Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Best Is Yet To Come

January 20, 2013

Texts: John 2:1-11

There I was at a high school National Honor Society banquet where I had been asked to give the invocation. After the dinner and before presentations, two students got up to sing. As they sang, a certain discomfort began to hit the room. The school superintendent, who attended the church I pastored was noticeably upset as the song continued. The duet, a boy and a girl from the high school were singing a song popular just a year or two before – “Tonight I Celebrate My Love For You.” Frequently in the song, the couple sings “when I make love to you.” It worked for Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson, but at this National Honor Society banquet, well, the superintendent just kept getting redder and redder.
Music makes a difference at celebratory events. Here might be a nice song for a wedding dance – play a bit of Frank Sinatra, “The Best Is Yet To Come.” Maybe when I retire, I will have a small business offering a combination of officiating at weddings with being the dance dj. The best is yet to come.
Jesus arrives at a wedding in Cana. The wine runs out. At Jesus’ direction, large water jugs are filled, and the water becomes wine – really good wine. Can’t you just hear, as the new wine is served, the dj playing – “The Best Is Yet To Come.”
Life with Jesus is meant to be a life of joy. It is intended to be a life of joy because with Jesus we live with a horizon of hope. A horizon of hope – the best is yet to come.
To live well, human persons need hope. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (275): “Man must reach out for support to a dream, a metaphysic of hope that sustains him and makes his life worthwhile.” Theologian Jurgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope (21-22): “Man hopes as long as he lives and conversely, he lives in the liveliness peculiar to him as long as he hopes.” I think of the words of African-American poet Langston Hughes: Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/that cannot fly.
And in Jesus, in the God of Christian faith, we find hope. Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (20): Faith in Christ gives hope its assurance…. Hope gives faith in Christ its breadth and leads it into life.
But how can we really hope? Look at the world in which we live. I am discouraged that our national conversation about gun violence and gun safety seems to have evoked more political posturing than constructive dialogue. Will we ever talk about what might really work and just what kind of society we want to live in? Current federal laws have even prohibited the National Institutes of Health from studying the causes of gun violence. What about a national conversation about climate change? Again, we seem more caught up in the politics of it than engaged in a genuine dialogue about the role human action might be playing in the climate and what we might do to mitigate negative affects. There are important conversations to be had, and we seem incapable of having them. Can we expect any better? Should we expect anything different?
More personally, don’t we all get discouraged sometimes? Aren’t we disappointed when an event we had been looking forward to turns out poorly, or a relationship we had high hope for fizzles? Perhaps it is better to give up on expectations.
Is the hope we have in Jesus only a hope for a better life after this one? Can we really link hope and joy?
No and yes. Our hope in Jesus is not only a hope for something better in another life. It is a trust that God is at work now, in our lives, in our world. Not everything turns out as God desires, but God never gives up – never gives up on us, never gives up on the world. We call that grace. Hope and joy belong together. Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (32): Expectation makes life good, for in expectation man can accept his whole present and find joy not only in its joy but also in its sorrow, find happiness not only in its happiness but also in its pain.
Because God is at work, even now, we can joyfully experience the good gifts of life and the progress that the human community makes. Huston Smith, religious scholar, and author, now in his early nineties, has written a second volume of autobiography – And Live Rejoicing. In it, he reminds us that there is good news to be noted and celebrated in our world (153):
• Never in recorded history has there been less starvation
• Never in recorded history has there been less slavery
• Never in recorded history have so many human beings lived under rulers that they themselves elected
• Never in recorded history has the position of women been as good as it is today

