Sacramental Moments…

girl dreaming

As Christians the promise of our faith is that slowly, and sometimes with great effort, each one of us will be wonderfully transformed into the likeness of that first century Jew who figured it all out.   Along the journey to embracing that uniquely life changing way, we will come to see God for who God is, and become new and reborn people.   In the end the people we once were, will no longer be, and what will be left will be new, different and dramatic.  We will be people who see the world in a whole new light.

It is in that transformation that our eyes are opened to God’s presence and grace that surround us,  as well as the power inherent in the possession of this wondrous gift.   

In a not so small way…this new world, this new status, and this new reality is often expressed in a unique, albeit rarely used, greek word;  mysterium.

Mysterium;  is the Greek root for the word “mystery” but it means so much more than that when we approach it from in its proper biblical context.   The closest that scholars have been able to come to in defining this word, in its biblical context, is that of a mystery, whose truth and fullness is revealed by and through direct initiation of God. 

Since the dawn of theologians, we have struggled with the word, the concept, and the nut and bolts of it.  When the bible was translated into Latin, translators struggled as well.   There was no direct Latin equivalent to the idea that was attempting to be understood, standardized, and relayed.   In the process of trying to make sense of the mystery, they argued, they debated, and they struggled.   In the end, another word was chosen to make sense of the mystery; that word was sacramentum.  

Sacramentum, the Latin root of Sacrament, was a more common word that people of the day knew and understood.   With the familiarity of the word known to the average person of the day (even if lost on us), the translators and the church tried to relay a particular understanding, which hopefully would make sense amidst the confusion. 

For the earlier church, Sacramentum was common place because it was borrowed from the Roman Army.

Historically, a recruit for the Roman army officially became a soldier by undergoing a sacramentum. The sacramentum had two parts: the soldier took an oath of office, and the Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion.   That act, or that sacramentum resulted in new responsibilities and new status for the recruit.  Everything changed.   When the translators used this word, these were the images that were intended.  

For the translator, the sacramentum was a pretty solid reflection of the mysterium.  Overtime, sacramentum became the English sacrament, but for the modern reader, the meaning wasn’t so clear.   There are no Roman Soldiers running down Main Street, and as such no real life grasp of what was meant.   

Even for the earlier church, the lack of confusion was short lived. Slowly the confusion returned, and overtime the leaders of the church tried to clarify it even further. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the third century, defined the sacrament an outward sign of inward and invisible Grace.   The outward sign, like the brand behind the ear, that testifies to the Grace received, with all its responsibilities and status.

From their theologians have added their understandings from generation to generation.

Frederick Buechner, a twentieth century theologian wrote that sacraments are not only the official moments of liturgy in the church called the sacraments –for the Methodist Communion and Baptism – but more powerfully, sacraments are those blessed moments when God breaks through into the realm of ordinary, and graces us with the promise of the divine.  

He wrote: 

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. At such milestone moments…you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.  Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, at any place, and to anybody. 

Watching something get born. Falling in love. A walk on the beach. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out he’s not a stranger. If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”

For me that is about as solid a definition I can provide.    These are moments of God breaking through the ordinary with power to not only steal your breath, but make everything that comes after it different.

I do need to add a caveat, and I want to be sure we are not confused on this; the church codifies the sacraments and adds its own definition.   The church sees Baptism and Holy Communion as the two official sacramental moments of the church.  In Holy Communion, God breaks through the ordinary – bread and wine – with power to make everything different.  In Baptism, God is breaking through the water with power to make everything different.  

The church has labeled these as official because these are the only moments in the life of the church where God can be said to be undeniably and unquestionably present.  

This is an important point:   a marriage can be sacramental, but certainly not all marriages are, think the Kardashians.    A public prayer can be sacramental, but not all are; think Westboro Baptist.    A hymn can be sacramental, but give it to me to sing, and it is far from it.   Although Baptism and Communion are the two “official” or “liturgical” expressions of the sacramental, we cannot get lost in the reality that there are an infinite number of sacramental moments all around us.    

