Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sight for the Journey (Sermon - John)

(Reading of John 9:1-7)
Don't we so often look for someone to blame when something goes wrong?  Human nature, right?  There must be a reason, and the reason must be that someone is at fault. 
No sooner had that mudslide in Washington occurred last week than reporters were quoting  experts who claimed that people had been warned of the hazards of living on that mountainside.  It must be someone's fault that so many people have been killed.
And when someone gets into trouble?  Especially a teenager?  How often do people say,
"Those parents . . . ". Or, "What's going on in that house?"  There must be a responsible party at fault, right?  If we could just drag all the parents of kids in trouble into juvenile court, we could solve our youth problems.
In the ancient world, illness or disability had to be someone's fault.  The nameless man in our story has been blind from birth, and so, "Who?" ask the neighbors.  "Him?  Or his parents?  Who is at fault?"  When a child is born blind, who is to blame?
We understand this, don't we?  We who think of ourselves as oh, so sophisticated -- we ask
the same questions when something goes horribly wrong.  What did I do wrong?  A natural
disaster – what did I fail to take into account?  A family problem – was I not paying attention? An illness – couldn’t I have prevented this?
What did I fail to see? That’s what we ask ourselves.  Instinctively, we know that literal sight, even if we score 20/20 in the opthamologist’s  office is not enough.  We need to look with  our hearts and minds as well as with our eyes, and we know that we don’t always do so well. And so we stick to the literal, and try to find someone or something to blame.
(Reading of John 1:8-12)
Do we expect the ordinary to be transformative?
Do we expect people to be changed by the ordinary?
Do we expect ourselves to be changed by the ordinary?
It's a strange story, isn't it?  Jesus uses mud, spit, and water to give sight to a blind man.  Jesus has already dismissed the question of whether the man or his parents sinned.  He has said that the man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. 
That might not sit so well with us.  Would God really make a child born blind for the purpose of revealing God’s glory through a miracle later on?  Doesn’t that seem a bit – well, mercurial and unfair and even harsh of God?  What about the years of health that the man missed out on?
Maybe that’s not what Jesus means.  Maybe Jesus doesn’t mean that God sets out to damage some of us in ways that will require God’s intervention for healing to take place.
Maybe what he means is this: That no matter how we are born or how we live, no matter our limitations, or apparent lack of limitations, we are all, every one of us, called into partnership with God so that God’s works, God’s goodness, might be revealed. We all need God’s intervention.  This man is no different from any other man or woman or child: he was born so that God’s works might be revealed through him.
And how are God's works revealed? In this case, and in others? 
Not through a dramatic surgery in a major medical center in Jerusalem.
Not through a miracle breakthrough in medications discovered in a laboratory on Mount Sinai.
Not through the power of a great force of nature -- thunder, lightning, fire.
But through mud, spit, and a bath.
Sight for our earthly journey, which might or might not be literal, physical sight, is given us in and through the ordinary.  Great gifts come in the smallest and most everyday materials and activities of life.
I’ve been reading a novel entitled The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge, and at one point the main character, Lucilla, whose life has been fraught with losses and other difficulties, muses that life is very difficult, and that we must learn to see and appreciate the small, everyday wonders if we are going to make it: a newly-blooming flower, the sound of the wind, the warmth of the sun.  In her life, the gift of healing comes through the ordinary.  In our story today, Jesus heals, unexpectedly and surprisingly, through the ordinary.  In our own lives, healing often comes through the daily, the mundane.  Mud, spit, water. 
(Reading of John 9:13-17)\
How do we respond?  When a calamity turns out to be no one’s fault, and then is resolved? When new sight brings new possibilities? When new sight comes to us in unexpected ways at inappropriate times via unfamiliar people? 
Do we respond in joy?  Do we understand that God might be at work?  That a person’s difficulties resolved might be a source of the revelation of God?
Or are we a bit uncomfortable?  Hesitant? Anxious?  Too much unexpected change, too much for us to take in?
The people who know this man?  They don't know what to make of this situation.  A complete healing, a healing by mud and spit, effected by this new rabbi in their midst, and on the Sabbath, no less.  A healing that should not be happening at all, accomplished with the most ordinary of materials, on a day when no work is to be done.
What do they do? They call in the experts.
They call in the Pharisees.
And the Pharisees, it seems, are sighted people of limited vision.  Trapped by their adherence to Sabbath rules and regulations, they are bewildered by this man who ignores the rules upon which they depend and heals in the most unusual of ways on a day on which he should be worshipping in the synagogue. They know how life is supposed to proceed, but what they see now is not at all what they are supposed to be seeing.
What kind of sight do we need, we who profess to follow Jesus?  What kind of sight do we need for our Lenten journey?  Surely sight which limits its range to that which we already know – it’s is not enough. And most definitely sight which overlooks the full range of possibilities inherent in the ordinary – it’s inadequate. 
The experts, those who represent power and authority, do not necessarily exercise the sight we need to acquire in order to see our lives as Jesus sees them.
The man himself?  He knows.  He knows that his life is designed to reveal the goodness of God. He says, simply, that Jesus "is a prophet." 
(Reading of John 9:18-34)
The people, the neighbors and friends of this man, are not been reassured by the Pharisees' indecision.  They conclude that the man is lying!  He must not have been born blind.
And so they try to pull his parents into the discussion, wanting to know whether the man has
always been blind.  The parents have to admit that he has been, but beyond that they will not go.  The Pharisees suffer the limited sight of the rule-bound;  the parents suffer the limited sight of the fearful.  They don't want to be thrown out of their synagogue, and so they say: "Ask our son what happened.  We have nothing to say on the matter."

