My Name is Lucy Barton (Book Review)

lucy barton

“I will write and people will not feel so alone!” So proclaims elementary school-aged Lucy Barton, the protagonist of Elizabeth Strout’s new (2016) novel.  And isn’t that, in the end, why most of us write?

Shaped around a five -day visit from her mother when Lucy, herself a young mother, is hospitalized for nine weeks, the sparse prose and short timespan illuminate the entire and bewildering life of one girl, one family, one marriage, one woman.  Lurking in the shadows are horrors of innocence mistreated and love twisted by the ravages of life, but Lucy triumphs in a huge, albeit modestly trumpeted, way.

The themes of human existence are universal; the details of any one life are peculiar.  Lucy’s include a snake, a brother who sleeps with the pigs, a physician who responds gently and from behind a barricade of boundaries to her loneliness (do we sense Biblical themes here?), and a mother who can mother only in the same way that she sleeps, in brief snatches of time, her own life fenced by fear and reserve.

If you loved Olive Kitteridge, if you know anything about the sadness of children, if you wonder how writers become writers, then you will want to immerse yourself completely in this novel.

Thirst

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the third in the series, was preached on June 28, 2015.

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When I was a little girl, I attended a small country elementary school several miles from home.  It was a very basic sort of school – a two-story yellow brick building set among cow pastures, with a very basic sort of playground.  On one side, for the younger kids: some gravel, some grass, some swing sets and slides.  On the other side, past that invisible line that divided third-graders from fourth-graders, more gravel, and a baseball diamond and a basketball blacktop  for the older kids.

And on each side, nested up against the building: one water fountain.  One water fountain for 100 children.  On those really hot days that sometimes envelop southern Ohio in late May, we often spent our entire 15-minute recess periods in line for the water fountain.  People didn’t carry water bottles in those days, classrooms weren’t air-conditioned, and the sun was merciless.  All we wanted at recess was a drink.

After last week’s brief veering off course, we are back to the topic of water, the subject of our summer Bible study.  You may recall that we started with the waters of creation: the tumultuous depths from which God created the whole world.  We moved on to the waters of baptism: the clear, cool waters from which God creates us anew, promising that we ourselves are being created and re-created by the love of God. This week, we are invited to think about thirst.

About that longing to quench dry mouths and throats that propels first-graders away from the swings and slides and into a long line in the sun.

About that frightened longing that the early Israelite people experienced when they found themselves in the desert, freed from slavery in Egypt but suddenly adrift in the sand, no source of water in sight.

About that terrible, anguished longing that Jesus knew from the cross, when, moments before he died, he managed to croak out the words, “I thirst.”

This week, we are invited to consider thirst, and I came up with a long list of things for which I know those among us thirst:

We thirst for racial justice and reconciliation, so evident in the last two weeks, post-Charleston church shooting.  I was at the Euclid Collaborative meeting on Thursday, a monthly gathering of folks who provide social services to our community, and our leader noted that, like the year of 1968, the year of 2015 seems to be one of those in which our struggles as a nation boil over. In 1968, the focus was Vietnam; this year, the focus is the tension between black and white, and between and among other racial and ethnic groups as well.  And we thirst, don’t we, for communication and cooperation and understanding and reconciliation and justice?

We thirst for health, for healing – from cancer, from diabetes, from heart disease, from depression, from surgeries, from all of the illnesses and disorders, physical and mental, that beset us.  I spent three days this work learning and working in Washington, D,C, for legislation and funding for mental health and suicide prevention.  Those of us touched by suicide all thirst for an end to the ever-increasing reach of its tentacles.  “A 20% decline in suicide rates by 2025” is our call for change – because we thirst.

We thirst for peace of mind.  We know grief, and we know financial woes, and family troubles, and neighborhood disagreements, and internal confusion and helplessness – and so we thirst for peace of mind, for that peace which passes understanding to fill our hearts.

We thirst for order.  Our things get messy – look at the spate of books and magazine articles and websites about de-cluttering, emptying, discarding, and creating order in our homes.  Sometimes we think that everything would be all right if only our families or friends or co-workers would just get into line – like those kids on the playground, waiting for a drink of water.  We thirst to see everything — material goods, emotions, relationships, governments – in place and in order.

We thirst for community.  We long to know and to be known, to be part of something greater than ourselves, and to be welcomed and accepted and loved.  We are deeply wounded when, despite the best efforts of others, we find ourselves in the outs with those with whom we thought we were in, and we want so much to find ourselves within that safe circle of friendship and caring again.

We thirst for self- expression, for self-actualization, if you want to use a jargon-y term.  We long to grow into the person we feel called to be, and to say what it is we see and experience and know.

We thirst for beauty.  We could spend months, or years, even, trying to define beauty, but I think we all sense what the poet John  Keats put into words: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”[1]  We may each have our own opinion about what makes a beautiful body, or a beautiful spirit, or a beautiful landscape . . .  but whatever it is, we long for it.

And we thirst for safety and certainty, don’t we?  Just like those Israelites out in the wilderness, we want to feel safe, to feel assured of where we are and where we are going.

And what do we do when we thirst?

