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The joy of Advent 3…

It’s such a simple task, getting ready for church.

Yet, last Sunday morning was One of Those Mornings for me, as I felt thwarted somehow every step of the way. I got an eyelash in one eye as I was doing my make-up. I dealt with that, only to finish putting on my make-up, and then get a teensy-tiny (and yet very painful) piece of fuzz in my other eye. Next, my hair dryer stopped working. Then,clothes were not where they belonged. By the time we got out the door and to the car, I was annoyed.

Adding to my overall mood was the fact that I had finals and final projects coming due over the next two days. I was feeling the stress of things left undone for school. Yet we had also decided to get our Christmas tree that afternoon, adding to my stress of things left undone at home. Calculating the time in my head, I carefully laid out the day’s schedule to my husband while we drove to church, a schedule which allowed for only so much Christmas cheer – a schedule and was going to end with school work.

By the time we got to church, I was thoroughly grumpy – for no really good reason, either – which, for some reason, made me grumpier.

We got into the sanctuary as announcements were being made and had a few minutes to listen and collect ourselves before worship began. We confessed our sins, received absolution – which helped my mood a little. But the joy came with the lighting of the Advent wreath.

This week, we lit three candles – including the so-called “Candle of Joy” for the Third Sunday of Advent. At first, my heart recoiled at the thought – the grumpiness was steeped that far in! My reaction was, “I don’t want joy. I’m too grumpy for joy.”

But the candles were lit and the prayers were said, and somehow in this simple action my heart was reminded of the love of God in Christ, and my mood changed almost instantly. I felt remorse for holding onto my sour mood for so long and so found another sin to confess to God. I became peace-filled as I realized that I am forgiven – again – and as I realized – again – that I am loved. Deeply loved.

Thanks be to God.

I had a music professor in college who taught us how much water we should be drinking every day. And here is how he taught us: “Really, you should drink enough water every day until you pee clear.”

This from a wonderful, distinguished gentleman who loved Jesus and loved teaching music.

It was simple wisdom from someone who was not simple at all. But he was very practical, and he cared deeply for his students, and he wanted his students to care for their instruments – and if your instrument is your voice, then you drink lots of water every day to care for it.

This wonderful teacher died last weekend. Sunday morning, shortly after we got the news, my husband and I attended the church where my professor had worked and served so many years of his life – even in retirement. The music rang out richly. And when we got to the Sanctus – the part we sing “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” I was comforted knowing that he was in heaven, singing “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…” with us. And it was beautiful.

Light perpetual is shining upon him.

Alright, folks…

It’s been two days since our communal losses. We’re still hurting. People’s faces are still missing from our days and our lives. And those faces will continue to be missed. The presence of these caring people will continue to be missed.

People are still hurting. Don’t tell us to move forward too quickly. Don’t rush my healing, and don’t tell someone else that they aren’t grieving correctly. We are all grieving together. Some are angry. Some have questions. Some don’t care about the anger or the questions, they just want to wallow. For a few days, at least, let us be.

But don’t stop caring. Don’t stop offering hugs when they are needed. Don’t stop giving words of love. Don’t stop praying…whatever you do – don’t stop praying.

I’m walking around the campus, praying for those in the offices I am passing, and praying for those who are vacating the offices I am passing. I’m walking around campus, still heavy-hearted, still seeing others who are heavy-hearted. Yes, some laughter is returning, but there are voices missing from the groups of people laughing together, and as we laugh, many of us still have tears in our eyes.

It’s been two days and we’re still hurting. And that’s OK.

This, again…

The wounds are still very raw around campus. Yesterday morning, twelve people were laid off because, like so many other institutions, this seminary has lost income from endowments because of the market downturn. The wounds are still raw today. I was here from 7:45am till 9pm yesterday, processing from morning till night. I went to bed last night with tears drying on my cheeks and spent the whole night, it seemed, dreaming about the people from this community, especially the faculty and staff. The wounds are still raw today as we arrive on campus and realize – yep, it really happened. Life is still different today, just as it was changed for us yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I preached my Senior Sermon in Chapel. I was tasked with preaching right after people had been notified of being laid off. Words are powerful and I take the responsibility of handling  my words in the pulpit very seriously. I feel that I am holding people’s hearts in my hands, and so yesterday, I felt so deeply burdened with this weight of responsibility, so overwhelmed to be the one preaching, so, so amazingly carried through by loving words of affirmation and help from others, and so upheld by the Holy Spirit.

