Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost 2007

Happy Birthday, old girl. Nearly 2000 years since that ordinary day when the most amazing things started happening in an obscure, troublesome corner of the Roman empire.

The wind, the Spirit of the Lord - that same breath that moved over the face of the deep on the first day of creation - that wind filled their little room and tongues of flame appeared above their heads and a new creation was born.

Happy birthday.

You've been through a lot, Mother Church. Wars and dictators. Plagues and earthquakes. Saints and madmen. You've gone through it. And by the grace of God, you've come through it. The cheeks aren't as smooth as they once were, and the hair is touched with gray, but the eyes still sparkle from time to time.

We've done a lot with the flame God gave us in that upper room. We've used it to light the darkness and to warm the chilly bones of your suffering children.
We've spread it over the face of the earth. We haven't always been careful as we ought to have been. We've mingled our own breath with the flame, hoping to make it burn brighter, spread faster. In our impatience, we've done harm in the world, and done harm to you.

But you're still here.

Like a mother who will not give up on her wayward children, you weep with us, discipline us, rejoice with us. You help us to welcome our babies and you help us to bury our dead.

Travel the world and you will find the church's flame burning. Shining like a beacon in the middle of a sin-sick city or glowing softly in the middle of a forest she stands - a stubborn reminder that we are not alone in this lonely universe. The church has many critics, and many of them are right. She is old and stubborn, set in her ways. She doesn't like to change, and is often hard on people who try to change her. She keeps too much, gives too little, holds on too tight, and lets go much too reluctantly. She's got a mean streak a mile wide and often seems more interested in obedience than reason. Much too much harm has been done - too many wounded hearts broken on her stone steps and wooden beams.

But she's still here.

She has been my friend since I was a child. I remember the dark Presbyterian wood of my youth. The smell of lilac perfume and moth balls and Lifeboy as the hard working people in our church in Pittsburgh would crowd into the heavy pews with the hymnal racks and the hearing aids. Her dark stone walls reminded us that even on Sunday, life was hard work - hard as the mills whose stacks filled the air with the dark soot that colored our lives and stained her walls. Her tall square bell tower called us to church and called us to reflect upward - her finger pointing ever heavenward.

I remember the mystery of the communion cups, like a little shot glass in my grandmother's trembling fingers. She would drink when the minister said "This do..." and then place the empty cup in the wooden holder on the pew in front of her. Dad never came to church when I was little. I just thought it was something a man grew out of. There were a few grown men there, but mostly it was the women who greeted my mom and gramma. They would smile at me and talk while I tugged at my mother's sleeve, wanting only to go home and take off my church shoes. Women taught my Sunday school - Miss Margaret, Mrs Misplay, Mrs. Swango. The minister was a man, but it was pretty obvious to me who did the work and who did the sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

When I was older, I joined the Boy Scouts and Dad became our Scoutmaster. At camp, we always had Sunday services and one of the other fathers would speak about honesty or helping people or one of the other scout values. All this made sense to me. These were grown men, but they weren't really talking about church stuff. They were talking about being good scouts and becoming good men. Then one weekend, Dad stood up. I was a little freaked and a little upset. I thought it was kind of hypocritical of him to talk in a chapel service when he didn't even go to church. He read to us from Psalms. "The heavens are telling the glory of God." Dad talked about the trees and the mountains of Western Pennsylvania where our families had grown up. This was where he found God. This was where his own father had shown him how to recognize a bird's song or track a deer through the autumn leaves. When Grampa died, the church stopped making sense to Dad. The rational, compassionate Father and Friend who was preached about from the big pulpit was no friend of my fathers. He had taken away his dad. There would be no more hunting trips. No more fishing in Canada. No more evenings at Forbes Field watching the Pirates and eating hot dogs. His father would not get the chance to watch me grow up. The God of church had seen to all that.

Here in the woods, it was a different story. Here my dad spoke a language I had never heard. He talked about a God whose fingers had scooped out the valleys and whose voice sang in the night. He saw the Creator's fingerprints all over the woods. God had provided fresh water, plants to provide shelter and save food. Even the stones for our fire ring were gifts from God over which we were not masters, but stewards. God had placed all this beauty in our care so that we might find rest from the smoke and the noise of the city. This was the place where the God my Dad knew lived.

Soon after that, Dad started coming to church. I grew up. He grew old and tired. When he died. I was not angry at God. My father had taught me to forgive, even my Creator's sins. We buried my father on a hill in the woods, far far from the city. He is with God.

The church and I have had our ups and downs. I am in awe of her most of the time. She has been through so much, meant so much, helped so many. The old tricks of the cathedral architects still take my breath away. Flying buttresses, soaring domes, rose windows, tiny side chapels. The church has been all these things, but so much more.

She has been our flawed and beautiful guardian - our beautiful partner in the stewardship of creation. She is a glorious monster, a tender giant watching over us, yet reliant on us for her life.

We are the church. That is true. A church is not a building, it is people. But the church is much more than we could ever be on our own. The church is people, but it is not only people. "Only people" is a room full of disciples who have said goodbye to Jesus twice in a few months, lost and a little confused about what it all meant and where they should go from here. "The church" is a street full of apostles speaking in strange languages to suspicious ears about the glory of a Creator who leaves fingerprints everywhere - even on human hearts. The church was born of the marriage between God and God's people. She is our mother AND our child.

Happy birthday, old girl. God bless you.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Great Letting Go

At the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
John 13:31-35

In this short Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks words his disciples are destined to understand only after his death. It is possible that he spoke for their sake of course, but it also seems to me that he spoke to his own heart which ached with grief at the loss of his friends. Jesus was about to begin his journey through The Way of Letting Go.

The Great Letting Go is a part of human life. Our birth is the primal example. We must leave – in fact we are driven out of the only existence we know. We lose the relationship that has kept us alive. We are thrust into a new world, one where the person we were is no more than a subconscious memory. We have no choice but to let go of the person we were, in order to become the person we will be.

A mother must also travel this painful and confusing road. For nine months she has lived in relationship with someone she has never seen, but with whom she shares an intimacy that is completely unique in creation. She has willingly offered her body to be the home of a being who is not an invader or a parasite, but a new creature. She has changed with her child’s transformation from a single cell into a thinking, breathing person. From the beginning, she knows it is a relationship that is destined to end, this intimate hospitality of mother and unborn child. If her child is to live, a mother has to let it go.

My first memory of The Great Letting Go was when my Grampa died. He had been a special friend to me, my mother’s Father. His angular country features were different from the round, Ukrainian faces I knew in my father’s family in the city. Grampa had a laugh that filled his little house like music. When I misbehaved, or did something dangerous outside, his anger could reach across a pasture like thunder. I remember the smell of his Chesterfields and the Captain Black as their smoke curled around the posts that held up the porch roof. I remember the tiny holes he would sometimes burn in his pants when an ember would accidentally fall from his straight, brown pipe. Those tiny holes began to grow more frequent after he became sick. They grew and spread like the tumors my mother said the doctor had seen in his X-rays. The weekend we went to visit and saw the burn on the arm of Grampa’s big chair in the living room, I knew that something was really wrong with my strong, tall laughing friend. We watched the light slowly fade from his eyes as the stairs became too difficult and the old oak dining room table was moves aside to make room for a hospital bed. Finally an ambulance brought him to the city, driving fast along The Great Letting Go. Finally, I came home one afternoon and my father’s mother, my city gramma was waiting for me. She sat me on her big rocking chair while she sat on the edge of the bed and explained to me that Grampa was dead. He had been a very sick man, but now he was no longer sick.

I had known tears before then - tears of frustration, of pain, of disappointment, fear, or anger - but that was the first time I remember weeping the tears of The Great Letting Go.

Those tears become part of our lives. A friend goes away. Our family moves to a new place. Summer vacation ends.

Later we learn about love and its cost. We learn the joys of having a sweetheart and the pain of losing them. Our parent’s arguments (or their silence) finally tears them apart. We become “every other weekend” children of people who have let go of one another.

School days end, speeches are made. We dress in strange medieval costumes while people talk about exciting beginnings and possibilities. But in our hearts we know that what is really happening is the death of the life we have always known. We are traveling down the shadowy, unknown valleys of The Great Letting Go.

We will return to its winding way many times. There will be weddings and funerals. Children will become teenagers. Love nests will fill with little birds, then one day we look around and the nest willl be empty. Promotions will give us new colleagues and old ones will be left behind. Obituaries, alumni magazines, and late night phone calls will bring news of loved ones whose life journey is over. Lost opportunities at reunion or reconciliation become a part of our lives. Finally, the time comes for our own greatest letting go. Our strength fades, our minds cloud, our health abandons us, and our breath leaves us one last time – one last expiration – and we let go.

Christ’s incarnation means salvation for humankind – but what does it mean for God? One of the lessons of the Hebrew scripture is that God does not act unilaterally. We are in relationship with a God who acts in covenant. In giving, God takes. In taking, God gives. This is not paradox – it is a description of the relationship God desires with us. “You will be mine and I will be yours.”

What does God get out of the agony of the incarnation? God learns what it means to let go. The physical torture is only part of the Passion of the Christ. There is also the pain of a person whose consciousness stretches back to the creation of the universe. Christ’s embrace is capable of gathering all of creation to himself, and yet now, having accepted the bondage of human, temporal existence, the creator of the universe has no choice but to let go.

Of home.

Of serenity.

Of a father’s courage.

Of a Mother’s embrace.

Of friends, disciples, students, and believers.

Of enemies, even. The ones who challenged his heart and sharpened his mind.

Of life itself.

One of the lessons of the incarnation for God is the experience of The Great Letting Go. In Jesus, God finally knows from the inside out what it means to truly lose and to grieve the loss. Standing at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept – but they were God’s tears.

The time of letting go is never far from us. Paul used to say that he had died to himself. Like a child being born, Paul had to let go of everything he had once believed to be true in order to become a new creation in Christ.

Each of us encounters The Great Letting Go many times in our lives. We may face it with anticipation or anxiety or with dread or despair – but we will never face it alone. Jesus knows the way because he has traveled it himself. Our God chose to travel the way of letting go so that even in this, we might remain in covenant. Even at our times of greatest loss, we remain God’s people – God remains our God. A God who can both rejoice and weep with us throughout the journey of our lives.

Christ’s example is our commandment and our blessing – live a life that can both embrace and let go. Put down what must be put down, and take up what must be taken up – be it a friend, a vocation, or a cross. Cling to nothing but God’s faithfulness.

And always love one another. This is Christ’s commandment. This is the vocation of a disciple. Love one another through the victories and the defeats, in strength and in weakness, in rejoicing and in mourning. Love one another in the holding, and love one in the letting go.

This is the way the world knows the “little children” of Christ. Not from their jewelry or their bumper stickers or the sign in their yard or the slogan on their sweat shirt. The world knows the children of God because they love one another.

May God grant that we might recognize that love in our own lives – that we might join with Christ in his great ministry, even as he faithfully joins with us in our Great Letting Go.


Pieta, Paula Rego, 2002.

All other images are from one of my favorite companies, Bridge Building Images. I hope you enjoy them.