Other Peoples’ Words on the Day I Bury My Wife, since I have None.

I bury my wife in an hour or so.  My legs move sluggish as if in cement.  My mouth moves and words do not come out.  I cannot meditate.  The only prayers I can say are the ones provided by the people of God in the Psalms and in the prayer book of the church.  I cannot write you a devotional today, so I share words not my own.

First I share a poem I have loved since being an English major at Campbell University.  It is called Holy Sonnet, but I call it today “@#@ death and the horse you rode in on”.  Then I share words that will be read at her memorial later by our dear friend, fellow civil rights activist, Quaker spiritual leader, and professional author Chuck Fager.

“Holy Sonnet X”

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

The following is taken, with permission, from Chuck’s site afriendlyletter.com :

Memorial Minute for Katharine “Kat” Royal:
January 28, 1982 – October 23, 2015

[Read at her memorial service in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, October31, 2015.]

I

I’m a Quaker, and at our memorial meetings, Quakers have a custom of preparing and reading what’s called a Memorial Minute. These sound in one way like biographical sketches, and so they are.

But there is a deeper dimension to them for us than simple chronology or the succession of dates and facts. That’s because of an advice that has come down to us from our founders; that advice is to “let your life preach.”

Kat-and-dates-CLR

For us, the witness and message that can be discerned from our living speaks more truly and profoundly than words alone. I believe this is particularly true of Kat, and I’m grateful to her husband Micah for letting me adapt this custom for this memorial service. So these words today are about a life, and that life is the real message.

When Kat Royal was born on January 24, 1982, it was Super Bowl weekend. The story is told that her father, Scott Clark, wanted to name her Joe Montana, after the star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers football team. But her mother’s preference for Katharine Leigh Clark prevailed.

Kat aced the tests for newborns that measured alertness and energy. But she also had spina bifida, and within days had surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. She soon learned to walk, but used leg braces and crutches.

Her father is a Vietnam War veteran, who says he “sucked up” large amounts of the highly toxic defoliant called Agent Orange while serving there in 1968. U.S. forces sprayed many millions of gallons of Agent Orange across wide swaths of that war-torn country. This chemical’s legacy can still be seen there, in birth defects and other illnesses now afflicting many in the third generation to follow that war.

The legacy could also be seen in Kat’s condition; or at least, that’s what the Veterans Administration determined. It classified her, along with several hundred other children of Vietnam vets, as “veterans” affected by wartime injuries, and included them in VA health care.

SmAgentOrangePatch

Yet whatever her physical challenges, by the age of three, Kat was so articulate that, when asked to describe her best friend at pre-school, Kat named a child and said that while she liked her, the girl complained a lot about aches and pains: she was in Kat’s opinion, a “hypochondriac.” Her mother still remembers with astonishment Kat’s properly pronounced and contextually correct use of that term while still a toddler. She also spoke many words in Spanish as well as English in those early years, and even began to learn sign language.

Her precocious mind and appealing personality soon made her something of a star. She was chosen as a March of Dimes poster child before she was four, and served as one of the charity’s main regional ambassadors for several years.

This public role was made the more exciting, at least for her parents, by the fact that they lived near Hollywood. Thus for March of Dimes telethons and other events, Kat was brought together with glamorous celebrities from many fields. She met and hobnobbed with people like actor James Garner, baseball patriarch Tommy Lasorda of the LA Dodgers, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, and Olympic athlete (and Special Olympics organizer) Rafer Johnson, among others.

Kat-Poster-Child
Poster Child.

Her parents recall a moment at one event when Rafer Johnson, a black man who is well over six feet tall, scooped up Kat and held her close. Kat leaned her face down, and nose to nose, said pertly, and innocently to him, “Mr Johnson, why are you so dark?”

Johnson smiled and answered, with good humor but also calm profundity, “Kat, it’s a long story.”

In elementary and Junior High school, Kat is said to have been one of those very bright but not necessarily straight-A students. And when she finished Junior High, her parents managed to enroll her in an upscale Catholic girls prep school, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

Kat and her parents were not Catholics, so why the switch? Social mobility is easy enough to guess; but Kat always wondered if her outside-the-lines early teen romances, one with a boy of color — another with a girl of Asian background — may have had some influence on their decision.

In any event, at Flintridge Academy, where students wore a uniform featuring plaid skirts, Kat was again bright, but not necessarily tops in grades. She was also increasingly questioning of religious orthodoxies, in this case various Catholic doctrines and mores. But she was not entirely a rebel: Micah recalls that she had a former priest in religion classes who taught a version of Liberation Theology, emphasizing social justice over otherworldly doctrines, and Kat lapped this up.

Once in junior high, her mother remembers, she and Kat watched an episode of a favorite TV series, “Touched By An Angel.” In this episode Roma Downey, as the angel Monica, brought her offer of a miracle to a group of down-and-outers huddling in a seedy bar.

Kat turned to her mother and asked what kind of miracle she would ask for if she could. “Why, for you to be cured of spina bifida,” Christine answered immediately. “What about you, Kat?”

Her daughter did not hesitate. “No more spina bifida would be good,” she said. “But I’d ask for a cure for AIDS or cancer.”

Monica-Tess-touched-by-an-angel
Roma Downey, left, and Della Reese, stars of “Touched By An Angel.”

Meantime, Kat was active in a Presbyterian church youth program, where among other projects she organized Bible study programs.

When she graduated from the academy, Kat headed about 25 miles east of Flintridge to Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Protestant school with roots in the early Pentecostal movement. And if any of you seem to recall Azusa Pacific as the school that two years ago fired a longtime professor of philosophy and theology for coming out as transgender, you are recalling correctly.

Kat enrolled there more than a decade earlier, to, as Micah puts it, “learn to change the world, in a diverse, interdenominational, and welcoming environment.” But the “welcoming” and “diversity” at Azusa were strictly within their doctrinal parameters and behavioral regulations. By this time Kat was well aware of being attracted to both men and women, but she was not asked about these experiences in her admissions process.

However, Azusa frequently invited prominent evangelical revivalists, preachers and healers, among whom were some who claimed to be used of God to fix not only physical ills, but also such dreadful “afflictions and temptations” as same-sex attraction.

Amid frequent and fervent altar calls to come forward for prayer and healing, Kat was brought onstage with her braces and crutches, had hands laid on her, and was later told, when her condition persisted, that she had not shown sufficient faith.

More ominous, she also came forward in response to a call to those with “unnatural” affections, and when these too resisted the “healing,” she was then put through some of the so-called “ex-gay” programs which have rightly come to be condemned as abusive, and were personally harmful to her.

APU-logo-God-First

Difficult and even dangerous as these experiences were, there were compensations. Early in her third year, she met a student who had come to Azusa from North Carolina to study for the ministry, one Micah Royal. The story goes that on the Labor Day weekend in September 2002, a mutual friend invited each of them separately to join him in driving some distance to spend an evening in company with another young woman the driver was very interested in.

Micah was tabbed as the navigator for this trip. This he says was a bad idea on its face. And his directional shortcomings were compounded by the fact that he and Kat, once introduced, fell to talking nonstop and with much pleasure.

The short term effect of this was that they and their friend took the roads less travelled, and ended up far away from their intended destination. The longer term effect was even more dramatic: Kat and Micah kept talking, and were together almost every day thereafter. By late that winter, they began planning to get married. This deed was accomplished on August 24, 2003, on a heat-swept mountaintop.

Kat-Micah-Wedding

II

Soon Kat became pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage, and was told that future pregnancies would not be healthy. The traumatic physical and emotional impact of this loss was very difficult for Kat, and she withdrew from classes at Azusa Pacific, as did Micah. They moved inland east of Los Angeles, where they soon came into contact with a Metropolitan Community Church congregation through a lesbian couple they had become friends with.

These relationships evolved into a new kind of experience of learning and acceptance for them, especially Micah, who was serving as a circuit-riding assistant minister for a small evangelical association. The association was preaching “all are welcome,” but often shared the same shortcomings in practice as Kat’s college.

The tension between word and deed came to a head when a transgender woman asked to come to church with Micah, and was treated as a kind of leper, needing to adhere to a special set of rules for “those people.” When Micah learned this, he took a day to pray over the matter, then resigned.

This parting was also traumatic. People they had respected told Kat and Micah they were “bound for hell.” But it also led to a closer bond: Kat shared with Micah about her earlier female relationships, something she had been reluctant to do before for fear he might leave her.

They returned to attending the MCC congregation, but Kat wanted to start a church plant, oriented to acceptance/affirmation of both LGBT and people with disabilities. She made her first effort at it, called Safe Haven Community Church, in a nearby park. They also considered resuming studies at Azusa Pacific University. But now Kat was “out” and self-affirming, so the school was unable to readmit her.

As their funds ran low and the Safe Haven group struggled, Micah’s brother in Durham North Carolina offered to take them in, and they accepted, moving east in late 2005.

Soon they saw an opportunity for ministry in Lumberton and Fayetteville, and Kat proved to be an unstoppable church planter. In Lumberton she organized an LGBT- and disabled-friendly group called The Church of the Painted Sky. The group met for several years, defying homophobic harassment in their very conservative largely rural setting.

In Lumberton they lived near a trailer park populated by people of modest circumstances. Kat made friends with many residents there, including a woman named Lori and her daughter Christie. One day in late 2006 or 2007, Christie knocked at the door to say a dying dog had been abandoned nearby. The animal was bloody, with cuts around its neck and ears, and so weak it couldn’t stand up.

What had happened? In the area around Lumberton, dog-fighting is widely practiced, and it appeared this dog had been bred to fight, but refused to do so; hence the abuse and abandonment. We can’t keep it, the neighbor explained: the landlord won’t stand for it. But he’s so sweet: will you take him?

