When Things Can Only Be Carried

April 9, 2019

Preached April 7, 2019
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
Text: Gospel of Mark Chapter 14:3-9

I think often we read biblical stories with a somewhat numb mind. Many of us have heard them before. Often scriptures are often read out of context, we aren’t exactly sure what is going on in the broader scheme of the story. For those who have been going to church for a long time, maybe even since you were little, it can be hard to enter into the beauty and the holiness of the stories in the midst of our hectic lives.

Sometimes it is like if you eat a whole box of chocolates – or maybe around this time of year, a whole bag of king size Cadbury chocolate eggs. By the 15th chocolate egg you aren’t exactly savoring each and every bite.

This is not a criticism of us – this is part of life. If you don’t get to see your kids very often, you can appreciate all their sweet little idiosyncrasies – but by day nine of spring break when you’ve been spending every minute together, somehow you can’t quite treasure their little laugh or cute little pile of legos in the floor as much as you might otherwise have.

So as we join together on the last Sunday before Holy week, as we near the end of Lent, I want to invite us to slow down and really take in the amazing beauty and power of this week’s scripture.

It is two days before Passover. Jesus is in Bethany visiting followers and friends at the house of Simon the Leper. Bethany is about a mile outside of Jerusalem. At this time in Mark, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, palm leaves spread before him. We know that sisters Mary and Martha and Jesus’s friend Lazarus also all live in Bethany. We can imagine the times are tense. Jesus and his followers know that Jesus’s message has spread far and wide.

Those who hold power are worried. They are trying to think of a way to arrest Jesus, to quiet him, to silence his message and to discourage his followers who are questioning the long-held power structures and rules of the authorities and they are envisioning that there might be a different way to live.

The son of God hangs out at the house of a leper.

Women have roles of leadership that they have never been allowed in other faiths and movements of the time.

The last are first. The poor are blessed.

The savior of the world doesn’t enter triumphantly into Jerusalem with weapons or pomp and circumstance, but humbly and beautifully on the back of a common donkey.

Things are different and people can tell.

Everyone is tense.

The time is coming. They know what is to come.

Sometimes there are no words.

A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.

Jesus is sitting at the table. We can imagine everyone talks in hushed voices, in the way we do when we sit and wait for death that we know is coming.

Have you ever held vigil for one you love? Have you ever known something will come and you know it must but you don’t want it to and you don’t know what to do?

They sat in Simon’s house around the table perhaps with little to say as they wondered what would happen and how. We have heard the story before, but they did not know how the story would play out exactly.

The woman broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

We can imagine it drizzling down slowly on his hair. She gently rubs his hair, moves her fingers over his temple slowly so the oil doesn’t get in his eyes. The fragrance fills the room.

Sometimes there are no words for the grief, and the fear, and the difficulties we face.

The people around get upset. What in the world are you doing? Wasting so much?! They chastise her. You can imagine everyone is stressed and perhaps a little on edge. People don’t know how to react to someone just walking up and putting oil on Jesus’s head. Maybe he isn’t going to like this. We could have sold that and given the money to the poor they snap.

When we are hurting or scared, we often lash out at those around us. When we are aren’t sure what will happen or what to do, we often aren’t our best selves.

Have you ever lashed out in your pain?

How often are we hurt by those who are in pain who don’t know what to do?

It was no different around this table many years ago in Bethany.

But Jesus speaks up. Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me, he says.

He knows what she has done. She has anointed him with oil, an act of hospitality, a gesture of affection, and ceremonially preparing him for the burial which is to come. It is a silent acknowledgment of what is to come, an acknowledgement that a serious situation sometimes requires more than we can afford to give, an act of love, a holy act.

She has done what she could, Jesus says. She has done what she could.

In a time when we are to slow down, and contemplate what is to come, this story of anointing reminds us of the ways that the church and the church’s people can break down barriers and build bridges, particularly in moments when people are scared, when people are hurting, when they are longing for comfort and care and answers and safety. When they either don’t know quite what is to come or perhaps they do know what comes and it feels unbearable.

There are so many ways that we love people and are there for people without words. When words aren’t really enough. Megan Divine who writes about grief in her book It’s OK that You’re Not OK says that there are some things that cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. They will be with us always, but we can learn to journey with them, and over time, we can learn to journey with them with some measure of peace, or even with a little joy eventually.

As we think about barriers and bridges and how we love and how we welcome as the hands and feet of Christ, this week we might especially attend to the non-traditional ways that we do this – not just with our words, but with our actions, with our holy rituals, for Christianity is a deeply embodied faith. In what ways do we and can we respond to others when they are hurting and unsure, that follows the lead of the woman with the alabaster jar who offered hospitality, gentleness, care, and preparation?

One way that we do this is through the open table. Each week, we feed each other. An intimate act. Everyone is welcome, everyone can serve, everyone can eat. We can say we are as welcoming as we want, but we also show this by a table that doesn’t just say, “Well, perhaps you can join us if you believe this,” or maybe in the future you might believe what we want you to believe or do… No. It is a no questions asked act of love and welcome and nourishment.

We also break down barriers sometime by simply bearing witness, gently and quietly.

The last time I preached here was June 24, 2018. I remember the date perfectly because it was also the day that the child I was pregnant with died. We knew the pregnancy was struggling and Megan offered to cover for me, but I told her I could do it. I preached, in somewhat of a daze, knowing what was to come in the days or weeks ahead, but not sure how or when and perhaps still hoping that there would be a miracle I knew was not really possible.

After church I went home and by that afternoon I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I spent my last hours with my baby to-be here on this altar.

I really thought I would die of a broken heart, our sweet little boy was wanted so very much.

I didn’t want to speak to anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t know what to make of it, really.

Perhaps many of us here have faced a loss that hurt so much that our words failed us. That we didn’t know what to do.

That we were speechless. That it felt as if there was a hole in our heart or a brick in our stomach.

Megan brought over tea and an orchid and left it on my porch, honoring my need to be alone.

I drank the tea, lying in bed, with my red nose and empty heart, wondering how I could go back into the world, but thankful to have the comfort of something warm from people who cared.

I haven’t been to church as much as I was before that day. I haven’t known exactly why, I’ve felt guilty, unsure of what to say to people about my absence. About our baby. In my life, there will always be the before and the after that day.

And yet, I have been so welcomed because no one has pressured me to be here before I was ready. I am warmly hugged and greeted when I can come. Whenever you’re ready, we’re here, Megan has told me as I’ve worried about reentering life after my loss.

Building bridges sometimes means waiting, it sometimes means silent acts of vigil and love, knowing that there are not words adequate to heal the pain that people face. Sometimes we bring them tea, or flowers, or a homemade blanket, a dish of food, or knitted scarf or an alabaster jar.

Sometimes breaking down barriers means we do things that seem out of the ordinary. She has done what she could, Jesus said of the woman with the alabaster jar.

I have spent the year reading about grief. Reading about the way we try to fix it when people are sad, doing our best to console them, but often putting our foot in our mouth, struggling with the right words because we live in a culture that often wants us to sanitize the struggles we face, to heal faster, to cheer up, whispering only to those closest to us, often not naming the miscarriage, the affair, the addiction, the depression, the loneliness that so many carry with them.

And, to be honest, churches don’t have the best track record of holding these pains well. There are too many stories of shaming, of leaving out, of rejecting, of glossing over, of gossiping, of judging, and of mistaking ourselves as God.

So this morning as we think about the barriers we might put up – around our church or around ourselves – and the bridges we might build – among each other and with those around us – we can remember the woman with the alabaster jar.

She knew that should could not fix things.

She did not offer cheerful platitudes that everything would be okay or reassure everyone that it would be all turn out well. Because she did not know and because, in many ways, it would not be okay. It was not okay when Jesus was taken away from his people and tortured and killed, when Jesus cried out “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” It was not even okay after the empty tomb and resurrection because… well, look around us. Even in the midst of the risen Christ, our world still struggles and God still weeps for all of our sweet souls who go on hurting each other and being so hard on ourselves.

The woman with the alabaster jar simply did what she could – she gave what she had – in fact gave lavishly in an act of hospitality, of affection, and consecration of Jesus’s body and his path, honoring his death which was to come.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Kate Bowler teaches at Duke Divinity School and her area of focus is in the study of the prosperity gospel, Joel Olsteen, the idea that fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune is a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in Kate’s life seemed to point toward blessing. She was thriving at her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and has a newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forced her to realize that she has been inadvertently subscribing to the prosperity gospel, the idea that if we do the right things, things will be okay. Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, there is also the darker side of that… that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you may just have done something wrong. What does it mean to die, at 35 she wondered, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved she asks what happens when we let go of platitudes about death and loss and and don’t immediately put all bad things under the category of “God’s plan,” and live into the mystery of an existence where we don’t explain our struggles and hurt away and instead sit with each other as we acknowledge the ways that beauty and struggle are woven up together in a mystery that is sometimes beyond our comprehension, and bear witness to this among each other.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. And with Jesus reminding us that when we proclaim the good news, we also must tell the story of those who bear witness in times when words are not enough. When we proclaim the good news, we must also remember the importance of unexpected acts of care, of preparation, of quiet affection and hospitality that punctuate the ebb and flow of grief that our people face day in and day out.