And we understand those parents, don't we?  Haven't we all been guilty of hiding out, of not wanting to speak up, of hoping that people will forget about us before we have to tell the truth?  We don’t want to lose our place in our community – what if we were asked about something we didn’t want to reveal? We just might say, “Ask someone else.” 

Look at all these people who can’t see what’s happened: neighbors, friends, Pharisees, parents. . .  no wonder this story is so long!  It’s chock full of people who can see, but don’t.  They are so blind that they thrust the healed man from their midst.

Who is the one person wiling to see and to say the truth here?

It's the man himself.  The man who has experienced a literal transformation -- complete healing – by ordinary means, by mud and spit and water. The man who has experienced a spiritual transformation -- enlarged vision -- by an extraordinary encounter, with the Son of God himself.

Transformation breeds confidence -- trust – and awe. That’s why the man is able to speak out where others tremble.  Those characteristics – confidence, and trust, and awe -- are the hallmarks of true vision -- and true vision is the result of genuine sight.  It's that genuine sort of sight that we need to journey onward.  Not merely the sight that will enable us to see the road, to find food, to converse easily others.  But the sight that makes of us people of vision: people confident and trusting and filled with awe when we encounter Jesus --  in the ordinary.

People able to reveal the works of God through our own ordinary lives.  This is what we are designed to do: to reveal the goodness and love of God, however it is that we were born.

We are all blind in some way, all unable to see clearly, until Jesus offers us healing – through ordinary means.  Maybe not with mud and spit, but maybe through the caring of friends, or the satisfactions of work, or the beauty of nature. And when Jesus offers us healing and our sight is restored, we receive the gift of vision.  Vision that enables us to see Jesus among us, and to reveal him to others through our own lives of confident faith and awe-filled reverence. 

(Reading of John 9:35-41)

Of course, change, transformation -- they do not come merely from the ordinary. 

They came from Jesus himself, laboring among the ordinary.

Change and transformation do not come easily to the fearful, to those bound to the past.

They come to those who embrace their experience of God, those who embrace it with
confidence, trust, and awe.

What is the sight we ourselves need?

If we see only as we have in the past, if we allow ourselves to be trapped by what was, we will be blind to the new creation, to the Kingdom of God among us in the form of Jesus Christ.  Our journey will be for naught; we might as well have stayed at home.

But if we are open to the healing of our blindnesses, if we can let our limitations be eroded, if we can allow Jesus to take action in our lives, using the ordinary stuff of which they are made, if we can but let him change us into people who see -- then we may become women and men of vision, those who see the Light of the World offering us a Kingdom.

