Journal Entries: The Slaughter of the Innocents

Isaiah 63:7-9

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

God’s Mercy Remembered

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
    in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Most pastors avoid this text I’m about to read you like the plague.  It’s even called the Holy Innocents or Martyrs in the Lectionary.  Most people don’t know it’s even part of the Christmas story, and Lord knows we wouldn’t want it depicted in any way.  But my friend and colleague the Rev. Paul Shultz, had a way of wading into texts that still made you uncomfortable, still did not give you all the answers and didn’t tie up the loose ends.  He would act like he relished making you uncomfortable, but he let slip one too many times, his care for people.  He died from flu complications in January 2014.  We texted on New Year’s when he first started coming down with something.  He was only 50 years old and had three kids and a fiancé Jana.  His life and example challenges me even now.  He walked Micah 6:8 with a very crass sense of humor and we all loved him for it.  He didn’t hesitate to expose the dark side of the Gospel because there is a dark side.  A very twisty side.  It’s not all sunshine and roses, otherwise we wouldn’t need a Savior that comes into the darkness of this world and bring light to it.

Hear now the word of God.

Matthew 2:13-23

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.

So how do you deal with the implications of an angel warning Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus while hundreds of children, 2 years old and younger, were slaughtered?  This is my attempt to not gloss over and fast forward the verses, but to deal with them, realizing that I have a limited understanding of what it’s like to lose a child.

This is the journal book of Divorah, daughter of Amos, of Beyt-Lechem.

Journal Entry 1

I am a young woman today, full of strength and life, and I’ve been blessed by God.  I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one.  I have a good name, something that, among my people, is priceless.  The Lord led me to my love, my husband, Yoseph, and we have had three full years of joy together.  We have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it.  God even favored us enough to give us a child, a daughter, whom we’ve named Hannah.  She has been the most precious thing I have ever known.  Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it has been overwhelming the amount of unconditional love I feel.  Her father and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could.  That is how this journal came to be.  Yesterday, on Hannah’s first birthday, we bought this book of memories, with as many blank pages as we could afford, to begin to record her life.  And all of that, taken together, is an overflowing cup for any person.

But that was yesterday.  And today let no talk pass my lips of the Lord’s favor.  Let no one speak his name before me.  May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips or those of anyone in my household as long as I live.

Yesterday morning my Hannah turned a year old, and yesterday evening a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders.  Yoseph and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door.  They didn’t ask for the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if my husband was a member of the latest insurrection.  They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

And I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers.  My husband was clubbed nearly to death, and these men murdered my Hannah.  Yoseph couldn’t protect her.  And no matter how loudly I screamed and scratched and hit, the soldiers just pushed me to the side.  They killed my sweet, precious Hannah and they might as well have killed me as well.   My husband keeps shaking me, asking me if I need anything, anything at all.  Doesn’t he know I can’t bear to go on?  Doesn’t he know that it’s all I can do to record every last thing I can remember in this journal?  For her short and brief life.  What made her smile and giggle, made her light up……I can’t bear it.

Journal Entry 2

Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages again.  I’ll confess that I’ve read and re-read those last words many, many times since that day.  No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back here to remember.  On more than one occasion I even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old.  But it seemed wrong to change this book.  It seemed like moving on from her.  I can’t bring her back, no matter how many mornings I’ve woken up thinking that it was a nightmare.

Nevertheless, I write today because new facts have come to light with regard to the history of Hannah’s life.  My husband and I’ve met again a young man named Yohanan, John, son of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee.  John’s mother is my cousin, and he spent some time here on the farm as a boy.

Anyway, in the city, John had been invited to teach.  I thought it strange for the son of a fisherman, but the local Rabbi seemed to wish to almost interrogate him about the happenings of another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, or Jesus.  So my husband and I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, and the “spirit” that was upon him.  We greeted him afterwards and he invited us to lunch and started to open up his heart to us.  And it was he who mentioned Hannah’s name to me.

He explained that this Jesus, whom he takes the foolish risk of calling “lord,” is none other than the Messiah.  And I told him that I’d heard all of that talk before but that I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.  But he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village so many years ago, that it was this Jesus who threatened the evil rule of men like Herod, that it was this Jesus who is God’s great savior.  He spoke of the boy’s birth to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents.  He started to describe the kingdom of God coming, and an age where even grief like mine would be no more.

