Lent 5, “She’s Going To Be OK ” John 11:1-45

(You can connect to the readings for the Sundays of the year by typing RCL and the date or go to textweek.com)

I inherited my mother’s lateness. She, projecting her own propensity for tardiness, frequently told me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral.” “I hope so.” I joked.

I got better over the years, realizing that it is manipulative, passive- aggressive and just bad form and I didn’t have any of the excuses or hat-tricks that Jesus could conjure up. I can see how the sisters of Lazarus were truly angry that he had not come sooner.  John does not seek to show the pastoral side of Jesus. His focus is His power over death, to show how He was the Son of God.

Whether or not Jesus could raise a man from the grave after four days may or may not be possible. We know that sometimes people have stopped breathing and the heartbeat is too faint to register and they have been thought dead, but the point for John is that Jesus could do it. He had that kind of power. We may argue about the physical possibilities, and yet for those of us who have lived the life have seen evidence of the truth of His power many times. We have witnessed much of it through the hands and hearts of skilled healers of all kinds.  I’d be interested in hearing your stories. Here’s one of mine.

It was early, six or seven in the morning, when I received a call from a parishioner that their five-year old daughter was having a severe asthma attack and had been rushed to the Emergency room.  They were afraid they were going to lose her. It was my birthday.

“Not on my birthday,” I thought, “Lord, you’re not going to let her die on my birthday!!” I was adamant.

I arrived to the distressed parents in the waiting room of the Emergency Department.

“They can’t get her to breathe on her own,” the mother said.

“I’ll see if they’ll let me in to be with her.” I said.

The child lay on the litter. Her skin had turned ashen. She was hooked up to a respirator and I V’s dripped saline and other solutions. As I remember her heart still pumped. The Doctors and nurses looked worried and weary. I went to her body and blessed her, anointed her for healing or for burial, which one I didn’t know, and whispered in her ear, “Mom and Dad and I love you,” and I left the room shaken.

The parents and I found a room, lit by a wining florescent purple light. All three of us knelt and we prayed as hard and fervently as we had ever probably prayed. And as usual, but this time with a feeling of re-assurance the same conclusion came. First were the words of Jesus in the garden, you know, the night before he was crucified,  because we were with him in that moment,

“Not my will, but your will be done.” It’s remarkable how often those words come in these times of crisis.

And the second understanding we all had almost simultaneously was that she was breathing again.

“She’s going to be okay,” I said.

Jane and Chris, the parents, both nodded and said, “I know.”

“Thanks,” I said to myself, “for not letting her die on my birthday.” Of course it had nothing to do with me. I was just available when they called me in. But I swear on a “stack of Bibles” in various languages and translations, that the Holy Spirit visited us in that hospital waiting room as we prayed. It was one of those moments that they call faith as the “assurance of things not seen.”

Within a half-hour the doctor came in and told us we could visit her.

“She’s not out of the woods” he said, “but she’s doing well enough to transfer her to the Hospital at Yale.”

We went into the room and the child was sitting up, her color had returned.  She was moved to Yale-New Haven Hospital and I had asked her what she would like to have as a treat when she was allowed to eat?

“A burger and fries and a chocolate shake,” she told me with a big smile.

That night on the way to celebrate my birthday, I walked into the room with the requested feast. She fully recovered and is now twenty two, and healthy and still a child of the light. And she hasn’t had an asthma attack since that day.

To See with the Third Eye, the Eye of the Heart: 4th Lent

Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary: Search RCL for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, John 9:1-41

Miss Grant told our sixth grade class, “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. I don’t think she unpacked the quote for us or where it originated, but it is a fair paraphrase of Jesus in John’s gospel. For the last four weeks in John’s Gospel, Jesus confronts issues of spiritual and emotional blindness, of suffering and disabilities and their root causes and the spiritual blindness of the religious authorities. John also picks a bone with the synagogue that has refused membership to those who believed Jesus was the Christ. While Jesus may not have always been gentle with the religious authorities, I doubt he harbored any lasting resentment toward them. Let’s forget John’s hurt at the exclusion of the early Christians from the synagogue. The Jews were going through their own identity crises. There are  Pharisees and disciples, the blind men and women and their parents, and a bit of Jesus is in all of us. The story is as much about our own spiritual blindness as it is about the man born blind.

