26 June 2016

The Hope of Our Calling

Ephesians 1:15-23 - 6th Sunday after Pentecost - 26th June 2016

Hear what Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus.  “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to his great power” (Ephesians 1:14-19).

Pay attention to what Paul wants for the church.  A spirit of wisdom.  A spirit of revelation, meaning a spirit that’s open to the continual unveiling of God’s wisdom and truth, open to the new things God yearns to reveal or show us about Christ.  He prays that the eyes of the heart be enlightened—the eyes of the heart, to see with and in and through the heart. A heart.  Not blind, but one that can see because of the light of God.  And why does Paul want this for God’s people?  So that they will live in the hope of their calling.  Or, said differently, that they will live in hope because of their calling.  Or, live in hope because they have been called—called.  Not some, but all of them, individually and together, for ministry, knowing that they—we—have been and are endowed with an extraordinarily rich inheritance, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power at work in us and through us, the church, not for ourselves alone, not for the church, but for God and for the world.  The church does not exist for itself, but for the world.

I’m grateful that this Ephesians text served as the theme for the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  And this Assembly, perhaps more than most (I think), embodied its theme as it met in Portland, Oregon.  It was a hopeful Assembly, an historic Assembly, an inspiring Assembly.  To be sure, the denomination is facing considerable challenges at the moment.  We’re slowly losing members; churches are leaving the denomination, primarily in response to previous Assembly actions on GLBTQ ordination and same-gender marriage; Louisville continues to downsize due to financial constraints; we need to restructure how we organize ourselves; and trust is low.  It’s easy to be pessimistic about the Church—and, believe me, there are days when I wonder about the viability of the Presbyterian Church, and the Church in general, and the relevancy of the Christian witness.  The Church and Christianity are under considerable strain these days, especially in the West.  Some say we're in a season of decline and it’s only a matter of time.  Membership might be declining, but we need to remember this:  membership rolls, numbers, are questionable and unreliable metrics of the health and vitality of the Church!

That’s because the Church is not a human invention.  Sure—at times it’s all too human and sinful and petty and fearful.  But we didn’t come up with the idea.  The Church is a gift of God, formed and reformed by God’s grace.  It’s the body of Christ that is growing and maturing and breathing in us and through us and around us.  The Church doesn’t belong to us; it’s not ours.  We belong to it—or, better, we belong to Christ and because we are his and he is ours, together, we are his body in the world; and if Christ is alive—if Christ is alive—then the Church must be alive. Therefore we have reason to hope, even to hope against hope!  I didn’t say we have reason to be optimistic.  Optimism and hope are not the same.  And hope is not wishful thinking.  Hope is the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

The contemporary theologian John Caputo writes,  “Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope.”[1]  

It might sound like he’s talking in circles (theologians are known to do so), but he’s actually trying to make a really important point.  I/we can look around and think there’s no occasion for hope.  But that’s exactly when, against all odds, hope is empowered and empowers us.  It might feel as if everything is (and might be) coming unhinged, yet, nevertheless—and grace is always, Nevertheless!—we don’t allow the situation at hand to ultimately define the nature of things, because something else is at work.  God is at work, the Spirit is moving, and doing the seemingly impossible.

Why was this an Assembly of hope?  The commissioners – equal number of ruling and teaching elders—worked hard this week, deliberating through overtures and resolutions, reading, debating, actively listening, praying, worshiping, wrestling with difficult, challenging, nuanced issues. (Presbyterians love nuance.  Presbyterians are people of nuance.)  Fossil fuel divestment.  Israel-Palestine.  Organizational structure.  Repentance and apology for the denomination’s role in oppression and violence toward Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Hawaiian Natives (which was a Baltimore Presbytery overture).  Regret for the serious harm done to GLBTQ Christians for decades.  There were attempts to reverse the Assembly’s previous statement on same-gender marriage; a series of overtures from Foothills Presbytery (South Carolina), which, if approved, would have set back several decades’ worth of social witness policy.  These all failed soundly.  The Assembly also rejected the use of gay reparative therapy.

There were three moments, in particular, which made this Assembly historic and full of hope.  First, the election of the moderator, or, correctly, co-moderators.  For the first time, co-moderators are now possible in the PCUSA and we had two pairs standing for moderator: Denise Anderson, pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hill, MD, in National Capital Presbytery and Jan Edmiston, pastor, executive at Chicago Presbytery.  Denise and Jan won by a margin of 76 percent to 24 percent, against another co-moderator team, Adan Mairena, a teaching elder and new-church development pastor from Philadelphia, and David P. Parker, a ruling elder and lawyer from North Carolina. 

