The God of Second Chances

(This is a wedding homily for a couple at the church.  When discussing the service, which is very simple, the bride commented that it would be great if the homily could be like one of my blog posts.  It is posted here with their permission.  So here you are, Libby and Randy: may love continue to lead your way.)

lego bgWe stand here, at the beginning of a new thing today, because of the ending of some other things: the ending of solitude and loneliness, the end of the crush of grief, the end of the fear of loving again.  We stand here, today, on this glorious afternoon in this glorious spot of creation, because of second chances, because of this God we have who gives second chances to us beloveds.

The fact that you two stand up here this day says something about your confidence in second chances.  With this second chance you kind of know what you’re in for, or what you may be in for – the good and the bad and the heartbreaking of it.  But this love, this relationship, this commitment to each other is compelling, and here you are.

But maybe all of this isn’t really about second chances.  Maybe it’s not about that at all.  Maybe it really is about that stuff Paul described: faith and hope and love.

Faith in each other: the faith that this is a person I can trust; that this is a person who’s been through as much hell as I have and like me has come through to the land of the living; that this is a person I want to waltz with early and often.

Hope that something good was learned the first time around; hope that some of the things that happened before won’t happen this time; hope not that I will change this person, but that I will  be changed for the better because I am committed to this person.

And love, that four-letter word we toss about like a frisbee on a spring day.  You two know what love is, what real love is.  You know how love gets you through the grief and the loss and the disappointment.  You know how loves makes a tarnished old piece of life look shiny and new.   You’ve watched each other love your parents; you’ve watched each other love your brothers and sisters; you’ve watched each other love and raise your sons.  And you admire how each other loves, and you’re inspired by that, and you want to be in the midst of all of that adorable radiance.

We may well be here because of second chances, but really, I don’t think there’s any chance to this at all.  You’ve worked too hard to suggest that your marriage is the offspring of whimsy or serendipity or luck.  You’ve been loved by people who didn’t want to see you alone; you’ve been encouraged by your family and your friends and some professionals; you’ve been held up by each other.  You’ve been wise and patient.  And now you get the joy, and the rest of your life, together, and the waltz.  A future in 3/4 time: now that’s a second chance.

libby randy

Prayer of blessing for the marriage

Loving God, we thank you for the gift of this day, and for the gift of love, and for the gift that Libby and Randy are to so many of us.   In our gratitude and joy, we ask for your blessing on these two people as they make official their commitment to each other, to life together.

Bless them as parents, as they raise boys into men, and give them patience and wisdom and discerning hearts when the Legos have taken over  the living room and when curfews are broken. Bless their sons in this new version of family, and give them patience with their parents, and wisdom, and discerning hearts. 

Bless Randy and Libby as professionals in their careers, with a sense of accomplishment and challenge, with gratitude for the talents they have,  and with work that is meaningful and rewarding.

Bless Libby and Randy as daughter and son, as they care for their parents and demonstrate all that they have learned from them.

Bless them as brother and sister, as they discover again and again the camaraderie and friendship of their siblings.

And mostly this day, O God, we ask that you bless them as husband and wife, in their care for each other; on the days when everything is sunshine and a good IPA, and on the days when it’s gray gray Portland and the toast burned and washer backed up and tempers are short and relief feels an eternity away. Bless them with joy, at least a drop every day, and sometimes buckets. Bless them with joy, knowing that their joy is infectious, and becomes ours as well. Thank you, O God; thank you.  Amen.

Too Soon

There are certain things that are not supposed to happen while on vacation.  It is not supposed to rain (which it did.)  When visiting a quaint beach town, one is not supposed to encounter protesters at the local post office who want to impeach the president and make their point by drawing a Hitler mustache on the leader of the free world (which also happened.)  And young adults whom you once knew as teenagers aren’t supposed to kill themselves.

As much as we might pretend to vacate the world or our own little realities from time to time, life presses on.  Good things happen while we’re away, and tragic things too.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  I am not Queen of the Universe; the world doesn’t stop because I have set aside a little sabbath time.  But some things are hard no matter when they happen, like the death of a person you still remember as a bright, crazy-talented, slightly pimply teenager in your church’s youth group.