Now that I think of it I can still remember the Roman census that year, and the rumors that were circulating in town at the time – a king was to come from the city of David, after all.  It was only a few months later that I became pregnant with Hannah, so we had taken it all as a good omen!  Our daughter, growing up to see the reign of Israel’s great king!

But that is when I remembered myself.  That is when I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night.  I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they’ve grown up to see what life is like here and now, on earth.  I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, had his son born to peasants in unsecured and unknown towns; or why this God speaks in fables and dreams while men like Herod give orders to armed legions?  Or why was it only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone to die?  And hundreds more with her?  Why a God like that left hundreds of innocent people to suffer like me?

I cannot even remember John’s reply, but my husband Yoseph had a few choice words for John that he had the audacity to bring up that terrible night as if this Jesus could EVER be enough to……    As Yoseph regained his temper, he thanked him for the lunch and sent him on his way without another word.  He wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar or the Chief Priest, for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation.   There’s no way this Jesus being born could justify my Hannah being taken from me.  Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me.  I no longer know who I am or how to live.  I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story.

Journal Entry 3

Today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close.  Very briefly I’ll say that, through John, in the past year I’ve been able to meet Jesus in person.  To follow him in the crowds, very suspiciously at first.  Then, to eat with him and speak with him intimately a few times.  And the same wisdom and Spirit that I saw in John in that synagogue, I’ve felt in Jesus – as the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first even entertained the idea that he could really be our Messiah.  It was gradual, as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones.  But something in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me.  He would occasionally speak of death, and of his own suffering.  He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again.  He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

And I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, they rang true in my heart.  While the crowds asked him not to say such things, but foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies, it sounded to me like something deeper was at work.  So, yes, just weeks ago during the Passover when he was arrested, I was stirred to draw near to Jesus like never before.  What did I have left to lose?  What could the soldiers take from me now that they haven’t already ripped from me?

As some of his crowd fled in fear or others shouted out in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal, I prayed for him.  As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured, as he suffered, and felt unspeakable pain, at no fault of his own, in spite of his innocence, I thought of the innocence of my 1 year old, Hannah.  And I ached for his mother Mary, to witness the unspeakable ways they were treating him.  It was this final thought that confirmed in me that this was my Lord and my God.

I, who wasn’t one to look for a Messiah, who felt like no one on this earth knew my tragedy or could possibly feel my pain – I understood the injustice and cruelty, tyranny and evil, that was upon Jesus.  And I knew for certain that this was not God’s doing, but it was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do, that day and since the beginning.  It was sick and twisted men, like Herod, who were threatened by a baby.  Then I remembered Jesus’ words about freedom.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  It convicted me that, in all of the many ways that I’d hardened my heart these decades, some of his suffering was my own doing.  But Jesus’s way was to come and submit to such a thing, in order to finally set things right.  In his own words, he had become the Passover lamb for my sake and for the sake of his children, and for the sake of the man next to me that day shouting curses at him, and for the sake of his own weeping mother, and even for the sake of Pilate and Herod and Caesar.

I stayed that day until the end; I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, and watched him pass into death.  I grieved and mourned.  I wondered what could be next.  And then I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers:  “the grave could not hold him.”  And today I remember his words:  “Because I live, you shall live also.”    And though, more than 30 years ago, while his innocents were slaughtered in Bethlehem, God did not intervene in that moment to spare Hannah’s earthly life, I trust that, today, she lives also.  And I will.  So, as I said, today her story in this book comes to a close, because it continues elsewhere.

John 3:16-18 —

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I know many people that have lost children or other loved ones and I want you to know that God didn’t cause the cancer, the car accident, whatever tragic event happened.  God mourns with you.  Jesus knows your suffering.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for you in your shouts, in your tears, in your moans.  We believe in a God that came to be one with us, so that God would know suffering and then bring about redemption.  I also believe and trust that God works things together for good.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be standing up here.

Let us pray….

