Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 4, 2016

Advent doubts

As the holidays progress, faithful people often aren’t really sure of what they’re supposed to be feeling. It’s only natural. What is real about Jesus? About a couple of unlikely parents, a manger, some shepherds and angels, followed by a life filled with a bunch of teachings? And how does that really relate to a modern, complex, often difficult life?

Many people struggle this time of year because of circumstances (illness, loss, economic difficulty) or depression, sometimes a sense of failure or an inability to live up to the expectations of others or of self. Set those troubles against a culture of seasonal perfection, and the ingredients have been assembled for a recipe of doubt and disillusion, with sides of hopelessness and a low spirit.

If it makes you feel better, John the Baptist seems to have similar doubts and questions.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ [from Matthew 11]

Our friend John was in prison for political reasons. As far as personal situations go, it’s hard to feel much lower than that. He’s the one who baptized Jesus at the beginning, but now we’ve skipped a year or two to this new pseudo-encounter. Maybe John is wondering if all that baptizing, wearing odd clothing, eating weird food, and preaching in the wilderness meant anything at all. It certainly hasn’t made John’s own life any better off.

So what’s the point? Has the whole trajectory of John’s adult life been for nothing? Has his strong faith brought him nothing? Has his work for the kingdom of God yielded nothing? Has this Jesus thing meant nothing?

He sends some of his followers to Jesus. Hey, Jesus, remember me? Maybe you don’t, but I’m your cousin who baptized you, and now I’m in prison. Maybe I thought you were somebody you’re not. Maybe I should see if there’s something, someone else out there who’ll bring God closer and make this a better world. Because so far, I’m not feeling it.

I like to think Jesus speaks softly when he talks to John’s friends. Go back and tell my cousin that things move in fits and starts, but there are always signs of hope. The signs that John’s work was not in vain are these: there are new signs of the kingdom—healings and justice for the poor. While he’s in prison, the effects of his labors continue. Even if he feels hopeless, there is hope among the people he touched.

Sometimes when we aren’t seeing the results we’d hoped for, sometimes when our lives aren’t the way we need and want them to be, we need to look a little differently at kingdom signs. If you felt a personal blow this year, look at those people and events that have brought you hope and peace. If you felt a political blow, look at the long arc of history to the people who’ve worked for justice and have seen success as well as setback. If you’re simply down because of the season, seek out stories of hope and find ways to center yourself in peace.

Hopelessness is, honestly, sometimes justified. But Jesus calls us to look differently in order to see what we’ve been missing.

Don’t give up. Despite appearances, the kingdom is always on the move.

© 2016 Melissa Bane Sevierimg_5852-altered-copyright-low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 1, 2016

Harvesting wheat and chaff

This is harvest season where I live in the northern hemisphere. As a matter of fact, most crops are already in, even though we had warmer weather and later frost than in recent memory. Our garden (except for the Brussels sprouts) has been put to bed; we won’t be gathering anything again until the asparagus starts around the first of April.

John the Baptist uses harvest as an agricultural metaphor for our spirituality.

John is the odd uncle you tolerate (maybe even genuinely enjoy) at your family holiday dinner, but you don’t want him around all the time. The camel hair outfit can even be cute in an eccentric sort of way, and you don’t mind serving him a jar of honey, but frying up those locusts just about makes you gag. (No wonder the honey is required.)

John’s ascetic lifestyle demonstrates that we don’t need showiness to express the message of God. Like a Hebrew prophet, John distills that message in ways that are graphic, and about as unpalatable as locust fricassee.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. … ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’  [from Matthew 3]

“Prepare the way of the Lord” is a familiar passage for John’s crowd, and they eat it up, coming by droves to be baptized. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees show up he calls them poisonous snakes—not exactly a very welcoming approach. Then he blasts them with more complicated imagery.

Wheat and chaff.

Dictionary.com defines chaff as “the husks of grains and grasses that are separated during threshing.” The chaff is inedible, indigestible. (More than locusts??) It is only removed by the threshing process after the wheat is harvested, and then it’s destroyed in the fire while the wheat is carefully stored to nourish the people until the next harvest.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do the right thing. Always.

But “always” isn’t really a possibility, is it? It’s hard to tell if the words are aimed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, or to the crowd—probably both. Sadducees and Pharisees were often dissed in the gospels for an external, showy spirituality while neglecting the heart, and also for ignoring justice and poverty concerns.

