I need to share five distinct moments at the 2020 NEXT Church National Gathering in Cincinnati. After I share them I’ll do some dot-connecting between them, but only some, because I need to sit in a bit…and, apropos of these thoughts, I cannot connect the dots FOR you. But enough of that; sit for a moment while I tell a couple of stories. All of the quotes are not word for word as they were said, but as I recall them.
I was excited about hearing again from Dr. Miguel De La Torre, Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology. Full disclosure: I was on the Speaker Team and was adamant from the beginning that we needed him in Cincinnati. We needed his provocation and nuancing of how to allow hope to function in our witness. I have written about that at the NEXT blog, so I needn’t say more here. I knew I was going to like his talk. But what I want to recall most for this moment is when he said “I’m not talking to you. You are not the audience for this conversation. I’m here to talk to the margins of this assembly…and the rest of you are allowed to overhear that conversation.”
BOOM…a drum sounds down my spine.
I also went to his talk on the hopelessness of the border crisis. The whole history lesson of banana republics and gunboat diplomacy was essential and powerful, but this is the quote for the moment: “I will vote in November. But what happens there will not change much. The current policies at the border are not Trump policies, they are Obama policies. And even if we elect Sanders in November he will still work to prop up the Empire.”
BOOM…a drum sounds in my veins.
I signed up for a walking tour of Cincinnati for my second workshop. I didn’t go. Two of my favorite people in the world (Amy Miracle and Amy Starr Redwine) were leading a workshop, Pastoring While Being Female, and lamented that no men signed up. I reflected that it didn’t seem appropriate for us to do so; but if they really wanted someone to, I would go. I introduced myself as “Intensely Uncomfortable” not because I cannot handle being a single male in a room of twenty-two women but because I felt like an invasion of patriarchy in THEIR space. (And let’s be clear: I was no minority in that space…but I have written before about being the majority of one and you can find those thoughts elsewhere.) But it was powerful (and uncomfortable) for me to sit in that space and hear about the challenges and opportunities of pastoring while female. One of my favorite workshops ever.
BOOM…a drum sounds in my gut.
I attended a question-and-answer session for the Antiracism audit that NEXT Church has been engaged in. Jessica Vasquez Torres (of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training) reminded us that this work is not about if but about where and how. Our organizations will be propping up WHITENESS…even if, and maybe particularly when, a foundational principle is dismantling it. Denise Anderson, NEXT Church Strategy team member and all around badass Christian, in the midst of a larger more important point said “There is no space I enter in which I am not having to interpret my blackness to WHITENESS.”
BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…sounds in my body.
The body that tells me where I belong…and where I do not (thanks, Troy Bronsink of The Hive in Cincinnati, for that language) even when my head knows that the systems of this world bequeathed me belonging almost everywhere even when I do nothing to earn that trust—and even when I do everything to earn distrust. That is the nature of my power in the POWER world of WHITENESS.
During a couple of NEXT church conferences in a row I have heard white people like me…hell, I have even said: ‘If you aren’t here to speak to me, why be here??’
Wow. It is ALL about me.
And guess what? Other than a very small handful of people, every disciple of Jesus became so because they had to overhear conversations for which they were not the intended audience. I have always been the intended audience…of EMPIRE…of the WORLD I walk in…of the CHURCH.
This makes me not a disciple of Jesus but a disciple of the Church, the World, and Empire.
I needed the disassociation that happened last week. I needed the “Hello, My Name is ‘Intensely Uncomfortable’” of the last week. I needed the awareness that progressive and liberal are not “get-out-of-jail-free cards” to WHITENESS and PATRIARCHY and institutional systemic totalizing depravity (thank you, Jessica Vasquez Torres, for that language) that make me be the very thing I wish never to be…and mostly ignorant of the when, where, and how I am doing it.
I need to sit now. Sit in my body and listen to the drumming. And interpret. And ask. And watch. And overhear. And dis-place. And dis-comfort. And dis-disciple. From a lot.
Not for the first time. Not for the last time. For the NEXT time…
I need to start calling these Kukla New Year’s letter because its been years since I got this done before Christmas… and frankly I’m barely going to beat the new year in. Years ago we stopped sending Christmas cards from the hundred and fifty we used to send every year. We called it “going green” but it was also about the growing number of things to get done during this season with kids, year end close (Caroline), and Advent and Christmas things (Andrew)… so it was the best of both worlds. This year we actually got picture Christmas cards for the first time since then… I think we should rename them Valentine’s Day cards though… because we haven’t even addressed them let alone gotten them in the mail yet. And yet the world turns – and its all ok.
2019 was pretty much that kind of year… Warren added a fifth sport team to his repertoire when he joined the Wrestling team, “why does that matter to you dad, you’re not on the team” he says like we don’t have to drive him to everything. 1 year and counting until we have a driver in the house! We mostly had a good year…
W took more summer school (to get both semesters of US history done) so he could take AP Human Geography this year. Its weird to imagine a world where freshman are taking AP classes.. but here we go. And wrestling has been a revelation. Warren is 0 for 15 (he actually has one win by default when there was no opponent in his weight class) but he keeps at it. He has never asked to quit. He isn’t sure if he will do it again. But for now he is putting his all into it. That’s the revelation.. because that’s the kind of ornery dedication that this world needs. And when he kicks it in – he really can do almost anything.
