Tag Archives: saints

Isn’t Life Peculiar?

8 Nov

 

Okay. I’ll be straight up with you, dear reader. I actually wrote this a few years ago but it’s so appropriate for me this time of year that I’m posting it as a blog entry.  This is a sermon I first wrote in seminary and have delivered some variation of several times. It will probably remain one of my favorite sermons as it keeps working it’s way into my life and personal theology more and more. It’s been said that every preacher basically preaches the same sermon meaning that they tend to dwell within a particular place theologically more than the same wording, though some are guilty of that too.

 

Please note that it was written in the Fall, hence some of the early references in the beginning and it is enacted a bit. I sometimes show some pics I made to go along with it if a projector is convenient, sing in one section, and so on and so forth. Point being, the spoken word can lose something of it’s punch when reduced to written words. All the same, I hope the reader enjoys and may gain something from it too.

Ecclesiastes 12.1-8 New Revised Standard Version – verse 8 is altered to reflect personal preference in translation :

1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth,

Before the days of trouble come,

And the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”;

2 Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain;

3 In the day when the guards of the house tremble,

And the strong men are bent,

And the women who grind cease working because they are few,

And those who look through the windows see dimly;

4 When the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low,

And one rises up at the sound of a bird,

And all the daughters of song are brought low;

5 When one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road;

The almond tree blossoms,

The grasshopper drags itself along

And desire fails;

Because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets;

6 Before the silver cord is snapped,

And the golden bowl is broken,

And the pitcher is broken at the fountain,

And the wheel broken at the cistern,

7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.

8 Absurdity of absurdities, says Qohelet; all is absurdity.

Isn’t Life Peculiar?

It’s that time of year again when calendars begin to show up at stores and mall kiosks inviting us to mark our days and plan our futures while showing what our interests are– be it kittens, classic Far Side comics, Van Gogh paintings, or the Sierra Club – you’re all but guaranteed to find a big, beautiful picture calendar that will serve as both self revealing eye candy and a convenient way to tell what date next Friday is. I find myself slowing down at these stands to look for a new calendar of the inspirational, devotional sort. You know – the kind that usually has photos of beautiful landscapes with a moving line of scripture. Something like a pristine mountain range and part of Psalm 8, “O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Or maybe a field of flowers with Matthew 12.27, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” You’ve seen these or had one, haven’t you? It may even be a standard gift for pastors, because I seem to get one for Christmas almost every year.

But I’m looking for one based on Ecclesiastes this year. Problem is, the really juicy lines from that book don’t ever seem to make the cut with calendar designers. Maybe it’s not considered as inspiring enough or the verses just don’t go along with pictures of cute kittens very well. I may just have to make my own. How about a photo of a nice sunset with 2:11,  “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Aaaah. Doesn’t that make you want to hit the ground running in the morning? A peaceful graveyard or just a blank page with 4:2-3“And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”  Maybe something with a bit more hope? How about 9:4? It’s one of my favorites. “But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” It would go great with a picture of a scrappy little Jack Russell terrier, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the high point of the calendar would have to be the finale of the whole book, Chapter 12, verses 1-8.  It’s very poetic and conjures up some moving imagery. We could have a calendar of just this passage. Begin with a picture of some young folks hanging out but there’s a dark, brooding storm coming with verses 1 and 2 – “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”–before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain”. Well it began inspiringly. Let’s turn the page.

This page describes an estate falling apart. The servants are trembly and tired. The windows are dingy and cracked. It’s the kind of place with creaky doors and groaning floors. Imagine an old, decaying home with an old, decaying butler at the entrance like we may see in an old mystery movie. But Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, is thought to be painting a picture of the body’s estate in old age and all that often comes with it: weakness, blindness, deafness, toothlessness, fearfulness, tiredness, impotence, grayness. And you don’t have to be prophetic to know what’s next in line. I bet you can come up with your own picture for that page – a return for all to an eternal home and a funeral procession to see you off. Turn the page. Objects of light and beauty are ruined. The means of drawing water from the well, the stuff of life, has an “out of order” sign on it. The dust from which we’re made returns to the earth and the breath of God goes back to God who gave it to begin with. And Qohelet ends his book on the same note that he began the whole book with – life is absurd.

