Taking Stock: A Sermon on Shame

DSC_0900PHOTO TAKEN BY ME, NEAR LAKE NORMAN (NC), IN JUNE 2013.

Mark 8:31-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
*Sermon preached on Sunday, February 25, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the second in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Step 4.  Note, this is not the first time I have preached on the aspect of unhealthy “shame” being a hindrance in spiritual well-being and it will not be the last.  We as “church” have shied away from it or just ignored it, leaving folks to struggle.  In my experience in ministry, this is an issue which lies at the root of all addictive behavior… and it lies at the root of so much brokenness in families and individual lives.  It must be tackled head-on.   If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson
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INTRODUCTION

It is a testy exchange, what takes place in the reading from Mark.

Peter took Jesus aside and in the undercurrent of the Greek language in which the Gospel was written, Peter talked down to Jesus.  He denied the path that Jesus would take that would pass through a cross, to a grave… in order for the resurrection to happen.

It was a private chewing out, but it did not stay private.  Jesus used it as a teaching moment for all of the disciples, as to what it means to follow him, saying:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In the season of Lent, in this reflective time on discipleship, the lectionary brings this tough love of Jesus into the room, as Jesus stages an intervention with Peter.

The call of all who follow Jesus is to take stock of ourselves, in the shadow of the Cross.  In the language of the 12-Step recovery programs that emerged from a Christian men’s group some 80 years ago, it is the call to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of oneself.

What is a searching and fearless moral inventory? Basically, it’s an assessment of one’s life up to this point, a taking stock of the goods in one’s life and noting those characteristics that are troublesome – which are a hindrance to the movement toward God.  It is tackling our resentments as much as our own role in problems with people, places, and things.  It is spiritual honesty and letting the light in.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because true spiritual work raises difficult questions.  It asks us to look not on other folks’ stuff, but our own deep wounds.  It asks us to embrace the Cross on a pragmatic and challenging level.  It asks us to wrestle with shame and/or guilt.

FOR INSTANCE

During the years when I worked within the Navy’s and VA’s substance abuse treatment programs, I began to look at how shame and guilt impacted spiritual recovery.  It was before the term “moral injury” had moved from a phrase to an entirely new field of study and an explanation as to why some things are harder for folk to recover from.

During that time I realized that for all the “shame of the cross” language batted around, I could not recall ever hearing a sermon on shame, which seemed odd.  So I’d like to pull us all aside for a moment for some clarity.

Who hasn’t gone shopping and had a tired or distracted clerk give back too much change.  What if one kept it, instead of returning it?  Hopefully, one would experience guilt and correct the wrong, by repenting – which literally means to turn, return to the business with the change and perhaps an apology.  OK, that’s a softball, but the point is that guilt enables self-correction and forgiveness happens when we repent of wrong actions.  We come to understand that while we are imperfect, we sin, yet we remain worthwhile to our God.  We have done something bad, we repent, we move ahead.  As the Psalmist put it so simply, “As far as the East is from the West, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.”  Indeed, we are assured, that God “remembers our sins no more.”

Sometimes though, the feeling remains that one isn’t really forgiven.  It can be because it really has not been fully surrendered to God.  If it has been laid upon the altar, it hasn’t been let go, kinda like when one has driven down the road and wants to adjust the seat belt.  We shouldn’t do it, but we ask our spouse to take the wheel a second.  They do and our hands remain fast.  They say, “I have it.”  We say, “I know.”  They say, “I have it.”  Finally, we breathe deeply and let go.  We are afraid.  And then all is OK.

But say we get through all of that and still feel not worthy.  That is shame.  Put another way, guilt is saying “I did something wrong.”  Shame is saying “I did something wrong because I am a bad person.”  That label freezes the spirit in the cloudy past.

