Deserted?

One of my favourite places on earth is the Namib desert.

Over 50 million years old and covering over 80 000 square kilometres, this vast place seems, at first glance, to be completely inhospitable and sterile. But to those with the wisdom to fix their gaze beneath the seductive purple hues of the horizon to the shimmering, shifting sands under their feet, life triumphs in the number of unusual and rare plants and animals who have adapted to survive the harsh conditions.

I was astounded by our guide who wove tales of this living desert from the faintest tracks upon the sand; who stalked a chameleon over 500 metres of rock and scrub; who stood upon a sidewinder in his attempt to locate one for us; who pointed out the tunnels of invisible spiders right beside our feet; who barrelled out of the 4X4 and into the side of a mammoth dune to emerge with a little lizard held tenderly in his enormous hand; who spoke reverently as the sun set of the fog that would creep over the coast at night allowing nature to flourish in a land where rain is so scarce and unpredictable.

As I journey with the Gospel reading this week (Matthew 14:13-21), I am equally astounded that a crowd of over 5000 people would so readily forsake the comfort and convenience of home and community for the solitary, deserted place into which Jesus had withdrawn to pray.

What did they see in Jesus that they would follow him on foot from their towns to a remote place without any certainty about how he would receive them, or concern about what they would feed their families with that day?

Did they see beneath the surface of an inhospitable, sterile place to the possibility of healing and spiritual sustenance?

Were their lives perhaps more inhospitable and sterile than the deserted place to which they flocked in order to find real satisfaction, true abundance?

Just a few chapters before, we read of Jesus speaking to the crowds in parables which confuse his disciples. When they question him on his methods, he responds:

But blessed are your eyes because they see,
and your ears because they hear.
Matthew 13:16 (NIV)

Though we may find ourselves in a deserted place;
though some of our relationships may be on rocky ground;
though our finances may look bleak
or our jobs may be unrewarding
or there may be no job at all;
though we may struggle to get through all we have to do in a day
and fall each night into bed exhausted,
or have no reason to get out of bed each morning
and lose each day to a suffocating depression that no one seems to understand;
though we are barely holding onto hope by our fingertips,
may we have eyes to see the Christ who turned 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast for 5000
and have the courage to follow the One who will not send us away empty-handed.

Called is at our core

For as many years as I have been involved in ministry within the Church, I have wondered:

What is the essential difference between those who call themselves Christians and those who affiliate themselves with a different religion or belief system?

It is a question which goes to the heart of who we are and what on earth we’re here for.  It gives shape to the way that we work, that we celebrate, that we love, that we give, that we speak, that we rest.  It is the core that keeps us standing and steady in spite of the challenges and difficulties of life, that allows us to move and dance with God’s Spirit, that enables us to reach out connect in a meaningful and life-giving manner with the world around us.

At our core is the fact that we have heard God calling us and have chosen to respond in a particular way that opens up new life: new ways of being and seeing and doing.

Each and every person in the world – whether Christian or non-Christian – has a special, God-given calling on their life.

George Bernard Shaw wrote:

This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature rather than a feverish selfish little cloud of ailments complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Within every human being lies a hunger for significance; a need to know that our lives count for something; a deep-seated desire to leave the world a different place because we were here.

For many, this desire can become an overwhelming drive that leads down the path of increasing narcissism and inflated egos, but for the Christian this “drive” should manifest instead as an ongoing, unfolding call to discover who we are and why we were created.

As I understand it today, my unique calling is to use my sense of play and prayerful imagination to create opportunities for others to connect more deeply with God, with themselves, and with others.  It is a calling which has grown through my Sunday School years, to my acceptance of Christ as Lord during my adolescence, to the years spent preaching in churches and teaching in schools, to that moment when I first took off my shoes and stepped out from behind the pulpit in answer to the deepening invitation to come before God as I was.

The journey to discovering our life’s calling can be a daunting one.  Sometimes we may be afraid to undertake it because we’re not sure we’ll like where God might lead us.  Sometimes we simply don’t know where to begin, but Ephesians 1:3-23 reveals three calls common to all Christians that might provide a meaningful starting point for further exploration.

Ephesians 1:3-6 We are called to be children of God

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my adult life is that God is not a God of demand and expectation but a God of grace and invitation.  God does not love us because of what we do or accomplish.  God’s favor is not swayed by the size of our house or the number of degrees on the wall.  God does not smite us because we’re late for church or forgot to say grace before supper.  Nor does God pour down riches upon us because we’ve been very, very good or put an exorbitant amount into the collection plate.

