Confusion and Joy

My message for Easter Sunday Celebration at First Friends Church in Emporia, KS.

John 20:1-21

Confusion and Joy

These were the emotions that accompanied the experiences of Jesus’s closest friends and followers on the day of his resurrection. And why not? Any one of us would feel the same. For years they had followed him, listened to his teaching, witnessed his miracles and even the glory. They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would rescue God’s people Israel from their cruel oppressors. He would be their hero, arrayed in armor for battle, leading the charge.

Only he wasn’t. And he didn’t.

Instead he surrendered without a fight. He wouldn’t put up a defense in his trial. He let them bind him, whip him, beat him, spit on him, mock him, pull out his beard, and then he carried his cross to the place where they would crucify him.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah. Maybe they’d all been conned by a smooth talker who knew just the right things to say. Maybe they were wrong and he was just a good teacher intent on reminding Israel of God’s love and mercy. Maybe…the maybes were endless. What do you do when your dreams come crashing down?

The disciples holed up in an upper room, one with a good solid lock on the door.

The women gathered their spices and went to finish the job of burying the man they had followed who treated them like no man ever had before. Like persons of worth. Like bearers of the divine image. Like God’s children, not objects, not slaves, but companions for the journey. The women rolled up their sleeves and got to work as soon as the Sabbath had ended and they set out to anoint the body before it had another day to swelter in the tomb.

When they arrived, they were met with a puzzle. The stone was rolled away. The door open and unguarded. The tomb empty. What had happened? Who had been here, where was the body, how do they now carry out their final tribute to their friend without a body? The questions multiplied by the minute. Not once did they dare to hope that they would see him alive again.

Mary took charge, running to find Peter and John. She told them what they had seen, and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John stopped at the door, but Peter being Peter ran right on in and stood in the space that had just held the body of their friend. Empty. Just the cloth binding that had wrapped his corpse lying on the shelf to show that the space had been occupied.

They returned, more questions than before. No answers. No idea of what to do next.

Mary stayed behind. Overwhelmed with grief and frustration, unable to perform this last service for her teacher, she wept. Through her tears she gazed again into the tomb and there—where minutes before there was darkness and empty space—sat two angels. I don’t know if the day could have gotten any stranger for her at this point, but they speak to her of her tears. Why is she weeping when Jesus is not dead? Who is she looking for?

She turns as she answers, as if to search for him once again, she just wants to know where his body is. And then she sees him. Thinking he is the gardener, she asks him where they have taken him. She volunteers to go and carry him back to where he belongs. He speaks her name and she knows. It’s Jesus.

Her confusion turns to joy in a moment, so great that she throws herself at his feet. Fresh tears burst forth. There is no logic in this moment, she doesn’t try to figure it all out. He is alive and that is all that matters to her. She is consumed by a joy as overpowering as her grief had been moments ago.

Jesus gave her a message and she carried it faithfully to tell the disciples that he was alive, risen from the dead.

Other Gospels tell us that they did not believe her. It was news too good to be true, the delusion of a woman lost in despair.

That night he stands among them and blesses them. “Peace” he says, imparting to them divine wholeness, healing, restoration, forgiveness for their faithlessness, all in one breath. And then he begins to speak to them of the mission he has for them. Just as the father had sent him, he now is sending them to carry his message of the kingdom, to bring hope and healing and light where darkness, brokenness, and resignation have reigned for so long.

If this were a fairytale, at this point we would say that they all lived happily ever after. But we know that is not true in this case. They did not immediately lose their questions, their doubt, their need. They did not immediately receive the peace he offered. They did not immediately understand their mission. Like us, they were human beings living real lives with real hardship. But on that day, resurrection day, their confusion was overcome by their joy.

Jesus is alive.

They walked with him, and listened to him again for a time before he ascended into heaven. And he promised them that they would not be left alone. That promise is ours as well. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in our real lives with real hardship, real questions, real doubts.

Today we celebrate the day that their confusion turned to joy, and we can join our joy with theirs because in rising from the dead, he defeated the last fear, the last stronghold. Jesus has conquered death and hell and the grave, and no matter what we experience in our earthly lives we know we do not walk alone and the victory he won is ours as well.

