Tuesday, June 7, 2016

What Is That To You?

I wrote this sermon for Graduation Sunday, a service celebrating our 5th, 8th, 12th and college graduates. Our theme for this service was "Passages." It was delivered on 6/5/16. 
Scripture Reading: John 21: 4 – 19  NRSV

Our scripture reading for today was taken from the last chapter of John’s gospel, but before I dig into that passage, I’d actually like to begin in the previous chapter. So that we can get a feel for what has happened up to this point in the story, which I believe will help us better understand the scripture we just heard.
            By this time in John’s Gospel, Jesus has been baptized, spent his life healing and teaching and because of this put on trial and ultimately executed on a cross by the Roman Empire. After his crucifixion, Jesus’ body is bound in funeral clothes and placed in a tomb sealed by a large stone. Three days later one of Jesus’ female disciples goes to the tomb only to discover that in a shocking turn of events her Lord is gone!
And this is where chapter 20 picks up the story. The text says she ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved... Which if you’re Peter has to sting a little, right? I mean there’s the disciple Jesus loved… and then there’s Peter.
Anyway, in verse 2 she says to them:

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him! So, Peter set out with the other disciple and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

[Hmm hmm hmm…]

“He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.”

I don’t know if you caught it but there is a bit of a rivalry going on here. I mean John is telling us about the resurrection, what we affirm to be the greatest event in human history, and yet he takes the time to give us petty details like who was faster? What exactly is going on here?

Well, let’s start with what we know: According to John, when Jesus was on trial — alone, about to be crucified— Peter denies ever knowing him. On other hand, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus asked the beloved disciple to take care of his mother after his death and not only does he outrun Peter to the tomb, but what when finds the tomb empty, “he believes.”   
All of which leads us to the passage we heard today, wherein the newly resurrected Jesus takes Peter aside and asks:  do you love me? Peter, do you love me? Three times he asks him this question and the text says Peter was grieved the Lord would question his devotion.
In spite of his apparent suspicions, Jesus gives Peter a sacred task. Three times he repeats some variation of: “take care of my sheep.” Essentially, he says: “Peter, pastor my people, lead the church.” And he ends this calling in verse 19 with the words, “follow me.”
Jesus commissions Peter in this holy moment — follow me Peter, take my mission on yourself, feed my sheep — and what is Peter’s response this grand invitation? Well, we read in verse 20ff:

“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”

Peter wants to know: but what about him? What are you going to give him to do? Is it going to be fair? Jesus says to Peter:

“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

Consider for a moment of all the subtle, petty ways you and I gauge our worth by measuring ourselves against someone else. I mean how often do we let the impulse to compare make us miserable? And maybe today, as we begin to consider all of the fears and variables that go along with taking our next steps Jesus is asking us “What is that to you?”
A few years ago I attended a student led Ash Wednesday service at my seminary. The theme for this service was “idolatry,” which basically was a way of addressing the fact that all of us frequently give our attention to something other than God. But if we can name them, confess the ways we’ve worshipped them and repent, we have faith God will forgive us and bring our devotion back to where it needs to be.  
For the service, the chairs were arranged in a circle and at the center of the circle was a table filled with candles. After the message, the preacher invited us to share our confessions of idolatry with the group, and then light a candle to symbolize the naming of that idol. We were told that at the end all of the candles would be extinguished, and with that, we were left to it.
A few people, not many, but a few people shared their idols with us— things like good grades, their children’s achievements, their income or their significant other. Each of them rolled off me as if I had heard this standard list of idols a million times before.
But then a woman, a woman I didn’t know very well but shared a few classes with, stood up and said: “You are my idols. This semester I’ve invested what at times feels like all of my energy into caring about what you think of me, how I measure up to your standards. Of this, I repent.”  
And what was already a silent collection of people staring at a table of flickering lights somehow became even more deadly still, as this woman walked through the seats, picked up a lighter and lit a solitary candle we knew stood for every one of us.
To this day I am convinced that during that service she began the lengthy painful process of figuring out, “what is that to me?”
This is not just an individual impulse. I think whole groups do it, churches even. Well Jesus, what about them? They have so much more funding than we do! They have the most creative ideas, the right people, the best location, the nicest building — whatever we determine the “better” thing to be at a given moment. We think: “I know we’re supposed to be fulfilling the vision you gave us, but what about them? Is this really fair?”
Underlying this complaint lurks something ominous. What we really want to know is: why didn’t you make me like them? We envy others because we wish we weren’t who we are. We wish we were funnier, thinner, smarter, wealthier… we wish we had gotten into a better school, or could be a better parent, or a savvier businessperson.
We ask Jesus “what about them?” because we want to know “why not us?” When we do this we are admitting that on a fundamental level we are not OK with who God made us to be. This, I think, is Peter’s central struggle.  But we are not supposed to live this way. We can feel it in our bones.
Well, in the Old Testament God offered the Hebrew people a blueprint for how they could live life in a way that brings wholeness. The bible calls this blueprint the “Ten Commandments” and they are found in the 20th chapter of Exodus.
What’s fascinating about them is that the first nine are similar, in that they are all externally observable. You can witness a murder, overhear a lie or catch a thief.  It’s only the 10th commandment, the one about coveting — desiring what has been given to someone else—, which takes place in the inner life. How do you know if someone is coveting? How do you know the person sitting next to you isn’t coveting as I speak? You can’t! This is something we do internally. And I don’t know about you, but it makes sense to me that God would prohibit something avoidable like killing, but how could it make sense for God to prohibit envy? It feels inevitable, unreasonable, inescapable! How can we possibly stop desiring what other people have? It’s a very strange commandment in that way.

