Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 31, 2016

Changed hearts (and minds)

The Christian Century has had an occasional series over the last decades in which it asks theologians to write essays entitled “How My Mind Has Changed.” The ones I’ve read have always been interesting, some of them quite moving.

One (“The Way to Justice,” published December 1, 2009) was written by Nicholas Wolsterstorff. In it he discussed how his mind was changed regarding social justice. He’d always felt strongly about issues regarding race and poverty, but came to believe that the voices of the poor and oppressed had not been sufficiently considered with regards to justice. Charity wasn’t enough in dealing with poverty and racism; it was important to engage justice in order to recognize and begin to overcome the roots and tendrils of injustice and poverty. How was Wolsterstorff’s mind changed? By encountering and hearing Palestinians and black South Africans. By being quiet in his soul and listening to those for whom poverty and oppression were a part of daily existence.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me. [from Galatians 1]

A few weeks ago the lectionary took us to Acts 9, the dramatic story of Saul/Paul being knocked to the ground and blinded in order to recognize the Lord. We tend to read that story as a dividing line in his life: before it he was a mean hater of the Jesus people; after it he was God’s apostle. Though we don’t have tons of information about his conversion (change of mind and heart) we have enough to let us know that it’s more lengthy and complicated than a simple, single event.

Isn’t it always?

Today’s text tells us that Paul didn’t immediately turn from one way of life to another. He spent three years in preparation, study, prayer, conversation. Three years. During that time he was not only learning new ways of thinking, acting, and relating, he was unlearning old ways. He was surely meeting with people (though not the apostles) and listening to their stories. That is, the people who were brave enough to meet with him. They all knew—he knew—what he used to be and do, and they were understandably leery. He’d been an evangelist for the old faith, threatened by the new, and was instrumental in persecuting those who followed Jesus.

I’d like to think that Paul’s conversion started much earlier than that event on the road to Damascus. In Acts 7, we’re told that he stood by while Stephen, a deacon in the church, was stoned to death. He was minding the coats of witnesses. What if, on that day (and maybe on others like it), he began to see how his movement had gone wrong? What if the suffering and prayers of Stephen dug a new furrow into his soul? What if, at that moment, he began to listen to the voices of those he’d objectified for so long as “different,” “wrong”?

Then came the on-the-way-to-Damascus event, followed by three years of more observing. More learning. More praying. More encounters.

Paul didn’t emerge from these experiences as a perfect person, but he did emerge as a changed person.

What about us? When have our minds and hearts been changed—through experiences, listening to people who are very different from us? People of another race or religion, a different social class or generation or national origin, refugees and immigrants, LGBT people, those with mental illness or physical disability? When we think and talk about other people and groups, we can, even with great intentions, objectify and stereotype them. We may think (or be certain) we know what is best for them. When we meet people, build relationships, stop talking long enough to hear and absorb their stories, we are changed.

With changed hearts and minds, we, like Paul, are ready to re-enter the world with deeper understanding, wiser spirits, and renewed vision.

© 2016, Melissa Bane SevierIMG_5478, copyright, low

 

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 24, 2016

The complexities of the faithful

This story of Jesus and the centurion is unusual, confounding, complex. If we attempt to simplify the characters (especially the centurion) into precise categories, it just doesn’t work.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  [from Luke 7]

If I were Jesus, I’m sure I would’ve said things like, “If a healing is so important to this centurion, let him come talk to me himself.” Or, “Are you sure you elders aren’t just sucking up because this guy is rich?” And, as always, I’m disappointed that the story teller doesn’t include more about the person with the least social and economic clout—the slave who’s the reason for all the activity.

What strikes me about this story is how, in a few sentences, we hear so many complexities and are left with so many questions, especially regarding the centurion. He is wealthy, powerful, generous, used to getting his way and ordering people around. Probably he is a God-fearer—a gentile who has close ties to Judaism without being a convert. He’s a financial supporter but not really a worshiper. He’s faithful, but completely outside the structures (both physical and social) of the faith. He’s used to being in charge, but he isn’t afraid to beg a healing from a lowly rabbi. He cares about (“values”) a slave, but is it because this particular slave is economically valuable, or is there a personal attachment? Or both?

This is the person to whom Jesus goes. The person Jesus never meets. The person whose faith Jesus praises.

Faithful people are complex. They are rich or poor, generous or stingy, regular attendees or always absent. They think too much or too little of themselves, or of others. They make requests that take others out of their way, or they are too timid to make any request at all. They do not fit any mold.

And yet Jesus still moves toward them, loves and appreciates them, and recognizes in them—in us—a faithfulness hidden among the flaws.   IMG_5383, adjusted, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 17, 2016

The things we cannot bear

When Jesus meets with the disciples before the crucifixion, John’s gospel has him deliver what is often called “the long discourse.” It isn’t just long. It’s long. Several chapters long. John includes many important teachings here as the final words of Jesus to his friends before his death.

So, why does he say somewhere near the middle of it, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”? (John 16) He does indeed say many, many more things before the end of the discourse. What, then, are the things he doesn’t say, the things they cannot bear?

I suspect that they are similar to the things none of us can bear; the things we don’t want to hear or cannot hear even when they are said to us directly.

They (and we) cannot bear to hear that death and severe loss may be imminent.

