There's a post I've needed to write all week. It starts like this,"Goodbye, dear Fran."
Fran died on Tuesday morning breaking my heart.
I first met Fran in 2007. I was her pastor. I started visiting her at the senior pastor's request as part of my associate pastor job. But before I knew it, I was at her house more than was asked of me. I was in a season of life that didn't really fit me. But with Fran I always seemed to fit in just fine.
She was a 83-year-old shut-in. Well, sort of. While it was true, Fran lived in her home alone, she got along ok. She drove her own car with pride (though honestly I held my breath when I rode with her). She came to church every week, Sunday School and worship alike. She got her hair done at JCPenney's as part of her routine. And, she bought her own groceries and made her own food. She was always up for a meal out if it involved a person she liked and Chinese, Ledo's pizza or Italian.
I kept going back to see her during that two-year tenure in her town because there was something about my conversations with Fran that always left me better.
This was the magic: Fran saw me.
When we first met, Fran saw my gifts for preaching (and especially loved that she could hear me when I spoke without having to turn up her hearing aids).
Fran saw that I was lonely living out on my own for the first time in Gaithersburg, when all my friends and husband-to-be lived in DC.
Fran saw that I worried about being true to myself and living out my calling. There were many days when it all felt too confusing. "You'll get there, Elizabeth. You will."
And when Fran came to my church office the day I told her that I was leaving (another congregation called me to be their solo pastor across town), we both wept. We wept and wept and wept. But she knew I needed to go. "You are meant to be in the pulpit every week," she reminded me over and over again. "But don't forget me."
I promised her I wouldn't as she and several other members of the church treated me to a goodbye lunch.
And I didn't. Over the next several months, we crossed the bridge together of becoming friends.
And this was the magic: I saw Fran.
I saw that Fran was a member of a church that didn't always get her either. (Never lacking of opinions, Fran wasn't afraid to say a project or budget item was foolish).
I saw that Fran was a person that enjoyed a rich conversation, even though she lived alone. People don't have these very often in our fast paced everything.
I saw Fran as a person with much to offer the world-- if even just in talking to me for the afternoon-- at age 84, 86 and 88. As I left her house, she watched me pull out of the driveway as she waved mouthing: "I love you."
I loved her too. It's no small thing to be seen and heard. It's no small thing to know you're always welcome even if you don't call before you come over. It's no small thing to know you can tell any story that needs to come out, even if you've shared it 5 times before.
The cherry on top was the fact that she and my husband shared a birthday. So even as life took me to places like Oklahoma (which she wasn't happy about), Kenya, Honduras and beyond, we always kept up on the phone and through visits when I was back in the area.
Almost three years ago, Kevin and Fran even shared a birthday lunch together over pizza with me picking up the check. It was her 90th.
There's a book I finished on Monday morning, only minutes before I heard she was reaching the final end-- Adopted: the sacrament of belonging in a fractured world by Kelley Nikondeha.
In the final chapter, Nikondeha writes this, "God's family stretches beyond our smaller notions of biological or ethnic connection. . . . It's the continual work of the prophets and the Spirit to open our eyes to this simple yet astounding truth: Anyone can be our family if we let them."
Fran was my family. I'm glad God made it so.
In recent years she celebrated with me the purchase of what Kevin and I hope will be our forever home wanting to see pictures of every room.
She cheered on the publication of my book Birthed and read every word last winter, telling me with tears in her eyes how much my story of perseverance meant to her. "You've got wise things to say to people, Elizabeth, even us old people. We need to learn from you."
And with much joy she welcomed my daughter into her loving embrace as well. Giving my girl the short, but powerful gift of having a "great-grandmother" something I couldn't have offered her without Fran. For Christmas last year she wrote my daughter a $15 check with a card. So sweet!
One day, I'll tell my daughter about these memories of Fran.
I'll tell her that when she meets people who truly see her, like Fran did me, she'll need to stay close. I'll tell my daughter the most beautiful parts of life emerge when we plant both feet of ours in the space of love. Sure, it will hurt like hell when they leave us. But, our hearts will have been forever molded into something so real. Our souls will be filled with such belonging because of love's pure joy.
Fran wasn't afraid of death in the end. When I visited her four Sundays ago and she told me, "Now, don't be afraid to pray for me to die. I'm ready."
This I know for sure: Fran's story will forever be a part of mine. Her life, her living room, her telephone opened up space for me to be me. I belonged. And truly what is better than this?
Goodbye, dear Fran. You will be missed more than you know. And I hope I don't cry too much on Monday morning when I lead your funeral. You deserve the best because you were the best.
During these weeks of Advent, I’m thrilled to offer you the voices of some articulate storytellers— storytellers with wisdom to share about how their experiences of pain or loss is birthing in them something beautiful. Not in a Pollyanna sort of way of course, but in the spirit of what Leonard Cohen once wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Isn’t Advent is all about light shinning in the darkness?
I'm thankful for last week's post from Meredith Holladay. Today my friend Mary Wright Baylor-- who I met on twitter several years ago and recently discovered we were not to distant neighbors (how fun!)-- shares her poignant story of waiting in hope for better days to come.
Of all the seasons, fall is my least favorite.
With a July birthday, I adore summer.
I love the hot sun and heat, outdoor concerts, and fresh herbs in the garden.
As a child, I spent hours in the pool or ocean waves; I relished the freedom of summer and dreaded the return to wearing shoes and homework.
Later, as a young mother, the start of school continued to be a challenge; I missed my children and resisted the structure of homework and afterschool activities.
As a gardener, I find it melancholy to witness the end of the growing season, the harvest of flowers and herbs, the dropping leaves, and frostbitten blossoms. The shorter days and longer nights of fall take its toll on my energy and mood.
So, it was in this season in 2009, that I received a phone call that forever changed my life.
My sister-in-law called to tell me that her husband-my younger brother and the father of four-had tragically ended his own life. Totally devastated, I was overwhelmed to also hear “We need you to go tell your mom and dad.”
“Dear God in Heaven, how can I do that?”
I panicked that this shocking news would kill my elderly parents.
How could I ever tell my father, already frail from Parkinson’s disease and my mother, weakened by heart ailments, that their oldest son had died by his own means?
As darkness fell that September day, my husband drove me over to my childhood home.
I fervently prayed for God to be present, to give me strength, and to give me the language to break such horrific news. In reflection, I really don’t remember much of what happened the rest of that horrible night. Somehow, we managed our raw anguish and survived his memorial service. As we departed the church, I remember that the trees were turning color and the skies were filled with birds migrating.
Following this heart wrenching death, my father was markedly weaker and his Parkinson’s disease worsened.
In October, he was hospitalized twice for respiratory complications. As the daylight hours grew ever shorter, it was clear that his time with us was also drawing nigh.
On Christmas Eve, right after awakening from a nap, he suddenly stopped breathing. He could not be revived. With Christmas carols playing on the radio by his bedside, we surrounded our precious dad resting in peace.
Two deaths in three months. “Oh, God, give me strength! I cannot do this!” But somehow, I did.
