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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(Un)Welcome

Or, Why I Stopped Being Such a Good Hostess

 

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One Sunday I stood in the back of an empty sanctuary. I was the “substitute preacher” that day, and was taking a few moments to center myself before worship began. I closed my eyes and began to shake my head emphatically from side to side. My husband asked, with some alarm, “Are you all right?”

“I’m shaking off the sign,” I said, as if I was a pitcher who didn’t want to throw the fastball. Not only didn’t this clarify anything for him, it made him even more concerned for my sanity, so I told him about The Thoughts.

Sometimes, right before I preached, I would start thinking, “What makes me think I can do this? I’m not holy enough, not learned enough, haven’t been a Christian long enough. It wasn’t that long ago I was the person who mocked believers, who scoffed at the very notion of God. It’s pretty cheeky of me to think I have any business being in the pulpit. Who do I think I am, anyway?”

With shaken confidence I would preach anyway — after all, what choice did I have? But once I began, I remembered that it wasn’t my worthiness that consecrated the words; the Word consecrated me. Once I began, I would feel the joy that I always did, the feeling that this is exactly where I should be. Still, the next time, The Thoughts showed up on cue.  

After a while, I got tired of them. I got tired of being thrown into a tizzy right before I was going to lead worship. I got tired of doubting that God wanted me in that pulpit.

I got tired of the sniping, snarky, soul-sucking voice of Satan.

Because that’s what it was. The Thoughts had me asking, “God, am I unworthy? Does my past unbelief permanently disqualify me from proclaiming the gospel? Am I kidding myself when I think that You have called me to this?”

When Jesus says that His sheep recognize His voice, He is right. When I thought about it, I could see that The Thoughts were not the voice of my shepherd.  Jesus doesn’t sow doubt and fear and shame.  Jesus would never say “You’re not good enough.  You can never be better than your worst sin.”    

No, The Thoughts gave voice to one who only wanted to silence me, to make me believe that a transformed life was not possible. 

I recognized in them the voice of Satan because, let’s face it, who else would want to keep the Gospel from being proclaimed?

Why, then, was it so easy, so natural, to entertain these thoughts? And entertain them I did. They rang the doorbell, and I showed them in.  I entertained them because they disguised themselves well, either masquerading as humility, or sneaking in on the coattails of my dear old friends self-doubt and despair. 

I showed them to the most comfortable chair, and fed them so they could grow fat and happy. I made up the guest room with its breakfast tray and fresh flowers and invited them to stay as long as they liked, even if that meant there was no room at the inn for my shepherd and his unmistakeable voice.

I pride myself on being a good hostess. My greatest joy is house full of people, all talking at the same time, entering and exiting separate streams of conversations seamlessly, like some kind of conversational double-dutch. And food, lots of food. So the thought that I would ever refuse hospitality for any reason makes me shudder. And yet, I have learned that some guests should not be welcomed.

There are guests that are not coming to me for the warmth of my table or to share the blessings of my home.  Instead, they seek to “steal and kill and destroy” and I have let them. I have listened to them tell me I’m not enough or that I’m too much. I have been attentive to the whispers that insult and demean me, that steal my hope. 

St. Paul knew what to do with such things.  This is what he tells the believers in Corinth: 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

                                      ( 2 Cor. 10:5, emphasis added)

Now, when The Thoughts present themselves, I can say, “Oh, so it’s you again! Have you met my shepherd?  He’s in charge of who gets in and who doesn’t.” I’ve never thought of Jesus as a nightclub bouncer before, but that’s the image that keeps coming to mind:  my Savior working the velvet rope that guards my heart and my soul.  It makes me feel safe.  It makes me smile. 

 

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In God We Trust

I spent this morning in a room full of pain. It is not a space designed for comfort, physical or otherwise. The wooden benches are hard and the heat is stifling even on a frigid January day. An aisle separates the “sides” in this judicial proceeding — the victim’s family and friends on the right, defendant’s on the left, like some sick joke of a wedding. It lacks the majesty of movie courtrooms: no dark wood panelling, high ceilings or gold inlay. Just a drab little box of a room with scuffed linoleum floors and a microphone that doesn’t work. It hardly seems a worthy setting for the drama unfolding.

I have come to this most unprepossessing place to hear sentence pronounced on the man who killed my friend. I sit in the same seat as I did during the trial, although at least this time, I have a soft down coat to cushion that unforgiving bench. The same cast reprises its roles: the young prosecutor, the bumbling defense attorney. The victim’s grieving husband, brother and friends. The defendant and his grieving wife and children. The judge, whose words will change so many lives. We meet again, in the same room where a few months ago, I willed myself to stay and see the autopsy photos, where I listened to the defendant deflect all blame for taking my friend from us all.

