Watch and Hope

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

I started thinking about the idea of a Sabbatical experience two years ago.  I began the work of planning it about 11 months ago.  I got really serious about six months ago, and designed our route, signed the contracts for our RV and began to book campsites.  One of the interesting features about our travel schedule is that it requires us to cross the Continental Divide at least two times. A continental divide is a line of demarcation indicating where water will flow across a continent – it’s a division where the precipitation that falls on one side of the line winds up in one ocean (say, the Pacific Ocean) or another (say, the Atlantic Ocean).  For most of the United States, that divide runs along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.

Which means that back in November when I was planning this route, I drew up a route that would have us ascending the mountains at least twice as we began and will end this sojourn in Salt Lake City, Utah.  I consulted all the best guides; I did my research, and the itinerary I drew up called for us to leave the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the morning of June 26 and drive up and over the crest of the divide and exit the western gate of the park. It made sense.  It was a lot of driving to get from the eastern gate of the Rocky Mountains to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah in one day, but it was only about 300 miles.  I could do it.

Except for the fact that it snowed like crazy in the Rocky Mountains the weekend prior to our arrival. We showed up at the east gate and were informed that the Trail Ridge Road – the only road connecting east and west in the park – was impassable due to a heavy snow accumulation.  This route, rising to 12,183 feet (3713 meters), is the highest continuous paved highway in the USA.

The Trail Ridge Road as it looked on days 1 and 2 of our Rocky Mountain Adventure…

Well, doesn’t that just beat all?  I’m in the tail end of a well-planned and meticulously organized travel plan, and the ONE ROAD I absolutely need is closed.  I stood in line at the Park Ranger’s desk and asked about the likelihood of the road opening up in time for me to make the rest of my journey.  Believe it or not, he seemed unimpressed with my meticulous planning.  Even after I explained that I was The Reverend Dave Carver and I had a tight program to keep, he pretty much said, “Well, let’s keep your eyes on the sign boards and hope.”

All of my plans for this trip had boiled down to whether the weather would clear and the crews would be able to dig out the road.  There was nothing I could do but to watch and hope.

As I did, I thought about a dear friend of mine who is engaged in the fight of her life with a deadly illness. She could tell me something about having plans interrupted by icy blasts and drifts that make progress seem unattainable.  I thought about another friend, whose dreams for the future seemed to disappear when her child died.  I remembered my own condition in the months leading up to this journey – some of the situations over which I have felt powerless to change and yet over which I worried a great deal.  As I considered the foolishness of my complaining about the weather, I was driven to prayer for those whose only options all day are to watch, and hope, and pray.

It was not the spiritual discipline I’d planned for myself this week of Sabbatical, but it was an important and holy work nonetheless.  We stayed in the area of the park that was accessible to us, and then less than 24 hours before I “needed it”, the road was indeed opened.  As silly as that may sound, it gave me hope for those situations that I named above.  I want to sing to my friends, “There is a way through!”  It may seem impassible or impossible now, but sometimes watching and hoping and praying lead us to a new experience of, and gratitude for, the journey.

Some of the drifts seemed to be fifteen feet high – on June 26th!!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not equating my ability to drive a powerful vehicle on a mountain road with someone else’s battle with a deadly illness or the depths of grief.  I’m saying that my circumstances led me to a deeper awareness of the situations in which my friends have found themselves, and for that I’m most grateful.

I made it to the top of the Rockies this morning – it was hard to breathe, and the snow was deep.  As we wandered into a section of tundra atop the mountain, I recalled a poem that has meant a great deal to me in times where I wondered whether my plans were all shot to hell.  It’s called “Resurrection”, and it’s written by Mary Ann Bernard.  It reads as follows:

Long, long, long ago;
Way before this winter’s snow
First fell upon these weathered fields;
I used to sit and watch and feel
And dream of how the spring would be,
When through the winter’s stormy sea
She’d raise her green and growing head,
Her warmth would resurrect the dead.

Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow.  The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and far within.

Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold.  I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.

Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and from the dark, cold, grime
A flower comes.  It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins.

Flowers of many types were already bursting through the tundra atop the mountains…

Most of you are reading this in the summertime.  I invite you to think about those of your friends who are snowed under today, and find a way to watch, hope, and pray for them.

 

I’m not the only one who felt good about making it to the top of the Continental Divide today!

Mule Deer are plentiful in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

We saw a number of moose today, including this cow and calf.

The pika is a small mammal about the size of a large chipmunk – it’s called “the farmer of the tundra” for its habit of storing seeds under rocks.

Adams Falls, on the west side of the park.

At Bear Lake, on the eastern side.

Wilson’s Warbler

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

After we had made it over the mountains and down the other side, there was still one threat to my plans: this five foot Prairie Rattlesnake. Now, to be fair, I had a 4,000 pound vehicle, and all he had was a really snazzy rattle and a little venom. We called it a draw and let each other pass…

An Elegy For The World

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, Amen.

Lament Means Hearing, Telling, and Living With the Truth

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On March 20, we explored some of the history behind the compositions as well as the poem contained in Lamentations 2 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  We are trying to learn that.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:

As we re-enter the world of Lamentations, let me invite you to recall some of what we said last week about this beautiful little book.

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, 1867

First, we need to recall that this “book” is actually a pamphlet of five complete poems that came out of the experience of those who survived the worst day ever in 6thcentury BC Judah.

