Hard Seasons: Mortality

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Our final blog in the “hard seasons” series is well-timed for the holidays: Halloween, All Souls, and All Saints. This week we focus on mortality.

Here in this scripture passage we focus on Paul’s mortality. He has lived a long, hard, fulfilling life of creating community and sharing the Good News of the Gospel. Like every human being in the world, Paul shows mixed emotions to his situation. He has been abandoned, imprisoned, and persecuted. He’s hurting and grieving. But he finds healing in his faith, purpose in his mission, and comfort in his community. He’s striving to make peace with what he foresees to be his death, but also has some hope that maybe he will survive this. It’s heartbreaking and complicated. There is fear. There is hope. There is pain. There is acceptance. It’s a good picture of what we all go through when facing mortality.

I wish I could say that I don’t fear death, but I very much do. I am afraid of the pain and suffering. We all want to die painlessly in our sleep, don’t we? One of the comforts we have, when we have physical pain and suffering, is that it will pass. What happens when you are suffering so much that you know it will consume you? What a horrifying thought.

This probably doesn’t sound very hopeful, and you might be wondering why I am being so morbid. I’m sharing this because I want you to know it’s okay to be afraid. It was always preached to me that no “good” or “true” Christian should be afraid of dying. That’s not true. You don’t lack faith for having fear. While the passage above doesn’t show Paul’s fear, if you read the whole chapter you can see it. Paul was urging his friends and community to come be with him, quickly before it was too late. He was afraid.

Fear can be simultaneous with faith and acceptance. Anytime we suffer, whether or not we are facing mortality, we do not have to put on a brave face for anyone. People often compliment others when they “never complain” through their cancer treatments, or when they “never lost their sense of humor” when the doctors said there was nothing else they could do. These things are great if they help the individual who is facing their mortality: if humor and positivity help us cope, then do it! But don’t feel like you have to keep everyone else positive, laughing, and smiling when you are the one suffering. Your responsibility is to yourself; you shouldn’t have to comfort others when you are the one who should be comforted.

And then, this turns to us as well. When others suffer, don’t turn away. If we are uncomfortable with the suffering of others, that is our problem, not theirs. They shouldn’t have to make us feel better about our secondhand trauma, when they’re the ones dealing with it firsthand. We shouldn’t expect them to hold our hand; we need to hold theirs (if they want us to.)

Let’s leave space for fear in our faith. If someone is at peace and is unafraid of death, it’s because they have learned how to cope with fear in a healthy way. If we suppress it, then it eats at us from the inside and robs us of the possibility of the peace we desire when facing mortality. Paul expresses his fear, but by doing so he made a path for peace and acceptance of his death. He knew that God would abide in his final hours, and Paul longed to see the face of the Lord. Just like Paul’s story, facing mortality is heartbreaking and complicated, but naming our fears takes away their power. Once we accept that it’s okay to be afraid, the peace of God can find its way in our hearts to comfort and guide.

Hard Seasons: Wrestling

Genesis 32:22-31
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

I have always loved this story. I get it. I think we all do. We’ve all wrestled with our faith, demanding a blessing, desperate for an identity, looking for a victory. Sometimes spiritual enlightenment can feel like an exciting revelation, or like a warm peace, or a lightbulb clicking on. It can be thrilling and affirming. Other times it feels like a battle, or suffering, or like everything you have is being robbed of you, or like parts of you are being burned away. It can be painful and feel like dying. When we learn more about God, ask the hard questions, unlearn certain things, relearn old things, embrace new things, we are growing our faith, even if it feels like an endless wrestling match on a dark night that we come away from limping.

brown rocky mountain photography
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I have limped my way through the year after facing sexism, ageism, and abuse of power. Just as it felt as if I was healing and moving forward, I was struck and I am limping again. We had a small house fire, and now we are figuring out what will come next. My theology has not survived. I have had to wrestle like Jacob because my lived experience no longer matched the things I believed about God. Why has this happened? Where is God in this? Where is my blessing? Who am I? What is my name? When will I see the daylight again? When is enough, enough? I’m still wrestling. I’m still trying to piece together what my beliefs are now. I don’t have all the answers, but I won’t stop asking the questions.

Faith is mysterious, like this passage. Who was Jacob wrestling with? It says a man, but then Jacob says that he has seen the face of God and prevailed. In the book of Hosea, it says that Jacob wrestled an angel. Some type of divine encounter occurred, and Jacob was brave enough to demand a blessing from it. Jacob did his best to make sense of his encounter, getting what he asked for, but not getting all the clarity to what he experienced. Jacob was permanently blessed and cursed.

This is truly a parable that represents the mystery of faith, God, and life.  I think when we’re wrestling with faith and God, we are surrounded by mystery. We’re asking the questions that may never be answered, and yet we have to keep moving forward. We may come away blessed and cursed. I think the essence of spiritual growth is admitting that we will never have a complete understanding of the divine or the natural world while also being true to our ever-changing beliefs and identity. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” or “I’m still searching” or “I’m not sure what I believe” or “I’m frustrated” or “I no longer subscribe to this aspect of my faith” or “My beliefs have changed.” Faith is a lifelong process. And we were never commissioned to have it all figured out. And it’s okay to have negative feelings in relation to faith. It’s who we are, and God loves us and tells us it’s okay and to do our best.

scenic view of night sky with stars
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Ultimately, while we are in hard seasons of wrestling that feel like suffering and dying, we are not being erased. We are being remade. I don’t believe that God sends people to bully us or sends house fires to harm us so that God can change us. Instead, I think really terrible things happen because we live in a broken world, but God cares enough to show up. And God is willing to be our wrestling partner while we work through this mess. Somehow, transformation happens in this season. Like Jacob, we may come away scarred, but we may also be renamed and made new. Our sense of identity is important to God because it is important to us. So if, like me, you find yourself wrestling with faith and feeling like your theology is being stripped away, perhaps, whenever you are ready and only if it is helpful, seek this opportunity to engage in a spiritual awakening that leads you to a new identity.

