Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Scarcity and Abundance - For the First Sunday in Lent (2/13/05)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11) [NRSV]

Many of us have issues with food. Sometimes such difficult ones that we think that forty days without would be easier than going on Weight Watchers. People who struggle with eating disorders are sometimes heard to wish that their problem was instead alcohol, or cigarette smoking -- it seems that it would be easier to eliminate something completely from our lives than to have to monitor it judiciously. But the real truth is that we know that 40 days without food would be close to impossible and, definitely, impossibly dangerous. We know that so well that, unless we are really ill, we don't even entertain the idea. It's more likely that we'll respond as I did the other day, when entering a newly renovated bakery. The sign above the door says, "Man CAN live on bread alone!" But woman, I thought, needs a Margarita, too.

So why doesn't a hungry Jesus just turn those stones to bread?

How about testing God to care for us? How many bargains have you made with God? I started when I was a little girl, an incipient atheist in the making. "God, " I would say as I lay in bed at night, "prove yourself. Just move that table over there. Just a couple of inches. I need a sign!" As I got older and moved into the wretchedness of what passed for adolescence in my life, I gave up hope that there would ever be a sign. I threw myself repeatedly into the way of danger without ever a thought that there was anyone to protect me.

But Jesus had every reason to be confident. Why didn't he grab that opportunity to show off the power of God?

And finally, the big one. The whole world. Anything you want. I spend a lot of time thinking about things I want. A redecorated downstairs. Functional plumbing in the spare bathroom. A bigger yard. A hot tub. A entirely different yard for the hot tub -- one several hundred miles away where it's sunny ALL WINTER. My stepmother's recovery. My children's guaranteed health and safety. The Mastercard bill paid off. No more emotional trauma. A month in Italy and one in France. An organized basement. A full night's sleep.

So why didn't Jesus want all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor?

I've been taking a class on the 13th-14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart and last night some of our discussion revolved around issues of scarcity and abundance. What do we think we need? What do we cling to? Why?

The answer to the "Why?" seems to be a simply and yet terribly complex one: fear. We fear scarcity. We fear, ultimately, scarcity of love, of God's love. In a passage from a book called Beauty by an author new to me, John O'Donohue, our instructor read (and I have to paraphrase here): Unless we say "Yes" to God's love, we operate out of a sense of scarcity and begin to back off and protect ourselves.

What we do, it seems to me, is look for every opportunity to turn stones to bread, to prove that we are safe, and to take over the world -- as least as much of it as we personally think we need.

"Sometimes," says O'Donohue, " the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that we're already at the feast."

That's what Jesus knew -- that he was already there. Hungry and tired and lonely and no doubt in need of a bath, he knew that he was in the midst of the abundance of his father's love. The things to which one would expect a king to be attached -- rich food, a show of power, command over all that lay before him -- were of no significance to him. They were nothing but signs of scarcity, of our eagerness to fill our lives with emptiness and overlook the abundance of the present moment.

It would be a good thing if, for Lent, I could focus on the abundance of the present moment. The honest truth, though, is that it's a clear night out there, with Orion and an exact half-moon starkly etched into the sky, and I wish there were a hot tub on the back porch.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Thin Places - For the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Transfiguration Sunday) (2/6/05)

Thin Places - For the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Transfiguration Sunday) (2/6/05)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." (Matthew 17:1-9)[NRSV]

It was September of 1981 and we had hiked all the way from Glenns Lake to Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier Park. According to the brief note in my photographic journal, the trek UP over Stoney Indian Pass was so challenging that we were too exhausted to take many pictures. I did manage to note, however, that we had seen a dipper -- a small mountain bird that walks upstream, bobbing up and down in icy mountain flows. Those of you who are birders and maintain life lists will recognize a dipper as something of a big deal, at least for someone from Ohio -- a state with no icy mountain rivers and, therefore, no dippers.

At the end of the day, we collapsed into Stoney Indian Campground, a spot so isolated that we had seen no other hikers all day and would see none until the next evening. Its loneliness was compounded by its treelessness, meaning that it offered no place from which to hang food packs out of the reach of bears.

When you pack into the Glacier backcountry, the presence of grizzly bears dominates your consciousness. You waiver endlessly between a hopeful longing to see one of those magnificent creatures with the silver-tipped fur rise from the ground (in the distance, of course) and a heart-thumping terror that one will choose your campsite as its evening dining facility, leaving no evidence that you were ever there. Needless to say, Stoney Indian, utterly devoid of human artifacts, was at once exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

Perhaps it was the isolation and tension of the place. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from the hike. Perhaps it was the joyful little dipper. But, trite as it seems, I think that it was the view from Stomey Indian that convinced me, maybe for the first time in my life, of the existence of God as Creator and Spirit. As the sun began to set, the puffs of white clouds cast long shadows across the granite mountains, which rise well above the tree line. The mountains stretched and reached and slid across the horizon in shades of purple and gold and gray. The air was still and the space was silent. A space wide and wild enough for God. God may have walked in a garden in the cool of one evening, but I think that God strode across mountains in the twilight of others.

I originally wrote what's above for our church's Lenten devotional booklet last year.

"All things that rise must converge." So Flannery O'Connor titled a short story, although if she borrowed the title from someone else, I can't remember.

Last Sunday, our pastor began to preach on the "thin places." I was baffled for a few minutes, wondering why her theme sounded so familiar. Then she referenced Marcus Borg's description of the thin places, those places on earth where it seems, somehow, that God is much closer than in our usual experience. At that point I knew that I must have heard Marcus Borg himself speak about the thin places,at Chautauqua one summer. (Chautuauqa itself is often one of the thin places.)

Then Sunday evening I picked up the little book that's making the rounds at church for this year's Lenten season: Celtic Prayers from Iona by J. Philip Newell. Iona is a very small island off the west coast of Scotland, where Celtic Christianity was born for Ireland the sixth century. Iona has been described by George MacLeod, the founder of its twentieth century community, as " 'a thin place', in which the material realm is only thinly separated from the spiritual."

This entry represents my own first experience of a "thin place." It seemed appropriate for the day on which the story of the Transfiguration appears in the lectionary texts.