The reason this isn’t a calendar is it wouldn’t sell too well. Qohelet may be a bit too lacking in sentiment for most people.  I’d buy it though, but I have an unusual viewpoint and so did Qohelet. The world he lived in seemed out of whack.  In the centuries leading up to his life, the Hebrew people had been conquered and shuffled around over the years from their homes in Israel to Assyria, then Babylon, and then back again – under the thumb of different rulers. Finally under Persian rule, some returned to Jerusalem but it wasn’t the same. There hadn’t been an Israelite King in a few hundred years and the good ‘ol days of God’s favor were a distant dream from the past in the bad ‘ol days of the present.

Qohelet may have been back in Jerusalem with his people, but they still answered to a foreign power from a distant land that gave gifts without obvious rhyme or reason. And so God seemed distant and life didn’t have much rhyme or reason either.  The wisdom of yesteryear didn’t seem to fit this time and place. Follow the wisdom of proverbs all you want, but they’re no guarantee of health or wealth in these crazy days. Take comfort in Job who admits that life is hard, but don’t leave the light on for God, because he hasn’t shown up in a while.  Qohelet is often accused of being a pessimist, but I think he’s just taking a long, hard look at life as it is and calls it like he sees it. If we’re willing to take a hard look at life now, it doesn’t seem all that different. There’s truth to his statement, “there’s nothing new under the sun”. For him and us, life can seem rhymeless and reasonless, but Qohelet never sees it as Godless, and I hope you don’t either.

There isn’t a lack of faith in his words. God gives the gift of life and the gift returns to God. God is mysterious. And if we’re to be as honest as Qohelet is – life rarely makes perfect sense. It may even seem absurd, like a divine comedy.  Injustice is out there. Nothing’s quite fair and life flickers by like a movie reel. But in spite of all that, God is not missing in action. I see his action all the time.

I have an unusual job of hospice chaplain. When people find that out, they often give one of two reactions. Either their condolences for having such a job or some sort of reverence, neither of which I deserve. It’s not a sad job. I found the tedium of factory work far more depressing. And it’s not a “Hallmark” movie either. There’s never any soft, mood lighting with a poignant soundtrack to swell with the impassioned final words of a suspiciously attractive patient’s last breath.  Working with hospice is more a shovel and grit job helping people with the hard work of living as they’re dying. The blessing is that I sometimes find myself near what the Irish call “thin places”.  Those moments in which the veil between here and there is thinner and we almost get a glimpse of what lies beyond mortal sight. When you are part of the birth of a child, and you laugh and cry at the same time because neither can quite express the joy of witnessing life come kicking and screaming into the world – that’s a thin place many of us have been to. There’s another thin place I’ve often been to as well. It’s when the same thing happens in reverse and someone long loved slips off behind the veil that separates our world from what lies beyond.

In the summer of 2007, I experienced one of those moments. John had come onto hospice care because cancerous tumors were spreading throughout his body and destroying it from the inside out. He and I had known each other for some time. We’d graduated high school together. Lived in the same town most of our lives. Had been married to our wives for about the same amount of time and had daughters nearly the same age. It seemed so absurd and unfair to be from such similar backgrounds with such similar lives and such vastly different circumstances. At the end of the day, I went home to do whatever I wanted and John lay in the same bed staring at the same room, almost able to count the number of words, respirations, and touches he had left.

The day of John’s last breath, I was called in the twilight of dawn to come out. He’d died early in the morn and his family needed prayer. When I walked into the room where John’s body was, still warm but perfectly still, surrounded by about three dozen grieving souls, it was twilight in there too. A gray and colorless people in a gray and colorless room that death’s shadow had shooed all feelings of life from.

I led them in a prayer and tried to make sense of the moment in my own mind. John had done things right. He’d worked hard and been a good husband and father. It seemed absolutely ridiculous that this young, vital man should die while we looked on and lived on. In that imaginary, cosmic calculator we sometimes tally our lives up on, he’d lived no worse than me and I’d certainly done no better. As we sat there after saying ‘amen’, there was that deep silence you know of if you’ve been there. Just a sniffle or soft crying here and there to puncuate profound quietness. Sometimes, there just aren’t words for when the reality of the grief hits home.

In that gray, still silence, someone’s cell phone went off and it wasn’t a typical ring. It was a song. It began very softly, “I’m gonna whoop your ass.” (sung slowly and soulfully) A few heads cocked and then a few more because it grew louder each time until it was impossible to ignore, “I’m gonna whoop your ass!” (still sung soulfully but loudly) louder and louder each time repeating this ridiculous, funny phrase over and over as the phone’s owner finally moved across the crowded room with people moving out of her path because her considerable girth called for a considerable passage.