For one thing, we complain.  Like the Israelites, complaining that they had been led into a barren wasteland, led out of a place of slavery, sure – but their slave dwellings had been places with water and food.  We complain like Moses, too, complaining who whined that God had asked him to lead an unruly people whom he was afraid might kill him.   We, too, complain: Not enough of this.  Too much of that.  We are thirsty for so much, but the glass is never full – or so we think.

And then – what if we get really thirsty?  Thirsty like the Israelites, frightened for the children and the elderly with no access to water.  Thirsty like those who have been denied justice, like black parents frightened for their sons whenever they leave the house.  Thirsty for healing, like the man waiting in an uncomfortable chair in a crowded hallway, wondering about the results of his medical tests.  Thirsty like the gay teenager rejected by his parents and taunted by his friends, wondering if he will ever find community and caring.  What if we get that thirsty?

Then we get frightened, don’t we?  And anxious, and angry?   And we want someone to fix it.  The Israelites want Moses to fix it.  Moses wants God to fix it.  We want the Supreme Court, or the doctor, or our parents, to fix it.

We thirst, and we are afraid, and then,  most of all, we thirst for God. “I seek you,” says the psalmist, “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

We thirst.  We are fearful and angry.  We do not know what to do.  We want God to pay attention.

What if —  what if we begin by rephrasing the question?  What if we begin to understand our thirst, our longing, as a gift from God? As something which communicates to us God’s dreams for us?

What if instead of saying, “I’m really thirsty – where’s the water?” – what if we say, “I’m really thirsty – toward what is God directing me?” I am thirsty for God – how does God offer me water?

If we thirst for justice, we long for that for which God longs.

If we thirst for healing, we long to see God’s creation restored.

If we thirst for peace of mind, we seek the face of Jesus.

If we are attentive to our desires, to that for which we thirst, we find God’s dreams for` us.

Just` this past week, someone asked me how we hear God speaking to us.  Our desires are one of the main ways! Here’s how Father James Martin explains how thirst, longing, desire, draw us toward God and what God wants for us:

“The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. Our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly.” [2]

“But wait a minute,” you say. “You’re telling me that my desires will lead me to God?  I’ve always thought that I was supposed to resist my desires.  After all. I have a lot of desires – I thirst for a lot – that isn’t good for me – I even thirst for that which causes me problems, or gets me into deep trouble.”

You’re right, of course. We aren’t called to respond to our thirst in ways which are selfish, or unhealthy, or which cause hurt to ourselves or others.  We aren’t called to follow our desires, or to seek to quench our thirst, without prayerful discernment and community conformation.  An alcoholic who says, “I thirst!” and pours herself a glass of vodka is responding to desire for immediate gratification, not to God’s desire for her health.  A student who says, “I thirst for an A!” and cheats on an exam is responding to a desire to get her parents off her back, not to God’s desire for her to learn and succeed in life.

How then do we respond to our thirsts, to our longings?  How do we know whether they are healthy- God-driven thirsts, or merely the maddening calls of our own broken hearts and minds?

We can always check ourselves against the tried and true methods of the church.  Against scripture, for one thing.  You may thirst for that fancy car in the luxury showroom, but the Bible has some things to say about covetousness and theft and material wealth, so you can test your desire for that car against the words of the Bible.

We can also test our longings in our prayer.  If we watch and listen for what God says to us, we can learn to gauge the depth of our thirst for God as opposed to our anxious longing for other things.  God always speaks to us of generosity, of love, of compassion, of caring.  If your longings take you in a direction that harms others, then you want to ask: Are these longings from God?

And our community life provides a third way of testing the desires of our hearts.  If you long for something in life and your friends are skeptical, you might want to reconsider.  If you long to be a great basketball player, but the people you play with point out that you haven’t made a successful shot in three years, then you want to listen.  On the other hand, if you have a thirst for music, and you are being asked to perform in concert after concert, then you are hearing something positive from your community.  Your thirst, your desire, is being confirmed: yes, you have a gift, and God hopes you will use it.

So, yes: we need to check and gauge and test our longings.  Just because we thirst for something doesn’t mean that we should gulp it down.

But at the same time, we should recognize: our desires, our dreams, out thirst, carefully assessed and tended well, are ways in which God speaks to us.  Our desires, our dreams, the empty glass which we  long to see filled – filled with justice, filled with peace, filled with beauty – those represent the thirsts of God as well.

So: Don’t complain about how thirsty you are.  Don’t become anxious or afraid when you look around and see no water in sight.  Your thirst is a gift from God, a gift that will open your heart to the needs of this world and to your place in responding to them.  Amen.

 

[1] John  Keats (1795-1821), Poems of Sentiment IV.

[2] James Martin, S.J., “Our Deepest Desires.” http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/5653/our-deepest-desires (4/13/10).

 

If I Had a Hammer

A sermon for August 14, 2016:

 

So . . .  I come back from vacation, and God says that God’s word is like fire, and like a hammer, and Jesus is talking about bringing fire, and division . . .  Couldn’t we have a nice sermon week, with peaceful sheep beside still waters and admonitions to love one another, and reminders that blessed are the peacemakers?  But wait – maybe we do have these things, in disguise? Maybe not the sheep.  But let’s not dismiss these hard texts too quickly.

