Jesus Wept

The following is a sermon that I recently preached at a funeral. The funeral was a graveside service for a young man (not a member of the congregation I serve) who had apparently committed suicide. The Gospel text for the service was John 11:1-6, 17, 32-39a. I am greatly indebted to my colleagues on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page who helped me to think through this sermon, and held me in prayer last week. I am especially grateful for a sermon by Pastor Keith Fry, which drew my attention to the question of Mary and Martha.

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

From time to time, people expect me to have “the answers.” Because of what I do, people thing that I must have some sort of direct line to God; that I must know “why;” that I must have something to say that will make it all better.

I don’t.

Because the truth is that there are no words that will magically make it all better.

[Dad], [Mom]: No parent should ever have to bury a child. Never. I could say all sorts of nice things – things about God’s plan and God’s purpose, things about how everything will work out for the best – and I’ll bet that well-meaning family and friends have said those things to you in the last week. But, however true those things may be, they do not make today any easier, and they do not make this any less painful.

And so, let me begin by saying “I’m sorry.” [Dad], [Mom], [brothers]. I cannot imagine how much you are hurting today. And I’m truly sorry.

In the reading from the Gospel you just heard, Jesus shows up in Bethany where his friend Lazarus has died. And there are immediately questions. Mary and Martha both approach Jesus and the first thing they say: “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

I wonder, today, faced with the death of a dear friend, how many of us have faced the same question - how many of us have sat in the quiet of the night, and accused ourselves just as Jesus was accused by Mary and Martha."If only I had said something. If only I had done something different. He would not have died." Sound familiar?
To that I have two word. Quit it. Knock it off.

What if, Maybe, Perhaps – these questions haunt us, and they are not our friend. They cannot be answered. The past cannot be changed, no matter how deeply we would like to change it. What is done is done; "What if" can only cause us harm.

No, our question today – the real question – is not “What if.” Our question is “What now?”
What do we, who love Name and mourn his loss, what do we do now.

What do we do now? Today we grieve.

The God we proclaim today is not a God who magically makes everything better, but a God who stands beside us in the darkest hours and troubles of life.
As Jesus came to Bethany, he wept over the death of his friend. As Jesus joins our worship this day, I believe he weeps as well. It is a good for us to mourn – to acknowledge our pain together.

Our God, is not afraid of the dark places of life, and is not afraid of our grief. Jesus wept, and so will we today. And in the days to come. And Jesus will continue to walk with us to the tomb, will walk beside us no matter how dark that grief gets. The promise is not that we will understand the "Why" or the "What if" - but that there is no where we can go that God will not go with us - right? Even through the valley of death.
And so we mourn.

What now? Then, we are honest about why we are grieving.
We are not sad for Name. Not today. I don't know what was going through his heart and mind in those last few days, those last few hours. But I imagine he must have been in some scary places. And now, today, we celebrate the fact that he is free from all that. Today we celebrate that Name is free from all that pain and suffering; that he is undoubtedly enjoying the company of his beloved mother. Today, we celebrate the promise that God will gather all his children to himself.

No, as we grieve, we are not sad for [Name]. We are sad for ourselves - for that place that [Name] filled in our life, for the laugh that we won't hear every day, for the smile that we can't see today.

And so, in our grief, we name that empty place, and we remember [Name]

What now?
Finally, we begin to pick up the pieces. You and I - we have lives to live. That day in Bethany did not end in the tomb. No, our Lord brought new life into being -- life in the midst of death. Because that is what he does. And that is what he will continue to do in our lives.

We pick up the pieces, and we return to new lives. Not that we forget [Name] - not at all. In fact, we remember him precisely by living our lives.
I have heard the stories - stories about how helpful [Name] was, about how kind, about how generous. We honor [Name] as we return to our lives, by living out those same things in our lives. By showing others the sort of kindness and generosity that we remember so well in [Name].

Friends, in these days of mourning and sadness, God promises to walk beside you. To weep with you as you weep. And even now - here, in the valley of the shadow of death - even here, God is working to bring new life and joy into the world. Through you, through your lives, and through the memory of [Name].


