Let There Be Light (Christmas Eve Sermon)

hubble advent 2018

Did you ever wonder what it was like, at the beginning of the universe? When God said, “Let there be light,”  and there was light?”

I’ve tended to stop in awe at the first verb – God said, “Let there be light.
and there was.  That’s astonishing, isn’t it, that God spoke creation into being?   It should give us pause, I think, to consider the importance of the gift of language.  Perhaps that, language, is the real key to our having been made in the image of God.  Not that we can speak worlds into being.  But the gift of language, of vernal communication, is what distinguishes us from all other creatures.  And language does enable us to create our lives through relationship with others.  As a person who has always found language, and communication, fascinating and meaningful, I have always pondered the creation story from that vantage point – that God spoke, and things happened.

But what happened?  That’s our first question tonight.  That’s one of the things I’ve been pondering for the last couple of weeks – what was it like, 14 billion years ago, when God said, “Let there be light?”

Was it all at once, a sudden, huge, bright, blinding sort of light – like lightning, only wider and thicker and more dense and even brighter, creating an entire dome of brightly lit sky?

it like a tentative sunrise over the sea, with streams of rose and tangerine and violet stretching like wavering threads across the horizon as a small golden orb began to poke its way upward until it finally bounced, a liquid bubble, clear of its seeming bounds and into the freedom of space?

What was it like when God created light??

Perhaps we’ve had some clues this month.  Atlantic Magazine and NASA have conspired to post online images from space, and they have presented us with the magnificent imagination and artistry of our God.

Swirling, sparkling gasses and clouds in a multitude of colors, identified as stars and galaxies and nebulae, which are clouds of gas and dust.

Whole words beyond our sight or experience, unless we happen to operate the Hubble telescope.

Are these extraordinary amalgamations of time and space and matter an indication of what it was like, and what it is still like, when God says, “Let there be light?”

Or . . . and . . . is God’s illumination of the universe like something else?  Like something Noah might have seen: glimmering, glistening rays bouncing off quieted seas after a massive deluge, witnessed by only a few straggledy humans and animals, paired up and peering over the side of a small boat?

Is God’s idea of light akin to the clarity of the words of prophets, incisive and focused, cutting to the bare bone of what it means to walk with kindness and justice and humility?

Is God’s light something now celebrated during Hanukkah, a flickering oil lamp, shining for eight days in a hollowed out and crumbling temple, an insistent sign of hope amid the debris of human warfare?

Or . . .  and . . .  is God’s light a human being, God’s very self and a tiny infant all at once, a reigning creator who can command creation into being with a word and a small baby who can cry only for milk and comfort?  Is that what, or who, God’s light is?

This is a remarkable story, this Christmas story of God and us.

We may be so accustomed to hearing it that the miracle of it eludes us.

We may have so sentimentalized it that the harshness of it fades into the shadows.

We may have so commercialized it that’s if difficult to distinguish the baby at the center from the characters who pass across our screens and into our stores.

But, pared down to its essence, it is a remarkable story.

Dreams and disrupted plans and dislocated people.

The might of political power pressing itself into ordinary lives.

Lengthy and uncomfortable travels, destination unclear.

Uncertainty and fear and hard work and . . .

a tiny, helpless infant born to impoverished parents in an out-of-the-way location.

Is this, too, what it looks like when God says, “Let there be light?”

It’s a remarkable story because it is our story.  And it is our story not simply because its basic elements reflect those of our own lives – the ordinariness and the confusion and the labors and the disruptions of our own – but because the light shining from the sky above and the light shining from the humble birthplace of Jesus illumine our lives – with meaning, and purpose, and love.

Did you ever wonder what is was like, what it IS like, when God says, “Let there be light?”  It’s all from the same source.   It all follows the same pattern.

NASA’s image of the Lagoon Nebula in the sky, a colorful conglomeration of young stars and the hydrogen cloud from which they were formed, looks to me just like Michaleangelo’s painting of God reaching out to touch life into Adam.

The Bubble Nebula, a sphere of sparking blue which happens to be a star in the process of formation , looks surprisingly like Planet Earth.

There’s one called a Colossal Shell of Light which a friend of mine thought looked like a manger.

And paintings of the baby in a manger look like  .  .  .  a baby,  actually,  but the sort of baby who causes angels to fill the skies and sing praises to God.  Like, perhaps, all babies do, because God with us, Emmanuel, rejoices in us and with us, and sends messengers and song and light our way, if we will but look.

