Night Journey (Sermon for Lent 2)

Below you’ll find a sermon I preached three years ago.  I pulled it out a few days ago, as there’s a chance I’ll receive a last-minute call to preach for a friend tomorrow.  It’s a looong sermon, so I’ve been working on a shorter version.  But I do like the corn crake story, which might disappear altogether.  And for tomorrow I’ve written a Nicodemus prayer, so it might be helpful to remember his journey today.

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Several years ago, a group from my home church, Forest Hill, went on pilgrimage to Iona, which is a very small – about three miles long and a mile across – and remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland.  It’s nice to be able to mention Iona during this Lenten season in which we are focusing on the pilgrimage journey, because Iona has been a pilgrimage destination for at least several decades.  It was first inhabited by Christians in the 500s, when St. Columba of Ireland made his way across the sea, landed, and decided to establish a monastery there. Eventually other monks and nuns arrived, and one of the finest libraries in Europe was established on Iona.  It was always a risky sort of place, overrun by Vikings several times and eventually, I am sorry to say, by Protestant reformers, who destroyed the library in the 1500s.  Today Iona is home to a small – very small – village, to farmers and shepherds, and to a restored church which serves as a central gathering place for a worldwide religious community and the home of an extensive summer program.  You know of Iona whether you realize it or not, because we sing songs, such as “The Summons”  (“Will You Come and Follow Me?) which were written by John Bell, a member of the Iona community.

Anyway, a group of us went off to Iona for a week, and one night we went to an evening of Scottish music and dancing. I found that I was more in the mood for solitude than for music and dancing that night, and so after an hour or so I decided to walk back across the island.  It was very late, and very dark – finally!  Iona is so far north that there are few hours of real darkness during the summer months – and as I walked down a road that ran between extensive fields, I heard a raspy, insect-like call: first here, and then there, and then over there a ways.

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I knew exactly what was making that call.  The call I heard was the call of a corn crake, a medium sized-quail like bird, a very secretive bird that runs around at night in fields of vegetation high enough to provide it with cover.  We don’t have corn crakes here, but they are common in western Scotland.  I knew that I was unlikely to see one, but I had hoped to hear one on Iona – and there they were, definitely several of them, calling back and forth as they scuttled about the otherwise silent midnight fields. I wish I could replicate their odd raspy call for you, but I’ll spare you – and tell you that if you go to youtube and search the words corn crake, you can see and hear them, for yourselves.

Now, what does a corn crake have to do with anything today?  We are here today to talk about Nicodemus, who most likely never heard a corn crake.  But Nicodemus did make a famous night journey, a journey out to see Jesus in the dark of night. 

What is it about the night that’s significant?

We often hear about Nicodemus in somewhat disparaging terms.  We hear that he was a leader of the Jews – someone in charge, probably well known around town, and with a reputation as a scholar and as an authority in the community – who slipped out in the night to meet Jesus.  He was curious, apparently, and intrigued by this teacher and miracle worker who was new on the scene – but he didn’t want anyone to known that he might be taking Jesus seriously.   So he went out when he was unlikely to run into anyone.  A well-meaning kind of person, but not a bold one.  That’s what we usually hear.

And maybe that’s all true.  But I’d like to suggest to you that there may be another dimension to our friend Nicodemus, another reason for his journey through the night.

Night is a time, isn’t it? — when we are particularly attentive to our surroundings.  In the dark, we need to look closely as to where we’re going in order that we not stumble.  We tend to listen carefully to the sounds we hear, and often we are out at night with the intention of seeing and doing and hearing things we can’t see and do and hear during the day.   Corn crakes, for instance – the only way you are likely to hear a corn crake is to spend time out in the fields late at night in corn crake country. 

The  song  “The Music of the Night” from the musical The Phantom of the Opera begins with the following words:

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;/ Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

Don’t the words describe precisely what it’s like to be out in the night?

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation/ Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

 Consider other night journeys:

When I was a little girl, living out in the country, many of the hide-and-seek games my brothers and I played required the dark of night as a setting.  We had several acres in which to make small journeys and secret ourselves from one another, and the darkness certainly heightened our awareness of the sounds of night birds, of the rippling waters of the creek, of the breeze through the trees and tall grasses. 

