Saturday, June 28, 2014

Let Us Pray (Sermon)

Many years ago, I happened to bump into one of my pastors at a local park.  I was out for a walk, and he was sitting at a picnic table with his lunch and a book.  I sat down for a moment’s chat and he said, “You know, I’m reading Paul’s letters, and I’m reading his words, ‘Pray without ceasing.’  That seems like a tall order to me.  I don’t even know where to begin.  What do you think that means, ‘Pray without ceasing?’”
“Me?” I said.  “Hey, you’re the pastor! How would I know?”
How would I know?  Even though Jesus is always going aside to pray, as he does in today’s gospel passage, before embarking upon a full day of ministry.  Even though I’m now a pastor, too, and a spiritual director, which means that I have some specialized training and experience in helping people with their lives of prayer, and with giving retreats on prayer – I still find that the same questions arise constantly – for myself, for other pastors, for people in all walks of life: What does it mean to pray without ceasing?  Or, as today’s Message translation invites us to do, to pray “all the time?” What does it mean to pray at all?  Why do we pray?  How do we pray?  Do we pray?
Some of us pray only in church, if even here.  Prayer means the words which we say out loud, or to which we listen, as written in the bulletin or as led by the pastor or liturgist.  Sometimes those words are a bit ponderous, like the title of this sermon – “Let. Us. Pray.”  Solemn words, often with many syllables – the kinds of prayers that result in jokes because we don’t understand them and they make us uncomfortable.  (I’m thinking of jokes like the one about the little kid who asks why prayers always include vegetables – “Lettuce pray.”) If the prayers contain enough big words and are said with enough seriousness – well, then, prayer must be something formal and incomprehensible, something for the experts.  Something we couldn’t possibly do ourselves, and certainly not all the time.
For many of us, prayer means asking for something.  We have been taught, and indeed Jesus himself tells us, “Ask and it will be given you. Seek and you shall find” (Matthew 7:7).  Thousands of such prayers are directed heavenward every minute.  Prayers of small children: “Please don’t let my dog die.”  Prayers of students: “Please let me pass this test for which I have not studied one bit.” (Don’t let anyone tell you there is no prayer in school!) Prayers of parents: “Please keep my child safe.” Prayers of children: “Please heal my mom.”  Prayers of the sick, the injured, the broke, the homeless, the lonely, the angry, the divorced, the defendant, the cold, the tired: “Please help me.” And, of course, prayers of the frustrated: “Please, let me find my keys.” Or, as a friend put it this past week when I confessed to the prayer for keys being one of my most frequent, “Open my eyes that I may see!”
All good prayers.  All important prayers. (Even the one for keys!) All prayers which God encourages us to speak, whether in worship in community or in small groups or in the quiet of our own homes.  And, in fact, when we are faced with a great desire, such as a hope for a new job offer, or when life is going badly, such as when someone is dying, we may find that, at least for that period of life, we do know what it means to pray without ceasing, to pray all the time.
But all of this prayer, all of this formality, all of this asking and hoping and longing, all of this pleading – it’s all just a beginning, just a scratching of the surface of what prayer is about.  It’s a grand beginning – grand because through these prayers we acknowledge that we are tethered to someone beyond ourselves, grand because we understand that we need help and solace, grand because these prayers are expressions of hope, and hope in this world is always a grand thing – but still only a beginning.
And that’s ok, because, as the great masters of prayer have been reminding us for centuries, “We are all always beginners. We are all always beginners.”
How can it be that we are always beginners?  Surely we can improve if we but set our minds to it? I remember taking swimming lessons as a little girl at summer camp, and making my way through the Red Cross gradations of swimming levels.  It took me a loooong time to get the hang of swimming, and I remember how much I wanted to acquire that stack of little white cards indicating that I had passed the tests for each level.  I remember that I especially wanted to move from Beginner to Advanced Beginner.  Advanced Beginner!  That meant that I was no longer a mere tadpole in the shallow end of swimming.  That meant that I had moved beyond the simplest of strokes and the shortest of distances to something a bit more complicated.  Deep water and diving board, here I come!
Prayer is not quite like that. Oh, there are lots of people and lots of books that will suggest advanced levels of prayer.  There are people who write exquisite prayers, people who write prayer that is, quite literally, poetry of the highest order – people like George Herbert, the 17th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, whose language can sometimes take hours to disentangle, or like Mary Oliver, the contemporary poet who lives on Cape Cod and writes in phrases seemingly easy to understand that yet give us pause and ask questions that we ponder for days.  Are George Herbert and Mary Oliver “advanced pray-ers?”
There are people who spend hours each day in prayer – monks and nuns whose task is to pray for the world and for all of us, most of us people with concerns about whom they have never heard.  Theirs is a calling often little understood – wouldn’t their time be better spent teaching, or caring for the sick, or dishing up food to the poor?  Would it?  Or all we all much better served because there are those whose task is to pray deeply – and unceasingly – for us?  But are they “advanced pray-ers?”
And then there are people whose prayer has moved from words to silence, people who spend almost all of their prayer time in quiet solitude, people who have left behind prayer as we are accustomed to thinking of it for something still and dense and free.  Are they “advanced pray-ers?”
Or are we, indeed, all always beginners? I think we are.  Certainly there are those who pray with more sophisticated words than we do, or for longer periods of time, or with greater degrees of attentiveness.  But in the end, we are all always at the beginning – because prayer is, first and foremost, encounter.  Prayer is relationship with God.  And what do we know about encounter and relationship? That we are always beginning.
Think of a long-term marriage, or of a lifetime friendship, or of parenting of decades of duration.   Sure – the length of time and breadth of experiences give depth to such relationships that shorter ones lack.  But aren’t we always beginning?  Aren’t we always encountering one another in new ways?  Aren’t we often faced with situations and challenges that reveal something about both the other person and ourselves that we did not know?  I remember attending a play with my grandmother, a play made up of vignettes in a married couple’s life which spanned fifty or sixty years.  “You have to be old to understand this play!” – that was my grandmother’s review at the end of the evening.  The couple was always starting anew, always at the beginning.  Always encountering one another differently.
Prayer, like all relationships, is not so much a matter of hierarchical progress, not so much a matter of moving from Beginner to Advanced Beginner to Intermediate to Swimmer, not so much a matter of achievement, as it is a matter of expansion. Of growth.  Of movement, of response, in all directions, some of them seemingly backward.  One minute, you’re on the edge of the pool ready to dive into the deep-water end, that Advanced Swimmer certificate within your grasp.  The next, you’re sitting in the three inches of water in the baby pool, knowing that for a time your life is all about splashing your feet and turning your face to the sun.  Different times, different demands, different invitations.  An expanding world of experience, of relationship.  An expanding, changing, surprising world of grace – a world in which encounter with God grows and deepens and is found in all things – and then somehow, becomes confused and tortured and murky – and we begin again.
For the next several weeks, we’re going to make our way through the summer by considering prayer together.  We’re going to focus on different sorts of prayer, on different ways of praying, on learning more about how to pray all the time.  I’m hoping that you will respond in an active way to this series of sermons.  You’ve already begun, with the bit of praying with the psalms which we started earlier this month and will be continuing in various forms.  For this week, I have a simple assignment for you:
On the back of your bulletin is an invitation to settle on a prayer journal. It can be as simple as an empty spiral-bound notebook of lined paper already lying around the house.  Or as elaborate as a beautifully bound leather or cloth journal for which you make a special trip to a bookstore.  But whatever it is, I want you to have a place in which to record something of your prayer life this summer. I’ll make suggestions each week.  Prayers already written by others, in the Bible or in other sources. Drawings or pictures or photographs you may find or want to make yourself.  Prayer for yourself, at whatever stage of life you find yourself. Prayer with family and friends, in solidarity with whatever’s going on in their lives.  Prayer for our church, as we prepare for a Visioning Day in September by gathering and absorbing information about where we have been and where we are now.
You don’t have to do this, of course. But I can safely promise you that if you keep some form of record of the weeks ahead, your prayer life will be deeply enriched, both now and years from now, when you want to look back and re-consider what people and concerns and questions and encounters with God filled your life this summer.
Have you prayed lately?  Have you prayed even at all – or all the time?You have, you know – because all of life is, in one way or another, prayer.  All of life is encounter and relationship with God.  So – next week, and the week after, and the rest of the summer – Come and see!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reading, Not Books

