Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gratitude for Bones

A friend of mine is looking at knee replacement surgery sometime in the next year. She is predictably wary and anxious, but she wrote a FB post about all the things that her knees have done for her.  I've decided to take a page from her book, as I finally reach the point of more-or-less full recovery from my broken ankle, and say "Pffft!" to the toe I broke 10 days ago.
Some of what my ankle and feet bones have done for me:
Carried me and my backpack into the wilds of Glacier National Park and Algonquin Provincial Park, throughout Isle Royale National Park, and along the trails of western Pennsylvania.
Taken me on beach walks and long hikes from Prince Edward Island to Key West and from British Columbia to the Virginia Shore.
Helped me wander Iona and the Cinque Terre, Paris and Rome, Boston and Chicago and Washington, D.C. and Vancouver and Portland, Chautauqua and St. Augustine.
Pedaled bikes and hung onto horses and skied through the snow and danced through numerous dubious concert venues.
Walked babies at 3:00 a.m. and accompanied clients to court and ran after troubled students and paced through sermons and retreats.
And for years and years, excluding most of this one, taken me on the long walks so essential to my physical and mental and spiritual health, around the Shaker Lakes in Cleveland and to the Highland Park Reservoir in Pittsburgh and alongside the fields at the Wernersville Retreat Center.
It turns that that that break on January 2 was a really bad one.  But you can see why I have been so determined to make my plate and screws work like real bones.  I can't run yet ~ I've tried and it's as if I have a stack of bricks in my ankle ~ but I am really grateful for bones and spare parts that walk.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Memorial Homily

Last night our church hosted a memorial service for the daughter of the former pastor, who died of suicide two months ago.  Her service was eight hours away, where she lived, and we wanted to do something for  former parishoners and colleagues here.
It turned out to be a beautiful and powerful service, a  perfect blend of pastoral leadership (including the mom and her husband as well as four others of us) in music, word, and ritual.  So many gifted people in ministry!  My contribution was to host and to preach a short homily.  Here it is:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God’s very self will be with them;  God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
~ Revelation 21:1-4
 Many, many years ago, I heard the late Unitarian Universalist pastor Forest Church preach at Chautauqua.  “Why do we have religion?” he asked.  The answer? “Because we live and we die.”
We live and we die, and we have to make sense of those twin realities.
For those of us whose lives have been marked by the suicides of people we cherish, the entanglement of life and death becomes the question that relentlessly stalks our days and claims our nights.
“Choose life!” the Bible tells us.  And most of us do.  All of us here have seen how joyously people choose life when they are married, when a child is born, when labor work is satisfying and fruitful.  And all of us have seen how tenaciously people cling to life even as they gasp their final breaths, how they long for one more day, or even one more minute.
But the choice for life is not always as easy, or natural, or hope-filled, as it might seem.  For some, illness makes of death a release from pain and trauma.  And those of us left behind are called to delve into that dark place in which we can understand, a bit, where our loved ones found themselves, marooned on islands of despair and longing, no longer able to see even a sliver of light at the end of tunnels that curve and swell and twist and turn and finally narrow.
And then – what becomes of those of us who would have done anything, anything at all, to preserve the lives of those precious to us?
We start looking.  Where are the answers?  A  and T and E, I know that over time, you will find your own ways to live with the loss of S, and your own ways to live with the paradox of the stunning beauty of her flower-filled life entertwined as it was with  the searing pain of her illness.  I myself can offer only one small Biblical interpretation which has helped me.  It comes from Mirslav Wolf’s book The End of Memory, in which he suggests that the new heaven and new earth held out as promises to us, the final fulfillment of the kingdom which has already come among us, this new reality in which every tear will be wiped away and mourning and crying and pain will be no more -- this will be a reality in which even the memory of these hard things will be no more.
It sounds shocking, at first, and kind of horrifying.  Memory no more? We all want to retain our memories, don’t we?  Our memories of all of it, the good and the bad, the joy-filled and the heart-rending -- our memories which remind us of all that has made us who we are today?  We don’t want to lose our them, not even the reminders of tears and mourning.  We cling to our memories as if they are ourselves.  Who we are.  People of compassion because we have suffered, people of determination because we see what might be,
And yet . . .  and yet . . . and yet, what if we are made for more?
What if we are not, as Wolf says, merely “the sum of our past experiences?”  What if we are called to leave our heartaches behind and to receive ourselves as the people we were originally intended to be?  People created for a garden? People created entirely for love?  To remember and to know S, gardener, animal lover, daughter and sister and friend, as most fully and joyously her beloved, precious self?
It’s hard to imagine, tonight, when the loss is so great, that compete transformation lies ahead.    That there will come a time when the heavens and the earth, even the tangible earth on which we live, will be transformed  by the love of God into a mass of extravagant color and growth, into a garden in which brokenness and death will be no more, a garden in which life will flourish without recourse to the past. 
Here, we live and we die.  Sometimes the combination seems harsh beyond comprehension.  But the promise is for life.  Even when our capacity for this existence is crushed by illness and battered by sorrow, the promise remains.  Life for S.  Life for us all.  Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Sermon for Visioning Day

