In the Din of our Discontent there lies the Burning Bush

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

I love Moses. I love reading the stories surrounding his birth and adoption, his privileged upbringing, his character and his development as a leader. I love his cautious response to his calling, his developing relationship with God and his honest and forthright expression of frustration both with his work and with the people he was called to lead.

I’m grateful that the Hebrew Scriptures do not sugarcoat or disguise the faults and limitations of God’s chosen leaders and people. What this tells us is that God works through sinful people, and that is excellent news for us. Moses, for example, exhibited real and understandable emotions and weaknesses, making him, for me, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the Bible. And he’s more like you and me than one would think.

The first reading for the third week of Lent tells the story of Moses’ calling and commissioning. [Ex 3:1-8, 13-15]. The text tells us that while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of the Lord visited him in the form of a burning bush. (For those who are paying attention, any time an angel or fire appears in Scripture something really big is about to happen. Here we have both!) Naturally, Moses was curious and turned to investigate how a bush could burn and not be destroyed. But before Moses could get closer, God called his name, as if to say, “Moses, this is not about the bush! This entire place is holy!”

Today as we reflect on Moses’ calling consider the burning bushes in your life. Moses witnessed the misery of his kinsman; he saw the injustice of their bondage and infighting [Ex 2:11-15].  What are the needs that demand your attention, what compels you to service? Do you recognize the holy ground beneath your feet? Ask yourself these questions, frequently. Because like the bush that burned but was not destroyed, our callings persist.

Moses became the official spokesperson for God, the hero of the Exodus story, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments and the fearless wilderness wanderer guiding thousands of liberated people to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” [Ex 3:8b]

But Moses himself did not get to see the Promised Land. Frankly, being on a first-name basis with God has its rewards, but it’s not all chocolates and roses. At the time of his calling Moses was so frightened by the power of God’s presence he hid his face [Ex 3:6]. He had serious doubts about his leadership abilities [Ex 3:11-14]. And on multiple occasions Moses questioned God’s motivation for saddling him with such a burdensome people [Numbers 11 is a doozy]. And they were a miserable bunch: their appalling lack of gratitude, their murmuring and grumbling about the food and conditions, and pining for a misremembered past, their abject disaffection with the present, skepticism about the future, their fickleness and idolatry, their lack of faith, and utter disrespect for Moses, and their rejection of God.

Still, through it all, Moses’ confidence in God’s faithfulness to him never wavered; he turned to God for strength and guidance again and again; he forged on, and he got the job done.

From the perspective of the post-exilic Jews, these stories were painful reminders of why they lost everything and were exiled to Babylon: they had forgotten who they were. But this understanding cemented the identity of Israel as a people freed from slavery by the hand of God; this truth is the heart of the Jewish faith. Moses completed the mission God entrusted to him and left an “afterwards[1]” that continues to grow stronger. The history of the Jewish people attests to this truth. This is our story too.

Because we live in a world of grumblers, I am sympathetic both to Moses and the people he led through the wilderness. We are a sorry, ungrateful, and dissatisfied mob. It is becoming harder and harder to fend off feelings of despair. Every day we read reports that tell us how far off the path we have stumbled. We are heading in the wrong direction. We have lost our way in the wilderness. Even worse is the knowledge we are willingly being led off that cliff.

Have we also forgotten who we are?

But listen carefully. Through the din of our discontent we can make out the sound of hope. It is there. I know it is there. It is rising up. It is a burning bush, do you perceive it? Take off your shoes.

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Art: Kristen Gilje, Burning Bush, hand painted silk, 9ft. x 55 in., 2005

[1] Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Christian Life Patterns: The Psychological Challenges and Religious Invitations of Adult Life, Crossroad, New York. 1979. 152. The phrase, “leaving an afterwards” describes the selfless quality of intentionally devoting one’s life to something which we will not live to see completed. This ability to see beyond one’s own pleasure to the consequences future generations will face is dearly lacking in today’s socio-political climate. What kind of “afterwards” are we leaving?

