In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

To Weed or Not to Weed

A Reflection on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

I watched it happen again yesterday. The person I was talking to suddenly bent down and yanked a weed from the lawn. I had done it myself the day before. Walking across the yard after taking out the trash, I was distracted by the weeds growing up in the cracks between the bricks under the bird feeder. So of course I had to pull them. It seems wherever we find those things we deem as weeds, they have to go. Fortunately for the state of my yard, I am not much of a gardener and mostly don’t know the difference between what is weed and what is not. I have been accused in my day of pulling up and tossing perfectly good plants, so I tend to err on the side of leaving well enough alone. If it is green and maintains some symmetry and dignity among the other growing things, it usually gets to stay put in my botanical universe. Since we are very dry in the upper Midwest, at this moment that is actually a good thing. The “real” grass is brown and crispy and anything green on my lawn is likely crabgrass and broadleaf.

This difficulty with the difference between weed and not-weed seems to be a very old issue. Jesus was able to use it in his teaching in this parable. Apparently the weeds that were sown by the enemy among the wheat in this story were hard to tell from the real thing. The Greek word that was used for those weeds “zizania” is a very particular type of weed that looks just like wheat as it is growing, and you can hardly tell the difference. It looks like wheat but it is not wheat but a weed. Or looked at from the other side, it looks like a weed, but it’s really wheat.

The need to weed seems to carry over far beyond our lawns and gardens. As humans we appear to have a need to eradicate that which we judge as not belonging, whether in others or ourselves. As in gardening, it requires a judgment call to determine if this thing we are about to pull and toss to the compost heap is a weed or not. And of course it’s one thing to make a mistake and weed out a few annuals that were meant to decorate the walkway. It’s another thing entirely to appoint ourselves Master Gardeners of the Universe, deciding what stays and what goes based on our limited wisdom.

Often we hear in ourselves harsh self-critical voices telling us something needs weeding out of our hearts and our souls, telling us we are not acceptable, not beautiful gardens in God’s sight just as we are. If we listen to them and go crashing into our hearts and souls, pulling away at whatever is growing there, we may pull up weeds and wheat alike and never get the chance to discover our full harvest of the authentic, beloved children of God we were meant to be.

Or we hear internal voices telling us to “get those nasty weeds out of our garden. Those voices, based on fear, may keep us from acting in the open-hearted compassion and generosity towards others that we need to be co-creators of God’s kingdom. During those times we may be misled in thinking we know what should be weeded and what should be left to grow in others. Or we may decide to weed out someone entirely by virtue of something deemed “unacceptable” to our garden. We may set ourselves up as judge and jury in all righteousness, pulling away at tender shoots that may have flowered into something wonderful if only given a chance, if we had not determined we knew best and decided they were weeds! We might go forth with our spiritual Weed-be-Gone, determined to eradicate anything we think is not suitable for growing, completely confused by the resemblance of weeds and wheat.

Wait on God. Perhaps we can trust God’s dream for God’s garden. This seems to be the message in this parable. In this garden it is not my job to weed, or to figure out what needs to be pulled and what needs to be left alone. God is taking care of it. Just let it be, let it grow, when the harvest time comes, all will be well. What the Son of Man has sown will grow.

Friday, July 11, 2008

From Struggle to Hope

A reflection on the Proper 10A: Genesis 25:19-34, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Joan Chittister is a renowned Benedictine nun, an author of 35 or 40 books and an international lecturer on topics concerning women, the poor, peace and justice, and contemporary issues in church and society. She begins one of her books titled, “Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” with these words:

“Life is a series of lessons, some of them obvious, some of them not. We learn as we go that dreams end, that plans get changed, that promises get broken, that our idols can disappoint us. We learn that there is such a thing as human support and there is also such a thing as paralyzing isolation. We learn that life is a balancing act lived between poles of unreasonable hope on one hand and disheartening disquiet on the other. We learn these things but we do not always understand them…..I know that there is no such thing as life without struggle. I have met it…from one end of life to the other. Over and over again the foundations of life have shifted and slid away from me, sometimes changing the mental landscape only a little, other times shattering every given I’ve ever assumed into a kaleidoscope of pain. I have come through the death of loved ones, debilitating illness, life-shaping disappointment…no one escapes the soul-wrenching experiences that stretch the mind but threaten to calcify the spirit.” (Page 1-2)

In this book she goes on to articulate what she sees as the process of moving through struggle in such a way that it leads to a life transformed by hope. And from the struggle and the hope come nine gifts.

