Thursday, January 31, 2013

BC Reminders

A friend just asked a group of us for recovery gift ideas for someone who's had a double mastectomy.

A couple of weeks ago, I needed to do some three-hole punching of a stack of papers.  I'm right-handed, so I slid the whole stack in with my right hand and pushed down with my left. 

OMG.  It was as if I had been electrocuted under my left arm.  (I'm so glad no one else was around to see me pacing the office, clutching my chest.)

After about three days the pain wore off and . .  you guessed it, some more papers to be punched.

This time I slid only a couple of sheets into the puncher so I could push down very gently.  Same result.

I have now learned that I can accomplish this task awkwardly by reaching around with my right arm.  (I simply do not have the kinetic acuity to do it upside down and backward.)

It's been nearly a year since my last surgery.

I presume this means that one side effect of a double mastectomy is no more hole-punching, ever.
As far as the gifts were concerned, I came late to the conversation, after the meal deliveries and jammies had been suggested.  So here were my ideas:
Gift cards to Target and/or whatever else is near. There are lots of little expenses during recovery.  An Amazon gift card; a Kindle if she doesn't have one. 
A beautiful pair of earrings.  (NOT a necklace!) 
A yoga session for someone who will come to her house.
A telephone call every few days.  Let her tell you how brave and on top of it all she is.  Let her tell you how chickenshit and sad she is.  Let her tell you, "They're only breasts; I'm fine."  Let her tell you, "I can't bear to look at myself; I want to die."  Listen to her, and listen some more. The best gift of all.

Aging - I

I'm titling this post "Aging - I" because I have a feeling that there will be some sequels . . .

I spend a lot of time with elderly people.  The ones I call "my" people because they are members of  my church, or friends of my members.

In the past year or so, they have welcomed me into:

a somewhat worn and basic, albeit clean and friendly, nursing home

a much more attractive nursing home

assisted living apartments and their associated nursing and dementia and rehab units

the local hospice facility in the country

the hospice facility on Lake Erie with its spectacular views

intensive care units in three cities

emergency and pre-op rooms

hospital rooms in four cities

a mental health ward in another city

homes all over the place in which people are recovering from all of the above (except hospice, of course).

Two of my people died while I was with them; three others within a couple of days of my last visit.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a new baby and her mom and their four cats.  They're all beautiful and the mom is SO excited about her baby and her family's new life.  I could see that she is already a GREAT mom.

All connected.  More on another day.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A This 'n That Kind of Week

Yesterday ~ Monday ~ I had a lovely brunch with a seminary friend, a chaplain at a Presbyterian Retirement Center.  Lots of talk about aging and spirituality, about trying to help our older folks, and their adult children as well.

I planned Sunday's worship ~ an entire service filled with Taize' music, which we've been learning for the past month ~ and spent a lot of time reading and staring into space, as this week's sermon is going nowhere fast.

And I worked on two retreats, one for my own church, set for a month from now, and one for an ecumenical group of women in Dearborn the next week-end, thanks to an invitation from RevGal Terri.
Today ~ lunch with a large group of women from my own church, and home visits to three older ladies. I learned a bit more about the terrors of being almost 93 and having just suffered a fourth heart attack from a delightful woman who just wants to leave her son's house and go home. I also got to know yet another woman in the church who has lost a son ~ that makes at least three of us ~ in this case, a 23-year-old in a work accident 35 years ago.  That particular lady told me that she is delighting in the anticipation of the birth of a great-great grandchild this spring!  She has five surviving children, eleven grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.  She also told me some of the consequences of her son's death as far as her friendships of the past 35 years are concerned.  Ay-yep.
Tonight ~ Bible study at church, which presents challenges untold. Some weeks ago I finally figured out the foundational one: For many of my congregants, the Bible is the Big Book of Answers.  For me, it's the Big Book of Questions.  They're always hoping for definitive answers to life's dilemmas; I'm always seeing yet another question lurking in the corner.  Makes for an intriguing dialectic.
Tomorrow ~ lunch with one of the Methodist pastors here.  This seems to be the Week of Lunches.   And a visit to a new mother.  OK, I admit it; I have an ulterior motive.  A year and a half, and I have yet to baptize a baby.  Maybe this baby would like to join me at the font?
That's my week so far. How's yours?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

