Good Friday

 

cross

John 18:1-19; 42

Every year someone asks the question, “Why is good Friday called good?”  It is the day within the life of the Christian tradition when Jesus’ crucifixion is commemorated.  It is hard to say the words good in relation to crucifixion.  Some call the day Holy Friday, but the use of the phrase Good Friday is what is most prominent.  There are various reasons lifted up, but one of them is that Good Friday is good because of the love that breaks into the world on that day when Jesus walked in love right up to the cross that would lead to his death.  That love becomes witness that love wins in the end, but first we must experience the taste of loss this day.

The following is a poem for reflection this Good Friday.  As always, thankful to be with you on the journey.

Michelle

The Way of Pain
Wendell Berry

  1. For parents, the only way
    is hard. We who give life
    give pain. There is no help.
    Yet we who give pain
    give love; by pain we learn
    the extremity of love.
  2. I read of Abraham’s sacrifice
    the Voice required of him,
    so that he led to the altar
    and the knife his only son.
    The beloved life was spared
    that time, but not the pain.
    It was the pain that was required.
  3. I read of Christ crucified,
    the only begotten Son
    sacrificed to flesh and time
    and all our woe. He died
    and rose, but who does not tremble
    for his pain, his loneliness,
    and the darkness of the sixth hour?
    Unless we grieve like Mary
    at His grave, giving Him up
    as lost, no Easter morning comes.
  4. And then I slept, and dreamed
    the life of my only son
    was required of me, and I
    must bring him to the edge
    of pain, not knowing why.
    I woke, and yet that pain
    was true. It brought his life
    to the full in me. I bore him
    suffering, with love like the sun,
    too bright, unsparing, whole.

How beautiful are the feet…

John 13:1-17; 31-35

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day during holy week when we pay attention to feet.  After sharing in the last supper with his disciples, Jesus knelt before them and washed every one of their feet.  This is not something most hosts in our day and age would do.  We tend to stay away from other people’s feet.  It would not have been something that a host in Jesus’ day would do either, it was the job of a servant to wash the feet of guests.  Jesus takes on the role of a servant with his disciples, so that they might take on the same role of servant for each other and all the world.

Mother Teresa's feetMother Teresa was known for having a servant’s heart.  She lived in Calcutta India, amongst the poorest of the poor.  Interestingly, her feet were well photographed.  Her feet are not pretty, but they are beautiful.  Her toes curl into one other having been deformed through all the years of her choosing to take the worst pair of shoes that were donated, so that no one else would have to wear them.  Her years of service to others, cost her in her feet.

There are at least 15,000 nerves that travel through the feet.  Though we hide them away, they are an important part of the body, in that they hold connections to other parts of the body as well.  Feet are what carry us from one place to another and Jesus decided to put his hands on the feet of the disciples, in a sense blessing their way.  Serving others requires humility and Jesus touches the place in the body that touches the ground—the feet.  As we journey along the way, may we find ways of serving others in the world around us, that the love of God might be revealed in the way we live our lives and in our beautiful feet.

With you on the Journey,

Michelle                                                                                                                                                  Holy Week, 2018                                                                                                                                  Cape Town, South Africa

 

Lines

John 1:13-20  “I am not the Messiah”
I was driving back on the coastal road from Hermanus this past weekend after a beautiful time of reflection and I misjudged on timing.  It got dark quicker than I expected and what is normally a beautiful drive became quite frightening actually. As the sun began to set, I struggled to see the road at all, for there was very little light.
coastal roadThe coastal road runs right along the sea and there are spaces where the guard rail on the seaside of the road disappears. Right now the road is being repaved and the center line of the road for most of the way is missing.  The missing lines caused anxiety to arise within me because I was on the sea-side of the road and the oncoming cars were passing by me with no boundary to keep them on their side of the road. There was nowhere for me to go but over the ledge, which was clearly not my hope.  So, I began to honk at cars to alert them they were crossing too far over the line that was not there.
I reflected for a long time when I arrived home about the gift of lines or things we call boundaries. Boundaries bring clarity, they help us to have a sense of the way rising before us.  Boundaries, used with understanding, help us to live in the reality of who we are–Children of God, not God.  John the Baptist was clear about something in his life. He named for all to hear that he was a voice, and a loud one, crying out in a time of wilderness for the people of God.  John was clear to communicate though that he was not the Messiah.  His clarity on this, helped people to keep looking beyond him to the one who was the author and perfecter of life.  It was good for John to have this clear line for it helped him and others to know who he was and who he was not.
We might think that Jesus was not a fan of lines, for Jesus was constantly crossing them, but we have to look closer.  Jesus crossed lines for a reason.  Jesus actually walked with a good understanding of order.  He crossed lines for the sake of love.  Jesus broke through boundaries that were keeping people and the possibility of love out. So, it is important that we are careful where we draw our lines, reflecting on what or who we are keeping out that needs to be invited in, and reflecting on what or who in our lives we are allowing to rise into the role of Messiah in our lives, recognizing the danger in this.
In life, we can find ourselves in murky spaces where we have crossed all sorts of boundaries believing that the way we are on will lead us to life, when in actuality the lines we crossed along the way created within our lives a way rising that leads to death. This is what Jesus steps into in the story we find ourselves in this Holy Week. Jesus was as clear about who He is as John was clear about who he was not.
Jesus was, is, and always will be the love of God embodied in life, death, and in life beyond death.  In Jesus we witness the power of love winning in the end.  Life is such a wilderness, it can be a road that seems quite dangerous and dark, this does not fade as we take the hand of Jesus.  There is still danger and uncertainty, we only have more light to guide us on the way, and an assurance that we are following in the way of love, that we know wins in the end.
With you on the journey,
Michelle
Cape Town, South Africa
Holy Week 2018

