March 30, 2011

Holy Heartbeat

My friend and I are taking a drumming class. She got two djembes for Christmas and I am borrowing one of them. The experience is quite amazing. There is a group of about 15 women, some with years of practice, others like me, brand new. Somehow we find the rhythm and connect with each other. The teacher guides us, but the rhythm is an organic thing, synchronizing our hands and connecting the sound. No one is counting out loud or directing us; it just happens. And what I find is that all I can focus on is the moment. There is just the beat, like a heart beat, steady and comforting, life-giving. All the cares of the day recede. The drumming does not solve problems or work out troubles, but it somehow makes them fade in importance, even if for just an hour. And I think that this is what the best praying is like: a heartbeat connecting itself with the universe, bringing heart, mind, soul, and body to a single focus, letting go for a moment of the cares and worries of life. And when I pray the Lord’s Prayer in the church of my childhood, that same powerful rhythm is there, joining us together, creating a harmony among us and with creation, surrounding our folded hands with the One whose hands hold us always, the One whose very heart beats in and through and among.

March 27, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent

Bucket List

Exodus 17:1-7
Luke 4:5-42

Do you know this term, bucket list? It’s the list you make of all the things you want to do before you die. Yesterday, in the funnies, Dagwood Bumstead was working on his bucket list – as he put it, the important things he wasted to do before he kicked the bucket. Blondie asked him if he meant things like cleaning all the window screens before the end of spring – apparently something on her bucket list. Usually a bucket list is not about spring cleaning. It is more likely to include adventures and once-in-a lifetime events: going mountain climbing, riding in a hot air balloon, traveling to China, taking a cruise, visiting the home of your ancestors in Africa. It could also be things like learning to speak a foreign language, restoring an antique car, or running a marathon. A bucket list, in other words, is a list of all those things you would love to do but find it all too easy to put off. The press of daily life can crowd out hopes and dreams. We get caught up in the everyday and lose sight of the sense of wonder and adventure that renews our spirits. A bucket list is a commitment to seeking out that wonder and excitement. It is a way of finding fulfillment.

Here’s one thing you can be sure of, if there had been such a concept of a bucket list in Moses’ time, his would not have included a trip through the wilderness with the children of Israel. Yes, certainly it was an adventure, but not one, remember, that he willingly chose. And if the escape from Egypt seemed good at one point, when they found themselves out in the middle of nowhere, it was less attractive. In that dry wilderness place, they thought they would die of thirst. There was no water anywhere that they could see.

Have you ever been really, really thirsty? Maybe it happened when you were in the wilderness place of a hospital waiting for surgery, not allowed to eat or drink. Real thirst has a way of focusing your attention, doesn’t it? Just about all you can think about is how wonderful even a damp swab would be. You would give just about anything for a sip of cool water. That is what happened in the wilderness. The people were ready to trade their freedom for something to drink. Their joy at being rescued from the hand of Pharaoh had evaporated, dried up in the desert sun. It would have been better, they thought, to die in Egypt then to perish of thirst in the wilderness where there was no water.

But there was water in the wilderness. They just couldn’t see it. All they could focus on was their own thirst. And maybe they couldn’t see God either. Their focus on their thirst kept them from focusing on God. But there was water there and God was there, too, going ahead of them, standing on the rock where the water was, waiting to give them life. The hidden water flowed out when Moses opened the rock. It had been there all along but it took an act of faith and obedience to bring it forth.

As I think about this story, I wonder how many times in my own life I have been so focused on what I needed, or thought I needed, that I was blind to the way God was waiting to provide. I think about those times when I have been worried or afraid, when I have been so focused on taking care of myself that I forgot how God is always looking out for me. But there have also been times in my life when I have been able to act in faith, in obedience, even when it didn’t seem to make any more sense than getting water out of a stone. And I’ve seen that same thing happen in the lives others. In those times, I have been able to see that what was needed was there all along, hidden in plain sight, but it took action based on trust and belief to receive it.

That is how Jesus lived his life, after all, acting in faith and obedience to God, even when there was no visible reason to think that what he or those around him needed would be provided.

That is what happened in his encounter with the woman at the well, in the heat of the day. In a desert place, water is precious. In ancient times, and even today in too many places around the world, drawing water is a daily requirement for life itself. The women who did this work would have wanted to come early in the day, before it got too hot, before they got on with their other chores at home. But one woman came at noon, when the sun was overhead blazing down. She did not come with the others, and we can speculate that they avoided her and she avoided them. Most likely, she was not the kind of role-model the others would hold up for their daughters. She had been married – a lot. Maybe she had been widowed or divorced, who knows? And now she was living with a man out of wedlock. I picture her as tough and practical – she would have had to be in order to survive in a small community. You know how people talk; you know how cruel we can be to those who seem to break the rules of polite society.

