Speak the Truth, Even If Your Voice Shakes – syncroblog 3 on the “Spirit of the Poor”

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{This post is my contribution to the Spirit of the Poor syncroblog with Newell Hendricks and Esther Emery. It is hosted this month by Caris Adel with the theme: Affirming the Humanity.  Click here to find a summary of last month’s syncroblog.}

A few years ago, my grandmother found out she had breast cancer.  At the age of 87, the idea of having to go through surgery left her incredibly anxious. A few days before her surgery, Char – my sister’s mother-in-law – gave my grandma a shawl that she hand-knit for my grandma through the prayer shawl ministry at her church.  For those who are not familiar with this ministry: the prayer shawl ministry gathers people together regularly to knit or crochet a shawl while praying for a particular person in need.  When the shawl is finished, the knitter gives it to the person being prayed for.  The prayer shawls are intended to remind their receivers every time they wear the shawls that they are wrapped in the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

One of the founders of the Prayer Shawl Ministry, Janet Bristow, explains that the shawls symbolize the “unconditional loving God.  They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter, and beautify.  Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly about their troubles.”

As my grandmother anticipated her surgery the next few days, she often wrapped her shawl around her shoulders while she sat in her rocking chair and read, and as she did, she felt she was wrapped in the warmth and comfort of the compassion of Christ that Char had shared with her.

 St. Mary's prayer shawl ministry, Sept. 2010 (8)

This ministry that Char participated in and the love she shared with my grandmother reminds me of the kind of compassion and ministry that Tabitha shared with her community of widows in Acts 9.

Tabitha had a special ministry for this community of widows that was extremely necessary.  These widows were in need of a provider and a community… a place to belong and to have a voice.  Because a woman in first century Palestine had no inheritance rights and was defined by the social status of first her father and then her husband, when she lost her husband or her connection with her father or brothers, she also lost her identity, her possessions, her property, and her place of belonging.  Widows were considered outcasts in society and were often taken advantage of and were exposed to abuse and oppression.

Because of this, widows usually had to rely on public charity to provide for them in order to survive.  And, yet, they did not always find such a provider of charity in the early church.  Acts chapter 6 reveals that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected of the daily distribution of food.  This was such an issue in the early church, that it led to the twelve apostles appointing a committee to make sure all the widows were cared for.

Acts 9 suggests that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was called a disciple – was a sort of provider for her community of widows.  In this passage, we see that Tabitha was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other articles of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows.  These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item.

And, yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing.

She saw the needs of these widows, and out of love and compassion, she made these items for each of the widows in her community.

I can just imagine her as she hand-wove these items.  I can picture her sitting in her chair, weaving or sewing and praying for each of these women who needed so much to be provided for, to find a place of belonging, and to find a sense of worth in their lives.  And I can envision the widows after they received these pieces of clothing from Tabitha.  I imagine that when they felt lonely or anxious or when they were reminded that they had no voice or place in their society, they wrapped their shawls around their shoulders and pulled their tunics over their heads and felt the love and compassion of Jesus wrapped around them.

As we can see, Tabitha was an incredible caregiver and provider for this community as she responded to the needs of these widows.

So it is no wonder that these women mourned so much when she died.

It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter – the man who by the power of the Holy Spirit had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus Christ – when they heard he was near Joppa.

And it is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them.  These women had lost their dear friend and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus Christ, invested in them, and helped them speak their voice, find belonging, and a sense of worth where they had not found such things elsewhere in their society.

These women had lost the one person in their lives who truly affirmed their humanity.

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There are many people around us today – in our schools, in our workplaces, in our churches, and in our communities – who are in need of someone like Tabitha in their lives: someone who will see their needs and respond to them by investing in them and clothing them with the compassion and love of Jesus Christ.  Someone who will take the time to hold them as they grieve the loss of their loved ones, to walk alongside them as they struggle to find a new job, to provide an open home to them when they have no other safe place stay.  Someone who will affirm their humanity and listen to their voices – even when what they have to say might be difficult and uncomfortable to hear.

And many of our neighbors around us – or maybe even some of us – are in some ways like these first century widows: powerless and voiceless.  The outcasts… The last and the least in society, as Jesus put it, and long to find a community in which they find belonging, have a voice, and find some sense of worth in their lives.

