10 May 2009

a motherless child

The choir I sing with at school is known for it's version of Wade in the Water. It is easily the most requested piece we perform. The song begins with my friend M. singing from the audience. The song builds as the choir appears from within the gathered people. Layer upon layer of music is stacked, one upon the other.

The basses start chanting--wade in the water, wade in the water. They're desperate for you to join them---"wade in this water," they seem to be saying. Next the tenors begin a Native American chant, reminding us of similar struggles of oppressed people. The altos come in next singing the words to the song: Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the Water. God's gonna trouble the water.

Soon, the choir is in a frenzy and the sopranos begin to wail. "I wanna die easy when I die. I wanna die easy when I die. Shout salvation as I rise. I wanna die easy, when I die."

Then, through it all, a single voice cuts the layers: "Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child a long way from home..." This particular lament ends, and all the other voices rush back like waves barely held back by a weak earthen dam. Suddenly, there isn't anything to do but sing and convince others that they, indeed, need to wade in the water.

At our most recent concert, the single voice lamenting its situation cut me like never before mostly because I've never been able to identify with it before. You see, this is my first mother's day as a motherless child.

A few years ago, I wrote this about my mom in an earlier blog post recalling some of my favorite memories of my mother:

But more importantly, I remember the little memories that give reason for the holiday. I remember waiting for mama to pick me up from Ms. Carrie's after she left work. I remember trips to Fayetteville--from Dunkin' Donuts to Michael's and seemingly every place in between, we seemed to own that place. I remember sitting at the upright in our living room and singing hymns that she loved and played (quite beautifully I might add). And decorating the house for Christmas--white lights. I always wanted multicolored. Little did we know that 7 years later, I would be the one pushing for the classic white while she would be arguing for the colored ones. I seem to recall visiting shut-ins with homemade cookies on every holiday. My mother has a way with older folks--she just talks and talks and they listen and talk..and somehow, everyone ends up on the same plane--I'm here for you and thinking about you. I won't forget you.

Today marked my first visit to her grave since her burial nearly 7 months ago. It was the first time I'd seen the granite marker with her name carved delicately under a band of flowers bordering the top. It was the first time my fingers had sifted through the grey gravel covering the earth she is buried beneath. After leaving some wildflowers, a picture of a postcard from postsecret, and a plant my dad had bought, I cried--for myself, for my dad, for my mom.

As my tears dried, I was surrounded by a warm breeze and I was reminded of all the good memories I have of this little country church. I remembered picnics under the huge oak trees and bare feet in the soft, country grass that faded into a sandy drive. It even smelled like I remembered it--like homecoming celebrations and old hymnals and prayers.

And the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John that I had read earlier in the day in front of the mother's day crowds at church came to mind: I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (John 14.18).

One of the hardest things I've had to face in these past months is the sneaking suspicion that I'm part of a secret club that no one wants to be a part of, but that everyone eventually joins. I walk around wondering who knows what I now know: what the loss of a parent, of a mother, of a best friend feels like. My mom was all three.

But as time carries on, I start to feel a smile sneak onto my face as I wonder to myself who knows what else I know: all the good memories keep her alive and the promise that we aren't alone.

I'm not a motherless child. I am a child blessed by a mother who guided me, loved me, sheltered me and held me while she was alive. And I am child who continues to be blessed by memories and moments that guide me, shelter me, hold me, and remind me of that love everyday.

02 May 2009

Thomas the Believer

Another sermon, this one offered the Sunday after Easter at my home church Elon using the Doubting Thomas text.

During the months leading up to my first semester of seminary, advice was around every corner. Most offered well wishes and practical advice—try to make sure you get sleep, eat well, don’t forget to pray. This kind of advice might be categorized as nice advice—the kind that builds you up, reminds you to be nice to yourself. There was another type of advice that I received, however, that was more along the lines of warning. Mostly this advice came from retired ministers—none here (I think) and was along the lines of “don’t let them tell you that Jesus was a woman;” or worse: “don’t let them take the Trinity away from you;” or worse still: “don’t let them turn you into an Atheist.”

Well, friends, you can breathe a sigh of relief. While the gender of Christ has been discussed, the gender of Jesus has not been questioned and we do talk about the Trinity—maybe in a some non-traditional ways, but its there. Belief in God, well, that’s a different story.

Don’t worry. I still believe in God. The difference is, I don’t believe in the same way I once did. That’s not to say I believe more in God or any less in God, just that I buy it now—I can grasp the realness of God in a way I hadn’t before. I hadn’t quite had a wound-touching experience yet.

When I first arrived, third year students, those with one year left in their degree, had a plethora of metaphors to share about seminary. One said that during your first year they cut you open. Your second year, they pull everything out, and your final year, they tell you to put it all back.

Another third year told me: “It’s like the passion narrative: year one they crucify you. Your second year you spend in the tomb. Just when things get hopeless, you find yourself resurrected by your third year.” I thought that they were exaggerating. “I cant be that bad,” I remember thinking to myself “I mean, it’s Seminary.” They weren’t exaggerating. It is hard.

It’s hard because it’s demanding—pages upon pages on reading, books worth of papers to write. But you expect those things to be hard—It’s graduate school. But what I’ve found really challenging is that everything is questioned. Every time I walk into a classroom, what we may or may not discuss that day has the potential to fundamentally alter what I believe.

Our gospel lesson this week is about belief—about knowing and not knowing. It’s about wounds and proof. This week, we find ourselves still in the heart of the surprise of the Resurrection. Mary has returned to the disciples after her conversation with the risen Christ and has told them all about it. That evening, Jesus shows up again. “Peace be with you” is his greeting, and then he proceeds to show them his hands and his side. Thomas, the twin, isn’t there for this part. He misses it.