In 586 BCE Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar completed his siege and conquest of Jerusalem, laying waste the town, destroying the temple, and taking captive the educated elite of the nation.

Not just a city, but a culture and a people lay in ruins.  People do not know how they will survive in the face of the loss, not just of property and life, but of meaning and purpose and, in a very real way, history itself.

You may recall that the “book” of Lamentations is actually a series of five carefully constructed poems.  Each of the chapters in our English Bibles contains one of the five poems of Lamentations. Like Lamentations 1, chapter 2 is an acrostic poem – that is to say, it follows a pattern based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The first letter of verse one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – aleph.  The first letter of verse two is the second letter: beth.  Likewise, the first letter of verse three is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel.

If you were here last week you’ll recall that Lamentations 1 was divided into two parts.  It began with a description of Jerusalem as a woman – a “fallen” woman, if you will – someone who was vulnerable but whose underpinnings had been pulled out from beneath her.  She has been violated by, or at least abandoned by those who should have who promised to protect and comfort her. About halfway through the chapter, though, the voice of the poem changes from being adescriptionof suffering to being a personal narrationof suffering.  Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to notice the condition of the city – not because anyone expected God to fix it, but rather so that God will not forget to punish anyone else who may have been guilty of the same things that Jerusalem did. It’s kind of like when you punish one child, and while that child does not deny the wrongdoing, the child is eager for you to mete out the same punishment to the other kids.

Let us now turn our attention to the poem in chapter 2.  Listen first to the Word as found in verses 1 – 10:

1 Oh, no!
In anger, my Lord put Daughter Zion under a cloud;
he threw Israel’s glory from heaven down to earth.
On that day of wrath, he didn’t consider his own footstool.

Showing no compassion, my Lord devoured each of Jacob’s meadows;
in his wrath he tore down the walled cities of Daughter Judah.
The kingdom and its officials, he forced to the ground, shamed.

In his burning rage, he cut off each of Israel’s horns;
right in front of the enemy, he withdrew his strong hand;
he burned against Jacob like a flaming fire that ate up everything nearby.

He bent his bow as an enemy would; his strong hand was poised like an adversary.
He killed every precious thing in sight;
he poured out his wrath like fire on Daughter Zion’s tent.

My Lord has become like an enemy. He devoured Israel;
he devoured all her palaces; he made ruins of her city walls.
In Daughter Judah he multiplied mourning along with more mourning!

He wrecked his own booth like a garden; he destroyed his place for festivals.
The Lord made Zion forget both festival and sabbath;
in his fierce rage, he scorned both monarch and priest.

My Lord rejected his altar, he abandoned his sanctuary;
he handed Zion’s palace walls over to enemies.
They shouted in the Lord’s own house as if it were a festival day.

The Lord planned to destroy Daughter Zion’s wall.
He stretched out a measuring line, didn’t stop himself from devouring.
He made barricades and walls wither—together they wasted away.

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;
her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction!
Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.
They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.
Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

In some ways, the narration here sounds like the beginning of chapter 1. There is an observation provided by an omniscient narrator – someone is describing what has happened.  But note that the tone of this poem is much darker, and much more explicit than the previous work.  In chapter 1, there is the suggestion that although Jerusalem has suffered at the hands of her enemies, fundamental cause for the suffering of God’s people is actually the Lord – God’s very own self.

Here in chapter 2, there is no mere suggestion of that.  It is an outright statement of fact:  The Lord has thrown down, devoured, torn down, cut off, burned, killed… and most personally, perhaps, consider verse 7: the Lord has rejected his own altar; he has abandoned the sanctuary, he has handed over the walls of the palace to the adversary.  There is no defense made for God’s behavior here – in fact, there is only a description.  “This is what happened” (chapter 1); “God did this” (chapter 2). The hearers are not aware of any reason as to why Jerusalem would be receiving this kind of treatment from the Divine hand.

Another similarity to chapter 1 is that the voice changes in the middle of this poem, too.  Just like in the previous chapter, the poem shifts dramatically in the middle.  The pronouns shift, and we once again find ourselves hearing first-person testimony.  Listen:

11 My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered, because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.

12 They say to their mothers, “Where are grain and wine?”
while fainting like the wounded in the city streets,
while their lives are draining away at their own mothers’ breasts.

13 What can I testify about you, Daughter Jerusalem? To what could I compare you?
With what could I equate you? How can I comfort you, young woman Daughter Zion? Your hurt is as vast as the sea. Who can heal you?

In chapter 1, the poet chose the voice of the first person so that we could hear the suffering from the experience of the one who has suffered. Here, however, the first person continues to speak of suffering as though it is happening to someone else. It’s still horrible – but this is not a complaint – it’s a statement about what is being observed.

As I read these verses, and I saw the incredulity in them, I was reminded of the radio news on May 6, 1937 when a WLS broadcaster named Herb Morrison was narrating the momentous arrival of the pride of the German Airfleet, the Hindenburg, to a mooring station in New Jersey.  Just as the blimp arrives, there is a deadly accident and the newsman is overcome.  I’d like to invite you to watch this short clip, but remember that there was no television news at that time – this is Morrison’s audio matched to a film that was taken on the same day.

Did you hear that?  He is a person, narrating what he sees – and he is overcome by it.  In a sense, it’s not happening to him – but consider that phrase that has become a part of our culture: “Oh, the humanity!” He says “I have to stop now – I cannot speak…” He cannot believe his own eyes, and yet he is compelled to describe it.