E is loving her GATE class at her new school and thriving. I have to keep reminding myself that she is only 11… she is really like 34. She is the youngest kid in our youth group (middle school and high school combined) and she totally won the Bible trivia competition because that’s E. When I went to pick her up from a week of Outdoor Science School the first thing the cabin mom told me was, “I LOVE Elizabeth. She is the most drama-free girl I have ever met.” She is also a total mom. Last night Caroline and I went out to have dinner and drinks at a friends house. Elizabeth: “When are you getting home, last time you stayed out until 12:30!” And yes, you guessed it. She waited up for us to get home.. again. E turned into W’s opposite. He over-programs and she loves to create lots of alone time in her day. She has worn through yet another swing because she spends hours a day on it listening to music. It’s a beautiful thing to watch your kids be so sure of who they are in process of self-discovery.
Mere is theoretically making the shift from cello to violin, she has turned into a voracious reader, and it probably won’t surprise you that her teacher was like, “so… she is good at math.” Math is clearly the constant of our kids’ scholastic adventures. M continues to do gymnastic but with a steadfast refusal to join the team. She just has no interest in competition… I continue to be amazed that she is the most athletic of our children in many ways and yet the least inclined to do anything with that. She also has the best facial expressions… do not earn the look of death from her… you will not survive it.
Danielle is the one we won’t survive. She is kooky, energetic, and just flies into anything. I love watching her play soccer because she literally never stops running headstrong into the fray. In her co-ed indoor soccer she will literally bowl over the boys to take the ball away even when she is giving up a foot of height and about 25 pounds. She is loving first grade… even if first grade spelling lists are the death of us. That may be my next milestone… no more spelling lists! She also still LOVES playing with dolls (and all the girls with legos)… do not walk in our house in the dark… or maybe even with the lights on.
Piano, oboe, sax, flute, violin, cello, soccer, gymnastics, ski team, cross country, wrestling, track, science bowl, honor society, youth group and logos, Sunday worship… the weeks are full indeed… and its all worth it. I thought I’d try something new this year and let the kids add word themselves so, without further ado.
Warren: quoting Rocket Raccoon, “Ain’t no thing like me, except me.” I’m ready for the roarin’ twenties!
Elizabeth: “ On the spot answers aren’t my thing.”
Meredith: “hmm what should I write… oh I know, wait never mind, bye… or maybe, wait this might just work, or maybe not… defiantly not!” (I think she meant definitely…but defiantly is super fitting for the mere-mere!)
Danielle: “I don’t want to do anything… NOOOO don’t write that.” And… he typed exactly that.
As for Caroline and I… we are tired. Good tired mostly, but tired. Caroline keeps plugging away at work and being super-mom at the same time. I had crazy good year with renovation work at church that was a lot of work but went REALLY well and we couldn’t be happier about the end result. Though its never really the end is it?
A decade is closing, a year is over. But tomorrow is no different than today. Its not like anything is over – it’s a marker moment…a line the sand erased by the tides of busy lives in which we are regularly too on the go to stop and reflect. I think that is why I love these letters… I pretend like we are writing for them for you – but its really for us. What stands out, what do we want to mark – even if for only our own sake – and know truly where we are when we get ready to launch into the next step. So here we go… ready to launch. I am grateful for kids who find joy in their own self-expression.. who manage to be so incredibly similar and completely different all at the same time. I’m grateful for how much love they have for each other – and for others. There is plenty that doesn’t go right, and plenty that is challenging, and we have not been unmarked this year by death of loved ones, disappointments, dreams deferred, sleep-less nights… but I see it like those previously mentioned tides… each day we go out our ways, and each day back in together. And that rhythm of togetherness powers with gravitational authority the ability to move through whatever may come.
You are part of the tide – and we are grateful for you as well. Here is to another year of moving in and out.. together.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and wondrous New Year to you all!
With Love, the Kuklas
Wrote down a phrase of this when I saw a seagull the other day… and actually picked up that fragment of a note and wrote it out because it didn’t want to be forgotten.
Seagull in the Desert
Have you ever found yourself
in the strangest of ways
and been at home there?
Like a seagull in the desert,
gliding on hot arid winds
without a sea in sight?
I wonder what passes through their head
as they stare off into shimmering
illlusions of water, is that how they got here?
Chasing waters on the horizon that never
Mayhaps thats just what happened.
I have wandered thus and found myself
in the all the wrong places
made right because when I got there
they just fit.
In ways I could never explain to you,
but you if you’ve done the same
then you know you know it too.
It can only be known in the happening
its a thing not sought but occurring
and it explains itself to no one, why bother?
So I can figure how the seagull got there,
despite his nom de plume,
but not why it stays.
Is it the lack of competition,
the silence on that dry zephyr
so unlike where it once called home?
Is it the feeling of a different wind,
a lonely spirit that makes gliding, not basking,
just the right way to pass the day?
A lonely spirit that is more home
more companionship, more true
than any water washed shore.
Is it an internal streak flying across their heart
that refused them to be defined by a name?
No label telling them, roam here – not there?
Do they ever long for waves and tides?
Do they ever wonder, forlorn, what grander
shores were waiting never for them to adorn?
And why is such a wondering not a wandering
back home, the home they ought to know
rather than the home that knows them now?
What makes a seagull call the desert home?
