Friday, June 19, 2015
Loss and Grace
I will be giving the sermon at our church on Sunday. Originally, my friend Pam and I were going to voice our friend Lori’s sermon, but Lori got pneumonia and is now in the hospital for a second hospital stay, so I agreed to be the back-up sermonist. I wrote the sermon below and planned to deliver it. I have even practiced.
But Thursday morning, I awoke to the news that a white man had murdered nine black people at a Bible study in Charlestown, South Carolina, on Wednesday night. How could I talk about anything else?
So I have written a new sermon and will post it here after delivering it. My original sermon, my second actually, is below:
Loss and Grace
Hi—I’m Mary, and my partner Ann and I have been part of this church for over twenty years. Lori was supposed to deliver our sermon this morning, but she got pneumonia again, so we had too much trouble planning, and you have me instead. Lori will share when she and Pam and I are ready.
Lori and I both live with disabilities as a result of health issues: Lori is the woman who uses a wheelchair and usually sits at the front. She’s had cerebral palsy all her life. She’s never been able to speak, and her muscle control has always been compromised, though that’s progressed over the years so that she used to be able to use a communication board but now communicates by moving her eyes in response to binary questions. [For example, I might ask, “Are you well (holding up my right hand) or not well (holding up my left hand)?” and she would reply by looking at the hand that best matched her response]. Though words haven’t been available to her, she has been able to laugh or wail, so we in the congregation have known her emotional responses to events in the church. She won’t be able to make those sounds anymore, so when she comes back, she will be quiet. I will miss the times when she has expressed what she is feeling, sometimes a reverberation of what I am feeling and sometimes a reminder that her life has been so much different than mine.
So things haven’t gone as planned for today, and I’d like to talk about faith and those times when things have not gone as planned. The experience of things not going as planned seems to be a universal one. I’m guessing there have been times in your life when things haven’t gone as you planned. Maybe this morning.
The experience of things not going according to plan is Biblical too: the writer of Hebrews lists sixteen Old Testament examples of when things didn’t go as planned, and the writer notes that it’s impossible to recount all the stories: there are so many. Even Jesus faced a plan not of his own making: some say it was God’s plan all along and other say the plan was a political betrayal. The section where Jesus understands that he is being betrayed and prays fervently to God to “take this cup from him” has always been to me one of Jesus’s most compellingly human moments. Jesus’s fervent prayer shows me that whoever’s plan this betrayal was—and I should tell you that I don’t believe God plans to torture and kill those God loves, which is all of us—this was not Jesus’s plan.
Those of you who follow my blog know that it’s titled cantduckit, and you know the blog is about my life after brain tumors. I hadn’t planned on brain tumors, and I’ve titled the blog cantduckit because my experience was in some ways so common: there are some things in life we just can’t avoid. There are things we don’t plan for. And the argument that God has a larger plan doesn’t make sense to me.
Lori’s recent pneumonias and hospital stays are like that, too—Things she can’t duck. Things she didn’t plan for. But they are now part of her life’s narrative, as my tumors are part of mine and Judas’s betrayal is a part of all our narratives.
Perhaps you’ve had serious health issues, like Lori and I have, or experienced some loss or other trauma. If so, you know what I’m talking about. If not, if you’ve lived any time on this earth, (and I’m guessing most of you have), you’ve experienced things you can’t duck. And you know that though you would have avoided these losses or inconveniences if you could have, you have grown into a new person because of these experiences. Any darkness that I’ve experienced has its gifts, too. And I believe I’m called to see the gifts in the darkness. As I’ve gotten to know Lori better over the past few years, I know that she, too, experiences gifts in the darknesses of her life.
If today had gone as planned, Lori and Pam would be up here with me, and the words would be from Lori. As you see, things are not going that way. Much of my life, in fact, is not going as I planned.
When I came out as a lesbian at the age of 30, it became clear to me that my life’s plan of being a suburban wife and mother would not come to pass.
When I was diagnosed with my first brain tumor at the age of 43 and experienced disabilities after the surgery, it gradually became clear that my second plan to change the US educational system would not come to fruition either.
It’s not that I’m enlightened about this matter of planning and the likelihood that my life will require that I go in some direction other than my plan. In fact, now I have a third plan: I am attending the Masters Program in Social Work at the University of Washington with a plan of becoming a therapist for people with life-changing health conditions.
Because our culture is awash in the difficulties—some would say tragedies—of lives with disabilities, I’m guessing that you have at least a vague notion that Lori and I and others with serious health conditions have experienced losses. Those losses are painful, but I’m going to talk today about the gifts in such experiences because I think the gifts may be more surprising to you. Not to be Pollyanna, but perhaps you will notice the gifts in your own losses. Or perhaps I will give words to what you already know to be true.
Important gifts of these tumors for me have been: first, I am more aware that I am not in control and I’m more at peace with that; second, I am more aware of my own limitations in understanding others’ lives; third, I have slowed down and am more present in my life; and finally, in this presence and this humility, I listen more closely to God and the people around me.
Because I’m not so attached to my plans as I was before, and I’m not in such a hurry to achieve as I was in my early planning days, I am not moving so fast as I used to. As my disabilities have required that I slow down, I am not running down a path anymore. Sometimes I sit down in my path and look around. Sometimes I notice new friends—or old ones—whom I might have missed if I were running by.
In this sitting down and looking around on my life’s path, I am conscious more often that God is with me. I am more confident that I am okay and that God loves me. I am more humble and see myself as a small part of a huge creation. Perhaps, the writer of Hebrews would have said that when I sit down and look around, I see that I am home.
Perhaps the gift of experiencing things in our lives that we cannot duck is that we learn that our lives are bigger than our imaginings, and these things we cannot duck take us home where we recognize that we are both larger and smaller than we had guessed.
Perhaps that gift is humility. Perhaps it’s faith. Perhaps it’s grace.