Thursday, December 08, 2016

hannah

"Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time."  1 Samuel 1:17

I minored in history while in college and so I know the reality of who gets to write the history.  It is the winners, it is those with the power, it is those who have control over everything and everyone. Or at least, that is how it seems.  Which is probably why we have 1st and 2nd Samuel in the Old Testament, but no 1st and 2nd Miriam; it's why we have 1st and 2nd Kings, but no histories of the common person.  It is why we have the letters of Peter, James, and Paul, but no letters by Phoebe in the New Testament. 

I wonder what it would be like to read 1st and 2nd Hannah, if we could.  Instead of stories about priests, perhaps we would hear more about women who struggled with infertility and seeing so many of their babies die before age 1.  Instead of long lists of kings, many of whom obviously didn't have a clue as to what they could be doing or should have done, we would hear of the poor, who were doing everything they could to put food on the table, to care for their families, to seek to be faithful to their God.  Instead of generals and battles, maybe we would have been told the stories of the most vulnerable in that day, of those who were forgotten or simply overlooked in the hurry to win one's status as a great warrior, of the folks who were more like us.

Perhaps if we did have histories written by the women, if we had gospels as seen through the eyes of children, if we had letters sent by the oppressed and the forsaken, we would have caught on a lot quicker that the God we worship, the One whose birth we celebrate this season, the Spirit which seeks to infuse us with mercy and peace is on the side of the poor, is longing for us to join in the struggle to end injustice, is waiting for us to discover the value of all those we dismiss as simply being worthless.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

habakkuk

I admit it.  I more minor than major when it comes to this holy season.

Me, I'll take the simple Advent wreath instead of the Christmas tree.  I'll take the purple and pink candles instead of 40 thousand lights timed to gaudy songs flashing from every house.  I'll take the silence over the din of commercials; I'll take the waiting over the wandering from store to store for just the right gift/card; I'll take the sitting in the shadows over the stress and strain of the season.

For some folks, it isn't Christmas until they sing or hear 'O Holy Night,' 'O Come, All Ye Faithful,' 'Joy to the World,' or the overly used 'Hallelujah Chorus.'  But for me, it has always been the minor key pieces that speak to me.  I could sing 'In the Bleak Midwinter' every time in worship.  Part of it has to do with the incredible moving words of Rossetti.  But it is also the musical dissonance, which reflects the tension which hangs in the air as we celebrate the Child born into poverty with opulent gift-giving, the tension which exists within us as we live in a culture which throws away more food and stuff this time of year, while so many lives grow emptier and emptier.

Perhaps that is why, in this season where every time we gather for worship we hear from Isaiah, I turn to the minor key prophets.  Folks like Habakkuk, who don't get the glory, the recognition, the honor of being read every Christmas Eve and Day, but who use moving words to speak of that time we should await, not all the hectic moments which assail us; who remind us of the God whose one desire is to love us, even when we think love is a commodity to be bought and sold, not offered unconditionally.

A professor in seminary told of the Presbyterian pastor serving a church in the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War.  An area which was utterly devastated as battles raged, and changed sides over and over again.  After a particularly tough time, when one of the armies moving through had taken all the food, the crops, the livestock, leaving the people of the area with practically nothing to their names, the pastor stood up on Sunday morning and read from Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not
         blossom,
   and no fruit is on the
         vines;
though the produce of the
         olive fails
   and the fields yield no
         food;
though the flock is cut off
         from the fold
   and there is no herd in the
         stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
   I will exult in the God of
         my salvation.  (3:17-18)

In every bleak midwinter, Habakkuk reminds us, God is with us.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

centurion

A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  Luke 7:2

How much value do we put on those who serve us?

The person who cuts our hair, and asks us how things are going, what we are doing today?  Do we ask them about their work, their families, what might be happening in their lives?  The server at our table at a meal with colleagues or friends - do we notice the dark circles under their eyes, the way she stretches to get the kinks out of her back, the worry lines on the forehead of someone too young to carry such burdens?  The driver who gets out every morning to deliver the paper in the dark/cold/damp, the bus driver who picks up our kids or grandkids, the person who works on our car, the lady who speaks a different language who cleans and tidies the room of the hotel where we stay?

How much do we value those who serve us?

One of the jobs I had to pay my way through college was as a cook in a restaurant.  I know the long hours that have to be put in, the incredible amount of time on one's feet, the attitude of caring for customers who obviously don't care for anything or anyone other than themselves.  I know how much I was paid (which wasn't a whole lot).  But I also came to know the folks who waited on the people, took their orders, served them the meal, cleaned up after folks.  I saw them berated by people because there was not enough ice in a drink, hollered at because a knife was dirty, rudely waved at by someone who thought he was a VIP but was really a JERK.  I know how much the servers got paid, which was less than me.

I heard their stories of trying to feed and clothe kids on subsistence wages which meant they relied on the gratuities offered to them, only to see a group of businessmen who had just spent several hundred dollars on a meal, drop $2 on the table for the server.  I have seen well-dressed people leave a table so littered and messy their mothers would be utterly horrified and ashamed.  I have seen folks pull out calculators to figure out (to the penny) what each person owed on the bill, and then walk away leaving the server with nothing but a table to clean. 

