Life on the Other Side of Trouble

“O Lord my God, I cried out to you,
and you restored my health.
You brought me up. O lord, from the dead;
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
…………….
While I felt secure, I said,
‘I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’
Then you hid your face,
and I was filled with fear.
I cried to you, O Lord,
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
‘What profit is there in my blood if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.’
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”

Psalm 30:2-3, 7-13

The remarkable thing about Psalm 30 is that this psalm, in just a few verses, traverses the different seasons of faith.

Verse 7 refers to the season of blessed order and stability—“While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You Lord with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’”

This is the time when we are settled, comfortable, at ease—when we are basking in security and contentment—when things are humming along—when things seem to fall into place—when life is abundant, gratifying, overflowing—when we know ourselves to be richly blessed—when God seems to be the founder and guarantor of our flourishing.

But verse 8 reflects a drastic reversal of fortune—“Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear”—perhaps panic would be a better translation.

Inevitably our state of easeful order, equilibrium, and tranquility is disrupted by some kind of trouble that arrives with enough force to unsettle and disturb us, to arouse in us considerable alarm and anxiety—we suddenly feel in our bones the fragility of our security and, indeed, of our very existence.

Sometimes this trouble is severe enough to throw us into the kind of panic and desperation the psalmist knows about when he speaks of all night weeping, and the terror of going down to “the Pit.”

For the psalmist, the Pit is the black hole of desolation, hopelessness, extinction—to go down to the Pit is to be swallowed up in the darkness of the void.

The Psalmist doesn’t tell us what the trouble is—but we know what our trouble is—an accident, illness, job loss, divorce, not enough income to keep the wolves from the door, family strife, death of a companion—or maybe just inexplicable dread.

We Episcopalians are not accustomed to venting our anguish in such visceral, naked outcries of distress as we find in the psalms.

Most of us from our earliest years become adept at camouflaging our distress—most of us never learned an adequate vocabulary for lamenting the unspeakable trouble that at some time or other is visited upon us.

We might think of the psalmist as an inspired blues singer like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday—the psalmist furnishes polite, civilized, moderate people like us with a language of lamentation we have been sorely missing—the psalmist’s voice can become our voice.

But, of course, the psalmist is also an incomparable celebrant of new life on the other side of trouble—a celebrant of resurrection.

And just as the psalmist exceeds us in articulating grief, so she surpasses us in the unfettered exuberance of praise and gratitude.

“O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave….
Weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning….
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.”

Something amazing happens to the psalmist on the way to the Pit—just as he seems to be tumbling into the depths of the netherworld of gloom and misery, just when all seems lost, just when he seems to be a dead duck, he is suddenly lifted up, healed, restored, clothed with joy—he can’t say how it happened, only that it happened.

And so the psalmist, sounding more pentecostal than Episcopalian, lets loose with an ecstatic anthem of thanksgiving—for it is always an astonishing thing to be resurrected from the deathly grip of doom and gloom, to discover newness of life on the other side of big trouble.

For those of us raised on huge doses of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the psalmist’s language of praise may seem strange to our ears.

For the psalmist consistently identifies God as the superabundant, endlessly resourceful power who, when we are dead-ended and absolutely stymied, surprises us with new, life-giving possibilities utterly beyond our reckoning. .

For the psalmist, God is the always startling provider of new life on the other side of trouble.

If we are sufficiently attentive, we can hear many stories in this parish community and beyond about discovering the gift of new life on the other side of trouble.

I’m thinking of the young father I read about who said, “When my wife gave birth to a son with Down syndrome, I thought it was my damnation, but it turned out to be my salvation.”

I’m thinking of Dominique Browning who was the editor of House & Garden for 12 years—and who on a certain Monday morning in 2007 was abruptly notified that both the magazine and her job no longer existed.

For a Type A personality for whom her job was the beginning and end of her universe, this was a crushing blow.

For years her worst nightmare was unemployment, a fear she had kept at bay by being too busy to think—but now it had happened—the superstructure that had fueled her energy and motivation had collapsed.

Her job was not only her source of income—it was the measure of her worth—and now a horrific sense of worthlessness and failure, not to mention panic about her future, almost completely immobilized her.

For months just getting out of bed required a supreme effort.

Then one day she pulled off the shelf an old King James Version of the Bible she’d been given in high school—and over the next weeks she immersed herself in this book she had never read before.

She said, “I turned most frequently to the Psalms, whose gorgeous, intricate, sensual prayers blanketed me in wonder. There I found my anthem for that year, the most eloquent expression of grief I ever read: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’”

Then she found an old volume of sheet music for J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations—though hardly an accomplished pianist, she began to falteringly pick her way through the first passages and she said, “Unexpectedly, I felt a peace suffuse my bones as I lost myself in Bach’s lines—Bach has become a nightly visitor. I am obsessed with him, his musical tricks, jokes, and puns; his charismatic energy and passion; his resilience through tragedy; his rigorous discipline; his bedrock belief in a force greater than anything human.”

She goes on to say, “Slowly, slowly, the months go by, each one a variation transposing loss, loneliness, and anger to gratitude and hope….I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! That I can cook a meal for my children, or take a long walk on the beach, or watch an osprey wheel through the sky, or set down a page of thoughts—these are moments of grace. Old Testament loving kindness, the stuff of everyday life….when I am at the keyboard, I connect with something I may have once encountered as a teenager and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood—the desire to nourish my soul….every once in a while, I accomplish a passage adroitly. Fingers dance over keys….I enjoy myself. And I am happy for small-boned miracles.”

And so it is that a young father, an unemployed former editor, and, yes, many of us have discovered, and perhaps rediscovered again and again, the gift and grace of burgeoning new life on the other side of trouble.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
3 Easter
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
4/18/2010

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Comforter

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”

John 14:15-18

Happy Mother’s Day!

As a way of paying homage to the mothers who are with us this morning and all those other mothers, living and deceased, who are not present but who, in one way or another, have blessed us on our way, I invite you to ponder the question: What is a good mother?

Now just to clarify, I’m not talking about the Hallmark mother, the ideal mother, the fantasy mother, the perfect mother; no, I’m talking about an actual, flesh and blood mother who has problems, needs, and issues, a fallible, human mother with all sorts of limitations who gets frazzled, cranky, and, at least occasionally, blows her top—in other words, a real mother!

Well, without further ado, let me offer my own short-hand definition of “a good mother”; a good mother is one who is ready, willing, and able to comfort.

On a flight from the West Coast several months ago, I witnessed two mothers who were supremely accomplished at comforting.

Across the aisle was a mom with two boys, a three year old and a six month old infant—the older boy pretty much entertained himself with a portable DVD player which the mother periodically re-supplied—but the baby fussed and howled for five hours—the mother cradled him the whole time—she was constantly in motion, up and down, walking around when the seat belt sign was off, performing this marathon feat of non-stop rocking and cooing—and, what was equally impressive, this expression of imperturbable calmness never left her face.

In the seats in front of me were a mother and her teen-age autistic daughter—throughout the trip, the daughter directed a steady stream of questions and comments at her mother—“Mother, the plane is starting to move.” “Mother, is every seat filled?” “Look, mother, they’re passing out drinks.”—and meanwhile this mother exhibited a Guinness World Book of Records kind of patience as she responded pleasantly and tirelessly to almost every one of her daughter’s utterances: “Yes, dear, we’ll be taking off soon”— “Yes, dear, it looks like we have a full plane”—“Yes, dear, they’re serving drinks and a snack”—and at the same time the mother was carrying on an animated conversation with the passenger next to her—and when we got to our destination and people were retrieving their articles from the overhead bins, this mother stood up and, with a grin, announced to those of us nearby, “Now you know what a fifteen year old autistic girl is like!”

The good mother is one who comforts.

In Elizabeth Buchan’s novel, “Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman,” Rose Lloyd is a 47 year old book editor for a weekly London paper; for 25 years Rose has been performing a precarious balancing act of pursuing a high-pressure career while at the same time tending to a husband and two children.

On the way home from work, she’s gotten in the habit of stopping off at St. Benedicta’s Church and slipping into the Lady Chapel where a plaster statue of the Madonna with a deep blue cloak has been placed beside the altar.

Rose describes the statue as “a rough, crude creation…with (overly) pink plaster hands…raised in blessing”…and yet, in spite of its crudeness, she finds this statue strangely touching and appealing.

Although Rose does not belong to this church and doesn’t consider herself religious, she is drawn to this sanctuary of silence and especially to the figure of Mary who she calls “the mother of all mothers, whose duty it is to protect and comfort.”

What would it have been like, I wonder, to be the mother of someone like Jesus?

Of course, we can only conjecture—somehow I see Mary as a seventeen year old Jewish peasant who already has a few creases in her face from growing up hard and lean and who, in the last days of her pregnancy, is on the road, riding a donkey, trying to shield herself from the heat and dust—have you ever ridden a donkey for any distance?—what would it be like to be jostled and jarred on the back of a donkey while dealing with the first pangs of labor?!

And then this very young woman goes through the harrowing, life-threatening business of giving birth in circumstances that are both primitive and highly unsanitary.

So I imagine that Mary’s introduction to motherhood was pretty rocky.

After the birth narratives, the few references to Mary in the gospels suggest that that in later years she might have often worried herself sick about what this son of hers was up to—there’s the time, as my seminary professor put it, “Jesus was mean to his mother,” when the twelve year old Jesus turned up missing for three days, and when his parents finally found him in the Temple, his mother asked him, “Why have you done this to us?”

There’s the time Jesus went back to his home village—and we’re told that when a large crowd gathered around him, Jesus’ family, and maybe Mary was among them, “tried to restrain him” because the report had come to them that “he was out of his mind.”

Evidently Jesus’ family was thoroughly baffled by his shockingly unique career move.

And we might guess that by the time his life came to a sudden and brutal end, Jesus’ mother would have been intimately acquainted with whatever joy, bewilderment, happiness, and anguish it’s possible for a mother to know.

Maybe this is why, for many, the figure of Mary represents ”the mother of all mothers,” the mother who has been through it all and can be counted on to understand and comfort.

Most of the Biblical images of God are masculine—God is pictured as Lord, King, Judge, Ruler, Father— and there are texts in which God comes across not so much as fatherly but as tyrannical, stern, endlessly demanding, impossible to please, touchy about his own reputation, and rather constantly in a bad mood.

These passages in the Bible that make God out to be a tyrannical taskmaster cause a lot of people problems, especially if they grew up in a tyrannical and oppressive household or in a church where they were browbeaten with a perverted, comfortless version of the good news that was really bad news.

But there are some interesting exceptions in both testaments where God is spoken of in terms that are distinctly feminine, nurturing, and motherly—where God is pictured as comforter.

For example, the Book of Isaiah contains this verse: “For thus says the Lord: As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

And in the Book of Amos we read: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me…Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them….I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

There’s the passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul writes: “Blessed be the God of….all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort (others) who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted.”

And Jesus actually expresses quite a motherly sentiment when he cries out: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

And remember that other saying of Jesus: “Those who mourn shall be comforted.”

So scattered throughout the Scriptures are these images of God as motherly and comforting.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples as part of his farewell conversation, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth….you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”

Now the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which we use for our readings is often more accurate and understandable than the older versions.

But in this case the King James Version is distinctly superior—it gives us this translation of Jesus’ words: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever….ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave your comfortless; I will come to you.”

The good news for this morning is that the Comforter is among us.

Or maybe I should say the Comforter has been among us all along.

You have been comforted by the Comforter repeatedly, you know—we all have.

But because the Comforter soothes and comforts us in such a gentle, quiet, natural, and unobtrusive way without fanfare or fireworks, we may have failed to recognize and appreciate how the Comforter has revived and restored us again and again.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes, “I die every day!”

Well, without being melodramatic, I think we can say that as we try to make our way in this world, we suffer a succession of little deaths—little deaths of disappointment, estrangement, humiliation, loss—and some of these little deaths don’t seem so little.

I daresay that none of us has escaped being pummeled, roughed up, and hammered with some regularity by the world’s harshness.

Granted that we often creatively engineer our own misery—but whatever the sources of our trouble, I think it’s safe to say that there have been times when adversity has run over us at full throttle and we have felt like the man in Jesus’ story who was set upon by thieves and left by the side of the road, bruised and battered.

But just as the Samaritan came to the aid of this man and did not leave him desolate, so the Comforter comes to us and does not leave us desolate.

The Comforter appears in many guises.

The Comforter comes to us through the sacramental abundance of our world—a garden coming to life, the lushness of spring foliage, breathing in the freshness of a day that dawns bright and crystal clear, spending the balance of an afternoon on a sailboat leisurely tacking back and forth.

The Comforter comes to us through the company of a beloved animal, through savoring every last bite of a piece of apple pie made from scratch, through losing ourselves in an exhibit of Rembrandt drawings, through hearing Wynonna Judd on the car radio belting out “A New Day Is Dawning.”

The Comforter comes to us through some sudden turn of events that catches us completely by surprise—some invitation or opportunity or piece of good news that springs out of nowhere and rights the balance and restores our equilibrium.

And sometimes we are comforted by the Comforter without any reason or why—what a remarkable thing it is when things look bleak, and somehow, without our doing anything except just holding on, our despairing mood gradually gives way to a blessed upsurge in cheerfulness and hope—it’s as though our personal shock absorbers have been refurbished—it’s as though our spirit is enfolded in the bosom of the Comforter.

But, of course, most often, the Comforter comforts us through other human beings—true comfort usually requires the human touch.

How we have been comforted by gatherings with friends where laughter has reigned supreme!

How we have been comforted by persons in this place who have reminded us that we all live under the sign of mercy and forgiveness!

How we have been comforted by friends who have been considerate, helpful, and generous to us beyond all calculation!

Now we all know that comforting just seems to come more naturally to members of the female species.

Mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters, and females in general, have sort of had a corner on the market.

Here’s a case in point.

Nicki Hoff-Lilavois was riding a crowded bus that stopped in front of the Brooklyn Hospital Center where a young couple got on. “The woman carried a stroller. The man carried a 2-week-old baby swaddled in soft blue blankets. They were offered seats, one in front of the other.

When the bus started moving again, the baby began to wail. The new father appeared slightly befuddled and began to bounce the baby up and down, up and down.

At DeKalb Avenue, many passengers got off. As some space was cleared, an older, very majestic woman appeared and made her way toward the crying baby. Without a word she stretched out her arms, and without any hesitation the young father offered the woman his newborn. She held the child to her chest and slowly rubbed his back.

‘You must be gentle,’ she so matter-of-factly advised.

In a moment, the baby stopped crying. She handed the child to the father, thanked him for allowing her to hold him, and returned to her seat.

But the Comforter, the Spirit of all comfort, can even teach us obtuse, clueless males how to comfort.

One day I was in the produce department at Meijer, and a fellow in his 40s was pushing his son in a wheel chair—the young man had cerebral palsy—the father stopped and asked his son what fruit he wanted—as the son was struggling to get his words out, the father suddenly planted a big kiss in the middle of his forehead.

So you see—even we males can get it—even we can learn to comfort with the comfort with which we have been comforted!

The Rev. Robert Dwight
5 Easter
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
5/14/06

Come

”Jesus said, ‘See I am coming soon…surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Revelation 22:12, 20

In today’s reading from the Revelation to John, the writer claims he has had a vision in which Jesus is saying, “See, I am coming soon…surely I am coming soon’ —to which John adds this exclamation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

And, of course, as we move through the seasons of the church year, we are in the habit of reciting numerous prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that express the same sentiment — that voice an eager hope and expectation that the kingdom of God will soon come among us.

For example, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we pray, “Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…”

And there’s that phrase in the Lord’s Prayer — “Your kingdom come” — that we’ve said so often that we tend to mumble it on cruise control.

So concerning Jesus and his kingdom, it seems to me that we are repeatedly offering the same prayer that the author of the Book of Revelation utters in our reading — “Come!”

And we’re so accustomed to saying and hearing these prayers on automatic pilot that most of the time they tend to scoot right past us without even causing the slightest ripple on the surface of our consciousness.

Because we say these prayers for the coming of the kingdom with such numbing regularity, it becomes all too easy for these words to casually, mindlessly trip off our lips.

But maybe we ought to think twice, or maybe three or four times, before we pray for the coming of Jesus’ kingdom — because this short, simple prayer, “Come!,” is actually a dangerous prayer laced with TNT!

I’m not at all sure I’m ready to pray this prayer, because it seems to me this is a risky, unsettling prayer fraught with all sorts of complications and repercussions that might be a whole lot more than I bargained for.

Because to say yes to this prayer is to say yes to various interruptions, changes, and intrusions that will most certainly ransack our plans and thrust upon us obligations and assignments we never intended to take on.

To say, yes, let your kingdom come, is to open ourselves to a host of unimaginable surprises that will stretch, provoke, and remold us, that will overturn our apple-cart, that will challenge and rearrange the way we think and believe, that will propel us into pursuits and adventures we never dreamed of.

Like the grandmother in New York who had retired from four decades of teaching in the public school system and was looking forward to reading the stack of books on her bed stand, going to concerts, taking leisurely walks, and traveling — but when her daughter landed in prison and there was no one else to care for her two children, this grandmother did not hesitate to take them in — and as she watched the 6 and 8 year old girls playing in her living room, she said, “This wasn’t what I planned.” — but then she smiled and said, “But this is my retirement now — they’re mine!”

To say this prayer, come, let your kingdom reign, is to acknowledge that there are surprises in the pipeline headed our way that we can’t manage, manipulate, or control — which is a tough piece of reality for us pragmatic Americans to swallow who like to think that if we devise the right system we can manage anything.

And, of course, we don’t know if the surprises about to roll in on us are going to be welcome and refreshing like a gently spring zephyr or harsh and worrisome like a fierce Alberta Clipper — we don’t know if the surprises looming on the horizon will be reassuring or nervous-making, delightful or disturbing.

For, as we all know, surprises come in all sorts and sizes and degrees of magnitude — these are little surprises and big surprises — there are the mild agreeable surprises like waking up to a cloudless, achingly beautiful day and there are the monstrous, awful surprises when we feel we have been run over by an eighteen-wheeler — there are the thrilling surprises and the disappointing ones — and then there are all those moderate, in between surprises, pleasant and not so pleasant.

Now we hear folks say, I don’t like surprises — and I understand this — because I’m a person who relishes his routines — you know, like sitting down first thing in the morning with my bowl of Cheerios with three kinds of fruit and a pot of tea and the sports page spread out and the NPR news in the background — I like the day to proceed in a predictable, orderly fashion with minimal adjustments and spur of the moment detours.

But think about it — when we scan the years and survey our personal history, doesn’t it seem that almost every highlight and turning point of our sojourn on this earth, every memorable adventure, originated with a surprise?

Doesn’t it seem to you that almost all the critical incidents we recount when we tell our story came to us as surprises? — the friendships that have sprung up, the conversations we will remember for a lifetime, the events that precipitated a seismic shift in our outlook, the vacation that turned into a comedy of errors.

So probably more than we suppose, surprises have figured prominently in shaping the path we have trod.

More than we know, we depend on surprises to keep things interesting, to keep us on our toes — and, of course, not knowing what surprises are coming also keep us running a little scared.

The Kingdom of God is the kingdom of surprises.

And maybe it’s not too far off the mark to say that trusting in the kingdom is trusting that certain kinds of surprises will continue to startle, refresh, and renew us.

Trusting in the kingdom of surprises is trusting that our daily coming and going will continue to be spiced and seasoned with those small, scintillating, head-turning surprises that suddenly remind us that our everyday lives are full of wonders and revelations if we have eyes to see.

The other morning I was walking past the Biltmore and, as I approached the corner of 1st and Main, I noticed that among the cluster of pedestrians waiting for the signal to change was one of the downtown construction workers holding a two by four—when the light changed, everyone started to cross the street except the construction fellow in the hard hat—he stood motionless, stock-still—what in the world, I wondered, is he doing just standing there like a statue?—and then as I drew nearer, I realized that he was a statue, one of J. Sewell Johnson’s City Life statues that just that morning had been positioned at various spots around town—a Biltmore resident sitting nearby was highly amused at my being taken in and let out a snort—I gathered that I was not the first to be fooled and that this was his morning’s entertainment to which I was happy to be a contributor.

Trusting in the kingdom of surprises is to trust that certain surprises will come our way that will make the impossible possible.

When we are up against it, when circumstances have cast us into what the Psalmist calls “the Pit” and we’re beyond “getting a grip”—in fact, we can’t even get a toe-hold—when things seem impossible and all self-help measures have been tried and found wanting—when our hope has shriveled to a mere nothing and, in fact, is dead in the water, it’s precisely then that trusting in the kingdom of surprises means trusting that some surprise that we cannot for the life of us imagine will somehow resuscitate our hope and gladness and make the impossible possible.

When Alice Lesch Kelly was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 41, she plied her doctors with all sorts of questions they tried to answer—but none of them could answer her most pressing question which, to quote her, was: “How in the hell did I get breast cancer?”—she had no family history of breast cancer and no major risk factors. She exercised regularly and ate healthfully. She did not smoke and had yearly mammograms. A surgeon told her, “You can do everything right and still get breast cancer. Unfortunately, you drew the short straw.”