That is the tone, I believe, of the middle part of chapter 2.  Someone is walking the reader through an experience for which one does not, and should not, have words.  It is horrible.  It is the worst.

But still, there is no clue as to why this is happening.  That comes to us in the next few verses.  Listen:

14 Your prophets gave you worthless and empty visions.
They didn’t reveal your sin so as to prevent your captivity.
Instead, they showed you worthless and incorrect prophecies.

15 All who pass by on the road clap their hands about you;
they whistle, shaking their heads at Daughter Jerusalem:
“Could this be the city called Perfect Beauty, the Joy of All the Earth?”

16 All your enemies open wide their mouths against you;
they whistle, grinding their teeth. They say, “We have devoured!
This is definitely the day we’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen it come to pass.”

17 The Lord did what he had planned. He accomplished the word
that he had commanded long ago. He ripped down, showing no compassion.
He made the enemy rejoice over you; he raised up your adversaries’ horn.

Do you see? The reason for this punishment, according to the theology of Lamentations 2, is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were paying attention to the wrong things.  They listened to the false prophets, and in so doing refused to address – they were unable to address –  their real brokenness.  God, in God’s wisdom, gave the people brokenness – God gave them what they asked for.

Here is something I have wondered in recent days: why is so much of America fascinated with, and incredibly resentful of, people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlan?  I mean, these two celebrities only want what literally everyone else on the planet wants: they want life for their kids to go well.  They want the best for their kids.  Yeah, they bribed college admissions officers to let their kids in, but hey – they just want these young people to be happy, right?  Doesn’t everyone?

And you say, “Sure, Dave – we all want our kids to be happy.  But for crying out loud, they broke the rules. They sought an unfair advantage for their children.  They chose the wrong narrative for their families, Dave.  They listened to false prophets.”

Allegheny County, PA, School District Map

Maybe.  But let me push back on that a little bit. And be aware, friends – I’m talking to me, not just you. When people in the United States choose to buy their own homes, what is one of the key factors in that decision: the school district.  If you want your kids to do well, you scrimp and you save and you get yourself a place out in Robinson, or even better, Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair.  Sure, homes cost a little more there, but that means that the tax base is deeper and that means that the income stream for the schools is more reliable and that means that in addition to better academics, your child will have access to enhanced opportunities like music, athletics, theater and other extra-curriculars. People who canget out to a great school district for their kids do.  But what about the rest of the folks?  The poor? The renters? By and large, the story in every state in the USA is the same: the folks in the city are stuck with failing public schools and in spite of the fact that they are paying property taxes in one way or another, their best options are often some sort of parochial or charter schools.

This is what I mean: right now, half of America is losing their minds because a few wealthy parents are apparently circumventing the rules of our existing social contract.  “Shame, shame, shame!” we cry.

Yet not many of these same people are outraged by a system that fails most of the parents and most of the students most of the time.

What I’m suggesting is that it is not just ancient Jews who have listened to false prophets.  We have had truth-tellers who have brought messages to us about racial reconciliation, or the environment, or the public good and politics – but we’ve disliked and therefore disregarded their messages.  We’ve chosen – dare I say it – we have chosen “fake news” – because it just helps us sleep better with the people that we’ve become.

Well sooner or later, the dam will burst and all hell will break loose. What do we do when that happens?

Lamentations 2 ends with the first real imperative of either poem.  An imperative is an “action” word – a command. Listen:

18 Cry out to my Lord from the heart, you wall of Daughter Zion;
make your tears run down like a flood all day and night.
Don’t relax at all; don’t rest your eyes a moment.

19 Get up and cry out at nighttime, at the start of the night shift; pour out your heart before my Lord like water.
Lift your hands up to him for the life of your children—
the ones who are fainting from hunger on every street corner.

When your world falls apart – cry out! Make your tears run!  Get up and cry out! Lift your hands up to him…

In other words – the author of this poem is instructing those of us who have listened to false prophets for too long to, well, engage in a period of lamentation.  To utter to God that which is broken.  And then the poem concludes with a strategy for that Lamentation:

20 Lord, look and see to whom you have done this!
Should women eat their own offspring, their own beautiful babies?
Should priest and prophet be killed in my Lord’s own sanctuary?

21 Young and old alike lie on the ground in the streets;
my young women and young men fall dead by the sword.
On the day of your anger, you killed; you slaughtered, showing no compassion.

22 You invited—as if to a festival!—terrors from every side.
On the day of the Lord’s anger, no one escaped, not one survived.
The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.

In modeling lament as a spiritual practice, the poet here implores God’s people to confront God with God’s own behavior, and to ask God to act in a way that is consisted with God’s nature.  Don’t pretend that this evil does not exist – rather, turn to God and name it and invite God to bring about a reality that is consistent with his purposes.

This is a hard word for us, because we would rather hear the false prophets – the cheerful news.  We love having the ability to change the channel!  But when the terror strikes, this Lenten season, my friends, let me encourage you to dwell with the things that are hard for a moment or two longer. And question the things that you hear – the prophecies that “everybody knows” to be true.

Look for the place in your life and in our world that seem to be out of whack with God’s intentions, and lay them before the Lord in a time of lament. Lift up that which some might hesitate to speak, and in so doing, make your lament a prayer.

We mentioned last week that there is not a lot of overt “good news” in the book of Lamentations.  This chapter ends with a woman holding her dead children, saying “God did this.” But I want to remind you that Lamentations did not spring up from nowhere – it was crafted by a community who had lived through the worst and survived.  They learned in the midst of that survival the strategy of lament – of coming before God and saying, “I know that we have not gotten this right!”