On a frigid cold day in early January, I held my mother closely as the wind whipped in our faces and my father’s ashes were interred next to my brother’s.
My memories of the next couple of years are a gray blur.
Though working as a parish nurse, I focused all my energy on my mother. Always incredibly resilient and fortified by her deep faith, she was determined to live as fully as she could.
She continued to volunteer at church, to host family gatherings for holidays, and to join me on many outings. I remember taking her on a late summer day trip to the country. We commented that the fields of corn were drying up at the end of the season. Shortly after that, in early fall, her heart began to fail. As the days shortened and nights grew long, we took multiple trips to the emergency room. Hospitalizations kept me at her side. Though debilitated and homebound, my mother still enjoyed visits from her friends and delighted in time with my grown children. She was elated to learn that my oldest daughter, after several miscarriages, was nearing the end of her first trimester.
As fall progressed, my mother’s decline was marked and soon she was ready for home hospice care.
On a crystal clear November 14, while my remaining two brothers and I held her hands and sang “Amazing Grace,” my mother died very peacefully in her own bed.
With her death, my brothers and I had lost half of our family in three years. “Oh, God, what more do we have to endure?” How could we possibly write another obituary or plan another memorial service?
I was physically exhausted from caregiving for so long. But again, somehow, we found strength and we rallied. The date of her funeral was scheduled for the first Saturday in December on the first weekend of Advent. We thought our mother who loved the rituals of Advent would like that.
On the day before my mother’s service, my pregnant daughter called in great distress.
She had just left a routine ultrasound in which it was discovered that her baby had died in utero. I spent that day, waiting with my son-in-law in the lobby of the hospital as our dreams of our small bundle of new life ended. “How long, oh Lord, how long???”
I remember the dark, bitter cold of that winter. Numbness alternated with despair. How would I ever feel normal again?
Would I ever experience joy? How could I resume “life?” In the months that followed, I simply put one foot in front of the other. I struggled with my faith. “God, where are you?”
I didn’t know what to do other than to heed the psalmist and “to lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” Seasons passed.
And then, slowly and subtly, when I looked up, I began to notice. I noticed glorious sunsets and shooting stars. I heard the beating of a hummingbird hovering over flower blossoms.
I savored fresh basil and inhaled the fragrance of lavender in my garden.
God WAS present.
There was no Hallelujah chorus or trumpet tune. But there were clear signs of God’s omnipresence. By witnessing God at work, I began to heal. Indeed, I began to treasure time with friends and trips with my loving husband. I savored outdoor concerts in the summer and felt peace as waves lapped on the beach.
In this autumn of 2016, I was energized by clearing the bedraggled garden beds and making plans for new gardens next spring.
Perhaps for the first time, I thought that the changing tree colors were particularly vivid and brilliant. Walking our dogs in warm sun and then snuggling by a fire in the evening was cozy. Almost imperceptibly, I recognized that I was not dreading the pending anniversary dates of my family members’ deaths—rather, I felt a sense of peace and serenity.
With a distinct sense of God’s presence, I was not the least bit surprised when on the 4th anniversary of my mother’s death, on November 14, my daughter gave birth to a healthy little girl.
As my tiny granddaughter sleeps, I notice the rhythm of her breathing and feel the fuzz on her little head.
This is Advent. I know that God IS always present. Our cries ARE heard and they ARE answered. And as we are promised, new life WILL come.
After an incredibly fulfilling career in multiple roles and settings in nursing, Mary recently retired (again) as the pastoral care nurse at the Washington National Cathedral. Her “serious” time is spent in volunteering with her alma mater, University of Virginia School of Nursing and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Mostly, though, she savors the role of grandmother and dachshund “mom.” An avid gardener, yogi, and social media, she eagerly awaits the retirement of her husband at the end of 2016.
A Sermon Preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK on Isaiah 6:1-8
It’s strange to put the words “good” and “death” in the same phrase as I’m doing with the sermon title isn’t it?
Because when we think death, we think grief, sadness, loss, and weeping.
And if we’re from the church, when I say death, you might think casseroles and church ladies.
(Oh, I love some good funeral food, don’t you?)
But good AND death? Nope.
Those aren’t words we’d pair together at all. For, death is a word that speaks to a separation, a pain that for most of us is just too much to bear. Death speaks of lose of a hope that we’ve channeled in a particular direction. Death is the end. And by death, I don’t just mean when a particular person dies but the death of a job, death of a friendship, or death of a dream that we’d planned on our life upon. Lots of things can die in our life all the time.
None of these “ending” experiences are good, are they? In fact, they are very, very bad.
But can any good come from death? Any good at all?
By this, I don’t mean adding expressions like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God makes everything beautiful in His time” that are empathy busters for the pain we feel during times of grief, but rather I’m wondering can death bring about any good?
Such is a question I want to explore this morning with our Isaiah text set before us.
I posed this question to Kevin this week, “Honey, can you think of any story in modern times when the death of a famous person brought about something good, when something better happened that could have happened because of a death?”
(You see, I was fishing for a good sermon illustration).
He told me I asked too many hard questions. Then, he said, “How about Hitler?”
“Oh” I said, “I can’t talk about Hitler. That’s so intense and a little clique.”
So since I can’t offer you a great example of what it means to have a good death (other than Hitler), I thought at this point, we’d just dive into Isaiah.
Isaiah 6 within this historical context: “In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord.”
It seems like a phrase that could have easily been left out, couldn’t it? We didn’t really need to know this, did we? Isn’t the spiritual stuff that follows more important?
If you are like me you might be thinking, “Who in the world is King Uzziah?” You might even say, “I’ve been in church so many years and never heard of him!”
Good question. And today is our day to learn.
King Uzziah was the 11th king to rule after King David in the house of Judah. If you had to make a list of good kings in Israel’s history and the bad kings, Uzziah would most certainly be on the good king list.
We learn a lot about him in II Chronicles 26 as it tells us that Uzziah took the throne when he was only 16 years old and ruled the nation for 52 years in Jerusalem.
His accomplishments were many. He led Israel in battle against their archenemies the Philistines and won! Uzziah’s army was bar none with all the best gear.
He engineered a building project in Jerusalem, constructing towers at the gates of the city.
He “got folks to work” as modern Presidential campaigns often promise to do, through his plentiful agricultural projects.
And best of all scripture tells us that he loved God and sought to put God first in his life. When prophets such as Zechariah came to declare the word of the Lord to him, scripture says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.”
I tell you all of this because I believe it’s important for understand that King Uzziah was a larger than life figure in history at this time.
He was the JFK of the 1950s.
He was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the 1960s.
He was the twin towers in New York of the 2000s.
King Uzziah was everything good that the nation of Judah built their hopes upon. And I can’t help but think that Isaiah looked up to him. He admired him. He saw how God was with him as he led and might have even wanted to be exactly like him. For 52 years he sat on the throne.
Uzziah however made one really huge mistake. He overstepped his bounds and began doing some of the priest’s work in the temple. God would not stand for such disobedience in the holiest of holy place. A sickness came upon him and he suddenly died.
News spread throughout the land that Uzziah died.
