You probably haven’t noticed…but I’ve been gone for a while. It’s been almost six weeks since my last post. The first four Thursdays were lost to traveling, and last Thursday was dedicated to Annual Conference. Being gone for such a long, long time has left me with several things I want to say to you. About the trip through Europe:
- The world is a wonderful place! My husband Phil and I stayed in Dublin for a few days, and then flew to Amsterdam so that we could board a river cruise that took us through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. Every place we went was all about the rivers: Liffey (Dublin—we stayed in the Docklands); Rhine; Main; and Danube. Dublin is a huge city divided by the river and our long walks along the river were equally peaceful and exciting. The land along the rivers in mainland Europe was beautiful: rolling hills, little towns, ancient castles and cathedrals, mobile home and RV parks where people hung out to fish and relax. The scenery was lovely, but that’s not what made me so happy. People make me happy. Over and over, on the cruise and out in the towns, we met wonderful, friendly, helpful people. It’s easy to forget how friendly and helpful the world is when what you hear on the news tells you to fear others, to fear the immigrant, to fear Islamic peoples, to fear in general. We went on a walking tour of Frankfurt and our guide was a young Muslim woman. She was friendly and easy to talk to, and while discussion of religion led us to disagree about the interpretation of the Christian scriptures, Phil and I found her to be fascinating and friendly. I would gladly have spent the entire day with her so that she could tell us more about life in Germany, but she had other tours to lead that afternoon. And then there were the people who were with us on the cruise. It was a small boat, and there were only 111 passengers, so it was easy to get to know folks, and most of the people we met were not from the US. We spent most of our days going on walking and cycling tours with our brand new friends, and most of our nights singing and dancing with them in the lounge. It was fantastic!
- The world is not always kind enough. This I learned mostly on the ship as I got to watch human beings behaving badly: too drunk; too rude; and too impressed with their own class, wealth, and achievements to treat the people serving them as equals. It is really hard to watch someone behave that badly and not say something, and I found myself apologizing to waiters, housekeeping, and bar staff for the behaviors of others. It’s interesting to note that bad behavior isn’t limited to one color, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. Apparently, we are equally capable of being a**holes no matter what our background. Unfortunate, but true.
- The gender and sexual preference gap isn’t as large as we think it is. There was a large group of gay men travelling together on the cruise, and two of them had originally booked this cruise as a couple. Sadly, their six year-long partnership came apart shortly before the cruise date. Friends of theirs who were also on the boat agreed to change room assignments so that the newly dissolved couple didn’t have to share a room. Phil and I met the entire group the first day of the cruise, and it wasn’t long before one of the friends let us in on what was causing all the sturm und drang (a great phrase if you are touring Germany!) Watching their broken hearted attempts to enjoy the trip was painful. Watching one of the them drink himself into oblivion over his broken heart was agonizing. Listening to that same man discuss the problems he was having with his new partner was enlightening. Apparently, couple drama is couple drama and what side of the sexual preference or gender divide you fall on turns out to be meaningless. Two men fight and cry and worry just like two women fight and cry and worry just like a man and a woman fight and cry and worry. The other dimension is also true: the joy of one type of couple doesn’t look much difference than the joy of a different type of couple. Shortly before my husband gave me a beautiful Swarovski bracelet for our 28th anniversary, we watched Micheal give Christopher a watch for their 9th anniversary…and Chris’s reaction was pretty much the same as mine was. Two people loving each other is a beautiful thing, and there was no difference in how we celebrated the many wedding anniversaries for straight couples or the anniversaries for gay couples. Apparently, love is love is love is love and we might want to quit worrying about what separates us and simply focus on increasing the amount of love in the world. It’s a beautiful thing.
