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

Presence in the Wilderness

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 

Now 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.”

 

Faith from the Margins Bible Study Authors:  Willie and Davis

 

A note about the authors:  Both of these remarkable men have been a part of Faith from the Margins for a while but they hadn’t met together before.  Today, it took a half hour of the three of us crossing paths with each other to get into the same place, but it was worth every minute.  I was grateful to introduce Davis, a parishioner at a downtown Episcopal parish and Willie, who attends daily lunches hosted by churches in the city after his several-times-per-week dialysis sessions.  Willie blesses the staff and volunteers with his years of wisdom lived through deep faith and complex human experiences.  Davis gives of his heart and soul with every interview and interaction.  I’m grateful to know both of today’s bible study authors, and each has richly blessed my journey.  I hope their conversation will sustain each of you as we set forth together into the wilderness of the holy season of Lent as well.

 

Willie and Davis each took a turn at reading the Gospel lesson and listening to each other. Davis wondered what stood out for Willie:

“One of the things that stood out for me is that the more closer Jesus was coming to God, the more the devil was trying to now confront him, to say ‘who is this Jesus and what is he about?’”  Willie chuckled.  “It makes me laugh, you know, it’s the deliberateness of it all…just as soon as Jesus was baptized, as soon as the world started to know who He was, the devil started messing with him for those 40 days.  That’s what really gets me!”

Davis agreed, “yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, because Jesus was baptized and you think that’s the high point of the story but then it says the spirit drove him into the wilderness.  It made me think: was that the good Spirit, or a bad spirit?”

On that point, Willie was certain: “Oh, I’m sure it was the good Spirit.”

“Maybe to test him?” wondered Davis

“Yes, Yes!” said Willie, “and well, that’s the thing.  It’s just that obviously, the devil really knew there was something special about this guy.  He found him out there all alone, by himself.  I can just imagine the wilderness…here it is what it is…wild animals and all…and then the devil shows up to test him in the midst of it all.”

Something else stood out to Davis, too: “That last part, after the 40 days, where John the Baptist shows up.  Jesus came to Galilee, and John has been arrested.  It sounds like then Jesus says and does exactly what John was saying, ‘repent, the kingdom of God has come near.’  It’s like Jesus picks right up for him in the work he was doing.  Remember, John says, “I will baptize you with water, he will baptize you with the holy spirit.”

Willie reflected on the whole passage, “I think, in a way, God is tell me the same thing is happening with me in my own life at this time.  The temptations are out here, testing my faith and trying to see what is inside my heart.  Do I love him enough to follow and obey, with all that is out here in society and stuff.  It’s only fitting that this would be the passage for today (chuckles).  It’s like that whenever I come here and do these bible studies!  It’s like whatever we read just speaks to me, it’s like God is saying, ‘here’s a little lesson I want you to take in right now!”

“Do you think he’s testing you, Willie?”

“Well, yes!  I mean,  I’m a human being, I can waver.  But through it all, I’ve been trained up since I was a little kid to know how not to just lean on my own understanding, but to always come right back home to Dad, so to speak!  I play music and stuff, religious music for my church, and I know my folks would be proud of me doing that.  But, to walk every day and to hear and see all that is out here in society, well, that’s like a wilderness sometimes.  And my disease, you know, that’s my biggest test.”

Davis was thinking, “Maybe…the Gospel talks about being tested…but in some of those parables, Jesus heals and then says ‘go away, and sin no more!’  He always reminds them, their sins are forgiven.  It’s like something happens through the adversity.”

“I’ve been on dialysis ten years now.” explained Willie, “But the people, places and things that I’ve been running in to from the beginning, it’s been an extraordinary walk!  Now, I’ve come into the veil of service…that’s been the last thing that I believe the Lord has been emphasizing on me through the Holy Spirit.  I put all these things down here, in my journal.  So, it ends up that when I’m there, I end up talking to God through my journals, through pouring out my heart and my thoughts.  I feel God near me when I do that.  Plus, I sometimes feel prompted to play the piano at church but to say something before.  Last time, it was a verse…Galatians 6:10…that spoke to me about service, “be generous and do good.”  Even the kids…at church, it just made me cry because these young kids had a chance to serve others and they did it with such joy!  There is always a way to serve and I felt like I wanted to stand up and let them know, to read what I’d been writing in my journal!  I didn’t, but sometimes when I feel like my faith is low and I’m one of those wayward sheep, that’s always when something I’ve written or someone I encounter comes back to me, and works through me, and reminds me ‘you been wandering out there…come on back to the fold!”

Davis was moved.  ‘I definitely get the feeling, talking here with you, that God is here with us, allowing us and opening us up to talk about things. You have a faith that goes way, way back.  I can feel that!”

Willie was thoughtful: ‘Well, right now, I’m trying to get a clearer idea, a better idea of just what it is that I am supposed to be doing. When I go to Church, I sometimes think I hear, keep doing what you’re doing.  But, the temptation starts when that service ends. We get ready to walk out and we realize we’re on our own.  That’s when it gets tough, or it could if we were tempted to go it alone. But, the Holy Spirit has gotten me really wrapped around this idea of service, service to God and service to others.  When I see people serve, it just….

Willie’s tears began to flow.

“You feel that Spirit, even now” reassured Davis.

Willie said, “Yes!  You know I sometimes feel it, or I see it…like with those children who were learning to help serve others…and I think ‘yes, that is right!  That is where God is! Recently, you know, there was this other guy, another patient at dialysis.  You know, I’m not a racial person and I’ve gotten to be friends with this guy, he’s like from the back woods of America.  And there we are at dialysis and I’m probably the least like him of anyone there and yet, here we are and we’ve become friends.  That isn’t because of me, it’s because of God.  I keep thinking of that hymn, that song “The Ties that Bind Us” and I start to know that even there in dialysis, God is moving.”

“Very moving” said Davis, ” Your story is very moving.”

Willie continued, “I see what is happening, what God is doing.  He’s allowing me to see just a little bit about people, seeing that we are not that different from one another.  Once we started talking, we found out about birthdays we had in common and everything since then, it’s gotten easier.  We could have not trusted each other, but we hit it right off.  I met his Mom, too, and we found out we all have May birthdays.  It stopped feeling like strangers and started feeling like family.”

“Me, too!” said Davis, “Another May birthday to add to the family!”  

They both laughed with joy.

Willie paused and thought about the lesson in the story, “Instead of it being silent and distant, we realized we have to help each other.  Instead of just reading it or thinking about it, it’s just time to do what it says in the Good Book, to see Christ in each other!  I know that he has it even harder than I do.  I can do some things that he isn’t able to do.  So, I try to help when I can.”

Davis was grateful for this new friend in Christ, “You have a good heart, Willie”

Willie said, “We should all be in good pursuit of God.  The closer we come to God, the closer God comes to us.  I think that is what this desert is all about.”

Davis added, “Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days must have felt alone as it was, but maybe it was about being closer to God, too?”

“Yes!  that’s it” said Willie.  “I think Jesus knew who his Father was, but it is still about having the presence of mind to communicate with him.”

Davis was thinking about the deserts in our own lives, “I think adversity draws us closer to God.  Like in your story, this illness and adversity might have made you and your friend more receptive to the Spirit.  You could write about that.”

Willie held up his well-used notebook. “You know, this notebook has gotten full!  It’s one that I have used so much, through all those treatments.  Sometimes I can’t find space to write, so I just read it and learn from what I have written, to see where God has spoken to me. I love that silence.”

Davis wondered, “Maybe in that wilderness…in that silence…you’re feeling God’s presence?”

“Yes!  I do think that’s the case.” said Willie. “I can think.  I can be still.”

Davis was hearing a clear lesson from the week’s Gospel: “Maybe God is closer in those moments when we are quiet and still.”

Willie held up his notebook again, “Yes!  I wrote that very thing several times in my notebook, here, that I felt God near me in the silence, in the quiet, when I opened myself up to listening.”

Davis, his heart full, suggested that they close their time together with a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving. “Honestly, Willie, I feel God talking through you to me right now.  I will leave this day feeling closer to God in my spirit, just through you.”

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