Can you imagine the shock? The horror? The fear? And for generations, remembering the exact place where they were when they learned the horrible news.
Isaiah’s hero was no more. He lost a giant figure in his life. And the nation was in mourning too. Everything about their future seemed uncertain.
But scripture reads, in the year, King Uzziah died, [Isaiah] saw the Lord.
What do we make of the connection between such? Why does this sentence read exactly as it does?
I believe because of the connection between the word good and death.
Consider situations and things in your own life that didn’t seem good in the moment but then later all became clear.
Things like- the terrible tasting cough syrup that your momma made you take when you were sick, but made you better sooner than if you’d hadn’t taken it.
Or things like the books your teachers made you read in the summers that kept your mind strong all year round, though you’d rather played outside with your friends and not read at all.
Or like the advice you took from your daddy to not buy your first car—though you really wanted one-- till you could afford the insurance and the gas money.
And for Isaiah’s story, I believe that we get this one detail “in the year that King Uzziah died” because it says everything about his posture that day, to receive that the Lord had in store for him.
Because isn’t the message of our faith—when death comes then resurrection can follow?
And in the case of Isaiah, this is what we can assume: his larger than life figure, this idol even had to die so that the new things of God could come. Death needed to come so that he could have EYES to see the glorious thing that was about to happen to him.
For Isaiah was about to have an opportunity to SEE something that few of living human beings ever get to see— “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” He was going to taste the heavenly glory as he saw seraphs attending about the Lord crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
It was the definition of an awesome experience if there was ever one. And Isaiah got it.
And in this awesome experience, Isaiah was about to get a calling to be prophet to a nation in crisis and be asked to respond. The Lord would ask him, “Who shall I send and who will go for us?”
Isaiah would then find the words to say, “Here am I: send me!”
The thing is that so many of us say with our lips that we “want to see God” or “we want to have more of God in our lives” or even that “we want fresh life in our church.” But we don’t really know what we’re asking for when we make such declarations.
For if we really want to see God, then, my friends, the news I have for all of us today is that death has got to come first.
It’s Trinity Sunday and my favorite time of year to pull out my favorite quote from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk who says this about the presence of God:
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Our holy, holy, holy God full of power and might and just does not reveal Him or Herself to anybody. We have to be ready for it.
Something got to give. And it’s not going to be from God. It’s got to come from us.
We’ve got to be cleared of distractions.
We’ve got to let go of what exalted images of ourselves.
We’ve got to relinquish our sacred cows of the way things have always been.
And then the new calls, new experiences of God will come.
Recently, I read a book called, He Leadeth Me that tells the story of Walter Ciszek, an American priest who follow himself living and working in Russia at the time of the second World War.
It was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time because it gets at the heart of what relationship with God is about—surrender.
After begin taking captive in Russia and spending several years in solitary confinement waiting on his sentence for crimes he did not commit, he begins to realize that the only way he was going to survive was to let go of his own expectations of his life. Even though he’d lost so much, it just seemed like new deaths were coming all the time as his freedom was slowly taken away bit by bit.
Though he could have viewed what happened to him as unfair or unjust, he came to this conclusion: “For each of us, the trials will come in different ways and at different times--- for some, self may be easier to overcome than others—but we were created to do God’s will and not our own, to make our own wills conform to [God’s] and not visa versa.”
Or simply stated—Walter learned he needed to embrace death, loss and grief in his life so that God’s radical grace could take hold in his being more powerfully, so that even in prison he could more fully live!
So this is the truth I have to offer you today: if we want to see God, then death of what we want has got to come first.
You and I aren’t not the authors of our own lives—as much as we try to be, or want to be, or hope to be.
This doesn’t sound too much like good news this morning, does it?
But remember the title of the sermon again—a good death.
You might imagine when I was poking Kevin to help me with a sermon illustration I would not settle for his answer of Hitler. “Come on Kevin,” I said. “You’re smart, help me think of another good death.”
To which he looked me in the eyes and said, “Jesus.”
I smiled and thought to myself, “Duh. Of course Jesus.” (Why did I not think of that?)
For this is our faith we proclaim today my friends, that though death came to Jesus it was not the whole story. He arose! So, as we follow our resurrected Lord, our lives can have good deaths too. The lose of the best job we ever had doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the dearest friend we’d ever known doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the closeness of relationship with a child of ours doesn’t have to undo us.
No because we can believe that resurrection is on its way. Nothing is out of the realm of God’s redemption, my friend. Nothing. All things can be made new.
Death just has to come first. Though sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. And for this we can say thanks to God with hope.
It's so easy in some corners of the world to believe that women in ministry is old news.
We hear stories of women breaking the glass ceiling in big pulpits like this.
We hear stories of women's appointments to positions like this.
In light of this, all must be well for women in ministry. The women's movement has reached the church. Equality for all is here!
But, the truth be told it's not.
While record number of women enter seminary ever year, the number of senior staff positions open to them in congregation is staggeringly low.
While women emerge from theological training competent and ready to offer pastoral care, Biblical exegesis and church finance consultation-- often they're asked first: "What are you going to do about childcare?" or "Could you wear a longer skirt?"
While women pastors are the ones the first responders call when there is a crisis in the community, they're often not the ones asked to headline their denominational conferences or conventions.
For these reasons and many more, I'm so glad that There's a Woman in the Pulpit recently hit the shelves.
It's a collection of essays that tells you what women are doing no matter if they have full support or endorsement by institutional gatekeepers. It's a fact that women are IN the pulpit and among the people in the pews doing fabulous things!
My friend, Martha Spong, the Director of RevGalBlogPals, an online community for clergy women which I've gladly been a part of since I began blogging in 2006, edited this volume.
There's a Woman in the Pulpit is embodied theology. For it tells real stories about what it's like to be both a woman and a pastor and a mother and pastor, a hurting human being and a pastor, and a joy seeking friend and a pastor.
It tells stories of what it's like to leave a church well. It tells stories of what it is like to be told you're not acting like a man would in your same role. It tells stories of what it's like to buck the traditions of your childhood to listen to the audacity of God's call.
I was glad to contribute an essay to the volume called, "Moses Basket." It tells a story of my relationship with Herndon, VA funeral home when I was a local pastor. Over the course of several years, when families did not have a minister, the funeral director called me as a fill in. I found myself getting assigned the "hard deaths" like teen suicides. Sigh. And, then one day the call came about a baby-- a three-week old baby who passed away suddenly. It just so happened that at the time, I was going through my own miscarriage.
Being a woman in the pulpit can be a complicated thing. But it's also a joyous ride through the un-charted territory of God's goodness. (What a gift it was for two grieving mothers to be together that day at the funeral!)
If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a woman in the pulpit or hiring a woman for your pulpit or if you want to encourage a woman in the pulpit, go to Amazon right now and get your copy.
I promise you that you'll cry and laugh out loud and thank God for the diversity of faces that God leads to ministry. The Church is all the better for it!
Thank you, Martha for making this experience of conversation with so many possible!
(Also check out my friend Dana's great piece over here about the stats of women in ministry if you are interested in reading more).
