Monday, March 24, 2014

Everything I have ever done. And then some.

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

I walked in to a bakery and was looking at the cookies and the ├ęclairs while the woman behind the counter waited on the person in front of me. The other customer was busy on the phone, talking away, all the while pointing to the pastries that she wanted with her other hand. Occasionally she’d hold up her fingers—three—and then point to what she wanted. She paid and mouthed a thank you before she walked out of the bakery.

I sighed. At least she said thank you.

How often have you been behind someone in line at a coffee shop or fast food place and they just say, “gimme a large coffee,” pay and walk away? How often have you been that person? This is something that we've all done when we have other things on our minds or other people on our phones. But when we do this, we may be missing important connections. 

Technology makes it easier to talk to someone who is three hundred miles away rather than the person in front of us. In a lot of ways that’s a good thing. My mother-in-law in Virginia reads books via Skype to my niece and nephew in Montana while my sister-in-law makes dinner. Through technology they are real participants in each other's lives. 

But when we use our phones and computers to filter out the people around us, that can a problem. It used to be that when we went to the local watering hole, we’d talk to the people who happened to be there. Now, more often than not, we just interact with our phones and the people and programs that are at the other end. I am as guilty as anyone of this.

Imagine if Jesus went to that well in Samaria our day. Would he have talked to the woman there? Or would he have texted his buddies.

Getting thirsty. No bucket. How close r u?

Of course, that wouldn’t happen because the story is not really about Jesus needing a drink, but rather about the encounter that he has with the Samaritan woman. It’s a story about connecting with people and seeing them as important.

Jesus is making his way through Samaria when he comes to the well. There he strikes up a conversation with a woman. This isn’t just small talk, this is theological debate and revelation. This is important stuff that happens right there at the local watering hole. This story is one of many that show us that Jesus sees and values the people that might often be overlooked. People who might even be treated badly by those who think of themselves as more righteous.

After all she had some strikes against her—she was a woman and therefore her job was to serve, not to debate. She was property rather than a person. She was also a Samaritan, a rival of the Jews. 

Breaking custom, Jesus asks her to dip her bucket into the well to get him a drink. Instead of just being obedient and doing it, she questions him.

Are you nuts? She might say today. You’re a Jew and I’m a Samaritan. We can’t share the same bucket.  

Then, for some reason, the Samarian woman of questionable reputation has a full on encounter with God in Christ. She is amazed and changed by the experience and becomes an apostle—a sent one—as she goes into town and announces Jesus’ presence. It’s the marginalized woman who brings the rest of her community to Jesus.

Jesus saw this woman for what she truly was—a child of God. He wasn’t content to see the way others saw her. He looked deeply into her. He saw the hardship of her past, but he must have seen something else, too.  Maybe it was her brazen honesty or her willingness to be vulnerable. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus saw some of his own qualities in her.

And so he talks with her. He reveals himself to her. He tells this unnamed, foreign woman that he is the messiah. 

This passage reminds me of the TV show Cheers or Friends or maybe today’s comedy Big Bang Theory.  Those TV shows are popular because they show us visions of something we all need—a place to belong. We all want to belong to a group where we can be our real selves. A place where everybody knows our name, knows a little bit about our history (the good and the bad) and still welcomes us. We all want to feel that we are valued and matter to someone.

Where do I belong? is one of the questions that drives us throughout our lives. At first we belong to our families, then we get to middle school and the question of belonging is the main thing on our mind. Which group would will we belong to? The cheerleaders? The goths? The burnouts? The smart kids? The jocks?

Remember the agony of the middle school cafeteria, standing there with your sweaty hands gripping the plastic tray looking out at a sea of faces? Where would you sit? What would they think of your food choices? Your clothes? Where would you belong? 

We move in and out of belonging throughout our lives. New jobs, marriages, neighborhoods, retirement and old age put us in new places. Places of uncertainty. Will we find those people who really understand us? Will we find people that we can honestly reveal ourselves to? 

The woman at the well may have been wondering where she belonged. She’d had five husbands. The Bible is unclear on how this happened. Did five men die? Was she thrown out five times? However it happened, losing five husbands would have been a hardship in that time and place. People may very well have thought there was something wrong with her. 

So here she is, a woman who is likely struggling financially and is looked upon with suspicion by her people—Don’t marry her, you’ll die! She feels like she doesn’t belong. She’s the middle school kid feeling dread in the pit of her stomach. So she decided to eat lunch alone. Or in this case, go to the well. 

