Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 5, 2018

The dark night

Who isn’t sometimes restless, sometimes passionate, longing for something different—something more? It’s certainly a theme fit for Lenten reflection.

In the verses right before this week’s text, Nicodemus goes to Jesus because of a deep yearning. What do I need to do to be close to God? To be right with God? How can I have more meaning in my life?

Though he is a religious leader, something is lacking. He is educated, well-connected, respected. He’s unlike some Pharisees Jesus has criticized for hypocrisy, the ones who thought they had nothing left to learn, that there was no room for growth, that they never made a mistake, that God was on their side. Nicodemus is far less certain. He wants something more.

Jesus gives a long answer with many moving parts. It’s about salvation and eternal life, about God’s love for the world, and about darkness and light (a common theme for John’s gospel).

Why does Nicodemus come at night? Did he have to work all day? Is he afraid for people to see him—a religious leader—looking for something new, so he comes under cover of darkness? Or is night the time when his yearnings for something more get the better of him? He is hesitant. He doesn’t know what he needs, but his yearning sends him on this journey in the dark. He ends up knocking on the door of the house where Jesus is staying—that rabbi who sounds so engaging.

People are often troubled at night. Darkness can be overwhelming, and light so elusive. They can’t sleep because their minds are churning over the events of the day, or they are worried about how they’ll pay the bills, or they are watching over a sick child, partner, or parent, or they feel guilty, or they are afraid of tomorrow.

When the darkness descends, where do you go? What questions do you ask? What answers are beyond your reach?

The good news is that you’re not condemned for being afraid or guilty or troubled. Those feelings that generate darkness, or that are generated by the darkness, are welcomed, and invited into the light of God’s presence.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. moon-copyright-blog-2-20-17

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 26, 2018

Mad Jesus

Anger is a difficult emotion. It can, like most emotions, come upon us unbidden. It can create an unhelpful chaos, may cloud our judgment, may lead to violence. Anger can spill over into emotional, physical, or verbal abuse.

Sometimes, though, anger is an important element for change.

I know I’m not alone when I say that anger (mine or the anger of others) often makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it when my emotions take over, since I sit pretty far on the “thinking” side of the thinking/feeling scale. And anger often makes me feel out of control. I often don’t know what to do with it, and I can’t always be sure in the moment if I’m doing the right thing. We use the term “mad” as a synonym for “angry,” because it can make us act a little out of our minds.

In the story we have about Jesus this week, he seems to lose control due to anger.

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

I’m going to assume that Jesus doesn’t walk into the temple courtyard on a day prior to Passover with the idea of taking up whips and overturning tables. Maybe he’s already been thinking about the excesses he’s seen and experienced there before. Maybe he is already working up to mad. But when he sees those people doing what they are doing on this particular day, anger overwhelms him and he gives in to the emotion of the moment.

What does he see that brings out his anger?

It’s not just people selling stuff on temple grounds. It’s not just currency exchanges. It’s the greed. It’s greed masquerading as something holy.

Let’s reconstruct the scene. It’s Passover, that most important of Jewish feasts. Thousands of religious pilgrims are making their way to Jerusalem to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices. If worshipers can’t afford to bring a large animal, they can bring a pigeon. In addition, a half-shekel is expected as a temple tax. This tax must be paid in Jewish coin, because Roman coins have images of emperors or gods, and are therefore not permitted.

Inside the courtyard of the temple are people who will help you. Some are selling the animals you need for sacrifice, and others are exchanging your Roman coins for temple coins. Why does that make Jesus angry? Because it’s likely that those who are selling and exchanging are in cahoots with corrupt priests.

Here’s how that would work: You might bring an animal from your own flocks, or purchase one from your neighbor. The priests, who examine the animals (which are supposed to be “perfect”), may deem yours unacceptable. Then, if you want to keep your religious commitment, you need to buy one from a merchant inside the temple grounds. Those merchants charge more than what the animal is worth, and likely give a kickback to the priests. In a similar way, the money changers can charge pretty much any exchange rate they want, and they have a monopoly on the business.

This makes Jesus really, really mad. Merchants and priests alike are taking advantage of all worshipers, but especially the poor who can least afford it. You go to pray, and you are required to spend a lot of money to do so, to be acceptable to God with your sacrifice.

