A Total Eclipse of the Heart

Let me begin by stating that I’ve never really liked the song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s such a sad song. Yet, since the eclipse of August 21, 2017 I can’t get it out of my mind. Maybe because it explains what’s been going on in our country and around the world. Up until this eclipse, individuals have been in a sort of their own total eclipse of the heart. Increasingly, people are looking out for number one. Yet, the time leading up to the eclipse had people focusing on this cosmic event in a way that really struck me. People were communicating to each other on where buy or how to make special glasses, and they even traveled across the country to see the event together. Large groups gathered as a community to watch the event. True, it won’t happen again for quite a long time, but I’ve been amazed at the effect it had on people. I have to admit, that even I was eagerly anticipating seeing even a partial eclipse. People all over the country were of one mind; they were focusing on one thing, and communicating. Something extraordinary was about to happen. And it did. It was more than just a total eclipse of the sun; it was something that changed people. Their total eclipse of the heart –darkened and shaded by doubt and fear – had been opened a little bit. While the sun was growing dim, hearts were growing brighter.  Something changed people’s hearts that day. Instead of fighting and arguing people were helping one another witness this extraordinary event. The media relayed pictures of people – young and old, black and white, gay and straight, different ethnic, economic, and political backgrounds – all united together in this rare experience. And that is what moved me even more than the celestial event.  It moved me to see – even if briefly – that everyone can get along. Everyone can put aside our differences. There can be peace. If we have the ability to come together for an event like this, surely we can come together to bring justice and peace for all. Love, like the sun, can break through the total eclipse of the heart.

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God’s Circle of Love

Yesterday on my day off of from work I traveled  to visit my daughter and son-in-law. The weather was beautiful and we spent the day in DC walking, eating out, and visiting the National Museum of the American Indian. I always find it difficult to read about the atrocities that White Europeans inflicted on the American Indian and in fact, these atrocities have not ended. Treaties are still being broken and countless of American Indians on reservations are forced to live in hopelessness. It breaks my heart and it breaks God’s heart.

And the cruelty and brutality toward other races and people continues throughout our country and our world. The brutal shootings in Charleston, SC have captured everyone’s attention, but this violence has been going on for centuries, only now it is getting media attention. One would think that we as a nation have come far in eliminating racism and prejudice, but sadly we have not. How do we stop this? Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Last night, we ended our evening by attending Jazz in the Garden – the weekly summer Friday night gathering of jazz in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Gardens. People from all races, genders, ages, and religions sat close together in the grass, at tables, or around the immense circular fountain pond (The fountain was not turned on.). We sat there surrounding the water, listening to music, our feet in the water – hundreds maybe thousands of feet of all different colors, shapes, and sizes – and we enjoyed a couple of hours of harmony and peace. Music has a way of uniting people. I looked around and saw people of all kinds surrounded by a circle of love and peace. How I hope and pray that one day that peace will last for more than a few hours. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with each one of us.

Holy Encounters

CPE Graduation
August 12, 2011

 

Less than three months ago we embarked on this mysterious journey called CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. We quickly were introduced to a new vocabulary of didactics, IPR’s and verbatims. What concerned us all the most was what were we going to say to these strangers who needed our help? We worried over finding the right words and doing the right things. We knew we couldn’t heal them, but we wanted to try.

And try we did. We encountered people who suffered from dementia and saw their minds fade in and out of awareness. We sat beside people who were undergoing chemotherapy hoping for a cure and listened with compassion to those who revealed they only had a short time left to live. We stood by the beds and in the rooms of those anxious about an upcoming surgery, we read to those who were lonely and felt alone, we sat at the bedsides gently holding the hands of those who were taking their last breaths in this life, and prayed and breathed new life into those who needed to feel the Spirit of the living God.

And through it all we experienced our own personal tragedies. Our pain, ever so close to the surface at times, kept veiled enough to keep those for whom we encountered from feeling our own burdens. Yet laughter and joy somehow found its way in the spaces between. The space between life and death. The space between today’s anxieties and tomorrow’s peace.  The space between fear and hope. It’s where we all live and where we do our ministry – in the space between. And our job as ministers is to help people see God in the spaces between.

Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer, tells a story about fugitive hiding in a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became afraid. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill everyone if they didn’t hand over the fugitive before dawn. The minister didn’t want to hand over the fugitive or see the villagers killed so the minister went to his room and read his Bible hoping to find an answer. He read “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.” So the minister told the soldiers where the fugitive was hiding. The entire village celebrated because their lives were saved, but the minister was deeply troubled because the fugitive was killed. That night an angel came to him and asked “What have you done?” The minister said, “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister asked. Then the angel said “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”

Ministry is not just about studying theology or searching the Bible for the right answers. It is about meeting people where they are – in the spaces between – and looking them in the eyes and seeing the Messiah. It is seeing the one in whose image we were all created, and revealing to others this image of God through our eyes. We do not need to speak the right words, God speaks through us.

Our eyes have been opened through this journey called CPE and we have been touched by those we have encountered as much as we have touched their lives. We have learned that it is not only in giving that we receive, but that in receiving we give.

We understand now with new minds.

We see now with new eyes.

We feel now with new hands.

And we love one another with new hearts.

We may have begun this journey in the hopes of healing others, but we ourselves have been healed in the process. For those encounters – the ones we prayed with, laughed with, cried with and rejoiced with – were sacred. They were holy encounters because whenever God is present all is made holy. And it is our mission to proclaim that God is always present even when it is not obvious or least expected. It is on this holy journey that we continue forward. Amen.

God’s Work, Our Hands

Not long ago I found myself feeling more than a little overwhelmed about a number of things. Starting seminary later in life, adjusting to rigorous memorization, financial concerns, and being far from home were among the many reasons for my new-found angst. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, much like the Israelites wandering in the desert. I felt lost, alone and afraid and the kind “it will all be okay” remarks, while encouraging, were not helping.

I decided to reveal my frustrations to someone I barely knew, but whose wise spiritual counsel I sensed I could trust. He listened, shared his advice and experiences, and prayed with me. That is where the transformation happened. As we joined hands in prayer, God’s presence was revealed. At the end of the prayer we sat in silence, still holding hands because the prayer was not finished. It was God’s turn to talk. As the pastor’s clasp grew increasing tighter in mine, it felt as if they were no longer his hands, but God’s hands. The tighter the grip became, the more I could hear God saying “Hold onto me as tight as you have to; I won’t ever leave you. Don’t be afraid. I’m right here.” Every time I feel afraid, I picture and feel God’s hands in mine and I am filled with peace and confidence – not my own abilities, but in God’s. God worked through that pastor that day to speak to me.

God works through each of us in the same way. Our actions don’t have to be big and we may not even realize that God is using us at a particular moment, but that may very well be the case. A friend recently knew I needed chairs for my apartment, so he continued to look out for stray chairs for me, often taking the time to fix them so they would be usable. He didn’t have to take the time to do that, but in doing so, he was carrying out God’s work and showing me not only that he cared for my needs, but that more importantly God cared.

The tag line for the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is God’s Work, Our Hands. What this means is that God’s work is carried out by us. We are the means by which God’s message is revealed. Jesus walked this earth over 2000 years ago, preaching, teaching, and healing, but his mission continues through us today. Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) He was referring to clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned…caring for one another. Whenever we care for someone else, we care for Christ and He in turn is revealed through us. As Christians we are called to carry out the work of Christ each and every day.

Mother Theresa said that we show Christ “not in big things, but in small things done with great love.” The small things we do may, in fact, be big things to someone else and the collective small things add up to form something big. What each of us does has a ripple effect that goes far beyond what we can see. A drop of water in a glass does not fill it, but a multitude of drops fills it to overflowing. The small acts of compassion we show to one are the very substance of what fills someone’s cup to overflowing.

When you sit and really listen to someone rather than just brushing them off, when you stop in the hallway to talk to your neighbor rather than quickly walking into your apartment, when you send someone a quick email just to say you are thinking of them and praying for them, or share a meal with someone, you are doing God’s work.  You are spreading the Gospel in a personal way and bringing God’s message of love and grace to that person. Your seemingly small actions may be the very way that God speaks to someone. That handshake, that touch of compassion may very well be a direct lifeline straight to God. Make a space for grace and let God’s work be done -through your hands today.

A Primer in Grace

Several days ago, I spent an entire day with three of my friends scraping wallpaper off one of the rooms in my house.  I call them friends because they still want to talk to me after a grueling day of manual labor on a hot summer day.  They arrived early in the morning and stayed until around dinner time, and although they wished they could stay longer, I was more grateful that I could express to them for all they had done.  I had been painting other rooms in the house for the last couple of weeks, but with my work schedule there was no way I could do anymore alone.  I was confident after their help that I could finish the rest before midnight.  It had to be finished because I was having an open house the next day in order to sell it before I moved away to attend seminary.  I wanted it to look as good as it possibly could, especially with the competition of so many other homes in the weak economy. 

The remaining scraping and sanding took much longer than I had anticipated, but by midnight I was ready to begin priming the walls.  I had a gallon and a half of primer for a very small room, so I knew this next phase would go rather quickly.  That was before I opened the unopened full gallon of primer to find that it had gone bad.  Originally the paint was stored in the shed, but I brought it in before the winter frost ruined it.  At least that is what I thought, but it was obvious from the paint that it was not brought in soon enough.  The paint had separated – oil on the top and gritty, sand-like paint on the bottom.  No matter how hard I tried, it was ruined and so was my painting project.  It was now well after midnight and now even Walmart was closed.  I had less than a half of a gallon of primer in the other can to complete the entire room.  It was impossible.  I’ve been painting since I was a teenager, when I used to help my parents with their house.  There was no way that this was enough paint to do the room.  It was obvious to even a small child that this was in no way enough paint to cover two walls never mind a whole room.

Tired, hot, and now in total despair I did not know what to do.  This had to be finished before noon that day.  I began to stir the paint, trying to convince myself that somehow this would be enough paint, but as I continued to stir I realized I was only deceiving myself.  There was no time in the morning to get more paint.  I had to put the final coat of paint on in the morning, so I did the only thing left to do.  I prayed.  I stirred the paint and prayed with each circular motion that God would multiply the paint like he multiplied the loaves and the fishes.  I stirred and I prayed and yet, deep down, I couldn’t stop saying to myself to look at the obvious and realize there was just not enough to go around.

Still, I refused to listen to the negative voices and began to pour small amounts of paint into the painting tray.  I poured and I prayed and then I began to paint.  I tried to use the paint sparingly, yet I had to have enough to cover the dark paneling that covered the walls or the top coat would never look good.  My father and I would do painting projects when I was growing up and I remembered him pushing on the roller to get every bit of paint out that he could.  I pushed hard on the roller and prayed even harder for a miracle.  Things were going great and I finished the first wall.  I stepped back to see the other three walls mocking me like the devil himself, but I forged ahead despite the hopelessness of it all. 

Little by little I pushed harder on the roller to see paint come out of what was now becoming a very dry roller.  Even my cat, who now was lying on the chair as if to watch a great comedy, mocked me as she reached out her paw to touch a dried out roller that left no paint on her paw.  How could I be painting walls without hardly any paint?  It seemed absurd, yet as St. Paul wrote I pressed on to the race set before me.  I poured the paint sparingly into the pan and watched to my own amazement (and the cat’s) as more and more of the walls were primed.  How was this possible?  By all reason, I had only enough to do perhaps one or two walls, yet as I continued I kept hearing what I knew was God’s own voice saying trust Me.  But there’s not enough paint; I’m going to run out, I said. Trust Me.  I should just quit right now; this is crazy.  Trust Me.  I continued with my painting, pushing harder on the roller and at times it seemed like no paint was left at all in the dry withered roller.  Yet like Ezekiel’s dried bones in the Bible, God was breathing new life into this roller, into this paint, into my soul.  Trust Me. There was a miracle happening in this room right before my eyes and if anyone had told me this story I wouldn’t have believed them, but here I was witnessing a real miracle and instead of feeling exhausted now, I felt a new excitement like I had never felt before.  God was here with me in the room and He was taking the little I had and multiplying it before my very eyes.  Trust Me, He continued.