Jesus lives and so do we, free to live in this bodily life, free to look forward to a life that does not end, free to know that our lives can have eternal significance as we follow him.

Christ has risen, Alleluia!

 

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An open heart in the face of grief

Pregnant women experience spotting all the time, and everything turns out fine. The voice of denial did it’s best to keep panic at bay. I struggled through prayers of bargaining, and anger at my body for the biggest betrayal I’d ever experienced. All the stages of grief cycled again and again, but I always came back to denial in those early days.

Not denial of facts, but denying myself the experience of emotions I was sure would overwhelm me. My heart was locked down tight.

What else could I do? I had just announced to my church elder board that I was pregnant the week before. I had responsibilities at church on Sunday. My family of three was headed out of state on Monday to our Pastor’s Retreat, which I still felt strange attending as just an associate pastor.

I didn’t have time to fall apart. I didn’t want to feel all the pain, and loss, and grief. Other people needed me to be strong. And it felt as though God wasn’t answering my prayers. I wasn’t particularly interested in anything He had to say, either, so I guess it was mutual.

The bleeding continued as I packed the car, as I preached in church, as we took family pictures of all things. One of the Elders, a woman, noticed something was wrong and asked me if I had lost the baby. I nodded. She cried. I didn’t.

We went to our Pastor’s Retreat, I pasted on a half-smile and determined not to talk to anyone about anything serious. Keep it light. Skim the surface. Bury it deep.

I’m not sure why it was that I wandered out into the common area during our free time. Husband and toddler napping, I thought I would try to journal a bit. As I sat, a woman I’d never met struck up a conversation. I don’t know how it happened, but I told her everything. Not sure what to expect, I certainly didn’t think she’d tell me that she had also suffered pregnancy loss, three times.

It was a comfort, knowing I was not alone, that life really could continue. When I went back to my journal, there was a prompt in my spirit that I needed to grieve. I desperately did not want to do any such thing. The impression was unmistakable “If you do not grieve this loss, you claim that it had no value.”

When we value things and lose them, we grieve. We may not like it, but that is the way life is. By refusing to grieve, we deny that what was lost had value. By refusing to be affected, we deny that what was lost had any impact on our existence. I could not allow that. This tiny life had lived for such a brief time, the only impact it could have was on me. I would not rob this life of meaning.

So I grieved. I opened the doors of my heart and let the pain in, and let the pain out.

And it was worth every tear, and sob, and sigh.

Brené Brown says that we cannot selectively numb our pain. When we shut down we shut out everything, including joy. It is better to live with an open heart and some pain than to live without pain and also without joy.

This pregnancy loss happened in May of 2005. I had a subsequent loss in August of 2005, and another over Memorial Day weekend 2011. Each loss was its own journey through pain, acceptance, and healing. I had to choose every time to open my heart and feel the loss when by my own habit and nature I would have avoided and stuffed those feelings down deep.

If you are experiencing grief, or if you never gave yourself permission to grieve a secret loss, give yourself permission to open your heart. You will not heal with it closed off, and you will find that joy is dulled and life loses it’s color. It will hurt. But it will not hurt forever, at least not with the same sting.

I still feel sad when I think of the losses we experienced, of wanted babies. It does not overwhelm me, though, with tidal force waves of grief. I have walked on, and I have delivered two healthy babies since that first loss, for a total of three. I have had 6 pregnancies, and 3 live births.

Not everyone’s story ends like mine. I have a beautiful friend who is expecting baby number 8 in June, she has her own stories of loss. I have a brave and wonderful friend who, unable to conceive, has chosen adoption. I know families who have chosen not to have children, those who have chosen adoption over producing biological children, and those who are still charting their course. Wherever you are on this journey of life and family, I hope you choose to walk bravely forward with an open heart. You may experience loss and grief, but you will also encounter moments of exquisite joy that you may have otherwise missed.

An Open Heart
ReFreshing

Everybody Grieves

Today I officiated my 30th funeral.

It’s really a milestone I never considered as I started in my first solo pastor position ten years ago. As a 27-year-old mother of almost two at the time, birth was on my mind ever so much more than death. Regardless, I narrowly missed preaching my first funeral less than 2 weeks after my first Sunday in my new church. Thankfully the family had already planned for a former minister to come for the service.

