Prayer as Lament – Advent sermon series 3

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a command to rejoice! Be joyful!

In all the furtive busy-ness of getting ready for the big day, in all the running around and striving to check off everything on the ‘to do’ list before Christmas, carrying all the pressure and responsibility …

The church says: don’t take yourselves too seriously on this journey. There are times when we need to not just listen up, but lighten up. Gaudete!

Yes, we are on the path of transformation. And this path requires us to be intentional and disciplined. After all, Christmas is coming; there is much to prepare! It was Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary of Martin Luther in the 16thcentury, who urged the church to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us.”[1]

Not bad advice. Except we won’t survive this journey if we don’t also take the foot off the gas pedal from time to time. Can we let things be as they are? Can we accept ourselves and rejoice even at the imperfection of our lives – the cracks in who we are? Or, have we deluded ourselves into thinking that only when everything is perfect, and finished, and just the way it ought to be, then, and only then, can we rejoice?

How can we be authentically joyful, especially when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in our lives and in the world?

In our ordinary lives as much as in our worship and prayer, we have to make room for lament. Lament? It seems odd to suggest that on Gaudete Sunday of all days – the Sunday during Advent when we are called to rejoice – we offer our laments to God in prayer.

I’d like to suggest this is the path to expressing true joy. Lament as a necessary step on the path to true acceptance, hope and joy. So that our rejoicing isn’t just an extension of our culture’s surface ‘good cheer’ which often only masks deeper needs.

The Psalms, which are the primary prayer book for the ancient Israelites and Jews of Jesus’ day, are filled with laments. We read one together this morning.[2]Even Jesus, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, expressed his disappointment and sorrow over Jerusalem[3]. And then in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God if only his cup of suffering could be taken away.[4]Jesus wept for the death of his friend Lazarus[5], and on the cross he cried out, “O God, why have you forsaken me!”[6]quoting a Psalm. Jesus was familiar with, and used often, the prayers of lament on his journey to new life.

Perhaps we are afraid that if we do take the foot off the gas pedal during this season of rush-rush, we might not very much like what comes to the surface. In that moment when we are not driven by our compulsions and distractions, what scary thing might emerge?

This season can be difficult for those, for example, who grieve the loss of loved ones especially when it is the first Christmas celebrated without them. We are supposed to feel happy, but we are burdened by a deep sadness of loss. And all those messages that declare we are to be ‘joyful’ only serve to deepen our sorrow. How, then, can we be joyful?

In the Academy Award winning movie, “Inside Out”, eleven-year-old Riley has moved to San Francisco, leaving behind her life in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy struggle to cope with her new life.

In the movie, each of these emotions is a separate character in the control room of Riley’s mind. Until the big move, it was always Joy who was in the driver’s seat. Joy determined how Riley processed events and situations in her life. Even if Riley, who loved to play hockey on the family pond, missed a shot on goal, Joy would step in and emphasize the bright, positive side of the situation. Sadness would always stand nearby, trying to be more influential in defining Riley’s experiences. But, until the move to San Francisco, Joy always won out.

When big events in our lives happen – events that are happy or sad – these change us and the way we look upon life. By Joy insisting on dominating, even when Riley experienced significant challenges at school and at home after the move, she became worse and worse, shutting out her parents and isolating herself.

It was only when Joy let Sadness take control, did Riley turn the corner. Riley became better in her new life when no emotion was denied, but given its rightful place given the circumstance. The emotions – especially Joy and Sadness – discovered that both have to take turns in the driver’s seat from time to time. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

Christianity did not combine opposites into some kind of favourable blend. Neither does having faith exclude, deny nor avoid one in favour of the other. Rather, our faith holds all dimensions of the human, and all the dimensions of the divine in vibrant and furious tension.[7]Like, the tension of becoming truly joyful when we can also offer our lament. When we can let sadness take the driver’s seat for a bit of that journey especially when it seems it’s supposed to be all about being happy all of the time.

In the Advent study group on prayer, we reviewed the various characteristics of a lament by looking at some Psalms. One characteristic will often escape our notice, maybe because it doesn’t fit our expectations of what lamenting is. You know, we think it’s all tears and gnashing of teeth and breast-beating and woe-is-me kind of stuff.

But a lament is not a lament unless it also carries the one who is praying into a place of confidence and trust in God. Maybe that’s why Jesus lamented so much. Because he was so faithful to Abba. Trusting in God his Father. Besides the obvious grievances and plea for help expressed in the Psalm, did you not also hear and feel joy born out of confidence and trust from the Psalmist’s words this morning?

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it … Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted … Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.”[8]

Prayer as growth. Prayer as Listening. Prayer as Lament. On the road to Christmas.

[1]Cited in Patrick J. Howell, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.65-66.

[2]Psalm 80; see also Psalms 74, 79, 85, 90.

