Memorial Day: Apology and Dream

I am sorry. To the brave men and women who have given their lives in service of this country I call home, I am sorry.

You sacrificed for the ideals of this nation, for the ideals of freedom and liberty and justice. You gave your lives with those ideals in mind, sometimes defending the freedoms I enjoy, other times fighting to enable others to enjoy those freedoms. And I am sorry that I have not done my part.

On this Memorial Day, I am sorry that I have not been brave enough to take a stand for what America is truly supposed to be about: the truth that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I have not stood up as the rights of people in the LGBTQ community (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened. I have not stood up as the rights of Muslims (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened. I have not stood up as the rights of the poor, of people of color, of immigrants (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened.

Dear brave, fearless fighters we remember today, I have been so distracted this past year by the ugly, cruel bigotry I see growing throughout this country. And I have been reminded that it’s nothing new. The country some of you fought for in 1776 was a country that enshrined the sin of slavery. The country some of you fought for in 1941 was a country where Jim Crow was the law, and women were expected to stay in the home, raising the children. From the very beginning of European settlement in America, the story of “freedom of religion” was the story of “freedom of religion for Puritans, but nobody else.” There has always been nastiness in America, there have always been fear and bigotry. And I am sorry that that’s all I’ve remembered lately; I’ve just given into that, and started to bitterly accept that that’s just who we are.

And while our nation does indeed have this underbelly, that’s not all that we are. And I believe it’s not at all what you fought for.

I believe you fought for something better. You fought for the America that declared independence from a “tyrant prince,” not seeking selfish gain, but seeking freedom for a whole people. You fought not for the America that has kept people of color down, but for the America that has actively fought that all along, breaking down the chains of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation; the America that continues to proclaim, despite any evidence to the contrary, that black lives matter too. You fought not for the America that kept women in their place, but for the America that has actively fought that all along, the tens of thousands of women who have always persisted; and those certain men who saw that the women were right, who supported them or quietly stepped aside to make room. You fought for the America that is always growing in its understanding of what liberty really means, always growing in its understanding of who is included in those who are “created equal.” Always growing, and always pushing and pulling and fighting if necessary.

I think you fought not for America as it was, or as it is, but for America as it could be. This grand experiment is one that will never be fulfilled; this shining beacon on a hill is always just around the corner, never here now. For there will always be injustice. There will always be poverty. There will always be bigotry. But America always pushes itself forward. The true hope of America is that tomorrow might be a little more just than today. Tomorrow, life might be a little better for an immigrant than today. Tomorrow, the people who are oppressed might be more free. Tomorrow, the people who enjoy power over others might be toppled. I had almost given up on that hope. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I let your sacrifice be in vain in my life.

I thank you for your service, your sacrifice, your belief in the goodness of the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I will try to do better in the coming year. I will try to do my part to make this nation worthy of your sacrifice. I will try to believe in the tomorrow of America, and do what I can to make that tomorrow a better day. The Dream of America is something that we need to work for. And I think it’s worth it.

I Know That You’re Here (poem)

I know that you’re here. I feel you in the air.
The frost in the trees. The taste in my hair.
I know you’ve come back. You fool me no more.
I know what you smell like. I know what you’re for.

I feel depression crawling, clawing back to play.
I feel my eyesight change, from vividness to grey.
I feel the sleepy, creepy cold that coffee cannot slake.
I feel the touchy, tetchy mold that makes my brain cells ache.

I will give in. I choose not to pretend you’re gone.
I will give in. I acknowledge the control trip that you’re on.
I recognize my weakness, and I recognize your skill
You suck away my stamina and drink away my will

But I will not give up; giving up ain’t giving in.
I will not give up. This ain’t a game you’ll win.
I know that you’re here, and I’ll play on tonight,
But soon you will vanish, drift out of my sight.

So I pray for forbearance as I wait through the dark.
I seek now the patience of Noah on his ark.
The storm will soon end, and I will emerge.
For now I will nap, and just write this dirge.

 

United, Following the Way

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 14:1-14

I was curious. I just wanted to learn about the United Way. Find out what they did. That’s all I wanted.

But here’s what happened. It started with troubles. I got a survey in the mail from the Berwick Area United Way. The survey asked for my opinion on what the biggest troubles were facing the Berwick area. Well, I had just arrived in the Berwick area a few weeks earlier, when I began my ministry across the river in Nescopeck. I didn’t know yet what the problems were. But I also realized I didn’t know much about the United Way. So instead of throwing the survey away, I wrote a note on it, saying I would like to sit down and chat sometime. Just to learn.

Well, before too long, I had a meeting with the CEO of the Berwick Area United Way. She told me about the difference the United Way had made in the community. And then she told me about the future. She said they could do even better, and she believed they would. She told me about a new United Way program called Community Impact, which was a new way of doing business that identifies the problems and the opportunities in the community, and very deliberately funnels resources directly towards those opportunities, to fund programs with measurable impacts. A Community Impact United Way harnesses the money and the passions and the skills of a whole community to make that community better in specific and measurable ways. She saw Community Impact as the future of the Berwick Area United Way. It sounded pretty exciting to me. And then she said, “We are looking for new board members right now. And we’re actually looking for a clergyperson [like me], and for people in their 30’s [like me], and for people from the Nescopeck side of the river [like me].”

I had just wanted to learn.

But I agreed to serve. And as I got involved, I soon discovered that the United Way board was not committed to transitioning to Community Impact. There were conversations about it, but it wasn’t a reality. And guess who got involved in those conversations. Yep, me. And guess who became the chair of the Community Impact committee. Yep, me. And once the board did fully commit to it, guess who was elected President of the board. Yep, me. And guess who was instrumental in making the cultural shift to Community Impact. I had just wanted to learn.

Today’s gospel story opens with troubles. This story takes place at Jesus’ Last Supper. Right before our reading today, Jesus had just told his disciples, I’m leaving you very soon. Certainly, the disciples were troubled by this. We can relate to them. Just look at all the fears we listed a few weeks ago. We’re troubled. Yet our gospel story opens with these words from Jesus’ mouth:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He’s saying that to us too. And then he goes on to say some wonderful words, words that we often hear at funerals.

“I go and prepare a place for you.”
“I will take you to myself.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

That’s good news. At funerals, we hear that as good news that our loved one is in the arms of Christ, and is at peace. At a funeral, we celebrate that all the troubles our loved one lived with have now ended. But we mourn, and we worry about ourselves, and about each other. Because our troubles continue. It’s good to know that paradise awaits us at the end, but what about now? At funerals, people want to see God now. They want a sign that God will be with them, and help them, now. Don’t we all want that?

Philip did. So he said to Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He wanted to see God now, see what God’s doing now. And Jesus said, “God’s right here. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. Right here. Right in the midst of your troubles. If you’re waiting for God to show up on a cloud and take all your troubles away, you might wait a long time. But look. God is here. Just look at what I’ve been doing, Philip. And then watch out. Because you’re going to do even bigger things than I. You’re going to do things you never dreamed of. Because, Philip, I’m not just the destination. I am the way. Come and follow me, and along the Way you will see great things. Along the Way, you will do great things. You’ll see what God is doing. Because God will be doing it with your hands.”

I just wanted to learn what the United Way was doing. I did learn about it, because I became part of it. I got caught up in something I didn’t totally understand, but which I believed in, and through me, God made a difference in the Berwick area.

Have you come here today with questions, wondering where God is, what God is doing? Good. That’s a great place to be. Those questions are good. But I’m going to warn you. Ask those kinds of questions, and God just might answer you. You might just find out that what God is doing right now is forgiving you. And healing you. And calling you. And lighting a fire underneath you. And you just might find out that what God is doing tomorrow is done with your hands.

And you just might find out your life is full of meaning, and full of life, and full of joy.

And then next week you’ll get confused and troubled again. And that’s alright too. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re the church. We figure this out together, by together listening to and talking about God’s Word. We figure this out together, by sharing these gifts of bread and wine with one another, and trusting that Christ is truly present there. We figure this out together, even though we don’t fully understand any of it. Even though we disagree on some of it. We figure this out by listening to God, and following Christ, together. By being UNITED as we follow the WAY.

Amen.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was Luke 24:13-35. In last week’s sermon, I invited people to write down their fears on index cards, and get them to me. Many people did, and I incorporated some of them into today’s sermon. 

We have been all over the gospels in the Easter season, but we have seen fear at every turn. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s story of the women on Easter morning, and while they had great joy, they also had fear.

Last week, we heard John’s story of the disciples on Easter evening, who were so scared that they kept the doors locked, and how Jesus came to them and offered them peace.

