Advent Post #24

“He has helped his servant…remembering…” (Luke 1:54)

One of the most pastoral words that frame my work is remember. I snatched it from John Patton to put it as a main anchor of my ministry (see Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide for an introduction). Professor Hogue told us about Dr. Patton’s work. Later, Sister Barbara told me how loving a man her friend, John Patton, was in real life. And his language about the pastoral power of memory just kept coming back to me.

Memory is powerful. And when we remember well, we’re doing very godly work. The scriptures tell us that God remembers those who are his, that God remembers to be gracious, that God remembers God’s covenant. Mary captures this part of God’s acts toward her and toward the people of God when she says that the help of God comes in the form of God’s remembering. I think we need memory, as a community, as people, as families. I heard once, or read I’m not sure, that people are their memories. What separates us from other species is memory.

When I think of what makes me unique, what teases my life from the rest of my friends’ lives, it’s memory. It’s my recalled experience of a situation that is unique and distinct from anyone else’s. God’s interaction with me (or you) is the same. How we’ve related to God is so unique, and what maintains we who are with God is memory. And mostly God’s memory. Imagine for a moment key events that frame your life with God. There will inevitably be painful experiences. Grief and suffering will mark some of those moments. Joy inexpressible will be there too.

I wonder if you can think about how God will recast those same moments. I think Mary guides us in learning how God recalls our moments with him. When God thinks of you, of us, God remembers mercifully. That means partly that God never remembers without mercy. Memory and mercy wed in God’s recollection. And this is who God is to every generation of his own. Memory and mercy always come together.

May we recall that God helps us. As Christmas comes and goes, may we be reminded that when others have forgotten us, God keeps us in mind. May we know that the ways God’s memory works all captured by the lovely word mercy.

Sunday Morning Reminders

The last two Sunday mornings a different person in our church has asked me prior to worship what was going to said about the Middle East (last Sunday) and what was going to said about Michael Brown (today).  Both those people approaching me before service have become reminders for me of several things I want to list in order to remember.  I’m grateful for Lara and Jeremy and my reflections are out of gratitude for them:

  1. The people of God (aka, the church) know what to say in worship.  The content of our faith, and the content of our liturgy, has never solely come from the recognized leaders of the faith.  I am comforted by this.  As the pastor, I’m not the only person with a facility for words about God in relation to human beings and human life.  God has gifted the people with the people.  And those lovely people have things to say about the world.  Pradeep reminded me of this even before Lara greeted me last week.
  2. What we do in worship is important for when we’re not in worship.  This comes out of something my member and friend, Nate, said.  Our worship connects to the lives we live when we’re not gathered with God’s people.  As James Smith says, our worship ends in mission.  The cyclic nature of mission, though, is that mission continues to feed and instruct our worship.  We live between Sundays, worshiping God and then, in a thousand ways, living for God.
  3. Our worship has to echo or reflect something about the world after the benediction.  If there is no connection, no reflection, then there is no real tangible reason for being a church that God continually sends into the world.  The end of a worship service is a recommissioning for all involved.  When we return the following week, we return with all that’s happened since last Sunday and we bring those events, those sorrows and joys, with us as worship, hear, and respond with others gathered.
  4. The prayers of God’s people are filled with news.  Daily news.  The news and the headlines of our times should become the words we pray, fill our throats when we sing about God’s future, and inspire us to live Spirit-empowered lives now.  The fact is our songs are all out-of-date.  They are not necessarily old though.  Our hymns and choruses are out of date in the sense that they anticipate a future that hasn’t fully come.  Those words match with the images of black hands uplifted before police holding guns–reminders from the 50s and 60s in the present–and they pull our hands upward in the direction of a God whose heart is still broken.
  5. Our words are the words of the oppressed, the marginalized, the disinherited, and the over-looked.  The truth of the disinherited is that they feel unheard and cast aside.  The truth of any good Christian faith is wrapped in the power of a God who reclaims, always holds close, and never abandons.  In other words, Christianity is an answer to the state of oppression, marginalization, and disinheritance.  That faith is a bottom-up reiteration of a deadly event where God abandoned God, upsetting all of created history and all of created future, and where God reset all things to move creation toward a better future.
  6. The hope of the church has to be proclaimed as an answer.  The hope of the world is in Christ; this is the news of the Christian faith, and that news is a long-told story.  When we proclaim the gospel in the midst of the world–be that gospel proclaimed in explicit or implicit ways, be it seen and experienced in the church’s rituals, be it lived in our lives–we are following Jesus who has always entered into our experience, checked our experience with God’s message for our time, and pointed us toward the hope of the ages.

Thank you Nate, Pradeep, Lara, and Jeremy.  You’ve led our church these weeks, even if you haven’t picked up the microphone.  Your leadership and service has filled me with thanksgiving.

