Gifts of possibility…

21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23, Year B)

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Mark 10:17-31

 
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

 

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web contributors: MaryAnn and Ann*

*Ann is a pseudonym for someone wishing to remain anonymous.  She has spent the past several years living in a tent community.  MaryAnn is a parish volunteer serving at the parish where Ann comes for a weekly, community lunch.

 

“I love this scripture” said MaryAnn, when they had finished reading.  Ann was reflective. “Wow…wow…yes, there is so much in there.  First there is the person who perceives himself as bound to the law…and Jesus isn’t saying that is bad…but the Lord knows the condition of people’s hearts.  And so, Jesus tells him to sell what he has and so his reaction is shock!  He went away grieving, which is a pretty powerful statement.  If you love anything more than God…possessions or whatever…it can become an idol in your life.  I think the lesson is about surrender.”

“The thing I hadn’t noticed before is where it said, ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.'”  said Mary Ann. “Jesus wasn’t scolding him, he was loving him and sharing out of love…that puts a whole different context on it.”

“Oh yeah, that’s good point” said Ann, “that’s like a living example of how we are to be, to love people even when we’re pointing out something hard.  Not to shame: to love.”

“And, I also like that old analogy in here of the camel fitting through the eye of the needle” said Ann. “I mean, when I heard that it was sort of like Jesus was saying, ‘well, you can get through, but your stuff can’t!”

Both women laughed at the truth of that interpretation.

“The older I get” said Mary Ann, “I’ve had to realize that it’s all about God’s grace.  I try so hard to follow all the rules, but sometimes that becomes its own problem, like we’re trying to earn it.”

“Yeah, we can get to a point where we think we have to earn God’s love” said Ann, “and that is never how God is.”

Mary Ann continued that thought, “It makes me realize that it comes with our lives, that we think we have to earn people’s love and so we think we have to earn God’s love, too.”

“Right” agreed Ann, “it isn’t performance oriented.  That’s where you have to keep reminding yourself that God is always there.  There is no reason to doubt it, or need to earn it.  But it can be hard to accept that.”

Ann and MaryAnn shared stories of their families, and people in their lives who may not feel that love was always freely available.  As they continued to discuss this scripture, their conversation turned to the idea of God as good.

“I think about that idea of God as Good, the only true Good” said Ann.  “Because we live in this world, it’s sometimes hard to separate God, the good, from all the not good things that happen in our lives.  Either you can freak out when stuff happens, or you can press in and trust God.  I’ve had to learn not to analyze everything, as if I can figure it all out.  Sometimes I have to say, “I can’t make sense of it right now, but God’s got me.  I’m God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.  I’m held in God’s hand, and I will just accept that today.”

Ann shared a story from her life, “The other day, I was struggling a lot about what I didn’t have.  But I had this huge box of socks and I looked at it and thought, ‘I know I don’t need all of these socks and those of us who are homeless always need socks.  Today, I’m going to bless people with these socks.’  So, I washed them out and hung them to dry.  Then later that day, I went around to people I knew and just blessed them with a freshly washed pair of socks.  It changed my whole day, and I knew that even in that action I was experiencing God.  I mean, I don’t wake up every day and think, ‘oh, God’s gonna bless me today!’ but I’ve learned that this happens, that I can truly live in that love and the minutes and the days begin to take on meaning, to make sense, to remind me that I am truly living in the love of God.”

“I love that” said MaryAnn, “It just reminds me how beautiful it can be when we trust.  It’s hard because I’m such a planner.”

“Me, too!” said Ann, “and that is what makes me so tempted to try to figure it all out.  But I am trying to live, to fully experience the love, to totally trust God.”

“I find your story so beautiful” said MaryAnn, “because it flies against what people think: there are people who give, they are people who receive.  But, actually, we all can give.”

Ann thought about his, “I mean, well here’s another thing: I love to cook.  It’s one of my gifts.  Now, I’m someone who tents and that means I’m technically homeless.  But, I have a stove and things I’ve collected.  People know that they can bring me what they have and I will cook it up into something good and then we get a chance to cook, and eat, and break bread together.  Someone might have a guitar and we would sing.  People look out for one another and in that sharing, we feel this love of God.  It’s really profound, to not think about what we don’t have but to truly experience the beauty of what we DO have.  God has been so  gracious to me, still is gracious to me.  We always have so much to give, more than we sometimes realize.”

The conversation between Ann and MaryAnn continued, sharing their experiences of God’s love through unexpected times and in unexpected ways in the situations of their lives.  At times, as I listened to their voices recording, I couldn’t even tell who was speaking.  There was a beauty in their rich gift of sharing stories, laughter, and noting the presence of God in their lives.  This gift that we receive in story-sharing is, I whole-heartedly believe, an experience of divine love.  Our experience of God isn’t about our social location, but instead about our divine location with each other and hearing each other in full, real and non-judgmental ways and co-resident in divine love and grace.  What is real comes into clarity; what is superficial falls away.  We pass through the seemingly impossible eye of the needle of human difference, finding instead our connection in divine relationship.  With God, truly all things are possible through the love which binds us all.

