Oh beautiful ache
that stretches with my children’s growing limbs
that curls around the need to hold them close as nursing babes
but sighs with painful joy to see them reaching out for life.
Oh beautiful ache
that stretches with my children’s growing limbs
that curls around the need to hold them close as nursing babes
but sighs with painful joy to see them reaching out for life.
It has been a REALLY long time since I posted. Lots of reasons, and that is not the point of this post, but I am very conscious of how much I need this medium for words today. I need the healing of exploring my own soul and sharing that exploration in the belief that I am not alone. And, what is more, I need the belief that this sharing can be a way back to humanity, and compassion, and most of all HOPE.
And so, this is me sharing my soul. It is written in the form of a Psalm, because a psalm is what I needed today. So, I read the first 24 verses of Psalm 18 (I am very inconsistently working my way through the psalms as a self-care practice at the moment, and this was the next one up) and from that inspiration, I wrote my own.
Psalm January 29, 2017 (Loosely inspired by Psalm 18:1-24)
I said “I love you, God, my source of safety.”
God is the one I can always rely on – the one who is always there, who never rejects me.
God is my support.
I don’t have to prove myself to God.
God protects me from myself and from my need to demonstrate my worth.
I am safe with God.
Because God is so completely trustworthy, I came to God in prayer, begging,
and God filled my soul with the assurance that God is bigger than everything I am afraid of.
I was scared of so many things –
of pain for myself and for others,
of coldness in my soul,
of people feeling abandoned and my guilt for that abandonment,
because I am relatively safe.
In my tears and fear, I prayed.
I cried out to God, “HELP!”
And God heard!
In the truth of God’s glory, and power, and perfection, my fears and tears were NOT too light a thing to claim God’s attention.
God paid attention.
And when God responds, that response cannot be ignored.
God’s power, and truth, and righteousness are far beyond control.
God it not tame.
Even when I might get nervous about God’s righteous anger, it’s not for me to hold it back.
God’s love is fierce.
God’s commitment to creation and to each precious person will not sit back;
God will not wait and see;
God will not be conciliatory where there is evil in the world.
God’s love can burn like wildfire when it needs to.
And God’s truth can be as invasive as the darkness –
working where we cannot see
in preparation for the painfully revealing light.
When loud voices speak lies, God will speak louder,
and the enemies of God will be scattered.
They will be exposed in the places they thought they were safe –
in the center of their assumed power –
they will be shaken.
Nothing can resist God’s righteous anger.
God does not stay remote.
God has already touched me, grabbed me, and pulled my spirit to safety.
The quicksand cannot pull at me
when God has hold of me.
It tried –
it surrounded me with lies and fears and memory-scars of pain.
But God is stronger and God saved me.
God loves me and shows that I am worth saving.
God knows my failings, but God also knows my heart is turned toward love.
God has given me faith,
and so I seek God’s will,
and I reject fear and self-protection that denies God’s sovereignty.
I seek to know and understand how God’s way of living works,
and then I follow that way, imperfectly, through grace.
And so, God has protected me and given me this life –
to live in joy with love
keeping God’s way.
So… the blog has been pretty quiet this summer. As in … silent. I haven’t posted a single thought or poem since early May. I don’t flatter myself that there has been a whole host of people checking their blog feeds and panting for fresh words from me, but in case you were wondering I didn’t actually fall off the face of the earth, I just got swallowed up by CPE.
CPE, more completely known as Clinical Pastoral Education, is one element of the training process that many religious denominations include in the path to ordination. It involves serving as a chaplain in a relatively intense primary care setting (in my case, serving as a hospital chaplain at a level 1 trauma center), and combining that service with a lot of self-analysis/group reflection time that most closely resembles an emotional pressure-cooker. In other words, you really can’t explain CPE; you just have to live it to understand.
But this doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing this summer. I just wasn’t writing blogs. I wrote some things for myself, some things that I may share eventually, and a whole lot of sermons.
And the sermon I had the privilege to preach today, at my wonderful home church, seems like a good way to re-open the blog. For one thing, because it was the sermon I needed after my summer, and for another because I suspect it might be a sermon some other people need to.
