Joy & Grief in the Wilderness

My congregation is in the midst of rebirth. Well, death and rebirth would be more accurate. This Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter), we’re taking bold steps spiritually and physically: we’re fasting from our Sunday morning worship practice, and we’re remodeling the sanctuary and gathering space. Fasting from our usual Sunday morning worship means that we’re not having worship until Easter, and everyone has been encouraged to worship in other places (and other ways) as a way of stepping out of our familiar comfort zone in pursuit of new life for our congregation. Since we’re not meeting on Sunday mornings, we’re having biweekly communion services on Wednesday evenings.

Last night, 20 members of my congregation gathered for the first Lenten communion service. Two weeks into our Lenten fast, I asked folks to share their experience so far. There was much joy named (including appreciation for our Sunday worship experience renewed by experiencing a different one, companionship in being visitors together, worship in other forms: a walk in the woods, a drive through the country, dinner with friends, and in a much-needed restful sabbath morning in bed). I was certainly grateful to hear joy expressed, as I expected that this first two weeks of our six-week fast would be the most challenging. I was inspired at the faithful exploration my congregation members have chosen while in the wilderness of Lent. I felt joy at the fact that we, as a congregation, are taking vulnerable steps into the wilderness and actively opening ourselves to God. I am excited that new life is emerging––in our space, in our congregation, and in each of us.

Alongside the joy, there was significant grief named (and unnamed) in the space, too. I was relieved to hear it emerge in the honest sharing of one of our eldest members:

Last Sunday, I went to visit [a traditional church service like ours]. I enjoyed the service; it felt like home with the the pews, the organ, the traditional liturgy. The preacher even preached about my favorite scripture! But then, as I left, I felt sad, like I was leaving a funeral calling for a friend.

She was naming a deep truth of her (and the rest of our) experience: there is a death happening in our congregation. A few weeks ago, we celebrated communion for the last time in the arrangement that has been familiar for 60 years in our congregation.  We could begin to feel the death happening. Then a beloved congregation member died, and the following Sunday, even though we didn’t have our usual morning worship in the sanctuary, that afternoon’s funeral became the last worship service in the sanctuary before the renovation. The death felt a little more real as I stood in the pulpit for the last time. Then, as work began, the carpet was removed from the platform up front, and the lectern and pulpit were removed. The death was becoming more real by the day. This week, the pews were carried away, and the sanctuary is bare. The death feels more final than ever before.

Our wise elder reminded us that underneath the joy of our scurrying, remodeling, and exploring, there is also the loss of the old passing away in our congregation. And alongside the joy of new things emerging, the sadness and fear of loss are just as real. We often consider them mutually exclusive, but joy and grief coexist. Sadness isn’t a sign of a problem, it’s a sign of loss. Faithfulness is acknowledging grief, accepting it, and being patiently open to healing.

We all are living with grief at some level, because loss is inevitable. Grief is the flip side of love: if I love something, I feel sadness when I lose it. The more I loved, the more painful the loss. The deeper the connection––to a person, to a community, to a space, to a habit, to a pattern of life––the bigger the hole in my soul, and the more painful the loss. In my experience, our cultural norms usually ask us to deny grief, either by ignoring it altogether (messages like: chin up, don’t let it get you down, push through it; swallowing tears…) or rushing through it (assuming that after something we call ‘closure’ happens, grief is over). We learn to be embarrassed by crying, to apologize for feeling deeply enough that it spills out in tears.

I dream of our community living by different expectations about grief (and other painful emotions!): honesty and acceptance. We practiced a little of it last night, and it was beautiful. Loss was acknowledged and accepted, love was offered in response, and the Divine Presence was incarnate in the hands held and hugs shared.

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Ash Wednesday 2013

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

To be called ‘dirt’ is a pretty rough insult. It carries connotations of sleaze.  Being dust is dirty, and dirty is shameful, because ‘you should be clean,’ says the voice inside. The little boy who is in trouble because his clothes got dirty becomes the man who feels shame because he’s not perfect. Because he’s dusty and dirty from the journey.

There’s an aspect of repentance to Ash Wednesday that gets wrapped up in that aspect of the ‘dirt’ image. I’ve spent many years avoiding the shame of Ash Wednesday, of confession and repentance––”I’m not dirt! Those other people are, but I’m good. I’m clean.” And then I spent many years relishing it––”I’m dirt. I’m ugly, dirty, messed up.” It was all about shame.

