“Lent and The Gift of Re-vision” (Mark 1:10-15)

vision

Many years ago, before I went to divinity school and was still teaching, a student approached me about becoming the faculty advisor for a new club she was planning on starting.

“It’s called ‘Beginnings,’” she said eagerly.

“Great,” I said. “Beginnings for what?”

“Oh…” she said, “it’s for prayer.” (It was a private school.)

“Good for you,” I said eagerly. I found myself flattered that she had come to me about being the advisor.

“How many people are looking to join so far?” I asked.

“So far just me and my friend, Kat,” she said. “She’ll be Vice President.”

(They were Juniors.)

I agreed to be the club’s advisor. A few days later, posters went up around campus. An announcement was made at Assembly. A shoebox for prayer requests went outside the dining hall.

The next week, we met after school in one of the English classrooms.

My student and her friend, Kat, the Vice President, showed up five minutes early.

“I asked everyone in all my classes and all the girls on my hallway,” said my student.

“I asked everyone on the diving team,” said Kat.

They looked at each other eagerly.

Five minutes went by. Nobody else arrived. The girls said nothing, but they seemed surprised, as if they’d misread their schedule and had ended up going to class at the wrong time.

“Why don’t we get started?” I eventually suggested.

“Maybe we could wait a few more minutes,” said my student. “I mean, if it’s just us, what’s the point?”

“Yeah,” said Kat.

“Maybe we could start by praying for the school in general,” I said.

“Right. Like that they’ll come and be part of ‘Beginnings,’” said my student.

And suddenly I found myself wondering, “What is this actually about?”

That wasn’t going to get much clearer over the months that followed.

I dutifully met with the group every Friday night for a year — it did get a little bigger, I am glad to say.

The shoebox for prayer next to the dining hall was always retrieved, and now and again, it would be opened and there would be one or two requests folded up and folded up and folded up into little paper pills the way kids do, and we prayed those.

That was wonderful.

But so much of the energy of that group seemed squarely directed on growing the group, period.

We prayed a lot just about that.

What would happen if the group grew — what it would then be poised to do, what its work would then become — was never discussed.

More to the point, from what I could see, it was never even dreamed of.

I couldn’t have put it this way then, but looking back at it now, I’d say that they were long on mission but short on vision.

That early moment when the club president had asked, “If it’s just us, what’s the point?” was a question that never ended up getting answered.

II.

Now let me just say, I think that faith has a lot to say about that particular question.

But before we get into that, we need to acknowledge how easy it is for all of us to wander into seasons of life when we, too, are long on mission but short on vision.

And by this, I don’t mean to focus, specifically, on church mission and church vision–though churches enter such seasons, to be sure.

I mean something broader than that. Because, of course, we all enter such seasons.

Personally, professionally, emotionally, this happens to us.

After all, we all have missions — responsibilities we are charged to carry out, things we need to get done. I suspect we’ve all had some sort of vision, too — some hoped for picture of how things might all be…some sense of how it all might come together for us in the end.

We know mission. We know vision. Right?

Knowing them as we do, then, we also know how easily we can get long on vision and short on vision — long in our focus on getting things done, and short on the bigger picture of why we’re doing them in the first place…or why we’re still doing them.

Have you ever found yourself doing something out of sheer habit that made sense whenever you started, but doesn’t make sense, anymore?

You’ve probably heard the story of the woman who made her mother’s recipe for pot roast by dutifully cutting off either end of the roast before putting it in the pan.

And then one day, her new daughter-in-law asked why she did it that way.

“Well,” said the woman, a little defensively, “that’s how my mother always made it, and it was delicious, so….”

So…the daughter-in-law went into the living room. As it happens, Granny was sitting on the couch, watching t.v.

The young woman asked her, “You know, Granny, how did you discover that the secret to pot roast was cutting the ends off before sticking it in the oven.”

“What?” the grandmother said. “No no no. Back when we still lived in the city, we only had a small stove and a small roasting pan, so I always had to cut off the ends to get it in there….”

Sometimes, things turn out to be habit and we didn’t even know it.

We have been going through the motions all along.

And yet, how often do we stop to ask ourselves why we’re doing the things that we’re doing?

