Signs of the Eternal

I am drawn to the ancient ruins of churches, monasteries, holy places. I give thanks for those who find value in them and maintain them. A number of years ago, I found the deep joy of sitting in the gardens that now fill the ruins of the Augustinian abbey on the island of Iona. Then this past spring Dave and I spent hours in the ruins of the monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

I feel the presence and the life of those who lived in these sacred places. I experience God in spaces that once were, but are no longer the homes and centers of vital ministry. For some, these might seem to be places of the dead; no longer alive, no longer relevant. For me they are signs of our connection and continuity with the saints who have gone before us. And more, they are signs of the living, moving God whose work spans generations, centuries, and eons.

Time in ancient spaces reminds me that the work we do matters, is essential, but is not the last word of God. Like many before us, we will not see the completion of God’s reign on earth; yet we are always working and living into the kingdom/empire/reign of God.

Thanks be to God eternal!

Advertisements

Unimaginable Loss

Every life is so precious, so very precious.  At any moment of any day we cannot imagine how dear a life is … until it is gone.  One of the gifts of ministry is that we share life with amazing people. Another gift and challenge is that we experience the deep pain of loss and share in the grief of families and friends.

I’ve always said that it seems to come in waves, and I hold to that.  Lately, we’ve experienced so much grief in our congregation as families have lost dear ones … some after long battles with illness, some sudden loss to illness that took them in blink, another the tragedy of a shooting.  For others the loss is a slow creeping thing; life holds on but the ravages of disease cause the person and family to grieve what has been lost and will never be again.

There are those with whom we have been able to share stories, to celebrate precious memories; to prepare for that “good death.”  As a pastor, I savor those and am grateful to God for such a leave-taking.  But too often, lately, this is not the case.  There is just that breathless shock as life has changed in the blink of an eye.  A sudden absence, emptiness leaves families gasping for air. No, not air — God; gasping for God.  Trying to get a grasp on life as they fall through what seems like nothingness.  Trying to see some possibility when everything – every daily task – now seems impossible.

The amazing gift is that as we wrestle with God and with ourselves in the dark night of the soul, we slowly discover what is possible.  A step at a time, the ability to get up and make toast, to do the laundry, to go to the grocery, to work, to have a 5 minutes conversation without tears and then a 10 minute conversation ….

I somehow find a strange comfort in the fact that as precious and particular as each life is, every person who has ever lived before us has died to this life. Every beloved, special, unique person has lived a limited life-span.  And everyone who loved that particular person has grieved because of so great a love.  It has always seemed impossible to imagine that this person could die, could be here one day and be gone the next.  And yet it is so.

I believe we go on, and the world goes on, because deep down we know that there is life beyond this life.  That the spirit and the soul of each person is a part of life that goes on.  We who are Christian believe those promises – that there is place for us, that we will not be orphaned, that now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.  We believe that we are surrounded by that “great cloud of witnesses.”   Yes.  Thanks be to God.

Teaching that Calls out Evil

Hmmmm, in working on the sermon for this weekend, I began to wonder, “What was Jesus teaching — I mean exactly what was Jesus teaching — when the man with the unclean spirit yelled out “Have you come to destroy us?!” A colleague of mine, put that question into some different words — perhaps, “Have you come to destroy the way of life that we hold dear?”

I’ll give that this certainly could be your basic exorcism casting out a demon. The belief in demon-possession was common. And folks would have been very impressed if Jesus could cast out demons by simple command. But I’m interested in the ‘unclean spirits’, the ‘evil’, that takes over our lives, our world. Whether they be our love of violence and clamor for revenge, our greed, our racism, our heterosexism …. the list goes on.
I really like Michael B Raschko’s “A Companion to the Gospel of Mark”, (Twenty-Third Publications), in which he talks about how sin and evil can possess and distort the heart of each person, corrupt and pervert the lives of institutions great and small. He names particularly excessive individualism and consumerism. (see his book, pages 23-24)

The gospel of Jesus the Christ gives us the values and words to name the evil, call it out, and live in the direction of God’s Reign.

