This mortal coil

I’ve been thinking about death this morning; doesn’t everyone this time of year?

It was three years ago today that my dad died. I was not with him, but my mom and sister, faithful women that they are, were there. I was at the pediatrician’s office with my daughter. While we were in the waiting room, my sister texted that the hospice nurse said it wouldn’t be long. After that, I turned off my phone until we got home. And there was the message: Dad died.

Three years out the pain is different – less acute, more wistful. I think about my dad, and so many others, who were so full of life and now… aren’t. I don’t mean that facetiously or sarcastically. It’s just that we live and then we all die and that is terrible and normal.

This time of year I think a lot about incarnation, too; doesn’t everyone?

I have those moments of wondering why in the world God would choose to become incarnate, to take on this mortal coil only to have to shuffle it off in a mere thirty-three years. I wonder why God would choose to take on frail flesh, with skin that gets cut, and bones that break, and heads that ache, and hearts that ache. Honestly, it makes no sense, but then again, very little about faith does make sense. That’s what makes it so interesting and fun.

I try to make friends with death, given its inevitability and omnipresence, but it’s hard. Maybe my real struggle is with incarnation. Why this form of creation? Why create stunning elm trees so vulnerable to fungus? Why polar bears that die out as earth warms? Why the engineering and biological marvel of the human body that only lasts four score or so years?

Honestly, I don’t know. It does seem to be a significant design flaw.

Or is it?

One of the things I loved about the ending of The Good Place (semi-spoiler alert here) is the realization that things are meaningful because they don’t last forever. Our finity defines us, and that is not a bad thing but may in fact be the best thing.

I don’t want Christmas to last forever. I don’t want this pandemic to, either. There are people who I hope to have around for a long time, and people who I wish had lived a few more years. But that isn’t up to me. (It’s not up to you, either….)

So then, what shall we say? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we perish? All we have is the present? Love them now, don’t wait till they’re gone away? Life is short, and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who sojourn with us? (Henri-Frederic Amiel)

All of the above.

Well, that’s probably enough melancholy musing for this day. Be well. Hug yourself. Call someone who needs to know that you love them. And indeed, be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. (Amiel again.)

Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I, that for my sake
My love should take frail flesh and die.

On the park bench, Christmas Eve

(This was my Christmas Eve meditation a few years back.  Generally, I don’t think most sermons have much staying power, and maybe I’m being a little sentimental, but I think I may have gotten something right with this one.  A blessed Christmas, and gracious holiday to you.)

park-bench-1340697334wtQThere once was an old man whom, this evening, we will call Joe. Joe was single, never married, didn’t date much. He was an only child and his parents were gone, and he was a bit crotchety, which is to say he was all alone in the world. He had long since retired from a job which brought him a modest income, a few acquaintances, and no friends.

In his retirement he spent his days as he pleased – checking the morning headlines, washing up the coffee cup and cereal bowl. He’d run the few errands he had, get the daily special soup at the diner counter, run a few more errands. Late afternoon would find him on a park bench, alone. It was always the same bench, in the northwest part of the park, near a sidewalk but blissfully far away from the children’s playground. He would sit there, all alone, and with a fair amount of disinterest, he would watch the world go by.

Most days, that was enough for old Joe. Once in a while he would break his routine – he’d give a smile to the cashier as she handed him his change, or he’d bark at the server who overfilled his coffee cup. Most days his routine was enough. But every so often as he’d sit all alone on that park bench, a terrible melancholy would overtake him. That happens sometimes at dusk – babies instinctively cry and the colic worsens, or harassed parents, home from work, stress out as they try to transition from employee to chief cook and bottle washer. Every so often, as he sat on that bench at dusk, Joe would be overcome by a sadness he could not name, and all he wanted, in those anguished few moments, was for someone to come sit next to him. They didn’t have to talk, process feelings, make a plan to have dinner. All he wanted was company, a companion to sit with at dusk after years of going through life all alone.

As the seasons changed, Joe would change his routine ever so slightly and unconsciously so that he was always on the bench at dusk, be it a winter’s 4:00 or summer’s 8:00. The years passed, and the spasms of melancholy grew more frequent, and Joe, already so miserable in his aloneness, became all the more brittle, and a little desperate. He tried ways to make the bench inviting. He’d move the newspaper he’d been carrying around, as if to say, this seat isn’t being saved for anyone. He’d brush off the leaves. Once he even wiped off the residue from the pigeons – all to no avail. For whatever reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

Maybe passers-by feared that his loneliness was contagious, and they hurried past him so as not to catch it. Maybe after years of trying to smile and say hello only to be rebuffed, people stopped trying. Maybe after sitting on that same bench in the same park at the same time, year after year, Joe became invisible, the way the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign “Will work for food” becomes invisible. Whatever the reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

He could’ve died on that bench, so deep was the melancholy, so profound the despair, so pointed the loneliness he could no longer avoid. He wondered if that’s how he would end up – forgotten and ignored, sitting there one minute and dead there the next, without a soul to notice that his life had ended. He wondered if there would ever be anyone who would care. He wondered if he would live out however many days he had left sitting alone at dusk on that park bench.

There may be some here tonight who have felt like Joe at some time in their lives, or who feel like Joe every day. There may be some here tonight who know someone like Joe, some who have passed him by, some who understand how the relentless pain of another becomes invisible. There may be some here tonight who wonder how this story will end, and some who believe they know how it will end.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: Our world has been like Joe, battling melancholy. The children of our world have known isolation; they have known what it’s like to be ignored or forgotten; they have felt, deep in their bones, what it is like to be alone. The children of the world have been battered, if not by loneliness or apathy, then by poverty or violence or forces beyond their control that have made them grow up too soon.

