I Can’t Believe It’s the Bible #1: The Syrophoenecian Woman

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

“That Time Jesus Called a Woman a Dog So Maybe She’d Go Away. Wait, What?”

At least that’s what the titles should read above Mark 7:24-30 (or, if you prefer, Matthew 15:21-28). Instead, it’s usually just titled “The Syrophoenecian Woman.” Really, it should come with a warning label. I consider it one of the strangest stories in all four Gospels, right up there with the infamous Fig Tree Incident.

Yes, believe it. This woman came to ask our Lord for help casting a demon out of her poor daughter. To which he said, and this is a direct quote from Mark, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, You’re a Gentile. I have to help my own people first.

To which she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” Meaning, quite literally, Throw me a bone here.

And he says, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” Okay, you convinced me. It’s a deal.

It just seems so unlike the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd, the good teacher. Refusing to heal someone? Name-calling? Really?

We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.

But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these wrestlers. Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks. Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink. Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.

Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today.

For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.

First, a little context. At the beginning of this story, it says Jesus has just arrived in a new place, the region of Tyre. The Mark version of this story says that despite his efforts to keep his healings secret, people keep completely mobbing him. There is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my neighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.

So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He is exhausted from a long day of healing. He’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day. Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.

Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What largehearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?

So this woman comes begging, “Heal my daughter!” and I imagine it breaks Jesus’s heart to say no, but in that moment he feels like he can’t say yes. The line must be drawn somewhere.

When you think about it, who would want to choose between feeding their children and feeding the family dogs? What a horrible thing to have to decide. How it must have torn Jesus apart to realize even he couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t feed the whole family.

In the same way, who wants to live in a world where children go hungry, die of preventable and treatable diseases, die of violence, die at all? Who wants to live in a world infected with all kinds of injustice? Yet don’t we all decide, at a certain point, that there’s more need than our time constraints, our energy levels, our pocketbooks can take? We are only human, after all.

But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her.

She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.

God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. He savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that Abba can feed the whole family.

Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his exhaustion, despite his limits. God can make a way.

And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.

I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.

How do you interpret this Bible story? What questions does it leave you with? What other Bible stories do you wrestle with?

Dead Dogs with White Teeth: Reflection on Judgment and Beauty

The other night I saw The Wind Rises, a gorgeous film that is sort of about war but definitely about art. It’s a largely fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, who lived his dream of designing beautiful airplanes, which were then used to kill and destroy. I walked out of the theater wondering what to think about his beautiful dreams which took on a dark life of their own.

I walked out of the theater not knowing what to think. The film was so compelling, so visually beautiful, and I’d enjoyed it. Yet, as I watched, I was always conscious of the violence lurking just outside the frame. The movie alluded to but mostly did not focus on that violence or the consequences of Jiro’s decisions, showcasing instead his fanciful dreams of flying and invented romantic life. I felt almost guilty for liking the movie, like I’d been tricked into seeing beauty where there should be none.

Today I was thinking about it more when I remembered a Muslim story I once heard about Jesus. He and his disciples were walking down a narrow alley, and they came upon the body of a rotting dog. His disciples tried not to look at it as they passed, gagging and making comments of disgust. Jesus, however, knelt down and looked at the dog for a long moment. Then he said, “Praise be to God, it has such beautiful white teeth.”

This story never made it to the Gospels but I love it. Isn’t that so like Jesus, to see beauty in something that seems nothing but dead and vile?

I’m afraid I’m not very much like that. I’m often looking for a reason to judge. I cover my butt by saying that sin is disgusting – doesn’t the Bible say so? Doesn’t God find it utterly offensive?

Yes – but God can also see past it.

God knows we are born into a fallen world, tempted by so many bad choices every day. Some of us are lucky and are born into times and places in history when it’s more or less easy to lead lives of peace. Some of us, like Jiro, are more constrained. He never wanted to build war machines, he just wanted to push the limits of flight.

God can see beyond all the things that limit us. God knows we were made good. To protect the tiny light shining in darkness, to pluck the jewel out of the muck: that’s God’s mission.

Can I dare to love like this, so scandalously?

