Archive for February, 2012

Ready, Set, Go! Running the Marathon of Faith

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

I Corinthians 9:24-27
February 12, 2012
Mary Hammond

I have never won an athletic competition in my life. I was always the klutziest, weakest student in gym class. Liz and I were regularly picked dead last when our peers chose up teams. Liz was the “greaser” with the black leather jacket, black jeans, and red hair sprayed to the hilt. Chewing gum or smoking a cigarette right past school property, she exuded Attitude with a capital “A,” and her attitude was, “I do not care.”

I, on the other hand, was the earnest, high-achieving super-nerd. I could smash the competition in any sentence-diagramming contest, but I was absolutely abysmal on an athletic field. My attitude, however, was the opposite of Liz’s: “I care so much, I really do!–but I’m just no good at this!”

So what do I know about running, and winning, a race? I would do better shifting Paul’s metaphor to a piano competition where many compete but only one ultimately performs with the orchestra. The audition might last 20 minutes, but the preparation might have taken 20 years. In fact, winning the competition is impossible without all the intense effort preceding it.

Running a race to win is no more an accident than being awarded first place in a piano competition. The Apostle Paul likens the spiritual journey to an athletic match-up for which one trains to win, not just to participate. He reminds the Church in Corinth that the reward is no mere gold medal which tarnishes and fades. Instead, it is infused with the breath of eternity and bears everlasting significance.

The past two years have been very difficult for our family as our daughter, Sarah, faced profound struggles due to deep psychological vulnerabilities which she endured for a lifetime. The race we ran as parents, pastors, and people of faith took sharp detours, scaled rugged mountains, careened through dark valleys, and traversed a handful of barren deserts.

At times, people ask Steve and me some version of the question, “How are you getting along?” or, to paraphrase it, “How do you keep running this race?”

For me, the answer is found in three anchors: faith in God, support from community, and sustained spiritual practices. These three keep the finish line in clear spiritual sight, even when the winding road before me is cast in fog and shadows.

Faith reminds me that this world isn’t all there is, that life which ends here continues on, nonetheless, in the loving, enduring Presence and Light of God. Hallelujah! Faith reminds me that the Holy One is near in our tears as well as our laughter, in our sorrows as well as our joys.

Community encourages me when I have trouble seeing God or understanding what is. It carries me when the journey is too difficult to navigate alone. Community sits with me, walks with me, prays for me, loves me.

Sustained Spiritual Practices produce a deep reservoir of grace beneath my life. Years of nurturing Silence and receiving Spiritual Direction have allowed me to excavate my inner life more fully. This has led to an increasing integrated inward and outward journey, and, believe me, that feels really good!

I “take in” wisdom through meditative scripture reading and a variety of devotional literature. I “release” wisdom by writing. In journal after journal, I spill out my heart and put words to my struggles, questions, and insights. I muse about scripture, process anxieties, problem-solve, draw, and rant. Through the additional nourishment of music and nature, I experience comfort and beauty; wonder and gratitude.

The past two years have underscored in bold relief the importance of developing consistency within my Spiritual Practices. In more ordinary and less traumatic times, day by day, I dug that deep reservoir of contemplative practice under my life. When Sarah’s death hit like a ton of bricks, there was a body of living water gushing from beneath me to shore me up. There was a community of faith around me and a God of all comfort within and beyond me.

Each of these anchors is supported by three “postures of the heart”: listening, receiving, and sharing. Listening begins in silence, in stepping away from the cacophony of the world–its busyness, speed, and noise. We cannot listen when our hearts and minds are crowded with thoughts. Listening begins in finding time and sacred space that takes us to “another” place, inside our hearts.

But we have to be able to “take in” what we hear. And we have to be able to ask for what we need–both from God and others. Listening must be followed by receiving. Do we “take in” the love of God and others, or do we feel unworthy and unlovable, pushing that love away? Do we seek tangible, practical support when the going gets rough?

To complete the circle of “listening” and“receiving,” we need to practice sharing. If I’m going to go through challenging times anyway, I want some blessings to come out of the chaos!