How often do we check in with our own vision?

For a lot of us, it’s not all that often.

III.

We’ll save why we don’t for another time.

But it’s for this reason that Lent exists as a season of the church.

Lent exists as a time for us to stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing the things that we’re doing.

It’s about getting off the hamster wheel of our day-to-day lives and reconnecting with the vision of what we truly hope our lives might be like…which is to say, it’s about reconnecting with the vision of who it is God has called us to be.

This morning, we heard Mark’s version of Jesus’ going into the wilderness for 40 days, which is, more or less, the model for Lent.

Mark only gives us two sentences by way of a story. He says:

“…The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).

It’s not like Luke’s version, which tells us in such close detail about the specific temptations Jesus faces.

I love that version, too, and yet one thing about the way Mark tells it is that maybe the specifics don’t really matter.

Mark’s version allows us to imagine that maybe they aren’t even temptations so much as they are distractions.

Because it’s clear when Jesus gets baptized and a voice comes down from Heaven and says, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” — it’s clear that this man is going to have a mission.

But is he going to have a vision?

Not if he doesn’t connect, he won’t. Not unless he finds a way to listen for God — to hear that voice that spoke at his baptism, speaking through all the distractions that were sure to come.

The same is true for us.

And so just as much as Lent is about making time for prayer and Scripture, or for loosening the grip of our petty dependencies and all that famous Lenten stuff, it is most of all about clearing the way for vision.

For a couple with young children, it might begin in recommitting to date night….remembering why the family began, in the first place.

For a busy professional, it might begin in connecting with the person whose life is changed because of something we help make or a service we help provide.

For a senior, it might begin with finding things that still push us, or introduce us to new ideas, new people, new places.

For all of us, acts of kindness and generosity offered without strings and free of charge turn out to replenish us, to surprise us, and to remind us of that greater vision for our lives.

What do you most need to take on or to get rid of in order to connect with the vision that drives you?

This is the question of Lent. And Lent is the season to find out.

All those years ago, those two earnest students could not see beyond the challenge of starting their group.

“If it’s just us, what’s the point?” they asked. There was never an answer big enough to that question.

Lent says that the big answers are out there.

Our challenge is to make space for those answers to unfold.

Like the little paper pills that students gave our group to pray over, we as faithful people need to open the box, and see what we have received.

Lent is when we let God show us what He has, in fact, written not only on someone else’s heart, but on our own.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ashes

If you’ll indulge me, there is a moment in the second of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling that I have always found particularly evocative.

If you don’t particularly know the books, they are the stories of a young wizard who is orphaned as a toddler and then raised by non-magical relatives until his tenth birthday, when out of the blue, he is invited to attend a school for witchcraft and wizardry, and he comes to find out who he really is, and to join the world to which he truly belongs.

At the beginning of the second book, he is returning to school for his second year, and he is taken from the train station in a carriage pulled by a magical creature.

It is a not particularly important detail.

Except that it turns out almost all of his classmates, all of whom are also being taken in carriages pulled by one or another of these creatures, can’t actually see the creatures.

To them, for some reason, the creatures are invisible. Harry is perplexed by this, because he sees them very clearly.

But then he discovers that one other student, a girl in his class who has tragically lost her mother, is also able to see the creatures. She explains it to him.

It turns out you cannot see the creatures unless you’ve seen someone die.

It is a small detail in a book for young people, and the book is not about grief or death or God.

But it names something that strikes me as profoundly true, which to put it simply, is that grief shows us things…it opens our eyes to things…that other people cannot see.

Grief uncovers some of the mystery behind how things actually work.

Or say it this way: grief uncovers the mystery behind how some things work.

Grief teaches lessons that we could never otherwise know. So often, people who are grieving say things like, “I never really knew…”

I never really knew how much I relied on him until I had to sort through his desk.

Because of her Scandinavian reserve, I never really knew how much she cared until she was gone.

I never knew how, deep down, we were so very much alike.

Grief teaches us those lessons. And while they’re hard to learn, it’s often knowing them…carrying that sad new wisdom… that seems as if it will be hardest of all to bear, especially when the grief is recent.

