Of onions, marigold, St. Francis and Tianna – October 14, 2012

Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free “travel packages” sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage –
“a transformative journey to a sacred center” full of hardships, darkness and peril.” In the tradition of pilgrimage those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself.

-Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

St. Francis, Erin Dunigan Sermon, la MisionThis morning I’d like to begin with onions – doesn’t everyone think spirituality and onions?

Last week I decided that it was time to plant onions. You can plant onions from seed, or you can plant them from a seedling that is a little baby onion. I had a patch of ground prepared and wondered what it would hold. I decided that it would hold onions.

So I put them in – the right spacing apart, point up, in about two inches into the ground, covered. It was actually pretty easy as my gardening goes – normally I am pick-axing giant rocks out of the ground.

I moved on to do a few other things in the garden.

But then I walked back to the onion patch and looked at it. Of course I had only just finished. But I looked at it, this blank part of ground, thought of my grandmother, and I said, “Grow dammit!”

Erin Dunigan Grandmother, 'Tianna'My grandmother died when I was still very young – I was 7 when she passed away, so I didn’t get to know her for a long time, but the knowing that I had of her was very, very fond.

Not only do I have many fond memories of her from my own experience, but I also have the family stories about her that I learned later on. One of them had to do with plants.

Supposedly she was having a hard time with her house plants – they were dying, and someone said to her “You know don’t you, you are supposed to talk to your plants – that’s what makes them grow.”

Without skipping a beat my grandmother said, I do talk to them. I talk to them everyday. I say, “Grow dammit, or I’ll pull you out!”

We are talking today about harvest and about purpose and finding meaning.
You will also see, up here on the table, in addition to the book by Parker Palmer and a handful of onions, that I brought my grandma’s St. Francis bird bath – which is not really a bird bath anymore, but more of a succulent garden now.

My favorite catholic priest Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, talks about what he calls ‘birdbath Franciscanism.’

I’m assuming most people have heard of St. Francis – the first sermon he preached was to a bunch of birds – it is said that he preached to them, they listened there in the tree, and when he was done he sent them into the world and they flew away.

I have to tell you, no joke, this morning as I was sitting out on the patio, this one tree in the yard was completely full of birds – but they weren’t listening to a thing I said.

St. Francis was also was known for being a bit counter-cultural – he was born into wealth and privilege, but gave that up in order to be poor amongst the poor.

It is even said that at one point his father was very angry at him for this – and was trying to ‘reign him in.’ In order to show that he was walking away from it all, St. Francis stripped himself even of the robe he was wearing – giving it back to his father – and walked through the streets naked, praising God.

Now what Richard Rohr says is that a lot of times you can get this birdbath Franscicanism – oh, isn’t it sweet, he talked to the animals.

But the reality is, in the life of faith and spirituality and finding meaning and finding purpose (we come from different places and so we call it different things) – that life that draws us all here to this place, that we are seeking a deeper experience of – it is not always so pretty, it is not always like that travel brochure.

Of course, the search for our purpose and meaning can be lofty and wonderful but it can also be tough and difficult.

St. Francis, La Mision, Erin Dunigan SermonWhat you might not be able to see is that St. Francis also has a crack, right here, along his neck. One time he tipped over and hit the tile and his head fell off. For a while his head sat next to him in the birdbath, until someone finally thought that doesn’t seem right, and so glued it back on.

But he has a crack there, within him.

Most of you know that I have just been on a trip – I travel as a Presbyterian minister, photographer and writer – it is wonderful and I am so thankful for the opportunity.

Recently I was in Taiwan. I love being in other places. But I don’t always love the getting there and back – it can be a long plane ride, there can be jet lag – it can be kind of rough.

But my favorite part of it is to watch movies on the plane. I don’t have a TV, I don’t really go to the movies because after dark I don’t really leave the house. So I fly on airplanes and watch movies.

Normally I like to watch foreign films. But if you are on Asiana airlines, if you watch say a Japanese film, the words are in Japanese and the subtitles are in Korean – that did not do me a lot of good. I did watch one Hindi movie, subtitled in Korean – but it was Bollywood and so at least there was a bit of music and dancing in the mix.

