Rhonda Cagle

Sinners and Saints

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Ang’s Facebook post was the first item in my newsfeed as I did one last social media check before going to bed. “Writing my first-ever sermon for class. Focusing on the refugee crisis and how it relates to the Book of Ruth. Any ideas on imagery? Focus area(s)? Neeeeeeeeeeervous.”

Suddenly, I was wide-awake. My genealogy includes generations of preachers, including my father. I teethed on a Bible, married Dennis, an Anglican priest, and wrote more sermons than I can remember; some with my late husband, many as a consultant to religious non-profits.

Ang’s words were an alarm clock to a part of me that has been sleeping for a long time. My professional life no longer includes ghost-writing sermons for preachers. And my new husband’s profession is politics – a different kind of preaching.

My eyes welled as Ang’s call for help awakened memories of Saturday afternoons spent with Bibles, commentaries, and prayer books strewn across my dining table. Dennis and I would discuss, research, and sometimes debate a passage of Scripture; drawing out wisdom and distilling it into a homily for Sunday’s services.

Without hesitation, I replied back to Ang’s request for help. It was late. Chemo has made me weary. But none of that mattered. There was a sermon to be written. A friend who needed help. And in that moment, I felt more awake and alive than I have in a very long time.

For more than an hour, Ang and I exchanged private messages through Facebook. We began by discussing the poetry found in the King James Version of the Book of Ruth 1:16, “And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

Soon, we found ourselves seeing the plight of today’s refugees through the eyes of Ruth. What courage to let go of all that she knew to embrace the unknown of what God had waiting for her in a new land, in a society of new people! It is easy to see God’s purpose when we already know “the rest of the story.” Much harder and messier when we are living the story in real time, with real refugees, real terrorism, and real questions.

The ghost of this once ghost-writer was back at that dining table, blowing dust off of the commentaries; wiping away the internal cobwebs from this long-ago part of me.

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Ang and I discussed. We researched. We found ourselves marveling that Ruth’s words enable us to see with God’s eyes into the heart of today’s refugees – informing our own hearts with renewed compassion.

When I finally went to bed, my heart overflowed with happiness, dripping from my eyes to my pillow. For that hour, I was awake again, alive again. She was the one who asked for help; I was the one who received it.

A few days later, I woke up to another private message waiting from Ang. It was her first sermon, finished and ready to share. “There it is!!!,” she wrote, “You so, so inspired me. THANK YOU!”

Reading her words, I saw pieces of our exchange, coupled with her own wisdom. The end result is a timely, poignant opportunity to see with God’s eyes the news of today filtered through the lens of faith, courage, and love.

Sinners and saints; we are a mixture of both. When we call out for help – when we are willing to receive help – grace calls out to the better version of ourselves. My exchange with Ang reminded me of this truth.

With her permission, here is the entirety of Ang’s sermon. Thank you, Ang, for your words. Through them, I hear grace calling…

Angela Rupchock-Schafer

Hebrew Bible II

SERMON – RUTH

James Martin, SJ, is a famous Roman Catholic priest and social media all-star. Active on Twitter, he is adept at placing into 140 characters or less mini-sermons of a sort. Earlier this week, a tweet of his caught my attention in particular. “Jesus is ready to cross the sea but everyone has an excuse for not following him. Leave behind what hinders you and get on that boat.”

A boat. Crossing the sea. Leaving behind excuses. We have all seen the heartbreaking images of desperate Syrian families attempting to escape violence in a rickety boat across the Mediterranean Sea. The United Nations estimates that more people are displaced now than at any other time since World War II. More than a million refugees fled to European shores in 2015, seeking safety, often in the confines of dangerous boats.

“Leave behind what hinders you and get on that boat.”

Is Father Martin suggesting that to follow Jesus and the Gospel takes a leap of faith akin to the faith of a refugee to cross the sea? What does a leap of faith for a refugee look like? What does it take to put your children – your entire world – into a boat that could flip at any moment and drown you all? What would have to be chasing you to make that terrible choice the BETTER option?  Imagine what it would take for YOU to run from everything you know, to seek safety in a completely unknown land. What could possibly make you do that? How bad would things have to be at home that you would be willing to risk all that you hold dear in a completely foreign land?

The Book of Ruth is the Book of the Refugee. Like so many refugees, Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, are escaping a place they can no longer safely call home. “She started out with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab; for in the country of Moab she had heard that the LORD had taken note of His people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6). Naomi and her daughters-in-law have all three lost their husbands to early death. Unexpectedly they are without their husbands in an extremely patriarchal culture. The women now face famine and the terrifying specter of endless hunger and eventual death.

