Sunday, May 29, 2016

And Jesus Gave Him to His Mother...

Luke 7:11-17

Too, too many times I have yearned for this to be so.

More times than I can even remember now I have stood and sat and wept with parents who are grieving the death of children.

In some cases we became acquainted after the funeral home had been called. In others, I had walked with parents and grandparents as they witnessed their loved ones' slow suffering and dying. More than once, it has hit awfully close to home: with cousins, especially, who died after long struggles with debilitating disease.

In every instance except perhaps in those cases when the disease has taken its seemingly irreversible toll and the suffering was profound, I have yearned for a different outcome. And even in those times? Their parents' grief is not much lessened, if at all...

And so it is that more than once over these last several months I have stood alongside those who grieved like the widow in today's Gospel story in Luke. And yet, I have to say that even when I am without words, not at these times and in no other circumstance could I imagine approaching one whose loss is so profound and speaking the words, "Do not weep." Jesus' words at first seem nonsensical in the extreme --- or at least highly insensitive. Indeed, how does one whose heart is broken and whose entire future is now entirely untenable 'not weep?' Weeping is, perhaps, the only reasonable response.

But then, of course, I am not Jesus. I do not have the power to give the widow back her son. No, not as Jesus did.

And yet? I witnessed something like this just a few days ago. No, not as Jesus did, but still I saw one man's heartfelt effort to give parents back their daughter. If not in life, then at least in memory.

For we gathered last Saturday morning for the funeral of one who had died too young. Her life had been marked in these last years by a spiral of recurring depression and resulting self destruction which finally led to her taking her own life.

When I spoke that morning I shared this from the heart:
Mental illness is as real as cancer. It is as virulent and debilitating as heart disease. In this case, it was downright life threatening and it finally had its way.
I also assured those who loved her best that they could not have saved her for if they could have, they would have and they surely tried.

And oh, yes, these were surely true.

And yet? Those words are not enough are they? For in all relationships we have regrets, often, it seems, especially when things end this way. With suicide, there are always 'what ifs...'

And so it was that some of the most powerful words of grace spoken that morning were from a childhood friend who had continued to walk alongside the one who had died. In fact, Brian believed he was probably the last one to speak to her alive.

One of several who spoke in that hour, Brian shared life giving words about the need to forgive himself and he urged those who loved her to do the same. And this. Oh, this as well:

Brian spoke directly about his friend's dark downward spiral in these last couple of years. And then he turned to her parents and shared what she had said to him, which he doubted she had ever said to them herself.
  • That she was grateful for how they hung in there with her in these last terribly difficult years.
  • And just how much she loved them.
And oh, isn't it so that Brian was doing all he could to 'give their daughter back to her mother, her father'? No, not in life restored, but in memory tended and shared. Indeed, in a very real way, Brian's words may well begin to bring healing to that which has been long broken.

And so I wonder now how you and I are called to do the same --- regardless of the circumstances of the death so grieved. For isn't it so that too often once the funeral is past and the casserole dishes are returned and the grass starts to cover the burial plot that we hesitate to speak aloud the name and the memories of those whose dying have left gaping holes in the hearts of their loved ones? Isn't it so that far too often we not only fail to 'give them back' but in a sense we take them away all over again because of our own discomfort, our deafening silence in the face of another's grief?

Yes, of course, it is possible that one can get stuck in grief, but I have never thought that was my call to make.
  • Indeed, I can't help but wonder if we all just worked a little harder at 'giving him/her back to husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, friend... by saying the names and telling the stories and perhaps offering something they never heard before and so need to hear, if finally grief's hold on us might not be quite so strong...
  • I can't help but wonder if as we stand in Jesus' place and 'give back' to loved ones those whom they have so loved and grieved --- if we might not know more fully God's intent for us all... 
  • And I cannot help but wonder if then we might just get a glimpse of a time when we will all be 'given back to one another' in every sense of the word...
What do you think?
  • How do you hear today's marvelous story in Luke? Is it simply an account of a one time occurrence made possible by the presence and power of Jesus; is it only a sign of what will one day be; or is it something we might continue to participate in as I have described? Or do you hear this story in an entirely different way?
  • Can you think of times when a loved one who has died has been 'given back' --- either in the way I have described or in another way? What was that like? How does your experience of this inform your hearing of this story?
  • Certainly there is much that is remarkable in this story. One thing that jumps out is the taboos that Jesus breaks just by stepping up and touching the bier which bore the body of the widow's son. What darkness has Jesus entered into, what taboos has Jesus broken to come close to you? How have God's people done the same? Indeed, are God's people called to do the same? And how, in our doing so, might we begin to participate in the sort of wonder Jesus works today?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

