Sunday, January 27, 2013

retreat address 3: Priscilla and Phoebe, Paul's Church Ladies

Growing up, I always thought of the church ladies in my Dad’s churches like the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey—Maggie Smith at her accomplished, pinched, disapproving best.
After a while, I began to pay more attention; I came to know that they were sweet and caring and committed to the Church. They were the ones crawling around on their knees with brown paper and an iron to get the wax out of the carpet. They were the ones bringing casseroles when someone was sick. They were the ones praying hard every night for me and the other teenagers and for all I know the power of their prayers is why nothing really bad happened to us. They were the ones holding the fragile, conglomeration of broken people we called the church together.
We so often think of the early church as the domain of the 12 male apostles and of Paul. They’re the ones named in the Gospels, they’re the ones asking the often dumb questions, they’re the ones present at the resurrection on the beach or in the upper room. But at the very least, who cooked for them? You know as well as I that Mary Magdalene and others were around Jesus and the 12 constantly. Mary Magdalene is the only one in all four Gospels to consistently be present at the empty tomb. Of course there were women in the early church, we say to ourselves, but what does that mean? Were they getting wax out of folks’ robes or were any of them actively spreading the Gospel like Peter and Paul?

Once upon a time, there were two women named Priscilla and Phoebe. They didn’t meet and probably didn’t even know of each other’s existence. They were two of many women working for the Kingdom of God and loving their neighbors. Priscilla and Phoebe stand in for Junia, Julia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Mary, Persis, Chloe, Euodia and Synthyche and many others. Priscilla and Phoebe are the Eunices and Carols and Nancyes who I once thought of as terrifying and who hold us together.

Priscilla was married to Aquila and this rhyming couplet traveled with St. Paul around bits of the Mediterranean. They made tents with Paul and shared the Good News of Jesus with the folks they met. We don’t know much more than that about Priscilla and Aquila but I like to imagine them arguing theology with Jews and Gentiles alike right alongside Paul. “Of course we are justified by grace alone,” Priscilla would say, “look at my husband Aquila. He’s a good man, but every time he doesn’t put his dishes in the dishwasher is a point against him. There’s no way to recover from that.” Or arguing with Paul the way I wish I could. “Brother Paul,” she might have said, “What’s this about it being shameful for a woman to speak in church?”

But there are no heroic deeds attributed to Priscilla, no transcendent appearances of God in the desert. She went about her life, praying and cooking, speaking and tentmaking.

Now Phoebe was Paul’s patron—one of those women whose names are written in huge typeface on the banners at fundraising galas. You know, “Angel Donors: Dr. and Mrs. Charles Smitherington” or similar. She and others provided food and lodging to these fascinating, difficult, spiritual men. They found ways to be near them, to hear their parables and arguments. Phoebe used what she had to support these traveling preachers and, by extension, support the men and women who came to hear them.

Phoebe was Paul’s benefactor and, it turns out, was a deacon herself. She held the same office that one of Paul’s closest lieutenants Timothy did—diakonos or servant. The same thing even that Paul called himself. These three were servants of God, servants of the people they preached to, servants in both action and title. Phoebe, it turns out, is the only woman in scripture to bear that title, though I doubt very much that she was the only woman. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he spilled a lot of ink describing the conduct of deacons—their honesty, generosity, sobriety and all—and wrote specifically that women in that role ought follow the same conduct.
Phoebe was one of this company of faithful leaders. She sat with other women and heard their joys and sorrows. She heard their confessions. At their baptisms, Phoebe was there to anoint them with the cross of Christ. Deacon Phoebe had only a brief mention in scripture but was remembered long after her death. Three hundred years later, her name was invoked on another woman deacon’s grave stone.

But there are no heroic deeds attributed to Phoebe, no transcendent appearances of God in the desert. She went about her life, praying and benefacting, speaking and listening.
And maybe there are no heroic deeds attributed to you or me. We go about our lives—taking kids or grandkids to music lessons, doing the laundry, taking out the trash, going to work or ironing the linens at church. We don’t often have burning-bush moments, but maybe that’s not because they don’t happen but because we’re not really present to see them.

Kathleen Norris writes that one of her first experiences in an Episcopal church made her giggle with recognition. She watched as everyone filed up to receive communion and then as the priest took water and washed the dishes in front of everyone. Perhaps this is not a tradition at Prince of Peace—the priest drinks the remaining wine, pours water onto the plate and into the cup and then drinks that as well. It’s not a real dishwashing, of course, but is symbolic. And Kathleen Norris was delighted—that in the midst of something as holy and centering as communion, there was the boring, everydayness.