It is fitting that we have women co-moderators this years—some were referred to them as our mom-erators.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the ordination of women to Word and Sacrament and the 85th anniversary of the ordination of women as ruling elders.  “We want you to remember this number: 104,” Anderson said. “That is the number of weeks between now and the next General Assembly. We pledge to show respect and compassion. Listening is more than waiting to talk.”

Next year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Confession of 1967, written to address the need for reconciliation amid the racial tensions of the 1960s and the struggle for civil rights.  It was approved in Portland.  Forty-nine years later, on Wednesday evening, the Assembly made history again.  This is the second significant moment of the Assembly.  We adopted the Confession of Belhar into our Book of Confessions, the Constitution of the PC (USA). 

Belhar emerged in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, post-Apartheid.  It confronts—explicitly—the sin of racism and calls for reconciliation, unity, and peace.  For the first time our Book of Confessions will contain a confession from the global south.  The Assembly rejected the confession six years ago, but then it was brought back two years ago and passed.  (A change in the Book of Confessions requires the approval of two Assemblies.)  That process came to a close on Wednesday when the Assembly voted, 94%, to approve Belhar.   One of the leading Reformed theologians in the world, Allan Boesak, a black man from South Africa, who helped to write the confession, was there in Portland for the vote.  The Assembly also set up a live feed with the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.

Godfrey Betha, vice moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa, was invited to address the assembly. She said, “It is quarter to 6 (in the morning) in South Africa, and I believe there are those who did not sleep waiting for this moment.”[2]  She went on to say, “We gave you this gift and you have been unwrapping this gift for quite some time. …I will never forget this date.”  She told the Assembly, “Your decision affirms you say to your children, you say to all, ‘When you come to us looking for a glimmer of racism, don’t come to our church.’”

Allan Boesak acknowledged both how much progress has been made against racism and injustice, and how much more is needed.  Upon the adoption of Belhar in his own denomination, in 1986, the youth started singing “We Shall Overcome.” Boesak said, “I know no matter how long the road, we shall overcome—I thank God for your faithfulness. I know because of God’s faithfulness we shall overcome.”

At that, someone began to sing from the Assembly floor, “We Shall Overcome.” By the second verse the body had joined hands, by the third they had lifted them upward. Some on the stage couldn’t hold back tears and co-moderator Anderson was caught on the large screen mouthing, “Wow.” 

This moment was a reminder that Jesus and liberation, justice and redemption, and peace and joy are inextricably bound together.  The hope and the joy come in and through the liberation and redemption.  Following Jesus means liberation, redemption, and justice.  When we’re with him we know something of that joy.

Boesak reminded us that we are called to more than simply say the words of the confession; we are called to live them, embody them.  As Belhar affirms, “We believe . . . that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged.”[3]

Hunter Farrell, director of World Mission in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, tweeted, “How long the road from Belhar to Charleston, Orlando, and Gaza?”  How long, indeed.  How long the road from Belhar to Baltimore?  It’s significant that this confession comes to the American church as gift at a time when racial tension, injustice and violence in the United States make headlines nearly every day.   I find it striking that with Belhar now part of who we are as Presbyterians, the Assembly will next meet in St. Louis in 2018 and then Baltimore in 2020, cities with considerable racial tension.  The Spirit is stirring something in us.

Significantly, the Assembly approved Baltimore Presbytery’s overture addressing racism.  J. Herbert Nelson said that it was one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching overtures put forth by the denomination.  The overture calls us the Church to establish and convene a “Racism Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The commission would be “charged with conducting a church wide listening campaign to hear the voices of peoples long silenced regarding the state of institutional racism and oppression within our church.”[4]

Then, on Friday, the third historic first.  The Assembly elected J. Herbert Nelson, a third-generation Presbyterian pastor and prophetic voice for justice, to the office of stated clerk, the top ecclesiastical and constitutional officer, representing the denomination in interfaith and ecumenical settings.  It was a vote of overwhelming support, 447-112.  Nelson issued a call to Presbyterians to stop focusing on internal church disputes, numerical survival, and labeling each other as progressives or conservatives.  He said, “Nowhere in holy writ do I read the terms ‘liberal, moderate, or conservative.’”  He’s right.  These are not biblical categories.  They create false, deceptive narratives. They should never be used to define our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.

