Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Thin Places" Easter 7C

Have you ever noticed how many instruction manuals and guides there are? How many “how to…” books there are? There’s even a magazine called “DIY” – do it yourself. I was working on a knitting project and couldn’t remember the right way to do the stitch that was called for next, so I went online and found not only a description and step by step directions, but also a video actually showing me how to do it and I could play it over and over until I actually figured it out.
Mastering things, learning things, being able to do things, figuring things out. In fact, “we’ll figure it out” is one of my favorite sayings – even when things seem most confusing and uncertain, as an act of faith I can assert that we will figure it out.
And sometimes we read Scripture or listen to the Sunday readings as a kind of “how to” guide for Christians – how to serve God better, how to serve God’s people more effectively, how to grow the church more quickly, how to live a better Christian life, how to. And often, Scripture is exactly that kind of instruction and direction.
But again today as we have seen over the Sundays of this Easter Season, we are invited into places that we can’t really understand. Places without step-by-step guides, places that seem to be anything but practical.
These are "thin places." This is how some have described "thin places":
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
Those places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin... to the point that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary
Celtic Christians called them places where heaven and earth touch, where God seems more readily present, more easily accessed.
In today’s Gospel reading, we are invited into a very thin place. The verses that we heard just a few moments ago are portions of what is called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This prayer takes place on the night of the Last Supper and is part of what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Jesus and the disciples are in some bittersweet hours – they are enjoying time together. Jesus then begins to prepare them for what is to come – a time when he will no longer be with them. He washes their feet despite their resistance. He tells them to dwell in the peace that he gives. He speaks to them for a good while about how things will change and how they will stay the same.
Then a very thin place emerges – right there in their midst, Jesus enters into a time of prayer. This was not one of the praying quietly in your heart times – no, Jesus spoke this prayer out loud. This wasn’t a group prayer where everyone takes a turn offering a petition. This was a time when close friends listened to the things that are heaviest on the heart of their Lord and spoke with his Father about those things.
Some of us may have had times when we were present while two other people were having a very personal and important conversation. We know that we are witnessing some very special, almost holy. That’s what we are a part of in today’s Gospel.
So we listen very carefully to what Jesus prays and it looks very much like one of those beautiful complex sailor’s knots that we talked about last week. As I listen to these words what stands out to me most is the word “one.” Jesus prays that those who believe in him and who will believe in him may be one in the same way that he and the Father are one.
This is not a prayer that we all get along and agree on everything. This is not a prayer that each of us are all smiles with each other all the time. This is a much deeper prayer –a prayer that we may become so fully united not only with each other but with God. Jesus prays that we may be one in the same way that Jesus is in us and the Father is in him. That all may be perfectly one.
This unity, this one-ness, will be fully realized at the end of all time when God redeems the whole of creation, when Jesus comes again in glory. Jesus – the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Jesus, the very one who prayed from his disciples and, indeed, for all of us.
I believe that our worship together each week is one of those “thin places” and I know that there are various parts of our service that touch each of us differently. But within our liturgy, there are two places that are very thin. Listen for the words as part of our celebration of Communion that go like this – and so with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and all the hosts of heaven we praise your holy name – my friends at that time we join into the eternal song of praise that is sung around the throne on which the Lamb is seated! The veil separating the human and the divine is lifted a bit or becomes a bit more opaque and we glimpse a bit of the ultimate glory of God with our very limited eyes.
And, of course, as we receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus we experience in a very tangible way the unity that Jesus spoke of when he prayed that we may be one as he is in us and the Father is in him.
It’s pretty hard to understand, isn’t it. Yes, that’s how it is with these “thin places.” We cannot understand them. There’s no “how-to” guide for living in them, we simply ARE in them.
God gives us these thin places SO THAT the love that the Father has given to Jesus may be in us also and SO THAT the world may believe that Jesus was sent into the world and has loved the world.
May it be so.

The photo at the top of this post was taken on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Walking those miles brought me to a thin place.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Her Last Words to Me

These past several days have been a bit of a working sabbatical for me -- I have been "on the clock" so to speak but have been away from the usual place of my ministry. Last Friday I traveled from Clearwater to Orlando for the Synod Assembly -- the gathering of all the clergy, rostered leaders, and lay voting members of the ELCA in the Florida-Bahamas Synod. This year was one not primarily focused on Synod business but in which we have various workshops, different worship opportunities, less taxing schedule. An easier breath of fresh air.

I came home late Sunday and then headed back to Orlando very early this morning to attend a conference sponsored by Lutheran Counseling Services in Orlando on Aging and Spirituality -- A Quest for Meaning. Now, I must be honest, I've dealt with lots of issues around aging and spirituality, both personally and professionally; I wasn't quite sure why I felt so drawn to this conference as to unilaterally cancel an office appointment and spend 4 more hours on the road after all the travel of the weekend. Now, as I sit here at the end of the day, I have some ideas about why. I am grateful for ideas about things that may be implemented in the parish I serve.

But more interesting, at least to me, was the moment in the session after lunch when I caught my breath and felt the welling of tears in my eyes. So much of what I was hearing resonated in my heart as I experienced the loss of my mom. Mom's last words to me were spoken over many many months and today they all came together into one conversation.

Mom experienced great pain in her left leg in the two years before her death. Doctors couldn't diagnose it, physical therapists couldn't relieve it, I cried over it as each touch and position shift caused her to cry out. The first of Mom's last words were "I just want to stop fighting."

The next of Mom's last words were spoken to me indirectly. I couldn't find the way to tell her that I would be leaving St. Petersburg to go to Columbia, SC to attend seminary. Certainly, I ought to have stayed with her to visit her, to do her laundry, made sure that everything was ok in her room and assure that her nurses knew that she was not a forgotten one. Mom's pastor called me and told me that Mom knew I was going to be a pastor and she was proud.

Then I came back during my first year of seminary at Christmas break -- we had great fun in many ways. We found some new ways to celebrate Christmas as Mom needed to stay in the nursing home. Then some days later, I needed to head back to seminary and I went to see Mom on my way out of town. We talked as we could. Mom no longer knew me as her daughter. I brought her laundry in. She asked me (whom she did not recognize as her daughter) if I had also taken care of Pam's laundry. "Yes, Mom. It's all taken care of. All is good."  As I left the nursing home and turned back to wave good-bye, she beat me to it -- giving me a big smile and a big wave.

In the days that followed there were many other events and exchanges and interactions. But in the minutes before her death Mom spoke one more last word to me -- the slow and quiet breathing of one who is approaching their last moments. This my friends, this is Holy Ground.

Today, I was ever-so-gently invited to wade into this again.

Actually, I don't think that Mom has yet spoken her last words to me. Might be easier now to hear her continuing words.

This Grateful Chick Stands on Holy Ground,