“The Big Question” & Resources If You or Someone Is Undergoing an Experience of Darkness

We’ve been asking questions here at East Brentwood in a summer series “Questions + Courage = Faith” based on questions submitted and voted on. This Sunday we tackle what I call the Big Question”: “Why?” As in: “Does God will evil and suffering in the world and in our lives?” This question got a lot of votes, even though I think of religion these days refuses to acknowledge the reality of suffering. As William Willimon wrote in his book Thank God It’s Friday, church these days doesn’t “do too well in the dark.”

I have been perusing the texts of scripture and coming across the obvious texts related to the theme of tragedy and suffering, among them: the Book of Job; the story of the tragedy of the collapse of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13).  I also came across Psalm 29 and its line: “The voice of the Lord is over the water.” Last week I was at the happy occasion of a family wedding. While that happy family occasion was happening I heard news of the duckboat tragedy in Branson, MO where 17 people drowned in the lake after high winds capsized the boat. Nine of the perished were from one family. The words of the psalmist intersect with the pain of this story and present us with the big question: Why did God do this or allow it to happen.  Tia Coleman lost 7 family members -- all of her children.  Coleman said she’s never been through something this difficult. "I don't know if there's a recovery from it," she said. She said she’s been getting through the tragedy with a lot of prayers, and thanked the support of family members and friends. "Going home, I already know, is going to be completely difficult. I don’t know how I’m going to do it," Coleman said. "Since I’ve had a home, it’s always been filled with little feet and laughter, and my husband."

In the course of getting ready for this sermon, I have come across the stories and resources shared by remarkable people and communities of people who have faced great suffering and tragedy and have much to share.  I pass these on to you in the hope that they are helpful if you are facing suffering and tragedy or that you may be helpful to a friend undergoing an experience of darkness.

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross’ Interview with Duke Divinity School Professor Kate Bowler about her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s a memoir about Kate Bowler - a religion professor and young mother - having colon cancer that metastasized, and being told she had a little time to live but then finding an experimental immunotherapy treatment that seems to be helping. The interview, as is the book, is about how her illness has affected her religious practice, and how her religious practice has affected how she deals with her illness. This is a fantastic interview. (Click here for the manuscript.)

Here is a blog curated by a bereaved parent called Still Standing. I commend to you a list of Six Things One Should Never Say to a Bereaved Parent. If you have a friend who is facing the inconsolable loss of a child, this could be a great resource to help you be there in a supportive way. (Click here for the blog.)

·Among a resource I have come back to time and time again is Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Eerdmans, 1987). A Yale philosopher writes poetically, honestly and authentically about the death of his 25-year-old son who died in a climbing accident. His diary entries speak “To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall.” (Click here for more information on the book.)

Faith dares to ask the big question. Faith is not afraid to ask, “Why is this happening? Where is God in this?” Faith sees in those questions themselves a deep trust. Faith understands and experiences God, God’s mercy and love and kindness, even in the experiences of God’s silence and absence.

I have book learning on this subject and I have had the privilege of carrying a flashlight beside families as they have walked through the darkness of pain and loss and suffering. Not having the unimaginable experience of having lost a child or faced incurable disease, I am grateful for all those who have struggled so honestly and faithfully with the biggest and most profound questions of all, especially this Big Question.

"Good" Friday

Click here to read the Good Friday Texts and the Crucifixion Story

I've shifted my focus from dealing with the joyful celebration of Easter (preparation details, sermon writing) to write this blog on this day we call “Good” Friday. I had gotten ahead of the story already hearing the brass and singing the great hymns, seeing the children running and laughing, families in front of the flowering cross. To go back into the darkness of this story on “Good” Friday is a little like spiritual whiplash.

