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Desire

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“Like a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God… When shall I see you face to face?”—Psalm 42:1-2

Waiting is the hallmark of Advent, yet the Advent psalms and prophets speak more about longing than waiting: panting, fainting, begging, crying, desperate human need.

Waiting can be active, but it’s rarely terrible and driving. Desire, however, is visceral, like the crazed thirst of a wild animal in a parched land. God is a fierce and unrelenting need. Advent craves God.

Do you?

No, you aren’t thrashing through underbrush frantically seeking water. You don’t really relate much to that panting deer. You don’t have those kinds of experiences of God. You’re no mystic.

Although there was that moment when you heard a loon on the lake and cried, couldn’t stop, didn’t know why, but so wished you did.

Although there was that moment when you felt incomplete, a restlessness, and wondered what you were missing.

Although there was that moment when you were suddenly and completely happy, consoled without cause, and you wish you could feel it again.

Although there was that moment at the peace march or serving communion or stargazing in pure black night when you grasped it whole, the way it is, the way it’s meant to be.

Although there was that moment when your heart lurched listening to a story about someone who risked it all, who loved the way you want to, yes, you do.

Although there was that moment your defenses were down and your suffering was great when you just cried out, cried out for God, and then got scared: what if God comes?

No, you’re no mystic, no thrashing deer.

But there was that time…

Prayer: I’m so thirsty for you, O God. Like the deer. When will I see you face to face?

 

Zacchaeus

 

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Image: Zaccaeus, by Joel Whitehead

 An old sermon (from 2001)…

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a story that recapitulates all the great themes of Luke’s gospel: the anticipatory mercy of God, the joy in heaven when the lost are found, the moral precariousness of the self-made and the self-righteous, the necessity of deeds to authenticate righteousness – especially the divestiture of concentrated wealth and the just treatment of the oppressed.

It is also a charming story, filled with unexpected details that make it easy to imagine. We learn that Zacchaeus was short, that he ran fast to beat out the crowd, that he climbed a tree, and that it was a sycamore. We learn that, inexplicably, Jesus knew his name, and that on the spur of the moment he invited himself to eat and even to stay overnight at Zacchaeus’ house. When we hear that Zacchaeus responded without the slightest hesitation, we imagine him flattered, flustered, happy, hopping up and down like a child.

But he was no child. He was a grown man, but exactly what sort of man is hard to say. His name means “clean,” or “pure,” but his profession was anything but. He was a chief tax collector with jurisdiction over a prosperous region, raising revenue from Jews for the foreign occupier, a collaborator consorting with Gentiles. To ordinary people tax collectors were disloyal opportunistic extortionists, Roman lackeys. Religious professionals held them in contempt as the most impious of sinners. It would not surprise me to learn that even their Roman employers despised them.

And yet…

And yet, there he is, a tax collector running after the rabbi, eager for Jesus, going out on a limb heedless of possible scorn or injury, unconditionally responsive when Jesus calls him down, illustrating another of Luke’s great themes—that only outsiders and outcasts recognize the kingdom when they see it.

Now, there are outcasts and there are outcasts. Most of Luke’s outsiders, even the morally shaky ones, elicit our sympathy. Widows, possessed people, lepers, women about to be stoned—when they fling themselves at Jesus’ feet, beg for mercy, confess their sins, or clutch his hem in search of healing and a restored life, we feel the injustice, the pity and the pain of their ostracism.

But a tax collector? That’s a different animal. If Zacchaeus is as nasty a piece of work as his contemporaries assume, it seems like just-desserts that he should be shunned in polite company and blotted out of the Book of Life. We could be wary of Jesus’ apparent approval of him in the same way that we are often upset by the characters in his parables who get a lot more than they deserve: Why the favor shown to the prodigal brat and not to the older son? Why a full day’s wage paid to the man who worked only an hour? Why eat with Zaccaheus? Zacchaeus is the kind of outcast we would feel OK about leaving out there beyond the pale. He brought it on himself.

But is he really all that bad? Consider this: when the crowd begins grumbling about what a disgrace it is that the rabbi should lodge with a sinner, Jesus, who usually delivers withering zingers in response to such judgments, says nothing. Zacchaeus is the one who speaks. He delivers a vivid self-defense. And what he says precisely has long been a translators’ debate. It all depends on whether you render his verbs, which are in the present tense, as “future-present” or “customary-present.”

