Thursday, November 12, 2009

New insights cultivated by grief--maybe foundations for a sermon on joy?

What moves someone toward a call to ordained ministry?

I often wondered about the call to ministry while I was in seminary. I met a diverse group of people at Luther Seminary who changed their entire lives to enter a vocation that would often times drive them to immense pain and despair. For example, people uprooted their families or gave up lucrative opportunities either with the student or the spouse, or took on huge amounts of debt. I'm not speaking to the wisdom of these choices, but the motivation behind these choices. Sometimes the call seems inevitable. I met several people who would be third or fourth generation clergy. For others it involved a powerful experience at a Lutheran camp, or a significant connection with a local congregation or pastor. For others becoming a pastor represented a strong faith and cultural heritage. I heard many stories of people who experienced the grace of God in the midst of grief.

I didn't relate to many of these kinds of stories, which made me question my call to ministry. If these were the stories that produced the call to ministry, how was my story going to fit in to the life of the Church as an ordained pastor? If these were the stories of God's people, and the stories of people called to serve in ordained ministry, how was I called to proclaim the Gospel if I didn't share similar experiences with the people I served? I know that sometimes we walk into situations where we are called to share God's love with people in which we have little in common in experience--but sometimes the gaps can be daunting. I recall some leaders in the Church who affirmed my calling and told me to have that call be molded by the Holy Spirit and my own experience, and not to worry so much about the expectations compiled by the human element of the Church. That kind of encouragement sealed my call to ordained ministry as I know it today. How I will live out that calling may change, but I am confident in that call. Sometimes calling gets muddled in the day to day activities of congregational life.

One particular part of ordained ministry that has always challenged me is to be present with grieving people. I don't believe that people receive equal portions of grief in their life or that grief is coming soon for those who haven't experienced much of it, or even that grief is coming for those who somehow "deserve" it. I haven't experienced a large portion of grief in my life. My grandfather (to whom I was very close) died in 2001, and I miss him to this day. But grief is not a prominent emotional experience of my life.

I mightily struggled through my required chaplaincy at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle during the summer of 1995. I was often paralyzed, and other times I tried to follow some kind of pastoral care flow chart that made me look like a buffoon. Though many pastoral care and psychiatric professionals have written about stages of grief and leave lots of room for interpretation, if I've learned anything about grief, I've learned that it's not like following a recipe or a set of instructions for putting together a child's toy. Addressing grief is really about listening--guided by love, trust and wisdom. For all of the grieving families whom I have served over 11 years of ordained ministry, I can see what they experience, and do my best to listen, but the depth of my empathy is somewhat limited. It's taken me about 10 years to realize that that is okay.

Yesterday, my wife and I put to sleep our 12 1/2 year old chocolate lab, Hunter. His health was declining on multiple levels rapidly, and he had lost a lot of who he was. There were a few things that could not be taken away from Hunter, regardless of his health. He would never do anything to intentionally disappoint his people, and all he basically wanted was to be near Melanie, me, and our two daughters. Basic sustenance was secondary to him, all he wanted was our companionship. He never held it over our heads when we weren't able to give him companionship, he always rejoiced in what we could or would give him. We weren't looking forward to the day when we would have to make a decision about his life, we hoped that he would just lay down one night, go to sleep, and not wake up. Though we hoped for something a little easier, we experienced many gifts from Hunter, even as our family prepared to say goodbye to him. I'm glad we were able to say goodbye as we did. Hunter was never alone for the last 72 hours of his life. We gave him some of his favorite treats, took him on his favorite kind of nature walks, took him to the beach, gave him a lot of extra attention and took pictures with him.

The first gift for me in Hunter's last days was to learn more about grief. Grief is creatively paralyzing (at least for me). Though many people don't consider themselves "creative," we each create something every day. Sometimes a creative act involves making meals for a family member, creating hospitality in our everyday interactions, creating wealth so that others can make a living, creating reports so that people can be informed, creating paintings so that others may experience beauty, and so on. Giving is a creative act of love initiated by God, and when we give, we experience and pass on the love poured out in God's creative activity. The past four days I could not put together a coherent thought. The best ministry work I could do was involved tasks I can do on automatic pilot, and even those took more thought than usual. I miss Hunter and all that he did and all that he represents. I thought I heard him stirring in the house last night, but it was some other noise. I looked for him as I woke up in the middle of the night, only to be saddened by his vacancy from a place where we could almost always find him. Melanie and I talked about Hunter until the fatigue of grief overtook our desire to stay awake and talk about Hunter.

In grief I recall the temptation to stay away from anything that produces grief. Giving of self always involves risk--and we do so much to protect ourselves from giving of ourselves. Sometimes the risk of interaction is important to recognize and heed (protection is important). But look at the other side of that safety/risk-averse side of the coin. Look at the society we have "created"--where we put ourselves out in the world, yet we do whatever we can to minimize the risk of basic human interaction. Look at how people interact on Facebook, Twitter, on message boards and blogs. We have caller ID for phones to keep out of unwanted conversations or commerce. We institute passwords or cloaked identities to stay away from possibly damaging interaction. We install security systems to keep away predators. Sometimes people wear headphones to stay out of basic human interaction (I remember living and commuting in Washington D.C., where keeping away from human interaction was an artistic and athletic endeavor). We have fast food and payment systems that take away basic human interaction. We have automated phone answering systems that take away human interaction or farm out that interaction to someone thousands of miles away. Our society is taking away basic human interaction because it's more efficient to do so. Taking away basic human interaction appears very cost effective. To invest in relationships is not cost effective, and it also appears more foolish all the time.

However, God is the primary investor in relationships (does this make God a foolish investor?). This investment is laid out in the creation stories of Genesis. This investment is laid out all over the first five books in the Bible. God gives self and gives to basic human interaction. God does not sidestep relationships for the sake of efficiency. God knows that if we don't interact and relate, we die. Such is the case for a baby. If a baby doesn't have consistent, basic human interaction--they die or come close to it. It's called failure to thrive. Human interaction carries inherent risk. Someone may not understand us. They may reject us. Someone may get angry at me. Someone may do something unkind to you. We experience pain in relationships. But we cannot experience joy without investing in relationships. God's initial creative acts in the world was all set up with risk, yet great love so that we may experience God's love in joy. I hope that in sharing stories about God's action through people affecting people in a positive way through the ministries of First Lutheran Community Church that you have seen that though risky, investment in people is joyful. Though grief may be incredibly painful, it is all part of the joy that we experience in giving love and receiving love. In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), two of the servants are able to risk, yet multiply their gifts because they believe and trust in God's initial creative act. For the third servant, he wants to avoid grief and pain, yet experience more of it because they are not willing to trust in God's investment into relationships. The third servant is afraid to invest in relationships and lives in fear.

An investment in God's work in the world through the Church is a creative act. Your giving to God's work at First Lutheran Community Church is an investment in relationships and basic human interaction filled with God's grace, love and mercy. These investments are inherently risky, especially in a society that does whatever it can to stay away from the risk of human interaction. Through the grief of the death this week of my dog, Hunter, I have seen how much I want to avoid the pain of loss and how paralyzing grief can be. Investing in love is inherently risky, because it never seems to play out like we planned. But we have a God who went great lengths, to the death of God's only son, so that we may know that God's initial creative act of love in the world will never be conquered. Though extending that investment in our own lives seems incredibly risky, when we give in response to God's generosity, we enter into God's joy.

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