I was on a very quick 24 hour retreat at San Damiano Sunday-Monday of this week. I love it there. Beautiful in every way. Also challenging of my soul in so many ways.
While I was sitting at breakfast I had this sudden moment of stepping out of myself, the culture, the routines and seeing everything in a completely different way. I was watching people walking to the food that was set up, filling their plates, heading back to their tables. Each person did exactly the same thing: walked to the same place to pick up a plate, walked over to the buffet at the same place, picked up the same utensils to serve themselves the food, walked to their tables, sat down, put their own utensils on their plates, put their napkins in their laps... you get the idea. The conference wait-staff were walking around filling people's mugs with coffee or hot water, checking in with folk about their food, directing where guests were to take their dishes when they were done. It was "normal" in terms of the way we eat, serve ourselves, do things in this culture at retreat centers. There is a flow, there is an expected movement, there is a "script", if you will, for how we move and function and work.
But I had this moment of stepping out, a moment of remembering that this was exactly what I said it was: a script, a cultural routine that is not innate to being human or being each individual that we are. This is a learned behavior of how we do things in this particular setting. It does not define us, it is not set by genes or by some higher authority that tells us that this is what it looks like to be civilized, educated, "acceptable" people. These are traditions, practices, and rituals of how we function that we've all sort of tacitly agreed to without thinking too much about it. And in that moment those particular movements struck me as so odd, so contrived really, that I had a hard time not bursting out with laughter. I saw and found myself questioning everything. Why did we decide that we need to eat three times a day? Why not 5 or 6? Why not twice or even just once? Why do we butter our bread on one side? Why do we toast it on both sides? Why do we put our napkins in our laps? Why do we cook our eggs the way we do? Why do we eat together at tables? Why do we sit in chairs? The questions went on and on.
We've separated ourselves from the basics of survival through these rituals. Our meal times were "normal" but decided for us based on what we do as a culture, not when we are hungry. None of us picked the tomatoes, none of us retrieved the eggs from the chickens, none of us milked the cows. None of us slaughtered the pig for the bacon, or cured the ham, or even saw the animals or plants: the life that was involved in our breakfasting. We did not touch our food with our hands, but ate with utensils that further separated us from the baseness of what we were doing: supplying nutrition to our bodies, all of which was life for something else at one point or another, so that we could continue another hour or day or week. It is a strange part of our current humanity that we try to hide the realities of what we need to do to survive under layers and layers of "culture" that separate us so fully from acknowledging our basic needs and the first level of survival that is central to living for all of us. But I had a bigger moment, a bigger insight into seeing all of this as just a game, a play, an act.
I heard recently about a Dungeons and Dragons game where the player rolled a 20 on perception (for those who don't play this game, that means that in the role playing situation, they rolled the highest possible number to perceive perhaps something that they were unaware was going on). The Dungeon Master had nothing new to give the player: there was nothing there to perceive. So he said, "For just a moment your character sees dice, a table, a group of huge giants looking over the landscape. And then everything returns to normal."
At my meal at San Damiano, I felt I'd been given that 20 perception roll and had suddenly stepped back to see the world as it really was, rather than as we pretend it to be.
My daughter is struggling to find her way. That is the job of teenagers. She is struggling with the patterns of culture, how to fit in to what society tells her she must do to make friends, to get along, to walk through this world. She is especially struggling to make sense of it in light of who she is. How does she maintain her integrity in terms of being herself, while still putting on enough of the cultural garb of acceptable behaviors to walk through the world in a functional way? We learn how to share, we learn how to greet one another and talk to one another, we learn to say "hello" when we enter a place and "goodbye" when we leave. We learn please, thank you, and I'm sorry (if we are wise), we learn to hold doors open for one another and to smile when we pass each other while walking the dog. But these things are not who we are. For example, my daughter struggles to decide how much of her introverted self to honor and how much she must put aside to not appear to be snobby or aloof. She struggles to know how much of her true feelings and thoughts she should share, and how much she needs to keep inside in order to not be "threatening" or invasive of the other. These are the dances and lessons of growing up. But they also cause many people to forget that these are not who we are: these are cultural behaviors and routines and not the depth of our beings.
The rituals of our faith are the same. For outsiders they feel odd, different, "weird" maybe... but they are also things we put on to make sense and to navigate complex beliefs and ideas and even feelings: intuitions, hunches about what is beyond. And sometimes I have moments in church as well where I feel it is all so contrived. Do these rituals still mean what we intended them to mean? Do they still serve and communicate and support us in our faith, in our love, in our growing? Or do they keep us stuck and unseeing of who we and God and one another really are at our core?
We've all heard stories of wild children, kids "raised by wolves" as it were, who somehow did not grow up in a culture and so did not learn our routines, our ways of being. They seem wild, they seem untamed. Do we also see that they are really, in many ways, so much more real?
We need our rituals. We need our routines. We need our ways of navigating how to work and talk and worship and live. But it is important that we remember that they are just that: rituals, routines, practices and ways of working with and walking with and being with one another. They are not who we are, they are not who we are called to be. Those moments of perception also give us options as they help us to remember that we have choices about which cultural constructs we choose to adopt and which ones we can choose to put aside in favor of something different, something more true to ourselves, something that perhaps carries for us more integrity in our living and being.
