Monday, February 27, 2012

The Baptisms of Our Lives (Reflections on Lent 1)

I met Tom and Vickie about twenty years ago when I was visiting a friend in Houston, Texas. It was impossible not to adore them. They were a young couple who had conquered some serious substance abuse problems through their love for each other and their mutual love of the ocean.

In the spring of 1991 I accepted their invitation to join their crew in a sailboat race in Galveston Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, I'd had no experience crewing on a 40-foot sailboat and, had I known what the weather would be like on the day of the race, I would certainly have had my misgivings about the adventure. The sea that morning was what might be described as "choppy." To a landlubber like myself, the atmospheric conditions seemed not greatly unlike a hurricane--charcoal grey sky, roaring wind, and raindrops which struck one's face like the sting of a thousand evil gnats.

Some of the other vessels in the race were disabled by the wind before leaving the marina. Sails were ripped to shreds. One of our crew--an experienced sailor nonetheless--took to the side of the boat and puked violently. Even in foul weather gear, I was soaking wet before the gun was fired to signal the start of the race.

In spite of the tempest, however, the race proceeded without incident--for the most part. Yes, we had a close call when a lead vessel suddenly saw its mainmast splinter and crash to the deck. The derelict craft drifted towards our bow, and we, under full sail, managed to avoid a mid-sea collision by an extremely uncomfortable margin.

All else went as planned and our craft took the lead. With victory in sight our captain made what in hindsight proved to be a rather rash decision. We would hoist our spinnaker--a special sail for navigating at angles. I took my position and grabbed my line. The sail began to rise. The ship began to list sharply to port--where I stood! Suddenly my left foot was under water. Just as suddenly, the entire port railing was submerged and, before I knew it, I was awash over the side of the capsizing vessel.

I grabbed despearately for the railing atop the cabin, but missed. Astonishingly, Tom, who was perched like a nesting duck on the cabin's roof, reached his long arms out, caught me by my lifevest, and pulled me to safety. The offending spinnaker was lowered, the ship began to right itself, and all was right with the world again.

The seasick sailor smiled at me as I took a seat on the dripping rail. "Looks like you went swimming," he said.

"Yup." I replied.

"What was going through your mind?" he asked as he deftly lit a cigarette in the punishing wind.

Truth be told, the only thing I was thinking as I washed into the Gulf was a desperate hope that the ship was not capsizing because of something stupid I had done. Other than that, I had the very comfortable feeling, the very blessed assurance, of knowing that I was not alone. I knew my shipmates would not let me drown.

That evening, Tom and Vickie took me to dinner. I wondered if I should offer to pick up the cheque since Tom had rescued me, but Tom insisted on catchng the tab. I realized that my brief dip in the Gulf had made me officially "okay" in the eyes of these experienced sailors. I had become family. I had been baptized.

+   +   +

The Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday of Lent tells the story of God's promise to Noah after the Great Flood (Genesis 9:8-17). The mythology of this tale is confusing. We tend to see it either as a cute tale for children with animals and a rainbow, or as a horrific tale of God's wrath and destruction. The words of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible state that God was "sorry" over the wickedness of humanity and "it grieved him to his heart." (Gen. 6:6) One could conclude that God's wrath is actually the pain that is caused by our own selfish desires. Noah survives this flood of violence and sin, and humanity is given a chance to begin over again. But Noah is no saint, either. In later chapters we see him as a drunken, abusive father. God realizes that we are all given to evil inclinations, but makes a one-sided deal with humanity. It will never be God's will to see us destroyed. Never. God will set down his weapon--in this case a bow--and when we see it, we will have the assurance of God's love even in the midst of the flood.

+   +   +

The story of Jesus' baptism and temptation in Mark's gospel (Mark 1: 9-15) is also a story of God's presence in the flood. Jesus washes in our dirty bath water. That is, the holiness of God joins with us in all things--both the cleansing and the journey through a wilderness of temptation and danger. Although Jesus is declared God's beloved child, he is still swept into the desert to deal with Satan and the creatures which bite, claw, and sting. And yet, he is never alone. The angels minister to him, and see him safely through the ordeal.