On Thelma on Concourse B and Glimpsing Faith in Unexpected Places

Luke 7;1-10

I flew to Atlanta last Sunday for the Festival of Homiletics. It was powerful, as always, and I am glad I went. One of the most amazing stories I have heard in a long time, though, was one I encountered before I even got on the plane.

I thought my time would be tight, but I was randomly selected for the TSA Pre-Check so I was there with time to spare. I sat down for lunch and then decided to walk. No doubt my steps were meandering so I was an easy mark for the woman trying to sign people up for an alternative electricity supplier tied to bonus airline miles. She stepped in front of me and asked if I lived in Illinois. Perhaps I should have kept moving. I'm glad I didn't. For while we waited for forms to download on her tablet I took the chance to ask her name. Smiling, she said it was Thelma.

Thelma's accent was vaguely familiar to me, but since I couldn't place it, I asked. "I'm from Liberia," she offered. Over the course of the next couple of minutes she gave me the condensed version of her people and her country. "My ancestors were freed slaves," she said. "They moved to Liberia in 1850." I did know some of the history of her country. I had not recalled the exact timeline of that wave of emigration and I marveled that this was even before our Civil War.

She went on to tell me that she had moved here ten years ago, living first in Minneapolis where she had work as a telemarketer. Her husband was already here, living then and now in Chicago where he is a child psychologist. Several years ago she got the job she currently holds and so she was able to join him in Illinois.

Together Thelma and her husband have a 2 1/2 year old little girl and a 12 year old son. Her eyes lit up to tell me about them. Only their son still lives in Liberia with his grandmother, her mother. Try as they might, they have not been able to bring him here yet. She said she last saw him six years ago: the last time she could afford to travel there. She worried when the Ebola virus hit her hometown and called her mother every day to offer advice on how to avoid it. "Wash your hands," she told her. "Don't let strangers in the house." I commented that it must be hard to be away from her son. And her reply? She spoke aloud to me the very promises of God, quoting Hebrews 13:5, "I will not leave you nor forsake you." She told me that has been true all of her life and she is more than confident this will always be so.

I walked away from that encounter changed somehow, with my eyes opened to how God works faith in unexpected places. Indeed. I could hear the voice of Jesus saying, as he does in today's Gospel:  
 "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
For it is so that my faith has not been tested as Thelma's has been.

  • I have always lived within easy reach of family. 
  • I have never really had to sacrifice or put myself at risk to be near those I love. No, I have never had to pull up my roots and move myself half way around the world to be with or to provide for those I love.
  • I have never had to worry that ones so dear to me might be taken by a virulent disease; never had to use up my cell phone minutes to do what I can to watch out for them.
  • I have never had to fight powerful systems in order to ensure that I might one day have all my loved ones in one place.
  • And no, I have never had to overcome the barriers which differences in race and skin color and an unfamiliar accent can place in the way of so many of our neighbors.

Oh, it is so that my life has had other challenges, yes, and like Thelma, I have known the truth that "God does not leave me nor forsake me," but even so. I found myself surprised last Sunday afternoon to encounter such a deep witness of faith in one who to me was a profoundly unexpected person: in one who claims to have known great blessing, yes, but who has also experienced great heartbreak.