Sometimes breaking down barriers and building bridges is slow, quiet work among aching or grieving people whose pain it is hard to know.

We remember today that we do not have to fix things or have the right answers. We can feed each other at the table, we can wait patiently on each other, sit quietly with sweet gifts of tea and orchids and handmade quilts and home-cooked meals, being present. Anointing in our own ways with our own oil.

In memory of her.

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Goodbye Fast Fading Magical Ones

November 18, 2012

I remember them in our kitchen with their beers
Laughing thunderous laughs
With mouths wide open and heads thrown back
Like it was still the nineteen seventies
When my parents and they were young and beautiful
And funny and enamoured with themselves as most
Young beautiful profound people were in the nineteen seventies.

Except now, as they laughed in our kitchen, I was five
And my sister was three
And we were not quite sure what to make of these
Mystical people who would show up
And we would stay up past our bedtime
Listening to their stories
Pondering at their unfamiliar mannerisms
In our yellow kitchen
Too late into the night

He had hundreds of albums
And I can’t remember if I saw him and my father
Playing them on the turn table and drinking beer
With smoke around them
Or if I just pictured it in my mind that way
Because I had heard the small simple
Legends of the camaraderie and joy
Of the time sitting
And listening and talking and drinking
And basking in the wonder of
Friendship that became a synergy
Of magic and a kind of madness

The descent for these dear people
Whom my parents loved
Was so rapid that it is almost
Not possible to think about it
Or make sense of the liver cancer
And brain cancer
And the loss
And illness
It all happened so quickly
Yet in a sort of bizarre painful slow motion

And these mythical people
Faded fast
Like the ghost from 1976
That they seemed to me to be

Like so many beloved and central people in our lives
They were not without great faults
Yet we don’t often love people
Because they are without faults
But because they would die for us
And we would die for them
And we have laughed with them
And cried
And we retell our stories
Like the smoldering ashes of the dawn

And so it goes again
The passing of this time
Like a hammer smashing the finger
And it comes again and again
And you get used to it
Realizing that that pain
Is just part of what it means
To live

And we say goodbye again
To people we love
Who were broken and flawed
And magical and glorious.


Death and Love

September 16, 2012

I am sitting in the parking lot at McDonald’s while my little three year old magical wild child sleeps his rare sleep in the car seat. Our cousin Nancy Jo has died and I am driving to see family. She lived a hard life with too much pain and many ill-fated attempts to numb that pain. She also lived a life of giving – she was a craft master, always dreaming up something thoughtful and sweet to give even second cousins like me. She had three amazing adult children, now left with their own complexities of various sorts not the least of which is the sudden death of their mother.

I am always struck by the swiftness of death and the fine line between the beauty and wonder of this insane world and the pain and horror of it all.

People we know are dying all the time, these days, it seems. Uncle Carl and Uncle Ollie. Nancy Jo and Uncle Bruce’s brother Bill. All those people on the news and in the newspaper. In Libya and Syria and Louisville and down the street and on facebook.

I hate how damn mundane it is. Like, it happens and the world just keeps on going. People still go to McDonalds to get their french fries and I still have more deadlines than I can manage and all the while all these souls are slipping away and lives are upended and we just march on.

It makes me want to cry at the beauty of things like my silver coffee cup sitting next to me and the curve of the steering wheel where I prop my computer, the pure magic of this world that we are thrown into. I want to go to the people streaming in and out of this McDonald’s and stop them and hold their shoulders and look into their eyes and say, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget dear, beautiful person that this is fleeting. Nancy Jo has died and Bill has died and we will not be far behind. Kiss your babies and your dog and your wife and sip your bitter coffee more carefully and lick all that salt off your fingers because this is all we fucking have.”

But I don’t. I sit here smiling at my own cliches, look back in the mirror at my sleeping baby, remind myself how precious this all is and say a little prayer for all of the hurting and loving and dying and living people of our world.


The Power of Those Smudges

February 24, 2012

I’m just going to be upfront and say that on Tuesday, I looked up Ash Wednesday on Wikipedia. There. I said it. I mean, I knew that it was the start of Lent. Which is the time before Easter. But between the Baptist church I attended as a child, and the two very low-church Methodist churches I went to as a teenager and Campus Crusade for Christ in college and then the whole leaving the church and then becoming Unitarian Universalist and then staying that but also sort of reentering Christianity, let’s just say that the liturgical calendar wasn’t really a big part of my church life. (Who need the liturgical calendar when you are being RADICAL for JESUS and have, like, four Bible studies to go to every week!?)

