Blindness, Sight and Coronavirus–Lent 4

Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie writes of the man born blind: His first words, ”ego eimi” mean literally, “I am.” But there’s more to this than a simple self-identification. They also place him in line with God’s self-definition in the Hebrew scripture, “I am who am,” and Jesus’ string of identifiers elsewhere in John: I am the bread of life (6:35) and light of the world. This spunky, uneducated man represents us all, made in God’s image. (The Gospel According to John New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 55.)

Furthermore, the formerly blind man models how to trust. He’s so grateful to Jesus he believes him completely, and bows in reverence to him. He may not have read anything, but he stands in sharp contrast to those who may be more educated, but desperately cling to a tired tradition. Their blindness keeps them from seeing how awesomely God works in the present.

We shouldn’t pick on them when we all have our blind spots. This Lent is pervaded by news of the coronavirus, and it’s still unclear how much of the anxiety around it is warranted. But several bright signs showed people breaking through the blinders.

One was Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf who allowed the docking of the Grand Princess cruise ship, with confirmed cases aboard. The ship had sailed in circles for days off the coast, a nightmare for passengers who’d anticipated a luxury cruise to Hawaii. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said about opening the port. “We have to not let our fear dictate or impede our humanity.”

That compassion was echoed by Eric Drake, who held aloft a sign as passengers disembarked: “Welcome home! U r not a #!” He referred to the president’s reluctance to let the ship land because he didn’t want the numbers of US cases to increase.

Several doctors have also raised voices of sanity, criticizing the waves of fear and stockpiling, the theft of masks from hospitals where they’re vitally needed. Most of all, they question the messages we’re sending our children about the loss of reason and altruism in the face of something we don’t yet fully understand. Blindness and insight take different forms, but have characterized humanity since biblical times.

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

 

 

The Samaritan Woman Speaks–Lent 3

I just wanted to fill my bucket and get home before it got any hotter. But that plan got derailed by the most marvelous conversation…

I wanted to tell the stranger, “you must be new around here. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women in public.” Or, “Look, pal. I gotta get home. The man I live with wants his water!”

Instead, I got pulled into this amazing discussion. This wandering teacher took me seriously. He didn’t dismiss my desires as everyone else would–dangerous unless controlled by men! In fact, he never got his drink. I never filled my bucket. We set aside our pressing projects, our differences with our churches  and each other for a short time—and whoosh! “Water gushing up to everlasting life!”

I guess he liked my nerve. After all, I’ve broken all the social taboos—what have I got to lose? Maybe you could say I was open to his message. And I liked the way he invited—never coerced. My life was pretty topsy-turvy anyway; I was used to surprises. He probed my past, but not in a mean way. Somehow, he led me from talking about ordinary water to another plane altogether.

I used to think the lines between Jews and Samaritans were rigid as walls. After all, everyone in my world regarded them as high barriers. But this guy didn’t seem to care; he dismissed big differences easy as fluff on the wind. He reminded me a bit of the prophets—like Amos or Micah or Isaiah, focused on the important things, trying to lure me away from the trivia. You could say I’d already stepped out of religious circles, or they had scorned me. Maybe that’s why I responded to him so fast; at some level, I already knew what he was saying.  Much later, I remembered his phrase, “If you knew the gift of God…” Well maybe I do. Or I’m learning.

As we talked, I glimpsed something deep within myself, a depth I never knew I had. It was that spark within that responded to his promise. He made me feel happy, dignified—as I never had before.  Many don’t notice an important sentence in my story:  “then the woman left her water jar…” No more defining  MY  life by domestic drudgery! Now I know I’m cut out for more. It’s rumored that years later, women left their jars filled with embalming spices at an empty tomb. They too found more important things to do, like witness a resurrection.

Remember how I came to the well—alone, at the hottest time, when no one else would be there, avoiding the gossips and judges? That all changed. I ran back to my village loud as a brass band. No longer ashamed, I was so caught up in astonishment, I could trumpet, “he told me everything I’ve ever done!” Suddenly I felt strong, like a precious vessel spilling over with good news. Bursting, I began to tell the town…  (Jn. 4:1-42)

Excerpt from MORE HIDDEN WOMEN OF THE GOSPELS by Kathy Coffey, which will be published by Orbis Press Nov. 20, 2020.

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

Lent and Joy

It may seem an odd combination, the symbols of penance and the rebirth of spring. Why does the church’s long wisdom juxtapose something that suggests dark death with something that leads inevitably towards new life?