It seems to me there are a number of gifts for us in the story of the healing of the centurion's slave in today's Gospel from Luke. Surely, the authority which Jesus holds over life threatening disease is a place where I pause as well. Even so, for now I am taken with the wonder of being able to witness how God is often at work in powerful ways in people's lives and I am grateful to encounter it from time to time as I did last Sunday afternoon. Oh yes, God's amazing gifts are known in many ways, not the least of which is in building and sustaining faith in God's people. Like with the centurion. Like with Thelma on Concourse B. And from time to time when I pause long enough to know the privilege of being able to glimpse it? I know myself to be most blessed.

  • Church Innovations teaches a Missional Practice; Dwelling in the World, which equips us to have just the kind of encounter I had last Sunday afternoon. If you are interested in learning more about it, follow the link above.
  • When and where have you encountered deep faith in a surprising place or person? What story did you hear?
  • How have you been changed by encountering such faith in others? How did it strengthen you? How did it challenge you?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Suffering. Together.

Romans 5:1-5

In a spirit of full disclosure, I have to I say really don't know that much of suffering first hand. I do know enough, and I have witnessed enough of it in others, however, to know I would rather not.

And yet, there was a night last November when as I attempted to fall asleep, I simply could not make myself comfortable. I tossed and turned until finally I thought to press against the area right beneath my right rib cage. Instantly I was pretty certain it was my gall bladder making itself known in a way it never had before. When finally I could hardly catch my breath, I called a friend who came and gathered me up and took me to the Emergency Room. My diagnosis was spot on. My nurse gave me something for the pain, injecting it directly into my i.v.. She turned to leave the room, but as she reached the door, she turned and asked how my pain was then. In a matter of those few footsteps,that which had taken my breath away a moment before, was now simply gone.

And yes it is so that in that hour I comprehended something about the appeal of Opioid drugs for those who suffer, whether their pain be chronic or acute, physical or psychic. I could understand the desire to numb it so completely, if only for a little while.

And so it is that next Saturday I will officiate at my second funeral of one who has died at his or her own hand in less than a year: two individuals who clearly had suffered long and hard in this life and who, in the end, apparently could not see any other way to end their pain. I have long since abandoned any sense of judgment over those who find themselves in such a place where the options had evidently narrowed so profoundly. Even more than that, it is so that I rest more and more in the abundant mercy and love of God. I, for one, cannot believe that God lets go of one who has suffered so. I simply cannot. Even with that, though, it is hard to know what words to offer to address the residual pain which will be carried by their loved ones for the rest of their lives.

And so we come up against the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans today. Admittedly, perhaps especially today, I find myself arguing with him. Indeed, as much as I love the cadence of these words and as much as I yearn for the truth they point to to be so, I do believe there is a whole lot of suffering in this world which is just not all that redemptive. Sometimes, too often, I have looked on while suffering just breaks us down. Oh, as much as I want Paul's words to be true, I surely cannot say that it is always so.

So what are we, what am I, to do with what Paul offers now when he says that we know that
Suffering produces endurance and
Endurance produces character and
Character produces hope, and
Hope does not disappoint us?
Again, in my experience Paul's words do not always ring true. Or at least they don't if we only hear them through our western cultural lens which typically defines suffering and redemption as only that which happens in the lives of individuals and not in the shared lives of communities.

For t is worth noting, it seems to me, that these bracing words of Paul are addressed not so much to individuals as it is to a shared 'we' of some sort. While we can pull out the words above and apply them to individuals, all through this section, Paul is speaking in the plural. Take another look with me. He writes:
We are justified
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that but we boast in our sufferings...
And hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Yes, of course, much suffering is experienced individually, but the promise Paul extends today is grounded in God's people all being in this together. More than that? Perhaps Paul's words are not really meant to address the sort of suffering I experienced one long night last November. Maybe instead they are meant to speak to the sort of suffering we do in behalf of one another --- as my friend did who lost a night's sleep, too, in taking me to the hospital. As my nurse did, who worked the night shift so as to be about saving lives. Indeed, as Christ did --- in behalf of the whole world. Maybe that is actually the kind of suffering which leads to endurance and character and the kind of hope which does not disappoint.

