Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

(Another) One Fallen Too Soon

IMG_4529

Last week my cousin died. Her name was Melissa Zygadlo Thomas. She was 40 years old and leaves behind a dear husband and two young children.

Cancer.

Damn cancer.

I was glad I got to return home to Ohio to be at Melissa’s funeral. It was good to be there, to be with the family.

This was the first death in my generation on my dad’s side of the family. My cousins Michael and Phillip, who both died in their twenties, were on my mom’s side of the family.

So it was important to be there with and for my dad and brother and the others.

“It’s good to see you,” everyone always says at funerals, and we mean it more dearly than ever for the present loss magnifies how precious we are to one another, “but I wish it was under different circumstances,” we are always quick to add.

Different circumstances…I wish the circumstances were different–that our restoration to one another was not at Melissa’s expense.

I hate death.

I feel no need to cancel out or console this hatred of death. My grief will not be undone by some supposed higher consciousness of “death as part of life.” No, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth–real, and raw, and painful–because death is the end of life as we know it. And life as we (I) know it is all I know in any tangible way.

Oh, yes, there is the here-after, there is the resurrection of the dead, and there are all of the great promises of something else, more, better in the time to come. These promises run through the scriptures I cling to, the faith I hold dear. Yet these promises are of little consolation in the actual here-and-now of living this life as we know it without Melissa as we knew her…or Elaine as we knew her…or Phillip as we knew him…or Michael as we knew him…or grandparents and great-grandparents and Amos & Opal as we knew them…

I think I feel this inconsolable sense of loss–this hatred of death–most keenly with these cousins of mine–Melissa, Phillip, and Michael–because they died so young. I think of these as untimely deaths.

But, truth be told, I wasn’t ready for any of them. The world doesn’t make sense anymore since Elaine died and she was in her 80s–not so very young, but still she is gone too soon.

And Opal…I have not written nearly enough about Opal…her passing was far, far too soon.

Opal too died of cancer.

Damn cancer.

I still hate that Opal is gone from this life as I know it…that loss was decades ago…but even all these years later, there is still an Opal-shaped hole in my heart, my life.

Opal and her husband, Amos, were like grandparents to me in a time when my grandparents and great-grandparents had either passed away already or lived too far away. I could ride my bike to Opal & Amos’s house…my brother and I would go there and play checkers with Opal and drink Coca-Cola, poured from glass bottles into Tupperware tumblers–nearly as tall as the bottles themselves–which we first filled with crushed ice from the mystical phenomenon of a freezer with an external ice-dispenser!

And I don’t remember stories about Opal so much as just the unconditional love that radiated from her. My heart knows who she was to me and that memory of her is so deeply a part of me. But I don’t know if I can ever, ever capture her importance in words.

This is the hole that death leaves. Ones so dear, yet nothing we can say or recall–even if we had kept detailed journals of their lives as we knew them–nothing can resubstantiate who and what they were.

I’m still in my mind and in my heart pondering the stories I want to tell about Melissa. If I’m counting right, she was closest to me in age of all my cousins (on both sides of my family)–Melissa was closer to me in age than even my own brother who is only two years older than I am.

There were “girly” toys we played with together–things my brother turned his nose up at. There were chats about school, and boys, and make-up. There was this extended family that we shared that we tried together to make sense of.

When we were both grown and had become mothers, we had a few occasions to talk about parenting. I admired how at-ease Melissa was in her role as a mother. With my son a few years older than her firstborn, I was still trying to recalibrate life as a mom, but she was a natural. She told me once that she didn’t see much use for a lot of parenting books, but that she would just trust her instincts. But oh, how I myself had poured over so many books!

Yet, Melissa’s instincts and all of who she was as we knew her are laid to rest.

And even as I try to remember what I need to remember about her, the memory of her is all there is.

I know there is something else, more, better for Melissa, Elaine, Michael, Phillip, Opal…

As the appointed leader of a congregation, I have had occasion to conduct two funeral services for members of the church where I’m serving. And in these times, it is my job to point the people to the life that really is life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus. And I believe it full well. It’s just that I’m not afraid of the hope and grief commingling–neither diminishes the other.

