Holy Week

This is a palm leaf paper collage I created last year.
This is a palm leaf paper collage I created last year.

I’ve decided to cancel Lent next year. I’m pretty sure, as a (still) ordained part-time Mennonite pastor, I have that kind of power. I mean, I have a card in my wallet signed by the conference minister. So be looking for the headlines: No Lent Next Year.

Last year a dear church member and friend went into the hospital on Good Friday. It was the beginning of her final round with cancer. Before worship on Easter morning several of us sang and read scripture with her in her hospital room.

This year, it was during Lent when my dad went into the hospital. A week and a half after my mom had smeared ashes on his forehead and told him: “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” We buried his ashes last week.

I’m done with Lent. I am going to close my eyes and hold on tight and just ride out this last heavy surge of darkness until I can open my eyes on Easter morning to a shining sun and singing birds–to light and life and no more Lent. (Ever. Because I’m cancelling it next year, remember.)

Of course, Lola will still not be here to sing Praise God from Whom with us as our Easter benediction. My dad will still not call me on the phone later that day to say “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” when KU wins their game. (Just let me live my fantasy for now.)

But still, I want Easter. I want it desperately. I want the flowers and the music and the stories and The Story. And, yes, the chocolate.

In the meantime, I keep breathing.

[You can read some thought-provoking monologues from characters inhabiting the stories of this Holy Week over on our church blog. I commend them to you.]

On Living Close to Death

“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.

– – – – – –

*This reflection is excerpted from the sermon I preached on John 12:1-11 last Sunday–the Sunday following my father’s funeral. Afterwards, the worship leader said that the whole sermon felt like a poem (which may be the best sermon compliment I’ve ever received). So I decided to pare it down and form it into a pseudo-poem for this space.

A Few Thoughts on All Souls Day

I had a lot of fun trick-or-treating with Grace downtown on Halloween. We were harmless aliens. Nothing scary.

But there were plenty of fierce werewolves and bloody vampires and creepy ghosts wandering around. Plenty of costumes to remind me that Halloween is not really about candy; it’s about death–it’s particularly about our fear of death.

In many ways, watching horror movies and dressing up as frightening creatures is a way that we confront our fears. By placing ourselves in the story–even in these imaginary ways–we hope to gain some control over these forces of death that are really uncontrollable.

I know not all Christians choose to celebrate Halloween, but I believe it can be a fun celebration. (Who doesn’t love dressing up and getting free candy?) But as Christians, we do not try to fight death with death. We do not meet violence with violence. We do not try to overcome our fear of the uncontrollable forces of destruction by participating in the broad story of death.

As Christians, we may enjoy the Halloween festivities, but we truly celebrate the next two days–All Saints and All Souls. We may enjoy the pageantry and the candy, but we live into the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we do not face our fear of death by participating in the death story; we face our fear of death by participating in the Jesus story. In the story of a God who loves us deeply–so deeply that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In the story of how Jesus overcame the forces of death and violence through the power of the resurrection.

As Christians, we participate in a counter-story. A life-giving story. We seek to live our lives within the power of Christ’s life. And we seek to understand death in the context of the broader story, the bigger story, of eternal life in Christ.

I encourage you to take some time on this All Soul’s day to honor those you love who have lived and died in the reality of God’s Divine Life. Say a prayer. Light a candle. Tell a story. Type their names into the comments section below. And give thanks that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In memory of Lola Lohrentz. Lover. Laugher. Worker. Quilter. Saint of the church.

Wednesday Worship Piece: Isaiah 25:6-9

This Sunday we are observing All Saints’ Day. This call to worship is inspired by the lectionary reading for the day from Isaiah 25:6-9. (Leader reads plain text, people read bold.)

Hurricanes and floods and environmental havoc;
drones and IEDs and handguns;
cancer and heart disease and bodies shutting down;
poverty and injustice and oppression.
The ways of death in this world are many.
The words of death surround us.
The fear of death envelopes us.
But we come now to hear a different Word,
a true Word
a life-giving Word.
We are here on Isaiah’s mountain
where tears are wiped away,
where a banquet table has been set,
where death has been swallowed up forever.
We do not fully understand it.
We may not fully believe it.
And yet here it is:
the power of Christ’s life within us and among us.
So let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation!

 And here is a link to an edited version of  Hebrews 11:1-12:2, put into a format for three readers. It’s not lectionary, but it fits nicely with All Saints. (Though some of these guys –and Rahab–aren’t exactly saintly.)

*As always, you are welcome to use this material in your own worship context. Acknowledgment is appreciated.

Life as Gift

(Here is the reflection I shared during worship on New Year’s Day, 2012 )
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11-14a

It’s probably not surprising that I’ve been thinking about gifts this holiday season. Of course, I’ve been considering what gifts to give others and I’ve been enjoying the gifts others have given me. And as one year ends and another begins, I’ve been thinking about what it means to accept my life as a gift from God.

I’ll be honest with you–my life is not exactly the way I want it to be. I wrote this reflection on Christmas Eve, feeling sick, having too much to do to be ready for church and family Christmas celebrations after a week of kids missing school with fevers and coughing. Like everyone, I have rough spots in my life. Times of illness and stress and just plain grumpiness. Times it is difficult to accept life as the gift that it is.

