Blue Christmas – Caroline Dean 11/29/15

“How Long? An Advent Lament”

November 29, 2015

The Book of Psalms is the longest book of the Bible.  It is a beautiful book of poetry and song in the tradition of King David.  And today’s reading from the longest biblical book is a lament Psalm.  A Lament Psalm is marked by complaint, anguish, and petition.  Most of the lament psalms pivot eventually towards a sense of hope or an openness, an expression of trust in God.  Interestingly enough, lament Psalms are the largest category of Psalms.  Which is a curious thing because the Hebrew name for the Psalter is “Tehillim” or “Praises.”  And so the longest book in our sacred text, is a “Book of Praises and yet it includes more lament than anything else.” (Ellen Davis, “Getting Involved with God”).  And so if Lament plays such a dominant role in the Bible, it makes you wonder, how much room do we leave in church or even in our wider culture for lament?    And what can lament look like in our context?

Our reading today is from Psalm Chapter 13:

“How long Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?

And day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God!

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him.”  “I have overcome her.”

And my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

My heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise.

For God has been good to me.”

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And here is another interpretation of Psalm 13 from the Methodist pastor and poet, Steve Garnaas Holmes (unfoldinglight.net):

“God, have you forgotten me forever?

Do I even matter to you?

Why are you so hard to find?

How long will I argue with myself about you,

With this dark pit in my heart all day long?

How long will this dark adversary, this fear

loom over me?  Give me an answer, God—any answer.

Let there be light in my eyes, not this sleep, this death.

I can hear my adversary now: saying “I win.”

I can see them gloat over my lifeless soul. But I trust your kindness like the earth itself.

You rescue me, and I rejoice.  I will sing to you, Beloved, because you always pick me up.”

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Let us pray: (PAUSE) God of the lament and God of the thanksgiving song, take our lament this day and move us towards hope, towards trust, but not too quickly, oh God, for you know how deep the season of lament must be in order to honor that which is lost, that which we deeply treasure.  Above all, oh God, let us find solace in your presence and in the presence of those who lament with us, in our own community and around the world this day.  By the power of your Spirit, and in the name of your Son we pray.  Amen.

 

Today we stand “in between,” in a liminal space, between our season gratitude and the season of Advent, as season expectation of new birth, new reminders of God’s presence with us.  And in this frantic holiday season, it has been our tradition here at Christ Church for the past few years to pause and remember lost loved ones and to especially remember those who are grieving in this season.  It is not an easy time for those who are missing a loved one.  The holidays for so many are like a lightning rod for grief and complicated emotions.  It’s as if our larger society expects the holiday season to pause, or at least soften our suffering.  Think of all the happy families in Christmas ads or holiday movies.  When in reality the sacred rituals and family gatherings of this season are joyful yes, and yet they can also magnify our loss.

And so, this first day of Advent let us pause to take a moment for lament, to honor the complicated emotions of this season.

The lament Psalms remind us that when we name our suffering, when we yell at God, when we lose our patience with our own suffering, with the suffering in our community, and in our world, we are participating in a holy and ancient practice.  And that sometimes, somehow, the naming of our pain can be related to hope and healing.

When I read scripture, I have a habit of reading between the lines and hoping to make the story come alive in a new way.  And yet, here in Psalm 13, the storyline is unclear.  The truth is that we do not get the specific context for the Ancient Poet’s suffering.  And so I cannot help but wonder “what thoughts does she wrestle with?” “What is the sorrow that she carries in her heart?”  “Who is his enemy?” And perhaps the some of the most practical questions, “How does he make his turn from lament towards hope and praise?” “And how can he trust God’s unfailing love and also wonder if God has forgotten him a few seconds earlier?”  Basically, “What is your deal Ancient poet!?”

Advent is a time of waiting and for so many of us the waiting is also layered with so many emotions, hope, faith, and also grief and anxiety.  There are tears right up against laughter.  For the grieving ones there is joy right next to sorrow.  When we only operate in modes of celebration we forget the ones for whom this season is an emotional marathon.  And somehow in this sacred season we are also called find God all mixed up in everything, born anew in our hearts each Christmas, giving us hope and trust even in our times of sorrow.