The more traditional approach has been to use the future-present. In this rendering, Zacchaeus has a converting encounter with Jesus, and because of it, from now on he will behave more justly. Meeting Jesus changes him, on the spot, from a bad man to a good man, concerned with fairness and the well-being of the poor.

But in many other gospel scenes in which conversions occur, there are always dialogues of repentance and forgiveness, requests for restoration from the supplicant, and the commending of faith from the savior. None of these typical exchanges happen here. So other scholars prefer to render Zacaaheus’ speech in the customary-present. When they do, what Zacchaeus claims is that all along he has been more generous, more scrupulous, and more self-aware than he’s been given credit for. His self-defense is a simple disclosure of fact: he has habitually given half what he owns to the poor—that’s 40% above the tithe—and whenever he discovers that he has been involved in a fraud, he makes a four-fold restitution—twice what the law required.

He makes this disclosure not as a boast to God, like the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple we read about last Sunday, but as a plea for vindication, a plea that Jesus answers by recognizing him, a rich man, as a true son of Abraham, ready for the kingdom with all his household. Here, then, is another characteristic Lukan theme: although it is indeed harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, for God, all things are possible. Zacchaeus is living proof of God’s power.

Zacchaeus’ disclosure of his generous and just practice was also surely meant as an act of hospitality: after all, Jesus is his guest, and the grumblers are ruining dinner. If Zacchaeus can correct their judgment of his own morality, maybe they’ll stop heckling Jesus about his choice of host. But I doubt he was able to accomplish that, especially if there were Pharisees in the crowd, who, fairly or not (and mostly unfairly), the evangelists depict as men devoid of irony who wouldn’t know a nuance or a compromise if one rose up and bit them, and whose notions of goodness and religious purity were not susceptible to the kind of truly human complexity we may have in Zacchaeus.

And it is human complexity in all its infuriating nuance that is on display here. Zacchaeus is a man carrying out one of those morally-dubious jobs, like designing missile guidance systems. Yet we cannot simply say that he is corrupt: the very thing he gets right in his life is the same thing God has put forward since the dawn of creation as the touchstone of authentic humanity and right worship: care for the poor and justice for the oppressed.

If “customary-present” is the better way to understand Zacchaeus’ response to the critics, it makes the story more familiar to us, and maybe even more credible. Zacchaeus is not converted on the spot—this rarely happens in human experience, and it doesn’t happen here. No, it turns out that he is neither villain nor hero. Neither consistently evil nor an exemplar of consistent virtue. But in a few important areas of his life, he is capable of acting like a man of God, a true son of Abraham, and the effects of his conduct on the world around him are humanly profound.

He is, then, like most of us, a compromised man in a compromised world, leading an ethically-ambiguous life in an ethically-bewildering human landscape. His name notwithstanding, he is unable to be pure in a world that is not pure either.

Like Oscar Schindler, a man not to be trusted with your money or your wife who saved thousands of Jews from destruction.

Like Mother Teresa, a woman supported by donations from organizations opposed to population control in India who gave dignity to the dying and hope to the sick and a new way of service to countless young people.

Like me, when I went to give a talk to some church leaders at the home of the congregation’s head deacon, a fifteen room house on eight acres in Sudbury, more house than any Christian should need or want, I remember thinking judgmentally as I pulled up to the front door, only to be greeted by seven adopted special needs children living happily inside.

This is Zaccaheus, complex and compromised in a complex and compromised world. Jesus loves him, accepts him fully just as he is, and glowingly commends him to Pharisees, to bystanders, and to us.

As I ponder his story, I find myself thinking about the anxiety, apprehension, anger, and frustration running rampant in our roiled-up nation and our war-torn world. We have great need of unambiguous prophets, strong and fearless, who will go way out on a limb and scout a new humanity, a different way, who will speak uncompromisingly the language of peace. But I am also thinking about the hideous consequences of true believing, whether it comes from “them” or from “us,” the frightening fundamentalisms of the right and the left, about the bloody dangers of replacing our first allegiance to human beings with ideology of any kind.

