Good morning friends. We have been on a long journey together to this peace colloquy. For some of us, this journey began months ago with planning and countless meetings. For some of us this meeting began on Friday with the day of prayer or the keynote address. Others of us joined the journey yesterday for the workshops. But we have all been on this journey of peacemaking and justice, of the search for healing and wholeness together.
Theologian Karl Barth once said that the role of the preacher is to be the ear of the gathered body – the person whose job it is to listen to all the stories of the congregation and to try to bring a sense of meaning to them. I have tried to take this task of listener for this peace colloquy seriously. To listen to all of your stories – in keynote addresses, in presentations, in the Friday day of prayer, in conversations in the hallway - and to ask what they all mean – to try to weave together all these individual strands of courage and heartbreak and peacemaking
I have heard a fantastic array of stories this weekend: the horrors of genocide in Darfur, the indignity of human trafficking, the degradation of domestic violence, the devastation of HIV/AIDS. We have shared stories about places across the globe - India and Guatemala, Vietnam and Mali, Washington DC and Independence, Missouri. And now we have almost reached the end of our time together. The challenge is how to take this home with us. This morning we are still bright and energized by the passion and the courage of those gathered here in this place. The challenge is how to bring this back home with us – back to the personal level, back to our cities and our families and our jobs. We know that there is no way that we can incorporate every one of these issues back into our lives. So what shall we do? How can we be a transformed people? How can we honor these stories with our lives? How do we live lives that are worthy of the people we love and the things that we have lost?
This morning our liturgy and ritual of healing has created a visible and tangible experience of both our brokenness and the love and healing that is available to us within the context of communities of compassion and conviction. We know that pain is real but we believe, as we hear in the book of Revelation, that all these losses will pass away and that we will be inhabitants of a new heaven and new earth. God will wipe away every tear. God will come and dwell among us. We believe that a better world is not just possible, it is promised. But when will this world arrive? How do we create a new heaven and a new earth? What is my part – what is your part – in this transformation?
I think we begin when we connect our own personal grief with our own personal joy – when we identify where our suffering reflects the suffering of the world. The best and brightest peacemakers that I know did not begin their prophetic acts of nonviolence and justice-seeking out of a desire for their own career. They each began it in an effort to heal their own pain. So this morning I am going to try to bring these big ideas about pain and peace, about grief and resilience down to the most practical, small and humble level. Today I am not going to talk about the things I have seen or the people I have met in Middle East or in Northern Ireland or in Africa. This morning, I am going to tell you a story about two women, about grief and joy and about trying to find resilience.
In order to understand how deeply the grief cuts, you need to understand first what the joy looked like. But in order to see how precious and impermanent the joy was, you have to hear how the story ended. So let me begin with two simple facts:
Fact one: my grandmother’s name was Betty Jean. She was the bridesmaid at my wedding, my favourite person to call on the phone for a chat and she was one of my best friends.
Fact two: Six weeks ago today, she died of cancer, at home, while I was sitting on her bed holding her hand.
I could tell you about a hundred adventures we had, about ten thousand good laughs we shared. I could tell you about how she was unconditionally loving, incredibly faithful and also amazingly silly. But even that would not really begin to capture this friendship.
My husband Matthew and I were living in Kenya when we learned that she had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. We immediately began making plans to return to the US and in July we moved back to Michigan to accompany her on this, her final journey. Betty Jean was in the process of becoming my ancestor – of leaving this life here on earth and beginning her journey in the next life. Exactly two months after we arrived, she passed away.
But this is not a story about me and Betty Jean. This is a story about all of us, about this journey that we are all on together. Everybody is grieving. We are all wounded. We are all mourning a person we lost, a marriage that ended, a job that was lost. We are all addicted and ill and wounded. When we suffer, it is hard to imagine that anyone else hurts the way we do. But look around this room, all of us – all of us are suffering in big and small ways.
Eventually we have to do something with our loss. There is a time and a place for being wrapped in a blanket and having a good cry but at some point it is time to stand up and move forward. What did I do in the wake of Betty Jean’s death? I will first tell you what I wanted to do. I wanted to wrap up in a quilt and watch endless episodes of Law and Order on television. I wanted to not think, not feel, not even move from the couch. And I think there is a time and a place for that – for simply sitting with the numbness.
But you can’t stay under that quilt forever. What will you do with this hole in your heart? What will you do with this longing for a world that is different? Where will you put all this pain? You can’t undo it. You can’t go back.
There is only moving forward. And sometimes, in the dark nights of the soul, just getting out of bed in the morning represents progress. Sometimes it is all that we can do just to attend to the bare minimum of survival – eat, sleep, repeat.
There is no one to rescue us – there is no magic intervention that instantly changes the misery into something more tolerable. In our losses, great and small, we only have each other. We only have our own histories, our own faith, our own hope.
Until that happy day arrives with the new heaven and the new Earth, we are all we have. And we are all that God has to do God’s work here and now.
And this does not mean that we all go out and start organizations or write transcendent hymns for peace. So I am going to tell you what I have done, the places that I have tried to store this grief, this longing for Betty Jean. But I want to give you a disclaimer here: and that is that I am sure this would be a better sermon 10 years from now....ten years when I have integrated this loss and it is not just a gaping wound. But I trust that you will have the grace to hear this story this morning, mid stream, as it unfolds. And I hope that in this simple little story, I can suggest some of the ways in which we can link our grief with our joy as a way of healing ourselves and each other.
So. In light of Betty Jean’s death, I have undertaken two projects.
Project number one: I have started knitting a blanket. Now, in order to appreciate the magnitude of this task, I thought I would show you the only other thing that I have knitted before this blanket. And it is this – this tiny blue dishrag. So, as you can imagine, my decision to knit an enormous blanket is an...ambitious project.
