Abandoned by God

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I have chosen to ignore Holy Week in recent years. I am fully aware of the importance of this time for the Church year. In fact, I have preached and taught about it my entire career. Easter is the most holy day for Christians (not Christmas – it unfortunately has become the patron day for commercialization and the glorification of the family, no matter how dysfunctional or even abusive it might be). And as I have stated for years, Christians can’t really appreciate the wonder of Easter without knowing what happened the previous days. Yet, Christians consistently forgo the pain of Holy Week and focus instead on the flowers, eggs, candy, and pretty new outfits of Easter Sunday. In our society’s constant pursuit of happiness, we turn from pain towards the party.

Holy Week is tough. It deals with Jesus being frustrated to the point of anger, and abandoned by all his friends except for his mother and a couple close women disciples . It involved torture and capital punishment. The events of those few days are so agonizing that Jesus even asks why God has forsaken him as he hangs from the cross to which he is nailed.

At its core, Holy Week is about feeling abandoned by God. And so that’s why I chose to ignore it the past few years. Life had enough pain without wallowing in it for a few more days. I needed an Easter every day, not just one day each Spring.

The Church’s bemoaning of Easter Christians who ignore the other facets of the faith walk might be missing the truer realities of living in today’s world. Yes, there are some people who only want the party, but perhaps there are many more who simply cannot add one more hurtful event to their lives. Few days ever go by without someone sharing with me that she feels abandoned by the divine in the world, alone to face the hurt that life so often brings. Many countless people experience distress each day due to the lack of compassion or grace by the world around them. They are targeted due to gender, social class, race, sexual orientation, religion, or simply for decisions they make in life. Just as the majority of Jesus’ closest followers deserted him at the most difficult time of his life, too many people today are ignored or even blamed by the very people who call themselves Christian, and yet refuse to live as Jesus himself would.

How are Christians to observe this holiest of weeks? We are to observe it by doing everything in our power to alleviate the pain in this world – not by passing judgment, but by showing compassion and grace. We can pray for all the thousands of Muslims who have been terrorized and killed by ISIL. We can reach out to people who are different from ourselves, and truly listen to their stories, honestly attempting to comprehend their lives. We can fight for just laws which do not discriminate or alienate others. We can ensure a good education and safe and secure living environment for every child. We can follow the footsteps of Jesus, reaching out with compassion and grace to a world where the majority live the agonies of Holy Week each day.

 

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Sowing Bountiful Blackberries

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Blueberries are my favorite food, even though people close to me might be surprised I didn’t claim chocolate for that coveted spot. Blackberries come in a close second. I try my best to eat seasonally, so every summer I overload on blueberries. Blackberries are so much more expensive that I only limit myself to a couple containers at the Farmer’s Market during July. Four years ago a neighbor passed along a few cuttings from her thriving blackberry bushes, and my husband transplanted them alongside a small vegetable garden in the backyard.

I will be the first to admit I don’t have a green thumb. I come by it honestly. My mom destroyed so many house plants that she once put weeds in a hanging basket, figuring they would grow anywhere. Needless to say, that didn’t quite work out as planned either. Each summer I stumble through the vegetable garden, fortunate to harvest a smattering of zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and basil. I occasionally collect a bell pepper or two. I have another neighbor, Joyce, who has the most beautiful garden, and she generously shares, not just of the produce, but also of her wisdom. Yet, deep down – I know that it’s only a minor amount of skill and a whole lot of luck that generates anything from my back yard.

The blackberry bush has continued to expand and flourish, but with minimal fruit the past few years. Only a coffee cup was filled last summer. I honestly gave up. I thought perhaps some of it was my own lack of ability, and the other portion of blame was lack of effort or care. Then imagine my great surprise when beautiful, perfect, black/deep purple orbs dripped from the thriving green limbs. Stun and shock have filled my system. I have already collected two large tubs, and at least as many (and probably more) red fruit are simply waiting to ripen. At my daughter’s request, I even made a difficult blueberry/blackberry gelatte. Blackberry cobbler awaits our family in the future.

I’m preaching this Sunday on Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower. As I spent over an hour in the hot sun, dripping sweat, I contemplated reaping the harvest. As the Bible so often illustrates, we don’t always see the reward of what we sow. And sometimes, try as we might, our efforts are poor. I’ll never have Joyce’s gift for gardening. And yet, God is merciful. Even if we fling our seed in lousy soil or don’t know how to care for the seed or don’t commit ourselves to the growth of the seed, God takes mercy on us. Sometimes when we least suspect it, we find ourselves surrounded by grace, beauty, bounty, and joy – exactly how I feel when I take a freshly plucked blackberry and pop it into my mouth. It’s even sweeter when we know we don’t deserve it. And truthfully, God’s mercy is always a gift – we never deserve it, no matter how dedicated we are to the church or how many good works we do each day.

