Friday, October 30, 2009

Train up a Child

Lutheran Chick #1
"Train up a child in the way (s)he should go: and when (s)he is old, (s)he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6
"Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." Ephesians 6:4

Somehow these two passages do and and do not go together. I have yet to master how to guide a teenager without some amount of angry eye-rolling, hands on hips, stomping off. Training here is "dedication, initiation and discipline." Sounds about right, though a little more complicated on the ground. Yet, today as I sit here, it is as the mother of a daughter who tonight we will walk across the football field. As her parents we will join her for a senior night dinner and someone will take the fleeting snapshot of the three of us, her in her band uniform. Later when they call our names we will take that stroll across the grass for the last home game of the year and of her high school career. Probably good emotional practice for others walks that take her one more step beyond our house,commencements and possibly marriage. But let's not get too far ahead.

Last night, we electronically shipped off the college application complete with the essay she groused about writing. I did not helicopter. It needs to be her on that page, not me. Secretly I was fretting- what will it look like? How much revision might it need? How would that process go? Yet after all of the agonizing about what to share, she wrote a true picture of herself- someone who has struggled to come into her own, shy, unsure, and though not said, known to me- a person with three disabilities.

She wrote about life changing experiences that have changed her for the better and made her who she is- a person who has matured into a young adult ready to take on the world. (her words)
She wrote about how her love of music which found its home in Lutheran Summer Music- an environment where life became easier because her talent has been nurtured-that this has made her more confident and willing to take risks. (her words)
She talked about becoming comfortable with being a person who is still shy and not a social butterfly, but not a wallflower. And about how as the first high school intern in the social work department of a very large retirement community, she has had experiences that have confirmed her interest in social work- work that she loves.

When she started middle school- the great melting pot, she wondered how she would sort it all out and my advice was- "remember who you are." Remember who you have been trained to be- our empathetic, creative daughter has indeed lived this out so far. But now we can see that she is that much farther on the way- a way of living that has been nurtured and shaped by far more than just her parents. In the end, the shaping has been not so much about being polite or caring, but much more about helping her to see some of God's gifts and open them up- to find those things that make you stand a little taller and that bring you joy in the sharing.

Her journey on the way continues, but for today- this bittersweet day- where she is headed off to a Rotary meeting after early dismissal to be honored as an officer of the Interact Club, then off to her internship, then home to get ready for the big night-today I can see that the road thus far has been, like her birth into our lives, a gift. And a chance for each of us as children of God to train each other.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Psalm 126- God’s Restoration Business

Eighteen years ago, an event was on the horizon. Something longed for with eagerness; the source of tears of joy and expectancy as- Michael and I learned we were expecting our first child-an answer to prayer; the long awaited moment for our parents- the first grandchild. As months passed you can probably imagine the energy invested preparing for "the Big Event." I just couldn't wait for "it" to happen, for the promise to be fulfilled. When the first contractions started, like every other first- timer, I reminded myself NOT to go the hospital at the first twinge, but to visualize the culmination of events. The waiting was almost unbearable.
Hours later we actually arrived at the hospital. The twinges weren't so slight anymore. In the midst of the pain the promise seemed more elusive than ever. It wasn't fun, it was burdensome. Talk of neatly arranged outfits and color coordinated nursery was replaced by thoughts that I would never survive the excruciating pain, and the sincere belief I was about to throw up. The reality of this time was more struggle than I bargained for. It was neither glamorous nor instantaneous. I tried looking back on the joy. I tried to see forward to the fulfillment. It was harder and harder to remember that the question was not "IF" I would have a baby, but "WHEN" - stuck in the weariness of "How long?" I guess that's why it is called "labor." We came to see that the announcement and the delivery are part of something more. Raising children brings joy and labor, weeping and rejoicing, energy and weariness in something much bigger and longer- Catherine's birth was not only an event but part of a pilgrimage- a journey that would change me forever and continues to do so.

After delivering a baby one breathes a sigh of relief, placing the labor pain into distant recesses of the mind, replacing it with that harvest of joy. Until the next moment of labor, or when another fellow laborer has a story to share that reconnects that part of us. It's perhaps a universal human quality that in recalling historical journeys, we minimize the reality of the process. The farther away we move from events in time, the more likely we are to focus only on the bright line events, setting aside all of the tension or the wrestling that accompanied its emergence. This is part of the same sentiment of the people of Israel, who've been brought back from the exile in Babylon.