So often, when we find ourselves saying, “I never knew,” we are quickly overwhelmed by the regret of wondering what life might have been if we had known.

Would we have said something else, or somehow acted differently?

We suspect that indeed, we would have.

Anyway, we should have.

And this is why we have Ash Wednesday.

We have Ash Wednesday because, deep down, we do know.

Even the smallest of griefs is already pointing to the truth at the foundation of our lives, and yet we forget.

So we have Ash Wednesday in order to remember.

We remember the love that has gotten us this far.

But more than that, we remember that we don’t have forever to make the most of today. There are things we don’t have to end up regretting if we find our courage now…if we find our voice now…if we commit to living in the bright light of the truth now.

We don’t have to wish we’d found a way to say the words we long to say, or to do the things we’re called to do.

So much remains before us if we will just try. But we must start now.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we remember. It is the beginning of a season of reflection and preparation.

It gets us ready for Easter.

But more than that, it is an invitation to live fully at last.

 

AMEN.

From the Newsletter: Giving Up What, Exactly?

lent

Today marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period of spiritual preparation and self-discipline that leads to the great celebration of Easter.

For many people, it is the spiritual equivalent of the big diet before swimsuit season.

To me, that’s a shame for a few reasons.

First, it suggests that getting closer to God is no fun, even if it has great benefits in the long run. It saddens me that there are still people who go to church even though they don’t enjoy it, because they think God does and they’re determined to keep God “happy.” It’s as if they worship a God who never laughs.

Second, it’s a shame because it can make such an idol of self-discipline, which is an all-too-American flaw. The Gospel is so powerful because it offers us a different account of who we are than the world at large does, reminding us always that we are made in the image of God and infinitely precious to God, despite our imperfections. Yes, God invites us to work on those. But that’s as a way of inviting us to find deeper roots in the divine ground. It’s not so we can show our grit — for whom? God? Really?

Finally, it’s a shame because it often ends up “baptizing” things we think we’re inclined to do for entirely non-spiritual reasons. To put it bluntly, the Church did not come up with Lent way back when so that we’d all look fabulous for Easter—thinner, better rested, less boozy in the jowls, or what have you. Lent isn’t God’s solution to help us “conquer stress.” By all means, let’s do those things, and for their own sake. But let’s not say that we’re doing things “for God” when we aren’t. I bet that God isn’t fooled.

So what should we do?

Earlier this week, I saw some wonderful suggestions attributed to Pope Francis (though I couldn’t find it when I looked for it again).  So…the words may not have been his, but I was moved by the invitation to give up a very different set of behaviors than the usual list. Instead, it focused on the deeper behaviors that get in the way of faithful living.

In that spirit, then, here is my list:

What if we tried giving up things like impatience? Sarcasm? Eye-rolling?
What if we tried giving up nit-picking, nagging, sulking, resentment, or self-pity?
What if we tried giving up saying things behind someone’s back, or needing to have the last word?

Lent is a time to focus on what matters most—a time to work on whatever it is that interferes with the joy we experience in loving God and neighbor. The more we do, the more deeply we experience the miracle at the heart of Easter — the more we know that Easter isn’t just an Alleluia we proclaim, but one God invites us to live and encounter again each day.

What do you need to do to accept that invitation? Make that the heart of your Lent this year. And may Lent lead you straight to the heart of God.

 

See you in church,

Sermon: “Invisible Girlfriend” and Love You Can See (Genesis 1&2)

invisible2

This week I learned about a new app for your phone that seems like a curious reflection on our times.

Featured in a story on the podcast “Note To Self,” which is on NPR, the app is called “Invisible Girlfriend.”

If you sign up, for 25 dollars a month, you are invited to fill out a profile for the significant other you desire — that perfect match you dream of, the one who understands you perfectly…that someone you imagine who is the perfect company to your misery, if you will.

And then, with that done, you have access to a phone number, to which you can send text messages whenever you like, as often as you like, with the promise that someone on the other side will always text you back right away, guaranteed.

“Invisible Girlfriend” will always respond always care, always say something positive. No matter what.

Apparently, in 2015, a year into its founding, the app already had as many as 80,000 subscribers.