Today, we hear Luke’s story about two disciples on Easter day. Two sad and frightened disciples, one named Cleopas and one named…well, we don’t know. We know nothing about this second disciple. Man or woman? Old or young? Tall or short? So I’m going to take some artistic license here, and give that second disciple a name: the name you. And I’m going to tell this story again, the story of Cleopas and you walking to Emmaus.

It was a Sunday, and you and Cleopas were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened. It was a journey you walked in sadness, a journey you walked with fear, but a journey you walked together. Perhaps you were trying to escape your problems, put distance between you and Jerusalem. Perhaps you just needed to get some fresh air, clear your thoughts, and talk to someone. You were just so scared.

While you were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with you, but your eyes were kept from recognizing him. He said to you, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

You and Cleopas stood still, looking sad. Then he said, “Are you the only stranger who does not know about the things that frighten us?”

Jesus said, “What things?”

And you said:

  • Poor health
  • Growing old
  • Going blind
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Losing my husband
  • Dying
  • Being alone

And you said:

  • World peace
  • War
  • Climate change
  • My grandkids growing up in a fearful world
  • So many people hate each other
  • Security in our community

And you said:

  • Losing my job
  • Losing my home
  • Losing family
  • Losing things
  • Our family may never be together again

And you said:

  • Darkness
  • Wolves
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Lightning storms
  • Clowns

And you said:

  • Not being good enough
  • Not taking enough risks
  • Disappointing others and myself
  • Not understanding my purpose
  • Letting my anxiety overcome me

And you said:

  • Never knowing God the way I desire
  • Stepping up or standing up for my beliefs
  • God not being real

There were so many things to be frightened of.

Then Jesus said to you, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that is declared in scripture.” And he began to interpret for you all the good news about him in scripture.

He quoted the Psalms and said:

  • The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

And he quoted Isaiah and said:

  • Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

And he quoted Ezekiel and said:

  • And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

And he quoted Paul and said:

  • For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And he quoted the angels and said:

  • Do not be afraid.

And he quoted himself and said:

  • I am with you always, to the end of the age.

His words made you feel a little better. But they also added a little guilt. Why did you have so much trouble believing them? Why were you still afraid? What was wrong with you?

And then the three of you came near to the village to which you were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But you and Cleopas urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us.” And he did. When he was at the table with you, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to you.

Then your eyes were opened.

You recognized him.

And he vanished from your sight.

And in that moment, it all changed. You and Cleopas now saw that your hearts were warmed, burning even. Things began to make sense. The fear you felt began to wash away. Because Jesus was there. He was alive, and he had been right in front of you. You found that you were confident, you were courageous, you were excited, you were alive. You and Cleopas were no longer walking sadly. The two of you were running excitedly all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Your fears were still there, but they didn’t hurt as much. The burning in your heart shrank those fears, moved them off to the side, gave you hope and life. Because the risen Christ was there. Just as the risen Christ appeared to Mary, and to Simon Peter, and to Thomas, and to Cleopas, he appeared to you.

Last week I asked you to share with me your fears, and I am honored that you did. They are your fears, and they are real. I know that I can’t stand up here and say, “Don’t be afraid,” and expect you to just say, “Oh thanks, Pastor, I feel much better now.” It doesn’t usually work like that. What I can do is tell you this: the risen Christ says, “Don’t be afraid.” And whatever journey you are on right now, he is walking with you. You may not be able to recognize him right now, and that’s okay. You may know in your head that he’s there, but you just can’t feel it, and that’s okay. That’s the way it often is. But he is there. And sometime, someday, at some point along your journey, your eyes will be opened. You will recognize him. On that day, your heart will burn. On that day, your fears will be burned away. That day is coming. Christ is risen, and he has promised it.

But for now, let us keep walking together. And keep discussing with one another all the things that we are scared of. Together, we will get through each day, reminding one another to trust. Reminding one another that Christ is risen. Reminding one another that he is coming.

Amen.

The Texture of Depression

What does depression feel like? I am learning about mindfulness and meditation, and I found an exercise that asks this question. I decided to try it. I slowed down, focused on my breath, and pictured myself in a vast room, all alone, with a lit candle at the center.

I ask into the room, “What does my depression feel like? What is it? What are you?”