So why is this commandment so different from the others? Well we usually translate verse 14: “You shall not covet.” But it can also mean, “You will not covet.” Translated like this the commandment sounds less like a choice and more like a promise. In other words, keep numbers one through nine and you won’t covet.
Therefore, when you honor your mother and father, show fidelity to your spouse, tell the truth, take only what is yours and keep all the other commandments, you won’t want anyone else’s life. That’s true contentment. That’s what sets us free.
Earlier in the passage we heard today, Jesus tells Peter: “someday you will be lead where you do not wish to go, he said this to indicate the manner of death (by which) he [meaning Peter] will glorify God."  Another translation of the word “indicate” in the Greek is “to give a sign;” This detail significant, because in John’s Gospel signs are a big deal. In this gospel Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” and by performing signs Jesus is revealing his identity as the Son of God and long awaited messiah. John seems to be hinting that Peter’s mission, though it will be fraught with struggles and set backs, will announce to the world that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be, and that his resurrection has all sorts of implications for us.

The task Jesus has given Peter, well, it’s quite an honor…

 Unfortunately, Peter is unable to appreciate the significance of what Jesus is inviting him to do because he’s too busy worrying about what task the beloved disciple will be given.  
How many times has God invited us to step into who we are, a journey that uniquely expresses our gifts and talents, only to be distracted by worrying about what other people are doing. What others have been given?
Consider this question for a moment, because the fact of the matter is that whether you are a graduate entering an entirely new stage of life, or simply going about things as usual, we all have our own sacred stories to tell; stories—though they are filled with struggles and set backs— have the potential to unveil God’s presence in the world.
Another reason owning our stories is so critically important is this: how can we be at peace with others if secretly we wish we had what they’ve been given? How can love exist where there is resentment? Or acceptance where there is bitterness? Just think about how different the world would be if all of the energy spent comparing could be replaced with energy spent connecting?
As you some of you know, I graduated from seminary last summer, and as a alumni of Wesley Theological Seminary I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some really incredible people — I mean people who are literally changing the world.
Some of my former classmates are championing issues like affordable housing and hunger. Some are taking on whole systems of injustice like mass incarceration and sex trafficking. In other words, I graduated alongside a hugely gifted, passionate and talented group men and women. So it’s easy to begin the comparisons. When I evaluate myself against their talents I consistently find they are better writers, savvier problem solvers, more patient listeners and certainly better preachers.
In the three years I was in seminary there was more than one instance when I wanted to hand one of them my calling and say, “Here, take it. You do something amazing with this.”
But every time I am tempted to exchange my story for someone else’s I’m instantly transported back in time, sitting on a beach talking with Jesus. The air is warm and salty. I can hear the sounds of men laboring to drag a giant catch of fish onto shore, as waves lap at their feet.
And me, with my head turned away from Jesus to observe my peers —in their world changing glory— I hear the convicting words of Jesus:

 “Leigh, what is that to you? Follow me.”

The reality is that none of us have it all together. We are all in need of grace and it is this resurrected Christ sitting on the beach with Peter that offers it to us. Which means our righteousness is not our own. And if our fundamental identity as Christians is based on something outside of our own accomplishments, then there is no basis on which to compare.
We are all equal in our need to be seen and loved just as we are, and God —the only Being capable of such a task— has called each and every one of you to something holy and set apart.

