Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kory Baker Ambler

It's been quite a few days.  In spirit and in truth...I'm exhausted.

For those who don't know him, Kory Ambler passed away tragically on Christmas Eve.  You can read the obituary here.

Kory was the fiance of Jodi K. Newell, a long-time friend and a part of our North Street Community.  Kory worshiped with us several times over the last year and a half.  I got to dedicate their son, Corado (and Jodi is due with their second son, Benjamin Anthony on 1/4).  I got to know Kory over the last year and a half as I talked with he and Jodi about family, marriage, life, and God.   As you might imagine, over the last several days, I've seen numerous pictures of Kory on Facebook and at the various funeral activities.  That's my favorite picture of he and Jodi to the right.

I had the incredible honor of overseeing much of Kory's funeral services.  Even now as I type this, I am amazed at the outpouring of love and support for Kory and his family.  The visiting hours yesterday went from 3:00-8:00 ("officially"), but there was a line waiting from before 2:45 and it still wrapped well around the building when I slipped out at 8:15.

This morning, the funeral procession from the funeral home was dozens of cars long.  While Father Dan could probably give me a better estimate, I would guess that the funeral mass at Sacred Heart in Weymouth Landing saw at least 800-1000 people in attendance.  It was a somber yet beautiful gathering of worship, culminating in the sacrament of communion.  

After communion, the family had asked me to speak briefly about Kory.  In some ways, it didn't feel right, as I've only known him for one and a half years, and there were well over a thousand people there who've known him for life.  Needless to say, I was humbled.  I am thankful to the family for the opportunity.  At the same time, I appreciate the grace and hospitality extended by Father Dan Riley and staff at Sacred Heart.  They really made me feel a part of the whole funeral mass, recognizing our roles together.

Anyway, I'm posting two of the things I read for the services over the last two days here.  It's pretty much for Jodi's future reference, as I don't expect that she would have heard a word I said today.  Jodi...peace to you.

Morning Prayer:
“Lord of Life, death scares us.  We know we must die, but we have become skilled at living in a manner that ignores that stubborn fact.  After all, most of us are not really old enough yet to have to face our deaths.  Death happens to the old, not us, who are thus condemned to live as if we are perpetually young.  Yet death slinks even into our young lives.  We do not like it.  We try to hide its presence by not being present to those who are dying and avoiding those who must be present to the dying.  We therefore pray for your unfailing and sustaining presence for this family.  Give them the same love and courage that sustained them and Kory in life.  May that same courage find a home in our lives, that we may come to fear you more than our own deaths and thus be enabled to be present to one another.  In Christ, Amen.”

(Adapted from Stanley Hauerwas' Prayers Plainly Spoken)

Funeral Mass Reflections:
Before anything else, let me be as bold as to offer a line from a song by Coldplay...words, I think, that speak honestly, yet hopefully:
"Just because I'm losing...doesn't mean I'm lost."

For me to stand here and say that I know Kory under the circumstances of those in this place of worship is quite presumptuous.  The circumstances of being with all of you: his friends and all of his cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and of course his siblings, his parents, and his beloved Jodi, there's a lot more to Kory than the year and a half or so that I've known him.  So, there are a lot of things that I don't know...about Kory, both the individual, and the greater story of his life.

Yet, in the time that I have known him, in the conversations that we did have, I came to know some things, and it's a couple of very important things about Kory that I want to reflect on just for a minute this morning.

1.  He was an example for us of graciousness, thoughtfulness, and a gentleman-ness that is so often lost in our society today.
It was soon after Kory and Jodi came back to the right coast that my wife, Meghan went to a baby shower for them.  It was really Meghan's first interactions with Kory, and her reflections on the day began with how wonderful Kory was, to his family, and to Jodi.  Whether it was visiting people in the hospital, shoveling snow for Friends of the Homeless of the South Shore, or looking out for those who are usually over-looked, Kory had a keen eye and heart to help people out.  May the rest of us live up to his example.