I see some of those choices in the people around me and in myself. I know people who, out of their concern for the environment, grow their own vegetables and who bike everywhere rather than driving, trying to lessen their carbon footprint, striving to truly live with more integrity in this way. I have a couple friends who are truly trying to "live off the grid" - making their own electricity, using well water, living in a home that is not tied in to the usual systems, growing their own food. Personally, I am trying to use minimal plastic.
For other people, values may center more around not spending money on things the culture decides are "necessary" but are really luxuries. My girls choose not to cut their hair, feeling that a monthly hair cut is an unnecessary expense. I cut my son's hair and my own myself, for the same reason. We don't find using blowdryers to be necessary. These are small things, but they are steps towards seeing that not everything we are told is necessary really is.
Our cultural activities contain within them many assumptions about what matters, what is important. But they are often not said outloud. They are assumed, and they take form through our daily practices. The more we can step outside of those routines and rituals, the more we can choose for ourselves what really matters, and to make choices based on what we really value, rather than what the culture tells us to value. So my prayer for all of us is to have more moments of perception, more times when we see the values that are behind each act, each thing, each interaction, and that we therefore have a chance to choose what we really value and to live with deeper integrity, closer to being who we truly are.
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
There once was a man who was stranded on a desert island for 14 years. Finally, a boat came to the island and while he was really excited about being rescued and going home, he also wanted to show his rescuers around his island. He showed them the little cabin he had built and the little store house where he’d put fruit and other food he’d collected. He showed them the interesting inventions he had made and finally he brought them to a little building he had made that had a cross on it. “And this,” he said proudly, “is my church where I come and worship God every week!” One of the rescuers said, “Wow. That’s really great. But it looks like there is another one just like it over there. What is that building?”
“Oh,” said the stranded man with a look of disgust, “that’s the church I USED to attend.”
Hmmm. It’s hard to find unity – even with oneself!
Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone only to have them call you soon afterwards? Have you ever had the experience of feeling like someone’s spirit was present with you? Have you ever felt so connected to someone that you almost heard their thoughts on occasion? Knew what they were feeling or thinking to such a degree it felt like they were talking to you in your head? Have you ever discovered that you shared a dream with someone? How about those connections with the larger world? Have you ever had a feeling that something was wrong and then discovered that it was?
On the day my grandfather died, I woke up and thought I saw him standing at the foot of my bed, just smiling to me. I called my father, and learned that he had passed away, about 10 minutes before I “had seen” him in my room. Could it have been just a weird coincidence? Of course many people would say that it was. But I know differently in my heart.
September 11, 2001 I woke up with a strong sense that something was wrong. Something was off. I felt a sense of deep foreboding. It was not my habit to do this, but I got up and turned on the news, just in time to hear what had been happening on the other side of the country.
I have a friend who seems to know, without fail, when something has upset me and inevitably calls me. The first words out of his mouth indicate that sense of connection “What’s wrong?” he will say. “Something shifted and it feels like you’re upset. What has happened?”
I know I’m not alone in these experiences. Some of you have shared similar stories with me. Or stories that are uniquely your own but show us the same, mysterious connection that we have with one another. And they just confirm what Jesus tells us in scriptures such as today’s gospel lesson.
On Trinity Sunday we celebrate and look at the mystery that God is both three and God is one. It is a deep mystery that theologians study and write about and contemplate. They find new meanings and deeper important meanings in it all the time. But still we struggle to comprehend this mystery. How is it possible that God, the one God, can also be in community with God-self? How can one God have 3 separate and unique persons who experience life differently, who relate to us differently – above us, among us, within us? It is profound, amazing, and difficult to comprehend.
What is less often looked at, though it is just as present in our scriptures is the fact that we, too, as God’s people are many and yet one. Jesus says in today’s passage from John: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” We, too, though we are each unique, though we are each individuals, though we disagree with one another about many things and have different goals, different priorities, different views on the world – even so, together we are the body of Christ. Together we are one. Jesus says that just as he and God the parent are one (again, going back to the trinity) in this same way, we too, are one.
So what does this mean, practically speaking? It means a great number of things. The first is that we need to strive for unity even when we cannot be uniform. We need to strive for unity even when we are very different in our view points. By saying that I don’t at all mean that we need to agree with each other. The diversity in our thoughts, ideas, feelings, backgrounds, and view points adds a richness and depth to life that give it meaning. But what it means is that we should strive to work together, with one another, across our differences, towards furthering God’s realm here, towards caring and loving all people and all creation.
The second thing it means is that when I hurt you, I am hurting myself. This, too, is part of the mystery of us as created beings, but that doesn’t make it any less true. When I hurt you in any way – physically, emotionally, or spiritually, the person I am damaging is myself. This is really hard, I think, to take in in any kind of real way. Our cultural values tell us that I have to take care of my own and if that is at your expense, so be it because there isn’t enough for all of us. But this is not what God teaches. God teaches us that when even one person does not have what they need, all of us are short-changed. And if we can hang on to that, it will deeply affect our actions. When someone hurts us, we can remember that they are also hurting themselves and we can try to have some compassion for it. Additionally, it makes it much harder to strike out in revenge (which is un-Christian anyway – Jesus was really clear that when someone slaps us on the cheek, we are supposed to turn the other one, not slap back). We cannot strike out without realizing that, again, the person we are hitting is ourselves.