I hope you will click on the link above and read the scripture passages for Good Friday and to read the crucifixion story. Here's a recap: the story of Jesus, it seemed, was over. Convicted of sedition, condemned to death by crucifixion, nailed to a cross on a hill called Golgotha, Jesus of Nazareth had endured all that he could—approaching the end he repeated a verse of the 22nd Psalm, a phrase familiar to first-century Jewish ears: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There was a final wordless cry. And then silence. It appears that Jesus’ followers had no answer to his anguished question of why God would forsake him and that they clearly expected an altogether different outcome. If he was the promised Messiah, his followers expected him to seize real power, military and political power, and achieve some kind of victory. There is reason to believe that Judas, particularly, wanted him to lead a military revolt against Rome.  Jesus’ arrest and trial for sedition and his subsequent execution as a common criminal came as a crushing blow to his disciples, along with the fact that his own decisions and behavior seemed somehow to be part of the whole sad, tragic, disappointing fiasco. Jesus could have avoided it all but for some reason chose not to, seemed intentionally to put his safety at risk, his life on the line. And so they fled, left him to die alone, and went into hiding. The women alone among his followers stayed with him until the end and watched as he died and as he was buried and the tomb carefully sealed. And after the Sabbath, it was the women who came back to the place of burial, for practical, pragmatic reasons: to ensure that the body was properly anointed. Their major concern was whether they could manage to remove the stone with which the tomb was sealed.

The scriptural accounts are inconsistent (wonderfully so) about what happened next, about who was there, who arrived first, who said what to whom.  Click on the link above and it will take you the Gospel of John’s account. For Easter Sunday, I am focusing on Matthew’s account (Matthew 28) so I went back and looked at how Matthew describes the hours before the women go to the tomb on Easter Sunday.

What jumps out at me in Matthew is the delegation of old men, distinguished religious leaders, chief priests and Pharisees, who come to the governor’s office the day after the crucifixion. I know these people. They are good men basically, leaders in the community. They only want to preserve public order, the status quo. I have seen them at large church meetings. I have seen them at Chamber of Commerce meetings and in the halls of Congress. I have seen them on TV, pundits and lawmakers who criticize the teenage survivors of the high school mass shooting, for being too young and naïve with their marches and call for action on sensible gun laws. “We’re here, Excellency [Pontius Pilate],” they say, “because Jesus did say something about rising from the dead, and while you and we know how utterly preposterous that is, his friends could steal the body under the cover of darkness and claim he rose again and then we would have another problem on our hands. So please, Excellency, station some soldiers at the tomb just to make sure there is no funny business.” To them, Pilate says: “Use your own men” and “go, make the tomb as secure as you can.”

Years ago, when in my mid 20s I dog eared a copy of Frederick Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat where he describes this scene as “old men trying to keep the sun from rising.” Now, years later, my fear is that I am not like one of those “old men” as I sit here finishing up an Easter sermon (what sometimes is referred to my “big shot” for the year to speak to a full house) what will be my Easter message that comes out of the oven that is placed before everyone at the Easter table. How easy is the tendency for me -- and you -- to act like the old men Matthew describes in trying to explain the resurrection story; the ones who try to make it safe and secure.  Safe and secure, saying things like the significance of the resurrection is that it really just points to the power of Jesus’ teachings that live on, or to the power of life we see every springtime (cue up the flowers and the butterflies).  None of that is very compelling.

Especially when we live in a Good Friday world. “Good” Friday is a sad day of loss and cruelty when all you have to go on is faith that light shines in the darkness and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. Nor old men.

Anne Lamott in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith writes: “I don’t have the right personality for the human condition. But I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’ resurrection and in ours.” She writes for all of us, “I hate it that you can’t prove the beliefs of my faith. If I were God, I’d have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check as you went along, to see if you’re on the right track. But noooo—Darkness is our context, Easter’s context; without it you couldn’t see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us” (p. 274).

I need to get back to putting a wrap on the sermon for Easter. I will leave you with a quote by Jürgen Moltmann  on this Good Friday and conclude by saying, I hope to see you as we celebrate the resurrection on Sunday!

“Good Friday is the center of the world, but Easter morning is the Sunrise of the Coming of God and the morning of new life and it is the beginning of the future of the world.’” Jürgen Moltmann  (Passion for God)

Thursday of Holy Week - On Seeing Something (Love) Through

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. - John 13:1

In church parlance we call tonight Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” meaning mandate or command. As Jesus gathers with his friends around the table for his Last Supper, he instructs them how to live, giving them the New Commandment:  Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

That we should love one another…yes. But Jesus, in his words to his friends around the table seminar on their last night together has the long view in mind: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  That we should make loving another to the end our aim, now that is hard work.  Once I start reading a book I have trouble reading a book to its end, from cover to cover. And reading a book can be far easier than loving a human being!