We may truly become a church on the move, a pilgrim people sent into the world to walk, as our own vision statement says, together in the love of Jesus, sharing the good news of God’s love for all – if we rejoice in the vision Jesus offers. Let’s not get bogged down in the past, in rules, in fearfulness, in limitation.  Our lives are designed to reveal his the love of God, but we need the clear sight and enlarged vision Jesus offers. We are called to embrace the abundance and love of Christ’s healing vision, and to let our lives show it to the world. Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Water for the Journey (Sermon: Exodus and John)

(Play the opening of Wade In the Water)
This song, Wade in the Water, has been stirring up my thoughts all week as I’ve pondered our two texts for this morning.  God tells Moses to strike a rock from which water will gush forth for the wandering, thirsty, and complaining Israelites.  Jesus tells the woman at the well that he has water to offer which will gush forth into new life for all peoples.  And this song tells us that “God’s gonna trouble the waters.”
I learned this song, Wade in the Water, at my daughter’s graduation from Willamette University, a small school in Oregon. That year an honorary agree was awarded to Bernice Johnson Reagon, a history professor, social activist, and founded of the African-American women’s a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.  In her speech to the graduates, Dr. Reagon urged them to go out into the world and “trouble the waters” -- stir things up, bring their gifts to bear on the many needs of our world.  She also, in the middle of that academic afternoon of long speeches, sang Wade In the Water – and stole the whole show.  By far the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard!
The song makes several references to that great story of Hebrew liberation, the story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. “Looks like the band that Moses led -- God's a-going to trouble the water.”  When we meet them today, the Israelites are in the midst of their long desert sojourn, and they are furious at Moses.  “Why did you bring us out here, to kill us?” they rage at him.  Egypt is looking pretty good at that moment, and they are ready to trade freedom for a roof and a cup of water.  Stuck in the desert, they take their anger out on Moses, who begs God to intervene.  And God does, instructing Moses on how obtain water from the rock.  Where God is, water is often transformed.  Water often becomes a sign of God’s movement among us, and of our movement out into the lives into which we are called.
The woman at the well?  Another story of God’s movement among us, and of God sending us into new lives.  This woman seems to have nothing going for her as the narrative begins.  She’s a Samaritan, a member of a population reviled by the Jews.  She’s had five husbands and has a new companion – a biographical detail that has caused a number of judgmental comments against her – but we have no idea why she’s had five husbands.  Divorce?  Widowhood?  Violence?  Family pressure?  What we do know is that she’s had to start over six times, and that by now she must be disappointed, weary, and worn down by hopes dashed, over and over again.  She’s also alone, isolated from others – by herself at the well in midday instead of part of an early morning communal gathering.
And yet – Jesus engages her.  She’s of the wrong culture and the wrong gender for this conversation – Jews did not interact with Samaritans, and Jewish men did not interact with women to whom they were not married.  He breaks all the rules, and with his words, he changes her understanding of life – changes it so much that she – what does she do? 
Now here I have a confession to make.  This story of is great personal significance to me, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but it’s also a story to which my attention has been drawn in rather humorous circumstances:
You probably know that we Presbyterian pastors are all required to study Hebrew and Greek in seminary. And let me tell you: Greek was not one of my strengths in school!  I really had to work at that language – there is nothing about it that comes naturally to me. 
On our final exam, we were presented with a lengthy passage to translate.  I couldn’t make head nor tail of that passage, so I started looking around for words I recognized.  The first one I came up with was pente.  You would know it, too, once you could read the Greek alphabet, for of course pente means five.  The next word I figured out was andras, which means men.  Hmmm, I thought.  Five men.  Where are there five men in the NT?  Then I remembered that andras can also mean husbands – five husbands! Finally!  I knew what the passage was, and I could go back and figure the rest of it out -- with one exception.
Toward the end of the passage, the woman is so excited that she goes back to town to tell everyone about her encounter with Jesus, but first she does something.  She does something with her water jar – and I could not figure out what that verb was.  What did she do?  The verb [aph-y-e-mi, a mi verb] is one of a series of difficult verbs with many different forms, and as I looked at my test paper, I simply had no idea which one it was.  So I thought: She came to the well to get water; the logical thing for her to have done, then, would be to have picked up her water jar and returned to the city. So that’s what I wrote: “She picked up her jar and returned to the city.
