Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living Water

John 4:5-42


It’s not secret in the New Testament that Jews and Samaritans dislike one another. “Dislike”, in fact, is putting it mildly.

The Samaritans, who consider themselves Jewish, were descendents of a group of Jews who had not been resettled during the Assyrian exile. They have Jewish ancestry. However, because they remained in occupied territory, likely blending aspects of the occupying culture into their daily lives, Jews from the resettled group—those who ended up Jerusalem—consider them to be illegitimate.

Additionally, during this time, changes were being made in the priestly leadership of the Jews. Some of the old order of priests ended up serving the Samaritans, giving them a legitimate claim to having ties to Jewish priesthood, a claim the Jews denied.

One of the major disagreements between the two groups concerned the appropriate place for worship. Samaritans believed it was acceptable to worship in their ancestral lands, while Jews claimed true worship could only take place in Jerusalem.

These differing views on worship help to illuminate the reason that Jews and Samaritans did not share cooking and drinking vessels, or eating utensils: ritual purity.

Jews held to strict ritual purity. Any kind of contact—direct or secondary—with unclean people was seen to contaminate the Jew. Jews considered Samaritans entirely unclean, even going to so far as to refer to them as menstrual rags. Jewish desire to avoid contact with Samaritans was so strong that Jews would go significantly out of their way while travelling in order to avoid passing through Samaritan territory.

In the event that Jews and Samaritans did come into contact with one another, it was not unusual for the two groups to fight. On one occasion, recorded in historical record, when a group of Galileans were passing through Samaria, the Samaritans battled the Jews and killed significant numbers of them.

So, it is significant that Jesus, who hails from Galilee, is crossing through Samaritan territory. Jesus is risking serious injury, even to the point of death, at the hands of the Samaritans. He’s also risking the possible contempt of his disciples who would consider Samaritans unclean, and view interacting with them a violation of purity codes.

And this is where we find Jesus this morning: sitting by Jacob’s well, in Samaria, at noon.

Now, the biblical authors are intentional writers. No detail, no matter how small, is ever thrown in by chance. Thus, it is also significant that they author of John’s gospel chooses to note the time.

Desserts in the Mediterranean are hot places to hang out, in the middle of the day. As such, women would rise early in the morning, likely before dawn, and head out of the city to the well in order to draw water for their family’s daily use. The well might be considered the “water cooler” of the ancient world. As these women gathered, the well was likely as much a place for social interaction as the site of a day’s first chore.

Here we find Jesus, joined by one woman, drawing water at noon. This is a woman who is likely ostracized by the other women in her community. And the reason for this is made clear a little later in the passage: she’s a bad girl.

We have all kinds of names for women like her today, and chances are good there were all kinds of names for a woman like her 2000 years ago—married five times, and currently living with a man who is not her husband.

A Samaritan woman who’s living in sin. There is no doubt about it: this woman is utterly unclean, likely seen as beyond redemption, and considered worthy of judgment and scorn.

And Jesus asks her for a drink. This is an action on the part of Jesus that violates every cultural boundary he’s been raised from infancy to observe. And he does it because he doesn’t see a Samaritan woman of ill repute. He sees a woman who is valuable and worthy and whose identity is something wholly other than “unclean.”

And Jesus has something to offer her.

Jesus tells this woman that he can offer her living water.

Living water has a very specific meaning in ancient Jewish culture. It’s quite likely that this woman, a Samaritan, a group which shares a common heritage with the Jews and considers themselves to be Jewish, this woman is probably familiar with the meaning of living water.

Living water is defined by its source and is distinguished from drawn water. While drawn water comes from a well, drawn out of underground aquifers, living water comes from a moving, that is live, source. The source of this moving, living water is most often a river or spring. Beyond simply distinguishing their varying sources, however, drawn and living water also have very distinct purposes:

Drawn water is used for daily living.

Living water is absolutely essential for Jewish purity. Jews who were considered ritually unclean were required to immerse themselves in water. They only way such immersion could make one pure again was if such bathing was one with living water.

Jesus is offering this woman so much more than a beverage to quench her thirst on a hot day at noon. Jesus is promising to make this woman pure. What’s more, Jesus is declaring that he purity he’s offering is once and for all—the water he gives her will become a spring of water, a source of living water within her, gushing up to eternal life. Nothing and no one can take it away from her. Once she has it, she is eternally clean.

Jesus is offering this woman purity, redemption, an opportunity to re-enter the social sphere without stigma. Jesus is offering to utterly transform her life. And he can do it.

This woman, this unclean woman, the object of scorn and ridicule and judgment within her community, is so excited about what Jesus has to offer her that she leaves her water jug and runs back to the city, defying all cultural conventions about the place this kind of woman holds and she declares, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Can this be the Messiah?”

What I find most fascinating about this woman’s call to her fellow townsfolk is that although she already knows that Jesus is the Messiah, he’s shared this fact with her after all and this news has made an impact, she doesn’t tell her fellow townsfolk that Jesus is the Messiah. Rather, she invites them to explore for themselves the possibility that Jesus might be. She asks a question, permitting those in her town to answer for themselves.