I decided I needed to find an English movie as my Korean is not very fluent – I can say good morning, milk, apple and delicious.

So I found this film called the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – for the elderly and beautiful. Some of you may have seen it – some of you may have been in it! (If you haven’t seen it, when you do, you will know why I said that.)

It is an incredible film about this young Indian man, Sunny, who decides he is going to ‘outsource old age.’ He creates a brochure, a beautiful travel brochure, promoting his hotel. He sends it off to British retirees. They think it looks gorgeous – and plus, they can’t really afford to live out their retirement in the UK – and so seven of them decide, let’s go, to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It looks exotic. Appealing. Delightful.

As the movie opens we see each of these folks experiencing the excitement about the brochure and the possibility.

Of course, you know how it goes – they get there, and not only is it not exactly like the brochure, it is much, much different. One couple opens their room and birds fly out, one woman goes to her room and there is no door, there is a leaky tap – it is not exactly what the brochure made it out to be.

So, this one woman that is really having a rough time goes to complain to Sunny, the manager. She says, ‘I do not want this! I want to go here (pointing to the brochure)! I want to go to this hotel! Where is this?!”

Sunny responded back to her – “The amazing news is that this, in fact, is exactly where we are!”

“No it is not. This does NOT look like the brochure,” said the irate woman.

His response is one of the central lines that weaves itself throughout the film – “Well, we have a saying here in India, that everything will be alright in the end – so if it’s not alright, then it must not be the end.”

You can imagine it doesn’t go well with his upset client.

Further on as this opening unfolds, the guests are having dinner and Sunny welcomes them to their new home.

“Look around, you can see that you are all a bit long in the tooth – but here we have a place where you can relax and enjoy your last years.” One look around the room tells us that the guests are not so sure about this plan.

But what is amazing is that as the movie unfolds and as they let go of their ideas from that brochure, and experience the real Jaipur India, the real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, they find themselves planting in a soil that takes hold of them, and plants itself in them as they have taken themselves to that new place, to that foreign land.

It is beautiful to watch.

While I was in Taiwan I saw an example of that. He is a man named Pastor Chen. We met with lots of people, but Pastor Chen made a huge impression on me.

In Taiwan, when you are a Presbyterian minister and you are ready to take your first job, it is a lottery system, so they literally draw the names of the pastors, and assign them to churches that need them.

Pastor Chen made the decision that he would stay where he was sent. That would be it. He would plant himself there.

He was sent to an aboriginal (indigenous) area. He is not aboriginal, but he was sent to this area.

When he got there he found out that not only could the church not afford to pay him, they couldn’t afford to pay him, and that most in the church did not have jobs themselves. He quickly realized that he was going to need a job, and that if the church were ever to become self-sustaining, he would need to find a way to provide jobs for his parishioners as well.

It just so happens that there is a hospital nearby, a Christian hospital, started by Presbyterians. Pastor Chen became aware that the hospital needed a cleaning crew, and jumped at the chance to provide one. He quickly needed to gather this team.

They began the cleaning work – at first they were polishing the floors way too much and it was a bit dangerous. But they got into a rhythm.

Not long after the hospital came to him saying “You’re doing such a good job with the cleaning crew – do you also do fumigation?”

“Of course we do!” said Pastor Chen – who admitted to us that they didn’t know anything about fumigation. But they figured they could learn.

The hospital came to him again – we need some landscaping work, do you do landscaping work?

“Of course!” answered Pastor Chen – again telling us, they had no idea. He admitted that the first time around they pruned things back just a bit too much, but they learned.

As Pastor Chen recounted this story he said, “We learned. We grew.”

What started as an idea with 4 people now employs over 300 people – both those within the church and those outside.

It is also allowing the church to provide after school tutoring for the aboriginal children and helping the church to advocate on behalf of the people. Pastor Chen told us that the biggest threat to the aboriginal way of life is the threat to the environment brought on by globalization.

One guy. Who decided when he randomly got sent to this place, to stay where he was planted. It is 20+ years since he was planted there. It is amazing to hear the stories.

Of course there was difficulty along the way.