Wrong!   “Robin,” my long-suffering professor groaned after the test, “the verb is left.  Left behind.  She is so excited that she leaves her water jar behind!”
Of course.  How did I not know that?  (And I’ve never forgotten it since!  I don’t remember the Greek verb at all, but I do remember that the woman at the well leaves her jar behind.)  She is so excited by the living water that she does something completely out of character, completely out of her usual routine: she leaves her work and goes off to tell people about her encounter with Jesus.  She wants them to know that the water for the journey of life is here -- and it's not literal water; it's the messiah, the anointed one, the savior of the world whose spirit infiltrates her life.
Why should I have known that? (Even if the vocabulary was beyond me.) 
The story of the woman at the well is one which I see as my own.  Some time ago, I was engaged in a year-long experience of prayer, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a year in which I spent hours each week meditating on and contemplating many Scriptural passages.  When I reached the story of the woman at the well, it reached out and grabbed me – spoke to me in a way much more intimately personal than many other stories had.  I recognized that woman.  I hadn’t been married five times, but I had experienced many other kinds of disappointments in life, and her tired and frustrated – and mystified – questioning of Jesus rang true to me.
How is it that you ask a drink of me?  Where do you get that living water?  Who are you, anyway?
What I came to understand, after spending a week or so with her story, was something that I often share with you: the story of Scripture becomes our story, and the stories of our lives become the stories of Scripture.    The water that God has to offer the Israelites and the water that Jesus offers the woman at the well -- this is water that expands life.  This is water that enlarges who we are and what we are called to be.  This is the water of the Spirit, water that fills us with energy and hope. This is living water, water that gushes up into new and eternal life. 
No wonder the woman at the well left her jar behind.  News so unexpected, so startling, so filled with possibility and with love – of course she had to run back to town to tell others.
God doesn’t pour water from a rock so that our own thirst might be quenched.  Jesus does not offer a drink of living water merely for our own personal needs.  No – God troubles the waters.  God offers us water so that we might share it with others, splash it around, drench the entire world in God’s love. 
My invitation to you this week is that you ask yourselves: Where in your lives have you sensed a direct encounter with God?  With Jesus?  With the Spirit?
Where has Jesus unexpectedly offered you water?
Where has God troubled the waters of your own life -- sent you out to be someone new, to proclaim God's goodness, through words or through your acts of service to others?
You might have to give this matter some thought.  My guess is that you were not wandering around in the Sinai desert, or sitting at a well in the city of Sychar.  My guess is that the offer of living water has come to you in the form of a conversation, or maybe in a moment in a sacred place.  Maybe in music, in the form of help or encouragement from a friend.
Last week, one of you shared a song with me, a song that she loves, and a story of calling a friend and singing the song to her over the telephone.  That was a woman at the well moment: she was filled with the spirit of God, with the living water that gushes out of God’s love, and needed to tell someone.  She left behind her water jar, the ordinary reticence that might have prevented her even from humming  a tune in the hallway, and burst into song.
What about you?  Are you paying attention?  Are you noticing when Jesus walks into your life to ask for a drink and then turns the encounter around to offer water to you?  Are you paying attention when God troubles the waters of your own life, and invites you to share what you’ve been given with others?
We need water on this Lenten journey of ours, and here it is: the living water of Jesus Christ, the water that quenches thirst forever, the well from which you are invited to drink and the water you are invited to pour all over the place, everywhere you go.  Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2014


I posted this as a Throwback Thursday photo on FB this week, and thought I'd add something here.
My sister Kathy and I think that this was probably an Easter 1963 photo, which would mean that it was taken a month or two after her parents divorced and her mom and my dad, a widower for two years, got married.  Her mother and two youngest brothers moved to Ohio, leaving her and one other younger brother in Florida with their dad.
If we're right, then: across the page we kids are 7, 9, 4, and 9. Plus two turtles and one basset hound.
A friend from those days commented on FB: "Fun times!"
Really, not so much.
We kids did forge a great alliance, eventually.  But I think that that spring we were stunned and reeling in  shock to find our families thus reconfigured.

