Thursday, November 30, 2017

Be still . . . I will see you through!

     I wish a number of Adventers had been here for this service.  On the pastoral side of things, far too few parishioners have ever planned their services.  Catherine might be the fifth or sixth parishioner now in my fourteen years of pastoring who really planned her service.  I wish the church members were here to hear and see what a blessing such planning is for you, her family, and especially Allison.  Better still, as Adventers know, I am not one to allow eulogies at funeral services.  A Christian funeral service is that time when we remind ourselves of God’s promise and power to break the stranglehold that death has on us.  Those good words and polite words, I find, seldom ever describe the faith that led the deceased.  In fact, they often do the very opposite, giving voice to horrible theology or people an opportunity to get a last word.  Of course, Catherine was unique and stubborn.  Not only did she ask for a Rite 2 Burial combined with a Rite I Eucharist, she left her own words as her final testimony.  In many ways, that made this an easy service.
      For you, her family, you might wonder later at the appropriateness of her sharing those words.  I do not get or know all the references or the reasons behind her last words to you, but Catherine did share my tendency toward bluntness and discussing the elephants in the room with us.  I will pray that you receive her words as she wanted them shared and respond accordingly.  Catherine was one of my favorite Adventers for some time.  When I first arrived, she introduced herself and a bit of her background.  Having worked in the financial industries for many years, she and I spoke a common tongue.  Make no mistake, she tested me a little bit, to make sure I was who I said I was, but then we shared some good laughs over our respective time in the business.  You all watch movies about the business that shock you; we tried topping one another when people talked shockingly of those movies!
     We shared another commonality, too, in the beginning.  Neither of us really felt we belonged at Advent.  My discomfort was more rooted in the fact that I was new to the parish, though I understood her worries about not fitting in financially.  And, as we just heard and as in stories she shared with me, she never really found herself in deep relationship with most Adventers.  Catherine was great to talk to because she considered herself an outsider.  And, as you read, part of it was her serious introverted nature, and part of it was how we relate to people at Advent.  She gave me a third person perspective of the life and worship at Advent.  She had a couple close Adventer friends.  Had it not been for one of them, I might not being doing this service, at Catherine’s insistence.
     One of the elephants in the room was Catherine’s struggle with mental illness.  Some months ago, she reached a point that worried me.  I tried to do some serious work for her, but she silently rebuffed my efforts.  When I stooped to asking law enforcement to help me make sure she was ok, I had gone over the edge as far as she was concerned.  It was only later, after the intervention on the part of one of her close Advent friends, that she realized what happens when pastors are worried about the sheep assigned to them.  As quickly as she was to express her indignancy at my butting in where she did not think I belonged, she was quick to apologize for her parochial focus and to thank me for making her really feel cared for by the parish.  I suppose outsiders would say we were reconciled that day, though I understood it was her illness with which I was contending rather than her.
     Those of us in orbit of churches or who get our theology from soundbites might well wonder at this elephant and Catherine’s faith.  So often we hear that God takes away all our pain and suffering for the faithful, when the message should be that God redeems all the pain and suffering for those who put their faith in Him.  Catherine’s suffering was not a sign of God’s displeasure with her or a weakness in her faith.  Catherine understood that.  She understood that some of her issues were the result of her upbringing, though a couple of her issues might have been woven into her DNA.  Catherine always assumed that God would be enough to get her through whatever sufferings she might experience.
     That brings us to the reading to which I felt compelled to draw our attention.  Thankfully, this will be short, though it may lack some of the sweetness some of you might expect but, in the words of Catherine, do not need.  Catherine intentionally chose to avoid Psalm 23 today.  If you have ever been to a Christian funeral, the fact that Catherine chose not include Psalm 23 may surprise you.  But if you knew Catherine, her choice might not shock you too much.  So often, when Christians speak to themselves about God and His protection, outsiders hear them speaking of God as if He is a fortress or protection from evil.  He can be.  But Christians often really understand that God will see us through the assaults and trials of life.  I often remind Adventers studying the Psalms that the assaults of life are like the whitewater of a canyon, and God is the life preserver that keeps us from drowning.  We may smack a rock or three, we may get caught in a jetty or two, we may get a mouthful of grit and water, but God will see us through life’s travails.  In fact, He will often redeem those travails in ways that we may never expect.