I have been reading tonight.
I've been reading the professional websites published by friends whose businesses provide various forms of life coaching for women.  With their emphasis on self-discovery, re-invention, and pathways to authenticity and satisfaction in all arenas of life, they are sure to glean far greater audience numbers than those my church is able to gather into a worshipping congregation.
I've also been reading the essays written by applicants to the spiritual direction program from which I graduated and on whose advisory board I now sit.  Lengthy, searching, reflective pieces of writing, revealing many of life's great traumas and the persistent search for God which winds in and around those experiences of what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation.
The first set of readings has made me really tired.
The second has made me want to cry.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

For Bereaved Parents: How Many Children Do You Have?

Such a simple question, here in middle-class America.  Kind of like asking, "Are you cool enough?" in the middle of a midwestern summer.
This post was occasioned by a parent asking on the Compassionate Friends' FB page how others respond.  She lost a son a year ago and has just begun a new job, so the question is a frequent one. I think she's outrageously gutsy in taking on a new job at this point in her life, but most people at her work would have no idea about that.
The answers vary, of course.  Mine was:
"I would say that it depends on the situation. If I can get away with it, I say three and immediately ask about their family. Most people are more interested in talking about themselves anyway! and warm to the change of subject. Sometimes I say that I have a son who lives here and a daughter in a nearby city and don't mention where the other son is. Sometimes I say the exact truth. But after six years, I have become so "comfortable" with the topic of suicide that I am wary of the latter approach, because I have lost my patience for dealing with others' shock and discomfort."
It was FB, so I didn't elaborate, but I might have added:
As a pastor, I am often in situations which are all about the other person.  Not my time to share my life story, and so I don't.  When I am asked, I try one of the first two alternatives above.  On Mother's Day my answer to a friendly parishoner was admittedly extremely awkward; I had almost made it through the morning and was feeling quite pleased with myself for having done so, and then there it was, that question, on one of the worst days possible.
If it's a professional, public situation in which I can offer suicide prevention education, I go for it.
If I think it might help someone in a similar situation, I tell the truth, but tread cautiously.  We all grieve so differently, on such different timetables, and find comfort in such different ways.  Personally, I find it a lot more palatable to wonder where exactly God wandered off to when my son needed God most of all than to hear that God needed another angel in heaven ~ a God who gets lost or busy is a lot better than a God who steals children ~ but I have found that many others do not share my viewpoint!  I was honest this past week with the mom who had just lost a son to suicide, but I told truths that I thought might make her path a tiny bit easier.  I did not grab her by the shoulders and scream "This is the F-----G worst thing ever and when the shock starts to wear off you are going to want to DIE!"
Yeah. No.
I don't know a single person who wants to say a number of children one (or more) less than he or she actually has.  But that question ~ it's a minefield.  How are you doing with it?  And what about when it is your only child who has died?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Prayer in Daily Life

There are two ways in which to make the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
You can go off for thirty days, usually to a retreat house, usually with a group of people doing the same thing, and spend your time in silence, meeting with a retreat director every day to discuss your prayer life as you make your way through the pattern of prayer "exercises" suggested by Ignatius and deeper into relationship with God.  The advantage?  Thirty days of concentrated time with God.  The disadvantages?  Time, money, those sorts of things . . .
Or you can do what's often referred to as a "retreat in daily life" or a "19th Annotation retreat" (so named for one of Ignatius' annotations in the book used by spiritual directors to companion others through the Exercises) ~ stretch the 30 days to 30 weeks (or more), spend an hour or so a day in prayer, rather than several hours, and meet with a director each week rather than each day.  (This is how I did it.) The advantage: Daily life experiences becoming a part of an intense prayer life.  The disadvantage: Daily life experiences getting in the way.
Some folks make 19th annotation retreats in concert with others; many retreat houses offer them during the academic year, with varying degrees of contact among group members.  The advantages: Structure, expense, perhaps community. The disadvantage? The loss of the individuality of timing and often, therefore, of the journey itself.
I'm accompanying someone through the 19th Annotation these days.  We've been at it for about four months now, and I am remembering something my own 19th Annotation director often says: When you see someone's entire life becoming wound up in the prayer, you know the retreat is starting to take hold.
It's really and incredibly wonderful, to listen in as someone makes connections between the stories of the gospel and the events and challenges of his or her own daily life. and begins to find in every ongoing thing ~  family life, work plans, relationships, memories, celebrations, crises ~ threads of God's love and activity previously unnoticed.
This is the best thing I get to do.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Watching Rev.

Adam Smallbone is the vicar of a dwindling congregation which worships in a crumbling shell of a once-magnificent sanctuary in the East End of London.  His wife Alex is a legal aid attorney and, at the beginning of the third season of this series, they are joined by Baby Katie, dramatically delivered by Alex with the assistance of Adam's nemesis, his archdeacon, in a taxi careening toward the hospital.

The show is billed as a comedy.  It had me from the first episode, when the camera focuses in on Adam, newly arrived from the countryside, welcoming his "vibrant" congregation to worship.  The camera then pans the congregation itself, the very small and motley crew whom Adam has been called to serve, spread out across the large sanctuary and looking anything but vibrant.

By the third season, which I've just finished watching, it's long been clear that the series is a comedy in the classical sense rather than in the modern laugh-track sense. As Adam's life crumbles along with his building, there is no sign of the sanctimonious Walton's Mountain preacher (except in another character) or of the the raucous Vicar of Dibley.  And there's no place for today's exhortations to the local pastor to be "missional" (although the archdeacon does send the hapless Adam to a seminar on the latest practices designed to teach him to save his church).