And so even in the face of these mysteries and unanswered questions my first reaction to this Lament Psalm is to look for a formula.  A sort of “4-step process for surviving the holidays while also grieving a major loss.”  Or at least a “how to guide” to find solidarity with one who is grieving.  Certainly it is the Bible’s job to teach us how to find God, how to dig up faith in tough times, how to recover the sense that God has not forgotten us.  How does our Ancient Poet move from such a dark place to a place of hope & peace?  What is the four step plan?  And this also seems like a very important question for pastors.  Isn’t it our job as spiritual leaders to unlock these mysteries, to help others move from step 1 to step 2 in the grieving process or at least to somehow soften the blow of the painful holiday season.

But unfortunately for those of us who are pastors, especially those of us who like 4-step plans, we learn early on in our training in Chaplaincy in Divinity School that there is no linear or universal pattern in our times of grief.  Our emotions are layered upon other experiences of loss, and we cycle back and forth between sorrow, anger, and denial.

And so here is the discipline of both the suffering one and the comforter there is no 4-step plan.  We are called to let the mystery of how one moves from lament to hope remain intact.  And why do we do this?  Of course we can all give our own tips and anecdotal advice for a good grieving process, but the truth is that each person’s path of suffering is unique.  When we allow this process to remain mysterious we honor the grieving one and the time it takes to do the work necessary.  We honor the sacredness of the person, the dream, the community that has been lost.  Of course there is a temptation to quickly resolve lament to bring a person forward towards hope and yet when we do that we can cause more suffering.  When we rush towards hope we can dishonor the depth of the pain, the necessary process and the sacredness of the loved one who is now gone.

But if it is a mystery, how someone gets from A to B, from lament to hope, what do we do in the meantime?  And I know that I just said that we have to honor mystery but bear with me now as I completely contradict myself with “loose and lightly held 4-step plan for lament.”

This is, by the way, is why preaching can be so hard.  We are tasked as preachers to find words to capture the mysteries and to speculate on the nature of divinity.  It is a tall order!  This is also education we receive in seminary also makes me laugh, when we graduate, we get a “Master’s of Divinity.”  Can you imagine someone going out into the world thinking that they have “mastered” the divine?  But despite this tall order, one thing that I have learned in studying the Christian tradition is that sometimes a little paradox or contradiction is a good sign.  So here is our “non 4 step plan” for a good spiritual practice of lament.

Step One: Let the mystery stay intact.  Leave room for each person to take the path that they need to take.  And trust and pray that God will do mysterious healing work needed behind the scenes.   Just like we will never really know how the Ancient Poet moves from suffering to faith - the healing process must take on its own form in each person’s journey.

The Second Step in lament, is to realize and embrace that suffering is a part of the human condition and that we are not alone.

If my first reaction to these Lament Psalms is to come up with a formula, my second is that Psalm 13 is very personal.  It feels intimate, like we are reading someone’s journal.  We do not know the specific context of the suffering of this Poet, but we do get intimate details about how that suffering manifests itself.   The poet struggles with mental anguish and sorrow weighs heavy in her heart.

So many times in the suffering spaces we are tempted to feel forgotten or alone.  And like the Ancient Poet we are afraid that God, and everyone else for that matter, has forgotten us!  And yet so many have suffered before us and so many will face grief in the many generations to come.  It is a part of what it mean to be human.

C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping (your heart) intact you must give it to no one...Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket...of your selfishness.  But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, (your heart) will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  To love is to be vulnerable.”

And so this is the beautiful truth of lament.  That when we face our grief or suffering this holiday season - or any season for that matter - it is a sign of our humanness, our softened hearts, our capability to love.  Each suffering path is unique and yet there is something in each path that binds us all together.  We are tempted to believe the lie that in our suffering we are forgotten by God.  Even Jesus on the cross, cries out, “Abba God why have you forsaken me?!”  And yet the truth is that we are all connected to each other and to God by our suffering.  We are connected by our capacity to love, by our vulnerability, and by the broken heartedness that comes from being human.  This is why we can read this Ancient Poet’s song and feel his pain.  Know his heavy heart.  And feel her anxious mind.  Because we are all human and this story of lament is a part of all of our stories.

So step 1: Keep the mystery intact.

