Wednesday, June 24, 2015

After Suicide

So we have been in Washington, D.C. for three days, 300 of us, listening to hours and hours of presentations, and walking the halls of Congress and sharing our stories, trying to bring names and faces and emotional impact to the statistics about suicide which we rattle off as efficiently as we might the facts and figures pertaining to car sales or carbon emissions, if those were the things we knew about. 
But instead what we know about is what  a friend and I discussed over dinner last night.  She is a mental health professional from another city and I am a pastor here; her daughter died in high school, and my son just after college.  We have these conversations late at night in cities far from home, after we have knocked ourselves out to be the change, or something close enough.
. . . we talk about what we saw and touched and held about those precious bodies and about autopsies and medical examiner reports and hospitals and morgues and organ donation and and funeral homes and crematoriums about things of which we never speak to anyone else anyone at all things which no one asks about no one wants to know we described to one another parts of our experiences which we did not share in common wondering what happened then, and then, and how did you think to ask that, and we talked about what we believe and think and wonder about God and what we don't and what matters to us and what no longer makes any difference we carry all this around and especially those grotesque physical details which happened and which we saw but who could believe any of it but all together it forms the core of who we are and shapes everything we do . . .
Tomorrow we will get up and go about our lives; she has a full day of work in a clinic on the West Coast and I have a community meeting and a pastoral visit and two Bible studies to teach and lots of other things to catch up on, and when people tell us about issues of their lives we do not say any of it out loud but it is why we say or do things the way we say or do them and so be it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Political Participation (Friday Five)

Today's Friday Five by janintx offers a series of personal questions or . . .  "If you prefer for this Friday Five, you may write about any of the current affairs that you are thinking about." I think I'll make up my own to accompany the latter:
1. What is the first national tragedy or crisis of which you remember being acutely aware?
The assassination of Robert Kennedy.  I had become, at the age of twelve, interested in politics, largely due to his charisma and energy.  I recall being home from my first year of boarding school, wandering out to the living room in my pajamas early in the morning, turning on the television to the Today show, and watching in horror as the events of the previous evening unfolded on the screen.
2. What was the first march or walk in which you participated?
During the spring of my senior year of high school, many of us participated in a 20-mile walk to raise funds to combat hunger.  I don't remember where we walked ~ Northampton, maybe? ~ but I do remember that my big toenails turned black and fell off a day or so later!
3. What was the most moving event in which you ever participated in response to a national crisis?
Each spring, my entire school of 700 girls sang a Sacred Concert.  I realize, now, that we were the beneficiaries of an incredible choral music tradition and education.   In May 1970, we were completely absorbed by the Kent State shootings as the concert approached.  Our brilliant music director rehearsed a powerfully slow and stirring arrangement of "Once to Every Man and Nation" with us for the end of the concert.  I have never heard that arrangement since except on my recording of the concert and on the school website.  Many of us have remarked in the decades following that we have never forgotten that experience.
4. How has your church responded to racial issues in our society?
Last winter, we used some grant money to take dozens of high school students and teachers from two schools to see the movie Selma and brought them back to church for lunch and a panel discussion with community leaders. My congregation is small and struggling, but that event, in which about ten of our members also attended the film and helped with the lunch, created tremendous positive energy for us and helped us see what kinds of contributions we might make to our community.
5. What are you doing about Charleston in worship tomorrow?
So far, what we have is a statement of prayer and solidarity on our sign out front.  Tomorrow, as part of our continuing visioning process, we are taking time during worship to do an exercise designed to enable people to indicate what areas of mission are important to them.  I had planned about a two-minute sermon to introduce the process, but now I think that I will add a few sentences, referencing the Pope's encyclical on climate change and the Charleston shootings, to remind my people that Christianity is a revolutionary faith, one which asks us to live the whole of our lives differently and in which even the most basic acts of faith can be a risky business, and that we are called to embrace the gospel in many ways we might not expect. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Morning Pages

You know about morning pages, right?  Julia Cameron made them famous in her 2002 book The Artist's Way, with her suggestion to write three pages in longhand every morning, three pages about whatever ~ just write!
I'm indebted to my friend Michelle, chemistry professor and spiritual writer extraordinaire, for mentioning morning pages in conversation a couple of days ago.  I've had nothing to say for months, so I've barely written anything other than the sermons which are a job requirement.  But now I'm back to morning pages.
Well, okay, only two days worth, ten minutes a morning.  But it's more than I've written in a long time.  And perhaps, as Michelle noted, something worth polishing will appear. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Caleb's Crossing: A Novel (Book Review)

A week or so ago, I sought book recommendations on my FB page ~ looking, in particular, for books set on islands.
I haven't tried to discern the appeal that islands hold for me these days.  Something to do with isolation, distance, water, life on the periphery of the mainstream, mainland, main culture . . . it probably wouldn't take long to figure out, but I'm not in a particularly self-analytic frame of mind these days.  I'm content simply to read.
One of the books recommended by a couple of friends, and the first one I found at the library, is Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.  What a marvel of a novel!