Kat had already purchased a young German Shepherd, hoping to train it as a service dog; and their trailer was small. But she took in the nearly comatose canine anyway.

Among their other neighbors was an Iraqi family, refugees from the wars there. They were devout Muslims, and the woman of the house was studying to become a veterinary technician. Hearing of Kat’s new dog and its desperate condition, she came by and spent many hours helping  save its life and nurse it back to health, all while steadfastly refusing any payment.

Kat often told this story in her sermons, or when she heard other so-called Christians bashing Muslims: here was a Muslim practicing their faith as kindness, Kat said, and providing a more representative example of it that the violent stereotypes fed to the American public day after day.

Thus arrived in their lives the dog many of us know as Isaiah, or Zay-Zay as Kat often called him. And as Isaiah recovered, a surprising pattern developed: the German Shepherd, which Kat was working to train, paid no attention to the commands she repeated and repeated. But soon, Isaiah did start following them, unbidden, and began to take up the role the shepherd so adamantly refused. Before long the shepherd had been passed on to a new home, and Isaiah had found a new family, in which he had a vital place.

Kat-and-Isaiah-CLR-SM

In 2011 Micah enrolled in seminary at Campbell University. That same year Kat started another LGBT- and disabled-friendly church plant, near Fort Bragg. Many of its first attenders, who were in the military, were still closeted and cautious. But its possibilities seemed to expand when the much-despised homophobic “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy of the military was repealed that September. The group was soon named Diversity In Faith. When a youth attending the services told Kat of being bullied, she responded by starting a ministry, Operation Bullyhorn, which took up work against bullying, in addition to her other projects.

III

In 2012-2013 Kat and Micah hosted an exchange student from Kenya named Stella, who also had spina bifida. Kat bonded strongly with Stella, and stayed in touch with her after she returned to Africa. During that time, however, Kat suffered an “event,” like a mini-stroke, which left her laid up for a week, and suffering frequent blinding headaches. Her doctors were never able to determine the actual cause of the “event,” and said the headaches were migraines.

As Micah completed his seminary studies, he focused on chaplaincy work, and found a residency at the University of North Carolina for 2013-2014. He took an apartment nearby and returned to Fayetteville for weekends. Kat acted as pastor for Diversity in Faith in Fayetteville, organized disability expos there two years running, and continued the ministry of Operation Bullyhorn.

However, Kat’s physical condition was deteriorating: where she had been able to walk with leg braces and crutches, she became less able to use her legs, and depended more on a chair and a scooter.

Then just before Christmas of 2013, Kat had another “event,” which was major: for a period she couldn’t decipher words on a page, keep her balance, or move her legs. This time her doctor told her she could not continue living at a distance from Micah for most of the week. So she reluctantly gave up her pastoral work with Diversity in Faith, and left Fayetteville. She and Micah found an apartment in Carrboro.  They also sought medical specialists who could explain what her pre-Christmas “event” meant, and what the prognosis was.

Operation-Bullyhorn
Operation Bullhorn logo

This process took months, during which Kat continued to have episodes where for periods of time she could neither see nor hear, and suffered continued shattering headaches. Finally in the summer of 2014, a doctor put a name to what was happening: she had developed an Arnold Chiari Malformation. That is a condition where part of the cerebellum begins to sink into the spinal cavity; it’s bad. Surgery was possible, the doctor explained, but was dangerous, had severe side effects, and was unlikely to cure the condition in any case.

During this period, Kat told Micah she hoped that if her condition ever become grave, she hoped and prayed not to spend her last days hooked up to machines and in a stupor or coma. And Micah admits that each morning during those months, he started out by listening to make sure Kat was still breathing as she slept.

Yet much of the time she masked her chronic pain — or rather, overlaid it, pushed it aside with her continued enthusiasm for life and compassion for others. And she kept busy.

Kat and Micah soon made their way to the United Church of Chapel Hill (UCCH), and here they found a congregation committed to the same values they had worked and witnessed and suffered for. Micah soon switched his ministerial affiliation to its parent denomination, the United Church of Christ, and Kat began a parallel process.

Before long, Kat became active teaching Sunday School at UCCH. She also organized a disability ministry, restarted Operation Bullyhorn, and took part in an annual church conference on women preaching. The conference was good, she thought, but the event lacked attention to disability issues. So she joined the planning committee for the next one, set for October 22, 2015.

In the summer of 2015, Kat and Micah visited Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Kat was amazed to find a public park that was, as its sign said, “Designed for Every ‘Body,’” accessible throughout. She dreamed of creating such a playground here at the United Church in Chapel Hill. They also traveled to Blowing Rock west of Asheville, for the UCCH annual church retreat, where she thrilled to the beauty of the Smoky Mountains.

Good as these were, the women’s preaching conference on Thursday, October 22 was an especial delight. Kat raved about it to Micah all the way home, said she was on cloud nine. And then she went happily to sleep.

The next morning, when Micah listened for her breathing, it wasn’t there. It appears she had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm.