 

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On the mountain or on the street

Epiphany 6, Year B February 11, 2018

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 9:2-9

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Faith from the Margins to the Web co-authors:  Steven and Mary Ann

 

After he finished reading the Gospel lesson, Steven noticed something: “The last part here, it really took me by surprise:  As they were coming down the mountain he ordered them to tell no one.  To me, that’s pretty heavy.”

Mary Ann was surprised, too. “After they had seen something like this, you would think they would want to talk about it, to tell everyone, not to stay quiet about it!”

Steven was putting himself in the perspective of those disciples, searching for answers: “I know, I know…what is the time period? Jesus hadn’t even died yet.  Did they even know about the resurrection?  How long did they think were they supposed to be quiet?!”

Mary Ann and Steven walked through the timeline of the Gospel story together and realized this event, the Transfiguration, was all happening at a time when his disciples really weren’t even “getting it” that Jesus was going to die, let along being raised to life again.

“I guess he was saying to them wait, to wait until he had been risen.” said Mary Ann.
“But you know, it is interesting because he specifically took these three disciples with him: Peter, James, and John.  I guess that is because he really trusted them, and he didn’t want to do this alone.  He wanted his friends to be with him.”

Steven narrated, “So, then they went by themselves, no one else. And then they saw him transfigured.”

“You know, when you were reading…” said Mary Ann “….when you read that part that they were white like no one on earth could bleach them, I immediately thought of my mother. She was a firm believer in Clorox! She would bleach things to an inch of their lives, but I guess this was even whiter than that. So then, after all those dazzling clothes, Moses and Elijah appear…long dead, and yet there they are.”

This seemed to put the story into a new perspective for Steven: “Yes, and that’s when Peter said to Jesus,  ‘It is good for us to be here…’ because Peter wanted to make three dwellings. Wait, did those dwellings ever get made?”

Mary Ann answered, “I don’t think so…I think maybe Peter wanted them made, like he wanted a house or something, some place to stay.”

Steven nodded, relating to that feeling, and continued: “they didn’t know what to say, for they were terrified.” Yeah, I’d be terrified, too!”

The story began to come together as it may have felt for us in our everyday lives.  Mary Ann pondered a bit:  “I’ve never seen a vision, so this is so interesting to me, imagining what it must have really been like for them, which I think is what Mark is trying to convey. Have you ever seen a vision?”

Steven responded a bit shyly, “Um…Yes. My mother. She appeared to me one morning, and then she disappeared.”

“Wow! Were you terrified?!” asked Mary Ann.

Steven continued, “Yes, well, honestly Yes, I was! I was in the kitchen, I put on a pot of coffee. And she was there, right there, and then she disappeared.”

“Was this not long after she had passed?” Mary Ann wondered.   “I bet you might have wanted to build a dwelling so she would stay too.”

Steven nodded, remembering, “Yeah, that’s right. It was about 8 or 9 months after she had passed. I was shocked that whole day. I told my sister about it right away. I didn’t have time to say anything, and I didn’t really know what to even say, but I had to tell someone, you know. So, that all makes me think…that’s why I think that even though Jesus ordered them, how is it that they could have not told anyone?”

Mary Ann was thinking about this, too.  “Sometimes, there have been times that I felt the presence of people my mom, my dad, my sister…but I didn’t see them.”

“It tells me, it reminds me that our spirits live on.” said Steven.

A light bulb went off for Mary Ann.  “You know, that makes me wonder: what if Mark was trying to convey that it was that the spirits of Moses and Elijah who were there, living with Jesus? I guess part of the message here may be that their spirits…the spirits of these two great prophets lived with Jesus, and Jesus lived with their spirits.”  she paused. “Huh.  That’s really interesting.  I mean, I never really thought of that.”

Steven went back to read the prayer again:

Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross…

Mary Ann was having another epiphany. “I’m reading that again all new now. That’s a powerful message. We all have crosses to bear, don’t we. For me, one of my crosses is loneliness.”

Steven appreciated this, and it resonated with him.  “Yeah, that can be painful. Loneliness can be very painful. It can feel like you don’t have no friends.  Loneliness, depression: these are our crosses.”

“I go back to that prayer, too.” said Mary Ann:  that we may be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.   So, like Jesus was transformed, we can be strengthened and changed too.”

“That word,” said Steven: “His countenance.”

“And countenance usually refers to face” added Mary Ann, “so reading it that way: we, beholding the light of his face, can be strengthened to bear our cross. It’s as if looking at the light of Jesus, seeing His face, makes us strong enough to bear our own crosses.

“Right!” Steven responded. “Loneliness, depression, fear, uncertainty…these are the things we have to look to him for, to pray about.”

Mary Ann added, “what I’ve noticed is that I have faith that my prayers reach God, but what I’ve noticed is that my prayers change me. When I pray about my fears, it helps me. Maybe that is God working, making me feel stronger.  What do you pray for?”