And her testimony is powerful. Her transparency about her experience of Jesus is so powerful it created in others a thirst for Jesus and the living water he offered as well. Because of her testimony, many Samaritans from that city believed in him.

And they wanted to know more! They returned to the well with this woman and they invited Jesus to stay with them. These Samaritans extended hospitality to someone traditionally considered to be an enemy. The hospitality they showed outstripped any hospitality he might have received from the Jews. In fact, in John’s gospel, far from showing Jesus any hospitality, the Jews show nothing but hostility and hatred to Jesus.

The Samaritans in town heard this woman’s testimony and they just had to know more. Because of her invitation, their thirst was satisfied. Because she spoke with transparency and boldness, the people in her town came to know Jesus as the Savior of the world.

Do was have that kind of a testimony in us? Are we overflowing with this spring of living water? Does our testimony of Jesus’s work in our lives invite others to meet Jesus and come to know him as a Savior? Does it create in others a thirst for the living water the has to offer?

And as Christians who have this spring of living water within us, are we willing to look past the social stigmas of the “unclean” people in our lives, loving them for who they are rather than judging them for what they’ve done?

Too often, I think we measure our success against the failures of others. We consider Jesus someone we alone can claim. We claim springs of living water for ourselves and draw drops of water for others.

This is certain true of me at times.

My hope for us this morning is that our springs would flow out to those in our lives, enticing them to deeper knowledge of Jesus, or inviting them to meet him for the first time. My hope is that we can be like the Samaritan woman—open, transparent, excited individuals who invite others to meet this man who knows everything about us and loves us anyway. And I hope being known and loved by Jesus allows us to better know and love others.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Amazing Circle of Life

We've been waiting for five days for Magdalene to give birth. There was the possibility that the dates got mixed up. I was on vacation when she was bred (unintentionally), and had to go by my brother's best guess. Last Saturday could have made nine weeks. Then again, tomorrow could have made nine weeks.

I got up this morning with plans for the day: a toast to the memory of Willy Wonka and work on my sermon, preparations for a day long road trip on Friday.

As soon as I heard the front door shut at 9:00 this morning, I pulled out the wine. Just as I was straightening up, Magdalene had an accident on the kitchen floor. This is extremely unusual for Magdalene. On occasion, if someone isn't home or if someone doesn't get to the door in time, she might have an accident, but this time, she didn't even try to get outside. Which was curious, because this morning, when we got up at 6:00, she didn't want to go outside either. Her stool was runny and knowing she hadn't eaten anything out of the ordinary in the past couple of days, I thought, "Maybe this is the sign that today is the day."

I put Maggie outside while I cleaned up the mess. I was on my way to let her back in when she cried out, loudly. "It sounds like she's in pain," my mom said. This, I am guessing, was her first strong contraction. Maggie will sit at the door and whimper. She might scratch, just a little, but she doesn't bark when she wants in, and she certainly doesn't cry. I opened the door and she bolted in, running upstairs to our room.

I poured sparking wine this morning for my mother and myself so we could toast the memory of Willy Wonka: The Three Legged Wonder Dog. Then, I headed upstairs to check on Maggie.

She was sitting in my favorite chair, her water sac had presented. It was 9:26am. I tucked her in her kennel to keep her safe, and because this is where we'd pretty much decided she's have her puppies. She'd been sleeping in it off and on for weeks. She was comfortable, felt safe in it.

Well, Magdalene was having none of this. She was definitely NOT having her puppies in her kennel, thank you very much. She'd much rather have them in my favorite chair. So, I headed downstairs to grab an adult human potty pad to place over the seat cushion.

Well, this the point at which Maggie decided the chair be damned, she was going to give birth to her puppies where ever I happened to be in the house, so she came trotting downstairs behind me. She crawled into her bed in the living room kennel, broke her water sac and ate everything.

Her bed is soft and squishy and furry. It also holds onto wood shavings, no matter how many times it's run through the wash. I didn't think the bed was necessarily safe or sanitary enough for Maggie to give birth in, so I coaxed her out of the downstairs kennel, and took her upstairs to my room again.

I put the potty pad down on the chair. Maggie rooted around on it until it was crumpled up away from her, and she was resting comfortably on the cushion itself. So, I put her back in her birthing kennel. Then, I put the birthing kennel on the chair and pulled up a second chair directly in front of it, so she could see me. This seemed to satisfy her. For awhile.

At 10:02am, Maggie's first puppy presented. Just a black dot in a bubble of placenta. Then, it disappeared. Maggie paced, she turned, she whimpered, she rearranged everything in her kennel. She rested. Then, she'd start all over again. Finally, I took the top off of her kennel so I'd have a better view and more room if she needed any assistance.

Around 10:55am, Maggie jumped from her kennel into my lap. She was preparing to make the jump, so I made a bridge with my legs between the two chairs to assist. She curled up for a bit. Around 11:07am, the puppy reappeared, in my lap. Except it wasn't the whole puppy, and it was no longer in the sac. It was just the tail. Protruding from Magdalene's body.