Only five days after we came home from Europe, I found myself back in a hotel, attending the Annual Conference of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. Man that’s a mouthful! Let’s just call it DSW2016, because it’s easier that way. Anyway, the Bishop had asked me to preach the memorial service this year, mostly because I am an ordained Deacon (the specialist type of minister in the UMC) and this year was the 20th anniversary of the Order of Deacons. It was an honor to be asked to preach at annual conference, but also a very anxious thing. I fretted over that sermon, let me tell you. I was so anxious the day that I had to preach that I had trouble drinking my coffee—it gave me a stomachache. I’m pretty anxious in general, and moments like this only make it worse. Anyway…I preached my sermon and it went really well. Really well, as in better than I could have hoped it would go. However, there are a few things that I learned from preaching at DSW2016, and while I don’t expect my colleagues in ministry to be reading this, I’m going to say it anyway (probably because it’s hard to shut me up…and I’ll bet you see what I did there!)
- Avoid backhanded insults disguised as compliments. Saying “Wow! I didn’t know that you could preach!” or “You did a really good job on that! Did you write that sermon?” is just rude. Folks, I went to seminary just like all the other ministers do and I’ve been clergy since 2003. Really? If you can’t say anything nice…
- Unless you are the one directly benefitting from someone else’s hard work, say “Good job!” only once. More than that and it starts sounding insincere. I admit that this might be my insecurity talking, but at the same time, all I can think of is how we overly praise a four year-old for their scribble drawing…and how insincere it is. Too much praise is uncomfortable and smacks of condescension.
- Let your emotions speak. This year’s memorial service honored the recently deceased spouses of a number of my colleagues, and after I preached, one of them came up to me and hugged tightly me for a good minute. She didn’t need to say anything for me to know how she felt about my sermon, or how well I had memorialized her husband. There aren’t enough words to convey what that hug and her tears said to me.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to put your praise in writing. I had several colleagues who emailed me to say ‘good job.’ I save emails and notes like those for bad days when my self-esteem is low. Words of praise that are tangible (i.e. written) are powerful talismans of past achievement and can lift someone up years after the words were written. It is a great gift to tell someone in writing what good you think they have done, even if the message is brief.
And that’s it. It’s good to be back home and back into my routine, and good to be talking with my readers again. Enough people asked for copies of my memorial sermon that I am attaching it to this post for their convenience. I hope you enjoy it as well.
The text of the memorial sermon preached on June 16, 2016 at DSW Annual Conference 2016.
14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this in remembrance of me.
We normally speak those words as we stand at the altar, elevating the bread and the cup as we enter into the Lord’s Supper. But tonight, we are gathered to remember in a different way: tonight we memorialize and honor those who have died and gone home to glory. We are here because they were our colleagues, our friends, our family…and we love them and so…tonight we are here to remember.
But what is it that we should remember? In the memorializing of a life, what do we come to remember? Their actions? Their achievements? Their legacy?
Maybe it’s the good times. We only get so much time with the people we love and no matter how much time we get, it’s never enough. Both of my in-laws have passed on and I must admit that I often think about how much I would love to have an hour with them now. An hour would be great…not because I want to say anything profound to them and not to thank them for the gift they gave me in my spouse because I did that while they were alive. I would love an hour with my in-laws just to laugh with them about the stupid stuff we used to laugh over…to remember all of our stories. Like the one about how my father-in-law ended up sitting on Santa’s lap. Or how he hid an entire pound of Ethel Mastin’s homemade peanut brittle because it was SO good and he didn’t want anyone else to eat it all up. You start telling stories about the people you love, and one story leads to another and then another and each story is funnier than the last one until there are tears dripping down your face, not from sorrow but from hilarity. Perhaps a life is best remembered in laughter.
I must admit, though, that when I talk about the people that I love, I do tell an awful lot of stories about what I learned from them. In the end, if you are paying attention…if you are listening and watching…there is so much to learn from the people we love. There are the lessons they teach us on purpose: how to change a tire; how to cook a meal; how to drive stick shift; how to balance a checkbook. Then there are the lessons they teach us by example: faith; honesty; kindness; patience. And then there are the lessons they taught us with simple words shared at the most crucial times: words of forgiveness and grace that we could not have granted ourselves; words that convey lessons of life wisdom learned the hard way. When I was a little girl, my father told me that if I thought he was wrong, I should tell him, and we would discuss it, and if he was wrong he would apologize. My father’s parents were NEVER wrong. I never forgot the day my father apologized. It was a huge lesson: it gave me permission to challenge authority when I thought it was wrong, but more than that: my father gave me permission to be wrong and ask for forgiveness for my error. Perhaps a life is best remembered in its wisdom.
