Sunday, March 26, 2017

Free to Fly (for Tom Southard)


Free to Fly

A funeral homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 26, 2017

For the funeral of Tom Southard

At Preddy Funeral Home, Gordonsville, VA

Isaiah 40: 6-8, 28-31

Philippians 3: 20-21



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.





A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.



. . . our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.



I was only blessed to know Tom for just over the last five years, and I will say without question it has been a blessing, perhaps because in all of my life I have never seen a more devoted couple, completely and hopelessly devoted to each other than Tom and Mary. They both just exuded a warmth and a compassion for eachother that was unmissable. You could not spend a minute in their house and not see it and describe it in the oh so familiar, but no less perfect word than cute. . . after 60+ years of marriage, they were just the cutest couple you have ever seen. . . the kind of cuteness that, that kind of love and devotion brings to bear. We are blessed, anyone who has gotten to see them and be in their presence, we are just blessed by the example of them, of Love and Marriage. . . which is exemplified in a million little things, like glances and inside jokes, the witty ways they would talk together, working together filling up the communion cups at church, the gleam in their eyes as they listened to the other talk, there are so many, but one that Mary shared with me the other day, just sums it to the quick, and captures it so beautifully and touchingly, and that is that Tom, every night before he went to bed, all the way to the end, said thank you to Mary for taking care of him that day. . . how perfectly beautiful is that, because he knew that it wasn’t easy, as parkinsons in it the slow, but steady and constant decline of his body, placed much of the burden of care for him on her, a burden she gladly carried in her love and devotion for him, but it was not easy, and such a statement of gratitude, simply and genuinely given let her know that he knew, and was forever grateful. . . it’s a little thing, and it’s that important. . . an all too important lesson we often miss, but that Tom’s life can teach us. . .

In addition to Tom’s love for Mary, he also loved his family, and it was a large family, a slew of brothers and sisters. . . I have often heard stories from Mary and Tom about family gatherings at the Inwood. . . I too have a fondness for that great old place and had sought to capture my thoughts of it in a poem, and it inspired her to tell me about how much those family gatherings meant to Tom and to her. . . it is the little rituals and memories that mean so much when it comes to family. . . and the larger the family, and the closer the family, the more vibrant and vivid do those memories fill our lives. I could hear listening to them talk how fond those memories truly are.

Mary told me that I had to mention one of Tom’s great passions, for Model Airplanes. . . that he so loved to build and to fly them. To create something that could go up in the sky as an extension of yourself, higher and higher, farther and farther, but still controlled, the controls always firm in your hands as your thumbs control the propellers, the slightest twitch, creating the distant turns and patterns above and free on the wind. . . I was struck immediately to the metaphor. . . of Tom himself now. . . flying free, like one of his airplanes. . . up in the air, above and looking down, lovingly from his new perspective, on high, raised up as Isaiah said on the wings of eagles, with renewed strength, and health and vitality, away from the pain and frustration of a failing body, ravaged by a cruel disease that struck his limbs, his muscles, his throat, but left his mind as sharp and intact as ever, his heart as full of love as ever, now free again to love and fly and watch over Mary, his brothers and sisters, and us all. . . I was so moved by Mary Bomar’s song. . . how Amazing Grace is that Tom is set free now from the chains, his chains that have bound him, the shackles of his mortal coil no shaken and looseed and set free to fly, and Paul’s own words. . . that in our citizenship in heaven, Christ has transformed the body, the body of our humiliation. . . Tom’s Parkinson’s is no more, for his body has been made new, conformed to the body of Christ’s glory. . . we do not ask to for our lives here on Earth to be changed, for the struggles we bear form us. . . and we know of God Sovereign Will, and certainly those struggles, they have formed and strengthened the bond between Tom and Mary. . . but we do find comfort and peace that when we are set free to fly with God in heaven, those struggles are no more. I heard no better testament to truth in two things Mary said to me this week. One before Tom’s passing and one just after. She said, “The Lord will take Tom on His time, and it will not happen one minute sooner nor later than that time.” And then she said, “Tom is in a much better place now.” Such truth has the power to heal the pain of our broken hearts. . . it doesn’t change our perspective on how much we will miss Tom, but comforts us in our love for him, and warms us to the time of reunion, when our own time in turn comes, and we get to see him again. . . until then we can share our love, and empathy, and compassion. . . shedding the tears of loss, and sharing the laughter and smiles of memory for a life lived, full and overflowing with love.


Facing Death


Facing Death

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 26, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

John 11: 20-35

2 Samuel 12: 15-24



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.



The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, “While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.”

20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.’ 23 But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

24 Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and went to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and he named him Solomon.





Little did I know back when I was deciding on this plan for Lent how it would all work out. I knew that I wanted to seek to accomplish two things. . . the first I preached about 2 weeks before Lent even started, I wanted to reinvigorate us, to reinvigorate myself, to get us thinking again, to get us focused again, to challenge us again, and so I preached on “Shining our Lights.” We were working our way through the Sermon on the Mount and had come to the part that talks about shining our lights for the world, to not hide them under a bushel, and I wanted us to think anew of ways that we could do that again. . . and then as we headed into Lent, I was thinking about how the times where we need to shine our lights perhaps the most is in the darkness, and it is in the darkness where light is most needed, but also in the darkness where it is the hardest the most difficult to shine our lights. . . and that if we were going to be able to, we’d need to practice in the light, we’d need to prepare, like Jesus did in the desert, we need to prepare, and so this series of Facing the Darkness. . .  began and it evolved in its planning to 5 categories for the 5 weeks. . . Danger, Disease, Death, Deception, and finally Desertion. And the order was important because I wanted them to steadily grow more and more intense, more and more dark, more and more challenging as we approached Holy Week and Easter, and I wanted them to also parallel the journey of Holy Week itself. . . so that being the case you may ask, why would today’s topic, Death, be the last, the worst, the most frightening, the most depressing, the most daunting of the dangers. . . and I’m not sure why three weeks ago I made that decision, except to maybe try to line desertion and deception up with Palm Sunday. . . but now as I head into it I think I did make the right decision, not just because it lined up with Tom’s passing, but because of what Tom’s passing and much of my thoughts and study this week reminded me of. . . so let us begin.