Now her life as a chronology may be finished. But again to cite the Quaker phrase, her life continues to preach, today perhaps more eloquently than ever.

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Daily Devotional: Having the Heart of a Child

2 Kings 22:1-13

There are so many things you can get out of this account of the life of the young king Josiah. As a child I loved this story because it inspired me to see that I could make a difference. Perhaps even while young I can find a calling to make the world a better place. And it showed me that ultimately that I did not have to wait until I was grown up and had all the answer I believed grown ups had to life. Wherever I was and whenever I found myself, God was open to me like a loving parent, like a friend.

Yet I also am struck by the fact this child is teachable.   So often when I discuss life and faith with others, I find people proclaiming loudly they have already arrived at life. It may be because of this young king’s youth, but he is a model in his willingness to learn, to grow, to ask questions and not assume that the way society is organized is how it has to be.   Too often we cling to the security blanket of comfortable orthodoxies which may in fact not fit the lives we and others have, forgetting to be open-minded to the voice of others, to the God who is still speaking.   And I find, too, this includes ironically often not being open-minded to the words of Scripture itself, even among those who claim the loudest they are following it.

Scripture is clear that we are not truly worshipping God if we go through the motions of religion and yet neglect the poor, the marginalized, the immigrant, the child.   And yet so often we who claim to be peoples of the Book focus on our high-minded theology and fail to see those in need all around us.   Too often religion is a safety net, a barrier, to keep those around us at bay rather than a pathway to compassion.

Let us learn the teachable, open heart of a child. Let us open to God, to each other, and to God’s good earth.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotions: One Spirit, Found in as Many Paths as There are Moments of Life

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 calls on me to be very careful not to judge other people of faith.   No one can say Christ is Lord but the Spirit touch her or his soul, and the variety of gifts, callings, and ways of expressing such a faith are as varied as the colors in the morning sky as the sun rises or falling on an autumn morning from the encircling trees of some mountain forest.   The fact someone lives out their faith or understands it differently than me does not mean it is any less authentic.

So often as believers we get too caught up in whose in or out, and judge others who claim to love God and seek to love others. Instead we are better served embracing them and the aspects of their faith & life we can, finding common ground to work together.

There was a time I judged based on if folks were gay or straight, my denomination or not, if they were believers. I have found through opening my heart to listen people of all sexualities who bear the spark of God’s Spirit in their soul whose life expresses so beautifully God’s love, and whose sexuality is like a prism through which that light shines even more beautifully. I have found that similarly those different paths of faith in different denominations people forge reveal to me aspects of God’s character my own journey and tradition often fail to notice. I find too in my faith life that coming from the right spirit, I a liberal Christian can edify and be edified when I sit down with my more conservative brothers & sisters of the faith as can they they when we sit, with an open mind, and share our stories of faith, listening to each other’s struggles. I find that I can find common values to work together with them, and also with people of very different expressions of faith than my own.   When our focus is on pulling apart to be different, we can isolate ourselves on lonely islands of spirit.   Jesus calls us to be people of reconciliation, tearing down walls, so that community is forged that embraces our full diversity.

How have you found that? Let’s continue to build bridges today and all our days.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Gratitude, Healing

Psalm 103

This has always been one of the most moving psalms to me.  It calls us to bless the name of God, while recognizing where God is at work.

I’ve heard before the question “have you find Jesus?” in which we ask “where is God?” as if, like Waldo in the Where’s Waldo? book series God is hard to find.

Sometimes in fact we do have a hard time seeing God, though, don’t we?  In times of crisis and pain, we can wonder why God does not stop our suffering.   I know for me when I began to study the Bible and religion critically at college, realizing how human and frail our religious tradition was, I began to wonder “is God even there?”

The Psalmist clearly locates God for us: in our experiences of healing, delivery from oppression, and human full flourishing.  As St Ireneaus said, the glory of God is a human being fully alive.  Wherever that full flourishing breaks forth, God is present.

Yet the invitation to not just see the glory of God in my and other’s experience of healing, liberation, freedom, full flourishing but also bless God suggests to me that I am not fully there after an experience of healing, liberation, and freedom if I do not take time to express gratitude.  To have that awareness, to express gratitude to God and those involved, is to move to freedom.

Daily Devotional: Seeing the World with Eyes as Fresh as a Child’s

children-coming-to-jesusMatthew 11:25-30

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To me this language Jesus uses of simplicity is striking.   God’s deep wisdom is hid from the academic, intellectual, and powerful of the world.  Yet to those who are children it is visible.   Discovering this wisdom is pictured like trading in the heavy yoke of the world for an easy yoke, in which we find rest for our souls.

I am reminded as I think of this of what our lives teach us.   There is a simplicity of children.  They do not see the distinctions of race, sexuality, or gender.   The little child simply plays with other children, seeing differences of color or ability as simply another cool shade in the rainbow hues of life until parents, peers, or cultures teach them otherwise.   This is even true about sexuality.  My wife is a Sunday school teacher at her church and I can’t help but remember what one of the children said when they first encountered that some people are gay.  It occurred when, in sharing about their families, one child mentioned she had two mommies.

