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It was about fifteen minutes before the end of my shift as hospital chaplain on call when I was paged to the cardiac catheterization lab.
I’d never been to the cath lab before. It’s not a place chaplains usually have a reason to visit. Patients usually go there for a procedure, then go home, or back to their inpatient beds. As I answered the page I could hear the shock in the nurse’s voice as she told me what had happened. A man in his fifties—let’s call him James—had come in for a test. Things seemed to be going routinely, until they weren’t. Without any warning, his heart stopped. The team performed CPR, but despite their frantic efforts, James died there on the table. (more…)
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“If you are.” “If you are.” “If you are.”
That’s what Jesus hears over and over as he hangs there. “If you are the King of the Jews, come down!” “If you are the chosen one, save yourself!” “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!”
And it’s as if his story has come full circle, back to the beginning, after his baptism when he went out into the desert and faced his first test, when Satan tempted him with almost the very same words. “If you are the Son of God. . . .” Turn these stones into bread, to feed your hunger. Bow down to me, and become king of the world. Leap from the temple, and test the Lord your God.
In the beginning just as in the end, the temptation is the same. To misuse his power. To turn his divine authority to his own ends. (more…)
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There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. Luke 21:11
We live in apocalyptic times. Let me explain what “apocalyptic” means. It is the opposite of the words of the song: “Don’t worry; be happy.”
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note.
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy
But we do worry because we are threatened by the coming of “the Four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which are disease and war, famine and death. the gospels list the signs of tribulation as “great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (more…)
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It’s very human to want to escape mortality. To cheat the Reaper and live forever.
Sometimes quite literally. Maybe you’re familiar with the movement called cryonics in which people have their bodies frozen in hopes future technology will be able to bring them back to life one day. On the other end of the timeline, there are some biotech folks in Silicon Valley who are hoping to extend human lifespans to the point of never dying in the first place, at least not from old age. Now as Christians we might say that there’s a difference between endless life and eternal life. A life that’s just chronologically endless, and where you’re continually afraid of dying in an accident, might turn out to be a nightmare instead of a dream. (more…)
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This past Thursday I was unpacking my car when I found myself drawn into the stories of the saints.
What my car was full of was, essentially, Incarnation’s go-bag. In the midst of the evacuations, several of us packed up sacred items, vestments, chalices, and historic records into our cars for safekeeping. For four days my car was filled to the top with boxes of service registers and parish archives, along with our jeweled brass processional cross, removed from its staff, safely cushioned in Abigail’s car seat.
We packed those items up in a hurry. But on Thursday, during the unloading, I couldn’t help but leaf through some of the old records. And there they were: names and narratives of the great cloud of witnesses whose prayers have soaked into these wooden walls around us for nearly a century and a half. (more…)
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“All scripture is inspired by God.”
When I was a teenager I had a number of friends who were conservative Christians with a pretty literalist understanding of the Bible. They would often quote this verse, sometimes using the translation “God-breathed” where the translation we heard today uses “inspired by God.” Now the word in Greek can mean either one. But of course there’s a difference between believing scripture has been inspired by God, or perhaps breathed into by God’s spirit, and believing that it is breathed directly out of the mouth of God. And as a bit of a contrarian, I would sometimes point that out. I would also point out that it’s a circular argument to quote scripture to support your argument about the inerrancy of scripture. (more…)
“He makes his marvelous works to be remembered, the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.” Psalm 111:4
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The Leper’s Thank You
When I was a young girl my mother used to make me write thank you notes whenever I was given a gift. This was one of her “home training” rules (home training rules were designed to ensure that you had good manners). My mother wanted me to understand how important it was to be grateful that someone took the time to find something I would like, buy it, wrap it and give it to me. Thank you notes were to be written and mailed within the week. And, it took time to write those notes because it required thinking about what the gift meant to me and which words would best show my appreciation. I kept up this tradition for many years and I still hear my mother’s voice in my head if I do not send a thank you note when I should. (more…)
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“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.”
I’m sure I’m not the only person in this room that has tried this a couple of times. So far without success. I remember hearing this passage as a child, or maybe one of its parallel passages in Matthew and Mark’s gospels where it’s not a tree but a mountain that’s thrown into the sea. And the impression I got was that getting a prayer answered was a matter of believing hard enough. Driving every possible iota of doubt or uncertainty out of one’s mind and holding it that way long enough to get the words out. (more…)
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Amos 6:1
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Back in 1972 when we were married, my aunt gave us £30 which we spent on a Vango “Force 10” tent from Blacks of Greenock. I was glad to see that in a photo of one of the Everest expeditions they were using our tent. We spent our days off camping in different parts of Britain; we still have it, though we do not use it often. It protected us from hurricane winds and torrential downpours. On various occasions we hosted friends whose tents leaked, soaking their clothes and sleeping bags.
On a number of occasions I have been backpacking in the Sierra. I enjoy the sensation that I am carrying everything I need on my back far from civilization. Life becomes very simple. There’s nothing to do except hike to our next campsite. At night I hear the sound of the wind in the trees and I look up to see the stars and in August the Perseids (shooting stars). There are no shops to buy things–so there’s no point in having a credit card; and there’s no cell-phone coverage. Up above 10,000 feet the air is thin, the sky is blue, the lake water is clear and stocked with golden trout. (more…)
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According to the Oxford Dictionary, wealth is defined as, “an abundance of valuable possessions or money.” Its synonyms include affluence, prosperity, riches, substance, and well-being. A person’s understanding of how much wealth they have can be based on a comparison to what someone else has, otherwise known as keeping up with the Joneses. A sense of wealth can also be a measure of what possessions and money represent: status, having “made it,” “living large,” “buying what I want when I want it even if I don’t really need it cause I just want to have it syndrome.” (more…)
This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them!