I’m grateful God is merciful. I’m grateful for the harvest – whenever it may come.

The True Spirit of St. Patrick’s Day

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(Dingle Peninsula, Ireland, taken January 2011 while leading a group of students on a trip to study Ireland and its spirituality)

I have witnessed the “observance” of St. Patrick’s Day explode over the years. I always made certain to wear green as a child to avoid the inevitable pinching. Upon arrival in college, a few of my friends took the opportunity to head to a local bar to drink green beer. Yet now, it seems everyone claims to be Irish today and the primary focus is the green beer, Guinness, or other assorted drinks vaguely connected with the Emerald Isle.

I like to offer a good-natured quiz about St. Patrick every year. I’ll ask what people know about him (especially my students who are ready to go out and celebrate in the typical American manner.) The responses normally are limited to declarations that he was an Irish priest, and he drove the snakes out of Ireland (which most people, myself included, view as a positive). Yet, the true story of Patrick is so much more fascinating than the few words people might utter. Patrick was born in southern England, and grew up a pagan, worshipping the gods and goddesses of the Saxons. As a teen, he was kidnapped by Irish slavers – outlaws who terrified the western coast of England for many years. Enslaved in a foreign land, alone and isolated and living at the whim of his owners, Patrick survived for several years before God sent him a dream. The dream gave the young man instructions about how to escape and make his way 200 miles to a ship to find his way back home. And he did.

 A sensible ending to this story would be that Patrick went back to his family farm, married a local girl, and lived as happily ever after as one could back in the 5th century. He did return to the family farm, but eventually converted to Christianity. He studied his new faith, and was ordained a priest. Patrick never forgot those few years of enslavement. Against what would seem rational, he felt called to go back to Ireland and spread the message of Christ. And he did. 1 Corinthians 1:25 states that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Patrick embodied that verse.

 God’s foolishness – to return to a land of enslavement – was so successful that Christianity spread rapidly throughout the land and most people today assume Patrick was actually Irish. The true spirit of St. Patrick’s Day is about the courage, grace, and wisdom of Patrick. Instead of using today as an excuse to over imbibe, let’s take time to think about where we need courage in our own lives. What frightening place in our hearts, in our lives, do we seek to flee? How can we face those places with courage? How can we offer grace to the people who have placed us there (especially if that person is our own self)? How can we live and act in God’s wisdom, especially if it places us at odds with what is deemed wise in our world?

 

“Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ in me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.” – The Breastplate of St. Patrick

The Theology of Julia Spencer-Fleming

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            I discovered Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne books about a year and a half ago. A dear friend of mine, who is a female Episcopal priest, gushed over this mystery series. Most the mysteries I read are set in the past. I don’t find many modern mysteries that compelling – they seem far too violent, and real life has enough violence for me. Yet, the kicker with this series is the lead is a female Episcopal priest. Patty handed me the first book, In the Bleak Midwinter, and it only took a few days for me to rush through it. There aren’t many books out there with a female minister, and certainly not one as the primary character. I know we are still in the minority, and I enjoy reading about someone who might have some things in common with me.

             I have no idea if Spencer-Fleming is attempting to convey any certain theological stance or not. Yet, she defines a rather clear one in the development of her characters and story lines. Clare is not the stereotype one assumes for a minister, apart from her gender. A compelling military background prepares her in unusual ways for her parish (totally apart from her crime solving – an activity the typical minister does not usually undertake). Her calling from God is real, fresh, immediate and perplexing. God calls all sorts of people, oftentimes for reasons that no one can comprehend (including the called individual), and Clare represents that so powerfully.

             The other characters are varied and full. The books are filled with experienced and crusty police officers, Granny activists, struggling and misunderstood teens, a variety of veterans, individuals struggling to survive economically and spiritually, wealthy but flawed movers and shakers, and a wide assortment filling the spectrum. The author’s gift is not just that she can create so many interesting and imaginative characters, but that each one is sympathetic. I despise the actions of some of the individuals, but yet I cannot help but have compassion for them, as Clare herself does. There are no perfect people and no perfect answers. Life is tough. Life is complicated. Life hurts. Yet, through it all – there is grace.

             The best fiction provides truth. It inspires us to be more and better than we are. In one book, Clare laments to a colleague that she might be reckless. The other woman tells her she probably instead is fearless. I have used that example to sister clergy, as well as to students. They are two sides of the same coin. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s theology is that each unique person is a child of God, gifted and graced in powerful ways. Her theology is that the life God offers to us can call us so far beyond what we can imagine, and that we should be fearless in seizing grace and opportunities. Hold on tight to that, and we will find the path that fulfills, compels, and inspires.