“What is right in their own eyes…”

international W DayToday is the 8th of March, International Women’s Day. It is a day when the world pauses to honor the women in our midst.  The origin traces back to the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States and the Women’s Suffrage movement worldwide.  It is a hard reality that in our day, 1 out of every 3 women worldwide, have experienced physical and or sexual violence.  As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is important to recognize that a 1-day pause in the midst of a 365-day year, is not enough.  Women’s bodies are literally on the line in our day and so it is a charge to learn what it truly means to honor women in our midst.  True honoring will take more than flowers, more than a certificate of appreciation, and more than printed Women’s Day memorabilia.  True honoring will require reflection on the realities for women today and a move to turn things around.
Judges 19 is the story of the rape and dismemberment of a concubine woman.  It is not a story to turn to in the wee hours of the night, but if you wake in the middle of the night with the text on your mind, the reality of the connections to be made in this particular text to our present day begin to come more and more alive.  A read of Judges from beginning to end reveals a repetitive phrase. It reads, these were the days when there was no king, when men did “what was right in their own eyes.”  Winds of chaos can be seen to arise in the text as men in the story turn away from honoring life, all life.  It is as if the chaos that surrounds the moment of this woman’s body being offered up for rape and later dismemberment can be seen to be another character in the story when men are doing, “what is right in their own eyes.”  The chaos is almost like wind that begins to swirl about.
Another element alive in the Judges text is what South African theologian, Miranda Pillay, refers to as the “holy halo” or presence of Patriarchy hanging in the air in the culture of the day, making it seem like dishonoring others, offering a women’s body over a male body, is okay.  Pillay, commenting on the existence of Patriarchy within the life of the Church, notes that “the fact that patriarchy is condoned, defended, perpetuated, and sustained by giving it a ‘holy halo’ explains why many women remain in abusive and violent relationships, defend their partners’ behavior and carry the blame-not only for the abuse they suffer but also for being the cause’ of their partners’ behavior.”  Women will stay in situations because others believe and teach them to believe what they are enduring is okay, right even.
In the life of the Church, the existence of Patriarchy is so thick at times, it is like the chaos in Judges, a character alive in our life together.  Patriarchy impacts the decisions of both men and women.  In conversations with ordained Clergywomen serving within the Cape of Good Hope District in Cape Town, South Africa, the women shared stories of struggle with laywomen as well as struggles with men. Women formed and shaped under the ‘Holy Halo’ are formed and shaped to receive systems where men dominate and lead.  So, our understanding of the phrase, “when men do what is right in their own eyes” needs to be expanded to capture the consequences of what happens when women, as well as men, turn from honoring life, all life.  The impact of the ‘Holy Halo’ upon women, is that women can believe it is okay to discriminate against other women due to a formation that shapes them into receiving male dominated systems as being the natural way.
Sadly, the moral authority of leaders in our day and age that might lead us in these times is lacking.  It is said all too often that there once was a day when there was a Mandela, a Martin Luther King Jr., and a Gandhi.  Where there once was a day, those days are long gone.  South Africa, the United States, and India all experienced some of “the greats” in terms of world leaders who were agents of change.  In each of these countries today, stories of abuses against women, as horrific as the story contained within Judges 19 can be found.  In 2012 there was a gang rape on a bus in Delhi India.  A twenty-three-year-old woman was traveling with her friend when several other male passengers on the bus gang raped her and tortured her.  She died two days later as a result of her injuries.  Jacob Zuma, the former President of South Africa and Donald Trump, the current President of the United States, have had accusations of sexual harassment.  Women are under threat in a very public way today.
If there once was a day when there was a Nelson Mandela, a Martin Luther King Jr., and a Gandhi, those days are no more.  If we are looking for the leaders that will bring change, we must begin to look at ourselves.  If we want to honor women, on this International Women’s Day, we must investigate all the ways we have been formed and shaped to believe the dishonoring of women in their person or in their bodies is okay.  The final line in the Judges 19 text reads, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt.  Just imagine! We must do something! So Speak Up!” In the Judges 19 text, when men “did what was right in their own eyes,” a rape happened.  What I don’t think we take seriously enough is the reality that women are raped every day.  Patriarchy is a rape of women’s rightful place as children of God and it happens every day.  It is all about power and the manipulation of others to be underneath the power of an umbrella or “halo’ that does not honor individuals for who they are–holy, beautiful, equivalent creations of God.  There are people beginning to “Speak up!” about this.  We must be careful to listen.
The #METOO movement in the United States is a movement that actually started about ten years ago. It was started by a woman named, Tarana Burke. The inspiration of the movement was to leverage the voices of survivors of sexual harassment, so that, they might encourage others to speak out.  It was not originally a Hollywood movement.  The movement was actually on behalf of those the world did not care as much about.  The other hard reality about Patriarchy alive in culture is that if you are on the wrong end of the power spectrum, there is almost always great consequences for using your voice.  Women so often live in silence, not speaking out about the ways they have been violated, because the consequences for speaking are too great.  There are rightful critiques to be made of the #METOO movement, but it is creating a tsunami of stories that the world is having to process, and the act of processing is giving woman after woman after woman after woman back their voice.
Instead of honoring women in your life this International Women’s Day with flowers, consider spending time with women exploring in conversation the way Patriarchy impacts them in their lives.  Spend time reflecting on ways you might be shaped by Patriarchy.  Instead of honoring the women in your life with a certificate of appreciation, make commitments on how you will work to empower women or live into your power if you are a woman.  Instead of gifting Women’s Day Memorabilia, consider women in your sphere of influence and make sure there is space for them to share how they would like to be celebrated with their own voice.  We are living in days when so many are doing “what is right in their own eyes.” The task is for us to humble ourselves enough to be caught up in the ways that lead to life–what is right in God’s eyes.  Humanity is meant to be at work bridging every power and principality that seeks to divide.  It will take men and women working together to turn things around.
With you on the Journey,
Michelle
For Further Reading:
UN Facts & Figures on Ending Violence against Women
http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures
Thursdays in Black
http://www.thursdaysinblack.co.za/
General Commission on Status & Role of Women, United Methodist Church
http://gcsrw.org/