God does not need us to boost his ego or to prove his importance. God does not desire us to serve him blindly as slaves do a master.  This is what Paul tells the Ephesians that long before the foundations of the earth had been laid, he had settled on you and me as the focus of his love and blessing – and so we are called to be his family, his beloved sons and daughters.  We are invited into intimacy and unbreakable relationship with our Father God who makes us whole and holy through his great love for us.

The problem with this wonderful father-daughter/father-son image is that all too often we get stuck in the terrible toddler or teen years of our faith: we mistake the invitation for permission to behave like spoiled, self-centered brats who throw tantrums when we don’t get our own way or slam the bedroom door when we don’t like what daddy has to say.

The call to be children of God is a call to grow up and mature under the example, the affirmation, and the discipline of a dad who is strong and compassionate, just and forgiving, firm and creative, wise and good.

It is a call to discover which of his attributes we have inherited and to take responsibility for exercising them in a manner that brings honor to the family name.

It’s a call to exercise our free will and independence knowing that God is always available for a loving conversation when we’re uncertain of our choices or worried that we’ve somehow let him down.

It’s a call to celebrate our kinship, our connectedness – both to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to every single man, woman, and child who was knit together by God regardless of their race, color, gender, religion, sexual preference, socio-economic status or whatever other label we use to separate and compare ourselves.

We are all called to be children of the God who imagined, made, and named every one of us “very good.”

Ephesians 1:7-14 We are called to be united with Christ

This, this is the call that we think we know off by heart.  We hear it in the Gospel reading each week.  We sing glorious, spirit-lifting songs day in and day out about what Jesus means to us: how his sacrifice on the cross has set us free from the power of sin; how his resurrection from the grave has made us victorious, even over death; how one day he will come again to establish a new heaven and a new earth.

But the call to be united with Christ does far beyond a few “thank you’s” or uplifted arms or Easter tears.

For to be united with him means joining our hearts, our minds, our mission with his:

  • his plans become our plans,
  • his anger at the injustices of this world, our anger,
  • his defense of the adulteress about to be stoned to death, our protection of all sinners who stand in the place of judgment and condemnation,
  • his arms welcoming in the little children, our advocacy for the vulnerable and the voiceless,
  • his feeding of the five thousand, our responsibility for those living below the bread line.

Even his sacrifice upon the cross becomes the life that we are willing to lay down for another.

“It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for,” Paul tells the Church in Ephesus.

The call to be united with Christ is a call to look beyond the fortune and the fame and the protection and the power that we so often mistakenly equate with the abundance of life promised in Christ to the sacrifice and servanthood of Jesus that will make our lives truly significant.

It is a call to discover our part in the overall purpose that he is working out right now – in everything and everyone – for a praising and glorious life, an eternal life of peace and hope and love and unity.

Sounds good?

If we’re deeply honest with ourselves the promise of Christ’s shalom is actually problematic in terms of our desire to be centre stage and our tendency to evaluate the quality of our life against another’s.  When others are in hell, we can say that we are blessed, but what happens if everyone is blessed?

Sadly, our superior worth is all-too-often proven by how much more we have or know.  And one of the “mores” that we love to hold over others is the fact that Christ is on our side – as if he only cares for the fraction of the world known by his name and nobody else.

The call to be united with Christ is a call to the cross with our judgements and pride, with our pet hates and secret ambitions, with our going-through-the-motions-to-see-what-we-can-get kind of faith, with our prejudiced pictures of who doesn’t belong with us in heaven – so that we can be free. And not just barely free.  Abundantly free! that we might love and liberate those still bound by the fear of penalties and punishments.

Ephesians 1:15-23 We are called to be the Church through which God speaks and acts.

Not the Catholic Church. Nor the Methodist Church. Not Matthew’s Party Church.  While we may find meaning in the doctrines and practices of a particular denomination, the Church of Christ is far more than that.

Neither are we called to be the followers of Paul or Peter or whatever particular pastor or minister passed through a while back with the most wonderful personality or glorious preaching style.

We are not called to be the church with the biggest sanctuary, the best worship team, or the most miracles.  We are certainly not called to be the church on the corner in competition with the church on the other corner.  Or the church for the old people as opposed to the church with the young people.  Or the church for the black people instead of the church for the white people.