But even with her own history, she knew there were some rules that no one should break. Men absolutely did not talk to strange women. Jews did not have anything to do with Samaritans. Nice people did not listen to her kind. And then she met Jesus.

At the start of their conversation, she misunderstood what he was saying to her. After all, she was the practical type. It was hot, he was tired and thirsty, she had a bucket and he did not. But there he was, saying that he could give her water, living water. She was skeptical at first: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?”

For both of them, the woman and Jesus, the water they need for life itself was right there, but hidden and inaccessible until they each reached out to the other in trust and belief. Jesus was the source of new life for the woman, and the woman with her bucket could give Jesus what he needed.

In the wilderness of our world, in the dry places of life, we stand with that woman at the well. Jesus, the Jew, speaks to us, the Gentiles. And it doesn’t matter what the circumstances of our lives are, how many mistakes we have made, how many times we have messed up. As he did with the woman, Jesus offers us living water. He waits to give us that which will satisfy the deepest thirst we have, the thirst for love and acceptance and grace and God.

But there is more to our meeting Jesus. Jesus has no bucket. But we do. Dag Hammarskjold, a wise and holy man who was the Secretary General of the UN in the 1950s wrote this: “I am the vessel. The draft is God’s. And God is the thirsty one.”

God in Christ thirsts for what we would draw out of our souls with our little buckets. The well inside us is deep and full, whether we can see that or not. In faith and obedience, we are called to find the life that is there, even if it seems hidden and inaccessible, to draw it out and lift it up to God.

Those who would follow Christ have a bucket list that is different from the world’s. Our bucket list is not about those things we want to do for ourselves before we die. No, as Christians our bucket list is what we want to do for Jesus before we die. Our bucket list is what we want to do for Jesus because he died, for us, and is risen to eternal life, for us.

Jesus stands before us with no bucket of his own. He is waiting for us to draw water for him, to offer him the life that he is thirsty for, which is our life. And he is waiting to give us the life that will fill our thirsty souls, which is his life.

What does your bucket look like? Is it shiny and new, or a little dinged up and slightly worse for wear? It doesn’t matter. You still hold the gift of life within you, because God’s love has been poured into you.

The bucket of your life is filled with Christ’s own life. All that you need comes from that unending source of love and life. All that you need comes from Christ. And all that you are is all Christ needs – whoever you are, whatever your gifts, anything and everything you have to offer. You get to figure out what Christ needs from you. That’s your bucket list.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

March 24, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

The Sunday night Lenten service was in a small country church that has been in the same place since 1800. The building is plain and square, with white clapboards and a tin roof, two front doors leading directly into the sanctuary from the porch. The pews are wide boards joined at the perpendicular, with the blessing of cushions, but even so requiring us to sit up straight. We joined the generations of faithful to worship and pray and hear the Word. And we sang old gospel hymns, the songs that people there know by heart, the songs that lie deep in memory, accompanying the joys and sorrows of life. And then someone requested “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” It was a favorite of a woman who attended these services for years and years until her death, when her obituary made special note of her favorite hymn. We always sang the hymn when she was present, and I’m sure they sang it at her funeral. But….our mother would rather sing just about anything else. So she leaned over the pew to my sister and said, “Oh no. But she’s dead.” And my sister replied, “Well, there’s another one of them.” And that set us off the way something would strike us as funny in church when we were children. We shook with silent laughter until there were tears in our eyes and did not get ourselves under control until the very end of the last verse.

The sermon was strong and good, the prayers embraced us all, the food and fellowship afterward were lovely, and the almost-sacrilegious laughter shared with my sister was sweet and pure.

March 21, 2011

Sweetness and Light

On Saturday, my brother opened the bee hive. The bees have ended their winter’s hibernation and are back out, visiting dandelions, forsythia, clover, and vetch. The hive has the left-over honey from last year, what they did not need to see them through the cold. At the end of the fall, when almost everything had stopped blooming, the bees fed on basil blossoms. And the honey they made from those end-of-season flowers is lightly sweet and the color of summer sun. We uncapped the honeycomb, each cell a miraculous perfect little hexagon, and ate the honey in the yard, even as the bees flew off in search of the nectar of another spring.