Of course St. Francis has a little crack that you don’t necessarily see when you look on 20 years later.

The life of faith calls us, invites us, draws us in to plant ourselves deeply, in place and to let place plant itself in us.

I’ve been reading lately about monasticism because I love St. Francis and because there are other modern day communities of folks who have dedicated themselves to a rhythm of life, to a way of going deeper.

That is one of the things some of us have talked about – we love Not Church, we love gathering, but how do we go deeper?

I think one of the ways we go deeper is by adopting this idea of a rhythm of life, a rule of life.

You don’t have to do it exactly the way they do it in monasteries – celibacy might not be an option for everyone, for instance – but hospitality might. Some of these monasteries, communities, are centers of hospitality that invite in the stranger, friends, and share meals together. Some of them have regular times of prayer and mediation.

They are finding ways to plant themselves deep in their soil.

One of my other favorite teachers, a rabbi named Jesus – you may have heard of him – the way he gave voice to this idea of the life of faith, often referred to as the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. I think it is easy for us to think, oh heaven that is after we die, clouds, harps and such.

But this is right here, right now, that which is seeping in and planting itself in our lives and in our very beings.

He talked about it like a mustard seed.

If you are a gardener you might not love this analogy – because you know that a mustard seed is tiny, but once it gets into the dirt, it takes over everything. In fact, it is sort of a pain.

But that is what Jesus used as an analogy of this life of meaning, permeating and finding its way through everything, so that all of a sudden you have beautiful vegetation and flowers and spice…

Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, if you find yourself saying, hmm, I’m not so sure, what my meaning is, my purpose, in this season of Autumn that brings a sense of the season of autumn in life – everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright then it is not yet the end.

The other thing you’ll notice about onions, once they are grown, is that they have many layers. In a sense, the life of faith is like peeling away those outer onion layers, until you get to the center, to that which is ‘onion.’

We peel away that which is not – that which keeps us distracted or not focused or angry – whatever things are not going to last, until we find that core within – or it is found in us.

My grandmother saw herself as not really being such a green thumb. Not really doing much with that which she had planted.

She kind of was here, in a sense, by accident – she and my grandfather were set to move here for their retirement, but as the house was being built, my grandfather died. So my grandmother lived here for the last twenty years of her life in La Mision.

At first there was no electricity, for there wasn’t any yet on the hill. She didn’t know how to drive – she had to learn. And she didn’t speak Spanish – which she learned enough.

As I have spent time here and gotten to know the community, when I meet Mexican men about my age who grew up here, they will say ‘Dunigan? How are you related Anna Dunigan?”

She was my grandmother.

When I was a boy, she would give me a quarter for raking her leaves….
When I was a boy, I would come to the door to ask for a cup of water – knowing that she would also give me a cookie….

When I was a boy I had no shoes for school, and she gave me some….

She didn’t see the result of that then. She didn’t know that her granddaughter, who was only a little girl, would later be living in her house, meeting those little boys who had swept her leaves or eaten her cookies.

I called her Mama. That was my name for her. But everyone else I knew called her Tianna. Tianna was not her name – her name was Ann.

But as kids do, you just accept things, and it was only a few years ago that I realized, “You know, Tianna – it was even the name on her stocking- that name was given to her. Tia Anna. Auntie Ann.

She planted herself in this place, and this place renamed her. They gave her a new name. She was no longer known as Ann. She was Tianna.

Because of her I am here of course, but because of her we all are here, gathered together this morning.

Plant yourselves in this place. Let this place be planted in you.

And if it is not all right, that’s okay – because we know it must not yet be the end.

pruning, abiding and bearing fruit: repentance and the days of awe*
Sunday, September 9, 2012


I remember, after I had been ordained–three years ago this October–though there were many emotions present, there was one with a very particular outlet.

I was excited, finally, to be able to have something to say that I ‘do’ when crossing the  border from Mexico to the US and being questioned by the border guards. Up until that point I had tried to describe it–well, I’m in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but I’m also a photographer and a writer and I travel a lot–but now I could just say “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Easy. Done.


My first time crossing, after being ‘official’ as a minister I drove up to the gate (this was pre-SENTRI pass for those who pay attention to such details) ready to give my answer.

