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!”

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Thanatopsis: A consideration of death (and life)

I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Pastoral Prayer, September 17


God of grace and righteousness, again this Lord’s Day we pause to remind ourselves of your presence – to thank you for the blessings of life and to ask your continued guidance and comfort when the road of life is bumpy and dark. We lift up those named and unnamed here today for a special portion of your love, and we ask for the wisdom and faith to approach each day of life with a healthy balance of faith and humility.

Help us not to be so enthralled by our own good fortune that we overlook the pain of our sisters and brothers near and far. And likewise when the cares of the world threaten to overshadow our hope, reassure us that we never walk alone. For as the scriptures tell us, even when we don’t know how to pray, your spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words. In the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – grant us a balanced perspective on life that anchors our lives firmly in you as the ground of our being; so that we may offer a safe harbor for the lost who are seeking the way and the truth and the life that we find in Christ Jesus. Remind us again O God of our mission and purpose for living.

As we pray for those without power in Florida remind us of your eternal power that never fails. As we pray for those left homeless by storms or by war and violence, we give you thanks for warm, safe homes, for all the physical comforts we too often take for granted. Give us grateful and generous hearts to receive your blessings, Lord, and also to share from our abundance and good fortune with those with less or without.

As we pray for people without clean water and food, remind us that as much as we need physical comforts, O God, there’s a deeper hunger in our souls that brings us out of our homes to your house each Sabbath. We need to feel the connection of belonging, the fellowship, the corporate worship that nourishes us more than individual devotion and prayer can do.

So we ask your blessing on our worship this day as we pray for ourselves and others, for our nation and world. Bless our acts of praise. Give us ears to hear your special word of comfort or challenge you have for each of us; so that when we return to our homes we do so stronger in our devotion and discipleship to serve you wherever you call us to be in the coming week.

For it is in Christ’s name we pray, for his sake we witness to our faith in words and actions. Send your holy spirit upon us as we celebrate our belonging to you by joining our hearts and voices in the Lord’s Prayer.

Be Still and Know

This is usually my favorite season of the year. New life breaking forth after a long winter’s nap, some days nice enough to get outside to work and play, and my favorite sports—golf and baseball—on the TV to distract me from all the bad news in the world. The latter isn’t working well this week as the news from Syria, N. Korea, and Washington DC just keeps going from bad to worse. As I pray hard for wisdom and reason to steer our nation and world through very troubled waters I am reminded by ancient Scripture that we are not the first to experience such times as these, and for just a moment my soul is still and knows the tumult of humankind will not have the final word.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob (and Rebekah) is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of (Rebekah and) Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46)

Advent IV, Unextinguishable Love

advent-waiting-img_1492 The decorations are up, the stockings are hung with care, and children are bursting with anticipation. The nativity scene is set in its special place, but the manger is still empty. The nursery is stocked by Babies R Us, but the guest of honor has not yet arrived. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to cuddle the tiny new life in our arms. We are so close we can feel the baby kicking in the womb, and we are filled with a rich mixture of joy and anxiety. As we wait, let’s remember how different Jesus’ arrival was from birth today, and yet how similar. Parenting is a universal gift of love. In a birthing suite or a stable, to hear that first cry melts our hearts with instant love. Birth is worth every second of the long wait. And so today we light the 4th Advent candle, a light no darkness can extinguish, the candle of Love.

Prayer:
O God, our heavenly parent, we are so close we can see the lights of Bethlehem reflecting on icy roads. Forgive us when we get distracted from the destination of our Advent journey. With trees and houses and malls ablaze with Christmas decorations, it’s easy to get lost on our way to the manger. Disturbing news from inhumane places like Aleppo threaten to extinguish our hope for humankind. Winter storms cancel much needed Sabbath worship services. Remind us again O God that even in the shortest, darkest of days the light of the world awaits us in Bethlehem’s modest manger, and that light is constant and unfailing. It is the light of love; a love that makes room for a mother in labor in a strange place; a love that hears angels sing of peace on earth and joy to the world. As the lights from on the Advent wreath grow brighter, help us welcome the gift of love into our hearts; so we can be midwives in a dark and weary world, helping give birth to the miracle of love. In the name of the one who is Love in human form we pray. Amen.

Wait Training: Third Sunday in Advent

advent-waiting-img_1492[This was our Advent Candle lighting for today at Northwest UMC. The opening monologue was written by Rev. Mebane McMahon and performed beautifully by Heather Sherrill. I wrote the candle lighting liturgy and prayer.]

(Talking on a cell phone) I understand I just had the test yesterday. I know you said, “Make an appointment with your family doctor next week. She’ll have the results by then.” I heard you say that, but do you have any idea how hard it is for me to wait until NEXT week. You told me that my blood work came back with some elevated levels. What exactly does that mean?

As I said, “I have this pain in my side, but last night I could barely sleep. (gesturing) the pain moved to my back!! What could that mean? (A little hysterically) It’s spreading!? This infection, inflammation, this blockage, this rupture or CANCER. It’s spreading. I know it is.

Christmas is 2 weeks away. I have two small children. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR PAIN. How long do I have to wait? (Apologetically) I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. (sighing) I guess I’ll just have to wait. (hangs up call)

(Pacing and thinking out loud) Stay positive Heather. It might NOT be a life-threatening disease. Wait, she says. WAIT. (Takes a deep breath, Silence. Reflection.) I’m not good at this. Is there anybody who will wait with me? And pray for me? And help me when I can’t help myself?….And….And (softening and calming down. Breathing deeply) huh. I wonder if there is someone I can help in the meantime. Is there anybody else I know who is having to wait like this?

(Praying) O God, how long? How long do I have to wait for a diagnosis, for treatment and recovery? How long do I have to wait for healing and what exactly will that look like? How long? How long O Lord? (exits)

Candle Liturgy:
We are on our way to Bethlehem and the Advent journey gives us time to prepare our hearts and make room for the gifts of compassion, patience and joy that God wants us to have. But time moves so slowly when we’re waiting—waiting for a text or phone call—for news that our kids are OK; for a doctor to give us good news or bad news. Either way, it’s better to know than to be left hanging in the unknown where our imaginations can drive us crazy. As people of faith we know where we are and whose we are. Scripture and carols and prayer are the signposts on our journey that give us hope and peace. And today we light the third candle, the candle of Joy. The light is growing and Joy shines from our hearts to those who need good news.

Prayer:
O Holy God, waiting is exhausting and every year we seem to need the good news of Christmas more than ever. Help us wait with patience for the promised Joy of the season, but remind us that our waiting is not passive. Forgive us when we get so concerned about ourselves that we fail to see the needs of those around us. When we are anxious give us again the assurance that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Remind us once more that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” so we can share your joyful good news for the world. Renew our hearts, O God, with your eternal love and help us be the joy we long for in the way we live and in how we relate to those who wait with us. In the name of the coming Christ we pray. Amen.

Advent II, Candle of Peace

Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

[Traveler enters with suitcase] Oh no! Look at those lines at security! Why is it every time I’m running late at the airport the security lines are out the door?? TSA must have been designed to prove Murphy was an optimist!!
Do you suppose these security people can move any slower? I’ll never make it to my gate on time.

Just look at all those people! All those families with kids! They’ll take forever to get through the line. And that couple over there with the deer in the headlights look. They don’t have a clue how to manage this system. You have to take off your jacket, your belt, your shoes, and get everything out of your pockets. Even a quarter may set off the metal detector! Put away my cell phone, no, can’t do that yet my boarding pass is on my phone. And if you’ve got an artificial joint you get a free pat down.

Stupid terrorists. We didn’t have to do all this stuff before 9/11. It wouldn’t be so bad to wait if it made me feel safe and secure, but it doesn’t. We’re vulnerable anywhere. Look at what happened just this week at Ohio State!

[Sits on suit case]

OK Steve, calm down. Breathe. I know it’s not all about me. All those other passengers—they’re all trying to get somewhere just like I am. They aren’t here just to aggravate me. And the TSA folks are doing their very difficult job the best they can. I’m sure they aren’t getting paid enough to put up with grumpy travelers like me. And I’ll even bet a little respect and being nice to them gets me through faster than complaining!

It helps if I don’t just see the crowd but see other people like me. Look at that poor mother traveling with two little kids. She’s probably trying to get home for Christmas or maybe to see a sick relative or bury a loved one. And those soldiers are likely being deployed to somewhere dangerous far away from their families for the holidays.

Sure, waiting a few minutes is inconvenient, but we’re all in the same boat. I’m old enough I remember a time when it wasn’t like this. We could walk leisurely to the gate and other people could go with you to say goodbye. How long do you suppose we will have to wait till the world is peaceful enough that we can do that again, till we just learn to get along as friends and neighbors? I wonder how long. [Exits]

Lighting the Advent Candle:

As usual, the second Sunday of Advent comes as we enter the final month of our calendar year, but 2016 has been far from ordinary. The long, long campaign season is finally over, but the political and social strife continues unabated. We are promised security and peace from all sides, but we are still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. And so we wait for God’s light to break into the darkness just as it did so long ago in another time torn by strife and oppression. Today we light a second candle, the candle of peace, to witness to the world that the light is still growing in all of us who dare to wait and hope and believe. Together our lights can make a difference, and in due time our waiting will be rewarded with the peace that passes all understanding.

Prayer:
O God, waiting is so hard. We read the words of Scripture from centuries ago that promise peace, and we start celebrating Christmas earlier every year desperately hoping that this is finally the year. We long for true peace but often settle for false security that doesn’t satisfy the yearning in our hearts. We take our shoes off at airports and go through metal detectors; security cameras record our activities all over town, and we install security systems at home. Our military is the mightiest ever known in the world. And yet people carry guns and pepper spray, and we lock down our schools on a regular basis. Even police officers are not safe from senseless acts of violence. Enlighten us O God to the ways of the Prince of Peace. Teach us again that we will not find true peace until our hearts find rest in you. Remind us that your eternal peace does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy.” Remind us again in the small glimmer of these candles that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. We wait and pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, Amen.