Are you writing these down?

Elijah, from the couch yesterday afternoon:

“Hey! Did you know the alphabet has a space for ALL the letters?”

Elijah, while eating his dinner and discussing the baby’s upcoming first birthday celebration:

“Mommy, why does everyone have to have a birthday on the day that you lay a baby?”

Sitting

Facebook has opened up opportunity to connect with people’s grief in new ways and with greater scope. As news of my “friends” trickles past me at points throughout my day, there is almost always an update about someone’s loss, someone’s sickness, someone’s tragedy. And I have been drawn near to grief that, in reality, is quite relationally distant from me simply by reading posts or following links and facing the heartbreak of others from the very safe distance of my sofa.

Recently a friend posted a link to one of my favorite scenes from Lars and the Real Girl that shows the love of a community for someone who is grieving. As one of the women explains her presence (and casserole): “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.”

I remember stepping off an airplane in Portland, Oregon after a ministry trip to Chicago turned into a week-long stay mourning the tragic death of a young man I had loved dearly. My roommate and friends met me at the airport with words of kindness; they got my luggage and drove me home, and later that night I found myself alone in an empty house. I recall walking down the stairs from my bedroom and crumpling part-way, and there I sat for some time sobbing on a middle stair.

Later that evening there was a knock on my front door, and as I opened it, I was surprised to see Doug standing there alone. We were nothing close to romantically involved at this point, and I don’t remember what he said or if I spoke; what I do remember is the wet of his raincoat surrounding me as I sobbed like a child.

“After a tragedy, those of us on the outside often wonder what to say. We look for the escape hatch of a platitude or a verse. Or we are tempted to think we need to offer a reason, find a purpose, or defend God. We shouldn’t. A simple, “I’m sorry,” is appropriate. God doesn’t need us to be his PR reps, and people in midst of calamity aren’t asking questions, at least not yet. Usually they’re simply trying to keep going, take the next step, and figure out how to live this new, strange life.”

After a while, Doug asked if I had eaten anything and I answered that I had not. He asked me what a comfort food was, and I must have answered tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, because I found myself walking the block to what was then the un-Safeway and going through the motions of buying groceries. We returned to my house, Doug fixed the food, and we sat and ate together.

“The ‘I’m sorry’ won’t feel like enough. There is a tension in suffering, a stress in its very existence, even if not our own. When something horrible happens to someone we know, for a moment, we realize this terrible thing is possible in our world too, and that’s scary. It’s the rare friend who is willing to hunker down with you in the mystery of deep sorrow—knowing full well it could be their own.”

I read this today at Scot McKnight’s blog, and when I think of the many faces of grief I encounter, I am reminded that while online words of encouragement are meaningful and good, it is the act of “sitting with” that moves us most from the death of grief into life.

“To remember someone in this way is to be a part of their healing. To respond to a person’s cry of lament, ‘Remember me!’, is to live in solidarity with that person in their struggle and pain; to tell someone that we will not forget them offers hope and reassurance in the midst of loneliness and despair. In pastoral ministry, not only do we remember who we are as God’s people, we also ‘re-member’ one another.”

“You eat. We came over to sit.”

A Confirmation Blessing

For your head: may the words you have committed to memory today return to you often to guide, encourage, and sustain you. And may this day mark the beginning of a habit of lifelong study and learning. There will not always be a hefty notebook and tests, but there will always be those with something to teach you and those needing you to teach them.

For your mouth: may you continue to speak aloud what is true about God; may you regularly confess your own faith to those who understand and affirm it and to those who do not; may you learn to pray often and to sing loudly.

For your heart: may the words of faith you have spoken here today take up residence in your heart and may they define you. May you never forget how very deeply you are loved by your Father in heaven and may you cling to your identity as His child. Do not listen to any voices that seek to tell you differently.

For your hands: may your profession of faith today take on flesh through a life of service: service to God and service to others, when it is comfortable and convenient and when it is not; when people are easy to love and when they are not; when it takes you down the paths you expect and when it does not.

For your feet: may you understand that the story you have told us today; the story of God and the people of faith; that is your story. You are the next pages of this history, and there are adventures to be had and roads to travel. May you walk boldly, knowing that God is with you, the Good Shepherd who knows you by name; the One who will never leave you nor forsake you.

