Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Cool October Breezes and All Saints' Day Once More

John 11:32-44

It's the ending we all hope for, isn't it?  You and I who stood at gravesides some four days or four months or four years after the dirt has filled in the gaping wound in the ground before us and grass has grown up over it --- only covering up the hurt --- but not quite completely healing it.  It's the ending we all hope for, isn't it?  This one where the one we loved so is suddenly back with us now untouched by the illness, the suffering that perhaps marked their last days, their last moments.  The one where breath is restored and color is back and life in all of its fullness returns.  Indeed, when grief is so very hard we want it most of all, it seems to me...

I think of my dad every year as we approach All Saints' Day again.  Oh, by now his name joins a whole host of others who have marked and made me who I am, but he is the one who inevitably comes to mind first. He'll have been gone 16 years in January.  I visit his grave from time to time --- indeed, I'm fortunate to live just a few miles away from the cemetery.  But I have to say I've never gone with the expectation of the ending that Mary and Martha experienced with Lazarus so long ago. Even so, there are times when I get a glimmer of just what that might be.

So it was a few years back I found myself dreaming of him again --- it happens still, from time to time.  Now these have not yet been dreams with big messages or especially startling moments --- just ordinary snapshots of life which perhaps repeated themselves a thousand times in those years when he was alive.  This is how this particular dream played out. I was sitting at a computer --- one of my sisters was in the same room with a television on.  Suddenly in he walked as alive and energetic as he ever was before he got sick.  I looked up to say 'hello' and he came over to me, laughing, and leaned down and pressed his face against mine. And his face was cold as though he'd been outside working and had just come inside. I woke up a few  moments later feeling that cold on my cheek.  It wasn't long before I realized that what I felt was probably the cool October breeze coming through the open window, but in those first waking moments, I couldn't be sure, not really.

To be sure, I wonder whenever one dreams like that --- I wonder what happens to cause one to dream of ones we have loved in such a way that seems so very real.  Are they so ingrained in our memories --- in the very cells of our brains perhaps --- that now and then it's just like breathing that they are there again?  Or is it something that happened the day before that brought him to mind again?  Or is something going on in my life that I am yearning for that reminder of safety and security that he was for me as long as he lived?  Or is it, as I do believe, simply the certainty that those whom we have loved and who have died, are held still in God's tender care, and so never really leave us?

Still as wonderful as those sorts of dreams can be --- and as real as they may still seem in our first waking moments --- they are nothing compared to what Mary and Martha must have known when Lazarus came walking out of that tomb. That brief sensation of cold on my face? Only a faint shadow of the promise of life again with Jesus which we cling to which is foreshadowed in the Gospel story before us now.

All Saints Day is for all of this and more. It is, of course, for remembering those who have gone before --- whose memories still enliven our dreams from time to time. But it's not only for that. All Saints Day is also for celebrating for what is yet to come.  It is for standing still in the promise of eternal life that is meant for all the Saints, for all God's Holy Ones.  Oh, I expect we'll always go to cemeteries with no expectation of the sort of ending that Mary and Martha knew. At the same time, you and I are called to live our entire lives in the hopeful expectation that one day there will be even more than what Mary and Martha and Lazarus experienced --- for them and for all of us and all we have so loved.  And between now and when that hope is realized --- perhaps we'll have cool breezes in the night--- gifts of God in a way --- to remind us of the promise of life and love, safety and joy, wonder and hope that by God's gift belongs to us all.

  • Who comes to your mind first this All Saints' Day?  What is the story of your remembering?
  • I have noted two purposes for All Saint's Day above. Can you think of others?
  • What are the promises which resound in this week's Gospel story?  How does this story shape or inform your celebration of this day of the church year?
  • How does the promise of eternal life come home to you in this and the other lessons assigned for this day?  How do you experience glimmers of this promise in your life even now?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Messiest Pastor Ever..."

John 8:31-36

To be sure, I am not one who can speak deeply from a personal experience of 'slavery' --- for it is not part of my own history. But then, as Jesus points out to his first listeners today, that sort of experience is not what he is speaking of at all.  Rather, the kind of slavery he points to today is the universal kind ---  for, in fact, we are each one of us 'slaves' to sin.  Let me tell you of a time when I knew this was so...

