Piercing the darkness

(This is a sermon, not really a blog post.  Merry Christmas, readers!)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him
was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

candle-in-the-window-candle-in-the-window-meaning-candle-in-the-window-golden-glowing-candle-flickers-in-front-of-candle-in-the-window-candle-window-lightsIf the only gospel we had was the fourth one, the Gospel According to John, things might look a lot different today. We might not be celebrating the birth of Jesus; we would have no crèche adorning the chancel, no star-banners twinkling above us, no carols about babies sleeping in hay amid lowing cattle and bleating sheep.

If all we knew of Jesus’ origins were these words at the beginning of John’s gospel, we might celebrate his life differently. Perhaps we would be more mystical; perhaps we would pay different attention to words about The Word.

Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary, says this about John’s prologue. “This text plays a trick on us. When we begin reading it, it suggests as a backdrop an infinity the size of all creation – earth and sky and solar system and planets and stars. The language is grand, otherworldly…. Think the opening credits to a Star Wars movie. Think comets and black holes and the spaciousness of the cosmos. It is the world’s largest show and we are the spectators.

“Then comes the trick: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ We’re led by this text to expect something ethereal and otherworldly; and then suddenly the cosmic becomes intensely personal.” (“Unwrapping Advent: Questions and Answers for Contemplation at Advent and Christmas”; the 2018 Advent Devotional, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary)

Isn’t that a lovely thought – that the cosmic becomes intensely personal? And if that is true – and I like to think that it is – how does that happen, or what does that look like? Perhaps we find the answer in the text itself. The cosmic becoming personal looks like light shining in the darkness.

Of course, when we look at the night sky and see the stars twinkling (a rare occurrence in the rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest) the stars are remote and cold, and the light we see is hundreds of years old. There’s nothing personal in that.

But there is something deeply personal about a candle glowing in a window, or a campfire in the remote wilderness. There is something personal and reassuring about leaving the light on over the stove at night in case anyone gets up in the wee small hours. I’m so grateful to all those who put lights on trees and houses in the dark, rainy nights of the season.

Light shining in the darkness works as a metaphor too, when we consider the good in the world piercing all that is wrong and unjust.

-The ceasefire in Yemen is a spark of hope for a nation that has experienced so much suffering in the past few months.
-In 2018, there were only 28 cases of polio around the globe; like smallpox, it is a disease that will soon be eradicated. (worldvision.org/christian-faith-news-stories/reasons-hope-2019)
-In The Hague, Bethel Church is nearing their 60th day of a worship service in order to protect a refugee family seeking asylum in The Netherlands; the family cannot be removed during worship, so pastors from all over, and members of the church, and neighbors near and far have stayed in continual worship for over 1400 hours, all to protect one family. (theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/21/dutch-round-the-clock-church-service-keeps-hopes-alive-for-asylum-family)

There are these and so many other stories of light shining in the world. And as we know, light both illumines and warms. It illumines so we are able to see, to see the good, and to see what is broken so we will know what needs attention. It warms so that we are not shivering in the cold, or freezing to death.

You and I can be light in the darkness, and we are. Every time we stand up for what is just; every time we help one another; every time we offer grace instead of condemnation; every time we choose love over hate, love over apathy, we are shining light.

As theologian Karl Rahner has said, “The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect [God’s] golden light. Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.”

Christ is our light, and by that I mean that in hearing his teaching and in following his ways, the path of our days is illumined. We see differently in His light. It is as C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Because of the illumination of Christ, we do not say, “This is a waste of a human life under that tarp, in that tent, pushing that shopping cart.” No! Instead we say, “This is a beloved child of God. This is my neighbor, whom I am called to love and serve.”

Because Christ is the light of the world, we do not say, “The toils on the other side of the globe are not my problem. I share nothing in common with those people – not a nation, not a language, not a faith.” No! Instead we say “my brothers and sisters, these people who live on the same earth that I live on – this earth created by God and given to us all – they are suffering and I cannot live fully in joy until that suffering is alleviated. I share in their pain until God makes all things right.”

Because what has come into being through him is life, the life that is the light of all people, we do not say, “Everything is meaningless. We live and then we die and nothing matters.” No! Instead we say, “This life, this span of years or decades that we have, is a gift to be opened and shared, an opportunity to gather in grief and celebration, an invitation to tell the truth about love and fear and failure and hope.”

