Good Friday Prayer

The adult choir at Northwest UMC is presenting a beautiful Tenebrae service for Good Friday. You are invited to join us this Friday evening, 7 pm. It’s called “The Shadow of the Cross” by Lloyd Larson. Here’s the prayer I’ve written to open the service:

It’s Friday Lord, and we’re here to remember – to remember a night long ago when you gathered with your friends to celebrate how you saved your people from slavery in Egypt. We remember that Passover because of all you shared in that Upper Room and invited us all to your table forever.

We remember that Passover meal because of what happened later in Gethsemane and the next day on a hill so ugly it was called the Place of the Skull. Words alone cannot convey the depth or the power of the mystery we come to relive this night. And so we turn to music, the language of the soul. Use the talents of these musicians to stir our imagination so we not only remember the pain and agony you suffered for us, but we actually feel the sting of the whip, the agony of betrayal, the bitterness of injustice, and the darkness of death and despair.

Help us tonight O God to actually be present in the shadow of the cross. Help us to stand with Jesus’ mother as she watched her beloved son bleed and die. Help us to be present weeping in the shadows with Judas and Peter; with Pilate and Herod hiding in their palaces. And let us stand bravely with the centurion and the thief who recognize who you really are.

Yes, we are in the shadow of the cross tonight, but we know that for there to be a shadow there has to be some light somewhere, even if we can’t see it. As the darkness closes in stand with us Lord. Help us feel the assurance of your grace that wipes away all our betrayal and denial with mercy and forgiveness.

As we feel the darkness descend till there are no shadows, there even in the mystery of death let us feel your love. We ask these things in the name of Jesus who was not in the shadow but on the cross. Amen

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Monday morning, Holy Week

I just did the math and estimated that I have gotten out of bed approximately 3700 times on a Monday morning. Wish I hadn’t done that – the math that is, although if I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom I might have pulled up the covers and stayed put. One of the hard things about retirement is the lack of a “normal” routine. The hardest days are often those that are also the best part of retirement—the ones where there’s nothing I “have” to do. Nothing on the calendar at all so the day is completely unstructured, a blank canvas staring back at me wondering what will be on it by the end of the day? Needless to say that’s an especially unusual kind of Monday for a retired pastor who remembers Holy Week as one of the busiest of the year.

I imagine Jesus didn’t want to get up and head back into Jerusalem that last Monday either. He had spent the night with friends in Bethany because of Mary and Martha’s hospitality, but also because it was safer there than in Jerusalem where powerful people wanted him dead. There the city sanitation workers were cleaning up the palm branches and leftover cloaks from the parade route Jesus had followed the day before. The crowds may have been hung over with joy and anticipation from the triumphal entry on Sunday, but Jesus knew what was coming or at least had a pretty good idea.

Imagine the internal debate! “My work here isn’t finished. The disciples aren’t nearly ready to take over! There’s so much more I need to do here. I won’t be able to heal anyone or teach anyone if I’m in jail or dead!”
Doing the right thing when the easy thing is so tempting; when all your friends are telling you to play it safe. To do requires the courage to be—to be true to oneself and to the one who gives us life. To do the peaceful thing in the face of fearful, hateful power requires first being at peace; being full of peace that is deeper than fear and stronger than doubt. That’s the energy that got Jesus out of bed that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and on that Friday that seemed the worst of all Fridays ever.

His soul was full of an eternal peace that calms the storm at sea and the even bigger storms in our hearts that threaten to drive us into hiding when we most need to grab Monday morning by the neck and say “Bring it On!”

O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

Wilderness Times: When Only God Knows! Ezekiel 37:1-14

I just recently figured out the answer to a problem that I know befuddles many of us Ohioans, namely why well-trained meteorologists are so often wrong about our weather forecasts. I’ve decided it’s not climate change, nor is it crazy Ohio where we have three or four seasons in a 48 hour period. It’s because the weather people are all too young! With the exception of Jim Gynal and Ben Gelber all of our local forecasters are young people. Yes, they have Doppler radar and other fancy tools but what they don’t have are old bones and joints that reliably tell us seniors when the weather’s changing.

