Author: Pershey, Katherine Willis
Date published: May 16, 2012
Sunday, May 20
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13;, him 17:f>-19
THE TEXTS FOR this week are challenging. Ite Gospel reading, an excerpt from Jesus' high priestly prayer, is difficult to read aloud. It feels awkward to eavesdrop on Jesus' intimate moments with God, and one can get lost in the anguish of a savior about to die. The author of 1 John sounds cranky, like an ostentatiously religious aunt who cannot resist making a comment to the family atheist during supper: "Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar . . . yes, thanks, I'll have another piece of pie."
Then there's the text from Acts. Jesus had just caught the cumulonimbus back to heaven, leaving his disciples with the promise that the Holy Spirit would be by shortly. In the interim period, the disciples- along with several women- spent most of their time praying together, pausing only to tend to a bit of administrative rnimitia: what to do about the apostolic vacancy left by Judas. Peter reckoned that Judas's betrayal had been foretold in scripture, as well as the need to come up with a replacement. So the believers identified qualified candidates, prayed for divine guidance and . . . cast lots. Casting lots may have been a standard practice of the era, but still. Really?
Something is off here, like a photograph processed with the wrong chemicals or a concerto performed on an untuned piano. Because this story is sandwiched between the narratives of ascension and Pentecost, it is somewhat godless, bereft of both the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit.
There's no comparing this interlude to the desolate hours between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when the Son of God was a corpse and the disciples had deserted. The resurrection changed the course of history, beginning with the firsthand witnesses. The disciples gained a depth of faith and hope that far surpassed their paltry prior commitment. They trusted that they would receive the Holy Spirit. So why didn't they wait for the Spirit to come before making any significant decisions?
The text is open-ended; God may or may not have spoken through the casting of the lots. Proverbs 16:33 teaches: "The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord's alone." Jonah's shipmates cast lots to identify that he was the culprit of God's wrath and lots were cast to decide which soldier should win Jesus' garments. Did God make these determinations?
I think the disciples got it wrong. It's not that I have anything against Matthias; he is never mentioned again in scripture, though historians believe his apostolic ministry ended in martyrdom. What I question is the wisdom of making any major moves when God isn't present. There is a particular agony in waiting for the Holy Spirit's guidance and inspiration. Many of us aren't patient enough to do it. But we often pay for our impatience.
When Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video showed up on my Facebook feed, I saw that a wildly diverse group of friends was sharing it, so I watched the film. In the swift and fierce backlash against the nonprofit organization and its manipulation of facts about Uganda and its problems, we didn't hear much from those who were drawn into the narrative. But how could one not be drawn in? The victims, witnesses and experts all offered powerful testimony. "The people of the world can see each other and can protect each other," the narrator all but preached. I signed the Kony 2012 petition and reposted the video. There are places in the world that have been essentially drained of the Holy Spirit, I thought, places where evil threatens to triumph. The abhorrent use of child soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Array is one of them. But the masses were learning the truth, I thought, and that awareness would spark a movement as powerful as Pentecost! As surely as the Holy Spirit chases away the absence of God, the advocates of Invisible Children would harness the power of social networking to eradicate evil.
Or, uh, something like that. After it was revealed that the appeal was grossly oversimplified and filled with misinformation, I felt like a fool. I don't doubt the motivations of the millions who signed the petition, but I was ashamed of my susceptibility-and angry on behalf of the misrepresented Ugandans as well as the millions of young people who may be too jaded to care the next time.
As a more nuanced reality emerged from the dust of Invisible Children's downfall, I realized that I had forgotten to test the spirit and to poke around for evidence of truth. I was swept away in the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, and the zeitgeist is not necessarily a holy one.
How do we discern the truth, let alone how to act upon it? There are fundamental criteria about everything from the veracity of a viral video to the will of God. We need to check our facts: what does the scripture reveal, or the credible journalist or the pastoral candidate's background check? We need to wait longer and more patiently. We need to have the humility to seek the advice of experts and companions. And we need to trust that God slips testaments of the truth into our hearts just as a baker hides pinches of yeast in flour.
In the fullness of time, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we will know. In the meantime we stumble along, casting lots, jumping on bandwagons and making guesses-educated and otherwise. But we do not fall, for we are gripped in the grace of Jesus' prayer for us: Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
Sunday, May 27
BY THE TIME I was admitted to the maternity ward and lashed to a bed with an IV line, my labor had progressed. With each contraction I felt as though the pain would suffocate me. When the nurse suggested she should call the anesthesiologist, I reluctantly agreed.
I hadn't wanted to have an epidural. I wanted to have a natural childbirth and, what's more, to have a spiritual experience. But the fierce woman who had dared her body to go into labor by weeding in 90-degree weather had disappeared. By the time the anesthesiologist arrived, I was whimpering for relief.
The epidural numbed only the right side of my body, leaving me with half the pain still at full strength. In the last moments of my labor I was groaning groans of biblical proportions. Then a baby girl was born, and the excruciating pain ended.
I have given birth to two babies now, and both times I felt an ache of disappointment settle in as the pain receded. The ache was weak compared to labor, let alone compared to the love I was feeling for the blessing in my arms. It's silly to be disappointed with your childbirth experience if it yields a living mother and a healthy child. As a woman living in a country where childbirth is relatively safe, I am privileged; the statistics for maternal health in developing nations are sobering. Still, I was disappointed- things had not gone according to my best-laid birth plans.
However hard we work spiritually and emotionally to prepare for the pain of childbirth, most of us find that during the toughest moments in childbirth, as my friend Allison said, "The pain gets real."
The pain gets real in Paul's letter to the Romans too. Imagine the entire creation experiencing the peak of labor's agony- it's overwhelming, almost unthinkable. And yet Paul's metaphor is frighteningly true. At times the contractions are subtle, and at times it seems as if life is contracting in pain: our suffering may be excruciating and unending. A spate of violence is followed by an epidemic of illness which is chased by a surge of natural disasters, and meanwhile someone's brother is betraying her and another's wife is leaving him. Paul readily admits that we do not see what we hope for. What we see, instead, are endless reasons to be hopeless.
This is the disturbing story tine of suffering in the world. It is a story line that continues long after the Good Friday that was supposed to topple the old plot. It is a story line that continues to be repeated generations past the Easter Sunday that was supposed to transform the whole narrative. We maturely accept that faith does not function as a shield protecting us from sorrow, but still: Why hasn 't anything changed? What is the point of the incarnation if flesh keeps burning, the point of the crucifixion if cancer keeps spreading, the point of the empty tomb if young black boys are steadily and tragically disappearing from their homes?
Worst of all, it seems that all this suffering is meaningless. Fm convinced that one of the reasons there are so many terrible explanations for suffering is that most of us would rather cling to a thin pretext for pain than be left with no explanation at all.
The pain of childbirth is meaningful because new life emerges through the pain. This is the hope Paul sets before the hard -laboring creation. It is inevitable: Christ is coming. The long-awaited restoration will be fulfilled. Our fragile selves, grief-stricken and raw-nerved, will be redeemed.
You can't write a birth plan for this. There are no effective interventions to avoid the worst of it, and any attempts to seek numbness will fail. Our only hope is just that: hope. Those who have witnessed the glory of God firsthand swear that we have reason to hope, and there is nothing we can do but take deep breaths and believe those witnesses.
Last summer I carried my newborn through an exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago. I was struck by Janet McKenzie's painting Mary with the Midwives, Mary is in the middle of a labor contraction. I imagined that the two women kneeling by her side were whispering the affirmation in the childbirth manual Birthing from Within: "Labor is hard work, it hurts, and you can do it." A dove rests upon the halo surrounding Mary's head. At first I considered this a shorthand sign of Mary's blessedness. But then it dawned on me: there were not two but three midwives in the painting. One of them intercedes with sighs too deep for words: for Mary, for me, for all. The Holy Spirit is with us.
Paul gives hope to a creation that is laboring in pain.
The author is Katherine Willis Pershey, associate minister at First Congregational Church in Western Springs, Illinois, and author of Any Day a Beautiful Change; A Story of Faith and Family (Chalice).