Rituals (an Easter Message)

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals these last days especially. Probably because Holy Week is always full of them. Palm Sunday we process in with the palms and say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maundy Thursday we have holy communion and the stripping of the altar. Good Friday we hear those last words of Christ and then leave in silence to wait for Easter morning. The Easter egg hunts, the cross outside with the flowers, the “alleluias” – all of these are traditions we love.

But of course, the church has many rituals that extend well beyond holy week. We have particular colors adorning the walls and the lectern at certain times of the year – white and purple and green and red – all these colors telling ecclesiastical time for us. We have our certain hymns that are appropriate for this occasion but not that. Even words we use at certain times of the year – you’ll hear “Emmanuel”during advent, and now we can finally say “Alleluia” again after putting away that word for the season of lent. There are creeds and prayers and responses spoken at just the right time. The Lord be with you….See what I mean? We know how to do these things. They are part of our life together. And there are rituals we don’t even think of as rituals – the men who take off their hats and place them on the rack by the door before they enter the sanctuary, the way we teach our children how to treat this space with respect. We have rituals about so many things in the church.

In fact, some might even say that we have too many rituals. That nothing ever really changes in the church and so you don’t really miss much if you happen to miss a Sunday or two or five or more.

Yet, I like to think of these things as more a rhythm than ritual.  Just as with music – there are intricacies we miss if we only hear parts and not the whole piece. We need the crescendo of the lights and carols of Christmas Eve but we also need the diminuendo and hush of sparse Ash Wednesday, the steady beat of those Sundays in the middle of the summer where there are no big church holidays but the story is still being told of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s when we join in the dance where we sway from Pentecost to Holy Trinity to Christ the King Sunday to Advent to Epiphany, where we move in time to the music of Reformation Sunday and Transfiguration and Ascension and hear every note, and feel every beat in our chests – when we give ourselves the gift of not only hearing the whole story of the Gospel but to be swept up into it to be part of it day after day, week after week, season after season, year after year that’s when we begin to recognize the nuances, the special things. Think about it – your favorite song – how there’s that part where it speeds up or slows down or changes keys in a way that just takes your breath away and you want to sing along and you say, “I love this part.” That’s how it gets to be, doesn’t it, with certain readings as we hear them again and again. Oh there’s Mary letting down her hair again to dry Jesus’ feet – I love this part. Or there’s that father who brings his boy to Jesus to be healed and he cries out words we could have cried out a million times ourselves, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I love this part. Or what about when the psalm is read that was spoken at your mom’s funeral or at your brother’s grave, a million emotions stirred to the surface as you hear those words you could speak by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” I love this part. As we hear these scriptures over and over we come to see ourselves and our own stories reflected in them. They become part of us and we become a part of them. To hear these stories and sing these hymns is to tell the truth of who we are – our beauty and our brokenness.

No, our life together is about more than simply participating vacantly in rituals – it’s about the fullness of the rhythm of faith. Truthfully, we can forget this, though. Oh, I know it. I live it sometimes. Not every text is one I’m just so excited to preach on. I know you have lived this, too. Oh, I can tell when you’ve spaced out and are probably thinking about lunch or if you can fit in a nap this afternoon instead of listening intently to the Gospel reading. Sometimes the rhythm of faith can seem monotonous, predictable, it can even become difficult to hear.

Which is why I am so thankful for Easter. Sure, we have made Easter a ritual, too – because that’s what we do – but it is a ritual like no other. Because the truth of Easter is that we remember that all the rules were broken. Suddenly everything was turned upside down and the impossible was possible. The thing that seemed to have the final word, death, no longer had the last say at all. With a stone rolled away and some women spotting the empty grave clothes – everything changed. And not just for then, but for ever.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means that our slate is wiped clean. Praise God, Alleluia – we are the recipients of grace and forgiveness we never deserved because Jesus accepted the punishment for us. Yes. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Alleluia!

