Lenten Graces–Second Sunday in Lent

“If Abraham, by what he did for God, got Got to approve him, he could have certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is ‘Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”  ~Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, (NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1993) Romans 4:1-5

It seems exceedingly difficult, this text. There is the message that there is some inherent goodness in our being who we are over and above all of our anxious human doing. (It must an important lesson, we read it over and over throughout the Bible, starting with Genesis.)

It seems nearly impossible to those of us living in a consumer-driven commercial world. This notion that you can not do anything to earn all of what God has to offer. It’s an affront to American culture and a reversal of the American Dream.

We can do nothing for God’s approval, nothing to gain merit or entrance into the Kindom* of God. Paul is commenting on that old struggle between works and grace.

It is a difficult text, but an important one as we move through the Lenten season reflecting on how we long for a deeper connection with God. As we give up the barriers to our spiritual life, give up our creature comforts, or as we take up practices we hope will enable us to walk closer to God’s will, we are very much consumed with the  doing aspect of living out this text.

There is something about grace which the post-modern world seems intent on annihilating. We are told if we work hard we will have all we need; that has not been true since 2009 and possibly before. The idea that we get the material goods we deserve based on our hard work in the world is roughly equivalent to the 1980’s notion that neon colors were fashionable. 

The NRSV words verses 2 and 4 as  “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.”**  Here, Paul seems to come down squarely on the side of grace.

Paul’s teaching in this text brings memory to my mind many of persons I interacted with as a hospice chaplain. At some point in life we all reach the stage where the most we can do is simply exist. [This is particularly true for persons with dementia and the other brain disorders associated with aging.] At some point in our adult lives we may need others to feed, bathe, and clothe us just as we did at life’s beginning. Being is a form of Grace. Being as Paul reminds us is all God asks of us is to do. Some religious and mystical traditions insist that there are spiritual lessons which can only be learned in the later stages of life. I know that as I spent time with persons who had become too ill to care for themselves towards life’s end, I learned that how they continued to interact and how they continued to teach others was through a subtle way of being who they were as they were in the world. It is a way of being that trusts and relies on God.

This way of being ourselves and being in the world as we find it is a type of trust and type of remembering that in the end it’s not about us. There is certainly our part, but in the end it is God’s story. Perhaps being us enough to discern God’s story from our own is the ultimate Lenten practice. Learning to accept grace~practice that.

*”Kindom” is a well-known feminist respelling of Kingdom designed to highlight the mutual relationships in the Kingdom of God rather than the hierarchical relationships of the patriarchal system; see the work of A. Isasi-Diaz and Rosemary Reuther.

**from http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+4 [on-line] accessed, March 15, 2014.

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Grief

 

Buber and Kelli

Buber and Kelli

I never saw this coming. My beloved Buber the Dog died on March 12, 2013. (Yes, as in Martin Buber, I thank those of you who get that, because it was essential to his canine-ality.) We had taken him to the Vet ER because he suddenly could not stand up, would not eat, and looked like he might be in pain. They took x-rays, said his skeleton was fine and suggested that we follow-up with a neurologist which we planned to do. We took Buber home. He looked comfy and sleepy on a cushion we had for him. I asked him if wanted to go “out”, he lifted his head and torso to look over at me and then just flopped back down as if wanting to sleep. I turned off the light and left the room to let him sleep off the pain meds, little did I know that was my last conversation with him. Less than two hours later I went to pet him good night and found that he was already gone.

We had a home vigil. Burial in the high desert at a friend’s ranch.

I am a hospice chaplain I work with loss and grief all the time. But this has got to me in ways nothing else has. Perhaps it should. This was my and my husband’s beloved dog, this was family, this was my baby. This was the animal that just simply wanted to be next to me all the time, and when I was home he mostly was next to me. This was an animal who connected to my soul–Buber was his name.

Now Buber is dead and buried and life is all odd. I come home from work and there is no pup, if my husband is out there is simply no one there. The house feels empty, and yet somehow it feels more like home now and less of a convenient rental. Things that seemed so important no longer seem so important, and I have this urge to simply slow down.

I know all about grief, intellectually. and personally. I have lost many loved ones to death. Professionally I see death so often it is a real presence. But this is different.  I feel ridiculous. I work with dying people and grieving families, and the death of my beloved pup has turned my life upside down. But I think this is the way it should be.

