Sunday, April 27, 2014

Going Home the Long Way

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. 
Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.-- Exodus 13:17 - 14:4

We live in a world that seems to demand that we know where we are at all times. It’s not enough anymore to rely on AAA maps or someone’s direction to go down this road and turn right at the willow tree. No, we have to have specific instructions like how many miles, turn right or left, which side of the street is it on, or whether we really are wherever we're going when the gadget says “destination on left, 200 feet.” Cars have built-in GPS –connected screens and smart phones have map apps that can direct us to the corner drugstore or a similar corner drugstore on the other side of the country. If we lack smart phones or smart cars, we can still buy gizmos that use a satellite to mark where we are and, based on the address we select, tell us how to get there, turn by turn. Sometimes the devices work well and sometimes they don’t, but it’s all an effort to keep us focused on where we are and where we’re going. Then, of course, there is the Social Media where all our friends can know where we are at any given time along with lots of people we don’t know but who are friends of friends and who really don't care that we're in the local Starbucks or heading for a featured recreation event. It's about getting somewhere by the most direct route, the fastest way or the way with the least amount of traffic to contend with.

 Imagine being in a wilderness with no road signs, no cement or asphalt roadway, no white and yellow lines (with or without little reflectors), no printed maps or glowing GPS screens, no stores or houses around. Add to that not even knowing where the final destination is. Immediately it is an uncomfortable place, a place where “lost” seems to have a whole new dimension. Where are we? Good question. I’ll bet the Israelites said that more than once on their exodus from Egypt. And I'll bet a lot of kids (and probably a number of adults too) were saying, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

As the crow flies, it's just shy of 245 miles from Cairo to Jerusalem, cities representing a general start and finish line for the exodus. The distance they had to travel wasn't all that great and could have been covered in a matter of days or even a few weeks. What God had in mind, though, was a very long way home, time to give the generation that had been born and lived in Egypt all their lives time to be gathered to their forefathers. God also had a plan to further reinforce to Pharaoh that God's people weren't folks to be messed. To make sure everything went as planned, God set two pillars in the sky, one of clouds for daytime and fire at night, to keep the Israelites on the move in a seemingly random and aimless fashion. Undoubtedly there were planned rest stops along the way, probably sometimes lasting months at a time, so a journey of a few hundred miles stretched to forty years.

In our world, we seem to have to be constantly on the move. When we are born, our parents probably have a plan in mind for us: school from pre-K through college, marriage, family, great job that pays big bucks, long and happy life. Unfortunately, that doesn't always play out in the real world. We sometimes lurch from event to event, sometimes wandering aimlessly through life without knowing precisely where we are or where we're going. All we know is where we've been. Most of us don't have a built-in GPS when it comes to making choices or steering a straight course without unforeseen challenges and setbacks.

A kind of commonality between us and the Israelites during the exodus is that we carry the bones of the past with us as we journey. They brought the bones of Joseph with them; we carry the bones of damaged relationships, lost dreams, remembered hurts and unacknowledged sins. We don't have any clear idea where we're going any more than they did, but, like them, we have to keep moving. We may stop somewhere for a while, to catch our breaths, to recharge our energies, to gain some perspective perhaps, but eventually we have to be on the move again and hopefully we've got a presence in front of us to keep us moving in the right direction. And the bones go with us.

We need direction. We need purpose. We need a lot of things including a sense of where we are in space and time, where we've been, what we've learned. We need the gumption to pick ourselves up one time more than we fall down, and we need to look around us for the pillars of cloud and fire that God puts in front of us to keep us on course. It may not be actual clouds or fire but maybe the fire of passion for doing something that will benefit others or a cloud of promise when we need a little rain in our wilderness. We probably could use a dose of sensitivity to the opportunities presented to us and a conscious choosing to go just another mile into the journey toward the unknown instead of clinging obsessively to the present and the familiar.

