Seeing and Believing

Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

John 20:19-31


When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors:  Steven and Harrison

 

Steven and Harrison are both men of great faith, who met each other the first time for this bible study.  Their conversation unfolded deeply and beautifully, even from this first meeting.

Steven began “What I really see the most out of this is the amount of disbelief, between both the disciples and the Jews, because he says the disciples had locked the doors in fear of the Jews, it says.  But Jesus comes and says, ‘Peace be with you’ and he meant that message for everyone…the disciples and the Jews…because he wanted peace.”

“I never really thought of that!” said Harrison, “the locked door, and the fear it represents.  That’s really neat. I’m struck by that word ‘peace,’ which is what Jesus says. It is the first word he greets people with after the resurrection.  The way you mention: fear, behind locked doors. Peace was probably the most important thing for them to feel and to believe.”

Steven and Harrison talked about the scripture…the way in which Jesus showed his hands and his side to help their belief.  But Thomas, not there during that first meeting, couldn’t quite fathom the belief that other disciples showed.

“Thomas wanted to verify it for himself” said Harrison.

“The other disciple tells him, ‘We have seen the Lord,’ but Thomas hadn’t seen for himself” noted Steven, thoughtfully. “But he said to them, unless I see the mark and feel the nails, I won’t believe.  That’s Thomas saying, ‘I need to have the experience you had so that I can believe!’ ”

“They probably did believe, before he died” said Harrison, “that didn’t fit into the idea of who the Messiah was.  But when they saw him, it was like their belief was resurrected. We hear Thomas doubting, but really, they all shared in that doubt.  It raises an interesting question to me: you know, you can think you believe something, but then when things don’t materialize the way that you expect them to, your belief crumbles apart.  Something doesn’t work out the way I expect God would have it turn out, and that shakes my belief.”

“Sometimes bad things happen for good, but it’s hard to hold onto that” said Steven.

Harrison replied, “But, when you do see God show up at the very end, faithful and true, even when the very bad things happen, then your faith is a little stronger.” 

When it came to discussing how this Gospel related to their own lives, Steven and Harrison both had poignant answers.

Steven described how it was for him:  “I have faith, even though I’m not really sure God is going to answer my prayers.  I think, God may have something in store for me. There are many times that my faith was shaken, that all the doors closed.  But then, God would lead me out, show me a circumstance, show me a way out that I couldn’t see before.”

Harrison related the most difficult time in his own life, when his son was tragically killed in a car accident.  “I had just finished watching a movie where the message was about someone who was sending his family a message that he was OK with dying.  Then, this phone call comes. And I thought, ‘God, how could you send me a message like that, but not stop the accident?” My life has been a lot of wrestling like that.”

“You know” said Steven, “I think our whole lives are going to be about questioning God.  I learned that you can question God, and talk with God, and still believe. Maybe sometimes God has to show Himself.”

“I wonder if Jesus came that second time, just to see Thomas, just to show himself because he knew that Thomas needed that in order to believe” said Harrison.  

Steven said, “You know, it reminds me.  Sometimes you have to look around and see your life, see the way God is working in your life.  If we don’t open our eyes to it, we can’t see. Then, when we open our eyes, we see how God is working.”

“I wonder, Steven, what does faith add to your life?” asked Harrison.

“Faith adds comfort, hope, resilience, and truth” said Steven, with thoughtful intention.

“For me, it’s that something wakes up in me because of faith” said Harrison.  “It means that whatever it costs it will be worth it to do the right thing, the loving thing, the honest thing.”

I wonder…

Palm Sunday, Year B

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: MaryAnn and Kayu

Conversation came easily to MaryAnn and Kayu, even though they had never met until that afternoon of our Faith from the Margins bible study.  They had chatted together and solved many of the problems of the world before the tape recorder was even turned on.  But after they began taking turns reading this Palm Sunday narrative began to hone in on this idea of “obedience” as it emerged in the Gospel lesson.