We all know this part by heart: The disciples tell him what they have seen, and he doesn’t believe them saying: “ Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side. I will not believe.” Jesus, of course, appears again to the disciples (this time with Thomas present), then turns to Thomas and tells him to touch the wounds. “Do not doubt, but believe.” To which Thomas answers: “My Lord and My God.”

It all finishes with one of Jesus’ iconic teachings (This is just like Jesus isn’t it—keep teaching even after death and Resurrection.) He says: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What fascinates me about the way we relate this story is that we gloss over the whole first part of this passage to get to the verse that we think is most meaningful. What we remember about these verses aren’t the specifics of the story. What first comes to mind is Jesus’ admonition to Thomas. I say Doubting Thomas, you think…wounds, belief, but mostly Jesus saying to Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Belief is a funny thing. It’s a hard thing—hard to grasp, hard to understand, hard to do. So often we equate knowledge with belief. Before I came to seminary, I thought I knew a lot of things about God. But education, as American philosopher and historian Will Durant would say, is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.

I’ve learned far more than I realized I needed to learn in my two years of graduate work. I’ve learned about historical councils and debates. I’ve done my far share of work on 20th century theologians and I’ll give you a tip: If the question is about Karl Barth, the answer involves Christ. But, unfortunately, Jesus isn’t the easy answer to all the questions that have arisen during my time at Emory. Knowledge isn’t always the answer.

We often refer to Thomas’ character in this passage as Doubting Thomas. It’s a phrase that we often hear in the midst of discussions when questions are directed toward pillars of our faith. It doesn’t carry a positive connotation. Being a “Doubting Thomas” means that you aren’t willing to believe as easily as should, that you need proof or knowledge that others don’t seem to require.

But what we forget is that Thomas isn’t asking for anything different than what the disciples had already seen. During his first appearance to the disciples on the Evening of that third day, John tells us that “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.’” then “he showed them his hands and his side.”

It would be easy, as a seminarian, to preach an all too cliché sermon about the
benefits of asking questions—how we should give ourselves to theological inquiry. It would be just as easy to give a sermon implying that Jesus doesn’t want us to question our faith, but believe.

But, what matters to me today, is that Jesus did for Thomas exactly what Jesus will do for us—he gave Thomas a wound-touching experience. Jesus offered his own wounds of suffering as a witness to the resurrection. Wound-touching experiences then are the moments Jesus give us what we need so that we can believe. This doesn’t mean that Jesus gives us belief or faith, but it does mean that when we are desperate for something to hold on, desperate for something for us to put our fingers in—Christ is there holding out his hands or pointing to his side saying, “Touch here.”

Interestingly, the author of the Gospel of John never tells us that Thomas actually touches Jesus’ wounds. Sometimes, what we think we need to be able to believe isn’t what we need at all.

And here’s the thing, Thomas believed! “My Lord and My God” is his reply directly after Jesus offers him his hands and side. “My Lord and My God.” Thomas believed.

So often we pass over the things around us that act as beacons of belief—moments of natural beauty that point to God, stressful times that miraculously work out.
This past year I had an experience that pointed to God in the midst of extreme hardship.

The fact is that hard times make cynical minds—you like that? I came up with it myself—hard times make cynical minds. Belief is hard enough to come by when things seem fine, but throw in persecution, fear, disappointment and unknowing and belief seems nearly impossible. With the roller coaster of emotions that comes with Holy Week, it’s no surprise that Thomas didn’t want to believe his disciples. They’re making it up, he might say. Or maybe he simply dismissed them as crazy. Hard times make cynical minds.

Thomas and the disciples experience with hardship isn’t an unique one. We’ve all been through our own moments of suffering—our own crossless passions. And in the midst of the moments sitting with pain and hardship, we long for those wound-touching experiences that remind us of the promise of the resurrection. We long for moments where belief overtakes knowledge and proof.

As many of you know, my mother was diagnosed with stage three lymphoma last February. We made it through weeks of treatments to hear that much hoped for word—remission. We savored that word. Remission. We were going to be OK. It was a triumphant day--our own Palm Sunday, of sorts.

But, after Palm Sunday (as we experienced these past two weeks), you so often have to face death. After falling in the shower on a Sunday, she was taken to the hospital. Tests revealed that one tiny piece of the lymphoma that had remained in her brain had spread to the lining between her brain and skull. Her death was immanent.

Those five days that we waited for death in the hospital were the longest days I have lived. I have never been so heartbroken and so relieved as I was that Friday when the labored breath ended. It was a devastating moment, a shattering one that redefined my life.

But those five days taught me more about life and love and belief than any other experience I’ve had to date. Those days showed me the value of holding the hand of dear loved one. I don’t know if she felt it, but I believe she did. I sang songs to her. I don’t know if she heard them, but I believe she did. I prayed with her. I don’t know if she prayed with me, but I believe she did. I still don’t know any of these things for sure, but I believe all of them hold heartedly.

Toward the end of our stay in the hospital, I was singing to her. She had been unconscious for a few days, and we were simply waiting. I was holding her hand, and I began to sing: [sings] Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand. I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m warn. Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on, to the light. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home.
A flicker of recognition ran across her face, and her eyes opened slightly.

I don’t know if she heard me, but I believe she did. Looking back, that moment pointed me toward faith—toward the belief in something that seemed utterly unbelievable. My mom had heard me. It was as if Jesus had walked in and said, “touch here. It’s going to be OK.”

The good news of the Resurrection doesn’t end with the empty tomb—it continues in the living Christ who appears and points us toward his wounds saying: touch and believe. Far more than what we need to believe has already been laid before us. It’s our job to claim our belief with Thomas: My Lord and My God.