Saturday, April 28, 2012

Gladness for Sorrow

I’m late again today, sorry about that.  Today is La Donna’s Dad’s birthday, so we got up this morning earlier than some of us really wanted to on a Saturday and drove the nearly two hours to Crumstown Cemetery.  It was gray and rainy as we drove, sleeting part of the time, or rain with chunks in it, as La Donna says.  We didn’t say a lot as we drove, but I know all of us were praying that the rain would let up before we got there.  And it did.  The wind still whipped across the little open ground cemetery, making us wish we had reclaimed the winter coats, but at least it was dry.

We had the little vault that would hold his ashes, but were also searching for La Donna’s mom’s ashes which were just in the black box and buried there almost six years ago.  We wanted to put them together in the same vault and then re-bury it all together there in front of the stone that had been newly carved with Don’s date of death.  La Donna’s brother dug in the rocky ground and we tried to remember how far down the first box was placed.  After a couple of attempts and nearly giving up and burying them separately, we found her, a little deeper than we remembered, a little closer to the headstone than we thought.  But we put them together and squeezed the little tube of epoxy that the funeral home gave us to seal the vault and then set it in the hole.

Shivering we pushed the dirt over the top and then relaid the sod, stomping it down as best we could.  When it was done we stood, shivering in the wind for a moment, unsure what to say or do next.  Until La Donna, ever the practical one, looked at me and said “Well, say a prayer and let’s get in the cars where it is warm.”

We all laughed at that, and I obediently prayed.  With tears in our eyes from the cold air and the months old grief, we said goodbye on a gray and windy day.  We hustled to our cars, shrugged into our inadequate coats, ready for warmth and another drive home.  But, we lingered, as though unwilling to release the moment.  We stood on the grassy gravel of the drive and talked about our lives since last we were together.  La Donna had some business with her brother, farm business.  I watched her walk over to his truck with papers in hand.  Things have not been good between them since their father died.  Differences of opinion on how to proceed, how to honor the past and prepare for the future.  Anger and hurt, threats even, it is sad.  It happens in families, I must have seen it a thousand times, but it is hard to watch from this vantage point. 

I don’t know what the business was, or what they needed to talk about, but I watched them every moment, in case.  In case of what, I don’t know, but just in case.  After a few moment, I saw her laugh at something.  It seemed genuine and true, as if the clouds had parted for a moment and the sun peeked through.  I relaxed, just a little bit.

Jeremiah had a tough job.  It was a cold and windy period in the history of God’s people.  There were enemies without and disagreements within.  And, as is so often the case when the prophets were called to speak, the people seemed to have forgotten who they were. 

Or maybe not who they were, but whose they were.  They had released their grip on the vision that had brought them through a wilderness, they had settled back from the hard work of living in the community that had given them an identity.  They abandoned the law that was handed them and chose to live by the law of convenience or circumstance, the law of every man for himself, the law of expediency and profit, of power and getting even.  The law that felt good when feelings were raw.

So, Jeremiah was charged with poking them in those raw feelings, correcting them when they didn’t feel like they were doing anything wrong, or not doing anything that anybody else wasn’t doing.  He had to point out their flawed logic, their self-centered motives.  He had to remind them of their failings as members of a covenant community.

Worse than that, he had to point out the consequences.  You keep doing that, he would say sounding a lot like their mothers, then here’s what is going to happen.  The rot at the center of their thinking would take them over, eating away at them until they were nothing but shells, empty and hurting and not understanding why.  They would turn on each other, eating away at whatever dignity they thought they could cling to. 

Who would want to listen to that?  He was hated, to put it mildly.  Tossed in prison, thrown in pits, ignored by most, jeered at by others.  His name has become descriptive of a rant of negativity - a jeremiad is “a woeful, wrathful bad-news bearing message or messenger,” says one commentator

Hardly a source for a sermon series titled “Laugh Out Loud,” the Aldersgate folks are thinking by now.  At least I hope they are thinking that.  But actually it makes perfect sense to get a hopeful, joy-filled message from Jeremiah, if you know where to look.  If you are reading through the bible this year with us, then your Fridays are filled with dour messages from Jeremiah.  But hold on, we are almost there.  And where is there?  To the “Little Book of Consolation” as it is called.  Chapters 30 through 33 in Jeremiah take on a completely different tone from the rest of the book.  It is as if God knew that Jeremiah was wearing out and needed a respite, or the people were languishing under the bad news and needed to hear something else, so these chapters were tucked in here as an oasis to keep us going in the dry and thirsty desert.  Our reading for this week comes from that little book of consolation and sounds just the right note.  Take a look:

Jeremiah 31:10-13  Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."  11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.  12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.  13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

“I will give them gladness for sorrow.”  Gladness isn’t just relief, isn’t just a grim smile in a difficult moment.  Gladness is about joy abounding.  In the bible, the word gladness is usually used to talk about weddings.  And for the people of Israel, there was no better party than a wedding party.  Gladness appears seven times in the book of Jeremiah, and four of them are about the end of gladness.  It is taken away, it is ended, it is no more, because of the hard-headedness of the people.  But three times (all of them in the little book of consolation) is it a promise and a hope. 

The sweetest joy comes in the midst of sorrow.  The deepest laughter comes bordered by tears.  Or perhaps the most healing laughter, the most transforming joy comes in the midst of struggle and brokenness.  A worship series about laughter is not about ignoring the realities of a world of hurt and suffering.  It is about acknowledging hope in the midst of a darkest of days.  It is about trusting with more than resignation and the burden of slogging our way through our own lives, but with the lightness of heart that allows there to be laughter in the cemetery. 

I will give them gladness for sorrow.  It is a promise we can live with.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Restoration Comedy

Every now and then all those classes in Theatre History come in handy. I was reading our scripture for this week and a term from one of those classes just jumped out at me: Restoration Comedy. Oh yeah, you are saying with skepticism clouding your eyes, I remember not reading a single thing about that!

Or, maybe you did. I can’t be the only one who spent hours of an undergraduate degree program studying things of dubious usefulness for most of life. Can I? Never mind, I don’t think I want to know.

Restoration Comedy, also called Comedy of Manners, was a late 17th and early 18th Century theatrical style that was all the rage among the classes in England and the Continent. Part of the reason for its popularity is that it made fun of the aristocracy. The lower classes loved seeing those with power being made to look like fools. And those in power enjoyed seeing their colleagues taken down a peg, secure in the knowledge that the object of the joke was that other guy and not them! But in fact, while the antics of the upper crust was the context of the comedy, it was never designed to question the status quo and seen by many historians as shoring up the class system in the minds and hearts of the whole of society.

Yet, boundaries were pushed. Another significant milestone of Restoration Comedy was the advent of women! Oh, wait, women had, of course, been around before this period of history. But this is the first time in modern history when women acted on the stage in any significant numbers. In the Elizabethan period all the female parts were played by young boys, because ... well, because. Let’s just leave it at that.

Not only on stage, however, but the first women playwright appeared writing Restoration Comedy. And a good thing too, because the subject matter was, well, let’s just say a little more palatable when presented between men and woman. Ribaldry, that was the term that fit, risque humor, flirtations and innuendo. What was once taboo was now subject for public humor, not explicit by today’s standards, but earthy, human, real life men and women, relationships and misunderstandings, longing and desire, failure and success, hope and disappointment, anything and everything played out on the stage of human experience, and played for laughs.

That’s how they got away with it, you know. Because it was comedy, no one thought to take it seriously. No one thought that humor could change reality from an oppressive social system into something more, something different. And yet, changes were afoot.

Psalm 126:1-6 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them." 3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. 4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. 5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. 6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Some of the most significant Psalms are some of the shortest one. Like Psalm 23, this one is only six verses long. And yet it points to a deep reality. Wait, you are thinking, “a deep reality”? OK, it is a nice psalm, even fun in a way, laughter and shouts of joy, great, good. But deep? It isn’t even the end of tears and proclamation of heaven, because the last couple of verses remind us that we are still in the midst of the struggle. Sowing in tears and go out weeping. It isn’t all good news, no rainbows and unicorns here. There is still the struggle of daily living. There is still the risk of loss, the futility of pouring out not knowing that your efforts will bring a return or not, there is still the recognition of the fragility of life and hope.

And you can’t help but feel lost in these six verses anyway. Is the bad time over? Have we returned home, are the dreams realized? If so then why is there a prayer for restoration halfway through? “When the Lord restored the fortunes ...” writes the psalmist only to turn around a few verses later and write “Restore our fortunes, O Lord!” Did it happen and we lost it? Or is the dream only a dream and we woke up and there wasn’t anything to laugh about, nothing to shout with joy for? Are we still waiting for the Lord to do great things for us? Or did it happen and we missed it somehow, we lost our grip on those great things and lost our grip on joy?

We want our fortunes restored. The recent mega-lottery storyline has us all thinking, boy, if that was me ... We are still convinced that if we only had a little more, were a little better off, all would be well. But maybe that is a misunderstanding of the psalmist’s idea of fortune. Maybe the call is for something else entirely. Not the material well-being provided by a good harvest, not the sheaves we would bring in when the weather conditions are ideal and the timing is perfect. Restore our fortunes, O Lord.

What was restored in the era of Restoration Comedy? The year 1660 is considered the beginning of this renaissance in British Theatre, and it was also not coincidentally the year the Puritan ban and subsequent closings of all the playhouses in the country. What was restored was the ability to laugh, to enjoy poking fun at the antics of human frailty and pretension. The joy of exposing human life at its most vulnerable, our creatureliness.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the seriousness of our situations, the struggle and brokenness, the slights real and imagined from those who seem to be our enemies, we are overwhelmed by the tears with which we sow that we can’t even imagine reaping, let alone shouting for joy as we do it.
Perhaps what we are begging for, praying for is the ability to laugh again, to hope again. Living as a person of hope and joy is a claiming a fortune no lottery can award.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord. Fill our mouths with laughter and our tongue with shouts (shouts, mind you, not chuckles under our breath, not grins behind our hands, but shouts) of joy.


Saturday, April 14, 2012


Eastertide. Old fashioned word about an ancient ordering of an outmoded schedule of a world that used to make sense. Eastertide. Not much place for it in our busy lives. Hey, we managed to squeeze in Lent, sort of, kind of, for a while anyway. It would be too much to expect to hold onto the mood, the emotion, the intensity now that the Alleluias have been sung. Heck, even in the ancient calendars the Sunday after Easter was called “Low Sunday.”

So, yeah. Eastertide. Big whoop. Let’s move on. Unless you take another look at the word. Eastertide. Easter. Can’t argue with that part. Everyone likes Easter. Better than that, everyone needs Easter. Sounds like spring, doesn’t it? Sunrise, green grass, flowering trees, warm breezes and invitations to embrace world waking up after a long winter’s nap. Easter: speaks of life and hope and joy. Resurrection, transformation, forgiveness, new start. Everyone needs a little Easter.

But it comes and goes. One day. A big day to be sure, but it is over before it has barely gotten started. You can’t help but feel a little let down. All that work, all those extra services, those extra songs, those extra words. Then it is gone. We climbed a mountain, but you can’t live on the mountaintop. Can you?

Can you? Tide. Eastertide. It comes rolling in, regular as clockwork, inevitable as sunrise. Slow, perhaps, almost unnoticeable, but persistent. The tide embraces the shore, the tide washes over all that had been left high and dry. What had been cracked and bare, bleached and sere, lifeless and strained, when the tide comes in is refreshed and renewed and sparkling with life.

Easter is not a brief moment in the light of the Risen Son. Or rather it is that, but it is not only that. There is Eastertide, it keeps rolling in and over, rushing into the dry places of our heads and hearts, enlivening our souls that have left high and dry by a too busy schedule and a mixed up set of priorities. It flows over us refreshing parched hopes, dampening burning resentments, immersing stinging wounds in the cleansing warmth of Eastertide.

Who says we don’t need Eastertide? Who says it is a worn out system made for a world that no longer exists? Not me. Not you, I hope. So, how are we going to splash around in this Eastertide?
OK, time to change the metaphor. What else washes over us like the tide rolling in? What else are we helpless to stop and yet grateful when it comes over us? Laughter. The best medicine. There is an ancient tradition that on Easter Sunday the priest would climb into the pulpit and tell jokes. No sermon that day, just jokes. It was a day for laughter. For losing control. For side-splitting, tears rolling down the cheeks, can’t hold it in a moment longer laughter.

So, I decided this Eastertide we would laugh together. I looked around and found some biblical references to laughter or fun and put them together so that for four weeks of Eastertide we can, perhaps, laugh together as we consider our faith.

We start with some verses from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and what seems to be a ludicrous idea. Take a look:

1 Corinthians 3:18-20, 4:10-13 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," 20 and again, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." ... Ch. 4 We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, 12 and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.

We are fools for the sake of Christ. I am in the midst of a conversation with a colleague who tells me I am missing the point of this passage. He argues that it isn’t about humor, about fun or even about foolishness. What it is really about, he tells me, is identification with the poor. Or better yet, recognition of the poor. He says the problem was that the church in Corinth was neglecting the poor, not even seeing them right in front of their faces. They were too full of themselves, too certain of their own worth and value and priority. Paul was trying to take them down a peg or two, trying to open their eyes to the real needs around them. Don’t make it all about you, Paul says to the church in Corinth, God’s glory just might be shining on the ones you least suspect. The “we” in Chapter four is not us, we’ve been left out, its them - the neglected, the broken, the hungry, the poor.

Though we’ve been arguing about this for about a month now, I think he is right. It is about seeing beyond our images of ourselves, our credentials, our “goodness” to acknowledge that some are being left out, not admitted to the table. And we are the gatekeepers keeping them out with our attitudes and our “holier than thou” tone of voice. It is about perspective, about opening eyes.

But I believe that Paul helps us into this mindset by issuing an invitation. Paul opens our eyes by clowning rather than by lecturing. He is applying a pin to the bubbles of our self-image. In the first Chapter of this letter, Paul says, consider your own call, you weren’t so hot. There’s nothing special about you. OK, I’m paraphrasing here. But he is trying to knock us down a peg or two. He is calling us fools. All of us are fools. How did Shakespeare put it? “All the men and women merely players, with their exits and entrances...” Merely players, fools acting a part. The question is can we embrace our foolness enough to build up the body, to welcome the outcast because she is just like you, to forgive the sinner because he is just like you?

It is an invitation, with whom do you want to align yourself? Those who hold themselves above, those who are more worried about power and position, about right and order, about strength and safety; or those who embrace the foolishness of life and live with the joy of Easter washing over them all the time. In other words, since you’re gonna be a fool either way, wouldn’t you rather be a fool for Christ’s sake than a fool for your own sake?


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Empty Enough to be Filled

The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming. The clouds are fluffy. And it is the weekend. A spring break weekend. Awesome. Right? Hard to imagine anything better, isn’t it? Hard to imagine needing anything else. It would just seem greedy to want more, to ask for or hope for more. Don’t you think? We are content, we are complete. We are all we need to be.

Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t I? I know you are beginning to feel set up already. It started so well with the sunshine reference, and now I’m backing you into a corner. OK, you’ll grudgingly admit, there is more to life than sunshine and flowers. Can’t think of what it is at the moment, but certainly there is.

Well, while we all ponder that a moment, let’s take a look at our reading for Easter Sunday. It is Mark’s turn this year. I love all the stories and the nuance they put to the description of the first Easter Sunday morning. They all tell it a little bit differently (or in John’s case, a lot differently, but never mind) but there are common themes. There are women on their way to the tomb, there is a startling announcement, there is an empty tomb, and there is a reaction that sets the stage for what comes next. Only Mark leaves us with a great big “huh?”

Mark 16:1-8 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

La Donna redid the chore charts for the kids today. They were less than thrilled, to say the least. But I suspect (I hope) that they will do the jobs that are on their list, eventually. Even if they do it with less than enthusiastic abandon.

We don’t know much about the mindset of the women who went to work that Easter Sunday morning. We don’t know if they went dragging their feet, or with a driving sense of duty, or with a passion to do this one more act of service for the one who had taught them about loving. We don’t know if they chatted with one another along the way or if silence had wrapped them up in clouds of separation and loneliness with each plodding step. At least until someone thought of the stone.

That’s something that occupies our thinking most of the time, even in difficult moments: obstacles. How can we do the task we are here to do? How can we continue on? Who is going to take care of the problems that we know are there? But give them credit, they didn’t turn back. They kept coming with doubt in their minds.

And then their minds were turned inside out. However many years of Easter celebrations have dulled our senses to the shock of this morning. Attempts to put ourselves in that place even through the most imaginative of exercises always will fall short. “Alarmed” hardly describes it, but it was the best that Mark could do. Luke says they were perplexed. Matthew says they ran away in fear and great joy.

Terror and amazement is how Mark concludes the story. Here is the bible study part of this reflection. The most authoritative manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end right here. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end. The verses that follow were added in later by a church uncomfortable with that original ending, or so say most scholars. We can’t end with silence. We can’t end with fear. We can’t end with nothing to anyone. We can’t end with emptiness.

Can we? Perhaps Mark’s message, perhaps the impression that he wants to leave us with is that there is nothing we can do to enhance this Easter act. This is not our proclamation, this is God’s. Our job is to be empty enough to be filled. Our job is to stop focusing on the barriers, the obstacles, the reasons why we can’t possibly be joy-filled and welcoming, why we can’t be loving and supportive, and let the resurrected Christ fill us up enough to actually live out our faith.

Sure it is easy to fill ourselves up. To occupy our thinking and our doing with stuff that while satisfying is not necessarily transforming. Or to fill ourselves up with things we think we ought to be doing but have no real passion for doing. When a life of fulfillment and significance awaits us. That’s the Easter promise, the resurrection possibility, that when we acknowledge our own emptiness there is more than enough joy to fill us up. There is life available, and no better place than to realize it than in a cemetery on Easter morning.

Christ is Risen. Alleluia.