Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 26, 2016

Peace and fear

Every four years I think the politics of our presidential election cycle can’t get any worse. Then the next cycle comes and it, well…

This year has seemed particularly odd, and not in a good way. There’s been a lot of yelling, for one thing. And name-calling. And fear mongering. (Oh, and run-on sentences. But that doesn’t speak to today’s subject.)

Trying to instill fear, or capitalizing on people’s current fears, doesn’t seem to me as though it should be a good thing for presidential candidates to do. Yet, they all seem to do it. Some more than others.

Are we supposed to be afraid of our neighbors who carry guns, or those who are opposed to their neighbors carrying guns? Afraid of people who practice a different religion from ours? People who come from another country? Afraid enough of one candidate’s rhetoric and positions to vote for his/her opponent, whether or not we like the opponent?

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. [from John 14]

Jesus, at his final meal before his death, talks to his friends about peace and fear. Fear isn’t Jesus’ way; it’s the way of the world, whether we identify “the world” as our culture, our politicians, sometimes even our faith communities or our own selves.

The way of Jesus—the gift of Jesus—is peace.IMG_5125 copyright, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 19, 2016

Digging for love

An article this week in the New York Times describes a tragic piece of religious history in the United States that has repercussions today. Hearing about the long, difficult effects of slavery isn’t new. Even the role of church people—and the ways in which they defended that evil institution by misusing their biblical tradition—is heartbreakingly a common story. What is shocking and new to most readers, though, is that a venerable, respected Jesuit Catholic institution, Georgetown University, sold 272 slaves in 1838 to help pay off the school’s debt. The sale brought in an amount that would equal about 3.3 million dollars in today’s economy.

According to the article, there was dissension at the time. Some worried that the slaves, who were to be shipped south, would no longer be able to practice their Catholic faith, would be maltreated, and families would be split. The college president gave assurances that none of these imagined results would occur and that the funds would not be used toward the school’s debt relief, yet all of these eventualities came to pass.

A working group at the school, along with student protesters, is bringing this shameful past to light in the present. One alumnus has raised funds to help find the descendants of the 272. Discussions have begun regarding what kind of apologies and reparations could be offered to those descendants, even though all are aware that no action today can make up for the damage done nearly 180 years ago. But the way forward begins by digging into the past, bringing the painful truth to the surface, and working together.

***

Demonstrating repentance and love has always been complicated. It was even so when Jesus said to the disciples: Love one another, as I have loved you. This is how people will know you belong to me. [John 13]

When Jesus makes this statement in John’s gospel, it is right after Judas has been exposed and left.  In the gathering darkness, Jesus tells them to love one another.

I don’t think he means “be nice to each other.”  Though certainly they ought to be nice to each other.  That is just too “surface” for what is about to happen. Jesus encourages them to dig deeply to see what kind of love he’s talking about.

 

Over the next hours and days, they will see him arrested and they will run scared.  Over the next years they will fight with each other over just how open and inclusive they ought to be. They will struggle with theology and practice. They will be persecuted and threatened from outside. They will experience the same life struggles that every generation faces—wayward children, sickness, unemployment, loss of faith.  They will have petty arguments and huge blow-ups that will threaten the life of the group and the expansion of its ideals.

Yet some of his last words to them before his crucifixion were:  Love each other.  Because this is how people will know you’re my disciples.

Love has its challenges.  We’re imperfect people loving imperfect people.  And we and others have real needs—psychological needs, physical needs, needs to give and receive forgiveness.

We can try to stay on the surface and accomplish the easier tasks of love, but truly, if you want to show that disciple kind of love, eventually you have to go deep.

We live in a culture that is often at war with this commandment.  A world that honors deviousness and greed, a world in which student athletes are told they must hate their opponents in order to win games, a world in which people walk into the workplace and start shooting, a world in which any kind of self-sacrifice for another is considered wimpy and silly. A world in which the remnants of slavery still haunt.

It takes deep digging to make a difference in this kind of world. How will we respond to injustice, to evil, to violence? How will we show the love of Jesus?

Jesus love picks up in the reality of living and moves us toward the ideal.  Love is moving beyond the surface and tunneling in to where the real needs and the real pain are. That’s where real love can take root.IMG_4975, copyright, low

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 11, 2016

To be known

Just about a year ago, I gave up a job I loved (pastor of a great congregation) to do another job I love (writing and photography).  In leaving this particular church, I also left the type of work I’ve done my whole adult life.

Until last spring, every time I started a new job, everyone knew my name when I walked in the door as pastor or, before that, Christian educator. I was the new employee.