Heaven . . . it’s something preachers don't preach on often because they're scared of what sacred cows in the congregation they might step on.
Heaven . . . it’s what theologians, teachers, preachers and cult leaders have written theories of for centuries –often making charts of who’s in and who’s out.
An 85 year-old couple, having been married almost 60 years, died in a car crash. They were in good health the last ten years mainly due to the wife’s interest in health food, and exercise.
When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and master bath suite and Jacuzzi. As they "oohed and ahhed" the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. "It's free," Peter replied. "This is heaven."
Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course in the neighborhood. Peter said they'd have golfing privileges everyday.
The man asked, "What are the green fees?"
Peter's reply, "This is heaven, you play for free."
Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out.
"How much to eat?" asked the old man
"Don't you understand yet? This is heaven, it is free!" Peter replied with some exasperation.
"Well, where are the low-fat and low cholesterol tables?" the old man asked timidly.
With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong.
The old man looked at his wife and said, "This is all your fault. If it weren't for your blasted bran muffins and tofu salads, I could have been here ten years ago!"
And it’s true we all have desires for what heaven will be like one day (calorie free for sure!)
We have hopes for who will not be there (people we don’t like very much of course).
And if we are truthful we might even have fears about what our passing over to the other side will mean for our bodies (Oh God, please let me have a good death!)
With all of this true, we’re in good company this morning with our lection from I Thessalonians. This church was also curious about the life beyond. Not only for their own experience, but also for those who had gone on before them. When they died, they wanted to know exactly what happened!
And so Paul has some words for them.
Which were: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as other do who have no hope.”
The church at Thessalonica expressed concerns to Paul about the life to come, not in a theoretical, “Well, what if?” kind of way but out of a particular situation in their community.
People in their church had died. Jesus hadn’t come back yet. They wanted to know what happened to those they loved. They were concerned about where they were.
But before we dive into what exactly what Paul’s words could have meant, consider this:
Paul, as a teacher, preacher and great evangelist of the early church, is often treated as a systemic theologian. In the centuries since that we’ve studied his correspondence, we’ve often used his words as prescriptions.
When we have questions on prayer…. Paul has an answer on that.
When we have questions on marriage . . . Paul has an answer for that.
When we have questions on tithing . . . Paul has an answer for that.
But, was the intent of letters Paul wrote to churches like Thessalonica? Is a systemic theologian who Paul most wanted to be?
So as a pastor, Paul wrote letters about particular situations in the churches where he ministered. And to the Thessalonians, Paul had a lot to say about standing firm under persecution.
In Thessalonica, following Jesus was not the norm. And as new converts to the faith, they had a hard reconciling the teachings of Jesus to what would become in the afterlife.
So what does Paul do?
He acts like any good pastor would and helps them find hope.
He writes them a “Pastor’s Pen” newsletter column.
And it went something like this (hold your breathe with me here because it is going to be a long sentence): “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Whoa. What a description!
For Paul gives us some pretty triumphant images to work with here.
Jesus as chief commander . . . the archangel’s call . . . sounding trumpets . . . those who have died rising again!
Or in other words, Church at Thessalonica, don’t worry. Those who have died will be with Jesus too at the end of time, just as those of us who are alive.
Yet, while it’s nice to feel like there are some answers what happens in the life beyond, is this how you and I are to read this ancient text?
There are a couple of things I feel like I think we should consider at this juncture about the nature of scripture in general.
Most scholars agree that texts like these weren't designed to be fodder for the Left Behind books that would appear on our shelves in the modern era. (Richard Hayes' Moral Vision of the New Testament is a great text to check out). The point was NOT to tell us who’s in and who’s out when our days on earth are through.
But, when writers like Paul or John (the author of the book of Revelations) write about “end times” it always comes in the context of providing hope for the suffering. Saying to a group of people beaten down and afraid: “This world is not all there is! There’s more to come! So stand firm under trials!"
And the way I see it, we have two options as we read the Bible:
So this morning, I return to the original question I began this sermon with: “What happens when life is over?”
If you are in camp 1 and believe Bible is without errors and every letter of it is meant to be direct instruction for our lives, then, I Thessalonians 4 is for you a picture of what is to come. The angels, the trumpets and so on . . . this will all be apart of the picture when life is over.
But keep in mind if this is your approach—you can’t pick and choose what you like and don’t. Under a literal reading of scripture ALL the texts apply—even the ones you think you might like very much about women covering your heads in church, not working on the Sabbath, and praying without ceasing.
But if you are in camp 2 and you believe in scripture is a story, the ongoing revelation between God and God’s people then, I believe I Thessalonians 4 is for you an invitation to know God’s ways through the body of literature that is the Bible. It’s an invitation to ask as you read: “What do I believe the character of God to be?”
Is God a God of love? Is God, a God of peace? Is God, a God of provision?
For as you get to know who God is, you can make hypothesizes for what might be true for all eternity as well. You can trust that as Saint Julia of Norwich once said, “All will be well. All matter of things will be well.”
At this point of the sermon, I leave you to make your choice as to what you believe the afterlife might be all about.
But in the spirit of Paul’s pastoral letter, I want to close this sermon today with a letter of my own.
I always give thanks for an opportunity to share the word of God with you. I thank you for your willingness to receive my husband and I into your fellowship. We love sharing our Sundays with you.
Yet, has come to my attention that may of you have questions about heaven and the life to come. I do not want you to worry or to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died.
Our bodies are temporary but our souls are eternal. Our Creator God is good. And I believe that when the moment comes when I breathe my last, I believe the Spirit of the Lord will help me be at peace. And I believe the same for you.
The verse of scripture I find myself hanging onto the most—for right or wrong—are the words that say, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.”
But you might wonder, what does that mean? What will that look like for me, Pastor?
As I have grown in my life and faith, most of all, I know that there’s a lot I don’t know. So I don’t want to give you specifics for even with my preacher superpowers (this is where you are supposed to laugh) because so far God has given me no details. (And frankly, I'd want you be question my judgment if I said I did).
Life to me is more of a mystery than it ever it is very certain. The ways of God always surprise me. But, I know God loves me and loves you. Nothing can ever separate me from that love.
And for me, this is all I need to know.
Will there be physical streets of gold up there? And a mansion with my name on it? Will there be a cookie bar with as much ice cream as I can eat?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
I don’t think when I find myself in the life beyond I’ll care much about the things I’ve spent so much time worrying about here on earth. All that will matter to me, I think, will be the glorious face of our Lord and being in God’s presence forever and ever without end.
So don’t be afraid my friends. Take heart. If you want to know more what heaven will be like, spent your time on this planet pursuing the things that intersect your life with God’s.
Love your friends.
Cry with the brokenhearted.
Give more than you receive.
Honor your body.
Seek justice for the voiceless.
A kingdom that connects you to all the saints that have gone before and the saints that will out live you in centuries to come. A kingdom that is full of the best that this life can offer: kindness, joy, companionship and hope even in the dark hours.
Thanks be to God for the kingdom of God in heaven and on earth.
