Thursday, April 18, 2013

Inclusive Laments

Like everyone else, I heard the news about the terror at the Boston Marathon almost as it was happening, in real time.  Though I will admit, I did not spend the rest of the day glued to the TV, and I don't have many searing visual images in my mind, I'm still haunted by what happened, lamenting the lives lost, imagining the grief of those who lost limbs or lives of loved ones, not being able to imagine the mind of the one who did this.

I do not live in Boston.  I don't even live on the East Coast, so I'm far away from what happened.  I didn't even think I knew anyone who was there, although later I found out that the son of our former pastor was running that day.  He was one of the elite runners, and had already finished when the bombs went off.  But still.  My feelings are not true grief, not like the grief of those who were really there.

Still, I can't help but lament.  We can't help but lament, can we?  Every time we hear cruel things happen, we can't help but lament at the incomprehensible cruelty possible in God's good world.  Sometimes it's the cancer diagnosis of a good friend.  Sometimes it's terror in Boston.

But the problem is that there are terrible things happening all over the world, in places we don't even know exist.  For example, did you know that on the same day that bombs killed and maimed people in Boston, a US bomb killed thirty people who were celebrating at a wedding in Afghanistan?  We said it was a mistake.

Sometimes we excuse our inability to really lament for tragedies far from home.  "Those are violent places," we say.  But the truth is, the world is a violent place, from Boston to Afghanistan to Waco to Myanmar.  If every human life is valuable and beautiful and a creation of God, the ravages of cancer and the ravages of war and the ravages of tragedy are all worthy to be lamented.

I lived in Japan once, long ago.  It was so long ago that sometimes I never lived there, never saw Mount Fuji  rise in the background, never heard the voices of kindergarten children chattering and never smelled the skewered meat sizzling at the train stations.  It was so long ago, but once in awhile I can still imagine the God-beloved people I knew there, far away, across the world.

Here is the impossible thing:  to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, across boundaries, across ideologies.  To love the ones that God loves, somehow, to practice more inclusive lamenting.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sometimes, the right answer is "I don't know"

I spent last Saturday evening at a local funeral home.  I was there conducting a funeral for a woman who had died after a short battle with cancer.  We had prayed and fought hard to keep the cancer from winning.  She was only fifty-four.  The building was thick with family and friends, with grief, and with memories.

The woman was much beloved.  She was also one of those genuinely gracious, loving people who just seemed to know that she was put on this earth to love people.  All of the stories I heard, and knew, were about someone who reached out in grace, love and acceptance.  Someone spoke at the service about her 'moral compass.'  I remember hearing that and thinking, 'yes, and her moral compass was mercy.'  I thought, the world needs more, not fewer, people like her.

The verses that came to my mind as I prepared for the funeral were from 1st John:  "Beloved, let us love one another, for everyone who loves is born of God and loves God..... God is love."  But even as I said these words, and looked out over the people gathered, I could hear the questions, unanswered questions, "If God is love, why....?"

Why?  Why do tragic things like this happen?  Why does cancer take the life of a person who adds so much goodness and mercy to the world?  I could feel all the whys staring me in the face, and felt that my words were not enough.

Sometimes, the right answer is, "I don't know.  I don't know why."

As the pastor there, I felt the temptation to have an answer.  I am supposed to be wise, after all.  But I only knew what not to say:  this is not a punishment for anything.  She did all the right things.  And God did not take her because God needed an angel.

I don't know why.

But that doesn't mean I have nothing to say.  Even though I don't know why, even though I don't know the meaning of her death, I do know the meaning of her life:  "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God."  Even though I don't know why, I do know this, by faith:  That God was with her, and is with her, did not abandon her in her suffering.  It is the witness of Jesus that convinces me:  Jesus who did not abandon the world, did not turn his back on his disciples even when they turned their backs on him.  I also believe that the deep yearning we have for a world where there is no death, no tears, no violence, where peace reigns -- is God's yearning, too.  Somehow, deep in the seen and unseen places of the world, God is working to make that yearning come true.  And we are meant to be partners with God in that.  That is a faith statement, I know, and open to contradiction.

So, I don't know why this good woman died, or why God allows violence to happen, not only in Boston, or in all the other God-beloved corners of the world.

But I believe this:  That we are meant to be partners with God in loving the world. That is our vocation, in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen, and we don't know why.

Choose love.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


About a week before Easter, I got a call from a woman at church, letting me know she had put together an extra individual communion kit.  Could I make sure it got on the altar on Sunday?  There were two women from the church who said they would like to take communion to a third woman, a friend of theirs who had become shut in recently, and was experiencing memory loss.

We have lay communion ministers, who go out to shuts once a month.  They are sent out usually on the second Sunday of the month with their kits and the prayers of the congregation.  They have been trained for this ministry.  There is always a sheet of paper in their kit, so they know the order of service. They also bring a bulletin from church.  But they also bring themselves.  It is their presence that is so important; it is not just the pastor that remembers them.