The fact that a community survived – that a community was left to give voice to a communal lament – is in itself good news.  That is the thing to which we may cling this evening.

In the name of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Amen.

You Call This GOOD News?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019), brought us to reflect on the scripture that contains the longest teaching passage (and Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his followers) in that Gospel: Mark 13.  This was a timely reminder of our own mortality and the hope that we can share.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

Titus Destroying Jerusalem, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1846

Some of you will remember my friend Ann, who lived to be nearly 101.  In the last few years of her life, this was her favorite text.  Every time we were together, she asked me to read the Gospel account of the day that Jesus left the temple and started to talk about the things that were going to happen before “the end of the world”.  And here’s the interesting thing: as I read it, she literally winced. This passage scared her to death. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What do we do with this chapter?  One writer has said that Mark 13 is “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world” that “figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, this chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”[1]  Um, yeah. Tell us how you really feel, professor…

How do you hear Mark 13?  Does God’s word come to us through these verses?

Let’s take a look at some clues within the text itself.  Some of you are old enough to remember that when we started this sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I said that one of the key features of this work was the fact there aren’t many long teaching passages here – it’s mostly what Jesus did. Well, chapter 13 contains the longest speech in the Gospel. And so Mark, writing to believers in Rome in the middle of the first century, decided that, of all the teachings Jesus gave – more than his community needed to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Good Samaritan – they needed to hear thisteaching.  Hmmmm. We ought to pay attention.

Flevit Super Illam, Enrique Simonet, 1892

As the longest speech in the Gospel, it’s also Jesus’ “farewell” address to his followers in Mark.  Who is there on the hillside to hear it? Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Mark 1, who were Jesus’ first followers? Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  The four who have followed him, however imperfectly these last three years, are getting their final instructions.

In the Gospel of John, the “farewell speech” from Jesus is the wonderful encouragement, in chapters 13 – 17, to love one another.  In Matthew and Luke, there is the command to go and minister in Jesus’ name and in particular to include the Gentile community in baptism, teaching, and service. What’s the point of Mark 13?

Wars, and famines, and quakes…oh my!  Persecution, and idolatry, and suffering…oh my!  Those scenarios are all included, but they are not the prime object of Jesus’ concern in Mark 13.  In reality, most of Mark’s original readers were familiar with events like this. Remember, one of the reasons that Mark wrote the gospel was because the followers of Jesus in first century Rome were experiencing persecution and betrayal and suffering and death.  They had lived through the great famine during the reign of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 11).  In 60 AD the Roman colony of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. In 70 AD the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the town. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii.

Wars, earthquakes, and persecution are not Jesus’ focus in Mark 13. They are the backdrop for what Jesus is saying.  I’d like to suggest that the main emphasis in Mark 13 is not the sound and light show that may or may not be going on at any given moment, but rather the promise that all of these things in history have an end.  That history itself has a direction.  The good news of the Gospel, here in Mark 13, is that at some point, Jesus the Christ will return to earth, and the Kingdom of God – the very topic of the Gospel of Mark – will be experienced in all its fulness.

And if that’s true – if Jesus is right about the fact that he is coming back – then it is in everyone’s best interest to be attentive.  It’s a small wonder, then, that throughout this chapter, Jesus warns his friends to be alert.  Various Bibles translate these imperatives differently, but at least eight times in the chapter we are warned to “take heed” or “beware” or “watch” or “stay awake”.

Can you see?  Could it be that this chapter is Mark’s bit of good news to a community that has struggled to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.  Almost everyone that Mark knows has experienced Jesus only as one who is absent – someone who was here, but who has now ascended – who has left the physical earth.  What is crystal clear about this passage is the notion that this Jesus – from whom we are currently separated – is going to return, and at that time, we will be fully present to him and to each other.

Some of us, it seems, will be here on earth, alive and well, when Jesus returns.  Many of us, of course, will have died.  No matter – in life and in death, we are his, and we will be with him.

It’s not too hard to get into a rip-roaring discussion on “the end of the world”.  Just throw out a few comments about wars and earthquakes and fireballs and before too long you can have people engaged and agitated. We talk about it as if it might or might not happen.

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, c. 1536

Listen, beloved, the reality is this: the world will end, and it will end, all probability, sooner for me than it will for most of you in this room. But whether Jesus returns in bodily form during my lifetime or not, I can say with absolute certainty that I am dying, and that dying will be, for me, the end of this world. In that sense, every day is Ash Wednesday.

And my sense is that whereas I can usually scare up a pretty good conversation about the destruction of the cosmos and the signs and portents that Jesus seems to indicate here, it’s hard to have a serious conversation about our own deaths – even though, as I have said, it’s one thing of which we can be absolutely certain.

How are you preparing for your demise?  Does it scare you?  Jesus, anticipating his own death and talking to the disciples about what his followers might expect, stresses the fact that there is more to our lives and our deaths than we can see.  He surely doesn’t minimize the fact that the path can be difficult – but he does emphasize the truth that there is more to our endings than meets the eye.

Many of you will recognize the name of Lewis Carroll as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Alice in Wonderland.   Maybe you will know that Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and that he trained for the ministry and served as a deacon in the church for his entire life.  If you are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, you may know that it contains a wonderful statement of faith in which we are invited to consider our ability to live freely knowing that our deaths are only a part of the story.  Listen for the words of “The Lobster Quadrille” – and I will tell you that a “quadrille” is a formal dance wherein 8 people interact – much like square dancing.

The Lobster Quadrille, Charles Folkard, 1921

“Will you walk a little faster?”

Said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us,

Treading on my tail.”

See how eagerly the lobsters

And the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle –

Will you come and join the dance?

So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion

How delightful it will be

When they take us up and throw us,

With the lobsters, out to sea!”

But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!”

And gave a look askance –

Said he thanked the whiting kindly,

But he would not join the dance.

So, would not, could not, would not,

Could not, would not join the dance.

Would not, could not, would not,

Could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?”

His scaly friend replied,

“There is another shore, you know,

Upon the other side.

The further off from England

The nearer is to France –

Then turn not pale, beloved snail,

But come and join the dance.

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?[2]

The Good News of the Gospel is well-presented by Carroll – that there are two shores – one that we can see, and one that we know only through faith.  And the more we insist on staying close and connected to the one, the less we’ll be able to participate in the reality of the other.  We can face our own deaths without fear, knowing that the dance continues with structure, meaning, and purpose.

This doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and say that this life, and our impending deaths, don’t matter.  Far from it.  Jesus is clear in his farewell discourse that those of us who follow him are called to run the race as far as we are able, and to keep the course as best we can.  We are called to keep doing what he has left for us to do as well as we can for as long as we have.

Beloved, we don’t know – Jesus said that he didn’t know – when our experience of this life will end. We can have faith in the one who went for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and who has gone ahead of us and who has promised to return for us.  With the first-century Romans who heard Mark’s gospel and were sustained by it…with the monks in the middle ages who were convinced that civilization was collapsing all around them…with slaves who were carried to the Americas 400 years ago this year, and who were forced to live in inhuman conditions…with believers in countries around the world that have lived under persecution of other religions or the state… with the church of every age and every time, we can live expectantly –as though life is a dance – because Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. We can live hopefully, and look for signs and evidences of resurrection and life in the world each day.  We can live as those who find consolation, because we know that the griefs we bear will not last forever.  And most importantly, we can continue to invest our lives in God’s purposes, because although we cannot control earthquakes or wars or famines or floods, we can control our resolve to be his people.

I know, you have had people look at you in church and say, “Stay awake!”  But this time, it’s not your mother who is telling you.  It’s not the preacher.  It’s Jesus. And I think he means it.  The end is near.  We’ll get through it.  But until we get there, let’s stay awake, and let’s stay together.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] LaMar Williamson, Interpretation Commentary on Mark (John Knox, 1983) pp. 235-236.

[2] Alice in Wonderland, chapter 11 <http://www.authorama.com/book/alice-in-wonderland.html&gt;

Remembering Ed Schrenker, Jr.

On Thursday, September 27, my friend Edward T. Schrenker, Jr., died in an automobile accident.  You can read his obituary by clicking here. Eddie was remembered in a Memorial Service on October 2 at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, where he served in many capacities and was an active elder. Several of Ed’s friends have asked whether the memorial service was recorded.  I am happy to provide this vehicle to include those who were not able to be there, or who might not have been able to hear the service clearly.

Because the service was so long (so sue me, Eddie), I’ve split the recording into three tracks.  Listeners might do well to open up The Order of Worship in order track their listening.

The first part of the recording begins at the bagpipe prelude and ends during the portion of worship labeled “Remembering Ed Schrenker”.

The second part of the recording begins with the portion labeled “A Daughter’s Testimony” and ends with the singing of “Amazing Grace”.

The remainder of the recording contains that portion of worship from Micah 6:8 through the Words of Committal.

One particular element of the service was a form of prayer known as dayenu .  The congregation joined in this prayer of lament and thanksgiving, and you might be encouraged to read it here.

The Sunday after Eddie’s death, his friends at church wanted to honor his memory. So we wore flannel shirts. There were more than 60 flannels in the room, sported by those as young as 11 months and as old as 85. It was beautiful.

It is my deep hope and prayer that this service pointed both toward the inspiration that Ed has been and will continue to be in the lives of those who have loved him AND the savior to whom Ed had surrendered his life and served joyfully and with abandon.

The Sting of Death

or much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 12, we sat with him as he lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan singing “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1 (included below).   Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in II Corinthians 4:7-12

 

When we left off last week, Achish and his Philistine army were preparing to attack the Israelites and King Saul, while David and his men had been sent home to their place in Philistia, Ziklag. You might remember that David and his militia discover that the place had been ransacked and all of their relatives kidnapped, and David cried out for help from God. I Samuel ends with an account of David’s pursuit of the Amalekite raiders and the story of how families were reunited and David’s reputation was continuing to increase.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

There is, however, a dramatic development recorded at both the end of I Samuel and the beginning of II Samuel: we learn the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. A young man shows up in Ziklag carrying the crown and the royal bracelet: proof that King Saul of Israel is dead. This messenger is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to David, and even goes so far as to say that when he first encountered Saul, the king had been gravely wounded, but was still alive; at the king’s request, the young man ended Saul’s life.

When he first hears the news, David is overcome with grief and emotion. He weeps and fasts, as do the other members in his community.

The next day, he calls the messenger and asks for the story to be repeated. After the young man runs through it, David has him executed.

This is the same David who chose not to kill Saul when he had the chance, even though for years Saul had been trying to kill him… the same David who chose not to kill Nabal, even when Nabal had treated him with contempt. David has shown restraint… until someone dares to raise a hand to the Lord’s anointed. Now he orders the execution of this man who celebrates the death of the one who God had called.

And then, David sings. The song that he writes and performs is called “The Song of the Bow”, and it is a public statement of grief on the occasion of the deaths of Saul and his son, Jonathan. Not only does David compose and sing this tune, he also commands that the entire nation learn it. Listen to “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1:17-27:

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

"The Song of the Bow", Marc Chagall (1967).

“The Song of the Bow”, Marc Chagall (1967).

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished!”

This is a remarkable example of a public lamentation over the intrusiveness of death in our lives. This morning, I’d like us to take a long look at what David is doing in composing and teaching this song to the people of God.

He names what has been lost. Four times in those eleven verses he mentions Saul by name; three times he mentions Jonathan. David, whose very name means “beloved of God”, cries out at the loss of the one he names “beloved”. He laments not just the death of his friend and his surrogate father, but the loss of any number of possible futures. This is a tremendous outpouring of grief not just from an individual, but from and on behalf of a nation.

Have you ever known this kind of grief? I, who probably spend more time with dead and dying people than most of you, have been surprised by it several times. Most dramatically, I remember a trip I was pleased to take through the nation of Egypt. We saw a lot of old things – and, by implication, a lot of death. Tombs and pyramids and catacombs…all kinds of death.

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

But one day we visited the military museum and cemetery at El Alamein. This battle was the culmination of a series of conflicts that were fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a decisive event for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mussolini access to the Suez Canal. The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Auckland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario, Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves… J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many “soldiers known but to God.”

I wept on that day. I wept for these young men, and their families, and the sweethearts or children they may have left… and I wept because we are still building war cemeteries. And here is the truth: I was embarrassed by my tears. In fact, I made the rest of my group wait out in the parking lot because I didn’t want to get in the vehicle while I was crying.

That’s what we do, we Americans. Especially we male Americans. We deny the reality of death. We hold it in. We hide it from ourselves and each other. We refuse to make our grief public, and we don’t know how to enter into someone else’s sadness. Even those of us who claim faith, who talk of eternity and the promise we’ve been given… we don’t know what to say and so we flee death.

death800x800There’s an ancient fable from Iraq that teaches us about the inevitability of death and our fear of it. It seems as though a certain man asked his most trusted servant to go to the market in Bagdad and buy only the finest of food and wine to share with his friends. The servant set out for this task, but returned home in a matter of moments, looking very alarmed and frightened.

“Master, just now in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please – let me take your horse so I can get away from here. I’ll go to hide at my cousin’s home in Samarra and Death won’t find me there.”

The master thought that was a fine plan, and so sent the servant off on his horse. Later, he went into Bagdad himself, and saw Death at the market. Angrily, he went over and said, “Why did you make such a threatening gesture to my servant?”

Death said, “I didn’t threaten him at all – I was merely surprised to see him here in Bagdad. After all, I have an appointment to meet him in Samarra tonight.”

Grieving Man - Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Grieving Man – Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Don’t we know how that servant felt? Aren’t so many of us unwilling to consider any kind of death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s or some other form of loss or decay?

We avoid pain at all costs, don’t we? There’s an ache, a strain, a sadness, a sting… and we want to take a pill, have a drink, get a shot – anything in order to numb ourselves and avoid the suffering of the moment.

So much of the time, we can’t even acknowledge the impact of the loss, the horror, or the grief that shows up in our lives. Think of all the times we are tempted to gloss over or make light of significant pain and real loss, simply because we don’t know what to say or how to acknowledge the intrusiveness of death or suffering.

A friend’s divorce is finalized… and we say, “OK, wow! Glad that’s over… now, tiger, it’s time to get back out there and make yourself happy!”

That young woman down the street suffers through the death of her child through miscarriage or infant death… and we say, “Hey, that’s too bad… but at least you’re young, and you’ll have another…I have two friends who’ve been given ‘rainbow’ babies…”

The soldier comes back from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he has seen and done the unspeakable (often in our name)… and we pat him on the back, give him a free meal at Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, and fly really big flags at the Super Bowl…

Your mother, sister, husband, or son dies, and four days after the funeral, people look at you and say, “Hey, how’s it going, huh? Things coming back to normal, I bet?”

No. No, it’s not normal. None of these things is normal, and none of them are easily dismissed. Please, for the love of God, don’t pretend that this kind of loss or death is insignificant.

Here is the truth, beloved: our pretending that we’re going to live forever and that death can’t touch us and that there’s no loss that is deeply interruptive… well, that kind of charade is simply killing us.

isolationThe United States of America is by many measures the most highly developed, materially-blessed, economically advanced places in the world. And yet every year, 3.5% of American adults are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 9% of Americans will suffer from that at some point in their lives.

In the rest of the world, those numbers are between .5% and 1%.[1]

How can this be? Why are we experiencing this kind of anxiety disorder at a rate that is seven to ten times higher than the rest of the world? Are we dying more? Do we face more trauma than do people in other countries?

That’s hard to imagine. By and large, I would suggest that we do not suffer the ways that many in the rest of the world do. So what’s happening?

Could it be that we are victims of our own propensity to deny the reality of pain and death? When grief finds its way into our lives, we shove it deep inside. We hide it. We make it our own – our private possession, deeply personal. We hang onto it, but we are unable to share it, and so it becomes in some ways like Gollum’s ring – it twists and contorts us, and us alone, driving us further from community, further from reality. The ultimate result is that 40 million Americans now meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and a staggering 80 million more are termed “risky substance abusers”.[2] More than 30% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression – the second-highest rate in the world.[3]

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

And in contrast to all of this come the words of II Samuel and II Corinthians. Each of our texts for today speak of the importance of naming the reality of the fragility of our lives, of claiming grief as a public reality, of identifying the intrusiveness of loss in our lives, and of trusting God to see us through even when our own vision is failing us.

I know that worshiping together and seeking to act in a way that emphasizes the community we share are not cures for depression or addiction or PTSD.

But I would suggest that learning how to lament – how to come together and name the grief that affects us all at one time or another – is one way of seeking to prevent those afflictions in our lives and communities. We speak to the frustrations and rejections and devastations that we have experienced, and together we neither gloss over the losses we’ve suffered nor allow them to become the things that define us. You are not “the kid whose father died” or “the lady that lost her son” or “the man whose wife left him,” but those things did happen and surely cost you something. They are there, but they are not all that is there. There is more to it than that.

We are, all of us, mortal. And we all, each of us, have an appointment with death (mortis).[4] We dare not deny the power or sting of death – but God forbid that we insist that’s all there is. The gesture of lamentation in community – of sharing grief and loss – helps us to see the bigger picture that God is writing through history, and how our own stories are wrapped up in the bigger drama of God’s working in the world. Each of our losses and all of our pain is in many ways ours alone, but it is ours to share in the presence and gift of community – a community that reminds us of hope and life and healing. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

[2] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem

[3] http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

[4] Thanks to Eugene Peterson (Leap Over A Wall, HarperCollins 1997) for this bit of insight!

It’s the Story of Us

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the later service, shared below, were Job 42 (the final chapter of that work) as well as I Corinthians 15:20-28.

 

Ever since Valentine’s Day, we’ve walked with Job and his friends. That’s not nearly long enough to do anything like an exhaustive study, but we have gotten acquainted with this man, his world, his struggle, and his faith.

As stories go, frankly, there isn’t much action. We’ve met a few characters, most of whom are not developed all that well. By and large, this is a book filled with talking. Like a lot of things at church, Job seems to be populated by a bunch of folks who love to hear the sound of their own voices. We’ve heard Job, of course, and his wife; God and Satan, and more than we needed to from Bildad, Elihu, Zophar, and and Eliphaz.

Yep. Lots and lots of talking.  At church.  Who saw that coming?

And this morning, in the last chapter?

More talking.

But let me tell you something, because I bet you didn’t pick up on this. I know that I didn’t the first eight or ten times I read through Job. There is something profoundly different about the talking in chapter 42 – we have not seen this kind of speech anywhere in the book.

For the last 41 chapters, we have heard a lot of conversations. God and Satan get into a bit of an argument about why Job acts the way that he acts; Job curses the day of his birth, Job’s wife tells Job that he’s crazy, and he replies by saying that she’s not herself and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then the friends show up and do their level best to point out how Job and the other friends are mistaken, and Job consistently replies by indicating how wrong they all are. Finally, God shows up and says, “You know what? You’re all wrong. None of you know what you’re talking about – you just don’t get it.”

And here, in chapter 42, Job says, “You’re right, God. I don’t get it. You’re right.”

Chapter 42 contains the only non-combative speech in the entire book of Job. Job does not try to refute, rebut, correct, or criticize God. He just agrees, and confesses, and accepts.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image.  If you can help me find the artist, I'd be delighted to credit.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image. If you can help me find the artist, I’d be delighted to credit.

And because the tone switches from confrontational to confessional, and because it’s the only place in the book that this language shows up, well, it’s worth noticing.

For 41 chapters, we’ve heard all kinds of people talk about whether or not Job is a great guy, and how Job should or should not worship and serve God. In chapter 42, Job actually worships. It’s not language that talks about worship, it’s language that records worship.

Allow me to suggest that in a very deep sense, Job’s story parallels the entirety of scripture. In that way, the story of Job really is the story of us.

There is a beginning – in both Job and in Genesis – and it’s a spectacularly good beginning. Everything seems to be going along pretty smoothly for a while, and then that goodness is interrupted and threatened by something that is incredibly horrible. At first, the power of evil and the work of the Accuser seems to be to be overwhelming. Eventually, God promises to sustain those who struggle, and at the end of the story, in fact, God shows up and brings about renewal and restoration. We see that in the pages of Job, and we see that laid out across scripture from Genesis to Revelation, right? It’s the same story. There’s a great beginning, an incredibly hard and really long middle, and we are promised a fine end. Yay!

Having said that, I feel obligated to point out that as 21st – century enlightened American believers, we are at least uncomfortable with the basic outline of Job, and maybe downright offended by it.

In case you’ve not been here in the past few weeks, here’s a quick synopsis of Job. We meet him and find out that he’s a great guy – super religious, really faithful, and fantastically wealthy. He starts out with 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, many servants, 7 sons, and 3 daughters. Job is sitting pretty, to be sure.

And then all of that goes away – all 11,500 animals, all the servants, and most heart-breakingly, all ten children are killed. Job and his wife are totally bereft.

And it gets worse, when Job is afflicted with a horrible illness and becomes a pariah in his own community. His friends show up and try to convince him that it’s somehow all his fault.

