Rural Lenawee

rural lenawee

This lovely photo was taken by Lad Strayer, photographer for our local newspaper. He often posts them to Facebook. Lenawee is the name of our county. It is an Indian name that means, I believe, ‘the people.’

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Wedding Homily for Lainey and Travis

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(Last weekend I officiated at a wedding for the daughter of a friend who died last year. This is the homily from that wedding. My wife also officiated, and she put the frame together as I spoke.)

Madeleine L’Engle said, “Two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take. It is a fearful gamble, because it is in the nature of love to create, and a marriage is something which is to be created, so that together we become a new creature.”

Lainey and Travis, you are taking a risk today, a gamble, as you create a new life together as wife and husband. We celebrate your risk, and we admire the love within you that prompts you to take the risk of marriage.

We wanted a visual aid to represent this marriage you are creating. We thought of a frame. Just as a frame has four sides that come together, so also your marriage has four sides that come together and make it whole.

The first side of the frame is commitment. By coming here today and saying your vows to one another in public, you are pledging your commitment to one another. In his book The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman identifies five ways couples can show their commitment to one another: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Each of us, he says, has one or two of these love languages that are most important to us. We recommend you use these five love languages to express your commitment to one another.

The second side of the frame is comfort. Both of you have known struggle, heartache, and pain in your life. One of the benefits of having a life partner, is that you have a person you can go to for comfort, support, and strength. Lainey, you mentioned a time when Travis had to pick you up and carry you because walking right then was hard to do. This is what comfort looks like: one carrying the other. Travis, there will be times when Lainey will pick you up and carry you. Be a comfort to one another.

The third side of the frame is creativity. Each of you is a creative person in what you do or will do for a living. And together you are creating a marriage and a family. In the Bible, we read how God created the universe. In marriage and family life, you are privileged to participate and further that creative activity. Be sure you help each other to set free the creative potential you both have.

The fourth side of the frame is Christ. Christ affirmed the value of marriage, and he attended a wedding at Cana in Galilee, enjoying that special day himself. Christ is also attending your wedding today. Christ will be present in your home, whether you realize he is there or not. Listen for the voice of Christ comforting you, consoling you, and challenging you to become more together than you ever could be apart.

Here are the four sides of your common life: commitment, comfort, creativity, and Christ. These four come together in your frame.

We also have a mat, which people here today witnessing your vows will be able to sign after the service. It will be a reminder of their presence and their love for you.
It will be up to you to finish the project by putting something inside of the mat and frame, just as it will be up to you to finish the marriage that we are helping you start today. We love you and wish you well.

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Resurrection Sermon

The Road to Emmaus story is beautiful. It is the most beautiful of the resurrection stories about Jesus. Luke, the writer, has put the story together in a lovely way. It is best not to think of Luke as a reporter writing for a newspaper, trying to get his facts and quotes accurate. He is more a dramatist, and this is a scene in his drama about Christ. There is a message he wants to communicate to us in this scene.

Two disciples of Jesus are walking along the road. It is evening on the first Easter, so about 48 hours since Jesus has died. Their emotional state, we are told, is deep sadness. Their teacher, friend, mentor Jesus has died a violent death.

When someone close to you dies, it’s like you are in a train wreck. Afterward there is all this wreckage around, and a loud ringing in your ears for days. It is disorienting, to say the least. This is where these disciples are now, with a loud ringing in their ears, walking along in sadness.

A stranger comes up and walks with them. We know it’s Jesus, but they do not. (This is a dramatic technique.) They begin a conversation. They tell him about the awful things that have happened to them lately. He listens patiently, and then he interprets their experiences to them using the holy scriptures. He helps them understand what has happened. This encourages their hearts.

Later, at a meal together, they are struck by how the stranger handles bread. There is something familiar in the gesture. Suddenly, the realize it is Jesus. Finally, the recognize him. Then he vanishes.

Luke, our dramatist, is telling us how we experience the risen Christ today by means of this story. I will have more to say about this in a minute. But first, I want to talk a bit about resurrection. What is the resurrection of Jesus?

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There are two traditional ways of understanding the resurrection of Jesus. Each has a long history; neither is new (although they get stated and packaged in new ways). One sees resurrection as miracle, the other sees it as metaphor. Call them Option One and Option Two.