In an Advent devotional I used this year, I read the most amazing sentence. “Remember that no matter how far you stray, God leaves a light on in the window to welcome you home.” (Krin Van Tothenhove, Presbyterians Today 2018 Advent Devotional, “God Lifts the Lowly”)

If God is our home, we know that we wander away. Sometimes, like the younger son of the parable, we wander far away, to get out from what we perceive to be our parents’ tyranny, to live the way we want, even if it brings us ruin.

Sometimes we wander from home because we weren’t paying attention and suddenly we’re lost. We weren’t paying attention to wrong turns that led to dead ends, to friendships that hurt rather than encouraged, to choices that took us to dark corners that hid danger and disease.

And sometimes we wander from home because we have intentionally set out into the darkness in search of something or more likely in search of someone. We go to those places that frighten us, those places where we ourselves are in danger because someone we love is there, and if they won’t come home to us, then we will go sit with them in the darkness.

And when we do that, we have confidence that whenever we are ready to turn around, and make our way through the darkness again, and start that journey home – we have confidence that Someone is expecting us, waiting for us, leaving that light on so we can find them again.

A few months ago Gregg and I were going up to our family place near Mt. Rainier. We had a commitment at church that afternoon, and we weren’t able to head up till early evening. When we set out, it was dusk, the sky was cloudy but it was dry. As we left the highway onto the state road, unlit, night had fallen and the heavens had opened. It was pouring. Were it not for the reflectors in the middle of the road, we would not have known where to drive.

Finally, after two tense hours of gripping the steering wheel and peering into the darkness, we turned into the driveway. The caretaker of the property knew we were coming, and he had unlocked the gate and opened it, turned on the lights at the front door, and turned up the heat. We were so grateful to come home to that welcome. The caretaker had been expecting us.

God is expecting us, too. This God who created the infinity of the universe and those cold, distant stars; this God who existed before time and history; this God is the one who makes that immense journey from the cosmic to the intensely personal. And we know that because we have deep faith that God is expecting us to come home. God is leaving the light on. And that light is Christ.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Giving up Facebook for Advent

I know, I know – Lent is the season when we’re supposed to give things up to help us understand the nature of sacrifice and self-denial, so we forego chocolate or swearing and feel that much more holy for forty days.  Advent is the time when we are supposed to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child once again. It is a time for contemplation, reflection, but not sacrifice or self-denial.

Pish-posh, I say.

Allow me to explain.

At the congregation I serve we have chosen “Joy” as our theme for Advent.  Yes, I know that joy is supposed to be the theme of one of the Sundays of Advent (the Sunday with the pink candle), but as our Director of Music reminded us, there is a palpable lack of joy in the world right now.  I confess that as I start to think about my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, to preach on joy feels a bit callous.  How can we talk about joy when we spray tear gas on children whose parents are seeking asylum in  the U.S.?  How unfeeling is it to talk about joy when hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in the remains of the Camp Fire? I could go on. You could too.

But since, as Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God”, and since Advent is the season in which we prepare to receive the gift of the Incarnation, God-with-us, then joy will have its way this Advent.  And that has led me to giving up Facebook.

I don’t know if you do Facebook; chances are if you’re reading this blog, you may have found it because I posted it on Facebook.  So there’s that – if I’m off Facebook, you won’t know if I’ve written a few hundred words about my musings.  If I’m off Facebook, I will need to let my pastor colleagues know, because I do learn about pastoral care needs on social media.

But if I’m to be about joy this Advent, then I will give up Facebook because Facebook does not bring me joy.  It entertains, it infuriates, it updates, but it does not bring me joy.  I relish the number of comments I get; I envy friends and acquaintances whose lives are so much more beautiful than my own; I long to live closer to family and old friends.

Facebook is the emblem for a deeper dis-ease.  I fear my world is starting to revolve around “likes” and “views”, around how many hearts I receive on an Instagram posts, around the approval I receive when I post something.  That is not life.  Those things do not bring joy.  Having a popular brand will not make my life complete.

Nothing will make my life complete this side of the grave, but many things will bring joy.  My beloved husband and daughter are the source of much joy in my life. Having work that is meaningful and fulfilling, work that I think adds some good to the world brings me joy.  An email or a phone call or an in-person visit from an old friend brings me far more joy than any pithy Facebook post ever could.