We, too, make mistakes, some of them terrible ones with grave consequences. That’s where the repentance is important. Yes, JtB, we hear you. Faith isn’t just about coming out to the wilderness to be entertained by preaching and then washed in the river. It’s a lifetime of bearing fruit. It’s a continuing movement toward God, ever imperfectly.

We bring forth “wheat” by working for justice, loving God and neighbor, exhibiting faithfulness. The “chaff” is all the other stuff that doesn’t belong—the stuff that doesn’t lead to life.

The fruit of all our actions takes the form of both wheat and chaff—things that are life-giving and things that ought to be discarded. The hard beauty of it is that God sorts it all out in the end.

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevierimg_2543-copyright-low

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 22, 2016

Watchful

If you are looking for something happy and Christmasy this first Sunday of Advent, don’t read the gospel text for this week. In each of the three years of the lectionary cycle, the first week of Advent is given to apocalyptic texts. This kind of literature was common in Jewish and Christian writings in the centuries around the life of Jesus (see Revelation, for example), but we don’t really have close comparisons to apocalyptic literature in modern writing. The genre is highly metaphorical, so be wary of interpretations that attempt to draw predictions of events or even a “rapture” from this and similar texts. Something we’d have in common with those interpretations, though, is that this passage is a warning—a warning against complacency.

 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ [from Matthew 24]

If we aren’t watchful, if we aren’t paying attention, we will be taken by surprise when something bad happens.

This doesn’t mean we can anticipate every difficult event—accident, illness, loss, financial or political upheaval. However, being watchful means being ready, awake, prepared.

Paying attention is one of the main Advent themes.

  • Pay attention to the people closest to you. How will you give and receive love in those relationships?
  • Pay attention to the people you encounter. How might your interactions aim toward being holy moments?
  • Pay attention to the people least like you. This may be more difficult, but how will you learn from them?
  • Pay attention to God and to what God is doing in the world. How can you awaken your senses to notice goodness and peace?
  • Pay attention to yourself. Self-awareness is highly underrated. How will you be awake to your body, soul, spirit, and values during Advent? How will that self-awareness translate into how you spend your time?

We never know what’s going to happen next, but faithful watching can help us be prepared for both the good and the bad, the delightful and the challenging.

Pay attention. And be ready.

Live Advent. img_5691-altered-copyright-low

© 2016 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 17, 2016

Inheriting light

As a photographer, I’m always looking for light. Light as it glows through fall leaves or peeks through a slatted fence. Light that reflects off a pond or window. The contrast of light and shadow.

As a minister, I’m always looking for light. Light that streams into a hospice room. Light that passes between people who care for each other. Light that emanates from goodness.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [from Colossians 1]

The inheritance of the saints in light.

This past week I have thought much about those who have gone before us, from whom we have inherited wisdom and understanding, and the strength to act. Also, I’m continuing to “inherit” those things from people I see at work right now. Past and present saints leave a heritage of light.

  • Desert Mothers and Fathers who had deep faith in the future;
  • Communities and individuals who struggled from within the institution of slavery;
  • Oppressed peoples from every time and place who refused to give up;
  • An African-American acquaintance I encountered today who told me he worries we’re entering a new era of racial oppression not unlike that of the civil rights days, but who still believes we’ll come out stronger on the other side;
  • A young teenaged friend who, with her classmates, plans to work for a brighter future;
  • A transgender young man who speaks out about their experiences in order to help others have courage or understand;
  • Every person I see who is at work for justice, kindness, mercy, and peace.

I saw a news story today about a community of people who inspire me by their actions. You can see it here. Natasha Nkhama, a black female student at Baylor University was harassed by a white male who shoved her and called her the N-word. Some of her friends shared the story, and a Twitter conversation ensued. Two days after the incident, nearly three hundred students, faculty, and staff showed up to escort her to class, expressing solidarity and an intolerance of racial bullying.

That was a story I needed to see—not the first part, but the last part. One thing people of faith instinctively understand is that where there is darkness, there is always light.

When others inspire us, we reach out and catch the light they are sending our way, and we repurpose it for our own setting, conveying it to others.

Let light be the inheritance you receive, and the legacy you leave behind.