Finally, though, in the reading that we’ve heard this morning, God shows up and seems to say, “You know what, Job? We’re good. It’s all good. So look at what I’m going to do for you: here, at the end of your story, you’ll have 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, 1000 donkeys, lots of hired men and women, and, of course, ten brand-new children!”

And for 3,000 years people have read Job and said, “Awwww, I love a happy ending…”

But we say, “Hold on just one minute! That’s a terrible story! How do we just pretend that none of that stuff in chapter one matters? Are we saying that the children that Job and his wife loved so deeply in the beginning of the book are so easily forgotten and replaced? Do they have no significance whatsoever? ‘Cause that’s just wrong!”

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that the pain and grief and suffering incurred by Job, his wife, and their family is insignificant. No one is pretending that these losses did not occur, or were not egregious.

The story of Job, and the story of the Gospel, and the story of us is that no one ever needs to pretend that suffering is not real and is not important. The point is not that we can ignore it, but that we will get through it. We are transformed by it. And it matters.

How do I know that it matters, according to the scripture?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

Well, think about the body with which Jesus was raised from the dead. What did he have in his hands? Holes. What did he have in his feet? Holes. What did he have in his side? A wound.

Note that, beloved. When our Lord was raised from the dead into a body that Paul says is “imperishable”, it was a body that had scars.

Which means, I think, that something of what happens during our experience of time and space has some eternal importance.

The idea of resurrection is not that what was once is now no more, and all has been erased and re-written. It would appear as though a more satisfactory understanding of resurrection is that we move through pain into something better; we are healed from that which is dead and restored to our intended status and purpose and function and form.

You see, much of the theology in both Job and in our current day seems to be centered around the mistaken notion that bad things happen to bad people and that good things happen to good people. Job’s friends were echoing time-honored thoughts when they said, “Hey, you know what? If you get sick, or if you find yourself experiencing an abnormal amount of loss or grief or devastation, you better look in the mirror. You’ve sinned somewhere. You’ve made some horrible decisions.” They also held to the opposite theory, which states that “if you get rich or experience profound levels of health and joy, well then, shucks, you must be doing something right for God to bless you like that! Congratulations, you clean-living, God-fearing, upstanding, morally-appropriate my-kind-of-guy!”

That brand of theology, not surprisingly, seems to be favored by rich, healthy, employed or endowed people.

It’s also not a biblical philosophy. If so, Jesus, as the sinless Son of God could not have experienced the things that he did. If you follow that line of thinking very far, you wind up thinking that all pain is punishment, that all suffering is not only deserved, but to be avoided, and that love only winds up hurting you.

A healthy understanding of the notion of resurrection, however, brings a different result. The Gospel story is that, yes, pain does occur – but there are times when pain produces fruit. Suffering is not always the result of bad choices or a sign of divine displeasure – there are some times when suffering is the means by which we become transformed.

When Paul was trying to talk about it with his friends in Rome, he used the analogy of childbirth. Having a baby, he says, hurts like nobody’s business. Frankly, from a male perspective, it just seems impossible and against the laws of geometry. It shouldn’t work, and it’s incredibly painful. And yet, at the end, there is a blessing to be found – and one that can only be brought as a result of the path of suffering.

Brene Brown is an author, researcher, and educator who left the church as a young adult, feeling as though it was irrelevant and didn’t meet her needs. Twenty years later, she suffered some incredible pain and she went back to the church, hoping that it would remove that pain. She expected that faith would act like an epidural anesthetic – that it would simply block all the pain she’d experienced. She says, “I thought Faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort’, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’” (Click here to watch Brown’s brief video developing this theme)

That’s resurrection thinking. Do not for one second pretend that the losses that Job incurred or those through which you have suffered are inconsequential. Of course your losses, your pain, your grief matter! Yes! But do not resign yourself to the thinking that says that those things are all that exist, either, or that somehow your grief and your losses will wind up as that which ultimately defines you.

This morning, if you showed up to worship on Easter feeling happy, wealthy, and wise, surrounded by good-looking men, strong women, and above average children, then I apologize, because the resurrection probably seems unnecessary to you and I’ve just wasted 18 minutes of your precious time.

But if you’re here trying to make sense of some deep pain in your life and you are longing for hope and healing… If you are wondering how in the world you can get through the challenge that looms in front of you, and what difference any of it makes anyhow… Well, then you ought to know that God’s word is a good word.

Do you think that Job and his wife could ever forget their first, or second, or third-born child? Do you think that when they got to number twelve or thirteen they said, “See, there, that’s not so bad! We’re ok. These kids are just about as good as the other ones…”?

You know that’s not what happened. Do you think that their relationship with the second set of children was shaped by the lives and deaths of the first? Of course it was.

The fundamental truth of Job’s experience of having, losing, and being restored is not “see, good guys come out all right in the end”, but rather that what we can see and what we are experiencing is not ultimate. We are all in the in-between. Where you have been matters – it matters a lot. And everything that is good and right and holy about where you have been – is eternal. Where you are shapes where you are heading – and where you are heading is into God’s ultimate good.

So to the three or four of you who are sitting pretty without a care in the world, have a great day. Enjoy the rest of the service. The last hymn is a real toe-tapper. And good luck with whatever is going so great for you.

And to the rest of us, the message of Easter is simple. You can hold on. You can trust. You can hope. Not because of who you are, but because of the One to whom you hold, on whom you trust, and in whom you hope. He is risen. Alleluia!