There are many baptisms in our lives: illness, addictions, broken relationships, unemployment, depression, etc. etc. It is easy to be swept into the flood and give in to temptation. How we so need the reassurance that we are not alone, that Christ has been here, too. How we need to lean on the one-sided promise that God's will is not to destroy us, but to cleanse us. Throughout our many baptisms, we are anchored by the first one we experienced at the font of grace. Hear and believe the good news:

Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever!

It's always a pleasure to have you drop in. Please feel free to leave a comment, and let me know that you've been here!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Have Mercy on Us, O God (Reflections on Ash Wednesday)

Tonight my congregation, like thousands of other Christian bodies around the globe, will gather in prayer, confess our sins, receive the disfiguring ashes on our foreheads, and ask for God's mercy. We will enter the holy season of Lent with promises to amend our lives.

In our Lutheran liturgy--similar to that of our Roman Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters--we will pray,

Most holy and merciful God,
we confess to you and to one another, and before the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned by our fault,
by our own fault,
by our own most grievous fault,
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

We will use the pronoun "we," because we are not confessing our individual transgressions, but rather our contributions to the sinfulness of a society. The corporate confession requires we examine our role in the corporate guilt.

This year, two of the petitions in this confessional prayer are speaking very loudly to me. First,

Our neglect of human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, we confess to you.

A few hours before this writing, America learned of the death of journalist Marie Colvin and news photagrapher Remi Ochlik. They were killed by artillery fire in Homs, Syria while covering the revolt in that country. As I write this, thousands of Syrians are facing cruel death at the hands of their own government. Ms. Colvin and Mssr. Ochlik have given their lives so that the rest of the world will not be indifferent to this atrocity.

Some weeks ago, via the miracle of YouTube, I watched the 1925 silent fiilm classic, The Battleship Potemkin. The "Odessa steps" sequence in the film is one of the most gripping and disturbing images I've ever seen in a motion picture. In these scenes, director Segei Eisenstein was able to put the film-goer right in the middle of a massacre. As I watched the film, I said to myself, "This is real. This is Syria. This is happening right now."

A famous still from the massacre sequence in "Battleship Potemkin" (1925)

 As I sit comforatably in my office, sipping my coffee, thousands of my fellow human beings are undergoing unspeakable suffering in Syria and other places around the globe. What should my reaction be? Turn off the news? Say, "There's nothing I can do?" Forget about it? What is Jesus calling me to do in the face of so much innocent pain and horror?

I don't know the answer to this, but I know I must let myself be troubled and moved by this. Our prayers and the humanitarian efforts of our Christian communities must be employed. Those of us in democratic countries have an obligation to use whatever influence we have on our governments to encourage a righteous, compassionate, and just response to this assault on our humanity.

+     +     +

Another petition from our confession reads,

Our false judgments, our uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbors, and our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, we confess to you.

Last Sunday, as is my custom, I stood at the door of the narthex shaking hands with my parishioners as they left the late mass. Tony, a guy from the neighborhood who has been worshiping with us off and on for a few months, was one of the first out the door. Since he's not an official member of the congregation, I asked him if he'd like to formally unite with us at Easter.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't feel like I belong."

To me, his words were a slap in the face. I don't know why he feels estranged or alienated from the church, but I do know that it isn't right. Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:35) It is the responsibility of every Christian, if we are truly obedient to Christ, to extend loving hospitality to anyone who crosses our threshold. If someone leaves my congregation feeling that they don't belong, then I have failed in my mission to teach the Word of God.

And we, as a Church and a society, have much for which we must atone.

Have mercy on us, O God.

Thank you for reading, my friends. May we enter the season of Lent with contrite hearts, ready for God to work a miraculous change.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Whitney Houston, the Prophet Elijah, and Other Random Thoughts on the Feast of Transfiguration

Okay. Bear with me. The Old Religious Guy is not always given to cogent thought. Sometimes with an abundance of Biblical imagery and/or world events swirling around in my middle-aged brain, it's hard for me to sort out a cohesive message. So I beg your indulgence.