I’ve had years of no funerals, and a 12 month period in which I performed 10. There is no predicting how many times I will serve in this way, nor whose family I will sit with next as we attempt to honor a 60, 70, 80 year life in a span of 30 minutes of memories, eulogies, scriptures and songs. It can be heart breaking.

It can also be uplifting as I listen to family members laugh at their loved one’s quirks, smiling at their bossiness, forgetfulness, tardiness, or other trait that in life annoyed them. Now those family members cherish even the most irksome habits.

img_0095In a society that goes out of its way to ignore death, put it off, and pretend it only happens to other people, I need to tell you that everybody grieves. Sooner or later there will be a day when you grieve the loss of a loved one. I have grieved more than I could ever have thought possible in these past 10 years. I need to tell you that it’s ok to mourn.

There is no time limit on grief, no amount of days or months in which you are required to be over the loss you suffered. You will find that life continues to go on. Without your permission the clock still ticks. The sun sets only to rise again on days when you feel darkness would be a better accompaniment to your pain. But no one asks you if it is ok for light to come seeping in at the corners.

The waves of sudden sadness crash in at the most unexpected times, when you see someone who reminds you of the one you lost. A memory, a smell, a song might send you rushing from the room to dry your tears. Don’t listen to the voices in your head or from others who will say you are being ridiculous. Tears are a sign of love.

Pain from loss is a signal that you are missing something precious. You would not grieve if you did not cherish what was lost. If you felt no pain, would you be claiming they had no value?

Or perhaps the person died leaving pain of a different kind in their wake. They caused real harm, and never made amends. The hurt of that loss can persist even longer.

img_0094

If you grieve today, know that you are not alone. Grief is as much a part of life as the celebration of birth. It is inseparable from our human existence. Look at the people around you, either they have experienced grief or they will. And you can be guaranteed that it will not be on their preferred time-table.

So cry your tears, laugh at the memories, share your pain with people who love you.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will receive comfort.” – Jesus

Acknowledging our common experience.
How ReFreshing.

 

 

100 Lives to Give

I wrote about a month ago about transitions, one of which was my last living grandparents moving into the nursing home. None of us knew then what Grandpa seemed to, that time was short and things needed to be put in order before his passing.

My gentle, patient Grandpa died yesterday morning.

I tried earlier to express some of my thoughts about his life and who he was, what he loved, but I kept feeling that though there were a lot of words I was still falling short.

Grandpa’s life was about one thing: he had experienced God’s love and grace, and dearly wished the same for others.

My grandpa was a farm boy. Maybe that is where he learned to love growing things. Grandpa had a garden. And house plants. And gourds growing on vines. If he could find a place for something else to grow, he would use every inch.

He planted seeds, watered them and was patient as they took root. He watched them grow and eagerly anticipated the fruit even while carefully clearing the weeds. He used the same methods as he nurtured life in those around him. His gentleness was evident to everyone.

My grandparents served as missionaries in Central Africa for nearly 30 years, alternating service there with teaching school here in the U.S. Countless people have and continue to express how much their interactions with my grandparents gave them hope and helped them grow.

I remember visits from them as a child when they would bring us African treasures and sleep in an A-frame house, where we sometimes joined them for snuggles before breakfast. Lying in between them and listening as Grandpa would tell stories about The 3 Cats Who Went to See the King, and The Boy Who Killed the Chicken. Grandpa taught me to count to 10 in French with a little story, and told funny jokes about preachers and missionaries that still make me smile.

As an adult, he affirmed my calling to ministry and advocated for me in the process of recording my ordination as a minister of the gospel. Grandpa always expressed his pride at having children and grandchildren who followed Jesus.

Grandpa loved Jesus and said, “I wish I had 100 loves to give to serving him.” (People say things like this, but Grandpa meant it.)

I can’t help but think that while he only had one life to give, the legacy he leaves behind is not a mere hundred lives but thousands of lives glorifying God and serving others.

I am blessed to count myself among them.

Let your light so shine that men see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” Matthew 5:16