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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To Die For

In the courtyard of Caiaphas' house, Jerusalem

In the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, Jerusalem

Have you ever watched someone you love when you think they’re not looking and think, “Yes, if it would mean your happiness, if it would save your life, I’d die for you.” 

Maybe you have believed so strongly in the righteousness of a cause that you were willing to risk your very life for it. Some powerful images come to mind: the lone protester defying tanks in Tianamen Square, civil rights marchers facing snarling dogs in Selma, or a line of martyrs kneeling on a beach, seconds before they are beheaded for their faith. I am in awe of such people.

Popular culture is full of epic love stories and tales of heroism that demonstrate love and commitment so strong that it would pay any price to protect and ensure justice for the innocent.  These stories give us goosebumps and allow us to believe in the goodness of humanity.  They are beautiful stories, but they are not the story of Good Friday.

Like all of Jesus’ life, the story of Good Friday turns a familiar narrative upside down:

in this story, the Hero doesn’t sacrifice himself to save the innocent; he dies to save the villains.  Think Batman dying to save The Joker and you’ve got some idea of what happened on Calvary.  

This is how Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it: 


We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. (The Message)

 

We can understand dying for someone worth dying for. But what about the person who has hurt you deeply?  Would you give up everything so that person could live a life of freedom and peace?   What about the parade of evildoers that come into view every day:  terrorists who murder and rape, child abusers, financial criminals, politicians who make the veins in your neck pop and bile fill your mouth. Any volunteers to die in their place? Anyone?  

Maybe when I’ve mastered Jesus’ command to bless those who harm me, I can tackle something more challenging.  But for now, my answer is:  I would die for my husband. I would not die for Donald Trump.  But Jesus would and Jesus did.

And it wasn’t just for some abstract multitude of Sinners. What Jesus did was also very specific, very personal, and beyond any human calculus of good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Before He died for All of Humanity, he willingly died for one human: Peter, his weak and cowardly best friend.  The intimacy of his sacrifice is often lost in the Grand Story of the Passion. 

It all played out in a courtyard, where a cold wind blew and a rooster crowed.

There Peter stood by a makeshift fire that couldn’t warm the spiritual shiver slicing through him. Just a few hours before, he proclaimed with great bravado, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”  Those words mocked him now; with each denial, he grew colder and more ashamed. The rooster crowed, and his despair was complete. Bad enough he had failed so miserably, but His Lord knew he would and knew he did.

He knew he did because Jesus was near, just beyond that courtyard in a dark, damp pit, utterly alone. Jesus heard the rooster crow and He knew it happened exactly as He said it would.  Peter — His comrade-in-arms, who promised to defend him to the end — had failed him miserably. His friend has broken his heart. And still, He allows himself to be tortured and humiliated and mocked, not only for the sake of all sinners past present and future, but also for this sinner, for this one, weak, flawed man who had abandoned Him.  

Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  If we’re anything like Peter, that means there are times we’ll boast about our faith and our fidelity and in the next breath, lie to save our own skins.  It means that, for all our confidence in our own goodness, we will falter and break His heart.  For us, in our humanity, this would seem to be a deal breaker.  But Jesus knows that our human frailty, while painful to Him, is exactly why He had to step into the breach.  

This Good Friday, let us not be satisfied to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was grand, sweeping and for the salvation of all.  Let us stand in the courtyard with Peter, shocked at the pain we have visited on our Lord.  Let us crouch in the pit with Jesus, the Hero of this upside-down story, whose sacrifice for the unworthy was and is intensely personal, emotionally costly and for the salvation of one.  

And let us remember that Peter’s story didn’t end in that courtyard and neither does ours. God will do for us what he did for Peter:  Forgive us.  Give us resurrection life, fueled by the Holy Spirit.  Give us grace to heal, reconcile, love, maybe even to sacrifice ourselves for those we consider “unworthy.”  

More from Paul’s Leltter to the Romans:

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

Not cowering in that courtyard — but standing tall and shouting our praise in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

 

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True Love is a Folded Newspaper

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If you dare to open a newspaper, watch TV or venture into a store in the frenzied run up to Valentine’s Day, you’ve probably run the gift gauntlet between the sublime (anything with diamonds) to the ridiculous (silly silk boxer shorts printed with large red hearts). Perhaps you’ve had the overwhelming feeling of shame that comes from believing that if you don’t get or give the perfect gift, or arrange The Bachelor’s idea of a romantic dinner, you have failed at this love thing.

To hear the world tell it, Valentine’s Day is the Ultimate Love Litmus Test,

whether you’re in the early stages of love or have been together so long your wedding video is on VHS. The size, cost, or intimacy of the gift is supposed to tell you something about the relationship. Did he give you jewelry? He’s a keeper. A toaster? Generally, not a good sign, although I once got a cordless drill for my birthday and I was thrilled. Every gift, every card, every part of The Valentine’s Day Experience is scrutinized for clues and hidden meaning about the relationship. That’s a lot of pressure on something so delicate as love.

Valentine’s Day can be particularly tricky if you’re married to someone who chafes at being told to be romantic on command by Hallmark and 1-800-Flowers. My husband is, by nature, a generous and caring person; he just doesn’t like having that generosity and care dictated and scheduled by someone else. When the whole world has gone Valentine-mad, it can be easy to forget the flowers he brings me for no reason or the fact that the cat that he wasn’t thrilled about adopting is nevertheless sitting in my lap. No one ever asks me about those things. Instead, people want to know, “What did he get you for Valentine’s Day?” What I want to say is, “Let me tell you about the time he handed me a folded newspaper.”

