Thursday, October 1, 2015

Praying without it possible?

Sometimes the Bible sets before us impossible standards.
Jesus says, "You must be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect."
The Ten Commandments say, "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods."
Impossible in a world of advertising.
The Sermon on the Mount warns us, "that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."
Avoid being angry?
Never look at someone and say, "you fool"?
Impossible for those who live in Royal Oak and survived the Dream Cruise.
But among all the impossible exhortations of the Bible, one of the most striking is Paul's command here in 1 Thessalonians: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances."
Do you remember the first time you read those words, "pray without ceasing?"
I remember a feeling of being overwhelmed.
How could a person possibly pray without ceasing?
How can you pray without ceasing if you have to go to work?
To school?
To the bathroom?
Does this verse mean you should rejoice when your car breaks down?
Give thanks when you hear about atrocities committed by a foreign dictator on the evening news?
Should you be praying when your dog dies?
Or when you receive a diagnosis that you have six months to live and then will die a terrible and painful death?
How can we be praying at all these moments?
I think I filed it away as impossible and never really thought about it.
Kind of like, well, thank goodness there's grace and I don't have to live up to that one.
But we know what the angel told Mary: with God, all things are possible.
And that includes praying without ceasing.
So today, I'm going to attempt to spell out three things praying without ceasing tells us not to do,
And three things that praying without ceasing does tell us to do.
What does praying without ceasing not tell us to do?
#1: Praying without ceasing means we don't have to pray at specified times.
That is, many religions prescribe times for prayer.
Muslims must pray five times a day; the community is called to prayer.
The Jewish tradition was to pray three times a day.
Monasteries, too, keep a schedule of prayer.
Yet these words of Paul tell us that praying five times a day, or three, or seven,
Is both too much and too little.
The way of Jesus is not the way of rules.
The way of Jesus is the way of the Spirit.
It reminds me of how Jesus expands the definition of adultery to include all lust,
And the definition of murder to include anger.
It's not about the letter of the law, it's about the spirit.
The point is not that we pray five times a day, it's that we pray at any time and every time.
#2: Praying without ceasing means we do not have to pray in a specific posture.
Some people close their eyes to pray, or bow their heads, or fold their hands, to eliminate distractions that can take us away from prayer.
Some people like to kneel to pray to demonstrate their humility to God.
But if we are to pray without ceasing,
And also do the work to which God has called us,
And enjoy the life to which God has called us,
This means that we should pray with our eyes open and our hands at work,
We should pray standing, sitting, and lying down,
Running, walking, and swimming.
We should pray in the grocery store and at the movies,
In restaurants and at the bank,
At our places of work and our places of rest.
If we are to pray without ceasing, our prayer must be flexible.
Which brings us to the third point:
#3: Praying without ceasing means we do not have to pray verbally.
If we were praying out loud everywhere we went,
This would be an even noisier world.
By telling us to pray without ceasing, Paul is challenging the Thessalonians,
As God challenges us,
To expand the definition of prayer,
From a verbal communication to a spiritual communion.
Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words."
Prayer is similar.
Running, knitting, mowing the lawn, washing dishes,
Serving in the warming shelter,
Teaching a child,
Helping an elderly person to walk…
If it is done in communion with God, it is prayer.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
"Loving is praying. If I seek in prayer the good of my fellow creature, and then go and try to promote it, I am practically praying for his good in my actions. If I seek, as I should do, God's glory above everything, then if all my actions are meant to tend to God's glory, I am continuing to pray, though I may not be praying with my thoughts or with my lips. Oh, that our whole life might be a prayer. It can be. There can be a praying without ceasing before the Lord, though there be many pausings in what the most of men would call prayer. Pray then without ceasing, my brother. Let thy whole life be praying."