I imagine Mary had one of those times when she found out about the census. Can you imagine? Nearly 9 months pregnant and she’s expected to travel to Bethlehem? Walking and riding the donkey; walking and riding the donkey. And then not even a comfortable bed at the end of the journey. What must Mary have been thinking when the contractions started there in the stable? As she paced the straw-strewn floor, stepping over piles of dung and around various animals? Was she thinking about how life is a gift from God?

It’s difficult to keep in mind the holiness of life, the fact of life as a gift, when we are having a bad day; when our plans crumble; when our bodies ache, our computer breaks, the weather does not cooperate.

And beyond having bad days, many of us face deep disappointments about the reality of our lives. Some people desperately want children, but cannot have them. Some people have struggles with their children that they never imagined–they feel they are unable to be the parents they want to be or to have the family life they had hoped for. Some people feel they married the wrong person, chose the wrong career path. Some people fall into addiction. Nearly all of us struggle to get our lives in line with our values.

I’m sure Mary and Joseph had imagined their lives quite differently. Sure, giving birth in a stable was inconvenient, but the pregnancy itself was the real issue. What would this pregnancy and birth mean for their life together, for their standing in the community? This was not the life Mary or Joseph had planned.

Yet life is a gift from God. That’s what I’ve been thinking about during this season of giving; amidst the Christmas gifts and the magi bearing their treasures. That this life that I am living is a gift; it is a treasure.

That doesn’t always feel true. But it is true. And the beginning of the year seems like a good time to think about this truth.

I’m not talking about being thankful despite your bad days and disappointments. We can always find someone worse off than we are. We can always find something that is good in the midst of our messy lives. And those are good practices–to gain some perspective, not focus on the negative.

This morning, though, I’m talking about something different. I’m talking about receiving your life–all of your life–as a gift from God. The joys and disappointments. The parts that turn out the way you want and the parts that don’t. For God has made everything beautiful in its time. Amen.

Wednesday Worship Pieces: Epiphany 6A

This morning I have a call to worship and prayer of confession based primarily on Deuteronomy 30:19-20. For those of you planning for worship, I pray a fruitful, spirit-filled preparation.

Call to Worship

God has set before us life and death.
We long to choose life.

God has set before us blessings and curses.
We long to choose blessings.
So we gather this morning around the table–Christ’s table.
We gather to drink the cup of blessing; to eat the bread of life.
Let us share the meal together. Let us feast on the Word.
Let us worship God with joy!


Prayer of Confession

Gracious and Holy God,
For those times we have chosen death over life for ourselves,
Forgive us. [Silence]
For those times we have chosen death over life for others,
Forgive us. [Silence]
For those times we have chosen not to receive your blessings,
Forgive us. [Silence]
For those times we have prevented others from receiving your blessings,
Forgive us. [Silence]
For each time we have made the easy choice of law over the hard choice of love,
Forgive us. [Silence]
O God of mercy,
Hear our prayers. [Silence]


Pre-Sermon Ponderings: On Being Pro-Life

I have long loved this week’s Old Testament lectionary text, Deuteronomy 30:15-20. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

These words are dear to my spirit . . . “choose life.” Yet as I read the passage this time around, I realize that the choice laid out is not nearly as simple as it seems.

I blame this uncomfortable realization on the juxtaposition of this Deuteronomy text with the Sermon on the Mount segment from Matthew 5:21-37. You know, all of that, “You have heard that it was said . . . but now I say to you.”

Distinguishing life from death should be easy. But it’s not. Moving away from curse and into blessing should be our natural tendency. But it’s not.

It strikes me that, in the Garden of Eden, what the serpent really did was to confuse Eve. He did not convince her to consciously choose death over life. He tricked her into thinking that disobeying God would give her more abundant life. Eve did not choose to be cursed with shame, with pain in childbirth. The serpent spoke only of the blessing that would come from eating the fruit.

“Choose life.” It sounds easy enough. But we live in a world where there are serpents behind every tree, trying to sell us products, philosophies, political agendas, lifestyles that they say will lead us toward life. So we buy the new car, vote the party line, attend the self-help seminars. And then the serpent slithers away and we look around to find we have been moving in the wrong direction. Or maybe just walking in circles.

“Choose life.” Interesting that this biblical phrase contains the key words for “opposing” sides in the abortion debate. I got a phone call once from an abortion rights organization. I think the caller sensed some hesitancy in my voice and she finally said, “You are pro-choice, aren’t you?”

“Well,” I said, “politically, yes.” What I didn’t tell her is that outside the realm of political-speak, I am most definitely pro-life. What I want to do is choose life. I want to choose life for myself. I want to work with God to create a world where each person is able to choose life. Life for infants. Life for prisoners. Life for soldiers. Life for creation.

Yahewh says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” Jesus says, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

The line between life and death, between yes and no, is often fuzzy for me. But God’s words in Deuteronomy, Jesus’ words in the Sermon, begin to illuminate a path.

I’m thinking now of the Taize song: “Bless the Lord, my soul. And bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord my soul, who leads me into life.”

May it be so.