I have been the part-time youth and household pastor for three Lutheran churches in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago for the past three years and the part-time youth and children’s pastor for an American Baptist church in the same neighborhood since last summer.  During this time, my youth have shared many stories and feelings they have about the deep issues and struggles they face in Chicago every day.  Several of my youth have shared with me and with our youth group that they often feel they are forgotten about and that they have no voice or place in society.

Many of my kids and youth live in fear every day as they hear about violence that occurs regularly only blocks from their apartments – or even that they, themselves, experience or see on their way to the neighborhood market in the middle of a Sunday afternoon after church.  And they wonder why these acts of violence are not discussed as much as those acts of violence that occur in more white, affluent neighborhoods.

As refugees from Sudan, Zambia, or Burma, immigrants from Mexico or El Salvador, or African American teens, many of my youth face the realities of racism and discrimination.  They feel the pain and shame of being randomly called the “N” word in a coffee shop by a stranger, being called “dirty” by their peers, or told that their parents are “illegal” and should “go back home” by their society.

They lack opportunities for good education and even sometimes have to worry about what they will do if their school is the next one in Chicago to close down because of budget cuts.  And then they wonder why their schools are getting the cut while large for-profit companies and the big banks don’t have to pay their fair share in taxes.

They struggle to find employment or have watched their parents or guardians battle with maintaining jobs that pay fair wages and rarely make enough to support the family.  They even have had to be extra careful to make sure they handle themselves in public so as not to look “suspicious” to police officers and community members – even when that means not wearing a hoodie or taking shortcuts through an alley on their bicycles to the store or to a friend’s house.

A few of my youth with special needs have experienced painful bullying by peers and exclusivism and discrimination in their communities and schools – and sometimes even within the Church.  They hear messages that they are not as worthy as others – that they are too much of a distraction to the other kids in school or even in Sunday school to be part of the class.  That they don’t belong and need to find somewhere else where they can better fit in.

And many of my youth struggle because they feel they are not taken seriously, they are not listened to, and they just don’t feel like they will ever gain respect by others.

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A few summers ago, I took seven of my Lutheran youth to the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans.  There, my youth met with 34,000 teens from all over the country and even across the world, who joined together to worship and learn about God, listen to and learn about one another, and practice discipleship, peacemaking, and justice.  Throughout the week, I saw an incredible change and growth in my youth… Many of them were very quiet before the trip, and yet throughout the week, they opened up and began to share experiences that they never had talked about before.  They began to talk to new youth who looked different from them without fear of not fitting in, they began to speak up in larger group discussions about their ideas, and they began to take on leadership roles in the group.

On our long bus ride home from New Orleans, Malesh, one of my youth, started writing a poem that was inspired by this trip.  The poem is called “My Voice.”

“Where is my voice? Lost somewhere deep inside.  Stuck in a corner, that’s my only choice.  No, no more hiding in the shadows.  I have yet won the battles.  I spoke as my voice shook, like a fish caught up in a hook.  Where is my voice?”

We too often forget that so many around us – even within our own communities, churches, or families – have similar experiences to those widows that Tabitha ministered to back in the first century.  They feel like they don’t have a voice… They long to speak it, even if it shakes – and yet, they don’t know who will listen to and hear it.

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Several years ago, I served as a seminary intern at an after-school program in the area.  One of my job responsibilities was to oversee the middle school lunch hour once a week.  If you’ve ever stepped foot in a middle school cafeteria, you can probably imagine what I saw each week…  The cafeteria was completely segregated and it was very clear what each of the defined clicks and groups were.  The kids from different minority groups mostly sat together and did not really interact with others, the kids who read “The Hunger Games” and other young adult fantasy books during lunch hour sat together, a group of kids who did not seem to wear the most trendy clothes stuck together, and then a group of kids with very trendy clothes on proudly sat in their own corner of the room – and sometimes loudly laughed at or glared at the kids at the other tables. Finally, there were a few stragglers who sometimes sat by themselves and clearly did not belong to any of the other groups.  As I watched these kids, I could sense the pain and loneliness the stragglers must have felt as they were excluded from the other groups, and I could tell that they really longed to find a community where they felt they belonged and fit in.

