Saturday, December 28, 2013
This post is the manuscript of a sermon from the memorial service for Ben Bullington that was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Roanoke, VA this morning, the church where Ben grew up. He was an amazing man, according to his obituary and eulogies done by two of his siblings. It was a lovely service and I was honored to be a part of it. My husband was on the bulletin to preach but I felt moved to tell the story of my unlikely encounter with Ben, five days after he died. It is a brief sermon and worth the time to dig through to the story of this encounter and what I learned from it, about Ben and about myself. Peace.
December 28, 2013
Memorial Service for Benjamin Parrott Bullington
St. John’s, Roanoke
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Rev. Kathy Dunagan
I am not The Rev. Dr. Joe Dunagan. I am, in fact, The Rev. Mrs. Rev. Dr. Joe Dunagan, a.k.a. Kathy. Joe and I have both written homilies for today and we decided to use mine because I have a story I want to share with you. Though this is a homily, not a eulogy and I did not know Ben, I feel that I know him now.
The scriptures chosen for this service are poems. The psalmist (Psalm 121) compares faith to a reliance of safety found in the experience of gazing at the mountains that stand in ancient poses of strength all around us. This is easy to imagine from the vantage point of this lovely Roanoke Valley and I imagine also in places like Big Timber, Missoula or Helena, MT. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians speaks of love, but there is a context to consider for his poetic description of love, and that is community. Paul is in the middle of a letter reminding a struggling church that the most important and basic element of our faith is that we love each other. The line in his poetic letter that takes this message home is in verse 12. “To know just as I have been known.” Indeed, what a fantastic vision to imagine life lived as a journey in which the experience of Christian community should be a perfect reflection of the love which God has first shown us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (James Boyce)
I have somehow always known this in my journey but today I have found a new way to understand it. So, here is my story:
I have always wanted to live in Roanoke. I grew up in Bristol, listening to my mother’s stories of her summers spent here as a youth when she would ride the train up from Winston-Salem in the late 30’s and early 40’s. She brought us here as children to visit those relatives and visit places like the old Lakeside amusement park. It seems all my friends from Emory and Henry were either from here and returned here or chose to settle here after college. I enjoyed visiting them and wanted to live here too, but I spent most of my life in Georgia longing for Virginia, the Blue Ridge and bluegrass.
I started playing guitar when I was 13 and I was pretty good. I could sing too and sometimes got to sit in with my older brother’s bluegrass band and sing those high harmonies in songs like “I’ll Fly Away.” So I decided early on to try my hand at song writing. I wrote a few songs in my teens that I hid and wouldn’t sing for anyone. I carried a fantasy that I would one day be discovered. I finally shared a song I wrote at the age of 21 and it went over O.K. but I realized I needed to work on it a bit more. At 25 I was invited by a musician friend in Atlanta to write a song with him over a long weekend and we really worked on it. By Sunday he gently told me I should give up songwriting. I just don’t have that gift. I was relieved. So I followed other passions and other calls and have lived a wonderful life in ministry and counseling.
But my life long dream of living in Roanoke finally came true through a strange course of events about six months ago. After settling in, I reconnected with an old college roommate I had not spent much time with over the past 20 years. She said one night, “Hey. There’s a concert at the Jefferson Center next weekend. Want to go?” and of course I did.
I had never been to the Jefferson Center. I had never heard of Tim O’Brien or Darrell Scott. I had never heard of Ben Bullington either. I regretted all of those facts and simultaneously was pleased to meet each of them. At the end of the first set Darrell told us the story of Ben who had died earlier that same week. He pointed out that Ben had used his gifts well to pursue his passions, to enjoy his journey, to provide for his family. Darrell also poignantly pointed out that Ben’s song writing came from a gifted place. That Ben could be, and was, very honest and straightforward in his songs in a way that those who feel pressured to write songs for a living don’t enjoy. Ben had the freedom to do this because he was also gifted as a physician.
And then Tim and Darrell sang Ben’s song. (I’ve Got To Leave You Now) They asked for no applause for themselves and the stage went black at the end and we sat in the darkness of that beautiful old concert hall and honored Ben in silence.
I was forever changed by that moment. I was moved, of course, by the song and by the performance. I was moved by the poetry of words like “Too many men are worse than rodents” – that’s good stuff! Or the idea that lost souls see God only as “a fabled God whose hands are full of time.” I was moved mostly by the image of “four friends smoking on a midnight porch,” an image of that instantly connected me to that same feeling I get when I consider the strength of the mountains when I lift my eyes to them. I realized at that moment that in some way I did know Ben, in some way I have always known, him and Tim and Darrell and every other person there. I realized that in some way I have always lived in Roanoke. Maybe too, it is even possible that it’s not too late to become a songwriter. (Ben didn’t until after the age of 50!)
