Tomorrow

Tomorrow would have been my daughter’s 36th birthday. It snuck up in me, busy as I’ve been. But a look at the calendar today, and that number 13 jumped out. Is it really May already? Are we here again?

What shall we do with all those fading memories? Who will remember when this generation is past? What is the nature of the new creation? Is there a story line where she dances and sings with her own children?  Is there a story line that has her old, in a purple hat, playing in the grass with grandchildren?  Will she always be 19 with daisies in her hair and kindness in her eyes?

Will her voice always have the purity of youth, or will it gain the depth and resonance of years? Will her laugh abide or grow into a happy and bemused chuckle? Will she feast at the divine banquet table with nieces and nephews now older than she?

They are strange thoughts, unknowable. The shape of the promise can only be described with metaphors. It is rightly described as the far country, the world whose true nature eludes us.

And maybe there is no such land. Maybe the only future is to return to the dust that is continually blown out into the cosmos, sucked into new stars, and blown out again. To which I would say, even so, I live for the promise.

Paul may say “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But I disagree. To live for kindness, compassion, fidelity, hope, and the healing of every human heart is not in vain. I stand with the prophet Habbakuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.

To live in the confidence of a world brought from death into life is not a life lost, it is a life gained.

It is better to live in a world that celebrates love than one that worships power. It is better to live in the hope of generosity than hardness of heart. It is better to shape your life by love of neighbor than care only of self.

Such things endure. Kindnesses are remembered. Truth doesn’t perish. Beauty doesn’t fade. The sunrise may be fleeting, but its glory will always be glory. There may have been a time before Yosemite – and a time after – but what we have seen will always be majestic.

I choose to live for what is eternal, regardless of the sorrows of our age. I choose the warm sands into which my step-mother desires her toes – now ashes – to rest. It may be meaningless, what will ashes know? But it is an expression of faith in the goodness of the world. A faith I intend to honor.

So it is now the 17th year in a world without Anna. But the world will never be without her. For she was. And she is. And even when she is no longer remembered her song will endure. He laughter still rings. Her kindness abides.

And whatever the far shore looks like, I live for it to come here and be our truth.

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Thinking in stories

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What is the narrative that shapes us? When Obama first ran for president, he presented us with a national narrative in which what united us was greater than what divided us. It was a narrative of hope, even if it did get a little carried away with itself sometimes. When Trump ran for the presidency he conveyed a narrative of national decline and the incompetence of those in power, but promised that he could make America great again. Each narrative, in its own way, shapes the events and actions that follow.

We are creatures who think in stories. We don’t picture the world as a set of data points; we imagine a story. My grandparents left an old world in Sweden and Denmark where the future was limited and came to the United States where the future was open. By hard work and the grace of God they overcame the challenges and obstacles they faced, built new lives and launched their children forward into even greater success. That’s our family story – a far different one than those who were brought against their will in slave ships. Depending on the story you tell, you will see the country differently, either as a land of promise or a house of bondage, a land of milk and honey or a land of bricks and straw.

We are creatures who think in stories. Confusion and anxiety reign when we can’t figure out the story line. And sometimes, when the unexpected happens, we have to radically revise our stories. I used to tell the story how Deb and I met in first grade and I kicked her in the shins – a sign of true love. But the story didn’t end the way I imagined, so I had to find a new way to tell the story: of two people who loved each other as best they could but were too young and inexperienced to overcome their mistakes.

We need to have a story. It locates us. It gives meaning to our past, shapes our understanding of the present and gives direction for the future. When Anna’s life was suddenly cut short, we struggled to make sense of the tragedy – which means we searched for the story that would make her life complete. So we tell of the lives she touched and the difference her death made in the lives of others. It’s why we endow scholarships in her name, and her fellow students campaigned for MADD, and the college built a memorial to all its students who died. We need to find the story that helps it make sense.

Congregations need a story too. Are we an aging congregation slowly sliding towards our end, or are we a welcoming congregation serving the community with our building and bearing witness to the grace and love of God?  Are we a shrinking congregation growing ever more dependent on the income from the users of our building, or are we a faithful ministry for whom God has wondrously provided? The story we tell reveals the future we expect to have.