Option One goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. After his death, Jesus’ tomb was found empty, his body missing. Then he appeared, in some form, to his followers in various places. He was the same, and different; recognizable, and not recognizable. He had been raised and changed.

Please understand resurrection is not a resuscitation. The two are different, but often confused. If my heart stopped beating and I collapsed, someone could resuscitate me and bring me back to life. (Hopefully they would!) But I would not be resurrected.

To be resurrected means to be raised from death into an entirely new form of embodied life. St Paul called the resurrection body soma pneumatikos, which means a body animated by the very breath of God. Option One says Jesus had such a body after his resurrection, and we will as well at our resurrection. Jesus was raised in this way, transformed, leading his disciples to be transformed as well.

Option Two dates back about 300 years. It may have been present earlier, but it didn’t get traction in the church until the rise of English Deism in the 1700s. Deism was a form of Christianity that was deeply skeptical of miracles. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist; he literally took a knife and cut all the miracles out of the Gospels, leaving only the ethical teachings.

Deism was a response to the rise of modern science, with its empirical worldview. What is real is what we can observe with our senses, measure with our instruments, and study in a laboratory. Anything beyond this is less real, less important, and less trustworthy.

So in terms of resurrection, it must be a metaphor. Dead bodies don’t magically come to life again; this is empirically verifiable. The dead body of Jesus was laid in a grave where it decayed like any other body. (Or was eaten by wild animals, another option.) But this doesn’t matter because his followers experienced his continuing presence with them. They told these resurrection stories as myth and symbol of this continuing presence of Jesus. The resurrection then serves as a metaphor of the new life we can experience now.

What matters is not what happened to Jesus; what is important is what happens now. Paul Tillich, in the 20th century, summed up this view of resurrection: “Resurrection never happened, and it always happens.” Not miracle, but metaphor.

Today, Option One is taught by N.T. Wright, a British scholar, and Option Two is taught by American Marcus Borg. The two are good friends, although I think each is pretty appalled at the beliefs of the other.

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So where am I? I am an Option One person. There are reasons. To begin, it doesn’t make sense to me that the disciples would be transformed if Jesus had not been. If they knew his body was mouldering away in a grave, I don’t see how they would have been changed in the way they were. That doesn’t seem logical to me.

Beyond this, there are two reasons I am in Option One. The first comes from Barbara Brown Taylor (which is ironic since I think she is more Option Two). She asks a simple question: “What is keeping you alive right now?” Good question to ask.

For me, in light of all that’s happened in the last year or more, what is keeping me alive is resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection and our own promised resurrection. But for it to keep me alive, it needs to be more than a metaphor. Death is not a metaphor; it is an ugly fact. If resurrection is God’s antidote to death, resurrection needs to be more than a metaphor too. It needs to be actual, tangible. That makes me Option One. (I understand this stems from my need. I own that.)

The second reason I am Option One comes from biology, strangely enough. Biology teaches me about an amazing transformation. We are all here living organisms. We are mammals. But once, a long long time ago, we were bacteria. All life, including our life, started out as bacteria, in a mud puddle somewhere.

Later we evolved into being fish. But we were unsuccessful at being fish. We failed at fishhood because we kept flopping out of the water. We wanted to develop legs so that we could go places. And in time, a very long time, we evolved into being human, as we are now.

This transformation is astonishing, from bacteria to fish to human. It is a miracle, you might say! So science invites me to believe in this amazing transformation of life and bodies on earth; and along comes religion and invites me to believe in another transformation, one that happened to the very body of Jesus on the third day. If I believe in the first transformation (of science), what is to prevent me from believing the second? I can believe in both and still be a thinking, modern person. Actually, postmodern, but that’s another sermon.

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So this is my reasoning about being an Option One person. But it doesn’t mean I take the Emmaus story at face value. I don’t. OF COURSE the story is symbolic. It is dripping with symbolism. Luke, the writer, the dramatist, is dramatizing for us how we experience the risen Christ here and now.

In a word, we experience Christ liturgically. We find Christ in the acts of common worship, as we are engaging in them right now.