It’s also Epiphany this Sunday, when we celebrate the gifts of the magi.  When you come forward to receive communion, you will have the opportunity to pick out of a basket a cardboard star.  It’s your Epiphany Star Gift.  The star will have a word on it, naming a gift from God; visually, nothing special, as God’s gifts are not always flashy.  Sometimes the gift is known by all to be one that you already evidence or experience in abundance.  Sometimes you will feel that it is something you’ve needed, a challenge to work on.  Often it’s something you don’t understand, or could learn more about.  It will provide you an opportunity to ponder and pray in the coming year.  Put it where you can see it.  On your bedside table, on your refrigerator, on your bathroom mirror, on the visor in your car.

No matter what word you receive, you’re invited to receive whatever comes, with the assumption that the Spirit of God has a hand in the process.  Accept the gift for what it is, a gift freely given.  Many have discovered that the gift that seemed daunting, disappointing or confusing at first turned out to be the most meaningful in actual experience.  Perhaps God has something in store that is beyond our planning and imagining.  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about.  In remembering that night long ago when God used a star to reveal the newborn Christ to the world, to the Magi and to all of us, we each grab a hold of our own stars. Each of us will journey with that star, with that word all year long- to see where the word moves us in prayer, pushes or pulls us in faith, and how it opens our hearts to God’s call on our lives. We listen and look for them in our community. And we keep looking to the stars, all the stars, all the light, that God sends to pull us closer to Christ, at Epiphany and ALL YEAR LONG.  Remember, we don’t just follow the baby in the manger, we follow the Word in flesh that came to live among us offering the world abundant and transformative life.  Whatever our New Year’s Resolutions are or are not, may the Spirit move us where we need to be moved, may the Spirit give us courage to articulate our hopes and dreams, and may the Spirit give us the strength and perseverance to make them a REALITY.

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Deep Cries Out – Lent 5

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1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

John 11:1-45
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I thought about opening with something from The Walking Dead or World War Z about zombies or mummies because Lazarus comes out of the tomb wrapped as if he were a mummy, but I could not find one not gross and then you would remember that I played a clip from The Walking Dead instead of the sermon.
In the psalm text today, the voice waits for the Lord and cries out for the Lord, just like Mary and Martha hope that God answers their cries for their brother’s healing.

Sometimes we read these stories and think that’s just it, they’re mere stories. About characters, as are our tv shows or movies, not real people. I find myself talking about characters on tv shows like they’re real people. Blah Blah does this, feels this, she wouldn’t do that, he would definitely do that. There really was a Lazarus and a Mary and Martha, and there was this man called Jesus. He was fully human and fully divine. Meaning the God part of him could see the larger picture, but the fully human part of him, felt like we do, with real emotions. Jesus was not a drone or a robot. He was a living, breathing human being with moments of clarity and sureness of purpose as well as moments of doubt and wrestling. You read about his calmness in the face of his best friend being sick. Much is debated about whether he knew that Lazarus would die at the outset of our pericope today. It doesn’t say what he stayed two days longer for and it doesn’t say when he actually knew that Lazarus had died, but obviously he tells the disciples, who think that Lazarus’ just sleeping. In verses 14 and 15, “14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

And then we have a side conversation that the disciples had with one another saying the Jews were already riled up against you and if you go back there they’ll probably stone you, and Thomas answering in verse 16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Let us go, that we die with him???!!! We all know the story has a happy ending, but if one of my brothers died, I would be devastated. And I would want a miracle. Knowing me, I would demand it! I would fight for it. Because that’s what big sisters do. We may torture them when they are younger, but no one outside of us can mess with them and if there’s a way to prevent them pain, I will certainly do whatever it takes. That’s basically what Martha does, but Jesus seems to be detached somewhat from the situation until Mary runs out to him weeping. Jesus fell apart at seeing Lazarus’ tomb. By the way, a bit of Bible trivia, this is the shortest verse in the Bible, verse 35, “Jesus wept.” Seeing Mary’s grief and her tears, made Jesus face his own grief. Jesus cries along with us. Jesus cries for the hurting in our world. Jesus cries when we each face our own particular “valleys of shadows of death.” We may not know we need a savior who feels, but we do. We may not comprehend how important it is to have a God that is both indeed part of the triune God and is God with us, Emmanuel, fully living breathing humanity, but we do.