Now yes, shame has some functionality.  The prophet Jeremiah’s most stinging condemnation of the people of Jerusalem [6:15] was that they had “forgotten how to blush.”  They weren’t embarrassed anymore for their spiritual corruption, and their arrogance ultimately resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.  This was a failure to even perceive the wrongs committed, and no amount of public shaming mattered.  And, in Mark, we see that Jesus shames Peter a bit with language has an instructive edge.  Jesus is preparing the twelve for the time when he will be gone and they will carry the Gospel forward.  It got their attention as a teaching moment – for them and for future followers of Christ.

In such a context, shame serves as a functional reminder of the bonds and responsibilities which exist beyond oneself.  We become aware of not only what we have done or failed to do – the sins of commission and sins of omission as my Mom taught me when I was nine – but how such failures negatively impact others.  Such an experience can foster within us a place for needful empathy to grow – the very kind that is needed in relationship.

BUT, then there is the unhealthy sense of shame that maintains a distance between us and God, and each other, creating soul-lingering damage and self-doubt, and barring the path to having become better for the confession.

Such deep roots of shame and lack of self-worth come from the visible wounds of:  physical and/or sexual abuse, or the physical or emotional abandonment by one or both parents.

Such deep roots of shame and lack of self-worth come from the invisible wounds of:  constant comparisons with high-achieving siblings, derogatory remarks about one’s weight, appearance, masculinity or femininity, constant reminders about past mistakes, being told one was an accident and therefore not wanted, being threatened that one will turn out like so and so…. I do not mean to say that these are all done with knowing malice, but they are messages about the self that become one’s view of self – and thus a barrier to the grace of our Lord.

You see, the unhealthy sense of shame is when we believe the lie that we have no value.  It causes us to look backward in life and forever seek to fill a bottomless hole.  It doubts the reality of God’s hope for us, even as it denies the word that has echoed down since Genesis – when we, at our first breath are called “good.”

I got interested in this challenge for so many who seek Christ, because quite frankly, I had to work through my own wounds.  There was a reason that on his deathbed, my Dad asked my forgiveness.  He named one particular act.  It was one of number on his road to having become a much better person, once he had shed his injured child.  [It made for some great teenage years.]  It became the first movement in my own long path to working through the suffering.

In 1979, as I wandered the college library, I came across some old, beaten-up books tossed into the trash, no longer considered serviceable with their missing pages and covers.  I love old books and their slightly musty scent, printed back when book paper was made from recycled rags.  I asked if they were free for the taking and retrieved an 1859 edition of the New Testament and Psalms; its cover and the first half of Matthew long gone.

In 2006, it finally found its final use.  I was working in the VA’s substance abuse treatment program, and every Thursday a group graduated from the intense, 3-week regimen.  I would have come to know each of them quite well – and their stories of pain, of loss, of horrors – all of which had fed their addictive behaviors.  I had come across the old New Testament while paring down stuff in storage.  So it was for the rest of my time with the treatment program, as each member of the group came forward to shake hands with the treatment team, I parted a single page from the Bible to give to each.  I spoke of how it had been retrieved from the trash and yet even a single page is a reminder of how God speaks to us and wills healing for us.  No longer a Bible, but very much Scripture, I never knew who would get what page each week.  I asked them to fold and tuck their page into their wallets, ready for the moment when they were tempted to spend money on self-destructive behavior.

One woman turned her page over, while waiting for the ceremony to end.  I noticed tears formed and rolled down her cheeks.  She had suffered for nearly two decades, abuse in childhood, more abuse as a young adult… she had turned to drugs to numb herself against the pain.  After the ceremony she asked if I’d known which page I’d given her, which I had not.  It was the story of the woman who had bled for 18 years, until in desperation she had touched the robe of Jesus.  I ran across her months later.  This woman was different.  She radiated joy.  She spoke of her lifelong habit — which had been to stand before the mirror in the morning.  Over the years she had looked upon her worn face and had seen but failures and misery — Until that graduation day.  She taped that tattered Word from an old Bible to her mirror.  Every morning, the first thing she saw was that word – and remembered God saw her as a person beloved and worthy!

SO WHAT?