 

The “What is Love?” Project

I found myself asking a question throughout Holy Week.  The question was, “What is love?”  I wanted to ask in order to know again.  I found myself realizing that we speak of love in generalities, with romantic notions, but to live day in and day out seeking to walk in love with God, all of humanity, and creation—“What does that love look like?”  I decided to put the question out into the world, hoping for even a couple of responses.

There were truly amazing stories shared, that are too long for me to include here, but what surprised me was how many people responded with immediate comments that were deeply profound.  Here are some of the responses:

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”

                                                                                                                                       Wendell Berry

From my Aunt in Richmond, Virginia, Years ago the Richmond newspaper ran this:

Love is friendship, it is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.  Love is content with the present, it hopes for the future, but doesn’t brood over the past.  It’s the day-in and day-out chronicle of irritations, problems, comprises, small disappointments, big victories and working toward common goals.  If you have love in your life, it can make up for a great many things you lack. If you don’t have it, no matter what else there is, it’s not enough.

I asked my Aunt if there was an author or a date and she said, “just a folded-up bit of paper I have kept in my jewelry box for years.”

Love is loving the unlovable                                           Pam Hynes—Jackson, Mississippi

Love is the scalpel that cuts deep into the abscess of hate and starts the healing

                                                                                    Derek Ronnie—Cape Town, South Africa

Love is to try to begin the day again. Love is gratitude, graciousness, compassion, forgiveness, gentleness, honesty, empathy, generosity. Love is surrendering yourself without losing yourself. Love is remembering that, to truly love others, you must first love yourself.                                                             Victoria Nash Coulter—Vermillion, Ohio

Love bleeds willfully and joyfully

                                                                   Kahil Gilbran quoted by Joy Alford—North Carolina

Love is a decision

                                                                                    Glenda Howieson—Pinetown, South Africa

Love is presence, in the most dark and painful moments of life. Love is sacrifice and yet a gift. Love is committing to walk a path unseen through unimaginable trials and staying until the final destination.                                     Alynda Ponder—Jackson, Mississippi

Love isn’t easy. It’s hard, it’s messy, it’s painful. It never gives up. It holds on against all odds, full of hope, daring to dream of love returned.

                                                                   Leigh Anne Bassinger—High Point, North Carolina

Love is treating the next person, irrespective of any differences, as your equal and without prejudice.                                        Eddie Cyster—Cape Town, South Africa

Love is the binding force for life.

                                                                           Lynne Malley Green—Gulfport, Mississippi

Love is the foundation for being Christ-like.

                                                                          Sandy Hieronymous—Charlotte, North Carolina

I hope you found these meaningful….

With you on the journey,                                                                                                            Michelle

***To help support my ministry in South Africa, please follow the link for giving on this blog.

Keith Tonkel, what a name…

Keith Tonkel, his was a name I had never heard before, though so many around the world had.  I got a call from him after I graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2007, sharing that his Superintendent hoped he might meet with me once I moved to Mississippi.  After graduating I received a one year fellowship to look at Religion & Race through the Center for Reconciliation and after receiving 11 offers all around the country and the world, I had given up hope.  None of the positions seemed right.  I shared this with Keith and told him the position in Mississippi I was considering, didn’t feel quite right.  He asked me to tell him what my hope was.  I told him that I struggled with the divides that existed within the Church and hoped to serve with a community that had worked to form across lines of division of race, class, and any “ism”  to form community for all.  He asked me if I would mind sharing the story with him one more time, so I did.  He then said, “I wonder if you would let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a place to serve.”