Blessings on all of you as you read these words. Send my love to all the children too. Your pastor, Elizabeth
A Sermon about Exodus 17:1-7 preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
Do you remember the last time you were really thirsty? Parched mouth? Dry tongue? Dreaming of water flowing from a faucet?
In our water bottle, water fountain and Sonic on every corner culture, it’s unheard of that any of us would ever "die of thirst” as we are all known to dramatically say from time to time.
Water is something we have enough of, almost always in this part of the world. Unless, of course, a tornado threatens to come through or an ice storm hits and our neighbors hoard the bottles of water off the shelves at Wal-Mart leaving nothing for the rest of us . . .
In Old Testament reading for this morning, Israelites found themselves with one very big problem and it had everything to do with water.
Two weeks ago, we left the Israelites on the their journey out of Egypt as the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea just happened. With joyous celebration they exclaimed the amazing provisions of their LORD leading them on their way into the Promise Land!
Just three days after crossing the Red Sea-- the big and dramatic-- experience of faith, the group was short on water. Scripture tells us that God led them to a spring where their thirst could be quenched. All was well. God was mightily at work among them, providing for their every need.
But, of course we know that their water jugs did not stay filled for long.
In chapter 17 verse 2 they said to Moses again: "Give us water to drink."
And, such was a good, normal, everyday, essential need, right? Of course they had a right to ask this request of God.
H2O, we know, is critical to our very existence: the definition of a need. Most medical professionals will say that a human being, in reasonable to good health can only live between 3-5 days without water before suffering from extreme dehydration and shock leading to death.
So, while, we might read Exodus 17 with thoughts in our head like "here they go again complaining,” simply the Israelites sought to express a deep need. They needed to say to Moses, their spiritual and administrative leader, "We must have water now!"
In the meantime, however, what were they to do? How were they to wait?
How were they to respond to an unmet need that they were powerless to fix?
Did it mean that their need was not really a need?
Did it mean that God had abandoned them and truly wanted them to die, as they feared? It sure felt that way . . .
It's easy to kick the dog when you are down right? And, so, went the days of the lives of the Israelites and their relationship to Moses.
As they perceived God not giving them the life they wanted, they took out their pain on the easiest next best thing: Moses.
Voicing their frustration to the point that we hear Moses fearing for his life in verse 4-- believing that in their extreme thirst the crowd might stone him if they didn't get a drink and fast.
Moses' natural response to the crisis as a leader was fearful of the crowd's response, but tempered. We hear in the words of this text, Moses saying to the crowds: simmer down stop bothering me and simply trust in God’s provisions-- as this was God's job to meet their needs.
I can imagine, if I were a member of the crowd, I would have found Moses' calm as a cucumber leadership style really annoying. Wouldn’t you?
Trust that God would provide?
"Oh, Moses," I would have said. "It's so much harder than that. When, tell me, when God is going to get God's act together and find us some water!”
For, secretly they hoped that in Moses' bag of superpower, bring on the 10 plagues kind of tricks, he could lead them by another spring and they'd worry about water no more. But, such was just not going to happen.
They needed to wait. They needed to wait to see what could become.
A friend of mine shared with me this week a similar frustration with the world and with God.
After being out of work for the past nine months due to a company downsizing in these difficult economic times, she is currently at the end of her rope.
After sending out over 500 resumes, doing everything she can to do what experts say to do when you are looking for work: networking, staying on a schedule everyday and trying not to get down on herself even as the funds in the bank account slowly begin to run down, she says the best parts of her life are dying more every day.
After interview after interview, rejection letter after rejection letter, and sleepless nights and pleas for prayer to any religiously minded person she knows, my friend shared she was beginning to think that God had forgotten her.
No one in her life seemed to care that she was out of work and without a job coming her way soon; she might lose everything she's worked so hard for including her modest home. She hears her pastor say often at church that “God is going to work things out” but to her God is a distant figure that doesn’t seem to care about her pain.
But in the spirit of these same frustrations, the Israelites were asked to have ACTIVE faith in their waiting.
They were asked to believe that God was still at work, even if they couldn’t recognize it in the moment.
And so, these were Moses' instructions from God: "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. . . . Strike the rock,” God said, "and water will come out of it."
It was a simple as that. Strike the rock with your staff.
I can imagine that laughter erupted from the crowd AND anxiety of what might be next (if this didn't work) from Moses. This God they were serving was just getting crazier and crazier all the time . . .
But, Moses did as instructed by the LORD. And to the amazement of all, it worked. Sweet God Almighty brought them water from a big ole rock!
Let’s stop here and note that this provision was nothing like they expected. NOTHING. But yet it was water nonetheless and EXACTLY what they needed.
The water came not from a spring (as it did before) nor from going back to Egypt (as they had suggested), rather, it came from something that was dead.
Though it would have not been a word they used at the time, the best way I know how to describe the scene is by calling it resurrection! That out of something that seemed life-less and certainly not life-giving, out flowed streaming of living water.
Professor Amy Erickson sums up what happens in this way: "It strikes me (pun intended!) that God choose to bring water-- and the life it symbolizes and will impart-- out of something that appears to be lifeless . . ."
But, this my friends is exactly how God works.
Dead is never dead in the kingdom of God.
Lost causes are never really lost.
And the broken down and washed out are really never without hope.
When I was serving as an associate pastor at Untied Methodist congregation while in seminary at Duke Divinity in North Carolina, I told it was my job to make most of the pastoral visits.
On a Monday afternoon only a couple of months into my second year at the church, I found myself sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch of Mrs. Melba’s house. She offered me some iced tea—as good southern women do. We began chatting about life. She wanted to know how my classes were going.
Mrs. Melba, a spunky woman in her early 70s, tried to keep a brave face for this young pastor student. But soon she was fighting back tears as she began to recount to me details about her husband’s recent death. He’d died of cancer recently.
She misses him more than she could even say.
She had trouble, she said, finding the energy to get out of bed in the mornings, many days still.
She couldn’t seem to find her purpose for living life anymore, she told me.
I remember this afternoon so well because in the moments that followed, I broke what I had learned only a few days earlier in class, some of the “rules” of pastoral care. My classmates and I were told to not show too much of our own emotions when we made visits. But, I cried too. Melba and I sat and rocked on that porch and cried. Her feelings of this great “dead end” sign life had handed her felt just as overwhelming to me. Sadness felt thick in the air.
Because most of all Melba felt like God had forgotten her. Everything around her felt dead. She felt dead without her beloved, even though her pulse told her she was still living.
A few years later, a man in mid 30s sat in my office. We were chatting about life. How crazy the amount of snow that winter had been.
But soon, Tom began telling me about how he felt his life had hit a dead-end too.
Tom was the father of three kids, but none of them were living with him at the time. His ex-wife had sued him for full custody of the kids, and had won because of the hot-shot lawyer she’d hired.
Lies had been told about him court.
Though Tom had made some mistakes in life—been a big fan of drinking too much in his younger years—he’d cleaned up his act and there was no good reason why he couldn’t even see his kids on the weekends.
To make matters worse, at a church Tom had previously attended, he was told by an associate pastor that he was no longer welcome to worship at the Sunday services. The pastor, it seemed was the reason his marriage broke up in the first place. His wife and the pastor had a long-term relationship on the side that he was just now finding out about.