So when you leave this place, and jealously inevitably begins to creep in, ask yourself: What is that to me? Begin the painful process of self-examination. Once you do this, I promise God will redirect you towards an appreciation of your own journey.
Now brothers and sisters, let’s hold on to God’s unique vision for our church, for your family, for you individually and for me. May we give our full attention and gratitude to the resurrected Jesus, who liberates us from the bondage of wanting someone else’s life, and then sends us out to proclaim the Good News: Christ is risen the captives are set free. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Other Kind of Power

Last week, my middle school bible study class discussed "misunderstandings," specifically, how Jesus was misunderstood by his own people. You see the Jewish people had lived under military occupation for centuries - first by the Babylonians (in exile), then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. As a result, the desire for liberation permeated every aspect of life, including religious beliefs. After all, what did God think of this whole situation? How was the Divine going to set things right? 

The answer to these questions came in the form of a Messiah, a divinely appointed savior who would conquer Israel's enemies and rule over the world for eternity. Like the empires of this world, the messiah was expected to rule through violence and intimidation.

You can imagine, then, what people must have been thinking when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, was later arrested, mocked and finally, crucified by the very empire they wished to overthrow. 

What kind of messiah allows himself to be mocked and killed?

Here's how I decided to get at that question with the middle schoolers:   
I began by asking the students to name attributes they associate with the word "King"? They said:
Self Interested

Then I asked for characteristics they associate with Jesus. They said:

Given the major differences between these two lists, we discussed how a messiah like Jesus would have been sorely misunderstood by a group of people who were expecting a King. Finally, someone brought up the most un-kingly aspect of Jesus' story, the cross.

Student: "Why did Jesus die on the cross?"

I asked the group, "What do you think would happen if a King was killed or overthrown by another ruler?" They agreed the King, or his followers, would likely seek revenge. "Exactly," I said, "that's the way our world operates. People respond to violence with violence, which only creates more violence. But Jesus did something no one had done before; Jesus is killed, but instead of coming back to seek revenge, he forgives them. He stops the cycle of violence dead in it's tracks with love."

"Wow," one 6th grader said, "that's a powerful guy."

