108 posts categorized "Lent"
Tuesday, March 19
By Inez Torres Davis
"The poor will always be with you."
These words have bothered me for much of my Christian life. To me, it infers God’s limits as well as our own. It is possible for us Christians to miss the mark, but is it possible for God to be unable to get us to be inspired enough to end poverty? Of course, these are idle thoughts, not intended to be idolatrous, but reflective of the struggle I have had for decades with the seeming inevitability of hunger and poverty. The poor will always be with you?
Years ago, while at Bible college, I was inspired as I sat and read this passage. I gained perspective by remembering the edicts: Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to? What is the context in which these words were said?
Jesus was speaking to Judas.
Judas was the fellow who handled the finances (what finances there were) attached to Jesus and his entourage. The suggestion may be made that Judas’ desire to overturn Rome and establish the new and improved Kingdom of Israel was as pointed as his ability to make sure cash was available to him for his handling of the expenses. This was likely not a system of economic cooperation he used, so it is legitimate to wonder if Judas would have really given that money to feed the hungry had he been given it.
The poor will always be with you, (Judas).
So, maybe, just maybe, Jesus was not addressing the inevitability of poverty as much as he was describing poverty as it relates to greedy folk? The kind of people who want more, more, more! More money. More power or control. People like Judas, who was able to exchange Jesus for some idea of grandeur and thirty pieces of silver.
At least 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children, age 5 and under, die each day due to poverty. And the number would be much higher if older children were included in that figure. These dear children “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world.” Today, 2.6 billion people around the world do not have access to adequate sanitation and about 885 million people do not have access to clean water.
So, the children die from treatable diseases without an anointing. But the money for the ointment that could have been pressed to their skin went somewhere else. It did not feed their bellies or eliminate their suffering or prepare them for burial, it went elsewhere. Where did it go?
The poor will always be with you, (Judas).
Inez Torres Davis is director for justice at Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
By Claudette A. Reid
Six days before Passover Jesus went back to Bethany, where he had raised Lazarus from death. A meal had been prepared for Jesus. Martha was doing the serving, and Lazarus himself was there. Mary took a very expensive bottle of perfume and poured it on Jesus' feet. She wiped them with her hair, and the sweet smell of the perfume filled the house. A disciple named Judas Iscariot was there. He was the one who was going to betray Jesus, and he asked, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” Judas did not really care about the poor.
He asked this because he carried the moneybag and sometimes would steal from it. Jesus replied, "Leave her alone! She has kept this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me." (John 12:1-8, Contemporary English Version)
We are more than halfway through our Lenten journey, and it is time to confess that I have a love-hate relationship with Lent. Of course "hate" is not the best verb to use here but let me try to explain, and hope you’ll forgive me for not finding another word.
I love Lent because I get to focus more intensely on my journey with Christ. I get to appreciate that there is something personal and intimate about being asked to join Jesus on his journey to Calvary. That’s special. But I "hate" Lent for the very same reasons! Because the more time I take for spiritual introspection and serious contemplation, the more evident it becomes that I am utterly insignificant when compared to Christ. My sinfulness and my unworthiness seem more magnified during this season, and I’m forced to do my some “Spiritual Lenten Spring Cleaning.”
John 12:1-8 is, for many of us, a familiar story: Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. But even as I’m learning to be an advocate for the poor and marginalized in the hopes of eradicating poverty and injustice, I have a new problem. I find myself questioning why Jesus chose to declare: “…You will always have the poor with you… .” What’s more, here during my Lenten Spring Cleaning, I find myself in an embarrassingly awkward position, actually agreeing with Judas, the crook—God help me!
Although I unequivocally deplore Judas’ evil motives, I have been asking myself why Jesus didn’t encourage Mary to sell the perfume and use the proceeds for the poor. What was he implying, even as he endorsed and accepted the lavish (and seemingly improvident) indulgence from Mary? On the surface, it feels as if this is a hopeless condition leaving one to speculate: If Jesus, who knows all things, can say that we will always have the poor with us, why bother?
My questioning, albeit genuine, is momentary as I turn away from the questions in my head and focus on my heart. I’m relieved to discover that my faith will not allow me to cop out and settle for the status quo, because the Jesus who is being anointed days before his burial, is the same Lord who has directed us to provide for "the least of these." This is the same Jesus who, on numerous occasions, took great pains to ensure that the simple, common folk had their physical needs met.
Our faith journey and acts of discipleship do not ask us to choose between providing for the poor or offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Our faith and works are inextricably woven. It is true that we follow in the steps of the Jesus who healed the sick, fed the hungry, and comforted those who mourned. And this is the same Christ on whom we dare to lavish our praise and extravagant worship in gratitude for all that he has done on our behalf. Mary did just that.
As we contemplate the cost of Jesus’ death on the cross, I’m sure you’ll agree that he’s worth much more than a bottle of perfume.
Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for your great sacrifice. Because you gave your all, we too, shall live! Help us to be willing to give our all for you, and for the poor whom you love dearly. Amen.
Claudette A. Reid is coordinator for women’s ministries with the Reformed Church in America.
Friday, March 15, 2013Ecclesiastes 5: 8-20
Mark 9: 2-13
By Marilyn J. Seiber
I love the lyrical reality of Ecclesiastes. In simple yet compelling words, the writer hits you with life’s truths, the reality of human nature that we all recognize but often choose to ignore. Verse 8 starts with, “If you witness…the oppression of the poor and the denial of right and justice, do not be surprised at what goes on….” The question is not do we witness it, but do we think about why it happens and whether we should “pass on by” or do something about it.
Frankly, I am always filled with admiration for people who tirelessly work on behalf of the poor, seeking justice through fair and affordable housing, food pantries, equal education, children’s safety, and labor and employment fairness. Seeking justice in God’s world should be job one, but so often we are so busy, so distracted.
Then Ecclesiastes gets to the heart of so many problems—money and the constant desire for it, which creates rampant consumerism and a "gotta have it" society. The writer does get into Economics 101 and the multiplier effect (“When riches multiply, so do those who live off them”), but that is not the central point. The central truth of the possible effects of wealth and riches is that no matter how much you have, it is never enough. Worrying about money and riches brings stress and emptiness, says the writer. “Gnawing anxiety and great vexation are his lot.” He sees a “singular evil”—“ a man hoards wealth to his own hurt, and then that wealth is lost through an unlucky venture.” Stock market, gambling? Wealth can be gained and used for good or evil. The chase for wealth can bring a whole society down—witness the financial crisis and great recession. Was the gain by the few worth it to them? “You can’t take it with you” is the saying. And Ecclesiastes says, “he came from the womb of mother earth, so must he return, naked as he came.” Dust to dust.
This should make us re-evaluate our lives and what is important, what brings happiness, peace, and contentment. We must learn to appreciate our lives, count our blessings, and work to do right in the world “throughout the brief span of life that God has allotted.” If we do this, says Ecclesiastes, “[we] will not dwell overmuch upon the passing years; for God fills [our] time with joy of heart.”
Prayer: God, fill our hearts with joy and give us the wisdom to work for right and justice, to appreciate the gifts you have given us, and to share these gifts with others.
The Herman family, members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) living in California's Central Valley, have decided to follow a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food budget during Lent. They will be blogging about their journey and sharing their stories on the Bread Blog.
By Ivan Herman
Knowing that fruit is really one of the most expensive parts of our food budget, I took the chance. Nobody was watching. It wasn’t free, exactly, but nobody wanted it. No, I didn’t steal it. It was in the trash bin. Sitting right on top of a bed of dry paper (come on people, recycle!), gleaming yellow with light brown freckles. It looked a bit soft on the bottom end, but the peel was unbroken and clean. I reached down and quickly snagged it, hoping nobody would notice. If someone did see, they would think I was retrieving something I dropped accidentally. I quickly made my way out to the parking lot and chucked it into the front seat of the car to save until my meetings were over.
I felt like a hunter-gatherer or a survivalist who isn’t fool enough to pass by an opportunity for nutritious calories that drop in my lap. Low-hanging fruit, one might say. But plucking someone else’s banana from the top of a trash can isn’t freegan dumpster-diving. I mean, it’s not the same as digging through rubbish bins and scarfing down other people’s half-eaten chicken sandwiches or cold Pad Thai takeaway.
Or is it?
Statistics alert: More than half of all fruits and vegetables end up rotting in bins, fields, or landfills rather than being eaten. We lose more than we use! If, as a nation, we could improve efficiency and reduce just 15 percent of our food waste per year, we could feed more than 25 million people just on what we save. As it stands now, it seems I’m more likely to find fruit in the trash than I am to find it in a bowl.
As I watch the budget, I’m aware we’re not halfway through the month, yet we’re two-thirds of the way through our SNAP allotment. We’re cooking quite a bit from scratch (e.g. baking bread, making yogurt). We are trying to be frugal, and are maintaining a nutritious and balanced diet. Yes, a fair amount of consumable assets still reside in the pantry and fridge, but it’s starting to look like lean times will be upon us.
Perhaps I’ll keep my eyes open and visit the bin again soon.
Ivan Herman is associate pastor at Carmichael Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Calif.
By Barbara Anderson
I have never had to worry about having enough food—or enough of anything, for that matter. I have been very blessed. However, sometimes God gives you the opportunity to look through a different lens and your perspective changes. Sixteen years ago, my husband Phil and I were in the process of adopting a baby girl from China. The period of time when we were waiting to be notified that a child had been selected for us was difficult. It was a hard time for me because I had no control over the situation. I had to place my baby girl in God’s hands.
While waiting, I would pray for the birth mother carrying my daughter, pray that she had access to good food and was healthy. I prayed for my daughter’s birth, that it would go smoothly and things would be OK. I prayed that my baby girl would have milk and food until we arrived in China to bring her home. I prayed for her health, that someone was watching over her. I prayed she was growing at a healthy rate and was not hungry when she went to bed at night.
Finally, the day came when we arrived in China to bring our precious miracle home. When she was placed in my arms and I could hold her and see her, I knew that God had heard and answered my prayers. Our daughter, Carrie, had beautiful chubby cheeks and was happy and healthy.
Upon arriving home we visited our pediatrician, who confirmed that Carrie was one of the healthiest babies she had seen coming from an orphanage oversees. For many babies around the world, this is not the case. They do not have access to good food and nutrition. Their birth mothers did not have access to good medical care, vitamins, or nutritious food.
According to Bread for the World, “Globally, more than one-third of child deaths are attributable to undernutrition.” In a world of technology and plenty, why can’t we put an end to world hunger? We need to work together, through the Bread for the World and the 1,000 Days Movement, to improve maternal and child nutrition so that precious lives can be saved.
During this time of Lenten reflection, ask God what he is calling you to do so that all women and children have access to education, medical care, good nutrition, and a chance at a happy and healthy future, just like my daughter Carrie and your loved ones.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of All Hands In, an Arlington, Mass., ministry working on issues of human trafficking. She is also a past president of the American Baptist Women’s Ministries.
Lectionary Passages:Ecclesiastes 4: 4-16
Mark 8: 11-26
Hebrews 10: 19-25
By Bruce Whitener
In researching background material on Ecclesiastes, I was surprised to find that despite the statement by the author introducing himself as "son of David, king in Jerusalem," an obvious reference to King Solomon, many biblical scholars dispute that Solomon is the author. They cite, among other things, the fact that the source material for the book of Ecclesiastes dates much later than Solomon’s realm. I thought to myself, what difference does it make who authored it? The book is Solomon-like in its wisdom and has good advice for modern-day Christians about how to live a full and rewarding life. The material is short and is well worth reading. American novelist Thomas Wolfe was so impressed with these writings he had this to say:
"Of all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth.” Most Christians are probably familiar with the story of Jesus feeding the multitude by the Sea of Galilee. The second lectionary, Mark 8: 11-26, contains several accounts that may be less familiar. The first involves the Pharisees who followed Jesus around, hoping to catch him in some shortcoming or infraction of the complex Jewish religious laws. They ask him for a sign from heaven, hopefully something that would illustrate that Jesus was really endowed with a heavenly connection, such as the burning bush that was not consumed.
Throughout the Holy Land, there were many magicians and sorcerers that could perform tricks that would impress a crowd; these tricks would lead to a call for donations or an offer to sell trinkets. Jesus refused to show a sign as it would put him in the same class as the itinerant carnival acts. He said: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He and the disciples got back in the boat and went to the other side of the water where the Pharisees could not easily follow. When they got there, they discovered that once again, they had not brought any food. Fearing perhaps that the disciples would try to buy food from the locals, Jesus warns them: “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Possibly Jesus was simply trying to ensure that they would not be adversely influenced by the Pharisees and Herod’s minions. Seeing that the disciples had no inkling as to how to get food, Jesus chides them that they do not recall how he had fed the other crowds. Citing their lack of faith, Jesus launches a full scale criticism of their value as his followers. The second lectionary passage concludes with the story of Jesus restoring the sight of a blind man.
The third and final lectionary passage is a letter, The Epistle to the Hebrews, one of the books in the New Testament. Its author is not known, although Christian tradition holds it to be the Apostle Paul or perhaps one of his assistants.
The primary purpose of the letter is to exhort Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity. The most compelling directive in the letter is that believers are to consider how they can be of service to each other, especially stirring up each other to the more vigorous and abundant exercise of love, and the practice of good works. As the young church was entering a time of persecution, more and more Christians were reportedly “shrinking away” from collective worship. The letter specifically urges Christians to band together in communal worship, supporting each other in Christian love.
Prayer: Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me. Amen.
By Susan Herman
Our second grader, Camilla, will cap off a project about ancestry with a dinner at school. Each student is to bring a family artifact to display at the dinner, as well as two dishes to share: a main dish and a vegetable or dessert. Each dish should serve 8, says the assignment sheet.
Well, this is awkward.
It’s not a huge expense—we are putting maybe five extra dollars into this meal from our SNAP grocery budget—but it was just sort of assumed that each family could afford to buy and prepare food for this special event. What if we really couldn’t spare it?
Inez Torres Davis (l) with a Bread for the World delegation to Africa. (Bread for the World)
Tuesday, March 12
By Inez Torres Davis
Come with me to a poor, urban neighborhood in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It's 2011, and I'm with a delegation from Bread for the World. We are headed up a sharp stairway that stops and starts in unexpected places. We carry food along this uneven, broken way, this Via Dolorosa.
Soon, I surrender my bag of powdered milk because the stair heights range from three to 18 inches. This is our second-to-last day in Africa and after all of the walking of the past 10 days, my troubled foot requires the cane I brought with me, just in case. Still, the help of my fellow pilgrims is what is getting me up these stairs, this way of grief, in stifling heat.
We are taking this food to two families. The food is for their graciousness in allowing a bunch of well-meaning U.S. Christians to learn from them the way of the cross. We are only visiting one family because the other family has had a death. A four year old under-nourished little boy died last night in Dar es Salaam. He died because his little, weak body could not endure chicken pox. Chicken pox is a deadly disease along this way.
This house where death has visited is on our way to the second. As we reach this house a woman’s sharp and painful wailing dissects us and great grief wraps itself around our legs, our minds, and our hearts. We stop outside her door in an African heat that seems to increase exponentially with her suffering. We suffer with her. We pray. We furtively look into one another’s eyes as we leave the food that we brought for this family on this way of sorrow.
By the time we get to the second house we realize our catalog of questions for them has shattered. We have inhaled enough of the poverty to make our chests hurt. We have ingested enough of the sorrow and we have grown heavy with knowing. We have already learned enough. We are more than a little numb.
But I want to describe this space to you; at least, I will try. I am standing at one entrance of what is perhaps an 18x18 foot cement building. I stand at one end of a very narrow hall that opens on both sides, dividing the space further. Wide halls are not needed—there are no fat people living here, and those who can't walk don’t use wheelchairs. Multiple households live here. Sixteen people call this space, divided into five or six quarters, home.
There is a communal cooking ring in the narrow hall. Blankets hang across six doors. As we hand the food—which now looks, to us, like not nearly enough to address such a great need—to the mother of the second household, she thanks us profusely.
I need you to see this woman. I need you to see her children. We must all do more! Please, carry this story beyond the borders of this page! Please know that we must make sure that funding for USAID, Feed the Future, and the 1,000 Days Movement continues. But we must also be bold enough, and inspired enough, to see the gospel as it is preached along this way of suffering. For the hope of the resurrection, we must ask!
Inez Torres Davis is director for justice at Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Saturday, March 9Ecclesiastes 2:16-26
By Meg Hanna HouseWashing your hands seems like a pretty good practice—I’ve read we don’t do nearly enough of it. So when the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for skipping this very basic hygiene rule, I can sympathize. While it’s unlikely I would point it out to the disciples, or to Jesus, I might judge them, the way that I judge a driver who cuts in front of me. I might shake my head (or my fist). Don’t these people know the right thing to do?
But that is exactly the point of today’s scriptures: We don’t know the right thing to do. We work awfully hard at figuring it out, and we’re very good at telling others how to live as well. It’s not that the rules we come up with are bad, it’s that we cling to them. As Mark’s Jesus says, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” We rely on the rules as if they are what’s important, the answer to life’s questions. If we can only follow the rules, do the right thing, and work hard, then we, and everyone we love, will be OK.
But it’s not like that, according to Ecclesiastes. That’s not how life works. It doesn’t matter how hard we work, or how successful we are, he says, “there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools.” Anything we build can be inherited by “fools,” and we will have no control. Ecclesiastes hits right at our fears of mortality. His constant mantra “all is vanity” is depressing. And scary.
I do (more than?) my share of worrying and looking for guidelines and rules that will answer my questions. What should I do? Will I make the right decision? What will happen? And as the questions swirl, my shoulders tense and my fists clench in the search for the right answer, a “wash-your-hands,” right-thing-to-do answer.
And if there isn’t one right answer? If it’s all vanity? I’m realizing that this can be freeing. My shoulders relax and my focus softens. I’m no longer looking to worship the idol of the right answer. Instead, I notice the people around me with more compassion, and I’m once again open to God. “You have stripped off the old self with its practices,” writes Paul in Colossians. “And have clothed yourselves with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator.”
Paul has his own set of rules for this new self: no anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. But he wraps the rules in a bigger picture, with a focus on Christ and not on the latest diet or exercise plan. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” he writes. And even Ecclesiastes finds a silver lining in this world of vanity:
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.
This … also is from the hand of God.”
Prayer: Dear God, help me see when I have made my rules and my search for answers into idols, and help me to let them go, so that I can focus on you and the gifts you have given. Amen.
Friday, March 8, 2013
Lectionary readings:Ecclesiastes 2:1-16
By Spencer Gibbins
The readings for today left me with a sense of bewilderment, but with the assurance that I was joining with others in the centuries-old Christian community in pondering these mysteries. It brought back two familiar adages to mind: that the more I learn, the less I know; and, as Lucy in Peanuts told Charlie Brown, “Stand up for your right to be wishy washy!” (in what I think I know).
It begins with the Book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon, but more likely written long after Solomon’s time by a “teacher” to focus on the limits and contradictions of life in order to teach wisdom. The author describes the life of a “king” who masters everything in his environment, only to conclude that “all is vanity”. Ecclesiastes 16: "For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools?"
Even in Mark and the relatively familiar story of Jesus walking on the storm-tossed water to join the disciples in a boat, I found new puzzles. As Jesus walked out on the sea, he saw the disciples and "He intended to pass them by" (Mark 6:48). He joined them only after seeing how terrified they were of him (a ghost?) and the storm. My commentary suggests this may allude to God’s veiled self-disclosure to Moses: "[A]nd you shall see my back but my face shall not be seen" (Exodus 33:23).
The story continues to say that the disciples were "astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves ...but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52). The disciples themselves were confused, not knowing what to believe, though Mark goes on to describe the local inhabitants of the region, then rushing about to bring all the sick to Jesus to be healed by touching Jesus’ garment. For them, there seemed to be no confusion.
In the final reading for today, the entire book of Colossians, which purports to be a letter from Paul to a gentile congregation in Colossae in present day Turkey, turns out to be probably written by someone else. Biblical scholars doubt that Paul wrote it, based both upon some of its theological content (contrary to much of what Paul wrote in more authenticated letters) and its literary style. The author of this letter seems to be making a case that what had been accomplished in Christ gave believers access to God and wisdom. Others felt that access to God was gained only through visions and special relationships with angels. He also describes Christ thusly: "He is the image of the invisible God" (v.15). Think about it, the image of the invisible. Is that not a conundrum?
All of these scriptures leave me feeling a bit befuddled and confused. I join with the Old Testament “king” and with the disciples in pondering the conundrum which is everyday life. When you think of it, the very basis of our New Testament belief system is full of such seeming contradictions. You must lose your life in order to save it. The last shall be first. Perhaps Lent is a good time to sit still and just “be” with these seeming contradictions in our experiences in life and in our beliefs. We are, after all, preparing for the greatest event and conundrum of all, the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
Prayer: Almighty God, hear us in our confusion as we live in our daily contradictions. Guide us, calm us and help us find the faith of those who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. Amen
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