I appreciate in verses 41 and 42, “So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” He’s modeling what we need to do. Come to God with our requests because God already knows our prayers and petitions. God hears. God answers. There’s a beauty in the prayers we actually articulate and those that the Spirit articulates as the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, when we cry out. God always hear you. You may not get the answer you seek or you don’t always see the miracle that you thought you would, but God is present with you every step of the way.

Through our Lenten journey as we make our way to the cross, we celebrate the defeating of death and we claim the words in verses 25 and 26, “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” But may we not forget that it wasn’t easy for Jesus, he didn’t just snap his fingers and go to a place of acceptance. He had his own Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t go straight to acceptance either. We have to journey through all of the stages of grief. There’s real grief with a loss of a loved one and trite answers like “it happened for a reason” or “God needed another angel in heaven” bring little comfort. We can celebrate that “all things work together for good for those that love God,” but God doesn’t cause a girl to be sexually assaulted, a young father to be diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, or an accidental drowning. There’s a tension, a dance that comes through questions of theodicy and we sometimes wonder if God can work good. It’s okay to question God. It’s okay to yell at God. Aren’t we glad that we love a savior who knows, intimately, what it means to be human? To feel the full weight of the brokenness of our world?

So I’ll leave you with these words that mean a great deal to me and basically encapsulate what I’m getting at,

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless Babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save

Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live, I live

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again

And as He stands in victory
Sins curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From a lifes first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man
Could ever pluck me from His hand
Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand

I will stand, I will stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground, all other ground
Is sinking sand, is sinking sand
So I stand

Martyr of the Holy Innocents

Isaiah 63:7-9

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

God’s Mercy Remembered

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
    in all their distress.
It was no messenger[a] or angel
but his presence that saved them;[b]
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Most pastors avoid this text I’m about to read you like the plague.  It’s even called the Holy Innocents or Martyrs in the Lectionary.  You see, we’re still decorated for Christmas.   Most people don’t know it’s even part of the Christmas story, and Lord knows we wouldn’t want it depicted in any way.  But my friend and colleague the Rev. Paul Shultz, had a way of wading into texts that still made you uncomfortable, still did not give you all the answers and didn’t tie up the loose ends.  He would act like he relished making you uncomfortable, but he let slip one too many times, his care for people.  He died this past week from flu complications.  We texted on New Year’s when he first started coming down with something.  He was only 50 years old and had three kids, 1 grandchild and a fiancé Jana.  I will travel tomorrow morning to represent the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association at the visitation and the funeral because he was my co-chair on UMCMA.  Prayers for his family, students at The University of Iowa Wesley Foundation, and all those that loved him

Hear now the word of God. 

Matthew 2:13-23

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[b] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[c] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[d] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.

 

So how do you deal with the implications of an angel warning Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus while hundreds of children, 2 years old and younger, were slaughtered?  This is my attempt to not gloss over and fast forward the 3 verses, but to deal with them, realizing that I have my own limited understanding of what it’s like to lose a child.

This is the journal of Divorah, daughter of Amos, of Beyt-Lechem.

Journal Entry 1

I am a young woman today, full of strength and life, and I’ve been blessed by God.  I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one.  I have a good name, something that, among my people, is priceless.  The Lord led me to my love, my husband, Yoseph, and we have had three full years of joy together.  We have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it.  God even favored us enough to give us a child, a daughter, whom we’ve named Hannah.  She has been the most precious thing I have ever known.  Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it has been overwhelming the amount of unconditional love I feel.  Her father and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could.  That is how this journal came to be.  Yesterday, on Hannah’s first birthday, we bought this book of memories, with as many blank pages as we could afford, to begin to record her life.  And all of that, taken together, is an overflowing cup for any person.

But that was yesterday.  And today let no talk pass my lips of the Lord’s favor.  Let no one speak his name before me.  May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips or those of anyone in my household as long as I live.