Like many Americans, I was very sorry to learn of the death last weekend of pop diva Whitney Houston. The tragedy of an early demise notwithstanding, it is somewhat gratifying to know that the American public has a forgiving nature. Ms. Houston is being celebrated for her phenominal vocal range and expression and her contribution to contemporary music. The rather embarrassing details of her personal life are being overlooked in the face of her death, and that is as it should be. We want to remember the glimpse of glory--however brief it may have been.

But such is the nature of glory: It's always gone before we realize how wonderful the moment really is. An older colleague from my days as a college instructor once told me, "Owen, it is sad for me to think that there's no Fred Astair in this world anymore. There's no Cary Grant." I guess he was nostalgic for an age of elegance he felt had vanished with the deaths of those gentlemen whom he named. I recall another great mentor of mine saying, "The twentieth century will truly be over when Frank Sinatra dies."

The bright lights go out, one by one. But time goes on...

What am I nostalgic for, you ask? Sometimes I feel that the neighborhood churches of my childhood are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. I see them closing, one by one. Society is changing, and pretty soon these little religious communities of 100 or 200 worshipers will disolve into tiny house churches or be swallowed into mega churches. Parishes like the ones in which I grew up and the one which I now pastor will go the way of all flesh. And that will be sad.

But, hey! Time goes on...

All of the above puts me in mind of the Hebrew scripture lesson the Revised Common Lectionary has assigned for Transfiguration Sunday. It's 2Kings 2:1-12, and it's the story of the passing of the prophet Elijah. Elijah, if you will permit me, is the Frank Sinatra/Whitney Houston/Fred Astair of prophets. He's a mega rock star in the world of Hebrew holy men. There's never been anyone like him. He's called down fire from heaven, slain 400 prophets of Baal, prayed for and achieved a drought, multiplied food, and even raised the dead. He's withstood fire, earthquake, and hurricane, and he's found the presence of God in silence.

When we meet him in 2 Kings chapter 2, he's nearing the end of his ministry and is going on something of a farewell tour, accompanied by his faithful protege, Elisha. Elisha is devoted to the old guy, remembering his glory and tactfully forgetting Elijah's great talent for violence and self pity. Elijah tells the young prophet he need not accompany him on the whole tour, but Elsiha, who sees Elijah as a kind of father figure, won't desert his mentor. When other prophets tell Elisha that his boss isn't long for this world, Elisha gets a bit snippy with them--just as any of us might do when reminded of the uncomfortable fact of the imminent loss of someone we love.

When Elijah reaches the end and finally crosses the Jordan (literally in this case), he askes his companion if there's anything he can do for him before he goes to meet his maker. Elisha asks to receive the oldest son's portion of inheritance. That is, to be the successor. "Wow, kid. You don't know what you're asking for. But if you stick it out with me to the end, I guess you'll get the job."

And Elisha does. He sees God take the old man to heaven in a chariot of fire--a moment of glory both beautiful and exqusitely painful. It's always sad when the fire goes out. But Elisha, after an appropriate bit of mourning, crosses back over the Jordan to see what God will do next.

Sometimes it's the memory of glory that keeps us going. As with Peter, James, and John on the mount of the Transfiguration, we so often don't realize what we're experiencing when we're experiencing it. It's over too soon, and then we head back down the mountain, through the cloud, trusting that it will all make sense some day.

We've seen the glory of God. We trust we'll see it again. In the meantime, we heed the instruction to listen to Jesus and keep on going.

So thanks for checking in, my friends. May God bless you as you prepare for Lent. Remember the glory, and keep hopeful.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Jesus Wept

I didn't know the guy. He was young by my standards--which means he was younger than I. He had three grown kids in their early twenties and a handful of grandchildren and a bad case of depression. He blew his brains out with a handgun. Two of his children discovered his body the following day.

They were not religious, this family, but for some reason the children decided their father needed Christian prayers said over his ashes. The funeral director called me.

