Shoes

I screamed at God for the starving child until I saw the starving child was God screaming at me.

-Unknown

I am getting more and more angry that responding my thoughts & prayers are with you is becoming a sarcastic joke. I live by two axioms. The first is Anne Lamott’s saying that there are really only three prayers:

  • Help
  • Thanks
  • Wow

The second is what I call “the Donna Schuurman corollary.” Now, Donna is a personal friend and I doubt you’ll find this in any of her published books…. but she says that there is one perfect, end-of-the-rope and it’s fraying prayer…. Shit, God.

I suppose that it would fall under “help,” but just doesn’t have the same impact…. but it helps. It’s the prayer I prayed when Dana and I got a divorce. It’s the prayer I prayed when Argo said, no more. It’s the prayer I prayed minute by minute, hour by hour to get through those first few days of my mother’s death…. although I will say that I found “thanks” and “wow” when I bothered to look.

I will be the first to tell you that I have no idea what happens when I pray on the other end of that connection. In the words of C.S. “Jack” Lewis, I don’t pray because it changes God. I pray because it changes me. You, and only you, have to decide if it really matters whether some celestial being is listening, or whether the function of prayer is to find your own still, small voice, uninterrupted by the noise of the world. In that space, something happens. Does it matter whether it comes from an internal or an external source? I believe it does, but not enough to be rigid about it.

My philosophy 101 class was very interesting. We spent the first half proving that God exists, and the second proving that God doesn’t. Of course, I use “proof” in the geometric sense, not that there is any real evidence one way or the other. Pete Rollins, in an interview with Rob Bell, said something that’s stuck with me for over a year. He said that atheists and theists are one of the great love stories, that each needs the other…. that there is God/Not God, and the truth is in the slash…. but before I ever heard of Pete Rollins, I discovered that religion was not unlike sexuality… a spectrum in which some people stay at the poles their entire lives, and some move freely back and forth.

This is because too much happens in the world for most people to eschew doubt…. and still others in their piety are too ashamed to admit that when the shit hits the fan, they wonder where in the hell God has been, is, will be………………..

I have said it before, and I will say it again. I choose to believe that God is not the Actor. God is the Responder. Where is God as people are being gunned down in the streets, at concert venues, movie theaters, schools… or worse, in a place that has long been identified as sanctuary…. literally and figuratively. When you claim sanctuary, that is the moment that violence is supposed to stop. Because it didn’t happen to me, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have that feeling ripped away. We of the Religious Left chose to move away from Jonathan Edwards’ now famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, long ago. We do not believe in the hand of God that would drop us, but catch. So if you ask where God is, know that God is weeping with the families of the dead, and supporting the injured in their hour of need. Not only that, if you need to feel angry with God and rail at all the injustices, go right ahead. God is big enough to handle it.

I am tired of seeing “thoughts and prayers” as some people’s choice shitty retort. This is because thoughts and prayers mean two things to me:

  1. We live in a dangerous world with many injustices that will not get fixed overnight without our help. I hold space not only for my own responses, but for the worry and care of first responders. I am not fire, police, military, or diplomat. Prayer is a way to get in touch with the part of me that bleeds for the people in front of and behind the news. As an empath, I feel pain all across the world, and it needs somewhere to go. Every single person I’ve known in those dangerous fields has said not to worry- if something terrible happens, we will have died doing something we trained for because we love what we do. I have found over time that those words bring me little comfort, but my worry is not their problem. Whether or not there is a God, it brings me peace to pray for the lives of the victims and the people in charge of rescuing them and getting them to safety, or getting their bodies back to their families so that they may say a proper goodbye.
  2. Prayer is not always solitary. Once you find the center of your being, your True North, it is time to act. One of the greatest prayers I’ve ever prayed was walking downtown with thousands and thousands of women as we fought for our rights whether anyone was listening or not. I was one of the first “crazy liberals” to march like hell against the Iraq war, before the rest of the country caught up to what we were screaming. I’ve talked to homeless people in my own city, asking them what they need, rather than trying to guess. Prayer is almost nothing without shoe leather, but one has to beget the other. It is the first line of defense against pouring from an empty cup.

