Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43 ~
This morning’s New Testament reading is about a woman, Tabitha (her name in Hebrew) or Dorcas (Greek). Do you know what it means? Gazelle! And, since names in scripture are rarely chosen at random, I imagine the young Tabitha as graceful, spirited, and free. Continuing to imagine (because there’s only one paragraph about her in the entire New Testament), I see Tabitha growing older marrying, having children, working as a seamstress, becoming a widow, and, at some point, becoming attracted to the newly formed Jesus movement in the city of Joppa. A woman who already gave and gave, Tabitha continued to do her “good works and acts of charity,” following the path of Jesus.
Of course, by this time, she was no longer a gazelle. You see, all those years of caring for (and probably burying) children, followed by caring for and burying a husband, always accompanied by working as a seamstress and doing acts of charity and good works for her community took a toll. Her eyes were no longer dancing and bright. Her steps no longer light. Age aside, she felt tired and old and no longer greeted life with the same spirit. Then, she sickened, and even though there were other widows tending and caring for her, died. Perhaps she’d given too much of “a dang.”
Of course, then Peter arrived and saved the day (in the bible, it’s almost always a man). He raised Tabitha from the dead and gave her a new chance at life. Then… as I wrote earlier, we never hear of her again. So, I wonder: what came next? Did she think, “Really?! I was finally resting and at peace and you brought me back?” Or, “Okay, I’m back! Time to get on track!”? Or, “Thank God, because I’d really like the chance to do it differently.”?
I don’t know. But I’d like to explore the last response. For, as I preached Easter Sunday, I think resurrection and transformation are inseparable. Meaning, Tabitha’s return to life must have been accompanied by new eyes, new ears, and a new understanding of what it means to live on this earth and create God’s Kingdom while we’re here.
So, what does this mean for us? Because I’m guessing at least some of us can relate to her story! Whatever the reason— parenting, caregiving, living in 21st century America, “giving a dang”— it can feel exhausting just to get up and put one foot in front of the other each morning.
Scottish author Ali Smith accurately conveys this in her post-Brexit novel, Autumn:
I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet.
Yup. Me too. And, since humans haven’t changed that much in a thousand years, perhaps Tabitha felt the same. So, I wonder, what did she do, how did she transform, and what might we learn from her return to life way back in the day?
T.S. Eliot offers a possibility in his powerful poem, Ash Wednesday: “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.” Eliot, an Anglican convert, wrote these lines as a prayer, meaning that, in order to care, we must release the burden of caring… to a power greater than our own. We have to acknowledge we aren’t God, don’t have a “God’s eye” view, and surely don’t know the end of any story! For this, the gazelle can be our teacher. Yes, there are lions, but she neither created them nor controls their existence! So, rather than cower in fear, she lives with spirit, bravery, and beauty in the midst of the savanna.
We must let go in order to care. But how? How do we not care in order to care? How do we hand the burden over to God?
By spending time with Her. Which is so much easier said than done! For it means putting down the phone, the wine glass, the TV remote, the laptop, and even the literary novel to just, quoting Eliot again, “sit still.” And sitting still, without input, without interaction, without chemical substance, without distraction, is something we rarely ever do. Thus, it’s about as countercultural as it gets. And it’s the only way back to our sweet selves and God.
Returning to Tabitha, I like to imagine that after Peter departed, she lay back down and said to her friends: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be alive. But I really do need some rest. In fact, I’m going to lie here until I feel like myself again: spirited, grace-filled, and free. Then I’ll return to my acts of service. Because then and only then will they come from a place of true love and openness of heart. At which point she looks at the other women directly and says: We cannot give what we do not have.
And friends, I’m pretty sure she’d want us all to know: We cannot give what we do not have. Sure, we might have a “dang” or even a “damn” to give. But is that really what we want to offer the world? A world so desperately in need of true love and openness of heart?
When Peter said, “Tabitha, get up,” he gave her his hand and helped her up. Thus, she came back to life. Such a simple thing, extending a hand to someone who’s exhausted unto death. Such a life-saving action, to help them up. So, I ask: how do we help each other up? How do we get out of our own heads and concerns long enough really to see the other, notice their needs, and exercise our capacity to care?
I imagine Tabitha would tell us the following. Step one: Lie down. Literally or figuratively. Lie down and get some rest. Take some time with your own precious self and God. Whatever this looks like for you. It could be scripture reading and reflecting, meditating on a zafu, or walking slowly through the woods listening for God’s presence in the trees. We just need to slow down, calm down, and connect… with the Divine.
And note, there’s no rush. If you need to spend three months on step one, fine. Because step two doesn’t work otherwise. Step two: Start looking at others and the world with open eyes. Look directly at the ugliness… and the loveliness. Observe the joy… and the pain. Let it all crack your heart wide open. Because that’s the only way the light gets in. You’ll begin to notice you don’t have to like someone to love them. You don’t have to agree with them to honor them. You don’t even have to respect them to give them respect.
I know. This is getting more difficult. And here we are at step three: Do whatever “good works and acts of charity” you feel called to do. If you’ve been spending time with silence, self, and God, while also looking straight at the world, I promise you’ll know. If you don’t, return to steps one and two. Remember, God is always calling us to return; there’s no shame in turning around as often as we need.
Now, before someone blurts it out, I know. Believe me I know; it doesn’t always seem possible to take time out. Maybe you’re caring for a parent with dementia or a child with special needs. And, even if you’re not the only caregiver, it’s a day in, day out slog. No doubt you have other responsibilities as well, like a job, or grandchildren, or volunteer commitments, or a house, or pets or… In which case, you may be thinking: are you kidding me? Lie down?! I barely have time to use the bathroom!
I hear you. I really do. And I understand not everyone has the luxury of taking time out. But that’s if you’re viewing it as some sort of spa day (which, believe me, I’d like everyone to receive). However, that’s not what I’m talking about. The “time out” I’m talking about is simply time spent with your sweet self and God. The “time out’ I’m talking about is time away from Facebook, facetime and fast food. The “time out” I’m talking about is time away from things we do no matter how busy we otherwise are that don’t necessarily feed us or even make us feel good. And I’m urging us to replace them with time and space for our own precious selves and God.
Here’s the truth. We can’t afford not to take time out. Because a life spent constantly moving from one responsibility and “should” to another is the way of death. It closes our hearts to ourselves and deadens our response to the world. So, please, let’s start fresh. It’s still Easter! And, like Tabitha, we can die to the old and reawaken to the new. We can both care and not care by letting God be God and we, just, human. And perhaps, just perhaps, by so doing, we’ll become gazelles…