But when she gets to the well Jesus is there. Waiting. In their conversation, she admits to her past. 

I have no husband, she tells Jesus.

But Jesus knew that. He knew that something about those five husbands made her feel disconnected. Maybe he recognized a kindred outcast. Maybe this is why this passage is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.  

Maybe Jesus found a kindred spirit when it came to being misunderstood. 

Some calls to confession remind us to "remember that our Lord Jesus can sympathize with us in our weaknesses." Maybe that was a weakness he knew well. The disciples didn’t really understand him, but something about this woman brought the truth out of him. I am the Messiah. I am he.

The power of this story lies in revelation—in the sharing of the truths of their lives. and finding a sense of understanding in each other.  Scholars who study this text say there is some flirtation or innuendo that our modern ears miss. I’m not enough of a linguist to agree or disagree with that. But when we encounter this story, we feel the power of real connection and honesty. Jesus and the woman see each other for who they really are and somehow find belonging.

Despite their differences they seem to value each other. They reveal their truths and she responds by becoming and evangelist. What is her message? 

This man told me everything I have ever done.

What I see in her testimony is this: This man told me everything I have ever done and he respected me anyway. He accepted me anyway. He trusted me despite my past, despite my mistakes.  To Jesus this woman was not dispensable or a person to just hand over a bucket of water and be dismissed.  She was a child of God. She was a woman to be trusted with important truth. 

 In response, she left behind what she knew to share what he did for her. She didn’t say he was the way the truth and the life. She didn’t speak theology. She spoke her personal truth. I encountered Jesus and he knows me and loves me.

The good news is that Jesus knows you and me in this way too. Despite our past. Despite our mistakes. Jesus comes to us. He sees into our hearts and tells us that, yes, we belong. We have a place at the table with him. We are important. We are loved.

Our response should be like that of the woman at the well. We should share Christ’s love. We should let the news that we are loved and valued and forgiven bring us new confidence when we feel like the outsider or that we don’t belong. Because the truth of the matter is that we do belong. Our group is bigger than a cafeteria table, a family surname or a local bar. We belong to God. The people that we encounter are God’s people. They belong, too. They are important, too.

The mechanic who changes our oil. The woman who hands us pastries at the bakery.  The teenager serving us at the drive through. The person who can’t speak English who sits at our feet for a pedicure.  These are God’s people.  Take a moment to look deeply and connect. Who know what you might discover?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Leave what you know. Live what you don't.

1Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Do you like to live life on the edge? Do you like to do things that are difficult and not worry about what will happen if you fail? Or would you rather to play it safe and go with what you know? The question that faces us in the Abraham and Nicodemus stories is one we face each day. Are we going to step out in faith or hold back in fear?

 At first glance it might look like Abraham and Nicodemus don’t have much in common. Abraham is the venerated father of the faith. Nicodemus is a Pharisee who sneaks to see Jesus at night. God gives Abraham step-by-step instructions and Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in metaphors. Abraham is obedient and Nicodemus is hesitant. What they share is common to so many of the great Bible stories. Both Abraham and Nicodemus are being called to leave what they know and live something they don’t. 

We admire Abraham because he lives into his unknown future obediently. Sure, he and his wife Sarah laugh at God’s plan to make them the father and mother of a great nation that will bless the world, but they pretty much do as God commands. They leave their homeland, set off for a land that they’ve never seen. Later in Genesis, Abraham even goes as far as lifting a knife to sacrifice his only son because God told him to. Abraham is our model of obedience. He's obedient to the future to which God calls him.

Nicodemus on the other hand is our example of hesitation. He comes to Jesus alone, full of questions. He’s a Pharisee and obedient to his deep religious training and indoctrination. In other words, Nicodemus is obedient to his past. He seems to want to follow Jesus but he's too attached to who he is and what he already believes. Add to that the fact that  Jesus is vague and symbolic. He tells Nicodemus he has to be born again.

Today we know what born again means. But put yourself in Nicodemus’ place. He was the first person to hear that phrase. I can imagine him scratching his head. Born again? He knows Jesus works miracles but what kind of miracle or sign is this born again stuff? Jesus can make blind people see and disabled people walk. It may very well be possible for him to do a miracle that makes it possible for a person to be born again. But how? Why?