I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Baptism Sermon

Two weeks ago my husband and I got a puppy. She is everything you could want in a puppy. She is cute and soft and gloriously uncoordinated. We’ve wanted a dog for a long time now, so I can’t tell you how many hours we have spent watching funny pet videos on YouTube and brainstorming possible names. 
A few days before we picked her up we decided on the name “Luna.” We thought it was unique, but not like off the wall celebrity baby name unique. Luna sounded like the name of a Norwegian goddess — fierce, beautiful, and able to take down a reindeer if need be.
Luna felt like the perfect name. The only problem was that when we met her, it became clear that she was definitely not a Luna. I can’t tell you why exactly, except that she just didn’t look like one. She is more sweet than fierce. And she is entirely too chill to take on a full-grown reindeer.
So we went back through our list and decided to name her Penny Lane — and yes, that song has been stuck in my head ever since.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how names can take on a life of their own? Most of us don’t assign much meaning to our first names, but raise your hand if you have ever looked into the meaning of your last name? My maiden name is Finnegan and when I was in college my mom and I traveled to Ireland, where we discovered that my name means something like “fair one,” and can be traced to a specific county near the west coast.
Right now we are in a sermon series called, “questions God asks us,” and this week we are grappling with the question: “What is your name?” which God asks the patriarch Jacob in chapter 32 of Genesis.
Now, before we dive into that story, I should point out that in the Ancient Near East, where the stories of the bible are set, your name was more than just words; your name was your identity; it was reflective of the essence of what made you, you.
For example, the name “Adam” comes from the Hebrew word for dirt, pronounced Ah-Da-Mah, because he was made from dust of the earth. In many instances a character's name also foreshadowed their future. Take the patriarch Abraham, whose name means “Father of a multitude.”  
So a few weeks ago at our confirmation service, I spoke to you about the story of Jacob. Jacob, whose name means “one who grasps the heel” or “replacement,” was born grasping onto heel of his twin brother Esau.
If you remember, Jacob spends most of his story trying to steal the blessings reserved for his older brother. Esau puts up with his manipulative brother for a while, until one day, when their father Isaac is blind and about to die, Jacob decides to steal Esau’s final blessing.  
He accomplishes this feat by covering his arms with goatskins, so that when his father reaches out to him his arms will feel like the hairy limbs of his brother. When Jacob approaches his father’s bed, Isaac asks,  “Who is it?” To which Jacob responds, “I am Esau your firstborn.”
The next time Jacob is asked this question it is years later on the eve of reuniting with his brother. The text says that after sending his traveling party ahead….
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
The man asks Jacob, “what is your name?” Essentially, who are you? It’s as if this man knows that up to this point Jacob has been pretending to be someone else, someone who is worthy of a blessing. With the opportunity to receive another blessing, we might expect Jacob to lie again. But this time he tells the truth, he owns up to who he is.
In return, the man gives him a blessing, which as it turns out is a new name: “Israel,” which means “one who has struggle with God and humans and overcomes.” It’s interesting really; this new name doesn’t sound too different from his old one. He goes from one who grasps, to one who struggles. You get that sense that either way this guy is a fighter. Could it be that Jacob’s blessing is not a new identity, but rather an insight into the potential God sees in him?
Let us move now from one river scene to another, specifically to the scene of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. In Matthew chapter 3, we are told that a large crowd of people has traveled down to the river to be baptized by John. He is after all, John the Baptist — it’s kind of his thing.
Imagine the scene with me; It’s sometime during the day, the sun is beating down on a mass of sweaty sinners, patiently waiting their turn. There are probably flies buzzing around, kids yelling, grumpy men and women complaining about the heat.  You know what, just picture standing in line at Disney world.
John, on the other hand, is standing waist deep in the water. His arms are tired from lowering people in and out of the river for days. By now this ritual has probably become rote. But then, Jesus steps out from the crowd and wades into the water asking to be baptized. John balks at first — “oh lord I am not worthy to baptize you.” But Jesus insists and Jesus can be a pretty persuasive guy, so he eventually acquiesces.
Then something really weird happens: at the moment Jesus is baptized, the sky opens up, the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”
If anyone wanted to know who Jesus was in the eyes of God, here you have it: Jesus is the beloved. What define Jesus? The love of God.

In a sermon on this passage, Lutheran Pastor and Author, Nadia Bolz Weber, writes:

“You know one thing I love most about the baptism of our Lord text is not just that the Father says, this is my beloved son,” but that God says this before Jesus had really done anything. Think about that. God did not say “this is my son with whom I am well pleased because he has proved to me that he deserves it, he has quiet time with me each morning and always reads his Torah and because the boy can heal a leper.” Nope. As far as we know Jesus hadn’t done anything yet and he was called beloved. The one in whom the Father is well pleased.”

Funnily enough, the reason I thought about this quote is not because of today’s baptisms, but because of the reaction we’ve gotten to our puppy from the students at Georgetown University, where my husband and I work as Chaplains-In-Residence. You see we live in a dormitory on campus on a floor with 100 freshmen. As you can imagine, they freaked out when we got Penny Lane. Before too long, students started showing up at our apartment unannounced and chasing us around campus hoping to catch a glimpse of her. One night, a student texted to ask me if I could bring Penny over to cheer up her roommate who just found out she didn’t make the Crew team. And this, by far, is the most common thing we hear from our students: no matter what went wrong that day, just getting a chance to interact with Penny makes their day better.
One last story about our girl; A few weeks ago, we had the students over for cookies when one of the girls realized grades were out. She debated out loud whether she should check them now or later, as they might be disappointing. Then a friend suggested, “why don’t you look at them now since you have Penny around to cheer you up!” And I added, “Yeah, Penny loves you no matter what your grades are.”
 It may be a silly analogy, but this is what I believe baptism is all about, because in baptism God proclaims that you are his beloved child whether or not you’ve earned it, or know what it means, or plan to return this love one day.
This is why, by the way, we don’t re-baptize people in the United Methodist Church.  Baptism is not an act of faith that you or someone else was giving to God. So it doesn’t matter when or where it happened, or if you were sprinkled, or dunked, or dipped into the ocean — this was an act of God towards you; a recognition of the grace God gives to all of us.
We are called beloved children of God and that name can never be taken away from us. Not by the worst things that have been said about us, the bad choices we’ve made, our successes or failures at work, or our own self-hatred.
Like Jacob we can forget whom we are for a while, even lie about it, but the first and last word about us belongs to God, who names us beloved. So, Beloved Ones, I invite you now to remember your name by joining me moment of silence. A moment to sit back in our chairs, close our eyes and remember just be, loved.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Barn Raising Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Showing Up)