There was only a couple more inches of paint left now and as I looked around, there were still sections that needed to be painted by the brush.  Would I make it?  Yes, yes, I was caught up in the rhythm of the sound of trust Me, like the rushing of the wind at Pentecost and it wasn’t just about the paint now.  This miracle was more than just the paint, it was about what was going on in my own life.  I was anxious about a great many things as I prepared to head off to seminary.  What about…..trust Me.  But Lord, what about…..trust Me.  But what if I can’t…..trust Me.  Over and over God was saying to trust Him.  Had He ever let me down?  Even when I experienced great tragedy, had He ever totally abandoned me? No, God was always with me, even when it felt hopeless, even when others let me down, God never did.    God never betrayed me.  God never would.  Maybe I don’t know how it will all work out, but God will be with me.  God is with all of us even when we don’t realize it, even when we can’t always feel Him; He is with us.

There was amazingly enough paint to finish the entire room with a cup left over.  Yes, a cup left over!  Again, I wouldn’t have believed it, if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.  Should I have checked the other gallon of paint earlier in the evening so I could have gone out and purchased more?  It would have been easier, but I don’t believe it was part of God’s plan.  If there was enough paint to begin with, there would have been no reason for a miracle.  If there had been enough wine when Jesus went to the wedding at Cana, there wouldn’t have been a reason for a miracle.  If sin hadn’t entered the world, there wouldn’t have been a reason for a miracle – the miracle of God’s incarnation to save us from death and give us the gift of everlasting life. 

I don’t know if my house will sell like I need it to or how any of the other concerns I have will be resolved, but I feel a sense of peace that somehow they will.  Maybe we need the times of scarcity to prepare the way for God’s glory to be revealed.  Perhaps, like St. Paul wrote, we should “count it all joy” when we encounter various kinds of trials because we know that somehow God will work it out for good.  God will reveal His glory through the brokenness in our lives.  Even when it seems hopeless, even when it seems like a situation is impossible, trust Him.  Let Him tear down the walls of doubt and make a space for grace.  The God of miracles still lives.  Amen.

AINVIAT

Life is a combination of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, celebration and tribulation.  The Bible says “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1  At times if feels like you’re on top of the world and at other times you feel like all you can do is keep your nose above water for fear of drowning. Life is not about sailing through our days in a lulled state of reverie, but of actively being alive and experiencing all the ups and downs that come with it.

 This past month has been a particularly challenging one for me.  While it was not the worse one of my life, it did present me with an assortment of challenges. The question is how do I keep myself from falling into a pit of despair?  How do any of us handle these unexpected challenges? The answer is to keep our focus on the number one priority in our life – God.  St. Paul writes, “ but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  When faced with difficulties, we press on, keeping our eyes focused on Christ because “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”  Phillipians 3:14

 You might argue that this is easier said than done, particularly in certain situations.  A person who is facing or experiencing a job loss, a life-threatening illness, or perhaps even death would find it difficult at best to believe that it will work out, especially if there seems like no hope.  The truth is, however, that with God there is always hope, always an answer, even if it is not the one we expect.   I am sure the disciples felt hopeless when they saw Jesus crucified and buried.  It seemed like all their dreams were shattered.  But that is the point we need to be aware of.  There is a big difference between what something seems like and what is.  It may seem at times like there is no hope, but with God there is always a solution.  God has a plan even if we don’t know what it is and He is always involved in our lives.  God cared so much about us that He sent His only Son to die for each and every one of us so that we would have eternal life – so that we would never be lost and alone.

 One night a couple of weeks ago, as I was driving home from caring for my daughter who was recovering from surgery, my car was damaged from road construction and the tire blew out.  As I sat there late that night waiting for the tow truck, I expected at any moment that I would burst into tears.  This was the culmination of a rough few weeks and I was exhausted and uncertain as to how to pay for these car repairs that I knew would be expensive.  What happened, however, was quite amazing.  As I sat there waiting and uncertain, I started singing.  I began to sing How Great Thou Art and as I sang, the grace of God poured through my veins as hard as the rain poured down outside the car.  My spirit was lifted and the peace of God transformed me.  I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, but I knew that God would work it out somehow for His glory. 

 There are quite a few things in my life that are uncertain, but one thing is quite certain – God said “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  And therefore, as St. Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9   How can we boast about our weaknesses, about our pain, about our struggles?  We can boast because we have the assurance that God’s glory will be shown through these events.  Christ rose from the dead and is alive.  If Christ conquered death, than certainly He can conquer any of the challenges that face us and He sends reminders – moments of grace – at just the right time.

These reminders are often found in the most unusual circumstances, even on car license plates.  I am intrigued and often surprised by the different vanity plates I see on cars.  One license plate has caught my attention for a long time.  It is parked in the parking lot where I work and says AINVIAT.  I’ve never been able to figure it out, until last week, when the driver (who happened to be someone I’ve worked with, but didn’t know it was his car) started driving away.  As we greeted one another, I stopped him and told him that I have wanted to know what the license plate means and I was glad to have the chance to ask him.  He replied that it is Romanian for He is Risen!  What an unexpected moment of grace at a time when I needed it the most.   Yes, He is risen indeed and He is with us always until the end of time!  God makes a space for grace in our lives even in the most unexpected of circumstances.  AINVIAT!  He is risen indeed!

Holy Ground

A family of three from our church congregation just moved away. They were only with us for a short time, but they left a lasting impression on all of us. Their quiet, peaceful and joy-filled spirits drew you in like the fragrance of sweet jasmine and the brightly colored saris that Naleema wore gave us a window into the life of India, their native home. It was a single act, however, that made the most impact on me.  I noticed it one day when they were kneeling to receive Communion during our worship service.  What captured my attention was that they were not wearing any shoes; they had taken them off before they went up to the front. At first, I wondered it it was just on thie particular day, but every Sunday I would look up and there they were – kneeling respecfully with no shoes. I, myself, was humbled by this seemingly simple, yet bold act of faith. They were acknowledging to God – and without knowing it to me – that they were in the presence of God and  this moment deserved special attention. They understood that they were on Holy Ground.

Martin Luther said this about the Lord’s Supper in the Large Catechism: “For here in the sacrament you receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God’s grace and Spirit with all His gifts, protection, defense and power against death and the devil and all evils.”  Wow! I don’t think we always stop to take in what a powerful and amazing gift this is! It is through the Lord’s Supper that we humans are united with Christ. We have the opportunity through this sacred meal to touch and be touched by Him.

Are we worthy? Certainly not, but God does not require us to be worthy or perfect to receive Him. He only asks us to believe. The words “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you.” are meant for each one of us individually. God gave His life for each one of us – not merely as a collective whole – but each and every human being. It is a gift that is truly too good to be true, and yet it is!

The removal of sandals before entering a holy place was an ancient custom and examples are given in the Bible such as when Moses encountered God in the burning bush (Exodus 3:5) or when Joshua met the commander of the Lord’s army (Joshua 5:15).  They were told to remove their sandals for the place where they were standing was holy ground. God is still speaking  and revealing Himself to us today, but we don’t necessarily need to physically remove our shoes to acknowledge His presence – although it might certainly cause us to pause and think about it more seriously.

We need to humble ourselves before God and soak in this sacred event. We are privileged to be able to partake of this priceless treasure – this extravagant gift as often as possible. In this Holy Communion, God has created a space for His grace to enter our lives and it is truly Holy Ground.