Sunday, February 21, 2010

Trusting in the Major Keys: On The Unneccesariness Of Being Reminded Of One’s Mortality This Year.

Psalm 130

One of the blessings of growing up a choir kid is that I was able to hear and sing some fine music, growing up. One of my favorite all-time composers is a twentieth century Englishman named John Rutter. Several times, I have had the pleasure of singing his Requiem.

Now when I was younger, I gravitated toward the prettier bits, the bits that sounded like movie themes. Like most callow youth, the music that is not immediately accessible, the stuff in minor keys, is “boring”. Rutter’s main theme, the Requiem theme, is exactly one of those prettier bits. In singing the Requiem in choirs, I always assigned the second movement, called Out of the Depths, into the boring bin. It begins with a pretty intense cello solo, but what I remembered most about that solo was the intensity of the soloist at the concert I sang in.

I am many things, but I am no longer callow. In talking with my colleagues Monday about preaching texts for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the phrase “out of the depths I cry to you” came to me, and I’ll choose to credit the Holy Spirit for that. It is the opening line of Psalm 130, and that boring section of Requiem came to mind again.

It is no longer boring.

If music is the speech of emotion, I get that cello solo now. I can see the musician that played it so long ago in the chancel at Newark UMC, working so hard to express the emotion of the music. I get the low voices singing “Out of the Depths”. I’ve been there. When you are in the depths, screaming and crying is sometimes too much to muster, and all you can manage is a low rumble, but one should never mistake a low rumble for a lessening of emotion over a scream. God knows the groans too deep for words.

I listened to this piece while writing this, and where it breaks into major key at verse 5, the text says “in the Lord my soul trusts” (they are using the King James for the text). From then out, it stays major, stays hopeful, stays trusting.

Lent, and especially Ash Wednesday, is usually an exercise in the reminder of one’s mortality. It is the beginning of a six week suite in a minor key. It behooves us to be reminded periodically that we are not the be-all and end-all, that there were people thousands of years ago who experienced the sorrow and angst we feel. As long as there have been clans and tribes, there have been mothers and wives and children who are consumed by anguish at the loss of their loved ones who have gone off to be soldiers. It is only a minor change in that to say that husbands and fathers now feel that angst, too. As long as there have been families and lovers, there has been pain and suffering because of the loss of loved ones because of disease.

Ash Wednesday is usually a prudent reminder that for all of us, the end result is not immortality. It is death. And we are all headed over that waterfall. And for Christians, historically, death does not bring oblivion, but union with Jesus Christ in heaven. But it does mean the end of all that we know and love.

There will be Ash Wednesdays in the future when I will be caught up short by the reminder that I too will die and no longer be present on earth. This wonderful existence of music and food and love will cease to exist. So will this horrible existence of disease and suffering and war and prejudice and hatred. Our lives on earth are mixtures of all of the above, and sometimes the juxtapositions of good and bad give rise to awareness of the absurd.

But this year, I need not be reminded of the shortness of life, the value of real life over counterfeit. Because of Donna’s disease, I value things differently. I’d like to say that I will be changed forever, but I am not that optimistic. I know that I will still be drawn into things that feel important at the time, but ultimately aren’t. I know that I will be unable to escape 3 hour meetings and political arguments and the ethics of steroids in baseball, and I might even find that stuff important. Shame on me, then.

Let Ash Wednesday always be a rebuke. May it always yank my leash back to the truth that love, tangible and demonstrated, is all that matters. We live a life of the senses, our experience of the world is only obtained through our senses.

This Ash Wednesday, 2010, the most important thing in the world, right now, is making sure Donna is comfortable, loved, clean and fed. The most important thing in the world is that Josiah is learning how to be successful in the world-not “rock star” successful, but able to love and take care of himself by himself in the world. Can he cook for himself? Can he clean for himself? Will he have the emotional aptitude to love well and support, emotionally and materially, those whom he loves?

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Let Donna know her worth and value in my life as long as she lives. Let Josiah grow up to be a true man, emotionally grounded, capable and giving.

Let the cello play those groans too deep for words. They need not be ignored, any more than a minor key should be avoided. To live life perpetually in a major key is to live a lie. Stuff happens. But let me always be able to be hopeful and trusting of what comes, trusting in God, even in the face of death, the ultimate unknown.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Luke 9: 28-36

Since I have become such a homebody, and because I am trying to eat better, I decided to make bread this week. I used a recipe that calls for a three day process. The recipe even said that “you would hardly notice that you were making bread, because you do so little each day!”

So, the first day, I gather up the ingredients-some yeast, some flour, and water. The expiration date on the yeast says April 2010, so I think I am ok. I mix warm water, yeast, and a little bit of flour, and as per the directions, put it somewhere cool. The recipe said that a cool rise helps get a better textured bread, so it goes down into the storeroom. I go down to check it several times, but not having done this recipe before, I have no idea what to look for.

The next day, I bring the bowl up to the kitchen, and add some whole wheat flour and some regular bread flour, more water, and some salt. I mix it all up and put it back into the storeroom.

The third day is supposed to be baking day, but when I go to get the dough, it has hardly risen at all. I’m pretty bummed, but I get distracted with having to take care of other things for Donna or Joe or something, and leave the bowl on the counter overnight. I’ll just toss the dough when I get back to it, I think. But there it sits.

And the next day, which is now the fourth day of a three day recipe, what do you think happened? The dough did rise after all! So I went ahead and finished the adding of the rest of the flour and the kneading, forming it into two loaves and letting them rise for 3 hours (the recipe calls for a half to one hour). And I put both of the loaves into the oven to bake—15 minutes at 500, 35 minutes at 350. Putting both loaves in puts one too close to the top heating element, though, and the top burns. I pull that one out, and finish the other one, then put the burnt top one back in.

The first loaf comes out, and it is a very nice loaf—pretty yummy, in fact! Dense, almost a meal in itself. The second one, the burnt top one, when it cools, I think is too hard to cut into.

But I have made bread! I would have loved to take the second loaf, lacquer it or something, and keep it on the wall as a reminder of the value of a little bit of work each day getting the job done, as a lesson about not throwing something away too quickly, a lesson in patience.

But it is after all, just a loaf of bread. It is not a sculpture that took months and years of work and is meant to stay in a city park. It is made as food, is meant to be food, and will spoil, even though it has such a hard shell.

But making this loaf of bread as a symbol of my experience is very tempting. I understand Peter a little better now when he wants to build three little altar-sheds for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah up on the mountain. He is the first, along with John and James, those old Boanerges boys, to see what Jesus truly is, who he truly belongs with. And he wants an altar built, something that will have people come to that spot and know what happened, maybe even make it a pilgrimage spot. It’s a normal human impulse, to memorialize significant events in someone’s life. Women keep roses from long ago dances in their Bibles, pressed between the pages for 60 years. The baseball that Barry Bonds hit into the stands which gave him the home run record became the focus of bizarre court case, all because the ball itself was important.

We all have, somewhere, mementoes of the things that are important to us. And that’s Ok. But Peter James and John witnessing Jesus dazzling white, and up in the air talking with the two greatest heroes of the faith those four men share is an even that is really like bread. Neither are supposed to be lacquered and kept like a museum piece. Bread is the staff of life—in it is everything that keeps us alive. It’s not meant to be kept. Jesus as a man who is of the same importance as Moses and Elijah is a fact that is meant to be told, and Jesus becomes more important to us, because he is not just a teacher or a miracle worker. It’s not meant to be marked like a roadside historical plaque, or even like that grotto on Pierce Street across from Kings’ College. It’s meant to be talked about the story shared, and the importance of the event is not where it happened, it is that it did happen. Just like learning how to make bread.

We don’t know where the moment of the Transfiguration was, on which mountain. We don’t know where Moses is buried. But we remember both people anyway, because of the importance of their stories. What they said and did and what happened to them are central to our faith. Something had to have happened for there to be a story about it, but what separates this from a legend, what separates it from stories we tell and retell, like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill or Dwight Clark’s catch in the end zone from Joe Montana, is that we expect to be changed by the telling.

It doesn’t matter where it happened, just like it doesn’t matter which loaf was the first one. It’s still food, and it is only as useful as it is edible. It’s ability to be used is what makes it important. We say to each other What Would Jesus Do, because we point to his life and his example as our goal in life. How can we be like Christ? How can we imitate Christ? We do it best when we imitate the story and tell the story.

We give it away.

The next sermon will be posted on or after Feb. 28.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Strong Proclamations in Quiet Tones

1 Corinthians 15 1-11

In this whole experience that my family is going through, I have had cause to think about work. My trade, if you will, is “preacher”, but the modern day minister also has a large amount of administration that must be handled, and there are also demands to counsel, to provide care and spiritual guidance, and to teach.

None of us do all of these things excellently, there are always things that are less interesting to preachers than others. Sometimes, even, people prefer the pastoral counseling and do not enjoy the preaching bit. But we are called to it all when we are called to the job, and where we are not good or talented, we find ways to get the job done, or ask others to do it.

I expect that every job is the same way. I expect that there are aspects of farming that people do better than others, and some aspects are more enjoyable.

Plant work?

Dog sitting?

Serving in the military?

My work by training is as a minister. In seminary, people take great care in saying that it is a professional career, and must be minded as a career. Indeed, I do think of it as a career.

But right now, I am not ministering to a congregation. At least not in any way I visualized when I graduated. I am ministering to a very small group of people, which by any professional standard is a failure. I spend my daily work in service to two or sometimes three people. And the service I provide is a very mundane one; driving to school, picking up from school, cooking. It is a very earthy one; laundry, trash, helping with personal care.

Seminary did not train me for any of these things. Seminary did not teach me how to love, and what sometimes we must physically do because we love. It did not teach me that I needed to set myself aside in order to be able to do what is necessary in this situation. It did teach me that I am supposed to be the “expert” in my field. It did not teach me that asking for help is necessary and vital to survival.
And yet, despite all of my training, it is the work that I do now that shows love. It is the help that I ask for that shows love. It is the things that I cannot do, the expectations I cannot meet, that show God’s love for us in the most important ways. I hope that, by making the choices I’ve made, using the help that has been given to me, that the love of God is shown most clearly to those who need to see it most.

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is within me.

I will expect that when I look back on my career as a minister, the time when I was the least available to my congregation was when my witness was at it’s strongest. That the work that I did, completely domestic and out of the view of my community, out of newspapers and denominational magazines, that was my strongest witness.

That the love of God was seen at its sharpest light was when I was the most invisible, when I needed the most help.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that his work was his witness. Sure, he taught them the proper way to think about Christ, what he did for all of humanity, but he hoped that he would be remembered for how the work he did reflected the God and the savior he believed in, even though he had persecuted them in the beginning.

My wish is similar-that somehow, in ways that I cannot even imagine, the love and the grace of God has been shown through this experience to you. By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me has not, I hope, been in vain. I am working harder than I ever have in my life, and so little of it has been on what Seminary told me was the professional aspects of ministry. But the grace of God, the love of God is at its’ clearest right now, and I call your attention to it. I also pray that, by the grace of God, it can be seen strongly enough to matter.

And I invite you to think for yourself; How is the work you do, how is the life you lead, showing the love of God? There are no better or no worse ways. Each way is individual, and half of the witness is realizing that it’s there.