Myself, I love visiting shut-ins.  But we have 50 or 60 shut ins are our church.  We can't do this ministry ourselves.  And I do believe that the ministry of the whole community is important.  We have just a handful of communion ministers, but they are good at what they do.  I have heard some of the stories of what happens when they visit.  They bring many kinds of bread.

So I put the communion kit on the table for the two women to take to their friend.  One of the women used to be one of our communion ministers, but she recently had decided that she couldn't do it any more.  She doesn't see well enough to drive any more.  It was too hard for her, although she enjoyed it.  The second woman said she could drive.  The third woman is their friend.

Later at church, one of the women told me that the arrangement works in so many ways.  "I get to minister to my friend.  I receive ministry from the driver.  Each one of us gives and receives ministry."


The church was full on Easter Sunday.  It was amazing.  Two services, lots of people, loud voices.  It is the same every Easter, but it still amazes me, somehow.

Then, a few days later, I ran into a woman from my congregation.  She was out shopping, and she stopped me to gush about the Easter crowds.

"Just think about what the church could do if the church was that full every Sunday!"

I know this woman pretty well, and I don't think she was talking in a theocratic way, about the church lording it over people.  Instead, she may have thinking about all of the wounds we could bind up, all of the hungry we could feed, all of the homeless we could house, all of the vulnerable for whom we could speak up, all of the weak we could empower.


And each of us gives and receives ministry.  Because each one of us is strong, and needs to be lifted up, each one of us has bread, and is hungry, each one of us has gifts, and is wounded.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

My Hermitage

Our new senior pastor had an idea for after Easter this year:  what if our staff took a getaway to a retreat center together?  After the busy season, we needed time away, to recharge, to rest, to pray.  He even had a place in mind, a favorite of his:  Pacem in Terris, just a few miles north of the Twin Cities.

He was very excited about it.  It sounded beautiful, and restful.

I confess that I had mixed feelings.

On the one hand, having time for rest and silence amid the beauty of nature sounded wonderful.  I wasn't even that concerned about the lack of telephones.  A day without wireless devices sounded like a good after-Lent fast to me.

On the other hand, where I live, the beginning of April it can still be rather cold.  The hermitages are primitive:  no bathrooms.  There's an outhouse very close to each hermitage, but that's it.  I'll be honest, I wasn't wild about that.

Our senior pastor assured us that the main lodge was well-equipped, with even showers and all of the amenities.  And that was true.  It was also a little hike from the lodge to your hermitage.  Also, the main lodge is closed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

The hermitage staff was gracious and inviting.  The idea is to be alone with God:  no noise.  No books, except the Bible, either, they cautioned.  Not that anyone was going to check, but books can be another kind of noise.  Judge for yourself, they said.

The evening meal is shared, and delicious.  But for other meals, there is  basket of simple food brought to your hermitage door:  fruit, bread, a muffin, cheese.  Each small room is well equipped:  a gas lamp, a gas burner and tea kettle, means to light them.  There are a couple of candles, soap, a few gallons of water, a wash basin and towels.  A rocking chair faces the window.  The lake is still pretty quiet early in April.

Before he left, my host told me he would pray for me.

Then it was quiet.  No footsteps.  No creaks.  Not even the sound of water.  I understood the idea of no bathrooms.

That evening I lit the gas lamp and read the Bible, prayed and wrote in my journal.  It got dark early, and I wrote a lot.  I read the Psalms of Ascent and the resurrection story from John 20, holding my flashlight, seeing just a few words at a time with its small round light.  Suddenly, my flashlight went out.  I discovered that the hermitage was equipped with another.

I was determined to use as little as possible during my stay at the hermitage.  For some reason, I didn't want to use anything.  I would get up and go to the lodge as soon as it was open.  If I didn't use anything, I wouldn't have to clean anything.  That was my plan.

In the morning, though, I ended up using the cold outhouse, anyway.  Afterwards I heated up water, both for tea and for the washbasin, so that I could wash my face and hands.  I sat in the rocking chair and listened to the silence, eating fruit and bread.  I walked.  I changed my clothes.  I wrote some more.  I swept the floor and shook the rugs and made the bed, in preparation for the next hermit.  Something about these simple actions calmed me as much as prayer.

The retreat was not quite 24 hours, and I was back on the road again.  I had no great revelations about God, or about myself.  But here is what I remember:  washing my face with water I had heated myself. The small circles of light on a page, illuminating just a few words at a time. The noise of the pen scratching on the page.  The window and the beauty of the still barren landscape.  Fragments of possible poetry, a small image to return home with:

Thomas, sitting around a fire with Peter and Bartholomew, telling stories about Jesus, remembering his hands with ragged scars, and how he saved them, once.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Not Exactly An Easter Sermon

We pull out all the stops on Easter.  So do you, I'll bet.  We have the flowers, and the music, and the crowds.  This year we had an incredible liturgical dancer who carried the paschal candle throughout the sanctuary.  The Easter sermon was clear and dramatic and inspiring.

