Unbind him, and let him loose!

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. It was my first Sunday back after my twelve-week medical leave. The gospel reading was John 11:1-45, which I recited from a paraphrase of scripture called The Message.

It is good to be back from my medical leave, and hearing the story of Lazarus again moves me to say something bold:

Continue reading “Unbind him, and let him loose!”

I Have Walked the Sign of the Cross

Something just occurred to me. While I was at the retreat at Holy Cross Monastery two weeks ago, I had this really brief vision. I saw an image of a map of all the places I’ve lived, and I saw that by connecting those places with lines, it formed the shape of a cross. So this morning, after coming home from church, I pulled up that map of my “Center of Gravity” (remember that old thing?) I played around with it, and I found that, indeed, there is indeed a way to very clearly make a cross.

Here it is without any lines, just markers for my homes over the years:

Cross Map without lines

I looked at that, and I immediately saw the cross. I think I was primed to see it because of PA Route 309. For years, I joked about how important it was to me to live near Rt. 309. Here’s the map again with 309 colored in:

309 Map

You can see where I got the idea that I always lived near that road. In fact, apart from three outliers, which are my birthplace (Minersville in the west), and my two most recent residences (Nescopeck in the northwest and Bangor in the northeast), I’ve been within nine miles of my “lifeline” for my whole life. But it doesn’t look much like a cross, or even a straight line. But let’s go back in time. What is now PA-309 was, until 1968, a federal highway, designated US-309. And it didn’t follow exactly the same route. The map below shows an approximation (in green) of what US-309 looked like in the 1940s.

US 309 Map

That’s straightening out some. Let’s finish up the job, and add a cross-bar.

Cross Map

Now there’s a cross. The vertical comes suprisingly close to all the places I’ve lived save two, it has a very steady (and consistent) curve, and it more-or-less coincides with old US-309 for most of its length. And the horizontal is even more interesting to me right now, because it’s the connection between the place I was born, and where I live right now. Which means that before I moved to Bangor, I never could have seen this cross. The map of my life would be this one curvy line, plus an outlier at my birthplace. It also means that there’s a very good chance that I’ll never see this cross again. I have no plans to move anytime soon, but I expect that I will at some point. And when I do, there’s a good chance that the next location will not fit into this image. Which means that right now, right here, my whole life is the sign of the cross.

And this feels right to me. Because it’s right now, while I’m living here, that I undertook this time off to figure out my self and my relationship to God. It’s right now, while I’m living here, that I traveled to the place of my baptism, and discovered anew what it means to me. It’s right now, while I’m living here, that I figured this out. Of course, I didn’t really figure this out, actually. I received it. It was a gift. A gift that shows that I have been in the bosom of Christ for my whole life. I have been swimming in the waters of baptism my whole life. I’ve walked this journey. It’s there, right in front of me. God revealed to me last week at a labyrinth that my true calling is as a “spiritual mapmaker and mapreader.” God revealed to me today that I’m also a map myself. A map that points to Christ.

Hidden with Christ #6: The Leftovers

This is one of a series of posts I’m writing this week about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and it is taking several blog posts to unpack it.

So, I’m pretty much done writing about the retreat last weekend. But there are a few things that didn’t seem to fit into the other posts. I’ll mention them here, in no particular order:

Anxiety is a sign of good things to come. I was so anxious in the days and hours leading up to the retreat. I am very grateful that a good friend was available to meet me for lunch halfway, in Mahwah, New Jersey. That broke up my trip to the monastery, and also provided me with a chance to chill out for an hour and a half. But then, in the final stretch on I-87, I got really anxious. I started wishing that I’d never registered for this. I started hoping that something had gone wrong with my registration, and that when I got there, they’d tell me that I couldn’t stay. I felt like this wasn’t where I should be. I should be home, getting stuff done. I should be anywhere else. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I didn’t know if I’d fit in. I didn’t know what I’d get out of it. I often feel this way when trying new things. I often feel this way on my way to someplace unfamiliar. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that these feelings emerged. Frankly, it should have been the most familiar part of the experience. And what’s more, it seems to me that whenever these feelings arise, the thing I’m scared of ends up being amazing. Not that my feelings can somehow predict good things, but perhaps they’re a sign of knowing that there is something coming up that has the potential to touch me deeply, to get into my heart and make some necessary changes. I hope to remember that…anxiety (at least sometimes) is a sign of good things to come. And without a doubt, this was a Good Thing.