Pope Francis, who loves the poor and washes prisoners’ feet and sneaks out in the dark of night to comfort the hospital-bound says real change is not possible without love and an appreciation of the beauty in each person:

True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances…

The Joy of the Gospel 199

More than that, he says that all true beauty is breadcrumbs on the trail to Christ:

Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus…

If, as St. Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love.

The Joy of the Gospel 167

I think of this and I’m ashamed of my desire to shrink from beauty, even when it’s buried in vileness. After all, this is the same state of my soul. I need to learn to sing a new song, a song that inspires me to look for and enjoy beauty everywhere.

This Is My Story

Reading list

(Photo credit: jakebouma)

Once I was reading Strega Nona to a five-year-old friend, and he expressed genuine anxiety about how it would turn out.

I was surprised. He really thought this book about a friendly witch and her magic pasta pot might end with the entire town being engulfed by pasta? He didn’t see the connection between this story and other stories he knew? I told him I knew it would be okay, and he let me keep reading to the end.

The more you read, the more you learn to make predictions about what may happen next in the narrative. It’s a necessary skill for a fluent reader and it’s a skill that can’t be taught. You just have to keep immersing yourself in the stories over and over until you learn what to expect.

This is why I dive into the Bible again and again. The more I read, the more connections I see between different parts of the story and between the story and my own life. Liturgy does this too; when I attend Mass, I rehearse how to truly live a life centered on Christ. When I recite creeds with other Christians, I’m narrating the common truths that enliven our individual existences. Together, we find the courage to affirm crazy things – that our story won’t end with our deaths, that the poor and those who mourn are blessed.

The culture I live in tells me a different kind of story – a story where death wins, where all suffering is frightening, where illness and imperfection are to be avoided at all costs. It’s this story that makes me wig out over my smallest failures or judge other people. I grew up in a world dominated by this narrative, and it disturbs me how quickly I forget any other. To truly believe in God, I have to insert myself into the great Story over and over again until I learn to see the patterns.

Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” My heart must beat with God’s story so the words that spill automatically from my mouth in times of stress will be words of peace. My heart must learn over and over again that my struggles in this life are momentary, are nothing compared to eternal glory. My heart must tell itself over and over to truly love God and neighbor. That’s the backbone of this story.

That’s my new year’s resolution in a nutshell. Read the story. Learn the story. Share the story. Remember that it’s a story about love.

Year One of Forever

I like to call it the smorgasbord approach to life.

Others might call it lack of attention span.

I like everything bagels and pizzas loaded with toppings. I’ve taken classes in ballet, modern dance, ballroom, bellydance, lindy hop and Argentine tango, most for a year or less. And, needless to say, I loved liberal arts college and took a little bit of everything, from Classical Latin to Latin American studies, from geomorphology to poetry.

All this to say, I’m not great at sticking to things sometimes. I love starting something new… but after a year or two, it gets old.

That is not the case with this blog. I can hardly believe it’s been a year since I pressed “publish” on my first post (not counting the introductory one). I’ve done a hundred and twenty-three posts in total, and I have never once wondered what to say. In fact, I have a ton of ideas I haven’t used yet.

For me, this is huge. I have found something I truly love doing. I still have so much to learn about blogging, and I know my blogging will change (I’m planning some exciting changes for this space soon, in fact). But writing about what following Jesus looks like in my life, how I wrestle with the Bible, the Spirit-dreams I hope will shape my future? I’ve only begun to dive in, and I hope to go deeper and deeper.

I got a little closer to my vocation this year, through all of this. I learned that I want to be a truth-teller, to fight my tendency to fear and worry by retelling stories that lighten people’s burdens. I want to share the goodness of God, not out of obligation but out of joy, like holding out a cupcake to my friend and saying, “Taste this. It is so good.” I want to be healed, to take the stick out of my own eye so I can see clearly to truly help others.

Thank you to everyone who’s left an encouraging comment, left any comment, just joined the conversation. Your presence has been a true blessing. I hope the future will bring even more conversation and connection.

But ultimately, aside from comments and hits and likes, even from friendships and connections, I wanted to do this for sheer joy. And I have, and I am, and I will. There is so much glory in dark corners and on forgotten pages, and I want to keep proclaiming it more and more, telling it with stories and essays and conversations and hopefully with my life.