Come Creator God, to fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. By the light of your holy spirit instruct us and guide us in your wisdom, so that we may be about the work of justice, of peace, and of love. Amen.
As far as church internships go, I’ve had a pretty unique one. For those of you who don’t know me, or don’t know me well, for the past two years I have had the immense pleasure of serving as the intern of an emerging church in Vienna, Virginia called Church of the Common Table. Our little community of about 30 regulars gathers at least once a week to worship in a coffee shop and music venue called Jammin Java. And contrary to what you might be picturing, the church does not primarily consist of V-neck wearing-twenty-something hipsters. In fact, most of Common Table is over 30, married with children, and decidedly against revealing chest hair.
We are a congregation of teachers, writers, bureaucrats, gamers, Episcopalians, Agnostics, atheists, disenchanted Evangelicals, cranky Methodists, and Kevin — who really defies categorization.
At our gatherings I am often reminded of Lutheran Pastor Nadia-Bolz Weber, who upon realizing her congregation consisted of everyone from transgender runaways to suburban soccer moms, thought to herself: “I am unclear what all these people have in common.”[1] For us, what we have in common is as simple and profound as a table.  
            It’s hard to believe, but this Sunday will be my second to last week as the intern. And while I am sad it’s ending, I’m excited that I still have a chance to attend our monthly Barn Raising — I should probably explain: Once a month we forgo our regular worship service at Jammin Java, to gather at the home of someone from the community, who has asked for help with a specific project.
The term “Barn Raising” comes from the 19th century practice of a community coming together to build a barn for one of its members — think the Amish, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, depending on your knowledge of playfully sexist musicals…
Past projects have involved laying mulch, painting, pulling weeds, assembling Ikea furniture, and raking leaves. Of course, there are times when the tasks have gotten a little more intense. For instance, when we dug up a chain link fence held in the ground by giant blocks of cement. Or, the time it took four of us to cut a fossilized dog crate out of a giant bush that had swallowed it whole. On the very first day of my internship, I drove 45 minutes into Virginia to help a family I’d never met install wood laminate flooring.
Now I love these gatherings, but I confess to you that I haven’t always felt that way. Because, basically, these events are pretty chaotic — especially when our work is outside; clearing yards full of trash, hacking away at overgrown bushes, mining the dirt for glass and rusty nails before the one of the kids inevitably pick them with their bare hands. It can be a hot, sweaty, chaotic mess. And while I thought about writing an Earth Day sermon on something like “the revelation of God in nature,” lately I’ve been thinking a whole lot more about the role of chaos in creation.
In the first creation story of Genesis, the writer tells us that when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep. The Hebrew word for this pre-existent dark matter is the word tehom, and because of its connection to the Babylonian creation epic, where the world is formed out a sea of primordial chaos, there is growing support that the biblical authors understood Yahweh’s creation of the world in much the same way. And, if you ask our Hebrew Bible professor, Denise Hopkins, she would say there are still pockets of chaos wreaking havoc in creation, a darkness that persists in spite of our best efforts to dispel it. 
In the Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a woman acquainted with darkness. We know from Luke 18 that seven demons were driven out of her, which Mark attributes to Jesus’ healing ministry. In John’s gospel, the first mention of Mary Magdalene is at the cross and in our passage tonight the text says she goes to the tomb while it is still dark.
John sets the scene this way: its three days after the crucifixion, Jesus, whose followers believed was the messiah, is dead, murdered by the Roman Empire. The disciples are hiding out in someone’s home, mourning, afraid they might be next. But Mary, apparently by herself, goes to the tomb.  And I’ve always wondered: why Mary? Why is she —and not one the disciples— the one who shows up? t can’t be that she has more faith. The text says when she discovers the empty tomb she freaks out and runs to get help.  And it can’t be that she has a better grasp of the scriptures, because even if she did, the crucifixion was an unprecedented event. No one could have seen this coming. Which I think is good profoundly good news for us, because if resurrection depended on our ability to figure it all out, or muster up an unbreakable faith, its likely Jesus would be in that tomb a long time.
In one of the icon’s we’ve set up on this side table, taken from a 14th century Psalter, there is a picture of Mary Magdalene telling the disciples what she’s seen. It’s a great picture, because almost all of them are pointing at scrolls, looking confused, while Mary has her finger up as if to say: shut up and listen!
All I can work out is that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, because when she was broken, Jesus showed up and loved her back to life. Mary doesn’t anticipate the resurrection; she just wants to be near him; to pay her respect for the extravagant grace and friendship that shown to her. Love draws her to the tomb. Which means even when she thinks he is dead in grave; there is still something about love that transcends death. Mary is the patron saint of just showing up.[2]
I actually Googled this to see if she is already the patron saint of anything, and I’m not kidding, apparently Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of: sinners, converts, hairstylists, perfumeries and perfumers, pharmacists, and women — which would make for an interesting resume…But I digress... Mary doesn’t spilt when the you-know-what hits the fan. She shows up.
You’ll notice in another icon she’s not standing next to the tomb, she’s standing in it. And I can't help but think that — in its purest form — this is what ministry looks like: showing up for our people in their darkest hour, when the light has been gone for weeks, or even years.
Helping each other see the dark for what it is. Announcing that there is a love that goes before us, a God who makes a way when there is no way, and that the light of Christ cannot, and will not, and shall not be overcome!
The first time Mary sees the resurrected Jesus she mistakes him for the gardener — a subtle reference to creation stories of Genesis, where God tends to the Garden of Eden. The text also notes that Mary discovers the empty tomb on the first day of the week, a clue that this is the first day of a new creation.
When Mary finally recognizes Jesus, he asks her to witness to the resurrection. To announce that a whole new world is bursting forth, right here in the midst of this one. That the cosmos are being healed and every thing restored and renewed to the place we know it is meant to be. So we show up:
To pull weeds.
To plant bulbs in Jenny’s garden. 
To catch up with each other and test run Stav’s new grill. 
To help Sarah and Chris clear the leaves out of their neighbors yard, on the anniversary of his wife’s death. 
Each month it’s something different, but we always start with communion.
A few years ago, one of our members wrote a liturgy just for these occasions: A Liturgy for the Metaphorical Raising of Barns. In it he describes the paradox of creation: that our world is both beautiful and broken, that the church is a messy place but it is — if nowhere else— a place where we experience connection, acceptance, and love, and that the work of showing up is a backbreaking enterprise. It is not for the faint of heart. But there is no other way. We are compelled to respond to the love we have been shown. And as we show up for one another, we are gradually loved back to life. Made new again, and again, and again, and again: Our hearts slowly shaped in such a way that we become witnesses to a new creation, made visible as we gather around a common table.
Emptier of tombs, we stand in awe of your resurrection. Of the way you pull us of out the graves we dig for ourselves and turn chaos into raw material of a new creation. Be with us now, as you were with Mary in the garden, restoring us to the wholeness that has been ours from the very beginning.  May we be filled with your light, so that as we feel our way through this suffering world, sparks of praise will splinter in the dark like hope.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber,  “Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace” OnBeing, Interview with Krista Tippett, retried from: http://www.onbeing.org/program/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace/5896
[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sermon about Mary Magdalene, the masacre in our town, and defiant alleluias