And what is our human story as we face the storms and perils of wars and a changing climate? Are we devolving into petty nation states fighting for resources or building a world that is more just, responsible and compassionate? The story we imagine has deep and important consequences for the choices we make.

We are creatures who understand ourselves through story, and the church (the whole people of God) is the caretaker of and mouthpiece for a deeply important story. We tell a story that begins in a garden and ends in a city without fear. We tell a story where all that is is good and we are called to care for it. We tell a story of a divine presence that treasures all creatures and saves them in an ark. We tell a story of Abram and Sarai whose lives are shaped by the promise of blessing for the world. We tell a story where God delivers slaves from bondage and teaches them to be a community of justice and mercy. We tell a story of our infidelity and God’s continuing faithfulness. We tell a story that confesses Cain rose up against his brother Abel but Jesus laid down his life for the world – teaching us to see and be faithful to all people as our sisters and brothers.

We are a people who tell a story of an empty grave and the triumph of love. We see the world through this story. It gives us strength when we lose the thread of our personal stories. It gives us hope when we wonder about the outcome of our national story. It gives us courage when facing the challenges of the human story. It inspires us to service as individuals and congregations.

We are a people who see the world through this story of love and redemption. And we are a people to whom this story is entrusted for the sake of the world. The gates of hell cannot stand against it, says Jesus. And we are told to carry it to the ends of the earth. It is what makes us a peculiar people. It is what makes us a people of courage and compassion, hope and joy.

This reflection was first published in the May 2017 parish newsletter of Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKapelle_Hl._Geist%2C_Bichl.jpg By Mk pictures (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Lamb of God

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A reflection on the death of Jesus, Good Friday, 2017

A liturgical chant from my childhood has been rattling through my mind the last few days: “O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” The words of this piece, known as the Agnus Dei from its days as a Latin hymn, remain part of the liturgy, of course, adapted or occasionally replaced by a contemporary hymn. It is sung after the prayers have been said over the bread and wine and the community prepares to come to the table.

The melody in my head is haunting. It conveys yearning and hope and the mystery contained in the image of Christ as the sacrificial lamb.

We don’t witness the killing of animals for food, anymore. It shows up in the market wrapped in plastic or pre-cooked and frozen. We don’t see the knife. We don’t see the blood. We don’t see the life that has been sacrificed. We are exempt from the knowledge that this is a matter of life and death.

One year I bought lamb for Easter dinner. I was trying to form a tradition for that holy day like the traditions for Christmas and Thanksgiving. But the next year, my daughter, Anna, and I were down at the big public market in Detroit just before Easter, and she saw a cattle truck full of cute little lambs and said “Oh, Daddy, I want one.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what those lambs were doing there. And I didn’t want to tell her on Sunday evening that the meat on her plate was lamb.

A sacrifice happens when an animal is killed that we may eat and live. When God gave humans permission to kill and eat at the time of Noah, God didn’t want us to forget that we were taking a life, that we were trespassing on the realm of the sacred. God is the author of life. It is God’s to give and take. So when Noah was given permission, he was commanded not to eat the blood. It was to be poured out at the base of an altar, as if to say, “All life belongs to you, O God, and we take this life only by your permission.”

Animals were not a regular part of the ancient diet. And when their lives were taken, the feast was shared. Not only was a portion given to the priest, but the feast was shared with the poor. So the death of an animal meant life for the community.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

There is a transaction implied in the sacrifice: a life is given that we may live – and so we share that life with others.

It was not difficult for the ancients to look upon the sacrifice of Jesus and see something of this same transaction: a life is given that we may live – and we, in turn, share that life with others. It is why we are here today to pray that the life that was given may bring life to the world.

The image, of course, is bigger than just the sacrifice of animals for food. Israel saw something redemptive in the sacrifice of an animal, something that reset the relationship between God and ourselves.

The ancient world didn’t have vast feedlots with thousands upon thousands of animals. A family may have had a cow and from the cow a calf. The sacrifice of the fatted calf was no small thing; it was a costly sacrifice.

It was something that would only happen on a very special occasion – like a wedding or the return of the prodigal son – and it would be shared with the whole village. There was certainly too much meat there for a single family – and no freezers to store it for later.

