"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Seven Quick Takes: So Much Joy!

It's been a busy and wonderful week since returning from our trip to Ohio, focusing on ramping up the blog with a clearer and more professional template and lovely new coordinating headshot courtesy of thrifted clothes, gifted from Mom pearls, advice from keen stylist (for others) Katie and photography as always by DearSpouse. God is so good, and my morning prayer and evening examen times have been consistently full of joy and gratitude even on the busiest and most tiring days. As a loving Parent and Creator I know that our happiness brings God joy too so am intertwining the post wtih a beautiful new to me dramatization of the forgotten Mother God story in Luke 15 between the Good Shepherd and Loving Father/Prodigal Son. The full series is here and my hymn celebrating all three faces of God's amazing rescuing love is here.

1.Homeschooling breakthroughs on the drive down and back included finishing Pride and Prejudice and starting Wuthering Heights--a great compare/contrast analysis of 19th century British women writers, plus it's fun for me to have one I hardly remember after the one I practically know by heart. We also realized her anime fanfiction reading-and-writing fueled passion for Japan and Japanese. We called DearSpouse to get directions to the larger and better stocked Barnes and Noble as we drove through Toledo and chose some great materials Katie is already working with in the car (Living Language is excellent and affordable and what I am using for French) while looking forward to studying formally at the state university near my fellowship Benedictine school next year.

She is uber excited about, God willing, earning a homestay study trip the summer after that (we will be thrilled if she can find a way to earn some actual money, besides saving her gifts, cause the sweat equity extra chores we always do for camps is crucial for character building but means the cash still comes from us!) She was quite grateful I let her drop her second term of Spanish at the community college--we discussed the sunk cost fallacy and its relationship to discernment--which will allow time to excel at precalculus there as well as perform major catch up on the online chemistry class that has eight weeks left after taking a distant second place to the procrastinated World History finish-up! It's getting harder but she still prefers the no research paper feature, which was her Waterloo, so will take second term in the fall with Calc and Japanese and finish up World History in the spring when math, if all goes well, will be over with as much as I got done including college.

2. Posted some wonderful pictures of the trip including the Catholic Women's Conference in Columbus where I walked right by Jen Fulwiler, and before/brunette and after/blonde images of the homeschool maiden. Her BFF's mom is a gifted amateur stylist and I am clueless so she saves the hair work for her whenever possible. It also features pictures of my beautiful new infinity veil, which is lavender with butterlies and phrases like "embrace your truth" and "unleash your joy!" It's unusual for a feminist Catholic to (sometimes) veil for mass, confession, or my own office. But I find it very meaningful and especially love the sense of unity with my ancestors as well as my traditional sisters, and those of other faiths, today. So I was moved by this lovely reflection by Sofia Ali-Khan, a Muslimah lawyer who found wearing hijab full time healing for a season and still does so as we do: to set apart sacred time and space.

It baffles me, the politics of hijab today: the designation of it as anti-feminist, as regressive, as a collusion with backwards extremism. Because what is the legacy of feminism if not the conviction that this body and this spirit are mine to steward? And what better example of backwards extremism than demonizing a woman, or worse still, physically assaulting a woman, because she wears a scarf on her head instead of around her neck? I find the designation of hijab as a symbol of the degree of one’s devotion equally confusing. How could anyone possibly presume to know another’s heart by what they wear on their head? Hijab is not any of these, but neither is it just a bit of cloth. It is an essential part of the spiritual practice of many millions of women in many millions of ways; it was an essential part of my own. Now it’s not. And perhaps someday it will be again, if the spirit moves me.

3. Life is excitingly busy with the preparation for both this fall's fellowship and the application materials for the more demanding one the following year, and will continue to be once I get there. The app's not due till October but I promised to get all my stuff to one of my recommenders, a very busy and renowned scholar, by the end of this semester so she has enough time to fit it in. So I am working on improving my organization with a combination of Getting Things Done approach (DS got and read it for work as required but passed it on pretty fast) and some cool sticky note organizing tips from Auntie Leila and Jen Hewett, who inspired her.

4. Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans has birthed her first child and published this beautiful reflection on nursing as prayer, especially night office. I remember when by grad school best friend and I both had newborn daughters and wistfully discussed the much easier Trappist schedule with fewer, shorter, and reliably scheduled night wakings!

5. Eve Tushnet just gave a talk at DearSpouse's alma mater which I wish had happened last year when we were living there! She writes insightfully of the idolatry of marriage in church as well as society, which I find personally healing, and bravely advocates for more options for community and intimacy for LGBTQ+ people which are fully in accord with traditional Christian values and practices.

What if our images of love included a community of disciples, who became family to those who lost their families or gave up their chance at a socially-sanctioned family for the sake of the Gospel? What if we understood the desire for devoted, lifelong, intimate same-sex love as a good thing–a longing the Church has historically honored in the form of friendship? What if we offered all of our kids, gay straight and whatever Tumblr is doing these days, a future of communities of love–including the Catholic Worker and other intentional communities; godparenthood, which binds the godparents and the parents together as co-laborers; friendships as deep as that of St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Basil the Great, and as practical as the shared households and obligations depicted in Alan Bray‘s work? There are so many paths open to us. Whether we perceive a specific calling to celibacy and create a celibate partnership through a shared prayer life, or whether we start out in your basic gay couple and end up as Dunstan Thompson and Philip Trower; whether the language of friendship speaks to us more or the equally-Scriptural language of brothers and sisters in Christ–there are so many more forms of love than the ones we’ve been trained to see.

6. I have been pulling up, polishing, and adding art to some Scripture reflections from past blogs. Favorites include creative midrashes on Mary and Cleopas at Emmaus and Hannah as well as my take on Luke's and John's famous Samaritans.

7. I continue to find so much joy in transforming my body and spirit with exercise as well as tasty and (mostly) healthy and lower on the food chain eating. Today's lunch of leftover rosemary and olive oil roasted sweet potatoes, red pepper, and butternut squash was hardly penitential, like tonight's replay of the homemade Tillamook extra sharp mac and cheese. I rotate kickboxing, swimming, and racquetball with DearSpouse. We just play for serve because his r-ball skills so far outstrip mine despite my stronger level of general fitness at the moment. I also get in some with bonus walks--hopefully to increase as the weather improves--around the neighborhood with a stop at church to pay a visit or up and down the lakeshore with my homeschooling-support SIL. The knee PT told her observing student today I was "very athletic"--definitely a first in my experience! And Master B. who is excellence-focused and very sparing with praise had me demonstrate a simple move *and* gave me my first "awesome" for losing two percent body fat.

For more Quick Takes visit Kelly!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Homily: Fully Alive!

I wrote this in 2007 and how many changes have happened! On the personal level, I have come out to myself, loved ones, and now the public as bisexual and begun healing the wounds of heterosexism which compounded those of sexism and clergy sexual abuse by the very adviser mentioned in the post (a married Protestant pastor but my beloved Jesuits repeatedly fostered and mishandled his evil behavior) to lead, along with hyperfertility and NFP, to a nearly sexless marriage. On the societal level tremendous steps toward justice and religious freedom have been taken with civil marriage equality and more social acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, though much still needs to happen especially intersectionally and for transfolk. And on the church level more mainline Protestant denominations are bringing healing by ordaining and marrying faithful affirming LGBTQ+ folks, while the discourse in more traditional Catholic and evangelical circles is being transformed, despite remaining hatefulness from some, by the courageous witness of proud celibate LGBTQ+ Christian bloggers and speakers like Eve Tushnet and Gabriel Blanchard.

(Image: Angel Miyoko)

Have you ever had to write something—for a class in school, or a presentation at work, or to share deep feelings with someone you love—and found yourself facing a writing block? The clock is ticking, and you know you have to produce something, but your mind is a swirl of confusion. Maybe you know what you want to say, but can’t figure out how to say it. Or maybe you know how to say it, but you’re scared to put it out there, because you don’t know if your audience will respect your words, or rip them apart. I don’t know about you, but I find this a painful thing to wrestle with. And I find myself doing that from time to time, since my vocation as an academic theologian as well as retreat leader requires quite a bit of writing.

When I do find myself facing a writing block, I often turn to a piece of advice I received from a teacher in college. I had been up most of the night and still couldn’t finish a paper, so I dragged my sorry tush across campus to my adviser’s office to beg for an extension. He wasn’t in yet, so I stood in the doorway of another professor to wait and poured out my tale of woe. After a while, my exhaustion caught up with me; I slithered right down the doorjamb and landed on the floor in a pathetic heap. I looked up and wailed, “How on earth do I get over this writing block?” And the prof smiled sympathetically and said, “I think to get over a writing block, you need to know that God loves you.” Now at the time I thought he was crazy. What on earth could God’s love have to do with a writing block? But over the years I have come to know the deep truth of his words. Because when I really know and feel that God loves me, my heart is at peace and my mind clears. I can speak my truth for the world to hear, even if it’s not perfect and I don’t know what the response will be. Because I do know that I am good, and beloved, and safe in the arms of the most nurturing parent and friend and lover that any of us could ever dream of.

