“I kept that promise.”

File:Verso l'infinito - Convento Frati Cappuccini Monterosso al Mare - Cinque Terre.jpgSunday

It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Like Living Stones

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Friday

This is a reposting of a reflection for this fifth Sunday of Easter from three years ago. It connects also with our preaching theme for this week on Genesis 2. The anniversary of my daughter’s birth is this week also. I have written about it here. I have also changed the second photo of the Church of Saint Sava. You will see why.

1 Peter 2:2-10

5Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

I love the passive tense in this verse: “let yourselves be built.” We are not given a great task of building a cathedral. God is the builder; we need only let it happen.

Tuesday would have been my daughter’s 33rd birthday. Words don’t come easily this week. Sentences start, but can’t find their ending. Thoughts flit by, but don’t linger, don’t focus. I can’t find those strong threads that weave themselves into coherent messages. I read a blog entitled “I had a boy,” from a woman who had lost a child, and all I could respond was, “I had a girl…”

Grief is a strange thing. Did C.G., our cat, remember all her kittens that were given away? Was there some ache in her soul? Some remembrance? Some emptiness? If she did, I saw no days of lethargy and tears.

We are beings meant to connect. Meant to connect with others. Meant to connect with that heart of existence we call God. And when those connections are sundered, we are like amputees whose minds still envision their missing limbs and are at a loss to find them gone.

Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock. I am an island.” But, in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.” We are living stones, meant to be built together into a living temple.

After setting the first human into a garden in the creation story of Genesis 2, God says, “It is not good that this human should be alone.”   It’s not just about marriage and family, it is about friendship and community. It is about our humanity.

Those ties between us are so constantly ruptured, riven by thoughts, words and deeds. The hunger for connection is so primal, but the reality so difficult to achieve. This is the first portrait of sin: Adam and Eve hiding from each other and from God behind fig leaves.

It will not be long before the years Anna has been gone will surpass the years she was here. But the torn threads of the rent human fabric linger. To them comes only the promise that God is building a living temple…and the exhortation to let ourselves be joined, bit by bit, into that crowning achievement where God and humanity dwell together.

File:Bělehrad, Vračar, chrám svatého Sávy v noci II.jpg

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACathedral_of_Toledo_(6933231488).jpg By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cathedral of Toledo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AB%C4%9Blehrad%2C_Vra%C4%8Dar%2C_chr%C3%A1m_svat%C3%A9ho_S%C3%A1vy_v_noci_II.jpg  This image is a work by Aktron / Wikimedia Commons.

Bringing us home

Saturday

Isaiah 43:1-7

File:Heading Home, Yemen (9702169604).jpg6“Bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth.”

I can’t hear that voice without thinking about my daughter Anna. She was killed nearly 15 years ago. It is hard to imagine it has been so long. She is still and will ever be the bright, talented, compassionate, deeply spiritual young woman of 19 that she was the day a driver under the influence robbed the world of her life and the life of her friends.

The prophet is thinking about the Israelites scattered by war throughout the region of the Middle East. But I know there are more exiles than those in Babylon. There are more that are far from home than the children of the diaspora.

War is brutal in its impact upon the social fabric. The ties that bind family and community to a place and to one another are shredded. Hopes and beliefs are destroyed along with fields and buildings. Sons and daughters are lost. Fear and sorrow replace joy and trust. That sense of home and belonging perishes.

But it is not only war that separates us from one another, not only marching armies that decimates community. The modern world has made many rootless as they are moved from place to place. Divorce rends the ties of friendship and family. Poverty decimates neighborhoods and cities. Death and disease tear hearts and homes. Even our busyness separates us from one another, providing the illusion of a meaningful life but too often absent its real joys. We form new ties, build new lives, but we are scattered children and exiles. We have lost both village and faith that locates us in the world.

To a world in which it is possible to be homeless literally and spiritually, God speaks:

6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth–
7everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

God is in the business of reconciliation, of gathering the scattered, of restoring the broken, of uniting the separated. God is in the business of ending our exile and bringing us home.

 

Photograph: By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Heading Home, Yemen) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous

Wednesday

Psalm 1

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August Rodin, The Hand of God

6The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I believe this, though my daughter was righteous in the rich Biblical sense of that word – faithful to God and to others – just, honest, true, compassionate, generous, kind – yet when she was 19 her car was struck by a driver who had been drinking and she was killed. Two others in the car with her were also killed, and two terribly injured in body and spirit.

I think about this because today is her birthday.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I do believe this. And it is not just the desperate clutching at faith in the presence of despair.  It is not born of denial but trust. God watches over the way of the righteous. I do not think this means that God guarantees anything. It is certainly not a guarantee of a happy and prosperous American-style life. It is a promise that God watches. God sees. God knows. God guides. God protects – not absolutely, but protects from those truly fearful things: a life made shallow by possessions, pride, privilege. A life made ugly by bitterness or hate. A life where hope, or compassion or joy has been crushed.

As a parent who wishes to hear his daughter’s laugh again, I certainly wish God protected from every stubbed toe. But I know that such a protection ultimately corrupts. As hard as it is, you have to let your children struggle and suffer sometimes, for spiritual poverty is a much more terrible disaster.

