whitewashed tombs

by Jeff Rainwater, 2 March 2017, Greenwood Village, CO

I find your holiness so empty
of life, of joy, of beauty —
a weak, grating, voice
always speaking
in the negative…
cannot should not do not.
What is to fill this
empty vessel left behind
by such commands?

Who am I to be?

True holiness is found
not in absence.
Holiness is
faith trusting,
hope risking,
love embracing!
Holiness is light,
the overflowing cup,
the undeserved gift!

Instead of the border
you have drawn
deciding who is in
or who is out
thus dividing
God’s whole,
show me the center —
a vision of the best
and most and
dearest I can

For that, I would yearn
and reach and strive
and run and pray
and, yes, even
to wait
for the day
that the dead will rise –
whitewashed tombs
no more.

*inspired by a beautiful communion service, created and led by Rev. Paul Kottke, Metropolitan District Superintendent, for the Joint Mountain Sky Area Cabinet and staff present.  The service included sharing the lyrics of Betty’s Diner, written by Carrie Newcomer. (video presentation here).

Waiting in the Dark

candle_in_the_dark_by_res32-d43aeudThe tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has struck at the heart of many of us.  As I said in my Sunday sermon, I don’t have many answers, but I humbly offer the text of my sermon here in hopes it will help someone in this very difficult and dark time of discernment.  It’s a little long for a blog, but here it is…

Have you ever seen the pictures of the Cathedral of the Nativity where it is said Jesus was born?  It is an ancient and beautiful place of worship adored by Christians for centuries.  You walk behind the chancel area, around a corner near the altar and there are steps you descend into the grotto, the cave that tradition says was the manger of Bethlehem.  In that small space, on the floor is a star, the very place tradition says where the Christ child was placed in the hay.  I am told that in that same large church that commemorates Jesus’ birth there is small chapel seldom seen by the crowds and in that tiny chapel are some small tombs — the tombs of the innocents of Bethlehem: a reminder that there are monsters in the dark even at Christmas.

We forget that.  We forget, most of us, that there is darkness surrounding Christmas and that there are monsters in that dark.  Most of us most years try very hard to avoid that reality.  We skip over the minor-keyed hymns of Advent that speak of sin and repentance.  We fill our December days with happy moments — shopping, time with friends and family, glowing lights on the tree.  We sing of the little baby born and view beautiful Christmas cards with pastoral scenes of shepherds and angels.  And we sometimes forget why that little child was born to us.  We forget that we are a world in darkness, so very desperate for light.

We forget, that is, until we witness the events of this past Friday and the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut as one young man walked in and began shooting.  Today, we mourn the loss of 20 children and 8 adults.  And suddenly the world we thought we lived in has grown dark and dangerous.

This week we have been reminded that we are in a world of darkness.  Let me remind you that there was darkness in that first Christmas and even monsters in the dark.

There was king named Herod who did not feel so happy about this child born in a manger.  He wanted no rival.  And he would go to great lengths to ensure his own power, his own authority would be unchallenged.  He had killed his own family members before and now he has every boy-child of the right age murdered.  This is the world that Jesus was born into, a world full of darkness.

In the dark, it is so easy to be afraid.  Friday afternoon, I noticed when I picked up Emma from school there were quite a few more parents in the schoolyard waiting for the bell to ring.  Many, like me, just wanted to give their little one a hug I am sure.  I am also sure that many, like me, were afraid.  if this could happen in a little town in Connecticut, what is stopping it from happening in a little town in Wyoming?  That is the horror of such violence… it makes no sense.  Why this school?  Why this child?  Why this day?  It seems so random, out of control.

At this point, many of us struggle for some answers, for something to make sense.  We want to know more.  We want to know why.  And some answers may come in the days ahead, but knowing more will not take away the pain.  This is darkness.  As your pastor, what I want to say is that it is o.k. to not have the answers.  This is darkness.  As your pastor, what I want to say is that it is ok to be angry.  I am angry.  As a parent, I not only grieve, but I am angry in ways I cannot express.  I understand the rage the Psalmist expresses toward God and toward those that have hurt him.  It is ok to be angry, but do not let your anger become hatred.  I ask you, as Jesus commanded us, to pray for our enemies.  I ask you to pray for the soul of Adam Lanza.

I do not have many answers for you this morning.  I have only one that I believe with my whole heart.  The tragedy of Friday in Sandy Hook elementary was not God’s will.  It was not God’s will that innocents should die in Bethlehem long ago nor that innocents should die in Newtown, Connecticut or anywhere in the world.  The death of innocents is darkness and God is Light.  It is because events like this can still happen is why Jesus came.  To bring Light into the world of darkness until the day that darkness shall end.

The tragedy of Friday was not God’s will nor do I believe God abandoned the people of Newtown.  This weekend I have been reminded of some very wise words by Mr. Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” ~Fred Rogers

The Light of God and the will of God shine in the lives of the helpers.  And in spite of the terrible evil we saw on Friday and have seen many times before, there have been the helpers.  There have been those that have helped, and prayed, and given and come forward to show that while there is darkness, there is still light and hope and, yes even joy in this world.

This is not the sermon I was going to give today.  Originally, our Advent was going to be about the songs of Christmas, looking at how even some of the secular songs of the holiday have echoes of the good news Emmanuel’s birth.  We were going to listen to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and reflect on Joseph’s dreams, talk about our own dreams too, and wonder what even greater things God may be dreaming for us.  I did find a song however that has helped me as we have endured this nightmare.  It is a poem by Henry Wadswroth Longfellow.  And it begins like this:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It speaks of our deepest desires ringing in the bells, peace on earth, good will to all.  But then night comes upon the poet and he falls into despair.