No matter how disappointed or discouraged we can be, there are days when we witness astonishing beauty, amazing kindness, unexpected tenderness, grace, love – moments when the ordinary water of our lives becomes wine. We need to celebrate that.
When we are hurt, disappointed, discouraged, when the world seems sadly out of kilter, we can know a modicum of joy, even then, because we trust God continues to love and God continues to be at work in our lives and in our world. Things can be different, and God is working to make them so. In that there is joy, and in the words of Joan Chittister, “joy enriches the world” (Called To Question, 220).
With Jesus, there is hope – the best is yet to come, and sometimes it breaks through. Within that horizon of hope, there is joy, and joy enriches the world.
On this United Methodist Women’s Sunday, we rejoice in the accomplishments of women in the church and in our society. We have not arrived. There is still work to be done in the church and in the world. There are still places in the church where the failure of one woman pastor leads a church to say they don’t want another female clergy person for a while. In our society, there remain too many places where women are not treated as equals, are not respected as they should be. With Jesus there is hope and joy and the energy from our hope and joy is the energy we need to keep working for change.
On this weekend celebrating the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we rejoice in the progress made in racial reconciliation because of the work of Dr. King and so many others. We have not yet arrived. There is still work to be done in the church and in the world. Racial epithets are still too common. An effigy of the president hanging from a billboard tells us that there is more to do for racial justice and understanding. With Jesus there is hope and joy and the energy from our hope and joy is the energy we need to keep working for change.
And Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this. He knew that with Jesus there is hope and joy. In his last public address, the night before he was assassinated, King spoke poignant words.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The best is yet to come. With Jesus there are always creative resources to be tapped, there is always the possibility that the water will become wine. We as a people live within a horizon of hope, and there is joy. Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Sermon preached January 13, 2013