I got nervous. Could puppies be delivered breech? Was this normal? Did she need immediate vet care? How would I get her there when both vehicles were gone?

I ran downstairs to call the vet, and as I hit the kitchen, I heard her scream. And I mean, she screamed. And my heart just broke for her. I've never heard such a noise in all my life. I raced to the phone, called the vet, and spoke to the very kind Dr. Butterfield who assured me that from all I'd told her, Maggie was doing fine. First litters can be scary and yes, painful, but rump first is totally fine. If Maggie was in active labor for over an hour without giving birth, then I should bring her in. As I was hanging up the phone, my mother (who had joined us with her sparkling wine when I told her Maggie was in labor) called down to let me know that the first puppy had been born at 11:15am.

It turns out that Maggie really had no idea what was happening to her. She was in so much pain, her immediate response was to turn toward whatever was hurting her and snap at it. So, my mom help her upright and basically let the puppy drop out. Once Maggie realized what it was,she immediately began to clean the sac off of the puppy and all was right with the world.

Maggie's second puppy presented almost immediately. Again, she screamed. Loudly. Several times. It was born at 11:20am. Again, Maggie, cleaned off the sac and got the puppy breathing. Both puppies began to root around, looking for a teat. We assisted, getting them to Maggie's belly, and belong, both puppies had latched on and were nursing happily.

Maggie rested. She seemed happy and relaxed.

Figuring I had a bit of time, I took a bath.

At 12:58pm, I walked into my room, and checked on Maggie and the puppies. Everybody seemed fine. I sat down to begin drying my hair. Maggie screamed. Half a puppy appeared. She screamed again and the rest of it came out, along with the afterbirth of the first puppy. Maggie began to eat the afterbirth, while her third puppy just lay there, still in the sac. I removed the first puppy from Maggie and brought her attention back to the third puppy, which she immediately began to clean up.

As soon as she had gotten the third puppy clean, I put the first puppy back in with her, and she began to eat the afterbirth. But something wasn't right. The new puppy wasn't moving. The first two puppies had, by this point, opened their mouths. They'd moved their legs. There had been mouthing and flailing limbs while they were still in the sac and Maggie cleaned them off.

This puppy hadn't moved at all since it was delivered. I got a nasal aspirator and mom helped me as we made sure the mouth and nasal passages were clear. Mom massaged the puppies heart. We even used the nasal aspirator to gently blow air into the puppies lungs. Nothing worked. The puppy was cold to the touch and after several minutes, we gave up.

Maggie continued to rest. The first two puppies nursed occasionally. Every once in awhile, Maggie would stand up and turn in circles, the second live and the dead puppy dangling from her. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad. I read Harry Potter.

At 2:25pm, Maggie passed and ate the after birth to her second puppy.

At 2:47pm, she passed the afterbirth to her third puppy. I removed the puppy and afterbirth from the kennel, and at 2:48pm, Maggie gave birth to her fourth puppy, without a sound! She cleaned it up. I made sure it was breathing.

Maggie kept looking at me like she didn't understand what I'd done. She kept looking at the towel in which I'd placed the third puppy. Thinking the nutrition in the afterbirth would be beneficial, I placed the puppy back in the kennel around 3:15pm. Maggie at the afterbirth and cleaned the puppy. I tried to remove it from the kennel again, but she gave me such a sad look, that I placed the puppy back in the kennel. She pulled up puppy to her chest, wrapped one leg around it and rested. My super fabulous younger brother went outside to dig a grave.

At 3:52pm, Maggie gave another cry. With that cry, her fifth and final puppy was born. She cleaned it off. It was alive, breathing. It latched onto the first teat it could find and suckled for at least 20 minutes.

When the afterbirth had passed and Maggie had eaten it, I decided it was time to bury the dead puppy. My brother and I took it outside to the backyard, where we've buried our pet rabbits in years past, and placed it in the hole. The hole was no more than 9x9x9 inches. Christopher placed the puppy in the grace, and it looked so tiny I started to cry a little. Until that moment, it just seemed like part of the process. Suddenly, it seemed excruciatingly sad.

We said a short prayer. It was a cold and drizzly afternoon. I filled in the hole. It was difficult, but necessary.

Then, we headed back inside. Maggie is resting comfortably, though she does look occasionally at me with a confused expression, as though she's wondering when I'll bring her other puppy back to her.

For now, the four are doing well. They're nursing. They're squeaking. They're curling up with Maggie.

At some point, they'll need names.

Thus far we have:

#1: Unnamed (Girl)
#2: Unnamed (Girl)
#3: To remain unnamed, as non-viable, (Girl)
#4: John the Beloved Disciple (Boy)
#5: Daisy May (Girl)

So, this evening, I raise a glass. To birth and death and that wonderful in between called life!

(Pictures to come as soon as I can get them uploaded)

A Letter to Willy Wonka

Dear Willy Wonka,

It's been one year since you passed away. So much has changed. For starters, I finished my thesis and graduated. I moved from the wonderful world of culture that is New York City and returned to the Midwest.