I am thinking about how difficult it is to be pure without being proud. I am thinking about the need we have for truth, and the fact that truth always comes to us unpackaged, in fragments, never unalloyed. I am thinking about the wisdom, the humility it takes to know that, and still to dare.

I am thinking about our communities of faith and witness, imperfect and loved by God; full of people with strong minds and wills, fierce convictions and bright visions; deep and faithful people who are also, at the same time, weak and needy, sinful (I begin with me), plagued by mixed motives and impure hearts, who live in a complex and ambiguous world with which we compromise daily despite our rhetoric of ethical excellence and moral purity, despite the high standards we often hold each other to and the judgments we make about each other when we fall short.

I am thinking about whether we should even try to come before God in any other way except in our frank human nature, full of our ambiguity; and whether, perversely, we should be relieved and even glad that it’s hard and even dangerous to be pure.

And I am thinking gratefully of you, First Church, for if any grumblers should question whether we are an appropriate house for Christ to lodge in, we also can, like Zaccaheus, say in our own defense that by the grace of God, in the midst of our compromises and sins, we do care for the poor and we do work for justice; that at least we know that that is the thing we should be trying to get right, no matter what else we may struggle with, fail at, or fudge.

I am thinking how grateful I am, and I hope you are too, for this odd privilege of being accepted by a God who knows our dilemma, who shared our flesh, experienced our internal contradictions, was done to death by our compromises, and who loved us first, still loves us now, and will keep loving us to the end.

 

 

Saving Flesh

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“God will save God’s people on that day… They will sparkle in God’s land like jewels in a crown. How attractive and beautiful they will be!”—Zechariah 9:16-17

A good friend was in therapy for a debilitating situational depression. After a few months of treatment, there was less pressure in her chest, more songs she could listen to all the way through. But the depression was deep, and her progress was slow.

Each week she would walk to her appointment along the banks of the Charles River where on warm days Harvard undergrads lolled in various states of dress and undress, sunning themselves, tossing Frisbees, preening, laughing, and seducing each other with unapologetic sensuality.

All this she would see through a lusterless haze. Everything gray, everyone blurred, voices muffled and distorted, underwater. And she couldn’t bear them, those children, their youth and their joy. The pleasure they took in their bodies cut her. Their flesh was repulsive, a blasphemy.

Then one day she saw them, and they gleamed. Their light didn’t sting her eyes. Their laughter made her own heart sing. Their flesh was so beautiful it made her cry. And she loved them, loved their bodies and their joy, loved their life, their lust, their immodest abandon. She almost fell to her knees, adoring.

On the day she loved their bodies, she knew she was well. She knew she was whole when life in the body—in every body of every kind—became for her a parted sea, a burning bush, a holy of holies. She knew she was saved the day all flesh made manifest the Glory.

 

The Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs, and Other Idolatries

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When Myers-Briggs devotees ask me ‘what I am’ on the scale, I say I don’t know. Eyebrows go up. Haven’t you ‘taken the test’? Yes, four times, because two employers, one working group, and an ordination committee required me to. But I’ve always had a hard time recalling what ‘I am.’ In part that’s because every time I take it, the results change. Apparently I’m a moving target.

When the Enneagram people ask me ‘what my number is,’ I also shrug. I’ve never done it. When I admit this, they look a little sorry for me—Richard Rohr teaches it, for goodness’ sake!—and proceed to tell me what they think my number is. I guess they’ve had my number all along, which I find amusing when I don’t find it annoying.

What I have taken are those Facebook tests that tell you what country you should live in and what character you are in Hamlet. I get Fortinbras a lot. Who knew? They’re silly, of course, harmless, and pretty much always wrong, but I take them anyway, for fun. But more ponderous inventories and assessments like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram? Those, I confess, I resist.

It’s not that I’m incurious about who I am, or afraid to find out: I once had my palm read in a cave in southern Spain. And it’s not that I’m disapproving of the way such tools become all-explaining constructs for some people, in the same way that the labyrinth colonizes some folks’ entire approach to spirituality. It’s true that I pedantically fret about reductionist distortions of the spiritual life and can be querulous in conversations about it too (see, I know at least that much about myself); but I also know it’s not up to me to decide what people should find ‘powerful’ for their lives, and I can let my wariness go.