I was about three weeks away from graduation and so there was not much to lose.  I got on a plane, landed in Mississippi, and met him at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  The church was described to me by someone who knew Keith as the most integrated church in Mississippi.  I walked in the church and had this sense in my bones, like none I had felt before.  Keith asked me to share my story with the congregation and then after the services, they called for an emergency Board and Council meeting to extend an invitation for me to serve with them.  It was a unanimous vote.  In between the meetings, the Associate Minister Todd Watson, took me for coffee and he said, “What do you think of our Keith?”  I shared, “Well, it takes some getting used to having him call you, ‘sweet pea’ and ‘baby’.”  Todd said, “You seem okay with it though.”  “Yes,” I said, “because I heard him call you ‘sweet pea’ and ‘baby’ too.”  Keith had his way.  He was the only man I have worked with that I would let call me “Sweet Pea”  and Sweet Pea I remain.

I served at Wells Memorial United Methodist for three years.  They were the most ubuntu3formative years of my ministry.  People would ask me time and again, how does Keith do what he does and I would share, “Keith is like no one else I have ever met.  It is not about what he says, it is not about what he does, it is about who he is.”  Keith was the real deal.  He didn’t speak prophesy, he lived it.  He was a walking billboard for love and that is not something that you can learn as much as it is something that grows in you.  Yet, Keith had a special anointing.  He consistently made choices that would grow love in others.  I remember him apologizing in front of the congregation for something that really was not his fault.  When I questioned him about it, he said, “I know baby, but really they were hurt and I want people to see the importance of loving others over being right.”

Keith was one of 28 ministers that signed the Born of Conviction Statement in Mississippi stating that they would commit their lives to ending segregation in the churches.  That decision cost him, but he leaned into ministry at every turn living out his motto of, “Loving, Caring, Sharing.”  I visited him when I was home last year and there was a cooler on his stoop that had drinks in it for the garbage truck drivers and the Mailman.  When I asked him about it, he said, “Baby, that is not for you, but we have some of that coffee you like inside.”  I shared my story about life in South Africa with him and he said, “I want you to promise me something.”  “Okay” I shared, “What?”  He slid me a check and said, “I want you to promise me that you will use this money just for you and trust God will cover the rest.”  He was that way…generous and caring in every way.

There are thiOrdinationngs I learned about ministry through Keith, but it is as I said before, it was more about who he was.  The day of my ordination, I wondered whether I might have to invite another clergy to stand with me, for Keith’s wife Pat died the day before.  Just before I was to be ordained, there was a rustle in the conference hall where we were meeting.  Everyone stood and began to sing, “It is Well with my Soul” and Keith came walking up to the platform to stand with me.  We were not supposed to address family after the moment of our ordination to keep the ceremony moving forward, but I stood and gave him the biggest hug and both of us had streams of tears pouring from our eyes.  I will forever be grateful for his love and commitment to me.

Keith had an understanding of what he called “chosen family.”  His table was rarely empty for choosing to surround himself with those that needed family.  He was advocating for the rights of a child one day and the judge told him he should take the child and so he did.  Keith changed the lives of many children over the years giving them space in his life, his home, and his heart.  All the members of Wells Memorial would know they were a part of Keith’s chosen family and I am thankful to have known he extended that space to me as well.  Keith Tonkel, it was a name I had never heard of before he called me that first day, but his is a name and a life I will never forget.

My prayers surround Keith’s family, the Wells Church Family, my Colleagues in the Mississippi Annual Conference, and all those who loved Keith.  May we remember him in our continuing on of “Loving, Caring, and Sharing” in our own lives.

With you on the journey,

Michelle

The Collar in Context…

I don’t wear my clergy collar every day, but many clergy in South Africa do.  I would have worn an Alb during services in the US and the collar mostly for Activist work or other occasions when I knew it was important for the Church to be seen as present.  This past Ash Wednesday, I had my collar on when I was walking home.  I walked past an art gallery that was having an event.  I was invited inside by a man who shared with me that he was in a conversation with a group inside that had just asked about the ashes on the foreheads of people on the street and would I explain what Lent and Ash Wednesday is all about.  I sat with them for almost an hour answering their questions about faith before I made my way out the door and up the street a bit further to my home.

A couple of days later, a waitress in one of the restaurants near the church askIMG_2140.JPGed me if I could teach her how to pray.  I asked her to sit down, listened to her story, and shared with her how important it was to allow our very being to rest in God, that we find our way to that rest in quiet.  I shared that the answers we seek can be heard best in the quiet and then I grabbed a napkin and taught her a way of understanding the flow of the Lord’s Prayer I learned long ago called the ACTS prayer.  A-stands for adoration, C-confession, T-thanksgiving, S-supplification.  Then we prayed, quietly, and with words.  Afterwards I finished the last two bites of my Friday pizza and headed back to the office, to get back to “work.”

