Preaching resurrection in the middle of Lent

empty-tomb-and-three-crosses-colette-scharfI am a big fan of the liturgical calendar.

As someone who plans worship, knowing what season it is helps.  It helps us with the colors, the themes, the hymns, the scripture, the tone of worship.  That being said, I must also admit that the liturgical season is an entirely human construct.  We invented it to help us know God.  God did not invent it to help God know us.

Yet I find myself in a seasonal muddle this year.  In the past week I conducted two memorial services and they were not particularly Lent-y.  The opening hymn at the first was “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  The choir sang Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from The Mount of Olives at the second.  A few weeks ago, our retired soprano section leader, a helluva woman in her 80’s, sang an introit and a benediction response that were full of Alleluias.  My own husband, giving the benediction at the Ash Wednesday service, spoke out his usual “Hallelujah, hallelujah, Amen.”

What’s a liturgical-seasoned girl to do?

The funny thing about the liturgical calendar, and holidays/holy days, is that it’s all play-acting.  We’re pretending Jesus is born again; we’re pretending the Holy Spirit has lit a flame on the apostles’ heads; we’re pretending Jesus is walking toward his execution as if we have no idea what might happen next.  But we do know what happens next.  That’s why we’re in this story in the first place.

It’s always with a little guilt over my own pretense that I approach the Good Friday service.  We know what happens next, so if there is genuine sorrow, it is about the sorrow in life right now, in the world today.  Maybe.  I suppose we can – and do – feel sorrow for tragedy and suffering, whether it is the suffering we are going through right now or the suffering of innocent victims scattered among the pages of history.

Is my sorrow over Jesus’ death mediated by my belief that he rose?  Does the joy at the end of the story erase the pain near the end of the story?  What does it means to utter alleluias and preach resurrection in the middle of Lent?

Alleluia (1)

The second memorial service this past week was for a woman who had been a matriarch of the congregation.  She loved butterflies, and so in her memory we hung our Easter butterfly banners, and in my homily, I quoted “Life Lessons from a Butterfly” which had been among her keepsakes.  ““Let go of the past. Trust the future. Embrace change. Come out of the cocoon. Unfurl your wings. Dare to get off the ground. Ride on the breezes.  Savor all the flowers. Put on your brightest colors. Let your beauty show.”  The words might be a little twee for some,  but they reflect a sweeter approach to life held by more than one woman I’ve known in her 90’s.  They are Easter words – “come out of the cocoon, put on your brightest colors.”

But if we take the season of Lent seriously – if we take this time before Easter as a time for reflection, repentance, and change – maybe these are Lent words too.  Let go of the past (and stop doing things that hurt others because of hurt done to you in the past).  Embrace change (repent, turn around, choose love instead of hate, trust instead of fear).  Unfurl your wings (do not put your light under a bushel).  Dare to get off the ground (follow Me).

There is no Lent without resurrection; we invented Lent after the Easter event.  We might see the three crosses, but we see the tomb and the garden just beyond them.  Maybe, then, knowing the life after death awaits us gives us courage to face the hard pieces of our lives.  And maybe an ‘alleluia’ or two in the midst of repentance is not a bad thing.

He is risen!  Take up your cross and follow Him….

butterfly_cross_

Advertisements

Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

elephant mettha

The Earthly Cloud of Witnesses

A friend of mine is in the middle of a tragedy right now.  It’s a tragedy of circumstance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There was no evil, no harmful intent.  But she is in the midst of a tragedy, and it is wrenching.

My friend is one of the most faithful servants of the church that we have nowadays.  She has committed her life to serving this funny, flawed, and hope-filled institution.  I consider her a mentor, friend, and yente, as she worked years to get me and my husband together.  I owe her more than I can ever say, and she would never say that I owe her anything.  She’s that kind of person.

Because she has been this faithful servant of the church she knows a lot of people, and I mean, a LOT of people. So when news of this tragedy hit Facebook, our modern and immediate Pony Express, the message boards lit up with prayers that you would not believe.  At the end of the day I read all the comments on all the posts, and I am overwhelmed.  I am overwhelmed by the love and the faith and the hope and the presence that these silly, powerful Facebook comments convey.  And last night, after a long session meeting, as I sat on the couch in my pajamas with the dog in my lap, the husband by my side, and Castle playing on the DVR, I realized that as much as we talk about the great cloud of witnesses in the sky, there is the earthly cloud of witnesses, too.

All these people posting on Facebook – and all those posting on the Caring Bridge site, and emailing and calling and showing up: they are witnesses to love, to the power of love and gratitude.  They are witnesses to the power of friendship, and the church, and belief that you tell people you love them and hold them in your heart.

Love cannot undo this tragedy, and my heart breaks at that.  Love cannot fix what is broken in this situation.  But love might be able to make it a little less worse than it is.  As the tragedy is cauterized, love might distract in that good way.  Love might take away an ounce of the pain.  Love will persist, because I know some of these people in this earthly cloud of witnesses, and like me, they have been mentored and loved by my friend.  They will show up; they will pray; and whether they know or care that they are doing this, they will witness to the Good.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it.”

Candlelight vigil cups color

Never did say good-bye

What happens when we don’t get a chance to say goodbye?  Do we live with a sense of unfinished-ness?  Or do we move on and squish the unresolved stuff into that deep well in the gut where it gurgles and festers but never sees the light of day?

There are so many unfinished goodbyes.  A beloved, a friend, an acquaintance dies suddenly and there is no way to ask him for his cobbler recipe or to thank her for bailing you out that time.  A couple divorces, and friends must choose a side, and in-laws are cut off.  I know of two  (and there are more) congregations where the pastor was summarily dismissed, there one Sunday and gone the next, and parishioners who were for and against that person never had the opportunity to say things like “I never liked you but you showed up when you needed to” or “that sermon you preached on the woman at the well turned me around.”

A hospital chaplain used to admonish pastors and interns and everybody to keep our goodbyes current.  What happens when we don’t, when we lose the opportunity to get in a last, good word?  Sometimes it’s a mess, when we don’t say goodbye.  Sometimes we cling like shrinkwrap to the next best person.  Sometimes we grieve everywhere but the place we most need to.  Sometimes we wander lost, the way my cat did when his littermate died suddenly; he roamed the house, mewing and looking around, so sad and confused.  Bereft too, I would say.

I once served a congregation whose previous pastor had been let go suddenly, with no going away party.  I served there part-time for seven months, but when I left, they threw me the biggest shindig you can imagine.  I was bowled over; my husband reminded me that really, the party was as much for the previous pastor as it was for me.  Interim pastors learn that sort of thing, but I wish my predecessor could have been there too, since 90% of the party was for him.  (I did keep and still treasure the quilt they made for me.)

Our word goodbye derives from a 14th century word meaning “God be with ye.”  There is hope in that – though I didn’t get to say goodbye, I choose to believe that I and the one I miss are with God.  But one last hug would have been nice.goodbye