Something is different, though. I notice for the first time the words in large, gold block letters that hang over the judge’s head:

IN GOD WE TRUST

Funny, they must have always been there, but I just now see them. In God We Trust. I look at the red eyes of my friend’s husband, at the sagging shoulders of her brother, then at my husband’s hand holding mine. I look across the aisle at the defendant asking for mercy and the women who love him weeping, and I wonder what those words mean, here in this room full of pain.

In God We Trust.  Is the State of New York and its legal system declaring their trust in God? To hear courts tell it, no. In response to legal challenges over the years, courts have declared these words have no more than “patriotic or ceremonial character”  and “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  Ok.  As far as the government is concerned, these words are just a quaint, patriotic, meaningless decoration.  

But for me and for many of us here today, “In God We Trust” isn’t just some patriotic trope. These words are the only oxygen in the room.

We came praying, trusting God for justice, although what that would look like depended on which side of the aisle you were sitting on. Was it God’s justice or man’s that we witnessed here today?  I don’t presume to know.  But I do know that, regardless of whether God “answered” our prayers for justice, we trusted Him enough to pray in the first place, knowing that answered or not, God would still be with us.  

We trusted God for comfort in our grief, although for some that grief was over a brutal, untimely death, and for others it was over a life irrevocably changed by having caused that death.  We put our trust in God to help us absorb whatever blow the sentence would inflict.

After the sentencing, one of the defendant’s relatives approached my friend’s husband.

“Can you forgive him?” she asked.
“Yes, I forgive him. This is what our faith teaches us.”
“May I hug you?” she said, tentatively, tearfully.

They hugged and I was in awe of this God in whom we put our trust. This is a God who fills a room full of pain with strength and solace.  We trust this God who sits next to us on those hard benches, whether we are grieving violence done to us, or the violence we have done to others. We cling to the God, who, in the words of one of my favorite hymns is “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”

 

 

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Do You Believe in Magic?

“There’s not much traffic today.” My husband — my dear, sweet, non-neurotic, Midwestern husband — makes this benign observation, and I’m quick to shush him. “Don’t say that! The Evil Eye will hear you!” This is my Italian upbringing talking. Sicilians are mighty superstitious people, and they believe that the Evil Eye is just waiting for you to express some happiness or pleasure. Then, it will swoop in to gleefully relieve you of it. As soon as you say, “There’s not much traffic” you’ll find yourself able to count the blades of grass in the parkway median. The moment you observe, “What a lovely day,” it will pour. Exclaim, “I feel great!” you’ll be visited by ailments that would make Job’s suffering look like a day at the spa. If my family had a crest, it would say, “Whatever you do, never, never, tempt the Evil Eye.”

Now, I don’t really believe in the Evil Eye any more, but old habits die hard. The fact is, believing in magic (evil or otherwise) appeals to something primal in all of us. When confronted with things beyond our understanding or control, we instinctively seek to understand and control them. Sometimes this means seeking out a supernatural solution: astrology, Tarot cards, crystals, shamans, and psychics are just some of the kinds of “magic” people turn to when their own efforts fall short. Magic says: Make the right sacrifices, chant the right words, bring the right offering and whatever supernatural forces there are can be persuaded to grant your request.

Ultimately, magic is a transaction.

We present our desires, offer the prescribed words or actions, and voila! Easier than ordering a latte. This is why I think these forms of “magic” are so attractive to so many people. We think it is an impersonal, low-risk, “What have I got to lose?” proposition. And the best part is, if your wish is granted, the rest of your life remains unchanged and unchallenged. We think of magic as an encounter with the supernatural on our terms, and those are the terms we like best. (Of course, if you believe there is a malign force of evil in the world — and I do — than any encounter with it through magic is not spiritually neutral. We may think we are in control of this transaction, but we couldn’t be more wrong.)

Now, miracles are a different story. And by miracles I mean God’s intervention in our world in ways that defy our understanding of time, space and matter or are beyond any human ability.

If magic is a transaction, then God’s miracles are about revelation.

Scripture is full of God’s miracles: Creation. The parting of the Red Sea. Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. The resurrection. It is easy to think of most of these as God seeing a problem and fixing it. Need to get across a body of water? No problem. Not enough food to feed the multitudes? I’ve got this. Blind? lame? Possessed by demons? Bring it on.