Sooo…. I wonder what exactly Jesus was teaching that day that ruffled the feathers, and rattled the cage of the man with the unclean spirit? Was he talking about money? That’s what he talked about most. Was he talking about forgiveness and reconciliation? That would upset the spirit of one who felt a right to hate and revenge. Was he talking about Love, that great commandment? If he talked about Love with the authenticity of his life behind it, he would surely be speaking as one with authority and evil would see itself in the mirror of Jesus and recognize itself for what it is.
I wonder what he was teaching ….

Despising God’s Grace

I seldom preach on Jonah. In the lectionary cycle it comes around only once and always shares the day with Jesus calling disciples who drop their nets (and leave Dad in the boat) to follow him. But today I enjoyed delving into the humor of Jonah.
The focus of this moral tale is Jonah’s rage that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah just cannot abide the values of God. Jonah would rather die than see the Ninevites forgiven. Jonah would simply not believe that the Ninevites – those foreigners – those brutal Assyrians — could really repent.
As I look at our religious landscape, and particularly at the conservative brand of Christianity that yells loudest in this day and time, I see a sad association with Jonah. Far often ‘Christians’ despise God’ grace. We rage at the very idea of God ‘relenting to punish’. (Unless, of course, we are talking about ourselves!) We may think we are responding to God’s call. The problem is that we have not chosen to understand and embrace who God is!. Then when God …. well, turns out to be God, and brings even those we despise to GodSelf, we call it evil. Very often we deal with that by running to a kind of church that will agree with and prop us up in our desire for condemnation, hatred, and revenge.
If we read the Gospels and we come to know the person of Jesus the Christ, we find God’s grace and mercy, slowness to anger, and abounding love embodied in Jesus. May we respond to God’s call in our lives with a growing understand that our God is a graceful God who intends that everyone be redeemed.

Critical Presence

In late October and early November of this past fall, I was in India on a Global Ministries People to People Pilgrimage.  My  friend and colleague Frank and I co-led this trip which included 15 of us.  Three of us had been on a trip together two years ago.  On that trip we spent all of our time in southern India, where our home base was Mudiyor Balar Kudumba Grama Pannai, known in English as Family Village Farm, the home of almost 200 orphaned and semi-orphaned children, homeless young women and elders.  From there we ventured to visit the Shieffelin Research Institute for Leprosy at Kirigiri, and Shanthigramam, a haven for elders who have been cured of leprosy but still have no place of welcome home.

This year we spent time in the south with these and other Global Mission partners; then we traveled some thousand miles north to spend time in Mungeli at Christian Hospital and the Rambo English School.  We even got in a safari at the Kanna Tiger Reserve.

There were clearly life-transforming relationships, encounters, and experiences throughout — as there were before.  But this time is different.  This time the Global Ministries philosophy of ‘critical presence’ is still stirring in me in ways I have yet to fully understand.  There were people in our contingent who were nurses, medics, teachers who planned and filled critical roles in health screenings, who guest taught in nursing school classes, who led music.  But all of us, whether or not we had those particular skills, were simply open to being present, learning from our mission partners, and caring in the best ways we could.

Yes, I had the humbling privilege of preaching in chapel while at Christian Hospital in Mungeli, but the most meaningful moments for me were those holding the hands of women in surgery and in childbirth.  Though I did not speak Hindi and they did not speak English,  I will never forget the feeling of looking into their eyes and feeling the grip of their hands.  I will never forget simply holding the clawed hands of women and men who have been scarred by leprosy.  I will never forget standing in the wards at Kirigiri with those being treated for leprosy.  I will never forget simply being with the children and the young women and the older women and men at Family Village Farm.

In these weeks since our return, I have first had to adapt to being back.  The truth is that I did not want to come back.  I want to be in India.  I could very easily spend significant time at Family Village Farm, or at Christian Hospital in Mungeli.   But the most significant realization has to do with critical presence.  We talk about critical presence as a philosophy in Global Ministries; yet I am coming to believe that critical presence must be the heart of my ministry no matter where I am.  Now I need to discern what that means for me — in congregational ministry, in presence with seminary students, in the community, and yes, in mission local and global.