Let’s start with the prophet Jeremiah, who tells us that God’s word is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.  That God’s word is challenging and dangerous.

I have a special place in my heart for Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, we remember, is the prophet who was “forbidden by God to marry or to father children,” whose life which included “imprisonment, death threats, violent beatings, abandonment in a cistern, confinement in stocks, internment in a dungeon, persecution by family members, and confrontation by a false prophet.”[1]  That’s not how we imagine that a life lived faithfully should turn out, is it?  And yet many, many people find that, no sooner have they turned their lives over to God that things start to fall apart, at least from a  human point of view.

But this message of fire and rock?  Fire means many things in the Bible.[2]  Fire is a symbol of God’s presence and leadership – think about the Israelites in the desert being led by a pillar of fire.  Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit – think of the flames appearing above the heads of the people on Pentecost.  And fire is a cleansing agent – think of the words of the prophet Malachi, which most of us know from Handel’s Messiah: “But who may abideth the day of his coming? And who shall standeth when he appears? Because he is like a refiner’s fire . . .” – cleansing, purifying, leaving nothing of sin in his wake?

And a hammer – a hammer that smashes rock into pieces – a hammer which breaks apart the institutions, the political and social structures which oppress and destroy,  a hammer which sends the bits and pieces of our priorities flying — until what is left is God alone – is this perhaps the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks?

Perhaps Jeremiah had been meditating upon today’s Psalm, Psalm 82.  The setting is an ancient one, with its Hebrew idea of God sitting in God’s council of lesser gods, but the searing judgment God proclaims applies to the people of Jerusalem during the time of Jeremiah 400 years later and to the people of the world in our own time.  Listen to these verbs and to their objects:

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

How are we doing with all of this?  Are we spending our days giving justice and maintaining the right and rescuing and delivering?  Are we?  Are we looking to the weak and the orphan and the lowly and the destitute and the needy? Are we even imagining the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to inaugurate – the kingdom, the new creation, when, as another prophet tells us —  when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” [Amos]?  There might need to be a lot of purification and breaking apart before that can happen.

Can we imagine clearing – purifying – the world of the practices of big agriculture, trade deals gone wrong, markets structured to make the wealthier wealthier – so that the abundance of food produced on this planet can reach all the people who need to eat?

Can we break apart the school funding laws in Ohio, deemed unconstitutional three times by our state’s highest court, so that all of our children, those in the most affluent suburbs and those in our inner cities and those in our Appalachian foothills – all of our children will know what excellence in education means?

Can we even clear our homes of stuff that we don’t use but other people could, and can we even free our own families from the sins of the fathers and mothers, the arguments and grudges so longstanding that we don’t even know what they are about anymore?

No wonder Jesus says that he comes to bring fire and division to the earth.  No wonder!  We cannot have those gentle sheep wandering around in peaceful green pastures and we cannot experience genuine love for one another and we cannot known the blessedness of the peacemakers until the things which divide us are brought to the surface and addressed and until the fire of the Spirit’s presence takes hold and brings justice to the earth.

You know about fire in nature, right?  Years ago, our family took a trip out to Yellowstone, a couple of years after the big fires out there.  We were dismayed, of course, to see huge strands of burnt skeletons of trees where two years earlier we might have viewed vast green forests.  But so many of the exhibits we saw and the books we picked up taught us about the refining power of fire – about the need for forests to be cleared so that soil and grasses and meadows could be regenerated, so that new life could be born.  If Jesus came to bring fire, it could only be the fire of resurrection, because resurrection is what Jesus is all about.  And if Jesus came to bring division – well, we know that only too well, don’t we?  But we are assured that even in our divisiveness – so painfully experienced right now in our own election cycle, in Israel and Palestine, in Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, on the borders of Russisa – God is working to create a new thing.  And Jesus came to expose it — so that God can be at work to resolve it.

So what do we do?  Paul tells us to turn to the cloud of witnesses – to turn to our foremothers and forefathers in faith, and to take them as our models of courage, of obedience, of steadfastness, of loyalty, of perseverance – in the face of refining fires and rock foundations breaking apart. We all have those people in our lives – not only the figures of the Bible, but the great figures of our own lives.  The aunt of one of my friends, a Catholic nun, died a few days ago, and my friend said that “so much of the woman I am today is because of her.”  Isn’t it interesting that this passage, about “running with perseverance the race set before us” should come up today, in the middle of the Rio Olympics?  We are reminded every day of what it takes to run – and to dive, and to tumble, and to swim – with perseverance, whether we are talking about literal Olympic competitions or about the races of our own lives.  The Olympians themselves, witneses in the diversity of their power and strength and dignity, show us what happens when barriers are broken down and the best of humanity emerges.

We have been presented with a cascade of images today: fire, both destructive and purifying; a hammer splitting rock into pieces; a court of judgment and justice, fire scorching the earth and households divided, a cloud of witnesses, and a race to be run.  It’s a lot to take in.  And in today’s world, as in the worlds of the Bible, some of those images would be dangerous in the hands of people who would hear in them justification for physical violence and destruction. But in the end, all of these metaphors are about the same thing: the love of God, which demands from us clarity, and justice, and engagement, and, ultimately, love for another.

