Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jesus, If You Are Willing

A patch of poison ivy rash has spread out like an angry red splash across the front of my left calf. For two days, I tried home remedies. Yesterday, after consulting with the CVS pharmacist (and placing a call for help on Facebook), I tried a few creams and lotions. They all have names like “Bad-Poison-Ivy-You-Be-Gone”. Great colors. Little relief.

Now there are a few tiny blisters on my left wrist and I am suspicious of the itching sensation rising from my right ankle. I’m not going to look.

This is the price I pay for vigorous weeding and not so vigorous leg scrubbing: an inflammation that is stridently present all day long and jolting me awake in the middle of the night.

Inflammation. Skin disease. I’m no Miriam, snow-white with leprosy. But just to be on the safe side, I’m not uttering any complaints against Moses.

Pain and discomfort. I have not suffered the indignity and isolation of those who have contracted leprosy through the ages. Although, if this rash spreads much further, people are going to ask questions (or at least avert their eyes).

Elisha sent a messenger to General Naaman. “Have a skin problem? Go wash seven times in the Jordan River.” Naaman clothed in anger and skepticism, stepped into the river. After seven immersions he came up with “the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5) Naaman showed Elisha his hide was healed and spoke of the healing of his soul.

I like this story for all kinds of reasons. I like Elisha’s sassy attitude. I like that grace is dispensed even to the arrogant. I like the plurality of Naaman’s healings.

Jesus knew a bit about releasing persons from the burden of skin disease. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke there are accounts of Jesus touching a man with leprosy and curing him. The man cried, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!” Jesus replied, “I am willing. Be clean.”

I like that Jesus touched the untouchable. I like his willingness. I like the the man trusted Jesus to make things right.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sent the disciples out to cure those with leprosy. The order to cleanse the lepers falls right in between the directions to raise the dead and to drive out demons. There’s a tall order.

I like that Jesus told his followers to go do these amazing things.

I’m not anywhere near the Jordan River. While immersion in oatmeal and/or some sort of salty concoction has been suggested, I’m hesitant. I’ll admit I haven’t called on a disciple to try to heal me and I’m not sure that any follower of Jesus I know would be willing to place hands on the angry red blisters welling up on my leg (nor would I want that!).

But this is what I’m thinking. The time I spent this evening with the Bible on my lap, re-reading the old stories of healing has been a blessed distraction. I am thankful that God’s grace can be poured out on anyone. I am thankful that Jesus is willing to touch, even when no one else will. I’m thankful that God trusts us to help each other in profound and amazing ways.

This rash will recede in the days ahead and eventually the purplish hue of healing will fade from my skin. I’ve read the healing stories, and I want the same for my heart and my soul, with its angry, red flare-ups, it’s bent toward stubborn isolation. Jesus, if you are willing. . . .

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Debt

I spent most of this “Sabbath” morning reading Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. The chapter on the connection between debt and sin has me thinking.

On the one hand, she points out that Jesus Christ is the “cosmic sin eater” or the ultimate “substitute human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices”. Jesus took the debt for human sin on himself. On the other hand, a few pages later, Atwood asks the challenging question, “Which is more blameworthy—to be the debtor or to be the creditor?” If the scale is unbalanced either way, either toward the one who owes or the one who is owed, “resentment builds, each side becomes despicable in the eyes of the other.”

Our orthodox understanding of our relationship to God begins with the assumption that the scale is tipped in God’s favor. Humanity owes a debt for disobedience. But in the saving act of Jesus Christ, the scale tips, wildly and graciously the other way, lifting the weight of the debt away. We pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

One way to live life is with the image of God’s holy scales before us, balancing each life between unimaginable debt and unimaginable redemption from debt. We can imagine ourselves dropped on the scales. We might even believe that we can assist God in choosing who will have their debt redeemed, the Creditor paid, and who will not.

I choose another way. Debt is historically a human construct, stretching back through the centuries to the earliest of times, when those who accumulated wealth in any form, found ways to loan and keep records. When we describe God’s expectations and our disregard of those expectations, when we talk about the saving work of Jesus Christ, it is comfortable to use the language of debt and debtor. But any use of this image has at least two risks. First, that the debtor will need to pay someone back whether it is the ultimate lender (God the Creator) or the one who steps in the pick up the debt (Christ the Redeemer). We will be continually trying to figure out how to settle on what we owe. The second risk is that the debtor will ultimately resent the debt and resent the one who is owed. The debtor might walk away, choosing spiritual “bankruptcy”.

I prefer the image that Jesus used to explain our relationship with God, the loving father. (Luke 15) The son does not get a loan from the father, but what he is entitled to. There is no debt. When the son can’t make the life he has chosen work and he is suffering, he returns to the father. The father is out on the road waiting and watching. He celebrates his son’s return. He doesn’t ask for repayment; he simply embraces his son.

There is no scales here, no balance, no loan, no debt. It’s love. That’s the image I’m sticking with. God crazy in love, watching, waiting, welcoming, and embracing.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Earthlings

Yesterday evening I was reading on the patio. The sun was setting on the other side of the house and I was enjoying the cool coming on after a warm day. As I lay back in a lounge chair I read that human beings are “earthlings”, formed by God from the mud, “dirt babies.” (Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar on the World) Brown Taylor reminded me that the trees and the plants are rooted in the very element from which I came.

I set down my book and looked up at the circle of blue, surrounded by the tops of trees. The sky was brilliant and the leaves yellow-green from the low sun. A hawk glided into the circle of sky. Without effort, its wings wide, it moved in a slow circle above me and the house and the trees. When the hawk tilted toward the east, its feathers brightened by the setting sun, flashed white.

The hawk is rooted too, like me, dust from the earth. I watched until the bird slowly circled away over the treetops. The hawk and I were hundreds of feet apart, near the earth and near the clouds and for a moment, I wondered at the connection.

This morning I started my day with a breakfast meeting at 7:30 a.m. and finished talking with parishioners at 8:45 p.m. In the hours in between, I attended meetings, made phone calls, received and sent emails. I sat with several people, to talk, to listen, to problem solve, to lead. I prayed and heard prayer.

And with all that, a day’s labor in the name of Christ, when I walked up the driveway, newspaper and mail in hand, I was thinking about the trees and the sun, the earth and the hawk.