J. Herbert said we need to focus on “the impact God can make through us” in a broken world.  Of the Presbyterian Church he affirmed, “We are not dead, we are reforming, we are alive and we are well;” however, he said, "To only think about the survival of the Church is to set our aim too low.”[5]  All I can say to this is: Amen and Amen and Amen!  He’s right.  The Church should not be worrying so much about survival.  We’re not called to save the Church.  We’re called to be the Church in the world, to the work of the Church.  Let God take care of survival.

The Assembly acknowledged and gave thanks for the now former stated clerk Gradye Parsons who, from 2008, served the denomination faithfully, passionately during a rocky time in the Church and did so without taking himself too seriously, with a great sense of humor. Gradye gave this advice to Church: “Get in the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die.”

Consider the face of the PCUSA today: two women, co-moderators, one white, one black; the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency board, Ton De La Rosa, is a married gay Latino elder; and then on Friday, we elected J. Herbert Nelson, our first African American stated clerk. 

This gives me hope.  Something is stirring.  The Assembly approved a report from The Way Forward committee, suggesting strategies of discernment for the denomination as we live into the future that even now is coming toward us, by God’s grace.  This, too, is reason to hope. Yesterday, the Office of General Assembly tweeted, “This Assembly did a lot of work on Social Justice but it's just a beginning. Just you wait. Just you wait.

Near the close of the Assembly, Denise Anderson assured us, "We're gon' be alright."  Yes, "We’re going to be alright.[6]  Because we’ve been called and the one who has called us will never give up on us. That’s the hope of our calling. With the eyes of our hearts continually being enlightened by grace, filled with wisdom and power, let us move forward with hope!

[1] John Caputo, “The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible” in Mark A. Wrathall, ed., Religion after Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 134.
[2] I’m relying here on Jill Duffield’s account in The Presbyterian Outlook.
[3] The full text of The Confession of Belhar may be found here.
[4] The overture may be found here.
[5] Leslie Scanlon’s article in The PresbyterianOutlook.
[6] Denise Anderson’s website SOULa Scripture.

12 June 2016

Her Audacious Love

Luke 7:36-8:30

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

12th June 2016

We’re told she’s a “sinner.”  That’s all we’re told about her.   We’re never told her name.  She’s always the nameless one, almost invisible. Was she supposed to be at dinner that night, in the home of the Simon the Pharisee?  It’s not clear.  Perhaps her presence wasn’t all that surprising.  Perhaps she showed up often.  We don’t know.

It’s clear she has a plan.  She’s a woman on a mission.  It looks like she just slipped into the room, unnoticed.  She has an alabaster jar of ointment.  The men were eating at table. They weren’t sitting on chairs arranged around a table.  They were reclining.  They were dining in the Hellenistic manner, which was to lounge on one’s side, on a sofa bench or on the floor, with head facing toward the table and feet pointing away from the table.  Eating this way sounds uncomfortable, a good way to get indigestion.  But that’s how she had easy access to his feet.

She came along and stood behind him, at his feet.  Weeping.  We’re never told why she’s crying.  All we know is that she had enough tears to wash, to bathe Jesus’ dusty feet.  She never says a word.  Her gestures say everything.  She dries his feet with her hair, then kisses them, and anoints them with oil from the jar.

This is an extremely sensual scene, provocative, steamy, full of Eros.  It’s rare to see Jesus in such a setting.  Rarer still is to see female sensuality portrayed so honestly in scripture.  It’s rare to see faithful devotion, adoration so beautifully embodied; she expressed the mysterious connection between Eros and worship, adoration.  And Jesus never judges her.

Whenever the feminine spirit acts with boldness, the preservers of patriarchy usually become agitated and angered and then attack.  When the Pharisee, a religious leader, the dinner host, noticed what she did, he was horrified, disgusted.  And because Jesus allowed her to wash his feet, because apparently Jesus didn’t know her story, the Pharisee used it as an occasion to question Jesus’ judgment and authority. “If this man,” meaning Jesus, “were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”  Luke tells us that he said this to himself, but I wonder if he uttered it aloud, hoping no one would hear him—or maybe he wanted to be heard.  Either way, Jesus didn’t miss a thing, spoken or unspoken.

