August 12, 2010

Mourning and Blessing

In the middle of August, our congregation lost a recent new friend: Dan Terry, father-in-law of our Pastoral Intern, Chris TerryNelson.  A seasoned mission-worker in Afghanistan since the 1970s, Dan and his wife Seija endeared themselves to our congregation during a recent furlough in New Wilmington.  Ten minutes talking to Dan--a gift many of us enjoyed last winter--and it became clear you were in the presence of someone great, precisely because of his humility, boyish charm, and the sparkle in his eye as he related tales from the country halfway around the world he had come to call home.

In an email correspondance, shortly before departing for Kabul and a funeral service, Chris wrote to his friends:

"I wanted to thank you for your prayers and your support for our family in this time, as many of you have written and called with overwhelming encouragement. God is protecting us in a very vulnerable time, and is providing safe passage.  I want to ask that you pray not only for us, but for the men who gave in to violence.  Dan was a man of peace, and the first thing he would encourage us to do is to pray for these men and their families.  Dan and the team knew the risks of going into this remote area, but the night before he left we talked to him in Skype, and he told us that he had to go, with that typical boyish grin and determination that was so much like him.  As you’ll read in the papers, the people in the Northeastern area of Nuristan are in deep need, and nobody is there to help them.  It is fitting that Christians, with the hope and joy of Christ, should put their lives at risk in order to help those in need when no one else will, and Dan was a supreme witness to the faith in this respect.  But he was also a consistent witness in his life as a family man, by living this way with Anneli and I as a father-figure as a husband to his wife Seija, who is currently working with Cure International in Kabul."

Although our time to know Dan here in New Wilmington was brief, let us give thanks for those who model a living Jesus-faith and conduct themselves with diligence, bravery, and compassion.

His father-in-law's death comes on the cusp of Chris' departure from us, his year-long pastoral internship completed.  Chris has accepted a call to be only the second installed pastor of the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church just south of Nashville, Tn.  The congregation is a new church development project of the Middle Tennessee presbytery, and includes around 100 active members.  He will begin his service to them as a Teaching Elder sometime in September.

Based on what we have experienced in knowing Chris, and how we have watched him develop over these last dozen months, we are confident that God will bless the  people of the Emmanuel congregation with a bright, warm, theologian-pastor.  Chris has blessed this year with a great hunger for learning, a deep theological curiosity, a tender openness about his own life and faith, and his keen interest in seeing the church exit its own walls and be the people of God wherever they may be.  What we have seen and heard in seeds and new buds, may the Presbyterians south of Nashville, current and future, come to know in full bloom.

We have thanks for Chris' learning and service among us, and pray Godspeed upon his dear family and his ordained ministry.

August 8, 2010

One Tale to Rule Them All

In the life of any given family, every day generates new stories to tell.  The refrigerator stops working, a postcard from Uncle George arrives from Budapest, your kid starts kindergarten.  Every day, another anecdote.

Even so, not all tales are created equal. Some set the tone for others.

Recently, a person in my congregation was relating to me the narrative of how a house on the shoreline of Lake Chautauqua in New York state came into his family’s possession years ago.  It is currently enjoyed by a fourth generation, with an eye toward a fifth.  Buried there at the beginning of all that handing-down is quite a tale to tell—a story about a dream, a purchase, and a plan for construction.  One could say that the decision of great-grandparents to develop a little spot by the lake has introduced countless new tales into the lives of his entire progeny. And you can bet that at least once a summer, someone pushes back from the dinner table and recounts for all the narrative of how this place came to be. One primal story has set the tone for countless others.

In a similar fashion, not all tales in scripture are created equal.

Books of quotations from the Bible—collections of singular verses lifted from their context and arranged by topic—have the unfortunate effect of flattening out the Biblical narrative, suggesting that every story is cut from the same cloth.  True, one could (should) say that everything in scripture is important to us as the gathered faith community, but it is just as necessary to say that not everything in scripture is of the same importance.  A few primal stories set the tone for all others.

In the Old Testament, for instance, there is one tale that rules them all: the Exodus.  The second book of the Bible turns out to be first in importance, because it is the book of Exodus that narrates God’s first and fundamental act of redemption: liberating the Hebrew slaves from the hard hand of Egypt’s pharaoh.  The living God overhears the cries of the Hebrew minions and sets in motion a plan for judgment upon Pharaoh and release for his bondage-people.  This tale, this primary Old Testament narrative, sets the tone for all the others that follow and precede.

What about the creation stories of Genesis? Is not God’s act of creation more important than any rescue, if only because there could be no release without existence in the first place?  That may be good logic, but it is not the theological-logic of the Bible itself.  Genesis 1-3—important as they are—are best understood as a holy afterthought, an inspired prologue leading up to the crown jewel of the first Testament: the Exodus encounter.  The first and foremost news of the Bible is that God liberates and restores.  The creation narratives are later appended to the front of this tale in order to announce that the God who formed a people out of worthless slaves turns out to be the same God who formed the cosmos from meaningless chaos.

More than even the creation stories, it is the Exodus that sets the tone for what follows in the Bible.  God’s compassionate ear, God’s calling of unlikely Moses, God’s judgment upon the hard heart of Pharaoh, God’s making a water-way where there was no way, God’s leading his band of folk through the long wilderness, God’s promise for a promised land.  These are the contours for every good Biblical tale that follows; these are the building blocks for every other bit of news the scriptures intend to announce.  And chiefly, from the perspective of our baptized journey, these are the primal ingredients for the other great normative tale of our two-tiered Bible: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.

Two stories to rule them all.

August 1, 2010

Nothing Will Be Wasted

In my relatively short time as a pastor to D.B.—two years
I have nevertheless embraced the privilege
of offering this particular passage of scripture:
Romans 8, the groaning of creation, the coming redemption of all things

... the privilege of offering these gospel words
to D. and M. over the course of a
half a dozen home communions

Neither I nor the Deacons who have accompanied me
will forget those encounters anytime soon

You see, it is one thing to say to one another
We believe God is here with us now
but is quite another to share in the generous fellowship of food
and to say
Take, D.  Eat.  This is his body broken for you.
Swallow this bread
and take his life into yours

And with each recent gathering,
the words of Romans 8
filled his sun-drenched bedroom
on the southwest corner of the B. home

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.

I have spent a great deal of time with these words
both in my study and at bedsides crowded by machines
and as a result
I do not imagine for a second that the Apostle means to say
Our sufferings are worthless, without weight of meaning

I think—indeed, I know—Paul means to say:
For now, there is real suffering
In the world, in this life, in these bodies

We would only disrespect the courage, patience, faith of our brother now departed if we suggested otherwise

But the stunning newness that God will soon transact
in the resurrection of his people and the recreation of creation
(a newness tasted in the appetizer of Easter morning)
When you catch a glimpse of that new world moving toward us
even if but for a moment
you will find that the sufferings of this present time are subdued into that glorious new perspective

It will be sort of like the way you go to visit a dying friend
starved of meaning in your spirit
tempted by the darkness of his circumstance
all ready to feel sorry for him

Only suddenly your find yourself leaving
warmed by the suffusing light of those rooms
with generous food in hand for your family -- Presbyterian Pesto
feeling sorry that you ever intended to feel sorry for him

It’s sort of like that, I think

A conversion of perspective
not because we settle for the bones of denial
but because we are richly fed, in the meal of grace

We come to consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed among us

To sojourn with D. and M. in these recent years
has been to know a well-attested hospitality
Many of you know of this meal far more than I
the warm welcome
the gracious space
even if shaky, the outstretched hand of fellowship
the twinkle in the eye, illuminating until the end

and as a postlude

a package of peppers or pesto to go home to your family
just because
it is in the nature of things there

This week
on the cusp of my departure
from a time of prayer and scripture with D. and family

I stood in the B. kitchen
and listened to gladsome talk
and food and meals and traditions

On the matter of M. making good use of every ingredient
she dispensed an off-handed comment about her mother

I guess I have a bit of her in me
She was of the Depression
When it came to food,
nothing was wasted, 
everything was put to use

Those last words shot through me like watts of electricity

And at the great risk of melodrama
right there in the foyer of their home
it was though Romans 8 came together for me
and I could see it again, anew
what God is up to in these broken, beleaguered bodies of ours
what this God is doing amid the groaning of this world

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, those who have been called according to his purpose.

Nothing is wasted
Everything is put to use

This does not mean that all things are good
This does not imply that
we are not Cold Stubborn Fatalists

We are Easter Christians
warmed—embraced!—by the news that
nothing will finally escape God’s
dogged insistence to deliever a new creation
from the groans of our painful labor

The recent journey of our brother is submerged in mystery, to be sure

But let the mystery rest in why it is God’s otherwise good creation
so regularly resists his call to abundant life
and appears so prone to stubborn decay

And in parallel
let there be no mystery about this news:
That what God is working for is freedom—the freedom of his children
That the Spirit is not the cause of the but the help in our weakness

That this God is, in fact,
more acquainted with our sufferings than we are
and therefore able to pray for us
to intercede for us
with groans of longing we ourselves cannot even name

That in all things God works for the good of those who love him

That in the end
in the sweeping newness of that great Easter morning to come
nothing will have been wasted
not even the loathsome persistence of Parkinson’s

The markers of this promise even now?
an infectious smile
a glimmer in the eye
a deep Friday-like concern for others
a hint of Sunday-mischief to enliven the day

It appears that many people picture
God up on high
dispenser of pain and pleasure
kind, maybe, but mostly indifferent
distributer of circumstances
with which we can only learn to cope

What if it turned out
that God was more like
a Depression Era mother
insistent that nothing be wasted
determined that no single ingredient will spoil the meal
finding divine gladness when everyone is fed

That his baptism marks his belonging to this news
That he is for now held safe in the care of this God
That in the resurrection he will be raised up, healed and whole

this is the pesto of our praise

(for DMB)