I could do it forever. And maybe I will.

For Those Longing for Light (An Exciting Announcement!)

Sunrise

(Photo credit: mathstop)

Does anyone else feel like things got very dark very quickly this month? Maybe it’s just me; I didn’t grow up in a place with Daylight Saving Time, and I still find it a bit of a novelty. The fact that it came so late this year (why is that?) made it feel all the more sudden. All at once, I’m walking to and from work surrounded by darkness, and it feels like I’m living in a world of night.

The darkness around me makes me remember that the season of Advent is coming soon. In a world of darkness, we wait for light to return, and in the spiritual world, the same is true during Advent. For us Christians, it’s a season of longing for Jesus – realizing how different the world would be without the Incarnation, and celebrating how much of a difference his presence on Earth made.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve been working on something very exciting – and I’m so happy to share it with you all at last.

Through the website Vibrant Faith @ Home, which offers faith-building activities and programs for people of all ages and stages of life, I’ve been offered the opportunity to design and facilitate an online advent retreat for young adults. It’s called Illuminate Your Everyday Life, and it will focus on just that: welcoming the light of Jesus into our lives together, our whole lives, even the parts that seem dark, confusing, or mundane.

Participants in this retreat will receive three emails a week for four weeks (December 1st to December 26th).  Each email will include a brief written reflection from me as well as questions, activities, and practical ideas for seeking more of Jesus’ light during this Advent season and our whole lives.

There will also be a Facebook group where we can have some great discussion about the reflections. But if you don’t have Facebook, don’t worry – that part is optional. You can still enjoy the emails and explore the questions and activities on your own. I’ll also be doing a live webinar as part of the retreat on December 3rd!

I’ve been asked if this retreat is for only young adults. Not necessarily! I wrote the reflections from my perspective as a young adult and with a young adult audience in mind (post-high school, pre-kids), but that doesn’t mean other adults couldn’t get something out of this too. Anyone who wants to show up and journey with us this Advent is more than welcome!

The price of the retreat is only $9.95, counting the entire month of twelve reflections and participation in the discussion community. If you’d like to join us, you can see an overview of the entire retreat and sign up on the Illuminate Your Everyday Life webpage. Registration will stay open through November. I’m so excited to journey through Advent with this retreat, joining with others who long for the light of Christ to touch the darkest parts of their lives.

I hope you’ll join us, share the retreat with your loved ones, or just pray that we’ll have an amazing Advent experience. Thank you all!

Ernie and the Feast of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Last year, on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, I left our church building late. The next day, the building would be alive with people who brought their animals in for a blessing, cats and dogs and mice and snakes crowding the pews with their humans. Tonight, however, had been the Transitus service, commemorating the passage of St. Francis from his earthly life into the arms of God.

I wasn’t planning on coming the next day; I was scheduled to take the GRE instead. Ironic, to skip church so you can take a standardized test and apply to graduate school for the purpose of being a Bible scholar. Some of the other parishioners who knew about tomorrow’s appointment were shocked that I’d come to the evening’s service instead of studying. But I felt like I’d already put in my effort on this, and now it was up to God. So why not spend the evening listening to Scripture, remembering a beloved saint, and revisiting why I was doing this in the first place?

No one offered me a ride home that night, so I slunk out the side entrance of the church, intending to slip home in the shadows. But I’d forgotten my eye-catching attire, the hand-sewn quasi-Franciscan robe I’d inherited from someone in our community who had passed away. I could never walk down the street wearing such a thing without comment, and tonight was no exception.

“Hey!” said a voice from the darkness. “You’re dressed up like a monk, aren’t you?”

I turned around to see a man maybe in his late fifties or early sixties sitting in a folding chair with his meager possessions in front of our church building (a not uncommon sight which doesn’t endear us to some of our neighbors). He was smiling, seemed friendly, and suddenly I was inclined to talk to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m dressed like St. Francis because we’re celebrating his feast day tomorrow.”

“I knew it,” he said triumphantly. “This church of yours is a good place. Your pastor gave me one of these Catholic Bibles. Now I know the Bible backward and forward, but this has books I’ve never read before, and I can’t wait to get down to studying them.”

