Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Foolish Presence

I have been thinking about suffering quite a bit recently. It’s hard not to with all of the news in this world, isn’t it?

I was sitting in a meeting on Monday when I began to see the first reports on twitter of the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma. My meeting was at Stony Point Retreat Center, where several of us had gathered to talk about creating intentional communities connected through spirituality, service, and a commitment to living life well with one another. It was such a strange juxtaposition: I was sitting in a comfortable chair, in a room with delightful colleagues, talking about a subject that I am passionate about. Well-fed, I was drowsy in the mid-afternoon warmth that sometimes follows a good meal. And then 1500 miles away, a mile wide tornado swept through the town of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and injuring many, many others. As we sat there talking of creating beloved communities and chosen families, children were trapped inside schools, and images came across my laptop of homes and business utterly destroyed. Entire blocks of houses literally erased from the earth by a wind so fierce it could pick up cars and barns, and anything else in its path. From the images I saw, it seems incredible to me that only 24 people died. The tornado was on the ground for 50 minutes and damaged or destroyed 12,000 homes.

The tornado was only one of many tragedies in the last month. Bombings, both in the U.S. and outside our borders, a bridge collapse, a factory building collapse, droughts, kidnapping, flooding, disease, political unrest. And that’s just the big news over the last few weeks. The everyday suffering of humans is so vast and so deep that it is almost unknowable. If we were to open ourselves up to all of the world’s suffering, we might drown in the flood. And what happens when we drown in the suffering of this world? Numbness, bitterness, grief so large that everything hurts. How can we enter into suffering—both the suffering of others and our own significant sorrows—and still find joy? How can we stay open to grief without becoming paralyzed or empty or being so filled with pain that nothing else can be felt?

At least part of the answer is that sometimes we can’t. That the suffering will overwhelm, because it is too close to home, or we took in too much, or we are too tired.

But on those days when we have the courage and strength and resources to attempt it, how do we hold suffering and joy in tension, tending to the pain while still living fully?

Our scripture this morning offers a way through. Referring back to Abraham, who surely had seen his share of suffering in his life, Paul writes that like Abraham, we are justified by our faith in God, and that since Christ has already died on the cross, we can have peace with God, even in the midst of our present suffering. Knowing that one who has gone before us down the road of suffering was not abandoned by God, we are assured that God is ever present in our own suffering. Paul writes that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us (although this world and humans very well might), for what we hope in is God’s love, which is poured through our hearts.

I hope that clears it all up for you.

I could read this passage and understand it to mean that I should celebrate in suffering, because suffering is good for the soul. But nobody anywhere has been comforted by such words in the middle of suffering. But perhaps what is meant is that knowing that God is present with us in even the most difficult of times, we might be at peace as we enter into that suffering. Since suffering is unavoidable, we might enter into it with a determination to be present and open to our suffering, to be fully in it, and to trust that God is present as we journey. In fact, that as we open more fully to suffering, that God becomes ever more discernable and tangible. So that to be open to suffering is to be open to God.

A Russian woman, Iulia de Beausobre wrote an essay called “Creative Suffering in which she wrote about the suffering of life and humans and her own experience grappling with it. She wrote in particular about a Russian folk figure called the yurodivy—a sort of wanderer like we might understand a bard or a troubadour. Using this folk figure, she suggests a way in which we might engage suffering on a deeper level, to live more fully into the joy and life that can be found in the midst of suffering.

This matter of participation brings us to a figure as popular as he is typical in Russian history and life--to the yurodivy, 'the born fool', so hard to describe to anyone who has not grown up in Russia.

It is perhaps best to begin by pointing out what the yurodivy is not. He is not a monk, though there is much about him that might lead the passer-by to think that he was: his speech, intonation, cant phrases, sometimes his clothes, and always his absolute voluntary poverty lend him a monkish air. He is nobody's son, nobody's brother, nobody's father, and has no home. He is as old as the history of Christian Russia and wanders over the whole of that huge country feeling equally at home everywhere. But he settles down nowhere and is usually to be met on the road. As often as not he has a practised trade, but prefers for the most part to live on the people, and in return for his meal and night's lodging will give them a piece of his mind, seldom mincing his words. Though he has no schooling at all, he is always ready to express, in chant and rhyme, his views upon the world of matter and the world of spirit; on Russia, her friends and her enemies, and on infinity; on the past, present and future, and on eternity. And yet he remains somehow lovable, and he is loved; cherished in fact, because he is a living personification of what most Russians take to be true Russia, and in him every Russian is confronted with something of his own essence.