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevierunder-the-pier-blog-12-20-13

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 9, 2016

Moving ahead with hope

Most of the people I know well are disturbed by the results of yesterday’s presidential election. Some are anxious and fearful, or grieving what they had believed could be a hopeful future. Loss is real and deep when it feels as though your race, religion, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation or gender identity, physical or mental ability—your very personhood—is not valued by half of the voting public. Loss is real and deep when the values you hold so closely are disrespected.

But for people of faith, hope is never quite dead, even if it feels that way.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. [from Isaiah 65]

The story of Isaiah is that the people to whom he wrote were indeed in mourning. None of the things hoped for had yet happened. They were far from home; their house of worship was in ruins; the holy city of Jerusalem had been destroyed.

Looking forward at such a time is the very definition of hope. Hope is not optimism.  It is not, “don’t worry; be happy.” It is not platitudes of “things will look better in the morning.” It is not wishful thinking. It is the belief that something—someone—beyond us is sending us a message of comfort and the hope of something new.

This is even more important: We bring hope to others. Welcoming the stranger; serving the poor; loving those who are different from us—all these acts give hope.

Hope is intangible. And we never see its full revelation. Though Isaiah’s words to a displaced people were intended to give them hope, we have yet to see the dream of a new heaven and a new earth realized these thousands of years later. But we have glimpses of hope. And we share hope by continuing to do what we know we must do. I admit that I don’t feel very hopeful today, but I know from experience that hope can grow when we do what we must do.

Listen to someone who voted differently from the way you voted, and attempt to understand the pain or jubilation.

Continue to work for justice, show kindness, and walk in humility.

Remember that we are all wounded, and that woundedness makes us more human.

Wrap your metaphorical arms around someone who is hurting or frightened, and share hope.

When we share hope, we move alongside each other into tomorrow with hope, grace, and love.img_5600-altered-low-copyright

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 31, 2016

Resurrection in the now

This story appears to be, at least in the first few sentences, a teaching about marriage. It isn’t. It’s about resurrection and whether that life in God has any meaning in the present.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’  [from Luke 20]

At the almost-end (please, God) of a presidential election season in the U.S., we are used to debates and hard questions.

A few guys get together to ask Jesus such a question. Maybe it is one they ask of all the traveling rabbis. To them, any answer he gives would shed a bad light on the concept of resurrection (a concept they don’t believe in).

Instead he answers: “Oh puh-leeze.”

That isn’t a direct translation, but a reasonable paraphrase.

You people don’t understand resurrection at all, he says. It’s completely different from what you’ve constructed in your minds. It’s about how we live in the presence of God, both now and beyond death. And honestly, the beyond-death part can’t really be grasped by people on this side of the grave.

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And yet, both the living and the dead are in God’s presence. Impossible to imagine, but if it’s true: how then shall we live? Thinking theologically is important, but living our faith even more so.

Whether we are making a decision about voting, helping a stranger or friend, eating a meal alone or together, rejoicing or grieving, choosing what we’ll do tomorrow—life happens, right in the presence of God.

Don’t be lured into thinking that eternal life is in the future. It’s happening now.

What will you do with it? What will you do with resurrection? img_5692-adjusted-copyright-low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 23, 2016

Salvation

He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ [from Luke 19]

Now that you have the “Zacchaeus” children’s song stuck in your head (you’re welcome), read this story again as a grown-up person of faith.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector; he was a chief tax collector. And he was rich. Other than the fact that he was short, that’s all we are told about him. We can assume that he became rich by overcharging people on their taxes, and pocketing the extra. That’s what tax collectors in that culture did. It’s why they were hated, and why Zacchaeus was called “a sinner” in the narrative.

This children’s story of a short guy who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, turns into an adult story of sin and salvation. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’”

What is salvation? It’s a term that in our culture has too often been far too shallow. A person can say she’s saved, then act or say anything she wants. Some parts of Christianity assume salvation is all about believing.

But this story gives a different definition. Salvation is far more than a change of beliefs. It is also a change of mind, heart, words, and actions. Jesus is reacting to the words and proposed actions of Zacchaeus. He acknowledges his change of mind and heart by saying that he’ll make amends to those he’s harmed, above and beyond what he’s taken from them. Even more deeply, he immediately thinks of the poor and promises to make a deep-pocketed gift to help people find a way out of hunger and poverty. He instinctively knows he’ll be following God’s heart when he does this.

Mind, heart, words, acts.

Oh, if only we who claim to be Jesus people could reflect a little more Zacchaeus and a little less pride. If only we could show how we’ve been saved to share what we have.

