The Way

ultrasound

John 14:1-14 NRSV

It was the summer 1993. Lori and I had been married five years and were expecting our first child. I had graduated from seminary the previous year and was serving with my first church as a pastor in rural Northeast Georgia. At our first OB/GYN appointment in Athens, we were told that our baby was due to be born on November 25. On Mother’s Day 1994, we were going to have some special reasons to celebrate.

During the last week of July, we were scheduled to have an ultrasound that would hopefully determine the gender of our child. I remember being more excited than anxious about this appointment. The baby was already moving and kicking quite a bit. Lori would call to me from another room in the house asking me to rush over to her. She would grab my hand and place it on the exact spot the baby was kicking so I could share her excitement. Lori was clearly showing at this time as strangers were beginning to approach us in public to offer their congratulations and to inquire when our baby was due.

As the doctor moved the ultrasound wand around on Lori’s abdomen and the black, white, and gray images of our baby appeared on a computer screen, I remember feeling like a wide-eyed child at Christmas getting a glimpse of the best present I could ever receive. We immediately heard a very strong and fast heartbeat. We then saw the outline of a head and a face. We saw arms, hands, legs, feet, even toes. After a minute or so, I remember growing impatient and asking the doctor if he could tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Following my question, my anticipation heightened as there was a brief period of silence in the room with the exception of the loud echo of a rapid heartbeat. Finally, the silence was broken as the doctor said, “It is really difficult to tell sometimes with our outdated equipment.” He moved the wand around for another minute and said, “The equipment that they have in Atlanta is far more advanced than mine. We probably need to make an appointment for you.” But before I could express any disappointment, he added: “There’s also something else going on that needs a better look.” He then handed the wand to the nurse and asked for us to come to his office where he would make an appointment for us to go to Atlanta. It was at that moment that my excitement was completely replaced by anxiety.

Suddenly, I no longer cared if it was a boy or a girl.

During the appointment in Atlanta, the doctor, who had been attentive yet quiet during the entire exam, spoke for the first time by pointing out a curvature in the spine. He called it a “neural tube defect.” This was the first time I had ever heard the term “neural tube.” However, upon hearing it one does not need to be familiar with it when the word “defect” is attached to it, as that word is more than enough to cause any parent-to-be’s heart to sink, especially when it is spoken to describe the spine of your unborn child’s spine.

Immediately following the ultrasound, we met with a team of doctors, nurses and genetic counselors in a large consultation room. In a compassionate, yet straightforward way, we were told that our baby’s spine “twisted,” probably during the early weeks of the pregnancy, and prevented the formation of an abdominal cavity. We were told that although our baby seemed to have healthy organs, there was nothing to contain those organs. Surgery was not an option. Our baby had absolutely no chance at life. A counselor put her hand on Lori’s shoulders and handed her a tissue to wipe the tears from her face.

After counseling and prayerfully considering all of our options, two days later, the pregnancy was terminated in the hospital without complications.

When we came home from the hospital, Lori went to bed where enormous grief she experienced kept her for days. She did not feel like talking to anyone, not even talk to her mother, who called several times a day, every day.

When Lori finally decided that she was ready to talk to people, the support from Christians came. However, some of the support came in ways that were more hurtful than helpful. It came in religious, pious, and judgmental ways. Almost everyday it came in ways that left us cold, empty, even resentful.

Now, I am sure it only came in these ways because these perhaps well-intended religious people understood it was their Christian duty to bring life, resurrection, restoration where there is death, despair and brokenness. And, maybe this was just the only way they thought they could bring it. Maybe this was the way they were taught on some church pew or in some Sunday School class. This was simply the only way they knew how to share the good news, proclaim the gospel, to be “a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world,” as we Disciples like to say.

But it came in ways that, for us, made the world even more fragmented. It came in preachy, accusatory ways, demeaning us for terminating the pregnancy. It came in the way of a theology lesson suggesting that we perhaps should have possessed more faith, that with prayer, God could have created a new body for our baby before he or she was born.

It came by the way of an ethics lecture insinuating that we were somehow “playing god.”

Then, came the support in ways that are all too familiar but never too helpful, all too religious-like but never too Christ-like. It came in the way of words that would have been best left unsaid.

“God knows best. God has God’s reasons. God does not make mistakes.” “God must have known you were just not ready to be parents.” “God must have needed another flower in heaven.” “You are young and can always try again.” One even said, “Perhaps God knew that your child was going to be a bad person or have a difficult life, so God, with the ability to see a future that we cannot, intervened and took your child.”

For some reason, Christians just feel compelled to say something, anything, even if it is hurtful.

