A Prayer for Boston from the Reverend James Martin, Jesuit priest, author, and editor: Almighty God, who made the green grass on the Fenway, the blue waters of Dorchester Bay and the tan sands on the Cape, we have a simple prayer: Enough with the snow already. Whatever mysterious point you’re making about endurance, or patience or your own awesome power, we get it: we’ve endured, we’re plenty patient and we get that you can do the snow thing. And we know that you know the old joke (since you know everything) about how if the Pilgrims landed in Florida first this part of the country would never have been settled, ha ha, but we love it here. We love the spring, especially on Boston Common. We love the Fall, especially in the suburbs. And we love the summer, especially on Cape Cod, on Cape Anne and on the South Shore. We love all those beautiful parts of your world. But we’ve had it with the snow. I mean, have you looked out my window? So we’d like to ask you to stop sending us the snow. And, just to be clear, when we say snow we also mean freezing rain, sleet, black ice, any kind of flurries and that new creation of yours thundersnow, We promise we’ll be good during Lent, we’ll be kind to one another, and won’t ask for another thing, at least until the Red Sox start to play. Amen.
You and I may have offered some variation of that prayer to God in the last month, especially last week when the weather prohibited us from meeting here in person. Last Sunday I worshipped from my home office, on the second floor of my house that overlooks the street. Wind wailing, snow blowing, I wrapped my blanket a little more tightly around me as I heard the steam heat rattling through the radiator, in sync with the wind whipping the windows in front of me. Across the street a neighbor opened her window and slowly stretched out a broom to knock down heavy and thick icicles from the gutters, fearful of the prolonged strain on the house’s structure. Perhaps for many of you, the roads to 735 Commonwealth Avenue were impassable, the routine journey to worship in the presence of a known community too risky to attempt. Perhaps you too, sat, listened, and worshipped from your armchair, the melodic voices of the choir competing with the shrill wind and thundering snow plows. Perhaps you also found comfort in the familiar voices, hymns, and word despite the white wilderness engulfing you.
In Boston this winter we have endured our own kind of wilderness. Pummeled with storm after storm, snow rising to unbelievable heights, commuting whether by foot, car, bike or public transit nearly impossible, Bostonians somehow manage to continue onward day after day, week after week. Two weeks ago on a Monday morning, my partner and I headed to the driveway yet again to shovel. I started to pile the snow on the already higher than me snow piles on either side of the driveway, and I suddenly stopped, exacerbated and said, “This isn’t going to work. There’s just no more room.” Finally I decided to take the snow, one shovel load at a time, and carry it across the street to a smaller snowbank. It took us double the time, but slow and steady was the only way to go at this point. Here in Boston, we’ve needed to be a little more creative, a little more patient, a little more flexible, and a little more forgiving in order to brave these long winter days and nights. We chip, chip, chip away at the icy block at the end of the driveway strongly built by the snow plow because we know we will make it out of the white wilderness soon. Our hope rests in the promise of new life, warmth, sunshine, and green grass. Our hope rests in the promise of spring. You and I in Boston are insiders to this journey, and through a shared wilderness to find a common hope, we as Bostonians make the long trek together.
As outsiders in Mark’s gospel today, we see from beyond the moment at hand. We are provided a glimpse into a very personal account of Jesus’ baptism – a voice from heaven projecting, the Spirit descending, and Jesus emerging. Mother, son, and Spirit – the Trinity comes together for one snapshot moment breaking through the daily life on the river banks of the Jordan as if the world stood still for one quiet, perfect moment. Jesus saw the heavens torn open; Jesus felt the Spirit fall down upon him; and Jesus heard his mother’s voice from above. Nowhere does Mark say others witnessed Jesus’ personal encounters with the spirit and God. Instead, Jesus’ baptismal experience was uniquely his own, and whatever happened in the brief moment between Jesus and the Spirit following his baptism, we don’t know except to simply say, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
Mark’s wilderness is described in one short sentence in which an almost comical scene is set up. Jesus is with Satan, the wild beasts, and angels. It’s as if the red horned devil is sitting on his left shoulder and the white haloed angel on his right, both tugging at the human desires and impulses tucked deeply within the heart. The devil whispers maliciously in Jesus’ ear, “ Nothing you can do will make a difference; you have a good life with a good family, so why would you risk that security and stability; nobody will listen to you; be comfortable and let someone else take this on.” The angel letting out a long sigh simply repeats the familiar words to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Comical images aside, something resonates deeply within us when we think of being God’s beloved with whom she is well pleased. These words echo the Genesis account of being created in God’s own image and the psalmist’s poetic prayer, who knew himself to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. Each of us yearns for God’s love, desires to feel valued, and desperately seeks hope, the hope only found in God.