Jesus is so mad that he grabs a whip and scatters the animals. He overturns tables. He yells stuff about God and prayer. Animals scatter and some people get out of their way while others try to corral them. The money guys are scurrying around for coins that are rolling across the ground.


When we bring this passage forward to our time, I’ve usually seen it as only about worship defilement—how it’s so horrible when TV evangelists and other pastors use their status to enrich themselves. It’s a travesty. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong and it should make us mad.

Today I’m reading the text as a more expansive statement on righteous anger, and how sometimes—sometimes—anger may be necessary in order to make a point.

Let me be clear that I’m terrible at this. I don’t get angry very often, and when I do I’m not usually very effective. For me, it involves taking a step (or several steps) back, engaging my reason alongside my anger, and carefully formulating a response. Jesus doesn’t seem to do any of that here, but then he’s, well, Jesus.

Righteous anger seems to come into play most justifiably and effectively in justice issues. We’ve seen how anger

  • fueled the Abolition movement in America,
  • brought about the vote for women, and the changing of laws to allow women to inherit property,
  • opened minds and hearts in the Civil Rights Movement,
  • made cultural shifts in our views of LGBTQ persons,
  • recently turned the far-too-common experience of harassment in the workplace into #metoo.

You’re right if you’re thinking that peaceful protest, voting, personal relationships, and reasoned arguments are usually what changed our culture. However, all these effective strategies sprang from widespread anger over injustice, unfairness, and ill treatment.

Just this week, we’re seeing how anger over yet one more school shooting, combined with sadness, fear, public and private conversations, political action, and peaceful protest are creating fertile ground for change. We don’t yet know if change will come, or what that change will be, but the angry (mad) voices of children and their parents who have been directly affected and harmed have touched us all. Some are still saying it’s not the right time to talk about gun violence, out of honor and respect for victims of survivors. If not now, when? Anger and frustration are, at least for now, moving the conversation forward, through the voices of those very survivors.

Jesus, out of his concern for both worship and the poor, showed us that justice issues and faith issues are twins. Faith without justice isn’t Jesus faith.

And sometimes, sometimes, it takes a little anger to bring attention to a cause and to motivate others to join in doing the right thing. When we get mad over injustice, we’re reflecting part of the character of Jesus–creating a little holy chaos.IMG_9022, low

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 19, 2018

How to save your life without losing your soul

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? [from Mark 8]

There are myriads of ways we risk losing our souls, and those ways, as well as the ways in which we attempt to save our lives, are reflected in our stories—the stories we hear, the stories we tell, the stories we live.

Your life is an unfolding story. It’s lived in the presence of God and the universe, lived in the presence of the people you love, the people you hate, the people who are casual acquaintances, the people who—generations from now—won’t even know your name and yet will somehow be affected by your legacy.

Denying self by taking up your cross does not mean hating self and seeking out suffering. It means, at least in part: self-examination, honesty in the living and telling of your story, denying the impulse to overlook the hard stuff, and realizing that suffering is a part of every human story—even yours.

What may be most important is a conscious reflection on your story. Reforming the narrative so that negative influences have less power over you, so that you develop deeper understanding of yourself and the others who lived parts of your story with you.

Claire Hajaj, author of Ishmael’s Oranges, has a personal story that is exceedingly complex by anyone’s standards. She was raised in Kuwait, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. When she was ready to tell that story, she did so in a novel, in order to examine all the influences without hurting individuals. She was able to see both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, which often made her unacceptable to people on both sides. In an online interview she talks about a recent clash between the two groups:

 “I find what’s been happening deeply upsetting,” she says. “For me, it replays what I saw over and over again as a child, watching Palestinians throw stones at Israeli tanks and feeling this sense of despair. But what gives me hope are the small moments of human connection I see across the divide – these are unsung and drowned out… Belonging to a tribe gives you all sorts of certainties,” she says. “It gives you a pre-inherited set of qualities – who is my friend, who is my enemy, what kind of life shall I live, which values shall I hold. But I chose not to align myself with either ‘side’ and as a result grew up feeling quite lonely. Am I Arab? Am I English? Am I Palestinian? Am I Jewish? What flag do I fly?”