We feel the pain of loss to same extent that we have loved–and love survives death. It still seems sacrilege to not say “hello” to Buber when entering the house. I look for him in all his favorite spots. And every time I imagine petting his beautiful fur and know I will never get to do that again, tears well up in my eyes. I have done the shock and disbelief. My anger and bargaining have been intertwined….if I had known he was dying….if only I had not been so busy…..thank God he did not die three days before when I was away on a church business trip…. I have even berated myself for not seeing the signs and symptoms of canine dying, thinking that as a hospice professional I should have foreseen this—we don’t always see it even in people, and I had never seen a dog die. Death can surprise you. I have been unkind to myself.

There will be firsts. Like today, we washed the bedding and no more will there be Buber on the bed. And yet in my mind’s eye, I am sure I saw Buber sitting on the clean bedding as I walked by the bedroom just before dinner. When I watered the fruit trees and roses in the yard, Buber was no longer in the yard avoiding the water hose (he did not like to get wet, but he found the waves at the beach fascinating).  Nonetheless, I had the sense the other day that he walked around to the back of the house as I was watering. Yes, I put down the hose and followed just to check his favorite spot to see if he were there.  And I keep forgetting that I don’t have to worry about Buber catching his ear on the rose-bush and getting his ear pierced by a thorn. I am sad that I don’t have to throw the lemons that have fallen on the ground straight into the compost because they may have dog pee on them and thus would be unfit for human consumption. Mostly I am sad that as I write this post Buber is not sitting next to me–often he would  get up on the bed and cuddle next to me as a wrote or use the foot of the bed as a platform to nudge me at desk if I were sitting there. Nope, now it is just here, me, writing on my own…and horribly undistracted. I hope I still will have something to say. Those eyes had much wisdom and grace and taught me so much.

I know the fifth step of grief is acceptance. I am not ready for that yet. I still feel that a part of me has been ripped away with no chance for goodbyes.  But what would I have said? “Don’t go?”  That would only be cruel. “I love you and you are the best dog ever?”–I said all that. He had had pain medication, so if he had pain that had been addressed and he was at home with his people, where he would want to be. So I am assured that Buber the Dog had what we call in hospice “a good death”.  People and food were the most important things in life as far as Buber was concerned. In fact, being and dying at home where he could hear his people talking and fretting over what to do for him next may have been exactly as he wanted  it to be. It was all very hospice like really. I still  feel like this was sudden and I am not ready to accept it.

Yes, l may likely get another canine in time, but there is none like Buber the Dog and his sweet soul that poured the love of God right onto you whether you thought you needed  it or not. The loss of such a being I cannot accept right now, and maybe at least, theologically, I can never accept. May we all meet a living being sometime in our lives who simply think we are worthy of all the grace and love they can bestow. Though I bid adieu to my theological pup and I am pretty sure that I now not only have a direct line to God , but also a fan putting in a good word for me with the Supreme Deity, whose heart will also melt at the sight and touch of the floppy ears

Buber th Dog's resting place

Buber the Dog’s resting place.

 

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An Unexpected Gift

Luke 2:8-20

One of the joys of gift giving is finding just the right gift for that person and the unexpected look on their faces when they open your gift. A couple of years ago, my niece and her new groom were opening gifts after their wedding when they received not exactly the gift they had hoped for. In the midst of all the brand new gifts for a brand new marriage, they received a used, greasy, grimy popcorn maker in its original box from some very close family members. Shocked and amazed they graciously received the greasy, grimy wedding gift. (Why they gave a used gift, nobody knows.)

The following year this corn popper became the gift that kept on giving. Each person who was celebrating a birthday or anniversary became the new owner of that popcorn popper. Mysteriously it would appear—through the mail or from an “unknown friend”—whatever it took to get rid of the gift. Included was a card with the names scratched off of the previous owner and the new owner scratched in. Everyone was dreading their upcoming birthdays because certainly it was going to be their turn to receive the corn popper. Who would be next in line? No one said a word in fear of their own birthday being the next potential target. About three years later the popper was sent to my brother-in-law for his birthday (or so we believe). They claim to have never received it. So who received our practical joke? Nobody knows. Has it disappeared and fallen into the hands of some unexpecting stranger wondering why on earth were we sending this nasty gift? I only hope they laughed as much as we have about the whole thing.