 

One explanation comes from environmentalists, who teach that the muddiest mulch produces the loveliest flowers. In a compost heap, dead leaves, rotten vegetable skins and over-ripe fruit create a rich and fertile soil. If this all sounds too earthy, remember that the rites of the church have always reverenced the ordinary: water, oil, candle wax, palm branches, bread, vines, wildflowers, ash.

 

In a scriptural context, read the Book of Esther, which is admittedly a bit risqué. The beautiful queen who had hidden her Jewish identity from the king suddenly faces a situation where she must break the law, risking her life to save her people. She prepares by setting aside her jewelry and rich ointments, covering her head with ashes and dirt (4:13). She asks her people to join her; their gesture says: confronting mindless oppression and brutal violence, we feel ashen within. The mark on the forehead symbolizes a recognition of our human flaws, our desperate need for God. Esther is ultimately victorious: new life for the oppressed and preview of Easter joy!

 

Even in still-wintry climates, the days grow longer. We appreciate the extra daylight and look harder for the first hints of spring: crocuses, warmer temperatures or green shoots. Do these activities suggest how much we long for God’s reign of light?

 

 

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

First Sunday of Lent: Comfort in the Desert

Some gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptations end with the phrase, “and angels waited on him.” After a dreadful ordeal, when Jesus is hungry and probably exhausted, the presence of the divine is somehow still with him. It is possible that angels attend all our lonely desert places. Where we sense the least comfort, there it abounds. Perhaps it’s a relationship, health or job issue, looming decision. How might God be present in difficult circumstances?

Two Ways of Seeing

 

An unfortunate decision was made at the Synod of Whitby in 664. There, two distinct ways of living Christianity came into conflict: the Celtic, originating from the beloved disciple, and the Roman, based on Peter’s authority.  As John Philip Newell writes in Listening for the Heartbeat of God (p. 94) “the tragic outcome was not that it chose the Roman mission,” but that it didn’t make room for both ways of seeing, both firmly rooted in the gospel. Christianity needn’t be limited to a single perspective when it can interweave such rich approaches.

The Petrine tradition looks for God in the teaching and life of the Church. The Celtic stream finds God in creation, seeing all life as sacramental. An imaginative blending of the two might look a bit like this:

The beatitude of the blooming magnolia

The canticle of the fountain

The great candelabra of moon and sun

The litany of the bees’ burrowing

The stately procession of river

The call to prayer of fields shining with dew

The candles of ornamental cabbage

The liturgy of the rhythmic waves and tides

The exultation of pink bud against blue sky

The children’s choir of hidden birds

The solid “Amen” of granite mountain.

 

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

 

Celebrating Recovery Cafe

People trapped by homelessness, addiction and mental health challenges are struggling with often complex and overwhelming problems. That’s where Recovery Café comes in.

Currently a network of 20 Cafés nationally (and one in Canada), projected to grow to 50 in the next 3 years, walks alongside those who are trapped to help find freedom. On January 30th, they held the Grand Opening  of the World Headquarters for this effort. The offices are located above a second Recovery Café site in Seattle.  Full disclosure: my son David is the Executive Director, so I’ll try to keep maternal pride from coloring this portrait too rosily. But it’s important to celebrate the good when we’re surrounded by pervasive evil.

As Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in tribute, “this is a place to anchor hope.” Indeed, the large, surprisingly beautiful building is a sacred space where people will “choose life,” reach milestones of sobriety, and create communities that not only heal but stand as models of one human family. Seattle leads the nation in recognizing the futility of incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders who need not prison, but treatment. Here, they can receive many kinds of care: healthy meals, special lattes, AA meetings, yoga and writing classes, gatherings with counselors and supportive friends.

It was heartening to see at the opening philanthropists rubbing shoulders and eating pizza with the homeless—a rather rare occurrence in our stratified society. But it happened here, with enormous energy. An enthusiastic audience applauded members who’d offered feedback and perspective, visionary donors, architects, builders, staff and fundraisers. All celebrated the inclusion of a free medical clinic and dental services, which will help the area’s ERs by providing  preventive treatment. And the group looked towards the future, at the second floor network headquarters. Because the program has been proven worthy to replicate, staffs will train here in the model that can change lives in countless cities.

As co-founder Killian Noe said, the greed of pharmaceutical companies has created an opioid crisis. But the Cafes offset their evil by resisting forces that dehumanize and creating communities of accountability. “Divine Love goes by many names,” she said in her prayer of blessing.  “May those in this house know the wonder of their worth.”

