Lenten Table Talk
The year after I graduated from college, I dated a guy – I’ll call him Joe. It was a messy situation. He had a girlfriend at the time and just couldn’t seem to break off his relationship with her. I realize as I write this that I make him sound like a jerk. But he really wasn’t. He was just one of those people who could never bring themselves to ripping off the band-aid… Those people whose lives are prolonged agony because they just can’t ever make a hard decision. And it was a hard thing; his girlfriend was his sister-in-law’s sister. ugh… Anyway, we dated on and off for nearly a year.
Now, I’ve got to own it. I should have put the brakes on it at the start. And, of course we tried that “we’ll just be friends for now.” But that never really works when you’re romantically inclined. I suppose I just didn’t realize how much frustration and anxiety were building up in me until the day, in a heat of anger, I sat down and wrote a letter to his other girlfriend. She had been suspicious and I confirmed all of her suspicions. I let her know where we had gone on dates, how long we’d been seeing each other, etc. It was brutal. I just sang like a canary. But, as soon as I dropped it in the mailbox, I felt sick with regret. That evening Joe came to pick me up for a date and I knew I had to tell him what I’d done. He was devastated and utterly shocked. And, obviously, that was the end of our relationship.
For months after, I was plagued by the guilt of what I’d done. Should I have ended the relationship? Absolutely! But not the way I ended it. It was cruel and, frankly, I was shocked that I had done such a thing. It was out of character and made me mistrust my own trustworthiness… if that makes sense.
Two and a half years later, Britt and I met and eventually began to date. And those self-doubts were still plaguing me. They were like a lodestone I drug around with me wherever I went. About one month into dating Britt, one day my phone rang. It was Joe. He was just calling to see how I was doing. Our conversation was gracious and pleasant. After a while, I knew I had to tell him that I was dating Britt. I didn’t want our conversation to be misleading. He said he was happy to hear that. We hung up and haven’t spoken since. But that day’s call made such a difference for me. Now, he never said, “I understand why you did what you did and I forgive you.” He didn’t need to. But I knew, instinctively, that he did forgive me and there was something about his forgiveness that allowed me to release that lodestone of self-doubt. As Britt and I embarked upon our relationship that would lead to marriage, Joe’s call set me free of my burden and my baggage.
Resentment, anger and judgment are so toxic. But forgiveness and grace bring us new life. Resentment, anger and judgment tear us apart. But forgiveness and grace knit us back together again.
Social philosopher Hannah Arendt writes that “forgiving is an eminently personal affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it.” In other words, forgiveness considers the value of the other person irrespective of what they have done. Now, that is not to say that we should allow ourselves to be other people’s doormats. We all deserve to be treated with dignity. But it is to say that we must find a way to get past our feelings of hurt and blame; to get beyond seeing the other person as some horrible villain and be able, once again, to see them as a beloved child of God.
For more reflection on how grace and forgiveness offer us new life, check out my sermon at: https://youtu.be/J7FWKmDEIDU The link goes lives on March 22 at 6 a.m.
Listen to recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page
My Sunday message was on the topic of generosity. I preached on the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John, chapter 6. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle told in all four of our biblical gospels. But only John provides the detail that it was one young boy who provided the five loaves of barley bread and the two fish. As modern people we are often unaware that children were not thought of in the ancient world in the way we think of children today. I remember in seminary a professor sharing from one ancient philosopher who wrote that children were “bundles of chaos that needed to be beaten into submission.” That was neither a joke nor hyperbole. In the ancient world, the only value a child had was their potential to grow up and become a respectable adult. (Who, if they did so, would then become their aging parents’ “social security” and the opportunity for the family to continue to produce heirs.) Their status as a child was of no value in the ancient world. Furthermore, John’s mention that the bread was made of barley indicates this child came from a poor peasant family (which most people in the ancient world did anyway). Barley grew faster than wheat and was cheaper and easier to harvest. So, Jesus’ partner in this miracle was someone who was poor, vulnerable and socially insignificant. And, for this miracle to occur, this boy had to give up everything he had with him that day. True confession: I would have probably hidden a loaf under my tunic just in case things didn’t work out. But that little boy gave up everything while others, at least according to John, contributed nothing.