Here is what I preached:

17 November 2009

Text: Psalm 13

LSPS/SSW Chapel Service, Christ Chapel, Austin, TX

+ INJ +

Let us pray. O LORD, we call to you; come to us quickly; and hear our voices when we cry out to you. (Ps 141:1, alt.) Amen.

For many of us gathered here today, the news of yesterday afternoon and this morning feels familiar. It seems that the economy continues to dwell in every news cycle – how the downturn is affecting cities, towns, and states, companies, banks, and charities. We have heard of cutbacks at other seminaries – and we in the LSPS and SSW community have already been touched by this very recently, very deeply, and very painfully.

And so now, the rug has been pulled out from underneath us once again – and once again, we face feelings of anger, fear, guilt, and overarching all those – we face feelings of deep sadness. Sadness at not being able to do more. Sadness at not being able to keep things as they are. Deep sadness.

It is appropriate, then, to have included in our worship this morning one of the psalms of lament, a psalm which recollects for us the anger and grief of some other person who lived long ago. This other person – the psalmist – writes as someone who is entrenched in forsakenness, confusion, and grief. The psalmist is hung up in his present time, not able to see past his current distress. In this state, his question is not, “Are you forgetting me, LORD?” Rather, the psalmist is convinced that God has forgotten him – convinced that God’s face is hidden from him. To the writer of this psalm, the present moment of anguish is so powerful – so overwhelming – that the loving God whom he knowsthat loving God – is gone – hiding.

The psalmist asks God: How long will you forget me? How long will you hide your face? How long will I be perplexed and hurting? How long will this enemy of mine be triumphant? “How long, O LORD?” cries the psalmist, and we cry this, too.

In our own place of lament today, we are also asking our own questions of God –

“Why me?”

“Why not me?”

“What now?”

The landscape is changing around us once again. That upon which we have rested securely is no longer secure – whether we have lost a job or lost a co-worker. Whether we will be saying good-bye to a trusted mentor or a loving friend. Whatever the case may be for each of us, the landscape today is very different than it was even yesterday.

We may whisper reassuring niceties to one another – “It will all work out somehow,” or “This too shall pass” – but the truth of this pain will cut through our shallow words. Even if the words are true – even if we believe things will work out and the bad moments will pass – for a time, we will dwell with questions and fear, and we will dwell with pain.

One of my favorite images in Scripture is the image of Job, sitting in the ashes, covered with sores, and for seven days and seven nights, his friends are sitting with him, not saying a word to him because they see how deeply he is suffering.[1]

“How long, O LORD?” cries the psalmist, and we cry this, too. How long do we sit in these ashes in our perplexity and grief? The truth is – we may have to sit in the ashes together for a while, which can be hard in a seminary community. We are a community of helpers. We’re a community of people in the business of wanting to listen and hug and offer words of wisdom and comfort. But what do we do when the best help we can offer is simply to sit with someone in their pile of ashes – in their place of grief?

If that is all the help we can be, then, for a while, that is all.

Healing takes time. It takes time to move from lamenting, “How long, O LORD?”

to praying, “give light to my eyes”

to singing out, “I trust in your unfailing love…”

Like God’s people throughout the ages, our lives of faith are a constant motion between fear and trust, between sight and blindness.

Fear is real today. Anger is real today. Grief is real today. And yet fear and anger and grief do not negate our faith in God or take away God’s unfailing love. Instead, they make the unfailing love of God all the more precious to us because God reaches to us where we are. God reaches to us where we are in our feelings and somehow makes himself known to us. Even in our fear – even in our anger – even in our grief – God is here.

I’d like to close by sharing a paraphrase of Psalm 13 written by Stephen Mitchell. Upon the conclusion of these words, we will sit in silence for a time before singing our Hymn of the Day.

Psalm 13:

How long will this pain go on, Lord,

this grief I can hardly bear?

How long will anguish grip me

and agony wring my mind?

Light up my eyes with your presence

let me feel your love in my bones.

Keep me from losing myself

in ignorance and despair.

Teach me to be patient, Lord;

teach me to be endlessly patient.

Let me trust that your love enfolds me

when my heart feels desolate and dry.

I will sing to the Lord at all times,

even from the depths of pain.

+ SDG +


[1] Job 2:13

 

So, this Friday is kinda a big deal. I will be meeting with my candidacy committee and we’ll be talking about my approval for ordination – a conversation which should end with me receiving said approval, but still – it’s a Big Conversation.

