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Heb. 11:1-3; Psalm 23 (KJV)
Lawrence Park Community Church A Story for All Ages: The Slinky! When I was serving as a Hospital Chaplain in Waterloo, we held a periodic evening series of support for staff. And one of the most popular sessions was led by a Prof from Laurier – Annette Dekker – whose area of expertise was resilience! And for all time – and all ages – I often think of how she began her talk … with a slinky! Some of us will remember these, from the 1970s, pictured in TV advertisements ‘climbing’ down stairs, and being stretched into all kinds of lengths and shapes. I remember Annette saying: “we are all like slinkies …” (as she stretched it). Life stretches us, everyday, with stresses and demands, some of which we love and others we resent. And as we get stretched, we need to try and always retain a bit of ‘stretch’ at both ends … for those times when we have to stretch even further, even briefly, and then to allow ourselves time to regroup (allowing the ends to come back in) … for the next time we need to stretch (as she did). And that, she said, is a way to think of resilience. Retaining a bit of ‘stretch’ and allowing ourselves to regroup. Something to think about for these Pandemic times, among others!
Some of you may recognize this paper back volume – entitled Voices United Sampler – circa 1993. It was published in advance of the hymn book we know and love as Voices United (soon twenty five years ago) to ‘sample’ some traditional and ‘new’ hymns for what has been a resilient resource for our worship life together. This morning, I suggested we gather with the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You”; it was the most popular of the ‘traditional hymns in The Sampler.
The most popular ‘new’ hymn was Natalie Sleeth’s composition for her grandchildren: “In the Bulb There is Flower … “ with which we’ll close this Service. “Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” Sleeth’s husband was dying, and she wanted something for the children to sing – and ponder – at his funeral, and alas, not long after they sang it at her funeral.
This past year in particular has often seemed to have more to do with ‘something God alone can see’ than Joyful, joyful, but I need to echo appreciation for the staff team – gathered and remembered … as well as soloists, choristers, readers, and other Congregational leaders here at LPCC for the remarkable ‘pivot’, first into ZOOM, then back into the Sanctuary, initially with livestream, and all being well enough in September, in person! Indeed, I remain cautiously optimistic that the Public Health Measures pursued by local Authorities and individual citizens, combined with the increasing rate of vaccination and so-called ‘passports’, will guide us to a ‘new normal’.
Since I retired from Hospital Chaplaincy soon four years ago, I have been privileged to be working part-time in Waterloo at a larger version of the Morley Bedford Funeral Home called Erb & Good. And though I trained to be a Hospital Chaplain, I now spend most of my time Presiding at or Assisting with Funerals, mostly with families who don’t have a faith community/leader. And we’ve been encouraging families to pursue some kind of ritual (a visitation for 10 people at a time, a live-streamed Service, and/or a graveside gathering) mindful that a deferred Service may be months after their loved one though some families may seek/need permission not to have such a Service if their grief journey is already well underway.
LPCC’s Minister Emeritus Eric Bacon and I were proteges of Doug Lobb at Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church when we each began our second (or third!) careers, as Seminary students, and learned a lot about weddings and funerals, among other things. St. Paul had several proteges in his ministry of preaching ‘Jesus is risen in the Body of Christ, the Church’. So much so that some of the Letters in the Bible that are attributed to St. Paul, were actually written by some of those proteges, as an homage to his teaching and example. They were writing about their experiences of and reflections on following the risen Christ, and making meaning of something that initially only ‘God alone could see’. Also, the challenges – and toll – of building up the Kingdom of Peace with Justice that Jesus came to proclaim, and the resilience needed to keep doing so.
Back at the hospital, among those who attended that support session with Annette and her slinky, was a Doctor, who introduced me to a phrase that seems to be inspired by the verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews, that Carol read for us earlier, that likely Barnabas wrote and then attributed to St. Paul. That Doctor quoted an unknown writer, saying: “Hope is envisaging a future that we want to be a part of. Hope is envisaging a future that we want to be a part of. And sometimes, our hopes change. And sometimes, our hopes change.” (unattributed).
It is Barnabas who reminds us in the Letter to the Hebrews that: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen … so that what is seen was made from things not visible.” (11:1,3)
As a Hospital Chaplain, when it was my privilege to meet with patients, families and staff who were struggling with difficult decisions, we would be exploring what hope meant to them … and then sometimes invite them to imagine a window with four panels … looking out to a horizon that they could envisage, and want to be a part of, even if their hopes were changing. as they envisaged it.
NOTE: Rev. Lougheed was using a mirror that was divided into 4 equal squares.
From a model adapted from Dr. Alister Browne, of the UBC Medical School (1994), in each of the panels of that window – today a mirror! - I invited them to think of some specific things. In the top left corner: the medical advice they were getting about their illness. And in the bottom left corner, what that advice was telling them about the quality of life they could expect. In the top right corner, I invited them to think about what the values in their lives (relationships, vocations, aspirations …) and in the bottom right corner, the ‘everything else’ they might be thinking about, including the impact of this situation on their loved ones, and their hopes for them.
Through this past year of Pandemic in particular, I’ve been aware of many stories of resilience, some of which ‘fit’ into one of those window panels, and have hopefully helped those who are living them – and the rest of us – to envisage a future we want to be part of …
Two examples come from wedding couples this past year. And the other two examples of envisaging hope are from work at the Funeral Home, all stories used with consent:
(top left) Working within the limitations established – in this case - by the public health experts, when a couple’s long planned wedding was limited to themselves, a Presider, their two witnesses, and two white bicycles to ride through their neighbourhood afterwards, with family and friends spaced along the sidewalks and porches, the couple still wanted to have a dinner reception. So, a small group were invited to pick-up a take-out meal from a local restaurant, and be home at their own dining room tables by an appointed time, linked by a … ZOOM call! And after welcoming words, blessings and toasts, the meal was ‘shared’ and then followed by the opening of wedding gifts, for all to enjoy. All the while working within the best of medical advice.