In the conversations around the spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, some have suggested that rather than give something up, one should take up a practice that is sustainable for only about forty days.  So I wonder what I will take up for these twenty-four days of Advent – in giving up Facebook, is there something that I can take up, some way to spend that now free time, something that might bring me or the world some joy?

According to my phone, I spent four hours and forty-five minutes this past week looking at Facebook.  Perhaps I will use that time to pray.  I could write an actual letter to an old friend.  I could call my siblings.  I could write some liturgy. I could make some art.  I could make a meal for this family I love so much.  I could meditate.  I could do so many things that would lead me down the path to joy, and in knowing joy, I might deepen my appreciation of God and the Incarnate Christ Child.

I’ll let you know – but not till after December 25.

A joyful Advent to you.

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Making art brings me joy

 

One Square Inch of Good

img_5908Often whatever art I’m working on in some way reflects my interior life.  Right now I’m making one inch squares of decorated paper, and I think I know why.

From a practical point of view, I’m able to use up some paper scraps from other projects.  And we’re having family for the holidays, and I’m pretty sure it’s bad hospitality to take up the dining room table with an art project.  Making one inch squares of paper doesn’t take much space, and it’s portable.  So there’s that.

But mostly I’ve been feeling as though, indeed, the world is too much with us, late and soon.  Despair like I have not ever known creeps in every morning as I read the news, and but for the many graces that surround me, I would give in.  So I’ve been reminding myself, and my family, and my congregation, that in spite of all that is hard and tragic and infuriating and frustrating and sinful, we still have good to do, and we still have to do good.

Maybe every day I can do something good that would fit in a one-inch square.  Maybe most of us can.  I’m not sure that we mere mortals have the capacity to do great good, but most of us can do a little good every day.  Be kind to the grocery store checker who is chatty but so slow and you’ve been waiting in line for forever.  When you see the guy on the street corner with the sign, look him in the eye, say hello, give him five bucks, and then donate twenty to the local homeless shelter.  Talk in person with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, and don’t debate him, and don’t hate her.

Not hating is a good place to start doing one square inch of good.  Not putting others down is probably good, too.  Lamenting with those who lament, and marching with those who march, and calling out all forms and expressions of bigotry and prejudice work too.  Stepping away from the screen, from the newspaper, from the radio now and then going for a walk is good – one square inch of good for yourself.

Anne Lamott first suggested (to me) doing hard things in small pieces.  In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says, “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

It works for joy, too.  I keep looking for great big huge joy to combat all the great big huge ugliness, but I need to put my readers on and look small.  One square inch – and there it is, meeting with the preschoolers who share the building with us; there it is – meeting the congregation’s newest baby; there it is – my daughter reciting Shakespeare for her upcoming performance in Hamlet.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my squares.  I’ve made about 120 so far, and I plan to make more with no particular end in mind.  Maybe a quilt-like thing.  Or maybe little boxes, following the words of the poet Rumi, who said that “joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box.”  Maybe I’ll give them away to people to remind them that good and joy can come in jumbo size, but if we all tried to just make one square inch of joy a day, that would be enough.

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Sunday Morning Starts on Saturday Night

Two and a half decades into this pastor gig, you would think that by now I would not start fretting on Saturday night about all the things for Sunday. You would think by now, I would know how to manage both the expected and the unexpected of Sunday morning, that I could go out, stay up late, be a regular human being on Saturday night and not a pastor starting to think ahead. Alas, that is not the case.

I’m not preaching this week, and this morning after coffee I told my husband (who is preaching and who does not fret about these things) that I was really looking forward to a Saturday off when I wouldn’t worry  and edit the sermon and make the list of all the things there are to put on a list on a Saturday when you’re a pastor. My husband looked at me and said, “You know, you don’t have to preach that often.” I hate it when he doesn’t say what I want him to say but instead says the thing I need to hear.

Perhaps it is my Enneagram 1 (the perfectionist) or my Myers-Brigg J (who loves structure and the ‘decided’ lifestyle) that starts up the worry wheel.  Perhaps it is my sinful nature, not allowing room for the Holy Spirit on Saturday night and Sunday morning, the sin of relying on myself and not on God.  Maybe its early-onset stage fright.  Maybe it’s that I’m 25 years older than I was when I started all of this and my energy is different.  Maybe it’s all of those things, or none of them.

*****

A member of the choir sent me a note recently, saying that she loved the nuance of hearing the pulpit light click on before the sermon and click off after the sermon.  I appreciate her noticing that, because clicking that little light feels enormous to me.  I click it on, and a week’s or month’s worth of thought, study and prayer comes to life.  I click it off, and for a day, I can rest and let go until it’s time to start again.

What I need to remember in all of this is that God is clicking on a different light.  I cannot separate the thought, the study, the prayer, all that goes into a sermon from God.  If my living is infused with the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the community of the Holy Spirit, then nothing that consciously or unconsciously goes into a sermon is apart from God.  Why, then, do I not trust that?

It may have something to do with this: when the congregation looks to the pulpit, they see me, not God.  They see me, with whom they have shared a cookie at coffee hour, with whom they have sat through meetings, whom they have seen at the grocery store in my grubbies.  They see me with all my faults and failings and they love me (most of them) anyway.  Why, then, do I not trust them?

I take preaching very seriously, and I work hard not to make it about me but about God and the call of Christ to be present in the world.  I take seriously that people have given an hour or two of their morning to come to worship and I respect the gift of their time.  I take seriously the privilege of speaking about God, and maybe even for God.

Perhaps, then, I need to take myself a little less seriously.  I aspire to do that.

But not on Saturday night.

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The wedding shoe

As we near the end of our delightful and refreshing three-month sabbatical, my husband/co-pastor and I are finally doing all those little house projects we’ve been meaning to get to.  Yesterday we moved things around in the basement, which serves as our den, laundry room, and second guest room, and in moving stuff, we cleared out the closet.  As we went through only two plastic bins there, I found my wedding shoes.

“It’s probably time to give these away,” I said.

“Probably,” my husband replied.

I LOVED my wedding shoes.  My dear friend Alison, my co-bride who like me was getting married for the first time in her early forties, whose wedding was three weeks before our own, agreed to go shoe shopping with me. We discovered a charming store in uptown Chicago that specialized in wedding shoes.  She found what she needed, and I found what I needed.  Off-white satin with pumps with an ankle strap and rhinestone buckle, with what I thought would be a very comfortable 2 inch heel.  Fifteen minutes into the reception, not so comfortable.  But no mind. I loved the shoes, which no one saw, and which I happily took off later in the evening.

When we returned from our honeymoon, I realized that I would rarely wear these beautiful off-white shoes again, so I had them dyed black.  I believe I wore them once after that, because a few months later I got pregnant, my feet swelled, and after the baby my feet were never quite the same.  So the shoes have been sitting in this bin for 13 1/2 years and I don’t need to be a KonMari practitioner to know that if you haven’t worn something for 13 1/2 years, it’s time to let it go.

We went to the Goodwill drop off this morning and the gentlemen took our things.  The bag holding everything broke so it was a bit of a mess, and as we drove away, I saw a lone, dyed-black wedding shoe lying there in the dust.

There are many things I would do differently if I were to marry Gregg again.  I would not make my bridesmaids wear matching periwinkle dresses.  (Thank you, thank you, AM & EF.)  I would get a different dress.  I might ditch the tiara that held my veil in place.

But there are so many things I would do exactly the same.  I would marry Gregg again.  I would have AM and EF stand up with me.  The wedding party would enter to everyone singing a hymn.  I would walk down the aisle with my dad, a memory that is so poignant now that he’s gone.  I would have all those beloved family and friends there.  I might not register for gifts, but I would eat cake and dance and take all that joy all over again.

Of course, a wedding is not a marriage, as I tell betrothed couples .  A wedding is a herald of what’s to come, but in the years that unfold, cake gives way to boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, and veils give way to hats that hide a bad hair day, and beautiful satin shoes sit in the closet while sneakers are laced up or clogs slide on and socks mysteriously lose their mates in the dryer.

As I mentioned, we’re near the end of our sabbatical, and I’m so grateful for this time away.  One of the things I have most strongly realized is that I really love my husband.  Perhaps this should be obvious, but when you work with your spouse, and when you share an office with your spouse, you can lose sight of all the reasons you married that person.  We’ve spent all but five days of this sabbatical together, but there has been space to breathe and see each other anew.