Image: Vzkříšení Lazara (The Raising of Lazarus), 1911, by Bohumil Kubišta. Public Domain.

Why I Love (Hate) Social Media

Those who know me, know that I am a fan of social media. I use social media in my own life in a variety of ways: in my personal life to stay in touch with family and friends, to keep connected with members of my congregation, and to discuss ministry with colleagues. My real passion for social media comes among colleagues, talking about how this resource can be used by the church to further the kingdom.

The potential of these new forms of media was brought home to me in a surreal way this last week. Late Wednesday night, I logged on to Facebook, only to discover that they had changed up the appearance of the newsfeed. I saw a couple of complaints from friends about the new look, and I new how this would go. By morning there would be a flood of complaints about the new timeline. So I looked through my pictures, and found an image from someecards that I had posted from the last time Facebook changed the look of the feed, reposted it, and went to bed.

Now, I have had a few things I have posted become popular before. Mostly among other church folks, I've had a couple of posts from this blog get shared by as many as 100 people on Facebook (I thought that was pretty impressive!). Thursday morning I woke up, and the image had been shared 2,000 times. I was shocked. By the end of the day, it had been shared 5,000 times. It even had been shown on the Houston afternoon news and WGN in the evening. Yes - my post to Facebook was on the news from Houston to Chicago.

Let's do some quick math. Round down the average number of Facebook friends to 100. At 5,000 shares, this image was seen by at least half a million people. To put that in perspective: On an average Sunday, I preach to around 170 people. I serve a congregation of about 500 members, in a town of 14,000 people. With one post, I had reached 1,000 times more people than there are in the congregation I serve. By the next morning, I had friend requests from across the US, from Britain and Ireland, Germany and Austria, Australia and New Zealand.

I love the potential that social media has for reaching people. The church is called to carry the Gospel to all nations - to all corners of the earth. Just over five hundred years ago - the printing press made that mission more feasible than ever. Now social media has made it more practical, possible, and probable for the church to carry the message of the kingdom to the ends of the earth.

And yet ...

What gets shared on social media? I have posted about ministry, about politics, about the Gospel - about all sorts of things. Out of all those posts it is a silly post, about Facebook that went viral. Some of the most popular Twitter feeds are the ones that dole out sarcasm or pop culture commentary. Social media shows the truth of who we are: it is not the meaningful, deep conversations that move us. As a species, we are infatuated with the inane. And I hate that social media exposes our shallowness.

How do we, as people of faith, overcome our infatuation with the inane and use social media's potential for communication to share the good news?

Pirate Creed

In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I give you the Pirate Creed:

We believe in one God, the Almighty Admiral,
Maker o’ heaven and ‘arth,    
and o’ all things natural and ghostly.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
T’only Son o’ God, says I, eternally begotten o’ the Admiral,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, nar made, o’ one Bein’wi’ the Father.
Through him all things t’were made.
Far us and far arr salvation
he opened the hatch o’ heav’n
and dropped into the hold:
by the pow’r o’ the Holy Ghost
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made a swabbie.
Fer arr sake he was keel-hauled
by that the scurvy dog, Pontius Pilate;
and was sent t’ Davy Jones’ locker.
On the third day he came back in accardance with the book;
he ascended into heaven
and be seated at the right hand o’ the Admiral.
He will come again in glory t’judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will ha’e no end.
Avast then!
We believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the giver o’ life,
who proceeds from the Admiral and the Cap’n.
With them two, he be worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one dunkin’ far the forgiveness o’ sins.
We look far the resurrection o’ the dead,
and the life o’ the world t’come.
So says one, so says us all. Aye aye

(The Pirate Creed comes from the Pirate Eucharist (pdf), composed by fictitious detective and liturgist Hayden Konig, in Mark Schwetzer's wonderful "Liturgical Mysteries". This series of books should be read be everyone who loves liturgy, snark, and wonderful  inspiring hilarious prose. Pirate Creed used here with permission.)

Why is Texas Burning?