I found it a bit coincidental this Thursday morning when I opened a journal I have been trying to read daily and the advice is on finishing what you start when it comes to reading a book.

I have been reading Joan Chittester’s book The Rule of Saint Benedict, a daily journal of reflections on the writings of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order. Benedict of Nursa was born in 480 A.D. and lived when the foundations of the Roman Empire were shaking. (I suspect many of you are saying: “Must be a gripping read.”) The Rule of St. Benedict is simple and yet complex and while written long ago is fresh for our 21st century lives who are searching, often in vain, for some spiritual framework around which to organize our lives in a period when public devotion is a thing of the past and the overarching questions of life are more pressing than ever. After a lofty sentence like that it would seem odd that when I opened the journal for today, March 29th that St. Benedict is focused on what appears at first blush to be focusing on minutia. With what seems like mundane instructions, Benedict offers advice that during Lent, the monks are to be assigned a book to read “straight through” and were given more time during the day to read. That is to put themselves on a regimen and study in a serious and ordered way.  Benedictines were known for the labor of their hands; they did not shy away from work. At the same time, work is not what defined their life. The search for God and love for their fellow human being is what defined Benedictine spirituality. (That is something to take stock of when we are identified more by what we do than that we are.) Study is hard work. Just as with them, we find it is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of learning. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. Of Benedictine spirituality Chittester writes: “life is to be struggled through and worked at and concentrated on and cultivated. It is not a matter of simply going through it and hoping enough of the rust of time is removed by accident to make us burnished spiritual adults” (p. 216)

Same advice when it comes to reading a book could be said when it comes to loving another human being. Loving another is not a feeling. It is a choice; it is a behavior. It involves hard work. It takes the long view. It was for Jesus. And it is for us in our attempts to love others. Today, on this Maundy Thursday, I am thankful that Jesus did the hard work of love. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. - John 13:1

Looking Around

It’s a strange and anticlimactic ending to what is known as the triumphal entry. Maybe, however, it’s necessary. If that’s what Jesus does maybe we should too. Maybe we need to look around at everything before we go any further into this week.

“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” - Mark 11:11  (From the Reading Mark 11:1-11)

I am still thinking about the Scripture passage from our Palm Sunday service that opens the door into this Holy Week. There is so much that can be said about this week and how it started on Sunday with Palm Sunday. It’s hard to know where to begin and how to make sense of it all. But here’s what I wonder. The Holy Week story is not a story to be explained or understood. It is a story to be embodied and lived. It is a week to slow down, re-group, and take a look around at everything.

Isn’t that what Jesus does?

No other gospel account describes this. Only Mark offers us the opportunity to look around at everything. In Matthew’s account of the gospel Jesus immediately enters and cleanses the temple, driving out those who bought and sold, and overturning the moneychangers’ tables. According to Luke Jesus sees the city Jerusalem and weeps over it. Then he enters the temple and drives out the den of thieves, those who bought and sold. And in John’s account it’s not clear if Jesus even enters the temple. Instead, the focus is on Jesus teaching about the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies. Not so for Mark.

At the end of the donkey ride, when the shouting is over and the last cloaks and palms have been thrown down, Jesus enters the temple, looks around at everything, and then leaves.

It’s a strange and anticlimactic ending to what is known as the triumphal entry. Maybe, however, it’s necessary. If that’s what Jesus does maybe we should too. Maybe we need to look around at everything before we go any further into this week.

Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life. It was the center of the religious, social, political, and economic structure. The temple stands at the center of the center. It is the heart of Jewish life. That means that when Jesus entered the temple and “looked around at everything” he was looking into the very heart of the people.

There are moments in each of our lives - big moments, threshold moments, life changing moments - when we need to slow down, maybe even stop, and consider what it is that we’re getting into. Are we ready for this? What does it mean? We look around.

I have seen this looking around in the eyes of others.  I have seen that look a few times at the wedding rehearsal, a dry run to find out where the x is marked on the floor of where to stand and to get our cues before everybody rushes off to dinner. But just before they go, I have seen that look sometimes by the bride, sometimes by the groom as they look over their shoulder at the empty room that will be filled tomorrow with friends and family. Their momentary reflective look is as if they are looking for confirmation that they are making the right step into their future. Maybe you know of the looking around, the one that happens during the final walk through of the house has the pencil marks on the closet door marking the growth of your children, long since grown. You look around one final time with the sweep that not only takes in the square footage but the years before you close the door and continue with the process of downsizing and paring down your life. Newspaper reports reported that reflective look when Emma Gonzalez, a student at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida came to the podium yesterday at the March for Our Lives in D.C. She spoke for just under two minutes describing the effects of gun violence in emotional detail and then recited the names of those who had been killed. Then she stood and said nothing for 4 minutes and 26 seconds, looking around at the crowd through watery eyes.  She knew what this moment meant and what is being asked of her and what is being asked of us.

Holy Week is about real life stuff and it hits close to home.

Are we ready for this? What does it mean? Do I have what it takes? Is this really what I want? Am I prepared for what is to come? Can I see it through to the end?

I don’t think Jesus just looked around at everything, turned away, and then left. I think he looked at everything so that he might take it with him and carry it through this holy week. So must we.

What are the things done and left undone, that chain you to the past? (It has been said that you can’t claim a future that is stuck in the past?) What are your regrets? What scares you? Is your heart filled with loss, sorrow, grief? Where is your life overcome by darkness? Take a look around at everything in your heart. What do you give yourself to? What are you going to bear witness to and stop standing by on the sidelines as an observer of your life?

Jesus left nothing behind. We mustn’t either. What we refuse to look at and bring to this week cannot be healed, cannot be restored, renewed, re-created, or resurrected. So what will you carry into this week? What will you bring and offer? 

Cosmic collisions let us examine our hearts

"Ash Wednesday meets Valentine’s Day February 14"

Columnist Ray Waddle, a former Tennessean religion editor recently wrote in the Tennessean in its February 7th issue:  “to those who savor cosmic collisions on the calendar, check February 14. Besides Valentine’s Day, it is also Ash Wednesday. The annual celebration of romantic love shares a date this year with the first day of Lent.  Candlelight dinner meets liturgies of repentance. Champagne festivity goes face to face with the Book of Ecclesiastes.” (Click here to read his article.)

About this cosmic collision, Waddle uncovers for us a surprising statistic: this embraced (or dreaded) holiday is a commercial colossus now with $18 billion a year spent which breaks down into gift spending averaging nearly $140 a person in cards, jewelry, roses, and champagne.

Ash Wednesday, meanwhile moves in the other direction, acknowledging what Waddle refers to as “the broken heart of the world” -- life’s mistakes and wrong pursuits and the inescapable facts of our mortality.  On Wednesday, I will make the sign of the cross on foreheads as these words are said “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Tough words on a day that acknowledges life’s mistakes and wrong pursuits and the inescapable facts of our mortality.

Yet these desolations don’t get the last word.

Tomorrow, when Valentine’s Day collides with Ash Wednesday I am tempted, when I say “remember that you are dust” to draw a heart instead of the cross to hold in creative tension the desolation (our own limits) and the hope of God’s promises that is at the heart of this strangely life renewing glow of Lent.  A heart - or a cross - reminds us of the promises of God that we are God’s, that there is no sin, and no darkness, and yes no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time. For we come from God and to God we shall go.

There is so much that gets in the way of that simple truth and it is at times like on Ash Wednesday -  when all of the other things that occupy our attention doesn’t matter as much. 

So on this day of cosmic collision, I hope you will stop by when we will be outside in our parking lot from 7:30 am - 9:30 am for the imposition of ashes and for a time of personal prayer for those who desire prayer.

Boy Scouts, Leadership and Values

With school starting up again soon, that means Boy Scout Troop 86 will begin meeting under our roof again soon. We couldn't be happier to have this group of hard-working, dedicated, kind, young men meet under our roof. We are proud of the troop's leadership and of the values they are instilling in these young men that are free from such bullying and divisiveness. We are proud that they promote the values that we believe in and support, and that they recognize that words matter, that values matter - even when those in leadership positions do not. Here is a snippet from my sermon this past Sunday in which I addressed this very point:
 
God’s kingdom on earth comes, Jesus said, when seeds are dropped onto the ground. It’s a pretty fragile dream, not unlike a tiny single seed, and it must contend among ground where there are seeds of hatred and bigotry and violence, seeds of discord which also take root and grow and bear a terrible poisonous fruit.
 
Like many of you I was so disheartened by the partisanship and seeds of discord  when our President delivered a totally inappropriate speech to a captive audience of young men who are at the National Scout Jamboree, a pinnacle event for scouting.  As my name is on the Charter for Troop 86, I reached out to local leadership to express my concerns about if there would be a response from the Scouting organization in response to the bullying, partisanship and political pressures expressed in the President’s speech. From the conversations I have had with local leadership, I have every confidence that our Scouts here are growing here in values free from such bullying and divisiveness. And I am proud of their work and our association with Troop 86.
 
Why I bring up the President’s Speech before the Scouting Jamboree - a speech which the Head of BSA has apologized for the nature of the speech’s content is this: our words, especially around our youth, are like seeds planted. Our values are like seeds planted. Words matter. Values matter. When those in leadership - whatever their leadership position may be - parents need to talk to their children that it matters what we say and what we stand for. Not only parents, but parents, grandparents, young, old, teachers, coaches, all people who seek to follow in the way of Jesus, hear this: our words matter. Our Values matter. It matters what we are saying to our young people and what we are modeling.
 
To listen to the audio or read the entire text of Sunday's sermon, please click here: http://www.eastbrentwoodpc.com/worship-service-materials

We Are God's Family - The Season of Advent

It is the season of Advent with Christmas only a little more than two weeks from now. It is a time of great expectations. In this frenzied season, I have been thinking about expectations, about family (our theme has been “We Are God’s Family”) and I have been thinking about our attentiveness (or lack of).

These thoughts have been sparked by reading a story the writer Anne Lamott tells in her book about what the Kingdom of God that the birth of Jesus ushers in looks like to her.  In the book Stitches Lamott describes a friend whose son was living on the streets. Lamott writes, “This friend’s grown son, David, more or less lived on the streets for thirty years. He had a small place he could call his own, but he chose to live outdoors. I’d known him since he was a child. He looked like Puck, and he still had an innocence in his face, even surrounded by matted hair. I drove him to his grandmother’s funeral in Oakland a few years ago, with his grocery bags of broken electronics, and he bragged about how well he could dine from dumpsters. He was strong from walking all day. He was sweet, smart, aggravating, courtly, alcoholic and mentally ill.”

Lamott says, Over the years, his mother welcomed him home once a week or so, when he had not been drinking, for coffee, or soup, or whatever happened to be on the stove. People would ask David’s mother how he was doing. “Oh about the same,” she would say, or “Nightmarishly. And yourself?” Sometimes love does not look like what you had in mind. 

Then one day, David had a seizure and was found half dead. He was taken to the ICU and after a long recovery was moved to the general population in the hospital. That was when his mother lost hope. What would become of him next? She despaired. But eventually David learned how to walk again and speak a little gibberish. But what happened among the people in the community who knew David was a bit like the Kingdom of God. They visited him and surrounded his mother with support. Rides, errands, good ideas, just being there and taking an interest. Somehow their love touched David’s mother so profoundly that she came to see her son through the eyes of the people who loved her and loved him. It changed everything.

Eventually he was placed in a long term facility where people with Alzheimer’s and similar dementia twice David’s age were living. Every two weeks, Lamott writes, David’s mother drives to see her son at his facility in San Francisco. They go for short walks, and they talk about whatever comes up. Sometimes he makes very little sense. It’s a beautiful drive to the facility. Flickering screens of color rush by, dappled patches of road, then such brightness that even dark glasses can’t help.  And it’s hard to tell who has been more saved from what, David or David’s mother and the community of love that has transformed them both.

In the Bible passages which are our focus this Sunday, John the Baptist sent word to Jesus from his prison cell, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” And Jesus said, Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

As I move closer to this Sunday and to Christmas, I am being made aware of these important things:

  • What you are looking for often determines what you see
  • We have the opportunity to be the family of God. 
  • The kingdom comes, when it comes, in places that we least expect and in ways that are not what we had imagined.
  •  Love, after all, doesn’t always look like what you had in mind.

I hope in this season of Advent you are discovering richness as well. And I hope to see you this Sunday for worship and our children’s advent workshop that follows the service.

A Help Guide for You this Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving…

 …will you be the one who will be gracious and promise kindness. 

Here at East Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN, we have cooked up a little Thanksgiving podcast and blog to be a resource to you as you face the upcoming holiday. Listen to John -the pastor of wise and many words - and Nate - the man of few words but master when it comes to the musical note - as they bring you music to enjoy and some advice to how to approach Thanksgiving whether your Thanksgiving will be a quiet one or a crazy, busy time of preparation. There is even advice on what to do about crazy Uncle Jack who may be sitting around your Thanksgiving table!

As with years past, we have assembled an assortment of table blessings that you might find useful as well as a wonderful poem by John O’Donahue called For Love in a Time of Conflict that we think is especially appropriate at this time. In this season of gratitude and on Thanksgiving Day, it is our prayer that your eyes will be open to the bounty of gifts, unmerited, that are all around us.  We pray that this week will bring peace to our world, our country, and our homes. At Thanksgiving and throughout the upcoming season, “may everything good from God be yours!” (1 Peter 1:2, the Message).

 

For Love In a Time of Conflict

When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of your belonging with each other,
May the depths you have reached hold you still.

When no true word can be said, or heard,
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music.

When the weave of affection starts to unravel
And anger begins to sear the ground between you,
Before this weather of grief invites
The black seed of bitterness to find root,
May your souls come to kiss.

Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it carefully through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Towards the gateway to spring.

By John O’Donohue from To Bless the Space Between Us(New York: Doubleday, 2008)

 

If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you it will be enough.

-- Meister Eckhart

 

 

Come, Lord Jesus our guest to be

and bless

 

these gifts

bestowed by Thee.

 

And bless our loved

    ones everywhere

and keep them in Your

loving care. - Moravian Blessing

 

A Thanksgiving Psalm (Psalm 100)

On your feet now—applaud God!
    Bring a gift of laughter,
    sing yourselves into his presence.

 Know this: God is God, and God, God.
    He made us; we didn’t make him.
    We’re his people, his well-tended sheep.

 Enter with the password: “Thank you!”
    Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
    Thank him. Worship him.

For God is sheer beauty,
    all-generous in love,
    loyal always and ever.

-          Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible

------------------------

If you are looking for a ritual to consider, here is one we did at our thanksgiving table when our children were young:

Take a loaf of bread and pass it around the table.  Invite the children and adults at the table to tear off a piece and list one thing they are thankful for (e.g. good health, the love of one another, pets, those people who are away from their families on this day doing the hard work to make sure we are safe, etc.) The host may want to have think about what it may be before the bread is passed so you can move through this ritual quickly before the food gets cold.  With wine or drink add a toast and a prayer and Voila!

 

Here is another prayer:

Thank You, thank You, thank You, generous God!  You have injected life with joy, thus we know laughter.  You have dabbed creation with color, thus we enjoy beauty. You have whistled a divine tune into the rhythm of life, thus we hear music.  You have filled our minds with questions, thus we appreciate mystery.  You have entered our hearts with compassion, thus we experience faith.  Thank You, God, Thank You.  Thank You!