Set mostly on 17the century Martha's Vineyard, the novel relates the story of a small band of Puritan settlers, their interactions with the Wampanoags who already inhabit the island, and the journey of two of the young Wampanoag men to Harvard College, all through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, daughter of the local minister.  Able to carve out some free time and space for herself as she approaches young womanhood, Bethia explores the island and befriends, and is befriended by, the boy-turning-man whom she names Caleb.  Their lives, and the lives of their families and communities, continue to be interlaced with one another in ways made realistic and, by turns, enchanting and heart-breaking, thanks to the skillful pen of Geraldine Brooks.
Caleb, based on a historical figure of whom little is known, is brought to life in a vivid portrait of Native American skills and values little understood or appreciated by the Puritan interlopers, and Bethia, an entirely fictional character, is equally well drawn as a devout Calvinist torn between the world in which she has been raised and the one with which she feels a strong kinship.  The "crossing" in the title refers most obviously to Caleb's crossing from his Wampanoag life to his life as a student at Harvard, the crown of learning in the world "New" to the Puritan settlers ~ but many other crossings emerge, from literal and treacherous crossings across Nantucket Sound and Massachusetts Bay to the metaphorical crossings that each of the major characters experience as they traverse the precarious boundaries between cultural and gender norms.
As someone whose ancestral names can be found in the records of Nantucket, neighboring island to Martha's Vineyard, and as someone who spent two summers on Cape Cod and read a great deal about New England during my school years in Massachusetts and Rhode Ialand ~ and who, like Bethia Mayfield, was delighted to discover the poet Anne Bradstreet when I was a young woman myself ~ Caleb's Crossing was of particular interest to me.  But I think it would be an intriguing, even page-turning, read for anyone ~ one of those books you can hardly bear to see end.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Life-Giving Waters (Sermon)