Ms. Kelly continued to be obsessed with the question, “Why me?”—that is, until she found herself in a hospital elevator with a bald woman. Ms. Kelly relates that “I had no hair at that time, either, so we started to chat.”

“‘What have you got?’: she asked me. We were like prisoners in the same jail comparing crimes. ‘Stage 2 breast cancer,’ I told her. ‘I’m a Stage 4 ovarian,’ she said.

I could tell by the look on her face that I wasn’t doing a very good job of concealing the look on my face. We both knew that her prognosis was not good. But she wasn’t grieving. She seemed happy.

‘When I was diagnosed, the doctors told me I had two months to live,’ she said with a huge grin. ‘That was more than three years ago.’

We stood in the damp parking garage, talking. She is a single mother with two teen age children. She gets chemo every couple of weeks and works full time because she needs the money and the health insurance. As we chatted, I realized that if she weren’t bald I would never know she was battling a terminal illness.

‘How do you do it?’ I asked her. ‘How do you live each day with cancer hanging over your head?’

She smiled, understanding. ‘I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried,’ she replied. ‘I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I’m happier now than I was before I was diagnosed.’”

To trust in Jesus’ kingdom of surprises is to trust in surprises that make the impossible possible—it is to trust in the words of the 30th Psalm: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

And then there are those surprises that seem to carry the message, “Lighten up.”

These are the surprises that seem to say to us, “Don’t take yourself so seriously—and don’t wear your religion as though it were a prickly, scarcely bearable hair shirt causing you no end of misery.”

Preachers can take themselves very seriously—especially when they’re preaching.

Early in my ministry two incidents occurred in which two individuals, with perfect timing, dramatically upstaged my preaching—and I always thought this was God operating as trickster, jokester, demonstrating to me that when all is said and done, cosmically speaking, my sermons are no big deal.

The summer after my first year of seminary I was officiating at an evening service in the tiny hamlet of Cave Junction, Oregon—the chapel was set deep in the woods among spruce and Douglas firs—a beautiful setting that spoke volumes about the majesty of creation—and that night I would have been wise to let creation speak for herself—there were about fifteen people of varying ages sitting on wooden benches—I was just rounding into the heart of the sermon when I looked up and a teen age girl in the back row was in the process of throwing up all over the man in front of her—end of sermon and service—later the senior warden said to me, “Don’t take it personally—your sermon wasn’t that bad.”

I guess I didn’t learn my lesson–several years later I was serving as vicar at a new mission church in Eugene, Oregon—we were holding services in the junior high cafeteria with wall to wall windows facing the parking lot and walkway into the building—we’d been meeting for some months when Jackie made her debut—

Jackie was a tall, glamorous, statuesque blond in her late 30s with a striking figure and her clothes always accented her assets—on a certain Sunday just as I was launching into the sermon, Jackie pulled into the parking lot—all heads turned toward the car door now opening—all adult eyes were riveted on Jackie as she got out of the car, walked the length of the windows to the entrance, and then unhurriedly strolled down the center aisle and, and taking her time, slowly got herself situated in the first seat, second row, right hand side—this performance was to be repeated at regular intervals and never failed to elicit a kind of rapt attention that preachers could only dream of—if I had gone on in Pig Latin, no one would have noticed.

To trust in the kingdom of surprises is to trust in surprises that turn our grimness and glumness into peals of redemptive laughter to which Richard Maxwell bears witness.

He writes, “I was walking up Broadway in the low 90s enjoying the warm air and bright sunshine—stopping for a traffic light, I noticed a couple of women on the opposite curb, also waiting for the light to change. When it did we all started to cross the street.

A fast moving car appeared from nowhere, speeding toward us. We all froze as the car screeched to a halt only a few feet from us.

One of the women I had noticed earlier wheeled to face the driver. I expected to hear a few choice epithets—

Instead, with a hand gesture worthy of the Supremes, she sang, ‘Stop, in the name of love!’ Without a thought I sang the next phrase, ‘Before you break my heart.’

Startled by our spontaneity, we stared at each other for a moment, and then sang together, ‘Think it o-o-ver.’

We laughed, high-fived, and continued on our ways.”

Amen

The Rev. Robert Dwight
7 Easter
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
5/20/07