Nor am I put off because  there’s no scientific basis for the assumptions these tools rest on and the explanatory conclusions they deliver, although quasi-scientific claims are routinely made for them. The Enneagram also purports to be an ‘ancient’ tool, which for mystery-starved Protestant progressives lends it a great deal more authority than science ever could. I find this deference to the ancient supremely ironic in people who aggressively eschew dead white men and most expressions of tradition, but hey. In any case,  I’ve given my heart to lots of scientifically unreliable things, like Christian faith and the Red Sox, so the Enneagram gets a pass from me on this count, too.

And it’s not that I don’t understand that, as some fans of the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram insist when I launch another tiresome critique, they’re only tools meant to help us in circumscribed ways, not the be-all and end-all, etc. You should do it, get inside it, learn from experience, let us explain it to you correctly, then you’d see. The truth would dawn. That’s sort of a gnostic argument when it comes down to it, and I don’t care much for gnostic arguments. Besides it’s just not true. I do get it that they’re only tools. But I also get that many facilitators and experts who fuel the monster self-knowledge industry are not so modest. Their ardor makes ‘only tools’ seem like existential necessities with unassailable validity, and skeptics like me would recognize that if only we would trust them when they say so.

No, what makes me a resister is more philosophical, I guess you could say, or maybe more theological. When push comes to shove, I’m just not very interested in the particular kind of self-understanding these tools offer. I don’t think self-knowledge has all that much to do with being able to unearth and describe particular personality traits or styles of being in the world. What I want is to know myself, not dissect and explain myself. For me, self-knowledge is a comprehensive thing, the sort of knowledge about my human nature that gives my soul stability, a capacity to be neither excessively enamored of its gifts nor abjectly shamed by its lacks, neither preening about its virtues nor shocked by its sins.

When I seek this kind of self-knowledge, I find I’m hardly ever preoccupied with the activity of knowing myself in particular detail. I don’t spend a lot of time negotiating the slalom course of interior self-investigation and segmentation because (as somebody once wrote, I can’t recall who) “knowing yourself is not the same as being interested in yourself.” I’m hoping instead to acquire, over a lifetime, a tacit consciousness of my human finitude and contingency, a deep background awareness of incompleteness and belovedness, a gounding knowledge to accompany me and shape my being and acting in the world.

In this sense, self-knowledge is a discipline and a gift. And what this sort of self-knowledge knows is not ‘things about me,’ but something richer and more encompassing: namely, that my human status vis-à-vis God, my neighbor, and the world is a sheer mercy.

Then there’s this truth: Even the most useful instruments for discovering the self, the shape of our personalities, and the contours of our human style obscure as often as they illumine, because human beings are necessarily elusive and hidden. We are always more than we know. More than anyone knows. And in the same way that ‘God’ cannot be nailed down, neither can we. It’s not for nothing that we were made in the divine image, so dark in its glory, so bright in its enigma. We can’t explain ourselves to ourselves, and no one else and no instrument, scientific or magical, can do it for us, either.

Trouble often comes when someone thinks they have us figured out, or when we think we know what makes another person or class of persons tick. Sometimes the trouble is trifling; sometimes it’s as big, nasty, and dehumanizing as patriarchy, racism, and, well, you name it. There’s nothing silly or wrong (despite my skepticism and occasional mockery) in knowing all kinds of things about ourselves. And I don’t doubt that there are tools  that can help in that enterprise. What I doubt is that there’s genuine wisdom to be had in it. I think there’s genuine wisdom in knowing what self-knowledge knows: the whole self cannot be known.

This truth often causes us pain. We all long to go in, to cross the threshold, to know and be known fully. It’s hard to be turned away at the door by the mystery of unknowability. And yet there’s also invincible freedom and dignity in living inside the truth that we can be captured by nothing and no one—not even ourselves.