One of the places I find the most spiritual focus is in hanging laundry out to dry on my clothesline. I have one of those umbrella-dryers that spins in the wind. I take a couple of loads out and stand in the sunlight hanging diapers and shirts and thinking about God. It’s the most prosaic thing in the world and yet the most transcendent.

Priscilla and Phoebe may not have looked like burning bushes, but their hearts and lives were aflame with the Spirit.
*       *       *

Questions for conversation:
·      What stood out for you in Priscilla and Phoebe’s stories?
Share a story about a woman who has given you much, to whom you are greatly indebted.

retreat address 2: Deborah and Jael, Women on Top

Once upon a time, there were judges in Israel. This was before there were kings but after God created the world, you understand, so they were not as domesticated as Solomon or David but were mighty to behold. Sampson was a judge—all raw power and hair he was. And Ehud was a great warrior who stabbed one enemy so that his sword arm was swallowed up by the man’s belly. And Jephthah—ah, Jephthah. He was a soldier’s soldier that one—if only he hadn’t made a fool’s bargain and sacrificed his daughter. But of all these and many more, the greatest was Deborah.

Deborah was married to a man named Lappidoh which means spirited or fierce. Or else Lappidoh was a nickname meaning spirited or fierce. No one really knew. And Deborah, the Wife of Ferocity, sat under a tree at the outskirts of town. She sat there and saw the blue of the sky. She sat there and saw clouds like paste scraped across it. She sat there under the tree and saw the people coming to her with their tribulations and she saw the truth of their hearts. She sat there under the tree—which came to be known as Deborah’s Tree, if you must know—she sat there and saw the breath of God in each person, saw their passions and their flaws. Deborah sat there under her tree and loved the people. She sat, watching, listening, advising. And she heard the voice of God.

And one day she called the general of the army to her. She watched him come, she saw his passions and his flaws. “General Barak” said Deborah the wife of Ferocity, “God has a word to speak to you. God says to get your army in gear and go to Mount Tabor and fight the horde of Sisera. God says you will fight and you will win.”
And General Barak said to Deborah, “Will you come with me?” for he was brave, but not as brave as Deborah the Wife of Ferocity. “If you go with me,” he said, “I will go. But if you do not, I will not go.”
And General Barak hung his head and traced circles in the dirt with his foot like a little boy.
And Deborah looked at Barak and knew his heart and she sighed. Deborah said “I will indeed go with you, General Barak, but you’d better get ready for disappointment. You’ll win, but it won’t be because of you. Triumph will be because of a woman. You got that?”
So they went to the battlefield with their 10,000 soldiers and behold there was Sisera and all his glorious army with 900 iron chariots—think the climactic battle of Lord of the Rings at Pelennor Fields only with fewer trolls and orcs. And the Israelites looked at the army of Sisera and were afraid.
But Deborah the wife of Ferocity said to General Barak, “Get up! God is giving Sisera and all his army into your hand. God is your front line and your rear guard. Go, fight, win!” So they marched forward and saw Sisera’s army and Sisera’s army saw them.
They watched each other, saw how many soldiers were on each side, saw that the God of Israel was indeed with Israel. And Sisera’s army panicked—horses rearing and trampling, soldiers fleeing, and no officers able to form order. The Great and Terrible General Sisera was seen leaping from his own chariot and running away on foot like a scaredy-cat.
Deborah the Wife of Ferocity may or may not have rolled her eyes.
And suddenly General Barak had the courage of his convictions and called to his small army to pursue the great host of Sisera’s army and cut them down. Every last warrior of the enemies of Israel died by the sword of Barak’s army.
Deborah the Wife of Ferocity may or may not have had a gleam in her eyes.
Now you may well think that the glory of this story belongs to Deborah, the warrior woman. But there’s more to the story.
Sisera himself, great and terrible general of the bad guy army, had escaped the wholesale slaughter of his troops. He’d run away with his tail between his legs. And he’d run towards a tent-city that he knew was on his side, hoping to hide himself in their midst.
“Pssst” he heard and he looked and saw a woman gesturing him into her tent. In relief, Sisera snuck into the darkness.
Jael was the woman’s name and she had been sitting at the entrance to her tent, watching and waiting. She sat there and saw the blue of the sky. She sat there and saw clouds like paste scraped across it. She sat there in front of the tent and saw the people coming and she saw the truth of their hearts. Did she hear the voice of God telling her Sisera was coming? Why did she wait for this man and for what? No one knew. Jael was married to a man named Heber. His name might also have meant Ferocity for all we know, because here is what she did. Sisera the Great and Terrible was also Sisera the Fearful and Exhausted so he asked for some water. Jael instead gave him fresh milk to slake his thirst, like your mother might have given you before you went to bed, a soothing gesture. Sisera may or may not have noticed and he drank the milk down. His exhaustion hit him and he thought, “I’ll sort this Barak and Deborah thing out tomorrow when I’m rested” and he lay down to sleep. Just before falling asleep in the tent of this obviously trustworthy and tasteful woman, Sisera told her to lie if anyone asked if he was there. As his eyes drifted closed, Jael, the wife of Heber, picked up a tent-peg. And she picked up a hammer. And she laid the tentpeg against Sisera’s temple and gave it such a mighty blow with the hammer that it lodged in the ground beneath Sisera’s head.
And Jael, the wife of Ferocity went outside her tent to wait for whomever would come. And she may or may not have pondered all the deeds of Sisera which led her to this moment.
Barak, the Newly Great and Terrible came into the camp and Jael rose to meet him. She said, “come into my tent”—a terrifying statement if you know what’s inside—but Barak didn’t and he went and saw his enemy nailed to the ground. And Barak may or may not have marveled at the deeds of women.
He also may or may not have thrown up.
Deborah and Jael, the wives of Ferocity, the wives of Necessity and of Wisdom lived, if not happily ever after, then content, aware of the parts they played in the great story God was telling with Israel.
Deborah and Jael live on in Afghanistan where women teach their children history and faith and how to protect their families. They live on in India where women fight off rapists. They live on in Kenya where women plant trees in defiance of the government’s edict that women aren’t allowed to and the trees won’t make any difference anyway. Deborah and Jael live on in us when we call upon our own Ferocity to see the breath of God in each person, to see their passions and their flaws. When we sit, watching, listening, waiting, we, too, can hear the voice of God.