Trips! (Friday Five)

"Last week and this week, I am driving long distances in Texas, first to Houston and today to Austin from Corpus Christi: both times to meet relatives from Canada flying here. This makes me think of trips taken in my life: vacation, moving, visiting relatives, visiting friends, seeking a new home, going away to school, and probably many more.
For today’s Friday Five, tell about five different trips you have made in your life due to different reasons, modes of travel, or whatever category you choose!
Happy and safe travels!"

So many trips . . .
Five favorites:
My grandmother always wanted to travel.  My grandfather would not board planes or boats.  Eventually, my grandmother found a solution: she would travel with her grandchildren.  As the eldest, I received the first invitation: five days in Williamsburg, when I was in fifth grade, reached by overnight train from Cincinnati.  Over the next several years, she would take me out west and to Europe, my brother to Africa, and various cousins to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  But honestly, much as I love to travel, one of my favorite travel memories involves standing in my grandmother's dining room and opening the elegant envelope which contained her handwritten note requesting the pleasure of my company in Williamsburg!
One or my favorite family trips was our own jaunt out west, to the Tetons and Yellowstone, a near-replica of the journey I had made with my grandmother decades earlier.  We went with another family; the son was Josh's best friend.  Upsides: the scenery, the nights in grand lodges,  the hikes and the horseback riding.  Downside: a couple of days of freezing drizzle, days we spent on horses and in a raft ~ weather which I was assured they had not seen in Yellowstone in August for 25 years!  Great success: I introduced a curious Ben, age 12, to birding.  Today he is finishing his Ph.D. in ecology at Chicago, has traveled the world himself as an ornithologist, and has, with a group of colleagues, published a finding of a new Peruvian species!  I take full credit for his career, which began on a trail on a sunny morning in the Grand Tetons.
In 2000, we took a family trip to Italy.  We thought we might have one international trip in us, and Italy was our children's choice of destination.  Among favorite moments: standing outside the Colosseum in Rome, trying to figure out how to get back to our hotel, and Matt saying, "How can we possibly be lost?  We are standing in one of the best-known places on the globe!"  The entire week was marvelous, but we especially loved the Cinque Terre.  And Pompeii, which had held a major spot in my imagination since the National Geographic article when I was a child, and is the setting for the stories in the kids' middle school Latin textbook.
It turned out that we were to spend another ten family days in Europe ~ Christmas in France when the boys were in 11th grade and Josh spent the year there.  In Rennes, we got to know his French family a bit; in Paris, we made it to a concert of Gregorian chant in Notre Dame.  The joy of that trip was watching Josh, by that time reasonably fluent in conversational French and entirely comfortable with life in a new country.
Only one more?  I think I'll choose Prince Edward Island, where my daughter and I went for her high school graduation trip.  A dream destination: home to Anne of Green Gables, lovely little harbor towns, beautiful beaches and dunes, and a seemingly endless stream of lighthouses.  We quickly developed an affinity for evening drives in search of sunsets over the water.  Best of all, of course, was the uninterrupted time with my beautiful girl, who is an excellent companion in all circumstances.  It was an opportunity to replay my times with my grandmother in reverse!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Night Journey (Sermon ~ John 3)

