Thursday, November 26, 2009


Matthew 6: 25-33
Psalm 126

This is the time of year when we see people take stock of their lives. A family sits around a table on a TV show, and they have a manufactured conversation about what it is they are thankful for. And the content of that conversation is superficial; kids are thankful for their DS game machines, families are thankful for each other, without elaboration. OK, formalities observed, ritual satisfied, where's the gravy?

I've done that a number of times over the years. But not this year.

This is a holiday that was created very early in our history but was formalized in blood, during the Civil War. It has become a holiday which, wonder of all wonders, does not require presents, and is actually based, even now, on companions and community. There is creeping consumerism and over-indulgence, the bane of American existence, even in this holiday, with the blitz for ingredients for all the dishes, the eating three helpings of everything, and waking up at 3:00 the next morning to make 4:00 sales. There is also the creeping awareness coming to this country that this holiday is not happy for all; Native Americans in this country consider it a national day of mourning, essentially a celebration of the genocide of their nations. But, even with all of those issues, at it's root, we will drive for hours to merely eat a meal and watch football. To merely be with people we love.

This year, it's simply a blessing to go to a friends' house, have a great meal cooked in the style we prefer, be in an environment of good friends, fine wine and beautiful music, and reflect on all that has happened.

The gospel says that "can any of you by worrying add an hour to the span of your life?" Well, yes, if you are worrying bout the levels of meds or other aspects of care to your loved one. But in the sense of what Jesus means, in the minds of healthy and active humans, no. We have been taken care of at almost every step of the way, stepping blindly from one stage to another, and friends have appeared who have guided us to the next steps as they've been needed. EVERY aspect of our lives has been provided for.

We needed to find a way to get Donna radiation, and to care for her during chemo, and an old friend steps forward, an employee of a facility that fits our needs perfectly. Another friend, whose mother passed away a couple years ago, and whose memorial service I helped officiate, tells us she volunteers with a hospice organization, and that is who we arranged to have Donna's home care with.

We have been taken care of, along every step of the way. I do not mean that there has been an avoidance of pain. Lord, no. But, just as I believe about the character of God, I believe that people have come to us who have been companions for each step, not to take away the pain, but to walk with us through it. They've come from Facebook, old friends from high school who have come to mean much more in a short time; they've come from the churches, both my current and former, who have shared their stories and given hope or at least been able to give the benefit of experience; they've come as therapists, doctors, nurses, nurses aides, social workers, administrators, and counselors.

Consider the lilies of the field, indeed.

Today was Donna's hospice intake. There's only one significant step left. We've gone out into this journey weeping, at times literally, but living very day with an unmistakable weight. These people, these companions, these organizations, have sowed in tears the seeds of the coming harvest of joy. I promised Joe the other night that we will be happy again, he and I, and Donna will of course be immersed in liquid joy before too long. There will come a time when we too will come home with shouts of joy and carrying the sheaves of a rich full life, the seeds that have been planted even now.

And for all this sowing, and the reaping to come, I am indeed thankful.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

There's Always a Morning After

Mark 13: 1-13

There's a song that, by modern Rock history measure, probably classifies as a standard. Just as Dave Brubeck's Take Five classifies as one of those songs that everyone into Jazz knows, or Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors for Country, or Amy Grant's El Shaddai for Christian Contemporary, (so well known it is even in the United Methodist hymnal at #123), so this song is so well known by folks that I want you to raise your hand when you recognize the song from the lyrics I will quote.

1. That's great, it starts with an earthquake,
2. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn -
3. Uh oh, overflow,
4. no fear - cavalier, Renegade and steer clear!
5. Leonard Bernstein
6. Jelly Bean Boom!

The name of the song is It's the End of the World as we Know it (and I Feel Fine), by REM. I'm sure that for many of the people who have raised their hands, they can sing the chorus as easy as they can Happy Birthday.

Now, when you read the lyrics to this whole song, it's not easy to make a lot of sense as to what the point is. It's one of those songs that is a list of things, and the general gist seems to be things that are significant change. Lenny Bruce was a comic in the 50's who changed the way a lot of people did comedy, even until now. Leonard Bernstein was the same for 20th century American music. Now as to what jelly bean boom means, sorry, I have no idea.