They and we cannot bear to hear that we will fail at faithfulness.

They and we cannot bear to hear that we will somehow continue, after our losses and failures, to struggle on. To try again. To keep on living.

They and we cannot bear to hear that our lives will be changed deeply, over and over again, as long as we have breath. That life ahead brings terrible events that will darken the skies of our faith, and even our very existence. That even so, there will still be light—somewhere, though we may take a long time to see it, to experience hope.

This is exactly why none of us is given the “gift” of future vision. We sometimes wish we could see what is coming, so we might prepare, avoid, live differently. Instead, we only are able to see what is right here, right now.

Because if we knew everything that is coming, we could not bear it. Instead, we hope to receive grace enough to take things as they come, to survive another day, to live with faith and love, to share our lives with others.IMG_5381, copy, low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 11, 2016

Indoors/outdoors

There’s a party going on out in the streets of Jerusalem. People of Jewish faith and/or ancestry have come from all over the Empire to the city for Pentecost. It’s a religious feast. It’s religious, and it’s also a feast. The purpose of this particular feast is to celebrate the first harvest (wheat), and to give thanks to God for the blessings of food and sustenance. It is much like our country’s modern Thanksgiving, but with more religious overtones.

Just like any other religious festival then or now, it’s a reason to gather for worship and celebration. Friends are catching up who haven’t seen each other since last year. Extended families gather at grandma’s house. And the food. Oh man, the food.

Every restaurant in town is full to capacity and there are lines waiting to get in. The markets have stocked all the best meats and fish and vegetables and fruits for people cooking at home. Not only are there the usual street vendors, but pilgrims from out of town have come to set up their booths of Ethiopian, Greek, Turkish, Italian food. The baklava stand is already cutting and selling pieces of deliciousness.

And the Jesus people are in a room praying.

They can hear the voices rising from the street, smell the food getting started on griddles, and there they are, praying. Waiting. Maybe some of them are wondering when the prayer meeting is going to be over so they can go grab a lamb kabob or at least a bagel. After all, the coffee and donuts in the meeting are starting to get a little stale.

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. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [from Acts 2]

I don’t know what their prayer agenda is, but I’m certain that scary sounds, tongues of fire, and speaking in different languages isn’t on the list.

What happens? They spill out into the streets. They seem not to be able to keep from it.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

This was the first event in the life of the church. Yes, it started indoors, but it moved outdoors. With the people from Jerusalem and all over the world. Into the festival, the food, the music.

If we take this as a metaphor for today’s church, we can’t help but see the beauty of it. The spirit gives the gathered community the courage and gifts to be the scattered community. Yes, spirit comes, quite dramatically, to those who are praying and waiting. But just as dramatically, they are drawn to the street. The church is given the ability to speak in ways in which people can understand. Do we have good news to share? Absolutely. Is there also good news to be heard in the street? Definitely.

We move to the other side of our stained glass and engage, because we come to recognize that the spirit is already and also active there. We have much to give and much to learn if we don’t stay indoors. We begin to have the vision and understanding to see tongues of fire resting on all the people we pass. We see them as sisters and brothers, as friends and family.

This is the movement of the spirit today. From indoors companionship to outdoors openness. From prayer to action. From a small room to a world full of beauty and possibility.

The church isn’t the church if it stays indoors. Set down your donut and go find the baklava.

© 2016, Melissa Bane SevierIMG_5389, copy, low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 2, 2016

The heartbeat of community

An article from The New York Times a few years ago reported on a small study from a small town, that bore intriguing results. San Pedro Manrique in Spain is known for its annual fire-walking ritual. Villagers turn out en masse, along with lots of spectator-tourists. Researchers were interested in exploring how people connected around community ceremonies, and whether there were any physical/biological responses to the experience. There was some resistance to the testing, but eventually the investigators convinced several fire-walkers, people who were related to fire-walkers by family or friendship, and spectators who were from out of town to wear heart rate monitors. The results surprised the scientists.

The heart rates of friends and families were very closely associated with those of the fire-walkers, while the heart rates of the spectators were not. This was true before, during, and after the ritual. One conclusion that might be drawn from the experiment is that when we know people well, we have deeper empathy for them and their situation.

You’ve seen this if you’ve ever attended a music recital or youth sporting event. When your own child is at the piano, you lean forward in your chair and listen for every note that you’ve heard a million times in your living room. If he hits a wrong chord, you feel it in your bones. When the teen at the free throw line is your daughter, or niece, or a friend’s kid, you watch more intently and feel the success or failure more deeply.

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…[from John 17]

When the heart of God beats within us, our own hearts want to join with the hearts of others, that we may be one. We forget this to our spiritual peril when we fail to empathize with people of another race, nationality or language, home town, sexual orientation or gender identity, income status, or religion. If we view news footage of refugees fleeing danger and we don’t feel anything, we have silenced the heart of God that makes us one. If we hear the stories of people who are struggling from the actions of others and we don’t sense a connection to their pain, then we have some reconnecting to do with God’s heart.

It is the heartbeat of God that makes our hearts beat together, that brings us into unity despite our differences to care for both neighbor and stranger. As our hearts learn to beat in union, humanity grows closer to the solidarity and peace every heart desires.PowerPoint Presentation

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

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

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