“What!” the little kid said, “That’s not fair!  How do you get two mommies?  Mommies are great.  I only have one mommy!”

Because the child had not been taught the script yet that families could only have one dad and one mom, but no others, this little guy looked at the world and saw the diversity of families in his Sunday school class as a gift.   Some have two mommies, some two daddies, some two sets of parents due to divorce & remarriage, …. Each bringing strength and beauty.

Learning to put aside our long list of ought’s that we impose on ourselves and others and embrace each person we encounter, even ourselves, as bearers of Christ’s presence, is truly letting go of a weight too heavy to bear and embracing a yoke that is lighter in which we can find rest.

I think too of my own practice of meditation.    I find many mornings it is so hard.  So hard to stop the clock inside.  The ticking, tocking, within that leads me away from the place of stillness where I encounter God within my own heart in meditation into the long laundry lists of things to do.   I find myself having trouble due to my list of expectations, oughts, have to be’s, not to feel pressured to hurry and do rather than to just be still and know that I am and God is.    I find myself too easily jumping into judgment on myself, on others, for all kinds of things in those moments, which keep me from truly seeing the world as it is.

The child is only beginning to learn such judgments, and is free to see the world as it is.  Our spiritual practices are ways of becoming in touch with the Christ presence in each moment who can pull away these layers and help us rediscover life.

One thing I rediscover in such times of meditation is the sense that it is not all up to me.  I struggle to be like a squirming crying child, unwilling to be comforted by her mother, for on some basic level I believe it is all up to me.  If I don’t push, if I don’t make it happen, the good will not come.  Disaster will come crashing down.  And yet, at the center of our faith, is that we are held.  We are like a child in the womb of her mother, for all we look God is.  In God we wake up.  In God we live.  In God we move.  In God we have our being.  Our whole lives are embraced by the all surrounding presence of goodness.  Ever and always God is holding us up, taking us into God’s life, and birthing beauty in us & our world.  There is not a moment of separation from this life-giving Presence except in our own imagination.   Learning to see ourselves as held by One who can carry our problems and, together with us, birth beauty rather than disaster even in disastrous experiences is too becoming as children.

It is realizing we need not carry the yoke alone, but that Christ carries it with us, lending strength immeasurable to the great boulders we seek to carry on our own shoulders.  Let’s embrace that Sacred presence this day and all our days.

Daily Devotional: The Sermon I Cannot Preach

I was supposed to preach this Sunday at Emmanuel Congregational-Christian Church, a United Church of Christ in Sanford this morning.  I talked about my experience supporting my wife through her experience of Arnold Chiari Malformation.  Her disease of Chiari took her life the Thursday night before I was supposed to preach, with her dying in the night.  There is no way I can preach this sermon.   In fact I cannot look at it right now, and that is why I am posting my whole service outline including children’s sermon notes.   The sermon, though it wrongly assumed Kat and I had a future recovering from the neurological episode provoked by her Chiari, was on the grief we shared and others share.  I have found I wrote this for myself because I needed to think about grief and remember what I tell people every day in my work as a chaplain.  I share it so that it might help some of you who, too, are grieving.

Brokenheartedly your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

kat and mich

= = = =

PRELUDE and CHIMING OF THE HOURS

Call to Worship  (Jeremiah 31: 7-9)

One:     Sing aloud with gladness:

Many:  God is gathering the people!

One:     From the farthest parts of the earth we come:

Many:  All who struggle; all who labor with new life!

One:     Those who are weeping, God will console;

Many:  Those who get lost find a clear path home.

One:     Let us worship the God who gathers us!

WELCOME & ANNOUNCEMENTS

 

Invocation

Ever-calling God,

We give thanks that you have gathered us into your church

and graced us with your faithful presence.

We ponder our history, ancient and still developing,

and marvel at the many expressions of your church.

Grant us the vision to be a part of a new reformation for the Church

that will bring ever more joy and justice to the world.

Continue to gather us, the diverse lot of us,

into Jesus’ vision and dream

that your faithful people may be one in you.  Amen

HYMN #263 A Mighty Fortress

Prayer of Reconciliation

When we want to be a church ever-reforming, yet cling to comfortable ways:

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!

When we want to honor your “still speaking voice”, but are fearful of insights which challenge old assumptions:

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!

When we want to live into Jesus’ dream of oneness,

but fail to listen to voices of difference:

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!

Assurance of Pardon

            Take heart, get up; Jesus is calling to us!

We trust in the one who has guided the church for two millennia.

Through Christ, God forgives us our failings,

and continues to call us into a community of mutual love and forgiveness.

GLORIA PATRI p 338

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

CHILDREN’s MOMENT

(Bring out cut out of two pots for demonstration)

By Sacinandana Swami

A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on one end of the pole he carried across the back of his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream, the cracked pot arrived only half full. This went on every day for two years, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of water to his master’s house.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishment and saw itself as perfectly suited for the purpose for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived as bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself and I want to apologize to you.”

