Losses

Today I led the funeral for a woman whom I hardly knew.  I had just met her in the last weeks of her life and was glad to bring her prayers and communion as her health steadily declined.  When I gathered with the family to pray before the service, I noted my heart wasn’t breaking like it was the last time I did a funeral.  Being relatively new here, I haven’t had time to fall in love with my new congregation yet.  I like them very much and I’m sure I will love them soon enough – but for now I’m still at the brief, easy stage of ministry in this congregation where it’s still kind of just my work.

But in this life as a pastor, I have found that this stage passes quickly.  Soon I will feel at funerals here like I did at my last funeral in Texas – when I walked up the stairs to the church with 92 year-old Olee as we were about the begin the memorial service for his wife of 65 years, Maxine.  The tears were right behind my eyes and my throat was thick and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get the words out when the time came. Or just as hard was a few months before that when I made that same trek up those stairs with Joe as we got ready for his wife’s service.  His wife, Audrey, had been one of my favorite parishioners of all time – so wise and kind and altogether lovely.  I didn’t want to commend her to God’s keeping at all – I wanted her to stay alive and well so I could keep visiting with her and absorbing all the good things that one felt whenever you were around her.  I felt the same with Estella, the queen of all quilters, who died three days before Christmas, and Maurine, who died shortly before that of a quick and brutal cancer.  Right around the same time Mickey died, a husband and father and active parishioner, whose death kicked the stuffing out of all of us as he left behind his beautiful wife and two high school-aged daughters.  The pain of all these deaths in the months before I left was so hard on our congregation – and harder on me than I can even still understand.  None of these people were my family and of course it was my job to visit them and then preside at their memorials…but when the funerals were over, and all the crowds were gone, I would walk out to the cemetery and watch the Texas wind whip up the dust and occasionally some flowers left behind, and I would cry like a forlorn child.

Most of my career I have felt very lucky to care deeply about the work I do.  But sometimes, especially my last year at Norse, I knew I cared too much.  I loved them so much and I knew they loved me, too.  But I think a pastor has to be able to keep some distance – if only so that when one needs to push a congregation toward change, he or she is able to do that and not be crushed by the resistance.

Yet I knew I could be too easily hurt if I stayed at Norse.  I no longer had any kind of professional distance in my heart – I just loved them to pieces.  I knew that for their sake and for mine, I had to go.  I needed to go so that my work was just my work again and not every all-encompassing moment of my life.  They needed me to go so that someone new could come in and see them with fresh eyes and challenge them in ways that I couldn’t anymore.

I’m thankful for my new church and all the new life that there is here.  I’m reading all sorts of good books about keeping myself healthy and how to be connected but not entirely enmeshed in my new congregation.  It’s good.

But today after doing this funeral, my mind and heart have decidedly taken a detour to Texas for the day.  I’m thinking of hot breezes blowing through the cedars, a red brick steeple rising high into the sky, a limestone fence surrounding an old Norwegian cemetery, and so many friends buried there.

This Is The Gospel of the Lord? (a sermon from 7/12/15)

Our gospel for today from Saint Mark is actually a flashback that Herod has when he hears of all the work that the disciples are doing in Jesus’ name.  Some were saying the John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and Herod was thinking they might be right – and this is when we have this flashback where we get to hear what happened to John the Baptist.

It’s not a happy story and it’s kind of a big wet blanket text right here in the middle of the summer.  It’s one of those gospel texts that when I read it, instead of proclaiming afterward, like I always do, that this is the gospel of the Lord, I want to put a question mark after it.  This is the gospel of the Lord?

King Herod in this gospel is a descendent of Herod the Great, who was infamous for having all the toddler boys killed after the Magi announced Jesus’ birth.  Herod the Great had a few sons – two of which he had killed, along with his favorite wife, because he heard a rumor they were plotting his death. 

Two surviving sons were Herod Philip and Herod Antipas.  It’s like that show, Newhart – do you remember that show? This is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl.  Anyway, here it is Herod and his other brother Herod. Herod the Great’s grandniece Herodias came along and married Herod Philip, her uncle.  I read there was a lot of inter-marriage within this family because they believed that their bloodline was superior and they didn’t want to sully it by marrying outside the family.  Herod Philip and Herodias had one daughter.  The story that we read about in our gospel begins when Herodias leaves Herod Philip for Herod Antipas – her other uncle.  Unlike Herod Philip, Herod Antipas was the greatest Prince in the family – he held rank and wealth.  It didn’t matter to Herodias that Herod Antipas was already married – she quickly left Philip and took their daughter and went to Tiberius to be with Herod Antipas.

This was not legal according to Mosaic Law.  If Philip were dead, it would have been honorable, in fact it would have been required at one point in Jewish history for a brother to marry the widow of his brother – but there was nothing good about what Herod Antipas and Herodias have done.

Now even though their marriage arrangement was illegal and distasteful, no one interfered – Herod was powerful and influential.  Only one person spoke out against what had happened – “Mark 6:18 reads, ‘for John had been telling Herod, ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

So here is John the Baptist, pointing out the sin that no one else will point out. He’s got guts. And we might say, “Good for John the Baptist!”  Until we remember that time when someone pointed out some sin or shortcoming of ours and we remember that it doesn’t feel very good.

What do you mean I could be a better giver?  I do pretty well.  Well, sure I didn’t need that new pair of heels but they were so pretty and they were on sale.

What do you mean I really need to stop gossiping?  I mean, it’s not like I said anything that wasn’t true.  Well, sure that’s not exactly an uplifting way to talk about my neighbor, but come on.

What do you mean I better think hard about the first commandment and the false gods sucking up time in my life?  I mean, sure I spent way more time on Facebook and catching up on old episodes of the X-files last week than studying scripture or in prayer, but everyone needs some down time.  Right? Come on.

None of us like being faced with our sins.  Those who call us on them become an unpopular drag really, really quickly.

This was the place in which John the Baptist found himself.  He called out Herod and Herodias on their sins and they did not like it one bit. Herodias wanted him dead immediately but Herod was afraid to do this because he knew that John was a righteous and holy man.  In fact, here in the gospel of Mark it says that Herod liked to listen to John.  Maybe he wondered if there were things he should be learning from John.  The gospel of Matthew contradicts this, however, and says that Herod wanted to kill John but he was afraid of the people.  Regardless, we do know that ultimately he had John imprisoned.

But that wasn’t enough for Herodias.  She was out for blood.  Our translation reads, “She had a grudge against him.”  Other translations read that she “nursed this grudge” – she fed it and tended to it and kept it alive.

It’s crazy how crazy anger can make us – especially if we feed that anger.  A very long time ago I remember a fellow I had been dating broke up with me and of course that was hard and sad – we had been dating for a couple years.  But then a day or two after we broke up, I found out that before he broke up with me he had started dating someone else.  This completely changed my sorrow to righteous anger.  How dare he?  My indignation knew no end.  My energy immediately turned from weepy tears to plotting how I could inflict the most pain upon this blond-haired, blue-eyed, Norwegian Lutheran jerk.

But all the angry letters I might want to write him, all the little speeches I planned in my head that I would present to him when I saw him next, all his friends that I planned to date in retaliation – I knew none of it would really be satisfying.  Oh, I definitely let him know that I found out about his sorry little cheating heart – I had to do that.  But then, I stepped back and I remembered what Jesus said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.  So I prayed hard – every day.  I prayed like I don’t think I have ever prayed before. I prayed for myself and I prayed for that ex-boyfriend, I even prayed for his new girlfriend.  I prayed for them with bitterness for a long time, but I kept praying, until the anger started subsiding, the hatred melted, and I could start to see clearly again.  I could feel myself slowly starting to forgive them – and that felt so much better than the cold little stone of anger I was tempted to keep carrying inside. 

I wish Herodias could have understood how good it feels to forgive rather than to nurse hatred and grudges.  It sounds like she was laser-focused on her revenge, however. 

She made a plan – so she would be ready when the opportunity came.  The opportunity for her revenge came on Herod’s birthday – there was a big party for his birthday.  This would have been a party for men – women of good reputation didn’t go to these parties – not even Herodias, his wife, would have been invited.  I read that the only women usually found at these kinds of gatherings were women who danced and entertained men after the meal.  Whatever the equivalent was in those days of women who jump out of cakes.

So then it is peculiar that his daughter, who is actually Herodias and Herod Philip’s daughter, comes in to dance.  Here the daughter is simply called Herodias but in other places she is called the daughter of Herodias or Salome. Most theologians I read speculate that it was Herodias who sent her daughter in there, not caring about her daughter’s reputation as much as she is banking on that Herod has been drinking and just might be feeling generous enough to offer her what eventually does.  The King said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”

The girl leaves and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?”  Now what kid does that?  If you ask my kids what they want, they don’t come and ask me – they know very well what they want.  They probably have a list prepared right now they could hand you.  Coming up with requests isn’t hard for kids usually.  So that’s why some think that Herodias had coached her daughter beforehand, “After you dance for your stepfather, if he offers to give you something, come and tell me.”

Well, we know what Herodias told her daughter to request – the head of John the Baptist – on a platter.  I always thought that part was a bit extra nuts – that it had to be on a platter. But whatever.  The scriptures say that Herod was grieved to do it, but because he didn’t want to lose face in front of his guests and go back on this promise to the girl, he had John beheaded.  The head was placed on a platter, given to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.  This is the gospel of the Lord?  This is the good news of Jesus?

Well, thank goodness, this story doesn’t stand by itself in scripture – right before this, we are hearing the story of all that Jesus was doing and how word was spreading about his healing and the disciples were going out and casting out demons and curing the sick in Jesus’ name.  And right after this story about John’s death, the miracles continue with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water and doing more healings. 

But just as John was killed for speaking truth to power, the same thing would eventually happen to Jesus.  This gospel of Jesus Christ – this gospel that makes life worth living, that brings healing to the sick and wholeness to our hearts and amazing grace, it is not without cost.  For John the Baptist and for Jesus and for countless martyrs for the faith it cost them their earthly lives.  And we are living a very shallow, hollow, surface sort of faith if we think it does not cost us something as well.

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

What does this mean?  It means we are the children of God, given the gift of God’s grace – and a gift like this – how can we help but want to thank the Giver?  How can we do this?  How can we live lives of responding in thankfulness for God’s beautiful grace? 

Being willing to be convicted when we are wrong and try to do better is a start.  Giving not just out of our leftovers but giving our first fruits, the best we have to offer to God, that is a start.  Stepping up, being brave to use our voices and efforts to speak up for justice for those who are experiencing injustice, that’s a great start.  Forgiving, even and especially when it is hard, turning away from the temptations that make us less than the people God has called us to be, being diligent about studying the Word of God, beginning and ending our days and filling the hours in between with prayer, visiting the sick and the elderly and the homebound, writing the note of encouragement and support, teaching your children about the Lord’s prayer, the creed, and the ten commandments, honoring your parents with visits and support especially as they age, being honest in word and deed, using your words to speak well of others and never cut others down, be faithful to your spouse, be thankful for what you have….all of these things are a great way to start.

Not because our salvation is dependent on us doing these things but because we are so thankful for the love that Jesus has already so freely given us, we want our lives to be transformed by him. Isn’t that what we want?  I mean when someone gives you a gift, you want to respond in turn, and I pray that we never take God’s grace so for granted that we forget to seek him daily and be shaped by Jesus daily. 

Most of us will likely never be killed because of our faith, and yet this faith we share does require something.  Namely everything.  May God help us to give this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Scars

I have a scar on my index finger from a car accident back in 1996.  One minute, I was cruising down a road near Parkers Prairie and the next my car was skating across glare ice until I landed upside down in the ditch.  In the sub-zero November temperatures I assessed my situation.  My glasses were broken.  I had been in the midst of moving to a different apartment and so I had a bunch of my stuff in the back seat that was now blowing across the snowy countryside.  Papers, clothes, a random tube of eyeliner.  My right index finger was bleeding and as I looked closer, I noticed a bone, snapped and sticking out of the skin.  I observed it thinking, “Hmmm…I would think that would hurt more than it does.” 

I grabbed a sweatshirt that had landed next to me among the wreckage and wrapped it around my hand.  I remember it all in slow motion – the nice farmer stopping to help me and giving me a ride to the hospital, then laying in an operating room with just enough anesthesia that I couldn’t feel them putting my finger back together, but I could hear the doctors talking to each other, one said, “That was a bad accident – did you hear her vehicle was completely smashed in?  Did you know she is a seminary student – I think someone is watching out for her.”  And the other doctor said, “Oh yeah – well if someone is watching over her so closely, why did the accident even happen?”  Touche, I thought.

The wound has healed.  But sometimes when I write too much or do a lot of work with my hands, that old broken bone in my finger aches and calls my attention to it.  Nearly twenty years later I didn’t think it would still bother me, but it remains…a tiny, dull ache.

Years ago, I ran across a little article meant to explain to children about scars and why they form and what to do about them.  I saved it because I heard wisdom in it not only for our physical scars – but maybe for others as well.

Dr. Brian Flyer, the author of the article, says, “A scar isn’t always a sure thing. It’s not so much how deep or severe a wound is that determines whether a scar will form, but rather the location of the wound and that person’s tendency to form scars.”

What sorts of scars do you have?  If I asked you this question, I wonder what you would say?  Would you pull up your sleeve and show me the mark on your elbow from your first time out on rollerblades?  Would you tell me about the blemishes that remain from your bout with chicken pox?  The interesting thing is that each scar has a story – and people are usually more willing to talk about the visible scars that remain on their bodies than the invisible ones that have hurt their spirit or their heart.  The thing is – we all have them.  The question is – is there anything to be done about them?

Maybe you heard about the United Methodist minister who had been in a serious accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. He had a lot of pain, and was given shots to reduce it. The procedure was always the same. When the pain got bad enough, he would ring a buzzer, and a nurse would soon come to give him the shot. One day, he rang for the nurse and then rolled over on his side (with his back to the door), pulled his hospital gown up over his exposed backside, and waited for the nurse to come in. When he heard the door open, he pointed to his right bare buttock and said, “Why don’t you give me the shot right here this time?”

After a few moments of silence, he looked up. It was a woman from his church! Following a brief embarrassing conversation, the woman left, and the minister—thinking about what he had done–started laughing. He laughed so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes when the nurse arrived. When he tried to explain what had happened, he began laughing even harder.

When he was finally able to tell the nurse the whole story, the wonderful thing he noticed was that his pain was gone! He didn’t need the shot, and didn’t ask for one for another 90 minutes. 

You and I both know people who have been through terrible tragedy in life – illness, loss, chronic pain…and there can be a huge difference in the ways people let those sorts of tragedy affect them.  Some become broken.  Some show amazing resilience.  But what a blessing, no matter what our natural response might be, when God grants us the grace to laugh even when things seem most grim.  It may not solve the problems of life – but it makes them easier to bear.

Peter Berger calls laughter a “signal of transcendence” – a sign built into us so that deep down, even if our heads are telling us that there is no God, our hearts tells us different. Laughter tells us that life, despite its seeming randomness and chaos, actually has meaning and purpose.

However, while finding laughter in the midst of hardship is certainly wonderful, one might ask, isn’t there a way to prevent wounds and scars altogether?  Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “The best way to prevent scars is to prevent wounds! You can reduce your chances of getting hurt by wearing kneepads and helmets  – but even with protective gear a person can get hurt once in a while.”  If this happens, you can help your skin heal itself by treating it well during the healing process.”

Enid was a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly two years before she sought counseling with Dr. Rachel Remen.  Withdrawn and distant, she no longer cooked or looked after her garden or her house.  Most of the time she sat in her bathrobe in the living room, looking out the window.  She had been brought to see Dr. Remen by one of her daughters who had told her, “I lost both my parents the day my father died.”

Enid was a lovely woman in her early seventies, but she seemed as lifeless as the chair she sat on. Dr. Remen opened the conversation by asking her why she had come.  “My husband has died,” she replied, “My daughters would like me to talk about it, but I do not think that I care to.”  “No one could possibly understand.”

Dr. Remen nodded in agreement.  “Yes, of course,” she said.  “Only your husband could understand what you have lost.  Only he knew what your life together was like.  If he were here Enid, what would you tell him?”

She considered this for a long moment.  Then she closed her eyes and began to speak to her husband aloud, telling him what life was like without him.  She told him about going to their special places alone, walking their dogs alone, sleeping in their bed alone.  She told him about needing to learn to do the little things he had always taken care of, things she had never known about. She reminded him of times that only he would remember, old memories that no one else had shared.  And then she began to cry.

When her tears stopped, Dr. Remen asked her if there was anything she had not said.  Hesitantly she said how angry she was with him for abandoning her to grow old alone.  She felt as if he had broken a promise to her.  She missed him terribly.

“Enid,” Dr. Remen asked her, “If Herbert were here, what would he say to you about the way you have lived since his death?”  She looked startled.  “Why, he would say, ‘Enid, why have you built a monument of pain in memory of me?  Our whole life together was about love.’”  She paused.  Then she said, “Perhaps there are other ways to remember him”.

Afterward she said that she had felt that if she let go of her pain, she would betray Herbert’s memory and diminish the value of his life.  She had begun to realize that she actually betrayed him by holding on to her pain and closing her heart.

There is no way to prevent the wounds that occur in the course of our lives.   The cost of love and life is that we will end up hurt sometimes.  But we help ourselves heal when we realize that every great loss demands that we choose life again.  We need to grieve in order to do this. 

Even so, we might still ask ourselves if scars are things we have to bear forever.  Aren’t there ways to rid ourselves of them completely and start fresh? Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “Some scars fade over time.  If yours doesn’t and it bothers you, there are treatments that can make a scar less noticeable.”

My mother had major heart surgery in 1995.  At first after the surgery she always wore blouses with necklines that were high enough to conceal the top of the long scar that began just at the bottom of her throat.

Over time, however, she didn’t mind if people caught a glimpse of her scar.  It’s like she almost became a little proud of it because that scar spoke of something she had been through – a tale that she lived to tell.

Could it be that we are wisest when we learn to see all of our scars that way? Not just the scars of surgeries we have survived – but the battle scars that life has given us.  The scars that remain inside us from love lost, from all the hard stuff of life, even the scars that we hardly dare speak of because if people knew about them we think those scars would say something about us that we don’t want everyone to know.  Scars left by things like failures, like bad choices made, like shame at something we said or did that we know was beneath us? 

Could it be that a part of our healing is to be able to show the scars we have acquired – to not hide them but to say “See – see what I have been through. These say something about me.  These scars tell you who I really am.”

Jesus himself knew that it was only by showing his ruined hands and feet to the disciples when he appeared to them after the resurrection that he could prove to them it was really him.  He said, “See my hands and my feet – that it is really me.”

Let me tell you something – your scars are exquisite.  Have you ever noticed how when you come to know someone as a friend – you may initially admire them for their strength or their bravery or their success – but they become real and dear and more and more beautiful as you begin to know the things that have caused them pain, the parts of them that have been broken, and the stories of their suffering? 

There are so many reasons that we only show those parts of ourselves to those closest to us.  We worry about seeming weak.  We worry about people thinking we are fragile or incapable. 

But I love what Paul writes in our second reading for today – he talks about a thorn given to him in his flesh and how he prayed it would leave him.  We don’t know what this thorn in the flesh was.  It could have been some physical ailment or maybe even an emotional ailment.  Whatever it was, it troubled him and even though he prayed for it to go away, it didn’t. 