Kayu shared what stood out to him. “I have to come back to that word, obedience. It wasn’t easy to be obedient. It look a lot. Coming from Japan, for the first 18 months I was fighting every day because its what I had to do. But once I started becoming obedient, I learned not to fight back. They had seen me fight, but there comes a point in time when you have to let it go; when you have to let that control go to God. Where would it have gotten me in life to stubbornly keep that control? It would have made me a not very nice person. A fighter, street person, always in jail: anything could have happened. Then, at some point, when I stopped fighting that’s when people got curious.”

“So it really took a different kind of strength to stand than it did to fight.” said MaryAnn

Kayu agreed: “Yes, spiritual strength.”

“I’m not a physical fighter” said MaryAnn, “but I fight a lot with the way mentally I want things to be. I can wish that life was different, or that someone else hadn’t done something. I can fight verbally sometimes and that same lesson applies: we can choose to just stand.”

“I had a good teacher!” noted Kayu.

MaryAnn chuckled.  “I was just going to ask how you learned that!”

Kayu share his story. “It was my Grand-father. He was a musician, and the first African-American allowed to walk into the white house to play a private concert. It was for Theodore Roosevelt. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and he was a great man, but his words were always, “No matter how big or how small, you need to make a mark in life. If you can touch one, it makes up for the thousand. I decided that was what I wanted to do. I started fighting for homeless people in 1992. I asked God: what can I do? What kind of mark can I make on this earth? And that is what God told me.”

Mary Ann was genuinely curious: “But, how did you do that? I mean, what was it like to hear God?”

“Well, it was easier than you think.” said Kayu.  “I was praying…I had just come home from the war. And one day, I went walking and I was just struck by seeing so many homeless people in parks, on the streets. I thought, “This is not what I fought for; this is not what I should be coming home to.” I realized that I had to do something about this; I didn’t almost die for a country where people were homeless and dying and other people could look at the window and see it and not do anything. I’m a Marine…we are supposed to do things that help make a path for change. And to do that and come here and think: what are we doing? Why are we, in this country, having people who are homeless and who have skills and degrees. I said to God, “I’m a nobody, what can I do?” and God said, “Just do.” I had to obey and as I did, the ways I could make changes become clear to me. It is about knowing your calling, and also being willing to do it. There are both in today’s story. People need to hear: don’t try to do it on your own. Listen to God. God will tell you what you need to do.”

MaryAnn built on this, “Wonderful answers come through prayer. If I’m praying consistently about something, it isn’t that the situation changes but I change.”

“And that DOES change the situation” said Kayu.

MaryAnn echoed that: “Right, exactly! That is the way that God can be working, changing us which makes us and the situation change.”

The final sharing about this Gospel came through an exercise in which they were asked to share “I wonder” sentences about the reading from perspective of any of the characters in this Gospel lesson.  MayAnn and Kayu both entered deeply into this exercise and took turns in a free flow exchange of questions and thoughts:

“I wonder if Jesus knew that the disciples would obey him?”

“I wonder what the people who were watching were thinking?”

“I wonder what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do with the colt.”

“I wonder why the people who say this guy coming in on a colt decided to shout Hosanna?:

“I wonder why they decided to lay down the palm leaves when they really didn’t know who he was?”

“And, I wonder if the Colt thought, “Why does this man want me? Is it because no one has ever ridden on me? Is it because I’m pure of heart?”

“I wonder what the rest of the Colt’s life was like? After that day, all those palm branches and all of those crowds…what happened after that?”

“I wonder how Jesus knew just where the colt was?”

“I wonder why they allowed the disciples to take the colt?”

“I wonder if they actually knew who Jesus was?”

“I wonder if people had the sense that there was something different about this event, this day, this person.”

Kayu became reflective as they shared this exercise of wondering.  “You know, when I did this, I put myself right back there. What would I have done, if I really didn’t know Jesus as Lord, but the man Jesus came up to me and asked me to do this. I wonder if I would have been so obedient?”

Mary Ann nodded, “Yes, I wonder: what made them obedient?  What compelled them to listen?

“Faith like a mustard seed.” said Kayu. “God moves our hearts, but we have to move our feet and follow.”