“And God looked at all he had made…and it was very good.”

Amen.

Quotation of the Week

To the question “Who do you say that I am?” we cannot give a merely theoretical or theological answer. What answers it, in the final analysis, is our life, our personal history, our manner of living the gospel.

Peter’s affirmation, ‘You are the Christ,’ is fundamental. But what is demanded is that we make that affirmation the guiding thought of our life — accepting all the consequences, as dire as they may be. Only so is our response valid, as honest and sincere as it may be without it.

Our response to the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?” does not end with a profession of faith or a theological systematization. It is a question addressed to our life and that of the entire church.

From Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (p. 51). (H.T. Scot McKnight)

Vacation to LA

I was preparing for an announcement I hoped to give during our worship service last week and found the following reflection written close to six years ago. I am now on the other end of this, planning and recruiting Seattle folks to join in a week of service and kinship with Church of the Redeemer. This was a good reminder for me of the many ways God uses outside groups to come alongside and bless an existing community.

On April 14, 2005 I wrote the following post, titled “My Burden Is Light”:

I love my baby. I love holding her, playing with her, talking to her, bathing her. I am one of those moms who simply cannot get enough of her little one.

With that said, when someone asks to hold her and I pass her into the arms of another, there is that moment where I straighten my back and shoulders and stretch my torso a bit. There is that feeling of release, relief, and the easing of a weight or burden, even if for only a few minutes. There is that sudden freedom to go to the bathroom by myself, or sit down and eat a plate of food unencumbered, or sit at the computer and read an email without her little hands grabbing at the mouse and shoving bills and papers onto the floor.

This week our church is hosting a group of kids and adults from my home church in Seattle, Washington. They are here this week to serve our church and our community through morning service projects at our tutoring center and at homes of church members, and through afternoon sports and dance camps for neighborhood children. It is an amazing group of people who chose to spend their spring break, many of them as families, not in Cancun or at Disneyland, but in the gritty streets of South Central.

I have been close to tears many times this week:

-leaving the home of one of our church members who is widowed, wheelchair bound, and the primary caregiver for her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s disease where four members of the mission team were scrubbing walls, priming rooms for painting, scouring behind toilets, picking dropped pills up off the floor, and helping to organize the contents of a kitchen so that things could be accessed from a wheelchair;

-standing in the middle of the street talking to a neighborhood woman and her son who had nothing to do with any of our camps or events but who had driven by our gathering time of singing with the kids in the park and had stopped their minivan to find out who we were and why we were doing what we were doing;

-sitting in the auditorium of our local grade school watching a beautiful high school senior who is an accomplished dancer in Seattle teach dance to more than forty little girls—and remembering holding that young woman when she was the same age that my own little girl is now;

-walking into the back classroom of the tutoring center I have directed for the past three years and having someone flip the light switch to reveal a brand new ceiling filled with new recessed light fixtures that fill the room with bright, warm light–no longer will young children and their tutors squint to learn new words on book pages that are barely illumined by a lone fluorescent light.

I love my life here in South Central. I love my church and the people I call neighbor and friend. I love the opportunities I have daily to wrestle with Jesus’ call to love mercy and to walk justly. There is nothing else that I would rather be doing.

But it is not always easy. And it can sometimes feel lonely. And so this week I am feeling that deep sense of a weight lifted, of responsibility shared; of partnership, companionship, and relief. I have stood on the sidelines of camp programs, free to chat with the watching moms. I have stood in the back of the group of kids singing, free to engage stopped minivans and curious neighbors in conversation. I have stood in the middle of a newly painted tutoring center, and watched others bend and sweat and cover themselves with paint so that children I love can be welcomed by cleanliness and beauty.

This week, twenty-nine people have come into our life here and humbly asked: “Can we hold your baby?”

“Now Show Me Your Glory”

Moses went up the mountain, early in the morning

To see the glory of Yahweh

“Come alone” God had instructed

“Leave Joshua, Aaron, and Hur below”

not even goats or sheep could graze within sight of this meeting

only his two feet, two hands, two slabs

the basket boy of Nile birth

slow of speech and tongue

the “who am I” who met the “I AM”

and took command of the sea

His climb was harsh, the way hidden

leaving light and friends and flocks behind

level ground and tents and food abandoned

for this trust-walk into darkness

Believing, following, expecting Voice and Presence

Found in fearful, fiery cloud

He had begged to see that which should strike a man dead

A showing of glory that would kill

And Yahweh agreed to the meet-up

Promising mercy to the one whose staff had split the sea

A way would be made, a space would be given,

And so this man stood atop the mountain, protected

Death again pressed back by the hand that summoned him

A fissure of rock prepared

A chasm of stone holding the holder of stone

Carved embrace crafted by covering hand

And so a man pressed into mountain cleavage

Allowed to catch a glimpse

of the back of the Presence passing

And hear the Name declared:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

The promise spoken:

“I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you.”

The union sealed:

“Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”

Moses’ climb met God’s descent

Union, reunion, communion,

Glory of God come near to one alone on mountain rock

for forty days Moses feasted there

Tasting neither bread nor drink

Only Presence, Glory, Word

The two empty slabs he carried up

Once lifeless stones now invited to become flesh

Words binding one to another

A promise chiseled that would endure rejection

Generations of rejection already begun in tents below

Tablets declaring a lover’s faithfulness more powerful than any wickedness

And a promise to walk together

Faithful, obligated, entrusted, promised

a people belonging to the beautiful name

The abounding, maintaining, forgiving Name

Whose every right it is to punish

Whose glory deserves to kill

Is it any wonder Moses’ face was flushed

With the unbearable radiance of such a meeting

And the weight of goodness declared in a name

that is at once a promise and prophecy

Mercy ever new, unfailing

Like a widow’s oil that cannot run dry

Compassion hounding, chasing, searching

Coins and lambs worth dying for

Love that lifts up its skirts and runs

Majesty that stoops and scrubs

A king whose borning cry screams hope to every nation

This is the Presence we too long to see

this One who could have withheld or struck down

but reached down instead and joined

This is the Name we speak aloud

Or wrestle in dark silence

Or flee from altogether

This Mercy, Compassion, Forgiveness we cannot exhaust

This summons to meet and see and taste

Glory shown, heavy as stone, tender as flesh

God with us

Crucible

A few weeks back I posted a quotation from Joanne Heim, a woman I have never met in person, but whose blog I have enjoyed reading this past year. She and her husband attended Whitworth while Doug was there, and I found her blog because of a profile in Whitworth’s alumni magazine that featured her writing. Last week, Joanne suffered a major stroke and I join the thousands who are lifting her and her family up in prayer. Her husband, Toben, has been writing updates and reflections on her blog, and he said something last night that I found very much worth repeating:

Audrey came to visit her mom and we were walking down the hall at the ICU she said “Dad, this sort of feels normal.” And she’s right, but it’s also so bizarre. How can something so messed up feel normal? I have only one answer that makes sense to me: a peace that comes from God that passes all understanding.  That’s all it can be. This may seem like over-spiritualization to some. I’ve had one conversation in which I articulated these thoughts only to have that person say, “But how are you really?” Like somehow these are just words that as a believer I am supposed to say, but that I don’t really mean.

But Joanne’s stroke is the crucible in which what I have articulated all my life as a believer is tested. Do I believe in a peace that passes all understanding? Do I believe that God’s provision is enough for today? Do I believe that God’s glory can shine through in the darkest of times? Do I trust? Do I have faith? Is God really even there?

October 22nd

Ten years ago they took you
Past the place where any of us could reach you,
We could not pull you back to where you belonged
With us

I never saw the blood-covered seats
Or met the girl they murdered beside you
But I saw your shoes
And paid for the flowers
And sat for hours in that funeral hall

I kissed your tight cheek
As cold as your smile was warm
before they took it
Thieves and killers wearing courage
like a bad Halloween costume

My kids know your name
They know stories about you
You smile down on them from our refrigerator
My Elijah William, he’s three
His smile and charm remind me of yours

Ten years later
My heart’s hands still hold you
Tightly, fiercely like a mother
Grieving, like a mother
Who should never have to bury her child

Jamar, you knew the Jesus I preached about
And I know that same Jesus loved you
My son, Aaron, caught me crying today
And said with confidence:
“But Mommy, he will be alive again on the New Earth”

May it be so.

Erika Carney Haub’s musings on life and God from South Central, L.A.