While God’s miracles did accomplish those things, their purpose is much grander, much more cosmic than fixing problems. Every time God breaks into our world to act, it is an act of self-revelation. In creation, He is saying, “I am a creative God, a God of order and of beauty.” When He parted the Red Sea He was saying, “I am a God of rescue and restoration.” When Jesus feeds the five thousand, He is saying, “I am the God of provision.” When He heals, He is saying, “I am the God of Shalom — of wholeness and peace.” When He raises Jesus from the dead, He is saying, “With me, death never has the final word.”

God’s self-revelation is an invitation to relationship.

God is not making these proclamations just to hear Himself talk. He longs to be in relationship with his people, and as with any relationship, self-revelation is the first step. “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.”

I think this is exactly why some people have a hard time accepting God’s miracles. I have known people who were perfectly willing to believe that the scent of apple blossoms would help them find their lost keys, but flatly reject God’s miracles. I have known people who believe that shaman incantations can cure disease, but consider Jesus’ healing miracles laughable.

I think that we know instinctively that God’s miracles are inviting us into something deeper, something beautiful and just a little frightening. On the most basic level, it means acknowledging there is a Creator God who is powerful beyond our understanding and operates in ways we can’t predict, often don’t understand and can’t control. In short, there is a God, and it’s not me. For independent, self-actualizing, self-sufficient, self-made people, this can be a tough pill to swallow.

Unlike magic, which leaves us unchanged and unchallenged, meeting the God Who Reveals Himself leaves open the possibility of new life. And while new life with God can mean liberation from things we long to shed, it can also mean that God will ask us to let go of things we want to hold onto. This, too, can be a stumbling block.

In His miracles, God declares, “This is who I am. This is how much I love you.” No forces of magic offer this. No Evil Eye is interested in our flourishing, our peace, our joy. No amorphous auras care about our pain, much less want to enter into it. The Universe doesn’t wait with outstretched arms for us to come “home”. It is only the God who creates, parts the sea, heals, feeds and defeats death who does that.

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Faith and Fear

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When I was 30, I thought that my life had become too safe. I decided that every time I went on vacation, I would do something that terrified me. So I parasailed over the Atlantic Ocean. One time, despite my fear of heights, I climbed a series of rickety ladders leaning unsteadily up against the side of a mesa in Arizona. I keep pictures of these accomplishments on my bulletin board to remind me that it is possible to not let fear rule my life.

Fear is just part of being human, which is why the Bible talks about it a lot. (The word itself appears 399 times!) Scripture assumes that we will feel fear. The question it asks is, “What are you going to do about it?”

One of my favorite stories is from the book of Daniel. Here we find Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, condemned to die because they would not worship the golden idol of the king of Babylon. They expected God would be faithful to His faithful promise to be with them, even if he didn’t save them from the fire.  Now it’s easy to think that their great faith in God meant they weren’t afraid. I think they were plenty afraid.

But faith is about what we do with our fear.

Do we allow our fears to set the boundaries of our lives, then resign ourselves to living within them? Or do we acknowledge our fear, even respect it, but make it subject to boundaries set by God – what God expects of us and what we can expect of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did that. Afraid or not, they knew what God expected of them: You shall have no other gods before me. Afraid or not, they knew what they could expect of God: God would be faithful to them, too.

Now, they weren’t sure how God would do that. They just knew he would. And when they are thrown into the furnace, we see how God fulfills his promise. A fourth man, “who had the appearance of a god” enters into the fire with them, and all four emerge, unharmed. Instead of removing these three faithful believers from the danger and pain, God was with them – in the most literal sense.
And for a completely different picture of faith and fear, I think of Peter. Peter and the disciples find themselves in a storm — the wind is howling, the boat is pitching back and forth and when he sees Jesus walking on water towards him, he thinks it’s some ghost come to finish them off. But even though it looks like Jesus, and sounds like Jesus, Peter needs more proof. He says, “If it is you, tell me come to you on the water.” Peter gets his proof – he is able to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then Peter looks at the storm and sinks because in that moment, he doubts that God is with him.
In the middle of the fire, you can almost hear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego look at the fourth man and say, “God is with us!” as if they expected him all along. Of course God is with them! That is what God does.
In the middle of the storm, Peter seems to say, “God is with us?” as if he can’t quite believe it.  Peter not only didn’t expect God to be with him in the storm, he didn’t believe it when he was.

Faith is about what we do with our fear.  It is not about some unshakable certainty. It is not some superhuman bravado. It is expecting God to show up when what we fear has come true.
When you are in the middle of the storm, or the fire, or the health crisis, or the family problem, what are you expecting?  Do you expect God to show up?  More importantly, do you recognize it when he does?

 

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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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