It's the chorus that I am going for here; It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

When Jesus is coming out of the temple, one of the disciples says, "man, are those some big rocks! These buildings are huge!" Indeed, if you have ever seen pictures of the western wall in Jerusalem, which was the foundation of the temple, the cut stones are indeed very large.

Jesus takes this opportunity in Mark to say that there is going to be a time when this temple is not going to be here anymore. Later, four of the closer disciples ask Jesus in private what the end of the world will look like, because if he can see that the temple will be destroyed someday, that must mean that the end of the world is coming. It would be, I imagine, impossible for a first Century CE Jew to imagine the temple destroyed, and so such a thought must naturally equate with the end of the world.

Jesus' point isn't that they must protect the temple, but rather that it is going to happen, and the important thing to watch for is this; people who will come in the name of Jesus and try to take advantage of the fear and the chaos to gather followers. Jesus is encouraging them to hold fast to him only, that he is enough. They must stay true, but they will be tested, they will be tried, they will be persecuted, some of them may even die, but when it's over, they will be saved.

Now, I'm no apocalyptic scholar. You all know, who have heard me preach before, that I don't have much patience with end of the world prophecies or predictions. I believe that the failure of Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth in the 70's will soon be joined by the Mayan Calendar stopping at 2012. I believe that all prophecies about the end of the world end in the predictors looking like fools. I believe that it is a Christians' duty, and a Methodist's mandate, to prepare for whatever end that may surprise us by working to alleviate suffering and to show God's love, and when Jesus comes, let us be caught doing so.

But for me, this message today has a smaller, more personal message--There will be a day after. Imagine the worst thing to happen in your own life, including your own death or the death of your most loved one, and I will tell you that, somehow, some way, the sun will rise again. Imagine the death of a child, and I will tell you that there will be life for you still the next day. I'm not saying that it will be pleasant, or even that you will want to live into the afterwards at first, but I am saying that the opportunity is there, and God will be there, too. Jesus is saying that the Temple, the location of God on earth for Jews of the first century, will be destroyed, again (this is, you will remember, already the second temple). You'll be tested, you'll be tried. But those who endure will find the other end to be worth it.

We have no temple, but we often do locate God in things mistakenly. In the end, we get to a place where it is just us and God, and if we are looking for our cars, our houses, our bank accounts, even our spouses in that moment, we will be mistaken. The loss of things is often described by people as the end of the world, really isn't, and like the Christian version of Job, there will be more life after we've met God.

The ultimate of this idea, as I was reminded by a friend and classmate from seminary, is Mary Magdalene the third morning after her Lord had been crucified. The world may have ended, but someone still has to take care of the body. So off she goes to the tomb, and what she finds is even worse than she anticipated; an empty tomb. But, unimaginably, the day turns out much differently than she could have imagined when she woke up with cloths and herbs in hand.

So, it's a declaration of faith in God, in Christ, to say this:

There always is a morning after.
There always is a morning after.
There always is a morning after.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Don't Tell Martha Stewart

(This note was originally published in the Center Moreland UMC Nov./Dec. Newsletter, in a slightly different form)

I think a lot about gratitude these days. My family and I have been the recipients of an ocean of gifts. There are so many people from so many of the circles we frequent; the freezer we share with the church is "sharing" at this point in name only, because there are so many dinners in there, dinners, soups, and other items that church members and offsite friends have given us.

We have been supported through these storms by financial gifts, as well, which has allowed us to buy what we need when we need it, from medical equipment and the gas for all the extra driving to being able to buy meals last minute when Donna has wanted us to stay and eat with her wherever she was being cared for. It has also allowed me to arrange our finances in such a way to be able to survive on just my salary, and there is still plenty to be used for the medical bills as they arrive.

The gift of presence has been important, both in visiting us in Philadelphia during Donna's worst days, and coming to visit her during rehab, radiation and chemotherapy in Wilkes Barre, and now that Donna has come home, the gift of presence becomes even more important, to break up the days for her, and for me, too.

There is so much to thank people for, and so few thank you notes have been written. I just have not kept up, and I do regret that. I hope everyone understands the situation we are in, how the shape of our days is constantly changing, and I pray that everyone may know and feel our gratitude, even though we have not been able to express it in a timely or tangible manner.

So, again, thank you!

Drew, Donna, and Josiah Cottle, and Sandy Williams.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Not in the Miracle Business

John 11:32-44

All Saints Sunday, 2009

There was once a man by the name of Mordechai, who lived in Bethany. He was an old man, a merchant who had passed on his business to his sons, and they had prospered. They took good care of their father, Mordechai, keeping him comfortable with good food and would light warm fires on cold nights for him. As he got older and more infirm, they hired young women who would cook and clean for him, and bathe him.

But the inevitable day came, and as all people do, Mordechai died. The proper prayers were said, the mourners hired and the crowd gathered to remember Mordechai. He was a righteous man, and while not sinless in the eyes of God, he was still a good man, full of compassion and charity, living modestly.

It was a close family, and there were many friends who gathered. One family who didn't however, was Lazarus'. His family did not attend Mordechai's funeral because they were conducting one of their own, for Lazarus himself. That is to be forgiven, so the sons did not think any more about it.

Then they began to hear the stories of Lazarus and Jesus, and then saw Lazarus himself when Lazarus came to pay his respects. And they were filled with confusion and anger.

"He was dead, and now he isn't? Why couldn't that happen to our father?" "If this Jesus person could have used Lazarus to make a point about the power of God, why couldn't he make a point with our father as well?"
"If he has this power, could he not come use it to raise our beloved father?"

And so it felt with every person, perhaps, who stood and watched as they opened the tomb, and smelled the stench of the dead, heard Jesus command Lazarus to come out, and saw him indeed do so. And unfortunately, they would miss the point.

Jesus is not in the miracle business. Jesus did not come to earth for us so that we can make requests. He is not our last defense against the consequences of our actions, and he is not here to interrupt the natural courses of our lives. He is not even here to save us from the damage we have perpetrated to our own bodies, the violence and neglect we commit on others, and the shortening of life that results.

Jesus is in the love business. The story of Lazarus shows us that Jesus loved Lazarus. Jesus loved Mary and Martha. And to show them how much he loved them, and therefore how much God loved them and all people of Bethany, he caused God to raise Lazarus from the dead, with the appropriate words spoken around the event. Indeed, if Jesus had come into town before, saying "if you believe, you will see the glory of God", and "I am the Resurrection and the Life, even those who die, they will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die, but live", some folks would have said something like , "Oh, gee isn't that nice", and others would have said something closer to "Yeah, right".

So the point of Lazarus being raised from the dead isn't to bring Lazarus back. It's to show that the power really is present in Jesus, and therefore in God. Resurrection is possible. And for Jesus to do it with tears in his eyes with love for this family is just as important I think; Jesus is the son of God, and while he was on earth, he was the embodiment of God's character. So if Jesus wept over Lazarus, so did God. He knew Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and realized, way back at the beginning of Chapter 11, that Lazarus' death was a good opportunity to show love and power to people. That's why he waits; go back and read it; he does!

Now, the story of Mordechai I told in the beginning is not from the Bible. But the questions the sons ask are the questions we all ask. When our loved ones die, we want to know why. If they have been ill a long time, or were very old, that is one thing, and for most, easier to digest. But we all know stories and people who have died that are not so easy, and we want Jesus to step in and perform the miracle that he performed on Lazarus. We may even want it to be for the same reasons, to show God's glory.

Well, God isn't in the miracle business. He's proved his power over death not once already, but twice. Lazarus, and then Jesus himself. Then Jesus ascended to heaven, and we were given the power of the Holy Spirit. He is in the love business, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, so are we.

Death comes to us all. When one of us dies, what happens? We gather, help out, make a meal, take covered dishes to the family, and other small and loving things that help get people through. We celebrate the lives that have gone. If someone dies in an untimely way, the cause of their death sometimes becomes something to fight against, to focus on defeating.

It is all loving witness.

The names we read this year for All Saints run the gamut, from a full life lived to one cut brutally short. Each one of their stories is known by someone here, and there are stories around their passing that give witness to the love and glory of God, if we have eyes to see.

If we have eyes to see God working in the love business.