I cannot pretend that this is an easy understanding to embrace --- especially not in the culture I call home where we have learned since birth to view all of human experience through the eyes of the individual or at the very most, through that of the nuclear family. And yet, week after week, we are a community together, aren't we?

  • Sunday after Sunday it is ours to stand alongside others who have experienced something of what it is to have God's love poured into their individual hearts.
  •  Time after time together we receive the promises of God proclaimed in word spoken and bread broken and wine poured.
  • Again and again we hear the call to love this world as Jesus did and does.
  • And sometimes. Sometimes as we struggle to be and do who and what we are called to be and do, we experience together a struggle which leads to the sort of strength Paul's words promise now and which fills us with the kind of hope which is grounded in the real experience of God's presence in this place today.

And there is this, too.

Yesterday morning I came in to church to wrap up some details for Sunday morning and to try to capture these words here. I took a break to walk upstairs to the nave where some of God's faithful were cleaning and vacuuming and polishing. Many of them are decades old friends of those who have suffered the most recent tragic loss in our midst.  And so we paused to put our heads together, wondering at the well being of those whose pain is indescribable today. And we began to formulate next steps for what it will mean for how we will love them next and through this week and for the rest of their lives.

Yes, in a situation like this we do suffer together. And that is, or can be, the start of something more, it seems to me. For in our human love for one another together, we experience empathy when one suffers. And we are changed by this. Oh, we are changed by this --- perhaps so much so that our eyes are opened and our wills are bent to love ever more and to make a difference in a world so that fewer and fewer might have to know the pain of this particular kind of loss.

This can be, indeed, the beginning of
Suffering producing endurance and
Endurance producing character and
Character producing hope:
Hope that does not disappoint.
And perhaps it is so that as we experience the promises Paul outlines here as a community together, we may also discover their truth in our own individual lives as well.

What do you think?
  • Have you ever found yourself arguing with Paul's words here in Romans? Why or why not?
  • I needed to remind myself again this week that these words of Paul are not necessarily meant only for individuals, but might be better heard and understood by the whole community together. This being so, does this change how you hear them? If so, how is that?
  • Have you witnessed or experienced examples of this sort of resilience being built in the community of believers? What has that looked like for you?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Praying for Another Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

This year more than ever I find myself praying for another Pentecost where differences are bridged and where we are able to hear and understand one another. Oh, there are a thousand reasons why I yearn for this in this season. Here is one:

I am so very careful not to post anything controversial on Facebook. While, on the one hand, one can certainly show support to like minded people in this way, my strong sense is that with those who differ, minds are seldom changed for comments are rarely shared in a trusted enough environment to even really be heard. I broke from my usual pattern this week, though, for I had not paused long enough to realize how divisive this piece could be.

Here is how it was. I shared a piece from Crain's Chicago Business which spoke of several social service agencies which have banded together to sue the governor of the state of Illinois for breach of contract.(You can read the editorial here.)  The gist of the piece is this. Our state has not had a budget for nearly a year, the casualty of deep political differences between parties. And those who are suffering are the most vulnerable among us.

While other institutions and organizations had the means to quickly file suit to ensure that financial obligations would be met by the state, for the most part social service agencies are individually smaller, not as well organized as a single unit, and without the excess financial resources to take such a clearly necessary step. So in the meantime, for the last year they have done their best to continue to provide services to the most vulnerable of our neighbors. In order to make ends meet they have laid off staff or simply not replaced those who have moved on for one reason or another or they have trimmed services as much as possible. And yes, sometimes programs have been cut altogether. They have done so because their contracts with the state of Illinois had never been altered. They have done so, hoping against hope, that a budget might come through. For the most part I expect they have continued to do what they could for this is simply what they do. I know this is so. I have seen it up close in the community I call home.

With all of this, I was surprised to read this week that some have organized themselves enough to file suit. I shared the story with just one word of commentary saying simply, "Wow." Within the hour people I care about and respect from different ends of the political spectrum chimed in --- each blaming those on the other side of the political aisle for this unprecedented impasse. I chose not to join in. Indeed, I was frankly grateful to observe that the others stepped away pretty quickly, too.

