Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Dark Night Before Dawn: The Great Three Days-Good Friday to Easter...

When the Light Changes

I have been a priest for nearly a quarter century, and before I was a priest I was the grandson of a funeral director. I know what that call in the early watches of the morning means. More often than not, someone has passed and the call is coming in from the family that it is time to gather and to attend to the family. It is time to see to the disposition of the body of the person who has passed on to a greater life in Christ.

When I was a small child and we were visiting my grandparents, when those hours would arrive the business phone outside my grandparents' room would ring. The ring was distinctive and louder than the house phone line. It would ring, and either my grandmother or grandfather would vault out of bed and answer, always with just the right tone and always alert: "Hello, Shelly Funeral Home...how can we help you?"
Joseph of Arimathea, by Giancinto Brandi 

A few moments would go by as they would listen to the details of the needs of the family, and then, "Yes, we will be there shortly. We are sorry for your loss."

My grandfather would pull on his pants, the hearse keys jangling in the pocket and clear his throat as he prepared for the drive off into the night. When we got older, each of us knew that we could be asked to lend a hand. I was small in those days, and when I was able my job was to greet him when he got back to the funeral home and help pull down the legs of the gurneys as the cot was lowered to the room where the body would be prepared. 

He was always kind and helpful, no matter the hour of the night. He was always ready to head out into the darkness to do what needed to be done for people who were in the first throes of grief-that time when sorrow is mindless and despair is erupting. His was often the first voice to speak that set the path forward through this new grieving time, to give guidance and direction for the next steps to be taken on this shadowed journey through the valley of the shadow of death.

One of those early mornings, around 4 AM .
Returning from a bedside....
I have seen many early mornings in my own way as a priest to people. I have gotten the call to go to homes and hospitals. I have had the phone ring in the night. I once had to be awakened by the police to help a family in need, having forgotten to turn my cell phone back on after a night out with a family at another funeral. I give thanks for the training, the formation my family gave me to learn how to answer the phone on those late nights...to keep clothing ready by the bedside to go out into the night, and to give thanks for the moments in the night when I am awake while others sleep in order to offer prayers for those who keep watch.

As we begin the transit of the great three days of our Christian faith, we are coming to a time when we all know the impact of those dark times of grief, loss and death. The night of Maundy Thursday was spent in sleepless anxiety, fear and displacement as Jesus is taken from us. Good Friday sees his abuse at the hands of those in power, and his execution on the Cross. We witness with broken hearts his suffering and death as so many have seen loved ones through in the millennia of humans dying before and after His death. We wonder at what we are supposed to do next....with his....body.

And then, we struggle to take the next steps-both those we know how to take and those we wonder if we will have the strength to take-in the days to come. 

Into those dark hours comes a man, Joseph. He is from Arimathea. He bore witness to the death, and now he moves to attend the family and friends of this man who has died. He cannot make a horrible situation better, but he can provide care and support as those around the body of Jesus wonder what can next be done.

He arranges for the disposition of the Body. He gathers help to bring it down from the Cross. He provides the coverings for the Body to give it back some of the dignity it was denied in its last moments. He gently directs it to be laid...in his own tomb, a tomb that has never been used before. 

It is in those dark hours that those little gestures of kindness and care mean the most. 

I saw that again and again in the witness my grandparents offered to those who knew that early morning grief. I saw it again and again as the grey light of the pre-dawn dissolved into the light and color of a new day. I know it in my service to families moving through a season of grief.

And now, you and I, we stand as guides for all those who look to the Josephs of Arimathea as they wonder who will be with them as they mourn and grieve.

We are all the ones who will do just that when the bell tolls, when the phone rings, when the opportunity presents itself to affirm that soon we will remember again that every death now is not an end....but an invitation to a new dawn. Our love and care will see them through.....

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Tongue of a Teacher: Palm Sunday

That I May Sustain the Weary with a Word

Isaiah 50:4-9a
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

I grew up in a family and a household that put learning at a high level, and teaching at a premium. It was one thing to learn something, to gain in experience and knowledge as you moved through life; but that was only half of the sum total of the obligation of becoming a human being fully alive. What good is knowledge or experience if it is not passed on to another? That is the very thing that fulfills the point of living....to learn and then, having learned, to pass on to another the gift of what you received.

Watching people learn is an amazing and grace-filled gift in this existence. There is always that moment when someone confronts the boundary of their knowledge or experience: the brows knit, perhaps the mouth turns down into a slight frown of concentration, and then the mind locks on the question. Human beings don't like being in that space, on the frontier of knowledge, of skill. We feel that space is not so safe. Not knowing, not recognizing what is happening, or the reason things are happening in this way belies our previous sense of knowing and being. What will happen next? The animal in us knows this is a dangerous, life-threatening place to be. The human being in us contends with it and strives to tame it and forge knowledge from ignorance, experience from hapless fumbling. What happens next defines us all...

What happens next is growth, transformation, change, evolution of the self. Our knowledge base grows, our palette of experience blooms and becomes more diverse. We deepen as human beings and we get the opportunity to grow in wisdom. That all happens when and if we have a good teacher to walk alongside us as a guide. If we do not, then we run a risk. We risk anxiety. We risk rebellion. We risk struggle without growth. We wind up suffused with a certain sort of weariness, born of the struggle for meaning, context, relevance without growth, change or transformation. Like the struggle to keep a sense of balance on the pitching deck of a sailing vessel being tossed by a hard swell, so too our souls become weary when we are stretched too thin, pitched to and fro on the tumult of our struggles without a sense of a clear sea ahead at some point in the future. A good teacher can provide that solace, that support, that guidance.

The tongue of a teacher that Isaiah talks about in the passage above sets the tone for our Holy Week experience. We are being told that we are not alone as we journey in witness to the events of the last week of Jesus' earthly ministry and life. We are being assuaged under the direction of those who have gone before, who have learned and grown from the experience. We are being invited to enter into the Passion experience and learn from it, grown in it, deepen in our practice. 

It is too easy, I know, to allow (even seek) to have the awesome power of the account of Christ's Passion, his suffering and death overwhelm us. It has happened to me over and over again. As well, in contrast, I have overworked the tendency to hold myself at a distance, finding dissociation in intellectual pondering. I have submerged myself in the indulgence of emotional over-identification. What I find myself struggling this year to do in light of Isaiah's teaching is to stay close enough to Jesus that I can learn/hear/embrace what he is trying to teach, to show, to give in his last moments while at the same time standing near enough to support others as they struggle with everything I noted above...and more. The tongue of the teacher teaches me to teach...and so on, and so on.

What does it mean to begin Holy Week in that mindset? It does us all a distinct favor. We are less invested in the experiences that we are about to have as we walk with our communities through the dramas that are about to unfold again. Personally, I am finding myself more invested in how I can be present to others in their walk. May I (and you) have the opportunity to teach...and thus to learn....as others are transformed by that teacher's gift.

May you learn, and teach, and learn from teaching....as we follow our Teacher on his Way. May the same mind be in us that is in Christ Jesus and may we become better teachers as we learn. 

Thursday, April 04, 2019

A Jar of Nard and Social Justice: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Why Did She Do THAT?

All of us have had that moment when a scent becomes overpowering. The perfume someone put on a little too liberally that morning. The cologne that came out of the bottle with a little too much alacrity before the dress shirt went on. The eau de toilette that is a bit past its prime and has concentrated in the bottle. That aftershave that is a little too...much.

The room fills with scent. Our own senses feel like they are fogging over. Suddenly, we feel like we are caught up in someone else's space. Instead of being enjoyable, provocative, or relaxing, the scent that fills the space around the person in front of us winds up leaving us feeling unbalanced and ill at ease...if not ill, altogether; and those are the "good" smells!

There are the other scents we know and would prefer to avoid as well. The musk of body odor when someone fails to wash to our cultural satisfaction is one qualifier. There is also the scent of stress, fear and anxiety that people can wear when they have been struggling for safety, survival or comfort. The sour, cutting dankness of fear, illness or despair can also take us out of ourselves and leave us discomfited.

As we approach the story of Mary, sister to Lazarus and Martha of Bethany, and her jar of nard, just remember how powerful and intense our sense of smell is, and the effect that scent has on us as people. Scent influences our emotions, provokes memories, causes us to react positively or negatively in a moment. Scent can determine how we respond to and treat others.

Nard is a particularly potent and exotic scent. Its a heavy, deep tone that is unmistakable. In concentration, it can be almost nauseating. A little bit goes a very long way, and a little bit is also very expensive. Can something SMELL costly? Of course.

Mary has been saving this jar for a long time for a special purpose. Jesus himself, as the recipient, tells his followers that she purchased it for the anointing at his burial. For those gathered, the astoundingly intimate gesture of her pouring that jar out over his feet and then anointing them with her own hair is compounded by the scent that fills the room enough to drive most smell-sensitive people out into the night in search of a breath of fresh air.

The whole place reeks of this moment, this gesture....the very expense of it.

Is this justice? Is this what we are to be about, extravagant excess offered up wastefully to a moment of apparent impulse...socially imprudent impulse at that?

Our Baptismal Covenant asks of us: Will you strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being? 

Jesus' reaction to people's revulsion at Mary's gesture reminds me of the many times when I meant the best for someone who needed justice and peace from me, who needed me to respect their dignity and value their humanity, when I just couldn't stand the smell of them.

That scent could be a physical one: Body odor, or the smell of alcohol on someone's breath at an inappropriate moment. That revulsion could be because of my own lack of respect or attraction for the person in front of me. Not just bad breath or body odor, but the scent of a shared history where I have known them to be less than worthy of respect, less deserving of my help because of how they have treated me or others. Be the stink physical or spiritual, relational or general, we have all known those moments when we have been so close to the kingdom of God while being presented with the opportunity to serve another in the name of justice, only to balk at the opportunity. 

Jesus reminds us to smell the smells of the moment AND to see the humanity in the personal gestures open to us that grant and value the dignity of EVERY human being. His comment about the reaction to the "wasted" expense of the perfume being poured out was to remind the disciples and us that we will always have the poor with us. Always.

The invitation we are being offered then is to embrace those moments when the smell of the moment threatens to overwhelm us. Admitting that we can be overcome and reactive, while also rising up to serve and seek justice and peace ultimately determines a deeper value than the cost of any jar of expensive scent. It also moves us to look past the stench of poverty and despair and then see the person beneath the muck, the soul behind the veil.

Are you willing to pour your own jar of nard? Are you willing to look past your own reactions to scents that challenge, provoke or overwhelm and see the person behind the screen of a scent you may or may not welcome? 

Will you strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every (EVERY) human being?

Will you, with God's help?