God's not going to leave us rudderless, any more than God left the Israelites in the wilderness with the bones of Joseph. We've got prayer, we've got scripture, we've got community, we've got common sense and we have reason.  Most of all, we have God as our pillar. Keeping our eyes on God should help keep us on course and headed home, even if it is the long way around. Besides, the longer route is usually a lot more scenic than the freeway!
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 26, 2014, under the title "Going home by the long way."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Holy Saturday

AM:Psalm 95 (for the Invitatory), Psalm 88 PM:  Psalm 27

Each Holy Week we walk the final days of Lent. On Palm/Passion Sunday we read Passion Gospel, this year from Matthew, beginning with Judas' deal with the chief priests and runs through the entire story until we get to the tomb being sealed. That's where we are today, with a sealed tomb and memories of a royal entrance into Jerusalem, some disturbance at the temple, a family meal in an upstairs room, a night of prayer and mental agony, an arrest, a shotgun trial, and culminating with a crucifixion, death and burial. And there we are.

Had we been with the disciples, we would have been hunkered down somewhere, trying to keep a very low profile because of our known association with Jesus, and yet still in shock and deep mourning for the man we had followed and trusted as a leader. Was it really supposed to end this way?  Wasn't Jesus the man we thought would rid us of the Romans and bring back the glories of our ancestor, David? What do we do now? Being in a fishing boat on a stormy sea without a rudder or sail would have been easier to deal with because we would have dealt with that before. This was something unplanned and unfamiliar.

Jesus had warned the disciples of what was to come but they didn't catch it. Even the nearest and dearest missed the words and signals. When the worst happens, all that can be done is to sit, grieve the loss and wonder why: why it happened, why to this person, why now, why didn't we see any signs to tell us this was looming on the immediate horizon?

Holy Saturday is a very real time, even in June or December. It is any time a sudden and traumatic death happens. A beloved parent suddenly collapses and is gone within the span of a heartbeat, or a beloved child is found dead by their own hand. There might have been signs, and we wrack our brains, fogged as they are, to try to see what we had missed and berate ourselves for having missed what might have been a crucial clue that might have saved a life. We are left with an emptiness and a nothingness that doesn't let us see beyond the next breath or the next moment. It was probably that way for the disciples as surely as it is for us in our situations. It was undoubtedly the way it was for Mary, the woman whose son had been laid on a stone slab with a stone slab sealing it shut. Mary would understand the Holy Saturdays of any family in a similar circumstance, no matter what the day or season.

With our Holy Saturday, though, we have the advantage over the disciples because we know what happens next. Good Friday was the cliffhanger and Easter Sunday the resolution but in between we are left to occupy ourselves with other things while we wait. We dye Easter eggs, make sure the kids' Easter clothes are neat and ready for church tomorrow, make mental inventories of the marshmallow chicks and chocolate bunnies stashed in the highest corner of the back closet out of sight of small children, and double check to make sure we've remembered all the ingredients for the big family dinner. We don't spend the day sitting in a secluded hideaway somewhere, hoping to remain unnoticed until a way could be found to get out of Dodge, in a manner of speaking. That was the reality of Holy Saturday a bit over two thousand years ago. And we don’t spend the day wondering what we could have done or said or seen that could have changed an outcome. That’s the reality for many people in this day and time.

 We know what is coming. We've been preparing for it for the last forty days but it isn't here yet. Perhaps this Holy Saturday, we can stop, even for a few minutes, and think about the days and weeks just past. Perhaps we can spend a few moments beside the tomb that has been closed and pray for those for whom Holy Saturday, even on a Tuesday, comes not as a prelude to Easter but to another day of grief and loss.

Easter will come. We just have to hold on to that thought and wait for it. It might seem a long time coming but it will come. Meanwhile we wait and we pray.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, April 19, 2014.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chosen Silence

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. -- Mark 10:46-52

What is it like to be blind?  I think about times when I've been in the dark and I realize that after a few minutes my eyes seek out a tiny glow somewhere, anywhere, that will give me some idea of where I am in relation to things like furniture, trees or people. But what if I didn't have that glow?  What if there was never any light anywhere?