I leave you with these lyrics from the song “24” by Switchfoot:

I want to see miracles, see the world change
Wrestled the angel, for more than a name
For more than a feeling
For more than a cause
I’m singing Spirit take me up in arms with You
And You’re raising the dead in me

Hard Seasons: Staying

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

abandoned ancient antique architecture
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If your situation isn’t ideal, if you have hopes and dreams for the future, if things aren’t bad but could be better, if you feel like life is mundane or boring or stagnant, then staying where you are can be really tough. It can feel like life has stalled and that time is being wasted. You may wonder when, or if, you will move forward again.

I knew this time last year that I couldn’t stay in the situation I was in. It was toxic and painful. But I also knew that I was stuck until at least after Christmas. I had to stay in Florida, where I really didn’t love living, at a job where I was facing poor treatment every single day, and we had to figure out a new place to live with new jobs. My husband and I started searching and we knew this would take time. Until something new happened, we had to stay put.

In this week’s scripture text the prophet Jeremiah speaks to the exiles in Babylon to deliver the hard truth that an early return back home was false hope. Instead, these displaced people would have to stay put for a while. God was sending a message for them to build homes, grow families, and plant gardens right where they were. The exiles had broken hearts from losing their homes; their situation was not a happy one. But God wanted them to keep living, to persevere, and to resist. Their lives weren’t over, God had a plan. But they had to stay in the foreign land for the time being and live their lives there.

round silver colored wall clock
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While my husband and I were waiting to leave Florida, we kept living while we were there. After returning from Christmas vacation, I knew January would bring changes. We had to leave as fast as we could. And things started moving quickly on a professional level. We had an exit plan. But we still had some time to wait before it all came to fruition. So January through March we traveled across the state to different cities on the weekends as a way to escape, but also take advantage of living in a state that was new to us. We couldn’t abandon our hobbies or sit around miserable while we were waiting. We had to stay, but we had to keep living.

If you’re in a hard season of staying where you are, waiting for something new or better to happen, keep living. Do things that nourish your soul. Don’t put your life on hold just because things aren’t ideal. Staying put doesn’t mean staying still. Go and live.

Hard Seasons: Lament

Around this time each year, people begin looking forward to Advent. We’re still in “ordinary time” on the liturgical calendar, and it’s loooong stretch between Pentecost and Advent with only a few special Sundays sprinkled in. Even though I am not preaching right now, I am also feeling the stretch of ordinary time and I wanted to do a blog series on some of these ordinary time lectionary texts. A theme in many of these scriptures is hard seasons. While we’re tired from the unseasonal heatwaves and longing for the hopeful anticipation of Advent I think that this series may be appropriate for the church calendar and for our personal lives. This week we will begin with lament.

Lamentations 1:1-6
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

 

In seminary, we talked about how churches have lost the art of lament. I have experienced this to be true. Worship is about offering ourselves to God, our full selves, and that means our grief and sorrows. Suffering together is a holy act. Weeping as one is sacred. However, I have noticed that there are far too many people who are quick to complain and rage when their weekly church service isn’t the serotonin hit they were hoping for.

It’s common to hear church members wanting to hear about peace and wanting to be made to feel good when they come to church. They want church to be their weekly escape from the world.

That’s not ever what church was meant to be. If the church is an escape from the world, instead of engaging in the suffering and injustice for the sake of love and peace, then it is not church. The early church was a community of oppressed believers sharing all that they had with one another who were lving their lives, the good and the bad, together. There will never truly be peace without facing suffering and injustice.

If church is an escape to make us feel good, then we’re worshiping ourselves and not God.

Sure, sermons about inner peace and spirituality have their place. God speaks peace to our troubled spirits through the scriptures, and those of us who are struggling and striving need some fresh air of good news. But everyone deserves good news, and that comes in many different forms. Good news can be that we do not suffer alone and that our church community is in the trenches with us.

If the world around us is suffering, then it is our spiritual responsibility to weep with those who weep, and strive for a better world or everyone. Trying to gloss over the issues of the world with platitudes and self-help talks doesn’t truly help anyone. If we dedicate ourselves to loving our neighbor, then their troubles are our troubles, and we lament with them. If we can have the compassion to lament with each other, then we can have the compassion to invest the time and money in the problems of the world.

This weekend I saw pastor and activist John Pavlovitz speak. He said, “I don’t have to share your lived experience to care about your lived experience.” This is what we are called to in the Christian life, and our worship to God should reflect that. Sometimes sermons make us feel good. Sometimes they challenge us. Regardless, sermons are meant to be a message from God to us. It’s about what we need, and what those around us need; not about what we want.

We can find feel-good experiences in many outlets out in the world: our hobbies, our rest, our play, our media, our books, our friends, and our family. But worship is giving to God. And part of our giving to God is lament, mourning, and weeping. If we cannot weep for ourselves and weep for others, we are not giving our all to God. Let us recover lament. Grieving as a community is healthy for our souls and opens our hearts to empathy.