Friday, March 10, 2017

Holy Vessels

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
2 Corinthians 4:7

While I was pastoring my first church in Oklahoma, on Sunday nights I was attending another church. The Sunday night church was UCC and a church born during the late 80’s when so many of God’s children were dying from the AIDS crisis.  The pastor, Leslie, was a Methodist minister.  One of her congregants was a nurse at the local hospital. She asked Leslie if she would come and pray with one of her patients.  The congregant explained that the patient had no one—no family, no friends and no faith leader. Because of the fear of AIDS, people all stayed away.

Leslie said yes; and the next week when she was at the hospital she went in and spoke with this young man.  Leslie said they prayed together and he wept. The patient couldn’t believe that a Christian minister would pray for him.

Word got out among the hospital staff that there was a Christian minister not afraid to go in AIDS patient’s rooms and who did not judge the patient as sinful but rather welcomed them as ones loved by God.  Leslie said she got lots of calls; from patients who got out of the hospital, from other nurses and hospital staff.

Some of the ones who she prayed for recovered well enough to come to church.  Some of the ones who died had other family and friends who came to church.  Leslie’s church grew. But Leslies church was housed in another church facility. The parent church grew uncomfortable. Leslie’s theology and willingness to interact and welcome AIDS patients was too much for them. They asked her and her congregation to leave.

When I first met them they had a building of their own. The church congregation voted to leave the Methodist denomination and to become UCC.  There was a whole wall of brightly colored hand prints that flowed from the sanctuary down the hall way.  Painting your hand and placing it on the wall was how part of the way you joined the church.

Many who placed their hands on the walls later died. They did not survive their illness. But they had a church congregation surrounding them and loving them and praying God’s love for them.

By the time I first attended, the church was very mixed with all genders and orientations represented. I loved much about this church. But one of the things I loved best was how they had taken the religious language and symbols and really studied them and made them their own.

Inside the sanctuary (a simple large square room) they had a round table. The table sat in the middle of the room with folding chairs in encircling the table. The farthest row of chairs were recliners and rockers who those who weren’t comfortable vertically or still.  As you walked in, Leslie handed out service parts.  Many of us participated with a reading or lighting candles.

Every week they served communion. They always used a loaf of real bread. And the item that drew my attention most was a chalice (cup) that was broken and pieced and glued back together. During the communion Leslie said, "We are broken vessels made whole." The congregation truly understood that communion is about knowing you are broken but in Christ you are made whole.

During Lent we remember that each and every one of us is a “clay jar” in which holds light of Christ.  Ash Wednesday and every Sunday we will focus on pray and how we can be made whole.

The word “penance” is interpreted by the Eastern Orthodox Church, as a process of healing what has been hurt. From this perspective the journey to Easter is more about learning and preparing to “live the Easter life—living as if death has no hold on us. To move toward healing is to offer the gift of life and wholeness.  As we begin to see each person as a Holy Vessel, we come to desire that wholeness for all creation. *

“Ordinary pieces of tableware or beer or soda bottles are flung into the ocean. Years pass, or decades, and then one day, there it is upon the shore: a small shard from one of those long ago discarded objects. Shifting currents have rounded its edges; abrasion has polished its surface; exposure to the sun has altered its hue. And so, when we happen upon it, here amidst the shell and seaweed, we can’t help but laugh with joy at what seems a miracle: this ordinary fragment of silica that time and adversity have transformed into something beautiful,” The Writers at the Beach.*

*Holy Vessels from  Used with permission through subscription.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Totem

The graves clung to the side of the hill. They looked like wide speed bumps covered in crushed marble, divided by strips of Georgia red clay. The wind whipped among the headstones. My toes were icy and my ears hurt from the wind. My legs were mottled red and pink and ached. I pulled on my mother’s hand trying to force her to our car. She was determined to find our family connections.  

At last she said, “Come here and get inside my coat.” Her wide, red, wool, swing coat had extra room. Room enough for mama and me. My back pressed against her belly and her arms wrapped around me. Sharing her warmth—as always.

She unbuttoned the middle buttons so my face could poke out. We stood on the hillside like a totem. Mama reading family names and me breathing in her scent and warmth.

When the car driving past us slid off the road and hit the loose gravel, we both turned to look. The man driving had a confused, frightened look on his face. He slowed as he stared but he didn’t stop. He acted like he had never seen a two-faced being. Or maybe it was the cold wind forcing him off the road like it forced me back into mama’s red woolen nest. We moved together—four legs, four arms, one body—toward the car.

When I asked, mama said “no they aren’t cold.” 
“Down below the surface,” she said “the ground is always just warm enough.” Maybe.

Maybe, but none of them have a swing coat wide enough to hold a frozen child.