Sunday, November 29, 2015

One Brick at a Time: Preparing the Way of the Lord

Luke 3:1-6

They finished laying the brick work on what was once a through street outside my office window a few weeks ago. The city's decision to expand the public library resulted in them closing our street permanently in order to accommodate the addition. They removed the bricks for a season and stored them away in a warehouse. Then they hauled them out again and laid them one by one, end to end, to finish the cul-de-sac which now provides access to our building's main entrance. Yes, most of the streets in our city are ordinary pavement. A few, however, reflect a time long past before asphalt replaced the quaint bricks which lined our paths.

One brick at a time, they were arranged, as you can see in the picture above.

As I hear John the Baptist today hearkening back to the promises of Isaiah to a people in exile, I am reminded that preparing a way through the wilderness was more similar to this than what we in this century are normally accustomed to. And yet, I am reminded of a passing image of a young man with a shovel working to even out a road in Tanzania when I traveled there some years ago now. For most of time, making such ways has been hard work: one foot, yard, one brick at a time.

And so I wonder now if this is perhaps a way to think about our Advent journey. I get so captured by big, seemingly insurmountable problems too much of the time. I worry and I fret over the implications of racism, the experience of the working poor, the imminence of war. I do believe that each and all of these and so many more require large scale solutions and yes, sometimes, they are called for in short order --- not in the amount of time it would take to lay bricks one at a time in the wilderness. And yet. Seldom have I known a big solution which has come to be without the back breaking, soul stretching work of doing it one step at a time. The sort that shapes values and deepens relationships. The kind that makes it safe to grow and make mistakes and back up and start over and grow some more. And that always takes time. The problem is, it seems to me, that too often we want the instant solution. The one, perhaps, that already aligns with my own beloved preconceived notions or positions. The one that does not necessitate me understanding deeply the humanity of my neighbor with whom I might just be at odds. All too often I am simply not willing to give it time, which if you think about it, is foolish and short sighted, for one way or another, time will be demanded.

Some of you will know, of course, that even as I write today I am recovering from minor surgery. I have heard stories of those who have undergone similar procedures and were up and about their business within a day or two. This has not been the case with me. Perhaps this is because, as one observed, I went into this tired. Or maybe I am learning --- or being forced to learn again --- to take my time. For healing comes, yes, but it comes on its own schedule. I can't force it. All I can do is help make the conditions right so that it will come.

And so the bricks I am laying one by one in these days have included getting proper rest. And sitting still to read as I have not in some time. And moving as I am able. And eating as I should. And looking out the window. And whispering prayers of thanksgiving and hope. One brick at a time. Probably I'll be back at work in a day or two. I am hoping this forced slow down will remind me to move a little slower this Advent. Perhaps now I will pay attention to where the bricks are laid, end to end. In myself. Between each and all of us. And as a way into the world. Oh, it seems to me most of the time we have no choice but to do it this way, you and I. For if we don't take the time to do it now? We certainly will be forced to do it later as we seek to mend or to heal.

And so today I wonder. If we would only get started laying bricks among us and between us? Maybe then the road will be built. You know the road of which I speak: that highway which leads to peace. The one which John points us to today. The one the Messiah travels on.

Indeed, John tells us today that this way will be made smooth by our repentance, yours and mine. The path is cleared by our being reconciled to God and to one another. And that takes time. Perhaps one brick at a time. We do it now with intentional-ity and with hope. Or we will surely do it later, seeking to mend and to heal and find ways to begin all over again, only weakened now by our choosing to not do so before. Perhaps not unlike me in these days following surgery. Indeed, I suppose it is our choice.

