For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘hope

Before you read this post, if you commented on the original post about having cancer and moving to London, I finally had the chance to reply. Click here and go to comments to read my responses to your lovely prayers and good wishes.

The other afternoon, the Associate Pastor of my new church came rushing into my office. “I have to show you something!” Stepping to the window, she pointed to a man in the park next door. Wearing a full tuxedo, top hat and tails, he sat atop a speaker, holding a tuba on his lap.

As he began to play along to the oompah music blaring from the speaker between his legs, fire began to shoot out the top of the tuba. With each puff of sound, there also arose a puff of fire, spewing from the top of the horn.

IMG_20160721_172950121 (2)

This is a fuzzy picture of Flaming Tuba Guy, without the fire. I promise I’ll replace it with a good picture, including flames, next time he’s in the square.

It was street performance at its finest, and a crowd soon formed. My colleague explained that he frequents this corner, and he has become, for her, a treasured part of the London landscape. After sharing her delight, she went back to her office to get back to work.

Not me. I’m like, “OMG, he’s got fire coming out of his tuba! It’s amazing! How does he do that? I’ve gotta stop everything and get outside and take a picture!” Because, really, what in my life and work at that minute could outdo a Flaming Tuba Guy?

I’m sure, as the weeks pass, he will fade into the background. The day will come when I also get annoyed that I can’t concentrate over the sound of the oompah music, or can’t pass the sidewalk because of the crowd. That first day, however, I had to stop everything and get a closer look, to pay attention and marvel at the spectacle of the Flaming Tuba Guy outside my office window.

As I contemplated Flaming Tuba Guy on my way home, I realized how much my breast cancer diagnosis is like Flaming Tuba Guy.

When it first happened six weeks ago, I felt like everything stopped. I couldn’t think about anything else, see anything else, do anything else except imagine myself as a cancer patient. Everything in the world shrunk down to a small hospital room, a blurry gray image on the screen, and pink ribbons everywhere. I stopped in my tracks, and so did all of you—my friends and family and community—to grapple with this unexpected thing confronting me.

As time has passed, along with more tests and doctor visits and procedures, breast cancer is slowly becoming just another part of the wider landscape. Some days, it’s there, and a big part of my life. Last Monday, I had a minor surgery (sentinel node biopsy), just 9 days after entering the country and three days after starting my new job. I spent a 14-hour day at the hospital, and the next day in bed recovering. Even then, I had lots of time to sit and wait, and I did some reading and planning for church.

Some days, it’s like the crowd in the street or the annoying earworm. By Wednesday after my surgery, I could spend most of the day doing what I love: ministry and motherhood. I had to juggle my schedule for a doctor’s appointment, deal with not wearing deodorant due to my incision, and get help lifting heavy objects for two weeks while I heal. Those things are annoyances, but nothing that stops my daily living.

Other days, it’s not a factor in my decision-making at all. By the weekend, I felt pretty good, and we took the chance of my good health and London’s rare good summer weather to explore the city. We spent the afternoon on Hampstead Heath, including climbing all the way to the top of Parliament Hill. On Sunday after church, we explored Oxford Street and Regent Streets, a major shopping area. Regent Street was closed to traffic, and there was music playing and thousands of people packing the streets because Magnum was handing out free ice cream. We explored the amazing Hamley’s Toy Store, which is the best I’ve ever seen. Other than the lack of deodorant, it was a cancer-free day.

While I know that the coming regimen of chemotherapy will make for more rough days ahead, I’m taking comfort in the claim that cancer is going to be like Flaming Tuba Guy. It’s gonna stop me, distract me, captivate me sometimes, because it’s breast cancer, for goodness sake. But not every day. Not all the time. It will be a part of my London landscape, but not all of it.

Thanks, Flaming Tuba Guy. Oompah on, my friend.

This was my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015 at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ. Our series is entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I wrote new words to that tune to go with the lighting of the Advent candle each week. The scripture for the day is Luke 1:5-25.