Everything God said to Abraham was literal. Do this, do that, go here, go there. Later he promises to give Abraham and Sarah a child. God was telling Abraham that he and Sarah would have a baby—the two of them—with their grey hair, missing teeth and bodies that ache a little more each morning.  And so it happened. They had that baby the literal, old-fashioned way.

As a Jewish leader, Nicodemus knows the Abraham story of the birth of his nation. He knows that God worked in the lives of Abraham and Sarah quite literally. Is it any wonder that that is where his mind went when Jesus says born again? He asks: How can any one be born after growing old? Do they go back to their mother’s womb or what?

No Jesus says, the literal is flesh, I’m talking about spirit.  Jesus is not being literal. He’s talking about re-birth by water and spirit. He’s talking about making a new life out of an old one. Live into the future not out of the past. A baby doesn't have a past. People who are born again separate themselves from their past.

Both these literal and metaphorical stories show us God is working in the world. Taken together they show us that God changes things tangibly and intangibly. God changes both how we feel and what we do. God influences our emotions and our actions.  It’s faith in action.

Following God means we leave our places of past comforts. We leave the homes of our fathers. We leave our temples.  We go to wherever it is God is calling us. Like Abraham, we may not know where it is. Like Nicodemus, we may not know exactly how it happens. But, both of these stories show us that we are to leave what we know--our past--and live something we don’t--our future.

For those of use who like live into the illusion that we are in control, living into God's call can be a real challenge. Most of us like to have some idea of what our day will bring or where our life will be going. We live by the calendar and the clock. We have a one-year and a five-year plan. We build our present on our past. 

Imagine how Abraham’s story might play out in your life. You've got your calendar out with meetings and to-do lists and God comes to you and says, Get in the car and go. I’d like to use you to bless some people today. Don’t worry. Just start driving. I’ll tell you when to turn and let you know when you get there. Oh, and pack up your stuff because you are not coming back. 

Hello panic.  I know that I don’t even like to let my GPS guide me step by step. The first thing I do after punching in the address is to look at the map and the step-by-step list so that I can understand the big picture, but that’s not how the God Positioning System works. So often we don’t have a clue what will transpire, we are just expected to go.  Abraham was good at that.

Nicodemus wasn't so bad at it. He took the first step, stepping away from a faith that emphasized God in the Temple and Israel as a chosen people to find God out in the world. Nicodemus went looking for proof and had to be content with all that spiritual stuff about being born again and water and not knowing where the wind is heading next.

While Nicodemus often gets a bad rap for coming to Jesus at night, maybe even in secret, if we read on in the book of John we see that this is his first step. Later, he argues for Jesus to the religious elite and brings anointing spices for Jesus’ dead body. Abraham dropped everything and followed at once. Nicodemus followed little by little.

Truth be told, more of us are probably more like Nicodemus than Abraham. We don’t walk away from what we know easily—whether it’s our hymns, our calendars or our families. We change slowly. We investigate, ask questions and take baby steps—if we are willing to step out all.  We live in constant tension. Our fear holds us back while our faith calls us forward. We are afraid of what might happen if we maintain the stats quo. We are afraid of what will happen if we change.

What would our lives look like is we didn’t fear what comes next? If we didn’t fear poverty, being an outcast or even death? What if we could trust that it is God calling us into that scary future? What if we could be content not knowing where the wind comes from and where it goes?


map link
Just yesterday I talked with a woman who shared her retirement story. On of the first things she was put a tent in her car and set off driving west--alone. 

"If the car in front of me turned right, I turned left. This was before cell phones so of course I'd have to stop and look at my map and figure out where I was." She ended up Yellowstone to work in the gift shop for the busy season before returning home. I admired her confidence and bravery. She is a thoughtful woman of deep faith. I have no doubt that she blessed the people she met along the way. 

Stepping out in faith is God’s call to Abraham and Nicodemus and it’s God’s call to us today. Leave what you know. Live into what you don’t. Trust that God is already there. Don’t hold back because your calendar is written in ink. Don’t hold back because you can't control what you don't know. Even if you flame out and fail in a big way, you are still loved by God. 

Have faith to step out in courage knowing that God is there with you. God is present not just in what we know, but also in what we don’t. God is there ahead of us, preparing the way, calling us forward. God is with us on the journey and God is behind us cleaning up the mess that we are likely to make.  