Is it anything… or is just that they got lost
and that is how they were found,
Recently a friend and colleague of mine retired from parish ministry. After 17 years in his last call as the Pastor and Head of Staff at Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida – Tom Walker turned in a microphone for a golf club, and a committee agenda for… margin! It was a healthy call – far too wise a choice if you ask me, and all too soon by the reckoning of the many people for whom he was a guide, teacher, prophet, and friend. But he heard the Spirit beckon and made the tough call to say “enough”. I respect him deeply for making that tough call mostly because I know it was far tougher than you’d imagine. We say we’d all like to retire. But this is no job you can simply set aside. Ministry is a calling. And while we all know that God isn’t done calling Tom… it takes identity work and discipline to say “I’m done” to congregational ministry. Among other things our closest community and friends are the ones we commit to leave by answering that calling. It’s hard. But it’s healthy. And Tom answered that call – and I say of that decision (though he hardly needs me to say it) what I would say of his ministry as a whole: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
But I really am not writing now to commend him on that “hard call” about his calling. I’m writing a thank you to him and retrospective of sorts… because he was more than my colleague – he was a mentor to me (and still is) for ministry. I have had several “bosses” over the years. I have done internships in mission and ministry, summer jobs in college, a server at Outback Steakhouse, youth group leader and Sunday liturgist, and a hospital chaplain. I have always had a “boss” in those situations… sometimes even a BOSS. But in many ways Tom was really the only person I think of as having been my boss, because he was my supervisor in what felt like my first “real” job. My first call. I spent eight years as the Associate Pastor of Palms, and I reported to Tom through it all – which is saying a lot because Tom sure likes to move staff around!! I jest… it happened to him as much as because of him. But I stayed in that position longer than I expected because Tom was more than a boss… he was a mentor… and a friend. I’m not a good mentee. I don’t want to talk about me but I’m stubborn, opinionated, not good at holding my opinion in or masking my displeasure, don’t tend to “stay in my lane” with what is or isn’t my job, and quite willing to challenge authority. I know that because it all appeared on my annual reviews! I was never an easy employee… nor the most willing mentee, but Tom was more than equal to the task. I think I only have three people in my life I would put at mentor-status, but Tom is clearly there. And as I look back on the eight years I worked with, and for, Tom, and the 15 years of ordained ministry which was largely informed by him, I wish to share some of the tidbits he taught me, willing or begrudgingly, as something of a tribute to him upon his retirement.
“Tithes and Offerings”
I must start here… because this was what inspired this tribute. Yesterday I was leading worship and with some introduction said… “let us give to God, God’s tithes, and our offerings”. I always say that – every Sunday. And I get mad at myself when it doesn’t come out right. And I say it because Tom told me to. I’m sure somewhere someone told Tom he had to as well. We pass on these little things in ministry… our own apostolic succession if you will. And I always thought it was awkward… but hey, “Tom is awkward and he’s the boss – so I’ll just say this until I leave someday and I can say whatever I want!” Only… now I say it. Anyway. And it bugs me when I don’t. And I’ve come to appreciate it. There is what we give God because it is what God is due… but over and above that there is what we offer. OVER AND ABOVE. What an idea. Most of the time we are looking to see what little we can give… but Tom taught me to aim for the over and above. And that matters to me now… even though no-one else knows that this is what I mean when I say it. It’s ok that I know. And that’s what Tom taught me to care about worship in general. Hymns should match the sermon… the Prayer of Confession should flow right out of my focus and function statement…. Worship is a crafted experience each and every week. And while I struggle to maintain that now (I have to type and print my own bulletins… Tom didn’t teach me that one.) I still try. Because Tom instilled that level of care and precision into me… which is hard because I’m not a very precise person.
“let us pray together, praying…”
I will go quicker and not belabor the point (though belaboring is my spiritual gift) every week, like Tithes and Offerings, I make sure to say, “all the while we pray together the words Jesus taught us, praying, Our Father…” Most often, if you listen close, people say “saying, Our Father…” In my first direct report meeting, Tom corrected me… we don’t say the prayer, we pray it. And I have never forgotten that. Words matter.
“Uninterpreted Numbers are Dangerous” and “Hospitality Begins with Rules”
Let us change the pace. I can recall Tom saying the first saying all the time, and I quote him all the time, and the second makes me break out laughing (at Tom more than with him… I told you I’m not a very good mentee) and yet, I quote that one too. I believe strongly in transparency… I’m an open book. Tom is a transparent leader also. And I believe in radical hospitality… a phrase I incorporated into my being working at Palms. But I always remember the wisdom that transparency doesn’t mean leaving financial statements lying around, and it doesn’t mean having pastoral interactions in the hallway and doesn’t mean leaving the door open for anyone to hear when having hard conversations. Boundaries are important. They create safer space. They create manageable expectations. They create informed conversations. They limit rumors and gossip. They limit hurt feelings. They limit sharing and increasing our anxiety. Tom taught me to be a nuanced and balanced leader who understand the both boundaries and agility, transparency and confidentiality, rules and freedom. I didn’t always appreciate it then… but I sure do now.
From Good To Great
Ugh. Tom MADE me read this book. Jim Collins book about what kind of CEO and leadership style makes good companies become great companies and then sustain that greatness. Tom liked to talk about excellence. I liked to talk about authenticity. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but they often feel that way and I often rolled my eyes about excellence. So a book about being great??? He made me read this book and I wasn’t going to like it! “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem???” …so…here is the thing… dammit! I love the book. I quote it all the time. Sometimes I call it the Gospel According to Jim Collins. It kills me inside to admit it. But now you know. It’s a great book and I have only Tom to blame for knowing anything about it. Dammit.