And the thing about such communal feasts is that have an important role in restoring the fabric of the community. Old irritations are forgotten around a laden table. The shared feast overcomes the inevitable conflicts and grievances of life together. A full belly brings its own kind of peace. So it is not hard to see why the death of the animal became associated with the forgiveness of sins, the redemption of the community.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

And then there is Israel’s story of that final plague in Egypt, when death struck every household of the Egyptians and finally broke the grip of Israel’s bondage. The blood of the lamb marked their doorposts. The blood of the lamb was a sign of their trust in God. The blood of the lamb saved them from death and brought them to freedom.

So the sacrifice of a lamb is about life. And it is about redemption And it is about freedom, deliverance, salvation.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

All of these images and ideas cluster around the death of Jesus:

  • A life is given that we may live.
  • A life is given that sins may be lifted away.
  • A life is given that the human community may be restored.
  • A life is given that we may be set free
  • A life is given that death may pass us by.

And this brings us back to our very first notion: A life is given that we may live. Only now it is much more than daily life. Now it is the life of the world freed from the shadow of death. Now it is a life that is imperishable.

What happens on this day through the death of Christ is a great mystery. But something profound has happened, something that changed the course of human history. Something that changed our relationship with the divine. Something that changed our relationships with one another. Something that changed our understanding of life’s essential truths. Something that changed our sense of what it means to be human.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n_-_Agnus_Dei_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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The journey to our humanity

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A reflection as we  begin Maundy Thursday

Tonight we begin the worship service that stretches over these next three days and walks us anew through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This service not only sets before us the story of Jesus; it brings us into that story. We are witnesses. We are participants. Our feet get washed. Our hands hold the bread. The cross is carried into our midst. The darkness turns to light. These three days are not only about Jesus, but about the fundamental spiritual journey of human life.

The human spiritual journey is about learning to love, learning to set aside ourselves for the sake of the other. Our true humanity is not found in our ability to go to war, make babies, or make money; our true humanity is found in care and fidelity to God and to others.

There is nothing noble or true or enduring in anger, greed or vanity. There is nothing eternal in such things. But love, honor, grace, compassion – these share in what is eternal

So these days are not just about what happened to Jesus; they are about what is happening in us. We are dying and rising with Christ. We are being born from above. This is about our Passover, when we renew the journey that takes us from bondage into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life.

And this three-day service, this piece of our human spiritual journey, begins tonight with this exhortation and a rite of confession and forgiveness.

Whatever our politics might be, I think we can agree that this last year has not shown the noblest side of the human character. In our own country there has been violence at political rallies. There has been no small amount of falsification and prevarication. There have been abusive comments about women and people of various ethnicities and religious traditions. There has been an increase in hate crimes. There has been an increase in fear and intolerance.

And these things have been happening around the world.

And we have seen worse: the intentional bombing of hospitals in Syria, the destruction of civilian neighborhoods, the killing of children with Sarin gas.

There is too much violence. Too much hate. Too much greed. Too much fear and ugliness.

The story of Jesus we begin tonight is also a story of too much violence, too much hate, too much greed, too much fear and ugliness.

But it is not just this; it is also a story of a profound compassion, a profound love, a profound service, a profound faithfulness.

In the face of violence, hate, greed and fear, Jesus teaches and forgives and loves. And through it all, Jesus never breaks faith with God or with us – with humanity.

We need to say that it is possible for us to be better. It is possible for us to choose compassion over neglect. It is possible for us to choose openness over fear. It is possible for us to do kindness and love justice and walk humbly with God. If it weren’t possible, Moses wouldn’t have commanded it, the prophets wouldn’t have demanded it, and Jesus wouldn’t have taught it.

It is possible for us to be better.

And the secret to being better is in this story of the one who was perfect.

We want to think that somehow it was easier for Jesus. We want to think that he had an advantage over us. But that’s not what the teaching on the two natures of Christ or the teaching on the sinlessness of Jesus means. He was fully human. He had no superhuman powers. He had no special divine knowledge (he has the knowledge of one who is perfectly attuned to the Father). When we say he was sinless, we mean he never broke faith with God.

Or with humanity.

When we say Jesus was perfect, we don’t mean he never struggled – we know he struggled in the garden. Trusting God in the face of torture, shame and death did not come easily. But Jesus did not break faith. Jesus was perfect in the same way that we might say a ripe garden tomato is perfect. It is what it was meant to be. An unripe tomato isn’t finished yet. It isn’t complete. But a garden ripe tomato is all that a tomato was meant to be.

Jesus is what humanity was meant to be. Jesus is what we were meant to be. But, instead, we have a world with too much fear, violence, hate and greed.

And reality is so catawampus, that even when we try to do the right thing or say the right words, too often the words come out wrong, or the words get misunderstood or our actions are misinterpreted. We hurt others – sometimes because we give in to the desire to lash out, but sometimes just because things don’t come out right. It is the reality of life in our broken world.

But God is working to unbreak it.

So we are coming together to tell this story. We are coming together to experience this story. We are coming together to be encountered again by this Jesus who was what we were meant to be. We are coming together to be encountered by the God whose work is to unbreak us. We are coming together to journey again through the water of baptism from death into new life.

So we begin tonight with confession. We begin by dealing with the questions God asked Adam and Eve after they had eaten the apple and were trying to hide from God’s gaze: “Where are you?” and “What have you done?”

And having coped with those questions, we are met by this Jesus who bends to wash our feet. And in the washing of our feet we realize that he has come to wash away all our sins.

And standing then in that abundant grace, we share the bread that is the sign of God’s redemption of the world.

And having shared the bread we ponder the imagery of Jesus stripped of all honor, yielding his life for the sake of the world.

And then, tomorrow, in Jesus’ final hour, we come together to pray that God’s redeeming work will come to all the world.

And Saturday night we will come together again to hear all those great stories of God’s deliverance, and we will bless the water and renew our baptismal covenant, and darkness will turn to light and we will hear the story of angels descending to open the grave. And we will see the empty tomb and know that God has validated everything Jesus said and did. And this great drama will push and pull us a little closer to our true humanity, to our true joy, and to our true peace.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Hand_(3950973346).jpg By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (The Hand) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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From death into life

The images and stories that begin on the evening of Maundy Thursday and walk us through the great drama of the cross and resurrection are rich and powerful. We hear the splash of water as Jesus washes feet – and the splash of water on Saturday at the Easter Vigil as we experience anew the drama of baptism. We smell the wine that Jesus said he would not drink again until he drinks it with us anew in the joy of God’s reign that gathers all the earth to one rich and abundant table. We taste the bread broken at the Last Supper and broken anew by the risen Christ with his followers. We hear the cry of desolation, “My God, My God, Why has thou forsaken me,” and the voice of the angels declare, “He is not here. Come and see the place where he lay.” We see darkness and light and know that it speaks of death and life, sin and grace, bondage and freedom.

And what does it all mean? Something new is dawning in the world. The peace of the world is shattered by the sound of bombs and the cacophony of shouting voices, but heaven has drawn near to make peace. The death of Jesus is undone. God has vindicated his anointed one. God has declared that he spoke and lived truly. Heaven has sided with the rejected one. Indeed, Heaven has sided with earth. As dangerous and dark as the human heart can be, as bloody as our hands can be, God has come to make peace with us. The transcendent power of grace and life at the heart of all things has come to draw all creation into his peace.

We tell the story carefully over these three days. And the church invites the world to come hear the splash of water, to see the light in the darkness, to touch the wooden cross, and sing the songs of exultation. These liturgies may be ancient, but they are also timeless. They speak not just to the mind but to the senses. They speak not just words but sights and sounds. There is power in the crackle of a fire.   There is drama in a single candle in the dark.

Even the unexpected sounds have power. A friend once came to the moment on Good Friday when a wooden cross is to be carried into the sanctuary, only to realize in a panic that the cross had not been assembled. As he grabbed a hammer to hurriedly attempt to remedy the situation, the sound of the hammer on the nails echoed through the sanctuary and changed forever the lives of those present.

This week begins the great mystery. And the church, so often forgotten and ignored, dares to tell its story of a love and faithfulness that took upon itself the sorrows of the world to bring us into the realm of grace. And whether people come or not, we will tell the story. For it is a story for the world, a story for a world that has been watching a father with the limp bodies of his infant children in his arms, a story for a world that debates from comfort what to do with unwanted refugees, a story for a world where fellow human beings lie abandoned and neglected, where men, women and children are hungry and hopeless. It is a story that God has taken up the wood and nails – and still he loves.

This week especially the church invites the world to come, to hear, to share in the wonder and the joy. Perhaps here can begin our healing. Perhaps here can begin in us those first few steps that lead from death into life.

Photocredit: dkbonde

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Praying Good Friday

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O thou who art the voice in the eternal silence,
the light in the spreading darkness
the warmth in the growing cold,
the peace in the rising fear,
the truth in the crowded confusion:
Wounded, you heal.
Broken, you restore.
Abandoned, you gather.
Disgraced, you redeem.
Hated, you love.
Dying, you live.
Be our light, our hope, our guide, our joy,
our life.
Amen

(dkbonde, March 31, 2017)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrunewald_-_predella.jpg Matthias Grünewald [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Facts Matter

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Alfred Stevens, “Truth and Falsehood”

The news keeps reporting that some large percentage of the American population believes we are on the wrong track as a country. I don’t doubt the news. But the problem with that statistic is that we might think we are on the wrong track for conflicting reasons. 100% of the bus passengers may agree that I-80 towards Truckee is the wrong road, but if half think we should be headed up I-5 to Oregon and the other down to LA, our apparent agreement means little.

We have become sloppy with facts. That is the kind way to say it. A drug is reported as lowering the risk of some disease by 50% and that sounds very impressive. But if the risk of this disease is only 1 in 5 million, decreasing the odds to 1 in 10 million doesn’t mean what it sounds like.

I remember standing on the roof of a new Eichler over on Louis Road (no tall trees yet) to watch the first US satellite. We believed in facts then. Or at least it seemed like we did. We lost some faith in science when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But it wasn’t the science that was the problem; it was what people did with the science. Doctors knew that lead was poisonous to children, but the lead industry persuaded the government to add it to gasoline. The problem wasn’t the science.

Facts had a way of correcting us. The cigarette companies had the science on tobacco and lung cancer, despite their denials, and eventually the facts won. More or less.

We changed as a country because of facts. We don’t have lead in gasoline any more. We don’t have the smog that once filled the Bay Area. We can see the East Bay hills, now. We don’t have the litter we once had. We stopped feeding the bears in Yosemite. We can change.

But now we seem to be going backwards. Kellyanne Conway didn’t mean it quite the way it came out, but we do seem to have come to a time of “alternative facts”. We make up facts that suit us. Or, at least, we cherry-pick them. Facts don’t seem to get listened to; they just get challenged and denied.

Christians bear some guilt in this. The war on evolution should never have been about the science; it should have been about the story people told using that science. Some used it to say everything was getting better every day, but the science didn’t say that. Others said that it meant that biology was destiny, that we can’t – or don’t need to – transcend our innate natures. But the science doesn’t say that either, only that when disaster strikes, when the environment changes, some animals are more likely to survive than others – and the ones who survive, pass on their genes. Evolution can describe what is, but not tell us what we ought to be. Tribalism might have an evolutionary advantage, but we are the ones to decide whether fear of the other or love of neighbor is the right path for us. (Jesus had something to say about this.)

Facts matter. And Christians should be out front on this issue. We are the inheritors of a tradition that does not look at the world around us as filled with spirits and numinous powers; we say that the world was made. Nature has an objective reality. It can be measured and studied and known. There are facts.

And though the resurrection of Jesus is a unique event in history and, therefore, cannot be verified by repeatable scientific experiment, the Christian confession has always been that what happened was a fact and not a mythological story. It was an event in time not a metaphor. It occurred in Judea during the administration of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Facts matter.

The first question God asks his rebellious humanity in that marvelous story from Genesis 2 is “Where are you?” – not because God doesn’t know, but because we need to face the truth. We are hiding in the bushes. We are creatures to whom deception comes naturally. None of us had to teach our children how to lie; that is innate in us. It is truth we need to teach. It is truth we need to practice. It is truth we need to honor.

The Christian community is drawing near to that great drama of the Paschal Triduum, the three days from the evening of Maundy Thursday when Jesus is seized, until the first light of Easter. It is a story that asks us to see truly. Humanity tortured and crucified the embodiment of truth and love. He was a threat to us, we said. But God did not let the lie endure.

Neither should we.

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABLW_Truth_and_Falsehood.jpg Iza Bella [CC BY-SA 2.0 uk (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Let us pray for wisdom

March 17, 2017
It’s not possible to remember everything. With time memories slip away. Fragments remain. And the love remains. At least, that’s what should remain.

I was looking for pictures to go with my post, yesterday. I dug out some boxes where they have been stored for nearly 15 years. Boxes I was reluctant to open. Too busy too open. Boxes that needed sorting. Boxes full of memories.

It was sweeter than I imagined. Places we had been. Things we had done. Pictures Anna had taken of her friends after a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank. Pictures of youth gatherings, choir trips, and school performances. Anna playing on a beach in Maine with children for whom she had once been their babysitter. Sitting with them on a massive rock by a waterfall in New Hampshire. All these pictures taken after the photo albums of infancy and early childhood had been assembled, but before parents started putting them together for their grown children. She never reached that stage.

I didn’t get very far in these boxes. The pictures trigger memories. I want to go through them with someone to whom I can tell the stories, otherwise the smiles of recognition turn to melancholy.

I want to put them in order. I want to get a scanner and make digital copies and sent them to Megan. I want to remember everything. Our hike down the Lost Coast. The Christmas at Grandma D’s when we slept on the living room floor because the house was full of family.

There is only one picture of Anna from our backpacking trip on Isle Royale, but there is the moose we saw, the bunchberries we ate, the scenery we gazed at in wonder from the ridge looking out across the islands and inlets.

I want to know, too, about the pictures I do not recognize. Ones Anna took. She wrote names on the back of some of them. Who were they? And who is the boy with her in this picture? And who is the boy in that one?

And there are questions. For what show was it that she dyed her hair?

I linger on these pictures. I am reluctant to put them back in the boxes. I want to take them out and spread them around. There is an impulse to paper the wall like some deranged character in a television cop show.

I want to remember it all. But there are holes in the stories. Memory fades.

I used to know details from the night her life was taken: how long was the skid mark (from her car, please understand; he never hit the brakes), how short the moment for the driver of Anna’s car to react, how high was the blood alcohol level of the one who careened toward them down the wrong side of the freeway. I have to look such things up, now. Maybe that’s ok. I only wish that memories of Anna didn’t fade, too.

Some things don’t fade. The spot on the side of the freeway. The hallway outside the courtroom where a reporter asked for a comment. The slimy lawyer who taught people how to avoid a DUI arrest – he grabbed my hand outside the courthouse and expressed his condolences before I could react. I wanted to wash that hand. I held it away from my body, not even wanting to wipe it against my jeans.

I asked the attorney to let me see the crime scene photos and the evidence pictures of Anna’s demolished car. I can only remember one of those photos, now, though I remember the devastation they showed. I wish I could see them again. I think.

I am not alone, I know. I have walked with people through some dark and desolate places. And I have heard stories yet more dark and desolate. I know some of the secrets people carry. I am always amazed at our capacity to endure.

I am heartened by those who turn their sorrow into kindness. I am saddened by those who turn it into bitterness. But I understand, most of us have stood at one time or another at that fork in the road where those two paths diverge, and I suspect most of us test the bitter road for at least a few steps. But the wise come back, or hack their way through the forest undergrowth to find their way to compassion.

Let us pray for wisdom. For each of us. For all of us.

Photocredit: dkbonde
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All lives

16 years ago tomorrow my 19 year old daughter and two of her friends were killed by a driver who had been drinking. Though Anna and her friends had been driving responsibly, traveling the speed limit, wearing their seat belts, and switching drivers every two hours, they could not protect themselves against this unseen attacker. The force of the impact tore the aorta from Anna’s heart and she bled out in minutes. Hit nearly head on, the car stopped moving, but her internal organs continued to travel through her body at 65 miles per hour. Two others survived the crash physically, though that doesn’t end of the consequences for them. It was not an accident.

The dreaded anniversary comes again, tomorrow. It doesn’t have the anguish of those early years. There is no use in rage at the coupons in my mailbox for St. Patrick’s Day beverages or the decorations that pubs will use to profit their business. I don’t mind the green cloverleaf cookies anymore. I don’t fantasize about letting the air out of the tires of every car in the nearby bar. Not much, anyway. There’s no emotion in the thought that the police should just break the legs on the spot of every drunk driver they stop. (It would keep them off the road for a few months, anyway.) I am just sad and disappointed in world so given over to cruelty, hate, violence, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and the selfishness that sets my desire to drive home over the well-being of every other person on or near the road. Though I have done it, years ago, as a stupid young adult. Now I know the price.

Lives are precious. It’s not enough to say that life is precious; lives are precious. Our stories. Our gifts. Our loves. Our contributions to the world. Our care of one another. Our triumph over pains. Our courage in adversity. Our desire to dance or sing or play in the dirt. Our hopes and dreams. Our fears and sorrows. That whole complex reality that is a life. It all matters.

The lives of others should matter to us. All others. We are again watching images of starving children on television. We are still watching images of cities turned to rubble. We are still hearing voices of white supremacy and hate. We are still watching callousness of heart as lives are treated as unimportant. The lives of blacks. Of refugees. Of ‘illegals’. Of the people of Nice out for a walk on a summer’s evening, or the revelers at a nightclub in Orlando. The callousness of the human heart burdens me. How is it we can beat children, force young girls into prostitution, curse our neighbors, scurry through red lights, dump toxins, deny truth, believe lies.

The world needs more young girls with daisies in their hair, not fewer. They matter. The world needs more young women dancing jazz and ballet. The world needs more young women like Anna who taught adolescent boys the joy of baking cookies. The world needs more song, more beauty, more joy. We need to treasure lives. All lives.

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Ashen crosses and Jesus’ way of prayer

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday and the Lord’s Prayer

The key texts for the reflection this Ash Wednesday were Isaiah 58:5-8 and Matthew 6:1-21. The Lord’s Prayer is the focus of our preaching during Lent this year. Daily verses and brief reflections related to our theme can be found at our Lent blogsite.

The meaning of ashes
File:Salib abu.jpgTo be honest I would love to have a conversation on what this liturgy means to each of us. The pastors at our text study yesterday spent some time sharing our own experiences of the ashes. That is one of the things about the liturgies of the church: they speak to us in different ways – and they speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives.

In the course of that conversation, yesterday, I found myself thinking that this thing with the ashes is not just an echo of an ancient ritual; it is a profound reminder that we are creatures. There is something more here than just the fact that we are mortal. We are mortal because we are physical beings. From a Biblical perspective, we are not spirits trapped in material bodies; we are embodied beings. We are made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. We eat and we laugh and we hug one another. We weep and we ache and we age. We are physical beings in a physical world, not spirit beings in a spirit world. Our bodies affect our spirits and our spirits affect our bodies. When our bodies ache, we can get short-tempered or downcast. When our spirits soar our bodies are able to dance. We are creatures.

The mark of the cross
It seems to me that all of this is contained in this mark of the ashes. We are creatures – but we are also creatures who have been gifted with the mark of the cross. (Excuse me for using ‘gift’ as a verb; I know it’s not, but it works in this case.) The mark of the ashes on our foreheads is not placed there as a smudge to remind us of our mortality, our creaturely-ness; it is given to us in the shape of the cross.

In our baptism that sign of the cross was placed upon us. We have a brand. I don’t know any modern brands – I don’t keep up with such things – but I remember when the shirts with the little IZOD alligator were all the rage. We have a mark on us. We are children of God. We are mortal creatures with the mark of eternity on us. The reality of death and the promise of resurrection are both there in that little cross. It is such an important reminder of our creaturely-ness – and, at the same time, such a huge promise that Christ is our life. It is a promise that this me that dances and weeps and despairs and hopes and loves and prays – this me born in time will be carried into eternity to join the eternal dance. It is an amazing and humbling promise.