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Water. We often greet the day with water in different kinds of ways. We get up in the morning and take a shower with water. We use water to brush our teeth. I like to drink a little water at the beginning of the day, and I particularly like to run some water through ground coffee beans to make coffee in the morning.
It is our good fortune to live where we do, because water here is plentiful. We live on the shores of the lake that holds more fresh water than any other body of water in the world. We live in a state that is “The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” In such a place it is easy to forget how precious a resource water is on planet earth. Should we be asking about how many people earth’s water resources can sustain, particularly as changing climate patterns seem to be linked to increasing droughts? We are asking how we can combine economic growth needed to meaningful employment with care for our water resources.
Water is precious to we human beings and to the planet we inhabit. My focus today is not there. My focus today is on water as an important symbolic resource. On this Sunday when we tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, I want to explore with you water as a complex, multivalent symbol. “Multivalent” is just a fancy way of saying that something has many meanings. I want to explore three of them.
We in the church use water for baptism. It is an initiation rite in the church, a welcoming ritual. When I think about baptismal waters, I think of waters that heal, waters that cleanse, waters that soothe. When I baptize a child, knowing that the water will be sitting up on the altar for some part of the worship service, I run it just as hot as I can get it so that the waters feel warm, comforting, and soothing to the child being baptize. By the way, I do that for adults as well!
As I think about the waters of baptism, I think about God’s love represented in those waters. God’s love is as plentiful as water in the land of ten thousand lakes. God’s love is as life sustaining as water. God’s love surrounds us and permeates us. Baptism is a joyous celebration of the love of God which is always there for us, even before we are aware of that love. With baptism, we affirm that God claims us, just as God claimed Jesus at his baptism. “You are mine, you are beloved.” In God’s love we find rest for our souls. In God’s love there is healing and forgiveness. God’s love provides opportunities for new beginnings, new births. In the baptismal prayer we recall Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb and baptized by John.
The waters of baptism provide a word of welcome to the community of faith, as well. It is the way the church has of saying, “God loves you, and we do too. We are glad that you are here.”
When I think about the symbol of water here it is warm, calm waters I imagine. Yet we know water is not always warm, and quite often the opposite of calm. Water can even be terrifying, waves crashing, waters roiling. We see it when the fierce winds blow the waters of Lake Superior. The Lake can be a dangerous place. I was in high school when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, and heard Gordon Lightfoot sing the song when he was in concert here about a year later. Our chapel is dedicated to three brothers, three of Gene and Betty Halverson’s sons who lost their lives when the waves of the lake came crashing into the canal. Though I was in elementary school, I remember that too - a cautionary tale about respecting the power of wind and water.
We witnessed another destructive side of water this past June as torrential rains fell and streets were washed out and basements flooded.
Such images are the symbolic backdrop for Isaiah 43. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Waters can overwhelm. They can be terrifying and dangerous.
Life can be stormy and frightening, even terrifying. The newspaper has recently run some stories about teenage girls running away from home only to get caught up in the horrors of sex trafficking. The stories sadden, and make us ask what kind of world do we live in. In our own lives, there are the small storms of disappointment and discouragement. There are the larger terrors of significant illness, grief and loss. Many of us have walked that road together, and you are walking that road with my family in the wake of Julie’s mom’s death and funeral. We all experience some of the storms of life, some of the terror of life. Author and therapist Michael Eigen writes, “one never recovers from being human” (Contact with the Depths, frontpiece). It is his way of saying we all know life’s difficulties, storms, small terrors.
When we think about water as a symbol in this way, God’s promise to us is not that we will avoid being human. God’s promise to us is that God will be with us. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” The promise goes on. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…. Do not fear, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 43)
When I consider water as a symbol for the storms of life, the occasional terrors of being human, and consider God’s promise to be with me, to be with us, I am especially heartened, because the reality of our lives is that sometimes we need to go through some roiled waters to get to a better place, as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan on their way to the promised land. Sometimes in our lives we need to “use the pain as a stimulus to grow bigger than the pain,” in the words of Michael Eigen (Faith and Transformation, 109). Sometimes we have put ourselves in a difficult place and the only way out is through some of that difficulty. We hurt someone, and have to admit our fault and seek forgiveness. That can be terrifying, yet it is only through the storm that we will find a better place. God promises to be with us through those troubling waters. We get enmeshed in a pattern of behavior that is life-stultifying, even life-crushing and the only way out is to confront the pain. God promises to be with us – when you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
Between a warm, calm pool of water and crashing waves that terrify us and threaten to overwhelm, there are those rapids that we love to ride, whitewater that we are thrilled to navigate. There is something in that understanding of water as a symbol that speaks to our life of faith. Life with God, the journey with Jesus is an adventure, sometimes a whitewater adventure. The life with God, the journey with Jesus is movement and dance. In one of his poems, T. S. Eliot writes, “Except for the point, the still/point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” (“Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets, 15-16) There is that still point where we encounter the God whose love in Jesus surrounds and embraces us in the quiet waters of baptism, and then there is the dance with God, the whitewater adventure. With God, we can never be sure just where we will be going. With Jesus, we will be surprised by joy.
I have been the pastor here for seven and a half years. Most of you know that I grew up in Duluth, as did my wife Julie, but had not lived here for over twenty years when we moved back in 2005. During those years we visited because we had family here, but had not thought a lot about moving back permanently.
When I was appointed as the pastor here, I was glad to be back, but being in Duluth was not something that I had long sought. Some who are from Duluth spend a lot of time considering how they can make it back. That wasn’t me, mostly because I knew that in the United Methodist appointment system, where I would serve as pastor was not just up to me. No point in spending a lot of energy pining for a place one may never get to.
So we just found our way back to Duluth – and it has been a wonderful adventure, not always easy, but wonderful. Four years ago, my father died, and we were here. Two years ago, a close cousin my mom’s died, and we were here. Last year my grandma died, and we were here. January 5, Julie’s mother died, and we were here. Hard stuff, but what a serendipity that we have been here. I look out and remember many whose lives I have had the privilege of celebrating as we also marked their deaths. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for so many delightful people it has been my joy to know. I look out and see people who seven and a half years ago were strangers, and who have now so enriched our lives. Thank you. This summer, First United Methodist and Chester Park United Methodist churches merged, and Chester Park was the place my mom was confirmed and where my parents were married, and where I went early in my candidacy process to visit with a pastor there to find out about ordained ministry. I am so glad I have been here for this.
With joy in my heart, I say to myself, “what a ride!” This has been an adventure. I have been around awhile in ordained ministry, even serving for seven years as a district superintendent in this denomination. I have seen pastors in the eighth year of their ministry think that maybe they have done all they could do, that maybe the adventure and thrill are gone. That’s not where I am at. I feel like these past years have gone by quickly and that there is so much more we can do together. I can’t wait to see where God might be leading us next, where the rapids of the Spirit are flowing, where the dance is going.
Water. In the calm warm waters of baptism, we are embraced by God’s love and welcomed by the Jesus community. When the waters of life become rough and terrifying, God is with us so we will not be ultimately overwhelmed. Following Jesus takes us flowing along the whitewaters of the Spirit. What a ride! Splash! Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Good Gift Giving