 

  • For more background, see Descent Into Love: How Recovery Cafe Came to Be by Killian Noe (2015)

 

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita—Feb. 8

Many people don’t know the story of Josephine Bakhita, but it’s one that should be told and retold. Born in 1869, she was captured by slave traders at the age of nine, and would never see her family again. One particular torture stands out in a list of horrors. Pinned to the ground, Josephine was cut with a razor in over sixty places. Salt was rubbed into the cuts to prevent healing and leave more visible scars, which increased the profits to slave masters when they were sold. She was then left on a mat for three months, without any care. Her only comment? “I thought I would die.”

Fortunately, she was later sold in the Khartoum market to an Italian diplomatic family, and accompanied their child to school in Italy.  Learning the Christian religion there changed her life dramatically. When the family ordered her to return with them to Africa, she refused. It caused an international crisis, but she remained adamant: “I can’t risk losing God.” Finally, she remained, free because slavery was illegal in Italy.

The former slave continued to marvel she was a daughter of God, and eventually became a sister, where she served the community as cook, seamstress and doorkeeper. To children who’d never met an African, she reassured, “I’m made of chocolate!” Steadfastly, she endured two world wars, humbly and faithfully warming plates in winter to make sure her dishes arrived hot and tasty. Her attitude toward her captors was, “Poor things! They did not know God.” “Survivor” is a term glibly tossed around on reality TV shows, but Bakhita gives the words new meaning—and redefines forgiveness.

Appropriately the patron saint for victims of human trafficking, Bakhita’s feast offers the opportunity to publicize the hot line: 1-888-373-7888, National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Anyone who suspects something amiss can be as heroic as the woman who tried to look out the window of her flight as it descended. Instead, she was shocked to see a text conversation on another passenger’s phone that alarmed her. In large print, a man was arranging videos of sex acts with two children aged 5 and 7. Quickly and discreetly snapping photos, the concerned passenger then alerted the flight attendant, who confirmed that airlines were actively engaged in combating sex trafficking.  She in turn arranged to have the police and FBI meet the flight; they probed and subsequently arrested the sender and recipient of the texts. Detectives freed the children and prevented further harm. Bakhita would be proud.

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

Riff on a Linguistic Flub

Father Greg Boyle, SJ, founder of Homeboy Industries, known for his outstanding work rehabilitating gang members in one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in Los Angeles, was saying Mass in prison. The inmates did the readings, so he relaxed to listen. To his astonishment, the prisoner read, “God is exhausted.” “What the H…?” thought Boyle, grabbing the readings. Ah… the original said, “God is exalted.” But what a felix culpa, “happy fault”!

We can connect far better with a God who is exhausted as we are. This is, after all, the God who in Christ “pitched a tent among us.” Most tents rest on the ground, not floating 3 feet above it, and it takes some work to keep them standing. Who feels close to God’s exhaustion and praises this God properly? The litany is endless, but for brief starters:

…the nurse who’s worked an extra shift to cover for a friend who has the flu

…the mom who’s been up since 5, worked 8 hours, commuted 2, and pulls herself out of a stupor to attend the PTA meeting so the second grade can win the attendance award

…the three-year old constantly struggling to keep up with his older siblings

…the family undergoing a long wait in the ICU with their loved one, sleeping in shifts

…the worker who confronts a mountain on the desk wildly disproportionate to what anyone could accomplish in a day, but plunges in anyway with enormous effort

…the caretaker for her father-in-law, a dementia patient, who’s also undergoing home renovation: constant jackhammers and loud radios

…the citizens who have tried since Columbine 20 years ago to enact sane gun control laws

…Bryan Stevenson, whose story is told in the book and film Just Mercy. Harvard educated, African-American attorney, he fought an arduous 30-year battle against excessive and unfair sentencing, freeing innocent death row prisoners. His Supreme Court victories include a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners with dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger

…the refugee who has carried her special needs child 1000 miles, wearing flip flops, and finally reaches safety at the border.

They’re all tired. But their valiant efforts praise a God who just might be exhausted too.

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

Massive Problem, Tiny Solutions

Jesus’ words in John 15:4, “Make your home in me as I do in you” must be meaningless to those deprived of housing. In California, which ranks 49th out of 50 states in homes per capita, that’s a lot of people.

“Based on a January census widely believed to underestimate the true figures, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that the nation’s homeless population grew by about 15,000 people to about 568,000, or 2.7%. The number of Californians without homes, meanwhile, spiked by more than 21,000 to nearly 130,000, or 16.4%. While the nation’s homeless population remains about 10% lower than it was a decade ago, California’s has expanded more than 22% in that time.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/24/19) https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Editorial-Welcome-to-California-the-Homeless-14928730.php?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=headlines&utm_campaign=sfc_opinioncentral

But heartening solutions are in the works.

