Writing With a View of the Graveyard – the Book!

My new book, “Writing With a View of the Graveyard: Life, Loss, and Unruly Grace” – is now available on Amazon. I’ve been overwhelmed with the response and also with how strange it feels to have this thing I wrote out in the world. It’s exhilarating and scary and great. I’m incredibly grateful for all the encouragement and support. Thank you!

Here is the link to purchase: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-View-Graveyard-Unruly-Grace/dp/1985634112/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519611096&sr=8-1&keywords=ruth+hetland

A Time to Grieve – sermon for 2/18/18

It’s too hard to keep up. The stories of horrific, unchecked violence just keep coming.

It was in the middle of the afternoon this time. It was a high school this time. It was a 19 year-old former student doing the shooting this time. It was an AR-15 rifle again this time. This time there were 17 victims – students and teachers.

Parkland, Florida joins a list that seems to be becoming endless – a trail of blood and tears – Las Vegas, Newtown, Orlando, Columbine, Charleston, Sutherland Springs, and so many others. Violence. Unspeakable Loss.

Then the predictable cycle of grief, blame, debates between the various sides on the issue of gun violence, talk about mental illness and what can and should be done, and then we go back to life as usual. Just hoping that the next time the headlines spout another shooting spree has happened that we won’t be in the line of fire, or our children, or our grandchildren.

I’m heartbroken. And sitting down to write this sermon felt nearly impossible. Because it was just in November that we were talking about the 26 people who died in their Sunday morning worship service in Texas – butstatistics show that on average 36 people die each day by gun violence in the United States – that number does not include suicides. Sutherland Springs and Parkland and Las Vegas and Newtown and Columbine and Charleston and all the others just make the news because in those cases the violence was all condensed in one place.

You know the statistics as well as I do. We can hear them on the news if we choose or we can turn our heads and not listen.

I think one of the reasons that we scramble toward answers and blame in times like this is because if we don’t, all we are left with is grief and lament. And I don’t know about you, but I’m so tired of this grieving and lamenting. I’m worn out from thinking of the rivers of blood in our schools, churches, homes, workplaces, concerts – you name it. I’ve grown weary in my prayers, too. It was six years ago when I lit candles like those after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was nineteen years ago, the same year I became a pastor, that the shootings at Columbine High School happened. What was an unheard of occurrence back then has now become everyday. Somewhere along the way, I stopped lighting candles on Sunday mornings for those who died in gun violence because it was impossible to keep up. There weren’t enough candles to keep up with the bullets. I wanted solutions, not more grief. I wanted answers, not only prayers. I desperately wanted us to fix this broken gun-addled society, not spend more time crying out to God over our countless losses.

But then I was reminded that each time this happens, while we must keep working for peace and solutions, first we must grieve and lament for that loss of life, that additional scar on our humanity, the stolen joy and peace. When we stop taking time to grieve, it numbs us, we start getting too used to this. Not allowing time for grieving is the quickest route to treating this kind of bloodshed as a new, horrible normal.

There are all sorts of ways to grieve, of course. There’s no correct recipe or timeline. Grief is sneaky, too – just when we think we are starting to feel better or more normal again, something can set off a fresh wave of grief. A couple weeks ago my mom’s best friend died and in the days that followed I couldn’t understand why everything was making me tear up. I felt awful. I didn’t understand it. I cared about my mom’s friend but we weren’t terribly close. I was telling a friend about it and she matter-of-factly said, “Ruth, you have to realize that this isn’t just about your mom’s friend. It’s losing another connection to your mom. In a way, you are feeling the loss of your mom all over again.” And of course, she was right. The wounds of grief are never completely healed over and it doesn’t take much to rub the scabs off and we feel the pain all over again.

But perhaps it helps to remember that grief is human and necessary – and even something that Jesus himself felt. In the gospel for today, Jesus weeps after Lazarus’ death. It’s interesting to note that the scripture says Jesus was both moved by the grief of those around him and his love for Lazarus. His grief had many layers – as grief often does. When we think of another school shooting we grieve for those families who are planning funerals for their kids; we grieve for the families of the teachers who died protecting their students; we grieve for our own kids that they live in a world in which they not only have tornado drills at school, but now they have drills for what to do if a shooter enters the building.

Jesus began to weep. It’s an important verse. Especially when we hear people who are busy trying to make sense of these kinds of situations and saying all sorts of things. One statement I’ve heard over and over after school shootings is something like, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.” I understand that the intention is likely well-meaning – that those who say something like that are promoting that they wish prayer or mention of God still be allowed in school. But there are distinct problems with this. First, it makes God sound pretty awful – like God is punishing every little school child and every teacher and school worker; like the hallways flowing with blood are due to something they have done to deserve punishment. This doesn’t sound anything like the God of grace we know. And secondly, do we honestly think school doors or school policies can keep God out? Do we believe that our beloved friends who are teachers and principles and workers of all kinds at the school don’t bring God along with them in their work and their words each day?  Do we think for even a millisecond that our beloved children who attend school aren’t treasured and adored by God wherever they are – whether at home or at church or at school or at the mall or anywhere?! God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-present – there is no place that God cannot find us and is not with us. So, when we hear that kind of bad theology, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.”  – we must be careful and remind ourselves and others that God whom we know through Jesus Christ is not in the business of raining down bullets of judgement and bloody death because of human-made policies. Rather, where we find God in this in so many other places. Especially weeping with us.

He’s right there, right here, weeping with us. Jesus wept along with Mary and Martha and the friends and neighbors gathered – and Jesus weeps along with us today.

I know we want to fix this. I know we want just the right answer, the right policy, the right miracle, the right movement, the right hashtag that will fix this – so that this is the last time we ever have to mourn violence like this. Tomorrow, let’s get up and work toward all that, with whatever smarts and energy and insight we have – let’s work to solve the problem in big and small ways – not bicker about it on social media, not blame the right or the left, but work together so that this disease of gun violence plaguing our country stops. Our prayers must always go along with action.

But today we grieve.

We take time to grieve. Let’s pray…

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this when we live in the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets. Our prayers feel so little sometimes in the face of this kind of hyper-recurring evil.

But still, we lift them up to you. Be with us as we grieve this loss that is so senseless but not unexpected anymore. Weep with us as we yet again list names of your precious children who died violent, unnecessary deaths:

Assistant football coach and campus monitor Aaron Feis

Jamie Guttenberg – age 14

Martin Duque – age 14

Athletic director Chris Hixon

Geography teacher, Scott Beigel

Alaina Petty, 14

Gina Montalto, 14

Nicholas Dworet, 17

Joaquin Oliver, 17

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14

Meadow Pollack, 18

Peter Wang, 15

Carmen Schentrup, 16

Cara Loughran, 14

Alex Schachter, 14

Luke Hoyer, 15

Helena Ramsay, 17

Be with us as we grieve today. And help us rise tomorrow with strength, vision, and purpose to work however we can for peace.

We pray this in Jesus name. Amen.

Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.