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Hearing and Listening

January, 2001

In November one of videos I borrowed from the Philadelphia Public Library was a documentary about the growth of the Christian church from the Jewish cult of Jesus in the first century CE. A Biblical scholar made that point that Luke and Acts were written by the same author and that reading them as volume one and two of the same story had benefit, new information to me. It seemed like a good idea so I set forth to learn what I might from this perspective.

I got through chapter one of Luke. I read it again. Then I read the first part of the chapter again. And yet again. One of those paradoxes that sometimes trip me up and I can't get around or under or over or ignore kept me rereading and didn't permit me to move forward. In chapter one of Luke God sends Gabriel down with a message for Zacheriah. He and Elizabeth will have a baby. Luke points out very carefully that Zacheriah is a holy and good man, a priest who has lived his whole life obedient and true. When Gabriel tells him that he and his wife, aged though they are and barren though they have been, are going to have a child, Zacheriah says, "Oh, come on now!" And Gabriel says, "You know Zacheriah you tic me off. I come down here, sent by God, and all you do is give me lip. That's it. You've lost the power of speech until all I have told you happens."

Soon after, God sends Gabriel down again, this time to Mary. Mary is a fresh from childhood, pure and holy. She has lived her young life obedient and true. He tells her that she is to have a baby, an event as impossible for her as for Zacheriah and Elizabeth. Mary, like Zacheriah, says, "Oh, come on now." What does Gabriel do? Does he take away her ability to speak or come up with some other creative punishment? Does he express frustration or anger? Not on your life. He says, "Oh my poor sweet girl you are honored among women. Just look how special you are."

Now what is that? Why would the same messenger with the same message react so differently. Both Zacheriah and Mary are good people. They both do the right thing and live devout, thoughtful lives. When presented with an impossibility they both express reasonable human doubt. The same doubt that I would express if some one told me --oh I don't know-- that I'd wake up with a full head of hair. Or if someone told me I was going to become a world leader in a week's time. Those things are impossible and presented with the promise of the impossible, most of us would point that out, angel or no. Gabriel's reactions, so different, gave me pause.

Not too long ago I was walking up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the Lucretia Mott House toward Logan Circle and the library one evening. A group of protesters committed to pointing out the plight of the homeless to some official were gathered around the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul (which is a beautiful structure, if somewhat dark and foreboding). They were accompanied by an even larger group of media--reporters and vans, camera operators and thick cables all over the place. There were all the expressions of deep anger that I've come to expect in my most jaundiced view as staged and contrived. The plight of the homeless is really awful. That day I had spent my lunch time visiting a hospice center for homeless men with HIV/AIDS with an eye toward lending a hand and the plight of these people was very much in my consciousness. Certainly homeless folks needed vocal and staunch advocates, but as I walked by them I wasn't even mildly tempted to join the protest. Perhaps there was too much staging, or perhaps simply my season of street protest is over. I must have been especially grumpy that evening. As I walked away I was harumphing to myself about one sign in particular that said "Jesus was homeless." The conversation in my head was vehement, "Wrong! Jesus wasn't homeless. He lived on the road, perhaps, but that doesn't qualify as homeless. It doesn't serve to make a point through faulty and false information." As I was listing in my head all the reasons Jesus was not homeless and coming up with more powerful and more accurate bumper sticker kind of statements appropriate for bill boards and heading toward the library, a homeless person who was not at the protest but who spends time on Logan Circle, walked past me. (One of my goals is to get a photograph of his shopping cart without offending him. It has a large "no trespassing" sign on it that says a great deal to me about the human condition.) He looked at me straight on; his eye met mine. People always tell me not to do that, but the habit of looking people in the eye runs deep. He walked up to me and said, "God loves us. God loves us all the time." And he walked on, past other pedestrians, past the protest. He shared his message with no one else. It felt like it was for me alone.

I'm a little slow on the upswing sometimes. I didn't get it that evening and I didn't get it the next day, but it all fell together for me in mid week worship this past week. One of the things I think Friends can unite on is our understanding of God's relationship with us, individually and corporately. Whether they count themselves as Christian with a capital "C", a small "c," or not Christian at all, Friends' understanding of God is different than the vengeful authoritarian God sometimes portrayed in Hebrew testaments. We owe that to Jesus. When, in the good news of his ministry, he called God Abba--Poppa--it changed the relationship we have with the Divine. The Divine is not "over there" watching with a vengeful and punishing eye. God is among us. The Divine is all around, open to intimate personal relationship. Jesus may have proclaimed it, but when did the new relationship start? In worship with these Philadelphia Friends I was given the answer; the center of the paradox of Gabriel and Zacheriah and Mary was obvious to me. I knew without a doubt that it was between Gabriel's visits with Zacheriah and Mary that the relationship between humanity and the Divine changed. Gabriel's drastically different reactions to these two upstanding holy people underline the ending of the old relationship and the beginning of the new.

I am grateful to the homeless man who gave me the answer two weeks before I found it. It was there for the taking, and only my assumptions about place and society caused me to continue to flounder with the paradox. I might have missed the message but that doesn't deny it was there for the plucking, It may sound formulaic, it may approach trite even, but when we are on the path of the seeking, our teachers are many. Frequently they are children and birds in the sky and lilies in the field. Our teachers might also be the dispossessed, the outcasts of society. We lose something when we live in the world; being part of the culture exacts a price. We often learn from those who are not part of the common culture. Every time I walk up to Logan Circle I look for the man. I'm glad I looked him in the face that evening. I want to thank him.

"Thou has beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me....Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I fell from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there." (Psalm 139)

God loves us. God loves us all the time. Indeed.


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