Project number two: I have been inspired by the book and movie Julie and Julia – the story of one woman Julie, who is stuck in a mediocore job and decides to cook every recipe in Julia Childs’ cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I decided to create my own version of this project. I selected a cookbook called Extending the Table - recipes from around the world and I decided to cook every one of them.
I chose these projects not simply to fill the time but because they create a tangible, concrete link between my grandmother and I. For me, these projects are about finding joy and participating in transformation even in the midst of grief. As we look for ways to address our pain, we need to connect it to the things that give us joy. So what do these two projects of mine tell us about how we seek out our path, our particular way to integrate the suffering of the world and the promise of God’s healing?
I think the first thing we need to remember is that our grief is always intimately connected with our joy. We only mourn because we first felt joy. So when we decide what our tiny way to act for justice is, it has to be connected to the things we love, the things that give us joy.
Betty Jean was a seamstress, she worked her whole life in textile factories. Food was her language of love. So by choosing these two projects – knitting and cooking – I am trying to find a way to stand in her place.
The discipline of a physical task can be a very grounding experience. Knitting is actually a fairly undemanding thing – the simple task of tying a single knot over and over. I am literally tying my grief into little individual knots. So my project is both manageable and ambitious at the same time. One knot at a time. Row after row. Day after day. Marking time – away from that day when the pain was most acute and towards the hope that pain can manifest itself in joy, in hope, in the promise of things hoped for.
We begin to find our own transformative action by using the gifts that already surround us. I am surrounded by Betty Jean’s mixing bowls, her casserole dishes, her measuring cups. We find our transformative action in the world by linking our own setting with our own gifts. My gifts are not the green beans, fried chicken, corn bread and chocolate pies of my grandmother. I can’t compete with the matching tablecloths and placemats of Betty Jean. What I have is a passion for travel. What I have is a curiosity about the world. What I have is some purple Katanga cloth from Kenya and some green woven placemats from the Philippines. What I’ve got is this recipe book with 400 recipes from around the world. So my tiny little transformative act is standing in my grandma’s kitchen cooking arroz con queso from Mexico, Kanda from Chad, merchimek chorbasi from Turkey, salata from the Middle East and chasoh juhn from Korea. (and that is just last week’s menu!) Betty Jean cooked to the sound of Southern gospel music. I am cooking to the sounds of salsa, Afro-Cuban jazz, Palestinian hip-hop and African drumming.
I think that another indication that we have found the place where our grief meets our joy is that it calls us to a place that makes us slightly uncomfortable. The thing about this cooking project is that I can’t do it alone. In rural Michigan, we have many things. We have beautiful fall foliage, we have sparkling lakes, we have crisp autumn mornings. What we do not have – and I am just giving you an abbreviated list here –are many things necessary for international cooking. Things like fish oil, seaweed, African plantains and pig weed. And then there is the issue of venison. Now here are some things about me: I hate being cold. I cry easily and I am afraid of guns. So, needless to say, I am not a hunter. But now I have got this recipe and it calls for venison. No – it doesn’t just call for it, the recipe is CALLED Venison Stew. There is no way to get out of this. So I do what any modern, tech-savvy young person does – I log on to Facebook and I post three words – “looking for venison”. And almost immediately I get a response from someone that I went to high school with – she just happens to have a freezer full of venison that she wants to get rid of. And the circle of one person’s tiny project widens. A local farmer from my church just happens to have some pigweed on his farm. And the circle widens just a bit more. I can’t do this without other people and so slowly, I am being called out of my comfort zone, out from under my quilt on the couch and into the lives of other people in surprising and unexpected ways.
So what is the way forward? The way forward is beginning with your own woundedness, with knowing the places where you ache. The way forward is figuring out the link between your own lamentations and your shouts of joy. The way forward is starting right where you are, with the things that surround you, in the place where you live. The way forward is knowing your own gifts and using them in pursuit of joy. The way forward is reaching out to the community around you to join you in your projects.
We all have scars. Scars are what we have after the tears. When our body is injured, it has the amazing ability to begin to heal itself. But when the injury is severe enough, it never really goes away. We develop scars – visible ways in which the story of our suffering continues to be drawn on the canvas of our bodies. Our scars tell our stories, mark our experiences. But there is also a utility to these scars and that is what can motivate us to action and activism. The challenge is how to do this in authentic and positive ways – to act out of our love and longing for a different world and not out of simply pain, anger or a desire for revenge.
In recent years, the peace studies community has started talking about the concept of resilience. Resilience means that we acknowledge that pain and suffering can break our hearts, can change us forever. We can’t undo the hurts and the horrors of suffering - but we can acknowledge our brokenness and say yes to both our grief and to the hope that life can be different. We can never go back, we will never have the utter healing here on earth that we hope to find in heaven. But we can celebrate resilience – our ability to bend and not break, our human capacity to overcome. We can look with clear eyes at our scars.
God works in the world through us, through our hands, our lives, our commitments. We are the bridge between the world we live in and the world we want. We have all this pain and all this joy. And we have this huge challenge – to make God visible in the world. It’s up to us. There is no one but us. But we have each other. There is a lovely expression that is often sung in Zulu – the expression is Hamba nathi, kululu wetu. It means, come walk with us the journey is long.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is already here. We have heard it in the stories of our brothers and sisters this weekend. We know that it is a reality in our own lives. And we know that we can’t just wait for a day in which things will be different. We can’t just wait for this new heaven and new earth. We are the bridge between this world and the next. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are wounded, yes, but we are also the healers. We have the crucifixion but we also have the resurrection. Come walk with me, the journey is long. Come, walk with each other, the journey is long and we need good companions. Come walk with us – the journey is long but we have each other, we have abiding hope, we have unspeakable joy and we have the love of God and the promise of a more peaceful future.