You may recall the famous words of St. Patrick’s breastplate—so appropriate for today:

“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.”
If you know the story of St. Patrick or any of the saints for that matter, you know that they had difficult lives.  They went to the margins—some suffered terrible illnesses, others cared for those with illness, some worked with the poor.  When he was 16, Patrick was kidnapped and taken from his home in Britain and held captive as a slave in Ireland. Eventually he returned home. After converting to Christianity, he returned to the place of his slavery and captivity and ministered there. St. Patrick walked into and through his fear, leaving it behind. His writing shows us that he could do it because he believed that Christ was with him and around him, making him stronger.

That’s true today. God is with us wherever we happen to be. God is at our center and God is calling us to the future. God is calling us to leave what we know and live what we don’t. It’s not easy, but with Christ within and around us, with Christ in front of us and behind we can go to that future—those unknown places. We can leave our fear behind. You may choose to go all at once like Abraham or one step at a time like Nicodemus. But take a deep breath and go, trusting that God is there waiting for you.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It's all good! Right?


2:15The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.16And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”4But he answered, “It is written,
     ‘One does not live by bread alone,
          but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
     ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
          and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
     so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Listen to the sermon here. 
It’s all good. You’ve probably heard this slang about a thousand times in the last few years. In Genesis, when Eve looks at the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she was probably thinking, Why not, it’s all good, right? She didn’t yet know the difference between good and evil, so of course she would be tempted.

Look what the passage says about it:
It was good for food
The tree was a delight to the eyes
The food was desired because it could make one wise

Through Eve’s eyes, the tree looked all good. Having some would be so satisfying. Being like God would be so cool. So of course she takes a bite of the forbidden fruit.

And then, suddenly, it's not all good.

Once she eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, her view of the world changes. What seemed “all good” wasn’t anymore. 

Eve and Adam learn that knowing the difference between good and evil comes with consequences and responsibilities.

Taking that bite allows them to became self-conscious. Before the bite they were naked and didn’t realize it. After the bite, they see that they are naked and different. So they make loincloths to cover those differences.

Their new knowledge had huge implications for the actions in their lives. Suddenly they were responsible to choosing between good and evil. They are kicked out of the garden and must fend for themselves. Since their “discovery,” humanity has been reflecting on what is good-- in our lives, our governments, our sciences, the Broadway show Wicked is a two-hour exploration of what is in song, drama and dance.

In Lent, we reflect upon our relationship with God and our actions. We think about how Jesus behaved in the world, on his way to the cross. We look closely at the choices he makes and the actions he takes for guidance in our own lives. Some of us give something up for Lent, like meat or chocolate, and are tempted to indulge. Others of us take something on, like more prayer or Bible reading, and are tempted to skip it. In these 40 days, many of us intentionally seek temptation.

Most of aren’t miracle workers like Jesus though. Because we believe that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are one, we know that Jesus could have eased his temptations. But he didn’t. He suffered through them.

Jesus, too, was intentional about his temptation. He didn’t go on a vision quest or spiritual retreat. He wasn’t fasting to be holy or even to get closer to God. His sole purpose for going to the desert, according to Matthew, is to be tempted. But the temptation doesn’t even start until after he’s fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.

And while each of  Jesus’ temptations may look different, they are really the same. Each temptation encourages Jesus to use his power for himself. Each temptation is about power—his body, his reputation, his place in the world. Jesus is tempted to act like he is the most important thing in the universe. Like he’s the only one that matters. Thank God he didn’t!

Eve looked at the fruit on the tree and thought it’s all good. Jesus looked at the world and knew better. Eve learned the hard way about consequences and responsibility. Jesus was born with the responsibility of the world upon his shoulders.  Eve listened to the tempting voice of the serpent. Jesus refuted it.

The “fallen” part of us is seduced by that voice that tells us we are the most important thing in the world, that our needs somehow outweigh the needs of others. Jesus didn’t seem to think that way. Yes, each and every one of us is important to God. Our problems arise when we forget that this applies to every one of God’s children; when WE think that we are the most important thing.

The three temptations stories reveal who Jesus is and what he values. Will he put his own comfort and well being first when tempted to turn stones into bread? No.  Will he make a spectacle of himself by throwing himself off the top of the temple? No. Will he seek to be a dominating political force? No.

We don’t have to be in the wilderness to encounter small temptations. We don’t even have to leave our homes. I’m guessing that you have something in your own life that tempts you. Maybe it’s something benign like chips or shoes or tools or clothes.  Or maybe it’s something harmful like cigarettes or alcohol or drugs.

These things trigger the part of our brain that says—Just give me that and it will all be good! At least for a while.

