Warning: This post will be long, rambly, possibly ranty, and probably boring. Continue at your own risk.
A few years ago, I let myself get broken.
It’s not that I wanted to be broken or even that it happened suddenly, all at once. No, it was more like the frog in boiling water, like the straws on the camel’s back. I can’t tell you exactly when I went from whole to straining to broken. I can’t point to one day on the calendar and say, “There! That’s when it happened!” But I’m broken, and I don’t know how to get unbroken now.
In 2008, I took a lateral job move. I went from crunching massive amounts of data for management to designing a software application. It had been seven years since I’d done “real” software development, more than hacking out macros in Excel and helpful tools in Access. I was excited and scared. My new manager was encouraging and supportive, and my team members were smart and energetic and fun.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
Thus says the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday, in words I’d never noticed before. In this passage, God is making God’s covenant promises to Abram. In return for Abram’s faith and obedience, God is giving Abram land — from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates — as well as countless descendants; in other words, Abram will be wealthy beyond measure. When Abram expresses hesitation, some doubt, God gives him signs that this will come to be. When Abram can’t believe that God will grant him a son in his old age, God shows Abram the stars, as countless as his descendants will be. When Abram has a doubt about the promised land, God instructs him to perform a ritual sacrifice. And in the middle of this sacrifice, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
These are ominous words, aren’t they? A deep sleep and a terrifying darkness are both disquieting. Even more discomfiting is that both of these things came down — the deep sleep fell and the darkness descended — we may get the sense that these are coming from God. Why would God send us such darkness and terror? This doesn’t sound like the God we see in the psalm, our light and strength and salvation. It doesn’t sound like little baby Jesus, nor like the Jesus we see in Sunday’s gospel, who wants to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. This is confusing and kind of scary.
But it’s hard to deny that darkness does come to us. We experience pain and loss and confusion and fear. We, too, doubt God, doubt that God will (or can!) fulfill God’s promises to us. And when the terrifying darkness descends upon us, perhaps we feel like we’re separated from God, that not even God can penetrate the darkness to rescue us.
In Abram’s story, into this deep sleep and terrifying darkness, a light comes, in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. This reminds me of a reading from Isaiah, which we hear each year at Christmas:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
Our scriptures are filled with examples of light shining through the darkness, and yet, we still have trouble believing and trusting that God will bring light to our own terrifying dark places. Even when we know that Jesus is the light — to outshine all other lights, to overcome any darkness — we still huddle in fear when the darkness descends. Thankfully, our scriptures give us not only stories of God’s light shining on us in the land of deep darkness, but also prayers asking God to help us and strengthen us and guide us through the darkness.
The book of Psalms gives us prayers for just about every human emotion. We have prayers of joy and celebration; we have prayers of anger, even rage; we have prayers of mourning; and we have prayers that admit our fears and ask God for help. This Sunday’s psalm is one of these prayers.
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid? … For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; *
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.
God always gives us what we need, when the deep and terrifying darkness enters our lives. God is there as our light, our salvation, our crag, our stronghold. When we struggle with faith — as even Abram, named first of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew scripture, did — there are places we can turn. Not only are there stories that show God’s light shining on those who came before us, but there are prayers that we can pray. The prayers we find in psalms have been prayed for centuries, and are still prayed by Jewish and Christian people today.
I find it very difficult to pray for myself when the darkness descends on me; about all I can get out is something like, “God, please!” or “What the heck, God?” (though it may not be that clean when it comes out) or even just “HELP!” But I do find myself praying for others, interceding perhaps more passionately than when I out from under the darkness. In these times, I ask my friends to pray for me, and I pray for them. These prayers from my friends, they become the light in the darkness; they become the strength and the shelter God promises us. And I remember that God doesn’t promise that God will help and rescue us all on God’s own; sometimes that help comes wearing skin and arms and legs.
I have a prayer for you today. I pray that on Sunday, you will both speak the words of this psalm aloud and really listen to them, knowing to the depths of your heart that they are real and true. I pray that when you experience the terrifying darkness, that you will see God’s light when it comes to you. I pray that your doubts will be answered, that your faith will be upheld, and that we will meet in the true Promised Land, God’s Kingdom.
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.