No one has a singular story, do we? The stories we live are so complex, going back generations and extending for generations beyond us. They encompass everywhere we’ve ever lived, every person we’ve been close to, all the events that have affected us, positively or negatively. They include crosses we’ve carried, and crosses we’ve refused to acknowledge.

If we try to over-simplify our story by denying aspects of our past, we are in danger of losing our souls to the half truths we live, we close ourselves off to all the other stories that are part of us. We must incorporate the beautiful and the horrible, the joys and the suffering, the glories and the crosses.

Claire Hajaj grew up to become a UN negotiator who travels to troubled places in the world to bring peace. The story that she lived—that she still lives—is a complicated one. She learned to embrace its complexity. What could have been a soul-killing traumatic set of memories, she has turned into something that gave life to her soul instead. And it led her to work for peace.

I encourage you during this Lenten season to meditate on your own story, to imagine how you are continually formed by the events around you, and by your internalizing of those events. Bring to light the difficulties and disappointments, the successes and delights—the things you may have put aside or forgotten. And once those things have seen the light of day again, determine to let them give life to your soul.wood and black cloth , altered, copyright, low, blog 4-3-17jpg


© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 12, 2018

The rainbow

There was talk at Grace Church. Sam Waters had come home.

Sam is Tom and Betty’s son, and even as a child he had been a handful. Veteran church school teachers suddenly decided to take a year off when it was their turn to teach Sam.

Betty and Tom also had trouble with Sam. Once he and some other boys broke windows around town, including windows at Grace Church. The church did not press charges and Tom and Betty replaced the windows.

Just after Sam turned 18, he was driving some friends around one night. He waited while they stole a bottle of whiskey from a liquor store. He didn’t know they had a gun. They emptied the cash register and shot and wounded the owner. Sam went to prison for 8 years.

When Sam got out of prison he moved away, but he could not get work. He came home to live with his parents. They were thrilled to have him home again and tried to make life normal. Sam spent his days looking for work and helping Tom on the farm. On Sundays, they came to church.

This is why people talked. How could Betty and Tom want Sam back after all he’d done? Some didn’t like the idea of having an ex-con in worship.

One day Sam showed up at the pastor’s office. He didn’t know what to do. His parents loved having him in church, and he had found he actually enjoyed worship. It meant something to him to sit beside his parents who had been so faithful. But every time they walked into the church people turned away. He was beginning to think that it might be better if he stayed home.

The pastor had seen the way Sam and his parents were treated, and had heard the talk. She’d noticed how Betty and Tom always placed Sam between them in the pew, as if to protect him from unfriendly stares. Still, she trusted the goodness of these church people. She knew they did not want to see Sam take advantage of his parents again. She said she would bring it up, with his permission, to the board.

The board grew quiet as the pastor recounted her talk with Sam. Nearly everyone in the room remembered when Sam went away. They had prayed and grieved with his parents and some of them had written to him. Now that he was back, they were confused.

John Hughes was the first to speak. “Did you know that as a teenager I went to a reform school?” They had no idea. John said he could offer Sam a job.

Then Margaret Offenbach told a story of Sam in her first grade Sunday school classroom. (They had all heard this story before.) The subject was Noah and the ark and they’d made rainbows from construction paper. After class, she remembered she’d left her lesson book in the room and went back for it. There stood Sam, drawing with permanent marker a multi-colored rainbow on the wall. “I didn’t have the energy to remove it,” she said, “so I just left it.”

Another elder said he’d been teaching in that classroom and had tried to paint over that rainbow several times but it still showed through. Everyone laughed.

“So. What shall we do?” asked the pastor. They made a plan.

The following Sunday, Sam served as liturgist. The congregation listened intently to the readings, including the one from Genesis about the flood.

The pastor took a couple of minutes off her usual sermon length, and at the time for prayer requests, she called on Sam.

He thanked the board for allowing him to be liturgist. He thanked John Hughes for giving him a job, and his parents for sticking by him, even when it had been very difficult. He thanked the church for honoring the vows they had made when he was baptized. He said he knew they had not pressed charges when he had broken church windows as a boy, and appreciated that expression of love for his family.

