This morning my publisher e-mailed me three options for the cover of my book. Gulp. Or as my writing mate texted, “Wow, it’s getting so real.” I spent a couple of years working on the manuscript for Sacred Strangers. I’d retired as a religion writer and needed something to fill my time. All the while I read, researched, reflected and wrote, I told myself I was doing it for my sons and my late husband, who all had prodded me over the years to write a book.
Well, I wrote one. I swallowed my pride and/or insecurity and shared it with my writing group. With three of my teachers. With a trusted editor. With a couple of pastors, my sister-in-law, my sons and a handful of others. They encouraged me to submit it to a publisher. I did. They accepted. And then I heard no more for four months. I began to think I had imagined the whole thing. But I guess not.
I’m pretty sure we human beings will still be afraid, or at least wary, of strangers come October, when the book will be published. I hope people read it, people who are open to the Bible, who welcome critical insight, are willing to listen and learn from the strangers who live within its pages. I pray that pastors will be inspired to preach on the theme (again). That Bible study leaders will draw on it. That small groups will read, discuss and argue about it. I pray it will make a difference, however small.
I hear people saying that a lot lately. I probably say it, too. Usually in a resigned voice. The subtext is acceptance of a reality we find difficult to face but are determined to do so.
I still am reading a collection of sermons by Ellen F. Davis, a daily devotional moment for me. And this morning, I’m thinking about her take on Job and her argument that his story reminds us to pray -- and live -- with our eyes open. If we really can accomplish that, she writes, we won’t need the “verbal teeth-gritting” of “it is what it is.”
“The life of faith is all about how you see,” Davis says. If we can see God, we may see “more wisdom . . . more possibility” in the reality before us. Which amounts to much more than resignation. It amounts to hope.
I have a cat named Hidey. We will celebrate our third anniversary on February 14. I found her at the county animal shelter a little over a year after my husband passed away. I needed another creature to share this house, and I needed a little affection on a daily basis. I gambled on Hidey.
My youngest son named her. This 7- or 8-year old cat had belonged to an elderly lady with dementia, who couldn’t care for her anymore. The day I brought her home to my house, she disappeared into my basement right away. I looked for her, but didn’t spot her right away -- there are so many boxes and shelves and closets and dim corners in my basement. It didn’t bother me, I figured she’d come out when she was ready.
Well, it bothered my son. He stopped by my house after work to meet my new cat. When I explained that she was in hiding, he decided to find her. And he did, eventually. Wearing his white shirt, suit and tie from work, he was on his hands and knees peering beneath the basement stairs and he spotted the gleam from her wide eyes. She wouldn’t come out, even tempted with a dish of white albacore.
Defeated, my son came upstairs and named her. “We’ll call her Hidey, because she was hiding under the stairs." So, Hidey.
My gamble paid off. After a wary start, we’ve become the best of old lady friends. When I am reading or knitting or watching television, she often settles next to me on the couch and rests her head on my thigh. Once in a while, she climbs into my lap and lies lengthwise along my legs. Sometimes, she sits in my lap, leaning her head against my chest. As I pet her, she looks up at me with the widest green eyes. We stare at each other. Often, I blink at her. I read somewhere that cats interpret that as a sign of affection.
My husband didn’t really like cats -- he was a dog person. But I love Hidey. And this morning, as I read another sermon by Ellen F. Davis, I realized why. She tells the story of Martin Buber, who grew up caring for horses, one pony in particular. One day, he realized that he felt the affection of that one pony for him, young Martin. He realized that love crosses the boundaries of species, so that humans and animals can love each other. “Love does not depend on similarity,” Davis wrote.
Human beings are not like God, she continued. Creatures are not like the creator. We all fall short of the glory of God, a biblical writer said. But love does not depend on similarity. God loves us, in all our failings. When someone asked Buber how we could know that was true, he said, “Ask the animals, and they will teach you.”
Tim Brauhn, a Christian who works with the Islamic Networks Group (ING), has written a thoughtful, and unsettling, essay for Sojourners. He answers his own question: “Refugees are an existential threat because they force us to confront the inconvenience of radical compassion.”
He notes that refugees often take jobs far below their qualifications, just to make ends meet as they settle in the United States. They are known for their gratitude and willingness to help others even newer to this country. They are walking examples of the differences between the “haves” and the “have nots,” Brauhn says.
“For Christians, refugees force our eyes up the cross until we find the broken body of another Middle Easterner, crying and bleeding, and yet still forgiving those who trespassed against him.” Read the whole piece here: sojo.net/articles/why-are-we-afraid-refugees.
Those are a couple of the hashtags on Twitter since the Senate leadership silenced Sen. Elizabeth Warren last night. She had tried to read a 1985 letter by Coretta Scott King that opposed the administration’s nominee for attorney general. Some of Warren's Republican colleagues objected that she was impugning the character of a fellow senator.
Setting aside whether or not the letter did that (and whether or not rebuking Warren but not the men who have been reading the same letter on the Senate floor this morning), I find myself thinking about a brief but powerful Bible story.
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells the story of a widow with a grievance who confronts a judge, “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” The judge refuses to give the woman justice. She comes back, over and over, seeking it. One day the judge says to himself, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.“ (One ancient manuscript renders that last phrase, “ Or so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face.") So, begrudgingly, the judge does what is right.
I wonder if the majority leader realized when he condemned Warren that he was invoking a Christian parable “She was warned,” he said last night. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
These days I’m reading, thinking and writing about Miriam, Moses’ sister. I’ve collected a stack of notes about what scholars have had to say about her. I’m filtering all that through my own interpretations and my feminist heart and trying to write in Miriam’s voice.
Coincidentally, I discovered a collection of sermons and essays by Ellen F. Davis, who is on the faculty of Duke Divinity School. I tracked this book down and ordered it because I read that she loves to preach on the Hebrew Bible. I thought it would make devotional reading for me. But it’s become much more.
Davis has me reconsidering the character of Moses. For many readers of the Bible, Moses is a hero. We associate him with the burning bush, the plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the golden calf, the Ten Commandments and the Shema, the beautiful Jewish statement of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One . . . ."
But I’ve always been annoyed by Moses. In my mind, he was an initially hesitant servant, a killer, a cog used by God in the plan to “harden Pharoah’s heart” (what the heck does that mean, anyway?). One minute Moses pleads for the Israelites and in the next complains about them to God, who has made a commitment to save them. Ultimately, after a generation spent in the company of God and his fellow Israelites, Moses gives into his own pride and is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I confess to seeing Moses as the key figure in a cautionary tale.
But in one of her sermons, Davis speaks of the humility of Moses. She reminds me that the Bible says in Numbers 12:3, “Now the man Moses was utterly unassuming (‘anav me’od), completely humble, more so than any other person on the face of the fertile earth.” She goes on to point out that Moses is humble when he “handles power and conflict" (one example is his response to criticism from Miriam and his brother, Aaron). Davis notes “one instance” when Moses’ humility fails and the consequent punishment. That would be when he seems to take credit for bringing water out of the rocks and God declares that Moses won't enter the Promised Land. But, Davis says, that’s not the whole story. Moses and his people have miles to go, and he will lead them as long as he can.
“We see Moses’ habit of humility renewed and deepened when God disappoints his greatest personal hope, the hope that inspired his whole ministry and kept him going," she writes. "We see how humble Moses keeps faith when God lets him down."
In three more pages, Davis has me rethinking the meaning of Moses. His faith endures even when he has been denied the thing he longed for, worked toward for forty years. I always think that one who endures loss will be rewarded in some way. But in Moses' life, faith endures disappointment, period. Genuine faith outlives disappointment.
In a baccalaureate sermon delivered at Yale Divinity School, Ellen F. Davis mentions a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that I’d never read before:
Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who ask
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart's ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distills
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
My own poetry muscles are stiff from disuse. But I want to think about this poem and stretch them in the next few days and weeks.
I am working my way slowly through a collection of sermons and essays by Ellen F. Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word. Slowly, savoring every phrase of a couple of sermons every day. Partly to feed my love of the Hebrew Bible and partly to inspire me in my own writing. Just now I read a sermon she delivered at the baptism of a child, which moved me (surprisingly, not to tears) to race upstairs to my bookshelves, into my two grown sons’ rooms to search theirs, into the basement where some of my seminary books sit in dust. I wanted to hold in my hands my battered copies of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories. I couldn’t find them. Had to content myself with an internet search to find the passage I had in mind. Luckily, it’s vivid in my aging head: Eustace, the bad boy, on a boat, covered with dragon scales.
Davis is preaching on a description from Exodus 28 that describes Aaron all decked out in his priestly robes, including “that drop-dead piece of sacred jewelry called, enigmatically enough, ‘the breastplate of judgment’ -- all goldwork, and studded with twelve great jewels, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel.” She explains that God’s judgment, which usually makes us squirm or feel smug, was a positive image to the biblical writers, a divine attempt to “set the horizon of hope for our lives.” And that when Aaron wore the breastplate into the sanctuary, he is “literally wearing the people of Israel into God’s presence.”
Jewels are the perfect accessory to a breastplate of judgment, Davis says. Jewels reflect and diffuse light, which is God’s outstanding characteristic, the first one invoked in the creation of the world. But the process of preparing a jewel -- “cutting and burnishing,” she says -- “is God’s work.” And it doesn’t begin at our deaths, but now, as we live in the world. That’s where I stopped and in my mind's eye saw Eustace, abandoned on an island. He's miserable to realize his past attitudes and behavior have turned him into an actual dragon. He tries to strip away the scales that cover his body. Under each one of them, he finds another. The first few layers of scales come off easily, the underlying ones hurt like heck as he tries to peel them away. It turns out Eustace is not alone. Aslan, the lion, is with him, and Eustace recounts what happens next:
“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, but I can tell you, I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it…. That very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.'”
I am 62 years old now, and I first read this book when I was in middle school. Again when I studied C.S. Lewis in college, then aloud to both of my boys and I’ve retold it in my own ragged language through the years. Probably without realizing it, Davis reminds me that God’s judgment may be like Aslan using his claws to pull the dragon’s scales off of us. Painful, just as cutting and burnishing probably are, but essential to expose the delicate new skin that we’ll all need to reflect and diffuse the light of God.