Tom felt let God was as far away as possible. Everything around him felt dead too. No wife, no kids, and no church family to help him through this hard time in life.
But—and there is always a BUT in the kingdom of GOD—these feelings of deep despair was not the end for Melba and Tom.
Though in these moments they faced some of their darkest hours, God was still at work.
New water was about to come out of rocks in their lives.
As Melba continued to put one foot in front of the other, getting out of bed every morning, slowly she began to see that life wasn’t finished with her.
Through the loving embrace and watchful care of her church family, she started moving toward service of others once again. Melba started singing in the choir. She involved herself in the mission projects of United Methodist Women and she took her turn leading the lessons in her Sunday School class—using the lessons she learned about finding God in this hard place with other widows like herself.
And Tom, as he took the risk of being a part of a new church community, putting aside the hurt of his previous church in the past, began to see new life spring up around him too.
Tom’s secret passion for writing became a real gift to the church’s communication ministry.
And with encouragement from some new friends and the recommendation of a new lawyer, he was able after 5 long years of separation to spend weekends with his kids again.
Both Melba and Tom learned through their pain that this exactly how God works. Dead is never dead in the kingdom of God. Lost causes are never really lost. And the broken down and washed out are really never without hope.
So, my friends, I tell you today, the God of Israel, the God of Moses who struck that rock that day to watch water flow from such a dead place is alive and wanting to be at work in your life too.
Let us be active in our waiting.
Let us not grow weary in doing good.
And let us surround ourselves with loving community to remind us of the Lord’s goodness if we forget.
And in fact, this is what we are about to celebrate in a few minutes as we come to the table of God—we’ll taste and see that what was once dead has come to new life. We’ll taste and see the sweetness of resurrection called the body and blood of our Lord. And we’ll celebrate together that anything, yes, anything is possible in the kingdom of God. God is always at work!
Every year when I was a preaching pastor, I felt the anxiety rise the closer we got to Easter Sunday morning.
The expectations. The crowds. The desire of the people to hear something new and meaningful.
Though I had a mentor once tell me don't sweat it, just tell the story. The problem is that everyone already knows the story: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. The women came to the tomb. They were afraid. They go tell the male disciples. They don't believe them. Yet, everything changes for the world on this Sunday morning. Death has been beat. New life is possible. Jesus is alive!
The last time I preached Easter in 2012, I was over the Easter hoopla. I found myself fixated on the idea that resurrection is much more complicated than super happy hymns and families coming together in a church pew. Resurrection is hard work, I said. I ended by encouraging the congregation to not choose a resurrection path unless they were ready for their lives to be turned upside down. Because we need to remember what got Jesus to Easter morning: death!
On the way home this particular Sunday, Kevin told me that my sermon was a real downer. He wanted to know: "Where was the lighthearted mood from the pulpit?" But, I stood by what I said. Sermons are always about proclamations for a moment in time and that is where I was.
This week, I've been wondering if I were preaching Easter this year, what would it be about?
I'd land a bit more on the side of pro-Easter celebratory joy this year. Not because I am any less aware of how cruel and harsh the realities of life are. And most certainly not because I've come to believe that resurrection's moments in our lives are any less work.
Rather, I would preach in this way because life is so difficult. I have come to believe that life's problems make Easter's joy so important.
For we all need days in our year (and in our liturgical calendar at church) to remember what it looks and feels like when hope comes, when grace surprises us, and as the old hymn goes "when love's redeeming work is done."
If I were preaching Easter this year, I would do so with full voice and lots of exclamation points written into my sermon manuscript.
In many ways I would be forcing upon myself a joy that isn't all there, but I would do it anyway because to follow Jesus is to claim our status as Easter people.
I would preach that we have to cling to good when it comes.
I would preach that the greatest good that ever came to the world was Jesus.
I would preach that even when we are bearing our crosses, we serve a God who can make all things new.
Most of all I would preach that love never fails. It's what sustains us all our days-- the good and the bad alike.
I would ask the congregation to rejoice. For it is the day that the Lord has given us to especially rejoice.
But because I'm not preaching in a congregation this year, I leave my Easter musings with you.
Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Let us be glad-- even if it is just for today. AMEN
Welcome to one of the darkest days of the whole year— for Christians that is—the day we wait with Jesus in the tomb.
It’s the day that no one visited the tomb of Jesus.
It’s the day when nothing happened in the gospel narrative.
As if Jesus’ cries from the cross of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were not hard enough to bear yesterday, today we sit with the reality of our Lord’s death.
And the fact that God’s son wasn't exempt from heart stopping suffering.
But, in most of our traditions, we have little room for Holy Saturday theology.
Though our Anglican friends often host Easter Vigils—the rest of us have no clue as to why we’d want to go to church on Thursday, Friday AND Saturday too. What really changes from Friday to Saturday after all?
Isn’t the Saturday before Easter all about egg hunts, food preparation and shopping for new Sunday shoes? (well maybe not shopping for shoes this year)
Not that there is anything wrong with these things (and I’m going to be making some deviled eggs today myself). But I believe if we have our eyes already so set on Sunday, we miss out on a important part of who we are as followers of Jesus.
Throughout our lives we will ALL face suffering that is so painful that we think it might kill us and then one day it actually will.
And if you’ve ever gotten to the point when the dreams you once hung your future upon are no more, you know Holy Saturday.
If you’ve ever woke up one morning to find that your child, your spouse or your best friend to whom your life was deeply connected was gone, you know Holy Saturday.
If you’ve ever wagered all your hope on one event going just as planned, only to find it blowing up in utter disaster, you know Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday is accepting death.
Holy Saturday is embracing grief.
Pope Benedict XVI once said: “To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust.”
So, my word for this Holy Saturday is...stand here.
Take in this day. Breathe in, breathe out.
And let us wait for Easter together—both on its date on the calendar to come tomorrow and all the resurrection moments to come.
Some of us are going to be in Holy Saturday for much longer than just one day. . .
Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007 about an experience during my first year as a full-time associate pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time). By means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year and the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine). So of course I wasn't bitter or anything . .
It was 6:10 p.m. before the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with my husband, Kevin racing back to the church for the service. In the course of our conversation, I remembered I had forgotten the most important thing. The ASHES.
Hearing the panic in my voice, Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. "Go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. I bet you can get it done before anyone gets there . . ."
While I saw the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. Did I have time to find a metal trash can? And who really listens to their husband?
Instead, I thought I had a brilliant idea, better than his. Our fellowship hall had a fireplace in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right? That's what fireplaces are for, right?
Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Yes, the very important flue.
So before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck (sigh) that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke. And more smoke.
I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.
But in a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off! Lonnie, my pastoral colleague meanwhile called the security company and told them all was well. The pastor was just burning something for a service. But, the VERY loud noise kept going! And going. And going.
The first person I saw was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom (God rest his soul!). He was out of breath. I could tell that he'd been sprinting throughout the church like a crazy person. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I was glad Tom didn't yell at me. Together we got water in bowls from the kitchen and kept pouring them over the smoked filled fireplace.