I have taught three people that prayer in the past three days, each of them in the community right around the church.  I am not sure they would have known I was a Pastor had I not been wearing my clergy collar around them one day, but each of them knew who I was for my walking around the City as a practice—every day.  There was a woman who reached out to me yesterday who I met when I was walking in the Company Gardens months ago.  As I approached her yesterday, I saw that her eye was swollen shut and she looked like she had been beaten badly.  This was how she looked the first time we met.

I took her hands and listened as she told me what happened.  I didn’t know what to say, I felt at a complete loss.  Then she taught me my lesson for the day, when she said to me, “Thank you, it was the first time I could hear what it is I must do.  I know I must leave and it is because of you.”  I had taught her many months ago how to pray.  I shared with her that I can only guide her to a place where she can listen.  I can hold her hands and be with her, but it is God that gives us strength, that breathes life into us, and that it is because of God that we can know we are never alone.  I said, it is important that we thank God for this strength you found in trusting in this truth and we prayed.

She didn’t need me to tell her where to go or who to talk to, there were women in her community that guided her through all that.  She met me in the trees where we had first met, so that I could hold her hprayerands like I had once before and pray.  It is moments like this that remind me that I am but a breath of a presence in someone’s life, where God is their eternity, and I am so thankful for the trust that people extend to allow me into the holy space of their prayers and their lives.  I found myself unable to sleep last night for thinking about the gift of what it is to be someone who people stop on the street and ask, “Will you teach me about God?–Will you teach me to pray?”  I could barely catch my breath for recognizing the precious, holy, stilling beauty of it.

Thankful to be with you on the journey,

Michelle

What trees teach us about LIFE…

tree-of-life-prophetic-painting-mindi-oaten-art-colors-leaves-healing-of-the-nations_grandeFor the past six weeks, I have been journeying with a group in Cape Town, reflecting on the messages of discipleship, hidden in the trees of the bible.  The bible is bookended with stories about trees.  In the beginning in the book of Genesis, there are two trees–The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil.  The Tree of Life reappears in awe-inspiring imagery at the end of the bible in the Book of Revelation.

Psalm 1:3 names that “They shall be like trees planted by streams of water, that bear fruit in their right season, their leaves do not wither, and in all that they do, they prosper.”  The “they” in the psalm is the people of God.  They were likened to trees and so we can know that trees hold significant value and have much to teach us.  The word tree appears in the bible 288 times and there is thought to be 37 different types of trees mentioned.  What is it then about trees?

hiddenlifeoftrees

Peter Wohlleben, in his book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” shares amazingly beautiful stories about his experience with trees.  Wohlleben is a forester in Germany and he names that the trees that grow in the wild, have ways of creating their own ecosystem, they communicate with one another and with other wildlife, and their interconnected nature speaks to their majestic symbolism.  Before there was a term “World Wide Web,” there was a term “Wood Wide Web,” coined by a man named Dr. Simrad.  This term was meant to describe the ways in which trees elicit a communication network that is alive in the forests.

Wohlleben shares that the Birch trees have a way of equalizing the sugars in their leaves through the root systems they share underneath the ground.  The taller trees that have better access to the photosynthesis process, feed the shorter trees.  They have a way for caring for one another that is natural to their genetic makeup.  He tells a story of a fallen tree that demonstrated green growth due to the roots of the other trees feeding it.  They literally held the tree in life.  There are so many amazing stories in this book, I encourage you to read it to learn more about the Beautiful in the life of Trees.

the-grandfathers

I have loved trees as long as I can remember, but the significance of them in my spiritual journey grew in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  I served during that time as a Disaster Response Trainer, training teams to help with the clean up and recovery efforts after the storm tore threw the Gulf Coast region of the US.  I was a student at the time and one of my research projects was the Pastoral Implications of Disaster.  A group of us from Duke traveled to Mississippi to lead a Pastoral Care conference for the clergy in Mississippi.

As we drove down the Gulf Coast highway, I was mesmerized by a row of Live Oaks that survived the storm.  I call these trees, the grandfathers.  Entire mansions were swept out to sea, but the grandfathers survived.  As my hands touched their bark, and my eyes lingered over their limbs, I could sense within them strength.  This is the story of the trees, their systems of being together, create within them the capacity to stand.  Certainly there were many trees that did not make it, but those that did…they are hauntingly beautiful in their weathering and in their strength.

We are like trees in our need to abide.  John 15: 1-7 has this to say about the importance of abiding:
vine_and_branches

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

As we approach the season of Lent, I encourage you to find a tree that you can befriend.  Allow it to speak to you in a spiritual way, reminding you of our need to be strengthened.  What might need pruning in your life of faith, in order that you might be able to grow in strength?  Give consideration to your Lenten disciplines, for Life is a beautiful gift and we should desire to live it in strength, beauty, and with faithfulness that bears fruit.

As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he would have been praying in an Olive grove, for the word Gethsemane means, Olive Press.

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Knowing what that word means has changed my image of Jesus and that prayer.  To know that he was praying as if he were being pressed in on every side, makes me want to be closer with him in that prayer.  Knowing that his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane cost him drops of blood, reminds me that our lives are meant to be faithful in one way–in our love for God and all of God’s creation, even at the cost of drops of our blood.  May the Spirit of God take deeper roots within you through out your forty days of Lent.

As always, I am thankful to be…

With you on the journey,                                            audio for Hidden in the trees bible study

Michelle                                                                                      www.cmm.org.za/bible-study/

***To support my ministry in South Africa, tax deductible donations can be received through the United Methodist online giving system, the Advance.  Look for the support Michelle’s ministry tab on the homepage of my blog.  Thanks for your love and prayers!

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The Face of Faith: Luke 18:1-8

                                                                                                       Sermon preached 16 October, 2016                                                                                                Salt River & Kennsington Methodist

Jesus asks a question at the end of the story.  He asks those gathered around him this:

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

They have been taught about how faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.  They know about what is said in Hebrews about Faith being the conviction of what is hoped for and the assurance of what is not seen.  Jesus still asks the question of whether he will witness faithfulness among him?  His question was posed with such conviction that it makes a learned person doubt, they even know…what faith is.

Anne Lammott says that “When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”

Faith is believing in the ways of God even when there seems to be no way.  Faith is trusting that with God  “All things really are possible.”

Faith has a face only it doesn’t look like what we think.

Faith is the face of the woman who understands that God’s will covers her and steps out in that will trusting she’ll be seen and heard.  Faith has a face of a woman ostracised by her community who meets Jesus over a cup of water and runs away singing you have to “come and see.”  This man knows it all—every little secret there is for me to tell about myself and He loves me still.    This kind of faith we can’t list it on a resume or CV and there we have it, it is the kind of Faith that is grown.  It is grown through a constant turning from “what is right in our own eyes” to the one who helps us to have new eyes.

Jesus, this morning calls for us to have eyes that can see and ears that can hear, for among us this morning is one we would call a “nag.”

There is a saying, “No one likes a nag.” 

This is not what we hear from Jesus this morning.  He seems to be saying, have your fill… “nag away.”  The widow is in trouble and she is in need of assistance from the judge in the story, only she has drawn the short stick with this man for we are told he actually doesn’t care about God or much at all for people.

So much for the notion of a higher standard in the role of “public servant.”

The widow would have little hope with someone like this.  We can’t believe she had a very powerful voice in her community.  If she were to stay true to her role, she would be among those who would be voiceless, only it is as if someone forgot to tell her this, for she speaks out and speaks out and speaks out until the judge is tired of hearing her nagging voice and finally relents extending to her what is due.

This widow, she was fully loaded with chutzpah—the Yiddish word that means something like “cheekiness.”  It didn’t matter how many times the judge turned her down, she had it in her mind that she would keep coming to present her case until she received the justice she deserved.   Jesus uses this story to teach us about how we should engage in life with God.  It is as if he is saying, “demonstrate with God, Chutzpah.  Get your nag on.”

“Chutzpah in prayer” sounds like great fun, but there are some glaring questions right away.  One is, “Are we being encouraged to nag God?  Is God a God that needs our nagging?  And is prayer really about us getting what we want in the end?”

So, does God need our nagging? 

Soren Kieerkegard names that “the nature of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Are we to “nag” like the widow or are we to understand that we become like the widow when we nag God or are persistent with God in prayer?  We become like the widow in that we understand our need of God’s justice in the world around us.  We become like the widow in that our eyes are opened and our ears are opened when we stay with God in prayer.  There is no falling asleep in our lives, when we like the widow stay awake with God in prayer putting out there the unjust narratives.  Our eyes become wide open to all the needs, around us and they can flood our hearts, causing us to lose heart.  Prayer helps us to hold on in the midst of, to care in the midst of a world of hurt flooding in.

The problem for me in this story, is I for one am not like the widow.  Right away her Chutzpah would alert me were she standing in front of me today.  It would be as if she were standing in front of a crowd naked, a widow—pleading her own case.  That is just wrong.  She was one of the sacred one’s who was to be held under the wing of protection in her community.  We are told we are to care in particular for: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and always the poor.  So, what was she doing having to plead her own case.  It would be similar to when our friends from the Eastern Cape came to fight for their pension.  “Elderly sleeping on the streets…no man!”  This is not okay!  But there were eyes turned from the scene, people who had fallen away to the life of sleep.

Jesus puts before the people a parable of improbability.   All of this is improbable that an unjust judge who doesn’t care about God or people would care about a voiceless one in the community—no, he would tuck her away.  With one shake of the right hands he would demonstrate for us what is known as the “gentleman’s agreement” and she would be sorted and out of this scene.  It happens every day, open the papers and read.  People are sorted every day.  In the church even, people are sorted every day.  A whispered word here, a quiet meeting there, a smile and a nod and a “nagging problem” is easily tucked away.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to teach the people?  This widow faces a losing battle and she is given the gift of justice.  How much more will the God of justice rain it down for the people who have formed themselves through persistent prayer to have eyes to see and ears to hear where they are in need of justice in the world around them.  It will rain down, God has promised this.  Jesus is saying, get out there and make a scene trusting when you are in the center of God’s will prayer will help you stay awake in that will, to not fall away.