I bet you’re wondering what weather forecasting has to do with our text for today! The connection is that both are about old bones. The difference is that in Ezekiel’s vision the bones he saw were no longer predicting or doing anything. Ezekiel walks among this valley of dry bones and makes it very clear that these bones are very dry and have been dead a long time.

Here’s the context for this most familiar of Ezekiel’s visions. He is relating this vision to the people of Judah about 600 years before Christ. Ezekiel is a priest who along with the ruling classes of Judah is a political prisoner in Babylon. Geographically Babylon was located where modern day Baghdad sits today in Iraq. Then and now it was and is a hot, dry wilderness.

Our nephew Michael spent time in that part of the world a few years ago. He was stationed in Kuwait next door to Iraq when he was in the Air Force. Michael was a mechanic at the time and told us about a day that was about 105 degrees when he was working on a plane and forgot where he was. He reached down and picked up a wrench that was lying in the desert sun and immediately burned his hand.

Living in that heat came to mind when I was thinking about Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Remember the Exiles were mostly people of Israel’s upper class, not used to these harsh living conditions. The Interpreter’s Bible describes the Babylonian exile this way: “The Israelites exchanged their hilly homeland and pleasant climate of Jerusalem for the flat and hot Babylonia lowlands…and forced manual labor.”

I’m sure the Babylonia Chamber of Commerce advertised to visitors that their climate was a “dry heat.” I’ve never been in Iraq or Babylon, but I’ve been in Phoenix in mid-summer; and I don’t care how dry the heat is, anything above 100 degrees is just too darn hot.

We’ve been thinking about “Wilderness Time” in this Lenten Sermon Series because whether it’s a voluntary retreat from daily living to draw closer to God or the wilderness is forced upon us by life’s circumstances, solitary time with ourselves and God is good for our souls – but only if we embrace it.

As many of you know our family has been doing some wilderness time this last month. My father died on February 12 and due to family schedule complications we set his memorial service and burial for this past weekend. Little did we know then that on March 1st Diana’s mother would go into a rapid decline and pass away on March 5th. These were not unexpected life events. My dad was 96 and Diana’s mom, Mary, was 100, but getting a double whammy of mortality definitely put us into the wilderness. We celebrated both of their lives last weekend, and Ezekiel’s image of dry bones seemed all too real in those cold, windy cemeteries.

Wilderness time is often hard to embrace. The exiles were none too happy to be carted off to Babylon, not just because they were uprooted from their homes and familiar surroundings, they were also yanked up by their theological roots. The foundations of their faith were supported by four basic pillars: 1) God’s blessings were assured them as God’s chosen people; 2) the land God had given to their ancestors would be protected forever; 3) the throne of David and his descendants would continue forever; and 4) the Temple at Jerusalem was the only suitable place for proper worship of their God.

When the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC the Israelites theological scoreboard suddenly read 0-4. Their beloved temple was in ruins, and the foundations of their faith were not only shaken they were pulverized. So what can we learn today from this ancient history? Aren’t we a lot like these Israelites? As it was for them it’s quite natural to want our faith to be comforting “Good News,” that’s even what the word “Gospel” means. So like the Israelites we are tempted by the same prosperity gospel that promises worldly comforts as rewards to God’s chosen people. Like Ezekiel’s contemporaries we sometimes forget that God chooses us not to be privileged but to be servants to others. We’d like Easter morning without Good Friday, but let’s not forget that much of the Bible describes a lot of bad news and how people like us respond to being in the wilderness.

Psalm130 was written in one of those wilderness times. It begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” That Psalm is known by the title “De Profundis” which in Latin means “out of the depths.” I woke up one day last summer in one of those wrong-side-of-the-bed moods and thought of De Profundis to describe my mood. I wrote in my journal that day “De Profundis is Latin for “O crap, I have to get up and face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” Am I the only one who has days like that? I saw a cartoon awhile back that describes me all too often. It said “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, and other times I let him sleep.”

When I first started thinking about this dry bones text I pictured it in terms of personal or individual wilderness times that come to all of us. And then when Diana’s mom died that introspective kind of wilderness seemed even more real. But then I reread Ezekiel’s words and I realized what he’s talking about is a lot bigger than personal grief or loss. Verse 11 says, “Then God said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” God says this valley of dusty, dry, lifeless bones is a metaphor for “the whole house of Israel.” A whole people, a whole nation is dead to God and hopeless, completely cut off. They’ve been in exile a long time; the buzzards and other wild life have picked their bones clean.

I’ve been trying to think of some contemporary situation to compare the Exile to. The heart-breaking pictures we see on the news today of the devastation and ruins of Syria are the closest image I can think of to understand how hopeless the exiles must have been feeling.

But as pitiful as this image of dry bones is Ezekiel is not sympathetic to Israel’s plight. This vision from Chapter 37, believe it or not, is from the “good news” section of the book of Ezekiel. He spends the first 32 chapters of this book passing judgment on his own people for their failure to obey God’s will. He warns them that bad things will happen if they continue to break their covenant relationship with God. The Israelites remember clearly God’s part of the bargain made with Moses, to give them a homeland, to make them and their descendants prosperous. But in their comfort and prosperity they have conveniently forgotten their half of the covenant – namely to live obediently, justly and humbly before God. Their leaders have become greedy oppressors who according to Amos “sell the poor for a pair of shoes.” Things have gotten so corrupt and unjust for the common people of Israel that at one point Ezekiel even declares that his people have out sinned Sodom. That is not a record you want to break!

In chapter 6 Ezekiel describes in gory detail the consequences of such unfaithful living: “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken; and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols. 5 I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars. ….7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord. (Chapter 6)
That phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” is a refrain that recurs in Ezekiel. Verse 14 of our text for today says, “You shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” That doesn’t mean God intervenes to punish us, but God wants the consequences of our bad choices to help us see that there’s only one God, and we’re not it!

I doubt that I need to draw the parallels between Israel and the current state of affairs in our country and other parts of the world where the ways of God have been trampled in the dust by the idolatry of living in a secular and materialistic society. It is all too easy to despair, to lose hope.

When we are searching for an elusive answer to one of life’s tough problems friends may ask us, “What are you going to do?” And a common reply is “God only knows!” meaning we don’t have a clue. In his vision Ezekiel hears God ask him one of those tough questions. As he is walking around in this valley full of dry bones God says, “Mortal, can these bones live?” and Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

What do we do when we are in one of those situations where only God knows the answer to what we should do? When we suddenly lose a job or a loved one; when our world seems to be collapsing around us? And it seems God isn’t readily available to share whatever it is that only God knows! Or sometimes we’re too stubborn or proud to pray for God’s guidance. We might not like what we hear!

Put yourself in Ezekiel’s place. How would you answer God’s question, “Can these bones live?” Or look at the homeless, hopeless refugee children in Syria, or the suffering caused by gun violence in our own country. Why do we have so much more gun violence than other developed countries? What are we going to do to stop consuming violence in video games and entertainment? How can we help people suffering from mental illness, or those who are bullied? How are we supposed to love the bully and heal whatever wounds he is suffering that cause violent behavior? How do we provide support systems and ways to deal with pain and depression so people don’t get hooked on opioids or other drugs? Can our badly divided nation live again and achieve the high ideals of our democracy? God only knows!

And yet that hopeless cry of despair is actually the beginning of hope for a whole nation of dry bones. When we look at a hopeless situation through our own mortal eyes we see no way dead bones can live again. When I held the urn of my father’s ashes in the cemetery last weekend I knew there was no way those ashes could live again, at least not in the form we knew as my dad. But those ashes can provide nourishment for what grows in God’s good earth.

Likewise out of tragic death at the Parkland High School massacre has emerged a new generation who are taking their civic responsibility to a whole new level. Whether you agree with their methods and goals or not you have to applaud their determination to make a difference. New life can arise out of death. I saw that at both of our family funerals last week where new life was in abundance in the joyful, energetic laughter and play of young great grandchildren. May we have eyes of faith to see signs of life even in the midst of death.

Remember the dry bones story is a vision Ezekiel is having. It is one of four visions in Ezekiel. And it’s the only one of the four that does not begin with a date identifying when Ezekiel had the vision. Elie Weisel, a survivor of the valley of dry bones known as the Holocaust, commented that the reason this vision has no date is that every generation needs to see it and experience it for themselves. Dry bones are a timeless description of the human condition.

And that’s the key – the valley of dry bones is a human condition seen through finite, mortal eyes. But Ezekiel was a priest. He of all people should have known the answer to God’s question, “Mortal can these bones live?” When we began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday many Christians received the mark of ashes on our foreheads with the words from Genesis, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those words are not some morbid reminder that we are all going to die. We say them to help us remember that in the very beginning of God creates human life by forming us from dust and breathing life into us. Can these bones live? Of course they can live if God chooses to breathe his Holy Spirit on them.

And that’s exactly what happens in the rest of the vision. “Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The Hebrew word for breath is ruah which is also the word for spirit, the holy breath of the one with whom all things are possible. When seen through mortal eyes this is a dead, dry bone. But when the Holy Spirit helps us lift our eyes to catch a vision through God’s eyes hopelessness turns to rejoicing and death becomes resurrection. Seeing life and death through God’s eyes helps us confess our sinful nature honestly and brings us to our knees. And it’s from there we can see new beginnings that God alone can see.

And so as people with a vision of Easter in our eyes wilderness times call us to renew our covenant with God–because it is in the wilderness that we remember who we are and whose we are.
Can these bones live again? – You can bet your life on it!

Mary Elizabeth Cade Hoover, November 2, 1917-March 5, 2018

Some thoughts on transformation from this life to the next from a grateful son-in-law:

Nearly twenty years ago Mom Hoover accepted me and welcomed me into her family just as she did so many of us. She was an inspiration and joy to know and love and her generous, faithful life has left an indelible and wonderful mark on everyone who knew her. Her passing reminded me so much of two of my favorite descriptions of what human mortality means to a mature Christian like Mary.

When he was 80 years old someone asked John Quincy Adams how he was Adams leaned on his cane and said, “I’m fine, sir, fine! But this old tenement that John Quincy lives in is not so good. The underpinning is about to fall away. The thatch is all gone off the roof, and the windows are so dim John Quincy can hardly see out anymore. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if before the winter’s over he had to move out. But as for John Quincy Adams, he never was better.”

Mary Hoover has moved out and moved on, and she has never been better. Her perishable body has put on the imperishable.

One of my other favorite descriptions of a peaceful passing from this life to the next is this meditation from a class I taught several years ago on “Aging to Sageing.” The meditation compares our life to that of a leaf on a tree. It describes the budding and growth of the leaf in spring and summer and then changes and autumn colors, and then describes the approach of winter this way: “You know some day a wind will come to release you. But this thought does not frighten you, for though you are a leaf that is not all you are. You know you are also part of the tree. The tree gave birth to you—it sent you forth to absorb the sunlight and help it grow. You are not just a leaf, but part of a magnificent oak tree. Soon your work will be fulfilled. It will be time to make room for new leaves that will bud next spring. In letting go, you know you are not abandoned. When the time comes, you will float gently down to the ground. You will become part of the soil that feeds the tree. You will find yourself changed and you will take on a new form, but you will still be part of the tree of life.”

Mary’s leaf may have fallen, but her spirit and compassion and wisdom will live on forever, and because of that we are smiling through our tears. In her life and death Mary taught us what it means to live faithfully even in the very presence of death. Because like St. Paul we know:

“ When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:54-56)