Sermon preached January 6, 2013

Texts: Matthew 2:1-12

Bad gifts. [Power Point slide] It is just hard to pretend you like them. Maybe some of you are suffering with some bad gifts from this Christmas season – perhaps a holiday tie that wearing once a year is too much [PP], maybe an outfit your thoughtful partner bought you that just isn’t you [PP]. Among the list of underappreciated gifts might be a bad breath tester, or its companion an air freshening system for your home, diet cookbooks or self-help books (“How To Become a Better Spouse”), a Walgreens flu shot gift card, or a home drug testing kit given by a grandparent.
If you received any of these gifts, or if you spent more than an hour on December 26 returning gifts, this sermon, entitled “good gift giving,” might seem particularly untimely to you. But on this Sunday when we read about wise men from the East coming to visit the child Jesus, I want to talk briefly about good gifts and about giving. I want to talk about them by contrasting central characters in the story of the Magi, the wise men.
Let me put this discussion in its broadest context. Life is a gift. Max Ehrmann was a writer of the early twentieth century. He is not well-known or widely published, except that one of his “poems,” composed in 1927, has found its way onto greeting cards and posters for many years – Desiderata. I discovered it in high school. One line reads: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” Life is a gift.
Mary Oliver is a well-known and well-published poet still writing. Her poem, “The Summer Day” ends:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life.

Your one wild and precious life – life is a gift.
Life is a gift, and what we do with it matters. It is a lesson we have learned again powerfully as we have watched Julie’s mother die this week. We see two very different options for what we do with the gift of life in the story of Jesus birth from Matthew’s gospel. On the one hand we have Herod. Herod the Great reigned as King of Judea for over thirty years (37-4 BCE). His reign was marked by prosperity, by close collaboration with Rome, and by a ruthlessness in maintaining power. When he died, his sons continued to rule under Roman authority.
In the birth story of Jesus, Herod the Great, though Jewish, is more like the Pharaoh in the Exodus story. He is willing to eliminate perceived threats to his power and authority. He worries that there may be another to claim he is king of the Jews – Herod’s title. He wants to deceive wise men from the East, and later engages in a mass killing to get rid of any pretenders to his throne. Herod finds the meaning of his life in maintaining his power and position. Life may be a gift, but it is a gift best enjoyed only when one has unrivaled power and prestige.
On the other hand we have the wise men from the East. Life is a gift best enjoyed when one follows dreams, adventure, stars rising in the night sky. The wise men give of themselves. They pay attention. They take time to follow a dream, a star. When they encounter a special child they offer gifts from their treasure chests – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, that always seems useful. The child could invest it in a trust fund – First Hebrew Bank/Roman Empire. Frankincense might be classified as a bad gift, unless you wanted to burn some incense in the nursery. Even if you did, this was an expensive way to go. Myrrh, too was an expensive item used more for perfumes than anything else, but also used medicinally. Maybe another not so great gift for a child.
While the specific gifts given may not have been that wonderful, and I am being tongue-in-cheek here, these wise men were wise in their use of the gift of life. They understood good gift giving and how to make the best and most of the gift of life. We receive and appreciate the gift of life best when we learn how to give, how to share, and in our giving and sharing help others enjoy the gift of life.
There is a financial side to this for us all. I am not mentioning this because we still need funds for our 2012 budget. We did o.k. at year’s end. I mention it because it is a part of our spiritual lives. We receive and appreciate the gift of life best when we learn how to give, how to share, and in our giving and sharing help others enjoy the gift of life.
More important than the financial side of this is to understand that the greatest gift we can give is our time, our attention, our energy. Life is a gift, but it seems to diminish, shrivel when we cling too tightly. Life is a gift, and we understand that most profoundly when we live in such a way that we make our lives gifts to God and to others. The Wise Men understood this. Herod did not.
A farmer whose corn always took first prize at the state fair had the habit of sharing his best corn see with all his neighboring farmers. When he was asked why he would do such a thing, he said, “It is really a matter of self-interest. The wind picks up the pollen and carries it from field to field. If my neighbors grow poor corn, the cross-pollination lowers the quality of my own crop. I want them to plant only the very best.” (Anthony de Millo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 133). When we treat life as a gift, and share it as a gift, we are better able to receive it as a gift.
Denise Roy is a mother, a psychotherapist and a spiritual director. She writes about developing a spirituality while keeping all one’s other commitments, like commitments to being a mother. She has a delightful book entitled My Monastery is a Minivan. I know that I have shared this story from that book before, but want to share it again.
Roy tells the story of being in a store on a hot summer day, with her youngest daughter in a stroller. While in a discount department store, Roy overheard an assistant store manager being quite rude to a little Latino girl and her mother. Roy had seen the little girl take a long stick with a beautiful cloth butterfly on the end of it off the shelf and begin to twirl it around. “What a thing of beauty – to witness all of this aliveness right here in this otherwise drab and cluttered aisle” (135). The assistant store manager did not see things that way. She chided the little girl for playing with a toy before paying for it, and was rude to the girl’s mother besides. The store manager was called, and Roy offered the little girl’s mother help. She would be glad to tell the store manager how inappropriate the assistant manager was. Roy wanted this mother to know she was not alone, and she wanted that little girl to know that she was lovely and blessed. Reflecting on this incident, Roy writes: Right then, I knew that this is how we help God out: by telling one another in words and in touch that we are lovely and whole and worthy of blessing. If we do our job, then one day the magic will happen. We will all blossom, every one of us. Together we will emerge like butterflies, soaring and dancing in sunlight, our hearts shimmering with praise. (141)
Life is a gift. What we do with it matters. We can choose to hoard whatever we can get in our lives, to see life as a gift only when we are at the center, clinging to that position. We can choose to receive life graciously, give the gift of ourselves generously, and in our giving and sharing help others enjoy the gift of life, help others see their lives as lovely and blessed. This later way seems more the way of wisdom. It seems more the way of Jesus. When we follow it together we all blossom. We all soar and dance in the sunlight, our hearts shimmering with praise. Amen.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Getting Bigger