I found myself thinking of George Herbert transferred to the impoverished East End as the final episode wound down.  And was very moved by the scenes of those (sometimes surprisingly) dear to Adam praying for him in familiar, conversational ways, tossing in their own baffling concerns, much as he himself often prays.  

Rev. is a brilliant, lovely, and very real portrayal of what it means to be a true priest in the most human of ways.

(Rev. is a British series available on Hulu.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Presenting an Alternative

Disjointed thoughts, but there's a point:
In the six months I've spent at the church I now serve, most of my attention has been diverted to building, finance and personnel issues.  One crisis after another.  The building is large, the congregation small, the needs great, the money limited. 
I have, of course, tried to engage my people in lively, life-sustaining worship.  Every Sunday, Ash Wednesday, one Wednesday night during Lent, Maundy Thursday.  Thirty is a huge attendance number for us. Three memorial services, all of them for elderly people whom I did not know, people long gone from attendance by the time I arrived, but whose children remembered that they wanted their services to be held in the church in which they had once participated. 
As I drove home from the shiva Monday night, I sighed and thought, "What we do in church is of so little importance.  A song here, a prayer there, a long discussion about the budget in the middle.  When kids are dying and families are torn to shreds." 
At my lectionary group yesterday morning, a group of pastors who meet each week to discuss the upcoming preaching texts, one of the other pastors related a story from the previous morning, a story in which the life struggles to which Jesus speaks came to life in a courtroom in which some of her young people had been required to make an appearance. "We present an alternative," she said ~ "but how hard it would be for them, given the pressures of the streets, to live out that out alternative."
"We present an alternative." I like that phrase.  I like it a lot. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sitting Shiva

I realized that the living room had grown silent as I told the newly bereaved mother what little I know about suicidal states of minds. 
Mostly I told her that, while scripture tells us to "Choose life," people who die of suicide are not un-choosing it.  They are choosing to end the pain, not to die, and they don't really understand, according to my son's therapist, that they will not be here tomorrow with the people they love so much.  The tunnel vision, the fog created by pain and despair, take over, and they forget how much they are loved and how many people would do anything at all to save their lives.
I gave this Orthodox Jewish mom, with whom I used to discuss the academic progress of her children, my card, and told her to call me, not as a pastor, but as another mom.
Dad of Best Friend followed me out of the sweltering house to ask more questions.  "These kids," he said, "they're all blaming themselves."
It's been a long time since I've been at an event at which the men go into the living room to daven (pray) while the women, dressed in long skirts and long sleeves despite the oppressive humidity, stand around in the kitchen and wait.
I liked it so much better before, when my expertise was world history and not suicide.

Father's Day Postscript ~ Spiritual Fatherhood

Not a term I was familiar with ~ spiritual fatherhood.  In fact, when it occurred to me, I thought I had made it up!  But it turns out to be a common appellation, especially in Catholic circles, in which priests are referred to as "Father" and heads of women's religious orders as "Mother," so that people are accustomed to thinking of their religious leaders as parental figures.
By the time it occurred to me that I had a spiritual father, the title had long since dropped away from our conversations.  But the idea of it, the hope and humor and warmth and challenge of a father, a spiritual father,  ~ indeed, that had come to fruition.
This priest ~ yes,  Catholic priest a Jesuit, a man my own father's age who had no reason to take any interest in my except as a graduate student in his classroom, at least not until I asked him if he would help me make the Spiritual Exercises ~ this man is the one I want to celebrate this Father's Day week.  Not only did he guide me through the Exercises; he remained a friend, advisor, and consoler through the darkest years of my life.  He responded to countless emails, listened to me for hours this past spring when  I made my more-or-less silent weeklong retreat, and continues to nudge me forward, despite knowing full well the depths of darkness to which my son's death has taken me.
I have found some other remarkable companions on the journey in the past few years.  But H. wins pride of place as spiritual father, and not merely because of his age. He was, I think I can safely say, the very first person to take my personal spiritual life seriously. I have known wonderful pastors and religious sisters, but H. was the first person willing to spend long hours listening and suggesting and questioning and pushing me as an individual.  I have heard hundreds of thoughtful and challenging sermons, but H. was the first person  to follow me down the rabbit hole discovered concealed under a single word or question and to point me toward the tunnel in which growth might be found.
Yesterday morning in church, I prayed for all sorts of fathers, good ones and bad ones, and their children, but I realize now that I did not pray for the most important ones of all, those who accept the call to tend and nurture our spiritual lives, to shelter us in life's spiritual tsunamis, and to push us back out into the sunlight.
I'm afraid that most of us don't have such fathers.  I'm so grateful that one night I said, "Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?" and found one.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Jewish Life

After I learned of the death of my former student on Friday, I went to the memorial FB page to post my condolences and to add a portion of a piece I'd blogged some years ago.
Those posts garnered me a lot of parent and student "likes" and some new friend requests, from people with names like Hannah and Issac and Noah and Ariel and Yael and Chava and Hadas and Avital and Liat.
The circumstances are heartbreaking, but it's a pleasure to see the names of those beautiful young people and recall another life. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Too Much

Yesterday the Huffington Post published a piece they'd invited me to write in response to a TED talk about suicide.  I decided to write about things I thought might help survivors -- not a religious post, not a post filled with pastoral reflections or exhortations - just a post about some of what I've learned, written by a mom survivor who happens to be a pastor.

Positive responses poured in.

Among them was a repost by a former teaching colleague on a memorial FB page for a former student of ours.  Unbeknownst to me, he had died of suicide two days previous.  Twenty-four years old.  What I remember is his relentless sense of humor as he failed, time and again, to turn in his work.   Jewish funerals take place within 24 hours of a death, so I missed that, but she and I will go over to the house together on Monday.

Another response came from a high school classmate, about a series of suicide-attempt related losses all those years ago.  I did not know about those events, but I recognized the emotional landscape of which she wrote.

Then, today, the wedding of our next-door neighbors' middle daughter.  I tried; I really did.  I do not want to be like the father who wrote the column a year or two ago about not having attended a wedding in the eleven years since his son died.  I want to help my friends celebrate the great events of their lives.  This was our fourth try.  We haven't made it all the way through a single reception.  Tonight's final straw came when the bride's two sisters and brother sang "Here, There, and Everywhere" to her.  Before dinner, I might add. The seven children of our combined families played together for years; both families were filled with joy and laughter.  Theirs still is.

A new friend is doing the Overnight Out of the Darkness Walk in Seattle tonight, in honor of her son who died just a year ago, on the morning of his high school graduation day.  I had toyed with the idea of going to that walk (in one of my favorite cities) - until I broke my ankle.  I wish I were there anyway.

I am completely depleted.  Whatever I wrote about finding hope, whatever courage people saw in that   piece . . .   . Not tonight.  I just want my son back. That's the only thing I ever really want.

I can't imagine how I am going to lead worship tomorrow morning.  One of these days I'm going to have to preach so far ahead of myself that I'm going to fall flat on my face.

Friday, June 13, 2014

One Year

What if you had just one year left?

(No, this is not about the Stephen Levine book, which I own but haven't yet read.)

The other night, in considerable pain and very despondent about the pace of recovery from a broken ankle, I started poking around the internet, reading comments and blog posts by others who've been in a similar situation.  After awhile, I concluded: A year. It takes a full year to resume life as it was.  (I am walking a mile outdoors most days now, but it takes me 45 minutes,  requires an ankle brace and a walking stick, and it hurts.  I'm grateful to be outdoors and moving, and I know there's nothing for it but to do it, but I'm still easily discouraged.)

Last night I relayed this information to my friend Michelle, and noted the utter frustration of losing a year of active life at this point, when you can hope for only about 15 fifteen more really good ones before your body starts to disintegrate rather dramatically. One out of fifteen ~ that's a lot.

At the same time, it's occurred to me recently that I am living much of a life that was mostly a dream only a few years ago.  At some point toward the end of seminary, I wrote out something of a plan for the future.  Parts of it remain completely unrealized, but the call and ministry portion is in good order.  I do pastor a church, I do accompany people in spiritual direction and give retreats, and I do teach in a university about a semester a year. 

Add to the ankle and to the ministry life a discussion with my daughter the other night about what I think I would do it I were diagnosed with advanced cancer ~ a conversation generated by the plight of yet another acquaintance who is going the chemo and radiation route, as most people do, but about which I am extremely skeptical.

"The Grand Canyon," I said.  "I still haven't been to the Grand Canyon."

"Mom," she said, if that's at the top of your list, why aren't you going there?"

"It's a good thing it wasn't in the plan for this year," I said.  "I could never have done the hiking I want to do there.  But you're right -- maybe it's time to get organized for next year."

And so I've been thinking.  I probably have more than a year left, but still: with what would I like to fill the next twelve months, and in what ways would I like to empty them?

With my family?

In my home?

In the church?

In the way of spiritual direction and retreat work?

In teaching?

In writing?

And . . . the Grand Canyon? 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Picking Up a Pen . . .

OK, not a pen.
But I've blogged very little this year, and I do think that I'll pick that up again.
What am I wondering about these days?
Ministry, the church, the world, of course.  What are we doing??? Yesterday, I took some time to write out my thoughts about what my call to ministry entails and then a job description based on what I actually do on a daily basis.  Few points of intersection ~ much to consider there.
What happens to relationships in the wake of earth-shaking loss?  The picture isn't a pretty one.
Spiritual direction ~ what's that all about?  I mean, I know what it's about; perhaps it's where I want to focus my life much more completely?  I am accompanying someone through the Spiritual Exercises ~ fifth time, which isn't a lot for five years, but it's such a huge commitment that I can't manage it with more than one person at a time.  As always, though, I am in awe.
Preaching ~ what's that all about?  How much I wish I had had a series of decent preaching courses in seminary! 
I am a bit envious of my son as he begins his new law practice.  He's in court nearly every day, and learning quickly that the practice of law is about far more than advocating for folks in adversarial contexts.  It's about being present to them, about letting them know that they are heard, and about helping to quell the fears arising from uncertainty and lack of control. 
Suicide prevention.  Is there such a thing, really?  I spend a lot of time and effort on projects in the hope that there is. 
Aging.  Sixty-one next month.  Thinking a lot about what I would do if I had less than a decade left.  Not in a morose kind of way, but in a priority-setting kind of way.  I really don't have my act together at all.
Grief.  Learning to live alongside it.  I guess it gets better, in the sense that I am more functional all the time.  Clarity of thought has become a reasonable expectation on most days.  But the pain of it -- oh, God. 
Intentional solitude.  I need a lot more of that.  I have LOTS of time alone, but I am making a poor showing where taking advantage of it is concerned. 
Books.  I have been reading.  A lot.
So, yeah.  More writing.  In shorter gusts, I think.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rousing Renewal (Sermon: Acts 2 and Psalm 104)

Here we are, all together.  Women and men.  Black and white.  Older and younger.  All together in one place. Just like the followers of Jesus in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.
And just like them, we are a half-hopeful and expectant people,  -- a people whose lives deal us good days and bad days, joys and struggles -- but a people who gather in community longing for we-know-not what.  A people who wonder, when we join in worship, whether God might reach out to us.  Whether Jesus is present among us. Whether the Holy Spirit still wanders through the human story. 
Now: Imagine.  Imagine a wind rushing down the center aisle of the sanctuary, a strong wind, a wind like a gale force.  Imagine this wind tumbling throughout the sanctuary, so that the lights above us sway, the glass in the windows buckles, the pages of our bulletins and books fly out of our hands, our clothing swirls around our bodies, and our flower arrangements tumble to the floor.
And now, Imagine: Fire!  Fire that does not burn or consume, but fire that spreads around us, flames surrounding our communion table, bursts of light encircling each of us. “What is this that burns and yet is not consumed?” Where have you heard that before?  In the story of Moses and the burning bush, of course!  Moses is out tending his sheep and minding his own business when he comes upon a bush on fire, the means by which God has chosen to communicate with him, and he says to himself, “I need to stop and see why this bush is not burning up” (Exodus 3:1-15).  Imagine this building, flames pouring out the windows and through the roof, but nothing being destroyed.  Would the passers-by wonder, “Why is that building on fire and not burning up?”
Wind and fire – we would pay attention, would we not? We would be curious, probably fearful, perhaps awe-struck.  If a strong wind blew through our pews, we would not be able to continue with the service as we are accustomed to doing – sedately, quietly, even somewhat ponderously.  We might start running around trying to put things in order, but we would not just sit here. If bursts of flame surrounded appeared above our heads, we would not nod and go out – we would cry out in wonder and astonishment. 
Wind and fire – signs of the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the day we celebrate as Pentecost, the day we celebrate as the birthday of the church.  The day when God comes upon us to enliven and to encourage us and to teach and to renew us for life as God’s people. The day God comes among us as the Holy Spirit to rouse us to new life in Jesus Christ.
How do we, today, see the movement of the Holy Spirit among us?  Does the Spirit speak to us, 2,000 years after the Spirit’s dramatic arrival in Jerusalem?  Does the Spirit call our names, encircle us with energy, fill our hearts with fire?  We mark the day with red -- we have red paraments in the sanctuary today – red fabric on the communion table and on the pulpit and lectern, and arrangements of red flowers.  The Bible is opened to the second chapter of Acts, and some of us even remembered to wear red today.  But that’s all pretty tame, very Presbyterian decent and in order, in contrast to wind blowing things away in the sanctuary, and fire setting it all aflame?  We don’t feel the rush of the wind and or see the bright burn of flame.
Or do we? 
One of the most interesting things about the account of Pentecost in the book of Acts is its emphasis on communication among all peoples. On language – all sorts of languages – and on inclusiveness – all sorts of people. Listen to what’s going on, 2,000 years ago:
Jerusalem is filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, there to celebrate the Feast of Shavuot.  Shavuot marks the day on which God gave the law the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, to the Jewish people, to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Shavuot is a feast of God’s self-revelation through the law.  (Isn’t that interesting?  Pentecost is a feast of God’s self-revelation through the Spirit, and happens on the anniversary of the gift of Torah. In the Jewish school in which I taught, everyone celebrates Shavuot by staying up all night to read all the way through Torah together. Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers – all night, every word, in Hebrew.  That makes for some sleepy students the next day! But it also makes for students who know that God has come among them, revealing Godself and calling them to be more of who they are, to be the people God longs for them to be.)
Back to the first Pentencost:  Jerusalem, where the Jewish people gathered to celebrate their great annual feasts, is filled with Jews from all over the place, which means that it is filled with people speaking different languages, the languages of their native homes towns and nations.  People crowded into streets and lodgings and shops, noisy and happy people, but people who need to communicate with gestures and body language as well as with words, because understanding is difficult to come by.  