As outsiders, we don’t know the rainy wilderness through which the prophet Noah journeyed to dry land. Like Jesus, he spent forty days away from the familiar. In a wilderness of water and rain, claustrophobia and confusion, darkness and despair Noah chose to put his trust in God despite the ridicule from those who scoffed at his building a gigantic arc. Noah clung to hope and endured the wilderness that eventually ended with a new promise of peace from God symbolized by the vibrant rainbow that stretched from generation to generation for all of humankind, all animals, and all plant life over the entire earth. The covenant initiated by God in Genesis reached far and wide to the re-establishment of that same covenant through Jesus Christ from wilderness to wilderness, from Genesis to Gospel, from Noah to Jesus, from prophet to good news incarnate, faithful to constant, hopeful to hope filled, and pioneer to leader.
Sarah Kate Ellis, a modern day pioneer and President of GLAAD with two A’s, a queer rights organization, recently asked, “Where are the hearts and minds of Americans?” Her question stemmed from the recent marriage equality victories in opposition to the increasing hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk, especially by prominent political and religious figures. Ellis’ hope is that marriage is looked at as “the benchmark and not just the finish line,” since laws, while good and necessary, don’t change attitudes or biases. After several polls geared toward answering her question about Americans’ hearts and minds, the responses were troubling. About a third of respondents said they would feel unsettled if their child’s physician or teacher identified as LGB or T, and they would also feel uncomfortable seeing same sex couples holding hands. Almost half said they would be uncomfortable bringing a child to a same sex wedding. Even more disheartening, a public Religion Research Institute survey from a little over a year ago found that over half of respondents claimed sex between two men or two women is morally wrong. Understandably polls are an imperfect science for data collection, but looking beyond the flaws, it’s evident the hearts and minds of many Americans aren’t in sync with their queer sisters and brothers.
With more and more states declaring the unconstitutionality of banning lesbians and gays from marriage equality, it is no surprise a strong and harsh backlash is upon us. Alabama recently rejoiced in the most recent triumph of justice in which the Supreme Court chose not to block a ruling by a federal judge who recently declared the Alabama’s marriage restrictions as unconstitutional. Sadly, not all those in Alabama joined in the celebration. In angry defiance, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the State Supreme Court chose to defy federal law by commanding authorities to block the marriages, determined to resist marriage equality for all of Alabama’s citizens and encourage discrimination. His actions have caused confusion and chaos for authorities and those seeking marriage, essentially dividing the state between those in favor and those against. In response, Nicholas Kristoff in his New York Times opinion column recently asked “Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, God screwed up?”
How vast is the wilderness, how long, how wide, how deep that causes us to wonder if God screwed up, made a mistake, or regrets a part of her creation. Even though you and I may know that we are God’s beloved, let us not forget the deeply personal journeys of many, where the glimmer of hope is too often dimmed by the heavy burdens of oppression and discrimination, by injustice and hate, by ex-communication and abandonment. Communal or personal the wildernesses seem unending and blinding, weary individuals pushing onward with silent cries of “help” meant for any who might listen or be willing to hear.
Asking for help is a needed practice. It’s too often portrayed as giving in or showing weakness. In a society where we are taught to be strong and independent, help isn’t a word that comes naturally to us. Yet, everyone needs help sometimes, like a woman who emailed me last week. In one of her classes, a quiz was given in order to discover what implicit biases each person might have. Pleased, she didn’t discover too much bias towards several groups of people, but results relating to one group in particular concerned her. The bias she held towards LGBT folk worried her since she firmly believes in being full of Christ’s love and expressing that love to all people equally. In an attempt to confront her biases and learn more about a community in which she hasn’t been immersed or knows very little, she reached out to me for help. Her heartfelt honesty in writing and pushing the send button for this email combined with her self-reflective humility brought about a renewed and needed hope deep inside of me. If one person could swiftly attempt to change biases in order to love more truly as God loves, who’s to say we all can’t take the time and energy for probing self-reflection as well.
Lent is meant to be a time for self-reflection and humility. With Ash Wednesday behind us, our Lenten journey has begun, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, fight temptation, listen for God’s quiet voice, remember we are beloved, and seek hope. We, too, fight temptations like Jesus – the red devil pulling at our human desires and the white angel tugging at the Spirit’s convictions placed on our hearts. Lent is no different than any other season in this regard – temptations always abound, wildernesses come and go, and the snow falls every winter. Yet Lent is unique in that it offers space carved out specifically for repentance, humility, and hope. Lent is a time in which folks take on a practice or give up a bad habit in order to be more reflective, penitent, forgiving, and mindful of Jesus’ journey to the cross for our sake. In the still quiet place what will you find? In the hushed silence to what is God calling you to do?
Looking back to Sarah Kate Ellis, the pioneer who is concerned with the hearts and minds of Americans, we recognize the hope she seeks, anticipates, and offers. Though discouraging poll results, hurtful words thrown back and forth between religious leaders, hateful votes and bills approved by politicians, and continual violence, Ellis, encouraged by the progress the country has made, has a vision for what more good awaits. What is her solution to changing the poll results and reaching hearts and minds other than waiting, through the passing of time? She wants to see more from the people who are wholly comfortable with gays to be more open about it, and in her words, to be more “evangelical” about it. Share the good news with others; be more open about the truth; and be the hope that marginalized communities so desperately need. It is interesting and noteworthy that Ellis uses the term “evangelical” – a word with Christian roots, that is associated with zeal and passion in proclaiming the good news of the gospel and the hope that’s found there.
In true evangelical fashion Jesus emerged from the wilderness, proclaiming good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark’s gospel offers no transition from the wilderness to the proclamation showing an urgency to Jesus’ ministry. From quiet solitude to boisterous community, Jesus hit the ground running. Triumphantly he fled the wilderness, escaping the temptations and loneliness to live out the hope he knew to be true inside of himself. From personal to public Jesus took what he experienced at his baptism to enter the wilderness with humility and vulnerability and finally emerged to proclaim good news, offer renewed hope, and challenge the broken and destructive cycles around him.
While we can’t enter Jesus’ own personal wilderness, this Lenten season is a time to reflect on what wildernesses are around us through which we are wandering as insiders, those wildernesses that to us are deeply personal. We are reminded of our mortality, sinfulness, and humanity as we hear once again that we are dust and will return to dust. Symbolizing repentance on Ash Wednesday, the ashes stay with us through the day on our foreheads, a public display of the personal conviction. These ashes stay with us the forty days of Lent – not visibly for all to see, but instead they are marked on our hearts. The Lenten journey is only what we make of it if embraced as a time of self reflection, humility, and penitence. The choice is ours whether to set aside quiet solitude during these next forty days. In the still quiet place what will you find? When the heart is opened to God, to what will you be called to do?
The temptation for all of us is to ignore the call to serve, to stand, to speak out, to challenge, to step out of our boundaries, and to help those in need. The temptation is to believe God screwed up. The temptation is to leave others stranded in the wilderness especially those with which we are outsiders, not offering a hand or the time to better understand another’s struggles. The temptation is to keep our biases tucked away without working to let them go. The temptation is to not ask for help or hear the cries from others. The temptation is to lose hope or deny others hope. The temptation is to believe the lies that we are not beloved or to tell those lies to others with whom God is so very well pleased. The temptation is to temper the gospel, squash the good news, and put out the fires of the evangelical pioneers.
The wilderness is a place where we can take stock of our hearts and minds, choosing either to seek hope or despair. Whether to find solace in indifference or determination. Deciding to be a little more creative for the good of all people or only a few. Allowing ourselves to be flexible in our thinking or rigid in our narrow beliefs. Asking for help, offering help, or denying help. Are you the one lending a hand, or a shovel, or a snowblower for the neighbor in need this winter? Are you reaching out and using your voice for those marginalized, those wandering in the desert? The wilderness has different meanings for different people yet we are all seeking the same hope in God fulfilled by Christ.
When faced with a choice, Jesus chose to accept the calling from God to offer his life to others and God in the service of those around him. May we be mindful of his journey to the cross this Lenten season and may we seek hope in the wilderness. As God’s beloved may we proclaim the hope of Christ through the wilderness. May our prayer be this Lenten season, to align our hearts and minds to that of God’s loving will in the service of others. Amen.
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