In Jesus time, either the man was blind because he was a sinner or his parents or some ancestor was. Jesus refutes that argument and says “The man was born blind to show the works of God.” A child who is born blind does not know he or she is blind. To be blind is normal. The blind child navigates the environment as does any infant, but with touch and hearing taste and smell and vibrational movement of the air, whatever works. You have to be told you are blind. Interestingly to me, Jesus usually asks if one wants to be healed. Jesus simply goes and makes a putty of dirt and spit and anoints the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. (Look it up. Interesting) The cure of the man’s blindness is really a subtext to the story which is really about the blindness of the others who refuse to accept what has happened and the remarkable power of the healer. The blind man is very wise, very simple and wise.  Speaking to his interrogators, he says about Jesus, “I don’t know who He is or where He came from. All I know is that I was blind and now I see.”  How can I get my eyes to open? How may I see with the eyes of the heart?

Maybe Miss Grant’s quote held one of the secrets to inner sight, to wisdom; “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Will, the will to see, yearn and desire to see with the eyes of the heart. Eastern religions have a place for the third eye. It is in the forehead between and above the eyes. It is that third eye that is looking at the divine and though which the divine sees. In Christian tradition the third eye is to “have the mind of Christ.” And it is more a heart looking, a looking out at the world and the other and ourselves with mercy and love, with a sense of our responsibility to walk with integrity and justice, a heart of forgiveness, humility and joy. Joy is often one of the results of this heart seeing. It is a by product of that looking when the blindness is lifted that joy comes and dwells with us. That vision consoles as we look with they eyes of the heart at the great losses of our lives, and what peace and joy may come as we live with gratitude for it all. If we had not loved we would have no grief.

It’s like a weight watchers diet, you have to will it, keep to a discipline, yuck, and go to meetings and weigh yourself in to keep track of your progress. One of the joys of seeing with the eyes of the heart is that sometimes, maybe more than sometimes, maybe daily, these visions of life and hope and beauty and love come. All that you need to do is open to them, open the eyes, take off the scales and see with love.

Herbert O’Driscoll when he was at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC, told us that we can see Jesus as a template, a transparent image who we place between ourselves and the people and situations we meet. I used the image one Sunday and then Martha came up to me after the service. “I have to be in a situation I dread tomorrow. I recently began to work with a re-constructive surgeon. Tomorrow I have to meet a man who tried to kill himself with a gun and destroyed part of his face. I am afraid to look at him, but I’m going to try what you suggested.”  “Wow, let me know what happens.” I said.

The next Sunday she came to me and said, “It worked! I imagined the face of Jesus and I placed it on the man who came into the office. I saw his hurt, his disfiguration, and his humanity. I found I was looking at him with eyes of love.”

After a while this way of seeing becomes a practice and a way of looking at life and people and situations as if they were all being held in the arms of God, protected and cherished.  You will discover that “I am looking with the eyes of love.”

To see with such eyes is also to see with discernment.  Martha saw the dis-figuration which he caused to himself, his sorrow and his humanity which I imagine included his desperation at his isolation from the world. If ever a man needed to be seen with they eyes of God, he did.

In Vermont where I now live a woman was attacked by her husband with acid. Her face and parts of her body were severely disfigured. She came to church to talk with us one day. It was hard for me to look on her scarred face neck and hands. I looked and I not only saw the evil that caused her such extreme and ongoing suffering, but also her courage and determination to tell her story and to bring the living reality of the abused into the stark morning light. Since then she has had some reconstructive surgery, perhaps at the same practice where Martha worked in Boston.  She will not return to her former physical beauty, but more of her body will work. She continues to spread her message. I hear her on the radio and I think she was the presence and work of God that morning in the church in Randolph, Vermont, a reminder of how important it is to see with the eyes of the heart and sometimes how intensely painful and difficult it can be. And yet sometimes that opening comes.

We call her Grace.

 

Thirst. 3rd Lent

John 4: 5-42

We were twice routed around Nablus where Jacob’s Well is believed to be located.  A suicide bomber would blow up an outdoor market in the city within weeks of our visit.

The well evidently still contains water three thousand or so years after it was dug by Jacob. The water is known as “living water” because it is fed by underground springs. Water in that part of the world is precious and in danger. Access to clean water in many parts of the world has reached crisis proportions. In India, a primary source of spring runoff for the Ganges, Indus and Yamuna Rivers, the ice sheets in the Himalayas are melting away.  A well in any of these places with “living water” is not only prized but sacred.