The image of the wave. About midway through the retreat, I attended diurnum on Saturday. It’s the noon-time worship opportunity. Diurnum (at least the way they observe it there) includes a ten-minute period of silence, a time for meditation. Meditation is something I’ve become much more familiar and comfortable with in the past few months, so I welcomed this opportunity. Every now and then, I have received a sort of “vision” during meditation, and it happened that day. As I sat in the chapel, I had a vivid image of an ocean wave. It was right in front of me, as if I were part of the ocean. As I inhaled, it rose, higher and higher. As I exhaled, it crashed over me. I was reminded of my favorite thing to do at the beach: go into the sea, and let the waves crash over me. I love to “challenge” them; to try to stay upright as bigger and bigger waves try to knock me down or pull me under. In this image, it wasn’t quite like that. As the wave crashed over me, I was not fighting to stay up; instead, it was completely natural and serene, just like breathing. This image continued for the entire meditation time. My breathing grew deeper, and the waves grew higher and higher, the crashing more and more peaceful and invigorating. I felt like this was an image of baptism, that I was being washed in the waters of baptism over and over, with each breath, like the Holy Spirit was coming into me, as deep as I was willing to go, and then crashing out into the world like a nourishing downpour.

Paul’s thorn. I thought a lot about the “thorn” of St. Paul while I was there. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9: Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (NRSV). Paul does not describe what this “thorn” is…people have suggested various physical ailments over the centuries; certainly I have resonated with those who have suggested depression. But it doesn’t matter…the point is that Paul saw this thorn as something he wishes was gone, but which Christ has used for good. In fact, Christ was able to dwell in him more fully because of this thorn. Whatever Paul’s was, I suppose depression is indeed my thorn. And perhaps God was telling me over the weekend that it’s simply a thorn I must live with. Throughout these three months, I have found new ways to cope with it, new ways to calm it, new ways to deal with my triggers, but it will never go away. And Christ will use me, broken as I am. Christ will dwell in my hidden places, broken as I am. And I have seen that Christ has indeed used my illness for good. My openness about depression seems to have been a source of hope and indeed healing for some people around me. If that’s what it means for Christ’s power to be made perfect in weakness, I can accept and embrace it.

The deep with. As I was journaling, trying to figure out how to put all these feelings into words, especially when I was reflecting on my labyrinth experience, I came up with a set of words that seemed to resonate: the deep with. I felt like “with” was the right word to explain where Christ is. But “with” isn’t strong enough. It’s different than that…it’s much deeper than that. So I thought that the experience I had could be described as “the deep with.” I haven’t done any more with that phrase yet…but I think it may stay with me for a while. Perhaps I’ll figure out more later.

The two sides of my healing. In the week leading up to the retreat, and in the few days following it, I spent a lot of time working through an “e-Course” called Making Sense of Your Life, by psychologists Dan Siegel and Lisa Firestone. At the retreat, I reflected that during my medical leave, I’ve been seeking (and receiving) healing in two primary ways: psychological and spiritual. I also reflected on the fact that of all the things I’ve done in both arenas, this e-Course and this retreat were the most intense, the most concentrated, the most powerful instances of that healing. I don’t think I would have been ready for them earlier in the process…I think I had to get to the beginning of March before they would work. But both the course and the retreat were so powerful that I can’t imagine this process without them. I feel like I’ve done all I’m going to do in terms of trying new things. I think the remaining few weeks I have will be spent reflecting on and integrating all that I’ve experienced and learned. I think I’ll be ready to return to “normal” life.

 

Anointed

This morning I attended an Episcopal church. They offered laying on of hands and anointing with oil for healing this morning. I took advantage of the opportunity.

The priest asked my name, and laid his hands on my head, saying something like, “Michael, I lay my hands upon you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ to sustain you with his presence, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and evermore.” He then dipped his thumb in oil, and anointed my head with the sign of the cross.

Liturgical Christians anoint with oil in several circumstances. The three I’m most familiar with are: to signify the “seal of the Holy Spirit” at baptism, to offer healing, and to anoint for service. I experienced all three this morning.

Baptism has been on my mind for a while now, particularly since the experience I had last week, described here, an extraordinary vision of what baptism looks like to me. I’ve been hoping to receive some further insight into what the “Lighthouse” church in that vision could mean to me.

This morning, I felt in the moment of anointing that my baptism was being renewed. The gift of life, the gift of hope that I’d received forty-one years ago was being renewed once more. This oil was spiritually the same oil used for that gift then. The gift I didn’t understand at all in 1976, because I was just an infant, was being made new to me. And I felt this morning that it was God’s will that I be healed. The priest knew nothing of me but my first name, but the God he invoked knows me, the God who had given me a new name forty-one years ago: the name “Beloved Child.” And today, the priest prayed that God would bring me healing. He could pray that with confidence because he knows that it is God’s will that all of God’s children be healed, and in that moment, I felt that truth. And the specific words the priest used, from the Book of Common Prayertold me another truth. These words are different from the words in the Lutheran rite of healing, the words I have said to so many people over the years. The words I heard this morning including these:

…and to give you that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him both now and forever.

And wow…it hit me powerfully: God wants to heal me not just for my sake, but for the sake of God’s work. God wants to heal me so that I can be a faithful, effective servant. God wants to heal me for the sake of the world. That was powerful to me today, because it helped me to remember that I have a place in this world, that I have a role to play. That God’s not done with me yet. I don’t know what that role is exactly…there are still lots of questions. But today I can feel that there’s a place for me, even me. Despite my illness. Despite my anxieties. Despite my doubts. There’s a job for me to do.

And that means there’s one for you too.

Darkwater

This is a semi-fictional account of two events: a spiritual quest I went on in Schuylkill County yesterday, and a session with my spiritual director this morning. There’s no need to try to discern how much of it is “true.” In a way, it all is.

Continue reading “Darkwater”

Hope we can Count On

This is an adapted form of my sermon from Sunday, January 1, 2017, the First Sunday of Christmas. The gospel reading was Matthew 2:13-23, the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. That morning, I also baptized two young children. I’ve changed their names for this blog version of the sermon.

Well. Thank goodness that’s over. And by “that,” I mean the year 2016. It was a rough one. From David Bowie to Carrie Fisher, it seems like there were about 50,000 celebrity deaths last year. We had the most painful and heart-wrenching presidential election in memory. And so many mass shootings and terrorist attacks around the world, from Orlando to Dallas to Brussels to Berlin. The images from Aleppo, Syria were nothing short of heartbreaking. It felt good to put that year to bed last night.

Peter and Luke, you’re only a few months old. 2016 was the only year you knew until this morning. Let me assure you, they’re not all like that. Some years are better. And I think all of us in this room are hopeful that the year that begins today is a good one.

But you know what? It wasn’t all bad. In fact, Peter and Luke, I bet that when your mother looks back and thinks about the year 2016, the thing she’ll remember most, the thing that will eclipse everything else, will be you. Because 2016 was the year you arrived. And you have brought such hope, and peace, and love to the people who love you. It’s really quite remarkable what a new child can do. Even in a year so full of suffering, you have brought light and life to those around you. Thank God for you, Peter. Thank God for you, Luke. You are truly blessings in a world that needs it.

And that kind of reminds me of today’s gospel story. It’s a rough one. One we might not be in the mood to hear right now. After all, in the church we’re still in the season of Christmas. Just last week, we heard again the story of how Jesus was born in Bethlehem, how angels sang his praises, and shepherds came to worship him. What a joyous night! And now today, the story has turned very dark. Jesus is still an infant, but the story isn’t about angels and shepherds anymore. Now it’s about a king who is scared of Jesus, a king whose fear leads him to murder. It’s hard to hear. Now Jesus himself is protected. Joseph listens to the angel who speaks to him in a dream, and he takes Jesus away to Egypt. But so many others are not protected. So many other children are killed. It’s tragic, and so very sad.

Why would this be assigned as the reading on the First Sunday of Christmas? More to the point, why would Matthew even include this story in his gospel? And even more to the point, why did this even happen? Why would God allow this to happen?

That’s a good question. A very good question. For thousands of years, people have asked, “Why does God allow suffering to happen?” You might ask that yourselves as you grow older.

And the only response I can give is this: suffering happens. It just does. God doesn’t prevent it. Peter and Luke, as you grow up you’ll discover that. You’ll learn that suffering is a part of life.

And I think that Matthew included this story here because he recognized that. Matthew wasn’t afraid to show that Jesus came into a world full of suffering, that he was born into it. Matthew wasn’t trying to make us feel bad…he was trying to be honest. The world contained suffering. In fact, the whole reason Jesus came was because there was suffering, because God loved us. Why didn’t God choose to show his love by removing our suffering? Maybe we’ll never know the answer to that. But what we do believe is that God showed his love by sending Jesus into our world to be with us, to dwell with us, to shine light in the darkness of our lives. To give us the strength to endure, and the ability to find hope and joy amid anything.

And that, Peter and Luke, is really good news. Because we can count on that. We can hope that 2017 will bring us health and happiness, but we can’t count on that. Anything can happen. But what we can count on is that God will be with us, no matter what happens. No matter what.

Because God promises that. And that is why you’re here today. That’s what your baptism is all about. Today, through water and God’s Word, God promises to be with you for life. God promises to wash you clean from your sin, and free you from the power of death. And that means that you will be able to endure whatever this world has in store.

In your baptism, God also promises to join you to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which means that he lives within you and you live within him. His death and resurrection was God’s plan for redeeming and saving the world, and so your baptism means that you’re now part of that plan too. It means that God has a plan for you, and that as you grow, God will use your hands and your voices to do God’s work. It means that you will help others endure whatever the world has in store.

Your baptism means that you will never be alone, and that you will have the ability to help others never feel alone.

And so, I wish you both a very happy New Year. Whatever this year may bring, Peter and Luke, whether joy or pain, happiness or sadness, you will be able to stand tall. Well, once you learn to stand anyway. But you’ll be able to metaphorically stand tall, because God is with you. And you will be able to help others stand tall, because Jesus is here. And he’s here in you.

Welcome to Baptism!

Amen.

Featured image By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Surprised by Mercy

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 10. Two important themes of the day were the Holy Baptism of a child named Owen (not his real name), and the Spiritual Gift of “mercy.” The gospel reading for the day was Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Good morning, Owen. I’m so glad you’re here today. Today you are baptized. And I’m really glad it’s today, because baptism is all about God’s gift of mercy, our Spiritual Gift of the week. Today God pours mercy upon you through water. Today God marks you with a lifetime mercy even as I mark you with oil. Today God calls you to a life of mercy, even as the assisting minister gives you a lit candle, and calls you to let your light shine before others. And today you become part of a community of mercy, the church.

The church is a community of mercy, Owen, a community where we recognize that we have received mercy we don’t deserve, mercy we’ve never earned. I want to tell you about another community of mercy I was part of once.

As part of my seminary training, I spent a summer as a student chaplain at Penn Foundation, a behavioral health facility in Sellersville. All the clients were either in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, or had a mental illness. These were people in need of mercy, and Penn Foundation was a place they received it. It wasn’t a religious organization, but there was a spiritual component. And I was there to help some of the residents on their spiritual journey, to help them get in touch with God. And then my supervisor would reflect with me on how well I did, and he would evaluate me. I have to tell you, I was scared. This summer program was crucial to my seminary training. If I failed there, I might never become a pastor. I felt alone, surrounded by people I didn’t understand. I felt as though I was thrown into a new world, a confusing world. Ever feel like that, Owen? Oh, right, you’re a baby. You probably feel that way every day.

Anyway, then I met Pam. The first time I met Pam was at the first session of a seminar I was leading on spirituality. Only two people showed up, and Pam was one of them. Pam shared that she was in recovery from alcohol addiction, and she also had schizophrenia. I don’t remember anything about the other person, but I remember this: the conversation was really awkward. The seminar did not go well. I went home feeling like a failure. The next week, I didn’t want to go to the next session, and I guessed that nobody would show up. But Pam returned, and she brought a few other people with her. And that conversation was so much better. I learned Pam’s story. I don’t remember the details anymore. But I remember this. Pam was at Penn Foundation because she had hit rock-bottom. Through her illness and her addiction, she came to a point when she knew that she had nothing to rely on, not the drugs, not her family, not herself, nothing… and it was there that she had found God. And she found that God showed her mercy, mercy she didn’t deserve, but mercy she desperately needed. Pam saw that God gave her just enough to get through the day, each day. And then others shared their stories…they were all unique, but in a way they were all the same. They all shared that rock-bottom moment, the moment they realized there was nothing they could do anymore to help themselves. They all shared that they experienced God’s mercy in that moment. And they all shared that they knew in their bones that God was with them each day. They didn’t know what tomorrow would be like, but they knew God was with them today. They taught me that. They showed me that I didn’t need to be perfect, or have everything worked out. God was giving me exactly what I needed for each day.

Owen, you know this. You know that you need to rely on others, and you know that you can. I think I knew that at your age too, but as I grew up I forgot it. I started to think I could take care of myself on my own. Pam taught me that that’s not true. I still did need mercy. And I still received mercy. I thought I was at Penn Foundation to help other people. Maybe I was. But I know God sent me to Penn Foundation so that Pam could help me. Thanks to Pam, Penn Foundation became a community of mercy for me.

That memory reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is a story of being surprised by how God works. It’s a story of God coming to you in unexpected ways. The key to this story, Owen, is knowing what a Samaritan was.

Jews and Samaritans hated each other. To Jewish people, Samaritans worshiped God wrong, Samaritans were unclean, Samaritans were stupid. And Samaritans would never help a Jew. Nor would a Jew want the help of a Samaritan. When Jesus told this story to his fellow Jews, the people who heard it were uncomfortable, shocked that the hero was a Samaritan. What if you desperately needed help, and a member of ISIS came to your aid? How would you feel? Oh, right, Owen. You probably don’t know about ISIS. I hope you never do. But it would make most of us uncomfortable. That was Jesus’ point. The Good Samaritan story isn’t just about how to be nice. It’s about seeing that God can work through others, even through those we least expect.

A Jewish person, beaten and left for dead, received God’s mercy through a Samaritan.

An anxious seminarian (that’s me) received God’s mercy through someone with schizophrenia, recovering from alcohol addiction.

And Pam received God’s mercy through hitting rock-bottom.

God’s mercy doesn’t come where we expect it, Owen. God’s mercy comes from the most surprising places. That’s how God works. God brings new life from a cross. God brings that new life to us through ordinary tap water. And that’s the God you’re beginning a relationship with today, Owen. Nobody is outside God’s mercy. God will show that mercy to everyone. And God will use anyone to show that mercy. And that’s good news. Because you will need it. Just like we all do, even if we pretend we don’t.

Welcome to a life of mercy, Owen. Welcome to this community of mercy. Welcome to baptism.

Amen.