Sunday, March 29, 2020

2020.03.29 Is Lazarus Raised From The Dead?

The biblical story in John's gospel about the raising of Lazarus, a man dead for over four days and by now stinking with rot in the tomb, according to the text, is what I might call the piece de resistance of gospel stories. Envision the headline!

But did it really happen? Who told you? The media always exaggerates? It’s a lie? Or is it gossip? Who would believe such a thing?  It is written. What for?

The family of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, in Bethany who had consistently offered Jesus a place to rest and dine while he was on the road as a missionary for the gospel, was now in dire need of his presence. Jesus was summoned and he came. He dropped the urgent task at hand—persuading his people of the loving purposes of their God— simply to comfort his best friends. To many, that action alone would be as unbelievable as the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Did it really exactly happen this way?  We need an explanation. Well, it was of course a literary device meant to foreshadow the resurrection of Christ.  What is truth and what is fact? You decide.

I will tell you what it means to me and why it is true to me. Jesus, at the height of his career, abandons his call from God, his ministry, his vocation to risk—risk—his life and reputation for dear friends. That I believe. Jesus saw Mary and Martha in deep grief. They begged him to help. He saw their need, but not only was it their need it was his own need. He wept in deep grief too. This I believe.

What Jesus did first was weep with them. Then he asked to see the burial place, something we often ask up front. Where is he? Can I see him or her? The ashes, the grave, the coffin, the body—any remnant of the dead beloved? There might be a mistake? Take me to see? Those gathered were silenced, awed by Jesus’s display of grieving love. He was supposed to be Messiah. They wanted a  miracle. They got love instead—Jesus vulnerable with his own loss and his own love. O God, what a wrenching helpless feeling if you have ever experienced such grief and love intimately together.

Jesus did what we all do. He looked up and he prayed. (John adds a bit of theological fringe talk, even scolding Martha for questioning his teaching and to believe the glory of God. Didn’t I tell you it would be revealed?) But Jesus prays.  He asks God directly, even remembering first to thank God, something I rarely remember to do myself. His prayer is strong.

“Lazarus come out!” Jesus shouts at the now opened tomb. Everyone waits.

The “dead” Lazarus emerges from the tomb. He staggers out, all bound by the burial clothes. You would think Jesus would have held a prayer service of thanksgiving, rejoicing, making sure the greater glory of almighty God was properly honored. Even a simple thanks would be acceptable. But no, Jesus orders those standing there agog: “Unbind him, and let him go!”

And that, my friends, is the point.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

2020.03.22 The Good Samaritan and the Good Jew—In Conversation

People on planet earth in 2020 are arrested, quarantined because of a viral pandemic that is spread by human contact. We are to avoid each other when we need each other most. The virus, COVID-19, is particularly life-threatening to people over sixty, people with compromised immune systems, heart or lung disease, the homeless, and the poor.

How long, Lord? We are prescribed certain protective behaviors, yet there is no guarantee. We are told to avoid human contact and physically isolate. If we are obedient to all this, will we stay healthy? For how long?  We fear and we hope.

My own feeling is one of unsettledness, almost like being suspended between nothing and nothing, trapped like a spider in an intricate web of fear and hope, and I don’t know which thread to grab onto and trust. Which to choose, given that there is no definitive timeline?

Fear and hope interlock.

Is there a biblical story like this, a story in which fear and hope interlock? What popped into my mind was a story in John’s gospel in which two people, a Samaritan and a Jew, meet at an ancient sacred site, Jacob’s well. Centuries of cultural/religious prejudice about the enmity between Samaritans and Jews prescribed what each should do. Instead these two have a conversation.

You might expect me to say that the Samaritan was the one with fear, she being a woman of dubious reputation, having had several husbands and who knows what else, and Jesus was the righteous one who brought hope and all thing good. I would suggest however that if we freeze the scenario and look into it with open hearts we see two human beings, strangers, each with a need and a decision to make, each with fear and hope battling in their hearts.

Jesus was a traveling evangelist with a mission who had met with hostility because he had baptized more people than his cousin John the Baptizer. Enter sibling rivalry, even if it wasn’t true. Jesus decided to return to his home territory of Galilee. To do so he had to pass through Samaria— enemy territory. It was a long journey on foot, it was midday, and he was tired, sweaty, and most of all thirsty. There was the well of Jacob and his sons. Jesus knew the tradition of the ancients who came to worship at this well and of the hostilities that had evolved about land in Israel. Still, he was thirsty, and he had no bucket.

The woman knew all about history and her own situation. She was alone. She came to draw water. Jesus presented a challenge when he asked her to draw water and give him a drink. It could be risky. The wise thing to do would be to flee, but then she needed to fetch water, and she had something he needed. So she boldly engaged him in a conversation, a challenge really. “How can you a Jew ask a drink of me, a Samaritan? “ 

Why does she say yes, and why does he pursue the conversation? Leaving aside the temptation to project our own religious or gender biases, or to give Jesus the Christian edge, because John inserted a small and lovely homily about living waters, an obvious add-on. I want to stay with the two people. Jesus and the Samaritan woman stood on equal ground, each with something to say, each with a need and a choice to make, each with some fear and each with some hope.