Advent 2015

The song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A known duo, they had been asked to produce a Christmas album, but hesitated because they did not feel comfortable with the consumerism of Christmas. However, when the nation found itself on the brink of a nuclear holocaust–people fearful of enemies among them, digging backyard bomb shelters and praying to avert another world war–Regney was inspired by babies being pushed in strollers along the streets of New York City. He returned home and penned the words to this song of peace, since sung by countless high school choirs, recorded by hundreds of artists, and played endlessly on Christmas radio.

The imagery captures something of our longing, too, as we prepare for Christmas in another era hovering on the brink of war, with fear of our neighbors and worry for our children. The night wind speaking to a little lamb, the shepherd boy and the king singing about a star, a song and a child, such humble, earth-bound creatures, somehow give us a sense of hope amid the fear and violence of the world—a promise that peace is out there, asleep in the ordinary, whispering and waiting for us, if we only awaken our senses to hear it, see it, feel it. Though I took some liberties with the words for our season, the original words evoke the Advent spirit on their own. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you feel what I feel? Do you know what I know?

That’s what Advent is all about. These weeks before Christmas are supposed to awaken our senses to the presence of God in quiet, ordinary places, because when God-With-Us arrives on Christmas Eve, it is in the humblest of stables. So we prepare by remembering that God is seen in the glow of a midnight angel, felt in the leap of a child in the womb, known in the song of a mother-to-be, and today’s story—heard in the silence of the priest.

Yep, you heard that right—heard in the silence of the priest.

(The irony of preaching a sermon about the silence of a preacher is not lost on me, I assure you.)

Zechariah’s story is the tale of a man of words, the man to whom the community had assigned the task of speaking about God, even speaking FOR God, being struck mute when God actually spoke to him.

It was Zechariah’s big day. There were thousands among the priestly clans, each rotating through the temple, taking their turn to care for the Holy of Holies. When his family, the sons of Abijah, came to take their turn, they lit the fires, tended the sacrifices, oversaw the prayers for the whole temple, the whole people of Israel. But only one man could step inside the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual there. Only one man each time, and no man could enter twice—it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, and most, even among the priestly families, were never chosen.

This was no popularity contest or piety award—Zechariah and the members of his family stood around and drew lots, and Zechariah’s hand happened upon the lucky straw. He would step into the holiest sanctuary, the sacred room in the Temple inhabited by God’s own presence, representing the whole of his people before the Holy. When he emerged, the people would gather around and await a blessing, a word from God himself, delivered by Zechariah.

The Gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us that even though he got this honor by sheer luck, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were people of exemplary faith. They prayed, they followed the law, they were righteous and blameless, good and faithful in every way. Zechariah must have trembled in holy awe that he was chosen.

And yet, even though Zechariah and Elizabeth had been faithful all their lives, but God had not rewarded them. They were barren, childless. They had prayed, they had obeyed, but God had been silent. Month after month, cycle after cycle, nothing but silence. Silence in Elizabeth’s womb, silence in their home, silence from God. By the time Zechariah was chosen to enter the Holy of Holies, it was too late. Too many moons had come and gone, and they grew old. God had remained silent for years.

When Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies that day, I imagine he believed that God still had a word for the people he represented. Certainly God had a blessing for everyone else, a message of hope and encouragement for the masses—even if God had only silence for he and Elizabeth.

But the angel had not come with vague promises or generic words of comfort. This was no anonymous platitude or nameless blessing. It wasn’t for everyone else. The angel of God came with a very specific word to them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a silence-shattering, new-world-opening, mind-blowing, unthinkable, impossible word. “Your prayers have been heard,” the angel said. “Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and you must name him John. This child of yours will not only bring you joy and delight, he will be the one who brings many people back to God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah, terrified and stunned, responds to this breath-taking announcement in the most awkward, graceless, bumbling way possible. “How can I be sure? We’re old,” he says. If there were a soundtrack, you’d hear one of those record-screeching-to-a-halt sounds right here.

I can almost hear the angel Gabriel sigh. “Because I am the angel Gabriel, and you’re standing in the Holy of Holies, and I’m telling you so.” Shaking his head, Gabriel continues, “Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”

Some would like to see this silence as punishment for Zechariah’s sin of disbelief, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I’m with Barbara Brown Taylor, who calls it “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit of hopelessness.” (Bread with Angels, 93)

Zechariah had grown so accustomed to God’s silence that he was unable to receive the word of God when it came. While he never stopped praying, never stopped obeying, he had long ago abandoned any sense that God was listening. Zechariah, whose very name means “God remembers” had become convinced God had forgotten.