“So you like reading the Bible?”

I was just being polite, but his face lit up at the question. He started telling me what he read in the Bible that brought him joy – leaping from page to page of the great Story with ease, shining light on connections between Law and Gospel.

I found myself nodding and echoing things he said, all but saying “Amen.” This strange man, with his days worth of stubble, sitting in his folding chair surrounded by all his worldly possessions, was speaking encouragement to my soul.

At one point he paused and appeared to size me up. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? You don’t think I’m crazy?”

I shook my head. “I think you make more sense than almost anyone else I know.”

He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Ernie. Nice to meet you.”

From there, Ernie told me some of his own story. He said he’d been caring for his elderly mom for years back east and had decided to leave her in the care of other relatives so he could travel and do other work for awhile. But when he’d gotten here, there was little work, and his savings had rapidly dwindled until he could no longer afford to get back home, then until he had no place to live.

He said he couldn’t ask money from his mother, since she lived on a fixed income, and anyway he was sure he would soon figure out how to get a ticket back. He said he was trying to make his way further north, where he was sure more work could be found.

He told me this without a trace of self-pity and didn’t ask anything from me. Finally, he fished a picture out of one of his suitcases and showed it to me beaming. “That’s my mom, right there. My best friend.”

“You look like her,” I said. “Same smile.”

I realized I’d been standing there for at least an hour listening to him talk. I’d forgotten about the text the next day. I’d forgotten about everything but the Story God told and this man’s story of his life.

“You’re probably thinking you should head home,” he said, noticing the look on my face. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Rachel.”

“You too, Ernie,” I said. “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you around.” And I walked off into the night, his words still buzzing in my ears, words that tumbled over each other with his passion about the Bible.

I took the test the next day, locked for five hours in a gray room with noise-canceling headphones. I rocked it (well, at least the parts important to my future). I would have liked to have told Ernie, told him about my dream of studying the Bible, but I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he found a way to get where the work was, or even to get back home.

And I didn’t go to graduate school after all – not this year, anyway. I got accepted to my dream school, but didn’t get the financial aid I wanted, and I wasn’t sure whether I could make it work in the big picture of my life. After I deferred my admission I felt mostly numb, but a few weeks after that I cried for days straight, mourning my dream.

But now, when I think about that night I talked to Ernie, I feel more encouraged than ever about my future. I can do what I love – study Scripture and bring it into people’s lives – whether I end up in school or not. Ernie did, armed with almost nothing in this world but his Bible and his mind. He spoke truth to me from a humble folding chair in the shadows of the street, and I’ll never forget it.

Three Reasons to Cherish Criticism

English: David anointed by Samuel

David anointed by Samuel

I was that little girl who cried if she got a 95 rather than a 99 on her homework. I was that girl who could hardly see the world through the tears and rage when I only made third place in the citywide spelling bee. I was the girl everyone approached very gently with even the smallest of criticisms, like an active volcano that would spew prideful drama all over anyone foolish enough to cross a certain line.

And I still am that little girl, way more than I would like to be.

I’ve known it’s a problem since forever, and I’ve been trying to find a solution since forever. “Just lighten up!” was most people’s advice in those childhood days. But I didn’t know how, not in the moment when I felt strangled by impending tears, when any harsh word felt like a weapon. And I’d never been taught the way of peacemaking, so I fought back with everything I had. And far too often, I still do; the years have etched those habits into me so they’re instinct now.

The more I learn about God’s ways, the more I realize I’m being called to completely turn this around.  Not just to endure criticism, but to embrace it. When someone tells me something negative about myself, whether they’re right or wrong, I have something to learn from it. If they’re right, I need to be grateful for the impetus they’ve given me to change. And even if they’re wrong…

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Uh, come again, Jesus? Leap for joy when people hate me and exclude me and insult me and call me evil – for no good reason? Sure, I’ll do that, right after I walk on water. It’s just one of those Scripture passages that never fails to shock me.