As the podcast describing it noted, we all need someone to tell or text our stories to, even if they are paid to text us back.

When it was founded, the creators of “Invisible Girlfriend” had another use in mind.

They had imagined all the people who get hounded by their mothers about when they’re going to find someone — boom — “Mom, I have a girlfriend. See? We text back and forth all the time.”

They imagined women getting asked out by someone at work — boom — “I’m so sorry, but I’m already seeing someone.”

When it all started, they had no sense that subscribers might use the app for something approaching actual companionship, however ultimately fictive.

Yet that’s what has happened.

If you send it a text that says, “I love you,” within moments, someone will be sure to write back that they love you, too. Without fail.

Do you know anybody that this might work for?

Because I do.

Or rather, I think that when push comes to shove, so much of what we seek in our relationships is just a sense of being heard. If that’s true, then “Invisible Girlfriend” can pretty much provide that.

Have you ever had something happen…it could have been good or bad…but you just needed to tell someone…and for whatever reason, you end up confiding in a complete stranger?

Throughout my life, I have often turned out to be that stranger, so, if this is something you’ve never done and never would, let me just say, this is something that happens all the time.

Sometimes, strangers are easier to tell — more reliable about giving us the response we’re hoping for than the people who are closest to us.

To put it mildly, to be close to someone is a complicated thing.

In the days before Liz and I met, I was in a relationship that was finally entering its terminal phase. One day I had some small piece of good news — I don’t even remember what it was, but something along the lines of a compliment from my boss — and I realized that small as it was, I couldn’t tell my girlfriend about it because she would only pooh-pooh it, or somehow try to take it away.

An “Invisible Girlfriend” would have been a lot kinder to me than that.

O.k., so it’s not love, exactly.

But it’s a fair approximation of the language of affection, and sometimes maybe a little affection is really all we need.

                                                                                 II.

Of course, we’re talking about this today because, with Valentine’s Day coming later this week, we’re about to see a vivid display of what our culture thinks love is, or what it ought to be.

Affection really isn’t enough as far as Valentine’s Day is concerned.

That may be true.

But love as Valentine’s Day would have it looks a particular kind of way, and I’m not sure it’s much closer to the real thing than “Invisible Girlfriend” is.

Amid all the doilies, chocolates, tissue paper hearts and candlelight suppers for two with strolling violinists, you can see why people can start feeling strange.

The philosopher Jacob Needleman once observed that, “bluntly stated, what we often demand of others is that they be devoured by their feelings for us. We feel safe only when the other is obsessed by us. When the obvious signs of obsession are absent, we begin to worry” (The Wisdom of Love, 42).

Hallmark and Godiva and McArdles’s are counting on that worry.

But I think they count on us to perform the little rituals of affirming the banked embers of our passion, when so often, it’s the little gestures of affection that would say much more.

 III.

It’s in Genesis 2 that God seems to point to marriage — at least, the ancients seemed to think so.

Having created the Universe, God sees the man putzing around the Garden of Eden and concludes, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”

God starts with the animal kingdom — animals of the field and birds of the air. It’s not enough.

Scripture says, “The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.”

And then God creates Eve.

The man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” and the story goes on to say, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24).

But I’ve always liked the account of Creation in Genesis 1 even more, and it describes humankind created together, after all other things had been brought into being.

In Genesis 1, it reports, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27).

This speaks to me a lot more than the notion of “clinging” or of “becoming one flesh” ever could.

Because it says that each of us…women and men, all of us, in any combination, joined in whatever ways we may be…joined according to whatever traditions might emerge, or joined just by being in each other’s lives…whatever that is…each of us is marked by something truly remarkable: we are made in the image of God.

Whatever else we might share, we share that.

And yet the point of that is not to say that really we are all the same.

It is to say that God finds expression — that God’s own likeness — is to be found in all the things that make each one of us unique.

Each of us expresses something about who God is — we each show something about God’s very self.

It’s our little quirks that probably say the most about the “God part” of us.

Our smile. Our posture. The fact that we might be adults, but we still find cartoons hilarious. The way we always end up blinking by accident whenever anybody with a camera says “Cheese!”