But tonight, as I smeared dirt on the foreheads of my congregation, I experienced those words differently: you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Yes, there’s the scolding side of those words. The loving slap-in-the-face Get over yourself! moment that resets perspective. God putting Job in his place with the speech that begins (Job 38:4-5 in the Message translation),

Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that! …

It’s the loving scolding of the One who sees me with true clarity and knows my need for an ego reset. It’s the moment in the old movie Airplane when the hysterical passenger is ‘aided’ by the fight attendant’s shoulder-shaking & slap across the face. “Get ahold of yourself!” I’m forced awake from my hysterical messiah complex. I am not the savior of the world. I’m not the savior of my church. I’m not the savior of my family. I’m not the savior of myself. It’s a message that can hurt, but it’s also a message that saves me from my own self-destructive frantic scurrying. It’s Good News.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

There’s another side to these words that’s even better news. As I’m awoken from my own messiah complex, I’m reminded, as was Job, that there is a Messiah. I am dust, and to dust I shall return, but there’s life abundant all around me, and I had nothing to do with its genesis. God is a Creator who makes life like me out of dirt, and my eventual return to the dirt, the ground, the humus, makes me human. And that’s all I’m asked to be. God isn’t telling me I should be figuring everything out. God isn’t demanding that I get it all together. God isn’t calling me to fix my self, my family, or my church. All those demands are coming from me. God is reminding me to be human, to be the dust from which I was made and to which I will return. God is calling me dirt, and it’s a loving reminder that sounds more like It’s okay, I’ve got this. You just be you. Dust. Humus. Human.

I hear loving encouragement tonight: The gracious giver of life who turns dust into me will also turn the dust of my congregation into a vibrant community. The longsuffering God of Job and of Israel and of Peter and of the messed-up Church looks with smiling eyes into mine, grips my shoulders with gentle, firm hands, and reminds me that I am already all that God needs in this partnership. I don’t need to try to do both parts. Just show up and be me. That’s what the dirt smeared on my forehead reminds me.

“I am the Bread of Life…”

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (Jn 6:26-27; NRSV)

I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. (Jn 6:35; Message)

As I ponder the sixth chapter of John, I hear Jesus inviting the crowd and us beyond our me-centered, consumer-minded approach to spiritual life toward the abundant life of seeking to become part of what God is about in the ongoing story of creation and redemption.

After Jesus feeds the huge crowd with just five dinner rolls and a couple of fish, he and the disciples move on during the night. The crowd tracks him down the next day, and he speaks some truth to them: You’re interested in me because of what I give you. But there’s so much more to the spiritual life than being fed.

It’s not a verse I’ve taken notice of before, but it catches my attention today. I see in the mirror that I engage in church life saying, “Feed me!” I see church (and by extension, God) through the lens of what it offers, a lot like I do a store or a plumber or a restaurant. I’ve come to see the spiritual journey as chasing God around with my hands out like Oliver Twist pleading, “Please, sir, can I have some more?” I judge the church (and by extension, God) by how well it meets my needs, how well it matches my preferences, how successfully it makes me comfortable.

In a consumer setting, this is rational. But Jesus is challenging the crowd to see beyond their consumer assumptions about what it’s all about. Sure, he says, I’ll feed you. I’m the ultimate food. But there’s more to it! I like the Message translation of verse 35: the Greek words translated “come to me” and “believe in me” get wrapped together in “align with me.”

This is a different lens from the consumerism lens that’s usually in front of our eyes. Instead of Jesus the market barker trying to get us to buy his bread, I hear Jesus the wilderness guide beckoning, Come with me. Follow me.

It’s not about receiving a product. It’s about aligning myself with something much larger than myself. It’s about offering myself as a cell of yeast in the loaf of God’s ongoing creation. It’s about allowing myself to be folded into the cosmic work of redemption and reconciliation.  Do you want to be fed? asks Jesus. Then become part of me, for I am the Bread of Life.

As we look ahead to the Lenten journey, I feel some fear, some vulnerability, some anxiety that has me wanting to focus on getting fed. Then I hear Jesus reminding me that I will be fed; I am freed from worrying about how I will find food. I am freed from shopping for fulfillment at the lowest price possible. I am freed to align myself with him in his work of redeeming the broken and reconciling the world to himself.

Here’s my prayer: Baker God, give me the courage to trust your provision and shift my focus to being folded into the Bread of Life, that others might be fed through me.