With that new tool this project will be easier. With those new shoes I’ll feel more confident. A couple of chips will satisfy that craving for salt. These are the low fruits of our temptation trees. They make life easier and more enjoyable for a while. We look at those delightful, satisfying temptations and desperately want them to be all good, except they are not. They aren't all bad either. Much of it depends on the situation.

And then there are our wilderness temptations—the hard things that we face when we are weak and hungry. The temptation to get back at our ex. To lie about our grades or our accomplishments. The temptation to slander another person in order to get a promotion. To leave some income off of our tax return. To speak hateful language about someone who is different from us.

Jesus shows us that the self-aggrandizing, self-satisfying way is not always the good way. The spectacular way is not always the good way. The rewarding way is not always the good way.  Sometimes the good way is filled with rocks and stones and poverty. Some days the good way will draw us into a wilderness and we will suffer.  Some days the good way leaves us hungry and weak and tired. And that’s when we slip. That’s when we think, Oh, that would be good when really it’s not.

When we look at Jesus in the wilderness, we see how he dealt with temptation. When the tempter asked the question, Why don’t you…? Jesus had one answer for temptation—the answer is God. He tells the tempter:

We thrive on the words of God’s mouth.
We don’t test God.
We worship only God.

Yes, Jesus was tempted by the things we are-- power over his body, power over his reputation, and power over his place in the world. When faced with those temptations he doesn't look his needs, but elsewhere.  His answers to the three temptations are God. God. And God.

Eve had the luxury of looking at the world and that fateful tree through innocent eyes and thinking, It’s all good. Jesus didn’t have that luxury, not do we. When Jesus looked out at the world he saw good and evil. When confronted with the opportunity to satisfy himself he chose a different path. Jesus chose God each time.

It’s the decision that we face, too. It’s the responsibility that comes with knowing the difference between good and evil. Is it good, really good, if it only satisfies me or me or my people? Is it good if I’m the only one who benefits?

In the end we are people of a good book. People who believe in gospel which means  good news. We believe that even though evil has entered into the world, it won’t defeat the world. We hope that they day is coming when, indeed, there will be more goodness than evil. We look forward to the day when we can fully participate goodness—seeing all the tears wiped away, hunger eliminated, and inequalities gone. We trust that the day is coming when we can say, It’s all good.

And mean it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Lipstick Theology

Are You Red-dy or Fiery Veil? I held both lipstick tubes against my shirt and weighed the decision. Finally, I decided my day would be the same no matter which shade I chose. I swiped some across my lips, extra thick, and headed out the door. I was as ready as I would ever be for my first day on my own as a hospital chaplain trainee.
When I got to the hospital I procrastinated-- signing my name in all the right places, carefully placing my lunch and purse in the locked cupboard. I walked alone in the halls, looking into the faces of the other people and wondering if they were as nervous as I was.  The motion in the lobby was constant with an assortment of volunteers, patients, families and hospital workers walking through. I studied each face carefully wondering what was happening in their lives. I was there because I had to be. As part of the training to be a pastor, I had to have a “clinical” pastoral experience. In other words, I had to be a chaplain for a season.

I got to my assigned floor, filled mostly with leukemia patients. I slipped behind a computer at the nurses’ station and printed out the list of patients I was to see. I promptly tucked the list into my folder and convinced myself that introducing myself to the people not attached to IVs would be a better first step. “Hi, I’m Sue. I’m training to be a chaplain.” Nurses, doctors and custodians politely shook my hand and got on with their work. I wandered to the restrooms, washing my hands slowly and carefully. I pressed my lips together. The lipstick was sufficient.

When my hands were dry I walked to the lounge and took out the patient list while the TV blared a morning news show. Nurses and doctors talked in the hallways. Equipment beeped and flashed constantly, a never ending assault of noise. The elevator came and went with people and balloons. Down the hall a man wretched. My own stomach turned.  An hour had passed since I walked in the doors and I still hadn’t been brave enough to visit a patient.

I sighed and tried to tune out the noise while I decided whom to visit first. I settled upon Grace. It's  natural to begin a chaplaincy with some Grace, I thought. Outside her door I put on the required paper gown and mask, my flimsy armor against whatever lay on the other side of the door.

I was so nervous that I don’t remember what I said or she said, only that after a few minutes she was crying and I was crying and three years of academic theological training seemed pretty much useless. Her chemo wasn’t working. The hope of heaven was nothing compared to the agony of final separation from children and grandchildren.