My experience with writing block is probably the closest thing that a straight person can experience to a similar spiritual challenge and triumph: coming out. I have been told that shining forth in the beauty of how God created you, and proudly claiming your sexuality as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, is a healing and powerful step. And I know from the other side what a precious gift of love it is to God’s people, opening the eyes of those of us in the sexual majority to the beautiful rainbow of diversity with which God has blessed the human race. But I also know that coming out is a scary and dangerous process, because of the sin and injustice that still rule the world and the church. There are countries where being an open and affirming LGBT person places one in danger of a prison sentence, even death. And in our own country it can have terrible consequences for employment, social and familial acceptance, and, most devastating of all, the right to worship God and share one’s gifts as a respected and equal member of the Body of Christ. So it takes a deep experience of the love of God, experienced in prayer and worship and also in a loving community, to help give the courage to come out—at least in relatively safe contexts. To speak the truth of your life for the world to hear, even if you don’t know what the response will be. Because you do know that you are good, and beloved, and safe in the arms of the most nurturing parent and friend and lover that any of us could ever dream of.

I believe that justice for gay and lesbian people is one of the most pressing calls to conversion that the Spirit is working in our churches and in our society today. Racism is evil, and still does terrible damage despite the gains of the civil rights movement. Sexism is evil, and still does terrible damage despite the gains of feminism. But these forms of discrimination and prejudice are, at least, admitted to be clearly wrong, even though they have not been completely overcome. Racism and sexism are subtle poisons: few bigots now openly proclaim such views and expect to be accepted in polite society. Not so with homophobia, tragically. It is only LGBT people whom others feel free to proclaim are lesser than others, undeserving of equality in marriage, adoption, employment and a host of other basic human rights. And shamefully, it is the church that so often leads the way in fighting to maintain unjust structures, rather than challenging them with Gospel truth. The Scriptures which God meant to give life become weapons of death as they are twisted and misused, just as they were misinterpreted to uphold slavery and oppression of women for so many centuries. Two of the seven sacraments are denied to holy, baptized Christians; LGBT pastors often must remain in the closet to remain in the pulpit. And God weeps at the suffering of her beloved, precious people.

In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks about the glorious and amazing love that God has for each of us, and how we are called to share that love with one another. He gives us a new commandment to show that we are his disciples, the bottom line of what Christianity is all about: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” This is a ringing call against homophobia, and all forms of discrimination, because love is not just a feeling, but an action. It makes no sense for the church to claim it loves gay and lesbian people, and then fight against their civil rights and tell them not to be how God made them, to hide in lies and shame. As the first letter of John says, “Let us love in deed and truth, not merely in words.” There are four different Greek words found in the New Testament, which describe different kinds of love. Eros is sexual love; storge familial love; philia the love of friends. Agape, the word Jesus uses here, is the self-sacrificial, hard-working love that underlies each of these, when they are healthy and holy. Agape, of course, is shown most fully in the life and death and resurrection of Christ. This is what Jesus calls each of us to in his new commandment, and that is what he will enable us to live out in sending his Spirit on the approaching feast of Pentecost.

Living agape in an unjust world means different things for those who are oppressed and those who are oppressors—whether actively, or because of benefiting from and failing to work against the oppression of others. In the call to fight homophobia, I believe that one of the primary invitations of the Spirit to LGBT people is to love themselves, taking active steps to live and believe the truth that they are God’s beloved children, whose loving partnerships mirror forth the radiant love of God within the Trinity and poured out on humanity. This is a beautiful way to glorify God as Jesus speaks of in the Gospel, because, as St. Irenaeus wrote in the early church, “The glory of God is a human being who is fully alive.” It takes great faithfulness to prayer and self education and advocacy and support of others in the LGBT community, as appropriate to individual vocations and personal styles, to become fully alive—to cast out internalized homophobia and receive the love of God that Jesus came to share. Another invitation of the Spirit is to keep challenging and teaching us, your straight brothers and sisters, to better live agape. Please help us to better understand your lives, to stop taking the undeserved privileges we enjoy for granted and thoughtlessly benefiting from an unjust system, to do more to fight injustice in the way that Jesus is calling each of us.

There will be times that this work is hard and painful, just as Jesus himself found, but we can take courage in the beloved community which the Spirit gathers with her gentle inspiration, and the table of plenty where we receive Jesus’ very life and strength for this peaceful fight. If we are tempted to despair, let’s remember the powerful vision in our reading from Revelation: God dwelling with us; wiping every tear from our eyes; clothing us with radiant beauty, like a bride prepared for her sister-spouse; and giving us the privilege of working together with Christ as he makes all things new.

Homily: Justifying Ourselves

I organized a session and presented a paper at the big medieval conference in Leeds, England in summer 2007. After it was done I took the train down to Norfolk to meet and stay with a dear blogfriend and had the privilege of preaching this message at one of the tiny Methodist chapels she then pastored. The whole visit was a marvelous pilgrimage and retreat experience. We spent hours faithsharing about our journeys of motherhood and ministry and our common love for Mother God; prayed quietly in stunning old churches including Margery Kempe's in King's Lynn and Ely Cathedral, home to St. Ethelreda's tomb as well as a very blonde Barbie/Touchdown Mary; and when I had a dental emergency her anointed prayer and laying on of hands (along with the great care of the NHS) brought short term relief and delayed a prophesied root canal by three years!

(Image: Van Gogh, of course! Perhaps the vulnerability and brokenness that tragically led to his death by suicide formed his dramatic and tender emphasis on the helplessness of the victim and strength and hard work of the rescuer).

My dear sisters and brothers: peace to you from our loving God and from God’s Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. As you can no doubt tell from my odd accent, I have come a long way to worship with you today, and am honored by your gracious welcome and by Sally’s invitation to offer a message from God’s saving Word.

The Gospel reading for today is very familiar. We call it “The Good Samaritan,” though the text itself does not use that term. Inspired by this story, we have hospitals and counseling centers named after this brave and loving man from Samaria, who helped the man who had been robbed and left by the roadside to die. I worked in one as a phlebotomist my last year of university, in fact. “Good Samaritan” has become a common term, the phrase we use for someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger in need. “My car broke down last week-end, and the battery of my mobile gave out; thank heavens, a Good Samaritan came along and helped me.”

As you may remember, though, from your study of the Bible, or other sermons you have heard, the term “Good Samaritan” would have had a very different effect in the ears of Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. It would give them nothing but shock and confusion, because Judeans and Samaritans hated one another with a passion. The Samaritans were the Jews who stayed in the land of Israel when many others were carried off into exile in Babylon, and over the centuries these sisters and brothers in faith had taken very different paths with their devotion to the same God. The Samaritans worshipped on their holy mountain, while the Judeans worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. And instead of rejoicing in the different paths God had revealed to them, they judged and condemned each other. “Those infidels—why can’t they follow the true law? They are impure and unclean—stay far away from them—or, if you do get near one, beat him up.” So for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of this story, while depicting his people’s honored religious leaders, the priest and the Levite, as the hard-hearted ones who don’t follow the law of love given by Moses, was a deep challenge to his listeners—both those who heard him tell the story, and we who hear it now in this holy assembly.

Why would Jesus tell the story in this way, certain to confuse and anger many of those who heard him? I think it was a bit of a shock treatment-- the only way he had of reaching the hard heart and closed mind of the lawyer who asked him the question that started it all. The Gospel tells us that the lawyer asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. A great question to ask a holy rabbi—if it were asked with a sincere heart, willing to learn and to follow the word of life when it was given. But Jesus was no fool, and he could tell that the scholar of the law was asking as a veiled attack—to test Jesus, some translations say, or even to tempt him, in the words of the King James Bible. Jesus makes this point by calmly turning the question around: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

This man was expert in the law of Moses, and he knew perfectly well what God asked of him: to love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and his neighbor as himself. So he answered correctly, right away—as the first reading from Deuteronomy tells us, the command of God was very near to him, already in his mouth and in his heart. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to take the next step mentioned in the Hebrew Bible passage--to carry it out. Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if, as he quoted those holy words, they sank into his heart and changed it to embrace the good news that Jesus preached? But he resists their transforming power instead, and presses his attack, demanding of Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”

Once again, Jesus surprises us. He could so easily have gotten into an argument with the lawyer. He could have attacked the man in turn, or continued to ask him questions about the law and let the man stay at an intellectual level where his great knowledge had no power to save him and bring him to the love of God that his studies were supposed to be all about. But Jesus had the wisdom to read people’s hearts. He sensed that the only way to reach this man was to shift gears and tell him a story, and his story was perfectly designed to reach inside the wounded heart of his listener and call him to conversion, healing, and deep grace.

I am especially moved by the reason that St. Luke gives us for the man’s taunting question, “And who is my neighbor?” The Gospel says that he asked “because he wished to justify himself”—to show that he was right, to excuse himself, to gain back some points in the debate at Jesus’ expense. Justifying ourselves is a familiar term and a familiar activity for us—sometimes in legitimate self-care and self-defense, and sometimes because we don’t like the weakness and embarrassment of losing face in a conversation and want to get one-up on someone. But there is more to the word “justify” in this story than our common daily usage, because it is a very important word in the Bible and in Christian doctrine. The Greek word for justify is dikaio, which means being saved and being set right with God. It means having the gap between us and God, the shame and anxiety in which we fear we are unlovable and will always be alone, healed through the gracious love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul uses it all the time, and he always emphasizes that we cannot justify ourselves though our own efforts or good works or knowledge—that this setting right, this reconciliation, this experience of the loving embrace of God who delights in us and cherishes us just as we are, comes as a free gift. Our God is a fountain of mercy, and all we need to do is accept the streams of living water that come from that glorious fountain—the heart of the most loving Parent we could ever dream of, made known to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus our Beloved. As he said in the Gospel of John: “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me and drink; the living water that I give will become a fountain deep within, welling up for eternal life.”