Who could blame him? How many of us, likewise, have prayed and obeyed, but long ago given up hope for an answer? How many of us have ceased to imagine God hears our prayers? We pray that our family could grow, our illness be healed, our relationships mended, our job meaningful, our finances successful—but how strong is our hope in God’s response? We pray for peace and justice and love to win, but it is murmuring into a void. The news of more shootings, more hatred, more violence, more abuse have given us likewise “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit if hopelessness.” Imagining the promises of Isaiah about a light in the darkness, a Prince of Peace, reigning with justice and righteousness forevermore are impossible dreams. The best we have come to hope for is some nameless blessing, generic word of comfort, or vague platitude.

Instead, what Zechariah discovers is that God has a hope just for them. He and Elizabeth, their deepest and most intimate prayers, have been heard, and God is about to fulfill their hopes and dreams, even when they themselves have given up on them. Zechariah’s name and his story instead proclaim that God remembers. God’s silence will not be forever, and when it arrives, God’s voice will not come to us as a vague, generic, nameless message. When God speaks, it will be so stunning, so personal and convicting and convincing and life-changing and mind-blowing and new-world-opening that it will render us speechless.

The 19th century mystic Baron Von Hügel said, “Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith.”

When Zechariah emerged from the Holy of Holies, the greatness of God had swallowed him whole. The people stood around him awaiting his message, the blessing he would give directly from God. There were no words. Sound caught in his throat, his hands flapped helplessly. This man assigned to speak for God found himself mute when God actually spoke to him. The look of holy awe must have lingered on his face, the reflection of the angel still in his eyes, because the people could tell he had seen a vision, and they fell silent too. Because they know God remembered, God heard, and they had hope.

This opening Sunday of Advent, hear the story of Zechariah and know that God remembers. Even when there is only silence, God is still there—and when God does speak again, it will be a word so surprising and life-changing, so for you, that it will swallow you whole and leave you speechless.

So maybe then Zechariah’s story is also an invitation to fall silent, a reminder to just shut up, because the greatness of God is all around us. Just shut up and listen, in wonder and hope-filled imagination, to the night wind and the little lamb, to the child and the shepherd boy, to the presence in the Holy of Holies.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

Do you hear what I hear?

 

 

Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 165 pp.

9780802870728I adore Walter Brueggemann’s work, and I will confess to anyone who cares to listen that I think every sermon I have ever preached on a text from the Hebrew Bible has been influenced by his scholarship and pastoral insights. This is especially true of any sermons on prophetic texts, as his original outline in The Prophetic Imagination unlocked those obscure biblical books, with their poetry and lamentation, in ways that finally made them come alive for me.

I heard Brueggemann lecture on the content of Reality, Grief, Hope before reading the book, and recognized immediately the themes he had previously developed in The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and other books. His perspective on the prophets is that their first word calls forth the injustice, sin and loss in the community, prompting grief. Only after the people have experienced lament can they find their way to hope, the prophet’s second word. Reality, Grief, Hope adds a new dimension to the prophet’s task, a new first word before grief: reality.

Brueggemann has observed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, that the prophet must first pierce through the many layers of denial. Before the grief can flow, the people must acknowledge that something has been lost that cannot be regained. In both ancient and modern contexts, the royal ideology of chosenness (the conviction that God will protect the Jerusalem establishment and its leaders) persists long after facts on the ground demonstrate that the temple and its practices will not be protected. The ideology blinds the people from seeing any facts or reality beyond itself, and therefore traps them within a false and failing way of seeing the world, denying the change and the injustice around them.

Reality must be faced and not resisted. Their rhetoric is designed to break the bubble, to make contact with the facts on the ground—that God is here and neighbor is here—and to notice the links of chosenness in the present and future fates. (23)

Brueggemann describes this phenomenon in ancient Israel, then he describes it in the 21st century of the United States. The roots of the problem today lie in American exceptionalism, and our understanding of freedom as freedom to disregard the needs of our neighbors.

