Birthpangs of the here and now

25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: Willie and Sarah

 
I was honored, in this interview, to sit with my friend and FFMTW contributor Willie as we discussed this scripture together. We are drawing toward Advent, and coming full circle through this first year of Faith from the Margins to the Web.

“This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” said Willie. “Some definite changes are coming, I guess for mankind and everything. Well, I guess that we’ve got to get ourselves ready for our Lord and Savior, to get things in order.”

“It’s interesting that you said that” I said, “because it was that word, ‘birthpangs’ that stood out to me, too. In the midst of all those images of death and destruction, Jesus chooses that image of giving birth. Now, I don’t mean to be overly self-disclosing here, but I want to say for a fact: giving birth is painful! Worth it, of course but without a doubt, painful. But it isn’t pain for no reason…it is for a wonderful reason. It is leading to something new, something wonderful at the end of this process. There is this birth outcome that is so beautiful because of what you know is coming. It changes this whole passage for me to hear that word.”

“You know, that makes me think of my own mother. She was always reminding me of how things were, and I would come up running behind her wanting to know more. When I think about it, it was really my Mom who got me interested in the Bible, because she would tell me the beginning of the stories and I would be wanting to hear her tell me more and of course, then I’d have to be quiet and listen. It would be lessons like this, where I was small and I wanted to know what was coming ahead and she would tell me…and keep me guessing, too.”

“We always want to know what’s to come, don’t we?” I said. “I mean, think about it: this was 2,000 years ago and people wanted to know then what was happening. They were feeling like the end was near and Jesus was reminding them: this is still a birthing process. We’re not done yet!”

“You know, that’s true!” said Willie. “When Jesus was on the cross, and it was like this moment when there was the thunder and the lightning and heaven was starting to shake…you know, it was at that moment people were looking around and thinking ‘oh wow…this man really WAS the son of God!’ It’s like we are just waiting and waiting for that moment when it comes clear, when we can’t ignore it, so we can really see and believe. But you know, it’s really been right there in front of our eyes the whole time. The other story my Mom used to tell me is how you’d be walking with a friend, and maybe that would be when the Lord would come and if you weren’t ready, that friend might be whisked away with God and you’d be left standing there. That always got my attention!”

“I have to be honest” I said, “it is the stories of destruction or these ‘left behind’ stories that are the hardest for me. When I was growing up, I was often told stories about all that end-time, apocalypse destruction or told about how I might be left behind if I didn’t get right with God and it would terrify me. Truly…for me it was terror, and I became so afraid, even afraid of God. It look me a lot of years to reconcile these images that I’d be given of a destructive God, and the images I held and cherished of a loving God. But it helped me…and still helps me…when I think about the way that things torn down make room for new growth. It’s like pruning away trees, or here, like birthpangs. It also helps me to think about it a different way, too. I know you’re grieving your friend, and I’m grieving some friends, too. So the lesson I’m reminded of is that when we are walking with our friends here on earth, we really never know how long we have to cherish that relationship. And so, it becomes important to be present, to see God in the face of the other person right here and right now. I think there isn’t just a ‘here’s what might happen…” message, but a ‘pay attention right now so you don’t miss seeing God!’ message, too.”

“You know, that reminds me of something really important” said Willie, “I mean, I’ve been battling on with dialysis and believe me, that too is painful. And I could so easily just be stuck in the pain of it or wish to be taken way. But then, I remember that I have my own place, my own battlefield right then and there. And why not there? You know, because that is where people are aching and hurting. I have a role to play and thing that need to happen right then and there!”

“It’s your mission field” I said, “You were wondering to me before we started what mission field you were called to. But maybe, where you are right now really is your mission field.”

“That’s true, that’s true” said Willie, “I mean, just think about my friend Dave. I had to work hard at first because even though we were walking together through our treatment, we did not see eye to eye. He saw my skin color, and I saw his distrust. But it didn’t stop, and we persisted and God prevailed. It was like birthpangs! I mean, he would actually whine and complain and I would think, “you are acting like a baby!” and now I realize: it was truly like a baby because those were true cries of pain, that he didn’t have words for. So, we kept walking together, I would be beside him and pray, and try to be a comfort to him. We took the time, and we both learned to see Christ in each other, no matter our differences.”

“I think you just hit right on what Jesus was talking about here” I said. “We have so many opportunities not just to wonder what will happen in the future, but to see God here and now.  Those birthpangs are a message that there is something new, something happening right here and now.  We just have to keep our eyes open to see God at work.”

