Sunday, February 22, 2015

Picking Up My Cross: How Shall I Die?

Mark 8:31-38

There has been this 'opportunity' floating around Face Book lately.  If you follow the provided link and insert your name and the year of your birth, you will  be given a photograph of a gravestone like this:

I've done it a couple of times and while the year is always the same, the cause of death differs. Indeed, last week, I heard my mother laughing from her chair. When I asked what was so funny, she said she had just done it, too.  Her result is that she would die at the age of 99 from a bicycle accident. She hasn't been on a bicycle in years, which was the reason she reacted so.  It would appear that while the result indicating one's cause of death is quite random, even so this particular app "knows" that the thought of death won't seem so bad if we can reach the century mark first. (If you want a laugh you can plug in your information and try it, too.  Just click here.)

I've heard it said that for the most part --- at least in the particular time and place that many of us share --- we wouldn't want to know in advance either the circumstance or what the second date on that gravestone will be. I understand that this was not always the case though --- that there was a time when people were grateful for some fore-warning so that they could be sure that final arrangements were made, that their families were provided for and that amends were made with those dear to them when needed.  And yet, even in the time we live in now, we do have to acknowledge that there will be a second date.  There will be a time when death will come.  And today's reading from Mark urges us to think about what that could look like.  Indeed, as I read it this time through, it strikes me that 'dying' is not something to be put off until this earthly body is simply worn out.  'Dying'  --- or at least 'losing one's life' is meant to be embraced, welcomed --- at least when it is done for the sake of Jesus.

And, of course, the meaning of 'losing one's life' is more than a second date on a gravestone.  Losing one's life is about considering what it is we give our lives to every single moment of every single day. And yet, it takes a whole lot of 'intentionality' to consider that, doesn't it?

  • How quickly my hours and my days get out ahead of me and before I know it, I'm home making sure my alarm is set for the next day.  
  • How often is it necessary to make a concerted effort to pay attention to the person, the matter, the situation right in front of me --- which may be calling me to 'take up my cross' --- and not already  be thinking ahead to whatever it is that is waiting on my to do list?
  • How often do I devote my 'life' (my energy, my worrying, my fearing) to things which ultimately do not matter?
  • How many days do I 'squander,' forgetting that each day likely holds some opportunity to be about 'ultimate matters' --- if only I am paying attention?

On Ash Wednesday this year, I got a call from our local hospital.  We had just finished our morning service and I was turning my attention to other matters before gearing up for an evening service later in the day.  Diane --- one of the staff who checks people in for surgery and who often greets me from the front desk --- asked if I would be over that way today. I hadn't planned to be as so far as I knew, none of our Lutherans were in the hospital.  Even so, I asked what she needed.  She told me that somebody in maternity was requesting ashes.

Well, I didn't think much about it until it was time for me to head out the door.  It was then I turned back to one of our staff at church and said, "Maternity!  I wonder what's going on!"  For it seemed at first like such an unlikely place for one to be making this request.

So off I went.  After I was buzzed in to the maternity wing, they sent me down the hall.  I knocked on the door and the voice of a young woman called out to come in.  When I did, I walked in to meet the woman behind the voice --- having regular contractions by now.  The father of the baby was holding her hand.  Her grandmother and aunt stood at the end of her bed, looking on with a visible mix of hope and anxiety.

After introducing myself, I took off my coat, but before I went any further I paused to ask, "Why ashes?  Why here and now?"  For it would seem she would have more important things to tend to in those hours.

Her response?  "It's Ash Wednesday!"  And cradling her stomach she continued, "I just wanted to start things off right for this baby!"  And so over and over to all those present I made the sign of the cross in ash and repeated the words, 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.'  And then we prayed for a safe birth for mother and child before I headed down the hall to carry ashes and prayers to others who were requesting the same since the initial call summoned me.

Now I don't know if that young woman was speaking out of rote obligation or not.  I do suspect, however, that not many would pause to think of this while they were in active labor.  And yet, life and death do stand hand in hand in delivery rooms as anyone paying attention might tell you.  And yes, it is such times which bring to us the certainty of the gift of life and perhaps, also, the limits of our own power in this life now.  It is such times which remind us that we are called to something more than being for just ourselves alone.  And yes, it is in times such as those when we are called to consider what our lives are for that we would do well to remember that as followers of Jesus, we are called to pick up our crosses as Jesus did.  It is that cross I traced on that young mother's forehead and on the foreheads of those who love her and who yearn for all good things for her and her baby.  Oh yes, isn't it always a gift to remember that even while we heed the call to pick up our cross?  Jesus already died on one in our behalf.