In the Emmaus story, Christ is revealed as the scriptures are opened. So here in common worship, the scriptures are read, opened, interpreted. In the Emmaus story, Christ is revealed in the bread and the common meal. So in worship, we share communion together and experience Christ. The Emmaus story does not add explicitly, but I would add that in the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, the anthems we sing and hear, the music that is played, in all these acts of common worship Christ is present to us as well.

It is here in common worship, week by week, that Christ draws alongside of us as the stranger we do not know. Here in worship Christ teaches us, feeds us, lifts us. Christ encourages us and enlightens us. Christ meets us here.

What is the result? We no longer need walk in sadness, with a loud ringing in our ears. Instead, we walk in beauty, because Christ walks with us.

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Sunrise

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There was a lovely sunrise this morning while we were driving east on Sutton Road. A large orange ball rising up through the trees.

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Homily For Lew Stone

On New Years Day 1940, when Lew was 16 years old, he and his brother tried to go ice skating. He wrote about it in his journal, “Mick and I endeavored to go skating this morning, but alas! we came home forlorn and defeated by a bitterly cold wind.” Not many 16 year old boys write like this, lyrical and poetic, but Lew did. He even spoke like that.

In my mind I hear his voice in dramatic tones saying, “I was forlorn and defeated by a bitterly cold wind.” Then he’d smile with a glimmer in his eye. That was Lew.

That day in 1940 wasn’t the only cold wind he faced in life. He braved other challenges. In his early years, he lost his mother at the age of four. In his final years he struggled with an aging body that was wearing out. Lew faced all the challenges in his life with faith, courage and determination.

Saint Paul compared the human body to a tent. He wrote, “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul actually made tents and sold them for a living. It’s how he earned his room and board. He knew from experience that even the best quality tent only had a limited lifespan. The tent would wear out and need to be replaced.

As he worked making tents, Paul had time to reflect on our life in the body. The body itself is like a tent, fragile and temporary. Paul was also a Christian immersed in life in the Spirit. He had a deep conviction in the resurrection of Christ. He believed that when our tent wears out and falls down, God has prepared a new place for us to live, a permanent structure. It’s a “house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.”

Francis Hole was a soil scientist and lifelong Quaker. He said this about bodies: “Our bodies are disposable, biodegradable containers for Spirit.” This quote fits well with Paul’s image of the body as a tent. It’s a container for something else.

In the last few years, I have watched Lew each week as he came to church. I have marveled at his determination. He always kept moving, even though everything was so difficult. Walking into a restroom, going down a hallway, coming up for communion — all of these things posed great challenges for Lew. Every place he went he had to drag along his tent that was falling down. But he faced it all with grace and perseverance. Now he’s been set free from his worn out tent. He is settling in to new accommodations. In words from Paul, what was mortal in Lew has been swallowed up by life.

Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, says that death wears five faces. Death is a Stranger who comes to us uninvited. Death is an Enemy who steals what is precious. Death is a Friend who relieves suffering. Death is a Lover who brings us face to face with God who loves us passionately. And lastly, death is a Mother who births us into eternal life.

Lew encountered death in all of these ways. But the last face, death as Mother, intrigues me most. Lew lost his mother at the beginning of his life. He gained a new mother at the end. This last mother birthed him into an unimaginable life, beyond anything we in our tents can dream of.

Everyone knows that we all die in theory, but they seldom believe it will happen to them personally. They’re usually shocked when it does. But for each of us, our tents only stay up so long. I look forward to when what is mortal in me is swallowed up by life. I look forward to joining my dear friend Lew in the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Amen.

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I Miss My Friends

[This is a church newsletter article from last month, reflecting on recent losses in our congregation.]

I miss my friends. Lew, Lois, JoAn, Kelly, Pete, Larry, Alice, and others. They’ve gone through a door that takes them to Christ. I’ll go through the same door one day. But for now, they live with Him on the other side of the door, and I live on this side. They graduated, and I stay in school. I miss my friends. I think about them every day.

My friends were a presence in my life, but now they are absent to me and present to Christ. I know them only as absence, as emptiness. Just as I start to get over one of them leaving, another goes away. It’s hard to lose a friend. It leaves a hole in the heart, and you must learn to walk around the hole.

