Selling Salvation

I’m often frustrated by the way conservative evangelical Christianity dominates the media. From mid-April to mid-May, Franklin Graham kept appearing on my TV during the national news hour. His primetime ads promised salvation in the midst of COVID hell. So I wrote a response and published it on Medium. You can read my essay on “Selling Salvation during a Pandemic” here.

 

 

Refusing to let God Vanish

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A poet friend posted this quote to Facebook last week. It was the anniversary of a difficult miscarriage and she posted this as a prayer that her grief enlarges instead of diminishes her.  This struck me as a beautiful sentiment and so typical of a poet. I keep turning to the poets for the way they enlarge life, for the way they take a magnifying glass to all that seems mundane. A good poet can create a whole scene (or deliver a whole sermon) out of a detail as small as the petal of a pansy. In this enlarging of life it seems that Hirsch’s point is well taken; that the poet’s job is to leave a verbal record as a way of refusing to let any thing—any detail or experience or person, for that matter—vanish.

As I contemplated Psalm 36 for an upcoming sermon, I began to recognize the psalmist’s job as leaving a verbal record of God. These ancient poets enlarged every detail of God. Psalm 36, in particular, enlarges the details of God’s steadfast love that extends to the heavens, God’s righteousness that stands like the mighty mountains, God’s judgment that runs like the great deep and God’s refuge that the psalmist emphasizes is for all people. Implicit in this poetry is a refusal to vanish and a refusal to allow God to vanish. It almost seems like an act of rebellion–an act of rebellion against all that counters love and justice, refuge and righteousness; an act of rebellion against all the pain, heartache, and grief that this world dishes out–to refuse to let God vanish.

This past holiday season all of the end-of-the-year reviews seemed to be ripe with heartache, tragedy and grief.

After the shooting in San Bernadino, California articles were written about how there had been more mass shootings this year than days—as of December 2nd, 355 mass shootings had occurred in 336 days. So much heartache has been caused by these shootings, and yet we Americans are so solidly entrenched in our culture of guns and our worship of guns that we can’t seem to do anything about this abhorrent violence. It breaks my heart to know that my 6-year-old not only knows the drills at her elementary school for tornado and fire, but also what to do when an active shooter is in the building.

hqdefaultAdding to my heartache this holiday season, I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness in preparation for a college trip I am leading where we will study the mass incarceration of our American men of color. What I learned in reading this book—about how our nation’s War on Drugs has strategically and systematically rounded up and locked up our impoverished, black males—blew me away and it made me understand the urgency of the #BlackLivesMatter movement all the more. Our societal imbalance and ‘disadvantaging’ of a whole population of people is a tragedy.

And then there’s the continued evil of groups such as ISIS, Al Queda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. There’s the insanity of Donald Trump’s popularity, our nation’s gobbed up political process, militia men taking control of a wild life refuge in Oregon, another black teen gunned down by police and a “Bible believing” man who walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic to shoot it up.

My God, it seems in the midst of all this heartache and grief, evil and tragedy that there is simply nowhere to turn. Everything is just so messed up.

So I am grateful for the Psalmist who leaves us a verbal record of:

Steadfast Love

Faithfulness

Righteousness like the Mountains

Judgment like the Great Deep

A refuge in which ALL PEOPLE may find shelter

By recording and enlarging these sacred details, the psalmist refuses to let God vanish in a world so full of heartache. The psalmist defiantly lifts up that which counters the insanity, grief, tragedy and evil of the world in which we live.

People of faith do the same every time we gather for worship. Have you ever thought of worship as an act of rebellion? I mean really, how dare we gather to read the psalmist’s words out loud, to pray bold prayers for peace, to sing hymns of hope when all that is taking place out there? It’s kind of crazy, really. But God will not vanish as long as God’s people gather to speak God into this world.

2301691623_7d9f87ac31_oWith the state of the church today—which is a state of rapid decline—I oftentimes think to myself where Christianity would be without the church? Or even, where Jesus would be without the church? If no one is gathering anymore to read the scripture, to sing the hymns, to pray the prayers and build the Body of Christ, then where does that leave Christ? I know this is kind of radical, but consider with me this question: If the church vanishes, then would Christianity, maybe even Christ himself, vanish too?  I don’t know my answer to this question yet.  But I want to ask it.  Because I’m afraid God would vanish if God’s people do not speak and act and live God into existence.

So I guess I want to encourage an uprising—a revolt against all that is terrible and terrorizing.  I want us to rebel against the heartache. I want us to be enlarged, not diminished by the grief. I want us to counter the evil, hate and bigotry with steadfast love, and righteousness, and justice for ALL who are welcome into the fold of God’s refuge. I want us to be God’s poets, refusing to let God vanish by leaving a verbal record.

Who knows, maybe this could be the start of something big? We won’t know unless we try.  And I think God is hoping, maybe even depending upon us to try.

 

 

 

 

 

What happens when we die?

14316045313_d31106ab16_kA few years ago a student was referred to me because he was getting in a bit of trouble. He was drinking and partying too much and making some poor decisions. This behavior was out of character for this student and his professors thought it had something to do with the fact that his mother was dying of cancer.

When we sat down together in my office, the first thing this young man wanted to tell me was that he was not very “religious.” He wasn’t raised in the church. He didn’t know what he believed about God, and then, he quietly confessed, “I like to go out and have fun, I like to have a good time.”

“That’s okay with me,” I responded. “I’m just here to help.”

So we chatted for a while, broke the ice a bit, and then I asked about his mother. I had my counselor “hat” on at this point as I checked in with him about how he was dealing with things emotionally. All this was fine, but in the back of my mind I kept wondering why this student wanted to see me, the college chaplain? If he’s not “religious” why didn’t he make an appointment with our college’s counselor? He could have been having the same conversation with her.

Then it hit me. Right in the middle of our conversation, I interrupted him, and I said out loud: “Oh. You need to talk about death, don’t you?”

Hearing this, his eyes immediately swelled with tears. He lost control of his emotions and in between gasping sobs he nodded, yes, that’s what he needed to talk to me about. He’d never experienced death before, not like this. He didn’t know what to think or believe about what clearly was going to happen to his mother.

Then, this young man’s red, swollen eyes searched my own and he asked, “What do you think’s going to happen? What do you believe?”

And I paused for a breath–because in these kinds of conversations with students I don’t often share what I believe. I want to encourage them in their own journey. I want them to ask themselves the hard questions and come to their own answers. But this kid, he just needed some help.

So I told him that what I know about death comes from my own experience of it—from my experience as a pastor sitting beside the bed of Abbie, Flossie, Frank, Rock, Dot, Mirium, Blannie as they slipped from life into death.  I told him about those moments.  How sitting there, in the presence of death–every time–I felt this profound sense of love. To me, I told this young man, it was a sense of love that felt eternal. So, this, I said is what I believe is waiting for your mother and what I believe is waiting for us all.

I didn’t see that student again after our conversation. I don’t know how he’s doing now. I touched based with him a few times afterwards by phone and email. But in that moment, when I wanted so badly to offer him some help and some hope, it seemed that my answer was good enough.

[feature image: Carol Von Canon]

When Worship Works

4044933922_d27e258d54_bWorship doesn’t always work. It doesn’t work when your student pianist can’t get through a whole hymn verse without stopping and starting three times. Or when the toddler, who accidentally bumps his head, drowns out your sermon’s climactic crescendo with his screams. Or when your congregation, who faithfully shows up Sunday morning after a long weekend of mission projects, only has enough energy left to go through the motions. Worship experiences are certainly not all under our control.

I work hard at worship, though, because I believe it deserves my hard work. Nothing, in my mind, better inspires or better pulls a community together than good worship. Every year I tell my students that worship done well can transform a person’s faith. Worship done poorly can kill it.

In my position as Chaplain at Monmouth College my students and I lead weekly Chapel services all year long. In addition to these, we design and lead special services annually: Christmas Convocation, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Baccalaureate. Seeing as the Baccalaureate Service is our church-related college’s premier worship moment, it gets planned a year in advance.

The planning process for this year’s Baccalaureate Service was particularly frustrating. We had lined up an amazing preacher—the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget—so we wanted an amazing worship service to surround her sermon. The Baccalaureate Planning Committee and I came up with all sorts of wild ideas at first. Special lighting effects. Flash mobs. Marching bands and drum lines. (The beginning brainstorming phase of worship planning, when no idea is a bad idea, is always fun.) When we narrowed our focus, though, and started hammering out the possibilities, we kept running into setback after setback. We can’t do this because so-and-so isn’t available. We can’t do this, because there isn’t enough time to rehearse. We can’t do this, because so-and-so has fallen into the abyss of final exams and end-of-the-year stress and is no longer responding to email. When the day of Baccalaureate arrived, I felt confident that what we had eventually planned would work. But I also knew that a whole host of things could go wrong.

In the end, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Things came together for this service that we didn’t plan. Emotions were evoked that we didn’t expect. Worship leaders rose to the occasion in ways that can only happen when they are inspired and feeding off the energy present in the room. I was honestly blown away.

And humbled. Clearly, what made this worship service work, was a divine guiding hand. Yes, good worship requires a lot of hard work, planning, and preparation. But it’s work that’s never about us. So when it comes time, after you as a leader have put in all that you have, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

God makes worship work.

[feature image: susanlloyd]

What I Know and What I Don’t

crop380w_istock_000003401233xsmall-question-marks“Why did this happen to me?” She looked directly and desperately into my eyes as she asked, tears welling and spilling from her own. I had moved to her good, right side so she could see me after her husband had slipped out of the room to speak to the doctor. In this brief moment of privacy, she wanted me to answer her “Why?” because I was the one who was supposed to know.

She was 37-years-old and in two days she had two strokes, with more blood clots lurking in her lungs to possibly cause even more damage. Her body was swollen and bruised, deep purple, brown, and yellow shapes covered her arms and her chest where CPR was administered for almost an hour. She was paralyzed on her left side.

“I don’t know, baby.” My feelings for her in that moment caught in my throat as I choked out this unsatisfactory answer. I don’t know why I called her baby. It just came out of me and the affection I felt for her. I wanted to offer her something. I wanted to say something meaningful. So, in response to all I didn’t know, I decided to tell her what I did.

I know you are strong, I told her. I know you have work to do, because you are still here. And I know this is hell right now. But, you are surrounded by love. You don’t have to face this alone.

She nodded as if she understood. But I don’t know what my words meant to her. They came from a deep place of passion, though, for life and for her life, in that particular moment.

Sometimes I wonder if I believe more in the divine gift of life than I do in God Himself. Because God doesn’t seem to be able to intervene in terrible, tragic moments like these. Wouldn’t God intervene if She could? Life can intervene, though, and love. Life and love can inspire us to find our way back to living while lying in bed at 37-years-old after suffering multiple strokes. Maybe this is how God works, then—through life and love and the community that surrounds us in our need? I don’t know.

I do know a deep desire to be helpful to the one desperate with questions. Is this enough, though? God?

 

 

 

 

A New Mantra: No Big Deal

183246_8db2604dfcbb2b58ffa0dee311ffb14b_largeI preached a dog of a sermon this past Sunday. Walking that dog for fifteen minutes in front of my small congregation was exhausting. I was working hard to connect—but since I was disconnected from my sermon, so was the congregation. Some people politely feigned attention, which I appreciated. Others stared out the church windows or whispered to their neighbors. A couple of teenagers in the back snickered and poked at each other. I’d wanted more time to work on another writing project, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull out an old sermon to preach. The sermon I chose for this past Sunday wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t me. I’d written it in 2005 when I was an entirely different preacher. So the whole experience was tired and lifeless. Immediately after finishing I thought to myself, “I never want to do this again.”

Normally, such a preaching failure would send me spiraling down into despair. Afterwards I would wallow around in a depressive state and repeatedly ask my husband for words of encouragement to help build me back up. This Sunday was different, though, because of a new spiritual practice.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book How to Meditate over my winter break and found myself drawn into what Pema describes as one of her biggest teachings from her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. About this important lesson, Pema writes:

I remember one time going to [Rinpoche] with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No…big…deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself.”[1]

When I came to this lesson in my reading, I was writing a sermon to be published in a journal for preachers. I was excited about this sermon as well as the opportunity to have it published. When I get excited about something, my enthusiasm has a tendency to consume me. It’s all I can think about. Then my imagination leads me to some grand delusions where I do start to feel awfully “special.” So Pema’s words resonated with me, even as they confused me. Wasn’t it okay for me to get excited? I’m a very enthusiastic person. Wasn’t it okay for me to feel joy in what I am doing and experiencing? As I lived into the “no big deal” mantra, though, I came to understand it’s wisdom and it’s power.

I ended up writing a better sermon for the journal because whenever I started to picture other people reading it, or to imagine the positive attention, fame, fortune (Ha!) that might come of it, I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—which led me to be more real, more playful, and more honest in my writing.

After preaching my dog of a sermon this past Sunday, I repeated my new mantra. When I felt myself spiraling down into my typical state of self-denigration I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—and locked myself in my bedroom for about ten minutes of quiet meditation. After this tiny bit of practice, I was able to let go of my “preacher’s despair” more successfully than I ever had before.

Through the use of this new mantra, I find myself seeking a sense of equanimity, or a state of spiritual balance. Swinging from the extremes of high-flying excitement or depressive denigration will only lead me to self-denial, life-denial, and suffering. It won’t be good for anyone around me, either. To be fully present in this moment, though, to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically balanced, is the path to a healthy, whole, and happy life.

 

 

[1] Pema Chodron, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, (Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2013), pp. 13.

Following a Star–A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Following a Star” from our Monmouth College Christmas Convocation based on Matthew 2:1-12.

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Writing a sermon for me is like following a star that has suddenly risen in the night sky. When I begin this journey, scripture text in hand, I have no idea where I am being led. I have to write my way in, following the thread of inspiration, and carefully guard my spirit so I don’t get distracted.

This is terribly difficult, however, because I have to forget about how badly I want this sermon to go well and how badly I want to offer you something beautiful today. I need to set aside my desires as well as my fears. I have to stop picturing myself preaching in front of our new President and the Dean and all you scary faculty types and all you college students who are so good at looking so bored. I need to meditate in order to free myself from these distractions, and I have to pray and attend to my soul and… I drink a little.

The acclaimed poet William Stafford likened his writer’s journey to following a golden thread. Stafford “believes that whenever you set a detail down in language, it becomes the end of a thread…and every detail—the sound of the lawn mower, the memory of your father’s hands, a crack you once heard in lake ice, [a star observed rising]—will lead you to amazing riches.”[1] The stance for the writer to take, then, is one of being “neutral, ready, susceptible to now. Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for the writer is one of following, not imposing.”[2]

So I began this sermon not by writing, but by observing. And yes, a star. (I walked out into my backyard, laid myself down in the grass and watched and watched…until it began to snow) and I thought about the three men, or three Magi, who chose to follow one particular star in their sky far from Monmouth College. I’ll admit that I find these men attractive. I don’t know why biblical characters are always portrayed as old, gray-bearded, and grizzly. I don’t see why these guys can’t be athletically-built with olive skin and big brown eyes. Three tall drinks of water.

Really, though, I find these three men attractive because they were open to discovery, susceptible to the now, and ready to follow wherever life’s path might lead them….even if that path was unexpected and unconventional.

Post-biblical tradition has given them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Interestingly, they weren’t Jewish, so there wasn’t any expectation for them to go and pay homage to the new King of the Jews. They weren’t aware of the Jewish prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. All they had was a star way off in the distance to guide them. And yet, in spite of this, they decide to make the journey. So it didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to go with them. I mean, who knows what I might discover in such attractive company?

Every new journey is exciting at first. Just remember how you students felt on move-in day of your first year. So what if it was 98 degrees and raining, and your room wasn’t much larger than a small prison cell. College was awesome! Waving goodbye to Mom and Dad and your pesky little brother was liberating! You walk down Broadway for your Freshman walkout, again in 98 degree heat, hot slices of pizza in hand, getting free stuff, following a bunch of bagpipers who I once heard you describe as “totally badass!” I mean, it couldn’t get any better. The possibilities for your college journey were endless. New experiences, new friendships, new love interests, new ideas. It was all just so exciting.

My journey with the Magi began the night I lay in the grass observing the stars. I started to picture myself riding one of those camels and, for the first few miles, chatting with my new companions. They are astrologists, so they enjoy pointing out the different constellations, what they had learned from the night sky, and how they know that the star rising in front of us is the sign of a new king. My mind is racing with all the possibilities for this journey. I wonder who we’ll meet? Or, what kind of wisdom I might glean? Maybe I’ll learn some really cool survival skills out here in the desert and get a really great tan?   Here, at the beginning, anything is possible.

As it happens on long journeys, though, the conversation between us eventually lulls. And in the growing silence I become aware of my feet that hurt my lower back that aches and that star—well, it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Just how long is this journey? I wonder to myself.   And when might we take a break?

This point of the journey reminds me of Midterms. All the new excitement has worn off, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh CRAP, college is really HARD!”

When the Boys and I do finally take a break, it is out of necessity. The sun is rising and our star has vanished. We sit down beneath a grove of olive trees and my three companions quickly doze off, but I can’t get comfortable. The arid heat is crawling all over me and my mind won’t let me rest because my Type-A, got-to-have-a-plan-self, is starting to panic. What am I doing here all alone with three strange men? What would my mother think? Or my practical-minded father? I can hear him clearly, “Teri, what’s the point of this whole adventure? Where are you headed with this? What are your goals?” I can’t answer my father’s questions, though, because they are mine as well. I have no idea where I am headed. So I start thinking about quitting and heading home to be somewhere safe and comfortable. Somewhere where I can control my surroundings and my life and leave all this mystery behind.

When journeys get difficult—as they always do—our minds quickly begin to look for alternatives. When my sermon writing is faltering and I am panicking and picturing myself standing up here with absolutely nothing to say, I find myself being tempted by alternative paths. I turn to my husband and ask, “Dan, do you think Farm King is hiring? They have some really cool stuff there. Or Subway? I think I could make sandwiches for the rest of my life.”

Maybe after your first college midterms you started to ponder some alternatives too. So just how much does a stock boy at County Market make? Maybe living with my aging mother when I’m 36 isn’t as terrible as I originally imagined it?

If you’re here today, obviously you didn’t give in to the alternatives. You’re still on the journey and so am I. Not everyone sticks it out, though. For some, it is too tough. So what’s so different about us? Why are we still here? Well, I imagine, that you, like me, are here because we have hope, perhaps even a little bit of faith, in what lies ahead.

Hope is an extraordinary gift. Not everyone is so blessed to have hope. We don’t know what lies ahead. We can’t know. But we hope that it’s something good. So we keep going, even when the going gets really difficult.

The climax of our journey narrative today comes, of course, when my wise friends arrived at the house above which the star had stopped. When our 2-year-old Isaac met his baby sister, Ella, for the first time in the hospital, all he could manage to say, was “This?” “This?” Maybe the wise men had the same question. This is what we have been searching for? This tiny, fragile baby is the King of the Jews? This is the one King Herod is so scared of? Does this make any sense?

But you know how sometimes you know something is right because you feel it is right—even though all rational explanations tell you it is wrong? Well, I imagine that’s what happened here—because these foreigners who had no reasonable connection to this baby, were overwhelmed with joy at finding him. So overwhelmed that they knelt down in homage to him. Something must have clicked within them when they saw this child. Something must have told them that they had come to a place of discovery.

There is no greater joy, no greater feeling of exhilaration than to discover whatever it was that was waiting for you along the golden thread. William Stafford describes it as “amazing riches” and that’s how it feels. It’s the place of epiphany, and of revelation, and of a profound knowing that this was what was meant for you.

So, the moment I discovered what this Christmas sermon was about, I was running on the treadmill at our local YMCA.   I’d been journeying with those Magi for a long time—two weeks to be exact. I’d grown weary of their company and was contemplating lots of alternatives when— right in the middle of all these people exercising around me—it came to me. It’s about the discovery! Yes! It’s about the discovery on the journey! And suddenly I feel as if this huge weight has been lifted—because I know now where I am headed. I have at least discovered the direction. And so I start to bounce a little as I run…and I punch the speed button up…and I pick up the pace…and I turn the volume up on my Ipod…and THEN I am still so excited that I start jamming my fists in the air to the music in my ears! And yes, people are looking at me, but I don’t care, because I am feeling so much joy. I am overwhelmed with joy! Thank you, God! Thank you, baby Jesus. I have a Christmas sermon!!!