It also makes it imperative that we work for the good of all people – again, recognizing that when there is anyone who is hungry in the world, we all are hungry in some way. When there is anyone who is suffering in the world, we are all suffering in some way. And that doesn’t just include victims, it includes those who do the harming as well…what is broken in them that they are choosing this harm? How have we contributed to their behavior? How can we be part of healing all involved so that we, too, might be healed? It means not wishing ill for anyone because the person we are wishing ill onto is ourselves. And it means working, hard, to see the value in each and every other person. Choosing not to see other people as “other” – as different, as people we can categorize and hate and ban in any way.
In one episode of Joan of Arcadia, the high school is going through an election process. The candidate whom Joan supports (because God has told her to) has been trashed by the opposition, a boy named Lars, who advertises publicly that Joan’s candidate has a father who is in jail. Joan then discovers something potentially very damaging about Lars: she discovers that Lars is gay. And she is ready to expose him, to “out” him, to cause distrust among his peers, feeling that an eye for an eye is the only way to get her candidate to win. But just as she is on the verge of betraying Lars’ deepest secret, discrediting him, exposing him and destroying him, she ends up having a conversation with her mother. Her mother shares with Joan regrets that she has about actions she took when she was feeling particularly self-righteous, and in that place of knowing she was right, she stopped thinking about the other person as a person, she stopped seeing the other, loving the other, caring for the other and as a result, she hurt the other – in a way that would never be forgotten. Joan is moved by her mother’s story and chooses not to destroy Lars, not to betray him by telling the world his secret. She gives up her chance for her candidate to win the election in so doing. She says to her mom afterwards, “No, I didn’t do it, but it would have been so easy. But then in my head I kept seeing him, looking at me, so scared you know? Big strong Lars, scared and confused. And I’ve been there, like, like all the time. And it was like we weren’t really different people because someplace we aren’t!... Why is that so hard to remember?”
I don’t know why it’s hard to remember. But it is. We are so focused on our individuality that we forget how connected we are. We forget what Jesus says about calling us to be one as he and God are one. We forget that what we do impacts everyone in the world, that the whole way we look at life and interact with life makes a difference – not just for the person with whom we are interacting, but for ourselves and the world, too. Every interaction we have matters. Every time we are kind to someone it matters and every time we fail to be kind to someone it matters.
I want to share with you another story. I shared this before a couple years back but I think it is an appropriate illustration.
A father told this story about his child, Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled.
“Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, “Do you think they'll let me play?” I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps. I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, “We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.” Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates.. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, “Shay, run to first! Run to first!” Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base.. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second!” Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball, the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home..
All were screaming, “Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay”
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, “Run to third! Shay, run to third!”
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, “Shay, run home! Run home!”
Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team. “That day”, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.”
Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!”
The thing is, those kids who gave Shay that opportunity – those kids understood the connection for a moment. For a moment, they remembered that we all are one. Shay’s success was their success – for BOTH teams. Shay’s success was a success for all people who have heard this story and connected with it. Shay’s success, and the kindness and caring of those other kids made a difference and makes a difference.
Mitch Album in his book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, said: “… the secret of heaven: that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.” (New York: Hachette books, 2003. p 208). Or, as he said in Have a Little Faith, “God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it’s all one song – one same, wonderful, human song.”
Jesus prayed that we all might be one. He wasn’t praying that we would all be the same. He was praying that we might see our connections, our unity, our one-ness. My prayer is that we can honor his call to oneness by remembering our connections to all of creation, to seek unity and love for one another in all that we do. Amen.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the church. And we do so by recalling days when the Spirit took hold of things, changed things, lit the place on fire. Both the Ezekiel passage and the passage from Acts tell us stories of the spirit, stories in which the spirit blows in with great force and in doing so ignites the miraculous, the amazing, and the unexpected. In Acts, when the Spirit blew in, the people could understand one another even across language barriers. I think it’s very important here to note that it is not that the people all started speaking the same language. They were still each speaking their own languages, though it says here that some were speaking languages they did not formerly know. But while still speaking different languages, they were able to understand one another. This is a miracle indeed. For we know that even when we speak the same linguistic language, we often still don’t understand one another. In previous Pentecost sermons I’ve shared with you personal examples of those misunderstandings. Times when we are speaking the same language and really not understanding one another.
One more story for you: There was a woman in one of my congregations who spoke or understood the world completely differently from me. I would say things that I thought were unoffensive, were kind, were reaching out: things like, “You seem a little down. Are you okay?” And would be met with anger, “I am NOT down! Why would you say that! I was fine until I talked with YOU!” We just missed each other at every turn. We both were speaking English. But we were never speaking the same language.
I’ve been thinking about this idea of understanding one another across languages in terms of music since today is the last Sunday the choir will sing for the summer and I’ve been especially aware of the amazing gift of music that the choir gives to us. I think it is very appropriate that we remember the miracle of Pentecost in relationship to music, because many would say that music itself is still that language that crosses language barriers. Would you say that’s true? But as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve also realized that music can also sets up new barriers, new language problems, as it were, if we let it. It isn’t just that we don’t all like the same kinds of music, at times I would say we simply cannot understand the same kinds of music. Personally, while I enjoy many different kinds of music, I still find that there are certain types of music I simply don’t understand: for example, certain types of punk rock and the more aggressive rap music. Also, I struggle to understand and appreciate certain kinds of music from different countries: certain types of Asian cultural music, for example, is harder for me to relate to or appreciate. And I think that just as when we don’t understand different languages when we have not grown up around them, have not listened to them in our formative years, the same can be true of different kinds of music. We often understand best the music we were raised with. And while we can grow into an appreciation of other kinds of music and even an enjoyment or love of these, many times it takes long-term exposure and experience - study, I would even say, just as with different languages, to learn and understand these different types of music.