Prayer is holding space for the safety and security of the people you love, as well as being able to go deep and figure out what you really think. Some people call that meditation. Some people enter that space while exercising. I am not worried about the semantics, only the function.

I will never be worried about the semantics, unless you (plural) are using it as a euphemism for lazy. Like Jesus, I go into my room to pray and close the door…. but I emerge with my shoes on.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

 

The Yahrtzeit

Don’t call me. I know you’ll all want to when you hear what I have to say. I am leaving tomorrow to go to Houston for the first time since my mother’s death. But stop yourselves from reaching out to give Lindsay and me room to grieve on our own. If we end up getting together with friends at any point, I’ll make sure you’re included. But we haven’t gotten that far. We’ve only planned what we’re going to do on the actual anniversary of my mother’s death on the second, besides attending my cousin Hunter’s wedding the day before.

Because I thought I’d be in DC during the wedding, I did not RSVP, so I hope they can haul ass to the kitchen, rearrange the food, and squish in a place setting to welcome a “Haiti-an. It actually is important to me to go to this wedding. It’s my mother’s brother’s second child, so I will get to see everyone on that side of the family at a time when we really need each other. Of course it is Hunter’s day, but seeing each other is an excellent added bonus. Plus, the wedding is in Tyler, Texas… the perfect amount of road trip. I haven’t done a real road trip in ages, so even that in and of itself is perfection.

When we get back, we’ve planned to go to the cemetery and just sit with Mom. We enjoy it because the cemetery we chose is so tranquil and peaceful it is an escape from the rest of the city. It’s also been a year since I’ve seen “Fred,” the infant-sized tree planted last year that will one day surround my mother’s grave in its majesty. I’m only sort of glad I waited this long, because I don’t think I would notice as much of a difference in “him” if I’d seen him every week.

Lindsay has said that she’s not crazy about the name “Fred.” I can’t wait to see what name she’s come up for “him.” For me, “Fred” was an easy choice because every plant I’ve ever had has been named “Fred….” and this Fred has people to take care of “him” that actually know what they’re doing. I don’t have to worry that I’m accidentally going to poison “him.” Plus, this time of year the weather should be pretty good… no pictures of the headstones with a “light dusting of snow.” We’ll eat and drink it what is hopefully sunshine and not threatening grey weather. But rest assured that I would carry six golf umbrellas before I missed going to see my mother’s grave.

It is such a bittersweet experience, because logically I know that I am just talking to her shell. Emotionally, she feels very real and present…. not in a viscerally physical way, just that her spirit is near.

It was that spirit which brought me to my knees. I didn’t want to spend that day alone, either, because I didn’t want to spend it with anyone but Lindsay and she’d already come and gone for this week.

She and my father both worked on this idea to let us have our time to laugh and cry, and the fact that they thought it was important enough to spend their hard-earned money and/or frequent flier miles to make sure it happened is exactly the kind of thing my mother would have wanted.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what it is she actually would have wanted, and yet I know this one hits the nail on the head. Now if Forbes, my stepdad, needs to get his internet fixed or his cable is down, that would just be the icing on the cake. My mother assumed my entire adult life that because I work in Information Technology, if it plugged into the wall, I could fix it. She once actually flew me to Houston just to fix her computer because it was exactly the same price as taking it to Best Buy,™ and she knew that I would be nicer to her than they would because I wouldn’t try to upsell her on anything. 🙂

As it turned out, I couldn’t fix the computer after all, because it was a hardware problem and not software… but I still earned my keep. I told her that for the same price as getting her old computer fixed (emphasis on old), she could buy a cheap throwdown that would do everything she wanted it to do and I could transfer all of her files for her, or just install her old hard drive as a secondary drive in the new one. I ended up just transferring her files because I didn’t know whether the hard drive was about to blow, and thanks to her excellent grasp of “the Mommy Save,” it was ridiculously easy. The term “Mommy Save” is an old IT Help Desk joke that refers to people who have no idea how directory structures work, so everything they’ve ever worked on is an icon on the desktop. Mind you, not folders created on the desktop. Individual files that cover every possible millimeter of desktop real estate so it doesn’t even matter what the wallpaper is… you can’t see it, anyway.