I served that church ten years ago, and have since lost touch with so many of the folks there.  I was a bit of a tertiary staff person to the youth program, but when the youth went on a retreat and they needed a pastor to celebrate communion, I was on deck, so I got to know these kids.  “These kids” – they are now adults, holding down jobs, finishing grad school, getting married and starting families and starting careers.  When I hear about them through the ecclesiastical grapevine, or one of them friends me on Facebook, I am so glad and so proud.  I have no reason to be proud, but I am.  They are on their way, and doing great, or at least doing as well as any of us might hope to, given our flaws and foibles and the general human condition.

But this kid.  This kid.  My heart aches for his parents and his sister.  For his friends, too, because I know that particular class from the youth group was tight.  Maybe they knew what I did not, that mental illness was a burden he carried, along with his talent and friendship and handsome gawkiness.   I picture his parents – devout, faithful, loving, possessing a patience and concern I never realized.  I picture his friends – the one who worked at Starbucks and made me a latte at 7:00 on a Sunday morning as I made my way to church.  The woman who was smarter and more beautiful than she ever realized.  The guy with the crazy hair who got ordained and now wears tabs on Sunday mornings.  The one who went into the Peace Corps.  The one who’s a doctor. All of them, tonight, grieving.  Grieving the death of a peer, a friend, maybe someone they would even call beloved.

This is about all I know tonight:  that he left the world a little more beautiful because of the talent he shared.   That he left the world a little more fragile because of that cusp of anxiety and depression that he teetered on.  That he woke us all up to the present, to the gift of right now, the gift of old friendships,  and the gift of community.

My prayers are with that community tonight.  Rest in peace, all.saugatuck

Not an epic fail, but maybe a holy one

this pictures captures what the story was about

this pictures captures what the story was about

Yesterday in my sermon I committed the cardinal sin of pastor-parents: I told a story about my child without getting her permission.  Rookie mistake for this pastor of 20 years, but there you are.  It just fit so well into the sermon, and we had talked about it but in my mind we had not settled the matter.  But as it says in Galatians 6:7 (part of the passage I preached on) “you reap what you sow.”

So I’m in the first third of the sermon; my husband is sitting on the chancel near me and our daughter is sitting by herself in the front pew, as she usually does.  She hears me telling the story and she begins to cry, prostrating herself on the lovely needle-pointed pew cushion, weeping for not all but many to see and hear.  Crap.  Just the word the preacher wants to hear in her head while she is delivering the beautiful word of God.

I can handle a lot in worship.  I can handle crying babies, coughing parishioners, people who live on the streets wandering up and looking at the offering plates, fainters, barfers, organ ciphers, mangled liturgy, and laryngitis, but what absolutely does me in is when I have to be pastor and mom at the same time.  It doesn’t happen very often but when it does I become completely unglued – maybe because I suspect I’m not particularly good at either one, or maybe because it feels like both demand so much of my being.

So in the first third of my sermon, while my daughter is crying, I break the fourth wall of sorts, interrupt myself, and ask my husband to sit with her, which he does.  I then resume preaching, talking about accountability when we do something wrong, and being in community in our suffering, and reconciling with brother or sister before coming to the communion table.  And did I mention we celebrated communion yesterday?

At the end of the sermon, I issued this invitation to the congregation:

“I don’t know if gathered here this morning are people who are at odds with each other; sheer numbers would suggest that there are. I’m not going to ask  that we now pause for a minute for reconciliation – that would be putting all of us on the spot. But perhaps in the silence after the sermon, we might think of those we are at odds with. We might think about them, and about bearing their burden, about carrying our own load, about forgiveness and grace. We might imagine, as we all say the Lord’s Prayer during communion, sitting next to that person, and saying the prayer with them.”

It was so nice of the Holy Spirit to provide me with an opportunity to practice what I preach, and during the silence after the sermon I thought about how I could check in with my daughter before going to the table.  My husband/co-pastor came back up and said she was fine, mostly because one of her friends sweetly came up and sat with her and got her out of her funk.  During communion, my daughter passed by all the other celebrants to come receive the bread from me, and gave me a hug, and I told her I was sorry and I love her so much.