The Old Testament Lesson reflected one of the tragic death scenes from the Old Testament, and one of perhaps the most devastating archetypes in all of human suffering: the death of a child. . . and in this case the death of a Child born into a difficult situation, the sins of his parents, of course that he himself the child took no part in. . . we remember the story of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whom David sent into battle at the front lines so that he may be killed. . . and this child has died, and through his devastation David regains faith, or remains faithful, rededicating himself to the service of God, and so then is given a new child, Solomon, a story of redemption. . . perhaps. . . though still very much a challenging one.

The New Testament reading is more well known, and I have preached on it recently, I think two years ago, when we were journeying through the Gospel of John, here the death, but not the raising of Lazurus, John 11: 20-35.



20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[f] Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep.





Both of these stories, that of David’s son, and that of Lazarus share one really important thing in common, and it is an important thing, that actually connects these stories to us, and that connects these stories to almost every other piece of literature from the beginning of time together. . . do you know what it is? Can you guess. . . They are told from the perspective of those close to the dying or dead person, and not the dead themselves. . . the truth is that we do not really know what it is like to actually face death because no one who has actually died, at least permanently and all the way, not like what we call a near death experience, but this fact is why we are so interested and curious and inspired by so called near death experiences, because those are as close as any one has ever gotten. . . and those are experienced by so few of us. . . so most of us, and our experience with facing death comes not from ourselves, but by those around us who we’ve seen first hand. . . and the difficult part of that experience is that it is all loss for us. . . Emily Dickinson wrote about, parting like this, when she says, that Parting, is all we know of heaven, and all we need of Hell. . . what she is saying is that all we truly know, we may have faith for more, but all we can truly know, from experience and from other people, is that death is parting. . . two people who are not apart from each other, and we know that truth all too well. Its symbols are all around us. . . an empty chair, an empty pew, a place in the memory of our hearts that will forever be reserved for those we have loved and have lost. . . it is hard to not do a quick memory rolladex in our mind of those we’ve know and lost, and not shed a tear, and feel a pit in  your stomach and a tightening of your throat. Is this the very cause of our fear of death? It’s negative light. . . it as darkness, a darkness to be faced. . . and faced by all of us at some point.

Because death is something that is shared by all human beings, and not just now, but all throughout time. . . you could make the argument that it is precisely the thing that makes us human, the fact that we face death, and that we know we do, we are aware of it, and this awareness makes us human. . . but what does that mean? What does the relationship to death and humanity do in shaping us?

The oldest piece of literature that is extant was found on a stone tablet just over 100 years ago, and it is the story of a tyrant, a king of kings, who ruled by an iron fist, who oppressed his people simply because he could. He knew no limitation. . . so his people prayed to the gods to save them from him. . . and the gods do not oppose him, or depose him, instead they send to him a friend. . . who at first is an adversary, and they fight, and though the king of kings wins, he is unable to break the spirit of the other, he is unable to completely achieve whatever he wills, without the expense of energy, and he knows this. . . so he becomes aware of his limitation for the first time in his life. . . humility. . . this is part of being human, but then after their battle they become inseparable as friends. . . and he learns companionship. . . and then his friend dies, and he learns loss. . . he becomes aware of his own mortality in the loss of his friend, and he goes on a mission to try to find a way to live forever, but he fails, find finds he cannot escape death. . . and he changes as a king. . . he has become fully human, no longer a tyrannical limitless king of kings, but a fragile, human being, in need of companionship. . . he is different because he learns compassion. . . and the story shows that when forced to face the realities of life. . . human beings become compassionate. . . it is when we ignore these realities where we are not. . .

Throughout history this story is repeated again and again. . . and its lessons are all but lost in today’s escape from death at all cost culture. . . we like that king find ourselves on the quest for immortal life, and in so doing, have we lost our compassion for one another? It was not but so long ago that death was very much a reality and an inescapable one. . . in the Reivers, by William Faulkner, he is describing life in 1910, just over a hundred short years ago, and says:

Besides that people took funerals seriously in those days. Not death: death was our constant familiar: no family but whose annals were dotted with headstones whose memorialees had lived too brief in tenure to bear a name even—unless of course the mother slept there too in that one grave, which happened more often than you would like to think. Not to mention the husbands and uncles and aunts in the twenties and thirties and forties, and the grandparents and childless great uncles and aunts who died at home then, in the same rooms and beds they were born in, instead of in cubiculed euphemisms with names pertaining to sunset. . .



It is an interesting question, has our sheltering from death by advancements in medicine, and the like changed our understanding of it, increasing our dread, but so much as it allows us to put it out of our mind completely, giving us the false sense that we will live forever. . . the distance allows us to ignore it, but at what cost. . . is it our compassion. . . is it our being alive?

I read a book this week called, Veronika Decides to Die, it was written by Paulo Coehlo who also wrote The Alchemist, his more famous work that we actually read a few years ago in Sunday School. The book was awesome. . . it is about this girl Veronika, young, like 25, beautiful, intelligent, educated, good job. . . decides she is going to kill herself, not because she is sad, but instead she gives two reasons, she says:

1.      Everything in her life was the same, and once her youth was gone it would be downhill all the way. . .  she would gain nothing by continuing to live, indeed the likelihood of suffering would only increase.