And, of course, my mother also had no idea how installing peripherals worked, so of course things that were simple to me, like installing the printer/scanner/copier driver, seemed like magic to her. She really thought it was magic when I discovered that her PSC had wireless and set up every computer in the house to print to it, and enabled file sharing so that she didn’t have to e-mail Forbes everything she wanted him to see.

I also locked down her router so that no one in her neighborhood could steal bandwidth from her using the router’s default username and password, the one that had been on it for, like, two years. I think I gave it the SSID “Baker’s Dozen,” because Baker was her married name…. but I TOLD her it was “Carolyn’s Tattoo Parlor and BBQ Pit.” Because she’d known me my whole life, she knew I was just kidding… and I knew exactly what she was thinking…. my Godyou are way too much like your father. I don’t think I am….. he’s WAY more funny than me. Just more practice at it, I guess…. or at least, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. Perhaps one day his little grasshopper will reach satori, but I am not holding my breath.

Although this story may come close.

I love temporary tattoos, because there are lots of tattoos I like, but won’t commit to them forever. I was out shopping and found some really cool ones- tribal representations of animals, armbands, etc. My mother, however, did not like tattoos AT ALL. So, I wake up before she does and put this GIANT tiger temp tattoo on my neck. Not even an Oxford button-down will cover it. She comes into the kitchen a little while later and I can see the wheels in her head turning, trying not to explode as she thinks through all the jobs I’ve just lost. She tries so hard….. when did you get your tiger tattoo? If it’s on your neck, it must’ve really hurt. Do you think your job will care? How did you manage to hide it? I didn’t even see it last night…….. Your mom is going blind in her old age……. I let her twist in the wind for a few more minutes before I took some cotton balls and a small bottle of baby oil out of my pocket and rubbed it off. It was nice to see some blood come back into her face, and she laughed- not necessarily because she thought it was funny, but because she knew she’d been had and it was exactly the type joke her firstborn would play on her…. but not before trying to convince me that she’d known it was fake all along, that she was just trying to keep it going, etc. I didn’t buy it for a second, but it was hilarious to watch her backpedal nonetheless.

My mom was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but because her brain worked on a very high, creative plane most of the time, jokes often went over her head. She had bigger things to think about than whether her daughter was pranking her or not, which made her an easy target, especially since she was so willing to laugh at herself.

One of the times she absolutely lost it laughing at herself was when my dad took my mom, sister, and me to our friend Hardy Roper’s vacation house in Galveston. It had a dock on the bay side of the island, and Lindsay and I were doing a half-hearted job of fishing, using cheese as bait (or as my sister said, “WE’RE GONNA CATCH FISH WITH CHEESE!!!!!). I was wearing my favorite loafers, which happened to be pretty expensive, and my mom just knew I was going to drop them in the water while my feet were dangling over the side. She rushed over to me and said, hand me your shoes. If you lose them, we won’t be able to replace them. So, I hand them to her, and for whatever reason, at exactly that moment she was thrown of balance and promptly dropped both of my precious loafers into the bay. We laughed until we cried…. which is exactly what I want to do at the cemetery.

Of course I miss my mother, and it is incredibly sad, but it is a good thing that part of grief is the uncontrollable laughter of reminiscence.

If there’s anything I hope for during this trip, it’s that nearly every sentence begins with do you remember the time when Mom……………… It is the best opening line for me since once upon a time………….. because once upon a time, I could not laugh like this. 2017-09-30 00_53_56-Mourner's Kaddish _ ReformJudaism.orgI was too engrossed in survivor’s grief, not allowing myself joy because it did not seem appropriate to have fun. I felt that the only thing I deserved was to look down in sadness, tear my clothes, and even though I’m not Jewish, say the Kaddish (also known as The Mourner’s Kaddish) in her honor. If you’ve never heard it, the graphic to the right is the prayer in Hebrew. What follows is the English:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.