In that absurd moment with that unlikely song going on and on, louder and louder, something magnificent happened as the people did what you may be doing. They laughed; smiled. In that moment, the pall of death was lifted by laughter and life and light refilled the room. It was as though God gave another gift. This reminder that life may be topsy-turvy, even hurt like hell sometimes, but it is still LIFE and a gift from the source of life. “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” Qohelet tells us, as though to say ‘remember the giver of life’. Cherish the giver by cherishing the gift. How can we live in such a way? Qohelet tells us. Remember. Be mindful. Place this mysterious being we call God at the center of your life. Pray. Allow the Word to weave into the fabric of your heart, mind, and soul. We have such a beautiful gift! The gift of life always returns to the source of life, God. I think one of the many things Qohelet teaches is don’t waste it and return to God dead on arrival because you forgot to love it anymore.

We need to hear that because too many of us die before we ever come close to breathing our last. We can become caught up in distractions that keep us from truly being alive. Worrying about our toy collections or taking care of “numero uno” or allowing the pains of life to whither the heart long before it stops beating. I’m sure you’ve witnessed some lifeless living and don’t need me to fill in that blank.

I recently cleaned out an old lock box and found an unexpected prize, this old Zippo lighter. I looked closely and beneath the scuffs and scrapes, is my grandmother’s name, “Dorothy” on one side and “Happy 39th” on the other. It was an anniversary gift from my Granddad. Grandma died after a long, tough life. She had the emotional scars that came from grieving the deaths of her life companion and both their sons. She had the scrapes and scuffs that living through the ups and downs of life leave. This old, beat up Zippo reminds me of her because of that. It also still lights. (A strike of the wheel and a flame) That reminds me of her too. It reminds me of her tenacity to keep living fiercely with hope, love, and faith despite life’s tragedies. Sometimes all the more sweetly, because of that bitter awareness that life is like Hebel – the Hebrew word for vapor, smoke, breath, and absurdity that we find so often in Ecclesiastes. Hebel is a word that beautifully conveys how fragile and beautiful life is and how it can go away from our sight and grasp anytime. The moment we’re alive is this moment. Look. Here comes a moment. Here it is. Oh. Now it’s gone.(the lighter is closed, extinguishing the light) Can’t relive it, rewind it, or even Tivo it.  We can’t hold onto breath or smoke. It flows where it will, doesn’t it and our joy is connected to our sorrow. Kahlil Gibran wrote,“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?” I think there’s a truth in that.

I carry this Zippo with me now. It helps me to remember- not just her and many of the other souls who have touched my life, but to remember God who created and touches all our lives.  It’s not the only way I remember, but one of the ways. How do you remember your creator? How do you live and breathe with joy and thanksgiving, in the face of life’s terribly wonderful beauty? Remember your creator before you grow old.

Maybe I’ll quit wasting my time looking for that new calendar. There’s more beauty in every moment of this roller coaster called life than any big glossy picture can freeze in time or place. Maybe I’ll listen to Scripture more closely too. Let’s start with St. Matthew who wrote, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  Next Friday will come in due time. I want to focus on this moment. This moment. How about you?

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Confessions of a Church Junkie

7 Nov

Iona Abbey

I have a minor confession to make. I’m a church junkie. I love churches and will take my fix almost anyway I can get it. I love visiting the spaces that people gather in for worship and have visited churches that ranged from a rustic, one room chapel in rural farmland and open spaces in the outdoors to monumental cathedrals and quite a range of varieties in between. Whenever I visit a place through which a large number of people visit or travel such as an airport, hospital, or national park I make a point of visiting the chapel. Sometimes I just take a look and note its uniqueness. Sometimes, I sit for a moment of silence and prayer.

The Painted Church near Captain Cook, HI

I think part of why I’m drawn to these places is a desire to find what the Celts called ‘thin places’. It was or is their description of places where one has a sense that the veil between this visible world and what lies beyond our sight is somehow thinner and we just might get a glimpse of the divine that is clearer than normal or at least better than what one may feel in a crowded mall on a Saturday.