There is a scene in a great movie called The Replacements. Gene Hackman plays a football coach and he is working with his quarterback, Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), and he tells Shane to be a like a duck on a pond. Under the water ducks’ legs are going a mile a minute to keep them in place on the pond… but only under the surface – to the outside observer they are calm and serene. And a leader needs to be like a duck on a pond. Tom was my Gene Hackman… not sure if I manage it – but he taught me to do so and whether or not I replicate it isn’t on him. He called it a “non-anxious presence” and I fail at it a lot. But he set the bar.
“You all know this story”
Ugh. I still make this mistake. I get up in worship and say, “oh this is a biblical story we all know well…” and then I hear Tom’s voice telling me, “when you say that you are telling every person who doesn’t know the story that they don’t belong here because they don’t know our insider stories.” And then I clench my teeth and endeavor not to say it again. I still will. But every time Tom’s calm non-anxious voice will call me to a better way.
Okay Okay… I’m belaboring
Tom once told me to simply answer the question and don’t open any other doors…. But I love opening doors. And I love to belabor a point. In deference to Tom, I will stop trying to remember everything he taught me. These are mostly just the ones that hit me regularly. But he taught me far more than the simple accumulation of these ideas. He taught me to be strategic. He taught me about having an open door and being people first – and he was always open for a stimulating conversation about some idea or quote from something I was reading. He taught me that you can train passionate people, but you can’t inject passion into well-trained people (and boy, ain’t that the truth!) – look for passion. (Its basically a churchy version of you can’t teach speed.) He taught me to open your heart and your home to your colleagues because it is all that will get you through the rough times. And he taught me to share responsibility – as hard as that is for him and for me – even when you think you could do a better job yourself because that’s what it means to be a team and a community.
I told you I would stop trying to tell it all, but I need to share another one:
Two stories for this one. One year into my call I went to Tom and told him the part of my job that was about getting a single’s ministry going didn’t make sense. We have lots of young families and we need to put our energy there and let the other churches who are already doing great singles ministry do that better than we ever will (frankly I just said that in a way that Tom would have said it not me… but that’s how I recall me saying it… I was already learning from Tom. Tom used to say, “if there is Coke next door don’t make Pepsi… make Sprite). And all Tom said in that meeting about me changing my job expectations was, “ok”. I mean here I was in my late twenties with all of one year of experience in ordained ministry and I looked at my boss and said I wanted to change the job description he had written because it was wrong. And he said… ok. That simply. That easily. I think I knew – but didn’t really know – at the time how awesome and trusting that was for him to do for me. But its that type of wind beneath my wings that made me fly. (How freakin’ sappy is that????) Second story? Ok, you already got the point, but again after running a year of a Wednesday night bible study that a task force designed, I told him I wanted to end it because it wasn’t really working… and again? You guessed it. “Ok.” Tom trusted. And that trust inspired trust-worthy work. Thanks Tom.
Wrapping Up – really, I promise
I don’t mean to say it was all roses. We had our hard times. I think in the end I would say I left my call when I felt I wanted to move beyond Tom’s leadership. And I say that in great love and respect knowing he will know exactly what I mean. It wasn’t that I thought I could do better… but that I was ready to do different. And Tom was preparing me for just that, had been doing so since the beginning (it is what good leaders do but good leaders are rare). Good leaders prepare us to go beyond them in ways they don’t anticipate. And good leaders don’t demand the credit… and often don’t even get acknowledgement. Tom sent people all over the country in ministry to do just that… its what makes him a great disciple of Jesus. He too is a teacher, who passed on what he learned to others who would, in turn, do the same… Tom stands tall – literally – in the way of Jesus, and the way of Jim Collins, and the way of generations yet unborn… to do Church. Not just talk about it. He is preaching the Gospel, at all times, using words only when necessary. (Thanks Francis.) And in ways big and small I’m indebted to his ministry and all he taught me to do… I’m not sure I’m living up to the example – but with God’s help, I will surely try my hardest… and that will be “good enough”.
Tom. We come to an ending. Not THE ending. Those are not up to us. But we come to a significant moment for your ministry – which by relationship – is a significant moment for me as well. A marker-moment. And like good practitioners of the faith of our forebearers I think we should build an alter to such a moment and I think its fitting that this marker be a story… you see, there is a little village in France called Le Chambon…. Hahaha. Ok. Hahaha.. I can’t stop laughing. Seriously… I. CAN’T. STOP. LAUGHING. Sorry, that’s an inside joke. But it HAD to be said.
Tom. Thank you.
Jan – for sharing your husband, often to a degree that I’m sure weren’t happy about, thank you.
Chris and Worth – well you didn’t really have any choice. But thank you all the same.
Legacy is an important thing. I’m but a small tendril of the legacy of your ministry – but a grateful tendril. I am very glad our journeys of following in the way of Jesus coincided for a time… mine will never be the same because of you. And in Spirit, we shall walk this journey together… forever.
“Giving Voice to Creation”
Sermon preached by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church, Boise
May 19, 2019
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
As we pause before our second text I want to recall what is going on in this story of Saul and David and Jonathan and the people of Israel. Saul is the rightful King of Israel at the time. We know – because we are privy to a private moment that David has been anointed as the next king. David does a lot bad but does some things that are utterly amazing. One of those is his great respect for Saul as the anointed of the Lord and his unwillingness to do anything to bring harm to Saul. And that is amazing because Saul has been trying to kill David for quite a while now. We may recall that David had become the musician of Saul’s court. Saul had come to suffer some form of either mental illness or physiological issue that causes Saul pain and distress and what gets named as madness. And David’s music soothes Saul’s pain. But Saul grows to be jealous of David – both of his music that soothes him and his prowess in battle (being the apparent true measure of a king) and the refrain, “Saul slays his thousands and David his tens of thousands”. This does not sit well with Saul so he is trying to kill David, but David never loses the sense that Saul is his rightful king. Meanwhile, Jonathan is the friendship, the deep and abiding friendship, that helps David navigate life and sustains him. So these are the words that will come to him when he learns of Saul and Jonathan’s death and the conflicted feelings going through him. Their family is a mess, and I know that ours are all prefect but theirs are not. So here is David’s profound reaction upon hearing this news.
2 Samuel 1:17-27
17David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18(He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: 19Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! 20Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.21You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. 23Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 27How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
David’s lament for Saul always reminds of a favorite poem, which – if not inspired directly by David’s lament – is most certainly inspired by the same feeling as David’s. The poem is by W.H. Auden and is called Stop all the clocks and I want you to hear that connection between the sentiments of this poem and David’s desire that even dew should stop forming and raining stop falling because no good should happen in this moment. David laments not only for himself but for all Israel and creation itself. Hear that sentiment here in Auden’s poem as well:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead,
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
In poetry we express delight and our despair, we can give voice to ecstasy and heartache… we give voice to our emotional world. And a good poem sticks with you forever. You say after you hear it, ‘that person gets me’. You know what I mean: you can read a line, or hear a verse and think: that person gets me. And its often in a way you feel few others get you… and maybe, until this moment, you didn’t even understand about yourself.
One of my favorite poets who “gets me” and gets a lot of us is Mary Oliver. Mary died this year and is a renowned poet of wildlife and spirit and brokenness and peace and healing… my all-time favorite poem of hers is about a loon, in the midst of all of the loons dying. I like dark poetry, its just a thing I do, but I particularly love the way she ends this poem.
I tell you this to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
I want to break your heart… that is never close again… to the emotional world of everyone.
These various words always come to mind when their subjects come to mind. This is what powerful words do for us, they name our life and reality, but they also shape our vision – they form what we are able to see and be in the world. Mary Oliver doesn’t just want to name a hurt you are feeling but she wants to change the way you experience the world and she will. That’s why we must take such care with them… that adage, “sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” yeah… it’s wrong. Word shape the reality around us limiting what we can see or expanding our horizons.
David hears that Jonathan and Saul are dead and doesn’t just evoke his personal lament – though that is there – he gives voices to the grief of a nation and gives voice to “the daughters of Israel” … stop the natural world from functioning and just… grieve. Something our culture doesn’t much do anymore. One of the things that we note in pastoral circles is that where once upon a time not too long ago the death of a loved one was cause for a quick and immediate gathering of family in lament and celebration and worship as we grieved and broke up and shared our emotional world with each other. Now… it means in about 2 and a half months we will do some of those as our busy schedules allow. We do not stop. For anything or anyone.
David breaks open the heart of Israel. And we all stop to feel the pain.
But while we read his words, we also recall at this point that this is not simply a poem – for all it is that, it is not simply the grief-stricken words of a lyricist. It’s a song. The text calls it The Song of the Bow and tells us that David commanded all of Israel to learn the song. Its meter and measure, tones and chords are lost to us… but in its origins it didn’t simply speak lament – it sang a lament. For all that our words powerfully emote and shape and name our world sometimes life goes further… and sometimes we can’t even get that far. And in the spaces before words and after words… we find music. I’m reminded of Romans 8 when in the moments that we have no words the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words… music.
I grew up a child of musicals. I grew up watching them on VHS tapes… yes I’m VHS tapes old. I can sing every word of Music Man, and South Pacific, and West Side Story… I know the exhilaration of a surrey with the fringe on top, and I most definitely know that the hills are alive with the sound of music just as I know that every time you go to watch that the first tape won’t have been rewound because it was a two VHS tape musical and when you got to the end of the first you never stopped to rewind it, you had to put the second tape in right away and continue the story.
As much as I have always loved musicals I do at times find them humorous. I mean where do these people live that everyone sings everything. I mean this seems so fake.
Have a conversation: break out in song.
Get in a fight: sing about it.
Fall into unrequited love: surely there is a song for that…
Dream a dream of time gone by… I won’t tell you, I will sing it out for you.
These words set to music are scripted into my life. Even more so than the poems that give voice to love and heart-ache that which is set to song captures, even more, our spirit. The very notes imprint on our memories and the music can drone and sail and even fly where we cannot go. And at its most powerful music can express even that which words will fail to capture. And there are two stories that describe that ability of music to speak beyond our words poignantly for me.