I promise this won’t be one of those posts apologizing for not blogging for so long. Life has been… full, so full that I won’t even attempt to catch you up on all of it. My work is frustrating and wonderful and eating up every scrap of energy I have. Chronic pain from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome isn’t getting any easier, and it looks like it’s about time to have the other shoulder checked by the orthopedist for possible surgical repair. My Dominican studies and Education for Ministry class are feeding me richly, when I have enough energy to really take part. And my husband is the sweetest, most generous, most patient man in the whole world. I’m truly blessed — I really do get that — but sometimes all these blessings really exhaust me!
Tomorrow, I meet with my manager face-to-face in the office here in town. This happens only every few months because my manager works halfway across the country and because I telecommute full-time as an accommodation to disability. And in the middle of the day, about the time my manager will want to head out for lunch, I have a phone call scheduled with his manager (who works all the way across the country from me). The thing is, my manager isn’t really managing, and I don’t have the authority to make the decisions or to give the direction that need to come from him. After months of this pattern, I realize that I’m not doing any favors to myself, to my team, or to our customers by allowing this to continue. So after a direct request to my boss for the decision or direction that the team needs, when he doesn’t respond, I’ll ask his boss to give us the decision. I’m tired of the political shenanigans. We need a manager, and if our manager doesn’t want to manage, then I’ll find someone in the chain of command who will.
I’m assured by a co-worker who is not a complete bystander in the situation that this should not be a risk to my job security. I’m not entirely sure about that, but it’s all right. It’s the right thing to do for my team. And I’m not going to let myself be afraid of it. I just sat in quiet prayer for 20 minutes, and in that time, I heard all the reasons not to fear.
I am a survivor.
I have survived abuse.
I have survived depression.
I have survived attempted suicide.
I have survived separation and divorce.
I have survived chickenpox and pneumonia and flu.
I have survived lay-offs.
I have survived being laid off.
I have survived unemployment.
I have survived college.
I have survived nighttime grad school.
I have survived working with idiots, incompetents, and just plain jerks.
Nobody has power over me unless I give it to them.
Nobody can demand my trust… but I freely give it.
Nobody can demand my respect… but I freely give it.
Nobody can demand my love… but I freely give it.
Nobody can demand my obedience… but I freely give it.
I joke about being mean, and it’s all in fun.
The thing is, there are things that I am passionate about, even fierce:
giving love to every person
finding joy, at all times and in all places
doing the right thing
going about things in the right way
treating every person with respect
giving dignity to every person
believing the best of everyone
finding that almost always, they live up to this belief
giving my trust to everyone, even to strangers.
With God’s grace, I continue to survive.
I survive the pain of disability every day
I survive working, though it costs me
I survive tensions, conflicts, and arguments
I survive agreement, harmony, and peace
I survive boredom
I survive frantic frustration
I survive days when I don’t have time to pee.
And when the sun goes down on those days
when the night surrounds my home
I know that I am not alone.
Anything may happen in my life tomorrow.
I will survive it.
After all, what’s the worse that can happen —
I would die?
I have a promise, though, that I’ll survive even that.
Thanks be to God!
So that’s my anthem. I know it might sound like a Gloria Gaynor song, but this song is mine, the song that sings in my heart tonight.
The pain index this evening is at about an 8 out of 10. We have a rather nasty storm blowing through tonight, and I can feel it in every joint. My knees and hips seem to feel storm the worst. My neck, shoulders, back, and arms feel the computer. All of me feels the being a Little Person (my littleness is idiopathic, which means I’m just really short, without having one of the forms of dwarfism that cause disproportion)… but it still affects every facet of my life! I know I’ll survive it. I know I’m really blessed. Sometimes it just gets exhausting, especially when I can’t get to sleep.
This Sunday is our service of Advent Lessons and Carols at church. This is a worship service that combines readings from the Old Testament, up to the events leading up to the birth of Jesus… but not quite to it just yet, with traditional carols, hymns, and songs that reflect these readings. It is a beautiful service, one of my favorites of the year, and I’m privileged to be participating as a member of two choirs this year. There is also a service of Christmas Lessons and Carols, which is similar, and which many churches offer during Christmastide, usually the first Sunday after Christmas Day. My parish includes an abbreviated service of Christmas Lessons and Carols during the half-hour before our “midnight mass” on Christmas Eve. I’m excited, and I hope I have enough time for rest both before tomorrow night’s rehearsal and on Sunday afternoon!