We can’t justify ourselves, and we don’t need to, because our loving God is always reaching out to us in tender compassion and mercy. The legal scholar didn’t need to justify himself, because God was standing there right before him in Jesus, offering him the love and freedom and transformation that his heart longed for as a gift. All he had to do was accept it, as the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the lepers and the woman with a flow of blood accepted it. All he had to do—all we have to do—is come to Jesus, rejoice in the good news of God’s reign he preached, receive the forgiveness and transformation he offers, and pass his love on to others. But the legal scholar—a respected expert who clung to his own achievements, perhaps to still the fear of emptiness and loneliness inside--was scared to accept that gift, just as we are sometimes scared to accept that gift.

To admit our vulnerability and neediness is a huge risk. As we have all learned from hard experience, people don’t always know how to respond appropriately to revelations that may remind them of their own sins and wounds and seemingly unfixable problems. We may be treated with reverence and compassion, like butterfly wings brushing our cheek or a gentle hand stroking our head; or perhaps our wounded hearts will be tromped on with army boots. The legal scholar knows that too, and he’s not going to take the risk…So Jesus reaches out to him with the story of someone who knew what it was to be rejected and to live far from the center of power in his land, below even the other Jews who were themselves oppressed and degraded by the Roman invaders.

(Image: Jose Tapiro Baro)

A Samaritan traveling through Judean territory knew well that he was considered the lowest of the low, that he could be the next one stripped and robbed and beaten and left for dead. Somehow, this Samaritan was able to draw on his own vulnerability as a resource, instead of running away from it like the priest and the Levite. He let it bring him compassion and courage and generosity to meet the man’s needs, regardless of which group he belonged to, the risk that the robbers would come back to finish the job, and the expense and time it cost to get the man to the inn and pay for his care and further treatment. And in so doing the Samaritan helped himself, not just the man by the side of the road—he claimed his own dignity through joining the work of God who helps the helpless. I like to think that as he rode away from the inn he breathed a little freer and sat a little taller on that donkey, that the love of God had gone a little deeper in his heart and given him strength to face whatever he needed to face as he went on to the next phase of his journey.

I was struck for the first time, in studying the story for this sermon, by the resemblance of the man on the side of the road to Jesus in his passion. Stripped of his garments, naked and absolutely powerless, beaten cruelly and—not just left half dead—but actually killed. I don’t believe that this was God’s price to forgive our sins, because God is so much more generous and loving and compassionate than we are. But perhaps it was the only way God could reach out to us and convince us to stop running away from our own brokenness and nakedness and wounds.

The Greek word used here for the wounds of the man who was robbed is traumata, which we know today as trauma, and we also know how much courage it can take to face and feel and work through our own traumatic memories. But if God, the glorious and all-powerful creator of the universe, can take on our humanity, can embrace our brokenness and suffering, can enter our grief and struggles and painful memories, we too can find courage and compassion to face these in ourselves and each other. Through his grace we can be, for and with each other, the broken and glorious risen Body of Christ that brings his healing love and compassion to the whole world.

Homily: Living Water

(Image: Ivan Mestrovic, University of Notre Dame--right outside the old theology building so many happy memories of sunny reading and lunches for both me and my nurslings!)

It is a little known fact that, like us, the people of ancient Israel had singles bars. There are some slight differences in custom, of course. We might see the occasional service dog in a Portland pub, but they had a much more inclusive policy on livestock-sheep, goats, and camels were all welcome. And where one of the classic pick up lines in our culture is “Can I buy you a drink?,” in theirs it appears to have been “Can you give me a drink?” The singles bar of ancient Israel, my friends, was better known as the village well.

There is a standard pattern in the Hebrew Bible in which a man traveling far from home visits a well and converses with a local woman. One of them helps the other get some water, and the next thing you know, a marriage feast is being prepared. The story comes in many variants. Rebekah meets the family servant of her future husband, who knows she is Isaac’s destined bride when she generously draws water for his whole troop of camels. A generation later Rebekah and Isaac’s son, Jacob, is running for his life after cheating his brother Esau out of the elder son’s birthright. He sees Rachel coming to water her flock, and falls for her so hard that he is able to singlehandedly move a huge boulder blocking the entrance to the well. And Moses, who brings forth water from a desert rock in our first reading, meets his wife Zipporah while fleeing an Egyptian murder charge. He helps her and her six sisters get to the front of the water line for once, defending them from the daily harassment of a group of macho shepherds. People who suffered an arid climate for much of the year were especially sensitive to the fact that water is life itself, and they saw no better place for the beginning of a partnership of life and love than an abundant source of water. Our Journey community is blessed with a similar insight this year, as our Lenten preparation to renew our baptismal vows at the Great Vigil coincides with our preparation for L. and G.’s wedding vows on the Sixth Sunday of Easter at our evening Eucharist.

Tonight’s Gospel story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well follows this familiar folkloric pattern from the Old Testament, which would have been immediately recognizable to at least the Jewish members of the Johannine community. And just in case they—or we--might miss the point, the Gospel writer hammers home images of marriage and baptism in the preceding chapters. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit; then Jesus’ first miraculous sign is turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana after a spirited exchange of views with another feisty woman. Jesus invites Nicodemus to experience God’s maternal tenderness by being reborn through water and the Holy Spirit. Finally, Jesus and his disciples begin to perform baptisms--something claimed only in John and not the Synoptic Gospels. This makes some of John the Baptist’s disciples jealous on his behalf, but John chides them: “Jesus is the bridegroom—I’m just the best man.”

Keeping in mind all of these connections helps make sense of Jesus’ comment that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands, and is not married to her current partner. Some traditional interpreters see this as a stern admonition—this is a loose woman, and she had better change her ways. But recall that the woman may have been repeatedly widowed and finally shunned as bad luck for husbands, like Tamar in Genesis or Sarah in Tobit. If she was the victim of multiple divorces she would indeed be just that, in a Jewish community which allowed only men to make that decision--an injustice which helped create Jesus' passion on the subject. Either way she would be left vulnerable, like the many stigmatized women and children in our culture often exploited by Christian men while the churches keep silence, to providing survival sex--and doing so for only one man would have been a far lesser evil than the alternative.

Biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders suggests that Jesus’ repartee here is not harsh, but playful—that he views the woman, like all of us, not just as a broken person in need of healing but as “a potential spouse to be invited to intimacy.” This tender, committed intimacy is the “living water” of rebirth that Jesus offers her and all who turn to him. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans it is “the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts”-- the passionate love of God reaching out to the woman at the well and to every wounded, gifted human person. Through this experience of God’s acceptance in Christ the Samaritan woman begins to reframe her self-concept and find freedom from the shame and pain that had bound her. Then she, in turn, shares this good news with the villagers from whom she has been estranged, being welcomed back into the community and honored as the first evangelist to her people.

This meeting of two people marginal in their own opposed communities initially seems to have all the potential for meaningful encounter of a Democrat and a Republican watching the latest news from Iraq together. In visiting Samaria, Jesus leaves his own territory and encounters people with whom his own group has a history of severe hostility. In requesting water from a female and thus doubly unclean member of these despised folks, he does not just defy the Jewish purity codes, but puts himself at risk of a scornful refusal from someone he could reasonably expect to despise him in turn. And this is not just any Samaritan woman, but someone who seems to be at odds with the rest of her village—otherwise she wouldn’t have chosen the blistering heat of high noon as the time to walk to and from the well bearing a heavy stone water jar, but would have come with the other women in the cool of the early morning or evening.

Photini, as our Orthodox sisters and brothers name her (the enlightened one) would most likely have become highly sensitive and more than a little suspicious of an intruder in response to her painful life story. Yet she and Jesus are able to reach out, overcome all these barriers, and enter into a challenging and life-giving dialogue that is at the heart of what both marriage and baptism are all about.

To me, the most striking thing about the story is the key to the woman’s, and then her fellow villagers’, recognition of Jesus as prophet and messiah. John repeats it twice, lest we miss its significance: “Come, see someone who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” Does being told “all that you ever did” sound like an appealing prospect? It makes me squirm—there are plenty of things in my life that I don’t share with someone I’ve just met, and certainly wouldn’t appreciate being detected by some mind-reading guru. And remember that Jesus doesn’t actually tell her everything in her life—he mentions just one thing, the painful marriage history that is presumably the reason for her semi-outcast status.