Far from our ordinary lives in southern Ohio, a famous night journey is found in the Islamic tradition, a journey in which the prophet Muhammed is reputed to have been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on a large white animal, usually imagined as a horse.  On that journey, the story tells us, he met Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many other figures significant to Judaism, Christianity, and, of course, Islam.  He returned to Mecca to tell his followers of his travels, travels in which it surely seems that “darkness stirred and awakened his imagination.”  His night journey is often celebrated in the Muslim tradition – and surely there is something about the night that adds to the sense of its significance.  Events, conversations, encounters, symbols: they stand out in the night.

Darkness, night, is also a time when struggles seem heightened.  In our ordinary lives, don’t we often find that our questions loom larger, our doubts seem sharper, our worries more confounding, in the dark than in the light of day.  And again, to move onto the broader stage, think of Harriet Tubman, guiding hundreds of slaves north to freedom by the dark of night.  While nighttime was her only choice for adequate concealment, don’t you think that the night must have also “heightened each sensation” for those traveling north?   I imagine that those making that journey must have felt both intense fear about what would happen to them if they were discovered, intense hope for the possibilities that lay ahead, and intense awe at the spread of stars in the sky that served as guideposts for them.

And so: Nicodemus.  What is he doing out at night, looking for Jesus?  Maybe he really did feel that it was important that he remain undetected.  Maybe he was convinced that he would lose his position and influence if his friends and colleagues discovered him in conversation with the rabbi from Nazareth – but his motivation doesn’t alter the reality:

Night journeys are different.

Night journeys have the potential to transform us at least in part because they take place at night, because the darkness and the silence and the absence of our daily companions enable everything we encounter to be thrown into sharp relief.  We see differently at night, and we hear differently at night.  We learn differently at night.

And Nicodemus had a lot to learn.

This interchange, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, is packed with some of the most significant, and also most confusing, claims of our faith.  We could spend weeks on Nicodemus, couldn’t we?  What do all those signs, those miracles Jesus has been performing really mean?  What does it mean to be born from above?  What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?  What does it mean that the Spirit blows where it will?

What a struggle this conversation must have been for Nicodemus! In one of her poems in the volume Red Bird, the poet Mary Oliver says,

All night my heart makes its way/ however it can over the rough ground/of uncertainties . . .

“The rough ground of uncertainties.”  That’s where Nicodemus is treading in his conversation with Jesus: all night, his heart makes its way over the tough ground of uncertainties.  The things he is hearing are not the things her has heard before.  They are not the things upon which he has staked his life as a leader among his people. How is he ever going to sort of all this out in the light of day?

But – and here’s what I want you to remember: It’s night.  And in the night we hear things differently.  The final words Nicodemus hears are words many of us have heard again and again and again, words that have even become commonplace to us as banners at football games.  But for this moment, I want you to imagine hearing them for the first time, in the dark of the night, in the midst of all of your struggles and questions, as clear as the call of a corn crake across the fields of Scotland:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

In the dark, in the night, Nicodemus is beginning the journey toward being born from above.  In the dark, in the night, the Spirit is blowing its way into the life of Nicodemus.

Maybe Nicodemus only thinks he is making night journey because he wants to avoid his friends and neighbors.  Maybe he’s really making a night journey because God has drawn him into a time and place in which he will be completely undistracted, in which his attention will be entirely focused on the man whom he seeks, a time and a place in which he will be transformed.

Let’s return to words from “The Music of the Night”:

Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar/ And you’ll live as you’ve never lived before . . .

 Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world/ Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before . . .

A new world; a new way of living; a new creation: that’s what Jesus is offering, and promising, to Nicodemus and to us.  A creation in which we do not perish, but have eternal life.  A sphere of rich, full joyous life in which we are not condemned but saved, by love and for love.

Sometimes we can’t see any of that in the light of day.  Sometimes we have to journey by night to know with clarity both the call of the corn crake and the love of God.  Sometimes in night’s “rough gound of uncertainties” we find the answer: the Son who came not to turn on us in anger , but to gather us up into love.

And so: if your journey calls you into the dark of night, go forth!  Our psalm today tells us that “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  Rely upon that promise, and upon the knowledge that the night may reveal God’s love in ways invisible in the daylight.

Amen.

What Is Church For? ~ 1

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Although I went to seminary out of two membership experiences with strong, vital, and energetic churches, my subsequent encounters, starting with my very first (outside of my own congregation) guest preaching gig a few weeks into school, have been with a number of struggling and dwindling congregations.  I have thus spent a lot of time pondering questions along the lines of What is church for?  Why go to church?  Does church have any meaning?  And I might have a few things to say about those and related questions from time to time.

