Dorothy Richard, Diane Lukins, Kathy Markgraf, Ryan Beck, and Olivia Avery share their experience of being engaged in the mission of YPM
Ah my friends, we arrive at the crux of the matter, why go into the desert anyway? Why go on these wilderness journeys, why not hide our head in the corner and just refuse? It isn’t fun. We talked about how crisis is so often the thing that gets us off the couch and into the wilderness, we talked about losing all that we think we are and need to be, that holy stripping of identity and boundary markers by which we say, ‘I am this.” We talked about getting lost and how scary it can be, and how much we want to be in control, so we resist ‘letting go and letting God,” because that reminds us all too much that we aren’t in control anyway and we really want to be.
So why go? Why face our mortality every year, looking death in the face and saying, yes we know this is coming and we are mortal. Why do it? Why not stay where everything looks grand and beautiful and if it doesn’t we’ll just tuck our heads and our hearts away and refuse to look. What I don’t know, I don’t have to face, so there.
I imagine poor Lazarus and his sisters must have been wondering the same sorts of things as they waited for their friend, the healer to come and heal Lazarus and he just didn’t come. What good did it do for them to believe when he didn’t come? I feel for Mary and Martha in their recriminations when they bluntly say to Jesus, “You could have saved him. You didn’t come. You didn’t show up.” Bam. There it is. So why look death in the face if you can do nothing to prevent it, why embrace hope and salvation if it isn’t coming? Our Lenten practice of facing our own darkness, our own mortality every year must have some benefit right? I mean because we keep doing it. So why?
We finally hit that point in our journey when rock bottom shows up. When we experienced this holy stripping of identity, of boundary markers, that place where we can say, Hi, I’m Cyndi I’m…and all those things we hold precious are listed, I’m Joyce and Gunther’s mom, I’m Betty ‘s daughter, I’m a Christian, I’m here to help, I’m this, I’m that, all of this is just gone. This is a holy striping. It’s what happens to Job. When all he has is just ripped from him and all he has left is “I belong to God.”
One of my favorite confessions begins by identifying our chief comfort, that we belong to God and no one and nothing can take that away. The man who wrote that, Frederick the Electorate, did so as he was being hauled before the courts on a charge of heresy. The outcome of the trial would determine whether he lived, or was burned at the stake, so he needed to be sure. He needed to know that he was staking his life on something solid and sure and the most important thing he could grasp hold of, not unlike Job, is that he belonged to God.
This is what a wilderness journey does, it strips us down until all that is left is our essential truth. Every year we rehearse this, we gather together and remind one another that is part of who we are. Mortal, vulnerable, fragile, and that in our tender mortality who we are matters a very great deal. Yes we are dust, and to dust we shall return, but what we do in the meantime is an act of co-creation. We are not powerless automatons but vibrantly alive and graced by the love of God, God’s very self. That is amazing!
In our day to day acts we miss this. We get busy with our to-do lists and we miss that every act we give our energy to matters. It matters whether we speak ill of one another or good. It matters whether we stand with the outcast or the insider. It matters whether we forgive the errors of those we love, choosing love and connection over our insistence that some things just should never have happened! These things matter intensely. And when we allow our self to feel our mortality, feel the need for a legacy, all of this matters.
When we face our wounds and dare to look into the cracks and crevices of our brokenness, we see where we have gone astray, where we have missed the mark and stop fooling our self that somehow it was justified. That we only said this hurtful thing or did that other thing because so and so did this, and we realize there never was an excuse big enough or important enough to justify our being less than we were created to be. Oh, we might say, that person promised me this, and it’s okay if I hurt them because they failed to produce it…but it was never about them, was it? At our rock bottom, in the act of having all our justifications stripped from us, all that remains is that we hurt someone who may or may not have failed us. Ouch. Just ouch, because that is NOT who we want to be. We wanted to be so much more than that!
So we rehearse it, we stop every year and check ourselves. Who am I really? Am I living up to who I said I’d be? Who God created me to be? How far off the mark am I? One of my favorite authors, Stephen Levine, captured this practice well in his book, A Year to Live. As a hospice worker he had noticed that many of his patients were experiencing these glorious ah-ha moments when they could see clearly how far off the mark they had gone and how little they had to lose by moving back toward that mark. The same theory is captured beautifully in that song by Tim Mcgraw, Live Like You are Dying. The lyrics from that song that really touch my heart are the “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying,” He had nothing left to lose, “I hope you get the chance to live like you are dying, “ he tells his young friend. Well, Stephen Levine decided that darn it, he was going to do just that, and he spent an entire year pretending that he only had a year to live.
This is our Lenten practice. A place where we stop and remember that we are all mortal, and we will all wonder in the desert at some point. We will lose loved ones, we will see opportunities pass us by, we will some day have that final spring, the one where we, hopefully, stop complaining about all the mud and just glory in the daffodils, we will have that final summer and we hope that as those long evenings go by they aren’t filled with regret that we failed to forgive this person and we failed to repair that relationship because we were just too daggon scared. It felt too doggon vulnerable so we froze up and we didn’t do it.
The glory of our Lenten journey into the wilderness to examine and look at all the things within us that block love that shut out the light, that keep our lives small and timid, is that we get to choose differently. We get to really look deeply at how we are, or are not, living into the being God created us to be and imagine a different way of being. I imagine that this is a big part of Lazarus’s story. We really don’t know much about him, other than that he died, like all of us will, and he got a second chance. Just flip those tables Jesus! We get one chance to get things right, to say how much we love those we care about, to give forgiveness, to do and say all the things that God has laid on our hearts…except that Lazarus gets a do-over. Mary and Martha get a do-over, and that changes everything.
Now it’s hard work to go into the tomb if you don’t have to. It’s a challenge to face one’s humanity, one’s limitations, one’s faults and errors if you don’t have to. Even when we’ve been scared to death once or twice, it’s really easy to re-armor our hearts with lots of should’s and shouldn’ts and it ought to be this way or that, and fail to see what is right in front of us. We are so good at protecting ourselves from loss, so good at pretending that we if do all the right things somehow it will pass us by, that we need to stop every year and say, whoa, wait a minute, You are Mortal. You are dust and to dust, you, yes you, will return. Every year we take this journey, we pack our bags and we unpack our baggage and we take this journey. We look carefully at what we take with us and who we are and who we have become.
And then we get to choose again. Then we get to live like we are dying. The gems mined in your darkest moments are what give you a depth, a courage, a wisdom and a richness that can’t be learned elsewhere. And your ability to fly is in direct proportion to your willingness and courage to face your version of rock bottom. If you’ve ever been at the bottom and bounced back to tell the story, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Now I hope that during our Lenten journey you really looked deeply. That you thought about the ways you keep people from loving on you, and the things you tell yourself that keep you from loving others. I hope that you have looked at the ways you have kept your life small and ‘reasonable’ and perhaps you’ve looked at the ways you fight change, fearing loss so much that it’s hard to let anything go. I hope that you have been shook and all that you wish you could let go of has become a little looser. And I hope too that you have been gentle with yourself during this process, because it’s all okay. There is next year…right? It is in our human nature to pretend that we all have another chance coming, that later is okay, the story of Lazarus reminds us that later is sometimes too late, and even God, very God will weep.
So I hope that you have been shaken on this journey. Let your heart and soul be shaken, for in some measure we are all with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, sending out those messages, “Master come quick, the one you love is ill.” I wonder what words of forgiveness and love were shared around that deathbed, words which might not have been shared if they knew that Lazarus was going to get a second chance. I hope that whatever words of love or forgiveness, are spoken, that love isn’t being denied, that we are all clinging tightly to the knowledge that we belong to God, and that we can truly live as if we are dying.
I hope that in this shaking you have been gentle with yourself and gentle with each other, that those things you want to let go of have been shook loose and are ready to drop. I hope you feel ready to love deeper, speak sweeter, and express that audacious, bold love that we are called to. May it be so,
A few quotes from the sermon:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute’s time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
Numbers 20 tells us that we need to be cautious of taking on too much responsibility especially when we are lost in grief, overwhelmed. Then especially we must be on the hunt for those moments of grace which call out to us, which help us find our center and our balance in God’s grace. This is the time when we must practice that essential discipline of seeking out and affirming all that is good, all that is true, all that is graced with beauty and shines with life. When we are in pain, or have shouldered too much responsibility, when the way has grown too long and we can’t see the end, this is the time and the place we must dig in and refuse to live in despair, to live in anger. This is when we must seek with all our hearts the grace and beauty of God. It may be the hardest place to seek it, but here more than ever we must seek and we must affirm that Love wins, Love is the first word, the most enduring and the final word. We do not seek a triumphal faith that promises us no harm will come to us, that all will always be bright and shiny and without flaw. No, we seek a faith that will live in us when all seems lost, when our hearts are broken. We seek a faith that will work in us and change us, that we might live beautiful, faithful, true lives no matter which valley we walk through.
It takes no special talent to look around our world and point out things that are numbing, depressing, or death-dealing. But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good., true, and beautiful demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts, and keep them open.
As we open up, we begin to see beauty everywhere, not only in nature but in human nature. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there’s a lot of good news as well. Today we celebrate the unique and beautiful call of faith, that of paying attention to all of God’s love and grace, of being mindful and aware of the deep beauty and love in our lives, especially when we wander too long in the desert, when our eyes are downcast, when we lose those we love, when we just really, really want to hit that rock twice. To pause and notice, no matter how painful things are at the moment, how beautiful, how lovely, how enduring and persistent is the love of God.
Mindful” by Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less kills me
that leaves me
like a needle In the haystack
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over in joy,
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Decide now how you will live your life. What matters most to you. Where do you want to put your energy. Make that decision now. You don’t have much time. You think you have time, but you don’t, so decide now, act now, be the person you want to be now. You don’t have much time, don’t be fooled, don’t put it off. Be who you want to be right now.
If the word apocalypse literally means removing the veil of all our illusions, of coming face to face with the truth, then perhaps we can live an apocalyptic life every day, shredding our illusions and facing the reality, the difficult truths, the beautiful truths, every day. It’s odd, though, isn’t it? that our lectionary has this apocalyptic warning for the first Sunday of advent. Advent is that time of waiting, of anticipating, it’s a pregnant time, dark and hidden, waiting for new light, new birth, new life, the hope of a new future and kingdom here on earth, and the whole world groans for this, we long for redemption, for this new thing to come, for justice to come down like a cleansing rain, washing away all injury, all wounds cleansed and healed, we long for this!
But fear does drive us now and then, it causes us to pull back from our dreams, our best intentions and asks us to live a life that is small and safe. It insists we can try and live out our dreams another day, another time, but not now, not yet, we’re not ready, and so we play it small. If the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he might have realized the thief is the fear that lives in his own heart insisting that he lock all the doors, put up a fence and keep a safe distance from anyone who might want his things. The thief is the promise that he can make it alone and doesn’t need anyone so why take a risk? Why answer the door and risk meeting someone who might hurt your heart, disappoint you, abandon you.
“We want to love people who won’t hurt us, let us down, or betray us, but there are no other people.” Everyone we meet is fighting a battle with their own wounds, their own brokenness and sometimes it spills over and we get caught in it; the closer we are to that person, the more we feel, the more likely we are to be hurt, but the alternative, shutting down, closing our hearts, pulling away from love, is far more painful. Fear says it’s not worth the risk, love says we are strong enough to take it all in stride, feel the pain of our best intentions falling flat, our expectations unmet, failure to communicate, and still love. Love says we have plenty of room and lots to give and we can live our lives out loud.
And so a part of us wants to avoid living fully, loving fully. We want to lock ourselves away from any vulnerability or risk, but we cannot live that way. Brene Brown is a researcher based in Houston Texas and a several years ago she began researching whole heartedness. She wanted to know how it is that some people are able to live these rich, full lives, lives that we all look at with a little envy. In her now famous TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-9445) Brene admitted that when she discovered that the difference between these whole hearted, delightful folk and those who lived much more cautiously and fearfully was accepting vulnerability she experienced a bit of an existential crisis. She had been looking for the perfect life hack, how to have it all, to win at the game of life, and the answer came back, be vulnerable, accept that you will be hurt, you will lose, and decide to love anyway.
I’m with Brene in that deep down desire to find an easier way! And there is a big part of me that wants to put my life on hold until this better way shows up. I want promises and certainty, but our text reminds us vividly today that only one thing is certain, we aren’t promised tomorrow. We are not given the perfect life hack, but invited to consider how we are living with what is. Are we keeping our lights lit, our lamps full of oil as we wait for the bridegroom? Are we saying the things we most need to say, the I love you’s, the I forgive you’s? Are we offering our hearts and our full attention to those we love the most? Or are we withdrawing and distracting, promising that another time, another place we’ll show up more fully.
The hospice caregiver Stephen Levine participated in a one year thought experiment which he documented in his book A Year to Live. He decided to live one year with the thought that this year might very well be his last. He wanted to get that incredible benefit which he saw many of the dying people he accompanied receiving as they approached their death. Why wait, he thought, until the diagnosis was for real. Tomorrow is never promised us, he figured, so why not assume that I will not be here next year. Every time he began to disengage with life, he would remind himself that this was his last experience of this day. He practiced embracing each and every day, each and every experience. It is not that he had not known that he ought to be fully open, fully present, but knowing this and actually practicing it are two different things.
So we begin our period of advent, this pregnant time, with the reminder that this is precious, precious time. This is one more incredible opportunity to open our hearts, to stay present with all that pains us, to forgive, to love, to worship, to create space in our every day busy-ness for joy.
“In the end
these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?”
So having gotten just this far into my sermon I was personally confronted by the fact that I have not been living this way. I know the importance of being present in each moment, cherishing each relationship, but doing it, actually putting these thoughts into practice isn’t something I’ve been very good at. I get busy, just like all of you and I get tired and it always seems like there will be another day, another time.
In June of this year I drove through Minneapolis, anxious to get here I failed to make adequate preparations to connect with people there whom I dearly love. I told myself that there will always be time, I could come back up later, but six months down the road I just never had. It’s hard to convey simply how important these people are to me; people who helped me find courage and conviction when it would have been easier to simply quit. People who offered me many and various ways to participate in the life of the church and encouraged me. People who had become a new family to me, yet I had gotten busy and failed to connect.
Short story long, I was in Minneapolis by 1:30, eating tomato basil soup at Turtle Bread Bakery, relishing the sights, the tastes, the sounds of a city that had been home to me for four years. At 4:30 I was sitting on the steps of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian watching members of my church family begin to filter in. I hadn’t been there in nearly four years, Bill has a full beard now, I almost didn’t recognize him. Lisa has lost weight and was looking all fine and trim. The Root kids had grown! Oh my gosh, but Owen is as tall as I am now! My two Sue’s and Kara, women who have been like sisters to me, were all there.
Yesterday I stopped denying myself the joy of reconnecting with these lovely and beloved people. Yesterday, a few of us gathered around a table and shared a meal. Yesterday I was able to wrap my arms around dear friends and give them long overdue hugs! Yesterday I remembered that I am not promised any more time; I am not promised second chances or second Christmases,
How well do you love, how fully do you live, how well do you let go of things not meant for you? The problem is, we think we have time and we put off our joy, we tell ourselves that we can connect with loved ones later, we can say the words that we long to say, later, we can find joy, later.
Do not wait, my friends, we are not promised later. We have the incredible gift of now. Do not withhold yourself from joy. Cherish each relationship, treasure your conversations, give yourself fully to each moment, for tomorrow isn’t promised. Two will go into the field, but only one will come back; so love and live as fully as you can, cherishing this moment, this time, this person with you now, and do not withhold yourself from joy.