May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing,
praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,
to which we say Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.
To which we say Amen.

I ask all of your blessings as two Christians try to make their own theme & variation on a yahrtzeit that weaves my mother’s personality throughout. The concept of the yahrtzeit is extremely meaningful to me, because it is not the first anniversary of a loved one’s death, but all of them. I tend to steal borrow from all faith traditions as I try and navigate the largest unknown I’ve ever faced. Making things better probably won’t come out of one book, but many. I mean, not everybody can be Doug Forcett.

I would appreciate each and every one of you holding space for Lindsay and me as we survey dark wilderness…. because maybe next year, having some contour lines will help.

In the meantime, I am praying not only on the words, but the spaces in between. Often, the wisdom is in the pause.

#prayingonthespaces

Sermon for Proper 10, Year A: Seeds and Stems

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sperm is often called “seed,” especially in the Bible. Therefore, every single one of us starts out as a seed, and when, joined with an egg, takes root in the womb and stems outward. A lot of our personality is created when seeds become stems  and stems become branches and branches become the mature tree… a new person, ready to take on the world.

But have you ever stopped to wonder how the DNA handed down to you affects the type of roots you create? What kind of seed you might be? Do you consistently seek out people who you deem “in the same garden?”

The types of seeds that Jesus is talking about directly relate to personalities in people, and he says so directly when he’s explaining what he just said. This is because often, when Jesus uses an analogy while preaching, and even in just talking to his disciples, what he receives is a series of dumb looks.

This is not unusual even today, because without repetitive explanation, people get lost in their own minds and now have no idea what you’re saying. The best preaching advice I’ve ever gotten is, “first, you tell them. Next, you tell them again. Then you tell them again.” Of course, you use different illustrations, but they’re all the same point.

When people are firmly planted in their pews, completely tracking with you, they may not get the idea of repetition. People who are not often need it. As a preacher, I am competing with the personal stories that come up for the people listening, what to have for lunch, and, especially in Portland, a sunny day.

It’s the difference between how the seeds are planted, and what kind of personalities they create.

We can even expand past the personal to the local church. Are you invested with deep roots, or did your mother make you come? It’s at this point that we have to ask ourselves “are we the 30, the 60, or the 100-fold kind of church?”

What kind of church ARE we?

Are we so shallow in our commitment that a bird could swallow us up? That it would take so little to make us disband? We have nourished the bird, but have failed ourselves in a “give a man a fish” kind of way. We’ve sustained, for a moment, one being… and walked away. The gospel competes with the world, and loses… badly.

Have we planted ourselves on rocky soil, reaching for the sun? The best analogy I can think for this kind of church are those that initially are so gung ho that they over-commit, and six or 12 months later, leave, never to return… because it’s just so much work. Few can let go and listen because the running tab of things to do is so long, particularly for “the Marthas…” who place very little importance on the phrase don’t just do something, sit there.

Initial excitement in its exuberance is a wonderful thing, but it has to be watered carefully, as not to burn or drown. There is generally little room to add new crops, because people are already so mired between committees and choirs and teaching Sunday School and laying out vestments and ALL THE THINGS that new shoots spring up, and there’s no one with enough sunlight left to tend to them. The gospel just gets in the way of the running to-do list with no respite.

Churches with deep roots are not only self-sustaining, but have the ability to minister to others… and it’s a difference you can both see and feel. Deep roots mean there’s a group of people for each single thing, so that no one group has to do everything. The same 30 or 60 people are not the entire church, but just the choir or just a couple of committees. If you’ve ever been to a really small church, you know that there are at least ten people who are on every committee and in the choir, and have to say “no more.” Not out of malice, out of exhaustion. There are churches with deep roots who have the ability to create a committee just to shake new people’s hands as they come in the door, and that is their only function. There is enough room between rows, enough nutrients for everyone, that the seeds become stems and the stems become branches and the branches become the mature tree. The gospel is not working at us, but through us. We are able to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, fight racial inequality and GLBTQI rights… we have the ability to widen the net, teaching others to fish as we go.