The angel told the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). A very special gift has been given to you—Jesus Christ. Jesus came as an unexpected gift in an unexpected way. He came as a baby, born in a stable, not a hospital. No fanfare except the angels, no royal procession or grand entrance for this new king. Even though prophets spoke of his coming, no one was expecting him but his parents. So much better than that old greasy popcorn popper!

Christ coming into the world was a true gift—a gift of love from God. A gift that, when someone discovers what is inside their hearts, will be forever changed; no waiting in line to exchange it or re-gifting because it wasn’t exactly what you had in mind. This world is prepared to be loved again and embraced once again by a God who cares about our needs and about us. Remember the chaos that broke out on Black Friday? People using violence to get their way over a present is an indicator that we have forgotten what love and the meaning of Christmas is all about. We need Jesus! Jesus brings peace, joy, love and hope into our world as gifts, not demands. They are gifts by which God comes to us and changes our worldview and expectations of life.

You have been given a gift—Jesus born again in your hearts. Jesus, the great God, our Lord and Savior, who saves not only as God but as God-man, came to love us and gave himself for us; and what can we do less than love and give love back. Many songs have been written about what gift we could offer to Jesus. The animals in the stable gave him wool to keep warm and a manger to sleep within. The shepherds brought their lambs, the wise men brought frankincense, gold and myrrh. The little drummer boy played his drum and the angels sang. What gift can you give to Jesus? Like the shepherds you have the opportunity to respond by taking the love of Christ out into the world with you. The darkness is gone and the light is shining brightly. We who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light: the light of Christ. Share that good news with your family and friends; the news of how a baby came unexpectedly in an unexpected way.

***

Rev. Susan Oeffler

The Face of Emmanuel

I think it’s genius! This season is so rich in spiritual meaning that over the years it has become a fantastic tapestry made up of humanity’s various threads of hunger for meaning and vitality in a confusing and harsh world. A bit narrower than that, I think it’s genius how Christmas was paired up with a date that was already deemed of cosmological significance prior to Christianity’s arrival. And a bit narrower still, I think it’s wonderful how that ebb and flow of darkness and light has played out in my own life, and maybe it is time to marvel at my own awareness of it.

Let me just take this to a personal level here for a bit. Bear with me. I’m not a woman and I don’t really speak in church. But I’m married to one wonderful woman who sometimes does speak in church, and who, ten years ago, became the return of light to my life, with a couple pivotal dates falling just about solstice time in 2001 and our subsequent embrace of our newfound relationship in 2002, even after we’d known each other for over a decade before that. I’ve spilled a lot of pixels on my blog about the details. For our purposes here, I just want to celebrate this in a place where I know it would be appreciated—both among people educated and attuned to the special nuances in this kind of story, and among friends of hers who know her personally.

The state of things a decade ago was one of massive dysfunction on the family front. In a lot of ways, the light had gone dim. That year Kelli and I shared grief around the murder of an old friend, and September 11 was a crisis that forced everyone into mourning and (hopefully) deeper questioning. It did for us. The overlapping disasters that constituted the year 2001 drove me back to a life I was familiar with but that I had left for about a decade. Kelli was a lifeline to that world during that time. But in late 2001, I was beyond my own means to make sense of the world. Kelli and I grew closer and I began to attend church again where the deeper stuff of life was the lingua franca. What resulted was a decade of constant change, but now with a devoted partner with a vast depth of character and compassion. Kelli’s presence did not stop the change or the turmoil, but she did make it safe to face it with new resolve.

This Christmas Eve, with the waiting and the hoping almost exploding in us after weeks of Advent’s buildup, I recall that time one decade ago when the light was going out, out, out—until the glimmers led to flickers that led to an increasingly steady flame. Kelli embodies the solstice for me. Light will follow darkness. Or, using the language of Christianity, she’s the face of Emmanuel for me. Her presence in my life is as clear a sign as I have that God has smiled on this speck of dust too, who a decade ago used to scoff at God-talk and such silly notions of the miraculous.