After greeting the faithful after the 8 a.m. service I looked down to see that I had spilled wine on the front of my alb.  We still had one more service to go that morning so I headed back to the sacristy to seek the advice of someone who would know better than I.  I stepped through the door and explained my dilemma, wondering if there was any way to remove the stain in the next hour.  Shaking her head, Carole said to me then, "You are the messiest pastor we've ever had."  She was laughing as she said it, but I could tell she wasn't really kidding.

To tell you the truth, I was shocked.  Oh, one glance at my desk will tell you that I am not the most orderly person around, but then, that is true of many other pastors.  Still while there was always a steady stream of traffic through my office and my 'messiness' was by then common knowledge, it was clear that in that moment she was not speaking of my lack of priority in getting papers filed or discarding junk mail.

In spite of Carole's light tone, I can remember standing still in my surprise at having been so 'found out' for I felt a sense of shame flooding me even before I knew what she was talking about. I can remember standing still long enough, too, to hear exactly what she meant.  It turns out that for many months now I had been spilling wine on the altar linens. And not just once a week-end, but often more than one time on any given week-end.  Clearly, I was entirely oblivious to this --- and more than that, as a result, had been going about my business for some time giving no thought at all to the extra work this was causing our very fine altar guild members.  I left that conversation determined to prove I could do better.

Now in my defense, there are good reasons beyond my own clumsiness for this.  For this is how it was.

It was the practice in that congregation to share the sacrament at every service every week-end. We had lovely gold plated chalices, however, which had a tendency to corrode if the wine was left in them for too long.  So the practice in that place was for the pastor, while she spoke the Words of Institution, to pour the wine into the chalice so as to minimize the time the wine would be able to do its damage.   Only the pouring ewer wasn't really a pouring ewer at all.  And so apparently, week after week, service after service, a tiny drop of wine would catch on the lip of the ewer and when I wasn't looking the deep red wine would dribble down onto the altar linen beneath it.

I hadn't noticed. But of course, the altar guild had.  It turns out they had taken to simply moving chalices around in order to cover up my stains between services so as to not have to clean up after me more than once a week, but until that morning not a one of them had said anything to me.

Well, after that I tried to change my ways, to prove them wrong, I really did.  Only service after service, week-end after week-end, the aforementioned design flaw in the pouring ewer made it so that no matter how I held it, no matter how carefully I poured from it, there was no stopping that single drop of red wine from making its mark three times a week-end.  After a few weeks of doing my best I took to simply running my finger along the lip of the ewer and then wiping my finger on a tissue I kept in the pocket of my alb for just this purpose.  Try as I might, I couldn't make it not 'spill.'  It felt a little like 'slavery.'

Now I could come up with a dozen other examples of what it is to be 'enslaved to sin' --- most much more profound than this one.

For instance, I could speak of my on again off again addiction to caffeine.  No, I don't believe the caffeine itself is sinful.  And no, I'm not saying that the experience of others is at all like mine. Still, if I 'm honest, I have to admit there is an ongoing pattern underlying my succumbing to temptation once more. I grow tired or stressed.  I'm taking on too much, trying to prove my own worth once more.  I'm insisting that there is so much to do (and pastors, you know how this can be) that I simply can't get my day off again this week.  Then it's four o'clock in the afternoon.  I'm returning from a hospital call with a full slate of meetings still in front of me.  I find myself in the drive-through ordering a diet coke.  The first sip tastes terrible and then the second and third suddenly have me revived.  And I'm right back where I started. A slave to caffeine?  Maybe.  More than that I know myself to be slave to my own inability to set boundaries on my time and energy, to rely on God and God's people more than I do on my own limited skills and abilities and energy and time. I know I am a 'slave to sin.'

Or I could speak of my fear of confronting hard things, of my once more not speaking up in favor of the hurting or the oppressed.  I could choose one example now and then make a list of the thousand tired excuses I've used over my lifetime for not doing what I'm called to do in the face of injustice.  I could speak of how it gets easier and easier to ignore as my fear defines me more and more.  Oh yes, that's slavery, to be sure.  That is what it is to be a 'slave to sin.'