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The One I Love --- Synchroblog, #BlessedAreTheCrazy

Thanks to our news media discussions about "mental illness" often conjure images of mass shootings, celebrity suicides, or controversial court cases. Hollywood, on the other hand, tends to romanticize mental illness, more or less suggesting that all one needs to overcome a debilitating mood disorder is a quirky girl that really "gets you." 

While I don't think I'm quirky enough to replace someones medication, I do happen to be in love with a wonderful man diagnosed with a mental illness. 
And it's hard. 

It's hard enduring ignorant comments from our friends. 
It's hard negotiating who will receive this information with kindness and who will judge. 
It's hard watching him swallow pill after pill and go to sleep nauseous. 
But harder than all of that is knowing there are some days when there is no way to convince him that he is loved. 

Today (October 7th)  is the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding. So pray — not for the media caricatures, but for real people who live with a mental illness. 

Pray. And when you are done praying get to work — ending the stigmas and the misrepresentations and the insensitivity and the marginalization. Do it because we are all connected. Do it because someone you know may be suffering in silence. Do it for any and all reasons. Do it for the one I love. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Friends, I don't want to frighten you, but there is a dangerous epidemic currently targeting the millennial generation — I know what you're thinking but it's not ironic facial hair.

No, there is another name for this anomaly. Some have dubbed it "wedding fever." Over the past few months I have come to affectionately refer to it as "open bar season." Call it what you will, but for me it has meant having to attend an extra-ordinary amount of weddings this year.