The premise is that all people suffer. Each of us has as this one common denominator in life, times of suffering. They come she says, just when we think life is perfect. Wham. Everything changes. Someone dies. Someone get sick. Depression hits. A job is lost. The list could continue on. We all suffer when life changes dramatically for unexpected reasons when we least expect it. These struggles are not just some mere inconvenience. These struggles are irreparable change. Life will never be the same again.

And the point is, how do we go about living through these times of great suffering with out giving up the soul?

She lists 9 struggles and the gift that comes from the struggle. By gift she means what we learn about ourselves, our lives, our faith, by living through the struggle.

The first struggle is change. Struggle brings unwanted change.
Jacob and Esau struggle. They are the paradigm of conflict and competition between humans. Jacob, the younger steals the family inheritance from Esau the older, a classic story of betrayal. Later Jesus speaks of the struggle we all go through just trying to live life and the effect that “struggling” has on our spiritual lives. Jesus gives us examples from gardening saying we can live lives that are rocky, thorny, busy or trod upon by others…in other words our lives can seem to be the least likely places for hope and therefore faith to grow. But, Jesus reminds us, that doesn’t mean that hope is gone and faith lost.

The second struggle is isolation. The struggle leaves us feeling alone, and in deep pain. From isolation comes the gift of independence. The point is NOT that we become independent from other people…we become independent from the isolation and pain of struggle and suffering. Actively working to move through our suffering leads us to a place where we can become independent from our pain, we learn to insist on living despite the pain. Anyone who has lived with a chronic illness or suffered for a long time knows this reality. Buddhists call this “mindfulness” having an observing eye, able to look with some detachment at the circumstances of one’s life even as one lives and feels life fully.

The third is darkness and its gift is faith. In the darkness of losing everything we come to believe in a life beyond the life we know, something greater than we are is acting in the world. On our darkest days it’s that something that gets us up in the morning. God stays with us in these dark moments.

Forth is fear. In our struggle we face things we do not understand and cannot name. We are paralyzed by our unknowing, but in moving through the fear we come to know the gift of courage. Every tiny act of courage: getting out of bed in the morning. Going to work each day. Seeking help. Each step we take to move through the fear produces in us a little bit of courage. Each little step reconnects us to our lives, even if on a small scale.

Fifth is powerlessness and its gift of surrender. When we move through struggle, eventually a healthy response means we give into the struggle. We give in because we know that someone is there to help us. It is not defensive. It is a giving over of the self. It is not an absence of self. Rather this surrender is trusting that someone is there to hold us up and keep us going. For Christians this is clearly the message of God’s love poured out in Christ. We sing, Christ beneath us, Christ above us, Christ behind us, Christ before us…where ever we go Christ is there.

Sixth is vulnerability and its gift of self acceptance. In moving through the struggle we come to a place where we have to admit that we are wounded. We need to accept our own weaknesses. And in this case our weakness becomes our strength. We are able to accept ourselves for being who are. This becomes a position of humility and grace. We know that God loves us in our brokenness, just as we are. Being loved like this by a gracious God enables us to love others just as they are.

Seventh is exhaustion – moving through struggle wears us out. But the gift of moving through struggle, of living though the exhaustion, we find the gift is endurance. We learn that life begins again. Endurance brings us hope.

Eighth is scarring. We cannot move through struggle without becoming scarred. Our woundedness leaves marks on us. These marks can make us bitter. Or they can make us better. We can become better people through our struggles. The very process of moving

through the struggle, of becoming scarred, is the same process that makes us better people. Our woundedness, our scars, become the source of our compassion. We wear our scars gracefully when we have compassion for others.