[3]Matthew 22:37; Luke 13:34

[4]Matthew 26:39

[5]John 11:33-35

[6]Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1

[7]Howell, ibid., p.64

[8]Psalm 80:7-8,14-15,17-19

Advent blessing for the journey

When flying from Ottawa to London or Frankfurt, you leave late in the evening. Almost immediately after departure it is dark. And while most of the journey transpires in the dark of night, the flight over the Atlantic eastward nevertheless goes with the expectation—the promise—that you are heading into a new day. After four or five hours of darkness, a thin pinprick of light first lines the horizon ahead. It isn’t too long afterward that the journey is completed in the bright daylight.

The journey of Advent recognizes the darkness in which we walk and the time it takes. We can’t get where we are going without journeying through the night. Each of us are somewhere on the flight path, using the time we have to be reconciled to our losses and the suffering we bear.

Whether we carry the burden of grief and loss, of suffering and pain, of anxiety and fear, we are nevertheless heading towards a new day. On this long journey in the dark we wait, as it were, for the sun to shine again.

May this journey of Advent be hope-filled, that as you make your way towards the new dawn, the expectant joy of the coming of the light will give you strength and courage to keep going in the grace, peace and love of God.

Pastor Martin

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funeral sermon: with 4 wheels on the ground

I remember that winter day. It was -20c and the roadways were covered with snow and ice. And yet, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Coming into the west-end near Stittsville, the Queensway was empty. And it was mid-morning on a weekday!

I was powering it through! A little snowfall wasn’t going to impede me. I was going at my regular speed in the passing lane and was wondering why very few were venturing onto the highway. And then I saw a car had spun out, resting against the guardrail perpendicular to me at the side of the 417 in front of the Canadian Tire Centre. And a little farther I witnessed another car spinning out of control.

I decided to slow down, and tapped the brake. Mistake #1. I felt the wheels begin to float underneath me. I then stepped on the gas to try to get grip. Mistake #2. The fish-tailing was starting to feel like a swan dive. I was losing it!

Thankfully in that moment, I remembered what my drivers-ed teacher taught me thirty years ago: Step off the gas! I think we instinctively associate stepping on the gas with more control — in all circumstances; the more I give, the more I expend, the more I put myself out there — the better it’ll be.

But in this case, the solution was to let go and just keep the steering wheel pointed forward. And as soon as I let off the accelerator, the four wheels found purchase, and I was able to recover. It is a little bit counter-intuitive for us in our get’er done culture to divest ourselves of the belief that doing more about something will save us from whatever predicament we find ourselves in. Sometimes, in tough situations, we just have to let off the gas, a bit.

When a loved one dies, we must do what might feel counter-intuitive to what love is. We need to let go. To let-go takes love.

Life came to a crashing halt for you last week. The shock, the heaviness, the sudden change in your lives now that Mark is gone—all threaten to overwhelm you in grief. Maybe these days all you can do is bring to mind memories that stand out.

One very clear memory from your life with Mark is at the racetrack. Car racing—whether at Capital City before it closed, or Cornwall and Brockville—brought you together in the enjoyment of life.

God created each one of us to have 4×4 capability, to drive on the road of life. If you have four-wheel-drive, you normally have the option, when you need it, to engage all four wheels in the power-train instead of just the two front wheels. Four-wheel-drive comes in handy especially in snowy, icy winter conditions, or when you drive off-road in mud, over rocks and in fields.

Now, I believe most of us who have this four-wheel-drive option don’t really need it for 99% of the time we drive, even in winter. For most of our lives, things may go reasonably well for many of us. Life is good. We get by. We may even enjoy many of the blessings of a good life.

But there will still be times in our lives when we will suffer. There will be times in our lives when our health will fail and we come face to face with our limitations. We will suffer loss and even tragedy. We will suffer the pressures and stresses of family and work and the conflicts of being in relationships with others.

And when we do, we will need the four-wheel-drive option that is built right into our make-up. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage the off-road bumps and potholes. We do, so God created each of us, have the capability to engage those slippery, icy, even dangerous road conditions.

Yes, using four-wheel-drive burns more gas. It’s not the most fuel-efficient way of driving. We use up more energy. It will be difficult, trying, even exhausting. Working through our grief pushes us past our comfort zones, to be sure. But we do have the capability, this gift, and we should use it. Try it.

And here’s the wonder of it: When we must engage the four-wheel-drive option and drive down that unknown, sometimes scary, road, being jostled about on the uneven, narrow way, we discover that God sits right beside us in the car.

You see, the engine won’t ever fail, because the capability for off-roading is a quality of God’s love. Love is the fuel, the energy, the power behind this effort. And this love is shown to us by God. God loves us, even when we make mistakes, when we falter, even when crash, even when we will have an accident. God is with us. And God’s love and unfailing presence sustains us.