Steven answered thoughtfully, “I pray for my family, my friends, my brother and sister. I pray for the homeless, because I was homeless once. I don’t pray to be rich, but I do ask God to give me enough, to provide what I need. I pray to get through month to month but I don’t pray for all those riches. I have enough.   Yeah, I pray for the homeless all the time. I was homeless for almost a year and half. When I moved here, I was on a waiting list for housing but it took like a year and a half. It was so, so hard. It takes so, so long.”

Mary Ann responded with empathy, “I can’t know what that’s like but it seems like we could do better. I’ve heard from a lot of people that they did everything that was asked of them, but it still takes forever.”

Steven felt affirmed, “Yes, it does. I was just about ready to give up. I thought, if nothing changes soon I’m going back to Roanoke to live with my brother and sister. Then, I saw my case worker again one day when I was just ready to give up and she said, ‘Guess what? An apartment came through!’ and I was moved in later that week.”

“Well, good for you for sticking with it!” said Mary Ann.  She was still floored by imagining spending that much time homeless. “What did you do? Did you stay in a shelter?”

“Well, I did sometimes.” answered Stephen, “But I did a whole lot of sleeping on the street.”

“Wow. That’s got to be scary.” said Mary Ann.

“It is, ” Steven reflected. But then he told a hard truth, “but some of the shelters, they are so overrun and so overcrowded.  People don’t bathe, people want to fight, and I am a quiet and gentle person so that was hard for me.”

The picture was becoming clearer for Mary Ann, “Wow, so the street seemed safer…”

Steven confirmed it, “the street WAS safer for me than the shelters.”

Mary Ann asked, “Did you have a community? You know, that would look after each other?”

“Yeah, I developed friends.” said Steven. “We’d get together and find a place.  It’s safer sticking together than sleeping alone on the street. They are still my friends. A lot of homeless people go it alone, though.”

“I really admire you.” acknowledged Mary Ann. “I mean, I just don’t know if I could do it, if I could survive…”

“It’s a rough life” admitted Steven,  “It’s a very rough life.  But, this Gospel reminds me that God was always with me.  God is always with us.  Peter and those up on that mountain, they knew that.  I bet they wanted to try to tell people what that was like.”  He was thoughtful for a moment, then added, “But even if it’s hard, like when Jesus ordered them not to say anything, we have to try to follow his word.”

This week, after listening to Steven and Mary Ann reflect on this Gospel, I am reminded that the light of Christ, the face of Christ that we see in the eyes of our heart, is present with us whether we are at the height of the mountaintop or the roughness of the street.  It’s why I’ve come to know through these conversations and interviews that the prophets of the street corner have so much to teach us, so much to convey about the ways in which God is present even in the places where it is hard for us to imagine God being.  But, there is no height or depth, no dark corner or noisy shelter that is hidden from the Light of Christ.

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And they followed…

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study for Epiphany 3, Year B

Contributing Authors:  Lisa and Alisha

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 1:14-20
After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

“And they followed him!”

Unanimously, both Alisha and Lisa agreed this was the phrase that stood out to them.  Lisa, a regular at Friday’s Red Door lunch, had been living unsheltered for the past year.  Alisha, a student at the University, was eager and interested to hear Lisa’s story as she grew in her own life of faith.

Alisha expanded a bit on that idea of following, “I mean, they just left everything, they were like “ok, let’s go!”

Lisa nodded, “It reminds me that sometimes you just have to let things go, put it aside, be ready to follow.  I mean, everybody has family and everyone has problems, like I’m having one now with my mother. But we have to believe that if we take those problems to the Lord, and if we give them over to Him and follow Him, that He is there to lead us through.”

Alisha added, “to me, what caught my attention was that part when it ways ‘after John was arrested, then Jesus came.’  It reminds me that they had to realize that Jesus was the one person to follow. If they didn’t listen to John, now they knew they had to follow Jesus.  One thing happens, then the other.  It’s hard to do that, when you see problems arising in your life, like they saw everything happening there with John, and then to have to let go of everything and follow Jesus like the disciples did. It makes all the difference, though.”

Lisa spoke with honesty, “That is so hard to do! I’m sorry to say that…

Alisha interrupted her kindly, “Oh, no, you have no need to apologize! It is hard! It is really hard.  We are only human and we experience those times when we’re praying, we’re trying and it seems like just problem after problem in our lives. That’s when we are suppose to keep our faith and it’s when its the hardest, too. I read this thing one time that said, “Doubt your doubts” and that really spoke to me. I thought, I don’t need to doubt God. What I’m doubting is that sense I’m having that I somehow need to fix everything, or that everything has to all be OK before I can follow.”

Lisa said, “I’ve always liked that saying, ‘when one door closes, another opens…’ and I had a hard time believing that at first, but I’m starting to come around and see it now. Just because I don’t have a place right now…a “home” home…that doesn’t mean I can’t work or get a job. People tell you one has to come before the other but it wasn’t working that way for me.  I had to figure out what would work for me, to go through the process of thinking about what I could do and was being asked to do and now that I’m doing that, I really believe it.  Door close, but others open when we follow.”