I invite you to behold Jesus’ answer to whatever woundedness we bring – his unconditional acceptance.  Grace.  Given freely to us simply because we children of God.  The matter is settled.  As Paul put it succinctly [Romans 8], “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

In this time of Lent, in this atmosphere of societal wilderness, I invite you to read the Gospels and notice the encounters real people had with our Lord; how he saw the true worth of each person beyond any wound from childhood or misconduct as an adult.  Not just because a word is spoken, a prayer is offered, or a touch is given – but in relationship accepted.

Consider the woman who washes Jesus’ feet and lets down her hair to use it as a towel – so deep was her sense of shame.  What is Jesus’ response?

Or, consider the reviled and guilty man who climbed a tree to get a better look at Jesus.  He never expected to be noticed, and certainly not that Jesus would ask to come into his home, did he?

Said the Psalmist [Psalm 34], “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.  Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.”

In this time of Lent, in this preparation for welcoming a risen Lord, I invite you to consider that you and I are truly beloved by God, with a devotion that calls us to move beyond past brokenness.  In this gathering we call worship, in the community of Christ, called to offer safety, acceptance, loyalty, sharing, and always – love – the miracle still happens.

Amen.

Immersed In the Wilderness: A Sermon

100_5952Photo taken by me, at Meteor Crater,  in Kings Canyon National Park, Arizona, in 2007.

Mark 1:40-45 (New Revised Standard Version)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
*Sermon preached on Sunday, February 18, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA).  I had notions of what I was going to say.  Then, Ash Wednesday happened.
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INTRODUCTION
I first became aware of Alcoholics Anonymous as a 9-year old.  Our parsonage was next door to our Eastern North Carolina church: maybe all of twenty feet from the door to the Fellowship Hall where, on Friday evenings, the place was packed.  Alcoholism was a huge issue in that village and surrounding area, and Dad worked extensively with the AA group.  Some he drove to the meeting in his 1965 Corvair, with a few of them swearing the drive alone sobered them up!  And counseling.  He did a lot of it, as the men examined the whole of their lives, helping men on their journey to sobriety.
It was an open door.  Sometimes literally.
On more than one occasion, a drunk fell through the family room door, looking for my Dad.  The men trusted him.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
AA’s Twelve Step program is a terrific tool, likely why it has become a model for many other similar programs.  The thing that has stuck with me is how the 12-Step Method isn’t merely ending the behavior of addiction.  It is the examination of one’s beliefs and one’s patterns of behaviors and relationships, and with the support of God to whom one must surrender – it is the remembering of the holy self whom God created.  It is the recovery of the soul.
FOR INSTANCE
I found myself in a long conversation this past week with a stranger.  One of the things I shared is that we often get caught up in two particular stories Jesus told: the first of the lost lamb whom the shepherd finds and restores to the fold, and the of a prodigal son whom the father painfully watches walk away – as the son must come to his senses on his own.  We neglect to hold these beside a third story – the one about the rich young ruler who knows his life is not well and so he seeks Jesus’ advice.  However, it is not advice he is willing to receive.  At least not then.  Perhaps never.  We are not told.  It is only said that the young man walks away sadly.  For some, being in the wilderness is a temporary condition.  For others, it is sadly the status quo of their entire lives.
In the face of desolation and desperation, the Wilderness that Mark speaks of in today’s scripture lesson addresses those periods of life or states of mind of being lost, unsettled, wandering, tempted by Satan, tested by God.  Amid it, the time of discernment seeks acknowledgement that there is indeed a power greater than oneself.  The journey is not without elements of tearing, if one is to fully turn one’s will over to God, integrating a newfound perspective and way of being into a permanent lifestyle.
It starts with the willingness to first acknowledge one is in the Wilderness.  Those in recovery programs call it the 1st Step – admitting one is powerless over whatever is tainting one’s life.  It is the hardest step.  It is a place of brokenness and grief.  It is a paradox, for in the admission of powerlessness, one attains control.  But working through that admission and how one’s life is off-kilter in the wilderness, takes an investment in change and the choice to deal with it head on.
We admit we have lost our way.
We admit we are facing trials and temptations.
We admit we have come face to face with evil.
We admit that we can no longer manage on our own.
We need help.
We need a Savior.
Sometimes, like Jesus, we are pushed into the Wilderness.  Sometimes we simply find ourselves there from our choices, or from others’ choices.
When it comes to recovery.  When it comes to Lent.  Whether we call it pride or fear or power or whatever, there is no shortage of temptations which hold us back from dealing with things so directly.
I’ve been thinking about this reality since Ash Wednesday.  In a time and place where there are just so many shocking events that the heart and mind stay in a perpetual spin, once more innocents were slaughtered.  Once more, it took no time at all for “thoughts and prayers” to be intoned and a large chunk of our nation to throw up their hands in resignation as though that is an adequate response for any grievous wound and nothing can be done.  Once more, as a nation, we stay in a spirit of helplessness every bit as damaging to ourselves as any other addiction, instead of applying the words of Paul:  “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of courage.”  If we are to seriously take to heart the injunction to be protective of the “least of these” and to embrace the emphatic concern Jesus had for children, we need to set aside the almost three decades old mantras of “Now is not the time,” Guns are not the problem,” “We can’t stop every ‘crazy’ who wants to kill people,” or any and every equivocation, deflection, twisted straw man argument, including the sentiment that “It’s just so sad, but what can we really do?
Let me be clear:  These are NOT adequate responses to such heinous acts.  Let’s not deceive ourselves.
When one of our own is having a hard time, the norm within this congregation doesn’t stop with prayers or thoughts – but is met with action.  We call.  We visit.  We help.  We engage.
When this congregation looked upon the poor, the homeless, and the folks who simply needed a place of community and a shared meal – The Welcome Table was born.
These are the better nature of what is embodied in the words of James, in the 2nd chapter [James 2:14-17] where he wrote:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