You know that joke: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all”? I remember the first time I heard my mother’s words come out of my own mouth, not in repetition of her wisdom, but yelled at my children. I think all of us relate to that moment…we’ve all gotten there, especially if you have children…because there is no way to avoid imitating the people you love the most. You spend so much time with them and they have such a huge impact on your life. How can you love someone and not be impacted by who they are when you admire so much of what they do and what they say? When you admire so much of how they are in the world? And honestly, there is no way to be loved by someone and not be changed by the relationship you have with them. It’s as if the love they have for you leaves an indelible mark on you that can never be erased. It’s almost as if they are a tea bag that steeps in the pot that is you and leaves behind a flavor that can never be removed no matter how many other flavors end up in that pot over time. Whatever they leave behind is permanent. In the end you end up taking on some of their ways of thinking and some of their ways of being and some of their habits…maybe a life is best remembered in imitation.
And let’s admit it: love changes us because love is a revolutionary act. It really is, because sometimes someone loves you in direct defiance of what the world thinks of you, in direct defiance what the people around you think of you…sometimes they love you in direct defiance of what YOU think of you. I swear, the hardest thing to accept is that we are lovable despite all of our flaws and our failures and the mess that we are inside. And every person who loves us…THESE people who we are memorializing who loved us…they gave loud testimony to the worth that was inherent in our being and to the beauty that we possess even when we deny it. Love is a revolutionary act, and the fact that these beloved that we are honoring loved us…that they TRULY, DEEPLY loved us…was amazing, and life-changing, and life-giving, and live-sustaining. Maybe a life is best remembered in love.
Do this in remembrance of me.
When I was in studying at Claremont School of Theology, I had a New Testament professor…Greg Riley. One day in class he said that we might just have the Last Supper all wrong, that we may have interpreted it incorrectly for hundreds of years. He said to the class “We think that Jesus meant that we should remember Him when we eat bread and drink wine…that we should gather around the table and do this together and remember Him. But what if Jesus meant: do THIS (breaking motion) in remembrance of me? Do THIS (poured out motion) in remembrance of me? What if He wanted us to allow ourselves to be broken as He was broken and poured out as He was poured out…in remembrance of Him?” I think about that a lot. I think that these saints before us today already had that figured out and spent their lives living it out.
I’m a counselor, and in graduate school I was taught that we come into this world a tabula rasa…a blank slate. I knew that to be a lie the minute I heard it, because if there is a slate that is me, a slate that is YOU, that slate is carved with the image of Jesus Christ…an image we bear that cannot be erased. It can be covered up, but it cannot be erased. And anywhere we are…anywhere where we try to leave our mark…evidence that we were here in the world…what we leave behind is the image of the living Christ that is stamped into our very being. That is what the people who we remember today brought into the world. But they didn’t stop there.
Because these saints that we remember today did not live meager lives, going forth only to do just a little, and get by. These saints LIVED in the name of Jesus Christ. They THRIVED in the name of Jesus Christ. They SERVED and they GAVE in the name of Jesus Christ. These saints lived a life that truly remembered and honored the One who is their Savior. They left their mark. The image of Christ that they leave behind is imprinted on us, and their willingness to be broken and be poured out in Jesus’ name has left their imprint on their family, on their friends, on their Church and their community. There is no way you can miss the mark they have left behind! Praise be to God!
If we are going to remember them, then let us tell their stories and laugh because they brought us great joy! Let us remember their wisdom, because they guided us well and led us on the paths that lead to righteousness. And then let us live in imitation of how they lived, leaving behind the image of the living Christ wherever we go. Let us love in their memory…let us love in a revolutionary way…loving one another and our neighbor, loving our enemy and the people we fear the most and despise the most…loving beyond borders and beyond all reasonability. But most of all, let us live like they lived so that when we die, we will be remembered as they are being remembered today: as ones who allowed themselves to be broken and poured out in the name of One was broken and poured out for us all.
Do THIS in remembrance of them. There is no better way to remember a life. Amen.