Do you know what else this means? It means that the worst things are never the last things. Not anymore. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. It means that when I stood by my mother’s grave on a November day in 2012, I could weep and feel so desperately sad, yet hovering in the cold air there was not only grief but the whisper of a promise. A promise that Jesus went to prepare a place for all of us – a home, our real home, beyond this one. It means the ones you have loved and lost are just waiting for you, a heartbeat away. Easter is the promise that there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Do you know what else this means? It means that those things that are broken and dead ends in your life, that those things that chain you or cause you misery or heartache, those things don’t have the last word either. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Jesus teaches us that he is the God of new beginnings and new life and great hope – and we celebrate Easter every year because we need so desperately to be reminded of that. This faith we share in the love of God is eternally optimistic – in the words of Paul, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made – you have no reason to accept anything other than being treated with respect and care and kindness by others and by yourself. Good Friday is over, the darkness of night has given way to Easter morning, folks. Whatever is causing you hurt or harm, sleepless nights, anxiety or frustration – if there was ever a time to let it go and move toward life and joy – it’s this day. May you do it with boldness and bravery and certainty that God accompanies you on your journey.

He is risen! He is risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

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.  

Changes

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar…
“I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
– Lewis Carroll “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

The author, William Bridges, tells a story about teaching a class called “Being in Transition”.  The twenty-five adults who showed up for the class were in various stages of confusion and crisis.  He said he was surprised by the wide variety of people who ended up coming.  There were men and women who were recently divorced or separated.  There were a couple of people who were newly married or remarried, one a twenty-six year-old man who had suddenly acquired a full-scale ready-made family of four kids.  There was a widow and several recently retired folks.  There was a woman who had just had her first baby, a man who had just had a heart-attack, and even a man who had just had a big promotion at work.  There were three or four women who had just returned to college after year years of child-raising.  There were two people who had just been fired.  And there was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time.

Although there was a wide variety in the people and the circumstances, as they met together the first night, three similarities in their experiences emerged – each had been through an ending, followed by a period of confusion or ‘lostness’, leading to a new beginning, in the cases that had come that far.

As they talked about their various transitions, each person’s attitudes toward these different phases differed.  Those who had chosen their transitions tended to minimize the importance of the endings, almost as if they felt that to acknowledge that an ending was painful would be to admit the transition was a mistake.  On the other hand, those who had gone into transition unwillingly found it very hard to admit that a new beginning and a new phase of their lives might be at hand.  But all of them agreed that the in-between place was strange and confusing.  They hoped to get out of it as quickly as possible.

The in-between place – we’ve all been there at one time or another.  It is somewhere between the Good Old Days and the Brave New World.  Many people have written about it – one of my favorite reflections compares it to swinging on a trapeze.  Part of that reflection reads:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging onto a trapeze bar swinging along or I’m hurtling across space in between bars.

Most of the time I’m hanging on for dear life to my trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while as I’m merrily swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and I see another bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.  I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens, I hope and pray that I won’t have to grab the new trapeze bar. But I realize that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and for some time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss -that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway.  I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It is called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.”

I wonder what transitions you are facing right now?  What are those changes and challenges you are wrestling with today?  John F. Kennedy said:  “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” How are you doing at facing the changes you meet?  Do you find yourself welcoming them or dreading them?

Certainly some changes are easier than others.  Someone who understood a lot about this was probably Job in our OT reading for today.  Job was a prosperous, respected, and good man whose life was devastated in one day.  He lost everything he had, including his ten children.  However, he refused to blame God for his troubles.  In fact, the first thing he says after he learns of the loss of everything he owns and all his children is, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Later, Job was stricken with a terrible disease and he suffered excruciating pain for a long time.  Then, some of his friends come to comfort him but later they criticize Job and tell him that the horrible things that have happened to him must be because of his own sin.  They told him to repent – but Job was convinced that he hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of terrible luck.  However, he couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to him, either.  He struggled on with the confidence that he would eventually be vindicated.  Job never did lose his faith.  For a long time he suffered – but at the end, God restored Job’s fortunes – the scripture says he was blessed more in the end than in his beginning – he had ten more children and lived a long life.  The last sentence of the book says that ‘he died an old man and full of days’.

But before we dwell too much on that happy ending, it’s fair to spend some time on those terrible changes Job had to endure – changes that made absolutely no sense to him, changes that broke his heart and threatened to break his spirit.  Changes that we can’t understand as readers of his story.  Though we see that his fortune was restored at the end, I wonder if the more important lesson we learn from Job doesn’t have as much to do with his ending, as how he handled his own time of ‘lostness’?

It’s such a sad scene – shortly after Satan had smote Job with boils all over his body and he was sitting among the ashes, his wife comes out to talk to him and, she says, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  But even though he is in mourning, and in physical agony he says, “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?”  Sure, in later pages he laments, sure he despairs, but at the same time he says things like, “I know my redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth.  Even after my skin is destroyed, yet I shall see God.”

Scott Peck said: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Job found that when all else was lost he still could find his truest answer in his God.  He still found his foundation there.  He still put his trust there.  I wonder how well we do the same when faced with the challenges and changes that affect us most deeply?  Are brave to face the in-between times, the times of feeling ‘lost’, trusting that God will bring us through them to a new beginning?

I was in my late twenties when I graduated from seminary and was sent out on my first call to a little church in New York.  I’ll never forget the feeling of packing up my books and clothes and cats and heading east in my old black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  While I had moved a million times before, this felt different.  When I said ‘goodbye’ to my mom this time I didn’t know the next time I would see her.  We had lunch together before I left and the soup we ate tasted bitter and sad as the reality hung in the air that I was really moving away.  This time it wasn’t for a school year or for a internship or some mission trip – this time it was indefinitely.

I remember being stuck in traffic around Chicago, praying my truck wouldn’t stall in the late summer heat.  My Siamese cat, Sam, looked up at me from her cat carrier giving me indignant meows.  She could tell everything was changing, too…It was hot and loud with the car windows rolled down…no litter box, no food dish, no catnip toys readily available.  Cats have their own transitions to deal with.

The next night I made it to New York and pulled up to the big old house next to the church.  There was an echo throughout the house as I opened the door and walked into the empty living room.  A parishioner who knew I wasn’t going to be bringing any furniture had brought a chair and a lamp over for the living room.  As the darkness settled over the house and the cats explored the smells of their new surroundings, I went out on the front step and sat on the concrete steps.  In the fluorescent light of the church sign I could see the tops of the tombstones in the cemetery across the street, the distant warm lights of homes of neighbors whom I imagined I would meet soon, the traffic from the cars speeding by on I-90.  I imagined how many of those souls out driving tonight were starting something new in the same way I was.  And I sat there quite self-pitying and wondered if any of them felt as alone as I did right then.

That house was so empty in every way when I came.  It felt like a foreign land to me – coming from a city full of friends and always being busy with school and work and travel to now be planted in this little spot in the country.  I felt strange in my own skin for a while to be so completely transplanted…there was nothing that was ‘usual’ anymore.

But bit by bit I saw in a way that was mystical to me, that empty house being filled over the months and years that followed.  In a tangible way, of course, as I collected some old furniture from thrift stores and began to fill in the spaces. But in a less tangible way, God brought me the things I really needed – like friends – out of nowhere they appeared, people with whom I could laugh and talk.  And after a while, one of those friends, Stephanie, needed a place to stay and since I had this huge parsonage filled with just me and a couple cats and I said, “come stay with me.” And she did.  And suddenly it wasn’t just me in that house – but Stephanie, and all of Stephanie’s bohemian friends stopping by.  And then before I knew it on a trip to Minnesota I ran into an old friend named Chad and on a July morning we had a little wedding at my church and a picnic on the yard between the house and the church.

And I remember being amazed as the years there unfolded that now I could almost see the life overflowing out of the windows and doors of that house.  There was nothing empty about it anymore….but in ways I never could have imagined God filled that house so perfectly.

Anatole France writes, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

May God make us brave to face our changes…brave and faithful.  God is with you in whatever changes you face today.

Jesus, age 12

The gospel text says that every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. The festival lasted seven days and included special meals and sacrifices as people how God helped the Children of Israel escape slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves; the tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-borns in these homes, hence the name of the holiday.

So each year, Jesus’ family went to this Passover festival and the year where our story takes place, Jesus is twelve years old. When it comes time to leave the festival, his parents assume that he is somewhere in the group of travelers and they end up leaving without him. By the time they realize he is gone and come back for him, they have been separated from him for three days.

I have to admit that I hear this story with brand new ears as a mother than I ever did before I had children of my own. I think before my focus was always on the boy Jesus and how I was sure he was very mature for his age and he had stuff to do. The story used to make more sense to me.  But now I read the story as a parent – and when I read this story all I can think is “ummm…Mary and Joseph, you traveled a day’s journey before you even realized you were missing a child?”

But then I remember that of course, there were relatives and many close friends traveling in the group – and it is possible that even the definition of family was much more elastic then – sort of like it was expected that everyone looks out for each other and their kiddos. Actually that’s not so strange – I see that out here all the time – if parents are busy in the kitchen or doing something else, others watch over the kiddos on the playground or just make sure they don’t get into trouble. But wow – can you imagine – how they must have felt when they realized that they traveled a DAY’s JOURNEY before they noticed their son was missing?

The horror Mary and Joseph felt when they realized that Jesus wasn’t just off and playing with the cousins or busy with the horses farther back in the caravan – but that he was actually not there – but somewhere a day’s journey behind?

Any parent knows that sinking feeling of not knowing exactly where their child is. Whether it is for just a few moments in a busy place when they are suddenly not in your sight or if it is much longer –the feeling is terrifying. When the boys were very small I tried to take them to the mall to pick up something at the last minute before Christmas. Usually I put them in their double stroller – but for some reason – I think because it was supposed to be just a very quick trip in and out – I told them to just stay close to me and we’d get what we needed.

Well, this was before I understood that children often have their own agendas and are surprisingly quick on those little legs – and I looked away from them for seriously two seconds and one boy ran one way and the other ran the other way among the tall racks of clothing. I looked down where they had been and they were just gone. I looked all around the racks right around me – nowhere – and I thought “oh my – both of my children have been abducted. I’m going to be on the news tonight.” I began to search more frantically – and it was probably only about thirty seconds until I heard them snickering – they were hiding among the clothes on one rack right next to me – but of course, it had felt like an eternity. For any parent, losing track of your child and not knowing where they are or what might be happening to them – is simply awful.

And some might point out as we read this story of Jesus that not only had they lost track of their child, but they had lost track of God’s son! Whether or not that added to their anxiety we don’t know – but we do know they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. They didn’t find him right away – it took them three days to find him. Three days they had to search for their boy and finally, finally they found him.

He was sitting with the teachers – listening to them and asking them questions. But it doesn’t sound like the reunion with his parents was terribly touching. In fact, after Mary says what she has probably been rehearsing for three days she is going to say to Jesus when she finally finds him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety!” Jesus doesn’t apologize. He is not the repentant son. Rather, he sounds decidedly lippy, if you ask me, from a mom’s perspective. He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

I can almost imagine Mary’s head feeling like it is going to explode at this point. We don’t know if she said anything else –like, “I don’t want to hear it – you are grounded for a month!” or if she just hugged her boy close, grateful she could hold him again, see him again – even though she didn’t understand him and what he was saying.

I wonder if you noticed that here, once again, the scripture reminds us after all this in verse 51 that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. Just as she did the night he was born and the angel choirs sang and the shepherds came running to meet him – now, once again, twelve years later she is treasuring these things in her heart.

Of course, that is what parents do. Whether our children are the first-born of God or not, we treasure them, or as another version of this scripture reads – we hold them dearly and deeply. From their amazing first breath to their astounding first steps to their incredible first words – and even or maybe especially as they become little people with opinions and their own particular ways of being stubborn or sweet or kind or smart or tenderhearted or abrasive –we treasure their “becoming.” They astonish us with the things they say and do and we do everything we can to savor the years and not rush through them – we take pictures, we scrapbook, we write down memories, we celebrate the birthdays, the big events, the small events – we treasure it all.

And Mary looked at her boy, Jesus, and did the same. And in addition to treasuring that she had found him again – I think it could be that this time also stirred a new realization for her as she began to catch glimpses of who Jesus was becoming. There he was, in his father’s house – amazing people with his understanding and his teaching.

She was raising him for this, of course. But it must have been bittersweet. We raise our children to get them to that point where they are ready to take wings and fly on their own. Mary was raising Jesus so that he could grow up and do what he was meant to do. Here he was, still her boy, but he was growing so fast. Oh Mary, we know how that goes.