"Give me a drink". from Textweek with thanks

“Give me a drink”. from Textweek with thanks

The encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is probably not an actual dialogue between the two main characters. It is John looking back and remembering the transformative power of Jesus as he interacts with people on his journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem. The story is a meditation on the meaning of what it means to thirst, on Living Water that does not fail, on the relationship of Jesus with women, on the nature of the religious community without the temple and on the ability for Jesus the Son of God to see us.

The one other time Jesus asks for a drink of water is when he is on the cross. For what or who does the woman, who represents all those who need to be seen and valued, thirst?  I have always loved the banter between these two bright and funny adults.  Jesus was thirsty. “Give me a drink.” The woman responds, “What are you a Jew doing talking to a woman?” “If you knew who I am you would know that I could give you living water”. “How will you get this water? You have no pail, no cup.”

What is the living water Jesus gives or for what or who do we thirst? It is to see God in the water; To see water not only as a commodity, but as a gift of the divine. The water we have on the earth today is the same water that has existed from the beginning. There is no more or less.  It has materialized in different forms, ice, sea water, fresh springs, lakes, rain, snow, rivers, bogs, and it is all a gift of life, the spirit of God hovered over the creation over the waters at the very beginning. Like the air we breathe we are made of water and the spirit. Water infused with Spirit. We might as well say in the burial office, “water to water, spirit to spirit” because our bodies are composed mostly of water.

The woman at the well has known this thirst. She has lost four husbands; she now lives with a man who is not her husband. She is under the puritanical eye of her culture, judged and unseen. She is a remarkable survivor, yes, and one with a thirst for more.  She thirsts for the One who is to come to make all water Living Water, all air the breath and spirit of God, all relationships the container for the holy and our eyes to see with the eyes of God. The water we drink is from the deep well of the Holy, the thin place where we are close to the divine.

That water, the pure living water, for which we thirst, is in danger. It has been our brokenness and our divorce from the sacred well that has harmed the water of life and life on our planet. Can we, will we with the help of God begin to turn around?  Can we begin to see with the eyes of the heart?

When Mary Oliver’s partner of many years died, she wrote a series of poems entitled Thirst. Her reflections are the thirst to see and perceive with such eyes.

THIRST

Another morning I wake with thirst

for the goodness I do not have. I walk

to the pond and all the way God has

given us such beautiful lessons. O Lord,

I was never a quick scholar but sulked

and hunched over my books past the

hour and the bell; grant me, in your

mercy, a little more time. Love for the

earth and love for you are having such a

long conversation in my heart. Who

knows what will finally happen or

where I will be sent, yet already I have

given a great many things away, expect-

ing to be told to pack nothing, except the

prayers which with this thirst, I am

slowly learning.

Nicodemus: John 3:1-17, 2nd Lent, 2014

“St Augustine is walking along the beach when he sees a little boy digging a hole in the sand and running back and forth from the ocean to fill the hole with water. Curious, Augustine asks the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ The little boy replies, ‘I’m putting the ocean in this hole.’ Augustine says, ‘ Little boy you can’t do that the ocean is too big to put in that little hole.’ The boy who is really an angel responds, ‘And so Augustine is your mind too small to contain the vastness of God.’”

The Gospel of John, as I remember Herbert O’Driscoll once told us at the College of Preachers, is John remembering as he looked back at the meaning of the life of the Christ. John is the mystic and poet who writes sixty or seventy years after the death of Jesus. It is somewhat like the older man I am, as all of us look back at what Jesus’s message and life means to us and our communities.