*       *       *

Questions for conversation:
·      What stood out for you in Deborah’s and Jael’s story?
Share a story about a time you stood up for someone—what happened? How anxious or fierce did you feel? Where was God in that moment? How did you know you needed to confront the situation? What did you learn?

retreat address 1: Hagar, Abraham's Other Woman

Once upon a time,
there were two people named Abraham and Sarah   [pause]
Perhaps you've heard of them.
They were the superstars of their day
—larger than life,
more faithful to God than anyone around,
blessed with a miraculous child in their old age,
the lead actors in the story everyone was in
—think less Brad and Angelina and
more Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
Abraham and Sarah were the patriarch and matriarch of a great nation,
chosen by God,
given not just a promise but The Promise
—their descendants would number as the stars
and they would be remembered unto ages of ages.
But this is not their story.
This is the story of one of their supporting actresses
—not even that, an extra with a couple of lines.
This is the story of Hagar.
Once upon a time,
there was a woman named Hagar.
Hagar was not a newspaper comic strip character,
not a Viking warrior a la "Hagar the Horrible."
Hagar was Sarah's slave.
She was a woman of little consequence
—no money, no family, no status at all
         and like all women of her place and time
                  she was property, like a toaster oven or a family pet
she had no legal existence of her own,
no recourse, no personal bank account
         yet she was happy
                  she was a part of a family, not mistreated but useful and needed
                  she went about her daily life
                           doing the laundry
                           weaving and mending
                           helping with the grocery-ing
shuttling the children of the camp to and from school, lacrosse, and band practice
                  it wasn't a bad life
so we begin with act one:
the first hiccup came when Sarah,
despairing of ever having a child of her own, said to herself:
         "it has ceased to be with me in the way of women"
         at least that's what the King James Bible tell us
"I've got a plan…" she said
         and Sarah went to Abraham and said,
"it has ceased to be with me in the way of women
—so I want you to take my slave Hagar
and get her pregnant and that child will be mine"
         and Abe said, "ok"—what, did you think he'd say no?
         so they went to Hagar and Sarah said,
"it has ceased to be with me in the way of women,
so I want you to get pregnant by my husband
and give me the baby"
         and Hagar, a woman of great poise and wit, said, "what?" [deep Dr. Who]
                  but this kind of arrangement wasn't unheard of in those days
so… Hagar slept with Abraham and conceived a child
                  and even in the midst of a kind of Jerry Springer-like mess
                  Hagar was happy
—she was bringing life and prosperity to her family
she was pleased and proud to be needed and wanted and included
now she was part of The Promise everyone talked about
now she was in with the "in" crowd
                           the first time she felt the baby move it brought her to tears
                                    there was life in this body, joy in this hard life
         and even though Sarah didn't take Hagar's pregnancy as well as she'd hoped
                  and cursed and beat her and drove her away to the desert
                  Hagar didn't give up
                  in the desert, she met God—I mean really met God
                           God spoke to Hagar
                           God saw her misfortune and God saw her
                           and God gave her a promise, too
—her children would one day number as the stars
and she would be the matriarch of a great nation
                           and Hagar, this unknown, inconsequential slave girl, named God
                                    not a title or a description but a name
becoming the only person in the bible to name God
                                    "el-Roi" she called God—"God who sees"
and so Hagar returned to the camp and to her adopted family