The longer I live the more convinced I am that few things demonstrate our faith in Jesus more than radical generosity. We can say we trust Jesus. We can yap about it until we’re blue in the faith. But, the willingness to give sacrificially for the well-being of others – making ourselves vulnerable and taking risk – will truly reveal whether or not we trust Jesus.
I think that’s a timely message. Maybe we should all think about it when we go to the store and are tempted to hoard a six-month supply of toilet paper!
Some of us are very fortunate right now. We have jobs that allow us to work from home. We have employers who continue to pay us. But that is not the case for everyone. So, if you are still getting your pay check (or social security or pension), why not share it with someone who’s not. Some small businesses have been forced to shut down and send their employees home. While I assume our government will take steps long-term to meet their financial needs, that won’t help them right now when their utility bill or rent is due.
Also, many NPO’s that serve the most vulnerable members of our community, like the homeless, are struggling right now. When volunteers don’t come in to supplement staff, staff must be paid overtime for those extra hours. Many of these places allow volunteers to bring meals into shelters and facilities or donate ingredients and prepare food on site. They count on that when they prepare their annual budgets. Since they serve at-risk populations, they can no longer take the risk of potentially contaminated food. So they are expending additional resources (beyond their budgets) to purchase food for their clients.
Today I emailed the owner of my favorite coffee shop to see how things are going. If her business is struggling I plan to send her a check and also to make a donation to Family Promise this month. I’m blessed to be continuing to receive a paycheck. I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe folks will fearfully hold back their contributions to churches in the coming weeks and my income could eventually be jeopardized too. But today, it is not and I can’t afford to be stingy and selfish based on “potential” future shortage when others are facing a real shortage right now.
I close with these words from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (1 Cor. 9:8)
(To read my Sunday message on John 6 and Generosity, go to http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons)
My husband and I met in seminary. Britt was a member of the West Ohio Conference and I was a member of the Western Pennsylvania Conference. Once we’d decided to marry, we knew we would have a big decision to make about who would transfer their conference membership. (It seemed like such a big deal at the time. Yet today, ironically, neither of us are a member of either of those conferences!)
There were lots of factors that went into the decision, especially consideration of family and travel. But the decision was also influenced by a dinner. Once a year representatives of the conferences visited the seminaries to meet with the students from their conference. I believe it was the fall after Britt’s and my wedding that a pastor from Western PA came to visit United. His first name was Dick. I don’t even remember his last name. Generally, the representative/s would meet with students over two days and on the evening of the first day, treat the students from their conference to dinner at a local restaurant for a time of fellowship and camaraderie. I always looked forward to it. I like to eat. I like to eat good food. And when you’re a poor seminary student, you don’t get many opportunities to eat good restaurant food. So I was disappointed when I discovered that Dick’s evening out with the seminarians was on an evening when both Britt and I had class. So much for a nice dinner. But when Dick found out we had class that evening, he offered to stay an extra day and have dinner with just Britt and me the subsequent evening.
As Britt and I arrived at the restaurant, Dick was already at the table. He stood and shook our hands. As we sat down, he said, “I’m so glad we have this opportunity to break bread together. I was really looking forward to it.” Then he prayed. We had a wonderful visit. He was so excited for Britt’s and my new marriage, the fact that we were reaching the end of our seminary journey, and excited for the many years of ministry ahead of us. He sincerely seemed to take joy and delight in our young lives, our love and our call. He wasn’t in any hurry to get out of the restaurant. He encouraged us to order whatever we wanted off the menu. That evening’s dinner was incredibly joyful and celebrative.
Hospitality and celebration always seem to go hand in hand. This Sunday I’ll be preaching the story of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana. When I was kid, I thought it was so silly that Jesus would waste his divine power on turning water into wine. But the miracle wasn’t really about the beverage; it was about the celebration. Abundant wine and food were the basic ingredients for hospitality, fellowship and celebration.
