Monday, April 26, 2010

Dancing with Broken Bodies

On Saturday I was out in the driveway, rehearsing a dance project for my Liturgical Dance class. The project is to be a dance for Pentecost. I have created a set of red/orange/yellow flags to whirl around as if the Spirit descending in tongues of flame, and I was enraptured by their motion through the air. Looking up at the flags in the early evening light, I neglected my lower appendages, twisted my ankle, and tore a ligament.

The irony in this situation is incredible. I gave a minor speech in class and have been writing a paper on my purpose in the dance project: to display the beauty of the Body of Christ via the unity of dance.
I have several elders of my church in mind, who through hip replacements, arthritis, or plain old deterioration are no longer to participate fully in the liturgy of the church. Our worship involves a choir processional and recessional, and a few cases of standing up and sitting down, but there are elders who cannot participate in even these simple movements. In honor of them, I wanted to choreograph a dance that we could all participate in from any position, whether seated or fully moving around the room. I (as lead dancer) would begin the dance very simply with arm movements, and as the dance progressed I would slowly incorporate more and more of my own body into the motions, until side by side we would have healthy and young bodies dancing freely alongside older and broken bodies, and all in the same spirit lifting our prayers to God.

The thing is, I expected to be the "youthful and energetic body" in this scenario.

Now it seems I will dance my way through my own healing process. Today, I'm doing the arm movements from a chair. In a few days I may do them standing still. By Pentecost I may be able to pick up the fire-flags and let them fill the air with the sound of a mighty wind... but I will probably have a big black plastic boot on my foot as I do so.
Where I thought I was preparing this dance in order to tell OTHER people that they should honor the inherent beauty and dignity in their own bodies, broken though they may be, I suppose I can take a taste of my own medicine, slowly relishing the little bit of motion i DO have in my foot, and perhaps allowing someone else to be the dancer who, with whole and full body (although all of us are in some way broken) takes our prayers into the flags, the flames of the Spirit. It doesn't matter who carries our prayers to God; they are carried, by any vessel no matter how broken.

“...we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7).
After my recent humblingexperience of emptiness (see: preaching) ... I figure I ought to trust the process.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Preaching today

I started writing this sermon a month ago... yeah right. God always throws us curveballs. The first curve was that the alumni association would be here. The second -- well, there are so MANY of them, we switched to the larger (less cozy/friendly) chapel. The third -- the recent death of my friend Hans. The fourth -- the surprising intensity of grief, which is quite taxing to the mental facilities such as they may be.

Well I wrote a sermon. My brain had slowed to an absolute crawl by last night so I just held it up to God and tried to get some sleep. I picked at my pancakes with Rachel this morning, and set off to the chapel. Plan A was to preach entirely through the sermon (alone), make some revisions, and re-print a new manuscript, but nothing was really going Plan A at this point. A minute after I arrived, the organist Jack arrived and wanted to practice. The good thing is, God's plan is always better than our plans. So instead of freaking out and reprinting my sermon, I took off shoes and socks and danced to the tune of Hyfrydol - Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.

The Alumni association entered, a prelude was played, and apparently the president of our good school asked the student sitting next to him - "who's preaching today? I certainly wouldn't want to be in her shoes."

It's hard to describe the absolute emptiness I felt as we prayed and began the service. The shaking of the body, the gasping of the spirit, the effort of collecting every ounce of strength for the task at hand. Having less than little strength, someOne else must have supplied me.

The sermon is posted below. I went over time but apparently that's okay. Charles (the chaplain) and I sang the Isaiah Jones jazz communion liturgy and my voice stayed strong. We served 80... 100 people? The body of Christ for you... for you... and we join hands in a circle afterwards. We always do. Usually there are less people, and the presiders can be part of the circle. There was no room today so Charles and I stayed out of the circle, and held one another's hands. Hence I had a hand out to the side. I held it out for Hans. Took a firm grip of the faith in the resurrection I had just proclaimed. It is, after all, the table of the feast of the Kingdom of God we were circled around.

I benedicted, received my peace of Christ, and collapsed into arms after loving arms of friends until I could finally go collapse into the post-sacramental nap. I often pray, before preaching, that we may "spend and be spent in the reading, preaching, hearing, & doing of Thy Word," and I think I'll be more careful about that request in the future. I got fully spent today.

Sermon text

John 21:15-19 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Good morning and thank you for the privilege of preaching for such a crowd. I wrote this sermon from a place of brokenness, and stand here in emptiness, praying that where I am weak, Christ Jesus will be strong, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit you will all hear the word you need from God today.

I want to begin with the question “do you love me?” And unfortunately I feel the need to clarify a very popular topic – the three Greek words for Love. Some of the alumni here have preached this hundreds of times, so I’ll make it quick.
Eros –for erotic love – basically only gets talked about in wedding sermons. Filia is friendship – brotherly love. And Agape we Christians rank the highest – it’s the love with which God loves us, and we ought to love God. Or at least those are the cliches. We rank them like that. But they are not that simple.
In the Gospel of John, agape does tend to denote a Godly love, and filia a very human love. But this doesn’t mean filia is a lower form of love. Jesus also says that he is friends with God, and we can be friends with God as well. And Jesus experienced deep and valuable friendships too. When Lazarus died, and Jesus went to his tomb and wept, the people remarked in awe – see how he loved him!! This friendship was a close intimacy. The word “friend” has lost its punch in the age of facebook, but in Greco-Roman society friendship was one of the highest bonds, higher in some cases than family or spouse.
Now I mention this because Jesus and Peter, in this story, are arguing back and forth with filia and agape. Jesus asks – Peter, do you agape-love me more than everyone else? Peter says yes, but in his own statement he uses the filia word – I’ll translate it “I care for you.” It’s not a lesser kind of love, but a mutual, caretaking, affectionate love. Again Jesus asks – peter, do you love me? -- and Peter says YOU KNOW I care for you. Peter knows in a way that he cannot say he loves Jesus with that agape love, because Jesus has already defined agape for us. Greater agape love has no one than this – to lay down our lives for our friends. And Peter failed to do this. He swore he would lay down his life and follow Jesus, even to death, but he denied him and fled.
The last time Jesus is pushing Peter. He no longer asks about agape; he adopts Peter’s language of friendship and asks the third time: “do you care for me?” And Peter, totally distraught, says “You know everything! You know I care for you!!!”
Peter knows that he cannot claim to have done everything right. He knows he has denied and abandoned Jesus. But he also knows the depth of his love – this human, intimate, passionate love. It may be all he has to go on, but he holds it up for all it’s worth.
And i think it’s worth a lot. It shouldn’t be ranked inferior to agape.
It’s worth a lot to live passionately, with all the intensity of human emotion it brings.
We hear about it even in church – Are you fully alive? Are you passionate about your faith?? I heard a sermon recently, saying that the power of the resurrection is about making us fully and passionately alive.

And I am skeptical of this at first. It leads to an attitude of “I’m so empty... I just need more things to care about!” which is only an inch away from the consumer attitude: “I need more things.” It is so similar to what the culture tells us. We can buy sexy perfumes that make us Passionate. Clothes, food, cars, everything is marketed as the one thing we need in order to Live Life Fully. A particularly valuable item to purchase, in the pursuit of passionate living, is a plane ticket to some far-away place. I bought one when I was 21, with my little sister, to work in an orphanage called Children Of Uganda. Before we got on that plane, we wrote an immensely dramatic song about why we were doing this. A lot of it was about needing to be more fully alive. The chorus of the song was “what does it feel like to live? Amen.” And I look back on this and laugh a little. We did so much in the name of self-consciously passionate living.

But something in that is -- empty. It just doesn’t take you very far.

And there’s something funny about the word itself. Looking up passionate in the Oxford English Dictionary I found some great words:
Passionate. affected with passion or strong feeling; dominated by intense emotion; ardently enthusiastic. zealously devoted. Sounds good...
I looked up passion: and I found it sounded a lot less like a sexy perfume. As the first and oldest use of the word i found;
Passion: The sufferings of Jesus in the last days of his life, from the Last Supper to his death; the Crucifixion itself. The sufferings of a martyr, martyrdom.

Passion is passive – it’s something that happens to you. It’s like a vocation that you weren’t looking for, but it signed itself up for you.
Peter, in this encounter, is told by Jesus about his passion, and his death. He has a call – to feed Jesus’ sheep – and earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus told us what this job is about. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. You don’t go looking for a job like that, any more than you go looking for a hurricane. Martin Bell wrote that to encounter Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh must have been like running straight into the path of a hurricane. You wouldn’t do it on purpose.

Some of us are naturally passionate, and some of us find it difficult, and that’s okay. BUT if we walk into the path of Jesus’ hurricane, and get a passion inflicted upon us, we WILL become passionate. Like it or not. When you’ve come home from your expensive trip to Uganda, and are now fundraising to keep six hundred orphan children fed, you don’t stop to question how intense your love is. When you know some Palestinian Christians, and you hear of more settlement violence, you don’t have to self-consciously craft an expression of righteous anger. It comes with the territory. Or let me say it this way – when you have sheep to tend, and a wolf approaches, you will not be faking your passionate protection over those sheep, even to the risk of your own life.

No. Some people may say that “the resurrection is about being fully & passionately alive,” but I think passionate living is just a side effect. There has to be more power in the resurrection than that. Peter was always passionate. But that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t able to follow Jesus all the way.

I’ll get personal. I have a vested interest in the resurrection meaning more than living passionately in the here and now.
I had a friend over at the Lutheran seminary, who studied there two years ago, named Hans Petersen, who was very gifted at living passionately. It’s just how God made him – with this transparent face, where you could see everything. If he liked a plate of food, he LOVED that plate of food, and let everyone know it. If he heard about some injustice in Palestine, he wasn’t just upset, he was outraged, and you could see it. Hans taught me about living passionately, about loving God and loving justice and loving people -- fully -- the way I believe Peter did.
And last week, installing solar panels on a fourth-story roof, he fell to his death.

I have a vested interest in proclaiming that the resurrection is about more than living passionately here and now.
That in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, something that was broken got fixed. A door that was not open to us, no matter how passionately we tried to force it, got opened, and not by our own power. A door that will lead us through our sufferings into Glory.
Peter, before Christ’s passion, had said to him, “Master, I will follow you anywhere. I will lay down my life for you.” And Jesus said no. You you won’t... can’t... you are going to deny me, and you cannot follow me now. But you will follow me later.”

Something that was broken got fixed in the resurrection, and Jesus used the same words in a different way when he said at the last to Peter, “follow me.” Now Peter can follow, and will follow. Now he’s got sheep to feed, sufferings to undergo of course, but the way to glory is open before him. The resurrection has given him the courage and the strength he needs to go forward, not on his own power. And we can all have the courage and the strength we need to go forward into our own vocation, and our own passion, should we be afflicted with one. We gather around this table to RECEIVE the power of the resurrection – that courage, that strength we need to follow Jesus. We can all have courage to go forward knowing that death no longer has the final word.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Grief and Resurrection

I've read books about grieving.
I've helped others grieve.
I'm always full of helpful encouragement for the mourning -- aren't I?
But I have no idea how to do it myself.
I thought I could sit through the funeral today, sing through it, even toyed with the idea of standing up and offering a word when we were invited to say things. uhhhhhhh - right. how naive. i didn't even get through the door without weeping out loud. And there are people up there leading, reading, preaching, singing, serving communion -- I'm not saying I'm reconsidering the pastoral profession, but there is a bit of doubt now about my ability to actually preach a funeral.

Steve taught me to ask the grieving to retell their memories of the departed. My friends have been soliciting these stories from me. We laughed a lot at the funeral... "Hans, always loving, always attentive, always kind, always late..."
We're doing this. Step by step...

but still, I'm completely thrown by the pain that wakes me in the middle of the night. The unscheduled hour of weeping catches me off guard. I watch myself go through this, strategize with consolation plans. Apparently it might last a while.
I notice what works and what doesn't.
I notice how closely I cling to my belief in the resurrection. I don't even know how people can manage without this belief.

Oddly enough, although the Bible is completely central to me, my strongest anchor in the resurrection is non-Biblical. Two stories provide this anchor... both second-hand but from deep and faithful sources.

The first is a singing group out in Vermont somewhere who started singing to the dying. Hospice music... heaven music... godspeed ye music. And Mary Cay told me once of a dying woman, quite on the brink, slipping in and out, who suddenly spoke clearly to the gathered choir of friends and family: "get me a napkin!" They ignored her but she repeated the request until she'd been brought a napkin. She wiped her mouth and said "mmm... this is the most delicious banquet I have ever tasted."
The second, a friend of mine who works part time as a teacher and part-time, unpaid (though one could scarcely imagine the "benefits,") for angels and saints trying to usher departed souls up to heaven. A very small number of "ghost" souls stick around because they won't trust an angel and have to be "sent" by a human... which is where my friend comes in, often reluctantly, at the wake, or the park, or years later in someone's house, and gives the soul ascension instructions. Sometimes it's as easy as saying "go!" and sometimes they need to let go of something or hear a message. I interrogated her fully on this... "do all the souls go to heaven?" and she said "the really serene ones just fly straight up to God. The ones who are disturbed or upset go to Jesus first, and he gets them ready and sends them on." In such a matter-of-fact manner! In her years of doing this work she has never met a condemned soul, or a soul without a destination. Heaven is in all of us -- it is our true home.
and THAT is my systematic theology for the day. Banquets and napkins, and ascending souls getting fixed by Jesus. It may look like a patchwork, but it's what I cling to. And I don't know what I'd do without it.

Here's a picture of Hans which showed up on his memorial site. I don't know who took it but it is so familiar. I trust the same smiling face is shining with joy in heaven.

One more thing: We stood and made a corporate affirmation of faith. The pastor said "saying this doesn't bring him back to us." which is true, but immediately I realized what it DOES do -- it brings us forward, closer to him, closer to heaven, closer to the communion of saints from all the ages.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

In Memoriam

(how do I mourn? I write.)

A young man named Hans Petersen, 2 1/2 years ago on the top of Bald Hill, picked up pebbles and arranged them into a sacred word - φως - light, in Greek. I had just begun my Greek studies but I knew it meant light, which was the first word (in English) I'd spoken as a baby. And I knew, then and there, that I'd like this crazy guy at least as much as our mutual friends told me I would.

Hans and I shared many more a hike, a meal, an evening of song... often with long silences between, which were usually broken by long self-deprecating voicemails he'd leave me by way of apology. He broke our longest silence not more than a month ago, all but showing up on my doorstep like an orphan child not expecting to be taken in -- I took him in -- fed him -- caught up on life. I'd been gone for a year in Oregon. He was doing better than he had been, overworking on his job installing solar panels, but enjoying it, finding a new balance in life, putting one foot in front of the other. It was good to reconnect.
Yesterday he fell off a roof (on the job) and died. Too young, too vibrant, too alive for this to make any sense. I don't know how to mourn his death. But I do know how to celebrate his resurrection.

I hiked that same hill tonight and found pebbles to write his sacred word -- φως -- LIGHT. I didn't do it as carefully as he did... I could never be as meticulous as he was about little things. He'd place every pebble with a pointillist's love, where I scrape and pile with big painterly strokes. But I wrote it for him, and stayed there until the sunset light slipped off the pebbles and made its way to the ocean.
A hymn about heaven tells me of "sweet fields arrayed in living green, and rivers of delight." They were around me up there -- I could almost touch them myself.

A random fact about Hans: he really loved being naked (and in all kinds of settings... where you don't expect to encounter naked people...) He'd skinnydip at the drop of a hat, and apparently got in trouble with the police in Oberlin OH for this alleged crime.
I do hope he's skinnydipping in rivers of delight right now. I do hope St Peter's not too strict about the white robe thing. Actually, it's not a hope, I'll call it a prayer, and a certainty. That having flown in all his broken beauty to a place where there is no sorrow or sickness, his spirit is reveling in everything it touches, with that open-hearted awe that captivated all of us here.

We'll miss you, Hans.
See you there.

Monday, April 5, 2010

rest and relaxation

I took a vacation that was, as I've mentioned, a little more drive-y than I wanted. Actually what happened is that halfway through my second trip from LA to San Diego, behind the wheel of the car, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I hadn't wanted a vacation at all, I'd wanted a staycation, or a retreat. I wanted to be on a mountaintop, or a monastery, or both, with just me and God and some good books. (the problem was, I never asked myself what I wanted...)
I pulled over at the next scenic overlook and rested my eyes on the ocean & sunset. And I vowed to have a staycation.
The rest of spring break went along nicely, very socially, festively, campingly. And when I returned at last to San Anselmo I began my staycation -- a retreat in place. Nevermind that I had class, work, studying, and rehearsals to be at. I went to all of those, but as soon as I was off duty I'd hike, or walk, or pray, or assume a studious position in the library with that "do not disturb" posture on me. Basically what was at issue was turning down various invitations for socializing, and focusing instead on the dynamic that is present in, among, and between me, God, and my books.
It coincided nicely with Holy Week. Since last Thursday I've attended 10 hours of corporate worship services. Because I didn't run around socializing I was able to put my full energy and attention into them. Another part of retreating was the attempt to turn off my critical brain, which always sucks a lot of energy out of me. So I resisted the temptation to give snarky remarks on sermons, to complain when the line for communion was moving too slowly, to tell anyone (even myself) how much better things could've been run. Hard work I tell you, but a much better experience.

Anyway, seminary professors always remind you about self-care, since it's the most neglected practice of most pastors. And I may not have mastered it but at least I put one important piece of it into place: asking my own self how it wants to be cared for. It wants more retreats. Duly noted.