Sermon preached December 30, 2012

Texts: Luke 2:41-52

Are you expecting? That was our theme for Advent. To follow that up with “getting bigger” – well! If you are expecting to give birth to a child, you can expect to get bigger. These days, with the internet, one can be flooded with news, both significant and trivial. While looking for something else, I discovered the other day that the current director of the EPA will be resigning her post – before I heard it on the radio, or saw it on television, or read it in the newspaper. I also stumbled across this item, related to the theme of getting bigger. Apparently Jennifer Aniston is getting married soon and there was some speculation that she was expecting a baby. However, photographs of her in a bikini indicated that she was not getting bigger ending such speculation. Here, let me show you (“Photo deemed inappropriate for Sunday morning worship”).
Getting bigger. Let’s shift to another part of the body. An enlarged heart, or cardiomegaly, is a medical condition where the heart enlarges due to damage to the heart muscle. It is not a good thing.
If we view the heart as a metaphor, a symbol, for the human capacity to care, to engage with the world, to love, then an enlarged heart is our calling. Getting bigger is our task. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Jesus, as portrayed in Luke’s gospel is special from the beginning. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Yet he is also someone who grows into his specialness. He pushes some limits along the way, but increases in wisdom along with years.
Getting bigger. Enlarging our hearts. Growth. These are our tasks. This is our calling as people of God, as followers of Jesus. In her book Called to Question: a spiritual memoir, Joan Chittister writes: Life either dwarfs us or grows us. There is no in-between. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. (225) Andrew Shanks, theologian and Anglican priest, writes: The truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed. Changed in the sense of saved. (What is Truth?, 5)
Getting bigger. Enlarging our hearts. Growth. These are our tasks. This is our calling as people of God, as followers of Jesus.
Paradoxically, one of the ways we enlarge our hearts spiritually, grow spiritually, is by recapturing some of our youthful hopes, dreams, and passions. I have to admit, this idea struck me a little while back while listening to a Carole King song. It may seem odd to get spiritual advice from Carole King, but it was St. Augustine who once wrote: “every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s” (On Christian Doctrine, 2.28.28, p. 54). So sometimes I find truth in popular culture, and I found it in the Carole King song, “Goin’ Back.”
The song is about the necessity of growing up, but of the value of taking some important things with us, goin’ back to get them if they get lost. I think I'm goin' back/
To the things I learned so well in my youth/ I think I'm returning to/ Those days when I was young enough to know the truth…. I can recall a time/ When I wasn't ashamed to reach out to a friend….
Carole King sums up some of her thoughts in singing:
Thinking young and growing older is no sin. She encourages her listeners:
A little bit of courage is all we lack/ So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back.