I know that you would have liked to have seen Nana again, but honestly, that's about the only thing this God-forsaken region of the world has to offer.

I miss you every single day.

You were the greatest dog any person could ever have had the hope of knowing. I can't begin to imagine why God was so generous and gracious to me, that the creator of all the universe saw fit to place you in my life. But I am eternally grateful for the short time that we had together.

You taught me so much. I learned how to love myself better, because I was so determined to love you! You taught me how to be open and embrace others just as they are. I learned that sometimes, a smile is the most powerful tool a person possesses, because you brought smiles to SO MANY people's faces. I learned that while true love is unconditional and the power of love is limitless, knowing who you are and establishing the terms of healthy engagement in any relationship is absolutely essential.

You loved people on your own terms. Unapologetically. You were just as happy curled up with a friend as hanging out by yourself--so long long as you got your walk in and somebody gave you a treat.

I know it was largely my doing, because I'm the one who bought the groceries, but I never tired of your extraordinary palette and your willingness to try new foods. I'm pretty sure it was AZ who introduced you to blackberries, and I know you loved them.

You were an ambassador of friendship and joy and love. You brought so many truly wonderful people into my life whom I would likely not have known half as well if you hadn't been the one to demand some kind relationship. You were always so willing to make new friends--so long as their keys didn't jingle.

And you always made sure I took proper care of you, doing whatever was necessary to communicate your needs to me. In taking proper care of you, I was able to take better care of myself.

You made life lighter and sweeter and lovelier by far.

I have another dog, now. Her name is Magdalene. She could never replace you in my heart. She's worked hard to carve her own little Maggie shaped niche, though. She's lovely and sweet, and I'm sure you'd have loved her. She has been teaching me all kinds of things as well--about how we must accept others for precisely who they are, not comparing them in any fashion to those we've known before. We must take others as they come, and love them fully.

I still find myself, at times, asking her why she can't be more like you. I know this is entirely my failing, and in time, I'll be able to separate out who she is from who I wanted her to be. Because she isn't a replacement you, and was never intended to be. She is her own small package of love and light.

She'll be having puppies soon. I wish you could see them. I know, when they get old enough, you'd have taken them to the lot across the way and played if you were here. I know that you would have taught them how to be their best selves. Because that's what you did for everyone who knew you. You showed them how to be their best selves because you were always only your best self. You never kept part of yourself hidden away. You loved and you loved well.

I can't wait to see you in that grassy meadow some day.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's the Little Graces

Sometimes, the scariest thing about standing behind a pulpit isn't about what you're going to say (though in all fairness, I was worried that describing to the congregation all the horrible ways in which venom could kill them might be too much), but rather about who you know in the audience.

I experienced this anxiety when I first stood behind the pulpit of my home church, because preaching, for me, is a very personal and intimate experience. Often times, I'm sharing a glimpse of my faith with these people. And at my home church, while I love these people, and generally trust that they love me, there was significant fear. I was afraid that certain people in the congregation would be judging me. I was afraid that because I had grown up in this church, they'd all be thinking about what I was like way back when.

And I was really afraid that that one family in the church, that perfect family who always had it together and whose kids were total superstars, the family who never had a hair out of place, whose children are perfectly well behaved, polite, eloquent, and just plain perfect, just like their polite, eloquent perfect parents would be judging me, harshly, because I'm not always well behaved. I'm not always polite. I'm generally eloquent, but I'm not pretty. I'm not musically talented. And they knew me way back when. Would they ever see me as anything other than who I was? Would they ever actually see who I am?

I still find that family pretty intimidating. Not as much as I once did. I'm also fairly certain that they are not judging me. And I know that if they are, that is their problem, not mine. I have been called to ministry. I will answer that call and walk faithfully, preaching the sermon that I believe needs to be preached when and where I am asked to preach.

This morning, however, was a bit different. I was the pulpit supply at the church across the street. And I was terrified. I was scared to tears this morning about preaching at this church. I was terrified, because of that family in the pews.

That family is not the perfect family. Because their children are grown, and because I did not, largely, grow up in this church, I can't tell you that they were polite, well behaved, perfectly coiffed, eloquent, musically inclined, upstanding members of the church.

Actually, I can assure that this family is NOT perfect. Oh, no, Adolf and Eva are far from perfect. I know this because I lived with them. For about two months. When I was ten years old. They were my foster parents.

I know that calling them Adolf and Eva might seem extreme to some. But, really, this is nothing compared to the first long-term foster family with whom my siblings and I were placed. I like to refer to them as Joseph and Kato. Because, let's face it, that first family was evil personified. The second was leagues behind in their reign of terror.

And I knew they would be there, because Eva was set to be an usher. So, while it was terrifying to consider that I would be preaching in their church this morning, and they'd be there, I told myself that it could have been worse. I could have asked to preach at Joe and Kato's church. Still, I asked my younger brother to come, so I knew there was a friendly face in the crowd.