Sam then told how the day’s readings had reminded him of something that happened when he was in the first grade in Mrs. Offenbach’s class. He knew most of them had heard he drew a rainbow on that wall, but they probably did not know the whole story. When Mrs. Offenbach came back into the classroom that day and saw what he was doing, she did not fuss or even tell him to stop. She stood for a moment and then said, “Well, neither one of us will make it to church on time if I don’t help,” and she picked up the purple marker.

When Sam told this part of the story, everyone laughed and looked at Margaret Offenbach, who appeared quite embarrassed by this new and complete version of the story she had been telling for years.

Sam said he’d gone back in that classroom one recent Sunday just to look, and to his surprise the rainbow was still there. Someone had tried to paint over it, but it still showed through. That morning twenty years before with Mrs. Offenbach had been the most memorable moment of all his years in church, because that day, while they drew together on the wall, a wise teacher had talked to him about grace. She spoke of how sad God was over the way people behaved, and how the rainbow was God’s promise of grace. She talked about how all of us—including grownups—make God sad sometimes, and she spoke of the rainbows of grace in her life. He remembered that she mentioned her family, her church, and his class, and even that time with him right then coloring on the wall.

Now, Sam said, he knew that his life had reflected that lesson. God grieved over some of the things Sam had done, yet God still showed grace. Sam had nearly covered up that grace by ignoring it. But the grace still shone through, just like the rainbow on that classroom wall.

The grace of God for him, said Sam, was in being able to come home again. He knew he did not deserve it, but he was grateful for it. Then he sat down, embarrassed that he had talked so long. No one else had noticed the time.

From that day, it was easier for Grace Church to live up to its name.rainbow, LR adjusted, copyright low, blog 2-12-18

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 5, 2018

Where to?

“Follow me,” says Jesus to four people who are fishing. Mark tells that part of the story at the very beginning of his gospel. Now in Mark 9 we have three of the original four (what happened to Andrew?) on a mountaintop, again with Jesus. There they participate in a wildly terrifying corporate vision that combines ancient past with rapidly moving present, and that also makes the identity of Jesus wild and terrifying. He’s more, they realize now, than just a rabbi who had encouraged them to follow. It’s unsettling.

They surely are starting to wonder where the following will lead, and where it will end. It has already brought them to places they’d never been. Towns and countryside, gatherings, healings, exorcisms, and to this summit. Next they will head back down to ground level. What they don’t know yet, though Jesus has certainly given broad—if confusing—hints, is that they are on their way to Jerusalem. To trial, persecution, and Golgotha.

That’s the thing about following any path, or no path. No matter how noble the cause and wonderful the leader—even if that leader is Jesus—darkness is unavoidable. Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Every life, including the life of faith, leads to death. That is the eventual “where to.” But all along the way there are thousands of other where-tos. Just as there are so many stops for the disciples along the road to Jerusalem, we experience stops along our inevitable journeys. Each stop is an opportunity to live faithfully, to offer justice, peace, and kindness. To look for grace. To drink in goodness and to enjoy beauty. To build bridges and relationships. To laugh and to love.

As you prepare to enter Lent, remember to pay attention to all the where-tos: the people and places and experiences that are part of your journey. Each one is a destination in itself.boy-Miguel Colorado, trimmed, copyright low, blog 2-5-18

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 30, 2018

Longing to fly

The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air.   Wilbur Wright

No one ever sees all her dreams become reality, all his hopes realized.

What happens when dreams fail us? When we can’t realize them no matter how much effort we expend?

The different outcome of dreams is as real as the difference between being a Patriots fan or an Eagles fan. Each one of those players dreams of winning the Super Bowl. All have dreams—attainable, reasonable dreams—but only half the people on the field will leave with their dreams intact. Does that mean the losers go home, quit football, never play again? I don’t think that’s going to happen, because dreams are resilient things. We long to soar with the eagles, and if that doesn’t happen, we grieve. But healthy people realize that there are other things that are also important, exciting dreams to reach for.

The desire to fly is as old as humanity. Ancient people looked into the sky and saw an eagle soar overhead. Or stood at the top of a cliff and wished to leap into flight instead of having to climb down.

Flight has also always been a metaphor for expansion of the human condition, getting closer to the gods, dreaming about doing something amazing.

The wings of eagles. Isaiah knew the type of metaphor that would capture the dreams of his generation and culture.