None of these tools can deliver in any lasting way what they seem to promise (or what some people infer, correctly or not, that they promise): namely, that with numbers and letters in hand, we can understand each other more fully, get along better, make compassionate, or at least practical, accommodations for our differences, and not judge someone because they are a 2 or an INTJ. In my experience, discovering, sharing, discussing, even laughing about our ‘scores’ has rarely forestalled or resolved tension and discord in staff meetings, impatience and dismissive judgment among family members, or the facile excusing of ourselves from the obligation to grow up and behave better.

This failure isn’t the fault of the tool so much as it is a flaw in us. Same old story: we want what we can’t have. For at the core of our lives is a mystery whose entire scrutiny belongs only to God. Self-knowledge is given to us as we’re led to glimpse and embrace the nature of our creaturehood as God fashioned it and knows it, that simple human being most of us spend a lifetime evading even as we’re busily taking personality inventories to tell us who we are.

To seek self-knowledge is to enter a lifelong path of attention, faith, and surrender. It’s also to accept that no effort of ours will ever lead, or is meant to lead, to the kind of detailed understanding we crave when we sit down to take those tests. It will not hand us the keys we think will unlock us and explain us and make things better. That sort of knowing is fine as far as it goes, but to pursue and prize it is to settle for a lot less than we deserve. It may even be a kind of idolatry, depending for grace on gods that can’t bestow it. But to thirst for that larger self-knowledge is to concede divine sovereignty over our enigmatic lives. It is to worship the living God.

 

Ghastly Prayer

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“By your sword, deliver me from the wicked, O God. Fill their bellies with the wrath you have stored up for them. May their children have a surfeit of it too, with leftovers for their little ones.”  –Psalm 17:13-14.

What I pray for when I’m distraught, terrified, enraged, or overwhelmed is not what I pray for when I’m peaceful, content, hopeful, and safe. What comes out of my mouth when I’m beyond the end can be ghastly.

My most desperate prayers lay bare the damaged self I normally conceal under good Christian wraps—an aggrieved righteousness, contempt for those who oppose me, a primal impulse to pay back with lasting hurt those who have hurt me (and while we’re at it, their children too), and a cowardly urge to have God do the dirty work for me.

I’m grateful to this bloodthirsty psalmist for being as nasty as I am when my heart is backed into a corner. Grateful not so much for validating my emotions, or for modeling honest prayer, or for reminding me that God is big enough to absorb my fury, but for shocking me into recognition. I hate what he prays for. I recoil at his viciousness. But I’ve prayed that way myself.

We could shun psalms like these, excise them from our devotions, denounce them for their violence. Or we could pray them. We could let their hateful words come out of our mouths. We could discover in repeating them that they are not as foreign and distasteful to us as we think they are, or as we want them to be.

Self-knowledge. It’s the beginning of wisdom.

Prayer: Have mercy on me, O God, just as I (really) am.

 

Give Up

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Image: God Clothing Adam and Eve, Book of Hours, William de Brailes

“’By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ And the Lord made garments of skins for the man and the woman, and clothed them.” Genesis 3:18, 20

Is this you? You get out of bed planning to be good, but your intentions fall apart before lunch. For all your striving, there’s still too much white space between your values and your deeds. Your life is littered with casual compromises. You rail against idols one minute, pledge allegiance to them the next. You skirmish with your demons, secretly relieved when they win. You’re the grass that flowers by day and withers by night, inconstant as the moon and, as an old hymn puts it, “prone to wander.” Whether purposely, haplessly, or a little of both, like Isaiah’s wayward sheep you go astray. You repent sincerely, and it starts all over again.

After they ate the forbidden fruit,  Adam and Eve found out they were naked and felt, for the first time, ashamed. They were probably scared too. They were about to abandon the Garden for a hard world in which nakedness is a big liability. But God, we read, was unable to let them go like that, defenseless and exposed. They were guilty, not unloved. So God makes clothes for them, personally bending to the task, original mercy for original sin.

It was the first mercy. It won’t be the last. God is relentless: the mercy never ends.

Lent is for repentance. One way to repent is to contemplate your condition, feel guilty and ashamed, and resolve with gritted teeth to become a better person by this time next year. (Good luck with that.)

Or you could repent this way: Contemplate the mercy that has always covered your shame and surrender to it, giving up not beer or Nutella or swear words, but yourself and all your striving. Let God be your holiness, your healing, and your hope.