From a practical point of view, no useful purpose is served by anything that the yurodivy does. He achieves nothing. Yet there must be some strong attraction at work to draw men (and women too), poor creatures most of them, to choose such a rough and comfortless life, manhandled from time to time, pelted by children and set on by dogs. The attraction is found in participation, participation in all the dregs of life. The aim of the yurodivy is to participate in evil through suffering. He makes of this his life's work because, to the Russian, good and evil are, here on earth, inextricably bound together. This is, to us, the great mystery of life on earth. Where evil is at its most intense, there too must be the greatest good. To us this is not even an hypothesis. It is axiomatic.

I was thinking about yurodivys the other day as I watched a video of the Oklahoma tornado. Somebody had posted on youtube the first 10 minutes of the tornado as it formed in the sky and rapidly became an EF 4 or 5 twister. Storm chasers, they call these people. They were driving around the highway in their vehicle, scouting out likely cloud formations that might shift into tornadoes. You can hear them talking in the background as the camera focuses in and out through a car window on the storm. They were connected to a local news channel, and were providing some of the most accurate, on-the-ground reporting of the tornado possible. In my personal opinion, these people are foolish beyond words to be out chasing tornadoes.

But it is undeniable that their coverage of the storm provided many people additional time to find shelter and get out of the way of the tornado. They were able to provide minute by minute information about where the tornado was touching ground and what direction it was moving. Their up-close broadcast of the tornado gave information about what roadways were being impacted.

And it was undeniable that these foolish storm-chasers were enjoying themselves thoroughly. Fascinated by the storm, you could hear the awe and excitement in their voices as they witnessed the rapid formation of this deadly storm. There was nothing they could do to stop the storm, but they were willing to enter fully into the risk of drawing near to its power and danger in order to help others reduce their risk. It would have been easy for them to become frightened by the storm—heck, I was terrified and in tears just watching the video—but they stayed their course until the storm was nearly upon them.

I don’t know if the storm chasers are Christians. But when I read Paul’s words to the Romans, I hear a call for us to be storm chasers, and to be at peace as we are pummeled by the storms of life.

A few days ago I saw on the news that the Westboro Baptist church planned to protest the funeral of a 9-year-old boy killed in the Oklahoma tornado. Westboro is famous for picketing funerals with ugly signs. They are known for compounding people’s suffering with proclamations of damnation for lost loved ones. I cannot imagine the cruelty of showing up at the funeral for somebody’s child and announcing that the child is in hell. It seems the very opposite of all that faith and goodness stand for.

So I was delighted when I saw that somebody had notified the Patriot Guard Riders. The Patriot Guard is a group of motorcycle riders who ride out to stand guard at funerals where people like the Westboro Baptist Church members impose themselves and their nastiness on the families of fallen soldiers. They showed up en masse for this little boys funeral and surrounded the service with a wall of bikers. The picture was awesome. It seemed their announced presence was enough to discourage the Westboro people—they failed to show. But I love the image of these bikers surrounding vulnerable people in their worst moments, providing support, protection, care, and most of all, presence.

I don’t know if the bikers are Christians. But I think Paul’s message to the Romans, calls us to be bikers for Christ, riding fearlessly into threatening spaces to provide protection and presence for those who are in the midst of acute suffering. Surely there, in the midst of that wall of bikers, the Holy Spirit danced merrily on the wind. We cannot evade suffering in this world—there is too much that cannot be prevented. But we can find joy and peace in the midst of it. We can hold to our hope and the promise that God is present most in the places of deepest suffering, and when we find ourselves in those most difficult places, let us cling strongest to our faith. And when we find ourselves unable to cling to that hope and our faith, then may we have bikers and storm chasers who hold that faith for us. And may our doors always be open to the yurodivys, the fools for Christ, who travel among us, reminding us of the ever-present possibility of joy.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Don't Bother Rescuing Me Yet

From Wikimedia
Every year without knowing it 
I have passed the day 
When the last fires will wave to me 
And the silence will set out 
Tireless traveller 
Like the beam of a lightless star 

~W.S. Merwin "For the Anniversary of My Death"

Sunday, May 5, 2013
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Thanks for the invitation!

Scripture Readings: Psalm 67 and John 5:1-9

Is such a jerk, sometimes.
“Do you wish to be made well?”
What kind of question is that anyway?
Well, then, if you want to be well, take up your mat and walk.
No excuses.
No explanations.
No allowance for true need. No wait time for a second opinion.
No coddling. No sympathy.
Just get up and walk.
Is a jerk.

I am always astonished when I read this story. For thirty-eight years this man languished by the side of