 

Thank you, Kayu and Mary Ann, for sharing your stories and your wonder with us.  I wonder, after reading this reflection, where God is moving our heart to see new opportunities to serve, and moving our feet to follow?

 

 

Divine Things

Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 8:31-38

 

Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

 

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Co-Authors:  Lisa and Raven

 

 

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Lisa and Raven are both first year college students, even though they are several decades apart from each other in age.  The joy between them was palpable, as was their commitment to the lives of faith that has accompanied them on the twists and turns of life’s journey.  They read the scripture out loud, together, before turning to the bible study questions.  Listening them reminded me that it isn’t our age or race or social position in life that matters: it is the focus on the truly divine.  In Lisa and Raven, we can hear more about finding God in the midst of what seems like the world turned upside down.  As they both point out, it’s all a matter of perspective: our own, or God’s.

Lisa opened with the bible study question of what stood out the most to each of them.  Raven responded, “For me what stands out is ‘get thee behind me Satan’ because it seems like he’s trying to assert his presence in that place, and Jesus just won’t allow it.  It’s like no matter how much Satan wants to get the upper hand, it isn’t going to happen.”

Lisa agreed, “I think that’s true because, well you know, Satan tries to get us to do the wrong thing all the time, which is why he needs to get behind me! [they both chuckled].  To me, the whole thing has a great meaning, but the line that just stands out the most is the one about setting your mind on divine things, telling the rest to move behind.”

Raven thought some more, “I would say also that “those who will lose their lives for my sake” seems to stand out to me, not just here, but in the whole Bible. The world can seem so topsy-turvey when we’re only looking at our human perspective on things but then God…Jesus…seems to be flipping everything around, but really they are not flipped at all.  Jesus is resetting it like it should be.”

“Yes,” agreed Lisa, “and to us, it seems like the world is being flipped upside down because we have a way we think that we should be, and when it doesn’t happen that way we get upset and turned around. We think, “Oh my gosh, things aren’t going right!” But things actually ARE going right, they are going in a way that may make sense to God even if they feel up in the air to us. I think: ‘this is messed up, I’m disombobulated’…but that’s my own thinking!

Raven reflected on this, “Yeah, I was just talking about that with the kids in my youth group last night. Just because there is a way that you think it is supposed to happen, that doesn’t always mean that is how it should happen. God will give what has been promised, but it may not look exactly like you think it would.  That’s a hard lesson for us.

“Right,” said Lisa, “we just don’t realize it at the time!”

Lisa continued: “Maybe you thought your goal was one thing, but they you start walking the path and other things open up in ways you couldn’t have imagined. And you realize, the path that you’re walking is the right one even if it wasn’t the one you thought it would be. It’s just amazing how that works. One minute you’re over here, and the next minute you’re over there. And you wonder…how did this happen? And then, I’ll sit and think about it later and I realize that it’s gotten me to a place where I needed to be all along. It’s like now, and the process that has led for me to be back in school. It felt like it took so long, but I learned about perseverance that I never knew I had. I needed the lessons I’ve learned and now I’m in it, I’m ready, and it’s going really well!”

This resonated with Raven: “It just makes me think, how many times has a door closed and I’ve been so upset. And then, things work out in a way you’d never expect. I was so sure about wanting to go to school somewhere else; I was sure I wanted to be in Princeton or at UVA. But then, things just kept happening. The doors just weren’t opening. I didn’t get good financial aid, I thought about taking loans. And then I looked again at VCU and I got great support, it was closer to home, and it was a decision that God allowed me to see as an opportunity. And now, I cannot imagine myself happier at any school. This is exactly where I need to be, even though I didn’t know that at first.”

“It’s my first year at school, too” said Lisa, who is now in a human services program at Reynolds Community College. “I’m working to be a substance abuse counselor and once I finish my Associate’s Degree, one of the places that I can transfer when I finish is VCU!” she added. “It’s something to think about, and it’s new to me. I’m starting out slow and I have choices which is something I didn’t even think I had before.”