Alisha was in agreement, “I know just what you mean! It’s like we are waiting, hoping for something better. And God is saying, ‘just wait; I have something wonderful planned for you, in fact its already happening’ but it’s still hard for us to believe it.”

Their conversation continued.  Lisa explained her own understanding of this passage, “I’m seeing God working right now in this Gospel in wanting to take care of those disciples.  It’s hard to follow but Jesus is wanting to take care of them, too. In my own life, I know that I am grateful to be still alive and I’ve learned that God provides for me what I need and when I need it.”

Alisha said the Gospel spoke to her as well, “It reminds me that I can be focused on all the little things that I want. But as you said, there are people who don’t have even big things I can take for granted: food, shelter, clothes, a jacket or something…sometimes getting what you really need is like finding blessings.”

Lisa related this to her own life, “Now that I don’t have any of the luxuries I once thought I needed, I’m grateful for what God does provide me in my life. It’s a hard lesson to have all that and then to lose it all. But God has been with me; I see God that way in my own life right now.”

Alisha spoke about where she saw God, “In this passage, I see God in that whole thing of following him. It’s one thing to go to church and listen, but another thing personally to decide ‘I’m going to follow you with my whole heart, even when troubles arise.’ In my life right now, I see God working in me trying to pray more and read the scriptures more, even if there aren’t a lot of people my age doing that. But, I’m not just doing that for me, or to make other people happy. I’m doing it to follow God.”

Lisa empathized with her, “I remember feeling that growing up. My family didn’t go to church much, and I didn’t really know a lot about God. But, ending up out here living on the street, often times we turn to churches and it has made me want to learn more about God, about what where and how God is leading me.”

Alisha asked, “What do you think this scripture is saying to us?”

Lisa responded, “I think it’s reminding us to just trust and believe in the Lord. If you don’t get your way, don’t throw a hissy fit and walk off. Maybe the thing we want isn’t the best thing for us. We want it all, we want to have it all perfect. We think “this has to be.” But it isn’t always the way it seems. Like for me, a couple weeks ago there was a job that I thought was perfect for me…a five minute walk, easy. But, I didn’t get it and then I was angry and disappointed. Then, just one week later, I got called about another job which is really wonderful, at the hospital. I didn’t think they would take me. But they did! I got that job and it is right up my alley. I start as soon as they process my paperwork.  I didn’t get what I wanted at first, but then another door opened and its one where I will get to help people.”

Alisha was genuinely happy to hear this, “What a blessing to see an example like that for you, not giving up but waiting and following and knowing God is working things out.”

Lisa offered another example, “I have been working for months to get into community college, too, to be a substance abuse counselor. There was a problem with my high school transcripts and I was ready to give up. But the admissions counselor there reminded me: don’t give up. I prayed, and I trusted God, and I kept going and being persistent. It worked out, and I didn’t give up. I’m going to be starting there in January, too!

Alisha was excited for her, “That’s so great!”

Lisa reflected a bit, “I think of it this way. I know how good it feels when someone notices you, speaks to you, reminds you that God is with you. So, I try to do that. I don’t walk past people. I stop and say hello, talk to them. I never knew how much that meant but now I know it means a lot. That is something I can always do.

“We need more people like that!” said Alisha, “People who can see others and remind them, we are all human, too.”

“I’ve tried to do that.” responded Lisa. “I think it’s a skill that I have and something that I’m called to do. People deserve to feel like human beings.”

Alisha was beaming: “You’re like a light! These people may feel like they’re in the darkness but you are a beacon of light, reminding them that to have that hope.”

She went on to reflect on her own life, “My own gifts and skills…well, I feel like God gave us a voice for a reason. I can be shy at times, but when I feel shy, I remember that God gave me a voice. If more people would raise their voices, and remember that God is with them and remind other people of that, the world would be a better place. So, I think a gift is to use my voice, to use the voice that God gave me.”

Lisa echoed this importance of this gift, “You’re right.  You never know. Someone you pass by might be depressed, might feel like they are ignored or worthless. They might even have had thoughts of ending their life. And the smallest thing, that time it takes to say hello, could make all the difference in the world. You never know. I’ve been that person. I’ve been the homeless person someone smiled at. It changed my whole day, my whole world. Hearing ‘have a blessed day’ actually touched me and changed me.”

 

When we follow, our lives can change and so can the lives of others.  Sometimes following seems so challenging, so huge, so drastic.  But the big, huge, drastic difference can come in the empathetic, compassionate voice that sees God in another human being.  Thank you, Lisa and Alisha for listening to your call and for sharing your story with us this week!

Joy to the World!

A special edition Faith from the Margins to the Web for Christmas Day

Contributors: Mary and Mary Ann

Collect for Christmas, read by Mary and Mary Ann:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Wrapped up in joy and love, the familiar words of the Christmas story are woven together with a few of the beautiful reflections shared by Mary and MaryAnn in their Christmas Day bible study together:

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“No home does not mean no heart” said Mary.  She recalled a story that had been on the local news: “there was a man who was homeless, and he had only three dollars.  But this woman ran out of gas and was asking for help.  Other people wouldn’t give her anything but he gave her that three dollars…everything he had.  It turns out, she tracked him down and helped him get an apartment and a job.  Sometimes blessings come from unexpected places.”

