Out from under the Covers

Since I didn’t have anything hard-scheduled first thing this morning, I went to bed last night without setting the alarm. That allowed me the ability to wake up in that glorious way people are able to do sometimes, just gradually accepting the reality that it’s morning and that at some point they’ll have to get out of bed, but only when they’re good and ready. At least, that’s the way my awakening started. That gauzy bliss came to a screeching halt when the rebooting brain cells hit the sector that recalls that I’m still only half-employed, and I have no idea how I’m going to meet even my basic financial obligations this coming month. Emotionally, this time of day is often very difficult for me; I suspect it’s truly some chemical deficiency that occasionally makes me slip into morning terrors, and that I’d probably benefit from some very small dose of antidepressant to ward them off. On the other hand, I’ve discovered from past experience that with the obligatory burying my head in the covers and crying that I just can’t face another bout of financial insecurity out of the way, once I actually crawl out of the bed and into the shower, the impending pressures seem at least manageable.

Once I did get on with the day, I discovered a few more congregations to forward my information to. I also attended the funeral of a wonderful woman, a beautiful celebration of her life. A good funeral can often extend hope to not just the grieving family, but to anyone facing pressures and struggles in their lives, and that was the case today. Immediately after the funeral, I got a chance to talk with my older daughter on the phone a bit, which always makes me feel good. I got some good news regarding health insurance coverage for at least the next couple of months, and actually made some progress toward possibly getting ordained even before finding the full-time call I’m so desperately seeking. Then, I thought about the good conversation I had with a friend in Toronto via Skype the night before, and about how nice it was to have been able to get together with family a few days ago, even if it was due to a death in the family.

This evening, I sat down to read a little bit more of the book I’m reading now – In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann (Fortress Press, 2004). Moltmann is a great German Reformed theologian, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. His thoughts have greatly influenced my own, and, among other things, he could arguably be considered the father of liberation theology. His books are often difficult, slow reads; I’ll admit that sometimes it could take me half an hour just to really understand what he’s packed into a single page. He will never be featured on Oprah’s Book Club. But this book, at least the part I happened to read this evening, was very different from his usual dense, scholarly writing. In it, he opens up a bit about his own past. Maybe because of the way my day started, or maybe just because it’s a compelling story, it really struck me.  I thought I’d share an extended quote from the book here:

I am … a survivor of “Sodom and Gomorrah”. To say this is not poetic licence in the religious sense. It is painful fact. Whenever I call up that catastrophe and descend into the dark pit of remembrance, I am overwhelmed again by fear and trembling. I am talking here about the destruction of my home city of Hamburg in the last week of July 1943. Night after night, about a thousand Royal Air Force bombers appeared over the city, and with explosive and incendiary bombs kindled a storm of fire which … burnt everything living and reduced every home to rubble. During those nights and in that fire 40,000 people died. Ironically, the code name given to this destruction by the RAF was Operation Gomorrah. Together with others belonging to my school class, I was an air force auxiliary in an anti-aircraft battery in the inner city. The battery was stationed on the Outer Alster, easily visible for aircraft, and it was completely wiped out in a hailstorm of bombs. But for some incomprehensible reason, the bomb which blew to pieces the school friend who stood beside me at the firing platform left me unscathed. I found myself in the water, clinging to a plank of wood, and was saved.

…In the end, those of us who had survived made our way through the wreckage of the streets, climbing over charred bodies. We were convinced that this was indeed “the end,” and that the war would be over in a few days. But this terrible end was followed by two other years of unending terror which destroyed the lives of millions. There is no need to describe it any further. But for the description of Hamburg as Sodom and Gomorrah I should only like to add that during the Nazi dictatorship about 40,000 people were murdered in the Neuengamme concentration camp near the city, and about 50,000 Hamburg Jews in White Russia. That too is part of the catastrophe which I escaped. At that time I was 17 years old. What effect did this catastrophe have on me?