What is amazing to me as I think about this scenario, though, is that this kind of exclusivism does not just happen in middle school cafeterias.  I see this happen in many capacities among teens and college students and particularly among many adults, even – and especially – within the Church…

It will probably not take many of us too long to think about who the individuals are around us who have been marginalized and considered the “last and least,” or the “others.”

They may be the people at work or church who just don’t fit into the “in crowd.”  They may be people from not readily accepted groups based on age, ethnic background, or race…  Or those who speak a different native language, who grew up in a different neighborhood, or who have a unique family situation.  They may be the people we pass by on the train who are heading to the food pantry or the homeless people we pass as we walk to Starbucks who hold up a cup asking for change in order to pay for a meal that day or a motel room to sleep in that night because they have no other options.  They may even be the new people who enter our congregations on Sunday morning for worship and who stand by themselves during fellowship hour.  Or maybe even some of us can identify with those first century widows, trying to find our voice and a community in which we belong, where we feel our humanity is affirmed and where our voice will be cared for and heard.

We all love to be around our friends and people who look, act, and think like us.  And yet, when we don’t reach out of our comfort zones – to the “others” who may not be just like us: to the newcomer at church, to the homeless woman on the train, to the after-school program youth who uses our church facilities, we muffle their voices and we deny them full access to our community – to God’s community of love and compassion.  

Byzantine mosaic of Tabitha being raised from the dead by Saint Peter. Tabitha is adorned with the garments she had woven for some widows and had given to them as charity. The Palatine Chapel, Norman Palace, Sicily travel photos & pictures available as st

The good news is that Acts chapter 9 shows us that this is not the way God intends the world order to be.  God does not intend for there to be oppression, exclusivism, or inequality in the world.  This passage does not only show us an example of a model disciple in which we are to follow – through the life of Tabitha: one who loves and clothes the hurting and the outcasts. But it also shows us that God has begun to break down the walls of injustice and inequality through the miraculous act of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead.

This miracle was pretty significant because it was not a common practice for the apostles to raise people from the dead.  Actually, this act of bringing Tabitha back to life was the first time an apostle performed such a miracle.  And Peter – by the power of the Holy Spirit – performed this miraculous act – not for a community of men with worldly power – but he did it for a community of women.  Widows, might I add… Those who were the epitome of the poor.  The powerless.  The “others.”

While it may have been a shock for people at this time to hear that Peter did something so amazing for such an outcast group, this reversal was not a new concept for the author of Luke and Acts.

Throughout these two books, we see the recurring theme of reversals.  We see that the Good News that Jesus and many of his earliest followers shared was not limited to the Jews or shared with the most powerful men, as would have been most expected.  Rather, we see that the Good News was also extended to the Gentiles and those who had little or no voice in society.

In Luke chapter 4, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  And then he continues to live out what he preached by ministering to the marginalized: the lepers, the women, the children, the widows.

After Jesus’ death, Peter begins his ministry in Acts 2 by addressing the crowd in Judea with a quote from the prophet, Joel, that states that in the last days, God will pour out his spirit onto all flesh – including slaves, young and old, male and female.  Then, throughout the book of Acts, we see that the church was called to continue Jesus’ mission, and the theme of reversals continues.

And this miracle of bringing Tabitha back to life in chapter 9 is also a reversal. 

It’s a message that the Good News of God’s love is extended not just to the powerful and the strong, but it is extended to the weak and the powerless.  To the marginalized.  To those who cannot speak up for and by themselves.  And it is a message that gives a snippet view of God’s intended order for the world: that women would be equal to men, that the captives would be free, that the poor would be rich, and that there would be no “last and least.”

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And this story in Acts chapter 9 speaks to us directly. It reminds us that – like Peter and Tabitha – each of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: each one of us is called to participate in Jesus’ ministry of bringing good news to the hurting, to those in need of a welcoming community, to the “others.”  

Each one of us is called to affirm the humanity in ALL of God’s children.  

And to those of us who identify with those first century widows – those of us who are longing for our voices to finally be heard – Acts 9 speaks to us, as well.  Tabitha’s story reminds us that we do not walk this journey alone.  That when we wonder where God is in the midst of our dark wilderness periods of life – we are reminded that God is with us as we experience Jesus’ love and compassion wrapped around us through the “Tabithas” in our lives: the people who cry with us in our grief, who open their homes to us when we have no place to go, who invest in us at our congregations, in our workplaces, in our schools… those who listen to our voices and encourage them to be spoken…

Even when they shake.