Yesterday morning my Hannah turned a year old, and yesterday evening a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders.  Yoseph and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door.  They didn’t ask for the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if my husband was a member of the latest insurrection.  They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

And I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers.  My husband was clubbed nearly to death, and these men murdered my Hannah.  Yoseph couldn’t protect her.  And no matter how loudly I screamed and scratched and hit, the soldiers just pushed me to the side.  They killed my sweet, precious Hannah and they might as well have killed me as well.   My husband keeps shaking me, asking me if I need anything, anything at all.  Doesn’t he know I can’t bear to go on?  Doesn’t he know that it’s all I can do to record every last thing I can remember in this journal?  For her short and brief life.  What made her smile and giggle……I can’t bear it.

Journal Entry 2

Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages again.  I’ll confess that I’ve read and re-read those last words many, many times since that day.  No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back here to remember.  On more than one occasion I even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old.  But it seemed wrong to change this book.  It seemed like moving on from her.

Nevertheless, I write today because new facts have come to light with regard to the history of Hannah’s life.  My husband and I’ve met again a young man named Yohanan, John, son of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee.  John’s mother is my cousin, and he spent some time here on the farm as a boy.

Anyway, in the city, John had been invited to teach.  I thought it strange for the son of a fisherman, but the local Rabbi seemed to wish to almost interrogate him about the happenings of another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, or Jesus.  So my husband and I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, and the “spirit” that was upon him.  We greeted him afterwards and he invited us to lunch and started to open up his heart to us.  And it was he who mentioned Hannah’s name to me.

He explained that this Jesus, whom he takes the foolish risk of calling “lord,” is none other than the Messiah.  And I told him that I’d heard all of that talk before but that I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.  But he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village so many years ago, that it was this Jesus who threatened the evil rule of men like Herod, that it was this Jesus who is God’s great savior.  He spoke of the boy’s birth to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents.  He started to describe the kingdom of God coming, and an age where even grief like mine would be no more.

Now that I think of it I can still remember the Roman census that year, and the rumors that were circulating in town at the time – a king was to come from the city of David, after all.  It was only a few months later that I became pregnant with Hannah, so we had taken it all as a good omen!  Our daughter, growing up to see the reign of Israel’s great king!

But that is when I remembered myself.  That is when I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night.  I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they’ve grown up to see what life is like here and now, on earth.  I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, had his son born to peasants in unsecured and unknown towns; or why this God speaks in fables and dreams while men like Herod give orders to armed legions?  Or why was it only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone to die?  And hundreds more with her?

I cannot even remember John’s reply, but my husband Yoseph had a few choice words for John that he had the audacity to bring up that terrible night as if this Jesus……    As Yoseph regained his temper, he thanked him for the lunch and sent him on his way without another word.  He wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar or the Chief Priest, for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation.   There’s no way this Jesus being born could justify my Hannah being taken from me.  Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me.  I no longer know who I am or how to live.  I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story.  God have mercy on us.

Journal Entry 3

Today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close.  Very briefly I’ll say that, through John, in the past year I’ve been able to meet Jesus in person.  To follow him in the crowds, very skeptically at first.  Then, to eat with him and speak with him intimately a few times.  And the same wisdom and Spirit that I saw in John in that synagogue, I’ve felt in Jesus – as the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first even entertained the idea that he could really be our Messiah.  It was gradual, as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones.  But something in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me.  He would occasionally speak of death, and of his own suffering.  He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again.  He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

And I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, they rang in my heart.  While the crowds asked him not to say such things, but foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies, it sounded to me like something deeper was at work.  So, yes, just weeks ago during the Passover when he was arrested, I was stirred to draw near to Jesus like never before.  What did I have left to lose?  What could the soldiers take from me now that they haven’t already ripped from me?

As some of his crowd fled in fear or others shouted out in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal, I prayed for him.  As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured, as he suffered, and felt unspeakable pain, at no fault of his own, in spite of his innocence, I thought of the innocence of my 1 year old, Hannah.  And I ached for his mother Mary, to witness the unspeakable ways they were treating him.  It was this final thought that confirmed in me that this was my Lord and my God.