2.  He loved his family...
It was Sunday, November 9th, when many of us gathered for Corado's 1st birthday.  I was yet again struck with the enormity of his family.  My twin daughters and I were lost in a sea of loved ones and other children on that day.  And in my conversations with him about Jodi and Corado, his great love for them was more evident to me than anything else I will say about him.

Kory was blessed and he loved his family.  And it's obvious to me that he was loved by his family..  

3.  He loved people, and thus loved to make people happy.
Kory loved and loved to love well.  One of the times when I was over at Kory & Jodi's, they shared their dream of opening a wine and spirits shop.  He shared that his desire to make people happy drove him.  I remember sharing with them that this is what counts: the notion of the Apostle Paul's words in Galatians chapter 5: "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."   While it may not make sense to you today, I indeed believe that Kory's desire to not disappoint those he loved went with him everywhere, even to his dying day.  

"The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

Kory indeed had faith.  In the most troubling of times that I knew Kory, we talked about God, and how God could carry them through.  And despite the tragedy of this week, I still have that faith, and I invite you to as well - have faith in a God whose love and grace is bigger than you can ever know, despite any circumstance.

Christian theologian Brian McLaren reflects on death in one of his books.  I will not forget one line from this book, and in thinking about Kory, it rings loudly today...
"We are becoming on this side of the door of death the kind of people we will be on the other side."

What kind of person do you remember Kory Baker Ambler to be?

Let me finish how I started, with words from Coldplay, again speaking of our emotions: honestly, but of the future: hopefully.  When I hear these words, I dare think of them as of our Savior, Jesus Christ:

When you try your best, but you don't succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can't sleep
Stuck in reverse

And the tears come streaming down on your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

And high up above or down below
When you're too in love to let it go
If you never try you'll never know
Just what you're worth

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

Sunday, December 21, 2008

An Advent Homily on Peace


Yet another loaded word comes to us in the Advent season.

Peace on earth.  Goodwill towards men.

People use the word to describe a variety of things, most often a void...or an absence: 
  • the absence of war
  • the absence of noise
  • the absence of activity
  • the absence of life ("rest in peace")

I think of the word when I wake up before anyone else in my household.  That's peace!

I also think of it during snowstorms like we had yesterday (and today!).  I know..."storm" and "peace" don't seem like they should go together, but I always love the snow because it does bring about a sense of peace for me.  If you just step outside during the snow, especially after at least half a foot, the snow gives our surroundings quite a different sense than normal.  A fresh blanket of snow soaks up all the noise.  It makes everything look uniform for once, rather than a big fight for attention.  What usually may look rough or jagged becomes rounded and soft.  Hard ground becomes as soft as a mattress.  

In addition, snow storms are an automatic sabbath from God.  I love it!  The demands of life and society around us are forced to stop.  Schedules must be shifted (or eliminated!).  The busyness of the world comes to a stop.  It's a nature-given time of rest (yeah, yeah, I know, we have to shovel and all...).  While the news media and the majority of people portray it as a hindrance, I welcome the snow as a reminder that everything we think is important...can probably take a break for a bit.

Anyway, back to peace...

The word is the word of the day for us this year on this fourth Sunday of Advent.  

What does it mean when considering the incarnation, the coming of God into humanity?
What does it mean to call him the "Prince of Peace"?

In our Old Testament passage for today, King David is reflecting upon the fact that he has a resting place: his own dwelling, his own home in which to live.  This is obviously a time of peace for King David and for Israel (verse 1 says that he is "settled" and that he has been given "rest" from his enemies).  But King David wonders aloud about God: does God have a dwelling place?  He knows that his people, Israel, have carried the very presence of God with them where ever they've gone in the ark, in a tent.  But this was when Israel was a transient people, moving from place to place.  Now they have their own land.  King David and his mighty men have established a place of residence for the people.  He wonders aloud, "What about God though?  Doesn't God have to have a place of residence amongst us as well?".