Now, as my husband and I visit congregations, we’re relatively anonymous. It’s not a bad feeling, but it certainly is different. We are getting to know people in the usual manner—reaching out, shaking hands, starting conversations. It’s especially nice when someone reaches out to us and asks our names. Names are the best way to begin, and the way we become known to one another.

Of course, welcome and acceptance aren’t just things that happen within worshipping communities. They ought to be a part of who we are as human beings.

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)

There is a comfort in being known. As we get better acquainted with people we become more comfortable in joining them for social gatherings, asking for help, giving help.

There is also a challenge in being known. Our responsibilities toward each other grow. As the relationship expands, you begin to see faults in the other, and they in you.

Being known by God also engenders comfort and challenge. We are able to respond by changing the way we live: with confidence and assurance; with responsibility toward others and an awareness that how we act affects them; with a knowledge that all are known and cared for by God.

The challenge includes the impetus reach out to others who are isolated or lonely, who’ve been neglected by family, friends, or society. We make real the statements of Jesus when we make sure that others—all others—are acknowledged, welcomed, loved, befriended.

When we realize that all are known by God, we reach out to those who have been forgotten by society. And the cycle of knowing and being known continues and grows.IMG_5073, copyright, low

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 6, 2016

Repetition

I don’t know about you, but I tend to make the same mistakes over and over. I say the wrong thing, neglect the right thing, hurt someone, fail to show hopefulness or kindness or peace.

Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times during the hours of Jesus’ greatest need of friendship. What a fear-filled, disappointing, unfaithful response to the dangerous situation Jesus and the disciples were experiencing. Then Jesus was gone, with no way for Peter to apologize, try to right the wrong, reconstitute the relationship.

Except Jesus returned to them at the shore, helped them fish, cooked them breakfast on the beach.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep…”  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Three times Peter harms his friend and teacher. Three times Jesus calls him out and requires an answer: Do you love me? Peter is hurt, surely embarrassed in front of the others, wonders why Jesus is badgering him.

Yet, this repetition of both the terrible failing and the painful restitution of Peter were written down for future generations. I believe it’s because both failure and growth are part of a life of faith, and common to any follower.

We fall short of our perfect ideals and intentions, and we repeat those failings, no matter how hard we try and how much progress we make. Even so, we back up and make another go at faithfulness. In the same way that our shortcomings are sadly repetitive, so our steps toward growth are also repetitive—graciously so. We’re called to remember whom and what we love; we’re called to follow. We’re called to feed and tend all the people of earth. And we learn to repeat the spiritual practices that bring us growth:

  • gratitude;
  • sharing the grace we’ve received;
  • receiving forgiveness;
  • offering forgiveness;
  • preparing our hearts to be open to faith, hope, love, courage.

“Do you love me?” Then follow.

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016IMG_5057 copyright, low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 29, 2016

Touching faith

Last week I heard a story on NPR about friendship. It referenced a study in which volunteers were exposed to mild (though the reporter who participated disagreed with that descriptive term “mild”) electrical shocks while watching a video screen. When the screen displayed a red X in the corner, the volunteer’s chances of getting a shock were one in five. If an O was displayed, no shock was forthcoming.

 

After the volunteer/reporter experienced the first shock, she exhibited symptoms of anxiety every time a red X appeared on the screen, tensing up for the next onset of pain. Anxiety levels rose whether the subject was watching the screen without being touched by another person, or while holding the hand of an unfamiliar lab tech.

 

But when the test subject’s hand was held by a close friend who was present for the testing, her anxiety was much lower. It seems that the friend’s presence gave support and strength in such a way that the body’s responses to stress were lowered.

 

In this week’s gospel text, all the disciples were stressed to the limit after Jesus’ death. When they gathered, Thomas chose not to join them. If you’d tested their anxiety levels, they’d be off the charts. Then they experienced Jesus in their presence, and felt shalom. Peace.

 

Thomas, though, heard about it and was unconvinced anything could give him peace. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side…’

 

Thomas’ response? “My Lord and my God.”

 

We are in trouble when we think faith is just a spiritual thing, an other-worldly exercise. Thomas, who wasn’t at all sure he could have faith after Jesus’ death, was invited to touch the open wounds of crucifixion, to be drawn into the physicality of death and life.

 

Many people experience this when they are ill, or living through some tremendous loss, or about to make a huge decision. The very presence of a person who loves them can make all the difference. That person can’t take away the illness, bring back what was lost, or reduce the consequences of decision-making. But her presence makes it easier. His voice calms you. The touch of her hand gives you peace.

 

Touching, being touched by, someone we’re close to changes us. It gives us strength, hope, spiritual courage. It makes us able to face trouble, to stand up to evil, to live bravely.

 

It gives us faith.

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016IMG_5052, copyright, low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 23, 2016

Life and death. Death and life.

In our part of the world this is the time of year when many plants awaken from their sleep. I’m checking the asparagus every day to catch the first sprout. Seeds I planted in February are coming up as spinach, lettuce, turnips, and radishes. I’m watching the trees leap into life—flowering pears, cherry, apple, and—my favorite—redbud.

 

Knowing how much I love these trees, my husband bought three of them when we moved into this house over ten years ago. Yesterday, the buds I’d been watching suddenly opened in their annual show of color. The rest of the year, they’re not an unattractive tree, but they don’t stand out from the crowd either. But for two weeks in March/April, their clusters of tiny blossoms undergird the truth that is spring.

 

After blooming, the tree bears small heart-shaped leaves and forms seed pods. These pods dry out and turn brown, and some of them hang on through the winter into the next spring, coexisting on the same twig with the showy little buds.

 

I used to hate that the pods were still around in the spring. It didn’t seem right. I wanted beautiful signs of new life, not crunchy aged pods hanging on to the branches. I’ve come to think differently.

 

This is the way of all existence, isn’t it? Life and death, side-by-side. Death and life, hanging out together. It is the story of our days, and the story of faith.

 

Many of us will go to church on Easter to hear again the familiar words about resurrection. As humans, we all bear the essence of both life and death at the same time, in our bodies and souls. Unbearable loss sits beside deep joy. Hope lives with dread. Success and failure, heartache and contentment, health and illness, laughter and melancholy reside together in our deepest places.

 

 

The message of Easter is not that life leaves death behind forever. It is that life and death share an uneasy cohabitation, but Love is stronger, even than death . God’s love helps us hold on in our darkest hours and in our brightest ones. The darkness of death is always with us, but the beauty of life pulls us forward into some bright future that we have not yet envisioned, where Love reigns and overcomes hatred and darkness.

 

On Easter morning, women walked to the tomb carrying the spices of death, while it was still dark. They found the tomb empty, and would go on to learn that even the Christ of our faith would bear the marks of his own death into the world.

 

We do best when we don’t deny the daily struggle between death and life, but acknowledge the presence of both as we move forward into the brightness of Easter.

 

A wounded, yet living Christ. Life and death. Death and life.

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016blog 3-23-16

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 8, 2015

The potato kingdom

I like to think I’m the patient type. I have so many faults, so I’m sometimes hopeful that impatience is not one of them.

However, when I read this kingdom parable I see myself in a different light. I’m extraordinarily impatient when it comes to planting.

I’m a gardener, and I’m okay with plants once they get above ground. For the most part.

In planting season, and thereafter until the last harvest, I stop by my garden nearly every day to see how everyone is doing. There are little miracles each day.

That zucchini that was just an inch long yesterday is 2 ½ inches long today. I know that a day will come before long when I will happen upon one that’s been hiding under the leaves and has become the size of a small submarine because I missed seeing it.

The tomatoes are getting interesting. Lettuce is about done and will need to be pulled up soon to make room for more beans. The okra is blooming earlier than usual this year. We already have some small peppers.

But it’s the things that grow underground that give me fits. That’s because I can’t see them.

Potatoes are the worst. You have to wait until harvest to see if anything is there. We grow in raised beds, with very loose soil, so sometime soon I will explore the soil very gently with my hands in the soil to see if I can feel any mature potatoes.

When I find one, I’ll break it off from the root and pull it into the light so I can see it.

A beautiful reward for waiting.

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. And no, I didn’t make that up. Jesus said it. You scatter seeds. Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat. Then one day it’s harvest time and the wheat is mature.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. [from Mark 4]

I think God’s kingdom may be more like planting potatoes. You can’t really see what’s happening until harvest time. But all the while, the thing you planted is developing into something valuable. Invisible, yes, but growing nonetheless.

The kind way you raised your children will probably someday, some way, help to make them into kind people. The justice you work for now may not be harvested for years, even decades. The way you treat someone else will likely come back to you in similar form. The time you spend in volunteering or study or prayer and meditation or family life or your job will make you a better person, and those around you will also benefit.

One day that potato will see the light of day, and when you add the butter and sour cream of experience, the product will be rich and delicious.

Too much on the potato metaphor? Yes, I think you’re right…

Patience is the key.