Though the opening of the psalm is a rejoicing for past action of God, this is not a song of "mission accomplished." There has been laughter and joy, but one can believe that the wonderment of "pinch me I must be dreaming" was the announcement of what is not yet a done deal. To read otherwise would belie the reality of what we hear from Ezra and Nehemiah. The Israelites have been brought by God's activity out of exile to be restored, but they don't immediately experience the expected or hoped for. "Restoration" turns out to be a work in progress. The "pardon our mess under construction" sign is still there. Fields are in ruin, buildings toppled, and not a thing is growing in the parched, scarred and seemingly barren land. Work on the city and the relationship is incomplete. How can we sing this song of celebratory joy in the midst of the bleakness of the situation on the ground?

After praising God's great things, the song shifts to "Restore our fortunes, Lord." "Do it again"- Not words of triumph, but of a hopeful community in distress-seeking God's continued action to end the crying and bring forth the joy. The Israelites call to God to restore again- not simply the physical place of Jerusalem, but to restore Zion. Zion represented that longed for place- that city on the hill-the perfect place where their God dwelled with them. "Zion" symbolizes not just a place but a sense of cosmic perfection- that "all is right with the world." Longing for Zion had sustained them in exile, like the photograph of a lover kept close by. Longing for Zion allows the people to forget a lot of the in-between moments.

The rebuilding of Zion has begun for which one can rejoice! But ultimately, rebuilding Zion is about more than replacing a few stones and plowing a few fields. Restoration is assured, but it's hardly an overnight project, but a process with a completion date far into the future-an ongoing pilgrimage in hope.

I suggest we contemplate being on that pilgrimage, individually and collectively. With a much longer timeline than we would prefer or can even perhaps grasp, living between moments of God acting and the completion of the fullness of it all, somewhere after the hope of beginning, laboring toward a point seemingly beyond our horizon. "Bring back the golden days" we may say as perhaps we too long for this and search the spectrum of time for THE MOMENT when it all seemed perfect- in our lives, our church, or our world. Where is our Zion? While I'm not suggesting we wallow in negativity, I suggest that when we entirely collapse our history into only bright and happy moments, we create disillusionment over our memory of "what was" and impatience that can erode faith in the present and for the future.

Even within Lutheran history, as we approach Reformation Sunday, perhaps it's easy to forget that the nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg was not in itself an all-encompassing and completed life-altering event. The genesis of the Lutheran Church was not an overnight creation. We wax eloquently and exuberantly about the Reformation, but overlook the chaos and even violence that occurred as changes took shape.

In truth, over many hundreds of years there was and is an ongoing ripple of living into reform in the church. Not so violent these days, but also not finished- more pilgrimage than destination. Perhaps the Presbyterian Church rightly proclaims "the church reformed, always reforming." Somewhere every day, someone is crying out to God in response to something. Maybe sometimes it is us crying out.

So how can this Psalm sustain our modern day journey? In practice, Psalm 126 was gathered up in a collection of psalms called the "Songs of Ascent"-songs for the faithful to inspire them during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as they ascended to THE sacred place where God dwelled and had been experienced. Pilgrims to Jerusalem in particular, then and now, find a fundamentally life-altering experience, occurring in the midst of a city that's not at all a testament to "all is right with the world." Considered sacred by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it's a city none have been able to claim to "complete" their vision, yet people experience profound reconnecting with God in the midst of such unresolved circumstances.

As we contemplate our own ongoing pilgrimages as people restored by God, living in the "under construction" and in-between time, we experience journeys that take us away from our daily lives, into new places with new perspectives, with chance for renewal and discerning the deeper sense of the sacred in everyday life. Moments where we find ourselves, somewhere past leaving the bon voyage and the edge of town wishes, in the middle of the long time of travel. Uncertainty and challenge await, perseverance is tested. The journey seems an endless time of laboring, weariness and trying to hold on to the vision. We encounter others who challenge our world. We discover what binds us together. We're changed not only by the destination, but the process. Perhaps we begin to not simply wish for that golden moment, but instead see that the good was and is present in the midst of what seems like weariness and labor, mixed with our hope.