Grief is the path to piercing this ideology and its systematic denial of its own failure. Brueggemann offers an extensive catalog of biblical prophets who address this need, from Jeremiah to the Psalmist to Lamentations. He then summons preachers and prophets today to engage in the same work, naming and claiming the loss of American superiority, privilege and moral certainty.

This converging loss that is beyond denial, concerning loss of political-military hegemony, loss of economic dominance, loss of social-ethnic singularity, and loss of ecclesiastical propensity, has come to amount to a loss of moral certainty and a failure of nerve about the future. In sum, we watch as the world for which we had prepared ourselves and had learned to master is disappearing before our very eyes. (81)

When that sadness and loss remains unexpressed and voiceless, it gives rise to violence and precludes us from imagining new possibilities that might spring forth by the grace of God. The grief is necessary to move into reality and into hope.

Grief can easily give way to despair. The task of the prophet, after piercing denial with reality and unleashing the grief, is to offer hope, so that the people do not fall into despair. That hope comes always from outside the ideology, outside the system and empire. Hope comes from God.

It is rather, the tradition insists, an utterance that arises “from elsewhere,” from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility by resolve that is not disrupted by the city in shambles and is not restrained by the force of empire. (106)

Brueggemann concludes by insisting that the best possibility for prophetic work today lies in local congregations, where people are known and loved against the forces of empire.

One can see the same practice in the life of a congregation wherein people are known and named, who have birthdays and anniversaries remembered, who have their sicknesses and deaths honored, all gestures that call out an affirmed, empowered personhood. (145)

This counternarrative that disrupts imperial narrative focuses upon particular persons in daily crises, naming, valuing, and empowering persons who have been disregarded, reduced or summarized by the empire. (146)

The work of prophetic imagination has a calling, I do not doubt, to walk our society into the crisis where it does not want to go, and to walk our society out of that crisis into newness that it does not believe is possible. (160)

The church, Brueggemann claims, by living its ordinary life of caring for souls and holding out the good news, is the key to helping people and society move into hope.

Reality, Grief, Hope takes Brueggemann’s existing work to a new level, and lays a new claim upon us as pastors and church leaders to engage the prophetic work of piercing reality, opening grief and proclaiming hope in God. His insistence will not release us, and the scriptures he summons will not let us doubt. As always, Walter Brueggemann brings the Bible alive and with its vitality comes a summons to follow.

I usually reserve sermons for my church blog, but I actually had a manuscript, and several friends asked to see it, so here it is. What I actually delivered was slightly different, to be sure. This Easter sermon, both in its writing and its delivery, felt very personal and pastoral–the coming together of my love for folks as their pastor, and what testimony I wanted to share with them. It’s not fancy or creative or clever, just honest.

 

Our Easter altar

Our Easter altar

I’m always struck by the vast differences between our Easter celebrations today and that first Easter in the garden.

Neva and Becky and I—along with the choir and the liturgist and the bells and everyone else leading today’s service—we’ve been planning and organizing and working for weeks toward this morning’s service, so that we know where everything goes in the Order of Worship, what words to say, what songs to sing, with the music in the right order and the props in the right places. But that first Easter was confusing and disorganized from beginning to end. Mary and Peter and the other disciple went running to the tomb and back, frantic, panic. Where have they laid him? We don’t know where they put him. Sir, if you know where he is please tell me so I can go and get him. Where is he? No one knew what was going on. It was a mess.

And look at all of you here in your Easter finery. We’ve got ourselves and our children looking their best, our sanctuary decked out in all its splendor. But that first Easter had everyone dressed in mourning clothes, bleak, tear-stained faces, carrying the spices to tend to the body, buried in fear and bereft of hope.

Today, we sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” with the radiant Christ before us. That first Easter, though, there was none of that—there was Mary, silently standing before the empty tomb, weeping into her hands. Jesus did not appear radiant or majestic or powerful—he was so humble, so earthly, she mistook him for the gardener.

Today, we started with a shout of Alleluia—but that first Easter moment began with a whisper: “Mary.”

And in that moment, everything changed—and Mary went from asking “Where is God?” to testifying to everyone: “I have seen the Lord.”