Imagine what it would take for you to grab what clothes you can fit into a backpack and run. How bad would things have to be? How would your faith in God factor into your decision? Running into the unknown. Running away from the only home you have ever known, into an uncertain future and foreign land.

Staying in Moab meant certain death by starvation for Naomi and Ruth. They had no more options. Flight was their only option. Flight meant traveling back home for Naomi, an Israelite. But for Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, fleeing to Bethlehem would mean leaving behind her entire life, the land of her people, and trusting in something more.  

Ruth had to let go of everything she knew and embrace what God had in store for her. Ruth’s leap of faith was taken the very moment she decided to become a refugee. One of the most passionate, eloquent statements of love of the Hebrew Bible comes from Ruth’s lips, in this exact moment of fear, trepidation and tremendous FAITH. “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). Hunger drives Ruth from her home, but her faith in God and her love of family is what took her to a new land.

It takes raw trust in the Divine to become a refugee.

Pure faith is Ruth’s amazing strength in her moments of greatest fear.  Willingness to surrender to God’s purpose yet to be revealed. A fountain of love for a woman, a mother-in-law, she had no obligation to follow or honor. Hesed. Yet follow, she does. Hesed. Whether thou goest, I will go. Hesed. Your people shall be my people. Hesed. Your God, my God.

Father Martin believes that when it comes to getting in that boat to follow Jesus, “everyone has an excuse not to follow him.” Ruth used no excuses, she got on that fragile boat and set out on the sea. But let’s take this metaphor all the way to its conclusion. Who was waiting on the other side of that metaphorical sea to receive Ruth? Who are waiting on the shores of Europe, on the shores of the United States, to welcome the Syrian refugee families fleeing untold violence and terror?

In one word: Boaz. And WE are Boaz.

Boaz was a well-respected Bethlehemite. He had land, he had power, he was a man of substance. In short, he had nothing to gain whatsoever by taking an interest in Ruth, Naomi and their sad situation. He could have simply sadly shook his head and walked away, as so many in his situation typically do. Ruth was a completely unknown commodity. Boaz was minding his own business in Bethlehem when in strolls this refugee woman, Ruth, looking to glean from his fields. Suddenly everything changed.

Ruth was foreign.

In what ways does society make us as a people immediately cautious and fearful of the unknown? Of the foreigner among us? Contemporary politics is hitting us on all sides with tales of xenophobia and refugee and immigrant-directed violence after the Brexit vote. The presumptive Republican nominee has proposed a ban on all Muslims from entering the United States. Equally preposterously, fear tactics are being used when debating policy for granting asylum and resettlement for refugees in the U.S.

If we think we as a people are being primed to fear the refugee, imagine what Boaz must have been taught. Ezra and Nehemiah were part of Boaz’s cultural heritage, and neither prophet put trust in someone from outside of Israel. “Make America Great Again” might as well have been “Make the Temple Great Again” as far as some early Hebrew Bible prophets were concerned. The inter-mixing of bloodlines was strictly frowned upon and all of this would have been front and center for Boaz as he met Ruth. Boaz had every excuse in the Book to not meet Ruth and welcome her boat at the shore.

The first time they meet, Boaz and Ruth speak on her journey to Bethlehem. Boaz tells Ruth, “‘I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before. May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!’” (Ruth 2: 8-12).

The Book of Ruth goes on to tell us of Ruth and Boaz’s eventual marriage. Together, they became the great-grandparents of King David himself. The end of the Book of Ruth ends with the birth of a son to Ruth and Boaz. “They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, father of David.” (Ruth 4:17). The greatest king Israel ever knew, eventually the Messiah Himself, were both descended from the union between a refugee woman and her unexpected suitor.

It is easy for us to see God’s purpose when we are able to read “the rest of the story” … but much harder when we are living the story in real time. Ruth and Boaz had no idea how their story would end. No happy endings were promised to either of them. Ruth and Boaz certainly would not have expected their love to produce the House of David. They were living in the moment, same as you and I are today.

The refugee crisis we face right now is in real time and made up of millions of real lives. But Ruth enables us to see with God’s eyes into the heart of the refugee and inform our own hearts with renewed compassion. On one level, it is easier to see the courageous faith a refugee needs to get on the boat to cross the sea… but what of the courage of Boaz? What of his faith? To be the one who watches from the shore as that boat approaches, filled with…. what? Who? How? God demands courage to both get on the boat and also to welcome those who arrive with open arms.

The authors and editors of Hebrew Scriptures wanted readers to understand that the greatest Israelite monarch, David, is the descendent of a foreign immigrant and transplant through Ruth. The writer of Matthew thought it important to connect Jesus’ lineage to this same tradition. The plight of the refugee, Ruth’s story of exile, was significant to the author of Matthew. We must meditate on this. We must not forget. There is deep meaning here and it is meant for us, in this moment, to grasp it. To welcome it.

Father Martin tells us, “Jesus is ready to cross the sea but everyone has an excuse for not following him. Leave behind what hinders you and get on that boat.”

Getting on that boat and WELCOMING that boat to shore are both acts of faith.

After all, it takes as much faith in God to declare oneself a refugee as it does to welcome a refugee into your home.

Works cited

Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Second Edition. New

York, Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Martin SJ, James. “https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ” Twitter. 27 June 2016. Website.

27 June 2016.

 

Held

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2016 at 6:50 pm

My hands shake a lot these days. Whether from chemo, meds, or sheer fatigue, my hands often betray the intensity of the fight taking place at cellular levels to kill off and overcome cancer.

In many ways, it seems fitting, really, that my hands are the telltale sign of the battle. To win requires choices on a daily – and sometimes moment-by-moment – basis of what I hold onto; what I let go of; and for how long. It is humbling – and sometimes humiliating – to acknowledge that my hands are simply not big or strong enough to hold it all. At least not all at the same time.

More than I care to admit, I find myself grasping and gripping, trying to hold all the bits and pieces of life in my hands without letting anything slip through my fingers. It’s a false illusion of control. As if my hands are ever really big or strong enough to keep a firm hold on all of life all at once. Yet this particular illusion I cling to seems particularly difficult to let go of.

These days, I find myself noticing the hands of so many others who are wrapping their hands around mine. Collectively – together – they are ensuring that I am held. Nothing that slips through my fingers is lost or forgotten. Their hands are there to catch it. Hold it. Hold me. It is the gift of us. An us defined by too many individuals for me to name separately. It’s a stunning and tangible investment into my life too extraordinary to put into words.

Countless friends have come alongside me – and my mom and sister who cook for my family and me on chemo weeks – to help with meals. They show up carrying Tupperware full of minestrone soup, chicken and dumplings, and chicken potpie. Incredulously, these gifts are often coupled with an apology that it’s just simple food. As if there is anything simple about nourishing both body and soul with a tangible expression of love.

On chemo weeks, my mom arrives with three days of casseroles, soup, and other dishes that conjure up simultaneous emotions of childhood comfort and present day gratitude. My sister, who is still fighting her own battle with breast cancer, also lends her hands to feed not only her own family, but mine. Love on a plate, as I describe it.

My friend Anne somehow knew my initial chemo treatments were nothing short of disastrous. When we met for dinner the last time I was in Washington D.C., she brought me a handmade bracelet with an angel charm which sways delicately when I wear it. When I returned to chemo, I instinctively grabbed for her bracelet to wear. It brings comfort and renewed determination as I spend my days at the hospital with her angel swaying to catch my attention, bringing me back to focus on those who are praying, supporting, and lending the strength of their hands to mine. Angels, indeed.

A few weeks later, I opened a package in the mail to discover a note from Anne. She had written it from her family cottage in Chincoteague. She described walking along the Atlantic and the sand she had carefully scooped up and placed in a tiny bottle – another addition for my bracelet. In it, she had tucked two Swarovski crystals. She described how turning the vial would make them play hide and seek. Such a perfect metaphor for life these days. There are always treasures to be found. Sometimes we just have to dig deep to find them. Or look for them as they unexpectedly wash up on life’s shore. I pictured Anne’s hands scooping up the sea and sand from her family home to share this treasure with me and was suddenly, profoundly, grateful.

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My friend and colleague Nancy does not let a week pass without a note of encouragement arriving in my mailbox, or a vase of flowers delivered at my door to brighten my week. Despite a travel and work schedule that is worse than my own, she calls almost daily, usually beginning with something work-related but always ending with personal words of love, encouragement, and the assurance that I will come out on the other side. Her words remind me of truths I cannot see in the heat and weariness of this present battle. Her words bring me comfort in knowing my professional colleagues and personal friends are right there with me to help hold me together, whether with work projects or personal encouragement.

I could fill volumes describing the thoughtful acts that offer practical help and emotional strength. My friend Nicole arranged for a WNBA Mercury 2014 Championship ball cap bearing the signatures of the players to be delivered to me courtside while I attended a recent game. Something to help cover my bald head; something to remind me of her love and prayers.

And it would take pages to describe the countless ways my husband and family lend their hands on a daily – and often minute-by-minute – basis, to hold me together. Large and small pieces of life slip through my hands these days. Lorenzo and my children make sure they are caught and held. Every single one. Even when I am angry or sad. Even when I am too fatigued or ill to notice. Even on my good days when I am aware of and grateful for their hands, which never let go of mine.