We are not called to be the church on the margins who piously keeps her hands clean of the politics and priorities of the world.

We’re not called to be a lovely little community club which gathers for the entertainment and upliftment of its fee-paying, card-carrying, uniform-wearing* members.

We are nit called to be a charity or a non-profit organization that gives handouts to the helpless and feels a little bit better about ourselves.

We are called to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts.  That’s it!  That’s our role.  That’s our significance.  That’s our calling: to engage with energy and passion in the utter extravagance of God’s work at the centre of human life and activity.

God calls us to get messy – to be hands on – where life and death and joy and pain are happening.  In shopping centers and schools, in retirement villages and paintball arcades, in hospitals and homes, in huge corporations and small home businesses, God longs to speak and act and chooses to do so with and through us.

The call to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts is a call to put aside personal plans and agendas, to challenge ungodly acts and self-centered ambitions in our structures and our leadership, to place Christ again at the centre of our discernment and decisions, to be the agent by which God fills everything with his presence – and not our own.

How do we reclaim the integrity of this call in an era of alternative truths and decaying moral values?

Paul prays for the Ephesians: that they will be intelligent and discerning enough to get to know God personally; that they will stay focussed and clear in the way of life that Jesus has opened up to them; and that they may see exactly what it is that God is calling them to do.

As you seek to follow the call of Christ within your community and Christian life may you hear the call to be a child of God and commit to knowing him personally.

May you receive the call to be united with Christ and stay focussed on his sacrifice and servanthood.

May you be challenged by the call to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts and engage with what it is exactly that you need to do and be in order to be the centre of your community and not just a church on the periphery of human life.

And may God give you endless energy and boundless strength to fill everything with his presence.

 

 

*A note on uniforms: this is not a dig at the various church organizations or denominations that wear uniforms, but a general comment about the standards of uniformity that have crept into our churches.  The “youth” often have a dress code that is different to the “elders” of the church, that is different to the moms, that is different to the singles hoping to find a good match etc.

 

 

Come. Drink. Flow.

A reflection for Pentecost. Based on John 7:37-39

There is a story* told by the rabbis of old of a great and harsh desert which people were hesitant to cross because of its scorching heat and shifting sands. In the midst of the barren and dangerous wilderness was a well so deep that you couldn’t even see down to the water within it so people had forgotten what it was and what it was there for.

One day, a man who had to cross the white sands came across it and stopped to wonder at its presence and its purpose. And, as he wondered, he noticed a rusty, cup-shaped object half-buried nearby and a half-a-dozen golden strands scattered around around the strange structure.

While hundreds of others had passed by in too much of a hurry over the years, this man took the time to examine each new discovery, and to wonder whether they fit together and if they could somehow help reach the damp coolness that he could feel coming off from the inside of the sturdy stones.

After a long while of pondering and playing, he settled on tying all of the strands together and the big cup with a handle to one end.

Cautiously, he lowered it into the pit and, just as he reached the very end of his makeshift rope, he heard a strange sound and felt the weight of the bucket – for that’s what the rusty object was – shift.

So he heaved and he heaved and, finally, hauled out a bucket full of the purest, clearest water. And as he drank deeply, he was changed – along with his whole view of the desert world around him.

Now the story actually has two endings. In the first, the man set off on his way again, leaving the bucket and the many strands tied together so that the next person could easily reach and taste the transforming water. In the second, before heading off he carefully untied the golden strands and scattered them again so that the next person to come across the well would have the experience of figuring out the puzzle and finding the treasure of the deep well for themselves.

I wonder which ending you think best.

 

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus finds himself in a dangerous place: the Jewish leaders already hate him and are plotting to kill hm, his disciples are pressuring him to be more of a public figure than he wants to be, and the people are whispering about whether he is a good man or simply a great liar.

Yet, as he stands on the temple courts on the last day of the great festival of Tabernacles, he extends this gracious, grace-filled invitation to them all:

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.

We all need to hear this invitation on this day of Pentecost for we are living in dangerous times; in a dry and barren place cunningly camouflaged as a welcoming oasis by the luxuries of air-conditioning and uber-eats and internet shopping and thousands of uplifting, motivational messages sent straight to our inbox or Facebook stream.

Even as we advance technologically and acquire more and more stuff to give substance and a vague sense of purpose to our pretty mediocre, mundane lives, we lose the capacity for silence and wonder, for compassion and justice, for unconditional and all-encompassing love.