Glenn Gall names this process so well, calling it “the roller coaster of loss and grace.” Our many “roller coasters of loss and grace” beg to be shared in community, where we can support one another and learn from each other. Our faith is collectively challenged and deepened as, together, we wrest redemption from catastrophe, light from darkness.

We’re not sprinting to the finish line. Running the marathon can be just plain hard, but the load lightens when we live in a posture of listening, receiving, and sharing. The load lightens when we grab hold of the three anchors of faith, community, and Spiritual Practice. The story expands beyond our own private pain; the journey deepens. The circle of transformation widens; seeds planted grow and bear fruit.

After church today, we have the opportunity to hear from John Bergen, our Peace & Justice Intern, who spent the month of January at the Monastery of Our Lady in Conyers, Georgia, with the Trappist monks. I invite you into this conversation, but I also invite you into your own internal conversation.

How you are running this spiritual marathon? Are you feeling kind of wobbly in the knees and searching for a rest stop? Are you needing additional traveling companions? Are you looking for more conditioning techniques which will increase your endurance? Or are you meandering along as a tourist rather than training as a runner?

Wherever you are, may God speak to your heart and beckon you onward, with the words of the Apostle Paul ringing in your ears:
“Run to win…I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.”


Making Sure the Good News is Really Good

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Mark 1:29-39
February 5,2012
Steve Hammond

It was not the best time for Peter to bring his new friends over to meet the in-laws. His mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. And back in those days, a person might never recover from a fever. It’s not like you could go to the clinic, or run down to Walgreens and get a prescription filled for an anti-biotic. So Peter’s wife and her family must have wondered what Peter was doing bringing these folk to the house at such a time. But one of those friends went right over to the bed, took her hand, and as the story says, “raised her up.” She shook herself off for a moment, straightened her apron, and went and got supper ready for Jesus and the rest of the crew.

Last week Mary preached from the story right before this one about Jesus delivering a man from a demon. And in this very next story, Jesus raises up this woman who was, apparently, near death.

Casting out demons, healing a very sick woman; we don’t know what to do about that stuff. Most of us don’t even believe in demons, much less casting them out. And healing stories leave most of us, I think, scratching our heads. We would like to believe that healing happens. It seems like we have seen it happen at times, but there are all those people who don’t get healed. What do stories like this have to do with us?

Mark starts his story by telling us that Jesus came preaching about the kingdom of God. Just a couple of weeks ago I talked about the problem I have with that phrase. I’m not going into that again today, save to mention that the whole notions of kings and kingdoms doesn’t have much meaning for us today. Then there is the whole business about how hard it is for us to get away from all this masculine language we use for God.

Kings and kingdoms, though, meant a lot to people who heard Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And one of the things they knew is that a new king coming along was not necessarily a good thing. Remember King Herod and his kingdom? He’s the one who had all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding territories killed in his attempt to end any challenge this newborn King of the Jews, that the Magi had told him about, might offer. And Herod’s kingdom wasn’t radically different than from anyone else’s. Who’s to say that this Kingdom Jesus was talking about was any different than the rest?

Jesus wanted to show them right away that this kingdom he was talking about was different.. So he casts out demons and heals people. Where he lived, and in the time he lived, that was not something that people found as hard to believe as we do. And for them it did mean this was a different kind of Kingdom. The Kingdom of God was something that was there for the sake of people like Peter’s Mother-In-Law and that man who was delivered from a demon.

Jesus was showing that God’s Kingdom is about people knowing freedom from the demons that possess them, people being raised up and coming to life. In a sermon Jesus preached in his hometown he said God had sent him to bring good news to the poor, not the rich, to set captives free, not put people in prison like happens in most kingdoms.

I don’t know that any of us are called to cast out demons or lay hands on people and raise them up. That was the best way for Jesus to help the people in Mark’s story understand what the Kingdom of God was about. Casting out demons and healing people was Jesus’ way of showing people that God was on their side. So our calling must be to find our own ways of letting people know that the Kingdom of God is about people being set free, about people being raised up, that God is on their side.

And the sad truth is that too much of the time the God we are offered is a pretty ugly God, a despot like those kings people of Jesus’ day worried about. It’s hard to believe that God is on our side. In too many churches God is represented at judgmental, capricious, anxious to exact vengeance on the unrighteous. In their books they talk about the streets running red with the blood of God’s enemies at the end times. And they assign earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and famine as punishments from God. They are much more interested in their bad news rather than the good news that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated.

We are just spinning our wheels when we get caught up on issues like demons and healing. We will never exactly figure out what’s going on there, but we don’t have to. The issue is not whether we have enough faith to believe God can do such things. Rather, do we have enough trust in God’s realm to go about and bring the life and freedom, hope and love that Jesus trusted God’s Realm was about? Do we really trust that God is on our side, on everybody’s side? That’s what we need to demonstrate, model, and proclaim.

So one thing stories like healing and exorcisms might mean for us is that they give us a chance to ask what our equivalent to healing Peter’s mother-in-law or bringing freedom to that demon possessed man to show people that God is on our side is. I’ll bet it is a lot like turning on a light in the darkness here and there with acts of kindness, mercy, compassion, love, and welcome. For those are ways of bringing healing and wrestling with demons.

In this story, we see that people are starting to get it. They really believe God is on their side. This kingdom Jesus is talking about is good news. So the whole city the story says, lined up at Peter’s in-law’s door bringing their “sick and evil-afflicted people.”

At the end of the day, though, Jesus went off to pray. There’s a cartoon about a Pastor in her office who is obviously praying. Her secretary puts his head in the door and says, “Good, you aren’t doing anything.” Jesus did a lot of things like heal people, cast out demons, proclaim the Realm of God. But he also prayed and took time to withdraw and be alone with God. That was doing something, too.

He couldn’t do the healing, the casting out of demons, the proclaiming of the Realm of God without those times of prayer and contemplation. And he wasn’t doing all of that to simply get in touch with himself. He was doing it to get in touch with God and discover where God was getting in touch with him.

If we are going to help people realize that God is on their side, bring freedom and life and healing in whatever ways we do, part of what we do is that spiritual formation work. The praying, the contemplation, the Bible Study, the worship, the gathering with the community of Jesus followers is not a distraction from the work we are called to do. Instead, it is a part of the work we are called to do. For Jesus, at times, the best thing he could do for people, was to go find a quiet place to pray. That, too, tells us something about the Realm of God.

Peter’s mother-in-law was raised up and then she put in a long day feeding people, including Jesus. And her house was full of people coming there to find healing like she had. I hope that when Jesus went out that night to pray she also took some time to pray because that is part of the healing, too.

So when you are thinking about the life and freedom and healing and hope you are going to bring to this world to show that God is on our side, remember that praying and spiritual practices are a part of what is needed. Not just for you, but for the world who needs you to do the work of God’s Realm.

Slow Miracles, A Remix

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Mark 1:21-28
January 29, 2012
Mary Hammond

The demon exorcism texts in the Gospels are not among my favorite stories. And there are many such accounts. Somewhere during the last couple years, I recorded these undated comments in my bible on this particular text: “For centuries, the mentally ill were treated as demon-possessed and/or were shut away. What does this healing mean? Do we change it to metaphor when it is not? But so many people have only limited earthly healing.”

Surely I was thinking of our daughter Sarah when I wrote this comment. Surely I was also thinking of countless other folks I know, love, pastor, and befriend, who face their own private demons.

A clear image from my teen years has reappeared in my memory during the past couple months. In high school, I accompanied the Choraliers, a 16-person singing ensemble which performed extensively throughout the wider community. Our most memorable yearly singing gig was our trip to the State Mental Hospital in Elgin, Illinois.

During the 1960’s, the mentally ill were “shut up” in places like this, removed from society. The room in which we performed was expansive, probably about the size of the First Church sanctuary minus the pews on the sides. Every few feet, there were metal beds with thin mattresses, covered with white sheets, and patients wearing white hospital gowns. Some lay on their beds, curled up in fetal balls. Some rocked back and forth in chairs. Some constantly mumbled, or erratically jerked. Some sporadically cried out. Each person seemed shut up in his or her own world.

We’ve come a long way dealing with the mentally ill in this country since the 1960’s. But we have not, by any stretch of the imagination, come far enough. Our prisons and city streets have replaced our mental hospitals far too often. The lingering, age-old stigma and label of “demon possessed” or “crazy” still lives on in many places throughout the world and even in the United States. The psychologically vulnerable are still frequently one loving family away from homelessness. When our daughter, Sarah, moved back home in November, 2010, that couldn’t have become more clear to Steve and me.

Gaining insight about my own faith journey as it interacted with the instantaneous healings recorded throughout the Gospels took a long time coming. My understanding was, in part, propelled by the day when one thin, white curtain separated the lives of ex-convict Louis Messina and adolescent Sarah Hammond–one thin curtain in the Emergency Room of Allen Memorial Hospital, as it was called in 1991. Louie was admitted for severe alcohol poisoning. Sarah was taken by ambulance from Wilder Hall, where she began having seizures from a severe electrolyte imbalance caused by acute anorexia. Two people I loved lay in those hospital beds, one thin curtain apart. A company of saints—many from this church–fought for their lives when neither could fight their own demons themselves.

In 1994-95, after I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and began treatments, I could not read the Gospels at all for a whole year. It’s a good thing the church had two pastors, with Steve preaching in the Gospels every other week and me preaching in Job. The healing stories of the Gospels were simply too painful for me to bear—so quick, so instant, so clean, so clear-cut.

Jesus’ touch, word, or command was all that was needed. Was my life like that? Was Sarah’s? Was Louie’s? Was anyone’s I knew? Nice bible stories, I felt, but NOT MY STORY.

Until I wrote the “Slow Miracles Sermon” in 1995, chronicling the insights gained from these two beloved lives which collided in that one ER room separated by a thin, white curtain. Louie was back in prison by the time I got around to writing that sermon, but Virginia told him about it, and he wrote a song on it. I still remember the chorus–”Look at me, I’m a slow miracle, living proof of what God can do. Look at her, she’s a slow miracle, living proof of a living truth.”

Sarah’s untimely death on Thanksgiving Day does not change the past 21 years of that confession and fact, my friends. And Louie has been out of prison, ever since the prison stay during which he wrote that song.

You see, my life is characterized by ‘Job kinds of miracles’ more than ‘Jesus kinds of miracles.’ The ancient saint of the Hebrew scriptures named Job faces multiple losses in rapid succession. Through lament and protest, he stubbornly remains in dialogue with a seemingly silent God. Over the long haul, his vision–clouded by grief–is restored. His perseverance and faith are vindicated. Job’s story, my friends, is a slow miracle–the kind that comes through struggle and heartache; through stubborn authenticity, constant vigilance, and audacious prayer.

We face Jesus once again in this Gospel story of Mark. An interrupting spirit has hold of a man in the meeting place. It speaks to Jesus, not the man. And this is the way with such realities. The torment becomes so thick and omnipresent that it has its own personality and voice. Yet, there is a yearning heart and soul beneath that interrupting torment. It is to that heart and soul that the heart of God speaks in this story and continues to speak today.

Call that interrupting voice a demon, mental illness, an unclean spirit, a tormented presence, the darkness, depression–call it whatever you will–Jesus shuts it up and sends it packing. He instantly heals this man after, most likely, years of torment. Jesus heals him publicly—in time and space, in this life, not the next. The man is given a new chance to experience an integrated earthly life, profoundly different from the tormented life he had known for so long. We all know that this never happened here for Sarah, despite innumerable prayers, beloved community, and persevering love.

But there’s more to ponder than these two different endings to the stories of the man in this text and my first-born child. There’s a brazen claim by the Gospel writer that Jesus is in the habit of facing down the darkness and not letting it stand—in an ultimate way.

Hope is vaster than what we see with our human eyes. Baptist Peace Fellowship staff member, LeDayne Polaski, reminded me that God dwells outside our finite constructs of ‘chronos’ time and space, outside our sense of hours and days marking yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And our family marks the days so intensely in this period of fresh grief.

In God’s time which is beyond our sense of time, the Gospel confession of Jesus’ exorcism is this: the light will not be confined by the darkness.

Slow miracles, fast miracles, mysteries, paradoxes, and gaps between text and experience…All these are part of the journey we are called to as followers of Jesus. May God find us both faithful and tenacious of heart. Amen.