Sermon: It is Hard to Say Goodbye

Saying Goodbye is essential to our walk with Christ. It is essential in our relationships with each other. And, is essential in our own growth as living, loving, spirit-filled human beings.

We all say goodbye in many ways and in many different settings: the death of a loved one; the loss of a job or a retirement; College Graduation; the birth of our first child; the end of a relationship. All of these mark the end of one chapter in our lives and the start of another.

Saying “Goodbye” recognizes that something we value, something that is essential to who we are right now, is ending.

Most of us have had to say “Goodbye” to loved ones who died. And someday, those we love will say Goodbye to us when we die. With death, all that we are slips beyond human grasp. All that is left of us here in this world are the memories of those who knew us – good memories and bad; memories that those who love us will carry with them as they move forward into their own future.

Death means saying goodbye to those we love.

The loss of a job or a retirement is another way of saying goodbye: it marks the end of a way of life or a career. We must say goodbye to the friendships and the community and sense of self that are all wrapped up with that position. We are no longer a teacher, or a manager, or a police officer, or a writer – or a preacher. Part of our identity dies, and will never come back again in exactly the same way.

Leaving a career means saying goodbye to a big part of how we see ourselves, and what defines our place in this world.

College Graduation is another way of saying goodbye. …Yes! School is done! But what now? Get a job?? Be responsible?? Rent an apartment and get a car??? OMG, I have to “adult” now??!!  …Nah, I’ll just move back in with my parents!

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Lost But Not Forgotten

This image is of my daughter taking a bow after dancing to the song “I Will Follow Him” in a talent show at our church in October of 1995.  I pulled this from one frame of a shaky and out of focus video of the performance, shot by a very poor videographer (me), using a video camera that was old and tired even then. The video’s quality has not been helped by its later conversion from VHS to DVD and then (recently) to MP4.

Despite the faded and poor quality imagery, my memory of her performance that day is sharp and clear, and always will be.   She was only six years old at the time.  She selected the song by herself and used what she’d learned in her Ballet lessons to choreograph the dance on her own.  And, she selected her outfit for the performance – a red “twirly hoop dress” – all by herself, too.

She did a fabulous job, and kept her composure even when an excited toddler ran on to the stage during the dance.  The congregation let her know their appreciation with a rousing ovation and cheers.  She did great.  I was a very, very proud father that day.

But, it is also a memory tinged with sadness.  A few years later, our relationship was destroyed in the death of my first marriage: I was shut out of her life without any choice or voice in the matter, and know almost nothing of her life since.  I doubt that this rupture will ever be healed.

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Just the Facts

Advent encourages us to choose God BECAUSE of the facts, not in spite of them; and to remember that it is God who writes our story, a story that always ends in the embrace of God’s eternal, fierce, and unrelenting love for us.

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsSermon: “Just the Facts”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, December 7, 2014; (Second Sunday in Advent).

Scripture Readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The year is about 540 BC. The place is Babylon, capitol of the Babylonian Empire.

Only a generation ago, in the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Nation of Judah, the City of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s Temple. Much of the surviving population, including most of the upper classes of Judah – priests, nobility, scholars and their families – are imprisoned and then exiled here, in an alien land totally unlike the isolated mountaintop fortress of Jerusalem. Their new home is perhaps the greatest city on earth, containing people of many cultures, languages and faiths. Strange people, strange ideas, and strange gods are all around them, challenging the Jews and their faith in ways they never imagined.

They are strangers in that strange land. The fact is, they have lost everything – friends, family, home, possessions, status, and even – or so they think – their God. And even if God is not lost, what good is God, since the strange gods of this strange land are clearly more powerful? And besides, how can they hear from God, even if God still lives? God’s home among them was destroyed, too.

The news from back home is just as troubling: the prophet Obadiah tells us that marauders and armies from nearby lands, such as Edom, are sweeping through the ruined land, murdering those left behind, and plundering what little of value remains.

The People of God see themselves as the walking dead, soon to forever vanish and be forgotten. All is darkness. All is lost. They are lost: whether they are scrabbling to survive among the ruins of Judah, or living in exile in the all too alluring and exciting materialism and corruption of cosmopolitan Babylon.

The facts are indisputable: the future holds no hope at all for them, nor for their faith.

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An Advent Prayer of Hope

Slightly modified version of a prayer presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT, December 15, 2013

11207_13320_5The Advent Season and Christmas are a dark time for many, a time when the pain of past and present injuries and losses become almost unbearable.  A time when we’d rather run than have to face it all once again.

God knows this because God has walked among us, as one of us, as a human being.  Jesus experienced birth, the love of a devoted mother, the pain of losing those dear to him.  He knew rejection, hunger, despair and fear.  He was betrayed by those he loved, and he experienced a painful and humiliating death.  God knows what it means to be human.  God knows our deepest, greatest, most deeply hidden fears, failures and weaknesses.

And so, our faith tells us, God walks with us.  God knows our pain, God feels it, God and the Kingdom of Heaven are near us at the hardest of moments, just like every other moment of our lives, including now.

Know that you are loved.  Know that God has, and will, do anything and everything to free us from the troubles and trials of life in this world.  And, in fact, has already freed us, for the certainty of that freedom and healing is what is in our future.  We cannot escape healing, for God is with us on every step of our journey; and, no matter how dark our valley may be, we are pursued by our Creator’s fierce, relentless love until we are finally embraced in God’s strong, loving arms and so come to dwell in the House of the Lord, forever.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

Lord God, like our predecessors who sought out John the Baptist so long ago, we are seeking you because we are in a wilderness of loneliness, pain and desperation.  We see only walls and closed doors when we look for your presence.  We feel cut off, isolated and forgotten: unseen in a dark and uncaring world.

Yet, You are our God: the One who calls us out of that darkness, the One who sees and heals our pain, the One who never forgets us, and never looses faith in us.  Paul prays that You will sanctify us entirely, keeping our spirit, soul and body sound and blameless for the return of Your Son, Jesus Christ.

And so, we are assured, and are certain – through the witness of the Holy Spirit within us – that this is true. You are faithful, and You are calling to us, even now, calling us out of your love for us, a love that overcomes all the pain, imperfection and injustice in this world, a love that transcends and conquers even death.  We are awed and restored through this love that you have so freely given us through the gift of your son, Jesus Christ.

Lord, we bring our prayers to You in faith, certain that nothing is impossible for You, not even the impossibly deep love you have for each of us and for all of humanity.

Hear now our prayers: for those of your Body who are suffering illness, job loss or other challenges, and for those who are grieving any loss, many of whom are known only to you.  Grant them healing, comfort and peace.  We pray for those who wrestle with addictions, for those caught in the trap of domestic violence, and for those who love and suffer alongside them.

Lord, in this Winter Season, we pray that all who seek warmth and shelter find it.  That all who need healing and peace are granted it.  That all who hunger for sustenance and companionship are satisfied.  May all of us be touched by your grace and power.  May all who serve our community and country be kept safe from harm, especially those in the military, and may and their families enjoy Holiday Seasons that are safe, warm and happy.

Finally Lord, we ask that we be granted the courage and grace we need to follow you faithfully, and with integrity.  Let our actions bear witness to the words we speak, and our worship and love for you overflow into every corner of our being, bringing light and hope into the lives of all we meet through our love for you and your son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).