Step 2: Know that you are not alone, that suffering is a part of our shared humanity.  That in fact a broken heart is better than a heart which is numb or hardened to any expression of love.

Step 3:  Some of our modern laments in this season of expectation, might sound something like the Ancient Poet’s cry, “How Long, oh God?!”

“How long until the cancer goes away?”

“How long oh God until we feel financially secure?”

“How long oh God until we get pregnant?”

“How long until I find a partner?”

“How long oh God until the depression, the chronic burden, is manageable?”

“How long until I don’t miss her – I don’t miss him – quite so badly?”

“How long until we find relief from fear, injustice, racism, sexism, and homophobia?”

“How long until there is an end to war, a home for refugees, peace in the midst of fear and terror?”

“How long until our headlines are free of violent acts and horrific shootings?”  And the list goes on…

It amazes me how the humanness of this poem allows us all to read our own stories in between the lines.  Psalm 13 is breathable, it is inhabitable even 3,000 years later.  Because it lacks a specific story, it invites us all to enter in with our own suffering and our own mysterious moments when we have turned from suffering, towards hope, towards God.

And so the third step of a good spiritual practice of lament is to find a family member, neighbor, church member or online support group, anyone really, who shares your specific cry of lament.  Again the temptation is to believe the lie that you are alone.  But you are not!  And there is power and sacred healing in this kind of community.  Ask anyone in a recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, or in a divorce support group, in grief groups like Good Grief (our no profit partner who supports children and parents through the loss of an immediate family member).  In these groups there is a powerful practice of being fully seen and feeling known.  And there is also powerful healing as you are present for others witnessing their stories of grief and healing.  This is also a model for how God loves us.  In God’s eyes we are fully known and fully loved, in our suffering and in our joy.

Step 4: And so what is our role as the church in complicated times of lament?  Yes, we sit in the mystery.  Yes, we acknowledge our human connection, that we all suffer, and that there is a thread that connects us through it all.  And yes, we foster and incubate groups who are dealing with a specific suffering so that they might find courage and hope in each other’s journey.  Lastly we, in the church, are tasked to remind each other of God’s unfailing, unbounding love.

On a good day, the church is a refuge for those who suffer, for those who feel alone and forgotten.  On a good day, the church embodies the truth that God is with us.  On a good day, the church practices God’s unfailing love by being with those who feel forgotten, by bringing casseroles, flowers and tissues when necessary, not as tools to move someone from step 1 the step 2 in the grief process but rather as symbols of “God with us,” as embodiments of God’s unfailing love.

One time when I was particularly frustrated with how long I was grieving a loss, a dear friend, once said to me, “however long it takes, I will be here.”

 

And so hear now beloved, God is saying to you this day, “I will be here, I will be with you, however long it takes.  You are not alone.  I have not forgotten you.   I am with you.”

And so, let us be the kind of church who echo God’s love.  Let us show up again and again and again however long it takes.  “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, no matter how long it takes to find your way, you are welcome here.”  Amen.

 

Blue Christmas Candle Lighting Ritual: 2015

 

Bring sanctuary lights down as Caroline & Julie bring altar candles down to the center table.

 

 Liturgy:

 

CAROLINE:      As Advent begins, we are aware of the days growing short and cold. We crunch fallen leaves underfoot and smell the musk of decay.  While the natural world takes its cue to honor Sabbath in hibernation, the human world becomes more frenzied.  The season of Advent invites us to be counter-cultural; to slow down as we await, with expectation, the birth of Christ.

      

JULIE: During the holiday season, many of us experience deep grief and loss. We remember and mourn lost loved ones, and grieve for dreams that never came to pass. At such times, Christmas can seem bitter-sweet. And yet, the one who is coming is Emmanuel—God with us—the one who knows our pain and offers us the hope of resurrection.

 

CAROLINE:  So, we invite you now to a practice of lament, to pray for those who are grieving, and to let Christ, our greatest comforter, come and be with us.  

 

JULIE:  At this time, we invite those who wish to come to the altar, to light a candle in memory of a loved one and to place it in a windowsill as a reminder that the presence of those we love surrounds us eternally.  This is our hope and this the promise of the One who is coming once again to be with us.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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