My husband and I were young professionals, YUPPIES in the truest sense of the word, when we found a Methodist church and joined it.  He was an IT professional and I was a lawyer, both of us working for major corporations.  We were new suburban homeowners, having acquired a house, a yard, and the requisite tools (lawnmower, shovels, rakes) to replace our cozy apartment.  We had very little vacation time, but enough money for short trips to visit my grandparents in Florida, and to bird and backpack out west.  We usually spent 12-hour weekdays downtown, toiling away in tall office buildings, tried to maintain the rest of our lives on Saturdays, and relaxed with The New York Times on Sundays.

So why church?

I was casting about for a means by which to do something more meaningful to me than reviewing industry regulations and drafting corporate leases.  I enjoyed my job, and really liked my colleagues, but . . .  is this all there is? I wondered on a daily basis.  I really didn’t know much about church; my family of origin is not a church sort of family.  But I had spent six years in religious boarding schools, so I had a lot of book knowledge.  And it occurred to me, on the basis of that boarding school experience, that the kind of thing I was looking for (I did not know words like mission or phrases like social justice) was done by people in churches.

So off to church we went.  To a very large church, where we were lost for a year or two, until someone invited me to join a committee on . . . Social Concerns!  There you go!  I have no idea how any of the people who never spoke to us imagined that that committee might be the home I was looking for, but I had finally landed in a welcoming nest filled with people doing actual things in the community.

To this day, I think of church as a place from which one serves the world, one way or another.  Over thirty years later, I have a much broader sense of a life of faith, of course, but my first question about any congregation, still springing from that very well-dressed but also very confused young lawyer, is:

What are you doing outside your doors?

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Image: Prayer walkers from five churches on a  chilly day in the city!

A Book of Lament ~ Retreat for Suicide Survivors (Second Wednesday in Lent)

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The Bible contains an entire book devoted to the subject of Lamentations.  Many people are unaware of this little book; many are unaware that the Bible, one way or another, covers the entire range of human emotion.

The Book of Lamentations records a response on behalf of an exiled people ~ the battle lost, the city destroyed, the people led away to an unfamiliar destination.  It is thus a book of community,  pertaining to a specific episode in the history of that community.

The book is not entirely helpful for those who grieve.  The emphasis on loss as a consequence of sin, on God’s destruction of a city ~ no.  But it can be helpful to know that the Bible contains wails of lament, and to translate communal cries of anguish on behalf of a city into individual cries on behalf of a family.  There have always been others expressing solidarity with those who mourn.

Cry aloud to the Lord!
O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
your eyes no respite!  (Lamentations 2:18)

Breast Surgery: The End!

I never anticipated becoming a woman with a plastic surgeon in her life, but I have now been treated by two of them.

Five and one-half years ago, I had a mastectomy followed by the insertion of an implant.  One of the things the surgeon and I discussed this morning was that most people don’t know what that means.  Let me clarify: it meant a number of minor procedures, three surgeries under general anesthesia, and a painful breast expansion process that lasted for three months until I abandoned it.  The results: two dramatically mismatched breasts, one looking something like a misshapen lump, and daily dealing with a “foob” — a fake breast insert to even out my appearance, which meant much adjusting of clothing and care not to wear V-neck blouses that might dip too low and reveal too much if I bent over.  Once I forgot all about it as I rushed through my morning and, walking about that summer day, looked down to see that one side of my t-shirt was flat!

I had reached my limit where physical pain and mental hassle were concerned, so I left matters as they were ~ until last summer.  Engaged in a wonderful ministry as an interim pastor to a healthy and loving church, I had begun to feel so positive about myself that I decided to address the one thing with which I was completely dissatisfied.  In October, after a consultation with a new plastic surgeon repeatedly recommended by my nurse practitioner for the past several years (“I know you’re really pissed; would you please go and see this guy?”), I had a surgical revision of the lumpy breast mess to round it out and remove a particularly irritating scar, and a reduction in size of the other breast so that they would match.  More or less. Way more than they did, anyway.  After a couple of weeks of healing, I was able to get dressed in boringly ordinary bras and shirts and go back to work.

This morning I had the tattooing needed to complete the project. (Use your imagination.  No images today!)  It will take a couple of weeks to heal, and at the moment it stings, so I am babying myself and relaxing at home ~  but I’m finished!

It’s a small thing, actually.  I have friends whose breast cancers have involved far more, and I myself have certainly endured life catastrophes that make of this experience . . .  well, a very small thing indeed.  But it’s awfully nice to think that, when I dress or undress next month, my clothes will fit and, other than the scars, I will look pretty ordinary.  I’m all in favor of ordinary.

Overwhelmed by Choices

large-carpeting-selection-inventory

I went to a carpet store today and was nearly undone.

We “need” new carpet, in the first world sense that two months ago we completed the repair and painting of a guest bedroom, and in the sense that our stairs’ carpeting has not been replaced in 35, yes, 35, years.

Can you tell that home decorating is not an activity which captivates me?  I have been a miserable customer for the various contractors who have worked on our home over the past three decades, all of them always asking me so hopefully for my input on color and design.  “Just choose something,” I tell them.  And sometimes I add, “Blue.  Or gray.  But you figure it out.”

But this afternoon I dutifully drove half-an-hour to a carpet store, worked for a bit with a quiet salesman who was not at all pushy, and came home with several samples.  Different colors, different textures, different other things I’m sure, about which I know nothing.

I was completely overwhelmed by that store and the vast number of selections it presented.

I teach, actually, discernment; Ignatian discernment, to be specific.  But none of the tools that I have used or suggested to others for major life decisions were of any help.

  • I had no gut feeling about any of the choices.
  • I do not think that I could bear to spend time making a chart of carpet pros and cons.
  • I have no feelings of consolation or desolation drawing me toward or from carpet selections.
  • I am pretty sure that, on my deathbed, I will not be considering carpet.  And I have no counsel to offer anyone else on the subject of carpeting.

I don’t mean to offend.  I know that there are people as fascinated by the variations and possibilities inherent in carpeting as I am by the same things in birds.  But I, alas,  am not one of them.  I inherited these things from my grandmother: both the disinterest in carpeting and the fascination with birds.

It did occur to me, however, on the way back from the carpet emporium, that if we were purchasing our home today, and if any of the carpet swatches I have now brought home were lying on the floors of any of the rooms in the form of actual carpets, we would say, “Good! – Don’t have to think about that!”

Lesson in discernment:  If the matter in question is not of significance to you, then choose and move on!

 

 

 

Nature ~ I

My daughter and I went for a hike this afternoon, in a fairly new metropark ~ West Creek Reservation.  The trails are not yet well marked, and not visible in the snow, which has been packed down by boots wandering in many places beyond the official all-purpose paths.  Thus, despite the small size of the park, we got lost repeatedly.  We really have no idea where we went.

But it was a beautiful day, sunny and in the process of warming up considerably from the 20s of the past week.

As we neared the end of our hike, we saw a red-tailed hawk on the ground in the snow,  so still and immovable as we approached it that we thought it must be injured.  Suddenly! it took off and flew a short distance, weighed down by a squirrel which seemed much too heavy for it.  As things turned out, it was unable to fly more than a few wingbeats at a time, which it did, slowly making its way uphill and always keeping an eye on us.

We did not want to eat the squirrel, but we did enjoy watching the hawk!

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First Sunday in Lent (Retreat for Suicide Survivors)

The rhythm of the Christian calendar brings us each year to the first Sunday in the season of Lent, the Sunday on which we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Before he can embark upon his ministry of healing and teaching, he is, according to the Gospel of Matthew, led into the desert and into a confrontation with the devil; into a 40-day period of hunger, silence, and temptation.

The “wilderness” in the Bible, the literal wilderness of Sinai, looks to those of us in North America more like a desert.  Rocky, barren, seeimingly devoid of life, stretching across a great landscape of emptiness broken only by peaks and valleys.  And 40 ~ in the Bible, the number 40 means a lot, or many.  Forty days for the flood from which only Noah and his family and the animals were saved.  Forty years that the Hebrew people wandered the Sinai wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Forty days for Jesus’ purifying and preparatory time, hungry ~ and alone, but for the tempter.

The pattern of the church year invites us to revisit this desert time at the onset of Lent.  “Revist?,”  you may well ask, and add that your own desert time lasted, or continues to last, much longer than 40 days.  Perhaps you have only recently been tossed into the desert and left lying in a heap on the cold, rocky, ground.  Perhaps some time has passed and you have come to know the terrain well.  Perhaps you have encountered the angels who, finally, arrived to tend Jesus.  Perhaps you have walked out of the desert and into a new version of your life.

In any case, this season, and this Sunday, invite you to take a look around.  There is always something to observe in the desert.  If nothing else, the sun rises and the sun sets, placing  you in the midst of a much broader universe than you may be able to absorb.  But there are also flickers of movement in the desert.  The shadows separate into distinct patterns, merge into a haze, separate again, and fade.  Small mammals and reptiles make momentary forays into the light or into the darkness, seeking sustenance.  Birds occasionally soar overhead, briefly marking the stark landscape with their own pegasauran shadows.

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Look around.  Look around your own desert.  Look up, look down, look through.

Jesus, as far as we know, took nothing from the wilderness with him when he walked back out, into a world in which food and water and companionship were plentiful.  But he carried with him the experience of having been hungry and thirsty and utterly alone, an experience which marked him forever as a man for others.

Look around.  What will you carry with you; what do you carry with you, that marks you as a woman or man for others?

 

 

(Image: Arches National Park in Utah.)

 

 

 

 

Storytelling and the Bible ~ Part I

When my boys were small, we often spent long summer afternoons crunched together on the front steps, where I would make up long, involved, and dramatically enhanced stories for them.  The stories usually involved anthropomorphized trucks and fire engines, their favorite figures at the time, racing down our street to tackle crises in the neighboring yards and parks.

This past January, I attended a conference on Biblical storytelling sponsored by RevGals and led by the inimitable Casey Fitzgerald, a storyteller par excellence.  We all spent a lot of time making new friends and getting better acquainted with those we had already met,* but our official learning sessions were focused on Biblical storytelling.

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How are the stories of the Bible told in your church?  If you are like most of us, they are read, with varying levels of skill, by members and pastors, from a lectern or a pulpit, set somewhat apart from the congregation, during worship on Sunday morning.  Some readers, having not looked at the text until they have begun to read it aloud, stumble over unfamiliar words.  Others read slowly and pause frequently for dramatic event.  Many race through the words in a monotone.  And a few read as they would read a story aloud to children, with changes in voice and speed appropriate to the telling.

But how many of us TELL, or hear told, the Biblical readings as the stories they are?  Casey urged us to learn the stories by heart ~ which, if you give it some thought, is a different proposition entirely from the memorizing of their words.  Learn them as they speak to you in your deepest places, and tell them as the emotional experiences that good stories are.

We learned, and practiced, all kinds of ways of storytelling.  We tried out the same stories in different voices ~ voices of fear, of confidence, of wonder, of skepticism.  We made cartoons and wrote poems and watched Lego movies of stories.  We explored in depth stories about women whose roles and passions are often overlooked in the rush to focus on the male actors.

And we returned home filled with the hope that we could communicate the Biblical story to our listeners in ways that give the stories themselves, rather than our own commentary, pride of place.  I think we all long for our congregations to respond to the stories of the Bible with the same wonder and delight my boys found in the stories of trucks rushing down our street to save the playground.

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If you’re interested in learning more, you can go to the website for the Network of Biblical Storytellers, and you can find Casey Fitzgerald at Faith and Wonder.

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*The photo is a RevGals tradition, born of the days when people were reluctant to post identifiable images online.  (I’m at the bottom.)

Friday Five for Lent

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The RevGals Friday Five is, not surprisingly, focused on Lent:

1.) Are you giving up, or taking on? Some combination thereof?

I’m taking on . . . accompanying a college student through an eight-week version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and trying to do the daily prayer and reflection alongside her.  I also pulled out my journal from my own year-long experience of the Spiritual Exercises in 2005-06, because I wanted to see what I had to say then.  I am somewhat surprised, although it all rings true.

2.) Fasting? What does that look like for you?

Fasting has never been a meaningful practice for me.  I suppose the whys and wherefores of that might be worth considering.

3.) In what way is study helpful to you this season? Are you reading, studying, journaling…?

Since I find myself without a call, I have plenty of time for reading.  This week, I am finishing up Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets and David Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads, and skimming Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

4.) Purple. Do you find that your wardrobe is drawn to participate in the season?

Nope.  Now that I think of it, there is very littler purple in my wardrobe, although I have some great purple earrings.  And, as I look down, I see that I am wearing a fuzzy purple sweater, because I am staying inside today and it happened to be lying on a chair instead of in the laundry.  Maybe it’s an unconscious thing.

5.) How are you finding ways to take “time apart” in order to avoid getting worn thin?

I don’t have to worry much about wearing thin these days.  A year ago, I was brand new to my congregation, looking at an extra service and sermon every week, and in the process of getting really, really sick, which I ignored and thereby prolonged.  Today, I am declaring a snow day and working (or not) at whatever pace I choose on whatever projects appeal to me.

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