A bit of lectionary serendipity yesterday. I was preaching on Numbers 21 and John 3, the weird bit about Moses lifting up a snake on a stick in the wilderness. I was really, really hoping to avoid the Numbers text, but then MPR had a hilarious bit about Snakes on a Plane, which provided a great image for John's not-Gnostic interpretation of the cross.
And then -- though this didn't make it into the sermon -- the New York Times had a fascinating piece yesterday about the campaign to eliminate guinea worm, a parasite that many believe is what was afflicting the Israelites in the wilderness.
The second news story -- about how the Carter Center has worked against amazing odds to nearly eradicate a disease -- is much more heartening than the first -- about how Hollywood gives people what they want, even if its more gore and nudity.
Anyway, it's very odd how these things come my way, I who consume not too much media.
I’m tempted these days to answer the phone, “house of pestilence.” Last week our little boy had a long run (um, no pun intended) of intestinal flu, and I had a cold – the kind that makes you tired and cranky but not so sick you can just stay home. Then today my husband got the stomach bug, too. I’m hoping this is just the same thing my daughter had several weeks ago with a long incubation period, so she’s already had it and we’ll soon be done.
And then all the news this week seems to be about avian flu and the prospect of a pandemic, and how we should all be stocking food and water and so on. I’m not generally an alarmist about such things, but it has given me pause because I live with two very little beings whose bodies seem so much more vulnerable than mine. If there were a pandemic, I’d like to think that I would be a brave pastor who would be there for those in distress. . . but then I also feel a responsibility to protect my children, who would be very vulnerable should their parents get sick. We have no family in town, no doctor in the family, no stockpile of Tamiflu. . .
One theory on why the early church survived and even thrived in the periods of persecution in the pre-Constantinian era is that Christians were unusually courageous in the face of various plagues that swept across the urban centers of the empire. When others fled the cities in droves, the Christian communities remained, offering pastoral and practical aid to those who were suffering or who had nowhere to go. Of course, the line between medical aid and other sorts of pastoral/spiritual help was pretty thin in the 2nd century, while now no one expects the church to provide more than prayer and companionship when disease strikes. We assume that the health care system will (mostly) be there for us – and that is exactly the assumption that pandemic experts tell us we shouldn’t make.Facing a situation where there really is nothing the “system” can do, I think, would drive many people to pray in ways they never have before. But if there’s a pandemic, odds are good most of them will be praying alone.
I am so saddened by the news that Tom Fox, one of the four members of a Christian Peacemaking Team in Iraq, has been confirmed dead. Since they were abducted in November, I should not be surprised, but it does sadden me, and I can only think of the horror the families of the other three men must be going through.
Tomorrow I preach on Jesus' exchange with Peter regarding the cross, the one in which he says, "Get behind me, Satan." On the surface these are the harshest words Jesus utters, but I'm persuaded by scholars who argue that the Greek is the same as other places where he calls others to follow him. So "get behind me" is not a rejection, but just a reiteration that Peter ought to come after him, to follow in the way Jesus is headed.
Of course, that way, Jesus knows, leads to death. And Mark does not soften Jesus urging to "take up your cross" with the world "daily," as Luke does. Mark is talking about the real thing, the instrument of death.
I am in awe of people like Tom Fox who did not shy from such a consequence of following Jesus. But I am heartened a bit by something else from this same passage: it's Peter he's talking to -- the same guy who, even after this rebuke, denies Jesus rather than be associated with a man condemned to death. And this same man became the leader of the early church. Maybe there's still hope for cowards like me.
I haven't blogged much lately, largely because every time I thought about blogging I considered writing about an unpleasant encounter with a former parishoner I had two weeks ago. But this didn't seem like quite the right time to process it in that way, so I've been stuck mostly in my own thoughts. Perhaps I'll have a lenten breakthrough and be able to write about it without feeling miserable. .
Ash Wednesday always seems to come for me all on its own every year, without any pariticular trying on my part. Somehow the world conspires to let me know my limitations, and this year was no exception. But I do also attempt some actual lenten disciplines each year. This year, as with many recent years, one of those disciplines is a ban on book-buying. I actually look forward to it now, because I know for 6 weeks I won't have to decide about books -- I just won't get any new ones, period. and I usually end up actually reading more of what I already have.
I'm also trying to clear out some clutter right now, which makes my husband rather nervous. He is the true child of depression babies and hates to see things thrown away, even if they haven't been touched in 5 years and are merely taking up space. But my ambivalence about clearing is different. There's an overabundance of tips and tools for getting organized and clearing clutter in our culture now -- a sure sign that we all have too much stuff. It DOES feel good to pare it all down, but the underlying message in many of these books and websites (e.g. www.flylady.net) is that we clear out in order to make room for more stuff! Toss so you can buy more! Ack!
I weeded out my closet and thoroughly enjoyed it on Friday. It feels great to say I don't have to hang on to those pants I don't wear anymore anyway. And I do intend to donate them to an appropriate place. But now that there's space, the little voices of fashion and consumerism say that I can, no, I must, buy, buy buy! And there isn't anything Lenten about that.
I think there's an aspect of lenten discipline that is usually overlooked -- the benefits of failure. I inevitably bump up against my shortcomings in this process, and that's a good thing.
Of course, if I look forward to failing, that's not quite it either, is it? Apostle Paul, call your office!