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

“The part that stands out to me,” said Mary Ann, “is where it says the angels say ‘don’t be afraid.’  Sometimes Christmas can be a scary and sad time for people; it’s good to remember the angels saying not to be afraid.  That isn’t just a message to the shepherds; it is a message to us, too.”

Mary agreed, “We all have a guardian angel; even better, we have God with us!”

They both agreed: “That’s really the story of Christmas, right there: to realize that we have God with us.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  

“One of the other things I realized when we were reading this together is that I experience God through music, too” said Mary Ann.  “We always think about the angels singing, and it made me think about how music is one of the ways that I have learned to not feel afraid.  Music helps us know that God is with us, just as here, the angels made it known that Jesus was born.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

“What stands out to me” said Mary “is that part that says, ‘Let’s now go to Bethlehem and see the things that are taking place.’  Those shepherds, they took a step to go and to find the baby Jesus.  They could have stayed in the fields, stuck to their work.  But instead, they decided to go.  They had to take that step, just like we have to take steps and seek out God in our own lives.”

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Mary said, “God comes in all kinds of forms; I want to do a better job, and reach out this year to the people who are here in my life.  I think that is one of the ways that we can make God known.”

Mary Ann added, “I think part of what I need to do more of is what Mary does…to ponder things in my heart.  Sometimes whatever I’m thinking, I say out loud.  So I think that maybe this Gospel is saying to me, ‘ponder it in your heart, think it through.’

“I like the way you put that…it’s true for me too!” said Mary.

To Mary and Mary Ann, the great gift of this Christmas lesson was ringing loud and clear:  “What everyone really needs to hear, again and again, is ‘Don’t be afraid!’  God has us.  God is with us. Don’t be afraid!”

Joy to the world, indeed!

Merry Christmas to everyone, from Faith from the Margins to the Web!

Nothing is impossible…

When I was preparing these Advent bible studies, I accidentally assigned two pairs of participants to discuss Advent 4.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do about this at first, until I listened to these beautiful, distinctly different interviews.  The stories and styles were unique, but they had one thing in common: the realization that while sometimes things do not turn out as we expect, God is always working through even the seemingly impossible places in our lives to open doors of hope and possibility.  Perhaps this is true even in my own accidental over-pairing this week, too.  So, I have decided to share a bit of both interviews on this week’s blog.  Thank you to Charles, Candy, Dem and Elaine for sharing your stories and illuminating how, like Mary and Elizabeth, we come to realize through the stories of our lives that nothing is impossible with God.

Advent 4, Year B:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Contributing Authors: Charles, Candy, Dem and Elaine

 

Dem and Elaine: Watch out for Gabriel, and watch out for God!

By the end of their interview, Dem and Elaine were laughing so hard together that neither of them wanted the conversation to end.  These two women had never met before, but by the time the interview wrapped up, they realized they shared so much in common with each other that it was uncanny, and their very different yet serendipitously similar perspectives on life brought joy which bubbled over from them.  Listening to their interview, I could practically hear them finish each other sentences as they allowed the Gospel lesson to unfold in their conversation.

Elaine began the conversation after the reading by telling the story in her own words: “So, what we’ve heard then is this: Elizabeth is pregnant, she’s six months along.  Her cousin Mary is sitting down there in Nazareth, engaged to a man but she’s still a virgin.  And along comes this angel, Gabriel, and says, “I know Mary, it doesn’t make any sense but the Holy Spirit is going to visit and poof, you’re pregnant.”

Both women said, at the same time, “Watch out for Gabriel!”

In the midst of their laughter, Elaine picked back up and said, “But then Mary says “how can this be?” and then the angel comforts her and tells her something…the same thing that her cousin, Elizabeth, had also been told by the angel: nothing is impossible with God.  Now, we didn’t read this part today but there is also this other part of the story where Mary goes to stay with with Elizabeth, and when she arrives,  Elizabeth sees her and she just knows by looking at her, “You’re pregnant!” but at the same time, she also knows immediately that this is no ordinary pregnancy; this is God’s child she is carrying.”

Dem had a light bulb of awareness go off:  “OK!  That’s the part that I didn’t get before.  I mean, I know the story because it’s the Christmas story and all of that.  But the part I didn’t get before was the preparedness.  How Mary really thought about this, how Elizabeth also knew this.  I really, really like that.”

Elaine said, “I’m always amazed at how Mary was able to say yes to this, to give herself over to it, especially at that time and in those circumstances.  That giving it over to God is always hard for me.”

“Oh yeah” said Dem, “I can’t do that.  It’s that ‘let go, let God’ thing and I’m not good at that.  I know there’s something bigger than me out there but sometimes I’m not so sure that I can really pray, or find the words.”