It is also, however, a mark that carries me into the world. It is a mark of service, not of privilege. It is a mark of love not hardness of heart. It is a mark of shared bread not possessiveness. It is a mark of connection, not separation – of community, not detachment.

It is a mark that we belong to Christ, that we are Christ’s body in the world. We are light in the darkness. We are compassion on the Jericho road. We are brother to the Ethiopian Eunuch and sister to Lydia who deals in purple. We are fruit-bearing branches in the vine. We are the ambassadors of a new kingdom.

We are mortal, creatures of this physical world, yet marked with the sign of eternity, and sent to bear grace into the world. This is no small thing that happens with this little bit of dust and ash.

…Do Justice…Love Kindness…Walk Humbly…
Our theme during this Lenten season falls under the large banner of that verse from the prophet Micah:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

It is one of those verses that captures essential truths very simply and it is an important reminder for this Lenten season. It captures what we also hear in the first reading today and in our Gospel: God is not interested in the outward performance of religious obligations; God is concerned with the shape of the human heart and the way we live with one another.   God wants a charitable heart, not a show of our giving. God wants a humble heart, not one that wants everyone to see how religious I am. God wants a prayerful heart, not a pretentious one.

The uniqueness of the Lord’s Prayer
We focus on a piece of the catechism each year, and this year we are focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. Through this season we will include in the bulletin the usual material from the catechisms about the Lord’s Prayer. We will talk about elements in the prayer and its core meaning. But our theme today is about the way Jesus prays – and the way he teaches us to pray – because the manner in which he prays is so different from anything else that was going on at the time of Jesus.

There are hints of this uniqueness in the Biblical text, references to Jesus spending the night in prayer, for example. In Luke, Jesus is in prayer after his baptism when the Holy Spirit comes upon him. We don’t see Jesus making the grand public prayers that are designed to give honor to God; we see him talking to his heavenly father. We don’t see Jesus parading for God; we see him communing with God.

The ancient world tended to think about the gods from their experience of rich and powerful humans. Society was divided between clients and patrons. If a hailstorm wiped out your crops and you didn’t have seed corn, you would go to your Patron and praise him for his goodness and beg him for aid. When he gave it to you, you would go through the street and publicly praise him for all to hear. Your job was to make your patron look good.

So prayer was about getting favors from the deity and making your god look good in the eyes of others. That’s why people built big temples. It’s why people made a big show of their gifts. It’s why people would stand on the street corner and praise God loudly when the call to prayer came.

But Jesus tells us to go in our room. The task is not to make God look good, but to be in communion with our heavenly Father. The goal is to be shaped by God’s presence, God’s Spirit – God’s love and mercy and compassion.

God knows what you need before you ask, says Jesus. Prayer is about something much more important than gaining favors; it is about being shaped by the Spirit of God.

The imperative tense
The second thing about the prayer Jesus gave us is that it is filled with the imperative tense. We are so used to saying this prayer that we don’t really see it, I think. We are not saying “pretty, pretty, please,” like a child hoping for another cookie or permission to spend the night at a friends house. We are saying “do this, and do this, and do this.”

It is a remarkable way to speak to God. But it is the way he has told us to speak with him. To speak boldly. To speak daringly. To expect God to answer. To expect God to do what God has promised to do.

Demanding the promise
This is the third feature of the way Jesus taught us to pray: we are told to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, for God’s forgiveness to be given. We are praying for God to do what God has promised to do. It’s not “Can I go to Jimmy’s house”; it’s “You promised to take me to Jimmy’s house. Now go get the car keys.”

We wouldn’t dream of speaking like that to our parents. It is an unheard of way to speak with God. But this is the God who has shown himself to us in Jesus: A God whose purpose is justice and mercy and kindness. A God who has promised justice and mercy and kindness. A God who wants us to expect of him justice and mercy and kindness. A God who wants us to expect it of ourselves.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

We are mortal creatures. We are children of this physical world with all its glories. We are promised eternity and marked with its sign. We are empowered to call upon God for God to do God’s mercy. And we are sent to bear that mercy into the world.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASalib_abu.jpg By Edi Wibowo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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