Dry Bones

This Sunday, the Old Testament reading is Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). In Bible study this morning as we talked about that text, the question came up, “What kinds of situations do people face which might cause them to despair that they feel like dried, dead bones?  How might God’s Spirit breathe life and hope into these folks?”

The stories the Bible study members told were immensely moving – stories of grave loss and devastation that they or people they loved had known – but each of them also spoke about ways that God had brought healing in the most surprising ways.

You have stories like that, too, don’t you? Times when you knew the Spirit of God was bringing you back to life in ways you could never have foreseen – bringing you peace and comfort and hope when you were pretty sure those things were gone for good.

I pray for that for you today, friends. If you have a story of healing to tell, share it – because it might be just the life line someone is needing. And if today you find yourself still in the midst of the Valley of Dry Bones, feeling dry, withered, forsaken – know that I am praying for you that soon you will feel the Spirit bringing you back to life again…breathing God’s breath into your days.

God is near. Always.

Closing of the Sanctuary

“With thanks to God for the work accomplished in this place, I declare this sanctuary to be vacated for the purposes of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit….”

Yesterday I attended the final service in the sanctuary where I went to church the whole time I was growing up. Soon, that sanctuary will be torn down and a new one will be built in its’ place.

I was happy to be invited back to participate in the service along with other pastors who had been raised there and served there. It was important for me to go for many reason – partly just because I love that place and I am very glad to be a daughter of that congregation, but for many other reasons: I wanted my kids to have another memory in that place aside from their memories of the funerals of their grandparents. I wanted to one more time look out into the sanctuary from up front and picture my mother there, where she always sat. I wanted to see the pastors who meant so much to me and my family.

I’ve never been a part of a service like that before.  To imagine that never again would we gather there – no more church bulletins would be assembled in the secretary’s office where my mom once worked, no more sermons written in the pastor’s office, no more children would run up to the balcony to peer down at the happenings below, not another hymn or scripture or prayer would be uttered there again – it was as strange a feeling as I imagined it would be. The pastor’s voice cracked as he did the closing rite. I was glad, because that’s how we all felt: trusting that in the end, all would be well, but for now – our hearts overflowing with retrospection and melancholy.

I was asked to give a brief reflection during the service. This was what I said:

“When I was asked if I might like to do a brief reflection today, I was glad – and I thought about how so often over the years I have already reflected in sermons at the churches I have served on what this church, this congregation means to me.

Like you, at a time like this, I can’t help but think about the memories cradled within these walls. Some of my very earliest memories are right here – sitting next to my grandmother – always in the middle on the right hand side.  She often teared up at some point during the service and she would pull a tissue out of her sleeve or out of her brassiere and dab at her eyes. She taught me about the beauty of preparedness as she always had a tissue on her somewhere. It was here I began to appreciate how fun and good it is to sing together as Mrs. Guse taught us songs; I received my first assertiveness training right there in the front row as Joni Jorud demonstrated how to talk back to older brothers and their friends; Confirmation day in 1985 – the day I heartily affirmed the promises made over me at my baptism and the day I wore brand new high heels with little bows…and I became versed in the truth that life is too short to wear painful shoes.

Pastor Vetter asked me to preach one summer Sunday when I was in college and he was going to be gone on vacation. I remember walking up to the front in my pale pink suit, petrified. I think my mom was even more nervous than I was – and I couldn’t understand that until I became a mom, too. I was ordained right here in 1999 and I’ll never forget how this congregation celebrated with me and prayed for me that day. I wore my brown suit with a tiger striped scarf. In 2007 we brought our son, Jesse here to be baptized. Pastor Johnson led the whole baptismal rite and let me put that Spirit-flooded water on my baby’s head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Not long after that he let me sprinkle the sand on my dad’s casket at the graveside service…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…then at mom’s the next year. I wore my long black skirt and my red and black jacket with a black scarf. It was November.

No matter where life has brought me or how many years have gone by, the story of my history feels knit into this place.  My home church, you, my home congregation – a place and people of strength and hope and constancy. No matter what was happening or what was on my mind or what I chose to wear, here I was just clothed with the love of Jesus, gifted in his grace again and again. Of all the things I learned here, this is the blessed sum of it. I am so glad – glad for all that God has done here and all that God is yet to do here. In Jesus’ name.”

Perhaps after a morning of thinking about endings it was especially cool that in the afternoon, my boys and I picked up my mom’s friend, Norma, and we went out to the place where I grew up. Years ago, after my parents died, my brother and I sold that property to her son and his wife.  Ever since, they have been busy tearing down the old, shabby buildings and building a beautiful new home and landscaping and gorgeous trails throughout the woods we loved to explore when we were kids. They had invited us to come out long ago and finally we went. No longer is it just painful to be out there and think of all that has been lost from our childhood and how we miss our parents. Now, I can look at how beautiful they have made the place and I think, “Mom and Dad would have thought this was pretty great.” It is so good to see new life there and new memories being made.  Only one of the old apple trees behind our house remains, but new ones have sprung up all around the property. The lilac bush mom planted from clippings from Grandma’s lilac bush still blooms. They have planted lovely wildflowers in the fields and oodles of new trees, but the evergreens mom and I planted still tower over the lawn, healthy and strong. So much is new there, but traces of me and my family remain.

