Friday, April 24, 2009

Analgesics and Curatives

Facts do not automatically (or even often) soothe the ragged edges of astonishment. Nor do explanations cure betrayal's deep lacerations. To know why something happened as it did, the how's and when's, the where's and to what extent's, may scab the wound--but if what happened should not have happened at all, terrible hurt remains.

Thick applications of explanation, squeezed from a tube of secrecy--and especially if the tube was purposely hidden behind mirrored doors among cosmetic pledges and atomized assurances
--are temporary palliatives, if that.

Time. Mercy. Confession--on the part of the betrayer and betrayed--repentance, all around: that is the recipe, or should I say, "prescription," the only prescription, which can begin real healing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

One of the Sad Psalms

I have been thinking about betrayals--big ones and little ones. From something as small as a broken promise, which feels huge at the time (a friend recovering from surgery laments the fact that friends promised to bring dinner and visit, and have not), to something as colossal as renouncing in fact or in act a marriage vow (which victims may never get over)--there is no dish served colder than betrayal... not even revenge. I have betrayed folk to be sure, in little and big ways. I have been betrayed likewise. All my considerations regarding the second reality are tempered by acknowledgment and confession in the first.

Betrayal is a wicked wound, each and every time, jagged and infected immediately with virulent emotional and relational pathogens: anger, resentment, pride, astonishment, deep deep hurt.

I am reminded of Psalm 41:9, one of the sadder verses in a sad Psalm.

On the face of it, the Psalm as a whole exudes a certain confidence, that God will "protect the poor" and "keep them safe" in the face of their enemies. Even when one lies sick, "The Lord sustains them on their sickbeds." God "heals all their infirmities in their illness." But it is clear that the days in which the Psalmist writes are dark, and darkest of all his considerations is this: "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me..."

The lyricist will go on to ask God to "be gracious to me, and raise me up," apparently because God is his only ally. Apparently because his desire for recovery is, at least in part, hope for an opportunity for recompense and revenge: "That I may repay them."

A natural desire, with many forms--but vindication against one's enemies, and especially those who were friends when the offense occurred, is the heart of it. For Christians, of course, our vindication comes by means of forgiveness. Forgiveness is harder than revenge; it takes more strength to forgive than to curse. It is also less satisfying, at least in the short term, when what you want to do is twist the knife.

Betrayal, like the desire for vindication, comes in many shapes--but the phrase in verse nine is interesting: "lifted his heel against." Perhaps the Psalmist has in mind the kind of heel-lifting that is requisite to the betrayer's stomping the face of his downed former friend. Or perhaps he means what a betrayer has to do to move his feet in another direction, away from the friend, when his friend has need of that foot, and the person wearing it, back over this way. When Jesus' disciples fled the garden, they in fact lifted their heels against Jesus; but so did others, in many other ways, and so too do we.

Going to secret meetings, cutting secret deals, all the while avoiding the "open road," those paths and steps that would take a heel toward confession and repentance...

Walking to the other side of the road, beyond the pale of a promise, and then cooling one's heels till it is "discovered"...

I am just ruminating.

My friend is recovering from surgery and cannot understand why her "sisters" have not come with food and friendly conversation. I am sure there are reasons, and chances are almost none of them have anything to do with her. I know that after a couple of recent major surgeries a complex of issues kept people mostly away from the house. Some feared to see me in pain, and not because it was me--more because it was pain. My own sister and a good friend cannot stand to see anyone hurt. Some think they are doing you a favor by staying out of the way--"s/he needs to heal," they say, "and s/he does not need me intruding into that. S/he does not need to worry about the house. The family has more important things to do than entertain us..."

It does not make the betrayed--or the unvisited--feel any better when that stuff is in play. A call to explain, which is to say, confession, would help a lot, but confession is so hard for most people--even those who are in the business of calling for it from others Sunday by Sunday. And so it is no surprise, really, that on both ends of the equation people spend a lot of time alone: unvisited, unvisiting. Lots of recovering patients are more or less alone in their recovery, but just knowing that, professionally, did not help me, experientially, escape the kind of loneliness that is so common in such circumstances. Recuperation can be a lonely thing for friends and patients alike. Don't I know it.

And in point of fact one of the coldest, and saddest consequences of betrayals, big or little, is the isolation they cause. The silence: what do we say now? The bewilderment: how do we begin again? If we can muster the faith, hope and love to forgive, how do we begin to build back the bridges of friendship? How do we mend the broken places? How do we heal the broken hearts?