But it was another line from Ben’s song that has haunted me. I went home and downloaded Ben’s version from iTunes and I can’t stop listening to it. “Our Souls might mingle in the after torch.”
I think that if I could smoke with Ben on a midnight porch I would relish in the chance to talk this one over with him. From what I have heard about him from you, I think he would invite such a conversation. And I think he wouldn’t mind me challenging his theology.
We were born to die. We all face the end of our journey some day, as Ben has his. We can only hope to face our end with as much grace and wisdom and style as Ben did. But I believe that we don’t have to wait until the “after torch.” I believe that our souls mingle now. I believe, because of the strength of the mountains and the love of the community, that we are forever mingled in love now, and always will be. And I will always appreciate Ben for bringing this to my attention. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Yesterday I saw a decapitated deer carcass by the side of the road of my commute. Deer carcasses are sadly a frequency by the rural roads I travel to work, but the vehicle that may or may not have caused the death of this buck did not decapitate him. His head had been severed by a human. This was obvious to me, even in a glance. Who would do this for a trophy and leave behind the remains like so much trash for someone else to clean up?
I was left pondering such trophy hunting and remembering concern for elephants, gorillas and other victims of massacre. Then I had to ask myself what kind of trophies I seek.
I had a friend once who collected Santas. Her home was decorated for Christmas with such abundance of beauty that one couldn’t help but feel delighted and invited to express the joy of the season. She had a Christmas tree in every room of her Victorian gingerbread house. Each room had a theme, and my favorite was the Santa room. The tree in this room had only Santa Clause ornaments, as did the mantle, the wreathes, the china set out for an imaginary tea. It may sound like too much, but it was done for a tour of homes and was just for fun, and it was not overdone in that context. So I started collecting Santa’s after that. A few years later, my collection was nearly as complete as hers and my home was on the same tour and my “Santa Room” was the dining room where another friend loaned me the matching Santa china to create the sought after abundance. It was fun. It was pretty. And later I felt overwhelmed packing away all of my Santa trophies and ended up pondering the warnings that this Santa stuff has gotten out of hand.
Perhaps I can ease my confusion by learning more about the real St. Nicholas on this his feast day.
St. Nicholas often traveled on a white horse, or in some versions of the story a donkey like the Christ child before the nativity, nestled deep in the womb of Mary. He is the patron saint of various causes, particularly travelers. It was the sailors who first claimed him as their saint and told stories about him from port to port. This was the beginning of the oral tradition of a great man of God who followed Christ’s commandment to care for the poor, the widows and children, orphaned or not.
There is so much more to learn about the real St. Nick. In this way I can sort through the greed and find gratitude for the truth. I am grateful for my safe travels through these lovely Virginia mountains each day. I am grateful too for the many lovely ways we celebrate the Christ Mass. Practicing gratitude did not stop after Thanksgiving for me and this has enhanced my spiritual practice for Advent.
A couple of weeks ago I sold the last of my Santa china. I still have a couple of my grandmother’s Santa’s packed away somewhere but for now my home is empty of any Christmas décor. We are celebrating the emptiness of Advent here, preparing and waiting and this year so far Advent has been more meaningful for it thanks in part to the thoughts of others like Sharon Autenrieth and Pamela Dolan.
Still, we must remember to pull out the decorations when the time comes. We must remember to practice joy. In spite of the fact that all the children in my life have grown past the age of Santa or elves on shelves, I must remember to spend some time with children, and widows, and the poor for this is the best way to celebrate the life of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra and also the best way to celebrate the coming of God incarnate.
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
“Because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” (Collect of the Day)
Today’s readings are about repentance. We must first change ourselves before we can make change in the world. In today’s readings, Moses and God dialogue on Mt. Sinai, Jesus tells parables about finding things lost, and the lovely Psalm 51, which is only otherwise used in the lectionary on Ash Wednesday, is a chance for us to recite our plea with God to find us and bring us home in spite of our sinfulness.
We think of repentance as that thing we do once with God in order to become saved in the first place and maybe something we do when we catch ourselves backsliding as an effort to make amends with God and neighbor, but I think it is more an ongoing part of our daily life in relationship with God and each other.
The coin did not repent, and it also didn’t get itself lost in the first place. The lost sheep that Jesus told of may have gotten itself lost, but a dumb sheep is not capable of making amends. The point of these parables is not about blame, it is not about the risk the shepherd made to leave the ninety-nine behind, in search of the one, nor are they about the hard work in seeking the lost, nor is it simply about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the point is about the joy of one repentant soul rejoined with community. The point is about the joy of returning to relationship after a rift.
Today’s lesson from the Exodus narrative is Israel’s greatest moment of failure. We could spend all week on this story, days on just the pericope before us. But since we don’t have time for that, I ask you to bear with me while I focus in on this one point about change.