On the surface, all those contrasts seem so dramatic—our Easter experience and the experience of Mary and the disciples seem so out of sync and disconnected. And yet. And yet I’d wager that more than a few of us came to church this morning—even with our Easter finery on the outside—more than a few of us are still wrestling with Mary’s question, with Peter’s despair, with the unnamed disciple’s doubt.

We may look pretty today, we may have our family together, starched and ironed—but the grief and the pain of day to day living are not far from the surface, are they? Death, illness, loss, financial woes, addiction, family tensions—all this and so much more may have been put aside for Easter Sunday, but they will find us again soon enough—come tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon.

We are hopeful that showing up to this church service will lead us to joy and beauty this day, that it will make Jesus alive for us somehow—because much of the time we cast about from day to day wondering, like Mary, where he is. Can you tell me where they have taken him? Please, someone tell us how to get back in touch with Jesus again, because he is lost and we are lost without him.

We go along with the Alleluias and the shining glory this morning, because we want it to be true, we want it to be real—but many of us are still wondering if the empty tomb is just, well, empty—if this whole thing isn’t just plain empty, if it all just amounts to nothing.

empty tomb

I believe we all come here this Easter day looking for the same thing Mary was looking for in that garden that morning, the same thing that she sought inside the empty tomb. We come here looking for Jesus. We are here not because we are convinced of the resurrection, confident and assured in all things—we are here in this place of worship because we need to be convinced of it again. We come not because we’ve found Jesus, but because we are still looking for him. We want to hear, even if just a whisper, our Savior call our name, so that our panicked and doubt-filled “where is God?” might be transformed into “I have seen the Lord.”

My friends, as your pastor, as one who cares for you and loves you, as one who wants nothing more than to provide a splendid Easter service that sends you all out proclaiming “I have seen the Lord,” the reality is that there is only one thing that I can do before you this day.

It is the only thing that Mary could do, the only thing that has kept this Christianity thing going, year after year, Easter after Easter, resurrection after resurrection for two thousand years. I can testify. I can tell you that I too find myself asking “where is Jesus?” Where have they put him? Why have they taken him away? I may stand up before you looking starched and ironed and put together, but I bear the same burdens of doubt and despair that you do. I too wonder sometimes if the empty tomb is just plain empty, and there’s nothing there, nothing here at all.

But when I sit here in this empty sanctuary, late at night or early in the morning, praying at nothing, wringing my hands with despair, every now and then I hear it—quietly, silently, coming from the back of my mind yet somehow beyond me—I hear the Savior whisper my name.

And then I remember—I have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord. I stand before you today and proclaim to you that I have seen the Lord, that I believe in the resurrection. I don’t believe in the resurrection because of something that happened 2,000 years ago—I believe in the resurrection because I have seen Jesus today, and he is alive among us.

I have seen lives I thought were over—people whose addiction was so severe that I thought they were lost forever. But Jesus appears to them, calls their name, and they find a way to let go of their addiction and live again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen relationships so estranged, marriages so pain-filled, parents and children so filled with anger and hurt that I thought they were dead—but somehow Jesus shows up, calls out names, and people find a way back to love again, back to life again. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen people who have been victims of violence and hate and abuse, people who have every reason to be bitter at God and bitter at the world, hear Jesus call their name and stand strong to proclaim instead that “love wins,” because nothing else but love will set them free to heal. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen tornado survivors, in this congregation and beyond, whose lives have been torn to shreds and scattered across the fields in destruction. Survivors like Louella Akers, who lost all four of her limbs due to a tornado-borne bacteria, then lost her home to foreclosure while she was hospitalized for more than year. She believed her life was over, that she would spend the rest of her days lying in bed, helpless—but Jesus called her name and told her there was more to do. New technology has given her four new robotic limbs, and March2Recovery and New Hope Services gave her a new apartment equipped with everything she needs to adapt and live independently. She started out walking everywhere, but now she can even drive again. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen my former congregation, the Old South Church in Boston, just feet from the finish line of the Boston marathon and last year’s terrible bomb blast, transform an occasion of terror and catastrophe into a witness of hope and new life. They requested people knit scarves in the blue and yellow marathon colors, to be delivered to runners at their annual Blessing of the Athletes service held this morning, the day before the race. Hoping for a few hundred, they received more than 7,000—and they have been out on the street every day since Tuesday passing them out to athletes, to first responders, to survivors, with prayer and tears and so much love, transforming a scene of blood and death into a place of triumph and love. I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

I have seen St. Luke’s, once left for dead after conflict and betrayal, hear Jesus call our name, challenging us and reminding us that God still has need of us in this place, serving this community—and watched a miracle unfold here, as we let God remake us in a new way—new people, new worship, new ministry, new building—so that now we are alive and we have been resurrected. My friends, I have seen Jesus, and he is alive.