A pastor friend told me a story about a burial service she presided at where at the end, the family released balloons into the air. They were white balloons with white strings. As they floated up, up, up, in one large group, bending and twisting with the wind, she said, “they looked like a large group of sperm heading toward the sky.” We laughed hard, and then only half-jokingly I said, “But it’s totally symbolic, isn’t it? New life happens all the time! Right there, at the end of the graveside service, little swimmers still making their way.”  We laughed some more.

But new life happens all the time. God makes it so. Most of the time it just has to happen through endings first, that’s the hard part.

Sacred Passages

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22)

Jesus was baptized at about 30 years of age. At this age, according to Mosaic law, he could be baptized into priesthood. 

Scripture doesn’t give us a lot of glimpses into Jesus’ life before this moment and it’s not hard to guess why.  He was born for this day – this day of his baptism.  This day the heavens opened and revealed to all that what had been foretold was now coming true and what was until now only a whisper was a shout of revelation. 

How did Jesus feel that day?  Surely he had known this was coming, or perhaps he hadn’t – some scholars think that scripture shows evidence that Jesus’ divinity was hidden from him until his baptism day. Regardless, how must it have felt for him to finally be in the moment where he knew what he was born to do?  When he stood on the edge of who he had been and stepped forward into all that he was to become? 

We’ve glimpsed such things ourselves. God makes it to be so.  We may not get to see the Spirit descending like a dove or hear voices from heaven marking our passages but we feel their weight and joy nonetheless.  When you clasped your hand with hers and realized that was the hand you would be glad to hold the rest of your days.  When you heard the baby cry and gasped to know nine months of heartburn and swollen ankles had finally come to this – blessed THIS!  When you embarked upon that task which both exhilarated and frightened you nearly to tears, yet you knew you were the one to do it. 

Our passages are sacred as well.  And God is no less present in the waters that run over the head of every mortal as God is present in the water and the word at the river Jordan the day Jesus was baptized.

All Saints (a sermon)

(Written on the eve of All Saints, 2013)
Last night some of the youth from Our Savior’s and Trinity and St. Olaf’s met here for a cemetery walk.  We had done this before a couple years ago – it’s an opportunity to come together and learn more about the cemeteries here in this area and since it was right before All Saints Sunday we talked about the significance of that day.

Pastor Joan from Cranfills Gap shared a clip of the movie ‘Places in the Heart’.  It takes place in Waxahachie, Texas and tells the story of a group of people during the 1930’s.  The movie starts out with the hymn “Blessed Assurance” being sung and we see people going about their daily lives on a Sunday morning.  Many coming out of church after the service.  A family sits down to a noontime meal and while they are saying grace we hear shots ringing out.  Within moments, there is a knock at the door and the men at the door are asking for the husband of the family to come with them.  Turns out he is the sheriff in town and there is trouble down by the railroad.  A young black man – looks to be a teenager – he is drunk and throwing bottles up into the air and shooting at them.

There is a brief, good-natured exchange between the police and the young man.  They tell him to come on now – he needs to come with them, get sobered up.  The feel of the scene is that these are just two good policemen who know a youthful indiscretion when they see it  – they are chuckling as he throws one last bottle up into the air and the gun clicks – out of bullets. And the young man turns to go with them.  He’s been swaying a lot this whole time – you can tell he’s had a lot to drink – but there’s no worries now, the gun is out of bullets.  But as he turns, his finger hits the trigger again and there was another bullet.  It hits the sheriff in the chest and kills him.

In a heartbeat everything changes – for the family of the sheriff, for the young man – the young black man is actually killed by local folks enraged at what he has done.

The whole movie shares hardships of the people during this time –what the widow does to get by, how many need to move away from that town to find work, how more folks die.  It tells the story of the difficulties and challenges that many communities face over time. And the closing scene is back in the church.  The pews are probably only about half full now.  We know why – so many have died, so many have had to move away.

But the last thing is this: it shows the congregation having communion – and this is one of those churches where the sacrament is passed up and down the pews – and as the tray of wine is being passed from person to person, suddenly we see the pews are not half empty.  All the people who have left or died are there.  All of them passing the sacrament to each other and saying “the peace of God” to each other as they do it – even that sheriff and the young man who had killed him.

The communion of the saints.  I thought this movie painted a picture so perfectly of what we mean when we talk about that “communion of the saints” in church.  About how our life together and our faith in Christ connects us to each other in ways that time, distance, or even death cannot break.  How when we gather here, we gather not just as the people of God in 2013, but as God’s people throughout time.