In answer, I feel a presence come into the room from all sides, slowly, quietly crawling up walls that I hadn’t even known were there. It is like a film clinging to these walls, everywhere but nowhere. It is dark grey and gritty, slowly turning this room into something that feels like a dungeon. I reach out to touch one of the walls, but I pull back immediately. It feels wrong; my fingers are too sensitive to its touch. I am reminded of a problem I have in real life…an aversion to terracotta. I am repulsed by touching anything like terracotta. I hate touching flowerpots. I have a hard time holding chalk. It sends a shiver through my whole body. I have this strange fear that it will creeping under my fingernails. The feel of the walls in this dungeon image is similar. A creeping, cringing feeling. I pull my hand away. I sit back down and remind myself of the candle in the center. It is still there. I feel alone here, but on one level I know I am not. This candle represents my relationship with God, my relationship with other people, my relationship with my true self. My depression is a film that covers everything, but it is not me. I look up, and see that the walls are dark, far away…the candle’s light doesn’t quite reach them. I instinctively know that this is because the walls are not real. The film of depression makes its own wall…it’s a chimera: beyond it is not an impenetrable barrier, but rather an open field. A field filled with light, the same light that shines from this unquenchable candle. One day soon, I will see that field. One day soon, I will get up the nerve to poke through the flypaper mirage. One day soon, I will see that this dungeon isn’t real. But not today. Today I sit here in melancholy contentment. It’s okay. I’ve got my candle.

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”

Helpful Bleeding

I bled twice today, and both times it hurt a lot less than I expected.

My first bloodletting was by the hands of a phlebotomist, real honest-to-God, literal bloodletting. Well, a vial of blood was taken from my arm for the purposes of medical testing. I guess it’s not actually literal bloodletting. I saw my family doctor this morning, and asked him if he thought it would be helpful to get some bloodwork done to rule out a physiological cause for my depression. He agreed, and so I went to the lab to have my arm poked. Okay…I don’t know if this was just the best phlebotomist in the world, or if it’s because most of the needles I’ve had in my life have been for blood donation (and are thus bigger), but this was so quick and painless I was shocked. Now I have to wait for the results. This will show me if I have any internal organs who hate me the way my brain seems to. (I’m looking at you, thyroid. We’ll see.)

The second bleeding was the more interesting one, and certainly the more figurative one. I spent some time today going through the files on my computer. I have always been a digital packrat. I have kept almost everything I’ve ever typed saved somewhere. I have almost every email I’ve ever received or sent since 1995 still buried deep in the file structure of my email program. And I decided that perhaps this might be a worthy task for my medical leave…to sift through the mountains of folderol on my hard drive. (This was actually the “project” I mentioned in passing in yesterday’s post.) I have been plowing through my Documents folder first. (Pictures, Videos, and emails are for the future.) I found some interesting things. A bucket list I forgot that I wrote. A list of promises I made myself at the suggestion of my then therapist. Several self-righteous letters to the editor of my college newspaper which I never sent. A whole bunch of moronic letters I wrote to friends and to people I had crushes on. And so much more. I read through a lot of them, with an eye to deleting many of them. It was easy to delete things like a letter asking Wells Fargo to close my car loan account, as enclosed was my final payment. But it wasn’t so easy to delete the ones that were more meaningful. More personal. More…painful. I got so frustrated by these younger versions of myself. The ones in college or seminary. The ones who were so arrogant and self-assured. The ones who thought it was great that Microsoft Word turned 🙂 into a real smiley face. I just wanted to smack my younger self in the head. And I haven’t even gotten yet to all the songs and poems, the half-finished short stories. As I anticipated them, my head started to prepare to explode with shame and embarrassment. I felt as though I were bleeding, that inner parts of me long gone were coming out, bleeding to the surface. And it hurt, like bleeding usually does. But then something started to happen.

I started to have compassion for my younger self. I started to see him as young and inexperienced. Young and green. Young and idealistic. Young and with so much learning ahead of him. One of the fears I often have is that I will never change, that I will never grow or mature. But looking back on this emotional bedlam that is the digital copy of my life, I can see that I most certainly have changed over the years. I most certainly have grown. And if I’ve done so already, then there is hope that I can continue to grow.

I have a lot more to do. I’m going to keep spelunking and swimming through my past. And for once, I’m not scared to see how stupid or childish I was. Instead, it’s exciting to read these things, knowing I’d never write that today. (Except the ones I would.) And it’s exciting to realize that one day I’ll look back on this blog post, grateful that I’d never write this again. Growth is real. That’s a wonderful learning for the day.

So, I have to wait patiently to find out the results of my physical bloodwork, and then try to make some good decisions with my doctor based on the results. And I have to wade patiently through the digital bloodwork before me, and then try to make some good decisions about what to do with my past, and my future, based on the results.

What a weird day.