Saved. It means something. img_5576-altered-copyright-low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 16, 2016

Words, contempt, justification

Campaigns are always about words. This election season seems to be more so than any I remember. From emails to disparaging words about someone’s appearance, from “deplorables” to bragging about sexual assault , we’ve had to listen to too many awful words. And that is just the candidates! Some of the things we’ve read on Facebook and Twitter, or on 24-hour news by people with strong opinions, justifying their candidate’s horrid use of words (whoever that candidate may be), have been amazing.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’  [from Luke 18]

No one is without problems when it comes to words. We all have used them for harm. There’s no excuse.

And though this passage is not explicitly about words, it reminds us that when we look with contempt on someone else, we are probably more like that person than we’d like to believe. The one who is justified is the one who knows what a jerk he’s been, and is truly sorry for it. Since God looks on the heart, and doesn’t just listen to our words, God knows.

What we need, in politics and in personal life, is less contempt, more sorry, and more words with less animosity. God help us.img_5956-altered-copyright-low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 11, 2016

Prayer, faith, and justice

Many communities have just experienced Hurricane Matthew, that left devastation in its path. Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, The Bahamas, Florida, South Carolina. Some homes have been flooded; some have been completely destroyed. A friend who lives in Haiti reports that not only have many people died, but also that some of the hardest hit communities are cut off from assistance. Matthew has wiped out crops, swept away farm animals, thereby leaving many already struggling people to figure out, once again, how to survive this latest inundation.

How many millions of prayers have been raised by and on behalf of the people affected by this megastorm?

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ [from Luke 18]

Pray always. Don’t lose heart.

Shame on anyone who says that this parable indicates that those who suffered, or those who died, didn’t pray hard enough, often enough, faithfully enough.

This story isn’t about natural disaster, it’s about justice. And while injustice is a man-made problem, justice is a God-honoring solution brought about by both prayer and action.

For hurricane survivors, justice now comes in the form of prayer-answering relief, money, assistance, love—things that can engender actual hope. Even an unjust judge, who doesn’t take seriously his responsibility to bring justice to the people, will weaken in the face of unrelenting pressure. But God stands ready to dispense justice and to encourage it on the earth. It is our job to pray that God will mold our hearts and the hearts of those in power to act justly. We may need to make our voices heard so that the powerful will be compelled to bring justice. Those just actions will be aimed at healing lives, families, communities—wherever there is pain and suffering.

Hear the prayers of the hurting. Join your own prayers with theirs. Then reach out to bring justice and healing to those who are in trouble.

Pray always. Don’t lose heart. This is what faith leads us to do.img_5633-copyright-low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 2, 2016

Closing the circle

Dictionary.com lists the first definition of grateful as: warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ [from Luke 17]

In the case of this Samaritan leper, Jesus equates gratitude with faith. The unnamed man has already been healed, along with nine other unnamed men, but gratitude compels him alone to return to the one who cared enough to speak to the physical, emotional, and social distress caused by a horrible disease.

Why? We’re not told. What makes one person feel obliged to give thanks, while another goes on his way?

It’s not that the other healed lepers weren’t relieved, ecstatic; I’m sure they were. And Jesus doesn’t condemn them. But he does commend the one who returns to thank God.

Gratitude gives us a chance to close the circle. Otherwise we may experience the events of our lives without soul-altering and soul-healing reflection.

When we give thanks, we’re reminded that good things aren’t just a result of what we’ve done. Health, income, stability, relationships, happiness—if we have them we often take them for granted, or assume (if we even take the time to consider) that we are somehow the authors of all the good things that happen to us.

This thinking has several ramifications, all of which can be spiritually damaging. Do we believe that those who don’t have the good things we have are somehow lacking in ambition, hard work, right belief, doing what they’re supposed to do? Do we pat ourselves on the back for making our own good luck? Do we forget to give thanks?

It’s this last one Jesus addresses. Neglecting to give thanks weakens faith, by allowing us to cover up that part of our souls that remembers our dependence on God and the people around us. Leaving that circle of relatedness open at one end actually closes us off to an appreciation of much that is good.

When the Samaritan circled back to Jesus, he was recognizing that wellness—being whole—is more than just physical well-being. It’s equally about spiritual and relational well-being.

Faith makes us well.

Close the circle. Give thanks.img_5962-altered-copyright-low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

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