The unspeakable nearness of God

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (B)

Poor Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. But the wishy-washy, always famished, fickle, forgetful Israelites and foreigners traveling with him do. After all that Moses did to bring these people out of Egypt—including saving their butts from divine fury on multiple occasions—he is now too old and too close to death to continue.

Moses, devoted leader that he was, took the job God called him to do with some reluctance and made no bones about letting God know it. For forty years, he endured the peoples’ appalling lack of gratitude and awareness of the magnitude of what had been done for them, expressed by their hurtful claims of being better off in Egypt.

In one memorable rant, Moses seems close to submitting his resignation. He complains to God for saddling him with this burdensome bunch. He lashes out over his feelings of inadequacy and resentment over being made “a foster father” for the stubborn brood. “Was it I who conceived all this people?” he says. “Or was it I who gave them birth, that you tell me to carry them at my bosom, like a foster father carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers?” [Numbers 11:11-15]. In the same breath, Moses acknowledges God as Creator, Father, and Promise Keeper. Moses’ relationship with God was like this, he could speak his mind plainly because his awareness of God included trust in God’s Infinite love and fidelity. He knew God would not reject or abandon him.

Much later, on the eve of the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, Moses gives a lengthy commencement speech in which he reminds the people that God’s love and faithfulness were present in all that they had experienced together—the exodus, the Sinai covenant, and the wilderness wanderings.

He presents a series of rhetorical questions to which there is only one answer. No, never before has anything this great happened, never have a people experienced the action of God on their behalf in such a way. Moses entreats the people to fix God in their hearts and to keep God’s statutes and commandments [Deut 4:32-34, 39-40]. Moses posed the rhetorical questions to the Israelites as if to say “Do you finally realize what this means?

Sometimes out of the blue, a rush of gratitude wells up in me for the simple gift of being, for life’s infinite possibilities, for beauty, for the sweetness of human tenderness, for variety and abundance, and for the self-awareness that permits me to recognize God’s exquisite nearness in all of these things. This is not unusual. I am putting into words the experience of countless others throughout time, inadequate as those words might be.

The writers of Sacred Scripture did their best, but the sense of the divine evades containment. Further, our minds rarely allow us to linger in that space long enough to try. And so, like the Israelites we cross the Jordan knowing there never will be a frame great enough to encompass this experience of God.

What is God’s nearness like? How does it feel, what colors, shapes, textures and images arise? To what relationships can it be compared?

Clear your mind of traditional artistic interpretation, distance yourself from Renaissance portraiture. Our God is not an old man in the sky. No image is adequate. The practice is like a parable in which we identify something that is “like” what we seek to understand, but at the same time that something is also not like it at all.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul names God Abba, a term of endearment meaning Daddy. As children of God we enjoy a closeness that surpasses anything previously imagined [Romans 8:14-17]. Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, found in the final verse of Matthew’s gospel, come with the comforting promise of life-long companionship: “And, behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age” [Matthew 28:16-20].

Images of Divine Source, Creator, Promise Keeper, Abba, Friend are incomplete, but each nudges us closer to the truth. Our God is a God of incomprehensible proximity. When we take this awareness into the world, we can begin to see it expressed in various ways all around us. Suddenly we “see.”

Our awareness of God cannot be limited to sunny days and good times. Sometimes, when tragedy strikes, we feel abandoned. We cry out, “Where are you?” Others say, “How does your all-powerful, all-loving God permit this unbearable suffering?” Where the Hell is God?

The question of God and suffering is, to my mind, one of the primary causes of disbelief, and a topic for future discussion. But for now, I’d like to take a tentative step into this complicated and dangerous territory of faith to say: Our God is not a remote God. I don’t buy into the finite theology that says God “allows” bad things to happen because we are fragile beings and have free will to choose good over evil. It is true, we are fragile and we do have free will. But what kind of god would step back and actively allow the unspeakably profound human-driven evils and injustices currently happening in our world?

Assertions of God’s victorious nature and the promise of eternal rewards dismiss the ongoing reality that suffering and evil deeds, many fueled by a warped definition of God’s will, continues.