All Eyes Fixed Upon Him ~ Luke ~ Sermon

I love to watch figure skating on television.  It’s my favorite competition in the winter Olympics – I love to watch the skaters glide across the ice, leap – seemingly without effort – into the air, spin in dizzying circles, and land gracefully on one foot, still moving at top speed.  Judging from the television ratings, I’d say I’m not alone in finding their skill and grace to be utterly captivating.
What about you?  What mesmerizes you?  What causes you to stop and stare, completely transfixed by what you are seeing?
                A lot of people feel the same way about football that I do about figure skating.  They love to watch that player running down the field like a gazelle, weaving his way back and forth between his would-be destroyers until he makes his final dash across the goal line.  When I mentioned this to a friend a couple of days ago, he told me about having seen a game in which a player about to be tackled literally sprang into a flip.  He flipped completely over in the air, came down on both feet, and raced toward the goal – leaving the defense reaching into thin emptiness.  Mesmerizing, yes ?!
                Sometimes it’s a work of art that captures our attention.  You know Michelangelo’s great statute of David, poised in anticipation of his encounter with Goliath?  Tears came to my eyes when I saw that statue for the first time a few years ago.
Sometimes it’s the grandeur of nature.  I know from a Sunday some months ago that many of you have been to the Grand Canyon; I imagine that to be a completely enthralling sight.  For myself, I would add the sight of the sunrise over the ocean, or the full moon sparkling over the water.
                What about speeches?  They’ve come to mind, haven’t they, in this past historic week in which the inauguration of an African-American president took place on Martin Luther King Day?  President John Kennedy, at his own inauguration, urging us to “[a]sk not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Dr. King, in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, rolling out the words of the prophets Amos and Isaiah as he proclaimed his dream.  Perhaps the most mesmerizing speech in the history of our nation.   Unless, perhaps, that prize goes to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, or maybe his Gettysburg address.  Almost all of us can repeat the first words of the latter, “Four score and seven years ago . . .”.
Does Jesus have the same effect on you? Is he a mesmerizing figure for you?  Maybe, maybe not.  For many people, he’s such an ancient figure, trapped in the archaic language and customs of a time unfamiliar to us – it’s difficult to do much more than honor his memory and try to follow his teachings.
                For many others, if there’s anything that draws them unwaveringly toward Jesus, it’s the cross.  We gaze at the crucified Jesus through the long week-end preceding Easter Sunday; if you happen to attend a Catholic church, the crucified Jesus will confront you for any entire service.  And for many Christians, the phrase “he died for me” sums up their understanding of Christian faith and life.  What happened on that cross, the suffering and death that Jesus endured for others – that’s the sum total, or at least the larger portion, of Christianity.
                But what about when he acts, or speaks, as he does in today’s passage? 
                Let’s look at his actions, which seem to be slow and deliberate.  They  must have made an impression, as each one is recorded separately: He went to the synagogue, he stood up, he received the scroll, he unrolled the scroll, he found his place, he read, he rolled the scroll back up, he returned it to the attendant, he sat down, and he began to preach.
                Usual and customary actions, for a reading and preaching rabbi.  Not usual and not customary for Jesus, son of Joseph, local boy making good.  But is that why the eyes of all were fixed upon him?
                I think there was more to it.
                I think, first of all, that there must have been something about Jesus that morning – that morning and for the next three or four years.  Remember, Jesus has just returned from the desert. Forty days in the desert, into which he was led by the Spirit, in which he was tormented and tested – the place in which he came face to face with who he was, with what his deepest loves and passions were, with what was going to be required of him.  I think that Jesus was not just Joseph’s son making good, local boy all grown into adulthood.  I think that Jesus was completely transformed, and that he radiated love and passion and uncompromising faith – and promise.  And that the eyes of all were fixed upon him because that transformation was unmistakable, and demanded attention.
                But there’s more.  More than his actions and appearance. His words.  What does he say?
                He says,
                “The Spirit of God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.”
The words of the prophet Isaiah.  Words written hundreds of years previous to a broken people.  The words of the prophet Isaiah become the words of Jesus.  Jesus sees himself, understands himself as a prophet – as one who points out the failures of the people and calls them to accountability and torenewal – and he understands himself as the fulfillment of prophecy, as the one who will establish the Kingdom of God in which God’s broken and yet beloved creation is transformed into God’s new heaven and new earth for all. 
                And to what does he call the attention of those whose eyes are fixed upon him?  To what does he call our attention? 
                To the poor, to the captive, to the blind, to the oppressed.
Let me tell you how those words have mesmerized me recently:
Have any of you seen the BBC television series, Call the Midwife?  It’s based on a series of books written by a British midwife about her real-life experiences in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s – at least so far.  Young and somewhat naïve Nurse Jenny Lee heads to the East End to work with a group of midwives founded by a Church of England order of nuns – and so four of the main characters are nun midwives, and four are young women who come to work with them without joining the convent. 
As midwives, the women are primarily responsible for the care of women in pregnancy and childbirth – most births take place at home, and healthy women without complications are cared for by midwives rather than by doctors.  Given the high population, deep poverty, and lack of resources in the East End, however, the midwives also find themselves to be the primary health caregivers for their neighbors in all sorts of other ways as well.
                One of the storylines in the Christmas special last month for focused on the plight of one             Mrs. Jenkins, a disheveled woman who comes to the attention of the midwives due to her interest in the babies of the neighborhood.  The young mothers find the attention of this miserable old woman of the streets to be very disturbing – one of them essentially beats her up to keep her away from the mother’s baby – and so the midwives come to the rescue and begin to care for her. It develops that Mrs. Jenkins’ story, in a nutshell, is this:  Widowed at a very young age and left with five small children she could not support, she – and her children – had been sent to the workhouse, a brutal solution to the problems of the poor – the sort of place that novelist Charles Dickens had publicized and criticized decades earlier.  One by one, Mrs. Jenkins’ children had died – and she knew not when, nor where they were buried.  Once in the workhouse, all of one’s autonomy and dignity was stripped away.  Now she roams the streets, wearing filthy clothing and sleeping at night in a hovel of an apartment – and she is enchanted by other babies, who remind her of her own beloved children, all lost to her.
                Jesus says,
                “The Spirit of God  has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.” 
Mrs. Jenkins.  Utterly impoverished.  Captive, imprisoned, by her grief, by her guilt, by the unavailability of second chances.  Blind to the loving help the midwives offer her – at least at first; frightened and defensive, she physically attacks two of them when they first come to check on her.  Oppressed by a system that took her children, her self-worth, her capacity to care for her family, and the very lives of those she loves most.
There is an extraordinary scene in the episode which I’m describing, in which two of the midwives, one an elderly and savvy sister and the other the young and no longer quite so naïve Jenny Lee, persuade Mrs. Jenkins to permit them to bathe her.  Jenny Lee discovers that Mrs. Jenkins’ boots, probably not removed for months, must be peeled away from her skin with the help of Vaseline.  Slowly, removing one flea-infested article of clothing at a time, the nurses prepare to immerse Mrs. Jenkins in a steaming bath and, as they do so in respectful silence, what we hear are the eerily exquisite sounds and words of the song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” 
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an illustration in any form that conveyed to me so eloquently the holy beauty of the Incarnation: God coming to us in human form to share bodily in our poverty, captivity, blindness, and oppression.
And I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more starkly dramatic rendition of the prophetic words of Jesus in Luke 4: Two midwives in one of the most impoverished urban areas of the word, bringing good news to the poor, freeing the captive, bringing sight to the blind, and freeing the oppressed. 
Jesus went to the desert and he emerged, no longer an ordinary boy playing on the streets of Nazareth, no longer a typical young man learning a trade.    Jesus emerged from the desert and strode into the synagogue to fulfill his calling, to proclaim with clarity and conviction that the long-ago words of the prophet Isaiah had become present reality in him.  Jesus entered the synagogue to articulate his mission, to lay out his plan.
This, this mission of Jesus, is what it means to know yourself as beloved. To be a Mrs. Jenkins, broken in every way, finding love in the hands of unexpected caregivers.  This is what it means to recognize others as God’s beloved.  To be a midwife, in the broadest sense of the word, bringing others to light and life. 
This mission of Jesus means that we are all caught up in the wonder and mystery of a God who seeks to heal all of creation.  It means that we are all invited into the life of the Son who comes to proclaim and to enact the good news for the poor, freedom offered the captive, sight given the blind, and the burden of oppression lifted from all.  It means that when one is led by the Spirit and filled with the Spirit and speaks out of the Spirit, one is soaked in the freedom and love of a God who calls to us all: Join in a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a universe in which all that impoverishes and traps and blinds and burdens us is demolished by the God who loves us.  
Does Jesus mesmerize you now?  Jesus, launching the Kingdom of God, offering riches untold, freeing us from sin, inviting us into a new vision of life, and releasing us from all that threatens to oppress and limit?
Do you see God revealed and hear your name called and your mission named?  You are beloved, and you are called by the prophetic voice that says: Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  Go forth to share the good news, and to participate in the freeing of the captive, in opening the eyes of the blind, and in eradicating oppression.
The eyes of all were fixed upon him.  Are yours?