Reflection on Resurrection & Mardell Culley, Sr.

I think that sermons are oral documents, best heard and not read, but as a memory for myself and an invitation to you, I’m posting the notes of my eulogy for my father.  I preached it yesterday, and while it doesn’t include necessary spontaneous elements which come from being in the preaching moment, I did stay close to my notes.

I often say in situations like this that there are, at least, two aspects to a eulogy: one that looks backward and one that looks ahead.  The backward part turns our vision to yesterday, and we remember what we’ve lived and felt and experienced from the deceased.  We reflect on things.  We laugh at jokes.  We tear up because of tender moments that nobody else shared but us and the dead person.

Alexander Maclaren, a late 19th century preacher, said, “Most men have to die before their true beauty is discerned.”  That true beauty is often seen and reflected in the stories we tell about those men.  Perhaps also in the stories we don’t tell.  There are things worth saying about my father, Mardell Culley, Sr.  Some of them have been said, some only considered.  I’ve thought of my time with pop.  You’ve probably thought of your time with him, as a friend, a brother, a neighbor.  Like me, you know him as an usher in the church, as a relative, as a man who drank a beer occasionally—as a man who drank too many beers occasionally.  But as helpful as it may be, I don’t want to dwell in that backward glance today.  I want to sit with that second part of the eulogy, the part that turns our gaze ahead.  And to focus our collective vision, I want to do what anchors me as a Christian: to see scripture.

The passage in John is about Jesus after he’s been told of his friend Lazarus’s death.  Jesus was with his disciples when he received the news.  He delayed their leaving to go and see about Lazarus’s remains and the sister friends, Mary and Martha who were grieving.  The passage has Jesus turning his soul inward before he travels on the road to Bethany.  The Bible says that Jesus did what all of us do when we love, wept for a friend.  Have you ever wept?  Maybe you didn’t shed tears but your heart ached in your own way—you wept.  Over your children, at a loved one’s descent into addiction, while confused, or something else…  If you love, you will weep.

JOHN 11:44 says, The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There is more detail before this ministry of Jesus.  There are questions raised, answers given, prayers offered.  And then Jesus calls for the dead man.  I read that this passage about what Jesus does for Lazarus is a confirmation and a promise.  Jesus miraculously resuscitates Lazarus.  He comes out of the grave and is unwrapped so that he lives, so that he has more time on this side of eternity.  In doing this, the Lord shows us a picture of his own future.  We get a slice of what Jesus himself will experience—death and power over death.  Now, Lazarus eventually dies again.  Jesus, though, readies us as readers and listeners for what is to come: resurrected life.  Jesus will rise from the grave by God’s own power, and this passage readies us for such an event.  It prepares us for our own deaths in light of the resurrection.  It is a confirmation and a promise.  When Lazarus rises in this passage, we hear scripture telling us that what happened to him, in preliminary form, is a foretaste of what will come for all people in complete form.

As I prepared for today, I wanted to tell you something about my father, something from my experience of him, which is different from my brothers, from my aunts, from Mr. Robert Bell.  I’ve made lists in my head of things that I’ve recalled about daddy.

I’ve thought about things that he told me, things I’ve seen him do, lessons I believe I’m learning from him.  But rather than go into that, I thought of something more meaningful, at least, in my opinion, and the most meaningful thing I can tell you about my father is that he is loved by God.  That’s a deceptively simple thing to say, but I think it’s the most important thing I can tell you about Mardell Culley, Sr.: He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.  He is loved by God.

There are surely other things to say, and then again, there really isn’t more beyond this in my mind, perhaps other than the fact that my father knew he was so loved.  Yes, pop was a man with pain and memory and hurt and disease.  Yes, pop was wrestled in the mind by slow, ravaging dementia, unsettled by strokes and a failing brain.  Pop was angry from a loss of independence, from not being able to drive where he wanted, when he wanted.  Yes, pop was a stubborn man, a man spoiled by people, chiefly his sisters as far as I can tell; a man with a grin so infectious it could make you grin whether you wanted to or not.  There are other things to say, but atop that list for me today is that pop is loved by God.  Not some version of my father but him.  The man who got angrier as his frustrations grew.  That man is loved by God.  The man who couldn’t remember that you had been there moments after you left his room.  That man is loved by God.  The man who yelled and didn’t take his medicine even though he was usually mild-mannered.  That man is loved by God.  The man who wasn’t a perfect father to any of his sons, who wasn’t a perfect brother or a perfect friend.  That man is loved by God.

I tell you that like Lazarus in the gospel and like Mardell Culley who lived his last days in a nursing home completely against his best will—like these men who are loved by God—you and I are also loved.  Lazarus and my father, men who reflect a truth that is so large it’s incredible, are mirrors for us today: we, as we are, sit loved by God.  We, imperfect as we are, are perfectly acceptable to God.  We, with our bruises and our egos and our faults, are wanted and desired so by God that Jesus comes to us and offers a splendid future where resurrection is normal.

Resurrected life, in part, means life where God is immediately present.  I cannot imagine all that it means, but living on that other side of breath has to mean living in response to the limitless freedom that comes with no pain and only love.  What would that be for you?  Would it be a meeting with some family member who has died?  Would your resurrected life look like lowered blood pressure or stronger legs so that you could walk or run or leap as long as you want?  Would resurrected life mean courage and the absence of fear?  Would it mean that you could rest without having so many things to do?  These words in John’s gospel pull us to embody what it means for God to be immediate and present.  That’s our invitation today.

Among my last words to my father was a prayer.  I asked him at the acute care hospital in Searcy whether I could pray with him.  He bowed his head, tipping the white rain cap he was wearing.  He was fond of those hats—hats in general.  He had a large leather hat that was probably as old as me, but in this case, he wore a white hat with a thin blue stripe.  When he turned to bow, I took his thin, frail arm and bowed my head.  He prayed with me, for what I think was the first time, if I don’t get count thanksgiving for a meal.

When I last spoke with pop, it was days later, Monday, Christmas Eve.  Aunt Lynnie called while she at the nursing home and gave daddy the phone.  We talked briefly—him asking about Bryce and Dawn, me asking about him and if he’d gotten adjusted to being back at Robinson Nursing Home.  Aunt Mose was coming into the room while we were on the phone.  There was a lift in my father’s voice.  He wasn’t moaning or whispering.  He wasn’t muttering the way he often had when he was upset or ready for you to leave his company.  I thought he was getting better.  I didn’t know he was leaving.  I didn’t know at the time that his was the tone of a man getting ready to respond to the immediate presence of God.  I’d like to think that my father’s favorite holidays were the ones where he bought some of us gifts.  But Daddy would celebrate Christmas thinking of Jesus who he would soon see.  My father had his best Christmas ever this year.  Even with the lack of an appetite.  Even with the chest pains which caused our final alarms.  Daddy knew Tuesday and Wednesday that he was going the way his brothers had gone, the way Lazarus had gone.  He would see the Lord, the giver of Life.  Mardell Culley got the confirmation and the promise.

Pray with me: Oh, God who gives resurrected life, thank you for the chance to know my father, the opportunities to love him and be loved by him.  Thank you for every person who showed him kindness, who aided him in recovering and healing.  Thank you for his sisters, these beautiful women who have suffered all these times in closing the coffins of their brothers and for how you have sustained them under such grief.  Thank you for my brothers and our relatives who have all had our own unique relationships with my father and for how you have blessed us with memories to cherish.  Now, Lord, give us unwavering faith, as we leave this place, even if that faith is thin or frail or hardly visible.  Grant that we may see the true beauty of this beloved man, and grant that we may discern the true beauty of his savior.  Open our eyes to the wonder of every possibility that comes with life in you.  Keep company with us from this day on so that we might live as if death will, indeed, come for us.  Convince us of your promises to us and confirm your love for us as people who can only accept your unconditional love.  We ask these things in the name of the One who beat death and whose victory changed everything, Jesus.  Amen.

My Dad with his sister, auntie Lynnie a few years ago

My Dad with his sister, auntie Lynnie a few years ago

Dear Dementia

I didn’t believe it was you when I first saw the signs.  The missed memories were small, so slight they were unnoticed.  I forget.  I get agitated.  I make mistakes, lose things, get mixed.  I was like everyone else who loved: I wanted more.

I began what is still the dismal existence of a loved one struggling with you and your fingers wrapping and stealing things from my father.  I started to look at all those yesterdays, fading in my own memory, and I grabbed for them.  I called them back the way a grandparent calls for their only child’s offspring when, because of intuition, they know that was the last visit.  The rides in my dad’s white van and then the brown van.  There was a  black van too, I think.  I sniffed for the smell of worms and dirt when we went fishing, when I was so small I felt nothing but incompetence because I couldn’t do what my father found so easy.  I listened to the sound of his laughter, not just his laughter, but the way it sang like a Delta blues man.  I looked at the crinkle that was his smile.  I wanted that grin to be mine.

You pulled me from my memories.  Reminded me that you hadn’t won yet.  That yours was a most sinister work because no one knew, and no one knows, when your job would be done with my dad’s brain and body.  You shouted in the tone that was once was my dad’s.  It was his voice, and it wasn’t.  And the reality of my life—the lives of my brothers, the lives of our aunts and our extended loved ones—is that you and dad are dancing.  And his feet are clipping and stumbling under what was once his best song.