The first is the story behind the anthem that the choir sang for us today. Total Praise, by Richard Smallwood. It is a great gospel song, and interestingly he wrote it in about an hour and a half as he plunked it out on a keyboard recording it on cassette players and playing it back to himself so he could hear it as someone listening would hear it. Smallwood describes the time that he wrote the song when he was a caregiver to two people: his mother and a godbrother who was terminally ill. And he was their primary caregiver and he felt very inadequate in what he was able to do for them. This is what was going on with him when he sat down to work on the song and he says that the song was pulling him in two different directions. He was writing a praise song but he kept turning into a pity-party song. So these two movements pulled at each other. “I lift my eyes to the hills,” he said, “and I know that this where my help comes from… but I wasn’t feeling it.” And this is pulling him and his song in two different directions. It was pulling to praise and to lament. And he wanted the praise to win. And what I, and I’m speaking for myself now, what I – Andrew – love about that is you can feel that tension in the song. This is the gift of a song that is a meeting of music and of words. Smallwood creates a palpable tension between the words and the music where the words speak one thing and the notes say another. You have to not simply hear that but feel that. The best demonstration of that is the last line before the Amen chorus. He writes “I lift my hands in total praise” but while the words are lifting up the notes successively go down. (sing: I. Lift. My. Hands. In. to-tal. Praise.) You feel that? He is talking about going up but he is singing about going down. So Praise / Lament. Praise… lament. And he holds these in tension within the music. Something you cannot do with mere words.
I lift my hands in total praise…. And then! What’s the Amen mean? Exactly: so-be-it. He is going to respond to what seemed like a statement but was essentially a question and the response is what he needs to hear – the affirmation to believe what he wants to believe and make it so!
I lift my hands in total praise? Yes, so bet it.
And then Amens go back up. It lifts us up and then the sopranos and tenors almost shout an Amen at us. Because this thing that we didn’t feel was true and is true and he conveys that with music in a way he could not with words alone… and that sets us free.
The other example of this that I really like is from the movie Shawshank Redemption.
The main character Andy has been building a library and he gets all these donations and he is sorting them and it includes music. And he finds a record of the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart and he starts playing the opera and then he gets inspired by this gift of music and he locks the door of the prison office and puts the music over the loudspeakers so everyone in the prison is hearing it. And everyone stops to listen to these two beautiful voices. And his friend Red, played by Morgan Freeman, reflects about the experience:
I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.
I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments — every last man at Shawshank felt free.
Andy got two weeks in the hole for that little stunt. (Andy smiles and leans back as he is locked in solitary) When Andy gets out they ask him if its worth it.
Andy: I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all.
RED: Oh, they let you tote that record player down there, huh? I could’a swore they confiscated that stuff.
ANDY (taps his heart, his head): The music was here…and here. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music, Red?
RED: Played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost my taste for it. Didn’t make much sense on the inside.
ANDY: Here’s where it makes most sense. We need it so we don’t forget.
ANDY: That there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. That there’s a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.
RED: Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It’s got no place here. Better get used to the idea.
ANDY: (softly) Like Brooks did?
Brooks was their friend who when released from prison couldn’t bear life outside the structure he had known most of his life and ended his life.
The world teaches us to lock a lot up in our hearts and minds. The world teaches us it is not good or safe to be vulnerable and it’s dangerous to have hope and imagine a better world.
Music. The vibrations of music get in there and breaks down our defenses. Music gives voice to hopes and nightmares; despair and dreams. It is the gospel which is meant to come and set us free. Music is the gospel in felt experience. The gospel freeing us from that which binds us up – even ourselves. And broken open for to the world we will be free: free to feel, to express, to hope, to dream.
To shape our world in tune to God’s heartbeat. This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
“All Things New”
An Easter Sunday Resurrection Sermon
April 21, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church, Boise
Isaiah 43:1-10, 18-21
1But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
8Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! 9Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble. Who among them declared this, and foretold to us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, “It is true.” 10You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.
18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
The last part of winter was a little unique here at FPC Boise. Death is one of those things that sometimes comes in cycles. And we had death at a peak as December turning into a new year…. And that lead to a stretch of five Saturdays out of six in which we had a memorial service here at the church. Toward the end of that stretch I admit that it was getting to me. I’m no stranger to death. My calling puts me in close proximity to death with some frequency. When I did my yearlong residency in hospital chaplaincy at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta (Georgia). I was very acquainted with death. I recall one weekend shift: that was 72 hours without ever leaving the hospital, in which I worked through 11 deaths in a row without sleeping. Each death walking with a family through tragedy and grief and coming to grips with it. I am no stranger to death. But there is a different task when it comes to leading worship for each of those deaths. Giving testimony to Resurrection and standing before the grieving community and pronouncing that death is not the final word. And I love that responsibility, and I take that responsibility very seriously – and even joyfully. But when you stand before the same community Saturday after Saturday with what is basically the same message in the wake of death… well, I was weary and with the sense that all I had were the same words… again and again and again and again and again… I wanted to get up at service number four and basically say: everything I said last week? Same thing…
It’s not that I couldn’t say them again… it was the sense that I had nothing new to say… and one of my ordination promises was that I would “serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” But I wasn’t finding such imagination… no newness… let’s admit it: somedays its just work.
I lamented that among friends on FB, the weariness my own unoriginality… and a strange and unexpected thing happened to me, a bunch of them said: “well Andrew there is nothing new under the Sun.”
The quotation, if you aren’t sure, comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes (which, by the way, I never spell correctly the first two attempts) which is self-attributed to the “Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” which would make that Solomon… Solomon the Wise.
The full quotation is: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”
The text is a philosophical musing on the emptiness of accumulation – be that stuff or knowledge. It restates again in chapter 2, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun… So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? ”
Solomon begins to lament that he did great work… and leaves it to unworthy people. “A great evil” that he should have to entrust his good work to… less qualified people who will come after him. Solomon… kind of seems like a jerk.
I continued to go through the whole book and while there are some parts of Ecclesiastes with some profound insight and counter-testimony to his sense of life as vane and empty… what I really ended up thinking was “Solomon really needs a sabbatical.”
This is not good news. And while I love my friends I do not know what they were thinking by telling me “there is nothing new under the Sun”. What was that supposed to accomplish? To mean? Was that good news they were offering me? I am sure they did not mean it so but what it did to me was make me feel unheard, unloved, and unappreciated. It made me kind of fighting mad to be honest. I heard them tell me that I just needed to get over myself because plenty of people have dealt with this and I’m just having a pathetic pity party… pick yourself up by the bootstraps, Andrew, and get back to it – we all have.
In the full observance of Holy week there is a forgotten day. A very important but mostly unobserved day… Holy Saturday. For the followers of Jesus, it was day of Sabbath and worship. It was the day of rejuvenation at the end of the week when – like God in creation – they rested from their toil. Only on this particular Saturday, Holy Saturday, they did so in the midst of the great horror of Friday… of the Cross… of the death of Jesus… of the death of God? – certainly, of God’s Son… the innocent one. The suffering one.
They had to sit there in silence without the ability to work or distract… for a whole day.
We can’t really give it an hour… or a minute. But they had to… they had no choice.
And I wonder if that is the very place that Solomon found himself when he wrote Ecclesiastes… a time of deep hurt, heart-rending lament and grief, a time of despair-laden emptiness… and it all felt – life felt – pointless. All that we gave up… all that we did right… and that we worked so hard to do… and it came to this? Nothing??? A dead end. A tomb. Death. We gave our all… for nothing.
“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared, and they found the stone rolled away…”
What? …. What is this?
I say that and what comes to mind is that scene in the Nightmare Before Christmas – when a despondent Jack Skellington who is skulking in fatigued vanity – his own Holy Saturday moment and he finds himself suddenly in Christmas land in the snow – something he has never seen before:
What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere
What’s this? There’s white things in the air
What’s this? I can’t believe my eyes
I must be dreaming, Wake up, Jack, this isn’t fair
What’s this? What’s this? There’s something very wrong
What’s this? These people singing songs
What’s this? The streets are lined with
Little creatures laughing Everybody seems so happy Have I possibly gone daffy?
What is this?
What is this… and then, then, two men in dazzling clothes appear in a space that is closed off from all possibilities – appear out of nowhere and say: “hey… hey… why are you here? Don’t you remember? Don’t you know? Jesus isn’t here. Jesus… isn’t dead. He told you. He let you in on this from the beginning… he is alive. Death can’t hold him. Tombs? Are thoroughfares of life as far as he is concerned… there is no such thing as a dead end.”
And that? Blew their minds.
Nothing new under the Sun? With all due respect to Solomon – everything is new. Everything is being made new. And that wasn’t something new just now in this moment… hear the prophet Isaiah again as if its God speaking to the tombs of this world, the exiled, the dying, the lost:
“Give them up… do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone! Everyone! … Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears! Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble. … do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
All things new. Of all the places I think Lamentations 3 says it best: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
All things new. There are no dead ends. Vanity is the illusion, despair is a nightmare… grief and loss – while real – do not get the final say.
The women went to what was final – they heard Jesus say it, “It is finished” – so they expected that to be the case: and it wasn’t. Because it isn’t. Because it never has been. And the power of this story is that it isn’t only true of Jesus.
In ancient tradition when Jesus dies he descends into hell – the ultimate place of no return… the tomb of tombs. But it cannot hold him. And when Jesus rises? He comes not alone.
The scourging of hell is Jesus destruction of bars, and despair, and dead ends. He doesn’t rise for his sake – but for the sake of all creation. For you and for me. A reminder in the midst of all our dead ends that whatever despair has hold of us – it doesn’t define us… and it certainly doesn’t speak to us of the end.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Whatever ails you. Whatever is weighing on your heart. Whatever deep weight is causing you to sink in the swamp of despair. Whatever walls are being put before you and shutting you off and away and out. Whatever futility is making you question why and for how long and what the hell. Whatever dead end is defining you.
This week Jesus says: no more. Remember not the former things. The past need not define the future. Probability holds no sway over the breath of God. And tombs cannot hold me. You are not alone. Life rises. I rise. And you will rise with me.
So what now?
There is this old story that’s been retold a bunch of times and a bunch of ways. One such goes like this – compliments of the show The West Wing:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Jesus has shown us there is a way out of even the darkest corners of life, the strongest tombs of Death. There are no dead ends. All things can be made new.
And he jumped in that hole with us and he shows us that way out. And then he invites us to do the same for others. So… you have seen. You have heard. You know: life wins. Go tell that story in every pit you can find, in every dark room, and to every heavy heart. And walk with them through it – because life will rise, together.
The following “poem” is rough and raw because its just stream of consciousness poetry in the moment… but a Holy week poem for this year:
Dots, Connecting and Colliding
A shared lament with a friend rooted in her experience of Christian disdain for her Jewishness…
A quick text conversation about ministry where narratives of a sovereign God make no sense…
A call of tears and laughter; pretending we can say “have a good day” knowing it’s not possible…
Another call to one where all their concern is not for self but others… but the self needs care…
A process of renewal set on tracks and ready to roll when a disastrous but temporary halt is called…
Efforts at vulnerability mistook for weakness because real is so unexpected it’s unappreciated…
Planning a service that is about the unplanned…
Conveying the overwhelming power of a moment… to friends who fell asleep…
Holy Week is so good at being Holy Week.
It’s only been 4 days… that cannot all have happened in a mere four days… right?
And we really haven’t even gotten to the “good” parts yet.
Here we are: Thursday. This is where all will start to unravel.
When a God-plan unravels… are we left with God at the end of it?
Or did we perhaps overstate from the beginning the idea of plan… and the idea of God?
We presumed far too much in the way of knowledge about how this was all supposed to work.
We were busy agreeing that this must be what it was supposed to be to see what it really is.
We love it when a plan comes together. Because so many of them don’t.
Painfully. Anxiously. Frustrating to a point of maddeningly so. Plans unravel.
All our plans.
And we look to find one whose plans don’t as if aspiring to lofty unattainable perfect will help.
We look to connect our unraveled self to “the well put together” as if it all rubs off on us.
And we try not to notice when it does… because its tarnished and not all that real after all.
Perfection is that way… it simply isn’t and cannot be.
But does the weaver of life do in response to the cycle of non-being???
The weaver of life chooses real over desirable.
The weaver of life sets about to unravel pretentions.
Disabuses perfection of its power.
Shatters its own lofty achievements.
The weaver dashes desirable to hell… and pulls the real up out of it.
Because lateral love is better than condescending ideals and hierarchical worship.
And still… we struggle to replicate it. Because the desirable is just so… desirable.
And the weaver is moved to greater and greater depths to show the beauty of loving what’s is
Really broken. Really pained. Really longing.
But always too: really loved. really worth giving up all the perfects for.
really worthy in all our unraveled quandry
That’s a story we all should all show up to… every week, but at least, in its own Holy week…
Damn…. maybe that was always the plan after all… eh, let’s not pretend to know. And bask instead in the knowing… no great love than this…
- What is your pain telling you?
- What does the pain of your neighbors tell you as well?
- Do you have people with whom you can share your pain?
- Are you hearing the cries of friends, your neighbors, and the “other”?
- Are we resolved to change the sources of our pain?
- Are we resolved to change the ways we inflict pain?
Hang with me for a moment… there is a point to this and perhaps worthiness hanging around for…
Early today I posted a sermon from 10 years ago. That sermon was posted today because it tells my sister Sally’s story with rare disease and today is rare disease day… and that sermon has become probably my most memorable sermon for the way that story preaches. But that sermon was never about Sally. And I think that’s important. Let me tell you that story of how that sermon came to be…
You see. I fell in love with the Book of Daniel. Such a weird little book. So misunderstood and underutilized. We know of Lion’s dens and giant bunnies (thanks Veggie Tales)… we know of the “writing on the wall” and the fiery furnaces… and then we know very little because it gets really weird. like really weird. So we stop tracking.
That’s where Sally came in… you see Daniel 12 comes up in the lectionary for the Reign of Christ which loves apocalyptic texts… it came up one day while I was assigned to preach and I gravitated to it because I had just fallen in love with Daniel in a class and part of my struggle when I came to it to preach it was: how do we understand these texts? How do we preach a text born out of religious persecution at the culmination of generations of oppression? How do you preach that to…. mostly affluent Americans?
That is when I realized that we do know futility, the death of hope, and need for resilient love… I knew it as well… I knew it in my sister’s story (and today I would say in the stories of several of my family members who might continue to wonder… what did we do to deserve this and how do we surviving it???). So I told Sally’s story.. or a small portion of it. Not to tell her story but to tell OUR story. As Frederick Buechler says in his book Telling Secrets, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours…it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
In 2008 (wow that was like forever ago and yet just yesterday) I began a Doctor of Ministry. I wanted a single course of study but ended up in a place where that wasn’t easy to manage. I wanted to make the whole thing be about discipleship… and what was I to do in the modern world of membership while telling a biblical story of discipleship. So each semester I picked a course to come at that subject from that courses particular lens. And in 2009 I took a class that was translating the book fo Daniel. I had no idea what I got myself in for…. and it was amazing….. holy… and transformative.
For a 2 week period I was in a class with only 4 students and one professor where we spent all day, every day, translating the Book of Daniel from start to finish. Hebrew and Aramaic (the book uses both) we spend all day given English voice to this ancient Hebrew texts and debating nuance and defending point of view and intent and modern equavalence. And in that process I fell in love with the Book of Daniel. I fell in love with apocalyptic literature. I fell in love with something I had previously labeled weird, un-understandable, and without pedagogical value. I fell in love with it as I, day after day, spent hours of intimacy looking into its inner self and finding out how to give it voice.
I will never loose that love. I will not always understand it well. I will not always get it right. I will not always remember fully what I learned and came to knew… bu the love I have for it will never let me go.
And I think in that there is something very preaching about the power of intimacy. The power of interpretation. The power of learning to give personal voice to a personal story that was previously stranger to you. And the transformations and close-knit-ness that results.
And that’s also a fitting message for this Rare Disease Day. Seek to come to know it intimately.. and it will change your life. Not in all good ways… but in memorable ways, transformative ways, empowering ways. And you will never be the same.
Thanks be to God.