I thought it was a mediocre sermon that was made worse for the wear by my embarrassing my daughter.  As it turns out, what the congregation heard and saw were opportunities for grace, and realness, and empathy, and kindness, and grace again.

But if I ever tell a story about her again, I will get her permission in writing.

Praying for a miracle

candleOnce a month our congregation offers an evening service of healing and wholeness in the Taize style of worship.  I attended the service for the first time last night – for the first time, not because I don’t have those to pray for who are seeking healing and wholeness, but because, really, my colleague is beautifully suited to lead that service and usually at 5:30 on a Saturday night I don’t want to be in church.

But I went last night, in part so that I could experience it but also because a few of us were staying afterwards to decorate for the Pentecost service today.  It was a lovely service and I’m glad I was there as it feels that there is a lot to pray about right now .

So the choir is leading some of the Taize songs, and my mind wanders in a good way.  I start thinking about a friend of mine who has been diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis is so-so.  I start thinking that I would like a miracle for this friend, which gets me thinking about miracles in general.

Once in my life I prayed for a miracle.  A very dear parishioner in the first congregation I served was in a coma.  It was a cardiac thing, an utter surprise for this healthy, relatively young, fabulous, beautiful, kind woman. She lay in a coma and I stood by her bedside and prayed for a miracle, that she would come out of the coma, that they would shrink her enlarged heart, that her husband and sons would enjoy decades more with her.  But the miracle didn’t happen, and eventually she died and it was awful.

I haven’t prayed for a miracle since, but last night as I was thinking about my cancer-diagnosed friend, I thought about miracles again. What if there was some rule that you could only get one miracle granted in the course of your lifetime?  Would I hoard it for myself or my child or my husband, save it for a rainy day? Or would I be burdened by the miracle and offer it up the first ripe opportunity, and not be weighed down by the decision of when to use it?  Would I not pray for the miracle and then regret it the rest of my life?

I know people who have experienced miracles.  I know people who have experienced answers to prayer that they would call miraculous.  I’ve only prayed for a miracle once, and it didn’t happen.  And I know that should not be proof that God doesn’t grant miracles (or perform them?  I’m not sure what verb to use.)  But it’s hard to ask for something and get a ‘no’ and then be willing to ask again; harder to do that again and again and again.  It leads to a world of disappointment and not a little bit of doubt about the good intentions of the Divine Creator.

Meanwhile the choir finished their Taize song and we had moved on to other prayers.  I didn’t pray for a miracle last night.  Instead, I went to light a candle, for my friend, and for a few others.    I added a little light in the darkness, and in that moment, that felt better than a miracle.

Word Nerd at Prayer

I am the first to admit that I am not great at prayer, which might not be a problem for you, except that I am the pastor of a congregation, and with that comes a certain expectation that I will also be a good pray-er, that I will be devoted to my inner spiritual well-being, that I have set aside time each day to bask in the presence of God.

I intend to, I do.  But….

So the other night I was in bed, lights were out, and I was trying to fall asleep but couldn’t, so I decided to pray (since, frankly, prayer often does put me to sleep.) I am still ruminating on the murders at Newtown, and as the mother of a six-year-old, I’m having trouble letting it all go. So I’m praying for my daughter, and I ask God to protect her and guide her and to help me keep her-

Then I derail. “No,” I’m thinking to myself, “Keep isn’t the right word. It’s not a good word to use before God. ‘Keep’ suggests control, and I don’t want to control her; what’s the right verb?” And off I go into my little cranial thesaurus, all thoughts of God swept to the wayside.

It’s a privilege to love words and the Word. I love that my calling lets me use words all the time – words for prayer and for sermons, words for classes, even knowing when no word is appropriate. Maybe that’s a gift from God, and maybe God understands if my prayer gets derailed by my verbal crisis. After all, as the poet of Genesis 1 says, God used words to make the world.

Or I could be completely wrong about all of this, have ticked God off by my inattentiveness, and await the word of condemnation from on high.

Word.