A Reason to Live, Even in February

8485155298_a3633fb0a6_oIt’s hard to love life in February. All I see on my drive to work is the grey sky mixing into the grey snow that melds with the grey cement of the cracked and salt-stained road beneath my wheels. Black branches poke and scratch the sunless sky as I begin to look for color—any sign of color—in a world that feels so bland. I notice the green of the street signs. They pop out to me now that I have tried to see. But their green is a flat green. It is not the green of spring, not the green of that which is new, fresh, alive.  It is 8:20am and in spite of the two cups of coffee I’ve drunk all I want is a nap. My whole self wants to sleep—to close myself off and shut myself down until this cold, dreary, muck of February has passed.

On Ash Wednesday I reminded a Chapel full of people that life is precious—that joy comes in the morning—that we must live as if we are truly alive. Today, though, I see the ash I thumbed onto foreheads everywhere. This dust of death is mixed into the dirty snow piled on the side of the road, smeared on the bark of dormant trees and settling heavy on my heart, making me wonder if all I said was a lie.

Parking my car in front of my office, I decide to sit for a while, to wait in the warmth and enjoy the numbing hum of the engine. I will sit here and wait, I tell myself, until I catch some sign of life—wait for a sign to live again—wait for a reason to believe that all this matters. If I wait here long enough, there has got to be something, something to stoke my life fire. There has got to be something worth getting out of this car.

A black SUV turns onto the road flashing red and blue emergency lights. It may not be the police. It may just be a volunteer firefighter. But it makes me think of the police and of the conversations I’ve been having about our criminal justice system with a few of our minority students. We’ve been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and studying the issue of mass incarceration.

The night before I sat on an overstuffed couch and listened to three students, one Latina and two African Americans tell me about why they were afraid of the police. Even if you weren’t doing anything, they said, the police were to be avoided. They might stop you, search you, shame you—so you steer clear. The police are not your friends, they said.

This was not my experience. I was taught to trust the police. I was taught to seek out the police if I was lost or hurt as I child. But as I sat and listened to my students—one kept shivering and bouncing her legs, her emotions running so high she couldn’t sit still—I recognized that my experience was not theirs.

Recalling this conversation, I turned the ignition key shutting off my car’s engine and gathered my things to go. My life today might be dreary. I might feel weighed down, maybe even depressed. But my life has never been like that of these minority students. In this insight I found my motivation. What I do with my privilege matters. I can listen. I can come to understand. And then I can help others understand. Thankful for this sign, I began my day determined.

 

[Feature Image: Pavel P]

You are Alive: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

What follows is my meditation on Psalm 30 for our Monmouth College Ash Wednesday Service. 

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I realize I am slow coming to this, but apparently the zombie apocalypse is a thing. My eight-year-old son came home from school the other day and asked, “Mom, where will you go during the zombie apocalypse?” Hmm….can’t say that I had given it much thought. But a quick Google search revealed an actual article by U.S. News and World Report that listed the top five cities to run to in order to survive the zombie apocalypse. (Apparently Boston is the best place to survive. I have no idea why. Maybe zombies don’t like historic walking tours and cream pie.)

Honestly, though, we don’t need a zombie apocalypse to feel like we are being pursued by the walking dead or are about to become one of them ourselves. This past Friday I sat down at my desk to write this sermon and I felt terrible. I’d stayed up too late the night before and maybe I’d had a little too much wine in my glass—which led me to skip my morning workout—which left me feeling foggy and lethargic. I just couldn’t get my wheels turning. I felt like, well—hell.

I know you can relate. I’ve seen you students stumbling to class in the morning—earbuds in, noses to your Smartphones, grunting a hello as you pass by—or sitting in the back of class with a vacant, numbed-out look on your face. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of church folks with that same vacant look sitting in their pews on Sunday morning. We’ve all known our fair share of zombie days.

In our psalm for tonight, the writer gives thanks to God for raising him up from a place called Sheol. Sheol, for the Jews, is the place of the dead—the place all people go when they die (there is no concept of heaven or hell here in the Psalms). Sheol can also be a metaphor, though, for a place of “spiritual death”—a place where we are living, but not really alive. It’s a place of “zombie days” but if we get stuck in Sheol it can become a whole “zombie” way of life.

In her poem, “The Messenger,” Mary Oliver describes her work as “standing still and learning to be astonished.” I love that line. I love it because life is astonishing. But too often we miss it because we just can’t stand still long enough to see it. At a church I served in South Carolina, there was a woman who seemingly had it all. She was smart, funny and beautiful. She had married into a wealthy family and lived in a gorgeous home. She and her husband had four children who were all healthy and super cute. So one would think this woman, I’ll call her Mary, would be living her life astonished—grateful—joy-filled! But Mary never stopped long enough to learn this. Whenever I saw her, she was in constant motion, trying to keep up with her four kids, volunteering for every committee in the church, running errands around town, taking care of everyone—except perhaps herself. It wasn’t that Mary was an unhappy person. She would laugh and joke with others. But underneath that “happy” exterior I always sensed a sadness about Mary—she carried it around her eyes that seldom shone with excitement, or flickered with passion, or burned with curiosity. I reached out to Mary a few times—inviting her to a class on contemplative spiritual practices that I was teaching or to a special retreat for women. I thought if I could get her to slow down and pay attention to herself and to her spiritual well-being that she might somehow come alive. My invitations always caught her attention. I could tell she wanted to accept. I think she knew she needed to accept. But, in the end, she always had a reason to say no. It saddened me to see her living so joylessly.

The psalmist’s soul was headed to Sheol because his foes were dragging him down. His light was about to be extinguished. But into that place of darkness and death, God reached to draw him back up, to turn him away from death and back towards life.

Here, in this turning, lies our hope. Verse 5 has gotten me through many a dark place. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” These words remind me that, by the grace of God, there is always a new chance, a new day to turn from death and embrace the joy of life, no matter what is happening.

For those of you who know and follow Stephen Colbert, you know that he is a devout Catholic. He speaks openly of his faith on The Late Show. You may not know, though, that this man who is hilariously funny and who has devoted his life to making people laugh, has known the deepest grief. When Colbert was 10-years-old, his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash. The tragedy rocked his family and framed the way Colbert forever viewed life. His mother set the example for him. “She was not bitter” Colbert said in a recent interview. “Broken, yes. Bitter, no. She drew on her faith to understand her suffering in the light of eternity.” So it was this tragic encounter with death that taught Colbert to be grateful for life. On Colbert’s computer he has a sign that reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy—yes, joy—comes in the morning. To be clear, joy is not an absence of grief, it is not a denial of suffering, but instead, it is a claiming of life. Joy comes in the morning, at the beginning of a new day because with it comes a deep understanding that we are alive.

Christian Wiman is another poet I love who writes wisely and passionately about life while living with incurable cancer. His writing makes me stand still, as Oliver asks us to do, and learn to be astonished. In light of tonight’s Ash Wednesday service I was particularly struck by a passage where Wiman describes a sand storm in his hometown of West Texas.

“Worse than snow,” he writes, “worse than ice, a bad sandstorm shrinks the world to the slit of your eyes, lifting from the fields an inchoate, creaturely mass that claws at any exposed skin as if the dust remembered what it was, which is what you are—alive, alive—and sought return.”[1]

You might say that tonight, on this Ash Wednesday, when you will receive the ashes on your forehead and hear the liturgical words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” that we’re kicking up our own sandstorm. The dust will be in the air tonight as if it is trying to remember what it was, even as it reminds you what you are—alive, you are alive! Return to this reality tonight. Live as if you are alive, not dead. Embrace the hope and the joy that is here to rescue all of us from zombie ways of Sheol.

 

[1] Wiman, Christian, “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer”, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York), pg. 13.

Remembering that we are Dust

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“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.  For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:13-14

Two years ago we received the tragic news that a young alum, Andrew Kuebrich, had been killed in an accident while bicycling the coast of Taiwan.  It always hits hard when someone young dies so tragically—mostly because it doesn’t make any sense.  Andrew graduated before I came to Monmouth, so I didn’t know him.  But after his death, story after story emerged about how encouraging he was of others, how contagious his energy, humor and optimism were, how his kindness touched many.  I learned how Andrew had taped a square box on the floor of his dorm room, named it the dance box, and required anyone who stepped in it to dance their stress away.  I learned how important the Relay for Life charity event was to him because both his grandmothers had died of cancer.

During one of these events, Andrew raised money for his charity by running 45 miles—in one night!  Andrew spent his college summers working with disabled children.  He participated in alternative spring break trips building homes for Habitat for Humanity.  He traveled to Taiwan after graduation to teach English to Taiwanese children and discover the world.  A picture surfaced of Andrew crowd-surfing on the hands of a mob of celebratory college students.  I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it certainly seemed like Andrew Kuebrich was a big part of it.  He was known here as the Chief of Good Times.

I imagine you know someone like Andrew, someone full of life and charisma and joy. These are the kind of people you imagine living forever—people who are absolutely unstoppable—invincible.  Never in our wildest dreams would we believe a young man so full of life could die at 24.

But human life is fragile—a fact we don’t often consider.  A parent knows, though.  Moms and Dads learn this when their babies are born.  Our advances in medicine and technology lead us to believe a healthy birth is a sure thing…until complications arise…. the baby’s heart rate drops unexpectedly, or the chord wraps around her neck…the nurses grow tense, ring the doctor on call, and the parent gets the impression that these risks are par for the course for those who work in labor and delivery.  Babies are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little people.