Friday, January 25, 2013


It's an Ignatian word, magis.  Literally, it means "more." 
Ignatius was often one to speak in terms of heroics, of doing great things for God.  Last fall I spent a day at a retreat, a tenth-anniversary event sponsored by the Ignatian Spirituality Institute, my training ground for spiritual direction.  The questions upon which we were invited to focus were. "What have you done for Christ?  What are you doing for Christ?  What will you do for Christ?"  Magis questions.
Not very Reformed Protestant questions, in the purest sense of the latter.  Whatever.  During my miserable three terms of Greek, I used to write "AMDG" (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - from when the word magis comes) ~ "For the greater glory of God"  ~ at the top of each page in my notebook as at  way of forcing myself through class after class of torment and confusion.  Maybe it worked.  (If nothing else, Greek is now but a faint memory.)
A few months ago, my spiritual director mentioned, in an offhand kind of way, that magis doesn't just mean "more" in the sense of numbers, or amounts, or other quantifiable possibilities.  It means "more" in the sense of more style, more elan, more flair, more flouish.    Quality, not quantity.
That's how the word "style" made it onto my list of words to accompany "serenity."  It's not that I have an abiding passion for Vogue magazine; I don't. 
But it seems to me, approaching sixty, that magis defined as "flair and flourish," is a laudable approach to life.  In concrete terms, I am unlikely to hike up to a mountaintop with much in the way of energy or finesse these days.  (And in another decade, even less!)  But a bottle of wine and an excellent cheese at the top ~ that would be a way of reaching the summit in style.
This affinity for magis probably explains my preference for hIGH church over low, and for the Cleveland Orchestra over a grubby rock band in a bar.  (Not that I didn't love Led Zeppelin being honored at the Kennedy Center last month ~ rock with style!)
I wonder how it might be applied to nursing home visits, where the battered linoleum floors and limp curtain room dividers cry out for magis.
Or to meetings in which Robert's Rules and the Presbyterian Book of Order prevail.
Or to a life in which, some days, every moment is still a struggle against which Greek pales by comparison.
Worth pondering, I think.
And for the record, I've been writing a sermon, and so I'm sitting in the living room in my pajama bottoms and a long-sleeved t-shirt, contemplating the need to wash my hair.  I have a way to go before style becomes second nature.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I've had reason to think about Josh all morning.  Not that I don't, always and every morning. Theoretically I am putting together a report for tonight's meeting, figuring out a direction for Sunday's sermon, developing a new idea for a retreat that I'm leading in a few weeks, and procrastinating the eventual trip out into the five degree day.

But mostly I'm thinking about Joshie, and looking at pictures.  Herewith, some of which some of you have seen.

In the fall of 2004, with both boys not returning to college until the end of September, there was time for an early fall backcountry canoeing trip with my father and his wife.  She would be diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after the trip, in part because of questions raised that week by her coughing and weakness, but in September, all were full of good cheer as they loaded up in our back yard:

It's cold in Algonquin in September!  I'm not sure how it was that Josh was charged with the task of setting up the tent; maybe Matt was at work on the other one:
Matt, looking prepared:
For a couple of days, the boys left the older folks relaxing at the campsite and headed further into the park on their own.  Josh was evidently in charge of navigation as well, and so they promptly got lost:
Josh, pretending to know where he was going:
Matt, paying the consequences of misadventure, in mud up to his waist
The triumphant return:
It's good to remember when life was really, really wonderful.

