Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Welcome to Our World

As we again recall the incarnation of our Lord as one who came and walked among us, and whose coming we await again, my prayers are for each one of you that you will have a blessed Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Adorable Couple

Oh to be sixteen and have been asked to the Winter Formal by "the" Boy. To get the perfect dress, and get a mani/pedi. To have the Boy wear the tie that matches your dress. Looking out the window and seeing his car pull into the driveway, only to see his Dad's car too. It is so irksome to be 16 and excited for the dance- you just want to get into the car and go. But the parents are so tedious. The obligatory pictures in front of the fireplace. The lecture about the possible bad weather and the time to be home, and enough gas in the car. The humorous anecdotes about you that the parents tell when CLEARLY you just want to go to the dance, or anywhere else that is not standing by the fireplace listening to the parents have their nostalgic moments. The picture taking is awkward, but since you cannot leave until the parents are satiated, you pose. You are excited, but you are feeling awkward. And you definitely do NOT want to endure the "I remember when I went to the dance" musings.
This time seemed infinite and infernal, and yet, it was only seven minutes from "hello" to " Have a great time" and you ride off into the night. It would be so awesome if it was a really cool car, but even though it is the minivan with the window sticker for your older sister's school and your Mom's teacher bumpersticker, and the Norse plate on the front, it is still a bit of a rush to be headed to the winter formal- "the" Boy and the Happy Girl who said "yes"- ending weeks of speculation by friends whether you would figure out what they already knew. To the Adorable Couple.

Friday, December 19, 2008

How Can This Be?

