Roman Roads: Peace, Be Still

 

Read: Mark 4:35-41

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, Be still!” (Mathew 4:39, NRSV).

Sometimes my brain feels like a bug in a jar.

If I’m honest, that was true before the Coronavirus lockdown. Present circumstances seem to have exacerbated the condition, however. Something tells me you may know what I mean.

It isn’t just the physical confinement—though, goodness knows, that is part of the picture. It’s also the sense of helplessness. I feel like I ought to be able to DO SOMETHING. So I clean. I wash my hands. I scavenge the internet for news. I wash my hands. I post prayers to friends and family. I wash my hands. I write in what I’m only half-jokingly referring to as my “plague journal.” I wash my hands. I listen to the news to “keep on top of things.” I wash my hands. Every so often, I wait in line; I get groceries; I haul them home. I wash my hands.

Many of these activities really do help to combat the spread of the virus, and may even enhance my personal safety. But in recent days, I have also come to see that they are symptomatic of a desperate bid for control. I don’t like feeling helpless. So, I beat my little wings against the glass and wonder why a day of lockdown is so exhausting.

So, I have considerable sympathy for those desperate disciples when they shake Jesus awake and demand, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Evidently he does care. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he tells the wind to give it a rest. Then he stills the sea as if it were a troublesome toddler. Then, he turns to the disciples and asks, “Why are you afraid?” The Bible does not record their answer. Perhaps they were momentarily speechless. It simply says they were “filled with great awe,” and began asking each other the obvious question: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Who, indeed. The storm was not all Jesus stilled that day. He also stilled the disciples. That may have been the bigger miracle.

In the midst of this maelstrom, we often feel helpless. But we are in the care and company of One who is not helpless. We don’t know why the storm continues to rage. But it does not have to rage inside of us.

So, several times a day, I look at the picture at the top of this post. I imagine that it is Jesus, looking at me and saying, “Peace, be still.” Then I take a deep breath and wait for my miracle.

A strange thing happens when my personal storm subsides. First, I realize that “keeping on top of things” does not have to dominate my every waking moment. God’s got it. So, I turn off the news and turn on some music. Then, I press “pause” on sending prayers to all my Facebook friends, and I actually pray. Then, I resist the temptation to go out to get the thing I could probably do without, and I read a novel instead.

Then, I wash my hands. But I enjoy the feel of the water as it washes some of my fear down the drain.

Ponder:

  • What parts of your present situation make you feel like you are in the center of a storm? How might your “lockdown life” change if your inner storm was stilled?
  • Listen to Don’t Be Afraid by John L. Bell. As you listen to this simple song, open your heart to God’s promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20). The words are:

 

Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger—my love is stronger than your fear.

Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger, and I have promised—

promised to be always near.

 

Note: This song also works well to for hand washing. Once through the song times out to around 25 seconds.

Pray:

I weave a silence onto my lips, my mind, my heart.

Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm.

Still me, O Lord—keep me from harm.

Let all the tumult within me cease.

Enfold me, Lord, in your peace.

A prayer by David Adam

 

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: How Lonely Sits the City

 

The Pantheon: originally a place of prayer to all the gods, now a Christian church.

Read: Lamentations 1:1-4

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people…. (Lamentations 1:1a, NRSV).

When my husband and I arrived in Rome at the beginning of January, the city was full of people. Our daily walk took us past the Pantheon, and every step was a fight for real estate. Personal space was a pipe-dream. Tourists of every nationality posed smiling for selfies. Beggars dared us to make eye contact. Restaurant staff tempted us toward the tables lining the piazza with clever conversation starters. (“Welcome, newlyweds!”)

Now, in the second week of Italy’s coronavirus lockdown, the Roman Holiday is clearly over.

The tourists disappeared in late February. The restaurants closed in early March. Just before my husband went home in mid-March, we had the piazza pretty much to ourselves as we walked past the Pantheon on our way to the grocery store. Or at least we did until a French television news crew ran us down begging for an interview. “Why are you still here?” they wanted to know.