Take a seat, fellow sinners.
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When I was in fourth grade, I lost my cross.
It’s a little silver Celtic cross I wear on a chain around my neck. My parents gave it to me when I was in the first grade. So the three years I’d been wearing it by then pale in comparison to the thirty-three years I’ve been wearing it now. But even then, it had been almost a third of my life.
My friends and I had taken to doing some wrestling at recess, in a wooded area of the schoolyard somewhat screened from interfering adult eyes. And mid-wrestle, I heard the jingle of a snapped chain and felt it slip from around my neck. I cried out, and my friends must have sensed my genuine distress, because the roughhousing stopped and we spent the rest of recess searching the leaf-strewn ground. To no avail. (more…)
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It was 1862. It was wartime. But despite the Civil War, the new dome was still in progress on the U.S. Capitol building. The last piece was the great statue of Freedom for the top. It had been shipped from Italy in five sections and temporarily plastered together. But there was a problem. It was time to separate it again for the final casting, and no one knew how to get it apart. The seams were hidden by the plaster. One skilled laborer saved the day. He attached a pulley to the top and pulled up just enough until the seams began to show. The casting could proceed, and the statue stands atop the Capitol to this day.
That man’s name was Philip Reid. He was a black man. And he was a slave. Or rather, he was one of many, many enslaved people who provided the labor for the Capitol Building, most of whose names we don’t know. (more…)
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I’m one of those rare people who have never watched an episode of the show Game of Thrones: all I know is context-free cultural references. But over the past eight years it’s been impossible not to hear about things like the Red Wedding, the White Walkers, dragons, armies, and a gripping mix of violence, intrigue, and high fantasy, all centered around the manipulations, alliances, and betrayals involved in jockeying for the right to sit on the Iron Throne.
Palace intrigue, jockeying for position: it’s a formula that seems to work for TV in general. It’s been at the heart of other recent series from The Tudors (set in 16th-century England) to House of Cards (set in modern-day Washington). The record-setting number of hirings and firings in the current presidential administration means we hear a lot about the game of power in real life too. It’s a game with lots of strategies. But false humility is often a good one. It pays to be visible, but not too visible. People in power don’t like to be outshined. You don’t want to overplay your hand. Better to bide your time, kiss up to the boss or king or president, and then bask in their praise when it comes your way. (more…)
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“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
That’s one of the Ten Commandments, either #3 or #4 depending on whose numbering system you use. They aren’t actually numbered in either of the two places they appear in Scripture, so Jews, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestants have all developed slightly different numbering systems.
Those two places are the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. And each one gives a different rationale for this commandment. Exodus says: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy … for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” So in Exodus the Sabbath is based on God’s own day of rest after the creation. Deuteronomy: “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy … (for) you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” So in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is based on liberation: the day of rest is a sign that the people of Israel are no longer slaves who must work seven days a week, but the free people of God. (more…)
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Fire! Ominous-sounding baptisms! Divisions among families! Threatening signs of social disaster!
Sometimes I fantasize about publishing an expurgated version of the Gospel. You can bet the section we just read wouldn’t be in it! In fact, I think most of us operate on a sort of mentally-expurgated version of the Bible, where the parts that threaten us most–or fit least well with our personal experience–just disappear.
Some of you know that my husband used to be the Protestant Chaplain at Napa State Hospital, a hospital for the criminally insane. I asked him whether he would preach on this passage to his mental patients, and he said, “Absolutely not! They need to hear about peace and love and forgiveness.” I knew he would say that. But I couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t that what I need to hear, too? Isn’t it what all of us need to hear? Peace and love and forgiveness? Why do we have to deal with these nasty sayings of Jesus? And more to the point, what do I think about Jesus–and my commitment to Jesus–if he really said things like this?” (more…)
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“You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Luke 12:40
I thought of calling this piece, “Defensive Living.” I wanted to write about being prepared for such things as drivers who run red lights, or for checking out where the emergency exits are located or even for preserving your teeth by flossing. Jesus spoke about defensive living in his parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids took enough oil for the lamps, plus some in reserve. The parable concludes with the same exhortation as today’s parable: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” We need to be prepared for the crisis that is to come (we are all too familiar with devastating fires, earthquakes and El Niño floods). We need to keep our gas tanks filled, our cell phones charged, our bicycle tires inflated. We need to keep our emergency pack handy (ours includes a flash light with spare batteries, a wind up radio, a can opener and a space blanket among other things). But I find “Defensive Living” is already taken as the titles of a couple of books whose message is that you need a handgun to protect yourself. (more…)
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There are a lot of clichés associated with this gospel passage, about how possessions don’t do us any good after we die. Fairly often we hear people say “You can’t take it with you.” Sometimes people facetiously say, “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” and presumably they don’t mean it literally but as a commentary on how empty that philosophy is. More creatively, there was a country song a few years ago that said, “You’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch.”
Those clichés have value as far as they go. Death is a reality for us and we have to come to terms with that as human beings. Piling up possessions, for those who are able to do it, can be one way of trying to hide from our mortality. Life is short, and we don’t know when it will end, and we need to see our lives in the light of eternity. (more…)
I tell you, even though he won’t give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will give it to him.
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This passage has a special resonance for me now that I have a three-and-a-half-year-old who’s a master at the dark arts of negotiation and stalling.
I actually wonder if she’s been reading this passage. “They might not give it to you because they’re your parents, but at least because of your persistence they will give it to you!” This does work sometimes. Some of the things I’ve been asked for in the last several days include: permission to eat a strawberry before washing it. Permission to eat the dessert watermelon before having at least two bites of squash. A real jump rope. Seven different toys from a small toy store in Guerneville. Not to have to take a bath. I’ll let you guess which ones I gave in on. (more…)