It is several days later now and this much I know for sure. That young mother and dad have already begun to learn what it is to 'die' for the sake of another as they love that little girl they have by now brought home.

For this I do believe. The dying Jesus calls us to can be made up of big actions and small ones, too. For many of us, this 'dying' may be experienced much more in the mundane day to day as we heed that call and choose to be and do for others.  As much as anything else:
  • It may be in the listening rather than speaking first;
  • It may be in the meal prepared and shared;
  • It may be in the snow shoveled for a neighbor, the lawn raked for a friend, the cookies baked and delivered to someone whose day it will brighten;
  • It may be in the hospital call made, the funeral visitation line endured, or the repetitive conversation shared with someone suffering from dementia when you can think of a thousand seemingly more rewarding other obligations calling your name;
And yes, it may be in something as small as my remembering to take the time to spread salt on my back steps and driveway so that my 84-year-old mother won't slip and fall.  No, she most likely will never again ride a bicycle, but she still likes to get out and my call now is to do what I can to keep her safe, as she has always done for me.  

For some of us, some of the time, picking up the cross Jesus calls us to now will be huge.  It may come once in a memorable and permanent way.  And for many of us, much of the time, those crosses which we pick up for the sake of others won't seem so big. Although even those may well be more meaningful, more significant than we first believe.  Indeed, in the end, maybe the important question to be answered is not 'How and when will I die?' but "How shall I die in my living every day?'

  • How do you hear Jesus' call to 'pick up your cross?'  Does the dying happen only once or does it happen over and over again or both?
  • What might it mean for you to 'pay attention to ultimate matters' in the life you are called to live today?  How might that lead to 'picking up your cross?'
  • How would you have reacted had you been summoned to the Maternity Ward with ashes?  Would you have have been surprised?  Why or why not?
  • There is hardly a discernible difference between the question, "How will I die?" and "How shall I die?"  Even so, it seems to me that one is about 'fact' and the other is about intention. What difference does the phrasing of that question make for your?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

More Than Enough in Wilderness Times

Mark 1:9-15

On my day off this week I installed a new toilet paper holder.

Now you should know I'm not the handiest person around. While I can accomplish some simple household tasks, it always takes an extra measure of effort and concentration. I was prompted to do this only because my old toilet paper holder had fallen off the wall one time too many and I had had it.

So it was that I went out and bought a new toilet paper holder, brought it home, and took it out of its package.  I studied the instructions carefully, or so I thought.  I figured out how to take the set screw out with the tiny Allen wrench which was provided --- even though the instructions didn't exactly tell me how to do that.  And I gathered up my electric drill, my measuring tape, and a pencil.

Now I did notice there was a template provided in the instructions, but I thought that was a bit superfluous as all I needed to do was hold the mounting bracket against the wall and mark where the holes needed to be.  I did so.  Once I measured the required distance between the two brackets and I marked again, I started drilling.

Well, in spite of my careful measuring, it turns out that I put those brackets too close together. So I measured again and moved the left one over.  This time?  They were almost too far apart, but I figured they were close enough to actually hold the toilet paper --- as you can see in the above picture. This was good enough for me, for this much I do know: too many holes in the dry wall and it won't hold anything. So no, it's not perfect, but it's not too bad for someone with my particular skill set.  Or lack thereof.

Here is what I discovered later though. As I went to recycle the instructions, I realized that the included template not only showed how far apart the screws should be on each bracket, but how far apart those brackets should be placed on the wall.

And so it is that I have learned once more that templates are not so superfluous after all. No, in fact, when used they can give us something to measure against so that our home improvement projects hold up. Templates --- or guides or examples --- in the rest of life aren't so bad either.

Now I know that the story before us now is so much more than a template. For one thing, the cosmic battle which Jesus successfully engages in while in the wilderness demonstrates how very different he is from any one of us. Even more than that, we are reminded that in these verses the stage is set for Jesus finally vanquishing evil itself on the cross so that you and I won't have to.  Even so, I have spent enough time in the wilderness to know that it is also ours to come up against evil in powerful and terrifying ways and I find it profoundly helpful to know that Jesus has already been there. Indeed, I have found it to be pure gift to be able to lay my experience alongside his and to look for wisdom on how to deal with even those smaller battles which are mine to engage.

The only challenge is that in Mark's Gospel we are given so little to go on.  I mean seriously, it might almost be possible to miss the piece about Jesus and his forty days in the wilderness when we come upon it here.  For as you can see, it is but two verses nestled between the dramatic account of the voice of God sounding his identity at his baptism and Jesus' first sermon which quickly follows. You might almost miss it.

Indeed, we are left without the detail of the story we hear in Matthew and Luke --- most especially that specific triad of temptations which we almost cannot help but superimpose on Mark's telling as we listen in now.  No, this time through this is all we get:
  • The Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness;
  • Jesus was in that wilderness 40 days;
  • Over those forty days (and might I add, nights) Jesus was tempted (or perhaps more accurately 'tested') by Satan;
  • There were wild beasts and angels present in the wilderness.  Actually, the wild beasts are simply named. The angels are said to be waiting on Jesus.
So no, there really is not much to go on here. All we know is that the wilderness Jesus encountered held great danger and that he was powerfully protected at the same time.

And while at first it may not seem like much, maybe it is still enough.

Indeed, perhaps it is enough to know that for all the terror the wilderness can hold, God's promised protection is there for us, too, even as it was for Jesus. And as we remember this?  Perhaps our deep remembering is also enough to enable us to withstand the evil which threatens to overcome us when we find ourselves embattled, too. 

I have been especially taken in these last days by the story of Kayla Mueller, the young woman who recently died while in captivity by the terror group, ISIS. If you have not yet spent time with the letter she managed to send to her family through others who were released, I would strongly commend it to you.  You can find it in its entirety here:  

I've had my share of wilderness times, to be sure, but none like the one this young woman endured. In the midst of her imprisonment she managed to get out a powerful witness as to what sustained her then. I am especially struck by the following part of her letter to her family which was written nine months ago:
"I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in my experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else... by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall.  I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.  I am grateful."  
It seems to me that if there is a gift in wilderness times it is this: we are reminded that 'in the end, the only one you really have is God."  And what a wonder it is in such times to experience being 'tenderly cradled in free-fall" by that same God.

It would appear that we are given more in this small part of this young woman's letter than we have in today's Gospel's rendering of Jesus' wilderness time.  Even so, I can't help but believe that Kayla experienced some of what Jesus did --- that she came to the same conclusions that Jesus did.  For through the rest of Jesus' ministry: his living and finally, especially in his dying, he surrendered to the One he called Father.  This is where it breaks down though. For Jesus did not only witness the light in the darkness.  Jesus is the light in our darkness.

I don't know about you, but the next time I find myself embattled? The next time I find myself in the wilderness?  I will carry both of these examples --- both of these 'templates' with me and others, too, of those I have known who have come through such wilderness times to the other side.  Oh yes, if I can but remember that God is all there is AND if I can trust myself to be "tenderly cradled in free fall" by God's great love? I expect that will be more than enough.

  • On first reading, it always strikes me that Mark's Gospel leaves out much of what is essential in the story of Jesus' Wilderness Testing.  What do you think?  Is there enough in these short verses?
  • While there is so much more to this story than a 'template' for our own wilderness times, I have always found it helpful to hear it as example and guide, as challenge and comfort both.  How about you?
  • Jesus is, of course, the best guide and companion we can hope to have.  I have offered the example of the faith and witness of Kayla Mueller in her wilderness.  What other examples would you offer?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Listen to Him!

Mark 9:2-9

My mother got hearing aids last month.  By her own admission, it has been a wonderful enhancement of her life --- making it possible for her to interact in social situations which were becoming increasingly difficult. Unlike for some, the adjustment has been an easy one for her, although she is still sometimes overwhelmed by what she hears now that she had apparently not been hearing for some time. Like the cat crunching on her treat.  Or me sighing in the kitchen.  Or a slamming door which now makes her jump where before it was but a muffled thud which hardly caught her attention.

Before she actually decided on which hearing aids she would need, her audiologist and student assistants asked her all kinds of questions about the sorts of situations she finds herself in where hearing would be especially important.  It makes sense, of course: if one spends most of one's time in a quiet place at home, one does not need the technical ability in her hearing aids that she needs if she is out and about in groups of people. If you know my mother, you will not find yourself surprised that she put herself squarely on the 'social' end of that spectrum and so in the end we ordered the best they had.

It was before we had actually made a decision to order those hearing aids that her audiologist walked me down the hall.  Quietly this is what she said to me: "You know, recent studies are linking hearing loss to the onset of dementia."  I did not get the impression that she was trying to frighten us into making an unnecessary purchase. It was just information she thought we should have. In fact, I've done a little poking around since and found that what she said was true. (For a little more information on this connection, click here.) And it makes sense, doesn't it?  Even as a non-scientist, I can see that hearing loss can lead to one's isolating oneself and that can be the beginning of all sorts of hard things.  If you are 'cut off' from the world for whatever reason, it would make sense that this alone could and would eventually impact one's cognitive ability.  For that matter, as I understand it, research is showing that if the auditory part of the brain ceases to be stimulated --- as when profound hearing loss happens --- that can impact the functioning of nearby parts of the brain as well.