And for that matter? My story about the wine dripping on the altar linens week after week?  Well, as I've sat with it again this afternoon I am more and more convinced my 'slavery' was not in my inability to make a ewer with a design flaw do what it would never do.   My 'slavery' was tied to my yearning to be liked in all ways at all times.  My 'slavery' was rooted in the moment of confrontation when I felt 'found out,'  'less than,' 'not enough' --- in that quick flash of shame I experienced then that led me to do all I could do to make it right.  No, I am not proud of my inattentiveness to the altar guild's need to constantly be cleaning up after me.  At the same time, I wonder now why I didn't insist instead that we look for a better solution than me using my index finger to catch the mess before it became a mess week after week.  Why didn't we simply purchase something that would work better?  And why didn't I say so, thus sparing every pastor who came after me from the same plight?

No doubt about it, we are all, at one time or another, or perhaps at all times, slaves to fear or doubt or pride or ....  you name it.  All of us.  And even in those times when I think I'm making progress.  When I stand up or step up or reach out or speak the truth even when I'm afraid.  Even then it is not enough for the struggle goes on and one day I think I get it close to 'right' and the next I'm right back in the drive-through paying the price for, if nothing else, trying once more to prove my own worth or value all on my own.

So thanks be to God for the promise that is ours in Christ Jesus today: that promise of freedom which we only get glimmers of in our life together now.  For to be sure, there was some freedom experienced by both of us in the moment an altar guild member finally told me the truth.  And I knew some freedom in the realization that they would love me even if I was" the messiest pastor they'd ever had."  And while I'm grateful for those glimmers, those make me look forward all the more to the day when I will know the freedom Jesus offers now. When I will know fully and completely that the only way I can be set free is if someone else does it for me.  And when I will live in joy and trust that this is already so. When I will feel no more need to prove my own worth or value for I will be resting in the certainty that God already did that by loving me.  When I will hear words like 'You are the messiest pastor we ever had' not as words to be proven wrong, but rather as words to be listened to and heard which may well provide moments when forgiveness can be extended and received and which can be followed up by together finding a new and better way.  Indeed, what a day that will be!
  • How have you experienced 'slavery?'  Are you tempted, along with Jesus' first listeners, to argue that you have never been 'enslaved?'  Or is this part of your lived experience?  If so, how does that inform your hearing of this text?
  • How do you understand yourself to be a 'slave to sin?'  What story would you offer to help another understand what this means to you?
  • How have you experienced being 'set free' from sin?  How does that experience reflect the larger one Jesus offers in his words today?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Jesus' Call to Servant-hood

Mark 10:35-45
"So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’" (Mark 10:42-45)
I heard this story a while back.  I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with a woman while her 89-year-old husband was in surgery.  And she was telling stories about him.  This one still brings tears to my eyes to remember it.

Apparently there was a young friend of the family who was going through a difficult time --- so much so that he made an attempt on his own life. When he came home from the hospital she said her husband knew his young friend would be alone much of the time.  So every day for the next six months this retired farmer picked up lunch and took it over to share with him.  I'm told they spent more time in silence than in conversation.  But the young man who was so cared for in such a basic way would now do anything for this one who showed him kindness day after day.  Indeed, I expect he knows he owes his life to him.

I heard another like it yesterday as I visited with a man whose 94 year old mother has been in a nursing home with Alzheimer's Disease some time. It appears she will soon die and so her son called to begin a conversation about the shape of her funeral. Since I have been serving as pastor here for only a short time, he was seeking to tell me something of what her life looked like before this devastating illness took so much from her.

Apparently his mother was on the original auxiliary of our local county nursing home --- the same one which has offered her such excellent care in these last years.  As a volunteer she interacted regularly with the residents.  He told me then of one his mother spoke of who, shortly after her admission to the nursing home, her husband had divorced her.  She had no other family.   She would spend the next twenty years flat on her back... with few other than his mother to visit her day after day, week after week.

These are small things, I suppose, and maybe that is why these sorts of stories of servant-hood often go unrecognized and untold.  Indeed, they are precisely the opposite of what we know leads to status and success --- at least by the world's standards.  In fact, it is also so that for many of us this way of acting doesn't come with intention, without effort. Perhaps that is why they are precisely what Jesus speaks of today.