“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”

“For the past two years, I have been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws you have to work without getting the full value of your efforts,” the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and out of compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the wildflowers on the side of the path. The pot felt cheered.

But at the end of the trail, the pot still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and again it apologized for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I knew about your flaw and took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them for me. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. If you were not just the way you are, he would not have such beauty to grace his house.

Moral: Each of us has his/her unique flaws—we are all cracked pots. But a compassionate and expert devotee can engage us in the Lord’s service, and then we can all be useful, despite our defects.

 

JOYS & CONCERNS

PRAYERS OF THE CHURCH

Dear Lord,

On this Reformation Sunday,

we thank you for those persons you have poured your spirit into

that then set about reforming your church.

We thank you that you are still at work in the life of the church

reforming us reshaping us,

and remaking us into your image. One of the ways we reflect your image, Lord,

is how we care for one another with love, care and prayer.

We pray for those who are in the hospitals today.

We pray for those at home with illnesses,

and recovering from treatments and/or surgeries.

We pray for those in nursing homes

and those who are home bound.

We pray for their families during these times.

We pray for those who are facing death.

We pray for those who have died and for those who are grieving.

We pray for their Doctors, nurses,

health care workers and care takers.

Lord may we reflect your image in our love, care and prayer

that we put to action for these your children. We reflect your image in how we love, care and pray for the world.

We pray for those around the world

who as Christians face imprisonment and martyrdom.

We pray for those who countries torn by civil war.

We pray for those living in poverty.

We pray for those who live in starvation.

We pray for those who are being used in slave labor, child labor and sex labor.

We pray for those who have been affected by disasters.

We pray for those in disaster areas who face outbreak of diseases.

Lord, may we put into action our love, care and prayers for the world. Lord, we pray for your church

that we be a beacon of hope, grace, love and light in this world.

May our open doors reflect your open arms to all.

May our arms and hands reaching out to those in need reflect your love for all.

May our forgiveness of one another reflect your forgiveness for all. We pray in the name of the One who is the rock upon which our faith, even our very lives, can stand secure, our Savior Jesus who taught us to say

 

LORD’S PRAYER

Our Father who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done

On earth as in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

Lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil

For thine is the Kingdom, the Power, the Gloyr

Now and Forever.

Amen.

MISSION MOMENT

MORNING OFFERING

Call to Offering

            Our ancestors in faith and church-building

show us the way to share the gifts God has given us with the whole community.

Let us gather our gifts together and offer them to God

with heartfelt gratitude, commitment and praise.

PRESENTATION OF TITHES & OFFERINGS

DOXOLOGY p 356

Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heav’nly host; Praise Father, Son, & Holy Ghost.  Amen.

OFFERATORY PRAYER

            Reform our lives, O God,

and let these gifts change the world into which we send them.

Take them and multiply them to be a blessing of justice and peace

in the world you love!

SPECIAL MUSIC

SERMON LESSON

SERMON

Jeremiah 31:7-14 (based on the Common English Bible)

7  The LORD proclaims: Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation. Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The LORD has saved God’s people, the remaining few in Israel!”   8  I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be people who are blind and people with disabilities, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here.   9  With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.   10  Listen to the LORD’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands: The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd her flock.   11  The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.   12  They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the LORD’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds. Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more.   13  Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.   14  I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the LORD.

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

Would you pray with me?

Still-speaking God, we believe you have more light to break forth from your holy word. We pray you open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so that we may see and know what light your Word has for us in these words of Scripture.  As I strive to proclaim your Word, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

Almost two years ago, I went through an experience in which I felt like the ground had dropped out from underneath me without a handhold in sight.  My wife had an episode like a stroke, related to her spina bifida.  Waves of numbness went throughout her body.  She could barely use her arms and legs.  She had trouble seeing for days at a time, finding her words, at times hearing, and, perhaps most painful to my well-read wife, reading.  She was working as a pastor at the time. Her­ health fell through so badly and suddenly she had to stop her work which she loved. At the time I was working as a chaplain on the neurology floors at UNC where I saw every day the heart-wrenching effects of neurological episodes like hers when they make turns for the worse.  So of course my heart sank to see the suffering it caused her. I had trouble imagining she might get through it.  I had no way to know that she would begin to recover some from her episode.  I felt like I was losing my dearest and closest friend, my life’s love.

Illness is not the only time in which the world seems to drop out from beneath us.   We can feel this way in times when, despite our best efforts, our marriage or intimate relationship falls apart.  We can feel it when our kids or grandkids go down a dangerous path which we cannot rescue or protect them.  We experience it when we lose the job that lets us stay one step ahead of the power being out and we do not know where we can turn.