The gift of scarring is hope – that is the message of the resurrection – the message of our Christian faith, the message of scripture readings today.

We cannot go through the struggles of this life and remain the same. Struggle changes us. But these changes are not forced upon us as if we are victims, we have choices. For instance we can choose to become bitter. That is one kind of choice and change that can come from struggle. But we have many choices. That is what Chittister’s book and our scripture readings point us to understand. We have many choices.

Jacob gave Esau a choice between his birthright, his inheritance as the first born son, or food. Esau chose food and Jacob got the birthright. But along with gaining that duplicitous birthright Jacob got a whole lot of struggle, something we’ll hear more of next week. Esau on the other hand ended up OK. God stayed with him and he grew into a wealthy happy man. But, also, God stayed with Jacob, leading him to a place where he too became a happy wealthy man, but only after a lot of struggle. In both their lives God was present—guiding them toward transformation, aiming for what was best for the each of them, given their personal potential, and as a result ultimately what was best for the world as God’s creation.

Our gospel reading reminds us about choices we make by pointing out that no matter where we are in our lives, whether we are busy, or living on rocky spiritual terrain, or sticking it out through thorny times, the Word of God comes to us. And, if we make a choice like Esau made, one that would seem to go against the “will” of God these readings stand to remind us that God goes with us in our choices.

I guess that means there is never one “right” choice to make, never one choice that will seal our fate forever. There are always many choices, many possibilities, and each choice carries within the possibility of transformation, the kind of transformation that God offers in the ongoing creative living action of God being a real part of our lives. For example Esau’s story reminds us that if we make a decision that seems to be a “mistake” it might just be the decision that enables someone else to find their potential. Regardless, God goes with us in the decision and continues to work toward what is ultimately God’s desire for us and for the world.

Like our scripture readings today, Chittisters’ reflection on being scarred by struggle, transformed by hope helps us understand what can happen when we move through our struggles and stay connect to our faith. This book and these readings point us in a direction toward God. In this direction we can choose to not be bitter. Instead, we can choose to trust that in the depth of all our pain God is there, AND somehow, some way, God will lead us through. We may come out scarred but we’ll be filled with hope.

(In addition to Joan Chittister this reflection was influenced by The Rev. Dr. Jeanyne Slettom from the Process & Faith Blog: )

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Prisoners of Hope in a World of Despair