"How can this be?" are the words we hear a young Mary speak in this Sunday's gospel text. "How can this be?" were the words etched into my brain from the other day when another young girl experienced unexpected events, but in a much more tragic context. She was twenty years old, and in her second year of college, the oldest of eight children in a close-knit and devout family. She aspired to being a high school teacher, and was proud that she had also scrimped and saved from her job at the supermarket to buy a dependable used car. She was home for break from school, and had just had a fight with her boyfriend. Maybe they had been fighting more now that she is away at school. He had left and she was probably feeling more than a little sad and stressed about it all when she began to feel an odd strangeness she had never experienced before. In fact, she felt so different than she ever had before that she called her Mom who was out shopping. The daughter was home watching the little ones. She begged her Mom to come home-NOW!
It had already been a bad day, not just the fight with her boyfriend, but her brother who was a year younger was at the police station with their Dad because he had been mugged, and was slogging through the obligatory investigative police work. In the time it took to get to the house it had all begun to unravel. Mom walks in the door to find her beautiful 20 year old violently vomiting, struggling with slurred speech, but she was able to comprehend that she could not feel parts of her body. And she was terrified and crying. The ambulance was called and the neighbor came over to stay with the others, and in a whir they sped away with the EMT's struggling to keep her breathing.
As I met the Mom in the waiting room I scrambled to comfort, and offer to get whatever news I could. I did not have to struggle to envision all of the feelings and instincts, but instead needed to chase away thoughts of my own. Very quickly, it was even more dismal than before, with the doctor saying there had been a massive stroke, and she was bleeding in her brain, and I ached as the rapid fire questions about health history, meds, and life situation were coming almost too quickly to be absorbed. And the truth is that there was nothing that could explain this. There would be more tests and treatment and maybe surgery but " I am very concerned- your daughter could die."
Desperate phone calls were made. I offered prayer that still seems like it was not enough, but then again how could it be? And she sank to her knees and began praying the rosary, pulling me with her. I know most but not all, but with my arm around her, prayed what I could aloud and joined in silence with her in the rest. She shared that she was focusing on the cross of Christ. And as the repetition moved further along, as she almost feverishly fingered the beads, the peace which surpasses understanding was enough to carry her in the tragic yet sacred space. And then we waited.
The father and brother arrived and after more updating and consoling, I gave them some space while I tried to find out more. I inquired if they wished their parish be contacted, and they asked for the closest on-call priest to come and anoint their daughter. And then we waited. And then a doctor came and shared what more they knew- and it was even worse- that there was no discernible brain activity, the machines were doing all of the heavy lifting. The Mom lurched in the wake of this tidal wave of sorrow, and I caught her before she could fall, her husband and I easing her into a chair as she expelled a visceral wail- how could this be? I ached to my very core for them.
The son was standing off to the side- his parents were embracing each other and praying. He asked if he could go somewhere to smoke a cigarette, not that he was a big smoker, but you know, times like this.. In this day and age, one cannot smoke in the building or on any of the property owned by the hospital.
I took him outside- and pointed about a half a block away to where he could go. There was a light, but chilling rain. We chatted briefly- he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the day and these new inexplicable things. And in fairly non- chaplain-like language, I offered to this 19 year old that I was so sorry because, frankly this sucked.
"Yeah" is about the only word I can print here from his response, but my putting this into the base vernacular allowed him to let loose of some of the emotions. I asked him if he could use a hug, and as I did I recalled that in all of this, the parents had been hugging each other, but not him. " Thanks, you know I really could." And he latched on for all it could be, and in my mind, I thought that 19 is really not that old. When this kind of thing happens, suddenly it is hard to be an adult. In fact, "I don't want to be a grown-up" would be even more accurate.
I could not go with him for him to catch a smoke, but only stand there as he lurched off into the misty night, having shared with him what he would need to do to come back into the trauma unit.
He returned as the priest was arriving. As I left them to share in this time with the priest, I prayed that the three of them, Mom, Dad and Son would embrace together. I prayed for this young girl, and for all of the staff, many of whom, as nurses, were in their 20's as well. This was within striking distance of their ages, a cold slap in the face even for those who choose this profession. Now discussing the timing of the brain death determinations.
After the priest left, there was the flurry around transferring the girl to a trauma-neuro room during the interim, and it was time for me to hand off to another chaplain. Part of me wanted to stay, wanted to make sure that this family would get everything they needed, this maternal part of me struggled to say goodbye. But the introductions needed to be made, and the status reviewed. Long, deep hugs, and expressions of sorrow and prayer. It would be another chaplain who would discuss the organ donations, and the finality of things, in the dark of night, this cold and unforgivingly blustery night.
Before I ended my time, I circled round the ER, to listen to the nurses, and the clerks, and the security folks, and in that sharing, to be ministered to as I ministered. There had already been two other deaths on my shift, plus the regular pattern of heart attack and traumas, and in general we were all feeling more than a little beat up.
Out of this tragedy, five people received donor organs they so desperately needed- this is the reality of organ donation- it takes a tragedy to bring someone else long-awaited good news.
I drove home, distractedly, mulling in my mind all that had transpired. And it felt like a leaden blanket. And I have prayed repeatedly for this family, and this beautiful girl whose obituary photo allowed me to see her not as the dying girl, whose face was slack, whose eyes were vacant, wired up to so many machines, but a vibrant and beautiful girl with a hopeful smile- I mourn not seeing that girl. I cannot fathom the wrenching grief of the family, or the bottomless pit that something that cannot be quantified leaves for the medical folks.
Henri Nouwen shares that "There is a strong inclination to say, 'Don't cry, your loved one is in the hands of God'.. but are we really ready to experience our powerlessness in the face of death and say 'I do not understand. I do not know what to do, but I am here with you.' Are we willing to not run away from the pain, to not get busy when there is nothing to do, and instead to stand in the face of death with together with those who grieve?" I hope that this was the care I imparted through the power of the Spirit.
And I hugged my own teens a little more tightly reminded yet again of the wonderful blessings and the fleeting nature of it all. Reminded of the words of a sermon by a pastor who buried his own son after his car careened into the harbor- People ask where was God? God was the first to shed tears as his car sank into the water. And the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

There is so much we don't know here- Lord give us the strength to hold on to what we do know- death does not have the last word- none of your words are impossible. And Lord, have patience with us when it is hard for us to embrace these words.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Making Room for Hope

I have been asked to preach in my home parish this Sunday, Advent 4, for which the gospel is Luke 1:26-38. Given all that has happened and continues to happen in the parish and around the world, this was the message that came to me:

One can look around and see many struggling to simply get by. Putting food on the table and keeping up with the bills is constant challenge. There’s plenty to go around, but the surplus always ends up in the hands of a privileged few who control the halls of power. Leaders seem to ignore what’s happening across the vast heartland. Taxes get higher and higher and yet the money coming in is headed in the opposite direction. Lots of promises are made, but promises are broken. People are longing for change. Sound familiar? This is the world of Palestine into which Jesus was born. But Mary is making the best of it. She is, after all, to be married to a man who she hopes will provide for her. She has a plan. But then.. the angel shows up. With confusing news, and interruption.
Mary asks the angel Gabriel- How can this be? This interruption of my plan. What thoughts and fears raced through her head? Like Mary, we cannot reason it, or rationalize it, or grasp how it will be. In the interruptions in our lives- no amount of know-how can make it all clear. Sometimes it is hard to have hope in God’s promises in such times as these. We hear that to this young girl engaged to Joseph come words we now say bring comfort and promise, but for her the angel does not really have very many words. “ Greetings! Rejoice! God has chosen you!”” The Holy Spirit will be with you.” “Nothing is impossible with God.” That’s it.
What was it like for Mary? It is hard to believe that these words were enough. How can these few words be enough to have faith in the promise of the long awaited Messiah, the one who would deliver people from all that holds them captive and weighs them down, to have faith in that same Messiah we await again to complete what has been started?
And I wonder what would it be like if Gabriel came to us with these words, here, now? …. Are these words enough for us? “Rejoice, God has chosen you!” “ The Spirit will be with you” “ Nothing is impossible with God.” Can we trust in God in this time, a time that seems so complex?
Today we’ll hear the choir sing an anthem entitled “Hope for Resolution,” which includes a South African praise hymn sung during the trying times of apartheid, and in these trying times of ours, this side of the cross, but before God’s fulfillment, as we look around our world today, I think we can join in singing that resolution is what we long for.
Meanwhile, can we do as the angel says? For into this world, the angel comes, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” Have you ever noticed that these are the words that are said in Scripture when it is obvious that someone would be terrified? “Yeah, right, don’t be afraid.” Actually, the truest translation is- Stop fearing, stop being afraid, put aside your fears.” Why? Because God is acting even when you can’t see it. Believe. God’s promises will be fulfilled.
The heart of the angel’s message is "Nothing will be impossible with God or for God.” This is the story of faith- a theme continuing throughout the entire gospel story of Christ, and the heart of our hope for today and the world to come. None of God’s words are impossible; none of what has been prophesied and promised will fail to come true. God will do as God has promised- to come again and for us now, to be in our midst through the Spirit. The angel shares words that eventually turn Mary’s fears into hope, in spite of her inability to grasp the game plan or the timetable; words that cause Mary to respond in faith, though I think we can be sure Mary paused.
We are not told she IMMEDIATELY responds, but only that she ultimately accepts in faith what cannot be understood or seen. For Mary, through the Spirit, this means she will be an instrument through which prophecy will live into reality. Through the Spirit, God will use the most unlikely and ordinary person to do the extraordinary. Through the Spirit, God continues to come into our midst, speaking and acting in the interruptions.
How will WE respond?
The interruptions will weren’t easy for Mary, or aren’t for us.
But, as Henri Nouwen writes, “This is the greatest conversion in our lives- To recognize and believe that the many unexpected events are not just disturbing interruptions of our projects, but the way in which God molds our hearts and prepares us for His return. Our greatest temptations are bitterness and boredom. When our good plans are interrupted by poor weather, our well-organized careers by illness or bad luck, our peace by a new war, our desire for a stable government by a constant changing of the guards, our desire for immortality by real death, we are tempted to give in to paralyzing boredom, or to strike back in destructive bitterness.” I would add we are tempted to live in the grip of fear. Perhaps we hear the words, “How can this be?” as “Why me? “
Mary responded to God, by making room, not just in the sense of how her body will change during her pregnancy. First, Mary made room in her heart and mind- for hope, in faith even though it was a plan she could not imagine. She would be tested in ways she could not grasp, or be able to handle alone. But instead being stuck in “why me?” Mary ultimately responded with hope in faith that there is promise hidden in this new event.
So today let’s pause and think of the faith and hope of Mary, and of the promises of God. And ask ourselves- Can we make room for hope? Can we be willing to see promise hidden in new events? To do so, we must be willing to let go of fear and make room for hope in faith.
At the beginning of Advent, the first candle we lit we call the candle of hope. We have since lit the candles of Love and Joy, and now today, Peace. But each week we light first that candle of hope. When we leave today we will step back into a complex, demanding world, with some pretty big issues looming, and big hopes and expectations of how we can fix it all. We may even hope that we can put those things aside as we will focus on the last cards, and the dinners, and the shopping and the wrapping.
But first, especially in this year where many of us have received painful news, unexpected news, challenging news, let’s pause. Pause and see the light of Christ, our promise of hope. Let us not race to extinguish or forget this light.
Let’s make room in our hearts and minds, not for more fear, or questions, or busy-ness, but for hope. Let us live in the faithful expectation of that hope, the hope that was and is and will be.
You see, the paradox of expectation is that those who believe in tomorrow can live a better today, can discover beginnings of new life in the old, and that those who look forward to the returning Lord can discover him already in their midst.
God has kept and will keep promises. The Spirit is with us. Nothing is impossible for God or with God.
Let’s make room in faith for the hope even though we cannot fully see, or understand. The hope that came to us in Christ, the Christ who meets us again this day at the table, the Christ who will come again.