Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Searching for Heaven

When I started this blog, I intended to be faithful about writing in it every day or so. Well, like most good intentions, that one went by the wayside. Well, here goes again—I want to use this blog as a discipline, a spiritual discipline of sorts, writing as healing, writing as a way to focus on the holy moments in my life and in the lives of those around me.

All day my mind and heart have pondered a rather amazing book by Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor is a a former Episcopal priest, now a college professor and a famous keynoter and guest preacher. She speaks and writes with profound eloquence; she's one of those "shining star" preachers, a celebrity in preaching circles, and rightly so. Her words often bring a lump to my throat, sometimes tears and laughter, and once in a while, the thrill of discovering something truly holy.

This morning I read the intoduction and first chapter of one of her latest works, "An Altar in the World." She speaks of how God's true home is in the world, out here where people live and breathe, drink beer and curse, call their children home from their play, build cities and bomb them into oblivion, make love and babies, live out their years. More often than not, at least the people I've accompanied on that last journey, more than anything, on their deathbeds, they wish for one more day on this earth with those they love.

Barbara Brown Taylor has done what every preacher aims for—she has disturbed my complacency; she has held up a mirror and for just a moment, I've seen the face that hides behind the veil, read thoughts that I only dare speak in private. I'm a pastor. A lot of my work happens in a church. It's a beautiful church—built of redwood, circular with an altar constructed of an enormous polished redwood trunk and a gleaming slab. The altar sits in the middle of that circle; it rests under an eight-sided peaked roof that reaches toward heaven, or where some folks say heaven is.

But sometimes I can't help wonder if people somehow think the place is magic… if I think it's magic. Is this God's home? Is God here somewhere in the dark, or did we miss the sweep of wings, angel escorts protecting God from the press of the crowd? Do we come to this place with the hope that if we pray the right prayers, sing the right songs, put our hard earned dollars in the brass plate, we'll win that lottery ticket to heaven? Or is heaven what we seek when in our last moments we yearn for one last day, one moment, of life… with its toil and tears, its heartbreak and its joy, life on this holy place we call earth, God's home filled with all the good things God spreads before us.

Lost at Sea

Rev. Pamela J. Tinnin

When a month or more passes without us taking a day off, my husband, mother-in-law and I decide to go to the coast. The route we choose varies—sometimes it’s over Skaggs Spring Road to Gualala, sometimes out River Road to Jenner, or many times, it’s our favorite, Highway128 through Boonville and Philo to the mouth of the Navarro River.

Several weeks ago, we turned south where 128 meets Highway 1 and made our slow, meandering way to Point Arena. Zack’s mother lived there as a child, back when it was a small, sleepy village of loggers and fisherman and their families. The fishermen are still there, at least to some extent, though these days both fishing and logging are pretty sparse in that part of California. As we drove through the almost deserted streets, Mary pointed out her long ago home and the church she attended, still open all these years later.

We saw some fisherman down at the cove, a few sport fishing from the pier that extends out into the sea, others commercial fishing in the boats we could see far out on the horizon. We stood there behind the railing, watching the surf going in and out, waves big enough that there were a half dozen or so surfers, paddling around looking for the “big wave.”

The three of us were watching an osprey circling overhead, when the “big wave” found me, rising up over my head and drenching me, then moving up the parking lot about 10 inches deep before receding once again. Standing there, water dripping off my jacket and pants, I burst out laughing, surprising even myself because I’m not what you’d call a “water person.”

For some reason they call those waves “sleepers,” I guess because if you don’t pay attention, if you “fall asleep”, they catch you by surprise and may even sweep you out to sea. Every few years, the newspapers report a swimmer or rock climber, caught in the undertow, swept out to sea and lost. That day I wasn’t swept out to anywhere, just left sopping and bedraggled, shaking in the cold breeze, and laughing, our nice little ride to the coast interrupted by an unexpected adventure.

Sometimes I forget life is like that—you go along doing the ordinary, mundane things that make up your days, thinking that finally, at last, your life has settled down, you’re secure, you’re safe. Without warning, all that “safety” can be swept away by the undertow of unexpected events. A financial crisis, illness, a death in the family, a divorce, an unexpected pregnancy, the loss of a job—those “sleepers” that catch you by surprise, the things that leave you stunned and shaking, wondering what happened.

Not long ago I was talking to a clergy colleague, telling him about our church’s financial struggles, saying that I wasn’t sure what the future held, for the church or for me. Fred sort of chuckled and said, “You know, Jesus never said it was going to be easy.”

At first I was offended and thought to myself, “How insensitive is that?” But you know, he was right. Remember Job who was a righteous man and yet suffered all kinds of torment? Remember Joseph who was sold into slavery by his own brothers? And didn’t Jesus say that rain fell on the just and the unjust?

There are no guarantees, not for you, not for me, not for anyone. There’s just a promise—that no matter what happens, no matter if we’re lost and out to sea, we’re never alone. Even when we feel abandoned and cast aside, Jesus is there waiting for us to open our lives to his presence and our hearts to his grace, waiting to hold us and breathe new life into us once again.