Whatever your politics, we’re in a painful place right now as a world, as a country, as a city.  Leaders are at odds with each other, families are at cross purposes, and as always, the folks on the margins take the brunt.  So I want to talk about healing this morning, about the loss and struggle that precede it, the humility that invites it, and the whole new life that follows right behind.

Kathleen Norris writes, “Once a little boy came up to me and said, ‘I saw the ladder that goes up to God.’  Stunned, she closed the book she was reading, which happened to be The Ladder of Divine Ascent by a fierce 7th century monk, and listened.  “The boy told me that the ladder was by his tree house and that God had come halfway down.  God’s clothes were covered in pockets—like a kangaroo, he said, and we both laughed.  Even God’s running shoes had pockets, he told me, full of wonder.  (Then the boy) said that God carried food in the pockets to feed all the…birds and the… people” who had died.  (That’s good, I offered, and he nodded.)

The boy’s vision had been laid alongside his own searing loss.  “His dog (was) bitten by a rabid raccoon on his family’s ranch, and his father had had to shoot both animals.” (Norris)  As the boy shared his dream, Norris was quiet, and then she couldn’t help but think of another young man who had also seen a ladder going up to heaven—Jacob—and his response is compelling to me: When he awakes, Jacob says, “God is in this place of struggle, and I did not know it.”  God is in this place of struggle… What kind of healing do you long for?  What loss is calling you?  How do you contribute to systems that serve some and wound others?  What kind of healing work is particularly yours to do?

Healing does not come through some external rationale or explanation—there are no perfect words to say to a child who has lost a beloved pet or to a classmate who’s lost a friend or to a neighbor who’s lost an opportunity; no recipe to give to a parent who is burying their son or a dream; no magic to give to a survivor of violence or oppression.  Healing is lonely work that stirs within. First there is an acceptance of need, then an honest engagement with the struggle and one’s capacity to respond; there’s the discovery of personal strength and the embrace of a power greater than yours; there’s a recognition of history and context and a through line of Presence—and then something like peace dawns, if only for a moment, and perhaps hope for tomorrow. And if you are willing to pay it forward, one’s own healing invites taking the risk of solidarity to stand alongside another vulnerable person: to ask what being well looks like to them, to hear what they have to offer, and then to walk the mourner’s path together.  This is how a beloved community is made.  If we have eyes to see it, shared loss is the soil in which humanity’s healing is planted.

In today’s scripture, Naamen knows something about losing his life in order to find it again—diminished, perhaps, but richer for the exchange.  Naamen is a successful military leader, the commanding officer of Israel’s enemy, a great man in high favor with his master, the king of Aram—and yet he suffers from a debilitating skin disease.  And that is to say, in addition to his status, beyond his skill as a warrior, despite his political prowess and power, Naamen is wounded and weak.  “How can this be possible?” the original audience would have murmured to themselves, as they prepare for the hero’s inevitable fall.  He’ll learn a lesson about pride, they assume.

Most of the time his ailment is referred to as leprosy, but that translation is open to debate.  No archeological evidence can be found that the illness commonly called leprosy today, Hansen’s disease, existed in the Middle East in ancient times.  But whatever Naamen had, it was disfiguring and painful.  And to add insult to injury, his illness was obvious to anyone who looked.

There was no hiding it.  On the hands and the neck and the face of the generalissimo—inside the tailored uniform, beyond his broad chest of medals, beneath the hilt of his shiny and swift sword—Naamen’s skin had fallen to pieces.  No longer able to protect him, his skin boils and burns.  For good and for bad, the barrier between him and the rest of the world has literally broken open, and that vulnerability is both the cause of his pain and the way through which he can be made whole.

How are we like Naamen the leper?  Where in you or in the systems you uphold is an old wound that belies your beautiful frame—covered over, ignored, even forgotten but festering?  Where do you hide away the sin-sick soul: in anger, in fear, in sadness?  What would happen if we let God lead us to the place where we are most weak, where it hurts the most, and where it pains us even to look?  Racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, pride, arrogance, greed?  Would you go there if I promised that that is where the healing begins?