Now, of course, there can be a huge difference between hearing and listening.  To hear is to comprehend at some level. To listen is to take the information in much more profoundly. And yet, the two are inextricably connected.  One could make the case that one has to be able and willing to hear before one is truly able to listen.

If I'm honest, I have to say I have to work pretty hard at listening. Especially if the information I am receiving is unexpected, or offensive, or doesn't line up with my understanding of how the world works. No doubt this was Peter's experience in the events just prior to him joining Jesus and James and John and Moses and Elijah on the top of a mountain.  Jesus has just told them that the path before him would be marked by great suffering and rejection and death.  And Peter would have nothing of it. You can't blame him, really.  It doesn't line up with his understanding of how the world works or how God works in the world.  I would have probably reacted in the same way.

It is right after this heated exchange that they make this climb up the mountain.  It is right after this that their present is joined to the past in the appearance of both Moses and Elijah.  It is right after this that they are witness to light and cloud and the voice of God. It is right after this that the voice of God commands them to listen to Jesus.

Oh, it is so that to listen to what we do not want to hear can be the biggest challenge of all. Until or unless what we didn't want to hear or cannot begin to comprehend somehow rings true as through ears of faith we come to understand it as blessing after all.

Indeed, I think of my mother in those first days after she began wearing her hearing aids.  She went to church that next Sunday and sat in her usual place. (Like many good Lutherans, you can be sure she wasn't sitting any too close to the front.)  She came home marveling at what she had been able to hear that she had long forgotten was hers to listen to.  Especially this. The sound of her pastor's voice as she made her way down the line of those kneeling to receive the sacrament.  The sound of the words spoken over and over again, "The body of Christ, given for you."  Of course, not only could she hear, but she had put herself in a place where she could hear and listen for the voice of Jesus. I find it especially interesting that what she heard that Sunday morning was not first God's love for her --- but God's profound love for others.

  • Oh, it is so that if I cannot hear or if I refuse to listen, I can surely see how my world would become smaller and smaller still.
  •  If I cannot hear or if I refuse to listen--- especially in my not listening to Jesus as the voice of God commands today --- I might lose my ability altogether to comprehend this simple truth that Jesus suffered and died for you and for me and for all this broken world.
  • If I cut myself off from others who help me hear and understand one can see how it would be more and more difficult to hold these truths close.
  • If I don't put myself within reach of the voice of Jesus, perhaps might it be so that eventually that part of my understanding loses its ability to understand altogether?

To be sure, my mother found herself on a mountaintop that first Sunday after she got her hearing aids as she was able to hear again what she forgot was hers to hear. What a wonder it was that in her first hearing again she was able to listen to such words of profound love and promise.

May this be so for all of us as we listen to Jesus.  May this always be so.

  • I, for one, have never found the Transfiguration easy to 'preach.' As you can see above, I have chosen to focus on one small part of the story.  Do the words of God to "Listen to him" make sense as a place to focus this week?  If not, what especially grabs your attention?
  • There is a big difference between hearing and listening.  In the part of Mark's Gospel which precedes this, it is evident that while Peter 'hears,' he is probably not listening.  How would you define the difference?  What examples would you offer?
  • Why do you think God commands the disciples to listen to Jesus?  What did they need to hear and understand?
  • How is it that you are called to be with others so as to better hear and listen to Jesus?  Where is it that you might intentionally put yourself so you can be within reach of Jesus' voice so that you can listen?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Simon's Mother-in-Law: An Exquisite Awareness

Mark 1:29-39

I find I get stuck in the first half of the lesson before us now... wondering at Simon's Mother-in-Law and her immediate response to Jesus' healing.  I get stuck there, I suppose, because in some small way it is familiar to me even across this expanse of time and space and culture.  For while I have not yet known illness or injury which threatens my life, I have certainly witnessed this in the journey of others. For that matter, even my relatively minor aches and pains and the very occasional bout with the flu or a virus gives me a window into her experience. She had been ill.  Ill to the point of death, apparently, else why would the disciples have been so quick to bring her suffering to Jesus' attention?  And suddenly she wasn't. And her first response, understandably, was to get back to a 'normal' life --- to all those things she had missed doing so easily before she was taken down by this fever. She served because, no doubt, it was what she had always done. It was simply perhaps what she knew best.  Only this time she was able to do so as grateful response to what she had just now so miraculously received.  I get stuck in this part of the story because it is almost small enough for me to get my head around.  Almost.