Jesus’ naming of this tender spot aloud could have plunged the Samaritan woman into an abyss of shame, and the fact that she instead finds it life-giving tells us two things. The first is that she has tremendous courage, to be able to look so deeply and honestly at her own life. The second is that Jesus must have said those words with tremendous compassion and not an ounce of judgement. By acting as a reverent witness to her self-revelation, he helped her to look at herself with new eyes and heal the wounds that had left her thirsting and questioning the possibility of real joy. This is our call in life-partnership, committed friendship, all forms of family and authentic community—to free each other from shame by facing our demons, speaking our truth, and “hearing one another into speech.” If we can learn to do this, we can experience the rush of living water within. We can reclaim—at least in part--the blessing lost by Adam and Eve, of which we heard the first Sunday of Lent: to be fully revealed to God, and to one another, and to feel no shame.

Homily: Walking to Emmaus

Preface: Most art of this wonderful Gospel story from Luke makes the textually groundless and culturally unlikely assumption that the nameless disciple accompanying Cleopas is another man. Sr. Marie Paul and G.E. Mullan have instead created powerful depictions reflecting the strong likelihood that she was actually one of Jesus' many women disciples, named in John's Gospel as present at the cross and married to a male disciple with the virtually identical name of Clopas.

Likewise, whatever your personal interpretation of the Gospels' clear statements that Jesus had four named brothers--one of them James, an important leader of the early community--and at least two nameless sisters (I have named them Esther and Shira, or song, in honor of a great heroine of the Hebrew Bible and the wise and witty daughter of my Judaism professor at ND whom I often cared for) it is clear that the Holy Family was actually a large and diverse group rather than the only child version of so much art. Finally, Mark 14:13 makes clear that there were more than twelve disciples in the Upper Room when it speaks of him sending two ahead to make preparations--surely taken from the ones who would be competent at the marketing and cooking!--and then arriving with the twelve, and probably some others, in time for the Supper. Piasecki's Last Supper is more accurate than the usual portrayals not just in including women and children, always key participants at a Seder, but showing all present as clearly first century Jews rather than Renaissance Italians!

(Image: Sr. Marie Paul)

Miriam and Cleopas trudged wearily and silently along the dirt road. After several days and nights of fear, grief, guilt, and anger they were utterly spent. Miriam briefly wondered what was in her husband’s mind and heart, then returned to the restlessness of her own. How could it be true? One more demonstration of Roman brutality, one more betrayal by the priestly caste that colluded with them, one more false, failed Messiah. What a fool she had been to trust, to believe that things could be different, to imagine that someone from her own village--her own best friend’s brother—could be the chosen one of God.

Miriam sighed as she thought of that friend. Though it had been three years since Shira’s death, the pain and memories had resurfaced as fresh as ever since Jesus’ torture and execution at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers. Watching in terror as blood gushed in fountains despite the desperate labor of the midwife and her assistant, and the joy at Benjamin’s birth turned to anguish. Feeling her own child leap in her womb as she watched her friend’s face grew pale and her voice faint. “Esther, your son” – “Little one, your mother.”

The words were addressed to Shira’s older sister, who had plenty of milk for the boy; her year old daughter now ran, climbed and jumped everywhere, nursing less and eagerly learning to eat fruit and cheese. But Shira’s eyes sought Miriam’s too, in a wordless appeal to which her breaking heart willingly assented. If she survived her own birth the following month, she would love Benjamin as her own, tell him stories of his mother’s youth, make him the most welcome friend to her own firstborn.

And she did, until the horrific day two years later when Simeon was taken by a sudden fever. She couldn’t stand to see Benjamin anymore, couldn’t stand life in Nazareth at all, and neither could Cleopas. When he suggested that they join the growing group of disciples following Jesus on his mission, she eagerly assented. Her namesake, Jesus’ mother, sighed wearily at the news but kissed and blessed them on their way. She knew that Jesus had a special mission, but had felt angry and betrayed when he left so soon after Shira’s death, which followed Joseph’s by less than a year. Didn’t he know how much the family needed him? Couldn’t God’s call, so long delayed in coming to clarity, wait another year till they had all adjusted?

(Image: Bohdan Piasecki)

Thank heavens they had been reconciled before the end, his mother rushing to Jerusalem in time to join the others at that bittersweet Passover meal. Miriam recalled leaning back against Cleopas’ chest, intently watching Jesus’ actions and listening to his startling words. Jesus tenderly washed their feet, something the women usually did, and she remembered the recent feast Martha had prepared to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life. Her sister, yet another Miriam, had anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. The others had been both moved by the grace and intimacy of her gesture, and troubled by his cryptic words about burial, put out of mind till he spoke in a similar way tonight.

“My body, given for you”—she tasted the fresh bread she and the other women had baked. Her mind flashed to the awkward, eager nights of love when she and Cleopas first became one flesh. It had been so long now. Other couples in the group managed to find the needed privacy, but their desire had cooled after Simeon’s death, and she was terrified of another bereavement even when Joanna whispered to her of herbs that the women at court used to prevent conception. “My blood, poured out for you” – she sipped the rich wine Cleopas handed her. Her empty breasts ached as she remembered the bliss of drowsily nursing Simeon on the sleeping mat, with Cleopas’ arms enfolding them both.

The next day she stood as close as she could to Jesus with Magdalene and John. Cleopas was farther back, with the few male disciples who hadn’t run away with Peter and the others. She watched Jesus’ mother, looking at him with eyes full of unshed tears, and her heart was torn between compassion and resentment. She couldn’t imagine watching people torture and kill her beloved son —but at least she had gotten to watch her son grow up. And he had made a free choice to speak the truth even at the risk of death, rather than being snatched by a stupid, pointless disease. Then even those conflicted feelings fled, as Jesus’ face paled and his voice grew faint. “Woman, your son” – “My friend, your mother.” As on the day of Shira’s death, those solemn words were followed by a cry of anguish, and an uncontrollable gush of blood, caused this time by the soldier’s spear piercing savagely into Jesus’ side.

Lost in her memories, she barely registered when Cleopas said something, and was startled when another traveler approached and spoke to them cheerfully: “What are you talking about this fine day?” Cleopas looked at him as if he were crazy, and frustrated words spurted from his mouth. “Are you the only person in Judea who doesn’t know what’s been going on this week?” Miriam’s tongue unloosed, and they started speaking over each other as they poured out the story.

Following Jesus, hearing his words of fiery challenge, and seeing his miracles. Being sent out on their own to preach the good news, and like the rest of the seventy, being astonished when the Spirit moved through their hands as well. Their combined prayer healed a little girl with the same fever that had taken Simeon, and it brought peace to their hearts. They agreed that they were ready to see Benjamin again, and maybe even to open to a new life in their own family. Marching into Jerusalem behind Jesus’ donkey, with the crowds cheering, and their hearts rising to think that Israel would be free once more. And then the grief, and the fear, and the wild claims of angels made by some of the other women, and the recriminations that had finally driven them to leave the other disciples in Jerusalem and begin the long walk home.

The man waited till they were talked out, then smiled wryly and challenged Cleopas: “Don’t you know the scriptures? Wasn’t that the fate of every true prophet?” Turning to Miriam, he added “Isn’t pain--sometimes death--always the price of new life?” Shocked into silence, they listened as he spoke on, their dead hearts slowly starting to spark to new life. There was something about his manner that resembled Jesus—but no, that was impossible, and he didn’t really look that much like him anyway. As they approached the inn in Emmaus, the sun was setting. The stranger said, “Here’s where I leave, you, friends. Thanks for your company.” “Oh, please stay and eat with us,” Cleopas urged, and she added her voice to his. She felt stronger and more hopeful in his company, and wanted to delay the despair she was sure would return at his departure. The man smiled again and agreed, and they went in and ordered a simple meal from the innkeeper.

(Image: G.E. Mullan)

He brought water first, and Miriam knelt to wash Cleopas’ feet; she saw tears well up in his eyes, though they didn’t fall, and felt the same sting in her own. She turned to the stranger next, but Cleopas shook his head and took the towel and basin from her. Her renewed grief turned to wonder as her husband followed their rabbi’s example for the first time, washing the stranger’s feet and then hers, with a tenderness which awakened her heart—and some other parts she had thought long dead. She smiled at him with a promise of the pleasure they would later share and the child they hoped would flower from it.

Then they all washed their hands in another basin, and her famished stomach made an embarrassing noise as the innkeeper’s daughter placed cups and a flagon on the table. “My mother’s bread is the best in Emmaus,” she assured them, “but it’s in the oven yet. Just a few more minutes.” So they quenched their thirst with the wine and eagerly set upon the tart goat cheese, salty olives, and sweet grapes that accompanied it.

A few minutes later the girl returned with a steaming loaf of barley bread. Mary reached out to serve it to the others, but the stranger forestalled her, as Cleopas had earlier. He reached for it, broke it in pieces, and handed one to each of them. Jesus! It was him! How could she have missed it before? Miriam's heart leapt and she clutched at Cleopas in shock, looking away from Jesus for a moment. When she looked back she received another shock—he had completely vanished. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for another rush of grief, then realized that it wasn’t coming. She couldn’t see him, but she could still feel him with her somehow, and she could tell from Cleopas’ dancing eyes that he could too. “Come on, let’s go back…” “We need to tell the others…” They both spoke at once, then laughed as they cut off their jumbled sentences. Cleopas reached in his pouch for a few coins and tossed them on the table. She grabbed their cloaks, then her beloved’s hand, and they set off together in the star-filled night.