                                 -C. Welton Gaddy

Series: “Empire Recovery: What Do You Need to Recover From?” - Hope Deprivation

Focus for Sunday, October 23: Our Children and Youth and what they need from us

Hope. We remember it as a catchphrase on bumper stickers. I Corinthians 13 proclaims its importance: faith, hope, love. The teenager, uses the word “hope” to state that something desired may happen: “I hope I get an A on this quiz.” “I hope I make the team.” “I hope she shows up at the party.”  In the church, we speak about hope and we see it from time to time as it’s the youth sitting in our churches and the futures we dream for them. Sometimes hope is seen as strong; but often it is seen as flimsy and sloppy and, if anything, as certain. Often, we aren’t sure wherein to place our hope. Less and less do we entrust our hope to institutions from the church to government as church pews become emptier and distrust of government higher. And sometimes, we feel deprived of hope.

Don’t get me wrong. The desire for hope is real and may be deeply felt.  In the case of the teenager who hopes for a good grade on the test, she really wants a good grade to happen, but the wanting or desiring is often not based on certainty that it will happen. Parents may hope and desire that their child will grow up strong and resilient, but they realize that there are forces in this world that are beyond their control that may shape their child.  We are hopeful that things might turn out well for our country and we do our part and will vote.  Most of us are hopeful, but not certain.  And some of us, may be feeling not only less than certain but devoid of hope.

A lot of things are going well for our children and youth. Their hoping they will do well on tests must be paying off as The United States reached a milestone high school graduation rate, the White House announced this past Monday. During the 2014-2015 school year, 83.2 percent of students graduated in four years, up nearly a percentage point from the previous year, when 82.3 percent of students got a diploma. Graduation rates during 2014-2015 grew for every reported student subgroup. That is fantastic news!

But some youth contend that all is not well. Some years ago, Chap Clark wrote a book called Hurt. He contends that abandonment is the defining issue for contemporary adolescents. He argues that external systems and internal systems, particularly healthy, meaningful adult relationships, are no longer experienced by the vast majority of American adolescents. Consequently, they feel a profound sense of abandonment, and of loss, and many believe they are left to suffer alone. If the bleak picture Clark paints is accurate, then there is something that EBPC offers to our children and youth and to parents.  We can stand with them in their hard times, and celebrate with them in their good times.

The Kingdom of God is at hand, as Jesus says. In community with him through his body, the church, we are co-workers for the Kingdom, the reign of God now. According to Jesus, the reign of God is not just God's affair; it is ours as well. Hope dwells not only in God and in God's future. Hope dwells in us, here, now, today. Through Jesus Christ, hope has come so close to us that we don't just wait for it. We can already seek it and its righteousness by enacting it here and now. And, in confidence, then we, as is said in the Book of Hebrews, can run with perseverance the race that is set before us (12:2). We can run with hope -- true hope. True hope sees all the problems, all of the obstacles and pitfalls, and the opportunities for failure. Still, even seeing all that, people with hope gird themselves and envision a path to a better future and then work for it.   What we offer to youth is anything but hope deprivation and anything but a flimsy hope. This hope is what we scaffold around the lives of our children and youth and families here in this place called EBPC. We offer a nurturing space where our children and youth may grow as tall oaks.

This Sunday we are honored to have Mark DeVries as our guest preacher who will be talking about how our work as a church with children and youth can be likened to planting oak trees.  Mark, a long-time pastor of youth ministry at First Presbyterian Church, is legendary when it comes to connecting with children and youth and you will be sure you will want to be here to hear him speak whether you are a teenager, the parent of a child, or you are “young at heart.”

Jesus & the Bro Code

At a recent staff meeting, I was sharing about upcoming themes for worship services here at East Brentwood Presbyterian Church.  For Father’s Day (June 19th), I said I was going to use Father’s Day to talk about “Men’s Issues.”  A fellow staff person replied:  Men’s Issues? Well, that is going to be a long service!” Jokes. My staff is always full of jokes. But there is a grain of truth. We’ve got issues. A recent survey by the Shriver report found that four in nine men said it was harder to be a man today than it was in their father’s generation, with most citing women’s economic rises as the reason.

 “I think American men are confused by what it means to be a man.  No matter our age, we need to be taught to think beyond our own confining stereotypes of what masculinity means.”