Parents know this as their babies grow, too. I remember negotiating with my parents over a spring break trip to Florida that I really wanted to take with my college roommate.  It was our senior year and we planned to drive the whole trip by ourselves, from Michigan to Ft. Lauderdale, without stopping. My parents didn’t want me to go.  They asked a lot of questions.  To which I responded, “Mom, Dad, why are you so worried?  I’m 21!  I’m an adult!”  As if that meant that nothing at all bad could happen.

Now that I am a parent, though, I know why they were concerned.  They were worried because they remember the day I was born.  And they remember the day they lost track of me in that giant department store. And the day I fell on the skating rink, cutting my chin open.  And they remembered that boy (or those boys) who broke my heart leaving me a sobbing, mush of a mess.  They knew (better than I) how tiny, and fragile, and vulnerable I am.

Today, God, too, speaks to us from the parent’s perspective.  “As a father has compassion for his children,” Psalm 103 reads, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”  “God knows how we were made,” the scripture says.  God knows because God was there.  From the moment of your birth, God was there. And because God was there at our beginning, God remembers that we are dust.  We were created out of the dust of the earth and one day to dust we shall return.  In other words, to God we are tiny, fragile, vulnerable little creatures.

The stark honesty of Ash Wednesday’s message—that we can so quickly return to ash—always makes me stop to consider how I have been living my life.  This year the word “reckless” comes to my mind.  Not that I’ve been bungee jumping, or sky diving, or drag racing through the streets of Monmouth.  But reckless in the sense of not paying attention to my life.  My life is often such a blur—one long frenetic streak of activity from the moment I wake up at 6:00am to the moment I crash, exhausted, in bed at 10:00pm.  If it were not for all my smartly synced calendars, I wouldn’t even know what day it is.

I feel reckless living this way because I, of all people, should remember how close we live to the edge of death.  I’ve been around death as a pastor.  I’ve stood at the bedside of those who were taking their final, shallow breaths.  I’ve laid my hands on cool foreheads to bless those who have just slipped away.  I’ve stood in the circle of family members, the holy ground of love, as they said their final goodbyes.  Why, then, in light of these experiences and this knowledge, why do I not pay more attention to life?  Why do I allow myself to become so frenzied and frantic?  Why do I not hug my children more and whisper words that matter to the husband I love dearly?  Why don’t I stop more to listen to my own breath and be grateful for the beating of my own heart?  Why don’t I, Teri McDowell Ott, remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return?

In the midst of writing this sermon and thinking these thoughts, the voice of Jill Kuebrich, Andrew’s mother, found its way to me.  Jill read a sermon of mine on my blog after Andrew’s death and we wrote each other briefly about Andrew and his life, and the impact he had on others.  Jill directed me to a blog she had started, a place where she could remember her son and write about her grief.  I found myself reading it again this week.

I was moved in particular by a post she wrote for another grieving mother.  To this mother Jill writes:

“When you asked me at your son’s wake if it gets easier I truthfully and tearfully told you NO! I regret not lying to you to give you some comfort. You will never miss him less and when you think of what has happened it will be like a sock to the gut every time. But you will see signs of your son everywhere! Take each one and let it put a smile on your face.  Try not to let what has happened define and ruin your life. The best tribute I think we can give our sons is to live and love more fully than ever before led by their example!”

Jill’s words resonate with me as a mother of an extraordinary son, and as a child of God trying to make sense of tragedy and the fragility of human life. Jill’s words to me this week felt like the Psalmist’s words. As I read I felt as if she were smearing my forehead with ash….waking me up to the gift that is my life.

After Andrew’s death, Jill and her husband, Matt, discovered a journal he had written full of writings and containing a list of 152 things he wanted to accomplish in his life.   He started this list by writing, “Ever since I was a little boy I would always hear older people say I wish I would have.  They were looking back and wishing they had the courage to follow through with their dreams.  NOT ME.  I am creating a list. This is not a bucket list,” Andrew wrote, “this is a TO DO list.  This is not a wish I would have done it list.  This is a I DID IT list and it was amazing.  The main reason I am creating this list is because I feel like most people wander aimlessly through life like a zombie, never breaking through and experiencing life.”

Some of the “To-Do’s” on Andrew’s list included:

  • Make a million dollars just to give it away
  • Milk a cow
  • Make a huge difference in at least three people’s lives
  • Read the entire Bible
  • See Professor McMillan’s sheep
  • Mow the lawn in cut offs

“I am Andrew Kuebrich,” he concluded, “and this is my journey…”