We know, as followers of Christ, that our path to wholeness through whatever Wilderness we have personally encountered, is to come to a faith that is so integrated into one’s very being that it is as natural as breathing in and out.  Such faith cannot exist apart from action.  We know this truth.
But what of our larger community, that of our nation in its collective Wilderness?  We are in it on a number of levels, and this past week reminded us yet again of at least one reason we are in this Wilderness.
An Episcopalian priest friend wrote on Thursday:
We like to believe that we are somehow ‘God’s chosen nation,’ and that we DESERVE (because we have {supposedly} EARNED) some kind of ‘special favor’ from God.  But God has been very clear over and over   and over   and over   and OVER again, that even ‘chosen nations’ can go astray, and ‘divine protection’ will not be enough to save them from the destruction they bring on themselves.
We do not know GRACE,
we do not know LOVE,
we do not know PEACE,
we do not know JUSTICE, and
we only use God’s wide MERCY to   Hide behind,
and FORGIVENESS to   Justify our sin.
Our ‘thoughts and prayers’ do nothing to transform our hardened hearts, and they do not ease the suffering of those who mourn.
We do NOTHING but more of the same, and expect different results.  Because we’re special.  Well, get your Bible out.  Read Jeremiah. Read Isaiah.  Read Ezekiel.  Read the ‘Minor Prophets.’  Because God has news for us.”
Megan is right.
“Thoughts and prayers” as the only response to the slaying of children?
As the only response to those who need health care they cannot afford?
As the only response to the lack of mental health resources and effective interventions?
As the only response to increasing economic disparity?
If we stop at “thoughts and prayers,” then we have declared as a nation that those made in the image of God are clearly of less value than the killing hunks of metal forged and peddled by fear merchants eager to increase their ever-expanding profit margins.
We must admit this when we blithely accept the revocation of a rule that restricts gun purchases for those identified with mental illness.
We must admit, while we’re at it, that we really can’t be pro-life and not protect ALL of our most vulnerable: be they in the womb, in a classroom, living on the street, or abandoned in elder care.
We must admit that what is driving our nation into a ditch is the corrupting love of money… mammon… in OUR centers of power, as bigger earthly mansions are built and morals are increasingly minimized.  It is witness to the sad truth that we are engaging in idolatry as a nation.
So, in the face of it…
The temptation is to take an easier route through or by-pass altogether our troubles.
The temptation is to bury our feelings and hide our truths.  To stay silent.
The temptation is to seek the path of least effort and of least resistance.
SO WHAT?
Prayers and thoughts are only a soft starting place, not the endpoint, certainly not if we would honor God with transformed lives.  We need to own our collective wilderness.  We must reject the addictive nature of apathy and taking the easy way out.  I challenge each one of us to be the embodiment of compassion that will drive the change we want to see in this world.  BECOME WORTHY.  BE BOLD.  DON’T QUIT.