Could I have endured it if Anna became vain and selfish? Could I have born the burden if she had grown thoughtless or cruel? No, God watched over her.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I still pray for protection when I drive. I ask to be guarded against all manner of ordinary ills. I want safety and surety for my surviving daughter, myself and all my extended family. But I understand that beneath my prayer for safety is a much more important petition: that God will guard our spirits. And in such protection I believe and trust.

 

Photo by Ad Meskens. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RISD_Rodin_Hand_of_God.JPG

“Arise, shine”

Wednesday

Isaiah 60

winter sunrise copy

Winter Sunrise, Anna Bonde, ca. 1996

1 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

I hear the words to arise and shine, but I do not really hear them. They reach out to embrace me. They draw me into their sweetness. I slump into them as into the arms of a friend when troubles abound. What I hear is “the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” and this seems a perfect embrace.

There is no want of darkness in the world, no want of cruelty, no want of evil men and women and even children, on occasion. The divide between whites and blacks in America is so profound that few can hear the other when they speak. I assume it is the same between Shia and Sunni in some parts of the world or they would not blow up each other’s sacred spaces or their children. And certainly there are other such divides. Men and Women. China and Japan, at least so I’ve read, the font if not the legacy of a brutal war.

The assaults on human dignity and freedom and life seem to lie all around me. So when I hear, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” it sweeps my heart up in its grand arms.

But beyond the wonderful word that light has come are these two little commands to arise and to shine. Is the poet saying no more than “Get up, get up” in joy and excitement of God’s advent? Or is there a call to stand, though the forces around us would beat us down? Is there a call to stand tall and firm at the lunch counter, though milkshakes and mockery and hate and dumped upon your head? Is there a call to stand tall though a spouse or teacher or coach degrade you? Is there a call to stand, though adversity besets you?

And when the prophet says, “shine,” is this just the shining face, alive with excitement, bright eyes joyous at the present laden tree? Or is there a call to shine forth love and compassion into a world often lacking in both?

The voice of God that presents itself to us through the prophet, speaks a wonderful grace. But it also calls us to come stand in that grace. To come live that grace. To shine forth as a bright moon reflecting the sun’s light. To shine forth as Jonathon’s weary eyes are made bright by the taste of honey. To shine forth as one who knows the true heart of the universe is an imperishable and unconquerable love.

This is not something we can simply be commanded to do. A candle doesn’t light because you tell it to burn brightly; it shines when touched by the flame. We are meant to burn brightly. We are meant to be touched by the flame. We are meant for heaven’s exquisite embrace. We are meant to bring to our mouths the sweetness that is God’s dawning light, God’s wondrous glory, God’s unfathomable love.

And so to shine.

Toys in a bathtub

Wednesday

Psalm 104

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Pieter Mulier II, Storm at Sea, 17th century

26There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Leviathan is not just the great sea monster of Moby Dick fame. Leviathan is the mythological serpent from whose slain body – so said the Babylonians – the world was made. It is the chaos monster. The god of the roaring seas, relentless, changing, destroying, able to rise up in a moment and swallow a ship and all her cargo. Chaos. Chaos that afflicts societies. Chaos that afflicts the human heart. Warring emotions. Warring thoughts. Warring, unregulated, ungoverned. Wild. Dangerous. Fearful. Uncontrolled.

He is God’s plaything. A kitten in God’s home. A frolicking creature in God’s ocean.

He is God’s plaything. For all our fear of the uncontrolled – Leviathan is God’s plaything. Like a child with toys in a bathtub.

All that we fear. All that threatens to devour us. All the chaos that could rip life apart. They are shadows on the wall. The creaking of an old house in the wind. Playthings in God’s garden.

I know the terror of these. I know the terror of the sudden and unforeseen that suddenly shatters life. I have buried a brother. I have buried a daughter. 19. Traveling with friends to volunteer in an inner city grade school. Struck down on a curve by a driver who had been drinking. If they hadn’t turned the wrong way out of the gas station 20 minutes before, they would not have been on the road at that moment. Had they not forgotten their CD player and turned back, they would have been safe in bed at Sally’s home. But they were still on the road when Brandon came around the curve on the wrong side of the freeway, appearing suddenly, as the semi in front of them lurched away into the right lane. And there they were. And there was Brandon. 80 mph. No time. Chance. Chaos. Death and sorrow.

But the chaos monster is no monster, just a plaything in God’s bathtub.

A monster to me. But not to the voice that called the stars into being. A monster to me, but not to the voice that brought forth life on this barren rock. A monster to me, but not to the Lord of all time. A monster to me, but a plaything to God. Not that God doesn’t know the sorrow. Just that God knows the end of the play. There is a song at the end. Like Les Mis, all the characters are back on stage singing the song that has no end.

Chaos, grief, sorrow, evil, real human evil, tragedy, all that is unexpected from our point of view, they are as playthings before the Almighty. They will not reign. They will not endure. Compared to the majesty of love these are no great evil. Compared to the majesty of life, of grace, of truth: a plaything, no more.

26There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.