2.      Everything in the world was wrong, and she had no way of putting things right—that gave her a sense of complete powerlessness



So these are her two reasons. . . surely sounds reasonable. . . it echoes Hamlet, “who would bear the whips and scorns of time?” That’s it right, this is the best I’ll ever be, and the world is a sterile promontory, on which nothing good can be done. . . and she doesn’t see that as a sad thing, just a emotionless reality. . . so she makes the logical step to end that reality, or at least her place and participation in it. . . . but the thing is she fails, she takes sleeping pills, and they don’t in fact kill her, instead she wakes up in a mental hospital. . . but here’s the rub. . . the sleeping pills have done irreparable damage to her heart and she has only a few days to live. . . . and she will spend them in the mental hospital, interred against her will. Pretty good premise huh, and I don’t want to ruin the book for you because I actually 100% recommend it. . . but her Doctor is working on a theory, that there is this thing he calls Vitriol, but it is really bitterness. . . and it lumps up everytime you chose not to live. . . you chose to sell yourself short, you chose fear, and then you regret it, and it builds up. . . creating a paralysis. . . and he says that the only cure is “Awareness of life and awareness of death. . .” and the greatest line in the book is “What Dr. Igor had not counted on was the infectious nature of the cure. . .” That life, and an acute awareness of death, and the intensity of life that it creates is infact infectious. . . life breeds more life. . . and I do not know about you, but I have felt the most alive in my life when I have been inescabably faced with the death and loss of loved ones, and have seen others most alive too at those times. . . most alive, and since we are humans, most compassionate.

If I were to again go through my mental rolladex of those people I’ve lost, yes I get that tear, and the pit of my stomach and the tightness in my throat, but if I remember the surrounding days. . . I remember an intensity of life. . . of family. . . of love. . . of compassion that I just don’t see on other days. . . Maybe that is why human beings have throughout our existence taken funerals so seriously, as Faulkner attests to in that passage I read by in The Reivers. . . a professor who has a podcast that I listen to all the time believes that the attribute that has united human beings together is the rituals that we have always had surrounding death, these rituals transcend time and culture, and he says as we drift from them we have lost some of our humanity. . . perhaps that is the case.

Jesus comes up on Mary and Martha, and they each blame him, tears in their eyes, weeping and crying, uncontrollably so, and they accost Jesus, why were you not here, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died. . . and then Jesus Wept. . . so brief, so beautiful, so poignant, but why does Jesus weep. . . I have posed many different thoughts on this topic before, but the one I want to pose today is that Jesus weeps because they are weeping and what it means to be human and alive, when facing death is to have empathy, to have compassion and to cry and feel. . . this is to be alive and face death. . . to face death and to actually die is something completely different. You shuffle off this mortal coil, and come to know God, and love, and wonder and glory in a first hand way that defies and surpasses what we can even imagine. . . but yet it is the fulfillment of a longing we have always had. . . and it is more even than some kind of quest to live forever holding on to the status quo because it is all our finite minds can comprehend. . . yes so much more.

One of my favorite things to do is to give a homily at a funeral. . . I know that sounds strange, but it is true. . . its true because we get to do two things that we don’t often do. . . and facing the death of loved ones allows us to do. . . one is to celebrate life, and the life of the true saints around us, recounting their goodness, and how they did it right, whereas so often we preach on human error and sin and how we can improve. . . but at funerals we celebrate a life lived. . . and the other thing is we get to witness to the everlasting life that Jesus promises and makes real for us. . . even if it is beyond our comprehension. . . the memorial service gives us a chance to find comfort in the metaphors, that help us to imagine, though they of course fall short, of the amazing wonder that is union and life with God in heaven. Today we do so in memory of our beloved Tom Southard. . . until then. . . Amen.






Sunday, March 19, 2017

Facing Disease


Facing Disease

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 19, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Matthew 17: 14-20



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.





In this Lenten Season we continue our journey of Facing the Darkness, standing like that young basketball player in the gym, shooting free throws, trying to put his mind in the reality of being down 2 with 2 to shoot, or like Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, the Cinderalla story, lining up his shot at Augusta, armed with a scythe, ready to take a trip into glory, putting all of his weight into a clump of flowers. . . yes he’s got about a 2 iron, I think. . . we are trying to put ourselves in the mindset of what it is to face the darkness, and still be able to shine our lights. . . last week we took a look at danger, when apparent danger is all around, when you are on the boat with Jesus, and the storm is rocking, and he is sleeping, and it seems like all is lost, like He has abandoned you, to doubt, fear, and desolation, but then he steps up and calms the storm, and all of the fears and dangers subside, does our faith falter in such moments, does it grow once the storms have subsided? Perhaps, but today we head further into the depths because today we talk about Disease. . . there are so many passages from the Gospels where Jesus cures someone with a disease, but I chose this one, Matthew 17:14-20, because it offers another voice to the idea of disease and cures. . . in the Call to Worship Psalm, the psalmist speaks of his affliction caused by his sin. . . In the Old Testament story of Job, read by Erick, we see disease caused by a cosmic discussion between God and Satan, proving Job’s faith, and here, well take a listen:

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”



So there you have it, from this perspective we have a disease, in this case epilepsy, caused by a demon, then rebuked by Jesus, curing the boy instantly, which if the disciples had a little bit more faith, they could have easily rebuked it, for even faith like a mustard seed can move a mountain. . . so which is it, what is to blame. . . is it sin, is it lack of faith, is it demons, God proving a point to His angels, is it germs, viruses, bugs, dirt, grime, ecoli, genetics, carcinogens, loose living, not showing enough restraint, Government bureaucrats, insurance companies, drug companies, or is just plain bad luck.

One of our initial reactions to disease is exactly these, what is the cause, what are we to blame? Ever since the fall in the garden of Eden, when faced with adversity human beings look for something or someone to blame. . . it seems to help us cope, to deal, to give us again the illusion of control or allows us to cling to clear conscience innocence, that when we face trials seems so important to us, but one thing that I’ve found in my life with disease is I don’t have the first clue about it because I haven’t really experienced it first hand. I am blessed at least temporarily with youth still, and have remained relatively healthy in my life up to this point, a fact that will no doubt of course always be the case. . . young and invincible with all the time in the world ahead of me. . . no, of course not, there are two inevitables that are unavoidable aspect of long life, and those are old age and disease. . . we all face it, some sooner than others, but it is a reality we all head towards, and though when we are young it can seem like it will never happen, we are only fooling ourselves.

I came across the prayer for preparation this week in my studies. . . I found it in the Oxford Book of prayer I picked up a few years ago at a book sale. I want to start there, use it as a transition from my youth and inexperience to facing disease. . .

Lord, teach me the art of patience whilst I am well, and give me the use of it when I am sick. In that day either lighten my burden or strengthen my back. Make me, who so often in my health have discovered my weakness presuming on my own strength, to be strong in my sickness when I solely rely on thy assistance. Amen.



I remember it as clear as day. I was in my first year here, and coming in on Fridays, like I do still Mary Southard, still coming to church every Sunday, would also always have her appointment at the Beauty shop, and she would always come by a little before hand and bring the church’s mail by, and we’d talk for a bit, and then she’d have to run. I don’t think she’d mind me saying this, but one of those times she asked me if I could help her with patience. . . . I wish I had seen this poem then because it was almost as if she knew how hard the next few years would be, years where patience is truly so necessary, time moving slowly in one aspect, waiting for Dr. Visits, for bones to heal, for phone calls, etc. . . while time is constantly moving too fast, as Parkinson’s all too quickly attacks poor Tom’s body, the patience to wait, and the patience to treasure every passing moment. . . all too hard, and all too much a part of facing disease.

Like I said, I don’t have much experience with disease in my life. When I was 3 I was hospitalized for pneumonia, spent time in an incubation tent in Suffolk, during a Christmas visit to my grandfather’s, but I don’t really remember it, just glimpses and scenes. Since then I haven’t really had much, at least since being a senior in high school, with a recurrence of pneumonia again, but this time during football season. . . I played a game against our rivals, played every snap, was coughing in the huddle, then was coughing up blood after the game in the showers. . . tried to refuse to go to the doctor, lest I should miss the next game, I did, got the xrays, yes pneumonia, and yes, would miss the next game, and haven’t had much time for doctor’s since, and to this point have been healthy enough to not need to go.

Yes I have no experience, but I look around this congregation and think back on the last 5 plus years, and think of how much disease you all have faced. Many of you are the experts with the experience. Cancer, heart attacks, back surgeries, a broken pelvis, more cancer, hip replacements, broken ankles, broken hips, even more cancer, seizures, fibro myalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, still more cancer, alzheimers, dementia, over medication, under medication, even still more cancer, Parkinson’s, trouble with cancer treatment, shingles, brochitis, you name it we’ve faced it, or you’ve faced it. What is it like? You tell me. . . and some of you have.

I’ve heard the question why? Why me, I thought I did everything right, I’m too young for that, I never smoked, I always tried to eat right, no one in my family has ever faced this, why me? Doesn’t this take us back to where we started, our initial response to disease is about assigning blame, even if it is ourselves, because we want it to all make sense, we want to be in control, and if it makes sense we are in control. I’ve heard it from people again and again. I want to know why. . . . and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this is something we shouldn’t do, but rather saying just that it is something we all do. I think that is the sentiment pouring through in the Psalm. . . “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” I’ve always wondered about these Psalms, especially ones like this, are they about God, or are they about people and the way we see God. . . does God in this say yes you are afflicted because of your sin. . . no, but there is something in us that thinks that way. . . I must’ve done something. . . it is like the Job friends, you must’ve done something to bring this on yourself. . . I know that any ailment I’ve had, I felt a sense of embarrassment or blame, if only I hadn’t done that, I’d feel better today. . . and there is some truth to that, I could eat better, I could be in better shape, but that is tough too because we all know someone who doesn’t eat right, who never exercises, who never gains a pound, who is in the prime of health, who is making bad choices all the time, but is doing better. . . everyone has that great uncle who smokes 4 packs a day and eats bacon every morning breakfast and a rare steak all the time for dinner, and lived to be 101. Assigning blame and causality isn’t so easy, and perhaps it doesn’t really get us anywhere, nor helps us actually face disease. . .

At some point, as I’ve seen from many of you, there is a point where the blame game, the asking why time, and the guilt is over and it is simply time to face, to fight, and to push forward. It is at this time that I have seen some of the most amazing strength out of you. When it all comes together, where there is no escape, there is just the path forward, is it there you feel real power and presence?

I’m not sure. . . I know I’ve seen it. If we look to the gospels we see countless examples of people being healed of their diseases, and in this one we see Jesus doing the same, and then also saying that the disciples couldn’t heal because of their lack of faith, and that it only takes the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains. . . I have to wonder, is it faith that causes the mountain to move, in other words is it faith in God that causes mountains to move, or faith that God has power to move mountains if God so wills. . . and that the same is true for disease. . . we’ve said it is natural for human beings to wonder why, to look to blame, around the cause of a disease, but the same is probably true about the cure. . . we look for why, when the truth is that both are mysteries. . . I have seen people healed, and I have seen people not be. . . it is enough of a mystery to leave me humbled, and enough of a mystery to leave me with faith. . . it is true that there are two things that can happen from disease. . . you can be healed or not. . . I don’t know the reasons for either they are trapped in mystery, but I have experienced enough to have faith that God’s will, will be done. . . I pray that we can know that the answer to the question why? And the answer to the question why not, are both God. . . 

I believe to my core that life is about compassion, feeling compassion for the pain that we suffer as human beings, loving through it, being faith filled in it. . . when it comes to disease, we can be healed of our disease, and continue our compassion here on Earth as a witness and testament to the power of God to heal, and if we are not healed, we head off to our rest, and stand at the Right hand of God the Father, to eternal life in heaven. . . . we can face the darkness during this season of Lent because Easter is coming, we can face the darkness of life with compassion because Christ is already Risen. . . God grant us the strength, for next week we talk about “Facing Death.” Amen.



Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Whole New World (for Coralee's 7th Birthday)

A Whole New World
for Coralee turning 7

As a seven year old your eyes now begin to open
Unto a new world, for what used to be merely
Empty lines and dots on a white pictureless page,
Now begin to take shape for you, inviting you into
A world I have always loved. It is a world I’ve led
You through each night at bedtime, in hopes
The taste could entice your mind to join us there,
And you have. I’ve seen that spark in your eye.
It shows the curious desire to know, or at least
To spend your life seeking to know. You’ve only
Just begun, with forays into other worlds, where
Witches and wizards have schools, and talking
Beasts bravely, freely exist, saved and sustained
By the roar of a lion, and others where tiny mice
Have overcome their bashful nature to become
Knights of surpassing valor and gallantry. You’ve
Heard words have shape, and rhythm, and rhyme,
How one word can own two meanings at one time,
And though you’ve only heard, you are practicing
To see, and you’ll find that through practice you see
What otherwise would never be because you won’t
Have my filter, my slant any more. Your mind
Will take you to places only you can explore, and I
Stand waving proudly at the shore, for my dream
For you is taking place: as lines and dots form letters,
And letters words, and words become other worlds,
Though those worlds do not really exist, they do
Make it easier to find compassion for ours which does,
And you’ll be one of the privileged ones who knows
That “real” is only a limitation for those who never
Learned to see beyond the lines and the dots, whose
World is smaller and colder than yours will ever be.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Facing Danger (The Storm)

Facing Danger
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 12, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Mark 4: 35-41
Daniel 6: 10-16

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.
Amen.

We talked last week, as we were heading into this season of Lent, about Jesus heading into the desert to face temptation, and not just him facing temptation under normal circumstances, but those ratcheted up to a great degree by 40 days and 40 nights of fast, that he headed into his confrontation with Satan, having crippling pangs of hunger, and a truly burning thirst, standing, being able to stand only by and through miracle, truly not by bread alone, and that perhaps this exactly was his way of preparing himself for the suffering of the passion, for the excruciating pain of the cross. This led us to think about Lent as a season of preparation for ourselves, and how difficult it is to prepare for the real of life because it is so hard to artificially create that realness, we can practice and practice, but if we do so in safety and comfort our preparation is limited to that safety and comfort, and when those are challenged, so too will we be, and hopefully we’ll be able to stand in our faith, shine our lights, but who really knows, so like a basketball player, shooting free throws in the gym, not just going through the motions, but trying to create in his mind that scenario, where he is down two with two to shoot, trying to mentally and imaginatively create the real, so too will we during lent try to find and experience the real of that darkness with this series of sermons, knowing there is no substitute for real and true experience, but doing our best in the mean time.
In your bulletin you will find an insert that shows our schedule for the weeks ahead leading up to Easter. . . in this facing darkness series we will look at Facing Danger, Facing Disease, Facing Death, Facing Deception (betrayed by those closest to you), and finally Facing Desertion, (when you are left seemingly all alone). Each Sunday will include an Old and New Testament story or episode, where we’ll find a character facing these situations of Darkness and look for ways that they in their situations found some way to shine their lights, and seek to see the connections between their reality and our own. . . and so today we focus on facing Danger. . . which is good as first because often these dangers are found only in our perception, in our fears and worries. . . Erick has already read a portion from the story of Daniel heading to the Lion’s Den, now we turn our eyes to the Gospel of Mark’s account of the Storm. . . Mark 4: 35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