And so, Pentecost. As I've considered my recent foray into Facebook controversy, I am recognizing what we all know so very well: In many cases, too much of the time, a whole lot more than language divides us in our world today. In fact, it seems to me that understanding different languages without the need of translators would be no more of a miracle than Republicans and Democrats being able to listen to understand enough to begin to work towards profoundly important things for the sake of our common life together. More than that, these days one could easily argue that even within parties we dwell on our differences more than what we hold in common. Even in our congregations where often for the most part regrettably we look and sound much the same, these differences divide. And often, at least in my experience, we find ourselves so at odds with each other that we simply opt not to discuss it at all.  And while this keeps the 'peace,' it is surely a fragile and a shallow peace which hinders us from going down paths where the Holy Spirit would lead.

For it is so that as much as anything I have already offered, here is what stays with me about the heated outbreak on my Facebook page the other day. Each and all of those who chose to jump into the fray are people of faith. In fact, they are all followers of Jesus. I can't help but wonder if today --- and I do mean today --- it is surely ours to pray for an out-breaking of the Holy Spirit as was experienced that first Pentecost so long ago --- that we, too might somehow hear and understand each other across all that divides. I can't imagine that the need for such as this will ever be more pressing than it is now for so very much is at stake. Can you even imagine what a remarkable model people of faith might just be called to be in a world where the "peace" is all too often false and fragile, where we are too much of the time so very divided that a civil conversation about matters so vital seems all but impossible?

At least this seems to be how things are in my context. How is it for you?
  • I have offered an example of a profound need for the sort of out-breaking of the Holy Spirit in the place I call home. Is this also so for you? Would you offer a different example?
  • What would it mean to you to pray for another Pentecost? What might such a Pentecost look like?
  • I am considering using the  Church Innovations Thriving in Change process in my context to help build a community more at ease with discerning our way together through tough issues. This, or something like it, seems as though it could be especially helpful, particularly in this very divisive political season. I am wondering what it would look like to learn this model more deeply and then tackle several important issues together over the next months. What do you think? What would something like that look like in your context?
  • Although I have not offered any above, in the days to come I will be searching for examples of times when the Holy Spirit has helped people hear and understand each other across our differences. What instances or experiences of this come to mind for you?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Slave Girl Set Free and the Unity Jesus Calls Us To

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

While certainly the drama in our lesson from Acts peaks once Paul and Silas find themselves in prison, it is what led up to their being beaten, bound and imprisoned that first captures my imagination this week. For I can't help but wonder what happened to the slave girl who was set free by Paul's healing. The challenge for this line of wondering, of course, is that this part of the drama seems to be long forgotten once Paul and Silas pay the price for this act of healing, however reluctant it may have been. (I say 'reluctant' for one wonders if Paul would have ever even noticed the girl and her predicament at all if she had not been so persistent in following them and calling after them!) Indeed, the text offers no answers as to where she came from or what became of her next.

Even so? Her situation has had me wondering in these last days.

I wonder, for instance when her 'spirit of divination' was first discovered. Was it something she always had or did it only become apparent when she was a little older?

I wonder how it was that she was sold into slavery.
  • Did the certainty that she was 'possessed' by something frighten her family and as a result, were they at least a little bit relieved to see her go?
  • Or was their financial situation desperate and so they sold her in order to benefit from whatever the 'going rate' was for girls such as her?
  • Oh, I would imagine that in that time and place it must have been her father's decision to sell her in this way and I wonder if her mother grieved this always.
  • Or perhaps her father did this at her mother's urging. 
  • Or maybe her parents had both died and she had no other way of supporting herself except for this unthinkable way. 
  • Or maybe slavery was simply a generations old reality for her family and her particular ability simply made her valuable in a different way to those who owned her.
And I wonder what her life was like as a 'slave.'