Which invariably leads to the question of what kind of world we want to be.

For a lot of people, it’s starting to feel like being a 100-fold seed in a 30-fold world. But here’s the catch… it’s not a 30-fold seed world. Perception is not reality. There are enough people to do everything, enough people to be able to pick which causes to support, which battles to fight… and which governments need resistance. Resistance is not futile, it’s its own kind of protest.

Hundred-fold people create hundred-fold churches which give the individual a chance to grow into a community. So many people can and will get involved, but are overwhelmed when it comes to how to “jump in.” They are the hope and the future as to how a 30-fold seed can find its way from feeding one being to all of them.

This is where you are issued an invitation, in turn to give one. In my own life, I have never once had success with inviting someone to come with me to church. I have had success with showing them who I am and to whom I belong. For instance, I’ve invited friends to march with me in the Pride parade along with my church group…. or go to a political rally. Wide-eyed, they look at me as if to say, your church does THAT?

Of course. In a church with deep roots, the plants grow toward the sky, because the deeper the support system, the easier it is to say…

Jesus Has Left the Building.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

Your Right and Responsibility

I don’t know how I got so lucky that when session ended in Annapolis, Lindsay’s job moved her to working on federal legislation. She still comes to DC on a regular basis, though not quite as often when she was trying to get a bill passed in Maryland state congress. The bill made it through the House and on to the Senate, but was defeated. I don’t want to write about the bill itself, or the company where my sister works, but what I will say is that the legislation in question made perfect sense and there is no sane reason why it shouldn’t have passed, especially since in 49 other states, it’s already law. The only comfort in this is that perhaps the bill will come up next year, as some form of it has for the last nine years, and she’ll come back just as frequently as she did this year.

I know it’s hard for her being so far away from home all the time, but selfishly, it is exactly what I need. Watching her work activates my “go button,” the part of me that’s interested in government and how it works…. or not.

Voting in local and state elections is abysmally low, and turnout is key. I don’t understand why others don’t understand that local and state laws directly affect their lives so much more than the president ever will. My county (Montgomery) is important to me, as well as my state. There are lobbyists pushing legislation through that would raise ire if there wasn’t so much apathy toward it. Outrageous things get passed because no one notices… and on the flip side of the coin, really good legislation gets passed over because no one is calling their state representatives to tell them what they want, because they have no idea what the issues even are, much less care.

National laws are important, but not nearly as crucial as “small things,” like the school board, how/when the trash gets picked up, and the way the local police treat people. The local issue that really cramps my style (being the tender-heart bear that I am) is that in Montgomery County, homeless shelters are closed from April to November. Obviously, it’s sometimes very cold in October, but April is no picnic, either. Plus, it gets every bit as hot in Maryland as it is in Houston during the summer, and to me, being outside all the time is local legislators not caring whether people suffer horrendous sunburns with blisters.

Thanks to Maryland state-run health insurance, homeless people have access to free medical and psychological care, and medications that are only one dollar a bottle. But for homeless people who do not have jobs, one dollar can seem like a hundred. It’s a misconception that homeless people do not work. When you’re poor, the idea of first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit, especially in this area, is unobtainable. If people manage to only stay on the streets for a few months, it is less likely that they will suffer permanent mental health damage, but the longer people go without basic necessities, it is a chicken and egg situation. Did they become homeless because they were mentally ill and unable to hold down a job, or did being on the streets do them in?

I would say that it’s different in every case, but I can see how being reduced to absolute survival mode can do so much damage in so little time…. especially if said homeless person is arrested and thrown in jail. Jail is not a happy place, especially when you’re put there due to circumstances beyond your control. People get arrested for all kinds of inanity, such as loitering, because where are you supposed to go when you don’t have an address?

Add that to the inequality in both hiring and sentencing leads minorities down a pipeline of enormous proportions. The first is that a resumé with the name Michael Smith is so much more likely to get an interview than one with the name Tyrone Washington. The second is that minorities are more likely to get harsher sentences than whites, so something that should have been a misdemeanor is adjudicated as a felony, and that always looks good to hiring managers.