Saturday afternoon, my beloved and I will be “ush-ing” at a local performance of The Nutcracker. I’m really looking forward to this, too… the excitement of the children (and the adults!), the beautiful music, the lovely ballet. The last time I saw even part of The Nutcracker was in December 2006, just before my daughter’s second spinal surgery, and only six months before my ex and I separated. I stood in the wings with tears rolling down my face, knowing that I needed to bring beauty into my life. So much has changed since then, and yet, I’m still the same hedwyg.
Well, it’s almost tomorrow, and I should try again to get some sleep. God’s peace be with you, and God’s blessings be upon you.
Oh, and the Happy New Year thing? This past Sunday was Advent I, the beginning of a new church year. So I really meant it!
More than ten years ago, the night before Thanksgiving, I had the most wonderful, most blessed, holiest communion in my life. My son Bear and my daughter Wolf and I were sitting at the dining room table eating roast beast and mashed potatoes and fresh bread. Suddenly three-year-old Wolf held up her bread and said, “Take, eat. This is my new covenant.” Then she broke off a piece, put it in my hand, and said “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.” I ate the bread and felt a tugging on my other sleeve. Four-year-old Bear had broken off a piece of his bread, and he put it into my hand saying “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.”
I smiled at them and kissed them and said thank you. But Wolf wasn’t done. She picked up her cup of milk, held it up to my lips, and said, “The blood of Christ, the milk of salvation.” I took a sip, feeling more then a little awed at the very real presence of God in the room with us. Bear picked up his milk and offered me the cup the same way, and I solemnly sipped it.
And I thought, there may not have been a priest there. The table was covered not with pristine white linen but with a blue vinyl tablecloth with fishies swimming all over it. There were no gleaming paten and chalice, but bright plastic plates and cups with hearts and cowboys on them. But God was there, and I experienced the body of Christ in a way I never had before.
What happened next was no less awesome. Bear and Wolf turned their Eucharist into a game, offering each other the roast beef of Christ and the mashed potatoes of salvation, and then laughing in sheer delight at their childish cleverness. I let them continue for a time because they were not being irreverent or blasphemous, just little children. Eventually I stopped their game because I was afraid they would choke on their dinner for laughing so hard.
Let the little children come to me;
do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you,
whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child
will never enter it.
And then Jesus takes up the children — the children his disciples had just tried to shoo away — and he embraces them and he blesses them. This is the sweet, gentle, loving Jesus we like to see, not the wrathful Jesus who overturns the tables in the Temple nor the obscure and scary Jesus who says such difficult things to us. He is hugging the little children, laying his hands on them and blessing them. We like this Jesus — he is easy to respect and to love. But even as he hugs and blesses these children, he tells us something obscure and difficult:
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
So how do we receive the kingdom of God as a little child? What could that mean for us? Why does Jesus always give us such impossible challenges?
I know I can’t be the only one who sometimes catches a glimpse of myself in the mirror and am surprised by what I see. For some reason, I expect my reflection to look like my 16- or 18-year-old self, and I find myself stunned when instead I see what I actually look like now. I’ve put on weight, my shape has changed, and my skin has more lines in it. My hands are no longer smooth, but look like the hands of a middle-aged woman. Some places droop instead of being youthful and firm. There is grey appearing in my hair, which once shone like golden honey. And when I see all of this — really see it, and understand what it might mean — the younger me inside me shouts out, What happened? What do you do? I’m not going to get old and die, am I?
There are several little children living within me — four-year-old me, who saw the strangely lit Indiana sky that heralded a thunderstorm and was convinced that a monster was coming; seven-year-old me, who played war in the woods with the boys; ten-year-old me, who was sad to find herself a loner without a best friend; thirteen-year-old me, inspired by a summer studying music at the new arts school; sixteen-year-old me, testing the wings of the new freedom that a driver’s license brings; eighteen-year-old me, lit on fire by the joy of being young and the exciting work of college.