  • Did her owners only take advantage of her seemingly supernatural ability to discern the truth or was there more to her enslavement? This certainly was bad enough, but it could have been more and perhaps was.

I wonder all these things because mostly I wonder what became of her next.
  • Once she was freed from that which so benefited her owners, did they actually let her go or did they keep her for other purposes? 
  • And if they did set her free, was she able to return home? 
  • And if she did return home, was she welcomed there?
  • Was she able to return to any semblance of a normal life? 
  • Or was she forever damaged, forever changed by the experience of having been sold into slavery and living as such for who knows how long?

And you see, I wonder these things mostly for this reason:

Surely even after having been 'set free,' freedom in its truest sense would likely have been elusive for this girl. Indeed, presuming her owners now let her go, I'm not sure she would have had any kind of chance at a normal life without some sort of support. From her family, perhaps, if they were still alive or if they even wanted her back. Or maybe that community of others who had also experienced a kind of 'setting free' once they knew themselves embraced and empowered by the love, the forgiveness, the hope that was theirs as they followed the Crucified and Risen One.

We cannot know, of course, how it was for this girl,but this much I do know. For many of us, slavery can seem almost preferable to freedom. For we know the rules of 'slavery.' It can begin to feel safe in its utter familiarity after a while. One wonders if she ever yearned to go back. Indeed, think of those set free from slavery in Egypt so long ago. Part of their perhaps not surprising experience is that not long into their wilderness sojourn, they would have traded their long yearned for freedom in for the security of slavery. (Exodus 16:1-3) Without a doubt, sometimes the slavery we have known can feel more 'free' than freedom...

Indeed, I have encountered the truth of this over and over again and in these ways in these last days:

On Wednesday of this last week I attended a Food Security Summit here in De Kalb. Part of the day was spent learning and part of it was participating in a 'poverty simulation' which allowed us, for a few hours, to get a tiny taste of what hard work it is to navigate the world when resources are scarce and systems seem to be stacked against you. It was enlightening, to be sure. One of the things that will stay with me for some time is this. There are certain unique 'unwritten rules' for different social classes. This is to say that should one actually break out of poverty, a whole lot of things would have to be relearned which could be helped along by some kind mentors and friends.
Or this:
Last night I attended a fundraiser for Safe Passage, a local organization which seeks to help those who are victims of domestic violence. More than once in my life I have walked alongside those who have finally broken free from such dangerous and demeaning situations. In the wake of such wondrously realized freedom, in many cases these people have found themselves suddenly struggling with the challenge of living with fewer material resources in addition to trying to rebuild their own understanding of who they are. Oh, they may no longer be battered, but they are not yet fully free from the experience. How much better they do when they have a community of others who are there to help give them what they need as they seek to move ahead.

In both of these examples, the story doesn't end once freedom is realized. Rather, a community is needed to help those of us, all of us, who find ourselves formerly enslaved, perhaps newly 'free,' to move into the fullness of what God intends.

And so I am wondering now about the role of the church in all of this. How are we called to be communities of mentors and friends and guides to those who have been enslaved by poverty or violence or addiction or grief or mental illness or... well, you name it.

For the story of the slave girl surely does not end where the account in Acts leaves us. I can't help but wonder if you and I are meant to write the ending.

Indeed, as we consider Jesus' call to unity in John's Gospel this week, maybe this is exactly where it begins: Maybe this unity is not so much realized as the result of weighty theological discussions, but in working together to stand alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free. Perhaps this is a unity of action and of love lived out for the sake of all who have been set free and are now trying to live into that freedom. For the sake of all of us, of course, for we are all also formerly enslaved. And for the sake of a whole world of people who are yearning for such freedom, too.

  • Clearly, this week I have been taken down a path where the recorded story offers no ready answers. Do you think such a reflection 'preaches?' Why or why not?
  • Given all the options I offer above about how the slave girl got where she was and what became of her next, what do you think? How would you paint her story before and after we encounter her today?
  • In your community, what does it look like to walk alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free? How does your congregation seek to be part of this kind of ministry?