(Warning: I meant this to be about a paragraph and then it became a whole sermon… you’ll understand – preachers gonna preach.)
This email went around last week:
I shared it with a couple of colleagues. And a colleague of mine shared it with my clerk of Session who sent it out to our Session. I got a call from the chair of personnel telling me to schedule a vacation in place of my canceled sabbatical.
I endorse the message of this article. It’s true for all leaders right now, not just pastors of course. And for some, it will stop there. But I feel a need to flesh out the full story that this is missing for me (not necessarily for everyone) right now:
1) This time is also energizing.
I’m more aware of my calling and why I do what I do than ever. There are a lot of days that ministry seems futile or unimportant. These are not those kind of days. This takes me back to chaplaincy at Grady Memorial – walking the hallway at 3 in the morning while working simultaneous deaths… it was harrowing but you knew what you did mattered. You felt your calling and importance of it. And I feel that now. And that is empowering.
2) This isn’t all work.
I actually buy into this whole calling thing. I’m not simply a person who preaches. I love to preach – if I didn’t I would admit isn’t not the most effective of practices and stop doing it. But saying, “don’t you want to take a week off preaching?” is like asking a musician why they play an instrument. Preaching is in my bones, and those bones – like the stones – will sing out if I stop preaching. Hearing other voices is important… so yes, I will get some other preaching voices in there this summer – worry not about that ye who is tired of me. But preaching isn’t work – its the art that makes my soul sing.
3) This isn’t all work (again).
I would live my discipleship whether I was paid to do it or not. I’m lucky. VERY lucky. I’m paid to do what I would have to do even if no one paid me. I lead as a volunteer in other areas. Those same anxieties on this list are true there as well. And I would do those things anyway. Because I believe it is how life should be lived. I’m just lucky. Because its also my job.
4) I love you.
I am not a touchy-feely person. I’m an introvert. I could ride this “storm” out at home and never leave and feel just fine with it all. If it wasn’t for you. But I love you. I love my congregation. I love my community. And love draws you in. Love compels compassion and care. I couldn’t sit this out. I canceled my sabbatical without question or regret. I will get the break and time away. I’m not worried. You love me too. I know you will make sure I take it. But this simply isn’t the time – and we know it.
5) You love me.
Hear this: I have never received so much appreciation and love as I have in the last 6 weeks. People worried about me. People grateful for me. People giving witness to the impact of our shared ministry. These are things a pastor loves to know is true. We don’t want to admit it because we also believe it’s not about us. We also want to be humble servant leaders. But we aren’t immune from some ego. We like to imagine that what we do matters and that someone, anyone, is listening – responding – feeling like this whole thing makes a difference in their life and the life of the world. And right now… you are making know the truth of that. Thank you. And that goes a LONG way. Literally, I find myself getting tired or overwhelmed and then I get email gratitude or a text and I feel like the Hulk – and I’m ready to take it all on again. Ok… some times.
6) We love the church.
It is hard to love a thing that is in rapid decline. It’s hard to love a thing many people are ambivalent to, or hostile towards. And it’s hard to love a thing that earns that hostility and ambivalence far too often. But that does change that we love it. And that we find it good, and transforming, and essential. So to exist in a time when I feel like the Church is more the Church than ever is powerfully important to me. I feel grateful to be a pastor in this season. I hope I never forget the gifts this season of pastoring has given me. Given us.
So yes. I get tired. I don’t sleep well. I take on too much anxiety and feel overly important. I am overwhelmed by dim glass gazing and guessing and praying I lead well when the consequences seem beyond my comprehension.
But I’m also deeply grateful for reminders I’m not doing this alone. I’m doing what I love. And I love what I’m doing – we are doing – together. Apart.
So thank you all for your concern. Love compels it. And I love you too. But I’m good. I’m also binging Netflix, playing video games, watching my weeds grow in my garden without rising up to pluck them out because, really, rest in this moment is more important than weeds. And isn’t there a parable about letting them grow…
Two weeks ago, we ventured into the world of online celebration of the Lord’s Table. We did not do so with “undo haste or undo delay”. 😉 A friend in ministry had mentioned Calvin’s theology of the Table which greatly helped me – and our congregation – think through celebrating a meal we have always believe had to be celebrated “in person” and “in community”. Calvin reminds us that the real presence of Christ is a product of the Holy Spirit. The elements don’t become Christ in metaphysical change… the elements are Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which transcends gaps of time and space. The most powerful statement Calvin makes is “let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive—viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.”
(John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, Chapter 17.10)
This thought continues to be provocative to me. Tomorrow night a task force of our church will consider the what, when, and how of re-opening our church building, programs… and in-person worship. It’s complicated because the national setting for this debate is not the same as the context of this discernment in Idaho. Idaho had a light touch from COVID-19. We are naturally physically distant, we closed down early, we didn’t have much spread at all. And that means people have a logical case for re-opening even while that seems strange to consider in other larger urban areas where community spread (of people and viral outbreaks) is much more radical. So, the debate is challenging. To open or not? I’m prone to say no… but I understand, and I am nagged at by the whole “Idaho argument”.
And then I hear again: the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.
And I wonder again what it is that we think we have really lost by not having in-person worship (for the sake of the well-being and health of our community and the most vulnerable among them)? And this question confronts me: is my theology of the Spirit so impoverished, and my trust in the depth and breadth of God’s being so limited that I can’t imagine worship doesn’t need a building, or in-person-ness at all?
What if what is lost in worshipping physically-distant over worshipping in-person is so small that any instinct that puts people at risk to overcome it is foolish disregard for human life? I have wondered over and again the last three or four weeks if we don’t worship the act of worship more than God we claim to worship.
I wonder if the challenge to open a building, to meet in-person, isn’t far more about the church as a social club, about my own stubborn sense of rugged individualist, and my own ego than it is about being disciples of the way of the Jesus Christ. Discipleship – our risen Christ-given mission – needs neither worship, nor building, nor in-person gatherings… and I have said before that I think the Church has been more the Church in the last 6 weeks than in the years before them.
Online Communion ended up being as rich an experience as it was in-person. More so in some ways for breaking down the routine-ness of it all and making us think more intentionally about the what and why and how of it all. And for being a sign and seal and remembering of the reality that thinking we can measure the ability of the Holy Spirit by our feeble observations is…. foolishness.
I am trying these days not to do lots of comparing. I don’t want to feel like I’m failing because my capacity for ministry is different than the church down the road, across the country, or on the other side of the globe. I have always been grateful that we all express and enrich each other’s faith because of – not in spite of – our differences. I do not wish to judge any other communities’ discernment – their context has intricacies I couldn’t even guess at, let alone know with certainty. I’m not sharing this to tell anyone they are wrong… particularly because I’m not sure what is right. I seek here to give witness to my own “wrestling with discipleship” by way of maybe learning through the articulation what I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I hope maybe the way I feel challenged in my faith and leadership… may challenge you as well – even if it takes us to different conclusions.
I hear myself challenged, again and again, to trust that the Holy Spirit is more at work than I give her credit for, that God is bigger than what I can see and measure AND what all of us collectively can see and measure, and that the Church is usually more the Church when it looks nothing like our routine imaginings. These are things I professed to know, but the knowing didn’t go too deep. And I feel grateful for the events of the last two months pushing me towards a deeper and richer theology of the Holy Spirit (not something Presbyterians are known for…)
I believe that COVID-19… that celebrating a Sacrament as I have never imagined doing so before has taught me greater faith and trust in God, and far less obsession with our human machinations towards God. And I think I’m being challenged in the Spirit, and by the Spirit, to get really iconoclastic about my traditions and my motives and my reasons for those traditions and motives… and to be very careful that what I claim is about God, is really about God – and not me and my comfort. Or, for that matter, you… and your comfort.
The Temptation to Define “the Good” as Comfort
First in a Series on Daniel: “Faith in Trying Times”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
3Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. 6Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 7The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.
Typically, in Eastertide we would study the resurrection experiences of Jesus and the emerging Church. But this year we are turning clocks back to a forerunner of faith: The Book of Daniel. Daniel is a book we look at a little differently from a historical lens than what it presents itself to be. The entirety of the book is presented as written about a Jewish exile named Daniel (and his friends) in Babylon during Jewish exile and early days of the return (from somewhere post 586 BCE (the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians) to the reign of Darius the Great of Persia post 522 BCE).
The first six chapters develop his/their character, and then the second six are apocalyptic visions of Daniel about the future predicting coming evil empires and their fall before the Sovereign God of all Creation (the Ancient of Days). And yet, with a lens to history and critical scholarship we have every reason to believe it is written (or collected and edited) during the reign of Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire – and more particularly around 167 BCE.
Antiochus is the villain of both Daniel and the Maccabean revolt. His harsh anti-Jewish oppression sparks the Jewish underground to recall the events of Babylonian exile. The stories of Daniel then are used to empower the lives of Jews under Antiochus’ reign. And the demonizing of “kings” during Daniel’s time is coded way of talking about the evils of the Seleucid Empire. Therefore, the Book of Daniel comes together as a guide, of sorts, to surviving oppression, exile, and – what I’m calling – trying times.
It is with this in mind that we turn to Daniel for the next 6 weeks to give us guide points in discipleship and faith when we feel overwhelmed by oppressive circumstances… like, say, quarantine during a global pandemic. This week we turn to the beginning. The VERY beginning as first we hear from the “snake” of Genesis. The snake is viewed as crafty. In the Hebrew there is word play between the crafty and naked. These two words are very similar in the Hebrew and the connection is made to illuminate that Adam and Eve are vulnerable to the truth-twisting deception of the snake. They are open to be manipulated.
This is a lesson Daniel keeps close to his own heart. When Nebuchadnezzar offers a table of fine foods, Daniel declines. What’s the harm – we might say – in a good double cheeseburger? I mean, I love some fine foods. But for Daniel this is only the beginning. It is the beginning of defining his “good” as his own comfort. It is the temptation to listen to “crafty serpents” in the society around him redefine his own values and ethics.
Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, quotes a favorite Slavoj Žižek parable. As the parable goes there is a man who thinks he is seed. Finally cured by a psychotherapist, he shows up a week later paranoid again. His neighbor has bought chickens. And while he knows he is no longer a seed… do the chickens know? Rollins uses this absurd story to illuminate how often we act in ways contrary to our own beliefs. We don’t, Rollins contends, act out of our values and in consistency with what we think is “good”. We act in ways consistent with the oppressive marketing forces around us. So, we say relationship are more important than things… and then we accumulate things left and right because society tells us we should want them.
This is the wisdom of Daniel – resisting the temptation to define our good by what is comfortable for us. And Daniel resists that comfort because once you dine at the Emperor’s table our value foundation is lost and our agency is given over the ethics of the Emperor whose table is now our table.
How many of us right now feel a major sense of loss because we uncomfortable? When we define “the good” by those things that make us comfortable we begin to feel “oppressed” at the slightest inconvenience. We begin to rewire our journey by the social expectations around us… rather than in obedience and faith to the God who gave us life. We trade the good of the Creation we are called to steward for our own comfort. We trade community connection for social norms and marketing defined good.
Resisting the temptation to define what is good by what is comfortable is the first lesson Daniel gives us – and in many ways it will prove to be the most important. A foundational part of our journey then is to ask, what is the good we seek? And as disciples of Jesus’ Way – and the predecessor way of Daniel, the root of our answer must lie not in our comfort, social norms, or consumer goods. It must lie in our identity as God’s good creation and as stewards of that good for all Creation and our trust in the provisions and generosity of God as “enough” against the Empire’s desire for “more”.
This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
On the Threshold of the Tomb: An Easter Meditation (in the Age of Coronavirus)
April 12, 2020
Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
Video of this sermon is available here: https://youtu.be/gAV0CYWfCyY?t=870
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Two years ago I was standing over the grill, cooking hotdogs. It was Holy Saturday— that day between the death and the resurrection when we sit in the despair and exhaustion of Friday. It was also March 31st… the day before April Fool’s Day. I was already over the “Jesus’ death as an April Fool’s joke” memes. In fact I wasn’t ready for Easter at all. I wasn’t feeling Easter. That does not surprise me. I generally believe we sit too briefly in Saturday—indeed, if possible, skip right from Palm Sunday to Easter. Sitting in grief is not a comfortable place, and we are generally a people used to comfort. We are so used to comfort that we are not good at telling the difference between the discomfort of less than fully comforted life and the dis-ease of true hardship. And so…we struggle to sit in a place of discomfort, we struggle to stay silent and not fill the air with noise, we struggle not to run around filling brokenness with things that will disguise the lack, we struggle not to control what cannot be controlled because we are still more comfortable with the illusion of “I’m fine” than with the pain of admitting we are not and we don’t know how (or if) that will change. And that is as easy to see as looking at the average attendance of an Easter Sunday versus a Good Friday. We show up for Easter, even if it’s only for a photoshoot with the lilies and to revel at the brass quintets.