These children didn’t know much about receiving the kingdom of God; they weren’t very concerned about matters of death and resurrection and eternal life. Children generally aren’t worried about these things. This is part of what Jesus means here: we do not need to fear. We have his promise that we will not be alone, that he is waiting for us when this life ends, that our new life in God’s kingdom will be wonderful and joyful. But we do fear. We get to be middle-aged, and we start eating oatmeal because we don’t want to have high cholesterol. We go to the gym, not so much for the delight of using our bodies, but because we are avoiding heart attack and stroke. We embrace a low-carb diet or we count our fat grams, and in this work we lose the joy that can come from nourishing our bodies. We fear pain and dying. This is natural, of course. Pain doesn’t feel good, and dying has to feel even worse. Why wouldn’t we fear these?
The truth is, fear is the opposite of faith. Doubt or unbelief or disbelief is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. Fear rejects faith. Fear says, I know you promised all of this, but I’m not sure I trust you to follow through. Children tend to be people of great faith. They trust in their parents to take care of them, to satisfy their needs for food and shelter and love. They may not be able to answer the question — Do you have a ‘high’ or a ‘low’ Christology? — and they may not be able to even begin to put their faith into words, but children are very faithful people. When Jesus tells us that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he tells us that we must be faithful rather than fearful, trusting in God’s promises. We have to try to learn how to trust again, blindly and innocently as a child, rather than fearing and trying to hold everything together on our own. Jesus assures us that God will always take care of us, will always see to our needs. Our journey as adults requires us to re-learn our childlike skills, to reclaim our faith and trust.
Those children within me, they also knew how to play. They knew how to take a moment and imbue it with delight and magic and joy. This may be by a daydream, a flight of fancy; it may be through a game of Freeze Tag with friends; it may be by sitting outside under a crisp autumn sky, singing a goofy song about the falling leaves just because it annoys Mom. (Not that I ever did that, of course!) These children knew how to make everything a game: when I mowed the lawn, I was always competing in the International Lawnmowing Olympics, being scored for how deftly I maneuvered around trees and for how quickly I finished the lawn. It was silly. It was goofy. And it was fun.
How do we play now? What value do we put on silly, goofy fun? Do we embrace joy and delight just because they feel so good? Do we schedule our play in, so that it’s just one more item to check off of the to-do list? Or do we just ignore it, moving from work to chores to sleep every day?
In that story about Bear and Wolf, dinner had become something more than simply nourishing our bodies. It had also become a game of pretend, play-acting the Last Supper and each Sunday’s Eucharist. It gave us all delight and joy. We laughed together, reveling in the fun. We shared the roast beef of Christ and the mashed potatoes of salvation. Didn’t that make you smile, even just a little? I mean, how silly is it to have the mashed potatoes of salvation? My two little ones trusted that God is present in even roast beef and mashed potatoes, just as God is present in Sunday’s bread and wine. They may not have said this in these words; they probably would have used words like fun or silly or play. And God wants us to play. God wants us to delight in God’s Creation. The account in Genesis tells us that at every stage in creating all that is, God saw that it was good. Indeed, it is very good.
To receive God’s kingdom as little children, we must also learn again how to play, how to find joy and delight in anything we do, how to be silly and goofy, how to have fun. It may be that we can only feel free enough to play when we approach that perfect childlike trust that our needs will all be met. It may be that we can find a child’s faith when we allow ourselves to play. Or the two may form a virtuous cycle that brings us into God’s kingdom, even in the midst of this life here on earth. How it happens doesn’t matter nearly as much as helping it to happen.
Jesus calls us to trust, to relax into his arms, knowing that he will take care of us and satisfy all of our needs. Jesus calls us to play, to find joy and delight in ourselves and in all of God’s creation. And when we find these, we receive the kingdom of God.
So today, take some old bread or cereal and go feed some ducks. Blow bubbles on your front porch. Gather a bouquet of dandelions and weeds. Join the children on the playground. Ride your bicycle, and delight in the rush of wind against your face. When you have lunch, feast on the Five-Cheese Ziti Marinara of Christ and the BLT of Salvation. Be a little child, and receive God’s kingdom.
Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his power! Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil!
So says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, as we will hear proclaimed this coming Sunday. For most of us, this doesn’t have a lot of meaning. We don’t tend to wear much armor these days — unless one participates in the SCA or other historical re-enactment group — so words like breastplate and shield and helmet and sword don’t mean a whole lot to us. Of course, Paul isn’t talking about literal, physical armor, but is using these as a metaphor to help us understand what God can do for us. These are protection for us, when we go out to pursue the Great Commission, when we share God’s Good News with others. Sharing the gospel can be risky, even scary. It touches the very deepest parts of us, and we make ourselves vulnerable when we share these deepest inmost parts. We need God’s protection when we reveal our vulnerability, when we take risks, and God is very happy to give this to us.
In the gospel appointed for Sunday, Peter reveals his own vulnerability, taking a risk before Jesus and the other disciples. For the last few weeks, Jesus has been teaching some hard things. After feeding the multitudes — with the Resurrection itself, one of only two miracles that appears in all four gospels — Jesus finds many people following him, asking for more food. He seizes on this as a teaching moment, trying to show the difference between the things of this world and the things of heaven. In this world, when we eat or drink, it satisfies us for a time, but then we need more food and more water again. Eventually, all the food and water in the world is of no use, because in time, all of us in this world die. But in God’s kingdom, we find the things that last forever, that are real and true and good. The living bread that Jesus describes sustains and satisfies us forever, without ever needing more. Finally, Jesus comes to today’s passage, which sounds like he’s advocating ritual cannibalism. Cannibalism is anathema to the Jewish people in this time; to even touch blood makes one ritually unclean, much less to actually drink it! So many in the crowd find this teaching to be just too much for them, and they walk away from Jesus, probably shaking their heads in disbelief.
In this passage, you can almost see Jesus. You can see him sigh deeply, as his shoulders hunch. He has been preaching and teaching and healing nonstop. He just fed thousands of people, and now they reject his message. He is disappointed in his people, that they turn away from his truth. And so, weary and dismayed, Jesus turns to his closest friends and asks, So are you guys going to leave me now, too?
I’m surethat the silence was eloquent. I can see the disciples looking at each other, at the ground, at the sky, as they shift their weight uneasily. What can they possibly say? Jesus has been teaching some really tough, confusing stuff here, and none of them is quite sure what it means. Finally, Peter speaks up and answers for everyone. Where else would we go? We know that you are the Holy One of God. You have the words of eternal life. We would be lost without you. And this is true. They might not really understand Jesus — probably not much more than we do today! — but they are still with him, because they believe in him.
This is what God’s armor is for. The armor of God gives us the courage to say, when the whole world tells us we’re crazy for our faith, that believing is a good and joyful thing. The belt of truth upholds us while the breastplate of righteousness keeps us safe from words that might harm us. The shield of faith gives us the courage to become vulnerable by sharing God’s message. And the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, the words that we speak — or that speak through our actions — to bring others to God.
The armor of God is a particularly apt message for me in my life right now. This last weekend, I made my promises as a novice in the Anglican Order of Preachers, so now I’m Sister Warriormare, or maybe Sister Hedwyg. 🙂 The Dominicans are dedicated to preaching and teaching, to saving souls by sharing the gospel. Our calling is to make ourselves vulnerable in the same way Peter does in this gospel story, to say Yeah, sometimes really crappy stuff happens. But where else would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. I would be lost without him. And to support us in this calling, God clothes us in God’s armor. As many religious do, we have a habit that represents our calling. Our informal habit is a black-and-white outfit that makes us look rather like waiters; our formal habit is a white tunic with a black cowl. Most days I wear the informal habit, and when I put it on in the morning, I am reminded of the armor of God. The habit strengthens me, even if others don’t know I’m even wearing a religious habit; it reminds me to behave as a person of faith, to preach the gospel in words and in actions. This past Friday, my class of postulants was clothed as novices. We wore our white albs, and the black cowls were placed upon us, arming us to go out into the world and be defended as we do God’s work. When I wear the formal habit for worship, when I’m out in the public eye dressed this way, I am reminded even more keenly of my call to save souls, to share the gospel. And I do feel protected by this armor. It would not turn away arrows or bullets, but it does help me to handle harsh words, disdainful glances, and behavior that speaks of contempt. Somehow, I find more courage, to help me open up, take risks, and become vulnerable.