Homily: I Am Hannah

For the feast of the Holy Family, at the wonderful Portland community where Nick made his Communion--and brilliantly proclaimed the Exodus reading--at the Holy Thursday celebration which included mass, footwashing by all desiring it (my kids have always adored it) and a respectful non-Seder lamb feast. I wore my double set of silver hoop earrings (nose ring would have added authenticity but I'm so not going there!) and bought a cool purply remnant to serve as a veil. It later saw many happy uses in the classic game of "scary purple ghost".

Come in, little one, sit down. Have a cup of wine, and some of these cakes I baked this morning. I know, I know, you’re not my little granddaughter anymore—you’re a lovely young maiden preparing for your wedding. It seems like just yesterday that my miracle child stood under the marriage canopy—and now her firstborn is becoming a woman. Yes, it’s your mother I’m talking about. I know, your uncle Samuel is the one everyone talks about. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Every child is a miracle. And your mother was the first one I got to see grow up. Samuel went away so young…

What was it like? You know the story--I must have told it to you children a hundred times. Everyone in Israel knows how God sent the prophet Samuel, the last of the judges, the kingmaker and kingbreaker—the wise women in the villages love to spin the tale, and the scribes at court have written it all down. What was it really like?…Well, it’s true that the scribes don’t know everything. And there were things I left out of your bedtime stories. All right, then, your wedding present from Bubbe Hannah. The whole story—it’s not all pretty, but it’s the truth. And, God forbid, should you have a like suffering, it may give you the strength to see it through.

There is no pain on earth like being a barren woman. Watching your sisters and friends give their husbands children, listening to endless hints from his parents, seeing the pity and the questions in the neighbors’ eyes. Does he even bother going in to her anymore? How long before he sends her back to her family and tries again with a real woman? Elkanah didn’t divorce me, I’ll give him that. Most men would have. He did love me—but he didn’t understand. “Why is your heart sad? Am I not more than you to than ten sons?” I wasn’t more to him than ten sons, or he wouldn't have taken Peninnah as his second wife. Each year we’d make the trip to sacrifice at Shiloh, and a sword would pierce my heart when Elkanah gave the first portions to her and her sons and daughters. Then he’d try to console me by giving me a double portion, and Penninah would take it out on me later. I couldn’t blame her, really--it told everyone that she only mattered to him as a brood mare. I don’t know which of us was more humiliated.

God had closed my womb—that’s how the scribes tell it. And that’s what I thought, then, too. So I prayed and begged, I cried and screamed, I asked what I was doing wrong, and finally I struck a bargain. After the yearly sacrifice, I slipped into the temple to make one last, desperate prayer. If God gave me a son I would offer him back, dedicate him for life as a Nazirite. My eyes were closed and my lips moved silently, demanding an answer. “Speak, Lord, your handmaid is listening.” At first Eli the priest thought I was drunk—as if God couldn’t hear me, because he couldn’t! But then he joined his prayers to mine, without even asking what I sought, and peace finally descended on my heart. I went back to join in the feasting, and when my husband came in to me, I was sure that I had finally conceived.

Elkanah was ecstatic; Peninnah was jealous and insecure; and I spent the months of my pregnancy torn between fierce joy and terrible grief. Why had I made that foolish vow? I could keep the child till he was weaned—two or three years, four at most—and then he would go to live in the temple and I’d only see him once a year. What would Elkanah say when I told him? Maybe I’d have a girl, and I’d never have to--I hadn’t promised to offer up a daughter. But when my pains came I birthed a son. I saw the joy in Elkanah’s eyes on the day of Samuel’s naming and circumcision, and kept my vow in the silence of my heart. I nursed him myself--let the servant girls do the cleaning and cooking, or help Penninah with her brood! I prayed with bittersweet gratitude as he drank from my breasts in the enfolding darkness of the night, or the bright sunlight of our busy mornings. “Speak, Lord, your handmaid is listening.” I wrestled with the Holy One, dreading the day I would have to let Samuel leave the circle of my arms. And slowly I began to sense that this child had his own destiny to fulfill—that my long years of anguish had been preparation for something more important than another worker with the fields or the herds. If Samuel’s birth was as extraordinary as Isaac’s and Ishmael's, maybe his life would be too.

I finally told Elkanah and Peninnah about my vow when the baby was a year old, and the time came for the trip to Shiloh. They were confused when I refused to go with the family, and shocked when I told them the reason. There would be time enough for sacrifice when Samuel was weaned—my home had become my temple, and for now I would worship with him there. Elkanah’s mouth dropped open, and his brow furrowed with anger. I found myself in a sudden panic. Would he annul my vow? The law gave him that power. It decreed that a man’s word to God was irrevocable, but a woman’s only as good as her father’s or husband’s whim. I had thought I would welcome that way out of my sacrifice—and I found to my surprise that my long struggle with the Holy One had transformed it to a freely chosen offering. It was an answering gift to the one whose motherly compassion I had come to know through my love for my child—the one who opens the womb when it’s possible, and consoles the heart when it isn’t. I looked hard at Elkanah, daring him to forbid me, and before he could speak Penninah shocked me by taking my part. “We have six children, and Hannah only one. If she can give him up, you can do no less.” Then she added, “Besides, you know what the priests say happens when you offer your first fruits to God. Now that her womb has opened, wouldn’t you like it to stay that way?” Elkanah looked at each of us, then nodded slowly and said with quiet resignation, “Do what seems best to you. And may the Holy One establish the word that has been spoken.”

Two more yearly festivals passed until the heartbreaking, joyous day when we all traveled together to Shiloh. Samuel was a solemn, beautiful child, wearing the linen garment I had woven for him. Elkanah slaughtered the sacrificial bull, and Eli looked to him for the ritual words dedicating Samuel to the service of God. I never loved my husband more than when he calmly returned the priest’s gaze and shook his head. Eli’s puzzled eyes searched our circle for another adult male. They lit upon Peninnah’s oldest son, standing between his mother and his shy young bride, but the young man followed his father’s example and remained silent. Finally the priest noticed that every face in our family looked expectantly at me, and his smile grew to match theirs as my voice rang out with triumph. “As you live, my lord, I was the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Holy One. For this child I prayed; and God has granted me my petition which I made. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

What was that, darling? Then I wasn’t sad anymore? Oh, yes, I was, many times. Your mother and the other children were a tremendous comfort, but they didn’t replace seeing my firstborn grow up. I worried he would forget me, or his brothers and sisters would resent him, even as I was proud of all he did for our people, and the part I had played in it. In choosing Samuel God chose our whole family, and we all made our peace with that in a different way. All we could do was keep talking, and fighting, and listening: to God--and to each other--and to God in each other. And that, little one, is the blessing I will always pray for you and the family you are about to create with your beloved. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.


Homily: Good Shepherds

(Image: Merciful, Steve Parson)

"The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name and leads them out…They will not follow a stranger, but will run away, for they do not know the voice of strangers…They follow the shepherd, for they know the shepherd’s voice.” These words from today’s Gospel recall famous stories of this Easter season, in which the question is whether Jesus’ followers will recognize him in his risen body—whether they will hear and understand his voice.

Remember Mary of Magdala, the first apostle to behold the risen Christ? She sees Jesus through her tears, but perceives only a gardener. “Are you the one who took him away? Please tell me where to find him!” Remember Cleopas and Mary, the two disciples running away from Jerusalem to Emmaus? They think Jesus is just the most dim-witted pilgrim in the history of Passover. “Are you the only person in town who doesn’t know what’s been going on?” All three disciples eventually recognize their friend and shepherd by hearing his voice. Mary Magdalene throws her arms around Jesus when he lovingly calls her name: “Mary.” “My rabbi!” And the Emmaus disciples’ hearts burn as Jesus names their reality by breaking open the Word and the Bread.

Today’s familiar reading about the Good Shepherd invites us to reflect on the same challenges as Jesus’ first followers, so long ago. How do we recognize the risen Christ working in our world through the Holy Spirit? How do we rise from our defeated hopes and hear him call our names? How do we follow the example of the first Christians, recorded in Acts--shepherding one another and the poor, and witnessing to truth and justice even at the risk of sharing Jesus’ suffering? What makes our hearts burn with the love of God, our gentle Shepherd?

To dig into these questions, I would like to explore another less famous, but equally powerful Easter story. Each year the lectionary reacquaints us with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and doubting Thomas in the upper room. But this passage from the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel appears only once every three years. It’s the Gospel for the third Sunday of Easter in year C, which was last year. Scripture scholars consider it an epilogue to John, because it follows what sounds like a conclusion at the end of chapter 20: “Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of his disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that through this faith you may have life in his name….Later on, Jesus showed himself to his disciples once again…”

It seems as if the final redactor put down his or her pen, and then snatched it right back up! It was impossible to resist adding one more dramatic story of a powerful sign performed by the risen Jesus. And this may have been, at least in part, precisely because of the Good Shepherd discourse earlier in the Gospel, in the tenth chapter of John. The two stories are linked by their themes of Jesus’ love and what it means to follow him. They are also linked by the fact that these two are the only Johannine passages to use the metaphor of sheep to describe Jesus’ disciples. Some other gospels, especially Matthew, use this literary device frequently; but any other sheep mentioned in John are sure to be running around and saying baa.