I, who wasn’t one to look for a Messiah, who felt like no one on this earth knew my tragedy or could possibly feel my pain – I understood the injustice and cruelty, tyranny and evil, that was upon Jesus.  And I knew for certain that this was not God’s doing, but it was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do, that day and since the beginning.  Then I remembered Jesus’ words about freedom.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  It convicted me that, in all of the many ways that I’d hardened my heart these decades, some of his suffering was my own doing.  But Jesus’s way was to come and submit to such a thing, in order to finally set things right.  In his own words, he had become the Passover lamb for my sake and for the sake of his children, and for the sake of the man next to me that day shouting curses at him, and for the sake of his own weeping mother, and even for the sake of Pilate and Herod and Caesar.

I stayed that day until the end; I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, and watched him pass into death.  I grieved and mourned.  I wondered what could be next.  And then I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers:  “the grave could not hold him.”  And today I remember his words:  “Because I live, you shall live also.”    And though, more than 30 years ago, while his innocents were slaughtered in Bethlehem, God did not intervene in that moment to spare Hannah’s earthly life, I trust that, today, she lives also.  And I will.  So, as I said, today her story in this book comes to a close, because it continues elsewhere.

John 3:16-17 —

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

This was written by Josh McClendon and Narcie Jeter.

The Anger Stage

So it’s there.  A little bit after the parental units, but nonetheless, the anger stage is in the house.  I, like most of you, know about the stages of grief and it’s almost worse that I know this and realize this and can clinically say, why of course, Narcie Jeter, what you are experiencing is a quite substantial dose of the anger and sadness stages of grief.

Lord knows why it took me so long and why I went into survival, defuse the situation, and keep bouncing along mode except for the fact that I just really don’t want to deal with this.  I really don’t want to think about surgery again.  I really don’t want to show the kids the scar from the last time and let them know this is all going to be okay.  I really don’t want to feel so freaking ticked off and frustrated and distracted and weepy.  Weepy.  And not in a nice, cute crying way, but watching old episodes of Dawson’s Creek and crying like a nutcase.

I don’t really know how to make this feeling go away so besides the Dawson’s Creek marathon which is strangely always comforting (nutcase, I told you), I’m trying to blog it out.  Maybe if I articulate whatever this is…since I don’t really have a punching bag and I probably shouldn’t throw things against the wall so late at night.

I don’t actually know what I want.

I don’t know if there’s an answer.

I don’t even know if there’s a question.

Things I know:  I love my family.  I trust God.  I know there are many, many people praying.  I appreciate that greatly.  I love what I do – all of it – silly, serious, and in between.  I am tired.  I am worried.  I am scared.  I am loved and cherished by an amazing man who is more than I ever deserve or imagined.  I have done this before and I know all will be fine and it’s a great doctor and facility.  I can’t decide if this is a big deal or not a big deal or if it’s just normal, which is weird and not quite right.  I’m already wondering about the next surgery or what will happen…  I have the two silliest, sweetest, most unique and precious and precocious children imaginable and I swing between the hope that they may never know anything about this because I wish I could control things and realizing that this isn’t just my story but our story.  I realize that there are a heck of a lot of people dealing with things more awful and challenging and I sometimes feel whiny and weak for even articulating this.

And yet.  When I start typing and I stop feeling the waves of anger for a bit and I stop crying along to “I Don’t Wanna Wait” like a sad sack, I know that God is carrying me and holding me each step of the way, which ironically in some ways makes me cry more.  And for the record, I’m not writing that as a pastor and I don’t care a hill of beans if anyone reads this, but it’s just good to feel and know that.  Even as silly as that may seem to some.

Thanks for being on this journey.  Thanks for praying.  Even if I don’t always answer the emails, comments, facebooks, fast enough or at all, know that I appreciate them and I read them.  They help that “held” feeling when it’s denial, anger, sadness, and yuck city.  Love you all.  Especially my crazy WNWers that would let me share my Dawson’s obsession.  And if any of you reading this make fun of me for my silly, trashy, and immature tv watching….you’re going to get it.  (I kid.  Mostly.)

***I also realize that I write plenty of run-on, stream of consciousness sentences, and I, nor the English major inside of me, actually cares.  So ha!