Like the man in the desert who took time to pick up and put together all of the scattered pieces and gain the refreshing, transforming waters of the deep well, we need to mull over and take time with Jesus’ words to us today if we long to live beyond the shallowness and superficiality of this day and age.

 

In an inhospitable, suspicious world of high fences, diverted faces, and people always on the GO-GO-GO, Jesus’ first word to us is one of intimacy. COME!

“Come” is the eternal invitation to “approach,” “advance,” “draw near.”

“Come” is the starting point of a conversation, a friendship, a journey, an adventure.

“Come” reminds us of the open arms of God and God’s continual desire to be with us …

… even when we are broken, disobedient, angry, fearful, empty, questioning, thirsty.

The first step towards deeper, Spirit-filled living lies in drowning out all of the noise, the pressure, the demands, and taking a deliberate step closer to God.

“Come.”

 

But drawing near to God is just the beginning for the next word comes as a command: DRINK!

Imagine for a moment that you are out at a friend’s house, sitting comfortably together when she asks you if she can get you anything. Immediately, you reply, “Actually, I am quite thirsty. I would love a glass of water!”

She returns a few minutes later with a cup of cool, clear water in her hands which she holds out to you but you simply sit there and stare with your own arms crossed. Will your thirst be quenched by looking at the glass?

Of course not!

It requires you to reach back, receive, and deliberately drink deeply of what is on offer.

How many times do we come to God and feel like we are leaving empty-handed, with unanswered prayer, because we’ve actually been holding on too tightly to things that distract and destroy us? How often do we make time to draw near God in worship and walk away feeling irritated or unfed because our constant internal critique of the worship team, the sermon, how we were greeted – or not welcomed – at the door has kept us from hearing the word that God intended?

“Drink.” Jesus commands.

“Take hold of the grace, the love, the wisdom, the peace, the healing, the guidance, the strength that you find in my presence and make it part of you.”

Once again, the act is deliberate. “Drinking” requires attention and intention – not to mention a good dose of humility for reaching out and taking hold is an expression of something we lack, of something we need.

 

But when we drink deeply of the Spirit of God, when we take the grace we have received into our minds, our hearts, our homes, our communities, something amazing happens: we are changed in a way that changes the world.

Jesus’ final word to us in today’s reading is a promise: “living water will flow from within them.” FLOW!

Many years ago, we purchased a home with an annoying dripping tap next to our patio. The constant trickle of water stained the bricks black with algae that Darren (my husband) had to scrape off every few weeks. He tried brute strength to force the tap closed. He even replaced the rubber stopper but still the water drip-drip-dripped.

Eventually, at my mom’s suggestion, we placed an old cast iron bath tub beneath it; filled it with soil, and planted Louisiana irises which flourished from the constant trickle that had once irritated us so.

Now I’m not suggesting that we, as Christians, become irritating drips to others, but I am wondering: if a trickle of water can bring a bathtub of soil and bulbs into an abundance of life and beauty, what can the free flowing waters of God’s Spirit accomplish? If the unexpected treasure of a deep well in the midst of the desert can change the way a man sees the world and make him consider the legacy he wants to leave for others, how does the Spirit within us open up new ways of looking and loving and living?

“Come. Drink,” Jesus says, “And the Spirit will flow.”

We need to be intentional about the first two words, then God will take over and open the floodgates for there is an everlasting abundance of Spirit to be shared.

Why, then, do we keep trying to tighten the taps? Why do we so often hoard and hold into the grace we have received as if there is not enough to go around?

Raised in the desert world as we are, we learn lies from an early age like, “I’ve earned this,” or “people like that are not worthy,” or “I won’t give them a hand because they’ll take the whole arm.” These moral judgments, entitlements, inadequacies all act like dams in the river of God’s Spirit, interrupting the flow.

 

This Pentecost may we receive the word of invitation and come to God as we are – deliberately drawing near.

May we hear the command and drink deeply of the grace on offer from the One who loves us most and knows exactly what we need in this present moment.

And may we trust the words of promise and break down the barriers in our hearts which keep the Spirit from flowing in a way that brings beauty and life to others.

***

* This story has been draw from the Godly play lesson entitled “The Parable of the Deep Well.”

 

The desolation of death

*Easter Eve: John 19:38-42*

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid him there.
Verses 41-42

Darkness has covered the land –

not just darkness in the sense of night
but the darkness of betrayal
the darkness of denial
the darkness of disbelief
the darkness of mockery
the darkness of abandonment
the darkness of human barbarity
the darkness of death.