A reflection on Proper 9A, July 6, 2008, by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Last week I phoned Delta airlines to change a reservation for next August. It was evening, just after thunderstorms had created havoc in Air Traffic Control Land. Tara, the agent, on the phone was perfectly nice, but I could tell she was exasperated—perhaps with me, but also in general. So I tried to soothe in seeking to get what I need. “Things must be tough out there tonight.” I venture. She tells me quickly of the thunderstorms and cancellations and the incessant red lights on the switchboard. And then starts in on the sad state of the economy, her mortgage, the war in Iraq, the violence in Zimbabwe and the hopelessness of it all.
Then there is a pause. “But it will all be over soon.” She concludes. My pastoral ears prick up. “Are you about to go home for the night?” I ask, wondering if the real truth is down sizing or perhaps happier --retirement. “Oh no”, was the reply. “The end time. You, know, the Book of Revelation. (Taken aback, I began to wonder if my ticket said Reverend anywhere.) She continued, “Now doesn’t matter any more. There is no hope for here. I’ll be glad when the final day comes.” I suggest that perhaps there have been a number of these predictions in the past and that today and tomorrow really are important, even if the apocalypse IS around the corner. Having nothing of it, she reminds me she must get to other customers and finishes her work on my ticket.
Whew! I was reminded of the number of times, I, as a child growing up in Georgia was terrified that the end had come and I’d been the one left in the field. Back then it was Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and today’s it is the Left Behind series as well as interpretations of the book of Revelation. I shuddered as I hung up the phone to return to Zechariah’s own oracles and apocalyptic visions for the future and the Hebrew text for today hoping to find an antidote to such fear mongering—if not for Tara at Delta, then for those of us who seek to find hope in a 2008 world which has much need of fixing. Gratefully Zechariah offers both historic similarity and quite a different prophetic vision. .
Zechariah the prophet lived in a despairing time perhaps not so different from ours. Six Hundred B.C. might not have had a mortgage crisis or a bear market and post colonial Africa was eons away. But there were certainly housing problems and war and tumult in the Middle East. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the band of faithful scattered. Lamenting a war torn world, the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, confounded in a strange land, losing faith and despairing. Here enters the prophet Zechariah whose prophetic imagination offers hope for a future. Though his oracles and visions describe End times like those of the Delta Airlines agent but there was one great difference. Now matters. The prophet’s voice speaks hope for the earth, the promise that God will not give up on the people of Israel, that the land here and now in history will be restored---not without repentance and renewal, not without hard work, but nevertheless in real time—and with real people not in a heaven far away where only some will be taken up.
“My cities will overflow with prosperity, the Lord will comfort Zion.” And to paraphrase …No matter that the city walls lie in ruins. You won’t need them any more. Jerusalem will be a holy refuge and God’s protective presence will keep the people safe with love. In this new future, the prophet continues, “Old and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem each with a staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” ( Sounds like kick the can and sitting on the stoops of town houses.) The land where rest and play become the image of prosperity to which a robust economy and booming industry are secondary. This vision is not that of a restoration of former glory but of harmony of relationship. Yet as always, with the vision comes a challenge—the need for strong hands to do the work. The prophetic messenger exhorts the people to come and labor on. Let your hands be strong in the works of justice and mercy.” With this grounded vision, God’s people cannot help but be filled with hope even for their own lives, even in the midst of despair: Here again the words from today’s lesson: the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Prisoners of hope…That is the promise.. As God’s people, we too are prisoners of hope… not happy go lucky, not laissez faire and certainly not passive hope.. entrapped in hope! Not always an easy way to live, not without work or challenge or the need for our own strong hands But nevertheless a promise and a call—to those of old and even for us.
I would have liked to share this vision with my despairing Delta Agent. Would it have helped? Probably not. But what of us who also read the news and who also live in this land which even as it celebrates with gratitude its independence, is not unaware of trouble and suffering at home and abroad. What of the hope of this country who once seen as acity on a hill called to be the new vision of hope for the world. What of the new World, the new Jerusalem, the land of hope? Is there a vision for us? Is there a way forward in our own time in which can claim hope from Zechariah’s vision. Can we look at our own history and our own future -- Can we too claim to be prisoners of hope because of who we are enabled to be by our own faith?
Could it be that the very criteria for Discipleship, for Christian witness is that we live as Prisoners of Hope… That certainly is our self identity as a nation ---whatever our religious or political affiliation.
A couple of weeks ago Lt. Anthony Woods graduated from the Kennedy School after several desert tours in Iraq. There he commanded a unit where too many died before their time. No easy answers, he said, upon coming home, only questions, and it would be reasonable to despair. Yet in an address to his class he claimed a different vision, “Many who came before us looked upon the world and could have found reason to despair, but instead of losing hope, they chose to act;
Let us remember the abolitionists. Their legacy calls on us to end slavery and human trafficking in own time. Let us remember the scientists. Their eradication of polio and smallpox inspires our effort to cure cancer and hiv/aids. Let us remember those who ended apartheid in South Africa. Their struggle shows us how to stand up for human rights for citizens in places like Tibet or Myanmar “…or even our own country.
These witnesses have left a legacy of hope , a foundation to rebuild that City of Peace in our own time.
Talk is easy of course. And yet there are these witnesses even today who have kept on keeping on, who have allowed the hope which may at first seem to shackle, yield to freedom and new life.
On this independence day weekend I pray that we will look to our history and use Zechariah’s vision to spur us to a future which may not restore us to some idealized former glory but which celebrates our own and others freedom and pride.
In the parish where I was once the rector every “Independence Day Sunday” we sang this hymn to The musicians and poets among us thought it was sappy and sentimental but we sang it anyway and claimed it’s truth along side the chorus of America the Beautiful.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.