I almost hate to admit it, but I understand James and John in our Gospel lesson far too well --- and certainly, in some ways, I relate to them more deeply than I do the two examples I offered above.

Oh, I do make nursing home visits and hospital calls. I always have and I expect I always will.  For I know how much they matter to those whose worlds have shrunk to the size of a single room, whose schedules now revolve around the next treatment, the next pain med, the next time the doctor will stop in to offer a diagnosis or prognosis. Still, it doesn't come easy to me.

So in a spirit of full confession here, I tell you the truth.  It was only a couple of weeks ago that I can remember coaching myself to slow down as I stepped into the room of a woman who has Parkinson's Disease.  Her speaking has become more and more halted and every time I see her it seems it takes her longer to say what's on her mind. I, on the other hand, am all too often in a hurry, always thinking ahead to the next task, the next person, the next...  As I remember it, I sat in her wheelchair as she lay in her bed and I consciously forced myself to just sit still, vowing I would not rush her or make her feel more uncomfortable than she already was. She spoke to me of her transition to the nursing home.  She spoke of the toll this disease has taken on her.  She spoke to me of her gratitude for the care of her daughters.  It wasn't easy for me to hold myself still in those moments as she struggled to express herself.   In the end, though, I found I wasn't sorry that I made the effort.

It was on a similar afternoon that I had one more stop to make.  This time, the woman in question has long suffered from dementia.  I do not know if she remembers I've been there even moments after I've left her room.  I'm not always certain she knows who I am when I am there.  Sometimes, if the afternoon is full and I am especially tired I am tempted to skip that visit altogether.  I mean, who would know the better?

I thought better of it though that day and so I stopped in anyway.  When I stepped into her room, Ruth was sitting in her chair facing the small CD player that sits on her bedside table.  And she was listening to opera.  As a beautiful soprano voice soared through the room she sat there with a smile on her face that told me she was at home. I'm told it was not long ago that her lovely voice soared, too.  No, she may not have known who I was, but she recognized the gifts of God, all the same.  When I left her a while later I found I was not sorry I had paused with her before heading home.

It doesn't come naturally, answering the call to servant-hood which Jesus places before us now.  Wherever we go, the world will push us to be about something different from this.  Indeed, I would rather be known as an excellent preacher, an insightful writer, an inspiring teacher than as one who serves those who hardly know I'm there.  I mean, one never gets 'known' for that.  There is little reward in that at all.  And while I'm doing that?  Well, other important things --- the things people really notice --- well they don't get done --- or at least not done as well.

Remember, I'm simply telling the truth today.  I'm not proud of where I am in all of this, but I do recognize that I am, perhaps, moving in the right direction.  For I find myself thinking of a retired farmer who stopped every day to spend an hour with a fragile young friend and of a woman who saw another abandoned and alone in her illness and who refused to also leave her untended.  I think of these servants and realize that they know something I am somehow still only beginning to learn about what matters most of all.  And I suppose that's something.

Oh, I do understand James and John far too well, to be sure. That may never really change. And so it is that my prayer every single day for me, for all of us, is that the day will come when we will discover that the invitation to servant-hood Jesus offers now is the only one that matters.

And between now and then?  Well, in those moments when I do pause to hear and respond to that call? By God's grace from time to time, I will step into a room to find one of God's own listening to opera and smiling. And along with her I will also know then that I am in the presence of the very gifts of God.  And I expect because I am so very human, that will serve to prod me on to servant-hood on yet another day when I am tempted not to because so often it goes unrecognized in this world's eyes.
  • Can you relate to James and John? Why or why not?  What are the measures of 'success' or 'status' which call you to choose something other than servant-hood?
  • What does 'servant-hood' look like in your world?  What examples of servant-hood can you think of which demonstrate what Jesus speaks of today?
  • What experiences have encouraged you to embrace Jesus' call to servant-hood?  Where are you on this journey?