We pull out all the stops on Easter Sunday.  Let me be clear.  I'm not against this.  Not at all.

But may I say?  I have often noticed that the Easter gospel itself is slightly less clear, a little more fuzzy,  more ambiguous.  Take Mark, for example.  The tomb is empty.  "He is not here.  He has risen."  But Jesus does not appear.  And the women run away, and don't say anything to anyone.  Or Luke's story.  Again, Jesus does not appear.  The angels tell the story, and the women believe it this time (that's a relief, anyway), but the disciples think the women are stark raving mad.

No trumpets.  No singing.  Just an empty tomb, a message, and some questions.

This Sunday, the crowds are somewhat diminished, and the questions continue.  But at least Jesus appears, walks through the locked doors and the haze and the ambiguity to say to the frightened disciples, "Peace be with you."

Seeing Jesus isn't exactly a relief, not exactly.  It raises as many questions as it answers.  It complicates things.  For one thing, Jesus expects them to go out.  "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," he says.  And they must be thinking, "wait... as the Father sent you....but what happened to you?"

So you have to wonder exactly what Jesus meant when he said, "peace be with you."  I'm pretty sure that he didn't mean, "have a nice day."  I'm not even sure that he was talking about World Peace, although I'm pretty sure that Jesus would be for World Peace.  No, this has to be a strange sort of peace,  a sort-of "peace with questions."  It's the peace of the empty tomb, the peace of nail-scarred hands, the peace of "Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it."

We don't resemble Jesus, not much anyway.  I don't know how it is that he expects us to go out in his name, bearing his peace, bearing his life, crucified and risen.  I think he's stark raving crazy sometimes.

So Sunday I'll go to church, like Thomas, and I'll be muttering a little under my breath, looking for Jesus to show up, with his wounded hands, breathing on me, and raising me to life, despite myself.  I'll be looking around for signs of mercy, and the love that is stronger than death.  I'll be listening for some strong singing and some soft prayers and some Alleluias.

I'll taste the wine and the bread, and look into the faces of people who know me too well.  And I'll try again to tell my hope.

Christ is risen.  Yes.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I'll Count Easter As a "Win"

I'm not talking about Easter Worship, which was good.  Very Good, actually, to quote God.

I'm talking about Easter Dinner at my mom's house in the afternoon.

My mom made the ham, the vegetables, and the pie.  I made something called "Company Hash Browns" and "Apple Gorgonzola Salad."  There was just a little of each left over, and, since I don't cook as often as I'd like, I was pleased that everyone liked my offerings.  Maybe I'll cook again, someday.

But I'm not talking about that, either.

My mother-in-law came to church with us, but unfortunately didn't feel well enough to come to dinner later.  My stepson accepted our invitation, but my niece stayed home with a cough.  And my brother and my nephew (the rock star) went over to the nursing home where my dad lives and brought him over for dinner.

My dad has Parkinsons.  He used to be on medication that helped him stay active, but some of the medication also made him hallucinate.  After awhile, they decided not to make him take all of that medication, so he is pretty much confined to the wheelchair now.  We like that he can be with us for holidays, but some visits go better than others.

At first, it seemed like it wasn't going to go very well.  When my brother brought my dad's wheelchair in, he was sort of leaning over and had a grimace on his face as if he was in pain.  We tried to straighten him up, but he didn't look like he was ready to have a good time.  My brother got a pillow from the car, and that seemed to help a little bit.

My dad had a good dinner with us, but he's not such a sparkling conversationalist as he used to be.  Just last week one of my parents' old friends said she remembered how good my dad was at telling stories.  So I told him so.  I said, "Velma said she remembered how good you were at telling stories!"  I said it several times, until finally he replied, "She did?"

After dinner, I thought I'd try to engage my dad a little more.  We tried singing.  We started "You are My Sunshine," thinking we would just sing the chorus, but when we finished, he went right into the first verse.  We sang a few other songs, but I didn't know all of the words.  (as usual.)

At one point my nephew ( the rock star) was sitting next to my dad and talking to him, and I thought I heard my dad give a little laugh that was familiar to me.  So we said, "Dad!  Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  the Shadow knows..." and my dad said....'bwa haha'.  We said it a couple more times.  And my dad also remembered a few other imitations he used to do.

We laughed.  My brother and I sang a few old Allan Sherman songs.

Then we had two kinds of pie:  lemon and apple.

My brother helped my mom get my dad into the car to go back to the nursing home.

I fell asleep in the easy chair in their living room.

When my mom returned from the nursing home, she said that my dad turned to her in the car and said, "that was fun."

So, I'll count Easter as a 'win.'