In a few weeks, we will be treated to pictures of the christening of the new little Princess Charlotte – daughter of Prince William and Duchess Kate.  Everyone will look beautiful in their dressy suits and hats, little Prince George will wear a charming outfit, and Princess Charlotte will no doubt be clad in a long baptismal dress which will flow over her mother’s arms nearly to the floor. The official photographs will be flashed ‘round the world, and everyone will ooh and ahh – and what’s not to ooh and ahh over, with such a lovely young family for whom surely everyone wishes only the best?
But one thing we will probably not hear referenced on the news or read in People Magazine will be an explanation of what the little princess’s baptism is all about.  It will be treated as a secular event which happens to take place in a church – a dress-up day for great happiness – but we will hear little, if anything, of it as a solemn religious occasion.
What is baptism, anyway?  Most of us probably don’t know much more about it than do the People Magazine writers.  We’re talking about baptism today because it’s the second topic in our summer Bible study, Come to the Waters – the second Biblical water subject for these warm days when water seems extremely appealing.  But appealing as water, and the whole idea of baptism are – what is baptism all about?
During Bible study on Thursday, one of our members described baptism as a welcome.  I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community. 
What’s the best welcome you’ve ever had? 
I often remember welcomes from my grandmother.  As you know, I grew up in the country, in southern Ohio.  To get to my house, you first turned into a paved lane and drove up a hill to my grandparents’ house, and then went on down a gravel road behind their place, leading to ours.  That meant that as a little girl hopping off the school bus at the bottom of the hill, my first destination was my grandmother’s – with her offerings of ice cream and late afternoon television shows – and that as a young career woman, my first stop was my grandmother’s, often to drink a glass of lemonade on her brick terrace and tell her about my life – and that as a young mother I drove to my grandmother’s before anyplace else in southwestern Ohio, so that my children could tumble out of the van into the same warmth and love that I had always known there
And you know what was wonderful about my grandmother’s welcomes? 
That she always had time.  Always – time for each of us.
My grandmother lived in an era in which homemaking was considered an art – and so she baked bread, and canned tomato juice, and cooked wholesome dinners from scratch each night, and was an expert knitter and intent student of nature – but she always had time to put everything down and turn her attention to us.  She was not the least bit intrusive – there were always treats and games available, but she also left us to our own devices when we preferred that, and was always willing to listen to whatever we had to share.  She was quite willing to interact with us, and guide us, and equally willing to step back and let us grow into ourselves.
Welcome welcome welcome.  How was school?  How’s your dog?  Tell me about the new Beatles album.  I have something to show you!  Welcome!
Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome?
Here you are!  Welcome to the church!  Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured!  How is your life?  We have something to show you!  Come and live into the time and space God makes for you! Come and see!
Welcome to that for which you thirst – whether or not you know it. Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!
Baptism is something we call a sacrament.  Sacraments – and in the Presbyterian Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives.   Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us. For all of us. 
John Calvin, that early Protestant reformer whose ideas and writings and leadership set much of the foundation for our church, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them.  We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid, palpable, material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about. 
Water throughout the Bible, is such a symbol -- of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.
Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God created – everything.  Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world.
In our first reading today, God is tending to God’s people, the Israelites, who have escaped slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert.  They are literally parched, expecting to die of thirst n the hot, dry desert, trapped in an inhospitable environment far from the homes they have known.  So miserable are they that they turn their anger on Moses, their leader, and threaten to kill him.  And in response, God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, and water for the people will pour from the rock. 
The people need water, actual water, in response to their physical thirst –but they also need material evidence of God’s care for them.  They are so lost, so disoriented, so frightened – and the water they receive in such a surprising way becomes a symbol for them that God is with them, a symbol of God’s care and promises remembered to this day. 
For Jesus, baptized in the Jordan River in today’s gospel reading, the water is an even more profound symbol: a symbol of the Holy Spiri,t and of identity. 
Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptize like any other Jew of his time and place, to engage in this ritual of cleansing conducted by his cousin, John the Baptist.  John is surprised to see him – because John knows that Jesus is not like any other person of his time and place – but Jesus is insistent that he should engage in the ritual common to all.  And thus Jesus makes common to all in baptism what happens to him in baptism: the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”
What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism.  This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert.  This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.
Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality.  Water is about identity.
When the little princess is baptized, much will be made of her names – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and how they reflect her identity in the line and heritage of the royal family.  We do much the same, don’t we? If we have children, we choose names for them that are of significance to ourselves and our families, and hope that those names will come to bear meaning for the tiny babies who will grow into them.  But those names, however beautiful and meaningful – those names are not nearly as marvelous as the name and identity given us in baptism: Beloved.  Those names, however much they symbolize family history and parental dreams, do not completely reflect the sign and symbol of the water of baptism: God’s beloved.  Welcome, beloved one, into God’s community.
Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements -- a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font.
Welcome to a love that will always have time for you. Welcome to a love that desires you to flourish – as you are, who you are, in your deepest self.
Welcome to a love which propels you into the world to share, with generosity and hope, this love, in whatever way you are called to do so by those gifts unique to you.
Welcome to a deep love in which you are claimed by God – whether you know it or not, before can know it, when you are convinced that it has nothing to do with you, when you have turned away from it  – in all the circumstances of your life, the love which pours into your life from your baptism surrounds and supports you, and draws you into relationship with God and with the people of God.  With all people, because all people are the people of God.
The waters of baptism are the waters in which you are named – God’s Beloved – and called to share – God’s belovedness. No matter what happens to you in this life, no matter how many wrong turns you make, no matter how confusing your hopes or broken your plans, the waters of God’s love flow through your days and your nights.  Through baptism the Spirit welcomes you into Christ’s community and gives you God’s name for you: Beloved One.  Amen.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Getting Ready to Go (Friday Five)

Denver Botanic Gardens

I haven't played a Friday Five in a long time, but today's is a fun one from Stephanie for those of us who love to travel:

Here in the Northern Hemisphere summer is upon us which for many means a season of more going and coming. As I child when my family was planning for vacation we knew we were getting close when my mom stopped by the bookstore to buy the Frommer’s and Fodor’s guides for our destination. It was how she got ready to go.  Today I’m in the final countdown to my sabbatical that begins in less than 48 hours.  My preparation has included lists, lists, and few more lists. Around the RevGals community some are planning for vacations, others continuing education, still others are changing appointments or seeking new calls.

Whatever your going may be, physical travel or taking a mental break, how will you get ready to for it? Are you a list maker, a blog reader, a book gatherer, a house cleaner? On your blog or in the comments tell us about five things you do to get ready to go. What do you do to prepare yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually to be away? Or what unique preparations have  you made for five different kinds of leave-taking, such as vacation, continuing education, changing calls, retirement, death of a loved one?

1. The cats -- the most important task.  Glinda could pretty much take care of herself, but now that we have Marti, a special-needs cat, the situation has grown more complicated.  We hired a fabulous pet sitter team for our last trip, but what with the bird who flew into the house, the raccoon who dug into the trash, and the gas that leaked into the house, I'm not sure they'll come back!  (The cats did great, though.)