In the scripture I read, I hope you heard those words from Saint Paul: “Salvation is nearer to us now, than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). When we first become aware of the love of God for us, maybe a long time ago, that is great! This may be some significant turning point, or an incredible experience when the beauty, joy, peace and glory of life radiate all around us.

That was then, this is now. Since then, we may have thought little about God and dismissed any notions of participating in the life of the church.

It doesn’t matter, now. Because the point is, right now you are off-roading. And now that you may be using that 4×4 capability on the rough patches of the road of life, God is even closer to you.

Regardless of our past. Now that we may be suffering and enduring the pain of loss, God is even closer to us. It’s built right in. God “… will not forsake his people; God will not abandon the work of his hands” (Psalm 94:14).

God created Mark. God has not forsaken Mark in his time of greatest need. God has not abandoned Mark at his most vulnerable moment of life and death. And God will not abandon you.

After all, God is right next to you on the road of life.

funeral sermon in Advent: Faith in the Night

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter (v.5.9):

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world.”

These days, we walk in darkness.

December 6thwas the first day the sun set the earliest it will all year long—at 4:19pm. And that will be the case for another week before the days start getting longer again. Your beloved died at, literally, the darkest time of year.

And, so it is with your grief at this sudden loss. It is a dark time, indeed, that you journey these last days of a significant year in the life of your family.

At the end of the year. At the end of a life shared together. It is dark. And it is in the darkness that we must remain, for some time.

We may feel like love is lost at times like this. In the intensity of grief, the finality of death hits like sprinting into a brick wall. The familiar bonds are severed completely. And the prospect of a radically changed life, now, chill the heart with fear and uncertainty.

Where, O Love, is Thy soothing presence? Where, O Love, is Thy warming touch? Where, O Love, is Thy reassuring voice?

For Christians, this loss is symbolized by the cross. And in the cross we see a cruciform shape to reality: Loss precedes renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every change in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form’.[1]

At your loved one’s bedside on December 6, you described to me the image of wings of protection and love that your beloved offered in prayer and in spirt for his children and grandchildren. The image of wings of love surrounding his family is a tender one.

In the bible wings describe the loving and protective stance of God towards us. “I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (2 Esdras 1:30). The Psalmist prays: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7).

May the image of holding a bird demonstrate the kind of love we need now to express in this time of loss. They say that to hold a bird, you can’t hold it too tightly. When the chickadees fly into the palm of my hand when I feed them nuts and sunflower seeds, I cannot, dare not, clasp my hand into a fist.

I must keep my hands open. They say that to show true love you must be willing to let the object of your love go. They say that to love, one must let go. One cannot control true love, hold on to it tightly. To be sure, there are times in life when love calls for a tighter grip, especially when giving direct care to one in need, or guiding and parenting children. In these situations, yes, a firmer hold in love may be necessary.

But at other times, especially when dark times of the year come around which they do for all of us, love demands a different approach. People wonder, understandably so, why if God is Almighty and Benevolent, why God allows those dark times to even happen at all.

If God truly loves us, God will offer love freely and not demand it be returned. If God truly loves us, God will give us freedom. God will let us go. Not abandon us, because God is everywhere. But give us the freedom to love and to let go.

And, you know also the saying: What you let go in love, like giving a tiny bird freedom to fly away from your hand, will return to you in love. Perhaps not in exactly the way you expected. Perhaps not according to your timing. Yet, this is the nature of God’s grace and love: In letting go, we discover and experience the surprise of love’s return in some form, some day.

What else can be said about December 6th, besides the day your beloved died? December 6th, of course, is Saint Nicolas Day. If anything can be said about Saint Nicolas is that he was generous. Generous to the poor, to those in need. Your beloved was generous to you with his love. The gift of generosity is given on the day your beloved died.

How can we continue in the love freely given and freely received in the union of marriage and family that was severely disrupted on the day your loved one died? The symbolism of the day cannot go unnoticed, unrecognized. We can continue in the legacy of your beloved is leaving to us: to pay attention to the needs of the vulnerable, the children. To be generous with the gifts God has given us to share with those in need. This is an honorable expression of our love for your loved one. This is a worthy focus of our energies as we wander in this dark time of loss and grief.

Yes, “grief and anxiety has gripped us, and we are frightened by the future. Yet, even in these times, God is there. The good news is that Jesus always comes again. Every year, despite how hard things have been, Jesus is born into our lives anew. Death is never the final word”[2]– divine love comes and gives us life. Again.

May love be our guide through these dark days, and into the bright hope of a New Year.

 

[1]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (Center for Action and Contemplation,  www.cac.org) 7 December 2018)

[2]Lutherans Connect “Faith in the Night” DAY 7 (Lutheran Campus Ministry Toronto, 8 December 2018), lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com

A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

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It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018

Into the deep end

I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.