I have no idea if he would say the same thing about me.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I’m still so grateful for a fantastic wedding that heralded a marriage that would be filled with beloved family and friends, and dancing, and cake.  But we promised each other never to give shoes as a gift – maybe that’s the secret to it all.

Whose face do you see when you write the Easter sermon?

Well, it’s that time in Holy Week when I’m staring down the first draft of my Easter sermon, considering throwing the whole thing out, googling “great Easter sermon illustrations”, going back and reading awesome Easter sermons from the Great Masters and wishing I could be like them, and wondering if we could get away with a Lessons and Carols Easter.

No, too late for that.

So this is the point where I remember that I am called to serve a particular congregation, and while others whom I don’t know will show up, this is a Sunday for the congregation. And as I always do when I write a sermon, I picture these people in my mind’s eye.

I picture the family and friends of two members who died today, and wonder what on earth I could possibly say that could give them any measure of comfort, and remind myself that the best comfort comes not from words but from the community itself.

I picture my friend who comes to church on Christmas and Easter, and maybe once or twice in other times of the year, and wonder why she is there, and what she is looking for, and if any part of the service will find her.

I picture some folks who I think will worry that I’ll get political in the Easter sermon, because they brought their relatives who would disagree with anything I might say, making for an uncomfortable Easter brunch.

I picture those who don’t think a woman should ever be in the pulpit, and I don’t give them a second thought.

I picture my daughter, who has told me that our sermons lately have been downers and could I please say happy things this week since it’s Easter?

I picture the choir, sitting through the sermon twice, looking at my back for the whole of the sermon, and I say a prayer of gratitude for them, and for George Friedrich Handel, who wrote a pretty good piece called the Hallelujah Chorus.

I picture other members, getting on in years or fighting some crappy disease, knowing this may be their last Easter.

I picture the families, the parents who struggled to get their daughters into scratchy Easter dresses and their sons to wear clip-on ties because Grandma would like a cute picture, parents who worry about their kid acting up, or throwing a fit, and I want them to know that we understand kids get fussy and act out and we’re still so glad they are here.

I picture the staff and the volunteers who have worked so hard this week with extra services, doing so much to be hospitable and offer some spiritual depth.

I picture Jesus and Mary in the garden, and regret that that image is too informed by Warner Sallman and the pre-Raphaelites.

I picture the stranger who has come out of obligation.
I picture the friend who has come despite her grief.
I picture that faithful saint who has come because he believes all of this so deeply.

It’s a good audience, that crowd in my mind as I face down the lap top.

Who do you see when you write your Easter sermon?

 

Sunrise at the columbarium, with coffee

Two days after my father’s memorial service, my mother and sister and I had coffee at dawn at the columbarium where his ashes had been laid. It was a cool, dry morning, and while we did not see the sun, we did see the color of the sky change. We talked quietly, looked at the names next to the place where his name plate would eventually go, and sipped our coffee and blew our noses

This week as I think about Easter, I keep going back to that scene: three woman at the grave at dawn. Certainly we were still so very sad, and the worst of the grief had not yet set in. We were still together but later that day, after the sun had fully risen, I would make my way back to Oregon and my sister would go back to North Carolina. Our brothers would return home too, and Mom would return to her new life, life without Dad.

We left the columbarium so we could pack and head to the airport. Each goodbye weighed heavier than the last, though they were lightened by promises to see each other soon, to stay in touch, and we have, but still – there is nothing like being together in the flesh.

The Easter story tells of three women, or two disciples, or one woman and a gardener, all at the tomb. I know their grief, and I want to know their hope and surprise. This Holy Week in the thick of things, I do not know them. Not yet.

Sunday morning I will stand in the pulpit and read that magnificent story and I will bi-locate, and part of me will be at the columbarium with my mom and my sister, waiting for the sun to rise. One never really knows what will happen while preaching, if the Spirit will rush through me and I’ll know – know – that I’ll see Dad again; or if I’ll be totally disconnected from my words and putting on a good show; or if I’ll look out at the beloved congregation, so many of whom have walked through death and grief and hope, and who still show up in on Easter morning because there’s nothing like being together in the flesh, whether the news be bad or Good.