As I continued to look at this passage in Acts, the more it seemed to me that the experience of the community in Acts, responding to the Spirit moving in such a way that people could understand each other across languages, is very similar to today’s church community responding to the Spirit moving through music. In the story in Acts, there were people who understood each other across the different languages. They heard the words in their own languages. So, too, in our communities, many do experience the universal language of music. We are moved and hear things in new pieces that touch us, that speak to us in the language of our hearts. In the community in Acts, there were also people who didn’t like what was happening, who sneered and assumed that too much alcohol was involved. So, too, when the Spirit speaks through new music, especially new kinds of music, there will always be other people who, hearing a piece for the first time will be uneasy, uncomfortable, assume impropriety, and so attack it.
Throughout our church history there has been controversy over what is appropriate church music. Before the Protestant Reformation the Catholic church went through various different positions on music. At the time of the Reformation only the priest sang in church. One of Martin Luther’s issues with the church was that at the time worship was not a participatory event. Everything was done in Latin and only done by the priest since the common person did not know Latin. In response Luther invited congregational participation through singing, and singing in the language of the people, which in Luther’s community was German. Luther took common, popular music, popular tunes of the time, the music of the youth, some have even said bar tunes, and made them into hymns. The equivalent today would be taking hard rock, hip hop, EDM (electronic dance music), ska, rap, death metal, punk music and putting Christian words to it for worship. Can you imagine how the people reacted? Many felt scandalized that secular music was coming into their holy places. It is the same reaction many in our churches have today when the popular music of our youth comes into the congregation. Luther believed that these tunes would first attract the young people, but second, he believed in providing Christian lyrics to the tunes they already knew, filling their minds with those words when they chanced upon the tunes in other settings. Interestingly, Luther did not allow organs or other music accompaniment in his churches and instrumentation was allowed in Lutheran churches only about 50 years after Luther had died.
In John Calvin’s church, Calvin hired a lyricist and a composer to rework the
Psalter. The lyricist re-wrote the psalms, and the composer set it to music. The queen complained about these “Geneva jigs” because it, too was a departure from the Latin plainsong. And yet again, by today’s standards, we would also see Calvin as very strict and austere. He would only allow psalms to be sung in worship, and he insisted not only that these psalms go completely unaccompanied by instruments but that they also be sung without harmonies. It was not until the end of the 17th century in the Presbyterian church that some churches began to allow instrumental accompaniment.
We understand music differently. We speak music differently. And yet again, we are given the Pentecost story in which people continue to speak different languages, but some are speaking languages that are different from their own, and others are hearing those voices spoken in their own languages. The Spirit brings in something new, something different, but it is always something that helps us be more connected, if we are open to it. Literally, we begin to understand and hear in our own languages... in the languages of our community, in the languages of our media, in the languages of our music, in the languages of our children.
In the Ezekiel passage for today God promises that the very bones will be raised. What has been declared dead will rise to new life. This is not a comfortable or easy thought. But again, the Spirit is not promising to be easy or comfortable. The Spirit is promising to be alive, and to live in unexpected though glorious ways.
Today we celebrate the Spirit’s movement through music. And I invite you to listen for the Spirit in a new way, to celebrate the new life that the Spirit can raise in all of our old bones, to live through song. Amen.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Today’s scripture is part of Jesus’ final speech to the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. It is a small part of a much longer speech in which he repeatedly says that if they love him they will follow him, love each other, do what he tells them to do. He also repeatedly tells them that he is leaving them, and then he reassures them with promises that the Spirit will come to be with them. Today I want to focus on this second part – Jesus’ telling the disciples that he is leaving and his reassurance about what is to come.
Has there ever been a time in your life when you felt abandoned or left? I imagine there have been times for all of us when we have felt that someone has left us. If that someone is someone we cared about deeply, that loss, that abandonment can be devastating. Sometimes those feelings of abandonment might not even seem logical to us, but still they come. A loved one must leave on a work trip, or leave on a military deployment. Or a person dies. But even then, even when the loved one does not choose to go, it can still feel like abandonment when it actually happens. We can still feel that we have been left, that they left us and as a result we can feel angry, hurt, devastated.
This feeling doesn’t just happen with people. Have there been times when you have felt abandoned by God? That God is somehow not there for a time when things are hard? It is not sinful to feel that way. As we will talk about when we do our series on the psalms, all of these feelings are normal and natural and acceptable to God, too. That’s why we have so many psalms that express these feelings. They give us permission and words to express feelings of pain, of isolation, of abandonment, that are just plain normal at times. Sometimes it is hard to feel God’s presence. Sometimes God’s presence comes to us in different ways, ways we might not recognize as easily. And I think that when we are feeling abandoned by a person or by people, it is especially easy to feel that it is actually God who has left us. That somehow, if God really loved us, we would not have been left by the person we love, that they would have lived, or wouldn’t have gone away, or wouldn’t have moved or wouldn’t have rejected us. And again, while that may not be logical, it is a very human experience. It is very human to feel that it is God who has left when it is in fact a person whom we love who is no longer present with us in the same way.