An essential character in the story is the Israelite girl.  Young, female, and held captive, which is to say three times an outsider, who in Hebrew is described as “little, little” just in case we missed the point, she is pivotal.  This unnamed heroine is courageous enough to break her expected silence and speak her mind.  “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria!  He could cure him of his leprosy,” she declares in a surprising show of interest for the other, itself a healing act.  And it is upon her word that Naamen approaches the king of Aram with a request to follow this lead toward his own wellbeing.  And in that, the one heretofore understood as powerless has become the initiator of hope.

The girl suggests that Naamen contact the prophet Elisha.  Not surprisingly, given the way power usually works in the world, the king of Aram disregards her advice, and he sends an enquiry to his peer, the king of Israel.  He also sends along a small fortune in gold and silver and fine clothing, presumably to assure the conquered king that this time Aram comes in peace.  But the overture has the opposite effect: the king of Israel tears his clothes in grief, believing that his rival is trying to pick another fight.

At this point the prophet Elisha steps in, directing the king to send Naamen to him.  Upon his arrival, though, Elisha will not see the powerful leader, instead sending a messenger with the prescription: wash seven times in the Jordan river, which Naamen rejects as both too simple and beneath his dignity as a foreign power.  “Are not the rivers of Aram as good as the Jordan,” he asks imperiously, turning away in rage.  “Where is the welcome a man like me deserves?  Where is the miraculous ceremony?  Where is my cure?”  For a moment Naamen forgets that it was by putting himself in the hands of the little servant girl, accepting his weakness and her power, that got him to this point.  Perhaps his arrogance is a reaction to being on such foreign soil as this vulnerability?  I get it.  Again, a nameless servant invites his healing.  “What’s up, tough guy?” he admonishes Naamen.  (My rough translation.)  “For you, it’s got to be difficult?  Relax.  Surrender.  Wash and be clean.”

When Naamen doesn’t get the attention or deference he thinks is his due, the Spirit waits, letting the man vent and strut.  No lightening bolt consumes him in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends.  God waits until Naamen acquits himself of the odd human propensity to work against our own good.  And when, after stalking off, he relents, we see in Naamen what had been there inside him all along (and what I believe is in each of us, too)—a person who is brave enough to accept his own weakness, faithful enough to step through his wounds into a whole new life.  When he finally gives up, and lets go, and listens to the vulnerable voices outside and within him, and steps into the water, it’s clear that the river is just the place of his healing, not its source.  Healing is lonely work that stirs within.

By this time, Naamen has already come a long, ragged way, a path familiar to anyone who is willing to take herself on.  We know Naamen and “all the irritating and endearing, weak and tenacious behaviors” in his story, because we have all of that in our stories, too: big ideas, bad tempers, taking offense, throwing tantrums, pleading and cajoling, seeing reason, changing our minds, eating crow.  He’s not perfect, but he listens, and he learns.  Mostly he figures out how to not let his demands to be fixed get in the way of his work on being whole…  Sooner or later, I guess, most of us won’t “get the cure”: we’ll be too old or too sick or too late.  But each of us can always be healed.

One morning walking across the campus at Duke University, author and professor Reynolds Price stumbled and fell—and there began a journey of excruciating pain and loss.  Paralyzed for a season by a mysterious disease, he would have to learn again to feed himself, and bathe himself, and walk unassisted.  It was like dying and being born, he said.  “Fairly late in the catastrophic phase of my illness,” writes Price in his book A Whole New Life, “I began to understand three facts I’d known in theory since early childhood, but (whose reality I had barely plumbed.)”  When you have lost your way, or lost your health, or lost a loved one, three things are true:

  1. You will have to dig your own way out. Healing comes only when you begin to face what you have lost.
  2. Given the significant loss, you can no longer be the person you used to be. So,
  3. Your work is to figure out who you are now. And who will you be tomorrow?

And once you’ve got a glimpse of being whole, consider this: who will you feed from your pockets, who will you walk beside, and who will you point to the river of life?

Love,
David

These days, I’m taking very little for granted.

Take breathing, for instance. Since my recent summer sabbatical, mindful, conscious, diaphragmatic breathing has become a powerful daily, even hourly, moment-to-moment, practice.

Then there’s our nation’s Constitution and its foundational principal about balance of powers. Need I say more?

And then there’s Our Lord’s Prayer, which I learned as the “Our Father” as a child …

My Lola (“grandmother” in Tagalog, the national dialect of The Philippines) taught me the version that many of us are most familiar with, the one that begins with:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be the Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven …

and that appears in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Recently, I was introduced to this prayer through a new set of ears, eyes, mind and heart … and by “new”, I actually mean “ancient”.