Elaine said, “It’s hard, I know.  But I think not all prayer is talk, talk, talk though.  Sometimes prayer is just being there, opening yourself up, being prepared to hear what you need to do, which isn’t always what you want.  It’s scary to do that. Have you ever tried that?”

“I’m uncomfortable just thinking about it,” admitted Dem.  “There’s so very little that I’m in charge of in my life right now that I try to grasp onto whatever I can.”

Dem went on to tell her story.  She had been to several schools with degrees in Education, Theatre in work experience in Horticultural design.  Her path has been very circuitous, though, and not everyone was supportive of her as a woman returning to school in mid-life.  Finally, she found herself in a position where she fell to her backup experience in landscaping, but even in that manual work she hadn’t been able to find work other than something seasonal.  But, as she was telling to to Elaine, Dem added:  ‘actually I think something else is opening up for me.’

“Not everyone knows I live in a shelter” she said, “but I tell my story because I’m grateful to have support and to have places like this and case managers to help me regroup.  I had to think: is this really what I want to do?  And then, the flooding in Texas happened and I thought, I could help there.  So, my shelter case manager got me signed up to volunteer with the Red Cross for hurricane relief.  I went and did all the training but at the end, they said to me, ‘we aren’t going to send you.’ I was so disappointed.  Then, my supervisor said, “But, it’s because we think you would be a great case manager because we see how well you work with people, how you can relate to them and how your own story of needing shelter lets you be open to others and so resourceful.  Let us train you while you’re being supported by the shelter, then we’ll hire you and you can be a part of our travel team, if you’re willing to relocate.’  So, here I am, I’m just finishing up my training.  In a few weeks, I’ll be going wherever they need me, working for them.  And, I’m really excited to be doing something that feels like its so needed for others, and to help others like I have received the help I need.”

Elaine’s voice was soft, rather like Elizabeth’s moment of recognizing the greatness of God at work. “You know, Dem, I think that the cream rises to the top!”  they both chucked. Then, Elaine spoke the truth that was becoming clear between them: “Do you know what you’re doing?  You’re asking for God’s guidance.  You’re opening yourself to God’s will.  You may not know it…but you’re doing it.  You just showed me that.”

cropped-red-heart-in-hands

 

Charles and Candy: Holy Spirit, Healing and Hope

Meanwhile, in another room, Candy and Charles were talking about hope and healing.

“What stands out to me is the Holy Spirit.” Candy said immediately.  She recalled how there were times in her life when it seemed like it would be impossible to do something, but that in praying, she found comfort in the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Charles agreed, “In my own life, I see God as being in my heart and in my mind.  It’s like God puts something inside of me, like love, and it’s there for people I’ve met and even people that I haven’t met.”

As they shared their thoughts on this Gospel lesson, although it wasn’t just the general, mysterious ways of God that stood out to them: it was their direct encounters with the impossibility of profound healing that stood out in this Gospel of hope and reassurance.

Charles related his story first: “Well, one day, you know…I don’t really go to see my Mom as much as I should.  So, maybe it was that my Mom didn’t want to tell me, but I saw a friend and he said, “Look, hey, you need to call your Mom…she’s sick.”  And so I did, I called her right away.  She said, “I didn’t know how to tell you, but I found out that I have breast cancer.”  I felt bad for not calling, and I felt terrible for her.  So, I got off the the phone and I prayed to God.  I prayed, “Please God, heal my Mom.”  And I don’t know what I expected because, you know, well…it just doesn’t always happen that way.  But God did heal my Mom.  She doesn’t have cancer anymore.  And that was a changing point for me, you know, in our relationship, too.  So, I know God was there.”

Candy related a story of unexpected healing in her own life.  She shared about her now late husband, who was having very painful struggles with his health at the time: “It just kept going on, week in and week out.  We’d been to the emergency room and I was just so tired.  But, I knew that I had to come to church.  I felt prompted and pushed by the Holy Spirit to come.  So, I came here and there was this visitor, who was someone that I knew who was an Episcopal priest from another part of town.  I didn’t expect to see him, and of course we knew one another and I knew that he was someone who I thought of as having a real gift of healing.  So, after the service he said to me, ‘is everything alright?’ and so I told him about all the pain and troubles my husband was having.  He said, “can we pray together?” and of course, I said yes.  So he held my hands and we prayed; I was actually holding onto his sleeve, the sleeve of his jacket and I thought about that woman, in another Gospel lesson, who had the terrible issue with bleeding and who touched Jesus’ robe.  So, when I got home, my husband was healed from all of that pain and bleeding.”

“Wow!” said Charles.

“Wow is what I said about your mother, too!” said Candy.

There was a moment of quiet between the two of them, the holy space of realizing that it wasn’t just a long-ago story of the impossible, but of the Holy Spirit making the impossible happen even within the comings and goings of their everyday lives.  As they closed the interview and turned off the tape recorder, they decided to pray for each other, too, before going their separate ways.

Nothing, indeed, is impossible with God.