And God said to Noah, "Make yourself an ark.” . . . 
God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. . . . Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
                                                                                                ~ Genesis 6:13a, 14a; 8:1-12, 9:8-1
Do we feel, sometimes, in the church, as if we have been hit by a deluge?  Trampled by a tumultuous storm? Submerged in the depths?
Everything has changed.
Our culture used to be a culture in which, for Christians, church was front and center. Stores closed and it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday.
Our city used to be a booming little city in which people all had jobs during the week, whether in industry or at home, and thronged to places of worship on Sunday mornings.
Our congregation used to be a lively home for hundreds of people, where children learned about faith and adults sang in the choir and all enjoyed regular fellowship.
Our numbers used to be high: 1,000 people in worship on Sunday, two services, filled classrooms.
Our funding used to be a given. Run a stewardship campaign and the pledges poured in.   
Did we even ask questions about what and who we are as a church?  Not so much, I think.  Our successes were obvious; our future, assured.  
And then the skies darkened.  The wind blew. And the rains came pouring down. 
The culture changed.  The congregation changed and dwindled in number.  The money began to dry up. 
Does it feel as if a storm has hit?  As if we are rocking back and forth and side to side in a leaky ark?
And yet: God offers us a rainbow, a sign of promise.  God calls us out of the ark and into a new world, a world longing for God’s promises of life and love.

Conversation Question: What does God promise us when the storms come?
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
                                                                                                            ~ Luke 24:1-5
At the core of Christian faith is a great mystery: out of death comes life. After a flood, a rainbow forms in the sky. After all seems lost on a cross, light shines forth from a cave. 
We usually hear this story, about the first day of the week at early dawn, on Easter Sunday itself.  And then we kind of forget about it.  We get busy with our meetings and our meals, with our finances and our food, and we forget.
So let’s remember for a moment.  The heartbroken women at the tomb, as we are heartbroken when we ponder what seems to be the death of the church.  The women perplexed by the rolled-away stone and the vanished body, as we are often perplexed by the church: What happened?  Where did everyone go? The arrival of the unexpected: two men in dazzling clothes, who terrify the women.  How do we respond when it seems that we are confronted by the unexpected?  Are we anxious, afraid?  Terrified, even?
And then the question: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen.
We forget, when we are busy with our meetings and our meals and our finances and our food, that we are called to live resurrection lives.  We forget to look for the living not among the dead, but among the living.  We are so accustomed to being hobbled by loss and dismay that we forget that we have been set free by love.
If we feel discouraged and disoriented by changes in our church, then we are right at the heart of Christian transformation.  And at the heart of Christian transformation we are called to peel off the trappings of death and turn toward the light of new life. 
Conversation Question:  What would a resurrected church look like to you?
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’
                                                                                                                                ~ John 21:15-18
Do you know what the word ‘mission’ means?
We tend to think of a mission as a plan, or an assignment: something we are supposed to DO. 
But the word mission comes from the Latin mittere: to send.  To be on mission is to be sent.
The Bible is one long story of mission, of sending.  God is always sending people out to serve others.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with narratives of people called and sent.  The prophets, sent to call the people back to God’s justice.  Moses, sent to lead his people to freedom.  Noah, sent to build an ark and prepare for a new world.
And then: God sends Jesus, to love God’s people and to trounce death.  And God and Jesus send their Spirit, to energize the people to proclaim the God news: The Kingdom of God has come among you!  And God keeps sending: the apostle Paul, the other disciples, other people across the centuries, and yes, even: us.
Our final passage today is about sending.  About Jesus sending, starting with Peter.  Jesus is with his disciples on the beach, in one of his many appearances to them after his resurrection. And what does he say? Feed my lambs, Jesus tells Peter.  Tend my sheep; feed my sheep.
Rainbow-covenant life and resurrection life are not only about us.  We are not called to mind only our own business, tend only our own field, mind only our own sheep.  This might mean some radical changes for us as a church.  To Noah, God did not say: Build and ark and then live there. To Peter, a fisherman, Jesus did not say: Build a new warehouse and a shop on the beach, buy a new boat and some new nets, and get back out there to do what you did before.  To us, Jesus is not saying: Save the building, buy some curriculum, and invite people to come in and do with you what you’ve always done.  Jesus says: Feed my sheep.  Get out there and look for my people – that would be all people – and care for them.  Be a people in mission!
Conversation Question: What sort of service to others excites you?
Today we are all about: a storm, an ark, a rainbow ~ a grave and a resurrection ~ and a sending forth.  As we continue with today’s gathering, think about what we have before us:
You all have animals on your table, who represent the storm, and the ark, and hope for the future.  We have a rainbow, which represents God’s promise of new life.  We have an empty cross, which represents resurrection life. And we have a question: how do we respond?   Take your animals home with you and remember to ask: How are we going to feed God’s sheep?  Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Orchardist: Book Review

A couple of nights ago my in-person book club met to discuss The Orchardist, a novel by Amanda Coplin.  Two pregnant sisters, on the run from the man who has enslaved them to prostitution, find a home and a short-lived peace with another man, whose Eden-like life brims with the fruit of his flourishing orchards.  Not everyone survives, and the first deaths occur early in the book, after which the remaining lives unfold despite the black cloud under which they begin.  It's a gorgeous, expansive, heart-rending novel.

Well, that's one viewpoint: mine.  We were quite divided.  I found it to be a narrative which immediately pulled me into the lives of its characters and the Central Washington State landscape of the turn of the last century, despite the sparse prose and even sparser conversation of the laconic folk who people the story.   Yes, there is horror and bleakness and heartbreak; it's not a jolly story.  But I saw tremendous courage and resiliency and moments of redemption in the lives of each of the characters, in even the numbed and remote Della, dealt so many devastating hands in her tormented life.

Some of our group liked the book, or at least the writing.  A few were in open revolt.  They want cheerfulness, heroism, and happy endings in their novels,  No one minds a challenge, but the end result needs to convey unambiguous triumph.  I found the characters compelling despite their refusal to be transformed into success stories.

I suppose that our various reactions are even more intriguing than the novel itself.  There's an entire story there.

A Random Friday Five

Random ~ just what I need to overcome a sluggish start to the day!

The questions come from Rev Karla:

1. If you could sneak away anywhere this weekend, right now, all expenses paid,
where would you go and what would you do?
I've been reading the Inspector Gamache mysteries for weeks now, and I have developed an intense hankering to spend some time in Montreal.  So count me as packed and headed to the airport.
2. What is for lunch today? (one of the very first FF I ever played asked this.)
No idea.  Not feeling so good, so maybe nothing at all.
3. Along that first-FF-I-ever-played theme, what are you wearing today?
It's suddenly chilly out there, so . . .  black pants, a given, and a jacket or sweater.
4. Along the Today Theme, what are you doing today?
Mostly, I am putting first or final touches on too many things, but in midafternoon I get to teach my college class on religion and law.  Today we are discussing an article written about a Jesuit priest about his calling to teach law, so I'm looking forward to that conversation.
5. Along the random theme, what is your favorite scent, and why?
I have no sense of smell, so scent is a foreign concept to me.  I am guessing that I would like the smell of wet leaves on the ground in the fall, though.
Enjoy your day!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday Five: Come and Visit!

Today's RevGals Friday Five comes from 3dogmom:

"An unexpected road trip last weekend made me aware that there are places along the route traveled where, had there been time, I would love to have stopped to visit and explore. That (missed) opportunity, coupled with a recent article in our local newspaper about things to see and do locally inspired today’s Friday Five.

If someone told you they were coming to your city/state/country for the first time, what five things would you recommend that they be sure to see or do? This might be a city, national park, historic site, restaurant or other attraction. Have at it, and share the link to your blog in the comments below. Be sure to visit and comment on other participants’ efforts today, too. Oh, the places we can go!"