When Jesus of Nazareth prayed this prayer, of course, he was not praying in English; he was praying in his native Aramaic, a Semitic language related to, but not the same as, Hebrew.

As Neil Douglas-Klotz writes in the Introduction to his book, Prayers of the Cosmos — Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus: “The richness of expression present in the native Aramaic language of Jesus is a treasure that has been lost — or limited only to scholars — for too long ….” In order to fully grasp what and how Jesus was praying, it’s important for people to examine his sacred teachings using at least 3 different lenses: the intellectual, metaphorical, and universal or “mystical”.

Take the English words “Our Father who art in heaven,” for instance,

ܐܰܒ݂ܽܘܢ ܕ݁ܒ݂ܰܫܡܰܝܳܐ

Abwoon d’bwashmaya

in Aramaic.

Some translations of the above that convey the fullness of their meaning, in our modern English, would be:

Oh Thou, from whom the breath of life comes,
who fills all realms of sound, light and vibration ….

Or:

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos,
You create all that moves in light …

Or even:

Respiration of all worlds,
we hear you breathing — in and out — in silence …

I’m not sure what these words do for you; for me, they open my eyes, ears and heart, in a new, empowering, profound way.

“Heaven” is not a “place” far away or sometime in our future, where some distant, removed, God-Figure resides separate from us. Heaven and God are as close, as Present, as near to us as our very next breath.

So … Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

And don’t take anything for granted.

Cristina

P.S. Want to learn more? Come join me in the south Transept at 11:30 a.m. this Sunday, October 13 to learn more about “The Lord’s Prayer” in Jesus’ native Aramaic.

The late Mahatma Gandhi has been quoted as saying, “You must BE the change you wish to see in the world.”  For me, he spoke a little-known truth in a world which habitually chooses sides and blames the other for the bad things in life e.g. them vs. us.  Gandhi illuminated a new paradigm and way of living in the world without violence. It set India free from years of colonial rule.  The non-violent attitude and way of being carries an implicit comprehension that we are One; and since we are ONE, when I harm you, I am harming myself just like when you harm me, you are harming yourself.

I began thinking about Gandhi last night as I watched a previously aired Netflix documentary in 2017.  It was called Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City.  Since I really didn’t know much about Baltimore (except news snippets in 2015) and since so many people have asked me “why” I came to Baltimore, I figured I should watch the show to get more insight into the city I now call home.

Of course, I had heard about the rate of violence in the city, but seeing it so graphically detailed in the documentary really made me pause and wonder.  Living in a place which has the 5th highest murder rate and the 7th highest overall crime rate in the country, makes me super sensitive to the intense suffering, heartache, and despair among many of my fellow citizens.  The problem seems so massive and so overwhelming though; what can be done?  What is my (our) responsibility to a city whose name, in many ways is equated with violence?

If God so loved the world, and I am in God and God is in me through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus the Christ, how can I love the world in general and my brothers and sisters in particular, who are dying daily (or sometimes even hourly) without doing what is in my power to do within such a pervasive atmosphere of violence? If I want to see nonviolence, maybe it is time for me to be nonviolent.  Nonviolence methods don’t begin externally without internal transformation.  Can I take on a more non-violent persona for the life of the world?

It strikes me that my daily thoughts are often filled with violence: judgments, cruelties, anger, harshness, impatience and frustrations litter my internal landscape.  I’m certain I’m not alone in this regard.  This tendency towards violence in our thought lives carries energy which, then interacts with the life energy which surrounds us and in which we all live.  How can we expect to see nonviolence when our own inner landscape is so often violent—towards ourselves as well as others?

Having seen that show last night was just another reminder to become more aware of my own thoughts and emotions and when they are violently assaulting me.  Learning to observe my mind keeps me from over-identifying with my thoughts.  I am so much more than my mind, after all. I am totally created in the image of the Divine who is constantly creating new things.   I am all for learning to lessen the “violent footprint” in our city.  I believe, really believe Baltimoreans together, can create a new thing.