There is a significant turn here at Isaiah 40, this week’s text. Chapters 1-39 are about judgment on Israel and what was required for restoration from the exile in Babylon. They were an entire people with broken dreams. They believed God was punishing them and that they’d likely never see their homeland again. They’d lost their dreams.

They’d dreamed of raising children in the place they were raised, of dying in their hometown where they would be buried with their ancestors. Those dreams were shot.

At chapter 40, the change of language and style and intent is so striking that most modern scholars believe that starting here, we have a new author, or group of authors. “Comfort, comfort my people.”  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem .”  “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”

Now we’re hearing about how God hasn’t forgotten the people, even though they are discouraged, even though the things they dream about the most haven’t come to pass.

God will bring you home again. Until then, God is still with you. Have trust, even when you don’t sense God’s presence, because those who are paying attention may indeed fly like eagles, run without weariness, walk without fainting.

Flying, as I said at the beginning, isn’t just about flying. Humans have always believed that the gods inhabit the air. And flying—real or metaphorical—has always had a spiritual dimension. If you’ve ever looked out the window of a plane you know what I’m talking about. You see the largeness of the planet, the horizon, the seeming insignificance of a single event or person. Flying is metaphor for dreaming big dreams, for reaching for the heavens with our ideas and our successes.

And yet…

Isaiah indicates that God imparts significance on each human soul. While the earth is huge and the universe even larger, each life means something important. Everyone’s dreams are valuable, even if every dream can’t be realized. And they can’t.

Amy Purdy is a Paralympian in snowboarding, and has starred in a Toyota commercial Super bowl, Dancing with the Stars, and the Amazing Race. She lost her legs at the age of 19 from meningitis. She addresses the concept of dreams and limitations to those dreams in her TED talk, “Living Beyond Limits.”

Eleven years ago, when I lost my legs, I had no idea what to expect. But if you ask me today, if I would ever want to change my situation, I would have to say no. Because my legs haven’t disabled me; if anything, they’ve enabled me. They’ve forced me to rely on my imagination and to believe in the possibilities, and that’s why I believe that our imaginations can be used as tools for breaking through borders, because in our minds, we can do anything and we can be anything.

It’s believing in those dreams and facing our fears head-on that allows us to live our lives beyond our limits. And although today is about innovation without borders, I have to say that in my life, innovation has only been possible because of my borders. I’ve learned that borders are where the actual ends, but also where the imagination and the story begins.

… It’s not about breaking down borders. It’s about pushing off of them and seeing what amazing places they might bring us.

Amy Purdy’s story is about resilience. It’s about reaching for big dreams, having them taken from you, and reaching again for something else. It’s about where this metaphor of flying, running and walking reaches real life.

Who hasn’t lost out on a dream?  You didn’t get into that school you wanted. Your relationship isn’t what you had hoped. Your money situation is far from what you’d expected it would be. You haven’t changed the world.

We’re all on the short end of life’s dreams from time to time. We’re all the people of God stuck in Babylon when we want to be back home.

We’re all—at some point or other—longing, aching, thirsting to be able to fly like an eagle, fly right out of the situation we’re in and into what would be a better one.

Have faith, says Isaiah. Faith that helps us fly, run or walk can be found even in Babylon, though that’s hard to imagine. Even after loss, though that may seem wrong to you now. Even when you are in your darkest place.

Because, people of Israel, you’ve forgotten that you’re not alone in Babylon. God traveled there with you when you were forced from your home, when you loaded up your donkey with all the belongings it could carry, when you closed the door on your house and weren’t sure you’d ever be back.

God is with us, travels with us, to our darkest places, to the innermost recesses of our souls. To those places and times when we feel we will never fly again.

But…If we can’t fly, maybe we can run. If we can’t run, maybe we can walk.

Sometimes our souls soar, sometimes they barely move along.

Either way, God is alongside, and the movement of souls to a better state is always possible. A state where dreams meet reality, and where both dream and reality find a way into the future together.Aerial view, blog, copyright

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 22, 2018

Changing the story

A current production in Florence, Italy, of the opera Carmen is creating a stir. Why? Because the ending has been rewritten.