The sermon itself –like the Wise Men’s journey— is a place of discovery! A place of epiphany! It is such a high!

I hope you’ve known such moments. I hope you’ve known the overwhelming joy of discovery. Maybe it’s happened for you in a class, or a deep conversation with friends, or at a program you attended, when seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas came together in your mind to reveal—suddenly and inexplicably—something NEW about your life, or your future, or your perspective on the world. And then your mind explodes with possibilities and your body flushes with energy because of this new discovery! You discover your life and the world anew! These discoveries, these epiphanies, are what await us all along the journey.

I hope you’ve known such moments, because they remind us that the journey is worth it. They reveal that—as tiny, and fragile, and fearful, and vulnerable, and insignificant as we oftentimes feel—our lives are not meaningless. There is wisdom to be found along this road. There is joy to be found and love and beauty and grace. And—especially at Christmas—we are reminded that God is to be found here as well. God is not removed from us and from all this. God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God is within each discovery.

So let’s take this moment, this sacred and holy moment, to open ourselves to the journey. This Christmas, let’s begin once again. Let’s follow our stars.

Now to the God who calls us on this sacred journey, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] From Robert Bly’s introduction to Stafford’s selected poems.

[2] Ibid.

Death of a Preacher

Plenert_CJ-Funeral-1aThe grandson’s voice was hesitant on the phone.  He was calling on behalf of his grandmother who expected her preacher husband to be buried in the quiet cemetery behind the first church he had served decades ago.  I was the pastor now.

Perhaps the widow assumed I was younger and less experienced than I looked.  Perhaps it was the pain of her grief that led her to condescend when she informed me I was not to preach at her husband’s funeral, just read the scriptures (which had already been chosen, she said.)  She must be so sad, I thought to myself.  I said nothing of the disrespect.

So the church gathered on a Saturday to surround the widow with love.  She sat in the front pew, a tiny mite of a woman with sharp, steely eyes, in a dark blue dress. As I read her required scriptures I tried to read her face.  She did not look at me once.  Did she know what was happening?  Did she know he was gone?  I prayed for her and her family then raised my hands for the benediction.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Ralph. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.  Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Then her eyes were on me.  I couldn’t interpret her stare, so I kept reading.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, remain with you always.  Amen.

The organ piped in the postlude and we processed to the cemetery where I buried her husband beneath the shade of our church’s giant oaks.  Afterwards, the church members served a meal to the family of their old preacher, whom they barely remembered.  I lingered to eat and chat in spite of the sermon for Sunday that still lay unfinished in a messy pile on my desk.

Anxious to leave, I crouched next to the chair of the old widow, in a gesture of respect for her loss, and squeezed her hand before saying a few words of goodbye.  She turned and said something that got lost in the din of conversations echoing against the cinder blocks of the church’s fellowship hall.  So I leaned in to listen.  What I expected were words of gratitude for the kindness shown, words of apology for pulling me away from my family on a warm, sunny, Saturday afternoon, or words of explanation as to why I had yet to receive a check.  The widow leaned in too, her finger raised. Her eyes clearly fixed on my own.

“Next time,” she said, “you memorize that benediction.”

 

 

Stuck in Sheol, the Place of the Dead

fear_of_drowning_by_starfishyy-d5cqnvkTwo Sundays ago we had fifty-five students come over to our college’s Presbyterian House for our first program of the year.  It was great.  We made ice cream sundaes, sat around in the grass, and listened to live music. After a little while, I led a brief devotion.  To match the casual tone of the evening, I wanted our devotion to be somewhat interactive and extemporaneous.  I had a scripture story in mind, but I didn’t plan out exactly what I was going to say.  It went pretty well, I noticed the students were with me, paying attention, until the end, when I just sort of lost my train of thought and rambled on for a little while…about, basically, nothing.  It wasn’t my best.  This was confirmed for me when I got home and asked my honest husband how I did.  “It was good,” he said, “but you were kind of repetitive and rambly.”  Sigh. (He might have said this more gently, but all I heard was repetitive and rambly.)

This really got me down.  I was disappointed in myself, disappointed in what I saw was a missed opportunity to speak meaningful words into the lives of so many college students.  Repetitive and rambly….great….college students love repetitive and rambly.  Way to go, Teri.  For the rest of the night on Sunday and all the next Monday, I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of disappointment.  I obsessively replayed the devotion in my head thinking of all the brilliant things I could have and should have said.  I kept wallowing in this failure to do my very best.  I got stuck in a bad place, a real funk.

I was still stuck in this bad place when I began to prepare for a sermon I was to preach on Psalm 139.  But as I began to read the psalmists words I was comforted to recognize myself; I recognized the highs and the lows of human life, the mood swings, and the dark places. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” He asks because he’s been swinging to the highest of the heavens and then falling to the depths of Sheol…he’s taken flight to bright sunny places of light….and then fallen into the darkness which covers him like the night.  See?  I’m not the only crazy one.  The psalmist’s a manic depressive too!

Seriously, though, this is really us, isn’t it?  The psalmists always do a great job of shedding light on the human condition.  What really bothered me, though, was how stuck I could get in that bad, funky place (I’ll refer to it as my place of Sheol) and how hard it is for me to get out.  Sheol for the ancient Jews was the place of the dead.  It was where everyone went when they died, a good metaphor, then, for my dark mood because I don’t know life when I am in that place.

When I was a teenager my parents took my brother and me on a big family vacation to Hawaii.  It was wonderful, except for one particular trip to the beach when we decided to go boogie-boarding on some of the island’s big waves.  The waves were huge and powerful.  I had no idea how powerful, actually, until I was in the midst of them.  Then, somehow (I don’t remember how it happened) I was under them…underwater….under the waves….underneath this huge powerful force pushing me down deeper and deeper until I felt the sand at the bottom of the ocean.  I remember the sand.  I remember trying to push off the sand.  I remember trying to lift myself up off the ocean floor, trying to swim up so I could breathe, but the waves were simply too powerful. I thought I was dying.  But, eventually, the waves receded, the weight let up, and I was able to get my head up out of the water.  Oxygen filled my empty lungs.  It was like I was released, or set free.

Being crushed underneath the weight of those waves, being stuck there on the bottom of the ocean in that place of darkness, and death, the lack of oxygen, all of it was Sheol.  This is what Sheol still feels like for me. It pushes me down and keeps me down and cuts me off from life.

The good news of Psalm 139, though, is that God is everywhere, even in Sheol. We cannot flee, or fly, or wander, or cut and run.  God knows us, intuits our every move, pursues us no matter where we go. God is everywhere we are.  But we forget this.  (Or at least I do.)  I doubt it because it feels dubious.  God doesn’t always feel so close.

God didn’t feel close when I was in that dark mood last Monday…until I opened the scriptures and started contemplating what I might say in my sermon on Psalm 139.  I was drawn to verse 8, curious to learn more about Sheol.  Learning led to recognition.  Recognition led to insight.  Insight led to intention.  And I went and sat on my meditation mat to remember what it felt like to be in the presence of God.

And afterwards, I wasn’t so dark and funky.  My gosh, I thought, there were fifty-five students at the Presbyterian House that night, and I’m feeling disappointed?  We had a great time!  I met great students.  We had international students, and athletes, and musicians. Our neighbors, the AXD’s, came over and brought more tables and chairs.  We ran out of spoons and laughed about Taylor’s fear that the real ones might get thrown away. We shared with each other and opened up about the stress we were feeling here at the beginning of the year.  Yeah, I might have been a little repetitive and rambly.  But, seriously, signs of life were all around me!

So I’m not one of those Christians who believes God magically fixes stuff.  There’s too much complicated crap happening in the world today that could use a good magic fix if that was God’s modus operandi.  Instead, God, for me, is more of a liberating force, a presence that when I stop and intentionally seek God out, I am set free from a lot that is troubling me, I am made aware once again of the life and the beauty and the goodness that surrounds me, and I am awakened to my own best self.  I may at times make my bed in Sheol, but I am not stuck because God is there, too.