Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You’re Not Wanted Here


The music stopped; my chair was gone, and I was faced with having to leave a job and career to which I was totally committed and loved for over 30 years. A corporate reorganization resulted in my position and group being eliminated and absorbed. No, they said I wasn’t being fired; "your performance was exemplary; it’s just that your position would no longer exist.” “Well,” I asked, “if that’s the case how come I couldn’t do this or that?”

… Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.

To which the response was: “No, sorry, those options are not in the plans.” So, now I had to leave a place where I was no longer wanted (Luke 9:51-62) . How was that possible?  I had to uproot my family and an established lifestyle, leave my friends behind and go to a place where I was wanted…but just not here anymore. Hurt, anger and a futile urge to “strike back” were emotions that ruled my life for a long time.

Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?

Little did I know at the time that this pain and anguish would lead to new opportunities, personal growth and a transformation of sorts that would not have been possible had I remained anchored in that comfortable place. Little did I know that what seemed like an interminably difficult period of loss and “exile” protected me from the peril and upheaval awaiting those in that place I left behind. Little did I know then that in the long run, it was all for the best… and all part of a plan.

Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Return home and tell how much God has done for you

This week’s Gospel Luke 8:26-39 deals with images and metaphors that can take us down so many real and imaginary paths. For some the reading suggests different meanings at different levels. What do we imagine when we think of demons and evil and the blessed freedom from those things that can “paralyze” us?

The story describes a possessed man who begs Jesus to free him of demons that have held him hostage and have prevented him from engaging in a normal existence much less, a life. It also describes the man’s gratitude after he is released and how that gratitude manifests in his desire to stay with Jesus and follow him. Jesus, however, sends him away and tells him to now “return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

This last sentence made me wonder how many times we work our way out of something that bothers us or keeps us from doing what we want or need to do, and forget to give God the credit, even after we’ve prayed or asked God’s help. What about the times we work ourselves free without our even asking His help, and take all the credit…when in fact He was there all along?

Some years ago we were visiting our family back home. In the early years, we routinely visited my mother-in-law whose worsened dementia confined her to a nursing home. Sadly, she no longer recognized us and, short of making a one word comment, was incapable of speaking. On one of our trips back we received a call from the nursing home to tell us that my mother-in-law had fallen and had broken her arm, and was now en route to the hospital by ambulance. My brother-in-law and I quickly made our way to the hospital just minutes before she arrived. It was not hard to know that she was being wheeled in to the emergency room…her painful wail echoed through the hall. The EMTs and accompanying physician were beside themselves. Despite being medicated and restrained, she was virtually impossible to subdue. We both approached the gurney each took her hand. My mother-in-law looked at me and to all our astonishment, said “Bob, please help me; it hurts so much.” I told her that the doctors would fix her arm and relieve her pain, which was more terror than anything else, and that she should just try to calm down. She said, “OK” and was wheeled to the treatment area. We were all amazed at what had just transpired. I don’t remember what I said or if I said anything. I do remember speculating that it was likely the pain that enabled her dislocated “brain connections” to fire properly and restore her speech and recognition. This restoration unfortunately, was short-lived. When we all anxiously visited her in the nursing home to which she had returned the next day, we found that she had retreated back to the “place” she was before.

Until now, I was quick to credit science with a glib explanation and never once thought to give credit to God, who heard our unspoken prayers. Return home and tell how much God has done for you. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

I had been asked by my employer to relocate to the company’s home office located in a small Midwest City. After a period of time we adjusted to the move. In fact, we in retrospect, thrived and grew during that 15 year experience. We quickly learned that many of those with whom I worked and became friendly were, like us, “ex pats” living away from “home.” Over time some of these business associates became our very close friends. More often than not these friendships were forged over a period of time through a series of wonderful dinner parties. These were great ways to get to know people outside of work.  Of course, this was also a time during which climbing the corporate ladder was uppermost on my mind and the dinner party became a favorite venue for me and those special guests, who could play a role in my career success, to get to know one another better.

I can remember a particular time when we struggled with a guest list. The person of honor and our close friends had accepted our invitation and while we agonized over inviting one of our dear friends, who was known to get a little obnoxious as the night progressed, we were hard pressed not to ignore him. So, he was invited as he, no doubt, would have expected. The evening arrived, the table was set, the settings were placed, the wine was poured and the menu was well in hand… and true to form, my dear friend in no time, hijacked the conversation and while several of us made attempts to wrestle it back, it was futile. Everyone knew what had happened. They, including our honored guest, were aware and sympathetic to our plight.

Later when the guests had left and we were alone, I tried to make excuses for my poor friend who, like the woman who interrupted Simon’s dinner party with Jesus, was out of placed and defied convention by interrupting the party and behaving in a disreputable way especially toward the honored guest.

Wasn’t I just like Simon in Luke 7:36-8:3  My honored guest was not there out of true friendship but was there because he might be able to help me. I chose to invite my obnoxious friend, not because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but because I didn’t want to suffer the consequences. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should have tolerated poor manners and bad behavior, since my friend clearly was out of line; I am saying that compassion for one another is not always easy. Sometimes, defying convention requires compassion rooted in deep feelings for each other and not according to our plan and agenda. Compassion requires that we don’t use people and don’t let our friends engaging in risky behavior continue to hurt themselves. Compassion means that we don’t hide behind false “nobility” and rationalize our own behavior to suit our own agenda. Jesus praised Simon’s unwanted guest who took a risk and defied convention.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Holiness vs Compassion

The dominant social vision in the time of Jesus was centered around a "purity code" which, in being associated with "holiness" became the core value for life in the community.  Jesus replaced this with compassion. To put it boldly: compassion for Jesus was political.He directly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated instead what might be called the politics of compassion. This conflict and social vision continue to have striking implications for the life of the church today. (Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p49)

What are the implications for the Church today?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

...and he was moved with Compassion

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) considers the time between Pentecost Sunday and the first Sunday in Advent as Ordinary Time.  Yet, our readings in Luke’s Gospels for both last week and this week, (Luke 7: 11-17) depict events that must be considered anything but ordinary. According to Thomas Keating, Ordinary Time is a time in our church calendar during which “chronological and eternal time intersects in the mystery of the present moment and become one” (The Mystery of Christ). And so, this week’s story, while remarkable in and of itself, goes far beyond a dramatic restoration of life and underscores Jesus’ ministry: we express our love for God when we have love and compassion for one another.

Compassion is a particularly important word in our Gospel in which we read of Jesus being moved with compassion. Marcus Borg tells us that compassion represents the summation of Jesus’ teaching about both God and ethics. “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God. Moreover, for Jesus compassion was not simply an individual virtue, but a sociopolitical paradigm expressing  his alternative vision of human life in community, a vision of life embodied in the community that came into existence around him” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time).

So how does this story fit with Borg’s paradigm? In this story Jesus restored more than the life of the young man; he restored the life of the widow, a woman with no "voice" of her own, who, at the lowest rung of society’s ladder, was destined to live out her life in, at the very least, misery.  This is a story in which her community, dominated by men, walk beside her in her time of need.  This is a story in which Jesus, in asking the widow not to cry, does so not to calm her emotional state, but rather to transform life: hers, her son’s, the community, and ours.

Jesus was intent on challenging the vision of God as being one that was centered in holiness, and beyond our reach, to one that is centered in compassion and lives with us in our midst. Says Borg, “As a mother loves the children of her womb, so God loves us and feels for us. In its sense of ‘like a womb,’ compassionate has nuances of giving life, nourishing, caring, perhaps embracing and encompassing. For Jesus this is what God is like.”