Freda Marie

Sometimes the truth is easy and lovely, to recognize, speak and hear. Like when you happen to open your front door as the sun is descending on a clear, crisp autumn day, and the changing hues of the sky take your breath away; and you exclaim to whoever might hear you (or perhaps simply to yourself), “Oh my God, what a gorgeous sunset.”

Other times, speaking the truth and hearing it aren’t so easy.

Last night 85 of us gathered in the nave to listen to the second speaker in our VOICES series, journalist and author Lawrence Lanahan. As part of his presentation, he read aloud excerpts from his recently published book, The Lines Between Us: Two Families and A Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide. I can’t imagine that the words he said were easy for him to speak.

They definitely were not easy to hear.

Baltimore’s wealth follows whiteness.

White supremacy is alive and well.

People with privilege and power have used these to perpetuate socioeconomic inequality and injustice.

Earlier in the day I happened to have visited two different schools in our city. The first one, located in the 21225 zip code, would have closed several years ago, had it not been for the determined engaged activism of its surrounding community; I had to leave the meeting I was attending there several times, due to a persistent cough that time-and-again took my breath away, caused by a faulty air-filtering system. The second one, located in the 21210 zip code, features a newly completed, multi-million dollar, successful renovation of several school spaces; walking down its hallways also took my breath away, but for a different reason. My heart is with and praying for both school communities, that one day, all students in our city may receive the same quality of education, regardless of zip code.

Lawrence Lanahan ended his talk last night with these words from W.E.B. DuBois:
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

Sometimes the truth is painful to speak and to hear.

And yet, we must have the courage to do both … and then to act, with God’s grace.

~Cristina

Dear Folks,

The Labor Day weekend edition of the Baltimore Sun invited readers to explore the history of labor in and around our city: Tide Point, now the headquarters of Under Armour, where Procter and Gamble made soap for 70 years, but more importantly where factory employees were guaranteed 48 weeks of work per year, as well as profit sharing and a pension; the Museum of Industry, where the gritty, industrial past of Baltimore is celebrated “to inspire tomorrow’s workers” today; Hampton, an 18th century mansion in Towson, the largest house in the country at the time, where over 300 enslaved people at its height worked on the plantation; and more.  Sarah and I scheduled our exploration of the sites around the Harbor for Monday, and headed to Hampton after church.

The Park Service employee who led our tour was giddy with the number of people inspired by the Sun article to visit, and he told us his personal narrative to ground the story of Hampton.  An African-American man from North Carolina, the ranger moved his young family to Baltimore a year ago because of the opportunity to share “the kitchen and field story” of slaves and indentured servants in such an unlikely place: on the border of the industrial north.  “How is it possible,” he asked several times, “that hundreds of people remained in bondage over a century and a half, with no wall or fence to hold them, and Pennsylvania only a few miles away?”  We walked through lavish period rooms designed to impress the Ridgely family’s weekend guests, but our guide kept directing us to the lives of the people who cooked the food for the banquet table, who sewed the gowns and made the furniture, who milled the lumber and laid the floors for dancing.  “What is the impact of language that trains you to feel less-than,” he wondered.  “How did slavery cripple both while people and black people?  What is the legacy of racism in Baltimore today?”

A great deal of the Ridgely’s wealth came from the discovery of iron ore, and the estate hired indentured servants to run the works.  Our guide told us, “The port in Baltimore was noisy with ships unloading finished goods from France and prisoners from England, and then loading them back up with iron bound for Europe.”

Something inside me began to break open.

“How many people were indentured at Hampton?” I asked.  “Scores,” he answered.  “Mr. Ridgely scoured the downtown docks regularly for skilled labor he could purchase.  The work was so demanding at the iron works that they needed a steady supply of prisoners to keep up with it.”

I began to remember something I had forgotten.

“Do you have the names of the servants who worked here?” I wondered.  They do.

Here’s what I learned on Labor Day.  In 1720 William Isgrig was born in London, England.  At 20 he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, an excellent opportunity for a humble, but enterprising young man.  Later that same year, William’s father died suddenly, and he left his apprenticeship to go home, presumably to care for his mother and siblings.  In 1740, William was arrested for stealing 12 silver belt buckles from the goldsmith who had employed him: feeling desperate, I would imagine, and not able to see beyond the fear that seized him.  In 1741 he was indentured to Baltimore.  I’m not sure yet if William landed at Hampton, but I learned there that his skills would have been desirable, and public records show that he fathered several children and died in Baltimore County.