This final resurrection appearance at first follows the patterns of the earlier Easter stories. It has both a delayed recognition of Jesus by the disciples, and a shared meal in which they celebrate it. Peter, James, and John, with some others, retreat to their familiar fishing boat, and fail to catch a single fish after working all night. They see Jesus on the beach, but think he is just a stranger calling out to them for idle conversation. “Caught anything, guys?” “Nah, terrible luck.” “Try putting your nets on the other side of the boat.” “What the heck, let’s give it a try.” They make a miraculous catch of one hundred fifty three fish, and then they recognize Jesus. “It’s the Lord!”

They begin to row in, dragging their bounty; Peter, impulsive as ever, abandons the others to their task. He throws on his tunic and dives into the water, swimming as fast as he can to the shore. When the rest of the group catches up, Jesus reaches out to care for these tired, hungry men. He has built a roaring fire to warm them up and barbecue some of the fish, and brought fresh loaves of bread to go with it.

Unlike the other stories, this one goes on to an intense conversation. Jesus does not vanish from their sight after breakfast, but invites Peter to take a walk down the beach. Jesus calls Peter to share in his mission of being a good shepherd to God’s flock, and gives him tips on how to do it.

(Image: Katherine Roundtree)

Jesus begins by making a probing threefold inquiry about Peter’s commitment to him. This gives Peter an opportunity to make amends for his earlier threefold denial of Jesus when the chips were down. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.” Jesus seems to be testing Peter a bit here. Will he repeat his confident boasting at the Last Supper that he is the bravest one in the group, and will follow Jesus to the death? No--Peter shows he has learned from experience. He says only that he loves Jesus, not claiming to love him more than everyone else does. Jesus repeats a simpler question, calling his friend by name and speaking to his heart, twice more. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my sheep.”

Finally, Jesus reveals that Peter will ultimately have a chance follow through on his earlier promise. After years of preaching the Gospel, he will find himself facing a martyr’s death. We know from history that when this second chance came, Peter stayed the course; like Jesus, he did lay down his life for God’s sheep. But on first hearing this news, he reels in shock, turning away from Jesus as he tries to take it in. Can he really face this? Will they all end dying for their faith? Maybe it would be easier to know that he won’t be alone at the end. His eyes light on the Beloved Disciple, of whom he’s always been a little jealous, and he blurts out, “What about him, Lord?” And Jesus gently tells him, “Don’t worry about anyone else, my friend. Just follow me.”

Jesus’ word and example caring for the disciples, and talking with Peter, flesh out today’s Good Shepherd Gospel with some concrete practices to strive for in our life together. Good shepherds are always alert to recognize the voice of God, speaking through each human person and the whole created world. Good shepherds care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of brothers and sisters. Good shepherds are prepared to work hard and pay a real price to do what is right. Good shepherds learn compassion through their own struggles, and challenge others, when necessary, with patience and love. And good shepherds focus on faithfully following their own path to God—not trying to make everyone else follow the same one.

Can you imagine what our city would look like if we all did this in our homes and workplaces? Can you imagine what the Catholic church, and interfaith relations, would look like if the next Pope did the same? Can you imagine what the world would look like if our government, and those of other countries, began to think like this? According to the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation, 42 cents of each dollar on the taxes we just paid went for past, present, and future wars, and less than 1 cent for humanitarian aid and international cooperation. With this kind of “good shepherd thinking,” perhaps these priorities would be reversed. We would come closer to God’s dream, which the great fifty days of Easter calls us to share, of a transformed, just, and peaceful world.

(Image: Alix Beaujour)

Hymn: Luke 15

Isn't this a wonderful picture of God's joy when she reclaims us, her precious ones, from the literally demonic theft of abuse,shame, and lies? It's from an entire lovely, and free, series illustrating the parable.

Loving Shepherd, shelter me
From the preying wolf I see;
By the thorns and cliffs of fear
Help me feel that you are near.
Guide us on the pilgrim way,
Lead us home if we should stray.

Loving Mama, rescue me,
From the captor set me free;
Sweep the house and search the land,
Free me from the hateful hand;
As your treasures bright and rare,
Guard us with your tender care.

Loving Papa, welcome me
To your wondrous family;
Grant me your forgiving grace,
Shine in each beloved face;
At your table may we all
Celebrate your joyous call.

Text: Laura M. Grimes, inspired by Luke 15 and dedicated to Anna Cogliandro
Tune: Toplady (Rock of Ages)

This hymn is relatively recent, a gift of grace when I mistook the time of an Al-Anon meeting and spent the extra hour before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The hymn especially reflects my own experience with Ignatian spirituality as an abuse survivor and director of many others. It was a special joy to share it in the course of recent work bringing Ignatian spirituality to the ecumenical context with a Lenten adult class and Quiet Day at an Episcopal parish as well as two weekend retreats at an Episcopal nun-run retreat house.

The woman with the coin is the forgotten loving God image of Luke 15 and I have always loved her for that, but it was only in that spell of wonderful stressful work that I realized the fullness of her message. Unlike sheep, which aren't very bright so can panic or wander away, and people who can make a conscious sinful choice, coins are totally innocent and can't move an inch on their own. They are either lost, through bad luck and sometimes the carelessness of the owner (and I have to say it feels like that sometimes on my prophetic path!) or stolen by someone else's choice to do evil.

So the parables show Jesus sharing with us the three ways we can become separated from God, which require very different responses from us and others: mistakes and human frailty, abuse and injustice, and our own free choice against love and justice. It's a crucial insight for a healthy spirituality, so much so that when an amazing 18th annotation Spiritual Exercises directee was baptized as part of her First Week experience--in a beach wheelchair on the shores of Lake Michigan--she chose to use the image in the celebratory line welcoming her to the community.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Homily: Trans Jesus

Prefatory note especially for cisfolk (=non transfolk) who may be confused by the final paragraph's vision of transgender people as, like us, a unique and beautiful expression of the image of Christ: the most insightful Catholic writers on this topic I have found are Anna Magdalena and Melinda Selmys, who writes: The question of how to best integrate the realities of trans experience with the traditional teaching of an incarnational faith is complicated, and it’s going to take a lot of honest work from people of good will. I do think, however, that there is one thing which is absolutely clear: that integration cannot even begin to take place unless space is made within the discourse for trans people themselves. Trans folks are not a problem for experts and theologians to solve. They are, first and foremost, the face of Christ, marginalized, bullied, misunderstood, spit upon and rejected, and absolutely beloved of God.

“For atheists there’s no good news, they’ll never sing a song of faith; in their songs they have a rule: the he is always lower case; the he is always lower case.” [sung]

So says the Gospel according to Steve Martin, in the form of a hilarious song called “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” which you can find on youtube. My personal favorite verse is “Catholics dress up for mass and listen to Gregorian chants; atheists just take a pass, watch football in their underpants.” The song is silly, but I quote it here for a serious theological reason. Our churches and synagogues have tragically lost their traditional wisdom affirming the fullness of both men and women in God's image and the many female images of God in Scripture and Tradition. John Paul II beautifully affirmed this in Mulieris Dignitatem and in other documents composed in his original Polish, which is much less sexist than traditional English; unfortunately, poor translation choices there and in the new Roman Missal have obscured his insights. And this has spread to popular culture, as the Steve Martin song demonstrates. Even atheists, who don’t believe in God, agree that if there were a God, he could only and always be described with male language! “The he is always lower case; the he is always lower case.”

Our first reading from the book of Wisdom tells us something very different, with a powerful image of God’s love which is an important part of scripture and of our Christian tradition, as well as the Jewish faith that gave us birth. It describes God the Mother, in this case personified as Lady Wisdom—Hochmah in the Hebrew of the book of Proverbs, and Sophia in the Greek of this later-written book of scripture. She allures, teaches, guides, and comforts us with love that the biblical writer says is far more satisfying than any material riches. It is that divine love, the only thing that can give real meaning to our lives and hope to our struggles, to which Jesus calls the rich young man in today’s Gospel. And hopefully, though in this story he walked away sad because he loved his wealth more, he saw that love in Jesus’ eyes and it planted a seed that would bear fruit later in his personal journey.

The creative, saving, transforming power of God is so wonderful that the bible uses an immense variety of images to describe it. Life-giving love, saving truth, challenging way, resurrecting life, majestic lion, gentle lamb, soaring eagle, reliable rock, living water, consuming fire, nurturing parent, passionate lover, faithful friend, and so many more. Each image, like the facets of a precious diamond, shows us something rich and different about the Holy One of blessing—and their variety and diversity, like the wondrous diversity of creation, reminds us that God is far beyond all our human language and concepts as well. But the feminine language and images for God in scripture have been so neglected in both progressive and conservative churches that they are almost forgotten today. Some believers become fearful and confused when they hear them, questioning whether Christian feminist theologians reject Jesus’ physical embodiment, or want to banish our loving Papa God from prayer and liturgy. Not at all!