The book of Proverbs has a lot of crazy passages about taking criticism, too. It doesn’t mince words, either. This book contains such pithy phrases as “whoever hates correction is stupid,” and “whoever scorns instruction will pay for it.” Okay, okay, I get it, I think, but then I realize I obviously don’t, or I would be living my life differently. Then I read Proverbs a few more times and hope the wisdom will sink in sooner or later.

There’s one quote about criticism that seemed especially bizarre to me. It’s found in Psalm 141: “Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it…” When I first read this passage, I thought, What does this even mean? Oil on my head? Why would someone put oil on my head, and why would that be a good thing?

And then I remembered: this is a Psalm, traditionally attributed to David. David the king.

And the lightbulb went on. That’s when you get oil on your head: when you’re being anointed as a king.

There are kings and then there are anointed kings, of which David was one. Meaning not only did he have earthly power, he also had God’s blessing. Despite his scandalous sins, David dominated the Jewish cultural memory as a king “after God’s own heart.” And posthumously, he received the ultimate blessing: God’s human form in his family tree.

So why would David associate a rebuke with his special anointed status? I think this verse has a lot to teach us about the value of criticism. Here’s what it said to me:

1. Criticism may mean I’m considered a leader. The more power I have, the more people scrutinize me, and rightly so. Like with King David and the prophet Nathan, someone may have noticed that I’m abusing my power. If I listen to their words, I can still apologize and turn things around to the best of my ability. Recognizing and owning up to mistakes is the mark of a great person and a great leader. When someone criticizes me, I can feel lucky that I have so much influence over them and that they think enough of me to urge me to use it for good.

2. Criticism may mean I’m loved. Being anointed didn’t just mean David was powerful; it meant he was chosen and embraced by God. Criticism, likewise, may mean someone cares enough about me to want me to change for the better. They feel safe bringing this complaint to me, trusting that I won’t think less of them for saying what they really think. They’re with me for the long haul. When a close friend or family member criticizes me, I can focus on the good intentions and trust behind their words.

3. Criticism identifies me with Christ. Jesus, as the Christ or Anointed One, was the King of Kings in the succession of David. Yet despite his many followers, Jesus suffered harsh criticism from the Pharisees, the Romans, and even his own family. People called him heretical, a glutton and a drunkard, demon-possessed. And of course, although completely innocent, he was executed as a criminal, crucified publicly as a way to shame and intimidate others. Yet Jesus didn’t try to defend himself. Though he knew and spoke the truth about himself, he was empty of ego, pouring out his life in servitude and accepting the shame of crucifixion, aware that even those who killed him didn’t truly know what they were doing. I am called to imitate his nature, to transform shame into glory by meeting it with humility and love.

I love it when I find an image that breaks through my lifelong issues and gives me a new perspective. I hope this one will help me live and love more boldly, accepting words that once drove me to tears as the oil of blessing on my head.

Do you struggle with taking criticism? What helps you overcome your fear of criticism?

Parables and the Insult of Grace

English: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyar...

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Codex Aureus Epternacensis

This post is part of a synchroblog about parables.

Your mom gives you an ice cream cone because you’ve been crying, and she also gives one to your sister who kicked you and made you cry in the first place.

You pull an all-nighter on that group poster project and get an A, and so does your classmate who just printed out the illustrations.

You get a good performance review and a raise, and so does your coworker who constantly shows up late and leaves early.

Face it, who would be happy with that?

These are the kinds of examples Jesus uses in many of his parables to illustrate the kingdom of God. Those of us who grew up hearing these stories often think of them as… well… stories. We see them as hypothetical. We forget to insert ourselves within them. And if we do, we end up realizing how blatantly unfair most of them are, how contrary to our own typical views of justice.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) is a perfect example of this. A landowner hires a group of men to work in his vineyard early in the morning, promising to pay them each a denarius, a standard daily wage for such work. Then he hires another group at 9:00. Then he hires more people at 12:00, 3:00, and finally, almost at the very end of the working day. Each time he promises to pay them “what is right.” And then, at the end, he pays them all the same, a denarius.

Of course, those who were hired first and have worked the most are outraged, even though they are receiving exactly what they agreed to earlier. Suddenly, by comparison with the others, they feel they should be receiving much more. “Can’t I do whatever I want with my money?” asks the landowner. “Or are you just being envious because I am generous?”