For those who recognize they are on the side of power, the side where the leverage of the right handshake can open any door you want, the parable for us is really several chapters back in Chapter 11.  Jesus speaks there about the same need for persistence in prayer. There a neighbor knocks on the door seeking a loaf of bread and his friend looks at him as if he is mad.  The knocking continues and the bread is acquired and the famous words are spoken about prayer, “Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”

This has been interpreted by many to mean that we can ask for anything we want and we will get what we want, but when we pray…we get what we need.  If you keep reading in Chapter 11, you’ll read these words, “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”

For the widow, I am not sure it was only the justice due her in her argument with her opponent she was advocating for.  I wonder actually whether the widow didn’t need the scene, the crowd, witnessing her Chutzpah, in order that the eyes and ears of the people might be unclogged and that the need for justice might not be just her case, but everyone’s case.  “It was as if she were speaking the words…I have had enough.  I am done with this madness.  You will open your eyes, you will open your ears, you will see me and you will begin to live in what it is you say you believe.”

Our God is the God of justice; God does not need us to ask for what we are promised to receive.  God needs us to be aware—to have eyes and ears that hear and see the discrepancies in community.  In order that we might be on the side of God’s justice.  God needs us to be aware of our need of the Holy Spirit in order that we might have strength, courage, commitment, heart to be where we are needed to be.

Wendell Berry shares a warning about finding yourself in the midst of this sort of prayer…

This, I thought, is what is meant by ‘thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it.  It means your will and God’s will may not be the same.  It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for.  It means in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.

We don’t like to hear that we will suffer, but it is the life of the faithful actually.  I don’t know a way to follow Jesus and not find yourself in moments of suffering.

There is no more faithful description of prayer in the bible then the description of Jesus in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He invited the disciples to join Him in the garden and they could not stay with him in prayer.  Instead, we read they fell away in sleep.  Jesus was so faithful in prayer that he was bleeding in prayer—He was bleeding prayer.  And what were his words?  “If it be but possible for you to take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours Father.”  Jesus asked for what he wanted, but acknowledged that the will of God would be more faithful than anything He might ask for himself.  Jesus prayed blood and suffered greatly, but he was the living will of God and in the will of God he embraced suffering in order that widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor might know they were held in the center of it all.  The  voiceless are at the center of it all.  Lift up your voice and rise up the people of God to be at the center of it all.

Our prayers help us to endure in the midst of…, prayer keeps us turned in all of who we are towards the will of God, and in God’s will we might suffer, but it will always be a suffering that is for the greater good.

If the woman in our story today is being encouraged to “nag” it is not simply that she might get what she wants in her nagging, it is that her nagging might find her formed and shaped into the will of God and the will of God is that widows be cared for justly.  Her prayer was within God’s will because she was one of those named at the center of God’s will–at the center of it all with God.

The face of faith will not look like we want it to, for the face of faith will be a “nag.”  Sometimes we call “nags” prophets.  They are given their voice in the midst of shaping in the heart of the Holy Spirit of God.  Their voice pierces the darkness of our day waking us up all around to the need to turn towards the will of God…

To be on the side of the widow.

To be on the side of the orphan.

To be on the side of the foreigner.

To be on the side of the poor.

Prophets “nag” us with their persistence for their eyes are glued permanently to the will of God and they see so clearly the way things should be, and the speak for us with a sense of urgency in great times of need.  Jesus rises up within the disciple a new voice and that is the voice of the weak working to bring them to their knees.  We misperceive when we believe widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor are weak though.  It is they who know better than any the strength that comes from kneeling in heart mind and spirit.  They know what it means to have strength to endure and in the moments when the voices of the powerless rise “nagging” for justice, Jesus wants us to have our eyes on the scene, to not turn away, to not lose heart, to be strong and steady and ready to stand with all together in solidarity.

The cries for justice will always reach the ears of God, the question is will they reach ours?

The widow was nagging in the midst of the leaders in the community.  Jesus says be like her, get out there with your “Chutzpah” and put what is right and true in the eye of the people and witness what happens.  When we get out there and make a scene the will of God pierces into the lies and mistruths.

“It is in the fire of living that our strength is born.”

It is through the daily shaping of ourselves in the center of God’s will that we become the instruments God needs us to be and that is simply people who have eyes to see, ears to hear, a voice to speak out, hands and feet to work for change so that all God’s people might witness the ordering of the way things are meant to be by the people living in the center of what they say they believe.

Have Chutzpah, nag away, and allow your prayers for justice that live inside of you to be what wills you in your mind, in your heart, in your spirit, and in your every breath.

In the end, Jesus is naming that in our praying we become the face of faith, we become the widow in the midst of a community crying out the need of…the need for… the way to be… the will of God that for those who are sleeping, goes unseen.

Do not lose heart, pray continuously, and live your faith.