  • I have offered the image of 'preparing the way of the Lord' one brick at a time. Does that work? Why or why not?
  • Reconciliation takes time, yes? Where are you called to 'take the time' to pay attention to where such reconciliation is needed in your life, in your world? Where are you called to lay your bricks, end to end, to get there?
  • My minor surgery in this season has forced me to slow down. What has done this for you? When have you been forced to 'take your time' in a way that has shaped how you have lived next?
  • Can you think of times when you have put off 'laying the bricks' among us and between us and into the world? How has your not 'taking time' to do so then demanded even more time later? What difference might it make to 'prepare the way' today?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Nearness of the Kingdom: Jesus Goes, Too

Luke 21:25-36

I spent several hours in the E.R. the other night --- this time not because I had been called. No, instead, I was on the other side. I'll spare you the details, but I was suffering a severe gall bladder attack. After they diagnosed it and addressed my pain, they sent me home with the advice to consult a surgeon. I did. Surgery is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Now it has been a long time since I've had any kind of surgery for I have been so very fortunate when it comes to my health. In fact, the last time was forty-seven years ago when I had my tonsils removed. Before that, and much more traumatically, as a five year old I spent ten days in the Rochelle Community Hospital following an emergency appendectomy.

I don't remember much from when I was five, but I do remember that. And it is not the pain I remember so much as the fear. I had never been away from family before. Indeed, I had never even used a telephone. (That's impossible to imagine with the five-year-olds I know today!) Oh, I can't imagine my mother's heartbreak when I would not speak to her on the bedside phone. I was simply paralyzed in my fear.

By now you may be wondering why my mother was not right beside me then, but with three younger sisters at home, it was simply not possible for her to be there all the time. Although I do expect that my overriding memory of fear has also clouded my recollection. For this I learned later. My dad, in fact, stayed with me every night. He slept on a cot right next to my bed. Only, truly, I don't remember that at all.

Not surprisingly, all of this has come rushing back to me in the last few days. And somehow it speaks to me as we approach Advent I with Jesus' hair raising predictions of what is to come. For embedded in these often fear provoking words are promises that our redemption is drawing near, about the nearness of the Kingdom of God and that the Son of Man stands in the midst of and at the end of it all. Perhaps in the same way, this can also simply be hard for us to see or to feel --- particularly when fear overwhelms.

Indeed, as I have been recalling the past, and anticipating my own very personal future, not to mention the chaos playing out all over the globe in these last days, the words of Carrie Newcomer's song, "I'll Go, Too" keep running through my mind. In it she makes the comparison between the presence of a father with a child --- particularly in moments of anxiety or fear. And in it, she speaks of her own deep hope that when we come to the end of our days, one of God's own angels will be there to 'go, too' --- to accompany us into what follows.  You can listen to the song here. The recording of her entire album, "The Gathering of Spirits" is one I am grateful to count in my collection. You may want to add it to yours.

And so in the midst of a world where there is a great deal which confuses and frightens... in the midst of our lives where the worries of this life threaten to overwhelm, I am clinging to the certainty that Jesus 'goes, too.' As he already has. Sometimes it is only this, it seems to me, that allows us to stay alert and strong in the face of whatever is still to come. Indeed, it is the promise that Jesus is at the beginning and in the middle and at the end that carries me now.
And so yes, in these days as I face a truly minor surgery, I am comforted by this. And surely such comfort --- surely the promise which prompts that comfort which has been offered to all of us --- somehow enables us all to truly live our lives as though the kingdom of God is near.

As for all the rest I am certain to learn about myself in these next days --- not the least of which will be what it is to seek to live in faith alongside the certain experience of the fragility of one's very human body --- stay tuned. No doubt I'll be compelled to share in upcoming Advent reflections.  In the meantime, thanks for tagging along, for 'going, too.' I am grateful for each and all of you.

  •  My anticipation of surgery in the next few days has deepened my Advent reflections. What experiences have you had which have done the same?
  • How does the promise that all that Jesus describes is simply a sign that 'your redemption is drawing near' inform how you hear the rest of his words? How is it that we can tune our hearts to the nearness of God's Kingdom even or especially when it feels so far away?
  • The promise of accompaniment as Carrie Newcomer sings of it, soothes me in these days. What helps you when you are afraid or uncertain?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A King Like No Other

John 18:33-37

I has been ringing through my mind these last days -- the cry of the people in 1 Samuel. You remember it. They are in the land which was promised to them. They have been watched over and led by a series of Judges --- some of whom did better than others. And now terror is rising within them as the forces of the world are bearing down on them. They cry out to Samuel, refusing to listen to his voice of reason and warning, they say,
"No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles."       (I Samuel 8:19-22)
Samuel has wasted his breath trying to convince them that an earthly king will do more harm than good. And finally God gives in and says to  Samuel,
"Listen to their voice and set a king over them." 
These words have been echoing in my mind in these last days as I have sat transfixed before the news once more: witnessing terror attacks in Paris, yes, but in countless other places around the world as well. Oh yes, we hold deep within us the desire to be safe, particularly when the violence of the world threatens what we hold most dear. And we see no other way, too often, than that which plays out before us every day. We feel as though we must compete on the same battlefield the world has set up for us. We cry out as people have always cried out, for someone to at least protect us.