In just under eight months I have attended five weddings — all in different states and one on a different continent. Just a year ago I hadn't been to more than two weddings in my entire life. Now I'm supporting half the wedding industry. What's the deal people? Did Tiffany & Co. contaminate our drinking water? 

I don't mean to be snarky, but watching all these couples take "the big step" has been more than a little overwhelming; because the thing about weddings is, like funerals, you're less likely to think about the persons whose day it is as you are to think about yourself.

Sitting at the reception table tonight, I realized that since my Dad passed away last summer I have had to endure five fathers walking their daughters down the aisle; five father-daughter dances; and five proud-father toasts to a happy wedded life. It's really enough already; remembering hurts.

I may be wrong, but I think this is how some of us feel about Ash Wednesday: Why do I have to be reminded that I am going to die? It's uncomfortable and depressing.

In The Mystery of Death, Dorothee Sollee says remembering our finitude feels akin to sojourning into a strange and unfamiliar land. During Lent we are nomads, wandering in the desert of our mortality, continually in search of a safe place to call home. What we want is a land where the memory of death grows dim, but Ash Wednesday demands that we stop and feel our way around the wilderness of death for a while. 

Lest we forget, the bible tells us that Abraham does not return to the land of his ancestors, Moses never enters the land of Canaan, and as soon as the ancient Israelites feel secure in the possession of their land they loose it to the Babylonians and end up in exile.If we are honest, the human experience is one of never feeling like we are quite at home. 

Sollee goes on to say that reflecting on our mortality is an essential part of what it means to be human. Remembering is essential because it saves us from the numbing of denial and frees us from passively leading a static and unexamined life.

For me, being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return in the lead up to Easter, feels a bit like the unwelcome reminder of death at a wedding. It's unsettling and out of place. In fact, it hurts like hell. But as a friend said shortly after my dad's death: 
Hang in there and remember that in the darkest moments our God is the light who leads us through. Even in the hardest times when the light seems to flicker & waver, it is never extinguished, even if we struggle to see it. That light heals the broken hearted, but not in an instant, as it honours the love which caused the brokenness.
So, I decide to receive the ashes and to wear them in fearful humility. And I try to remember how the darkness honors the love that's been lost. 

I remember because it's better than forgetting. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Mystery of Death

 In the Lenten spirit of self-reflection and repentance I confess to you that I hate blogging.

No, I really hate blogging.

I hate it for a number of reasons. First, I don’t think I am very good at it. I’m not an especially skillful or articulate writer. I tend to ramble on and only sometimes get to the point. Second, I don’t have the same desire to be heard that most bloggers seem to posses. Lastly, I am a journaler, which means that most of what I write is deeply personal and excessively flowery. Writing for a public audience puts me in the awkward position of walking the thin line between the private and personal, which frankly are subjective categories anyway.

I see the irony of confessing all of this to you in a blog post. However, I've done so because I’ve decided to take up blogging during the season of Lent. As many of you know, Lent is a liturgical season in the Christian year where believers prepare themselves for Holy Week, the week that recalls Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. To stand in solidarity with our suffering God, who —on the cross— stood in solidarity with us, we simplify our lives during this season by committing to fast from certain luxuries. By fasting we remember the frailty and finitude of our human flesh. During Lent we realize anew our fundamental need for a transcendent and eternal God.

The season begins on Ash Wednesday, a day when the church places ashes on our foreheads as a solemn reminder of human mortality. Throughout the 40 days of Lent, but especially on Ash Wednesday, we are forced to confront the reality of death so that come Easter we can fully embrace the victory of Christ’s triumph over death in all of her manifestations. 

Last summer, my Dad passed away unexpectedly after a long period of hospitalization. Beginning when I was a teenager, my Dad would regularly tell me that he was going to die. I think he told me this in part because of depression, but also because he was trying to overcome the fear of death, the paralyzing terror of the unknown that can stop you from living life to its fullest.

Even though he spoke of it regularly, I think both of us were unprepared for his death. We were unprepared because he also had a voracious appetite for life. He fought to live so that he could go on loving me.

As I’ve struggled this year to cope with his absence, a mentor and friend recommended a book called, “The Mystery ofDeath” by noted German theologian Dorothee Sollee. Finished only days before her own death, Sollee probes the meaning of death in history, literature and religious tradition. Clever, yet intensely personal, she revolts against our cultures denial of death as she herself comes to terms with it. 

