Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lost and Found

A few years ago I met a man who was completing his seminary studies and was about to be ordained, I believe, as a Jesuit priest.  His order very much wanted him to continue his studies for a Ph.D, but he was convinced that God was calling him first to the desert, to accept the invitation to "come die" with a brother who was doing some missionary work in the American Southwest.  I keep returning to this conversation, and I recognize that it planted the seed of one of my beliefs about trying to walk a Christian path - that it must be taken in humility, and to achieve that humility can sometimes require a great struggle with our very tenacious egos. Letting go of at least some of our ego's expectations (what Henri Nouwen describes as the hunger to make ourselves relevant, spectacular, and powerful) can feel very much like dying.  However, in that struggle we might actually hear how God is calling us to live.          

 Most religions acknowledge a time for fasting and for feasting.  Tomorrow, after the celebrations of Mardi Gras have ended, Ash Wednesday ushers in the great time of Lent - a time of fasting from what may be getting in one's way of accepting God's love.  A time of preparation.  A time to learn to die.  A time of learning to surrender to the vast What Is.  A time of learning to turn and continually return to God, to consciously seek God's help.  A time of learning that we are more than what our egos want so desperately to hang on to.  We learn we are more than just hangers-on.  We are those who can actually grow into God.  We can trade in our desperation for love.       
When Jesus struggled in the desert, he relied on scripture to foil the illusions and temptations of power, wealth, and  independence that were placed before him.  In the wonderful hymn, Love Divine, All Love Excelling, we sing of finding our place where we cast our crowns before Jesus, lost in wonder, love, and praise.  When we dare to take off the  trappings of this world (they will be taken away from us sooner or later anyway so we might as well get used to offering them up now), we may indeed feel a little lost.   But we will also be very much found.  
In the desert, Jesus found himself tended to by angels.  May you also know that as you try to give something up, or take on a new spiritual practice, or to simply feel God's grace in a current loss or transition, you do not travel alone.  We are blessed to journey together.  What are we seeking?  To find God where we have been all along.   

When we do not run away in fear, but patiently stay with our struggles, the outer space of solitude gradually becomes an inner space, a space in our heart where we come to know the presence of the Spirit who has already been given to us.   In the solitude of our heart we can listen to our questions and - as the German poet Rilke says so beautifully - gradually grow, without even noticing it, into the answer.
                        - Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ      
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.  
                                                                  -  Matthew 4:11  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Of Home and Heaven and All That Is In Between

Yesterday was not an easy day.  Early in the morning I learned that the wife of a good friend of mine had passed.  My heart was heavy, and there was more than one moment when I wondered how I would lead the four services scheduled that day.  Yet, I knew that to reschedule those services would prove to be difficult, so I decided to go on as planned.  After the second service, the activities director was arriving just as the pianist and I were leaving.  "I am sorry to be late," she said, and then went on to explain a family complication that had arisen.  "But I knew the two of you were coming and that all would be okay."  And, of course, it was. 
In the fourth home, I was grateful to see the activities director come in.  When I saw her in December, she told me she was leaving the convalescent hospital.  Yet she looked so distraught that day I had to ask her if she was sure.  After all, she had worked there for many years.  She hugged me and nervously said yes, it was time to go.   However, in January, I heard she had returned.  Yesterday, I saw her before she saw me.  I surprised her with a greeting of "Welcome home!"  She gave me a wide smile and a much needed hug.  "Yes, I am home."  
I asked about Mrs. Chin, whom I knew had been in the hospital.  I was told that she was back, but "was not doing well."  I went to visit her.  She was very weak.  I took her hand and called her name.   She looked up, said nothing, but she did hold on to my hand.  We have worshiped together for many months, so I felt comfortable saying a prayer aloud for her, and stayed for a few minutes until a nurse arrived.  As I walked out of her room and into the hall, I noticed a bulletin board with the artwork of some of the residents.  I was stunned to see a beautiful picture painted by Mrs. Chin.  In the center of the picture is a man who is holding a basket of flowers, and a woman who is holding a tidy purse.  They are walking, hand in hand, away from us, into a garden full of colorful flowers. They are young, and have nothing but beauty, color, and a clear blue sky ahead of them. I found myself praying again.  I had just been given a glimpse of Mrs. Chin's heaven.        

And he walks with me 
and he talks with me  
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share 
as we tarry there 
None other has ever known.   
                                                     - In the Garden 
                                                       C. Austin Miles     
Today, I take the time to weep for those who are going ahead.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Our Grandmother's Church

Several weeks ago I noticed an invitation to come worship in a church that claimed to not be "your grandmother's church."  I began to think about the grandparents and great-grandparents that I am blessed to worship with just about every day, and how much I would miss them if I were not in their church.         

Ginny and Georgie always sit together.  Lately, Ginny has been wearing her full length fake fur coat.  Georgie loves sequins and eschews grey hair for red.  When it comes time to sing, they put their heads and song sheets together, and between the two of them they come up with a pretty strong voice.  Ginnie, who has not a tooth in her head, doesn't remember our names, but she always thanks us by saying, "You lift my heart," and she never fails to include a special thank you for the one she calls, "Piano Player."   Georgie, whose hair was a particularly bright shade of red the last time I saw her, often says to me, "I never really knew God's love before now. I am so glad you have come."  
There is George, whose hands are so very crippled now.  However, after he takes communion, he always wants to hold my hand between his for just a few moments, giving me a sense that I am being held by an ancient, gnarled tree. Carl, whose body seldom does what he wants it to, tells us every month with a laugh that it is time to "kick the devil out!"  
 I recognize that age groups probably do need their specialized services and gatherings, and I also suspect that I would make a pretty poor youth minister.  Yet,  I pray that we do not abandon the idea that worship means we can come together to celebrate that we are more than individuals who make up a particular demographic.  We are children of God, whether we are two or 102.  Worship gives us a chance to set aside the sometimes small but remarkably burdensome thoughts of who we think we are.  Together, we learn we are more, and not just more of the same.  We learn that we are all a part of God's dream of the living Christ today.  
Come worship with us in your grandmother's church.  Let's be more together.  

I have been reminded of your sincere faith, 
which first lived in your grandmother Lois 
and in your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded,
now lives in you also. 
                                                 - 2 Timothy 1:5