The title of today’s sermon comes from a song which most of you probably know well.  The folksinger  Pete Seeger was a prophet for our time, and we might recognize his song, “If I Had a Hammer,” as a recapitulation of today’s readings.  It popped into my mind as soon as I read Jeremiah –

[First verse]

And God’s justice, God’s love, is a dangerous hammer, isn’t it?  God’s love splinters and burns and breaks apart our complacency, our institutions, our attitudes that further racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, violence.  We are all complicit, says Jeremiah, we are all attached to the rocks that we hold sacred – and Jesus tells us that he will destroy them, and that where the old festers, he will create anew, in the name of justice and love and peace.

By the end of his song, Pete Seeger is proclaiming that he’s got the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, and a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

And so, my friends, do we.  So do we.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

[1] Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher. August 14, 2016.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2949.

[2] David Lose, Working Preacher. August 15, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=733.

Retreats and Publications

The following lists some of the small group retreats and presentations I have offered.  I would be happy to work with you to offer a customized event for your group.

  • Ignatian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Introduction
  • Ignatian Spirituality for Bereaved Parents of Older Children
  • Resting in God: Approaches to Prayer
  • Discernment for the Local Church
  • Sabbath Practices

And here are some of my publications!  I’d be happy to speak on any of these topics, too!

Where Is the Dry Ground?

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This was the fourth sermon, preached on July 5, 2015.

IMG_3380.JPG

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, whom I’m going to call Lucy, was suddenly and unexpectedly widowed.  She and her husband were only around age 50, looking forward to their son’s graduation from high school and some new freedoms for themselves, when her husband  was suddenly struck down, becoming deathly ill with no forewarning at all.  He was gone four days later.

I know that many of you have been in that place.

Instead of the security and comfort of a long marriage, my friend Lucy was on her own – surrounded by others, of course, who rushed in to provide assistance, to create a beautiful memorial service, and to deliver enough plants and food that she could have opened a couple of stores – but basically on her own for what lay ahead:

The terrible, debilitating grief that follows the loss of a beloved spouse and, even moreso, the sudden loss of such a beloved companion.  The grief of her son, their only child, and his own life challenges, now without a dad to guide him.  The financial concerns that always follow a death – we don’t talk about that too often, do we? — but there are funeral expenses, and bills to pay, and questions loom large about life insurance and lost health insurance and one income where once there were two.

I know that many of you have been in that place, too.

For Lucy, the challenges of widowhood were exacerbated by the recent deaths of both of her parents, and her own recent decision to leave a stable job for a business of her own.  So often there are other factors – extended family issues, young children or aging parents, geographical distances.

I know that many of you have faced those as well.

And when these things happen, don’t you feel like the Israelite people, facing the high waters of the Jordan River?  Have you ever wondered where God might have gone, and how it is that you came to be deposited on the banks of a river racing with high waters?

Our story today, our Biblical story, is actually an unfamiliar one to many of us.  We know that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and that God charged Moses to lead them out of Egypt, into freedom, and toward a promised land.  There was a crossing in that earlier story as well – remember the crossing of the Red Sea?  With the Egyptians hot on their trail, the Israelites were fleeing for their very lives, when, so the story has it, God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that they might pass to safety, and then God let the waters reconnect into one sea, in which the Egyptian army got stuck and drowned.

That adventure was followed by forty years – yes, forty YEARS of wandering in the desert, in which the Israelites learned to be a community of God.  And now, as we join the story this morning, the Israelites stand on the banks of the Jordan River, with the land promised to them on the other side.  Moses has died, and Joshua has become their new leader.

Isn’t this a bit like some of our own stories?  We stand between one life and another, between an old life and a new, and we hesitate.  To get from the old to the new looks too uncertain, too downright dangerous.  We want to turn around and go right back to where we came from!

How many people have wanted to start something new, but been incapacitated by fear of the waters that lie between them and a different life?   Where is the solid ground on which to walk?  Who will help?

This space in between, this threshold space, is called a liminal space.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual writer, tells us that  a liminal space “ . . . is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.”[1]

That’s where the Israelites found themselves on the banks of the Jordan, with the desert behind them and the river in front of them.  That’s where my friend Lucy found herself, with married life behind her and an untried life without her husband ahead of her.  That’s where we find ourselves in our church community, with what we know and love behind us, and an uncertain future ahead of us.

So what happens to the Israelites?  God tells Joshua, their new leader, that the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, the huge chest containing the scrolls of the law, are to walk straight into the river – and that then the waters of the river will part.  Dry ground will appear, and the people will be able to cross over.

I want you to imagine this scene for a moment.  Imagine all of these people crowded along the banks of the river.  The waters are high and moving fast.  Even the young and strong among them wonder how they will cross – what about the little ones, and the elderly?  Won’t they all be washed away? The people look back, hopefully, at the desert.  Maybe they could find a way to make do there.  Maybe the past would somehow come to life again.  Maybe they don’t have to leave behind what they know.

