Lent Day 45: ANSWER (revised)

In the Lenten season, today is sometimes called Good Friday or Holy Friday. It’s also known as the Day of Anunciation of our Lord. Today many faith communities hold vigil through the long hours we believe Jesus hung on the cross during his execution, dying. He called out to God from the cross. And then for a few days, his human voice was silenced by death and entombment.

How ironic that the word rising up in today’s texts is ANSWER. God is dying today. God is being silenced today. Like those first followers, we hold vigil through the emptiness and absence, where presence was once available. We are keeping watch through the hours when God couldn’t stand with us and answer us, not in the way we expected.

How often have we felt that same isolation and sense of abandonment? Of being left alone in the middle of chaos, without any calm or clarity, without any sense of support or solidarity? This feeling of being left behind, being left alone, to fend for ourselves and mourn and hurt and try to find a way to go on, is part of the Holy Week experience. It is part of the human experience.

On Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the truth that emptiness and absence are good news. That a tomb, once filled with a corpse, is empty. That God isn’t in the tomb anymore, but God’s love and grace are vital, real, palpable and returning to us.

On Good and Holy Friday, when we call out, it seems as if God isn’t answering. And while that may not be true, it feels like our lived reality. I’ve met plenty of people, in the hospital or in their own homes or even in the church sanctuary, who feel abandoned by God.

In the Book of Esther, Hebrew scholars point out that the name of God isn’t mentioned even once, yet a Jewish woman becomes a heroine, saving her people at risk of her own life. Looking at the text, the rabbis say that this is a metaphor for the times when God has been absent from the reality of Jewish lives, such as when they were in exile. And yet the people remained faithful to their covenant with God, worshipping and considering themselves chosen, trusting that God’s hand would move, that God’s power and presence would be revealed, and that their side of the relationship could be upheld, even when God wasn’t evident in the events of that story and the oppression they were experiencing. They found God in their deliverance.

During our Lenten explorations, we have considered praying as an act of dialogue with Godself. Yesterday I affirmed, again, my belief that God listens and ANSWERS.

We believe, in our faith tradition, that God continues to share revelations with people today. God’s answers didn’t end in the times recorded in the Bible. God listens and answers now, too. God speaks into our lives in this era, just as God spoke thousands of years ago.

Some of my colleagues hear God’s voice or God’s messengers, either as audible voices, internal leadings, or a dream or other form of message. Personally I often experience God’s influence through life events, and have to look backwards over the past, to identify the pattern of God’s response. I often recognize God’s tangible answer in hindsight.

Listening, and being in dialogue with God, takes practice. Like any form of spiritual exercise, it needs repetition and regular use to be most available to us.

On the other hand, God can hear our most desperate cries, even when we’re not usually in the habit of calling out to God. Anyone can pray. Any words will do. And no words are necessary. Prayer is also a bodily act. It’s an incarnate practice.  Just scream. Just hum. Just sigh. Just walk or dance or rock or hug or kneel or lay down or weep or laugh.

pray_for_others_shutterstock_92688232_1The other side of this ANSWER is that when God calls, we are asked to ANSWER. To respond.

So another question we may want consider is, when God calls out to us, do we answer, too? Are we even listening? Trust me, that’s a question I pose to myself regularly, as I discern my way in ministry.

Our relationship is reciprocal, at its best. God seeks us, we seek God. God listens, we listen back. We cry out, God responds. God calls, we answer.

Of course, we always have the choice. We can ignore the call. We can turn away, opting not to answer. Or we can turn toward the call, and say, YES.

Sometimes, like the Friday when we remember Jesus’ death, we are asked to persist through the silence. Raise our voices. Reach out. Seek connection with God. We may feel as if we’re being ignored or forgotten. We may not hear the reply right away. Yet assuredly, God is listening, and God will answer.

Selections from today’s lectionary:

  • Isaiah 52:15 — So he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
  • Isaiah 53:1 — Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
  • Isaiah 53:8 — All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,
    and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
  • Psalm 22: 2 — O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
  • Psalm 22: 8 —  “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
  • Psalm 22: 24 —  For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
  • Hebrews 10: 8a — Then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.”
  • Hebrews 10: 16-17 — “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:
    I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”  he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
  • Hebrews 10: 23  — Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
  • John 18:4-5 — Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.”
  • John 18:23 —  Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
  • John 18:37 —  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Lent Day 28: YIELD

The word that rises up in today’s texts is YIELD.

  • YIELD may be a verb that means to submit or surrender.
  • YIELD can also be a noun. It is the material outcome of a process, such as the result of a mathematical equation, or in more practical terms, the quantity of grain or other produce harvested at the end of a growing season.

In its active, verb form, YIELD suggests giving oneself into another’s power or authority. In daily use, we YIELD when operating a motor vehicle, giving right of way to someone who is already in in traffic.

Yet it has much deeper connotations. It implies an unequal relationship. We need to be cautious about how we read and use the word YIELD in this context.

We can YEILD when we are seeking mercy, either from the threat of death, or when we are seeking a form of forgiveness for a transgression we may have committed. It can be an act of sheer survival, or a renewing spiritual practice. The event, the experience, determines what YIELDING means to us.

surrenderYIELD may mean surrendering to a greater physical, political, or military power. This might be an authority, a person or a system, that is unjust. In this sense, to YIELD is to be coerced or forced into an act of submission that is not of our own volition. Such power, such hands, do not wish us well.

When YIELDING is done without consent, this does not mean that our human dignity is gone or our capacity for resistance is over. If we yield to an aggressor or an oppressor who will harm or damage us … then to find a way to survive and endure becomes the act of resistance, when that is possible.

Through social examples of resistance, we see that YIELDING can mean to submit to powers that overwhelm us, and yet endure. Such stories can be found in the reflections of Jews who lived through the Holocaust. And we can find it in the stories of marginalized people who have been oppressed in United States history, such as the lives of Civil Rights activitist. Yet this legacy is not limited to African Americans with histories shaped by slavery and racism. It also involves Native Americans (First Peoples) whose homes and ways of living were systematically wiped out. And this story isn’t limited to the USA, it can also be found in societies which have confronted their recent violent and oppressive histories, such as South African or Rwanda. More examples find their way to our attention survivors of regimes which continue to be oppressive, such as North Korea.

When used by people of faith in a more holistic context, YIELDING to Godself can mean to place oneself into the care and keeping of a just and compassionate Creator. In this relationship, we can expect that God hopes and works toward the best for us. Our YIELDING is a form of vulnerability and reciprocity in a relationship that leads us toward more healthy, holistic, integrated ways of being human.

YIELD, as the harvest, is the valuable outcome of our labor and nurturing over many seasons. It is the result of our efforts. And such YIELDS are ever empowered by our relationship with God, and how God blesses our lives.

yeild2Sometimes YIELD means a literal harvest. It arrives as forms of nourishment and sustenance for people’s bodies: crops from fields, picks of orchards and vineyards, herds of livestock, catches of fish.

Sometimes YIELD is the metaphorical harvest of our beliefs and practices: the virtues and characteristics we cultivate in our lives. We call these the fruits of the spirit, such as kindness, patience, wisdom, mercy, and hope.

At its best, to YIELD is to be in relationship. And YIELD is also the tangible benefit from how we live our lives as people of faith.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary passages from the Bible:

  • Psalm 53: 6 — O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
  • Leviticus 25: 3 — You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
  • Leviticus 25: 6 — You may eat what the land yields during its Sabbath.
  • Revelation 19: 10a —  Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus.”

Lent Day 27: SAINTS

We often use the word SAINTS. We usually mean those who have lived particularly righteous lives, made extreme choices to follow their faith, those who have been martyred for their faith. Sometimes we refer to those faithful souls who have died and gone ahead of us.

In today’s readings, I would say that SAINTS refers to those who ‘seek after God.’ It’s a description that can work in today’s world, as well as historical contexts.

Being a SAINT is not an implication that such people are perfect. They’re not. People such as Mother Theresa, named a saint by the Catholic church, reveal the depth of their doubt and fear through their own writings. Writers such as St. John of the Cross, writing centuries ago, called the times when he grappled with isolation, depression, and despair as ‘the dark night of the soul.’

Wrestling with faith deepens it. It’s part of the human journey.

So don’t think that being a SAINT is about being perfect in deeds, words, thoughts or emotions. Humans simply cannot live perfect lives.

What we can do, in any circumstance, is ‘seek after God.’

In that seeking, we choose more often to reach for thoughts, feelings, and actions that bring us closer to God’s hopes for us. Those hopes are rooted in our personal, individual choices and deeds. Yet what starts with individuals flows into communities, systems, and impacts all of creation.

We become ‘saints.’ We’re not born that way. We learn this way of being. We put it to work. We practice ‘seeking after God.’

SAINTHOOD is a measure of a lifespan comprised of small moments. And we won’t always be at our best. Nobody ever is.

Even Jesus got angry or impatient: at fig trees, at markets in the temple, at his followers, at a woman he called a dog. He got tired and needed respite from crowds. He asked for the cup to be taken from him, when he wrestled with his own darkness, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet he struggled with those moments and grew as a person, and became a more gentle and compassionate human.

When are you pressed by fear, doubt, anxiety, sorrow, depression, anger? Those are the times when it may be most difficult to seek after God, yet that’s precisely when the practice of being connected to God, to faith, becomes most vital. Even if it seems like an empty exercise, because you’re down in the pit of despair, it’s the time to call out, to pray, to turn your mind and heart to God.

‘Seeking after God’ isn’t a brief moment. It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s a constant, daily practice. It’s a way of being. When we live by ‘seeking after God’ we are in the state of becoming saints.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary passages:

Psalm 53: 2 — God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.

Revelation 19: 3b — “Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great.”

Revelation 19: 7b – …for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

Lent 16: LIFE

Such a small word today: LIFE. It contains the measure of our whole beings from beginning to end, and even beyond. When we speak of life, we mean so many things. We speak of ‘life’ as the actual quickening of cellular activity itself. Yet it is also the spark of intellect and soul that animates the flesh of our bodies.

In this word is one of the ultimate questions. What is the meaning of life?

feb25_what-is-life-660Sometimes we’re referring to the viability of an individual being, and other times we define it as any form of organic and sentient existence at all. We use ‘life’ to mark the span of time from one creature’s birth until death: moving and breathe and operating as sentient beings. Yet we can also refer to eons of time, such as the age of a planet or a cosmos, as measured by signs of life.

As spiritual creatures, we are always looking past the veil of our own senses, toward a greater and deeper meaning. We reach and imagine beyond the shape and contours of our own mortal bodies to something we cannot quite touch, detect, or cognitively encompass. Our sense of possibility is somehow defined by the limits of our corporeal selves and what we are and are-not.

The concept of life holds, in so many ways, all that contains our meaning. We weigh and express the value of all other ideas and experiences, emotions and thoughts, tangible and intangible treasures, against the weight of our own being, our own lives.

Silhouette of hiking man in mountain
Silhouette of hiking person in mountain

We measure risk by the threat of death and the end of life. Yet isn’t it interesting to consider that sometimes the greatest risk isn’t to face death, but to live our lives fully? To risk life? This is the challenge that today’s texts expose to us.

In today’s text, God’s divine love and presence is considered more valuable than the Psalmist’s own life. Is the writer euphemistic? Could the writer extol God’s love, except by being alive to do so?

In the prophetic text of Daniel, three characters put their lives on the line to defy an unjust law, and to continue faithfully worshiping their own God. Their lives are delivered,. So their faithfulness is measured by their willingness to sacrifice their own mortal span of being. And the power of Godself is revealed to the unjust leaders of the land, when God saves their lives, despite the affliction and torture turned upon them.

In Revelation, Christ is once more described as the one who was dead and then returned to life. Divinity is inextricably bound up with life, survival, and being. The ultimate promise of Godself is that we will have a second life, a different life, a life after death. If life contains all of our meaning, then a life that defies the very strictures that form the boundaries of our capacity to understand and experience the world, a life that overcomes death … that is powerful indeed.

So how do I measure the meaning and value of life? I cannot measure the impact of life by time alone. The import of my younger child Jessie, who lived 9 years, cannot be encapsulated by days and years. That is a poor standard to describe the value and impact of her presence among us.

So how do I describe her life? It’s easier to consider her life, versus my own, since I’m in the middle (I assume) of my own life. Her life was comprised of the relationships she formed and influences through her being. Her life could be measured by her way of being a teacher and mentor to older folks, through her approach to balancing suffering against all that made life worthwhile to her as a child. What made life rch and good to her? Engaging in fierce and deeply-rooted relationships, being able to move and claim her own body, feeding and stretching an inquisitive mind that always wanted to learn and question, acting ethically to support causes she cared about and to change unfair circumstances when she could, experiencing sheer joy through playing and laughing or taking risks … Her life was ultimately measured by her loves.

Whether it’s 9 hours, 9 days, or 90 years … our God’s presence fills up the measure of life for us. What are we willing to put at risk for this love, if not life itself? And as I mentioned earlier, isn’t the greatest risk not to die for this love, but to live for this love?

Excerpts of today’s scriptures:

  • Psalm 63: 3a — Because your steadfast love is better than life.
  • Daniel 3:28 — 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.
  • Revelation 2: 8b — These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.
  • Revelation 2: 10b — Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.