Hope isn’t some salve we put on our grief to make it go away. True hope in the God of the universe doesn’t fill in the grief-shaped hole. The hole remains. Hope doesn’t need to fill in the hole in order to function.

And the hole has plenty of its own work to do and is not at all interested in swallowing hope.

Really, if anything, the hole–holding that loved-one-shaped place in our hearts–can be for us a well, reflecting back to us the glimmer of light and life and love of the one we’ve lost.

I just wish it were under different circumstances.

Still, it is something–even if not tangible.

And even cancer and death cannot take away the glimmer–even if our words fail us to do justice to the life of the ones we have lost–the glimmer of their memory is as real as breathing.

Oddly, it is in hating death–in feeling it so hard and true and real and deep–in despising death I can begin to love life harder and truer and realer and deeper.

I hate death because it takes what is precious–life–the lives of those we love.

I despise these circumstances because I love life.

And if life is worth loving, and worth living, if lives are worth remembering (and they are!) it is because the Author of Life–the Creator of all things in heaven and earth has made life good.

And the Author of Life knows every story that I’m forgetting–and even those I never knew–about Melissa, and Opal, and Elaine, and Phillip, and Michael.

I may not have Melissa’s motherly instincts in which to trust, but I do trust in God–my God, the Lord of Life. And my hope in the Lord of Life abides alongside my grief.

I trust that Jesus is greater than anything we can experience in our living, in our loving, or even in our losing and dying. It is as Jesus promises, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Oh God, into your hands I commit life as I knew it, life as I know it now, and life as I can’t imagine in the yet-to-come. Into your hands I commend the lives of those I have loved and lost too soon.

Christmas Glow

Light in Darkness

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. John 1

 

Light has always been an important symbol of Christmas for me.

In 8th grade I wrote a short story about a teenage young woman who was having trouble getting into the “Christmas spirit.” No matter what she did, she couldn’t work up the giddiness she used to feel about the season.

Then in church on Christmas Eve, during the candle lighting ceremony, she had an epiphany. The warm glow of the lights around the darkened sanctuary reminded her of the Good News of Jesus coming into the world to bring the light of God’s love to all people.

The story was a fictional representation of what was in my own heart–and often still is. I don’t get giddy about Christmas anymore like I did when I was a little kid. A lot of the “magic” of Christmas has faded in its importance and impressiveness in my heart and mind.

But this news–that God brings light to our darkness–I need that every-always.

If I’m going to feel anything special at Christmas, it’s almost certain it will involve light (or gel pens, but that’s kind-of the same thing).

During Christmas break in 1994, while I was engaged to my now husband, I got to go as his date to his brother’s wedding in Florida. I was in college in Kentucky at the time and went home to Ohio for Christmas and had my wisdom teeth pulled right after Christmas. I was miserable, but didn’t want to miss the wedding–the first wedding among my now husband and his siblings!

My now sister-in-law Angela was from the area where the wedding was, so she had insider knowledge on local attractions. One of the nights we were there Angela wanted to take us all to a Christmas village of some kind. I didn’t know what to expect and my mouth was sore, and I was weary from travel, so I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go.

But I am so glad I did!

The Christmas village was this whole lot filled with sweetly painted wooden-facade little houses and buildings. All of the little structures were decorated in lights. You could go up and down the “streets” of this village and see all of the places lit up.

I don’t even remember if there was anything distinctively Christian about the display, but the light–Oh! All those lights! They lit up my heart that night and I will always remember the night Angela took us there.

To this day, even if I can’t manufacture any “Christmas spirit,” I am filled with hope, awe, and wonder when I see peeps of light at Christmas in candle lighting ceremonies and light displays.

There’s something about light shining in darkness that speaks to my heart in a way that daylight or a brightly lit room doesn’t quite do.