I think about C.S. Lewis’ book, A grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1976). C.S. Lewis, as many of you know, was a remarkable Christian author who wrote both novels such as the Narnia series as well as theological conversations such as “The Four Loves” and “Surprised by Joy”. In 1945 he experienced the death of a close friend. About this death he said, “The experience of loss (the greatest I have yet known) was wholly unlike what I should have expected. We now verified for ourselves what so many bereaved people have reported; the ubiquitous presence of a dead man, as if he had ceased to meet us in particular places in order to meet us everywhere...” he continued, “No event has so corroborated my faith in the next world as Williams did simply by dying. When the idea of death and the idea of Williams thus met in my mind, it was the idea of death that was changed.”
But 15 years later, in 1960, his wife of very few years, Joy, died. And that experience was also unexpected for him - but in the complete opposite way. As he said in the journal he kept following her death, “After the death of a friend...I had for some time a most vivid feeling of certainty about his continued life; even his enhanced life. I have begged to be given even one hundredth part of the same assurance about Joy. There is no answer. Only the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero.” And in contrast to the experience of the presence of his friend’s death changing his faith for the better, after the death of his wife, his faith was tested beyond measure. As he continued, “Go to (God) when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house...not that I am in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
Deeply disturbing words of pain and despair from a deeply faithful man. Have any of you ever felt that way?
God knows and understands this very human experience. God expects and anticipates this very human experience. It is for this reason that Jesus spends so much time telling his disciples what is to come and offering the reassurances he does. Jesus is about to leave them, he is about to be crucified. For all of our experiences of abandonment by friends or family, how much worse for those who knew Jesus? Jesus was not only their friend, he was their Lord, their Savior, their God. He taught them. He fed them. He cared for them. He gave their lives new direction, new purpose, new meaning. He opened up life for them, he touched them and connected them with God in a real, concrete, new way. He became their all, their everything, their reason for being and living. But now he tells them that he is leaving and asks them to be happy about it because he is going to God the Father. He tries to add more reassurance. He tells them he is sending the Spirit. And he tells them he will send them off with his peace. He tells them to not be afraid. And he tells them to not let their hearts be troubled.
And so, what do you think? Do all the reassurances make it all okay? Does it work for Jesus that because he has said all of these words, the disciples are therefore at peace when he is killed and are happy for him to be with God? Are they untroubled and unafraid when the crucifixion comes? Do they “believe” because he has reassured them and laid out for them what is to come? Well, as we talked about last week and as we can imagine in the aftermath of today’s reading….Not so much.
The truth is that we are connectional beings. We are people to whom loving and being loved are as important and crucial as food, water, and even air. Babies who are not held and touched die. If they have no one to whom they form an early attachment, they struggle to connect normally to others throughout their lives. We witness this with other creatures, too. There was an experiment some time ago in which some monkeys were offered food and water, but no care at all, while other monkeys were given stuffed animals and even others were held and cuddled and comforted. The monkeys who were just offered food and water languished and died. The ones with the stuffed animals did better, but still could not relate to other creatures. Only the monkeys who were offered care and cuddling thrived and became “normal” adult monkeys.
There is also the story I shared with you two weeks ago of Owen and Mzee. Owen was a baby hippopotamus who was a sole survivor of a terrible storm. He was rescued and put in a reserve with a bunch of other animals. Immediately upon being released into the animal refuge, he attached himself firmly and completely to a cranky old tortoise named Mzee who wanted nothing to do with Owen for the first 24 hours. Owen followed Mzee around and cuddled up next to Mzee and Mzee tried again and again to walk away from Owen. But after only about a day, Mzee somehow got it that the hippo needed him, and maybe Mzee discovered that he needed the hippo, too. The two became completely inseparable, eating together, sleeping together. Both thrived through that connection, through that attachment. And we experience this sense of abandonment with our pets, too – even those who appear to not like each other “grieve” when another family pet dies.
I’ve shared with you before the wonderful story of the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, there is a big feast spread out on the table, but the people sitting at the table have no elbows. They desperately try to feed themselves, but are unable to get the food to their mouths because they cannot bend their arms. In heaven the picture at first glance looks very similar. There is a big feast spread out on the table, and again the people sitting around the table have no elbows and are still unable to feed themselves. The difference, though, is that at the table in heaven, everyone is feeding each other. And while this story points out that it is only in caring for one another that we are fed, that it is only in caring for one another that we are truly and deeply fed, there is another message here, too, and that is about the importance, the necessity of community. We picture heaven as a place where our loved ones who’ve passed are waiting for us, a place where we can connect with those we love and stay connected. Where loss, death, abandonment are no more.
But in the mean time, we have to face it. Every human relationship will end in its human form. We will lose everyone in one way or another. People move, people change, people have tragedies happen and ultimately everyone dies. So whether we are doing the leaving or being left, in human form, we will lose everyone. And each one can feel like abandonment. I don’t want to just ignore that, or lighten it, or push it quickly aside. Those feelings are real, and they deserve our attention, our care, our time. I think about what C.S. Lewis also wrote about situations in which well-meaning friends could not tolerate his pain, and how much damage that inability to sit with his pain caused.. They couldn’t tolerate it, and so they tried to shove it away with trite quips. His favorite was “Well, she will live forever in your memory.” And he found this created nothing less than an intense rage within him as he struggled to grasp, daily, that she was no longer alive, no longer with him in a way that he could recognize while he was in the midst of his deepest grief. To tell him that she would live in his memory did nothing for him but make him feel completely alone in his grief - in other words, it had exactly the opposite effect of what was undoubtedly intended. It did not make him feel better. It made him feel misunderstood, isolated, and alone. I do not want to do that by rushing through the real and tangible feelings that we have as we grieve.