An eternity later, I wiped my tears, prayed with her, stripped off the rubber gloves and paper gown and put them in the special garbage near the foot of her bed. I walked out the room directly to the elevator, trying look as confident and purposeful as the nurses, but my lower lip betrayed me. I went to the cafe for a latte, something predictable. Something familiar.

A few minutes later I tossed the lipstick-stained cup into the trash and went back to the leukemia floor. 

Training to be an interfaith chaplain is like those swimming lessons they give to babies. You get thrown into deep water with no instruction, no tools, and a vague hope that if things go horribly wrong some strong hands will pull you to safety.  My training group wasn’t unprepared, all six of us had some theological education in one religion or another. We had done ministry work. But, unlike the medical interns and residents, we didn’t follow an experienced chaplain who showed us the ropes. Our instructor simply showed us to our floor and said, Go.  The learning comes later as we dissect our experiences.

Chaplains don’t dispense drugs or use sharp things like scissors or needles. Chaplain tools are time, words and occasionally touch.  While we might say something awkward or commit a religious faux pax, the chances of us accidentally killing a patient with our words are pretty much zilch. But that doesn’t mean words don’t have power.  The questions we ask reveal deep truths.  Our presence reminds people that their lives have meaning. Our willingness to listen assures them that someone cares. The things we do can give life to a dying body It’s a powerful kind of healing.

As a chaplain, I wasn’t there to convert, cajole or evangelize. My role was as easy and as difficult as being fully present in some of life's worst circumstances. I’ve recited the Lord’s Prayer holding the hands of a young Hispanic woman, she in Spanish and me in English, the words of our prayers mingled together in a shared rhythm. I searched though an old man’s coat and gym bag searching for a red yarmulke so that he could wear it while he talked to God. I discussed about the meaning of life and death with an atheist who was frightened of his diagnosis and had no interest in a higher power. I’ve stood by wailing families who surrounded the body of a loved one who had passed. I've sat quietly while a young man cried his confession. I’ve talked softly and stroked wispy white hair of an unconscious old woman whose family called but never visited.

Chaplaincy training isn’t about doing it “right” but rather just doing it. It’s about learning to see the person and not the tube coming out of her head with slippery pink liquid draining into a bag. It’s about spending five minutes staring into the frightened eyes of a dying man who can’t hear or speak. It’s about letting a mother bleed mascara on your white shirt when what you really want to do is run away and pull your own children close. It’s about facing your own fears about loneliness, loss of control and death so that you don’t dash out the door and down the steps when the going gets tough.

At the end of my first week I entered Beth’s room. She had a quarter inch of fine dark hair growing back on her head and a computer propped up on her lap.

“Come on in,” she smiled and motioned me to the chair near the bed and shut the computer. She was more comfortable in the hospital room than I was.

 As the conversation wound from diagnosis to prognosis to her children, she admitted that even though chemo was going well and the prognosis was good, most days she was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her two -year-old. Her four- year-old wondered why she couldn’t play like she used to.

“How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you face it without falling apart?”

She sighed deeply.

“I did fall apart. Six months ago, I didn’t get up off the couch. Not because I couldn’t physically, but because I couldn’t mentally. I wasn’t dead but I was already dead, you know?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, even though I wasn’t dead, I quit living,” she looked away, going to a different place. “My husband couldn't take it. One day it all came out. He was standing there yelling and crying and I was on the couch curled up and crying and my mother grabbed the kids trying to get them outside to make sure they didn’t hear it.”

“Wow.” I cringed inwardly thinking a chaplain should be more profound.

“That’s when I realized that I needed to do something,” she continued. “I mean, here I was in this-- this shitty place and all I wanted to do was escape. Retreat. That’s not who I am. My husband knew that. I decided that’s not who I want to be. I’m a fighter. So, I started going to a psychologist and taking antidepressants. I’m choosing to live until I actually die—whenever that is. I want my kids to, know, really know, how much I love them.”

Sometimes hard to tell who is doing the ministering.


Walking in and out of those hospital rooms over the next six months, I realized that I am not the keeper of wise words or religious truths. I could never have all the right answers. But rather, I learned each of us holds a piece of the collective wisdom that defines our humanity. We give and take from each other, bearing witness to the fragility and resiliency of life. Talking about our lives and our deaths are difficult conversations. They are sacred conversations. In these moments it doesn’t matter what lipstick I wear or if I feel ready. What matters is that I’m willing and that I care.