And then we encounter Jesus now in his exchange with Pilate.
  • Jesus, who by now has been betrayed by one trusted disciple and denied by another and abandoned by all the rest; 
  • Jesus, who has been shamed by the high priest and who will soon be beaten by Pilate's soldiers; 
  • Jesus, who will shortly be wearing a crown of thorns and a mocking robe of purple; 
  • Jesus, whose cross is now but hours away.
We are yearning for a king who will fight our battles in a world marked by abject terror and God sends us this?

Yes. God sends us this.

A few days back in a small way I saw just this lived out.

I had just finished presiding at an evening funeral. This one had been longer than some as there were no fewer than eleven eulogies read or shared. (I know that you who have presided over such as this probably know what it feels like to feel as though it is getting away from you. I certainly felt that then, but the family was clear this was what they wanted and my warning that this could be less than helpful went unheeded.) And so it was that one after another, family and lifelong friends stood to share their dearest memories of one who was larger than life, who was the life of the party, whose absence now will leave a gaping hole in their lives.  Many of the friends who spoke had known him since their college days. Indeed, many of the memories shared were from when they were young and strong together --- when the whole wide world was theirs --- or at least so it seemed.

And so I was standing at the door of the funeral home as people gathered up to leave. A woman in an electric wheelchair approached me then, asking where the dinner would be. She had come in her wheelchair more than a mile to get there and she wanted to be sure there would be enough battery life remaining to get her home.

I bent down to her and asked her name. "It's Joan," she replied. And then she went on to share that
she had been a neighbor to the one who died. She told me then that she had not known him as long as those who had spoken.  However, they had been neighbors for some time. She would go to see him from time to time and he was able to tell her about his suffering from the cancer which would take his life. And she thought that helped him some.

No doubt this was true. He knew that Joan had suffered, too. He was able to share his pain with her in ways he probably had not been able to with others. No doubt that had made a difference.

Oh yes, in these days I am reminded once more of how very vulnerable we all are. And into this awareness, God sends us a King, our Jesus, who walks into suffering in our behalf and enables us to do the same. Somehow in his suffering, Jesus redeems our suffering, too.

Now it is so, of course, that no earthly 'king' can save us from heartbreak. No protector in this life can shield us from all that would harm. And in the end, isn't it so that the point is not to only be safe? Isn't it so that safety is not our primary aim? No rather, kindness is. And generosity. And sacrifice in behalf of others. No, indeed, Jesus surely was not 'safe.' And so it must be so that we who follow him are not meant to be either. At least not in the way the world measures it.

I'm not there, yet, of course. I'd rather shun the suffering as most of us would. In fact, on Thursday afternoon, I went to yoga class. I've missed too much, of late, what with other demands which have crept into that late afternoon time slot, so as you can imagine, my lack of flexibility was making itself known. Half an hour in, I could tell little difference from when I first spread my mat on the floor. Except there was this. Somehow the stretching and the breathing managed to open up something else in me. Some need to express a whole lot of pain...

For you see, I was lying on my back doing banana poses at the end. I was trying not to think, trying only to breathe. I couldn't keep the thoughts at bay, though, as I thought back on four funerals in eight days. And as much as that I expect, as I allowed myself to face the heartbreak of a cherished friend entering hospice care that very day. The tears started to flow and would not stop. I was glad then for a dark space as the tears pooled in my ears. I did not want those around me to witness my suffering.

I wonder why, of course. Only maybe not. All of us carry illusions of what strength looks like and it certainly does not look like lying on your yoga mat on a Thursday afternoon with tears flowing unabated. Or maybe it does. With Jesus as our King, maybe it does...

And so I wonder now,
  • Who shall we be in this time when we almost can't help but clamor for an earthly 'king' who will ride into battle in our behalf --- who will appease us with promises of safety?
  • What does it mean for our lives that we call Jesus,'King' --- this one who suffered and died for this broken world?
  • What does strength look like for those who follow Jesus? How can we model a different kind of 'strength' as we follow Jesus into the world?

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Beginning of the Birth Pangs

The world ended that day. With that phone call. That startling news.That deepening realization. The world ended that day. Or at least it ended as you had known it.

I am so deeply aware of this right now for I am in the midst of a stretch of funerals. Some expected. Others not. All leaving those they loved living with a before and after like they have never known before. And yes, I say again, for each and all of them the world ended that day.

Now I know, of course, that the ending Jesus points to in the temple today is a cosmic one, a final one, an only one, I suppose. And yet, it seems as though from the start of human existence there have been wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms. Once again, the news in these last months and weeks and days have been full of reports of earthquakes. And, yes, there is famine --- and at least the sort of hunger where the poorest among us are forced to choose between paying the rent and putting a meal on the table right here in my community and yours. These words roll around for us to ponder again and again and again. And still we are here. Clearly, with all of this struggle, the end is still not yet.

This is why, I suppose, I fall to the temptation to bring this home. For yes, there are cosmic struggles all around us. At the same time, there are the wars and the battles and earthquakes erupting in our own hearts, our own families, our own neighborhoods, our own communities. And yes, we know endings, one by one, we surely do.

What always puzzles me, though, is that Jesus inserts this amazing promise right here in the middle of all of these dire predictions. In the midst of that which we know brings death, there is this first inkling of life. At first it may be hard to imagine how this is even possible, but we know that it is. Let me tell you how I have seen this to be so even in these last days.

I presided at a funeral this week of one who died too young. It was no secret to the hundreds gathered that he died at his own hand. The heartbreak the family feels is not new, though, for his struggle had been long and difficult. Indeed, I borrow now from a friend who traveled this path not long ago. When her family shared her brother's death with the world they said, "His death resulted from complications related to bi-polar disorder." And, oh, isn't that so. Indeed, while many of the details differ, still this was the journey this particular family had traveled as well.

And so there was no pretending as we gathered for his memorial service. The heartbreak was named. And so was our hope which rests in God's love which is greater than our heartbreak, our struggle, our regrets, and our fears.

I stood in our social hall afterwards visiting with friend and stranger alike. The room was emptying out when two women approached me --- friends of the family. They spoke to me then of how their lives had also been touched by suicide. Each of them had buried both a brother and father in the wake of such as this. Each of them.

They spoke of their own journeys. They spoke of their love for their friend who travels this path now. And they wondered with me about what they might do next--- about how their experience, their pain, could become a gift to others who find themselves where they have been.


In the middle of this busy week I opened a book by Joan Chittister where she is reflecting on what are probably the most familiar words of Ecclesiastes: For Everything a Season. As this week had carried so much pain for so many I have encountered, I intentionally turned to her reflections on a time to weep. There she speaks the truth that it is hard to acknowledge the need for times of weeping. They are always unwelcome. But she also speaks of how our individual tears can open us up to the pain of the whole world and how in that way we are changed. Yes, such struggle can be 'the beginning of the birth pangs.' Yes, by God's power, even these can be the beginning of new life.

No, indeed, for all of our effort and will we won't get the wars, the earthquakes, the hunger to stop. These will still be. And yes, we will still be those who weep in the wake of these, perhaps most especially those which affect our own lives. At the same time, you and I are called to be among those who recognize the new life that comes from even these. Indeed, might it be that  you and I can even be the midwives who help make it so?

  • How do you hear Jesus' words today? Is it fair to equate the smaller ways in which our worlds 'come to an end' with what he speaks of now?  Why or why not?
  • How is it that these things which are normally associated with death actually signs that new life is coming? Why does Jesus tie birth pangs to such as these?
  • Where have you experienced the sorts of birth pangs Jesus speaks of now?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Seeing the Widow

Mark 12:38-44

Truly, my whole life --- including the years I have served as a pastor --- I have heard the story of the widow in Mark's Gospel as a story of sacrificial giving. It is a story about generosity. It is an image of one who gave all that she had.

This drama and my usual understanding of it is especially powerful as it plays out there in the temple with an accompanying backdrop of the scribes 'walking about in their long robes' and garnering the respect and admiration of one and all. Indeed, the contrast is awfully hard to miss as one considers that the more wealthy give so little in comparison to the widow who gives all that she has. It's not hard to see how for generations, this nameless widow has been held up as a positive example of financial giving. And, of course, she is.

And yet, this time around, I find myself moving in a little different direction. For in fact, this time around I find myself also hearing Jesus' earlier words about the scribes where he says, "They devour widows' houses..." Could it be that Jesus points out this particular widow now as a living illustration of what he was just talking about? Could it be that he is pushing his disciples then and now to simply take note of the one who is normally invisible? Could it be that as our attention is drawn to her, we are also made more deeply aware of how the needs of so many like her are too often ignored --- or that, just as was apparently the case so long ago, their need is exploited in such a way that those with more just get more?

Too much of the time like the disciples so long ago, unless it's pointed out to me, I also simply don't see it -- or at least it is so that I do not fully comprehend this contrast and its often accompanying injustice which Jesus speaks of now. Only lately I've come to see it. And it is so that I am not at all proud of the fact that other, certainly no more important things, cloud my vision tooo much of the time.

Here is how it has been where I live.

Five months ago our state legislature passed a budget. Only the governor refused to sign it. Setting the politics of this aside, this has had dire consequences.

Now it is so that except for the years I was away for school, I have lived my entire life in the state of Illinois. This is a state that holds a whole lot of good --- and, yes,  a whole lot of bad. And nothing demonstrates that 'bad' as much as the situation with our state government. It is a seemingly perpetual drama and so I am not proud to say that I have been among those who, until too recently, have not paid a whole lot of attention to the latest crisis. (For an 'outside' perspective on our situation, check out this piece in the New York Times.)

And then a headline in last week's local paper caught my eye. Because we have no state budget, non-profits are not being paid. By now it is catching up with them so that locally, starting this next week, our Meals on Wheels will need to cut services. This means that for the foreseeable future, 225 older, often disabled, adults will not receive a meal on Tuesdays. For some of them it is their only meal of the day. For many of them, it is their only human contact.

I happened to be leading a Bible Study that morning. In our time together we were asked to name out loud our laments. I named this as mine. Others at the table joined me. And pretty soon one offered to call to see what could be done. Before the week was done, in behalf of my congregation, I was able to hand-deliver checks in the amount of $500 to help ensure that the 100 most vulnerable of those Tuesday recipients of noontime meals might still be fed for at least another week. Thankfully, others are mobilizing to do the same.

I am struck, though, at how invisible they have been to me. Honestly, I had no idea that there are so many in our county who are so utterly alone. Indeed, those 100 have no family to check on them at all -- no one to step in and fill the gap left as the result of a stalemate between politicians.

Only here is the truth. Stepping in to be sure that 100 are fed for now does nothing to change things when it comes to the big picture. (Yes, of course, it potentially changes everything for them --- keeping those individuals from going hungry for food and human contact --- and the vital well-check that comes from someone just dropping in.) Only even this doesn't bring them into much clearer focus for me and countless others like me who have little need or call to interact in a regular way with people whose economic circumstances are so very different from my own. More than that, it doesn't change a system which has somehow made them with even their very basic needs expendable.

So here is where I am landing with image of the widow dropping her two last coins into the temple treasury this week.  I still think this is a stewardship story. Only it is pointing us to something much larger than how much I will put in the offering envelope this Sunday or any Sunday to come. Rather, this raises questions about how I steward my whole life as well as the lives of those around me --- near and far. Most especially those I haven't noticed. Indeed, it seems to me that our financial stewardship is meant to be just the start of changing us so that in the name of Jesus we might attempt to change the world. And it all starts by seeing. Especially those it is easy not to see.

So Jesus points her out to his disciples then and now.

May our seeing and understanding change us all.

  • How do you hear the story of the widow in today's Gospel? Is this a story about financial giving? Why or why not?
  • I can't help but wonder if Jesus were standing next to me today who he would point out now. What do you think? Who might that be?
  • What happens when you 'see' or understand something for the first time. How are you changed? What happens next?