So if God is Spirit, beyond all our language and images, why does gender matter when we speak of God? Why does this community craft its prayer and worship to balance male language for God with neutral and female, following Jesus’ Hebrew-speaking example and calling the Holy Spirit “she”? It matters because everyone deserves a personal experience of God’s love, and the more ways we have to present it the more people will find a living connection with that love. If one image doesn’t work, another will. It matters because everyone is created in the image of God, and deserves to be recognized as such, and treated with the justice and dignity that confers. It matters because when people know they are like God they know their strength and dignity and refuse to accept hurtful treatment for themselves and others.

For instance, the more I had a personal experience of God as mother the more I could honor the life-giving and nurturing power of my own body as an image of Jesus’ incarnation of God’s love—rather than a reason I and other women can’t represent him to his beloved people. This is a great consolation in the painful wait for the restoration of women's ordination to the diaconate, which Phyllis Zagano has demonstrated is totally orthodox and could happen tomorrow with no contradiction of JPII's and BXI's statements forbidding female priesthood. (I sent Pope Francis a copy of the book so will feel like I played a small part if he is the pope with the courage to undertake that crucial step for the service of God's people!)

One of my academic specialties is the theology and mysticism of the middle ages. It’s a wonderful period to study but also means that I frequently become frustrated when people use “medieval” as a synonym for everything ignorant, backward, and barbaric in both church and society. Most people are very surprised when I share that medieval women had a more active role in society, including professionally, than they did after the Industrial Revolution. Or that liturgy and spirituality were quite diverse, and that highly centralized Roman control of so much of church life developed later, in a response of fear and anger to the changes of the Reformation.

The thing that would most shock modern Christians, though, is the creative and diverse ways that medieval Christians saw God and Jesus. Like the early church, medieval writers were familiar and comfortable with Lady Wisdom and other feminine images of God from the Bible. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in writing about the Song of Songs, used beautiful homoerotic imagery urging his monks to embrace Jesus as their lover and bridegroom. And Blessed Julian of Norwich spoke of Jesus as a mother. Christ’s death on the cross spilling forth blood and water, she wrote, was labor pains to give us life; Christ’s precious body and blood in the Eucharist were sweet breastmilk to feed and refresh beloved children.

Think about that: Jesus is a bridegroom who is also a nursing mother. That’s kind of a shock…a paradox—definitely not binary—in fact, it sounds pretty transgender. Jesus, the beloved Child of God, true God whom we adore, true human who shows us how to live, encompasses and surpasses gender. Jesus is one with the brave and beautiful people upon whom our culture—and most tragically, our churches—spew forth the most intense and deadly fear and disgust and hatred. Every year countless transpeople die tragically and prematurely—murdered on the streets, and in their homes, and in the ultimate triumph of hate driven to an epidemic of suicide. Those who suffer the most are transwomen, whom patriarchal masculinity sees as the ultimate traitors—and, most among them, transwomen of color, additionally despised in the racism which still pervades our country and world. Like Jesus, our mother and bridegroom, their precious bodies are broken and their sacred blood is spilled by evil before being transformed and raised up by the power of God’s love.

So as we come to the holy table where we receive the real presence of trans Jesus, let’s defy the lies and hate of the evil one. Let those of us who are cis repent of our unjust privilege and transphobia, and discern how we are being called to work for justice, and say to our beloved trans sisters and brothers: thank you for your courage; thank you for your holiness; thank you for your presence in our community; thank you for imaging Jesus to us and to all his people.

Homily: God Weeps With Us

(Vintage cross, a lovely way to honor our first daughter, Rachel, who would have turned twenty-five Monday on the feast of the Chair of Peter and loved the lilacs which bloomed on the day of our car accident).

Today’s reading from Mark demonstrates a crucial theme of his Gospel, pithily summed up by one of my favorite exegetes: my daughter Katie Rose. We enjoyed a lively discussion as we listened to James Earl Jones read Mark on a mother-daughter roadschool trip up the coast of California and Oregon this summer, and as we neared the end of the story she remarked: “So basically, Jesus’ disciples are total dorks.” Give that girl an A! Mark consistently shows the disciples frustrating Jesus with their lack of understanding of his message and ministry. And they are right in that target zone today with their stunned silence at Jesus’ second prediction of his passion and resurrection. They didn’t understand what it meant, but were afraid to ask him about it. Instead they distract themselves from the uncomfortable topic with a charming and mature argument about who is the greatest—followed by an even more embarrassing silence when Jesus wryly asks them what they were talking about on the road.

The disciples’ anxiety is understandable, though, if we remember the Gospel from last week where Jesus announced this unpleasant news for the first time. No one wanted to be in Peter’s situation—going from being praised for his insight that Jesus is the chosen one of Israel to being called Satan for his resistance to the path Jesus knew his integrity would lead him to. And they definitely didn’t want to hear that they too, if they chose to follow Jesus in a prophetic way of life calling out the world’s evil, would sometimes face suffering in the cause of justice and love.

So how do we deal with suffering—our own, and that of others? This is the heart-wrenching challenge that everyone faces in different ways at different times in our lives, especially if try to keep our hearts open in the face of tragedies like the refugee crisis in Syria, the endless wars in the name of nationalism and religion, the abuse fueled by racism, sexism, heterosexism and transphobia, and every other form of injustice that breaks the heart of our loving God. As Father H. mentioned last week, the cross—a central part of the Christian message—can be dangerous. Far too often, it has been abused as a weapon of oppression—telling the victims of abuse and injustice to accept their suffering as God’s will, to suppress their justified anger and to forgive without safety, repentance or amends--which also fails perpetrators by not calling them to the grace of real transformation. And this kind of “spiritual bypass” is not limited to Christianity or other traditional religions. Some forms of new age spirituality focus so much on abundance and positive thinking that they can shame and blame those who are not able to change their painful life situations—often because they don’t have the privilege and resources taken for granted by those who criticize them.

So what is our call as individuals, and as a progressive Christian community? How can we face the reality of suffering in a lifegiving way, helping those who suffer—including ourselves—to connect with the love of God which heals, strengthens, consoles, and raises to new life? There are no easy answers to this dilemma. But let’s explore the scriptures we have heard proclaimed this week, and relate them to the sacredness of our lived experience—another way we experience the word of God. There we will find some clues from the Spirit, some invitations to explore-and some false directions to avoid—as we seek to speak the truth in love and be a living presence of Christ in our church and our world.

The first reading, from Wisdom, speaks in the voice of people who are doing evil and are challenged by the just. They band together to silence and punish the prophetic speaker, sarcastically saying that God will vindicate them anyway if they are correct. This reminds us of how often suffering is not God’s will, but comes from the misuse of human free will. And it invites us to avoid one of the most hurtful responses to suffering--especially when it is caused by sin. This is to say, outright or by implication, that the suffering is God’s will—which goes along with saying, outright or by implication, that the victims shouldn’t feel too sad—and definitely shouldn’t feel mad. My husband and I received not-so-subtle messages along this line from some people when we lost our oldest child, Rachel, in a car crash caused by a dangerous driver on I-94. People said that she was with God now, as if she hadn’t been in our house, and as if this were good news for someone who only enjoyed fifteen months of earthly blessings while bringing joy to all who met her.

We understood that people said things like this with good intentions, trying to ease our intense pain—but they unintentionally made it worse by making it unsafe to share the whole experience—including the messy feelings often judged as negative. In contrast, when people could really listen and honor all our feelings, without trying to fix them, we experienced the gritty compassion of God. This is the God witnessed to in one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Bible—the psalms of lament. These show totally honest prayer pouring out grief and rage to God for permitting personal suffering, and that of the community, trusting that God –like a truly loving parent, partner, or friend—honors the trust and courage that this honesty demonstrates and helps the pray-er move through and naturally release challenging emotions, rather than suppressing them only to have them pop up and blindside us in another context.

Like the writers and singers of the psalms, and Jesus, who as a faithful Jew must have prayed them often, we learned by lived experience that like Jesus who fiercely called out the injustice of his day, God was weeping and raging with us at the tragedy, and inspiring us not to passively accept the evil as divinely willed but to speak out for safer conditions on that stretch of highway to prevent similar tragedies from happening to other families. I believe it was this same honest sharing of feelings that Jesus was looking for from his disciples in our Gospel reading. He was truly human, so he must have experienced both fear and pain as he faced the apparent failure of his ministry and the fact that his stance of nonviolent resistance would lead, as with so many prophets, to persecution and death.

Perhaps this was why he turned to the example of a child as he invited them to a more compassionate and reverent stance in the face of suffering. Children are especially vulnerable, and --especially when they are loved and secure—especially honest about their feelings and needs. I am guessing that each person in this room can remember similar experiences of suffering, when our inner child can be so close to the surface—sometimes finding hurtful words or hurtful silence, and sometimes finding loving words or loving silence which mediated the healing and resurrecting power of God. The 12 Step movement powerfully names this experience in both intimate relationships and healthy communities as “God with skin on”—making visible and tangible in our lives the love of God whom we cannot see. As we come to the holy table where we receive who we are, the precious Body of Christ, let’s open to Jesus’ healing power for the painful memories and take strength and consolation from the grateful ones. Let’s recommit ourselves, as we follow Christ our Good Shepherd, to be “God with skin on”—the presence of Christ comforting and challenging the suffering world that he immensely loves.