So, as an act of solidarity with my Dad, with Dorothy, and with the “great majority” who are no longer with us, I've decided to spend the seven weeks of Lent publicly reflecting on the mystery of death. 

I want to explore the questions I never asked my Dad while he was sick. I want to honor the experience of death in stillness, silence, and prayer.  And I want to contemplate my own mortality in the defiant hope that life can still be born in death.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Today is my Dad's 69th birthday. 

What follows is the eulogy I wrote for his memorial service, delivered to my home church by Pastor Fawn Mikel. 

Pastor Fawn,

You asked me what is one thing I want people to remember about my dad. I told you it was his self-sacrifice, and it’s true, but this splinters off in so many ways.

One is how charming he was with everyone. When I visited him in the hospital/rehab center the staff loved him. You have to understand, most of their patients are ill tempered because of pain, losing their minds, or unable to communicate at all. But he had such a report with the nurses. 

One of the nurses called him Tom Tom. She said she would come in the door, say hello, and he would say, "is that my Jackie?!" When I was there they acted so clinical with everyone else, but they would come in and start catching him up on all their personal lives. Everywhere he went he made friends and made people feel at home in their own skin — which I think is a rare and beautiful gift. 

Another dimension of his self-sacrifice that I want to re-emphasize, is how important it was in my formation to watch him talk to people who would come up out of nowhere to tell him their life stories. His obvious outward signs of suffering bred solidarity among other people struggling to survive. And he was so kind; we'd be on our way to run errands or catch a movie and these people would just talk and talk and talk, and he would just listen forever... 

And he would listen forever to me. He was my best friend. We talked about everything. There wasn't one experience he didn't help me verbally unpack, and that's why now it’s so painful. Because I want to sit down with him and discuss how hard this has been, how sorry I am for not having come down sooner, how much I miss him already, how perfect his love was and how grateful I am for it. 

You asked me about dad's faith, and I can tell you that he lived with an expectant hope and honest trust in God. I have a number of letters he sent me and in every one he says things like: pray for us, I hope God hears me, and “I trust in God's love to get me through this or that.” I also know this because we talked about it a lot. He believed in the power of prayer and in the love of God. He was so very grateful for Christ Church because of how it fostered my relationship with God. In one of the letters he says: “My life is so hard, I sometimes feel as if I am cursed; But then I think of you and that all goes away. I realize how much God must love me because he gave me you." 

On Monday, I told him how honored I am to be his daughter. How I love him more then life itself and I will love and miss him until my very last day. I told him that heaven is a reality I participate in now, and therefore we would be able to participate in together. That love would keep us together and that he should not be afraid of anything that could happen because love drives out fear.

His whole life he gave and gave and gave and gave to me. He would call me up randomly just to tell me how much he loves me and send me cards that said,
"I love you, guess that about sums it up." 

His love was the greatest gift I have ever been given, because he allowed the love of God to flow purely and abundantly through him. I will miss every moment we spent together; how in those moments I knew how much he loved me and was so grateful for it.

On Tuesday I had a major break down because I knew my dad fought through more pain then he could handle to wait for me to say goodbye. I asked David, "How does someone fight off death? How is that even possible?" And he said: "Love." 

My dad loved me so much he gave me life and then fought off death. His love was THAT powerful. It shook my world and made me happier than I ever deserved to be. 

There are only so many people in this world who love with the love of Christ — and he was one of them. We cannot afford to lose these people, or miss out on experiencing their incredible light. His love surely outshines mine, but I love, I love, I love him...

Truth be told, my faith is being tested in this time... But the other day I was thinking about what people might bring to the memorial service — things like food and cards, simple gestures of condolence. Then I thought about what Christ would bring, and I realized he would bring a cross. He would drag the cross down the aisle and place it beneath his picture and say a prayer. He would talk about how he was there with him the whole time, when everyone else was caught up in his or her own worlds. How he suffered with him and for him, and how unfair it was that he had to suffer at all. He would shed tears and show us his scars, but then he would have to leave as quickly as he came. He would leave our world to find my Dad in another one and he would hold him close to his chest, tell him about the service, and how much we all miss and love him. And they would smile and talk of old times. And in that moment I hope with everything that is in me that he would understand how deeply I love him and how his love meant the world to me. I will never forget it, because it has carried me. 

I love him crazy. The world was a better place with him in it.