And deeper things. Our special expressions of tenderness. The things that make us cry. The songs we choose when we sing in the shower.

It all touches the divine image.

What that means for love is pretty significant.

It suggests that love is knowing these relentless particularities about another person, about learning how we notice and encounter and, in some sense, share them with other people — how we learn to trade them with other people.

You take my awful cooking and I’ll take your inexplicable fondness for beige.

You know that it’s on the water that I feel most free; I know that our daughter gets her eyes from your grandmother.

That’s what it is to have our lives comingled. It is to be anchored by those things. Even to see God in those things.

   IV.

What the symbols of Valentine’s Day and the app makers of “Invisible Girlfriend” end up getting wrong about love is just this.

They seem to suggest that love is something generic…something obvious…something that affirms us by suggesting that the other is devoured by their need for us–always available, always at the ready to tell us just what we want, and to promise that they see us exactly however it is we most hope to be seen.

Genesis suggests that love is something altogether different.

Genesis proposes that love is found in the powerfully specific…in the good, the bad and the ugly about us, in the things that are just undeniably us, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

To those who love as God loves, those are the parts of us that are nothing short of holy.

May you find ways to notice and to celebrate those things in the people you love the most this week. And may God bless you in the celebrating.

Amen.

Sermon: “White Knuckling It” (Isaiah 40: 21-31)

Eagles

I.

I can’t remember if I’ve shared with you before about my honeymoon.

Liz and I went to Seattle and stayed on a houseboat on Lake Union, which was wonderful.

It was August and the weather was perfect.

Our hosts, Liz’s godparents, were delighted that we were there and showered us with gifts, one of which was a tour of the city and its surrounding communities, via seaplane.

In fact, the seaplane was tied up on a dock at the end of their street — a two minute walk away.

Magical, right?

We were both excited for this adventure.

The pilot was a grizzled old-timer kind of guy, which was perfect, and he motioned us into the back seat and fired up the engines — and it was all exciting.

Have you ever been in a seaplane?

Take off is a little bumpier than you might otherwise be used to, but that was all fine.

Except that we were gaining speed and gaining speed and zooming down the middle of Lake Union, and the pilot turned to me and said, “Hey buddy, be careful on your right there. That isn’t the wall of the plane. It’s a door.”

And with that, our seaplane leapt into the sky, zooming over the buildings along Lake Union, as the pilot gently banked the plane to starboard to begin our tour.

After a while, I could hear Liz to my left, oohing and ahhing about Mount Rainier, rising in the distance.

“Hey, look how small the Space Needle looks down there!” she gushed. “Let me get my camera!”

I heard her hunting around in her backpack.

“Hey,” she said, “look at me and smile!”

After a moment, she said again, “Hey honey! Smile!”

I don’t know when it was that she noticed my hands, which were gripping the seat in front of me so tightly that I thought for a moment I had actually punctured the vinyl.

I don’t know when it was that Liz noticed that my complexion was whiter than the snow on Mount Rainier.

I don’t know when it was that Liz realized I wasn’t moving my head because I my eyes were locked on the back of that seat in order to keep from seeing out any of the windows.

All I knew was that I was holding on for dear life and that I didn’t dare move a muscle or so help me, that plane was going to fall out of the sky.

Have you ever tried to keep a plane aloft by the sheer power of your own will?

Well, I have. And I can tell you, it was exhausting.

Twenty minutes later we touched back down, and I pried my fingers from the seat in front of me, grateful we had made it, and as soon as my heart rate returned to normal, I was suddenly exhausted.

I don’t think I’d ever been so weary in my entire life.

II.

Our Scripture this morning talks about weariness, too.

It comes from the Book of Isaiah, culminating in the wonderful promise that we can slough off our weariness.

“Even youths will faint and be weary,” it says, “and the young will fall exhausted;”

I was interested to learn this week that the word Isaiah uses for “weariness” is the Hebrew word ya-GA, which means “to toil, labor, grow weary,” but the word comes from a primitive root that means “to grasp” — as in, to grasp something so tightly, to grasp something for so long that it grows exhausting.

Has that ever happened to you?

We can only white knuckle it for so long, right?