Several years ago, a group from my home church, Forest Hill, went on pilgrimage to Iona, which is a very small – about three miles long and a mile across – and remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland.  It’s nice to be able to mention Iona during this Lenten season in which we are focusing on the pilgrimage journey, because Iona has been a pilgrimage destination for at least several decades.  It was first inhabited by Christians in the 500s, when St. Columba of Ireland made his way across the sea, landed, and decided to establish a monastery there. Eventually other monks and nuns arrived, and one of the finest libraries in Europe was established on Iona.  It was always a risky sort of place, overrun by Vikings several times and eventually, I am sorry to say, by Protestant reformers, who destroyed the library in the 1500s.  Today Iona is home to a small – very small – village, to farmers and shepherds, and to a restored church which serves as a central gathering place for a worldwide religious community and the home of an extensive summer program.  You know of Iona whether you realize it or not, because we sing songs, such as “The Summons”  (“Will You Come and Follow Me?) which were written by John Bell, a member of the Iona community.
Anyway, a group of us went off to Iona for a week, and one night we went to an evening of Scottish music and dancing. I found that I was more in the mood for solitude than for music and dancing that night, and so after an hour or so I decided to walk back across the island.  It was very late, and very dark – finally!  Iona is so far north that there are few hours of real darkness during the summer months – and as I walked down a road that ran between extensive fields, I heard a raspy, insect-like call: first here, and then there, and then over there a ways.
I knew exactly what was making that call.  The call I heard was the call of a corn crake, a medium sized-quail like bird, a very secretive bird that runs around at night in fields of vegetation high enough to provide it with cover.  We don’t have corn crakes here, but they are common in western Scotland.  I knew that I was unlikely to see one, but I had hoped to hear one on Iona – and there they were, definitely several of them, calling back and forth as they scuttled about the otherwise silent midnight fields. I wish I could replicate their odd raspy call for you, but I’ll spare you – and tell you that if you go to youtube and search the words corn crake, you can see and hear them, for yourselves.
Now, what does a corn crake have to do with anything today?  We are here today to talk about Nicodemus, who most likely never heard a corn crake.  But Nicodemus did make a famous night journey, a journey out to see Jesus in the dark of night. 
What is it about the night that’s significant?
We often hear about Nicodemus in somewhat disparaging terms.  We hear that he was a leader of the Jews – someone in charge, probably well known around town, and with a reputation as a scholar and as an authority in the community – who slipped out in the night to meet Jesus.  He was curious, apparently, and intrigued by this teacher and miracle worker who was new on the scene – but he didn’t want anyone to known that he might be taking Jesus seriously.   So he went out when he was unlikely to run into anyone.  A well-meaning kind of person, but not a bold one.  That’s what we usually hear.
And maybe that’s all true.  But I’d like to suggest to you that there may be another dimension to our friend Nicodemus, another reason for his journey through the night.
Night is a time, isn’t it? -- when we are particularly attentive to our surroundings.  In the dark, we need to look closely as to where we’re going in order that we not stumble.  We tend to listen carefully to the sounds we hear, and often we are out at night with the intention of seeing and doing and hearing things we can’t see and do and hear during the day.   Corn crakes, for instance – the only way you are likely to hear a corn crake is to spend time out in the fields late at night in corn crake country. 
The  song  “The Music of the Night” from the musical The Phantom of the Opera begins with the following words:
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

Don’t the words describe precisely what it’s like to be out in the night?
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .
Consider other night journeys:
When I was a little girl, living out in the country, many of the hide-and-seek games my brothers and I played required the dark of night as a setting.  We had several acres in which to make small journeys and secret ourselves from one another, and the darkness certainly heightened our awareness of the sounds of night birds, of the rippling waters of the creek, of the breeze through the trees and tall grasses. 
Far from our ordinary lives in southern Ohio, a famous night journey is found in the Islamic tradition, a journey in which the prophet Muhammed is reputed to have been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on a large white animal, usually imagined as a horse.  On that journey, the story tells us, he met Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many other figures significant to Judaism, Christianity, and, of course, Islam.  He returned to Mecca to tell his followers of his travels, travels in which it surely seems that “darkness stirred and awakened his imagination.”  His night journey is often celebrated in the Muslim tradition – and surely there is something about the night that adds to the sense of its significance.  Events, conversations, encounters, symbols: they stand out in the night.
Darkness, night, is also a time when struggles seem heightened.  In our ordinary lives, don’t we often find that our questions loom larger, our doubts seem sharper, our worries more confounding, in the dark than in the light of day.  And again, to move onto the broader stage, think of Harriet Tubman, guiding hundreds of slaves north to freedom by the dark of night.  While nighttime was her only choice for adequate concealment, don’t you think that the night must have also “heightened each sensation” for those traveling north?   I imagine that those making that journey must have felt both intense fear about what would happen to them if they were discovered, intense hope for the possibilities that lay ahead, and intense awe at the spread of stars in the sky that served as guideposts for them.
And so: Nicodemus.  What is he doing out at night, looking for Jesus?  Maybe he really did feel that it was important that he remain undetected.  Maybe he was convinced that he would lose his position and influence if his friends and colleagues discovered him in conversation with the rabbi from Nazareth – but his motivation doesn’t alter the reality:
Night journeys are different.
Night journeys have the potential to transform us at least in part because they take place at night, because the darkness and the silence and the absence of our daily companions enable everything we encounter to be thrown into sharp relief.  We see differently at night, and we hear differently at night.  We learn differently at night.
And Nicodemus had a lot to learn.
This interchange, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, is packed with some of the most significant, and also most confusing, claims of our faith.  We could spend weeks on Nicodemus, couldn’t we?  What do all those signs, those miracles Jesus has been performing really mean?  What does it mean to be born from above?  What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?  What does it mean that the Spirit blows where it will?
What a struggle this conversation must have been for Nicodemus! In one of her poems in the volume Red Bird, the poet Mary Oliver says,
All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties . . .

“The rough ground of uncertainties.”  That’s where Nicodemus is treading in his conversation with Jesus: all night, his heart makes its way over the tough ground of uncertainties.  The things he is hearing are not the things her has heard before.  They are not the things upon which he has staked his life as a leader among his people. How is he ever going to sort of all this out in the light of day?
But – and here’s what I want you to remember: It’s night.  And in the night we hear things differently.  The final words Nicodemus hears are words many of us have heard again and again and again, words that have even become commonplace to us as banners at football games.  But for this moment, I want you to imagine hearing them for the first time, in the dark of the night, in the midst of all of your struggles and questions, as clear as the call of a corn crake across the fields of Scotland:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
In the dark, in the night, Nicodemus is beginning the journey toward being born from above.  In the dark, in the night, the Spirit is blowing its way into the life of Nicodemus.
Maybe Nicodemus only thinks he is making night journey because he wants to avoid his friends and neighbors.  Maybe he’s really making a night journey because God has drawn him into a time and place in which he will be completely undistracted, in which his attention will be entirely focused on the man whom he seeks, a time and a place in which he will be transformed.
Let’s return to words from The Music of the Night:
Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar
And you'll live as you've never lived before . . .
Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world
Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before . . .

A new world; a new way of living; a new creation: that’s what Jesus is offering, and promising, to Nicodemus and to us.  A creation in which we do not perish, but have eternal life.  A sphere of rich, full joyous life in which we are not condemned but saved, by love and for love.
Sometimes we can’t see any of that in the light of day.  Sometimes we have to journey by night to know with clarity both the call of the corn crake and the love of God.  Sometimes in night’s “rough gound of uncertainties” we find the answer: the Son who came not to turn on us in anger , but to gather us up into love.

And so: if your journey calls you into the dark of night, go forth!  Our psalm today tells us that “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  Rely upon that promise, and upon the knowledge that the night may reveal God’s love in ways invisible in the daylight.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dream Workshop

Only the dreamer can interpret her own dreams.

That was my main takeaway from a workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago on dreams and spiritual direction offered by Jungian analyst and spiritual director Janice Bachman, O.P.  Our focus was on helping people (including ourselves) to notice and understand what our dreams might be saying to us in the context of helping people to find what God is doing in their lives rather than on analysis of dreams such as one might do in therapy, but the principle of self-interpretation holds true.

The best and worst of my dreams over the past five years have centered, of course, on Josh.  Some of them, fragmented and terrible nightmares, seem to be means for absorbing and processing what has happened to us.  I didn't sleep much the first few years after he died, but apparently I slept for periods long enough to fall into the REM sleep required for dreaming.  The dreams themselves indicated a mild form of PTSD, although it didn't feel mild at the time.  I often thought that I stopped sleeping more than a few hours a night because my dreams were so horrific. These days, I still have the dreams, but it seems that I've gotten used to them.

