Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TO BE KNOWN BY NAME... An Easter Meditation






Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb... She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”   ~from the Easter gospel of John 20:1-18

My favorite professor at the seminary – and the favorite of many – was Gerhard Frost, of blessed memory. He was a man of inner strength and outward gentleness. One day early in that school year we met each other out walking in the seminary neighborhood. I was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of new students he had that semester alone – not to mention all the semesters stretching back through the years – and we had not had much conversation beyond the teacher-student exchange in the classroom.

What I remember about that casual meeting on the sidewalk almost fifty years ago is how badly he wanted to call me by my name. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, until, with a sort of defeated sigh, he apologized as he asked for my name. Later, we became neighbors, colleagues, and friends, and I am proud to say that, to his dying day, Gerhard knew my name!

It’s an odd recollection, I know, remembering--all these years later--how someone wanted to say my name. But Gerhard Frost knew that one of the most deeply meaningful gifts we can give one another is to be called by name. It is, in fact, a godly gift. “I have called you by name,” says God in Isaiah, “you are mine.”

Baptism is sometimes called Christening – “a naming.” In infant baptism, the parents give their child her god-name, and they say, “God has called you by name, you belong to God. We have called you by name, you are ours.” In the Bible, to name is to know deeply.  “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me,” says Jesus.

I sometimes tell my confirmation kids that one way to understand why we don’t want to “take God’s name in vain” is to reflect on how none of likes to have our own name made fun of, or used to hurt or ridicule. And that silly old line, “Your mama wears combat boots,” whatever it means, means very little about combat boots, but it’s my mother’s name you’re deriding! (There is nothing so common, that is at the same time so uniquely treasured, as the name “Mom.”)

When I was five years old, my dad was taken away by ambulance in the middle of the night, with what turned out to be a burst brain aneurism. I don’t know if the doctors there in the Huron, South Dakota hospital stemmed the flow, or if it ceased on its own, but he was stabilized in preparation to be taken to St. Mary's in Rochester. Just before that departure, the doctors told our mom that Barby and Betty and little Bobby and I could come in briefly and say hi to Dad. But Mom had to tell us what the doctors told her: “He may not know you.”  

Perhaps it’s my earliest memory—the door opens into the darkened room, my dad, his head swathed in bandages, opens his eyes and says, “Hi, Dicky.”

I wonder if to be known is what it means to be fully alive. It is certainly at the heart of what it means to be loved.

Has a name ever been said with more gentle preciousness than there in the tomb garden? Mary is beside herself with grief and loss. Blinded by her sorrow at the unspeakable events she has witnessed, she doesn’t know Jesus. But he knows her. And he calls her by name. “Mary.”

We may not know, but God knows. And God knows us. This deep knowing allows us to be fully who we are. Like the toddler who—becoming himself—says, “I do it… I do it.” And of course he must do it – with Mommy and Daddy standing by. The ones who named him. Who will let him wander but never let him go. “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
 
A servant-girl, seeing Peter in the firelight, stared at him and said,
“This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I
do not know the man!"  ~Luke 22
The most profound thing about the story of Peter’s sad denial of his friend Jesus is not the part where Jesus tells Peter, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times,” or even Peter’s bitter tears when he hears that cock-crow in the lonesome distance. It is what Jesus said to Peter in the same breath with which he had predicted his denial: “...But, Peter, when you have come to yourself, you must turn and strengthen the others.” And he did! And he did. Jesus knew who Peter was. He knew him. Did this knowing help to make Peter who he was?

The tragic undercutting of the Gospel’s message—from the very beginning—has been the small-minded pronouncement that the Christian life is a matter of fearfully keeping a set of rules—even commandments—rather than what it is: A declaration of identity; belonging. The great guide for living will never be rules. (How good would we have to be?....) Or what is sometimes called “religion.” Or fear. (“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent assurances given to us in the scriptures.) It is identity: “Remember who you are.” “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” “I have called you by name, you are mine.” “Mary.” “Dicky.”

And if we turn our eyes to the cosmos—if we feel, in the words of the song, that “we’re lost out here in the stars”—our faith is in a God who is big enough—and small enough – to know us each by name.

Terry Waite was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly five years—one of the longest of that 1980s hostage crisis period. He was in solitary confinement for the whole five years, blindfolded, and alone. After he was released, he said, “For most of that time I didn’t even know where I was, but I knew that God knew where I was, and that was enough.”

The empty tomb of Easter means nothing without the cross. The cross means that God knows – God knows – your loss, your tears, your highest hopes, your deepest fears. And who you are.

___________________________________________

Notes:

Thanks to son-in-law Joel for telling me about the marvelous painting, "The Denial of Peter" (above), c. 1623, by Gerrit van Honthorst, which is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

I tried to find an equally compelling painting of Mary and Jesus in the tomb garden. This anonymous early twentieth century illustration (top) doesn't quite do it. Mary Magdalene, although something of a woman of mystery, is very much her own person in the gospels. In John's account, just before Jesus says her name, she has given him a piece of her mind when she thinks he's "the gardener" who has taken Jesus' body away! You can get a sense of this by reading the whole account in John 20:1-18.

My dad was in St. Mary's (Mayo) for nine weeks. After the doctors had suggested to my uncle that he should prepare my mom for the end of Dad's life--they saved him! They gave us forty more years of Dad! I breathe a prayer of thanks for this every time I climb the stairs at St. Mary's entrance to make a pastoral visit.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HOW I WILL LOVE YOU

Our daughters, Beret and Anna, have become lovely women by the love of God and the gentle wisdom of their mother. February 17th is the anniversary of Anna's Arrival Day; March 22nd is Beret's Birthday. I wrote this many years ago for any parent preparing for the arrival of a child by birth or adoption. But, really, I wrote it for Beret and Anna.


HOW I WILL LOVE YOU

You will come through the miracle passage of birth
From somewhere in heaven to right here on earth –
Right here, where this family is waiting to start;
Right here – to these arms and this place in this heart.

Or maybe your journey will detour around
Till your own private angel-jet touches the ground,
And there I’ll be waiting to see who we’ll be,
And I’ll adopt you – and you’ll adopt me!

And how I will love you! When you are brand new!
When you are first finding out how to be you!

Of course you’ll be beautiful, handsome, and smart –
But that’s not the reason love grows in the heart.
You won’t have to earn it or prove it to me;
That’s just the way love is – love comes for free.

Free – but not easy – not every day;
Sometimes I won’t know just what I should say
When you are angry or tired or wild.
It’s then I will love you…
It’s then I will love you…
It’s then I will love you…
 Because you’re my child!

And every day you will grow just a bit,
And every day some more clothes will not fit.
All of that growing will take lots of food,
And of course it is my job to make sure it’s good!

And so we’ll have breakfasts and banquets and snacks,
And picnics with fortunate ants on our tracks.
But tables are more than just places to eat –
The family table is where you will meet…

…Uncles and aunties and grandmas and pas
And dozens of cousins who’ll love you because –  
Because you are family – because you are you,
And since they’re all family – you’ll love them too!

And how we will love you – as we watch you grow,
As you start to learn all of the things you will know.

And we’ll learn together! We’ll read lots of books;
You’ll soon know how all of the alphabet looks,
And how all those a’s  b’s  c’s and d’s sound.
Oh, how the words will go round and around!

Words in your eyes and words in your mouth,
Words flying east and west, words north and south.
Some words we’ll read in short stories and long,
Some words we’ll warble together – in song.

And how I will love you – as you sit in my lap
And we sing lullabies – till we both take a nap!

Then after our nap we will go out and play
Making up games for the rest of the day.
We’ll choo-choo with trains as we watch them go by,
We’ll stretch like the trees as we reach for the sky.

Some day, like the big kids, you’ll go off to school;
You’ll learn the latest grammatical rule.
Some day, but not yet. I’m glad that you’ll be
Still – for a while – right here with me.

And how I will love you when day turns to night,
And you hug your best blanket as we turn off the light.

Then I’ll sit by your bed and I’ll sing you to sleep,
Or I’ll try – ‘cause your plan will be that you’ll keep
Awake all night long and sleep all the next day
So the next night, again, you’ll be ready to play!

But finally you’ll fall asleep under a book;
I’ll turn at the door and I’ll sneak just a look.
You’ll be sweetly asleep, another day done,
And when you wake up you will be twenty-one!

I’ll think back and remember the first day you came,
And I’ll see that… you’re bigger! But, really, the same.
You’ll still be the one I loved right from the start –
All grown up! But always the child of my heart.  

And how I will love you …





I set out to write this as "How we will love you," but I wasn't smart enough to make the rhyme and the flow work that way.
Plus, I wanted it to speak for a single parent, too. But, for me, the "I' should be read to include both Caryl and me. Of course
Beret and Anna would agree.

(c) Richard Jorgensen

Sunday, February 5, 2017

AN ELEPHANT NAMED ISAIAH

A number of years ago, a good friend—a layman—said to me, “When something big happens in our country, or the world, I expect to hear a word about it from my pastor.” I have been goaded by this straightforward request ever since. My friend was not asking for “politics from the pulpit,” but for the wisdom and counsel of his faith, his church, the scriptures—as they come together in the pastor’s call to “preach the gospel.” I say, “goaded,” because sometimes I’d rather avoid making any reference to whatever calamity or social upheaval is creating headlines, especially if I know that 51% of my parishioners would feel one way about it, and 49% would feel the other. (I want everybody to like me.) I’d rather find a passage that will let me preach on Sweet Jesus and leave it at that. Like the preacher who, on the Sunday following 9/11, said nothing about the attack because “it wasn’t in the lectionary.” (Talk about an “Elephant in the Room!”)

The lectionary: For many church bodies, this is an agreed-upon rotation of scripture texts used in worship. It’s not “church law”—there isn’t anything binding about it—it’s simply a practical way for a worshiping community to cover a good portion of the biblical message in a three-year cycle.

In the midst of our current national upheaval?... crisis?... unpleasantness?... I am again goaded by my friend’s expectation. What’s more, the lectionary itself this week gives me little wiggle room. This Sunday, my church bulletin, like the bulletins in thousands of congregations in the United States and around the world, will include, in its regular place in the cycle, these words from the 58th chapter of Isaiah. (This is God speaking):

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day…
 You fast only to quarrel and to fight
  and to strike with a wicked fist…
Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
 when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

And it goes on (three times this long)—an unusually long lectionary passage. I’m tempted to simply read it and let it stand as the sermon. In any event, when I climb into the pulpit, I will not seek to convince the good folks in my parish concerning one politician or another. I will do my best to shut up and let Isaiah speak. I am not a biblical literalist; or, I should say, I am a pick-and-choose literalist like everyone else. But—literal or figurative—this reading doles out some marching orders for what it means to live out a Christian faith in these times. I find it as improbable to read this passage in worship while ignoring headlines about a fear-based policy of shutting out the immigrant, as it was for that hapless minister to get through a whole hour of worship on Sunday, September 16, 2001, without referring to the attacks of September 11.

Whatever Christians mean by "holy scripture," we certainly mean that Isaiah speaks to us down through the ages. Unless, that is, we want to say--as I once heard a self-proclaimed biblical literalist say to a similar passage--"That applied to them; it doesn't apply to us." It does apply to us. Isaiah speaks. What's more, as Scholars tell us, the very same biblical “prophets of doom” are also “prophets of hope,” and Isaiah is “Exhibit A.”  The lectionary passage for this Sunday concludes:

If you remove the yoke from among you…
 if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
 then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday….
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
 you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in.

Jesus’ itinerant family were among Isaiah’s “homeless poor”—given shelter in a barn. They became refugees fleeing a genocidal tyrant. The book of Exodus reminds us, “Do not mistreat or oppress a refugee, for you were refugees in Egypt.” We all came from someplace else. To America. Our new president, who has, surprisingly, appealed to a sizeable number of Christians, seems to know little and care less about the good news of their Gospel and its concern for the poor. I do not question or judge the core of their faith, but I do question their Bible-reading. They have had to be “pick-and-choose” readers of the Bible, ignoring the overwhelming number of biblical passages about justice for the poor, the outcast, the widow, and the immigrant. Passages represented in this Sunday’s lectionary.
Isaiah?

I’m a coward. I don’t want to preach on any of this. But I’d better. Otherwise, the Elephant in the room will be Isaiah.