I’ve always loved this story, mostly because the imagery is so great, even in the typical sparseness we always find in Mark’s gospel. . . . Mark’s depiction of things is always in such a hurry.  Things happen immediately, bang, bang. . . one right after another. We don’t get much information here, but we don’t need it because our imagination and our experience does the rest. We’ve all experienced storms, literal storms, and I want to focus on the literal first because it is always good literary practice to do so, and I speak as one who has some authority on the subject, putting on my English Teacher hat. . . I don’t know how many times I say it in class, focus on the literal first, it grounds you in the details, and that is important in interpretation.
And yes we all know what storms are like. We know what it is like to hear that crazy noise on the radio, buzzbeepscccccrrrrrr. . . this is the emergency broadcast system. . . and this time it is not a test, but you are in it. . . your county made the list. . . but you really didn’t need to know that because the rain is already pouring, and you can’t see much because the windshield wipers, clicking back and forth back and forth, just can’t quite keep up. . . the temperature dropped and the windshield is fogging up anyway, and even if it wasn’t the rain drops are so close together their liquid just eats up any light that  your headlights put out, and if you flick to your high beams all you see is a thick wave of drop upon drop, some blowing sideways, some falling down, some bouncing off the windshield and hood of your car, and some being splashed aside by the wipers, still going swish swish swish. . . . and you without even realizing it you are now barely going 20 miles per hour on an interstate road, where only moments before you were going 70. . . and from the slow moving car, the sight is impressive, what you can make out,  just the power, and then you see the first flash of lightning, and a crash of thunder right on its heels. . . boom, and you see trees bending, bending bending. . . you grip the wheel tighter, your eyes bug out, you sit up straight behind the wheel, ever vigilant, creeping along. Yes you’ve been there. . . we know what it is like, from the time we were kids and heard our first house shaking thunder clap, we knew that storms were a reality outside of our control. . . there to be endured. . . safely . . . there inside, always inside, we know we have sense enough to come in out of the rain.
But what about those times when you can’t? When it creeps up on you, before you can find your way inside. . . what about being trapped outside of the safety of the inside of manmade structures? When the wind is blowing, and you can stand and face it, but like the comedian Ron White said about hurricanes. . . its not that the wind is blowing, it’s what the wind is blowing, you can hang on and face it all you want, but if that wind blows a tree branch or something large and heavy, something else at you, its possible that holding on and hanging on, and facing it head on just aint the right thing to do. . . and the disciples aren’t even on land. . . and yeah at sea, the wind may not have much sharp and heavy to blow at you, it just has you to blow, and the boat, oh yeah and of course the water itself. . . in big waves, with the boat rocking, tipping way up, then falling way down. . .
I’ve been in a boat in that situation before. . . I was teaching at Christchurch. . . teaching freshman English, and the freshmen also took Environmental Science, which was taught by one of my best friends. Now he had this great idea. . . he said hey what we need to do is take these kids on an immersion trip, we need to get them out of their comfort zones. . . he was big on these types of trips. . . I was not, but I’m a big sucker. . . he said, hey you can get them to write journals and poems and stuff about their experiences. . . now I know anytime another teacher has that great idea my red flags go up, exactly, what type of experience are you talking about. He said, We’ll take them out to this island out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the CBF owns an island for these kinds of trips, right by Tangier. . . we can go, stay for a couple of days, get in the mud, it’ll be a blast. . . ok, sure. . . why not. . . sucker. . . so we go, no bathroom, just a hole, called by them a Clivus, but I know some Latin, and I don’t remember Clivus being latin for “hole,” but that is certainly all it was. . . and it was cold and wet, and we were staying with a bunch of 14 year olds, about 40 boys and 10 or so girls. . . awesome right. . . yeah, can’t wait to read the poems. . . now it wasn’t really so bad, but on the way back, we are taking a small person ferry kinda boat back across the bay, and a storm picks up. . . not a big storm. . . probably not much compared to what the disciples were going through, but it was enough. . . enough to have freezing cold mist rain, that froze your fingers and cheeks. . . and you couldn’t put your hands in your pockets because you had to hold on for your life, and you couldn’t hide your head from the wind because you needed the air, and you needed to look up. . . because 50 kids were all seated around you, as I said 40 boys and about 10 girls. . . all getting seasick like you wouldn’t believe. . . as the boat, shifts up and down in the waves. . . and they are all looking to me. . . at least the ones who were not yet puking, and I stand there firm but freezing trying to show them confidence, to be strong, and keep from getting sick myself, and I sing. . . and the silly songs we are singing keeps faces up and laughing and singing along, peace in the midst of the storm and the puking. . . the storms of life, right. . . literally. . . and there I was standing strong, but what is Jesus doing?
Sleeping. . . look at the details directly from the text.
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Asleep, on a cushion, while the boat was being swamped by waves beating into it. . . I don’t know what I would have done, if I was there standing on that boat, holding on to a freezing and wet metal pole, keeping my head up in the wind, lest I get sick. . . I don’t know what I would have done if my friend was down below asleep on a cushion. . . ticked I think. . . Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Maybe I had that experience in mind when I wrote this. . . it’s there in the bulletin.
While you were sleeping, Jesus
The storm came upon us, Jesus
The rain fell on us, Jesus
The winds blew us, Jesus
The waves almost buried us, Jesus

While you were sleeping, Jesus
We filled with worry, Jesus
We were in danger, Jesus
We couldn’t find you, Jesus
We almost died, Jesus


I repeated the name Jesus because it really brings it front and center. . . they are blaming Jesus. . . if you ever wondered why the ancient Hebrews put such sanctity on the name of God, never saying it, its because using names has power, and repeating it like that shows it. . . it can belittle. . . it is an act of power, using someone’s name like that. . . think about it, you are in an argument, and you out of the blue decide to mention their name. . . it is totally condescending. . . the disciples don’t use the name, they say, Teacher. . . Rabbi. . .which may be worse. . . hey teacher, remember this is your job to protect us, we are in danger and you are here sleeping. . . really?
39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

I finish the poem like this. . .

Then you awoke, Jesus
The wind and rain stopped, Jesus
The waves were calmed, Jesus
We were saved, Jesus
But we are so afraid, Jesus

And we are afraid. . . aren’t we. . . even though we’ve been in storms before, still talking literal storms, even though we’ve been in storms before we are still afraid because they are awesome and like I said earlier, they are completely out of our control, and we don’t like that, we like to be in control. . . and Jesus says. . . You of little faith, be not afraid. . . or actually in Mark’s version it is so much more powerful. . . he asks them, “why are you afraid, and says, have you no faith.” Now that you’ve seen, now that you’ve experienced, why are you still afraid. . . and we are. Though we’ve been in storms before, and have made it through, we still have those moments of doubt and fear. . .  and of course there is more to this story than the literal. . . there are also figurative storms. . . look at Daniel. . .
Known, trusted, interpreter of dreams and the writing on the wall, living in peace and comfort in the palace of the King, even given and dressed in his own purple robes of royalty. . . but then the wind shifts, and other advisors plot his demise. . . before he knows it, he finds himself in a completely different world, one where the rules have changed, and the simple act of worshipping his God is no longer allowed. . . he remains firm, prays to God, but the advisors, accuse him of breaking the new law, and the shifting whirlwind lands him with a death sentence, a night with hungry lions. . . a perfect picture of the out of Daniel’s control storm, plenty to be afraid of. . . at the control and whims of others. . . and the thunder rolls. . .
We’ve been there too, songs are written about such things. . . the thunder rolls and the lightning strikes, another love goes cold on a sleepless night, as the storm blows on, out of control, deep in her heart, the thunder rolls. . . . we often find ourselves in the storms of life when things feel like they are out of control, when there seems to be danger, when the world is shifting and turning, and change is all around us, the rules, the things we counted on, our ballast, our systems are failing and flailing in the blowing winds of change. . . be it politics, or economics, or personal relationships, we feel it, and we are afraid because we do not have the control. . . but what do we do with our fear. . . what are we? Who do we become? It’s quite a question:
DeAnna and I watched a movie this week, serendipitously and providentially so. . . I had no idea it would be perfect for this sermon, we were just looking for something to watch, but it was perfect, because the movie was all about who do you become when you are facing dangers. . . what does fear do? It was called Unthinkable, and it was a situation where this terrorist had placed three nuclear bombs in three US cities, but he didn’t say which cities, he just said they would go off Friday, it was Monday. . . the authorities caught him by Wednesday. . . and they needed to get out of him where the bombs were, to save the lives of countless Americans. . . and the main plot of the movie was all about how far Samuel L. Jackson, who was the “Special Interrogator” would go in torturing this man. . . physically and mentally. . .at first the FBI and CIA and military operatives also there tried to hold him back, but little by little as they were overcome with fear of the reality, they let him get away with more and more, until finally it included the murdering of the guys’ wife in front of him, and then what was “unthinkable”bringing in his children. . . until finally the FBI agent had enough and pulled the children out saying it was not worth it. . . and the movie ended right then. . . we don’t know whether the bombs went off. . . the movie wasn’t about that, it wasn’t about the bombs, but about our values, when placed in front of the real. . . I’ve said, character is who you are when the pressure is on and it is real. . . Jesus says. . . why are you afraid, do you still have no faith?
What does he mean? I think he means, don’t you see that I’m with you. . . that it will be alright, that if I can control the waves and the winds, then you don’t need to worry about not having control yourself. . . that you can rely on me. . . even when it looks like you are sleeping? And silent? And that you don’t exist? Jesus. . . especially then. . . he says.