These stories and struggles of life’s impossibilities: struggling with health, hoping for healing, being older in a youth-seeking workforce, humbly trying to find a place to lie one’s head, the power of realizing one’s potential but not knowing how it will happen.  This week’s story sharing seemed to break open the disbelief that keeps us from seeing and knowing God in our midst, opening up to the possibilities that even when we think we are incapable of allowing God’s movement in our lives, we are often living into divine possibility in those very ordinary moments of our extraordinary lives.  No one in these interviews would say that their lives were perfect, and they are certainly not without struggle or loss.  But God was and is clearly present and moving.  In this sharing as we round out the Sundays of Advent in anticipation of all that is to come, we are filled with the hope and expectation of all that is possible with God.

Glory2God.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camel Haired Messengers of God

A Bible Study Reflection for Advent 2, Year B

Authors: Tom and LT

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

Tom had just finished reading the Gospel lesson when he jumped right in:  “This is one of my favorites…have you ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar, or Godspell?”

LT hadn’t.  He was quick to apologize, “No, I have not.  Honestly I did not grow up reading scripture so this is all very new to me.”

Tom continued, gently explaining to this younger college student some less than familiar detail about the story of John the Baptist.  Most people know Tom as a quiet, hard-working man of the street who works manual labor jobs whenever he can.  They are unlikely to realize his profound knowledge of scripture, although his quiet devotion to weekly church services and his interior calmness clearly source from somewhere.  As he confessed to LT, “I even spent a couple years considering the Catholic priesthood.”  It had been a while since his seminary classes, but he was happy to share more about some of his favorite details from the story of John the Baptist:

“The part I always liked about John the Baptist was, well, ‘living on locust and wild honey.’ It’s just one of those things you can’t ignore. Wild honey is easy enough to do, but I don’t know – I’m not supposing that they were chocolate-covered locust. No, believe me, those things are like really really ugly…they multiply like flies, and they eat everything. So him eating locust when usually what they’ll do is eat all the food in a particular area and drive the area into famine because they’ll take food plants as tall as corn in a matter of minutes…it’s eaten down to the bare ground.”

“Being clothed in camel’s hair had to be pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes the medieval monks would deliberately wear a hair shirt; it’s incredibly itchy and it would help them to remember one of their vows is poverty, and at the time they had this whole thing about ignoring the body and moving towards the spiritual. So the hair shirt, which was very uncomfortable; it helped them mortify themselves; a denial of flesh kind of thing.”

“They were related, you know…John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus.  John was born first, but both Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth heard that they were expecting around the same time. And she…Elizabeth…was considered too old to be bearing children anymore. And Mary, obviously with a virgin birth, well that’s a real eye-opener, but in the same family one comes first and the second one follows – just to prepare the way. To get into people’s head that someone greater than John the Baptist is coming, ‘I’m just his messenger,’ but a messenger helping Judea and Jerusalem prepare for the coming of the rightful king. Which is pretty cool.”

“Unfortunately, though, John was beheaded…he became very politically unpopular. King Herod was quite corrupt, but he was excellent at getting along with the Romans, who allowed him to be the king of Judea. The last thing he wanted in the world was anybody talking about a new king coming; that a messiah was coming. Half the people thought he was going to be a political messiah…this savior to come save the people here and now. But all Jesus was focused on was being a spiritual messiah that would enable his people to deal with jerks like Herod and the Romans, who were conquerors and anybody that fought that would usually get crucified.  Well, we know that story.”

LT was listening intently; you could hear his building interest in this story winding piece-by-piece out of Tom, telling it as though narrating his own block-buster movie.  It was LT who posed the next question: “Where is God in this story, in your own life?”

Tom grew thoughtful.  “God in my own life is a quiet presence that’s kind of a background hum. Not all the time, because I get distracted like anybody else could. I get a little bit too concerned about things that I really shouldn’t worry about too much. You know, like am I going to have enough income? I’m approaching retirement, it’s like (jokingly) ‘oh can I retire in style?’ You know, that kind of thing. Well, the big answer for that one is ‘no’ for me, but I’m not going to be concerned about it, you know. But I always felt that God was a good, strong part of the background hum.  The bible is helpful to me because it helps me understand what exactly that hum means. If you’re standing near a raging river…well, the sound of water will always be a background hum in your life, but it has nothing to really tell you about how much just the raw power for change that river can contain in itself.”

This resonated with LT: “I definitely would agree, I feel the same way. Just from my own experiences, I feel like God wouldn’t constantly be there trying to control you. He’d kind of nudge you towards the right direction whenever you got too far off what you should be doing.”

Tom continued, “I always hear some people saying “if God cares so much about us, why does he allow people to die and little children starve to death and people getting murdered or overdosing or whatever.” Well it’s no question that God could do that, but then we’d never have free will if that were the case. We’d never be self-governing. We’d just be little wind up toys.”

LT agreed, “Free will, in my opinion, is what makes life worth living.”

