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.

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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.

Walk tenderly with each other

There are times when the challenges of life seem to crowd in around upon us.  In recent weeks, our family, for instance has cared for one we love through her knee replacement surgery, then within days we have cared for each other in the death of a family member in a tragic auto accident.  As a pastor, I’ve come back home to be with a church family through a surgery, and then have cared for another in the tragic death of a dear pet.  Members of the congregation have shared concerns for their friends and family members who are ill or grieving.

At the same time, we hear the joys and delights of new parents, and grandparents.  We celebrate the voices of children in worship and the beauty of a child with autism running forward during worship; drawn to the vibrant colors she so loves.  We find peace and comfort in music.

We meet to share reflections from vibrant congregational small group meetings, and to set priorities for the church’s ministry in this time.

All to say that life is multi-dimensional.  We could never imagine all that is going on in the lives of those we encounter each day.  We feel anger at someone in traffic and we have no idea what that person is facing.  We snap at a telemarketer, forgetting that this is a person just like ourselves who may be worried about his or her child, or struggling with chronic pain.

I am reminded in these days that we need to approach each and every encounter in a spirit of prayerful care.  Let us be tender with each other.  Let us treat one another with love.

Church Attendance

This was a very unusual Sunday morning for me.  I awoke to discover that I have ‘pink eye’ and, after a conversation with a nurse in the congregation, concluded that it was the contagious kind.  The good news was that I was not preaching today; our student associate was scheduled to preach.  So at the advice of the nurse in the congregation, I did not go share my germs with the good folks at church.

Seldom am I at away from the congregation on a Sunday morning, and when I am, it is usually because I am out of town or sick and not leaving the house.  On this particular morning, I went to the pharmacy to pick up drops for my eyes.  On the drive to the pharmacy, I was certainly aware that traffic was much lighter than on a weekday or a Saturday.  I very quickly jumped to the ‘everybody’s at home- so few people go to church’ train of thought.  Those thoughts are certainly based in some fact; however I noticed something else.  So many people in cars I passed were dressed as if they just might be going to church.  (I wonder at myself even as I make that statement,  because folks in our congregation do not particularly ‘dress up’ for worship — so why would I make an assumption about anyone based on what they are wearing?!)

Still as I went into the drug store, I had several encounters with people who were picking something up and did appear to be going to church.  At the checkout, when I started to walk away without my change, a couple behind me laughed and commented to me about my being particular generous. “After all,” the man said, “it is Sunday!”  When he said that I wondered if they assumed that I was one of those who does not participate in church, and they were very kindly reminding me of the significance of this day. I appreciated the fact that he said what he did.  It was a fun, non-threatening way to remind me of the day.

I realized that we make a number of assumptions.  I was making assumptions about church attendance this morning based on how people were dressed.  I make assumptions when I see the cars in store parking lots — that those folks are not going to church.  I make the assumption that if someone is not in church on a Sunday morning, that they are not in church at all.  It might be that they attend church on Saturday, or on Sunday afternoon.  It might be that they are sick and picking up something at the pharmacy.

Hmmm.  Nothing of great depth here – just hmmm.  We are an assumption making people!