For you see, before long I start to wonder because at least for me, in my experience, healing hardly ever comes like that.  Even a minor cold or cough can get you down for weeks.  I regularly walk alongside those who have been laid low by serious illness or traumatic injury and sometimes it is hard to say if the healing will ever be complete.  Indeed, it has been months since I took a spill off a ladder while trying to unclog a drain pipe after a summer storm and still, even now long after the visible bruises have long since faded, I am healing.  It is unheard of that one who has been so very ill should be able to get up and go about the task of feeding a houseful of men so soon after her fever left her. In this world, in this life, at least in my experience, it just doesn't work that way.

Which, of course, appears to be the point.

Oh, it is no wonder, really that the news of this woman's healing quickly seeped out of those four walls so that pretty soon 'the whole city' was gathered outside the front door with all their ailments and woes in tow.  It is no wonder at all for few of us don't yearn to return to a time before. Before I fell. Before the truck slammed into me.  Before the diagnosis was made and treatment began.  Before my  marriage fell apart, before my loved one died, before...

Only as full of her old life as Simon's Mother-in-Law now appears to be? Even she could not have fully returned to 'before.'  For she has experienced something which, though it will not yet take her life, it has taken something still and has replaced it with something altogether different --- if nothing more than an exquisite awareness that she never had before.  No, for her and for that great crowd gathered outside her front door, life would never be the same again for they have experienced both the depths of despair and the height of hope and the wonder of life renewed in a way perhaps they never have before.

At least this is how it was for me.

My sense is this is somewhat rare for I do have to go back many years now to the winter my dad died.  To those three long weeks when we stood vigil with him --- hanging in the balance --- all the while yearning to return to a time when this particular suffering was foreign to us all.  All the while praying for his return to health even as our awareness deepened that this was not likely to be. At least not in this life.

Now of course, the parallel is not perfect, for we knew no miraculous healing --- at least not in the conventional sense. Even so, for all the years which have passed, I have not forgotten the awareness which came to me on a dark January night, not long after midnight. I was standing in a hospital elevator as we prepared to leave the hospital that last time without him when I was suddenly awash with the certainty that while I would do anything to have him back, still I would be hard pressed to willingly give up what I now knew:
  • About the preciousness of human life and the gift of the laughter of my sisters as we whiled away the hours in the waiting room telling old stories.
  • About the wonder of community who showed up in a thousand ways.
  • About the generosity of my congregation who let me go and be and do what needed to be done where I needed to do it.
  • About my own resilience and the profound, inexplicable but oh-so-palpable presence of God.
  • And about how faith had not died when it came up against some of the worst of what life can hand you, but was mysteriously strengthened.

I wonder if Simon's Mother-in-Law and all those gathered around the door that night and all those who encountered the healing hand of Jesus experienced something of that as well... at least in the immediate aftermath of their respective miracles and their return to their 'old lives.'  At least for a while.

Because you see, I also know this.  I know that in those first weeks after I returned to serving in my congregation I had the ability to simply stand with them in their stories, their questions, their joys, their suffering in a way I never had before.  I had a deep patience I never had before.  Somehow I was able to listen and understand in ways I had not before that time experienced.  Oh, how I yearned for that to last. It did not, of course.  Before very long I found myself once more caught up by the more mundane stresses of life. Too soon that exquisite awareness of the mysteries of life and death and the wonder of the one standing before me in any given moment left me.  Or at least it mostly did.

To be sure, even the stories of healing we hear now are but a glimmer of what will one day be. Jesus knows this, of course, which I expect is at least partly why he doesn't stay in Capernaum in the home of Simon and Andrew and Simon's Mother-in-Law.  Before we know it we follow him in the dark of night to a deserted place where he is at prayer.  Indeed, perhaps he is also trying to make sense of all that he has seen and heard and experienced in these last days.  Maybe Jesus is also trying to put things in perspective and the only way he knows to do so is in the presence of God. And once his disciples track him down he recognizes that there is more to be done in other places for the work of God is broader and wider and deeper than any one of us can imagine. His preaching and healing throughout Galilee is also but a sign of all that God will one day do.  It could not be contained by one family's home or one small town or even all of Galilee.  It was meant for all the world.

  • Have you ever experienced the sort of miraculous healing experienced by Simon's Mother-in-Law and the others in today's Gospel?  What were you more deeply aware of afterwards?  What 'exquisite awareness' was then yours?
  • Or has your experience of healing been more gradual?  That being so, how do you make sense of the miraculous healings we hear about today and elsewhere in the Gospels?  How is your experience of 'healing' like or unlike that described here?
  • In the wake of healing --- whether it was gradual or instantaneous --- what was your response?