None of these resurrections are simple, or instant, or magical, or easy, or pain-free—coming back from the dead is not for the faint of heart. It demands faith, and trust, and hope, and often a great deal of hard work. But resurrection is possible. The question of “where is God?,” the doubt-filled emptiness of the tomb, the despair of death—those things are real, as real as the cross on which Jesus died. But resurrection is real too. I have seen the Lord, not 2,000 years ago, but right here in our midst, and he is indeed alive, and he is whispering your name, and he is inviting you to be resurrected with him. Because Jesus is alive, you can be too. Whatever it is that is afflicting you and killing you, Jesus can call your name and set you free. Whatever it is that is burying you and entombing you, Jesus can roll away the stone. Whatever keeps you in the darkness of death, Jesus is the light of resurrection. I have seen the Lord, and he is alive. And that means we can be too. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.

hour i first believedOh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.

The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)

I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.

Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.

Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:

We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)

I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”

A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:

He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)

Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.

Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)

When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:

“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)

That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.

Ordinary GraceThe title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.

The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.

What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.

These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.

We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would  be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)

When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.

Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)

I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.

I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.

I usually post sermons as podcasts through my church’s website, but the recording did not work on this one, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my Facebook friends who helped me write it. So, I’m posting the manuscript here  for them to see.

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The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.               –-Jeremiah 33:14-16

This is the first week of Advent, which means we get to talk about hope.

And this week, of all weeks, I couldn’t spend all this time thinking about hope without thinking about everybody who spent the week hoping they would win the Powerball jackpot. Millions and millions of people waiting and hoping that their number would be called, hoping that their lives would be changed, debts cancelled, woes about bills and expenses forever banished, mean bosses vanquished. All those fantasies about what you could do, what you would do with such a windfall.

Josh and I bought a ticket too, and indulged in some fun daydreaming together about how we would spend and distribute $580 million. It was lots of fun. We had a good time talking and anticipating and hoping. All the good we could do with that kind of money!

As a pastor, I was hoping too. Of course my first hope was that we would win, but my secondary hope was that one of you would win. Just like every other pastor in this country, I prayed that if it wasn’t me, it might be one of you. Even the pastors who rail against gambling still hope for the chance to call up a church member who just won $580 million and have a conversation about tithing.

powerball-ticket-500-million

Then, of course, came the disappointment. I didn’t win, and neither did any of you. Two families were the lucky ones, but the rest of us are just left with useless scraps of paper in our pockets.

Thankfully, my friend Mary Luti posted this: “A Prayer for All the Times You Do Not Win Powerball.”

If you, O Lord, are not bitterly disappointed
that, not having won, I will not be able to solve
the financial problems of my congregation
and build several houses for the poor in Honduras
with a generous donation from my winnings
(after I take care of my family and friends,
pay off the mortgage and the plastic and buy a Mercedes),
then I’ll be fine, I’ll get over it, even ‘though
the thought of all the good I could have done with that money
is painful, even ‘though you could have used me
to make a difference. Oh well.
There will be another day. I have my numbers picked
for when the jackpot gets big again. Bless them.
There’s so much I want to do.
For you, of course. Amen.

The hope of which we speak on this first Sunday of Advent is a very different kind of hope from the hopes we place in a Powerball ticket.

Ours is the hope of the prophets.

Prophets are not fortune tellers, predictors of the future like Nostradamus or something.

To prophesy in the Bible is to tell of the promises of God—promises of peace and not destruction, promises of grace and salvation and home and justice.

It’s like what we read today from the prophet Jeremiah: “The time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”

What is that promise? A leader who will do what is just and right in the land. Salvation and safety for the people of Israel and Judah, and for Jerusalem.