Each day is a reminder to be born again

Each day is a reminder to be born again

John  uses Jesus and Nicodemus as a teaching opportunity for the emergent and struggling early church. Nicodemus represents the seeker who wants simple answers. He asks Jesus ” How am I born again? Do I enter back into my mother’s womb?” We looking back may understand Jesus response: “You have to be born again with water and the Holy Spirit”. Many may have no idea what Jesus is talking about at the time John writes. John’s church was at work to establish Baptism as the rite of initiation into the Christian community. As such Baptism was and is the river into which one dips or plunges to receive the Holy Spirit. And yet Jesus (and John) may have had something more in mind: Maybe Nicodemus’ idea of God was too circumscribed, narrow and acculturated. Being born again has something to do, John says, with  unfurling the sails to catch the wind of the spirit and inhale the breath of God. Although Jesus can be powerfully present to those who choose to be in relationship with Him, to be born again is more than to have the warm feel of Jesus’ nearness. The dangers of this approach if you take it too far is the risk placing God in a box, tie God up in a nice package name it Jesus and stop looking, become closed and smug and self-satisfied. Jesus did not come to be another box for God. He came as a door opened to the world and time through which we can pass with new eyes and a new heart. (This image also is a gift from O’Driscoll) Jesus works for us who are already believers as this prime door opener. Don’t you think that Jesus would find joy in any who would access the door to the Eternal? If people can find any door to the eternal are they not among the blessed? That’s what I want for every one, to find that way to the spirit, the door to a wider compassion, to justice, to a loving and merciful heart and mind. For John and me that way is the face of Jesus. We show as much of that face as we can as an offering and a bridge to the holy. We try to keep the door unlocked and open. We are in the same boat as John, looking back and remembering how to open to God with John’s images and metaphors coming to us in our prayers: “Be born again. Become flame. Listen to the wind. Be washed and cleansed from your broken places. Drink living water. Be still and know that I am God. Be light.               Life.            Truth.                          Peace. Be.” “Have mercy.” While a part of me is like Nicodemus who wants simple answers to eternal questions , I need the language of John whose images and words of Jesus visit my prayers and remind me that “the mind is too small to contain the vastness of God.” And each day is a reminder to be born again. I send you a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which is in the preface to Mary Oliver’s wonderful collection of poems entitled Thirst. “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will you can become all flame.’”

The Temptations of Jesus and Siddhartha: 1st Lent

The Temptation to Give Up

I’d frequently retreat for a day into the mountains. There the tempter would sometimes come with me. The typical approach of the tempter was to list my various failings. The list was sometimes extensive and at least partly true. However, the major one was the attack on my sense of call: To be of some use to the holy and the world. The temptation was to give up because one could not, with ones limitations, be of any earthly use.

From one of the Temples in Bodhgaya, India. The Temptation of Siddhartha

From one of the Temples in Bodhgay, India. The Temptation of Siddhartha

At root all temptation is to forget who one is. Now I’m not talking about self-image, although that’s a place to start, it’s about the continual discovery of our relation to the life of the spirit, the holy divine, to the sacred and sacramental: for Christians their relationship with Jesus as person and Christ and Buddhists their relation to Siddhartha and the Buddha. In each of the temptations of Jesus and also with Siddartha, who later became the Buddha, an attractive alternative or attack or both attempts to divert each of them from the heart of things, to be of some use to the holy as well as to the world. At root, I suspect, all temptation is to get us to forget that we are the beloved of God or as another wisely put it, “It’s not who we are, but whose we are.”

A year ago I traveled in North India to Bodhgaya where the Buddha was enlightened. The town was adorned with Temples painted with murals of the life of the Buddha. The temptations of the Buddha are displayed in colorful murals in many of the temples. It is of interest to me that there are few churches I know that display the temptations of Jesus. What if we named a church the Church of the Temptations of Jesus? I bet it would get a lot of visitors.

All kidding aside, the temptations of Jesus who would become the Christ and those of Siddhartha who would become the Buddha were strikingly similar. Each had a tempter or demon. Satan for Jesus, Mara for the Buddha. Both were tempted by appetites, the hunger and desires of the flesh. Jesus who was hungry after his fast was tempted by bread. Siddhartha was tempted by the three beautiful daughters of Mara.

Reproduction of Temptation of Jesus Christ from the Book of Kells

For Jesus the temptation of the loaves of bread was more than a sign that he would have to control his appetites if he was to fulfill his call and mission. It was a temptation to feed the hungering world. Later he would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. However, at that time, he freely chose to feed those numbers of people because of their need and hunger and not because of his hunger or because of a desire to save the world from hunger.

The second of the temptations were, for Jesus, the pinnacle of the temple where Satan challenged him to prove he was the Son of God. It was also the temptation to self harm, even to commit physical and spiritual suicide. For Siddhartha, Mara sent an army that threw spears and arrows at the master as he practiced meditation. The weapons turned into Lotus flowers before they struck the young man.

