the tentmaker

daily thoughts on the common lectionary

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Location: Sharpsburg, Georgia, United States

"...because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers." Acts 18:3. Tentmaker is a title taken by bi-vocational pastors. As such, I am both a pastor and a project manager. I am a pastor of a local congregation of moderate, accepting and affirming people who worship in the Baptist tradition. We call our church "Hope Memorial Baptist" and we are about 40 in number. I am also a project manager of major construction projects for the State of Georgia. My home and church is in rural Coweta County, between Peachtree City and Newnan, with a mailing address of Sharpsburg, Georgia.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sunday 4/2/06 Year B - Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Many thanks to Bloomingcactus for this sermon.

Learning to Die

How much do you think about death? Usually, I hardly think about death at all. I’m relatively young at age 60, and for the most part I am healthy. I plan to live a long time. I plan to work at least until I turn 70. Even then I hope to shepherd a community of faith as their Pastor right up to the time of my death. Both my paternal grandparents lived well into their 90’s. And there is no reason I know of that I should not live as long. But as I ponder Jesus’ words here in John, death is often present in my thoughts, just below the surface, bouncing around in my unconscious.

And Death has been on my mind a lot lately. In the past four weeks, I have performed three funerals. I performed a funeral on Tuesday, the 7th, Tuesday the 14th and Thursday the 30th. Two of the funerals were for people in my own family. Two were for people in their eighties. They had lived a long and full life. A life filled with years. A life filled with Faith. A life filled with Love.

But the funeral I preached this past Thursday was for a 43 year old man who suffered and died with lung cancer. A cancer caused by years of smoking cigarettes. I just married him and his wife this past November. As I prepared for this funeral service, my thoughts began to wander towards my own mortality. I began to wonder if my body would hold out as long as I hoped, so that I could accomplish what I hope for in life.

How quickly thoughts can move to death. The fear of death is always lurking in the crazy tangle of our minds, just waiting to be activated. It is not a morbid or pathological fear, for I truly believe my life is not nearly over.

Still, there is this lingering fear of death. It is not just a fear of the actual act of dying. It is the fear of dying without meaning, dying without fulfilling my life’s purpose. My ego fears the loss of control of my autonomy, being rendered something less than the most important thing in the world. Thoughts of death remind the self that it just isn’t all that important in the overall scheme of things, for we could be gone in an instant and the world will go on without us. It is the little deaths that plague us, the death of self-importance, ego, meaningfulness, relevance and control.

As Easter approaches, the scriptures bring us near to the reality of death. Jesus has been predicting his own death and now, in our scripture this morning, He reflects upon it:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Jesus talks of death as if it were a necessary loss. He turns to images of nature where death and life are always cycling back and forth. The seed dies in the ground and comes up again with new life, giving a great abundance back to the earth. We watch the trees every Fall as green leaves lose their life giving power of photosynthesis, turning brown, yellow and red and plunging to the ground in a colorful death. But what might these natural examples have to do with a human life, when we die not with beautiful leaves or more seeds but in loss of faculties and bodies that waste away before us?

The truth is, parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just listening to this sentence. We all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, in a healthy body, just as many cells are being reproduced as are lost. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of cells dying and the rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years, which is an enormous relief to me.

Apparently, cells that don’t die off in the normal cycle are a real problem. These cells are related to diseases like cancer and become problematic because they get in the way and block the healthy development of the body.

I believe this is true in the spiritual and emotional life as well. “Those who love their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for my sake will save it.” Our failure to let go and let some things die is a primary spiritual disease, for new life can’t come without some death. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit like a cancer. Holding on to regrets strangles hope before it can lift us to new life. Trying to control events and other people leads to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. Forgiveness and letting go of control are spiritual exercises in the art of dying so that new life may abound.

One cause of depression, among many causes, is the mind’s tendency to get stuck in negative patterns of thinking called ruminative thinking. People with severe, recurrent depression often relapse into dark places where they become consumed with a sense of failure, worthlessness, shame or guilt. People get stuck believing these things despite great evidence to the contrary. They may really be reasonably bright, compassionate people, but they are stuck in negative ruminations. These thought patterns periodically get triggered acting like a destructive cancer upon emotional well-being. It is as if the brain has faulty software or a computer virus creating a system crash to prevent normal functioning.