Raven said, “It makes all the difference to have choices!”

The two began to discuss where they could see God in this Gospel lesson. Lisa began: “Well, right now I’m going through a lot with my family. I just lost my mother on New Year’s Day. She had a stroke, and it was really hard for her. I miss her, but I know that she would be proud of me. I feel that.  I see God in those places, where we are taking up our cross.”

Raven said, “I remember when my Grandmother passed away, and I was only 14. She had Alzheimer’s but it happened quicker than we thought. It’s so hard, and it’s always a grief for us. I think for me, I also see God in this Gospel right now in the part where it says, “Take up your cross and follow me” but in another way. I have a very headstrong family: they see something, they believe in something, and they are just going to go for it. But, you know, this scripture reminds us that our goals have to line up with God’s goals. I have to pause and look at all the things I’m doing and ask and pray, “is this what God has in mind for me?”

Lisa said, “Yeah, a lot of people have this question of whether something is my way, or God’s way. But, I think we need the time to actually see and feel God in our lives. I like how you talk about having those goals, though, because some people seem too quick to give up.  It’s about your goals but bringing them to God.”

Raven shared next, “This year, my biggest challenge is the verse I’ve picked for myself: Be Still. I’m always busy, always on the run. But, I have to remember that “be still” because it isn’t just physical stillness, but mental stillness. I need to be sure that my mind is still, that I can hear and listen.”

Raven and Lisa closed by sharing about what it means to set your mind on divine things.

Raven began the sharing, “I think for me, I used to think it was more like: ‘don’t think about bad things, only think about good things’ but that isn’t really it. Now I think of it as searching for the Godly, even in the bad things. Remembering that in the midst of that, to reorient my focus to the fact that even when there is something bad going on, there is something greater still and that is where God is.”

“Right,” said Lisa, “there are a lot of people who ask, ‘Why do bad things have to happen to me?’ But bad things happen to all of us sometimes. If we got everything we wanted, every day of our lives then we really wouldn’t appreciate anything. We get stuck in ‘why me?’ but then, down the road, I realize that in every bad thing that has happened, there has been something good to have come from that.”

Raven said, “God never promises a trouble-free life; the difference is that even in the midst of our troubles in life when we think on divine things, we are never alone.”

“Like He says” quoted Lisa, “I will never forsake you.”

Raven and Lisa continued to talk together about their studies and the lessons that had unfolded for each of them.  God never does love us, or forsake us.  Sometimes, God comes in the form of people who once were strangers, who once seemed so different.  But really, when God is with us we have far more that unites us than could ever divide us.

 

three windows

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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Healing Welcome

Epiphany 5, Year B

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:29-39

 

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

 

Co-authors:  Dale and Sarah

Dale and I sat together in the chapel as we opened up this Gospel lesson together.  I hadn’t spent a lot of time talking with Dale  until today; he is the friend of several others who attend Red Door lunch and healing service regularly.  We’ve exchanged pleasant hellos but we hadn’t really talked.   Today, our bible study numbers were a bit uneven, so I filled in at the last minute.  What a blessing that serendipitous decision turned out to be!

As we began, Dale asked if I would do the reading since his eyesight kept him from being able to read out loud.  I noticed, even from the intent way that he listened to the Gospel, that he was hearing every word with a clarity most of us miss.

“I like that reading, I do” said Dale.  “I didn’t get that part before but this time I heard that James and John were there too.  Jesus was there, but the others, they had God’s word there with them.  I wonder, did they have power or something, like Jesus, to heal?

“That’s a great question, Dale!  I hadn’t even picked up on that.  Jesus does say at other times to his disciples that they have the power to heal, that Jesus gives others the power to heal in His name.  You know, I think about that a lot.  On Fridays here, when we have the healing prayer service, that’s something that is powerful to me when I say it each week before we offer prayers together in Jesus’ name.  I don’t have the power to heal.  It’s not like that, like a magic power or something, but when we hold a healing prayer service we pray together because we have been told that there is healing in God.  I’m not in charge of that healing: giving, or receiving healing.  But healing is there with us when we are gathered together because God is with us.  So, when we stand together, when I pray with people, it’s in the presence of that healing that God is made known to us.”

