Sunday, May 27, 2012

It's No Wonder Nicodemus Wondered...

A couple of days back I stopped at the cemetery.
Fifteen years after he died we finally got around to getting a Veteran’s marker for my dad’s grave.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about --- the kind you simply push into the ground that holds a flag.
I stopped by as I wanted to get it in before Memorial Day.  Normally when I stop I’m alone in that vast windy place.  This time though, a couple of afternoons before the holiday, there were others.  An older man and a couple of older women were kneeling at a gravestone several yards away from my dad’s, cleaning it off and putting new flowers into the vase.  And just two stones down from my dad’s was an old man.  I glanced in his direction as I adjusted the flag in the stand. And then I looked again for I realized that he was down on all fours and he wasn’t getting up easily. So I stepped toward him and asked if I could give him a hand.  He hesitated as he looked up at me but finally he rather sheepishly agreed that he could use some help.  Only even between the two of us we couldn’t quite make it.  After several attempts, I asked him to wait and I ventured over towards the threesome and asked if they wouldn’t help.  They quickly dropped what they were doing and the gentleman walked ahead and using both arms managed to steady the old man and get him to his feet.  One of us reached over and handed him his cane and the two older women began clucking over him assuring him that the same thing sometimes happens to them as well.  As they went back to their own loved ones’ graves I paused to visit with the old man before we parted ways.  He showed me the silk flowers he had placed on the graves of his aunt and uncle and on those of his parents. Then he walked a step away and showed me the grave of his wife, Ruth. As I looked down at the place where he would someday lie beside her and noted the date on the gravestone, I realized that he was 96 years old.  And then he said it aloud, “I guess I must be getting old.  I really do know better than to get down like that anymore…”
I’m not quite there, of course, for he has more than 40 years on me, but there are days when I find myself rolling over to my knees when I’m getting up from the mat in my exercise class for my joints are also simply not what they used to be.  In fact, I can’t imagine that even knee replacement (which, no doubt is somewhere in my future) will make them as resilient as they were before I started regularly hitting the gym floor with them in high school volleyball.  No, while we can delay aging with regular exercise and a healthy diet, the years do still catch up.  And much of the time it appears there is no turning back.
And so it is we meet up with Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson for this Holy Trinity Sunday.  Nicodemus who is sneaking around in the dark trying to get to Jesus without anyone else seeing him.  Nicodemus who is so curious he can do no other. Nicodemus, who is apparently not so young himself, whose knees might just be creaking, too.  Nicodemus who responds to Jesus saying “How can anyone be born again when he has grown old?” when Jesus says, "No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above."  Indeed, is it any wonder that Nicodemus wonders?
To be sure, Nicodemus’ question was entirely logical.  There is a normal progression to things. In fact, contrary to all appearances, I’m told we begin to age as soon as we first breathe on our own.    We know from hard experience that knees and other body parts wear out and there comes a time when there is no turning back.  We know that where I met a 96-year-old tending his family’s graves is where we all one day will be.  Indeed, what Jesus speaks of here doesn’t begin to fit with much of what you and I know to our very bones.  The hope he offers us runs contrary to what most everything else in the world has taught us to be so.  

And so it is that Jesus' promise today is impossible for us to comprehend if part of us hasn't already begun to come to terms with the truth that this is not our own doing, but God's. 

For being born again, whether it be that first physical birth we all experience but can't remember, or the small and large re-births that happen along the way in minds and hearts and spirits, this 'being born' is not something we do, but is something that must be done to us and for us.  It is always, ever, the gift of God.  
We know something of this in the cool breeze that breaks the heat and humidity of a summer's day. We know this is as gift that comes from beyond our own doing.

We know something of this in the easing of pain after a long suffered grief....  To be sure, we can do all we can to heal, but in the end we know it is a gift from beyond our own doing.

We know something of this in the wonder of physical wounds healed... for we can follow doctor's orders, but we know the healing comes from far beyond our own doing.