We cannot simply move from the end of one disaster or atrocity to the next. Victims cannot be expected to forget their history, or bear them alone. I recently overheard someone say of black Americans, “They should move on. Get over the slavery thing!” I have heard others say they avoid Holocaust museums because they don’t want to get depressed. Crimes against humanity must never be dis-remembered. To forget the suffering of the past is to forget the Cross. Shall we say “Oh, Jesus is resurrected, Alleluia”, and forget the crucifixion?

Where is God in all this? God is intimately, incomprehensibly present in our suffering and is the motivator of those who take up the cross to work for justice with a creative, abundant and life-giving response.

God is here, in the midst of it, unfathomably close. Do we realize what this means?

Today’s readings can be found here.

And the infant church was born.

Pentecost Sunday (B)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter. I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. The feeling of my breath calmed her. Infants will cry for any and every reason, and even after having every need fulfilled, they. just. cry. Experts say crying is related to the developing central nervous system, but as far as I was concerned my baby girl’s distress was more about her new life outside my womb. From the very start, I carried her in a sling wrapped tightly against my chest, but now it seemed that my breath calmed her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart. I later learned that blowing on an infant’s face is used in many settings. For example, it is one of the techniques used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to hold their breath underwater. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believe my ability to calm my newborn daughter in this way had less to do with science and more to do with her recognition of me through my breath.

Biblically speaking, the breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, are highly significant symbols. And no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Christians celebrate the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples. The Christian Liturgy for Pentecost includes two distinct accounts: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, occurs on the festival of Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks). Shavuot commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The second account comes from the Gospel of John and describes the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his resurrection.

Both texts tell us the disciples were all together in one place. In the first account, the disciples stayed behind in Jerusalem just as they had been instructed to do after witnessing Jesus’ ascension [Acts 1:6-12]. In John’s Gospel, the disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days before [John 20:19-23]. We can presume in both instances the disciples were praying. However, in Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of the disciples. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols indicate similarities between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and point to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although quieter, has the same powerful effect. Jesus breathes on them. And with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renews, reassures, and empowers his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been. Even more significantly, he gives them new life in the Spirit. Now recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man [Gen 2:7]. For the disciples, the community for whom Luke wrote, and all Christians, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples respond with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization they have both the ability and the wisdom to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the infant Church was born.

While I was reflecting on these readings, I began to think about spiritual maturity. The early days of faith formation are a kind of infancy during which seekers need to be fed, consoled, taught and reassured. The memory of breathing on my baby’s face led me to wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on mine. I can say with confidence there would be no more tears!

Like those before us, the way in which we respond to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and our ongoing discipleship has everything to do with spiritual maturity. Are we willing to be sent out? Do we recognize the breath of the one who sends us?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

Pentecost Sunday: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled

pentecostSomething many Christians do not realize is that Pentecost (or Shavuot) is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Originally a time of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, Shavuot also commemorates God’s giving of the Law to Moses.

On that day in the upper room the Apostles were devoting themselves to prayer according to their tradition. And, just as the Law of Moses unified Israel, the events of this particular Shavuot following the Ascension of Christ, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, gave birth to the Christian Church.

Imagine the energy! The Apostles, Jesus’ mother, Mary, some women, and his brothers (Acts 1:12-14) were together in the upper room pouring themselves into prayer. They were afraid and confused. We can imagine their discussions as they expressed to one another all that they knew of recent events–what they knew to be true. They prayed together. And the Holy Spirit responded by igniting within them a holiness that manifested itself in language, a language which needs no translation. The Spirit becoming Word. The Word made flesh!

Then they left the safety of the upper room and went out into the streets and astonished everyone with their passion for sharing the Word.

When we speak of the mighty acts of God, we speak the same language.

It is that same Holy Spirit which drives each one of us to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Let us celebrate the fulfillment of Pentecost—the birth of the Church—by recalling the Shavuot, by devoting ourselves to prayer, contemplating the living Body of Christ in whom we dwell, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to ignite our passion for sowing the Gospel seeds!