“You know, I believe that” said Dale.  He continued, “…because back in 2012, when I lost my eyesight from glaucoma, I was blind totally for about 18 months.  I went to the eye doctor and he said there wasn’t much hope.  I was imagining never seeing again, learning to read braille and stuff.  Then the doctor said, ‘there is this surgery, but its really 50/50 whether it will work or not.’  But, I thought, ‘I’m already blind, what do I have to lose?”  So, I had the surgery, but then there was nothing.  Six months went by, nothing.  Then one day I thought I saw light starting to come in.  So I started to pray, not begging but just feeling thankful to see light again.  And other people, they started to pray for me.  And always, those prayers were in the name of Jesus Christ.”

“That’s wonderful!” I said, “I think about that whenever we pray.  I may pray, I may ask, but we are asking in the name of Jesus Christ who is with us all.”

“Praying, you know, it’s like blessing.  We get blessed, we feel blessed.  But it isn’t about that.  It’s about passing along that blessing, that is also in Jesus’ name.”

Something else stood out for me, too.  “I keep going back to this part…about Simon’s mother…who is healed and then gets up and starts serving everyone.  At first I want to say, “hey, let the poor woman rest!” and then I thought about it.  She chooses to serve.  That is a show of love, a gift of family and community.  That is an action of thanksgiving and grace.  We can never say ‘thank you’ enough for our healing so we do what we do best: we serve as healed people, showing our thanks to God.”

Dale nodded.  “You’re right, because her way of serving, her way of saying thank you was to keep serving.  I’m just like her.  I wake up and keep seeing God.  My eyesight isn’t all back, but it is clear enough now that I can see light.  When I wake up, I say thank you God, because that light makes me know that God is there in that healing. And then I want to get out, and to serve others.”

“It’s like our thanks, our blessing, our healing are all together” continued Dale.  “I don’t know which is the right word to use.  But maybe they are all part of the same thing.”

I thought about this. 

Dale went on, “Maybe this blessing falls to us, because it is so present with us.  I ask myself, ‘how do I live into this blessing, this healing’ and I see that here in this place.  Here, there are a whole lot of people who feel shame and hunger and think they will be looked down on.  But they come here, and there is healing, and there is food, but there is also spiritual healing where we are fed. I’m surprised sometimes by who I see come into that service.  But you are never surprised…you just show love to everyone. I see that in you.”

I felt myself smiling; I was blessed by hearing this, but I knew the story was deeper than Dale probably realized.  So, it was my turn to share.  “You know, Dale, there was a time that I was one of those people who was least likely to come into a church.  You see, I was mad, angry.  Really angry.  Then, one day I decided to just go to a church not because I had to but because I wanted to…actually because I wanted to sing.  And that day, the clergy person seemed to just look right at me.  Instead of feeling judged, I heard him say, “All are welcome…you are welcome.”  I felt that in my entire soul.  I knew that welcome came from more than just that person; that welcome was from God.  That welcome was God.  And in that welcome is where I found healing from all that anger.  Slow, just like your eyesight!  But gradually, the light comes back in and we are filled with thankfulness and gratitude.  So, I want to live into that now.  I know there are people every week who come here feeling broken, angry, and not welcome.  I know exactly how that feels.  So, I stand in that place of healing I have known, and I pray.  My prayer is always that I can offer up that healing and welcome to others, too.”

“I notice that too” said Dale, “when you all say the prayers, you always say that at the beginning.  You know you are welcome, you can be here just as you are.  Welcome is a gift, and a blessing.  Welcome is healing.  You know, I’m glad this was our lesson today”

I’m glad too, Dale.  