 It's hard to imagine a totally dark world because it seems that no matter where I am, there's always a light source somewhere to give me some illumination, even if only a pinpoint. The hallway to my house is dark when I turn off the light but the light in my neighbor's front yard peeps through the slats of the bedroom blinds creating enough light that I can walk with some confidence of not running into the bookcase or the bed. But what would it be like if even in broad daylight my whole world was totally dark? 

 I think of the world of Bartimaeus, the blind man from Jericho. Even with the hot bright sun, his world was dark. His only occupation was that of a beggar and perhaps a friend to sit and talk to pass the hours. I wonder what he thought when he first heard the oncoming crowd speak about Jesus. Had he heard of him before? Did he ask his friend or perhaps a passerby who was coming that caused such a stir? However he came to know it, he wasn't shy about calling out of his darkness, asking for Jesus' help. Some in the crowd tried to shut him up, probably considering that he had was paying for his sins by his blindness but he wouldn't be quiet and Jesus heard his cries for help.
 I always wonder what silence is like. Even in the quietest of places I have a ringing in my ears that won't go away. I wonder, if I were deaf would I still have that ringing?  If I had been born deaf, would I have any concept of what sound was?  At least in my mind I can "hear" symphonies and hymns and the like despite the ringing, but what if I had never heard the music in the first place? Would it just be --- nothingness?

 I think of blindness as a kind of silence of the eyes; there are no visual cues to distract and the mind creates its own world based on the remaining senses. Often when one sense is damaged, missing or even voluntarily put aside for a time, the others become more acute, but probably no one would miss the opportunity to have that missing or damaged sense restored and a voluntary absence can always be recanted.

 Everyone has a blindness of some sort even if it does not extend to seeing nothing but blackness or even indistinct shades of gray in front of their eyes. There's a physical blindness where the eyes do not function but there is another kind where something can be right in front of a person with totally normal vision and they simply do not see it. Remember the last time the car keys got mislaid?  Chances are they were somewhere that had already been searched and were just overlooked. What about the guy at the bottom of the freeway off ramp near the stoplight holding a sign asking for help? Easy to overlook, wasn’t he? How about the kid with who had been bullied whose eyes are dull and lifeless?  Or the woman with the really heavy layer of makeup who may be trying to cover bruises she doesn’t want to have to explain? Were they invisible, cloaked in darkness or just overlooked because of the silence of the eyes made them so?

We often go through life at least partially blind. We are concerned with our own lives and problems and don't always recognize anyone else's. In our culture of noise and distractions, we’ve learned to selectively tune out things we don’t want to hear but we’re totally uncomfortable with silence. Same with our vision; We see what we need to and can selectively ignore those things we don’t feel are necessary or attractive but take away our sight entirely and we’re as rudderless as a leaf in a whirlpool. We shield ourselves from things that disturb us and thus set up a third kind of blindness – the silence of the heart.

 I wonder, who really was blind in Bartimaeus’s story, Bartimaeus himself of those who couldn’t see what Jesus was and was offering to them much less their duty and service to those around them. I have to consider what I’m not seeing and where I’m tossing a coin in a begging bowl when what I needed to do was reach out a hand to help. When was I deaf or blind or heartless to the needs of others around me?

 Jesus passes by us many times a day and we don’t see or hear him. When will we wake up, open our ears and eyes and realize that? A bigger question is what difference will it make to and in us if we do notice? I wonder, what would it mean if Jesus were present in the Bartimaeuses of our modern life, not necessarily begging for help but offering us the opportunity to do some kingdom work right here and now?