Why does she say yes to an enemy, and why risk a whole conversation? I don’t think it was just because he magically knew all about her reputation and history; nor was it because she spotted her next potential husband; nor was it because he offered a new spirituality of living water for her soul. I think she gave him what he needed, because she had a bucket, because he did not condemn her, and because she had a warm heart.

Why did Jesus ask something of her, an enemy?  I do not think it was because he spotted an opportunity to convert her or make her into the latest greatest evangelist for his proclamation, nor because there was any sexual attraction. I think he asked because he was thirsty, she had a bucket, and because he saw her warm heart.

Together they made something new. In them we see hope and fear interlock. Can we do likewise in this time of hope and fear?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

2020.03.15 Quarantine

There’s a virus called COVID-19 whipping its toxicity around the globe. We are to practice “social distancing”—the term coined to suit the daily habits of anti-social grumps, but now a term signifying the principal life-saving behavior to avoid contacting the virus that spreads by human contact. Staying away from each other in order to stay well. How paradoxical:the farther away you stay from other people, even loved ones, the healthier you will be.

The other life-saving behavior is more obvious: wash your hands—again and again and then once more.  Thirdly, avoid being in large crowds of people, and of course don’t travel. Such life-saving advice may just kill sports-crazy Bostonians and/or families whose kids are players in some sport and hoping for a college scholarship based on their performance—or their parents who are praying for same.

If you’re a overzealous extrovert you could go into withdrawal. OR you could stay healthy.  If you’re already a clean-freak, you’ll be ecstatically squeaky-clean. Disappointment is not life-threatening. Choose life—yours.

Equally attractive stay-well guarantees include Lysol-spraying or wiping the surfaces in your home. They don’t say exactly how many times a day, but for persons with OCD inclinations this would mean, well, the obvious overdo. Absolutely the most perfected police detection methods will never discover any fingerprints anywhere in your house, except your own on the Lysol spray can or the Lysol wipes container. This precaution will be particularly difficult if you have small children about, because they use every surface as if it were a personal touchscreen—evidence of their omnipresence. Do NOT wipe their faces with the disinfectant. This will cause a tantrum at the very least. Soapy water is old-fashionedly enough for most of this, by the way.

Those at highest risk to contract the virus, and possibly die from it or contract a secondary infection that proves resistant to the latest antibiotic, are persons over sixty, persons whose immune systems are already compromised, persons with lung or heart disease, and compulsive “huggers” who tent you with Christian affection.  

As to our executive leadership, the President at first minimized the little “bug,” then declared himself an expert by “intuition”and “hunch” on such medical decisions, then finally, as the only official authorized to make such a declaration, declared this virus a “national emergency.”  Okay so NOW we can start taking this virus seriously—but not really, because it is, according to the President, a foreign virus, brought into this pristine country from outside—probably without a proper passport or visa. But that should not be a problem with our wondrous immigration policies, unless the virus makes its case as a tourist. If so, all it has to do is cut short its visit and go on “home.” 

Quarantine, including closed schools and colleges, events, and churches, is the only appropriate and effective answer, and it is global. Personally, I feel for young happy-proud college graduates who are staging “fauxmencement”ceremonies to avoid drawing a huge crowd. No fans. Morally, I feel pained, because obviously people who work in food stores, restaurants, construction and many other kinds of workers cannot afford to lose an ounce of income. The virus exposes our racist classist society. Medically, there is also the danger of over-stressing the hospitals and other healthcare facilities if the virus spread too rapidly to manage critical cases.
Personally, I can tell you it’s a bit lonely if not boring. What helps?
    Online efforts. I attended online Eucharist at our cathedral this morning.
    Phoning my adult children a few more times than is necessary, yet the sound of each voice on the answering machine lifts me from quarantine gloom.
    This is one of the few times in my life when I’ve been totally obedient—compliant to a fault. Nice to know it’s in me.
    I can write. Words heal. I can pester my husband with baloney, read, watch television, and pray—a powerful energy force through which I know I am not alone and by which I trust God’s faithful Spiritual presence, like a masseuse, de-kinking.
    Keeping a robust sense of humor. Not possible to frown while laughing.
    Poetry is the best salve. Here is a poem that frames quarantine and pandemic in a creative religio-spiritual way. To see more of Lynn’s fine poetry visit her website

Pandemic by Lynn Ungar

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

 --Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

And one more thing: tears. Tears cleanse, refresh, and release. I am mourning the death on March 13th of a beloved bishop, the Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris, the first woman bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion after being elected, proudly, by the Diocese of Massachusetts where she has served as Suffragan since 1989. Barbara was a force for justice, a friend who supported my writing, a woman of piquant humor, no matter what was happening, and a vibrant presence we all will greatly miss.

Our present diocesan bishop of Massachusetts, the Rt. Rev. Alan M.Gates, sent an eloquent pastoral message to the clergy and people of the Diocese of Massachusetts. His words caught up my soul:

A few hours later I found myself at the bedside of one beloved to us all who had just slipped peacefully from this world to the next. In the sure and certain hope which we claim, I gave voice to the Church’s prayers of commendation: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

A solitary moment, yet embodying the fullest companionship imaginable.  