Whether that is flying in a seaplane, driving through a snowstorm, running a business, or trying to keep everything going when life gets complicated — we can only white knuckle it for so long.

The burden of trying to hold everything together is exhausting.

Several years ago, my father contracted a late-summer pneumonia — one of those bad things that happens that seems just to come out of nowhere…that seems as if it couldn’t be all that serious until, wow….it’s actually pretty serious.

Finally, he was hospitalized for several days, which resolved it, but it was the first time I’d ever gone to visit my father in the hospital, and that is strange terrain for everyone.

I arrived and my mother was literally fluffing pillows in the hospital room and moving around with agitation, which is not like her.

My father seemed strangely like FDR, beaming with optimism and trying to cajole the phlebotomist trying to do a blood draw. This was not like him, either.

Finally, the blood draw was over, and my mother stepped out for a second to get herself a cup of coffee.

My father’s Hyde Park grin dissolved and looked me right in the eye.

“Your mother has no idea how close I came to dying,” he said.

We talked about this for a few minutes. I think I was helpful.

Eventually, Mom returned, and shortly thereafter, I could see my father was tired and that it was probably time for me to go.

I got up to leave.

“I’ll walk you to the elevator,” she said.

We stepped out of the room. And my mother turned to me and said, “Your father has no idea how close he came to dying.”

So that was kind of a weird day.

But don’t we do things like that all the time?

Don’t we have this impulse to white knuckle it…to hold on tightly…to maintain control…or at least to try to maintain control…sometimes even with the people we love the most?

And yet for all our efforts, our control is only temporary…only at best, partial.

Worst of all, sometimes we confuse re-establishing control with renewal.

The German theologian Dorothee Soelle has written, “If my hands are full, they can neither give nor receive.”

If holding on for dear life becomes our focus, we lose the deeper rhythm of life, which is about giving and receiving.

The deeper rhythm of life is attuned to a promise that all things will constantly be made new.

New chapters are poised to begin. God is ready to write them with us. Or we can try holding on to the old story with clenched fists.

Isaiah cautions us that this won’t succeed.

“Even youths will faint and be weary,” he says, “and the young will fall exhausted;”

III.

But then he goes on.

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and even the young will fall exhausted; but….”

But.

“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall not be weary, they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

For those who open their hands…who open their hearts…who open their minds… renewal doesn’t just beckon. It invites us to soar.

Now, Isaiah suggests this should all be obvious to anyone.

He writes incredulously, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

Maybe as a person with open hands and open heart and open mind, he gives us too much credit.

I have a friend who decided last year as a New Year’s resolution that he was going to do one of those “couch to 5K” running programs — and he succeeded, and it has been great for him.

But now he says that if he could do it, clearly anyone can…in fact, truth be told, he says it kind of a lot. And while maybe that is true, how quickly they forget, right?

How quickly he’s forgotten that for those of us who are still on the fence…still on the couch, the idea that “anyone could do” what he has doesn’t seem so obvious.

So maybe the invitation to soar that Isaiah can see present in the world…present from the foundations of the earth, as he says…isn’t so obvious for us right now.

Isaiah might be giving us too much credit, because experience teaches us that for most of us, it is not obvious.

But his point is an important one.

What might our lives be like if we just stopped with all the clutching?

Maybe the question we need to ponder first is whether we even want to know.

Yet for Isaiah, God is on the far shore of our asking, because it’s only then that something beautiful and new has the space to take hold.

Friends, above all, let us remember this: in all Creation, the human imagination is the most important real estate there is.

Isaiah understands that.

This morning, he reminds us that we must tend it…cultivate it…with great care, learning not to hold on too tightly, but rather to make space for things to happen.

Because with God, new shoots are forever ready to come into blossom.

With God, we soar, letting the Spirit carry us aloft to see things more wonderful than the most elaborate of all our dreams.

Amen.

2CC Sermon: “The Spirit in the Room” (Mark 1:21-28)

angel and devil

The other day I was having lunch over at Asiana, and I just happened to be seated within earshot of a large group.

They looked like they were having a good time. Most of them had arrived some time before, and they hadn’t even opened their menus yet.