     Catherine chose Psalm 46, I think, because it captures that sense of seeing us through.  The Psalm opens with the psalmist determined not to fear in the face of all kinds of trouble.  Those who knew Catherine well might be shocked that she found solace in God because her life may have seemed hard.  Sociologists and mental health professionals are just beginning to get a grasp of the impact that alcoholic parents have on their children.  We know that parents shape and mold their children, but science does not yet understand all the shaping and molding.  Alcoholism on the part of parents forces children to adapt in ways they think may not be healthy.  Was Catherine’s severe introvertedness attributable to her parents?  Perhaps.  Did her relationship with them likely influence her relationships with others?  Absolutely.  And while we would understand if Catherine wanted to play the victim card in her testimony, she chose rather to face the obstacles in her life head on.  You just heard her letter; you witnessed her life.  How easy would it have been for her to blame her bad circumstances on others?  No, she owned her choices and her life.  Some things she did well; others she wished she had a do-over.  And in that sense, her life is a great illustrator of the words of the psalmist.
     Every one of us gathered here this evening has had waters threaten to overtake us.  Each of us gathered here has had threats to life or health.  Most of us have probably had to deal with threats to relationships.  Many of us have had to deal with threats to provision.  And that’s just the beginning, that’s just where Catherine led us in her words.  If I went around the room and asked each of us to share the threats we have each experienced, my guess is that we would be here for some significant time, though we are a small gathering.  And Scripture never pokes fun at us for recognizing the threats or their effects on us.
     The psalmist begins the psalm by discussing his or her faith in the midst of a potential uncreation.  Our translators render it as dissolution, but the Hebrew brings out clearly the idea that “what is” is being undone.  The idea may not make sense, but it is that understanding of creation, or rather the relationship with the One who created, that leads the psalmist to assert that he or she will not fear even  in the face of uncreation.  At the center of the psalmist’s life, just as at the center of this psalm, is the dwelling of God.  It is God who created all things.  It is God who bounded the chaotic waters.  Even if the waters could somehow flood creation for a moment and drive everything back into chaos, still the psalmist has no reason to fear.  At the very center of his or her life, at the very core of his or her being, stands God.  And God has promised always to redeem his people!  So the psalmist, like you, like me, or even like Catherine, can face the white waters of life with confidence and surety that all will be redeemed by God, even death.
     The psalmist ends this discussion of threats with a wonderful reminder from God: “Be still, and know that I am God.”  The Hebrew in the case of “Be still” has a sense of cease your frantic activity for a moment and pay attention.  So often, when faced with threats and confronted with problems, we work and work and work to overcome them.  Sometimes, though, the currents of life are overwhelming.  And we need that reminder from God to remember who He is and who we are to Him.  He has bound Himself to us.  He has committed Himself to us.  For Him to be exalted among the people of the earth, you, Catherine, and I must needs be vindicated for choosing to be His sons and daughters. 
     As you have just heard from Catherine, and hopefully as you witnessed her life, God stood and stands at the center of her life.  She had the same struggles as all of us, and some of her struggles were tempered specifically for her either by circumstance of life or by choice, but she experienced those same challenges that plague all mankind.  In the end, though, she realized where faith and confidence could be placed without fear of failure or mistake.  In the end, she realized that life was far more than a series of random events or bad meals.  And, better still, she learned that her flailing and churning and efforts paled in comparison to the threats to her well-being and life.  In the end, she learned to trust in the one who demonstrated His redeeming power even over death.  And so to you, her loved ones, hopefully her life became one of quiet confidence in the Lord.  Hopefully, to each of you, her life was a testimony, a witness, to the redeeming power of God, even in the midst of those circumstances which seem so desperate, so worthy of our flailing.
     In the end, she trusted that God would see here through whatever obstacles presented themselves in her life, and that He would be glorified in His overcoming.  His ways were not necessarily her ways or ours, but she trusted that His ways would see her safely dwelling in His presence, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  Today, we each are reminded of His promise and power to overcome even death, and that we will see her again, when He is finally and fully exalted among the nations and in the earth. 

In Christ’s Peace,