One has to be able to control one’s fears, including fear of failure, inadequacy, or conversely pride and hubris. Both overcame their fear by knowing the truth-that the real self cannot be harmed. Both refused to give life to the apparent evil and by doing so denied its existence. Jesus would face into his real fears as he rises up to go to Jerusalem where he understands his life is in danger, and yet he goes. Jesus, not denying his fears, refuses to let his fear control him.

The Final temptation of Jesus and Siddhartha is to become earthly rulers. It is the urge to make the world conform to our ideas of how it should be. Who better to rule the kingdoms of the world than a spiritual master and the son of God? Both turn their tempters away.

Probably the ultimate temptation is to keep spiritual awareness to oneself. Both Jesus and Siddhartha realize that what they experienced has to be shared, taught and modeled. Jesus very next act is to leave the mountain of temptation and call Peter, James and John. Buddha also draws a circle of five disciples around him. The truth of the inner life is that one is not only an individual being, one is also connected to all living things. That at the heart of the world for Christians is a God of Compassion who calls each of us to be a beloved person who is called to prayer and action on behalf of a God who “loves mercy and justice and honors humility”. Micah)

On the mountains where I’d retreat, I’d frequently encounter visitors who’d comfort me. Once a butterfly alit on my salty knee and stayed there while I remained still and watched, or a chipmunk begged a peanut. There were long vistas from mountain tops and the tiny alpine flowers that in summer covered the ground; the melodies of songbirds and the flight of red hawks that soared in up drafts of air and the music of the mountain stream that sang, and I would stop to play my flute and sing with her. All these visitations and many more were as reassuring as the ministry of angels was to Jesus at the end of his temptations.

Most of us who also have a longing for the spiritual life have given in to a myriad of temptations. We probably have learned that not only do we need to ask for forgiveness, we also need to recommit to our call and our mission which is for me today to live simply and at one with all things and creatures and to be thankful. I try to work it on a daily basis, but the tempter still shows up and as time passes I have more resilience to tell it to go away.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday: March 5, 2014

“Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Book of Common Prayer

The infant had been born without a complete digestive track. The pediatric surgeon gave the news to the stunned father and grandmother. The priest listened. “Many surgeries, really that’s all”, the doctor said, “and months and even years of healing and recovery would be able to restore her functions”. “So it must be done,” the family and priest agreed.

And there were months of recovery, mother sleeping for weeks at a time in the clean and bright pediatric unit of the modern hospital and daily visits by father and grandmother. Step by step as the “Plumbing” was corrected, the child under went times at home and times of operations and recovery in the hospital.

The little child was slow to grow, but each tiny step was a victory. And she grew and grew and finally she had a functional digestive system, her survival a miracle of science and faith.

One Ash Wednesday when she was barely two years, she came up to the altar rail between her mother and grandmother to receive the ashes. The ashes are dispensed by the priest with the words” You are dust and to dust you shall return” The old priest used the old words that he had memorized from his youth. Now only two years since that life and death decision had been made in the hospital waiting room and many operations, the priest approached her. The child probably would not understand the profundity of the act, his hand with a slight tremor and his forehead beaded with sweat, he made the sign of the cross with the ashes, said the ancient words, and wept.

How many noticed, he didn’t know, couldn’t tell. He was long past the time when he worried about the tears that would sometimes flow. The experience shattered and informed him…one of the many breakthroughs that in his later years he called sacraments. The priest whispered into the child’s ear, “God give you a long and beautiful life”. He also said to himself, “may all her suffering be behind her,” knowing the impossibility of the prayer and offering it anyway.

“We are at once so incredibly durable and fragile”, he thought. “The ashes are reminders of our fragility, a confrontation with our tendency to live unconsciously.” The ashes reminded him of the ashes of the past year, ashes of family, of those dear to him, the ashes of our enemies and his own brokenness. It was a time set aside to be swept with tears of joy and of sorrow, the remembering of the child’s healing and the child’s fragility and his own.

Just a few days ago the priest told me that the girl’s mother called. She had to be taken back to the hospital where minor surgery was performed. It seems she took a pebble and put it up so far into her nose that her mother could not remove it.

The child is at home recovering and doing fine.