Dismantling a Home

Right now my mom and dad and aunt and uncle are at my grandparent’s in the big metropolis of Greeleyville.  It’s been over a year since my Ganny died and close to a decade since my Gandaddy died and it’s now time to start dismantling some of the home they created.  I don’t really like dismantling used in this context, but in the next couple months as family begins to decide what heirloom or furniture or keepsake goes where, it feels a little like that.

My mom called a little while ago and was asking about some of these pieces and what was going where and although I know that we can’t keep the house exactly like it was forever, there’s a part of me now that can’t imagine it any other way.  So I was laying in my bed, pondering what home means and admittedly crying – call me a sissy – yes I cry at series finales, heck sometimes just regular tv shows – and I realized that I could be laying there all night if I didn’t get up and try to write this out.

Growing up as a preacher’s kid, you move to a lot of different places over the years.  We had amazing church families and we always managed to make parsonages home.  You can do a lot with pictures, lamps, and other odds and ends.  I can’t imagine my life though with out Ganny’s.  I seriously can’t.

The very first Christmas we spent out in Greeleyville, was my first Christmas.  So the story goes, there was no heat and the wind was whistling up through the cracks in the floors and the walls.  Apparently everybody slept in sleeping bags together on the floor and Mom kept looking into the crib in the night to make sure I hadn’t frozen. 

It wasn’t fancy.  It wasn’t all dolled up, but it was family together.  It was love being shared.  To say we spent a inexplicable amount of time there is true.  Whether being dropped off as mom and dad led a youth retreat or when Caleb was born, (Josh and I had chicken pox), we weren’t there just for holidays and milestones but everything in between.  It was our safe place when we were children and always a running joke that if the end of the world came, we knew we had a place to go because no one was going to come looking for anyone in Williamsburg County.  We’ve talked about many a dream we’ve had and no matter what was on the outside whether monsters or wolves, a la our fear of Scar Face from Wilderness Family fame, we were protected in that house.

As I think about us packing things up over the next few months and disbursing things throughout the family, I begin to go over each room in my mind and what I love about it.  Even the most random thing can be so dear. 

Before Gandaddy died, their room was upstairs.  I’ll never forget her closet of bathrobes or the huge basket of makeup she kept in the top drawer of the upstairs bathroom (that took forever to build, much less put a bathtub in.  Still to this day, I’ve never seen someone with that much makeup in one place.  Everything was in tip top clean Ganny shape.  Make up in the top drawer with the lipstick worn down in a way that I can’t even describe but I’ve only seen her do.  Her brush, mirror and comb were in the next drawer.  I’m telling you – neat and orderly – no matter what. 

Ganny liked her cleanliness, even in the midst of Gandaddy’s “hunting lodge.”  We heard a lot about crumbs, putting coasters down and not putting our feet on coffee tables and a whole heck of a lot about germs.  “Dog” germs, “cat” germs, “school” germs.  When Ganny would give us baths as children, she would wash our faces and say that she was cleaning the “dirt beads” around our necks that we had missed.  As a child, I honestly did believe that she could see a dirt necklace right there if I didn’t wash up well enough.

I remember watching Dallas and Dynasty and all the CBS soaps – The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and her two favorites that are now off the air – As the World Turns and not Guiding Light, but The Guiding Light as she would call it.  I had no idea what most of these things were as a child but I do remember her getting hopped up about Priscilla Presley being on Dallas and her always reminding me that she had listened to As the World Turns and The Guiding Light on the radio with her mother, Nana.

I’m telling you, each room means so much.  I never slept in the twin bed room upstairs, but I’ll always think of that as Josh and Caleb’s room.  And I’ll always know that the lock to that door was broken because me as a 2 or 3 year old accidentally locked myself in and couldn’t figure out how to unlock it.  I barely remember sitting on the other side of the bed (whose bedspread never changed) and my Gandaddy busting the door down and the lock never working right since. 

The double bed room was the room that I slept in growing up til I upgraded to Ganny’s old room when I married Mike.  There was many a night that I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading a book until I finished it.  Ganny never complained or scolded me about that, because a lot of my love of reading had to do with me seeing her read ALL the time.  Seriously, all the time.  I remember the rattly old windows as the wind would blow and thinking oh my goodness, something is going to get me.