And, as Nick Cave says, I don’t believe in an interventionist God, so I won’t say that God somehow pulled me to Ash Wednesday services (or [back to] to Christianity for that matter) but if I did believe those things, that is what I would have said about the services I went to yesterday.

Early this week I was thinking about standing outside of divinity school a few years ago, having missed Ash Wednesday services around campus and seeing everyone with the ashes smudged on their heads and asking my friend Nicole what exactly it was all about and sort of musing that I somehow liked it. And dear Nicole reached up on her head and took some of the ashes from her forehead and put a small faint cross on my head with her ashes, telling me that the priest [she is Catholic] says, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” We talked some about the time before death and resurrection and praying in the desert and burning leaves from Palm Sunday. But what I remember is this power and this feeling and almost like a little collapse inside of me when she gave me some of her ashes. Like, right there, she could perform something sacramental, and I could be a part of things, and a part of this long history of people smudging and praying and confessing and hoping and it didn’t have to be earth shattering or The Great Return to Christianity or The Great Confession of Sin. It was just me and my friend Nicole who is an amazing minister and this moment or more like a washing over me of this circle of life and death and hope and return and leaving and all of it. It was both a big deal and not a big deal.

So at the last minute yesterday I called the local Disciples Church (our Unitarian Universalist church here does not have Ash Wednesday services) to see when their services were. And amid my sweet little son gobbling on his cookie and trying to read me Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?, I was awash again in this flood. I am not sure what it is a flood of, exactly. Of this idea that we are finite, that there always remains hope, that we can begin again, that we are all hurting, that we are invited into a time of reflection and doing things differently, and that this can shape us, and that God is always present. I love our Unitarian Universalist Church here in our new town, but I miss God. For me, I find God in ashes and bread and wine somehow in a unique way that I sort of feel like I need. Who knows why.

What I like somehow is that there are not Answers to be given on Ash Wednesday. At least not how I have experienced it. We are together. We anticipate the crucifixion. We acknowledge our brokenness. We sit together and confess. We sing. We listen. We leave, marked, together, that we are part of the Church. And, in a day, that fades and we are back to our unmarked selves, trying to love, trying to pray, trying not to eat chocolate or whatever other big but really absolutely small thing we’ve decided to do for Lent and we are just praying and waiting and preparing both for something terrible and tragic, yet knowing that only through that can there be new life. For whatever reason, that makes a lot of sense to me right now.


dear lovely man on the motorcycle

August 31, 2011

i heard the crash and turned to see you land. i ran out of my car as fast as i could and got to you within seconds, already on the phone to 911. i told you first thing that i was with you and that you would be okay and that we would take care of you. i did not want you to hurt alone or to be scared. i prayed and prayed silently, just with my heart, as it all swirled around – the cpr and the blood and your precious pulse stopping and starting, your tan skin there, under my skin as we tried to care for you. i prayed with my gut and with all that i had that it would be an okay that meant your life would continue and that this would be the worst pain you were ever in and it would only get better and you would never again be so wounded.

i just walked past that place where i prayed with you and over you and held your hand and touched your chest just four short days ago. it was the flower that announced what happened after you rolled away in the ambulance with the sirens and the prayers and the tubes. a little sign on a flower – rest in peace. i told you that you would be okay, and although i know it does not seem like it to the people who loved you, it is a different okay because i know you are somewhere where there is no blood and there is no pain and there are no damn motorcycles or accidents or wounds. it is not the okay that i wished for you, but what is, is. this world is so damn unfair and unjust. i sit here crying over you – over your hurt, over the fact that we could not save you as we gathered around your delicate and precious self laying there. crying is so inadequate, i know. what else is there to do?

please know that being there with you was a great privilege. to see your precious life, and to hold your hand, and touch your skin. in such moments we are all so vulnerable. i want you to know, and i hope there is a way for your family and loved ones to know that it was only five seconds after your accident that you were alone. i got to your side and immediately reassured you, comforted you, prayed for you. shortly others joined who were equally as gentle and kind and helpful. you were surrounded by love. i believe that it is the case, wherever you are now, that you continue to be surrounded by love.

i did not pray in words the day that i was there with you. but here is my prayer now. i hope it finds its way to you somehow.

dear god, who is the god of love and peace, i do no not understand how this sort of pain happens. there are no good reasons for this. yet i know this happens. the world happens and pain happens and loss and hurt and unfairness and we are stuck here right in the middle of it, just trying to do something, trying to make our way. i am left only to breathe and pray and love and hope. to hope that there is a way to make sense of it, to hope that we can make less pain like this, to hope that the family of this man who laid there with me finds a way to make sense of this and live with this loss. it is all so fast. it is all so precious. in one second we are on our motorcycle, fast with the wind against us, and in the next we are laying there, everything changed. everything fleeting. in one second we are sitting in our car and in the next we are holding the hand of a stranger who is saying goodbye to this world. god, be with his family. be with those who loved him. be with him as he sits or floats or lingers in heaven, wherever that is or whatever that is, and looks down on the life that he had in all its beauty and brokenness. give us all the strength to be with each other as we hurt – as we long for those who we have lost, or as we lay in the ground one friday afternoon. give us the strength to love more, to remember well, to be at peace with the madness that is this world where things do not make sense and are not fair. may we keep loving. hard. may we keep praying. hard. praying with our hands and our feet and our hearts as we try to lessen the brokenness. in our own lives. and in others’ lives.

i’m so sorry, precious beautiful man on the motorcycle. may god have you in god’s embrace.

amen amen amen.


How to Remember

October 19, 2010

A few weeks ago someone I once loved very much killed himself. He was a complex, beautiful, maddening, difficult person. We had mostly lost touch over the years, short of a little facebook contact, but I was still deeply sad about his life and death.

I struggled with what to do. Write a letter to his family telling them how much he meant to me? Probably not welcomed by the wife from the ex-girlfriend. As if anything I could say could possibly touch the chaos and confusion in the wake of such a death.

It is, in the end, so much about us – me – in the face of someone else’s loss, right? Like what does it matter to him or his hurting family how much I loved him? How much I understood of him, if, indeed, I did understand anything of him? In a way, wanting to do something at all is about me. How to live with the loss which feels intense. When I love, I don’t do it lightly. Perhaps a little less gravity in my love would be a good thing both for me and for those whom I love.

I thought of writing something thoughtful and profound on the memories part of the funeral website. I hoped to somehow capture how important he was too me and how amazing I thought he was in his own strange way. In a little gesture, to honor my memory of him. But I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there mostly because all of the other notes were empty and like syrupy bad Hallmark cards that said nothing about who he was and my post would have been weird and out of place if not just a little creepy.

I wasn’t able to go home to Ohio for the funeral because I was in the midst of my doctoral exams. But perhaps it was better because I know the funeral would have been eerily silent about the fact that he took his own life, alone in his barn, on a Sunday afternoon.

It would have been silent about his broken body.

It would have been silent about the hurt he caused those whom he loved and who loved him. He was a pretty selfish guy, to be honest. But charming and beautiful and funny and addictive. You can’t really say that at a funeral.

It would have been silent about his mystery and his brilliance and his hurt that was with him when I knew him quite some years ago and, apparently, remained in one form or another.

There would have been no way to remember his magic in this world along with and inextricable from his madness.

It makes me all itchy inside to think about the platitudes and careless use of religiosity that often, I suppose, feels like the only recourse at a difficult funeral where we are not to speak ill of the dead and in the process fail to remember them in all their humanity and fullness.

And so it goes.

This is my small way of remembering him.

I loved you so much, dear Levi and pray with all that I am that you find, in death – in absence – what you did not find in your short life.


The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.

September 1, 2008

And such is the case with the passing of our Murray. He still breathes shallowly, his little eyes opening just a slit every once in a while. But his time is here. I have written about him several times on here. He has been sick on and off for many months. We thought he might be better. But on Thursday he got much worse, very fast. Our vet tried some alternative treatments. But they merely perked him up for a few hours, until he descended back into that space between this world and the next. We hope he will pass gently on his own, comfortable in his little fuzzy bed, tucked in his favorite closet where he is happiest. But if he hangs on until tomorrow, we will gently take him to the vet and give him the help he needs to let go. I thought that I would be okay with it – sad, but not too sad, knowing that he has always been a bit weak and sickly, and that he would be far more comfortable in some world beyond this one. But instead I am just overwhelmed with sadness and wishing he could be better and it, well, it just hurts. Logic about how this is best for him and was partially expected doesn’t make it much better that my kitty is dying, and he is uncomfortable and, as a mostly feral cat, even less consolable than a regular sick cat.

My partner, Mr. Philospher, told me so ministerially and lovingly that the heart has reasons which reason does not know. It is so true. Our hearts so often just do their own thing, no matter what we tell them.

Such is this life of suffering and joy and struggle and hope.

May your passing be smooth and comfortable, sweet Murray. We love you.

.

Here is Murray just last week cuddling his favorite foster kitten, Juliet.