So praying without ceasing means prayer need not be at any particular time, in any particular position, and prayer need not be verbal.
What does praying without ceasing mean?
#1: Make it a habit.
If prayer can be weeding the garden or reading a book,
Doesn't that mean everything is prayer?
Isn't there an argument that playing Candy Crush or taking a cigarette break could be a prayer?
I don't deny the possibility,
But as you see, interpreting daily activities as prayer is dangerous.
Augustine said, "when we are not adoring God, we sin."
Anytime we are not focused on God, we are vulnerable to sin.
Ask yourself, when I'm playing golf or watching TV, am I adoring God or not?
Because the world constantly tempts us to turn our focus away from God, we need to set aside specific times to return our focus to God in prayer.
Whether this is an hour every morning, or one minute ten times a day,
Praying without ceasing means making a habit of prayer.
And don't say, I'm too busy.
Spurgeon writes, "God can multiply our ability to make use of time. If we give the Lord his due, we shall have enough for all necessary purposes. In this matter seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Your other engagements will run smoothly if you do not forget your engagement with God."
Martin Luther once said, "I have so much to do to-day that I shall never get through it with less than three hours' prayer."
Praying without ceasing means prayer must be a priority in our lives.
#2: Rejoice always.
Praying without ceasing means constant communion with God.
And the essence of communion with God is joy.
Joy is different from happiness.
Happiness is a fleeting emotional state of contentedness.
Joy is a deep-seated, overwhelming awe at the miracle of life.
When we pray without ceasing, we have constant joy, because we are constantly praising and thanking God.
Praying without ceasing means having a different attitude: an attitude of gratitude.
Look at where Paul lodges this exhortation to pray without ceasing:
It is between two other commands, rejoice always, and give thanks in all circumstances.
We can accomplish all three commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks,
When we cease to look at life through our own eyes and seek to see things as God sees them.
For example, your car breaks down.
Looking through our own eyes brings frustration, anger, and despair.
Looking at the same situation through God's eyes, we would approach the same situation with a sense of peace, and calm.
We might immediately give thanks that we are still physically safe,
And then chuckle a bit thinking how the day got a bit more complicated than expected.
Rejoice, pray, and give thanks.
It all happens naturally when we enter into a greater communion with the Holy Spirit.
And so we come to #3: Invite God into everyday life.
Praying without ceasing means we must experience God's presence in the dailyness of life.
Paul J. Griffith, a Roman Catholic scholar, writes that our problem is that we compartmentalize life.
"There is the work compartment, the personal life compartment, and the religion compartment, to name just three, and the walls that separate them are thickly impervious.
God does not want to be shut up into a little compartment on Sunday morning,
Dusted off at mealtimes for grace,
Tucked away in a dusty Bible on a shelf.
God wants a part of the rest of the calendar, the rest of the conversation,
God wants to be in the middle of the refridgerator and the top of the pile of papers on the counter.
God wants to be in the middle of life,
Of our ordinary, daily life.
That's why God entered into the middle of our life,
Into the ordinary, daily life of a Jewish carpenter.
Through Jesus, God made all of life, and all of death, a prayer.
There was prayer in Christ's birthing, and living,
And even on the cross, he prayed.
God made the ordinary holy.
And God will make your ordinary life holy too.
Accept Christ into your to-do list,
Into your calendar,
Onto your refrigerator door.
Become aware of how God is already trying to be a part of all your doings,
And accept him in.
Acknowledge that he's already present there.
Pray without ceasing.
Because is there a single facet of your life that could not use a little more prayer?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Prayer as Active Listening

So, we've been together nearly a year.
I feel us, you and I, passing beyond the stage of newlyweds.
While we're certainly not an old married couple yet, Starr Church, you and I have few secrets from one another now.
You've begun to know me and I've begun to know you,
For better or for worse.
And you have probably learned by now one of my biggest flaws.
I'm a talker.
I love speaking.
Heck, I'm a preacher!
And I'm not alone.
American society tends to favor loudmouths,
Those who toot their own horns,
Those who speak, perhaps, without even thinking very much.
I am just going to say two words right now:
Donald Trump. And that's all I'm going to say.
There is certainly a time to speak, as Ecclesiastes says.
Great speeches have changed the world: the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, the I Have A Dream speech, the Sermon on the Mount.
But these speeches changed the world not on their own, but because people listened.
What are the great listenings of all time?
I think of Moses seeing the burning bush that was not consumed.
The point is, he was looking for it.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in Sonnets from the Portuguese:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
Another great act of listening is Elijah.
Elijah is waiting for God to pass by:
And there is a great wind, but God was not in the wind,
And a terrible earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake,
And a fire, but God was not in the fire.
Instead, God spoke in a gentle whisper.
But Elijah heard it, because he was listening.
I think science is, in a way, an act of listening.
It's observing the universe and what it does, trying to learn its secrets.
Think of Joseph Lister, who noticed that certain types of mold inhibited the growth of bacteria.
That act of listening to the universe gave us penicillin.
Of all the listening we do, the most important is listening for God.
We think of prayer as speaking to God.
But communication is both speaking and listening.
It's been said that God gave us one mouth and two ears,
So we should listen twice as much as we talk.
And, the mouth can shut but the ears can't.
Is God trying to tell us something?
So often we pray pouring out our hearts to God.
But perhaps we would do better if we listened for what is important to God's heart.
So listening is prayer, maybe the most important part of prayer.
Mary, the friend of Jesus, is perhaps the most famous listener of Jesus in all of Scripture.
Now this story may have been a difficult one for you if you, like me, are a doer.
If you are a busy person, Jesus's words to Mary may seem harsh to you.
After all, shouldn't Mary be helping with the work?
She's one of the hostesses, after all,
And hospitality is an important biblical virtue.
What Jesus means by his words must not be to condemn the doers in favor of the thinkers,
Or to criticize those who take action, or serve others by their deeds.
Indeed, this story comes directly after the Parable of the Good Samaritan,
Which offers a strong warning to those who walk by others in need and do nothing.
Jesus's culture emphasized hospitality as being highly important.
Today, we hear "hospitality" and think of the hotel industry.
But in Jesus's culture, hospitality was a highly prized virtue,
Which meant putting the guest first.
And Martha here is not putting the guest first.
Professor Elisabeth Johnson notes that Martha ignores her guest, accuses him of not caring about her, attempts to embarrass her sister in front of him, and tries to make him intervene in a family dispute.
Her actions break all the rules of hospitality.
Think about it: what if someone, say your uncle, came to your house, and you said to them, Uncle Geoff, you've got to make my husband behave! He hasn't set the table, started the oven, or ironed the tablecloths!
If you weren't joking, that would be a pretty rude thing to do!
Yet Martha's biggest sin here is ignoring Jesus.
The Bible describes her as distracted,
In Greek, Johnson notes, Martha is periespato.
Periespato is translated "worried," or "distracted,"
But it literally means walking in lots of directions at the same time.
Are you walking in lots of directions at the same time?
Are you distracted by all the noise of the world,
All the thousands of things you think you have to do,
The busyness of life?
The noise of distractions?
Are you walking around in so many directions that really don't matter at all,
Rather than paying attention to the one thing that does matter,
The One Person who does matter,
Do you need to take a lesson from Mary and take time to listen for Jesus?
In recent years, experts have been talking about the practice of active listening.
Active listening means carefully listening not just to the words a person says,
But paying attention to his body language and emotions as well,
And repeating back what you heard to see if you received correctly what he was saying.
Active listening is helpful in every avenue of life.
Active listening will make you a better salesperson, a better friend, a better spouse.
One book about active listening I keep going back to is Rule #1: Stop Talking! A Guide to Listening.
And it's by Linda Eve Diamond.
Diamond gives ten rules, or shall we call them commandments? Of listening.
I'd like to take each of these and consider how we can use them to listen for God.
First commandment of listening: Stop talking.
Remember the same letters are in "listen" and "silent."
But how much time do we spend in silence?
Think of all the noise that crowds our lives.
The noise of advertising, of television, of all of our devices…the texts, the tweets, the telephone,
The chatter of social media.
We surround ourselves with walls of noise in the car, in the house, at work.
Are we afraid of silence?
Take some time when you pray to listen for God.
That can be silently reading Scripture, or just being in nature,
Or watching the flame of a candle.
Anything where you are silently listening for God and not speaking at Him.
Diamond also encourages us to create a space.
Diamond describes both a physical space for listening…for example, when I am talking with others I don't like to be separated from them by a desk or a table. I want them to know I am fully present with them, not separated.
If it's an important conversation, you might want to find a private space or otherwise make a safe place for listening.
The same with God.
Find a quiet space, such as the church sanctuary, or a park, or a room in your house, where you can spend some time just with God.
Diamond also speaks of mental space.
You have to create room in your mind by letting go of your daily tasks, your worries,- your distractions, your walking around in every direction, so that you have a mental space for God.
Diamond tells readers, hold your judgments, open your mind,
Don't rush to snap judgments.
If you are listening for God and you can't stop thinking about monkeys,
Who knows? Maybe God means for you to go and save the monkeys in Costa Rica.
Or maybe God is trying to tell you the people you work with are a bunch of monkeys and you need a new job. I don't know.
As long as it does not contradict Scripture,
Don't place limits around what God might be saying to you.
Have an open mind.
Diamond also notes that listening means focusing on the speaker.
When we pray, our focus turns to God.
Buddhists speak of emptying the mind,
But a Christian would say to that, if you focus on nothingness, you will experience nothing.
But if you focus on Christ, you will experience Christ.
Find something: a prayer, a story, an image, to focus on and return your awareness to Christ.
Keep your focus on him and what he is saying to you.
Diamond also says part of listening is asking questions.
You ask questions when you are listening to make sure you understood correctly and to learn more.
Ask questions of God to make sure you understood Him correctly,
And to better learn His will for you.
How do you know it is God that is speaking?
I use three T's:
The call of God is tenacious.
If it's tenacious that means it doesn't quit.
If you keep hearing the same message over and over, that's a good sign it's from God.
The call of God is also trustworthy.
That is, it rings true within yourself, and it rings true within Scripture.
God does not call you to do something that goes against the basic commands of Scripture.
To me, the basic message of Scripture is summarized in the Ten Commandments, and then in Jesus's summary of the law: love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself.
When you are listening for God's voice, use those tests to determine whether you are truly hearing the voice of God or are following the wrong path.
Finally the call of God is tough.
God tends to ask us to do hard things, like spend the night in a lion's den, or evangelize Korea.
If you have a big idea or dream that won't let go, but it's kind of scary, well, that's the way God often acts.
Diamond also writes that listening means being aware.
And this is the most important part of listening, and of listening for God.
God speaks when we don't expect it, through people and in places we don't expect.
So be aware.
Be on the lookout.
There is more going on than we know.
Amidst all the noise, in all the chatter, God is speaking.
I was talking to the mother of a young man who suffers from autism, and she was telling me the things he sees that others don't.
He notices when the birds begin to fly south a few days earlier and tells his parents it's going to be a hard winter.
And by looking at a pregnant woman, he can tell if she's expecting a boy or a girl.
He's never once been wrong.
There is so much more to hear than we perceive.
How much more would we see if we shed the distractions from our eyes,
If we unplugged our ears from all the noise?
If we look closer, we will see that every bush is burning with holy fire.
If we listen closer, we will hear, behind the chatter, behind the noise, God is whispering.
Before we go back to the business of worship, I'd like to make a space for God to whisper.
I'd like to take a minute to listen for the voice of God.
You can use this time to pray, to write down whatever comes to mind, or simply to be silent.
Because if we aren't listening for God, should we be surprised when we don't hear him?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Why is prayer so difficult?
Is it because we don't have enough time, or because we don't have the right words?
Speaking to God can be intimidating.
Many folks in church are reluctant to pray out loud because they're afraid of making a mistake.
How can we possibly speak to Almighty God?
In Max Lucado's "Before Amen" Bible study, he mentioned that the only time the disciples actually asked to be taught anything is recorded in Luke 11:1: "Lord, teach us to pray."
His answer is to give a simple prayer we pray each week but rarely think about: The Lord's Prayer.
Max Lucado also said in his study that there is no wrong way to pray.
He gives this parable: Is there a wrong way for a child to hug their parent?
God promises us that any prayer sincerely offered will gain an audience in heaven.
1 John 5:14-15 promises us, "This is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him."
So we can speak to the Almighty God with the ease with which we speak to a friend.
Just as you might send your friend a quick text just to say hi or ask a question,
It's OK to pray a short prayer to God to thank Him for your food or ask Him for help.
Yet just as a true friendship is also built on deeper sharing,
Times of deep, prolonged communion with God are important to sharing a relationship with Him.
Yet Jesus criticizes long prayers, wordy prayers, flowery prayers meant more to glorify the pray-er than to actually talk to God.
Notice that Jesus's sample prayer is simply a brief address,
Only six lines.
We pray Jesus's prayer so many times as though it has some magic power,
But Jesus taught it not, I think, to be repeated word for word,
So much as to give us a guideline or a rubric for our own sincere prayers to God.
Jesus's rubric for prayer is often described as ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, an easy-to-remember pneumonic.
Today I would like to take a moment to think about what Jesus's prayer says and what it teaches us about how we should pray and why.
The prayer begins with adoration--
In the New Revised Standard Version:
"Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name."
Why are we called to adore and praise God?
Doesn't God already know He's great?
Does God have a self esteem issue?
I answer with a question: what tends to come out of your mouth or mine?
More joy, or more complaint?
Do we use our mouths more to express praise of God,
Or whining about our situation?
For example, how much do you and I complain about:
*Bodily discomfort
*Annoying people
How many times a day do you say something negative about the world,
And how many times a day do you say something positive about God?
Now here's an easy question:
Which is more likely to improve your mood, praise or complaint?
Which is more likely to bring joy to those around you, praise or complaint?
Which is more likely to improve your relationship with God, praise or complaint?
Which do you think God wants to hear, praise or complaint?
Praising God is not really for God.
Praising God is really for us.
As Philippians 4:8 admonishes,  "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[b] these things."
Keep your eyes on the prize.
Fix your mind on Christ.
Sing his praises with your mouth.
Tell of his glory when you speak.
Cry out, "thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever."
When our minds are fixed on adoring God, we immediately realize just how far we are from God.
Most of our lives are self-centered, but when we praise God, we are God-centered, and this re-orientation humbles us and moves us to confess our sin.
So Confession is the second element of prayer, the C of ACTS.
Jesus's confession is short and simple: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
A moment now for debtors.
I've been asked before: why do we use debts and debtors, whereas most other Christians use trespasses?
Simple answer: Presbyterians traditionally used the King James Version of the Bible.
King James I of England, also known as James VI of Scotland,
Was a Presbyterian, so we use his version of the Bible.
Episcopalians tend to use the wording from the 1549 or 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which had trespasses,
And the Roman Catholics used the wording from the Douay-Rheims English translation of the Bible, which was based on the Latin Vulgate, and had trespasses.
So it's not so much a theological issue as a translation issue.
The best translation of the Bible, however, is probably "debts," since the meaning of the Greek "Ophthelaima" is literally "debt."