And our hope is that God will fulfill that promise.

You can see how different that is than the Powerball kind of hope. Early in the week, when I was thinking about this distinction, I put it out on my Facebook page, and quite a few of my friends weighed in with their thoughts, which are integrated with my own.

First and foremost, the difference between the Powerball hope and the Gospel hope is the difference between luck and trust.

The Powerball is all about luck—and your chances are one in 176 million, which is not very good odds.

The Gospel is all about trust—confidence that God will come through, not just for one in 6 billion of us, but for the whole world.

Our own Eden Kuhlenschmidt said, “difference between the false hope of this world and the true hope of God’s promises.”

That’s the other difference—hope for one vs. hope for all

With Powerball, one lucky family, or maybe two, experiences salvation, freedom from debt and a change of their lives.

But Gospel hope is not just for one person or one family, although it’s personal for each of us. The Gospel Hope is for the whole world, for the salvation of everyone, so that we experience a change in the way the whole planet runs, into ways of justice and righteousness and peace and salvation for all.

Everyone’s a winner. It’s a sure bet.

Another difference is in time

Powerball hope seeks immediate gratification. By 11:30 on Wednesday night, you knew if you were a winner or a loser, if your hopes were fulfilled or not.

Gospel hope doesn’t happen so quick like that, although the Gospel warns us to be ready for it to happen “in the blink of an eye.” After 2000 years of hoping for Christ’s return, we’ve realized we’re dealing more with a long-range confidence.

Gospel hope proclaims that, no matter what comes, God will be in charge at the end.  God will see you through. Peace will prevail, no matter how long it takes.

In the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

What it is we are hoping for is different too.

A friend I grew up with, who no longer considers herself a Christian, wrote this:
“The lottery is the hope for freedom from poverty and obscurity in this life. The Gospel is the hope that the 80 or so years we spend on this planet aren’t pointless because there’s something else afterwards. It’s too depressing to believe that the struggle against poverty and obscurity is a waste of time in the end.” (Melissa)

My cousin wrote: The gospel actually leaves you with a better life 10 years later instead of the strife and drama lottery winnings come with. (Carrie)

Jim Jensen, St. Luke’s insurance agent, mused: “Unfortunately we don’t celebrate God’s new winners like we do the lottery winners.”

One of the first things that people were quick to point out is that, unlike the Powerball, the Gospel is free. You don’t have to pay to play, that God’s grace is a free gift for all.

I don’t think it’s free at all. No, you don’t have to spend $2 to play, you don’t have to have money at all, but it will cost you—everything. God doesn’t demand anything from you in order to receive grace—but in response to that grace, you are compelled to give everything you have, your life, your time, your love, your resources, to God’s purposes.

But the math is all different. People play Powerball trying to spend a little and get a lot. Turn $2 into $580 million. Did you know that your odds don’t actually increase the more you play? It’s a myth, because the lottery doesn’t work like chances in a raffle. No matter how many tickets you have, your chances are still just one in 176 million.

As my friend Jodi put it, “God gives us way better odds than the lottery does. God might talk about a narrow path, but it is nowhere near as narrow as the lottery path.”

With God’s promises, the more you invest in hope, the bigger the hope grows and the bigger the payout. Give it all, get it all and more. Whatever you put in comes back to you in full measure and more. The more you put in, the stronger the hope grows.

The Gospel hope doesn’t cost you a thing, because it is God’s gracious gift. But it will cost you everything to follow it. And it will be worth every penny, every hour, every sacrifice.

In my initial Facebook posting, I made a note that told my friends not to mock anyone who played the lottery, because it is fun to hope and imagine what you would do with all those winnings. One friend, an Episcopal priest, responded this way: “It’s fun to hope and imagine what you’d do with the Gospel, too.”

That’s what Advent is for. For hoping and imagining the Gospel promises being fulfilled in our lifetime, or even in us. Imagine the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Imagine a world of peace and justice. Imagine the world living together in harmony with God’s design. Imagine right relationships, security, trust, fulfillment. And know that those are not wild fantasies and lottery dreams—they are the hope of the prophets, the sure bet, the free grace, the covenant of peace and justice and righteousness and safety and salvation from the God who was and is and is to come. For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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