You know the desolation of this moment:

you who have buried a loved one, a child;
you who have been beaten, ridiculed, bullied, abused;
you who have been surprised by a positive result on an HIV test when you have always been faithful;
you who have watched the tiny bag of possessions – all that you own – taken from you and burned to nothing;
you who have witnessed people run screaming for their lives as bullets riddle their bodies and bombs drop from the sky;
you who have sat in the isolation of a TB ward …

… you ….

As silence settles in the tomb
and darkness and desolation within our hearts
we wait
in anticipation of the morning
and in the assurance that we are not alone.

“If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”                                                                            Psalm 139:11-12

Last lessons: Love

*Good Friday: John 18:1-19:42*

And again another passage of Scripture says,
“They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
19:37

Saving love is costly.

People humiliate us; they try to rob us of our dignity, to strip us bare; they make it their mission to alienate us, destroy us, outstrip us.

Yet love forgives.

Jesus prays for his enemies “for they know not what they do.”

So often we know precisely what we’re doing: we deliberately and knowingly deny, betray, turn away …

… yet through love we are forgiven.

And this love assures us of this: that when we recognize our need for conversion, for transformation; when we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour, we are saved from the power of sin and death in this life and claim the promise of newness, the promise of eternity, the promise of Paradise …

… not as some ethereal vision or distant dream. Even today, Jesus makes life more bearable, more beautiful, by connecting us through the cross to one another in a way that comforts and takes responsibility for our Christian brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, and indeed, for the whole world.

Yet there are times so dark, so difficult that we wonder how we will survive, endure, let alone thrive on life’s abundance.

In the midst of the darkness, Christ cries out that he has carried out pain; that we are not alone. On the cross, love laments so that we can know that we will never be abandoned, never be forsaken.

In fact, in our fragile humanity, in our needs and our longings, God moves us beyond superficial, surface-level relationships to a spirituality that is drenched in the Living Waters of God’s Spirit.

We praise God today that God’s saving love sees what is started through to the end. In a world of half-done things and best intentions, we are moved by the knowledge that the One who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it.

God is not done with our lives until we find our final resting place in God’s heart; until our spirits rest completely and safely in God’s hands.

Are we ready to offer our lives, our hearts, our love, our all to God’s saving love today?

 

Last lessons: Discomfort

*Tennebrae/Thursday in Holy Week: John 13:1-17,31b-35*

 

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Verse 14

Oh Lord who honoured the sacred tradition of Passover,
and, in your last days, planted seeds of an eternal legacy within your disciples,
~ searching hearts,
~ imparting truth ,
~ reframing customs,

the floor is hard beneath my knees,
cold, uncomfortable, discomfiting

but not quite as disconcerting
as the state of my brother’s feet:
the road weary-roughness sandpapers against my soft hands;
the jagged hangnail on his right big toe a pain to us both
as I look away embarrassed,
afraid to touch.

Why would you put me in this place,
in this lowly position?
What lesson on love can I learn from the dirt, the dust
that clings to him?
And how do you expect this moment of awkwardness
to enrich our fellowship?

Tonight, as I follow in your footsteps
through the Garden of Gethsemane
to the cross on Golgotha’s hill –
keep me uncomfortable …
… unsettled …
… disturbed …
… and deeply connected to those who make the journey with me.

 

Last lessons: Betrayal

*Wednesday in Holy Week: John 13:21-32*

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
Verse 21

Oh Lord who washed his disciples feet,
and, in your last days, reclined at the dinner table with followers and friends,
~ savouring the intimacy,
~ seeing into minds and hearts,
~ wrestling with what lay ahead,

what do you see
as you look at me
beneath my masks,
my airs and graces –

a trusted friend
who drinks with you from a common cup?
a broken follower
sustained by your words, your grace, your love?
a faithful servant,
humble and willing to lay down my life for you?
a conflicted companion
with unspoken needs and expectations?
a cowardly deserter
who would abandon you at the first sign of trouble?
a two-faced turncoat
who would sell you out for my own gain?

Today, as I wrestle with my shadow self,
may I encounter the deep love
of a Savior, a Teacher, a Friend
who sees into the heart of me
and still extends a hand:
“This is my body,
broken for you.”