That being said, I am also called upon on Sunday mornings to deliver the Good News. And the good news in this is huge. First, we are reassured that death and separation are temporary. No matter how it feels, no matter how bad it feels, we are connectional. God created us this way and I believe God will return all of us to connection. Also, even in this life, we have Jesus’ reassurances, which are not just about his leaving, but ours as well. “My peace I leave you” Jesus says. And “I will send the Spirit to be with you.” That spirit is our advocate, our comforter, our companion when we are lonely and alone. “Do not be afraid” he tells us. For there is nothing to fear – God is with us. And finally, “I am going away, AND I am coming back to you.” The end is not the end. Death is not the end. Connection will continue. God will continue. Christ will and does continue. And through Christ, we, too, continue in connection with God and with our loved ones. Amen.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
The story of Thomas is a wonderful story about God’s coming to be in relationship with us where we are. I have preached before on what an amazing gift it is that when Thomas doubts, Jesus does not leave him or abandon him there, but goes to him, brings to Thomas his very self for Thomas to touch, reconnect with and believe in. But today I want to focus on the other disciples, on what they were doing, what their lives were like following this revelation of Jesus’ resurrection.
Today’s story from John immediately follows the announcement from Mary to the disciples that Jesus is alive, that she has seen him, that Jesus has sent her to them. And yet, despite this announcement, where are the disciples? They are hiding, we are told, from the Jewish authorities. They are behind locked or closed doors (the Greek word is actually “closed” but I think many of the translators use the word “locked” to indicate that it was a way of shutting others out) out of fear. Jesus has arisen, which tells us that there is nothing more to fear – everything can be overcome, even death itself. And yet, even though the disciples have heard this news, they remain terrified to the point of hiding. It isn’t just Thomas who is doubting because he hasn’t seen. As a matter of fact, Thomas is an interesting contrast to these other disciples who are hiding. Because Thomas, we are told, was not hiding with the other disciples. He was out and about, not in the locked room! He is the one who has reentered the world, continued living, refused to be trapped behind in fear, while the others, though they have all heard the news, remain in hiding.
So, Jesus comes and shows himself to the hiding disciples, those who cannot yet believe, those who have heard the good news but remain afraid. He shows himself and they believe….maybe. Except that then we are told that eight days later they are still, or maybe again, in the same house, again with the doors closed or locked. In other words, now after having seen Jesus, they are still hiding!! And this time Thomas is with them. Jesus comes again. And this time when Jesus comes to them, he says something very interesting. He says, “Do you believe because you see me?” I think most of us have always heard this phrase to mean – “oh, so now you, Thomas, believe in the resurrection because you see me?” But I heard this differently this week. This time, I heard the phrase this way, “Do you actually believe? - because you have seen me.” And I don’t think it was just aimed at Thomas. The disciples are not behaving as people who believe. They are not LIVING into the good news! They are not so excited about the Good News that Jesus is alive that they are out preaching the word and sharing it! They are not living as a people filled with joy and released from fear. So he is asking them, “now that you have seen, NOW do you believe?” He has come to see them a second time, and yet, they still have not understood the message. And then he continues, speaking, again, to ALL of the disciples – “Happy are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”
As we know, and as we see through all of this, belief is not as simple, even, as seeing. Even seeing does not guarantee belief, not real belief, in the meaning behind what is being seen. Many believe who have not seen, and many see who do not believe. No, it is not seeing that causes belief. So, what does create belief in us?
I’ve shared with you before what Frederick Buechner has to say about faith.
“…Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway. A journey without maps.”
He goes on to say that we can’t test what we believe, like, for example, we can’t test the friendships of our friends, without damaging those very relationships. But we trust our friendships because we are engaged in them.
And what this says to me is, again, that faith does not come about through seeing. Faith, real faith, comes about through our relationships. We believe in our friends when they ACT like friends. And we believe in God when we experience a relationship with God.
We are called to live in the faith of the Good news. The Good News, Jesus’ resurrection, tells us that even death will be overcome, that the last enemy has been defeated, and that because of that, we have nothing to fear, and can really live and can be free to work for life for all people, too, without fear of the consequences. But, I repeat what I said, many who have seen do not yet believe, whereas many who have not seen, do believe and live out their faith.
I think about the story in Mitch Albom’s book Have a Little Faith, in which we learn that the Rabbi lost his young daughter to illness. When he returned to the pulpit he shared with the congregation that he’d yelled at God, screamed for an answer. There was nothing in being a Rabbi that had kept him from the tears and misery of never connecting with his young daughter again. But he also said that his faith was the only thing that soothed him. It was a reminder that we are all part of something bigger. And he believed that he would see her again. But I also believe from what I read that it was the relationship he had with God that got him through the crisis. It was a relationship that was strong enough that it allowed him to express his anger at God, and held him in the belief that God’s love was big enough to be able to handle that anger.