For a lot of guys my age masculinity has meant someone who can provide for his family, one who can wrestle the bear and protect his children.

Ask our youth and young men about what is “The Bro Code.” What it means to “Man Up”; in school how it is better to earn your “Man Card” than to succeed in school like a girl, all in the name of constantly having to prove an identity to yourself and others.

The documentary, The Mask You Live In, discusses the masculine psyche and the shame young men experience over feelings of sadness, despair or strong emotions other than anger, let alone expressing it and the resulting alienation. Many young men, compose artful, convincing masks, but deep down they aren’t who they pretend to be.  The question before us today is: What makes healthy men and how are we teaching boys to fill those roles?

In this day and age, we need to have a better understanding of what it means to be a man. It seems that everywhere we turn there is another news story about men in crisis: mental illness, terrorism, abuse, youth violence which is getting out of hand here in Nashville and mass shootings at the nightclub that recently happened in Orlando.

On this Father’s Day, I am going to talk about men -- our relationships, our feelings and the shifting stereotypes grown men and young men have to navigate.  We need to be taught to think beyond our own stereotypes.

So I am going to talk about friendships among men. For fathers, I am going to talk about whatit means to be an imperfect father and about our ability to live well imperfectly in an imperfect world, with imperfect children in an imperfect world that is going to remain imperfect this side of the Kingdom of God.

I knew that I wanted to preach on the shifting, what people would refer to as the confining stereotypes of masculinity on this Father’s Day. Then I looked to see what the lectionary texts were for this day. Oddly, there was this story of the Gerasene demoniac. 

Many people are bound. Some are bound and don’t even know it. Men can feel bound by the stereotypes.  The difference between being free and being bound is at the center of our Gospel text this week.

Jesus goes to the land of the Gerasenes and is met by a man who has demons, so many that the name of the spirit is Legion.  The man has to be bound with chains and shackles - and when he breaks his chains, the demons drive him into the wilderness. It is as if the man were behind actual prison bars: he is isolated from family, community and society.   By the time, this man meets Jesus, he has been suffering a long time with these demons, living in the tombs, away from everyone else, alive, but living in a dead place. Imagine the loneliness. When he encounters Jesus, he is set free.

Many people are bound. Some are bound and don’t even know it. Anxiety, fear, anger, bitterness, disappointment, the past -- all these things can affect a person’s perceptions, experiences, and quality of life. 

In our own day, many people - many men - are like the man in this week’s gospel text: they are oppressed or imprisoned by “demons” or “spirits” that keep them from operating to their fullest. (Luke 8:26)

Nowadays on a regular Sunday, going to church is not on the top 5 list of things for many of the men I know. And on Father’s Day, on the day they get to decide what the family will do, “it will unlikely be heard: Honey, kids we are going to church.”  I hope to see you all this Sunday.  But at the very least, thank you for listening to this message and I hope you will share it with those who might find this helpful. 

And if you are looking for a special Father’s Day gift for the dad, step-dad, granddad or special man in your life, skip the tie or the card.  Invite him to go do something with you: it could be a hike, a bike ride, a trip to get ice cream. Tell him something that he does well.  It will mean so much to him.

Hope to see you Sunday.

 

Resources and More information:

The Mask You Live In Documentary - The documentary explores the masculine psyche - the shame over feeling any sadness, despair or strong emotion other than anger, let alone expressing it and the resulting alienation. Young men are taught from day one to “man up” and  compose artful, convincing masks, but deep down they aren’t who they pretend to be.  East Brentwood Presbyterian Church owns this video if you are interested in viewing it.

A youtube video of a young boy getting a vaccination and being told by his father to “be a man” and not to show fear and pain. Fathers of sons: we have all said something similar to our boys. 

A Blog by Chip Dodd about fatherhood. He artfully writes about what it means to be an imperfect father and about our ability to live well imperfectly in an imperfect world, with imperfect children in an imperfect world that is going to remain imperfect this side of the Kingdom of God.

Chip Dodd’s The Voice of the Heart. An insightful book helping men better understand the eight essential emotions so they are better equipped to live in relationship with others and, ultimately, with God.