I know that clerical collars and vestments are another form of the armor of God. They help our clergy to be similarly strengthened and defended in their work to share the gospel and save souls. The thing is, we don’t really need actual, physical clothing. When we’re weak, physical symbols of our faith can help us, can remind us of our commission from Christ, can remind us that no matter what anyone else says, we count on Jesus’ words of eternal life. A simple cross on a chain can be the armor of God. And we can even put on God’s armor inwardly, by imagining the breastplate and shield and helmet and boots. By intentionally arming ourselves against harm, we are better equipped to take the personal risk, to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing the faith that forms us at such a deep level.
The psalmist tells us, happy are they who put their trust in God! Trust in God. Put on God’s armor. And share something deep and important and real and true… today!
We’re halfway through Lent now, coming up on Rose Sunday, and I haven’t even been to worship since Ash Wednesday! Of course, that’s because I went to an out-of-town funeral and then spent two weeks very sick with all manner of -itises, but I’ve missed it. It’s so wonderful to be feeling like myself again. Thanks be to God!
So last Sunday, we heard the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament reading. The second sentence said You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. Now in this week’s readings, our Old Testament reading still comes from the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, and it relates a story about the complaints of the Israelites.
From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
There are several troubling things about this story. First of all, are we really supposed to believe that God sent poisonous snakes to kill God’s people? Why would God go to all the trouble of freeing them from Egypt — all those plagues, not to mention the parting of the Red Sea — only to kill them off with snakes? And if God really did do this, then how can we talk about God’s love for us? For heaven’s sake, the Gospel reading for Sunday includes the famous John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. How can we reconcile this God who sends poisonous serpents into the midst of God’s people, with this God who loves us so much that God gives us eternal life?
Something else troubled me when I read this story, too. In answer to the prayers of the Israelites, God has Moses make a graven image of a serpent from bronze and hold it up high in the air so that all the people can see it. And whenever someone gets bitten by a snake, they have only to look up at this bronze serpent to be healed. Now, when we hear or read this story, we understand that of course, it is God doing the healing, not the bronze serpent. But if we were there, in the dust and dirt of the wilderness, low on food and water, and plagued with snakes all around us… we might forget that subtlety. Especially for a child, it would be very easy to associate the bronze serpent high on the pole with the healing. Did God command the Israelites to make no idols, and then instruct Moses to create one for them? What is the difference between the golden calf and the bronze serpent?
I admit freely that snakes give me the heebie-jeebies. Even “harmless” pet snakes make me anxious. This is one of the curses that God levied when evicting Adam and Eve from Eden, that snakes would forever be our enemies. I’ll also admit that I’m not much of an outdoorsman. I like my air conditioning, thankyouverymuch, and my refrigerator and my microwave and my indoor plumbing. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to make that trek through the desert. Is it any surprise that the Israelites were complaining? I mean, yeah, we need to trust in God, but that trip had to suck. I’m sure I would have been bitching and moaning before even getting to the Red Sea!
In this case, the sin is not simply complaining but speaking against God. It wasn’t that the people said, this trip sucks, and I wanna go home, but that they said, God sucks, and God’s killing out here. By speaking against God, the Israelites separated themselves from God and the blessings that God was giving them. The result of this separation is that the people became vulnerable to the snakes that were in the desert. Perhaps it is not that God actually sent the serpents to them, but that God simply withdrew God’s protection, allowing the snakes to harm them. Regardless, once the Israelites repented and turned back toward God, God used the symbol of the serpent to bring healing to them. So the serpents brought death, and the one serpent on the pole brought life.
In the gospels, Jesus tells us that the things of this world bring death, and that only the things of God can bring life. The thing is, Jesus came into this world; Jesus became a thing of this world. Jesus became a person, a human being, subject to pain and anger and frustration, able to experience hunger and thirst and temptation, having to satisfy the needs of his body just as we do. And yet, despite the fact that Jesus ate and drank and burped and peed and all those other human things, he was more. Among all the things of this world that bring death, only Jesus brings life.
And that is the promise for us in the readings today. Just like Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole, the Roman soldiers lifted up Jesus on a cross. And just like the Israelites had only to look at the bronze serpent and believe to be healed, we have only to look to Jesus and believe to live.
A few days ago, maplestar and I got a wonderful and passionate comment in response to maplestar’s post about passion. There’s a lot of good stuff in this comment, and a lot of it resonates in very deep places within me, because it describes places I’ve been.