The contrast between the response to this question here and the response in the coming years after King David is interesting.  God responds here in II Samuel that God has never had a "dwelling place," but that he's always been "moving."  But we know that after David, Solomon indeed tries to build a residence place for the presence of God - the Temple.  But what does God say here to King David?

Though we, as humans, have tried since the very beginning to wrap up God, put God in our pocket to be able to easily carry Him with us...God has always demonstrated that we are not capable of doing so without His own giving of Himself to us.  One of the images that we use of God is spirit.  "Spirit," amongst other things, is the image of something that can't be boxed up.  We can't take God and settle Him down into our own places.  We can only understand and know God as He is given and revealed to us.

So God continues in his response to King David's ponderings...and he says, "Did I ever really ask for that?  Did I ever really want the leaders of Israel, saying 'Why have you not built for me a house?'  I am going to establish you a house.  I took you from a pasture (from the sheep nonetheless).  I am the one who makes you who you are.  You do not make me who or where I am!  I've been with you wherever you go, not the other way around.

God is with us wherever we go.  We can't box God up.  We're too small, and God's too big.  

And again, God continues in his response.  God tells King David of a time and place when he will indeed establish David's people forever.  God calls it a time when they will be "disturbed no more," a time when evil shall no longer afflict the people, a time when people will be given "rest from all their enemies."

If we know God only by his revelation to us, his greatest revelation to us is himself, found in Christ Jesus the God-man.  And in his coming ("giving" of himself), we indeed have access to God at all times, in all places, wherever we go.  

What's beautiful about the Incarnation, the "story" of Christmas, is that in it we have "God come to earth," "God come to humanity."  He has given himself!

This is the peace of God, that He gives Himself to us.  For good.  Completely.

This is the "already-not yet" of Advent and of the Kingdom of God.  While we continue to live in a world hell-bent on war, fighting, positioning, and line-drawing, we already have the peace of God given to us in Christ.  So we have it, but we ignore it.  Though God's given us peace...we choose not-peace.

Many are clamoring for the US president-elect to have a "Secretary of Peace."   Wouldn't that be something!  Instead of just making sure we've got our checklist of "important" things taken care of, things that we focus on (i.e.: Secretary of War, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security), we have someone who makes sure we're focused on what's good!  That indeed would be something!

If you've heard me preach much at all during Advent, you've heard me say it so many times already...but it's so notable to me that God chose to show up in humanity as a little baby.  He could have come as a fully-grown man, right?  Just dropped in from heaven as a 30-year-old man...but he didn't.  God entered the world in the form of an innocent and peaceful baby.  I think it's quite a statement: "This is my nature for you...that you would come to people not in war/fighting/aggression...but in peace."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sacrifice & Such

The time when the atonement felt most real and moving and incredible and sacrificial all at the same time was when I had surgery to repair a hernia two summers ago.  I'd never been more vulnerable, in the hands of others than at that moment.  When they laid me on the cold metal table, naked save a thin hospital gown, strapped me in, told me to breathe their gas, all with the knowledge that they would soon use a scalpel inches from my manhood...well...it was the closest to Good Friday that I've ever felt.  

...and yet it wasn't even close.

Further, it wasn't even close to what so many I know go through on a regular basis.  C. S. Lewis quotes Walter Hilton, in his Preface to The Problem of Pain: "I feel myself so far from true feeling of that I speak, that I can naught else but cry mercy and desire after it as I may." 

Clive Staples continues with his own words, "I have never for one moment been in a state of mind to which even the imagination of serious pain was less than intolerable.  If any man is safe from the danger of under-estimating this adversary, I am that man."

That's how I feel sometimes when I'm speaking of people taking up their cross, challenging them to identify with Christ...that if we're really going to be Christ-like, we'll follow him in the hard and not just the easy.  And speaking of easy, it's just that for me to say it.  I mean, I know it's the gospel and everything, foolishness and all, but there's always been something about "you can't take someone where you haven't been" for me.