Do we remember that Jesus has led us safe thus far, and that he will lead us home, that God Our Help in Ages past is also our hope for years to come? Do we remember such things in the depths of the storm. . . and what difference would it make if we could remember such things. . . I hate being cold, I hate being wet, and I have a history of motion sickness, but for some reason on that boat with all those kids, I knew that if I stayed firm, they could look to me, and they needed that. . . It wasn’t much, but it was something, and I was given the strength to make that stand. . . in the face of that darkness I was given a light to shine. . . it was not one I could have planned, it was not one I could have said, yes that’s me, I have that skill, let me be that guy in that moment. . . I wouldn’t have chosen it, I was just there. . . and it was enough. Unlike, Jesus, I couldn’t rebuke the wind and calm the storm. . . I could only have faith that He would, faith that in the midst of the storm I could find enough peace. . . it makes a difference. . . it makes all the difference in the world. . . it is a little thing. . . but it makes all the difference in the world. . . the very power of faith. . . and often being a standing witness to that faith. . . is enough shining light to reveal the illusion of the darkness to someone faltering in doubt. . . may God give us strength, we’ll need it because storms are only apparent danger. . . there is more to come. “We do believe, Jesus, help our unbelief” amen. Next week, “Facing Disease” 


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Facing


Facing

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

March 5, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Matthew 4: 1-11



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.





Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.





I’ve always liked the season of Lent, the preparation for Easter. I like how there is a time and a season that is geared toward looking inwards, about repentance, about introspection, about fasting and sacrifice, about going into the desert with Jesus, the very desert for 40 days and nights that Jesus does in his fast. It is how Jesus begins his ministry afterall. . . he gets baptized by John the Baptist then heads directly into the desert to prepare and be tested. . . it made me think about what it takes to prepare. . . you know for anything. . . in my life I have prepared for many things, and as a teacher and coach I have been in charge of preparing students and players, for tests in school, for sporting events, I’ve even directed actors and singers in drama performances. . . one thing that I have learned is that you can practice skills, you can hone and refine your abilities. . . if you are a singer you can work on your range, you can learn the music, you can sing through a song again and again. . . if you are an athlete you can do drills, you can run and stretch, and work on your body, you teach yourself to run faster, to grow stronger, to jump higher. . . as a teacher I teach my students the skills of writing, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, the framing of ideas, the parts of an essay. . . you can do all of those things, but nothing can replace the experience gained from the real doing of something, the real competition, the audience actually being there, the lights on, the stage set, the actual moment. . . because in the moment everything changes. Adrenaline kicks in, emotions soar, nerves become a part of the equation. . . I don’t know how many times I’ve been with students who fell apart on tests, when the pressure was on, known players who were great in practice, but fell apart in the first series of the game, who hit like crazy in batting practice, but lost it all when the game was on and the other team’s pitcher was throwing. When I used to play my guitar live, I always had my music with me, because if I got up there before people it didn’t matter how memorized those songs and chords were, how many times I could play through them, I’d get in front of people and would forget words, forget chords, forget songs that I know entirely, what was I going to play, it’s like when it is time everything sometime just goes blank. That is because Pressure changes everything, the pressure of the real changes everything. . . the biggest thing for me now, and I know you’ve all seen me fighting these battles front and center in front of you, is welling up with emotions. I never know when it will happen, and without exception, it never happens in rehearsal. If it did you could practice working through it, settle the moment, practice it away, but there is no way to artificially create the moment, the pressure, the reality of the stage, or the crowd. . . you can get used to it, you can get better at it, it does form you, but only from being in the game, being on stage, taking the tests, putting it all on the line. . . there was a saying that practice makes perfect, and I remember being a Cal Ripken fan, that he had tweaked the saying that, practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect. . . I will say that only that real experience can ever make perfect.