On Jan. 8, ’20, Governor Gavin Newsom announced a budget of more than $1 billion to fight homelessness. His executive order requires state agencies to take urgent and immediate action by January 31 to make available state properties and facilities to rapidly increase housing and shelter options. Admirable action, when California has a shortage of 3.5 million homes. Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf brokered a deal between a real estate investment group which owns properties that stand empty, the squatters Moms 4 Housing, and a non profit community land trust to convert these buildings to affordable housing.

While those are larger-scale responses, one with particular appeal is the effort of First Presbyterian Church, Hayward. It all began when Pastor Jake Medcalf met a desperate man at the door, and could offer him only a blanket. Realizing the man clearly needed shelter, the pastor looked around at his 4-acre space and said, “this is the best we can do?”

Thus began the tiny home project which could inspire other churches. The first project of its kind, it relied on the expertise of six for-profit developers who volunteered their services. As Jeff Scofield, one of them said, “I …believe that everybody deserves a roof over their head…. And the fact we have the skill set and relationships that can help with supplying homes puts us in a unique position to help with this problem.”

Once the first residents have moved into their six tiny homes on the church parking lot in February, Medcalf and partners plan to expand, bringing tiny homes to other church parking lots around the East Bay area. Each one is small, but has a toilet, shower, stove, heater, fan and bed. In addition First Presbyterian offers a safe-parking lot program that allows eight people at a time to sleep in their cars on the church lot. One of those, Ruth Soares is praying she’ll get a tiny home. Working as an in-home caregiver for the elderly, her monthly income of $2000 isn‘t enough for a market-rate apartment.

The initial process of permitting took two years, but construction took only six weeks, and the next projects should move more quickly since guidelines are now in place. As many churches, mosques and synagogues deal with the realities of ageing populations and extra space, could they too start thinking creatively about better uses for under-utilized areas? “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2).

 

Retreat led by Kathy Coffey: “Those Feisty Gospel Women”

San Damiano Center, 710 Highland Dr., Danville, CA (925)-837-9141

www.sandamiano.org        March 27-29, 2020

Feast of St. Prisca—Jan. 18

Prisca speaks: My husband Aquila and I were tentmakers. I never dreamt how cutting, sewing, and patching leather would lead to my great work: piecing together the fledgling Christian community like a big tent. Years later, John’s prologue would describe the incarnation as God’s “pitching a tent in us.” Our recorded story began when Paul asked us for a job. He stayed with us for eighteen months in Corinth, where we had already established our business, when he was new in town. To set the record straight, Paul didn’t convert us; we were already Christian.

 

It caused some buzz when my name was mentioned before Aquila’s, (in four of six references), but let me explain. I didn’t muscle in to threaten his status; it was simply a natural recognition of my leadership. He was always supportive and strong, but a man of few words.

 

So I was the talker, better known, but we thought of ourselves as equals, a team. Notice how Paul refers to “their” house, not just Aquila’s, as he would if more closely following the custom of our day. Oh, the male was head of the household in society, but no patriarchy for us! Everyone knew I was the feisty leader.

 

I wasn’t spared the fear of persecution either (Rom 16:3). We risked our necks to save Paul in Ephesus, and after that, authorities seemed to know me, to sneer threateningly whenever I’d walk through town. I was so frightened, I persuaded Aquila to return to Rome. Somehow, martyrdom didn’t seem the right path for us. Our work was—forgive the pun—cut out for us.

 

Paul did the original visioning and dramatic speeches. Then he’d turn the new converts over to us. Wise choice. Who know better than tentmakers how to shelter newborn, vulnerable people? I’d keep them warm and dry. A tent is a flexible place, open to wind and change. Unlike more rigid structures of stone or wood, its flaps can always accommodate one more. I spent so much time sticking my neck out to rescue, I couldn’t be bothered by excluding.

This excerpt is a sneak preview from More Hidden Women of the Gospels, which will be published by Orbis Press in 2020.

 

Kathy will be speaking at:

St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church 2601 San Ramon Valley Blvd. San Ramon, CA 94583

 TUESDAY, JANUARY 21, 10:00 – 11:30 a.m.

“Prayer In Chaos, Commotion and Clutter”

All are welcome. Free events require registration. To register, go to https://GIFT2020.EventBrite.com