Regardless, I know that comparing one life to the next is quite often futile.  In fact, it's because of this practice that so many can't get life straight.  If we spend life compaining about other people's grass, we'll...well...we'll spend life complaining because we'll always be able to find some that is greener.  

Satisfaction and wholeness comes in self-actualization and self-realization.  That is, for myself, I must find my role within Christ and his cruciform example with that which I have been blessed...or cursed.  And I believe that God seeks our response to be of one that says, "Here's what I can do, and thus, what I will do."  This is why Niebuhr's prayer is a good one.

Anyway, I've been thinking about these things because our three-year-old son, Brayden, is headed for surgery tomorrow.  He's having his adenoids and tonsils removed and tubes put in his ears.  We are hoping that it will improve his hearing, behavior, and sleep patterns.  When it comes down to it, the surgery is pretty normal.  I had similar procedures done when I was real young (before my memory).  Apparently it was stressful for me, but only my parents remember.  But there has been a quarter of a century of medical practice since then.  Meghan and I have all confidence in the doctor.

Nonetheless, a sharp blade will be taken to my little boy tomorrow.   I've said many times now that I've come to understand the nature of God in deeper and more intimate ways since having children.  Usually I am referring to love, grace, and forgiveness.  

But with Brayden's impending surgery, John 3:16 takes a different light.  I know, I know...I'm sick of the verse too, at least, I'm sick of the abuse it's taken (not to mention that I think John 3:17 is the message the world needs to hear...or at least the Church does).  After reading it and hearing it a million times, seeing it displayed on posters between the uprights, on bridges and subway walls, how could John 3:16 have new meaning...

Well as humans are apt to do, we usually focus on ourselves and what something means for us. But having children has made me look at things from God's point of view more often.  And actually, what happens is that God's word for me becomes more powerful.

It's Advent season, leading up to Christmas, so that means it's time for me to whine again about how so few get it...both of Advent and of Christmas...and both Christians and non-Christians.  We continue to get wrapped up in the wrapping.  Or as the latest Advent Conspiracy video puts it, we give more presents than presence.

Perhaps one of the antidotes for this is to connect the manger with the cross.  If the cross is the central image for the Church (this is such an aside, but can someone remind me why we need a flag?  I had a Roman Catholic priest in our sanctuary on Sunday night and when he asked, "What's that other flag?" [other than the US], I laughed out loud.  How could he be a Christian and not know that?!?  In the case that someone who doesn't know me very well is reading this...that question is saturated with sarcasm.)

Anyway, as I was saying, if the cross is the central image for the Church, which I believe it is, most all things should be seen with the cross in mind, or at least in the conversation.  The Christmas story is nice and all, but if we end with warm fuzzies, we've missed the story of Christ.  I think we should "give things" at Christmas time, for sure.  But the giving of Christ goes so way beyond what we give it's hardly comparable.  We love when we give all that there is.  The image of the cross is an image of complete surrender, complete dedication.  Christ left nothing on the table when he went to the cross.  So giving some change to the SA (which you should do!) or even a $20 to some other holiday charity is great, but for Americans, it doesn't speak of the depth of the Christmas story.

Anyway, I got to more rambling in this post than I meant to, but as I "hand over" my son to the whim of a surgeon tomorrow, I can't help but think of the Incarnation, and God's complete giving of his Son to the world.  Jesus could have shown up as a grown man, right?  But he didn't.  God entered the world in the form of a baby.  Crazy.

Ultimately, it doesn't compare (the incarnation and my son's surgery).  This is obvious.  God likely knew that it would lead to Jesus' death (at least, God certainly knew that he would be rejected in some fashion).  I'm fairly certain that tomorrow's surgery will turn out okay.  So they don't compare.

...but I still think about it.  And it makes me love God even more.