If I honestly insert myself into this story as one of the first workers, I have to say my reaction is shock, followed by anger. I think the reaction those workers have is a very natural one. From their perspective, this story is unfair to the point of being insulting.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this that God doesn’t care about justice in a here-and-now sense. Even a cursory knowledge of Scripture clearly shows God’s desire for workers to be treated fairly, for people to care for one another and to work for justice. Isaiah 58 is one strong example among many (“On the day of fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers… is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”), as is James 5 (“The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you!”).

So to me, this story clearly doesn’t tell us how God feels about actual workers and bosses. But somehow, it doesn’t seem right either to say, “Oh, this is a story about Heaven, it has nothing to do with the here and now.”

I read this story as a story about God’s nature of generosity. Rather than being fair in a human context, God chooses to be more than fair, rewarding us with grace, with second and third chances even when we screw it up. And that’s not all: we are called, also, to be generous rather than fair. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In a similar passage, that last line is a little different: “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”

So this is a story about God, and it’s also a story about us. God’s ways are not our ways, but they should be. Our feelings of anger and indignation at the injustice of grace are natural, but with supernatural help, we can learn to love grace and strive to mimic God’s mercy. Just as God loves us through all the worst things we do, God wants us to love our enemies and desire the best for them. Even when they kicked us in the shins and made us cry. Even when they’re lazy and undeserving. Even when they flame our blog posts, hold political views we abhor, or disrespect us. It’s natural to want to give people what they deserve, but God wants us to give them what they don’t deserve, to be generous instead of envious.

And that’s the brazen beauty of Jesus, drowning his insults in love through his stories. Those of us who have ears to listen past the first shock, let us hear.

*****

If you liked this post, check out some other great pieces people wrote for the synchroblog!

Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! – Jeremy Myers

Parabolic Living – Tim Nichols

Seed Parables:Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom – Carol Kunihol

Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper – Paul Meier

The Parables of Jesus: Not Like Today’s Sermons – Jessica

Penelope and the Crutch – Glenn Hager

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds– Liz Dyer

Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run – Jerry Wirtley

The Word Vs. the Wave

angry waves

(Photo credit: backonthebus)

I knew about the undertow, but it still got me.

On that beach in Panama I went out a little too far and before I had time to yell I got sucked back into the next wave, my heels flailing to find sand and failing, my head moving diagonally down. Then, just as I started to panic, the angry wave that was my world lifted me up and threw me into the shallows again. I looked up and saw the moon, and my friend came over to help me up and say, “You were supposed to watch out for that.”

This is an excellent parable for my emotions. Teachers of contemplation and meditation speak of “the afflictive emotions,” meaning the waves of fury or sadness or frustration that suck us in without warning and give us little hope for escape. Too often they sweep me up in a second and overwhelm me so I can’t seem to get a foothold. I can’t draw on the past or look forward to a time in the future when the wave will be over; I feel controlled, compelled to say and do things I would never in my better moments. Then, when it’s over, I feel empty and stupid. Oh yeah. I was supposed to watch out for that.

Recently, I read something in The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen that used this very image to describe a struggle like mine:

You wonder what to do when you feel attacked on all sides by seemingly irresistible forces, waves that cover you and want to sweep you off your feet. What are you to do? Make the conscious choice to move the attention of your anxious heart away from these waves and direct it to the One who walks on them and says, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid” (Mt 14:27; Mk 6:50; Jn 6:20).

Oh, Henri, I thought. That’s easy for you to say. (I often talk back to spiritual giants in my head. I hope they don’t call me on it if we ever meet up in the afterlife.)

Soon after I read it, I found myself caught up in a wave of anger, surrounded by it on all sides, having gotten there through a moment’s inattention, again. Sometimes people push my buttons and the rage comes in to choke me, and I can’t think beyond my next breath of air.

If I’m lucky, when this happens, I will have the presence of mind to grit my teeth, try not to say anything stupid, and pray for mercy. And even that has taken a long time to learn. But this time, I decided to try imagining my anger as a literal wave, like the one that got me in Panama. Then I pictured myself bobbing up to the surface and catching a big breath of air. And then I pictured Jesus of Nazareth walking on the rough water. In my head he has wild, curly hair and brown eyes that have seen and understood a lot. He looks pretty average for his time, but he has this quiet kind of authority you can’t ignore. And he looked into my eyes and said, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

And suddenly, honest to Jesus, the wave was just a wave. Still wild and powerful and scary, but temporary. And although I couldn’t keep my own head above water very long, I knew that breath of air could last me awhile. More than that, I knew that wave was powered by fear, the fear that I’d drown in my anger, that I’d never surface again. As any student of riptides knows, the dangerous part is panicking, getting exhausted, and giving up.

I know I’m going to keep getting sucked into waves of afflictive emotions. And I know I can’t walk on water, not on my own power, anyway. But I can hold on to one breath of hope, and a sustaining word, until I float back to the shallows again.

Nine Books that Feed My Spirit (Part 2)

Stack of Books

(Photo credit: Sam Howzit)

If you’re just tuning in now, here’s Part 1 of this post. Now onto more bookish goodness!

5. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne
First read: 2008

Another random library find, and this time in Benton County, Oregon, at the time the place with the highest concentration of atheists in the country. This is the book that kickstarted the revival of my faith post-college. Shane shares the story of how Jesus messed his life up, turned him from a complacent evangelical hoping for a cushy job and an early retirement to someone whose life has been consumed with radical love and service: traveling to Iraq in solidarity and peace, scattering thousands of dollars all over Wall Street in a “Jubilee” celebration, creating an intentional community in Philadelphia to support his inner-city neighbors for life. But although his story is an extraordinary one, he doesn’t suggest everyone do exactly as he did; rather, his dream is for everyone to find their own way to be radical, and the latter part of his book generously spreads around his enthusiasm.

6. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Fr. Greg Boyle
First read: circa 2011

I’ve cried over many books and laughed out loud at more, but few can make me do both, and this is one. Fr. Greg (or G, as his friends call him) tells the story of his life’s work running Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang employment program in L.A. that makes gang rival coworkers learning job skills together. But really, the story he tells is the story of the young men and women he worked with: the ones he baptized, the ones that hung around his office and drove him crazy, the ones he welcomed home from jail with pepperoni pizza like modern Prodigal Sons, the ones he made accompany him to fancy awards dinners, the ones that left the neighborhood and got stable homes and families, the many that never made it out alive. These are stories you can never forget once you read them, stories that make your compassion a little more boundless.

7. Take This Bread: A Radical Communion by Sara Miles
First read: 2012

Sara Miles walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church as an atheist, out of a vague curiosity to know what was going on, and she chose to take communion at their open table, and in her words, “Jesus happened to me.” Her encounter with Jesus was undeniably an experience, fitting for someone who’d spent her life getting her hands dirty as a war correspondent and cook. Her experience of getting fed with no conditions led her to want to extend the same hospitality to others, and she started a food pantry at the church, giving away boxes of groceries over the altar. The book is also about her radical communion with the community of St. Gregory’s and the food pantry volunteers, the frustrating and fulfilling group she counts as her family in the Body of Christ. A book that invites me to taste and see… and then feed others as I’ve been fed.

8. Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life by Joan Chittister
First read: 2012

This book could be titled Monastic Values for Dummies – and for anyone in the complex yet connected twenty-first century world who wants to lead an examined life. Sr. Joan shares a lifetime of insight from community living by the Rule of Benedict in short, accessible chapters that flow like poems and have titles like “Good Work,” “Retreat and Reflection,” and “Sufficiency and Sharing.” Despite its basis on monastic codes of living, it’s not particularly heavy on Christian imagery, and it’s intended for spiritual seekers of whatever kind. There’s also quite a bit of practical encouragement for building a supportive spiritual community.

9. The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen
First read: Currently reading!

Normally I wouldn’t recommend a book I’m still reading, but this one has been so influential for me already, as I detailed in a recent post. Nouwen’s hard-won insights from his journey through depression and codependence are so rich that I find practical help on literally every page, expressed in Nouwen’s down-to-earth and gentle style. Seriously, I’ve been carrying this book around in my purse for months, just in case at any time I need an extra dose of perspective and grace.

What are some reads that have shaped your life?