Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Gift of the Carolers

I visit Norma periodically.  Norma lives with a variety of health problems, and together we get to enter the sacred ground of secrets from the past, crises in the present, and anxieties of the future.  We share, we pray, we laugh, we cry, we search Scripture, and we talk for hours.  I get to be her pastor, and that is a gift.

Norma has discovered that when you're sick, you're often alone.  Friends and family don't know what to say, so they say nothing.  They feel guilty that they cannot come around more often, so they don't come at all.  It's hard to love someone who's sick, and it's hard to be the someone who's sick and lonely.

But last week, some friends of mine, a small group at PCC's Westchester Campus, went caroling.  They asked for Norma's address; I asked Norma's permission to share her address; she agreed nervously; they knocked on lots of doors before actually finding Norma.  And then they sang to her and her husband.  

This is what Norma wrote about the experience:

"The Gift of the Carolers"

The doorbell rang at 8:30 pm on a dark December night as I was relaxing with my husband watching yet another rerun of "The Waltons."  My husband headed to the door, because he was still dressed while I in my gown and robe retreated for the bedroom.  Then my husband said, "I bet it's the carolers our pastor said would like to visit us this Christmas season."
Upon hearing this, I turned, robe and all, no longer concerned about my appearance, to head where my husband was now opening the front door.  As the door opened, the singing began.  He was correct in his assumption.  It was not a large group, but strong in voice they were.  Hiding half behind the wall to disguise my attire, I could immediately feel the emotions stirring inside me as I looked into their faces singing carols that I had once sung when I was young and on the same type of missions.  I immediately knew the significance of my position in the gathering at my front door.

It was surreal to be on this side of the door, having been a caroler myself so many years ago.  The fond memories flooded my head as I enjoyed the beautiful sound of Christmas carols being sung before me.  I had a longing to be standing there on my sidewalk with them, but my heart defects and cancer have altered my ability to participate.  I breathed in the essence of familiarity with lights behind held in the dark, for the song books and voices rising in song, and it overwhelmed me with a peace and joy of a time gone by.  The sound of their voices and smiling faces warmed me inside.

I realized at that moment that I had now become the recipient of this loving and compassionate tradition.  That simple kindness helped me that night to better understand and accept my current position in my journey of life.  With so many things in my life having come full circle, I see the beauty that can be found even in my struggles when something so compassionate and supportive as that night came about in the shadows of these illnesses.  If we trust in God's love no matter where we are in life and no matter how difficult it can be at times, he will still bring beautiful things into our lives when we need them the most.  I felt blessed in understanding that I have experienced both the joy of having been able to bless someone with this gift, and many years later, to receive that same gift.

With both a smile on my face and a tear in my eye, I had grown that night in seeing how deep the roots of kindness can run.  I thanked God for the clarity to see the beauty in the symphony of love in the giving and receiving of the songs sung on that cold winter night, standing now on the other side of the door.

Norma J.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Blue Christmas: Waiting for Comfort

If you find yourself in a place of grief, hurt, or pain this Christmas morning, then I pray some of these words will acknowledge your reality on Christmas, and maybe offer some comfort or hope.
However long we spend waiting, it almost always feels too long, right?  Whether the outcome is good or bad, most of us would rather just get to it already instead of waiting another week, another day, or another hour.  And yet, waiting must be endured as part of the human experience.  To live is to wait.  And while all waiting is challenging, some waiting is almost unbearably painful.

We wait for the depression to pass, for the dark cloud that follows our every footstep to dissipate.  We wait for the torrent of tears to subside.  We wait for the right medication to restore balance to our brains, so we can restore balance to our lives and our families before their patience runs out.

We wait for him to come back home, for her to change her mind and decide the marriage is worth fighting for.  We wait for a cease-fire in the fighting.  We wait for a glimpse of the person we fell in love with, for a reminder of why we united in the first place.

We wait for a check, a cure, or a conception.  We wait for reconciliation, for the prodigal son to come home, for forgiveness to be granted, to be able to forgive the wrong done to us.  We wait for our chance, our opportunity, our moment to move toward our dream.

We wait for the mercy of death to free our loved ones from pain.  And then we wait, seemingly forever, to be reunited with them again.  We wait for the pain to subside, but we fear what life looks like beyond the pain.

We wait for comfort, doubtful that it’s possible and afraid that it might be. 

In our waiting, we enter a long story of humanity waiting on each other and waiting on God.  Long ago, the people of God were slaves in Egypt.  They cried out to God.  They waited to be rescued.  And God showed up and rescued them.

Then the people of God waited, wandering through the wilderness for forty years, to enter the Promised Land.  They cried out to God.  They waited to be led to new life.  And God showed up and led them.

Then the people of God lived under oppression, waiting for the Messiah, the Christ, to fight for them, to protect them.  They waited for a Savior.  And God showed up, as a baby, at Christmas, to save them.

The people of God know the agony and anxiety of waiting.  They’ve lived it.  When we can’t find the words to capture the agony and anxiety of our circumstances, we can borrow and revive the words of God’s people who’ve gone before us:

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2     Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy…
5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption. (Psalm 130)

We wait for God with our whole selves—our bodies, our minds, and our hearts.  We plead for him to hear us, to interrupt our circumstances, and to enter our lives.  We wait for the Lord with the intensity and desperate hopefulness of night watchmen waiting for the soft light of dawn.

Two thousand years ago a young couple in a stable waited for God to show up in their lives, too.  A young, glowing, waddling, scared Mary waited to meet the child inside.  The almost-parents waited to have the baby that would drastically and forever change not just their worlds, but THE world.  They waited to see God’s words to them fulfilled.  They waited to see what God would look like.

In this season, two thousand years later, we celebrate the baby born to them, and yet, we still wait for God to show up in our lives, to drastically and forever change them.  We still wait to see the words of God fulfilled.  We still wait to see what God will look like in our world.

We join the people of God throughout history who have cried out, “Lord, hear my voice.  Let your ears by attentive to my cry for mercy…I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my trust.”  Sometimes we feel like we shouldn’t cry out to God in our pain.  We feel like it’s disrespectful or unappreciative to talk to God like that.  And, then sometimes when we do cry out to Him, we feel like He’s not listening, so we stop telling Him how we’re really doing.  But we see in the Bible that neither of these is reality.

We need not fear crying out to God.  The Bible, story of the people of God, shows that God does hear the cries of his hurting people.  We need not fear letting God know how we wait for him, desperate for his intervention in our lives.  The Bible is the story of a God who shows up to a world in need. 

Jesus showed up in our world as a baby, because God heard the cries of his people and responded.  Jesus didn’t come for the pulled-together people with perfect lives—even if such people existed.  Baby Jesus came to our world for the sick and the sinners.  He came to our world in response to the cries of people who were hurting.  Grown-up Jesus even went as far as calling those who mourn, “blessed.”

Yet in our current expression of Christmas, those of us who are hurting, lonely, sick, and mourning at this time of year often feel marginalized, not blessed.  We feel pressure to put on a happy face so others can cheerfully celebrate Christmas.  We feel guilty for our tears, trying to hide them from family and friends.  We don’t want to be a burden.  We don’t want to rain on others’ parades, but we’re hurting.  We feel like something’s wrong with us, because, to us, it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.

But it’s not that there’s something wrong with us.  There’s something wrong with our culture’s understanding of Christmas, because Christmas is for those who are hurting.  The reason Christmas happened in the first place was because our world was hurting and broken.  We celebrate Christmas to remember that God came to earth to save a world in need.                                                
Jesus came here for you.  He didn’t come here in spite of you.  Christmas happens to comfort you, not to hurt you.  Jesus didn’t come here to make you hide your pain and mask your grief.  He came here to be with you in your pain and grief.  He didn’t come here to take away the darkness of your world, but to be a light in your world.  He came here to experience your world, with all the disappointment, heartache, and loss your world includes.  He came here so that he would understand your pain, and so you wouldn’t have to withstand it alone.  Jesus came here to give you hope of a day when “‘He will wipe every tear from (our) eyes.’”  When “’There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain.” (Rev 21:4)  

That’s what Christmas is about! 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Slavery, Then and Now

On a recent date night, my husband took me out to the movies.  He took me to see 12 Years a Slave, which is being heralded as one of the best movies of the year.  My husband says it’s the most powerful movie he’s ever seen. 

It was awful. 

Don’t get me wrong, the writing, storytelling, character development, believability of something so barbarically evil, and suspense were incredible.

But it was awful.

I got up and left at one point when the slave was defying his master, because I couldn’t bear to see what savagery would result from his insubordination.

I worked hard to keep down the popcorn.

I covered my ears and eyes. 

I could not wait for the mercy of the ending.

And then it was over.  And no one moved in the silent theater. 

How could we?  How could we get up, throw away our popcorn and soda, stop off at the bathroom, and go home to a comfortable, safe home after watching that movie?

And yet, that’s what we had to do. 

My husband and I had plans to stop for dessert after the movie.  I know I made him mad when I left the movie silent, got in the car, and asked him to take me home.

I know he needed more words from me, but I was in a rare moment of speechlessness.

As I watched the horrors of that movie, I thought about men and women, boys and girls, in slavery—forced labor, forced prostitution, the sex trade—today.  The twelve years of that man’s slavery were over a long time ago, and those twelve years were as inhumane and evil as I can imagine.  But there are still people living in unimaginable, inhumane evil today, in the year 2013.

As I covered my ears and eyes, I prayed for those enslaved today.  I prayed that their stories would be told now—not 150 years from now in an astonishingly powerful film (or whatever the storytelling medium is then).  I prayed that instead of sitting, stricken silent in a theater as credits roll, that people would hear their stories and be loud and active in the public arena.

The film is a must see, because it’s so awful.  We must learn and not forget the awful existences that were reality.  And we must learn of the awful existences that are reality for God’s children today, and we must work to change their realities to ones of love and mercy.

If you’re interested in being loud and active in the public arena on the issue of slavery today, then consider participating in the Virginia Abolition Conference 2014 coming up soon.

You can also support a child in Moldova, the country with the highest percentage of sex trafficking in the world, through one of PCC’s mission partnerships.

Monday, December 16, 2013

For Dr. Heard

I opened mail from my alma mater a few months ago to read that Dr. Heard had died.

My heart sank, and my eyes filled with tears.  

Dr. Betty Heard was my college adviser and a professor in the English department.  She taught me Milton, an English education class, and Victorian British Novel--which is my favorite kind of literature--I think--I do love Romantic poets...and American Transcendentalists...and Shakespeare...and Hemingway and Fitzgerald....  But Austen, Bronte, Hardy; it doesn't get any better than that.  (However, I could do without Dickens.  Twice in my educational career I failed to read assigned texts; both were Dickens.)

I wanted to attend the Homecoming Chapel service that honored her, but it was on a Sunday, and I kind of have a job that happens on Sundays.  I've thought a hundred times, "If I were the pastor who'd been asked to speak about her at the service, then what would I have said?"  

It's taken me three months to be able to form those words.  Here goes...

Dr. Heard was the kind of professor who taught more than literature and grammar, although she taught both extremely well.  She taught about the importance of attitude and character, and high expectations and grace.

She was the kind of adviser who cared about academics and career path, but who also cared about personal growth and life-altering choices of all kinds.  

She was the kind of adviser who showed up at the ER when one of the twins was sick, and who offered to call their mom and let her know they were okay.

She was the kind of professor who gave exams at a coffee shop.  

She was the kind of professor who invited students to walk to her home to watch a movie and eat popcorn with M&M's.

She was the kind of adviser who made time for lunch with former students when they traveled back for a visit. 

She was the kind of professor who let you know when she was proud of you.

She was a captivating, attractive person whom people wanted to be around.  She made everyone around her better; she brought out the best in people. 

Dr. Ausband, then the head of the English department (now the Dean), once told me that Dr. Heard failed more students than anyone else, but he also fielded the fewest complaints about her.  He said students all but thanked her for failing them.  I suspect that's because she was honest and loving, and we all knew she wanted the best for us.  But the best for us meant living up to high expectations, not making excuses.

I remember Dr. Heard often, every time I say, "often."  Until Dr. Heard, I didn't know that the "t" in often is silent.  But it is.  She taught me that.

She taught me to never lose my temper in front of students, because once you do, you've lost control.  I wish I'd been able to live up to her example.

She taught me that if something is wrong enough to alter your personality, then tell your students up front.  Don't leave them guessing.

I am better for my time with Dr. Betty Heard.  I am probably one of thousands of people who can say that.  

I always remember Dr. Heard this time of year, because I memorized a section of  Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" for the final exam.  I can still recite it.  

Merry Christmas, Dr. Heard.  Miss you.