Cup of Tea & Pearls of Wisdom from Mimi

Cape Town Letters:  A letter to my God Daughter Avery Lee Jones

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Dear Avery,

I love you with a love that reaches you all the way from the other side of the world and finds its way back to me to send again and again.  I am writing you this letter from Cape Town, South Africa where I am living now.  I was remembering you when you were little and the commitment I made to be your God Mother long ago and so I wanted to write you to share with you little pearls of wisdom as I serve far away on the other side of the world.  The letters I write to you from this place I am going to title: Cups of Tea & Pearls of Wisdom from Mimi—for Mimi is what you chose to call me when you couldn’t say, “Michelle.”  It is a silly thing really, but I hope you will ask your Mom to buy you in the store some tea that comes from Africa.  It is called Rooibos tea and is grown right here in South Africa.  I drink it with a little bit of honey and some lemon sometimes and sometimes I drink it all by itself.  When your letters come, maybe you can drink a real cup of tea with Mimi, who loves you so much.

Love is so important Avery…

It is the great study of life to be able to receive enough love to then be able to give it away beautifully and well in a world that is full of others who are sometimes in a different place than you.  I met a woman yesterday who I pass by sometimes on the street.  I was tired for lack of sleep and I didn’t take time to talk with her like I usually do and she smiled at me still.  I realised our lives had touched each day enough for her to know the look of sleep on my face and not be offended for my needing to be quiet.  She was at a beautiful place and blessed me for it and I was in a grumpy place that you have seen in me when you have witnessed me in the morning before my first cup of coffee.  Always wonder about the place someone is in when they are grumpy before you receive hurtfulness into your heart.  Always try and turn moments between you and others into moments of wonder, rather than moments of judgement, for people were made for each other all of us and so when we arrive in front of each other at different places, sometimes we have to extend grace.  Be a giver of grace and love, like the woman I met yesterday.

You are living in the years where girls are not always nice to one another.  You will be comparing your body to the bodies of your friends.  You will want your hair to look like theirs and your clothes to have a bit of sparkle to them and for people to notice the beautiful in you and acknowledge it.  These are the years where people who spend a lot of time thinking about things will share that insecurities are born in life and especially born in the lives of girls.  You will begin to doubt that all of who you are and all that you have to give is not enough.  So, your Mimi writes you from South Africa today to remind you that you are beautifully and wonderfully made.  Your hair is that perfect shade of summer blond with those lovely little waves.  Your eyes have that inquisitive nature to them and you are kind and wonderful and thoughtful.  I love how you and your brother play together and how you care for him so well (especially when you realize you have not and then begin again in your journey of caring for him well)!  Don’t believe the lie that you are not enough!  You are amazing and I am thankful to have you in my life.

Conquer your fears Avery…

I still remember the first couple weeks of your life.  I was actually living with your parents at the time in the spare bedroom of your old house.  I was preparing to leave for seminary and was given the gift of seeing you just as you were born and spending precious, precious time with you those first weeks.  The story is told that one evening your mother and I were sitting outside your bedroom holding hands.  Your father walked by and looked at us like we were crazy (you know we kind of are), but we were waiting your cries out because that is what the books your mom had read said to do.  You had to learn to put yourself to sleep on your own and it was terrible torture for us to hear you cry, but eventually after a couple of nights, you stopped crying.  You learned to conquer those minutes of fear.  You were a brave little soul right from the start!

Fear sneaks up on us in life in ways that hold us back from living fully, courageously.  It is important to look at your fears closely and carefully and begin to face them, so that they do not make you freeze in moments when you should breathe, so always remember when you are afraid to breathe and wonder about why you are afraid.  The bible has a great phrase, “perfect love casts out all fear.” It is found in a letter 1 John 4:18.  I encourage you to read this passage with your Mom and talk with her about your deepest fears, where they might come from, and how you can work not to live scared in life, but to live with courage, hope, and risking in the possibilities that lie beyond fear.  To love well means we have to release our fear of others who are different and our fear of being hurt.  You will experience things in your life like pain and suffering, but allow those moments to teach you rather than define you.  You were brave right from the start Avery.

Do not live in doubt Avery, but believe…

The great truth is that you are held in a love that has no beginning and no end.  To learn to live in the love that God has for you, every person around you, and all of this beautiful creation is the gift of each new day.  Never doubt in the possibilities that can be achieved when you live and breathe and find your being in God.  Never doubt in the love of God.  When I was a little girl, much younger than you, my grandmother used to make me coffee.  It wasn’t until much later that I realised she was making me Café Mochas, for she would put just a tiny bit of coffee in and lots of chocolate and milk so that I could join her at the kitchen table as she drank.  She used to say to me, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, and in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”  I didn’t really go to church regularly as a little girl, so it wasn’t until years later when I began to read the bible that I realised my grandmother had taught me Proverbs 3:5&6 a famous passage in the bible.  Learn to trust with every breath you breathe that you are a beautiful child of God, born into the world gifted in wonderfully amazing ways, to be a gift of love every day of your life to others.  Never doubt in God’s love for you Avery.  One day I will make you a Café Mocha, but for now drink your tea for I can actually see the questioning look on your Dad’s face  when I ponder our later years: Mocha Moments with Mimi.

I am thankful for both your mom and your dad and for their willingness from the very beginning of your life to share you with me.  I can’t wait to hug you next, but until then receive your pearls of wisdom and cup of tea.

With love from South Africa,

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Mimi

 

PS: Tell Ethan he will get a letter too and kiss him real big on his cheek for me!!!

 

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