It has to be the stuff of miracle. Nothing I did earned this. Nothing I knew or believed mattered. This is grace, folks. At Christmas, the great gift is given indiscriminately to all by the shamelessly generous Giver, who doesn’t really care what you were, what you used to believe or not believe, or how you used to think. Just like none of us can stop the solstice from happening, none of us can stop God’s compassionate giving of the divine Self. And, I might say that Christianity’s enhancement of an already-great festival written into the cosmos is that whereas the solstice is just an annual event in a given hemisphere, Christmas isn’t limited that way. Every day is Christmas! Every day can be the day when the God-gift can be given and received. But for me, having such a great thing happen in my life at solstice time will always make this season special upon special.

Merry Christmas to my beautiful wife Kelli who has opened my eyes and softened my heart, and to all of you. Thanks for your submissions to this special series. It’s not over yet, though! Read on through Epiphany, and then stay around to see what follows.

Bearing Unbearable Love

And we are put on earth a little space
that we might learn to bear the beams of love

—William Blake

I ran across this verse yesterday, and it felt just right for these last days of Advent. The time preceding Christmas provides exactly this: a little space to focus anew on learning to bear the beams of love. There are several ways to bear something, of course.

  • One meaning is to bear a child, or a crop; to bear fruit.
  • Secondly, to bear can mean to tolerate, carry, or accept a burden or condition.
  • And thirdly we can bear witness, or a gift; to share with others.

Mary must have wondered how she was to bear the beam of love that grew within her. She had the need to bear love in several meanings of the word. Her child would enter the world as we all do, she must give birth. But before that, Mary had to bear a difficult and lonely “beam of love” in carrying an illegitimate child. Only Mary really knew that she had been given a sacred mission; Gabriel did not write her a glowing letter of reference to explain it all to Joseph.

Her story told in Luke leaves out her inner conversation about her predicament. She was so young, we are told, unlikely to have had a lot of education. She was a pious young woman. But what would any of us make of a visit from the angel Gabriel announcing that we are ‘favored by God?’ And what kind of ‘favor’ is this when a young girl must bear the long months of a pregnancy by some invisible father?

Mary bore the news of the destiny she was offered by God, but not without distress.

She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean” after Gabriel trumpeted “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favor! The Lord is with you” to her, moments before.

Beams of love are sometimes so unusual, surprising, or foreign to us, that they seem unbearable, at first. All we can manage sometimes is to be, like Mary, ‘deeply disturbed.’ We ask ourselves what this new offering means, especially one that feels so strange. Beams of love that arrive out of order from the way we have imagined reality to function are the worst. “But how can this come about,” Mary asks, “since I have no knowledge of man?” she wonders. I do not imagine Gabriel’s answer was immediately satisfying or comforting to Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” No sane woman of any era expects this far-fetched explanation will satisfy her questioners.

But somehow, Mary is convinced to receive, to tolerate, to accept this strange beam of love that apparently feels genuine to her, even though dangerously defying all reason and social convention. She began to bear the beams of God’s love when she said “Let it happen to me as you have said.

When Mary visited Elizabeth, she shared the revelation she received, and the news of her pregnancy with her cousin. But in Luke’s telling, Mary’s stayed quiet about her news with others, as far as we know. We can imagine how sensitive this pregnancy was for Mary. Joseph must have been terribly unhappy, knowing as he did that he was not the child’s father.

When Mary’s moment came to give birth to a real life, fussy, squirming baby Jesus, Mary bore her “beam of love” into plain sight. Jesus was a child who needed milk and warmth and cleaning just as all of us needed at the start of our earth careers. Mary bore her beam of love into flesh and blood, into smiles and speech, into a person who would reveal love in a fresh and unprecedented way to us all.

Which way am I meant to bear the beams of love more fully today? Is a new thing about to be delivered through me? Am I to labor and cry to bring forth some new creation? Am I able to carry a bit of compassion to another living being, and oh so gently lift someone’s heart? Or am I simply in that place of learning to bear the magnificent beam that is given to me, by letting loose of my own stubborn notion of what love should look and feel like, making room for the real thing? Might I make room at the inn for a love that melts away foolish striving and angling for power, that beam of love that transforms the heart to a radiant source of the very same warming glow?

For when our souls have learned the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice
Saying: `Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!’

—William Blake

***

Carol Toben