The original ending of the opera has the title character murdered by her jilted lover, José. (I didn’t think I needed to issue a spoiler alert for something that’s 150 years old…) In the revised version, Carmen grabs José’s gun and kills him before he has a chance to stab her.

Why? In an article about the change, producers say they wanted to rewrite the cultural narrative about violence—including murder—against women, a tragedy that is prevalent in Italy. The article states: “So frequent are such murders that Italians have a name for the phenomenon – ‘femminicidio’, or femicide.”

When women are treated as lesser-than-men in drama, art, or literature, this societal attitude is reinforced. And that attitude manifests itself in relationships, homes, jobs, even political discourse. Rewriting the narrative enables us to see that women do not have to be at the mercy of the men around them.

It isn’t just gender where there are lesser-than stories of power and violence, whether that violence is physical, sexual, emotional, or cultural. Wouldn’t it be great if we could rewrite the endings of these stories?

In this week’s gospel text from Mark, we read/hear a story about a man with a mental illness. Ancients called his condition a demon, because they couldn’t fathom what else could cause such a problem. The man’s life story was already written, and everyone knew the ending. He’d be ostracized by society, would embarrass his family, and would live his life in that downward trajectory until he died. No way around it. Until Jesus met him and the man was changed.

Jesus wasn’t bothered that the man’s illness made him say weird and horrible things. He looked beyond that and saw someone who needed healing and attention. From that day, the man would be able to live a decent life among his family and friends and in the synagogue. The story of the rest of his life was rewritten.

Jesus gained fame from this act, but I can’t get my mind away from the other man, the “possessed,” the one whose life story was altered by an act of mercy and generosity.

We have many opportunities to write and rewrite the narratives we live, and to contribute to the stories of the people around us.

  • Has your faith community failed because of a downward membership trend? Or would you rather rewrite the story of a congregation that has taken what is likely an inevitable membership decline as a chance to reevaluate its purpose and goals?
  • Are you spending your days and years just going through the motions? Or will you rewrite your own story as a person who helps as many as you can?
  • Do you shake your head at the news? Or will you be someone who helps rewrite the stories of our times by
    • giving shelter to the refugee;
    • speaking out against sexual abuse;
    • making sure that every child has access to healthcare and a good education;
    • supporting candidates who reflect the moral and ethical character of caring for the poor, the forgotten, the ill, the very young and the very old, the stranger;
    • requiring the truth from our public figures.

Last week I watched part of an hour-long special program on ESPN. It was dedicated to the stories of girls and women who have come forward about the sexual abuse they suffered from someone they should have been able to trust. Dr. Larry Nassar treated gymnasts and other athletes in private practice, and also through Michigan State University and the USA Gymnastics team. He sexually abused girls and teens, telling them that what he was doing to them would help their back pain and other issues.

Three things struck me about this television program. 1) The first complaints were made by girls to MSU staff members in 1997. Nothing happened for twenty years. 2) These young women are so courageous to tell their painful stories in order to prevent such horrible acts against other girls. 3) I can’t imagine that ESPN would have run such a program ten years ago. Maybe not even a year ago. The show’s (male) anchor, after watching some of the victim statements, remarked that he couldn’t imagine what emotions those women were experiencing, since he found himself shaking just hearing their accounts. These women are rewriting the endings of their stories.

We are, sometimes, slowly making progress in the rewriting some of the awful narratives of our day. The #metoo movement, along with other forms of awareness and education, are bringing to light the particular issues of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. We can’t change the past, but we can affect the future.

Let’s all get going, with metaphorical red pens in hand. There are so many bad endings that need a rewrite.IMG_6969, low, blog 1-22-18

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 15, 2018

Nineveh, that ****hole place

There are a few verses from the third chapter of Jonah in this Sunday’s lectionary readings, but it’s really impossible to understand a passage from this book about a lousy prophet without reading the entire four chapters. You can do that in about ten or fifteen minutes.

I’ll give you a quick rundown. Most people know about Jonah being swallowed by a big fish (a whale in some older translations). What most don’t know is the whole parable. So here you go.

God tells Jonah to go preach to Nineveh, the incredibly powerful capital city of the Assyrian Empire. The city’s population is in deep need of a change of heart (repentance). Assyria was known for its cruelty.

Jonah’s response? “Nope.” (I told you he was a lousy prophet.) He runs as fast as he can and boards a ship to Tarshish to get away from God.

As if.

God, of course, is not limited by space, and certainly not by where Jonah thinks God should be (in Jonah’s home country of Israel, certainly not in Nineveh or Tarshish where those foreigners are of a different race and religion). A huge storm comes upon the ship and threatens to scuttle it. All the sailors pray to their own gods for rescue. Then the superstitious crew casts lots to see who on board might be responsible for the storm because of some terrible act. Jonah fesses up that he’s running from his God, and that the storm is probably his fault. The only way to save the ship, he says, is to toss him overboard. They continue to try to save the ship, but when their hope for that evaporates, they acquiesce to Jonah’s suggestion and throw him into the sea. Immediately, the sea quiets, and the impressed and frightened sailors offer a sacrifice to Jonah’s god.

Jonah is swallowed by a humongous fish, and from within its belly he changes his mind (repents) about a few things. I imagine there’s nothing like being swallowed by a fish to make a person see more clearly. On the third day, the fish, completely nauseated by Jonah, throws him up onto the shore.

Considering the vows Jonah has made while inside the fish, he changes his mind (repents) about going to Nineveh. He goes and preaches about change (repentance), and the citizens of that wicked city listen and are moved by the spirit. They change their hearts (repent) and God also has a change of heart toward them (repents), and God decides not to destroy the city.

NOW we learn Jonah’s real problem with the people of Nineveh. He isn’t at all happy about their change (repentance). He’s just plain angry. He hadn’t wanted to go there in the first place because he was afraid they might listen to the spirit and he didn’t want them to change because he wanted the city to be destroyed. “See, God? See? That’s why I got on the boat to Tarshish in the first place,” he says to God, “because I know you’re merciful and you might actually save them from destruction. I did not want to be a part of that.”

Wait. What?

Yes. Lousy prophet.

The parable ends with God’s reprimand of Jonah.

Jonah’s problem is that he is a racist and a nationalist. My people don’t like Ninevites or any Assyrians. We have long been enemies. They have a different religion. They are of a different race. They are not Hebrews.

Since they are not my people, they cannot possibly be God’s people.

That is where we all go wrong. We’re all the same people. There is one human family, period. The people of Israel, the sailors on that ship with their various religions, the mean people of Nineveh, even the lousy prophet.

The title I used for this blog is, of course, a throwback to the language used and sentiments expressed by the US President last week. His comment about not wanting to receive immigrants from ****hole countries was shameful, and showed a complete lack of historical understanding and acknowledgement of the contributions of immigrants. Though he was widely criticized in some circles, many (including many people of faith) refused to say anything negative about those words. A few noted that such comments play well among “his base.”

Just as Jonah was a lousy prophet, we have become lousy theologians. Our public theology has gotten all messed up. We condemn people who are Not Us. We don’t like them. We want God to have nothing to do with them. We want them to stay where they are, away from us. We create lies about them that we then believe. We say they are lazy, disease-ridden, dangerous. We’ve forgotten the history of the US where nearly all of its citizens’ ancestors came from other places, and where most of the countries they came from were ****holes because of oppression or lack of opportunity. Many, maybe most, of our immigrant ancestors were feared because they were deemed lazy, disease-ridden, dangerous. And yet, this country is better because of them.

It is still true that our country is better because of immigrants, including new ones who arrive from difficult places. Let us not hide our racism and fear behind the false pretense of protecting America. Immigrants are almost always extremely patriotic Americans, because for them it was a choice to come here. They are truly ones who “make America great.”

As a nation, and certainly as people of faith, we must change our hearts and minds (repent) of the racism and judgmental attitude that have been problematic since the beginnings of humanity. Let’s reflect God’s heart—one that is open wide to all people.

Then we can truly and proudly say of every race, every nationality, every human being: They are my peopleIMG_5790, altered, copyright, low, blog 1-15-18

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 10, 2018

Tingling ears

The story of God’s reaching out to the boy Samuel is a famous and popular tale from the Hebrew scriptures. Samuel is living at the temple (read chapter 1 to see the sad story of why he’s there), serving Eli the priest. Samuel hears a voice in the night. Thinking Eli is calling him, he goes to the priest, who says he didn’t call and tells Samuel to go back to sleep. This pattern repeats and Eli thinks Samuel may be experiencing an auditory visit from God, so he sends the boy back to his bed and tells him to listen.

People usually end the reading there, at verse 10. But this year I’m attracted to the second half of the reading, verses 11-20.

When Samuel listens, the boy hears this: “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” I suppose tingling ears could be either good or bad, depending on the message and on the hearer. Samuel knows that the words are bad for Eli, and after a sleepless night he decides not to reveal what he’s heard when they encounter each other the next morning. But Samuel tells him to speak the truth, no matter how hard the truth is for Samuel to say and for Eli to hear. He does. And the text ends with this note about how Samuel’s life turns out: “all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.” He was known as a person who listened for and spoke the truth, no matter what.

In a day when so much of what we hear is factless fake news, truth has taken on new importance of a spiritual nature. It’s our job as spiritual beings to seek out the real truth and to unleash that truth on the earth, for God’s sake. Sometimes the news is bad; sometimes it’s good. It’s also true that what is bad news also reveals good news, and vice versa.

  • It’s bad news when tragedies result from natural and human-made disasters like floods, hurricanes, snowstorms, tornados, murderous rampages, war.
    • It’s good news that there are those who work for relief, and for the protection of the vulnerable.
  • It’s bad news that immigrants are threatened with being sent “home,” even though many of them have been here decades and nearly all of them contribute to the economy and well-being of our communities.
    • It’s good news that people are speaking out against this unwise and unkind threat, and are speaking up for the human rights of all concerned.
  • It’s bad news that sexual assault is rampant everywhere.
    • It’s good news that many are becoming empowered to tell their stories, and that they and others report sex crimes and misconduct and strive to make homes and public spaces safer.
  • It’s bad news that poverty and hunger and lack of access to decent housing and healthcare overwhelm so many.
    • It’s good news that there will always be people who follow Jesus’ teachings to raise up the least and make them the greatest. That is what God’s kingdom is like, and it isn’t just a metaphor.

Are your ears tingling yet? There is so much bad news out there to make the ears recoil. It’s easier to turn up the music and avoid the things that are difficult to hear. But if we stop listening we’ve silenced the part of our souls that cries out with God’s heart for justice, love and peace.

Once we listen with tingling ears, we begin to understand more deeply, and we commit to go to work.

Who knew that the ears could lead the whole body?children and truck, Miguel Colorado, LR adjusted, copyright, low


© 2018, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 15, 2017

Mary’s song and the tax plan

Mary has the best lines in the gospel drama surrounding the birth of Jesus. Her song (sometimes called The Magnificat because that is the opening word in Latin) isn’t just beautiful, it’s also both comforting and terrifying. It’s comforting to the poor and frightening to the wealthy. It was countercultural then; it is countercultural now.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to God’s descendants forever
. [from Luke 1]

It is this: even before the child of promise is born, God is sending a message that the tables are going to be turned. The poor will be on top. The rich will be emptied of their money and will learn what it’s like to lose power and even to go hungry. What would that produce? Even one day of poverty, powerlessness, and hunger might move people to be more compassionate toward those without money, power, or food.

And has this ever happened? Sure. On a small scale, people’s hearts change every day. Eye-opening conversion. On a scale that would reflect Mary’s song? We’re still waiting.

This Advent season of waiting, as American Christians attend church and hear Mary’s song, the US congress is passing a new tax code that reinforces just the opposite of what the gospels envision.

Let’s be clear. In this country anyone can have any political beliefs, even political views that decrease taxes on the wealthy while shrinking relief programs for the poor.

Anyone can have those views. But no one should be deluded by thinking those beliefs are Jesus-y. From the prophets which informed the Jesus story to the birth narratives to the parables and beyond, there is a single witness about poverty. God has a preference for the poor. Period. They are to be honored, not vilified.

So, believe what you will about tax “reform” and the poor. But if you believe that God rewards the wealthy and that “all those poor people are lazy and don’t deserve help,” you’re just wrong. Poverty is complex, and pulling out the rug of support in order to fill the purses of the wealthy is the antithesis of the messages surrounding the birth of Jesus.

Listen to Mary.

© 2017, Melissa Bane Sevier

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