And then - that rush of wind and burst of fire?  The astonishing arrival of Spirit in the midst of the people.  And what happens? The Galileans, the disciples of Jesus, begin to speak and preach of God’s mighty works – and everyone can understand them!  It seems that everyone hears the words as if in their own native languages.  Complete clarity of communication, of revelation.  Everyone can understand, everyone is included, every sort of person is included in the Spirit’s movement.  As Peter says, more or less quoting the prophet Joel,
“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.”
Every kind of people.  Gender, age, nationality, ethnicity – the distinctions we so often make?  Where the Spirit of God is concerned, all are included.
You can’t miss it, this movement of the Spirit, this expansiveness of God’s embrace, as the Bible recounts it.  The Bible’s story of the human family begins with two people, Adam and Eve, and slowly expands – to include a few more select individuals and their families and tribes – Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his descendants – until God forms a nation, adheres a people together by God’s self-revelation in the law, in Torah.  And then – and then Jesus comes, and discovers in himself a ministry expanding to all sorts of people, Jew and Gentile alike. And then – and then on Pentecost, God and Jesus send their Spirit and God is revealed in a way that all can understand. All individuals.  All nations.
That’s the beginning of the Spirit’s movement that we see in today’s story from Acts – that we are all here, all of us different and yet together, all of us included, all of us called to engagement, all of us roused to renewal.  That’s the beginning of the Spirit’s movement to form the community we call church.
But wait – hasn’t the Spirit been present all along?  Our God is a Trinitarian God, a Creator-Son-Spirit God.  A God who has been there, here, since Before.  A God whose Spirit has been and continues to be ever-present. 
And just as we are reminded of the Spirit’s presence winding through the human community by our passage from Acts, so we are reminded of the Spirit’s presence nurturing the earth by our Psalm of the day:
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
The earth, too, is called to renewal by the Spirit. The earth is created when the Spirit is sent forth.
Psalm 104 is a joy-filled hymn of creation.  A psalm that reminds us that God has made all things,  that God delights in all things, and that God renews all things.  That the Spirit of God is intimately engaged in all creation and renewal: in the earth and the sea, in all the creatures that creep upon the earth and fill the waters, in all nourishment and fulfillment. Listen:  “when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust [but] when you send forth your spirit, they are created.”  The same Spirit that arrives in a rush of wind and fire and mingled voices on Pentecost was present at the creation of the earth and pours itself into the constant renewal of all the earth and of our lives.
Now, you might recall that we are doing a little formational work with the Psalms this month – with the prayerbook and songbook of the Bible.  As the Acts story of the first Pentecost reminds us, faith, Christian faith, is in one sense the learning of a language – the language of God’s revelation, of God’s people, of God’s relationship with us.  And the Book of Psalms is one of the most comprehensive introductions to that language.  It’s filled with the music of praise, the songs of lament, the melodies of history.  Does the Spirit blow through our lives? If we pray with the Psalms, it surely does. 
Last week, I sent you off with Sunday’s psalm and asked you to try three ways of praying with it on three different days.  Perhaps during the coffee hour some of you will share with me how that went?
This week I invite you, once again, to three readings, this time of our passage from Psalm 104:
On the first day, read through portion of the psalm in your bulletin, slowly, reverently, thoughtfully.
One another day, read it through again, maybe silently, maybe out loud, and look for a word or a phrase that catches your attention. Manifold.  Rejoice. Praise.  Leviathan.  Send forth your spirit. Any word or phrase at all. Let the Spirit speak to you as you read or listen for a word or phrase that catches your attention.
And on a third day, sit down for a few minutes and ponder your word or phrase. What comes to mind?  What memories? What daydreams?  Wishes? Hopes? Just take some time with your word of phrase and see where the Spirit blows. 
Because, yes – the Spirit still blows. The Spirit still sets the world afire. The Spirit still draws the human family together.  The Spirit still rouses us to renewal, in this building and out among the people of God  - who are all people.
We come to church so that we are reminded of the Spirit’s movement among us – today, with red in the sanctuary, with songs of the Spirit, with prayers calling us to see the Spirit at work.  We pray with Scripture so that we learn to recognize the activity of the Spirit – so that we see God’s delight in creation and know that it is, all of it, wildly and joyfully, birthed by the Spirit.  And then we go into the world because we have worshipped God in community and praised God in prayer and are compelled to by the Spirit to share – God’s wisdom, God’s goodness, God’s grace. Amen.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Grace of an Ordinary Day