March 13, 2011


The images from Japan are wrenching. The destruction is beyond imagining. There are untold lives lost, and for the survivors, whole ways of life gone forever.

The earthquake and the tsunami did not happen here. The ground underneath my feet in my little neighborhood is stable, there is no radioactivity falling from the sky, houses sit firmly on their foundations. The devastation that I see on television is halfway around the world. And yet the faces that I see are the faces of my neighbors. Our ever-shrinking world brings us closer together. Sometimes that global closeness magnifies differences and conflicts. But sometimes it illuminates our common humanity.

Japan is not another world. Last week, I sat in a meeting with a colleague from the University of Tokyo who is back home – whatever that may mean for him now. My niece has traveled there; my friend’s sister has lived there. Fifty students and faculty from my school are there now, trying to figure out when and how they can leave.

The poet and preacher John Donne once said “No man is an island.” And no island, whether it is Japan or any other, separates us one from another. So our hearts break for our neighbors, our sisters and brothers, our unknown friends.

March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

The snow is finally melting, but it is still about a foot deep in parts of my yard. In contrast to when it was newly fallen, now it is dirty, marked by soot and grime. As it melts, it exposes what has been hidden and forgotten all winter. I see again the tools from the little remodeling project that did not quite get finished. The birdbath has resurfaced, as have my little bench and the bottle tree. There are sticks and limbs and general yard debris, all buried for months. Down the street, a manger scene is being uncovered day by day, Mary and Joseph sticking out of the snow bank first, and then the Baby, slowly being revealed. Christmas trees put out for recycling are still by the curb, uncovered and finally able to be picked up and sent on to a new purpose.

And today is the beginning of Lent. The word “lent” means spring, that elusive season that we are just beginning to feel, however tentatively. And I think that the melting snow of spring is like the work of Lent. All that I used to cover my unfinished business and debris and old decorations, all that seemed so white and shiny at first, is melting away. All the beautiful defenses that I use to hide my sin disappear in the practice of Lent, and everything is exposed to the bright light of a new season of forgiveness. As the ashes and soot fall into the ground when the snow is gone, so the dirt of my own life, the accumulation of days and weeks – months and years – will also be transformed into new life.

And in the midst of all the melting away, the Christ is being revealed, too – long hidden, forgotten in the midst of the storms, out of sight but now exposed and visible. And the new encounter with that Christ is what cleanses and restores all the life that has been hidden away in the futile attempt to cover up, hide, and forget sin.

Something else: The daffodils are starting to come up. The pussy willows are fat and fluffy. And I remember the garlic and the strawberries and the black-eyed Susans that I have planted in past seasons, warm and waiting for the moment to emerge. Spring is coming. New life is possible. Lent is hope. And may God resurrect all the good that has been planted, all that is waiting to bring nourishment and beauty and joy.

March 8, 2011

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Wholly Holy

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

The Book of Leviticus is not the place you turn when you are seeking biblical comfort and familiarity. If the Ten Commandments are God’s law, then Leviticus is the governmental regulations. It is page after page of specific instructions for how the people are to live – what they are to eat and not eat, what they should wear, how they are to plant their fields, what kind of relationships they have with each other, how to deal with disease and disability. Not exactly cheery reading.

All those proscriptions make us nervous and uncomfortable. Many of them are very culturally specific, applicable to a people and a place that are not relevant to us. But the passage the lectionary gives us today is different. Right in the middle of Leviticus there is this amazing section where God speaks to the people about their fundamental identity and gives them what is perhaps the most radical commandment in all of scripture. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This brief statement is the heart of God’s law. All the rest, as they say, is just commentary.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble thinking of God as holy. To me this notion of holiness means perfection, complete goodness, steadfast love. It also embodies the concept of otherness: that which is holy is somehow set apart, separated from corruption and the taint of the secular.

I have no problem seeing God like that. But it is much harder to think of humanity that way. I suspect that was true of the ancient Israelites as much as it is for us because God gave them very specific examples of God’s own holiness as it might translate into their everyday lives.

Let’s consider those examples for a moment.

Do not reap to the very edges of your field. It was an ancient practice to allow the poor to come behind the harvesters and glean any part of the crop that might have been missed. Of course then as now, it was in the best interest of the farmer to send as much product as possible to market, to do as well as one possibly could for one’s own self. But holiness, God’s holiness, has an element of profound unselfishness. God does not require the people to give away everything but God does require them to be generous with others, to provide for them the accidental leavings of the crop and more. Holiness, then, is an intentional regard for the poor.

