When I began work at ECLC, I was greeted by a man with a glowing smile and a gift for names. Mike Corcoran (the guy on the left), more than anyone, made me feel immediately at home in a new community and a new office.
Nearly four years ago he was suddenly diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. I wept many tears then, wondering how long he'd be with us.
Mike was given the gift of nearly four more years of life, many of them feeling well enough to travel, to be with friends and to give back to his community, including others living with cancer. But last Saturday his race came to an end.
When I say the Aaronic blessing, ". . .the Lord's face shine upon you. . " I often think of Mike, whose face could shine more than any adult I know with the joy of life and welcome to others.That light only grew over the past four years. I imagine God's face shining in return as he is welcomed into paradise. We will miss him so.
The lectionary presents some tough choices this week. Either pick one of two overly familiar texts -- John 3:16 or Ephesians -- or preach the strange tale of a snake on a pole in Numbers.
I'm going with the snakes, if for no other reason than they evoke real emotion in people. I sent out a message to the congregation asking if anyone owns a pet snake, and if such a person might be able to bring it on Sunday. Within an hour three people replied voicing complete horror at the idea.
I don't like them either. Make my skin crawl. I think there may be a gene missing in people who aren't creeped out by them.
Snake trivia: what makes snakes different from lizards? There are, in fact, some lizards without legs. The difference is two other things snakes lack: ears and eyelids. They do not hear (just get vibrations from the ground) and cannot blink. Eeeewwww.
And yet, God uses a snake to heal in Numbers, and John uses that pole-with-a-snake as a parallel of Christ lifted up.
The cross is pretty icky too, to put it mildly. How on earth could anything good come of that?
Apparently, God can use just about anything. Even the creepiest thing on earth. Even the most rotten way human beings treat one another. I don't have to like it. But perhaps it means even the most reptilian brained part of me -- my fears, my self-protection, my laziness -- can also be redeemed.
My dear husband and I work in fields that look completely different. I'm a parish pastor. He consults with federal, state and local governments at the intersection of sustainable land use, transportation, and climate change. My job is about as local as it gets. He racks up frequent flier miles. My job is ancient, his didn't exist as a profession fifty years ago. People immediately know what I do when I wear my collar. If you really want to understand his job, you need to watch a PowerPoint presentation.
But the differences end there. We both try to facilitate long-term, sustainable community growth. We both spend lots of time on the phone. And we both encounter some of the same intractable dynamics, known as human nature.
One of our pet peeves is what the recovery community has aptly coined "terminal uniqueness." You see it when someone argues hard that they don't have a problem, even when every external measure says they do.
"Other people might fall into addiction drinking this much, but I can handle it."
"Other churches might be facing hardship if they continue to age without focusing on growth, but ours won't, because we're so unusual."
"Other communities might be facing long-term environmental issues if they continue to grow this way, but ours won't."
Oddly enough, the pattern continues even when people DO acknowledge that they have a problem. In fact, it's often even worse then.
"Other people might need medication to get out of this hole of depression, but I don't."
"Other families might benefit from therapy, but our problems are so unique we won't find a solution there."
"Other towns might benefit from learning some basic principles for sustainable growth, but our situation is so unique, that won't work here."
Ironically, the insistence on being "special" is often the very thing that spells doom -- because one codependent family is oddly very much like another, and one town that is sprawling with mindless car-dependent growth is going to end up looking like every other town with mindless sprawl. The very things that make individuals, families, and local communities unique are lost when they refuse to learn from the experience of other individuals, families, and communities.
Every year after Ash Wednesday, it takes a while for me to clean out the ashes completely from under my fingernails. I don't know if other ministers have this problem, but like most ministerial burdens, this one is also a blessing.
In a middle-class church like mine, it can seem as if most of us have things together. People don't particularly dress up at our church, but we put on our game faces and generally appear happy when we show up. Sure, there are some public struggles -- deaths, battles with cancer and the occasional divorce, but mostly the wounds are hidden. Only those of us who receive pastoral confidences can look out at a congregation and see a multitude of sins and struggles. Those stories, and the grief and loss they represent, cling to us like this mix of oil and ashes, easy to spread and hard to remove. Once a year we have the grace to say it out loud and make it visible for all to see.
It can be easy to turn Lent into a sort of New Year's Resolution time, and make ourselves as pastors into personal trainers. But I believe we begin the season with these ashes to remind ourselves that our disciplines, no matter how "successful," do not change our essence. We are all made out of the same mortal stuff. Done well, our feeble efforts to pray, fast and serve the poor only remind us again of our weakness. We are dust, but that dust is mixed with the oil of royalty because God has chosen to enter it. Our mortality is formed in the shape of a cross, blessed and broken open for the sake of others.
I will scrub out the ashes from under my nails, but it's good to be reminded of their persistence.