Trading Places: A Sermon

100_6243Photo taken by me, in Kings Canyon National Park, adjacent to Sequoia National Park, in 2008.

Mark 1:40-45 (New Revised Standard Version)

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

INTRODUCTION

He did not want to be there, but it was a requirement.

Doing spirituality assessments, looking at the issues folks had beyond the actual physical and emotional addiction to alcohol and/or illicit drugs, as the program’s chaplain over at the VA, I interviewed everyone who came into the 21-day substance abuse program.  While they asked to be in the program, it didn’t mean that everyone wanted to talk with a religious figure – like a chaplain.

They had no choice.

Including the man who sat down and other than his name, he just sat there.

I could sense the anger, but knew it wasn’t about me.  I already knew he had lost his wife to cancer and then someone had driven through his middle class neighborhood some months later while his son was visiting him, and just randomly shot and killed his son.  Thus began what became a few years of drug abuse as he “self-medicated” himself, and then the eventual the loss of both his home and his business.  He had become homeless finally and a fellow vet had pointed him toward a way out of his hole.

Something had to change, so here he was.

Angry.

Unwilling to answer questions.

Getting nowhere, I decided to stretch back in my chair and stare at the ceiling as I asked him questions.  Questions he would not answer.  I could see out of my peripheral vision that he kept glancing at the ceiling, trying to figure out what I was seeing on that institutional white ceiling.  Finally I just quietly observed, “No scorch marks,” and glanced over at him.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Sometimes it is how we think that God will react that prevents us from the very honesty that opens us to the healing of our spirits, making it we,–ourselves — who stand in the way of needed grace.

FOR INSTANCE

This has been the thing that has rolled around in my thoughts this past week, when reflecting upon Mark’s description of the healing of the leper.

In background, we may well have heard it before, but leprosy was condemned in the Old Testament as a singular example of how sin defiles a person.  To protect His covenant people from its ravages while teaching them an object lesson about sin, God gave clear instructions in Leviticus 13 on the conduct of those with leprosy.  Broadly speaking, they were to remain apart, confined to a designated area, only interacting with other lepers.  Intended to prevent the spread of the disease, such separation also provided a powerful visual lesson of how sin alienated people – both from a holy God and from each other – making them spiritually filthy.

However, clearly this man was done with the pain of isolation.

Perhaps hearing of what had transpired at the home of Peter, the word spreading of Jesus’ ability to heal, the leper brought his hope of being welcomed back into the community of God’s people.  So he approached Jesus in this brief, intense exchange, declaring:  “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

An interesting dynamic is played out here.  Although somewhat dampened in the translation from the original Greek, scholars have noted a tone of righteous anger and indignation in Jesus’ response to the leper.  In a sense, he did put Jesus between a rock and a hard place, because for Jesus to touch him was to transfer his own uncleanliness and unsociability to Jesus.  It was to reverse their places in the eyes of the Law, initiating Jesus into the drama the leper had been living – putting Jesus now on the outside and the leper on the inside.  It is here then, that Jesus first starts to embody the words of Isaiah 53 [11-12] as to Christ bearing the iniquities of others and being “numbered with the transgressors,” in order to fulfill the Law and usher in the kingdom of Grace.

And so Mark uses a word in the original Greek that would have been clear to his first readers, as to Jesus’ irritation at the temple priests – not the leper.  Using a word that originally referred to the sound made by a horse snorting, it’s a word that only makes sense if the man had already been to the priests with his request to be cleansed – and had been rejected.  So to these same priests, Jesus sternly gives the leper the order to return as a witness giving testimony before a hostile audience.

But we have no Temple priests in our age, we say.  That system is long gone, so how does this make sense to us?

The circumstances indeed have changed during the intervening 2,000 years.  However, I would submit that what remains just as true now as it was then, is that the real hindrance to grace isn’t the temple priests in Jerusalem, but the “priests” who lie within one’s heart – fixated upon the Law, fearful and judging, keeping one from approaching our God.

Let me explain.

The man I long ago encountered on the first day of his recovery program knew exactly what I meant when I said quietly, “No scorch marks.”

We all know what that phrase means.

He clearly feared God would behave not unlike the mythical Zeus and he would be on an unfortunate receiving end of a lightning bolt – if he was honest about his negative feelings before God.  And so he had held back, for a long time.

My observation is that whatever is held back in self-judgment imposed, therefore it becomes a hindrance to the health of that relationship.

Let’s be honest, if there is a barrier to needed grace, it usually lies within our own hearts:  with the internal “priests” [air quotes!] inside our minds and our hearts judging ourselves, distancing us from the God who heals.  Our fears being given a greater place to stand than the love of God in Jesus Christ – until we, like the long ago leper, just can’t do it anymore.

I think at times of that addict who had held his tongue for too long and suffered too much upon such self-imposed isolation, one every bit as painful as the long ago leper’s experience.  He had cut himself off from friends, family, even God, because of his anger at injustice, and the belief it had made him unworthy to approach God.  And so his suffering had lingered far too long.

Then I think about the image of his face, still fresh in my mind some 12 years later.  I watched it change from defiant to sad as he began to weep, as the load slipped from his shoulders and he stepped into the first of many conversations, moving toward what became a successful long-term recovery.

The origins of suffering do vary: whether one may possess culpability or said suffering is the kind which the Book of Job makes clear that one does NOT need to own.  In any genuine encounter with Christ, there is often just the profoundly simple plea:  “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  It is a plea that is always answered with “I do choose.  Be made clean!”  And this, my friends, is equally of import:  each of us must then EMBRACE that healing and LEAN into it.

SO WHAT?

Jesus does not just bring cleansing.  Jesus IS cleansing, and what we wrestle with most… all the self-judgment… all the guilt… all the shame… they are Gone.

In their place?  Healing.  Love.  Acceptance.  Forgiveness.  A clean start.

Through the grace of our Lord, the false priests within our hearts are dismissed.

It is ours for the asking.

Celebration of Life: Dot Penn (Jan 27th, 2018)

I am remiss in not posting this earlier.

Dot Penn Memorial (Jan2018)Memorial Service for Dorothy “Dot” Penn.  Held at First Christian Church, on January 27, 2018, celebrating the life of our dear and remarkable friend and servant of Christ our Lord.

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INTRODUCTION

“Be kind to you, Dot,” I said.

We were talking one day early on when neither of us had any suspicion how long nor short our new friendship might be.  This faith-filled woman of intellect, and devotion, who conversed with God just as she would any one of us, seemed a bit worried she had not measured up somehow; this follower of Christ who approached her faith with such rigorous intentionality and depth of expectation of God’s grace.  It took me aback briefly that she had that worry.  But, don’t most of us feel that at times in our lives?

She tilted her head and smiled at me, in that way of Dot, with her expressive eyes and puffed up round cheeks, a look for which she had earned the nickname “Bunny” in college, already then held in deep affection by an expanding circle of love.  A lifelong student of faith and of life, my words seemed a new thought to her.

“Be kind to my friend Dot,” I said again.

She said she’d try.  We all need to hear of grace.  It was the subject of a couple of conversations amid her devotion to strive until the last to be what none — in this life – can ever fully obtain:  a servant in complete conformity to the mind of Christ in being and doing.

It makes sense then, that the 51st Psalm would be a favorite of Dot,

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”  Words that ultimately continue, saying: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”

WHY BRING THIS UP?

You see, Dot’s hope to be cleansed wasn’t ever just about herself.  It was about how her faith in God could best equip her life to be of service to others.  Always, others.

FOR INSTANCE

Nowhere is that more clear than in the sealed letter she wrote in May of 2014, to be opened upon her earthly death.

Bliss had moved to Hampton so she could help her sister and true to form, Dot, as typical of both sisters, quickly got down to the proverbial brass tacks, when Dot looked far ahead and wrote of the inevitable day that comes to all mortal life.  As she wrote Bliss with a final blessing to her sister:

“Thank you for loving me so much.  I love you too!!  You’ve forsaken your life to take care of me.  It was a long journey, but we did it!  As I have told you many times, I am not afraid to die – as all must do.  I believe Jesus came and died to save us from hell, if we believe in Him we are saved.  And I do believe in Him and you do too, so we are saved.”

Before going into the practical details of things Dot wanted to be handled upon her death:

Her first consideration was to give thanksgiving to a sister who was first of all, her best friend throughout life.  Joined in a common heart and not just a few adventures, whether as kids cutting through a pasture and finding themselves running from a bull or in the more mundane elements of life, this “loyal love” [hesed] as the Old Testament would put it, was central to Dot’s life.  It was the welcomed gift received as much as given – and so in everything there was thanksgiving for LOVE.  Like one of the photos on the screen before the service, with Bliss and Dot as youngsters – through the “long journey, (they) did it” as an inseparable team.

Her second consideration was to give to a sister and a witness now to each of us, a confession of faith and hope, and Dot’s fearlessness in the face of death, one I clearly witnessed – because of her salvation in Jesus Christ. It was only the physical process, to this independent spirit, that at times was a bit of a challenge.  In our last conversation, shortly before she passed, Dot said to me, “I didn’t think dying would be so hard.”  When I asked her, “What did you think it would be like?” she pursed her lips in thought, looked at me and said, “Well, I’d just go walking in a park and that would be it” with an upward lilt to her voice.  That was her vision of walking into the eternal embrace of love.  I thought then and know now, how fitting a park would be the image she would hold up, this formerly avid gardener whose love of God’s creation was close at hand just outside her window with several bird feeders always occupied, or who in healthier days made trips to soak in the majesty of the Grand Canyon on more than one occasion, and other places – with friends in tow.  I find myself believing that her dignified and always open spirit was granted precisely such an image as she moved into eternity.

The lifelong salvation Dot held close and her almost childlike wonder at God’s creation and his creatures was lived out in the largeness of Dot’s heart for others.  It was an ever-broadening family that kept on taking in newcomers, a banquet table that kept being extended to accommodate yet more.  That isn’t typical, especially for one of such years, when the circle of friendship usually shrinks because of both the passing of old friends and hesitancy to invest in new ones.  Dot didn’t have that problem.  She collected hearts, without ceasing her life’s mission – to love one another, as Christ first loved us.  I think that’s why I just never quite grasped that Dot was 93 years old, because the passing of the years had left her spirit undiminished in her openness to learning and relationships.  She remained young in heart, for in her was the Life.

In Dot was a heart that once connected with young children at the beginning of their schooling, among the very first teachers to work with Title I, which includes Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged children catch up and thrive.  In her was a heart that caused her to befriend a young woman of 13 who had lost her own mother, becoming a second mother to her and modeling for her what would become Denise’s own vocation.  In her was an expansive heart for spiritual daughters of varying ages and yes, even a few sons, all children to her – not merely linked by blood, but of heart and of soul.  Each brought under wing, offered friendship of the highest order and gifted with a commitment that lasted until death.  Friends, neighbors, this congregation, and even the maintenance man, all found themselves equally brought under the expansive and ever-accommodating roof of the house of Dot.

One of the first stories, a defining one that Dot shared, was of her father. A bank custodian who worked to ensure her education would continue into college, his words had echoed across the decade.  When the day came for her to go to college, his parting words were: “Don’t bring home anything you didn’t take with you.”  With teen pregnancy all around, she recounted, he did not want her stepping away from the larger vision for her life.  Such a vision for others and that directness of speech – the “word of truth in love,” as it is referred to in scripture, was certainly a characteristic passed from father to daughter, as we all know.