It was a good question. My husband did go home last week, but the timing of his return was as per our original plan. (“Not everyone gets a sabbatical,” he teased with an eye-roll.) But what a sabbatical it is turning out to be.

So, why am I still here? My emotions tell me to “bail,” but logic urges the opposite. I have a strong network of friends here, and their generosity makes it possible for me to stay. They are, in fact, urging me to stay for my own safety. That may sound absurd in a country upwards of 53,000 cases of COVID-19, but only 2% of those are in this area of Italy. My Italian friends are right. I am safer locked down in my little Roman apartment than I am on a series of planes that will take me to a country which is, frankly, unprepared for a pandemic.

Yesterday, as I trudged past the Pantheon, this phrase from Lamentations popped into my head. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people….” The scholar in me says that I should be careful about taking the verse out of context. The image originally referred to Jerusalem—broken and bereft after the Babylonian conquest. But the pathos of the image is still apropo. As I watch the news from the USA, I suspect it will soon be an apt lament for many American cities as well.

And yet….

The stories you have heard about Italians singing from their balconies are true. The other day as rounded the corner of a narrow Roman street, I found myself in the middle of an impromptu piano recital. The neighbors were all leaning out of their windows smiling. And when the young pianist finished her halting rendition of the Italian national anthem, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. “Brava! Brava!” they cried.

The tourists may be gone, but the Italians are still here. And the heart of Rome is still very much alive.

There is still one beggar in the piazza. He smiles at me whether or not I give him a coin. His presence reminds me that we are all beggars right now—pleading with God to make eye contact.

Ponder: What made you weep this week? What made you laugh? What gives you hope?

Pray:                     

O Christ, the healer, we have come

to pray for health, to plead for friends.

How can we fail to be restored

when reached by love that never ends?

From every ailment flesh endures

our bodies clamor to be freed;

yet in our hearts we would confess

that wholeness is our deepest need.

In conflicts that destroy our health

we recognize the world’s disease;

our common life declares our ills.

Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

Grant that we all, made one in faith,

in your community may find

the wholeness that, enriching us,

shall reach the whole of humankind.

 

This prayer is a hymn text by Fred Pratt Green. Listen to a musical setting of it here: O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come

© 1969 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: Yesterday’s Problems

 

Read: Matthew 6:25-34

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matthew 6:34, NRSV).

“Yesterday’s problems are today’s luxuries.”

This is what I said to my husband as we tried to digest the news of Italy’s latest restriction to combat the coronavirus. We were sitting across the breakfast table in our tiny apartment in Rome. It was early March, and each day brought some new regulation designed to stop the spread of the virus.

We had arrived in Italy on New Year’s Day, 2020. COVID-19 had arrived a couple of weeks later, although it was not detected until January 29. By late February the effects of the virus and the attendant restrictions on daily life were being felt in Rome. At first we tried to look on the bright side. We didn’t have to fight for side-walk space because the tourists were not nearly as thick on the ground. We could walk into most of our favorite restaurants without a reservation. Nervous store owners gave us a “corona discount.”

But as we talked with friends in Milan, we quickly realized that we were lucky to find anything close to a “bright side” for this virus. The news was deadly serious. At this writing (March 15), 21,157 people have been stricken with the virus here in Italy; 1441 have died.

Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that tomorrow would “bring worries of its own.” One wonders how we are supposed to avoid worrying about them, however.

Which brings us back to that conversation over breakfast: Yesterday’s problems are today’s luxuries.

Have you ever worried about something, only to have something much worse overtake you the next day? In retrospect, you realize that you’d give a lot to have yesterday’s problems.

I’m still working on not worrying about tomorrow. But I have realized that Jesus was on to something when he reminded us that “today’s trouble is enough for today.”

So, this morning as I walked past the Pantheon on my way to the grocery store, I decided not to waste time worrying about what tomorrow would bring. Today it is enough to wonder whether a policeman will stop me and ask to see my written permit to be outside. Today I will pray for my friends and family half a world away as they try to come to terms with their own “national emergency.” Today I will walk past the street sign that says, “Via Panico” (Panic Street) and say, “No. I won’t panic. Because whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord’s. And besides, today’s trouble is sufficient for today.”

