Saturday, October 20, 2012

Proper 24B, On Suffering

To link up to the readings for this Sunday, click here

Propers for the Sunday closest to October 19th
  • Job 38:1-7
  • Hebrews 5:1-10
  • Mark 10:35-45
The Same Coin

Recently we’ve been watching the PBS series “Call the Midwife” at our house.  A mini series based on the autobiographical account entitled “The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times”, by Jennifer Worth of her time spent serving as a nurse and midwife in the slums of East London.  The most recent episode detailed Jenny’s growing friendship with a disabled veteran of World War 1.  Initially revolted by his chaotic and filthy living conditions, she swiftly discovers that her patient’s life has been a rich one--chronicled by love and profound loss.  Disabled by war, he has outlived his wife and children, all of whom were victims of war.  Yet ,in the midst of his horrific losses, he demonstrates to Jenny the great gift that is love, he has lived fully and cherishes the fact that he HAS loved over the knowledge that he has also lost.  They develop a friendship...and Jenny clearly loves and cares for this, her patient and her friend.  

However, the greatest gift that he shares with her is the powerful realization that love is worth it.  That opening herself up to the risk of loss and heartache is worth the great and holy gift that is love...that if she is to truly live she must also learn the gift that suffering can bring--that suffering, being the result of living, engaging and loving other human beings, is worth it.  

Both/and, this joy and sorrow...this is a reality that has led many of us to explore the seeming paradox of a good and loving God existing in sharp contrast to what so often seems to be a cruel and hurting world.  In my first call as a pediatric chaplain I spent a disproportionate amount of time accompanying families who were wrestling in real and painful ways with this paradox.  

I remember one family in particular, when their oldest child was diagnosed with leukemia her parents asked me if God was somehow punishing them.  They had always attributed their families good fortune, good health, and general well being to the blessing of God--so when they found themselves facing the reality of a cancer diagnosis and the possibility of losing their child, they wondered if somehow God’s blessing had been taken from them, if God was afflicting them for some unknown and unimaginable reason.  I listened, reflected and questioned alongside them...Where is God in suffering?  Is God orchestrating it all--inflicting suffering upon us as some kind of opportunity for redemptive learning?  Does evil exist in the world at God’s behest?  Is it all some kind of test?  

While these were new questions for this family, they are not new questions in our tradition.  We see this clearly as we hear and read the book of Job.  

In some ways the book of Job offers us a starting point for exploring the tension between our expression of an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving God and the reality of suffering--the authors of Job wanted to know, why does God allow the faithful to suffer?  Shouldn’t we be rewarded for our faith?  Shouldn’t that reward somehow be the elimination of suffering and the security of our families and our places in the world and that beyond?  

This thread of reasoning runs through scripture--and in some ways this is the temptation of the faithful, as we so often find ourselves speaking in the words of the brothers Zebedee--”Jesus I believe, reward my belief”.  

For these disciples it probably felt obvious--a strong faith should correspond with equally strong rewards.  And, this is a distinctly human temptation--there is an entire stream of Christianity that adheres to the notion of what is called the prosperity Gospel.  The central theme of this teaching is that Christians are entitled to physical and economic well being in proportion to the strength of the individual Christian’s faith.  The harder you pray, the longer you live, the nicer your house, and the stronger your stocks.  It is all too easy to see the result of this theology in our own lives and culture...and when I met with that family at the hospital it was clear that they viewed the tragedy that had befallen them as a curse that needed to be broken--they viewed illness as a punishment, and in this I did not equivocate--God does not punish adults by giving their children cancer!  

When we view prosperity as a reward for our faith it is far too easy to see our tragedies as some sort of punishment and I see our Gospel today as the antithesis of this thinking, “you do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  Now, this is not a call to seek out suffering but rather it is a call to share in Jesus’ own calling--the calling to be a human being.  Because, if we are human we WILL suffer.  And, in that suffering we can find love, empathy, compassion--and the embrace of a God who understands.  

 For, this is what continuously amazes me about our faith--that we follow a God who has fully experienced the pain of loss and of death.  That God, through the full humanity of Jesus, has walked the journey of loving and losing, of friendship and betrayal, of hope and despair.  This in so many ways is what draws me into Christianity--the powerful sense that God understands and is present with us in the midst of all of the horrible things that can and do befall us as Christians.  

So, when I found myself sitting in the recovery room with the family whose story I shared a moment ago, this reality is what I shared with them.  Rather than looking at God as the cause of their pain and blaming themselves for what had befallen them...they began to look for God in the midst of their pain.  This was a very significant theological shift for this family--and this shift allowed them to reframe the questions.  

Where did I see God today?  Is it in the nurses or doctors whose loving care is easing this journey?  Is it in the moments of laughter in the midst of the pain?  Is it in holding our children and comforting them?  Is it in sharing our story with others who are also on this journey?  

In looking for God in the midst of it all, we are reminded that God IS in the midst of it all--the good and the bad, the celebration and the mourning.  We are called to live fully in the world--not in anticipation of some great reward, but in awareness of our shared humanity and the power of love.  This for me is the power of the words we read in Job this declaration of God’s power and wisdom I hear the declaration that we are surrounded by God.  As we live, with all the complexities of our lives, we are undergirded and surrounded by God’s presence.  And, it is thus, that when we suffer--and we will--the love of God which passes all understanding will open our hearts.   It is my prayer that, through that opening in our hearts, the love and light of Christ will shine.  

For, who here hasn’t wept at the pain of loss?  Who here hasn’t celebrated a birth or mourned a death?  Who here hasn’t paused in their perusal of the newspaper in awe at the horrific things that we as human beings are capable of doing to each other and in wonder at the kindnesses we can show?  We love as Christ loved and suffer as Christ suffers because we are human.  And, because we are human we are the children of God and because we are the children of God we are wrapped in God’s embrace throughout our lives, our losses and our loves.  