 

 

Last lessons: Sacrifice

*Tuesday in Holy Week: John 12:20-36*

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Verse 24

Oh Lord who showed up at festivals and feasts,
and, in your last days, spent time with those who wished to see you,
~ sharing truth,
~ evoking questions,
~ causing controversy,

in anguish I kneel before you this day …

bruised
broken
bleeding

afraid that the fragile skin I’m in
is altogether inadequate to contain
the sum of

my fears
and
bitter tears

of injuries sustained throughout the years
that have sickly festered
beneath my polite smiles
and cordial
“I’m fine thanks. How are you?”s.

There is no honour in being broken,
no success to be had in failure,
no empathy for those who just can’t seem to get their lives together:

we learn so at our mother’s breast,
in classrooms crammed with wooden desks;
from friends who smirk behind our backs
and gossip about the things we lack.

O Wheat of Life who drew all people through your woundedness rather than your power;
who overthrew the status quo through sacrifice, not violence;
who opened up eternity through the so-called finality of the grave;

may I embrace my brokenness this day
and offer all the pieces of me that I seem to have lost
or given up along the way
for planting
and watering
and pruning
and weeding
and budding
and feeding
and feeding
and feeding …

… those who are bruised
those who are broken
those who are bleeding.

.

 

Last lessons: Extravagance

*Monday of Holy Week: John 12:1-11*

 Jesus said,
“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Verses 7-8

Oh Lord who raised Lazarus from the dead,
and, in your last days, reclined at the dinner table with followers and friends,
~ savouring the intimacy,
~ unearthing the essential,
~ contemplating the road ahead,

in grateful adoration, I kneel before you this day:
my Saviour,
my Rabbi,
my Companion …

my Treasure:
~ cherished,
~ worshipped,
~ sought after,
~ centre and sustainer of my life.

Like perfume from the alabaster jar,
may my unstoppered confessions spill
and find your welcome and defence:
~ that I have forgotten the cost of your unconditional love while putting a price tag on on my own offer of forgiveness and friendship,
~ that I have held onto and hoarded – for good reason and poor – my time, my resources, my grace,
~ that I have been so caught up in my plans, my agendas, my desires, that I’ve lost sight of your will and your way,
~ that I have been ignorant of your presence, of your need, in light of the urgent and the tangible that crowds in on each day.

As I look upon these feet that walked within my world,
freshly anointed,
soon to be wounded,
~ wipe away all of my transgressions,
~ make me attentive to the immediacy of your kin(g)dom,
~ and fascinate me with the fragrance of your chesed.*

Amen.

 

* Chesed – Hebrew term referring to the loving-kindness of God, describing God’s special love for humanity.

Am I being unfair to you?

* a meditation for the Women’s World Day of Prayer based on Numbers 27:1-11*

To be born woman within this world – has been and continues to be – a social and economic disadvantage.

We bear the bulk of the household burdens. And, when we do go out to work, we earn less on average than our male counterparts.

We are underrepresented – in media, in government, even in our local church leadership.

We are more likely to face rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, and to be told after enduring such ordeals that we deserved it, asked for it; that it’s our fault.

We are trafficked like animals, treated like slaves.

We are more likely to live under the poverty line – especially after retirement.

We are regarded in some cultures and religious to have no soul; and in many countries to have no rights – regardless of what the law of the land might say.

We are shamed into silence; threatened when we question our legal and familial status; labelled as feminists or witches or bitches when we refuse to back down from the burgeoning belief that we were made for more than the ever constant struggle for survival in a man’s world – even nearly a century after women received the right to vote.

To listen to a woman’s story is to immerse yourself in inconceivable and, oftentimes horrific, instances of abuse, neglect, persecution, and injustice by simple virtue of the fact that from the beginning the nature of creator, of companion was woven into her purpose, into her spirit, into her DNA.

The question asked by our Filipino sisters on this day, “Am I being unfair to you?” is best answered by whimpering Woman, by bleeding Africa, by groaning Earth: “When have you ever been fair to me – the one who carried the heavy burden of your weight within my belly, who – in blood and pain – gave birth to you, who nourished you at my breast though at times they were cracked and sore, who watched over your first steps, who wept at your broken heart and wiped your tears away, who rejoiced at the bittersweet moment of you independence, who encouraged you to dance and dream and live when my own life was given up moment by moment and piece by piece … for you?”

Yet, in asking the question, we are invited this day to move beyond the lament of women through countless generations to connect with the unexpected power and resilience that women have found in all of life’s unfairness to hold our heads up high, to claim an equal footing, to birth a new narrative of the full life for which we were created that is to be lived in respectful relation to God, that upholds the dignity of every human being, that builds caring communities, and that nurtures all of nature.

