For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘reflection

For my Epiphany sermon at St. Luke’s on January 4, I was inspired by the If You Give… children’s book series by author Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond, best known for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you don’t know this series, you’re missing out, and I recommend watching the video below to catch up.

I noticed how the magi set out to do one thing–follow the star to a king–and ended up doing much more than they ever expected. Just like the mouse in the story, saying “yes” to a request from God often ends up to be a whole lot more complicated and involved that we expect.

For the sermon, I read the congregation If You Take a Mouse to the Movies, a holiday-themed book in the series, and talked about the unexpected turns in the magi’s journey. Then, inspired by Numeroff, I wrote my own Epiphany-themed version of If You Give… called “If You Go Where God Sends You.” It captures many themes from the magi, but also my own experiences with following God to unexpected places. I hope you enjoy it.

Epiphany 1

If you go where God sends you,

You’ll probably follow a dim light in the distance.

If you follow a dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

 

If you don’t know exactly where you’re going,

You’ll probably end up taking a few detours.

If you take a few detours,

You’ll probably take a wrong turn.

If you take a wrong turn, God will use that part of the journey as well,

so don’t fret about it.

 

While you are on a detour,

You’ll probably meet a few new people.

If you meet a few new people,

You may encounter some new ideas.

If you encounter some new ideas,

You might just find that your old ideas have changed.

When your old ideas have changed,

You might just find that you have changed.

 

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) - James Tissot

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) – James Tissot

When you have changed,

Some of people won’t like it, and you may discover they are unkind.

If you discover people who are unkind,

God might just ask you to help stop them from hurting others.

When God asks for your help in standing up to unkind people,

Chances are those unkind people are not going to like you very much.

If they don’t like you very much,

They may try to hurt you or hurt someone else.

If they try to hurt you or hurt someone else,

You’re going to have to listen to God even harder.

If you listen to God even harder,

God will probably tell you to go a different way.

 

Once you are going a different way, still following that dim light in the sky,

The light will eventually guide you to where you’re supposed to go.

But when you get there, God might not provide what you expect.

Even if it’s not what you expect, you’ll know it’s God, that it’s holy,

That it’s where you’re supposed to be.

You’ll know it because, instead of a dim light in the distance,

You’ll discover God’s light deep inside of you.

Epiphany 3

When you discover God’s light deep inside you,

You’ll want to give everything you have to God.

When you give everything you have to God,

You search your possessions, your gold,

Your titles, your precious treasures,

All the things that make you feel secure,

And give them away.

 

Once you have given everything away,

You’ll think you have arrived where God sent you.

When you think you have arrived where God sent you,

You’ll notice a dim light in the distance.

If you follow the dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

Epiphany 4

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Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.

Funeral (1)

It only looks like this in movies, never in real life.

As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go?  Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.

As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder,  pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.

After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same.  As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.

We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.

Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known.  I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.

At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.

When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.

But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.

I had the opportunity to hear a colleague preach this week at an ecumenical Lenten service. He was preaching on the story of the Transfiguration, and Peter’s desire to capture the experience of being on the mountaintop to remember and return to it forever. He opened his reflections with a story about using a camcorder to capture precious moments when his children were small. He realized after a time that he was so busy looking through the lens of the camcorder to capture the moment that he missed being a part of the moment. What we want to be about, he said, is being fully engaged with the moment, because that writes the moment in our hearts, where the memory really matters. We can return to the experience of God in quiet and prayer. It was a good sermon.

Throughout his story, I was reflecting on my (still relatively new) life as a blogger. Since I have been writing this blog, I have found myself thinking, “Oh, I have to capture this story on the blog!” or “I can’t wait to write this down!” I wondered if I am so busy thinking about how to remember my spiritual moments with God or special moments with B that I am not actually present to them.

In reality, though, I have found the opposite to be true. Since I have been writing regularly, I feel as though my senses have been heightened. I feel like I am slowing down and paying more attention to my life. All these blog entries were once just passing moments of closeness to God and people. They did not get remembered at all, much less written into my heart, because I was always rushing off to the next thing. Now I find myself noticing and then absorbing the details of an encounter, with an eye toward writing it later. Writing intensifies my mindfulness and awareness, deepens my experience of events, and implants the spiritual memories deeper in my heart. For example, I am pretty confident I would not remember anything about that Lenten sermon if I hadn’t been contemplating a written response!

Which makes me think there are two key differences between writing and recording. First, a recorder does not need to be present to the moment to record it—the camera does all the work. A writer must be fully present to the moment, because the mind and senses are the only recorders present to capture the experience. Second, what is captured by the recorder is qualitatively different than what is captured by the writer. The recorder is able to capture the moment in all its detail. In video, for example, the camera recalls the color of clothes and the condition of the room, the words that were spoken and the ambient noises, the order of events and the expressions on faces. The written word cannot handle all those lavish details without becoming cumbersome and overwhelming. What the writer captures is what it was like to be there–the feelings, the experience, the words and happenings that mattered most. A writer is reflective and selective. When I write about a moment, I am not trying to tell you exactly what happened, so that you can see it for yourself. I am trying to share with you the experience that I had in a moment, why it mattered to me and what made my heart sing. I am trying to make your heart sing too, in response. Video footage is raw, writing is interpretation.

To continue the example, consider the difference between watching a video of my colleague’s sermon and just reading my brief summation. I make no attempt to capture the nuance of his words or the richness of his outline–I only tell you what mattered to me, and why it spoke to my heart.

All this reminds me of the Bible. The Bible is writing, not recording. This is not a new insight–I long ago abandoned any understanding of the Bible as literal Word of God or factual recording of history. When I teach people about the Bible, I tell them that the Bible exists because people had an encounter with God that touched them, and they were so moved that they wrote it down to remember and share with others.

Then I realized, of course, that this is the same exercise I am participating in today. The technology has changed from parchment scrolls to WordPress blogs, but the act is the same. Encounter God and write about it, because the act of writing inscribes it in your heart and enables you to share the experience with others. I intend no arrogance or pretension by drawing a comparative line between my halting reflections and the words of holy scripture–quite the opposite. I am humbled to realize that I am doing nothing new under the sun, just participating in a long history of faith seekers and faith writers trying to inscribe the moment into their hearts and into the hearts of others, from behind the quill, the pen or the keyboard.


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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