Everything I Once Believed about Grief Is Wrong

christopherjoiner:

For all who grieve, words of wisdom and grace here, as well as testimony to the power of memory.

Originally posted on Kairos Corner:

I woke today to the thought that has greeted me every March 8th since 1990: “My sister would have been…”

Fifty-five. That’s how the sentence ends this year. My sister would have been fifty-five.

Twenty-four years removed from her death, I still live the truth of what Rick Lischer describes in his book Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son:

“Grief is a series of caves–dark, multiple,and unfathomed. You do not explore them. You fall into them. Which means you are constantly righting yourself and daily, sometimes hourly, recovering from little plunges into unrequited longing and despair.”

It’s certainly not hourly, or even daily, but every now and then something triggers a memory that plunges me into a cavern of longing and despair. Sometimes the cavern isn’t deep and I quickly return to whatever I was doing. Sometimes the cavern seems bottomless.

I once believed that grief had…

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Ashes

“It is more appropriate to speak of this God in categories of fidelity than of immutability, and when fidelity displaces immutability, our notion of God’s sovereignty is deeply changed.” - Walter Brueggemann

“Remember, you are dust.”
I do. 
This, of all my memories,
Is most keen.
The memory more faint
Is of a God who is dust,
Not from any hint of mortality,
But solely from loving the likes of me.

Remember us, ashen Christ.

 

 

 

Release and Embrace: A Brief Lenten List

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday this week, a time set apart to breathe, renew, reflect, to be still and know the deep grace that sustains all things. I share this brief list as an invitation to you to join with me in observing a holy Lent:

1. Release certitude. Embrace humility.

Paul says we live by faith, and not sight. And yet, we all prefer sight any day. We’d rather be certain, we’d rather exude confidence, we’d rather win our culture’s never-ending competitive race than admit we could be wrong. But the truth is, we could be wrong, about most things, and especially matters relating to God. That’s why it is faith, and not certitude (sight), that Paul commends. What might be transformed within us and in our relationships if during Lent we released the need to be right and embraced humility?

2. Release the virtual. Embrace the real.

I love my glowing screens. I love social media. My son is able to talk every day with his girlfriend in Toyko, in real time, and see her face, and she his. This is a remarkable technology. Social media has made it possible for me to connect in meaningful ways with friends the world over. But the other day I was driving through the neighborhood on a sunny, unseasonably warm afternoon and saw three children standing at the corner, all looking at their phones. The gift of the day, the gift of one another, the gift of play – all these gifts remained unopened for the sake of the glowing screen. I feel we are neglecting these greater, more immediate gifts for the often fleeting promises of technology. Could we, during Lent, embrace one hour a day or more when we shut off all the glowing screens, left all the virtual worlds we inhabit, and spent that time with the gifts right around us?

3. Release time. Embrace time.

I heard someone recently say that the most valuable commodity we have in today’s world is time. I think that’s why everyone – children and adults – love snow days so much (I’m writing this on a rare snow day here in Tennessee). It is the grace of all that time, time that has managed to escape the clutches of our overly-scheduled lives, time that has slipped through the ties that bind it so tightly to our fast moving days. The snow falls, covering the earth with a blanket of white, and with it, the comforting, healing presence of uncounted, unhurried, healing…time. During Lent, could we find a way to embrace snow days in the spring – blocks of unscheduled, agenda-free time? Lent is an invitation to release the anxious time by which we live so much of our lives and embrace God’s time – in prayer and meditation, in worship, in acts of care and compassion. Far from adding one more more thing to an already crowded calendar, Lent invites us to embrace a different calendar, one that intersects with our calendars and redeems them.

Lent is a time to release and embrace. What would you add to this brief list? My prayer for all who read these words is that the grace of this season and the God who meets us in both the release and the embrace will bring you renewal and hope.

We See in a Mirror, Dimly…

This may be my favorite passage of Scripture. I cannot tell you how many times I have read it at a wedding, sending these ancient words out over a bride and groom staring back at me nervously, and behind them a buoyant congregation, faces smiling through tears of joy.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

The words come toward the end of Paul’s at once devastating and heartbreaking letter to the troubled Corinthian church. The overriding tone the Corinthians convey is pride, a self-satisfaction that has divided them into communities of the like-minded. And so it is left to Paul – not known for humility himself – to remind them that the beating heart lying at the center and at the end of all things is love. Without it, we are nothing. Forget it, and we are reduced to the clanging symbols of ugly division and incomplete faith.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

I think these words should be posted above every entrance to every church in the nation, a reminder that after we have sung all the hymns, prayed all the prayers, made all the pronouncements, preached and heard all the sermons, and read all the passages, our primary posture before God, one another, and God’s beloved world should be humility,

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

I am thinking about these words today as I prepare to lead a workshop for my presbytery on Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m thinking about all those couples who have heard these words read as they stood in front of the sanctuary. I’m thinking about those who long to stand in that place and hear the words spoken over them, but cannot. And I’m thinking about those of us being called to discern for our own day what God intends marriage to be and do. I see faces of friends, colleagues, beloved children of God, standing in different places, believing different things, tempted to separate, yet longing to find common ground.

In the midst of it all, Paul’s words describe the reality we feel.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

The world is rapidly changing. In just this past week, a federal judge struck down a same sex marriage ban in Texas, the Republican governor of Arizona vetoed a controversial bill that would have empowered people to refuse service to same sex couples based on religious conviction, and a new survey was released showing a majority of Americans support same sex marriage – a huge shift in just ten years. 

I believe if these trends continue, same sex marriage will be legal in all fifty states in 10-20 years and will have widespread cultural acceptance across both political parties. 

The question for those of us in the church is how we are going to respond to these realities. How will we address these changes in our theology and practice of marriage? How will we respond to gay and lesbian people who are members of our churches, who come to us asking us to bless their marriages? How will we respond to same sex couples who join our churches, sing in the choir, volunteer in the missions and ministries of the congregation, and seek to be part of us in every way? What is our call when children raised in the church come back home to it later in life with their partners, asking to be married?

These are not hypothetical questions. These are the very real pastoral situations that are already happening in the seventeen states where same sex marriage is legal. This reality is what drives the efforts this summer at our denomination’s General Assembly to redefine marriage, enabling PCUSA pastors to perform these weddings in states where it is already legal. And this reality is what frightens a great number of church members who believe such a change will alter a beloved institution and create more chaos in a world that feels to have gone already badly awry.

The discussion has the potential to divide us even further. But it doesn’t have to be this way if we remember,

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

If you are tempted to dismiss the people opposed to the re-definition of marriage as ignorant, or hate-filled, or out of touch, remember that they are part of the body, their concerns are heart-felt and have the weight of a rich and ancient tradition behind them, they are motivated by love for their brothers and sisters, and

“We see in a mirror, dimly…”

If you are tempted to dismiss the people in favor of the re-definition of marriage as faithless libertines, or biblically uninformed, or against the gospel, remember that they are part of the body, their concerns are motivated by real-world experience, and they are motivated by love for their brothers and sisters, and 

“We see in a mirror, dimly…”

I think the vast majority of Presbyterians are sitting on the edges of their seats, listening for a word from God, torn within themselves about the right direction to take, hoping to discern gospel in the clamor of so many competing voices. They could do worse than hear from us, before we say anything else - 

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”

 

 

Why I Am (Still) a Presbyterian

It happened again yesterday. I lose track in the last nine years how often the question comes, but for some reason yesterday was a tipping point that sends me today to the keyboard and this blog.

Here’s the question (asked sometimes kindly and sometimes with less kindness, but always basically the same):

“Why are you still in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Don’t you know it is in decline because it is too liberal/too conservative, too traditional/too trendy, too political/not political enough, etc.?”

Well, here’s why.

1. I think God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks so too. God is God, and we are not. When you start here, you will not let yourself become doctrinaire, you will make room for a variety of viewpoints (since no one person or church or doctrine can capture all of God), and you will encourage your people to never stop learning. Which leads to…

2. Because God is big, we have a lot to learn. We have ten PCUSA seminaries in the United States. Count ‘em. Ten. We have sixty-five PCUSA-related colleges and universities in this country. Which is not a typo. That’s a lot of higher education institutions for a denomination our size, and there are lots of conversations about closing some of them down. Whether they all make it or not, the fact that we value the education of clergy and laypeople enough to invest in these institutions is itself indicative of a very important denominational value: we believe because God is sovereign and we’ll never know all of God there is to know, our leaders should be life-long learners, exposed to the depths of the tradition, and given the tools to interpret not only scripture but the congregations we serve and the world in which we live. John Calvin said that Christians should never fear knowledge, no matter where it comes from, because any time we learn more of the truth about the world we are learning more about God. You will rarely find a Presbyterian dismissing science or running from an insight because it might challenge her or his faith, and you’ll rarely find a Presbyterian who doesn’t place a high value in thinking for him or her self. Which makes us a rather diverse and disputatious lot…