That this reading is suggested for today, Reformation Sunday, suggests such despair, pain, and grief comes not just to individuals but to churches too.  Reformation Sunday remembers when the young preacher Martin Luther looked around and saw the church in shambles.  It was putting barriers up keeping people from God rather than building bridges.  It was using its power in ways that oppressed the poor and the uneducated, taking advantage of them to gain wealth and power.   Aghast at these abuses of God’s people, Luther nailed a declaration of spiritual independence on the door of Wittenburg church, marking the birth of the Reformed movement in whose tradition our United Church Christ stands.  The Reformers’ call to be reforming and ever being reformed is reflected in our mottos “God is still speaking” and “never put a period where God has put a comma.” These call us to continually ask how the church may have lost its way again, beginning again to put up barriers to exclude or oppress others. They challenge us to join Luther in working to overturn such barriers, Reforming the church & world.

That the still-speaking God calls us to be reformers today suggests our churches like Luther’s can face times of desolation.  In such times, the church may appear tattered, in shambles from folks fighting for power of from folk misusing the church’s beautiful traditions to hold at bay the hurting all around them whom they deem too different or too far gone.   Even when the church hears this call to tear down such barriers – and I want to applaud Emmanuel church for I know you’ve been working to do just that lately —  it can be costly, unpopular with some, and leave people feeling the church is in a precarious situation.   We can look around in both cases and wonder “What has become of us?”, uncertain of how to find our way from the pain of where we are to God’s joyous future for us.

It is in just such an experience of grief and loss that today’s reading from Jeremiah was written.  Jeremiah has been proclaiming to his people in Judah that due to their refusing to consider what God has been saying to them, they will face utter desolation.  The nation will fall.  They will be oppressed.  People will be carted off as slaves to Babylon.  Their treasured temple will be destroyed and lain in ruins.  Instead of being heeded, Jeremiah is thrown in jail for his words.

Right after telling of his imprisonment, the book of Jeremiah offers an interlude from this tale of woe known to scholars as “the book of consolation”, the section that includes our reading.  These words are a promise by God that though Jeremiah and his people face the destruction of all they hold dear, there is a hope beyond this experience of desolation.  Grief, shock, loss, and trauma are not God’s final word to them or to us.   Rather, like the plant springing from the seed crushed in the earth, hope will arise out of the depth of their despair. Turn to someone and say Whatever desolation you are facing, know: hope lies on the other side.

Writer Jack Canfield once said that “everything you want is on the other side of fear”. Our reading from Jeremiah paints a picture of a bright future that lies on the other side of Judah’s greatest fears and our own.   These words invite us, as we confront our own fears, griefs, and losses, to imagine what we might discover on the other side of such heart-wrenching experiences and emotions.   We too can hope for something beautiful on the other side of our pain, if we engage such pain in a way that opens us up to healing.

It is important to note this future is not automatic.  It is only if we engage this pain in a healing way that such healing can home.  Too often we send a different message.  You hear it when well-meaning people say that “time will heal all wounds”.  When you are hurting, such empty clichés come across as cold and hurtful, but what’s more, they aren’t true.   Time alone does no such thing.   All of us know people for whom time does heal.  They come out of times of grief and heartache more generous, compassionate, more loving.   I think though we also all know people for whom time only leads to more bitterness, anger, resentment.  They walk away with a chip on their shoulders.  Time alone does not heal.  Time only can transform us as we are open ourselves to the power of our experience to teach us new things.  Too often we fail to do this.  Instead we rush through the experience of loss.  We push down our pain, ignore our heartache, and blaze on without facing our losses.   That is a recipe for a chip on your shoulder, for resentment, if I ever heard one.   Yet if we take time to face into our pain and open up to God & others, we can find not only healing but discover through our griefs a deep compassion for others as they too face trying times.

One of my favorite writers is the Sufi poet Rumi.  Like some of you here, Rumi tended to use writing to deal with pain and loss.   Some of his most beautiful poems were written in response to the unexpected disappearance and likely murder in the night of his closest friend, Shams, whose body was never found.  In one of these poems Rumi says that our wounds are the broken places in our souls that like windows that let in the light of God.  When fully opened, windows not only let it the sunlight, changing our whole view of a room, but also let in fresh air changing the whole environment around us.  So too when we do the work of opening up our souls by being present to our pain, that pain can be a source for lessons God can teach us which help awaken us to new and better ways to more fully embrace life, hope, and healing for ourselves and others.

This process is beautifully described by the late Catholic pastor and teacher Henri Nouwen in his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit. He shares about his friendship with the Dalai Lama and how the Dalai Lama experienced the desolation of his home country of Tibet, persecution for his faith as a Buddhist, and the expulsion of his people from his homeland at the hands of Chinese authorities, just as Judah faced expulsion from their home in this text.   Despite such suffering, the Dalai Lama always radiates deep peace and compassion when he talks about the Chinese people.  When asked how he does this, the Dalai Lama talks about his faith.  He says that he takes the pain he has experienced personally, the pain and suffering endured by his people, and also the pain and suffering of the Chinese people.  Through his practice of meditation, he takes time to be present to that pain.  As he does so, he finds his practice of meditation transforms that suffering into a deep identification with the sufferings of others, including his persecutors, through heartfelt compassion.