Some are subtle, some are breathtaking, and some are earth shaking.  Some of them occur in an instant, some become sacramental only through the passage of time.   Some of them come and go with hardly anyone noticing, and some gather the attention of the world.

Today, I would like to share a sacramental moment with you:

As you know, I am a huge fan of Dr. Ray, out of Springfield, MO, and he deserves the credit for opening my eyes to this moment. 

This sacramental moment began in the ordinary adventure of teenage girls riding a noisy yellow school bus along a windy and bumpy country road. The bus was filled with girls all wearing the same school uniform.   They were all students of an all-girls high school, and the excitement was high. It was the end of the semester, finals were done, and that was more or less the official end of a semester full of work.   

The joy that comes from having a clean slate and an empty to do list was evident as they giggled and as they broke into some teeny bopper song about broken hearts.   The bus stopped along the way to let out a group of girls here and there, and with each stop, the girls either coolly strolled to their homes or wildly skipped with little girl enthusiasm.

About a mile from its final stop, the bus driver slowed the bus, when he saw a car accident blocking the road.   There were two men standing around the cars, in what appeared to be intense conversation.   When the bus stopped, both turned, and matter of fact-ly walked to the door of the bus.   Without hesitation or time for the bus driver to object, the pair boarded the bus.   Once on board, one of them pulled out a gun from beneath the tail of his shirt.

In an instant, his face changed.  Full of rage and anger he screamed at the girls on the bus;  “Which one of you is Malala Yousafzai?”   Without thinking, eyes darted to one girl sitting off to the man’s left.    With a sadistic smile,  “That’s the one,” the gunman said.   Without breaking the smile, he looked straight at the 14-year-old girl, raised the gun, and pulled the trigger.    He fired twice.   The first bullet hit her in the neck.  The second in the head. Before they left the bus he fired at two other girls, and finally and calmly walked off the bus, before speeding off in the cars that once blocked the bus’ way.

That was the afternoon of October 9th, in Swat, Pakistan.    The young girl, thought to be moments away from death, was rushed to a hospital, where she was expected not to make it through the night.   That night 7 more men tried to enter her hospital room, under the pretenses of finishing her off.    Thankfully, the English Government sent a medical evacuation team to her hospital Pakistan, and with surgical precision whisked her away to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. Where she resides today.  

Doctors and family have called it a both a miracle of medicine and a symbol of the stubbornness of her doctors, but she has survived, and she is recovering.     They are confident that she will live.    She has a long recovery ahead of her, and she probably will never be considered normal again, but her life was not ended by a bullet on the bus.

Over the days that followed the shooting, the Pakistani Taliban joyfully and proudly claimed responsibility. They said that Malala was an American spy who idolized the “black devil Obama” and was an enemy to Muslims.    They claimed that she spoke out against their faith, and as such would be killed as a traitor.   They also swore that they would finish the task.

Malala did speak out, but not against the Muslim faith.   She spoke out for education.   She spoke out, via a blog sponsored by the BBC, about how girls needed education as security and to encourage peace in her area.   She wrote about how the Quran argued for the education of all; both men and women, and how Islam can only become a great faith when all of its followers are the most and the best they could be.    She pleaded with her neighbors to stand up against social, religious, and political extremism. 

She wrote that keeping girls from education in Pakistan had nothing to do with Islamic faith, instead it was about fear and control.    She wrote about how oppression hurt everyone not only the oppressed.   She reminded the world that the fullest expression of a society’s value is only seen in how it cares for and treats the marginalized.   She wrote that she didn’t want to be marginalized.   She had more to offer.   Ultimately, her words were simply to tell the world that all she wanted to do was learn.

Along the way, she gained both notoriety and fame.   Desmond Tutu nominated Malala for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and her own country awarded her Pakistan’s first National Peace Prize. It was that publicity which riled the feathers of the ignorant, extremist, militant and the angry. 

They saw her as an affront.  They saw her as an enemy of the faith.   They saw her as enemy to Pakistan.  For this, she would die…or so they hoped.

In the end, they did something else.    They gave her words momentum.  Her name is quickly becoming a household word.  There is a growing effort to see Malala receives the Nobel Peace Prize and the idea has gained the support of over 40,000 people in an online petition.  Because of Malala, people are starting to ask what leads a man to think they are more secure if they keep their daughters from an education.   

