Fall Photos

Stop, Listen, Remember

I love the site Pray As You Go.  Off and on for ten years I’ve enjoyed their presentations of Scripture, reflection, and world music.

A recent episode asked listeners to meditate on Romans 4.3:
For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  I thought about how simple that sounds.

After all, Abraham’s spiritual practice was pretty simple.  Most of his practice (described in the book of Genesis) consisted of two things:  listening to God, and building altars at places where he heard God’s voice.

Paul doesn’t mention it here, but Hagar also takes on a straightforward spiritual practice.  (She was a woman held in slavery in Abraham’s household.)  In her sadness and subjugation, God speaks to her.  In response, Hagar is the first person in Scripture to give God a name.  She calls God El-Roi (God who listened to me), and the place of the encounter is known thereafter as a place where God was present. (Genesis 16)

Neither Hagar, nor Abraham, nor anyone else in the household, worshiped in an organized or institutional fashion.  They had no temple with priests, choirs, and attendants.  They had no written set of instructions.  All they had were their direct, unmediated interactions with the God of the universe.

I am also amazed at Hagar’s and Abraham’s courage.  Who could listen directly to God and have the courage not only to stick around, but to speak?

I’m not sure about my level of courage right now, but I am learning from Hagar and Abraham.  Stop.  Listen.  Remember.  Repeat.  Amen.

Bench at Lake Susan

Lake Susan at Montreat: a place where many people stop to listen and pray.

Does time heal all wounds?

I led a memorial service for a family whose loved one had died some time back.  For some reason, as I listened to the music during the service, the old saying “time heals all wounds” popped into my head.  I have no idea why – I really don’t like that phrase.

If you know anything about wounds, physical or mental or spiritual, you know that some of them sink in deep.  Deep wounds need good care:  antibiotics, possibly surgery, perhaps even a stint in one of those oxygen-rich hyperbaric chambers.  Truly, even small wounds need care.  Just take a look at the legs of a kid who keeps scratching mosquito bites!  I’ve been in hospital rooms and have sat through enough times counseling church members to know that time alone does not heal.

Why did that phrase pop into my head?  Maybe it was this:  as I looked at the family, I could see they were making it through the passage of time.  The loved one had died quite a while ago, yet here they all were, hugging and telling stories and sharing their tears.

Time, it seemed, had given the family a gift.  The death had occurred during terrible weather, denying the family the opportunity to put together a proper service. With the forced extended time, they put together a service that felt right to them. During the extra time, they had found poetry to read, had hired a skilled musician to play during the service, and so on.  There had been time to find ways to “treat”, if you would, the grief.

So, I’m not sure if time itself heals, but how you use the time matters.  Here are a few ways I’ve found that people make good use of the time (and may experience some healing) after experiencing hurt or loss:

  • just crying it out.  Sometime when you’ve screamed and cried until you’re just worn out, you will feel a cloud lift.  (it may take several crying sessions.)  A good cry is a powerful force – it can help rearrange your emotions, pushing things into a more manageable place.
  • Putting together a worship service.  I must admit I find it hard to understand when people insist on not having a funeral.  Worship services held during a time of loss (funerals, candlelight vigils, and others) are a lot of work to put together.  Yet the time put into it can bear fruit:  fellowship with good friends, building up of community, a renewed sense of purpose.
  • Therapeutic activities — support groups, seeing a therapist.  Over time there may be results from continued conversation.  You might not feel like you “got anything” from one particular session, but a positive effect may compound over time.

Grief and loss are part of the human experience. I hope we will use the time of grief we’ll.

Ordination Sermon

I preached the following sermon for the ordination and installation of a dear friend.  (Installation means the official beginning of one’s ministry at a church.)

Texts:  1 Samuel 3:1-20
Ephesians 4:1-6
***
Long ago, in a land far far away, it was a gloomy and lonely time.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those times,” we read in 1 Samuel.
As the story of Samuel begins, it stands in the shadow of the ending of the previous book, the book of Judges.  “In those days,” we read in Judges, “there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
To the Biblical writers, the position of having each person decide what is right for himself or herself is not a good place to be.
Leadership is rare in this disorganized time about which we read, this time of “no king in Israel.” The word of the Lord is rare. Every person does what is right in his or her own eyes. Those who have the strength and capability for leadership use their position for their own gain.
There is much evil in this situation — read a bit earlier in 1 Samuel about the priests in their prime, scamming the people and filling their own bellies.  It is like the “wild west,” or like a post-apocalyptic movie such as Mad Max or Waterworld.
In this difficult situation, who is going to hear the Word of the Lord?
— the average man?  probably not.  he’s too busy figuring out his own life from day to day, as it says in Judges
— the average woman?  it doesn’t look that way.  She’s like the average man, just trying to keep it together.
— the priest?  no, too busy filling his own dish with choice leg of lamb.
In such an environment how is the word going to break through?  This is a time when the word is needed but everyone is disconnected, and disaffected.  The word of the Lord would be a shot in the dark in this situation.
We meet a few people in this dire situation. First, an old priest, Eli.  Helping Eli and serving in God’s house is a youngster, Samuel.
The elderly Eli knew his sons were in trouble.  His sons were the priests filling their own bellies at the people’s expense.  God had already spoken to Eli about that.
Eli’s darkness is growing … his eyes don’t work anymore, so his world is dark.  He endures a long night of the soul, knowing his sons were doing evil and knowing God was displeased.
The Word of the Lord would be a shot in the dark in this situation.  So God waits until dark …. until one dark night.
The boy Samuel needs some help figuring out what is happening.  He knows about God, but he does not know God in a personal way.  He’s still a youngster, a doorkeeper and a helper.
It takes a while for him to understand.  God helps him out … speaking to the boy and also showing the divine presence to him.
 Samuel’s job was to open the door of the tabernacle.  His job after that fateful night is to open the door and deliver the word of the Lord to his teacher.
Here’s something the boy did not know…. The elderly leader whose eyesight was failing saw, or perceived that God was up to something.   Eli was waiting for it.  He knew Samuel would have a special role, when Samuel was just a teardrop falling from his mother’s eye.  You see, Eli had encountered Samuel’s mother Hannah back when she was a lonely and sad woman, ashamed because she did not have a child in a world that devalued women without children.  Eli wasn’t sure about Hannah at first, but then he was able to see that her prayers and her tears were connected to God’s plan.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, Eli also knew his sons were in deep trouble.
So God knows God’s plan, and waits.  Eli knows God is up to something, and waits.
The Word is not necessarily comforting to old Eli.  Samuel hates to have to bring it to him.
Yet …  everything is laid out for Samuel to go and do as he is called… doors have already been opened for the young doorkeeper.
I wonder if the whole business of getting up and going to Eli three times in the middle of the night was part of God’s plan.  If somehow it was part of God opening the door for young Samuel.  Samuel, as young as he was, could perhaps dismiss an odd feeling that comes and goes in the middle of the night.  By speaking three times, God shows Samuel that this is important.
I wonder if there’s some closure and maybe even hope for old Eli.  He knows he cannot change the past.  Yet he also now knows …. God has a vision for the future.  God has provided Israel with hope.  As the text says, during this night of revelation, the lamp had not yet gone out.  There is still hope.
So who perceives the word of the Lord in the first few chapters of Samuel?  A sad woman … a boy …an old man who is blind and disappointed.  Unlikely people.  Yet they receive new hope.
In our New Testament reading, Ephesians 4:1-6, we read about hope.
Where is the hope today?  Where is the Word of the Lord?
Who today does not know God?  I’m not necessarily talking about people with no faith whatsoever,  maybe more like people who know God is out there somewhere but haven’t had any reason to put their own faith in this seemingly distant God.
Where is the Word of the Lord today?
— People distrust institutions, corporations, evening news … things we trusted 50 years ago. The Word may not be showing up in the places where we are looking.
— Jobs are gone, and the types of work available now have changed.
— Yet people still want to hear something good… hunger to hear good news.
The Word does show up… in unlikely places… amongst people barely even ready to hear it.
Your new pastor is someone who can help you hear God’s word.
(Here I told a story about the new pastor, who had helped a grief-stricken woman name her frustration and her pain.  After acknowledging these powerful emotions, others who had found the woman to be “difficult” were able to understand her a little better … or at least were able to anticipate how she would act.  So, a door was opened in a situation where people had been closed off from one another.)
What you have here is a person who can open the door for you.  Did you hear in the passage from 1 Samuel how little Samuel opened the door of the temple in the morning?  That was his job, to open the door to God’s house.  Your new pastor will help you open the door.  She will not sugarcoat the word of the Lord for you.  She will help you to hear it.  She will help you to act on it.
She will help you to find hope … hope that begins in unlikely places … like the hope that began with a young man and an elderly man who had lost his sight … like the hope that began in the tabernacle that people didn’t trust anymore …
It’s ok if it takes you a while to hear or understand.  Your pastor said it took her a while to hear the call in her own life.
She will help you live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
Doors have been opened already.  Young Samuel may have thought he was receiving a vision of something completely new … yet God had already shown Eli some vision for the future.
God has already been in front you of laying a foundation of hope….opening doors that you didn’t even realize you needed to go through.  Crossing through some of those door ways can be frightening.
Today, allow God to be at work, opening the door of hope for you.
Lead a life worthy of your calling … you are one body, and there is one Spirit … you have the one hope of your calling.
Thanks be to God for opening the door that leads to hope.

Skittles

In the supermarket checkout line, a small boy surveys the candy options.  He selects a bag of Skittles and places them on the conveyor belt.  The cashier checks with the boy’s dad, who nods his approval.  The boy runs off to look at the flashing lights of the supermarket lotto machine.

As checkout is happening, the boy briefly returns to make sure his candy is still at the register.  Then he’s off again, until the purchase is completed.  He digs through the bags to find his prize, and skips off in victory.

Dad reminds the boy to save the candy for later.  Walking backwards, the boy smirks at his dad and grabs the bag as if to tear it open.  At this point dad hustles son out of the store.  The conclusion to this drama happens elsewhere.

***

I giggled as I saw the boy check on his candy.  I might have raised my eyebrows a bit as I saw how he dared his dad to catch him opening it.  As a parent, I’ve certainly put in my time in these negotiations (I’d love to see seasoned diplomats try to work with a three-year-old.)

Movies and books are full of characters chasing a prize, much like this little boy.  However, in movies/books, we often find the one with the prize changing for the worse once it is won.  Observe the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings:  having acquired his “precious” the ring, he finds himself worse off than if he’d never touched it in the first place.  It was amazing to see how the acquisition of candy quickly changed the little boy from a cute bouncy kid into an imp.  Dad did not find the boy’s antics amusing!

Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:21) Often we think of treasure in terms of money or things (candy, clothes, cars.)  What if our “treasure” is not the item itself, but rather the energizing feeling of possessing something?  And by extension, what if our heart simply yearns for the power of possession?

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to like cars or clothes or candy.  Personally, I enjoy seeing a well-kept vintage automobile cruising the highway.  I fell in love with some maple candies a colleague brought me from Canada.

However, the pride of possessing something can overwhelm the owner and turn personal relationships sour (think of the expensive and beloved car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)  The spark of love can, if not managed, become a raging fire of possessiveness and jealousy for one partner, and a slow burn of resentment for the other.  Sadly, the pride of possessing a treasure (car, relationship, anything really) can become a disease that hardens our heart.

It happens so quickly … we get our hands on something and the experience changes us for the worse.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus warned us to be careful of what we treasure, and  to watch what is happening to our hearts.

What is your most precious possession?  Does having it empower you to be a better person, or has the experience changed you for the worse?

Life in Hills & Valleys

Just today I heard another story on the news about the increasing wealth gap in the United States.  I’m also reading about how people perceive the wealth gap, economic success, the American Dream, and related ideas.  Apparently, many people in this country believe that we must all take our turn with achieving financial success:  those who have worked hardest and longest get rewarded first, followed by those who still need to put in their time.  People who believe this way are enraged at what they see as line-breakers:  women and people of color being two groups of people often accused of breaking in line.

From personal experience, I can tell you women don’t always get preferential treatment. Many a female 12th grader was disappointed in my high school, as they applied to a particularly desirable university nearby.  That university was simply looking for more males to even out the gender ratio of the freshman class.  Also, when I got to college, I found that spots had been reserved for freshmen from underserved or rural areas (and most of the people living in those areas are white.)

One writer described the struggle to achieve of the American Dream as a trek uphill, waiting to get to the top.  At the top, people believe, one can find a home, cars, and a comfortable life.

Here’s my question:  how did we get to the point where we believe life is just a trip up one single hill?  Aren’t there multiple hills, and even mountains, in life?  And why do we feel as though we are in line to reach the top?

Let me be clear – there is such a thing as a good level of financial stability.  I am not romanticizing poverty and the inability to pay for basic expenses.  But why do we believe in just one version of stability or success?

Consider an older person or couple who could really use some help with household chores or meals.  They “made it” to the top in terms of owning a home, but now find there’s no cash to pay the wages of an in-home helper.  Perhaps adult children could move in, but that could mean those children quitting their own jobs.

More and more, I hear stories of people who have moved off-grid and created their own version of success.  They garden, hunt, fish, and/or farm.  They build their own house.  They rarely venture into town.  To me, these are people who skipped the line entirely and made their own version of the American Dream.

I think if we were to just look around, we would find some fertile ground wherever we are.  In fact, most of the time, fertile ground is found not on mountaintops but in valleys. We could do more as a society in terms of making the valley a better place to live.  Yet each of us needs to decide where we want to be.  If we really want to climb the big hill, so be it.  But there are other good places to be as well.