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Mark 10:17-31

I am remembering today a conversation I had with my dad a long time
ago.  I was probably in college --- home working for the summer.  We
were out in the garden late on a summer afternoon where he could have been leaning on a pitchfork digging up potatoes or loading tomatoes or squash or cucumbers into buckets to be enjoyed an given away.  And he was talking about his life.  About choices he had made.  He told me then what I had observed my whole life long but hadn't known it was a conscious choice before then.  He said to me, "You know, Janet, I never played golf."  (I knew this, of course.)  "I always wanted to have hobbies that kept me closer to home so I could spend more time with your mother and you girls."  I knew this, too, of course, as we stood then in the garden --- one of those 'hobbies' --- which more than fed our family of six and a whole lot of other families, too.

It was about choices, of course, as it always is.  I know, also, that when given the choice, he never took a transfer with his job: so as a result he never made a lot of money.  His reasoning was the same.  He did this also for the sake of us: for he had grown up moving from place to place, following his step-dad's work. He wanted something different for his daughters.

Now the choices he made don't begin to compare to the one placed before the man kneeling at Jesus' feet in this week's Gospel lesson.  At least not in scale. Indeed, the choice placed before him is so extreme that I find myself enumerating the reasons why what Jesus proposes now would be entirely out of reach in 2012.  I mean, how is it that any one of us could actually sell all that we have in order to follow Jesus?  What about our families?  What about health insurance? What about the fact that my house wouldn't sell in this market anyway? And how could I possibly serve Jesus anyway without a car/cellphone/laptop computer?  It is beyond the reach of my imagination for me today.  I expect this was also so for the man in the story before us now.

So perhaps it is true that we shouldn't pile up our excuses and move too quickly to step back from the magnitude of the requirement Jesus places before the young man now.  For what Jesus invites him to now is a life that is less about keeping the law and more about living the Gospel.  What Jesus invites him to now is a life of meaning and purpose which so far had evaded him --- else I expect he wouldn't have found himself prostate at Jesus' feet begging for another way.  No, I expect we would do well to stand still in this for a moment or two longer than what makes us comfortable.  Because for all the apparent unreasonableness of Jesus' proposal, that life of meaning and purpose this man was looking for is some thing we still yearn for, and which by God's gift is still somehow available to us.

I think my dad knew a little of that.  Oh, together with my mom, he worked all his life and no one at their table ever went hungry.  The bills were paid on time and they managed to help four daughters go to college and beyond.  The cars were never new, but they usually had decent tires and the oil was always changed every 3000 miles --- something he learned to do himself.  No, he never sold all he had, but he made choices all the same.  Choices that were right for him.  Choices in keeping with what he felt he was called to be and do. As a husband and a dad, to be sure, but also as a person of faith.

Indeed, I am comforted to hear that before he's done today Jesus admits to his disciples and to all of us that what he speaks of would be impossible for any one of us.  And I find I rest, too in the realization that the demands of discipleship placed on each and all of us vary from person to person.  For what we hear is that as Jesus looked at the man before him now, he loved him. And to love him, he had to know him, recognizing in him the whole journey which had already been his and quickly assessing what he might be capable of next. He had kept the law all of his life, to be sure.  He was a person of apparently extraordinary faith --- so much so that in Jesus' assessment, he was ready next to give it all away.  To put his trust somewhere other than in all those possessions which had shaped and defined him.  I hear this story and I wonder to myself what it is I'm called to give away and how I'm called to trust more deeply.

And so it is I find myself especially grateful today that part of the story for us as well is that Jesus looks at us in all of our striving, all of our struggling, all of our trying and failing and sometimes stopping before we start. Jesus looks at us and loves us, too. And that love is made known to us in his invitation to follow him more deeply and surely than we did yesterday.  Indeed, for the sake of lives that matter, I expect Jesus is reminding us, too, that it's about choices.   Choices which shape our every day.  And for all the truth that I am not capable of being and doing what it would take to make my own way into heaven, the promise is that's already been done.  And so maybe, just maybe, the gift and promise of the story before us now is that you and I get a taste of the eternal life Jesus offers us even now even in small ways as we make choices which mean giving away part of ourselves for the sake of something more as we seek to follow him.

  • What do you make of Jesus' demand on the man before him now?  If it had been you in that situation, how would you responded?
  • Do you see your life and situation in that of the man in the story?  How do your possessions get in the way of you more fully following Jesus?
  • Do you hear in Jesus' words an invitation to you and for you as well?  What choices have you made?  What choices are you called upon to make?