2.  The church -- now that I'm the pastor, any absence requires me to arrange for back-up pastoral care, and Sunday preaching, if I'm gone for Sunday.  I've been really blessed by wonderful colleagues, so no worries there, once the recruiting is accomplished.  If I go away when I'm teaching, it's a lot harder to find someone.

3. The stuff -- I'm getting much better at packing for almost anything using nothing more than a carry-on suitcase and some sort of bag.  That ipad makes reading and writing such compact endeavors!

4. The guides and maps -- vacation or conference, I love to see something of my surroundings, and I try always to plan with that in mind.   I've been to Martin Luther King, Jr. sites and Olympic Park in Atlanta, thanks to the Older Adult Ministries Conference a couple of years ago; to a bit of St. Louis with friends, thanks to the Interim Ministry Training last fall; and to a few great places in Denver, thanks to the Festival of Homiletics.

5. I am an inveterate list maker, so all of the above is accomplished via detailed lists.

Next planned trip: Washington, D.C. in another ten days, to lobby for suicide prevention legislation.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Endarkenment (Sermon - John 3)

When I was a new mother, my husband and I took our three-month old twins to Florida to see my grandparents, to whom I was very close.  My husband spent several days in Orlando for a business conference, and I took the babies to visit my grandparents.

At the time, my grandfather was extremely ill – dying, in fact, of kidney failure.  He and my grandmother had gone to Florida for the winter, but he had taken a sudden turn for the worse after their arrival around Thanksgiving.  By the time we arrived in mid-December, my grandfather was house-bound and cared for by round-the-clock nurses, as my grandmother was herself too frail to do much of the physical work.

My grandfather was experiencing something with which many of you are no doubt familiar. It’s called sundowning, and it’s characteristic of dementia.  My grandfather was often up and about during the day, coming to the table for breakfast and lunch, completely lucid, aware of who my children and I were, and delighted to spend time with his great-grandsons.  But as evening fell, he would lose his bearings.  His behavior became increasingly erratic, and his sense of who and where he was evaporated in the night.

I was particularly aware of his situation because I was up much of the night with my babies -- in a guestroom next to my grandfather’s room, so that I could hear him talking. Talking and talking, all night long, to his nurse companion.  And during those late, long nights, my grandfather slipped back into the 1930s, into the Depression, into the years in which he and his father and brother were trying to make a go of it in business.  He thought, night after night, that it was Christmastime in 1930 or so, and he was frantic that he did not have Christmas presents for his young family.

I learned so much during those nights, about the cycle of life, and about dementia, and about my grandfather.  I saw life at both ends, with two babies at the very beginning of theirs  and my grandfather in the last month of his. I l learned about the trials of dementia, not in a textbook or classroom sort of way, but in a real-life experience kind of way, spending time with someone I loved as his mind failed him.

And I learned about my grandfather, who he was and what was important to him.  You know the old saying – that no one at the end of life ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office?” My grandfather was a perfect example of the truth in that.  In those long nights, a month before he died, he never once talked about his business.  It was all, all of it, about his family.

These were not things I could learn in the light of day, when all seemed well and fairly ordinary.  These things required me to attend to my grandfather’s experience of the night as he neared the end of his life.

What about you?  Where else do we learn things in the night?

Hospital corridors are among the first nighttime places that come to mind. If you’ve ever spent time with a seriously ill loved one, then you’ve probably experienced the lonely, bewildering sense of mystery that one finds in a hospital at 2:00 or 4:00 am.  Deathbeds are another place at which we often find ourselves in the night.  And crises seem to come at night – the police at the door, the ambulance in the drive, the phone call alerting us to an accident.

None of these are night time places we would choose, but they are all places in which we grow, aren’t they?

Now, those are tangible, concrete night times of our lives. But there are also intangible night times – times after a death, after the loss of a home or a job, times of anxiety over a struggling child, or finances stretched too far, or choices gone bad.  In Cleveland, the Brelo trial has been such a metaphorical night time.  While the events of the case – the chase, the shooting, the deaths – all took place during the literal night, the trial and judgment have felt to many like a continuation of  night time.  It’s clear that while Officer Brelo’s actions may have been within the bounds of the law, as the judge decided, that does not mean that they fall within the bounds of acceptable behavior for a police officer.  Brelo’s case falls within the context of a long night time of injustice, of misjudgment and reckless behavior by police officers in communities across our country, the consequences of which fall disproportionately on black shoulders.

Night time seems to be a time for confusion, for struggle; a time in which things go wrong.