The thing is, belief, faith, is an act of will, and not a feeling. And as much as we would want it to, seeing does not guarantee that belief. I think about the movie, The Polar Express. One of my favorite scenes in that movie is when the main character, a young boy who is struggling with faith in Santa Claus, is walking across the top of the moving Polar Express Train, looking for a friend of his whom he believes had also walked across the top of the train. He finds on the top of the train a man who appears to be a Hobo, playing music next to a fire while he heats coffee and dries his socks over the fire. And he has an interaction with the man where the man says, “You want to believe but you don’t want to be hoodwinked, bamboozled, scammed!” We, the viewers of the movie, know that the man, the hobo is a spirit, or a ghost. But what is most interesting to me is that he says to the boy, “you want to believe, but seeing is believing, right? So just one more question…do you believe in ghosts?” The kid shakes his head “no” to which the ghost responds, “interesting,” and we are left, again, to ponder the reality that seeing is not always believing. Even in the Polar Express we experience that the child’s faith (in Santa Clause in this case) comes about through his relationships and his experiences, and not through his seeing. And we understand that child’s faith, we come to understand his faith change when his relationships with others change.
There is another part of Mitch Album’s book Have a Little Faith (p.47) that I want to share with you:
Mitch asks his Rabbi, “How do you not get cynical?” And from the book:
“There is no room for cynicism in this line of work.”
But people are so flawed. They ignore ritual, they ignore faith – they even ignore you. Don’t you get tired of trying?
… “let me answer with a story,” he said. “There’s this salesman, see? And he knocks on a door. The man who answers says, ‘I don’t need anything today.’
“The next day the salesman returns.
“ ‘Stay away,’ he is told.
“The next day, the salesman is back.
“The man yells, ‘you again! I warned you!’ He gets so angry, he spits in the salesman’s face.
“The salesman smiles, wipes the spit with a handkerchief, then looks to the sky and says, ‘Must be raining.’
“Mitch, that’s what faith is. If they spit in your face, you say it must be raining. But you still come back tomorrow.”
To me, this story is talking more about what really makes faith happen: and that is, again, relationships. You stay engaged, just as God will stay engaged with you every single time. You also step out of your fear and choose to be in the world, no matter what the world is handing back to you. That is faith. Choosing to act “as if” even when we can’t feel it. Faith is a choice. It is a decision. It is a way to be in the world that says, “I will not act on my fear. But I will act on my faith, even when I don’t feel it. I will choose to believe into seeing even when I cannot believe because of what I see.”
It is easy to be like the disciples, like Albom in his tendency towards cynicism, - seeing and still not believing. The good news for us is that Jesus keeps coming, again and again, until we really do believe. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times for all of us of struggle with faith, of doubt about who God is, that the love is really there, that it is enough. I think about the book Life of Pi. One of my favorite quotes: “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific and I would not be able to lift it back up….Despair was a heavy blackness that let no light in or out. It was a hell beyond expression. I thank God it always passed…The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.” (p209)
Jesus didn’t leave the disciples alone. He didn’t leave Thomas alone. He showed up again and again and by doing so he rebuilt his relationship with them until their faith was strong enough that he could leave and trust them to live in the Good News. God does the same for us. God will show up again and again for us as well, until we, too, finally find that, because of our relationship with God, not because of what we have heard, and not even because of what we have seen, but because of our relationship with God, we, too can have the faith that moves into true belief and therefore into action. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Monday, May 13, 2019
From Wit and Wisdom from the Peanut Butter Gang by H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994):
“When you mother is mad and asks you, “Do I look stupid?” it’s best not to answer her.”
“I’ll never take my mom’s car out again until I can do it legally.”
“If your mom’s asleep, don’t wake her up.”
“It’s no fun to stay up all night if your parents don’t care.”
“Despite all the loving and caring relationships in the world, there is nothing more loving than the feel of my mother’s hand on my forehead when I am sick.”
“You should never laugh at your (mom) if (she’s) mad at you.”
“If mom’s not happy, nobody’s happy.”
“You only have one mom and you should take care of her.”
And finally, “Parents don’t get enough appreciation.”
As you know, today is Mother’s Day. And while the worship committee asked that we do a service that really and truly centered on Mother’s Day, and while I agreed to do it, I actually find Mother’s Day to be one of the hardest days of the year for pastors and one of the hardest subjects to preach on.
Mother’s Day is difficult because it is a loaded day for so many people, for so many reasons. If you had a great childhood, but your mother is now passed on, it can be a day of deep sorrow as you miss your mother. If you had a terrible childhood it can be a day of anger and a day to remind you of the difficult things that you experienced as a kid. This is made even worse if you suffered abuse at the hands of your mother, or if your mother failed to protect you from the abuse of other family members.
Mother’s Day can call up feelings of guilt since most of the time sermons on Mother’s Day focus on appreciation for and the need to care for our mothers. If you cannot do that for your mother, or even if just couldn’t do it all the time, this can be a very difficult and challenging day.
If you were adopted, it can be a day of confusion: who do I really count as my mother and how do I feel about both my biological mother and the mother that raised me. If you have struggled to have your own children and were unable to do so, it can be a day of deep grief as you mourn never having the opportunity to be a mother. If you have lost a child it can also be a day of deep grief as you mourn the loss of that child or those children. If you raised your kids and they are struggling, it can be a day of real regrets: regretting the way you parented or specific things that you said or did in your parenting. It can be a day of anger at the judgements of others on your parenting, including pastors in Mother’s Day sermons. (Did you know that one of the top reasons women pastors leave the ministry is because of all the unsolicited judgments and advice they are given on their parenting? 80% of all pastors feel ministry negatively impacts their families). If you aborted a child, Mother’s Day can bring up all kinds of feelings: grief, fear, anger, etc. If you have never been a mother and had or have no desire to be a mother, it can also be a hard day as the expectations of being a mother can feel so pressing and there can be so much judgment around that decision too.