Others?  Like most parents who have lost children, I have vivid, joyful dreams of my son, of all my children, to which I try desperately to return when I awake.  Josh is so alive in those dreams.  It astonishes me, that our brain circuits retain so much detail of times and people long past that they seem to live in complete fullness as we sleep.  The voices, the gestures, the shining hair ~ all as it once was.  I wonder sometimes whether those dreams are indeed a form of communication, whether Josh, or God, or someone, is trying to tell me that he's fine, beautiful and whole and healed.  Or are they merely wishful thinking, brain circuits working overtime, trying to recover an irretrievable sense of well-being and security?

I wish that I had the confidence in dreams that Biblical dreamers demonstrate.  We spent a chunk of our workshop on Jacob's dream, reflecting upon it in great detail as a way of practicing what we might explore with a spiritual directee.  Rich layers of meaning that can be extracted from the symbols and repetitions.  Can I apply to my own dreams the reverence that Biblical dreamers applied to theirs?

Ironically, this past week-end, my daughter and I went to see Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, her Christmas present to me.  Joseph, of course, does interpret the dreams of others, and thus changes the course of history. I wonder whether we could alter our own lives if we could fully access and understand our dreams.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lent Commences

It occurred to me this morning, as I was remembering to be grateful that I could put on clean clothes, washed by me (since I can now descend to the basement) in a warm bedroom where the cat had been tidied up after by me (since I can now walk and bend over), that perhaps the reason I feel so removed and numbed to Lent is that I've just spent the winter there.  A winter longer than Lent: somewhere around 56 days from break to first halting, unaided steps. 
It's been a very lonely winter Lent.  Two groups kindly came to my house for our weekly meetings, and I did start getting out to the church after the first month, although more for crisis management than for worship, so it felt like a massive mountain of struggle rather than any sort of peaceful pond of repose. 
On the whole, though, I saw almost no one beyond my immediate family, the couple of people stopped by to visit, and my online book group.  It's made me wonder:
Was it the cold and snow?  It's been an awful winter.
Is it me?  I can't discount that; maybe I am a compete drag to be around.  Entirely and most definitely possible.
Or: Are we really so busy?  There have been long periods of time in the past few years, in the darkness of loss and after now two major surgeries only two years apart, not to mention my work 1.5 hours from home, when I have been painfully aware of my inability to do my share of caring for family and friends who had problems of their own.  But I figured that others were picking up the slack; we all have periods of time in our lives when we are more or less able to tend to needs beyond our own.  But . . . maybe not.
One of the major aspects of ministry in Small Rural Church was the Ministry of Visiting.  I was surprised ~ very surprised, given my own experience of large program-oriented churches ~  that people much preferred me to spend my time journeying from homes to hospitals to nursing facilities to assisted living so that I could hang out with them, rather than planning and delivering beautifully designed educational and spiritual growth programs. 
There was a gentleman who had a massive stroke shortly after my arrival there, which left him almost completely disabled and a permanent resident of nursing care.  My ministry to him often consisted of stopped by to watch portions of absolutely dreadful television shows and movies with him.  I would offer wry commentary and he would laugh and nod his head in agreement. 
There were people who warmed up to me after long days spent sitting in hospital waiting rooms together, people who never came near any classes I tried to offer.  There was one lady who said, "Those are really good questions!" when I pushed her husband's heart surgeon for clearer answers.  Never once did she comment on the "really good questions" on which I preached Sunday after Sunday.
There were ladies in their nineties who cried when I left.   They couldn't get to church anymore, but they could invite me to assisted living lunch and dinner, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. 
It's becoming more evident to me now how many people live in a sort of permanent Lent. I don't know why I'm surprised; I've been doing it myself for five years.  But this particular detour into a deeper version is causing me to rethink my priorities in a big way.  I'm not entirely up to much in the way of visiting just yet, although I've been to funeral home and funeral mass and hospital and hospice in the past few weeks.  But I think I will keep my own extra layer of early 2014 Lent in mind as I re-focus on the future.