Saints in the Shadows

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In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

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A Threefold Cord

rope-1468951_1280“Never visit anyone empty-handed.” This was one of my mother’s inviolable rules of etiquette. When you rang the doorbell, you’d better be packing — a nice babka from the corner bakery, a book or magazine, or flowers from your garden.

I broke this rule recently.  I didn’t have any choice. The friend I visited is in prison.

I wasn’t allowed to bring in anything — no babkas, no books, no bouquets. The solid metal door slid open and I walked in empty-handed with nothing to offer but myself.  I felt like Wonder Woman without her bracelets — stripped of power and protection.  

In difficult situations, The Present is a welcome social lubricant. The book can be a conversation starter. The cake is an excuse for some distracting busy work as plates are fetched and tea is brewed. Your friend can marvel over the intricate stitchwork of the prayer shawl. But there would be none of that here; I had no props that could give me the illusion of being useful or any tangible sign of my care to leave behind. Like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, all that would be left at the end of this visit would be my evanescent smile.

If I couldn’t bring a present, I still hoped I could offer some magic words — words of explanation, exhortation, words of wisdom. I came up empty there, too. So I sat. I listened. I talked a little. We laughed. It hardly seemed enough.

And yet. Without the protective cover of a present, I was forced to consider the gift of presence. It is easy to minimize the power our “mere” presence can hold, and yet when I think of the hardest times of my life, what I remember are the people who sat with me, who let me grieve the way I needed to, and who were simply there. I think of the time my friend Peggy cajoled me into leaving my dying mother’s hospital bed to go for a walk. We went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and it was an hour of respite, a reminder that outside that hospital room, there was life. Baton-twirling, bagpiping, beer-guzzling life. It didn’t change anything. We returned to the hospital to the same diagnosis.

But I returned knowing that whatever was coming, Peggy would hold my hand, make me laugh, let me cry. It was a small thing. It was everything.

This is all we really want and it is all we need. In times of crisis, we stand in a long line of sufferers stretching all the way back to Job who cry, “Why?”  There are theological arguments that address this question, but often we have to be satisfied with mystery. Ultimately, we make peace with “Why?” and instead ask, “Who?” Who will stand with me? Who will be brave enough to share my pain? Who will let me cry and listen to my darkest thoughts without shifting uncomfortably in their seat? Who will be Jesus to me?

This is one of God’s enduring promises: I will be with you. And while this is true in a cosmic sense, it is also true in the most literal, boots-on-the-ground sense. God was with me because Peggy was with me. God was with my friend because I was willing to walk into that prison, sit down and offer my presence, as inadequate as it seemed.  God is with us through us.

“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

                                                               Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Our presence can seem like an insignificant offering, all that is left after admitting that we can’t fix the problem, take away the pain or heal the illness.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  It is nothing less than the gift of God to the people He loves.

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The Potter, the Clay and the Stone

 

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The potter sits at his wheel with his ashen hands cupping a squat chunk of clay. It looks unremarkable, giving clues neither to its potential for beauty nor the obstruction hidden within.

He plunges his fingers into the center of the spinning clod and the walls of a vessel begin to rise. As it grows taller and its walls thinner, a small stone emerges, like a mole on an otherwise smooth and flawless complexion. The jar spins and spins and the stone surfaces, distorting the shape the potter is now laboring to maintain. With each revolution, it becomes ever-more lopsided until finally, it collapses onto itself. If this vessel is ever going to be beautiful and useful, that stone will have to go.

This is a story about hidden stones.

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The first time it happened I was kneeling at the altar with my hands outstretched to receive the Body broken for me. By the time the cup was passed, the bread I dipped in it was already wet with my tears. I was surprised, but I figured if you weren’t moved to tears every once in a while by Holy Communion, you probably weren’t paying attention.

Then it happened again and again — during holy moments when I keenly felt God’s presence, and during less transcendent ones, like the church announcements. It would rise up suddenly, like a summer squall. One minute I’d be sitting there listening to the sermon or happily passing the peace and the next, I’d be struggling to tamp down racking sobs. These were not ladylike tears that could be daintily dabbed away by a lace hankie. They were gasping, snot-nosed keening.

I had cried like this before, when grieving or in deep distress. Now, I was neither; I was just crying like I was.

The embarrassment was bad enough; to not even know what all the tears were about was excruciating. My husband pronounced it all a beautiful mystery. I was not convinced. I prayed day after day for God to make it stop. He did not.

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I turned to the mystics, who knew a thing or two about holy tears. In fact, the desert fathers and mothers talked of the gift of tears as something to be greatly desired. They saw it as purification, a recognition of your brokenness and need of grace. Evagirus said this gift would “soften the savage hardness of your soul.” Others compared these holy tears with baptism.

My prayer changed from “Thanks, but can I return this gift?” to “Please show me what this means. Show me what you want me to see, help me to do what you want me to do.”

Months went by and nothing changed. I settled into a weary resignation about the whole affair. I continued to worship. I continued to cry. I continued to pray for revelation.

Revelation came one day through a song. While absentmindedly singing along to a favorite tune, the tears came. And for the first time, I knew why.

“I’m so sorry for things I have done,
I’m so sorry for what I’ve become
I’m so sorry for how I behaved
I’m so sorry for acting this way

If you take me back, I promise to seek your face“

These words that I had sung so many times had finally revealed a hidden stone. More than a stone: a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

Since becoming a Christian, I had asked for God’s forgiveness for many things. But never for the years I spent mocking Him, rejecting Him, secretly accusing Him of abandoning me. True, I had left all that behind me and turned towards God. I acknowledged Him as my Creator, my Father, my Savior. But I had never asked for forgiveness for my rebellion. This small stone stood between me and God. 

All at once — and finally — I saw my hidden and unconfessed sin. I asked for God’s forgiveness and in that moment, felt the mysterious burden I had been carrying for months lift. The tears left just as suddenly as they came.

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Hidden stones. We all have them. They can be hidden sin or old wounds, disordered thoughts or unrecognized idolatry. They are invisible to us, either through familiarity or willful blindness, and it is God’s longing that we see them for what they are and how they have hindered us.  And if we are to be beautiful and useful, they’ve got to go. Uncovering them and removing them is hard and often painful. And if you’re hardheaded like me, it can take a while. (I often think that for me, God’s “still small voice” just isn’t enough. With me, He has to SHOUT. )

But I also know that we can become more sensitive, softer-hearted, more attuned to what God is trying to do with us, in us and for us. I like to pray these verses from Psalm 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is a prayer of preparation, allowing me to be formed true and straight and strong by purging my impurities.

It is a prayer for revelation, asking to see in myself what God sees in me.

It is a prayer of absolute trust in a God who wants to remove my “stones” and get on with the work of making me beautiful and useful to his purposes.

 

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