I often think of my depression as darkness as worries close in on me, and my sense of worth dims. So, I understand darkness all too well. So when tiny lights defy the darkness, I am reminded that God–my God–is bigger than my darkness.

My favorite Psalm says it this way, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11-12)

Even in my darkness, my God sees me and knows me and loves me.

Once again this Christmas, I can’t seem to manufacture that giddy Christmas feeling of my childhood. But the glow of God’s love fills me with hope at Christmas time–and always.

May you too know God’s love with a tenacious hope that defies darkness.

The Favor of the King – Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

The Favor of the King

Christ the King sermon based on Matthew 25:31-46

Deaconess Jennifer Clark Tinker

 

On Christ the King Sunday we recognize that Jesus is the King above all kings; he is the one to whom our highest allegiance is due. And yet his kingdom is not like the typical kingdoms of this world…

 

You can listen to this sermon by clicking the link below, or scroll down to read the manuscript.

Audio for “The Favor of the King” 

http://www.spreaker.com/user/5989422/the-favor-of-the-king

 

 

“Would you do me a favor?” my mom asked me at the end of a phone call a number of years ago.

“Um…” I hesitated. I never know what a favor is going to entail, so I don’t say yes until I hear what exactly is being asked of me. But to deny my mother a favor she is asking is not cool either, so I certainly didn’t want to say no. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult of a task to perform for her.

“It’s really simple,” she explained. “Will you please give David a hug for me and then have him hug you back for me?”

I smiled. This was one favor I could certainly take care of for my mother.

You see, for most of my married life I have lived hundreds of miles away from my mother. She visits us and we visit her, but that’s still only a few times a year that we see each other. So, we have our phone calls and since that request all those years ago, we have these hugs.

Now that we have our son, my mom regularly asks me to do this for both my husband and my son.

I admit, sometimes it seems a little awkward hugging my husband and son for someone else. I mean, the way I hug them is unique to my relationship with each of them. I figure a hug from someone else should reflect that relationship. This was even more obvious when a long-distance, good friend of the family asked me to do this at the end of a phone call. Since this friend is a man, I decided to give my husband and son sideways “guy hugs” so it would be more like it was from this guy friend.

Despite the seeming awkwardness of these hugs, it is a way that these people who care about us can be present with us even though they aren’t actually here. As my mom put it, I am doing her (and the guy friend) a favor by giving these hugs to my guys.

This idea of indirectly doing a favor for someone is a theme in our Bible reading from Matthew. The passage gives us an image of Jesus in his glory, seated on his throne with all the nations of the world gathered around. Jesus then separates the people and pronounces judgment on them.

He admits some into his kingdom saying, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

But they are puzzled, they can’t remember doing any of those things for Jesus. Surely they would remember if he was the one they fed or clothed or visited! But Jesus reveals that it wasn’t him directly that they did this favor for, but whenever they did these things for “the least of these,” they did it for Jesus.

By contrast there are others that Jesus denies admittance into the kingdom because they did not care for the “least of these” when they had the chance. This sounds pretty harsh. I imagine I miss a lot of opportunities to do favors for Jesus if feeding, clothing, or visiting “the least” means doing this for Jesus. Maybe (probably) we all miss a lot of opportunities like this if we’re honest.

But on a deeper level, I think it’s important to see that these kinds of “favors” for Jesus are entirely different than how the world ordinarily thinks of impressing kings.

It’s a bit like that first time my mom asked me to do her the “favor” of giving my husband a hug for her. I braced myself for some impossible task that I would have to do for my mother, but it turned out to be something much simpler still.

Jesus is not asking us to bend over backwards to impress him!

Give people food. Hand them a cup of cold water. Make sure folks have clothes to wear. Take care of those who are sick. Don’t give up on people when they get in trouble. These are pretty simple tasks in one way of looking at it.

This is not at all like how we usually think of impressing powerful people. The typical ways that we go about impressing powerful people are much more directly in service to the powerful. We might give them gifts to endear ourselves to them, we make an exchange that will be mutually beneficial, we perform an act of service that directly benefits them, or if all else fails, we grovel at their feet and try to kiss up to them.