Because I’m responding publicly like this, I’m going to offer some fairly general stuff. First, I’ll say that there are several places of great stickiness when it comes to “The Church” and “the church around the corner” and even “the people of God.” The biggest problem with all of these is that they are based on, well, people! We all know people can suck. Every one of us is broken; every one of us has flaws and deficiencies; every one of us falls short of the mark; not a single one of us is perfect. Of course, that’s also the biggest strength of these. I know, that sounds bizarre, but please hear me out. See, in its best form, church is where we go to hold up our brokenness, to share our hurting places with others. We go to church to be in community with some who have the same broken places with us, and we go to church to be in community with some who have different broken places. My broken legs might not let me walk, but I can sit here and stir this pot of soup; your broken hand may not let you stir the soup, but you can walk over and fetch the things I need to put into the soup.
Of course, one of the greatest ways we can be broken is pride, and its insidiousness is why pride made the seven deadlies. There are plenty of priests and pastors and ministers out there who believe one must be whole and healed and perfect in order to minister to others. Guess what – they’re wrong, deadly wrong. There was only one person who ever walked this planet who was able to minister to others from a place of wholeness and perfection, and that person was Jesus. For the rest of us, we minister directly from our places of brokenness and vulnerability. Those are what make us humans and not God. It is our willingness to become vulnerable with others (and yes, with God) that brings us into the Body of Christ. The sticky part is, so many churches seem to be places where we must be perfect, and where any hint of imperfection finds one gently but firmly excluded from the family. These are unhealthy places. I recommend not staying in them. Without openness, without brokenness, without being willing to be vulnerable, God can’t work in our hearts. Shake the dust from your feet, and move on.
There are, however, plenty of other places, other churches, other priests and pastors and ministers who are similarly beyond the church. There are places of great health and holiness, places where it is safe to be broken, safe to be imperfect, safe to be vulnerable. There are places where compassion toward all things is taught and preached, where there is great passion poured out for those who are hurting and those who are in need. There are places where you can immediately feel welcomed, at home, part of the family.
You know how there are some people who, when you walk into their house, you are afraid to touch anything? You feel like you’re in a museum, and it makes you uncomfortable, unwelcome. And there are others who bustle to bring you into their home, who urge you to put your feet up, who include you in the family discussions – even the ones yelled down the hallway or up the stairs, even the passionate debates – and you have no doubt that you are welcome, at home, part of the family. Churches are like this, too. This is not to say that a church cannot be both beautiful and welcoming – I feel terrifically blessed to be part of a parish that is incredibly beautiful as well as incredibly welcome and embracing. More than once, I had despaired at ever fitting in within The Church. I learned later that I just hadn’t seen the parts of The Church that looked like me. But they are there.
For those who feel that they go beyond the Church, there are some wonderful writers out there. I most heartily recommend Thomas Merton, St. Frances de Sales, Abbe Henri de Tourville. If you find her accessible, Teresa of Avila is wonderful, as is Julian of Norwich. A book of sayings of the Desert Fathers – or Mothers – is very inspiring and uplifting. I also adore the Sufi mystics and ecstatics, like Hafez and Rumi; they will set your heart on fire with love for God and all of God’s creation.
Sometimes we walk apart from The Church for a time. Sometimes we need to, for any of a whole host of reasons. The only sins here are the sins of pride and of despair. We can’t afford to be too good for the church, and we can’t afford to despair that I’ll never fit in anywhere in The Church. These separate us from God, but God positively aches with love and desire for us. God loves each of us more than we could possibly imagine, and God continually invites us into relationship.
Christianity is all about relationships, not about rules. There are few rules in relationships, and they all come down to the things Paul says in the epistle reading for Sunday – act out of love, even to the people who hurt us and piss us off. Act like the people we wish we were, and we will become those people.
God loves you. God burns for your love in return, for your open heart and mind and soul. God yearns to invite you into the whirling, dizzying dance of lover and beloved, of creator and creation, of faith and faithfulness. God knows all the places you are broken and flawed and imperfect and unlovely. And yes, God still loves you.
You are a child of God, fearfully and marvelously made. Now, go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!
Thanks be to God! Alleluia, Alleluia!