He knew what Simon the Pharisee was getting at, so he asked him a question—Jesus went into teacher mode and shared a parable.  “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.”  Remember, a denarius was the average daily wage for a skilled laborer.  One owed more than a year’s worth of salary, the other just less than two months.  “When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them.  Now which of them will love him more?”  It was an easy question for Simon.  He said, “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” 

Then Jesus turned to the woman and spoke directly, boldly truthfully to Simon and said:  “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with tears and dried them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she was anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  And then, to reinforce what Jesus knew to be true before she arrived with the ointment, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.”  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

We’re not told how the rest of the evening went.  My guess is that Jesus left right after the women with her jar.  Luke tells us that “soon afterwards” Jesus went on through the cities and villages preaching the kingdom, healing, showing mercy, extending God’s forgiveness—bringing “good news.”  It shouldn’t surprise us that in addition to the twelve traveling with Jesus we’re told that there “were women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, “who provided for them out of their resources.” So in addition to the twelve men, there was also a community of women followers who were engaged in bringing the good news.  Jesus’ ministry made space for women, he relied upon their witness and their resources.  These were women with questionable histories or reputations or associations, women now forgiven of their sins, women given a new life, a fresh start, women who were loved, truly loved, and judged worthy of such love.

It’s remarkable, really, to see this strong feminine presence among the first disciples—remarkable, given the long abusive history of Church patriarchy that claimed that women were second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, that they couldn’t preach or teach or administer the sacraments.  It’s extraordinary.  Jesus was radical with regard to the treatment of women.  My guess is that there weren’t many like him, early feminist that he was.  I wonder if, perhaps, this, too, agitated the animus of the patriarchal religious and political authorities against him.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the unnamed woman.  What we do know is that she knows something about God’s mercy.  Again, we don’t know her story.  We don’t know what her sins were—everyone else seemed to know, thus increasing her shame.  I wish we knew her name, although she is a kind of Everywoman.  In a way, though, I’m kind of glad that we don’t know much about her sinful past—given human nature, we would probably zero in on the sin.  It obviously doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus.  He doesn’t say.  He doesn’t deny the past, but he’s not going to allow her past to determine her present or future.  This what forgiveness does—it doesn’t deny what happened in the past, but it doesn’t keep one trapped there either.  Jesus never allows what occurred in the past to determine the future, to hinder something new to emerge.

And Jesus knows all about the terrible sins of men inflicted on women.  He knows the terrible damage done to the psyches and bodies of women by men who have forgotten that the divine spark dwells in women.  Wendy Farley, a theologian who teaches at Emory University, gives voice to a woman’s perspective. “Jesus ministry continually draws forth witnesses to the sanctity of female embodiment.  The unnamed woman whose tears cleaned Jesus’ feet reveals the sanctity of all our tears.”[1]  The “our” here refers to the tears of women, but I think this is true for both women and men. 

These are holy tears, holy tears that lead to an audacious act of love.  The way she cared for Jesus was risky.  But why is she crying?  Are these tears of sadness?  Guilt?  Remorse?  Is she being so generous because she’s trying to get something out of Jesus, such as mercy?  Or are these tears of gratitude, grace, and joy?  It’s tough to know from the flow of the narrative exactly when she received forgiveness.  Something happened, something good, something that called forth this audacious love, something that called for such generosity. 

My guess is that she experienced God’s mercy long before she showed up at Simon’s house.  They knew each other previously.  She singled Jesus out among the guests.  She anoints only him with oil, which, curiously, is the meaning of the Greek word Christos, “the anointed one.”  Her act of generous welcome, her radical hospitality is a profound expression of the depth of her love for God, it’s a profound expression of her gratitude, coming from someone who really knows what’s like to be forgiven.

This text is full of mercy for the woman who was a sinner. It’s also full of judgment toward the religious leader—or any person of faith—who talks a good game about mercy and grace, but never bothers to extend mercy and grace to anyone, who never extends hospitality to the marginalized, or someone who’s never experienced the mercy of God themselves, who doesn’t know what it’s like to feel forgiven or will not accept God’s forgiveness, and then knows little about the love for God and how to respond to it. 

Jesus makes the direct correlation between forgiveness and love.  Little forgiveness, little love.  Jesus shows that our capacity to be generous and extravagant is directly related to the depth of the forgiveness and mercy we have experienced in our own lives. The woman with the jar holds nothing back, she’s wildly generous with her resources (no penny-pinching here) and generous with her heart because that’s what love does! That’s what grace does!  That’s what forgiveness calls forth from within us!  