And then they discover, through the words and deeds of God, that they can go forward.

In practical terms, they can go forward because dry ground appears.  Solid, safe ground – right in front of them, in the middle of the river.

For my friend Lucy, dry ground has begun to appear in the last several months.  Her friends have stuck with her.  Her business has begun to grow, and her financial future is a bit more assured.  She’s not there yet, but it’s possible that she’ll make it. But had she stayed in the past, hiding out in her house and refusing to step into the waters of change, into the liminal space between the old and the new, she would be nowhere right now.

What about us, in this congregation?  Can we see the dry ground lying ahead of us, beyond the liminal space in which we find ourselves?  Or are we so unwilling to look beyond the tried and true that we cannot imagine stepping out? Can we imagine that the waters of fear and frustration will part for us?  What if the dry ground means we have to do things completely differently?  What if the dry ground lies in other communities, in other congregations, among other people?

And what is most important about that dry ground?  What does this passage tell us it means?

It means, as Joshua says to the Israelites, that “the living God is among you.”  The living God is among you!

Yes — we are called to remember the past.  Our memories contain the teachings that tell us who we are: God’s beloved people.  Our memories of the past tell us how we were formed into community.  From the past come stories and rituals which identify us

But we are not only our pasts.  We are not only the community of before.  The stories and rituals of the past are not the only stories and rituals.  God is with us in the present as well, and God leads us unto the future.

The Israelites became a community in the desert, where God fed them and led them onward.  But look at how all of that changes in this passage!  The Israelites were formed to be a community not for the past, but for the future. The laws and the rituals and the stories of their lives in the desert were intended to be used in a new land, under new leadership, in the future – not housed in a museum in the desert.

I am sure that nearly everyone in this sanctuary this morning has experienced a terrible grief, much as my friend Lucy has.  And hasn’t it also been your experience that at first, and often for a long time, your memories are excruciatingly painful?  You can hardly bear to think about what was, after it no longer is.  Every reminder of the person or place you have lost is heart-rending, and you just want to run, as fast as you can, back to that past.

But gradually, with time and in the presence of God, those memories fold themselves into new lives.  They become teachings and rituals for the future.  You don’t leave them behind – indeed, you don’t leave them behind in glass casings in a museum – but you open yourself to allow them to be transformed into the foundation of something new.

The laws – the Ten Commandments – which the Israelites learned in their wandering days in the desert, and carried triumphantly into their new city of Jerusalem – those are still the foundation of Jewish and Christian life, even today.  But we understand them for our time and our world – they are not stored in a photo album for us to look at on occasion, but they are part of a living, forward-moving tradition.

My friend’s past life with her husband is alive and part of who she is now.  She doesn’t forget him, or their life together, not for a minute – but she isn’t mired in the past. That life, that relationship, is being transformed into a future for her and for their son, a future of courage and determination, and even — joy.

What about our lives here, in this community?  Do we stay on the desert side of the Jordan, looking furtively backward for God to take us back through time, back to what once was?  Are we too afraid of the waters of change, of crossing the liminal space of uncertainty to something new?

Or do we know that God will make dry land for us?  Do we know that God will part the waters that threaten to sweep us away and bring us new life – perhaps in a new place?  Do we know that with God-given courage and determination, we can cross any waters and find joy in new lives?

God is a living God, my friends, and God is among us.  Go forth, and be of good courage!  Go forth, and know that the God of the past is the God of the future!  And know, as the poet Andrew King  proclaims, that:

“you do not cross the boundaries alone,

that you are not abandoned in the raging floods,

that in the depths that would knock you

off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor

 

to hold and to guide, and waters of danger

shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos

may bring newness of life, and out of the noise

of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.”[2]

Amen.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-creativity-cure/201306/creativity-and-the-liminal-space

[2] “Into the River.” A Poetic Kind of Place. https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/category/joshua

Image: Green River, Utah

Life-Giving Waters

closing 4

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the second in the series, was preached on June 14, 2015.

In a few weeks, we will be treated to round the world pictures of the christening of the new little princess Charlotte – daughter of Prince William and Duchess Kate.  Everyone will look beautiful in their dressy suits and hats, little Prince George will wear a charming outfit, and Princess Charlotte will no doubt be clad in a long baptismal dress which will flow over her mother’s arms nearly to the floor. The official photographs will be flashed ‘round the world, and everyone will ooh and ahh – and what’s not to ooh and ahh over, with such a lovely young family for whom surely everyone wishes only the best?

But one thing we will probably not hear referenced on the news or read in People Magazine will be an explanation of what the little princess’s baptism is all about.  It will be treated as a secular event which happens to take place in a church – a dress-up day for great happiness – but we will hear little, if anything, of it as a solemn religious occasion.

What is baptism, anyway?  Most of us probably don’t know much more about it than do the People Magazine writers.  We’re talking about baptism today because it’s the second topic in our summer Bible study, Come to the Waters – the second Biblical water subject for these warm days when water seems extremely appealing.  But appealing as water, and the whole idea of baptism are – what is baptism all about?

During Bible study on Thursday, one of our members described baptism as a welcome.  I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community.

