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Posts Tagged ‘grief’

Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.

Today we wrap up our worship series on Psalm 23, and we start off where we ended: with the Lord. Yahweh. By way of review, the whole psalm begins with the bold declaration that the Lord, Yahweh, is their shepherd. It is the image of God as divine shepherd, protector and provider, which sustains the start of the psalm. About halfway through, the psalmist shifts from talking about God to talking to God, and God becomes the host. Tables are spread, heads are anointed, cups run over, mercy pursues.

And now, we are told that we are no longer guest, but part of the family, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. As one hymn setting of the psalm puts it:

No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.

What does it mean to live in the house of the Lord? In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the phrase is meant quite literally. When Moses led the people in the wilderness, they gathered around Mt. Sinai. And when Moses descended with the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark, which was housed in a tent. That tent became known as the house of the Lord, and was the focus of worship in the early generations of the faithful. When King Solomon built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was moved into the new house of the Lord. In fact, most of the places in Scripture where the phrase “house of the Lord” is used it is meant as a descriptor for the Jerusalem Temple. But…what happens when there is no Temple?

The Babylonians destroyed the first Temple, taking the Judeans into exile. After Babylon was conquered and the exiles returned, the house of the Lord was rebuilt, and it stood until Jesus’ time. Jesus was so distraught the way that his “Father’s house” was being used as a marketplace that it’s one of the few times we see him losing his temper. He even predicts the destruction of the second Temple, which the Romans leveled in the year 70.

This is why other uses of the phrase “house of the Lord” become important. In the Old Testament, it is also used to talk about the people of God. Jesus is the one that makes the shift to speaking of eternal life as the house of the Lord, telling his disciples that after his resurrection, he would go to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Paul picks up on this idea, giving hope to those who see the flimsy, earthly tent of their bodies giving way to the heavenly, eternal house of the Lord.

So even though Scripture uses this phrase to describe variously as heaven, the Temple, and the community of believers, the meaning at the very heart of it is all the same: to be in the house of the Lord is to be in God’s presence.

All of which brings me back to the bumper sticker with which I began today: don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “house of the Lord”, my first thought is of heaven. I am sure that the fact that I have heard this psalm read over and over as a psalm of comfort in times of death and grieving plays heavily into that. I am hard-pressed to remember a funeral where I didn’t hear the text. When someone dies, we are sad; because we miss what we love. And so, the promise of living in the house of the Lord forever is not only hopeful, it is restorative. It gives us a clear focus on the promise of resurrection we know in Christ.

The idea that there is nothing to fear beyond the grave is an amazing thing. We Presbyterians don’t tend to talk about things like life and death until we absolutely have to. But when we do, we cling fiercely to that hope the there is more to this life than meets the eye. I know that each one of us struggles with doubts – some small, some great. My hope and prayer, though, is that when it comes down to it, you can trust that there is a greater reality that holds us fast.

That all said, if we are honest, we know that having faith holds the potential for temptation. And that temptation is to be so focused on heaven that we forget about living in the here and now. There’s a brilliant satirical song from 1911 that put it well:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right.
But when asked, “How ‘bout something to eat?”
They will answer in voices so sweet:
“You will eat, bye and bye,
in that glorious land above the sky.
Work and pray, live on hay:
you’ll get pie in the sky when you die!”

If our answer to every trouble of this world is, “it’ll be better in heaven,” then we have forgotten Christ’s prayer that earth would become more and more like heaven. It is not that we stop yearning for the perfection that heaven promises; instead, if we have the certainty of heaven, it ought to free us to live abundantly in the world around us. We ought to pray that God would open our eyes to recognize those places where the kingdom of heaven is already alive in the world so that we can join in! When we do this, we take that Biblical phrase, “the house of the Lord”, with all of its meanings, and pull them all together.

The house of the Lord is the Temple. It is God’s presence, God at work, right here, right now. The house of the Lord is the promise of eternal life. It is God’s presence, a gift to us that sets us free to love and serve. And the house of the Lord is the people of God. It is God’s presence, God at work within us and through us. Yes, my dear friends of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, we – you – are the house of the Lord! When we are at our best, we are the connective tissue between that which is heavenly-minded and that which is earthly good. When we are, we really are the body of Christ, the word made flesh, living in this world, loving this world, and working for the healing of this world. It is a healing that is not in our hands. The gift is that God allows us to be the vessels of divine healing!

Many of you have read of surveys over the past few years that have announced that the fastest growing religion in America is “spiritual but not religious.” These are folks who know that there is more to life than meets the eye, but they want to avoid the trappings and follies of institutionalized faith. Maybe that describes you, too. The word religious means literally to become connective tissue! Re – ligio, from the same root as ligament.

True religion, at its best, is what holds faithful living together! We read the lessons of Scripture not so that we might become convinced of how correct we are. We read them because they reveal the truest character of God in Christ Jesus. Our whole purpose is to be those who reflect that character of love and mercy and grace to the world around us.

That is why we care about people who have no home. That is why we comfort those who mourn. That is why it matters to us what is happening in places as far away Syria and Egypt and as close as Buford Highway and Clayton County. That is what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord forever!

Are you ready? Because your room is waiting…

Amen.

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I originally wrote this in February when the events were fresh. For aome reason I decided not to post it at the time. Re-reading it the other day, I decided it was worth revisiting. Thankfully, some things have changed since then, including growing relationships within the community. And yet, so many of the divides remain. Please pray for our divided world.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution won’t name the teen who committed suicide yesterday out of respect for the family’s privacy. Meanwhile, among his peers (and his brother’s peers), privacy was a moot issue. Everybody knows, because information spreads. On Twitter and Facebook, his friends are posting their memorials, sharing his name, and keeping up with plans for remembrances. What a bizarrely divided world we live in.

There is surely a generation gap at work here. Some parents didn’t even know that any of this had happened. When they talk to their kids, they’re lucky to get a two syllable answer. Some of the teen’s friends have been carrying around the weight of conversations they had with him – wondering if they could’ve saved his life with a different word or phrase here or there. And their parents didn’t know about any of this until now. What a divided world we live in.

The schools are doing their best. Crisis teams have come in. Churches and pastors have reached out, and have largely been told, “Thank you for your concern.” The separation of church and state is so deeply ingrained that we can’t even partner on an issue of such crucial community concern that none of us, let’s be honest, is equipped to handle alone. What a divided world we live in.

And as the generation divide grows, we continue to isolate people by age: old folks in old folks homes, kids in schools and so many afterschool programs it makes your eyes bleed. Churches, instead of leading the way as a radical place of intergenerational inclusion, have followed suite, with “age appropriate” worship services. What a bizarrely divided world we live in.

We are still in the midst of this crisis. So many are grieving a life that cut itself short and a world of questions that hang in the air like the stench of raw sewage. The one thing I hope we can really lay to rest is this divided world. I hope we can find a way to bury it. Let’s move past the taboos that we, ourselves, have created. We have convinced ourselves that our children do best when they interact with “experts”, and so parents are terrified of speaking to their kids. We are certain that the only way that religion can interact with society is either through total isolation or theocracy, when there are so many of us who have never seen our faith as merely a means to convince people that our version of events is more right than theirs; how in the world can you work through suicide without touching on the divine and on questions of ultimate meaning? We are so fearful of boring our children in worship, or so concerned with it being “our time” that we end up further isolated, less able to create shared experiences, hopes, dreams; so much so that we no longer even know how to talk to our kids. And we certainly don’t understand this whole world of social media; anything that happens on a computer certainly can’t be real, so we wait for them to grow out of it, just like we grew out of touchtone phones and new-fangled answering machines.

Suicide is horrible. It is unfair to those who are left behind to clean up the mess. It is a brutal awakening to the despair that takes such deep root. My hope is in the possibility that it could awaken us from the stupor of our own creation, to begin to live as those who think both critically and inclusively, as people who take nothing for granted – not the air we breathe, the blessings we receive, nor the “wisdom” we are expected to assume as fact. Let this be a new day, a new life, a new birth.

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We had a friend who had been a career missionary in Japan. One day my parents announced that she was coming over to our house for a visit, and that she was bringing two Japanese with her. I was probably about four, and I had never heard of a “Japanese” before. My young mind must have raced with all kinds of ideas; eventually, I settled on the fact that they must be some kind of monster. Don’t ask me why I would think that my parents would allow monsters to come into the house, but that’s where it lodged. As soon as the doorbell rang, I sprinted upstairs, ran into my parents’ bathroom, and locked the door.

I have no idea how long I was up there, but I knew I didn’t want to come out. My parents knocked and beckoned; eventually, they convinced me I would be in no harm. I entered the room where they were and, what do you know? There were these two ladies sitting on our couch! These were Japanese? Well, why didn’t you say so? We took some pictures together, and they gave me and my sister some little toys and some candy.

A few days later, the same missionary came to my school to speak to my class about Japan. After she finished, she handed out that same candy to us. However, this time she announced, “it’s seaweed candy.” Well, I was now this worldly, cosmopolitan young man, having eating this candy and having seen some of these Japanese face to face. I was horrified by the immaturity of my classmates who made faces, or even pretended to taste the candy before sprinting off to the water fountain making a gagging noise. How juvenile!

For four weeks, we’ve been walking down a path of conversation about times of transition. Two weeks ago, it was “Letting Go”; how, sometimes, there is something in our past which grabs hold of us, or more likely, something that we refuse to turn loose of, holding us back. Last week it was “Getting Up”; not so much that kind of American cultural identity of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, but how valuable those moments are when we get a touch of perspective in our lives, rising above the situation before us to see the bigger picture.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at “Going In” and “Moving On,” two more motions in this sweep of transitions that we often face in our lives. There is something about going in – going into the living room where the Japanese await us, going in to face what it is that holds us tight – that can ultimately be the very thing that helps free us.

Today’s lesson (Mark 11:1-11) is a familiar one for Palm Sunday. Jesus and the disciples have approached Jerusalem, the holy city, the center of Jewish life, and are preparing to enter. They secure a donkey; they head down the Mount of Olives and in through the ancient walled gate; the crowds shout their Hosannas, put their cloaks before him, and wave palm branches. All of it, the whole scene, echoes off those ancient stone walls with Messianic promise, the full weight of their shared history bearing down on this bizarre processional. For those at the time, there would have been no mistaking: Jesus was there to announce his arrival as Messiah, the Christ.

Jesus had plenty of other options, many of which would have been easier for him. But knowing what awaited him, the continued challenges with the Pharisees, the betrayal, arrest, torture, and crucifixion, he went in any way. He knew what lay ahead, and he decided that going in to Jerusalem was the right option.

Going in can be painful. It might be easier to pretend and forget, to stay locked in the bathroom. Think of the physical pain of a scrape on the knee. We know the right thing to do is to pour hydrogen peroxide on it; and we also know it’s gonna sting and that we’re gonna hop around the room for a while uttering things that we’d rather not say. But we do it. Or think of a splinter. It’s in there. If we leave it alone, it might get infected and get worse. So we dig out the needle, the tweezers, and we go in. We know it’ll hurt, but we know that ignoring it in the long run will bring more pain.

It’s one thing to deal with physical pain; it’s quite another to be confronted with emotional or spiritual agony, those hidden scars that the world doesn’t see. What do we do with that severed or strained relationship? How do we cope when we know that we’ve been wronged, betrayed by someone we’ve trusted? The phrase we throw around often is “forgive and forget.” But if we forget, can we really forgive? Is can be more painful to forgive as we remember, but at least we are honest about what that forgiveness means.

Our conversation the last few weeks has centered on grief in some ways – and each of us faces grief at some point in our lives: the grief of a lost loved one, a job, an ability, wellness…Maybe your pain is a spiritual one, an ache, a sense that God has abandoned you, that your faith has betrayed you?

There can be much that is difficult about going into those pains. Some times we need professional assistance to walk with us into our own places of discomfort. But there is something we can learn from our lesson today. Jesus did go in to Jerusalem. He faced what awaited him, knowing at least partially, if not fully, the pain and agony it would bring. But the story of this next week doesn’t end with a murdered Messiah and a sealed tomb. Our story really begins with the paradox of next Sunday’s feast, that resurrection is our promise, that the cross is empty and the tomb is bare.

Whatever it is that you might be holding onto, whatever it is that has a hold of you, whatever it is that you have thought it best to ignore or pretend it wasn’t there, especially if you think that it is God who has turned God’s back to you, this week may be the moment to go right in there, to enter into where the walls are the highest and most foreboding. It may be painful; and it may be excruciatingly so. But the end of our story isn’t death; it’s life. The end of our story isn’t defeat; it’s victory. The end of our story isn’t despair; it’s hope.

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My Father

My earliest memories of my father were of laughter. And what I yearned for more than anything was to try and make him laugh. Doing so was better than winning the Heisman and the World Series combined; it was the height of perfection in my little brain. And as the years passed, it remained a high water mark to aim for. Alecia reminded me that it wasn’t only Dad’s refined sense of humor that made it so wonderful to hear him laugh; it was the sound of the laugh itself: a high-pitched cackle that came out of that ear-to-ear smile.

When our son Ramsay was born, he and Dad were fast friends. I admit being a bit jealous, though, because it never seemed like Ramsay had any difficulty making Dad laugh. I could tell my Dad “Ramsay Stories” for hours, and he would howl the whole time. It didn’t matter what Ramsay did: a story about projectile vomiting would have Dad in stitches.

When Elizabeth was pregnant, I sought Dad’s wisdom about being a father. I remembered when Alecia and I were kids that he was always there with us at breakfast and dinner, and that he was always home on weekends. When I asked him about that, his response still rings in my ears: “You guys were so much fun that I didn’t want to miss anything.”

I loved that answer, and when I became a father myself, I knew exactly what he meant. I don’t want to miss a thing. When Ramsay was born, Dad wasn’t the only one with that ear-to-ear grin. I touched something holy; holding my son in my arms and looking into his face, I got a glimpse of what it must be like to see something created in your image take life. I know Dad must have felt the same way about me and Alecia. And I can’t help but wonder if this says anything about how God looks at us.

Scripture often talks about God as “Father.” I would be betraying my heritage if I didn’t transcend this language to say that God is our parent. Could it be that this parental relationship, which I have been blessed to treasure with my parents and with my son, tells me something about my relationship with God? Could it be that God steadfastly remains in our lives because we are so much fun? Is it possible that the ridiculous things we do make God howl in hysterics? Not a capricious laughter of judgment at our follies and sufferings, but the laughter of pure joy of a God whose deepest desire is to be in relationship with us. Could it be that God so wants to be a part of our lives because there is such divine joy in watching us, holding us, simply in spending time with us? Maybe it’s just that God doesn’t want to miss anything.

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by Sylvia Sanders Kelley (Marty’s sister)

HAMMER OF GRIEF

When the hammer of grief
Pounds flat your heart,
And all hope and faith
Are gone,

Rest assured-
The day will come
When you will feel
Your heart inflating

With a peace
You have never known.

Sylvia Sanders Kelley
December 13,2008

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