Ponder: What are you learning from your experience of COVID-19? How do Paul’s words about “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” in Romans 14:8 help you face today? Tomorrow?

Pray:

Healer of our every ill,

light of each tomorrow,

give us strength beyond our fear

and hope beyond all sorrow.

 

This is the refrain from a beautiful piece by Marty Haugen. Listen to a musical setting of it here: Healer of Our Every Ill

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Faithful Foreigners: On Books and Their Covers

 

Read: Acts 8:26-40

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:27-28, NRSV).

This story is all about stereotypes—and God’s tendency to overturn them.

The Ethiopian eunuch is a prime case in point, although we can’t fully appreciate that without meeting Simon, whose story is related earlier in the chapter.

Simon has issues. When we first meet him, he’s wowing the Samaritan crowd with magic tricks. And if he does say so himself, he is “someone great” (v. 9). When Philip comes along and upstages him with genuine miracles, Simon is quick to jump on the bandwagon and get baptized. His true nature is revealed, however, when he offers Philip cold hard cash for access to some of the Holy Spirit’s action. Philip is not impressed.

Now the scene shifts to a wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in his chariot reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah (as one does….). When Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading, the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip joins him in the chariot and a conversation ensues.

Even the wilderness defies stereotypes in this story, offering up some water at precisely the moment the Ethiopian eunuch wants to be baptized. Philip complies, and the story ends with Philip being snatched away by the Holy Spirit. (Simon would have loved that!) The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing—not, we assume, because of Philip’s spectacular exit, but because of his own newfound faith.

So, on the one hand we have Simon—the insider who says he is someone great but isn’t. His interest in the Gospel seems no deeper than what he can get out of it. Then we have the Ethiopian eunuch who is “not from around here” in several ways at once. But he really IS great, both in terms of his status as royal treasurer and in terms of his profound understanding of the Gospel.

So much for stereotypes.

The “Easter egg” hidden within this story is the passage that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah. It is from Isaiah 53—one of the “songs of the suffering servant.” It’s a poem about someone the exilic community had misjudged. Their theological stereotypes had suggested this person was “of no account.” He was “despised and rejected,” probably because they assumed his suffering was the result of his own sin. But then God opened their eyes to the fact that he was suffering, not for his own sins, but for theirs. What’s more, his was “the punishment that made [them] whole.”

Is it any wonder that this was the passage that the early Christians read this as being about Jesus? Is it any wonder that this was the passage that the Ethiopian eunuch found so fascinating?

Sometimes it takes an outsider to teach us the truth about books and their covers.

Ponder: Where do you see yourself in these stories? Have you ever been hurt (or hurt someone else) because of stereotypes?

Pray:

From people who claim they are great, but are not—good Lord, deliver us.

From the tendency to judge others according to stereotypes—good Lord, deliver us.

From the instinct to ask, “What’s in it for me?”—good Lord, deliver us.

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Fear, Faith, & Foreigners

 

Read: Mark 15:33-39

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39, NRSV).

He had probably seen hundreds of crucifixions. It is hard to imagine such creative cruelty becoming routine, but for the centurion, this was just another day on crucifixion detail. Until it wasn’t.

What was it about the manner of this man’s dying that drew these words from the centurion’s hardened heart?

In Matthew and Luke’s later versions of the same scene, other the details are rearranged a bit—as if to offer more probable explanations for this sudden confession of faith from such an unexpected source. In the gospel of Mark, however, it is simply Jesus’ last moments that moved the centurion to state—with elegant simplicity—what others had been unable or unwilling to see.

Mark’s version of the Roman centurion may be the quintessential example of the “faithful foreigner.” There are many good reasons to remember him—not least because his testimony adds the ring of truth to Mark’s description of the scene. As a foreigner, after all, he is the last person we would expect to say something like this. He has no stake in this game. In fact, the opposite is true. There is very reason to expect him to deny or simply ignore Jesus’ death. But he doesn’t. And because he doesn’t, we have another important reason to believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God.

Because I am writing this reflection from Italy—in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic—it occurs to me that there might be another reason to remember the witness of the Roman centurion. It has to do with fear, faith, and foreigners.

One Italian newspaper began a recent article this way: “Fear of contagion and the contagion of fear. Each epidemic always carries the other one.”* The authors of the article hasten to make it clear that they do not want to diminish the danger or the responsibility we face in the current crisis. But their point is important. Fear spreads as fast as any virus, and it can be just as dangerous.

Too often, we try to focus our fears on what is foreign to us. It’s called xenophobia (from the Greek words xenos [foreigner] and phobos [fear]). A February 3, 2020 article in Time gave some sobering examples. In late January, for instance, bystanders refused to provide CPR for a man who had collapsed outside a Chinese restaurant in Sydney Australia. They were afraid he might have the virus. He died of cardiac arrest. Or this from further back in history but closer to home:

During the nineteenth century, rather than curtail commercial shipping, which ferried cholera around the globe, rattled cholera-stricken societies from New York to London turned their ire onto Irish immigrants instead. In 1832, a group of Irish immigrants, irrationally scorned as carriers, were first quarantined, and then secretly massacred and buried in a mass grave.**

For more examples, simply scroll through your social media feed. Or better yet—don’t.

The dean of a high school in Milan wrote a letter to his students earlier this week. He cautioned them with these words: “The atavistic instinct when you feel threatened by an invisible enemy is to see him everywhere, the danger is to look at each of our fellow [human beings] as a threat, as a potential aggressor.”*

That caution is one we all need to hear. Perhaps we can carry it in our hearts along with the memory of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross.

Ponder:

*Beyond Coronavirus: The Reason Against the Contagion of Fear by Vittorio Lingiardi and Guido Geovanardi (in Il Sole 24 Ore, February 26, 2020).

**The Pandemic of Xenophobia & Scapegoating by Sonia Shay (in Time, February 3, 2020).

Pray:

Circle us, Lord.
Keep protection near
and danger afar.

Circle us, Lord
Keep hope within.
Keep doubt without.

Circle us, Lord.
Keep light near
and darkness afar.

Circle us, Lord.
Keep peace within.
Keep evil out.

This is an adaptation of a prayer by David Adam, “Circle Me, Lord.” I have changed it to the plural so that it can better encompass our prayers for the whole world.

 

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Dust & Ashes

 

Read: Job 42:1-6

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6, NRSV).

It sounds like the start of a fairy tale: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job….

In some ways, that fairy tale tone is accurate. “Once upon a time” signals that we don’t have to lose any sleep over historical accuracy. (Tell me you are not bothered by God and Satan placing bets at Job’s expense!)

On the other hand, a truer tale was never told. The righteous do suffer and the wicked do prosper. This, alas, is not a fairy tale, and poor old Job spends 42 chapters telling us about it.

A careful reading of the whole book will have to wait for another day and a longer format. On the eve of Ash Wednesday, however, I would like for us to take a look at what is arguably the most misunderstood line in Job’s story: …therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

Sometimes Job’s words are misread as a confession of sin. It’s easy to understand why. After all, his so-called friends have been pressuring him to “fess up” to a secret sin. According to their twisted theological calculus, Job’s suffering is a clear sign that he is begin punished for some previous sin. We as readers know this is not true, however, since we have read the book’s prologue (chs 1-2). Job is suffering because God is betting that Job will still be faithful even if he loses everything.

So, if we know Job is innocent, and Job knows he is innocent—what’s going on with this so-called confession?

Part of the problem lies in the way this verse is typically translated. Ellen Davis makes an excellent case for an alternative:

With the ear’s hearing I had heard of You, but now my eye has seen You;

therefore I recant and reconsider about dust and ashes.*

This rendering reveals something that is more like a confession of faith than a confession of sin. Job is certainly sorry, but it is not over some secret sin. Job has simply reconsidered about what it means to be “dust and ashes”—that is, his status as a human being (see Gen. 18:27, where the same phrase symbolizes the human condition). How could he not, after God’s relentless interrogation from the whirlwind in chs. 38-41? With that brutal reality check fresh in his mind, he admits that God is god and he is—well—dust and ashes.

What is even more amazing is that book goes on to describe Job’s willingness to trust God even without explanations or guarantees. This makes him what my friend, Jane Morse, called “one of the fiercest believers in the Bible.”

Not bad for a man from the land of Uz.

Ponder:  What goes through your mind when you hear the words, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust”? How does Davis’ translation of Job’s words complicate/inform your feelings?

Pray: Help us to remember that we are dust, and that to dust we will return. Then help us to entrust our mortality to your immortal love.

 

*Ellen Davis, “Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith” in The Whirlwind: Essays on Job, Hermeneutics and Theology in Memory of Jane Morse, ed. Stephen L. Cook, Corrine L. Patton and James L Watts (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 118.

 

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Harbona and Company

 

Read: Esther 6:14-7:10

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that” (Esther 7:9).

Nobody pays much attention to the eunuchs in the book of Esther. Just like some people don’t pay much attention to getting their oil changed until their car goes up in smoke.

Every time one turns around in the book of Esther, a eunuch is there with a quiet word that makes a positive difference. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that, without the eunuchs, this story would not have a happy ending.

Of course, not all of the eunuchs are admirable. A couple of them try to assassinate King Ahasuerus in chapter two. But by a stroke of luck (or providence), even their unsuccessful plot sets up a beneficial plot twist.

Which brings us to Harbona, the eunuch featured in the dramatic scene from chapter seven. We don’t know much about him, except that he is a eunuch. In the ancient world, captive men were often involuntarily castrated so that they could “safely” guard a king’s harem. This is pretty much what Harbona is doing in chapter one, when he is mentioned as one of the seven eunuchs sent to fetch Queen Vashti. Here in chapter seven, we see him in a similar role—close to both the new queen and the central action of the story.

There is no substitute for reading the whole book, of course, but even if you’ve stumbled into this story late in the game, it’s easy to feel the tension in this scene at the end of chapter seven. Haman’s plot to commit genocide has been revealed, and he attempts to save himself by throwing himself on Queen Esther’s mercy. Unfortunately for him, he also throws himself on the Queen’s couch, which is, of course, frowned upon. The king, who has been out in the garden taking a time out, comes back into the room just in time to see the incriminating tableau.

If you have read the whole story, you will know that King Ahasuerus is not the brightest light in the harbor. So as readers, we are hardly surprised when he misinterprets the situation. But since we know that Haman is guilty as sin (he was plotting genocide, after all), we hardly care if Ahasuerus condemns him for the wrong reasons.

But here is where Harbona comes in. He knows King Ahasuerus as well as anyone. And he knows that this king cannot be trusted to make good decisions. Ahasuerus always needs a nudge (if not a shove). So Harbona is there to give him one. “Oh look,” he points out casually, “that great big gallows that Haman built for the guy who saved your life is just outside the window….”

The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least, it is a crucial turning point in the story.

Harbona will never win “best supporting character in a biblical story.” I get that. But I would like to nominate him as a “faithful foreigner.” He and most of the other eunuchs in the book of Esther use their limited power to protect those who are threatened by unlimited power. Their actions make a big difference.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m feeling like the world could use more people like Harbona and company.

Ponder:  Who are the “Harbonas” you know? What difference have they made in your life, in your community, or in the world?

Pray: When we feel powerless, remind us that your power is made perfect in weakness. Give us the wit and the courage to speak truth to power.

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: A Fish Named Grace

 

Read: Jonah 1

But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:17 & 2:10).

It is probably safe to say that, for most of us, getting swallowed by a big fish would not be a good thing.

For Jonah, however, it was a good thing. A very good thing. Granted, it may not have been pleasant. And scrambling up onto the beach drenched in fish vomit had to be pretty undignified. But since it was that or drowning, I think one can argue he came out ahead.

The late Howard Hageman once began a lecture on the book of Jonah with the following disclaimer: “I am not going to talk about either the credibility of the story or the edibility of the prophet.”

Hageman’s instincts were spot on. Most of us get so distracted by the “incredulity quotient” in this story that we miss its most important points. So, for the duration of this reflection, I invite you to suspend disbelief and, like Jonah, simply go where the fish takes you.

The first thing to say about this fish is that she is more obedient than the prophet. Think about it. God calls Jonah to go preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. While there is a time-honored tradition of people initially resisting a call from God (think Moses and Jeremiah), Jonah doesn’t even bother to bicker with the Almighty. He just heads straight to the travel agent and buys a one-way ticket to Tarshish. God is not amused, and that’s where the fish comes in. Her obedience to God’s call is a perfect foil for the disobedient prophet she rescues.

Until we recognize the fish as an agent of God’s grace, we will never glimpse what this book is about. Consider this. Jonah is happy to accept God’s grace in the form of the fish. He even writes a psalm about it while treading water in her digestive juices. But when God grants the city of Nineveh a reprieve, Jonah storms out of town and pitches a prophetic fit. He actually has the temerity to complain about God’s being “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (4:2). Never mind that these words are used over and over in the Bible as a confession of faith and a reason to celebrate. Jonah can’t stand it that God has been gracious to people he doesn’t like.

It would be easier to mock Jonah for his hypocrisy if we weren’t so full of it (hypocrisy, that is) ourselves. Eager to accept God’s grace when it is offered to us, how often do we resist the idea that God might also be gracious to those we don’t approve of?

For centuries, readers have obsessed about the “credibility quotient” of this story. We have argued about whether a grown man could really be swallowed by a fish and live to tell about it. We have speculated endlessly about whether it was a fish or a whale.

Perhaps it’s time to simply admit that the fish is a “red herring”—at least in the sense that such speculations distract us from the central truth of this story. At the end of the day, this is a story about a fish named Grace. And she is one of the Bible’s best “faithful foreigners.”

Ponder:  These verses from “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” by Frederick William Faber (1814-1863):

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such gracious judgement given.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

Pray: Forgive us when we assume it our right to begrudge your grace to others. Make us more grateful and more generous.

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Rahab the Resourceful

 

Read: Joshua 2

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there (Joshua 2:1).

It’s hard to know what to do with a book that justifies genocide. That’s the interpretive hurdle that sends many modern readers of the book of Joshua back to the locker room in defeat. But while we wait there with them for wisdom, we may still be able to find some insight in one of the book’s best stories: the story of Rahab the prostitute.

It should come as no surprise that some have tried to side-step that crude label by calling her an “innkeeper.” But the Bible is blunt on this point. She’s a prostitute. Of course, she’s also a lot of other things—and that’s part of what makes her story so instructive. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here is how her story begins.

Joshua and the not-so-newly-liberated people of God are on the eastern edge of the promised land. He sends two men ahead as spies, telling them to pay particular attention to the city of Jericho.

It’s a stroke of either genius or providence that the men end up at Rahab’s house. Think about it. Where else could two men from out of town go that would arouse less suspicion? But the king of Jericho is still nervous about them, so he sends orders for Rahab to hand them over.

Her response is a brilliant, bald-faced lie. Yes, they were here, she says breathlessly, but I don’t know who they are. Anyway, they left town as the gate was closing for the night. If you hurry, you just might catch them!

Meanwhile, she has hidden the men up on her roof under some flax. (Flax is used to make linen, from which we can conclude she has a sideline.) Negotiations ensue, and she emerges with a deal. She gets the spies to swear that they will spare her and her family if she helps them escape. To make a short story shorter, she does and they do.

There’s no substitute for reading the story yourself, but as you do, look for these often overlooked qualities in the woman I prefer to call, Rahab the Resourceful:

  • She is well-informed. She knows all about the exodus and what’s happened since.
  • She is a believer. “The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and on the earth below,” she admits in v. 11. And then she starts talking about “kindness,” which is one of God’s most important qualities. As she has been kind, so she asks them to be kind—to her and to her whole family.
  • The fact that she insists on the safety of her whole family says a lot about her. She is not just intent on saving her own skin. It’s a detail that makes me wonder if her concern for others was a driving factor in her “day job.” There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but most prostitutes are forced into what they do to survive and to help their family survive.
  • She’s got guts. Helping spies is risky business. It could well have cost her life.
  • She’s a great strategist. Notice the way she tells the men just what they need to do to get away safely.
  • She’s as good as her word. And the Israelites honor that by keeping their end of the bargain. Don’t miss the post-script to the story in Joshua 6:22-25, where the narrator sums up her story by noting that “Her family has lived in Israel ever since” (v. 25). Tradition has it that she married one of the spies.

Of course, that is not the last word on Rahab in the Bible. She shows up in both David’s and Jesus’ genealogy (see Ruth 4:18-20; 1 Chronicles 2:10-11, Matthew 1:5). She even gets a shout-out in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 where she is celebrated for her faith.

So, call her Rahab the Prostitute if you must. But call her Rahab the Resourceful, Rahab the Brilliant, Rahab the Generous, Rahab the Brave, Rahab the Faithful, and Rahab the Ancestor of  David and Jesus, too. Because she is all of these things and more.

Finally, she is one of the Bible’s best Faithful Foreigners.

Ponder: What can we learn from Rahab’s story? If you could have a conversation with her, what would you want to ask her? What might she ask you?

Pray: Help us to see people for who they really are. Help us to respond to your kindness by being kind to others—even those whom society shuns.

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: The Kindness of Strangers

 

Read: Acts 27:18-28:10

After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it” (Acts 28:1-2).

The kindness of strangers. The phrase is so familiar that we often undervalue the reality it reflects. We’re less likely to take it for granted, however, when we are the one whose life depends on it.

Perhaps that is why this story caught my attention. My husband and I are spending some time in Italy, and we have had plenty of opportunities to be grateful for the kindness of strangers. (I would give examples, but I don’t want to worry my mother.) Or maybe it’s because I have heard two sermons in one week on this passage from Acts. It’s a riveting story that features storms, shipwrecks, and the general perils of Paul. Mostly what it’s about, however, is the mercy of God made manifest in the kindness of strangers.

If you read the story, you will realize quite quickly that not all of the strangers are kind. The sailors are down-right duplicitous. First, they try to abandon ship, and then they scheme to kill the prisoners. But their evil intentions are kept in check by a sympathetic centurion named Julius who seems to take something of shine to Paul over the course of the voyage. Perhaps he is impressed that all of Paul’s predictions keep coming true. In any case, he uses his authority to shield Paul, and his good sense to get everyone safely ashore when the ship starks breaking up (27:43-44).

Both of the sermons I heard on this passage zeroed in on the phrase “unusual kindness.” It’s the way the Bible describes the welcome that the natives of Malta give to Paul and the other victims of the shipwreck. “The natives showed us unusual kindness,” the narrator writes. “Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it” (28:2).

It’s clear that the narrator is under no illusions about this welcoming committee. They seem to be a superstitious lot. First they assume Paul is a murderer and then they declare him a god. But whatever their faults, they are the only ones in the story who don’t seem to notice (or care) about the rigid power structure that has defined the passengers up to this point. Once the sailors, the soldiers, and the prisoners wash up on shore, the natives of Malta simply treat them as fellow human beings—human beings whose lives depend on the kindness of strangers.

Both of the sermons I heard were in the context of services celebrating the Week of Prayers for Christian Unity. To say that these were celebrations is perhaps a bit premature, since Christians have not been especially successful at manifesting unity—in this or in any other century. We mostly manifest things that don’t much call for celebration. So, we pray for a unity that—even on a good day—exists only in part.

But perhaps that’s why both preachers—Monsignor Juan Usma Gomez and Pope Francis—decided to stress this notion of “unusual kindness.” Would that it were not so unusual for Christians to be kind to one another and to others. Maybe that’s why the witness of these “faithful foreigners” from Malta is so powerful. What might the church look like—what might the world look like—if we could see beyond the power structures and labels we impose on each other? What would happen if we saw each other as human beings—children of God is need of unusual kindness?

Ponder: When have you experienced unusual kindness? How did it/does it shape the way you see the world?

Pray: Kind and merciful God, may others see your kindness and mercy in all we do and say. Forgive us for making the world a place where kindness is unusual.

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!