Another part of God’s holiness is being truthful and trustworthy – not stealing, lying, practicing crooked dealings, or swearing falsely – that is, being careless about the way one pledges allegiance to God.

Also here: not defrauding another, or withholding what is due; not making fun of those with handicaps; being fair and just to everyone, treating rich and poor alike; not profiting from another’s misfortune; not hating anyone who is kin to you – and you know, we are all brothers and sisters.

And finally, summing it all up, this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Sounds a lot like what Jesus said, doesn’t it? And that should not be surprising. God’s holiness is embodied, incarnate in Jesus Christ. And like the holiness code of Leviticus, Jesus’ teachings include specific examples of how the people are to live.

But I have to say when I listen to these instructions from Leviticus and from the Sermon on the Mount, it almost seems to me that being holy is the opposite of being human. It may be holy to turn the other cheek, give away your coat, go the second mile, give to everyone who would beg or borrow from you, and love your enemies; but that doesn’t seem like human nature to me.

These actions that Jesus calls us to take have been termed the third way. You see, we tend to look at things as either/or, a kind of “my way or the highway” approach. It is flight or fight: We can engage with injustice and oppression and evil or we can walk away. But Jesus says there is a third way, the way of nonviolent direct action. The biblical scholar, Walter Wink (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press, Minneapolis; pp 175 ff.) explains these commands of Jesus like this: To those who have been humiliated and attacked, slapped around, turning the other cheek robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate, he says. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieved its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.”

In practical terms, it works like this. If I am going to slap someone I consider my inferior, I will give him the back of my hand – right hand to right cheek. But if that persons then turns the left cheek for me to slap, I can’t do it with my right hand, unless I make a fist or strike with my open palm – both methods which signal a fight between equals. The oppressor is now confronted with an impossible dilemma. He can no longer humiliate. If he would strike again, it must be in a way that signals a fair fight. And in a fair fight, he might lose. He is no longer in control.

It is the same with giving one’s cloak in addition to the coat. In Greek, the word for coat means an outer garment, while the word for cloak implies an undergarment. What Jesus is saying is take it all off. If someone wants to sue that pants off of you, help them. March out of debtor’s court in your birthday suit. This would have been a terrible situation for the creditor, much more than for the bare-bottomed debtor, since looking on the nakedness of another was a violation of the law. It was a much greater humiliation for the one of saw the nakedness, than for the one who was naked.

Similarly, while common practice allowed a Roman soldier to force a citizen to carry his heavy pack for one mile, to go beyond that might create grounds for a rebuke of the soldier from his commanding officer, or even a fine to be paid. So if someone refused to give up the pack after a mile and kept going, it shifted the balance of power. Now the oppressed are in control; now the Roman solider is at the mercy of the one he sought to oppress.

Jesus teaches us how to upset the powers that be by peaceful and creative means. It is not just flight or fight. There is a third way of resistance that restores humanity, equality, dignity. This is what it means to be holy, as God is holy. It is a leveling of humanity – raising up the lowly and taking the powerful down a notch or two. When we are able to do this, then we fulfill Jesus’ commandment to be perfect.

Now if being holy is a daunting task, how do you feel about being perfect? It might help to think about what the word means in the original Greek. It has a sense of being complete. I think about this call for us to be perfect as God’s call to us to live as God intends, to be wholly and completely who God means us to be, in other words, to be holy.

This is not an impossibility. We can do this because we are made in the image of God. In other words, as God is holy, so are we. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And just think about what would happen, if we lived as though we really were the image of God in the world – which, of course we are. There would be no barriers between people; the alien and the outsider would be welcomed as one of us; the poor would have enough to eat; we would seek to understand and embrace our enemies rather than vilifying them; our generosity would ensure that everyone had enough; no one would be humiliated or oppressed.

That is our calling. That is what God in Christ commands of us. It is not easy. Except it might be a littler easier here in an urban church. Your place in the world gives you a perspective on poverty and injustice that all-too-many other Christians don’t see. You have ready-made opportunities to be holy, godly people, living Christ-like lives, opportunities literally right on your doorstep. You are already practicing some of this. You don’t reap to the edge of your field; you don’t keep the wealth of this church all for yourselves. You engage in ministries of social justice. You welcome the stranger. You stand with the poor and oppressed.

The problems of our world are difficult and often seem intractable. But remember, dear friends, that nothing shall be impossible with God. It is not either/or, it is not fight or flight – not in engaging the world, or even in deciding your future as a congregation. There is always a third way, a holy way.

And you are holy people, made in the image of God and called to reflect God in the world. May it be so now and always.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith