As a child, my family and I used to spend a week every summer at Bethany Beach in Delaware. When the day came for us to leave, I would linger on the back patio and stare at the ocean and beach, trying to absorb every last drop of sight and sound to take back with me. I hated leaving.
This past month for almost 2 weeks, David, Grace, Ben and I returned to Southport, ME, where for the last two summers, I’ve been invited to serve as a guest preacher for All-Saints-by-the-Sea. Unlike last summer, our trip this go-round included the four of us getting our COVID swab tests at a nearby community clinic and self-isolating until we were cleared; wearing our facemasks wherever we went; and preaching to a video camera, instead of the summer congregation, to be included in the worship video.
Once strange and foreign concepts — nasal swab testing?! facemasks?! preaching to a video camera?! — these have now become all too familiar in our COVID world. Yet amidst this ongoing strangeness, there was the familiar rising and falling of the tide, the sound of seagulls flying overhead, the smell of saltwater in the air. And when the day came for the four of us to leave, I found my eyes lingering on the ocean once again, just as in my childhood, not wanting to leave … the waves … that sound … that air …
I wonder, what it is about being by the ocean, that is so life-giving and healing? I’d love to hear from you, your own thoughts, if you find this to be true, for yourself. For me, it has something to do with touching timelessness. Something to do with the saltwater that runs in my own blood — a certain kinship, if you will. Something to do with the same feeling I get when I look up into the night sky and am able to see the stars. Time by the ocean gives me sense that — whatever is going on in my life and in our world, today — there is something More … something greater, wiser and bigger, that has Seen it All … lived through it and despite it, All … that holds us All …
May the God who created earth, wind and waters; sun, moon and stars; who breathes us into being each and every day of our lives; and to whom our last breath will return … May this same God remind us and inspire us that whatever hardships or challenges face us today, we are not alone. May we be open to the ways in which God works Her healing power in and through us, every day, and be encouraged to make the most of the precious time here on earth that we have been given.
Even as I write this, I am aware of the destruction and fear that ocean and wind can wreak, as well, and ask for your prayers for all those whose lives are being impacted by the latest hurricane to hit our country’s shores.
How does a collection of houses and the intersection of a few streets become a neighborhood?
Around the corner from our house, on Lombard Street, a number of homemade signs have appeared on two front doors. At first they spoke vaguely about clean sidewalks and parking: “Please use the city approved garbage cans. Pickup is on Tuesday—please don’t put out garbage on other days. Use the alley instead of the street to keep the sidewalk clear.” I didn’t think much about them until I learned that the signs were placed by a disgruntled “neighbor” on someone else’s house. Really?! Now that person has put up her own signs: “We are in a pandemic! Please use your time and energy on something productive. Instead of complaining, take up a hobby.” And then this: “You don’t care about trash. You care about race. Black lives matter.” It’s messy and personal and honest and strangely hopeful at once—hard to read it on posters that everyone can see, but reflective of the big issues and nitty gritty behaviors that build community or tear it down. Other people on the street are reaching out to see how they might help, and I hear folks wondering about long-term pain and common values and how to be a neighbor. “Both houses are hurting,” is how one person described it at a neighborhood meeting.
A young lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and true to form, the Teacher has the interlocutor answer his own question. “What is written in the law,” Jesus asks him, “How do you read it?” And the fellow says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “You’ve got it right,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will live.” But because the narrator has framed their conversation as a “test,” the lawyer usually gets a bad rap—he is more interested in receiving a favorable judgment for himself and his case than knowing the truth, readers argue, or he wants to expose Jesus in some way or trip him up, others suggest. I don’t think so. Their criticism of the man is grounded in the next line of the story: He asks who is my neighbor “in order to justify himself.” Readers of the English translation stumble at his seeming desire for a way out, a workaround that lets him quibble with the definition of “neighbor”—after all, the naughty schoolboy or corporate executive seeks to “justify” his actions when he knows he has done something that doesn’t measure up. But the primary definition of the Greek word is about how to be made righteous, not how to appear good or be considered righteous by someone else. The lawyer actually asks, “So that I can become the person I ought to be, who is my neighbor?”
Jesus’s parable calls us to show mercy to the man “in the ditch” on the road to Jericho, which seems like an obvious point until one realizes who helps whom in the story. The religious leaders hurry by, so caught up in their systems of righteousness that they neglect to do the right thing. (The young lawyer inside each of us is starting to squirm now.) The man who does stop to help the injured fellow is a Samaritan, part of a tribe of people who have been marginalized and made to feel less than. (Now the reader is shocked. “I don’t want a ‘Samaritan’ to offer me assistance! Maybe I can stretch to help ‘those people,’ but how in the world could someone like that help me?”) Who is your neighbor?
Is it any accident that it is a wounded person sees the other person’s wounds, and responds in Jesus’s vision? Both houses are hurting, right? And of course the folks who walk by in the story without helping are hurting, too, but something keeps them from acknowledging long-term pain and common cause. The picture the parable paints is this: the practice of vulnerability is what gives rise to mercy. The ways we are wounded is our access to compassion.
And the story calls us to not settle for systems that perpetuate some folks spending their lives in the ditch or being beset by one kind of robber or another. Fifty years ago Martin Luther King asked us not to settle for offering mercy, but to reimagine and rebuild the Jericho road itself. In a conversation with Andre Young, King said: “I am tired of picking up people along the Jericho Road. I am tired of seeing people battered and bruised and bloody, injured and jumped on, along the Jericho Roads of life. This road is dangerous. I don’t want to pick up anyone else, along this Jericho Road; I want to fix… the Jericho Road. I want to pave the Jericho Road, add street lights to the Jericho Road; make the Jericho Road safe (for passage) by everybody….”
How does a collection of houses and the intersection of streets become a neighborhood? Will you help me build it?
I was listening to a recent podcast on the power of visual imagery and its place in the Christian Church. One speaker noted how controversy has always existed in the Western Church over the use of icons or other devotional images. In fact, at the beginning of the Reformation, the Protestant movement initiated what was called the iconoclastic fury as a push-back against the Roman Catholic papacy and its mores.
Of course, it was not long before the conversation turned to images in general and the recent toppling of statues of the Confederacy as well as those of Christopher Columbus. While there were arguments for and against the recent events of image destruction, every participant in the discussion agreed on the way that images can evoke all kinds of emotions, driving both hearts and minds. The discussion centered around how much meaning is made around any particular image that is held in high esteem and elevated above the common, mortal, everyday person.
Then, we came to the portrait of Swedish Jesus. Few people know that the often observed, most notable picture of Jesus in the Church in America was painted by the artist, Warner Salliman in 1940. The portrait is of a Nordic-type Jesus with blue eyes and light-colored hair. It turns out that the original sketch, pre-1940, actually had brown eyes but apparently there was a quibble about it, so now you might see either blue or brown eyes on portraits of Swedish Jesus. The painting has been duplicated millions of times and has spread around the world as a popular devotional image. I am sure you have seen it or even have one in your own home.
Even though I grew up with Swedish Jesus…every Christian home in the deep South had one, I never could get next to him. Because my mother was an artist who painted portraits, she made sure that we kids understood the “artistic license” of the artist. She reminded us often that the painting represented the artist’s conception of Jesus and in no way really represented neither Jesus nor God in real life. Boy, was I glad; he looked too much like the police officers in my hometown. He certainly was not someone I could or would pray to— much less worship!
The next day after hearing this podcast, I returned from vacation to discover a lovely gift in my office. I was presented by an extraordinary artist with a most extraordinary gift: La Virgen de Guadalupe, Madre de Las Americas (The Virgen of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas…South and North). This beautiful mural was doubly special because she looked like me!
I have held a personal devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe for many years now, but my new mural is extra special because she not only looks like me, but she is in solidarity with me. She knows and cares about the things of my heart and even prays with me herself. Until we know God-with-us in whatever way assists us in that knowing, we remain bereft, frightened, and alone. Spiritual images do that for us. They are fingers pointing to the moon of the DIVINE PRESENCE.
As an embodied spiritual being, you may use other items that assist you in knowing Emmanuel—a garden, a rock, a tree, or your grandchild. The incarnation of God made the potential for the holy in every created thing. What we see, especially plays a strong role in how we easily or not so easily relate to God. The American Church is coming to terms with the way it has limited God; making God much too small for all the human beings whom God has made. It is realizing that its images are primary examples of this limited, bounded GOD. Like the world outside of the Church, it is time to re-assess this deficiency just like the re-assessment of the Confederate statues placed during Jim Crow days of American history.
The times we are in are changing rapidly and they are all good changes to the faithful. They are neither comfortable nor convenient, but they simply are. Our trust and our hope remain in the ONE who has already overcome the world, Jesus the Christ. Consider religious visual images for your own devotions. Maybe visual images are your thing. Check it out and see.
By the way, I am happy to show off my mural, so come by and see it. Call first though—and do not forget your mask!
Lots of Love,
Hello! My name is Rebecca Ogus and I’m the new Associate for Youth and Young Adults. I am so glad to be joining your community and so grateful for the opportunity to serve, worship, and learn alongside you. Thank you for all the ways you’ve welcomed me, and my husband, Zach, so far.
As I begin to learn about all of you and about Redeemer as a parish, here’s a bit about me:
I grew up in Beaufort, a little town in coastal North Carolina, just south of the Outer Banks. When I was eight my family moved to New York City so my mother could attend seminary (she’s an Episcopal priest). When she graduated, we moved back to rural Eastern North Carolina; I left in 10th grade to attend high school at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. These communities were all full of their own, very distinct, cultures, and I can’t imagine life without each of them.
After high school I went to Kenyon College in Ohio, where I took as many classes as I could about women, gender, and Christianity. Ohio winters were a little too cold for me (and I missed my family), so after graduation I headed back to North Carolina for a year in the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC) in Chapel Hill. One of the hallmarks of ESC programs is living in intentional community (more on that another time). Sharing life so deeply with my seven housemates was one of the most formative – and challenging – experiences of my adult life. High school and college had shaped my intellect and moral conscience; in ESC I learned how to apply both and began to discover who and how I wanted to be in the world. A lot of that learning happened at our weekly house dinners.
These dinners were, on the surface, unremarkable: two people cooked, two people cleaned, we talked and laughed and grumped around the table. Except, the fact that they happened so unremarkably was kind of amazing. Three times a week we prioritized our community over everything else we had going on, no matter how much we wanted to be doing something (anything!) else. We showed up for each other, imperfectly: even when there was conflict, even when we were sad or tired, even when we didn’t want to, and that still fills me with wonder.
Deep commitment to a community beyond oneself is not new. Scripture is overflowing with stories about it! And there are plenty of examples in other faith traditions and in secular movements, too – think about the commitment of people who’ve been calling for racial justice and equity in the United States, this summer and for the last 401 years. Jesus is constantly inviting the disciples, and us, towards a life in committed relationship with one another and God, a life as members of the Body of Christ.
The work of life in intentional relationship with one another and with God is not easy. It really does take work to keep showing up at the table, again and again, and I, at least, frequently get it wrong. But that work is part of our Christian vocation. And it’s how I strive to be in the world and how I will strive to be here, at Redeemer.
A few other things have happened since my year in ESC, but that can wait for another day. I look forward to meeting all of you – especially the youth and young adults of the parish! – and doing the good, hard work of life shared with one another and with God. I don’t know what the coming months and years hold, no one does. But I know the way we’ll get there is together.
With joy and thanksgiving,