It was the fall of 1980 and I was a freshman in college. I wanted to become a Christian Education Director and grow up to be just like Joani, the Youth &Christian Ed Director in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation where we were members. I became very involved in Lutheran campus ministry at college, and one day, the campus pastor, just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you think about becoming a pastor?” Because I came from a denomination that does not ordain women, it took me a few minutes to process what he meant; once I understood what he said, it was a revelation and I saw a light above his head. That weekend I went home, so excited to tell my parents I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
Did I mention it was 1980? Well, let’s just say, my parents’ reaction wasn’t the response I was hoping for. Women had only been ordained for 10 years in other Lutheran denominations and word hadn’t gotten out yet. Although my parents were highly invested in making sure their three girls and one son received a college education, having their daughter embrace this traditionally male role was a bit too radical. Like most of us when we bump up against the boundaries of Tradition and The Way Things Have Always Been, our reaction is to resist, to say, “no, that just can’t be.”
I thought that maybe they were right, so I double-majored in Psychology and Political Science/History so that I could become a Psychologist or go to Law School.
In the Gospel of John 12:1-8, Mary is bumping up against Tradition and The Way Things Have Always Been. What’s going on here doesn’t sound wrong to our 21st century ears, but in the first century, what happened at Mary and Martha’s house would have been the talk of town.
For starters, Jesus feet have already been washed. Because everyone walked along the dusty dirt roads in sandals, foot washing was a customary part of hospitality before guests entered a house. The oxen, sheep, horses, donkeys, camels traveled the same roads, so their pungent droppings needed to be washed off sandals and feet as well. Mary and Martha would have already made sure this lowliest of tasks was done before their guests came into the house.
So Mary wasn’t supposed to be showing up in the dining room at all, unless to serve. But Jesus had miraculously raised her brother, Lazarus from the dead, and Mary was overflowing with gratitude, devotion and love, so into the dining room she went.
To make matters worse, Mary begins touching Jesus as she anoints his feet with perfumed oil. Men and women were prohibited from touching each other in public; in fact men weren’t even supposed to speak to a woman who was not his wife, mother or daughter.
Scandal escalates with Mary’s hair loose and flowing which she uses as a towel. Because a woman’s loose hair was viewed as too sensual, it was taboo for a woman to have her hair unbound. We still see this in some religious cultures today—that hair should not only be bound, but covered.
Finally Mary uses an extravagant nard worth an entire years’ salary to perfume Jesus’ feet. The Gospel-writer, John described Mary’s act as an “anointing” of Jesus. Anointing was reserved for kings, prophets or priests who were called by God for a special task, but such anointing was done by a male priest in Jerusalem—NOT
• a layperson
• not in Bethany where the poor and the sick were cared for
• and certainly not by a woman.
John offers us the outrageous idea that Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ is being lavishly anointed for his journey to the cross by a poor, small-town, laywoman, who, in a moment of unbridled devotion, breaks through every tradition in the books.
Judas Iscariot gives voice to the discomfort in the room. He pretends to care about the poor as he publicly shames Mary and tries to put her in her place with his supposed male superiority. If you have ever been belittled, shamed or mocked for any reason, you know how awful and uncomfortable Mary must feel.
But then the real scandal and miracle of the story takes place! Jesus admonishes Judas, not Mary, as one would expect. Jesus puts Judas in his place by saying, “leave her alone!” “Leave her alone.” Mary will not be denied. In those 3 words, “leave her alone” Jesus receives Mary as an equal. Jesus is perfectly comfortable
• being touched by a woman
• with her hair down
• talking with men
• being active in her body and alive in her senses.
Instead of siding with tradition, Jesus joins Mary in breaking down the cultural barriers between women and men, and embodies the radical equality in the Reign of God.
The Apostle Paul affirmed this radical equality in the body of Christ in his letter to the Galatians where he wrote, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Twenty centuries later, it is still challenging for us to live in this radical equality that Jesus embodied—not only with women, but with lepers, prostitutes, tax cheats, and outcasts and scoundrels of every kind. Who are the outcasts today? Who, if they joined us at the Lord’s Table, would cause you discomfort and the urge to say, “no that just can’t be; that’s not The Way Things Have Always Been?”