Holy Waiting

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study for Advent 3:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:6-8,19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Authors: Willie and Sarah

In full disclosure, this isn’t an interview between two strangers.  This week, Faith from the Margins to the Web features Willie, who is an inspiration on my journey.  Willie is a regular at the Friday Red Door Healing Service at the parish I serve, and has been part of the circle of people who have been formative for me as a seminarian.  He listens intently to the way the Gospel lesson breaks open for me when I preach and teach; he gives me regular feedback about my sermons; he asks me questions about holy scripture as astute as any seminary professor; he writes his questions down during the service and studies them at the public library.  Last year, Willie was homeless and squatting in a garage.  He finally was able to find housing and attend to his health which had been deteriorating.  Now he spends hours each week, sitting in dialysis, reflecting, writing and inwardly digesting those scriptures while praying for the dialysis staff, his family, his friends, this world in which we live.  Willie redefines for me what it means to live into holy waiting.

This week, I sought out Willie’s expertise so we could examine the Gospel for Advent 3 together.  In our bible study, this wise and learned man of city streets and dialysis clinics shared his Advent wisdom of holy waiting with me, and we likewise share it with you.

Willie reads the Gospel Lesson: John 1:6-8,19-28

“You know, Sarah, basically, when it comes down to it this is a Gospel that tells us that the Lord Jesus is there waiting for us. And that’s it. He is always really going to be there for you and that’s a comfort right there. But, in this Gospel, he’s getting ready to make his first appearance to these people and I can’t help but think…they have no idea what they are going to be in for!  I don’t even know how I would behave if I was there.  Imagine it…with my little sandals, garb, and everything, hearing about a messiah and getting ready to see Jesus for the first time, seeing him do the things that he’s going to do.  I would have no idea what we were in for!”

As always, Willie found a doorway right into the scripture.  I responded: “I love that, and I think that’s so true for us now too. Maybe when we study this scripture, we look for predictability or familiarity, because we think we already know the story about to unfold. But then, the reality hits you just like that.  We never know the story before hand!  When you follow Jesus, you have no idea what you’re in for. But when you follow, you can be assured that it’s going to be an adventure.”

Willie was nodding, “That’s right! When I read in the bible how people saw what he did, they were hooked. They followed him everywhere. And I think that alone caused these people to be like, “what is going on here? Who is this guy?”

“Yeah, I like that.” I said. “That’s really a good model for us to think about. What I was also thinking was that this gospel gives us a description of John’s identity and identity is an interesting thing, because we have the “us” we know and then the “us” that we show the world.  I think we get to see a bit of both in what John says and does!  So, I have a question for you…how would people, who know you, describe your identity? Like John, what ways do you try to live into your identity or your sense of what you’re called to do?

“Oh, this is getting deep here now!” Willie chuckled. “I think that for me…well, I just came back from dialysis…and I think most of the time, people look at me like ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he so quiet? He doesn’t talk to people much.’  But, here I am, talking my tail off here with you!  But, the thing is that I know something they don’t, and that is that I know what’s making me quiet.  I never forget this…I’ve read it in scriptures, and in religious books. They talk about the stillness and that when we are still, that’s when God can talk to us. And if we are quiet, people notice…in that that kind of scenario like the clinic…a lot of people just talk and talk but aren’t really saying anything. When they see someone like me that’s not you know, falling into that same pattern…well, that quickly in itself draws them to say ‘what is he doing? Why is he so quiet? He hasn’t said a thing.’ But see, I’m listening. More importantly, I am trying to really get into the Word. So, when everyone is finally quiet, it’s like…yeah, that’s what I want.”

I breathed deeply and held that holy silence with him for a minute.  Then, I breathed the words: “Be still and know that I am God.”

“You know, Willie, sometimes, I think…well, I don’t really believe God gets bored with our prayers but sometimes I realize how I can rant on to God with like 10,000 things I’m praying about. But I think what I am really craving and what God craves of us is to just be present and to be still. Sometimes, that knowledge transcends words or transcends all those requests.  Stillness is very powerful.”

“Yes, that’s true!” agreed Willie. “I believe there is a blessing just for doing that. I think that in the bible there are probably other prophets that found that out, too. They just were quiet and things would be revealed to them from God.”

I decided to share a little of my own inner life, too. “That question about how people may describe my identity is interesting to me. I think people know me in a lot of different, specific ways. But, when it comes right down to it, I’m really still myself in all these different ways. You know, when I’m Sarah the professor or when I’m Sarah the preacher/pastor or Sarah the friend.  I show different parts of myself at different times, to different people, but there is a core of who I am that belongs to God and that always finds a way to come through. People tend to describe me as cheerful; they seem to notice a smiling or lightness about me. It’s interesting because, to be honest, sometimes I’m not feeling that at all.  I’m prone to feeling stressed or anxious, actually. But I try to start my day and pray to be present for whatever emerges. You never know who you are going to encounter or what’s going to come your way. So, I think being present lets God work through us. In other words, I hope that what people are seeing is that I’m not just some nice, smiley person; I hope that what people see is an identity that is reflecting the presence of Christ. That’s what I strive to be, sometimes by getting out of my own way. Not letting a bad day or a bad attitude get in the way of letting God shine through.”

Willie smiled, “Well, I figured I’ve come back to you many times. The way how you deliver the sermon and stuff on Fridays is with self-control and everything. I don’t sense any nervousness or anything. Even just reading out the program, you have a tendency to keep us all calm….if we are in a rush, just listening to your voice helps us slow down.”

It made me happy to hear that. “I have to say Red Door is probably my favorite half-hour of my week. Not that I don’t have other times that are important, of course, but it is very…well, it feeds me spiritually.  Sometimes, I get really busy when I’m preaching or leading or listening, but that time and space always feeds me. That’s one of those times when I hear, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Willie continued, “I think that’s like what I was saying. That little dialysis area, where I am at to do what I need to do…because I’m in the Word when I’m there, I hear different things. Also, you’re aware of how people may be mocking you or saying foul things and all you’re doing is focusing on the Word. But you’re hearing all these other things with your ears and I’m saying: ‘Go on Willie, go on, don’t let this effect you. Have the self-control to get something out of this. You opened up the book, continue reading it.’ And there’s a little battle going on right there. Because when people can’t help it anymore, some of them come up right up to me there and say ‘What is that you are reading? What are you doing?’ Because your behavior has been so quiet and somewhat withdrawn. That alone is causing them to peer in and figure out ‘What is he doing?’ And sometimes, I’ll just stop, smile, and know, to some extent, it may be driving them crazy for a good reason. All of this I’m doing just to read the Word. And, don’t let me get started about writing. Because sometimes when I do that, I’m now going to take it a step further and actually communicate with God right there on the paper.”

I could imagine this scene playing out, just like Willie could picture John the Baptist. “I  think of you in that space, making something that could be an arduous, awful health task, something that no one looks forward to, and making it into a holy space. How has the dialysis bed become a holy space? It’s because you invite God to come in.”

“That’s right” said Willie.  “By the time I get ready to finish treatment, whatever people are thinking, that’s when I fool them all because now I’ll probably show some of God’s love right then and there as I get ready to leave or find some way to be a service to them. You know, just do little things and not be in a hurry to just run off. But, to be a service in any way I could. And, say a little something as I get ready to go. You see, I believe that is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, I feel cornered or anxious or inside I’m saying ‘let me just get out of here.’  But, I think that’s when He just says ‘no, no there’s some other people you can help out and say a kind word to before you go.’ Because everyone usually has some degree of excitement when they are free from the machine. No more needles or needles coming out. You’re free to do whatever you want.”

I realized when Willie said that just how much we take that freedom for granted, “And you’re experiencing that freedom. We don’t realize the feeling of freedom or appreciate it until we lose that.”

Willie responded very affirmatively, “Yes! And sometimes I actually come out and say that to whoever is listening to me. “It feels so good to be free now.” They have been telling you for hours, don’t move your hand, stay still, and sometimes I have gotten a little upset. When I see myself going there, I look for the book. It’s stuff that I have written down that comes from the Lord that I feel is important to me to write down in there. It can be a comfort, a rescue, for me to just open it up and that’s the right place for me to do it. I hope and pray that it is making God’s day because I’m taking the time to read His word and understand it. Just like he said, at least try.  It’s what we can do.”

Advent is a season of holy waiting; for the Messiah to appear, for the Word to be made Flesh and dwell with us.  Whether our daily routine is an office, a street corner or a dialysis clinic we are easily caught up in the chatter that can distract us from our true identity in God.  Willie’s wisdom is revealed in the simple power of holy waiting, of focusing on the Word with us, residing in our lives, and opening us to God who meets us in stillness with the words, wisdom and knowledge we need to live into our true identity in Christ.  Wherever you are, whoever you are: may stillness find you during this season of holy waiting.

The Big Unknown

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said,
“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The Big Unknown

A Gospel Reflection for Advent 1, Year B
Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors:  Steven and Davis

“This says a lot to me,”  began Steven after reading through the Gospel lesson,  “there’s a lot in here especially about God’s grace and being aware that he is coming back to earth. And, that he will be with those who are suffering. And, that we should be aware of this coming because a lot of people don’t believe that God is coming back to this earth but he is coming back, by this reading from Mark. I know it speaks a lot in here about grace. And, I don’t think a lot of people know the true meaning of what grace really means.”

Davis was intrigued, “What does it mean to you? What does grace mean to you?”

Steven responded thoughtfully: “God’s unforgiving love for the faults and things we have done in our life that is not right.  He grants us this grace, His grace.”

Davis pushed these thoughts a little further, “It’s interesting you use the word grants.”

“Well,” said Steven, “I shouldn’t say grant…we don’t earn it. We’re really not worthy of God’s grace, not ourselves. But God, you know, willingly gives it to us because of His love for us. It also speaks about humility.”

Davis was being drawn in by these words flowing from his bible study companion.  Steven, a very humble and quiet man, finds shelter and community at church-sponsored lunches where he sits with a quiet smile for all who pass by, knitting sweaters and scarves from the big bag of yarn he carries wherever he goes.  Davis asked, “What is humility? How does that speak to you?”

Steven answered, “It’s showing love and kindness for those who are around you and those that are suffering, and giving a helping hand to those when you see they are in need.”

Davis echoed this, “Yes, that’s a good way to put it. And then, there’s that strong message about being alert, you never know when the father is coming. Keep alert, do not know the name or the time. Is that frightening, that we don’t know?”

Steven nodded vigorously, “To me, it’s very frightening that we don’t know the day or the hour that he is coming back. That’s something that tells me we should stay firm in faith and pray every day. You know so, that we will be prepared when he comes back, our souls will be right.”

Davis agreed, “If you know something, you can kind of prepare. If you don’t know it, like this, then you have to be prepared all the time.”

Steven noticed, “It says here, neither the angels in heaven or the Son will know. That’s something because the angels are in Heaven with God.”  Davis jumped on that, “…and even they don’t know!”

Steven continued, “Yeah, they’re up there with the Lord and they don’t even know…it’s the big unknown.  And then it says the generation will not pass away until these things take place. So, that’s talking about us.   It says heaven and earth will pass away but his word will not pass away. But, I’m a little confused because why would heaven pass away?

Davis was equally puzzled, wrestling with this, “I know, I know.”

Steven continued to dig deeper and wrestle with the lesson, “I could see earth…earth could pass away…but, it says heaven and earth.”

Davis stepped deeper into this wrestling, too, “Maybe…I don’t know, I’m just thinking Steven…but maybe it means that this earth as we know it will be different in some way. Maybe it will be something different. Maybe it will be something new. To me, God’s grace is infinite and what he has created seems to me will somehow continue on at some point.”

Davis continued to ponder this, “I guess I have to believe is that our souls, our lives go on in some form…in some way, that maybe we can’t understand.”

Steven responded, “In some form, maybe a heavenly form.”

Davis kept reading and paraphrasing the lesson, “If we pass this earth, which we will, we go to some other place which we don’t know. Heaven and earth will pass away…but my words will not pass away.”

Steven found the emphasis for him: “Will not pass away.  His Word will not pass away.  To me, it’s spiritual and enlightening because it’s telling me, you know, all this is coming so you need to pray every day, and just be aware of what’s going on in the world. Trying to read the newspaper, your bible, and being aware of what’s going on in the world.  The Word of God will not pass away.”

“Do you pray regularly?” asked Davis.

Steven replied, “Yeah, every morning.  I read the bible also but I usually pray every morning when I get up. Sometimes, even before I go to sleep at night.  I think this whole verse means that we should pray. We should watch as well as pray. I think that’s what it means. That we should watch as well as pray. And stay spiritually within his Word and his teachings.”

Davis paused, pondering another question he wanted to ask: “Earlier, Steven, you used the word humility. You used it as looking out for others. I thought that was interesting that you used the word humility. To show humility and look out for others. It seems like it gives our life direction, an action…looking out for others, showing humility, showing concerns for others.”

Steven nodded, “I think a lot of that humility is when you pray, you see there is a need and you know you can help.”

“Right” said Davis, clearly turning this over in his mind. “It’s interesting when you see it that way…seeing that there is a need is another way of being alert, and that is what we’ve been reading. Looking out, being alert, being aware, keeping watch. Keeping watch seems like it allows you to see things. Needs, opportunities…God works through us in these things, when we keep awake.”

Steven echoed that, “I hear people use the expression all the time, that God works in mysterious ways.  And even if we don’t understand it all, God can keep working through us.”

Davis smiled, “Yeah, even in ways that we don’t understand often.  Thank you for this conversation, Steven.”

Steven echoed this: “I’ve enjoyed this, it’s been wonderful today.”

As Stephen and Davis prayed with each other again to close their time together, the mystery of Advent seemed to enfold them.  Being awake, living in humility, opening our hearts through prayer are ways in which we move from this temporal and finite world toward the infinite, immortal, unknowable coming of the Word made flesh. At moments such as this, we catch a glimpse of the Big Unknown into which we are invited to participate.