My friends are in heaven, but where is that? If heaven is the place where God dwells, and God is everywhere, then does that mean my friends in heaven are everywhere too? It may not be possible, though, to call heaven a place at all since it’s so unlike anything we ordinarily call a place. Heaven is the not-a-place behind all places.

When John Wesley needed new faith, he sat in a home on Aldersgate Street and listened to Luther. So I have been reading Luther too. Luther points my attention back to the Gospel — to a heart with simple faith that holds onto promises. Faith has nothing else to cling to but a promise.

To a heartbroken woman whose brother had died, Christ made a promise: “Whoever believes in Me, even though they die, yet shall they live.” I trust in His promise too. Standing next to an icy cold grave, the promise seems as thin as thread, but faith tells me it’s as strong as a steel cable. Strong enough to hold me and my friends.

I trust Christ has given life to my friends who have died. He has welcomed them to His Father’s house. Christ will also give life to me one day when I walk through the door. I will see my friends again, face to face, in the not-a-place behind all places.

But for now, I simply miss them. Their absence swirls around like drifting snow, waiting for spring.

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How I Found Faith

When I was four years old, our family moved to southern Nevada. I grew up in the desert. I walked through the desert each day to get to school. After school, and on weekends, I played in the desert. I was familiar with sand, lizards, and Joshua trees. I learned early to love the desert.

(After I die, you can mix a spoonful of my ashes in with the Nevada desert. The rest can go in a Memorial Garden.)

Although I grew up in a desert, I didn’t grow up in a church. After our move, we got disconnected from church. I didn’t go to Vacation Bible School or Sunday school. In my teens, we started going to church again. We attended First Presbyterian where Rev. Philips was pastor. He preached long sermons. I tried not to fall asleep. But my eyes grew heavy. Finally at the end of the sermon, he’d say three little words: “Let us pray…” At last I could close my eyes! I didn’t find God in church (at least not right away).

I found God in the mountains. Or rather, God found me in the mountains. When I was fourteen, I went to a Presbyterian youth camp in the Sierras. The camp was called Calvin Crest. I spent a week there in 1977. We sat on the floor in the lodge and sang songs. We heard speakers tell us about God and faith. We swam in the pool and played on the field. We went hiking. We had a campfire at night.

On the final night at the campfire, people came forward, one by one, threw a pinecone on the fire, and shared how they met God that week. I wasn’t one of them. I still wasn’t sure whether I believed in God or not. I was an agnostic.

The change happened next year at Calvin Crest. I can’t tell you why it was different. I don’t know why an agnostic became a believer, but that’s when it happened. We did the same things: sang songs, listened to speakers, sat around a campfire. But I changed that week. One night I left our cabin and walked out among the trees. There was a smell of pine in the air. The stars were clear. I looked up at the night sky, and suddenly I knew that God knew me. God knew me all along, but I hadn’t known this until now. God who made galaxies knew who I was, a teenage boy. It was a startling thought. John Wesley’s heart was ‘strangely warmed’ when he found faith. I just remember smiling and laughing to myself. The little laugh people use when they finally get something. That was the birth of faith in me.

Later I learned that there are reasons to believe in God. Thomas Aquinas has five of them. Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis also offer good reasons to believe in God. But I don’t think reasons to believe will make you believe in God. Reasons only remind you that the belief in God you have is reasonable.

After Calvin Crest, I started reading the Bible. I noticed a curious thing about how people find God in the Bible. They often find God in the desert, on a mountain, or by a lake. In other words, they find God outdoors, like I found God at Calvin Crest. You can find God indoors too. But we often bump into God out in God’s creation. John Calvin said nature is a theater of God’s glory. It’s a theater where the play is always going on.

Some of you have found faith. You can point to a time in your life when faith appeared. Others have not yet found faith. Still others have walked through pain and sorrow and wonder if they have lost their faith. Everyone is in a unique place in their life of faith.

To anyone who needs a new faith, I’d say ask for faith. And put yourself in a place where faith can appear. Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you. Seek, and you shall find.” Just by going to Calvin Crest 36 years ago, I was seeking God. And much to my surprise, I was found by the One who had been seeking me all along.

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