I live in an amazing little city, a near eastern suburb of Cleveland.  Welcome to my home!  And here's where we'd go if you came for a couple of days:

Let's first walk a couple of blocks to Lakeview Cemetery ~ nearly 300 acres of  horticulture, Cleveland history, the work of Italian stonecutters highlighted by stained glass ~ including a Tiffany designed chapel, and miles of walking trails and roads.  It's one of my favorite walking places, and takes us from Cleveland Heights at the top of the hill to the city of Cleveland at the bottom.

Next, we'll cross part of the Case Western Reserve University Campus and head for Wade Oval and the Museum of Natural History.  If your kids are anything like mine were, that will take care of the rest of the day. 
But if there's time, we'll cross the Oval and head for the Art Museum.  Both of these museums are world-class, but the Art Museum has just undergone an astounding renovation.  Bring your ipad to connect to the exhibits, and get here soon, for there's only a week left to see the Art of Yoga.
Now let's walk down the street for a Cleveland Orchestra concert.  If you love music, then you know that we have one of the greatest of orchestras right here, a mile from my house.
And finally, if it's not too late, or if the Orchestra isn't playing, we can walk back up the hill through Little Italy for dinner and art gallery browsing.
I've stuck to a walking tour, but Cleveland is a wonderful place to live. If you wanted to get into a car, I'd take you to the Lake, to the West Side Market, to the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, to dinner on East 4th Street and brunch in historic Ohio City, to art galleries in Tremont, and then down to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a hike on the Towpath Trail.  I guess you'll have to stay for a week!

Image: Severance Hall, home of The Cleveland Orchestra

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sixth Anniversary Meanderings

"They'd crossed over to that continent where grieving parents lived. It looked the same as the rest of the world, but wasn't."
~ A Trick of the Light: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny


A few years ago I read an essay by a young mother who stated that she didn't see any reason to mark her little son's death anniversary.  "It's not as if he's more dead on those days, or less on others," was the gist of what she had to share.

Good point, I thought.  I'll try that.

But you can't help it. The weather changes, as does the quality of the light and the length of the days.  There's no mistaking the end of summer; I don't think there's any mistaking, really, any time of year and, therefore, no way of mistaking the inevitable memories accompanying the seasonal changes.

If you watched today, what would you see?  Some errands, some gardening. A lot of reading.  I have been gulping down Inspector Gamache novels.  Because he contemplates the thoughts and feelings of those who murder and those who are murdered, and one who dies of suicide is both?  Or have I turned into my grandmother, who read her way through Agatha Christie's mystery canon as a distraction from intolerable loss? You might think I look like an ordinary person on a day off. I suppose that is exactly what I am. Gardening and reading. Except that I am preoccupied and exhausted.  I forget, sometimes, how draining grief is.  Still. 

My son died between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. on September 2, or so they told us.  Chicago time.  His death certificate says September 3, because he was found the next morning.  I asked the funeral director about the discrepancy.  "You're not dead until someone says you're dead," he responded.  I think about that sometimes.  It's not true, of course.  When you're dead, you're dead, whether anyone knows it or not.  What's true is that no one knows what that it means.

For whatever reason, a series of Compassionate Friends posts have been appearing on my FB feed this summer.  Perhaps I needed to know that I am not insane? Or at least not insane all by myself? I read the reflections, so familiar to me now, but still unknown to many of my closest friends.  The intense grief, years and decades later. The lost marriages, relationships, friendships, jobs.  The guilt from wanting to die when so many others fight for their lives. 

Did you think about foregoing treatment and just dying? asked a friend last winter, also diagnosed with breast cancer after her son died of suicide.  No, I said, for me it was a uterine cancer scare a couple of years earlier.  In seminary.  How can you stand it? my best friend asked during the week I awaited the results. I shrugged.  What difference did it make?

Should I hit the post button?  I think I will.  I want to say: This is what it's like. 
I don't think I feel particularly sorry for myself.  I watch the news.  I get it. 

And I try hard not to miss the beauty.  I at least try to practice resurrection.  I have so loved this life.  That's what John Ames says in Marilynn Robinson's novel Gilead, as he knows he is dying.  I have so loved this life. I try to recover that experience, that knowledge, that feeling. 
But it's very hard.