And now let’s look at Jesus and the Devil here in the dessert, the famous temptation scene. . . and how many times have you on days when this is preached, heard the old Cookie in the Cookie Jar illustration, I have at least ten times. . . the pastor gets the kids together for Children’s time and talks to them about sometimes, we want the cookie, but we know we can’t have it, and Jesus was able to resist that temptation, that temptation for us feels like that that cookie in the cookie jar, we want it, it looks so good, it tastes so good, but mommy said we can’t have it,  and put it up on top of the fridge, so we’d have to climb up to the top. . . silently take the cookie, and take a bite. . . or even the more intense message might come next, when the kid is caught, and questioned, and the new temptation is to lie about it. . .yes we’ve all heard it. . . but this is not at all what is going on in this passage. We aren’t talking about a luxury item like a cookie, that an authority figure, for our own good, but out of our understanding made some rule about only having one cookie. . . nothing of the sort. . . we are talking about a man who has been in the desert for 40 days, fasting, no food, you can imagine that in the desert there would not be much water either. . . I don’t even know if that kind of hunger and thirst is even possible for a human being, I can’t empathize as I’ve never been close to that kind of hungry, and to be honest I can’t even imagine it, can’t even imagine what would be happening to a body in that condition, drying up, turning inside on itself, dried out, imploding. . . organ shutting down. . . in his fast. . . and it is here, not at the beginning of the 40 days and nights, but after the 40 days and nights, coming, saying, hey look at all these rocks, why don’t you turn them into bread, solve your troubles, and eat. . . man does not live by bread alone... . but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. . . those words like, “Let there be light, and it was. . .” Miracles right. . . so then Satan says, ok, prove it, prove that you have been miracled through these 40 days and nights,, stand up on this temple, and take a leap. . . God sustained you in the desert by something other than bread alone. . . take a jump, surely God would sustain  you again. . . do not put the Lord your God to the test. . . ok. . . but wouldn’t it be easier for you just to be God, then you could make the rules, make the tests, no more 40 days of fasting, no more suffering, no more cross, no more mission, you can be in charge, you can rule it all, you can make it better, you should make it better, it needs to be better, improved, this world needs to progress, you can do it, I will give it to you. . . away with you Satan, it is written that you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him. . .

Now that is ratcheting up the pressure, after 40 days of hunger to be offered food, after 40 days miraculous to want to push a little farther, after 40 days of sacrifice to be offered the world. . . that is serious pressure, and certainly the real. . . I’m not sure what is worse 40 days in the desert or crucifixion. . . I would imagine that both of them should have ended in death. . . perhaps one was good preparation for the other. . . I remember about 6 years ago or so I tried to do a Lenten Discipline that was offered by the Greek Orthodox Church, I don’t remember how I came across it, I think it was through facebook, and the bag piper at our wedding was Orthodox and had shared it, I checked it out and tried it. . . It was called “Into the Desert” and it was about seeking to recreate the fast, the introspection, and the preparation. . . it was a challenge, but like the drills at practice, or rehearsing a song in the solitary comfort of my office, it was articifial. . . it did not force me to face the realities of life. . . the darkness, doubts, fears, worries. . . it did not put me into the pit. . . so how was I going to prepare for the pits of life, the carrying of the cross, the understanding of what Discipleship and following Christ is about. . . much like the practice makes perfect line doesn’t quite get it. . . so too does another cliché about character. . . and the problem is related. . .that cliché says that character is who you are and what you do when no one is looking. . . I get it, but that is kinda like perfect practice and doing some drills. There needs to be more to it, because I think character is not who  you are when no one’s looking, but instead I think it is who you are when you are in the pit, when all is against you, when your life is crumbling, when you have every reason to  give up, give in, escape, quit, or blame others, seek control, tighten the leash, hate, cheat, lie, fudge a little bit, bend the rules. . . all of those things. You can give up all the soda and chocolate you want for lent, you can forgo that cookie in the cookie jar, but it doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t put on the edge. . . well I’ll take that back, it’s not that it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just that it means like practice, like shooting 100 free throws in the gym every night, it does make it easier perhaps, to go mechanical when the pressure is on, when there is .2 seconds on the clock and you are at the line shooting 2 down. . . elimination on the line, and you aren’t even shooting to win, but just to stay in the game. . . . yes that type of practice has value, but is not the full test. . . It’s like Job right, Satan can always come up and say, sure he’s faithful, everything is great, the sun is shining, he has his health, happiness, wealth, start taking those away one by one and he will curse you to your face.

One of greatest examples of this dilemma is from the Renaissance, a work by Boccaccio about the Plague that hit Florence, Italy in 1348. .. where somewhere between 25% and 50% of the population of the city died. . . now Florence is a paragon medieval Catholicism. It is the city of Dante, and many of the other greats. . . but when the plague hits, this great City at the Center of Christendom does not have people loving their neighbor, but rather neighbor’s stealing from neighbors, neighbors ignoring each other’s pain, looting, rioting, people walking down the street with flowers to their knows and their eyes raised so as to not smell nor see the plight of their neighbors, and if that is not bad enough, even parents abandoning children to the street. . . in the pit, when times were at their worst, people cursed God and cursed eachother. . . it was easy when things were easy, but when things got unbelievably difficult, faith, piety, and love all but disappeared. . . We need to be more than that. . . but how do we practice? How do we allow ourselves to face that edge.

This Lent I am going to challenge us in to parallel ways. . . one is I going to preach about this kind of facing the darkness. I’m going to look at the Bible stories where the characters were facing the storm, facing the pit, facing the darkness, and find those messages, find those places where we can grow stronger in facing that kind of real. . . and also at the same time as I talked about a few weeks ago, I want us to also be trying to let our lights shine. . . . for this covers the breadth of discipleship, facing the darkness, and loving anyway. . . to enter into the darkest places and still be able to shine our lights for the world. I am looking forward to the journey and don’t mind taking it because the light of Easter is always waiting at the end. . . come April 16 we will get to celebrate the wonder of our world, that we need not fear the darkness because Christ’s light shines in this world and beyond everywhere, even in the depths of Hell, for Christ’s shining light is even brighter than the bitter cold darkness of death. . . and we follow in his heavenly footsteps. . . all the way. Amen.