Like most couples, we have different ideas about how things should be done. For instance, how to read the newspaper. We get three papers a day, and I read them in the same order every day. First the local paper. Then the New York Times. Then the Wall Street Journal over lunch. With each paper, I begin with Page 1 and read in the order in which the editors put it together. Being a writer, and a respecter of authority, I figure that a professional put the paper together in this particular way for a reason, and that’s good enough for me. In other words, I read the paper the right way.

Now — how shall I say this delicately? — my husband is a newspaper anarchist. He’ll read sections out of order. Within sections, he’ll pull pages out of sync. He’ll even mix and match from one paper to another. You can imagine what I think of this.

Then one day, this happened: We were riding on a crowded train together and found seats far apart from each other. I took one paper, he another to read on the ride into the city. When we got off the train, we exchanged papers. The paper he handed me was in pristine condition: perfectly folded, sections in order, not a page out of place. There was only one explanation.

“Why didn’t you read your paper?” I asked.
“Oh, I read it.”
“But it’s in perfect order!”
“I knew you were going to read it next and I know how you like it.”

I just about cried, right there on Track 24 of Grand Central Station. He folded the paper for me, even though my rigidity is as annoying to him as his anarchism is to me. It was a trivial thing — a tender, loving, selfless, trivial thing. That day, hundreds of commuters brushed past us on that platform, not knowing that the Ultimate Love Litmus Test was unfolding right before them.

I will spend this Valentine’s Day with a man who folds the paper for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I like getting jewelry. I love roses (just not red). I even like flowery cards and candlelit dinners. And I did love that cordless drill. He gives me all these things, maybe not on proscribed days, but according to his own Romance Calendar. But as much as I love those things, I don’t want my head to be turned by them. I want to hold fast to the words of St. Paul, who couldn’t have had newspapers in mind when he wrote this, but who nevertheless lays down the challenge of loving God’s way:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This kind of love is more costly than anything Tiffany’s has to offer. It can be elusive and sometimes downright impossible. It asks us to think less of ourselves and more of the other, and not just when we’re feeling all lovey and besotted with them. Especially when we’re not feeling lovey and besotted with them. When, by the grace of God, we manage to be patient and kind, when we do not insist on our own way (even though we’re clearly right!), when we bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things— well, then we get a glimpse of True Love. Not Hallmark love. Not Hollywood Rom-Com love. Not even Top 40 Romantic Ballad love.

True. Love.

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The Flip Side

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

For a few weeks in 2012, this picture was everywhere:  A New York City police officer offering a pair of boots to homeless man.  When I saw this photo, I was moved to tears by this officer’s love and humility.

“What Would Jesus Do? This.

When I looked closely at the picture I was shocked.  I knew that homeless, shoeless man.  I had seen him six years earlier, walking up Fifth Avenue in the freezing cold, without shoes or socks.  Unlike that cop, I didn’t go and buy him shoes.  I didn’t kneel to help him put them on.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And on a bitter cold day, right in front of beautiful Christmas decorations celebrating the birth of the Savior, I saw Christ suffering and kept on walking.

I wasn’t indifferent.  I was just paralyzed.

The sight of him began a frantic dialogue in my head: “I have to do something. Is it safe to approach him?  Should I buy him shoes?   How would I know what size? Maybe I could bring him into Lord and Taylor.  Would they even let me in with him?  Would he just turn around and sell the shoes and use the money for God knows what?”  As the questions swirled in my head, I kept walking in the opposite direction.

I was shaken for days afterward.  The sight of a homeless person wasn’t new to me — I’ve lived in the New York area most of my life, including the “bad-old days” of the 70s and 80s, when it seemed that every subway station and street corner was a great black hole of human need.  I was taught to look away, hold tight to my purse and keep moving. But this day was different.  I wanted to help, but didn’t know where to begin.  I wanted to do something, but felt utterly impotent.

This is the flip side of the Mighty Mouse delusion I wrote about in my last post.  Instead of feeling all-powerful to save, we can feel weak and small and useless. Just this morning, I looked at pictures of refugees emerging from the Aegean Sea with that haunted look in their eyes, and I thought —I am just one person, far away, with no useful expertise to offer.  Could I be more useless?

Instead of rushing in with fantasies of saving the day, we can let the enormity, the complexity or the intractability of the problem render us immobile.  The flip side of thinking ourselves more powerful than we are is believing we have no power at all.  Each is a serious misunderstanding of what God asks of us.

Sometimes we think that in asking us to feed the hungry, God expects us to eradicate hunger.  We think that in asking us to clothe the naked, God is expecting us to eliminate poverty.  Not so.  When Jesus says, “The poor you will have with you always,”  it is a sobering reminder that we live in a broken world that only the Second Coming will completely heal.  Still, this isn’t an excused absence from doing social justice.  We are still called to love, clothe, feed, visit and bear one another’s burdens.  But we do so knowing that the ultimate, complete restoration of God’s good creation is yet to come.

God is in charge of eternity.  We are responsible for today.  Regardless of the final outcome, every act of service and love is holy and sufficient in and of itself.   Ironically, several weeks after the policeman bought him new boots, that same homeless man was spotted, barefoot once again.  The cynics said, “See, he probably sold those boots and bought booze. That cop was a sucker.”  Maybe so.

Loving and caring for God’s people can be a messy business. It isn’t always clear what to do, when to do it, or how.  There’s no guarantee that you won’t be taken advantage of, or that what you do will really help.  But God only asks us to act, and to leave the outcome to Him.

We are not all-powerful.  We are not powerless.

The life of faith is lived in the tension between these two poles.  St. Ignatius put it this way:  “Act as if everything depends on you.  Trust as if everything depends on God.”

 

 

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