Holding Fast to God: Lent 4

There is so much richness in the lectionary for this week that it is hard to know where to start. What strikes me in the texts for the third week is that both Psalm 23 and the story of the Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41) have very little to do with one another and yet in the end they both point us towards holding fast on to God even when that seems irrational and all else is seeming lost. In the depths of these texts I sense that there is a calm center—the welcoming of God, Godself—in the midst of the chaos that surrounds the central character of each text.

I doubt I will ever forget a seminary afternoon I spent in Psalms class taught by Dr. Kristin De Troyer, an amazing scholar and teacher! This particular afternoon we were looking at Psalm 23, and going through it line by line examining the poetic stress and how the word pairs worked to enhance the meaning of the text both in translation and in Hebrew. A text that has almost come to seem cliché jumped out at me. As Professor De Troyer took us through this text it became clear that it was not only not a simple text, but also that it was far from the pastoral text the images depict. This is perhaps one of the most familiar texts in the Western world. “The Lord is my shepherd…” The words themselves are so calming to even think. (Although I must admit that after encountering the Vicar of Dibley series I found myself giggling every time I heard the opening of this Psalm because it had become such a lead into comedy for me. But I digress…) However, as I think back to that day in seminary, in the long warm conference room, I think of how sad it is to me that this text is so misunderstood and so misused. As the professor unpacked the word pairings of the text and went through the images of the text with us in view of its ancient origins, it came alive for me in new ways. Professor De Troyer led us on a discovery that this text is one of flight and seeking refuge. The table which God is said to prepare in this text is not just a meal table, not a welcome table but rather the alter in the tremble where one might seek refuge—the one place that a hunted or chased person may find refuge, for no army and no official could lawfully seize a person who had to the ram’s horn on the altar of God. And not only is the text one of safety for the person in peril, but it is also one of vindication.

I thought on that day, how strange it is to use the text of Psalm 23 as a text for the time nearing death. It seems to me that the context of death is the one in which Psalm 23 is often used. I remember thinking to myself on that day in seminary, that I would uphold the integrity of the poetics of the text and not use it in the context of death because in my class I was learning that really the text is more appropriate to the situation of the immigrant running from immigration officials than it is for the death bed! But such can be the arrogance of pure academic scholarship mixed with inexperience. As a chaplain I quickly learned that despite the meanings unearthed by the poetics of this text, the fact that this text brings meaning and comfort to people in various situations but particularly at time of great illness and approaching/at death cannot be ignored. As a poet, it first pained me to use this text in the context of illness/death. However as chaplain—and even as a poet—there is something more important than intent to tend to. There is always at the heart of all matters the meaning and care for others that must be considered. In my experience as a chaplain I have learned that even people who are not religiously affiliated will ask for Psalm 23 to be read at time of death. It has become easy, both for the scholar and the poet within, to allow my poet self to read Psalm 23 in the context of illness/death. This is true not only because it is caring to read something that has meaning to those who request it at these times, but also it is true because of the death/dying process itself. The death/dying process itself is one of letting go of all we love—be it things, people, places, and how we identify ourselves. In this sense the death/dying process is one of seeking refuge in the only place we have left to turn when all else falls away—God, or our understanding of the sacred. In some small way Psalm 23—which is really more about refuge from the world than death—is in a way one of the perfect and most simple texts to turn to for reassurance, whenever we need it, and often that is the time close to dying.

The paradox of this struck me this week as I taught Sunday School to the four and five year olds—and Psalm 23 was the text for the week. Here Psalm 23 was in no way connected to ideas of death and dying, there was no thought given the notion of fleeing for one’s life or seeking refuge, but rather the image of the shepherd became the focal point for discussions of care, compassion, and God’s love for us. It was a bit odd I admit for the hospice chaplain to be teaching Psalm 23 to a group who, God willing, will long outlive me. But it was also a moment in which I found wholeness. For, as we first learn Psalm 23 (particularly if we know what a sheep is only though books and we have to learn what a shepherd is) we learn that God is present with us at all times and that God cares for us through others who feed and tend to us when we are sick. There is omnipresence, we are never alone. God holds fast to us so we may hold fast to God.

By now you may be thinking that at the outset I mentioned this was also the case in the gospel for this week, in the story of the man born blind. Well it is. This is one of the “healing stories” in the gospel, and generally I find these complicated and problematic. This story from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, however, is one that important and liberating to a point. It is in this text that Jesus clarifies for all those around that sin is not the cause of disability for Jesus says “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed through him” (John 9:3). This is very liberating to people with disabilities because it separates sin from disability, in the words of Jesus, and long before science would show this to be true. Rev. Dr. Kathy Black points out that this healing story is different than others found in the gospels because whereas other healing stories end with the person with disabilities being integrated back in the community, in the case of the man born blind Jesus’ healing of the man results in his being expelled from the community. (A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Abington: Nashville, 1996, 72-73.) The blind man’s encounter with Jesus and his healing lead to controversy within his faith community. The man not only proclaims the work of Jesus to his community but he also calls Jesus a prophet! Like a good shepherd, Jesus seeks out the man when the community expels him and then the newly-sighted man accepts Jesus as the Son of Man. The healed man held fast to his experience of God, even when he faced losing his community because of it, and Jesus came to him there.

Whether we struggle with fault/blame, change, leaving, or how to approach the other this Lenten season let us hold fast to God with the hope that God holds fast to us as well.

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Hair!

kelli getting her hair straightened for the first time by amandaI am going to call it my “Vicar Do”! That is right, I am writing about ministry and hair style. I did not intend my new do to be an homage to the Vicar of Dibley, and I don’t think it is per se, but now that my hair is cut it does make me think of the Vicar in that hilarious series.

When you think of all that goes into ministry, it seems ridiculous that something like hair style should matter. Yet, for women clergy it does! Let’s not be fooled. How a woman wears her hair has always been an issue in some churches for even the Apostle Paul comments on what women, in the Corinthian church, ought to do with their hair (1 Corinthians 11: 5-6). True, it matters for men as well. But lets face it men’s hair styles are limited to how short one wants it –even if, and I know some male clergy do, the guys want to style and poof the hair it a bit or polish the bald head. No matter how wrong it seems when dealing with issues of justice and spirituality, I have learned the hard way, how one looks effects how one is perceived by those you serve. And often those you serve look at all parts of your life, and yes, there is judgment in that. A negative perception can be disastrous for the unfolding of one’s ministry. That alone makes one’s image an issue of professional development and discernment. BLAH~ it goes against every grain of my being but there it is.

So yes, I got a new hair style today. Personally it was time for a change. Then the hard part started–choosing the new style. How is it the next hair style going to look in the pulpit? Immediately, I heard my preaching professor from seminary critiquing every one of my sermons saying “get the hair out of your eyes!” Certainly something to consider in selecting a new style. But then there is the issue of femininity. Should my hair be longer or shorter, and what do both of those options portray to potential congregations? Will short hair be as big an obstacle as boobs are to being a chaplain to people with different ideas or expectations regarding the role of women? I think women have much to consider when choosing a hair style. At least I do. Will it make me look like someone I am not? Am I willing to risk portraying that to the world? What am I portraying, and is it what I mean? BLAH, again~with the full realization that if I don’t ask someone else will. It’s too reminiscent of when I interviewed for CPE only to be told they would accept me but the committee thought I should “invest in some new clothes and a haircut” before starting the residency. Were they KIDDING me?!? Unfortunately, I am not the only woman clergy person I know to have been told something like this.

kelli looking all sharp and professional with shorter and straight hair. a first for her.Of course, I consulted a friend with far more fashion sense than myself. (Fashion clearly was not one the gifts Spirit gave me, but I have so many others that I don’t care. It takes all of us, so as I understand it I can safely rely on others for help~see 1 Corinthians 12.) This fashion friend well understands my professional role, because she shares it. Of course I trust my hair stylist, too, who knows my vocation and profession. Her name is Bernice, the same name that the Acts of Pilate gives to the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospel of Luke. So I like to think of my hair stylist as a biblical woman when she is working on my hair. It helps me~have I mentioned that not only do I lack the fashion gene but that I just don’t care about things like ‘doing my hair’? BLAH~ but here it is a new hair style, which I think I like. And, yet, as I sit here no one I know has seen the new doo. And as all those question about how it works and the perceptions it gives off are swirling in my mind, unanswered. It strikes me that a life of faith is peppered with moments like this. When we hope for the best, even when we have no idea what may come~let alone how people will react. Perhaps I must just have faith that all shall be well. And if not I guess, in this case, it will grow out.