He did. There was. I made it through.

And all that fear was for nothing. Eva had to swap Sunday's. He was out of town, attending a conference. And Adolf? Well, she was in the nursery, and while the service is piped in on the sound system, I didn't actually have to see her while I preached.

It's the little graces in life.

Spicy Black Bean Soup

1 lb black beans
1 Tbls olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 habanero peppers, minced
2 tsp ground coriander
1 1/2 Tbls ground cumin
4 bay leaves
1-28oz can crushed tomatoes
1-32oz carton vegetable stock

Rinse, sort, and soak the black beans in 8 cups of water overnight in a 5 qt dutch oven or similar vessel.

Drain and rinse the black beans. Return to pot and add 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours. Remove black beans from pot and reserve.

Heat oil in the bottom of the pan. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds more. Add peppers and spices. Stir to coat.

Add beans, tomatoes, and stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes.

You may want to serve this with cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips, and large glasses of milk.

Serpents and Flagstaffs

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17


Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He comes to Jesus at night to make a claim that cannot be spoken by the light of day: that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Nicodemus knows this because the signs Jesus performs cannot be done apart from the presence of God. Nicodemus cannot openly declare this because he is a Pharisee, and Pharisees hold strictly to ritual purity; Jesus does not. Pharisees hold strictly to the letter of the Law; Jesus holds to the heart of the Law. The Pharisees aren't big fans of Jesus; Jesus later calls them thieves and robbers.

That Nicodemus comes to Jesus and makes his proclamation under the cloak of darkness should not come as a surprise to us. The Gospel of John frequently juxtaposes light and dark. Here were find Nicodemus, a Pharisee, some of the "shadier" characters in the New Testament if you will, testifying to the light.

Jesus responds by introducing additional dichotomies: being born of water and being born of Spirit. Theologians are split on what it means to be born of water. There are those who claim it is a reference to the amniotic fluid that is released when a pregnant woman's "water" breaks. Others believe it is a reference to baptism. Given Jesus's comment that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is Spirit leads me to choose the camp of water as a reference to human birth. It just makes more sense to me contextually.

But this seems to get Nicodemus really confused, for he asks, "How can these things be?"

And Jesus answers by referencing an Old Testament snake.

Snakes appear a fair few times in the Bible. They aren't the most popular animal (oxen, asses, and bulls are far more common), but muskrats don't appear at all, so they've got something going for them.

The thing is, though, most often, when snakes or serpents are mentioned in the Bible, it's not a good thing. When they are mentioned in a positive light, it is often done in juxtaposition to other serpents which are cast negatively. Two such stories are found in the Old Testament.

The first time this good serpent vs. bad serpent tension comes into play is in Exodus 7.8-13: Moses and Aaron have gone to Pharaoh to ask that the Israelites be freed. As a sign of the power of the God of the Israelites, Aaron throws down his staff and it's turned into a snake.

So, Pharaoh calls all of his wise men, magicians, and sorcerers, and they each throw down their own staff in turn, turning each into a snake as well. But Aaron's staff, the one that God turned into a snake, eats the others.

The second time a serpent is cast in a good light happens in Numbers 21.4-9. Here we find the Israelite people, freed from captivity! They've been led out of bondage and slavery in Egypt.

Now, God has been providing for them along the way. The Israelites were hungry and God provided manna; they were thirsty, and God caused water to spring forth from a rock. In typical human fashion, the Israelites forgot God's great provision and began to complain: "We have no food." "We have no water." "Manna's gross! I'm not going to eat that!"

So, God did what parents of ungrateful children everywhere only wish they could do. He sent venomous snakes in to bite them. I'm kidding. About parents wanting to set venomous snakes upon their children. God actually did it.

And several Israelites died. Now, this had an effect on the rest of the people. It woke them up, and reminded them of who God is. They went to Moses, confessed their sings, and pleaded with Moses to intercede. So, Moses prayed for the people.

God told Moses to fashion a snake sculpture and affix it to a pole, so that anyone who looked on it would live. So, Moses did. He made a snake out of bronze, he stuck it on a pole, and he set it out. Anyone who was bitten had only to look at the bronze snake, be healed, and live.

This is the snake to which Jesus compares himself when he says "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him." This bronze snake, stuck to a pole and raised in the wilderness.

I think there's a subtle, unspoken reference in there to the venomous snakes as well. The whole reason Moses had to make the bronze snake in the first place is because people had been bitten by venomous snakes.

As such, it is logical to draw the conclusion that we also have been bitten by a venomous snake. It's called 'sin' and it's killing us. Sin separates us from God, the source of all life. Big or small, sin infects our life, spreading like venom and wreaking devastation in its path.

Now, various snakes have different types of toxins in their venom. Some work by disrupting neurological function--these are called neurotoxins. These toxins damage or destroy nerve cells, leading to seizures, coma, and death if left untreated.

Other toxins attack the body hematic system, that is, the blood. These are called hemotoxins. These toxins can either increase clotting, turning the blood to sludge, and causing heart attacks, strokes, embolisms, and death if left untreated.