Sometimes it’s the people who have messed up their lives the most who truly value and cherish the grace of God—and therefore have the most to teach us about God’s transforming grace, who know what it’s like to say, as the old hymn goes, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.”[2]  They have the most to teach us about radical hospitality.  It’s the people who have really screwed up their lives or the lives of others, people who, for a variety of reasons, have messed things up for themselves or others, who come to have a greater appreciation for the gift of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. They understand this woman’s tears because they’ve shed similar ones, tears of guilt and remorse, tears of joy and gratitude.  Didn’t Jesus say, “I have come not for the righteous, but for the sinners” (Luke 5:32)?  Sometimes the one who thinks he or she is righteous and never in need of forgiveness is the greater sinner.

We have to be careful here not to put too much stress on the sin—which is real and present, to be sure.  Jesus came to reveal to us the heart of God and there in the depths of God there is mercy, love, grace, pouring itself out upon us, anointing us.  This is what the woman discovered.  That’s the good news—forgiveness.  The human heart needs to know that it’s forgiven.  And when we know forgiveness we cannot withhold it from others.  We, too, are called to forgive, when the time is right, the one who has offended us.  Ultimately, forgiveness transforms; it liberates.

So, thanks be to God for the power of grace, for mercy, for forgiveness.  Thanks be to God for this nameless woman whose audacious love and holy tears, whose generosity, whose hospitality, whose devotion and faith, whose life and action, together, preaches the gospel better than any preacher and calls each of us deeper into the ways of God’s Kingdom—with this forgiveness we, too, are invited to go in peace.


[1] Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 105.
[2] From the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Text by Robert Robinson, 1757.

05 June 2016


Luke 7:11-17

Third Sunday after Pentecost

5th June 2016

On the day Jesus arrived in Nain—about six miles south of Nazareth, in Galilee—as he approached the gate of the town, death crossed his path. Coming toward him was a funeral procession.  He saw the funeral bier heading to the cemetery just outside of town, to the west.  It was carrying the body of a young man.  Near the body Jesus saw a grieving mother, crying.  Behind her was a large crowd of mourners from town.  Jesus soon learned something about the dead man.  He was his mother’s only son.  And he learned something else about his mother.  She was a widow.

A widow—a woman without a husband meant no means of support and no real identity apart from her husband.  At least for a time she had a son to care for her, but now he’s gone.  Sure, there’s a community supporting her, for a time.  But she’s destined for a life of poverty.  Alone in a hostile world.  The enormity of her grief and suffering are beyond our ability to fully fathom and understand. 

Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  He moved forward.  Touched the bier.  The pallbearers stopped.  No doubt confused.  And then Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Luke tells us that, “Fear seized them, and they glorified God.”  Word quickly spread through Judea and beyond.

~ ~ ~

What are we supposed to do with a text such as this?  What do we do with the miracle at Nain?  If we focus exclusively on the miracle it’s a very troubling story.  It’s tough for us—tough for me—to approach this text, especially this week, knowing there are people in this congregation who would give anything to have Jesus show up and bring their loved ones back to life.  This text raises a lot of questions, questions we don’t have answers to.  Is this text even relevant today?  Maybe we should just skip over it.  Is it true?  Should we approach it symbolically, not take it literally?  Taking it literally leads us into all kinds of problems.

One word caught my eye this week; it’s the word “compassion.”  When Jesus saw the widow, he had compassion for her.  Not pity.  He didn't feel sorry for her.  He had compassion.  

Splagchnizomai the text says.  It’s a rare Greek verb meaning something like “torn up in the gut.” Splagchnon is the Greek word for viscera, internal organs, intestines and bowel.  When Jesus considered the young man and his mother his stomach turned in knots.  It tore up his insides.  It was gut-wrenching.  That’s where compassion originates—in the gut.  That’s where compassion begins to emerge, not in our heads, but in the gut.  That’s what compassion feels like.

To feel in this way is to suffer.  Suffering is required.  To suffer means, literally, “to undergo.” It often has a negative connotation, but we can suffer joy as much as suffer pain or sorrow.  To suffer means that we allow a situation to touch us deeply, to affect us, to wash over us, to stir us, to move us; we allow a feeling to come upon us.  We might resist it, fight against it.  There are times when we don’t want to acknowledge a particular feeling; perhaps we’re afraid where it might take us. To suffer means we allow the feeling to flow. 