Our living is a time of constant restoration, but God's faithfulness allows us to living in hope that the question is not IF but WHEN. This hope sustains our labor and rebuilding -within our world and its cries for justice, peace and sharing the harvest. This hope sustains our own inner seeking of deeper relationship with God- places where we seek restoration for our hurts, injustices, ailments, fears and struggles. And in hope, while we seek, we plant seeds, even when we too experience, literally or figuratively, what it means to plant seeds watered only by own tears, wondering if God can bring any good from it.

We plant seeds in hope because God is in the restoration business, from the time of ancient stories of Sarah and Abraham, Joseph and his family, the Exodus people to the greatest restoration story- of the God of the resurrection. The story of the ancient pilgrims is ours as our hope springs from a God who speaks abundance out of that nothingness. We experience the modern day gushing springs of the Negev, where though it is an arid desert that floods only occasionally, when it does, the rains bring life and seem to defy nature. Reaping with joy and surprise comes to pass. Though the waters will dry up again until the next time, there will BE the next not-so-predictable time. We know it will happen even though we don't know when. We can wait expectantly.

By putting history in its proper perspective, we can more fully appreciate the joy of those springs, and can begin to imagine the holy not just in one perfectly special sacred space, or moment, but in the many small sacred moments of life, little restorations interspersed on the pilgrimage alongside those dry spells. We can see our pilgrimage, like others is not just about the destination, but a journey that starts long before and continues long after any single event seems reached. Events, anecdotes, conversations, people and places on the way become new sources of insight, wisdom and ongoing transformation. Our eyes can no longer see the world in the same way, instead connected to a deeper truth and yearning. And in that space, fellow pilgrims, may we join in singing of the hoped for, not as a question of "if" but as a proclamation of eager expectation that the Lord who has done great things has forever altered not just us, but our future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Prayer Before Dying

This week, I was back at the Big City Hospital in Amish Country, working a mere four hours which I still do once a month as a chaplain associate. Sometimes those tiny bits of time involve far more than when one is there for 10 hours, or maybe that is just my experience. I was called by an ER nurse to come to a room where there was a "potentially bad outcome," which means that in all likelihood someone is going to die. While headed there I was called and informed that the patient's wife was now in the waiting area. Separated from her beloved for what I am sure seems like eternity just beyond those doors. He was a pastor for 38 years who could never bring himself to really retire because " when God has called you with gifts, you don't get to give them back," she shared wistfully. In these words echoed words of another dying pastor's wife who once told me the hardest thing to learn was that " I/we would never be first on his mind." Her calling,which we often overlook, was to be the loving wife who moved every three years or so with him. Who loved him and his ministry and who discovered she had gifts she did not even know she had. Most recently the gift of nursing after his earlier stroke. We talked about hard gifts. He had recovered beautifully. Just out of rehab last week, the day before was his first day back at the congregation. And just last night she had asked him if the long rehab journey was worth it. And he had told her that it was, but that if today was his last day that was OK too because whenever God called him home, he was ready.
The next morning, he woke up and came out to her, trying to talk, and collapsed. And here we were- smacked in the face with potentiality which is now reality. Nothing more to do, his life fading away. The living will now more than pieces of paper with print. And if he could still have spoken, perhaps it would have been something like this prayer by a pastor cognizant of his own impending mortality-

A Prayer Before Dying by Carlyle Marney:

If entering now the zenith of my brief arc around and within creation I should enter God’s grand hall tomorrow, called to my account for myself, I should offer this confession and defense if indeed I could do more than call down. But if able to give vocal response at all, I should say this, “Thou knowest, dear Lord of our lives, that for fifty of Thy/my years in ignorance, zest, zeal and sin I lived as if creation and I had no limit. I lived and wanted as if I had forever, without regard for time or wit or strength or need or limit or endurance and as if sleep were a heedless luxury and digestion an automatic process. But Thou, O Lord of real love did snatch my bit and ride me into Thy back pasture and didst rub my nose in my vulnerability and didst split my lungs into acquiescence and didst freeze my colon in grief loss and didst press me into that long depression at the anger I directed against myself. And Thou didst read over my shoulder my diary of that long journey when I did melt before Thee as a mere preacher. Thou didst hear.
Hear now my pitiable defense. In all my sixty years I killed no creature of Thine I did not need for food except for a few rattlesnakes, a turtle or two, two quail I left overlong in my coat and three geese poisoned on bad grain before I shot them in Nebraska, plus one wood duck in Korea. In all my years I consciously battered no child though my own claimed much need to forgive me. And consciously misused no person. Thou knowest my aim to treat no human being as thing, never to hate overlong, to pass no child without catching his or her eye and my innermost wish to love as Thou doest love by seeing no shade of color or class.
And Thou didst long ago hear my cry to let me go from Paducah. Thou knowest my covenant with Elizabeth in our youth and Thou knowest it has been kept better than my covenant with Thee and wilst Thou forgive? Indeed Thou hast.
Hear now my intention with grace as if it were fact. I do and have intended to be responsible in creation by covenant and where I have defaulted do Thou forgive. Forgive Thou my vicarious responsibility for all the defection from Thy purpose of all Thy responsible creatures and accept this my admission of utter dependency on Thy mercy.
Naked I came into the world, how I am dressed at the conclusion makes no difference. A pair of jeans or a Glasgow robe, it makes no difference. Meantime, well I mow, I cut wood for winter, I clean drainage ditches, I preach what is happening and look to see what God will do in the earth. I watch out always for babies and little rabbits in front of my mower and old folks nearby and black snakes worth preserving, and little puppies on the road, and the young-old who stutter and laugh and can’t hear too. The cry of us all, “Come Lord Jesus, come."


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Living Praise- Psalm 8

These last few nights I have been watching the PBS series by filmmaker, Ken Burns about the creation of the National Parks system. It documents the movement that created the parks amidst much controversy and resistance, highlighting some key individuals who have had an almost missionary fervor for setting aside these vast unique spaces in our country. The controversy largely part centered around control- who should control of the land, the resources and the valuable artifacts. The resistance has come from those who want to “cash in” on the timber, the waters, the minerals or the ability to charge others to see the sights. Even after lands were “set aside”, it is probably not surprising that people continued to timber the sequoias, to graze cattle that fouled pristine waters, and more recently to urge lawmakers to permit drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuges because it is a more important purpose for human needs.
The fact that these parks exist at all has been the work of some very devoted, driven men and women who repeatedly use words like “glory, majesty, awe, communion, and divine” to speak of natural wonders. One such man, Charles Sheldon, is credited with creating what we know as Denali National Park and Preserve. Ken Burns speaks of Sheldon as a man with “an amazing life as one of those well-connected rich people at the turn of the 20th century who could therefore, in the best sense of noblesse oblige, get things done.” In essence, Sheldon used his capacity for dominion in ultimately beneficial ways. Burns quotes a striking observation of Sheldon who speaks of feeling “the atomic insignificance of oneself” standing there in front of Mount McKinley. Burns adds- “I've always thought of that. That's exactly right… That you stand…at this massive mountain, the most massive mountain in North America, and you feel your atomic insignificance. And yet that makes you larger, that makes you connected to everyone and everything else…It's just that sense of feeling, both how fragile and short our lives are but also what a glorious web of interconnectedness… it suggests we can participate in.” This is the essence of our psalm for this day.
Psalm 8 has a slightly different context. It was created for night time worship, when at the end of a day when one can reflect on all the hours have encompassed, where as darkness has enveloped the world, one could imagine the beauty of the stars glimmering remind the psalmist there is still a light that shines. The psalmist marvels at the night sky, like my younger daughter, Alexandra and I like to do. Go out in the backyard and gaze at the stars and planets, maybe see a comet, or a shooting star. If we go a mile further down the road, beyond the last of the light pollution, the last of man’s efforts to re-create habitat, we can see even more and can join in the vision of a God traced the pattern of the stars with a fingertip. On a clear night, in the quiet of fields, we feel like miniscule specks compared to the cosmos. James Luther Mays, writes that “The comparison between ourselves and all the rest of reality… when noticed, brings with it an overwhelming sense of insignificance and displacement. Now we understand that the universe is not measured to the smallest degree by the reach of our sight, nor the march of time by the length of our lives. Astronomers and their planetariums show us the miniscule proportions of our solar system. Beyond our cosmos, the universe stretches from galaxy to galaxy through unlimited void until space curves back on itself.” Then Mays puts our human life span into perspective, much like our psalmist-“Geologists work out cosmic calendars, informing us that if the measurable course of earth's career were reduced to a year, the history of our civilization would occupy only the last minute of that year.” Awesome and fragile come together.