I come from a secular Hamburg family of teachers. My grandfather was Grand Master of a Freemasons’ Lodge in Hamburg, and had left the Church. For me, religion and theology were totally remote. I wanted to study mathematics and physics. Max Planck and Albert Einstein were the secret heroes of my youth… But in that catastrophic night, for the first time in my life I cried out to God: “God, where are you?” That was my question in the face of death. It was not the theodicy question we are all familiar with – the question, how can God allow this to happen? That always seems to me like an onlooker’s question. The person who is in the grip of a catastrophe, or is already in the jaws of a mass death, asks differently about God. And then came the other question, the one which has haunted me all my life ever since: why am I still alive and not dead like the rest?

Three years as a prisoner of war, from 1945 to 1948, gave me time enough to search for answers to these two questions. In the first year particularly it was for me a struggle with the question about God. Like Jacob, wrestling at the brook Jabbok with a dark and mysterious angel, I tormented myself with God’s dark and mysterious side, with his hidden face and his deadly “no” which had put me in misery behind barbed wire. At the end of 1945 a well-meaning army chaplain gave me a Bible. I must have looked at him somewhat uncomprehendingly: a Bible of all things! I then went on to read it without much understanding until I came to Israel’s psalms of lament. Psalm 39 caught my attention: “I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself…”My life is as nothing before you… I am a stranger as all my fathers were.” Those were words that echoed what was in my own heart… Later, I read Mark’s gospel. And when I came to Jesus’ death cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I was profoundly struck. I knew: this is the one who understands you. I began to understand the Christ who was assailed by God and suffered from God, because I felt that he understood me. That gave me new courage to live. I saw colours again, heard music again, and felt the stirrings of renewed vitality.

The kindness which Scottish miners and English neighbours showed the German prisoners of war who were at that time their enemies shamed us profoundly. We were accepted as people, even though we were only numbers and wore the prisoner’s patch on our backs. But that made it possible for us to live with the guilt of our own people, the catastrophes we had brought about and the long shadows of Auschwitz, without repressing them and without becoming callous.

In that Scottish camp I arrived at Christian faith and decided to study theology. Mathematical problems lost their charm. True, I had no idea what the Church was about, but I was looking for an assurance that would sustain existence, and asked about the truth of the Christian faith. In 1948 I returned to Hamburg, limpin indeed like Jacob but “blessed.” That was my new beginning, the beginning I arrived at when Hamburg was at its end: in the end was my beginning.

Two experiences put a mark on me.

First, I discovered that in every end a new beginning lies hidden. It will find you if you look for it. Don’t lose heart!

Second, I found that if one gathers the courage to live again, the chains begin to smart, but the pain is better than the dull resignation in which nothing matters, and one is more dead than alive. (33-35)

In every end there is a new beginning. Terrifying at moments, life is still good. And God is good, too. Even in the midst of troubles, even in the midst of morning terrors with the covers pulled over your head and questions of where God is in that moment, God is still good. Don’t lose heart.

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Kintsugi Kingdom (sermon 9/8/13)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  Then the word of the LORD came to me:

Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” says the LORD. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,  but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.  And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,  but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” (Jeremiah 18:1-11 NRSV)

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Have you ever watched a potter working on a wheel? Somewhere along the line, you’ve probably seen one. Isn’t it really fascinating? I think it’s really just a beautiful thing to watch, as the potter makes this thing of beauty rise up out of this lump of clay, this shape of whatever the potter is thinking about, coming through their hands and translating that thought into actual form. And the experts make it look so easy, almost effortless.

Have you ever tried to use a potter’s wheel? Back in my twenties, I did. I had some friends who operated a stoneware pottery business, and in the off times, they’d let me try to make things on one of the wheels. It isn’t easy at all. As a rookie, it’s very easy to get things wrong. Maybe you’ll be too cautious, and end up making the walls of your pottery too thick, making it too heavy, maybe making it too hard to fully dry before firing in the kiln and having the moisture still embedded in it blow it apart. Or maybe you’ll be too bold, trying to draw the clay up too much, making the walls to thin and they buckle. Or maybe you’ll bump your hand and mess up your shape, and it folds in on itself. There are all sorts of ways to mess a piece of pottery up for an amateur.

But as good as they are, even the pros don’t always get the result they want. They might make any of those simple mistakes. Sometimes, the texture, the consistency of the clay, just won’t be right to make what the potter has in mind. A lot depends on the response of the clay itself. And when things just aren’t right, the potter will simply fold the clay back in on itself, maybe sprinkle a bit of water on it, and work it back down into a cone-shaped mound, centered on the wheel – and then, the potter will start to draw up the clay again – maybe into something completely different from the earlier attempt.

That’s exactly what the prophet Jeremiah saw, when God told him to go to the potter’s workshop and watch. Jeremiah lived around 600 BC, and what he saw that day is pretty much the same thing we could have seen in a potter’s shop today in 2013. About the only real difference is the electric motor on the wheel now, instead of foot power. And as we heard, God used this scene as an analogy to explain something to Jeremiah, and to set up an object lesson for the people of Israel. It was intended as a lesson about how God deals with nations, with peoples, with groups, but it could also translate to us individually too, I suppose. According to the lesson, God says that a people’s response to God’s plans and intentions for them is critical. That their response to God’s molding and shaping them can change God’s mind, for better or worse, depending on their responses to God’s inputs. That, regardless of the nation’s past or God’s previous intentions for it, if it acts in ways consistent with what God considers good and right, God will lift it up and nurture it. If it does evil, God will punish it, even if it had been blessed in the past.

This is a particularly interesting week for this Lectionary text to come up. When we turn on our televisions, go online, open our newspapers, we see the horrendous human tragedy in Syria, the death and maiming of thousands of Syrian people, the creation of many more thousands of refugees, as a result of the civil war going on there between the evil and corrupt Assad regime, and the rebels, who are arguably no less evil and corrupt. There are no clear good guys in the situation in Syria. And yet, it’s a human tragedy. And the world wonders what, if anything, can or should be done to try to end it. With the President pushing for some kind of military strike against the Assad government, even though it appears that Congress doesn’t support it and something like 90% of the public opposes it, the matter of the behavior of nations, whether for good or evil in God’s eyes, is an important one to think about.

This passage speaks to that issue. But it also speaks in other ways – to the church universal; to denominations; to congregations; to us as individuals. In all of those settings, we need to be responsive to the shaping, molding hand of God upon us. And based upon our response to God’s input, God may indeed feel the need on occasion to change course – to fold the clay back down upon itself, as it were, and regroup, and start fresh with a new shape, a new purpose, a new plan. In a way, that’s how we all started our journey of faith – by recognizing that as we were, we weren’t quite what God wanted us to be, and accepting God’s reworking and reshaping of us,  sprinkling a bit of water on us to make us more workable clay.

That analogy works at the beginning of our journey of faith. But an interesting thing about clay is that even after a potter has made the shape on the wheel, and sets the vessel out to dry before firing it, if it’s dropped and broken, or cracked – even then, the clay can be broken up, and pulverized, and wet back down, and reshaped, re-formed, repurposed. But what about after it’s been fired in the kiln? What about after it’s had its shape and purpose for a long time, maybe for years? Once a pot – or a nation, or a church, or a person – has had its form and purpose set for years – what happens if it breaks then?

There’s a practice that originated many years ago in Japan called kintsugi. It’s the art of repairing broken and chipped pottery and ceramics by repairing cracks and filling voids with a resin containing gold dust. In our experience, when we have a teacup with a broken handle or something similar, we might get out the super glue and try to repair it as seamlessly as possible, hoping it will look like it was never broken. But kintsugi does the opposite. It acknowledges the brokenness, and actually ends up articulating and highlighting it. It acknowledges the history of the brokenness, but through the intricate gold veining that now works through the pottery, the vessel regains its original purpose, but in a way, better, and more beautiful, than the potter’s original idea or intention.

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I think the kingdom of God could be called the Kintsugi Kingdom. It’s populated with all of us broken people, still bearing the signs of our brokenness but made whole and beautiful and wonderful and healed by God. A kingdom where no matter where you are in your journey of faith, beginning, middle, or end; no matter what happens to us, we  are never past the point of God’s touch, God’s renewing, regenerating, repurposing. God is the potter, and we are the clay. And while God may remold and reshape us at various times, in ways we might never have anticipated or expected, to suit God’s will, it’s clear that God never give up on us clay vessels, even long after we’ve been fired and aged and brittle. Out of our brokenness comes new hope, new life, new possibilities. We are kintsugi creatures in God’s kintsugi kingdom.

Thanks be to God.