Two of them realized they had been reading the same book and were talking about that with such delight that a third kept trying to interrupt to find out the title of the book.

After a couple of minutes, another woman arrived and they all greeted her happily. She hadn’t even sat down before they were peppering her with questions about how Christmas had been with all the grandchildren, and if she had caught up on her rest, and was she sorry to be back in the cold.

The side conversations were flourishing. It seemed great.

The wait staff was busy bringing over pots and pots of green tea.

And then, Doris arrived.

Actually, she didn’t so much arrive as make an entrance because she was a presence — a woman with a large hat and a metal cane.

As she approached, she spoke over all the conversations I’d been enjoying at the table.

“I’ve been here for half an hour,” she announced. “There was no place to park.”

“Oh really?” said one of the other women, “there seemed to be spaces when I got here…”

“Well, you parked in back,” Doris snapped. “I don’t do that.”

The table fell silent.

Doris sat down with a long sigh.

“Now is there anything in this restaurant I can actually eat?” she said.

“Maybe we should all look at the menus,” said someone kindly, trying to shift the energy back.

Doris was having none of it.

She called over one of the wait staff.

“I see this has scallops in it,” she said, pointing to a particular dish. “How many scallops does it actually have?”

The waiter wasn’t sure.

Doris repeated herself, slowly and loudly, as if she was speaking to someone very hard of hearing.

“I could ask the chef,” said the waiter.

Doris sighed loudly. All conversation around the table had stopped.

“Do you eat in this restaurant?” she asked one of her companions. “How many scallops do they put in this?” She pointed to something on her menu.

Well, you get the idea.

There is, of course, more I could tell you and nothing else you need to hear, because the rest of the lunch went along pretty much the same way.

There was a lot more dramatic, impatient sighing.

You had to feel bad for everyone concerned.

And I know we’ve all had experiences like that. We’ve all had lunches with someone like Doris. We’ve all probably had lunches where we were a little bit like Doris, ourselves.

Of course, who knows what the real story was?

I’d love to know. But the moment has stayed with me for another reason.

Because I think we’ve all had the experience of how dramatically the energy in a room can shift.

When Doris arrived, the warm and joyful energy of her companions shifted.

And I’ve certainly been in places where that’s happened.

Sometimes it can be utterly wordless–not an imperious person speaking negatively and loudly, but just a presence.

Call it “the vibe” or the spirit of the occasion, something shifts.

II.

This helps me think about accounts in Scripture like the account we’ve heard this morning.

It’s the kind of story that preachers often find it hard to preach on, at least in a scientific age.

Because as you’ve heard, the story describes the first healing Jesus does in Mark’s gospel.

It is a story about a man who is possessed by a demon, and Jesus steps forward to command that demon to leave.

The demon does leave, but not before speaking directly with Jesus, because the demon understands who Jesus really is in a way that the rest of the world did not.

The demon asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” and then “Have you come to destroy us?”

Now, to be honest, when we read this kind of story in church, a lot of people just tune out.

“This is a story about a person who suffers from some kind of mental illness. They didn’t have the language for that back then, so they talked about demons. Jesus sees the man’s humanity and so it’s pretty much a story about the power of compassion, yada yada yada.”

And it’s here that I think of Doris, the imperious woman last week at the restaurant.

Because we would not be likely to say that she was possessed by a demon. Nor should we.

Yet there is a spirit, or energy, that surrounds people and places and things. There is something more than the physical person or the words we say. There is more than that.

Some of you will have had the experience of visiting someone who is nearing the end of life, someone whose body is slowing down, but whose vitality…spirit…burns as brightly as ever.

So, too, there are people who are physically intact and yet spiritually broken.

So when Scripture talks about where our humanity really dwells, it’s not talking about our physical existence all by itself.

It’s trying to grapple with this deeper dimension. This dimension that is embodied not simply in our lives, but in the world that we build. In the places that we gather. In the institutions we establish. In the art we create and the stories we tell.

This is what it is to try to talk about the soul.

We can’t eat lunch with Doris every day and think that we’re immune from any danger of getting deflated.

We can’t just bop along in a broken world without slowly, quietly cracking, ourselves. Sinful structures foster morally misshapen people.