I remember Ganny’s upstairs room where, when it was still her room, I didn’t really go into it very often.  It was a little intimidating.  You knew if you moved something or put something out of place, she would definitely notice.  Her crystal jewelry boxes, one with a donkey and one with a swan on them and her perfumes all laid out.  I have no idea why one was a donkey and one a swan.  This may be a little gross, but I’ll also never forget her showing me this stain beside her bedside table where I had thrown up one time as a child and her not saying, well that really is terrible because you messed up my blue carpet, but her saying it matter of factly and almost as if she was proud that it was there because she saw not just the good and clean and nice with us but also the real and sick and wild with us.

When I think about the house and the “things” I might like to have from it, most of them are architectural.  Gandaddy restored this late 1800’s house and there are so many pieces of it that could never be replaced.  The huge fireplace in the middle of the great room, the steps that served as a stage, a boat, a runway, all sorts of things, the wrap around porch where we played for hours on the hammock, the church benches, and the rocking chairs.  All of these things made this house something different.

Some of the stuff I cherish is long gone now.  The “train” of old bus seats that Gandaddy mounted to trailers to cart us around through the woods on a mini tractor seeing “Godwin Land” with Touchdown Teddy and a statue of Mary among other things.  The bus that Gandaddy gutted and added army bunk beds, a tv, chairs, and the most random assortment of odds and ends imaginable – a white clay hand, bowling ball, old telephone.  We played for countless hours in that bus.  These things aren’t there any more and neither is the swing in the grape orchard, but they’re still right there in my mind.

You see, as much as I love that house, and don’t think I don’t, what makes a house a home is the people inside it.  What makes this house special, or at least to me more special than a lot of them, was that Gandaddy and Ganny infused it with their love.  It’s felt in every piece of wood or tile on the island in the kitchen.  Even in all the complaining Ganny did about getting her “new” kitchen.  Have mercy!  It’s felt in every one of Ganny’s sometimes prissy decor choices – liked the fringed curtains in the great room.  This house is not just any house, but love seeps out.  I’ll never forget at the visitation for my grandfather Ganny telling people, that these grandchildren weren’t just the apple of their Gandaddy’s eyes, they were his very eye balls.  (I know that sounds sort of strange but that’s how Ganny was and how she said it.)

So I don’t know who will get what.  And I don’t know what I will do when we start moving things out.  There’s a part of me that wants to just remember it as it was and not step a toenail back.  I can’t imagine seeing some of those rooms empty and I’m glad that Dad is taking pictures now for us to remember and I’m thankful for Lindsay’s pictures of the cotton that she gave us at Christmas and the pictures Karen and Guyeth took of the family all together.  There’s a part of me that knows that the love in that house, is just a piece or a glimmer of the home that awaits, where we’ll all be gathered just as crazy and off kilter as ever.  Both the wonderful Godwin-Burch-Moore clan and the equally as memorable and hilarious McClendon-Jackson clan.  I keep thinking of the line in Steven Curtis Chapman’s song, “We are not home yet.”  That great cloud of witnesses may have grown over the past years, but they’re all here in our midst!

We may not be home yet, but I think we can help create a little bit of home everywhere we go.  If we open our hearts and our homes to those around us offering, sharing, giving, than we will experience God in more ways than we can count.  That’s part of what made their home, home.  You never knew who would stop by, from former students (both public educators) to the amazing folks of Greeleyville UMC to family whether blood or bond.  You knew there would be hospitality and almost all the time laughter and stories.  You see, their legacy was not just this house or this furniture or this land, but their’s was all the people they loved and all the lives they touched.

I hope that whether we have the physical Ganny’s as true north anymore or not, that we share our homes, that we treasure our times with our loved ones, and that we pick up and carry forth the legacy.

I’m finally starting to wind down to fall asleep.  Wohoo!  But I leave you with these questions – where is home for you?  What does home mean to you?  What makes you feel at home?  How do we share that with others?

This song always makes me think of all of the granparents and wise elders we have lost – including my beloved and always candid and cracked McClendon family.  I am grateful for the tremendous legacy left to each of us on both sides of the family.

I’ve always enjoyed this song.  Even though it’s more romantic in nature, you can get the sense or “feeling” of the enveloping love in it.