How much do we value those who serve us?

As much as this nameless centurion?

Or less?

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 05, 2016

compatriots

Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the churches of Christ greet you.  Romans 16:16

This simple little verse comes after a long listing of people mentioned by Paul at the end of the letter he is sending to the believers in Rome.  It doesn't have the great theological implications of chapters 4 and 5, it doesn't resound with the high notes of chapter 8, it isn't urging folks to a new lifestyle like chapter 12, but this often overlooked part of the letter tells us something very important about the early church.

Paul mentions women, as well as men.  He speaks of individuals, as well as faith communities which gather in another's home.  He speaks of people who are never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament.  He tells of those who have been imprisoned with him, as well as those who supported him in his journeys, in his ministry of spreading the gospel.  He calls them friends, co-workers, relatives - thinking of all these people not just as people who attend church with him, but who have shaped his life in profound ways.

They are Jews, and they are Gentiles.  They are folks whose names reveal they are Greek, while others carry Latin names.  They are Romans, and they are Asians, and some are folks who come from places not mentioned.  They are rich and poor, there are young and old.  Paul considers them all to be saints, not because they are more pious than we, but because they are believers just like we are.

They are the constant reminders that the early church was a diverse community, which welcomed people from every culture, from every background, from every economic status, from every sort of work, with every level of education.  They lived out the good news that Jesus came for all people, not just a few; that the church is the household of all people, not just the privileged; that faith is shared and learned from every imaginable person.

They are us, or who we could be, if we just dared.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 04, 2016

ananias

So Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."  Acts 9:17

Every church I know wants to grow; every pastor wants to be able to bring in new people. 

Up to a point, right?

What happens when the most progressive church in town is visited by the most conservative voice in the community, who gives every indication that this is the family of faith which she has been searching for and finally feels she has found?

How does the pastor who takes (humbling, of course) pride in looking after all the folks who live on the streets - making sure they are fed, battling the city leaders to open more shelters for longer hours, encouraging parishioners to spend just as much on the most vulnerable in our society as they do on the folks they most love at Christmas - respond when two of the street families show up and announce they want to be baptized and join the church?

The seminary student who all the professors are convinced and tell her that she is destined for one of the Tall Steeple churches coveted by so many in the denomination - what does she do when she opens the letter from the tiny, struggling, destined-to-close-its-doors congregation, telling her that they believe God is calling her to serve with them at the corner of Hopeless and WashedOut?

Maybe these are the moments, the people, the challenges we are offered that will help us to regain our sight, and see the kingdom as it truly is meant to be.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 03, 2016

shiphrah and puah

But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  Exodus 1:17

They had absolutely no power.
No one was going to come to their defense.
No one would be willing to stand at their side.
So, why did Shiphrah and Puah do it; why were they willing to risk their lives (and perhaps the lives of their families and friends); why were they daring to defy the most powerful ruler of their time? 

Why?

Because it is precisely when despair roams our hearts,
   that we need to midwife hope;
it is precisely when the bullies stand over little children,
   that we need to midwife courage;
it is precisely when the power hungry gain control,
   that we need to midwife weakness;
it is precisely when the arrogant tell us only they can save us,
   that we need to midwife trust in God;
it is precisely in this moment as in every moment,
in our communities as in every place,
   that we must midwife the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah
   so grace, peace, life continue to be birthed
   when we most need them.

Prayer:  You call us to be midwives, Mothering God, not because we are strong and courageous, but because you can use our vulnerability and hope if we but trust in you in every moment, in every place.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 02, 2016

the other mary

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  Matthew 28:1 

Some years ago, there was a television comedy whose cast of characters included three guys who would come into a scene.  The fellow in the middle always introduced themselves this way, "Hi, I'm Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl." Of course, we never heard from either Darryl, and we certainly were never given a clue as to what the other Darryl did, or who he was as a person.

This is similar to the woman in the New Testament known as the "other" Mary.  We really don't know who she is, but obviously not in the same 'star' quality as Mary Mags.  Some say she is given this title because Mary was such a common name back then.  Some believe she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Some posit she was married to Alphaeus, and that their son was James, one of those called as a disciple (who, was also known by a similar 'title' - James the Little/Less - as if he too was of little consequence in the grand scheme of things).

We don't know what she did, either.  Maybe she simply made sure the folks following Jesus were fed and looked after, coming around after them and picking up their dirty clothes.  Maybe she was the one who always made creative excuses for Jesus, when he had disappeared and everyone was looking for him, never revealing the fact that he had gone off to recharge his spiritual batteries.  May she kept refilling Andrew's cup, and listening to his plaintive, "Peter!  All everyone ever talks about is Peter.  He wouldn't even know Jesus if I hadn't introduced them . . ."

We don't know why she is even mentioned.  But perhaps it is simply a recognition by the gospels of a woman was always there when someone needed her, and always overlooked when they didn't.

Just like some folks we know.  Just like some folks like ourselves.

Prayer:  Open our eyes to those who look after us, especially when we don't notice them; those who listen to us, though we can't remember what their voice sounds like, those others who simple go about their ministry of caring, giving, loving, even when they are not.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman