Sunday, February 22, 2015

Clean Hearts

We are learning about the Beatitudes in our children's midweek program at church, and I am privileged to be one of the leaders. An advantage of being a leader is the discipline of attentiveness. Because of the time spent in preparation, my heart is attentive to how other parts of life fit into the truth I am hoping to engage with the children.

We are nearly through the Beatitudes. Our verse was Matthew 5:8, "Blessed are those whose hearts are clean, they will see God."  Other versions interpret the blessing to be for those whose hearts are pure. Either way, a complicated concept for children, or so I thought.

The timing of this beatitude lesson was serendipitous. We had not planned for it to work out this way, but our lesson happened to fall on Ash Wednesday, which this year was four days after Valentine's Day. It was good timing for focusing on clean hearts. We chose to participate with the other age groups of the church in the Ash Wednesday service during the last 20 minutes of our time together.

The children begin with music,  and our leaders, not knowing of our choice to talke about clean hearts, never-the-less chose songs about clean hearts. 

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." 

"Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary for you."

I have no idea how much the children thought about the words they were singing, but the words met a need in me to see that God  was present and active, and that the lesson was more in God's hands than it was in mine.

I had worked long days babysitting in the three days leading up to this lesson and had only been able to give the lesson cursory attention. It was not planned in the way I liked to plan. I did not have the details in my head well enough to be sure that I could convey to the children the questions I had, the explanations that would help them to explore their own faith journey. I came to church with the materials only partly prepared and my heart anxious and frantic. Not a good way to teach. 

During our drive to church, with three little grands in the back who  were tired and hungry, I wondered how the lesson would go. Maybe it was God, or maybe just the wisdom that comes from experience, but my thoughts were turned to the truth that  for the kids, no one lesson ever stands out as pivotal in their faith. Rather it is people who love them, who respect them and nurture is relationship that is pivotal. No matter how my lesson went, I could definitely offer relationship, because I do truly love each of the children who come.

We sat in a circle after music and read through the verse together, talking about our ideas of what it meant to have a clean heart. 

We talked about Ash Wednesday, about Lent, about remembering Jesus fasting and being tempted in the desert, about the tradition of giving up something or taking on something new as a practice to strengthen ourselves spiritually as we look forward to Easter. 
Jesus gave up food and took on prayer. 
They could choose. 
Did they want to try a Lenten practice? 
Did they want to give up sweets, or tv, or video games, or any habit they wished they could be free of for a while? 
Did they want to take on prayer, or gratitude, or acts of kindness, or good habits they had been wanting to try?

There was  active discussion with earnestness mixed with silliness. They took home a Lenten calendar and a small paper on which they could choose to write down a Lenten practice to which they would commit themselves. Some began writing right away.  Others  gave it more thought or laid it aside. Some came to me to share their decision. Some came again more than once to share how they were thinking it through and tweaking their practice to make it something  to which they could give themselves.

We had a snack and then quietly went upstairs to the Ash Wednesday service, where we sat together in the front rows. This is not a quiet group of children, but on this night, as on Ash Wednesday last year, they quickly grasped the solemnity of the occasion and sat in silence, singing or reading along with the hymns, listening to the scriptures, and choosing whether or not to go forward to be given the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads.

One of the scriptures read was Psalm 51, which includes the words of the song we had sung earlier in the evening. Here are some excerpts that were meaningful for me as I listened to the words with children  seated around me.

"Be gracious to me, O God, according to your lovingkindness;
according to the greatness of your compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin....
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which you have broken rejoice...
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit."

As  we left, individuals still came to me with more ideas about their Lenten practices. It was an evening of grace, of reminders that this is God's  work and not mine. My part is small and God had used others to orchestrate a full and blessed evening  focused on Jesus, and on purifying our hearts as Jesus did.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Worship and Grief

A few Sundays ago the topic for worship was... worship. Our text was Psalm 100, one of the twelve texts our church has chosen as foundational. Our sermon included the truth that worship is active.
  • Make a joyful noise
  • Come before him with joyful songs
  • Know that the Lord is God
  • Enter his gates
  • Give thanks
  • Praise his name
It also included the truth that we worship because of who God is and because of who we are. God is good. God is creator. God loves forever and is faithful forever. We are created, the sheep of his pasture.

Worship is a return to the foundational truth of our lives.