So if Psalm 51 was what grounded her, I find myself thinking of Dot in terms of our second reading, from I Kings 2, of that transitional time when a spiritual parent is soon to pass.  Elijah knew his time was approaching and was at peace with it, but clearly his spiritual son Elisha had become anxious.  Death has a way of catching that childlike anxiousness in us of being left behind, doesn’t it?

And so, as it is written, “When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ (to which) Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’”

There is an insightful hope in Elisha’s words, a hope that is echoed today; to inherit that double portion of Dot’s spirit.  Double the elder’s share of the spiritual estate, it isn’t about having twice the spirit of his spiritual father and accomplishing twice as much.  There simply is no replacement for Dot, no more than there was for Elijah.  We know this, for each is uniquely created and each serves by the will of God in their own season according to their own calling.  Elijah noted he had no power to give away the power he had received, — and yet, Elisha’s prayer was indeed answered.  Such is the grace of God, as Elisha took up the work.

Today is about receiving the transference of unfinished tasks.  The mantle which has fallen is the one we now gather up as family of the heart: to serve in the full measure of our own lives, as, like Dot, we honor our Creator.  The purposes remain, to love, to encourage, to befriend, to mentor – in the full measure of our own gifts.  Life continues and a new voice speaks from the seemingly empty place.

SO WHAT?

So I want to ask you all to take a moment right now and really look around this sanctuary:  Look at one another, at the diversity, depth and size of this extended spiritual family that Dot (with Bliss’ help, of course) created out of her love.  I want you to FEEL Dot here because she truly is.  She is in all of us, surrounding us, lifting us up to be the best we can be.  See in your head, in your heart, how she is smiling in her Jesus’ presence.  You see, today isn’t about gaining a new part of Dot.  She had already imparted to us her most precious possessions – her heart and her faith.  Today is holding close how she has shaped us and beckoned us to likewise serve God through relationship with others – like her, GRATEFUL recipients of God’s great love!

Amen.

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The family of Dot Penn has asked that memorial gifts may be directed to:  First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA  23666.  For more information, call the church office at (757) 826-0711.

Obituary of: Dorothy “Dot” Brown Penn

Dorothy Brown Penn, 93, a long-time resident of Hampton, passed away peacefully on Thursday, January 11, 2018, with her loving sister and caregiver, Bliss, at her side.  She is a native of Petersburg, VA.  She is preceded in death by her parents, Bliss and Mary West, and her beloved husband, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Penn, and granddaughter Kaitlin Ashby.  She was a retired educator from Newport News Public Schools after 30 years of service, an avid gardener, and enjoyed traveling with family and friends.  Dorothy is survived by her loving sister, Bliss Wagstaff of Hampton, her nephew, Bliss Armstead and wife Karen of Williamsburg, her numerous nephews, her beloved cousin Brenda Evans and husband Michael of Pittsburgh, PA, her children, Denise Ashby and Kermit Ashby, M.D. of Yorktown, Trudy Kelly of Newport News, Katrina and Micheal Foster of Newport News, Brenda and Robin Vines, Sue Van Vector, Robin Faith, and Beverly Sustare (special friend) all of Hampton, granddaughters Kristen Ashby, M.D. of San Antonio, Texas, and Kathryn Ashby of Franklin.  In addition to those mentioned, there are so many more extended family members and friends that were dear to her heart.

Thank you to the caring and compassionate professionals of Riverside Palliative and Hospice Care, and the physicians, team nurses, and Telemetry Team at Riverside Hospital. And, special thanks to her wonderful neighbors, and Rev. Vinson Miller, Linda Kuster, and Dorothy’s entire church family at First Christian Church of Hampton for all their prayers and support.

Private interment will be at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.

The family requests memorial gifts be made in memory of Dorothy Penn to: First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane Hampton, VA 23666, (757) 826-0711.