And I expect I knew something of this last Wednesday afternoon in a cemetery when I was lifted out of my own private thoughts and saw the plight of another.   And perhaps others experienced something of this as well as they were invited to tend to the simple needs of a stranger, reminding them that we are all bound up with one another in ways both simple and profound. Some sense of hopefulness was born again between us in that moment as a simple kindness was shared and it seemed all beyond our own doing, our being together for that purpose in that moment in time.

And this gift, this being born from above?  It’s more than a hand up to stand on legs still weakened by time and age.  It’s the gift of new life and renewed hope and fresh beginnings. Not only in the next life, but in this one right now today. Births and rebirths?  We can only receive them, celebrate them and seek to lead lives worthy of them.
Even so, it's no wonder that Nicodemus wondered for we all do at times.  And yet, with hearts reborn to see and understand, we are among those most blessed if we can begin to move past wondering and simply give thanks.    
  • What do you make of Nicodemus' question?  What questions might have popped into your mind should you have been engaged in that conversation with Jesus that night?
  • Who are the curious ones who, like Nicodemus, risk to come to hear about Jesus?  What words are needed to helpm ake sense of these gifts of god for thos for whom this story might be new? 
  • What does 'being born from above' mean to you?  When and where and how have you experienced this gift of God?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Baghdad Breeze and the Power of the Holy Spirit

There are so many images in this week's Pentecost account that I find my imagination running in a couple of different directions.  One is to dwell in the power and wonder of the Holy Spirit as portrayed for us in wind and flame.  The other is to ponder the miracle of differences overcome through the coming of the Holy Spirit: particularly as we hear of it in those who were able to understand one another in spite of differences in language.  And so I offer two images now.  
I heard  about Aseel Albanna in a  story on NPR some time ago. Ms. Albanna came to the United States for a four week visit from Iraq twenty years ago.  When war broke out and it was unsafe for her to return, through family she found a way to stay on as a student. So it was that she was ‘away from home’ during those tragic years when her country was destroyed by war.  She had reason to return not long ago though, and as she was driven through the streets of Baghdad she was heard to exclaim over and over again at how much it had all changed.  When she finally got out of the car and stood in front of the house which had once been her home, she said,

"It's like there's no more life left in it. What I have left is only memories, because right now
 I barely recognize it, to be honest. The only thing that's still here is the breeze,
 that Baghdad breeze."

Only the wind remains…  I thought of Pentecost when first I heard this story.  Of the power of the wind.  About how, like with the Spirit, we can destroy all this world holds, but we cannot take away the wondrous power of God.  The breeze remains, perhaps sometimes in spite of us.

And a second image: this one the story of a time when difference in language could have divided, but did not:
My sister and mother and I took a trip to Norway several years ago now.  The landscape was breathtaking.  If you’ve been there you surely know of what I speak.  It was impossible to take a bad photograph and we took many.  The highlight of the trip, though, was the day spent with relatives in the town of Sand, south of Bergen.  My grandfather’s people emigrated from there in the late 1800’s and made their home in Wisconsin as did so many others in that time of needing fresh starts and opportunities.
We drove a fair distance to get there where one of our cousins met us at the ferry and led us on a tour of the community.   We saw the church they call their own and the tiny house our ancestors would have called home.  And then we drove to cousin Jenny’s (pronounced by one and all 'Yenny') house where the clan was waiting to greet us.
The older generation knew little English and our Norwegian is limited to a few phrases tied to holiday celebrations so we were especially grateful that the younger cousins joined us as we ate together for they managed to help us understand one another across all that would divide us.  Indeed, the only English words 80-plus year old 'Yenny' seemed to know were “You must eat.”  Which she said over and over again and which we proceeded to do in abundance.
After the meal, though, the young folks went home and we were left with the older cousins and the language difference between us.
We sat in the front room, me, my sister and my mother --- all in a row on the sofa, uncertain about what would happen next when 'Yenny' and her sister entered the room.  We noticed them whispering to one another, just out of our hearing.  Moments later it became evident that they were trying to decide on a correct translation for 'Yenny' pronounced to us, “You look homely.”  Yes, you read that right.  My sister and I dared not even sneak a glance at one another else we would have succumbed to gales of laughter.  And then she said it again, “You look homely.”  Only this time she quickly followed up with “You must eat.”    It was clear to us then that she meant to say ‘hungry’ and not 'homely.'  And so we ate again.  Clearly food offered a common language we could share.