What’s the best welcome you ever had?

I often remember welcomes from my grandmother.  As you know, I grew up in the country, in southern Ohio.  To get to my house, you first turned into a paved lane and drove up a hill to my grandparents’ house, and then went on down a gravel road behind their place, leading to ours.  That meant that as a little girl hopping off the school bus at the bottom of the hill, my first destination was my grandmother’s – with her offerings of ice cream and late afternoon television shows – and that as a young career woman, my first stop was my grandmother’s, often to drink a glass of lemonade on her brick terrace and tell her about my life – and that as a young mother I drove to my grandmother’s before anyplace else in southwestern Ohio, so that my children could tumble out of the van into the same warmth and love that I had always known there

And you know what was wonderful about my grandmother’s welcomes?

That she always had time.  Always – time for each of us.

My grandmother lived in an era in which homemaking was considered an art – and so she baked bread, and canned tomato juice, and cooked wholesome dinners from scratch each night, and was an expert knitter and intent student of nature – but she always had time to put everything down and turn her attention to us.  She was not the least bit intrusive – there were always treats and games available, but she also left us to our own devices when we preferred that, and was always willing to listen to whatever we had to share.

Welcome welcome welcome.  How was school?  How’s your dog?  Tell me about the new Beatles album.  I have something to show you!  Welcome!

Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome?

Here you are!  Welcome to the church!  Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured!

Welcome to that for which you thirst and perhaps do not even know it.  Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!

Baptism is something we call a sacrament.  Sacraments – and in the Presbyterian Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives.   Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us. For all of us.

John Calvin, that early Protestant reformer whose ideas and writings and leadership set much of the foundation for our church, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them.  We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid, palpable, material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about.

Water throughout the Bible, is a symbol of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.

Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God creates – everything.  Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world.

In our first reading today, God is tending to God’s people, the Israelites, who have escaped slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert.  They are literally parched, expecting to die of thirst n the hot, dry desert, trapped in an inhospitable environment far from the homes they have known.  So miserable are they that they turn their anger on Moses, their leader, and threaten to kill him.  And in response, God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, and water for the people will pour from the rock.

The people need water, actual water, in response to their physical thirst –but they also need material evidence of God’s care for them.  They are so lost, so disoriented, so frightened – and the water they receive in such a surprising way becomes a symbol for them that God is with them, a symbol of God’s care and promises remembered to this day.

For Jesus, baptized in the Jordan River in today’s gospel reading, the water is an even more profound symbol: a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of identity.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptize like any other Jew of his time and place, to engage in this ritual of cleansing conducted by his cousin, John the Baptist.  John is surprised to see him – because John knows that Jesus is not like any other person of his time and place – but Jesus is insistent that he should engage in the ritual common to all.  And thus he makes common to all in baptism what happens to him in baptism: the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”

What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism.  This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert.  This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.

Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality.  Water is about identity.

When the little princess is baptized, much will be made of her names – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and how they reflect her identity in the line and heritage of the royal family.  We do much the same, don’t we – if we have children, we choose names for them that are of significance to ourselves and our families, and hope that those names will come to bear meaning for the tiny babies who will grow into them.  But those names, however beautiful and meaningful – those names are not nearly as marvelous as the name and identity given us in baptism: Beloved.  Those names, however much they symbolize family history and parental dreams, do not completely reflect the sign and symbol of the water of baptism: God’s beloved.  Welcome, beloved one, into God’s community.

Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements — a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font.

Welcome to a love that will always have time for you.   Welcome to a love in which you will flourish.  Amen.

In a few weeks, we will be treated to round the world pictures of the christening of the new little princess Charlotte – daughter of Prince William and Duchess Kate.  Everyone will look beautiful in their dressy suits and hats, little Prince George will wear a charming outfit, and Princess Charlotte will no doubt be clad in a long baptismal dress which will flow over her mother’s arms nearly to the floor. The official photographs will be flashed ‘round the world, and everyone will ooh and ahh – and what’s not to ooh and ahh over, with such a lovely young family for whom surely everyone wishes only the best?

But one thing we will probably not hear referenced on the news or read in People Magazine will be an explanation of what the little princess’s baptism is all about.  It will be treated as a secular event which happens to take place in a church – a dress-up day for great happiness – but we will hear little, if anything, of it as a solemn religious occasion.

What is baptism, anyway?  Most of us probably don’t know much more about it than do the People Magazine writers.  We’re talking about baptism today because it’s the second topic in our summer Bible study, Come to the Waters – the second Biblical water subject for these warm days when water seems extremely appealing.  But appealing as water, and the whole idea of baptism are – what is baptism all about?

During Bible study on Thursday, one of our members described baptism as a welcome.  I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community.

What’s the best welcome you ever had?

I often remember welcomes from my grandmother.  As you know, I grew up in the country, in southern Ohio.  To get to my house, you first turned into a paved lane and drove up a hill to my grandparents’ house, and then went on down a gravel road behind their place, leading to ours.  That meant that as a little girl hopping off the school bus at the bottom of the hill, my first destination was my grandmother’s – with her offerings of ice cream and late afternoon television shows – and that as a young career woman, my first stop was my grandmother’s, often to drink a glass of lemonade on her brick terrace and tell her about my life – and that as a young mother I drove to my grandmother’s before anyplace else in southwestern Ohio, so that my children could tumble out of the van into the same warmth and love that I had always known there

And you know what was wonderful about my grandmother’s welcomes?

That she always had time.  Always – time for each of us.

My grandmother lived in an era in which homemaking was considered an art – and so she baked bread, and canned tomato juice, and cooked wholesome dinners from scratch each night, and was an expert knitter and intent student of nature – but she always had time to put everything down and turn her attention to us.  She was not the least bit intrusive – there were always treats and games available, but she also left us to our own devices when we preferred that, and was always willing to listen to whatever we had to share.

Welcome welcome welcome.  How was school?  How’s your dog?  Tell me about the new Beatles album.  I have something to show you!  Welcome!

Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome?

Here you are!  Welcome to the church!  Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured!

Welcome to that for which you thirst and perhaps do not even know it.  Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!

Baptism is something we call a sacrament.  Sacraments – and in the Presbyterian Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives.   Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us. For all of us.

John Calvin, that early Protestant reformer whose ideas and writings and leadership set much of the foundation for our church, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them.  We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid, palpable, material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about.

Water throughout the Bible, is a symbol of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.

Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God creates – everything.  Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world.

In our first reading today, God is tending to God’s people, the Israelites, who have escaped slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert.  They are literally parched, expecting to die of thirst n the hot, dry desert, trapped in an inhospitable environment far from the homes they have known.  So miserable are they that they turn their anger on Moses, their leader, and threaten to kill him.  And in response, God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, and water for the people will pour from the rock.

The people need water, actual water, in response to their physical thirst –but they also need material evidence of God’s care for them.  They are so lost, so disoriented, so frightened – and the water they receive in such a surprising way becomes a symbol for them that God is with them, a symbol of God’s care and promises remembered to this day.

For Jesus, baptized in the Jordan River in today’s gospel reading, the water is an even more profound symbol: a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of identity.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptize like any other Jew of his time and place, to engage in this ritual of cleansing conducted by his cousin, John the Baptist.  John is surprised to see him – because John knows that Jesus is not like any other person of his time and place – but Jesus is insistent that he should engage in the ritual common to all.  And thus he makes common to all in baptism what happens to him in baptism: the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”

What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism.  This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert.  This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.

Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality.  Water is about identity.

When the little princess is baptized, much will be made of her names – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and how they reflect her identity in the line and heritage of the royal family.  We do much the same, don’t we – if we have children, we choose names for them that are of significance to ourselves and our families, and hope that those names will come to bear meaning for the tiny babies who will grow into them.  But those names, however beautiful and meaningful – those names are not nearly as marvelous as the name and identity given us in baptism: Beloved.  Those names, however much they symbolize family history and parental dreams, do not completely reflect the sign and symbol of the water of baptism: God’s beloved.  Welcome, beloved one, into God’s community.

Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements — a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font.

Welcome to a love that will always have time for you.   Welcome to a love in which you will flourish.  Amen.

 

Image: Baptismal Font, Boulevard Presbyterian Church, Euclid OH

Water Water Everywhere

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In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This was the introductory sermon, preached on June 7, 2015.

*****

Water – it covers 71% of the earth’s surface.  Our own Lake Erie covers almost 10,000 square miles.  Water is the major component of most of our body parts and, depending upon your age, makes up 55-75% of your body.

Water really is everywhere, including in the Book of Genesis and in the Bible as a whole.  Think about it for a minute: The waters of the deep at the time of creation.  The flood.  Water in the desert.  The Red Sea.  The Jordan River.  The sea along which Jesus walks.  The woman at the well.  The storm at sea which Jesus calms.  Jesus walking on water.

In Bible Study this summer, we’re embarking upon a study named “Come to the Waters,” a study which moves through the entire Bible by using water as a theme.  On Thursdays – noon and 6:00 pm, by the way – we’ll be taking a detailed look at some of the significant water passages in the Bible.  And on Sundays I’ll be preaching about those same passages.

Today, we begin at the beginning – with the Book of Genesis and God’s creation – in which water is a major feature. And I want to share with you something which I read this week which has really got me thinking and has really appealed to me.  It has to do with the idea that God created a dome in the waters, and that the dome separated the waters from the waters.

Let’s set the stage:

Genesis opens with these words: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void [– a sort empty chaos –] and water covered the face of the deep.”  Water was already there.  God’s first raw material was water.    And God’s Spirit was there as well – in fact, God was working through God’s Spirit.  That very first sentence continues with the words, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  In Hebrew, the language in which Genesis was first written, the word ruach is the word for both wind and spirit.  That same Spirit that we’ve been talking about, the same Spirit who descended at Pentecost and enlivened Jesus’ disciples to carry the good news into the world – that same Spirit is present at the very beginning, moving over the face of the waters.

And then what happens?  God begins to create and to separate things, starting with the light and the darkness. God begins to establish a universe and to create order in the universe.

The second thing on which God gets to work is the water, and the separation of water from land.  Let’s listen again to the words which describe – which sing, really — the second and the beginning of the third day of creation:

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’  So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  God called the dome Sky. And there  was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry  land appear.’ And it was so.  God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together God called Seas. And God saw that it was good,

A little confusing, yes?  What is this dome that Genesis is talking about?  Well, I have a picture for you: [Slide of drawing].

This is a drawing, a contemporary drawing, of what the ancient peoples, the people who told the stories of Genesis, though the universe looked like.  See that dome?  Their stories told them that God created this dome to separate waters above the dome – from whence rain and snow come – from waters under, or inside, the dome, where we live, and where there are lakes and rivers and ponds.  And, as you can see, the sun and the moon and the stars are also inside the dome, as is the earth, and the ocean is kind of at the edge of the dome, butting up against the mountains of the earth.

Now, why is this idea of a dome so important?  Why a dome to separate the waters above and the waters below?

It helps to know, I think, what the waters of the earth meant to the ancient people of the Bible.

Water, to them, was meant chaos. Water was deep, and dark, and filled with strange creatures.  Water was a scary place, a place of turmoil and trouble.  The ancient Hebrews were not a seafaring people – they were a nomadic people, a people of herds and flocks and, later, a people of agriculture and small towns.  Other than as fishermen, they did not seek to encounter the water.  In the oldest stories of the Bible, the story in which water plays a major role is the story of the flood – of chaos returning to the earth, wild and destructive chaos.

In the beginning, however, when God is seeking to bring order to chaos, God does so by creating and separating one thing from another – light and darkness, waters from above and waters from below, water and land – and then God creates very distinct creatures.  Creatures that swim and creatures that fly and creatures that walk upon the land – and creatures who think, and talk.

If we think, as we so often do of the God of creation as a God who create order, and logic, and systems, as a God who separates and organizes, then that dome which God created makes sense – as a sort of dividing line, holding back the waters of chaos from the waters of calm.

But is that how life works?

Don’t we, in reality, experience a lot of chaos in our lives?  Both wonderful chaos and terrible chaos?  The wonderful chaos of falling in love, or of welcoming a new baby into a previously calm and orderly household?  The terrible chaos of a crisis or a natural disaster?

Chaos is part of our lives.  We have not been separated and secured under a dome, and thus protected from chaos.

So what does all this mean?  Does the story of creation in Genesis, a story told not as a scientific textbook explanation of creation, but a story told in poetry and metaphor to explain who God is, who we are, and what we are doing here – does it really tell only of a fantasy world in which everything is perfect and trouble ever comes?

Or does it say something to us, we who so often live with chaos?

Here’s what I found this week that was so interesting to me:

That dome which God creates?  The Hebrew word for dome is rakiaRakia can be translated as dome, and also as vault, or firmament.  Those all sound pretty firm, don’t they?  Solid.  Impermeable.  If God is ordering the universe as we might hope, it makes sense that God would use a solid dome to divide the outside waters of chaos from the inside waters we need, the waters found in lakes and rivers.

But there’s another possible translation for rakia: Expanse.  And as Karla Suomala,[1] to whom I am much indebted for this line of thought, reminds us, expanse “is far more vague and may imply a less solid and more porous boundary between the earth and the watery chaos beyond” than words like dome, or vault.

Maybe the barrier between what we see as chaos and what we see as order is no so firm, not so definitive, as we’d like to think.  Maybe God is thoroughly engaged with both.  Maybe God calls us to be thoroughly engaged with both.  Maybe God calls us to dive deep into the waters of chaos in our lives, and into the waters of chaos of all creation – not to separate or isolate ourselves from what strikes us as chaotically difficult.

Let’s listen to Karla Suomala:

. . .  I’ve begun to realize that chaos, confusion, and emptiness are much closer than I would like.  Much of my energy is aimed at setting up barriers (artificial, certainly) to keep my loved ones and me safe. Maybe it works some of the time. Other times it doesn’t. As a child of God, though, is this what I am called to do? Fight chaos with every fiber of my being?. . .  [What] if we were to begin to think of life and chaos in a more symbiotic relationship, part of the same fabric of creation?

What if the rakia creates a porous space in the midst of chaos in which humans live in relationship with what they cannot control, what is uncontrollable, as opposed to constantly  fighting against it?

What if we are called to understand the stories of creation in a new way?   To remember that God creates out of watery chaos and presides over all sorts of chaos?  That God’s Spirit sweeps over the waters of chaos, broods over the waters of chaos, and stirs up the waters of chaos to create new life?

We are so oriented toward order, so determined to impose control over our lives, so fearful of the tumult and turmoil of life – that we forget that the wind of the Spirit overshadows what we see as chaos and creates anew from what we understand to be the stormy waters of life.  And – that the Spirit invites us to join her in stirring things up to create new hopes, new dreams, new worlds.

This is the good news, my friends: That God is in all things, creating from all things —  and that we are called to open our hearts and minds to all of God’s good creation, knowing that even in chaos, perhaps even especially, in chaos, God’s love pours out and gives birth to new life.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1807 (2013).

Image: St. Augustine Beach, Florida

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