 I think I’ll have to open my eyes a bit wider and practice seeing a bit more clearly. There is a time for the silence of the eyes and ears, but only for short periods. The world has too many needs for us to linger long silence.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 12, 2014.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Commemoration of Pandita Maria Ramabai, Prophetic Witness and Evangelist in India, 1922

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’  - Luke 18:1-8

Ever since humankind discovered fire, they have sat around those fires and listened to a storyteller recount how the world came to be, why things were named as they were, and what made people do the things they did. Jesus was a master storyteller, with or without a fire. He had a way of telling stories that caught the attention and gave the mind something to consider even after the story was concluded. This one was no different.

A nagging woman is quite often the butt of jokes (or spousal complaints). This woman was a widow on a mission and the object of her wrath was a judge who was intent on brushing off this nuisance. The nature of the complaint isn't given, but the fact that the woman had had to seek redress from a judge herself was telling. Like many of the women to whom and about whom Jesus spoke and helped, this one was a woman on her own without a male to support or perhaps keep her in line. The only way this woman was going to get justice was to be as persistent as the proverbial bulldog. 

Today's commemoration is of a woman who, very much like the one in Jesus' story, had to do things on her own. She believed that women should be allowed education and opportunities outside their traditional place in the home and wouldn't rest until she had done all she could to achieve that goal. Born a Brahmin, she was fortunate to have been taught to read and write Sanskrit by her scholarly father. Through a series of losses, Ramabai found herself alone with a small daughter and a burning desire to help women gain an education and equality.

Travelling to England, she worked with a group of Anglican nuns who demonstrated Christianity that attracted Ramabai who sought baptism and also helped in their work with former prostitutes. She gained further education herself at a college that taught young women subjects that were normally reserved only for young men. She took that knowledge back to India and began her crusade to liberate her sisters, other young widows who were left on their own with no education, no support and ho hope.

Ramabai was a feminist in a time when feminists weren't very plentiful or even acceptable. During her travels to first England and then to the United States, she saw ways in which the lives of women in India could be made better. Upon her return, she worked first among the Brahmin widows and orphans and then gradually expanded her work to include those of other castes in what was still a very caste-conscious society. It was not an easy task, but she persisted like the woman in Jesus' story. She achieved results and set the stage for the women of India to assume their rightful place as more equal partners in India's life and story.

Some might call it nagging, some might call it persistence, but when someone seeks to right something they see as wrong, sometimes that is the only way to get people to listen. It takes drastic action on occasion and a great deal of talk. Ramabai is known as an evangelist who felt that to bring about the kingdom of God, it had to be demonstrated, even if that demonstration was very small and very imperfect. She did her best to give that demonstration as best she could. She was given the title “Pandita” which meant “learned one” as a result of her work and her translation of the Bible into the language of West India, Marathi. Still, it her work with the disadvantaged widows, orphans and women of every social class that we remember more.

Throughout the world women are still oppressed and forced to suffer great indignities and pain without recourse. In their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe how even the smallest investment in the education of women and then in their efforts to start their own small businesses by way of microloans can pay off in a big way for not only the woman but her entire family and community. At a clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, one of several such clinics begun by Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her late husband, young girls are saved from lives of misery and isolation caused by physical damage resulting from being forced to become pregnant before their bodies are ready to carry and birth an infant and then being forced to give birth to the infant on their own without any sort of assistance at all. Repairing the physical damage is very much like the healing of the hemorrhaging woman in the gospels; the thing that makes them an outcast can be cured and they can be restored to health and community.

Ramabai is called a prophetic witness because she saw something wrong with the world in which she lived and, instead of just accepting it, tried her hardest to do something about it. How often do people say "I'm just one person and one person can't change anything"? People like Ramabai, Dr. Hamlin, and even the nagging woman in the story prove that one person with a vision or a mission can make changes. Every improvement and change came about because one person had a vision and decided to do something about it. Each one does a little bit, sometimes a lot of little bits, to make the world better and that’s what brings kingdom of God one or two steps closer.

The Pandita Ramabais of the world are still talking and still working. Maybe it is time we gave them a hand. The kingdom depends on it.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 5, 2014.