And, right on cue, I’ve had so many things trying to distract me this week from preparing myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually from this Big Conversation.

Some would say it’s the Devil trying to change my focus – I’m not really convinced of that. But I am convinced that my own flesh sometimes conspires against me to create distractions OR make a molehill of a distraction into a mountain. Suddenly, I’m focused on climbing this Other Mountain Over Here, rather than focusing on preparation for a Big Conversation.

It’s really Romans 7:15-25a all over again:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.

For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! “

Thank God for the last verse which reminds us that yes, we are wretched, yes, we often do what we know we shouldn’t (or focus on the wrong thing) but that in spite of this sin, Jesus has rescued us. The sin is there – present – dragging us this way and that – but we have faith that the grace of God has overcome all that because of God’s great love for us.

What is at war within you today? Where is there peace?

For all the saints…

Yesterday was All Saints’ Day – one of my favorites. We take time in our service to remember those who have died in the past year – and in our current congregation, as the list of names is read, a bell tolls between each name. There is something beautiful about this practice to me, especially since our church building sits (now) surrounded by suburbia – homes filled with people who may be used to the bell ringing to start each service, but I always envision someone sitting in their breakfast room, thinking, “Why is the bell ringing again?” (Maybe they are grumpy about it, but my answer to that is – if you don’t like hearing church bells, then don’t buy a house within earshot of an old church!)

Back to my point – the necrology (list of names of the recently deceased) is read and there are always names which I don’t recognize on the list – and that’s OK. Each name is treasured, or has been treasured, by someone. And, if nothing else, these people are in the very care of God, who loves them. The true joy of All Saints’ Day is remembering the promises of God anew each year – promises as they are connected to life and death, and death and resurrection.

Last night, I was feeling the losses in my life strongly – which often happens on All Saints’ Day. I sat down with my journal and began to write and pray, and as I wrote I came up with a necrology all my own of my losses (not all are recent). Writing the names, I had many memories come to me of each – and why they were precious to me. Some were family members, some were parishioners, some were pets. There was great joy in remembering these dear people and animals – great joy in realizing that our lives intersected for a time – great joy in realizing (again) how amazingly blessed I feel by my life.

Remembering, remembering, remembering…so important. So painful at times. So joyful at times. So much a part of being truly and deeply human.

Who are you remembering now?

+ + +

Last weekend, we buried my grandmother’s remains. She died in March, but because the family plot is so far from where we all live, we waited until a time when the most people would be available to come to the service. My aunt planned a small-ish graveside service at the church cemetery where my dad’s and grandfather’s remains are also.

Every time I return to this cemetery, I am almost overwhelmed by its beauty. There are no headstones – only flat markers. A large cross stands near our family’s plot, and a huge tree stands guard directly overhead…its roots are pushing Dad’s grave marker up year by year.

To be at the cemetery in the Fall was a first for me. The colors on the trees were all around us – and they enveloped us with their vibrancy. A rainstorm threatened – but the rain ended as we gathered around the grave and started again as we left to head indoors. I forgot to bring a kleenex – and the wind dried my tears.

As we went through the service, the minister read the Gospel lesson for the day – John 11:17-27 – the story of Jesus coming to see Mary and Martha after their brother, Lazarus, has died. The resurrection language is apparent – but what got me – what absolutely choked me with tears to the point where I almost couldn’t breathe – was, “…if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

As I heard these words, I was standing between my dad’s younger brother, and my dad’s grave.

“…if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The words resonated in me, again and again.

I’ll be honest – sometimes the stories of healing in the Gospels really piss me off. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out why Jesus healed so many in the Gospels and didn’t heal my dad. Later, I asked the same questions when my mom got sick and died. Really, this comes back to a basic human question – “WHY?”

I have to be honest – I don’t know. I don’t know why my dad died at age 29 and my mom at age 60.  I don’t know why anyone dies, really, no matter what their age. I don’t know why some people suffer and some people die peacefully. There are some deaths which seem to make more sense than others, but I don’t even completely understand why that is. And sometimes, I just have to dwell with those very painful questions for a while, even as I know that I won’t find complete answers.

And in the dwelling with all these questions, there is tremendous learning. There is learning and growth, and somehow out of this, the Holy Spirit plants faith and hope, and soon, the questions matter less than they once did. Time heals the wounds.