We’re spiritual beings–we receive. Whether or not we want to. Whether we are fully aware of it or not. We receive.

III.

And yet Jesus’ point is that we also give.

In receiving what God gives, we become givers…we become bearers of a very different kind of energy.

In receiving what God gives, a different kind of spirit flows through us.

We come to be filled with a spirit that heals.

It’s the spirit of God, and the healing power of God’s love.

In so many different ways, we learn how thin a line it can be between “We thank God for bringing you here today,” and “We thank you for bringing God here today.”

We thank you for helping the energy to shift, for helping us repair some of what has cracked in our hearts today.

To me, that’s what our Scripture points to this morning.

It’s a call to recognize the spiritual dimension of our lives and our world, and to engage them.

Now, as it happens, I eat at Asiana quite often.

I eat there often enough that it is entirely possible that I will encounter Doris once again.

Maybe next time she will bring a very different kind of energy into the room.

But what if she doesn’t?

What if the spirit that surrounds her is the very same spirit I saw last week — that spirit of imperious, attention-seeking irritation with everything and everyone?

I do not know what truly ails her.

But in the goodness and the joy and the kindness of her friends, I know I saw signs of the spirit of what will heal her.

And I pray that next time, they will find a way to bring that healing more directly and to banish some of their poor friend’s darkness.

God bless them.

And may the spirit that hovers over you and me be a blessing to us, and to all those we encounter.

Amen.

From the Newsletter: “Grieving Together”

grieving

The new year is beginning with particular challenges for our community, as we mourn the loss and celebrate the lives of two people who each played an active part in our life together.

This Saturday, we will remember [KG], one of our most active professional singers and a friend to many, who died in her sleep just before Christmas.

On Saturday, January 27th, we will remember [HK], a long-time member who served the church with tremendous dedication and love in a list of roles almost to numerous to mention, not only on the Church Council, but as the Parliamentarian of our Annual Meeting, the Assistant Treasurer in charge of counting the collection on Monday mornings, the Maitre D’ of the Valentine’s Dinner, and the bookkeeper of Act II. For starters.

These wonderful people have been part of our worship and ongoing life as a family of faith, and there is no way that we can speak of them as being “replaced,” even as other committed and talented folks take over the duties they now gently lay down.

So I find myself hoping that, even as our community comes together to offer love and support on these occasions, we’ll find the courage to grieve together, too.

That can be harder for us than we might easily admit.

The emotions of grief are simultaneously powerful and utterly vulnerable, and many of us have learned to keep them locked away. Some people would more readily show you their bank statement than tell you how it feels to go through the bureau of someone they’ve lost.

The world, with its anxiety around grief, can be quick to leave a casserole at the back door and slow to sit over a cup of coffee in the kitchen, just listening.

Many seem to have a sense that we’re entitled to a certain amount of time — a month? a season? maybe a year? — but not one day more, forgetting that each loss takes its own shape, and its own time.

I can’t tell you the number of conversations pastors have with people who say, “I know I should be over this by now, but…,” apologizing for what seems like their self-indulgence around their feelings.

How quickly we forget the shortest verse in all of Scripture: “Jesus wept.”

Maybe it’s the shortest one because there is no more to say — there are no qualifications that need introducing by way of justification or explanation or embarrassed apology.

Even Jesus knew grief. Fully.

What does that mean for the Church?

To me, it means that we are called to be people who know grief, too — who aren’t afraid to let it in, and to dwell among those who feel it, whether it be the sharp edge of first grief or the dull ache and wistful memory of a later stage.

We’re challenged to find the courage to remain in the places that so many in the world are far too afraid to go, affirming that love does not ask us to “move on” or “get over it,” but rather, asks us to find a way to keep on loving, to keep on feeling, even as a new chapter begins.

Let’s be those people.

Let’s be the ones who sit and listen, who aren’t afraid to feel the pull of our own old griefs and our own fear of loss, in order to be in this moment. Fully.

As Jesus was.

Let’s remember that as we do, He comes in the midst of us, teaching us always how to love and live and heal, until we are reunited with Him and all those we love in a place where tears no longer fall.

 

See you in church,