Monday, January 21, 2013

60 and Serene ~ Perhaps

I can't claim ever to have attached much significance to milestone birthdays, but I'm most definitely aware of the one bearing down upon me this summer.  (Although I think that what's most unnerving to me is that the next big one will be seventy!)
I've chosen my word for this year, which is as difficult to live into as I had imagined it might be.  I've also been playing around with a few alliterative companions, words which might light the pathway through the next couple of decades.
I harbor no illusions about certainty or control.  The phone could ring at any moment.  Five years ago I was a seminary student, a little startled by the dramatic changes in life that I'd undertaken, but relaxed and confident about the future.  Why ever not?
In those five years, I've earned an M.Div, and a certificate in spiritual direction, been ordained to ministry and begun to pastor a church, developed a small spiritual direction practice, led some retreats and participated in some other events and presentations, seen my three children graduate from college, lost one of them to suicide, and dealt with breast cancer.
When I list it all, I'm somewhat surprised.  To put it mildly. 
No wonder serenity seems a worthwhile objective.
I feel just a tad silly, writing down what I perceive to be the challenges that lie ahead for the next couple of decades.  As I said, the phone could ring at any moment.  But, pretending that it won't, here's what occurs to me:
Family: It will change, and it will never be what I dreamed of for 25 years, as one of the main players is gone.  But the rest of us are still here.  My husband will retire eventually, and then what?  Will my other children marry?  Have families? Continue in the work they've chosen, or make other decisions entirely?  Where will they live?  What about us; will we stay or go?  How will my father's post-80 life proceed?  Will my brother retain his health and energy?
Work: People raise possibilities with me but, on the whole, my major internal task these days is to hunker down, settle in, and do what I do.  Those seminary years were directed toward the future,  filled with uncertainty, and then  completely shattered by Josh's death, and by the strenuous effort required each moment to survive into the next one ~ but the future is here, and I did survive, and now I have to live what lies right before me.  This stage requires a completely different mindset. 
Health: My breast cancer experience, and a bit of a scare some months later, made their point.  Oblivion is no longer an option.  (Or is it, perhaps? ~ said hopefully.)  I'm not thinking so much of health issues themselves, but of how to cope with them.  I came across some reading recently about childhood trauma and its residual effect on adult challenges, which went a long way toward explaining the intensity of the physical pain I experienced last winter, as well as the bewilderment (oh, let's just call it by its name: denial) of the medical professionals involved.  I'd prefer no repeats.
I get it. Life is difficult, and sad, and filled with loss.  And beautiful as well.  Beautiful and terrible.  And time is short.  So, some words:

The final word comes from Mr. Carson, who said a couple of weeks ago, "To misquote Dr. Johnson: If you're tired of style, then you're tired of life."
I was very much disinterested in style ~ in that sense ~  after Josh died.  But now, it's possible that I feel a bit of a resurgence.  A bit of an inclination toward magis.
We'll see.


Sunday, January 20, 2013


Re that sermon yesterday:
I forgot all about serenity!  (My word for the year.)
So I'm posting a serenity picture.
Cedar Key FL, New Year's Eve 2010

Hurtful Sermons

My own sermon is exceptionally particular to my own church this morning, and so I'm not going to post it, as I don't think it would mean much to anyone outside our congregation.

But I will post a bit of a musing about sermons in general.

Yesterday I heard a sermon that offended me on every possible level. 

A friend to whom I described it said that when she has to endure a sermon like that, she silently repeats the Jesus prayer right through it.

I responded that I had been so angry and hurt that I forgot all about Jesus.

An interesting standard.  If your sermon causes your listeners to forget about Jesus, it might be judged a colossal failure.

