

The Dream of St. Joseph, Rembrandt

In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.

Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.

When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)

No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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