View from the hilltop on an old farm, now a park

Young Blackberries

This year the blackberry bush near the church is full of growing berries.  But for me they are like forbidden fruit – not because of allergies, but because the deer will vacuum up all the berries as soon as they ripen.  Last year I was sure I’d get one berry, but the deer cleaned them out in what seemed like five minutes.

Anyway they are pretty while they are growing!

Ministry in Summer

Sometimes I don’t know what to do with summer in the church.  One would think it would be easy living:  no Christmas or Easter preparations, committee meetings taking a summer break, and so on.  Just relaxing and waiting for September.  Yet if one is wise (and I’m unwise more often than I would like to admit), one will spend the summer days preparing for the next Christmas and Easter and the other busy seasons.

And then there’s the task of holding people’s interest (sorry to be so blunt about it) over Sunday after Sunday with no Christmas carols, no special decorations, no children’s choir … just plodding through sermons as sunshine beckons outside.  Maybe holding my own interest is an issue!

Perhaps there’s more to waiting than plodding, or doing nothing … perhaps waiting is a work in and of itself.  R.S. Thomas, a priest in the Church of England, wrote about the priest’s summer as a time of waiting.

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.

Read the whole poem and some commentary at http://sites.nd.edu/oblation/2015/11/18/the-meaning-is-in-the-waiting/

Summer isn’t calm for everyone.  Our church owns a summer camp, and we are also close to a number of farms.  For the vine grower, the farmer, the orchardist, summer is a time of waiting, but also a time of bearing fruit.  At the camp, summer can be very fruitful in the spiritual/personal development of the campers as well as staff.  I wonder what fruit we, who are addicted to being busy, can bear during long summer days?

IMG_0062

Prayers I Like: Funeral Prayer

Yesterday I attended a funeral at at United Methodist congregation.

This prayer was printed in the bulletin.  A number of people have already written about Americans’ discomfort with the reality of death.  This prayer squarely addresses death while proclaiming full hope in God’s creative and redemptive power.

O God, who gave us birth,
you are ever more ready to hear
than we are to pray.
You know our needs before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking.
Give to us now your grace,
that as we shrink before the mystery of death,
we may see the light of eternity.
Speak to us once more
your solemn message of life and of death.
Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
enable us to die as those who go forth to live,
so that living or dying, our life may be in you,
and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

(see more at https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/a-service-of-death-and-resurrection)

Sermon thoughts: season of Epiphany

Looking over the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the season of Epiphany (time till Lent), I see several accounts of someone feeling called.  We have the call of little Samuel, the call of Jesus’ first disciples, the call of Elisha.

I see a few themes emerging as well:

— Some of these folks seem already primed to hear the call.

Hannah, the mother of Samuel, laid out his career before he could make that decision for himself.  She promised to dedicate him to God… so when he was still a small child, she apprenticed him to the priest Eli.  By the time Samuel hears God calling to him in the night, he has already left the home of his parents, and has made his home in the temple.  So in a way he is primed to hear the call.

What about the call of the first disciples, guys who were fishing for a living and working for their dad?  Family meant so much in ancient cultures – it still means a lot in some cultures today.  However, there’s one thing that primes these fishermen for a call to leave:  they are already landless.

In the foundational thoughts of the Hebrew Scriptures, so much is about land, and keeping land in the family, knowing which land belonged to your tribe, and so on.  But when we meet Mary and Joseph, they are already living in Nazareth, a different place than the “family land” of Bethlehem.  The fishermen who become disciples, presumably, do not have a family farm.  All the land is occupied by Rome and Roman puppet kings.

How we have already been primed to receive a call, to take the next step?  Infant baptism is a sign and seal of making us ready, like the mother Hannah dedicating her baby to God.  Our spiritual formation in worship, Christian education, and private devotion helps us live in God’s reality, while at the same time living in the reality of “powers” that control our land, our income, and so on.

— Sometimes the call meets with resistance.  

Elisha is upset that his master Elijah is going to leave.  He tries to stall the inevitable, accompanying Elijah on his last journey.  He asks (desperately?) for a double share of Elijah’s spirit.  Jonah resists his call to preach to Nineveh.  Nathaniel seems skeptical about the call at first:  “what good can come out of Nazareth?”

— How do we know a call is legitimate?  

Samuel’s teacher Eli realizes the boy is receiving  a call from God, after a voice has awoken the boy several times during the night.  Jesus demonstrates his call by teaching, healing, and freeing people from demonic forces.  (Of course Jesus’ demonstration of power leads to theme #2, resistance to his call.)  Jonah’s preaching is successful, but he doubts the efficacy of it, or still resents God calling him in the first place.

So a call from God may not appear to us to be rock solid or crystal clear.  Even if we clearly know the call is legitimate, we still have to implement it, in a world of ever-changing circumstances.