(lower left) Recalling the quality of her good long life – and vocation – as a Nurse - introducing herself as one, well into her 90s, saying “how can I help?” - at the vigil for this woman who was taking her last mortal breath with COVID – her family precluded from visiting in the early days of ‘lock-down’ a year ago – a circle of nurses who had been caring for her, joined hands around the bedside – in full PPE - and one of them ‘Face timed’ the moment with the family. A story of homage and ritual that was told at the delayed funeral for the Nurse; celebrating her vocation, rather than the manner of her death.
(top right) And articulating – perhaps for the first time – what he really valued, another groom, understandably disappointed by the delay of the wedding to his fiancé until a year later told me, profoundly: “I’ve had a privileged life thus far, having been able to look forward to what I do know and - frankly – fearing what I don’t. In light of the pandemic, now I’m trying to look forward to what I don’t know. I’m trying to look forward to what I don’t know.” (unquote) And pursuing it with his fiancé.
(lower right) And finally, for the context of decisions related to what we value. A handy question any time we’re offering support to anyone is: “What do you need? …” Recalling the ongoing challenge of limiting indoor and outdoor funeral gatherings to only ten people, I asked two daughters of a beloved matriarch what they needed. And together they answered: “Could we bury her twice?” Going on to say: “we can get to ten – including the Minister – for the funeral, with live-stream for others to join us – but we need to have at least twelve of us in the Cemetery. Besides, one of us doesn’t want to see the casket lowered, and other does.” And so we repeated the graveside Service for both groups of six, and had a tech link for the third sister.
The guidance of experts, to reflect on quality of life; and then to articulate one’s own values, mindful of the context, including needs …Albeit illustrations of the four ‘window’ panes from the lives of four different families, I would point out to those I gathered had Christian roots, that at the centre of that window, is a cross …. Which reminds us of the One we follow … and that he has gone ahead to prepare a place for us all. (John 14:3)
While attending one of those deferred Funeral Services I referred to, the Presiding Minister opened many eyes– including mine – to a new understanding of one word in the beloved King James Version of the 23rd Psalm, often read at a funeral or in the cemetery, and shared together his morning. Instead of ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life ….’ consider substituting ‘follow’ with a word closer to the Hebrew/Aramaic in which the Psalm was attributed to King David – and remembered by Jesus - as ‘surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life/and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ (23:6) Pursue me. Lovingly, assuredly, God’s goodness and mercy will pursue us. Though, I need to acknowledge that a friend and colleague of mine does not like that translation at all. She says ‘pursued’ sounds ominous to her - which I certainly respect – though, I’m quite sure that was not the Presider’s – or Psalmist’s – intention! (Rev. Hugh Reid, Kingsway-Lambton United Church)
Another ‘spiritual souvenir’ of Pandemic is a lovely new setting of Psalm 23, entitled “Shelter Me”, written by Fr. Mike Joncas, who is also the author of the beloved setting of Psalm 91 “On Eagles’ Wings”, sung last Sunday here at LPCC. “Shelter Me” was sung here this morning, with thanks to Paul, Hubert, and Cari, partly in homage to Mark Toews who chose the piece for one of the last on-line Hymn Sings he led.
It is United Methodist Minister and poet Jan Richardson who has helped me to deepen my understanding of the word shelter with these words: “Memory is a creative act, changing (slightly) with each recollection, as a shelter; not dwelling on the past, but helping to create a future. (Sparrow, page 151) Richardson adds – as if holding a slinky! – a question about resilience: “Is this the [time] I need to let go, or to stretch myself.” “Is this the [time] I need to let go, or to stretch myself.” (page 183) Finally, I want to draw on the poetry/lyrics of Laura Peat whose composition “Take This Thread” has also been written with this Pandemic time in mind, and set to the music of an anthem in recent months. With this assurance: “Though the year seems lost, your thread stays with me. It’s not the rift but how we listened; it’s not the hurt, but how we held, that note between hope and elegy.” (unquote). Between hope and [lament]. (The Waterloo Region RECORD, Sat. Apr 17/21, C1)
Looking forward to a time soon when the children can gather again on these steps, I close this morning, thinking about a young boy who had bought his grandfather a very special coffee mug as a birthday present. It had been hidden on a shelf in the basement until the big day arrived. And on that morning, with the grandfather expected to arrive at any moment, the young boy raced through the kitchen – where his Mom was brewing a fresh pot of coffee – and down the back stairs to the hiding place. The mother listened for the excited footsteps of her son climbing those stairs, but heard instead, a sickening crash. She raced to the top of the stairs, and looked down to see the mug smashed all over the floor, and her young son sitting on the bottom step with his head in his hands. She climbed down gently, sat beside her son, and put her arm around his shoulder. For what seemed like the longest time, neither of them said anything. Oh she wanted to reassure him that it could have been worse, or offer him the money to buy a replacement, but something counselled her to sit quietly together. Suddenly, her son jumped him, turned to face his Mom, and announced “Well, I’m going to have to think of something else.” And he climbed back up those stairs, leaving his Mom on the bottom step. (Whole People of God, adapted)
I believe that God’s love is like that mother’s presence: sheltering and pursuing us, without easy answers; then together, envisaging hope, and finding resilience.
(Rev.) John Lougheed