This morning I find that I'm wondering:  Do I ever do that?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hospice Care for Churches (Part II)

How do you know, and when, and then what do you want?
Big, huge, enormous questions, for individuals and for churches.
After I wrote my first post about hospice and churches, my son and I had a long conversation, most of it based on my personal conviction that I am likely to choose hospice care over medical treatment for say, stage IV cancer.
"But where do you draw the line?" he asked.  When you toss survival rates, debilitation and side-effects, anticipated events such as a graduation or the birth of a grandchild, your own desires in terms of both longevity and "quality of life," and whatever fears you may harbor of suffering and death, where do you draw the line?
I find that, absent specifics, I have no idea.  One friend tells me about another friend of hers who has been living with stage IV breast cancer for years; she accepts treatment periodically to hold it at bay, but otherwise she lives and works and enjoys -- onward!  Another friend of mine tells me about another friend of hers who is similarly diagnosed and has elected to proceed no further with treatment.  She appears, at the moment, I am told, as healthy as either of those of us discussing her -- but she is looking at a very short time frame.  And of course, like everyone else, I know countless people whose stage IV diagnosis has been followed by months, or perhaps just weeks, of surgeries and chemo and radiation and then, mercifully, given the ravaged body that is left, death.
I envision myself going from the doctor's office to the hospice center, learning in detail about all my options, and then buying our family's tickets for Arizona (we've never been to the Grand Canyon), Paris (Chartres just once more, please) and Florida.  If I had my druthers, I'd die after having settled myself in a beach chair at the edge of the water as the St. Augustine tide ran out. If I outlasted my plans?  Well, my own living room is quite nice, and the main residential hospice here has rooms with spectacular views of Lake Erie. I'd give away some stuff and some spiritual direction time, designate the recipients of what little money I have, and leave a blog filled with writing about and photographs of my final months (weeks?).
Idle dreams, perhaps? 
The thing is, I really would prefer to die with some attention to the process, some awareness of reality, and with a view of a large large large body of water.  
What does this have to do with a church with a dwindling congregation?
All the same questions:
Where do you draw the line?
How do you pay attention?  (Linda Loman: "Attention must be paid!"*  Well, yes, but how much and when and to what, exactly?)
How do you make changes, and what are they -- so that the life you have left, no longer to be the one you might have intended, remains full and rich and giving and loving and filled with light?
What do you do with your money?  Your resources?  Do you direct them all to self-maintenance, or do you offer them to something new, something different, something unknown?
What view do you choose?  Pastel walls and IVs and an impressive array of life support technology, or the wide open ocean that promises something beyond?  The church windows that you have loved and cared for, or the world out there whose needs call to you?
I don't know I don't know I don't know.
*Willy Loman's wife, speaking of her husband in Death of a Salesman.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I've been meaning to share the following, written by my friend Karen, for quite some time, and today I'm feeling the need.
Karen and I have both lost children -- she, a daughter, to cancer, and me, a son, to suicide.  And we've both bumped up against what she terms "a dark theology" in the church.  Actually, it's a pretty standard theology, which a lot of people find reassuring with a confidence that remains a complete mystery to me.  I suppose that there's something to be said for believing that God's justice includes eternal damnation and will prevail -- if you presume that you and your loved ones will escape its rather more negative consequences -- although why anyone would presume that he or she would be among those who gain eternal life as opposed to others, I have no idea at all.  Or why anyone would want to believe that.  Do people really think it's ok that their neighbors and colleagues might be "left behind"?   More to the point, do they really think that it would be ok with God?  Really?
Anyway, Karen had an experience in a Bible study with viewpoints which I frequently encounter. A dark understanding of an eternity in which people are always sheep and goats, and never "shoats," and in which the outcome for the goats is wearily predictable and grim.   These encounters generally leave me in a depressed state of mind, and I suppose I'm having an attack of that this week.  I'll let her speak, as she's far more eloquent than I:
"I’ve been wondering about the concept of hell lately, probably because of the time I spent in this church, listening to their views.
Those of us who feel we’ve already seen hell, or lived there, seem to have no need to create or believe in another, later-destination version of it. Those who have experienced hell seem to want to bring heaven to earth as much as possible, with love, kindness, ministry, compassion, forgiveness, healing and tenderness. Those who speak and express the most concern about hell (as a place one might go after death) make me wonder if they really live in daily fear of it – and wonder if they’ve ever truly suffered here in this life, or are simply braced against it.
In my opinion, if you’ve already been there, hell is no longer an intellectual construct, a doctrine or a place to be sent after death, but a reality of this broken world that cries out for redeeming, here and now. It is illness, decay, depression, death, the suffering of mankind…what could be more hellish than those?
I wonder if we aren’t actually called – each one of us – to “go to hell” here in this life, and to come out of it with a heart transformed. That seems to be one way of looking at the Paschal pattern. To be frank, it’s one of the only ways that I can make sense of the past six years of my life.
I love God deeply, but experience has made me a bit wary of what He allows, as the price is so very high – it’s everything! (Yes, I am mid-life, flawed, and still not totally surrendered to Him.) Yet what other option and relationship do we have? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” He is the One – the Way, the Truth, the Life, the great source of Love – our Creator.
I truly desire to serve Him and participate in His work of love in this world; it’s the only life worth living anymore. I prefer to see it as bringing a bit of His kingdom – heaven – into the present time and place, rather than fearing a possible hell in the future."