Nothing makes my blood boil faster, because even if the minority is guilty, that does not mean that he/she deserves to be treated more harshly than anyone else. It’s white privilege at its finest.

My pastor, Matt, said something interesting regarding this very thing. Minorities are allowed to be prejudiced against whites, but there is no such thing as “reverse racism.” That is because prejudice in minority communities is relatively harmless, a way of dealing with earned scorn toward whites for the systematic oppression of minorities that they’ve endured for centuries now. There is no comparison whatsoever, and to do so is to willfully ignore the difference. Prejudice is personal bias. Racism is institutionalized from the top down, with no end in sight. No matter how much we march and protest against it, President Trump isn’t going anywhere, and neither are his goons satisfied with the status quo.

That does not mean that protesting is useless, however. With enough people in the crowd, it’s hard to be ignored by Congress or the media. There is also the community that comes together with a common goal, the creation of safe space…. the seeking out of like-minded people that is a lifeline when there is such a feeling of hopelessness.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most segregated hour in America. In a lot of ways, this has not changed, but it has changed for me. I am blessed to have a community in which whites and minorities worship together under both a #blacklivesmatter and a rainbow flag. I am blessed to have a community that shows up for marches demanding equality for all people, despite the violence that has occurred as a result. The scariest was when our #blacklivesmatter sign was vandalized and pictures of the reporters shot in Roanoke on live TV were taped to the side doors.

It led to one of the biggest turnouts on Sunday morning that I’ve ever seen in any church anywhere, because we were there to say we were not afraid. Looking for succor, yes, but there was power in showing up. Jeffrey Thames preached that day, a sermon I’ll never forget called The Certain Samaritan. It was built to comfort us in our distress and distress us out of our comfort.

We will not back down from attending church because of this threat. We will continue to do the work of peace and justice that we always have, because it defines who we are as a congregation………………….

We will continue to let people rest and recuperate as they need. We will continue to clothe the naked. We will continue to feed the hungry. We will continue to make people of all faiths and origins our friends. We will continue to fight without a fight. It doesn’t take violence to respond. It takes certainty.

It was a beautiful illustration regarding now that this has happened, what are we to do? Applause is for a performance, not a worship service, and yet he deserved a standing ovation. He pointed the way from pain to promise in a way that people will not soon forget.

Whenever you think local politics don’t matter, remember that law & order starts in your neighborhood and branches out. When the leaves are turning brown, remember that it is your right and responsibility to turn on the sprinklers.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

Sermon for All Saints Day 2015

Though Bethany is listed in the Gospel as the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, note that it was a place of healing long before Jesus got there. The Temple Scroll from Qumran, the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, gives the number and exact measurements from Jerusalem in terms of places where the sick should be………… relocated. There should be three separate colonies, one exclusively for lepers. None of them could be within a three thousand cubit radius (about 1400 yards), and according to John, Bethany was 15 stadia (1.72 miles) southeast… out of view of the Temple Mount. Thus, it was the perfect location to hide away the ritually unclean, for two reasons. The first is medical; it prevented the spread of disease and infection. The second is social. No one had to look at the sick and dying, either.

Because the book of Matthew tells the story of Jesus dining with Simon the Leper in Bethany, it’s safe to assume that Bethany was the leper colony mentioned in the Temple Scroll.

Leprosy, today known as Hansen’s Disease, is a bacterial infection. It spread like wildfire because getting it was as easy as coming into contact with an infected person’s cough or phlegm, depending on how much of the bacteria was in the person’s system. Additionally, when you first come into contact with the bacteria, you don’t show any symptoms. If you looked bad enough to be sent to the leper colony, you could have already had the disease for years without knowing it, making it even easier for leprosy to become the “gift that keeps on giving.”

Today, it can be cured by a six or 12 month treatment of multiple antibiotics (depending on severity), now freely provided by the World Health Organization in case any of you Texans decide eating armadillo meat (yes, really) is a good idea.

Of course, back then there was no treatment, because not only had antibiotics not been invented, the idea of something called an “infection” or even a “germ” wouldn’t be introduced for hundreds of years. The only answer was complete isolation. Plus, lepers are not attractive people, which contributed to the temple’s need to stash them away.