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Abstaining, from Facebook

  • Jon Stewart gives me hope and a laugh
  • The best way to become sick of pumpkin is to "forget" that your wife doesn't like pumpkin pie and that your son won't eat squash and then bake an entire dish of tofu pumpkin custard.  
  • Taking a nap sucks, not taking a nap sucks too.
  • When you only get to preach once or twice a month it's challenging to figure out WHICH of the points you want to make.
  • Friendly grandpa types wearing "vote yes"  (to amend the constitution to only acknowledge marriage between one man and one woman as valid) create in me a combination of cognitive discord and despair.  
  • Temporarily disabling one's face book account makes it really obvious how reliant I've become on face book for "keeping up" with people I care about.
  • It also allows me to continue to love and respect people who have are suffering from a temporary, and election season induced, form of insanity.   
  • The prospect of my first solo retreat fills me with excitement and anxiety.
  • My kid requested that I make "peezaaa baullsss" for dinner, otherwise known as vegan meatballs with spaghetti sauce.  
  • Clergy calling clergy to discuss constitutional amendments is WAY more fun than calling the voter rolls.  
  • I will be kinder to pollsters in the future--especially if they are volunteers.  

And, that in bullet points is the update of status updates I would have posted but haven't because I quit face book until the week after the election...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Various Christian Leaders Unite to Defeat Marriage Amendment | News | Alexandria News

Various Christian Leaders Unite to Defeat Marriage Amendment | News | Alexandria News

My .2 seconds of fame...of course, they didn't catch the moment when I had to explain to a colleague the difference between loving, mutually respectful, relationships and prison violence.

Seriously people, I think tsking and shaking one's head in amazement that anyone even went THERE is appropriate.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fighting the Frump

Women's clerical wear doesn't exactly exude "high fashion" and the best I'm able to say of most of it is, well, it's not AWFUL.  I'm so glad the Garrison Keillor and crew get the plight of the ordained woman!  So, without further ado...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"As God Intended" A Post in Which I Get Sucked into the Vortex

Recently, a friend posted on facebook her deep sorrow about the “vote yes” adds.  She noted that the adds not only attack same sex couples but all relationships in which the couple does not have children for whatever reason.  In response one of her “friends” indicated that because gay and lesbian folk cannot have children “as God intended” that this is clear indication that same sex couples should not be allowed the right of marriage.  In response (yes, I got sucked into the vortex) I wrote: 

“My wife and I have beautiful son who we truly believe is a gift from God. When we say our "God Blesses" at bedtime with him he gives thanks for "Mama, Mommy and Ay-Ay" (His name isn't Ay-Ay, it's just what he calls himself!) We clearly had help in his conception--the same kind of help our straight friends who have twins got (and at the same fertility clinic). Many couples can't have children "as God intended"--in fact neither could Abraham and Sarah, that's why Abraham bore Ishmael with Hagar prior to the conception of Isaac. Isaac was clearly a product of divine intervention, as was Jesus--perhaps assisted reproduction can be viewed in the same way as folks who are unable to conceive on their own? I love the notion that God gives God's blessing in the form of this assistance.”  

The friend’s response--Jesus had a mom and a dad “as God intended”.  Now, I do not presume to know God’s intentions.  I can guess at them, and I have settled on choosing to respond with the most loving response I can--in trust that the most loving response will most accurately reflect God’s will.  In conjunction with this, the moral compass for most of my decision making, I also work hard to honor the baptismal covenant command to “honor the dignity of every human being”.  Therefore, my response:

"I think one of the issues is that the process we're in relies on dehumanizing people who don't fit in a a very specific "box". Every movement that has tried to institutionalize bigotry in one form or another (or has state sanctioned oppression) relies on this process of dehumanization in order to justify denying rights/opportunities/and basic dignity to the non-dominant group. From the various flavors of racism (slaves weren't allowed to be married and only counted as a portion of a person in census counts--when you read older writing it was not at all unusual to compare blacks to animals quite literally) to anti-semitism (the language used about Jews was pretty horrific, and once again you get the animal motif) to misogyny in which words like "bitch" or "cow" or "dog" are used to describe women...treating HUMAN beings as if they are not worthy of dignity/justice/rights because they are somehow less than human has been a way of circumventing the language of the United States Constitution; basic human rights and even our own baptismal covenant. 

Within the religious context, if someone is presumably not fully human because they are not "as God intended" it becomes easier for folks who embrace the label "Christian: to participate in the bullying, attacking and intentional destruction of mind/body and spirit. 

Heterosexual individuals who cannot or choose not to have children are getting some of the fallout from the process we are currently in and I am so very sorry that [altered here to protect the innocent] folks are experiencing being collateral damage. I am also so very sorry that we are even having this conversation--largely because it hurts my heart, o so very much, on several levels. As a mom, as a partner, as a devout Christian...this is a very hard time. But, regardless of how folks seek to deny my full humanity--whether it is through disparaging remarks about "Christians" or using scripture to justify denying my sweet little boy legal protection should something happen to his moms--I will continue to claim God's blessing. 

Because, it is God's blessing that strengthens me in this process and allows me to cling to the truth of God's love for all human beings. I will also continue to bless--bless single men and women (by choice or chance) families with children and without, heterosexual families, glbt families, folks of all races and creeds, folks of all sizes and shapes, the old and the young. I bless and will bless."

Because it is the most loving thing to do.  

Love, be loved, and please...Vote No (if you live in MN!)