Still, we can either acknowledge the feeling or we can ignore it.  We can either honor what we’re feeling when we’re confronted with pain or grief or we can deny it.  Sometimes we prefer to keep our distance.  Judging often allows us to do that.  Judging people or judging a situation is often a strategy that we use to protect ourselves from actually suffering with or for others.  Perhaps that why theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945), writing from Tegel prison in Berlin, 1943, said, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit it do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”[1]  Sometimes we intellectualize everything, keep it all up in our heads, and never allow our humanity and the humanity of others who stand before us and shape us.

In order to suffer with or for another we need to be fully present.  And we can’t be present without feeling.

One of my favorite novelists and essayists is David James Duncan, a man with a deep, mature faith with piercing insight into the human condition.  Back in the 1990s he tried to absorb the consequences of sanctions against Iraq—the deaths of thousands of children—because of our destruction of water systems and our unwillingness to allow importation of either plumbing or chlorine.  A mentor once said to him, “If you don’t know how to take something, take it on the physical level.”  One day he took this advice, “with regard to Iraq’s children.”  He relied on:

…the physical senses, eyes, and heart of a woman named Gerri Haynes.  At the time, Gerri, a nurse from Woodinville, Washington, headed a group called Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.  She had been on three missions of mercy to Iraq, and ten months before the most recent war in Iraq, she returned yet again.

Before this recent trip—amid all the flag-waving and war-rumblings—Gerri’s oldest daughter tried to persuade her to stay home. …after finally accepting Gerri’s sense of mission, her daughter offered her mother an old-souled piece of advice. “If you do go,” she said, “be completely present, wherever you go.”

These words returned to Gerri in an Iraqi hospital virtually bereft of medicine and hope.  While her group moved from bed to bed, Gerri approached a woman sitting next to her dying child.  Gerri speaks no Arabic.  The woman spoke no English.  Trying to be “present” anyway, Gerri looked at the child, then at the woman, and placed her right hand over her own heart.

The Iraqi mother immediately placed her right hand over her own heart.

Gerri’s eyes and the mother’s eyes immediately filled with tears. 

The hospital was crowded.  Gerri’s visitation was short. She started to move to the next bed, but then remembered her daughter’s words: “completely present…” She and the mother were already crying, their hands over their hearts. There was nothing Gerri could do, despite all her medical training, for the child.  ‘How much more present,’ she wondered, ‘is it possible to be?’

She stepped forward anyway. With no plan but vague allegiance to the commandment “completely present,” the nurse without medicine stepped toward the bed of the dying child and inconsolable mother.  She then put both of her hands out, palms up.

The Iraqi mother fell into her arms.

“If only this experience were unique!” Gerri told [Duncan.]  “But I can’t tell you, any longer, how many mothers I’ve now held in this same way.”  

Her voice grew faint over the phone. [Duncan] heard her say: “…diseases that children would almost never die from in the U. S…  Medicine so basic. 

Duncan said, “I’ve never taken interview notes while sobbing before.”[2]

How much more present is it possible to be?

If Jesus was the fully human one, then we need to look to him to discover what it means to be authentically human.  He was fully present to what crossed his path that day in Nain.  He allowed his feelings to move him.  That’s what feelings are supposed to do.  His grief stirred him to take action.  It’s true, he had the capacity to revive the dead man and restore the well being of the widow.  While we don’t have the power to raise the dead, Jesus does show us what compassion looks like, or, better, what it feels like.  It means facing what comes across our path, suffering through the feelings and facing the grief in our guts, allowing what’s before us to touch us, affect us.  And the wisdom found in the gut will show us what we can do or should do.  

We might not be able to raise the dead, but through compassion we can bring about new life. Maybe that’s when the miracle occurs.  

The poet Christopher Fry (1907-2005) once said, “The human heart can go the lengths of God.”[3]  When we are fully present to the moment, fully present to the pain and suffering of others—not running from it or becoming numb to it—when we’re fully present to the pain and suffering in our own lives, and then respond to each situation from our gut in a loving, life-giving way, we actually become more human. As Jesus showed us, the more human we are, the divine becomes all the more apparent—in us, shining through our humanity.  Our lives then become the occasion to glorify God.

Image: Louisa Ann Beresford (1818-1891), Christ Raising the Dead, Tate Collection, London.  

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997), 10.
[2] David James Duncan, “When Compassion Becomes Dissent,” Orion (Jan-Feb, 2001), 22-24, cited in Sharon Daloz Parks, “How Then Shall We Live? Suffering and Wonder in the New Commons,” in Sam M. Intrator, Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 305-306.
[3] Christopher Fry, Sleep of Prisoners (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 47.