In our reading from Numbers 27:1-11, “am I being unfair to you?” becomes a catalyst for change.

The daughters of Zelophehad lived, like women in many African cultures, in a patrilineal society which meant that only the males in the family were entitled to an inheritance. As women, they were only recognized through their relationships with males as daughters, mothers or wives. The death of their father meant that his name would disappear from the clan and his property would be divided among more distant male relatives – leaving his daughters’ survival and prosperity entirely dependent upon the mercy of the men of Israel who they would marry.

Because they, like many women in patriarchal societies throughout the world, were dependent on men for access to land and income, they found themselves in an extremely vulnerable and powerless position which they found extremely unfair.

But instead of weeping and wailing over their plight and then settling into the situation, they went to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, to the leaders of Israel and the whole assembly of people with a challenge: “Why are you being unfair to us? Why should our father’s name disappear because of a legal requirement? Why shouldn’t we receive his inheritance when he has no son?”

And God says, “They’re right. It is only fair that they as Zelophehad’s direct descendants receive his inheritance.” And the whole law regarding the distribution of property is altered because these five sisters dared to stand up for what was right, for what was fair.

Through their story, we find three lifelines for thriving, rather than surviving, in a world that treats us unfairly:

  1. Our rightful place is provided for by our Creator. Many of us have heard over and over again that because we have wombs that make us capable of child-bearing, our rightful place is at home as nurturer. Many of us have been told that because Scripture says we were fashioned as companion, as helpmate, from Adam’s rib, we exist to support and serve the men in our lives. Many of us have not only borne but perpetuated gender stereotypes and cultural norms that men are stronger, better, smarter. It was even written into Israel’s law that if a man passed away and had no sons, then his property and possessions should be distributed among his male relatives and they would take care of his daughters. The insidious subtext is that women could not look after themselves; that they would not put an inheritance to good use and prosper. And for centuries, that was the practice until five sisters challenged the status quo. And guess what?!? God was on their side. In proclaiming that they were right and changing the law, God affirms their capacity and their strength and they are elevated from their status as dependants to that of landowners. It is a magnificent coup; a victorious challenge of the status quo; a long-overdue broadening of tightly defined gender roles and restrictions. We are just as capable of running a business, looking after the land, taking care of ourselves and our families, standing up for our rights, influencing policy, changing society, but …
  2. We need to stand in solidarity with one another. One of the most common complaints among women today is that women are far worse than men in terms of name-calling, ostracizing, and persecuting those who speak up or stand out or long to separate themselves from traditional practices. The power of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah is that their shared experience of such unfairness united their voices in protest and it was their combined petition that had power to sway the assembly, to get God’s attention. In the same way, our shared experiences of pain, of injustice, of victimization should unite us in an attempt to bring about positive change rather than divide us against one another.
  3. Let change begin with Church. We often forget that much of Scripture is rooted in patriarchal practices and that the inclusion of women into the Good News is an almost subversive act by God, especially in the person of Jesus. Ruth, Rachel, Esther, Deborah, Mary, the Samaritan woman at the well – God wove them into the unfolding story of God’s all-embracing, all-saving love. It’s ironic that even among God’s chosen people, unjust practices which lowered the status of women in society were upheld by the law. The petition of these five sisters for fairness was a subversive act. It was not just a plea to Israel’s priests and leaders but an appeal to God for a fundamental change in the religious, economic, legal, and social order of the day. Similarly, today God seeks to weave us into the continuation of God’s story through His Bride, the Church. It is even more ironic to me that with such a feminine image and a predominantly female-constitution, the Church continues to be dominated by men in terms of its leadership and vision and, for the most part, we seem to be okay with that. But if we want transformation to occur at the social, economic and legal levels of society, we have to begin by embracing a spirituality that speaks to our mutuality, equality and interdependence.

On this Women’s World Day of Prayer, let us not lose ourselves in lamenting the struggles and pain inherent in our stories, but allow the obvious answer that the world is often an unfair place for us to become a catalyst for change: helping us to claim the rightful place that our Creator has provided for us, holding us together in a powerful sisterhood made stronger through our struggles, and urging us to begin right here, right now, in God’s church so that the future becomes brighter – not just for ourselves, but for the many generations of women who will follow in our footsteps.