Northumbria Chapel

Perhaps you’ve felt that too at a particular place or moment. It might have been in an ancient sanctuary in which there was a sense of the many souls who’d processed down those aisles over the years or maybe it had nothing at all to do with a structure but was felt in the witnessing of a sunset over the Pacific ocean or in the birth of your child. It can vary for each of us and I’ve felt a fluttering and lifting of my heart in those moments too. But for whatever reason, one of my go to places is a church – not that they all feel like holy ground, but the ones that do help make up for the ones that don’t so I keep visiting them when I have the chance.

A couple years ago, I went to Scotland with a group of seminary students to explore what is called Celtic Christianity and to find a thin place or two. While there, a lovely woman named Jane who was hosting myself and a fellow visitor at her flat in Glasgow took us to her church. I don’t recall its name or even the denomination it belonged to but I can remember what it looked like as clearly as if I’d been there last week. It was an old church by American standards, nicely worn in, and built in the Gothic style so popular in Scotland a couple or three centuries ago. After the worship service which was a story in itself to be shared another time, I chatted with a few of the locals about their church. One of them let me know that they’d recently finished a renovation and pointed out some of the structural elements. What captured my attention the most were the relief sculptures of faces looking down upon us from above the columns. This is a common sight in churches from the middle ages and these sculptures often represented Saints (with a big ‘S’ versus us common, garden variety saints with a little ‘s’) and were sometimes modeled after the faces of patrons of a given church in honor of their sponsorship in the building of that church.

The part of this informal lesson was the information that several of the newly carved faces were not replications of what had been there before, but were based on the faces of current members of the church. If one looked closely, telltale signs in modern eyeglasses and contemporary haircuts could be made out in the stone faces of contemporary folks mixing it up with traditional saints of centuries past. I liked that and learned that this was not a unique practice for artisans. I recently read of a church on the east coast with a similar story. A painter was hired to create new frescoes and looking for models, he chose those he knew, which is only natural. His pregnant wife became the model for the expectant virgin Mary and a local waitress was her face. The priest stood in for a servant at the Last Supper. There is a church in downtown Los Angeles called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that is filled with tapestries containing the likenesses of 135 saints. The funny thing is, they’re all based on local people who worked nearby in coffee shops, businesses, or were simply in the neighborhood at the right time and asked to step in be a model. People just like you and me being the models of saints adorning the walls of churches for anyone who wanders in to see and hopefully be inspired by. Go figure.

Some of these people were interviewed about their experience in this unexpected job of saint model and many responded that there was something about learning of who they were impersonating  and behaving like for a moment that made them want to act like the saint they were modeling. Perhaps they were inspired. Maybe they felt like they stood in a thin place for a moment. Maybe their lives became more lively. What I like about this all though is the reminder that inspiration, mentoring, and guidance is not just in the ancient tales of people who walked the earth long before we were ever thought of. It’s also found in those who share the same space with us.

As I write this, it is the evening of All Saints Sunday. It’s a day set aside in the Christian calendar to remember the saints in our lives – those whose lives have touched our lives and gone onto whatever lies beyond the veil of mortal vision. We remember them today especially as gifts of life from the source of life. There is another sort of sanctuary than those made of stone, concrete, steel, and wood. Remember, the church is about more than the building and the steeple – it’s really about the people.

There is a sanctuary within each of us called the heart. Of course, I’m not referring to that amazing, biological blood pump in your chest but the metaphysical place that enshrines our loves, dreams, hopes, and the subject(s) of our worship.

If you can envision such a place as a building. A building set aside from all other structures to focus on love, dreams, hope, and worship. Something like a church, chapel, synagogue, temple, mosque, or shrine. A sanctuary if you will in which all that you hold sacred is kept. Memories live there. Dreams are birthed there. Hopes are kindled there. Love is felt there. Sometimes, lesser things can invade too, but not today. What does the sanctuary of your heart look like? How is it shaped and built? What is adorned there? What is holy there? As you look about, do you see artwork? Perhaps the faces of those who’ve shaped your life into what it is through their example of their lives are looking down from a tapestry or sculpture or the frescoes on the ceiling. Who are they? Who are the saints that touched your life? Who lives on in the sacred space of your heart long after they’ve passed beyond your grasp?

That’s what today is about. The lives of those souls who helped in the building of our internal sanctuaries. Remember them. Love them. Look forward to the moment when we shall all be together again. And pick up your tools and help build the sanctuaries of others too. May our lives be worthy of adorning the hearts of those who follow our lives.