This post is for my friends who don't live in Texas. The fact is, the fires here this year have been extraordinary, simply the most damaging wildfire season on record for our state. 3.6 million acres have burned this season in Texas. How big is that you ask? Well, to put it another way, 5,625 square miles have burned this year -- the state of Connecticut, by comparison, is 5,543 square miles.

The most recent large, destructive fires have been in the Bastrop area, and the Tri-county fire just west of Houston. In Bastrop, more than 40,000 acres burned; in the Tri-county fire, more than 20,000 acres. More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed.

So what is going on? Why is Texas burning?

Start with the heat. It is hot this year - I know, Texas is always hot, right? No, this is an unbelievably hot year even for Texas. This graphic from the National Weather service shows the number of days over 100 degrees for a few key spots around us. For example, College Station (about 45 minutes north of me) has 12 triple digit days in an average year. In 1917, a record was set of 58 days of 100 or better. So far this year, 64 days over 100, and we are still going. Today is forecasted to reach 105.

So it's hot - wicked hot - in Texas this year. That alone is cause for concern. But it is not only hot, it is also dry. And again, we aren't talking just a little bit dry. We are talking about people who have had ranches for generation selling their livestock because not only is there no hay to feed them, but there is also no water in the ponds to give them. The graphic below (National Weather Service) shows our rainfall deficit in the area.

Maybe this will show it a little better. This is the "tank" (as in a pond used as a water tank for livestock) down the road for me. This picture was taken August 1 - it is actually even lower than this now, as it hasn't seen a drop of rain since then. Click through to the larger version. See the dock on the left, about 20 yards from the water line? Yup, the water is supposed to reach it. See the berm on the right, with the cattle walking on top of it? This particular tank often overflows that boundary, and flows out into the field below it.

It is record breaking hot. It is record breaking dry. Oh, and even the air is dry. In Brenham, we are really still Southeast Texas. That means that we are used to summer being like a swamp - we are used to practically needing a snorkel to go outside and get the mail. But this summer, there has been very little humidity. Lately, we have had humidity levels between 10-25% during the day. That means that as the dry winds blow (we've hardly had a day in the last month without at least 10mph winds, often much more) what little water is in the ponds and in the soil, gets sucked right out. It's sort of like a blow dryer has been being used on Texas for more than a month straight.

All of these conditions - the lack of rain, the extraordinary heat, and the dry air - have combined in a perfect storm to produce one result: The state of Texas is kindling. The trees without enough water are shedding all of their leaves and needles, leaving the ground covered with dry leaves piled up against dry trees and houses. The fields are all brown and dead. There is no water in the ponds or streams. It is all kindling.

Here at the church we water (a) to keep our grass from dying off every summer, and more importantly (b) because without water this ground shifts, causing damage to foundations of the buildings. And even with water, large chunks of our grass has died off, and the grounds are covered with the dried leaves falling off of our dying trees.

Notice the little bit of yellowish grass around that huge crack in the ground? That is near a tree that we are watering and trying to keep a alive.

So there you go. Why is Texas burning? Because the state of Texas is kindling.

Oh, and what does the near future look like for us? More of the same.

A September 11 Story

In addition to being a graduate of the finest Lutheran institution of higher learning in the US, Rebecca Kolowe is a diaconal minister in the ELCA. In 2001, Rebecca was an ELCA missionary serving in Cameroon. A few years ago, she wrote this piece on the anniversary of 9/11. (You can read more by Rebecca at her blog)

September 11 is an eerie day for me, as I assume it also is for most Americans in the post 9/11/2001 era. What it must be like for most Americans to remember the happenings of that fateful day, however, and to have it define their consciences and their very beings, is not something that I am familiar with or can understand from experience.

The truth is that my September 11 story is one of life as a missionary in a predominately Muslim town in Central Africa. On September 11, 2001, I was living in Ngaoundere, a bustling town on the central plateau of Cameroon. I was teaching English and Bible at a Protestant High School where many of my students were Muslims. When those planes hit the World Trade Center, it was a little after 3 p.m. in my part of the world. I had just finished teaching for the day and had gone out to the market to buy rice, milk powder, and cheese.