The light of Jesus illumines our own lives – just look around.  Look back at the past week.  Consider:

Have you not seen the light of Jesus shining – through your family members and friends, staying up late to wrap gifts, rushing home early to bake and clean, trying to clear desks at work so that colleagues could leave for a few days, knowing that the business of the month had been put to bed?

The light of Jesus shines in places many of us would rather not be – look at the faces of fire fighters and police officers and EMT drivers, of doctors and nurses and convenience store cashiers, of all the people who labor that the rest of us might be safe and cared for and filled with good things.

The light from that stable creeps into the darkest of places – a light flickering and fragile, a light as powerful and wild as a galaxy,

it makes its way into prisons and into migrant camps,

it slips onto the streets and under the bridges where the homeless camp,

it lines invisible battle lines inked between warring adversaries,

it glimmers in hospital corridors and hospice bedrooms.

The light of Jesus illumines even those places, perhaps especially those places.

“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.”

It’s all from the same source: The Love that generates and sustains the universe.  Love that shows itself

in the artistry of all things,

in the majesty of the heavens, and

in the intimacy of a stable.

And so, my friends, on this Christmas night, Look! Look up into the heavens, where colors unknown to us swirl about.  Look out into the world, where faces of all kinds and people in all sorts of situations are lit by the love of God.  Look around this sanctuary, in hope and in expectation.  Look into the face of a small and helpless baby, who takes on human life and gives completely to us the grace of his own being.

And know that God has said, “Let there be light!”

Image: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/12/2018-hubble-space-telescope-advent-calendar/577129/

Women Praying Together: a book review

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The first thing I did when I received this book was to skim the Table of Contents; the immediate second was to deliver my extra copy as a gift to a colleague whom I was sure would enjoy it.

A compilation of prayers ~ some accompanied by Scripture, some by essays, some by quotations you might recognize ~ by seventy or so young (that means under 40!) United Methodist clergywomen, We Pray with Her: Encouragement for Women Who Lead is for all women in leadership roles, whether in families or classrooms or board rooms, or hospitals or offices or nonprofits or churches.  The book is a small paperback and would easily slip into a purse or briefcase; the prayers are short and easily fit into many of life’s dilemmas.  The titles are little windows into the lives of women, and remind me of the gifts women in ministry bring into our lives in the form of intimate familiarity with pregnancy, miscarriage, and childbirth; with the care of children and parents, with divorce and dismay and, as two of the section headings point out, with resistance and persistence.

Here is a woman praying for that “one day when [she] will shout with joy.”  Here is a woman praying with Hagar for the quenching of thirst and for the knowledge that she is seen by God, even if not by others.  Here is a woman quoting Brene’ Brown in the midst of her life as a single mom and pastor who sometimes feels a bit of judgment coming her way: “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”  Here is a woman  I am privileged to know as a colleague in real life, praying about the task of persisting in the face of one challenge after another.

Down to earth, intrepid, hopeful, and faithful nevertheless, the women who wrote these prayers make excellent companions in the life of the Spirit.

 


I received two review review copies of We Pray with Her from Abingdon Press, and made no commitment in exchange other than to review the book.

Joy and the Abundant Life

“Joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30).

When I say that joy is central to abundant living, I do not mean to imply that la-de-da happiness or frivolity is essential to the good life.  Joy refers not so much to a feeling, or even an attitude, as to a deep conviction that life has value and meaning. Joy is often accompanied by energy and overt delight, but I know far too many people (including myself) for whom joy has been a hard-won property to gloss over the challenges that may block its evidence.

As a conviction, joy exists as a possibility for us despite our circumstances.  I don’t want to imply that it is something we can achieve with ease, or to shame anyone for whom it remains elusive.  I’ve been hurt and offended by far too many Facebook pull-yourself-up and change-your-attitude quotes for that.  But my experience at this point is that we can open ourselves to an orientation toward joy and that, gradually and sometimes only in fragments, it will direct itself our way after that Psalm 30 long night of weeping.

Insofar as the church goes, joy is foundational to vital congregational life.   Once again, it is only tangentially related to happiness, and largely a function of conviction.  “Behold, I bring you great joy” ~ if we as a church believe that good news, then membership, attendance, budget, building condition, programming ~ all those things we like to measure ~ are essentially irrelevant.  A small congregation whose building has just burned to the ground can evince far more authentic joy than a 3,000 member church with the latest in décor and technology.  Not that I recommend disaster or a lapsed insurance policy as signposts on the road to joyful living.  But when it comes to joy, faith in God’s love for the world trumps a balanced budget.

Abundant Life

What does it mean to have abundant life?

That’s the preliminary question posed to a small group of us attending a retreat for our Presbytery Vitality Committee tomorrow.  It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, and I’ve made a bit of a promise to myself to write a few times a week ~ and the topic of abundant life seems a good one with which to start.

When you take a look at dictionary definitions of the word “abundance,” you immediately see a focus on quantity.  Abundance means “a great many” or “a large supply” or “a plentiful amount.”  At this point in life, however, I am inclined to understand abundance in terms of quality, rather than quantity.  When Jesus says “I came that you might have abundant life,” the quote (more or less) on which our discussion question is based, I don’t think he was speaking in terms of numbers of years or quantities of financial wealth.

Three things come to mind when I think of abundant living.  Preeminent among them is joy ~ a deep and abiding joy, gladness, gratefulness, in and for life, regardless of one’s circumstances.

The second is care for or service to others.  The richest depths of life are mined when we care about others and act for them ~ whether that care and action involves taking a plate of home-baked cookies to a homebound neighbor, or heading to Congress to advocate for legislation, or something in between.

And finally, abundant living is found when our individual gifts are engaged to the fullest.  It’s not possible to live abundantly, no matter the size of your stock portfolio, if you are miserable in the work you do, or a poor fit for the environment in which you find yourself.

I am pretty sure that these three things apply to abundant life for an individual or an entity, such as a family or a business . . .  or a church.  I think I’ll try to follow through on my writing resolution by exploring them one at a time over the next couple of weeks.

Rev. Howard Gray, S.J. (1930 – 2018)

HJG

As a middle and high school teacher (my second career) fifteen years ago, I was in need of a graduate course in literature or history, which I could not find.  Hmmmm . . .  Spirituality and Narrative sounded interesting.  “Who is this Gray professor?” I asked the department secretary.  “He’s new,” she responded.  “But people seem to like him.”  He was out of town for our first two classes, and a friend and I wondered distractedly about missing the date for a course refund.  What if we didn’t like him?

We did.  In fact,  I was mesmerized by the eloquent, well-read, humorous, and delightful 70-something Father Gray.  I took another course in literature from him.  And then a third, on Ignatian spirituality.  It was early in that semester that I asked him if he would serve as my spiritual director and help me make the Spiritual Exercises – a long adventure in prayer and one-on-one conversation.  I knew that my request would mean an hour of his time every week or so for months, so I was sure that he would turn me down.  But I so wanted whatever it was that filled this brilliant and elfin-like man with such an infectious joy.  “Oops,” I thought, when he said, “Sure,” and pulled out his calendar,  “Now I have to do this!”

That “Sure” changed my life.

As it tuned out, that was a year of relative peace and lack of drama for me, a leader in my local PC(USA) congregation, a teacher in a Jewish school, and the mother of three college students.  A perfect time to spend hours on a practice of prayer devised by a Catholic saint nearly 500 years earlier.  A couple of months in, it occurred to me to google Howard’s name and I discovered, to my astonishment, that this gentle and unassuming man was known across the globe as one of the foremost scholars and teachers of Ignatian spirituality.  Oops again.  What should I do?  How could I continue to take up so much of his time?  Eventually I concluded that, since he didn’t seem to mind, I would press on.  A few months later, I threw all caution to the wind and announced that I was going to seminary.  Howard, who was not supposed to say much of anything beyond a few suggestions as I made my way through the Exercises, exclaimed, “Will you get going?!”

Months later, I finally made it to seminary in Pittsburgh, and also started a program here in Cleveland for would-be spiritual directors.  Howard moved on to Georgetown, but we stayed in touch via email — I mostly complained about my courses in Greek, and he offered encouragement and witty commentary.

My darling Josh, my tall and blonde and blue-eyed and funny and brilliant son, died of suicide just before the beginning of my second year of seminary.  Howard was one of the first people I emailed, and he became one of what would eventually be a group of three Jesuits who encircled me with listening hearts and occasional words and hours and hours of presence.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I would not have survived those early years without Howard and his brother Jesuits, my personal lifesavers.

As I’ve written on FB, some months, maybe a couple of years, after Josh died, I was  ready to give up on everything – quit seminary, quit ministry, go live in Greenland or someplace. “Well, of course you can quit,” said Howard. “Or you can keep going for what may turn out to be the most productive years of your life.” I don’t know yet whether or not he was right. But he inspired me to try.

That’s the thing about those Jesuits.  They seem to be under the impression that one can do impossible things where God is concerned, and they don’t make a big deal about it.  Most especially, they don’t tell you that you can’t move forward just because your life is a mess.  They think that you can.

It’s been nearly 15 years since that first class with Howard, nearly ten years since Josh died, seven and one-half years since I was ordained in the PC(USA).   I have a stack of emails, most of them offering counsel and encouragement after my son died, but many others filled with humor and recommendations for poetry and other reading.  I often preach and teach things I learned from Howard, and I hope that when I am with people who are suffering or dying, I remember what he taught me, mostly through example, about presence.

I know that, with his death two days ago from injuries sustained in a car accident on Friday, the accolades will pour in.  He held positions of enormous responsibility and influenced thousands of people.  But to me, Howard Gray is that white-haired man with the gleam in his eye, the wicked sense of humor, and the capacity to be present to any experience of faith, from the highest mountaintop of exuberance to the most vast desert of desolation.

I will miss him very much.

 

Image:  Georgetown University, 2014.

End of Life 1/3

I suppose that I’ve always been intrigued by end-of-life issues.  So many early deaths in my family.  I volunteered for hospice decades ago, as a follow-up bereavement counselor — something that I thought was important for post-loss health, and something that I could do on my own schedule, on my phone, when my children were small.

I became much more interested in the realm of end-of-life care when my step-mother Jewel was dying of lung cancer.  It was a brutal experience for everyone involved.  If there was something that an oncologist could do wrong in treating someone with cancer far advanced at diagnosis, hers did — and refused to discuss other options with me.  My niece had also been a hospice volunteer and drove around for those four months with a box of materials in her car, my brother reached out to a social services agency, and I visited every few week-ends.  All of our efforts to provide my father with help and to offer both of them with a more humane experience were for naught.  Jewel was convinced that to decline aggressive treatment would be “to give up.”

A few years later, when I was a chaplain intern over the summer as part of my training for ministry, I saw much of the same on the medical intensive care unit of the hospital in which I trained.  So many tubes and machines, so many aggressive efforts, so many patients and family members unwilling to let go.  Of course, none of us can predict our reaction in similar circumstances — but I used to come home at night (or early in the morning), collapse, and say, “If anyone ever utters my name in the same sentence as the a phrase which includes that particular floor, being me home immediately!”

As a pastor, I have seen many people seek hospice care only a day or two before death is likely to come, and skip any form whatsoever of palliative care.    While there is much assistance available to ease the passage from this life to the next, physically and emotionally and spiritually and mentally, few people are aware of the options, and many share Jewel’s view: “Can’t give up!”

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend an outstanding conference on end-of-life care, and to share it with good friends: one a trained chaplain and two of them nurses — one of them now caring for her 90+ year-old father at home.  In the next few days, I’ll share some of what we learned.

Church Ecology

Our adult Sunday School class at church is reading a book entitled Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.  I made the choice, designed to help us explore possibilities for slowing down and re-imagining choices for community during a time of transition.

Today we embarked upon a section of three chapters called “Ecology.”  Why, I wondered all week, did the authors pull material on wholeness, work, and Sabbath together under such a  general heading?

I finally began to think about what the word ecology means: the study of a system and how its parts fit together and relate to one another, successfully or not.  And so we began with a discussion of the ecology of a field — the nutrients of its soil — nitrogen, sun, water) its products (grain, vegetables, fruits), and those who make heir living from what it produces (rodents, snakes, insects, birds, us).  All of those diverse parts are necessary for a healthy field ecology.

craggy gardens

I’m not sure that we quite made the transition to church ecology, but we did talk about our call to stewardship, of field and church, about the fragmentation and broken places in the church, and about what might be required to heal that fragmentation.

How might we become open to specific possibilities that we might be inclined to reject off the bat, but might be welcomed by others and might enlarge and deepen our community and practice of worship?  How might we imagine ourselves as a community with an ecology sustained by a healthy diversity and web of relationships rather than isolated preferences?

We weren’t quite so articulate as I’ve implied, but it was a start ~ and a fascinating way to consider church community.  Next week perhaps we’ll make it through the chapters on work and Sabbath, and make some progress on articulating our own ecology.

 

Photo: Lovely Daughter hiking in Craggy Gardens off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

 

Raising White Kids ~ Book Review

raising white kids cover

It’s a terrific book!

Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (2017) by Jennifer Harvey address a challenging topic in a conversational, easy-to read manner that, despite its accessibility, delves deeply into issues that many of those of us who are white struggle to recognize, let alone explore and respond to in ways that are open, just, and productive.

Full disclosure: I’m white; everyone in my biological family of origin  is white; I grew up in a family that purported to be “color-blind”; I live in a racially and culturally diverse city in which, nevertheless, all of my good friends are white.  My children’s significant others and my future grandson are individuals of color, so the issues raised by this book are of more than passing or even committed-as-a-progressive interest to me.  Three of the four congregations I have served have been made up almost entirely of white people and located in white rural or suburban areas, so these issues are also important to me as someone charged with pastoring churches and proclaiming the gospel.

This book isn’t, of course, about me or my family or my churches, at least not entirely, but it addresses families and groups a lot like ours: not intentionally racist; well-meaning; hopeful; perturbed by racial injustice but not doing much, if anything, about it; and not even sure when we are offensive in casual conversation or actions we don’t think much about.

I’ll offer a couple of nuggets that I’ve found helpful:

After discussing the harm generated by “color-blind” parenting, the author presents a couple of scenarios in which a young white child comments, loudly and publicly, about the racial appearances of strangers.  How might parents react, other than with embarrassment and a quick move away from the scene?  The books offers practical suggestions along with clear explanations of the logic and sensibility behind them, ideas that can be put into practice immediately.

Another important section of the book discusses the development of white racial identity: how those of us who are white become aware of what that means in our culture, and how we resist the implications, struggle to come to terms with them, and finally, see ourselves and others more fully.  At a workshop a year ago in which participants were charged to identify which element of our identities and backgrounds has been most significant in our lives, I concluded that race has been the most significant in mine — moreso than gender, or age, or education, or income, or religion, because of all the things I haven’t had to think about because I’m white.  I plan to re-read this section of the book very carefully, several times over.

Each chapter of this highly readable book ends with a blocked-in list of Takeaways, helpful for personal or group reflection, and a section of Resources and the Endnotes provide additional material to aid in a  deeper exploration of this critical topic.

And I’m here to help!  Abingdon Press sent me two copies of this book for review purposes, with no commitment on my part to provide a positive review.  (And you all know, I don’t always do that!) Today I’m happy to do so, and to offer to send a free copy after a drawing of names from requests in the comments.

Preaching Politics

Facebook ~ yes; preaching, no.  Friends, yes ~ congregants, no.

That’s been my general approach to political commentary.  On Facebook, I post news articles and, often, my own opinions thereon.  I don’t think that my outlook is lost on my congregation ~ I speak and pray often enough about those who suffer or are disenfranchised ~ but I don’t go all out political.  I’ve been told, and I’m pretty sure that it’s true, that the folks in the pews hold views across the political spectrum, and while I’d like to persuade some of them to move further to the left, that’s not my job in the pulpit.  On FB, I don’t usually feel the same constraints.   I also read posts by friends and family who disagree with me.  I don’t follow their logic! ~ but I read them.  Usually without responding.  Their pages, their posts, their views.  I don’t feel inclined to take up their space with argument.  (They don’t always extend the same courtesy to me.)  Harder, for me anyway, to listen to folks in the church with whom I disagree without reacting.

In the last church I served, after a couple of months, people began to thank me for bringing contemporary concerns into the prayers.  (I did hear of one gentleman who was angry that I had not prayed for a matter he deemed of concern ~ which I would have, actually, had I known about it but, as so often happens, he told other people, and not me.)  But I didn’t push things very far.  When we held a service of music and prayer for the city the day before the Republican Convention opened in Cleveland, we kept it strictly nonpartisan.

Last Sunday, however, I was done with caution and impartiality in the pulpit.  Just done.  Angry at what the American infatuation with guns had wrought.  Disgusted by cowardly politicians raking it in from the NRA.  Devastated on behalf of parents whose lives have been forever altered in a vicious and brutal way.  And inspired by the young people of Parkland FL.

So my sermon on God’s promises of reconciliation through Noah, for the healing and rebuilding of all of creation throughout the Bible, became a sermon on laying down weapons of destruction.  I mentioned AR15s specifically.  I mentioned Emma Gonzalez, specifically.  I said NO to criticizing young people and NO to wringing our hands and saying “there’s nothing we can do,” and YES to the Kingdom of God among us.  And told them about specific ways of taking action.

I wasn’t preaching to the choir, as  would have been in my home church.  A few people thanked me for giving voice to their own thoughts.  Many more were silent, and I’m sure that at least a few of those were critical ~ but not to my face, not yet.

To my astonishment, our secretary asked me to publicize means of communicating with our state and federal representatives.  So we’ll put that information out next week.

There are hundreds, thousands, of pastors more articulate and powerful than I am in preaching what the Spirit tells me is the real good news ~ God’s passionate love for all of creation ~ and political ways of moving on that news.  I write this for all of us somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out how to live with integrity without creating a resistance that prevents people from hearing us.

It’s hard to know when you’re hitting the right balance, and when you’re simply wimping out.

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