Goin' Back

I think about this dynamic in my own life. In my younger days, I wanted to help change the world. I wanted to develop myself. I saw the two as deeply connected. Growing older, I recognize how difficult change can be. We hear much too little about the common good in our political discussions. Religious language, which should be in the service of human growth, of compassion, of love, is often used to denigrate and divide, and, at its worst, to authorize suicide bombings and killings. Social change is difficult, and so is personal change. Inner issues don’t get resolved overnight. Old wounds can come back to bite. The temptation can be to forget youthful idealism and energy and dreams. Growing bigger, though, means reintegrating that energy and dreaming into our lives even now. Enlarging our hearts involves thinking young while growing older. Wisdom entails the courage to go back, when needed.
Jesus, in growing into his identity, continues to understand himself as a child of God, as someone at home in the household of God. Did he go back, from time to time to those days sitting with the teachers in the Temple, listening to them and asking questions?
Another way we enlarge our hearts spiritually is even more challenging and takes even more courage than being willing to go back. It is being open to suffering. It is learning to let our broken hearts be hearts broken open so that we grow in our capacities to imagine, to feel, to think, to love. Mary might be our model here more than the Jesus of this story.
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. Later: His mother treasured all these things in her heart. This was certainly not Mary’s first experience with pain. Giving birth is painful, even when there are shepherds telling stories of angels visiting them with good news about this baby. This would not be Mary’s last experience of pain. She was there when her son was crucified. Through it all, Mary treasured all these things in her heart. These experiences of pain and suffering seemed to enlarge Mary’s heart, making more room for profound thinking, deeper feeling, broader imagining, deeper loving.
In the Christmas issue of The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd asked a friend of hers, Father Kevin O’Neil, to offer a meditation on Christmas in light of the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Father O’Neil said the killings in Newtown reminded him of a thirty year-old memory from his first few months in parish ministry. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her. They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief.
Opening himself to suffering enlarged Father O’Neil’s heart, expanded his mind. I believe differently than 30 years ago…. I really do believe that God enters the world through us…. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.
Through the years I have been with the hurting and the dying and the grieving. It is not always an easy place to be. I have been there as families have dealt with the death of parents or spouses or children. I have talked with heartbroken teenagers. I have seen broken relationships. I have witnessed grinding poverty. Through it all, my broken heart has often been a heart broken open so that I could grow in my capacities to imagine, to feel, to think, to love.
If opening ourselves to suffering enlarges our hearts spiritually, so too does opening ourselves to wonder. Jesus asked wonderful questions of the teachers in the temple. Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” I think of the words of the writer Annie Dillard. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous…. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard, The Annie Dillard Reader, 286,287)
I can attest to this, too. I open myself to wonder through words – poetry, fiction, philosophy, theology. I open myself to wonder through music. I open myself to wonder seeing beauty in the world. When I open myself to wonder, my heart grows, my mind expands, my capacities for feeling and thinking and loving and joy get bigger.
One writer who has helped expand my heart and mind in recent years is a man named Michael Eigen. Eigen is a psychoanalyst who writes a lot about spirituality. In one place Eigen writes: To grow psychic taste buds and digestive capacity in the face of suffering is our true evolutionary challenge (Feeling Matters, 3). In another place he writes: How to use our capacities, all of our capacities, is a great evolutionary challenge (Contact With the Depths, 52).
What Eigen calls evolutionary challenges I see as invitations from God for our lives. The invitation from God’s Spirit is to grow, is to develop, is to get bigger, is to have an enlarged heart and an expanded mind. The challenge from God’s Spirit is to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more.
Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.”
“Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.”
Are we getting bigger? As one year ends and another begins, let’s hope so. Amen.