In Dostoevsky’s classic, “The Brothers Karamazov,” there is a scene where Aloysha is mourning the passing of his loving mentor, Father Zosima. As he is grieving and crying, he hears in the background someone reading the story of Jesus’ miracle in Cana. And, as he does, he has a sudden realization. Aloysha, listening to the story, reflects: “…indeed was it to make wine abundant at poor weddings he had come down to earth? And yet he… worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness… For the one who loves us, loves our gladness, too.” In other words, Aloysha recognizes, it wasn’t about wine. This miracle was about people – even the poorest – having the opportunity to celebrate and be glad… together. God cares about our gladness because God loves us!
This Sunday at http://www.trinitylafayette.org we are celebrating Fusion Sunday. Fusion, itself, is a celebration. Our once a month gathering always includes a meal: we break bread, we fellowship, we share our stories and our hearts with one another. Attending Fusion always brings me joy. It must bring God joy also since God loves our gladness.
Join us at our next Fusion on Monday, March 16, 6 p.m., when our storyteller will be Mike Herzog. To learn more about Fusion, join us for Sunday worship at 10:30 on March 8 or go to http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html or https://www.facebook.com/TrinityFusion/
Learn more about Mike at http://www.mikeherzog.com
[Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]
Some have heard me tell the story of one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I got bullied a lot in middle school, mostly because I was small and awkward and not at all athletic AND because my best classes were English and literature. (I should add I was raised in a local culture that placed the highest value on things like sports, math and science.) In my 8th grade English class was another boy, Donald, who also got picked on. He, too, was awkward, bookish, and had verbal skills well beyond his age. But he seemed to relish his nerdiness (or maybe he just had a healthier ego than me). Now, the only thing more embarrassing than being picked on for knowing all of the answers in English class was not knowing an answer in English class… and one day that happened. The teacher posed a question. And, when no one responded, he called on me. Not knowing the answer, I felt the flush of embarrassment and insecurity and I panicked. Then, I heard the brutal words fly out of my mouth laced with sarcasm: “I don’t know, ask Donald. He knows everything.” The room erupted in laughter and, for once, they were laughing with me, not at me. But, I couldn’t enjoy the moment because I stole a glance at Donald. We weren’t good friends, but I suppose you might say we were joined in our nerdiness and when I made that stinging comment; well, he looked as if all the breath had been knocked out of him. It was as if I had dealt him a punch to the gut.
Where did those words come from? I knew better; I’d been taught better. I never behaved like that. But in my moment of panic and insecurity, my 8th grade ego felt its very survival under attack and it felt the need to fight to survive.
I’m not unique, I imagine. I’m guessing most of us can remember a time in our lives when we did something cruel because, in the panic of the moment, our egos defended themselves in a “damn the torpedoes” fashion.
Likewise, I’m guessing we’ve all been on the receiving end, as well. After all, if I hadn’t been bullied, I probably wouldn’t have been so quick and cruel in defending myself… not that that is any excuse; it’s just the harsh reality of human nature…
which is why we need to be cautious about our trust in other humans. I have some wonderful friends and family members. I trust them. And yet, there still have been times when their words have hurt and stung. There have been times when I needed their emotional support and they weren’t there. There have been times when I shared something important with them and their response went beyond lackluster. And, I am sure they could say the same for me.
The picture to the left is a pic I took walking Pompano Beach in Florida. I was stunned to capture this scene of a gull capturing a fish and toying with it (at least it appeared that way to me). I got about a half dozen pictures of this gull dropping, grabbing and pecking at this poor fish. It looked pretty cruel. But, knowing nothing about gulls, I’m guessing this is how they fish and its actions were necessary for it to survive. Nature can be pretty brutal.
My point is this: We all need relationships and people we can trust. But we also need to recognize that trust in humans can only go so far. We all have egos that are reactive and prone to strike back when they feel they’ve been dealt a blow. God alone is the only one in whom we can have absolute trust. No matter what happens, regardless of what we say or do, God will always, faithfully act in our best interest. Despite all of the cultural jokes about God smiting people, God isn’t like us. God doesn’t get offended and react by lashing out in the heat of the moment.
God’s love, grace and mercy are everlasting and all-encompassing.