We did the service in Fishtown--a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. Just a few blocks off the Delaware River, the streets are crowded, one-way alleys circling tenements built in the days of the horse and carriage. There's no place to park becasue every inch of curb is claimed by automobiles. And even though the hulks of run-down factories have been resurrected as loft apartments for trendy young stockbrokers and web designers, Fishtown still feels worn and old, choked and dirty.

The day is overcast.

Many young mourners are standing on the sidewalk in front of the old family-run funeral home as I arrive. They smoke cigarettes. Inside, the stubborn stench of stale tobacco, trapped on breath and fabric, continues to assault, giving the room the congested feel of a corner saloon.

Eulogies are already in progress, but the room is too crowded and restless. Young mommies have brought infants and toddlers with them--probably becasue no sitters are available or becasue the mommies themselves are too young to know that this is not a place or time for small children. There are hushed conversations on the periphery, interspersed with the squeals of this or that child.

This is a blue-collar funeral. Few of the young men are dressed in the sombre business attire I associate with such moments. Those who have attempted suit and tie find that the costume sits uncomfortably on their backs. They seem like little boys dressed in their fathers' clothes. Piercings and tattoos appear on women and men alike. These are hearty, heavy-set, boisterous people, suddenly hushed into silence by the weight of this tragedy.

The manner of the man's death is not to be spoken. We all know it, but we cannot say it. It hangs in the air around us like the stale cigarette smell.

I wonder what I can possibly say in this moment to these people. What do I know about how they feel? Who am I, a scrawny college boy raised in suburbs on the other side of the continent, to even try to speak to their grief?

But we begin. The buzzing whispers go silent, and a heaviness falls over the room as if a window shade has been lowered. These rough young people still have enough of their Irish ancestors' mystical nature left in them to make the sign of the cross. Grief has become holiness.

I read a prayer. I read a lesson. I try to explain that we turn to these ancient words in moments like this becasue we need to know what we feel has been felt by others down through the centuries--and it will be felt again. We need to know that we are not alone.

I choose a story from the eleventh chapter of John's gospel. A man, a friend of Jesus, is sick. His family sends for Jesus, but Jesus doesn't come. The man dies. When Jesus arrives at the funeral, the family accuses him:

"Lord...if you had been here..."


It's the two-letter anthem of tragedy--If.

"If we had known how depressed our father (or brother or friend) really was..."

"If someone had only been there when he pulled that gun from the drawer..."

"If his doctors had read the signs!"

"If he'd only thought about what this would do to us...!"

"If I'd known that the last time I saw him would really be the last time...."

"If I could only see him again..."

And the "ifs" choke our brains. We think they help us make sense of this, but all they do is bring resentment or regret. The "ifs" are worthless.

"Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe...'"

I ask the mourners, "So what do you believe?"

I tell them I believe the dead man was a good man. He was a loving father. He was a hard worker. There was skill in his hands and generosity in his heart. I believe they loved him. I believe he loved them.

And I believe we never say, "I love you" to anyone unless we have given them permission to break our hearts.  I believe love and hurt are two sides of the same coin. If we want to rid ourselves of the hurt, we will forsake the love. I believe the love is worth the hurt. I believe God is love. And I believe God is here.

I tell them I believe the dead man is God's child, and that he is now with God. I tell them Jesus recognizes the holiness of their grief, for he too stood at the tomb of a loved one and shed tears.

I say another prayer, and I invite the grieving ones to speak the names of all the loved ones they've lost. They do. Dozens of names. A roll call of loss. There are years of saddness in this room today. I bless the ashes. I bless the mourners. "Thank you, Father," they say as I leave them.

I am arrogant about my ministry. I am honored the funeral director has called me to minister today. I do not want to risk having my God and Savior slandered by another. I don't want these good people told their loved one has committed a mortal sin in taking his own life. I don't want some zealot to pump them full of church doctrine or try to pray them all into heaven. And I don't want prayers read out of a book by someone who won't look the bereaved in the eyes.

I want them to know that Jesus wept.