And by the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Yes, the local fire department!
Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them and the crowd of early attendees standing outside wondering what was going on. I was so embarrassed! And I locked myself my office. (Yes, not a shining moment but the true story!)
Blessed Kevin, though talked me off the Ash Wednesday smoke filled church ledge and I found my way to the service.
I began the night talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening (for the late comers who hadn't heard the noise) and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).
The Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.”
For our alarm really did sound!
Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of 2007's Ash Wednesday birthday.
I never have tried to burn my own ashes again, nor will I. And you all should say amen.
Wait Here: A Conversation with Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9
Sermon Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD
Today, we are waiting here. Waiting together. Waiting on a word. Waiting on some truth. Waiting on God to show up and help us be different people than we came into this room, right?
Its kind of the point of why we come to church any Sunday, isn’t it?
But this Sunday is different. We call it out by name. We call it as it is listed at the top of your bulletin for this morning, Transfiguration Sunday.
Just as I was talking to the children about this big word a few moments ago, transfiguration is not one of those common vocabularies words that we often if at all put in our sentences. When is the last time you saw something transfigured? For me, I think the last time I even uttered this word, even as a preacher type, happened when this passage came up in the lectionary this time last year. We always mark Transfiguration Sunday as the last Sunday of Epiphany and the first Sunday before we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those texts lectionary preachers have a hard time avoiding.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret. This Sunday is Pastor Abby’s least favorite lectionary passage. So while she told you that she is at a training session for the Mennonite publishing company that she writes curriculum for in Indiana, the truth be told, I am really here this morning because Pastor Abby wanted to get out of preaching on the transfiguration. In fact such has been a running joke between us for years, how much she thinks this Sunday is overrated, so I guess such is how you treat your dearest friends. You send them in on weeks like this instead. . . .
But this morning, not only do we find our gospel reading drawing our attention to Jesus’ going up onto the high mountain with the three disciples in the inner circle with his appearance changing before their eyes, his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling like white—but we also find our Old Testament lesson taken from the book of Exodus also about a transfiguration of sorts. Exodus 24 tells us about the time that Moses and his assistant Joshua were to receive the law of God and go up onto Mount Sinai being filled with the presence of the Lord.
Both are stories that help us understand what the word “transfiguration” is all about—the word Webster’s says is “to change into something more beautiful or more elevated.” Or another way to say this is: the divine coming to earth to dwelling alongside and in humanity.
When Jesus was transfigured, he’d been teaching, preaching and healing for quite some time. Jesus and his disciples were well acquainted with one another. They thought things were going well. But then, recently, Jesus had predicted his death for the first time. Peter couldn’t believe it and said, “Never Lord!” and Jesus replied, “Get behind me Satan! . . . If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Following Jesus was not for the faint of heart. And six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on an unnamed mountain where not only was his physical appearance change but two guests appear—Moses and Elijah. What? Jesus was not only showing these disciples who he really was, but he was calling on the dream team to help him too—two great prophets. And suddenly a bright cloud enveloped them and the same words that were said over Jesus’ baptism were said again, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” No one was going to leave the mountain unclear about whom Jesus truly was and the validity of his divine nature moving forward.
And then, in the Exodus reading things get quite personal for Moses’ relationship with the Lord, much like the disciples experienced. It wasn’t that Moses did not have a “in your face” kind of relationship with God going on leading up to the events of Chapter 24. Remember the burning bush. The 10 plagues. The parting of the Red Sea. The cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night to lead them. The thunder and the lightening when Moses had been asked to go up the mountain the first time. But here, we read that Moses is asked to go up the mountain AGAIN and wait on the Lord. Something even more amazing was about to happen.
In verse 14 of our text for this morning we read that, “To the elders [Moses] had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again” and then, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days.”
Moses, you see gets asked to come up and wait. To wait in a particular place at a particular time, to do nothing else but to be with the Lord, to be enveloped in God’s glory. And scripture tells us that this occurs for 6 days before the Lord even said a word.
Let me repeat that again. Scripture tells us that Moses sat for 6 days before the Lord uttered a word.
There is a term from the Celts that has grown into a popular theological concept called “thin places.” Mary DeMuth in her memoir by such a title defines a thin place “as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds.” She goes on to say that: “Thin places are snatches of holy ground, tucked into corners of our world, where if we pay close attention, we might just catch a glimpse of eternity.”
As Moses was ushered into the presence of God on the mountain, I believe he was entering a thin place. And I believe such was also true for the disciples as they stood beside Jesus on the mountain that day too. They saw beyond this broken world into the world where things are made right. They saw into God’s great mystery. They saw the glory of God that we so often miss or can’t see when our minds are so caught up in the here and now.
Do you have a thin place in your life? Have you ever experienced such a place?
I was talking with a friend this week about the concept and she told me the story of the morning right before her daughter died. Her child, only 8, suffered from medical complications from cerebral palsy among other things. And while my friend’s focus that morning was on doing everything she could to try to save her daughter’s life—to make her better. Her husband, she said was sensing something deeper. Their daughter was slipping from this world to the beyond. The glory of God was resting on her. And he knew it. Through prodding, he helped his wife slow down and be in the moment too.
I have several Presbyterian colleagues who are obsessed with this retreat center in the mountains of Western North Carolina called Montreat. I am not a Presbyterian so I’ve never been there, but the way my colleagues describe the experience of being there in the wonder of God’s creation among the trees, lodging nestled between rolling hills and chapel experiences that are full of the best kind of spiritual formation out there, I would love to go sometime. In fact when they come home from Montreat it seems that such friends are glowing for weeks. They’ve encountered the presence of God in profound way. They have bright and shinny new plans for their lives.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel in an interfaith delegation of peace to Israel alongside a Rabbi, an Inman and an evangelical pastor. We visited the sites of the region important to one another’s faiths with respect and honor. We walked the holy steps in Jerusalem that had been traveled by countless pilgrims before. We talked nightly over delicious dinners and bottles of wine about our faith and how the Divine was made manifest in each of our journeys.
Thin places are moments that begin when we recognize the leading of the Spirit to be wait here.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Moses during those six days of doing nothing but sitting and beholding the glory of the Lord. Six whole night and days. 144 hours. 8,640 minutes. 518,400 seconds.
Waiting here. Waiting with God. Waiting in God’s glory.
I don’t know the last time you said yes to some complete stillness in your life. I am embarrassed to say when last I had some in mine. We aren’t really a culture, nor do we live in the part of this country for that matter that has much taste for slowing down. If you are anything like me, there isn’t a lot of room in your life for 144 hours of being in the presence of God and God alone. And how much of our mental and emotional and even spiritual energy do you and I use trying to avoid stillness? And then when we actually get to such a point, we try to control it.
Though I do take a Sabbath now and then—the kind where I (gasp) turn my phone off—I wouldn’t say that those hours are spent sitting in stillness. I get so restless to do something or watch sometime or to solve some problem with all those thoughts rolling around in my head.