Other hemotoxins destroy the blood's ability to clot. When this happens, the internal organs begin to bleed. Bleeding from the nose, mouth, eyes, and ears are also common. Left untreated, someone infected by this type of toxin will suffer exsanguination and die. Put more simply--they'll bleed to death.

Still other toxins act on the muscles, working as paralytic agents. When this happens, the heart, the strongest muscle in the body, is rendered silent. A person infected with this type of toxin, if left untreated, dies.

I think something similar happens with our sin. See, it affects people's lives differently. It manifests itself in different ways for each of us.

Ultimately, however, the outcome for each of us is the same: death.

And what is the treatment for our sin?

Faith. No amount of work on our part can fix us. Only faith.

Paul, quoting Genesis 15.6, tells us that "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So it is with us. Our justification, our healing, our reconciliation to God does not come by our works--for if it did, we would have cause to boast. But to one who, without works, trusts him who justifies the ungodly (that is Jesus), such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

We are made righteous, that is removed from the guilt of our sin and with death, by our faith in Christ Jesus.

And how do we first demonstrate this faith? Just as the Israelites lifted their eyes to the bronze snake on a flagstaff raised by Moses, and their act of faith saved them, so too are we saved by lifting our eyes to Jesus, on the cross, trusting him to heal us.

After all, that's why Jesus came. It's right there, in the text, in what is widely known to be the oft most quoted verse in all of scripture: John 3.16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

And while most people know John 3.16, few ever go on to quote verse 17, which is actually my favorite verse in the Bible: "Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Jesus isn't judging us, condemning us for our sins. After all, it's really hard to look down on others in judgment when you're being crucified for treason.

While being crucified, Jesus himself was crucifying sin, ending its power over our lives, and providing a victory for life over death. And all of it was done out of an overwhelming love for all the world, for each one of us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday Musings

This year, for Lent, I decided to give up cynicism and bitterness.

Now, those who know me know that there are very few things about which I am cynical, and even fewer about which I am bitter.

Those friends with whom I talk politics know that I'm something of a cynic when it comes to the GOP. Those who have lived with me in community know that the one thing about which I can easily become quite bitter is the state of the kitchen.

Living again with other people, and being the only person who regularly cooks communal meals, and who regularly washes not only my own dishes, but everybody else's as well (even when they've chosen to ignore the meal I have, at times, spent hours preparing and cook something else). I'm the one who washes the pans, the cooking utensils, the bowls, plates, glasses, and flatware. I'm the only one who ever bothers to wipe down the counters (which leads me to believe that those who leave breadcrumbs on the counters are secretly hoping to kill me), to clean the stove, to wash down the sinks, to put the dishes away. I'm the only one who ever bothers to wash the dishrags and towels. This also means that I'm the only one who ever washes the bath towels and wash cloths.

I will readily admit that at least once a month, I find myself getting angry and resentful and having to remind myself quite intentionally that I'm the one who chooses to do these things, and I want to do them from of a posture of loving those with whom I live, because I'm grateful for all of the love that God has shown me. I tell myself I do it as an act of love, not because I have a significantly lower threshold for filth than the men in the house. Most of the time, this is true.

Today, after spending a few days sick, and finally running out of energy, of having washed my own dishes (including the pots, pans, and baking dishes I used in preparing communal meals), and nothing else for two days because I was just too tired, I felt that anger, resentment, and bitterness beginning to well up as I stared at the pile of dirty pans and dishes from everyone else, getting higher and higher every day.

So, around 12:15 I stopped, considered that it was Ash Wednesday, and realizing I hadn't chosen anything to give up for Lent yet, decided to give up bitterness and cynicism.

Well, it was a good effort. And I failed, BIG TIME, six and an half hours later.

There I was, at church, preparing myself for the service, and I found myself filled with anger, bitterness, cynicism, and oodles and oodles of absolute hatred.

About three and an half years ago, I was introduced to The Upper Room by a then friend.

It was an interesting introduction. As a devout...well, I'd tried my hand at a lot of things, but I am and have always been in my heart a staunch UCC member, I had never before come across this Methodist devotional, put out every two months with a reading each day, written by the readers themselves. The person who introduced me to this devotional had grown up Methodist. His family of origin was still methodist. Though he had begun in adulthood to attend an RCA church, his parents still paid for a subscription to The Upper Room for him, and so it was that one day, he shared a devotional with me, and I began subscribing to their online e-version.

It was around this time that this individual and I went from friends to something else. Though all evidence and professional opinions dictate this was a romantic dating relationship, the individual in question will deny to his dying breath that it was ever anything more than a friendship, and his sole intention through the relationship was to disciple me and point me always to love of Christ, blow jobs and detailed sexual fantasies per his request notwithstanding. And let's not forget the nights in Hana.

Now, given that I've mentioned that this individual was then my friend, you've likely picked up on the fact that we are no longer friends. As such, the best term to describe this individual is "ex." He is my ex. My ex-what is still up for grabs. Regardless, it was a significant and intimate, or so I thought, relationship that subsequently ended.

Normally, I'm not bitter about the end of relationships. Sometimes it happens naturally. People move or their lives head in different directions. You leave a common space and without regular contact the relationship just quietly fades.

Sometimes, it happens suddenly and traumatically. Through death.

Sometimes, it happens blessedly, and is promptly followed by a sigh of relief. This is the case, for me anyhow, with break ups.

This break up went something like this:

An e-mail from him:

"I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore. I no longer want to be your friend. I do not want any contact with you in the future."

My reply:

"The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."

This was promptly followed by an enormous sigh of relief as I spoke aloud to myself, "Thank God it's finally over."

I was relieved, and glad. It was painful, sure, but after months of his, "This isn't a romantic relationship for me. Let's talk about sex," and my "If this isn't a romantic relationship then I won't talk about sex with you," and his "Okay, let's talk about sex," and my "Okay. So, then, this is a romantic relationship, right?" followed by his, "No, this isn't not a romantic relationship. Tell me about this aspect of sex for you...." I was confused as hell, tired, and frustrated. I was glad it finally over.

The painful part came in the fact that this was a person who had been in my life for 10 years, someone I had met during one of the most difficult times of life, to whom I had turned during the most traumatic period of my life, and who had been my youth pastor during the first two years I knew him, and continued in that fashion on and off for the next six years while I was in college.

While I could write extensively about power dynamics and the abuse of power that comes into play when someone you met during adolescence as your youth pastor, who is twenty-seven years your senior, who insists that they still consider themselves to be your pastor, and only a pastor, and are trying to "show you the love of God" asks you for a blow job while driving down a winding road through Maui, that's not the point of this blog. And I know that I bear a degree of responsibility for what happened. I took all of the mixed messages he was sending, and tried to make them fit into some kind of a cohesive, coherent reality. Rather than looking at the push/pull, push/pull, push/pull that had been going on for months, accepting that this was, at best, a really fucked up situation, and at worst an emotionally abusive relationship, I chose, in my time of greatest need, to cling to him.

He was like the apple tree in my backyard that I used to climb as a child. When the screaming and violence got to be too much; when I couldn't stand to hear my brothers being kicked, punched, screaming their lungs out after being padlocked into a tiny wooden box; when I couldn't stand the smell of stale of beer, vomit, and cigarette smoke; when a migraine headache struck, made worse by my sister playing heavy metal so loud the walls of the house shook; then, I would sometimes sneak out my window, shimmy down the drainpipe and climb that apple tree to the highest stable branch. It ran out from the trunk at a right angle, and took another right turn upward, with another branch that shot out toward the trunk again. It was like sitting in an old school desk. I would escape up this tree and pretend that I was someplace safe. I could breathe again.

Clinging to him in the aftermath of trauma, I felt safe. I could breathe again. I could laugh again. And, oh God, it felt so good to laugh and feel, if for only a few moments each week when he'd send me an email, light, joy, less alone, and as though wholeness might someday be possible again.

So, I ignored the pulling me in and the pushing me away, because I needed someone to acknowledge my pain. I needed a witness. He was the only one willing to do it.

But after 10 months and a trip to Maui, and two nights in Hana, and the pulling me in and pushing me away, I was relieved it was over.

The bitterness I feel does not stem from the ending of this really fucked up and emotionally abusive relationship.

It comes from everything that happened after.

The after when he began emailing my best friend, whom he had never met, and telling her how he had been clear, from day one, that he wasn't interested in a romantic relationship; that he had always only tried to show the love of God; that he had always only had my best interests at heart; that everything that had happened was my fault, because I'm the one who chose to misread his intentions all along; misquoting me and rewriting history (because I've double and triple checked things, having kept a written record of everything); the after when he said he didn't want anything to do with me, but kept himself in my periphery, a constant reminder that he was in my life, and I couldn't get rid of him, but I couldn't be in his.

For four months, the after happened until I finally told my best friend, "I'm sorry, but if you're going to continue to have any contact with him, I can't have any contact with you." It wasn't about making her choose between us, but about maintaining healthy boundaries with him--if he was out, I needed him completely out, and insinuating himself in her life and making himself very present in mine through her, was not him being out.

Now, I'm a Christian, and I believe in universal salvation. I figure God is love. And as the source and embodiment of all love, God cannot condemn people to an eternity in hell. Hell, therefore, must be finite, if it exists at all. Now, I know there are LOTS of people who would argue this with me until they're blue in the face. Frankly, I'm not interested. I was there myself once--God lets the elect into heaven, and everybody who hasn't "accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior," well, I hope you like it hot, suckers!

But my experiences have shown me that God is love. God is compassion. God is forgiveness. And if God is reconciling the whole of creation to God's self, then God is reconciling the WHOLE of creation to God's self. Which means at some point, everybody gets there. I'd even go so far as to include Satan and his minions.

I am, generally, a very loving and compassionate person. I'm generous, gracious, forgiving, and a total delight to be around. People tell me on a regular, consistent basis that I'm just like sunshine.