Indeed, if we had not already experienced 'Yenny's' wonderful hospitality and overwhelming generosity, we might have been tempted to take offense for it is not often one gets called 'homely' directly to one's face.  Instead, a history whose threads were intertwined and a shared meal had already served to bind us to one another so that in spite of the language barrier we were able to begin to understand.  And before that, to at least patiently wait to see if perhaps we had misunderstood. 
While this world seems to constantly grow smaller, even so we experience more and more those ways and times and places when language and so much more would still divide us.  This is, of course, part of the wonder of the story before us now.  We can't quite get over the fact that people across time and space and tradition and language and culture and custom are, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, able to understand one another.  And yet, that is not the miracle of the story... it is only the evidence of it.  The miracle in this story is that God's power is greater than anything and everything that would divide or destroy us.
And to be sure we get glimmers of the amazing gift of that in the realization that we may destroy everything that is good but God's power (e.g. that Baghdad breeze) remains and waits to heal and build and bridge once more all that breaks us apart.  And yes, we do get glimmers of the wonder of that when in spite of all that would divide us, we still find ways to understand one another by the power of the Holy Spirit who enables us somehow to understand and find common ground in spite of all that would keep us apart. Amen.
  1.  In what ways do 'wind and flame' speak to you of the attributes of the Holy Spirit?
  2. Can you think of times and places when the power of God remained in spite of evidence to the contrary?
  3. How do you see the Holy Spirit bringing together what was once divided?  What would understanding' look like in your context?
  4.  Often we think of the work of the Holy Spirit as mysterious --- as difficult to explain. Have you found this to be so?   Where and how have you experienced the Holy Spirit at work?

Sunday, May 13, 2012


“Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)
The unity Jesus speaks of here is all too rare it seems to me.  I’m tempted to say that’s a rather recent phenomenon, but I know better.  Whether it’s in the church or in the world, unity can be short-lived and hard to come by.
I know this to be so for you see, I did a stint as an elected member of a library board some time ago.
I agreed to do this because I have always been a lover of libraries.  A visit to the public library was a regular and frequent event for us as children.  I can still remember when I went to visit the college I would eventually call my own.  I stepped into even that relatively small library and walked into the stacks and felt simply overwhelmed by the possibility of all there was to learn.  Today when I walk into the university library in the community I now call home, the smell alone takes back to that moment every single time.
I served a few years on a library board because a member of my congregation knew this about me and asked if I would be willing to serve in this way.  I served in this way because it seemed, at the time, like a good way to contribute to the larger community I then called home.
Only the experience turned out to be less than I had hoped ---- this my first effort at such public service.  For while I don’t doubt that others at that monthly table were also lovers of libraries, those meetings turned out to be altogether unpleasant events marked by hidden agendas and political backbiting and surreptitious efforts to undermine the head librarian.  Some of this I picked up on right away.  The rest became increasingly evident over time.  To be sure, though, many of the motivations and reasons behind all of it will always elude me as I would never be privy to the small town politics that played out behind the more public agenda we shared.  I did know this though: unity, or 'oneness', was nowhere to be seen.
I never answered the call to such civic duty again.  And while the world and I are probably no worse off for my having avoided such opportunities, it is, of course, so much different for the Church --- for God’s people --- of whom Jesus speaks today.  Oh, unfortunately the political reality can be much the same, regrettably.  However, the consequences of such for God's people can be so much more profound. 
Indeed, it occurs to me now as the newest member of the library board, I wasn’t so very different from the newest member of many a congregation council.  One who, in their case, loves Jesus and loves the Church and wants to make a difference.  Only they step into the room and there are things going on under the surface which they can’t begin to comprehend.  Some of those things, to be sure, are generations old and even those engaging in them may have trouble articulating their source or meaning.   The result, unfortunately, is that some of them will also never agree to serve again.  Others will choose to leave the community of believers altogether.   
No, indeed, the unity Jesus speaks of now is sometimes nothing like what you and I experience.
In fact, a few years back, I had a visitor on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday afternoon.  This guest was not known to me.  He came without appointment, wondering if we could visit awhile. As we sat and talked he began to weep… speaking to me of the congregation he called home which was by then so divided, he didn’t want to raise his children there.  “I grew up with that,” he said.  “I want something different for them.” 
This individual was willing to risk it one more time --- looking for yet one more church home where he might glimpse some of what Jesus intends for us in his prayer today.  Too many will make the decision to go it alone --- never engaging with the Church again.  And while imagine it is possible to sustain one’s belief alone,  it surely can’t be easy. For the Church at its best is support to us in times of struggle and loss and hurt.  The Church at its unified best enables us to see where God is calling us to live differently in the world --- both together and alone.  The Church as ‘one’ --- the Church Jesus calls us to be today recognizes the differences between us, but calls us still to move forward in what binds us to each other:  A common love of Jesus and the world God made.