This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.

A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.

Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.

“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”

An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.

He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.

“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.

He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”

The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.

In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.[1]

Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.

What would you have done?

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.[2]

This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”

It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.

This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.

We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.

The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.

No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.

One can only have compassion on him.

The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”[3]Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?

At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.

And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.[4]

We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.

It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.

We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.[5]

Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:

It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.

“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).[6]Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.

But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.

I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.

But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.

What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.

What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.

I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.

Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.

And hope never fails.

God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.

 

[1]Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.

[2]Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B

[3]Isaiah 35:4

[4]Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

[5]Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).

[6]http://www.elcic.ca

funeral sermon – Epiphany

Something of eternal consequence had already started the day before Derry died.

As is customary in the weekly bible study at Faith, we take turns reading the scripture for the day. And we read that same scripture over three times, in the tradition of lectio divina – a meditative, prayerful approach to the bible.

I think I speak for everyone in that group to say that we all wanted Derry to read. He read well. Derry articulated the words with nuance and meaning. His deep, rich voice brought the scripture to life.

The day before Derry died, he attended our last session before the Christmas break. We were reading, as you can imagine, the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke chapter two. At the beginning of our time together, I asked Derry if he would read that scripture. But he needed more time to get settled, and he would read it later. “We’ll get back to you,” I announced.

But, for whatever reason, we never did. Whether it was the turn of the conversation, the character of the group that day, or innocent forgetting, Derry didn’t get his turn to read that day.

A couple of us reflected briefly on this over Christmas. And we felt badly that we missed an opportunity to honor his gift one last time.

In retrospect, it feels like unfinished business, something left hanging, incomplete. On this side of death, we can’t yet fully realize and appreciate what Derry’s gift of faith means beyond death’s door.

Last summer in my travels I found this quote printed on the window of a restaurant: “Life is not measured by how many breaths you take, but by the experiences that take your breath away.”[1]

What are these experiences that ‘take our breath away’? When we behold something beautiful. When something outside of ourselves ignites and inspires something from within us, we taste glory. We are moved. Deep speaks to deep[2]. Emotions, memories, feelings stir within us.

This is the purpose of art. The creative impulse is to fashion something material outside of us to reflect the beauty and glory within. Our outer world and its inner significance – those moments that take our breath away – come together with resulting joy and a sense of coherent beauty.[3]

Art is not something that can be used. Its primary purpose is not functional. A sculpture cannot be part of a mechanism to make something work. Art does not bring water into a community, heat our homes, transport goods and services across the continent. Art isn’t meant to be a cog in the wheel of our economy. It’s not easy to make a good living in our culture doing only art. From this perspective, art is unproductive — even useless.

So, why do we bother to spend so much of our time in our flower gardens? Why do we exercise extraordinary patience in painting something that is called from within us? Why do we write poetry? Why do we travel across this globe to visit cathedrals and art galleries and artifacts that bespeak of unspeakable beauty?

Like a verdant garden bursting with variety and the fullness of life, Derry’s artwork was rich in diversity – sculpting, painting, ceramic and wood-carving and gardening. Derry’s gift of art not only reflect his astounding creativity but also the witness of one who reflected the light and glory of Christ to the world in his own, unique way. The ‘likeness of Christ’, we say.

Today is the church’s annual observance of the Epiphany. Every year on January 6th, Christians further contemplate the mystery of the incarnation, of word made flesh.[4] During the season of Epiphany that follows, we discover again how God is made flesh in Christ, in the world today.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we reflect the light of Christ, the light even the darkness of death cannot consume.[5] Today we stand in the shadow of death. We grope in the darkness of grief, trying to find our way forward but not sure because it is an unknown path. We mourn at this occasion of profound loss.

Yet, the light continues to shine. And what is more, that light shines within us. If Derry leaves a legacy, it is to witness to this light – the light of glory, the light of Christ risen, the light of life that is now, because of Christmas, in the world and in us. Second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, said that “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Derry, in his artistic expression, was surely ‘fully alive’. We can trust this. We may not feel it all the time, especially in grief. But not feeling God’s light within us doesn’t make it untrue.

Derry was also a teacher. He taught many student teachers at the university. Derry teaches us something important about life and death. Derry’s teaching to us now is to witness to the glory of God, reflected in each one of us.

The darkness does not overcome the light. The light endures forever. In God’s reign, there is no unfinished business. Derry continues to bask in the light and glory of God’s eternal reign. Today, Derry deepens his connection with the Word, reading and living the stories of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. In this time, God brings to completion the good work begun in Derry’s life with us.

Thanks be to God.

[1] T. Paul’s Restaurant in Astoria, Oregon

[2] Psalm 42:7

[3] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, January 1, 2018

[4] John 1:14

[5] John 1:5