We tried not to be angry with them, not to resent their ways of being religious. We defended them by saying, “Well, that is just her way, bless her heart.” We said, “Well, everyone knows the way he is.” It was just their way of doing what they thought would bring us some hope, their way of bringing us some wholeness, their way of bringing peace to our troubled hearts; and people, well, people have their ways.

Jesus, however, said that he was the way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

As Frederick Buechner has reminded us:

He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything [or saying anything] in particular that you could “come to the Father.”

Jesus didn’t say the Bible-Belt-culture evangelicalism manufactured for the self-interest of the privileged was the way. He didn’t say some alternative gospel created to ignore God’s will for social justice was the truth. And he didn’t say that the fake good news made up to cheapen the grace of the irrefutable good news was the life. He said that he was.

Buechner continues:

He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied. That was his way.

And thank God, that others came to us in his way. People from our church came to us with silent but empathetic embraces. They came bringing nothing with them but their tears and their own broken hearts. Some came bringing a home-cooked meal or a homemade dessert. One came with a vase of freshly-cut flowers from their garden. They came graciously. They came faithfully. They came intentionally with the love and in the way of the Christ. They came with the face of God.

Andrew King poetically reflects on this love, this way and this face:

We thought you wore the skin

of thunder, spoke in verbs of stormwind,

majestic and mighty as lightning

upon summits,

unreachable

as the cold and silent fire

of distant stars; hidden behind

a curtain in the temple,

an untouchable invisibility approachable

by the highest priest only,

hands freshly bloodied

from an altar.

And then somehow the veil was parted:

we gained glimpses of the glory

of the nearness of your love

as the hurting were healed,

the outcast befriended,

the lost restored,

and everywhere the powers of death

had their dominion challenged,

by the son of a Jewish carpenter

from Galilee.

If you have seen me,

said Jesus, you have seen the Father.

And we do see you there,

in the Gospels,

healing in synagogues

and in houses,

feeding the hungry on hillsides,

embracing the lepers and the sinners,

turning over the tables

in the temple,

nailed to a cross of injustice

but risen,

greeting women at

the graveside,

sharing bread with your friends,

the dominion of death

overturned.

Approachable, reachable,

the accessible God,

visible in the skin of Jesus.

But you are not done,

not content to wear

such skin only in the pages

of the Gospels.

The many-colored, multi-shaped

body of Christ – the Church

wide as the nations of the world –

bears your image where it acts

in your love:

still feeding,

still healing,

still teaching mercy,

making you visible

not in great

structures nor

in high saints alone,

but in the ordinary

persons in the pews,

as here, on a day like any other,

a woman making dinner,

and packing it,

knocking on the door of a neighbor

newly home from surgery for cancer:

the face of the one receiving it

lit with thankfulness,

the face of the one freely giving

like the face

of God.

When our hearts were troubled, because of the many faces of God that came to us in his way, in the visible skin of the body of Christ, although we were without child, on Mother’s Day in 1994, we still had special reasons to celebrate.

And on Mother’s Day in 2017, I can stand here today confidently proclaiming that Jesus—not religion, not ethics, not any doctrine—Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Let us pray,

God, embolden us to live, participate in, be caught up by, the way of life embodied by the Christ. Amen.

Invitation to the Table

The way to this table of communion this morning is not religion. The way to the bread of life is not ethics. The way to the cup of salvation is not any doctrine. The way to the life and to the truth that is represented here is only Jesus. And since Jesus lived and died to make a way for all, all are invited.

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Happy Mother’s Day! Without You, I Wouldn’t Be Here

Kissing Mom

Although I love my mother dearly and wished I could be with her this weekend, as a pastor I have never made a big deal out of Mother’s Day during the worship service. I find it silly to give flowers to the oldest mother in the church based solely on the fact that they have outlived the other mothers who are just as cherished, some possibly even more so. And I sometimes find it disturbing to give a gift to the youngest mother who perhaps should have waited until she got her driver’s license before starting a family. And let’s be truthful. There are some people who should not have children, while there are others who would make wonderful mothers, but are prevented from becoming mothers by the unfairness of this fragmented world.

However, there is one way that I believe Mother’s Day can inform and help us this week, as our mothers remind us all of a truth that we too easily forget.

Carson and Sara once made a video slide show for Lori on Mother’s Day. One of the first captions they put in the video summed up the profound essence of what this day means: “Happy Mother’s Day. Without you, we would not be here.”

None of us could do anything, would have anything, or would be anything, and that includes being alive, without mom. And the same can be said about our relationship with God. Without our Heavenly Mother, we can do nothing. We would have nothing. And we would be nothing.

We must never forget that any good thing that as been accomplished has come about as gifts of God’s grace. God is the source of creation. God is the genesis of all goodness. We know what St. Augustine knew long ago; apart from God, no good can come.

Jesus said: “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

This is both bad news and good. It is bad news for those who seek to improve the world on their own. The Psalmist knew this: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” But, it is good news for those who are connected to the love of God through Christ. With the power of God flowing through them like sap flowing through a vine, good fruits will develop.

So thank you, Mom, for teaching me this valuable lesson. Without you, I would not be writing these words. And without a connection to a Divine Mother, these words, like life itself, would have no meaning.

Maternal God

mama bear

I need a brand new start, a fresh new beginning. I need to begin again, begin anew, begin afresh. I need to experience some new life, some new creation, some new opportunities, some new birth. I need some more Easter in my life. I need to be born again, born anew. This world and all of its injustices and hate is draining the very life out of me.

The good news is that it is Mother’s Day. We are in church. The Bible is open, and our maternal God is making all things new.

Deuteronomy 32:18  “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

The Bible suggests that one of the reasons that we yearn for newness of life is that we have simply forgotten the God who gave us new life in the first place. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is portrayed as the mother of Israel. It is God who gave birth to the nation and loves Israel as a mother loves her child.

In the New Testament, it is obvious that Jesus understands this maternal love as he uses birth imagery to explain the gift of salvation, the gift of new life, abundant and eternal. Jesus told Nicodemus that if he wanted to truly experience life, he must be born anew, born from above.

And throughout the history of the Church, baptismal waters have always been symbolic of the waters of the birthing process. For the God that is portrayed throughout scriptures, the God we worship this morning is a God who is continually in labor. Always creating, recreating, working all things together for the good. Always making a way when there is no way.

So if you are yearning for a fresh start, a new beginning, a new birth, some more Easter in your life this morning, the good news is that it is Mother’s Day. We are in church, and the Bible is open to help us remember the source of all new life.

Psalm 22:9  “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

This is a beautiful portrait of God as a midwife who helps in the birth process. As the church, one of our chief goals is to make sure that we do everything in our power to help others experience new life. I believe we are called to share the maternal love of God and its power to create, re-create, renew and refresh with all people.

One special way we do this is by being a community of love and forgiveness, one that always gives all persons a welcoming and accepting environment to be born again and to start afresh.

Whenever people walk through the doors of the church they need to instinctively know that that they are loved without conditions, without reservations, and without limits. People need to know that, unlike most places in this world, we are not as concerned about your past, as we are about your future. In this place, we don’t care as much about what you have done or where you have been, as we care about where you are and where you are going.

So, if you are looking for a new birth today, if you are looking for a little more Easter in your life, the good news is that it is Mother’s Day. We are in church, and the Bible is open proclaiming the love and grace of our birth giving, new life-giving, maternal God.

Isaiah 49:15  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”

 I think that it is important to acknowledge on this Mother’s Day that the Bible does not blindly and sentimentally honor our earthly mothers as some churches will do this morning. The Bible is honest enough to admit that for some of us, this day we call Mother’s Day brings more pain than it does joy. Today, some of us remember mothers who abused us or abandoned us. And for some of us mothers, this day is a fresh reminder of children who have continually disobeyed and disappointed us. Today, there are mothers everywhere who have been forgotten by their children. For some there was no card in the mail and there will be no visit or phone call. However, as Isaiah reminds us, God, our Heavenly Mother, who gave birth to us, the true source of our lives, the one who nursed us when we were children, will always show compassion for us and will never forget us; will never leave nor forsake us.

As a church that is committed to share this maternal love with all people, may we never forget the pledge we have made to Gentry Jo today and so many other children we have pledged our support to in this place.

May we not forget this pledge when one day we are asked to volunteer in the nursery, to teach a Sunday School class, to serve as a camp counselor, to work at Vacation Bible School, or to spend the night at the church for a children’s lock-in.

And may we not forget this pledge, and sit quietly and idly by, as Gentry Jo’s schools continue to be underfunded, Gentry Jo’s teachers continue to be underpaid, and public education in general continues to be undermined.

And may we not forget the pledge we have made to our children and remain silent when we hear of children who are being exploited or abused, who are being bullied and harmed for being different, for being poor, or for being vulnerable.

May children everywhere know: It is Mother’s Day. We are in church. The Bible is open, and we are worshipping and serving and following a Heavenly Mother who never forgets any of her children. We are worshiping and serving and following a Heavenly Mother who has filled us with compassion and a determination to bring new life, re-creation and restoration to all of God’s children, especially to those who are easily and conveniently forgotten by the majority.