Might it also be a time, however, in which knowledge and understanding come our way?  Knowledge and understanding not available to us in the daytime

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and preacher-writer – we studied one of her books last winter -- suggests that we need to focus more on what we might learn in the night.[1]  As we all know, we tend to emphasize light as a symbol for learning, for finding clarity.  We even call a great historical period of learning and philosophy and literature in Europe “the Enlightenment.” In fact, much of what we understand as cultural norms today first say the light of day during the European Enlightenment.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests offers us a new term to describe how we might learn differently.  Her term is “endarkenment.”  We need, she says, more of endarkenment rather than the enlightenment toward which we tend to gravitate.

This morning our text offers us a night time story.  Nicodemus: what’s he doing out late at night.

The usual explanation given is that Nicodemus, a skilled lawyer and debater, a leader in is community, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s visiting Jesus.  He’s drawn to Jesus, this compelling rabbi who performs signs and wonders, and he’s curious – but he doesn’t want word getting around about his attraction to this mystery man.  And so he seeks Jesus out at night.

And does Nicodemus ever get more than he bargained for!  He can’t get a straight sentence out of Jesus, but he gets an earful – about being born “from above” (or, “again”) about relationship, and about the love of God.

Oh – and about the Trinity.   This is one of the few episodes in the Bible in which our understanding of God as Trinity makes an appearance.  The idea of Trinity is very confusing, as most of our most learned theologians have been quite willing to admit.  Nicodemus is merely one of the first in a very long line of confused people.  The Bible does not, after all, have a chapter entitled “The Trinity.”  The Bible is not a textbook on the geometry of three-in-one.

What the Bible offers us, as Jesus does Nicodemus, is a series of hints; of clues.  In this little story of the night, we are told that God sent God’s son, and that we must be born of water and spirit.  Not exactly clear, is it? Poor Nicodemus -- supposed to make sense of all this information coming at him in the night.

What’s important here, though, is not the complicated math of the Trinity, of God.  What’s important is who God is, and what God wants.  What’s important is what Nicodemus learned during his night of endarkenment:

That God so loved the world.  That God SO loved the world.  That God so LOVED the word  . . .  that God gave God’s Son . . .

That God so loved the world that God sought not to condemn -- but to save.  After a whole history of human foolishness and error and destruction, all God really wanted was to save what God had begun.

That God so loved the world that God wanted to endure that we would not perish, but that we would have eternal life.  That we would flourish, that we would grow into the people God always wanted us to be, that the whole world – not just us, but all of creation – would be born anew.

We don’t know much about what happened to Nicodemus as a consequence of his nighttime encounter with Jesus.  The Bible leaves out a lot of the detail.  It’s not like Oprah – no blow-by-blow description of crisis and growth.  But we DO know that this nighttime meeting with Jesus changed Nicodemus.   We know this because toward the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus makes another appearance -- this time in the light of day – to assist Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus after the crucifixion.    Whatever happened to Nicodemus in those three or so years, he was transformed – transformed by what he learned about the love of God, the God who saves and promises eternal life.

What about us?  What do we learn in the night? What do we learn about God in the night times of our lives, whether in the company of a dying loved on or in the midst of a crisis – do we discover a loving, compassionate, attentive God who, we might not encounter in the light of an ordinary day?  

What about great community challenges which make it seem as if night has fallen? Because of the Brelo case, and because of Tamir Rice, and because of other catastrophes in the same vein, our city is learning about and committing itself anew to justice – the work of God, who tells us over and over through the prophets that justice matters.  Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that what we discover of good in these situations justifies the cost, paid in young lives – not at all.  But it is a reality that our own individual experiences of endarkenment teach us to see with new eyes – we discover things we could not have learned in have learned in the daylight, just as Nicodemus did.

Is it possible that in the night, we, too learn of the extravagant, saving love of God?   A couple of months ago, at Easter, we talked about how the story continues – about how the post-Resurrection story in Mark, which ends with everyone filled with fear and running away, is a story which we are called to continue.  Perhaps the same is also true here, with another story which does not really continue, but picks up later with a changed Nicodemus  – perhaps, again,  we are the continuation of the story.  That God is loving the world into salvation and eternal life, and that we are called to carry that love of God forward, each of us in our own way, each in our own darkness, so that God’s dream is realized.   

Frederick Buechner,  Presbyterian pastor and writer, tells us that “all we’re asked to do is to take a step or two forward through the darkness and start digging in.”[2]  That’s what Nicodemus did; maybe we should do the same.  Look for the love of God – the presence of Jesus – and the persistence of the Spirit – in the nights of life.  Amen.





[1] Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014).