Perhaps your discomfort rises around people who are gay, lesbian, or transgendered. Perhaps it is with refugees or illegal immigrants who don’t speak English, or someone who suffers severe mental illness. Maybe it is with the very poor, who, Jesus reminds us, are always with us due to human greed.
Just last week I was talking about this with a friend and she shared that it’s so hard for her to deal with people who are pierced and tattooed. I told her that God will probably put someone just like that in her life to help breakdown that inner barrier, enabling her to live in the radical equality and love of God’s Reign. These are just some of the people who need disciples of Jesus to stand up and say, “leave them alone!”
I eventually accepted that my call to ministry was not a momentary delusion, and I did go to seminary. My parents went on a campus tour of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago with me. My Dad asked the male tour guide if he was worried that women like me were going to take away his job. He still couldn’t quite see it.
But then I went on internship and my parents visited on a Sunday when I was preaching. They came to the Communion rail, the dining table of our Lord. As I served them the blood of Christ, offering Jesus’ radical love and forgiveness, the barriers began to melt away. My supervisor told me that my Dad ducked out of that service before shaking hands because he was all choked up.
On the Sunday of my Ordination in 1989, my parents had flowers on the altar of their Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation as if to say, “leave her alone.” After my ordination service, my Dad gave out a “woohoo,” and popped open the first bottle of champagne.
Heaven rejoices when, with Jesus, we move through our human boundaries and step into the radical equality in the Reign of God.
Giving ourselves small delights can keep us in touch with our spiritual self.
While Christmas shopping last year, I happened upon this rubber duck tea strainer and bought it for my own Christmas stocking . I can’t tell you what a kick I get out of floating a mini-rubber duck in my morning tea! After a 4-minute swim in my boiled water, I set my duck in her pond holder and my cup of Naughty Vicar is just right! (The London Tea Room has this and other great blends!).
The sense of delight and joy from such a small (and you might say silly!) thing sets my day on a positive path priming me to notice and appreciate the good things--both large and small--yet to unfold. Sr. Carla Mae Streeter, Professor Emeritus at Aquinas Institute of Theology identifies the first stage of conscious development in babies as wonder--how they follow a mobile or a toy with open fascination. In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus instructs us to "become like a child" (Matthew 18:3). Sr. Carla Mae offers that we need to regain our sense of wonder at the beauty of the created order and the living presence of Christ among us.
If we're not quite ready for wonder and awe, we can start with delight. What gives you a sense of delight, a smile, a moment of joy? It could be a favorite song, watching birds outside your window, a sleepy hug from your child, a picture on your desk. I know someone who watches her diet very closely, and she allows herself one piece of Dove dark chocolate in the late afternoon and enjoys every tasty second of it.
For my husband, Dan, it’s a great cup of coffee in the morning made with freshly ground beans. When he sets up the coffee maker the night before, he often says, “Oooh, I can’t wait to wake up and drink this coffee!”
That’s delight! And it’s contagious, priming us for a wonder-ful day.
For Christmas Dan bought us a 3-night stay in NYC to hear jazz singer, Stacey Kent perform at the Birdland Jazz Club, and to see a Broadway Show of my choice (we saw The Book of Mormon- very crude, but hilarious!). We were there for “snowzilla,” the second biggest blizzard in the history of the city, missing the record by only 1/10th of an inch. So we also got in an extra Broadway show, The School of Rock, which was superb and so much fun.
If you’ve been to Manhattan, you know the fascinating diversity of people and languages, and the heightened anticipation of never knowing what sort of image of God is going to walk around the corner. But on this trip, I was more often struck by the economy of space. I’m a person who likes space around me. In fact, it’s become a bit of a family joke. I like space around me when I sleep, when I sit on the couch, above my head and around me when I drive (which is difficult when one wants to drive an environmentally friendly car). I get uncomfortable when if feel cramped, crowded or pinned down. But when you’re on an island that's not even 23 square miles with 1.6 million of your closest friends, space is at a premium.
The corner grocery store we went to had items packed from floor to ceiling with an entire deli, salad and dessert bar packed in behind the counter. I loved walking through these stores and marveling at how many things I could buy from such a tiny space. We went to a few restaurants that were only about 12 feet wide. This didn’t stop an Ecuadorian, Indian or Chinese family from putting up six tables that could squeeze in 15 customers to delight with their homemade recipes.
The Broadway theaters we attended are small compared to our St. Louis-style events. The theaters seated 1100 or 1500 people compared to the 4500 that fill the Fox Theater or the 11,000 who can watch a Muny production in the summer. The bathrooms were tiny, our hotel room was cramped, and the counter space for our stuff was limited. We packed for three days and stayed for five, so I used my products more sparingly to make sure they lasted.
Rather than being cramped, I found in these small spaces a surprising sense of relief, even comfort. They invited me into a simplicity that evoked an expansiveness of spirit and energy which were no longer consumed by stuff and space management. I am left wondering how much valuable energy is eaten up by dealing with stuff rather than engaging in life-affirming, spirit-led relationships and engagements. An economy of space leads to an economy of energy expended.
For a Lenten practice, one of my former spiritual directors and a Benedictine nun would give away one item a day for the forty days. She always worried that she would not have enough to give away because she had already taken a vow of poverty and didn’t really have that much stuff. But she was always surprised at Easter that she did have forty items she had accumulated over the year that were not really essential to daily life. She found the release of these items freeing and spiritually renewing. I could probably give away ten things or more a day for Lent and still have more than I need, but at least I can begin.
Photo Credit: Shanna Ravindra http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/tehuitzingo-deli/
A Reflection on John 1:1-18 for the New Year
Pernicious Amnesia- that’s what my favorite seminary professor called it – we have a case of pernicious amnesia. Verse 10 of John 1 says, He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
The world did not know the Word. Pernicious amnesia - how can we forget where we came from? How do we forget we came from God, forget who we are and whose we are?
We love the story of the self-made man or woman, the rugged individualism of our culture, the pull yourself up from your boostraps, mentality as if any person came into being of their own free will and grew up without the intimate participation of dozens, if not hundreds of other people.
The new year is a time of special amnesia—we put on our Nike trainers, we have our Starbucks in hand, and we’ve got our apps to track our fitness, our to do lists, our sleep, our job, our schedules, our kids and commitments - we’ve got the world by the tail and we’re going to whip 2016 into shape.
Well, we may work hard, and that can be a wonderful thing and result in great outcomes, but none of us came into the world and got to today by the sheer force our will.
• We do not exist of our own will or merit—none of us willed our life into being;
• We do not create the air we breathe, our body’s ability to live, move, act and think'
• We did not participate in the creation of the environment in which we will live—the oxygen that keeps us alive, the soil beneath our feet, the trees that shade us or the miracle of how a tiny seed becomes the wheat or the fruit we eat.
It’s so easy to forget these basic truths about our very existence. I can pray in the morning and by lunch I’ve forgotten that my life is created and rooted in a power much, much greater than myself. Instead I’m trying to hold the earth on it’s axis while managing, mothering, manipulating everyone else’s life and work, believing it’s all up to me (no wonder I have migraines!).
That’s why it’s pernicious amnesia—because even after I remember that I came from God and will return to God and God’s in the midst everything and every moment, I forget again, many times a day, no less, and believe all of life is up to me.
Evelyn Underwood, an early 20th century mystic said it this way:
Just plain self-forgetfulness is the greatest of graces. The true relationship between the soul and God is the perfectly simple one of a childlike dependence. Well then, be simple and dependent: acknowledge once for all the plain fact that you have nothing of your own.
It’s so easy for me to forget that I have nothing of my own.
But God sees our amnesia and decided to enter our world to help us remember who we are and where we came from. So God came like a child—God came in childlike dependence to demonstrate the fundamental truth that God our Source, our Sustainer and End. God sent Godself to us to cure us of our pernicious amnesia- to help us re-member. To remember literally means “to put back together." God sent Godself to put back together our primary relationship with God who exists since the beginning of time.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. We just celebrated this truth at Christmas and in all the busy-ness, the parties, the shopping, the traveling the gatherings and the gifts, we may have missed this radical thing that God is up to:
This cosmic God who is the Source and Sustainer of the universe - where there are – 200 billion stars in our solar system! Our solar system lives in a universe of galaxies; there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe! This God of 100 billion galaxies pressed Godself into human DNA, into the size of a tiny embryo and into a female uterus, which is size of a man’s fist! (I first learned this phrase from Sr. Carla Mae Streeter, a theology professor emeritus at Aquinas Institute). God clothed himself in flesh and blood and limitation and emotion and finiteness. God put on the limits of flesh and bone. The light that was God’s first creation - this light comes to us, dressed in human skin.