Mother’s Day can be a day to avoid the world for some people, and especially to avoid a church service which may be honoring the very people who damaged you in some real way, or a situation that you can’t or don’t want to be a part of.
In the midst of all of this, then, we have Mother’s Day. And I picked three passages, all of which I feel have something to tell us about this day, about God’s relationships with us and about our relationships with one another.
We start with the John passage and we are told that our biggest command, our final command, Jesus’ central message is that we love one another. We are to be known as Jesus’ disciples by the way that we love, fully and unconditionally, despite differences, despite whatever we have been through, despite the way others treat us. We are to be known through the way that we love. And I believe that the best way that we know how it is to love in the way that God calls us to love is by reflecting the way that good parents love their kids. Whether or not we’ve had good parents, whether or not we’ve been good parents, whether or not we’ve experienced that kind of deep and unconditional and abiding love, we all know what it looks like when a good mother loves her children. There is nothing that will come in the way of that love: no belief, no choice, no action. No matter how we are treated, no matter which of our deepest values our children reject or denounce, no matter if they mess up, lead lives that we don’t understand and can’t support, do unspeakable things or put us through hell, we continue to love them, fiercely, with all that we are and in such a way that we would easily and quickly give up our own lives for them. That is what it is and what it means to be good parents.
Jesus mirrors this understanding when he says in today’s passage from Luke, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Even in the face of our pain, of rejection from our children at times, good mothers love and want to protect their children. God who reflects God shows us this kind of love and calls us to love all people in the same way.
There is one other passage that always comes to mind for me when I think of what it is to be a mother. And that passage is John 19:26-27. Jesus is dying on the cross. And we are told, “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” That passage to me is profound in so many ways. But to me it is more than simply the obvious: “take care of my mother because I love you both.” It is also a more universal statement. We are all deeply connected. We are all children and parents to one another. We are all called to love one another with the fierceness of motherhood, to care for one another, to bring those who need it into our spaces, into our homes, to see them as family and to love them with all that we are as if they were our own flesh and blood.
The people who are our true mother and brothers, as Jesus points out in today’s passage from Mark, are those who treat us in this way. Sometimes those are the women who birthed us. Sometimes those are the parents who raised us. And sometimes, as Jesus himself says in this passage, they aren’t. Sometimes they are other people, who raise us and embrace us and love us with that fierce unconditional love that God calls us to.
I think about all the strange stories of animals that have adopted other animals. The crow who found a kitten and took care of it by bringing it worms until the kitten was big enough to start hunting on its own. This crow continued to watch over the kitten until it was a full grown cat, leading it to food sources and just staying nearby in case anyone tried to threaten the kitten. I think about the Leopard who attacked the baboon, discovered that the baboon had a baby on it’s back, and the Leopard adopted the baby baboon, watching over it and keeping it warm at night. Completely unexpected and counter intuitive, but there it was. Do you remember the story of MZee and Owen? Owen was a baby hippopotamus who was separated from his family by a tsunami. He was rescued and brought to a refuge where there was a tortoise named MZee. The tortoise was 130 years old and very much a loner. But Owen attached to MZee, following him around, and within a very short time, MZee took Owen under his care, watched over him, took him in as a mother would.
And it brings me back to a story by Barbara Brown Taylor that I shared with you before but which embodies this kind of motherhood to a tee. Barbara Brown Taylor has a silkie chicken which she obtained when one of her hens died, leaving an orphaned guinea chick. She had heard that silkies were good adoptive mothers, so she bought one and brought it home. She wrote, “I needed a foster mother for our orphaned guinea chick. I had heard that Silkies are good mothers, so I shopped around in the Market Bulletin until I found some for sale… When the Silkie and I got home… first I lay on the grass while she and the baby watched each other through the mesh of the cage. Then I placed her inside. Both she and the baby froze. The baby cheeped. The hen did not move a feather. The baby cheeped again. The hen staed right where she was. The baby took a few steps toward her. I held my breath. The gray hen liften her wings. The baby scooted right into that open door. When I checked on them an hour later, all I could see was a little guinea chick head poking out from under that gray hen’s wing….This is counterintuitive, I might add. If this hen is into the preservation of her species, then she ought to be looking out for her own babies and letting the others go hand, but she does not. She accepts all comers, no questions asked. She has neer seen a chick she didn’t like. I ought to trust her by now, yet every time I introduce her to a new baby with nowhere else to go, I can feel the back of my throat get tight. Please, please, please, don’t peck this baby, I plead. It’s so little. It has never laid eyes on any momma but you. Then I set the chick in the cage with her, sitting down where I can watch what happens. The baby cheeps. The hen does not move a feather. The baby cheeps again. The hen stays right where she is. The baby takes a few steps toward her. The hen lifts her wings. Come to momma, honey. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ Jesus had chicken neighbors too, I guess, and from them he learned about God’s wings. Watching them, he knew what he wanted to be and do. One cluck from him, and I know too.”
On this Mother’s day, I invite you to remember that we are called to follow Jesus by loving in the way that he did. That means loving one another, loving ALL the one anothers, with this kind of love, a Mother’s love. I invite you to celebrate that love with me by reading together the Mother’s Day Litany that is printed in your bulletins.