 

Gifts We Have Been Given

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

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

 

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

 

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

Contributing Authors: Lynnette and Davis

After opening with a prayer, Davis and Lynnette took turns reading the Gospel lesson for Epiphany

Davis: “We’ve heard the Christmas message many times, haven’t we?” He went on to paraphrase the Gospel, emphasizing that for him there is such wide-spread recognition of the importance of this child. On the world’s terms, is he a threat or a great ruler? To Herod, he’s a threat. But to the Magi, there were something more that they were following: “The whole idea is they came from halfway around the world and left him treasures…what do you think all that means, for us?”

Lynnette was quiet, then laughed a bit and said: “I think maybe I need to start going to church more!”

“Don’t we all!” Davis chuckled in response.

Sometimes it can seem, from the corners of our world and the social margins that we are on that we don’t know enough, or aren’t spiritual enough, or aren’t something enough to be entrusted with how the Holy Scriptures open up to us.  But that isn’t how it is with God, present with us throughout time and in every corner of our lives, revealing truth that is in our midst.  It was Lynnette who seemed to experience that Epiphany unfolding in the thoughtful, deliberate response that she offered up next:

Lynnette thoughtfully reflected; “Well, if Jesus and God…the Lord…are the same person and Jesus was formed through his mother…well it seems to me that none of us would be here if it weren’t for God, as well as our mothers and fathers.”

Lynette continued, “So, that makes me think that I have to give thanks to God; I pray every night to God and then I’m thankful in the morning when I wake up. I didn’t have to wake up…but I did wake up, so that gives the day a whole new possibility.”

Davis nodded, “That’s a really good way to live; a great way to look at it, really. Every day we wake up and we realize that if it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t be here.”

Lynette spoke again, “God is good, all the time.  I pray to God, and I realize God shows me the way, too. Like today, I woke up and saw that it was a beautiful day. I knew I had to get up, to put me on a smile, to get here to this place. I mean, I know that it isn’t something I can take for granted, you know.  There was a time and place when I thought I was going to die, when they said I needed a transplant. But I knew, I knew that I didn’t have to live that way, that if I kept taking medicine and started taking care of myself it would work. I believed that, and I believed that was God telling me that.  And it has worked out, and that is why I thank God and why I come here.”

Lynnette also reflected about the gift of her family.  “I have three boys; I worry about my kids sometimes but they have their own lives and they are on the right track!”

Davis asked their ages, and was surprised when he heard her children were in their 40’s, “You look like you’re younger than that!”

Lynnette laughed, “I do hear that a lot.  But it’s true.  They are good boys; they grew up with me and I tried to be a good Mama. I taught them good manners, and to have a spirit of love. My own parents raised me right and taught me how to walk the right ways of this life, too, and so I pass that on.”

Davis smiled at her and said, “It seems like Spirit has been in your life for a long time.”

Lynnette said, “Well, maybe I don’t know a lot, but I do know that God is with me.”

“Does God ever speak to you?” wondered Davis.

“You know one day, I heard someone say my name, plain as day. I thought ‘is that God?’” But I didn’t have to wonder. I remembered my Momma telling me, when you talk to God, He listens. So I take the time, take that time now to just talk to Him. I tell God my heart.”

Davis asked, “So, is there anything in here that we learned and we want to tell God?   The take home of this Gospel for me is that this ends up being the way that we celebrate Christmas: we give Christmas gifts…”

Lynnette added, “…and we give love…”

“Right!” said Davis. “We end up re-enacting the scene of Jesus being born, and the Three Kings are always there, giving gifts. It’s like we keep it going.  I want to be thankful for that gift of Jesus’ birth and the ways that we keep celebrating it.”

David and Lynnette shared about how each of their churches have celebrated Christmas over the years. A sense of welcome and giving emerged in their sharing, the commonality of love as the expression of Christian faith surrounded them.

Davis began to wrap up their conversation: “So, since we know that God is here right now, what would you tell God…what would you say…can we just talk right here, to God?”

Lynette chimed in immediately. “Of course we can!  I would.  I’d tell Him I love Him!”

Lynnette started their prayer with that: “I love you, God! Thank you for waking me up in the morning. Thank you for letting me be here. I love you God, and I learned more about You today, Lord and mighty God, through my friend Davis here.  Thank you for being with us.”

Then Davis prayed:

“God I thank you for Lynnette. She reminds me that you are always here. Sometimes I don’t pause enough to give you thanks. But, thank you for being here with us today. Thank you for allowing us to share together today. Thank you for reminding me of your loving presence, here with us today.”

Thank you, Lynnette and Davis, for the gift of your sharing and the light it brings to open this season of Epiphany. And than you, most of all, to God for the gift of your presence of love with us today and always.

Love came down at Christmas

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year B

Contributing Authors: Sheryl and Alisha

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:1-18

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

“Well, first thing I will say is that I know there’s God,” said Sheryl, “I’m a witness and I will give testimony to that!”

“I know!” said Alisha, “Me, too.  I’ve been seeing Him work through other people, and that makes you want to seek Him for yourself.”

Alisha and Sheryl spent many hours a week in the same setting but they had never met; one was a student and the other a part-time service worker, nearing retirement, in the same University.  They had both come to Red Door that Friday for bible study and lunch, just to be a part of this project which intrigued them.  Within seconds, it was clear that they had far more in common than anything that divided them.  It was also clear that what stood out the most in this Gospel for both of them was love.  As Alisha described it, “the Love given so freely by God.”

Sheryl added, “another word that stands out for me is peace.  It took me so long to get to a place where I could feel peace, but now I’m beginning to really feel that…it only took 58 years!” she joked.

“But, once you have that peace, you never want to let go of that!” Alisha agreed.

Alisha continued, “I appreciate the part where John acknowledges who he is and who he is not.  He isn’t the light, but he comes to be a witness and testimony to the light.  I think that’s what we are all called to be: lights in a dark world.”

“Amen!” echoed Sheryl, “and I do try to do that.  It’s why people call me ‘Grandma Sheryl” because I try to always have a kind word, a good word for people who need it.  And, it feels good because I show love, and I feel love.  Everyone comes to me for prayer, ‘please pray for me’ they ask, the young and old.  That’s a beautiful thing.”

“That is beautiful!” said Alisha.  “I’ve been trying to read the Bible and pray more, and I’m starting to feel that peace, too.  So many people are going crazy, feeling so lost with all that’s going on with the president, with the world.  They start to feel hopeless.”

That warmed Sheryl’s heart: “I love hearing that from you, the younger ones!  I always tell my children, if you can stay with the positives, you won’t be following the crowd, you’ll be leading with love.  And they are leaders, just like you!”

“It’s hard” said Alisha, “Sometimes I’m the one person out, who isn’t like the rest, but then I remind myself I know who I live for.  What I get from living for God is greater than the criticism I get from others.  It helps me to see Christians who really live into it, though, instead of people who want judge.”

“Only God can judge” said Sheryl, “you tell them even Tupac said that!”  she added as they both laughed.

Alisha added, “I like this part: ‘We all have received grace, grace upon grace.’  God gives us grace every day.  It isn’t because we deserve it, or just for people we like…it’s a message for everyone.”

“The world can feel hopeless, but it isn’t hopeless,”  Sheryl chimed in as well, “People get despondent, like over Trump in the white house, but we have to remember God is over him, too!  And we have to pray for everyone.  We have to pray for him, too.  People forget that but maybe that means he needs prayer most of all!”

As their study together came toward a close, Alisha and Sheryl named the words where they see God:

“I see God through my Children and Grand-children.” said Sheryl.  “I pray and give my thanks to God every day and every night.  I keep a grateful spirit and use my words to pray to God.”

Alisha said, “My word would be ‘service’ because when I see people who live into their faith, who prepare meals and help others, and do work to make their communities a better place, that is how I see and know God.”

The wisdom of the ages flowed between this pairing of a college student and Grandma to the community as they shared their stories of church-going, struggles, favorite foods and family stories.  Love comes to unite us, to bring peace, to dispel the dimness of our vision with the hope of eternal light and life: “I love our conversation!” Alisha said at the close, “I told you, everyone comes to Grandma!” added Sheryl.

And with that, they prayed.

 

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.

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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.