What do we make of this kind of God? God will go to any length to make sure that you and I know that we are born of God, loved by God and that nothing delights God more than being with us, living in us, dwelling in our humanity and daily life. God will spare no expense and no effort to communicate love to us. God will stop at nothing so that we know God’s love us and gives power to become children of God, born of the will of God (not of will of flesh or world) and we receive grace upon grace.
God came in human form so as to say “don’t’ forget!” Remember who you came from, remember who you are as my child, remember who loves you into being. The One who was In the Beginning created your beginning.
This is why we have worship every 7 days- because we forget who are. So in the beginning of the week, we remember and put back together who we are. It’s why daily prayer matters because it helps cure us of our amnesia: so that in the beginning of the day,in the beginning of a meal, in the beginning of our nights' rest, we acknowledge the Source of our life and pull ourselves back from forgetfulness. Short Daily prayers ground us in God’s love and presence - that because Jesus took on our humanity, Jesus is clothed in your humanity, in your life and work, in your relationships and actions and daily breath. The Creator of the universe has given birth to you and wraps you in love and power, in light and truth.
When we remember who we are, when we remember how we came into being, when we remember the Creator dwells with us and in us, then the world is a completely new place. Since the Word and Light and Presence of God took on the double helix of our make-up and embraced the whole human experience, we are given the gift of seeing the sacred presence of God in our daily life, our daily world—in the creation and in the people God has created and called into being.
I like to call them, “God-sightings” – places where now we can see God’s presence and work in the everyday life we share. God-sightings are where we see light, grace and truth hidden in the ordinary. Perhaps you have heard the story of the young child who's afraid of the dark. Their mom tucks them into bed and the child says, "Don't leave me because I'm scared of the dark." And the mom says, "You don't need to be afraid because Jesus is with you!" And the child says, "Yeah, but, I need Jesus with some skin on.”
That’s what God-sightings are about – seeing Jesus with some skin on. PrThe psence of God, or what the bible calls the “glory” of God is hidden inside each person. Since God arrives in a stable with the beasts, then surely God is in the flooded houses, and with the people who lost their business in our recent flooding. We see Jesus with some skin on in those who are filling sandbags and donating blood and new furnishings, those who help the re-building and donate money. Those who bring hope and light and a way to start again. A colleague shared with me that the way she tells children to see God in the midst of a crisis is to, "look for the helpers." The helpers are the ones who are Jesus with some skin on—where divine energy and light are breaking through in the world.
When we remember who we are and where we come from and see God at work in the world, then we can join John the Baptist in this Gospel reading and testify to the light. When others forget, when they suffer from amnesia, when all they can see is loss and hurt and heartache, we can say, "see the light here and the light there: God is in the unexpected smile, the shoulder to cry on, the meal prepared and brought to your door, the friend who takes you to the doctor, the neighbors who leave their tasks and help you clean up and rebuild, the prayers offered, the love and encouragement shared." God is here and wrapped in the ordinary stuff of our daily life.
When I was in chemotherapy for breast cancer, I was just plastered to the bed with exhaustion. After one treatment, a friend came over sat on the bed with me while I rested. She would knit, and I would doze off. I would wake up and there she would be knitting. We would chat for a minute, and then I'd doze off again. I'd wake up and she would be there, knitting. I had forgotten that God was in this terrible, desolate pit with me. But this friend became for me, Jesus with skin on and knitting, helping me to re-member that I was not alone. Several years later, when I have a amnesia now, I remember how it felt to wake up and see her next to me, knitting, and it helps me remember.
In her poem, Earth’s Crammed with Heaven, Elizabeth Barrette Browning said,
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Earth is crammed with heaven, the very presence of God in every cell, every plant, every person. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
So, re-member, remember you are born of the will of God so you can see this ordinary life crammed full of the light and presence of the Word made flesh—that’s a new year goal worth embracing.