“Sure,” said Tom, “risks and all. It’s funny because when my friend overdosed, I had warned him like five times “You don’t know what’s coming in from Mexico. You got fentanyl, ketamine, and heroin all mixed together and it’s going to kill you if you keep going with it.” And one day, he disappeared for a second…came back two minutes later he was carrying his stuff premixed. He went around the corner, it was at night, came back, and just fell out right in front of us. He had the antidote for opiates, naloxone, he even carried that with him. But it wouldn’t have done a thing about the ketamine. And the fentanyl was highly questionable if it was even strong enough to do anything like that. Oh, and he was drinking on top of it that night. It was just tragic how and why it ended. It’s an unreal number of people that die from overdoses. It’s been something like 36,000 deaths this year so far.”

This message felt very real to LT, too:  “Yea, it’s a real epidemic. I obviously can’t comment on why other people do it, but my friend did it because we both grew up in such a way that our parents were always busy. We were young, we were stupid. We didn’t have much else to do, and we figured that the best thing to help our families was to just try to make our own money. For a while we both got into dealing, but the difference was that he started using. For him, it was just an escape from life, and it didn’t end too pretty…ketamine, that’s something that seems to come up too much.”

Tom knew this, too: “Yea, really. And the opiate antidote is just totally ineffective on that.”

LT began to see the message, “I guess the best you can do is just learn from others and hope to carry on.”

Tom became nostalgic, “Yea, and try not to ever get into the same mindset that leads to that. Our friend had any number of issues going on, but there was no one of them that would lead to a deliberate suicide…but he was doing hardcore drugs since he was like 14 years old so he was already used to them. And the “not me” syndrome was really clear in his behavior, “oh it’ll never happen to me”, but, well it did.

LT could empathize.  “I am almost positive that is a magical side effect of doing drugs. Everybody has that “not me” syndrome.”

“Exactly,” Tom said, “it’s magical thinking.  I’m glad that I was able to avoid it, and still will. You know, I’ve had broken bones and I’ve had oxy and things like that. They alone are too good. As soon as I was feeling like I could deal with the pain, it’s like “no, I don’t want another prescription, no thank you.” But you hear about these kids whose moms and dads are on some hardcore high-strength oxys, and they leave it in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Kid hits eleven, twelve, thirteen…”Gee, well, mom and dad take these all the time and it seems to work for them.” You know, they’re in the adolescent struggle: “let me try a couple.” Which might be fine and dandy, but when that becomes ineffective, then they’re on the streets looking for the real hard stuff.”

The message was becoming clear to both of them at this point.

For LT, it all related back to the ice-breaker we had done earlier, naming the saints in our lives:

“In the ice-breaker, I mentioned my friend Brian. Brian was a close friend of mine who I grew up with and basically viewed as my brother. I consider him my angel because I accredit him with why my life has turned around. When we were in our early teens, we used to sell drugs as a means to cover our own expenses and wants without adding financial burden to our respective families who were already working very hard to make ends meet. Eventually, the financial burdens that our families bore became very prevalent which added onto other struggles that we were both going through related to school. Looking back now, it wasn’t anything unbearable, but in the moment as a teen, it feels like the world is falling apart. As a coping mechanism, Brian started getting into hard drugs. This went on for several years, and although I never joined him, I still held the same depressing mind set as him. This all changed when he overdosed. His death made me rethink my life and realize that everything I had been doing was wrong. I did everything in my power to turn my life around from that point on. I stopped selling drugs and distanced myself with what I viewed as the wrong kind of people, I started to talk and connect to my family more, I began to value school and the idea of aiming for a better future instead of feeling sorry for myself and giving up. As the years went by, everything seem to fall into place. I made new friends that were better influences on me, I became less bitter and violent, I finally had a good relationship with my family, and I went from someone who was constantly flunking tests and mouthing off to teachers to someone who excelled in school and was no longer seen as a troublemaker.”

Tom nodded, “Oh yea, I could see how it could be a life changer if you were paying attention. So it was the actual act that delivered the message to you?

LT continued, “Yea, before I didn’t really care about school, or anything. It was just a lot. Thinking back now, I was just being really unreasonable or just stupid. And now what, 3-4 years later, I’m the first in my family to graduate from high school and the first to go to college and hopefully graduate.”

Tom and LT, strangers before that day, continued to exchange stories with each other, delivering messages of hope and peace amid lives of complexity, loss, temptation, challenge, repentance, and reconciliation.  The sound track to their lives continues on, the continual hum of God’s presence making God known through messengers of all forms: the rough-haired wake up calls of addiction and death, the belovedness of friends and family, the support of people who once were strangers but who find common ground, as we all do, in the Good News.

God has a way of bringing us together on this journey, reminding us that even in the darkest chapters of our human lives, we are never alone. Pairing Tom and LT together for this bible study was, by all human accounts, purely random. But not so much with God, who knows our stories and knits us together through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Good News sometimes breaks through in those people and situations we least expect, even those whose camel-haired appearance and locust eating ways might otherwise cause us to turn away.  As Tom said, it’s all about paying attention.

Who or what are the camel-haired messengers in your own life?