Do the right thing. Then just wait.  The kingdom will grow.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2015

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 1, 2015

Life as adventure

Life is so unpredictable, and yet we attempt to predict it. I check the weather on my computer or phone at least three times a day (which is a good thing, since the forecast is always changing). I’m currently planning a trip for work and yesterday as I typed up my schedule I realize that I have left very little time for serendipity.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. [from 2 Corinthians 4]

It’s easy to lose heart when all you’re looking at is lists, calendars, and tasks. It makes us feel as though we are wasting away because our vision is necessarily myopic. We’re afraid that if we take even a minute to look up from what we’re doing we’ll lose our place and there’s no getting it back very easily. We have to stay aware and alert, on top of everything like Whack-A-Mole.

These are the things that are seen, the things that are right in front of our noses. But what about what is unseen? What does that even mean?

Being aware of the unseen is remembering that behind the lists, underneath the calendars, alongside the tasks are reasons that make us so focused. We have lists and tasks and calendars, because we know that without them we can forget something that’s truly important. And in the process, we sometimes forget something that’s truly important. I know. Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

So what is truly important? What is the unseen?

The unseen is the adventure, the love, the people, the spirit. It is the thing that brings you life, not the thing that sucks the life out of you. It is moving forward, even with the lists, tasks, and calendars—not standing still.

The important thing is the journey, because you never know what’s around the next corner. We can’t plan for that, but we can be ready for it. Ready for the moment when the laundry doesn’t get done because you need to read a book or call up a friend. Ready for the moment when a co-worker wants to talk about something. Ready for the moment at the conference when, through all the long meetings, a wonderful connection is made, someone who will be a new friend. Ready for laughter, a meal, an invitation.

All of that adventure is hiding. Hiding among the lists, the tasks, the calendars. Hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered and unleashed.

We just have to be better about looking for it.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2015

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 25, 2015

The family of God. Yes, that means you.

This is Trinity Sunday, a topic many preachers avoid, perhaps for good reason.

Trinity is not some ethereal concept made up by theologians to confuse, though it has sometimes become that. The idea of God as three yet one is simply a description of how many experience God: as creator, genesis of all things, ground of being; as forgiveness, reconciler, co-sufferer in the human condition, one of us; as indweller, companion on the journey, one that enables us to live the right way. Maybe it’s true that our innate understanding of God is Trinitarian. The church has long said that our experience of God is Trinitarian.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. [from Romans 8]

We are all part of a family. That is another thing we all have experienced. Birth family, adoptive family, step family, foster family, institutional family. Family determines so much of who we are, whether we’re talking genes or experience, family of origin or the people we now call family.

But we are also all part of God’s family—children of God, says Paul. Loving, supportive, accepting, encouraging, helping. That sounds easier than it is. Because real life is made up of real people, we usually act like real people. Meaning: imperfect, flawed people.

We gather together, greet each other with good words and handshakes and hugs, hear one another’s joys and worries and pain, pray for each other with thanksgiving and intercession, confess our sins together, experience forgiveness together, enjoy and encourage the children, and we laugh together.

Together. That’s the operative word. If allowed only one word to describe how Trinitarian thought impacts the world of the church today, I would choose “together.” It is relational, expresses equality and friendship, and has a hopeful sense to it. Together, we can be so much more and do so much more than we can alone.

Together. God’s family. All of us.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2015

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 20, 2015

Your head’s on fire.

I’m about three weeks into the biggest change I’ve made in a very long time. I’ve said goodbye to the job I loved, taken early retirement, and am making my long-time, very part-time writing career into something more. We’ll see how that turns out. (Eep!)

But I will say this: as much as I miss the people I worked with, as much as I loved what I did for the last 23 years, as difficult as it was to say goodbye, I am excited about the future.

Change can be energizing.

Pentecost is all about change. Truly, there is nothing to this story except tremendous change. Change has already happened (Jesus is gone) and change is ongoing. As the writer pens this tale he knows what some of the upheavals are going to be for this group of believers. They’ll struggle with pressures from outside and inside their society. They’ll want to bring in newcomers but will not be happy with some of the changes newcomers bring. They’ll try to be inclusive, but not always successfully. They’ll attempt to carry on the way they think Jesus would want them to, and sometimes they’ll fail at it. They’ll argue about the best way to go on.

Change isn’t always easy.

But change they must. It’s part of life; it’s part of a life of faith. Invited or not, welcomed or not, it comes to all of us.

Change is inevitable.

As individuals or in institutions, we can resist change, ignore change, berate change. We often want to go back to those times when things were comfortable or exciting, important or fun, more free or more structured. But going back in time is impossible. Moving forward is our only choice.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. [from Acts 2]

Like that group waiting, praying, hoping, we look to see what’s coming next. The one thing we know is that it won’t be what we expect.

Change is coming.

Let’s meet it with our heads and hearts on fire.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2015

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