My 9-11 story is that on that afternoon I walked into a shop for ex-patriots that is owned by a prominent and beloved Muslim family in our town. Madame Alizar and her husband are originially from Lebanon. They have made a good living opening their shop selling things that Africans don't eat (like cheese) to the many missionaries and foreign buisiness people that come to Ngaoundere.

On that afternoon the TV was on in the back room. When I came into the shop, Madame Alizar saw me and came out to the front counter. She grabbed my arm frantically and said, "What are you doing here?" Something was obviously wrong. She told me that I had to go home (to my home in Ngaoundere) at once, that something horrible had happened in America.

By the time I got back to my home, it was all over, and the other missionaries were looking for me. They had CNN International on and we all sat down and watched. We knew that this was REALLY bad. Perhaps some of us even knew what it might mean for our country. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know that I did not.

My experience of 9-11 is not one of fear. I don't understand what it was like in America in what must have been those horrible days following the attacks. I hear stories of the eerie quietness of the skies. I hear that the churches were full that following Sunday, and that people stopped each other in the street and remembered their humanity for a while. I have heard those stories.

I have also seen how much 9-11 shaped our consiousness as Americans into something that I didn't recognize when I finally came home to U.S. soil in July of 2002.

On September 12, 2001, I awoke to another average school day. Life just went on. And then there was a knock at my door. A Muslim woman who was my neighbor had come to offer her condolences for what had happened the day before in the U.S. I told her it was OK; I appreciated her kind words, but she didn't have any responsibility for what had happened. Then she told me something that I believe sets my 9-11 experience apart from probably just about every American I know: She said that she didn't have any personal responsibility for the violence, but she was sorry anyways. She talked about how disgusting it was that this horrific act of violence had been done in the name of her religion. She told me that this is not what Muslims believe, and that the Prophet Muhammed would not have condoned this.

This might not have marked me so deeply except that over the course of the day, it happened again and again. Muslim people who I knew, and ones I didn't know, came to me again and again, all day long, to tell me they were so sorry that this had happened and that it had been done in the name of a religion that they espoused. These people, my Muslim neighbors, were truly grieved by the violence that had been committed in the name of Islam, the Prophet they love, and the God they love.

When I came home to the U.S. I began to realize how different my 9-11 experience was from others' experiences. September 11, 2001, changed the face of America in ways that I do not believe are all positive. And, it seems to have been the defining moment of my generation, like the way the Kennedy or the MLK assassinations shaped my parents' generation, or the Great Depression and World War II shaped my grandparents'. And, strangely, I find myself being left out of that defining moment. I missed it--I missed the defining moment. That makes me incredibly different. I believe it also makes me incredibly lucky.

I have been given a gift. For many years, I was afraid to tell people about how the Muslim community cared about and supported me and my fellow missionaries in the days following September 11. It is a very unpopular message, but a true one. I know now, as I did then, that it is a story that needs to be told. I just haven't been able to tell it until very recently.

I know a very different Islam than the one that was portayed here in the days after 9-11. Don't believe everything that a too-liberal media tells you that you should believe about the events of that day and its aftermath. Don't believe everything the government tells you, either. The politics of fear have encroached on our lives and controlled us for too long. Propaganda was not just used in communist USSR or Nazi Germany to control the people; it has been used here in America, too, by our government and media over the last 8 years, and used well. Don't buy in to the idea that Islam is evil. "Islam vs. the West" is something that we have blindly accepted without really knowing what that means.

Remember September 11 for what it was. It was a tragic day in a world full of tragic days. Remember those little glimpses of humanity that you saw in the days following that tragedy. I know I do. I often think about those faithful Muslims who ministered to me in the aftermath of what has become an identity-altering day in the life of my nation. Pray that unity and new birth will arise from the ashes of that day, and that that unity and new birth will include a new identity where people of all faiths can be seen as valuable.

Free Storage from UHaul #txfire

U-Haul is offering 30 days of free storage and U-Box Portable Storage to Texas residents whose homes have been damaged by these wildfires.

Families who need more information about the 30-days-free self-storage assistance program may contact: U-Haul Company of Austin12611 Research Blvd. Austin, TX 78759(512) 331-7777

(source: U-Haul, via Marketwatch)