And yet, he came to understand that even still, God could work through him – writing, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Trying to understand why the scar-causing things in life happen is futile, but we can find comfort in knowing that somehow, God’s strength, God’s provision, God’s grace can still shine through.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a woman who was injured in a diving accident in 1967 – the accident left her, then 17, a quad­riplegic in a wheelchair, without the use of her hands.  Since then she has written over 50 books, and has become an advocate for all those with disabilities.  She has been quoted as saying, “Deny your weakness, and you will never realize God’s strength in you.” 

Tell me about your scars. Let’s be okay with being honest with each other about our flaws, our imperfections – because when we do, we’ll more readily begin to see all the beauty that God can still create even and especially in our brokenness.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Brave?

Since I wrote my last post, the sermon I gave this last Sunday at my church:  “Okay, God, What Next?”, I’ve received some comments from friends that I was brave to preach that sermon which stated my complete support of the Supreme Court decision that all gay and lesbian people deserve the legal right to be married.

I’ve been thinking about that.  I know I am not brave. My friends are brave who came out to their families and friends not knowing what kind of support or derision they would receive.  I may have had the smallest snippet of bravery when, sixteen years ago, I preached a similar sermon at my first congregation in New York – long before my own denomination stated their support of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but even then I knew my synodical bishop and many fellow clergy agreed with me, so I was not standing alone.

But now, as I sit here in 2015, with the ruling of the Supreme Court and the affirmation of my own denomination behind me, I am not brave to speak out in favor of gay and lesbian people having full marriage equality.  Rather, I feel remorseful and ashamed.

I am remorseful and ashamed that I was not more brave and vocal about this in the years between my first call and now. There were many years when I no longer had the vigor and passion of being a first-call pastor, ready to change the world and willing to say the hard things that needed to be said.  Those years when I was an associate pastor and I did not feel it was “my place” to speak out on issues and show disagreement with a senior pastor or those years when I was in rural Texas and knew my congregation was just barely holding on to the ELCA by a thread and I didn’t want to be the one to push them too hard for fear of them leaving the ELCA altogether. Those years when I supported my gay and lesbian friends, attended and sometimes was given the beautiful honor of preaching or presiding at their weddings, and yet I did not post the pictures on Facebook or speak about it too widely because I wanted to be sensitive to “where my congregation was at.”  I took the middle path – not too far to the right, not too far to the left, but not really going anywhere at all – the path that I told myself was pastoral and that I had to take for the sake of my position – but yet a path that left me the worst of people.  Spineless.  Neither hot nor cold.  A hypocrite, really.  I would have defended myself by saying that if people asked me point blank my views on the matters considering gay and lesbian weddings or ordinations, I would tell them the truth.  How dang noble, Ruth.  Don’t offer up your opinion for years, water down the Gospel fire burning within for years, don’t speak up loudly for your dear friends for years, don’t vehemently proclaim the presence of injustice for so achingly long and then find ways to rationalize this ineffectual and feeble sort of ministry.  I’m ashamed of it.

This is my confession today.  I am not brave.  I have been the opposite of brave.

The culture of our churches in these times makes it difficult, truthfully.  Clergy have families to feed and so there is a certain amount of wanting to keep a congregation happy so that one’s paycheck keeps coming.  The problem is that the real, raw gospel of Jesus Christ is upsetting and even infuriating…but none of us like being confronted and challenged regularly. So there is this balance that pastors try to find between sharing the convicting truth of the Gospel and also the endless grace.  We need both.

But too often, way too often, churches get so worried about anyone getting upset about ANYTHING.  So much so that this becomes a god of its’ own.  I’ve sat in countless council meetings where fear of losing members was the guiding decision-maker, not “what would Jesus do.”

And when a church does this too much, not only does the pastor get disillusioned, but so do the people.  People are passionate about the church when it is fired up about sharing the gospel, not when it is fired up about itself.  When we find our identity in Jesus, not when we find our identity in our programs or our pretty buildings, then we are authentic and brave and frankly, irresistible.

Anyway, here’s to being brave.  I just turned 45 a few weeks ago, an age that I am comfortable saying I may be halfway through my life.  The first half was very good – full of love and beauty and grace.  Now, the second half – I pray I will be truly brave.