Scripture Reflection: John Paul II on Mother God

In a beautiful and little known section of Mulieris Dignitatem St. John Paul II reminds us of some of the lovely biblical passages which present God as a loving mother birthing, nursing, and comforting her child--a perfect balance to the passages which image God as a loving father as well as the wealthy of other images (human, animal, natural, and conceptual) which all reveal something of divine glory and plenitude while also being inadequate to fully describe the glory and beauty of our purely spiritual and transcendent God.

[I]n different passages of Sacred Scripture (especially in the Old Testament), we find comparisons that attribute to God "masculine" or "feminine" qualities. We find in these passages an indirect confirmation of the truth that both man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. If there is a likeness between Creator and creatures, it is understandable that the Bible would refer to God using expressions that attribute to him both "masculine" and "feminine" qualities.

We may quote here some characteristic passages from the prophet Isaiah: "But Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.' 'Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you'" (49:14-15). And elsewhere: "As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" (66:13). In the Psalms too God is compared to a caring mother: "Like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord" (Ps 131:2-3). In various passages the love of God who cares for his people is shown to be like that of a mother: thus, like a mother God "has carried" humanity, and in particular, his Chosen People, within his own womb; he has given birth to it in travail, has nourished and comforted it (cf. Is 42:14; 46:3-4). In many passages God's love is presented as the "masculine" love of the bridegroom and father (cf. Hos 11:1-4; Jer 3:4-19), but also sometimes as the "feminine" love of a mother.

I composed the following reflection featuring Isaiah 49, fittingly, while nursing my newborn younger daughter after being invited to serve as a guest speaker at the Lutheran church where her older brother--and later she herself--had a marvelous experience of a loving Christian preschool. We listened to it in the car recently and I was truly honored by her honest twelve year old eval: "That was really great, Mom--not like most sermons that make me want to fall asleep but I can't cause they won't stop talking!" < br />

"Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Today is the fourth Sunday of the Easter season, and we reflect on Paul's exhortation to be completely transformed by the resurrection of Christ. Today is also the day when we honor our mothers and grandmothers, and all who nurture the gift of life. But what is the connection between these two ways of describing May 11, 2003--between our Christian liturgical calendar and our American secular calendar? If holiness means turning our minds away from things on earth, it would seem that there is no connection between Mother's Day and resurrection thinking--for there is nothing more earthly than the daily joys and challenges of motherhood.

Morning sickness; dirty diapers; sticky kisses; loud arguments; algebra homework, and soccer practice, and prom dresses, and weddings that begin the cycle again for the next generation--all these realities are vividly and exuberantly physical. Is Paul joining the many voices in history that have branded the physical world--and women, whose body cycles are so visibly linked to that physical world--a temptation and distraction from the search for God? Does he advocate a spirituality for mountaintop gurus--finding enlightenment by escaping the mundane concerns of lesser human beings? Does his Christianity peddle "pie in the sky by and by when you die"--telling victims of injustice to humbly accept their crosses on earth and patiently wait for rewards in heaven? If so, the letter to the Colossians is justly included in Karl Marx's condemnation of religion as the "opiate of the masses"--one of the most effective weapons in the hands of oppressors.

Tragically, there is some compelling evidence for this possibility. The verses in the epistle which immediately follow today's reading order wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters. Passages like those reflect the cruel hierarchies of the Roman empire, not the freedom of the Gospel, and have helped perpetuate shameful evils like slavery and domestic violence throughout the centuries. But I would still dare to argue that the heart of today's readings, and of Christian faith as a whole, is a healthy and liberating spirituality. I invite you to travel with me thousands of years into the past, to the worlds where these scriptures were first written. Let's listen carefully to a prophet speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon, and an apostle writing from prison to new Christians in Colossae. They introduce us to a God who cares passionately about all aspects of human life, who heard the cries of despairing captives and brought them home to freedom. They urge us to believe in a God who became a crying infant pushed from a woman's bleeding body, and a criminal suffering a messy and painful public execution. They sing praise to a God who calls all of us to join in Her labor of nurturing and mentoring and justice making--a mother of fierce and tender compassion.

In the first reading, we hear words of comfort spoken by the prophet Isaiah to people who thought their God had abandoned them. God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and brought them into a promised land. But then the mighty empire of Babylon snatched them away from their country to endure seventy years of homesickness and despair. As time wore on without deliverance, the chosen people began to bury their elders in an alien land, and to raise children to whom Israel was just an unbelievable story. How often they must have cried out in anguished prayer, "The Lord has forsaken me! My Lord has forgotten me!" So Isaiah speaks God's word to them: "Prisoners--come out!" "Those in darkness--show yourselves!" He promises that God will bring them home, that like their ancestors being led out of Egypt they too will be given refreshing springs of water and a safe path through the lonely desert. And when they can't believe him, when the years of suffering have worn them down to the bitter conviction that God can't possibly love them, Isaiah plays his trump card: "Can a mother forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?"

You can't remember how God freed our ancestors, he challenges them, or the good times we knew in our own land? You call to God for help, and wait, and wait--and hear only silence in response? You see your oppressors enjoying blessings you are denied, and wonder if it would be worse if there were no God, or if God existed only to torment and betray you? Then remember a time when you were sick, or hurt, or afraid, and your mother held you close and sang to you in the night. Remember when you watched your wife brave agony and danger to bring your son into the world. Remember when you rushed joyfully home to your daughter's embrace, because your breasts were tingling and overflowing with milk, and you needed her as much as she needed you. Feel the love of these memories in your heart, Isaiah says, and know that God is not just a judge and a king, not just a nurturing father, but also a strong and gentle mother, who utterly delights in you.

If your life feels cramped and lonely and hopeless, try to believe that your dark dwelling is not just a prison cell, but also a womb--a safe and holy place in which an unseen God surrounds you, and grieves for your pain, and labors to bring you forth into freedom. Even the Hebrew word used here for God's compassion, rachamim, comes from the root word rechem, which means womb. God speaks though Isaiah to the Israelites and to us: "My love for you is womb-love, the love of the one who gave you life and cares for your always. I am your faithful mother; I will never forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

And here we find the connection to our reading from Colossians, for it describes a God in whom we are hidden as in the womb, and a savior whose love is inscribed on the palms of his wounded hands. Chelsea spoke God's word to all of us in the children's message this morning when she said, "Jesus is like a mother." This wise young girl follows in the footsteps of great mystics throughout the ages, like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena, who said, "Look at Jesus! His death on the cross is labor pains to give us life. His presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is sweet breastmilk to feed us. He gently teaches us, as a mother does her child. Christ shows us that God is our loving Mother."

Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, we all face suffering in our own lives and those of others, and perhaps the most overwhelming anguish comes in the fracturing of intimate relationships. Every day throughout the world, mothers bury their children--through illness and accidents and hunger and violence. Every day throughout the world, children are hurt by their mothers--through the ordinary mistakes of imperfect human beings, or the tragic betrayal of ongoing cycles of abuse. This suffering can make us question, and despair, and cry out, "The Lord has forsaken me! My Lord has forgotten me!" And in the letter to the Colossians Paul relays to us God's answer. It goes beyond delivering us from suffering from afar, to the deepest form of compassion--entering every kind of agony with us. In Christ, the glorious and invisible God was clothed in human flesh to share with us, and mysteriously transform, and someday fully conquer evil and death.

Did you notice how often in today's reading Paul uses this image of clothing to describe the Christian life? "You have stripped off the old self with its practices," he reminds us, "and have clothed yourselves with the new person, being renewed in the image of God the creator." "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." This is a perfect image for God our Mother, because so much of a mother's time is spent clothing her children. Dressing infants and toddlers; working to buy the clothes; shopping for the clothes; washing them and mending them and--for those more talented than myself--even custom tailoring them. Clothing is sacramental, an outward sign that makes present and visible the inner reality of a parent's love.

When I was seven years old my mother made me a flower girl dress for my aunt Cele's wedding. It was crafted of plush, blossom-covered blue velveteen, with short puffed sleeves and a bow in the back; I felt like a princess as I walked down the aisle of Transfiguration church. After the ceremony Mom shortened the dress for everyday wear, and because she turned up a very large hem and repeatedly let it down, I got to relive that feeling of being honored and special over and over for the next three years. Can you remember a lovely outfit that incarnated your beauty, and God's love for you, through the care of the one who provided it?

We chose the last verses of this Colossians passage to read at our wedding, because it described our dream for letting God's love shine out through our relationship, our parenting, and our life in the community. In the fourteen years since that ceremony we have experienced great joy, and huge challenges, and tragedy beyond imagining. The strain of those things has sometimes overflowed into our hearts and made Paul's call to all these incredible virtues seem an impossible dream, a difficult task set by a harsh God. But we find new hope when we remember the real God, who is clothed in compassion and peace and reconciliation, and who clothes us with these qualities as my mother clothed me with my flower girl dress. Sometimes the most important thing that overworked mothers and fathers and friends can do is to first receive the love of God for the self, in whatever way is right for each person. Do something to feel that love today. And as that rachamim, that womb-love, that crucified and risen love soaks into your being, it will clothe you and flow through you to others. You will be dressed in radiant wedding garments that show forth to all who see you the endless gentleness of our miraculous God.