You gave him pain and depression at what he can no longer command.  You made him mad at everybody and nobody.  You snatched his ability to attend to the mundane affairs of bills and greetings and polite conversations.  You made him unpredictable so that he couldn’t travel, so that he couldn’t go home and live on his own and be alone.

I hate you.  You’ve taken so much and you’re not even finished.  You have hardly done to me, to us, what I know you’ve done to others.  But know that I’m not alone in seeing your memory-soaked hand clenching and withdrawing from the collective worlds which have been ours.  I hear the prayers of my friends in my ears.

Roland and the way his hand pressed into my shoulder just yesterday, the words he prayed, the faith he had for me, even though today’s conversation with dad tried hard to erase my faith and my friend’s.  Libby and her careful way of saying just enough to express a deep understanding, a selective and prophetic care, and how she brings a prayerfulness whenever she approaches.  Lisa’s powerful prayers that the ground I’m on is sure and steady and the way she keeps praying, the mirror she is to people I see and don’t see.  Lauren’s steady gaze when she asks me respectfully and compassionately how I’m really doing and dealing with the junk you’ve thrown at us.  Byron and his admonition to take care of myself, to do what I need, to care for me so that I’m not surprised by my own breaks and broken places.  Lucy and the regular ways she brings me before the Presence, keeps me there, helps me see me and see truth and prepare to live from more than pain but love.  Winston, his faithfulness and his ability, through history, presentness, and vision for what’s to come, and how he keeps at the work of partnering with God to help make me good through the terror of unknown trials related to you.

Your hand is hard.  But I do not envy you.  Because you, partner of all that is sinful, will have a lot of giving to do.  Diseases like you must hold the things you take and you must return them.  So, my faith, sometimes thin as cracking leaves at autumn’s end, feels tiny.  And even if it disappears to an invisible quality, it will not leave.  It will not depart.  You cannot take it from me.  You cannot steal it the way you have my father’s best qualities.  You cannot leave in faith’s place depression and sadness the way my father struggles now, even without the words to give to his interiority.  I’m looking at the collective faith of an increasing cloud of witnesses, and while your reach is long, it cannot capture all my friend’s strengths.  There are some things you cannot do.

Perspective, Depression, and Hope

Mental illness is one of the most overlooked problems in the community from which I come and through which most of my theology has been formed.  I’m talking about the black community.  There’s probably not much difference in other communities either, especially faith communities.  I’ve learned in a multicultural church that mental illness is more understood but still less discussed.  It is accepted intellectually more quickly, but I rarely hear the community holding and loving through the rough times which decorate the lives of those struggling with illness.

When I was growing up, I heard nothing about mental illness.  I heard about people being crazy.  Met some of them too, but that’s another post.  I heard of demons and about demonic possession from time to time.  But nothing about mental illness.  I’m glad I’ve learned more.  I’m glad I’m been able to see and notice and respond to spiritual matters when appropriate and to mental and emotional matters when necessary.

Of course, I’m cut from the cloth that stitches the mental and emotional and spiritual.  I connect or integrate them.  I am not interested in slicing them apart but in seeing their interconnections.  I’m a pastor and conversationalist about divine things.  Divine things come forward in human things.  So, for me, these things overlap and interlace.

I’ve learned along the way that the complexities inside the minds, hearts, and souls of people are all reasons to be believe in the beauty of God and the pain of sin.  And I’ve come to believe that the complexities which are beautiful people are reasons to try hard to listen really well and to tell people about hope.  This is, in part, something that Paul Prusyer talks about–in my reading of him–as coming to terms with the implications of my office.  Prusyer said theology doesn’t deal with a slice of life, “a slice of reality but with all of it, always.”

A Sobering Sign in a Beautiful Place

I’m told that October is one of the awareness months where we point to depression and to mental illness.  So, here’s my quick attempt to point to it, like other days and months of my work, but to point to hope as well.

Hope is light in dimness.  It is the sparkling smile of a stranger who looks at you long enough to communicate that you matter.  It is a meal with a good friend you haven’t seen in a while, his ability to remember things with you and to turn you easily to tomorrow.

Hope is the crack of splendor in the middle of all that dreariness.  It is a plate-sized piece of pie shared with someone you love.  A walk in the cool afternoon, watching once brown leaves falling like little pieces of the sun.

Hope is the ability to notice health even when it comes as a confusing picture of someone’s yesterday.  It is the staying hand of belief when you worry that the future looks dismal.  It is the power that tells the truth that all our tomorrows can be brighter because the clouds will roll in another direction.

Hope is the enduring mercy that all of reality is wonderful even if sometimes difficult and that the next breath is miraculous.  It is the way we keep at a thing in the midst of its sharp cuts and crippling cracks.

I know you folks aren’t into making comments, so this is an invitation: How do you describe hope?