Patients present with inflammation of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. As it progresses, lepers develop an inability to feel pain, so not only are their bodies and faces oddly shaped from the inflammation, they tend to have inexplicable wounds all over them because they’ve been hurt without even knowing it. In Bethany, the terrain is hilly, with a lot of brush and short trees… in other words, plenty of opportunities to trip and fall. If you can’t feel an injury, and you can’t see it, you won’t treat it, either. It’s a great recipe for secondary infection.

The classic image of leprosy is that it makes your fingers and toes fall off. This is untrue, although the people of the time thought so. What they thought of as fingers and toes “falling off” was actually secondary injuries causing tissue damage enough to make cartilage absorb into the body and bones to shorten.

If there’s nerve damage in the face, you lose the ability to blink, which can lead to blindness and even more chance for serious secondary injury and/or infection.

Leprosy rates are higher in places of poverty. This makes sense, because in the Aramaic, Bethany (or Beth Anya) means “house of misery” or “poor house.” Painting a picture of Bethany is not a beautiful one in terms of population. If you lived there, you were probably poor, sick, or both. It didn’t matter to Jesus, though. It was just the last stop before journeying into Jerusalem. While he was there, he found friends close enough to make it feel like home.

Jesus met Mary, Martha and Lazarus when he and the Disciples were passing through Bethany (although the village isn’t named in the Gospel of Luke) and the sisters opened their home to them. When Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping her in the kitchen while he taught the Disciples, he said, Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. After that, they remained close.

When their brother got sick, Mary and Martha naturally wanted their friend. Not only did they need him for emotional support, they thought that Jesus might be able to heal Lazarus altogether. They sent Jesus a message saying simply, the one you love is ill. Notice that they did not ask Jesus to come to Bethany at all. They did not send a message of expectation. They knew that their friendship bond was strong enough for the message to stand on its own. St. Augustine was the first person to point this out, saying it was sufficient that Jesus should know; for it is not possible that any man should at one and the same time love a friend and desert him.

When he heard the message, Jesus said, this illness is not going to prove fatal; rather it has happened for the sake of the glory of God, so that God’s Son should be glorified by means of it. Political tensions were growing surrounding Jesus’ healing ability. I do not believe that Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, although there are many theologians who do. At that point, I think he believed in his ability to deal with the situation no matter what it was, but that when he healed Lazarus, it would give the Sanhedrin enough evidence to convict him. Jesus did not mean that he was going to Bethany to show off by bringing a dead man to life. He meant that if he healed Lazarus, he was the one that was going to die.

No good deed goes unpunished.
Clare Booth Luce, The Book of Laws

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13

Looking at this scripture in this light, it makes more sense that Jesus waited two days before beginning the journey to Bethany. The gospel does not record why those two extra days were needed, but venturing into fiction, when you know you’re going to die, there are things you have to take care of, first. Perhaps he had to take care of his own panic before he could lead his disciples back into fire.

In John 11:6-10, the disciples are terrified, and they show it:

Now, when Jesus had received the news that Lazarus was ill, he continued to stay where he was for two days. But after that he said to his disciples: “Let us go to Judaea again.” His disciples said to him: “Rabbi, things had got to a stage when the Jews were trying to find a way to stone you, and do you propose to go back there?” Jesus answered: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If a man walks in the day-time, he does not stumble because he has the light of this world. But if a man walks in the night-time, he does stumble because the light is not in him.”

I believe that those two days were needed for Jesus’ presence of mind and clear vision. He had to pray for discernment, and ask the hard questions, like “am I really ready for this? If I perform another miracle, that’s it. My days are numbered because I already have a mark on my head and this will just send the Sanhedrin over the edge… and if they take me, they’re going to take me in broad daylight, because I will not run.”

When they reach Bethany, Mary is understandably upset, and so is Jesus:

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

I depart from most theologians on this scripture. Most of the commentary I’ve read says that Jesus intentionally waited until Lazarus was indisputably dead just to make the miracle that much more…. well… miraculous. But the words “greatly disturbed in spirit” and “deeply moved” do not point to that conclusion.

To me, it is a moment of undeniable humanness. Jesus, in his need for clarity and discernment, is late. When the crowd reaches the tomb, John says again that Jesus is “deeply disturbed.” I believe he has heard the Jews in the crowd who said could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? After all, it’s going to be the Jews who scoffed at him who ignore the miracle entirely and rat him out to the Sanhedrin, anyway…. and he knows it.

He prays in supplication to show holy authority. The power to raise Lazarus from the dead does not come from him, but from God… and when he yells Lazarus, come out!, inexplicably, he does. Jesus then says to unbind him, and let him go.

This story is quite problematic because it is so great a miracle surely the other gospel writers would have heard about it. It’s also a problem because John says that this miracle was Jesus’ undoing, while in the other three gospels it is the cleansing of the temple… the story that beget the saying, “when asking ‘what would Jesus do,’ remember that getting angry and flipping over tables is a viable option.” To me, the cleansing of the temple seems like a much more punishable offense, but at the same time, if Jesus hadn’t cured Lazarus, would he have received such a spectacle of a welcome in Jerusalem (celebrated on Palm Sunday)?

I believe he would’ve. Jesus did something that none of the other Jews had the chutzpah to achieve- making the temple sacred once more. This story comes across as a parable mimicking Luke 16:19-31, which talks about a rich man and a poor man in the afterlife. The poor man, coincidentally (or not), is also named Lazarus. In it, the rich man begs Abraham to let Lazarus put some water on him because he is in agony. When Abraham denies his request, he asks him to send Lazarus to his house to warn his family of their fate if they keep treating poor people the way he did. Then, this conversation takes place:

Abraham: They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.

Unnamed Rich Man: I know, Father Abraham, but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.

Abraham: If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.

The Jews absolutely wailing at Lazarus’ death did not believe in a God who could change their lives even though a person rose from the dead right in front of them. We cannot possibly know what actually happened that day, but we cannot ignore the truth in the story altogether. It doesn’t matter whether Jesus raised Lazarus corporeally, but it does matter that if you feel dead inside, there is a way out.

Think about all the secrets that burn you up… the ones in which you’d rather be dead than tell. Everyone has them, because we are all human. What would it take to resurrect you and free you from that pain? Jesus is talking about walking in more than literal sunlight. The darkness is where we hide the things we’d rather not share, and in keeping them pent up, we limit ourselves from resurrection into a new life, one in which we can be our flawed human selves and have people love us, anyway.

Today as we celebrate the sainthood of those who have gone before us, I ask that you remember we call everyone who has passed on “saints,” but that doesn’t mean they were perfect when they were alive. They had the experience of loving and living just as we do right now, in the same “heavenly hell.” Talk about them as they were, and tell their stories of the death and resurrection that happened over and over in their lifetimes…. every time they had enough of the life they were living and decided to reach up for something more. Every time they resolved a problem they thought would never end. Every time they tried for perfection and reality got in the way but they bounced back, full and alive again. Talk about their Good Fridays, and every Easter afterward.

And then talk about yours.

Amen.

To This Day

Dana and I were just having the most interesting conversation about Doctor Who and the Bible, because the canons are strikingly similar. The conversation started when we remembered The Master.

I said:

I hope they show The Master as a little boy, looking into the schism for the first time. You know who it reminds me of? Moses and the story of the burning bush. God actually tells Moses not to look at him because the sight is too overwhelming. When The Master looks into the time vortex, it’s like getting an answer to the question “what would have happened?” Keep in mind that since I am not a fundamentalist, I am not talking literally. There’s just a lot of wisdom in looking at them together.

And Dana said:

The Doctor is a Christ allegory because in dying for our sins, he’s still protecting us to this day. For years, the story has been that the doctor is atoning for the sins of killing all of his people and the canon has changed to now having locked them in a slice of time so that he can rescue them one day. And he’s over 2,000 years old now.

My eyes started to bug out of my head.

I love being married.