Now I know there are examples of 'unity' all over every congregation I've served.  I celebrate those, to be sure.  Only I grieve still more the energy and hope that is lost when this is not so.  I grieve still more God's children who are sometimes driven away when that which divides us is greater than that which makes us one.

And so I believe and so I have learned that it is only as we emphasize what we have in common that we are able to bridge that which would divide us.  This does not mean we ignore our differences, for that only leads to a false and fragile unity.  This does mean that we address those differences standing firm in those truths which we hold together.  In recognizing our mutual 'createdness', for one.  In the acknowledgement that God is God and we are not and the humility that engenders among us and between us.  In a celebration of the gifts that are present in each of us: again, God's own handi-work.  In our mutual love of Jesus.  In our willingness to work together to discern what our faith is calling us to in the world.  And in the daily acceptance of the certainty that we will not always succeed, but we will always be forgiven and given what we need to begin again.  In Jesus' name.  Amen.
  1. How about you?  What examples of unity among God's people come to mind when you hear Jesus' words for us today?  Is it easier to think of examples of unity or is it easier to come up with examples of its opposite?
  2. What are the characteristics of the ‘oneness’ or unity Jesus speaks of in this Gospel lesson?  What are the clues in the text itself? 
  3. Often when I’ve been in conversation with church leaders in conflict I’ve cited my library board experience.  I then go on to say that in the Church we have so many more resources at our fingertips to address conflict: to  be 'one' in spite of what separates us.  What might those resources be?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Of Supermoons and Loving One Another

John 15:9-17

As I write, I'm told we had a 'supermoon' this week-end.  My understanding is that a 'supermoon' occurs when in its full moon stage, the moon passes as close to the earth as it possibly can, making it appear to be significantly larger than it usually does.  It's always the same size of course, but on nights like these we simply get a better view.  Unless of course you're under cloud cover as we were out here west of Chicago over the last couple of nights.  The moon was and is still there of course.  And it is the same size whether we see it or not.  Only sometimes we do actually get to see it in a way that might just alter our view of the universe.

I had an experience like that earlier this week... where something that has, no doubt, always been true, was mine to see in a way that I was able to hear more deeply Jesus' words for us today... especially this business where he elevates the love we are to hold for one another to the place of actually 'laying down one's life for one's friends.'  Not that there was anything nearly that dramatic in what I witnessed.  In fact, I expect most would say it was a small thing.