Sure enough the guard asked me, “What do you do?” Almost too proudly I responded, “I’m a Presbyterian minister” to which his immediate response was, “Recite the 23rd Psalm.”

I blanked. Totally blanked. This was not what I was expecting from the US Border Guard.

“Yea though I walk thru the shadow of death…” I tried, starting in the middle and stopping far short of the end.

“Keep going,” he said.

“Well, I don’t have it memorized,” I had to admit to him. “Do you?” I asked him in return.

“Yep,” he responded.

“Well, you must be Catholic,” I replied, to which he, smiling, answered in the affirmative.

“I’m Presbyterian, we don’t have to memorize Psalm 23,” I responded, rather pathetically, I can admit.

He, smiling, waved me through as I, in my shame, crossed over to the other side.

The very next time I crossed, not to be dissuaded, I planned on the same answer–though I still hadn’t memorized the 23rd Psalm.

“What do you do?” the border guard asked me. “I’m a Presbyterian minister,” I responded.

“Do you have any drugs, tobacco or alcohol with you?” he responded.

Oh, so you must be Presbyterian too…

This month our Not Church theme is the Days of Awe. It is a phrase that references the Jewish calendar, a ten day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, and ending with Yom Kippur.

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur those records are sealed. The time between, then, is a sort of ‘purgatory’ if you will in which one can, if necessary, attempt to change the outcome.

What is interesting is that the two days are not back to back, one right after the other.  They are separated by ten days, what are known as the Days of Awe. This ‘grace period’ in a sense, is a time of penitence, of repentance, of considering what one has done that is not exactly what might have been best, and what one might do, in the coming year, to change that.

The new year begins with repentance. Ten days of repentance. It’s not unlike the New Year, the January 1st one, being a time of making resolutions. Though with the Days of Awe there is more of a focus on this need to cleanse that which has kept one distant.

Many of you know that I like to work in my garden. I’ve given you a break from garden stories for the past few months, but you know that can last only so long…

Lately I’ve been planting fruit trees. Many fruit trees. At last count I’ve got 15. You name the fruit, I’ve likely got it. except for Quince, which I had to look up when the plant guys were trying to sell me a membrillo to see what that meant. Even having the translation, knowing that the tree was a quince didn’t help me much. I’m not sure what to do with a quince.

But mango, apple (yes, I do have both mango and apple planted in the same yard…we’ll see how that goes) peach, nectarine, plum, avocado, guava, pomegranate, pear, tangerine, lemon, lime, grapefruit and, most recently, orange. I’ve also got an almond tree, a pistachio bush, and two grape vines.

Not that long ago I posted a photo of my grape vine, newly purchased, and captioned it ‘grapes!’ A friend on facebook correctly pointed out that, in fact, this was not a photo of grapes, but of a grape vine (with not even a flower at this point) and that by calling it grapes I was expressing something that I ‘saw’ but that clearly was not yet realized.

Which, of course, is what I think the ‘Days of Awe’ are all about…

Jesus, himself a Jew, who, it happens, liked to tell stories from the garden, is said to have put it this way in the book of John–the most poetic and mysticalof the four gospels:

I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. (John 15:1-5)

Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.

It seems to me that the word ‘repentance‘ has got a bit of a PR problem.  I think that the idea ‘repentance’ can be a word we don’t necessarily like talking about. It too easily can bring up images of hate mongers, standing on the corner spewing vitriol, or protesting whatever they see as the current threat, while waving signs that say “Repent!”

If that’s what ‘repent’ is, I want nothing to do with it.

But in Hebrew, which is the language of the Jewish Scriptures, the word translated as repent is most often the Hebrew word Shoov, which, literally, means to turn. When I was in seminary, studying Hebrew one summer, my friends and I had to memorize something in the range of 40 words a day. The mnemonic which we used to remember Shoov was the image of your shoe, turning around. That’s free of charge. There was also another word,Ohell, which we remembered as “Ohell there’s a bear in the tent” but I can’t remember if the word means ‘tent’ or ‘bear.’ Since there are more tents than bears in the Bible, I’m guessing it was the former…

I also took Greek, which is the language of the Christian Scriptures, known often as the New Testament. In Greek the word for repent is most oftenmetanoia, or to change ones mind.