Maybe by eating of each other's bread--a little meal that reminds us of the Big Meal to which we have all been invited, betrayed and betrayer alike, which we each and all of us are. As the 41st Psalmist says, "Heal me for I have sinned against you." But we believe and proclaim that God is gracious, does not lift-up his heel against us, but instead his Son was lifted-up for us. In that forgiveness, in that grace which is greater than our sin, we find there the source to once again begin to be gracious and forgiving ourselves.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Interim Ethics

I am in between times, right now: by definition, I am living an interim life.

Which is not to say the "present" is not full unto bursting with blessings and challenges, opportunities and aggravations. It is just that I am well aware, and somewhat painfully, that I am, as it were, in the wilderness. Not there or there. Only "here," but here is not a place, really, as much as a gap. Between there and there.

When Israel had Egypt in the rear view mirror, the Promised Land was still a long ways off. They were not there or there. And how do you live--what are the ethics--of the in-between places, of the wilderness times?

A metaphor: here we are, barely into Easter's Great Fifty Days, and I am trying to finish Advent essays for a preaching journal. Maybe that is always the case for preachers--our planning carries us away from a given moment toward another moment altogether. A crisis, an emergency, the drudgery or routine of any given day may call us back for a while to this day. Indeed there are some days when we must obey Jesus command, are forced by circumstance to "take no thought for the morrow, for sufficient to each day is the evil thereof."

And still it seems to be a truism that we live, move and have our being in the next season after this, or two seasons, find it hard to stay where we actually are. Budget and calendar, sermon and worship-planning--many days we have to take thought of tomorrow, its demands and deadlines.

Sometimes that same dynamic is evident in preachers who look at their present place of service as a kind of stepping stone, find their energies distracted by imaginations of ministry to come. One way or the other, most preachers--if I am any indication--will find that most of their "out of season" ruminations concern the future. That said, for one preacher I know--actually two--no, make that three--that "other time" is in the past.

One of the guys is getting ready to retire. In most every conversation he is revisiting his places of service and the services he planned or implemented in those places--and the people there among and with whom he did his work.

One fellow is recovering, incrementally, from a traumatic brain injury. On leave for ten years, he drifts back to his days, and his work, before his accident. Like another buddy, who suffers from OCD and crippling depression and was (more or less) recently forced-out of his pulpit, the trips down memory lane are self-defense, I think: a way to manage the loss with the memory. Hope dims, but memory shimmers... like Grizabella, all alone in the moonlight, as the withered leaves collect at their feet, they can smile at the old days--they were beautiful then.

Indeed they were. And in God's eyes, still are, though their lives each in their own way are frayed and stained.

I cannot smile at the old days. Not all of them, anyway. Some handful of them cast me into a time of exile, and after that into a long season of recovery and rehabilitation. I have never since entirely regained my career footing or standing. I am, by my calculations, 20 years behind. Still, my vocational sensibilities have never been clearer.

And so I wait. I journey. I wait. I write. I wait. I pray. I look, and I look ahead. I try to forget what lies behind and strain forward. I press on toward the goal I will never reach, but which indeed has already reached me, has reached for me and taken me. Indeed, Christ Jesus has made me his own. What I cannot achieve by work, and never will; what I cannot regain by repentance and remorse, is given me by grace alone.

Faithfulness--that is the ethics of this and every other interim. Memory and Hope, yes, those are brackets. But faithfulness: that is the heart of the in-between days.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Across the street from our place of worship, another congregation is in the midst of a fund-raiser: bar-b-q pork. On Good Friday.

A block down, the Volunteer Fire Department's sign announces that they are sponsoring a big yard sale on tomorrow.

One the many Pentecostal churches in town is having a "Hallelujah Service" tomorrow night at 6:00. They have such a shindig every month; at first I was annoyed that they would schedule it for the night before Easter, but then thought, "Maybe that is their version of the Easter Vigil."

I have already today walked the path along which I will lead a few of the faithful at noon--if any there are who brave the chilly breeze and the threat of storms. I did not take out my hearing aids, as I usually do when I walk in town, and so I heard the noise of Good Friday: the truck mechanics changing a tire that was bigger than the the fellow rolling it; a couple of punks in a pick-up truck making lots of gear-shifting, engine-revving noise as they headed, way too slowly for such a commotion but still way too fast, down a side street.

Traffic. Business as usual. Nobody much--even in the churches--taking making much that today God's Son was horribly and ironically enthroned on the cross.

Business as usual that first Good Friday, too.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Break with Tradition

Annually since 1987, with one exception (in the spring of 1996 when I was on leave from active ministry), every Maundy Thursday I have scheduled a Footwashing. I find it one of the most moving stories and services in our faith and worship: Jesus, Word of God and Voice of Creation, silently kneeling, all but naked, before his feckless disciples and washing their dusty and increasingly antsy feet. In the same way he gives his Body and Blood, he bestows this touch as one last act of love and compassion, of utter devotion to them--and he does it in full awareness of their mercurial loyalties.

Their courage will fade like mist. The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark--to stay with Jesus, to fight with him, to die with him even--will scurry away at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshly-washed feet they will abandon him. With the Sacrament still on their tongue they will betray him. His most vocal supporter will deny him, if with a terrible, truthful word: "I do not know the man." Never did, really. Any of them. Maybe will. All of us. Some Day.

Anyway, the story in John 13 is full of drama and pathos, Jesus the Lord, serving his friends. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end." Who can begin to imagine the rationale behind either clause? And then he gives them the new commandment, a new mandate (thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)--that they love each and another just as he has loved them--not just in this kind of moment, either, but from the beginning and to the end.

One could spend an entire evening, an academic career, a ministry, a life, trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of that command.

In the past, on the Thursday before Easter, I have scheduled such a service and gathered those who came in a circle of chairs. I would take a bowl full of warm water and kneel before my parishioners, to bathe one of their feet and dry it with a towel. As I did, I spoke to each of the mystery of God's grace, the cleansing that God's mercy affords. I would sometimes recount some particular struggle they had endured since last we met in this particular way, always with the assurance that wherever they went from this circle, God and we were going with them. The water on their feet signified it.

It is a powerful intimacy. I am aware that, in all likelihood, I am the first one since that person's mother to wash, maybe even to touch, their feet. Tears come. One said it was like baptism, or baptismal renewal.

The Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice Footwashing as a Sacrament. I believe the rest of us should, too--it is clearly instituted by Jesus. It conveys grace. Alas. Not everyone does. But I do. Many I have served loved it. One family had a "footwashing bowl" thrown for me at a local potter's. Another, after one of my many knee surgeries, gave me a small garden cart to push myself around on it, to ease the burden on my legs.

One of my adversaries in a former church contended that the Footwashing was about me and not Jesus. She said I just did it for attention, for association, for self-aggrandizement. Perhaps she was right. Or right in part--false or theatrical humility can be a powerful sacramental of pride. Still, I have scheduled these services. Tried to exorcise the pride by doing the service. By teaching others to love one another in this particular way--just as Jesus did and commanded that we do--so that we might let the circle of love and service begin to broaden the scope of our love for one another.

Not this year. My people here have let me know they are "uncomfortable" with such intimacy, and increasingly so--nor only with words, either. This is the only church I have ever served where attendance at the Footwashing has dropped during my tenure--and precipitously so. Last year, my mother, sister, wife, and three other people were the only ones to bring their feet to the circle. There 30 empty chairs.

Sometimes grace and compassion means letting people walk or scurry away, or never show at all. Sometimes trying to love as Jesus does means dying, as he did, to expectation or preference.
And so I am not doing it this year. I do not want to be irritated with those who do not come. I do not want to be unloving by asking folk to do what, for one reason or the other, they can't do. If I rise from the floor, as I did last year, with angry and hardened heart I prove my adversary right, and I do not want it to be about me. I want it to be about Jesus. About his love. About our loving one another.

That said, tonight will not be the same. At least for me.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Prayer for Tuesday in Holy Week

O God, make us mindful of our brokenness, that we might be more mindful of your healing.

Make us mindful of our sin, that we might be more mindful of your forgiveness.

Make us mindful of our death, that we might be more mindful of your promised life.

Make us see the Cross, that we might be more able to see the Empty Tomb.

Remind us that we are dust, that we might be the more mindful of your Spirit.

Empty us, to fill us.

Judge us, to save us.

Weaken us, to strengthen us.

Silence us, to enable us to speak His praise alone,

Who suffered such hostility against himself that we might receive all the blessings of Heaven,

And in whose blessed Name these my prayers are said. Amen.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Psalms and Laments

The psalter reading for Monday in Holy Week is Psalm 36:5-10, a kind of midrash on the First Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42:1-9. In my prayer book, however, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, the Psalm for today is the Twenty-third.

How often I have read these words in hospitals, at funeral homes and funeral services--how often, indeed, have I sung the Scottish setting, a capella, to the tune of Amazing Grace--for the comfort the Psalm mysteriously conveys. The comfort is mysterious: we are most of us long-removed from the kind of pastoral or agrarian context from which the images spring. Still, as I have often heard, there is something about the words.

And yet...often as I have read them for comfort, rarely have I felt the comfort they seem to afford to others. Which is to say, I am seldom without "want." Deep down somewhere I know that what I want is to want God, but most days I am aware of other, lesser desires. I am not in green pastures, but rather in a rocky little field that vexes my spirit and tires my back. The waters near me and beyond in the great wide world are not "still," but troubled and ever more so--if perhaps with the final thrashings of a doomed era.

Which is to say my soul needs refreshing, but it is not refreshed yet. Oh, that God would lead me in righteous paths, not so much for the benefit it might afford me personally (though I would not begrudge it) but so that I might show a more peaceful way, be a light or reflection of light, in the dark lostness of these days--which is to say, I wish God would lead me but for the validation and vindication and sake of his own Name and his Son's Gospel.

This Holy Week, as we walk in the valley of the shadow of Golgotha, may I fear only the evil in me that would kill this man, using rod and staff to torture and splay him. He prepared a Table for his friends, then and now, in the presence of his enemies--and I am too often one of them, anointing his head with his own blood. The cup of his suffering overflows on account of us who fall away time and again.

And still, goodness and mercy follow us. Flow from him and follow us, all the days of our lives. His goodness and mercy seek to save us, to bring us to his Table, to give us what we cannot attain.

Judgment and mercy meet in this Psalm, as do lamentation and aspiration. At least those are the voices I hear.

Terrible Synchronicity

On Saturday evening, while Fast and Furious was setting box-office records, members of our local Emmaus Community gathered for dinner and worship at Pleasant Hills Presbyterian Church on Highway 49 near Lake Wylie, SC.

A forty-five year old woman, on her way to our service--she was both an English professor at Winthrop University and the music director at Plesant Hill--and her three-year-old daughter, were killed by a street racer doing over 100 mph in his Mitsubishi. Broadsided her Mercedes, and no side-impact rating can protect you from that kind of velocity. Later, another kid, a 13-year-old passenger in the Mitsubishi, died.

Four girls in a Camaro, which had been racing the Mitsubishi, fled the scene. Another passenger clings to life.

Glad the movie did so well.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Wait for it... Wait for it...

Over the weekend the family and I went to see I Love You, Man. The reviews were good and there was a bit of buzz, so we went. I laughed hard in places. I was more than a little uncomfortable in other places. Some of the discussions were spot-on, and some were just, well, just talk. The obverting of the "formula" for buddy pictures, with the resultant tensions and jealousies, was interesting, more or less.

And for someone who is as unskilled at "guy friendships" as real estate salesman and hopeful developer Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), it was more than a little embarrassing for me to watch.

One of the funnier scenes involves the open house where Peter first meets Sydney (Jason Segel), the successful yet emotionally-arrested financial adviser who will become Peter's "friend interest" in the movie. Lou Ferigno has listed his Hollywood mansion with Peter; Sydney has dropped in for the hors d'oeuvres and finger food he knows these kinds of shindigs feature. As they talk, Sydney coaches Peter, helps him recognize a "poser" who is there only to impress his new or would-be girlfriend (at the last the guy says, "The house is nice, but too small." Yeah, right). In the middle of Sydney's tutorial he tells Peter to "wait for it...wait for it..." I will not, for propriety's sake, identify what he wants Peter to wait for... but sure enough, soon enough, it happens.

The phrase is crucial: "Wait for it... wait for it...", and indeed there are many things for which we have to wait. But what I am thinking about today is how hard it is for any of us to do that. And even or perhaps especially for us Christians. It could be that we have been taught that, since we live in the in-between times, in the middle between promise and fulfillment, we ought always be looking ahead. But as Yoda fussed at Luke for never attending to where he was at the moment, for always looking to the future, I think Jesus and Paul would scold us similarly.

"Aspire to live quietly, (and) mind your own affairs...," Paul counsels, and many other places and times the biblical writers instruct us to stay in the present. We are children of the past, to be sure, and our commonwealth is in heaven...but in the meantime, in this mean time, we are to keep our heads and our hearts down, I think. And wait for it.

The phrase has special meaning for me in Lent. I just came from a service where the first hymn we sang was "He Lives," and I am not crazy about the hymn anyway. You ask me how I know he lives? He lives in the Word, in the liturgy of the Table, in the service we render to others, in the fellowship and prayers of the gathered. "In my heart," is the very least of it. Still, why sing that in Lent?

Well, because we already know the End of the Story, I guess. Yeah, well. And because we are "Easter people," as it were. Okay, sure. And because every Sunday is a "little Easter". Maybe not--it could be that Easter is just a Big Sunday, but that is for another essay. I am just saying, it would be nice if we could stay in the present for the present, if we could Wait for It a few more weeks, it meaning Easter. It would be nice, as well as liturgically significant, if we could make ourselves stay put in the season of suffering, not jump ahead of ourselves and instead learn what Lent wants to teach us.

Last year, and you will think I am making this up but I am not--I went to a Good Friday service where we sang, you guessed it, "He Lives." At that same church on EASTER Sunday we sang "The Old Rugged Cross." Our proclamation had been nailed to the chiasm!

Wait for it. Wait for it.

The Day will come, but it is not that Day yet. Till then, Wait. That is the message of Lent.