For you see, I stopped to make a visit at a local nursing home on Monday: the sort of place where there can be a whole lot of this kind of sacrificial, day-after-day loving demonstrated for others.  Only what I'm thinking of now was the kind one sees from time to time between residents.
This is how it went.  One of our members had spent a couple of days in the hospital.  I heard that she was ‘home’ so I wanted to check on her.
I walked the length of the building to her room and when I arrived, I found her sitting in her wheelchair out in the hallway. She told me it’s ‘her place’ for from there she can see who’s coming and going.
Not that she can see much anymore and for that matter, her hearing is failing, too. Indeed, by now it seems, her entire physical being has been diminished by various illnesses and ailments.  This was not always so, of course.  For while I have only been her pastor for a short time now, we knew one another a long time ago when we served on Synod Council together.  I was a young pastor then and she was in her prime.  Perhaps one has to squint a little to see it now, but I remember her being a ‘force’ all her own.  In fact, if you walk into her shared room today you will see displayed on the wall various plaques and awards she received for her service in the community hanging alongside photographs of children and grandchildren.  She doesn't talk about the awards though... those grandchildren, however, are always the subject of much joyful conversation.
And so it was I caught up with her on Monday to find her sitting outside her room and for the next ten minutes or so we visited about various matters… her health, of course.  Her children and grandchildren.  The state of the congregation that has been her home for so long.  All through our conversation her failing eyes were scanning the people going by, nodding and calling many by name.  After a time, though, since we were approaching the dinner hour she asked if I would wheel her down the hall to the dining room. 
As we rolled along she told me that normally at this time of day she’s playing cards with others.  And she said that since she can’t see so well anymore, a friend sits next to her and helps her play her hand.  “We win some and we lose some,” she said, ‘but it really doesn’t much matter.”  I was surprised to find her tone was not one of resignation.  Instead, she spoke with a kind of bemused contentment.  For her, the point was no longer the game itself, but the friends sitting next to her.
Perhaps she was always this way, although I have to wonder.  Certainly at some point in some parts of her life ‘winning and losing’ must have mattered to her.  But no more.  By now time and age and disease had whittled her world down to what is really essential.  She has been blessed to see the 'supermoon' in a way perhaps she couldn't before.
I thought of this as I was considering Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel before us now.  And while often, to be sure, ‘laying down one’s life for one’s friends’ is dramatic and profound, perhaps it is also as simple as helping another to play a hand of cards when her senses don’t allow her to do what she once would have done without thinking.  And not just once, but afternoon after afternoon after afternoon.   It doesn't bear the sort of fruit the world might measure.  But it is fruit all the same.  The sort that builds up one many would rather ignore or avoid.  The sort that stands still in the presence of and loves in simple and profound ways one whom the world would hardly count any more. 

And of course, this is what Jesus did over and over again in his ministry.  Whether it was the hemorrhaging woman or the man born blind or a group of lepers who had been cut off from the world as they had known it, over and over again, Jesus' gifts were known in amazing ways in the most unlikely of places among often the most unsavory of people.  Even at the end we hear him making astounding promises to the thief who hung dying next to him.  Jesus, who calls us friends, would have us do the same, it seems to me.
Now I know my story of a nursing home visit may seem to be a small thing, but that half an hour with one who has learned so deeply and well the lessons of what matters most will stay with me for some time.  As will the image of her neighbor and friend playing her hand of cards day after day. So that win or lose, she will have a place at the table, too.  Those images will stay with me for a time, and when they fade, I will do well to back and call on her again.  And if I'm honest, I expect that next visit will do me as much good as it does her, if not more. 
  1. What have been 'supermoon' moments for you?  What has enabled you to see and understand things you couldn't before?
  2. Can you think of examples of 'laying down one's life for one's friends?'  Are they ordinary or extraordinary or both?
  3. What do you think Jesus is thinking of when he urgest us to go and bear fruit?  What does that fruit look like in our world today?
  4. In this country, next Sunday we celebrate Mother's Day.  How are you considering tying Jesus' words to the occasion?