More than a decade ago, I took a graduate course entitled "Narrative and Spirituality" from the priest who would become the person I refer to as spiritual director emeritus.  (Although, having made a week-long retreat with him during Lent, perhaps I should dispense with the emeritus title.)

One of our assignments was a brief essay, "Grace Notes," by Brian Doyle, today a well known spiritual essayist, novelist and magazine editor, but at the time a voice new to me. 

Our family that fall was emerging from a dense, dark couple of years, from a sequence of events that, frankly, would have ripped most families to shreds.  Each day had required us to draw upon every resource of strength and creativity at our disposal, and then some more.  When Brian Doyle mentioned his wife's prayer for "the grace of an ordinary day," I glommed onto her words as I might have seized a literal lifebuoy out in the middle of the ocean. And I kept looking, for ordinary grace, and even sometimes for the grace of a whole, entire, sunrise-to-midnight ordinary day.

A few years later our Josh died of suicide, and eventually I began to come to terms with the reality that "the grace of an ordinary day" would forever elude me.

Or, at any rate, an ordinary day as I imagined such a thing.  I liked the ones filled with the heat and sunshine of summer, bare feet on a sticky kitchen floor, shorts and t-shirts for everyone, damp beach towels hanging over the deck railing, popsicles the chief ritualistic offering  of the afternoon, and small blond heads (mine) and dark (my next-door neighbor's) dancing through lawn sprinklers.  Those were my idea of grace-filled ordinary days.

After Josh died, I was stuck with mostly terrible, awful, tortured days.  Days, and then weeks, and then months, in which it seemed to me that crawling under the bed and staying there would have been infinitely preferable to going to one more seminary class or encountering one more person seemingly in possession of the grace of an ordinary day.

These days, though, it is occurring to me that, while I would trade it all in a second to get Josh back, while I would hand it all over in exchange for his life and never look back even once, I am now in possession of the grace of other kinds of ordinary days.  Days I would never experienced had I in fact slammed the door to my house never to emerge again, which I think others would have understood better than they understood my return to seminary.

A fairly typical day for me:

Listening to someone speak of grief and doubt and fear and isolation and longing,

Reading and researching and praying with Biblical texts and commentaries,

Praying with someone terrified of chemo or devastated by widowhood or caring for a friend or relative in distress,

Conducting tedious and tense calls and meetings at which major issues are at stake,

Enjoying discussions with colleagues about lectionary texts and theology and day-to-day life,

Exploring questions about career discernment and relationships and living arrangements (because I have young adults in my life),

Writing sermons and essays and presentations to which other people will actually listen.


In fact, all of the above took place in one form or another just a few days ago.

And I still got to do laundry and run errands and watch Fargo.

Many of those things would have taken place had Josh lived and had I finished seminary and been called to ministry, all as planned. 
But they would not have taken place in the same way.  
I listen to people in anguish differently than I might have had I not known how completely fear and despair can take hold of your ice-cold bones and frozen veins.   
I read Scripture and theology differently than I did before urgent questions of life and resurrection became my most personal moment-by-moment concerns.  ("Where is my son?" wails one mother. "I know my son is in heaven," asserts another.  I myself have no idea about these matters, I conclude.  All in the space of twenty-four hours.) 
I have a much better sense of priorities.  And I feel (almost!) no need at all to provide answers, as there are so few that we can accept and even fewer that we can comprehend.

Like, maybe only one, which is Love, and which is itself difficult to accept and nearly impossible to comprehend.

So, while I am envying some of my friends their leisurely retirement days, and many their travels, and others their restored homes and well-maintained gardens, I find that I am, surprisingly, also grateful for the grace of ordinary days in ministry, days in which I see and hear things I so easily might have missed.