Our world has been like Joe, going through the same routines day after day without reason or purpose. The people of the world have known what it is to live by rote, to live in that routine of work and play and rest, of work and shopping and rest, of work and shopping and entertainment, confusing shopping and entertainment with godly play and holy rest. Our world has been like Joe, desperately trying to make that park bench a little more palatable, aching to have someone simply sit down next to us. We have feared the stranger, the other, for so long that it seems too late to make amends for our isolating tendencies. For so long we have sat on our proverbial benches waiting for someone to come to us, never venturing off to go to someone else.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: That the miracle of the incarnation might be described as God coming to sit down next to us on our park bench. Because while we might have forgotten or ignored all the Joes of the world, God hasn’t forgotten. God cannot ignore this world that was created by deep love. God will not forsake this world so plagued by fear and greed and pride. God will not turn a blind eye to the pain of the world’s children.

Ours is a visited planet, as the Bible scholar J. B. Phillips once said. Ours is a visited planet, which is to say that God is no theist watchmaker kind of God, setting the world a-ticking and then moving on. Ours is a visited planet, but not in the way you or I might want to visit Tuscany or the Grand Canyon. Our is a visited planet, in the way we might want to sit and visit with a beloved grandmother who died, whose advice and date pinwheel cookies we still crave; the way we might want to visit with our best friend who’s doing his best to beat cancer; the way we might want to visit forever with a child or parent or sibling who is wedged deeply in our hearts.

That is how God has visited with us: with the love a Creator has for his creation, with the love a mother has for her child. Why God would choose to do this is beyond my ken, and all that I know on this night we have chosen to call holy is that it has something to do with love. And this love transformed God (if we could say God is transformable) from being a mere visitor to being an inhabitant of the world, like we are. God visited us, and came to us, and became one of us so that you and I and all the Joes of the world would know that we are not alone.

On this holy night, it is as though Joe is sitting on the park bench again. He has put his paper in the recycling can; he has brushed away the pigeons’ offering. He has waited for the light to dim, once again, alone. But this dusk, this time, this holy time, Someone sits down next to him. He just sits down with Joe, and Joe is not alone. We are not alone; we are loved. Thanks be to God.

Putting the “vent” back in “Advent”

Advent is upon us, and I’m just not feeling it this year.  Granted, it is only the second day of Advent, it’s only December 1, but I’m not sure I can muster up all the mystery and purple and candles again this year.

Yesterday I heard myself say in my sermon something about making our hearts ready to receive the Christ Child this season.  I said it yesterday as I have said it every Advent for the last twenty-one years.  And tonight while I was doing the dishes I realized that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I mean by that.

Every liturgical season has its church-speak.  Some of my favorites: Transfiguration, when He was “changed from glory into glory.”  Easter as we leave the cross and face the beauty of the empty tomb.  Pentecost, when God set our hearts on fire.  Lent, as we make our way to Calvary/Golgotha/the cross.  And Advent, when we prepare our hearts to receive the Little Lord Jesus.

LittleLordSuit“Little Lord Jesus” makes me think of Little Lord Fauntleroy which I’m pretty sure is not an incarnation of anything divine; Jesus in satin knickers, a ruffly pirate blouse, and pilgrim shoes with buckles.  I do not want to make my heart ready for that.

NowI can be as awestruck as the next person by a baby.  I love to think deeply about the theology of the incarnation, the foolishness of God who chose to take on human flesh.  But making my heart ready for baby Jesus?  Or really, making my heart ready for anything?  What the hell does that mean?  It probably means I shouldn’t use the word “hell.”

Does it mean I’m supposed to be nicer to people this season?  Does it mean I’m supposed to be very generous?  Does it mean I should confess all my sins?  (As if there were time for that in this busy season.)  Does it mean I rid myself of impure thoughts?  Does it mean I wake at 4 every morning to meditate on Christ?  Does it mean I look for ways to tell people about the Good News?

The problem is that my heart is unreachable.  It’s not that I don’t feel; it’s not that I don’t respond emotionally to the sorrows of the world.  It’s not some things don’t hit me in the gut because they do.  It’s that the heart as a metaphor isn’t working for me right now.  Maybe it’s cardiac overload.  Maybe it was the cheesy Christmas carols I heard while in the dentist chair today having my teeth cleaned.

I know how to get my house ready for Christmas: move the desk, put up the tree and lights, figure out where to put the Christmas and holiday cards that come in.  I know how to get the church ready for Advent: know who is leading worship when and figure out the logistics of the candles lighting and blanket brigade.  Write the candle liturgy.  Thank the volunteers.  Pick the right balance of Advent and Christmas hymns.  Be sensitive to those who are having a hard time because it’s Christmas.  Wear purple on Sunday, red for parties.

But I don’t know how to get my heart ready for Jesus.  So I’m not going to worry about it anymore.

olyhInstead, this year, I think I’ll make my hands ready for Incarnation.  They will be ready to type words that are as true as I can make them, about God and this weird life we’re called to.  They will be ready to hold the hand of the woman whose Christmas is her first as a widow.  They will be ready to wrap presents for the family whose name we pick in our giving program. They will be ready to chop and dice and stir the soup I’ll make for the volunteer thank-you lunch.  They will take up the green pen to address the Christmas cards, and they will wrap about my sweet girl on Christmas morning when she gets up early, excited because it’s Christmas, excited because it’s a day we have together as a family and no one has to be at work.

You get your hearts ready, and I’ll get my hands ready, and if we don’t, Jesus will come anyway.

Whatever that means….