And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth, ‘ I said
‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

But that is not the end of his song, nor is it the end of ours as we wait in the dark.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

The wrong shall fall, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.  Advent is a strange time to live, we wait in the dark, knowing that light will come.  We wait in darkness.  It is night and there are monsters in the dark.  At midnight there is nothing we can do to make the dawn come faster.  But Dawn is coming.  Light will shine.  That is our hope.  The hope of Advent.

…The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

May call to you: Be the bells of Christmas.  Be the light of a candle that waits for the dawn.  Following 9/11, a television commentator asking a religious leader, “What do parents tell their children when they come home from school today?”

The Rabbi’s answer: First, shut off the TV. Second, gather at the table tonight and share a meal. Make space for questions. You don’t have to have an answer, simply give the gift of listening. Then if you are a family of faith, say a prayer… Pray for the victims. Pray for the ones that caused this terrible deed. Next light a candle. Tell your children that this horrible event was planned in the dark.Let your children and teenagers know they are the light. Keep gathering, listening, praying and lighting a candle. Each and every day as your sons and daughters leave the house, remind then they are the light in the world that helps the world and a community heal.

Be the bells of Christmas.  Sing the songs of peace on earth, good will to all.  It is night and there is weeping but the dawn is coming and with it joy.  Let us wait for it together.

Rev. Jeff Rainwater, December 16, 2012

Below is Casting Crown’s version of Longfellow’s poem… one of my favorite modern versions of these powerful words.

Lord, Remember Me! Thoughts on News about Coach Pat Summitt

Recently the legendary coach Pat Summitt has disclosed to the world that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia… a condition that will likely take her cognitive capacity and even her memories from a figure who has been revolutionary not only for women’s basketball but for all of sport.  In true Pat Summitt spirit, she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.”[1]  But the sports world and many who look up to her are shocked and grieved by this news.

Coach Summitt’s recent diagnosis shines a light on a growing concern in our country – the mental health of our aging population.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.[2]  This number will increase dramatically as the Baby Boomers age.  Alzheimer’s and dementia in general robs its victim of more than ability; it takes something more precious: identity and the ability to relate.  There are few families today who do not know the grief of saying goodbye to a loved one long before they die because of the affects of Alzheimer’s or dementia.  Of Coach Summitt, Wetzel describes this grief well:

“… this is one cruel disease.  What a life this woman has led, and for her not to be able to sit back for decades to come and enjoy every last memory? What an impact this woman has had on so many other lives, and there’s a chance she won’t get to appreciate it, or recall it?  And how brutal is it that a woman of such accomplishment, wisdom and impact might have her career cut short, robbing any number of players that would’ve enjoyed her guidance.”[3]

Memory and forgetfulness are important theological themes especially in the Hebrew Canon.  Forgetfulness leads to isolation from God and usually ends in disaster.  In Deuteronomy, the people of God are implored no less than 20 times to remember and not forget…  the poignant irony of a book written by a people who have forgotten and are trying to remember who they were called to be.  The Psalms too are filled with the relationship between memory and salvation (Psalm 50:22 ‘Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.’)  The Psalmist often declares she should be saved by God precisely because she remembers (“Look on my misery and rescue me, for I do not forget your law.”, Psalm 119:153)

If memory is so important to our continued life and even salvation, what does that mean for those who “forget” through Alzheimer’s and dementia?  Are they destined to “depart to Sheol” with the wicked because the have forgotten themselves and God?(Psalm 9:17)  Will God forget them because they have forgotten God?

God’s apparent forgetfulness is perhaps of more importance to the Psalmist than her own.

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me for ever?  How long will you hid your face from me?  (Psalm 13:1)

Why do you hid your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (Psalm 44:24)

On many occasions it is God’s remembering that saves God’s people.  Noah is saved from the Ark because God remembers; Rachel and Hannah were given children; Moses is sent to save the Israel from slavery.  My favorite passage is God’s own proclamation in Isaiah.

Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)

Ultimately our hope is not in our own memory but in God’s.   And when we can no longer remember for whatever reason, God will remember us and through remembering will re-member us through the Resurrection (remembering is re-membering, a great line I learned from Stanley Hauerwas… I think!)

Just as it is God’s promise to remember, I think it is also the church’s task to remember especially for those who have forgetten.  When powers and principalities forget who is really in charge of this world or forget the needs of those they are called to serve, it is the church’s place to stand up and help them remember.  This week Martin Luther King’s Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated.  It is our responsibility to remember his words and legacy.  When our grandfather looks at us with confusion in his eyes and asks, “Who are you again?” it is our bittersweet burden to remember for him not only who we are, but also who he was and through God’s grace and remembering he can become again.

As Jesus was struggling on the cross to take his last breaths, the criminal dying next to me had only one request, “Remember me.”

“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  Something worth remembering.

[1] Dan Wetzel, “Dementia diagnosis won’t stop Pat Summitt,” Yahoo! Sports website (http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/womens-basketball/news?slug=dw-dementia_diagnosis_wont_stop_summitt_082311)

[2] “2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures” (http://www.alz.org/downloads/Facts_Figures_2011.pdf)

[3] Ibid. Wetzel