But for this man, I'm willing to revise a few things. I'm willing to take a big step back into the Evangelical arena and reserve an eternal spot in the hell-fires just for him. I'm willing to pray that God sends him to hell where a worm that doesn't die has his name written on it and eats him, daily. I kind of hope his eternity is a bit like that of Prometheus, with fire and worms rather than an eagle.

It's hard for me to hate someone this much. Don't get me wrong, it comes perfectly naturally. I do not have to work at it. But it hurts my heart and deeply grieves me.

What's more, I thought I'd gotten over this about a year ago. I had this revelatory moment on January 23, 2010, and I thought I was done with this.

Then, tonight, I went to the Ash Wednesday service. My UCC and the neighboring UMC were holding a joint service. I was there early to review my part in the service.

Standing there at the back of the sanctuary, what should I see but a current copy of The Upper Room. I had stopped reading The Upper Room when that relationship ended, as it reminded me of my ex. Somewhat surprised at the feeling of seeing a long lost friend, I picked up a copy and turned to Today's reading. It happened to have been contributed by someone whom the editors chose to highlight on the back cover. Curious to know more about that author, I turned that devotional over.

And I came face to face with my ex. He wrote the devotional for April 6, 2011 and was featured on the back cover as well.

Hatred. Pure and simple. Absolute hatred welled up inside of me, as I considered all of the really hurtful things I wanted to say to him in that moment.

So, I removed myself from the sanctuary. The service wasn't set to begin for another 17 minutes. I entered the cry room, and grabbed a couple facial tissues. I reminded myself that I didn't have the luxury to fall apart at the moment. That I was there for the people who would be coming into that sanctuary shortly, that I had a job today, a job to which I have been called. That I would shortly be standing before two congregations and calling them into repentance, and that if I were to do that with honor and integrity, I had some repenting to do myself.

I prayed. I ran through the Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditation very quickly. And through most of the service, my internal mantra was, "Just keep it together, just keep it together, just keep it together." I almost made it. I only cried a little, when the pastor giving the sermon spoke of the essential nature of God--loving, compassionate, forgiving--and realized that while God loves me, has shown overwhelming compassion to me, has forgiven me, I'm still lacking in my ability to show love and compassion to and forgive others.

At the same time, I wondered if I'm essentially and irrevocably fucked up. After more than nine years of extraordinary love and compassion, of walking through hell with me for four years, of being the only person who was there for me when tragedy struck, and ten months of a horribly screwed up "not a romantic" relationship, and four months of after, some part of me still has compassion for him, still loves him, still wants to forgive him, and even absolve him of blame (though this last is entirely due to his having suffered a TBI shortly before the "not romantic" aspect of our relationship began). Some part of me still wants healing and wholeness for him, still believes that healing and wholeness are available to him, through Jesus; that same part of me knows that if it ever happens, I'll never be able to witness it, and I'm okay with that.

Sitting there tonight, reciting Psalm 51, a psalm in which David confesses his sins before God, having slept with Bathsheba and then plotted the murder of her husband when she became pregnant with David's child, and asks God to bless him, that God would create in him a pure heart, that God's Spirit would remain with him, that the joy of God's salvation would be with David, that he would have a willing spirit to sustain him, all I could think about was my ex whose blurb had been published in a devotional that's printed in 39 languages, distributed in over 100 countries, and read by some 3 million people every day, and I thought, "You don't fucking deserve this, you asshole." And I thought, "I wish I could congratulate you." This, of course was promptly followed by the thought, "Just keep it together, just keep it together, just keep it together...."

So, really long story short, I aimed for a Lent free of bitterness and cynicism. I failed, big time, six hours in. I guess there's always tomorrow.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Baked Penne

12oz gluten-free penne
1-28oz can diced tomatoes with basil, garlic, and oregano
1-280z can spaghetti sauce
4oz good red wine
12oz lean ground beef
12oz Italian sausage
4oz shredded mozzarella
2oz shaved Parmesan

Cook penne according to package directions.

Brown ground beef and Italian sausage. Drain. Return to pan and add tomatoes, spaghetti sauce and wine. Heat through, and reduce slightly.

In a 9x13 inch baking dish, spoon about 1/4 of the sauce. Add 1/3 of the penne. Top with 1/4 of the sauce and 1/3 of the mozzarella. Repeat the penne, sauce, and cheese layers 2 more times. Sprinkle the Parmesan.

Bake in a 350*F oven for 45 minutes, or until heated through and bubbly.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pot Roast

3 lb beef roast
1 cup baby carrots, halved on the diagonal
1 cup celery, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, minced
1 shallot, minced
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 cup beef stock
1 cup good red wine
2 Tbls tomato paste
1/2 Tbls salt
3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Place roast in a 5-qt crock pot. Add carrots, celery, garlic, onion, shallot, and rosemary.

Combine stock, wine, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Pour over the roast.

Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

I'm serving this tonight with baked potatoes and steamed broccoli!