Saturday, June 27, 2015

It is Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene has just come to the tomb, still grieving, wanting to perhaps fully prepare the body of Jesus for burial, and she found it empty. We don’t know why she came so early.  It was dark, maybe early dawn, but also dark emotionally.  In the darkness, she runs to tell Peter and John (the disciple Jesus loved) that they, someone, has taken Jesus and he’s gone. Jesus is gone. 
John’s gospel account of the resurrection is for me, the most intimate, the most personal.  While John may differ from the other gospels on how many women came to the tomb or when, only John shows the raw emotion that Mary was experiencing at the tomb. I can see this account being a performance as in a great play or movie. But half way through, being left at the tomb by Peter and John, Mary simply weeps. 
Mary; This woman who had loved much. Arriving at the sealed tomb of the teacher whom she loved. And it is empty.  She is in shock. The tomb, which we told had been sealed by the authorities, was open. And it was empty. In her grief she could not handle this on her own so she turns to return to Peter and John.
Many of us may have lost loved ones. A father or mother; brother or sister; aunt or uncle; a husband or wife. The experience of loss, it can be shocking. There is a sense of disbelief leading to numbness or depression or loneliness. As a chaplain, I sit with people in this loss. 
 The home of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a noted Harlem Renaissance poet, is open to the public in Dayton, Ohio. When Dunbar died at 33, his mother left his room exactly as it was on the day of his death. At the desk of this brilliant man was his final poem, handwritten on a pad.  After his mother died, her friends discovered that Paul Laurence Dunbar's last poem had been lost forever. Because his mother had made his room into a shrine and not moved anything, the sun had bleached the ink in which the poem was written until it was invisible. The poem was gone.
We see Mary, so taken by grief at the tomb that she does not see the angels for who they are. Perhaps it is because they asked her why she wept, an odd question to ask at the graveside. She weeps because her lord has been taken away. 
Even Jesus asks her the same question. Why do you weep, who do you seek? Mary is so overcome with grief she does not recognize Jesus. She even asks Jesus where he moved the body, thinking he was the gardener. 
And its at this moment that there is a turning point. It is here the most intimate and compelling. One commentator called it the greatest recognition scene in all of Literature. This exchange points to her love and her grief. Through her tears of grief, she cannot recognize who this “Gardner” is.  In her loving grief she pleads to know where he has taken the body
Jesus calls Mary by name. With one word he calls out to her. Mary! He even exclaims it.  He claims her as his own. He found her and yet she sought him. You can imagine this moment, when grief turns to joy, when tears of loss turn to tears of joy.  She responds with one word, Rabbouni! Rabbi.  Mary embraces Jesus.  There are two things here: 1. Naturally, in her tears she couldn't recognize Jesus in her grief. But while tears are natural, we cant forget to look towards the Glory of God. 2. When sorrow comes, we mustn't lock our eyes on the grave, but point them to the heavens. I remember my grandmother always said: Never say goodbye, say until I see you again. 
And yet, Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. Don’t be afraid. He tells her to go and tell the others; for he is returning to the father. Mary is the first to share the good news. Jesus is Risen, and that good news is not to be held on to, it is to be shared. And like Mary, the first disciple who proclaims the Risen Christ, we too are called to share in this mission. As a people called to become disciples; we are part of the body of Christ, and we learn and grow together to know God more fully. 
As this small community ... we share together the friendship we have found in Christ. We share our joys and sorrows together ... and we try to love each other as Christ first loved us ... and as a community of disciples we are called to share the presence of Christ with others ... to let others know that Christ is indeed with us ... he is risen ... and he is present ... we need only look and Jesus will find us ... and when he does, he will call us by name ... and then we will know that he has claimed us as his own and welcomed us into his kingdom .
In our daily lives, our daily walks we can take comfort that our hope is not lost. The story of God’s love isn’t finished. It continues with us daily as we love one another and do the work of Christ. Whether we are welcoming the birth of a child, a positive prognosis of recovery, new job or we are faced with the loss of a job, the death of a loved one or the anxiety of illness; Christ is faithful, he is alive, and he walks with us through our daily joys and daily struggles.  
Christ is Risen!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What's with all the smudges; OR Why we Celebrate Ash Wednesday

Growing up as a kid, like many kids, I paid no mind the church calendar; unless it was Christmas. I was a kid after all. When I was in high school, I began to explore my faith. I was enrolled in a Catholic school, while being confirmed into a Presbyterian Church.  That's when I began to notice the weird (to me) practice every Lent of my classmates walking around with smudges of ash on their forehead. 
So what exactly is Ash Wednesday?  For some of my Protestant friends they find the day odd, and very Catholic. I do agree there is no biblical directive for us to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Just like there isn't a directive to celebrate Christmas or Easter. But there is at its core a great biblical theology of creation, sin, our mortality, grace and death.  It calls us to community in our shared brokenness and the humility of our mortality. 
So we are entering the Lenten season. Christian’s worldwide mark the beginning of this season with Ash Wednesday. A day we make a visible mark on our foreheads with ashes, to remind ourselves of our mortality and need for repentance and look forward to the redemptive work of the cross. It is a beautiful and meaningful day.
Two years ago I entered into Ash Wednesday full of doubt and anger. I was angry at a few things. I was angry at things going on in my family, my marriage and my journey to ordination. I was angry at God. Expectation that it had for my life, my journey, my marriage, my calling to ministry were not, did not go the way I thought they should. I was racked with self-doubt. 
Doubt in my abilities, and ultimately doubt in my faith in a God that I have deeply come to know as loving and accepting.  Forget it I said; forget you God for not living up to MY expectations! (I was tempted to use another F word)
I have the privileged to spend Ash Wednesday the last few years in the hospital dispensing ashes as part of my training and work as a hospital chaplain. That first year; I was tired, I was beaten, and I was discouraged. I came into the week on the heels of being passed over for a pulpit position. But I came into Ash Wednesday open. Open to see if God was still active. I dropped my expectations. The Holy Spirit was moving within me.
As I stood in the chapel of the hospital for the last hour of my day, I had two experiences that quelled my doubt and anger, that reminded me that Jesus has already accepted me for who I am. The first was with a hospital employee. Whether she was a nurse, doctor or administrator or even just visitor, who knows, but we shared an intimate divine moment. She approached for ashes, I raised my hand, and as I spoke the words "Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return" our eyes were locked. They say the eyes are a window to our soul, and I was looking at a fellow soul. Tears were welling in her eyes. For those brief seconds, deep emotions and intimacy were brought to the surface, and then gone.
The second event happened shortly after. A young family came into the chapel; a father, young son (4 or 5) and a visibly pregnant mother. The father spoke gently to the son "do you want to get ashes?" The boy nodded gleefully. I smiled and ask "do you want to go first?" The boy shyly said no, "I want daddy to go first." Ha, ok I give the father ashes. The mother says ok your turn, I ask the boy if it’s his turn. Again, no, I want mommy to go first. Well, ok then. Mom and dad have now received ashes.
Ok it’s your turn now I say playfully to the boy. Softly I make the sign of the cross and whisper the phrasing (Remember you are dust). The look of Joy in his face was priceless. The parents ask him if he wants to pray, he joyfully says yes and they sit and the boy leads his parents in the most beautiful, honest and innocent prayer.  I rested in and was reminded of the power of Paul's letter to the Romans; where sin increased, Grace abounded more; and nothing in life; NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What I appreciate the most about Ash Wednesday it calls us to reflect on our shared frailty and brokenness. We come together and confess our sins, as a community, and visibly display our recognition that we are mere carbon based beings that return to that dirty red clay. (That's a Genesis reference)
So how does this relate to the passage that we read from Matthew? Where Jesus tells us that when we pray or fast, to do it in private, unlike the hypocrites who put their piety on display. It is true, we are making a public, visible mark that we are beginning a time of penitence. Aren’t we kind of like, the hypocrites? I hope not. But that is a question you must ask yourself as we begin this Lenten journey. Am I personally, in my heart seeking truly to turn to God in prayer and repentance? Am I looking to the road to the cross and living to be a better person? Are we trying to be a better follower of Jesus? Because if we are to follow Jesus; we must follow the road to the Cross. And that takes a deep, inward reflection on ourselves. And we mark ourselves, collectively as individuals, together yet separately journeying towards Christ knowing full well that we return to the very dust that God breathed life into. 

But that is the great thing. We follow a gracious God. A God that took on our brokenness on the Cross of Jesus. And it's the road to that cross, and the resurrection story that we begin to reflect and pray about on Ash Wednesday.  We take the time to reflect on the sacrifice and the service of our savior Jesus Christ and to attempt, however much we fail, to live a life that models his grace and love.
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." Genesis 3:19