At no time are we alone. Here, there. Now, then. At few moments in our memory have we more needed to remember this, to assure one another of this and to show forth that conviction to others as Christians.”

And I wept.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

2020.03.08 Being Born Again—And Again

You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, the realm of heavenly things, Christians say.

How many times?

At first, Kaia Rolle, 6, appeared not to understand what the police officers were doing.

“What are those for?” she said, eyeing the zip ties the officers had brought to the school office in Orlando, Fla.

“It’s for you,” one officer responded.

As he tied them on, she started to sob: “No, don’t put handcuffs on. Help me!” (from an article in the New York Times of 2/27/20, “Body Camera Footage Shows Arrest by Orlando Police of 6-Year Old at School” by journalist, Mihir Zaveri, first published in The Orlando Sentinel.)

The child continued to sob and plead, begging for help, and wailing: “Please, please. No, please” as two officers arrested her, cuffed her, and placed her in the back of a police vehicle. Later she was charged with battery and taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center—jail. Out of respect I will not include her mug shot taken after finger-printing. But don't tell me this is legal!

I first saw the live footage on the nightly MSNBC Greater Boston news program last week. It made my blood curdle, my innards recoil, and my eyes fill with tears. I had trouble getting the image out of my mind and still do.

From a spiritual perspective, I am sure that if you ever see such a horror you will know that you are being born again—awakened to the end of sweet heavenly visions of divine kingdoms in the sky. You will never be the same again. You will never be naive or judgmental about the true meaning of what Christians call being born again. Is there heaven in this hell?

The arrest of Kaia Rolle happened in September after she had an emotional tantrum at school in which she kicked a school staff member and may have hit out at another student. The arresting officer had arrested a six-year-old boy in a separate episode on the same day was terminated from his job.  The incident raised immediate political and legal alarm, and steps were taken that require a deputy chief’s approval before a child under twelve was arrested. Kaia’s grandmother offered explanations about the child’s sleep apnea and their efforts to treat it.

Emotional outbursts like Kaia’s happen all the time in classrooms. Teachers are trained to manage them as creatively and kindly as they can. But did you now that our states have laws that legalize arrests for children that young? They call it juvenile, as if that word could soften the impact of such cruelty. I tell you that the law sanctioning such child abuse is against the “law” of Christ and, as one attorney said, represents a broken system that needs fixing. 

What happened to Kaia is the definition of sin, systemic and individual. It’s the Cross of Christ. I saw this little girl break. I felt born again into the evil potential of this world.

I can only pray that my own emotional breakage will be used by God for good and beg, like Kaia, for help—again and again and again.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

2020.03.01 This LIttle Chair of Mine

Downsizing is an ongoing process, made bearable by tempting interruptions. Unlike Jesus, I allow myself to get drawn away from the task at hand and into the sweet joy of every distraction—whispered memories that remind me who I am and who we are.

Many pieces of furniture have a story to tell. I listen to their stories—sad, funny, puzzling, sacred, delicious. The stories let me know which items I will keep for now, which will go to 1-800-Junk, to the weekly recycling bin, into the city sidewalk box to be picked up and treasured by someone else, and which will stay with me till death do us part.

This little chair of mine is I suppose an antique. It is over eighty years old, like me. It was a gift to me on my birth day from a woman I used to call Aunt Dodie, the first wife of Uncle Louie, one of my dad’s older brothers. That’s the brief bio of my little chair.
I adored my little chair from the beginning. Less so Aunt Dodie who was a woman of extravagantly overbearing personality. She did, however, hit the jackpot with my little chair. I sat in it each night as my parents enjoyed their cocktail hour—a boring ritual that shifted all attention away from me and onto a martini glass. I rocked very fast in my sturdy little chair, hoping to attract attention. My chair did its job perfectly. I trusted it to stand guard on the cocktail hour while I hopped off, snitching some Ritz crackers as any wise explorer in search of other “worlds” would. I ended up under my parents’ large dining room table where I chattered, kvetched, and lamented to God who listened to my every word without comment. Such was my earliest spiritual experience. Such is the story the little chair tells.

I’ve had my little chair reconditioned twice. It has lived with me in New York, Connecticut, Alabama, and Massachusetts in five different towns and two cities. It has rocked more than one of my own children and a grandchild or two.

Today it sits next to my home altar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but it is never alone. Our Francis bear, a tiny disheveled dog named Love sit in the chair, and a St. Bernard rescue dog named Steadfast stands at the ready next to the chair. Francis is curious and has never-ending questions, like me. Steadfast and Love I gave to my beloved when we were courting. They represent how we feel, and sometime behave, towards each other. More deeply, they represent the principal, and I’d dare to say only, quality of divine love, as does my little chair.
I hope a great grandchild will one day sit in my little chair, add to her story, and rock and rock and rock. The story goes on.

I’ve come to believe that when we stack up all our stories, including those we hear from our most treasured objects, the story-power alone will bust through any dammed up resentments, hostilities, or fables that threaten to keep us apart. 

Thank you, Little Chair.