Moses was on Mt. Sinai, the first time. This is one of the most important moments in all of history, certainly the biggest moment of his life, and he was talking directly with God Almighty, face to face, receiving the law, when suddenly, they were interrupted by The Lord’s awareness of the people at the foot of the mountain who were making a golden calf so they could worship a graven image, The Lord interrupted The Lordself and said, “Moses! You better get down there and see about this! Your people who you brought out of Egypt are acting up again! And I’m thinking about just getting rid of the whole sinful bunch of them and starting over!”
So Moses, hiked all the way back down the mountain to set the people straight, and then later came all the way back up and spent anther 40 days in dialogue with God. But the most amazing thing happens before Moses trudges back down to the wicked Israelites and their graven image making, before the rest of the story he and The Lord have a few words. The Lord was ready to smite all of them with fire and Moses was bold enough to talk The Lord out of it.
I imagine Moses said something like, “Now wait a minute Lord. You say my people who I brought out of Eygpt? You started this thing! These are your people who you brought out of Eygpt! Then Moses made a great argument that the Lord could not refute. And here’s the most amazing thing. In the midst of this dialogue - The Lord changed His mind.
That’s kind of scary stuff. Because if God can be changed by a human, than where is the sure and certain authoritative, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, God we know, or at least think we know?
Here’s how the scholars have helped me understand this: Christian theology is often more shaped by an insistence on divine perfection, characteristic of scholastic theology, than it is by the actual Bible itself. Brian Jones
The God of the Old Testament is not impassible; rather, God is passionately involved with us. Nor is the God of the Old Testament omniscient in terms of being unchanging. The Old Testament God freely surrenders Godself to the unpredictable course of events dictated by human freedom and therefore must adjust as history unfolds. This is not to say that God is not all powerful and all knowing, it is a reminder though that God is all loving.
The Hebrew verb translated “changed his mind” in this passage is naham. It is a term elsewhere translated “be sorry” or “repent,” (at least when its subject is a human). It is an emotion-laden term and appropriate to a context in which one is deeply moved. So, here, much like in the story of Noah, God repented.
By entering into a covenant relationship with Israel, God chose to risk disappointment and suffering. The Deist God of pagan religions is detached and unmoved, but the Old Testament allows for no such uninvolved view of Yahweh. The God of the Old Testament enters into relationship with us and thereby into the suffering that love entails.
The passionate, persuadable God portrayed in this passage is in accord with “the Crucified God” (Moltmann) of the New Testament. Humans cause God grief and suffering, but God does not withdraw or give up. In costly love God embraces humanity, though pierced in the act. God suffers none to be lost but pursues each wandering lamb, frantically searches for each lost coin. And when the lost turn back, God’s heart is glad. Our task is to choose to turn back and meet God at least half way on the journey.
I prepared these thoughts during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement which is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This has me thinking of my Jewish friend Avrum Weiss. Avrum is a psychologist in Atlanta and he recently published a book on change. He calls it “Change Happens.” I like the subtitle, “When To Try Harder and When to Stop Trying So Hard.” He reports in this book that a study was done that reported that about half of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions but only 55% of them are able to sustain the resolution for more than two weeks. He uses the example of a weight loss program. You know, you start going to the gym more and eating less, etc. etc. But you don’t follow through. He says this is partly because we don’t really want to change on the inside and are merely answering external motivations, which don’t usually work.
To make his point about trying too hard, he shares a story from the classic series Frog and Toad called The Garden. Toad asks Frog to teach him to grow a garden. Frog gives Toad some seeds, tells him to plant them in the ground, and he will soon have a garden.
Toad went home and planted the seeds, but he got impatient because the seeds did not come up right away. Toad talked to his seeds, sang to his seeds, he even yelled at his seeds, but still they did not grow. Frog told Toad that his seeds were not coming up because he had scared them and if he would just leave them alone for a few days, the seeds would grow.
A few days later, when his seeds still had not come up, Toad decided the problem was that his seeds were afraid of the dark, so he sat outside all night in his garden with lighted candles and read stories to his seeds. Then Toad fell asleep. The next morning Frog came by and woke Toad and pointed out that little green plants were coming up out of the ground.
Toad was ecstatic, but exhausted, and said, “Your were right, Frog. It was very hard work.”
Sometimes in our practice of repentance, we need not work so hard at making the changes ourselves but must rely on the Spirit of Creation to lead the way. We cannot force God to do things our way yet still we cannot not change, we can only choose to stay in relationship.
I emphasized our collect of the day when I began because it has a similar double negative to this statement; we cannot not change. It seems a cunning play on words, this prayer: “Because without you we are not able to please you.” This collect is older than even Cranmer’s prayer book. It seems a simple reminder that we are nothing without God. What worth would life have if we could not try to please God? I couldn’t find the actual author of this collect; I imagine some monk wrote it during the dark ages. Anther more recent monk wrote a similar prayer and I will leave you with this. It is a prayer by Thomas Merton.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The lessons for today’s service point the way to the cross. Now we come toward the end of our Lenten journey and prepare our hearts for the remembrance of the last days that lead up to the crucifixion. It is sometimes difficult this time of year to slow down and tend to this task. It is difficult to practice introspection and solemnity during Lent because of the temptations of Spring all around us. It is difficult to look at the cruelty of the cross at any time, especially in the middle of the Cherry Blossom Festival for goodness’ sakes!
But here we are and if we are here it is because we do care about these things. We care about taking this journey to the cross with Christ, we care about our annual re-examination of ourselves and we care about our call to follow the One who died for us.
In today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian’s we are asked to focus on the cross, on this spectacle of vulnerability, shame and weakness. It is hard to remember our Lord in this place of seemingly forsaken ridicule and pain. Yet this is the place where God chose to be revealed to us. Not through strength and victory but through the epitome of pain and loss. If we want proof of divinity, we normally expect some show of force – thunder, lightning, waters dividing, heavens opening. The last thing we expect is for God to be manifested in a moment of sheer helplessness and abandon. And yet God has chosen to be revealed in this riddle we call the cross.
When I think of Lent I often think of hibernation. It is a long time of rest and renewal that anticipates the warmth of springtime. Yet much like the human world, animals seem to increasingly have difficulty keeping the tradition – perhaps because of the warming climates. If you noticed the joke in the news and on social media last week, some of the folks up north who are dealing with all this late snow put out a warrant for the capture of the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil who has been indicted for falsifying the prediction of an early Spring! “So the heat is on against Phil, and the furry rodent has been charged with misrepresentation of spring, a felony against the peace and dignity of the state of Ohio." I suppose it is sometimes risky to come out of hibernation. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/22/punxsutawney-phil-2013-prediction-forecast_n_2932895.html?utm_hp_ref=green
A couple of years ago my family visited Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina where they have a small zoo of indigenous animals, cougars, otters, eagles and bears. It was an unusually warm day, right in the middle of winter and we were a bit amazed that we only needed light jackets on that high elevation. We were told the bears would probably not be visible because it was during their natural time of hibernation, but there were a couple of bears out because of the unusual warmth that day. One bear came out of his man made cave and drank some water just ten feet from where we were watching and while the children were thrilled to see a bear in his somewhat natural habitat so up-close, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something terribly wrong going on. Lately, it seems the world has gone crazy, perhaps all for lack of taking the time to rest, renew and ponder the deeper aspects of our lives and our faith. There are many ways to do this from daily Yoga to weekly Sabbath to the particular way we are talking about today that we practice in the Episcopal Church of observing a Holy Lent.
In the Gospel lesson from St. John today, Jesus uses a phrase about grain to form a parable of what happens when seeds fall to the earth. It is a metaphor for death, that we must die to live more fully. He is speaking of his own death and resurrection but he is inviting us to die with him, both figuratively and literally. And so while we wait for our own deaths to answer all our questions about living more fully in the next reality of heaven, each year we come to Holy Week with the opportunity to practice dying to sin, dying to ourselves by turning our lives over to the One who died for us. We take just a peak out of our hibernation into the great beyond and on Easter morning we will see just a glimpse of the glory of eternity.
But today our task is to recognize that part of ourselves that is asleep, that is hibernating, waiting and longing. For if we can name that in us which sleeps, perhaps we can wake it and perhaps we can participate more fully in the living of the lives God calls us to live while we wait for the bigger picture to unfold.
Here's a curious bit of information that's quite striking. Recently, archeological excavations unearthed wheat seeds in pyramids dating back to 2500 B.C. That makes these ancient seeds somewhere around 4500 years old, give or take a century. In order to determine the types of grains used in the ancient world, archeologists planted them to see what would happen. They grew! Somehow, the spark of life hung in there for four and a half millennia. What should have been long dead was very much alive. What should have been snuffed out was not. What should have been entirely hopeless wasn't. Think about it.
As we prepare our hearts for this final phase of the journey of Lent and begin these last steps of following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to the cross, all the way to die with him, to cry with Mary, to deny with Peter, to wait in the garden, to follow Him all the way to the joyful morning on Sunday when we are reminded once again of the glorification of our faith (as St. John put it), as we prepare today, I urge you to consider that which is hibernating in you. I hope you will see that it is never too late for the seeds of love to grow and become fruitful, in the larger story and in your life. And while the remembering of parts of the story this week require remembering the painful stuff, be prepared to be surprised, to be awakened to the promise of new life, both all around us and from the very depths of our souls.
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