Worth Vs. Status
The second to last verse of our gospel* today reads like this: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
I promise I did not ask to preach this Sunday just because of this verse, but this is seriously my kind of verse, right? Anti-poverty advocacy has been my life’s work for the last decade and a half, which puts this passage right in the middle of my ethical sweet spot.
Much as I would love to preach a sermon that focuses on the call to “help the poor,” however, I can’t.
For one thing, I don’t think that’s the sermon this congregation really needs. This church is a community that already takes seriously God’s call to respond to the needs of the poor and outcast, and while that is something to be celebrated, if all this text does is congratulate us for our good deeds, then it’s not really the gospel. The gospel is meant to transform us – to challenge our formulas for living a good life and to pull us instead into the amazing grace that God offers us through Christ Jesus.
Plus, when I started looking for that transformation in this text, I realized that the story it tells is much deeper and more fundamental than instructions on how we should act. The gospel in this story – both the challenge and the grace – lies in the contrast between status and worth.
You see the context of this story is ALL about status.
Jesus is a guest at a party in the home of a Pharisee (otherwise known as a rule-abiding member of the religious upper class).
Jesus and a number of other guests are all gathered together for a meal, which brings in a whole bunch of rules related to status.
The place you sit at the table tells how important you are,
and the fact that the guests were invited in the first place is a sign that they were considered to be in the same social strata as the host,
and it also creates an obligation on the guests to reaffirm the host’s status by inviting him to one of their parties.
Except Jesus, of course.
He was an itinerant preacher, so he clearly couldn’t return the host’s invitation.
He was there for another reason – but that reason was still all about status. The story tells us that the Pharisees were all watching Jesus closely, and we can be pretty sure that wasn’t because thought he was so cool.
Rather, in this high stakes context with so many rules, they were trying to catch Jesus breaking the rules. By doing so, they could knock down some of the authority (some of the status) that the unruly masses have been giving this upstart and reassert their own.
This is the context where Jesus tells his two parables.
The first one is frankly confusing because it doesn’t seem to challenge the whole status system at all. It’s just a bit of cagey advice about not risking your honor by claiming importance, but instead putting on a show of false humility so as to maybe coerce a nice dose of public recognition.
This seems quite out of character for Jesus, unless we consider that what Jesus is really doing is drawing a contrast – A contrast between the world of rules, and strategies, and scrambling after status, and the way God operates.
You see, parables always tell us something about “The Kingdom”, which is a theological way of saying “the way God interacts with God’s people.”
And when we read these two parables together we see that they form a contrast between the Pharisee’s way, and God’s way.
In the second parable, Jesus tells the host that he should have abandoned the rules of scheming, status-seeking society and instead should have invited guests to his banquet who could never repay the favor,
because the repayment will then come not from the guests, but from God …at the resurrection.
That reference to the resurrection is a clue that this parable is the one that teaches us about the Kingdom of God, in contrast to the first parable.
The first parable painted a picture of competitiveness –
of scheming to come out on top and to be set apart as special
The second parable, in contrast, paints a picture of equality –
Of everyone sitting down at the same table, regardless of social position, and enjoying the same meal as an expression of God’s resurrection kingdom.
The details of these stories are not familiar to our 21st century American context – but the contrast between status and worth could not be more relevant.
Every day we are bombarded by messages about status.
For us, maybe it is at work that status is determined by where we sit – whether our office has a window, or is even an office at all;
Or we go to school and we can’t just sit at any cafeteria table, because there are unwritten rules about who can sit where, and there are consequences for our reputations if we break those rules;
Or we turn on the TV and we see commercials that tell us people will judge us by the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear, or the color or our American Express card;
Or even when we fast-forward through the commercials we have endless shows where the focus is on out-surviving, or out-performing, or out-scheming, or out-talenting everyone else to win the big prize.
Or we look in the mirror, and we can’t help but compare ourselves to every impossibly beautiful or hard-muscled, air-brushed magazine picture that has ever told us we are less-than.
The markers of status may be very different for us, but the world of the Pharisees is not really that different than ours, is it?
It’s still about ranking and competition – judging better and worse, higher and lower- and any middle schooler, or pinterest addict can tell you how hard we all try to win that game.
And because of that our world is so incredibly insecure. When everywhere we look we are surrounded by reminders that we are being judged, that we have to win or we will be losers, that we have to be better than others to prove that we matter… Even being at the top can be terrifying – because what if we fall?
Our standard of living is unparalleled in history, and yet we are plagued by depression, and anxiety, and self-injuring behavior whether that be cutting, or substance-abuse, or workaholism.
It’s exhausting to be constantly playing the status game, because underneath all the ways the game shows up in our individual lives, they are all based on the same lie.
The lie that our status defines our worth.
And that’s why our text today is the desperately needed gospel – for Living Waters, and for every child, woman, and man who is bombarded every day with the rules of the status game.
Because Jesus describes the insecurity, and dishonesty, and shallowness of that game, and then he describes the opposite.
He describes a table where all are welcome NOT because of who they are and what they bring to the table, but because God calls them worthy.
God calls us worthy.
By invoking the resurrection, Jesus is talking about worth. A worth that is absolute. There is no more or less worthy in the kingdom. The same perfect gift of self-sacrificial love on the cross is what Jesus offers to each one of us. And that source of worth – the worth proclaimed in our baptism which echoes the resurrection – invalidates the status game.
Jesus was showing the Pharisees, and Us, that the entire framework of better and worse, higher and lower is absolutely irrelevant to God’s way of acting.
And so, it should be to ours, as God’s resurrection people.
Worth – not status.
It is a serious challenge because it calls us to genuinely let go of our desire to prove ourselves – whether that be proving we are better than others, or just proving our own value to ourselves by reaching some idealized goal.
We share what we have and we invite everyone to the table because the worth that ALL of us have flows equally from the God who made the table for us, without reservation and without limit.
And this is where we pull in that beautiful image from Hebrews** of being “held together by love.”
God’s table is about rejecting status, and competition, and fear, and instead sharing in the community of love. The community that is generated within the love of the Triune God and into which we are all invited to enter, not because we have earned it, but because God has called us worthy. God has called you worthy.
When we gather at the table in a few minutes, we are all there by God’s grace. We did not earn it and we are welcome there whether or not we are coveting after status in our hearts. And I, for one, am thankful for that, because I am preaching this sermon to myself.
But when we are there, I encourage us each to take that bread and wine as an invitation to know our own worth, and the worth of every other person whom God calls worthy – no matter what you or I might think of them – We are welcome at God’s table because God has called us worthy.
* Gospel text: Luke 14:1, 7-14: On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
** Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1 : “Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love.”
Yesterday I had the chance to have an intentional conversation about racism.
The context was statewide Synod Assembly, the annual gathering of the New Jersey congregations of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). As part of the agenda, there was set-aside two hours of intentional time devoted to struggling – through listening and conversation – toward a better understanding of how we as individuals and communities are called to respond to the realities of racism in our society. The conversation was opened by viewing the Ted-x talk by Jay Smooth about how we talk about race (well worth the 12 minutes, by the way). We then broke into randomly assigned small groups to respond to a series of prompts.
At least from where I sat, the dialogue in my group felt thoughtful and encouraging. We were young, old, and in between. We brought a range of experiences and perspectives, and each member had the chance to share from that experience. We talked about racism existing on a spectrum, rather than as the binary opposites of racist/non-racist. We explored the power of recognizing the many lenses through which we all see the world. Several of us have had some level of exposure to anti-racist training, and there was a positive ebb and flow between story and analysis. I have been part of many such intentional conversations, especially in the past two years, and this conversation, though certainly not perfect, felt generative. I felt incredibly hopeful about the capacity for listening and learning.
In the last five minutes we were asked to consider action steps: what do we actually plan to do about what we have been talking about when we go back into our congregations?
Five minutes is clearly not the right amount of time to engage that question in a group of ten people. I’m not sure what the ideal time allotment would have been, but I do know this question posed a deep, challenging task that we needed to grapple with.
Several of us in the group took a deep breath. I assume that the others were, like me, trying to get our heads around how to approach this challenge with thoughtfulness and integrity, consistent with the preceding conversation.
And into that silence stepped the group member who had, perhaps, been the most binary in his understanding of racism; the one who had been the most defensive about how he didn’t have a problem because he got along with everyone; the one who raised the straw man of political correctness and suggested “they” were being too sensitive.
He raised both hands in an expression of self-congratulatory confidence and declared: “really, I think it all comes down to the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we all just do that… problem solved.”
It was placed on the table like a perfect, gift-wrapped package, complete with the over-sized red bow. Nothing more need be said. I’ve got it all boxed up nicely for you. No need to thank me. We can all be on our way.
Except, we couldn’t. This was not at all where our conversation had been leading and so I tried to explain why our answer needed to be more thoughtful. I tried to explain how “doing unto others” doesn’t work if you impose your preferences on them and treat them how YOU want to be treated, rather than treating them how THEY actually want to be treated. I tried to explain that really listening has to precede doing (and certainly doing for) when there is a gap of culture, or experience, or opportunity. I tried to gently but firmly challenge the presumption of hegemony contained in the simple-formula solution. In essence, I tried to pack several hours (or days, or years) worth of consciousness-raising about privilege, equity, and listening for the perspective of the oppressed into what was left of our five minutes. Of course I failed utterly.
A few other ideas were thrown out about books to read as a congregation, and ways to be intentional about listening. The group broke up with warm smiles and affirmations of the work we had done together. The jarring note of the conclusion did not irreparably mar what was otherwise a strong, equipping conversation.
But I am a perfectionist, which means I have a hard time letting go of my failures. I have been mulling over those damned five minutes all evening and trying to figure out what I could have said more clearly that maybe, just maybe, could have broken through this brother’s consternation about how I could possibly challenge his presentation of the Golden Rule as the definitive answer.
So, this is what I have come up with.
The Golden Rule presents us with two people or groups of people: “others” and “you.” So far, so good, if you are using this rule as a guide for your interactions with other people. All involved parties are included in the premise. But we run into a problem if that inclusion is only cursory. The “other” has to really be considered, in their own right, and not just as a blank slate on which to superimpose your own desires.
I hope an example will help to explain what I am talking about. (This is where the cheesecake comes in.) I LOVE cheesecake. The sweetness and creaminess, combined with just the right amount of buttery, crumbly texture from the graham cracker crust…perfection! I could actually, probably, write a whole blog post just about cheesecake if that would not seriously sabotage my healthy eating plan.
So, given my passion for cheesecake, what I would “have others do for me” is to give me cheesecake. At least, if the doing has to do with preparing a special treat for me… please, cheesecake!
However, my husband dislikes cheesecake. I really cannot understand it, but given cheesecake as the only dessert option, he will pass. He just doesn’t like it.
So, in the event that I want to prepare a special treat for him, I don’t make him cheesecake. I make him lemon meringue pie. That’s his favorite, so that’s what I make (although not nearly as often as he would like, I must confess).
In so doing, I think I am fulfilling the Golden Rule, even though I am not, in fact, doing unto my husband as I would have him do unto me. If I were, I would give him cheesecake, because that is what I like. But he would hate it. That’s why “doing unto others” doesn’t work if you impose your preferences on the other and treat them how YOU want to be treated, rather than treating them how THEY actually want to be treated.
And that’s why the Golden Rule isn’t a simple answer at all, when it comes to trying to reach across the reality of the racial divide in this country: because it requires you to actually find out how the other wants to be treated. I have been married to my husband more than 15 years, and in that time I have learned a lot. Even in our relationship, though, there is still so much left to learn. And our stories do not even start all that far apart!
Unfortunately, the reality of racial inequity in America creates a strong likelihood of a much larger divide in life experience when I am interacting with a person of color. This is not to say I should ever assume total dissimilarity. We may very well be more alike than different in any number of ways. But I need to take the time to find this out. This is the problem with “color-blindness” as a solution to racism. If I try to be color-blind, I am intentionally seeing less, not more of the story of those who, in one way or another, are “other” than me.
If the person I want to “do unto” is coming from a position of vastly different life experience, no matter how sincere my intention, I am liable to make a big old mess of things if I don’t start by listening. This is particularly true because our culture sees me as White, and therefore I have lived my whole life in a context where my needs and wants have received priority.
To stick with the earlier metaphor, I’ve already had dinner served to me, so what I want is dessert. But I can’t just assume everyone else wants dessert. Any other given person may be hungry for some protein, or fresh vegetables. Or… maybe what they actually want is a table of their own before they worry about what food is on it. Maybe what they want or need is a whole lot more complicated that whipping up a cheesecake, or even a lemon meringue pie.
Complicated is hard, but it is important, and I think the Golden Rule actually calls us to this kind of complicated.
And part of that complicated is confessing when we screw up.
By my own standard of Golden Rule love, I screwed up yesterday. I failed my own test – I didn’t listen carefully to the man across the table from me. I did not listen to his earlier defensiveness, which suggested a clear need to be heard – to know that his intention had been understood, even if I had a different perspective to offer. I jumped right into correcting without affirming, and that’s a pattern that derails so much of the necessary conversation about racism.
So, for what it’s worth, I want to recognize what I heard of his intention here. What I heard was a desire for unity, and mutual self-giving love. That’s a beautiful desire, and one I share. It is an important goal for us all to hold before our eyes as we do the hard and complicated work of struggling with racism in our society and in our church. That’s the dessert we can hopefully get to, once we build a table big enough for everyone, and make sure everyone is fed the meal they want and need.
And once we do that, and it’s time for dessert, I’ll bring the cheesecake.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
If you have never sung or heard this hymn, take a few minutes and look it up on youtube. (This is a nice version). It has become one of my favorite quiet, soul-stirring hymns. This preference is not because of the aching, soaring arc of the melody, hauntingly beautiful as it is. Nor is it a response to the poignant images it holds before my mind’s eye with slow, insistent repetition. My heart is pulled by this song because of one simple word:
Sometimes. Not Always. Not whenever I turn toward God or train my mind to properly spiritual things. Sometimes.
That one word is probably one of the truest things I ever sing about my own spirit. Much as I love to sing in worship it can be hard to really claim the feelings the songs ask me to name: feelings of desperation for God, or a love that supersedes all other loves, or complete and total trust. On an average Sunday morning I am more likely to be experiencing heart-stopping love for Princess Imagination as she cuddles up to share the hymnal and sing a little off-key; or I am battling distracting questions of whether to trust the Gigglemonster to come straight back from his second bathroom run. Even before I had children, maintaining total focus on God for even the length of a simple praise chorus was not a foregone conclusion.
It’s not that I have never in my life experienced the relational intensity described in the many wonderful psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It’s just that, in the midst of normal life, they feel like such an unattainable ideal. Life is full – full of responsibility, and activities, and far too little sleep. I simply cannot maintain a perpetual emotional high no matter how hard I try.
Plus, I thought that I had moved past the try harder orientation of my evangelical roots. I have embraced grace and rejected performance Christianity. I have found God in the valley in ways that are far more relevant and palpable than God on the mountain top. I know better than to try harder at being the perfect Christian.
But perfectionism is a hard master to shed. In these very early stages of my candidacy for ordination, perfectionism has been dogging my steps and flicking my ankles with the whip of shame.
Do you really think you can be a spiritual leader?
Is it really that hard to spend 10 minutes a day in silent meditation?
Does prayer time really count if you are still curled up under the covers?
Did you notice how you just FAILED to treat that rude driver like a beloved child of God?
Performance. Expectations. Perfection.
That is what I find so beautiful about the one word Sometimes. Sometimes means it does not have to be all the time to be real. It means that the holy trembling that does happen – sometimes – is a precious, not an inadequate, experience. It means those moments are a shared reality with the whole cloud of witness for whom the trembling is also sporadic. Sometimes is a wonderfully reassuring word.
That word was hanging in my consciousness for the whole drive home, and my imperfect, easily distracted mind was hoping to get the kids in bed quickly so that I could sit down to this computer and work through the learning that I knew was trembling inside my deep exhale as I sang about sometimes.
But the Gigglemonster can always sniff out any sense of urgency to leave him and it triggers an even greater sense of urgency in him. Tonight it elicited tears, and fierce, insistent hugs, and hiccuping, vague stories of school bullies, and the desperate declaration that “I want to cling to you because I never want you to leave me.” I stayed much longer than I had planned. We talked, and I offered reassurance and cuddles, and I finally extricated myself with a promise to come back in 20 minutes as long as he stopped screaming and practiced his self-soothing.
Of course, when I returned 20 minutes later he was fast asleep, curled around his stuffed animals and not apparently scarred by the trauma of having a Mommy who refuses to sleep in his bed with him just because he clings.
And that peaceful slumber in no way makes me question his love for me. The intensity of his declarations of devotion are not somehow diminished by their limited duration. They are not even tarnished by my consciousness that they are part totally genuine and part master manipulation (there can be all kinds of imperfect dynamics to trembling love). They are sweet and beautiful glimpses of true closeness – a self-opening love I couldn’t even have dreamed of before I became a parent. They are real.
And thank goodness they are only sometimes.
As I left his room with the image of his sweet sleeping cherub’s face, I wondered whether God feels the same way about me? The moments of ecstatic adoration are wonderful, but they couldn’t possibly be always. That wouldn’t be a good thing even if it were possible. The Mother-Father heart of God knows I need those moments of closeness and trust, but I also need moments of play, and learning, and falling down to discover the pain and healing that comes with growth. A God who hangs on the cross to show what love really is does not look for perfection. My God doesn’t look for a love that is all emotional highs and total, focused devotion.
Clinging is a part of love, but only sometimes.
This year my experience of the Lenten season (the 40 days + Sundays period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) has been unlike any other. It has felt less somber, and more energizing. I feel a simmering sense of anticipation that will not let me stop in the stillness of reflection on my need for God’s grace. That grace already feels too present, too alive, to even be able to contemplate what life would be like without it. I don’t know if I am really experiencing Lent as I am supposed to, although I can’t really complain.
An important element of this difference has been the recent development in my own life. After a long (very long) process of discernment, I have taken the first steps toward pursing ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church. These steps have had a more profound impact on my faith than I had expected. My relationship with Jesus has always been central to my identity, and I have always seen my professional life as an expression of my vocational calling, so I suppose I expected the most recent movement to be just another stage of the journey. In some ways it is, but it is also profoundly different.
Growing up evangelical, my faith was first and foremost personal, even when it pushed me to action on behalf of justice and care for others. Suddenly I have this whole new perspective on my faith as being For Others. When I interact with a given text or encounter a new theological perspective I can’t just wonder what this means for my faith. I feel both a responsibility and an opportunity to move past the question of “how does this speak to me?” and into the much less certain query of “how can I make space for others to hear what speaks to them (even if it is different than what I hear)?”
For a woman who still often craves certainly, this new perspective on my task can feel unfamiliar and destabilizing, but I think it is also an essential part of the grace-filled way that I am experiencing Lent this year. There is space for so many experiences of Jesus. It is frustrating but also beautiful, and I get to be part of opening up those spaces, rather than defining and controlling them.
That is what happened when I sat down to write a reflection on the story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet in John 12 for my church’s Wednesday service last week. I found space.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
John 12:1-8 [Translation: Common English Bible]
“Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Can you smell the heavy scent of nard? Inhabiting the air with a call to pay attention. A scent that will not be ignored. Evocative. Pungent. Compelling. Can you feel it swirling around you like a clinging veil? Can you close your eyes and let your mind melt into the mist of memory?
They say that scent, more than any of the other senses, is tied to memory. An ephemeral hint in the air – a familiar spice, a food, a flower… a perfume – they all can pull us with tremendous power. They can transport us back into a different time and place that captures our attention because it is important to us. Whether that association binds us in irrational fear, or explodes inside us with unconstrained joy, the scent is what moves us, pulls us, brings us back into a moment that lives forever in our sense memory, because of its importance.
But what makes the moment important, what that memory means? The scent alone does not tell us that. We bring the meaning with us.
So, when the strong scent of nard invades our memories, what meaning does it bring?
To some this is a scent of Waste.
If I had only offered my tribute in a reasonable proportion,then it could have been acceptable. After all, I had much for which to thank the teacher. He was the one who had restored my brother to life after days in the grave. It was quite natural for me to seek some way to demonstrate my gratitude. We were a family of some means, and so some small extravagance was understandable.
But three-quarters of a pound of pure nard? – poured out with no limit, no consideration of the other uses to which it could be put. A year’s wages in value. Just think what could be done with such a resource. There are real needs – the pressing kinds of needs that should take priority over sentiment and extravagant demonstrations. In the face of real, practical uses for such wealth… to spill it out in such a profligate way is shocking.
Yes – to many, focused on the scarcity of resources, this pouring out of scent smells like a waste.
To others, this is a scent of Shame.
This may be the version of my story most familiar to you. Luke told the story this way, and for some reason it seems to fire the imaginations of many gospel readers of later generations.
The sinful woman. The woman so weighed down with the shame of her life that she could no longer hold it in. The rules and social niceties meant little to her anyhow, so she laid them aside as she had long ago forsaken any claim to moral living. Abandoning discretion, she poured out her perfume as she poured out her tears. Nothing else mattered. The pain of her sin broke all constraints and her shame spilled out – an uncomfortable display to scandalize the watching judges.
Yes, to many, focused on the binding up of sin, this pouring out of scent smells just like shame.
But to others, this is a scent of intimacy.
This scent means stunning closeness. For in scent, which must be near to be perceived, which never can be shared at the safe distance of the heavenly throne, we find a whole new meaning of Emmanuel: a God so truly with me I can touch him. I can pour my precious offering not just at his feet, but on them. A can let down my hair, a private, vulnerable act and touch him in the tenderest anointing. A touch that speaks of total trust, assurance that my God will welcome me just as I am.
And so, to those who long for closeness with their Lord, this pouring out of scent smells sweetly of intimacy.
And yet to others, One at least, this is a scent of death.
As I sat near, the nard still clinging to my hands, He named my act. “This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”
It was an affirmation of my right, a declaration that I’d not transgressed, but rather done the prophet’s and the mourner’s work in one. And yet, how hard that was to hear. I wanted to anoint my Jesus as my prophet, priest, and king. I wanted to pour out my extravagant offering as a pure witness to his unlimited worth. A worth that could NOT die.
But, perhaps I knew. Perhaps I had understood somewhere below my conscious thought what was to come. Perhaps the Spirit worked in me to recognize the frailty of this body I could touch – the painful, wrenching consequence of incarnation. Perhaps, my soul did know my act for what it was. As I slowly rubbed the burial balm into his skin, perhaps I knew the grace of offering this small comfort to my Lord.
Hard as it was to hear, I understand.
To the One who knew all of the roles for which he was anointed, this pouring out of scent smelled strongly of death.
But I too can smell the nard, can feel it dripping from my hair, can see it shining on his skin. I close my eyes and breath and am transported back into a golden, shining moment of pure love.
For Love is what the scent of nard communicates to me. The meaning of that powerful scent memory takes me back into a moment where I knew the heart of love.
Love that is unrationed
Love that is unashamed
Love that is uninhibited
Love that is oh, so very alive.
That is the Love I felt beneath my fingertips, and dried with my hair. That is the Love at whose feet I sat to learn, and the Love whom I followed to the cross. That is the Love who stared his own death in the face, and still smiled at me as I poured out my offering of nard.
Can you smell it? I know that I will never forget.