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!


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.

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.










What do our calendars say?

Having lost my appointment calendar this week, I knew I needed to pick up a new one.  I was on my way to the gym in the late afternoon and just ran in an office supply store.  I imagined a 5 minute stop to grab a new calendar.  I was there for over an hour and I am still wondering what exactly happened.

I first picked up a tiny little calender just like the one I’d lost; one of those pocket sized calendars that the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (DOC) sends us every year.  (Of course the ones at the office supply do not have all the church-specific information that ours have.)  Then I reached to compare it to one just a little larger, and soon I was looking at all the calendars.  There were the Daily ones with at least a whole page for each day divided into time slots.  They included room for notes and priorities for the day.    Then there were the Weekly calendars,  often with a week laid out across two facing pages.  Perhaps there would be a column down the right side with space for  notes related to the week.  Then there were the Monthly calendars, with a month spread out across the two facing pages.

The larger the calendar, the more additional pages it contained.  Some are blank or lined for notes.  There are Time Zone maps,  lists of 800 numbers for hotel chains, rental car companies, airlines.  There were measurement and equivalency charts in some.  Address and Phone Number pages in many.  Mileage and Travel Expense record charts.  Some were more geared toward Family schedules, with school and children’s activities helps in the back.  Others were oriented toward business people with interest rate charts.    The appearance and feel of the pages differed from calendar to calendar:  Some were bold and stark.  Others had a more subdued appearance.  Some were plain and others had flowers or some background design.

There were some underlying assumptions and perspectives in the design of each calendar.  One that always leaps out at me is the placement of Sunday.  I, personally, want Sunday to be placed as the first day of the week; but more calendars than not had Monday as the first day of the week.  In this case, very often, Sunday was a smaller block at the end of the week; sometimes even sharing a space with Saturday. Sunday was hardly there.

All of this dither about the design of these calendars seems silly; except that I spent enough time with them, to realize that I had different emotional and even physical reactions to different calendars.  A few observations:

The ‘daily’ calendars with lines for each time slot raised my stress level.  I felt anxious just looking at all those hours to be filled in with activities and expectations.

I also felt overwhelmed with spaces that were overly defined.  For instance there was a calender with the daily space divided into hourly sections and a shaded section that ran through the middle of each day saying “Remember to …”  I just knew I could not face that every day!  Made me nervous just to look at it!

I also responded to the font used and the boldness of the print.  Some felt sharp and harsh, whereas others met me more gently.

So I wonder … why, when there is so much in the world needing our attention, am I spending so much time thinking about a calendar?   God knows there are more important things to be done.   I suppose it could be because life feels so out of control and overwhelming:  we can’t fix Haiti,  people are out of jobs and are falling deeper into poverty every day,  and people who are completely out of touch with reality are trying to block health care reform.  That’s enough to make me crazy!

So my thought for the moment is this:

I do need a calendar to try to give myself some sense of order so that I can do what I can do in this world.

I don’t want my calendar to stress me out;  I’m capable of plenty of stress all on my own!

I don’t want to look at a day as a series of hours that must be filled, with every hour claimed by someone or something beyond me.

I still need Sunday to be the first day of the week.

I need to look at a day in the context of a week, and a week in the context of a month.  It gives me a sense of the whole.

I don’t want my calendar to scream at me; I just want it to be there.

I don’t need it to be fancy, but a little style and beauty isn’t a bad thing.

I want it to include space that is open and flexible for notes — notes about anything I want, not topics prescribed by my calendar.

So … I purchased one that is bigger than the one I lost.  This way I have enough space for each day, even though I chose a Monthly calendar (that ‘day in the context of week, and week in context of month’ thing that I’m feeling).  There are plenty of open note pages for each month and another group of open note pages at the back.  The font is gentle and the print is in a dark grey rather than a bold black.  Oh and I really like this:  at the top of each page the month and year are written, such as:   February/ Two Thousand Ten.  That’s nice.

God must chuckle at us and our calendars!

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.