3. We fight a lot, but we fight fair. If God is sovereign and education is paramount, it follows that if you have ten Presbyterians in a room you’ll have at least twenty opinions. We spend a lot of time in groups talking about what it means to follow Christ, and sometimes those conversations get heated. But we spend a comparable amount of time making sure all voices are heard and all perspectives are honored. Decision-making is therefore messy and slow, and we all spend a fair amount of time complaining about it. But we’ll take messy and slow if it means honoring all the people of God in their rich diversity. And we realize diversity extends beyond the relatively small boundaries of our little denomination, which means…

4. We think it is important to play well with others. In any city in America, you will find Presbyterian (USA) folk partnering with other Presbyterian denominations, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, and and many others in the work of the Spirit in the world. We welcome their members to take Communion at our tables and their ministers to preach from our pulpits. We see ourselves as a small part of a much larger family of faith, and we have much to learn from them. We do not believe that the Presbyterian way is the only way. Why? See #1 above. Lot’s of things follow from #1, including the last reason I am still Presbyterian (USA)…

5. The world needs our witness. Jonathan Sacks says in America we no longer broadcast, we narrow-cast. It is possible to  construct our world in such a way that we can go through our day never encountering an alternative point of view. Our politics seems irreparably polarized. Ideology trumps everything else. And when you look at religion, it is much the same. Denominations splinter into churches of the like-minded. People run from church to church looking for places that “fit” their own world view. Special interest groups dominate the conversations within denominations. The world and the universal church need to see a group of people who know how to stay together even when they do not always agree, a group of people who believe at the core of their faith that they will never know all of God there is to know and who therefore refuse to narrow-cast. The PCUSA does not do this perfectly, but it does try to be this kind of witness in a world that desperately needs it. It defies the easy categories our culture is so good at imposing (and my interlocutors are always asking me about) – liberal/conservative, traditional/contemporary, Democratic/Republican.

That’s why I’m PCUSA. Still. Because my primary identity is Child of God, a God so much bigger than the categories we seek to impose. The five reasons above will probably not satisfy the people who ask the question of me, but in the end I’m not trying to satisfy them. I’m just trying to be faithful to my call. And I’m so very grateful to be able to do so among these sisters and brothers in our little corner of Christ’s big Church.

Jesus and Christianity

I saw Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” on the Daily Show the other day.

At one point, John Oliver (the interviewer) reveals that Aslan is a Muslim (“one of those Muslamic people”). Aslan first responds that he is not out to offend Christianity, saying that his mother and his wife are both Christians and his brother in law is a Christian pastor.

Then he says, “But I do believe firmly that you can be a follower of Jesus and not be a Christian, just as you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus, if you know what I mean.” Oliver knowingly responds as the audience erupts into applause, “Yes, I think…I think I know EXACTLY what you mean there.”

I think I know what he means as well. I remember when Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish woman who is a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said to our congregation, “I really, really love the teachings of Jesus. I wish more Christians did as well.”

It would be easy for me to get defensive of my Christian tribe here. I could remind Aslan and Oliver and Levine that it is intellectually dishonest to suggest an easy split between the historical Jesus and the church that sought to preserve his story and preach his message down through the centuries. I could remind them that at its best, Christianity embodies the Spirit of Christ, teaching peace in a world of violence, love in a world of hatred, healing in a world of unbounded brokenness. They might even agree with my defense.

But the reason the audience applauded so heartily and Oliver agreed so readily with Aslan’s statement that you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus is because it seems on the surface so very obvious. To the casual observer of the church, it seems that Christianity is more concerned with being on the right side of ideological issues than with feeding the hungry, more infatuated with power than identified with the powerless, occupied more with purity than with the plight of the poor. Those who take even a few moments to read the story of Jesus discover a vast chasm between much of what the church has been and done over the centuries and what in fact Jesus calls us to be and do.

So yes, it is possible to be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus. Sometimes that a description of me. I’m afraid some days I find it easier to go through the motions of religion than answer the radical call of discipleship. Any honest Christian would have to say that we are all a mixed bag of success and failure at living out the demands of Jesus for life in the kingdom.

So I welcome other Jesus-followers, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, to help me in my journey. I long for companions along the Way who take Jesus as seriously as I try to take him, who are willing to shape their lives by his teachings, who are able to catch me when I fall and put me back on the path. And because, as a Christian, I believe that the life of Jesus reveals the very life of God, I welcome the fellowship of all who celebrate that life.

What an interesting gathering it would be if we all got together – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and anybody else who simply wants to follow Jesus – and encouraged one another to live our lives shaped by the patterns of life Jesus taught and lived. Perhaps then the day would truly dawn that Isaiah spoke of and Jesus affirmed: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

I Believe

Not long ago someone, upon learning my profession, asked me, “How can you believe all that stuff?”

“What stuff?” I asked.

“That there’s a man in the sky who does magic things.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said.

“Do you pray?” he asked, in a tone that was less like a question and more like a challenge.

“Yes,” I replied. “I pray every day. I’m praying for you right now.” I smiled to let him know that last bit was a joke, trying to lighten the mood. He was not smiling.

“If you pray, then it seems to me you believe in a magic man in the sky. Such thinking is a hold over from humanity’s primitive days, when they thought the sun and moon and fire were divine…” He went on like this for some time. When he finished, I tried to respond to his points. I thought I did a pretty good job, bringing the full force of my divinity school education and twenty-five years of ministry to bear. When I had finished, he looked at me with genuine perplexity.

And then he, his voice full of sarcasm, said, “That’s really nuanced. How many Christians do you think really believe that way?” Then, answering his own question, he said, “Almost none. Christians believe in the magic man in the sky. They believe that because they believe in him, they are going to heaven and I am going to hell.”

I went away from that conversation disturbed and encouraged. I was disturbed at the misperceptions people who stand outside of Christianity have about our faith. And I was encouraged because I knew I served a congregation filled with thoughtful, engaged, and, yes, nuanced believers. I know those are not mutually exclusive terms, because I live and work among people who live them out every day. I know you do not have to have a seminary degree or be a minister to have this kind of faith, because I know doctors and lawyers and carpenters and accountants who manifest a deep faith in something a little more substantial and mysterious than “a magic man in the sky.”

There are millions of Christians living in the world who expose my inquirer’s caricature for what it is. To believe is not to assent to the outlandish and unbelievable (the magic man in the sky), but to literally “give one’s heart” – which is the root meaning of the word “believe.”

I was intentionally vague in this piece about the specifics of my response to my interlocutor. I am preparing to preach a series of sermons on the nature of belief, using the Apostles’ Creed as a basis. I am curious about how my readers would have responded, but even more so, I wonder how you think about belief. What do you mean when you say, “I believe…”

Remember

What is the purpose of Memorial Day, if not to remember? This Memorial Day weekend I am reading “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers. In arresting prose, this Army veteran of the war in Iraq and National Book Award Finalist in 2012 tells the story of the friendship between Private Bartle and Private Murphy as they fight in Al Tafar, Iraq, struggling to stay alive.

In one scene, an imbedded reporter approaches a group of soldiers that includes Bartle and Murphy. He asks, “Tell me the essence, guys, I want to know the kind of rush you get.”

Murph tried to explain. He said, “It’s like a car accident, you know? That instant between knowing that its going to happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding around same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do (expletive deleted) about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not. It’s kind of like that,” he continued, “like that split second in the car wreck except for her it can last for (expletive deleted) days.” He paused. “Why don’t you come out with us and you can take point? I bet you’ll find out.”

The last question gives me pause this Memorial Day. I hear it directed at me and all the other Americans enjoying this long weekend of ocean breezes, mountain air, the lingering smell of charcoal and pork emanating from backyard grills, sun-kissed reddened skin after an afternoon swim in the lake, cold beverages on a warm night in the first days of summer. These are the associations we have with Memorial Day. Rarely do I pause to consider what it is I am called to remember.

I fear that I am too caught up in the cultural trappings of remembrance, which are often superficial and designed to elicit only a fleeting acknowledgement. At every hockey game in my city, the camera cuts to a man or woman in uniform in the stands and we all stand and cheer as the announcer tells us where he or she served, and we thank them for their service with our applause for a moment, and then the moment is gone. The same thing happens at baseball games, basketball games, and football games. The flag flies, the uniformed soldiers are put on display, we cheer from a distance, and then go back to our lives.

This is a good thing. I participate heartily. It is better than nothing, certainly better than the derision that greeted the soldiers making their way back from Vietnam. But we should be careful lest we think this momentary cheering, this game day display of patriotic fervor, can substitute for real remembrance or authentic patriotism.

When we stand at the hockey game, I hope we also stand with the veterans across our land who are unemployed at an embarrassing rate. I hope we stand with soldiers and their families who come home with missing limbs, damaged psyches, and troubled souls. I hope we stand in recognition that the rate of suicide among military personnel in our nation is at an all time high. I hope we stand in the determination that wars should be a last resort, and that the entire nation should be prepared to make the sacrifices war requires, and not just the young men and women we send. I hope we stand in spiritual solidarity with a world grown weary of war, longing for peace. And for those of us who claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace, I hope we stand in prayer that “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Memorial Day is a day to remember all those who lost their lives in service to our nation. It should be the kind of remembrance that gives rise to an informed citizenry; a people committed to policies that recognize the long- term consequences of war on the nation, especially those who fight; a people ready to respond by tending to the broken bodies, minds, and souls left in war’s wake; a people who follow up on public displays of tribute with private acts of mercy, solidarity, and generosity.

To do any less is to run the risk of standing at a safe distance from the men and women who serve and fight and die. It is to ask of them “What is the essence?” but refusing to “take point” with them. If our standing and cheering is to be seen as anything more than a temporary, feel-good display, it will be accompanied by the power of true remembrance. Perhaps we can be challenged anew to see beyond the superficial trappings that accompany this long weekend and dare to allow memory to inform action.

The day offers an invitation to fresh remembrance. May we all be inspired to “take point” with those whose memories we honor this Memorial Day.

What is Your Favorite Season in the Church?

ImageImageImageImageDear Grayce,

Easter is my favorite season.

Matthew says on Easter morning Mary Magdalene and another woman also named Mary were going to visit the tomb where they had placed Jesus after he was killed. Can you imagine how they must have felt, Grayce? Have you ever been so sad that you wondered if you would ever feel happy again? They must have felt that way. They watched their teacher – their friend – die on the cross. He helped them feel closer to God. He taught them how to love one another. And now he was gone. Would they ever be happy again?

When they get to the grave, they feel the earth shaking. Matthew says an angel came from heaven and rolled the heavy stone that sat in front of Jesus’ tomb. Then the angel just sat on the stone, dangling his feet over the edge. His first words them were, “Do not be afraid.”

You know how you and all your friends come to the church on the Saturday before Easter and hunt eggs? If you notice, the cross in the Courtyard is draped in black on that day. The black cloth helps us remember that Jesus was still dead in the grave on that Saturday long ago. You and your church friends hunt all those brightly-colored, treat-filled eggs on the same day that Mary and her friends were crying because they were sad and afraid. I used to think that maybe we shouldn’t be hunting eggs on such a sad day. But then I saw something that changed my mind.

A few years ago we put a Memorial Garden in our Courtyard. We built a beautiful brick wall, and a grassy space where we could bury the ashes of members of our church family after they die. Sometimes when we stand next to that wall we are very sad and afraid. Someone we love has died and we miss them very much. We wonder what life will be like without people like Millard, Margot, Nick, Charles, Lillian, Gloria, John, and Betty.

When we first built the Memorial Garden, I worried children might play on it, and it would be disrespectful. When I mentioned my worries to one of our older members, she laughed and said, “I like the idea of children playing on it. One day I will be buried out there, and knowing there are children running and laughing all around me brings me joy.”

Sure enough, during the first Easter Egg Hunt after the Memorial Garden was built, I looked up and saw a child sitting on the wall laughing and counting eggs, her feet dangling off the edge.

And now every time I stand in our Memorial Garden, even when I am very sad, I remember the angel from Matthew’s Easter story, the one who sat on the stone with his feet dangling off the edge. He still speaks the same words, “Do not be afraid.”

Grayce, if you are ever sad or afraid, I hope you will remember that angel as well, and know that the promises of Easter are for you too. And if it helps, go sit on the wall in the garden, let your feet dangle off the edge, and tell God exactly how you feel. I promise you God will hear you, and God cares. I believe this, because I believe that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! That’s why Easter is my favorite season.

Peace,

Pastor Chris

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