Tuesday, April 20, 2010

April 20, 2010 - Hope IS a Miracle

This past Sunday, I preached on the story from the Acts of the Apostles about the raising of Tabitha. It’s one of a small number of biblical passages that recount not merely a healing, but the raising of a person from the dead. Although the Apostle Peter performs the miracle, it’s clear he sees it as the work of the risen Christ.

Preparing my sermon, I was struck by a rather unusual detail. Before performing his miracle, Peter cleared the room. Why was that?

I figure it was because Peter was none too sure of his ability to do anything helpful. This isn’t a sick woman, he thought to himself. It’s a dead woman. Dead is dead (unless, of course, you’re talking about Jesus’ resurrection, but that’s a story for another day).

You’d think, had Peter been more confident, he’d have practiced a little showmanship. You know, given the miracle some pizzazz. Wow the crowd.

But, no. Peter will have none of that.

When in doubt, pray. Having no other option, that’s what Peter decides to do. Falling to his knees, he offers fervent prayers to God: to get him out of this situation, to do something to help this grieving community – and, yes, even this poor, deceased woman, wherever in heaven or earth her soul may be.

After praying, Peter turns to Tabitha and simply says, “Tabitha, get up.” She does! The crowd outside is astounded when they see their beloved Tabitha, alive again. It just may be, though, that the most befuddled person in the village that day is Peter himself.

Many of us have been there before, in situations that seemed hopeless. It’s a story repeated time and again, in hospital corridors and family waiting rooms, as a doctor says to an anxious family, ”I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.”

We’ve all heard of deathbed miracles, of course, but we also know these are few and far between. I told the folks in church on Sunday that the one miracle I have seen, time and time again, is how hope – that most persistent of Christian character traits – has a way of arising out of even the darkest of situations.

Sometimes that hope is as simple as being able to persevere, to get up and face another day without falling apart emotionally. Sometimes it’s the ability to let go and die with dignity. Sometimes it’s reconciliation with a loved one that we never imagined could have happened.

On his knees, alone in that small room except for the corpse stretched out on the bed, Peter may have feared his hope-reservoir had run dry. But then, when he least expects it, God breaks in once again, revealing new possibilities.

Such hope differs from what usually passes for hope in our culture – at least, as the word is used in everyday speech. Eugene Peterson points out that what a lot of people call hope is in reality something different. It’s wishing, not hoping – and wishing and hoping are not the same thing:

“Wishing is something all of us do. It projects what we want or think we need into the future. Just because we wish for something good or holy we think it qualifies as hope. It does not. Wishing extends our egos into the future; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing.”

Peterson goes on to say that we can picture wishing as though it were a line coming out from us with an arrow on the end, pointing into the future, pointing toward that thing we most want to possess.

Hope is just the opposite. It’s a line that comes from God out of the future, with its arrow pointing towards us:

“Hope means being surprised, because we don’t know what is best for us or how our lives are going to be completed. To cultivate hope is to suppress wishing – to refuse to fantasize about what we want, but live in anticipation of what God is going to do next.” [The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Eerdmans, 1993)]

To me, that’s a beautiful and liberating insight. Yes, we all want certain things in this life. Yet, our wishes and God’s intentions for us may not always coincide. At times, God may have an entirely different plan – which means that, for us, the way of freedom and peace lies not in somehow pulling God around to our way of thinking, but rather letting go and trusting God to be in control.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

April 13, 2010 - Cancer Concern Center Article

An article in today’s Asbury Park Press has some nice things to say about the Cancer Concern Center, a local organization that provided help to me at one of my lowest points, as my chemotherapy was coming to an end.

Until that time, I’d been toughing it out, turning to no one other than God and my family for support. The night I ventured down the street, to the rented commercial office space where the Cancer Concern Center support groups hold their meetings, was a revelation.

I felt less alone in what I was experiencing. Others had been there, too, and were more than willing to offer support and advice. There was concern – as promised in the organization’s name – but also friendship and even laughter.

From the article:

“The Cancer Concern Center, now in its 13th year, provides weekly support meetings, meditation and yoga classes, massage and Reiki therapy, nutritional workshops and new wigs to local residents. All the work is done by a volunteer staff, and all donations go to client programs.

‘Everything we do here revolves around the women and men who have the courage to walk through our front door,’ said Lisa Montalbano, volunteer office manager at the Cancer Concern Center. ‘We keep cancer survivors from slipping through the cracks of depression and despair.’”

So true.

There are other support-group providers with a national profile, like The Wellness Community, that have meant a lot to me as well. This is a local, home-grown organization. Here in Point Pleasant Beach, we're proud of what they do.

Monday, April 05, 2010

April 5, 2010 - An Idle Tale?

Preparing my Easter sermon based on Luke 24:1-12, I was struck by the reaction of the male disciples to Mary Magdalene and the other women who brought them news of the empty tomb and of the angel’s message: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Their first response was to consider it “an idle tale.”

“Idle tale” translates an uncommon Greek word whose meaning is “nonsense” or “delusional.” If the women’s breathless announcement is in fact the first Christian proclamation, then it means we preachers started out with a score of 0 and 1 from the get-go.

Which is no big surprise – because the resurrection isn’t exactly an easy truth to absorb. In contradicts one of the most foundational of human experiences: that dead is dead, and there’s no coming back.

I thought about that sort of thing a lot when I was feeling ill from my chemo treatments. What if the treatments were unsuccessful and I was soon going to die, I asked myself? What if, someday soon, I was going to shut my eyes not only to this world, but to everything else? What if this life, this consciousness, that is me would suddenly blink out of existence? What would have been the point of it all?

My mind danced with that bleak idea from time to time, but didn’t invite it home. I kept returning to the truths of my faith, and especially this truth that is the resurrection.

I told the folks in our church yesterday that this whole “idle tale” response is actually a sort of backhanded testimony to the truth of the resurrection. If you were to set out to make up a story about a man being raised from the dead, would you be so quick to admit that some of the people who most wanted to believe it to be true rejected it, at first?

Similarly, if you were going to go out and make up a story about a man being raised from the dead, would you include details that made you, yourself look like a clueless doubter – as was the case with Peter? If you were interested in spreading a made-up story in the intensely male-dominated Roman world, would you make women the first witnesses of the resurrection – women, who were considered, back then, to be second-class citizens, whose testimony the male-dominated society considered unreliable?

Of course not. There are an embarrassing number of loose ends connected with the Easter narrative. Four different gospels tell the story, as well as certain passages from the letters of Paul – all of them differing from the others in one detail or another. If your purpose were to make the whole thing up, you would have managed your sources a little better.

The result is that it’s impossible to put the various Gospel accounts together in a single narrative – just as it would be if there had been multiple witnesses recording their impression of a single, dramatic incident, each from a different angle.

The resurrection is jarring and unexpected. The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth says somewhere that it’s “not a natural ‘therefore’ but a miraculous ‘nevertheless.’” Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – a distinguished theologian as well as senior leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion – likens it to the Big Bang. When we celebrate Easter, he writes, “we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang,’ a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe.” (Tokens of Trust, p. 95)

These are outrageous claims – but in their very confusion, contradiction and sheer outrageousness, they’re true to life, in an odd way. Such a mind-bending, paradigm-busting event could never be encapsulated in a tight, little spin-controlled story.

With all those lights of inquiry shining upon it from so many different angles, the resurrection is like a person moving across a room, lit up by a strobe light. You know how that looks: a person lit by a strobe seems to move in a series of jerky, disjointed snapshots, rather than the seamless, smooth motion of movie film. Under such lighting, you can get a general sense of what’s happening, what various events are taking place – but not how they flow from one to the next.

There are still significant gaps in our understanding of the resurrection – and always will be, this side of heaven. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It means it’s a truth too big, too complex, too wonderful for us to fully comprehend.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

April 3, 2010 - When All You Have Left Is Yourself

Today I’m reading an unusual article in Cure magazine online, "Keeping the Faith," by Kathy Latour. What’s unusual about it is that it deals with the topic of cancer and spirituality with attention to spiritual community.

I find that refreshing, because there’s lots of talk about a sort of generic spirituality when it comes to cancer survivorship. “If it makes you feel good, do it” is the all-purpose mantra. The problem with this sort of approach is that it ends up being a do-it-yourself activity, like trimming your nose-hairs or working out with a Thighmaster.

I think this individualism comes out of good old American separation-of-church-and-state thinking – something I’m in favor of when it comes to politics, but which is woefully inadequate in all but the most superficial discussions of religious faith. Take that line of thinking to its extreme, and you’ll end up like poor old President Eisenhower – who supposedly let himself be quoted saying: “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Some presidential scholars insist that’s an apocryphal remark, and it may well be – but, it catches the spirit of the age. (Eisenhower was a Presbyterian, by the way – though, if he really said that, I suppose he missed Sunday School the day they were teaching Calvin’s high conception of the church.)

In cancer support groups, “guided meditations” abound – those stress-relieving exercises that begin: “Close your eyes, pay attention to your breathing, and imagine yourself walking across a grassy field...”

Now, I can understand the appeal of that approach, to those who arrange chairs in a circle for their cancer-and-spirituality workshops. You can be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew or South Sea Islands cargo cultist, and still get something out of a guided meditation exercise. Whether the glowing figure walking towards you across that grassy field is Jesus or the Bodhisattva Maitreya makes little difference, because it’s happening in your own, private mental world. No muss, no fuss, no cross-denominational misunderstandings. Everybody leaves happy.

Outside of houses of worship, spiritual support groups are often led by people without any strong (or strongly evident) religious affiliation – the “I’m spiritual but not religious” sort of person. You’d think hospitals and agencies would seek out seasoned religious professionals – nuns who work as spiritual directors, say, or Muslim teachers of Sufi prayer – as long as they’re committed to interfaith dialogue. But, no. Charitable-organization program directors aren’t known for sticking their necks out, so they smile beneficently on psychiatric social workers with no theological background who say, “I can do that,” or on generic “interfaith ministers” holding degrees from unaccredited seminaries (or, God forbid, even internet “ordinations”).

That’s why the article I’ve been reading is so refreshing. The author, Kathy Latour, interviews Harold G. Koenig, M.D., of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University – a prostate-cancer survivor himself – as he describes a discussion group he co-facilitated called “Engaging the Spirit.” It was a place “where cancer patients and survivors explored spiritual and faith questions as they traveled the cancer journey.” Knowing his group was composed of people from a variety of faith traditions, Harold began each discussion with a simple question: “How’s your spirit?”

OK, that’s a workable generic opening question, but Harold’s point is that the discussion need not remain in that level: “I learned from those who took part that no matter how someone defines his or her faith, in a group of cancer survivors there exists a common quest to understand existential questions about life and death.” When that quest is pursued through religious community, there comes an awareness that “God has a purpose for them and is in control and they don’t have to be. This is where mental health comes from.” Such a strongly-held conviction, the article continues, “frees them and reminds them that their illness can result in ‘something good.’”

From his own experience as a survivor, Harold upholds the value of “a belief system that frames your diagnosis in the context of your life and what you believe happens after life. If you have no framework to place that in, all you have left is yourself and it isn't enough. You can't carry the full load – you weren't meant to.”

A great many recent research studies of spirituality and health, Harold maintains, conclude that people who follow a particular faith tradition “need and use fewer health care services because they are healthier, more likely to have intact families to care for them, and have greater social support.”

The Rev. Isabel Docampo, associate professor of supervised ministry at Perkins School of Theology, “says her fear and depression after facing surgery for life-threatening cancer of the salivary gland came not from a crisis of faith, but from the pain and sadness that she felt from the idea she might leave her 21-year-old son, Ben, and her husband of 18 months, Scott Somers, also an ordained minister.”

“The way I have always looked at life is that it is what it is,” Isabel reflects. “Life is a struggle and God has been there for all the blessings and all the bad stuff, and God is going to be here for the cancer.”

Amen to that.

I wouldn’t want to face cancer knowing that “all I have left is myself” – nor some individualized spirituality I’d made up out of whole cloth, either. One of the great strengths of submitting oneself to the discipline of a particular religious tradition is knowing it’s not all about me, nor will it ever be so.

Now, on to my Easter sermon...