One of the treatments for severe depression is to use the process of mindfulness meditation combined with anti-depressant medication. Mindfulness is a style of meditation where we learn to clear the mind and focus in on the present moment. Our mind is always full of thoughts; past memories, worries about the future, the din of things left undone, the whirl of schedules and the buzz of distractions from everything, from television to what everyone else thinks of us, are constantly barraging us. Mindfulness is a way of letting the moment be just the moment. By focusing on our breath, the constant flow in and out through our bodies, meditation teaches us to relax and let go of the din. It is a way of dying to the constant and useless noise in our heads so we can live in the present.

Mindfulness helps people with depression break the cycle of negative thought ruminations. It gets people out of their heads and into their lives in the present moment, instead of being dominated by past regrets or future worries. As we learn mindfulness, we begin to realize that our thoughts and emotions are just our thoughts and emotions. They rise and fall, come and go, just like breathing. One thought dies and another brings new life. As we learn to let go and be in the present moment, seeds fall to the ground and die, allowing the birth of something new.

...unless the grain of wheat, falling into the ground, die, itself remaineth alone. The words are much more poignant in their context. Some gentiles had asked Philip if they might speak to Jesus. This is Our Lord's answer. They cannot come to Him through Philip and Andrew, they cannot even come to Him if they talk to Him, because words will not unite them with Him. They can only come to Him if He dies for them.

Itself remaineth alone. Saint John emphasizes more and more the loneliness, the moral isolation, of Christ before His Passion. He is alone from the beginning because He is God and all the rest are men. He is alone because nobody can understand Him. Already in the sixth chapter a whole crowd of disciples has abandoned Him because His doctrine of the Eucharist is so far beyond them. He is isolated by the increasing hatred of the Pharisees, who form a stronger and stronger front against Him, forcing others to separate themselves from Him. He is isolated by His own greatness, which elevates Him further and further above His enemies. Now He is alone among men who either hate Him or do not know how to love Him, because they are unable to know Him as He really is. Yet there are some who want to come to the true knowledge and love of Him. If they want to be with Him, He must pass through death and take them with Him into life.

I am alone in the world with a different loneliness from that of Christ. He was alone because He was everything. I am alone because I am nothing. I am alone in my insufficiency—dependent, helpless, contingent, and never quite sure that I am really leaning on Him upon whom I depend.

Yet to trust in Him means to die, because to trust perfectly in Him you have to give up all trust in anything else. And I am afraid of that death. The only thing I can do about it is to make my fear become part of the death I must die, to live perfectly in Him.

I am always dying, with each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second and the hundreds of thousands of cells that are dying off to make room for more. And may I keep dying so life may abound.

Thanks be to God!


Blogger My Kid's Mom said...

Oh wow, Joel. WHat a powerful post. There are so many truths in there. I am going through a lot of "little deaths" right now, and while I know intellectually all of what you have just written, your words broke through my intellect and touched my heart, leaving me in tears. Thank you, my friend. I am sure I will come back and re-read this entry several times over the next few days. God bless you.

4/01/2006 8:21 PM  
Blogger HeyJules said...

Beautifully said and, might I add, highly accurate. Cognitive behavior therapy helped break my cycles of depression once I learned that I control how I think and feel and NOT give in to every bad thought that pops into my head. Mindfullness (which was part of the buddhist-based subjects I was studying before I rededicated my life to Christ) was a big part in my getting a handle of those thoughts.

4/04/2006 2:20 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

maybe such contemplation is apart of the minister's sacred duty. the last funeral i did was of a healthy 21 yr old-killed in a freak accident. so that spinned my mind once again to thoughts of my own mortality and i feel close to what you said:

"It is the fear of dying without meaning, dying without fulfilling my life’s purpose. My ego fears the loss of control of my autonomy, being rendered something less than the most important thing in the world."

yes and seeing purpose in death and seeing it a part of the natural journey, and seeing it a a birthing process are things i'm thinking of.

we should all be midwives and helping one another experince the end of this life and start of the new everlasting life.

thanks for the thoughts.

4/08/2006 2:35 AM  

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