It is good to ponder this when some foundations seem to be shaken by the deaths of our fathers. No matter what happens, these things are still true.

I know that grief is different for everyone. Some find that heaven seems very near when someone close to them has died. That has not been true for me. The most real thing to me is the finality of loss. It doesn't matter how many times I walk into a living room and glance toward a recliner, there will not be a dad in that chair.

I've always been slow to be able to adjust to loss. It seems to be almost organic in the way it happens for me. I know that my mind will fight with reality for a time, and that I can't control how long that fight will last. I know that there will be several days in a row when it seems like that fight is over, and then it will come back fresh. I know that if several days go by without any sadness, that tears will come unbidden even when I'm absorbed in something unrelated to my losses. And I know that when I struggle with sadness or any other difficult emotion, for me it will be a spiritual struggle as well as an emotional one.

This time around, I have been so aware of how wrong death seems. Not wrong as in too soon, for both our dad's lived full lives, but wrong because it is so hard to comprehend it being over, at least in this world.

I know that with our physiology, living forever is not possible and that wishing for it would be wishing for an everlasting helplessness after our vigorous years are over.

At the same time, the change from here to gone is so huge. It is abhorrent.

There is something that fights against it even as I push to accept it.

It is a mystery. Maybe that is all that can be said.

During that Sunday morning worship service about worship, several from the congregation shared about what worship means to them. One thing especially was memorable to me.  “Worship is a place where the distance between heaven and earth becomes small.”

Those words came back to me this week when I had a dream about Dad.

In the dream, I was going to the local private college to hear a concert of sacred music sung by a men's choir. I knew that Dad would be there. As I entered the auditorium I was surprised to see Dad seated in the front row of the choir, with other older men I did not recognize filling the row on either side of him. The rest of the choir was made up of younger men, including my son, who was in the row behind Dad. As the singing began, Dad sang with a smile on his face, enjoying the music. A bird had somehow gotten into the building and as it flew among the rafters, the choir smiled and watched it as they sang. All of their faces brightened, and they seemed to be singing to or with the bird as it flew above us. But mostly I remember Dad's face. It wasn't some ethereal smile or anything like that. It was just him, enjoying singing together while something delightful was happening in the room. I did not have a sense that he was aware of me.

I don't know anything about the interpretation of dreams, but I'm grateful for this one. The bird seems important, as does the smile on Dad's face as he sang sacred music and watched the bird soaring above him. I'm grateful for the dream, and for the ability to remember it daily. I'm grateful for the words of my friend. 

Worship is a place where the distance between heaven and earth becomes small.

thanks to Jerry Jost for sharing his photograph

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Another goodbye

Middle of the night phone calls always catch at the heart. And so it was on January 10, when the phone rang in the night, signalling the end of Chuck's dad's life. Chuck left quickly for the hospital where he met his siblings and his mom, where they sang "Thank the Lord With Bounteous Measure" one last time in the presence of that beloved body, now empty of the soul.

I remained at home, breathing in and out, waiting for the phone to ring again with the news that we were again being plunged into that other reality that is the time between death and the new normal. This is a time of gathering, of being held gently by our community, of remembering, of making plans and choosing how to honor a life, of telling stories, eating food we did not cook, writing thank you notes, gathering photos, and especially in this family, of making music together.

In both the deaths of our fathers, gratitude has been the strongest emotion in those days between the time of death until after the memorial celebration is over. Grief is strong as well, but it takes a bigger role afterwards. 

In our case there was gratitude for so many things:

a life lived fully with so much love offered not only to family but to many many friends and acquaintances

small personal jokes between Edwin and so many of the children, in-laws, and grand-children

Edwin's ability to draw others in and include them

the music that Edwin shared with his children, grandchildren, and friends

the faith that was important to him and that he passed on

the ability for such a large group of family members to plan together a burial and a service that honored so well the man they loved

evening time with family spent making the music that Edwin had led us in so many times before

overwhelming sense of how very many people loved Edwin and love us

I did not call him Edwin. I chose to learn to call him Dad. He did not take the place of my own dad but he became a beloved second dad to me. His joke with me, and with other non-coffee drinkers, was to offer coffee whenever we were together. He was generous and affectionate, and those who knew him also knew they were loved. I'm grateful to have married into this family and had the opportunity to call him Dad.