So repent literally means to turn around–to stop going in one direction and turn, or return, in the opposite direction. It is a changing of ones mind.

It is not so much about “Horrible me, I’m an awful person, what must I do to rid myself of my horrible-ness.” It is more like ‘pruning’ which is an entirely different concept altogether. I’ve seen it primarily in my bougainvillea.

Last winter I gave the bougainvillea what I would call a good haircut. So good, in fact, that people who saw it wondered if it would ever come back. It had been a few years since I had pruned it, and in the intervening time it had gotten rather ‘leggy’ and not very full. So I pruned it. It was not because I was mad at it, or because it is an awful plant and needed to be punished–I pruned it because I wanted it to grow well.  And this summer? The blossoms are abundant, the foliage is dense and green.

The Days of Awe give us an opportunity to reflect, to prune.

But the thing about pruning, and about bearing fruit is that they both, of course, assume planting. There is a Chinese proverb–the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is today.

The thing is, if you want to eat grapes now, you don’t plant a grape vine. If you want to eat grapes now you go to the fruteria and, provided they are in season, which they are currently, you buy yourself some grapes.

Planting a grape vine is something different entirely.

Though I have 15 fruit trees, this summer I can tell you exactly how much fruit I ate from them: three nectarines and one plum. That’s it. Four pieces of fruit. Granted, they were delicious. The best nectarine you’ve ever eaten. A plum that was sweet beyond anything that you’d buy at the store. But, that’s something in the range of $50 per piece of fruit, if you do the math.

It’s not exactly a great deal. At least not yet.

Right now, in fact, it seems a bit absurd, really.

But give it time. It will most definitely seem absurd. But, I trust, for entirely different reasons.

For I remember, as a kid growing up, we had a plum tree in our back yard. There were three of us–my mom, my dad and I–and we could not possibly eat all of the plums that came from that tree in a given summer, making jam with some, and giving the rest away. In fact, I was born in June, and that summer the plum tree on Snug Harbor Road had a bumper crop. Let’s just say, my mom learned the hard way that what she ate, I ate. But, I like to think that the love of plums, fresh from the tree, was instilled within me from the very milk that I feasted on when I was only weeks old.

That was one tree, with three people. I’ve planted 15 trees. I hope you all like fruit…

The Days of Awe invite us into a time of reflection, of repentance, of turning away from certain ways of being, pruning if you will, and turning toward that which bears fruit, abiding.

We are invited to consider that which we need to let go of, that which binds us, that which keeps us from being who we already are.

The fundamental question asked, in the ten day period represented by the Days of Awe, is ‘will my name be written in the book of life?’

We are called to turn, to change our minds, to repent.

But, at the end of the day, the point is not the pruning. The point is to bear fruit.

Jesus, when he preached among the people, put it this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Turn. Return. Change your mind. That which you are seeking, it is not ‘out there’ distant in some far off place or for some future time. Believe. It is right here, now, among you, within you.

You are already who you are still becoming–like a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t know the 23rd Psalm. Like a fruit tree. Like a grape vine.  This process doesn’t happen over night or immediately. It is not instantaneous. There is a time, a grace period–the Days of Awe–a space between the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

It’s like seeing that young vine, still only a plant, no fruit yet to speak of, and proclaiming, “grapes!”



the heart of the matter

In the summer of 2002 I worked as a hospital chaplain. It was not by choice, but a required internship as part of my seminary training and preparation to become a Presbyterian minister. In fact, I had put off the internship from the summer before, deciding instead to take an intensive Greek course. Greek. As in, ‘it’s all Greek to me.’ That’s how excited I was to do the chaplain thing.

It’s not that I don’t have compassion for sick people, and not that I have a fear of hospitals in general. It was the death part that terrified me. Not even the dying part, so much as the dead part. I had heard stories of chaplains having to go to the morgue, to be with the family as they confirmed that their loved one was, in fact, the deceased. It terrified me.