Because of that moment on the bus, people are realizing that hate and anger against Malala is hate and anger against girls everywhere.     If I stand and say to my daughters, that education is their right, responsibility, and job, then I am compelled to say the same for girls everywhere.   Because of Malala, I need to realize if I am willing to fight for them, I need to fight for her.   That which occurred on October 9th to an ordinary girl, has reminded us all of something greater, and infinitely more valuable.

Online, I found an article written on the subject that begins to reveal the sacramental truth of who Malala is.  My apologies, as I cannot reference the name of the author, because I have misplaced it along the way.   Just know that these words are his and not mine.

The author writes that fear, betrayal, death shall have neither the last nor the lasting word over her Malala.  In the end, even if the forces of evil, hate, and ugliness manage to take her life, they shall not mute her voice, extinguish her light or dull the truth that she has raised.  In the ordinary ugliness of that moment on that bus, out in the middle of nowhere, the truth of resurrection, the truth of Grace, and the truth of strength and hope in the face of ignorance, became flesh and bone.   This is a resurrection – this is a sacramental moment – in the truest sense.

Over the last few weeks, I have been talking to the children of our church on the word play that is found throughout the Hebrew Bible.   We talked about how Isaac means “he laughed”, Jacob means “cheat”, and Moses means “drawn out.”   Malala means “ridden with grief”.

Yet, because of that grief, there are people like me who want to stand beside her from thousands of miles away.   There are those like me, who want to make celebrate her grief as the very last time that people steal the beauty of a young girl because of fear or ignorance.    There are those like me, who ache – with every ounce of their being – to make a difference for the girls a half a planet away, as well as right here in our pews.

Even in our world we tell our girls, our daughters, that smart is not the way for them.  We fill our stores with clothing to dress 10 year olds as tramps, we put the likes of Kardashians or Lindsey Lohan as role models, and we tell them that happiness is found by the point of the arrow on a scale.   There are just as many Malalas in New Hampshire as there are in Pakistan, but our violence, our rage, our fear, and our sexism is exponentially more subtle.  Enough is enough.    It’s time we say stop.   It’s a time we make a difference.

 girls belly

Be willing to be a voice of a different choice.   When you see a 15 year old girl struggling with who she is, speak up;  remind her how beautiful she is.  Remind her how smart is prettier than dumb ever will be.  Tell your granddaughters, your children, your students, or your neighbors that you will only accept the best from them, and then put your wallet where your mouth is.

Support organizations that work to support the education of our daughters or groups that remind them they are bigger and better than the garbage the world throws at them.   Give to Girls on the Run.   Support your local School and the Town Library.  Give to the Girl Scouts.   Buy Girl Scout Cookies.    

Visit these links to organizations like “Girls Incorporated” and the “She is Me” program, both that work to empower girls through education and mentoring throughout the US and Canada.   The link for “Ladies who Launch” will also be posted.  They help subsidize the dreams of women who want to be business leaders.    You will be able to link to “60 Million Girls” an organization that works to empower girls and women, across the world, through education.  Find out how you can make a difference, either by giving a few dollars or volunteering, or even just making it your goal to spread the word.

I heard about a girl who in response to Malala’s situation has decided to simply post information about resources for girls and women across the world.   She is 14 years old, and has created a page on Facebook, which has already – in less than three weeks – garnered close to a million followers.    If she can do it, why can’t you?

Its not just about money, it’s about doing something different.  If you can’t do it simply because you are sickened by what was stolen from Malala do it because it is what our faith teaches us.   We are called to stand up, and make a difference.   We are called to help the blind see, to feed the hungry, to comfort the hurting, and free the oppressed.    This is the journey, I began this message talking about.

“I have the right of education,” “I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up.  God will ask you on the day of judgment where were you when people looked for you, when your neighbor looked for you? When your school looked for you?”  Don’t let this be a sacramental moment that slips by us without ever noticing, and instead, do something.

(Pics-Kelly Silver)

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