The meaning is the debt we owe to God for the weight of our sins.
Going further in the Greek,
In the women's Bible study we noted that the NRSV translation is different from the King James.
The NRSV says, forgive us as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Whereas we usually pray, "as we forgive our debtors."
Have forgiven vs. forgive.
Looking into the Greek, I discovered that the NRSV is correct and "have forgiven" is a better translation.
And that's a little bit disturbing.
It's not some kind of vague "as we forgive," like, maybe someday, when we get around to it, forgiving others would be a good idea.
Rather, we have already forgiven them. Or we better have, if we want God to forgive us.
Jesus highlights this truth, that God's forgiveness depends on ours, by commenting right after the prayer in Matthew 6:14-15:
"For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
Unfortunately, it's pretty clear: grace requires us to forgive anyone else we're holding a grudge against.
I've said before that the purpose of the passing of the peace is not a meet-and-greet: it's the moment when we are at peace with one another.
So if anyone in the church has annoyed or disgruntled you, that's the moment you are directed to forgive them.
So watch very carefully who I pass the peace to. Just kidding.
Confession is a moment, not just to humble ourselves before God,
But also to experience God's grace towards ourselves and others.
And we also ask God to help us amend our thoughts, words, and deeds so that we will live better and holier lives:
"Do not bring us to the time of trial,
        but rescue us from the evil one."
In this line, Jesus goes supernatural and scary.
Jesus describes life as a trial in which the evil one tempts and torments us.
Whatever you believe about the devil,
It's clear that Jesus took evil very seriously,
And meant for us to recognize that each of us struggles with sin.
He also wanted us to recognize that we are not alone in that struggle,
But that if we pray, God will help us and give us guidance and direction to live our lives wholer, holier, and healthier.
Recognizing God's gracious presence in our lives moves us to give thanks.
And Jesus's simple prayer breezes right by the T of ACTS, Thanksgiving.
His line, "Give us this day our daily bread,"
Is both, I think, a thanksgiving and a supplication.
We are asking God for what we need to survive,
And also thanking God for what God daily provides.
Thanksgiving, like adoration, fixes our minds and mouths on God, and what God has done for us.
A nun I once knew used to say, nothing scares the demons more than when we thank God.
She encouraged me in a practice I have used from time to time in my life:
Every day, write down five things you thank God for that day, and read them out loud.
Then you take in gratefulness with three of your senses:
You see and hear and touch that prayer of thanks.
When you do this, you will recognize that God is blessing you more than you know, and your faith will grow, your hope will grow, and love will grow within you.
Give us this day our daily bread is a prayer of thanks and a prayer of supplication.
Supplication is the S in ACTS, and it means asking God for what we would like God to do.
Jesus's prayer tells us very clearly that it's OK to pray for yourself,
It's OK to ask God to take care of you in a very basic, material way—your daily bread.
But listen to Jesus's other prayer of supplication:
Jesus's prayer simply asks God to help us make the world more like He wants it:
    "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
Jesus tells us not to let our own will supersede God's.
It's what God wills that is most important.
Sometimes, God may will that an individual we are praying for may not survive.
Sometimes God may will justice be done, and it won't always be comfortable for us.
God's will is not ours.
If our will be done, earth will never be like heaven.
But the good news is that God doesn't answer all of our prayers.
Prayer is meant to offer our hearts, our hopes, our needs to God.
And God hears our prayer.
And CS Lewis said that if you look back at your life, if you were to really keep track of all your prayers and what happened, you would see that God answers more prayers than you think.
But what is most clear from Jesus's simple prayer is that prayer is not so much a communication as a re-orientation.
Prayer re-turns us to focus on God, God's will, and God's grace.
Hebrews 4:20 says when we draw near to the throne of grace, we find grace to help in time of need.
And that's what prayer is for.
Experiencing grace.
You don't need fancy words.
You don't need to study Greek.
You don't need an hour a day.
But you need grace.
It's there in Christ's prayer.
So open your heart, and open your mouth, even if all you can remember is a simple prayer you learned as a child.
Go on, pray.
Our Father is waiting.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Woman Caught In Adultery

I never chose my husband.  I never chose for him to become frail and sick.  I had to do everything for him, bathe him, get him in and out of bed, make dinner for him, do whatever he needed.  Until one day buying cloth, I saw a man in town with a strong, handsome face, a Pharisee respected by everyone.  We exchanged looks, then more.  For weeks no one knew what was happening, not even his wife, a quiet, simple woman whose existence made me feel so guilty.  But soon my husband became suspicious and began to treat me with contempt.  He told everyone who would listen that he knew I had a lover.

One day there was a knock at the door.  I opened it and my heart stopped; all the Pharisees of the town stood before me.  They grabbed me roughly and accused me loudly of adultery so all the neighbors could hear.  He was there too, accusing, as though he had had nothing to do with this sin between us.

They tied my hands and hauled me away.  I was terrified.  Thinking of the stones they were shouting about, and whether it would hurt.  I cried out in terror but someone hit me in the face.

They pushed their way through a crowd that was listening to a religious lesson by a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. As soon as they broke through, Jesus stopped teaching.

They threw me on the hard, dusty ground at Jesus' feet and accused me of adultery. I didn’t understand what was happening, why we were stopping here in this crowd.  But nothing made sense to me in that moment, bruised and bleeding, coated with sweat and dirt, watching the man who had loved me join in with the rest, accusing me of sin.

People started shouting accusations and ultimatums at Jesus, (imitates with raised fist) "This woman was caught in adultery!" "What should we do with her?!" "The law says she should be stoned to death." "Are you going to uphold the law or not!" "Answer us!"

I could tell that Jesus was upset with them. But instead of yelling back, Jesus just stooped down and started writing with his finger in the dirt.

At that moment I truly felt the weight of the truth, the weight of my sin, and all the fear I had felt before this moment was engulfed by the terror in me now.  If this man Jesus were really a prophet like everybody was saying, I knew in that moment that he would know the truth, and I felt my heart confirm my guilt as he quietly said, "Go ahead and execute her."

The crowd, which was silent, grew even more hushed, even more expectant.  Then, Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Then Jesus stooped down again and started writing with his finger in the dirt. For some reason, no one speaks of what Jesus wrote on the ground.  Few people saw it anyway.  I couldn’t read, so I didn’t bother to look.  But in that moment, I felt deep in my heart that I should look up.  Look at the one face I never wanted to see again.  And as I saw him read what Jesus was writing, I saw a look of terrible fear…then shame. Then he turned without saying a word. One by one, the rest of the men followed him. Within a couple of minutes, they were all gone.

Jesus stood up and looked around and said. "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

I said, "No one, sir".

Then, he looked me right in the eye, right down to my soul. I knew he could see all the way through me, to all that had happened, my long days working and my dark, secret nights. Jesus knew all of this and more.  And I knew at that moment that he, and only he, was the one without sin.  The one who could cast a stone.  Yet, he said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."

I had heard that Jesus was a healer.  I was not blind, or lame, or a leper.  But in that moment Jesus healed something in me.  No longer was I righteously angry for what I had suffered.  Instead an impulse formed inside me which I cannot describe, a desire to make everything as peaceful and right as I felt in that moment, looking at Jesus.

Each day I kept caring for my husband just the same, and he kept treating me with contempt just the same, telling me he wished they had stoned me that day.  I bathed him, made him dinner, helped him in and out of bed, attended to him.  And gradually, something shifted.  The contempt was gone, and there was only kindness, and care, and rest.  One day, right before his death, I looked him straight in the eyes.  I said, I am sorry for the hurt and shame I caused you.  You deserve a better wife.

He looked at me and only nodded.  That was his way of telling me.  Somewhere in the pain and sickness and contempt, a peace had broken in.  We were all forgiven.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Widow of Zarephath

It was a drought.
You can think of it as a recession.
At first no one wants to believe what's happening.
It's just a couple of dry weeks,
Just a bad quarter.
It's only a matter of time.
And more time.
And more time.
And the crops die out.
And the unemployment runs out.
And the cupboard is bare.
And you're left wondering how you will make it through.
It's harder for a widow,
For a single mother with a young boy.
It's harder for those who live on the margins already.
For me and my son, we were already living week-to-week.
We relied on a little garden and a few animals.
But with no grain, the goat wouldn't make milk,
And the olive trees had no fruit.
There was nothing to trade in the market,
Nothing to sell,
And no grain to buy anyway.
I was careful to give my son only a little every day.
It killed me when he asked for more, and I had to tell him, "No, Caleb. We must save it."
It killed me when I was his wrists, so thin, his little belly with that falsely puffed look of the starving.
Then one day when I came back from the market again empty handed,
I looked in the cupboard.
All I had was just a little jar of meal
And a little jug of oil.
My son would go to bed hungry this night, and there was nothing I could do.
There was nothing to do.
I sunk to the floor.
I pressed my fingers to my eyes.
Myself—I could starve. But to let my son wittle away to nothing?
My whole life I had prayed to the Lord.
My parents had taught me to trust the Lord,
That the Lord provided for everything He had made.
They told me the story of how the Lord led our people from slavery into freedom,
And provided us with this land, a land of milk and honey.
Well, now there was no bread,
Let alone milk and honey.
I felt betrayed, but still I trusted the Lord.
That trust was not a feeling but a choice.
I had no reason to believe we would do anything, but die.
And yet, I made my mouth form the words: "God of Israel, deliver us. We wait for you. My soul waits for you, and in you do I trust."
At that moment a thought came to me.
Was it of my own thinking, or did it come from God?
The thought was of Elijah, the prophet whom the queen despised.
The one who preached to our nation,
To forsake our idols,
To seek after the one true God.
Why was I thinking of him?
Was his the way out of drought and hunger and death?
I would never encounter Elijah.
But this thought would not let go.
That if I did, I must do what I could to help him.
Was it God, or was it my own hunger-crazed thoughts?
I did not know, but I chose to believe, and to trust.
In one part of my heart, I trusted,
And in another, I prepared to die.
I went to the town gate to beg for food.
I prepared to gather sticks—a pointless act—
But dry sticks were all we had.
Sticks to build a fire,
A fire to bake a cake.
Cake to be our last meal before death.
I carried my sticks in a bundle, but when I saw I almost dropped them.
The prophet, here.
I don't know how I knew it was him—he was dirty and unkempt.
But I knew. This was Elijah.
And he called out to me, "Woman! I need water! Could you bring me water, that I may have a little drink?"
Water! What we all needed! What we all longed for!
If I had water, why would I give it to him?
If I had water, why would I help another person?
God helps those who help themselves, I've heard it said.
Why share your bread with the hungry?
Why give your water away?
And yet, I had made my resolution.
That thought—had it come from me? Or from God?
This prophet was the way through drought.
I had to trust.
I needed God to help me, for I could not help myself.
God would come first, and me second,
This was the only way to save my child.
So I said I would bring him water, and turned to find some.
But as I was turning around, he called again.
"And bring me, please, a piece of bread."
At this I could not keep silent. The nerve he had.
But I held my tongue.
This was God's prophet.
I spoke carefully.
"As surely as the Lord your God lives," I said,
For God does live. This I trusted.
And this God was the God of the prophet.
"I don't have any bread—just a handful of meal in a jar and a little jug of oil. I'm going home now to make a little cake of it, for me and my son, that we may eat it…and die."
It was silent then.
I could hear the wind whisper over the dry land.
And the prophet removed his hood.
And he said, "Don't be afraid."
At those words I felt a warm rush over me.
Something more powerful than either of us was near.
He went on. "First, make a cake for me. Then, make something for yourself and your son."
The prophet spoke in a different voice.
A voice that seemed to come from beyond himself.
"Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: the jug of oil will not fail, and the jar of meal will not be emptied, until the day the Lord God sends rain upon the earth."
I was almost scared.
What was happening?
Dare I trust it?
There was so little left.
How could I entrust it to the Lord?
How do you give when you are facing a stack of bills?
How do you give in a drought?
How does a person, a nation, trust in God?
You simply do.
You place God first, and yourself second.
You bake a cake for the prophet.
You choose trust, and not doubt.
You choose because really, there is no one else to trust more than God.
You bake your cake, and you wait.
You give your offering.
You share with others.
You work for justice.
You give to the needy.
You think beyond yourself.
You put others first.
This is how a person trusts God.
This is how a nation trusts God.
Placing others before yourself.
And it is when we do this that God acts.
The next day when I went to the cupboard I did not know what I would see.
But I trusted in God.
And I had hope.
And when I looked into the jug, it was…brimming.
Full of oil.
And the jar…grain poured out of it.
How could it be so?
But it was!
A miracle.
I saw it myself.
The jar of meal was not emptied.
The jug of oil did not fail.
When you trust God,
When you place others before yourself,
God provides.
God always provides.
Put God first, not yourself, not your own selfish desires.
Care for the poor. Care for the widow.
Give your bread to the hungry.
And God will not forsake you.
God will look after you, and heal your land.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.