Image: Detail from  Michaelangelo's Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Just for Fun

I am inundated by church bureaucracy and by too much in general.  A lot of it Very Serious Stuff.  And I want to get back to my posts on the church. 
But: No time.
So for now, a New Year's present that arrived a couple of days ago
from a friend!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Claimed and Called: Beloved - Sermon(Isaiah and Luke)

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, which means that we also celebrate our own baptisms in Christ.  And  there are basically three things I want you to know about baptism, about Jesus’ baptism and about your own:
You are called by God –

                Your identity comes from God –

                                You are named by God --

That, in a nutshell, is the Christian life.
You are called by God.  What’s that mean? 
It means that God is the one who initiates our relationship with him.  God is the one who gets things started.  God is the one who creates us, who continually re-creates and renews us.  God knows us, God loves us, God redeems us through God’s Son, and God fills us with light and life through God’s Spirit.    That’s what it means to be called by God.
If your childhood was anything like mine, you had a lot of freedom.  It’s more difficult today; we are much more alert to danger, and many children – mine were included in this – are much more restricted in how and where they’re allowed to go without supervision.  But back in the fifties, in rural Ohio, the world was ours.  Once we had bikes and reached the age of about ten, my brothers and I were free to roam wherever we pleased.  (Perhaps we would not have been quite so free had our parents known just how far afield we went.)
And what was the one thing that reined us in?  It was the voice of a mother or father, calling across the fields or, in the city, down the block, calling us back for dinnertime or bedtime. 
W didn’t have to do or be anything in particular to be called home.  We didn’t have to have been good – in fact, sometimes we hadn’t been good at all.  We didn’t have to be clean, or well dressed – in fact, we almost never were.  We didn’t have to want or ask to come home – in fact, we were seldom paying any attention to the time, and we usually wanted to keep on with whatever it was we were doing.  And we didn’t have to bring anything with us – not a good report card, or a freshly caught fish, or money, or any other form of achievement or contribution – to be called in for dinner or a bath. 
We were called because we were part of the family.  Because we were loved.  Because we were wanted.
So it is with God.  God calls us and claims us as pure, free gift.  And our baptism is the sign and seal on that very simple and very profound reality.
Oh, we might do a lot of things in response that make it look like it was all our idea.  We might, for instance, think that we need to get all shined up in our best clothes in order to be baptized – but it’s baptism that makes us clean and shiny.  When we welcome Jesus into our hearts and our lives, we are able to do so because he was already there; he creates in us the inclination to open our lives to him,  and it’s his presence in us that causes us to long to greet him.  We might think that we need to do or be or achieve a certain something in order for God to call us– but no.  Our parents right here call us because we are part of the family, because we are loved and wanted – and how much wider and deeper and broader is God’s love for us!  We get things backward sometimes –  but in God’s scheme of things, we want to do and be and achieve for God because God loves us and saves us, not in order to get God to love us and save us.