I am held. Collectively. Figuratively. Literally. Call it faith. Community. Friendship. Family. I call it the wondrous, miraculous gift of us.

By Chance and by Choice

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2016 at 9:37 am

I woke up this morning with a question echoing through my head, instantly pushing aside the dreamy fog I usually relish in my quiet, orienting early morning moments. What causes a man to become a dad? How do the chances and choices of life move a male from becoming merely a co-contributor of DNA into the role of father, mentor, advocate, and friend? More importantly, what causes a man who didn’t contribute biologically to willingly; proudly weather the hard work it takes to earn the right to walk that path with a child?

Sneaking out of bed so as not to wake Lorenzo on this Father’s Day morning, I crept downstairs, fired up the coffee pot, stirred up some scones, and continued to muse on this unexpected question. And, as is often the case, I came back to a fundamental truth of my life: I know what I live; with whom I live; and what their lives and our collective living teach.

Besides my own father, there are men who have entered my life by chance – or divine providence, depending on your world and life view – and made the choice to make a significant impact and investment in my children and me.

I think of Sel, my mom’s husband. This is a man whose handshake is as binding as any legal contract. He was raised on a farm with a work ethic and sense of integrity that forms a core component of his character.

mom and sel

When he married my mom, I was an adult child with a daughter of my own. We experienced the blending, bonding – and sometimes bittersweet – moments many newly-formed American families encounter. What we never experienced, however, was a distinction between whose kids belonged to which parent. We were – are – his kids. All of us. He loves equally, gives generously, and proudly claims all of us as his own, just as we do him.

Megan, my daughter, is also a product of the blended families that so often define our American culture. When I married my beloved late husband Dennis, Megan was a slip of a child, bursting toward tomorrow with promise and potential. I was her advocate, cheerleader, and parent. What she needed was a mentor who offered unwavering stability, security, wisdom, acceptance, and love. In short, a dad.

Dennis & Megan

In a thousand ways, through countless conversations, endless humor and insight, Dennis became Megan’s dad in every sense of the word. He never asked or expected her to name him as such – she just did, because he was – and still is.

And now, in this season of life, there is my husband Lorenzo. Again, a blended family with three children who entered our lives in various ages and stages of development.

Even before we married, Lorenzo made the decision to be a father equally to each of our three kids. Becoming a part of Megan’s life just as she was graduating from high school, he knew he could never create the “daddy” moments of a little girl growing up. He didn’t even try.

Instead, he met her where she was at in life, becoming the dad who helped move her in and out of college dorm rooms – sometimes at 2 a.m. – often in 100+ degree temperatures that offer an added badge of courage and distinction to an Arizona State University education. It’s an alma mater bond that they proudly share.

When Lorenzo first ran for office, he recognized she was heading toward a career in politics. Without hesitation, it was 18-year-old Megan he chose to serve as his campaign manager. He opened up his network to her, gave her his unwavering trust and backing to represent him, and worked side-by-side with her as they learned, lost – and eventually won – together.

With our boys, I watch Lorenzo carefully observe their distinct and often disparate interests with equal pride and attention. For Adam, the oldest boy, there is a shared entrepreneurial bent toward business development. Lorenzo shares generously with Adam the lessons he learned from his Fortune 500 days, while also inviting Adam’s insights into the millennial workforce and emerging trends and technologies shaping a global economy.

Roman, our youngest, is entering his senior year of high school. Lorenzo is teaching him to drive; a perfect metaphor as Roman transitions from boy to young man. I see Lorenzo gauging the balance between overt instruction and silent intuition. He recognizes the need for Roman to make important decisions, learning – and sometimes failing – with a safety net that a dad provides so the fall is not too fast or far.

Sierra-17

Today, on this Father’s Day, I am thinking of my own dad, along with Sel, Dennis, and Lorenzo. Their lives are woven into mine – into my children’s. In both singular and collective decisions, they have intentionally created the threads that bind individuals into families.

Let’s be honest. It has not been easy. Sometimes, it still isn’t. There have been moments of awkwardness and anger. There have been times of failure and disappointment. But, at the heart of it all, there has been a conscious decision that we are a family. And when we fail, we learn to fail a little bit better each time. We become stronger in the process. We are a family, by chance and by choice. This is what families and fathers do.

My coffee is now cold and I hear Lorenzo stirring upstairs. It’s time to refill my cuppa and get this Father’s Day started.

To Sel, Dennis, and Lorenzo, thank you for taking the chance and making the choice to become the husbands, fathers, and friends who hold together the fabric of our collective family. Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

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