But Jesus isn’t that kind of king. He isn’t that kind of king at all. Even though Jesus himself is God—you know, All Powerful, he doesn’t ask us to kiss up to him, to earn his favor by performing elaborate gestures of deference to him.
No, Jesus is the kind of king who identifies with the lowly, the least, the vulnerable. This is a very different kind of kingdom. It’s a bit upside down when you think about it.

There’s a scene earlier in the book of Matthew, in chapter 20, starting at verse 20, that makes a similar point. The mother of James and John asks that Jesus seat them at his right and left hands, in places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.

The other disciples then get angry at James and John for them presuming to have favor with Jesus. But they are all thinking about power and glory in typical human terms. And in verse 25 Jesus shows this idea to be bankrupt saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” I mean, yikes…nobody likes a tyrant. But that’s what happens when we exalt those who are already powerful. We puff them up and they wield their power and control over us.

Jesus continues in verse 26, “It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be yours slave.” See how upside-down this is? Jesus is the kind of king that cares about his people—even, or especially, to jump back to our text for today—the “least of these.”

While we may not much like to think of ourselves as weak or in need, we sometimes are the ones who need cared for. So, it can be a great comfort to us to know that no matter how low each of us may sink, Jesus still cares for us.

In fact, there is no low that we can reach that Jesus has not already sunk to in his time here on this earth. He took the lowest place of all—giving his life for our sakes. As Matthew 20, verse 28, says, “he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Our typical ideas about impressing powerful people don’t hold up for Jesus, but the way of service is at once both very simple and very difficult. And so, Jesus took this lowest place for us—in our place. In Jesus’ death on the cross, he is the one stooping to do us the favor. And in his rising from the dead, he wins the victory over death itself.

You see, he has already won the day. His kingdom is already advancing. We do have a choice here and now—whether we will join forces with Jesus, and honor him by favoring “the least of these” or whether we will reject his victory and continue striving for power and fame in the typical human ways.

Taking care of others does require something of us. But Jesus prepares us for this work through our baptism, nourishes us for it through the bread and wine that we share, and empowers us for this work through his Spirit.

And so finally, when Jesus asks us for these favors of feeding, clothing, and coming alongside “the least of these,” we can smile and confidently say yes to Christ Our King.

Can an Untimely Death Bring a Shine? Good Friday Reflection

 

JesusDeathStainedGlass

Today is “Good Friday,” the day we as Christians commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus. For a dramatic narration of the story by Nashville’s Charles Esten (aka “Deacon”), click here.

But it is hard for me to get my mind around the idea of an untimely death being a good thing.

I don’t talk about this much, but in the past several years I have lost two twenty-something cousins. The young men, Michael and Phillip, were the only two children of my aunt and uncle. They died about two years apart, both in car accidents.

Growing up these were the cousins that I saw most often. Even after I was married we would spend holidays together whenever possible. I’d say we were pretty close.

I’ve been reflecting lately about how I’ve felt especially dysfunctional in terms of things like housework. I’ve always been a little lax, but there was a time if company was coming I could step up my game and get my house to a shine.

Now though, I just can’t care about that shine anymore.

As I thought about what changed–or rather–when that change occurred, I realized there was a distinct shift when Michael died (he was the first one to die). It hit me hard.

Just nothing was the same anymore without Michael’s shining smile in this world.

And then when Phillip died too, it was grief upon grief, tarnish upon tarnish.

Shiny, happy housekeeping held no meaning for me anymore.

I still don’t have nearly as much company or as many dinners and parties as a once did. But even when I do, I just figure you’re willing to enter my mess then we can really be friends.

And maybe it’s a protection.

To love like I loved (still love) those little cousins of mine…and to lose them both? I mean, that kind of loss makes it hard to want to love that hard again.

It always seemed to have hit me harder than it should have–I mean, I’m just the big cousin. I don’t even know how my aunt and uncle–the parents–get up every morning.

And then there are the questions upon questions…Why them? When then? Why death?

So you see why I have trouble thinking of an untimely death as a good thing?

I don’t accept that God wanted it that way. I can’t embrace a God who wills people dead for some larger purpose. Or at least I won’t if that’s the kind of God our God is.

So then, the untimely death of God’s own son? Am I supposed to accept that? To accept that God gave up what no parent should ever have to give up?

This is where our language about God and our understanding of God’s nature get confusing. See, all the God there is came to us as Jesus. God didn’t send an agent that was somehow apart from Godself. God is Jesus. Jesus is God.

Our very God gave up God’s own shine to be one of us.

The cruel fate of an untimely death was not something that God did to someone else. No, God submitted to human punishment & sentencing. God endured humiliation and death for our sakes.

The untimely death of God is the most baffling of all. But if anything could ever shine despite death, then it would be because God conquered the very death that threatens to overshadow our world.

We know that God did not stay dead. He rose victorious from the grave and conquered death itself.

Death does not get the final word.

And whether we feel shiny, happy, or we’re still grappling with some kind of grief, we know that love wins. God’s love shines through for us always, all the time, no matter what.

My Review of Mediating Faith by Clint Schnekloth

Jen&Clint

I got to see Clint Schnekloth, author of Mediating Faith, in person for the first time in Houston last Thursday when he came to talk about his book. He even let me interview him for the Life & Liberty podcast! Click the photo to go to Life & Liberty for our audio interview which is about 30 minutes.

Let it be stated for the record that I am friends with Clint Schnekloth, the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era, but I did buy my own copy of the book. I originally met Schnekloth on Facebook when I joined the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Clergy Facebook group upon the recommendation of my local bishop, Michael Rinehart. Schnekloth has been a big help to me in my writing in several ways and it is my honor to help get the word out about his new book.

MediatingFaith

Click the book cover for ordering information.

The first thing I need to let you know about Mediating Faith is that if you think this is just a book about how particular types of media can be tools for ministry, you’re thinking too small. This book is way more than that. In fact, Schnekloth suggests that “all of life is mediated, and much more is media than we are often aware.”

To be frank, that suggestion both frightens and intrigues me all at once. I mean, I want so much to be “real” with people, to be honest in my writing, to have an authentic voice. To consider that everything I do is “mediated” made me squirm a little. But Schnekloth points out in a footnote that even the Bible itself is media–we are just so used to it that we forget to think of it as such.

It is just this kind of revelation about how media is integrated into our lives such that we forget it is even there to which Schnekloth invites us. Furthermore, if media is so integral to who we are, how best can we as people of faith be stewards of the wide range of media available to us to help pass on the faith?

And speaking of the wide range of media available to us, Schnekloth truly covers the spectrum from faith-formation practices based on historic texts to the mysterious world of massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs).

Once again, I admit I felt frightened at the mention of MMORPGs because this is a world that I don’t understand and have been reluctant to enter. So, imagine my surprise then when the part of the book that most delighted me came in insights derived from gaming!

After reading Mediating Faith, I am able to recognize my discomfort with MMORPGs is rather similar to the way I once was and many people I know still are reticent about joining Facebook. Whereas now, my Facebook, my own Facebook, my own most precious Facebook has become very much an extension of who I am. I mean, after all I met Schnekloth on Facebook!

The final thing I want to let you know about Mediating Faith is that you will want to have your dictionary.com handy while you’re reading, and maybe even Wikipedia. Schnekloth is not ascared of big words, but I promise you that every one he uses is worth looking up to get his full meaning.

I do recommend this book to those interested in stewarding the range of media available for the purposes of faith-formation. It is dense, but rich and worth your time. And I look forward to future works from Schnekloth and however else he finds to frighten me because just when his writing gets scary is when it gets really good.

P.S. Don’t forget to click the photo above to listen to our interview at Life & Liberty!