“I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.”   So the prophet Isaiah tells us.  “I have created you; I have formed you; you are precious in my sight and I love you.”  God’s redemption, God’s call, God’s love – all free gift.  You are called. 
And you are given your identity by God – what does that mean to us?
That might be harder to grasp than it sounds.
We are accustomed to understanding our identity as coming from the sources of this world.  We get our names  from our families.  In our culture, our last names usually come from fathers and husbands – and those names themselves come from occupations and places by which people were identified many centuries ago: the smith, the barber, the miller, the hill.  Our first and middle names are chosen for us by our parents, and often reflect people or places or things meaningful to them.  Think of all those early Puritan names reflecting virtues: Charity, Hope, Prudence.
Sometimes we receive identities in the form of nicknames – for good or ill.  And sometimes we are identified by others in terms of what we do, or where we live: She’s a nurse; he lives in Sullivan.
How often do we remember that our first and most important identity comes to us from God?  That it is God who claims us long before our jobs do, or our friends, or even our parents?
Teenagers often speak of the need “to find themselves.”  Literature is filled with stories of individuals who set off on journeys, seeking, ultimately, to discover who they are.  Even if these heroes and heroines did not initially intend it, their journeys become opportunities for the formation and establishment of identity.  Think of The Hobbit – has anyone seen it yet, or read the novel? Bilbo Baggins sets off to seek treasure guarded by a dragon, and in the adventure quest that follows, he is honed and matured into a man of experience and wisdom.  Even if the journey of self-discovery itself is a matter of compulsion rather than choice, we understand identity to be developed through its trials.  In The Hunger Games, the heroine Katniss, forced to engage in almost unspeakable violence in order to survive, grows as a woman of courage and loyalty and self-sacrifice.
And yet, our Christian story tells us that even the identities forged in these demanding, challenging, risky journeys are not our ultimate source of identity.  The poet T.S. Elliot, in “Little Gidding,” one of a group of great poems addressing issues of time and salvation, tells us that

"With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

The end of our exploring, of the lengthy and arduous journey we make, will be a recognition of our starting place, and our starting self – because our identity, because who we are, is a gift bestowed upon each of us by God – long before we ever journeyed forth.  “You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you” – so expounds the prophet Isaiah.  “You are my Son” – so comes the voice of the Spirit as Jesus rises from the waters of baptism and the heavens open above him.   
We are called by God, and we are given our identity by God – and that identity, that name, that calling is – Beloved.  Each of us is named Beloved.  Each of us is a beloved child of God.  “You are my Son, the Beloved” – those are the words relayed to us by Luke, the Spirit’s words to Jesus, and the Spirit’s words to us.
What is it, to be beloved of God?  To be beloved is to be gifted with love, by love – and for love.  To be beloved – it’s an interesting form of the word, for it’s a past participle, which means that it refers to a completed action.  If we are beloved: it’s completed, finished, achieved – by someone else, by God.  We don’t have to do or be anything else to be beloved by God.   We don’t have to choose God – God has chosen us.  We don’t have to check off a list of requirements or accomplishments – there’s no Scouting badge or report card for God’s love.  God’s love has already been given to us.
When we baptize someone, whether a baby or a child or an adult, we use the person’s first names – and not their last – because we know that their last name has been given to them:  Beloved child of God.  Our calling, our identity, our very name, is a completed reality, and has been since before we were born.  The God who, as Psalm 139 tells us, created our innermost beings and knit us together in our mother’s wombs, has always, from the time we were first imagined, claimed us, called us, and named us Beloved. 
This is a magnificent faith – itself a gift – that we are God’s beloved.  We sometimes take it for granted, I think.  We forget that in past times – think about the pantheon, the cluster, of Greek and Roman gods, for instance --people have imagined gods of vengeance, of petulance, of arbitrary claims and gifts.  Sometimes those gods are generous and kind; at other times they are selfish and capricious.  Gods made in the image of human beings, rather than vice versa.
But the God we know – ours is a God who drenches the universe in love.  Ours is a God whose Spirit’s first recorded words to the Son who represents God to us and us to God are “You are beloved.  My beloved.  My beloved child.” 
Ours is a God who tells us from the start, You are gifted by love, in love, and for love.  Ours is a God who offers us an identity in Baptism: Beloved Child.   Theologian John Leith tells us that “[i]n baptism the child’s name is called because our faith is that God thought of this child before the child was,  that God gave to this child an identity, an individuality, a name, and a dignity that no one  should dare abuse.  Human existence has its origin  . . . in the will and the intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth.”
And so: this love-crazed God of ours who creates this love-drenched universe tells Jesus, as he is about to step out onto the world stage of his ministry, and tells us, who follow him and are called to the same world, bathed in the love of God and begging for us to make that love known by our own words and deeds:  You are called.  You are named.  You are beloved.