It is at this moment that the center of the psalm, verse 4, breathlessly blurts out- “What is humanity that God should be mindful, should pay attention and care for us?” Not only to care for us, but to place us in unique privilege- a little below God. But we are not God, and we are still placed within the community of creation, not separate. So how is it that we so often get this equation all wrong?
Somehow we struggle, since the time of the creation in Genesis which Psalm 8 reflects, to the present. We struggle with accepting our place in it all. In the mid 1500’s, furiously contested debate erupted over what was the center of the solar system, the Earth or the Sun? Nicolaus Copernicus, was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, a fancy way of saying that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe. His work, entitled On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was published in 1543 just before his death, and is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution. In spite of brilliant work, in 1616, the Roman Catholic church issued a decree suspending distribution of Copernicus’ work until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the doctrine that the Earth moves and the Sun doesn't must be "false.” We must be the center. We can often fall into the trap of believing that we are the center of the universe even now.
This highlights disparity between God’s vision of humanity and the reality of humanity. We as humans are gifted in a way that the rest of creation is not with unique intellectual capacity-a source of joy and tension. We are the species that creates its own habitat, has mastered tools, has complex emotional and rational capacity. These abilities that we are given create our ability to have dominion. But these powers are intended by God, not exclusively for ourselves, but as representatives of the sovereign Lord for all- as stand-in rulers whose vocation and role are intended to reflect, not ourselves, but our God. And dominion has responsibility.
The National Parks movement exemplifies the tension between thinking that all of creation is here “just for us” and thinking that all of creation looks to us to maintain order and not chaos in community. Psalm 8 echoes the creation story in Chapter 1 of Genesis, where in verses 26-30, after God has spoken and created an ordered and arranged world out of chaos, the pinnacle has been to create and designate humanity to maintain this order. Created in the image of God- created to praise God. And we are designated to demonstrate the same love and care as God. Created not just speak praise, but to live praise.
Though the entire Book of the Psalms in Hebrew means “praises”, Psalm 8 is specifically a praise psalm, which lifts up both aspects of rejoicing but also hints that praise can be a two edged sword. For it asks what kind of reign, what kind of praise do we enact in the midst of God’s work and world? If we praise God’s majesty but do so at the expense of others and of creation, is this really glorification of our God? Patrick Miller, in his book, They Cried to the Lord, suggests, “ One cannot exalt the power and consistent grace of God that lifts up the weak and lowly, the afflicted and the needy, and then put down those same weak and afflicted…Praise that is a lie becomes an act of self-indictment.” When we do this, we have turned dominion into domination.
It is therefore sheer grace that we are spared from ourselves by a God who continually pays attention to and cares for us anyway even now. And it is I suggest not only God’s intention, but God’s gift to us that we are created into community. For it is in community that we can appreciate that praise and thanksgiving come out of relationship with God and our world, as does awareness of one’s shortcomings and fragility. Many of the leaders of the Park movement were moved to tears in speaking of the awareness of the divine in times of need in the midst of this overwhelming creation- where in silence and solitude, they found a healing voice, an answer to prayer, a re-connection to order out of the chaos of their lives. But that was not the end of their experience. What happened next was their unstoppable desire to share this praise and thanksgiving and to urge others to join in this sense of joy and wonder. This created a ripple effect as the sentiments and awareness spread, opening others up to that unique human quality of the ability to appreciate both awesomeness and fragility and praise. And this is ultimately the language of the psalmist- a reminder of the connection of human existence and praise of God through all things.
In our Bible study we have discussed trying to hear the words of the psalm as though they are your prayer, and then to try to hear them as though they are the words of another. It doesn’t take a natural wonder to give us a reason to praise God. When we experience a healing moment, an unexpected but welcome event, and answer to prayer, or order out of the chaos of our own days, we find cause for praise. When someone else is need of the same in their lives, we can give praise by inviting and sharing of the God at work in our world. We can live praise in the ways we care for others and for creation. In all of our communities, we can carry out praise, not just by ourselves, but in proclaiming to others in words and deeds what we just cannot keep to ourselves- How majestic is your name, O Lord!