rejoicing in the divine knowledge that she was truly a part of the Promise
                  rejoicing in her physical and spiritual wealth
act two:
         Sarah, no longer a spring chicken, felt her age
when strangers came into the camp proclaiming that she would become great with child
                  she laughed—nervously? deeply and heartily?
knowing what she had lost?
         either way, it came to pass that she was again in the way of women
                  and lo, she became great with child
                  and as amazing and wonderful as it was, she was scared
                  she went to Hagar, her slave, and wept and laughed and learned
                  they talked about their aches and pains,
their hunger, their deep connection with their babies
                  they discussed birthing plans and breathing techniques
and prenatal yoga
When Hagar gave birth she named her son Ishmael after the narrator of Moby-Dick
and soon after, Sarah also gave birth
and named her son Isaac after the Ancient Near Eastern fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi
and Sarah looked upon the child of her slave
…and she hated him
         she said, "my Isaac will not grow up playing with the help"
         and she went to Abraham,
who, after a hundred years of wedded bliss,
was used to his wife telling him what to do
                  she said, "Abe, my Isaac will not grow up playing with the help"
                  and Abe looked out into the yard at Ishmael his firstborn son
and at Isaac his miraculous child
                  and he went along with it
         Abraham turned Hagar and his own son out into the desert
with only a single bottle of water
                  and Hagar asked, "where is God and God's Promise now?"
                           out here in the wilderness,
we wander the literal desert and the metaphorical one
out here in the wilderness where there are no street signs
and no restaurants
—not even a trickling stream
Hagar was alone, unmourned, and unloved
a secondary character in a made-for-TV movie
all she could think of was the look of triumph on Sarah's face
even her friends in the camp couldn't look at her in her shame
her family, her group, her clique
         had kicked her out like a dog
         because of who she was, what she'd done or said or seen
         Hagar wandered, carrying her toddler son and the bottle of water
                  the one getting heavier
                  the one getting lighter
                  her heart breaking
                  and her eyes were opened
and behold, she knew they could not survive on their own
                           so she laid Ishmael under a bush
                                    not able to watch her own son die of starvation
                           and she stumbled away, hot tears streaming down her face
                           and she lifted up her voice with her son's
and wailed with no one to hear
         but God hears
act three:
God hears her cries and joins her there in the wilderness
                  God sits with her, suffers with her
a few hard paces from her squalling baby boy
                  and God mourns with her for all she has lost
         and God reminds her of the Promise she already has
                  you will never be alone
                  I will be with you
                  I will make you the matriarch of a great nation, too,
and you will be remembered unto ages of ages
                  there is light here in the midst of your darkness [gesture to the Table]
there is hope here in the midst of your wilderness
and God shows her a well in the desert
         and she drinks deep
so, Hagar names God el-Roi, "the God who sees"
and God hears her cries in the wilderness, "the God who hears"
and God does not leave Hagar or Ishmael or Sarah or Isaac or us
"God is with us," EmmanuelHagar and Ishmael Sent Away
God sees,
         God hears,
                  God is with us

And we all lived happily ever after.

*       *       *

Questions for conversation:
·      What stood out for you in Hagar’s story?
Share a story about when you felt God’s presence—what happened? How could you tell it was God? What did you learn from the experience?