Divinized

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“The One who makes rich is made poor, taking on the poverty of flesh, that I may gain the riches of divinity. The One who is full is made empty, devoid a while of glory, that I may share that glory fully. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me?”—St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-391)

It’s an ancient theological question: Why did God become one of us?

Some Christians believe it was to fix a big problem—to pay the unpayable debt incurred by Adam’s sin. When he grows up, Jesus will bridge with his broken body the unbridgeable chasm our disobedience opened between us and God.

And if that’s what you believe about God’s purpose, you stand in a venerable stream of Christian tradition, and I won’t say you’re wrong.

I will say it’s not the only way to imagine why God took a body. There are other venerable traditions, and one of them says the Savior came to divinize us, to give us God’s own glory.

God emptied out to take humanity in. God stooped down to raise us up. God accepted limits to dissolve the limits that made it seem, tragically, as if God and humans are opposites. The mystery—the wonder—of the Incarnation is that we’re not.

In this way of imagining, what we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us but someone to reveal us to ourselves. The gift on the horizon is not a grim course correction but a mirror, a gaze, a joyous shock of mutual recognition—there, the eternal resemblance, the beauty, the dignity, the shining, shining love.

Prayer

O to be the objects of so great an Affection! O this wealth of goodness! O this mystery that surrounds us!

 

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman [Exodus 1:7-2:10]

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Image: Pharoah’s Daughter Rescues Moses from the River–Synagogue Dura-Europos

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you’re clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you’ve chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you’ve ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not one more step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will rise: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he tossed in the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which Pharaoh’s army is arrayed against us, no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

Sealed with A Kiss [John 20:19-23]

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Most of Jesus’ friends abandoned him after his arrest. They found a place to hide, locked the doors, dragged over the couch, and piled up chairs. They were afraid the authorities would find them and arrest them too. But they got found anyway. By Jesus.

Somehow he got through the barricade and spoke to them.

What did he say?

“You cowards!”

No.

“I’m disappointed in you.”

No.

“It’s payback time.”

No.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace be with you.”

As if nothing bad had happened three days before. As if they’d never hurt him.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace.”

Now “Shalom” was an ordinary word. A way to say, “Good morning,” or “Good-bye.” It was an all-purpose greeting, as normal as “Hi, how are you?

Picture it, then—Jesus walks through doors to be with friends who never expected to see him again. After what they’d done to him, they probably hoped they never would.

Now he’s here. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, no.” But he’s saying, “Hi.” Shalom.

And with that one ordinary word, their hearts fill up with blessing as beautiful as the blessing God said over creation in the beginning.

With that one, everyday word, their dreary hiding place turns into the Garden of delights Adam and Eve enjoyed before they listened to the Snake.

When Jesus says that unexpected, ordinary little word, it’s like the first day of creation all over again. Morning breaks like the first morning, blackbird speaks like the first bird, and there’s dewfall on the first grass.

“Peace,” he says, and his beleaguered, frightened, wounded, confused, self-protecting, weak, vacillating, sinful, fair-weather friends are made new.

Shalom.

In other words, “It’s over. It’s past. We begin again.”

And then, the story says, he breathed on them.

Just like when God breathed into a lump of clay once upon a time, and the first human came alive, Jesus breathed on his lumpy, lifeless friends. He moved around the room and breathed on them.

It was like he planted a big breathy kiss on each of them.

Or like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which makes sense, since he was on a rescue mission. His disciples were as good as dead. Worry and shame had sucked the life right out of them. So he kissed them with God’s breath. The breath entered them, and they came to life.

Shalom.

And then he commissioned the “kissees” to become “kissers.” To go and breathe God’s healing breath on the whole wide world. He made them emissaries of breathing. People who’d do for others what he’d done for them—to show mercy where no mercy is expected; to pardon when no pardon is deserved; to go around the circle of the world planting God’s kiss on everything.

The early Christians also took that kiss and turned it into a ritual. They practiced it among themselves when they gathered on Sundays to worship. They did it every week so that no one would ever forget the new lease on life Jesus gives us; so that no one would ever forget his command to share his life with the world. They passed the peace.

