Holy Week Chiaroscuro

Rev. Rick MixonWe could celebrate spring, but we really haven’t had much winter. That’s partly a function of living in this area generally, but it’s also connected to our current drought. The flowers that bloom in the spring are doing just that and have been for some time – too soon for some. The Sierra snowpack is dismal which means extended drought and mandatory rationing in the forecast. It’s safe to say that the “winter of our discontent” is not in the beauty of the climate but in the sparseness of water. Water is life and the lack of it can most certainly become a “valley of our shadow.” At some time or other in our lives, each of us will walk through a “valley of shadow.” It may be death; it may be drought; it may be depression; it may be destruction, but as surely as we are alive we will face difficulties.

As Lent draws to a close and we look to Easter, I am reminded of the ways in which Easter is a much more powerful experience when it rises from the agony and pain of the Passion. What do we learn, must we learn, from this time of Lent? Baptist News Global published an article yesterday on Baptists and Good Friday. The gist of the article is to encourage Baptists, for whom this has not always been a part of their tradition, to learn the value of Lenten practice, particularly the commemoration of Good Friday. In the article, Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, argues that ignoring Good Friday robs Easter of its meaning. He says, “We have to reckon with ruin and death to fully celebrate the power and liberation of life that we encounter in Christ’s resurrection.”

This road we walk is a complete journey with peaks and valleys, sweeping vistas of consummate inspiration and a shadowy vales of pervading pain. The old song sings that Jesus “walked this lonesome valley. He had to walk it by himself. O nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself.” There is a sense in which this is true for each of us as we travel through life. It sometimes feels just plain lonely. We may even cry out, with Christ on the cross, “Why, O God, have you forsaken me?” The abyss before us appears impassable.

Be clear that I am not suggesting that anyone actively seek suffering. Lent and Good Friday are not necessarily to be desired or sought out, yet they inevitably come. Note that the old song takes a twist when it sings, “Nobody else could walk it for him.” That’s where the real truth lies. No one else can walk our way “for us,” but surely someone else can walk it with is. This is does not mean we won’t experience the loneliness, the pain, the suffering but we do not have to face it alone. Accompaniment is one of the characteristics we teach in pastoral care and counseling, but you don’t have to be a trained professional to walk alongside someone in need.

God walks the dark hills
The ways, the byways
He walks through the billows
Of lifeʹs troubled sea
He walks through the cold dark night
The shadows of midnight
God walks the dark hills
Just to guide you and me

My sister had Iris DeMent’s haunting version of this song sung at my nephew, Jack’s, memorial service several years ago. At 21 he died of an overdose of heroin on Thanksgiving Day. The loss, the pain for her, for us all, was indescribable. And still, somewhere there was a sense, a haunting hope, that we do not walk dark hills or lonesome valleys alone. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

We don’t seek suffering to prove this point. Suffering, pain, death – they come on their own. But, amazing grace! in the depths of the journey we discover that we are not alone. We are accompanied  every step of the way. I know it may be hard to feel the presence at times and we move toward despair.  Even Jesus agonizes in the garden and cries from the cross – and still he moves steadily, faithfully on to fulfill God’s call. Even through death, all the way down to the depths of “hell,” Love lures him on to the promise of resurrection and new life in the One who created life and holds it dear.

It’s both Good Friday and Easter. You really can’t have one without the other. The upcoming concerts for the Choral Project are organized around the theme, “Chiaroscuro,” that great Italian term for the interplay of light and darkness. The artist knows that somehow each enhances the other. At the end of the concert, we sing a text drawn in part from The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. In resurrection language the finale proclaims, “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the Lover with the beloved, transforming the beloved in the Lover.” Strange language, perhaps, from an ancient mystic. Still, does it not speak of our resurrection hope, to be united in the Lover, to be joined with Christ, to linger in the healing grace of God? To have experienced the fullness of the journey can only enrich the joy of reaching the destination. Christ is risen, indeed!

Pastor Rick

To Be God’s People

God's People“To Be God’s People” is our theme for this year. I like it because it both challenges and comforts us, affirms and asks something of us. I suppose this is a tension we always live with as people of faith. We make the audacious claim that the One who created all that is loves and cares for us. We even claim to be made in the image and likeness of this Holy One. With both pride and humility, we say that we are  children of the Living God.

In the southern USA, when somebody asks who your people are, they’re asking about your origins – where did you come from? What’s your tribe? Who are your mama and your daddy? We look back up the family tree and are bold to assert that we come from God. Our kin are the family of God. God is our mama and our daddy. I’m sure this sounds foolish to those who have not known God’s care and loving kindness, who have not sensed God’s grace or felt God’s embrace. We are God’s people because we have known it in our bones. This is a huge part of the good news we bring to those who are lost and  wandering, unsure and wondering, lonely and hurting. Come on home. There’s plenty of room and plenty to share in the beloved community of God’s people. How do we know? We’ve experienced it.

At the same time there is lot work to be done if we are to fulfill our role as God’s people. It is a gift of grace, without a doubt, but it also entails enormous responsibility. To be God’s people is to share in God’s compassion and love for all creation. To be God’s people is to work for justice and peace. To be God’s people is to care or all those people who inhabit the planet, along with the earth itself. To be God’s people is to share from our abundance and privilege as we work for economic equity and opportunity for every human being to fulfill the life that God has given. To be God’s people is to join Jesus in bringing in the kingdom of God or, better, the beloved community of God, to reality right here, right now.

In looking for a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to commemorate the anniversary of his birth this week, I found these words: “I discovered later, and Iʹm still discovering, right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this‐worldliness I mean living unreservedly in lifeʹs duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.” To be God’s people is take seriously the suffering those of God in the world, those not knowing fully God’s embrace, those not trusting the everlasting arms. To be the people of God is to trust that God is with us, challenging us and sustaining us every step of the way.

In a sense, growing into the fullness of what it means to be God’s people brings us full circle, back to that sense of value and affirmation with which we began. In the beginning, when God created everything, including God’ people, God called it all good. God delighted in our being and blessed us. There are many ways we have wandered, many reasons we turn our backs on God, refusing to participate, many  justifications for responding to the siren sounds that lure us away from God. But we always have the testimony of that boy, sitting in desolation and despair, who remembered that home was still there and who hoped against hope that God would be waiting with open arms. When he came to his senses he risked throwing himself completely into the arms of God. Who knows? In the process his life may have been transformed.

To be God’s people – to recognize the One to whom we belong, the One from whom we come and to whom we return. To be God’s people – to realize that home is waiting and to see that in that home there is room and resource for all people, indeed, for all creation. To be God’s people – to join joyfully with God in shared love and compassion, responsibility and care for that creation and all those people looking and longing to claim their identity as God’s people, whether they know it or not. To be God’s people – to throw ourselves into God’s everlasting arms, trusting that those arms are big enough and strong enough to hold the whole world, including us.

To be God’s people – to accept the challenge and to rest in the affirmation. May this be our journey in the year ahead and may God bless us every step of the way.

Pastor Rick

TO BE GOD’S PEOPLE!

Not for the faint of heart…

tripp-mandolinFriends of God,

This is not for the faint of heart.

An ancient poem goes something like this:

Understand these words well:
You absolutely must achieve freedom!
You definitely must go down the path
that leads to the shore.
With an undaunted heart and singing
with a bold strong voice you will cross over.
You will have to breast the waves cheerfully
in spite of the storm’s blasts.
Even if the entanglements of illusions
cause you to reel in bewilderment
you will still have to get release.
On the path there are indeed thorns;
trampling on them,
you will have to go on.
Don’t die fearfully
while you hold dreams of happiness
tightly in your embrace.
In order to have your fill of life
You will have to sustain the blows of death.

As many of you know, it’s been a rough road lately in our home. Friends have lost loved ones, young children. We have lost family, a young man of twenty-two. The new year has been a bit rough thus far. But that is the way of things. So often I am inclined to think that there is ever a time without difficulty, without someone’s deep loss. I only imagine that there is a time free of loss and grief in the world. The truth is that there is never such a time.

This is why we must cultivate compassion. We must.

Suffering and death happen. We all get to do it. We may wish to live as if that were not true, our own mortality being too terrible a burden (understandably) for many. But today I am holding death up to the light and saying, once again, God does not give us suffering. God does not send us tests. The death of a loved one is not a test from the “God who so loved the world.” No. Never. Stop it.

Don’t do that to the one whom God loved so very much. God is kind, slow to anger, long-suffering. God is compassionate.

I have been reminded that we serve a God who suffers and dies every day, a crucified Christ. Suffering and death are not tests. They are never tests. Nor are they “gifts.”

The saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle” assumes we know a great deal about what God gives us in the first place. I’m not so certain we can know what God gives except to say God does not give us suffering. God does not give us death.

Instead, God suffers and dies.

Then there’s another poem. This one is from the Sufi poet Rumi. It goes something like this:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

A friend of mine recently said, “No matter how hard it gets I always say to myself, ‘I am glad to be alive.’” There is this thing we call joy, resurrection, suffering and death are never the end of the story. And though Lent will likely be a bit more deep and dark than usual for me this year, I am aware of where this season ends…

…Alleluia!
Pastor Tripp