Father’s Day

Father’s day is always a strange time for me. My father was a pastor for a few years until he retired due to disability when he was only in his late thirties. His disability was seizures that could not be controlled easily. It threw him into a depression that hovered over the rest of his days, and thus, over our family as well.

A key part of that became isolation. He only rarely left the house. In fact, he was so paralyzed by fears and sadness that there was not one single event he came to at school or church for me and my brother. Every single band concert, play, confirmation day, graduation day, wedding day, they all passed without him present.

His world became so small and his fear became so big that he was angry most of the time. Isolation can do that to a person.

I often tell stories about how my home pastor and my home church were means of salvation and connection for me during the years I was growing up. Our pastor would come visit my dad, he was one of the few people my father allowed in our house. Our congregation sent cards and gifts out to my dad – letting him know they were thinking about him as the years ticked by. And at his funeral, they filled the church to pay their respects and be there for mom and Andrew and me.

My Dad, whether he was unwilling or unable to do otherwise, chose isolation. But our church community’s only response to him, and to us, year after year, was love, love, love. The community I found there, the embrace and wellspring of goodness that I found in my home church was the reason the church as a whole became a symbol of peace and hope to me.

And I pray and long for the church to be that for all people. I pray that in troubled times the church will always stand for things like peace and hope and love and acceptance. Not just toward people we think are like us or agree with us – but working hard to be that way always and in all ways.

Crabby people – love them. People of other religions – love them. People of other races – love them. People who are full of tattoos and piercings – love them. People who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered – love them.  People who are voting for someone you don’t approve of – love them. Someone who is on the opposite side of the gun control issue from you – love them. The immigrant – love them. This radical acceptance and love is the way of Jesus – and it is to be our way as his people.

The things that build community, the things that draw us out of isolation – those are the same things that build peace. Each time we join together in prayer, gather together and sing, each time we calmly talk to each other and listen to each other about things that matter, whenever we take the time to visit those who might be lonesome or sick or grieving, every time we put energy toward tearing down walls instead of building another one, we are saying yes to community and peace, indeed, to the Kingdom of God.

Let there be peace – and let it begin with us.

Love Each Other

34-35 “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:34-35 The Message)

A few nights before my wedding, some friends and I gathered together and spent a few hours gluing hundreds of tiny pieces of paper to hundreds of Hershey’s kisses.  They were little party favors placed at each table.  Printed on the tiny pieces of paper were quotes about love.  Everyone had a different one.  I had so much fun finding all those quotes.  There were thought provoking quotes like one of my favorites from Toni Morrison when she said, “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”  There were cute ones like the one I chose from Winnie the Pooh which said, “It isn’t much good having anything exciting like floods if you can’t share them with someone.”  There were words from poets – Oscar Wilde who said, “who, being loved, is poor?” and great leaders – Winston Churchill’s words to his wife when he wrote to her, “my greatest good fortune in a life of brilliant experiences has been to find you, and to lead my life with you.”

As I found these quotes and typed them up and then cut them into tiny slips of paper before my friends came over with hot glue guns in hand, it was a blessing to think about those words.  To think about reflections of love – some romantic, some cute, some bittersweet, some courageous and to think about the love I had come to know in my own life.

Chad and I weren’t engaged very long.  It was the end of April when he asked me to marry him as we sat at my kitchen table one evening.  And we decided we’d get married at the end of July.  My memories of the days and weeks before my wedding are some of my favorite.  That summer it seemed like the weather was always perfect, every meal was the best meal, every song that came on the radio was one of my favorites, everything was happy and good.  I knew I was living in the first bloom of love and I knew that love has many seasons…so I was going to just enjoy every minute of those quick days.

We are nine and a half years, two children, and about 1500 miles from that place and that summer now…and while I’m thankful for those first weeks and months of love’s first bloom, I’m much more thankful for the time that has passed since then.  The sharing of life.  In my memory it is a slide show of small and big moments:  loading a moving van in New York, buying our first house, seeing our boys being placed in Chad’s arms after they were born, standing by the graves of Chad’s parents and then my father, loading a moving van again and seeing the mountains disappear in the rear view mirror and our arriving at our new home here.  The seasons of our lives and the lives of the people we love unfolding all around us.

But that is how it is, isn’t it?  Love.  Some bits of it are about the romantic quotes, the sweet kisses, love’s first breathless bloom.  But true love is something different.  True love is what remains after the first bloom fades.  True love is the companionship through good times and bad.  True love is steady.  True love is built over a lifetime, only really recognized through shared experience and achieving shared goals and continuing to choose each other.  Continuing to care about the other’s cares.  Continuing to listen to stories you’ve heard before.  Continuing to keep building onto the village you’ve begun rather than leaving to start a new one.  I think C.S. Lewis said it best,  he said, “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing…Love…is a deep unity maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habits reinforced by the grace which both partners ask and receive from God…On this love the engine of marriage is run; being in love was the explosion that started it.”

Our gospel for today talks about love.  It tells us that love is not just a nice thing, but that it is something we are commanded to do.  Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

It is a big commandment, because yes – it means those people whom we have vowed to love – our partners and children.  Sometimes that can be challenge enough – to really love them with a life-giving kind of love.  But this commandment doesn’t just mean we need to love those people closest to us – but to have real love for everyone we encounter. 

What does this mean?

It means that everyone – you and me, and the college kids jogging down Cascade Avenue, and the homeless folks at the bus terminal, the person driving too slow in front of you, and that stranger on the sidewalk, and the one sitting next to you at jury duty – everyone we meet has unsurpassable worth.  Everyone we meet, according to Jesus, is worth our time.  Everyone we meet, according to Jesus, is so precious that Jesus died so that they could have a chance to live and breathe and love. 

And so we treat each other with grace and goodness.  And so we go out of our way to help the stranger.  And so we risk our intricate schedules and let go of some of our fears to try to be the change we wish to see in this world.  Because when we do, we will begin to understand love.

I believe in many ways that God has given me children so that I will learn something about this.  Because I’m learning day by day that I can’t get too worked up about time or getting where I need to be too quickly when my children are with me.

I’ve told the following story a few times already in different settings so if you have heard it before please forgive me.  But it is a good example of what I’m trying to say here.

It had been a long day.  At four a.m. Jesse woke up crying.   Wintery roads, a day of meetings, and a stunning headache had frayed my nerves.  Soon, I could pick up my children from the church nursery and go home. 

 The phone rang – a parishioner in the hospital.  I said I would go see him that night but inside I was nearly crying.  I was so tired.  Motherhood and Pastor-hood were both such blessings, but my blessings were exhausting me. 

I decided to bring my toddler, Owen, with me to the hospital.  We visited the fellow from my church and then Owen pulled me toward the cafeteria.  He asked for some string cheese and I told him to find a table.

In a sea of empty tables, Owen plopped down at the one table that already had someone sitting at it.  The elderly woman smiled at him over her cup of coffee.  My heart sighed, the last thing I wanted to do was make small talk with someone.  I just wanted Owen to eat his cheese and then we could get home.

But I sat down and as Owen ate his cheese, the woman and I talked and after a bit she told me she was at the hospital because her daughter was dying.   In that empty cafeteria she told me about her girl.  She clutched a tissue in her hand but she looked like she was too tired to cry anymore.  She didn’t know I am a pastor but she poured out her thoughts right then and there to us.  I listened, and I knew the moment was holy because Owen, who is always moving, didn’t move a muscle.  He just sat there eating his cheese and considering the woman with his big blue eyes.

After a long while she said she had to go.  But before she did, she reached out and touched Owen’s hand and said, “He’s precious.”  I smiled.

As we drove home that night, I was still tired.  It had still been a long day.  But for that moment at least I remembered how beautiful it all is.  Every evanescent second.  And I was thankful that somehow Owen knew we needed to sit by that woman and hear her story that night.  I’m glad his vision is still clear enough that he can recognize the things I’m often too busy or too blind to see.

Love.  It’s about learning how to really see each other.  And not turning away once we do.  It’s about slowing down enough so that we have time for each other. 

How might you be better at loving your partner ?

How might you be better at loving your children?

How might you be better at loving your co-workers?

How might you be better at loving the strangers you meet?

These are questions we all need to consider not because I asked them – but because Jesus is asking them of us all.

(written February, 2011 – First Lutheran Church – Colorado Springs, CO)

 

 

Love

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

A few years ago I presided at the funeral of a young man who had died suddenly from a previously undiagnosed heart condition. He felt like maybe he was coming down with something and went to lay down and take a nap and just never woke up again.  39 years old. Of course, it was a devastating time for the family. I met with his wife to plan the service and we talked for a long time about their life together.  They had been extremely close – truly great companions.  She told me many stories – about how they met at a bar on Saint Patrick’s day, a holiday particularly special to them as they were both Irish, and by the end of that evening when he drove away she said out loud to herself, “he is the one.”  She told me about all the things they loved to do together, how thoughtful and capable he was.  I remember she also talked about their wedding fifteen years before. They had been married in a Lutheran church and she talked about how much fun they had planning their wedding and making it just how they wanted it to be and it had included some things they thought were unconventional and quirky. They liked that their wedding hadn’t been like every other wedding and how she and her husband used to kind of joke about how every wedding they went to always used the same scripture – from I Corinthians 13:1-13. No, they would never have this reading about love that was so common and used all the time.

Well, the wife asked me to choose the scripture for the funeral service and maybe because she had joked about this text from I Corinthians, I kept thinking about it and as I thought about everything I knew about this young man and how he lived his life and the love they shared, I asked his widow if I could share this reading from I Corinthians at his funeral and why I wanted to do that.  She agreed, and in fact, I often use it now at funerals because of verse 15 where it says that faith, hope, and love abide and the greatest of these is love.  To abide means to last, to stay, to remain – and what a comforting thought it is to know that even though death happens, there are some things that last, that remain – God’s love for us, surely, and by God’s grace, the love gifted to us by one another in this life.

So although this text is one of the most well-known and maybe overused texts there is, it truly is a great text when we stop to see what is really being said. Certainly it is a great text for church communities to look at as we think about our life together – particularly if we look at what was happening in Corinth when this was written.

I Corinthians was written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. There was division, disorder in worship, people were bickering over spiritual gifts and there was an overall sense of immaturity in the church. Paul was writing to the Corinthians to get them to move past all of that and to live, as he describes it, in a more excellent way:  to live in love.

Live in love.  We might think that sounds a little bit flowery. A little bit too much like a tagline from a Hallmark movie of the week, but the truth is that “live in love” could perhaps be the best mission statement a church could possibly have.

Because without love, it doesn’t matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. A balanced budget, an attractive and well-kept building, a perfectly worded vision statement – these are not the things that give the church the shape that God desires. Even if we were to have our Bibles and Small Catechism all memorized, be theologically rigorous, or even if we were to excel at activism and pursuing justice every day – if we do all these things and forget to be a community of love, we have lost our way.

It’s unfortunate that in our language we tend to water down the word love.  I mean, isn’t it just a little bit tragic that we use the same word to say such wildly different things – such as, “I love peanut butter.”  And “I love my children.”  While we know what we mean – that peanut butter and our children are loved in totally different ways, this overuse can tend to take away some of the power behind the word.

The thing that is often overlooked in this text is that the love being talked about here is active.  It is best translated “love shows patience” and “love acts with kindness” – love is an active, busy thing which never ceases working. The point of the text is not to share some flowery description of thoughts of love – but rather, to describe what love does.

It’s probably important to note as well that in this text it never says that this kind of love feels good. We’ve talked in our Bible study on Wednesdays about how there are different kinds of love in the Greek language – there is “philia” which is the love shared between friends and there is “eros” which is passionate love, and there is “agape” – which is the kind of love God has for us. That is the kind of love being talked about here. And it rarely is a feel-good kind of love when we practice this kind of love. In fact, in the context of this text, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.

So this is why it is a great text for church communities, for funerals, and yes, for weddings. No, this text isn’t about flowery, romantic love, it’s not the kind of love decorated in the frosting of wedding cakes or dressed up in a white dress and a black tux – but the kind of love that people know when they live life together for any real amount of time.

Louis De Bernieres, the novelist, wrote “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. It is like roots that grow toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.

It’s the kind of love that works to forgive and rebuild trust when trust has been broken.

It’s the kind of love that weathers the years – years that surely contain joy and laughter and good times as well as worries and disappointments and aching struggles.

It’s the kind of love that celebrates all that is good and sticks with it through the bad.

And sometimes it is the kind of love that knows it is time to let go of another person and trust that even this can be done with love and caring respect.

I knew an extraordinary couple at my church in Colorado who had been married for ten years and had two children when they realized after many years of therapy and prayers that they both did not want to be married anymore.  They cared for each other, they wanted the best for each other, neither were having an affair with someone else – they just came to the mutual conclusion that they shouldn’t be married. An extremely faithful couple, they asked me if I could pray with them the day they signed their divorce papers.  They talked about how important prayer and being in their church had been to them during their wedding – and they needed God’s presence now more than ever as they divorced.  They came over to the church and we went into the quiet sanctuary and I shared some scripture and some prayers, they took off their rings and gave them back to each other.  They hugged and they cried. It was so deeply sad, but so full of love at the same time. And over the next years I saw this couple handle their divorce with an immense amount of love.  Sunday nights they still always were together as a family for supper.  Both parents went to all the games and school activities to support the kids. Their houses were only blocks apart so that the kids could easily go from one house to the other. They might have been divorced, but their love did not end. It was an extraordinary thing to behold.

But real love always is.

I think of my pastor friend who told me about how she has always given her children a blessing every morning before they leave for school and one day she and her youngest were having a quarrel over something and he grabbed his backpack and went out the door that morning, slamming the door behind him.  But a moment later he came back in and said gruffly, “you didn’t bless me yet.”  And she blessed her boy with his brow still furrowed in anger at her and she with tears running down her face. Real love is an extraordinary thing.

I think of Mickey, a man whose funeral I did almost exactly a year ago.  Diagnosed with cancer in the spring, it spread quickly through his body and by Christmas he was in hospice care – his wife, Amanda, sleeping every night in the chair by his bed. Each day I would ask her how she was doing and if she was getting rest but all she cared about was being near to him, doing whatever she could to ease his pain in his final days.  Real love is an extraordinary thing.

And I think of how God has seen fit to love us so much – giving Jesus’ life for us so that we don’t have to fear death.  I can’t pretend to understand it, but I know it is grace and because of it, we need to do all we can to bless the world with grace as well, to live in love.

That is my prayer for us, dear church, I pray that we live in love.

Because Real love is an extraordinary thing.