Monday, October 17, 2011

Anticipating Excess

I have been amazed over the past 18 months at the thoughtfulness and love that has clearly gone into the selection of gifts our son has been given. From handmade wooden cars made by Nana and Papa to the soft and silky monster doll purchased at a local/handmade church good shop by his adoptive clergy g'ma. Our son truly has been blessed. On one of the parenting forums I read fairly regularly there are fairly frequent (read annual, usually around this time of year) discussions of how to handle gift giving occasions if your values run contrary to the mainstream (e.g. no plastic; no batteries; or no sweets). These discussions become fairly heated and hackles are raised. In response and in reflection I recalled the jars of pennies and handfuls of ribbon candy my great grandmother and great aunt would give us when we visited...

Every time we visited my great grandmama when I was a child she gave us piles of, stuck together with age, ribbon candy. She was housebound for the most part, and when she was growing up sweets were a true rarity.

These were not candies we were encouraged to eat at home--and I'm sure my parents were not thrilled at the sticky mass of rock hard, yet at the same time, gooey stuff that traveled into the car with us.

But, I don't remember most presents from childhood and I remember those candies. Mostly because they tasted of love...and lint...but mostly love, because my grandmama was old and infirm and soon after those visits experienced a stroke which left her in a vegetative state.

Sometimes when folks don't know how to say "I love you" they buy or give something to try to show their love. Unfortunately, many people think bright, loud, splashy and plastic is the most loving thing to give ("all the other kids I know LOVE this!" "Oh, I saw it at the store and I just HAD to get it for her"; "I saw the add for this and it just looked to neat to pass up!").

So, how something is received can represent how a person is loved in return (to the giver). And, dictating presents can become a dance in which the giver feels that their love doesn't measure up or isn't good enough.

So, thank you, loving and lovely folk who give out of love and care. Our son will be happy to receive the sticky, the gooey, the loud and the flashy--and whilst his mamas may wince, we will wash his sugared hands before he reaches for the plastic buttons and we will listen...glad that he is loved.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

PICU Reflections

I spent two years working as a pediatric hospital chaplain and some of the deaths still haunt me. Today, I was reflecting on the beautiful, difficult and painful work of love which the staff of pediatric intensive care units undertake each and every day.

Please, don't scroll below the picture if reading about a child's death is going to bother you.

I never did find out how she died. She came in unresponsive and the incessant pounding of resuscitation was the only movement I ever saw. The bags of fluid gurgled in and then out as her lungs became fluid overloaded and her hair was coated with vomit and saline. Her skin was golden and then dusky and I was there when the light went out of her eyes and I knew that she was gone.

Yet, they pounded on...hoping against hope, straining for some miracle that they had long since ceased to believe in. I sat with her parents as they watched. Taking in the incomprehensible we huddled in the corner. She was gone and I knew, yet we prayed on.

Slowly they ceased, time of death was pronounced and the parents were ushered into a nearby room as tubes were pulled and clothes were found to bring dignity to her limp body. I promised to stay with her and held her shoulders so that the nurse could wash away the accumulated effluvia of death, life and hope.

She was clothed in a set of pink pajamas, her hair combed gently--as if she could still resist the pull of its teeth in her snarls and cry from the roughness. Her head rested on the pillow, and clean sheets lay beneath her. The gentleness of the nurses ministrations to her in death a stark contrast to the violence her body had taken in those last moments of life.

They had fought hard to keep her soul and body linked--but they were torn asunder and we were all left, breathless and limping, from the pain of it all.

Her death was not the only one that day--it was just the unexpected one, adding to the burden squirreled away in the horseshoe shaped halls of the pediatric intensive care unit.

I left. Many of them remain.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Proper 22A, Scripture I Thought I Hated Until I Had to Write A Sermon...

I have a friend, who writes her sermons with the question in mind--”where is the grace”. And, this week as I struggled with this parable from Matthew I found myself searching, digging deep for the grace in the midst of a story that is, quite frankly, horrific.

Taken as allegory, we have a story in which we identify the wealthy landowner as God. The tenants are the Pharisees, the Isrealite people who kill God’s messengers. Then, as a last resort, we have a son, the son of the wealthy landowner, who is then read as Jesus. He is killed as well. Then, the landowner, God, kills all of the tenants and puts new tenants in place--presumably tenants who will follow the rules.

Now, I find this story vile. I find it vile largely because it tends to lend itself to self righteousness and vindication on the part of Christians--see we have the true faith and you folks who don’t listen to God are going to get in trouble!!

Thankfully, this story is not an allegory, it is a parable. And parables are not as simple as we might like to think. In fact,in Matthew 13:1-9, Jesus said that he told his parables so that the crowds might NOT understand.

Now, I currently spend a small bit of my week in a crowd that few would expect to have much understanding of scripture--this crowd is comprised of the kindergarten Sunday School I am currently co-teaching at St John the Baptist in Linden Hills. However, the depth of their understanding continuously astonishes me. Last week as the children worked on making placemats--a presumable simple and uncontroversial task--one of the 5 year olds looked up at me. “Jesus dies” he stated emphatically, and with no uncertainty. The child next to him looked confused and worried. In response I asked--”is that the end of the story, that he dies? Or is there more?”

Now all of the five year olds were looking at us...waiting to hear the rest of the story. “He comes back alive” replied the child. They all nodded, I could sense a bit of relief.

When I recall this moment, this question, “is that the end of the story?” I find that this parables surprises me because, when I was able to move beyond the allegorical reading, I noticed something crucial--I had the wrong ending to the story!

The people to whom Jesus is speaking are the one’s who tell us that the landowner will “put those wretches to a miserable death”--NOT Jesus. Jesus holds out a different ending and the beautiful truth to this ugly parable is that the end of the story is NOT death and destruction. The audience does not have the final word, Jesus does. And, the end of the story is the truth of a God who has taken what is broken, taken what has been rejected and made it beautiful and whole. The son is not dead, he comes back, and he carries with him the love and forgiveness which we all so desperately need in this world.

Now, it would be lovely to end here--see God loves us and that is that! But, I can’t ignore the rest of the parable, for Jesus continues. He tells the crowd that the kingdom will be taken from them and there will be destruction. And, this that gets us back to the ending that I believe firmly is not “true”--the ending that ends on the cross with “he dies.” An ending that God has rejected, an ending that does not reflect the grace of the Christ I follow.

Because, just as I cannot look only at the portion of the text that back up my own beliefs, I cannot look at this parable without looking at how this parable appears in the Gospel of Luke. And in this comparison I find that there is more grace to be had.

The theology of Israel in Luke is that the Israelites will play a central role in the kingdom of God--the invitation to follow Jesus in Luke comes as an invitation to be grafted on, to be joined with the Israelites. In Luke the vineyard of Israel is not taken away to be given to others--rather it is opened up to new workers. It is an expansive claim for God’s love--not a limited claim.

I feel as if I have set up my extrapolation of this text as a kind of choose your own adventure story. Do you remember those? You got to the end of the chapter and you made a choice between two different options and depending on which choice you made you got a different ending?

But, in this story God makes one choice and reflects a grace filled truth, the choice to send the son and the ultimate truth which is the love of God. The love of a God who continuously liberates us from injustice and oppression, the God who guides us to a place, a kingdom where mercy is the rule and compassion is the guide. This love runs throughout scripture, “I brought you out of the house of slavery”; “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstones and it is amazing in our eyes”; “Christ Jesus has made us his own”.

And, so here we are, on a glorious fall day and we are faced with choices. And the only choices that we can make in good conscience are those which reflect the grace of God. Choices which allow us to find a place for all in the building and the body of Christ.

Like the Pharisees, like the Israelites--we Christians will fall short. But, in the scripture today we are shown the truth of God’s love and reminded that God has led us out of slavery. And in the parable, Jesus, reminds us that God will come to us again and again--no matter the betrayal, no matter the hate, no matter how we receive the messengers of God, God will continue to seek us out.

The God we proclaim in our liturgy is the one God, the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

What will we do with our freedom? Which endings will we choose for our own lives?