Being present to one’s suffering and that of others is what Israel and Judah go through in the years between their exile and the fulfillment of these words of Jeremiah.  It only takes reading the Psalms written during this period and the book of Lamentations to see that they are present with their pain.   In fact, they are so honestly and blunt about their loss in those texts that at times we are shocked by their words, living as we do in a world that teaches us to push down and hide our pain.  Yet as they begin in exile to finally begin to listen to the still-speaking, they begin to realize they cannot run from themselves any longer.  They must face their pain.  They discover that though others may not be able to take their pain, God can handle it, so in prayer they openly express this pain to God.  Turn to somebody and say, If you are hurting, know God can take it. Don’t run from your pain; run to your Creator with your pain.

If you are facing grief, loss, and desolation, do not give up!  Face into your pain, make room for it, and use your practices of faith to cast your cares on Christ who can help you transform your pain into compassion.  This is true whether your practices of faith are turning to prayer and Scripture like the people of Judah, meditation like the Dalai Lama and Christian mystics throughout the ages, writing poetry and music like Rumi and like King David, or simply sharing your heart with others as hurting people in all communities can do.

What lies on the other side of this work of grief is the new future the prophet beautifully pictures in our reading, a new beginning this work of being present with our pain makes possible.   It is important to notice, though, that this restoration comes in a shape that, before facing into their pain, Jeremiah’s people never would have embraced.  My work as a chaplain suggests that this is  almost always the case.  The new beginning that comes for us after we finish the work of grief is never the same old life you lived before, because you can never see the world in the same way.   Grief forever transforms your vision, either wrecking it with resentment or coloring it with compassion that enables you to see the humanity of people you never would have noticed before your heartache.

This is why the new beginning is pictured as being carried in the arms of folks we would have walked right past before our times of tragedy.  It is with those the world casts aside those exiled from Judah’s new future and ours will come.  It is through the proverbial ten lost tribes associated with the town Ephraim their new start comes.  These ten tribes have come to picture the scattered and hopelessly lost in the eyes of the world in Jeremiah’s day.  In their time and ours, it is in the hands of those our society says are too washed up, too far gone, too forgettable to expect anything from, that our new future will be born.

It is with expectant mothers and mother in labor who are without fathers and husbands due to the ravages of war and exile that this new future will break out, the future on the other side of loss.  This group is one of the most more vulnerable groups in the ancient world and today.

It is through the voice of the people who are blind or have other physical disabilities that their future and our own can come, people treated as burdens in the ancient world and today.  We see it today how far too often people with disabilities continue to not be given a voice, a welcome, if they can even make it through the often non-wheelchair accessible entrance to the church.  In Jeremiah’s day this viewing people with disabilities as burdens can be seen in how the book of Leviticus bans them from the temple by calling them an abomination.   In our day, we have our own lists of people we treat as abominations, so much so people with signs will stand outside the courthouse and the church trying to say such as these are not welcome in God’s house, yet through such ones God’s future comes – it is in the voices and hands of those with disabilities and those the world deems as abominations who are not welcome that their future and our own will break forth.

Our bright future lies in including such often marginalized and vulnerable groups both in our personal lives and especially our life as a church.  We become able to see them as precious children of God full of potential as we let our suffering teach us compassion, and so we can stand in solidarity with them.

Friends, as we face our times of loss, grief, pain, & desolation, let us make space to face into our pain that it be transformed into compassion.  Let us remember to continue to bless and be a blessing in distressing places & times. Let us learn to widen our welcome and embrace as individuals and as a church. Amen & Amen.

 

CONFESSION OF FAITH: A New Creed, 2010

We are not alone,

we live in God’s world.

We believe in God:

who has created and is creating,

who has come in Jesus,

the Word made flesh,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others

by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:

to celebrate God’s presence,

to live with respect in Creation,

to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

HYMN #266 How Firm a Foundation

Benediction

Go into your week

with your ears pitched

to the sound of our still-speaking God’s voice calling your name.

Go into your week

with your eyes peeled

for the face of Jesus appearing in unexpected places and unanticipated people.

Go into your week

with your soul poised

to receive the Spirit of God,

the Spirit that restores life to all that is threatened by death and sets the heart free. Amen.

POSTLUDE

 

Something I write in tears

kat and michThis is Micah Royal, who writes this blog. My wife did not wake up on Earth yesterday.  I found her unmoving when I woke up, and the paramedics could do nothing.  I believe she woke to glory, woke to our son who passed before we could know him, woke to the saints in glory and in the arms of our Savior.  My heart is breaking.  Needless to say, this creates some barrier to being a meaningful blog writer.  Please bear with me while I figure out how to keep writing.  I think what I will do is spend some time writing on passages of consolation.  If you have a Scripture, song, poem, or other inspiration that has given you consolation in your loss, I’d love for you to pass it on.   For at least the next several days, that is what I will use for my spiritual journal that I usually later blog.   Thanks.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah