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Grief

  • It's Not What You Know, It's Not Even Who You Know... Easter Reflection on John 20:1-18

    blogpic MaryMagdaleneWe have all heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” This was certainly true for Mary Magdalene in the Easter story in John 20. For until she met Jesus, she didn’t know anyone who took her seriously—who listened to her, who valued her, who loved her. Mary Magdalene was streetwise and independent. She knew how to survive in a man’s world. She knew how to make things happen.

    But it didn’t matter what she knew in the eyes of the privileged and the powerful of her day—she was a nobody. Mary did not know anybody who loved her just for her until she met Jesus. For Mary Magdalene, it really was true—it wasn’t what she knew, it was who she knew that made the difference in her life.

    But now that “who”—Jesus—was dead, and her life was turned upside down. This is why Mary went to the tomb so early that morning. She couldn’t imagine life without knowing Jesus—without the one and only meaningful relationship she had ever had.

    Mary Magdalene rose before the sun on that first day of the week to go to the tomb to grieve the one she had lost. Mary gingerly picked her way through the darkness of the pre-dawn, with tears in her eyes and grief in her heart.

    But when Mary arrived at the tomb, she was met by an astonishing site. The stone that sealed the tomb had been rolled away. Jesus’ body was gone and only grave cloths remained. Mary stood at the tomb weeping, thinking someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Mary couldn’t imagine that Jesus was alive—raised from the dead. It didn’t matter that Jesus had mentioned it so many times. Mary knew intellectually about the possibility of resurrection:
       • she knew Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain;
       • she knew Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead;
       • she knew Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb after he’d been dead 4 days;
       • she heard Jesus himself say a number of times that the Son of Man would be killed and 3 days later rise again.

    And yet, there she stood at the empty tomb with Jesus’ body gone—and she was more distraught and dumbfounded than ever because the resurrection was not real for her. Even a conversation with angels didn’t make it real for her! As Mary wept, she turned around and there stood Jesus himself--living and breathing and speaking! Mary sees Jesus with her own eyes. Mary hears Jesus’ voice with her own ears: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

    Mary has all the information she needs to trust that Jesus is actually alive: in addition to an empty tomb, folded grave cloths and angels; Jesus himself stands before her and speaks to her.

    But the evidence before her isn’t enough. It’s not what she knows about resurrection, and now it’s not even who she knows, since Jesus is right in front of her. Mary is more confused than ever, thinking Jesus is the gardener!

    So what is it that finally makes the resurrection real for Mary? I did not fully understand what it was until my husband’s Grandmother had a series of strokes and we traveled to Philadelphia to visit her. We learned that Grandmother wasn’t doing well—her memory had been damaged and her activity was severely limited. Dan knew he couldn’t expect much, if anything from this visit. He didn’t know if she would even know who he was.

    As we walked into the room, his worst fears were confirmed. Grandmother was lying in bed asleep, and this woman who baked bread and turned the world over every day, didn’t even look like herself. She looked all of her 93 years with her jaw slack and her skin, pale. With tears in his eyes, and grief gripping his heart, Dan touched her gently and woke her up. He said, “Grandmother, it’s me, Danny.” She opened her eyes and looked over at him. In a familiar voice—
       • a voice that had read him stories
       • a voice that had said prayers and tucked him in bed at night
       • a voice that had called him to the dinner table
    In that familiar voice, Grandmother looked at Dan and with the delight of recognition, she said, “Oh, you sweet boy.”

    In that moment, it didn’t matter what Dan knew about her condition; it didn’t matter who she had been for him. What mattered was that he was known—known by someone he thought he had lost forever.

    And that’s what happened to Mary. It didn’t matter what Mary knew. It didn’t even matter who she knew. What mattered on that first resurrection morning was that her Lord—the one she thought she had lost forever—Her Lord looked at her and in a very familiar voice—
       • a voice that had said, “your sins are forgiven;”
       • a voice that had prayed with her
       • a voice that had called her to the table
    In that familiar voice, Jesus looked at her and said, “Mary!” Only when she was known by Jesus, did the resurrection become real for her.

    For the resurrection to be real in any of our lives, it’s not what we know—it’s not even who we know—it’s Who knows us. On this resurrection morning, our Risen Lord is standing before each of us and says in a familiar voice—
       • a voice that has said, “your sins are forgiven;”
       • a voice that has prayed with us and for us;
       • a voice that has invited us to the table with the words, “This is my body….This is my blood”
    In that familiar voice, Jesus calls each of us by name: Dan, Daniel, Jacob, Leah, Tom, Brenda, Rick, Carol, Steve…

    We’ve all come to Easter looking for something. We have all come hoping to make sense of Jesus’ death, hoping to discover some truth about God, hoping that, for us, the resurrection might be real.

    But we're really looking to be found—to be completely known by the Savior who calls each of us by name. We came to restore a relationship that we feared was lost—perhaps we haven’t been praying or haven’t been to church in a long time, and we thought our chance with God was gone. Or perhaps we go to church every Sunday, but never really believed Jesus died for us.

    We each came today to be known intimately by name, by Jesus. And strange and wonderful things happen when we’re known by the Lord. We’re filled with a deep and exuberant joy!
       • A joy in knowing the relationship we thought we had lost has been restored as Jesus calls out our name;
       • A joy that makes fear and trembling and loneliness melt away;
       • A joy that lets us know we will never, ever be alone again, no matter what;
       • A joy that helps us to trust that our Savior walks with us even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death;
       • A joy that makes us run with Mary to go and tell others that Jesus Christ is indeed alive!

    It’s a joy that enables us to say, “I have seen the Lord and he knows Me by name!”

    Photo Credit: "Noli Me Tangere" (Stop Clinging to Me). Painting by Nik Helbig. Acrylic on Canvas, based on classical biblical theme of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Connect with Nik Helbig on Facebook.

  • Letting Go

    blogpic LetGodA Sermon based on John 3:1-17 for the Second Sunday in Lent; Lutheran Church of theAtonement, Florissant, MO

    It was 1988. My husband, Dan, and I became good friends when we met in seminary because we were otherwise involved in or recovering from other relationships. About a year later, we were both free to date, but still only good friends. I would drop subtle hints to get him to ask me out. Things like, “Dan, we should go on a date” or the even more subtle, “Dan, I think we should get married.” He would laugh and say, “oh, no, we’re too much alike, it would never work.”

    Well, he was not picking up what I was putting, so after awhile, I thought I’d better accept that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I was about to become ordained and move to my first call in Detroit, MI. I’d seen the statistics about how a woman’s chance of marrying dropped like a rock after they become a pastor. So I said, “Well, God, it’s just going to be me and you in urban ministry, and it’s going to be ok. I’m going to trust that you’ll be with me and give me what I need to follow this call.” I had a sense of peace.

    About 2 weeks later, guess what happened? Dan called and, as if it was his idea, asked me out on a real date. The rest, as they say, is history.

    In 2008, I sent my book, Motherhood Calling to several publishers. I wanted that sense of accomplishment and recognition, to prove that I was a worthy writer, a good Mom and pastor. All I got were rejection letters, or no response at all.

    My Mom died in 2012 and one afternoon a couple years ago, I was standing in my kitchen missing her terribly. I got down the cookbook that she put together, which includes family pictures and poems that wrote. I hugged the cookbook to my chest and thought, “I’m so grateful she spent the time putting this together, because cooking from it is so comforting to me now that she’s gone.” It was like scales falling from eyes, when I realized that’s the only reason to try and publish my book, so my kids have these stories when I’m gone. Who cares if anyone else reads or even likes it?

    Guess what happened? 8 years after my first attempt, my book was published.

    Are you noticing a pattern here? New life comes once we die to our ego and let go of control, but we resist this process mightily. Our need for control, for programs, projects, plans and preferred outcomes layered with our American flair for rugged individualism makes it hard for us to die to self.

    Nicodemus, the Pharisee in John chapter 3, is also resisting letting go of his hard-earned status, education and power. As a religious leader, he wants to know if his position, authority, and religious framework is worthy, is right, and of God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night under the cover of darkness—as a Pharisee, he can’t be seen asking religious questions—his area of expertise—to an uneducated Galilean peasant, even one who does miracles, like Jesus.

    The darkness of night in the Gospel of John, however, also symbolizes spiritual misunderstanding or unbelief. Nicodemus’s spiritual confusion is made clear in his conversation with Jesus who speaks of being “born again.” Nicodemus cannot fathom how such a thing is possible. He can think only in concrete physical terms—returning to his mother’s womb—but Jesus is talking about a spiritual re-birth, of letting go and being born from above—born of water and the Spirit.

    For some of our evangelical sisters and brothers, to be “born again” is an experience of conversion—a moment where Jesus’ love and forgiveness were first felt and made real. For those of us who are raised in the faith, being “born again of water and the Spirit” begins with our Baptism into Christ, but in neither instance, is it a one-time event. Similar to the pattern I began to see in my own life, to be “born again” is a life-long process that we go through again and again and again. Professor Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN defines being born again, as “recognizing that your entire existence is dependent on God, and through your relationship with Jesus, to trust God for everything that you need.”

    Nicodemus was right about Jesus in verse 3, “Rabbi…no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” God’s presence is right in front of Nicodemus in Jesus. Jesus asks him, "how he can be a religious leaders and not understand spiritual re-birth?" But like us, Nicodemus resists letting go and dying to self and to his supposed religious superiority.

    The question implied at the end of the story is, "Will Nicodemus let go of his ego and allow himself to fall into a trusting relationship with Jesus? Will Nicodemus die to his position, power, and privilege, and affirm that his entire existence is dependent on God?"

    This is the question that the season of Lent asks all of us. We’re invited into the Paschal mystery that Jesus lived—of dying and rising anew—for this is the pattern of our own life, with each new day, each new difficulty, each new goal and each new pursuit. We resist it because we have to let go before we see what comes next, before we know what being born again will look like.

    Letting go of ego needs and expectations, agendas and control, always precedes receiving something new; that is the paschal mystery—death always precedes resurrection and God is in all of it. That’s the hard part for us—to trust that God is with us even in death—the small deaths we experience as we grow older, and the big death at the end of our life.

    Dying to self is the only way we allow ourselves to fall into trusting that our entire existence depends on God, and Jesus will provide everything we need. Whatever we're tightly clinging to, whatever we are resisting—that is where God is nudging us to let go, so we can be spiritually re-born from above, and deepen our trust in Christ Jesus.

    Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved through him.

    When my Mom died, my whole family was gathered around her bed in the ICU to turn off the machines and the medicines keeping her alive. She had been alert just a few hours before. We did the Service of Confession and Forgiveness with her pastor, and sang her favorite hymns. When that last medicine was turned down, my mom died very quickly. It was excruciatingly painful to let her go, but as she was born into eternal life, I was also born again.

    For suddenly I could see and understand who she really was that I couldn’t grasp while she was alive. Despite illness, mental confusion, pain and physical distress, she held on. She held on and waited for us to be ready to let her go. With a persistent, patient, unfailing love and a strength we didn’t fathom she had, my mom hung on and took care of us in her dying as only a mom can.

    God’s love in Jesus Christ is like my mom’s—waiting, hanging on, holding out for us to be ready to let go. Jesus waits with a patient, persistent, unfailing love and strength we cannot fathom or imagine, until we let go.

    While he hung dying on the cross, Jesus waited for Nicodemus to be ready. Down the hill, he saw Nicodemus coming to him, now in the daylight—no longer confused, but as a devoted disciple who trusts him.

    John 19 says Nicodemus was weighed down with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to join Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and wrapping Jesus body for burial in the tomb.

    Nicodemus didn’t know that resurrection was coming, but he let go anyway. Nicodemus was born again into a love and trust he couldn’t fathom or imagine. And so are we.

  • Like Mother, Like Daughter

    Empty Bench Near WaterLike most women I know, I've gone through several phases in my relationship with my Mom. There were rebellious times when I didn’t want to be anything like her; there were grateful times when I recognized that some of her qualities are unmistakably a part of me, and there was everything in between.

    Today, I feel a deeper connection to her 3 ½ years after her death and I wish so much that I could talk with her about that of which we never spoke.  Things like how she prayed, the ways she experienced God, how her volunteerism was connected with her faith, what she gave up by being a stay-at-home Mom, what she would change about her choices if she could, what she would do exactly the same. 

    Six months after she died, I was at annual district church meeting called Synod Assembly. During the opening worship, we sang 3 of her favorite hymns. I could see her in my mind's eye, standing near the heavenly throne singing with me in her full beautiful voice. Quite suddenly, I saw a window into heaven that slid open from the inside and an awareness came over me that said, "your Mom had a call to ministry." 

    I stopped singing and sat down to process the gift of this awareness, while worship continued around me. I thought about all of the activities my Mom had done throughout her life and of course, so much of it was ministry: running our girl scout troop, writing the church newsletter, managing the hospital gift shop, leading suburban women's education, hosting parties and great fellowship events, and the list goes on. Had she been this vibrant woman today, her pastor would have encouraged her to go to seminary. And I thought I was the family weirdo who is the first and only pastor in my extended family.

    Accepting with gratitude that I am more like her than not, came over me again a couple of weeks ago when my sisters and I went through her worldly possessions with the daunting task of deciding what to keep and what to give. We first tackled her dozens and dozens of cookbooks – we took pictures of the recipes she had marked in the books we gave away, and found more recipes tucked in the pages of many of them. But in one cookbook, I found a hand-written sheet of paper on which she had written a reflection about Silence. I had written the reflection about The Gift of Nothingness (which I posted last week, and you can read below on my blog or link to here) just a few months before. The language and the sentiments are remarkably similar. Here are her words:

         Silence – the chance to eliminate all sounds so the blood which beats in your pulses

         become the only conscious awareness you have

         A quiet and peace return as you begin to relax and your blood pulsing begins once again to recede and be natural.

         The quiet becomes manifest and your being fades into the stillness of the moment –

         be it dawn, high noon, dusk or midnight.

         Dawn – a new beginning, a chance to be aware, to feel, to experience, to begin new thoughts and ideas; 

         to re-establish the positive of yesterdays, 

         but keep open to the gifts and newness of today

         High noon – bright day time, highlighting motives, thoughts, ideas

         no shadows- no hiding

         dealing with what is visible, what blossoms open.

    It looks like she started a reflection similar to praying the hours throughout the day, but she didn't have a chance to finish writing on the silence that comes at dusk and midnight.

    We'll have a lot to discuss when it's my turn to join her in the choir around throne of God. Until then, I'm glad that death has not stopped me from learning more about her and loving her more deeply.