So, there I was two years ago, standing over my grill. Standing over hotdogs and saying to myself…I don’t want to Easter. I just don’t feel “in the mood,” it just doesn’t feel real…I’m not ready for Easter. And then I looked at myself and wondered: how do you get up in front of a bunch of people who came to hear “He is Risen…he is risen indeed” when you aren’t sure it’s true or real, or that it is the prevailing truth of our lives?
And then, as I stood over my grill, what was spoken on my heart by the Spirit who makes these texts come alive in ways far more profound than any preacher ever could, what I heard in my heart, was:
“This is exactly when Easter gets proclaimed.”
We don’t need Easter if everything is going well.
We don’t’ need Easter if Jesus doesn’t die.
We don’t need Easter if Rome isn’t a problem.
We don’t need Easter if there aren’t hungry people on the street.
We don’t need Easter if there aren’t people who can’t get housing.
We don’t need Easter if we are already living together in peace and harmony.
We don’t proclaim Easter when everything is ok, when we are in the mood, when we are ready.
Easter comes at exactly that moment when it seems the most impossible.
Easter is Easter, Resurrection is Resurrection, because what we expect when we walk into the tomb is that everything we care about is dead or dying.
That was the year that solidified my love for Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s resurrection story is raw and unrefined. You might say it lacks theological softening of its hard edges because it’s young and it’s immediate and it cares a little less for what we do with the story.
Years and years and years ago, while I was pastoring in Florida, I spent a week at Columbia Theological Seminary as a Thompson Scholar and we spent a week thinking about evangelism in our current context. I read a lot of books on evangelism, and I disliked almost all of them. The writers of said books almost always paint themselves as saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment. And you know what? Most of us, most of the time, walk out of a conversation and about ten minutes later we slap our knee and say, “Now I know what I should have said!”
Right? We are all eloquent and excellent rhetoricians right after it no longer matters!
Except in those books. In a lot of books. And what I began to imagine—maybe it’s my own ego that doesn’t want to believe they are all that much better than I am at being articulate on their feet—is that when you write the book, you write what you wished you had said in that moment.
You with me? That’s the refined discourse of writing in the present tense about a past moment. And it may be helpful, but it isn’t raw. And sometimes? It isn’t real.
This is what I mean about Mark’s Gospel. His resurrection story is…raw, unrefined, and real.
We have all the elements we expect in such a story:
It’s early. The sabbath is finally over. The women rush to properly bury Jesus.
We have a rolled-away stone. We have an empty tomb. We have a divine messenger to add this all up to tell us what it means: Jesus has been raised from the dead.
But you know what isn’t there? We don’t get joy. We don’t get obedience, at least not in the parameters of how this story is told. We get Absolute. Utter. Complete. Terror.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And that is where the story ends. No Easter Lilies. No Brass Quintets.
It ends in Absolute. Utter. Complete. Terror.
In fact, the end is so horribly unacceptable that from the time of the other Gospel writers to this very moment we have tried to imagine that Mark missed something: that we’ve lost the original ending that he meant to share. And tradition has added endings to try to “fix” the brokenness of his provided ending. We can’t have a Sunday filled with discontent.
You see now what I mean about Mark and his relationship with his other Evangelists? He doesn’t refine the story. He doesn’t clean it up. He doesn’t give us a retrospective lens that greets the resurrection with all the confidence of generations who have grown up starting the story by knowing how it ends.
Mark gives us an Absolute. Utter. Complete. Terrifying. Raw experience of the resurrection. And he leaves us there. In that liminal space on the threshold of the tomb wondering: is this real?
… is this real?
This wasn’t supposed to be Mark’s year.
I try to stay to the lectionary with my Gospel accounts of the birth and death narratives. It keeps us more well-rounded in our sense of all that might be said and known of these ancient stories. And, as the lectionary does, we sprinkle a good bit of John in there every year. This was supposed to be Matthew’s year. And I grew up a Matthew guy. I mean, I like how he tells the story. It has narrative flow, it is well crafted pedagogically to impart all the theological moorings a good Christian systematic theologian would want to see and hear in Jesus’ story. Matthew and I are good buddies. And this was supposed to be Matthew’s year.
But we aren’t living Easter from Matthew’s perspective this year, are we?
The reason I told that story from two years ago is because I think that in the midst of pandemic, economic collapse, restrictive freedom to outright marshal law across the globe, most of us aren’t really feeling Easter. We are in a raw moment. We are in the place where the best we can muster is: Absolute. Complete. Terror. And in that place I do not think what we need right now are cleaned-up stories. I do not think what we need right now are “correct systematic theology” and a well-wrought narrative. Because what of our story looks like a well-wrought narrative?
I think we need Mark’s Gospel. I think we need to recognize that we stand on the threshold of the tomb…and that is the best we can muster right now.
So many of us are lamenting that we cannot gather in our Sanctuaries for in-person worship on this Easter Sunday; and that is a good, truly felt, lament. I had a strange moment planning Easter Worship, trying to imagine how to have the focus to write a sermon, and I was reminded that a year ago we Eastered and then left our Sanctuary for four months while it was renovated. A year ago, it was all torn up the day after Easter and it was beautifully renovated…and today we aren’t gathering in that Sanctuary.
Can you Easter in such a way? That’s what we asked. And I know that many people are planning to actually Easter when we finally get back in our Sanctuaries. And that is authentic for them; I have no need or desire to be critical. But, friends…this is when Easter really happens. This is the most real Easter you have ever likely come to worship for. Because Easter has great disdain for buildings, be they temples or monuments. Easter comes not to the hopeful but to the hopeless. Easter is meant to happen in graveyards, not concert halls. Easter is real in hospitals and for first responders, not theologians and florists and photographers.
We are standing on the threshold of the tomb…with Mary…with Salome…and we are hearing that Jesus is raised. That Jesus is alive. That abundant life is still the final word.
And we aren’t sure that we believe it. Because what we are still feeling is:
Utter. Complete. Total. Terror.
And I think that’s right.
I’m afraid. My heart is heavy with the cries of the earth for the blood of God’s children. My soul is sick with the fatal fatigue of my neighbors who aren’t just on the threshold of the tomb but are fully in its grasp. My body feels the weight of exile and the emptiness of our cathedrals.
And I’m afraid because I do not know how abundant life becomes real in this space. Because Holy Saturday holds more sway at this moment than an empty tomb does.
In one of my favorite books of all time, Insurrection: To Believe is Human, To Doubt, Divine, author/philosopher/pyro-theologian Peter Rollins writes: “Resurrection is not something one argues for, but it is the name we give to a mode of living. Resurrection neither negates the Crucifixion nor moves beyond it. There is good reason why believers continue to wear a cross around their neck rather than dismiss it as something that lies forever behind them. The one who has participated in the Crucifixion remains indelibly marked by it. The Resurrection is the mode of life that arises from its very embrace.” Elsewhere Rollins will say,
“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
“However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
That is an Easter story fashioned after Mark’s own heart. That is an Easter story walking in the way of Jesus, who does not deny grief or death but enters into it: because this is the only place Easter CAN happen.
The women fled in terror. Mark ends there. Don’t fix that. Don’t clean that up. We all want, and deserve, to run in terror. In good time—not day one, but in good time—those women stood and testified to what they had seen and heard. They must have, because we know the story. In good time, embracing the crucifixion’s reality, they testified that life still proved stronger; and they lived that story—the whole story—from the tombs of their world, which lends power to the raw realness of the story; and they lived it for each other, for their neighbors, for God. They made resurrection not about temples, or doctrines, or brass quintets and beautiful flowers. They made resurrection about how they lived their life on the threshold of the tomb.
Are we ready to make the resurrection real? It won’t happen here. It’s already happened. Around you, behind you, in front of you…in you. Affirm the resurrection: not in how we tell the story, but in how we live it.
This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
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.