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After my Lutheran youth and I returned from New Orleans, Malesh reflected more on his experiences during New Orleans and in our youth group: he began to feel like he had a community where he could be listened to and where he could contribute and make a difference in his neighborhood.  During this time, he finished his poem and later read it to our youth group during our Spoken Word night.  He continued:

“Where is my voice?  Hidden inside like a golden treasure.  So great of a treasure that has no measure.  Convinced but not certain, no more do I have such a burden.  Where is my voice?

He sent his Son to be his voice, delivered yet misunderstood.  The voice is in me.  Now it must be delivered with peace, love, and justice.

He is my voice.  I am His words.”

So, let us follow the examples of Peter and Tabitha – as disciples of Jesus Christ –speaking our voices even when they shake, encouraging and listening to the voices that are too often unheard, and wrapping the love and compassion of Jesus Christ around those who need it.

Amen.

 

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12 responses »

  1. It must have been incredible to take that trip out of Chicago and to witness your youth mixing with young people from all over the country.

    I love what you say here: “It’s a message that the Good News of God’s love is extended not just to the powerful and the strong, but it is extended to the weak and the powerless. To the marginalized. To those who cannot speak up for and by themselves. And it is a message that gives a snippet view of God’s intended order for the world: that women would be equal to men, that the captives would be free, that the poor would be rich, and that there would be no “last and least.”

    Something powerful happens when we move outside of ourselves anyd out of our comfort zones and we really see each other – and discover that we’re mostly alike. When we can see this, we can take action to bring equality, to set prisoners free, to establish righteousness and peace in our communities. We can dare to raise our voices, as you are here today, to bring this change closer.

    • Yes, something really powerful does happen when we realize how more alike we are than different.

      It truly was incredible to witness and learn from my youth on that trip. (It’s amazing how much I hope to teach them, and yet, I end up learning FROM them!) We will be going to Detroit in the summer of 2015 for the next ELCA youth gathering, and I am really looking forward to seeing what and how God moves in and through my youth!

  2. Oh, I so appreciate this teaching on the Tabitha story! I didn’t get all this. I didn’t know all this. How helpful! There have been a few voices around the linkup this time talking about how we silence others for our own comfort. Or wondering what that silencing is about, anyway, and considering that it might have something to do with comfort. I love this vision of reversal. It is life-giving, to imagine that what has been killed or crushed by the world — even humanity in the margins — could be raised again. I’ll sing praise for that.

    • I agree that silencing others or not seeing others because of discomfort seems to be the theme in the discussion this month. I am really finding this a powerful and life-giving conversation!

      And, I’ll sing praise right alongside you!

  3. oh gosh this felt like a sermon. So good! I’ve never heard the story of Tabitha before like that. And then when I got to the end and realized you’re the same Emily who’s been commenting, oh yay! We do have a lot in common. And gah, omw! We vacationed in Edgewater for a couple of days last summer. You’re the second Chicago person that I’ve ‘met’ after moving away from the area. Stink!!!

    • Haha. I have preached on the Tabitha text before, so I used some of the content from that… (I also think that since I write sermons, I tend write posts in sermon form… a bit of a habit.) 🙂

      Oh, that’s great you came to Edgewater. Where did you go/stay? You say you lived in the area before… Where about? You’ll have to let me know if you ever come back to the area.

      So glad we are connecting in this linkup. I look forward to hearing more about your insights and experiences!

  4. Emiy,k I, too have learned a lot from you in this post and your previous posts. You really contribute so much to this subject and your story of the trip to Atlanta as well as your Biblical knowledge is a remnder of why we share with each other what we know and how we live our lives. Thank you so much for your particpation.
    Newell

  5. I am Mum to a Tabitha – both name and nature and I love the story. You seem to be a Tabitha too. Good to have the reminder to keep speaking, or knitting, or standing alongside even when the voice or needles or legs are wobbly.

  6. Wonderful post. I especially loved the poem by your friend Malesh. There is so much heart, so much spirit in those words. That spoken-word experience must have been powerful! Thank you for sharing your stories and insights. I crocheted a shawl for a friend once who was going through a rough time. I had never done a project that big before and it took a long time but it was worth it. I want to do that sometime again. Soon, I think. It’s a good way to pray.

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