Okay, it was the dying part too. I had never, at that point in my life, been with anyone as they died. I had no idea what to do. How to act. What to say. I had a friend who’s father had died a few years prior, and I vividly remember being with the family in the hospital as they awaited the inevitable. Their pastor was not available for some reason, so a rookie, stand-in pastor came to the hospital to console the family. All I remembered was how incredibly awkward and how, well, how inadequate he seemed to the task.

It was the fear of being that guy that I brought with me to Mission Hospital in the summer of 2002. But what I hadn’t counted on was that it would be life, more than death, that would end up disturbing me to my very core.

The story I’m about to read you, of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, is a disturbing one–perhaps one of the most troubling stories told about Jesus in the Bible. It’s not typically a go-to story if you’re on PR for team Jesus.

Mark 7:24-30

From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of  Syrophenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

I warned you–it’s kind of a random story, isn’t it? Sure, there’s the whole demon possession thing–that’s gonna have to be the subject for another Not Church. Or not.

So, this woman comes to Jesus, pleading on behalf not of herself, but of her daughter, who is in need of healing. Scholars who study the Bible suggest that there must not have been a father in the picture, or else he would have been the one to come and talk to Jesus–it was a man’s role, not a woman’s. So the woman comes to Jesus, alone, to plead for the welfare of her child.

And when she found Jesus, he too was alone. He had retreated to the region of Tyre–which is Gentile, not Jewish country–and, it appears, was hoping to avoid notice. The way Mark tells it, Jesus had been on the go–immediately this and then immediately that–so it would make sense that he’d need a bit of a breather. Can you blame the guy if he just needed a little siesta on that afternoon?

And then in barges this woman–(how did she get in? whose house was he in? why was he alone? how did this woman know where to find him? how did no one else know? ).

Not only a woman, but a Gentile woman. Not only a Gentile woman, but a Gentile woman whose daughter, being demon possessed, made her, by association, unclean. Not exactly the kind of person that an up and coming rabbi needed to be hanging out with, alone in the house. What would the neighbors think?

She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus, the great physician. Jesus, the wise teacher who lived a life that we are often told to emulate. Jesus, who, in what can easily be described as rudeness, compared the woman to a dog. And we’re not talking Tigger or Chulito here…. Wait a second. That doesn’t seem like how the story is supposed to go.

On that particular summer day in my role as a chaplain I was actually obeying my assignment to visit two particular areas of the hospital, knocking on doors, announcing myself as the chaplain, and asking if the patient wanted to talk.

I hated it. Cold calling people for God? Not only that, but cold calling when they had nowhere to go, no way to hide or pretend they weren’t home when I came knocking on their door? What was worse was that some folks, when they heard that the chaplain was at the door, freaked out, assuming that it meant their imminent demise.

But on that day I knocked, announced myself, and was invited into the room. An older African American woman was lying in the bed. This was noteworthy as Mission Hospital is in Mission Viejo, south Orange County, not exactly the most ethnically diverse spot on the map.

She invited me in and asked me to pray for her. I did, praying some sort of bland prayer generally about healing and well being, and asking God to be with her–I didn’t want to get her hopes up, after all, since she was, as it were, in the hospital. I chatted with her for a few more minutes and then left to continue on my rounds.

“Why give the dogs what is meant for the children,” Jesus says to the woman, with an attitude that seems to say, now would you let me continue on with my day–I’m trying to get away here, have a bit of peace, before the crowds show up again.

But her response is as sharp as it is quick–even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs from under the table.

And with that Jesus tells her that, for her words, her daughter has been healed. She went home and found the girl, lying in bed, healed.

The thing is, the book of Mark is full of Jesus talking in these sort of stories, these parables–I was joking not long ago with Ron that I had posted something on facebook about dealing with a lot of rocky ground.

There is a story in the bible where Jesus talks about a seed falling on different types of ground, including rocky. All of my pastor-type friends commented about the rocky ground, assuming that I was using it as a metaphor. I had to clarify that no, I was, in fact, really talking about rocky ground–it had made my carrots grow all bent as they searched for a way through.

But the point being, in the book of Mark, Jesus is all about these parables. He rarely says anything plainly, obviously. It is almost always with a sort of play on words. And the disciples–not Peter Paul and Mary, but Peter, James, John and the other nine, the disciples don’t get it.

They are always asking Jesus, um, what did you mean when you were talking about rocky ground…? The disciples should have gotten it. They were hanging out with Jesus all the time. They were Jewish, like him. They were men, like him. They were the right kind of people. Not like this woman. A foreigner.

Even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs from under the table.

She got it. She spoke his language. In all of the stories of the parables, in the stories of the gospels, she is the only one not just to get it, but then to speak back to Jesus, using a parable herself.

She spoke up and the unbelievable happened– her daughter was healed.

As I went on my hospital rounds the following day, knocking on doors, cold calling on innocent and trapped patients, I heard a familiar voice say come in. I hadn’t really paid attention enough to realize that I was back at the woman’s room, the woman who had asked me to pray for her the day before.

I’m healed, she said.
You’re what? I sputtered. Great job, chaplain.
I’m healed. You prayed for me, and God healed me. The doctors told me this morning. Thank you so much.

She was healed.

It was only mid afternoon, still hours from the 5pm dismissal time, but I told my supervisor that I had to leave. As I sat out in my car in the parking garage I was overwhelmed. I was in seminary studying to be a pastor, working as a chaplain–one would think that an answered prayer would not be so faith shaking.

The thing is, I had prepared myself, or had at least tried to, for the death element of the hospital work. But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was the life.

A few months ago I was at a birthday party for Becky, the daughter of the pastor of the church in the colonia. The party was at her parents’ house, at the church, and many of her Mexican and American friends were there.

It was that night when I first met Dr. Sarah, who many of you know as well. She happened to mention a local man, Jimmy, who had a serious heart condition. As she spoke I realized that it was, in fact, the same person who Audi, last spring, had told many of us about and for whom we had raised some money to help pay for the tests he had to undergo. Many of us know from his work at La Fonda, or as one of Don Lucio’s son’s, brother of Betto on the baseball team.

Sarah explained to me that his condition was very serious and that it looked as if there was really no hope, short of a miracle. The severity of the problem, it seemed, was beyond the capacity of the resources at the General Hospital in Tijuana.

As we chatted, it occurred to me that the CEO of Hoag Memorial Hospital, Presbyterian, in Newport Beach, just so happens to be a member of the church where I grew up, where many of you came to my ordination service. “I don’t know him, but I have friends who do–I can at least ask,” I said to Sarah.

To be honest, I don’t think neither Sarah nor I thought there was much likelihood of anything coming of it. But, just in case, she got me his chart info, which I mailed to another doctor in Newport Beach, also a church member, who promised to get it to the right people to review it. That was back in October.

I found myself thinking, there’s no way this prestigious, wealthy hospital in Newport Beach, of all places, is going to take on the case of a Mexican guy–the son of a farmer, one of something like fifteen kids–from La Mision–a case that not only requires getting an emergency visa for him to even enter the US, but is also quite risky, extremely expensive, and with no guarantees that he will even live through the surgery itself.

This week we got the news.

Hoag has agreed to perform the surgery. Hoag, a  state of the art facility with rooms that maximize the view of Newport Harbor–has agreed to incur all of the expense for a potentially life-saving, but also life-threatening surgery for Jimmy, son of Don Lucio, who lives along the river road in La Mision.

As Sarah told me the good news, she gave me a hug, as tears came to my eyes.

Who knows how long it took that Syrophoenician woman to get home that day. I wonder what she was thinking as she must have hurried back to her daughter. But I’m guessing, as she entered the house, and found her daughter well, that with tears in her eyes she picked her up, embracing her with love.

Love. We often, especially this time of year, express it with a heart. The word heart has many meanings, many interpretations. This close to Valentine’s Day we are of course reminded of its association with romance, with candies, and cards.

But the word heart can also mean at the center, the core, the very nature of something–the heart of the matter, for instance.

It seem to me that the heart of the matter is this:

That force which pulses thru the very heart, beating love, bringing life, knows no boundaries–in spite of a reluctant chaplain, a tired Jesus, or an unlikely surgery.

And the bread, it seems, is for all.