I make lists in our head of what I will do when it over. I count the minutes that have passed. I wonder when I can move on to something next. Out of boredom I shorten the time and then shorten it some more. Isn’t that soon?
But will we ever experience a glimpse of the mystery and glory of God this way?
Henri Nouwen in the book Inner Voice of Love writes this about how most of us live: “We like to occupy-fill up-every empty time and space. We want to be occupied. And if we are not occupied we easily become preoccupied; that is, we fill the empty spaces before we have even reached them. We fill them with our worries, saying, "But what if ..." It is very hard to allow emptiness to exist in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen.”
Entering a thin place, you see is embracing the unexpected actually happening to us!
But Nowuen goes on to write about what happens when we give up, when we sit in our emptiness and offer it back to God. He says, we realize this: “God wants to dwell in our emptiness.”
And this morning, I want to offer you the good news that this is what transfiguration is all about.
It’s about letting go of fear—the fear of all of the what ifs?
It’s about letting go of shame—oh what will so and so think of they saw how I was spending my time!
It’s about letting go of what we’ve constructed around us to make us feel safe: comfort foods, familiar surroundings and plans for our life that make lots of sense to everyone we know.
We wait in such a place with our emptiness because we believe in a God who can make all things new.
We believe in a God that can shine light into the darkest places.
We believe in a God who will take our deepest restlessness and channel it into what is heaven come to earth.
We believe in a God who is lover and giver of grace—we become receivers of what we don’t deserve.
We enter into the Divine life when we wait like this and God’s glory stops being a churchy word good for a choir song, but something that we’ve seen, experienced and felt with our own flesh.
If there is anything I am sure of when it comes to God it is that God is a mystery. There is so much about our Lord that I do not and will never understand. I doubt in our lifetime we’ll see another transfiguration of Jesus or even we’ll be asked to go with God up on Mount Sinai. But I do believe that “thin places” on this earth are real. They find us when we might least expect. And they begin in waiting. They begin in setting our life on a different path than the norm so that we have space to receive. They begin in allowing silence to fill our space, even when we think we are going to go crazy and can’t take any silence anymore.
So, as we look ahead to a week that will ask us to gather and repent and remember that we are dust and will return to dust one day—how good it is to start with the invitation—if only we have room for it in this worship hour—to wait here.
To sit in stillness. To bring our brokenness. To open our hearts to whatever awaits us. It’s scary stuff but there’s a reason we’re asked to wrestle with these same stories year after year—because we all need more of God in our lives. But the only way we’re going to find more of God that all of us are looking for, no matter if we know it or not is to wait. To wait here and to trust God to do what is beyond all our imagination.
For many of you who follow me online you might know that I made a big deal out of my birthday last year. I was turning 33. I called it my Jesus year for I'd reached the age in which Jesus was when he died. Big accomplishment for my geeky religious soul. Right? My sister even got me this t-shirt to mark the occasion.
Birthdays, in my opinion really aren't that exciting after 30. You start to realize that you aren't that young anymore (like you were at 23) and there's so much you want to do (or haven't done with your life) and time is ticking. Is there really anything good about turning a year older when you don't get something cool out of it like renting a car for less or getting to drink?
So for me, naming my birthday last year was my way of trying to make it more fun.I didn't go as far as to make a project out of it like this person did, but still it was something I thought about through 2013. It was bound to be a good year I thought or at least a real transformative one. Wasn't that the case for Jesus? I joked with my friends that my year wouldn't end in death.
But now it is over. I'm still alive. I made it to 34 last Friday.
So what I do I think about it all now? Was 33 really all that special?
Last year, I found myself jobless (at least in the traditional sense) for the first time in my adult life. I found myself spending time in a state where my husband and I had no friends. I found myself having to re-sort everything I thought I knew about life as entered what felt like an intense spiritual wilderness experience. I found myself with a large mass causing infection to my entire abdominal region requiring emergency surgery. I found myself on my back, forced to rest and heal for 2 months. Then, later I found myself re-emerging from these and other intense experiences with greater clarity and drive than I've had in years. I got glimmers of light in the darkness.
If I were to pick a theme text for 33 it would be this one from Philippians: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in the fellowship of his sufferings." This is what a Jesus year is all about. It's about pushing through. It's about slowing down. It's about seeing what in life matters. It's about feeling your own pain and that of others too. It's about walking through fire and coming out on the other side as something new. It's about gifts that only suffering can bring.
And so this is all true: I've made new friends in unlikely places. I've been forced to open up myself up to new ways of seeing the world. I've found a centering place in the mystery of God. I've not crumbled completely pieces when I got the worst possible news as I was carried by love and hope.
What will 34 hold? I got several birthday cards this weekend wishing me the best year ever. Will it be such? Who really knows. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that's why they call it the present."
All I know for sure is that I am grateful to have another year to learn and breathe and be in good health and to walk alongside companions on this journey who love me as much as I love them. 34: bring it on! (I always liked even numbers better anyway!)
I am not one to throw around religious cliques. It irritates me in fact when folks in positions of religious leadership use such statements as "Everything happens for a reason" or "I guess God needed an angel" or "God helps those who help themselves."
But I am reconsidering my use of the phrase "___ (loved one) must be smiling down on you now" after the miracle that came to this earth four days ago.
My most long-term sister friend, Kristina was on baby watch on bed rest with her second cutie until early Monday morning. Her water broke and I got a text message before 6 am that said, "I think we are having a baby today!"
Such would be exciting enough but then there was consideration of the date on the calendar itself, January 6th . . . a date that caused all of us waiting on this birth to pause in awe.
Nine years ago on January 6th (long before the days of texting) I got a phone call from Kristina-- the kind of phone call NO ONE wants to get. "We've lost Daddy," she said in between sobs.
Though only a few days earlier joy burst into this household as Kristina had gotten engaged to Richard, a car accident changed everything for her, her mother, two brothers and in a matter of seconds. The joy of wedding planning was no more. Her daddy's heart stopped beating. The rock of their family was gone.
Over these past nine years so much healing has taken place. Weddings have occurred. Babies have been born. Kristina's mom even got re-married. (And I was the wedding minister!)
But the fact that the dad, Larry never got to see or touch or hold any of his grand babies brought forth ache. (There are five of them now!) He was a great dad. He would have been an even more amazing granddad. I could just see the vision of Larry bouncing several of them on his knee and making up some silly song as he did it. Or baking chocolate chip cookies and sneaking an extra one to his oldest grandson. Or playing hide and go seek in his wooded backyard for hours on end.
So when, January 6th came-- the awful anniversary day that all of us have on our calendars-- and Kristina was in labor with baby girl, it was hard not to say that Larry had some role in the whole thing.
Somewhere up from the world beyond he was smiling and asking God to help him show up in this special way as Xara Elgie Rose came into the world.
And what a beautiful day it was and a beautiful baby she is.
I am thankful to God for the thin places in this world that remind us that we are more than just bodies, but souls that live on through eternity with connection to the ultimate Creator.
I am thankful for the sweetness of friendship that I have with this family and the joy that is my new niece, Xara.
But most of all I am thankful for Larry and the knowing that his legacy lives on in Xara and the rest of the family.