Breath to Live; Ezekiel 37:1–14; April 2, 2017, FPC Holt

Breath to Live
Ezekiel 37:1–14
April 2, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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What is the meaning of life? Now if you’ve been reading your Book of Confessions you may echo the Westminster Catechism and tell me why of course it’s “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” If you’ve been reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and you’re feeling a bit silly you may say, “42.” Even when we have full confidence in knowing our lives are in God’s hands, everyone experiences a season, or two, or many of thinking, “what is the meaning of my life?”

When you feel in a rut, or a valley if you will, and your wells of inspiration and perhaps even hope have dried up, it can be difficult to see God’s meaning or purpose in it. With this in mind, Ezekiel’s prophetic conversation with God doesn’t seem outside the bounds of what we might want to discuss with God as well. For some, these dry bones are far too close of an analogy, for those struggling with the ravages of cancer or loss, or in the deep throes of depression or grief, you know what it is to feel dried up and hollowed out.

In this text we hear God asking Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And there seems to be some annoyance coming from Ezekiel as he responds with something akin to, “I dunno. You tell me!”

Like anything in the Bible, this text is not an isolated little story of some time that Ezekiel spent talking to God in a valley, but comes to us from the historical context of the Babylonian Exile. Ezekiel, alongside other Judeans, was thrown out of Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. Previous to that time the people of Israel were similarly deported, losing their communal identity in the ravages of life as refugees in Babylon. Ezekiel then was speaking to a people who were, in a great many ways, lost. By many markers of ancient culture, these followers of the God of Moses and of Abraham would have every reason to believe that their God had indeed lost out to a Babylonian god. They’ve taken over the Davidic monarchy, broken down the temple, uprooted the people, what’s left? It is in this context we hear, “mortal, can these bones live?”

It reminds me of a question in another story, that of Mary Lenox and Dickon discovering a Secret Garden and asking, “will it grow?”

When I was younger my parents would read to my sister and I every night. One of my favorite reading experiences was the Secret Garden. My experience was most certainly heightened by my mother’s love of this story, particularly in the musical stage adaptation. When we read the Secret Garden we had plans to go to see the musical in Detroit at the Fisher Theater when we had finished it.  As we read the story, we accompanied it with a listening of the soundtrack, but my mom was always sure to stop it before it got past wherever we were in the story so as not to spoil any of the plot for us. So, needless to say, we heard that soundtrack quite a bit over the weeks leading up to seeing that production.

One of the songs was titled, “Wick.” When Mary and Dickon uncover the Secret Garden, Mary believes that all the plants have died because, well, they look like they’ve all died. Dickon explains that it’s not so simple, there’s still life in those plants, life that can be coaxed out with attention and care. He calls this spark of life within the plants their “wick,’ and sings:

“When a thing is wick, it has a light around it. Maybe not a light that you can see. But hiding down below a spark’s asleep inside it, Waiting for the right time to be seen. You clear away the dead parts, So the tender buds can form, Loosen up the earth and Let the roots get warm, Let the roots get warm.”

Dickon knows the potential left in those plants and knows the way to bring it out. He will prune and water, weed and rake. He will take away the dead parts to give room for life to flourish. He knows that though this garden has experienced abandonment, it’s story is not over yet.

Ezekiel finds himself in a similar position, but learning how to bring renewed life only through God’s good counsel, who tells him to prophesy to the bones, to tell them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

When you are feeling like those dried bones or that neglected garden, it really isn’t a matter of pulling yourself out of it, you need that prophetic word. You need someone else to believe on your behalf that there is life in you that is worth saving; noticing and naming that you are “wick,” and then tending you back into blooming.

This spring there has been an incredible example of renewed life in, of all places, Death Valley. As the name would suggest, this valley is known for being dry, a place where not much grows. But… every decade or so, there is just enough rain that there is a super-bloom that brings life and brightness to the valley. Rangers are saying that this year is the best one they’ve seen since 2005.

The Washington Post describes it this way:

“The types of flowers that appear during a superbloom are known as ‘desert ephemerals,’ since they are so short-lived, according to the National Park Service. Their brief lifespan is a survival strategy; rather than battle the relentless heat year after year, the flowers’ seeds lie dormant underground….One upside of the hot, dry conditions is that they keep the seeds from rotting as they shelter beneath the soil, waiting for the right moment to sprout. A winter like this one provides that moment. An autumn storm brought 0.7 inches (a deluge by the desert’s standards) to the valley in October. The storm was devastating at the time, setting off flash floods and damaging one of the visitors’ centers. But it also prompted park rangers to begin speculating about a super bloom like they hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.

“The rainstorm washed the protective coatings off of the dormant seeds, the NPS explained, allowing them to sprout. Then, the “godzillo” El Niño climate cycle that has chilled and drench parts of the West Coast… brought more water to the parched landscape. The continued watering kept the … plants alive as they waited for spring to come. With the arrival of warmer weather … the plants finally began to flower.

In a video we’re about to watch, Van Valkenburg says “I’ve lived in Death Valley for 25 years and I’ve seen lots of blooms, lots of wildflower blooms in Death Valley, and I kept thinking I was seeing incredible blooms. I always was very excited. Until I saw one of these super blooms. “And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow,” he continued. “… When you get the perfect conditions…they can all sprout at once.”