Hosea and Isaiah proclaim this tenacious determination:

Hosea 13:8a  I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs…” 

Isaiah 42:14  “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”

 This passage reminds me of the great words of Martin Niemöller, the prominent German Lutheran pastor who was arrested and placed in a concentration camp for being an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler. He is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According the US Department of Health and Human services, 27% of Oklahoma’s children under five years-old live in poverty. 12,000 children in Oklahoma are the victims of neglect or abuse a year. The number of child victims has increased 62.2% since 2009. Of this number, 61.7% were either Black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander or of another ethnicity other than Caucasian.

These numbers are not often talked about in the majority of churches in Oklahoma, because these children are not in the majority. Just as the majority of churches are deathly silent today in the face those who are currently legislating, dictating, and propagating hate and discrimination towards minorities.

However, it is Mother’s Day. And we are in a church that truly believes where the Bible speaks, we speak; and thus, like a woman in labor, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, we are no longer restraining ourselves, but are crying out with our maternal God against the evils and injustices that are so much a part of our world.

And we do not cry out in despair, but like a woman giving birth, we cry out with great hope knowing that something inexplicable, yet certain is coming. Something is about to be born. Something new is coming. Something miraculous is coming. Something refreshing and comforting is coming.

Isaiah 66:12-13  “For thus says the Lord; I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, an dandled on her knees.  As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

We never cry in despair, because we know that whenever we cry out to God honestly, whenever we cry out telling God the whole truth, our God always shows up, filling our cup, giving us hope, making a way when there seems to be no way, sending a river in the desert, and enveloping us with a peace and a comfort that is experienced by a child nursing in her mother’s arms.

So, today, we cry out like a woman in labor, we gasp and we pant knowing that God is coming to work all things together for the good. For it is in God’s very divine maternal nature to extend God’s peace and comfort and God’s grace and mercy to all people regardless of who we are or what we have done. Thus Jesus says:

Luke 13:34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

The good news is, albeit good news that is difficult for us to hear, that there is not only hope and comfort coming for the children who are exploited and abused, there is also hope for the perpetrators. We worship a God who maternally loves and cares for all people, good and bad. And because of that unconditional love, our God is suffering greatly this day. Our God is suffering like any mother who has felt the sting of her children’s rejection. So, as difficult as it may be, it is for the sake of God on this Mother’s Day, that those of us here in the church with our Bibles open, also pray for our enemies, as we will continue to pray for the entire creation.

With the determination and tenacity of a mama bear, we will pray for and work for the comfort of all of God’s children, that all may experience new life, experience the hope of Easter, experience the grace and the forgiveness, the comfort and the peace in the shadow of the maternal wings of our God—until that day comes when God makes all things new!

Hear now these very maternal and hopeful words from Revelation:

Revelation 21  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
and they will be God’s children,
and God will be with them
to wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

Yes, thanks be to God, it is Mother’s Day. We are in church. Our Bibles are open, and our maternal God is wiping every tear from our eyes and making all things new. Amen.

A Pastoral Prayer for Mother’s Day

mothersdayprayerNote: The words of this pastoral prayer are adapted from a letter written by Amy Young to pastors.

Gracious God, Father and Mother of us all,

During this time, with our hearts and minds turned toward motherhood, we give you thanks for all those in our lives who possess the soul of a mother.

We give you thanks and celebrate with those in our community who have given birth this year, and we give thanks and anticipate with those in our community who are expecting a child.

We give thanks and pray for all mothers who are in the trenches with little ones every day and wear the badge of food stains and wearied bodies. And we pray for and mourn with those who have lost a child, for those who have experienced loss through accidents, sickness, DNCs, miscarriage, failed adoptions Or an unjust system. We pray for mothers who feel like their children are lost to drugs or other addictions.

We pray for and walk beside those who walk the hard path of infertility, fraught with pokes, prods, tears and disappointment. Forgive us when we say foolish things for we certainly do not mean to make this harder than it is.

We give you thanks for those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms – for this world so desperately needs them, perhaps more now than ever.

We give you thanks for and celebrate with mothers who have warm and close relationships with their children. And we pray for and sit with those mothers who have disappointment, heartache and distance with their children.

We pray for and grieve with all children who lost their mothers this year. And we pray for and acknowledge the experience of children everywhere who have experienced abuse at the hands of their mothers.

We pray for those who are single, yet long to be married and mothering their own children. We mourn that life has not turned out the way they have longed for it to be.

We pray for those who step-parent and walk with them on complex paths. And we pray for and grieve with all those who envisioned lavishing love on grandchildren, yet that dream is not to be.

We pray for, grieve with and rejoice alongside all those who will have emptier nests in the upcoming year.

We pray for those who placed children up for adoption. We ask you to bless them for their selflessness and comfort them as they hold that child in their heart.

O God, on this Mother’s Day, we pray that you help us to walk with all mothers, for mothering is not for the faint of heart, and on this day, we have real warriors in our midst.