His descendants found their way to Indiana, where land was cheap and they could start over.  Another broken law and a midnight horse ride got his family to Arkansas—but that’s another story…

My grandmother was Elsie Jane Isgrig, and she would have been scandalized by William’s connection to Baltimore, but I’m drawn to his plight.  He was a striver and a survivor, vulnerable to his fears but able to rise above them.  He learned to work hard and keep his head down and make amends for his mistakes.  I know the men in my family, so I imagine William carried shame to his grave, but I’m proud of him.  Fear and low self-worth can be carried like a perverse gene, enticing the descendants of servants and slaves to wound themselves and others for reasons that elude us.  Separating a person’s identity from his labor is a sin, and the legacy of slavery will continue to cripple us until we face how both the owner and the owned are dehumanized in that system, and in the racism that it engendered.  That is the work that calls me to Baltimore, which it turns out, is an invitation to come back home.  Thank you, William.

Knowing your story makes you an agent of your identity instead of somebody’s victim.  Accepting how you are afraid and frail is the beginning of love—of others and yourself.  Light peeks through the broken places.

Love,
David

I am convinced that each person on the earth has something to teach every other person on the earth.  We are meant to learn and grow in this garden we call LIFE.  Sometimes though, those without the knowing or knowledge with which we’re most comfortable, can be disregarded and/or ignored by those whom we consider the uneducated or unsophisticated among us.  Nevertheless, I love the Scripture that asks the question, “has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the promised Kingdom.” (cf. James 2:5)

These thoughts come on the heels of a recent story I read about the 33 Chilean coal miners who were trapped in the bowels of the earth for 2 months and 8 days back in August of 2010.  Most of us remember the event as evening news accounts, but one writer, Hector Tobar, has chronicled the entire incident by culling the hearts and minds of the miners who lived (and thought they’d die) in the dark, fetid atmosphere of a copper-gold mine in Chile.  This passage from Mr. Tobar’s book, DEEP DOWN DARK, is especially memorable and telling:

“On August 5th, a Christian man named Don Jose Henriquez, turned to a fellow miner named Mario and whispered, “God is the only way out of this.” Before the miners Mario announced, “Don José, we know you are a Christian man, and we need you to lead us in prayer. Will you?”

From that moment forward Henríquez became known as “the Pastor” to his fellow miners because as soon as he opens his mouth and begins to talk it’s clear that he knows how to speak of God and to God … Henríquez drops to his knees and tells the men they should also do so, because when you pray you have to humble yourself before your Creator. “We aren’t the best men, but Lord, have pity on us,” Henríquez begins. It’s a simple statement, but it strikes several of the men hard. “No somos los mejores hombres.” We aren’t the best men. Víctor Segovia knows he drinks too much. Víctor Zamora is too quick to anger. Pedro Cortez thinks about the poor father he’s been to his young daughter: He left the girl’s mother, and he hasn’t even done the basic fatherly thing of visiting his little girl, even though he knows his absence is inflicting a lasting hurt on her.

“Jesus Christ, our Lord, let us enter the sacred throne of your grace,” Henríquez continues. “Consider this moment of difficulty of ours. We are sinners and we need you.” Just about everyone who was at the entrance to the Refuge or inside is on his knees … Henríquez is a man of God, and suddenly here, in this tomb, the religious severity that many of them found annoying during the everyday encounters of the A shift is exactly what they need. “We want you to make us stronger and help us in this hour of need,” Henríquez says. “There’s nothing we can humanly do without your help. We need you to take charge of this situation. Please, Lord. Take charge of this.”

Henriquez’ prayer, prayed in humble trust in GOD allowed those miners trapped with him, and indeed the whole world, to see a miracle in a world in which very few miracles allegedly exist.  I believe Henriquez’ prayer has much to teach us about the power of prayer and the nature of a humble and loving GOD.  My own experience tells me that it is in the “letting go,” that the discovery of so much more is realized.  “Please, Lord.  Take charge of this,” Henriquez prays.

I am always ready to learn from the underside; from the ones who society supposes has little to offer.  Uneducated, poor trapped miners teach me that GOD does answer prayer—when we have learned to let go and let God.  What new thing have you learned from those who live on the underside of life?

~Freda Marie