What in you is lying in wait for God’s breath to make it live? Who around you needs the care and tending that you can provide to help them bloom to their fullest? As we enter this Spring season, may we be attentive to that which is “wick” in one another, seeking to speak God’s message of hope, that God is ever eager to fill our lungs with the breath of new life. Amen.

Watch: www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/b7ba8caa-d166-11e5-90d3-34c2c42653ac

“In the Wilderness”; Luke 4:1-13; February 14, 2016, FPC Holt

“In the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 14 SLIDE 1 - LostThink of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time,  and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.

When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 2 - WildernessPastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

2016 2 14 SLIDE 3 - Jesus WildernessI remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 4 - Hand UpSo what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 5 - Jenny LawsonI recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many.  She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said 2016 2 14 SLIDE 6 - Me too‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…

In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named 2016 2 14 SLIDE 7 - Folder of 24“‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.

When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened.  After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’

Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 9 - EmpathyI believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 10 - God With UsThis empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 11 - CrucifixionAnd in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.

Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.

“Make Way”; John 1:1-8, 19-23; December 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Make Way”
John 1:1-8, 19-23
Rev. Kathleen Henrion
December 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2014 12 14 Slide01Wilderness. It is a place where one can get lost, some intentionally, some accidently. It is a place of in between: between Exodus and Promised Land, between an inheritance and a prodigal’s return. It is the place that lies below the mountaintop and precedes the burning bush. It is a place of abandonment and provision; humility and testing. Where manna falls and rocks gush. Even when we enter into it willingly, wilderness is not a place where one intends to stay, but rather the place from which one comes.

2014 12 14 Slide02Wilderness is not restricted to the Biblical narratives. Wilderness can look like the descending cloud of depression coloring all that you experience. Wilderness can be the powerlessness felt when watching the news or reading the paper. Wilderness can look like learning to navigate life after the loss of a beloved spouse, parent, sibling, or child. Wilderness can be the cold plunge into the unforgiving waters of Alzheimer’s. By nature, wilderness isn’t restricted at all, but rather it paints obscurity over that which we think we know, in either our surroundings or our very selves.

2014 12 14 Slide03Jesus was no stranger to the wilderness, both surrounding him and within his own self. We often, and rightly so, associate “wilderness” in our liturgical year with the season of Lent, as Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days proceeding his fateful week in Jerusalem that took him from parade to upper room to cross. But today, we have a different scene of one emerging from the wilderness into the public eye.

2014 12 14 Slide04He had his surprising birth announced by an angel. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. And being that we’re in church, less than two weeks away from Christmas, it seems logical to imagine that I’m talking about Jesus. And of course that biography would be fitting for Jesus, but it also belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, SLIDE 4 - John the Baptistalso known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is John’s origin in this Gospel, and his persona is notably marked by these beginnings.SLIDE 5 - Saint John the Forerunner  John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man of wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. He comes from the wilderness place of in between.

He comes with the message of Christ coming soon and still not yet.

SLIDE 6 – John Preaching to CrowdAs John stands among a gathered crowd, priests and Levites that the Jews had sent to Jerusalem confront him. They ask him, “Who are you,” and there is a series of back and forth questions and answers between John and these Pharisee representatives. Is he the Messiah? No, not the Messiah. Elijah? Nope, not Elijah. Surely he must be a prophet. No, not a prophet.

As these priests run out of possible suggestions they seem to throw their hands up in the air saying, “Who are you? …What do you say about yourself?” He replies not with his name or credentials, but with scripture he says, “‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

John defines himself by his wilderness context and by his voice that testifies to Christ’s imminent presence among them. We read that John was sent from God and “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Who John is and what he does are as a function of his role as witness to the light of Christ, in and among the dark wilderness spaces of this world. This light shines in darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorIn his book, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” Robert Fulghum tells this story: “At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, our instructor (asked), ‘Are there any questions?’ These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. So I asked. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ He looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. ‘I will answer your question.’ Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter and said: ‘When I was a small child, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept this little mirror, and as I grew up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I am not the light or the source of light. But light is still there, and will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world and help change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’”[1]

SLIDE 9 - Light in DarknessJohn knew this was the meaning of his life. He was not the light, but he would do everything in his capacity to reflect that light that had touched his life.

What is the wilderness you find yourself in today? Your space of disorientation, confusion, disillusionment, or disconnect?

What could you do with in this wilderness space with just a little bit of light? The good news that John brings for you and for me and for all of us is that the light is never overcome by the darkness.

SLIDE 10 - Christmas Eve Columbia Seminary Professor, Marcia Y. Riggs writes “Like John we live as witness to the light of Christ, for the light of Christ is life. Thus, as we testify to the light, we also embody that light as believers who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world this Advent season. To embody the light and reveal the life of Christ anew means that we are to live so as to nurture our humanity – especially the capacity to love our enemies – and to act humanely, offering compassionate and restorative justice.”[2]

SLIDE 11 - Candle What does this light mean for our own wilderness? Might it be that what we now only see as wilderness is in fact Advent embodied? We, like John, await Christ’s presence in our lives with hope. Through our hope we are making a way in the wilderness for Christ to come again.

Thomas Merton, 20th century Catholic writer and mystic wrote this of our wilderness turned Advent hope, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”[3]

Might we live as Advent people, make a way for Christ’s light to shine in our wilderness. Amen.

[1] “The Meaning of Life”: from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum ©1988, Ballantine Books

[2] Marcia Y. Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1

[3] Thomas Merton, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/hope-restoredrejoice-always.html