Well, after we watched those couple clips from the movie we walked outside into the cool evening air.  We started out in the new cemetery shelter and I shared what I had read about in our history here regarding old funeral traditions and our cemetery.  As we moved out into the cemetery and walked among the stones in the increasing darkness, I told some stories I had collected about the cemetery and when we were nearly done and walking toward the gate, I heard one of the young girls say to her friend, “I hate cemeteries.  They give me the creeps.” She continued.  “Cemeteries and nursing homes.”

Please don’t think less of me when I say my first inclination was to turn around and slap her – because I didn’t.  Instead, I prayed that God could help her see in time, and I’m certain God will, that the sacred that is present everywhere – in every season of life and even in death.  I prayed that someday, when someone she loves is in the nursing home, that she will be faithful to visit and begin to see and understand that it is a place full of beautiful people with lifetimes of stories we are blessed if we get to hear.  And that even if they aren’t able to tell those stories anymore, that they are still the saints of God in that place, with worth and beauty and dignity. I hope she’ll begin to realize that what she hates is not nursing homes but the fear they stir up within her of her own mortality – that yes, someday, all of us – if we get the blessing of living a long time, someday all of us will need help.  Someday all of us will have hands that may tremble a little too much to take our own medications.  Someday, all of us will have minds that may not quite be able to remember the way home or be able to go for a simple walk alone.  And yes, that is not fun information to think about, but there it is.  And we don’t do ourselves or the world any good if we spend our lives doing things like casually dismissing an entire group of people and saying things like “oh, I just don’t like nursing homes.” And that if we are held in God’s hands, then there is nothing to fear – that somehow God will help all of us through the last seasons of our lives just as God helped us through the first ones and the middle ones.

And I hope that someday, when someone she loves dies, she’ll go to the funeral and then she’ll walk along with the casket, with her heart frozen inside her, out to the cemetery for the burial.  And she’ll feel the awful emptiness that comes with knowing her loved one will be sleeping in that ground that night and that’s all there is to it.  And it will feel like the period at the end of a sentence – final.  But then I pray she’ll listen to the words of scripture that the preacher reads. Words about a home prepared for all of us in God’s house – and that even through her grief – as the breeze floats over the cemetery she hear God’s whisper that this isn’t the end of the story.  That the one she loves dearly who is being buried that day is not simply being shut up in a tomb and that the ground upon which she is walking is not just a pile of bones and tears – but that it is a holy place where we linger over a promise.  It is a place full of stories of a thousand saints who lived, and yes, died, but even then God had a plan for them.  A plan we can only just glimpse – but one they have now seen face to face – and that if you really listen in that place, you’ll hear a song not of death but of hope – a hope in which we can rest, and rejoice.  I pray she’ll realize in that moment, that what she hates is not cemeteries, but her fear of the unknown. And that in time she’ll remember that she, and all of us, are held in God’s hands, and there is nothing to fear.

Living and loving God, the generations rise and pass away before you.  You are the strength of those who labor; you are the rest of the blessed dead. We rejoice in the company of your saints.  We remember all who have lived in faith, all who have peacefully died, and especially those most dear to us who rest in you.  Give us in time our portion with those who have trusted in you and have striven to do your holy will. To your name, with the Church on earth and the Church in heaven, we ascribe all honor and glory, now and forever.  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.

Benediction

They sang the closing hymn and gathered in the fellowship hall. One last potluck together. One last time they sang grace gathered around those embroidered table-cloths made by their mothers and grandmothers. One last time they were together under the roof built by their fathers and grandfathers.

After one-hundred twenty-five years of ministry, the doors of their little church were closing. Their prairie town had shrunk to only a few houses. The school was closed. The stores were gone. Their zip code was taken away last year.

When the meal was over they gathered outside in the summer evening air and read some scripture. The bell tolled a final time and the benediction was given.

They lingered a long time on the church lawn and shared memories from when their families were young and their children laughed and played in this place. They remembered the weddings, the funerals, and the pastors that had come and gone.
Tears were shed. Hugs were shared. They could hardly believe they would be worshipping somewhere else next Sunday.

But there was joy, too. Not only in thankfulness for all that had been – but for the promise that hung in the air as the last car drove off. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Isaiah 40:1-11
“… the word of our God will stand forever.” (v.8)

This Day

 

This is the day.  It’s the last time the scent of coffee will drift from the kitchen.  Never again will you see the baby rub sleep out of his eyes as he sits up in the crib to call for you.  Your spouse – with tousled hair – gives you one final good-morning kiss.

You observe these things you will not see again – the morning sun shining on pots and pans still in the sink, the cat crying for her food, the dog scratching to go outside, the children bickering in the bedroom.

A concluding full schedule of commitments awaits you.

It seems the same as it is most mornings – yet it will never exist again.  Never again will it be this way.

Today is the only day there is.  This instant is the only one you have to live.  This is the moment you get to love one another.  This is when you must bless the world with what only you have to give.  This is the hour to savor, treasure, and be present fully.

Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow is a chance.

God has brought you this far so that you can live in this day – just this day.  What in the world will you do with such a stunning gift?cemetery sunrise

2 Samuel 7:18-29
“Who am I…that you have brought me thus far?”