Saturday, October 31, 2009

For All the Saints . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

Tomorrow is All Saints' Day. Lots of folks at the church have been planning our services for a couple of months now. It has become a special tradition at Lester Memorial UMC, as it has at many United Methodist Churches, a day on which we celebrate the communion of saints, and in particular, those who have died since last All Saints' Day. Our church has suffered more than our share of loss this year. Twenty one members died in a church that averages 300 or so in worship each week.

Lester Memorial has been for me what Paul so eloquently described in Hebrews 12:1:

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

For a long time I identified this verse with the living congregation at my church. I still do. But the truth is that great cloud of witnesses includes those saints who have moved on from this world. In fact, that is exactly what Paul was talking about. In Chapter 11 of Hebrews he recounts the heroics of many Hebrew Scripture figures, all of whom answered their Godly calling, and yet Paul makes this observation in the last verse of that chapter:

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

One pastor I know often pauses during communion liturgy when he is offering the invitation to the Lord's table. He describes a table that is set for us in this moment, but that also extends backward in time for all who have come before and forward into the future for all who will be, all feasting together at the Lord's table, miraculously at the same time, or perhaps, miraculously outside the bounds and bonds of time altogether.

Such a great cloud of witnesses. There are the famous ones . . . Augustine, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Bonhoeffer, Wesley, Nouwen. I am sure you have your own list of those well recognized heroes and heroines of the faith whose lives and perhaps writings have informed and inspired you.

But just as we all have our own list of famous saints, we each have our own list of unknown saints, at least unknown to the rest of the world. Some helped us with their wisdom, some nurtured us in our childhood, some inspired us with their art and creativity or perhaps their angelic voices, some warmed our hearts with their courage, encouragement and smiles, some taught us the strength of humility, some simply taught us, some helped us grow by taking us into uncomfortable places, and some simply loved us and lived with us.

Those saints that have gone before, famous or not, are a light to us, a light that is not extinguished by death. They no longer walk this earthly journey with us, but their light still burns brightly from the trail behind, illuminating the way ahead. They have not been on the part of the road that we are on now, no one ever has. It is new territory.

But thank God,

there is light.

The journey is now ours to take. Sometimes in our need to stand tall, all we do is cast a larger shadow. May God give us the wisdom to occasionally get out of the way and let the light of the Saints of the past shine clearly onto the path of the future.

Until hopefully, we will also be blessed to shine the light.

Thanks be to God . . .for all the Saints.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

The gospel according to John . . .Cougar

Saturday morning. Sofa. Coffee.

There's a little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growing up in the heartland. You've probably heard the 1982 John Cougar smash hit (some of you probably can sing it all, along with clapping rhythm and a capella chorus) but if you haven't, the chorus begins with the line "oh yeah, life goes on . . ."

Whether I am with a bunch of folks or singing all alone, the line is sung defiantly, almost triumphantly.

And life does go on. A blessing and a curse.

I think that the line should be re-written to say "oh yeah, my life goes on," or "oh yeah, our lives go on." Because while the flowing river of life carries most of us along to the sea, there are those who get caught up in the eddies, the whirlpool traps that go round and round in circles (a Billy Preston song from the seventies, but just a coincidence), or stuck in those stagnant pools close to the shore behind logs and stones where mosquitoes breed, where no current is present to pull them out of the quagmire.

A number of friends and friends of friends have suffered tragedy in the past year. I have been a part of the crowd of support for some of them in their time of immediate crisis or loss. I have also been a part of the crowd that moved on with our lives, more times than not leaving my hurt and injured friends stuck in the eddies and stagnant pools.

Being able to move on is a blessing. We could not survive without it. No matter what great tragedy or grief has struck today, tomorrow still requires food and water and the stuff of life.

But with that blessing comes a curse. The curse of becoming blind to those left behind, to those for whom life is not moving on, to those the current does not reach or whose heavy burden locks down like an anchor and chain.

Last week a bunch of Lesterines* went back to New Orleans to work on houses. Yes, there are a few houses that are still not repaired. Somewhere between a thousand and a million. The house that the Lesterines worked on belongs to an 84 year old woman who works every day in a nearby elementary school and presently lives in a FEMA trailer behind her house where she has resided for fifty or so years.

Four years. This dear, strong, smart eighty something year old American citizen has been waiting four years to get back into the house where she and her husband raised twelve children. She is still raising one grandson. In a FEMA trailer.

Our national life moved on. The news crews speed ahead on the river of life racing to stay ahead of us and each other, creating a cruelly short news cycle. Those eddies and stagnant pools on the sides of the river become an insignificant blur from their vantage point. Human tragedy is only interesting when it is fresh.

If only tragedy were so short-lived.

In today's world the temptation would be to dredge and channel the river. Straighten the curves and remove the logs and rocks. That way no one would ever get caught in the eddies and stagnant pools. We would all be flushed to the sea at an efficient speed.

But it is necessary for the hurt and injured to stop and repair. The current of life is too strong to allow healing of wounds.

There really is only one good answer.

Sometimes those of us in the mainstream must paddle over to the eddies, even though it may be a little dizzying and a little dangerous. We must wade into the stagnant pools, though it may be murky, smelly, and expose us to things we want to avoid.

Sometimes we must voluntarily join those that have been left behind in the places that hold and harbor them in hopes that one day they will be able to return to the center of the river where the current is strong and life moves on. We must offer our encouragement and support, praying for the wisdom to know when it is time to help them test the deeper waters.

I never really liked the next line of John Cougar's song:

"Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone."

The river ride can get pretty boring out in the main channel through the deep waters, safe from rocks and rapids.

The thrilling river ride is through the rocks where whitewater sprays and whirlpools grab hold.

But to get there is risky. You gotta occasionally get out of the mainstream.

And head to the edge.

"So let it rock, and let it roll . . ."

* work team from Lester Memorial UMC, downtown Oneonta, Alabama, a fresh breath of air.

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