Now in ancient times when a worship leader said, “Share with each other a sign of peace!”, people actually kissed. And some church members liked it so much they smooched their way around the circle several times. Some tried to practice exotic kissing techniques too. Church leaders had to make strict rules about the kiss of peace. But they never did away with it.

We’re still doing it. Every Sunday. Minus the exotic smooching. Handshakes and hugs are more our style.

Most of us like this time in worship. But some people don’t. They’re bothered by all the hubbub. Some worry about germs. Sometimes people who have suffered unwanted touches feel a little unsafe in all the hugging and handshaking, even thought they know they’re among friends. One woman in my former church didn’t like it because she sometimes fought with her husband on the way to church, and by the time they got to their pew they weren’t speaking. Then, ten minutes later they had to turn to each other and say, “Peace be with you,” and mean it.

It can be awkward. It can require some safeguards. It can be annoying. But we keep doing it. We can’t do without it. Because the more we do it, the greater the chance that what it stands for will come true. The greater the chance that Jesus’ refreshing life will become our own. The greater the chance that over time, a little word and a human touch will bring us back from all the places in our lives where we are dead or dying, restore us to the Garden, to the land of the living, to the ranks of the dearly loved. And the greater the chance we’ll also heed the call to be emissaries of pardon and peace in the world.

It’s not important how we do it—shake hands, hug, nod, good eye contact. What matters is to stand in the midst of a broken world and in the midst of an imperfect church, say “Shalom,” and mean it. What matters is that we assure each other, “It’s okay, it’s over, we can begin again. Jesus is with us.”

It’s important, this moment when we turn to each other and really intend the healing peace of Christ for people we know well and love a lot, for people we know too well and dislike a lot, for strangers we don’t know at all, and for the one who always picks a fight on the way to church.

The promise in this practice is that Sunday by Sunday, Christ’s peace will resurrect us from the little deaths of anger, anxiety, resentment, shame, fear, and narrowness we die each day. Sunday by Sunday, giving and receiving peace will become a habit, so that wherever we go, whomever we meet, our first and last word to all will be, “Shalom.”

Jesus once burst into a hiding place and said to his ashamed disciples, “Shalom.” In this room today, some of us are ashamed of something, or restless about the past, or anxious about the future, or fearful that God is mad at us, or doubtful about God’s care for us. Some of us are just tired. We have broken hearts. We worry about family and friends. Life is hard. We need all the life we can get.

Lucky for us, it’s here. In hugs, handshakes, and a holy word. Peace.

Christ is among us. No barriers we build can keep him away. No fear or shame of ours can overcome his eagerness for us, the apple of his eye, the loves of his life.

Every week he comes into our midst and gives us the ancient gift again. Shalom. Peace.

A new day. A new chance. A new beginning. A fresh and durable hope.

Shalom. Peace.

Receive it with joy. And pass it on.

 

Out of Hiding

Psalm 32: 3-4  While I kept silence, my body wasted away, my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you; I did not hide my iniquity.

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Someone I love is in rehab, his second try. He’s starting over after pretending for years to be sober when he wasn’t. I can’t begin to describe the mess he’s made, the grief he’s caused, the emptiness in his voice when he finally emerged from deep cover and confessed his lie.

Unlike last time, he’s ‘working the program’ honestly now. It’s hard and painful, but not as painful as when he was going it alone, when it was just the bottle talking, telling him, ‘You’re fine.’

Now he’s in better company—a fellowship of the nearly-dead who really want to live. They tell their own stories and listen to each others’ truth. They know they’re not fine, and they tell it like it is. They need each other to make it.

I called him the other day. He sounded different. He sounded overjoyed. In such a fellowship, he told me, you can strip naked and not die of exposure. Even the worst thing is redeemable.

When I heard his voice I wondered, if the payoff is joy like that, why wouldn’t we all want uncompromising light to shine on our deceitful hearts?

Maybe we don’t think we need it. We’re not that far gone. And maybe that’s lie number one. But maybe we’d be willing to come out of hiding if we had some company, a fellowship in which there are no reprisals for truth-telling. No shock, no shaming. Only healing, only the gift of life. For who can bear to see themselves truly except in the mirror of grace?

Maybe we could all emerge from deep cover in the fellowship of church, if only church were such a fellowship. If only…